The Text

Approximately 5600 lines (789 stanzas) in length, the Life of St Werburge written by the monk Henry Bradshaw c.1513 is an ambitious verse hagiography of Chester’s patron saint, interwoven with a history of the city and its Benedictine abbey of St Werburgh’s. The work is divided into two Books, each with its own Prologue, and the extant text in the printed edition by Richard Pynson (1521) also includes additional verses by other authors at the beginning and the end, in honour of Bradshaw and Werburgh. 1 The full text is available in an 1887 Early English Text Society edition by Carl Horstmann (Horstmann 1887) and is also available via Literature Online – subscription only.

Book I gives an account of the life of the seventh-century saint Werburgh, 2 elaborating on her ancestry (descended through three Anglo-Saxon royal houses as well as the Frankish royal line) to offer a more general overview of Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, especially Mercia. Bradshaw gives an account of Werburgh’s rejections of marriage and her entry into the monastic life at Ely, where her great-aunt, Æthelthryth, was abbess. The Book goes on to narrate Werburgh’s life as an exemplar of chastity and virtue, including many abbacies (at Sheppey and Ely, as well as her own foundations at Trentham and Hanbury in Staffordshire and Weedon in Northamptonshire) and miracles, including the well-known popular story of her commanding the wild geese. 3 Bradshaw also gives an account her death at Trentham on the 3rd of Feburary, her burial (at her request) at Hanbury, and the elevation of her body in the presence of the Mercian King Ceolred in 708, nine years after her death, when her body was found to be whole and incorrupt – a conventional sign of sanctity. Book I concludes with an explanation of how Werburgh’s body remained intact at Hanbury for two hundred years until the Danish invasions, at which point it was translated to Chester for protection. At this translation, Werburgh’s body was found to be ‘resolued unto powder’, which Bradshaw (following earlier hagiographers) interprets as a divine miracle performed

Lest the cruell gentils / and wiked myscreantes
With pollute handes full of corrupcion
Shulde touche her body / by indignation…

Thus Book I concludes at the point of the translation of Werburgh’s relics to their future home in Chester. 4

Book II begins with the translation of Werburgh’s relics to Chester, and focuses on the role played by the saint as patron of the city. Bradshaw incorporates lengthy digressions giving accounts of the foundation and history of Chester itself, together with descriptions of the urban landscape. He presents a vision of Chester with the Benedictine abbey of St Werburgh’s at its centre, and with Werburgh herself as an active patron and protector, intervening to protect the city and to enforce spiritual and moral justice. Book II, then, offers a rich and multi-layered representation of place and identity in medieval Chester and forms the basis for this selection of edited extracts.

The Life of St Werburge draws on a wide range of historical sources including Bede, William of Malmesbury, Gerald of Wales and Henry of Huntingdon, as well as Ranulph Higden, a former alumnus of Bradshaw’s own abbey of St Werburgh’s (died around 1363). Book II also makes particular use of a source described by Bradshaw as the ‘third passionarye’ (Book II, l. 1690), which seems to have been a compilation of various different hagiographic and miracle texts relating to Werburgh and her association with Chester. The Vita included in this collection was almost certainly the twelfth-century Latin text attributed to Goscelin of Saint-Bertin. Whilst the ‘third passionarye’ is no longer extant, several plausible identifications and assessments of the available evidence have been made. Alan Thacker suggests that this ‘corpus of miracle stories was probably put together in the late 12th century: it comprised wonders associated with both the canons of the old minster and the monks of the new abbey, extending, it was claimed, from the reign of Edward the Elder (899-924) to 1180’. Thacker remarks further that ‘[t]he evidence suggests that in the 12th century the monks of St. Werburgh’s were actively presenting their patroness as the special protector of the earls and their city’, and the ‘third passionarye’ would fit within this programme of commemoration and promotion. 5 In her edition of Goscelin of Saint-Bertin's Life of St Werburgh, Rosalind Love makes a good case for identifying the ‘third passionarye’. She notes that ‘London, Gray's Inn Library 3 is the first and only surviving volume of a four volume legendary, written in the early twelfth century at St Werburgh's Chester... Inserted paper flyleaves (fols. ii, iii) contain a list, in an early sixteenth-century hand, of the contents of the present volume, and of three others which are now lost, in alphabetical order of saints with a reference for each Life to the number of the volume and the leaf within it... The list of contents includes, for leaf 172 of the now-lost third volume of the legendary, the item “Werburg et sic consequenter de Sexburga, Ermenilda etc”.’ Love identifies this item as a copy of Goscelin’s Vita, though she acknowledges that the question of the nature of the additional materials in the lost third volume is ‘frustratingly unanswerable’. 6 There is no direct evidence that Bradshaw used or even knew Lucian’s De Laude Cestrie, despite the strong presumption that Lucian was also a monk at St Werburgh’s. Bradshaw gives an account of the great fire of 1180 (Book II, ll. 1598-1681), which is also mentioned in Lucian’s text; however, there are no striking similarities between the two versions.

Bradshaw’s Life of St Werburge was described by Carl Horstmann as ‘a legendary epic after the fashion introduced by Lydgate’. 7 Stylistically, the text does indeed emulate Lydgate and Chaucer, and in the final Chapter Bradshaw submits his work to ‘all auncient poetes’ as well as

Fyrst to maister Chaucer / and Ludgate sentencious,
Also to preignaunt Barkley / nowe beyng religious,
To inuentiue Skelton and poet laureate… 8

The vast majority of the text is written in seven-line rime royal stanzas, though the final chapters in celebration of Werburgh (Book II, Chapters XXI-XXIII, lines 1682-1977) move to eight-line stanzas with a repeated final line. The form of the additional ‘balades’ (not written by Bradshaw himself) varies. Bradshaw evidently aspires to a high rhetorical style throughout the work, with heavy usage of what Horstmann refers to as ‘aureate terms’. 9 Book II, stanza 97 offers a characteristic example of Bradshaw’s style.

Wher[for]e the honour / prayse / and laudacion
Of Iesu / the seconde persone in trinite,
And of this virgin a speciall commendacion,
reherce nowe with charite,
Vnder the protection of you that shall the reders be
Parte of the myracles / with mynde diligent
In this humble stile / and sentence consequent

Whilst Bradshaw offers a conventional apology for his ‘humble stile’, the stanza reflects the artifice and ambition of his verse. In addition to the rime royal scheme, the text includes the Latinate vocabulary ‘laudacion’ and ‘commendacion’, and the rather technical hermeneutic vocabulary of ‘sentence consequent’, which suggests medieval scholastic practice. Throughout the work, Bradshaw maintains the elevated tone by frequently naming his sources, preferring Latinate vocabulary and sometimes choosing obscure terms. He is also able to move into different linguistic registers as appropriate, using, for example, technical legal terminology in his accounts of the early foundation and endowments of St Werburgh’s (see Book II, ll. 545 and 618-24) or an appropriate colloquial idiom to describe the residents of Chester, during an attack on the city, ‘like for to twyn’ through fear (Book II, l. 706). Other interesting stylistic features include the deliberate use of intense alliteration to mark significant episodes within the narrative. Several striking examples occur in the account of the man hanged unlawfully three times, who is freed by the intervention of St Werburgh in the form of a white dove (Book II, ll. 940-88). After ‘[t]he byrde with his byll brake the rope, truly’ (l. 972), ‘[t]he tortuous turmentours cessed their tyrranny’ (l. 980). Bradshaw seems also to enjoy the possibilities of word-play, even when this demands rather unusual or contrived uses of vocabulary. For example, in Book II he imagines the city of Rome on fire, ‘empeiryng the empire’ (‘damaging, threatening the empire’, l. 1629), and his reference to King Edgar’s navy, ‘made vpon the kynges cost’ (l. 1157) may include a pun on ‘coast’ and ‘cost, expense’.

The questions of the kind of text Bradshaw perceives himself to be writing, and the kind of audience he imagines for his work are also of interest. In Book I, Bradshaw rejects profane literature (‘As for bawdy balades / ye shall haue none of me’, l. 90) and asserts his intention to write ‘a legende good a true’ (l. 93). In Book II, lines 34-7, Bradshaw places his work specifically within the genre of hagiography, commenting that various religious texts

Be preserued by wrytyng / and put in memorie,
With the lyues of saintes many a noble storie.
[stanza break]
Of whiche histories we purpose speciall
To speke of saint Werburge / vnder your protection…

Despite his evident stylistic ambitions, and his creative assimilation and development of materials from a wide range of sources, Bradshaw follows medieval convention by identifying his work as a ‘compilacion’ or ‘abstract’ (Book II, ll. 40, 65, 85), deferring to his textual authorities and the specific ‘auctours’ whom he catalogues (selectively) in Book I, ll. 127-33. But while the Life of St Werburge might appear typically medieval and conservative in its sense of genre, tradition and respect for received authority, Christopher Cannon has noted the text’s innovative use of the term ‘lytterature’ and its exploration of the properties of this distinct kind of writing. Cannon notes that the few uses of ‘lytterature’ in fourteenth-century English mean simply books or learning ‘which is made of letters [litterae]’. However, when Bradshaw uses the term emphatically in each of the first three stanzas of Book II, he ‘steps back and tries to describe, in what was then still an unusual manner, the kind of writing he is trying to produce’. These stanzas present an understanding of ‘lytterature’ in which ethical attributes are balanced with the affective: ‘lytterature’ both produces ‘good maners’ (l. 7) and ‘morall vertues’ (l. 13) and gives ‘endeles pleasure’ (l. 11). 10 The question of the intended audience for the Life of St Werburge is complex, and further complicated by the modification of the text by Pynson for a London / national audience (see discussion under The Manuscript and Printed Book and Place and Identity in the Life of St Werburge ). Book II, Ch. XXII (ll. 1754-1897) is addressed to ‘all the inhabytauntes within the countie palatine of Chestre’, including ‘lordes, barons / ye rulers of the countre’ (l. 1794), ‘marchauntes’ (l. 1810) and ‘honest matrons’ (l. 1826). This address to the secular community beyond the monastery is significant, reflecting Bradshaw’s aims to establish support for St Werburgh’s in the face of the growing power of the Chester civic authorities and threats to the abbey’s jurisdiction (see below under The Author). Catherine Sanok comments on the ‘feminine audience repeatedly instructed to imitate Werburge’ throughout the work, suggesting that this ‘ethical address to contemporary women’ may have enabled its transition from local legend to a ‘national text’. 11

The Author

Carl Horstmann describes Henry Bradshaw as ‘a man of a childlike, sweet temper, simple, pious, without affectation, warm-hearted, modest, sincere, a friend of the people’. 12 All this Horstmann derives from a reading of the Life of St Werburge. Whilst closer inspection of the florid stylistic tendencies of the text itself might problematise the labels ‘without affectation’ and ‘modest’, more recent studies of Bradshaw’s work have acknowledged the political agendas present in his Life of St Werburge, and the propagandist purposes of his writing in support of St Werburgh’s.

Little is known about the life and literary career of Bradshaw. He was a monk at St Werburgh’s, Chester, and the seventeenth-century antiquarian Anthony Wood also reports that he was sent, in later life, to study at Gloucester College, Oxford. 13 This is uncorroborated, but the Life of St Werburge certainly reflects the learning and scholarly ambition of the author. He died in 1513, a date given by Wood and also by the anonymous ‘balade to the auctour’ included by Pynson at the end of the Life, which laments that Bradshaw

…nowe is departed from this temporall light
The present yere of this translacion
M.D. xiii. of Christis incarnacion 14

Horstmann observes that Bradshaw refers to Barclay and Skelton as his contemporaries, noting especially the reference to ‘Skelton, poet laureate’, who was laureated before 1490 and died in 1529. Horstmann also infers that the Life of St Werburge ‘seems to have been written in [Bradshaw’s] full vigour’ and suggests that Bradshaw died relatively young – perhaps aged 45-50 – on completing the text. 15 The comment in the second ‘balade’ to the author that death has ‘abbreged’ his life might support such a hypothesis of premature death, or may simply be a use of am appropriate literary metaphor in the midst of verses which focus on Bradshaw’s oeuvre and legacy as an author. 16

Bradshaw’s other literary work remains uncertain. Anthony Wood maintains that Bradshaw wrote a treatise on the history of Chester, the De antiquitate et magnificentia urbis Cestriæ chronicon, but the text is not extant and there is no independent evidence for the claim. 17 A more accepted attribution is the Life of St Radegunde, also printed by Richard Pynson in 1521. Pynson’s edition does not name the author, but William Herbert’s edition of the Typographical Antiquities associates the text with Bradshaw due to its similarities with the Life of St Werburge. 18 The present edition suggests a connection between Bradshaw’s apparent use of Antoninus of Florence in both the Life of St Werburge (Book II, l. 561) and the Life of St Radegunde.

Undoubtedly Bradshaw’s aim in writing the Life of St Werburge was to advance the interests of the Benedictine abbey of which he himself was a member, and to resist the increasing power and influence of the secular civic authorities. Book II, Ch. XXII addresses these concerns explicitly to the ‘inhabytauntes within the county palatine of Chestre’. Throughout the medieval period, overlaps and tensions existed between the spheres (and physical spaces) of influence of St Werburgh’s and the city’s secular rulers. 19 Robert Barrett emphasises the ways in which Bradshaw’s text ‘directly intervenes in the long-running struggle between the mayor and the abbot for control of Chester’, a struggle that intensified with the award of the Great Charter by Henry VIII in 1506, which formalised a new civic constitution and gave control to a secular civic assembly led by the mayor. 20 With the jurisdiction and authority of St Werburgh’s diminishing, the Life of St Werburge insists on an urban topography with the saint’s shrine at its very heart, attempting to re-position the increasingly marginalised abbey from the social and political peripheries of the city into its centre once again. The Life of St Werburge stresses the crucial role played by Werburgh as the patron and protector of the city, and by the Benedictine abbey as the custodian and guardian of her relics. In his account of the great 1180 fire of Chester, for example, Bradshaw gives the following words (Book II, ll. 1680-1) to the thankful citizens, once Werburgh’s shrine has extinguished the blaze:

‘we shall neuer able be
The place to recompence for this ded of charite.’

Barrett describes this as the notion of ‘impossible debt, of a charity so great that it can never be matched’, and explores the ways in which this ‘idea of impossible recompense [functions] as a pre-emptive strike against a citizenry all too ready to enter into conflict with the abbey – and all too capable of winning that struggle.’ 21 Clearly, in addition to Bradshaw’s ambitions as a chronicler (in the typical medieval Benedictine tradition), hagiographer and poet, he is also motivated by acute immediate anxieties about the loss of monastic authority and prestige in early fifteenth-century Chester, and the desire to write his abbey back into the centre of civic identity.

The Manuscript and Printed Book

The original manuscript of the Life of St Werburge is no longer extant, but is usually dated to 1513, following the comments in the ‘balade to the auctour’ included in Pynson’s printed edition (see above, under The Author). 22 The edition by Richard Pynson, dated 1521, is available via Early English Books Online (subscription only) as well as a Chetham Society facsimile in print (Hawkins, 1848). Carl Horstmann devotes a lengthy discussion to the question of how close Pynson’s text is to Bradshaw’s original, concluding that, whilst some dialectal forms are amended, ‘he did not materially alter the readings’. 23 The print publication of the Life of St Werburge by Pynson, the King’s Printer, moves the text from a local context and local political or propagandist concerns into a broader national literary canon and a wider discourse of English identity, heritage and religious tradition. 24 The London edition thus re-situates Bradshaw’s work within a new context and offers it to a more general audience (see also discussion below under Place and Identity).

The copy of Pynson’s text in the British Library (shelfmark C.21.c.40) includes inscriptions and marginal annotations in several early modern (late sixteenth-century) hands, which offer a valuable insight into the early reception of Bradshaw’s work and the ways in which the text was read by its early audiences. 25 Throughout, dates are supplied for key events if they are not given in the main text (for example, in reference to the death of William the Conqueror: ‘Anno 1087’). Dates given in Roman numerals in the main text are also helpfully converted into Arabic numbers. There are prolific glosses relating in particular to figures of Anglo-Saxon history – for example, Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, or King Edgar – and evidence of a specific interest in Anglo-Saxon royal genealogy. At the beginning of the book, opposite the second woodcut, there is a carefully-written list of key figures in Anglo-Saxon history (from ‘Hengistus’ and ‘R(ex) Vortygerne’ onwards) and, next to it, an even longer list of Anglo-Saxon saintly women, including ‘L(ady) Werburga’ and ‘Lady Hilda’. Bradshaw’s text seems to have been used by these early annotators primarily as a source (and repository) for the key names and dates of Anglo-Saxon history. This kind of interest in the Life of St Werburge resonates with the emergent scholarly interest in Anglo-Saxon history (and vernacular language) in the early modern period, and suggests ways in which the text could be used to explore and assert ideas of heritage, identity and ‘Englishness’. 26

Critical Reception

The critical reception of the Life of St Werburge has been mixed. In an 1887 article on ‘Cheshire Poets’, Charles Forshaw comments that ‘[t]he versification is infinitely inferior to Lydgate’s worst manner’, concluding that ‘our author had more piety than poetry’. 27 In his Introduction to the 1848 Chetham Society facsimile, Edward Hawkins is more favourable, observing that ‘[t]here is a tone of moral principle and devotional piety so unaffectedly pervading the whole volume, and so easily and naturally introduced, as to impress the reader with the conviction that they had an habitual influence upon his mind and heart’ and noting the ‘strength and apparent sincerity in his numerous exhortations to piety and devotion’. 28 However, Hawkins also remarks that Bradshaw ‘had clearly not a musical ear, his versification is not smooth and harmonious’, and argues that these defects are ‘exaggerated by the awkward and difficult arrangement of the stanza which he has adopted’. Carl Horstmann maintains that the poem is ‘full of single charms, full of happy traits of character and description… everything is to the point and interesting, nothing dry, tedious, and diffuse (as in Capgrave), or showy and ostentatious (as in Lydgate)’. 29 He goes on to suggest that the ‘simplicity of feeling and expression is… sometimes truly Homeric’, but also acknowledges deficiencies in rhyme and metre. 30

Already in the 1848 Chetham Society facsimile, Edward Hawkins recognizes the cultural and political implications of the text’s early sixteenth-century date, noting that ‘the Reformation was approaching, the shadows of coming events were already apparent, and were exerting their almost unobserved influence upon the feelings and opinions of the people’. 31 For Hawkins, this cultural and political shift is present in Bradshaw’s ambivalent attitude to his hagiographic material. He argues that ‘Bradshaw had evidently less faith in the miraculous legends of his monastery, than had been enjoyed by his predecessors; in truth there appears to be occasionally a lurking humour in his description, which displays as much disbelief in his own narrative, as the temper of the times, and the still lingering credulity of his cotemporaries would permit’. 32

Whilst recent reappraisals have reached different conclusions about Bradshaw’s motivations and attitudes to his material, the latest scholarship on the poem has centered on the issue of the text’s place within literary, cultural and socio-political contexts. Christopher Cannon has discussed the role played by the Life of St Werburge in the late-medieval monastic production of the idea of ‘literature’ as a distinct kind of writing, arguing that the text’s discussion of ‘lytterature’ as a category reflects ‘the emergence of a new self-consciousness, a new clarity about the nature and function of English writing in that writing, an awareness that is itself a significant cultural change’. 33 Robert Barrett examines the text’s place in the ongoing struggles and tensions between the Benedictine abbey of St Werburgh’s and the secular civic authorities in the early sixteenth century, foregrounding its propagandist function and promotion of the abbey’s interests in the face of diminishing power and prestige. 34 Alongside this local social and political context, Barrett also explores the ways in which the text is re-positioned by Richard Pynson’s 1521 print edition, commenting that ‘[i]n the transition from manuscript to print and from regional center to metropolitan capital, monastic Chester finds itself confronted by national spaces and appropriated to national ends – in this case, the English reaction against Martin Luther in the 1520s’. 35 Catherine Sanok also looks at this dual context for Bradshaw’s Life of St Werburge – both local and national – suggesting that Chester can be read as a metonym for England and that Werburgh herself constitutes ‘both a physical and transcendent embodiment of national identity’ as well as a stable, timeless exemplar of female virtue. 36 These arguments all relate directly to issues of place and identity in the Life of St Werburge – the main focus of this partial edition – and will be discussed in more detail under Place and Identity.

A Note on the Edition

This edition selects sections of Bradshaw’s text which relate most strongly to the central themes of the ‘Mapping Medieval Chester’ project: place, identity and contemporary representations of the medieval city. Book II of the Life of St Werburge, with its focus on Werburgh’s role as patron of Chester and overview of the foundation and history of the city, provides the basis for the edited selections.

The edition is based on the copy of Richard Pynson’s edition held in the British Library (shelfmark C.21.c.40). The very few abbreviations in the printed text are silently expanded, and the very few corrections to Pynson’s text are shown in square brackets. Carl Horstmann’s edition remains the only full edition of the text currently available, though it lacks explanatory notes, a comprehensive glossary and modern critical contextualisation. However, to facilitate cross-referencing, this edition has retained Horstmann’s line numbers. Where text is either not numbered, or not included at all in the Horstmann edition, additional identifications are given in alphabetical format (e.g. ll. 666 a-h). Horstmann’s modernised punctuation is also adopted here. These edited selections, then, should stand alone as independent critical editions of specific sections of the text, but can also be read alongside Horstmann’s full edition without difficulty.

This aims to be an accessible edition, available to general readers as well as to undergraduate students of medieval English. A thorough glossary is provided, as well as explanatory notes on historical figures, events and locations. However, it is hoped that the edition will also be of interest to more advanced scholars. For more experienced readers of Middle English, the text can be viewed without glosses (Scholarly View), and many of the footnotes discuss more complex textual features and problems and more obscure allusions. Most importantly, the principles of this edition have been motivated throughout by the research questions governing the ‘Mapping Medieval Chester’ project, and its aim to connect literary and cartographic ‘mappings’ of the city in order to explore how the urban environment was imagined and represented in the late medieval period. Above all, the textual selections and explanatory notes are designed to enable readers to engage with questions relating to place and identity in the late medieval city.

An innovative feature of this partial edition of the Life of St Werburge (as with the other literary works included in the project digital resource) is the inter-linking of features described in the text with the interactive digital atlas of Chester c.1500. The broader theoretical challenges and questions relating to this process are discussed in depth in the Context section of this website. However, Bradshaw’s text has also presented some specific editorial issues. Bradshaw’s sense of Chester identity is characterised by an idea of layering, in which the urban landscape (and the collective urban memory) accommodates the multiple strata of different historical periods, former uses of spaces and buildings, the past contributions of different individuals and ethnic groups, and past eras of both renovation and ruin. The GIS produced by this project has been geared towards a single ‘time-slice’ mapping of Chester c.1500. Therefore, some links between the text and the map are approximate, or link Bradshaw’s reference to earlier buildings and institutions to their nearest equivalent in the late medieval city (an obvious example is the linkage of all Bradshaw’s references to the various different historical communities of St Werburgh’s to the Benedictine abbey shown as at 1500). Another specific issue presented by the Life of St Werburge is its frequent reference to Werburgh’s shrine. Werburgh’s shrine represents both a physical location in the city (in the presbytery of St Werburgh’s abbey, behind the high altar) and also a portable object which can be transported between different locations. All textual references to Werburgh’s shrine in the Life of St Werburge are linked to the abbey on the digital map, even when the text narrates the translation or procession of her relics through the city or between locations. This editorial decision reinforces Bradshaw’s own strategy of promoting the Benedictine abbey as the custodian of the city’s spiritual patron and the centre of medieval Chester.

Place and Identity in the Life of St Werburge

As outlined in the discussion above, Henry Bradshaw’s Life of St Werburge presents the Benedictine abbey of St Werburgh’s as the centre of city and the focal point of Chester identity throughout medieval history. His vision of Chester is based on a sense of heritage, tradition and continuity which privileges the ancient religious of foundation of St Werburgh’s (but which elides the discontinuities, reformations and upheavals within its own history). Whilst events such as the grant of the Great Charter by Henry VIII to the city in 1506 increased the power and jurisdiction of the secular civic authorities and eroded the sphere of influence of the abbey, the 1513 Life of St Werburge re-asserts the centrality of St Werburgh’s to Cestrian heritage and identity. The ongoing struggles and tensions between the Benedictine abbey and the secular city government in the early sixteenth century provide the most compelling immediate social and political context for Bradshaw’s text, analysed recently in detail by Robert Barrett. 37

In his discussion of the text’s propagandist ambitions, Barrett calls attention to the narrative of the ‘unlawfully hanged man’ in Book II, ll. 940-88, identifying it as an apparent reaction to the closure of the abbot’s court and the expanded jurisdictional scope of the secular civic authorities. The episode places the ‘innocent’ man (l. 961) and his distressed ‘frendes and cosyns’ (l. 958) in stark contrast to the civic ‘ministres’ (l. 954) and ‘officers’ (l. 968) who oversee the (abortive) execution. Barrett describes the episode as typical of Bradshaw’s ‘ineffectual fantasies’ of the triumph of the abbey: in this symbolic narrative Werburgh intervenes to restore proper justice and the city’s ministers are exposed as impotent and tyrannical. The final stanza of the chapter tells that:

Whiche myracle knowen / his frendes and cosyns all
Returned agayne with glad mynde and chere.
The prisoner mette them, louyng god in speciall
And blessed Werburge in his best manere
The deuout citezens approched them nere
Went all to the shryne the virgin thankyng;
The belles were tolled for ioy of this thyng.

Here Bradshaw aligns the celebratory citizens with the abbey and its triumph, presenting a festive communal scene in which St Werburgh’s and the saint’s shrine form the focal point and the secular authorities are excluded. Thus the text boldly re-places St Werburgh’s from its increasingly marginalised position in sixteenth-century Chester to the very centre (in social and political terms) of the city. Strikingly, apart from this account of the hanged man, tensions between the abbey and the city’s secular rulers are simply not acknowledged in the text: Bradshaw offers a vision of civic unity ordered around St Werburgh’s and the realities of conflict and rivalry are generally elided. 38 However, despite the propagandist aims of the Life of St Werburge, Bradshaw’s ‘fantasies’ of urban identity centred around the abbey give way to Chester ‘the corporation’ and the Dissolution. 39

Whilst Bradshaw constructs an idealised, unified civic identity in which internal conflict and tension are elided, his vision of Chester does, in some respects, accommodate diversity and difference. For Bradshaw, place and identity are fundamentally interpreted through history, and the urban landscape of Chester forms a multi-layered repository of the different phases of urban development and changing usages of the urban space, along with different eras of rule, cultural affinity and even national identity. However, whilst the fabric of the city bears traces of these former historical moments, the disparate eras and allegiances of the past are absorbed into the contemporary city with its united, homogenised identity. Throughout the text, conflict is exported beyond the city – either located outside its enclosing, defensive walls, or relegated to the distant historical past. In two accounts of attacks on Chester in Book II, (ll. 667-729 and ll. 758-99), Bradshaw describes the way in which St Werburgh’s shrine is set on the city wall to protect against ‘walshemen’ and ‘innumerable barbarike nacions’. Within the walls, the citizens are united in fear and protected by the ‘deuout chanons’ (l. 772). The text sets up a clear and straightforward binary between the ‘barbaric’ attackers outside the walls – who in both cases assault the shrine itself and suffer divine punishment – and the pious citizens within the defences. Whilst these two narratives export conflict to an othered physical space beyond the (idealised) urban enclosure, elsewhere Bradshaw contains potential tension and difference by circumscribing it within the remote historical past. Bradshaw notes, for example, that Chester was ‘Called Caerlleon / of britons longe ago’ (Book II, l. 374) and was subse quently ‘named Chestre, by great auctorite’ (l. 375). Bradshaw presents these different names as historical layers, replaced in chronological progression, with the English name inevitably superseding the Welsh. Here Bradshaw elides the reality of contemporary difference: the two different Welsh and English names for Chester (Caer and Chester) were both in current usage in his own period (and still are today), but his narrative denies this diversity. The Welsh texts edited for this project offer a glimpse into the nature of late-medieval Chester as a mixed, multi-cultural community including migrants, merchants, pilgrims and other visitors as well as citizens. But Bradshaw offers us a homogenised, mono-cultural image of his contemporary city with diversity safely contained within the realm of ‘heritage’ and urban archaeology.

The specific question of Bradshaw’s attitude to the Welsh is worth further consideration. As a border city located on the boundary between England and Wales, Chester was the historical site of frequent battles, attacks and programmes of invasion and conquest. As discussed above, Bradshaw gives (apocryphal, confused) accounts of some of these conflicts. However, whilst the Welsh who attack the city and assault Werburgh’s shrine are characterised by ‘great wyckednes’ (Book II, l. 713), the Life of St Werburge demonstrates an overwhelmingly positive attitude to the ancient Britons of distant history. Bradshaw rejects Higden’s assertion that the ‘noble Romans’ founded the city and maintains that, before them

…the Kynge Leil, a briton sure and valiaunt,
Was founder of Chestre by pleasaunt buyldyng… 40

Possibly Bradshaw’s own invention, this account foregrounds the role of the Britons in Chester’s early history, marginalising (quite surprisingly) the traditionally-prestigious contribution of the Romans. Bradshaw also celebrates the continuity of Christian religion in Chester, attributing this unbroken tradition (from Romano-British times to the present) to the piety of the Britons. He remarks that:

Certaynly, sith baptym came to Chestre cite,
Soone after Lucius / and afore kynge Arthure,
By the grace of god and their humilite,
The faith of holy churche dyd euer there endure
Without rediciuacion and infection / sure;
Wherefore it is worthy a singular commendacion,
Aboue all the citees and townes of this region.

For Bradshaw, Chester’s special status as a continuous bastion of Christian religion is part of its distinct identity which sets it apart from the rest of England. 41 In the Life of St Werburge, Bradshaw signifies the transition from noble, pious Britons to barbaric, wicked Welsh through their change of name. In the time of King Alfred, he notes:

The Name of britons was chaunged that season,
Were named walshemen, in the montaynes segregate
Euer to the saxons hauynge inwarde hate. 42

This comment might suggest Bradshaw’s awareness of the etymology of Welsh from the Old English wælisc (‘foreign, alien’), but, most strikingly, it constructs a pivotal moment at which the Welsh change from being the heroes of his history and become the villains.

A particular area of interest throughout the Life of St Werburge is the Anglo-Saxon past and, more especially, the history of the kingdom of Mercia. In his description of the different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Book I, Bradshaw gives particular attention to Mercia and celebrates its ancient, prestigious history as an independent kingdom. For example, he remarks that

The bounds and lorshyppes / of the sayd Mercyens,
As shewen duyers bokes hystoryall,
Were large and mighty / and of great prehemynens,
Where the sayd kynge [Wulfhere] reigned by power imperyall.
This realme to dyscrybe / begyn we shall
At the Cytee of Chester / and the water of Dee,
Bytwene Englande and wales / of the west partye… 43

Bradshaw sets out his intention here to begin his description of Mercia with Chester, implicitly centring the kingdom on the city and again asserting its importance. Bradshaw’s account of the etymology of the name Mercia also reflects a cultural geography which privileges the north-west area of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and reinforces the significance of Chester. Bradshaw comments that

Of the foresaid ryuer / and water of Mersee
The kynge of Mercyens / taketh his name…

Mercia in fact derives from the Old English mearc (‘border, boundary’), reflecting the origins of Mercia at the ‘edges’ between other early kingdoms within Britain, but Bradshaw’s false etymology again directs emphasis to the north-west region and the area close to Chester. This focus on Mercia – and the etymologically-justified emphasis on its north-west periphery – enables Bradshaw to re-position Chester from its location at the margins of the late-medieval kingdom of England to a place at the centre of a historic, autonomous Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Interestingly, the idea of Mercia in the Life of St Werburge offers an alternative rationale and vocabulary for asserting the distinctiveness and independence of Chester which resonates with accounts of the Cheshire palatinate in the later medieval period. For Bradshaw, the idea of Mercia represents a sense of heritage and identity which is not quite contiguous with ‘Englishness’: instead, it contributes to an understanding of Chester (and the county palatine) as distinct and set apart from the rest of the English kingdom. Robert Barrett has recently reminded us that the boundaries between Cheshire and the rest of England in the medieval period are just as significant and fraught, in cultural and ideological terms, as those between Cheshire and Wales. 44 The interest in Mercia in late-medieval and early modern Chester extends far beyond Bradshaw’s text and is perhaps most prominent in the late fourteenth-century shrine to St Werburgh in the abbey, which is decorated with royal figures and saints from Mercian history. As well as fitting within the wider emerging interest in Anglo-Saxon history in the late medieval and early modern period (see discussion above under The Manuscript and Printed Book), the communal memory of Mercia in Chester represents a specific formulation of local identity which refuses to characterise the city as simply a remote periphery of the nation of England. 45

Whilst the Life of St Werburge has clear propagandist aims and political functions within the context of sixteenth-century Chester, the London printing of the text in 1521 by Richard Pynson, the king’s printer, moves the text into a new, national context and a new set of discourses and current concerns. Tim Thornton has suggested that the London publication of Bradshaw’s text reflects an attempt by the monks of St Werburgh’s to promote their claim in a property dispute between its tenants and Cardinal Wolsey’s Cheshire clients. 46 However, recent studies by Catherine Sanok and Robert Barrett have suggested that the London publication of the Life of St Werburge calls attention to new issues of place and identity which extend beyond the locality of the Benedictine abbey and Chester itself. Catherine Sanok argues that the text constructs an idea of stable, continuous English identity which transcends the vagaries of the historical moment and contemporary government. She suggests that Werburgh, with the metaphorical potentials of her virginity and virtue, may be read as a ‘transcendent embodiment of national identity’, and suggests the ways in which her ‘talismanic force’ can be seen as protecting both the city of Chester and the boundaries of England the nation. 47 Throughout her discussion, Sanok emphasises the ways in which Chester – the bastion city defended from its enemies by its spiritual patron – functions as a ‘metonym for England itself’, identifying ‘elisions of a national paradigm and a regional one’. Whilst Sanok’s analysis does not acknowledge the complex and significant ways in which local Chester identity does not map neatly onto the wider nation (the text’s construction of Merican heritage is a crucial case in point here), her argument makes a persuasive case for the ways in which Chester history in the Life of St Werburge might have a national resonance. She also considers the text’s address to a contemporary female audience, and the role of this readership in ‘extend[ing] the local reference of the legend’. 48 Robert Barrett has also investigated the implications of the London printing of Bradshaw’s text, exploring the possible place of the Life of St Werburge within anti-Lutheran discourses. Barrett notes that Richard Pynson has been associated with a ‘flourishing Catholic print culture’ in the early part of the sixteenth century, and suggests that the Life of St Werburge may have a deliberate political place alongside his other publications. Barrett argues that ‘[t]he Life’s utility for a nationally coordinated anti-Lutheran approach is seen most readily in Book 2 with the constant depiction of Chester as a city besieged by a host of external foes’ and comments on the ‘combination of penetration anxiety and holistic fantasy’ present throughout the text. 49 Barrett’s argument is convincing and emphasises the susceptibility of Bradshaw’s text to different interpretations and political uses. Indeed, looking beyond the period discussed at this point by Barrett, it is interesting to note the re-emergence of interest in Werburgh and Mercia in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts which re-appropriate the material as evidence of ancient English Christian tradition and implicit authorisation of Protestant ideology and practice. 50

Thus the reception history of Bradshaw’s Life of St Werburge reflects its continual re-positioning within different contexts of place and identity: from the immediate interests of St Werburgh’s abbey in the early sixteenth century to the concerns of Chester as a borderland city and the wider, national agendas of both anti-Lutheran and later Protestant writers. The walled, frontier city of Chester can become symbolic and metonymic, treated perhaps as an expedient trope by Richard Pynson in his promotion of (his version of) English national and religious identity. But Bradshaw’s mapping of Chester’s history and urban landscape represents an attempt to understand (and to formulate) the identity of his own city. He traces the layers of different historical moments, inhabitants, builders and rulers within its fabric, although he aims to reconcile this heritage of diversity and difference within a stable, homogenous vision of contemporary Chester identity with the Benedictine abbey at its centre. Bradshaw’s celebration of the city is coloured throughout by anxieties about conflict and usurpation – whether the potential invasions of the Welsh, located just across the River Dee, or the increasing power of the secular civic authorities at the expense of the abbey of St Werburgh’s. Fundamentally for Bradshaw, place and identity are produced through history – of which his own Benedictine abbey (and his own text) is the rightful custodian.


These additional verses include a prefatory poem in honour of Werburgh and Bradshaw, written by ‘J.T.’, which incorporates an acrostic ‘Henri Bradsha’ across the first two stanzas. At the end of the work, three ‘balades’ by different (unidentified) authors are dedicated to Henry Bradshaw (the first two) and St Werburgh (the final ‘balade’, with each stanza formed on variants of the acrostic ‘Werburga’). Back to context...
An overview of the life and early cult of Werburgh can be found in Burne, 1962, 1-2. Back to context...
See Horstmann 1887, lines 2612-2710, or via Literature Online – subscription only. Back to context...
For a brief account of Werburgh’s life, see the entry by Alan Thacker in the Dictionary of National Biography, available online (subscription only). Back to context...
See A.T. Thacker, Early Medieval Chester, Lewis and Thacker, 2003, 16-33, 31, also available via British History Online. Back to context...
See Love, 2004, lviii. Back to context...
Horstmann, 1887, ix. Back to context...
See Horstmann, 1887, ll. 2020-25. Back to context...
Horstmann, 1887, ix. Back to context...
Cannon, 2008, 150-1. In a general reflection on ‘Monastic productions’ in this period, Cannon comments that ‘monks played a significant role’ in establishing this new ‘category of literature’. See Cannon, 2002, 321. Back to context...
Sanok, 2007, 115, 83-4. Whilst issues of gender, virtue, virginity and stability are clearly central to the text, its address seems to be more inclusive than Sanok acknowledges, and the ‘figure of the feminine audience’ (115) is not the only – or even necessarily the most significant – imagined readership present in the text. Back to context...
Horstmann, 1887, ix. Back to context...
Bliss, 1813, I, col. 18. Back to context...
Horstmann, 1887, ‘A balade to the auctour’, ll. 19-21. Back to context...
Horstmann, 1887, vii. Back to context...
See Horstmann, 1887, ‘An other balade’, l. 27. Back to context...
See Horstmann, 1887, vi. Back to context...
See Horstmann, 1887, vii. Back to context...
Recently, Jane Laughton has dealt with these tensions between civic and monastic power in a discussion entitled ‘Challenges to Urban Government’, in which she observes that ‘[t]he jurisdiction of the Benedictine abbey posed a… serious threat to social harmony’ in later medieval Chester. (Laughton, 2008, 130.) Back to context...
Barrett, 2009, 47 and more generally 47-51. See also Laughton, 2008, 38-9. Back to context...
Barrett, 2009, 44-5. Back to context...
Only Catherine Sanok offers an alternative dating (1485-93), based on her understanding of historical context and her interpretation of the acrostic signature in the ‘other balade to saynt werburge’ appended to Pynson’s edition. See Sanok 2007, 204. Back to context...
Horstmann, 1887, xxxvi. Back to context...
See discussion below under Place and Identity, as well as Barrett, 2009, 51-8 and Sanok 2007, 83-115. Back to context...
This is the copy of the text which is digitized on EEBO, though the resolution is not clear enough to show all the annotations and markings. Back to context...
See for example Berkhout and Gatch, 1982 and Frantzen and Niles, 1997 for a discussion of early Anglo-Saxon scholarship and the production of social identity. For examples of early Anglo-Saxon studies relating more specifically to Chester / Cheshire see King, 1656 and Bluecoat, 1749 Back to context...
Forshaw, 1887, 104. Back to context...
Hawkins, 1848, xii-iii. Back to context...
Horstmann, 1887, xxx. Back to context...
Horstmann, 1887, xxxi, xxxi-iii. Back to context...
Hawkins, 1848, xiv. Back to context...
Hawkins, 1848, xiv. Back to context...
Cannon, 2008, 151. See also Cannon, 2002, 320-1 and 345-7. Back to context...
Barrett, 2009, 44-51. Back to context...
Barrett, 2009, 28-9. Back to context...
Sanok, 2007, 88 and more generally 83-115. Back to context...
Barrett, 2009, 44-51. Back to context...
The only exception is in the explicit (recurrent) plea in Book II, Ch. XXII to the inhabitants of the county palatine, instructing them ‘to the monasterie neuer be vnkynde’. See Book II, ll. 1754-1897. Back to context...
See Barrett, 2009, 50-1. Back to context...
Book II, ll. 383-4. Back to context...
The anxiety about ‘rediciuacion and infection’ here is clearly amenable to the possible anti-Lutheran agendas of the publishers and readers of the Life in its post-1521 London incarnation. Back to context...
Book II, ll. 685-7. Back to context...
Book I, ll. 183-9. Back to context...
Barrett, 2009, 1-23. Back to context...
A more detailed discussion of the memory of Mercia in late-medieval and early modern Chester will appear in my contribution to Clarke, forthcoming. Back to context...
Thornton, 1999, 44. Back to context...
Sanok, 2007, 88, 84. Back to context...
Sanok, 2007, 84. Back to context...
Barrett, 2009, 53, 55. Back to context...
See for example King, 1656 and Bluecoat, 1749. Back to context...