There are certain, special places where the modern world feels very far away. As you pass through the wooden gate into St Margaret’s churchyard, Binsey, the relentless thrum of the ring road seems to recede into the distance, and time starts to slip …
For centuries pilgrims have made their slow journey to this sacred spot. Walking it today – past the riverside descendants of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ beloved aspens, whose ‘airy cages … quench in leaves the leaping sun’, along a narrow cart track, now metalled and neatly lined with young beech trees, with wide, flat fields stretching to either side – the approach still brings a feeling of rising expectation, a sense of something magical in store.
The door to the church, set in its low Norman porch, opens with a satisfying click. Inside, the space is cool, dark, anciently compact. The twelfth-century lancet windows are set deep. The ceiling is a riot of beams. Fragments of medieval stained glass in the chancel depict the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Sometimes the scent of lilies lingers after a recent wedding.
Why is this church here, cut off from the tiny hamlet of Binsey, so far from Oxford city centre? Precisely because of its remoteness – for it dates from a time when the value of silence and inaccessibility was properly understood. And because of the holy water which forms in droplets from a sacred spring outside, beyond the yew tree and the scattering of gravestones at the west end of the church.
This is the so-called Treacle Well, at the bottom of which, according to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, dwelt three little sisters, sustained only by treacle. The story of the well goes back far beyond the Victorians, however – back over a thousand years into the mists of Saxon history – for legend has it that this spring was summoned forth by none other than Oxford’s patron saint, St Frideswide.
Frideswide (or Frithuswith: her distinctive Saxon name means ‘peace’ and ‘strong’) has a unique and specific association with Oxford. Versions of her story are recorded in two medieval manuscripts. They tell of her noble upbringing, her beauty, her virtue, and her determination to become a nun. They also relate how she was ardently pursued by a Mercian king, Algar, who desired to make her his wife. She declined his advances, and managed to escape to the sanctuary of some knotty, thorn-entangled woods, several miles upstream from Oxford. ‘Here,’ in the words of Prior Robert of Cricklade, ‘she hoped to hide, here devote herself to sweet tranquillity and shun the crowds.’
The rapacious Algar refused to be deterred, and eventually discovered Frideswide’s secret location. But, just as he was about to ride out in hot pursuit, a miracle occurred. Algar was struck blind!
Ever compassionate, Frideswide restored his sight – and later that of others who came to visit her – using the waters of a holy well which she had caused to bubble up from the earth. This is the Treacle Well, so called because triacle is an ancient word meaning a medicinal balm or salve.
Algar relented and eventually it was safe for Frideswide to return to Oxford. There she achieved her life-long goal of establishing a priory. Many miracles were attributed to her and visitors came from miles afar to pay their respects – kings and peasants alike. When she eventually died, on 19 October 727, her grave became a pilgrimage shrine. From this moment forth Oxford’s reputation as a tourist destination was guaranteed.
The choice of setting for Frideswide’s priory was significant: on prime land, high up and overlooking the river crossing – a very important spot symbolically and strategically. It was no accident that, nearly a thousand years later, first Cardinal Wolsey then King Henry VIII chose the same location on which to site their church, college and, in due course, cathedral.
Which raises an intriguing thought.
The powers of the Treacle Well were deemed efficacious not just for optical problems but for gynaecological conditions too. In the middle years of his reign, Henry VIII and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, are said to have sought its waters to help produce a royal son and heir. Had the cure worked as hoped, the English Reformation might never have happened – in which case Binsey might have become a very different kind of pilgrimage site.
Now there’s a paradox Lewis Carroll would surely have appreciated.
The photographs for this story, including Edward Burne-Jones’ spectacular stained glass St Frideswide Window in the Latin Chapel, (above) were generously supplied by the Revd Ralph Williamson, and Jackie Holderness, Education Officer for Christ Church Cathedral and author of an award-winning children’s book about Oxford’s patron saint.