Wessex Society’s annual St Ealdhelm’s Day celebration started out as a pilgrimage to sites associated with the saint. Over the years, it has changed into more of an annual walking tour around sites of general historical interest within Wessex, ably escorted by Jim Gunter, But this year, we decided to return to our roots.
Whilst the use of motor vehicles was an option denied to proper medieval pilgrims, it was the only way that we were able to cover the 49 miles from Doulting to Malmesbury in a single day. The tour started at St Ealdhelm’s Well in Doulting, the site of the saint’s repose.
Behind the well was a bath where Ealdhelm was supposed to have bathed while reciting the psalter. The well is reputed to have healing powers, but they clearly didn’t work on Ealdhelm, as he died shortly after taking the waters. His body was translated to Malmesbury, along a 49-mile route divided into 7*7-mile stretches. In reality, this account was more likely symbolic than historical. The number 7 in medieval and biblical literature was the number of perfection, and Ealdhelm had written a treatise On the Perfection of the Number Seven. No detailed account of the route exists, but several theories have been proposed. The route we chose went from Doulting to Frome, Bradford-on-Avon, Ash & Elm and finally to Malmesbury.
Frome is a town founded by Ealdhelm, and which has not allowed his memory to be erased. There are at least half a dozen uses of his name (using the Mercian spelling, Aldhelm) within the town, including a pharmacy and a print works named after him. The church, however, is dedicated to St John the Baptist. This should not surprise us if the church was founded by Ealdhelm himself, as he would not have been a saint when the church was dedicated, and would not have dedicated a church in his own name. The church did have a notice on display detailing the saint’s life, however, and had dressed its well, an annual tradition on his feast day.
The next stop was Bradford-on-Avon, where the Saxon church of St Laurence is reputed to have been founded by Ealdhelm. Recent archaeological finds have cast doubt on this attribution, however, as the architecture of the building suggests a mausoleum or reliquary, rather than a church. Furthermore, the 12th century Holy Trinity Church is right next door, which seems odd. Why site two churches next to each other? One possible explanation is that Holy Trinity is actually on the site of the church founded by Ealdhelm, and St Laurence was originally designed to site the saint’s body during his translation.
After an enjoyable pub lunch at The Castle Inn, we headed to the most remote spot on our journey, Elm & Ash. This was once the site of a chapel, which is strange, as there is no evidence of a settlement there. It is, however, just off the Fosse Way, the ancient Roman road from Exeter to Lincoln, and is almost exactly 7 miles from Malmesbury, making it quite likely that it was a stop along the pilgrimage route. There is an ash tree there, but no elm, though there could have been one in the past. One of our party wondered whether Elm & Ash could have been a corruption of Ealdhelm, but this is highly speculative. I did note that Aesc and Embla (Ash And Elm) were the first man and the first woman in the Norse creation myth, but again, this could just be coincidence. There is no evidence that this myth was even known to the West Saxons, and I’ve read enough Ronald Hutton to be extremely sceptical when positing any sort of pagan survival.
Our final destination was Malmesbury, possibly named after Ealdhelm and his spiritual father, the Irish monk Maeldubh. We had to be discreet as we explored the abbey, as there was a service in progress, and it would have been rude to disturb the worshippers. Malmesbury Abbey is always worth visiting, though, and it made a fitting end to the day.
Next year, we plan to predate Ealdhelm’s floruit by half a century or so, visiting Dorchester-on-Thames, a site associated with the apostle of Wessex, Birinus or Berin. Berin is also patron saint of Berkshire, and Dorchester was the first capital of Wessex. The last time I visited there was a walk on Berin’s feast day in early December, when it poured down with rain the whole time. Hopefully, a summer visit will produce better weather, though of course nothing is guaranteed in England!