Essex holy wells and healing springs – an Overview

  The following is taken from Holy wells and healing springs of Essex (This blog includes reference sites not included in the original text and will be described in a further volume of the works as an appendix)

In regards to healing springs, Essex has been better served, in regards the study of mineral waters and particularly notable surveys are Allen (1699/1710), and more recently Christy and Thresh (1910). Both have touched upon holy wells but this was certainly not in an exhaustive manner. Cowell (2000) updates much of this work but again only touches upon holy wells. This work attempts to catalogue and update these previous works, with the aim of providing the definitive accurate guide to both mineral spas, holy wells and water bodies with associated folklore in the county.

In approximate terms there are probably many thousands of holy wells across the country. Although there appear to be areas or counties with high concentrations, this is probably because the others have as yet been adequately studied. Only three works have attempted to give a countrywide survey of sites (Hope (1893), Bords (1985), Rattue (1995) and Bord (2008)). (and subsequently Harte (2008)) Perhaps an accurate survey of all sites would result in an average distribution across the country; topographical features allowing, which would show that all counties have a similar distribution.

Despite some attention for specific sites and counties, the holy well has been largely ignored by the historical and archaeological establishment, leaving the field open to antiquarians and enthusiasts. Consequently, much mythology has developed around them, and very few have been professionally excavated, particularly in East Anglia. Hence, a general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, claims for ancient origins is difficult to make.

I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs)  and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.

There does not appear to be any holy wells which can claim this pre-Christian heritage via written record, although there are wells called Roman spring (Earl’s Colne), Chesterwell (castle well) (Great Horkesley) and Dengewell (Danishwell) (Great Oakley) and possibly Herwell (Army well) (Little Bardfield) and totwell (from O.E toot for meeting place or look out) (Birchanger), which suggest great age but there is no evidence of these being healing or holy. There is a Puck well (Waltham Holy Cross) recorded suggesting a site associated with O.E pwca for goblin. Records of ghosts, often used by folklorists to indicate either pagan or Christian traditions are scant in the county, with St. Oysth’s well (St Oysths) and Charlotte’s Well (Birchanger) being the only examples.

Certainly, compared to other counties per square mile, Essex is low on numbers of holy wells. Why is this? It seems likely that there may be many more sites but poorly recorded. Others may be recorded in names which do not suggest holy or healing immediately. There are for example many sites called hog well in the county, whose name may derive from halig Old English (O.E) for healing. However, other sites said to be holy wells, such as the number of Chadwells (9) in the county, reveal themselves to be more likely to be derived from Caldwell irrespective of local folklore. Most common are Lady well (9), followed by Holy wells (4), Cedd (2) (brother of Chad),and two named after God, although this could be derived from a personal name. All the other sites have one dedication(in some case one off dedications suggesting local cults (or loss of knowledge)): St. Edmund, St Thomas, St Anne, St Germain, and local saints St. Oysth and St. Botolph.

Taking only holy wells (and I have been generous to include some sites likely to be) Essex has a density of 0.3 wells per square mile. Taking into consideration all noted, healing and holy wells, this density becomes 0.6 of a well per square mile. This suggests that holy wells and healing springs are in low numbers across the county.

The reason for the low numbers of holy wells may be explained by the larger amount of mineral springs noted in the county. Across the country many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. As noted Essex is fortunate for its mineral spring history is well recorded. However, in no examples given by either Allen or Trinder is it noted that the site had previously been a holy well. Certainly, it is hinted at with such sites as Brentwood, Havering Well, Woodford and Felstead, (all with some pre-Reformation past) but nothing is explicitly stated. This may indicate the strength of anti-Catholic feeling in the authors or the Essex people. Was the impact of Protestantism and non-conformism that great? This would explain the paucity of holy wells for such a large county, particularly to the eastern side. By comparison there are a large number of mineral springs. Perhaps we can consider these all as past holy wells?……….

To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Essex

About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on October 8, 2011, in Essex, Gazatteer, Spa and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Russell Thompson

    Is this Essex volume available directly from you, or is Amazon the best option?

    Russell

  2. Russell Thompson

    Great – thanks.

    Do let me know where to send cheque to, etc (if you take cheques!).

    With best wishes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: