by Frank E Earp
The Nottinghamshire village of East Stoke, famed for being the site of ‘Stoke Field’, the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, was once connected to the neighbouring village of Elston by Elston Lane. The lane is now cut in two and the villages divided by the new A46. In a little ‘dip in the lane’ on the East Stoke side of the new road, lies the out flow of one of Nottinghamshire’s ancient springs. Known as Willow Rundle Spring, it has a number of legends which all connect it to the famous battle.
Willow Rundle Spring: Folklorist Ross Parish, an expert of holy wells and springs, calls the name of the Spring ‘unusual’ and suggests that Rundle is derived from ‘runnel’ an old word meaning a stream. Famed for its medicinal and healing properties, the water is said to be sweet to the taste. It rises in a field to the south of Elston Lane and flows via a stone culvert from the road-side bank into a three foot long, shallow stone trough, which in turn overflows into a nearby ditch. This situation appears to indicate that at one-time, the water from the Spring was diverted via the culvert, for the use of traffic along the Lane. Reputedly, the Spring is said to have always provided a copious supply of water and never to have ‘run dry’, – even in the famous drought of 1976. However, a report in the Newark Advertiser dated September 2010, states that on visiting the Spring, a member of a local history group Mr Eric Kirton, found it to be no-longer flowing. It was suggested that, when building the nearby new road, the contractors had damaged the Spring’s aquifer.
Elston Old Chapel: Although there is no written evidence to show that this was a ‘Christian Holy Well’, local legend connects it to Elston Old Chapel around one mile from the Spring on the opposite side of the new road. Of Norman origin the Chapel is said by some to once have been a ‘Leper Hospital’, with water from the spring used for the easy and comfort of its patients. This idea might, with archaeological investigation, prove to have a basis in fact. As I understand it, the word runnel can also mean a gutter or artificial water channel as well as a stream. Given this, it is possible that the short culvert (a runnel), from which the waters now issue, may once have supplied water direct to the Chapel. The fact that the Spring is especially noted for being powerful, means that its waters, when diverted into a well constructed channel, would have no problem in reaching the Chapel and beyond. If this is the case, the name of the Spring would indeed derive from ‘a runnel lined by Willow trees’, but an artificial channel rather than a natural stream.
Battle of East Stoke: There are a number of stories as to how the Spring both came into existence and got its name, all of which connect it directly to the Battle of Stoke Field. Before recounting these stories it is first necessary to say something about the Battle. On the 16th June 1487 somewhere around East Stoke, a Royalist (Lancastrian) army of King Henry VII met and defeated a rebel (Yorkist) force led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln. The action developed into a rout in what is regarded as one of the bloodiest battles ever to be fought on English soil. A testament to the slaughter are said to be the mass graves containing over 7,000 bodies. By far the majority are those of the Irish rebels and German mercenaries who fought for the Yorkist cause. Not all of Yorkist dead were slain in battle. In an act which would today would be considered a ‘War Crime’, Henry had all of the Yorkist prisoners of war executed for treason. The exception to these executions were the Germans, who, deprived of their pay, were allowed to go free.
Disputed Ground: Some early O.S. Maps mark the site of the Battle as being on the east side of the old A46 close to the north of Elston. That there is a strong local tradition connecting Elston with the famous battle is borne-out by the fact that Elston Old Chapel stands of land belonging to the aptly named ‘Stoke Field Farm’, a little to the north-east of the village. Without supporting archaeological evidence, it is notoriously difficult to precisely fix the location of a battlefield, certainly a medieval one. The nature of warfare, fluidity of movement and numbers involved means that battles were rarely confined within a precise geographical location. As a perfect example, new archaeological evidence has recently seen the location of the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), move around 2 miles to the south west of its traditional site. The location of the Battle of Stoke Field has always been hotly disputed and some scholars give the start of the action as being on open ground between the villages of Flintham and Syerston. If this is ever proven to be correct, then Elston Lane, Willow Rundle Spring and Elston Old Chapel would have all been in the path of the routed Yorkist army as they fled back towards East Stoke and the Trent.
The Earl of Lincoln: There is a tradition which tells us that following the battle, the dead were not only buried in the mass graves around East Stoke, but that some were interred around Elston. If at least some of the action took place around village, then this would make practical scenes. However, tradition would have us believe that the Earl of Lincoln himself died fighting close to the Spring and was later buried in an unmarked grave on the spot where he fell or in the Chapel. Are these stories be based on fact? Were the remains of John de la Pole, as a Christian Nobleman, allowed a half decent burial in or close to the ancient Elston Chapel? None of this would seem impossible. We are reminded of the fact that following the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry VII permitted the body of Richard III to be buried in similar circumstances. But how could it be that amongst the carnage of the battlefield and 7,000 dead, the body of one man be singled out and identified? Certainly we know that the Earl was a ‘marked man’ that day. The King wanted him taken alive to be questioned on the extent of the rebellion among his fellow nobles and was angry when he heard that he had been kill. We can imagine then, that the King would have insisted on knowing the manner of his death and on seeing his body. Can we also imagine that he treated the body of his fallen enemy with a degree of respect?
Willie Rundle: There are several versions of a story which tells us that the Spring took its name from a devout Yorkist soldier named Willie Rundle. The simplest of these tells how ridding across the field, Willie was cut from his horse by his enemies. Where he fell to the ground a spring burst forth, which later quenched the thirst of his dying comrades. Another version has a mortally wounded Willie on foot. With his last dying breath he falls to his knees and praise to his ‘Patron Saint’ that his great thirst be quenched. His prayers are answered when water gushes from the ground in front of him. His equally thirsty comrades later drank from the new spring and the grateful survivors named it in his honour.
There is a Heaven: The final version of the Willie Rundle story not only tells us how the Spring came into existence, but assures the Christian faithful of an ‘afterlife’ in Heaven. Fleeing from the murderous pursuit of his Lancastrian foe, the mortally wounded Willie falls to the earth. The ground around him is already littered with the dead and dying and the grass is red and slippery from their blood. Seeing him fall a comrade comes to his assistance and comforts the dying Willie with the last drop of water from his bottle. Willie thanks his friend for the water and the two men exchange words about their fate and weather there is an afterlife. With his dying breath Willie tells the man that he will soon know the answer and if he reaches Heaven he will send him a sign. With these final words Willie closes his eyes in death. Almost immediately water miraculously gushes from the ground close-by. Feeling assured of his place in Heaven for his act of kindness, the man replenishes the water in his bottle from the new spring. Others join him to partake of the life giving water and give thanks to God for ‘Willie Rundle’s Spring’.
Macabre Origin: The Willie Rundle story in all of its variants is clearly a Christian one with a theme of selfless acts and comfort for the dying. It further indicates that the Willow element of the name for the spring, is a mere corruption of the name Willie, (which seems an unlikely scenario to me). There is however, another story which tells how the Spring, already flowing at the time of the Battle, got its name. This time the Willow element of the name is given a very macabre origin.
Willow Stakes: The story is a simple one and is rather a local ‘folk-memory’ than a legend. Reputedly, there are bodies of Yorkist dead, each with a Willow stake driven through their hearts, buried somewhere close to the spring. A simple variant suggests that it is only the hearts and Willow stakes which were interred close to the spring.
How did this bizarre and macabre story come about and could it really have any basis in truth? If we look again at all of the elements in our story so-far, then I believe that the answer to the question is yes. But first we must look at the actual reason for the act of driving a stake through the heart of a corpse. When mentioned, there is an automatic response that this is something done to counteract or kill a vampire, a theme which features in Bram Stoker’s epic novel ‘Dracula’. However, the idea and in-deed the practice, is far older than the revised 19th century vampire myth of Stoker ‘et el’.
Restless Dead: For centuries people have gone to great lengths to prevent the soul’s of the recent dead from retuning to haunt the living, particularly those of murder victims and suicides who might be considered to be ‘restless spirits’. Well into comparatively recent times, there continued the ancient practice of burying such corpses at night in unconsecrated ground, particularly at crossroads. But the ultimate way of preventing the restless dead from ‘walking abroad’ was to drive a pointed stake through the heart, thus pinning the body to the ground.
Murder and Suicide: Returning now to Willow Rundle Spring, if the legend is true, who were the unfortunate Yorkist buried with willow stakes through their hearts? Certainly not the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 killed in the actual battle. But what of those who were taken prisoner and later executed on the field for treason by Henry? What ever way you look at it, at this date these men would have been seen as both murder victims and suicides. To kill someone in battle is one thing, but to cold-bloodedly execute prisoners, even by the standards of the day, would have been considered a form of murder. Execution for treason was originally regarded as a form of suicide. The logic being that, knowingly to go against the will of a divinely appointed monarch, was a crime against God leading to a self-invoked death and therefore a suicidal act. Given all of this, is it possible that, pricked by conscious and fearful of the doubly damned vengeful spirits of the restless dead, the executioners staked the hearts of their victims before burying their corpses? This would certainly be an act that would linger-on in the form of a folk memory.
Lazer-house: Amongst the story of Willow Rundle Spring, there is one more clue which when looked at more closely, may indicate a connection to the unfortunate Yorkist prisoners of war. This clue lies in the dedication of Elston Old Chapel as a Leper Hospital, to St. Leonard. Current estimates state that there were around 300 leper hospitals in medieval England, most of which were built between the 12th and 13th century. As religious institutions founded by the Church and its benefactors, such hospitals were known a ‘lazer-houses’ after St. Lazarus (Lazaro), the Patron Saint of Lepers. Founded in the early 12th century, ‘The Order of St. Lazarus’, a military order of knights, all of whom were lepers, built the first lazer-house for the care of their fellow sufferers, close to the northern wall of Jerusalem. As the practice of building such chapel hospitals spread, it is likely that most received a dedication to St. Lazarus. As time passed and the need for leper hospitals declined, a rededication to a more appropriate Saint would have been seen as reasonable.
Patron Saint: From its Norman origin, the Chapel, which never developed into a Parish Church, has survived intact as a fine example of a medieval chapel and one of only 177 churches in England dedicated to St. Leonard. It is not until we look at St. Leonard himself that we discover the relevance to our story of this dedication. St. Leonard or more precisely St. Leonard de Noblac is the Patron Saint of Pregnant Women and (more importantly) Prisoners of War. Could it be that the Elston lazer-house was given its dedication to St. Leonard after and in memory of the fact that Yorkist prisoners of war, before being executed, were held and given their ‘Last Rights’ in the Chapel? Did they in-deed as the stories suggest, slacken their thirst from the waters of the Spring, not in the field but rather from the ‘runnel’ which provided for the Chapel? When Willie Rundle prayed to his Patron Saint for water, was it to St. Leonard?
When I first read the references to this local belief, I was instantly reminded of the so called ‘Bog Bodies’. For those unfamiliar with the term, Bog Bodies or Bog People, is the name given to the naturally mummified human remains, of both sexes, found in ‘peat bogs’ throughout Northern Europe. Although some of these remains have been dated to later historical periods, the term is generally accepted as applying to the 60 or so bodies which have been attributed as dating between the Bronze and Iron Age. Archaeological and forensic examination of these bodies has concluded that they all suffered a violent death which has been attributed to ritual, human sacrifice. In some cases, the level of violence inflicted on the victim has been described as ‘over kill’. In a number of cases the cause of death has been a form of ritual execution know as ‘triple death’. In this practice the victim is first stunned by a blow to the back of the head before being garrotted by a ligature around the throat. In the final part of the execution the victims throat is cut, probably to allow blood from the still beating heart to flow out onto the ground. The common factor in all of these ritual sacrifices is the fact that the victims body has been carefully deposited in a ‘watery place’ (a spring or pool). It is believed that such places were regarded as entrances to the ‘Other World’. The final part of the ritual seems to have been securing the body in place with Willow stakes and rods. Again this is practice is seen by most authorities as being a form of protection against the ‘restless dead’. In an article on German folklore Struve says of the use of Willow stakes; “….such persons criminals, suicides, victims of violence or accident, were rendered harmless…so as not to return and haunt the living”.
Could it be that the Elston Willow staked bodies story is a folk memory connecting Willow Rundle Spring with ancient human sacrifice? Certainly long before the Spring was culverted its water would have flowed openly into the field forming a pool and run-off stream. But is there evidence that possibly links this ‘watery place’ to a wider Bronze or Iron Age ritual landscape? Of a site close to Elston Old Chapel, the official web-site of the village says; ‘Crop markings showing two concentric rings of post holes half a mile east north-east of Elston on Stoke Fields Farm and a little outside the parish, suggest the site of a henge monument [Bronze Age] or an Iron Age building, but no surface features are visible’.