Saint Birinus, Bishop

December 3

Today is the feast day of Saint Birinus.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Birinus date of birth is unknown. He was the first Bishop of Dorchester (in what is now the County of Oxford, not Dorchester, the capital of Dorsetshire).

Birinus had great devotion for the Body of Our Lord, as is shown in the account of his walking on the sea to procure the corporal given him by Pope Honorius, wherein he ever carried the Blessed Eucharist.

According to Bede, Birinus came to Britain on the advice of Pope Honorius I (625-638), having been consecrated bishop by Asterius at Genoa. He promised “to sow the seed of the holy faith in the inner parts beyond the English“, but on his arrival (634) found the West Saxons so pagan that he decided to devoted his ministry to them. God blessed his zeal by the conversion of their king, Cynegils (635), of his son Cwichelm (636), and of Cwichelm’s son Cuthred (639).

Cynegils’ daughter (Cyneburga?) was also baptized, and Oswald, the holy King of Northumbria, who had come to Cynegils in suit of her hand, was sponsor to her father and wedded her. Doubtless his presence helped Birinus much in his first spiritual conquests. Immediately after this, Oswald and Cynegils gave him Dorcic, or Dorchester, the capital of Wessex, for his see, where “he built and consecrated many churches and by his labours called many to the Lord“. (2)

Despite its Biblical parallels, this is not the most heroic of miracles – the author of the eleventh-century Vita of Birinus, where the story first appears, is at pains to point out that this forgetfulness didn’t happen because of “negligence or foolishness” on Birinus’ part (perish the thought!) but to aid God’s plan to reveal the saint’s holiness. William of Malmesbury makes no comment, but we may detect a slightly dry tone in a fourteenth-century English reference to the tale:

Seint Birinus [þe confessour] was sent of Honorius þe pope for to preche to Englisshe men; and while Birinus seilede in þe see of Britayne he byþouȝte hym of his restelles þat he hadde forȝete in þe haven, and ȝede uppon þe see and fette [his] restelles. Birinus convertede Kyngilsus kyng of West Saxons, and cristened hym at þe citee Dortik, þat is Dorchestre; þere was [kyng] Oswald present, and was Kyngilsus his godfader, and wedded his douȝter afterward. And boþe kynges ȝaf Birinus þat citee for to ordeyne þere a bisshoppes see; and þere Birinus deide after þe fourtene ȝere of his bisshopriche, and was buried þere. Bote atte þe laste, by Hedda bisshop of Wynchestre, Birinus was translated to Wynchestre, into þe chirche of [Seynt] Peter and Poul. But þe chanouns of Dorchestre seiþ nay, and seiþ þat it was anoþer body þan seint Birinus his body þat was so translated; þerfore a beere of a wonder werk is ȝit seie at Dorchestre, above þe place of his firste grave: þat citee Dortic oþer Dorkynga, þat now hatte Dorchestre, is sevene myle besouthe þe citee Oxenford, sette bytwene þe tweie riveres of Tame and of Temse. Also it is founde in cronykes þat Kyngilsus assignede al þe lond seven myle aboute for to make a bisshoppes see in Wynchestre, and for þe sustenaunce of [þe] mynystres; and for þe kyng was lette by his deþ yvel þat he miȝte nouȝt it fulfille, he swoor þat his sone Kenwalkus schulde it fulfille afterward. Þis citee Dorchestre longede to þe bisshoppis of Mercia from þat tyme anon to þe comynge of þe Normans. But in William Conquerours tyme þe bisshoppes see was chaunged to Lyncoln.

Saint Birinus the confessor was sent by Honorius the pope to preach to the English people. When Birinus was sailing on the sea of Britain he remembered some things that he had forgotten back in the harbour, and he walked upon the sea and fetched his things. Birinus converted Kyngilsus, king of the West Saxons, and christened him at the city Dortik, that is, Dorchester; [King] Oswald was present there, and was Kyngilsus’ godfather, and afterwards married his daughter. And both kings gave Birinus that city to establish a bishop’s see, and there Birinus died after fourteen years as a bishop, and was buried there. But in the end Birinus was translated to Winchester by Hedda, bishop of Winchester, into the church of St Peter and Paul. But the canons of Dorchester say no, and say that it was another body, not St Birinus’, which was translated; so there is a tomb of wonderful workmanship to be seen at Dorchester, above the site of his first grave. That city Dortic or Dorkynga, which is now called Dorchester, is seven miles south of the city of Oxford, set between the two rivers of Thame and Thames. It is also found in the chronicles that Kyngilsus gave all the land seven miles around to make a bishop’s see in Winchester, and for the maintenance of the minsters; and because the king was prevented by mortal sickness from fulfilling this, he promised that his son Kenwalkus should fulfill it afterwards. This city Dorchester belonged to the bishops of Mercia from that time to the coming of the Normans, but in William the Conqueror’s time the bishop’s see was moved to Lincoln. (3)

Saint Birinus died December 3, 643.  In (680) his remains were deposited by Bishop Headda in the cathedral at Winchester, where finally (4 September, 972) Bishop Ethelwold enshrined them in silver and gold.  The Catholics of Dorchester honoured their patron, in, 1849, with a beautiful chapel. 

Image: Stain Class Window of Saint Birinus (4)

Research by REGINA Staff





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