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Tracing the historical St Ragner of Northampton

St Ragener

The historical record only provides brief details of Ragner’s identity. In 869 the Viking army killed King Edmund (later St Edmund) of East Anglia. Alongside him on 20 November 869 was his nephew, Ragner, thereafter also known as a martyr and saint.

However, these historical accounts, detailed below, need to be treated with caution. The existence of King Edmund there is no doubt but in the years after his death he became the focus of a cult to which devotion was established in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was during this time that the story was embelished and additional characters were added including Edmund’s parents Alcmund and Siwara, his brother Edwold of Cerne, and his nephews Fremund and Ragener.

The story of St Ragner (or Ragener) is well documented in Eleanor Parker’s highly recommended Dragon Lords1. Teasing out the historical facts from the legend is a challenging task as in these two dimensions one can often be a pointer to the other.

Parker, Eleanor. Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

There are just two documentary sources that have survived that include an account of the discovery of the remains of Ragner in St Peter’s church, Northampton. What we do not know is how these two texts are related and where they were written although we can make a reasonably good guess. It is known that monasteries shared manuscripts for transcribing. As an example, we know ‘Venerable’ Bede at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow monastery borrowed manuscripts from the Vatican library in the 8th century for just this purpose to compile his Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People).

One of the surviving copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in the British Library 2 has bound with it a copy of the St Ragner story. This particular copy originated from Kirkham Priory in Yorkshire in the late 12th century although the text concerning St Ragner is later than the Bede history. This copy of the story is held by the British Library where it can be viewed in its entirety online (four pages, folios f.2v to f.4r) It begins with the Latin rubric Incipit Revelatio S. Ragneri martyris (The Revelation of Ragner the martyr).

Image: Kind permission of British Library Board. Manuscript Add MS 38817 [f.2v to f.4r]

The second copy is in Trinity College Dublin and has an interesting provenance that may associate it closely with Northampton. The manuscript is bound with a collection of other documents. Trinity College catalogue reference is IE TCD MS 172, Pages 226-230. IE TCD MS 172 – Lives of Saints, Prophecies, etc.

The full images can be viewed here Lives of saints, prophecies, etc. IE TCD MS 172 p.226-p.230

Image: Kind permission of Board of Trinity College, the University of Dublin. Manuscript MS172, folio 226-230

It dates from the mid 14th century. It has been conjectured that the manuscript may have a Northamptonshire connection too, based on a combination of different types of evidence: the occurrence of the name Whalley, which is a Northamptonshire name, on the front flyleaf, and the presence of the only surviving copy of the Life of Ragener, whose cult was largely confined to that region. The inclusion of the Life of St Rumwold, whose birth and death was purported to have occurred at King’s Sutton in Northamptonshire, might be said to support this conjecture, though it is not compelling evidence in itself. The manuscript was bequeathed to Trinity College by Archbishop Ussher in 1656. However, on one of the front pages, it carries the name “Peter Whalley”. This is almost certainly Peter Whalley (1605-1656), mayor of Northampton who also died in the same year. It seems that Ussher, from Ireland, had acquired the manuscript on one of his visits to England. Significantly between 1623-26, Ussher, then Bishop of Meath, was in England researching church history and at the time excused from his episcopal duties. In November 1625 he spent some time at Drayton House, Northamptonshire as a guest of John Mordaunt whilst recovering the ‘ague’. The discovery of the connection of this document to Peter Whalley’s name was only made in 1987 when it was lent to Northampton Museum for an exhibition. Previously the text had been interpreted as “St Peter, Westminster”, overlooking the significant connection between St Ragner and the town.3

Another reference we have to St Ragner is in the c1155 manuscript of the resting places of the saints by Hugh Candidus, a monk at Peterborough Abbey. This list includes a saint named ‘St Ragaher, king’ whose relics are in ‘Hamtune’ (i.e. Northampton). 4 This is a unique reference to St Ragner which is not surprising due to St Peter Northampton’s proximity to Peterborough.

The Trinity College manuscript was published in print (in Latin) in 1901 by Carl Horstmann 5 Download a copy here.

The same manuscript was published in English by Rev R M Serjeantson, rector of St Peter’s in 1907 6 Download a copy here.

St Ragener inspired by St Peter's
Image: by kind permission of the iconographer, Elena Symeou,
St Ragener of Northampton. Egg Tempera on linden wood. Image: by kind permission of the iconographer, Elena Symeou,

St Ragener of Northampton. (Saxon saint martyred in 869 AD) Egg tempera on Linden wood 35 x 28 cm, 23,5 carat gold leaf. The border was inspired by the stone carvings in St Peter’s Church in Northampton, UK, where the relics and shrine of St Ragener are believed to be.

  1. Parker, Eleanor Catherine. Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2018
  2. British Library, Additional MS. 38817
  3. Marsh, Bazil, and David Sargant. “St Ragener of Northampton Prince, Soldier, Martyr,” c1988. St Ragener of Northampton Prince, Soldier, Martyr
  4. Hugh Candidus, The Chronicle of Hugh Candidus, ed. W. T. Mellows (London, 1949), p. 60
  5. The text is printed in Carl Horstmann (ed.), Nova Legenda Anglie (Oxford, 1901), vol. 2, pp. 727–31
  6. Serjeantson, Robert Meyricke. A Mediæval Legend of St. Peter’s, Northampton (the Legend of St. Ragener). Translated [from a Latin Manuscript] by the Rev. R. M. Serjeantson, Etc. 1907.

© Copyright : Graham Ward. All rights reserved.