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.
21 thoughts on “5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #3”
I enjoy reading historical stories. And it’s so much better with photos attached. Thanks, Tish.
I do like writing commentaries to photos. Or fitting photos to a story. I know you like doing this too, Shimon. Blogs seem to be the ideal medium to do that kind of storytelling.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this….I have never heard of St. Milburga
but it is clear that she made quite an impact. The more I read about Much Wenlock, the more I want to learn.
Thank you so much for the nomination. I would like to do this, but couldn’t commit until the week beginning Would that be OK? Janet.
Oh I don’t think there’s any deadline, Janet. Just do it when you feel like it. I know it’s hard to find a chunk of time if you don’t usually blog every day.
I will definitely do something on the week beginning 8th June, and again thank you so much for nominating me. It’s good to have things like this as it focuses the mind:) Have a lovely bank holiday and may the sun shine on Much Wenlock. Janet:)
Perhaps a random comment here so apologies, but I saw one of those song titles around the well there was “Tom Tizler.” There’s an English folk singer I like Roy Harper, who has a song called “Tom Tiddler.” I will do a Google search to see what I can turn up, but curious if any of this means anything to you of note? I am a sucker for photos with unneven brick and ivy like the first.
Roy Harper, I remember, though not listened to him recently. I would guess that it’s more than likely that Tiddler/Tizler titles refer to the same song, or a variant of same. So many rhymes, country dances, and songs have regional versions. Let me know what you find out.
I love the quotes from Catherine Gaskell, and you incorporate them so smoothly. The first one really putts “learning” in its place! That first photo captures antiquity beautifully. This challenge is inspired and inspiring, and you’re part of the inspiring bit. As always, an engaging read.
You are such a very nice reader, Meg. So encouraging. Btw do you want to have a go at this challenge. There’s no particular time deadline, other than to do it on 5 consec days, and nominate someone each day. I could nominate you on Friday. Feel free to say no 🙂
The Catherine Milnes Gaskell book is a available as a free download on http://www.archive.org/ where there are lots of other treasures, though not the ones that have been scanned by google which are unreadable. She’s dismissed as a minor author, but I love the way she writes.
I’ll check the book out. And thanks for the suggestion that I join in. I’m honoured, and I’ve just plotted a series that I’ll write, probably long after the challenge fades, on my time in Broken Hill. Can’t do anything now: no headspace, no photos. I’m struggling to keep up with my adventures in Warsaw, and I don’t want to shape them around the challenge. Too many photos for a start! Thanks for thinking of me, but no.
That’s absolutely fine, Meg. Just thought I’d ask in case you were wanting to do it.
I love the legends! And you are the best storyteller, Tish. Very enjoyable read, again.
I agree. It would be fun to throw a party for the well. Seems sad that it is capped.
Essence of mossy slates and lead 🙂 🙂 🙂
Such a good-looking place, Much Wenlock, Tish! I love that first mossy shot. You’ve done some great digging to get hold of all this information (I enjoyed looking over the wall at the priory too, but was whisked off to Durham before I could say more 🙂 )
Another wonderful history lesson! The photos are excellent!
You have incited my curiosity and I looked up pictures of Milburga. Enjoying your stories….
That’s very nice to hear, Paula. Milburga is a bit elusive, though she wrote some kind of Testament towards the end of her life that apparently appears in Goscelin’s Lives of Saints. I’ve not tracked it down, and it seemed to have much to do with her landed possessions – probably a v. important matter to princely Saxons.