2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.
Who is St. Walstan?
St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.
Three holy wells
In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and found the restored site at Costessey, now the easiest to find – that at the location of the saint’s shrine church, Bawburgh.
This is the third well of the saint in the English Life but the second in his Latin Life. In St Walstan Confessor, de sancto Walstanus confessore notes:
“The bulls went down from that place with the precious body towards the vill of Bawburgh. When they had come almost to the place where the body now lies buried they made another stop in a certain place, where the love of St. Walstan the divine piety made another spring of wonderful power against fevers and many other infirmities, which is still there today.”
The English Life adds:
“ye other ox staled; a well sprang anon next beyond ye parsonage”.
What is interesting is the use of the word, stalled which may be O.E for ‘come to a halt’ or with one l, staled meaning ‘urinated’! The later perhaps recording a more significant role for the white oxen.
The saint’s body was transferred through a special opening made in the north wall of the church and this arch can still be seen, now blocked up. His shrine was then established in the north transept of the Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, since then known as St Mary and St Walstan, as a separate chapel. The saint was canonised by the diocesan Bishop, who visited the site, with a large procession of priests, and hearing of his holiness:
“The bishop gave an ear and hearkened sore, And allowed him a Saint evermore.”
From this point on the well and especially the saint’s shrine was the goal of pilgrims, first from neighbouring villages, and then from Norwich (along Earlham Green Lane), and then after the news of its powers spread across England from farther afield. In particular farmers would bring their sick animals to the well to have them cured. In fact the well and shrine were so popular that a college of priests were established to control and administer the large numbers of pilgrims.
However, although it was apparently the shrine which was the goal, of the eleven medieval miracles associated with the saint, only two are associated with the holy well. One being that of Swanton’s son and the other of Sir Gregory Lovell. In the former, a man called Swanton had a lame son. Together they prayed to God and St Walston and bathed in the water from the Holy Well. The son recovered and ‘now goeth right up and his health hath’.
Nearby lost settlement of Algarsthorpe appears to have been given as a pitanciary to the Monks of Norwich as a result of the other miracle from the holy well. A Sir. Gregory Lovell who was cured of:
“Great sickness and great bone ache by water from St. Walstan’s Well”
According to the English Life of the saint:
“It happened by means of Walstan and God’s grace, To muse in mind upon a night, A mean make to holy Walstan in that case, For water to his well he sent as tyte, Therewith him washed and also dyte, And remedy readily should have anon, by the grace of God and holy Walston.”
Unfortunately as with most shrines the Reformation had a destructive effect, and the shrine was dismantled, its relics scattered over the fields and lost forever. Sadly his shrine lay in the north side of the church and was destroyed in the purges of Henry VIII and his relics burned. The removal of the chapel meant that the north side had no supporting side and hence a buttress had to be placed there!
Yet despite this wanton destruction, it appears St Walstan’s Well continued to be visited, and even through the Commonwealth period, superstitious farmers would visit the well collecting its healing waters for their sick animals. As Twinch (2015) astutely notes:
“The Bawburgh well is an integral part of the later medieval story but it assumed greater importance post-Reformation, after the tomb and chapel was demolished. The emphasis seems then to revert almost to the pre-1016 era of folk lore and water worship”
This has continued until recent years and even in recent times local farmers believe in its livestock curing properties. In 1928 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological society during an excursion to Bawburgh were told by the Revd Gabriel Young of the story of a local farmer and churchwarden, who had recently died, called Mr. James Sparrow of Church Farm who had a sick mare. The mare was so inflicted with sores that he had to have her put down, at which point a farm boy asked if he could treat her with the well’s water. This is apparently he did and after 10 days of the treatment was cured. The farmer apparently put its powers down to chemical or vegetable substances, rather than miracles, although no chemical analysis has been able to identify these.
This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:
“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”
As Twinch (1995) notes 2000 people is a lot to assemble around the well, and hence there is doubt in this description. However Husbenbeth (1859) wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:
“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”
The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that: ‘much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.’
Its water was so pure that it was sold in the streets of Norwich. However religious pilgrims only begun to return en masse to the well in the 19th Century. This appeared to be the result of a number of miracles associated with the distribution of its water. The earliest recorded of these involved a Francis Bunn. In 1810 he had joining the militia, but was within five years discharged suffering from ‘incurable ulcers.’ Hearing St Walstan’s well in 1818 after moving to live at Costessey, he walked the three miles to the well to apply the water to his leg. Remarkably his wounds were healed and Husenbeth recorded that they continued to heal up to Bunn’s death in November 1856. The next miracle involved Sister St John Chrysostom, of the Hammersmith Convent. She fell ill in 1838, and was so close to death that the Mother Abbess suggested that she should seek a cure through the moss of St Walstan’s Well. However she disagreed and preferred to put her faith in the healing power of her medallion of the Virgin Mother. Incredibly it is said that as she held this medal to her stomach it was heard to say: ‘drink some water poured from the moss from St Walstan’s Well.’ Taking this as good advice she did so at once, and upon swallowing this moss exclaimed that she was cured!
In 1868, A Revd Benjamin Armstrong noted that one of his five Roman Catholic parishioners had taken some of the moss and:
“applying it to a bad sore overnight, she found it completely healed in the morning, leaving a scar, as from an old wound.”
An account in the Eastern Daily Press of 1913 dubbed it A Norfolk Lourdes and recorded the cure of a London Catholic who had been suffering from eye troubles for some time. It is reported that he saw a number of specialists and was told than the man was likely to loss his sight altogether. The apparently the man remembered the moss he had taken from the well the year before, applied it to his eye using the well’s water. The following day his eye sight was restored. The doctor pronounced him cured. He is said to be determined to join 300 other Catholics from congregations in Norwich, Costessey and Wymondham to give thanks.