Meet Saint Wilgefortis

In Castle Park in the centre of Bristol there is a small, bombed out church called St. Mary Le Port. The current building is Norman dating from work in the 11th century, but archaeologists have discovered a Saxon site beneath so it is presumably much older. Because it is a useful landmark in the park, the church has effectively been a gathering point for the Bristol Pride March for a few years, and before that Pride itself took place around the church in Castle Park.

Via an article in today’s Bristol 24/7 I discovered that the church contains a chapel to Saint Wilgefortis.

Saint who, you may well ask? Well, she is apparently the patron saint of Unhappily Married Women. Her legend is that her father arranged for her to marry someone she did not like, so she prayed that she might be made repulsive so that he would reject her. The next morning when she woke up she had a full beard. That put paid to the marriage, but her angry father had her crucified as a punishment.

Wikipedia (yes, I know) lists a whole bunch of names by which Wilgefortis was known around Europe. She seems to have been particularly popular in Northern Europe, but she has found her way as far afield as Panama and Argentina.

These days historians tend to assume that the legend is entirely made up. After all, teenage girls don’t normally sprout a full beard overnight. However, there are a range of biological variations that can lead to people assigned female at birth growing beards. That can range from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome all the way to 5-ARD, an intersex variation that also leads to the young person growing a penis. It is entirely possible that young Wilgefortis knew that she was developing facial hair and had been hiding it from her parents, but decided to come clean about it in the hope of getting out of the marriage.

Just as fascinating is the fact that the worship of Wilgefortis involved the image of her being crucified, which led to some very androgynous iconography. My friends who study gender in the Middle Ages are all over this sort of thing, but Christian theology is a minefield I try to avoid playing in because you need a lot of basic knowledge before it is wise to say anything.

What I can say, however, is that the existence of a chapel to Wilgefortis in the very church that has such a close connection to Bristol Pride is a delightful piece of serendipity. I have no doubt that the local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will take this to heart.