The Isle of Wight, like much of the United Kingdom, has had a rich and distinct folklore. Many of its tales and legends have survived, and many either date from, or are set in, Anglo-Saxon times. No description of Anglo-Saxon Wight is complete without mentioning them, and discussing what truth there may be behind them1.
Most of these tales date from the time that the Isle of Wight was converted to Christianity. Unsurprisingly, most of these tales have developed, over the years, different versions, and have acquired underlying morals. In almost every case, the moral is that Christianity has saved the people of the Wight from destructive, Pagan beliefs.
Many of the tales relate to how a place received its name, such as the tale of Bloodstone Copse. Some tales, such as the dramatic one concerning the flooding of Brading Haven, are only set in Saxon times in some variations of the tale. Only ones in which the whole story is set on the Island are included here.
Legends of Saint Boniface
Many of the tales of Anglo-Saxon England relate to Saint Boniface, after whom St. Boniface Down, the highest hill on the Island, is named.
Saint Boniface was born 'Wynfryth' between 675 - 680 AD, probably in Devon. At the age of 13 he joined the Benedictine monastery at Nutscelle, between Southampton and Winchester, less than 15 miles from the Isle of Wight. Whilst he was there it is believed he went on several missionary expeditions to the Island as practice for his later expedition to Friesland in Germany, where he planned to preach to the Old Saxons2.
Around 710, he became a priest, and in 716 he left for Friesland. On the 15th May 719, he was consecrated Bishop by Pope Gregory II. He was then given the name Boniface, meaning 'Doer of Good', and became Apostle to Germany, where he is credited with creating the Christian Church, and indirectly inventing the Christmas tree.
In 754, he resigned his post as Archbishop of Mainz, Germany in order to return on his mission to the Frisians. He was martyred by pagan Frisians in Dokkrum, what is now Holland, in 755.
Boniface At Bonchurch
Most of the legends of Saint Boniface on the Island relate to events after his death, yet there are stories about his visits, most of which take place around the area of Bonchurch. It is from there that he is supposed to have preached to the Island fishermen, from what is still known as Pulpit Rock.
One of which concerns a time when he was having doubts about his faith, and walked along the coast near what is now Bonchurch. There he sat down, asking for a sign from God to help him through his doubts. As he was there, a boy who had dug a hole in the sand picked up a shell, filled it with sea water, and then emptied it into his hole. He did this several times, before throwing away the shell in anger and crying.
Wynfryth asked him why he was crying, to which he replied, 'I wanted to empty the sea into the hole I dug, but I can't!'
Boniface replied, enlightened, 'That is the same cause of my doubts - I have been trying to fit the infinite inside my finite mind!' and went off, confirmed in his faith.
The Old Church at Bonchurch is not Saxon, but Norman. This is explained by another story, which tells us that in the 11th Century, monks from Lyre Abbey, Normandy landed in nearby Monks Bay, named after their arrival, in order to administer the collection of tithes, rents etc. of the six Island churches owned by Lyre Abbey.
The Monks are believed to have discovered a ruined Saxon church, and as an act of thanksgiving for safely crossing the channel, rebuilt it, dedicating it to the Saxon Saint. The Old Church was replaced in 1848 by the New Church of Saint Boniface, but not demolished. Every 5th June, Saint Boniface Day, a special candle-lit service is held there.
Boniface's Legacy: Hill and Well
Saint Boniface's largest legacy is the hill named after him - St. Boniface Down. Another is the village of Bonchurch, which was a Saxon village. In the Domesday Book it was listed as Bonecerce. Cerc was a Saxon term meaning 'church', so Bonchurch's original name meant 'Boniface's Church'.
Saint Boniface's Well, on St. Boniface's Down naturally enough, is another - although now it is little more than a damp area in a hard-to-reach part of the hill. In the last century, oak trees have covered the previously tree-less down, making the well hard to find.
The well, known locally as 'Bonny's Well', was believed to be a genuine wishing well. If you managed the nearly 800 foot climb to the top of the hill without looking back it was believed that any wish you made would be granted. Ships passing the site of well also used to lower their topmasts as a sign of respect. On Saint Boniface Day, it was traditional for the people of Boncurch to climb to the well and decorate it with flowers, although this no longer happens.
Another story related to St. Boniface Down is how a Bishop, riding the slopes of Boniface Down on a wild, stormy night, lost his way and was in danger of falling down a precipice, into the rocks below. The Bishop, fearing for his life, let go of the reigns and prayed to the spiritual guidance of Saint Boniface, promising to give the Saint's church an acre of land as a reward. The horse then guided him safely and directly to Saint Boniface's Well. As a result, the bishop kept his word, and Bishop's Acre survives today.
Godshill is perhaps the most picturesque of the Island's villages3, and it's church is certainly the most photographed. The story of how Godshill was named is certainly the most well-known Island Legend, and perhaps the most fantastical.
All Saints Church in Godshill, the church on top of the hill in Godshill, dates from the 14th Century, and is believed to be the 4th church on the site. The first church was built during Saxon times, shortly after the Saxon conversion of the Island in the 7th.
Then the villagers had only just received the Christian faith, and did not have a church to attend. The village elders decided to build a church to God at the bottom of the hill, and the whole village helped mark out foundations on the chosen site and started work on building the church, building huge stones on top of each other. After the first day, everyone went to bed exhausted and slept.
When they awoke, they discovered that overnight, the stones had moved to the top of the hill, and that the foundation lay-out on the bottom of the hill had also disappeared and reappeared on the top of the hill, exactly as they had been left down below. The villagers spent the day moving the stones back down to the bottom of the hill, moving them into the position they had been the day before, and again went to bed. Again, when they awoke, the church had again moved its foundations to the top of the hill. Undeterred, again the work was moved to the bottom of the hill and work on building the church began again, but this time the Village Elders posted guards to watch over the building site.
That night, at midnight, the watchmen started to hear rumbling sounds, and then saw the giant stones sway from side to side slowly, as if awaking. The smaller stones then started jumping and rolling up the hill, leapfrogging over each other and obstacles in the way. The larger ones moved slowly, swaying and rolling. Not only stones, but marker pegs, rope, shovels, anything related to the building of the church, flew up the hill with them. At the top of the hill, marker pegs were hammered into the layout of the church with mallets that swung themselves, and string tied itself to the pegs to form the guide for the church building.
After the village elders were told what had happened, they decreed that the church would be built on the top of the hill, and that from that time on, in honour of the miracle that had happened there, the village would be named 'God's Hill'. The land rejected by the church was from then on known as 'Devil's Acre'.
A less peaceful account of the Island's conversion to Christianity has been set at Wroxall Down, five miles away from Godshill. There, it is said, Pagan beliefs and practices continued, including the sacrifice of children.
One year, as the annual sacrifice approached, two girls and a boy were chosen. Their hands were tied, and they were dressed in clothes of flowers as they were taken to the altar.
At that point a Christian hermit approached, and warned the crowd that if any of the children were sacrificed, they who killed the children would suffer the pain and torment of Hell forever. One of the executioners laughed, and slashed at one of the children's arms with his knife. As that happened, a huge cut appeared on his arm, and he bled twice as much as the child he had hurt.
In fury the Pagan Leaders rushed at the hermit and threw him off the down, throwing heavy rocks on top of his body until there was nothing left but rubble. Yet, from that day, no child was ever offered as a sacrifice on the Isle of Wight, and the Island abandoned their Pagan beliefs.
Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight
- Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight
- Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight: 400 - 900 AD
- Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight: 900 - 1066 AD
- Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight: Day-To-Day Life
- Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight: Legends
- Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight: Churches