St Walstan died a thousand years ago on the 30th May 1016. He is our local saint, revered as the patron saint of farmers and farm labourers in East Anglia. Although a medieval text (Lambeth MS 935) records that he was born in ‘Blyborow’ (Blythburgh), I regard this as unlikely. I think that the similarity of the word to ‘Bawborow’ (Bawburgh) led the scribe to confuse the two places. The centre of his cult was around the villages of Taverham, Costessey, and Bawburgh; and Bawburgh was where his shrine was established after his death. Some sources do record this as his birthplace.
I think the story that he was of Royal blood is also unlikely to be true. The East Anglian royal family had died out after the death of St Edmund in 869, and the English royal family at the time of Walstan’s birth was descended from Alfred the Great of Wessex. Blythburgh, his reputed birthplace, had indeed once been a stronghold of the East Anglian royal family, but that time was long past by the 10th century, the time we are told that Walstan was born. The whole legend of St Walstan is shrouded in mystery; it all may be pure invention, or it all might be true. Most likely it is a mixture of fact and fiction, but we will never be able to untangle the story.
Throughout the Middle Ages, from late Anglo-Saxon times until the Reformation, St Walstan was a popular local saint. East Anglia was at that time the richest and most densely populated area of the kingdom, and remains its most fertile farming area. The profusion of great medieval churches in Norfolk and Suffolk are proof of the wealth this produced. Even tiny villages like Salle have magnificent churches which would almost appear to be cathedrals elsewhere. This wealth was based on farming – grain, flax, cattle and above all sheep, who produced the wool that was made into cloth and sold all over Europe. The extremely expensive ‘Wool Churches’ that appeared all over East Anglia show the importance of farming, so the cult of St Walstan was more important than its local nature might suggest.
Although the Puritans who flourished in East Anglia after the Reformation did much to consign the saints of the Roman Catholic past to the dustbin of history, the local popularity of St Walstan survived the advent of Protestantism. This was partly due to the presence of the Catholic Jerningham family, right in the middle of St Walstan territory in Costessey, who kept the memory of the saint alive. In the latter years of the 19th century pilgrims came from as far away as London during May in large numbers to visit the saint’s well in Bawburgh. The name of Walstan lived on in other areas of the county too. The historian R. W. Ketton-Cremer records an 18th century man named Walstan, proof of the continued popularity of the legend.
There were three St Walstan’s Wells; one in Bawburgh adjacent to the church which held his shrine and where he was buried, and one in Costessey where his funeral cortege paused. The well in Bawburgh remains. The well in Costessey dried up around 1750 and the pit that used to hold water has recently been restored by Costessey Golf Course. It has been fenced off and a plaque erected to record the place and to commemorate his 1000th anniversary. Tradition has it that the wells sprang up at the places where the bullocks pulling Walstan’s hearse pissed on the journey from Taverham where he died. It was while he was working in a field that he was visited by an angel who informed him of his impending demise. The site of this third well has been lost; it was said to have sprung up on the spot where he died. I suggest that Springfield Road which gets its name from an ancient spring may very well have been the site.
The St Walstan legend has him dying aged about 40. He had spent his days working in the fields for the local farmer. When an angel told him he was shortly to die he was shriven by the local clergyman of Taverham church. The oldest parts of the church that stand today were built within a few years of the saint’s lifetime. The Saxo-Norman round tower, and the even older north wall of the nave would have been familiar to men and women of Taverham who remembered Walstan the saint.
I have not said much about the legends surrounding the saint; those who wish to learn more may refer to the article in Wikipedia, or they may wish to read the two books by Carol Twinch, In Search of St Walstan (1995) and Saint with the Silver Shoes (2004). You should also read my blog on St Walstan’s Well at Bawburgh, which has further details.