The Lady Well of Woolpit
The village boasts a spring of clear and clean water has been an important site of pilgrimage possibly for centuries, called The Lady’s Well ( TL 977 626 ) although the villages most prominent attraction was its church.
Confusion over the Lady Chapel
Before the Reformation Woolpit’s Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Our Lady with its miracle giving Virgin was the religious focal point of this region of East Anglia. Its patron effigy was adorned with riches of silver and gold; the many gifts donated by thankful wealthy and poor pilgrims alike who were cured by the act of prayer here. The chapel even saw was Royal patronage in the form of Henry VII ‘s wife, Queen Elizabeth, who visited it in 1501. First mentioned in 1211 and 1214 in a mandate from the Bishop Of Norwich, which granted all its to the nearby monks of Bury Abbey. It remained an important place of adoration for centuries, and records of Wills show that many legacies were given to upkeep the shrine. As early as the 13th Century, The Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, was established, on the 8th September, a fair to cater for and capitalise on the pilgrim trade. However as with most prominent shrines it ultimately meet the wrath of the overzealous Henry VIII. Around 1538 he ordered that the Image be removed, and the surrounding chapel was consequently removed about 1551. After this the site was largely forgotten and Woolpit slips into the fringes of history. Although archaeologists disagree on the location fine details, it is believed to lie the North side of the church’s Chancel.
Not a mediaeval shrine?
There would appear to be no evidence to suggest, however, that although the village was a pilgrim site, that the well was venerated before the Reformation. Indeed one could suggest that the well’s veneration somehow was a substitute for the loss of the chapel and its effigy. This is supported by the fact that the earliest specific reference to the well is post-Reformation and is mentioned as a piece of land in a survey of the manor of 1573-76, referring back to manorial court of 1557-58:
“..lying alongside the way which led to the spring called our lady’s well.’
However, first description of the well is not until 1778 within church notes written by Sir John Cullum. These state:
“in a close near the near the east ends of the Church is a spring still bricked up called Our Ladys Spring.”
They continue to state that Parish tradition:
“ says there was a chapel near the spring.”
Now is this the Lady chapel or another chapel? This would appear to be the earliest mention concerning a chapel serving the well directly. The lack of contemporary records of such a well chapel would appear to suggest antiquarian confusion with the Woolpit Lady Chapel. However after this mention the existence of this chapel is emphasised in Gough’s 1789 Britannia:
“..a spring which is called Our Ladys Spring, that the inhabitants have traditional report….that there was a chapel near the spring, but there is no remains of it. The spring is a square and bricked and supplies a large moat with very clear water.”
It all depends what is meant by near? An unlikely source, mainly because of its lack of academic rigour, Arthur Mee (1904) mentions a chapel in association with the well and records that Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds travelled to Rome in 1173 to secure the revenue for the well, and Dickinson ( 1957, an update on that of 1904 ) emphasises a mediaeval origin. However neither authors quote earlier sources and on known evidence appear erroneous. Abbot Samson did claim the revenue of the Lady Chapel and thus these authors show how confusion with Our Lady’s Chapel can occur. The earliest record of direct pilgrimage associated with the spring was referred to by the Rev John Cobbold of Woolpit in a letter to David Elisha Davy, a Suffolk Antiquarian. He states that:
“..tradition says that a pilgrimage of Holy Nuns came from Ireland to visit it.”
This was recalled by a local lady of 90 years, and he states that the well was still:
“In great request with antiquated females….for its numerous virtues.”
Indeed from 1794 until 1802, Augustinian Holy Nuns may have come from an English convent at Bruges to live at Hengrave Hall where they established their own Chapel. In Bury St Edmunds and Its Environs ( 1827 ) its anonymous author described it as a ‘ far-famed well ‘ being:
“A perpetual spring about two feet deep of beautiful clear water, and so cold that a hand immersed in it is very soon benumbed.”
This I can personally vouch for in winter! The author continues that: ‘It is used occasionally for the immersion of weakly children, and much resorted by people with weak eyes.’ This benefit for eyes is noted by William Dutt, in his Little Guide to Suffolk (1904), as well as the ubiquitous Arthur Mee (1904). Walker (1988) states the Queen Elizabeth I visited the well. However I have been unable to find any corroborative evidence for this claim and suggest that the author may have confused the incident with Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII, who as previously noted visited the Lady Chapel, and not the well!
Considering the water’s benefits, tests were made by Anglia Water Authority were made in 1978. They revealed the water to be more mineralised than the drinking water supply abstraction around Bury St Edmunds. A high sulphate level was also recorded, which medically is of interest as sulphates were used as an antiseptic, and thus could be useful against trachoma (an eye ailment), explaining the use of the water as a eye curative.
The site became an Ancient Monument in 1978, despite the area of the well being overgrown: the well itself only being identified as being beneath a rotten wooden board. Consequently access to the well was difficult until 1989-1991 when preservation work was done. The work commenced in 1989, and has improved access and preservation considerably. The area now being designated as a Nature Reserve. This preservation work was carried out by English Heritage, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Mid Suffolk Council, Parish Council and brewers Ruddles.
The well is composed of a square structure of grey stone work of about a foot depth. A metal grid with chicken wire has been wielded over the opening to the well. Obviously to prevent it becoming clogged with leaves, and anything or one falling in! The water is clear, and flows in a Northerly direction through a square aperture, large enough to insert ones hand to sample the water, into a small stream that feeds the moat.
The Our Lady’s Well at Woolpit, in its woodland setting, is a magical site. Woolpit itself is a remarkable village, steeped in history and lore. Most of its claims to fame being displayed upon the prominent village sign ( depicted ), the well is however is absent, perhaps it was difficult to depict!! the name of the village is believed, among other possible theories, to originate from a pit dug to dispose of wolves: indeed it is said that wolves are said to haunt here! The village boasts an impressive Parish church ( worthy of a visit for its surviving poppy heads alone ), a village Lock-up and ornate Victorian village well canopy. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame, is the story of the Green Children, a strange Babes-In-The-Woodsesque story that any half decent folklorist will recant at length. For those curious, the church has an original translation from the latin account which describes the appearance of the green boy and girl, of whom the former died, but the latter lived, lost her greenness, and married a Norfolk man. This is despite only eating peas!!? A story owing perhaps more to symbolic fable than substantiated fact.