St. Felix was born around the late sixth century in Burgundy and was said to have been brought up as a hieromonk there. Hagiologists believe that St Felix quite possibly was trained at Luxeuil, an Irish monastery that was founded by St. Columba, the well-renounced missionary sent from Ireland from the 590s. This influence could well have led to Felix’s missionary motivation that eventually saw him bravely venture out to share the gospel message with one of the seven kingdoms of what is now England.
Indeed, St. Felix is now widely credited with the establishment of the Christian faith amongst the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of ‘The Kingdom of the East Angles’. At the time, England was divided into seven kingdoms. The Kingdom of The East Angles comprised of Norfolk (the North Folk) and Suffolk (The South Folk) and the Eastern Fens. Around the year 630 St. Felix arrived from Burgandia in Eastern France (Gaul and Francia being the larger geographic areas of those times) to ‘The Kingdom of the East Angles’ in or around the year 630, just some 30 or so years after St Augustine’s arrival from Rome to The Kingdom of Kent.
St. Felix is believed to have firstly travelled from a monastery as part of a second wave of monks on the Great Gregorian mission that set foot firstly to ‘The Kingdom of Kent’. This happened soon after meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Honorius, the successor to St. Augustine – of which both Archbishops were Roman born and appointed by the Pope who had arrived in England about 30 years earlier, and in whose footsteps St. Felix had followed. Honorius was keen to support King Sigeberht in East Anglia and so it was that Felix came. He likely travelled from Rochester by boat across the Thames and northwards along the East coast to meet with King Sigeberht of The East Angles at or near Felixstowe. Sigeberht had been exiled to Gaul some years previously after years of instability during his rule. Sigeberht struck up a friendship with Felix and through Felix’s life and ministry the king not only embraced the faith himself, but also invited Felix to return to East Anglia to share it throughout his own kingdom when he was eventually recalled.
Raedwald, who was Sigeberht’s step-father and King of The East Angles is also known to have converted to Christianity rather half-heartedly some time before his death in 624, but was also said to have still maintained his unbelief. Sigeberht had been exiled most probably to protect the direct succession to the Kingdom by his step brother Eorpwald. Eorpwald was assassinated in 627 and it was then or a little later on that Sigeberht returned from exile and took the kingdom.
Rivers and their estuaries were clearly very important for access into the Kingdom and many old Roman fortifications at or near estuaries were used by the successive Anglo-Saxon kings and also later by monks. During this period, Royal courts moved from place to place. St Felix had a likely first base established at one such likely royal court location at Walton, (now a part of Felixstowe) and then a base at a place further north along the east coast at a place then called Dummoc (likely to have been close to where today is the village called Dunwich on the Suffolk coast).
It is most likely that travel by boat around the coastline and into other river estuaries was quite commonplace. In what was ‘The Great Estuary’ of the Rivers Yare, Bure and Waveney at that time, the then huge tidal estuary area came much further inland and so places such as Loddon and Reepham that have clear connections to St. Felix, were then shore-side settlements. The church in Loddon was built over a Roman fort in which St Felix is known to have also established another base. These locations were also of royal courts thus affording some protection to the monks.
Similarly, it is probable that St Felix travelled around the coastline by boat and into The Wash, where, in the south east corner his boat ran into difficulties in bad weather and he was either shipwrecked (as legend has it) or perhaps safely landed on the northern shoreline of the then large and treacherous tidal estuarine area of the River Babingley. There was an Anglo-Saxon pagan settlement in the exact area where the 15th Century ruined church dedicated to St. Felix still stands today. St. Felix likely established the very first Christian church community of North West Norfolk there. Later, he established a monastery at Babingley which may have had an extension on the other side of the then estuary at Castle Rising. Felix also established church communities at Flitcham and Shernborne, probably by having followed the river valleys as routes of communication and there meeting up with other pagan Anglo-Saxon settlements. But his subsequent influence was very much wider throughout the entire Kingdom of The East Angles, especially at Soham where he founded a monastery and at Ely where he established a ‘double monastery’ for both monks and nuns.
The first Christian churches at these sites and probably many more would have been built from timber and in all likelihood stone churches were later built over them thus occupying the same established and revered locations.
It was clearly not all plain sailing in this then very watery kingdom. The period was one of turmoil and violence. Firstly, not all Anglo-Saxons were easily persuaded to accept and follow the Christian faith and secondly this period saw some of the earlier raids on the eastern shores from the Danes. The firm establishment of the Christian faith in the Kingdom of The East Angles must have been quite a challenge despite the support of King Sigeberht and from Honorius in Canterbury.
Yet the motivation of this great evangelist was never recorded to have been swayed. Bede, the most trustworthy and reliable of sources in our records of St Felix, was quoted as saying:
“Bishop Felix… came to Archbishop Honorius from the Burgundian region, where he had been raised and ordained, and, by his own desire, was sent by him to preach the word of life to the nation of the Angles. Nor did he fail in his purpose; for, like a good farmer, he reaped a rich harvest of believers. In accord with the meaning of his own name, he freed the whole province from its ancient iniquity and infelicity (infelicitate), brought it to the faith and works of righteousness, and guided it to eternal felicity (perpetuae felicitatis).”
The myths and history of the period and the both facts and folklore surrounding St. Felix are intriguing. His symbol is that of a cat’s face and is carved in stone above the porchway entrance to the medieval castle of Castle Rising. The symbol is also to be found around the Shernborne font. In Latin the word for cat is ‘felis’ and the word for luck ‘is felix’. St.Felix was probably lucky to have survived the storm that shipwrecked him and we were lucky to have Felix successfully fulfil his mission. His statue was built into the stonework above the Bishop’s entrance of Norwich Cathedral by Herbert, the first Bishop of Norwich. For later protection from the elements, it was removed to The Ambulatory.
In May 2020 the united benefice of Dersingham, Anmer, Ingoldisthorpe and Shernborne in North West Norfolk will celebrate the life and legacy of the missionary St. Felix by holding a 2-week festival commencing Saturday 16th May.