St Samson of Dol

Also spelled St Sampson.

In a recent article in Current Archaeology (373, April 2021), Chris Catling has written an article on the evidence of early Christianity in western Britain.

St Samson was extremely important for Milton Abbey, or at least his relics were, because they were one of the founding gifts given by King Athelstan in 934 along with 120 hides of land (perhaps 14 000 acres) across Dorset. These relics are alleged to have included an arm and his crozier. The land was a very magnificent gift indeed, and one that kept Milton Abbey going as a Benedictine monastery until its surrender at the Dissolution in 1539. St Samson is one of the better know early British saints due to a biography – Vita Sancti Samsonis – being written sometime between 610 and 820. He was born in Wales to noble parents around 485, they place him when he was young with Saint Illtud, abbot of Llantwit Fawr, where he was raised and educated. He became abbot of the monastery at Caldey Island, Wales, and later a bishop. He travelled widely in Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Scilly Isles, Guernsey and Brittany.  

Interestingly, Milton Abbas has another connection with Caldey Island, albeit a much more recent one. Around 1900 a group of monks formed a community under Father Aelred Carlyle and lived at The Retreat. They then moved to Caldey Island. See our blog.

He became bishop of Dol, Brittany, and was later buried there. King Athelstan had good contacts with Brittany and it was the then Bishop of Dol who gave Athelstan the relics.

St Samson’s feast day was on 28 July and this date would have been celebrated in the Abbey of Milton and its estates. The relics would likely have formed part of a procession around the fields of Milton Abbas. A three day fair was granted in 1280 by King Edward I to the Abbey on the feast of St Samson. This became a very important fair and yielded the second highest subsidy (tax) in Dorset in 1337. We continue the tradition with the Milton Abbas biennial Street Fair today. Over one thousand years of history!

For more information on St Samson there is an article on wikipedia, a biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and more in The Catholic Encyclopedia. For a comprehensive history of Christianity see Diarmaid MacCulloch History of Christianity.

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