Wednesday, 27 March 2013

St Bertram of Ilam

It took 100 years for Christianity to establish itself in England after Augustine landed in Kent in 597. It seems that missionaries mixed pragmatically piety with an ability to “schmooze” the local rulers as they fanned out around the country. Bishop Wilfrid of York, in one example ,held a three day drunken revelry with many of the nobility of Northumbria and Mercia to celebrate the dedication of Ripon Cathedral in the 660s. Proselytising in those days came with a hangover it would seem. It was a crucial time for the establishment of the Church and it was around this time that Christianity arrived in Staffordshire. It is difficult however to disentangle the myth and reality in the lives of the local Saints. I was pondering on this whilst visiting the shrine to St Bertram or Bertellinus at Ilam Church.

Bertram, so the story goes, was of royal blood and having fallen out with his father fled to Ireland where he fell in love with a princess. She became pregnant and they escaped to England sheltering in the dense forests that surrounded Ilam in the 7th century. Alexander a monk writing in the 13th century takes up the story.

They were in hiding in a dense forest when lo ! the time
of her childbirth came upon them suddenly ; born of pain and
river of sorrow ! A pitiful child bed indeed ! While Bertellinus
went out to get the necessary help of a midwife the woman and
her child breathed their last amid the fangs of wolves. Bertellinus
on his return imagined that this calamity had befallen because
of his own sin, and spent three days in mourning rites”.

That was the turning point in his life, he retired from the world and became a hermit. Bertram is linked with Stafford where he preached converting the heathen. Then he returned living in one of the caves beside the river Dove. After his death his remains were buried at Ilam,

The shrine itself is in the Lady Chapel. It is in the form of an altar tomb made about 1386 when a blind Ilam man, named Wilmot prayed to Bertram and recovered his sight. People still leave requests for prayers on the shrine. When I was there prayers of intercession among them people who had lost their faith, a sick relative and for a woman who had committed suicide from Birmingham were placed on the shrine.