Welcome to St Alkelda’s Way
St Alkelda is a local 9th or early 10th century Yorkshire Dales saint who is closely associated with two ancient and lovely churches with Anglo-Saxon origins, the church of St Mary and St Alkelda, at Middleham in Wensleydale, and St Alkelda, Giggleswick in Ribblesdale.
During the 1878 restoration of Middleham church, in the south-east part of the nave, a woman’s bones in a stone coffin were uncovered where tradition had said St Alkelda was buried. A plaque marks the place. Be sure to find it when you visit at the end of the Pilgrimage. An Anglo-Saxon interlace patterned stone nearby is believed to be part of her tomb cover. There appears to have been a centre of stone carving based at Ripon to judge by the number of beautifully carved stone cross shafts in churches and graveyards nearby. These suggest that St Alkelda came from a cultured Anglo-Saxon community, in the Christian kingdom of Northumbria whose civilisation had been forged two centuries before by a fruitful coming together of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christianity after the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, when the Roman tradition of the Anglo Saxons became dominant. Giggleswick lay on the other side of the Pennines just within the boundaries of Northumbria and more remote from the Christian influences that must have shaped St Alkelda’s life. She no doubt made the hazardous journey to Giggleswick through what is now the area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, because she wanted to share her faith with the people there.
Pilgrimages to places with religious or spiritual association have regained popularity in recent years. The idea for this self-guided Pilgrimage came from Giggleswick Church members of which the writer is one. Middleham Church soon shared our vision while the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority gave us every encouragement. The Pilgrimage idea came to us after the discovery in a dusty pile of discarded items in Giggleswick Parish Room of a beautiful, stained-glass panel depicting St Alkelda’s martyrdom by strangulation at the hands of two Danish women. In spite of extensive enquiry, the provenance of the panel, now cleaned, restored and installed in a window in Giggleswick Church, remains a mystery.
What we know of St Alkelda from research still ongoing, the history and records of both churches, the turbulent times in which she lived and the features to note in the past and present Yorkshire Dales landscape , will be told more fully in a Guide book (proceeds for the churches) and advertised here on the website. For more information and reference sources on St Alkelda see the North Craven Heritage website.
** According to W.G.Collngwood’s classic book Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age (1927), plait patterns did not appear carved in stone until nearly the end of the Northumbrian period. This would accord with the time of Alkelda’s martyrdom at the hands of the Danes. There is an almost identical pattern to the one on Alkelda’s tomb, carved on a cross slab at Wensley, 2 miles from Middleham.
Alkelda is remembered in just these two localities, some 33 miles apart, as a saintly lady famous for her use of nearby holy wells for the baptism of converts and for her martyrdom at the hands of Danish women. This must have occurred after 866-7AD when the Danes, after attacking and destroying York, swept across the Vale of York and into the eastern Dales causing death and destruction wherever they went. Alkelda’s name, possibly not her real name, sounds like a corruption of haeligkeld , a composite Anglo-Saxon-Norse word for “holy well”. Although modern research has shown that St Alkelda is “probably” a historical person, a lady of high standing in her community, a nun perhaps, there is still much mystery surrounding her.
Whatever the motive, her journey was an act of considerable courage and faith. Maybe she would stop to pray for safe journeying at one of the wayside crosses that were beginning to appear as both boundary markers and worship sites? A number of wayfarers’ prayers for protection and blessing for journeys have come down to us from Celtic and Anglo-Saxon sources. There are a growing number of modern ones where pilgrimage is not merely a physical experience, but a spiritual “mindful” one too. Here is a Prayer for Protection from Carmina Gadelica translated from the Gaelic by Alexander Carmichael:
“God before me, God behind me,
God above me, God below me,
I on the path of God,
God upon my track.”