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The ‘whiteness’ of Whitchurch Canonicorum

January 9th, 2013

Jonathan Hudston

Rummaging through a store of books a bit earlier, I found my copy of Churches in the Landscape by Richard Morris, who was Research Officer of the Council for British Archaeology and went on to become the Council’s director.

Anyway, on being reunited with this tome, I went straight to the index to look up Chideock (sorry Chideock – no mention for you) and Whitchurch Canonicorum: three mentions, the most interesting being in a paragraph about why so many churches were called ‘white’.

Here’s an excerpt from what Richard Morris has to say:

“Whitchurch Canonicorum (recorded in King Alfred’s will as aet Hwitancyrccan) even acquired its own eponymous St Candida: candida being the Latin word for white, as in Bede’s reference to Nynia’s church at Whithorn which was known in the eighth century, at latest, as ad candidam casam ‘the white house’.

“The tradition of ‘white’ church names was thus venerable and certainly runs back to the first century of the English church, if not to the epoch of British Christianity that preceded it.

“It is not entirely clear what those names signified.

The tower of the church of St Candida and Holy Cross in Whitchurch Canonicorum in bright sunshine, and some graves in the churchyard

“A church built of cut (free) stone, perhaps light in colour, standing in contrast to darker structures of wood, is often offered as an explanation. This is plausible, especially if such names originated before stone churches before common.

“It can hardly have applied at Whithorn, however, where the local stone is dark-toned and difficult to cut into regular blocks.

“The evidence of excavation, most notably from the 11th century cathedral at York, where it has been shown that the whole building was sealed in an envelope of white plaster, suggests that ‘white’ may on occasion have to be taken more literally, as meaning a building was plastered or limewashed.”

I’ve often heard it said that Whitchurch Canonicorum is named after St Wite, whose shrine is in the church, but implicit in Richard Morris’s remarks (unless I’ve misread them) is the idea that St Wite was called after the place where her bones were entombed.

It’s not, incidentally, always been thought that the bones were those of St Wite.

In the mid-19th century, Whitchurch’s pastor was William Patrick Palmer, who was born in Ireland on 14 February 1803, went to Trinity College, Dublin, and then Oxford University.

In 1838 Palmer published a two-volume Treatise on the Church of Christ; in 1839 he married Sophia Mary Bonne, oldest daughter of Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, who invented the Beaufort scale of wind speeds.

How did Palmer come to be involved with St Wite? I’ll let Peter Nockles take up the story, with this excerpt from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

“In 1846 Bishop Richard Bagot of Bath and Wells presented Palmer to the vicarage of Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset, which he held until 1869, along with that of the vicarage of Monckton-Wyld, from 1864. From 1849 until 1858 he was prebend of Highchurch in Salisbury Cathedral.

“There is little evidence for Palmer’s life as a country pastor, but he always remained concerned with the church’s spiritual efficiency as well as her theological orthodoxy…

“In the early part of his incumbency at Whitchurch Canonicorum, Palmer opened the coffin of St Wite, in which there were reputed to be relics. A small box containing a few bones was found, but Palmer was persuaded that the bones were those of the De Mandevilles, one-time lords of the vale.

“Palmer’s mistake—the bones were later identified as those of St Wite—was surprising given that he had enquired very deeply into the subject of St Wite.”

Nockles leaves it there. It would be good to know more about Palmer’s investigations.

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