Celtic and Old English Saints          20 July

* St. Arilda of Gloucester
* St. Etheldwitha of Winchester
* St. Modmund of Gloucester

St. Arilda, Virgin and Martyr of Gloucester
Date unknown. Saint Arilda, Gloucestershire virgin, died in defence of
her chastity. The church at Oldbury-on-the-Hill is dedicated to her

St Arilda of Oldbury on Severn, Gloucestershire
by Jane Bradshaw

If books of saints mention St Arilda at all they say she is the patron saint
of Oldbury on the Hill, Gloucestershire. This is quite true but she is also
the patron saint of Oldbury on Severn, shortly to revert to Gloucestershire
after twenty-one years in Avon. These are the only two churches dedicated to
this saint but there are three other extant memorials to her.

The first is on the reredos of the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral, the
pre-Dissolution Benedictine Abbey of St Peter. This reredos is now, alas,
only a framework of empty niches which originally held the statues of three
major and thirty-six minor saints [1]. The central niche of the three minor
ones on the extreme south edge once held a statue of St Arilda, and the
mason's aide-memoire can still be seen scratched into the stone (see
illustration, right). She has also been identified, less certainly in a
light in the east window of the Lady Chapel. The glass in this window is
made up of fragments of the pre-Dissolution stained glass windows. Rushforth
[2] identifies St Arilda as sharing a light with St Lawrence, to whom
Didmarton church, the neighbouring church to Oldbury on the Hill, is

The second memorial to her is a hymn and a collect for her feast which are
written 'in a late thirteenth century hand' [3] on the flyleaf of a book
which belonged to Thomas Bredon, abbot of Gloucester from 1224 to 1228. This
book passed to the library of Hereford Cathedral after the Dissolution,
where it is now in the Chained Library. St Arilda appears in the English
Benedictine liturgical Kalendars as 'virgin and martyr' with a feastday on
20 July [4]. The hymn and collect have been transcribed and translated for
use at Oldbury on Severn.      So who was St Arilda, or Arildis, or plain
Saxon Arild? From the hymn we deduce that she was a virgin consecrated to
God (verses 2, 3 and 4); that she 'three times...fought the power of sin',
though what this means we are not told; and that she is buried in
Gloucester, where she is a guardian of 'this monastery' (verse 6 - the
translation is rather free here to allow for the hymn to be sung at
Oldbury). The Kalendars tell us she was a virgin martyr. Her name in the
form Arild is Anglo-Saxon, connected with the name Hilda which means battle

 John Leland, the sixteenth-century traveller and writer gives us some more
information, gathered during his visit to Gloucester Abbey. He tells us that
St Arilda, 'martyred at Kington by Thornbury [and] translated to this
monastery had done many miracles', and that she was martyred 'by one
Muncius, a tyrant who cut off her head because she would not consent to lie
with him' [5]. Kington near Thornbury is now in the parish of Oldbury on
Severn (which itself was once a chapel of ease to Thornbury church), and
here we find the third memorial to St Arilda: her well. A local tradition
that the water runs red with her blood is well-founded, as the stones in the
well's outflow are stained red, not with the iron associated with chalybeate
springs [6], but with a freshwater alga rejoicing in the name of
Hildebrandia rivularis.

While willing to be corrected, and admitting that much of the following is
guesswork, I would suggest that St Arilda was a consecrated virgin who, at
some time before the Norman Conquest and perhaps even before the Anglo-Saxon
invasions, lived by the well at Kington where she was martyred. Her body was
then removed to the hilltop at Oldbury on Severn where the church dedicated
to her now stands. A circular churchyard here indicates an ancient holy
site, and Roman remains dug up there point to a possible pre-Christian
origin, particularly as the hill itself has always been a navigation mark
for shipping in the river. After the founding of St Peter's Abbey in the
early part of the eleventh century and the later Norman Conquest the
Benedictine monks there, following the policy of centralisation encouraged
by the Normans (and probably with an eye to the prestige of the abbey) had
her body removed to Gloucester and enshrined in the crypt there. We know
from later records that at the Dissolution all the bones buried in the crypt
were gathered together and placed in one of the crypt side-chapels, being
transferred in the early twentieth century to an unmarked grave in the
Cathedral precincts.

The late rector of Oldbury on Severn, the Rev. Norman Stocks, instituted the
custom of singing St Arilda's hymn in the church on the Sunday nearest to
her feastday. Since 1986 Oldbury Village History Group has walked from the
church to her well on 20 July where the hymn is sung and the collect said,
and the proceedings conclude with a picnic. I should add that the well is on
private land, with no right of access. The landowner is always most
co-operative with the history group's visitation, but is not altogether
enthusiastic about the prospect of a large number of visitors.

The well is now enclosed in a cistern (see illustration), from which the
water is piped to the small group of farms and cottages nearby. This water
was passed as fit for dairying some years ago, and the Village History Group
has drunk it for the last nine years with (so far!) no ill effects. The
outflow from the cistern forms pools where the 'blood' is found under the
shade of a group of trees, which probably encourages the alga, since it is
only found in fresh water of a particular temperature. The stream runs on as
the 'Pool Brook' to form the boundary between Oldbury and Thornbury

What of Oldbury on the Hill? This is now a 'redundant church' of great charm
and interest. Why it is dedicated to St Arilda is uncertain. It is some
twenty miles from St Arilda's Well and Oldbury on Severn. Could it have been
a resting-place for the saint's bones on the journey to Gloucester? It seems
slightly out of the way. Or was the farm - for it is hardly more than one
farm - established by villagers from Oldbury on Severn, who took the memory
of their patron saint with them and dedicated their new church, the oldest
part of which, according to Verey [7], is fourteenth century to her? Both
theories have been suggested, but neither seems capable of proof.

There are plenty of questions left unanswered, and I should be grateful for
any helpful suggestions. Meanwhile it seems, St Arilda has kept her vows to
God, survived one or even one and a half thousand years, and is still going
strong at Oldbury on Severn.

     See also St Arild's Hymn, Source 5 (New Series).

St. Etheldwitha (Ealsitha),Nun of Winchester,
Widow of King Alfred
Died 903. Etheldwitha, an Anglo-Saxon princess, was wife to King
Alfred. After his death she retired to the convent she had founded at
Winchester (Benedictines).

St. Modmund, Martyr of Gloucester

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