The large and richly decorated church at Castor, consecrated in 1124, has the distinction of being the only church in Britain dedicated to St Kyneburgha (also Kyneburga, Kyneberga, Kyneburg, Cyniburg or Cyneburg). Indeed, Castor’s modern name is short for its Old English one: (to) Kyneburga cæstre, (be) Cyneburge cæstre, cæstre coming from Latin castrum and, like the place-names Caister and Chester, denoting a Roman fort or town. One early medieval author says it was previously called Dormundescastre and only later named Kineburga castrum, presumably once the cult of St Cyneburg got well under way.
St Cyneburg was one of Anglo-Saxon England’s many royal saints. She is said to have been a daughter of Penda, King of Mercia (d. 654), who married Alcfrith, the son of Oswiu of Northumbria. Later, she became a Benedictine nun and, in about 650, founded a convent here with her sister St Cyneswith (Kyneswitha, Kyneswith, Cyneswide), to whose shrine the medieval reredos at the east end of the north aisle probably belonged. Another relative who came with them was St Tibba.
St Cyneburg died in c.680, and was buried here, but the great relic-collector Abbot Ælfsige of Peterborough (d. 1042) translated the remains of all three women to Peterborough Abbey, where they were venerated. Subsequently they were moved to Thorney, but returned to Peterborough in the reign of Henry I (1100–35). St Cyneburg’s feast day is 6 March.
Though the people of Castor lost their saint, they cherished her memory. The castrum referred to in Castor’s name is the Roman settlement on the left bank of the river, facing the Roman fort and town of Durobrivae (‘The Castles’) at Chesterton and Water Newton on the right. Ermine Street passed through the station, and the whole of the ground occupied by Castor was once covered with Roman buildings. Later generations connected a ridge or track running through these remains with the saint.
The Revd John Morton, writing in 1712, says it was locally known as ‘my Lady Conyburrow’s Way’, and that it appeared to have been paved, and to have been a continuation of a road beginning on the other side of the river, at or near Water Newton, and running northwards through ‘Castor Field’:
It is not to be traced so high as the Town; but by the pointing it seems to have lead thither: and according to a Tradition that they have there, it went directly to the ancient Four-square Well in that Churchyard at Castor.
He describes Lady Conyburrow’s Way as in his time being ‘only a narrow Tract … of Ground three or four Foot [approx. 1 m] broad, distinguishable from the rest of the Field, thro’ which it passes, by its being barrener than the Ground, on both sides of it’. As to the local explanation of why the track was barren ground, he continues:
Those who desire to know how this Way in particular came by its Name, may take this Traditionary Account of it from an old Story that is told at Castor, viz. That Kinneburga’s Honour being attempted she fled from the Ruffian thro’ those Fields: and that the Path she took was thus miraculously mark’d out, as a Trophy of her Purity and Innocence, to be seen in future Ages, and to be distinguished by the Name of Kinneburga’s Way.
This legend is shown among the piers and capitals of the Norman crossing, with the variation that, as she was being chased, the contents of her basket spilled out and turned into bushes, which trapped the men in their branches.
Murray’s Handbook for … Rutland in the nineteenth century, instead of the ‘barren ground’ theme – the path trodden by the saint being miraculously imprinted on the land – gives a different origin legend for ‘Lady Coneyborough’s Way’, saying that ‘the road unrolled itself before her as she fled’ (compare ‘leading the tide’ at MORPETH, Northumberland).
Already by the mid eighteenth century, the name ‘Lady Conyburrow’ – presumably the approximation of a difficult name to words that were familiar, ‘coney’ (rabbit) and ‘burrow’ – had evolved even further from ‘Cyneburg’, and a supernatural twist had been given to the story. William Stukeley noted in his diary:
10 Sept., 1737 I went to Castor … They have still a memorial at Castor of S. Kyniburga, whom the vulgar call Lady Ketilborough, and of her coming in a coach and six, and riding over the field along the Roman road, some few nights before Michaelmas.
Stukeley refers later to the abbess and her nuns as having been murdered by the Danes. He interprets the tradition of Lady Ketilborough and her phantom coach as the ‘remains’ or fading memory of her festival celebrated here, until the abbot of Peterborough removed her relics, on 15 September, the anniversary of her death.