On the walls of the Church of St. Mary’s Church in the Norfolk village of Worstead, there appears a very odd icon. Although faded and somewhat damaged by the iconoclasts of the English Reformation, it shows a young woman in a crown and flowing gown hanging from a cross. An icon of a crucified woman is unusual in itself. However, what makes it even odder is the artist has depicted the young woman with a very long beard. This bearded lady is known as St Uncumber. However, she is a just one local version of a patron saint that was popular across Europe in the Middle Ages. That saint’s name was St. Wilgefortis.
According to legend, St. Wilgefortis prayed to god to save her from an unwanted marriage. God answered her prayers by blessing her with a beard that made her so ugly no one wanted her. So her furious father crucified her. Despite the unlikely nature of Wilgefortis’s story, she soon became popular with women from the Mediterranean to England. These women took to petitioning Wilgefortis for respite from abuse from the men in their lives. However, if Wilgefortis’s legend is strange, her origins are more curious still.
The Story of the Virgo Fortis
The legend of St. Wilgefortis grew up around the singular image of the Saint. Although details vary from region to region, the essential iconography remains the same. Wilgefortis is depicted as a young girl, nailed fully clothed to a cross. She has flowing hair- and a beard to match. In many- although not all- versions, she is also depicted with one-foot bare, her shoe kicked off in the direction of a kneeling fiddler who is playing to her.
The name ‘Wilgefortis’ is the generic name for the saint, taken from the Latin ‘virgo fortis’ or ‘courageous virgin.’ Some scholars, however, believe it derives from a corruption of the German HilgeVartz or “holy face”. Both names encapsulate the courage of St Wilgefortis – and the divine origin of her miraculous beard, which are preserved in her legend. The tales tell how Wilgefortis was one of the nine daughters of a pagan King of Portugal. Young and beautiful, she had many suitors. However, her father finally agreed to a match between Wilgefortis and a nearby ruler.
The identity of this neighboring royal varies. In some versions, he was a Muslim king, in others a pagan prince of Sicily. Either way, the teenage princess was horrified by the idea of her impending wedding. For Wilgefortis was a devout Christian and had secretly dedicated her virginity to God. She appealed to her father not to press ahead with the wedding- only for her unsympathetic parent to cast her into a dungeon. Desperate, Wilgefortis prayed to god to deliver her. However, she did not ask for her fiancée to meet an untimely end or run off with someone else. Instead, she asked to be made utterly repulsive to him.
God answered Wilgefortis’s prayers. For when she woke the next morning, Wilgefortis found herself with a luxurious, full beard that any man would have been proud of-but that was most unsightly on a young girl. Her betrothed was disgusted and called off the wedding. As for Wilgefortis’s father, he was furious. When he asked what had caused so drastic a change in her appearance, Wilgefortis defiantly declared the god she adored had saved her. Instead of being impressed or cowed by this show of celestial power, Wilgefortis’s father announced: “Then shall you die, like Him you adore.” He then ordered that Wilgefortis, like Christ, should be crucified.
An additional element of the legend tells how, as Wilgefortis hung dying, a poor fiddler knelt at the foot of her cross and began to play to her. Grateful for his comfort, Wilgefortis kicked off one of her golden boots in his direction. The impoverished musician then took the boot to a goldsmith to have it melted down. However, this led to the fiddler being accused of stealing the royal footwear. So, he was condemned to death. However, the fiddler begged for the chance to prove his innocence. Once again, he was allowed to play before the dying princess. Once, again, Wilgefortis kicked off her shoe, thus confirming the truth of his tale.