‘Beholde and consydre well with your ghostly ee
The infinite goodness of our saviour:
For like as to Moises divided the redde see,
And the water of Jordan obeyed to Iosue,
Ryght so the depe riuer of Dee made division,
The sondes drye appeared in syght of them echone.’
Henry Bradshaw, ‘The Life of St Werbughe’
St Werburgh is known as the patron saint of Chester, but her origins lay a distance from the city, in Staffordshire. She was born there, sometime in the middle of the 7th century and was, fairly predictably, of royal blood. Her father was Wulfhere, King of Mercia and the first Christian king of that kingdom, while she was the granddaughter of the avowed and aggressively pagan, Penda, scourge of just about everyone. Perhaps more importantly, she was the daughter of St Ermenhilda and the great niece of St Ethelreda, both of whom were abbesses of Ely. Werburgh did, in fact become an abbesses of Ely, following her mother, her grandmother and great aunt to the position. On her death, and following her wish, Werburgh was buried in the church at Hanbury in her native Staffordshire, where her shrine became a source of veneration. Her brother, Coenred, king of Mercia decided to move her shrine to a more prominent position in Hanbury, and on opening her tomb her body was found to have suffered no corruption - a sign of divine favour, of course.
Werburgh’s shrine was moved to Chester in the late 9th or early 10th century, in the face of Viking incursions into the area, and at some point it became a central aspect of the early minster, before becoming incorporated into the 11th century Benedictine abbey established on the site. Desecrated after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the remains of the shrine became a part of Chester Cathedral in 1541. Her story is to be found, briefly in Florence of Wocester, but largely now in the work of Henry Bradshaw, a monk of the Abbey at Chester before the Reformation. His Life of St Werburge is a wonderful history of not only St Werburgh, but also of Chester’s early history. Bradshaw tells us of many miracles attributed to St Werburgh, not least her apparent ability to part the River Dee at flood, to save the life of Richard d’Avranches, the 2nd Earl of Chester, mithered by ‘wicked walshemen.’
The tale as told by Bradshaw is extraordinary, and requires some explanation. Sometime in the early 12th century, no later than 1115, the Earl of Chester had decided upon a pilgrimage to St Winifride's Well. Bradshaw's record might well be our first evidence of pilgrimage to Holywell in our historical record, though of course the Well had no doubt been the destination of pilgrims for many hundreds of years previous to the Norman’s appearance in the British Isles in the 11th century. Bradshaw tells us that Richard’s intent was,
‘To visite saynt Winifride in hert desirous,
Upon his iourney went/myn auctour sayth thus,
Devoutly to holy-well in pilgrimage,
For his great merit and ghostly advantage.’
Now it is one thing for Henry V to have made the journey in 1416, as thanks for St Winefride’s help in defeating the French at Agincourt the previous year, or Henry IV in 1461, but quite another for the Earl of Chester to have done so in 1115. This was just 50 years or so after the Conquest of England, and while the Normans had considerable power in the area, their hold on Tegeingl, now largely the area we know of as Flintshire, was tenuous and fluid, to say the least. It cannot be said with any certainty that Richard would have had the unequivocal support of the English, never mind the native Welsh that held their ground with absolutely no love for the Normans, behind the red walls of Chester. It can be said with certainty that any opportunity to strike back against the Normans would have been seized upon with alacrity, and Richard specifically - he had, after all, been part of an expedition into Gwynedd, alongside Alexander of Scotland during the invasion of Henry I in 1114. It seems incredible that just a year later, Richard thought it sensible to visit St Winefride's Well within Tegeingl. One can imagine his household guard and those responsible for his safety being somewhat nervous at the intention. It would suggest a level of quite astonishing stupidity, bravery...or perhaps desperation.
And this is an interesting point. Given that pilgrimages were often made for a specific, explicit reason, Bradshaw’s assertion that Richard’s purpose in what would have been an extremely dangerous journey was for his, ‘great merit and ghostly advantage’ is not sufficiently satisfying to prevent a punt at suggesting a more focused reason. Given that on Richard’s death upon the White Ship, wrecked by storms in the English Channel in 1120, he left no heir to the Earldom of Chester, is it not possible that his pilgrimage was in order to seek Winefride’s favour in securing an heir? Could it be, that even at the age of just 21, Richard was already feeling the pressure of securing an heir? Was St Winefride’s reputation already so well established? It would seem so. We have no evidence from Bradshaw that Richard’s wife, Lucia Mahaut, accompanied him to Holywell, which would have probably been necessary, but her absence from the written record would hardly have been unusual, of course. And, it is again important to emphasise just how dangerous this undertaking would have been - and it seems improbable that it was for something so unimportant as a whim. It’s worth remembering that James II and his queen, Mary of Modena travelled to Holywell in 1686 to seek Winefride’s intercession in gaining an heir - the success of which led to some rather far reaching consequences. Whatever the reason, or indeed reasons behind Richard’s pilgrimage, he would have had done so in some force.
However large Richard’s party numbered, it does not seem to have deterred the native Welsh from meeting him head on. Bradshaw tells us that,
‘When the wicked walshemen herd of his coming
After a meke maner unto that party,
They made insurrection, inwardly gladdyng,
Descended from the mountaynes most furiously,
Agaynst the erle raised a cruell company;
Bytwxt hym and Chestre lettynge the kyngis way,
Purposynge to slee or take hym for a praye.’
Moving in force from Chester was always going to be noticed, and the ‘wicked walshemen’ were swiftly onto Richard’s departure from the city. It’s not entirely clear whether Richard actually made it to Holywell, but it does seem that the native Welsh acted to block the way back to Chester, presumably the old Roman coast road. Bradshaw does not tell us who was leading the Welsh, but I think we can rule out some huge force out of Gwynedd. Still, it was sizable enough to prevent Richard smashing his way through. Richard and his entourage were forced to seek shelter, and Bradshaw identifies this as, ‘Basyngwerke’.
If our dates are correct, this ‘Basyngwerke’ that Bardshaw identifies could not have been Basingwerk Abbey, which was not founded until 1131/32, and then not at its current site in the Greenfield Valley. Bradshaw is surely identifying, in fact, Basingwerk Castle, which was, as likely as not, at Hen Blas in Bagillt. That, obviously would make more sense, in any case. What Basingwerk Castle looked like in 1115 is almost impossible to tell, though it probably conformed to the standard motte and bailey. The site is not documented with any real clarity until the Battle of Coleshill in 1157, and excavations conducted in the 1950s found little to date the castle to before that time. But Richard’s apparent taking refuge at the castle is an interesting link between a likely llys of th welsh princes in the commote of Coleshill and the Norman ascendency in Tegeingl. If Bradshaw is correct, and he was writing in the 1520s, Richard’s sheltering at Basingwerk Castle is the earliest date we have of the castle’s actual existence.
It would seem that the Earl of Chester was thus besieged at Bagillt, but somehow managed to get word away to Chester.
‘The erle son perceyved their malicious intent:
In all hast possible sende to Chestre secretly,
To warne his constable by loue and commaudement,
Wyllyam the son of Nigell/to rayse a great army,
To mete hym at Basyngwerke right sone and spedely
For his deliveraunce from deth and captiuite
Of the wyld walshemen/without humanite.’
This ‘Wyllyam the son of Nigell’ was William fitz Nigel (d.1134), who had inherited the title of Constable of Chester from his father. It is worth noting that the position of constable was one of considerable power and prestige. His father was the likely founder of Halton Castle at Runcorn, which William inherited. Through an advantageous marriage, William inherited manors in Widnes, Appleton, Cronton and Rainhill. And, as will be seen, William is also believed to have founded an abbey at Runcorn. This was no mere functionary, but rather a man of real power.
Bradshaw tells of fitz Nigel gathering a, ‘myghty stronge host/ in theyr best arraye’ and marching out of Chester not along the Roman road to Flint, but rather north west along the Wirral,
‘To-warde Hilburghee on iourney ridying fast,
Trustyng upon shippes all them to convey -
Which was riall rode that tyme, nyght and date.
And whan they theder came, shyppyng none there was
To carie all them over in convenient space.’
On the face of things, this seems a curious thing to do. After all, as has already been pointed out, there was undoubtedly an existing road between Chester along the coast, built by the Romans to exploit the natural resources of the area. It was this road that Richard seems to have used on his way to Holywell. Bagillt would not have been any more than a day’s march from Chester, even with a ‘myghty stronge host’ - this was after all, one of the motivations for the building of Flint Castle in 1277 - another was the fact that the Castle could be resupplied by sea from Chester. The 20 mile march to the Wirral coast at West Kirby, the crossing to Hilbre Island at low tide and the embarking of a force upon ships, seems something rather more challenging in contrast. Why not, then, simply ‘hump’ it along the north Wales coast - or, indeed, simply sail from Chester?
Well, who knows, but the answer may not lay in conventional military strategy, but rather in the author of the tale. The connections between Hilbre Island and the abbey at Chester were profound. There was once a medieval chapel on Hilbre Island dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon St Hildeburgh, who is believed to have lived as a hermit upon the Island. Some, however, believe Hildeburgh was actually St Ermenhilda, the mother of St Werburgh - and thus then a possible motivation of Bradshaw in bringing the island of Hilbre into the tale he tells. But whether or not this possible connection to Werburgh was the actual reason for Bradshaw bringing Hilbre into the tale, the island did have a Benedictine church, founded in 1080 and a dependency of Chester. It is possible that Bradshaw was intent on building up the role of Chester in the tale, as well as St Werburgh. Still, despite the seeming strangeness of a march to Hilbre, we cannot be clear as to the constable’s reasons - it’s possible of course that the road to Bagillt was simply not a viable option, since the road was notorious for ambush, lined with dense woodland, as the events of 1157 would prove.
The forces of fitz Nigel arrived at Hilbre Island only to find themselves stranded, with no ships available to transport them to the north Wales coast, visible but seemingly unreachable across the estuary. Again, it seems incredible that a commander with even a passing acquaintance with military competence (and there is no reason to believe that the constable of Chester was anything other than up to his job) would not have sought to ensure that there were ships enough at Hilbre to transport his forces across the river - such logistical endeavours are difficult enough in this day and age, and were horrendously complicated, as you would expect, in the 12th century - a little known aspect of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 that is often overlooked in the blinding light of the titanic Battle of Hastings.
The striking red sandstone of Hilbre Island - not unlike the red walls of Chester from which the forces of William fitz Nigel marched to the aid of the Earl of Chester.
The inability to get across the estuary seems to have quite unmanned the assembled host, who are described as sobbing, wailing and weeping. In contrast, fitz Nigel ,
‘Called to hym a monke there dwellyng contemplatyue,
Required hym for counsayle and prayer for his charite,
The monke exhorted hym to knele upon his kne
Humblie to beseke Werburge, his patronesse,
For helpe and remedy in suche great distresse.’
And so, fitz Nigel takes the knee, a nod of course to the greater power of the temporal realm. The Constable of Chester prayed,
‘O blessed Werburge and virgin pure,
I beseke the mekely, helpe me this day,
That we may transcend the ryver safe and sure,
To save and defende my lorde from discomfiture;
And here I promytte to god and the alone
To offre to the a gyfte at my coming-whome.’
With the end of fitz Nigel’s prayer, St Werburgh’s intercession became astonishingly clear, since as Bradshaw relates,
‘For like as to Moises divided the redde see,
And the water of Iordan obeyed to Iosue,
Ryght so the depe river of Dee made division,
The sondes drye appered in syght of them echone.’
With the waters of the Dee divinely parted, the forces of fitz Nigel made their crossing - one can only imagine the impact that this would have had on soldiery making their way across the now dry sands. They made short work of rescuing the Earl of Chester, presumably watching the forces of Chester making their way across the estuary towards Bagillt from Hen Blas, bringing him, ‘in safe-garde agayne to Chestre cite.’
Bradshaw also makes mention of the fact that the crossing of the Dee by the Chester host is remembered in the name, ‘Constable Sands’, which does indeed exist.
‘And where the host passed/over betwix bondes,
To this day ben called ‘the constable sands.’
However, the Constable Sands, as we know them today, do seem to be some considerable distance from where any ‘practical’ crossing could have taken place, being some several miles off the north Wales coast amongst the Rhyl Flats. It’s hard to explain this quandary, but it might be explained in Bradshaw seizing upon a fortuitous coincidence - he would have had some local knowledge, after all, being a Chester man.
But, however this tale is viewed, it is an astonishing story, and one which quite elevates St Werburgh to a considerable saintly height. William ftz Nigel makes good his promise to Werburgh, and founded, in thanks, Runcorn Abbey in 1115, thus giving us something of a framing date for the Miracle of the Dee.
And it is worth thinking on this miracle crossing of the Dee. Bradshaw’s splendid tale would suggest of course, that such a crossing was only possible by way of divine intervention - but was it? The Dee is notorious for its shifting sandbanks and ever changing depths, and crossing the sandbanks would have been treacherous, to say the least. But to some extent, at least, it seems crossing the estuary at the lowest of tides was a common enough occurrence.
In 1698, Ceilia Fiennes, the celebrated English traveller wrote of fording the Dee, and quite sets the scene.
‘I forded over ye Dee when ye tide was out all upon the sands at Least a mile, wch was as smooth as a Die being a few hours left of ye flood. Ye sands are here soe Loose yt the tydes does move them from one place to another at Every flood, yt the same place one used to ffoard a month or two before is not to be pass'd now, for as it brings the sands in heaps to one place so it leaves others in deep holes wch are Cover'd wth water and Loose sand that would swallow up a horse or Carriages; so I had two Guides to Conduct me over. The Carriages wch are used to it and pass Continually at ye Ebbs of water observes ye drift of sands and so Escape ye danger. It was at least a mile I went on ye sands before I Came to ye middle of ye Channell wch was pretty deep and with such a Current or tyde wch was falling out to sea together wth ye wind, the horses feete could scarce stand against it, but it was but narrow just the deep part of the Channell and so soone over. When the tyde is fully out they frequently fford in many places wch they marke as the sands fall and Can go near 9 or 10 mile over ye sands from Chester to Burton or to Flint town almost; but many persons that have known the ffoards well yt have Come a year or halfe a year after, if they venture on their former knowledge have been overwhelm'd in the Ditches made by ye sands wch is deep Enough to swallow up a Coach or waggon; but they Convey their Coales from Wales and any other things by waggon when the tyde is out to Chester and other parts.’
Clearly, then, by 1698, crossing the Dee estuary was no effort of miracle, but rather a venture which while risky to be sure, was made for the purposes of trade and commerce. And then, of course, there is the celebrated crossing written in the late 13th century, early 14th century poem, Sir Gaiwain and the Green Knight.
‘Til þat he neȝed ful neghe into þe Norþe Walez.
Alle þe iles of Anglesay on lyft half he haldez,
And farez ouer þe fordez by þe forlondez,
Ouer at þe Holy Hede, til he hade eft bonk
In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale’
This passage, written in Middle English, has proven problematic in trying to trace the geography of Gaiwain’s quest. It is clear the author had some familiarity with the area, and it is clear enough that Gaiwain is on the north Wales coast, using the established Roman road from Carenarvon. The reference to, ‘Holy Hede’ is thus likely to refer to Holywell (almost certainly not Holyhead on Anglesey). It would seem then that Gaiwan forded the Dee in much the same spot as William fitz Nigel in 1115, probably coming to the, ‘wilderness of Wirral’ somewhere near West Kirby.
Was this the view that fitz Nigel's forces was confronted by as they sought to cross the Dee? One can imagine the awe the parting waters would have caused amongst the forces of Chester.
It is clear then, that while crossing the Dee estuary by fitz Nigel’s forces in 1115 was not a unique event, it is worth remembering that this was the beginning of the 12th century, several hundred years before the silting of the Dee made it largely unnavigable by most ships of any considerable size. Perhaps then, St Werburgh's intercession was required, the miracle worthy of wonder. One imagines the Earl of Chester would agree.
* The OS reference is for Hilbre Island.