An Oxfordshire Field Trip- some holy wells in the county
Oxfordshire is not a county synonymous with holy or healing wells, but a number still survive in the county. A good gazetteer was produced by fellow enthusiast James Rattue in Oxenensia.
St. Margaret’s Well, Binsey
This is perhaps the most famous of the county’s holy wells. Its waters despite the dedication being association with the local saint and patron of Oxford, St. Frideswide, the reason being that the saint prayed to St. Margaret for her sight to be restored and the spring arose, the event occurring in either the late 6th or early 7th century. Her shrine became an important site, but her well was regularly frequented in the medieval period. It is said pilgrims would first visit the saint’s shrine in Oxford and then went on to visit the well which was enclosed in a stone well house. The water was thought to be so valuable for curing infertility as well as eye complaints that it was sold at a guinea a quart. One of the well’s most famed pilgrims being Henry VIIIth who came with Katherine of Aragon in hope of fertility luck! Hope (1893) in his The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England notes:
“Over St. Margaret’s Well was a covering of stone, and thereon on the front the picture of St. Margaret (or perhaps St. Frideswyde), pulled down by Alderman Sayre, of Oxon, a little before the late war, 1639.”
For many years the well lay overgrown and forgotten. Hope (1893) notes:
“The well is now in better condition. When I visited it on 25th October, 1887, the churchyard was tidily fenced and very neatly kept. At the well a descent of some five steps brought one to an arched vault, beneath which, in the centre of the flooring, was a round basin containing the water of the well, the surface of the water being about six feet below the level of the ground. On the wall above the arch was this inscription:
‘S. MARGARET’S WELL. S. Margaretae fontem, precibus S. Frideswidæ (ut fertur) concessum, nquinatum diu obrutumque in usum revocavit T. J. Prout, Aed. Xti alumnus, Vicarius, A. S. MDCCCLXXIV.’
This structure seen by Hope was erected by 1874 when the Reverend Prout and happily it remains much as described. The antiquarian also notes that:
“At the time of the restoration of this well, an Oxford wit, having regard to its proximity to the church, suggested for an inscription: Ariston men hydor, When you open your pew-door, This may comfort supply, Should the sermon be dry”
More famously is the involvement of Reverend Dodsgson, or Lewis Carroll, who suggested that the inscription should read ‘leave well alone’, and that he based the treacle well in Alice in Wonderland on this site. Fortunately, progress has left this ancient spring well alone and it continues despite the busy A34 nearby flows peacefully on.
Holy Well, Tadmarton
Not so this ancient spring. For here on the golf course, in a small copse, is all that remains of a possibly quite significant site. Any actual structure is difficult to trace as a number of pipes draw its chalybeate water off for domestic use. Roman coins were found in the location suggesting that the spring was well known in those days.
Fair Rosamund’s Well, Woodstock
Here is another famed well, named after the lover of King Henry II, Rosamund Clifford. Despite the local legend which recalls she was poisoned by Eleanor, Henry’s queen, in reality she retired to Godstow Nunnery dying around 1176. Interestingly, her tomb became a shrine and as such the spring may have become a holy well, indeed water, called Rosamund’s water, was sold suggesting it may have had a sanctity. It is significant perhaps that there is another Rosamund’s well, in Shropshire. The age of the present structure is difficult to date but it is unlikely to date from either the 12th century or from the last incarnation of the old royal palace before the building itself was torn down by Vanburgh in the landscaping of the modern Blenheim. A sketch in the Bodleian Library by John Aubrey refers to Three Baths in Trayne, the first of which is perhaps the Rosamund’s well It appears likely that the large virtually swimming pool sized well was constructed when the park was landscaped in the 1700s. Although the name Rosamund being only traceable to the 16th century, the well itself is certainly very old and the name Everswell, possibly from its reputation that it never dries, is recorded in the locale.