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Friday, 27 June 2014

On this day 27th June 1728, a strange ghost story from Beaminster


Gentleman's Magazine
in 1774
In 1728, school boys who attended the St. Mary's church for schooling. Witnessed the apparition of the former pupil, who was murdered in suspicious circumstances, a month earlier nearby his home at Knowle.
The following account of the Beaminster Ghost Story first appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1774.

"The following very singular story comes well authenticate' In many respects the story may be deemed unique in the history of the supernatural. The apparition appears in broad daylight, and is seen of five children, one of whom did not even know the individual it represented when alive, and yet proved its identity by a wonderful piece of circumstantial evidence. The intense pathos of the unfortunate and evidently murdered lad, reappearing amidst the scenes of his childish occupations, and where he had been wont to play with those boys who now could only look upon him as a passing shadow, is most suggestive.

St. Mary's Church, Beaminster
St. Mary's Church
Beaminster
The school of Beaminster says the account, is held in a gallery of the parish church to which there is a distinct entrance from the churchyard. Every Saturday the key of it is delivered to the clerk of the parish by one or other of the schoolboys. On Saturday, June 27th, 1728, the master had dismissed his lads as usual. Twelve of them loitered about in the churchyard to play ball. It was just about noon. After a short space four of the lads returned into the school to search for old pens, and were startled by hearing in the church a noise which they described as that produced by striking a brass pan. They immediately ran to their playfellows in the churchyard and told them of it. They came to the conclusion that some one was in hiding in order to frighten them, and they all went back in the school together to discover who it was, but could not find anyone. As they were returning to their sport, on the stairs that lead in to the churchyard they heard in the school a second noise. Terrified at that, they ran round the church, and when at the belfry, or west door, they heard what seemed to them the sound some one preaching, which was succeeded by another sound as of a congregation singing psalms. Both of these noises lasted but a short time.

With the thoughtlessness of youth the lads soon resumed their sport, and after a short time one of them went into the school for his book, when he saw a coffin lying on one of the benches, only about six feet away. Surprised at this, he ran off and told his playfellows what he had seen, on which they all thronged to the school-door, whence five of the twelve saw the apparition of John Daniel, who had been dead more than seven weeks, sitting at some distance from the coffin, further in the school. All of them saw the coffin, and it was conjectured why all did not see the apparition was because the door was so narrow they could not all approach it together. The first who knew it to be the apparition of their deceased schoolfellow was Daniel's half-brother; and he, on seeing it, cried out 'There sits our John, with such a coat on as I have' (in the lifetime of the deceased boy the half-brothers were usually clothed alike) 'with a pen in his hand and a book before him, and a coffin by him. I'll throw a stone at him.' The other boys tried to stop him, but he threw the stone-as he did so, saying, 'Take it '-upon which the apparition immediately disappeared.

The Old School - St. Mary's Church, Beaminster
Door way to the School
The immense excitement this created in the place may be imagined. The lads, whose ages ranged between nine and twelve, were all magisterially examined by Colonel Broadrepp, and all agreed in their relation of the circumstance, even to the hinges of the coffin; whilst their description of the coffin tallied exactly with that the deceased lad had been buried in. One of the lads who saw the apparition was quite twelve years of age; he entered the school after the deceased boy had left it (on account of illness about a fortnight before his death,) and had never seen Daniel in his lifetime. This lad, on examination, gave an exact description of the person of the deceased, and took especial notice of one thing about the apparition which the other boys had not observed, and that was, it had a white cloth or rag bound round one of its hands. The woman who laid out the corpse of John Daniel for interment deposed on oath that she took such a white cloth from its hand, it having been put on the boy's hand (he being lame of it) about four days or so before his death. Daniel's body had been found in an obscure place in a field, at about a furlong distant from his mother's house, and had been buried without an inquest in consequence of his mother alleging that the lad had been subject to fits. After the appearance of the apparition the body was disinterred, a coroner's inquest was held, and a verdict returned to the effect that the body had been' strangled'. This verdict appears to have been mainly arrived at in consequence of the depositions of two women 'of good repute' that two days after the corpse was found they saw it, and discovered a 'black list' round its neck; and likewise of the joiner who put the body in the coffin, and who had an opportunity of observing it, as the shroud was not put on in the usual way, but was in two pieces, one laid under and the other over the body. A 'chirurgeon' who gave evidence could not, or would not, positively affirm to the jury that there was any dislocation of the neck. So far as can be learnt, no steps were taken to bring anyone to justice on account of the suggested death by violence of the lad."

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Chase Devil: The Traditions and Customs of the St. John's Day

St. John the Baptist
The 24th June is known as ‘Midsummer Day’, which is one of the quarter days of the year. This day was always associated with water and communities often marked it by dressing their wells. (See Rogation Tide - Upwey Well Dressing). Christians have dedicated this day to St John the Baptist, because it is believed that he was born about this time. It is one of the few saint days that celebrate the saint’s birth and not the saint’s death. The small golden flowers named after him, namely ‘St John’s Wort’ or ‘Chase Devil’ as it is sometimes called, was traditionally gathered on this day and placed over the entrance of the house to protect it from evil. Other flora like Mistletoe cut on Midsummer eve will cure all. Ashes from oak fires are magic aids to health and protection from storms and fire.

Below: Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days 24th June 1864, details the traditions of St. John's Day.
Midsummer Day - The Nativity of John the Baptist

Considering the part borne by the Baptist in the transactions on which Christianity is founded, it is not wonderful that the day set apart for the observance of his nativity should be, in all ages and most parts of Europe, one of the most popular of religious festivals. It enjoys the greater distinction that it is considered as Midsummer Day, and therefore has inherited a number of observances from heathen times. These are now curiously mixed with those springing from Christian feelings, insomuch that it is not easy to distinguish them from the other. It is only clear, from their superstitious character, that they have been originally pagan. To use the quaint phrase of an old translator of Scaliger, they 'form the footesteps of auncient gentility;' that is, gentilism or heathenism.
The observances connected with the Nativity of St. John commenced on the previous evening, called, as usual, the eve or vigil of the festival, or Midsummer eve. On that evening the people were accustomed to go into the woods and break down branches of trees, which they brought to their homes, and planted over their doors, amidst great demonstrations of joy, to make good the Scripture prophecy respecting the Baptist, that many should rejoice in his birth. This custom was universal in England till the recent change in manners. In Oxford there was a specialty in the observance, of a curious nature. Within the first court of Magdalen College, from a stone pulpit at one corner, a sermon was always preached on St. John's Day; at the same time the court was embowered with green boughs, 'that the preaching might resemble that of the Baptist in the wilderness.'
Towards night, materials for a fire were collected in a public place and kindled. To this the name of bonfire was given, a term of which the most rational explanation seems to be, that it was composed of contributions collected as boons, or gifts of social and charitable feeling. Around this fire the people danced with almost frantic mirth, the men and boys occasionally jumping through it, not to show their agility, but as a compliance with ancient custom. There can be no doubt that this leaping through the fire is one of the most ancient of all known superstitions, and is identical with that followed by Manasseh. We learn that, till a late period, the practice was followed in Ireland on St. John's Eve.
It was customary in towns to keep a watch walking about during the Midsummer Night, although no such practice might prevail at the place from motives of precaution. This was done at Nottingham till the reign of Charles I. Every citizen either went himself, or sent a substitute; and an oath for the preservation of peace was duly administered to the company at their first 'meeting at sunset. They paraded the town in parties during the night, every person wearing a garland of flowers upon his head, additionally embellished in some instances with ribbons and jewels. In London, during the middle ages, this watch, consisting of not less than two thousand men, paraded both on this night and on the eves of St. Paul's and St. Peter's days. The watchmen were provided with cressets, or torches, carried in barred pots on the tops of long poles, which, added to the bonfires on the streets, must have given the town a striking appearance in an age when there was no regular street-lighting. The great came to give their countenance to this marching watch, and made it quite a pageant. A London poet, looking back from 1616, thus alludes to the scene:
        The goodly buildings that till then did hide
        Their rich array, open'd their windows wide,
        Where kings, great peers, and many a noble dame,
        Whose bright pearl-glittering robes did mock the flame
        Of the night's burning lights, did sit to see
        How every senator in his degree,
        Adorn'd with shining gold and purple weeds,
        And stately mounted on rich-trapped steeds,
        Their guard attending, through the streets did ride,
        Before their foot-bands, graced with glittering pride
        Of rich-gilt arms, whose glory did present
        A sunshine to the eye, as if it meant,
        Among the cresset lights shot up on high,
        To chase dark night for over from the sky;
        While in the streets the sticklers to and fro,
        To keep decorum, still did come and go,
        Where tables set were plentifully spread,
        And at each door neighbour with neighbour fed.'
King Henry VIII, hearing of the marching watch, came privately, in 1510, to see it; and was so much pleased with what he saw, that he came with Queen Catherine and a noble train to attend openly that of St. Peter's Eve, a few nights after. But this king, in the latter part of his reign, thought proper to abolish the ancient custom, probably from a dread of so great a muster of armed citizens.
Some of the superstitious notions connected with St. John's Eve are of a highly fanciful nature. The Irish believe that the souls of all people on this night leave their bodies, and wander to the place, by land or sea, where death shall finally separate them from the tenement of day. It is not improbable that this notion was originally universal, and was the cause of the widespread custom of watching or sitting up awake on St. John's night, for we may well believe that there would be a general wish to prevent the soul from going upon that somewhat dismal ramble. In England, and perhaps in other countries also, it was believed that, if any one sat up fasting all night in the church porch, he would see the spirits of those who were to die in the parish during the ensuing twelvemonths come and knock at the church door, in the order and succession in which they were to die. We can easily perceive a possible connexion between this dreary fancy and that of the soul's midnight ramble.
The civic vigils just described were no doubt a result, though. a more remote one, of the same idea. There is a Low Dutch proverb used by those who have been kept awake all night by troubles of any kind:
'We have passed St. John Baptist's night.' In a book written in the seventeenth century for the instruction of a young nobleman, the author warns his pupil against certain 'fearful superstitions, as to watch upon St. John's evening, and the first Tuesday in the month of March, to conjure the moon, to lie upon your back, having your ears stopped with laurel leaves, and to fall asleep not thinking of God, and such like follies, all forged by the infernal Cyclops and Pluto's servants.'
A circumstance mentioned by Grose supports our conjecture—that to sleep on St. John's Eve was thought to ensure a wandering of the spirit, while watching was regarded as conferring the power of seeing the vagrant spirits of those who slept. Amongst a company who sat up in a church porch, one fell so deeply asleep that he could not be waked. His companions after-wards averred that, whilst he was in this state, they beheld his spirit go and knock at the church door.
The same notion of a temporary liberation of the soul is perhaps at the bottom of a number of superstitious practices resembling those appropriate to Hallow-eve. It was supposed, for example, that if an unmarried woman, fasting, laid a cloth at midnight with bread and cheese, and sat down as if to eat, leaving the street-door open, the person whom she was to marry would come into the room and drink to her by bowing, after which, setting down the glass, with another bow he would retire. It was customary on this eve to gather certain plants which were supposed to have a supernatural character. The fern is one of those herbs which have their seed on the back of the leaf, so small as to escape the sight. It was concluded, according to the strange irrelative reasoning of former times, that to possess this seed, not easily visible, was a means of rendering one's self invisible. Young men would go out at midnight of St. John's Eve, and endeavour to catch. some in a plate, but without touching the plant—an attempt rather trying to patience, and which often failed.
Our Elizabethan dramatists and poets, including Shakspeare and Jonson, have many allusions to the invisibility-conferring powers of fern seed. The people also gathered on this night the rose, St. John's wort, vervain, trefoil, and rue, all of which were thought to have magical properties. They set the orpine in clay upon pieces of slate or potsherd in their houses, calling it a Midsummer Man. As the stalk was found next morning to incline to the right or left, the anxious maiden knew whether her lover would prove true to her or not. Young women likewise sought for what they called pieces of coal, but in reality, certain hard, black, dead roots, often found under the living mugwort, designing to place these under their pillows, that they might dream of their lovers.
Some of these foolish fancies are pleasantly strung together in the Connoisseur, a periodical paper of the middle of the last century. 'I and my two sisters tried the dumb cake together; you must know two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put it under each of their pillows (but you must not speak a word all the time), and then you will dream of the man you are to have. This we did; and, to be sure, I did nothing all night but dream of Mr. Blossom. The same night, exactly at twelve o'clock, I sowed hemp-seed in our backyard, and said to myself—"Hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed I hoe, and he that is my true love come after me and mow.' Will you believe me? I looked back and saw him as plain as eyes could see him. After that I took a clean shift and wetted it, and turned it wrong side out, and hung it to the fire upon the back of a chair; and very likely my sweetheart would have come and turned it right again (for I heard his step), but I was frightened, and could not help speaking, which broke the charm. I likewise stuck up two Mid-summer Men, one for myself and one for him. Now, if his had died away, we should never have come together; but I assure you his bowed and turned to mine. Our maid Betty tells me, if I go backwards, without speaking a word, into the garden upon Midsummer Eve, and gather a rose, and keep it in a clean sheet of paper, without looking at it till Christmas Day, it will be as fresh as in June; and if I then stick it in my bosom, he that is to be my husband will come and take it out.' So also, in a poem entitled the Cottage Girl, published in 1786:
        The moss rose that, at fall of dew,
        Ere eve its duskier curtain drew,
        Was freshly gather'd from its stem,
        She values as the ruby gem;
        And, guarded from the piercing air,
        With all an anxious lover's care,
        She bids it, for her shepherd's sake,
        Await the new-year's frolic wake,
        When, faded in its alter'd hue,
        She reads—the rustic is untrue!
        But if its leaves the crimson paint,
        Her sickening hopes no longer faint;
        The rose upon her bosom worn,
        She meets him at the peep of morn,
        And lo! her lips with kisses prest,
        He plucks it from her panting breast.'

We may suppose, from the following version of a German poem, entitled The St. John's Wort, that precisely the same notions prevail amongst the peasant youth of that country:

        The young maid stole through the cottage door,
        And blushed as she sought the plant of power:
        "Thou silver glow-worm, oh, lend me thy light,
        I must gather the mystic St. John's wort tonight—
        The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide
        If the coining year shall make me a bride."
        And the glow-worm came
        With its silvery flame,
        And sparkled and shone
        Through the night of St. John.
        And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.
        With noiseless tread,
        To her chamber she sped,
        Where the spectral moon her white beams shed:
        "Bloom here, bloom here, thou plant of power,
        To deck the young bride in her bridal hour!
        But it droop'd its head, that plant of power,
        And died the mute death of the voiceless flower;
        And a wither'd wreath on the ground it lay,
        More meet for a burial than bridal day.
        And when a year was past away,
        All pale on her bier the young maid lay;
        And the glow-worm came
        With its silvery flame,
        And sparkled and shone
        Through the Eight of St. John,
        As they closed the cold grave o'er the maid's cold day.'

Some years ago there was exhibited before the Society of Antiquaries a ring which had been found in a ploughed field near Cawood in Yorkshire, and which appeared, from the style of its inscriptions, to be of the fifteenth century. It bore for a device two orpine plants joined by a true love knot, with this motto above, Alec fiancee velt, that is, My sweetheart wills, or is desirous. The stalks of the plants were bent towards each other, in token, no doubt, that the parties represented by them were to come together in marriage. The motto under the ring was Joye l'amour feu. So universal, in time as in place, are these popular notions.
The observance of St. John's Day seems to have been, by a practical bull, confined mainly to the previous evening. On the day itself, we only find that the people kept their doors and beds embowered in the branches set up the night before, upon the understanding that these had a virtue in averting thunder, tempest, and all kinds of noxious physical agencies.
The Eve of St. John is a great day among the mason-lodges of Scotland. What happens with them at Melrose may be considered as a fair example of the whole. 'Immediately after the election of office-bearers for the year ensuing, the brethren walk in procession three times round the Cross, and afterwards dine together, under the presidency of the newly-elected Grand Master. About six in the evening, the members again turn out and form into line two abreast, each bearing a lighted flambeau, and decorated with their peculiar emblems and insignia. Headed by the heraldic banners of the lodge, the pro-cession follows the same route, three times round the Cross, and then proceeds to the Abbey. On these occasions, the crowded streets present a scene of the most animated description. The joyous strains of a well-conducted band, the waving torches, and incessant showers of fire-works, make the scene a carnival. But at this time the venerable Abbey is the chief point of attraction and resort, and as the mystic torch-bearers thread their way through its mouldering aisles, and round its massive pillars, the outlines of its gorgeous ruins become singularly illuminated and brought into bold and striking relief.
The whole extent of the Abbey is with "measured step and slow " gone three times round. But when near the finale, the whole masonic body gather to the chancel, and forming one grand semicircle around it, where the heart of King Robert Bruce lies deposited near the high altar, and the band strikes up the patriotic air, " Scots wha ha'e wi' Wallace bled," the effect produced is overpowering. Midst showers of rockets and the glare of blue lights the scene closes, the whole reminding one of some popular saturnalia held in a monkish town during the middle ages.'—Wade's Hist. Melrose, 1861, p. 146.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Midsummer Eve and the arrival of the Black Death to England

Midsummer Eve
by Edward Robert Hughe
Midsummer Eve’ or ‘St John’s Eve’ falls on 23rd June and like Hallowe’en and St Mark’s Eve this is a time when ghosts, phantoms and fairies are believed to be abroad and when one can foretell the future.

Midsummer's Fright Dream

If there was a full moon on Midsummer Eve night and a clear sky, a girl could use a mirror to discover how many years had to pass before she was to marry. The method used was for the girl to stand upon a stone on which she had never stood before with her back to the full moon and a looking glass in her hand. Gazing into the mirror she would see the moon's reflection and also a number of smaller moons. How many of these there were denoted how many years had to pass before she was to wed.

Flowers and plants feature heavily in such Midsummer Eve charms. The small yellow flower ‘St John’s Wort’ was considered to be very lucky, because it was believed to keep fairies, ghosts and evil from haunting the house. Unmarried girls would gather the flower very early on Midsummer Eve morning while the dew was still on its petals and place it under their pillows. If a girl did this in secret, it was believed that she would dream of her future husband that night.
St John's wort doth charm all witches away
if gathered at midnight on the saint's holy day
any devils and witches have no power to harm
those that gather the plant for a charm
rub the lintels with that red juicy flower
no thunder nor tempest will then have the power
to hurt or hinder your house; and bind
round your neck a charm of similar kind.
St. John's Wort
Sage leaves too were formerly used in love-divinations. This charm was believed to work for both females and males alike. To enable a person to see his or her future sweetheart, in either bodily form or in a vision, required the person to pluck twelve leaves off a sage bush at midnight; pulling one for each strike of the clock. With the last leaf pulled the destined wife or husband would appear behind them.

Rosemary is yet another herb used in Midsummer Eve charms. If a girl puts a plate of flour under a rosemary bush before retiring to bed, the next morning she should find her future husband's initials traced in the flour.

Roses are of special importance on Midsummer's Eve. It is said that any rose picked on Midsummer's Eve, or Midsummer's Day will keep fresh until Christmas. 

At midnight on Midsummer's Eve, young girls should scatter rose petals before them and say:
Rose leaves, rose leaves,
Rose leaves I strew.
He that will love me
Come after me now.
Then the next day, Midsummer's Day, their true love will visit them.

Those girls who had boyfriends already, but were perhaps unsure if he was the right partner for them would use the Orpine plant, which is often called "Mid Summer Men" to discover if he was their true-love. The enquiring girl would take two sprigs of Orpine, naming one after herself and the other after her boyfriend and place them upright in a lump of clay (Blue tac will do just as well today) and leave over night. If the next morning they were found bending towards each other, their love would prosper, but if they had turned away in opposite directions, their love affair was doomed. However, anyone trying this should be warned! If either of the two named sprigs had withered away, it was a sure sign that the said person was soon to die.

Watching in the church porch for those in the parish who were to die within the coming year was another universal Midsummer Eve custom. Anyone wishing to know would have to go to the church porch and wait there from 11pm until 1am (one hour either side of midnight) in complete silence. At some moment during the two-hour vigil, the fetches of those doomed to die would appear and pass one by one into the church.

Midsummer Fire Leaping
"Many of these ancient customs are still continued, and the fires are still lighted on St. John's Eve on every hill in Ireland. When the fire has burned down to a red glow the young men strip to the waist and leap over or through the flames; this is done backwards and forwards several times, and he who braves the greatest blaze is considered the victor over the powers of evil, and is greeted with tremendous applause. When the fire burns still lower, the young girls leap the flame, and those who leap clean over three times back and forward will be certain of a speedy marriage and good luck in after life, with many children. The married women then walk through the lines of the burning embers; and when the fire is nearly burnt and trampled down, the yearling cattle are driven through the hot ashes, and their back is singed with a lighted hazel twig. These hazel rods are kept safely afterwards, being considered of immense power to drive the cattle to and from the watering places. As the fire diminishes the shouting grows fainter, and the song and the dance commence; while professional story-tellers narrate tales of f airy-land, or of the good old times long ago, when the kings and princes of Ireland dwelt amongst their own people, and there was food to eat and wine to drink for all corners to the feast at the king's house. When the crowd at length separate, every one carries home a brand from the fire, and great virtue is attached to the lighted brone which is safely carried to the house without breaking or falling to the ground. Many contests also arise amongst the young men; for whoever enters his house first with the sacred fire brings the good luck of the year with him."
Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 'The Baal Fires and Dances', 1887

Midsummer Eve Customs and Superstitions in Dorset

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Midsummer Eve (Eve of St. John the Baptist) in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-
"Dorsetshire does not appear to have followed the example of many other parts of England and of other European countries in the ceremonies which marked the advent of the summer solstice as recorded by Brand and other writers, such as, piling up and dancing round  or through bonfires, and other recognized festivities. It seems to have contented itself with those simple and domestic practices that are so  dear to the heart of the village maidens, who seek by " divination", or some form of " matrimonial oracle ", to learn what is to be their own fate or chance of happiness in the married state.
William Barnes, writing in Hone's Year Book in 1832, refers to one of the commonest or best known of these. After mentioning some of the various means and practices which were resorted to in his childhood in order to attain this object, and which required no particular day or season in order to be effective, he tells us (p. 588) :—

Hemp-seed throwing.—" Midsummer Eve, however, is the great time with girls for discovering who shall be their husbands ; why it is so, more than any other, I cannot tell, unless, indeed, the sign Gemini, which the sun then leaves, is symbolical of the wedding union. But, however that may be, a maiden will walk through the garden at midsummer, with a rake on her left shoulder and throw hemp-seed over her right, saying at the same time:—

'Hemp-seed I set, hemp-seed I sow,
The man that is my true-love come after me and mow.'
"It is said by many who have never tried it, and some who have without effect, that the future husband of the hemp-sowing girl will appear behind her with a scythe, and look as substantial as a brass image of Saturn on an old time-piece"

Barnes also weaves this superstition or charm into " Mrs. Mary's Tale " in Erwin and Linda, one of his Poems of Rural Life in National English " (1846), pp. 11 and 12 :—
"For once, when summer's shortest night
Came round, so slowly letting fall
Its sparkling dew below the light
The moon cast down upon the wall ;
The while the slowly-clanging bell
Struck twelve o'clock, and giggling maids
Stole out to try the well-known spell
That brings their unknown husbands' shades ;
Young Linda too was scatt'ring wide
Her hemp-seed, crying 'This I sow
'That he who takes me for his bride
'Should now come after me and mow.'
 And turning round her fair-neck'd head
With timid smile, and backward look,
She saw—and seeing, felt half dead—
A shape come slowly o'er the brook ;
And when she saw his scythe-blade's bow
Behind him gleaming by the moon,
She sank with one convulsive throe,
Against an elm-tree in a swoon."

Thomas Hardy gives a delightfully realistic account of the observance of this custom by the village maidens of the Hintocks in The Woodlanders (vol. ii, chapter iv), where, as they left their homes for the woods in which they were to try their fate, " a handful " (of hemp-seed) " was carried by each girl ".

Mr. Hardy — who is a keen observer of all that is archaic and quaint in the life of the Dorset peasantry—at the same time alludes incidentally to a somewhat similar species of divination by which girls were enabled to learn what were the trades of their future husbands, namely, by " hole-digging " at noon on the following day, St. John the Baptist's or Midsummer Day. No further details are given; and as I have not myself come across this particular form of divination I cannot give any information as to how it was actually carried out, beyond saying that it would seem to bear some kinship to that mentioned by Brand (i, 267), who cites Aubrey's Miscellanies (1696) for the statement that " on the day of St. John Baptist " as he was walking in the pasture at 12 o'clock he saw a group of young women on their knees " very busie, as if they had been weeding ".

"A young man told him that they were looking for a coal (or " cole " : an old, blackened root, often found under mugwort or plantains) under the root of a plantain, to put under their heads that night, and they should dream who would  be their husbands. It was to be that day and hour."

Crossed Shoes. — Barnes also gives another well-known " matrimonial oracle ", which consists in a. girl, on going to bed on Midsummer Eve, putting her shoes at right angles to each other in the shape of a T, and saying :—
"Hoping this night my true love to see,
I place my shoes in the form of a T."
When she will be sure to see her husband in a dream, and perhaps in reality, by her bed-side.

According to the Rev. Canon C. H. Mayo this couplet sometimes takes the form of a quotation :—

"I place my shoes in the form of a T,
Hoping this night my true-love to see,
In his apparel and in his array,
As he goes forth on every day."
Letters of Alphabet.—There is still another one mentioned by Barnes. " A girl, on going to bed, is to write the alphabet on small pieces of paper and put them into a bason of water with the letters downward ; and it is said that in the morning she will find the first letter of her husband's name turned up, and the others as they were left."

Death Omen. — Miss M, G. A. Summers, of Hazelbury Bryan, contributed to the " Folk-lore Column " of the Dorset County Chronicle in 1881 several interesting items relating to Midsummer Eve.

She stated that a curious old custom was still firmly believed in Dorsetshire, that if you sit in the church porch on Midsummer Eve you will see those who are to die during the ensuing year enter the church and not come out again ; whilst those who will have a serious illness will go in and return again. Also that she had been informed by a Dorset woman " with a most solemn face" that if you put some }^arrow gathered off a young man's grave under your pillow on Midsummer Eve you will surely see your future husband.

Miss Summers further remembered hearing a young woman in a neighbouring village say that she had laid out some bread and cheese and had sat up, as she had " heard tell how her young man's spirit would come and take some ".

This last is evidently that alluded to by Thomas Hardy in his Under the Greenwood Tree, where at the Christmas party given by the tranter Reuben Dewy, depicted in Part I, Chapter VIII, Mrs. Penny speaks of the occasion when one Midsummer Eve, when she was a young woman, she had sat up, accordin to the' time-honoured custom, to watch for the spirit of the man who was to be her future husband. She says : "I put the bread and cheese and cider quite ready as the witch's book ordered, and I opened the door and waited till the clock struck twelve. When the clock had struck, lo and behold I could see through a little small man in the lane wi' a shoemaker's apron on. In he walks and down he sits, and, O my goodness, didn't I flee upstairs, body and soul hardly hanging together! "

Though this was not the figure she approved or desired, as her conduct on this occasion showed, so effectual was the charm that she had prepared that she nevertheless in due course of time became his wife."
The Black Death enters Weymouth

It was also this time in the month over 600 years ago that the dreadful plague known as the Black Death swept into from Asia claiming a third of Europe's population in just two years. Its arrival to England through Weymouth on the 25th June 1348. Is documented in the Grey Friars Chronicle.
'In this year 1348 in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St. John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from Bristol came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.'
A victim of the Black Death
Villages and hamlets on the outskirts of Weymouth soon fell victim to the plague causing the villagers to abandon their settlements and seek refuge in other parts of the county; this caused the infection to spread over a wide area, until it eventually reached the major cities. The Death took a heavy toll on the people of Portland, that the quarries and fields ceased to be worked and the coastal defences were left deserted. Edward III, in 1352 ordered the movement of the islanders to be restricted. The bubonic plague was transmitted to humans by the bite of a flea, the flea itself being infected by the black rat upon which it lived. Both rats and fleas thrived in unsanitised conditions of the time. One bite from a flea could cause the most horrifying symptoms. The first sign being a blackish rash followed by large swellings in the armpit, groin and neck area. Preceding death the victim would develop a fever and begin to hallucinate. The bubonic plague continued to affect Europe for centuries, its last manifestation in Britain being the Great Plague of the 1660's.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Summer is a-comin - The Traditions and Superstitions of the Summer Soltice

It was once customary to turn around three times sun-wise (clockwise) for luck as soon as one got out of bed on the morning of the ‘Summer Solstice’.

The Summer Solstice or
‘Litha’, as it was once called, occurs on either the 20th, 21st or 22nd June and it is the day when the sun is at its highest point in the sky and daylight lasts longest. The word ‘solstice’ has its origins in the Latin word ‘solstitium’ meaning the ‘sun stands still’. This day was important for pagan people who would celebrate this fire festival by lighting ritual bonfires in honour of the sun. They would dance sun-wise around the fire before joining hands and leaping through it and when the fire had burnt out, its ashes were used to foretell the future

The sun has been worshiped since the dawn of man and has long been seen as a power for good, driving away darkness and likewise dark forces. Even today it is seen as a symbol of good fortune, health, wealth and happiness, leading to such sayings as: ‘Happy is the bride the sun shines on’, and ‘The sun shines on the righteous’. However, because the sun is divine since ancient times, it is still commonly believed unlucky to make any insulting gestures towards it, such as pointing at it. According to folklore anyone born at sunrise will be intelligent and quick witted, while those born at sunset will be slow and idle.

The Midsummer moon is often called the "Honey Moon" for the mead made from fermented honey that was part of pagan wedding ceremonies performed at the Summer Solstice.

Below: Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days June 21st 1864, details the traditions of the Summer Soltice.
Characteristics of June

Though the summer solstice takes place on the 21st day, June is only the third month of the year in respect of temperature, being preceded in this respect by July and August. The mornings, in the early part of the month especially, are liable to be even frosty, to the extensive damage of the buds of the fruit-trees. Nevertheless, June is the mouth of greatest summer beauty—the month during which the trees are in their best and freshest garniture. 'The leafy month of June,' Coleridge well calls it, the month when the flowers are at the richest in hue and profusion. In English landscape, the conical clusters of the chestnut buds, and the tassels of the laburnum and lilac, vie above with the variegated show of wild flowers below. Nature is now a pretty maiden of seventeen; she may show maturer charms afterwards, but she can never be again so gaily, so freshly beautiful. Dr Aiken says justly that June is in reality, in this climate, what the poets only dream May to be. The mean temperature of the air was given by an observer in Scotland as 59° Fahrenheit, against 60° for August and 61° for July.

The sun, formally speaking, reaches the most northerly point in the zodiac, and enters the constellation of Cancer, on the 21st of June; but for several days about that time there is no observable difference in his position, or his hours of rising and setting. At Greenwich he is above the horizon from 3:43 morning, to 8:17 evening, thus making a day of 16h. 26m. At Edinburgh, the longest day is about 17½ hours. At that season, in Scotland, there is a glow equal to dawn, in the north, through the whole of the brief night. The present writer was able at Edinburgh to read the title-page of a book, by the light of the northern sky, at midnight of the 14th of Juno 1849. In Shetland, the light at mid-night is like a good twilight, and the text of any ordinary book may then be easily read. It is even alleged that, by the aid of refraction, and in favourable circumstances, the body of the sun has been seen at that season, from the top of a hill in Orkney, though the fact cannot be said to be authenticated.

Marrige Superstitions and Customs

was the month which the Romans considered the most propitious season of the year for contracting matrimonial engagements, chosen were l that of the full moon or the conjunction of the sun and moon; the month of May was especially to be avoided, as under the influence of spirits adverse to happy households.

All these pagan superstitions were retained in the Middle Ages, with many others which belonged more particularly to the spirit of Christianity: people then had recourse to all kinds of divination, love philters, magical invocations, prayers, fastings, and other follies, which were modified according to the country and the individual. A girl had only to agitate the water in a bucket of spring-water with her hand, or to throw broken eggs over another person's head, if she wished to see the image of the man she should marry. A union could never be happy if the bridal party, in going to church, met a monk, a priest, a hare, a dog, cat, lizard, or serpent; while all would go well if it were a wolf, a spider, or a toad. Nor was it an unimportant matter to choose the wedding day carefully; the feast of Saint Joseph was especially to be avoided, and it is supposed, that as this day fell in mid-Lent, it was the reason why all the councils and synods of the church forbade marriage during that season of fasting; indeed, all penitential days and vigils throughout the year were considered unsuitable for these joyous ceremonies.

The church blamed those husbands who married early in the morning, in dirty or negligent attire, reserving their better dresses for balls and feasts; and the clergy were forbidden to celebrate the rites after sunset, because the crowd often carried the party by main force to the ale-house, or beat them and hindered their departure from the church until they had paid a ransom. The people always manifested a strong aversion for badly assorted marriages. In such cases, the procession would be accompanied to the altar in the midst of a frightful concert of bells, sauce-pans, and frying-pans, or this tumult was reserved for the night, when the happy couple were settled in their own house. The church tried in vain to defend widowers and widows who chose to enter the nuptial bonds a second time; a synodal order of the Archbishop of Lyons, in 1577, thus describes the conduct it excommunicated: ' Marching in masks, throwing poisons, horrible and dangerous liquids before the door, sounding tambourines, doing all kinds of dirty things they can think of, until they have drawn from the husband large sums of' money by force.'

A considerable sum of money was anciently put into a purse or plate, and presented by the bridegroom to the bride on the wedding-night, as a sort of purchase of her person; a custom common to the Greeks as well as the Ro-mans, and which seems to have prevailed among the Jews and many Eastern nations. It was changed in the Middle Ages, and in the north of Europe, for the morgengabe, or morning present; the bride having the privilege, the morning after the wedding-day, of asking for any sum of money or any estate that she pleased, and which could not in honour be refused by her husband. The demand at times became really serious, if the wife were of an avaricious temper. Something of the same kind prevailed in England under the name of the Dow Purse. A trace of this is still kept up in Cumberland where the bridegroom provides himself with gold and crown pieces, and, when the service reaches the point, ' With all my worldly goods I thee endow,' he takes up the money, hands the clergyman his fee, and pours the rest into a handkerchief which is held by the bridesmaid for the bride. When Clovis was married to the Princess Clotilde, he offered, by his proxy, a sou and a denier, which became the marriage offering by law in France; and to this day pieces of money are given to the bride, varying only in value according to the rank of the parties.

How the ring came to be used is not well ascertained, as in former days it did not occupy its present prominent position, but was given with other presents to mark the completion of a contract. Its form is intended as a symbol of eternity, and of the intention of both parties to keep for ever the solemn covenant into which they have entered before God, and of which it is a pledge. When the persons were betrothed as children, among the Anglo-Saxons, the bride-groom gave a pledge, or 'wed' (a term from which we derive the word wedding); part of this wed consisted of a ring, which was placed on the maiden's right hand, and there religiously kept until transferred to the other hand at the second ceremony. Our marriage service is very nearly the same as that used by our forefathers, a few obsolete words only being changed.

The bride was taken 'for fairer, for fouler, for better, for worse;' and promised 'to be buxom and bonny' to her future husband. The bridegroom put the ring on each of the bride's left-hand fingers in turn, saying at the first, 'in the name of the Father;' at the second, 'in the name of the Son,' at the third, ' in the name of the Holy Ghost;' and at the fourth, 'Amen.' The father presented his son-in-law with one of his daughter's shoes as a token of the transfer of authority, and the bride was made to feel the change by a blow on her head given with the shoe. The husband was bound by oath to use his wife well, in failure of which she might leave him; yet as a point of honour he was allowed 'to bestow on his wife and apprentices moderate castigation.' An old Welsh law tells us that three blows with a broomstick, on any 'part of the person except the head, is a fair allowance;' and another provides that the stick be not longer than the husband's arm, nor thicker than his middle finger.

An English wedding, in the time of good Queen Bess, was a joyous public festival; among the higher ranks, the bridegroom presented the company with scarves, gloves, and garters of the favourite colours of the wedding pair; and the ceremony wound up with. banquetings, masques, pageants, and epithalamiums. A gay procession formed a part of the humbler marriages; the bride was led to church between two boys wearing bride-laces and rosemary tied about their silken sleeves, and before her was carried a silver cup filled with wine, in which was a large branch of gilded rosemary, hung about with silk ribbons of all colours. Next came the musicians, and then the bridesmaids, some bearing great bridecakes, others garlands of gilded wheat; thus they marched to church amidst the shouts and benedictions of the spectators.

The penny weddings, at which each of the guests gave a contribution for the feast, were reprobated by the straiter-laced sort as leading to disorders and licentiousness; but it was found impossible to suppress them. All that could be done was to place restrictions upon the amount allowed to be given; in Scotland five shillings was the limit.

The customs of marrying and giving in marriage in Sweden, in former years, were of a somewhat barbarous character; it was beneath the dignity of a Scandinavian warrior to court a lady's favour by gallantry and submission—he waited until she had bestowed her affections on another, and was on her way to the marriage ceremony, when, collecting his faithful followers, who were always ready for the fight, they fell upon the wedding cortege, and the stronger carried away the bride. It was much in favour of this practice that marriages were always celebrated at night. A pile of lances is still preserved behind the altar of the ancient church of Husaby, in Gothland, into which were fitted torches, and which were borne before the bridegroom for the double purpose of giving light and protection. It was the province of the groomsmen, or, as they were named, 'best men,' to carry these; and the strongest and stoutest of the bridegroom's friends were chosen for this duty. Three or four days before the marriage, the ceremony of the bride's bath took place, when the lady went in great state to the bath, accompanied by all her friends, married and single; the day closing with a banquet and ball.

On the marriage-day the young couple sat on a raised platform, under a canopy of silk; all the wedding presents being arranged on a bench covered with silk, and consisting of plate, jewels, and money. To this day the bridegroom has a great fear of the trolls and sprites which still inhabit Sweden; and, as an antidote against their power, he sews into his clothes various strong smelling herbs, such. as garlick, chives, and rosemary. The young women always carry bouquets of these in their hands to the feast, whilst they deck themselves out with loads of jewellery, gold bells, and grelots as large as small apples, with chains, belts, and stomachers. No bridegroom could be induced on that day to stand near a closed gate, or where cross roads meet; he says he takes these precautions ' against envy and malice.' On the other hand, if the bride be prudent, she will take care when at the altar to put her right foot before that of the bridegroom, for then she will get the better of her husband during her married life; she will also be studious to get the first sight of him before he can see her, because that will pre-serve her influence over him. It is customary to fill the bride's pocket with bread, which she gives to the poor she meets on her road to church, a misfortune being averted with every alms bestowed; but the beggar will not eat it, as he thereby brings wretchedness on himself. On their return from church, the bride and bridegroom must visit their cowhouses and stables, that the cattle may thrive and multiply.

In Norway, the marriages of the bonder or peasantry are conducted with very gay ceremonies, and in each parish there is a set of ornaments for the temporary use of the bride, including a showy coronal and girdle; so that the poorest woman in the land has the gratification of appearing for one day in her life in a guise which she probably thinks equal to that of a queen. The museum of national antiquities at Copenhagen contains a number of such sets of bridal decorations which were formerly used in Denmark. In the International Exhibition at London, in 1862, the Norwegian court showed the model of a peasant couple, as dressed and decorated for their wedding; and every beholder must have been arrested by its homely splendours. Annexed is a cut representing the bride.

In pagan days, when Rolf married King Erik's daughter, the king and queen sat throned in state, whilst courtiers passed in front, offering gifts of oxen, cows, swine, sheep, sucking-pigs, geese, and even cats. A shield, sword, and axe were among the bride's wedding outfit, that she might, if necessary, defend herself from her husband's blows.

In the vast steppes of south-eastern Russia, on the shores of the Caspian and Black Sea, marriage ceremonies recall the patriarchal customs of the earliest stages of society. The evening before the day when the affianced bride is given to her husband, she pays visits to her master and the inhabitants of the village, in the simple dress of a peasant, consisting of a red cloth jacket, descending as low as the knees, a very short white petticoat, fastened at the waist with a red woollen scarf, above which is an embroidered chemise. The legs, which are always bare above the ankle, are sometimes protected by red or yellow morocco boots. The girls of the village who accompany her are, on the contrary, attired in their best, recalling the old paintings of Byzantine art, where the Virgin is adorned with a coronal. They know how to arrange with great art the leaves and scarlet berries of various kinds of trees in their hair, the tresses of which are plaited as a crown, or hang down on the shoulders. A necklace of pearls or coral is wound at least a dozen times round the neck, on which they hang religious medals, with. enamel paintings imitating mosaic.

At each house the betrothed throws herself on her knees before the head of it, and kisses his feet as she begs his pardon; the fair penitent is immediately raised and kissed, receiving some small present, whilst she in return gives a small roll of bread, of a symbolic form. On her return home all her beautiful hair is cut off, as henceforth she must wear the platoke, or turban, a woollen or linen shawl which is rolled round the head, and is the only distinction between the married and unmarried. It is invariably presented by the husband, as the Indian shawl among ourselves; which, however, we have withdrawn from its original destination, which ought only to be a head-dress. The despoiled bride expresses her regrets with touching grace, in one of their simple songs: 'Oh, my curls, my fair golden hair! Not for one only, not for two years only, have I arranged you—every Saturday you were bathed, every Sunday you were ornamented, and to-day, in a single hour, I must lose you!' The old woman whose duty it is to roll the turban round the brow, wishing her happiness, says, ' I cover your head with the platoke:, my sister, and I wish you health and happiness. Be pure as water, and fruitful as the earth.' When the marriage is over, the husband takes his wife to the inhabitants of the village, and shows them the change of dress effected the night before.

Among the various tribes of Asia none are so rich or well-dressed as the Armenians; to them belongs chiefly the merchandise of precious stones, which they export to Constantinople. The Armenian girl whose marriage is to be described had delicate flowers of celestial blue painted all over her breast and neck, her eye-brows were dyed black, and the tips of her fingers and nails of a bright orange. She wore on each hand valuable rings set with precious stones, and round her neck a string of very fine turquoises; her shirt was of the finest spun silk, her jacket and trousers of cashmere of a bright colour. The priest and his deacon arrived; the latter bringing a bag containing the sacerdotal garments, in which the priest arrayed himself, placing a mitre ornamented with precious stones on his head, and a collar of metal,—on which the twelve apostles were represented in bas-relief, —round his neck. He began by blessing a sort of temporary altar in the middle of the room; the mother of the bride took her by the hand, and leading her forward, she bowed at the feet of her future husband, to show that she acknowledged him as lord and master. The priest, placing their hands in each other, pronounced a prayer, and then drew their heads together until they touched three times, while with his right hand he made a motion as if blessing them; a second time their hands were joined, and the bridegroom was asked, 'Will you be her husband?' will,' he answered, raising at the same time the veil of the bride, in token that she was now his, and letting it fall again. The priest then took two wreaths of flowers, ornamented with a quantity of hanging gold threads, from the hands of the deacon, put them on the heads of the married couple, changed them three times from one head to the other, repeating each time, 'I unite you, and bind you one to another —live in peace.' Such are the customs in the very land where man was first created; and, among nations who change so little as those in the East, we may fairly believe them to be among the most ancient.




Friday, 20 June 2014

Midsummer Madness - The Customs and Traditions of the Filly Loo at Ashmore

Ashmore is located in an area of chalk downland know as the Cranborne Chase.  One of the highest villages in the south of England and the highest in Dorset it lies 700 feet above sea level.
 

The Great Pond, Ashmore
The Great Pond, Ashmore
One of the major problems for hilltop settlements like Ashmore was that of water supply.  The chalk drained the water away, so to preserve water the hilltop settlers dug holes in the chalk and lined them with clay to retain water.  These ‘Dew Ponds’ provide water for livestock grazing on the hills or on their way to markets where a natural supply of surface water may not be have been readily available. Few remain today and Ashmore village has grown up around one of the oldest and most famous ponds in the country. Even the villages very name is mentioned in the Domesday Book  as ‘Aisemere’ derived from the Old English ‘aesc and ‘mere’ meaning “pool where the ash trees grow’.
 

 Due to the villages height above sea level the relationship between evaporation and condensation was such that very little water was lost to evaporation.  It is seldom dry even in the hottest season.

However occasional there have been rare occurrences when the pond has dried out completely.  Edward William Watson, in his 1859 publication "Ashmore, Co. Dorset: a history of the parish with index to the registers, 1651 to 1820" writes an account of the time when this happened and the   traditional village custom associated with it. 


The Filly Loo Ceremony around the village pond
The Villagers celebrate the 'Filly Loo'
“The great pond, from which the village takes its name, (for Ashmore is a corruption of Ashmere, little more than three hundred years old ; Ashmeer occurs in a will of 1698) sixteen feet deep opposite the Rectory, has nothing to equal it among the chalk downs of the neighbourhood, nor indeed in all the down country of Wiltshire and Dorsetshire. In all probability, however it may have been enlarged, its beginnings are natural ; it must be a swallow-hole, like those in the Yorkshire limestone. It rarely fails, though it is only fed by rain water. Perhaps, on an average, it is dry once in twenty years; and then the villagers, by ancient custom, hold a feast. Cakes are baked, and eaten round the margin and in the bed of the pond ; and the farmers haul out the hundreds of cart-loads of mud which have accumulated on the bottom, and lay them on their land. By a curious coincidence, the pond happened to dry, and the feast was held, in 1887, the Jubilee Year."
 

Dancing with the Green Man
'Steps in Time' perform
a traditional dance
In 1956, this old custom was revived by Peter Swann, as a folk dance festival called the 'Filly Loo'. With the cooperation of the Ashmore Folk Dance Club and guests from Warminster, Westbury and other villages in Dorset and Wiltshire the festival has been traditionally held on the Friday evening nearest to the Feast of St. John the Baptist or Midsummer's Day - 24th June.  This year (2013) the Filly Loo will take place on Friday 21st June from 7.00pm onwards.

The festivities begin when popular Folk and Celidh Band 'Hambledon Hopstep Band' begins to play, calling the villagers out to take part in the first dance, led by a Green Man. Dancing continues throughout the evening, with the North Dorset childrens dance group 'The Steps in Time' and the White Horse Morris from Wiltshire
Torch lit procession with six antlered deer-menBy dusk, the celebrations reach their climax with the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. This is a torch lit procession with six antlered deer-men and four other colourful costumed characters: a Maid Marion, a bowman, a hobbyhorse and a fool.

The procession and dance is accompanied by a haunting solo melody in a minor key, which is very atmospheric. The celebration finishes with the torches in the ground around the pond and every reveller joins hands around the large village pond for a final dance.




The Woman in White

The origin of the name, ‘Filly Loo’, is an enigma, Some suggest that it is name after the one of the original instigators of the festival, a Louis Rideout, known as ‘Filbert Louis’. While others suggest it was originally held to celebrate the end of the cultivated hazelnut harvest in Ashmore. ‘Filbert’ being another name for hazelnut is derived from the name of St. Philibert, a Frankish abbot whose commemorative feast day falls on August 22, the date by which hazelnuts were supposed to start ripening.

The White Lady
Spirit of the Water
In folklore, water has a long history of supernatural belief and is often believed to be passageways for ghosts and spirits to enter the physical world.  Lakes and rivers are the dwellings places of host of water entities, gods, goddesses, monsters, nymphs and faeries, some of whom are guardians of the community's water supply, which usually consisting of a spring, stream-fed fountain, or well.  A common name associated to holy wells and springs is 'Lady Well', as wells once dedicated to pagan goddesses and their priestesses were rededicated and turned into to holy shrine the Virgin Mary under Christianity. Longstanding customs exist for propitiating the water spirits with offerings tossed into the waters.  Wishing wells and springs with healing properties derive from this belief and are often venerated around Midsummer or St John’s Day often marked by dressing their wells and springs with garlands of flowers (see related page - The Wishing Well).

Such water sources are often connected with sightings of a White Lady, a ghostly figure, perhaps of the displaced water spirit or goddess.  Hence ‘Filly Loo’ may be a corruption of the French ‘La Fille de l'Eau’, which means ‘Maiden of the Water’.   As near to Ashmore village there was once a well with an ash tree growing above it, called Washers Pit. Two stories are connected with it, one telling of a White Lady who haunts the well and the nearby road, and the other recounting how the cook from the big house had a prophetic dream and rode out to this spot, coming in time to save a lady dressed in white who was hanging from the ash tree. This story is recounted by Edward William Watson, in his 1859 publication "Ashmore, Co. Dorset: a history of the parish with index to the registers, 1651 to 1820"

 
"Though Robert Barber, the High Sheriff of 1670, made his home at Tollard, his son returned to Ashmore, which the family regarded as their chief seat. In Ashmore Church, in a vault under the chancel, almost all of them are buried. Soon after the place was purchased, the manor house must have been built. About half of it is now standing. Formerly a wing ran at right angles to the main building on the north-west side, and the south-east end was flanked by two octagonal towers, though there seems some doubt whether both of these were ever completed. There was another octagonal tower, or large stone summer-house, in the comer of the gardens nearest to the church ; and on the down, now ploughed, overhanging Washer's Pit, a building of the same kind called Barber's Folly, from which the field and down are still named.

With the hollow below the F
olly, where the road to Fontmel crosses the bottom, a legend is connected, well known in Ashmore, into which the name of the Barbers has been introduced, though the story must be far older than their time. It runs that a Squire Barber, or perhaps his daughter, for the tale is variously told, was warned in a dream on three successive nights, or else three times on the same night, that some one was in distress at Washer's Pit. The person warned woke the  household, and asked for a volunteer to go down to the place. No one would venture, except the cook. Her master gave her his best hunter for the ride, and she went forth to find a lady in white hanging by her hair from an ash tree over the well, now closed, at Washer's Pit. She released the victim, and carried her back on the horse to Ashmore(One version relates that she was pusued, but blew her hom and leaped the horse over Spinney's Gate, a feat which her pursuers could not perform).

For her courage she was rewarded with the little holding called Mullens', after her name. But the Mullens family had been settled in Ashmore long before the Barbers ; and another version tells that the daughter of the house, and not the cook, went on the quest. What became of the rescued lady, who she and her assailants were, is not recorded. And it is only fair to state that Dr. Chisholm, the younger, was in the habit of telling the story as of one of the servants at the manor farm being nearly murdered at this spot, and a fellow-servant being warned in a dream to help her. Perhaps Dr. Chisholm had rationalised the story; he told it as of his own or his father's time.


Folly Hanging Gate and Washers Pit, Ashmore
Folly Hanging Gate, Ashmore
Connected with the same ground as this legend and that about the barrow at Folly Hanging Gate, is another of a woman in white, who has been seen and felt brushing by them, within the last fifty years, by travellers between Spinney's Pond and Washer's Pit. I have heard it connected with the barrow, but the true form of that story is the Gappergennies (see related page - Gabbygamies) ; and the affair at Washer's Pit ended too happily to generate a ghost. This must be some third and independent legend. It is curious that in a parish full, as Ashmore is, of dark and lonely places, no other neighbourhood than these few yards on the road to Fontmel should have its story."

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Honouring a Dorset Saint: The Customs and Traditions of St. Wite's Day

St. Candida (or St. Wite)
St. Wite
The 1st June is the feast day of ‘St Wite’ (white) or as she was known in Latin ‘St Candida’. Very little is known about her except that her shrine at Whitchurch Canonicorum was and still is a place of pilgrimage.  St. Candida (or St. Wite) and Holy Cross, Whitchurch Canonicorum is the only church in England, other than Westminster Abbey, that retains the original medieval shrine and relics of the saint to whom it is dedicated.

The Shrine of a Dorset Saint 

In the church beneath the north window of the north transept the shrine of St. Wite is built into wall and consists of two parts: the lower portion is of early 13th century work and forms a base which supports the upper portion, namely a stone coffin with Purbeck marble top which contains the relics of St. Wite. Beneath are three oval openings intended for the insertion of diseased limbs or for handkerchiefs to be afterwards borne away for the healing of the sick. In days gone by all roads and paths led to the church, for the Shrine was a place of pilgrimage.  It is the great treasure of the Church and it is unique, for no other parish church in England has the relics of its patron saint in a shrine within its walls. In 1900 a fissure appeared in the north wall of the transept and the shrine itself was damaged. To effect repairs it was opened and inside the stone coffin was found a leaden box on which were the following inscriptions:— 

CT    RELIQE    SCE    W
+HIC    REQUESCT    RELIQE    SCE    WITE

(“Here rest the remains of St. Wite”)

The Shrine of St. Candida (or St. Wite)
The Shrine to St. Wite
Within the reliquary were a number of bones, which were thought to be those of a woman.

In the 1863 edition of Hutchins' "History of Dorset" it is recorded that an inscription was painted on the exterior of the Shrine, which included the words "Candida" and "Candidiorque."   In Hutchins’ original edition of 1774 mention is made that the tomb was without inscription, so this lettering must have been painted between 1774 and 1863. It is rather curious that throughout the Church there is no trace of any stonework ever having been painted.

Who was St. Wite?

It is unfortunately not possible definitely to identify St. Wite.

Until the middle of the 19th century the local tradition had always been, for something like 900 years, that St. Wite was a Saxon woman Who was killed by the Danes on one of the occasions of their landing at Charmouth when, as was their practice, they pillaged lie surrounding countryside and probably a number of Christians were killed by them.

Since the middle of the 19th century three other theories as to the Saint's identity have been put forward.

The late the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, a noted hymn-writer and hagiologist, put forward the suggestion that she might be identified with a saint who bore the Celtic name of Gwen and the French name of Blanche, which would be the equivalent of the Latin St. Candida, although it is improbable that the Saxon "Wite" means "White”. Gwen, or Blanche, was the daughter of a Prince of Brittany and her second husband was a man named Fragan, who was a cousin of the Duke of Cornwall. In the latter part of the fifth century they crossed to Brittany and settled near where is now the city of S. Brieuc at a place still called Ploufragan, or the tribal residence of Fragan. Gwen was the mother of two lesser known saints and at Ploufragan there is a modern statue of her as a Queen; at Scaer is a holy well named after her under the name of Candida.

There is a fable that she was once captured by pirates and escaped from the ship with the loss of two fingers, cut off by an axe, and that she walked on the water back to Brittany. There a track of foam left by the tide as it turns is still called the track of St. Blanche.

Between 919-921 there was an influx of Bretons into the west of England and they brought with them the bodies of their saints. The suggestion is that the relics in the Church here are those of Gwen or Blanche, brought over from Brittany in this way.

A second suggestion is that St. Wite was a Wessex born monk who in the eighth century went with a band of missionaries under St. Boniface of Crediton to evangelise the people of Germany. There was a "Witta" consecrated Bishop of Buraburg. St. Boniface and his band were massacred in A.D. 755 and, in accordance with custom, the bodies of the martyrs were brought back to England for burial. The suggestion here is that our St. Wite was St. Witta, but there are two difficulties.

In the first place, the name has always been in feminine form and the bones in the tomb in 1900 were thought to be those of a woman. In the second place Witta, Bishop of Buraburg, according to the records, was not martyred in 755 but died some years later and was buried at Hersfeld in Germany.

In an attempt to overcome these two difficulties a third theory was put forward that St. Wite was one of the many women evangelists who went with St. Boniface to Germany and suffered martyrdom there. But the only reason to connect Wite with Boniface is the similarity of the name to that of the Bishop Witta of Buraburg, and if that theory of identity fails there is no ground for this other suggestion.

It seems more likely that a tradition which was strong in the Parish for over 900 years should be correct, rather than any of these theories of later years.

A Site for Sore Eyes

St Wite's Well, near Morcombelake
St. Wite's Well
St Wite's Well, near Morcombelake has been in existence since 1630, when a traveller refers to 'St White a Virgin Martyr, whose Well the Inhabitants will shewe you not farre off in the Side of an Hill, where she lived in Prayer and Contemplation'.

In Christine Waters' book 'Who was St. Wite - The Saint of Witchchurch Canonicorum" (1980). She makes reference to the healing well.


"After venerating the shrine, our pilgrim made his way to the saint's well, about a mile away at Morcombelake. The waters of St. Wite's Well enjoyed a reputation as late as the 1930's as being "a sovereign cure for sore eyes". They were said to be most efficacious when the sun's first rays lit
Wild Periwinkles - St. Candida's Eyes
St. Candida's Eyes
upon them. Sore eyes, were of course, a constant source of discomfort to medieval man, living as he did in low cottages from which the smoke did not escape properly. Lead holy water bottles or "ampullae" were filled here and taken home for later applications.

The wild periwinkles that carpet nearby Stonebarrow Hill every spring, are still known locally as "St. Candida's Eyes."


St. Wite's Cross

St. Wite's Cross or The Dorset Cross
The Dorset Flag
This flag on the right was recognised as the flag of Dorset on the 16 September 2008, when the Dorset County Council organised a public vote, open to all Dorset residents. The idea for the flag came from expatriate Dorsetman Stephen Coombs and Dorchester resident Dave White. The flag has been known as "St. Wite's Cross" or The Dorset Cross".

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