I. Heather Awen and the Lady of the Marsh
Over the past few weeks I have been in conversation with Heather Awen, an animist and devotional polytheist based in Vermont in America, about an unknown Welsh marsh goddess. Tracing her mother’s ancestral line to northern Wales enabled Heather to perform a ritual where she raised a toast of pure clean water to each of her ancestors she knew by name.
Heather told me that the next day during her devotions to the Germanic goddess, Freyja, ‘a woman emerged out of nowhere, dripping with water as if she had leapt out of a lake like a fish. ” She’s my child!” she screeched “leave her alone!” She was very connected to a marsh… small and compact but curvy, darker skin with long wavy almost curly dark hair. And the fact that she knew me as her child felt very right and the closest thing I’ve ever felt to having a mother.’
Since then Heather has worked to gain an understanding of the Lady of the Marsh and her ancestors. She has witnessed torch-lit processions up a winding hill and offerings of weapons of fallen enemies thrown into the marsh with jewellery and gifts of butter. Sometimes these were made from a wooden platform.
On dark nights women went to pray for a ‘baby to fill their womb’ and the dark moon was a special time of communion between ‘a woman and her goddess’. She also saw a woman ‘wrapped in what looked like burlap tied with ropes’ thrown into the marsh whilst people looked on frightened. Heather remains unsure whether this was a ritual burial or sacrifice.
Heather said: ‘The main focus of all of the ceremonies was the understanding that every member of our family lived at the bottom of the marsh. Women would pray there to have one enter their own uterus while the dead, literally at least sometimes, were returned – and this had been happening for a very, very long time, even if language and culture changed.
As things decomposed and layers of soil and water shifted, the lines between those not yet born and those who had lived also decomposed and shifted, bringing a sense of at least partial reincarnation. Once you are a member of the tribe that came from this lady of the marsh, your descendants also would be born from her, no matter how far away in time or space. I was her child even though her worship was an indivisible combination of blood and bioregion.’
II. The Lady of Peneverdant
When I read Heather’s first e-mail introducing some of her visions, I shivered. Although I live in Lancashire what she had seen felt familiar. My hometown of Penwortham was known as Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ in the Domesday Book. Its Bronze Age inhabitants occupied a Lake Village on Penwortham Marsh. This is evidenced by the Riversway Dockfinds: two dug-out canoes, part of a timber platform, animal bones and 30 human skulls dating from 4000BC to 800AD.
It is indubitable these people used Castle Hill as a defensive position and sacred site. On the hill’s summit is a church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. St Mary’s Well, which was renowned for its healing qualities, lay at its foot. I believe veneration of Mary here is rooted in the worship of an older pre-Christian ‘mother’ goddess.
My relationship with this female deity of the hill and marsh, who I am beginning to know as the Lady of Peneverdant, has developed slowly and tentatively. I feel her presence most strongly in the wet mosses and ferns in Penwortham Wood (on the hill’s east bank and side) and sometimes see her face or outline in the dripping ivy.
During a sequence of lunar meditations I saw members of the Setantii tribe ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’ leaving the hill in oaken boats paddling down-river on the dark moon and returning on the full moon for a torch-lit procession. As they lit a beacon fire and toasted the moon above and reflected in the waters I felt the building potency of their rite but the rest was cut off.
I often wonder whether the human skulls found near the Lake Village were from marsh burials or even sacrifices. The perfectly preserved head of a woman with long auburn hair wearing a necklace of jet with an amber bead wrapped in coarse woollen cloth (found in Pilling) along with the more famous Lindow Man ‘Pete Marsh’ show ritual burials were not unknown in Lancashire. The current scholarly theory is people who died up-river were carried down and washed up in a tidal pool.
It’s my intuition the Lady of Peneverdant was venerated by local tribespeople as a mother of nurturing and healing waters closely associated with women, childbirth and death, potentially for 4000 years. This changed when the Romans arrived around 70AD and put an end to women playing an equal role in religion to men.
Whereas the Romans venerated The Mothers across Britain, scattered rumours of a Mithraeum near to Castle Hill or within the hill itself suggest a different transformation took place here. The focus shifted from the mother goddess to a divine son: Mithras, who was miraculously birthed from a rock on December the 25th.
This ‘virgin birth’ could go some way to explain the later dedications to St Mary the Virgin. References to an Anglo-Saxon stone cross and inscription of the Magnificat suggest the well was Christianised when the Anglo-Saxons settled in Penwortham (630BC onward?) if not before.
Under Christianity a sacred complex developed centring on Castle Hill and St Mary. Penwortham Priory was built in the 12th C. A pilgrim’s path led to St Mary’s Well where people cleansed their hands and bathed in the healing water. The path led to a stone cross further up the hill where further prayers were said before visits to St Mary’s Church and Priory (which was dissolved in 1535).
The earliest evidence for ancestral burial on the hill is the tombstone of a 12th C ‘crusader’. The oldest gravestones date to 1682 and 1686. The graveyard has been extended several times since 1853 and is now used only for select burials and cremations with the majority of Penwortham’s people being buried at Hill Road Graveyard and Cemetery and in its new woodland burial ground.
The shift of worship and perhaps ancestral burial from the marsh to the hill and from a marshland goddess to St Mary led to the marsh losing its sense of sanctity. Local folklore featuring boggarts, dobbies, fairies, phantoms, and Jen o’ Lanterns show under Christianity marshes became viewed as sinister places associated with old ‘pagan’ beliefs. Even these cautionary superstitions faded.
By the time of the Tithe Map (1837) most of Penwortham Marsh had been drained and reclaimed as farmland. Far worse followed during the industrial revolution. When the dockland was built in 1884 the Ribble was moved south. Penwortham Marsh was cut in two by the river with its larger northern remnant not only becoming Riversway Dockland but part of Preston.
More tragically the Ribble’s movement shattered the sandstone bedrock and breached the aquifer beneath Castle Hill. Afterward St Mary’s Well dried up. Two years ago I had a vision of a water dragon gasping and shrinking then sliding into the underworld. I feel on some level this was the Lady’s womb.
Industrialisation has not ended. In the 1960’s the expansion of the A59 led to the covering over of the site of St Mary’s Well. Penwortham By-pass, built in the 1980’s, now obscures the hill and church, drowning its peace with the roar of traffic. It is my intuition vibrations from the by-pass combined with the shattered aquifer have led to the subsidence of the hill and falling gravestones. This has caused the closure of a large part of the graveyard.
For these reasons my relationship with the Lady of Peneverdant has been slow and difficult. Her marsh has been drained and severed and her holy waters have dried up. Often I feel she and the local spirits don’t want any more contact with humans. At one point I wished to revive their worship and introduce other pagans to the place but I’ve received clear signals this isn’t wanted.
III. Hopeful Coincidences
A couple of days after receiving Heather’s first e-mail I set off down the remainder of the pilgrim’s path toward Castle Hill. In Well Field I asked the Lady of Peneverdant whether she had ever been known as the Lady of the Marsh and if so could she show me a sign. As I walked across the field awash with rain from days of downpour so deep it nearly came over the top of my boots I received the gnosis ‘this is the Lady’s Field’.
Passing the site of St Mary’s Well, ascending the steps, then crossing the A59 to Penwortham War Memorial I caught a glimpse of running water. Looking again I could not believe my eyes. I had found a new ‘spring’ flowing into a stony basin! Drawing closer I saw it was called Centenary Well and dated 1914 to 2014. It must have been built to mark the commemoration of the First World War.
How could I not have noticed it before? Could this mean the aquifer wasn’t completely broken? I contacted local historian Heather Crook who told me Centenary Well was built last year by a local joiner called Peter Gildert to commemorate WWI. It was designed to channel run-off water from the hill. I hadn’t noticed it before as I hadn’t been past in a period of such heavy rain. Although I was disappointed to learn the water was run-off, finding the well on the day I posed the question seemed like a sure sign I was on the right track identifying her as the Lady of the Marsh.
The notion people in Lancashire and northern Wales once worshipped similar deities is backed up by Stephen Yeates’ theory that Gwynedd, Powys, Cheshire and Lancashire to Morecambe Bay were included together in Roman Valentia. Evidence from place-names, field patterns and customs based on the Venodotian Laws suggest northern Wales and Lancashire once shared a Brythonic culture. Until the 13th C a Brythonic language called Cumbric, which is similar to Cymric (Welsh), was spoken in Lancashire. My experiences suggest the Lady of the Marsh may be ‘the same’ deity with localised variants rather than the genius loci of a single site, which was my original belief.
One of the questions Heather asked was how to say ‘Lady of the Marsh’ in Welsh. To find out I got in touch with Heron who replied:
“Lady of the Marsh’ is best translated as ‘Arglwyddes y Gors’, although much wet ground in Wales apart perhaps from the marshy areas along the Gwent Levels, is upland boggy moorland, usually known as ‘Migneint’. So ‘Arglwyddes y Figneint’ or ‘Dynes y Figneint’ would also be possible. One other possibility also occurs to me and that is ‘Marian’, not a personal name but a term used to denote marginal (liminal?) land, usually between fields and beach. As a name it probably derives from Mar- or Môr (sea) but it might be fortuitous in this respect?’
In relation to the cluster of Marian sites on or near Penwortham and Preston Marshes: St Mary’s on Castle Hill, Lady Well on Marsh Lane, the site of St Mary’s Church on Friargate and a chapel and hospital dedicated to St Mary in Maudlands, the term ‘Marian’ seemed extremely fortuitous. In relation to its derivation from ‘Mar- or Môr (sea)’ I recalled that in Penwortham St Mary was worshipped as Stella Maris ‘Star of the Sea’ which fits with the long usage of the area by sea-faring people.
Of the Marian sites I mentioned only St Mary’s on Castle Hill remains. Lady Well was connected with a Fransiscan Friary (which gave the names of Friargate and Greyfriar’s Pub). The Friary was dissolved in 1539 but the well remained open until the 19th C. It now lies beneath the carpark of student halls on Lady Well Street. St Mary’s Church on Friargate was founded in 1605 and closed in 1992 and has been replaced by St Mary’s Car Park. It is memorialised by a statue of St Mary with a one-handed Jesus.
Close to the towering spire of present-day St Walburge’s was a leper hospital and chapel run by the Franciscan Friars. This was an important place of pilgrimage in the 14th C. The chapel and hospital began to fall into disrepair in 1520 and were dissolved in 1548. According to local legend, on Christmas Eve bells can be heard ringing in the sunken chapel.
The story of the Lady of the Marsh in Penwortham and Preston is one of loss and sadness. Her very being has sunk down and dried up in a land that is no longer a marsh and been covered over by industrial developments. However Heather’s visions and the fact she is able to access this old, unknown Brythonic goddess through her bloodline from America provide hope.
More positively Heather said: ‘When you told me about that church and other churches like it, I understood that those are the people she still loves and provides for even though the water has been drained and her name has changed again. She’s been there for so long under so many different names being called Mary doesn’t matter as much as the fact that she is still helping; especially women with issues around motherhood and death.’
As the church bells ring out on Christmas Eve from thisworld and the underworld; Catholics prepare for Midnight Mass, Heathens celebrate Mother’s Night and Roman pagans prepare for the birth of Mithras I will honour the Lady of the Marsh.