In the famous Chapter VII of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, titled “A Mad Tea Party,” the ever-sleepy Dormouse tells a nonsensical story of three little sisters who lived at the bottom of a treacle well. Like many other things in Carroll’s book, the inspiration behind this tale can be found in Oxford, namely in a little village called Binsey.
This village is well-noted for its parish church of Saint Margaret, which dates back to the 12th century, and the holy well that sits outside its west end. Although its location gave its name of Saint Margaret’s Well, the well itself was dedicated to Saint Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford. According to legend, once upon a time in the 7th century, Prince Algar of Mercia became infatuated with her and sought to marry her. Bound to celibacy, Frideswide fled to Binsey in an attempt to escape this fate.
While searching all across Oxford for his bride-to-be, Algar was struck by lightning and blinded. Frideswide, ever so kind-hearted, prayed to God and it brought forth a spring, whose waters had healing powers and cured the prince’s eyes. In another tale, however, Algar breaks his neck after falling off his horse and the magical well is created when the nuns of Binsey complain to Frideswide of having to fetch water from the distant River Thames.
But what does that have to do with Lewis Carroll’s fantastical “treacle well”? Well, etymologically speaking, the origin of the word “treacle” can be found in an older word theriac, which referred to an Oriental antidote or all-healing panacea in ancient Greece. As such, Saint Margaret’s Well came to be known as a treacle-well during the Middle Ages, and many pilgrims travelled for it back then. It may be all but forgotten today, but you can’t miss this place on your pilgrimage to Oxford if you’re a big fan of Alice in Wonderland.