Weird Norfolk: Murder in the well near West Rudham

The area where Mary Bone's Well was, near to the ruins of Coxford Priory. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The area where Mary Bone's Well was, near to the ruins of Coxford Priory. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Archant

In quiet fields close to the wonderfully named river Tat in west Norfolk it's hard to imagine that a terrible murder once took place. A woman left to drown in a deep well.

It is said that Lady Bone Well, also known as Mary Bone’s Well and Marie le Bonne Well, is named for the woman who tragically died there: at the hands of a local priest.

This ancient well can be found – or could be found, it may now be lost to the marshes and to time – close to the remains of the St Augustinian St Mary’s Priory, between Coxford and Broomsthorpe.

St Mary’s was founded in the 12th century and became one of the wealthiest Augustinian houses in Norfolk before the Reformation in the 1530s.

Ruins of the priory remain, including sections of the priory church and earthworks of the rest of the buildings, while the precinct and fish ponds can be seen from the air.

At this site a Roman coin hoard was discovered in the 18th century and a gold medieval finger ring thought to have belonged to lawyer Thomas Gawdy, a well-known member of the Norfolk gentry in the 16th century.

Three-day annual fairs were held here in honour of St Thomas of Canterbury and another annual fair marked the feast of St Barnabus.

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The priory was dogged by scandal.

When Archbishop Peckham visited the priory in January 1281, he found – according to British History Online – “…so lax a state of discipline that he subsequently sent the prior a long letter, in which he says that he had found him lacking in religious zeal, not attending divine service regularly, and failing to control his subordinates, so that by his negligence the canons go out coursing with hounds, attend banquets, chat with girls, and bring the house into contempt, causing it to be a scandal and a jest to the neighbourhood.

“Those who were suspected of incontinency were not to be allowed outside the priory except in cases of necessity, and then only when accompanied by others of good fame, and if they spoke to women or went into their houses they were to be severely punished; nor were women to be admitted to the priory on any account, save in the case of great and noble ladies accompanied by their trains who could not be refused.”

In 1514, Bishop Nicke paid a visit and found that “…he brethren were disobedient, quarrelsome, and incorrigible…” and that the Canon had run away four times before being imprisoned.

The ruins of Coxford Priory. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The ruins of Coxford Priory. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Archant

As the lady of the well’s legend says that she was “a woman of the priory” it could possibly mean that she was associated to the Augustinian house before 1281, when women were banned.

But it appears those who worshipped – or at least should have worshipped – at the priory held little regard for rules from on high, leading to speculation as to what happened to the poor woman in question.

One thing, however, is for certain: the water from the well in question was the main supply to the priory, meaning that if it was the site of a murder, it was one that literally tainted all who drank from its depths.

In 1619 Sir Roger Townshend and his master mason, William Edge, used materials from the old priory to build Raynham Hall and it was said by Spelman in his History of Sacrilege that this was the reason why that building collapsed! The present Hall was started in 1622.

Norfolk has a wealth of ancient wells, many of which are said to have magical powers.

At Ashill, two timber-lined well shafts were found in 1874 during railway excavations thought to be more than 2,000 years old.

There were signs that the Ashill wells had been used for magical rituals as pottery and toad bones – a well-known ingredient of Norfolk spells – were found within them.

In Dereham, the foundation for the town’s church and convent were laid in 654 by St Withburga with a later Norman church built on the site in 1120.

The mortal remains of St Withburga were disinterred and moved to Ely Cathedral – her body perfectly preserved after hundreds of years – and a spring appeared in her emptied tomb, the site of a present-day well in the churchyard.

There are holy wells said to grant wishes at Walsingham and in the village of Bawburgh outside Norwich, St Walstan’s well is said to offer miraculous healing power – as late as 1913, the Eastern Daily Press called it ‘the Lourdes of Norfolk’ and reported the cure of a London Catholic who had suffered eye problems.

During the pre-Christian era, many people believed that certain bodies of water had spiritual qualities and as such, springs and the wells that fed from them were associated with wisdom, healing and fertility.

Wells were believed to be the Eye of God and many holy wells were given the name ‘Ladywells’ when wells which were once dedicated to pagan goddesses were re-designated to the Virgin Mary.

Such wells were often sites where sightings of a White Lady were reported, a ghostly figure thought to be the well’s spirit. Could this be the origin of Coxford’s grisly story?