St Milburga's Well

This page gives information regarding the well itself and the legend of St Milburga

The well is located a little way up the hill after going past the turning for the church heading for Clee St Margaret and can be identified by the purpose made gate at the entrance of the well site

St. Milburga was a Benedictine abbess who received the veil from St. Theodore of Canterbury. Her father was the King of Mercia and she was a sister of Saints Mildred of Thanet and Mildgytha. She was the abbess of Wenlock Abbey in Shropshire. She is supposed to have had remarkable abilities, such as levitation and power over birds. Her feast day is the 23rd of February.

St. Milburga's (or St. Milburgha's) Well is a spring with an old stone basin, on the east side of Stoke village. It was first mentioned in 1321. It later became a clothes-washing place. Stories of its miraculous origin were recorded in the mid-19th century. The water was said to be good for sore eyes. It was covered and altered in 1873 and 1906 and by 1945 its water was piped to six houses.

Various versions of the legends of St Milburga exist and some are shown below but there are probably many more

The well head

Another view of the well head with the name Milburga carved into the light stone

Two views of the water as it flows downhill to join, eventually, Bockleton brook

Closer view of the name carved into the stone

Entrance gate to the well, when you visit you can see that the latch is formed as the head of a goose as is the end of the handrail at the side of the steps leading down to the well itself

The legend(s) of St Milburga

Version one

This is the St Milburga who founded Wenlock Priory but the legends connected with the well bear clear pagan connections and probably date back to some pre-Christian goddess whose name bore sufficient resemblance to the saint to be adapted. Legend says that Milburga was waylaid whilst riding by 2 men armed with clubs, who jumped out from the brush at the roadside and demanded all her possessions. Since her destination, the church at Godstoke, stood less than ¼ mile ahead, she dug her heels deep into her horse's side and rode straight at her assailants. They jumped out of the way and Milburga galloped on. She was elated at the villains' defeat but her concentration flagged and she did not see a rock in her path that caused the horse to stumble. She was flung from her horse and landed against a rock, cracking her skull. Blood gushed from her wound and she fell into a faint. The horse rose upon its hind legs and crashed its hoof down against the offending rock. Healing waters gushed from the stone to bathe the saint's gash and miraculously she was well again with not so much as a scar to tell of her ordeal. The well is said to have great powers to cure the sick and ailing.

Version two

Abbess of Wenlock
Died: 23rd February AD 727 at Wenlock Priory, Shropshire

St. Milburga was the daughter of King Merewald of Magonset and his wife, St. Ermenburga (alias Aebbe of Minster-in-Thanet); and therefore sister of SS. Mildred and Milgitha. Milburga became a nun at the monastery of Wenlock (Shropshire), founded by her father and Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, on the borders of Wales, under a French Abbess, Liobinde of Chelles. Milburga eventually succeeded her in this office. Shortly afterward, a neighbouring prince attempted to compel her to become his wife and, with that intent, pursued her with an armed force. She fled across a river, which at once rose into an impassable flood and discouraged her pursuers.

A poor widow came to her in her oratory, bringing the body of her little dead son. Throwing herself at the feet of the abbess, she besought her to raise the child to life. “You must be mad!” exclaimed Milburga, “How can I raise your child? Go and bury him and submit to the bereavement sent to you by God!”. “No,” said the sorrowing mother, “I will not leave you till you give me back my son!” The abbess prayed over the little corpse and, while doing so, she suddenly appeared to the poor supplicant to be raised from the earth and surrounded by lovely flames – the living emblem of the fervour of her prayer. Within a few minutes, the child had recovered.

Milburga’s monastery was destroyed by the Danes; but, in the twelfth century, it was rebuilt and inhabited by Cluniac monks

Version three

St Milburga, virgin and elder sister of St Mildred, founded the nunnery of Wenlock in Shropshire (now known as Much Wenlock), assisted by endowments from her uncle, Wulfhere, the King of Mercia, and by her father, Merewald.

Installed as abbess by St Theodore, the saint’s monastery is said to have flourished like a paradise under her rule, partly because of the virtues she cultivated and the spiritual gifts with which she was blessed. The saint, who was educated in France, was noted for her humility, and was endowed with the gift of healing and restored sight to the blind, according to popular stories. Through the strength of her exhortations she was also reputed to bring sinners to repentance. She organised the evangelisation and pastoral care of south Shropshire.

Fantastic stories surround the saint. One tells of how she overslept and woke to find the sun shining on her. Her veil slipped but instead of falling to the ground was suspended on a sunbeam until she collected it. Another story relates how she was surrounded by “fire from heaven” as she knelt in prayer beside the body of a dead child and when the flames abated she returned the child back alive to its mother.

St Milburga was credited with having power over birds and after her death was invoked for the protection of crops against their ravages.

Version four, the long story

The sisters of Llan Meilien,

Round the Abbess Milburga stood:

"Oh Lady, stay, go not away

Through that dark lonesome wood.

The road of wolves is sore beset,

And also of pagan foe;

Then tarry here, Oh lady dear.

To Godstoke do not go.

"King Merewald's daughter raised her hand,

And sadly shook her head:

"Ere break of day I must away

To Godstoke", she said.

"For sword I'll take the Holy Cross,

My maiden truth for shield;

So armed my ass and I would pass

Safe through a battle field."

So starts a fascinating story of the lady who is known in history as Saint Milburga.Milburga was the daughter of Merewald, a member of the royal house of the Kingdom of Mercia, who founded a monastery at Wenlock around AD 690. It was a double house; primarily a nunnery but also served by priests who lived a formal life under vow.

Most probably these two communities lived separate lives, each with their own church.Milburga, together with her sisters, Milgitha and Mildred, were canonised by Saint Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, at a time when the various tribes in Britain were at war with each other in a vicious power struggle.The Archbishop's task was to preach brotherly love and Christian faith, and, to a certain extent, the sanctifying of royalty was simply good politics, as it united the church and monarchy, and many of those thus honoured did not continue to live up to their new position of saint.

Milburga, Milgitha and Mildred were the exceptions with probably more recordings of their lives than many holy men of that period.In this period it was the practice for royalty to marry their daughters to sons of neighbouring kings as a means of uniting kingdoms. Mercia, at that time, was allied with the Welsh against the might of the Northumbrians, and when peace came a Mercian princess duly married a Northumbrian prince.

The Archbishop's task was to preach brotherly love and Christian faith, and, to a certain extent, the sanctifying of royalty was simply good politics, as it united the church and monarchy, and many of those thus honoured did not continue to live up to their new position of saint. Milburga, Milgitha and Mildred were the exceptions with probably more recordings of their lives than many holy men of that period.

In this period it was the practice for royalty to marry their daughters to sons of neighbouring kings as a means of uniting kingdoms. Mercia, at that time, was allied with the Welsh against the might of the Northumbrians, and when peace came a Mercian princess duly married a Northumbrian prince. Milgitha accompanied her to found a convent in Northumbria. Mildred went south to Kent, the home of her mother, to become St. Mildred of the Isle of Thanet. Their mother was St. Ermenburga, a Kentish princess, who was one of the first members of royalty to become a Christian.

Milburga stayed at home, and under her role the convent at Wenlock flourished. Her aura, which some people believed in, was seen by many. It is recorded that she was found with a sick child in her arms, both engulfed by flames, though neither were burnt. As well as healing the sick, she had the power of being able to communicate with birds, and she was said to help farmers by putting a charm on their scarecrows. It is also recorded that she was able to prevent a flock of wild geese from doing damage to crops. In fact, in later years, pilgrims to her tomb purchased little leaden geese as mementos.

So Milburga prepared for her journey, but just before she left she confessed something to her sister that shows us that, despite being a Saint, she was only human.

"Oh, sister dear, I do not fear 

The perils of the road;

Though dark the wood and deep the flood,

And wolves prowl abroad,

He in whose cause I journey

gainst foes will take my part;

But Milgitha, dear, I need to fear

My weak and sinful heart."

"You know how, when duty called,

I cast my love aside;

Wolfgang, I said, a Christian maid

Can never be a pagan's bride.

I vowed my life, my love to God,

My plighted faith I broke;

And, Milgitha, I have never rued,

The word which then I spoke.

"But when I journey all alone,

And foes around me wait,

I fear least I should meet with one

Whose love has turned to hate.

I daily pray for Wolfgang,

For his soul will I pray;

But, sister dear, alas, I fear

To meet him on my way."

Well, it's not the first time a member of a Royal family has had the 'hots' for someone. But, thankfully, in those days, they knew to put duty before the heart.

Alas, Milburga met Wolfgang on her travels.

Over hill and dale, through brake and fell,

Sped on her milk white ass,

And ere the sun had reached the noon,

Through Corve's fair vale they passed.

There in a deep red furrow

The sowers dropped their grain,

An armed pagan by their side

Looked out across the plain.

And when he saw Milburga,

His black eye flashed fire:

"False Maid," he cried, once trothed my bride

By thy fainthearted sire:

Thou who has trampled on the love

Of a Saxon nobly born,

Shall rue the day thou told me nay

And pay for all your scorn.

The maiden's heart it quailed not;

She meekly raised her eye:

"Wolfgang, your arm can never harm

One that has a friend on high:

He who can make that grain to spring

And ripen into fruit,

Powers rain and sunshine on your heart,

And bids your faith take root."

She pointed to the furrowed field;

Loo, even as she spoke,

From the dry seed up sprang green blade,

And stalk and full ear broke!

In sore amazement the serfs gazed,

The warrior smote his breast,

And humble on his bended knee

The Christian God confessed.

Changed was his mind. He looked and lo

As in a glorious dream,

Behold the maiden and her ass

Against Corve's glittering stream;

And where they go fresh flowers grow,

And to this day is seen.

Upon the sod which they have trod,

A belt of freshest green.

But why did Milburga ride so fast?

No danger now was nigh.

"Think not," she cries, "my perils past;

From my own heart I fly!

My prayer is heard, we too shall meet

In the bright realms above,

But not again on Earth's wide plain;

In Heaven is all my love."

"Speed quick, my ass!" The ass sped on

Till well near Godstoke,

Her strength was spent, she tottered bent,

And sank upon a rock.

Great blood-gouts from her nostrils fell,

And stained the stone with red.

The saintly maid knelt by her side,

And stayed her fainting head.

"The wicked prophet smote his ass,

I will not thee so smite,

For God doth stay my onward way,

Till I shall walk a'right.

Trust not on chariot nor on steed

'Tis writ, but trust in me.

But I sought safety in great speed,

Though none pursue, I flee."

So spoke the pious Maid; and lo,

A sparkling fountain burst

From the dry ground and bubbled round,

And the ass slaked her thirst;

And strengthened, gained the journey's end;

And holy pilgrims tell,

There doth remain a dark red stain

At the bottom of the well.

When the pagan Danes invaded our shores, Milburga's tomb at Wenlock suffered the fate of many churches and shrines and was destroyed. It was later restored by Lady Godiva, but was destroyed yet again in the early days of the Norman Conquest. Later still, Roger de Montgomery founded a prior of monks at Much Wenlock on the site of St. Milburga's convent. Her memory was rekindled by the accidental rediscovery of her resting place around the time of the rebuilding of the church. It is said that her remains wrought so many miracles that floods of people poured in thither.

And so the memory of St Milburga was rekindled, but in 1547, in the last year of the reign of Henry VIII, Abbott Butler of Much Wenlock recorded the public burning of her precious bones in a common bonfire. Today, the memory of St. Milburga still lives on, especially in the parish of Stoke St.Milborough, where the church is dedicated to her and where her holy well stands close by.

But what sort of person was this Mercian Princess? Can we, after 1,200 years, even speculate as to her character? I like to think we can. Despite her devout faith, she was no less human and she possessed all the foibles and passions of her subjects. Perhaps this poem, by an unknown poet, written at an unknown time, is closer to the truth than many of the legends and stories that surround her. One thing is certain, if she had weakened and fell for the pagan Wolfgang there would have been many who would have lost faith in her position and ceased to hold her, or her family, in such respect. It might be a lesson that today's Royal family could learn from.

Stoke St. Milborough

This village lies some 13 miles to the south west of Much Wenlock. The water from the well was traditionally a cure for eye complaints. For many years it was overgrown, but has now been landscaped and reopened to the public. It can be found a little way up the hill on the road from the church towards Clee St. Margaret.

Stoke St. Milborough (Godstoke) was just part of the vast lands which were controlled by the religious house at Much Wenlock. Others included Badger, Beckbury, Little Wenlock, Madeley, Broseley, Willey, Linley, Deuxhill, Eardington, Ditton Priors, Monkhopton, Acton Round, Millichope, Easthope, Shipton, Church Preen, Hughley and Eaton under Heywood.

Content © 2021 Stoke St Milborough