Some saints enjoy timeless popularity (St Augustine, St Teresa of Lisieux), others seem to fade from sight with the passing of time (St Louis, St Dunstan), and others emerge from the distant past to bask in contemporary acclaim (St George, St Christopher). Why did St Plegmund, our local Anglo-Saxon hermit who died in AD 914, sink below the horizon for so many centuries – only to emerge with timid applause in the modern era?
Who was Plegmund? Well, after his eremitical years of prayer and isolation on the Isle of Chester, he was persuaded by King Alfred the Great to become his spiritual adviser, and later to accept the Archbishopric of Canterbury (AD 890-914). He was an immediate success in those turbulent days of the Danish invasions. He travelled to Rome twice to be confirmed in office by the Pope, and set about the reorganisation of many diocesan sees.
St Plegmund’s Well, down Plemstall Lane in Mickle Trafford, about two miles to the east of Chester, has kept his memory from total neglect: Plegmund is said to have used its water for the baptism of the local children. About a century ago an Anglican clergyman blessed the well. The pre-Reformation church of St Peter stands in isolation a few yards along the lane, on a hillock known as the Isle of Chester. Here Plegmund the hermit would have lived in safety, surrounded by the marshes and tidal waters of the River Gowy.
Well-dressing has come back into vogue in recent years, and an annual ceremony attracts much support. The Christian churches take part in this colourful folk-liturgy. However, Catholic interest in this ancient shrine has been sporadic. A Catholic pilgrimage to the well took place in 1938: this was probably an initiative of Canon Frank Murphy, who was a curate at St Werburgh’s Chester in the 1930s. He returned as parish priest from 1959 to 1982, and organised an annual pilgrimage from St Werburgh’s (with its stained glass windows of St Plegmund). Frs Gerry Courell and Peter Sharrocks, curates in the 1970s, recall taking part in this event. The church hall at Tattenhall south of Chester was opened by Canon Murphy in 1971, is dedicated to St Plegmund, and also has stained glass windows depicting his life.
Sadly very few Catholics in Chester seem to remember St Plegmund or have any devotion towards him. Yet he seems an ideal patron for Christian devotion today. His years of prayerful seclusion, and his high reputation as Archbishop of Canterbury, speak of a saint who will encourage our lives of prayer, and look kindly upon the growing friendship between Canterbury and Rome. His intercession may even be able to support us as we breathe the choking fumes of 21st century secularism.
Monsignor Christopher Lightbound