Saturday, June 3, 2017

A little-known saint from the Dark Ages: the tale of Bishop Birinus and Dorchester-on-Thames

by Matthew Harffy

When I first read that Dorchester had been an important town in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex I had thought that it referred to the town that is in the modern-day county of Dorset. After all, Dorset is part of the West Country and would have been part of Alfred the Great’s Wessex. However, the research I was doing was about the seventh century, long before Alfred’s time and centuries before Wessex had become the pre-eminent power in Britain. It turned out that the Dorchester I had read about was not in Dorset, but in modern-day Oxfordshire and just thirteen miles southeast of Oxford. The Dorchester in question is Dorchester on Thames (or Dorchester-on-Thames).

It is a sleepy village now, picturesque and quintessentially English, with its timber-framed Tudor houses and the medieval abbey that dominates the settlement. It nestles in a bend of the River Thame just before it joins the Thames (or Isis, to use the alternative name for the river upstream of Dorchester), as it flows towards London and eventually the Thames Estuary and the North Sea. The modern name of the River Thames has often been thought to be derived from its two main tributaries, The Thame and The Isis. However, the ancient name of the river was Tamesis, which it seems was erroneously assumed to be made up of Thame and Isis in the middle ages.

Dorchester on Thames is picturesque and very English
The village of Dorchester is quaint and quiet and clearly well-to-do, but is hardly what one would consider a place of power. So what makes Dorchester on Thames so important in seventh century history?

The answer, as is so often the case with early medieval history, is linked to the rise of Christianity. In the early seventh century most of the tribes of northern Europeans who had settled in Britain, who we now call by the generic name of Anglo-Saxons were pagans. Incidentally, it was the Angles who gave England its name: Angleland. These Germanic tribes worshipped the gods that we all know as the pantheon made famous by the Vikings. The all-father Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frige were the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of Odin, Thor, Tyr and Freya. But of course, Christianity is an evangelising faith, and from the north and west of Britain in the form of Irish missionaries, the word of the gospel was being brought to the pagans. And from the south of Britain, by way of the continent, came Christian missionaries sent by a series of popes from Rome.

These men of faith and learning must have been brave indeed to travel to unknown lands, having to learn the language and the culture of the warlike people and attempt to convert them to what they saw as the one true faith. These must have been formidable men, with passion and zeal and the patience to convince the Anglo-Saxons to convert. In most cases they did this through targeting the kings and the royal families. It seems that when a king decided to become a Christian, so did all his people. This certainly makes proselytising more efficient than if you had to convince every individual, but it still must have taken a great amount of courage and perseverance to get the warlike kings to turn away from the gods they had worshipped for generations and to whom they were said to be direct descendants!

Saint Birinus
One such European missionary was Birinus, now known as Saint Birinus. Before doing my research I had never heard of Birinus and I imagine that many of you reading this blog post will never have heard of him either. Not a great deal is known about him, save that he came from France at the order of Pope Honorius and set about converting the West Saxons. He landed on British shores at Southampton (Hamwic) where he founded the church of St Mary’s. Birinus had been made a bishop in Genoa and was obviously a man of great persuasion for, in 635, he had convinced Cynegils, King of the West Saxons, to allow him to preach the word of God to his people. Cynegils was in the process of negotiating an alliance with King Oswald of Northumbria. He hoped for Oswald’s aid against the rising star of the Anglo-Saxon warlords, Penda of Mercia. But the Christian Oswald baulked at joining forces with the pagan Cynegils and so it was that Cynegils was eventually baptised as a Christian by Bishop Birinus. Oswald became his godfather and also married Cynegils’ daughter. And the King of Wessex gave Dorchester on Thames to Bishop Birinus as his episcopal see.

For the next few years Birinus founded churches throughout the lands of the West Saxons before dying in 640. Shortly after his death, the bishop’s see shifted to Winchester, but it was Dorchester on Thames where the Christianisation of the West Saxons truly began.

Dorchester on Thames Abbey
There’s not a lot to remind us of the time when Dorchester on Thames was the centre of the episcopal see of Bishop Birinus. Nowadays, the village with a population of less than 1000 people, has a couple of pubs, the 12th century Abbey and also a Roman Catholic Church, a small convenience store, some allotments, and a primary school.

One of the pubs of Dorchester on Thames - The Fleur de Lys

I was pleased to see when I visited the village recently that the name of St Birinus is yet remembered in the name of the Roman Catholic Church and the primary school.

I wonder how many of the local inhabitants know who he was or why he is important, but I am sure the man who travelled from France to preach to the barbaric West Saxons would be pleased to know that his name was yet linked to both the church and the teaching of children in the village where he resided nearly 1,400 years ago.

A reminder of the past. An old milestone in Dorchester on Thames

It is interesting to note that the name of Cynegils, the king who gifted the village to Birinus, has not lived on in the same way, and I saw no mention of him in the village. Perhaps this is a reminder of how ephemeral earthly power is. Or perhaps it is more a testament to the fact that written records were kept by the church for many centuries before secular administrations caught up.

All photos copyright Matthew Harffy.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria/Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016, followed by the sequel, The Cross and The Curse in August and book three, Blood and Blade, in December. The fourth book in the series, Killer of Kings, was released on 1st June 2017.


  1. I love these little known stories!

    1. Thanks, Cryssa. I do get a kick out of discovering people who are long-dead, but who helped to shape the world we no live in.


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