History and significance of St Henry

Henry (Finnish & Swedish: Henrik; Latin: Henricus) was a medieval English clergyman who moved to Sweden in 1153. He became a Bishop and, at the time Finland being a part of the Kingdom of Sweden, was sent to organise the Church of Finland. While no reliable records exist on his life it is generally accepted that he was murdered on frozen Lake Köyliö c. 20 January 1156. He became the patron saint of Turku cathedral.
Starting in the 13th century pilgrimages started on Saint Henry’s Road (Sant Henrikin tie).
The original medieval pilgrimage route started from the Church Islet (Kirkkokari) in Köyliö, the site of Henry’s murder, and ended at his burial site, the Nousiainen Church. The route was later expanded to a total length of 140 kilometres, leading from Turku Cathedral to the Saint Henry’s Chapel in Kokemäki. After the Reformation of the 1520s professing the Catholic faith was forbidden in Finland and the pilgrimages were largely discontinued.
Roman Catholics restarted the pilgrimages in the 1950s, finishing with a Mass at the Church Islet (Kirkkokari) in Köyliö. Lutherans, Orthodox Christians and Christians from other denominations subsequently joined in. Starting in 1983 the pilgrimages triennially retraced the entire 140km Saint Henry’s Way with participants from several countries and from different Christian denominations. Saint Henry’s Pilgrimage Association was founded in 2000 to help coordinate the annual pilgrimages.
History Saint Henry’s Death
The folk poem ”The Death-lay of Bishop Henry” (Piispa Henrikin surmavirsi) explains the events behind Bishop Henry’s martyr’s death in Köyliö. The Bishop’s killer was Lalli, a wealthy farmer in Köyliö. The story tells that when Lalli returned home one day midwinter, his wife Kerttu informed him that the Bishop recently visited their house and had departed without paying for his food, drink and fodder. Lalli became enraged, immediately grabbed his skis and went in pursuit of the thief, finally chasing Henry down on the ice of Lake Köyliö. There circa 20 January 1156 he killed him on the spot with an axe. Medieval folk traditions enumerate the pestilences and misfortunes which befell Lalli after his slaying of the Bishop. His hair and scalp are said to have fallen out as he took off the Bishop’s cap, taken as a trophy. Removing the Bishop’s ring from his finger, just bones remained. Eventually he ran into a lake and drowned himself. The Bishop’s veneration began on tiny island of Church Islet (Kirkkokari) in Lake Köyliö, which was the closest to the actual place of murder on the frozen lake.
Before his death, Henry instructed the coachman to gather his remaining body parts in a cloth tied with blue string, place it in a cart drawn by a stallion. When the stallion broke, he was to replace it with an ox, and when the ox stopped, he was to build a church. This is where Henrik’s remains were to be buried. This was done and the Church was built in Nousiainen. However, his remains were subsequently moved to the Turku Cathedral in 1290s.
Historical and Cultural Significance
Finland was one of the last European nations to be Christianised, owing to her remote geographic location and small population. In the 12th century Finland did not exist as a country, instead the Finns were a series of tribes the control of which was coveted both by Sweden and Novgorod. The Kingdom of Sweden expanded her presence from South-Western Finland and spread Catholicism whereas the Novgorod Republic (today part of Russia) approached from South-Eastern Finland spreading Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Bishop Henry joined King Eric the Saint of Sweden who came to conquer more land in Finland, to baptize the Finns and to build churches. While the victorious king eventually returned to Sweden, Henry remained with the Finns to continue his spiritual work.
Bishop Henry’s legend is commonly seen as a turning point in the Finnish history. Before his arrival, disparate pagan Finnish tribes roamed in the wilderness. After him, the foundations of a medieval way of life were laid both spiritually and temporally, with most Finns baptised as Roman Catholics and Sweden introducing a Western European system of governance over the land. Historical documents demonstrate that the Bishop’s martyr’s death, sainthood and legend were recurring themes in this process. However, his importance was greatly reduced by the Reformation. Today, the Church Islet (Kirkkokari) in Köyliö remains as the only Catholic place of pilgrimage in Finland. The relic of martyr Bishop Henry is embedded in the main altar of the Saint Henry’s Cathedral, located in Helsinki, which is the seat of the Catholic Bishop of Helsinki.
With 860 years having passed since his murder no reliable sources exist on Saint Henry as a person. However, considering that he was an English clergyman who moved first to Sweden and then to the frontier land of Finland he appears to have been dedicated to his faith. Despite this commitment and self-sacrifice the Bishop’s contribution in the wilderness of Finland appears to have gone mostly unnoticed by the higher Church authorities, as no reliable references of him exist. Further, having come to Finland together with King Eric the Saint of Sweden, Bishop Henry could have returned with the king to the relative comfort of Sweden. Instead, he remained with the Finns to live the life of a preacher rather than that of a high Bishop in Sweden.
The Bishop’s murderer Lalli is a well-known figure in Finnish folklore. For most of the history he was depicted as a violent madman who fell victim to his ”bad-mouthed wife’s” sharp tongue. His wife Kerttu is the true antagonist who caused the Bishop’s murder by lying to her husband that the Bishop had not paid for his food, drink, and fodder. Despite these overwhelmingly negative depictions, Lalli has in the recent decades been seen by some Finns as representing a positive rebellion against an oppressive authority, akin to being the first Finnish freedom fighter. In the 2007 television series Suuret suomalaiset, which was the Finnish version of 100 Greatest Britons, Lalli was chosen as the 14th greatest Finn.
Trivia on Bishop Henry
  • The municipalities of Nousiainen, Säkylä (Köyliö and Säkylä merged in 2015) and Kokemäki use images from Saint Henry’s legend in their coats of arms.
  • January 19 is Henry’s name day in Sweden and Finland.
  • Saint Henry is commemorated on January 19 on the calendar of commemorations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.
Trivia on Lalli & Kerttu
  • Lalli and Kerttu were the first Finns who were named in historical documents.
  • A statue of Lalli was unveiled in the village centre of Köyliö in 1989.
  • Köyliön Lallit is a sports club in Köyliö named after Lalli.
  • The regional newspaper Lalli which was published from 1917 to 2009 was named after the famous peasant.
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