Caedwalla – an Isle of Wight saint?

Written by Veronica Nevard of Ryde

From St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, we learn that Caedwalla was a nobleman of the West Saxons, exiled from his country, who returned with an army and killed the reigning monarch. After much plunder and bloodshed, he became the new king. Caedwalla then conquered the pagan Isle of Wight and did his best to exterminate all the natives and replace them with settlers from his own province. Although not yet baptised, Caedwalla is said to have vowed that, should he conquer the Island, he would give a quarter of all the land and his spoils to the God of the Christians. This promise was honoured when he gave the promised bounty to Bishop Wilfrid. Wilfrid appointed a priest to preach on the Island and to baptise all who wished to convert to the Christian faith.

Two young princes, brothers of the former king, when Caedwalla invaded the Island, escaped across the Solent. They were eventually betrayed however and ordered to be put to death. Caedwalla, at this time, was living in seclusion while he recovered from wounds received while fighting on the Isle of Wight. The Abbot of Redbridge petitioned him to allow the young princes to receive instruction in the Christian Faith and to receive Baptism before their execution. Caedwalla consented to this request and they were duly instructed, baptised, and then executed.

In 688 Caedwalla, after governing the people of Wessex “most ably” for two years, abdicated his throne and went on pilgrimage to Rome, where he hoped to receive Baptism. He arrived in Rome during the pontificate of Pope Sergius and was baptised by him (and given the name of Peter on account of his devotion to the Apostle which had inspired his pilgrimage) on Holy Saturday 689. Peter Caedwalla fell ill while “still wearing his white robes”, that is, during Easter Week when the newly baptised were wearing the white garment received by them as a sign of their purification from sin. He died on 20th April that year and was buried in St. Peter’s. The Pope directed that an epitaph be inscribed on his tomb to preserve his memory and devotion. It was composed by the Archbishop of Milan and is given in full by St Bede. The stone was discovered in the sixteenth century when the Basilica of St Peter was being rebuilt. A sixteenth century mural in Chichester Cathedral depicts Caedwalla giving land to St, Wilfrid.

This stained glass window (above) can be seen in the south aisle of St. Mary’s Church in Ryde. It was designed and installed by the Victorian Catholic artist, Nathaniel Westlake in 1882. It depicts St. Wilfrid, having landed on the Isle of Wight in A.D. 686, with Benedictine monks, seeking permission from Caedwalla to preach the Gospel. Being granted permission and given land on the Island, St. Wilfrid and his followers, built the Island’s first (wooden) church at Brading, on the site of the present Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Hence, it could be said that Caedwalla was the first Isle of Wight saint.