Much Wenlock has at least three saintly wells. St. Milburga’s, a few steps from the town centre, is the best preserved, though it is doubtful the superstructure we see now had much to do with this Saxon saint. She came to Much Wenlock around 690 to take charge of a religious community of monks and nuns, this after being trained in her vocation at the monastery of Chelles near Paris. Double convents were not unusual in Saxon times, though the men and women worshipped in separate chapels. Milburga was also the daughter of Mercian king Merewald and, along with her appointment as abbess, came the responsibility of managing the lay people and lands of a very large estate that extended many miles into Corve Dale to the south, and across the Severn Gorge in the east.
For the next 37 years she ruled over her communities, temporal and spiritual. She appears to have done a good job because the many legends about her attest always to her healing (and other mystical) powers. She had a particular propensity for striking springs from barren ground and, it was said, could ripen winter-sown barley – from seed to harvest – within a single day. She even brought the dead back to life on more than one occasion. And in between these miracles, spent much time dodging the unwanted attentions of lusty chaps. This seems to be a common narrative in the tales of Saxon princesses who opted for a life of chastity. In Milburga’s case, rivers rose up to thwart her pursuers.
Water, then, is a common theme here.
She was still remembered four hundred years after her death. In 1100 when the convent church was undergoing repairs, some human remains were discovered near the altar. With their sweet fragrance and mystic glow they could be none other than the bones of Milburga, and so began the cult that over succeeding centuries brought much pilgrim business to the growing town. Two of our town pubs owe their origins to those times.
In fact beliefs in Saint Milburga’s powers persisted even into the 20th century. Catherine Milnes Gaskell, who lived in the old Prior’s house not far from the well, tells in her book Spring in a Shropshire Abbey how one day she met young Fanny Milner, sent by her grandmother to fetch some well water. Grandmother apparently needed it to bathe her eyes so she could read the Sunday scriptures. When questioned further about the well’s potency, 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 bursting with learning.”
Lady Catherine also relates how the well had once been the focus of more profane 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”…
Hm. High jinx and ale brewed from church roof run-off – that’s quite a picture to conjure, isn’t it. I hasten to add, we don’t such things these days 🙂