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Cunera church
Cunera legend

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Already in the early Middle Ages (1258) the township of Rhenen received municipal rights and certain privileges because it was situated at a strategic point on the river Rhine. But the local legend of Saint Cunera dates back to the fourth century, the year 337 A.D. during the dissemination of Christianity throughout Europe.

The Legend of Cunera

About that time Ursula asked her cousin Cunera, an English princcess, to join her in a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Rome which she was going to undertake with a big group of virgin maidens. Princess Cunera who lived in the neighbourhood of York in her father's castle, liked the idea very much, so she said goodbye to her father Aurelius and her mother Florentina, and sailed with the girls to Rome.

After a time of study and prayers and having received the blessings of the Pope they embarked for the return trip back home. The Pope had them escorted through the dangerous mountains until they came to the German frontier and they sailed down the river Rhine, happy and in great spirits.

Near Cologne however they were attacked by a rough band of barbarians, who murdered the girls, stole their possessions and demolished their ships. On the opposite bank of the Rhine King Redbod of Rhenen stood aghast, witnessing the terrible assault, but he was unable to help the girls. There was only one body floating nearby that he managed to pull out of the river. It was Cunera more dead than alive. He covered her with his mantle, put her on his horse and rode back to his stronghold in Rhenen.

Assault of the barbarians

There she made a rapid recovery and began to tend to the sick and the poor who were lingering outside the gate. Also she started to preach the Gospel to this pagan people and soon she was well-loved by the people of Rhenen.

This was not to the liking of Queen Allegonda, wife of King Redbod, also because it was apparent that her husband was rather pleased with Cunera and her good works.

Allegonda became jealous and complained to her husband that Cunera was dishonest and stole things from his table to give away to the poor.

One day at the end of a dinner party with many guests, Redbod got fed up with the wisperings in his ear and he summoned Cunera to get up and open her apron in which she just had collected things from the table.

Cunera was very confused, stood up, opened her apron and there the breadcrumps and scraps miraculously changed into chips of wood. Naturally everybody was highly amazed. Redbod apologized to Cunera and as a token of trust in her, he handed her the keys to his storerooms.

Breadcrumps into chips of wood

This of course was a slap in the face of his wife, who now was so enraged and jealous that she brooded on revenge.

A few days later Redbod and his friends left on horseback to go hawking in the extensive woods of Rhenen. Allegonda saw her chance and she send her maid to fetch Cunera. It was not a nice confrontation. Cunera first had to hand over the keys of the storeroom and next she was brutally strangled by Allegonda and her maid with her own neckerchief. The two women buried Cunera in the stable and hurriedly covered the grave with straw. When eventually Redbod and his hawking party came home, he at once asked for Cunera as she had the keys to the storerooms and they were very thirsty.

But it was Allegonda who fetched the beer, meanwhile explaining to her husband that while he was away, Cunera's parents had come from England to take their daughter home, but as they had very little time, they left soon afterwards.

While everybody sat down to drink and rest, there was much commotion outside and it appeared that the horses refused to enter the stable. A stableboy ran in to report this and also he told that there were three flaming torches dancing on the stablefloor.

Cunera strangled, horses

Redbod and his friends went out to investigate and of course they soon found the body of the strangled Cunera. Redbod understood at once how it all had happened. He repudiated his wife and banished her and her maid forever.

For a long time he grieved over the untimely death of this lovely, kindhearted young princess, who had died a martyr's death far away from home. Redbod had her buried in a little hill on the eastside of this stronghold and in due time Redbod and his people were converted to Christianity. In the course of time people with throat diseases went to pray at Cunera's burial hill and many were miraculously healed. Also cattle, especially horses miraculously recovered at her grave.

About 300 years later, by the end of the 7th century A.D. bishop Willibrord of Utrecht passed by Rhenen in his ship with several clerical servants aboard. They were on their way to Cologne. The inhabitants of Rhenen stood on the bank of the Rhine and begged the bishop to stop and visit Cunera's grave because so many miracles were happening there.

The bishop promised to come on his' return trip , but coming back he was so preoccupied that he forgot about his promise to the people of Rhenen. As they were sailing by, all of a sudden a mighty thunderstorm struck down and almost overturned the bishop's ship. In time the bishop remembered his promise and he alighted on the riverbank where the people stood waiting to guide him to Cuneras gravemound.

The bishop ordered the grave to be opened and there miraculously, Cunera was lying unimpaired, with the strangling kerchief still around her neck. The bishop had her enshrined and put up in a small wooden church in the middle of the town of Rhenen.

Also he promoted her sanctification so she became Saint Cunera and her name-day was the 12th of June.

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Later in the Middle Ages as Christianity had become the accepted religion, people started to go on pilgrimages more and more. The City Fathers, always trying to better the township of Rhenen, hitched on to this religious trend and focussed attention to their local Siant Cunera. Between 1400 and 1450 a bigger church was built of stone instead of the old wooden one and soon many people started to flock into town to go on pilgrimage to Cunera's graveside. The prescribed route was about 35 km long and began at the eastside of the Cunera burial mound. Then it went westwards all the way around Rhenen through meadows and woods, passing a small lake and then back again along the Rhine to end at the church with Cunera's shrine.

Along the road the pilgrims could buy several things. Apart from food and drink they could buy letters of plenary or partial indulgence, pilgrim's signs, booklets about the miracles performed by Cunera etc. etc. People also had to stay overnight in hostels or lodgings so these pilgrimages brought a lot of grist to the mill or money in the till.

Pilgrim sign

Soon the City Fathers were able to start the building of a gothic tower which made the church of St. Cunera one of the most beautiful in Holland.

The building activities started in 1492 (the year Columbus discovered the Americas) and the tower was finished in 1531. During World War II most of the town of Rhenen was devastated, but the church and also the townhall, both dating back some 500 years, were spared although much damage was suffered.

Cunera was taken off the list of Saints by the Pope at the beginning of the 20th century, but she is still performing small miracles.

To this day the burial mound, known as the Cunera hill, is well worth visiting, as there is a magnificent view of the river Rhine flowing by. The pilgrim's road, called the Cuneraweg is the very same that was used ages ago and now it is a much appreciated route to go by bicycle.

Although much rebuilding and restauration had to take place, the town of Rhenen has kept a lot of its historical atmosphere and Cunera's tower still stands in all its glory.

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