Arum, Fairy Lamps and the ever-lasting spring: the legend of the Anglo Saxon St Withburga.


One of the more religious mentions of Arum is the plant’s association with St Withburga. Withburga was the youngest of four daughters of the Anglo-Saxon king Anna. When he died in 654, his eldest daughter Ethelreda inherited the Isle of Ely and founded the monastery and abbey there. Withburga meanwhile founded a nunnery and church at Dereham in Norfolk. Typically (for a fairy-tale type of legend) she was the poorest of the four sisters and during the building of her nunnery she did not have enough money to buy food for the workmen. After praying for divine intervention, two young does appeared from the surrounding woodland and allowed her maids to milk them. This sustained the workmen in their labours until a jealous local landowner chased the does away with his hunting dogs.

Tradition does not say whether this was after the church was completed or before and if before, we know not how the poor workmen continue to be fed. Tradition does record though that the landowner’s experience of divine retribution was swift, for shortly afterwards he was thrown from his horse and broke his neck.

No further miracles are recorded until long after Withburga died and had been buried in her church. Fifty years passed without event, until her body was discovered to be as fresh as when it was first interred. She is even reported to have blushed when a workman caressed her face with his finger. At this point, events take a dramatic turn.

News of the saint’s undecaying body spread quickly and the little church surrounding her fresh remains became a popular destination for the pious. This didn’t go down terribly well with the increasingly powerful Bishop of Ely and in 974 he ordered that Withburga’s body be forcibly removed and brought to Ely, ostensibly so that she could rest alongside her sisters who were all buried there. Another reason is thought to be so that the Bishop could enjoy the prestige and profit to be made from the increasing numbers of pilgrims journeying to visit St Withburga’s miraculously undecaying body. The Bishop of Ely’s monks arrived at the church with a cover story of wanting to celebrate St Withburga’s presence and miraculous preservation. They plied the locals with food and drink. And more drink. And more still. When everyone had fallen into a drunken stupor (but having somehow kept themselves sober), they stole the body of St Withburga and proceeded to take her back to Ely. Part of the journey was along the river Little Ouse. Richard Mabey, in his book
Flora Britannica, includes a tale from E.M. Porter’s Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore (1969) that describes the part played by Arum in this drama. The monks from Ely rested at Brandon, whereupon nuns from the nearby convent at Thetford arrived and covered the body of the saint in Arum ‘flowers’ (possibly due to an at the time recognised symbolism with death?). As the boat moved on, these fell from the body and took root in the river banks. Eventually the banks were covered in Arum blossoms that glowed with a pale, white light along the entire length of the river from Thetford to Ely. Meanwhile, back at Dereham, a spring had appeared where Withburga’s body had lain. This flows still to this day and has never run dry.

From this legend come the Cambridgeshire names for Arum of Fairy Lamps and Shiners, from how the flowers glow at night. Another name is River Fairy Lamps, said to come from Irish workmen in the 19th century who were brought to the area to drain the fens and discovered along the trail of St Withburga the Arum ‘flowers’ glowing still, as perhaps they still do to this very day ...

Read more on the iPad book here:

Faery Lore, Elf Shot and Arum

King Alfred

9 CE: Bald’s Anglo Saxon Leechbook

Of our Anglo-Saxon herbal knowledge and practices, only a fraction has survived to this day. Most of what was known was never written down and much of what was is long destroyed, either deliberately by the early Normans or by the simple passage of time. What remains gives us a teasingly small glimpse into the world of our Anglo Saxon ancestors. Into a world of great herbal knowledge intimately intertwined with ancient rituals, deep superstitions and a firm belief in the elven folk.

The Anglo-Saxon Leechbook of Bald is a manual of medical practices from the time of Alfred the Great. It exists only as a single manuscript, now housed in the British Museum and is the earliest known written medical lore from England. It is called ‘Bald’s’ leechbook because Bald was the person who ordered it to be compiled, by a scribe named ‘Cild’.
It may well be that it was created as part of King Alfred’s drive to create a more educated and equal society in his Kingdom. It is the oldest medical text known from the British Isles.

Leeches and Medical Bills.

Contrary to today’s usage, the word ‘leech’ in the title does not refer to the bloodsucking variety, but is the modern rendition of the Old English word 'laece', the word for a healer. This in turn is derived from the root word 'laekjaz', meaning enchanter or ‘one who speaks magic words’ (Polington 2000). 'Laece' is also related to another Old English word, 'lac', which relates to the practice of sacrifice and the offering of a gift or wealth.

Here we come upon a very ancient association between magic, healing and the making of sacrifices, either to the Gods or to the ‘leechmen’ in return for health. With the Old English word '
laece-feoh', or ‘leech fee’, it illustrates the long-standing power of healers and doctors to extract wealth from patients – an ability retained to this day.

Inside and Outside Diseases and the Pagan Charms to Cure Them.

The manuscript itself is split into three different books; the first two cover the treatment of external and internal problems, respectively, with both books arranging the remedies in a head-to-foot fashion. The third book is a collection of magical charms, rituals and folklore as medical remedies. These are a fascinating collection of our ancestor’s beliefs which stem from a north european bedrock and show little of the Mediterranean influence so prevalent in other herbals. The herbal charms, superstitions and rituals recorded do not date from the 9th century but instead are an echo of a much older, pre-Christian time, dating back to the days of Beowulf. They form a curious mixture of Christian beliefs and pagan practices which were both swirling around together in these tumultuous times.

Many illnesses were held to be the result of elf-shot, so much so that the longest chapter in the third book is entirely devoted to such elf-caused maladies. These were not the tiny gossamer fairies of Victorian times, but dark and powerful beings of nature who, more often than not, were unfriendly towards mankind. It was a ‘time when grown men believed in elves and goblins as naturally as they believed in trees’. (Rhode 1922)

The Knowledge of Herbs.

One of the notable features of the book is that it makes references to earlier ‘leechmen’, naming some of them and the remedies which they taught. Such references indicate that the records we have in Bald’s Leechbook are based on an even older tradition of healing which seemed to have already organised itself into a kind of professional body with its own ‘authorities’: an insight into Anglo-Saxon society for which we have no other evidence. Even more remarkable is that the Leechbook is written in vernacular Anglo-Saxon, not Latin, demonstrating that there was already a section of society that was literate yet separate from the Roman–Latin tradition of mainland Europe. That their knowledge was extensive is evidenced by the fact that even the very limited Anglo-Saxon literature which has survived mentions around 500 different plants, a number exceeded only by Dioscorides. Even famous European herbals such as the Herbarium of Apuleius described only 185 different plants and this was one of the most popular herbals in Europe.

Arum in the Leechbook.

The Leechbook is, amongst many other things, a rare example of a tradition of healing and herbal knowledge in Europe not derived from Greek/Arabic sources. The Regarding Arum, it says:
‘If a strong potion lodge in a man, and will not come away, take the netlierward part of celandine, and leaves of libcorn or arod, boil in ale, add butter and salt, give to drink a cup full of it warm.’

Further Reading for Bald's Leechbook and Anglo Saxon herbal practices.

The Old English Charms and King Alfred's Court.

Stephen Pollington’s book; Leechcraft, Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Published in 2000 by Ango-Saxon Books.

Cockayne’s Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, wort cunning and starcraft of early England, from 1864. Available at:

Read more on the iPad book here: