26 January 2018

Who was Saint Owini?

Saint Owini of Lichfield or Saint Owen of Lichfield … an icon by the hand of Paul Drozdowski

Patrick Comerford

On 4 March we commemorate Saint Owini of Lichfield, hermit. He is commemorated in Benedictine and many Anglian martyrologies, and in Celtic Daily Prayer, with the Northumbria Community. Both the Venerable Bede and the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould’s Lives of the Saints (London: Nimmo, 1907, pp 57-58) provide accounts of his life.

Owini was born into a noble family in East Anglia. There he served Saint Etheldreda, also known as Saint Audrey, until Etheldreda joined her aunt Ebba at the monastery of Coldingham. Owini, who had tired of court life, then joined the monastery at Lastingham under Saint Chad. Owini made the journey to Lastingham on foot, earning his keep as he went. Sometime later, he went back and placed wooden crosses along the route to serve as makers for pilgrims and travellers. At Lastingham, Owini chose to work on the land rather than study. He became Saint Chad’s travelling companion and biographer, following him to Lichfield, where he was a novice monk under Saint Chad’s care.

Owini was very strong and chose to do outdoor work around the monastery. While the seven other monks were busy reading and writing.

One day, while Owini was working alone in the fields near Saint Chad’s residence, hewing down trees, and cutting logs of wood for burning, Owini heard the sound of music or singing apparently descending from the sky to the oratory where the saint was praying. He stayed his axe and looked around, but could see no one. The air was calm and still, the monks were all hard at work in their cells. His Bishop, he knew, was quite alone in his room. Still he felt sure he could hear strains as of persons chanting in a strange, sweet way; the sounds seemed to be in the air as if coming from heaven. Then, after a full half hour, they seemed to die away and return to heaven.

He threw aside his axe and hurried up the window. “Go, fetch the brethren from the monastery, and come with them to the church,” Saint Chad told him. “I must pray with you, and speak with you all now while time is yet given me.” When the monks came together in the church, Saint Chad stood before the and, after urging hem to live good Christian lives and to continue keeping the monastic rules, told how, while he was writing, he had heard strains of wonderful music coming towards him from the south-east. He had felt, he said, as if in the presence of a band of angels, who had come, he believed, to bid him make ready for death.

When the other monks went away, Owini returned to Saint Chad and begged to know more about the singing he had heard. Saint Chad told him that he had been visited by angelic hosts summoning him to heaven. He then commanded the young monk to tell no one of this until he had died.

Saint Chad was quickly taken ill and died on 2 March 672. He had been Bishop of Lichfield or Mercia for just three years. Bede goes on to tell us that he was called “saint” immediately after his death.

It is said Saint Owini eventually died in Lichfield soon after, but nothing more is Cathedral.

● This feature was published in the Friends of Lichfield Cathedral Eighteenth Annual Report 2017, pp 41-42.

A house and name in Lichfield
recall Samuel Johnson’s muse

Thrale’s House on Tamworth Street, Lichfield, recalls Samuel Johnson’s muse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

One of the rooms in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, where I was staying this week during my two-day ‘mini-retreat’ in Lichfield, is named Harriet Lynch Thrale (No 7), after the diarist and friend of Samuel Johnson who was also his muse and his patron.

All the rooms in the Hedgehog are named after key figures in the cultural and literary life of Lichfield. Although, of course, there is a literal error in this literary collection, for No 7 should be named Hester Lynch Thrale and not ‘Harriet Lynch Thrale.’

Hester Lynch Thrale (1741-1821) was a diarist, author and patron of the arts, and her diaries and correspondence are important biographical source for the life of Samuel Johnson and for life in 18th century England.

Hester Lynch Salusbury was born on 27 January 1741 at Bodvel Hall in Caernarvonshire, the only daughter of Hester Lynch Cotton and Sir John Salusbury, who belonged to an illustrious Welsh land-owning dynasty.

After her father went bankrupt through ill-advised investments in Halifax, Canada, Hester married Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, in London, in 1763. They had 12 children, but while the marriage often was strained, Henry’s wealth she was able to enter London society, and met Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Thomas Barnard (ca 1727-1806) who became Bishop of Killaloe (1780–1794), Bishop Thomas Percy of Dromore, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke and other leading political, literary and cultural figures of the day.

In July 1774, Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale visited Wales, staying with Hester’s uncle, Sir Lynch Cotton, at Combermere in Denbighshire. Frances Cotton, who was married to Hester’s brother, Robert Cotton, found Johnson was both rude and delightful, and believed Hester wanted all his attention, to his annoyance.

Johnson wrote two verses for Hester Thrale in 1775, the first in celebration of her 35th birthday, and another in Latin to honour her. Johnson often stayed with the Thrale household and had his own room above the library in their house at Streatham Park, where he worked.

A silhouette of Hester Thrale still hangs outside Thrale’s House on Tamworth Street in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Hester visited Lichfield with Johnson in 1775, 1777 and 1779. Henry Thrale died on 4 April 1781, and Hester was forced to sell his brewery in Southwark and to wind up his business affairs. But she soon met and fell in love with Gabriel Mario Piozzi, an Italian music teacher, and they married on 25 July 1784.

The newspapers of the day were flippant and disparaging, and described Piozzi as ‘an obscure and penniless Fiddler’ who had married ‘into sudden Wealth.’ The marriage also caused a rift between Hester and Samuel Johnson, which was only mended shortly before his death on 13 December 1784. After his death, she returned to Lichfield in 1787 to collect his letters.

Hester and Gabriel moved to Brynbella, a specially built country house on her estate in north Wales, where she became obsessed with the idea of reclaiming her father’s Canadian lands.

After Samuel Johnson’s death, Hester published her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) and their correspondence (1788). These books and her diaries, which were not published until 1949, are sources help to fill out the picture of Johnson often presented in James Boswell’s Life.

Hester Lynch Piozzi died in Bristol on 2 May 1821 and was buried on 16 May 1821 near Brynbella in the churchyard of Corpus Christi Church, Tremeirchion, next to Gabriel Piozzi.

After her death, scholars referred to her, as Johnson had, as ‘Mrs Thrale’ or ‘Hester Thrale.’ However, she is now often referred to as either ‘Hester Lynch Piozzi’ or ‘Mrs Piozzi.’

Samuel Beckett drew on her diaries and Anecdotes to dramatise her and Samuel Johnson's relationship in one of his earliest plays, Human Wishes. However, Beckett abandoned the play was abandoned after completing the first act.

Although she never lived in Lichfield, Hester Lynch Thrale is remembered in Lichfield in the name of Thrale House, once the home of Thrale’s Restaurant in Tamworth Street, and, I suppose, in the ‘Harriet Lynch Thrale’ room in the Hedgehog.

Thrale’s Restaurant closed in recent years, and is now the premises of Stardust and NUYU, but the house is still known as Thrale’s House, and a silhouette of Hester still hangs outside.

Hester becomes Harriet … the name on a room in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)