One of Britain’s most sacred places…
There are very few churches in Great Britain as historic or sacred as St Candida and Holy Cross in Whitchurch Canonicorum. Known locally as The Cathedral of the Vale, this is the last English parish church to contain the relics of a saint.
This special site overlooking the Marshwood Vale has been a place of pilgrimage and reflection for more than 1,000 years. In medieval times it was famed for healing and visited by many people who were drawn by the reputation of St Wite, later known as St Candida. The ‘better sort’ approached her shrine from the front, pushing their afflicted body parts into the oval openings under her coffin. Beggars and lepers had to go round outside the building and make do with some holes (now blocked up) in the north wall behind the shrine.
Incredibly, the shrine survived the Reformation, when Henry VIII ordered the general destruction of such sites. While the greatest reliquaries in the land were smashed – including Thomas Becket’s at Canterbury – Whitchurch somehow escaped despoliation and apparently still contains the Saxon bones of St Wite.
In 1900, the shrine was opened and found to contain a lead box bearing the legend ‘hic reqesct reliqe sce wite’ (Here rest the relics of St Wite). Inside the box was an assortment of bones, identified as belonging to a woman aged about 40. The bones were replaced in the casket and the shrine resealed.
We say ‘apparently’ because the shrine was also opened about 50 years earlier by the then vicar, the Revd William Palmer. An ardent Tractarian and leading member of the Oxford Movement, he had quarrelled with Pusey and Newman and escaped to Dorset to become a country parson. Palmer was entranced to discover he had a real saint in his keeping and he inquired deeply into the legend of St Wite.
Palmer opened the shrine in or around 1848, cracking it in the process. He too found the bones of a woman but, inexplicably, he was convinced they belonged to one of the de Mandevilles, the long-extinct Barons of Marshwood, who once ruled the Vale.
No one knows the truth about St Wite, but we do know that her church, which has endured so long, is a unique treasure.