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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Here is a woman who lost her head, she's quiet now - because, d'ye see, she's dead! The Legend of St. Judith

Today is the feast day of St. Judith or in Anglo Saxon Juthwara, Juthware (pronounced Uth-are) . However her translation is generally held to be 13 July.

Saint Juthware was a Brythonic virgin and martyr from Dorset, who probably lived in the 6th century. Her relics were translated to Sherborne Abbey during the reign of Ethelred the Unready in the early 11th century and her shrine remained a place of pilgrimage there until the Dissolution.

Until recently, Halstock had an inn called, 'The Quiet Woman,' with a sign outside depicting a headless woman. Though no longer run as a pub, but is now as a guest house for visitors (www.qwhdorset.co.uk) the gruesome tale it commemorated still haunts the village to this day.

In the seventh century a baby girl called Juthware, was born in the village, but it was a difficult birth and her mother died leaving her to be brought up by Benna, the girl's father.

Benna looked after his daughter as best as he could, but what the girl needed was a mother, and in time he relinquished his loss by taking another wife. This second wife was a Welsh woman called Goneril who was also a widow and had by her former husband a son called Bana. All was well at first, but as the years passed Goneril began to despise her step daughter, for not only was she beautiful, but she was a devoted Christian, often fasting and doing penance for her sins.

Many pilgrims and wayfarers travelled the roads and would often seek shelter at Juthware's father's house. Benna was a good, but sick man and remembering the kindness of his first wife was always keen to show hospitality. And so while they ate Juthware would pass among them with drinking horns of wine and ale and listen to their wonderful stories of Our Lord's birth and life.

When Benna died Juthware followed her father's example of hospitality. This angered Goneril who could not stand her stepdaughter's good qualities any longer and so she contrived a plan to be rid of her.

Goneril's chance came one morning when Juthware came to her complaining of chest pains. She told Juthware to rub some cheese onto her chest and stomach first thing in the morning and last thing at night and the pains would go.

When Goneril saw Juthware doing this she went secretly into the wood and there slaughtered a lamb and left it for the wolves. The next morning she went to Bana and told him that Juthware had given birth to a child in the wood and had fed it to the wolves. However, Bana would not believe her, so she took him into the wood and showed him the remains of the bloodied carcass. But still Bana would not believe it, so she brought Juthware to the wood and ordered her to remove her vest. Bana examined the garment and found the stains of motherhood.

In a fit of rage he drew his sword and cut Juthware's head clean off. Goneril's face was triumphant, but as she revelled in her stepdaughter's death, to her horror Juthware's severed head called to her body. It jerked and slowly rising to its feet gathered the head and moved with measured mechanical steps down the hill and along the lane to the church and there placed her head on the altar before finally dying.

Soon after, Juthware became known as Saint Juthware and a shrine was dedicated to her at the place of her martyrdom.

But the gruesome tale doesn't end there, for at one o'clock in the morning on All Saints Day (1st November), Saint Juthware's ghost is said to return to repeat the incident. She is said to be seen carrying her head in the lane leading to Abbots Hill, alias Judith Hill.

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