I came upon this wild orchid last week: a single small spike, flowering in the un-mown margins of Wenlock Priory. The Priory is my hometown ancient ruin. In fact the town of Much Wenlock both grew up around, and then later out of the monastery. This latter occurrence was due to some opportunistic recycling on the part of the local populace. After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1540 (this in a bid to take control of the English church, marry Anne Boleyn and free up some much needed monastic capital), the lead was ripped from the roofs, and over the years, the stones from the ensuing ruins used to build many of the town’s houses.
The orchid is Anacamptis pyramidalis, a pyramidal orchid, and fairly common in Shropshire. This particular specimen was only a hand’s span in height, but the plant will grow taller. I did not get down to sniff it, and am sorry now, because I have since read that the flowers have a vanilla scent by day to attract pollinating butterflies. But then at night, when wet with dew, they give off a goaty smell that offends moths, or indeed anyone rash enough to get down on their knees for a quick nocturnal whiff. Their roots have medicinal properties when dried and ground into a sweet, nutritious powder called salep. It was once used to soothe upset stomachs. Perhaps the monks in the priory’s infirmary used it too, but please do not try this at home.
Incidentally, it was Charles Darwin who discovered that the structure of orchid flowers was designed specifically to be pollinated by either butterflies or moths with their long probosces. He wrote about it in Fertilisation of Orchids. Darwin also has a local connection. He was a Shropshire lad, born in the nearby county town of Shrewsbury in 1809. Shropshire has a lot to answer for, and indeed be proud of.
It is also interesting to think of Darwin within these Priory confines. Just as his book On the Origin Species shook the foundations of Christian orthodoxy, so these ruins mark England’s break from the Church in Rome and a complete shake-up in religious belief that rebounded down the centuries. For years, Darwin put off publishing his theory of natural selection – “like confessing a murder”. Even his wife was concerned about the state of his soul. Only the realization that out in the Malay Archipelago, one Alfred Russel Wallace was arriving at similar conclusions to his own, prompted him to finish his book. In the first public airing that described Darwin’s work, Wallace was also given credit.
But back to the orchid. I found it growing not far from the place where the Priory’s high altar would have stood, beneath the great east window. Behind that altar was said to be the shrine of St. Milburga. She was a Saxon princess famous for all manner of miracles, and who long after her death, became a big draw on the medieval pilgrim circuit.
For thirty years she had been abbess of the first monastic house in Much Wenlock. This predates the existing 12th – 15th century monastic remains by hundreds of years, and was founded as a mixed house for both monks and nuns in 680 AD by her father King Merewahl of Mercia. Her grandfather had been the great King Penda, who, it is said, personally abhorred Christianity, while nonetheless tolerating those with Christian beliefs.
All three of Merewahl’s daughters, and also his queen (after she forsook the marriage) headed religious houses. And I gather it was common in Saxon times both to have mixed-sex religious houses, although with separate places of worship and accommodation, and for them to be ruled by women. Milburga had been well educated at Chelles in Paris before she took up her office. She also controlled extensive estates, which later became part of the Cluniac monastery of Norman times, and yielded large revenues in agricultural produce. It is clear that in Saxon times, princesses were deemed to have both political and spiritual power to wield. There was apparently no incentive for kings to marry them off in useful dynastic marriages.
The re-discovery of Milburga’s remains in 1101 during the rebuilding of her, by then, ruinous church greatly added to the Priory’s revenue and prosperity as pilgrims flocked to the newly established shrine. The opulence of the Prior’s lodging, expanded in 1425 , gives an indication of the wealth and power enjoyed by its then Prior, Richard Singer.
There are many historical accounts of grim goings on in Wenlock Priory – everything from monks counterfeiting coinage to plotting to murder their prior. But these will have to wait for another post. For now more views of the priory ruins and its other plants – wild and cultivated.
Foxglove in the cloister garden. Digitalis purpurea was used by monastic herbalists from the early Middle Ages to cure dropsy (oedema or swelling caused by fluid). It has also long been used for heart conditions, although an overdose can prove fatal. Something else not to try at home.
More mauve than purple – the lavender border (and topiary) in the cloister. Lavender has many soothing medicinal uses – for headaches in particular. I have no idea why the topiary hedges are there – a much more recent non-monastic addition it seems.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
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