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Ash Tree Seeds and ‘Schelin’s Daughter’


Shillingstone, Dorset. The Church of the Holy Rood

The Church of the Holy Rood, Shillingstone, Dorset. Schelin, of ‘Schelin’s Daughter’ fame, reputedly began building the new church in stone, c. 1086. A mason working over the south porch makes a brief appearance in ‘Schelin’s Daughter’.

This clip comes from one of my new “Wessex Tales” stories (Volume 2), the tale of “Schelin’s Daughter”, set in the year 1081. King William (the Conqueror) had recently awarded a Norman knight, Schelin, a village on the River Stour, in Dorset. The village promptly acquired the name Schelin’s Okeford. (The name of my village has changed little in nearly a thousand years—it is now Shillingstone).

Schelin sets about negotiating a strategic marriage between his daughter and the son of a neighbour. Neither party wishes to marry the other, so Schelin decides to consult the local Anglo-Saxon wise woman, Elfrida. Elfrida has a very considerable reputation:

¶  “There was not a wart that her juice of poppy or wood-spurge could not erase; not a bone she couldn’t knit; not a growth on the surface of man’s flesh that did not wilt beneath Elfrida’s poultices of yalluc root and juices of the same. There was not a difficult childbirth but she had smoothed the infant’s passage into this world by rubbing nightshade on the mother’s abdomen. And, where labour-toils would surely only end in death, no one but God could tell if old Elfrida eased a woman’s passing from the world with a subtle cup of mead and hellebore.”

Schelin had survived the Battle of Hastings. Nevertheless, he found the prospect of putting his problem to Elfrida intimidating.

¶  “Thus it came to pass that Schelin mounted up one day and rode to the hollow that lay, Gains Cross way, between two spurs of Okeford Hill. This was not a meeting at which Schelin wanted witnesses, and it was with trepidation that he set out, without a translator, to confide his innermost family secret to this formidable ancient, in rudimentary Anglo-Saxon. In fact, Schelin’s ‘secret’ had been the butt of gossip and bad jokes for the unwashed tongues and ears of a dozen parishes within a district measured by the compass of a long day’s deer run, up and down the valley of the Stour.”

Schelin’s problem was becoming difficult, even embarrassing.

¶ ‘Elfrida lifted her head and laughed—at him, Schelin thought—but if this ritual in humiliation would lead somewhere, he was man enough to bear it stoically. To study him better, the old woman tossed her grey, matted hair back over her shoulder, startling lice. “Aye, sir, but we’ll make your filly to drink.”

‘So saying, Elfrida set out what she proposed to do. Seed of nettle for the filly; ash-seed for the horse. That was the crux of it. Elfrida would concoct a potion of nettle-seed in mead, an aphrodisiac for a woman if ever there was one. Nettle-seed would prick the maiden into passion, of that you could be sure. She would make it double strength, mixing it with borage for his virtue of instilling firm resolve. So much for the filly.

Ripe ash tree seeds hang from their branch

Ripe ash tree seeds hang from their branch. Image: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/

A Power of Ash Tree Seeds

¶  ‘Now, for the young de Mohun, an infusion of powdered ash tree seeds in mulled wine. Was not ash the wood of great Achilles’ spear? the tree venerated as the earthly symbol of the Norse god, Thor? the wood whose properties had been described by Galen, physician-extraordinary to the Roman court?—not to mention the famous surgeon to the Roman legions, Dioscorides! The strength of an ash would stiffen his stick, no doubt at all. [1]

‘ “Go home,” Elfrida told Schelin. “Invite the young man to your hall to dine. We’ll stick their piggy Norman noses in my trough and make ’em drink.” It was as well that this sentiment was lost in translation. Not that the old woman much cared. Elfrida, it should be born in mind, had not a lot of use for the foreign aristocracy so recently imposed on England.’  ¶

[1]  Ah, the power of ash tree seeds and herbal potions. This short clip is from my “Wessex Tales, Volume 2” story ~ “Schelin’s Daughter” © Robert Fripp