On Sunday afternoon, with a little time to spare, we wandered out to North Marston, just a few miles from my home, to revisit the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While its name is quite a mouthful, the building itself is no more today than a fine old parish church… but, once upon a time, it was one of the busiest places of pilgrimage in the country.
The exterior of the church is interesting, with a good many periods mingling in a design that has grown organically, rather than to any particular plan… a feature shared by most of our older churches. What we had not noticed on our previous visit, though, was the wonderful collection of grotesque masks and gargoyles that runs around the church. It was good to see that when the outer and crumbling stones of the fifteenth century tower had been replaced a few years ago, modern carvings had replaced the old ones in a similar style.
The church was begun around 1150 and some of the older stonework still survives. It is a rather grand church for a small village, but much of its present style is due to its popularity with pilgrims.
John Schorne was an Augustinian canon who became Rector of the church, serving from 1282 to 1314. He was accounted a very holy man, revered by his flock and credited with many miracles, both during his lifetime and after his death.
One of those miracles was the calling forth of a chalybeate spring. During a drought, the villagers asked him for help and, striking the ground with his staff, the healing waters bubbled out of the ground. The holy well is still there, though it is now housed beneath a new canopy. The water was believed to be a cure for fevers, toothache and especially for gout. So great were its powers said to be that King Henry VIII himself came on pilgrimage to the spring twice, in 1511 and 1521.
The well was once a large cistern, with water said to be extremely clear and cold, yet it never froze or failed. Local doctors often included the well water in their potions and it is said that the village escaped the cholera epidemic that swept through the area. The cistern was covered with locked doors after a young woman, Jane Watson, drowned there in 1861.
The village welcomed many mediaeval pilgrims, some in the two half-timbered houses that still stand close to the church. Schorne’s reliquary stood within the church, receiving so many offerings from pilgrims that a window was installed so that the shrine could be watched from above the vestry… and the window, high on the north wall of the chancel, can still be seen today. Schorne’s resting place, though, is now empty. His remains were moved to St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, the resting place of kings.
The strangest story of John Schorne, though, is that ‘he conjured the Devil into a boot’. The church’s own website suggests that a ‘devil in a boot’ was simply symbolic of the agony of gout, but the story became a local legend regardless…and a sculpted boot now adorns his well.