I like to experience closer encounters with the places where I live. One of the ways I do that is to read local history, biography and fiction. I was poking about my local Norfolk County Council library when I came upon The Story Of East Dereham. A book from way back in the day that looks outdated and unlovable - and those are a pair of x’s that mark the spot where I love to mine for story gold. It didn’t take me long to come up with this nugget from the 9th century AD. The scurrilous tale of a body-snatching bishop and a beloved virgin saint.
I’m going to adapt it into a short story. I want to invite you to accompany me on the journey from inspiration to perspiration to publication.
Today is part 1. I’m going to present the source material I’ll be drawing on in both text and audio format - so enjoy it however you prefer.
Part 1: Inspiration.
The following text is abridged and lightly edited by me, Arthur Meek, from Appendix I of The Story of East Dereham by Ben Norton.
The busy commercial town of Dereham today gives no indication that once this was ground as holy and enchanted as ever was Camelot or Glastonbury.
The town is defamed in Hunt's Directory of 1850 thus:
Many idle legends are connected with the early history of East Dereham but these are too gross for belief.
He is referring to the story of our very own St Withburga, and the legends and miracles surrounding her life, death and after. Since Withburga was to Dereham almost what great Diana was to the Ephesians, such a statement is blasphemy indeed. There are many versions of her story, agreeing in broad outline but differing somewhat in detail; which is not surprising since this is a story from long ago, a tale out of the misty dawn of Christianity in our land. 'Gross', maybe, but it is a charming old legend, well worth the telling; for after all, how colourless the past would seem without those golden threads of folklore that run through the sober tapestry of history.
Princess Withburga was the youngest daughter of King Anna of the East Angles, a beautiful maid of studious and religious nature, born of a saintly family into a turbulent half-heathen time. She spent her early years in the coastal village of Holkham where she was held in high esteem for her piety and royal blood and where the church is dedicated to her memory.
Upon the death of her father, killed in battle in AD 654, the princess, heart-broken and impoverished, came here intent upon founding a religious house on the last remnant of her father's lands. It must have been a lovely spot in those days, a gentle south facing slope leading down to a streamlet running through shady woods and sunny water-meadows, where wild deer roamed.
What happened then is told in an ancient chronicle written by the monks of Ely:
This holy virgin in the years of her girlhood, constructed a cell at Dereham and there assumed the habit of a nun. It happened that when she was building a church in that place she had no victuals except dry bread for the workmen; she resorted to the Virgin, her only hope after Christ, for succour, who appeared to her in her sleep, telling her to trust in the Lord, take no care for things of the body nor think of the morrow. "Send', said she 'early in the morning your maids to the neighbouring bridge over the stream, and there shall meet them every day two does whose milk shall minister to your necessities'. Accordingly next morning she sent her damsels to the bridge, about a furlong distant, and, behold there met them two does, from milking which the virgins obtained so much milk that two men could scarcely carry the pail upon their shoulders, and they afforded plenty for all. But the bailiff or chief man of the town, a pagan perhaps, divined it, and at length stimulated by indignation brought his dogs and endeavoured to take the deer. But while he was hunting them, and leaping his horse over a fence, the horse fell and the stakes entering his body the rider was thrown backwards and broke his neck. But although deprived of their supply of milk the handmaids of the Lord did not want for sustenance. So, being full of good works she died, having obtained the heavenly palm of virginity and was buried in the churchyard of Dereham.
But that was not the end of the story: the world had by no means heard the last of Withburga. Let the Rev. Benjamin Armstrong, a notable 19th-century vicar of Dereham continue the narrative in his quaint style:
And lo' after many more years had passed, and the other tenants of the churchyard, and even those that had been buried long after, had mouldered into dust, the grave of Withburga being opened, her body was found entire and without the slightest sign of corruption. Aye, there she lay in her shroud and coffin, and with her little crucifix of silver lying upon her breast, even as she had lain on the bier on the day of her death so many, many years before. The saintly incorruptible body was forthwith removed into the church, where it was preserved with great care and devotion by the good people of Dereham, and it continued there not without manifold miracles.
Those miracles were to prove our undoing, but first there was a sore trial for the little settlement to endure. In 870 the Danes came down on Dereham with fire and sword, leaving town and church in ashes, but even these blood-stained pagans did not violate Withburga's tomb. In the aftermath, the devastated Manor of East Dereham was bestowed on the Abbot of Ely in exchange for an undertaking to rebuild the church. It was a black day when the avaricious Abbot first set foot in the parish for he was quick to realise that in this small place was a treasure indeed to enrich his Abbey. He coveted the costly gifts laid at Withburga's shrine, and decided that she must be 'translated' to Ely [translation being, in this instance, a polite ecclesiastical term for stealing]. Plans were made accordingly; plans which one writer described as being made 'with a tact and precision that might have put the most accomplished London burglar to the blush'.
Armstrong continues the story:
On the day appointed the Lord Abbot and some of the most active and prudent monks, attended by the sturdiest loaf-eaters of the abbey, all well armed, set out on their journey to steal the body of the saint; and on their arrival at Dereham they were received with great respect by the inhabitants. The Lord Abbot, as lord and proprietor, and chief-temporal as well as spiritual, held a court for the administration of justice. After this public court of justice the bountiful Lord Abbot bade the good people of Dereham to a feast. The whole day having been spent in feasting and drinking, and dark night coming on apace, the company retired by degrees, every man to his own house or hut.
It was then that this infamous Abbot, with his secret, black and midnight minions went, under cover of darkness, to the church and opened the tomb. Armstrong describes the robbery:
About the middle of the night, or between the third and fourth watch, when the matutina or lauds are begun to be sung, the coffin in which the body of the saint was inclosed, was put upon the shoulders of the active and prudent monks, who forthwith conveyed it in great haste, and without any noise - making to a wheeled car which had been provided for that purpose. The coffin was put into the car, the servants of the Abbot were placed as guards round about the car to defend it, the Lord Abbot and the monks followed the car in processional order, other well-armed loaf-eaters followed the Abbot and monks; and in this order they set forward for Brandon, and the banks of the river which leads towards the house of Ely. There they found ready and waiting for them the boats which the Abbot had commanded, and immediately embarking with their precious treasure, they hoisted all sail and made ply their oars at the same time.
In another version of these events is added the rather charming detail that 'they were accompanied during their whole journey thither by a very bright star which shone upon the virgin's body and emitted bright rays'.
Armstrong goes on to relate what happened when the theft was discovered:
Hullulu! never was such a noise heard in so small a place before. Every man, woman and child in Dereham was roused and ran shrieking to the empty tomb in the church, and at the sound of a horn, all the people from all the hamlets near unto the pleasant hill of Dereham came trooping in with bills and staves, not knowing what had happened but fancying that the fiery Dane had come again. But when they saw, or were told about the empty tomb, the people all shouted “Who hath done this deed? Who hath stolen the body of our saint?”
Now no one could gainsay that the Abbot of Ely and his monks had done it. A serf who had gone early afield to cut the grass while the dew was on it, had met the car and the procession on the road between Dereham and Brandon and, so arming themselves with whatever weapons they could most readily meet with, they all poured out of Dereham and took the shortest way to Brandon. They were brisk men, these folk of the uplands, well exercised in the game of bowls and pitching the bar, and in running and leaping, and in wrestling on the church green; they were light-footed men, these men of Dereham; but although they ran their best, it was all too late when they got to Brandon, for the monks had got a long way down the river with the saint's body.
And so Withburga was borne away to her eternal exile in that grim place surrounded by impenetrable swamps like the dark land of Mordor where the Shadows lie. There she was interred with great pomp and ceremony alongside her sisters Etheldreda and Sexburga and her niece Ermenilda.
During the service the astonished congregation saw once again evidence of her saintly incorruptibility: Although she had been dead nearly 300 years the virgin princess with all her clothing was as fresh as ever and her limbs flexible, and so bashful was she at being looked at by the men, that when one of the monks ventured to touch her flesh a rosy blush suffused her cheeks.
Notwithstanding this Withburga appears to have been neglected at Ely where she only held the place of a younger sister, overshadowed by St Etheldreda, foundress of Ely Abbey and who, as the virgin wife of two husbands, was evidently herself a no mean miracle worker!
In course of time her tomb became dilapidated and the marble slab over it was fractured. The Abbey authorities did nothing about it and their negligence was reproved by finding the stone miraculously put together again as entire and firm as if it had never been broken. What they ought to have done had been done for them by the saint herself.
Her last chronicled appearance was in 1169. A female in the habit of a nun appeared to a poor widow who was worshipping at the altar of St Etheldreda, and told her she was Withburga and predicted the death of Nigellus, the then Bishop (somewhat gleefully, one suspects, since she had no cause to love the breed).
After that she was seen no more, and as a final indignity, the location of her tomb was eventually forgotten.
Today, poor lost Withburga rests somewhere beneath the canopy of Ely Cathedral ever pure and incorrupt; waiting for her star to rise again and light the way home to her beloved Dereham.
The appendix goes on - but I’m probably not going to use anything from here on in to inform the story I’m planning
But Withburga was never forgotten in the town she had founded. On the site of her original tomb outside the church, as if in Divine recompense for our loss, a spring of lucid water had welled up, gifted with many healing virtues; and there it remains to this day, for not even the thieving monks of Ely could make off with a holy well.
No doubt many a weary pilgrim padding along the hard and dusty road to Walsingham found rest and refreshment there. Indeed it became a place of pilgrimage in its own right with a Guild of St Withburga to minister to the pilgrims' needs.
But the healing reputation of the well lingered on long after that. William Cowper, who spent his last tormented years in these parts, sought solace there as described by George Borrow (one of our most famous sons) in the pages of Lavengro:
And no longer at early dawn does the sexton of the old church reverently doff his hat as, supported by some kind friend, the death-stricken creature totters along the church path to that mouldering edifice with the low roof, inclosing a spring of sanatory waters, built and devoted to some saint - if the legend over the door is true - by the daughter of an East Anglian king.
George's memory was at fault here, but then he was very young when he lived in Dereham. Throughout the 19th century the well was tended with love and reverence. Parson Armstrong made this entry in his diary in 1860:
My new parishioner, Miss Steele, is one of those delightful old maids you read of in novels. She has undertaken the garden of St. Withburga's Well, from which task she is good naturedly nicknamed after the Saint. It is wholesome and good to see the little woman working away until the 'ting tang has ceased, and closing her labours with prayers in Church.
Today a commemorative service, with procession to the well, is held each year on or near 8 July, the date of the robbery. For the rest of the year we show our love and reverence by throwing discarded fish-and-chip wrappings and empty Coke cans into the water.