The Fourteen Holy Helpers
St Margaret, Streatley
Our Paschal Candle recreates the liveliness of medieval depictions of saints, and shows the 14 Holy Helpers. These are active saints; fighting dragons, crossing rivers and seeing visions. The clearest wall painting in St Margaret’s is an image of St Catherine of Alexandria. She is our first clue to the invocation in our church of the 14 Holy Helpers. The second is its dedication to St Margaret of Antioch.
The Helpers were particularly associated with protection from the Black Death (Bubonic Plague). All but one – St Giles – were martyrs, and their prayers were regarded as particularly beneficial.
Known as the Pestilence or the Great Mortality, the plague first arrived in England in 1348 and in the following two years killed between 40% and 50% of the population of England; up to 3 million people. Most died within three days, although some lasted four. Plague returned in 1361, 1369, 1374-9 and 1390-3.
The causes of plague were unknown, and theories ranged from earthquakes, corrupt air, flooding, divine disapproval of modern fashion and even thinking about pestilence. People were urged to remain cheerful and to attend intercessory processions and masses. For those who could afford it, the best safeguard against the plague was flight; ‘Clever doctors have three golden rules to keep us safe from pestilence: get out quickly, go a long way away and don’t be in a hurry to come back.’
Two thirds of clergy died in the first year. Although details of Streatley are unknown, at St Mary’s, Luton, John Raser de Luyton died and was replaced in April 1349 by Andrew Power, who in turn also died and was replaced on 28 June 1349 by Richard de Rothele. He decided Luton was too dangerous, and resigned his position in favour of William de la Chaubre who took over in February 1350, and lived until 1353.
The Plague; Thomas Walsingham, monk of St Albans Abbey
In 1349 … a great mortality of men advanced across the globe, beginning in the southern and northern zones. Its destruction was so great that scarcely half mankind was left alive. Towns once packed with people were emptied of their inhabitants, and the plague spread so thickly that the living were hardly able to bury the dead. In some religious houses no more than two survived out of twenty. It was calculated by several people that barely a tenth of mankind remained alive. A murrain of animals followed on the heels of this pestilence. Rents dwindled and land was left untilled for want of tenants (who were nowhere to be found). And so much wretchedness followed these ills that afterwards the world could never return to its former state.
The Fourteen Holy Helpers
St Barbara, 4 December
Mathematicians, miners, fever and sudden death.
St Christopher, 25 July
Travellers, lighting, plague and sudden death.
St Denis or Dionysius, 9 October
Paris, France, headache.
St Acacius or Agathius, 8 May
St Cyriacus, 8 August
Eyes, temptation when dying.
St Elmo or Erasmus, 2 June
Sailors, abdominal illness.
St Margaret of Antioch, 20 July
St George, 23 April
St Catherine of Alexandria, 25 November
Theologians, archivists, sudden death.
St Pantaleon, 27 July
Physicians, midwives, animals.
St Blaise, 3 February
Builders, stone cutters, throat illness.
St Vitus, 15 June
St Giles, 1 September
Beggars, disabled people, cancer suffers, plague.
St Eustace or Eustachius, 20 September
Fire prevention, Family troubles.
The candle has fifteen figures; the last is an angel carrying a child. The cross is that of St Cuthbert, patron saint of Durham. At the top is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit.
When at night I go to sleep
Fourteen angels watch do keep
Two my head are guarding
Two my feet are guiding
Two upon my right hand
Two upon my left hand
Two who warmly cover
Two who o’er me hover
Two to whom tis given
To guide my steps to heaven
 Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester University Press, 1994) p108
 Horrox, The Black Death, p66