The Well of Saint Withburga

If you visit the market town of East Dereham in the heart of Norfolk you must go and see the church of St. Nicholas in the town's center.  You will not require directions as the church dominates the skyline and the town.  An impressive building it dates back to the 12th century though its origins are much earlier.

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In the churchyard near to the door you will find a 'well' surrounded by iron railings complete with climbing roses, rock plants and ferns.  This well or spring as it is, is said to date back to 974AD and is called Saint Withburga’s spring or well.

The story behind this spring and indeed the beginnings of East Dereham itself are as follows.  King Anna or King Onna was King of East Anglia in the 7th century.  He had four daughters all of whom were destined to become Saints, this may have had something to with the fact that the Kings wife Hereswitha was herself a Saint.

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King Anna’s youngest daughter was Withburga who it is said was being brought up at Holkham where it is said she founded a church.  In 654AD she was visiting the area around Dereham which at that time was a deer enclosure, which might possibly account for the towns name. When like Lady Richeldi Little Walsingham, Withburga is said to have had a vision and decided to establish a nunnery there. 

During the building of her nunnery and a small church, money was short and the nuns had little to eat themselves or to feed their workmen.  One night it is said that the Virgin Mary appeared to Withburga and told her to send two of her women down to the stream each morning where two does would come and allow themselves to be milked.  The next day Withburga sent two of the nuns to the stream and two deer did appear and continued to come each day to the same place where the nuns were able to milk them and use their milk to make butter and cheese to aid in both the nuns and the workmens diet.

However, the local bailiff objected to the nuns receiving ‘Free Milk’ and  came one day and hunted the deer away with his hounds.  Now there are two conflicting tales here, which is probably understandable given the length of time that has elapsed since this happened.  One story says that during the hunt the bailiff fell from his horse and broke his neck, the second story is that he fell from his horse and broke his neck when Withburga herself stepped out in front of him. 

The town obviously favours the latter tale as this is the scene depicted on the town sign which is placed high above the heads of motorists on the High street and shows the bailiff and his hounds pursuing two does with Withburga herself in the far right of the sign complete with staff.
The convent is said to have contained 650 virgin nuns with Withburga herself as the prioress.  It is said that Withburga died 742 or 743 though this would make her in her hundreds.  She was buried in the churchyard at the west end of the church where a small chapel was erected over her tomb.  Then in 798 for reasons I have been unable to fathum she was dug up again.  Her body was found to be ‘uncorrupted’ ie totally preserved so she was then reinterred in the body of the church and declared to be a Saint.  Naturally many pilgrims flocked to East Dereham and her tomb and continued to do so for the next three hundred years.

Now over to Ely and the Island of the Eels, an area which at that time resembled an island surrounded by water and marshes.  Deriving its name from the vast quantity of eels that were caught in the marshes. 

One of Withburga's sisters Etheldreda (Ethelfreda)  had been given the Isle of Ely as part of her dowry, she founded a monastery here and later along with another sister became nuns there.  Both sisters were buried at Ely. It was this flimsy excuse that the Abbot of Ely in 974 used, to justify a spot of thievery!  That Withburga should be buried with her sisters who were also Saints, in Ely and not in Dereham.  It of course had absolutely nothing to do with the vast number of pilgrims that were visiting East Dereham with their hopes dreams and of course money.  Perhaps realising that the folk of East Dereham might not agree with his reasoning he entered the town without stating why he had come.   He then arranged  a huge feast for all the townsfolk in the local guildhall, with much drinking and feasting.  Whilst the people of Dereham were enjoying themselves, he and a group of armed monks, dug up Saint Withburga and made haste back to Ely with her remains.  Here they re-buried her close to her royal sisters. The townsfolk did give chase when they discovered the crime but were unable to capture the Abbot and his monks.   

However, back to Dereham and the site where Withburga had 'first' been interred which if you recall was the chuchyard.  A spring suddenly gushed out, a spring that was said to have had curative properties and so the pilgrim numbers to Dereham increased yet further.

In the 18th century a bathhouse was built over the spring, a building of brick and plaster and by all accounts rather ugly.  Then in the 19th century the Reverend Benjamin Armstrong had this construction pulled down and replaced with the iron railings which one sees today.