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St. Blasius Old Parish Church

Shanklin, Isle of Wight

The History of St Blasius Old Church

This outline history and guide is intended to welcome the many visitors to Shanklin Old Church. Some of the church's history remains obscure - it did not become a parish church until 1853, and much of what the visitor will see is the result of a major restoration started in 1852. Previously it was the Manorial chapel founded in the reign of King Stephen by Geoffrey de Lisle.

Opinions on the attractiveness of this little church vary, but few who come here now would agree with the rueful tone in an early guide book – “almost every trace of antiquity has vanished”- - or the even more dismissive, “it has been so altered and added to that it is now of little interest” - W. M. Page in A History of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

On the contrary, there is a great deal to interest and please the discerning. Mercifully, the sad fashion of dismissing all things Victorian has had its day and we are free to enjoy the strikingly peaceful beauty of the church and its surroundings, situated as it is on its own small rise under the downs, overlooking the pond and former grounds of the Manor.

St. Blasius - and Some Mysteries

Many visitors ask, "Who is St. Blasius?" as few English churches were dedicated to him. This question can be answered, but if they continue by asking, "And why is this church dedicated to him?" the answers become hedged about with "possibly", "probably" or "it could be that..."

To deal with the easier question first: St. Blasius, or Blaise, was the young bishop of Sebaste, in Armenia (now in Turkey) in the time of the Roman Emperor Licinius, in the early fourth century. It was a time of persecution of the Christians and, his whereabouts known only to his congregation, Blasius had to take refuge outside the city walls, in a cave in the forest. Here he ministered to sick or injured creatures that he found, while a reward was offered for his capture. The forest animals lost their fear and made their way to him. An unfortunate return for Blasius' goodness was that the tracks of the visiting animals led hunters to discover his hiding place; they took him back to Sebaste so that they could claim the reward.

As he was being taken to prison, a woman brought him her son, who was choking to death with a fishbone in his throat. Blasius freed the bone and saved the boy. As thanks, the woman brought him food and candles in prison as he awaited trial. Blasius was tortured by being torn with sharpened wool-combs, before being beheaded. These features of his story caused his later adoption as the patron saint of wool combers and of sore throats. He was also the patron saint of animals, until he was superseded by St. Francis of Assisi in the 15th century.

Quite how St. Blasius came to be the patronal saint of this small church in Shanklin is a matter of speculation, though some facts are known.

Knowledge about him came to England as a result of the crusades. When Richard the Lionheart, on a crusade in 1192, was shipwrecked on an island off the coast near Regusa, (the present day Dubrovnik in Croatia), he wished to build a church to offer thanks for being saved. However Bernard, Archbishop of Regusa, persuaded him to give the money towards the rebuilding of the cathedral in the city, dedicated to St. Mary and St. Blasius. Because Archbishop Bernard was extremely unpopular in Regusa, the citizens managed to send him to England with Richard when the king returned to his kingdom, and on Richard's death in 1199 Bernard remained at the court of King John. When the Pope appointed another Archbishop of Regusa, Bernard was left without position or income and had, perforce, to accept demotion to the position of Bishop of the then undesirable diocese of Carlisle, a post unfilled for some years as it was a wild and disputed borderland. Clearly, Bernard, ex-Archbishop and the new Bishop of Carlisle brought the Balkan St. Blasius to Northern England.

A puzzle and a guess

Tradition has it that one of the family at Shanklin Manor went on the crusades and is believed to have carved the crusader's cross on the original doorpost to the chapel (this cross can still be seen in the stone). He might, if he was a member of King Richard's retinue, have heard of the saint at Regusa, or from Archbishop Bernard.

A question of dedication

If the chapel had been consistently dedicated to St. Blasius since the twelfth century, we might consider the puzzle of the dedication virtually solved. But the twelfth century dedication by Geoffrey de lnsula (the family later became Lisle) of the manorial chapel was not to St. Blasius, but to St. John the Baptist. Mention of St. Blasius/St. Blaise is made through the centuries, though at the time of the major rebuilding in 1852, and as late as 1890, the church was still known as St. John's. The dedication to St. Blasius must therefore be a revival, perhaps of the dedication of a chantry altar within the chapel. There is no known record of the change or of the reasons for it. Some of the mystery remains.

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