Church History: St Alkelda

St Alkelda

Very few outside Middleham, Giggleswick and Settle have ever heard of this obscure local 9th or early 10th century Yorkshire Dales saint. Alkelda is patronal saint of just two churches, St Mary and St Alkelda’s, Middleham and St Alkelda’s, Giggleswick, some 33 miles apart across the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Alkelda reputedely came from Middleham in Wensleydale. How Alkelda came to be associated with Giggleswick no-one knows, but the tradition has been strong for centuries. Both churches have stained-glass windows and Giggleswick, decorated wardens’ staffs dedicated to her. She is famous as a saintly lady for her use of nearby holy wells for the baptism of converts and for her martyrdom by strangulation at the hands of Danish women.

St Alkelda may not be well known in England, but her existence is recorded in The Oxford Book of Saints where her death is given as 800 AD. This cannot be correct because there were no Danes in her part of Northumbria until 866 (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) or 867 (Simeon of Durham’s History of the Church in Durham). St Alkelda’s martyrdom must have occurred after 866-7AD when the Danes, after attacking and destroying York, swept across the Vale of York and into the eastern Dales where Middleham is situated, causing death and destruction wherever they went.

Alkelda’s name, possibly not her real name, sounds like a corruption of haeligkeld , a composite Anglo-Saxon-Norse word for “holy well”. Although modern research has shown that St Alkelda reputedly buried in Middleham Church, is “probably” a historical person, a lady of high standing in her community, a nun or even of noble birth perhaps, there is still much mystery surrounding her. Why she came to Giggleswick no-one knows, but the traditions relating to her have been very strong for centuries..

In Giggleswick, her holy well, St Awkeld’s,(now buried under Holywell Toft, the Headmaster’s house at Giggleswick School) seems to have borne her name long before it was attached to the church, just as St Peter’s well underneath York Minster, where King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised in 637, eventually gave its name to the Minster. Nearer to Giggleswick, St Helen’s church in Waddington, Clitheroe also took its name from its holy well. Waddington had Northumbrian – Anglo-Saxon crosses, by the holy well, there in the church yard long before the church was built in 1500. According to historical records, there was a cross erected by St Awkeld’s Well in Giggleswick

Restored Stained-Glass panel found
in Giggleswick Parish Room.

When James Carr, founder of Giggleswick School died, he requested in his will of 1528 to be buried in “the churche of Gigilswicke of the holie and blissed Virgine Sancte Alkild.” This is the first recorded mention of Alkelda as patronal saint of Giggleswick Church. Thomas Becket’s remains are also described as “holie and blissed” in Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. His pilgrims were wending their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine, each telling a story to while away the journey from Southwark to Canterbury. The terms “holie and blissed” meant that Alkelda, like Becket, was considered a martyred saint. The title “Virgine” suggests she was a nun. The metal plate carved with a plait pattern from her tomb in Middleham Church, suggests she was a lady of high standing in her community. Plait patterns appeared on Northumbrian stone work just before the Danish invasion, a fact which gives greater credence to the dates we suggest for Alkelda. See the Guide Book St Alkelda’s Way for more evidence. Middleham Church seems to have been under the patronage of St Alkelda long before a collegiate church under Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester, re-named it c. 1480 the church of St Mary and St Alkelda.

Tradition has it that St Alkelda was an Anglo-Saxon princess, but there is no historical evidence for that. She obviously came from a cultured Anglo-Saxon community, in the Christian kingdom of Northumbria whose civilisation had been forged two centuries before by a fruitful coming together of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christianity after the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, when the Roman tradition of the Anglo Saxons became dominant. Giggleswick lay on the other side of the Pennines just within the boundaries of Northumbria and more remote from the Christian influences that must have shaped St Alkelda’s life.

St Alkelda would make the hazardous journey to Giggleswick through what is now the area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, because no doubt she wanted to share her faith with the people there. Whatever St Alkelda’s motive, her pilgrim journey to Giggleswick was an act of considerable courage and faith. We know that the foundations of an Anglo Saxon church lie beneath the present Giggleswick Church. This church was built of stone and not wood, indicating that it was of some importance. There is a Northumbrian- Anglo-Saxon cross shaft guarding the south door of the present church. Evidence of both Celtic British and Anglo-Saxon Christian worship practices has been found by archaeologists in the caves and subterranean passages of Giggleswick Scar. It seems then, that by the time Alkelda arrived in Giggleswick, Christianity already had some kind of presence here and in the surrounding area. Maybe news of it had reached Middleham, and she felt called to make the journey across the Dales.

Decorated Wardens’ Staff

To find out more, we need to go back to the Danish invasion of 866-7 and forward from there to the 14th century. We know nothing of Alkelda from contemporary sources because the Danes not only burnt down all the churches, monasteries, and convents throughout the eastern region of Northumbria, they slaughtered the monks, nuns, and anyone of note in the community who could read and write. The Danes themselves were illiterate. The city of York, famous for its church, great library and monastic school was razed to the ground. The devastation lasted a few years, in some places, more than others. There are near contemporary accounts of the sheer destruction and horror that took place around York and further north, under the Scandinavian Vikings who destroyed Lindisfarne. Simeon of Durham wrote that every village between Durham and York was laid waste and its people killed. Eventually, the Danes were accepted, became Christians and were integrated.

For barely 200 years, after the Danish-Viking invasion there was a period of relative calm. The peace was not to last; it was cruelly broken by the Harrying of the North from 1069-71, William the Conqueror’s punishment for rebellion in Yorkshire. No churches are recorded in the 1089 Domesday Book for Giggleswick and Middleham, both settlements described as “vasta” (devastated). The king and his soldiers not only killed the people and their animals, they burnt their houses and churches, and set fire to their crops, so that those who survived were left to starve the following winter. It has been estimated that 10,000 people died. The western Dales suffered too but more selectively. That meant that St Alkelda, the Anglo-Saxon saint, would have no-one to record the place of her burial. Her life, her Christian witness and her martyrdom were kept alive in folk memory.

The Normans replaced the Northumbrian aristocracy with their own and were not interested in the traditions of the people they had conquered. French was the language of the court, and Latin of education and the Church. From the 12th century, even The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were written in Latin. Because they were left on their own, the Northumbrians and Anglo-Saxon population elsewhere developed underground their own vibrant, popular culture, traditions and language, all of which was passed on orally. The St Alkelda story too was part of a similar movement in two localities . There was a real change in the 14th century, after the Scottish attacks in the North and the Black Death everywhere, which was no respecter of persons. The Black Death effectively put an end to the Norman feudal system and the serfdom of the English peasantry.

Then, amazingly, people began to write in English – John Wyclif, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, Julian of Norwich, the first woman to write in English, then emerging from its late Middle English stage. Anglo-Saxon saints were brought out into the open again. In 1389, just 22 years after Middleham was linked with Giggleswick Church in the Finchale Priory financial transaction, there comes the first written mention of St Alkelda’s long association with Middleham in a grant from King Richard II for the people of Middleham to hold a Fair on St Alkild’s (Alkelda’s) feast day. This annual event was finally discontinued in 1926.

For a fuller account, please see the Guide book St Alkelda’s Way.

Anglo-Saxon Cross Shaft
Giggleswick Church.

There is locally, widespread disbelief in her existence. The origin of this refusal to accept that she could have lived, lies almost entirely at the door of Thomas Brayshaw who wrote of his belief in her non-existence in several of his local booklets and Papers. His views have been followed uncritically by most local historians from the late 19th century until almost the present day. The remarks about her in A History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick are more circumspect. The statement regarding her existence on p. 229, that the “safest verdict is ‘not proven’ ”, was probably the comment of Ralph Robinson, Brayshaw’s co-author and editor.

Recent scholarship offers strong circumstantial evidence that St Alkelda was “probably” a historical person. See the North Craven Heritage website.

Thomas Brayshaw was a “broad church” Anglican who preferred to opt immediately for what appeared the most “rational” rather than an open, investigative approach, which examines all possible sources and reasons for omissions . He never appears to have visited Middleham, allegedly St Alkelda’s birthplace, to examine the physical evidence of her tomb, or to study the church records. Neither did he consult any of their authorities. Brayshaw was only interested in exploring the possible existence of St Alkelda as she appeared in Giggleswick records, where the first reference to her was as late as 1528. For most of the Middle Ages, the living of Giggleswick Church was held by Finchale Priory of Durham. Brayshaw’s supporting argument was that the Finchale Priory’s financial records have no mention of St Alkelda at all . However, Brayshaw must have noticed the entry of 1376-7, “Expenses connected with the churches of Giggleswick and Middleham amounted to £5.4s.10d.” He mistakenly drew the conclusion, stated in several of his Papers, that the living of the Middleham church was also held by Finchale Priory. The truth is that Middleham Church never had any connection at all with Finchale Priory. That leaves us with the question regarding why 2 churches, 33 miles apart, were linked together in this entry. St Alkelda is an obvious reason.

Acknowledgement- photos from Middleham – Revd Jeff Payne