At the beginning of November, I cycled to the church of St John the Evangelist in Lund, which is about six miles outside Preston. Lund means ‘grove’ in Norse and Germanic thus it seems likely the church was built on a pre-Christian sacred site. This is supported by the presence of an altar to the Mothers within the church now used as a baptismal font.
Matronae ‘Matrons’ and Matres ‘Mothers’ were worshipped across Northern Europe from the 1st to 5th C particularly in Germany and Gaul and other places occupied by the Roman army. They are usually depicted in threes, often with fruit, bread, cornucopias and nursing infants.
Worship of the Mothers was widespread in Britain. Whilst some of the Mother Goddesses were clearly brought from over-seas (shown by inscriptions reading ‘To the Mothers from Overseas’ ‘To the German Mother Goddesses’) there is evidence for a Romano-British tradition centring on Matrona ‘the Mother’ and Maponos ‘the Son’ which seems strongest in north-west England and southern Scotland.
Altars and inscriptions to ‘the Mother Goddesses’ and ‘the Mothers the Fates’ have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness and Bowness-on-Solway. The worship of Maponos in this area is evidenced by the place-name Lochmaben, the Clochmaben stone and the Locus Maponi.
Matrona and Maponus re-appear in medieval Welsh literature as Modron ‘Mother’ and Mabon ‘Son’. The story of Mabon being stolen from Modron when he is three nights old and rescued from imprisonment in a ‘house of stone’ forms an important part of Culhwch and Olwen.
In The Triads, Modron daughter of Avallach, bears Urien Rheged’s son and daughter, Owain and Morfudd. Urien’s relations with Modron and Owain’s inheritance of Mabon’s divine qualities show his family’s dependence on ancestral deities for the fertility of their land and lineage and success in battle.
Modron’s father, Avallach, is the son of Beli Mawr: one of the oldest ancestral gods of Britain. He is associated with Ynys Avallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or ‘The Island of Avalon’. This is inhabited by nine maidens: Morgan and her sisters. In Welsh and Breton folklore, Morgens are water spirits.
The Mothers are frequently associated with water: in Gaul, Matrona is goddess of the Marne. A reference from 1AD exists to ‘the Island of Sein’ ‘known because of the oracle of a Gaulish God; the priestesses of that divinity are nine in number.’ One wonders whether the god is Dis Pater, from whom the Gauls claim descent.
Avalon is often identified with Glastonbury. Another of Glastonbury’s deities is Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn who resides over spirits bearing striking similarities to the Gaulish andedion (underworld gods). Both Morgan and Gwyn become known as ‘fairies’ in later literature.
In Peniarth Manuscript 147. the mother of Urien’s children appears as the Washer at the Ford (‘The Ford of Barking’) and introduces herself as ‘daughter to the King of Annwfn’.
A pattern emerges: one, three or nine female figures connected with an underworld god.
Here in Lancashire there are altars to the Matronae and to Maponos (as Apollo-Maponus) in the Roman museum at Ribchester. This is the site of Bremetenacum ‘place by the roaring river’ and is located on a major ford of the Ribble. Ribchester was also likely to have been a centre of worship for the Ribble’s goddess: Belisama ‘Most Shining One’ ‘Most Mighty One’.
During the Romano-British period, the Ribble ran much closer to Lund. This is shown by the nearby place-name Clifton ‘Cliff Town’. St John the Evangelist also stands very close to the Roman road running from Ribchester through Preston to Kirkham and across the Fylde. Because the stone of the altar at Lund is similar to those from Ribchester, it seems possible it was made there and brought on the road. This would mean, like the Ribchester altars, it dates from 2BC.
The altar’s appearance as a font is recorded in a leaflet in the church. In ‘the records of the Parish Vestry’ it says ‘Matt Hall, Churchwarden of Kirkham in 1688 set up a scandalous trough for a font in Lund Chapel…. For this poor Matthew was presented, that is brought before, the bishop of the diocese. History does not record the outcome of the interview, nor for that matter, how he came by the ‘scandalous trough’ in the first place.’ In spite of the ‘scandal’, the ‘trough’ is still used as a font today.
When I set out to St John’s it was originally for a recky so I could get the timing right when I booked an appointment to visit. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to find the church open (it’s open every day from 10am) and to be greeted by Joan Shepcot, a volunteer gardener and co-ordinator of the Children’s Society, who invited me in to see the altar and let me take as many photographs as I needed.
As I approached the altar I could see it was beautifully maintained. Three female figures wearing loose dresses or robes stood in the centre. Their hair looked coiffured or perhaps they were wearing headgear. Were they one Mother Goddess in triple-form? Three individual Mothers or the Mothers the Fates?
On the right and left hand side of the altar female figures were depicted dancing, arms above their heads, feet tapping a beat. They were also clad in loose robes or dresses. Were these the Mother Goddesses dancing? Or perhaps nymphs of the sacred grove? Or devotees? Their swaying stances with arms raised reminded me a little of trees.
Together could they form a sisterhood of nine? Could the ancestral presence of an underworld god be felt in the background?
The back of the altar was blank because it once stood against a wall. Behind the altar was a stained glass window depicting Faith, Hope and Charity with the head of an unnamed male figure in blue and gold above. This is interesting because Alex Garman says these ‘three sisters’ show a strong influence of the Matronae. Considering their presence on a font I found myself imagining ‘the Mothers the Fates’ as ‘fairy godmothers’ at baptisms.
After a chat with Joan about her wildflower patch I cycled to the next point along the Roman road from St John’s: Dowbridge. As I headed back from the bridge over the river Dow, mist descended; cloaking St John’s at Lund, Clifton Cross and Clifton Mill. Rolling over Savick Brook and the Ribble.
In the cold swathes of mist passing over grey waters where time stood still I sensed the passage of underworld spirits. I had, after all, stumbled out on All Soul’s Day.
*Many thanks to Joan Shepcot at St John the Evangelist in Lund for permission to use these photographs on my blog.