St Withburga and Her Well at East Dereham
by Mildred M. Cook
In the early years of the seventh century, Anna was king of the Angles. He had four daughters. Ethelreda, the eldest, inherited the Isle of Ely, and there she founded the great monastery and abbey. The next two sisters married and left East Anglia, while Withburga lived at Holkham. When their father died in 654, Withburga came to a small village in the middle of Norfolk – Dereham. Here she founded a small nunnery, no doubt with help from Ely. They settled down to teach and care for the people, and to build a small church. At times money was short and they had little but dry bread to eat. One night the Virgin Mary appeared to Withburga, saying ‘Send two of your women down to the stream every morning, where two does will stand to be milked’. This they did, and there was butter and cheese for all to add to their diet.
The tale of this wonder spread around, and many more of the country folk came to ask for help and advice – so much so that the Reeve of the village became jealous of Withburga’s fame. He set off with his hounds to kill, or drive away the deer, but his horse stumbled and threw him, and his neck was broken.
The years passed, Withburga died, and was buried in the churchyard until a suitable shrine could be built. When the time came to move her to her final resting place, the coffin was opened, and her body was found to be whole and uncorrupted as on the day she died. One story tells how one of the men reached and touched her cheek with his finger – whereupon the maiden saint blushed at the sacrilege!
Then came the Danish invasion. The nuns were scattered, the nunnery destroyed. But the church and shrine escaped, and when peace returned, became the parish church.
In 870 King Edgar gave to the Bishop of Winchester Ely and all the other monasteries destroyed by the Danes. He restored Ely, and at Dereham had a prison and court-house. On one visit, he suggested that Withburga, a royal princess, should lie at Ely with her three sisters, but Dereham folk did not wish to lose their saint. The next time, Ely monk:s gave a great feast to the men of Dereham and afterwards crept away, broke into the shrine, loaded the coffin onto an ox-wagon and set off for Ely. When morning came and the desecrated tomb was found, there was hot pursuit – they had almost caught up by Brandon, only to find the monks had got the coffin aboard a barge and were sailing down the river to Ely. The account in the Liber Eliensis ends with ‘and the men of Dereham ran along the bank, throwing clods of earth’. When they returned to Dereham, they found the empty tomb had filled with a spring of clear water, which they felt certain was recompense for the loss of their beloved Saint. Still pilgrims continued to come to pray, and drink the holy water, which to this day has never run dry.
Years later, at the end of the eighteenth century, a Bath-house was built over the spring, in the hope that the town would become a second Buxton nor Bath. Described as ‘a hideous building of brick and plaster’, it was never popular and about 1880 the Reverend Benjamin Armstrong got permission to pull it down. It was replaced with iron railings and for years was smothered in ivy and ferns, the water green with duck-weed. Since 1950 it has been cleared, the ivy replaced with climbing roses and rock plants, and the water kept clean.
Text © Mildred M. Cook (1986)
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