Dorset Day: Who was Saint Wite?

Shrine of Saint Wite in Whitchurh Canonicoru in Dorset

The shrine of Saint Wite, note the three oval holes below the tomb where people have posted letters of request and thanks - Credit: Matthew Lambley / Alamy Stock Photo

Dorset Day on June 1 is the feast day of Saint Wite, Dorset’s patron saint, whose modest medieval shrine at Whitchurch Canonicorum is a rare survivor of the Reformation, says historian Edward Dundon   

Tucked away in the Marshwood Vale, between Bridport and Lyme Regis, is the Church of Saint Candida and Holy Cross at Whitchurch Canonicorum. This church is of special significance to Dorset as this is where the shrine to the county’s patron saint can be found. (The name Canonicorum, or the church of the canons, is so-called because of the compromise reached over the parish tithes which were divided equally between the canons of Salisbury, and Bath and Wells.) Sometimes called ‘the Cathedral of the Vale’, the church sits in an area of spectacular beauty, with small river valleys to the south and a sense of tranquility throughout. It is also one of only two churches in England that still holds the bones of a saint, a rare survivor of the Reformation probably because of its simplicity. The other is Westminster Abbey, which contains the bones of St Edward the Confessor, a king and a saint. 

The earliest records of a church in this area date to before AD 881. Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons from AD 886 to 899, built it in honour of Saint Wite (pronounced Wheat-a), and bequeathed the lands of this large parish to his youngest son Ethelweard. During the 12th century some parts of the church were rebuilt by Benedictine monks, who had received it from William the Conqueror. And in 1190, the Benedictines renamed the church Saint Candida, the Latin form of Saint Wite, and sold it to the Bishop of Salisbury.  

In the 13th century, further rebuilding took place. The church has retained some Norman and early English Gothic styles, such as the lofty bell-tower, an arcade and aisles, as well as a chancel, nave, two transepts, porch and vestry. Its baptismal font is in the shape of a chalice.  

On one of its tower walls is a stone-carved panel depicting a Viking longship and axe. This may symbolise Saint Wite, who was martyred by Danish warriors while defending her own people during a raid on Charmouth. After her death, possibly in AD 830, her relics were transferred to the Holy Cross Church. 

Church of Saint Candida & Holy Cross at Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset

Church of Saint Candida & Holy Cross at Whitchurch Canonicorum, where you will find the shrine and bones of Dorset's patron saint - Credit: Paul Quayle / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Wite’ is an old English word with no Latin connections. It may, however, mean a sage or a wise man, but not a wise woman (Cf. the Anglo-Saxon National Council, the Witan). In Saxon times, it meant ‘pain or punishment’, and in a legal sense ‘a fine’ or to ‘blame’. It can also mean ‘to guard’, or ‘to preserve’. In consideration of these meanings, it would appear that Saint Wite was a person of much wisdom who protected her people from harm. She probably lived in the ninth century and was of Saxon origin. It is thought that, for much of her life, she was a hermit and withdrew to the secluded cliff tops, where she tended fires that served as a beacon for sailors.  

Other theories suggest that Saint Wite may have been a fifth-century Welsh princess, Saint Gwen or Saint Blanche, who married a Cornish prince and was the mother of two saints. It’s even suggested she died in her native Brittany and that her remains were returned to England in the 10th century. Another theory proposes that she was a martyr, Saint Candida, who was killed in Carthage in the fourth century. Such sources are not based on traditions or documents, nor do they appear in reliable folklore. 

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Saint Wite’s relics are now in the north transept of the Anglican Church of Saint Candida and the Holy Cross. The shrine consists of two parts: in the upper section is a limestone coffin with a leaden case containing the bones of the saint, on top of which is a slab of Purbeck marble. In keeping with such reliquaries of this age, it is supported by a stone base below with three oval openings, into which sick pilgrims insert ailing limbs in the hope of a cure. When a patient cannot make the journey to the shrine, a relative or friend may insert handkerchiefs, requests for intercession, bandages or similar objects on their behalf, as well as lighting a candle after a healing. This custom continues to the present day, where pilgrims leave prayer requests, testimonies of healing and notes of thanksgiving at the shrine. Pilgrims still come here and, while there, many have reported that they feel suffused with great peacefulness, and a sensation of comfort and reassurance when close to the shrine. 

Statue of St Wite in a niche on the church tower at Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset

A 20th century statue of Saint Wite in a niche on south face of tower of Saint Candida & Holy Cross church, Whitchurch Canonicorum - Credit: Mick Sharp / Alamy Stock Photo

During renovation work in the church in 1900, a crack was discovered in the surface of the tomb. On opening it, workers discovered a leaden casket inscribed with the Latin words: ‘Hic requiescunt reliquie sancte Wite’ (Here rest the remains of Saint Wite). Examination of the remains confirmed that they were of a woman who lived in the ninth century, around the age of 40, and of small stature.  

St. Wite's Well, near the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset

Saint Wite's Well, on Chardown Hill near the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum - Credit: Stuart Fretwell / Alamy Stock Photo

Many pilgrims also visit Saint Wite’s Well, a mile to the south at Morcomblelake. Situated on Chardown Hill overlooking the sea, the small stone basin has been here since 1630. According to a National Trust notice next to the spring, the waters of this healing well are ‘considered to have curative properties for eye complaints’. Legend maintains that the water is most effective when illuminated by the sun’s rays. Saint Wite is reputed to have prayed and lived near here. Pilgrims drink the water, bless themselves with it and others take some home with them. 

Dorset County flag, white cross edged in red on a field of gold

Dorset County flag, also known as Saint Wite's cross - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The legend of Saint Wite lives on into the 21st century. In 2008, the people of Dorset voted to adopt a flag with a white cross and a red border on a golden background – known as Saint Wite’s Cross. The gold represents the Wessex Dragon, the red the colour of a Dorset regiment. 

The feast day of Saint Wite, on June 1, is now also celebrated as Dorset Day. 

Click here for a walk that takes in  Saint Wite's shrine and well 

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