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Restored to glory – St Osyth’s Well Bierton

197670_ac658cf4 © Copyright Rob Farrow

When I first started researching holy wells I failed to find the well. I clearly was not the only one if this report attests in Megalithic Portal:

reported as being next to the church…I walked around the churchyard without success.”

However it is excellent to hear that unlike other noted wells the local community restored and repaired the site. This has made it more visible and it is now as James Rattue in his excellent Holy Wells of Buckinghamshire notes:

physically (St. Osyth’s Well) the most impressive holy well in the county.”

Which Osyth?

What is certain is that the well was associated with a local Osyth, who local tradition records was born in Quarrendon nearby. This was around.660, when the site of the now Abbey ruins was her father Frithuwold’s royal residence. Her mother was the sister of King Wulfhere of Mercia, Wilburh, the sister of king Wulfhere of Mercia (658-674). Eadgyth, the sister of Wilburh. Osyth was the first abbess of Aylesbury’s minster. Whether this is the same as the more famed martyr is open to subjector although Bethell’s Lives of St. Osyth of Essex and St. Osyth of Aylesbury in Analecta Bollandiana claim they are the same. If so the body after its decapitation in Essex was transported back to Aylesbury’s St. Marys where a shrine was established.

Which well?

The exact location of a St. Osyth’s well has been confused. The antiquaran John Leland is perhaps the first to record this well in 1540 as:

“the well of S. Osythe at Querendune bytwyxte Aeilsbury and Querendune.”

However there is a problem, this is clearly another site as Bierton is not between these two places so why should this well be named. As noted above Quarrendon would make sense as Quarrendon is supposed the saint’s birthplace. James Rattue’s Holy Wells of Buckinghamshire he notes that Victorian writers note that it was:

“a never failing spring on Dunsham Farm whilst ‘another well ‘associated with St. Osythe’ lay in the corner of a field between Dunham and Watermead.”

Interestingly some local folklore records that the spring arose when the body of the saint was carried back from her martyrdom in Essex. Certainly by the time of the local topographer Sheahan in the 1800s, the location had moved to Bierton. He describes it as:

“a remarkable old well of the same date of the church, which was lately restored by the parish and is a most valuable spring…this well was formerly walled around, and had a drinking-trough for cattle. In ancient times it was called by the name of the Quarrendon Saint; now the spring is known as Up Town Well.”

One wonders where his evidence came from and it is noticeable if it had been a holy well it had slipped into vernacular by the authors time and was further sliding into obscurity perhaps.


Restoring the well

Yet it was not forgotten and was ripe for a millennium refit. Rattue states that:

“The well used to be a low brick structure capped with concrete and accompanied by a pump close by. In 2000, however the Parish Council restored it in grand fashion with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The cap was removed, the low drum-like well built up to a height of several feet, and a garden laid out complete with information panel and seating.”

Interestingly, he also notes that an archaeological watching brief was kept but no very old remains were found. This perhaps suggesting that the well was of no significant age?

James Rattue’s excellent book on Holy Wells of Buckinghamshire is well worth seeking out for further information on the counties wells.