Monthly Archives: January 2015

The holy and healing waters of Sardinia an overview

This year’s monthly blog post theme will be Sardinian healing and holy waters and as so as an introduction to that theme, this is way of an overview. Perhaps no place in Europe does the clear relationship between the ancient worship of water all the way up to the Spa treatment  be seen as a continuous flow and furthermore clear patterns of development can be seen.

Since ages the insufficient supply of water was one of the main problems of Sardinia. For the Nuragic civilization, which has developed in Bronze Age on base of the local Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures, the cult of water became one of the most important elements of religion. This resulted in construction of sophisticated monuments, such as well temples and sacred springs.  There are known to be around 40 well temples on the island dating from that of Pozzo Sacro sa Testa around 1300 BC to later Iron age ones such as Pozzo Sacro Santa Cristina from 900 BC. Styles differ by they all consist of an atrium or vestibule (oval or rectangular) where offerings were made and ceremonies conducted and then stairs down to a tholos chamber which contained the sacred well.

Santa Christina Holy Well looking up the steps from the well chamber

These wells appear to have been re-developed by subsequent invaders – the Greek and Punic influence can be seen and at some sites Roman finds were discovered.  The Romans influence on the island, slighter perhaps than elsewhere, typifies the next stage: the development of hot baths. The most substantial being those at Fordongianus where the baths and springs can still be seen.

No place in the whole of Europe can the ages of water worship be seen than in the underground chamber beneath San Salvatore church, where a Nuragic water shrine has been developed by every cultural invader of the island. The crowning of a church above this pre-historic holy site is typical of the island’s approach to Christianising springs. The capital of the island is one of the few places where Christian holy wells can be found in a number such as a spring associated with hypogeum. Christianity has developed around a number of nuragic well sites – Paulilatino in particular where festivals are associated with May suggesting an ancient origin.

San Salvatore Holy Well beneath San Salvatore church

Some springs, fall between the next two forms – being simple medicinal springs utilised locally by people for healing purposes but never fully developed, and example being Siete Fuentes di San Leonardo. Such springs were developed into more complex and commercial spas. This spa movement, called Therme on the island developed as elsewhere either developing upon under sites such as that of Terme de Sardegne based on the same spring on which the Roman bath houses or newly discovered ones.  This is most vibrantly shown by that of Fordin…where an 18th century bath house can be seen a few yards from the Roman site and a new Spa complex developed within the town.  The most famed being the Terme de Sardara established in 1895. Spas are a very popular activity in Sardinia and show how water still has a vital healing role on the Island…one dating back 4000 years or so.

Every month I will focus in more detail on a Sardinian site or theme…February will look at Paulilitano’s Santa Cristina Pozzo.

In the shadow of a giant…St. Augustine’s Well of Cerne

The copyright on this image is owned by Peter Beaven and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

“Augustine and his worthy companions were wandering through an empty land, where no water was. Heat and drought and weariness weighed on them… True, Augustine had drunk too copiously of that sweet well which flows to eternal life for him to hanker after those earthly wells where those who drink will thirst again; nor did he take much pains for the food that decays, being nourished instead by that which endures in life eternal… But then he thought how good it would be for the land to be flooded by the goodness of heaven, sparkling with the true spring of life. He fixed his staff in the ground, and when he drew it forth, out surged a stream of pure water. All gave praise to God as they tasted of these waters, and drank till they were satisfied. This is the spring which today feeds many streams, so that a district which was once barren is now thickly populated”.

Shorter Life of St Augustine by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, around 1090

A later legend states:

“T”.he shepherds complained to him that there was neither water nor beer. So he asked them whether they would like water or beer. They answered “Water”. He then struck the ground and lo! water appeared

Both accounts states the legend which explains Dorset’s most famous holy well. A holy well which as an ancient site, is much overlooked by the swarms of tourists visiting the famous Giant and deserves to be better known. Goscelin notes further that:

one of the brethren at Cerne Abbey was a parish priest, whose business it was to celebrate the sacred mysteries for the laity. He was worn down by such weakness that he was given up for dead. The onset of night, and of exhaustion, brought some sleep to the poor wretch. Then, in his sleep, he saw the merciful figure of Augustine standing before him, in archbishop’s vestments, shining with bright embroidery. He spoke to the trembling invalid, putting him at his ease with kindly words, and told him to get up and go to St Augustine’s well. When he got there, he was to say the fiftieth psalm three times over with true devotion, and three times, after each psalm, he was to dip himself in the well and wash in its waters. Do this, he said, and you will be restored to life and health. And you can be sure that it is I, Augustine himself, who is telling you to repair to my spring. Now comes the miracle! The priest awoke immediately, and half-dead as he was, he threw himself out of bed. Leaning on a stick, he hobbled off to take the bath as instructed. The men of the infirmary thought he had lost his wits with the onset of death. They tiptoed after him, making no attempt to stop the man, but wondering where he was heading. The sick man bathed himself with a threefold washing in the waters of the well, saying the psalm three times, as he had been told to. And, so rapid was the remedy of his holy doctor, that the man who had set out as an invalid went home again healthy, snatched from the jaws of death”.

The well survived the dissolution of the Abbey it was associated with as John Gerald notes in 1625 in his Survey of Dorsetshire:

“His Well you may see at this Daye in the Abbie Church Yarde, heretofore covered with a Chappell dedicated to St Augustine, and from him likewise was it called St Augustine’s Well”.

The well survived the dissolution of the Abbey it was associated with as John Gerald notes in 1625 in his Survey of Dorsetshire:

“His Well you may see at this Daye in the Abbie Church Yarde, heretofore covered with a Chappell dedicated to St Augustine, and from him likewise was it called St Augustine’s Well”.

It is interesting to note that it was covered with a Chappell which may refer to a traditional building akin to something like St. Winifred’s Well (but probably no where as grand!) or a well house, which is more likely. Whichever it is, the site no longer covered by any construction and consists of a spring filled channel associated with an upright stone with a circular cross upon it.

What’s in a name?

It would be apparent that by the late 1700s it was in need of repair as churchwardens’ accounts of 1761, refers to a payment of £1 5s for:

 ‘John Thorne’s Bill for work about St Paston’s Well’.

Paston’s corruption form of St Augustine’s Well no doubt! However, some confusion has arisen concerning a supposed second name – Silver Well. However, this name may record a second site located at Stockwood which has an alternative name of St. Edwold and the too not the same.

A wishing and curative well

“if anyone looks into St Austin’s Well the first thing on Easter morning he will see the faces of those who will die within the year”.

St Augustine’s Well for some unknown reason has collected its fair share of folklore. In recent years it has even become a rag well! Moule (1888) in his ‘Dorset folk-lore’ in the Folk-Lore Journal states that:

“folks hold to the belief that St Austin’s Well… still works wondrous cures. I have had a case told in all detail while sketching the lovely spring”.

In another copy of Folk-Lore, March (1899) in this ‘Dorset folk-lore collected in 1897’, is informed that:

“a man now living, named Vincent, aged fifty-five years, had a crippled child. Every morning, for several months together, Vincent carried his child, wrapped in a blanket, to St Austin’s Well, and dipped it into the well, and at last it was cured. Sore eyes are healed by bathing them, and feeble health is restored by drinking curative. A farmer used to go down to this well every morning and drink a tumblerful of the water.”

To obtain a wish an unusual ritual was developed. Hall (1925) in their Concerning Cerne notes that:

“The prescribed usages for “wishing”. Pluck a laurel leaf – there will be one handy – fold it into a cup, fill it from the spring, then standing on the little parapet, face the Church, drink, and before swallowing the water, make a secret wish”.

Interestingly, in Dacombe’s 1935 Dorset Up Along and Down Along she records the strangest piece of folklore that: 

 “There are eleven trees on the way to the well, representing the eleven apostles – only eleven, because Judas betrayed our Lord”

Udal (1922) associated the well with a spring in the parish were babies could be cured if dipped in at sunrise, however this may be another site. All in all a very rich site for legends and folklore. A few moments here has a peaceful nature to it and to be highly recommended…after all it even has a seat.

The original Jack in the Box…Sir John Shorne’s Well, North Marston, Buckinghamshire

As many children may be getting ready to play with an old toy – the Jack in the Box – many will be unaware that the toy has a connection with an English ‘saint’ with a notable holy well. Local rector done well. Sir John Shorne came to the village of North Marston in 1290 and he must famous miracle is that an epileptic woman was exorcised and the Devil was caste out and the rector caught him in a boot. The local rhyme going:

“‘Sir John Shorn, Gentleman born, Conjured the Devil into a Boot.'”

This also resulted in the ‘saint’ becoming the unofficial patron saint of bootmakers, and Northampton being famed for this was one such place. When he was buried in 1314 in the north chancel of the Parish church miracles were accounted to have occurred at his ‘shrine’. These miracles become some famed that the Bishop of Salisbury, Richard Beauchamp, in 1478 obtained a licence from the Pope to have the body removed to the rebuilt St. George’s Chapel, Windsor which was renamed John Schorne’s Tower. The move was not generally successful for although the church only had an effigy of Sir John blessing a ‘bote’ it still had a well. The Windsor shrine was destroyed in 1585, but some remains of the North Marston shrine survive and of course the well lived on. This well was said to be one of his miracles according to Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of holy wells:

“One legend is that Master Shorne, in a season of drought, was moved by the prayers of his congregation to take active measures to supply their need. He struck his staff upon the earth, and immediately there burst forth a perennial spring. The water was a specific for ague and gout; it is now obtained by a pump. There is still a tradition that a box for the receipt of the offerings was affixed to the well, but this has not been the case within the memory of any person now living.”

Hope (1893) also stated that the spring bore its medicinal qualities from the prayers and benedictions of Sir John. The well also called ‘The Town Well’ which accordingly consisted of:

“of a cistern, 5 feet 4 inches square, and 6 feet 9 inches deep. This is walled round with stone, and has a flight of four stone steps descending into the water. The cistern is enclosed by a building, somewhat larger than the well itself, with walls com-posed of brick and stone, about 5 feet high, and covered with a roof of board.”

The site became an important pilgrimage site, for a sign on nearby Oving hill, where five ancient ways meet, 1 mile east, pointed to the within living memory of the 1800s. Cures Hope (1893) believed that:

“From the size and construction of the building, it was probably occasionally used as a bath, but the sick were, doubtless, chiefly benefited by drinking the water.”

The spring he also notes is slightly chalybeate and states large numbers of houses were built for their accommodation, although I am not sure that this can be verified. It is said by the late 1800s, a glass of the water drunk at night was said to cure any cold by daybreak.  Indeed, local physicians would often include the water in their medicines and when in 1835 there were several cholera epidemics in local parishes, North Marston escaped. It is said that when visiting the well there was a chained gold cup so was the fame. Sheahan (1861) in his work on the History and Topography of Buckinghamshire notes that the water was ‘remarkable for its purity and extreme coldness’ and reputed never to freeze or fail Well changed.

Before the restoration

Before the restoration

After restoration – from wikipedia commons

Browne Willis says that many aged persons then living remembered a post in a Quidenham on Oving Hill (about a mile east of the well), which had hands pointing to the several roads, one of them directing to Sir John Shorne’s Well. The well by this time was covered by a modern structure. This was probably the result if a local woman Jane Watson slipping and dropping in the well. The authorities enclosed the original basin with a wall and for many years consisted of a brick built chamber with a slanting doorway, a bit like a coal bunker and locked! Then in 2004/5 the well was reborn. The site was remodelled with a triangular oak building with tiled floor and a new pump and trough. On Ascension Day 2005 it was dressed with garlands and blessed…and its first water was pumped out for the first time for over 100 years. Then in 2014 North Marston commemorated the 700th anniversary of their local ‘saint’ in which the well was dressed, new pilgrim badges were commissioned and a book produced. See below

John Schorne 700 Commemoration Items

John Schorne Badge Image

Pilgrim Badges

Pilgrim Badges were worn by devotees as a sign of fellowship with other pilgrims and to merit gifts of food and shelter on their travels. Each shrine generated its own badge, so the many shrines to some of the most popular “saints” resulted in a number of different styles of badge being produced in different parts of the country. To celebrate the 700th anniversary of the death of John Schorne, the miracle-working rector of North Marston, the North Marston History Society has commissioned replica pilgrim badges which are sold in gift boxes containing information about John Schorne. The badges sell for £4.00 each and are available

John Schorne Booklet ImageJohn Schorne: North Marston’s Saint

John Schorne: North Marston’s Saint is a six-page booklet with coloured illustrations providing as much information as is known about the miracle-working rector who presided at North Marston church 700 years ago. Written by John Spargo and published by the North Marston History Club, it provides an easy to read summary of the man and the pilgrims who came to visit his holy well and worship at his shrine for two centuries after his death, and the legacies they left behind. The booklet is priced at £2.50 and proceeds from its sale go to two local hospices. Copies are available from