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Weird Norfolk: St Uncumber at St Mary’s Church, Worstead

PUBLISHED: 11:29 10 November 2017

St Uncumber (right) on the Rood screen at St Mary's church, Worstead.
Picture: Nick Butcher

St Uncumber (right) on the Rood screen at St Mary's church, Worstead. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2017

She is the patron saint of women who wished to be freed from abusive husbands, a woman whose commitment to avoiding her marriage to a pagan king saw her grow a beard overnight in order to repel him from the union.

Legend has it that Saint Uncumber, a Christian living in medieval times, was one of nine daughters of a pagan king in Portugal who had taken a vow of chastity, meaning she was horrified to learn that her father had betrothed her to the King of Sicily in a bid to strengthen his own position.

The teenager fervently prayed to the God she had vowed to serve in order to be “made repulsive” to her fiancé and her saviour answered: she awoke with a full beard, her fiancé accordingly called off the marriage and her virginity remained intact. It was, however, a hollow victory: her father, furious that she had disobeyed his will, ordered her to be crucified.

One of many Virgin Martyrs, Saint Uncumber is also known as Wilgefortis (thought to be derived from the old Latin ‘virgo fortis’, meaning ‘strong virgin’), Ontkommer (Dutch for escaper), Liberata (Italian for liberated), Librara (Spanish for liberated) and Debarras (French meaning riddance).

She became the Saint to whom the devout appealed to in prayer if they were suffering tribulations, in particular if they were women who wished to be freed (“disencumbered”) from their cruel husbands.

Adopted by the LGBTQ community as a heroine and a kindred spirit who did not engage in heterosexual activity, Saint Encumber is regularly pictured as a bearded woman on a crucifix in Latin America and Europe, but images of her in Britain are rare. There is, however, one to be spotted in a beautiful Norfolk church which is famous in strange circles for an entirely different lady (another story for another day) on the chancel rood screen which was donated by John and Alice Albastur in 1512.

The screen at St Mary the Virgin in Worstead was repainted in Victorian times, but two figures on the right appear to be untouched or refurbished: those of St William of Norwich another believed to be St Uncumber or Wilgefortis, a crowned princess bound to a cross with ropes around her hands and feet.

Badly damaged by iconoclasts of the English Reformation, the image is one of very few of this most unusual – but presumably often called upon – saint.

Historians have argued that the legend of Uncumber arose from 11th century Eastern-style representations of Jesus on the cross in which he is depicted wearing a full-length tunic rather than the loin cloth we see today, and with a full beard.

They believe that when these images were copied and moved across Europe by pilgrims, the unfamiliar sight of what looked like a man in a dress led to the creation of a story to explain why a female martyr might have been shown with a beard. Her story resonated with people and remained popular on the continent until the late 16th century.

A wonderful carving of Saint Uncumber can be seen in Westminster Abbey where she is shown with both a flowing dress and beard – in Europe she is commonly shown with a small fiddler at her feet and with only one shoe, a nod to an attached legend which claims one of her silver shoes dropped spontaneously at the feet of a poor minstrel as he serenaded her statue.

Folk singer Rebecca Clamp, originally from Cambridge, wrote a song about the bearded saint which she has performed on Wilgefortis’ feast day, July 20, while sporting a false beard.

Its lyrics read: “I won’t marry a heathen and I won’t marry a saint. I won’t marry at all, just grow me a beard and find me a cave – I’ll be a happy little hermit and I’ll build a little shrine to my dear St Wilgefortis, the patron saint of bearded ladies.”

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