Saint Milburga’s Well is my choice for Day 3 of Hidden Wenlock. (Again thanks to Pauline at Memories Are Made Of This.) It can be found just off Barrow Street, not far from the back gate to The Abbey which featured yesterday.
There are many strange myths associated with this particular saint, and her affinity with wells and springs: remnant (or not so remnant) pagan beliefs interwoven with notions of Christian miracles. But first some facts.
St. Milburga was a Saxon princess, daughter of the Mercian King, Merewalh, who held sway over much of the English Midlands during the 7th century. These were turbulent times – the spread of Christianity going hand in hand with securing territory. And Merewalh was a man with a plan. Instead of arranging dynastic marriages for his three daughters, he made them rulers of new religious houses across his kingdom. In this way Merewalh consolidated spiritual and political prestige, commanding both bodies and souls.
According to Milburga’s contemporary, the historian Saint Bede, she was educated for her religious life at the monastery of Chelles in Paris. Then around 690 AD she returned to England and took charge of an abbey in Much Wenlock. It was a community of both monks and nuns, although they worshipped separately. There Milburga presided for the next thirty seven years, ministering to the people of her extensive domain lands.
As I said, there are hosts of legends about her, her healing powers and her ability to strike springs from the ground, and bring winter-sown barley from seed to harvest in the course of one day. There are also tales of her fierce resistance to male suitors, and rivers rising up to thwart her pursuers. After her bones were rediscovered in 1101, the cult of Milburga continued to grow over succeeding centuries. It was said, among much else, that she brought several people back from the dead.
The water from her well was also supposed to have very special powers, curing even blindness. Something of this belief persisted into the last century. Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, chatelaine of The Abbey until 1935, relates a conversation with a Wenlock girl, Fanny Milner. Her granny had sent her to fetch some water from the well so she would be able to read her Sunday scripture, “glasses or no glasses”. This is what Fanny tells Lady Catherine:
“It be blessed water, grandam says, and was washed in by a saint – and when saints meddle with water, they makes, grandam says, a better job of it than any doctor, let him be fit to burst with learning.”
Lady Catherine also relates how the well had once been long associated with rather less sacred pursuits:
It is said that at Much Wenlock on “Holy Thursday”, high revels were held formerly at St. Milburgha’s Well; that the young men after service in church bore green branches round the town, and that they stopped at last before St. Milburgha’s Well. There, it is alleged, the maidens threw in crooked pins and “wished” for sweethearts. Round the well, young men drank toasts in beer brewed from water collected from the church roof, while the women sipped sugar and water, and ate cakes. After many songs and much merriment, the day ended with games such as “Pop the Green Man down”, “Sally Water”, and “The Bull in the Ring”, which games were followed by country dances such as “The Merry Millers of Ludlow”, “John, come and kiss me”, “Tom Tizler”, “Put your smock o’ Monday”…
Catherine Milnes Gaskell Spring in a Shropshire Abbey
These days it is hard to imagine this gloomy and mysterious well being the focus of so much racy celebration. The well’s spring has anyway been capped, so there is no longer any holy water inside. But it might be nice to throw it a good party and wake it up, though I’m not sure about beer brewed from church roof water. Mm. Essence of mossy slates and lead guttering at the very least.
Now here’s a photo of the church in question. It stands on its green in the heart of the town. It was originally part of the Priory, and is said to be on the site of Milburga’s nuns’ church. If you look hard, you will see the plastic owl on the tower parapet. It’s there to discourage the pigeons, although I’m not sure if it works. From what I have seen of them on my allotment, Wenlock’s wily pigeons would know a plastic owl when they saw one.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge
The idea of this challenge is to “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.
So today I would like to nominate Janet Weight Reed at My Life As An Artist. For one thing she is a magical water colourist. For another, she is so very generous with her artist’s knowledge and techniques. One of her specialities is humming birds. Go and see. Believe me, they will fly out of your screen.