Monthly Archives: April 2014
This is the 101th post and I’ve picked a famous sacred well association the head cult. Much has been commented on the connection between sacred springs and heads, in particular. The term ‘head cult’ often being applied to a number of wells, but in reality there is little to prove the existence of anything concrete as a cult or continued worship. Such is the most famed site associated with a skull: St. Teilo’s Well or Ffynonn Deilo in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, a noted holy man who has given his name to many wells and churches. This well itself is nothing particularly impressive nor archaeologically significant, consisting of shallow square chamber and fills a series of ponds. However, the legend is quite remarkable. Asaph Dar’s Wales and the Welsh notes:
“The faith of some of those who used to visit the well was so great in its efficacy that they were wont to leave it wonderfully improved. An old inhabitant of the district, Stephen Evans used to relate a story to the effect that a carriage drawn by four horses came over to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids from the cockle village of Penclawdd, in the Gower Peninsula, who had determined to try the waters in the well. They returned, however, no better than they came; for though they had drunk of the well they had neglected to do so out of the skull. This was afterwards pointed out to them by somebody and they resolved to make the long journey to the well again. This time, we are told, they did the right thing and departed in excellent health. Such is the great persistence of primitive beliefs that while the walls of the church have long fallen into decay the faith in the well continues in a measure intact.”
Skulls (and heads) have a long and possibly confused association with sacred springs. Yet how did a piece of this saint’s skull end up being separated from the body and be associated with a holy well. Tradition asserts that when Llandaff Cathedral was stormed in the 15th century by Owen Glyndwr, a local man, Sir David Mathew paid for its restoration and was given the skull as a gift by the grateful Bishop. This was then set into a reliquary.
For seven generations, the Mathew family owned this private relic, until it handed over to the Melchoir family who owned Llandeilo farm in the 17th century. By then probably as a result in changing Christian views concerning relics, the skull was stripped of its reliquary, although its then use a drinking cup goes against this view, unless there was a period when the relic was disregarded followed by a period when the family either realised a possible income source or became more ‘Catholic’. Whatever, this is how the skull became associated with a holy well for own the farm as the name suggests is a site associated with the saint.
The Melchoir family, where the water would be lifted from the well using the skull and according to Sir John Rhys, quoted in Bailey (2003) that it had to be an heir of Llandeilo. Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales notes that a man in 1906 stated that a boy and two other lads were cured of an illness by drinking out of the skull early in the morning and that he reported that the waters were botted by the family.
However, the use of the skull to drink from would have stopped around….when the skull disappeared only to be returned by the last of the family to Llandaff Cathedral in 1993 where it now remains. The search for the skull makes an interesting read, especially the lack of publicity wanted for it by its ‘owners’ and can be read in Bailey’s excellent volume.
What is interesting is that the cult of head worship should develop so late in this story. This suggests perhaps the widespread survival of such beliefs into the 1600s, unless there was a local well already using the skull independently? Much has been said about the possibility of the Melchoir families being some sort of well guardians preserving a cult, although this is unlikely and more wishful thinking by new age antiquarians. More likely is that the family identified the coinage in developing the ‘worship’. An interesting postscript is for an examination of the skull in the Office of Works volume on ancient and historical buildings in Pembrokeshire records of the skull:
“the cranium is very old, and is polished from constant handling. A part of one superciliary ridge remains, and this is of such slight elevation as to make it almost certain that this skull is that of a female, while the open sutures point to the same conclusion.”
Well there you go! Clearly, the combination of faith and the water worked more directly than anything is ‘relic’ could add if this analysis was indeed correct. Yet whatever the facts the use of a skull in such activities is an interesting form of water veneration.
I’ve posted this on the 8th as the first posts were on the 8th October.
Well it’s been a great few years and pleasing to note that I’ve had views from nearly two thirds of the globe..so thanks reader especially the followers. You’ll see some other changes new pages etc, so hopefully it’s all new and improved, on the 19th, but as the first post was on the 8th I’ve posted earlier than usual.
There is no contest what healing spring must be discussed for the 100th post…no well has such a long recorded history of cures, no well has an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage, no well has such a complete infrastructure, unique in its Perpendicular splendor…only St. Winifred’s Well at Clywd, so famed it gives its name to the town and so famed it is now called the Lourdes of Wales, although it is much older and more significant than that. However, it is a daunting task to discuss such an important site, but here I go
The origin of the well
The story dates back to the seventh century. It involves St. Winifred, real name Gwenfrewi, was originally the daughter of a local lord, Tyfid ap Eiludd and his wife Wenlo, and after being taught by a monk called Beuno, her uncle, became a nun. However, Prince Caradog took a fancy to her and kidnapped her. However, she escaped and trying to reach Beuno was caught and beheaded by Caradog. Beuno cursed Caradog, who then disappeared. Where Winifred was beheaded the spring arose, however Beuno prayed over her body and she came back to life and ended her days as the Abbess of Gwytherin. There her grave was a pilgrimage site until her relics were removed to Shrewsbury in 1138.
A potted history of the well
The first mention of the well is in 1093, when Haliwel was granted to Chester’s St Werburgh’s Abbey. By 1240, to Basingwerk Abbey had been granted it by the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Llewelyn. This established the link between the two sites and it was administered by the Cistercian monks until the Reformation. The fame of the saint and her well attracted many pilgrims, Royalty amongst them: Henry V, Richard III and Henry VII. It was the latter’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who built the current prestigious well house and chapel and by doing so probably ensured it escaped destruction under her grandson Henry VIII. Evidence suggests that Catherine of Aragon was also a patron. Unsurprisingly, it became a location for Catholic resistance, the Jesuits, and even in 1686 James II and his queen visited to pray for an heir, before later exile.
Its construction begun in around 1500 and took probably 15 years to finish. The structure consists of a star-shaped basin into which the water arises and flows into an oblong bath with steps either side. Originally reached from the chapel above, although this access is blocked, the structure is set into the hill side. It has a vaulted ceiling supported by columns with its Gothic tracery. The chamber is reached by a triple arcade entered from the north. The centre of the ceiling is a worn pendant showing the story of St. Winifred looks over the spring head. A niche to the side a statue of St Winifred, which replaced one destroyed in the 17th century in the 1886. Above the well chamber is a chapel full of carved figures. This has seen many uses over the years, such as a school or courthouse, is a simple single nave and side isle with an altar in the apse.
Sacred healing Moss
“But the ground stained with her blood cracked, and a rapid spring gushed out in that place full of water, the stones of which to this day are seen bloody as on the first day. The moss also smells as incense, and cures divers diseases.”
An interesting feature sadly now gone was a red staining moss, called Jungermannia asplenioides which was said to be indelible stains of St Winifred’s blood. Another moss, Byssus jolithus was ‘St Winifred’s Hair’. This moss was dried, made into wreaths and sold in the 17th century for its healing qualities.
The ritual undertaken at the well is to pass three times through the small inner bath, saying the Rosary; the pilgrim enters the outer pool and prays on St Beuno’s Stone or Maen Beuno. The stone as the name suggests is intrinsically linked with the legend of the well. It is on this stone that the Beuno was told that anyone who asked Winifred for help would receive their request by the third time. The stone is certainly very ancient and perhaps prehistoric in origin.
A catalogue of cures
“Moreover one born blind, service being duly performed in the tabernacle of the virgin, went of to the well, and washed, and saw, and gave thanks…And many times this most benign virgin relieves dropsical persons, restores the paralytic, heals the gouty, cures the melancholy. No less does she remove sciatica, eradicate cancer, cure shortness of breath, extirpate piles…Why by enumerating a few things do I try to mention all? So many and so great are the gifts of the virgin, that their infinity defies enumeration.”
What is also remarkable about the site is the catalogue of cures, graffiti around the well accords. Perhaps the most noted was that which occurred after a sick monk at Shrewsbury Abbey was told by a vision of the saint to say mass at the well. After this had been done, the monk began to recover, and went to Holywell himself, where his cure was completed. It was this Holywell cure which determined the Shrewsbury monks to adopt Winifred as their patroness, seeking out her grave, and removing her bones to their church in 1138.
No complete record apparently has ever been produced. The main source for the early accounts in the saint’s Vita or Life. The first version, Vita Prima of which was written in 1130, and the second life. Vita Secunda, written some ten or so years later at the occasion of the relic’s translation by Robert of Shrewsbury. This was translated in 1635 and then rewritten by Jesuit Fr Metcalf. Through the protestant period, miracles continued and from this period one describes:
“About the yeare 1590 Fr Edward Oldcorne of the Society of Jesus with another English priest…travelling in the kingdome of Naples…had poyson given them…there still remained in them an extraordinaire inward heate of the liver with other diseases, and especially Father Oldcorne, whose tongue and mouth contracted a hard sore many yeares after his coming into England…And as all cure and human remedied failed and being very sensible of losing his speech, he was bent…to undertake a pilgrimage to Holy Well…But whether the occasions permitted not…some yeares after being at a gentlemans house in Worcester, he chanced to see a little blood stone…of S. Wenefrides Holy Well, he presently honoured it with great veneration, prostrating himself on his knees before the altar, he putt it in his mouth, and turning it therein to and fro with his soare tongue…he sayd 5 Paters et Aves with Creed. And immediately he found himself much better, his tongue cooled, and his stomack in farr better temper then before; then…he went to Holy-well: where drinking of the water of the sacred fountain with other devotions performed, etc., he was perfectly cured, and never after troubled with the sayd disease.”
Miracles are recorded throughout the next two centuries such that the 1817 The Life and Miracles of Saint Wenefride, states in discussion of a cure that the witnesses:
“numerous and consist of persons of different stations, religions, countries, and places of residence, with Protestants, Catholics, English, Welsh, residents in Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Holywell, who could not possibly be combined for the purpose of attesting a series of falsehoods.”
Until the 1960s the crypt was filled with crutches, these can now be found in the small museum. And so the cures continue.
For my 99th post I’ve decided to revisit one of the blogs most popular posts https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/perhaps-not-so-jolly-old-well-friar-tucks-well-at-blidworth/,….with new photos and hopefully with a new appraisal.
Towards a restoration of the well?
In my post about Friar Tuck’s Well I bemoaned the lack of any good photos. Whilst my search for photos of the whole structure have drawn a blank so far an exciting discovery via fellow folklorist Frank Earp in his photo collection which will go some way to reassessing and understanding the structure if and hopefully when it is fully restored. Frank had to scan the photo in two sections and I have ‘glued’ them back together digitally (I include two different glued versions) I include the photos as they are
He believes the photos were taken between 1975-78 I have included them compared to recent photos labelled to where I suggest the lost features are. My question being do these structures seen in the picture lie beneath the mud and mire seen in the recent photo or has all the stone work been removed. Frank described the ‘basin’ as being cut out of the sandstone rather than being built with gives hope. Sadly, the photo fails to show the position of the railings. If combined with this image from the late Bill Richard’s Book on Friar Tuck and Blidworth Forest we can just work that the railings enclosed the basin seen in Frank’s photo just traceable as a depression.
What the photo does go to show is the importance of those pictures taken by ‘amateur’ well enthusiasts…keep photographing. I hope one day that the land the well is on can be purchased and the site repaired and this photo will help I feel in that venture. Especially as taking a walk….I found….
Big changes at Blidworth
A recent visit found all the trees uprooted and channels made to drain the pool above. I thought at first that the well itself had been gone, but some focusing on the area revealed it still remained but the spring head brickwork looked more dilapidated and the railings gone. No sign still of anything like Frank’s photo above however, I think the sediment needs to be removed and a long period of dryness required. Fortunately the site is listed, grade II, and on an at risk register suggesting the authorities are aware of but something still needs to be done to reveal the ashlar trough below.
The name Friar Tuck maybe a bit of misdirection. If we look at the word Frere Tuck this means ‘troublesome brother’ the former from tucian perhaps if we combine this with the fact that the spring is intermittent, a piece of local lore recorded in my book, does it perhaps refer to the damage caused by this flow, in short a woe water, who’s flow either caused problems or predicted trouble. Frank has also focused on the possible folklore behind the famous fight between Tuck and Robin. Rather than be a ‘historical’ event it probably has a deeper folklore message of dark battling light or the Winter fighting the Spring.
I stress the copyright on these important photos lays with Frank. Thanks go again to Frank and I direct you to purchasing the excellent book A-Z of Nottinghamshire curiosities from http://nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam.wordpress.com website. I asked Frank to contribute his excellent article on the origins of Newark’s St Catherine’s Well, in what I hope will be a regular feature of guest bloggers