How is it that Binsey Well may have been responsible for more deaths than any other well in history?

Binsey is a hamlet which may pre-date Oxford which it is adjacent to.

The church of St Margaret of Antioch in Binsey, located a short walk from Oxford, is a much loved and visited church of outstanding architectural and historical significance. It dates from the twelfth century, and its churchyard is the site of St Frideswide’s treacle well.,_Oxford

Little is known with certainty about the historical Frideswide except that she was the abbess of a well-endowed monastery at Oxford in Anglo-Saxon times and was being commemorated there as a saint at the beginning of the eleventh century. Although her legend says she lived in the early eighth century, the early history of her monastery is almost a total blank because a fire in 1002 destroyed most of the records. The nuns must have been displaced either before 1002 or by the fire itself, for the minster church was staffed for most of the eleventh century by secular canons, property-owning clerics who were not subject to any monastic rule. In 1122 the monastery was refounded as a priory of Austin Canons – a more disciplined community of clergy which followed the Rule of St. Augustine. In the ensuing decades these canons excavated the grave of St. Frideswide, rediscovered her relics, and revived her cult. In 1180 they had her relics solemnly translated to a new shrine within the church, in a great public ceremony performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Miracles followed – over 100 of them during the year after the translation – and were duly recorded and publicized, drawing new streams of pilgrims to the shrine.

Frideswide’s cult retained some strength until the end of the Middle Ages, especially in Oxfordshire and a few other western counties. Some of her relics had apparently been distributed to other religious houses at the time of the translation, for her name appears in the inventories of relics claimed by Reading Abbey, Hyde Abbey (Winchester), Waltham Abbey, and the royal chapel at Windsor. These same institutions commemorated her in their liturgies from an early date, and so did Abingdon Abbey, Exeter Cathedral, and the diocese of Hereford. However, only two medieval English churches and a chapel are known to have been dedicated to her: the minster church itself, the parish church at Frilsham in Berkshire, about twenty miles away, and the chapel at Binsey, just two miles from Oxford, that is mentioned in her legend. She was so closely associated with the town of Oxford that Chaucer adds local color to The Miller’s Tale by having John, the provincial Oxford carpenter, spontaneously invoke her as his patron saint (CT I[A]3459). Early in the fifteenth century Oxford University joined the town in claiming her officially as its patron. In 1434 Archbishop Chichele endorsed a petition from the clergy asking that her feast day (October 19) should be celebrated thenceforth throughout the Province of Canterbury; in most churches, however, this order seems to have elicited little more than the addition of her name to the calendar. In 1525 Frideswide’s monastery was closed by Cardinal Wolsey, who appropriated its buildings and revenues for his newly founded Cardinal College (now Christ Church) and rebuilt the minster church to serve as the college chapel. In 1546 it became the cathedral church of the newly founded diocese of Oxford. Frideswide’s shrine, still located inside the church, was destroyed and desecrated during the Reformation but has been partly reconstructed in modern times.

The two Middle English versions presented here are based, respectively, on the two Latin versions discussed by Blair. They are both found in manuscripts of the South English Legendary and share many features of that compilation, including its predominant verse form (septenary couplets), down-to-earth language, and fondness for humorous and satirical comments from the narrator. But the two versions seem to be quite independent of each other. The shorter SEL account follows Latin Life A, abbreviating and simplifying the narrative but retaining its generally monastic outlook, which takes for granted such values as literacy, asceticism, virginity, and marriage to God rather than an earthly king. The longer SEL account looks much more like a deliberate recasting of the legend for a lay audience. It departs from its source, Latin Life B, by deemphasizing virginity and provides clear lessons on good and bad conduct for laymen instead – most obviously in the cautionary tale about working on Sunday, but also in the way it presents Frideswide’s father as a man who makes virtuous choices and the king as a man who yields to demonic temptation. Also interesting in the longer account are all the details which tie Frideswide specifically to Oxford and its vicinity, showing her as patron and protector of this place, recipient of the town’s welcoming acclaim when she returns after an absence, and provider of healings that continue at particular local sites. Among more than 40 surviving manuscripts of the SEL, the shorter account of Frideswide is found in just two, Trinity College, Cambridge MS 605 (c. 1400) and British Library MS Stowe 949 (late 14th century), plus a very fragmentary third copy. The edition here is based on Trinity, which tends to have the best readings. The longer account of Frideswide is found in four manuscripts, of which Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 43 (c. 1300-30) is the earliest and usually the most reliable. The other manuscripts, all of which have eccentricities, are Magdalene College, Cambridge MS Pepys 2344 (c. 1325-50); British Library MS Cotton Julius D.9 (early 15th cent.); and Bodleian Library MS Bodley 779 (c. 1400-50).


Long version

Seynte Fredeswide was her of Engelonde. At Oxenford heo was ibore, as ic understonde. Aboute seve hondred yer and sevene and twenti right After that God was an erthe in Is moder alight, This holi womman was ibore – Seynte Fredeswide. Didan was hire fader name; hire moder het Saffride. Cristene man hire fader was. This maide of hem tuo, Seynte Fredeswide, com and hor eir was also.    Tho this child was vif yer old and somwat more, Mid an holi womman iset heo was to lore. Ailgive het hire maistresse, that good womman was inough;1 This yonge child heo teighte wel and to godnesse hire drough. Ar this child were vol woxe, hire moder let that lif.2 That child bed hire fader yerne that he ne nome no wif, Ac that he arerde an chirche and in Godes service were.    This gode mon at Oxenford an chirche let rere In honor of our Levedi and of the Trinité And eke of Alle Halwe, as the boc telleth me, Theras of Seynte Fredeswide an chirche nouthe is And an hous of religion of blake canouns, iwis.    Tho this gode mon Sire Didan arered hadde this chirche, He feffede is doughter therwith, Godes service to wurche. This maide in this chirche bilevede in Godes service And bilevede hire eritage and everiche marchaundise, And seththe in this chirche, our Loverd vor te paie,3 Heo bilevede night and dai after hire fader daie In vasting and in orsouns and in other godnesse also. More godnesse then heo dude, me nuste no womman do.4    Thervore the devel hadde gret envie therto. He ne mighte wel tholie noght hire godnesse so. To hire he com in a tyme, in vair abit inou, With a company of develen that bihynde him drou. He sede he was Godes sone Jhesus fram Hevene igon And the develen with him angles were echon. “My lemman, com vorth,” he sede, “com vorth here anon, Vor tyme it is that thou avonge with virgines mony on The croune of joie, of blis that ilasteth ever bright, That thou hast ofserved wel both dai and nyght. Com vorth and knele adoun, and honoure as ic fare The stapes here of myne fet that thou iwilned hast yare.”    Ne hure ye hou queynteliche the screwe it couthe bifynde? Nou luther thrift on is heved and on the companye bihynde!5    That maide hire bithoghte of this wonder cas; Hire inwit hire sede sone that it the devel was. “Wrecche,” heo sede, “hou darstou bihote other men so Thing that thou ne might noght thisulf come to?6 Ac that thou vorlore thoru thi sori prute, And ic and alle other eke with thee were yute, Sunvol womman as icham, yif our Loverd ous nadde iboght, To wan thou evenest thee! Ac thou luxt: thou nart it noght.”7    The devel anon myd this word with wel sori bere And with strong stench wende awei, and ne com na more there. “Nou an alle devel wei, amen,” seggeth alle, “And ne come he never in gode stude in chirche ne in halle!”8    Tho the screwe was overcome, sori he was and wo. To the kyng he wende of Englond – Kyng Algar that was tho – And ofte entised him in thoght and in metynge That he scholde this maide of hire holi lif bringe, And ligge bi hire flescliche and bynyme hire also Hire abit of nonne that heo was inome to.9    Thoru the develes poer the kyng was in such mod That ar the dede were ido he was wel ny wod. To Oxenford is messageris he sende, that hi soghte This maide ware heo were ifounde and sone to him broghte.    To this maide sone hi come, that ladde so good lif, And in vaire manere hire bisoghte to be the kynges wif. “Certes,” quath this holi maide, “ye speketh al vor noght! To the Kyng of Hevene icham ispoused. I ne breke my thoght.”10    Mid strengthe hi wolde hire nyme tho and to the kynge lede, Ac hi ablende tho anon echon myd the dede. Tho mighte hi somdel be itemed and bileve hor wildhede; Hi nolde tho habbe icome ther, vor al hor prute wede!11    That folc hadde deol of hem, and Seynte Fredeswide bede Vorgeve hor folie and wissi hem and rede. That maide bed vor hem anon, so that thoru Is grace Our Lord hem sende agen anon hor sight in the place.    Tho wende hi sone agen and tolde the kynge vore In wuch manere vor hor dede hor sight was vorlore.12 The kyng verde as he were wod, and more oth suor therto13 That heo ne scholde noght ofscapie thoru wicchinge so. “Vor heo me hath so vorsake, ichulle do bi hire folie; And wen ichabbe bi hire ido my wille of lecherie, Ichulle bitake hire hose wole, stronge lechors and store, That wen heo vorsaketh me, heo schal be comun hore!”    He lupte up is palefray and vorth then wei nom;14 As a man that were wod, to Oxenford he com. Ac this holi maide tofore myd two sostren wende Into Temese in a scip as God the grace sende. As sone as hi were in this scip, sodeinliche hi were Under the toun of Benteme – hi nuste hou hi come ther. Tho wuste wel this holi maide that it was Godes wille That heo bilevede ther. Heo wende hir up wel stille And bilevede longe in Godes servise there Mid hire felawes priveliche, that nonnon also were.    The kyng com into Oxenford as man that were wod. He soghte vaste her and ther this maide that was so good. He mighte seche longe inou, ac ever he was bihinde! And wroth he was inou, vor he nuste war hire fynde.15 He asked that folc after hire, ac non ne couthe him telle. He suor bote hi tolde him other, mony mon to quelle, And throwe al the toun up-to-doun and bringe al to wrechede. He earnde to the North Gate to bigynne ther this dede.    Anon he ablende ther, as he bigan this strif, And bilevede ther the sori wreche, blynd al his lif, And wende hom tame inou. Is prowesse was bihynde! He mighte segge war he com, “War, her cometh the blynde!”16 And, vor is eyen were so vor is folie bynome,17 Ther ne dar no kyng in Oxenford yut to this dai come.    That holi maide at Bentone bilevede in Godes lore. Heo ne dradde nothing of the kyng, that he wolde hire seche more. Seththe toward Oxenford then wei hamward heo nom,18 To the toun of Bunseie, as God wold heo com. Thre yer with hire felawes heo bilevede there, And to servy Jhesu Crist a chapel heo let rere, Ther is yut a vair court and a chirche vair and suete, Arered in honour of hire and of Seynte Margarete.    As this maide wonede ther in holi lif and clene, The maidens that with hire were gonne hire ofte bymene That water was somdel to ver to al hor nede And cride on Seynte Fredeswide that heo scholde hem therof rede.19 This maide Seinte Fredeswide bed our Lordes sonde That He water thoru Is grace sende hem ner in londe. Tho sprong ther up a wel vair welle, cler inou and clene, That fond hem alle water inough that hi ne dorste noght hem bymene.20 That biside the chirche yut is, a lute in the west side, That mony mon hath bote ido and that mony mon seche wide.    A yong mon ther was in a tyme that was in fol thoght, To wurche in a Soneday, ac he belou it noght. Vor as he heu with is ax, is ax clevede vaste To is honden, that vor nothing he ne mighte hire awei caste.21 Ther was sorwe and deol inou among is frend echon, So that he was sone irad to the holi maide gon. To hire he com and cride vaste, with is frend mony on; This maide bad God vor him, and he was dilivered anon. Ac he was iwar afterward then Sonedai worke to do. Of hem that wurche Sonedai, to vewe me serveth so!22    Ate laste this holi maide, tho heo then tyme isei, Fram Bunseie wende to Oxenford, vor it was somdel nei. That folc of Oxenford anon wel thicke agen hire drou23 And broghte hire to hire owe chirche with nobleie inou.    As vor te honoure hire that folc so thicke wende, Our Lord vor hire love a vair myracle sende. A mesel com among that folc, swythe grisliche myd alle, That hadde yare sik ibe and ne mighte no bote valle. Loude he gradde and ofte inough, “Levedi, bidde ic thee, Vor the love of Jhesu Crist, have mercy of me And cus me with thi suete mouth, yif it is thi wille!”    This maide was sore ofschame and eode evere vorth stille. This mesel gradde evere on and cride “milce” and “ore,”24 So that this maide him custe and was ofscamed sore. A suete cos it was to him, vor therwith anon He bicom hol and sound, and is lymes echon, And vair man and clene inou was, and of thulke cosse there Me thencth the maide nadde no sunne, of ordre thei heo were!25    This maide wende in Oxenford to hire churche sone And ladde ther holi lif, as heo was iwoned to done. Seththe tho heo hadde ilyved in holi lif yare, And oure Loverdes wille was that heo scholde henne vare, Heo bigon to febli, and an hevenesse hire nom. And longe bivore hire deth an angel to hire com And sede that heo deie scholde in the monthe of Octembre, The fourtethe kalendes as vel of Novembre, The nyght after Seynte Lukes Day, in an Sonenyght, And wende after hire holi deth to the joie of Hevene right. Glad was this maide tho, as heo mighte wel ethe, That so longe was bivore iwarned of hire dethe.    So that somdel bivore a fevere hire gan take, A Seynte Lukes Day, then Saterday, an put heo let make26 Right in hire owe churche, and an sepulcre also. Our Loverdes flesc and Is blod heo underveng therto. Tho caste heo up hire eien toward hevene an hei; The maide Seynte Katerine and Seynte Cecile heo sei With othere virgines mony on toward hire alight Fram Hevene wel mildeliche – ther was a suete sight! This holi maide with hem spac, as hurde mony on, And sede, “In youre companye ichulle wende anon.”    Heo bed hem alle good day that aboute hire were ther, And deide right thulke tyme that the angel hire sede er,27 And to the joie of Hevene with this virgines wende. Aboute hire ther as heo deide, our suete Loverd sende So gret suotnesse into al that hous that the folc that was there In so gret joie stode in Parais as thei hi were. Into hire owe churche this maide was sone ibore And bured in thulke stude that heo wilnede byvore,28 Theras nou arered is a vair chanorie And a churche in hire name, and priorie, Ther hath ibe vor hire love ofte gret botnynge.29    Nou bidde we God, vor hire love, that He to Hevene ous bringe!


Shorter version

Seint Fretheswyde, that holy mayde, was of Englonde; Atte Oxenford heo was ybore, as ich understonde. Hir fader hete Kyng Dydan, and Sefreth hete the quene – This were hire eldren, that hure gotten hem bytwene. Fretheswyd, hure yonge doughter, to lettre hii setten in youthe; So wel heo spedde in six monnthes that heo hure Sauter couthe.1    Swythe wel heo was byloved, of hey and of lowe; Alle hii hadde joie of hure that couthen hure knowe. Of the hard here was hure nexte wede. The meste mete that heo ete was worten and barly brede,2 And the cold welle water – that was hure drynke. Now wold a knyghtes doughter grete hoker of suche sondes thynke!3    The maide bysoght hure fadere to make hure nonne In Seint Marie churche, that he hadde er bygonne. Hire fadere was the furste man that lete the churche rere That bereth the nam now of that mayde that lyth yschryned ther. The king was glad of this chyld, that to clene lyf drowe. He sende after a byschop anon hasteliche ynowe Of Lyncolne that was tho4 – Edgar was his name – To maken his doughter nonne ne thoght hym no schame. The byschop for the kynges heste thuder he cam hymsulf And schar hure in the nonnerie with hire felawes twelve.    A nyght, as this mayde was huresulf alon, In hire bedes with hire sustren slepen everechon, The fende hadde envye therof to hire goudhede And thoght myd som gynne of goud lyf hure lede. To hire he cam hire to fonde, in one mannes lyche5 In goldbeten clothes that semed swythe ryche. “My derworth mayde,” he sede, “ne thynke thee noght to longe. Tyme hit is for thy travayle that thou thy mede afonge.6 Ich am thulke that thou byst to: take now goud hede. Honoure me here, and for thy servyse ich croune thee to mede.”7 The fende hadde in his heved an croune of rede golde; Another he that mayde bede, yif heo hym honoury wolde.     “Fare fram me, thou foule fende with thyn byheste!” Heo made the croys, and he fley awey with noyse and grete cheste.8    In the holy nonnerie so longe heo lyved ther That hure fadere and hure modere both ded were. Algar hete the king after the king Dydan;9 He was king at Oxenford ychose – a wonder luther man. He ofsende Fretheswyth, to habben hure to wyve. Heo sede heo was to God ywedded, to hold by hure lyve. The forward that heo hadde ymade, heo sede heo nolde breke; If heo dude, wel heo wyste God wold be awreke. “A foule,” heo sede, “ich were the hey King of Hevene forsake10 For gyfte other for anythyng, and thee His hyne take.”    The messageres with grete strengthe wolden hure habbe ynome And don the maide byfor the king anon to hym come. Alle that weren ther woxen starc blynde; Bynome hem was the myght the mayde for to fynde!11 The borgeys of Oxenford sore were agaste, And this holy maide for this men hii beden atte laste, That heo thorw Godes grace geve hem here syght; And thennes to the king passe that hii mosten habbe myght.12    Anon hii hadden here syght thorw hire bysechyng; Thannes hii wende, and al that cas hii toldyn the king.13 The king therfor hym made wroth tho he herd this, And in grete wrath swor his oth that he wold hire seche, ywys; And that he hure habbe wolde. Faste he gan to yelpe And swor that hure wocchecrafte scholde hure lyte helpe.    An angel that sulf nyght to that mayde cam And bad hire oute of the kinges syght wende, that was so grame. The levedy wende by nyght fram hure sustren tho With somme that heo with hure toke – tweyne, witthoute mo. To Temese heo yede and fonde a bote al preste, thorw Godes sonde,14 And therin heo fonde an angel that broght hem to the londe. For dred of the king heo wende, as God hit wolde, Ne dorste heo come at non toune, to dwelle at non holde. In a wode that Benesy yclyped ys al day Thre wynter in an hole woned, that seylde me hure say.15    A mayde that seve yere ne myght nothing yse Cam to hure in the wode, and felle adoun a kne. Hure eyghen that holy mayde wysche with water of hure honde, And as hole as any fysche that maide gan up stonde.    The king hym cam to Oxenford, wroth and eke wode, And thoght to do the mayde other than goud. So sone so he to toune cam, he thoghte for to fyght And habbe this maide Fretheswythe with strengthe agenryght.16 He enquered ware heo was. Me told hym sone that cas: That heo in the wode of Benysye preveliche yhydde was.    The king rod toward the wode with hauke and with racche, For to enserchy after this mayde yf he myght cache. Tho this maide this yherd, anon heo bygan to fle Priveliche toward Oxenford, that non scholde hure se; So that heo was underyute that heo was fleynde. After hure me wende faste; the king rod ernyng.17 The mayde scaped into the toune, as hit was Godes grace. The kinges hors spornde witthoute the gate in a wel faire place And felle and brake the kinges necke; and that he gan awynne.18 Nas ther non of his men tho that derst come withinne.    The maide holde hure ther in pes fram alle hure fon. Glad was that myght with hure speke other to hure gon. Of hure holy lyf me told fer and eke nere, Into alle Englonde that me wyste nas yholde hure pere.    A wel swythe wondere cas byfelle oppon a day Up a fyscher that in a bote with his felawes aslepe lay.19 He bygan to ravien as he awoke of slepe. Up among his felawes, wod he gan to lepe, So that on that ther was among hem alle he slowe; And wan he was afalle, with his teth on hym he gnowe. Alle that myght to hym come on hym setten honde, And uneth with muche pyne hii teyghede hym and bonde. Al hii wer busie that foule goste to lede Toward that holy mayde, that heo for hym bede. The maide fourmed that croys tofor on his heved;20 The bounden body felle adoune, as hit were ded. The maide hete unbynd hym anon in al wyse, And suth hym a Godes name hole and sounde to aryse.21 Hol and sounde the man aros and hered God almyght And that mayde that hym delyvered of that foule wyght.22    As heo yede a day in the toune, a mysel heo mette. To hure the mysel felle adoune, and on knes hure grette, And bysoght that lady that heo hym cusse scholde. Heo custe hym, and he was hole, ryght as God hit wolde.    Fele miracles by hure lyve of hure weren ycude, And suth after hure deth; hii neren noght yhud.23 Heo wend out of this world a morwe up Lukes day. Now God ous bringe to the blysse that He broght that may!24 Amen.


So Binsey Well was the source of the water that cured blindness and thus set some of the foundations of Oxford, in particular Christ Church College who inherited all her estates.


So why all those the Deaths? That is all much later.

This is perhaps the most famous of the county’s holy wells. Its waters despite the dedication being association with the local saint and patron of Oxford, St. Frideswide, the reason being that the saint prayed to St. Margaret for her sight to be restored and the spring arose, the event occurring in either the late 6th or early 7th century. Her shrine became an important site, but her well was regularly frequented in the medieval period. It is said pilgrims would first visit the saint’s shrine in Oxford and then went on to visit the well which was enclosed in a stone well house. The water was thought to be so valuable for curing infertility as well as eye complaints that it was sold at a guinea a quart. One of the well’s most famed pilgrims being Henry VIIIth who came with Katherine of Aragon in hope of fertility luck! Hope (1893) in his The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England notes:

“Over St. Margaret’s Well was a covering of stone, and thereon on the front the picture of St. Margaret (or perhaps St. Frideswyde), pulled down by Alderman Sayre, of Oxon, a little before the late war, 1639.”

So now we get to the heart of the matter, Henry’s visit to Oxford failed to produce the require heir. So he split from the Catholic Church, and created his own

The Church of England dates its history principally to the mission to England by Saint Augustine of Canterbury in AD 597.[1] As a result of Augustine’s mission, Christianity in England came under the authority of the Pope. However, in 1534 King Henry VIII declared himself to be head of the Church of England. This resulted in a schism with the Papacy. As a result of this schism, many non-Anglicans consider that the Church of England should only be considered to exist from the 16th century.

Draw the dots.

The Well didn’t create an heir. In order to try and have one, Henry then caused all the religious wars between the Pope and England that went on down history from that point on. The Armada, etc.

A pretty big bill for such a small, place!


Mind you,

Henry VIII (28 June 1491 – 28 January 1547)

Catherine of Aragon (16 December 1485 – 7 January 1536)

Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – 19 May 1536)

Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603)

The question then becomes, who said it gave strong male children in the first place? The evidence seems to suggest otherwise!


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