Monthly Archives: April 2016
“Here is to be seen the well of the saint, enclosed with a wall. The Sybil of the place attends, and divines your fortune by the appearance or non-appearance of a little fish, which lurks in some of its holes”
Thomas Pennant (1778) Tours in Wales
Compared to last month’s post we have a bit of a reversal – Ffynnon Peris has much written about it but less about the saint. This is a well which is not only one of the best positioned picturesquely but one of the most curious tradition wise – its sacred fish.
The well is fairly easily found in a private garden of a house called Tynyffynnon arising delightfully at the bottom of a small rocky cliff. It is a roughly square well made up of stone lined basin, around four feet, surrounded by stone benches. Niches are found in the back wall either to place offerings or leave buckets.
Who was the saint?
Saint Peris is a bit of a mystery. He was thought to have existed around the 6th century and called Bonedd y Saint the ‘cardinal of Rome’. His connection with Nant Peris is that he is said to retired presumably by the side of the spring. With such a dubious hagiography, it seems likely that this was an ancient pagan site of which the following tradition gives some support.
A fishy story?
Baring Gould and Fisher in their 1908 Lives of British Saints states that:
“There is also an alms box in the church, the key of which is kept by the wardens and into which the 6d and 4d pieces were formerly put very frequently by persons who either bathed their children or came themselves for the purpose in St Peris’s Well. These small offerings to the Saint amounted at the end of the year to a considerable sum, but at present they are very trifling.”
Of the fish, these were trouts of which Catherall in his 1851 Wanderings in North Wales records:
“A poor woman who lives in a cottage near the spring has a few pence given to her by strangers for showing one or two large trout which she feeds in the well.”
The fish tradition may have been continual from the time of the saint or from some pagan tradition and they were fiercely protected by the locals and tradition tells of someone stealing one of the fish being forced to return it. Baring Gould recorded that the fish would live up to 50 years, and that it was practice that two fish should be always kept in the well. It appeared to be strictly two added at the same time, so that when one died…it remained there until it died and then two were added together. In 1896 it was recorded:
“The last of the two fish put into the well about fifty years previously died in August 1896. It had been blind for some time. It measured 17 inches and was buried in the garden adjoining the well.”
What is quite remarkable is that the tradition was maintained at least until the mid-20th century and perhaps beyond. A correspondent to the Wellhopper.com article on the well noted that there were fishes in the well until the early 1970s.
Why were these fishes there? The fishes had a role in the curative nature of the well. The appearance of the fishes whilst the sick person bathed was thought to be necessary to effect a cure…such the guardian of the well no doubt would tempt them out with food morsels, as Pennant noted:
“divines your fortune by the appearance or non-appearance of a little fish.”
For a higher fee no doubt!
A number of cures could be solicited from the well – scrofula, rheumatism and rickets could be cured – the later from bathing hopefully with the fish’s help. The height of the well’s popularity was in the mid-18th century and offerings were given at the church and these were sufficient to pay the salary of the Parish clerk.
The well clothed in moss and ferns has a delightfully rustic feel, but it was evident that there were no longer any fish in it – the water actually looked a little too anoxic to provide two trout with any healthy environment.
Folly estates are often a good place to find substantial holy wells and sacred sites and to north-west of Stourhead Gardens splendid Stourhead Estate, a National Trust property, is a splendid example – St. Peter’s Pump. However, yet like many such sites, the origins and names are confusing to explain. The well head, unlike some sites, is very easy to find being a high medieval cross sitting slightly incongruously upon a rubble grotto where the spring, now dry, arose. A strange hotchpotch
The well, is one of supposedly six, giving the site the official name of Six Wells. The earliest reference, is before the folly was John Leland in the 16th century noted:
“ther of 6 fountaines or springes, whereof 3 be on the northe side of the parke harde withyn the pale.”
He also noted that Lord Stourton, a family name of great antiquity has six fountains on his coat of arms. Such sources of great rivers often attract folklore, although none appear surprisingly to be holy wells. The name Six Wells first appears in 1822.
King Alfred’s holy well?
The origin of the springs is said to owe itself to King Alfred the Great, the great Anglo-Saxon King. In her 1932 book, Moonraking a little book of Wiltshire stories, Edith Oliver tells us
“It is said, when tired from fighting with the Danes, King Alfred and his soldiers prayed for water, and up came six wells or springs. If the legend is true, if this is not a holy well, surely a heaven-sent one.”
Indeed, I have argued how royal wells were often seen as sacred and considering Alfred’s standing it seems likely these were. However, his name appears never to have been associated with the well. The king is remembered in a substantial folly tower not far from the springs, but his absence here is quite surprising?
Why St. Peter?
Where the name St. Peter’s Pump comes from is at first unclear. There is a record according to Gover, Mawer and Stenton’s 1939 Place Names of Wiltshire of a Peterswells in 1279 somewhere in Wiltshire, was it here? The name St. Peter is in itself rarely associated with British Holy Wells. To add to the confusion, the site is also called St. Agnes Pump, the reason being that it derives from the origin of the medieval cross which tops the grotto structure. The present structure was built by Henry Hoare in 1786.
The moving cross
The cross was originally a pump, which has six square posts with moulded cappings to six ogee- arched openings each with cherubs over each, then there are six niches with semi-circular heads above each containing a seated figure with hexagonal moulded pillar and narrower shaft to top. Interestingly a date 1768 is incised on east side of pillar. An odd date for a medieval cross said to be 14th century, so why?
The reason why the date of 1768 is incised on the pump is because it was moved. The pump head originally sat over St. Edith’s Well, in the City of Bristol. It once stood at the junction of Peter Street and Dolphin Street in Bristol for 300 years and provided water for the city. Then in a strange form of forward thinking beneficial vandalism, it was dismantled under an 1766 Act of Parliament, which looked to improve transport in Bristol and placed upon a purposely made grotto. The well itself was also moved. It may seem strange that I view this as beneficial, but the exact spot of the cross was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, which caused the nearby church to be ruined and would have destroyed the cross. The well according to Phil Quinn’s 1999 Holy wells of Bristol and Bath Region:
“Today both the old and new wells lie under the flagstones of Castle Park, the site of the old St. Edith’s Well being marked by a slab laid upside down and of a lighter colour than its neighbours.”
Quinn states that the Bristol well was called St Peter when it was repaired in the 15th century after the church nearby…the Peterswell in Wiltshire would appear to be a red herring! The name originating when in 1546 pumping mechanisms were established subsequently being recorded as Saynt Peter’s plumpe. So mystery solved.
Another reason for the 17th century date is to explain the difference between the original cross in Bristol and its appearance now. What is above the niches is 18th century as the top of the cross is lost. Was it broken in transit? Vandalised in the 18th century? Or too Catholic?
So all in all a curious hotchpotch of history, much like the structure itself.
As this April, we mark 90 years old Elizabeth II, I thought it is worth looking at a well associated with her famed same named ancestor, Queen Elizabeth I. She as we have seen has been associated with quite a number of wells and springs, so many to suggest that perhaps a cult was developed to capitalise on her. One of the most interesting is situated in a private garden of a house in Rye. Called the Queen’s Well or Queen Elizabeth’s Well it was one of the principal source of water for the extensive conduits of the town. It arises at the base of grey stone walling in a semi-circular hole. A keystone over well reads:
The origin of the name is said to have derived from the Queen’s visit in 1573 when she met Thomas Walsingham and the Jurats of the town. The story is recorded by William Holloway (1847) The History and Antiquities, of the Ancient, Town and Port of Rye, In The County of Sussex, Incidental Notices of the Cinque Ports, Compiled from Manuscripts and Original Authorities in his who records:
“in a northerly direction, beneath a high bank, once a wild and sequestered spot, and still overshadowed by some ancient oaks, rises a perennial spring of clear and sweet water, honoured with the high and royal appellation of ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Well,’ from the circumstance of her Majesty, in one of her progresses through the kingdom, having visited Rye, when she halted at this spot, either to drink of the water which flowed from this spring, or for the purpose of receiving the corporation of the town, when the mayor and jurats went in procession out of the town to receive her, clad in scarlet robes.
Whereupon the queen, as Jeake says, “from the noble entertainment she had, accompanied with the testimonies of love and loyalty, duty and reverence she received from the people, was pleased to call it ‘Rye Royal.’”
Adam’s. 1925 London noted that:
“The event was not recorded until 1588, when two stones were placed over the head of the spring, bearing the following inscription : “1588E.R.” (signifying Elizabeth Regina) ; and ” M. Gaymer, Maior” (Michael Gaymer, who was Mayor when the stones were put up). There is a traditionary report that the members of the Corporation went out of the town in procession, clad in scarlet robes, to-‘ receive and welcome Her Majesty, she probably halting for this purpose at the spring above mentioned, afterwards entering the town by the Postern Gate, which then faced the road leading to this spot.”
Interestingly Holloway (1847) notes:
“But though the year is thus distinctly inscribed on this stone as being 1588, yet Jeake sets down the date of the queen’s coming to Rye in 1573. How these dates are to be reconciled I know not, unless we conclude, which seems to be the case, that her Majesty came to Rye in 1573, while the event was not recorded until 1588.”
Lost traditions of the well?
Deacon (1911) in his Ancient Rye raises some interesting points. Why did Elizabeth process from the well? Was it recording a tradition that the Jurats of the town knew of?
Furthermore, the 1588 dedication is interesting. Why did it take so long from her 1564 visit till then to name the well? The answer is easier probably because in the euphoria of the Armada celebration many sites were probably dedicated to the Queen as a mark of solidarity.
It is interesting to note that the house, Mountsfield, beside the well was built upon land donated by Elizabeth and the owners allowed local people to use the land for festivals and I wonder whether this is significant. A point I will refer to in a moment. Lost healing well?
Another name for the well is Dodeswell, which derives from O.E dowde for a ‘plain woman, a scold or shrew’, presumably describing the women who gathered there! Moreover were these women local white witches one wonders who knew the powers of the well? In L. A. Vidler’s 1934 book ‘A New History of Rye’ states that the alternative name for the well was ‘Blekewell’ rather than ‘Brekewell’, so it probably does not refer to the bricked nature of the well, but from O.E bleke, referring to the ‘blay’ a freshwater fish. Alternatively it may refer to bleak meaning in medieval times pale or sickly, rather than its common usage today. Does this suggest the well was curative? Another piece of potential evidence is recorded in 1762, when an acre of Brickwell field was leased to for the building of an isolation house for smallpox victims. Is this still coincidence? Did Elizabeth stop because she knew of the healing waters? Another rather more prosaic alternative origin is from a local landower, there was a Thomas Blekewelle living in the town in 1459. Whether it was a holy well is unclear, it appears to have soon fallen out of domestic use in the 1800s as Holloway (1847) notes that:
“Queen Elizabeth’s Well is about four hundred and eighty yards from the foot of Conduit hill, where the Postern gate formerly stood. The well was always visible from the road which passes by it till the year 1843, when a wall was erected which excluded it from the public view.”
Deacon (1911) notes that in 1858, Mr Curteis, owner of Grove Cottage, where the well lies was asked by the Borough Treasurer to deposit a keys so that the public could see the well. I am not sure that such an arrangement exists today but I was lucky to find the owner in when I called and the well was in full flow overfilling the small semi-circular dip hole filling a small pool and then into a round brick built conduit house. Comparing with early photos the well has changed a bit. The wall remains the same, although the plaques may have moved, it is the square hatch at the basin covered by a wooden lid, which has markedly has gone, being filled with stonework to match the wall. This access appears to have been replaced by the dip well which does not appear to exist in the early photos. I have been unable to find out when it was done.
I am sure there is much to be learnt about this ancient Sussex well but holy, healing or just politically famous, the old Queen’s Well is at least a great memorial to a time of political and religious change.