Past Lives

Past Lives: St Godric at Finchale Priory

Finchale Priory was founded in about 1196 on the site of the hermitage of St Godric, a former sailor who settled here after years of adventure.

Image: illustration of St Godric by Jasmine Whiteleaf

2020 marked the 850th anniversary of the death of St Godric of Finchale. During his eventful 100-year life, he was a merchant, sailor, pilgrim, hermit, writer of religious verse and revered holy man.

The son of Anglo-Saxons, Godric was born at Walpole, Norfolk in c.1070. At an early age he became a pedlar in Lincolnshire. His trade soon took him as far afield as Scotland and Flanders. He became a ship’s captain and part-owner of two vessels, making pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. In the course of his seafaring, Godric also visited Farne Island off the coast of Lindisfarne where St Cuthbert (died 687) had sought seclusion. This inspired Godric to become a hermit. 

He eventually settled, in around 1112, at Finchale, a remote site on the banks of the River Wear. Here he sought to atone for his past sins by living a life of almost unimaginable austerity. His diet initially consisted of roots and berries. Although he later cultivated barley and vegetables, he would only eat these when they were dry and mouldy. Labouring wearing a hair shirt and metal breastplate, he cleared forests to build himself a wooden oratory. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it had a barrel in its floor filled with freezing water in which Godric would immerse himself. He later built a stone chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist, whose life in the desert provided inspiration for medieval hermits. 

Godric twice nearly lost his life, first to a flood and then to the hands of Scottish soldiers searching for treasure. Visitors with more peaceful intentions included two kings of Scotland and Aelred of Rievaulx. Credited with the ability to heal the sick and the power of prophecy, Godric also had the distinction of being the author of hymns in praise of the Virgin and St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. 

Monks from Durham provided care for Godric in his old age. He died on 21 May 1170. His grave in the church of St John the Baptist at Finchale was the focus of 200 miracles and a priory was founded around it. In the late Middle Ages it was a holiday retreat for monks from Durham. Today, Finchale’s beautiful ruins are an enduring reminder of St Godric and his remarkable life.

Words by Michael Carter

Illustration by Jasmine Whiteleaf

Image: Finchale Priory (copyright Historic England)