Walstan (c.975 – 1016) is one of those fascinating Anglo-Saxon saints canonised by ‘unanimous local approval’ for his witness to God through an especially good and holy life.
Born into nobility at Bawburgh, Norfolk, Walstan renounced his inheritance and worked as a farm labourer at Taverham from the age of 12. Known for his humility, he gave away his wages, food and clothing.
Once, meeting two men who lacked food and shoes, Walstan gave them his. This generosity annoyed the farmer’s wife so as punishment she sent him to load a cart with brambles and thorns – barefoot. Walstan obeyed and, as he trod down the load, the thorns became like rose petals, wonderfully perfumed.
The farmer and his wife threw themselves at his unmarked feet begging forgiveness. They wanted to make Walstan their heir, but he only accepted the gift of that cart and two white oxen.
On Friday May 27, 1016, Walstan was mowing hay with another labourer when an angel revealed that he would be called to Paradise in three days. The following day he suddenly laid down his scythe saying he was forbidden to work until Monday: he had heard bells ringing above him and the sound of celestial trumpets.
His comrade saw and heard nothing, so Walstan told him to place his foot on his own and his friend was favoured with the sounds and sights of Heaven.
On Monday May 30, the two men were mowing together when Walstan stopped work, saying that his hour had come. The priest brought Viaticum, but forgot water for the ablutions; they prayed and a spring appeared. After commending himself to God, Our Lady and the Saints, Walstan prayed that anyone with a sick animal and those disabled by illness should call on God in his name – “and not just once” – that they might find quick relief. All present heard a voice confirming his request and, as Walstan breathed his last, something like a white dove flew up from his mouth, disappearing into a bright cloud.
His body was laid on his cart and the two white oxen yoked to it. Off they went, crossing the River Wensum dry-shod, and pausing in Costessey where another well sprang up, still visible near Queen’s Hills. The oxen finally stopped below Bawburgh church and a third well sprang up – the present St Walstan’s Well.
Walstan was carried up to the church and buried there. His shrine became a place of pilgrimage, with many miracles noted: it was destroyed in 1538, and Walstan’s remains burnt and scattered.
Although declared ‘unfit for human consumption’ in 1951, the well water continues to be used, most recently for the re-consecration of the Catholic Church of Our Lady and St Walstan.
There have been many closely documented inexplicable cures up to modern times of animals and people. Annual pilgrimages to the well still take place, and Walstan, Norfolk’s farm boy saint, remains high in local affections.
Pictured right is the St Walstan icon in Our Lady and St Walstan Church at Costessey. Walstan holds a crown, signifying noble birth, his scythe as a farmworker and, as is traditional, is depicted barefoot.
Pictured top, parishioners completed a four-mile pilgrimage to St Walstan’s Well in Bawburgh from Our Lady and St Walstan Church at Costessey on June 4, accompanied by Parish Priest Fr David Ward. “It was a perfect day – sunny but not too hot,” said Fr David, “and others met us at the well for a short service and a picnic.”