By Jerry Bird
Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, was one of the four great religious festivals of the ancient Celts. It was their ‘day of the dead’ when the veil between this world and the underworld was considered to be thin – a time to commune with spirits and honour the ancestors. Hence the modern custom of dressing up as spooks and phantoms and celebrating all things scary.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there are few stories of ghosts walking on Hallowe’en night, the exception in Dorset being the ghost of St Juthware, who is said to appear with her head under her arm in the village of Halstock, where a field was named after her, which is now modernised to ‘Judith’.
The name Halstock comes from the Saxon halyngstoka, meaning ‘holy place’. The ghost apparently walks up the lane to Abbots Hill at one in the morning.
Juthware’s gruesome story appears in a 14th century text known as the Nova Legenda Angliae, written by the theologian John Capgrave. She was born in the village in the 7th century. Unfortunately her mother died in childbirth and she was brought up by her father, Benna, who eventually married a Welsh widow called Goneril, who brought her own son, Bana, to the family.
As the years passed Goneril grew jealous of her stepdaughter, who was both beautiful and pious. Pilgrims and wayfarers would often seek shelter at their house. Benna was a good man and was always keen to show hospitality to strangers.
After his death Juthware carried on her father’s tradition of hospitality. This angered Goneril who could not bear her stepdaughter’s good qualities any longer, and so she contrived a plan to be rid of her.
Her chance came when Juthware came to her complaining of chest pains. She told Juthware that if she smeared soft cheese on her chest and stomach morning and night the pains would go. Goneril then went secretly into the wood where she slaughtered a lamb and left it for the wolves.
Next morning she told her son Bana that Juthware had given birth to a child in the wood and had fed it to the wolves. Bana would not believe her, so she took him into the wood and showed him the bloodied remains of the carcass. Still Bana would not believe, so she brought Juthware to the wood and ordered her to remove her vest. Bana examined the garment and found what he thought were the stains of motherhood.
Now convinced, and in a rage, he drew his sword and struck Juthware’s head clean off. Goneril was triumphant, but as she revelled in her stepdaughter’s death, to her horror Juthware’s severed head called to her body, which rose to its feet, gathered it up and walked down the hill along the lane to the church where it placed her head on the altar before finally dying.
In the 11th century, her relics were taken to Sherborne Abbey, where a shrine was dedicated to her. The Church of St Mary in Halstock, where the north chapel was already dedicated to her, became St Juthware and St Mary in 2012. She is also depicted in a window at Sherborne Abbey, and in the Sherborne Missal (circa 1400-1407), pictured.
Juthware was also the inspiration behind several ‘Quiet Woman’ or ‘Silent Woman’ inn signs in Dorset, and until recently, an image of her adorned the local inn in the village – like many village pubs, now sadly closed.