Born of royal blood in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia around 673, Guthlac joined the army of King Ethelred of Mercia aged fifteen – which in practice involved a good deal of burning, raping and pillaging.
Aged twenty four, he renounced military life and entered the double monastery (i.e. a monastery with male and female wings) at Repton (in modern Derbyshire). His enthusiastic asceticism (he spurned all alcoholic drink) earned him first the hostility and later the respect of his brethren.
After a couple of years he decided that the relative comfort of the monastery did not fulfil his spiritual needs, and, seeking to imitate the lifestyle of the desert fathers of old, he retired to Croyland (modern Crowland in Lincolnshire) –a wet, abandoned and utterly miserable island in the River Welland in the East Anglian fens, which in those times were a wilderness of black streams, meres and quagmires, rank with reed and sedge and fern, in order to create for himself a very English equivalent of the Egyptian desert.
In order to understand the desert fathers (and hence Guthlac) we need first to appreciate their theological presuppositions. For the desert fathers, Christ had won a decisive victory in the war against Satan and his demons, but the skirmishing continued, and the Church was constantly under attack from demons who, though the war was lost, were determined to prolong the fighting.
Ascetics went out into the desert because it was here that the demons could be directly confronted. The primary purpose of this confrontation was not so much the personal sanctification of the monk as the protection of the world which the monks had left behind from demonic attack.
A figure like Guthlac, accordingly, effectively left a worldly army (of sorts) in order to enlist in spiritual army, and, in withdrawing into the remote wilderness of the Fens, he was not so much escaping from the world as going out to do battle on behalf of God’s Church.
His biographer Felix (writing within living memory of Guthlac’s own life) recounts how he constructed a cell out of a plundered barrow, dressed in animal skins and, for his daily rations, consumed nothing more than a scrap of barley bread and a small cup of muddy water after sunset (all of which inevitably led to bouts of ague and marsh fever).
As if these self-inflicted hardships were not sufficient, Guthlac was beaten up by wild men (at first Guthlac thought they were monsters) – native Britons who dragged him off his island and beat him up in the swamp – and he also had to endure the depradations of the wild animals and birds who threatened his everyday existence (crows and magpies stole what few possessions he had, and also stole letters and gloves from his visitors).
Finally, however, in the best tradition of the desert fathers, he befriended the birds and animals, to the extent that a visiting holy man beheld two swallows landing on his shoulders and hopping all over him. Guthlac is said to have remarked that “those who choose to live apart from other humans become the friends of wild animals; and the angels visit them, too – for those who are often visited by men and women are rarely visited by angels”.
Guthlac was not entirely alone in his Fenland wilderness, but, like the great desert fathers, aggregated a group of disciples who inhabited cells nearby (Saints Cissa, Bettelin, Egbert, and Tatwin). Bishop Hedda of Dorchester paid him a visit and ordained him to the priesthood, and the exiled prince Ethelbald came to him for advice (Guthlac prophesied – accurately – that Ethelbald would eventually wear the Mercian crown).
Guthlac died in 714 in the compamy of his sister Saint Pega (a local hermitess). A year later his exhumed body was found to be incorrupt, and in the following century his shrine became the centre of a growing cult visited by King Wiglaf of Mercia (827-840) and Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury (miraculously cured of ague by Guthlac in 851). A monastery grew up on the site of Saint Guthlac’s hermitage, and this in turn evolved into Crowland Abbey, where his relics were brought in 1136.