Saint Withburga

Saint Withburga was the youngest of four daughters of Anna, King of East Anglia. She lived during the middle part of the seventh century (the exact dates are not known). Until her father's death in 654 Withburga lived at the palace at Holkham. When Anna died Withburga moved to Dereham to found a nunnery.

During her early time in Dereham she started to build a church (the settlement in those early times consisted of a few huts and some cleared fields). Unfortunately Withburga ran out of money for food for the workmen and work had to be stopped. One day Withburga was sitting and thinking about what might be done, when the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a vision and said: "Send two of your maids to the stream every morning, there two deer will allow themselves to be milked. This will continue for as long as you need it".

As a result of this there was sufficient food to complete the church. News soon spread around about this miracle and people came to see the stream with the deer, the church and Withburga herself.

The local leader in Dereham became jealous and decided that he would kill or drive away the deer, but on the way to the stream, his horse stumbled and threw him. His neck was broken and he died. This too became part of the miracle surrounding Withburga and even more people came to see her.

Eventually Withburga died and was buried near to her church. Pilgrims came from far and near to pray at her grave. As a result, a shrine was constructed in the church and when it was ready Withburga's remains were exhumed. When they opened the coffin, they were amazed to see that Withburga was still as she had been buried, no decomposition had occured - another miracle had happened!

For the next few hundred years, this part of Britain was under constant attack from the Danes (and others). Dereham was attacked at least once and the church was damaged. Eventually peace was restored and Edgar, King of England, gave "Ely and all the lands belonging to it" to the Bishop of Winchester, provided that he restored all the churches and shrines. As a result the church was rebuilt and Dereham and the lands surrounding were governed from Ely for 500 years.

During this time the Abbot of Ely heard about the miracles and decided that Withburga ought to be buried in Ely Cathedral with her sisters. Knowing that the folk of Dereham would not part with their Saint they hatched a plan to remove her secretly. On one of the Abbot's periodic visits (to administer justice, collect tithes etc) he gave a great feast with lots to eat and, especially, drink. As soon as all the town's men were asleep the Abbot's men broke into the church and shrine and stole the coffin containing Withburga.

The next day, when the townsfolk heard what had happened they set off in pursuit and nearly caught up with the thieves at Brandon, but by the time they got there the coffin was already on a barge and heading for Ely.

When they returned they found that where Withburga had originally been buried, a spring of clear water had appeared. God, the town's people thought, had decided to compensate them for their loss. Another miracle had occured. A Holy well had been created where people (still occasionally) came to drink and pray for healing.

The spring has never run dry since it was discovered, despite drought and the best efforts of our local water company. It still runs today and once a year in July a festival is held to commemorate Dereham's Patron Saint - Saint Withburga.

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