Anyone who has ever consulted the website British Listed Buildings Online http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/ - and I do all the time - will be struck by the remarkably deadpan listings of the features of any given church. They are like architectural “streams of consciousness”, bereft of comment, adjectives or even paragraphs. It is not a Government site but I am pretty sure that only a Government department produce such deadpan, soulless prose!
For Castle Rising, however, the site makes a rare excursion into speculation! In describing the font it says: “...that to south (decorated) with three cats (St Felix, died AD648, by one tradition is said to have started his mission to East Anglia c630 at Babingley 1.5km to north)”. The commentator clearly implies that there is a link between three cats on a font and St Felix so obvious that he doesn’t need to explain it. Well it baffled me until I remembered that one of Britain’s best-known catfoods is - “Felix”!
So who was St Felix? Well, he was the man who “re-converted” East Anglia - then, as the name implies, a kingdom of the Angles - to Christianity. He was a monk in Burgundy, a territory then ruled by the Franks (and don’t forget that Angles as well as the Saxons were also Franks) although nobody really knows his “nationality. He may have been Bishop of Chalons and he may have associated himself with St Columba who at this point had exiled himself from Ireland to Frankia. East Anglia had lapsed into apostasy following the murder of King Eorpwald. King Siegberht succeeded him. It seems that Felix travelled to Canterbury from whence he was sent by Honorius - then Archbishop of Canterbury and one of Pope Gregory’s original mission to England under St Augustine - to East Anglia to assist Siegbehrt. He is credited by Bede with bringing East Anglia back to Christianity under Siegberht’s patronage. He died in AD647 or 648.
It seems that his arrival in East Anglia by sea to Babingley owes more to legend than to documentary evidence. Just looking at the everyday logic of it, Babingley is in the far north of East Anglia. Why would Felix have travelled by sea at all from Canterbury? Siegbehrt himself was a son or stepson of King Raedwald who we know to have been buried at Sutton Hoo far to the south in Suffolk and we know that the political capital of the kingdom was Rendlesham. Why would Felix have gone so far north? It is not, of course, impossible that he did. There were ancient monasteries in this part of Norfolk and perhaps he had prior business there? There is a suggestion that Siegbehrt went to Canterbury having landed first in Babingley sheltering from a storm. Again, geography makes is rather implausible. If you don’t think so then let me add that part of that legend is that he was rescued by shipwreck by a colony of beavers. Yes, I thought that would make you more sceptical!
Well, anyway, Babingley’s church is unsurprisingly dedicated to St Felix - one of only six such dedications in England. All this done and said, I hear you say, what has this to do with the cats on the font at Castle Rising? Well as far as I can see nothing whatsoever. St Felix is not the Patron Saint of Cats. That accolade goes to St Gertrude. So either the man who wrote that piece linking St Felix (of catfood fame) with the font knows something the rest of us don’t - or he’s just having a laugh. I’d like to think it was the latter!
Unless, of course, you know otherwise...?