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ST. NEOT, ANCHORET, C.
To this holy hermit is generally ascribed the glorious project of the foundation of our first and most noble university, in which he was king Alfred’s first adviser.† St. Neot was born of noble parentage, and, according to many authors, related to King Alfred. In his youth he took the monastic habit at Glastenbury, and pursued his studies with great application, in which a natural strong inclination from his infancy was the index of his extraordinary genius and capacity. He became one of the greatest scholars of the age, but was yet more admirable for his humility, piety, and devotion. The bishop of the diocese was so taken with his saintly deportment and conversation, that when the saint was yet very young, he, by compulsion, ordained him first deacon, and soon after priest. St. Neot dreaded the danger of being drawn out of his beloved obscurity, which he coveted above all earthly blessings; being more desirous to slide gently through the world without being so much as taken notice of by others, and without being distracted from applying his mind to his only great affair in this life, than most men are to bustle and make parade on the theatre of the world. He feared particularly the insinuating poison of vanity, which easily steals into the heart amidst applause, even without being perceived. Therefore, with the leave of his superior, he retired to his solitude in Cornwall, which was then called St. Guerir’s, from a British saint of that name, but is since called, from our holy anchoret, Neot-stoke. In this hermitage he emaciated his body by rigorous fasts, and nourished his soul with heavenly contemplation, in which he received great favors of God, and was sometimes honored with the visits of angels. After seven years spent in this retreat, he made a pilgrimage to Rome; but returned again to the same cell. Several persons of quality and virtue began to resort to him to beg the assistance of his prayers and holy counsels; and the reputation of his wisdom and experience in the paths of an interior life reached the ears of king Alfred.* That great prince, from that time, especially while he lay concealed in Somersetshire, to the death of the holy hermit, frequently visited him, and doubtless, by his discourses, received great light, and was inflamed with fresh ardor in the practice of virtue. St. Neot’s counsels were also to him of great use for regulating the government of his kingdom. Our saint particularly recommended to him the advancement of useful and sacred studies, and advised him to repair the schools of the English founded at Rome, and to establish others at home. Both which things this king most munificently executed.
Our historians agree that the plan of erecting a general study of all the sciences and liberal arts was laid by this holy anchoret; and upon it Alfred is said to have founded the university of Oxford. By his advice the king invited to his court Asserius, a monk of Menevia or St. David’s, in Wales, Grimbald, a monk of St. Bertin’s, (from whom part of the chancel in St. Peter’s old church at Oxford, is called, to this day, St. Grimbald’s seat,) and John the Saxon, from Old Saxony, whom he nominated abbot of the new monastery which he founded at Athelingay in Somersetshire. This John the Saxon is by some confounded with John Scotus Erigena, who, without any invitation or encouragement of king Alfred, was obliged to leave France for certain heterodox opinions which he had advanced, taught a private school at Malmesbury, and was murdered by his own scholars. Alford, Wood, and Camden, upon the authority of certain annals of Worcester, make St. Neot the first professor of theology at Oxford; but this seems not consistent with the more ancient authentic accounts of those times; and St. Neot seems to have died about the time when that university was erected, in 877, or, according to Tanner, 883. His death happened on the 31st of July, on which day his principal festival was kept; his name was also commemorated on the days of the translations of his relics. His body was first buried in his own church in Cornwall, where certain disciples to whom he had given the monastic habit, had founded a little monastery. His relics, in the reign of king Edgar, were removed by Count Ethelric and his famous lady Ethelfleda, out of Cornwall into Huntingdonshire, and deposited at Einulfsbury, since called St. Neot’s or St. Need’s, where an abbey was built by count Alfric, which bore his name.1 When Osketil was the ninth abbot of Croyland, his sister Leviva, to whom the manor of Einulfsbury belonged, caused these relics to be transferred to Croyland; but they were afterwards brought back to the former church, which from that time took the name of St. Neot’s. Many memorials of this saint were preserved at Glastenbury, with an iron grate (or rather a step made of iron bars) upon which the holy man used to stand at the altar when he said mass, being of a very low stature, as John of Glastenbury, and Malmesbury testify. Asserius assures us that king Alfred experienced the powerful assistance of St. Neot’s intercession when the saint had quitted this mortal life. Being much troubled in his youth with temptations of impurity he earnestly begged of God that he might be delivered from that dangerous enemy, and that he might rather be afflicted with some constant painful distemper. From that time he was freed from these alarming assaults, but felt a very painful disorder, which seems by the description which Asserius has given of it, to have chiefly been an excruciating sort of piles, or a fistula. He sometimes poured forth his prayers and sighs to God a long time together at the tomb of St. Neot, formerly his faithful director, whose body then remained in Cornwall; and found both comfort and relief in his interior troubles. The corporal distemper above mentioned only left him to be succeeded by violent colics. See John of Glastenbury’s Historia de rebus Glastoniensibus, published by Hearne, t. 1, pp 110, 111, 112. This author copied his account of St. Neot from the life of the saint compiled by one who was contemporary, and is quoted by Asserius himself. See also in Leland an extract of another life of St. Neot, written by a monk, Itiner. t. 4, Append. pp. 126, 134, ed. Hearne, an. 1744. The same inquisitive antiquarian,1. de Scriptor. Angl. mentions two lives of St. Neot which he saw at St. Neot’s, one of which was read in the office of this saint on his festival; he also quotes concerning him certain annals which he calls the Chronicle of St. Neot’s, because he found them in that monastery. They are published by the learned Gale, inter. Hist. Brit. Script. 15, p. 141, which work he ascribes to Asserius, and calls his Annals. (Prf. n. 10.) See Tanner’s Bibl. in Asserio, p. 54. Also F. Alford’s Annals, t. 3, ad an. 878, 886, 890. The life of St. Neot in Capgrave, Mabillon, and the Bollandists is spurious. See Leland in Collect. t. 3, pp. 13, 14.
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