The phrase ‘were you born in a barn’ is widely known as something to say to an individual who has a habit of leaving doors open. If you leave a door open in Lincolnshire, however, you may well hear another version of the phrase: ‘were you born in Bardney?’
The village of Bardney lies next to the River Witham, to the east of Lincoln. Although fairly unprepossessing today, in the early Middle Ages this site in the then-kingdom of Lindsey, on the north-western edge of the Fens, was an island surrounded by bogs and mires. Not easily accessible except by a narrow spur connecting it to the ‘mainland’, it was an ideal location for a monastic community and, sometime in the last quarter of the seventh century, one was founded there by Æthelred, king of Mercia, and his wife Osthryth. Sites like this and another (slightly later) Fenland monastery at Crowland, meant that the monks could live in a figurative desert, emulating saints like Anthony. It has also been suggested that the area in and around Bardney had pre-Christian ritual significance, with evidence of early earthworks and high-status iron-age deposits, again making it an ideal location for Christian missionaries and monks to impose themselves and their religion on the surrounding landscape and people.
So, what does a monastery on an island in the Lincolnshire Fens have to do with people leaving doors open? Well, as with so much in early medieval British history, we must turn to Bede. In the Historia Ecclesiastica, we are told that Bardney had an important place in the cultic history of one of the most important native saints of Anglo-Saxon England, St. Oswald († 642). It was Oswald who defeated and killed the pagan king Caedwalla at the battle of Denisesburn (now Heavenfield, thought to lie just north of Hadrian’s Wall, near Hexham) and bought to an end a period of rule that was deemed ‘ill-omened and hateful to all good men’ (HE, III.1). Not only did Oswald usher in a new dawn for the north in political terms, but he was also responsible for bringing St. Aidan from Iona and establishing him at Lindisfarne, thus bringing about profound religious change which saw Christianity spread widely from this focal point in the Kingdom of Northumbria (HE III.3).
When it comes to Oswald’s own death at the battle of Maserfelth, Bede does not go into great detail, however, and, despite having been killed by the pagan king Penda of Mercia, Bede does not specifically call Oswald a martyr (HE III.9). We are then told that, following popular veneration at the site of Oswald’s death, the saint’s hand and arm (which Penda had ordered to be cut from the body, along with his head) were enshrined at Bamburgh (HE III.6). Oswald’s head was enshrined at Lindisfarne.
Before the monastery at Bardney enters the story, therefore, Oswald was already popularly recognised as a saint and had relics enshrined at both Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. We then read in Bede that Oswald’s niece, along with her husband, came to translate Oswald’s other bodily remains to the monastery that they had founded at Bardney. We are told that:
“There is a famous monastery in the kingdom of Lindsey called Bardney, which was greatly loved, venerated, and enriched by the queen [Osthryth] and her husband Æthelred and in which she wished to place her uncle’s honoured bones. The carriage on which the bones were borne reached the monastery toward evening. But the inmates did not receive them gladly. They knew that Oswald was a saint but, nevertheless, because he belonged to another kingdom and had once conquered them, they pursued him even when dead with their former hatred. So it came about that the relics remained outside all night with only a large tent erected over the carriage in which the bones rested. But a sign from heaven revealed to them how reverently the relics should have been received by all the faithful. All through the night a column of light stretched from the carriage right up to heaven and was visible in almost every part of the kingdom of Lindsey. In the morning, the brothers of the monastery who had refused the relics of God’s beloved saint the day before, now began to pray earnestly that the relics might be lodged with them. The bones were washed, laid in a shrine constructed for the purpose, and placed in the church with fitting honours; and in order that the royal saint might be perpetually remembered, the placed above the tomb his banner of gold and purple, pouring out the water in which the bones had been washed in a corner of the sanctuary. Ever afterwards the soil which had received that holy water had the power and saving grace of driving devils from the bodies of people possessed.” (HE III.11)
If there had been any doubt that Oswald was worthy of wider veneration, surely a divinely inspired column of light, directly linking the body to heaven, would be enough to persuade any good Christian of their error, whatever their political allegiances. Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica was widely circulated in the early Middle Ages, both in Britain and on the Continent, and, with it, the story of the arrival of St. Oswald’s relics at Bardney. The cult was also successful and widely spread, including across the Channel, and this passage may well have been taken and read out as an example for religious communities of both what and what not to do when offered relics.
We cannot say for certain that this passage really was the origin of the phrase, but it is not too great a leap to make, particularly if the story itself was widely received and provided an enduring example. It can be seen from this passage how popular imagination had it that the residents of Bardney (monks or otherwise) had a more ‘open door’ policy after this; even if Bede does not mention this himself, and nor do later versions of the story. It is also interesting to note that, whilst the monks’ eventual admittance of the relics was a positive outcome, the phrase ‘were you born in Bardney?’ takes a more negative tone. Admitting the bones of a saint is one thing, but habitually leaving doors open, it would seem, is another.
- Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica
- David Stocker, ‘The Early Church in Lincolnshire’, in Alan Vince (ed.), Pre-Viking Lindsey, Lincoln Archaeological Studies, No. 1 (1993), pp. 101-122.
- Alan Thacker, ‘Membra Disjecta: The Division of the Body and the Diffusion of the Cult’, in Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge (eds.), Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint (Stamford, 1995), pp. 97-127.