St Wihtburh's Well at Dereham

In the lower part of the churchyard of St Nicholas's Church at Dereham in central Norfolk [pictured below: author's photograph] is the holy well of the East Anglian princess, St Wihtburh, one of the six saintly children of King Rædwald's nephew, Onna.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the exhumation of her uncorrupted body from this spot in 798.

Her ... Alfhun biscop forðferde on Sudberi. ond he wearð bebyrged [on] Domuce. ond  Tidfrið wearð gecoren æfter him. ....Her on þysum ylcan geare Wihtburge lichama wearð gefunden eal gehal ond unfor[brosno]d a Deorham. æfter fif ond fifti gearon þas ðe heo of ðysum liue gewat. 
Here ... Alfhun bishop fared forth at Sudbury, and he was buried at Dommoc; and Tidfrith was chosen after him. ... Here in this same year Wihtburh's body was found all hale and uncorrupted at Dereham after five and fifty years that there she from this life went.

This entry from the eleventh-century Canterbury bilingual manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers for once to events in East Anglia.  First comes the death of Alfhun, bishop of Dommoc, at Sudbury, his burial at Dommoc, and his succession by Tidfrith. Recently a splendid statue of Alfhun has been unveiled by the church of St Gregory at Sudbury [picture below: author's photograph]., 

The Chronicle entry then records the remarkable news from Dereham -  the exhumation and translation of the uncorrupted body of the East Anglian princess Wihtburh from this spot to the nearby church of St Nicholas on 8th July, 798, 55 years after she died and was buried here (in 743).

Her father Onna had been killed by the formidable King Penda of Mercia at the Battle of Bulcamp  c.654.  The implication is that she was in her nineties at the time of her death in 743.

The Chronicle reports the miraculous wholeness of Wihtburh's uncorrupted body as fact, which was regarded as a mark of her holiness.  Her own royal pedigree would have increased her the aura of sanctity, for the Wuffing family itself was known to be descended from the gods.  With divine blood in their veins, they were seen as bringers of battle-luck, good harvests and divine blessings generally, which is why their burial places were venerated.  So just as the likely mound of Wihtburh's great uncle was once honoured at Sutton Hoo and the tomb of her father was venerated at Blythburgh, so the burial place of this Wuffing princess came to be regarded as holy.

Following her translation, a spring appeared where her royal and uncorrupted body had lain. Naturally, the belief arose that the water from this spring, which came to be known as St Wihtburh's Well, was charged with healing powers. This became a place of pilgrimage and a chapel was later built around the well.

St Wihtburh's legend tells how after a bad harvest a pair of does from a herd of wild deer sustained her nunnery at Dereham with their milk. A local landlord was said to resent Wihtburh's reputation for sanctity and so hunted the deer with dogs. This scene is depicted on the town's sign which arches over the high street at the corner of the marketplace, as [ictured below [author's photograph].

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Wihtburh's response is not depicted, but presumably the landlord came to an appropriately bad end.  The episode is only part of a longer story now forgotten, but it points to Wihtburh's close, almost supernatural, association with the deer, especially the doe or hind, which we find as her emblem in church art.   Communion with wild animals as if tame is also a mark of sanctity.

Another possibility is that the function of the doe as a source of strength and nourishment derives from the ultimately totemic awe with which the the Wuffing family held the deer, as may be suggested by the great stag emblem from the ceremonial whetstone found among the treasures of Mound One at Sutton Hoo.  It might also be significant that one of the interpretations of the Old English spelling of the place-name Dereham, Deor-ham, is 'home of the deer'.

The body of St Wihtburh appears to have survived the Danish conquest of the ninth century for it was still at Dereham in 974 when it was stolen by the recently appointed Abbot Brihtnoth of the newly re-established Abbey at Ely.

Abbot Brihtnoth seems to have had the support of Archbishop Æthelwold and the young King Edgar in this undertaking. Yet he used deception to obtain the body. The story tells how he and his monks arrived at Dereham in apparent goodwill with wagons of food and drink with which he feasted the monks and men of Dereham. While they slept he stole the body from his guests and made for his boat at Brandon. The men of Dereham awoke just too late to stop him, pursuing him as far as Brandon without success.  Brihtnoth the body-snatcher seems to have got away with it despite the efforts of the Dereham folk (though later stories tell how he came to a really bad end at the hands of Queen Ælfthryth, the formidable wife of King Edgar and mother of King Æþelræd Unræd).  

But Dereham still has its holy well, for the Abbot could not steal a hole in the ground.  St Wihtburh's well has lasted much longer than the Abbot's shrine to St Wihtburh at Ely, so the memory of the youngest daughter of King Onna really belongs today to Dereham.

The one surviving dedication to St Wihtburh is not at Dereham but at Holkham on the north Norfolk coast.  It is said  that the princess lived at Holkham earlier in her life and that she founded this dramatically sited church before moving south to found her nunnery at Dereham.  Holkham church is built on a prominent mound which once provided commanding views of that part of the coast.   Today the church is protected by great trees which obscure the view for it now stands in the great deer-park of the splendid Holkham Hall (for more on magnificent Holkham see www.holkham.co.uk ).  I'm sure St Wihtburh would approve of the does and hinds which can often be seen in the park around her church today.

© Copyright Dr Sam Newton, Blotmonaþ AD 2000

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