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Saint of the week

The baker murdered by his apprentice

St William of Perth (May 23) had taken in an abandoned child and taught him the arts of bakery

By on Thursday, 19 May 2011

Rochester cathedral, where St William’s cult flourished

Rochester cathedral, where St William’s cult flourished

William of Perth, who died in 1201, was very much a Scottish saint; his cult, however, is closely linked with the history of Rochester cathedral.

All that is known of William comes from John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium, written in the mid-14th century.

A baker by trade, William used to set aside every 10th loaf for the poor. Arriving for Mass early one morning, he discovered an abandoned child at the entrance to the church. He adopted the boy, who became known as “Cockermay Doucri” (David the Foundling), and whom he taught the arts of bakery.

Years later, in 1201, in fulfilment of a vow, William undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, taking Cockermay Doucri with him. They stayed three days in Rochester; as they left the city, however, the apprentice lured his master into a remote spot – now near St William’s Hospital, on the road to Maidstone – and slit his throat, presumably for his few possessions.

William’s corpse was discovered by a mad woman who roamed about the country half naked. Having garlanded the body with honeysuckle, she was reportedly cured of her lunacy.

She then transferred the wreath to her own head and gave notice of the crime in Rochester. William was honourably buried in the cathedral, and stories of further miracles began to circulate.

Here was an opportunity. While the bishopric of Rochester was, after Canterbury, the second oldest in England, the cathedral was seriously short of money.

In 1077 a Norman monk called Gundulf, a friend of Archbishop Lanfranc, had been installed as Bishop of Rochester. Known for his skills as a builder Gundulf helped William the Conqueror to construct the White Tower in London.

As bishop, he set about rebuilding Rochester cathedral.

By the time of his death in 1108 the nave and western front had been finished. Thereafter, though, it was a struggle both to complete the work and to make good the damage done by fire.

Clearly a lucrative cult was required, and this began to develop around William of Perth’s tomb in the cathedral. Soon the shrine was the second most frequented in the country, after that of St Thomas at Canterbury.

The western transept of the cathedral had been built before 1201. After William’s death the offerings left by pilgrims became so great that it was possible to add the eastern transept and to reconstruct the choir.

In 1256 the Bishop of Rochester obtained some kind of papal approval of the cult. Although there is no record of any official canonisation, St William was certainly well-recognised in England.

His shrine was destroyed on Henry VIII‘s orders in 1538. In 1883, however, a 13th-century wall-painting of William was discovered in Frindsbury church near Rochester.

The fate of Cockermay Doucri is not recorded.