Just outside Brading on the Isle of Wight, on the opposite bank of the river Yar1, lies a woodland known as Centurion's Copse. This copse, labelled with the word 'Earthworks' on Ordnance Survey2 maps today, is a curiously dark, silent woodland where birds are rarely seen and dogs are said to fear to tread. This is the area of one of the Island's legendary lost towns, the doomed Wolverton.
In Roman times Brading was a locally important port, with at least two Roman Villas in the area. In mediæval times, Brading Haven3 continued in its local prominence, with the towns of Brading and Wolverton benefiting from the sheltered, though shallow, harbour. The river Yar which widened out to form Brading Haven all but separated the villages of Yaverland, whose name derives from 'Yar-Island' and Bembridge, meaning 'the land within the bridge', from the rest of the Island. The only access was by the 13th-Century bridge constructed at Yarbridge. However Centurion's Copse is not named after the Roman influence, but instead derives from the town of Wolverton's church, dedicated to St Urian, which has been corrupted to 'Centurion' since the church's destruction.
The town is said to have been completely destroyed in the mid-14th Century, with all the inhabitants slaughtered (or possibly one survivor), with the town and church never rebuilt.
The Legend of Wolverton
The legend states that the church of St Urian at Wolverton was famous for a remarkable shrine; a holy well whose water was so remarkably fresh it did not go off, even on long sea voyages. The well also had healing properties for the sick.
Near the well stood an engraved stone cross, whose message proclaimed:
While the water flows pure and free
Wolverton shall happy be.
The net be heavy in the sea
And wheaten seed shall yield plenty.
When stains of blood burns the well
Then Culver's Ness shall ring its knell.
Or words to that affect.
In the early 14th Century a mysterious old merchant often frequented the prosperous town of Wolverton. In some versions of the story he was shabbily dressed and sold trinkets. In later, mainly Victorian versions he was a rich merchant who sold astonishing goods at remarkably low prices, as well as cures for the ill. Unlike all other merchants, instead of arriving from the village of Brading or by sea, he always walked into and out of town from a path leading only to the cliff of Culver. No-one ever succeeded in following him to see where he came from, despite many trying. All who did, whenever they glanced away for a second, would lose sight of the merchant, with reportedly thorn bushes suddenly appearing on the exact spot the merchant was last seen, with no trace of the merchant himself ever found. The Ness mentioned in the prophecy was Culver Cliff's bulwark, the very end of the cliff. Visiting monthly, he became a popular figure in town and happily gave his advice to help solve the townsfolk's problems, and those who followed his advice always seemed to benefit.
Later versions of the story state that the mysterious merchant freely gave medicines to the town's sick and wounded4, potions for those experiencing unrequited love, etc. The merchant would inform all his customers at time of purchase that he didn't want or need any money for the cures. Yet after the potions had taken effect, he would demand payment in the form of favours. These favours were often arsonist acts, where the locals were ordered to set fire to property of those not in the merchant's favour, or else suffer terrible consequences.
As his visits became more frequent, people noticed that Wolverton's luck was subtly changing for the worse. When the townsfolk mentioned this to the old man, he said that he had had a prophetic dream. In this dream a stranger came to Wolverton dressed in grey and wearing a grey cowl. This stranger planned to poison the water in St Urian's holy well, and the bad luck that the town was experiencing was a warning of what bad luck would befall the town should the stranger succeed. He advised the locals to keep a protective watch on the well, and should a stranger so dressed appear, they should kill him before he could carry out his fiendish scheme. This the villagers agreed to do.
Soon after, as the mysterious merchant had foretold, a stranger was spotted arriving on a foreign vessel in the town of Wolverton, dressed in grey and wearing a cowl that obscured his face. He also carried little except a frond of an unknown, foreign plant – obviously something which could only be used to poison the well. He headed straight to St Urian's Church and the holy well as feared, so soon all the villagers gathered to prevent him from harming the water. As he knelt beside the well, looking as if he planned to lay the frond on the water, the townsfolk sprang into action to defend their pure sanctuary, suddenly pelting him with sharp stones to prevent him from carrying out this purpose. The stranger fell down dead beside the well, yet a drop of blood from his wounds fell into the water.
As prophesied, with the well thus despoiled, Culver's Ness crashed into the sea. Investigation of the stranger's body showed that he was a holy man who had travelled to the well from the Holy Land, yet there was little time for this to sink in. For almost immediately after the corruption of St Urian's well, the town of Wolverton was invaded in force by the French, who raped, pillaged and plundered, burning the town to the ground and killing all remaining in Wolverton. In some versions of the story, the church's golden altar plate and crucifix, silver candlesticks and the coins of the pilgrims who had travelled there were quickly buried to keep them safe during the raid. All who knew where this treasure was hidden were killed, and this vast horde of riches remains buried beneath Centurion's Copse to this day.
There were two people in the nearby area who survived. The first was the old merchant, who walked off laughing to himself when he saw that the pilgrim had been killed and the well polluted. The other was a local lad named Tom, who saw the merchant's mischievous expression, and was determined to follow and confront him, unaware of the French invasion. As the merchant headed away from the town towards the lonely cliff of Culver, in the opposite direction of the French attack, Tom successfully followed.
Tom pursued the merchant all the way back to a cave inside Culver Cliff, where he was spotted by his quarry and invited in. Inside the cave was a large, dazzling hall, where strange music played in the background, despite no evidence of musicians, and in the centre of the hall was a vast, unladen table as well as two dining chairs. On the wall opposite the entrance was a large portrait of the shabby merchant, but in elegant and expensive clothes. Soon after, Tom noticed other, smaller portraits on the walls. These were pictures of all the people of Wolverton, but each portrait had a blood-red cross on its forehead. In the corner there was one unfinished portrait, which Tom suspected might, when finished, be intended to be of him.
After looking around the walls studying all the pictures, Tom was amazed to find the table had suddenly become laid out for supper, with a vast feast of the most appetising foods Tom had ever seen or smelt, with barrels of wines and ales nearby. The merchant asked Tom to sit and share this meal with him, which Tom readily agreed to. However, just as Tom was about to put the first forkful into his mouth, he remembered that no grace has been said. Quickly putting the food down, he bowed his head and repeated a simple blessing that the friars of St Urian's church had taught him. Immediately, the merchant shrieked as if in pain, the cavern seemed to be filled with fire that burned the tables, hall, food and paintings, yet left him untouched and unharmed. Bewildered, Tom suddenly found himself outside on the top of Culver Cliff, with the fires of burning Wolverton in front of him. By the time he walked back down to the town, all of Wolverton was aflame, with only one surviving building, St Urian's Church. All the inhabitants had been killed.
Having looted, pillaged and plundered, the French had left, leaving Tom alone in the ashes of Wolverton. Of the holy well there was no trace, and the stone cross inscribed with the fulfilled warning prophecy beside it had also vanished. By the time the people of Yaverland, Brading and Bembridge had come to investigate, the French had gone and, listening to Tom's story, all agreed that the merchant must have been a demon, possibly even the Devil himself.
According to some versions of the story, as the people of Yaverland saw that the church at Wolverton had survived the inferno intact, untouched by the fire that had engulfed the rest of the town, they decided that the church was blessed. The villagers of Yaverland, not having their own church at the time, agreed to lift up the church onto wooden rollers and carry it a mile south-west from Wolverton to Yaverland.
Tom, having escaped death and damnation and all of his friends and family being killed, chose to live the rest of his life as a hermit, living a pious and quiet life in isolation in the cave in Culver Cliff, now a simple cave and no longer a portal into Hell.
Trees grew around the ruins of the destroyed town of Wolverton, with what were once streets and houses becoming dense woodland, where, to this day, nightingales are never heard.
The Truth Behind the Legend
Like all folklore spread by word of mouth down the generations, no-one knows where the tale originates. Versions of the legend were recorded by Edward Turner in Encyclopedia of Isle of Wight Words, Place-Names, Legends, Books and Authors in 1900 and also by Ernest du Boulay in Bembridge Past and Present, published in 1911.
The Black Death in the mid-14th Century caused the loss of many villages and spawned many legends, many of which, like the tale of Wolverton, include elements of loss of purity and an evil stranger bring death from abroad. But what is the truth behind the legend?
Wolverton and the Church of St Urian
It is known that the area, previously described as the isle of Bembridge, was divided into the land held by the manors of Wolverton, Middleton, Yaverland and La Wode. There is also evidence of a settlement in the area of Centurion's Copse, although probably a small village rather than a large town. Sir John Oglander, Deputy-Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight between 1596-1648, recorded in the 1630s:
[The] honnor of ye Mannor of Woolverton... in Byndbridge. This Woolverton hath beene formerlye a good Gentleman's estate... theyre they had theyre chappell, p't whereof I have sene standinge, called Centurions' Chappell.
Saynt Uries at Bindbridge (a chappell now decayed) wase founded by ye Lordes of Wolverton for theyre ease and theyre tennantes, for in those tymes ye Cawsey [causeway, the bridge] at Yarbridge wase not errected; so they weare fayne to goe abowt by Sandam [Sandham, now Sandown] to come to Bradinge. The ruines still remayneth.
It is known that there were therefore some remains at Wolverton surviving at least up to the time of the Civil War, although some debate remains today about whether these stone foundations were of St Urian's Chapel, or of the other principle building in the area, Wolverton Manor.
An earlier Tudor Chantry certificate in 1545 records that:
The ffree Chaple of Seynt Uryth in Bymbrydge... ys scytuate and Edified wtin the pishe of Bymbrydge dystaunt mile frome the pishe Churche.5
In the 1840s the area was subject to an archaeological investigation. Remains of a church were found and plotted, with pottery and other small finds concluded as being Roman. However in the 1950s these finds were re-appraised and instead described as being mediæval, dating from no later than the 14th Century, the time that Wolverton was inhabited. At the time of writing, proposals to apply for these remains to be listed are in progress.
There appears to be some confusion over the name of the saint that the chapel was dedicated to. Sir John Oglander names St Uries, earlier records mention St Uryth. There has been a fierce debate among Island historians over whether or not a St Urian actually existed, as there is no recognised Catholic saint of that name. 'Urian' itself is Greek, meaning 'Heavenly', and is used such as Uranus. Although many historians have argued that there never was a St Urian, curiously the name 'Urian' is listed in baby name books, with notes to the effect that there was a Celtic saint with that name.
Reverend E Boucher James proved the existence of a saint named St Urith, similar to the St Uryth Oglander describes, in his Letters Relating to the Isle of Wight published in 1889. St Urith was an Anglo-Saxon saint from 7th-Century Devon. The de Redvers family, as well as having the lordship of the Isle of Wight, were Earls of Devon and may have introduced the saint to the Island.
An alternative theory is the chapel is named after the French St Turien from Evreux in Normandy, who lived approximately 650-750 AD. After the Norman Conquest, many Norman lords dedicated churches and chapels in England to French and Norman saints. Others include Breton St Jurianus who died in 749. Another theory concerns a St Laurian, who was martyred in Bourges in 544. Whichever saint it was, over time the name has corrupted so where once there was a Saint's chapel, there is now a hill and copse named after a centurion.
That there was a French raid is a known historical fact. Sir Theobald Russell, Lord of Yaverland, died repulsing a French raid at nearby St Helens in 1340, and it is accepted that the French attacked and destroyed Wolverton then. This was by no means unusual during the Hundred Years' War. The French attacked the Island in 1336, Portsmouth and Southampton in 1338, the Island again in 1340, 1342, 1370 and 1372. In 1377 French and Spanish forces invaded the west Wight, destroying the towns of Yarmouth, Newport and Newtown, and besieging Carisbrooke Castle6. Newtown never recovered.
The raid of 1340 was not the last time that the French invaded that part of the Island. On 18 July, 1545, 235 French ships and 30,000 troops under the command of Admiral Claude d'Annebault dropped anchor off St Helens. The entire Island's population at the time was approximately 9,000 people, however Richard Worsley, the Captain of the Isle of Wight militia, had an army of 6,000 under his command; everyone on the Island had compulsory military training, with women often fighting as archers. Anyone who fled the Island would have all their property confiscated.
On 19 July, the day the Mary Rose sank, d'Annebault launched three attacks on the Island, at St Helens, Bonchurch and Sandown. Pietro Strozzi, an experienced Italian mercenary, led the attack on St Helens while the French killed, raped, pillaged and burnt the villages of Bembridge, Seaview, St Helens and Nettlestone. The waters of St Helens were also used to replenish French supplies.
The Islanders withdrew from the eastern Yar and cut the only bridge as the French occupied the whole of the tidal island of Bembridge. The French remained in Bembridge several days and D'Annebault seriously considered the occupation of the Island, planning to construct two forts on the Bembridge isle. The idea was abandoned when it was realised that they had no engineers or supplies available to build these fortifications. Also, at least 12,000 men would be needed to hold Bembridge and build the necessary defences. Sir John Oglander wrote: This was the last assault our Island had.
Cave and Holy Well
There is indeed a cave in Culver cliff as the legend states. This is not a known portal into Hell, but instead is known locally as 'The Hermit's Hole'. It is believed to have been the home of a local holy hermit, probably one who followed the teachings of St Benedict.
There were two springs in the area of Wolverton and the chalk geology of the area ensured that water would be filtered and purified. Indeed, water from nearby St Helens was believed to be exceptionally pure and stayed fresh, even on long voyages. It was frequently used by ships of the Royal Navy.
In 1620, Sir Hugh Myddleton attempted to reclaim 700 acres of Brading Haven by building a wall. He was astonished to discover, in the middle of this previously-flooded land, a stone-encased well. This has inspired other legends of dark, druidic practices, Satanic sorcery and witchcraft, rather than the holy well of St Urian's Church. In WH Davenport Adam's 1856 The History, Topography and Antiquities of the Isle of Wight is written the verse:
Ever the truth of the proverb we'll own -
'Tis prudent to let the well alone!
Centurion's Copse Today
Today Centurion's Copse is a registered Site of Special Scientific Interest for Nature Conservation. The surrounding area, Brading Marshes, is a Nature Reserve. Centurion's Copse can be easily reached via footpaths BB20 and BB23.