ON June 1, Dorset will celebrate the feast day of their patron saint, whose relics can be found in the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross in Whitchurch Canonicorum near Charmouth.

But who was the enigmatic Saint Wite, and what made her so special?

Her identity is mystery: no one knows who she really was. Different theories have emerged over the centuries, and a local favourite puts her as a holy Saxon woman living as a hermit on the cliffs near Charmouth. According to tradition, she spent her nights lighting beacons to guide sailors along the rocky coastline, and was killed by Danish pirates during a raid in the 9th century while defending her local people.

It is said that 50 years after the battle on Chardown Hill in 831, Alfred the Great decided to commemorate those who had died for their faith at the hands of the Danes, and built the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross - formerly St Wite's Church - in honour of this mysterious anchoress. St Candida is the Latin form of St Wite.

Another theory posits the idea that St Wite is in fact a sixth century Breton woman called Gwen Teirbron, whose remains where brought to Dorset in the 10th century when a large number of Bretons settled in the west of England.

Remarkably, it is in the chapel that the remains of St Wite still lie. Henry VIII did his best to ban saints, forbidding their worship and outlawing pilgrimages. The 16th century Reformation saw the systematic destruction of shrines, relics and associated paraphernalia across the country, but the Dorset saint's is one of only two shrines to survive. The other belonged to St Edward the Confessor and was located at Westminster Abbey: a king as well as a saint, it is believed Henry felt it would set a dangerous precedent to destroy a royal tomb.

How St Wite's shrine survived adds another element of mystery to our story. Some have speculated that its plain design and concealed location led it to be mistaken for an unremarkable tomb of no significance, but this couldn't be further from the truth. The shrine became one of England's greatest pilgrimage sites: people believed the relics to have healing powers, and the coffin's three oval openings allowed them to place personal belongings or diseased body parts inside the shrine in hope of a cure. Even today, cards are placed in these openings, asking St Wite for miracles or thanking her for her help. A nearby well at Morecombelake, named after the saint, is adorned with a modern plaque claiming that the water has been blessed with the ability to cure eye diseases since the 16th century.

In 1900, refurbishment of the church walls dislocated the old shrine, re-opening an ancient fracture in the stone coffin. The tomb was subsequently opened and a lead casket containing the bones of a small woman was revealed. 'Here lie the remains of St Wite' in Latin was found inscribed, somewhat eerily, upon the casket.

The legend of St Wite lives on in Dorset, and in 2008 a competition to chose a county flag saw the St Wite's design come out top with 56% of the votes. Designed by Dave White from Dorchester, the flag features a white cross, bordered in red with a yellow background, and is officially registered with the Flag Institute as The Dorset Cross. As one of the only shrijes to have not only survived the Reformation but remained in its original setting, St Wite is said to symbolise all that is unchanging in the Dorset landscape.

The modern parish of Whitchchurch Canonicorum now belongs to the Church of England Diocese of Salisbury, and is situated in the Marshwood Vale, not far from Bridport. The first record of the church there dates from AD 881, when Alfred the Great granted the estate to his son Ethelwald.