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St.Margaret of Antioch & St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants (Ely) Early C.14

Photos:T.Marshall

Saints Catherine (below right) and Margaret (below left) were the most popular of the female saints painted in the English medieval church and they are sometimes found together, as here. A Life of Catherine was first written in English in the 13th century, and this painting of her holding her attribute, a wheel, is not much later. She St. Catherine, Old Weston [33KB]was the subject of the first English ‘Miracle’ or Saint’s play, written about 1100 by a monk called Gorran and performed in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. Later paintings of Catherine often show her with long loose hair and even bare-breasted, but here, as befits a pious virgin, she wears a sober headdress and a plain gown and cloak. Catherine (whose story seems to be entirely mythical) was scholarly as well as virginal, and accounts of her experiences may be based on the career of Hypatia of Alexandria, a renowned woman philosopher who died in 415 - at the hands of monks, many said.

Catherine is shown disputing with pagan philosophers in narrative scenes of her Life, her punishment for which was to be sentenced to breaking on the wheel by the Emperor Maxentius. This failed when the wheel broke (Divine Intervention is usually claimed, and painted) and Catherine was finally beheaded. Here though she is simply shown as a standing figure, above some illusionistic brickwork, holding her hideously-spiked wheel by a kind of handle - details which now show in this new St. Margaret, Old Weston [37KB]photograph. Also showing now is part of the arched (and possibly inscribed) tabernacle she stands in, and, curving upwards from the top of her head at the right, what might be a scroll identifying her.

St.Margaret (left) has perhaps an even smaller claim than St. Catherine to historical reality (Pope Gelasius in 494 declared her Legend apocryphal), but her cult in England may be even older, with a Life of her being written before the Norman Conquest. Margaret, born a pagan, was an unwilling bride who refused the attentions of her would-be seducer, Olybrius, governor of Antioch. Thrown into prison as a result, she proclaimed herself a Christian and suffered various tortures. Finally she was swallowed by a dragon, which later burst open, allowing her to escape. She too was finally beheaded, but before this, perhaps inspired by the bursting of the dragon’s belly, she promised (as well as much else¹) that pregnant women who invoked her aid would ensure a safe childbirth. There is a story somewhere about a medieval English queen sending for the girdle that was one of Margaret’s relics to wear during her pregnancy.² She is probably leading the dragon by her girdle here - it is not visible, but the dragon is shown curving around the hem of Margaret’s gown, its head turned upwards (bottom right of figure), no doubt because Margaret is hoisting it up.

Both women hold books, and wear crowns - Margaret’s now showing well, Catherine’s very obscure - and the painted illusionistic brickwork, which shows best below St. Margaret, (and is also below Catherine, but not shown here) is interesting. Visible behind Margaret is an archway in front of a building with a roof and a spire, and something similar may have been behind St. Catherine. This might suggest a number of things about the place of, and beliefs about, the two saints in the English church, but I think the brickwork below, painted on an entirely different scale, may have had more to do with filling space and possibly even practising freehand horizontals and verticals. Apprentice-work, perhaps.

In churches with a number of subsidiary altars, the chances of finding one dedicated to St. Catherine or St. Margaret were high. A 15th century parishioner, presumably to be on the safe side about what Margaret actually wanted, (see note 1 below) gave ‘a taper in the form of St. Margaret’ to Hoxne church, Suffolk. If this really did mean a candle shaped like St. Margaret it must have been a curious sight as it burned.³

¹ Her promises were very comprehensive - e.g. that anyone writing or reading her history would receive a crown in heaven, that the dying who invoke her will be protected from devils, and that anyone dedicating churches or burning lights in them in her name will receive anything useful that they pray for. Quite all-embracing enough to account for her popularity.
²Was it Phillipa of Hainault, Edward 111s queen? It seems quite likely (especially given her husband’s fondness for relics).
³Draper et. al., St. Peter & St. Paul, Hoxne, History & Guide [publication on sale in Hoxne church, 1990, Appendix 1-Medieval Wills from Norwich Record Office]

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St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk
St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon. Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs
St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk
St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks
St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk
St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire
St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, Dorset St Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire
St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks
St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the barrel, Bishopsbourne, Kent NEW St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon St. Paul : Selling, Kent St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon
St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants St. Peter : Selling, Kent SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire NEW St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon
St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs. Archbishop, possibly Thomas Becket, blessing, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire NEW St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk
St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Zita : Horley, Oxon St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon Unidentified female saint : Heydon

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Anne Marshall 2000