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John of Thwing

Mike Wilson, Local Author and Historian

It is truly disappointing that the town of Bridlington has, but for a few exceptions, nothing to celebrate a man who was destined to become a saint. The man, of course, was John, from the family of Twenge. And the saint? St John of Bridlington, the last English saint before the Reformation.

The exceptions?

A stained glass window in the Priory Church and - oddly, because John of Bridlington abstained from alcohol - a public house in the town.

The fact that the largest church in this East Yorkshire town, the Parish Church of St Mary, known locally as the Priory, was once part of a huge Augustinian monastery seems largely ignored by the majority of the town's residents.

Perhaps it is because the current population is made up, in a great part, by South and West Yorkshire people coming to live out their retirement "by the seaside."

The Priory is all that remains of a once magnificent group of buildings that were the Augustian monastery founded in 1136 by Walter de Gant.

St John of Bridlington was born in 1320 in the small Yorkshire Wolds village of Thwing, about nine miles inland from Bridlington. He was schooled in the village from the age of five and he took a vow of chastity when he was 12 years old.

His education was continued at Oxford from about 1336 to 1339, and in 1340 he was ready to become a monk in Bridlington Priory. He carried out his duties with humility and diligence, and was in turn novice master, almsgiver, preacher and sub-prior.

He became Canon of the Priory in 1346 and was eventually elected Prior in 1356.

John refused this honour because of his humility and it was only when he was re-elected, probably in 1361, that he took on the task of Prior in January 1362.

The religious community flourished under his leadership, which was marked by his piety and also his administrative expertise. He served as Prior for 17 years before his death on October 10, 1379, and he was canonised by Pope Boniface IX in 1401.

During his lifetime he enjoyed a great reputation for holiness and miraculous powers. Probably the best known of these miracles has a special significance for Bridlington as St John was said to have saved five seamen from drowning during a terrible storm.

The men, from Hartlepool, had called upon God in the name of St John when their vessel was in danger of sinking. He appeared to them and brought them back to the safety of the shore. The men left their vessel at the harbour and walked to the Monastery where they thanked John in person for saving their lives.

On another occasion, during the time he was Cellarer, John was concerned about the poverty of the people in the cottages surrounding the monastery. He took to taking loaves of bread through the gate and handing them secretly to the poor. Some people felt that John should not be handing out bread so freely and wished to entrap him.

On one of his missions, John was stopped by these people. But he replied that he was taking stones to mend the road outside the gate. When he opened his cloak, his accusers took the bread he carried, but found that the loaves had changed to stones.

A nobleman once dined with John, who abstained from alcohol, but the guest wished to taste the Prior's wine. John did not want others to know of his abstinence, but, after blessing the liquid in the silver cup, allowed the visitor to taste the drink. John was complimented on the quality of his wine, although John's cup had contained only pure water.

On another occasion, a thatched roof caught fire in a cottage outside the monastery. John carried a ladder and placed it against the wall so that a widow could escape the flames. Everyone gave thanks that John had saved the woman. When the ladder came to be moved again, it needed three men to carry it away.

It is also recorded that St John was struck by a large falling stone but suffered no ill effects, and that such was his fervour at prayer steam rose from his head.

He is also credited with saving sight, mending broken limbs, restoring speech, curing the plague, and healing fever. Many of these miracles were recorded during John's lifetime.

After his death of natural causes in 1379, a mere 22 years passed before he was elevated to sainthood on September 24, 1401. His relics were translated on March 11, 1404.

Works of reference dealing with St John include St John of Bridlington, published in 1924. This volume was No. 2 of the Journal of the Bridlington Augustinian Society and written by J. S. Purvis, M.A. It was then priced 1s. 6d. (seven and a half pence). Its 50 pages include photographs of stained glass windows in churches around the country: Thwing in East Yorkshire, Morley near Derby, Warwick, Ludlow (Shropshire) and Hempstead-by-Eccles (Norfolk)