Saint Juthware of Devonshire by A.J. Sefton
You risk being knocked over if you say “cheese” in our house. Our cat will run at great speed from wherever she is to steal the dairy product. A real cheese monster.
Cheese has been part of our diet since before recorded history, so – a long time then. But stranger than my cat’s love of cheese, is the sad story behind the pub sign depicting a headless woman (see above). It is inspired by a young woman who lived in Halstock, Dorset, in the seventh century.
An inn-keeper called Benna brought up his baby daughter, Juthware (pronounced Uth-are) after her mother died during childbirth. After a while, Benna married a widow called Goneril, who had a son, Bana. Oh yes, another wicked step-mother story looms.
Juthware grew up to be a quiet, pious Christian, which, for some reason, really irked Goneril. When her sickly father died, Juthware continued his kind hospitality and was popular with all the travellers who stayed at the inn, sharing stories and serving ale and wine.
We shall never know why Goneril despised her step-daughter, but the story says that their relationship worsened after the death of Benna. Perhaps Goneril wanted the inn for herself and the profits that went with it. Either way, she wanted rid of Juthware.
Not long after the death of her father, Juthware complained of pains in her chest. Goneril said that if she rubbed her chest with soft cheese the pain would go. Not heard that one before. So the young woman put the soft cheese down her front twice a day. Meanwhile, the nasty step-mother planned the next phase: she slaughtered a lamb in the forest and left it there.
For a pious Christian girl, goodness was everything. Destroying this would surely destroy Juthware. Goneril did this by telling her son, Bana, (and probably everyone else) that Juthware had given birth to a baby in the forest and left it to the wolves. Bana would not believe this of his kind step-sister. What proof was there? Goneril showed him the remains of the lamb’s carcass that had been eaten by wolves.
Still unconvinced, he faced Juthware as Goneril ordered her to remove her underwear. The remnants of the soft cheese were evidence of lactation, Goneril said. No more proof needed.
Bana was horrified and angry. He drew his sword and beheaded Juthware where she stood. But the head called to the body, which jerked slowly but surely to its feet, picked up the head and carried to the church, placed it on the altar and then died.
Juthware soon became a saint and martyr and pilgrims travelled to the village to pay homage. Her feast day is 13 July and she is depicted with rounds of cheese and a sword. The public house that had the sign above is now a guest house, known as ‘The Quiet Woman’ and looks very nice set in the lovely Dorset village.
But before you book, consider this: at one o’clock in the morning on All Saints Day (1st November), Saint Juthware’s ghost is said to return to repeat the incident. It is said that she will be carrying her head as she walks down the lane towards the church…
© 2016 A.J. Sefton