St Margaret's Well at Binsey
26 February 2021 (Updated 4 November 2023)
Every year thousands make a pilgrimage to visit St. Margaret's Well, a healing spring that stands next to the Church of St. Margaret of Antioch at Binsey, a tiny hamlet to the northwest of Port Meadow in Oxford.
Although the well bears the name of St. Margaret, the legend of how it was was created and why it is believed to have miraculous healing properties concerns a different, and considerably more local, saint.
St. Frideswide at Binsey
Frideswide is the patron saint of Oxford. She was born in the 7th century, the daughter of Mercian King Didan, and went on to found a monastery at Oxford. Despite her vow of celibacy, Frideswide found herself on the receiving end of the amorous advances of a Mercian prince named Algar.
When she rejected Algar's advances, he came to Oxford with the intention of kidnapping her and she was forced to flee to the marshy land to the west of Oxford. When Algar tracked Frideswide down at Binsey she was saved, seemingly by holy intervention. The moment Algar set his eyes on Frideswide, he and his men were blinded by lightning!
Despite his ill intensions in approaching her, Frideswide showed great compassion and forgiveness. She prayed to God for the men's sight to be restored and a holy well sprung up at her feet, its waters healing the men and restoring their sight.
Even today the well is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, many hoping to benefit from its healing properties. These properties are said to be so strong that at one point the church was decorated with the crutches of all the people who had their lameness cured by the miraculous healing waters of the well.
As well as curing the lame and helping people with eye problems, the well is also credited with helping ease people's emotional woes!
The Curse of St. Frideswide
Although St. Frideswide forgave prince Algar for his actions, the events gave rise to the 'Curse of St. Frideswide,' a superstition that any king who visited Oxford with violent purpose would ultimately meet a premature end.
Victims of the curse are said to include Kind Harold I who died of a mysterious illness at Oxford in 1040, and King Harold II, who was defeated at Stanford Bridge not long after visiting Oxford in 1065.
When Henry III died at Westminster in 1270, some believed his fate had been sealed 7 years earlier when he entered Oxford with his army. His son Edward I was more cautious. When he visited Oxford in 1275 he is said to have refused to enter the city on account of the curse, turning back from Oxford's east gate and seeking accommodation outside the city walls. He went on to rule England for another 32 years.
The final victim attributed to the curse of St. Frideswide is of course Charles I who made Oxford his military headquarters during the civil war and perhaps suffered defeat and beheading as a result.
Lewis Carroll's 'Treacle Well' at Binsey
'Well-worshiping' was banned during the Reformation but belief in the healing properties of the well never truly died out. The well at Binsey was made more famous when Lewis Carroll used it as the inspiration for the 'Treacle Well' in Alice in Wonderland. Here 'treacle' is a play on 'trickle', the medieval word for beneficial or healing.
- 'Haunted Britain' by Anthony D. Hippisley Coxe (ISBN:0330243284)
- 'Folklore of Oxfordshire' by Christine Bloxham (Tempus Publishing, 2005, ISBN: 9780752436647)
- 'The Secret History of Oxford' by Paul Sullivan (2013, The History Press, ISBN: 9780752499567)