06 June 2022

The legend of Saint Rumbold,
the three-day old prodigy who
asked for baptism in Buckingham

A plaque on the façade of the Manor House in Buckingham keeps alive the extraordinary legends about Saint Rumbold (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

One of the many fine Tudor-era houses to survive is the Manor House, beside the old churchyard. On the façade of the Manor House, a plaque showing a cherubic-like infant recalls the extraordinary tale that has survived as local lore of Saint Rumbold.

There is a Saint Rumbold’s Well in Buckingham, and Saint Rumbold’s Lane leads from Nelson Street to the junction of Church Street and Well Street. Saint Rumbold is so celebrated in Buckingham that I am surprised the parish church is named after Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Saint Rumbold is also known as Rumwold, Rumwald, or Rumbald. But who was this Anglo-Saxon infant saint, who lived for only three days?

According to local lore, Rumbold was born and died around the year 650 CE. He was of royal descent: his mother was Cyneburga, a daughter of King Penda of Mercia; his father was Alchfrith, a son of the King of Northumbria. Rumbold’s parents were travelling north to meet King Penda. The party stopped and camped in a field near King’s Sutton in Northamptonshire, 12 miles west of Buckingham, between Brackley and Banbury. There Cyneburga gave birth to Rumbold.

From birth, Rumbold was a prodigy. On his first day he cried out three times in a loud voice ‘I am a Christian,’ Christianus sum, Christianus sum, Christianus sum, and asked to be baptised.

A bowl-shaped stone in a nearby hut was suggested as a baptismal font, but this was far too heavy to move. However the infant Rumbold told his entourage to go back to the hut and bring the stone ‘in the name of the Lord.’ This was then done, miraculously easily, and the infant was baptised. His supposed baptismal font can still be seen in King’s Sutton Church.

On the following day, Rumbold further astounded everyone by professing faith in the Holy Trinity and the Athanasian Creed and, citing the Scriptures, preached a sermon on the need for virtuous living. On the third day he said that he was going to die, seeking to be buried where he was born for one year, then at Brackley for two years, and finally for his bones to rest for all time at a place that later became known as Buckingham.

He was mentioned in the Bosworth Psalter dated ca 1000. Shortly after the Norman Conquest, the life of Saint Rumbold was written down in the 1070s, in the scriptorium of Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, one of the few remaining Anglo-Saxon bishops. But he did not figure in monastic calendars compiled after 1100.

The reputed site of Saint Rumbold’s grave in the old churchyard in Buckingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Several post-Conquest Bishops of Lincoln attempted to suppress what were described as superstitious pilgrimages. These pilgrimages were often to places associated with obscure Saxon saints such as Saint Rumbold and the cessation of pilgrimages to his shrine at Buckingham was ordered around 1280.

Nevertheless, accounts of Saint Rumbold’s miraculous life were widely circulated in the Middle Ages and his tomb and shrine in the old church of Buckingham became a focus for pilgrimages. Many pilgrims came to take the curative waters of Saint Rumbold’s Well close to the town. The earliest inns of Buckingham were reputedly founded and flourished on the arrival of pilgrims.

The Fraternity of Saint Rumbold in Buckingham had assets in Buckingham, Hillesden, Nash, Padbury, Preston Bissett and Twyford in 1522. However, pilgrimages to Buckingham were suppressed at the Reformation. Saint Rumbold’s shrine and tomb were demolished after the old parish church in Buckingham fell down in 1776, and nothing was transferred to the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul when it was built on Castle Hill.

A recently-erected memorial in the old churchyard reads: ‘Near this spot within the old Church of Buckingham was the shrine of the infant Saint Rumbold who lived and died c.650 AD.’

Saint Rumbold’s fame spread beyond Buckingham. In pre-Conquest times, at least six monasteries in Mercia and Wessex revered him, and there may have been others in other places. There are churches dedicated to him in Northamptonshire, Dorset, Kent, Lincolnshire, Essex and North Yorkshire.

The ancient well is clearly marked on John Speed’s map of 1610, the first town map of Buckingham. A rectangular conduit house was built over the top in 1623. Lead water pipes were laid from the well to Castle House, the largest 17th century house in Buckingham. The ruins of the conduit house have been excavated and preserved. Mediaeval ‘ridge and furrow’ evidence can be seen in the adjacent field.

The site was threatened by plans for new house-building. But, through the efforts of a local Saint Rumbold’s group under the auspices of the Buckingham Society, it has been protected and partly restored, it has been scheduled as an ancient monument and better access has been established.

He is also remembered in street names and other place names. In the 17th century, he was the patron saint of the fishermen of Folkestone.

His two feast days are 3 November (main feast) and 28 August (translation of relics). Saint Rumbold’s Way, from King’s Sutton to Buckingham, is a 17-mile walk that takes one or two days to complete.

Saint Rumbold’s Lane in Buckingham leads from Nelson Street to the junction of Church Street and Well Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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