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The Legend of St Walstan

The story of Saint Walstan, the patron saint of farm workers and sick animals, is a heart-warming record of a life of renunciation, humility and charity, partly recorded in medieval manuscripts but also passed down by word of mouth over the centuries. Saint Walstan was born in Bawburgh around 975 AD, the son of Benedict and Blide (herself venerated as a saint and buried at Martham near Yarmouth). Benedict is thought to have had royal connections, but more likely he was of noble stock. Walstan was therefore brought up in rich surroundings, but at the age of 12 he gave up all his possessions and his privileged position and left home, walking to Taverham (about 7 miles from Bawburgh) to take up work as a farm labourer. On his way he donated his noble clothes to two passing peasants.  

He worked at the farm for over 30 years, and was renowned for his piety and generosity, even giving away his meagre wages. The farmer felt sorry for him and gave him a pair of shoes, but he passed these on to a beggar. This angered the farmer’s wife, who made him work barefoot among thorns. Instead of scratching him they emitted a pleasant scent, and therefore, the farmer’s wife begged his forgiveness. There are also stories of sick animals being brought to him for healing, and even people claimed to have been cured through his prayers. During this time, the farm prospered from Walstan’s hard work. The farmer and his wife, who were childless, wanted to adopt him as their son, but instead he asked them for a cow which later gave birth to two white bull calves. These, and a small cart given to him by the farmer, were his only possessions. He had been told by a vision from God that he should keep these. 

In his last years he had many visions, and finally one which foretold his death within three days, but he continued to work in the fields. On the third day he received the last rites from the local priest, and when water was needed for the ceremony, at Walstan’s command a spring of water appeared. He asked his fellow workers that on his death they put his body on the cart and harness the oxen to it, and then allow the oxen to wander at will; where they finally stopped he should be buried. 

Walstan died on 30 May 1016, and his fellow workers followed his wishes. The oxen, with the mourners following some distance behind, moved as far as Costessey woods before pausing to rest, and there another spring appeared. The animals set off again and finally stopped in the valley below Bawburgh Church, where another spring gushed forth (this is the renowned Saint Walstan’s Well).

The oxen then climbed the hill to the church, where it is said the walls opened to admit them. They remained there for 3 days, and after that time Walstan was buried there. Bishop Algar of Elmham officiated at the funeral and allowed the remains to be venerated as the relics of a saint.

Following the Saint’s death, a tradition of pilgrimage to the church arose and many miracles of healing were recorded, both to people and sick animals. As a result, the Saxon Church which had witnessed his funeral was enlarged, and a shrine chapel was built on its north wall. By all accounts this was beautifully decorated and adorned, and it immediately became the focus of a large number of pilgrims, second only to Walsingham in East Anglia. The pilgrims came from all parts of Britain and also from the continent. In 1275 a house for the six chantry priests, who officiated at the shrine, was built on adjoining land (the present Church Farmhouse).

This renown as an important place of pilgrimage brought great prosperity to the church and village for several years. However, at the Reformation, the shrine chapel was destroyed, and Walstan’s bones and the relics were removed, burned and scattered. The number of pilgrims diminished, but nevertheless pilgrims still came to visit the church and the well, and there are numerous records over the years of miracles of healing at the well.

Even in Victorian times the well was stated to possess extraordinary healing powers, and it has still continued to attract pilgrims to this day, with regular mass pilgrimages as well as individual visitors.

So the story of Saint Walstan still continues to exert power and interest one thousand years after his death. He is a prime example of someone who was prepared to give up a life of privilege for a humble life as a farm worker, where his faith, honesty and generosity were well known. He continues to be a figure to be followed: after all, our lives are a pilgrimage from birth to death, and each of us can gain great inspiration and comfort from the story of his faith and humility.

Blessing of the Second Saint Walstan's Well

On the 13th April 2016 the second Saint Walstan's Well on Costessey Park Golf Course was blessed by Fr. David Ward, Parish Priest of Saint Walstan's Roman Catholic church, Costessey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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