Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

St Nectan’s foxgloves

OXFBA 123The Oxford Dictionary of Saints lists St Nectan as a sixth century Welsh hermit who settled near Hartland in north Devon, where he was killed by robbers.  Two churches, that at Hartland and another at nearby Welcombe, are dedicated to him.

According to what appears to be a comparatively recent tradition, St Nectan and his sister arrived in Cornwall from Wales and while making their way towards Hartland were attacked by robbers, the Saint being decapitated.  However, their journey was not delayed as Nectan picked up his head and continued.  Wherever a drop of his blood fell a foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) sprang up.  In commemoration of this a Foxglove Procession is held on the Sunday nearest St Nectan’s Day, 17 June.  Although parish magazines survive from 1909, the Procession is not mentioned until 1927, when the then incumbent arranged a procession after 3 p.m. Evensong on St Nectan’s Day.

2014-03-27 16.04.23Writing in January 1982 Louis Coulson, Vicar of Hartland, reported that the Procession was then observed ‘with great gusto’ before the morning Sung Eucharist on the Sunday nearest the patronal feast.   However, in May 2016 it was reported ‘We have continued to celebrate our Patronal Festival (June 17th) on the nearest Sunday when foxgloves are brought into the church and processed up the aisle.  In past years the celebrations may have included a procession around the [church] building itself, or even down to St Nectan’s Well.  A shortening of the distances covered in these processions would probably be explained by the increasing age of the congregation and the decreasing number of children attending – not an unusual situation in the Church these days.’

Thanks to Tricia Oakley, Parish Administrator, St Nectan’s, Hartland, and John Bradbeer, of Westward Ho!, Devon, for supplying information used in this note.

Note from Jess George, June 2020:  Up until about 10 years ago the children at Hartland Primary School used to have a St Nectan’s Day parade at the church starting at St Nectan’s Well.  They all carried foxgloves.

Images: main, banner in St Nectan’s church, Hartland, March 2014 (not displayed in the church at present, June 2016); upper inset, cultivated foxglove, Wadham College, Oxford, May 2016; lower inset, detail of St Nectan’s church notice-board, Hartland, March 2014.

Updated 19 November 2020.