Today is the 30th of March, so happy St Osburg’s Day!
If you’re reading this in Coventry and think the whole thing means nothing to you, well it really, really should. The problem is probably that no-one has ever bothered to tell you that she’s your saint. That’s right, Saint Osburg is the Coventry Saint.
Also, if you’re confused about the date, today is not the only contender which could be St Osburg’s Day, there are three of them, the other two being 21st January & 9th September, because there are three versions of who she was.
You might have heard that Caludon Castle is one of a dozen or so places where it was claimed that St George was born (and you can see a model of what Caludon Castle looked like, made by Pete Garbett who made the 1509 city centre model, in the archives at the Herbert from today), but it’s a matter of historical fact, even though there are three versions of the historical facts stretching over almost 400 years, that St Osburg is the Coventry Saint. Or at least she is a saint and she has nothing to do with anywhere besides Coventry. Coventry has a St Osburg’s Church, a St Osburg’s School and formerly a St Osburg’s Pool, but nowhere else has a St Osburg’s anything.
St Osburg is unquestionably the Coventry saint, but why no-one makes a fuss about this, who knows? Whilst a lot of fuss is quite rightly made about Godiva, and if it hadn’t been for the Norman Conquest it’s pretty much certain that she would have become a saint, as the original version of her story was that it was a miracle that no-one saw her as she rode naked through the streets. But Godiva isn’t a saint and Osburg is. You might have thought having our very own saint might be something to be proud of, the sort of thing a fuss might be made about. I mean how many other cities across the world can claim to have their very own exclusive saint?
Just to repeat, Coventry has it’s very own saint. That’s Saint Osburg. Or Osburga, if you prefer.
St Osburg was either the first, last, or first Abbess of an Abbey in Coventry, depending who you believe. Despite the fact her stories stretch all the way from the years 650 to 1018, they all agree that she was in charge of the Abbey in the middle of the City, the ruins of which Godiva and Leofric built St Mary’s Priory on almost a thousand years ago. In turn that site would become St. Mary’s Cathedral, or the Priory Gardens and former visitors centre as it is today.
Or in other words she probably founded, but at least ran her Abbey on the site of the original settlement that became Coventry. St Osburg wasn’t the first to get here, as Bronze Age axes and Roman remains have been found close to the area, but it is quite possible that the presence of her Abbey is why occupation of Coventry continued and expanded, if the version that she got here around the year 650 (which in my opinion is the most likely of the three versions of her story) is true.
The three versions of who St Osburg was are from these years:
650 (ish) – She’s the first abbess of the abbey she founded on the top of a hill above a lake which becomes known as St Osburg’s Pool. This is why the bus station is called Pool Meadow – NOT because it was next to the swimming pool!;
1016 – She’s the last abbess of the abbey as it’s destroyed and she’s martyred by Cnut (a.k.a. King Canute) as the Viking conqueror rampages his way through the country; and
1018 – She’s the first abbess of an abbey founded by Canute. This is the official version of the Catholic Church, though this looks like medieval revisionist propaganda.
In my opinion, whilst that last version is the official version of the Catholic Church, it seems the least likely and to have been deliberately made up as part of an attempt to rewrite the history of Cnut/Canute hundreds of years after the events, turning him from this vicious rampaging murdering Viking who only found God at the end of his life when he was worried about going to hell, into someone who was always a kind, pious and gentle man!
It’s also possible that there could be an element of truth in both the 650 and 1016 stories, in that if St Osburg founded the abbey around 650, then it’s exceptionally possible that over 300 years later, the woman running it might also be called, or titled Osburg – like you might have a Mother Mary running a St Mary’s today – causing understandable confusion.
The other reason why the ‘founded by Canute in 1018’ story pretty much cannot be true is that it is an historically established fact that Godiva and Leofric founded St Mary’s Priory on the ruins of St Osburg’s Abbey, with that opening in 1043. Well how could they build on the ruins of St Osburg’s, if St Osburg’s had only been opened by Canute 25 years earlier, with him remaining king for most of that time and nothing happening that we know about to ruin it?
About the only other thing we know about St Osburg is that when Godiva & Leofric opened St Mary’s – which was also dedicated to St Osburg – amongst the riches they endowed it with was the skull of St Osburg, encased in gold and copper to bring in the pilgrims. The skull would have been one of the many relics later on display in St Mary’s Cathedral and will have most likely ended up in Henry VIIIs swag bag when that cathedral was stripped.
As a result of all this confusion, there are three days which we can celebrate St Osburg’s day on: 21st January; 30th March; & 9th September, with that last one also being the date in 1845 that St Osburg’s Church was consecrated.
But despite the confusion, the thing we should all agree on is that she clearly is the patron saint of Coventry. That’s all we know: Nun, Gold Skull; from Cov. The bottom line is that she is an officially recognised saint and she was from Coventry. So why isn’t that a formally recognised thing that everyone in Coventry knows about? Why does pretty much no-one know St Osburg? And as she is a saint, so why hasn’t she got a flag?
On the flag point, given that the flag of Mercia – the country this was when she was alive – was in 2014 recognised as a blue saltire with a yellow cross and another variation of that is the cross of St Alban, the obvious conclusion is she should have something like that, especially as the cross on the bible she’s holding in the window of her own church is yellow on blue. Those flags are Navy Blue and Royal Blue respectively and as she’s the Coventry Saint, we of course would probably going down the route of Sky Blue. Given that Coventry is the place where the first blue dye was invented that didn’t fade or run (even though we don’t know for certain what was the exact shade), blue is pretty much essential. And given what happened to her skull, that cross isn’t yellow, it’s gold! All of that leads us to something like this..….
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves – surely this actual Coventry saint needs to be recognised and heralded as the Patron Saint of Coventry first, even if that is at least a thousand years late.
Then we can talk about the flag…..
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