Life and Soul

Saint of the week: St Walburga (February 25)

Born in Devonshire in 710, Walburga was one of the great Anglo-Saxon evangelists of the 8th century, along with her uncle St Boniface. Her father was the underking of Wessex, and her brothers were St Willibald and St Winibald. Her father, Richard the Saxon Pilgrim, had died on pilgrimage to Rome in 722 and the family were deeply religious.

Walburga was entrusted to the nuns of Wimborne Abbey in Dorset where she spent the next 26 years. Then, well into middle age by the grim standards of the time, she travelled with her brothers to what is now Franconia, in southern Germany, to assist Boniface. There she wrote the life of her brother Winibald, including a description of his travels to Palestine. She then became a nun in the monastery of Heidenheim am Hahnen-kamm in Bavaria, eventually becoming abbess.

She died between 777 and 779 and her feast day is still commemorated in Finland, Sweden and Bavaria, although it was more popular during the medieval period. After being transferred, her relics were associated with a miraculous therapeutic oil. She is often shown holding stalks of grain, which represents her association with the older pagan Grain Mother. Walburga remains the patron of numerous towns in Germany and Belgium, and her name is honoured by two abbeys, one in Bavaria and one in Colorado.

To British Christians, she is most recognisable because of the church in Preston that bears her name, and which has the tallest spire of any parish church in England. Sadly, the 12th-century church of St Walburga in Antwerp did not survive the French Revolution.