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The St. Werburgh Miracle

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

I was wondering, as you do, as to whether it is actually possible to ford the River Dee on foot. It's a treacherous thing, the Dee, and there is a myth, as you probably know, that the Afon Dyfrdwy demands a life every year in order to spare many more - a not uncommon myth. But there are a number of myths and legends that suggest that a crossing on foot is possible. I was researching one such myth a couple of weeks ago - that of the St Werburgh miracle.

In 1115, the Earl of Chester, Richard d'Avranches took it upon himself to go on pilgrimage to St Winifrede's Well in Holywell. Now, Holywell isn't that far from Chester, in truth - a short ride along the old Roman road in fact. But in 1115, that short journey amounted to near suicide, since Richard was no friend of the native Welsh of Tegeingl (what is today known as Flintshire) and had in fact spent much of the year before invading Gwynedd. What on earth he thought he was playing at popping off to Holywell is beyond me.

As I'm sure you've twigged, Richard finds himself besieged at Basingwerk Castle (not the Abbey, I hasten to add) by what Bradshaw, the 16th century author of the Life of St Werburgh and teller of this particular tale, calls a bunch of 'wicked Walshemen' - yes, you heard me right. He needs saving, does Richard, and the job falls to William fitz Nigel, the constable of Chester Castle. Bizarrely, at least in my eyes, William marches the relief force out of Chester and not west along the Roman road, but north west, up the Wirral to Hilbre Island, of all places, believing he could take ship to Holywell. I don't know where to start, in truth, but this apparent bonkers notion probably hinges on the fact that Bradshaw is trying to shoehorn in the monks on Hilbre Island and their connection to Chester Abbey (now the Cathedral) and a variety of connections to St Werburgh.

Anyhow, William arrives at Hilbre only to find that there are no ships to take his forces across the estuary. The horror! Poor Richard is close to a fate worse than death, it seems - whatever will William do? Well, helpfully a monk on Hilbre Island directs William to take the knee and pray to St Werburgh and miraculously, the waters of the Dee part - and Bradshaw makes a direct comparison to Moses parting the Red Sea. William's forces cross the Dee and rescue the Earl of Chester from these Wicked Walshemen.

I had a mind to travel to Hilbre Island and look across the estuary there. I chose to do it in the most intense heat of late July. I spent a day at Knossos in Crete some years ago, and the heat was such that I swear I felt my lungs crisping on the inside as I breathed - this was a similar heat. I took my wife - who just happens to be a profound redhead, and anyone who knows anyone who's red headed, knows that taking them out in the heat is tantamount to a war crime. Still, she managed, though a glower here and a glower there was the very least I could expect.

I arrived at the island, by way of the two little 'uns, and truthfully couldn't see how William could have made the journey without divine intervention - or a lot of ships, of course. The waters were at low tide, but there was enough of the stuff to make a crossing impossible, obviously.

Still, Hilbre Island was really pretty, even in the redhead withering heat, and the estuary was beautiful. The wind plays tricks on your hearing you know, and the seals bobbing about off the Island, staring at you with obvious curiosity are strangely unnerving at first.

William fitz Nigel wasn't the only one to cross the Dee, of course. Famously, Sir Gaiwain is said to have made the journey over the estuary from Holywell, on his way to meet the Green Knight, and more certainly, the indominable Ceilia Fiennes made the trip in 1698, when she claims many did so as a matter of course.

I had this conversation with my father-in-law, who's a Ffynnongroyw lad, and he shrugged his shoulders and told me that as boys, he and his friends had almost managed it on a raft made of driftwood and string - before being seen and having to make their way back to the beach. His mum wasn't best pleased, by all accounts. That kind of ended the debate right there....

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