St Margaret of Antioch
Dangerous Trees

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St Margaret's Well

On our walk to Godstow Nunnery, we detoured to a well that was also marked on our map, apparently adjacent to a chapel. Other than that this is the original "treacle well" from Alice in Wonderland, we had little idea what to expect. As we walked along the driveway that leads to the farm shop at the end of the track, we were disappointed to see, amidst the avenue of "dangerous" chestnut trees, a small brackish hollow with some brickwork on the right hand side. Was this, then, another Holwell?

The Interior

The end of the road is marked "private", but just to the left is a pedestrian entrance to the chapel. We entered through the Norman arched doorway, and the interior of the chapel, quiet and peaceful, made up for the disappointment.After looking around for a while, we went out into the churchyard, which sports an enormous yew.

Finding the Well

Whilst I was photographing the tree, my wife, jubilant, discovered the well, just to the east of the church, hiding at ground level. This is a classic arrangement of a christianised well, sunk into the ground and surrounded by trees (if so few trees can really be said to surround something). It was restored some time during the last century, if my Latin serves me correctly, using money provided or raised by the then vicar, Reverend Prout, one of Charles Dodgson's friends.

The steps to the well

In fact, this really is a "treacle well". In mediæval times the term "treacle" meant an antidote to poison, so a treacle well was a healing well. The church was originally part of the ancient priory of St Frideswide.

Frideswide was a Mercian princess who lived in Oxford, but despite her holy orders was pursued by King Algar. When she fled, Algar marched on Oxford with his army, but was suddenly struck blind, presumably as punishment.

The yew by the well

For some reason Frideswide prayed that his Algar's sight be restored: in answer the holy well appeared. The magical water ("treacle") healed Algar and St Frideswide built a church beside the well.

Candles at the well

Frideswide dedicated the church (and presumably the well) to St Margaret of Antioch, probably because Margaret, the daughter of a pagan priest during the final Roman persecution of the Christians, also had to flee from the advances of an unwelcome suitor, who then denounced her as a Christian. She went through various tortures such as being swallowed by Satan in the guise of a dragon, and was finally beheaded.

In a rare instance for the UK, there's some archæological evidence that might point to this being a Christianisation of an older pagan holy well. Certainly, given the location and orientation of the church and the well, it's eminently possible that the well was a significant factor in the siting of the original saxon church, of which, sadly, nothing remains. What is here, though, is a beautiful, unspoilt church, with an attendant well that is clearly loved and respected to this day.