Saint Margaret’s Well: From Healing Pilgrimages to Alice in Wonderland
Saint Margaret’s Well is a sacred well outside the Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch in Binsey, a village in Oxfordshire, England. During the Medieval period, the church was a famous pilgrimage site, as its well was believed to possess miraculous healing powers. During the 17 th century, the well was destroyed, but was later rebuilt during the Victorian era. Today, pilgrims no longer flock to the church as they did during the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, its sacred well has gained a different sort of fame. Saint Margaret’s Well appears in the popular children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as the ‘treacle well.’
The Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch
The Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch dates to the 12 th century AD. It is commonly believed, however, that a priory was already established on the site during the Saxon period. This priory was founded by Saint Frithuswith, known also as Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford and its university. The saint’s name is a combination of two words, ‘frithes’, meaning ‘peace’, and ‘withe’, meaning ‘strong.’ According to scholars, this is a genuine mid-Saxon name, and may imply that the saint was somehow related to Frithugyth, the wife of Aethelheard, the King of Wessex . Apart from that, however, very little is known for certain about this saint.
An old painting of Aethelheard, the King of Wessex who pursued Saint Frideswide. ( Public domain )
Saint Frideswide is believed to have been born around 650 AD. She died on the 19 th of October 727 AD. The earliest written accounts about her life, however, date to the 12 th century AD. Over the centuries, various accounts of the saint’s life emerged, and the details in each of them differ slightly. According to one version, Frideswide was the daughter Didan, an Anglo-Saxon sub-king who ruled over the area of Oxford, and his wife, Safrida. Although Frideswide had taken a vow of celibacy, the King of Mercia, Algar, sought her hand in marriage. Naturally, the saint rejected the king’s proposal. As a consequence, Algar brought his army to Oxford, hoping to take Frideswide by force. When the saint heard of the king’s plans, she fled from Oxford with two companions, first to Bampton, and then to Binsey, where she took refuge in a swineherd’s hut.
Banner from Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, showing Saint Frideswide. (Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
Algar did not abandon his intention of marrying Frideswide and pursued her. The king, however, was suddenly struck blind, and thus prevented from tracking the saint down. When Frideswide heard of the king’s blindness, she was moved by compassion, and prayed for the restoration of his sight. She prayed especially for the intercession of Saint Margaret of Antioch , a saint who lived between the 3 rd and 4 th centuries AD. Like Frideswide, this early Christian saint was pursued by an unwelcome suitor and fled from her home in order to avoid marrying him. The suitor gained his revenge by denouncing Margaret as a Christian to the Roman authorities. Subsequently, she was arrested, put on trial, found guilty, and beheaded. The story of Frideswide, however, has a somewhat happier ending.
The pain of St. Margaret of Antioch, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Jerome in church Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi by Alessandro Bonvicino - Moretto ( Renáta Sedmáková / Adobe Stock
One day, as Frideswide was praying, she heard a voice from the heavens instructing her to strike the ground nearby with her staff. The saint obeyed and struck the ground with her staff. As she did so, the earth opened up, revealing a well within. Frideswide took some water from the well and went to Algar. When she met the king, the saint bathed his eyes with the water from the well, and he was able to see once more. As a result, Algar gave up the idea of marrying Frideswide. To commemorate the miracle, Frideswith established her priory next to the well, and dedicated the chapel to Saint Margaret of Antioch.
After Frideswith’s death, the saint was buried in the priory she founded. In 1180, the priory and its chapel were destroyed, and a church built in its place. Before the new church was constructed, the saint’s remains were exhumed, and re-interred in a shrine at the newly built Saint Frideswith’s Priory, which stood on the site of the current Christ Church Cathedral, in Oxford. The shrine to the saint was destroyed during the iconoclasm of the English Reformation , as it was considered to be a Catholic, and therefore, superstitious, monument. Although the shrine was re-instated during the reign of Queen Mary it was desecrated when Protestantism was brought back by her successor, Elizabeth. In 1561, James Calfill, the new Canon of Christ Church, decided to mix the alleged relics of the saint with the bones of Catherine Dammartin, the wife of Peter Martye Vermigli, who was buried near the shrine. Together, these remains were buried in the floor of the cathedral, though the burial spot was left unmarked.
The Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch: History and Detail
Returning to Binsey, the Norman arch of the Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch’s south door is considered to be the structure’s earliest datable stonework. Based on the style of the arch, which consists of a “zig-zag pattern overlapping a round molding, some dogs-tooth work and columns with carved capitals,” it has been suggested that the church was constructed during the late 12 th century.
The architecture of the church also suggests that almost the entire building was rebuilt during the 13 th century, possibly using the original rubble, and that extra windows were added in the nave and chancel during the 13 th or 14 th century.
The history of the church in the subsequent centuries was mostly uneventful. During the 16 th century English Reformation, for instance, the church was unaffected, only having a single corbel near the chancel arch removed. Some renovations were also carried out during the 19 th century.
Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch in Binsey, home to the famous Saint Margaret’s Well, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch Source: Howard Stanbury / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Although the Church of Saint Margaret was not a site where great historical events took place (apart from the legend of Saint Frideswide), it was a popular pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages . Needless to say, it was the miraculous healing powers of the well that drew pilgrims there. It has been claimed that one of the countless pilgrims who visited Saint Margaret’s Well was Henry VIII of England. Pilgrims who sought healing would pray at the well and leave symbols of their cure under its dome. A tale about a Medieval healing at Saint Margaret’s Well is found in the Bodleian MS Digby 177, an ancient manuscript in the Oxford University library :
“A woman named Brichtiva from the vicinity of Northampton had lost hearing in her right ear for a full year and ten weeks. When she had come to the church of the holy virgin to recover her health, those standing round urged her to go to the well that the blessed virgin had obtained from the Lord during her lifetime by her prayers, which is about a mile from the city. She immediately walked there and filled her ears with water from the well. A ringing in her ears and a tribulation of itching immediately followed. She inserted a stalk into her ear and drew out a small portion of flesh. She had received the gift of hearing perfectly. She returned to the church, blessing God, and showed all who were present that she was cured.”
Although Saint Margaret’s Well managed to survive the turmoil of the English Reformation , it most likely ceased being a pilgrimage site once England became a Protestant country. In 1638, a few years before the onset of the English Civil War , the well was covered over. The well remained in this ruined state until 1874, when in was restored by Rev. T. J. Prout, who served as the Church of Saint Margaret’s vicar from 1859 to 1891. To commemorate his work, the vicar left a Latin inscription on the stone panel above the well:
“S. MARGARETAE FONTEM / PRECIBUS S. FRIDESWIDAE UT FERTUR CONCESSUM / INQUINATUM DIE OBRUTUMQUE / IN USUM REVOCAVIT / T. J. PROUT AED. XTI ALUMNUS VICARIUS / A.S. MDCCCLXXIV”.
The English translation of the inscription is as follows:
“St Margaret's Well / In the year of salvation 1874 / T. J. Prout, an alumnus of Christ Church / recovered back into use the spring of St Margaret, / granted by the prayers of St Frideswide that it might flow / but for a long time buried and defiled”.
The restoration of Saint Margaret’s Well was not the only contribution of Prout to the church. He also had a new bell cast, and removed the nave ceiling, thereby exposing the structure’s roof timbers. Moreover, he donated the priest’s stall and the pulpit, which has a carved relief of Saint Margaret defying the dragon, as well as the arms of Christ Church and Saint Frideswide.
Saint Margaret’s Well and Alice in Wonderland
It was also during the 19 th century that Saint Margaret’s Well became famous for another reason. In 1865, nine years before the well was restored, the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published. This popular children’s book was written by Charles Dodgson, more famously known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came into existence on the 4 th of July, 1862. On that day, Carroll and his friend, Robinson Duckworth, went for a boating trip with 10-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of the classical scholar Henry Liddell, and her two sisters, Lorina and Edith. The boating trip began at Folly Bridge, and ended at Godstow, where they had a picnic by the Isis.
The cover of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, showing Alice, the Hare, the Dormouse and the Mad Hatter. (Charles Robinson / Public domain )
During the trip, the girls asked Carroll to tell them a story, and he responded by making up a story about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole and ends up in Wonderland. In this strange underground world, Alice embarks on various adventures. At the end of the story, however, Alice wakes up, and realizes that her adventures in Wonderland were actually just a dream. The story would have ended there, had it not been for the real Alice, who was so delighted with the tale that she requested Carroll to write it down for her. Carroll not only wrote down the original story, but also added extra episodes, as well as his own illustrations. The completed work, entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground , was presented to Alice in 1864.
According to one version of the tale, a visitor to the Liddell house read Carroll’s work and thought that it should be published. An alternate version claims that Carroll showed his work to his friend, George MacDonald, a Scottish author. Like the Liddell girls, MacDonald’s children were also fascinated by the stories, which encouraged Carroll to seek a publisher. Thus, in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in the United Kingdom by Macmillan.
Many of the character in Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland have counterparts in the real world, though their actual identities are debatable. Most obviously, for instance, is the fact that the eponymous character Alice, shares her name with Alice Liddell, though the extent to which Carroll based his fictional character on the real girl is unclear. Another example is the Duck, a reference to Duckworth. It has also been speculated that the King and Queen of Hearts are Henry Liddell and his wife, whilst Prout is represented as the Dormouse.
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The Queen of Hearts, said to be Mrs. Liddell, Alice’s mother in real life. (Charles Robinson / Public domain )
The same may be said of the places in the story, as many of them are based on actual locations, one of which is Saint Margaret’s Well. In Chapter Seven of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland Alice attends a strange tea party with the Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. During the tea party, the Dormouse tells a story about three sisters, Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie, who live at the bottom of a treacle well. Whilst treacle is used today to refer to a type of syrup, it was used quite differently during the Middle Ages. During that period, the word ‘treacle’ meant ‘healing’ fluid, so a treacle well could mean a well with healing properties. Saint Margaret’s Well fits this description, and therefore is assumed to be the ‘treacle well’ mentioned in the story by the Dormouse.
Saint Margaret’s Well has remained in the same spot for more than a millennium. Whilst it was a well-known pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages, the well is now largely forgotten, and an obscure attraction in Oxford. But thanks to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , Saint Margaret’s Well became widely known again, and ought to be visited by anyone who is a fan of this popular children’s book.
Top image: Saint Margaret’s Well, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch (Howard Stanbury / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
By Wu Mingren
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