This Spected Isle – St Withburga’s Tomb

Does the spring water found in a Norfolk shrine still heal to this very day? Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe explains the British countryside's strangest tales

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St Withburga’s Tomb can be found in the graveyard of St Nicholas’s Church in Dereham, Norfolk, a typical East Anglian market town surrounded by attractive agricultural fields.

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In the 7th century, King Anna of East Anglia had four daughters. The eldest daughter, Etheldreda, inherited the Isle of Ely, where she founded the great abbey which is now Ely Cathedral. Withburga, the youngest daughter, first went to Holkham on the Norfolk coast, where a church is dedicated to her, but when King Anna died in battle in 654, Withburga went to Dereham and founded a nunnery.

The first strange happening associated with Withburga’s work in Dereham came about when, after she prayed for food, two does regularly appeared for the nuns to milk, to augment their otherwise meagre diet with butter and cheese. The local reeve, jealous of the nuns’ popularity with the townsfolk, set out with his hounds to kill the does, but his horse threw him and the fall broke his neck. But after years of caring for the people of Dereham, Withburga died and was laid to rest in the churchyard. A suitable shrine was built for her, and half a century later her body was found to be uncorrupted. Early chroniclers remarked that she looked as if she had died that day.

Back then there was a commercial side to pilgrimage as well as a religious one – pilgrims brought trade and prosperity to the towns they visited, and so the monks of Ely wanted Withburga there beside her royal sisters, as an extra pilgrim attraction. With this in mind they visited Dereham and laid on a generous feast for the townspeople. When most of them were drunk, the monks stealthily removed Withburga’s body and set out for Ely by river. The theft was soon discovered, and the angry men and women of Dereham set out in hot pursuit, but failed to overtake the monks. However, on their return to Withburga’s empty shrine they found that a spring of clear water had risen there. For many centuries it was believed that this water had powerful healing qualities, and more pilgrims came for the water than had ever come when St Withburga lay in her shrine. The water is still there today and many believe that it has magical properties.

But is there a simple explanation for the effectiveness of such healing wells? Recent scientific research on the power of the mind over physical matter has suggested that the effects of intention can actually be measured. The work of Dr Konstantin Korotkov, of the St Petersburg State Technical University, is particularly relevant to what may be happening within healing water from a reputedly sacred source. His results seem to indicate that when a group of experimenters concentrate on putting some positive power into water, there are scientifically measurable changes in that water. So does that suggest that if enough people believe in the healing power of the water, they will be sending out what Dr Korotkov describes as an “intention”?

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