Today, as well as being my wife’s birthday, is the feast of Saint Wilgefortis, a little known martyr referred to as ‘the bearded virgin’. Hers is a curious and unfortunate tale which, though it may first sound preposterous and amusing, is actually worthy of deeper consideration. My own view of this Saint has changed dramatically over the years.
I first encountered Wilgefortis at Westcott House, an Anglican theological college in Cambridge. Yet it was the local pub, not the ecclesial institution, that held her veneration in high regard. For her story was a firm favourite of Terence, eccentric landlord of the St. Radegund arms on King Street. A pub I frequented a little too habitually. Indeed such was Terry’s love for regaling her story that he toasted her whenever a future cleric was present. And he was absolutely delighted when I later helped organise a procession in her honour, from college to pub, at which all taking part sported false beards as well as full pint pots. It was great fun. But joking aside who was she and what is her story?
Legend says Wilgefortis was a teen-aged noblewoman who wanted to enter the religious life. But her wicked father decided to thwart this vocation by spitefully promising her in marriage to a Muslim king. To thwart the nuptials, and thus preserve her vow of virginity, the young Wilgefortis prayed in earnest that the Lord would make her truly undesirable. And, in answer to that prayer a miracle occurred; she sprouted a beard which so revolted her potential suitor that he left in revulsion and horror. Yet the tale does not end well as her father, in anger, then had her crucified. Her prayers produced a beard but did not save her from suffering.
A cult grew up in her honour throughout the Middle Ages and she became fairly popular especially throughout Northern Europe. However the devotions in her honour proved problematic and the church had to ban images of her because she was so easily confused with Christ himself.
I am sure you can see why the story amused the locals at the Radegund. The tale lends itself to send up and seems, at surface level, highly spurious. Beards do not often sprout miraculously on the chins of young ladies only for such strange miracle to lead the bearers to a most hideous death. What then shifted me from mere amusement to take the saint seriously? The answer lies in the area of mental health.
A few days after toasting Wilgefortis with my old friend Terry, on an evening when he had also sung ‘the long and the short and the tall’ to me with a beer towel on his head, I found myself in Fulbourn psychiatric hospital on a college placement. A doctor was speaking about anorexia to me and explaining that the condition often causes a strange side-effect…it triggers an abundance of body hair. This got me thinking. Might poor Wilgefortis, raised by an abusive father and therefore likely to have been susceptible to mental illness, have suffered with this condition? It seems very plausible to me. In which case we soon shift from a strange tale with a pantomime feel to a very sad story of abuse that all should take seriously.
Thus today I always invoke the prayers of St. Wilgefortis when I encounter the horrors of domestic abuse. This poor girl, whose own father treated her so despicably, strikes me as the perfect saint for abused people everywhere. So pray today for children who suffer cruelty and for all who are abused, suffer anxiety, loss of liberty and/or problems with mental health.
Oh and pray for the repose of the soul of Terry, now deceased. He was the very definition of ‘a character’, a warm and generous friend and a great guy when he wasn’t grumpy due to a hangover (which was often!!). I hope they have beer towels in heaven, should he make it, which I very much hope that he does.