Middleham Parish »
There are only two church dedications to St Alkelda, one here at Middleham, with the other at Giggleswick, so Alkelda was a very local saint. William Grainge writing in the mid-1800’s , thought the saints name may have originated from a holy woman who was linked with a sacred spring, eventually becoming known as St, al-kelda, - the saint of the holy well. Some scholars suggest the name Alkelda is simply derived from the Old English 'haeligkeld' meaning Holy Well. Both Middleham and Giggleswick have, or perhaps in Middleham’s case I should say, had wells near their churches. There is a quite well established link between sacred wells of ancient origin, pagan wells, and the advance of the Christian religion. Rivers, wells and springs were sacred places for the Celtic peoples. It was the custom of the early Christian Church to "baptise unto Christ" any site formerly used for pagan practices.
While no healing attributes have been given to the Middleham well within living knowledge, but in Giggleswick, as I understand it, there is an association between the water of a well and the healing of eye infection or disease.
William Grainge described the well in Middleham as rising in the fields near the church and being piped to a trough by the road. This road was probably a green lane or field road, and I believe that it did look as if a trough once stood by the wall to catch the water.
Unfortunately Middleham may qualify for the award of Yorkshires most neglected holy well.
Back in 1988 there was a small wooden sign nailed to a tree, the sign reading "St Alkelda's Well" but this was the only indication of the significance of this spot. The water should have flowed out of a hole in the dry stone wall, but apparently this stopped after the new school was built in the field behind the well.. In 1999 the situation became, if anything, more depressing, the wooden sign was still there, but the new houses on “The Springs” were built in the surrounding fields and right alongside the well. The opportunity to restore the water to the well at this time was missed and the site has lost any charm it may once have had.
The great shame of St Alkelda's Well, Middleham
Another derivation of the name Alkelda has her as a Saxon lady living in Yorkshire who suffered martyrdom at the hands of Danish women, being strangled for her faith. Her martyrdom cannot have taken place much later than the tenth century, which was when the Danish folk were prominent. Her name is first mentioned in the context of Middleham church in the late 13th century. Stained glass in our church, shows the head of Alkelda at the moment of her death. She has been said to be a Saxon princess, and there is the story that she was throttled by Danish women she encountered as she journeyed between the two churches. The throttling is shown in our stained glass, in the fragments of the ancient glass in the west window of the north aisle, but our saint appears to be smiling.
In Giggleswick church, I read that St, Alkelda is portrayed on several panels, with a particular link to your Ebbing and Flowing Well, the water for which emerges from a double-siphon in Giggleswick Scar. I also read that your churchwarden’s staves at are topped by representations of Alkelda.
Did Alkelda live? Because her name incorporates ‘Keld’, the old word for spring, was the name created when pagan sites, including wells, were being Christianised. .
Brayshaw and Robinson, who wrote the classic history of the ancient parish of Giggleswick in the 1930s, commented that the biographical details relating to St Alkelda “are entirely the fruits of 20th century imagination.” Did she exist?
When the fabric of Middleham church was thoroughly restored in 1878, and the interior reseated with open oak benches, in lieu of the old fashioned box pews. a very primitive stone coffin was discovered under the floor, near the spot where, according to tradition, St. Alkelda was interred. The coffin contained some human remains, which were declared by the doctors to belong to a female. It has been supposed to have been the tomb of the martyred saint, and in the pillar near the spot there is a brass plate, bearing the inscription "Near this pillar, on the spot indicated by tradition, were found, during the work of restoration, the remains of St. Alkelda, patron saint of this church, Anno Domini 1878. F. Barker, rector; T. E. Swale and S. Croft, churchwardens."
But is this adequate proof that she existed?
As at least one or two people here know, Heather Edwards, in a quite comprehensive paper last year in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal reviewed the evidence, knocked , and knocked very hard, any theory that the name Alkelda derived from an Old English expression meaning holy well or spring. She suggested the the mediaeval form of the name Alkelda
was either Alkild ( with an ‘i’) or Alkyld (with a ‘y’) - she also argued that the ‘k’ should be replaced with ‘ch’ . So she finished up with ‘Alchild’ as the medaeval form of the name.
But she argues for a genuine historic woman in the dedications of our churches.
Canonisation to sainthood in earlier times was a bit simpler than the process which is being galvanised for the last pope. In Anglo-Saxon England, a monastic community, or indeed any other group of people, provide they had some support from the clergy, did declare an individual to be a saint. There is a very substantial list of Anglo-Saxon women living before 1066 who have at some time been regarded as saints; in her paper, Helen Edwards produces an A-list of those who probably existed and a ‘B’ list of those who probably never existed. The monastic type of life was the route to sainthood, and many of the women were aristocrats so Alchhild as a Saxon princess could be O.K. And I should reassure you that Saint Alchhild, which has come down to us as Alkelda, is in the ‘A-list’ - she may well have been an aristocratic abbess of a 7th. or 8th. century monastery at Middleham and Heather Edwards suggests the possibility a daughter house at Gigglewick.
Heather Edwards , however, is rather dismissive of Alkelda’s murder by Danish women, and she sets out her reasoning for this.
A real person, yes; a holy person. yes, but she may have died peacefully!