Monthly Archives: August 2013
“Oswald’s Well. Legend states that King Oswald was killed in battle against King Penda at the Battle of Maserfield an Eagle later lifted, flew and then dropped his arm at this site from whence a spring of water has since bubbled.”
Such reads the plaque at this famous well. Told in the Life of St Oswald by Reginald of Durham, 1165 (tr. from text in Simeon of Durham 1882):
“the arm, with its consecrated right hand, fell on the bare hard rock. All at once, through God’s wonderful power, from the spot where the holy arm touched the ground in its fall, there gushed out a clear unfailing spring… It so happened that Oswin the king, prompted by a message from God, found his way to this spring… He took the arm and hand out of its waters, and as the vision had commanded, he bore away the most holy head with its arms and hands. On this spot, right up until today, miracles are worked through the power of God and the merits of St Oswald. Here sick people receive the gift of health; the mad who come here are freed of their demons; and through drinking the consecrated waters, many kinds of illness are redeemed.”
The legend of its creation possibly dates from Leland states:
“that in his day it was said that an eagle snatched away an arm of Oswald from the stake, but let it fall in that place where now the spring is.”
Another version states the arm was dropped when his dismembered body was being transported to the site and hung on a tree: Oswald’s Tree.
As Hope (1893) in his seminal work on Holy Wells of England notes that there the well is not mentioned in the authentic history of the saint and assigns a pagan origin, although this is difficult to justify and may be antiquarian fancy.
Its first mention appears to be a 13th century deed noting an exchange of land between Shrewsbury and Haughmond Abbeys:
“a furlong near the garden of the aforementioned Shrewsbury Abbey, which reaches as far as the furlong of the same at St Oswald’s well.”
In the fifteenth century the chronicler Capgrave writes that in the plain called in English Maserfeld the church which is called the White Church is founded in honour of St. Oswald, and not far from it rises an unfailing spring, which is named by the inhabitants St. Oswald’s Well.
A healing spring
Hope states that a local antiquarian Mr. J. F. M. Dovaston in 1842 states that:
“the feeble and the infirm still believe and bathe in the well, and did more so until it was enclosed in the noisy playground. Bottles of its waters are carried to wash the eyes of those who are dim or short-sighted, or the tardy or erring legs of such as are of weak understandings.”
The establishment of the grammar school nearby undoubtedly caused the well to denigrate into a wishing-well. Hope (1893) notes that:
“One rite is, to go to the well at midnight, and take some of the water up in the hand, and drink part of it, at the same time forming the wish in the mind. The rest of the water must then be thrown upon a particular stone at the back of the well, where the schoolboys think that King Oswald’s head was buried, and where formerly a carved head wearing a crown projected from the wall….If the votary can succeed in throwing all the water left in his hand upon this stone, without touching any other spot, his wish will be fulfilled.”
This according to Hope or his correspondent was not the only form over ritual. He also states that:
“A young girl at Oswestry, about three years ago, obtained the wish which she had breathed into a small hole in the keystone of the arch over the well.”
Another approved plan is to bathe the face in the water, and wish while doing so; or, more elaborately, to throw a stone upon a certain green spot at the bottom of the well, which will cause a jet of water to spout up in the air. Under this, the votary must put his head and wish, and the wish will be fulfilled in the course of one or two days. Another plan savours of divination: it is to search among the beech trees near the well for an empty beechnut-husk, which can be imagined to bear some sort of likeness to a human face, and to throw this into the water with the face uppermost. If it swims while the diviner counts twenty, the wish will be fulfilled, but not otherwise.
A remarkable survival
It is perhaps surprising that this well has survived. The first mention of the well is in the 14th century Life of St Oswald (Nova Legenda Anglie) stating:
“On that field is a church, called White Church, which was founded in honour of St Oswald. Not far off there rises an unfailing spring which the local people call St Oswald’s well’.
According to Leland there was also a chapel here of which the ruins survived into the late 1700s according to Pennant. The present walled fabric probably dates from around this time and is built into the bank. It consists of a rounded archway which is now unfortunately sealed by a metal grill. Despite some periods of neglect through the centuries, since restored hopefully it will survive for many years hence. Some feat for a well with a supposed Saxon heritage…if we believe the legends.
Jesmond Dene has seen many faces: private estate, heart of industry and delightful municipal park. Fortunately, it is the later which describes it now: a pleasant sweep of wooded valley, with its great river meandering through it, the haunt of dog walkers, joggers, parents with pushchairs and excited children. However, cast back to long before the 1800s to which much of its present guise steams from, back to the mid medieval period and this area of Jesmond was the scene of great pilgrimage. The goal of these pilgrims was the chapel of St. Mary, once the third biggest pilgrimage site in the Kingdom. To visit it now it’s difficult to understand why, despite an eerie sense of sanctity, its size suggests little importance. But size is not everything it’s what’s inside that counts and inside this chapel was thought to be a very important relic, although exactly what remains a mystery.
A street in Newcastle called Pilgrim Street is said to be connected to the shrine being where pilgrims would gather and be accommodated. A feel of its importance can be gathered by a record of 1479, a Yorkshire rector left money in his will for pilgrims to travel to the Kingdom’s great shrines St Pauls, Canterbury’s Becket shrine and the chapel at Jesmond. The Pope also gave special dispensations I believe in a Papal bull.
A few feet away, up a dirt path, is our main site of pilgrimage, St. Mary’s Well, although the causal passerby would be unaware until they walk up that lane as there is no signage from the street. This is an interesting holy well for a number of reasons. Firstly, that it is one of the few wells ever to be excavated…and secondly that despite a supposed long history and association with a chapel with a known provenance we should not always take everything on face value age wise. When tree root damage threatened the site in the early 1980s it was decided to excavate the site, the work being written up by Fraser (1983) in ‘St Mary’s Well, Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne’ in the 5th series of Archaeologia Aeliana. The research found that the earliest phase was only seventeenth century. A number of other springs were located nearer the chapel and it is thought that one of these was more probably the holy well, although authorities like Brewis (1928) writing in the article ‘St Mary’s Chapel, and the site of St Mary’s Well, Jesmond’ in the 4th series of Archaeologia Aeliana
The earliest description appears to be Wallis (1769) in his The Natural History and Antiquities of Northumberland he describes it as:
“walled round with stone; a saffron-yellow ochre appearing on the sides, and a blue vitrioline sediment at the bottom. It is a plentiful spring. It is made to fall into a stone-bath, a little below it. In the monastic times it was much frequented by pilgrims.”
Richardson The Border book notes
The Holy Well and shrine at this place were anciently in high estimation, and resorted to by pilgrims, who came from all parts of the Kingdom to worship there. It has a reputation as a healing well. The well was enclosed by William Coulson Esq., who purchased possession here in 1669 (as) a bathing place, which was no sooner done than the water left it. This was considered a just revenge for profaning the sacred well; but the water soon returned and the miracle ended
The excavation revealed that the bathing pool was installed as noted in the eighteenth century and the stone was a remodelling from the nineteenth century. Mackenzie (1837) in his Historical, Topographical and Descriptive view of the county of Northumberland states:
“St. Mary’s Well, in this village, which has as many steps down to it as there are articles in the creed..The Holy Well and shrine at this place were anciently in high estimation. Gray says in his chronography “with great confluence and devotion people came from all parts of this island to the shrine of the Virgin Mary” Bourne also observes, it all parts of the island to worship at it
Today, services are still held at the chapel, namely the first Sunday of May, where pilgrims still go to the well and collect its clear and healing waters. Brewis (1928) confusingly notes that:
The well itself is now underground, but the north end of the stone head is still visible.”
Suggesting that sometime in the twentieth century it was restored. More confusingly his account suggests that the spring was a thermal one:
“a Jesmond gentleman, that his grandfather, one winter’s day, took him to see this well
Touching the water, confusingly it does not appear to be warm, but of course that may be different on a cold day. The well is arched over with an inscription stating ‘gratia’ which is said to be part of a longer inscription ‘Ave Maria gratia plena’ although the former is thought to be 18th century in date. Today the spring water is clear and flowing running over is chamber and running down the channel into an overflow albeit covered in leaves. A venerable yew shadows this secret shrine creating a quiet and somewhat eerie nook in a scene of domesticity. It still has many visitors and is kept in very good condition. On an August afternoon it can be a peaceful escape from the modern pressure of Newcastle.
On the outskirts of Loughborough is an area called holywell, but pronounced ‘holly’, I have found very little about the well which gave its name. Trubshaw (1990) in his book on holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland mentions it and there is a post with a modern picture on Megalithic Portal, but shows a rather boring brick structure and not he elliptical basin the former mentions. So I decided to investigate the twin sites of the well and it’s associated Holywell Haw.
A cursory glance at the map shows that it is virtually swallowed up by Loughborough University (hence the honours joke) is the estate of Holywell Haw, the present farmhouse taking its name from a spring nearby. Of the house itself it probably began life as a hostel for those lost in the most substantial Charnwood forest which has retracted around it. However by 1180 it had become a hermitage owned by Garendon Abbey and is first noted by the name of Holywell Haw, the later deriving from haw meaning enclosure, the same origin as hawthorn. Potter in his “History and Antiquities of Charnwood Forest”. (1842) notes it was described in a grant by Robert de Jort to the abbey the site being described as heremitorium de Halliwellhaga. The Testa de Nevill, 13th century records ‘a dairy, with a small wood, called Haliwelle Hawe’, which by the 14th century the Leicester Abbey purchased from a Henry Lord Beaumont ‘a certain parcel of wood called Holy-well Haw for £28′. They appear to have developed the area to what can be seen today: fishponds and moats, and probably used the site as a grange and possible a diary. What remains today is mainly 15th century with fragments of a medieval structure such as gothic doorways and timbers. Whether it was Holywell Haw or Hall is unclear. It has been blamed on the Ordnance Survey and indeed some blunders have been done in the past. However, it is possible that a 19th century owner, March Philips, had some sort of pretensions for the building and thought the name was better. By the eighteenth century name to Holywell Dyke, an eighteenth-century boundary mark for Charnwood Forest .It is now better known as a farm.
The Holy Well
The spring, is icy cold and never run dry, produces, according to Trubshaw 20,000 galloons a day and is one of the only non-incorporated spring in the Severn Trent catchment classed as A1 Drinkable. Local tradition states that it has medicinal qualities. Nichols (1795–1815) notes:
“The excellent spring is yet preserved”
Potter (1852) notes that it:
“.derives part of its name from a well, to the waters of which, even in recent times, considerable virtues have been attributed.”
However, its most famous legend is said to date from the 15th century
Potter (1852) notes that:
“The popular idea seems to be, that the Comyns (of Whitwick Castle) were great giants. One of them, said my informant, attempted to carry off one of the Ladies of Groby Castle, who left that place for security, intending to take sanctuary at Grace Dieu. Going, however, by a circuitous route, to avoid Charley and Whitwick, she was benighted, and would have perished in the Outwoods, but for one of the Monks of the Holy Well.”
The legend tells how after a considerable pursuit, she upon reaching the hermitage, collapsed and died. A monk then used the water to bring her back to life. Potter (1942) tells the story in verse:
|The oaks of the forest were Autumn-tinged, And the winds were at sport with their leaves When a maiden traversed the rugged rocks That frown over WOODHOUSE EAVES.||The Hermit upraised the stiffened form, And he bore to the HOLY WELL: Three Paters or more he muttered o’er, And he filled his scallop shell.|
|The rain fell fast – she heeded it not Though no hut or home appears; She scarcely knew if the falling drops Were rain drops or her tears.||He sprinkled the lymph on the Maiden’s face, And he knelt and he prayed by her side Not a minute’s space had he gazed on her face Ere signs of life he spied…..|
|Onward she hied through the OUTWOODS dark (And the Outwoods were darker then) She feared not the Forest’s deepening gloom She feared unholy men.||Spring had invested the CHARNWOOD oaks With their robe of glistening green, When on palfreys borne, one smiling morn, At the HOLY WELL’s HAW were seen.|
|Lord Comyn’s scouts were in close pursuit, For Lord Comyn the Maid had seen, And had marked her mother’s only child For his paramour, I ween.||A youth and a Lady, passing fair, Who asked for the scallop shell: A sparkling draught each freely quaffed, And they blessed the HOLY WELL.|
|A whistle, a whoop from the BUYK HYLLS side, Told Agnes her foes were nigh: And screened by the cleft of an aged oak, She heard quick steps pass by.||They blessed that Well, and they fervently blessed The Holy Hermit too; To that and to him they filled to the brim The scallop, and drank anew.|
|Dark and dread fell that autumn night: The wind-gusts fitful blew: The thunder rattled: – the lightning’s glare Showed BEACON’s crags to view.||“Thanks, Father! Thanks! – To this well and thee,” Said the youth, “But to Heaven most, I owe the life of the fairest wife That CHARNWOOD’s bounds can boast.|
|The thunder neared – the lightning played Around the sheltering oak; But Agnes, of men, not God afraid, Shrank not at the lightning’s stroke!||“The blushing bride thou seest at my side. (Three hours ago made mine) Is she who from death was restored to breath By Heaven’s own hand and thine”.|
|The thunder passed – the silvery moon Burst forth from her cave of cloud, And showed in the glen “Red Comyn’s” men, And she breathed a prayer aloud:-||“The Prior of ULVERSCROFT made us one, And we hastened here to tell How much we owe to kind Heaven and thee, For the gift of the HOLY WELL”.|
|Maiden mother of God! Look down List to a maidens prayer: Keep undefiled my mother’s sole child The spotless are thy care”||“In proof of which – to the HOLYWELL HAW I give as a votive gift, From year to year three fallow deer, And the right of the Challenge drift”.|
|” The sun had not glinted on BEACON HILL Ere the Hermit of the HOLY WELL Went forth to pray, as his wont each day, At the cross in Fayre-Oke dell.||“I give, besides, of land two hides, To be marked from the Breedon Brand: To be held while men draw from the Well in this Haw A draught with the hollow hand”.|
|Ten steps had he gone from the green grassy mound Still hemming the HOLY WELL HAW, When, stretched on the grass – by the path he must pass A statue-like form he saw!||The Hermit knelt, and the Hermit rose, And breathed “Benedicite! And tell me”, he said, with a hand on each head, “What heaven sent pair I see!”|
|He crossed himself once, he crossed himself twice, And he knelt by the corse in prayer: “Jesu Maria! cold as ice – Cold – cold – but still how fair!”||“This is the lost de Ferrers’ child, Who dwelt at the Steward’s Hay; And, father, my name – yet unknown to fame Is simply EDWARD GREY”.|
It is thought that after being revived she gave her name to God and became a prioress and some historians link it to a real life account of Eleanor Ferrars whose was carried off. It also has similarity to legends associated with Essex’s Running Well and Kent’s St. Thomas’s well at Singlewell.
The well today
Despite a leaflet mentioning the well from the University, available as pdf, it is a little reticent in regards to whether it can be visited. However, exploring around the back of the enormous Holywell complex a small path passes some gas cylinders and then to a stile. No keep out signs are present so I assumed it was okay to jump over. There almost in front of me is a large brick chamber covered by two large fibre glass up turned boats. These appear to cover the well. Peering between a gap however this rather unpromising edifice reveals something more interesting. The brick chamber encloses an elliptical natural stone or possibly medieval basin, into which a copious flow enters and fills and then flows through a pipe into the brook below. Despite the rather ugly surrounds there is still something ancient and mysterious about this most well known of Leicestershire sacred springs. The local farm, the Holywell Haw, still apparently uses the water and it is regularly checked by the Uni authorities. One hopes it can get a better cover, surely the university could afford a metal grid more worthy of this venerable site.
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