Saint of the Day – 3 December – St Birinus of Dorchester (c 660-650) the first Bishop of Dorchester, England, “Apostle to the West Saxons,” for his conversion of the Kingdom of Wessex to Christianity., Benedictine Monk. Born in c 600 in France and died on 3 December 650 at Dorchester, of natural causes. Also known as – Birinus of Genoa. Apostle of Wessex, Berin, Birin, Birch. Patronages – Berkshire county and Dorcester City and Diocese.
In the 7th century, an Italian Monk, (though probably born in France), named Birinus was consecrated Bishop in Milan by Archbishop Asterius. Subsequently, he was sent to Britain by Pope Honorius I to continue the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity began so courageously by St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow Missionaries. Our Saint definitely seems to be endowed with a great Missionary spirit, zeal and charism of a great preacher, for in a very short time after his arrival in what is now Southampton, he had endowed the area with a Church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which still remains, although of course, restored many times.
Bishop Birinus’ original plan was to penetrate well into the interior of the country where no teacher had been before. But we know from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History that ‘on arriving in Britain and first coming to the nation of the West Saxons, where he found all to be confirmed pagans, he thought it more useful to preach the word there, rather than to go further looking for people to whom he should preach’.
In 635 King Oswald of Northumbria, who had already been converted to Christianity by Celtic Christians in Iona (Scotland), wanted to marry the daughter of Cynegils, King of the West Saxons and, therefore, came to Dorchester to visit Cynegils. There he found Cynegils receiving instruction in the Christian faith from Birinus. The outcome was that Birinus Baptised Cynegils, with Oswald standing as Godfather. The two Kings then granted land to Birinus in Dorchester for the establishment of his Episcopal See and Cathedral. Birinus thus became the first Bishop of the West Saxons.
Birinus died in 650 and was buried in Dorchester; he was canonised soon after. His relics (bones) were moved to Winchester around 690 by Bishop Hedda of Winchester but they were moved again to new Shrines in 980, by Bishop Ethelwold and in 1150, by Henri de Blois. In the early part of the 13th century the Augustinian Canons of Dorchester claimed to possess the relics of Birinus and this was accepted on very slender evidence following an enquiry instigated by Pope Honorius III and presided over by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Whatever the truth about the Birinus relics, the Abbey became a popular place of pilgrimage. This led to an extensive programme of rebuilding including in c1320 the south choir aisle and a marble Shrine dedicated to St Birinus. The Shrine was destroyed and the relics lost in 1536 by the excesses of the English reformation but fragments of the vaulting were found in a walled-up doorway in the 1870s and these were incorporated in the 1960s in the reconstructed shrine that stands today in the south aisle of St Birnus’ Cathedral in Dorchester..
The stained glass roundel below, dated c1225, is in the east window of the St Birinus Chapel. It shows Birinus (spelt Bernius) with bowed head being blessed by an enthroned Archbishop, probably Asterius of Milan who consecrated Birinus for his mission to Britain. The third person is a layman, shown praying.
The Great East Window has a panel depicting Birinus preaching before King Cynegils and some of his people.
St Birinus built many Churches and we have records of him laying the foundations for St Mary’s Church in Reading and others such as the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Checkendon, near Reading. Tradition believes that Birinus built the first Church at Ipsden, as a small Chapel on Berins Hill, about two miles east of the present Church. Birinus Baptised King Cynegils’s son Cwichelm in 636 and grandson, Cuthred in 639, to whom he stood as Godfather too. The Catholic Church in Dorchester, one of the first built after the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in the United Kingdom in 1850 by Pope Pius IX and was dedicated to Birinus.