Copgrove Mysteries

by MJ Wayland

Copgrove Sheela Na GigLittle has changed in the Yorkshire village of Copgrove since the Roman legionnaires deserted the nearby fortification of Isurium Brigantum (the village of Aldborough now covers the site). Lying in the undulating lands between Knaresborough and the market town of Boroughbridge (Devil’s Arrows), Copgrove is dominated by its Hall that is surrounded by nearly a thousand acres of prime wooded, game-filled land.

The Copgrove mysteries that perplex historians and folklorists alike, they are St Mungo’s Well and the Devil’s Stone.

The Devil’s Stone
This unusual carving is located in the east wall of St Michael’s church at Copgrove, North Yorkshire. The stone was originally built into the chancel wall inside the church, but it was removed during restoration work in the 19th century.

The church leaflet contains a short note about the stone ” …..known as the Devil’s Stone ….. of great antiquity probably of Romano-British origin”

The figure may be related to the Sheela-na-gig type “exhibitionist” carvings but this figure might be seen as male or female due to the relief carving of the outline.

Often compared to a classic “alien” creature, the head and neck are out of proportion with the rest of its body. The left leg appears to have broken away and appears if the figure is now standing on one leg. Below the left ‘elbow’ are traces of the leg in which case the lower left lower arm could be a devil’s forked tail.

The figure also seems to be carrying a bowl and to its left a Tau cross (or axe) which could be a later addition. I’ve suggested previously this could be a Knights Templar influence but perhaps the biggest mystery is why was this stone originally in the church?

St Mungo’s Well
St Mungo is a moderately obscure celtic saint, who was a reforming cleric in the days when much of Britain was pagan and even in Christianised parts, many held firm to their old beliefs. Bishop Kenitgern (“Mungho” is a pseudonym meaning “dearest one”) was associated with the nearby ancient Minster of Ripon, eight miles away from Copgrove. His pastoral staff was given to him by St Columba and was once revered as a relic in early mediaeval times. Why the well should be named after him seems a mystery.

In 1626, Dr Edmund Deane in his “Spadacrene Anglia” attacked St Mungo’s Well for being an ‘ineffectual superstitious relic of Popery’. His attack focused on the people who from far and wide visited the well for its miraculous waters to cure their ailments. But people continued to come to the clear waters of St Mungo’s Well, often being immersed, totally in the cold, dark waters of the well.

But how did the well gain its reputation for magical powers and become to be named after a local saint? If we analyse the geography of the surrounding countryside, we will find three clues within four miles from the well.

The site of Isurium Brigantum and the known presence of a ‘Roman Road’ which must have run close to the well (probably on the site of an even earlier track) would have lead to the Roman’s to visit the site at one time or another. Close by are three standing stones, the “Druid Stones” which would also have diverted the Romans’  attention to the possible powers of the well.

When the Romans made their third and final push north of the Humber in the conquest of Britain, Isurium was already a populous, thriving Celtic Brigantian town and remained so throughout the occupation. It is well known throughout Britain and elsewhere that Romans would often take over a particular worship site and replace the local deities with ones known to themselves.

Other clues that point to the possibility of the well being well-known for healing properties lies in five coins found in the well precincts and the devil’s stone in the North wall of St Michael’s church, which I mentioned earlier.

Four of the coins range over the reigns of William III to George III, but the fifth is a Bronze of the Emperor Hadrian. How did it get there, and why? In Roman times, the surrounding country was primeval forest of oak and ash.

Discussing Druidism, Prof. Lloyd Laing states tersely and somewhat dryly, ‘skulls have a habit of being discovered without their skeletons in Romano-British wells’. There is no surviving record of human remains ever having been recovered from St Mungo’s Well, but a severed head and a sacrificial knife could describe the objects on the Devil’s Stone far better than any alternative suggestions so far forthcoming.

How did the coins find its way to the well? People both use and lose coins; they drop out of pockets, pouches and purses; sometimes they are thrown, confidently or privily as offerings to ambition, of propitiation or simply, hope. Was it an offering made secretly and perchance fearfully in the gloom of the forest, or was it simply – lost?

Copgrove with its two mysteries, is a sleepy village worth visiting. As we stand near the well, its waters rush by under our feet and we wonder if “paganism” had such a hold on the village that the church had to rename the well and banish the ancient religion. Or did people from the bronze age understand the well’s true power, after treading the ancient road now lost?

And when we visit Copgrove’s church we must ask why the North wall is adorned with a pagan relic? What is its relation with the well? Who carved it and for whom? On such things we may speculate, but the truth we may never know.

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