Guest blog post: Ffynnon Leinw – Holy Well or natural wonder by Tristan Gray Hulse (part four)

It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s fourth part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw. 

In his Commentarioli Llwyd had passed on immediately from the Cilcain spring to discuss St Winefride’s Well:

Nec procul hinc est celeberrimus ille fons a superstitioso Wenefridae virginis cultu nomen habens [&c] (Lhuyd 1562, 57).

True, he describes the powerful spring, but his main thrust is to note the well as a place for the “superstitious worshipping of the virgin Winefred”, where many cures are worked by drinking and bathing in the water (for this passage, see Schwyzer 2011, 116-17). He is here clearly describing, not simply a natural wonder, but what is in general understood as a “holy well”.

No-one from Llwyd to Pennant ever discussed Ffynnon Leinw in this manner; despite this, it is now very generally accounted a holy well (cf. e.g. Owen 1899; Jones 1954, 180; Davis 2003, 71). Llwyd, Powel, Camden, and the rest understood that they were following Giraldus’ account of a natural wonder, and wrote accordingly. In general uninterested in such “superstitious” survivals as holy wells, they may perhaps have neglected to record information on the Cilcain well which failed to echo Giraldus. But by the end of the seventeenth century the scope of antiquarian information gathering had considerably widened, and springs could now be considered, not simply as natural wonders, but as elements in the historical landscape. The national antiquities section of Lhwyd’s “Parochial Queries” (Query XIV) had asked for:

Names of the Lakes & remarkable Springs; & whether anything be noted of them extraordinary (Lhwyd 1909, xi);

and this resulted in the first important gathering of information – however incomplete and often frustratingly imprecise – on the holy wells of medieval Wales, in the Parochialia responses. After this period information on the old holy wells begins to be more widely reported. Pennant, for example, not only mentioned the ebbing and flowing of Ffynnon Leinw, but described it as “a long oblong well with a double wall round it” (Pennant 1810, 59-60); the first surviving hint of an artificial structure around the spring. (One wall, now vanished, surrounded the bathing tank, perhaps ensuring privacy; the tank was situated within a large rectangular walled enclosure.) Pennant’s account was copied almost verbatim (but without reference) into the first and second editions of the Cambrian Traveller’s Guide (Anon. 1808, no. 418; 1813, p. 911).

The natural spring described by Llwyd and the rest would have required no such structure, however wonderful its supposed ebbing and flowing was held to be. The elaborate structure hinted at by Pennant is explained in the entry for “Kîlken” in Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Wales (first ed., 1833).

Near Kîlken Hall, in the Vale of Nannerch, is the celebrated Fynnon Leinw, or “flowing well”, which Camden describes as flowing and ebbing with the tide; but this peculiarity has long ceased to distinguish it; it is a copious and limpid spring, and is much resorted to for bathing, for which purpose it has been inclosed, and is said to possess properties fully equal, if not superior, to those of the far-famed spring at Holywell (Lewis 1848, 448).

The Dictionary was edited for Lewis by the North Wales scholar Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain: 1761-1849 – his role as editor is noted in Rees and Walters 1974, 165; and Stephens 1998, 169), so that there is no need to doubt the otherwise unnoticed use of the well for bathing for cures. It is of course possible that such a use was comparatively recent, perhaps in line with the eighteenth-century mania for discovering and exploiting new “spa” springs (though, if so, one would have expected to have encountered further mentions); but the elaborate structure surrounding the spring, with its tank for bathing for cures within a large walled enclosure (the enclosure walls still survive, though in ruins), is also reminiscent of a very large number of Welsh holy wells whose use is understood to date from the middle ages, even though, often enough, accounts of the ritual behaviour at these wells are not found before the nineteenth century. (Alexandra Walsham has shown how numbers of medieval holy wells in England survived the purge of sacred sites to become spas in the post-Reformation period: Walsham 2011, 395-414. A similar change in perceived status occurred at St Dyfnog’s Well at Llanrhaiadr, near Denbigh: e.g., Jones 1954, 68-70, 173.) The outer enclosure is much larger than those surviving at most other Welsh holy wells, and might thus indicate that large numbers of people seeking to bathe there for cures were once customary at Ffynnon Leinw.

For the last few years of his life, quite literally until his death in 1899, the Welsh folklorist the Revd Elias Owen worked on a book to be called The Holy Wells of North Wales (for Owen, see Anon. 1901). It remained unfinished, and has never been published. Eight pages of the manuscript, with an attached plan, deal with “Ffynon [sic] Leinw, an Ebbing and Flowing Well”. He quotes many of the earlier sources noticed here, along with further examples of supposed ebbing-and-flowing wells in England and Wales from a variety of sources; but his most valuable contribution is his own account of the well, which helps to substantiate the account in the Topographical Dictionary. Owen had visited the well on 25 October 1890.

It was overgrown with weeds and its sides were covered with nettles. Alder trees were growing around it. The double walls were still standing with the exception of a portion of the [enclosure] walls on the south side which have fallen near the outlet to the extent of 4 feet 5 inches. The well was filled with water which flowed out at the S.W. corner. Mrs Cartwright of Old Efel Parci gate [the turnpike gate, in nearby Hendre] told me she remembered the well and that it was once used for drinking purposes. The cistern was large and had two entrances to it both on the N. side of the well. The water was reached by means of three stone steps. These steps were not complete nor were they in position. The depth of water was from three to four feet. The water was cold and clear. The water was frequented by many for the purpose of bathing. Some five or six yards distance from the well was a small artificial lake, 35 yards in length and 15 yards wide, for fish. The lake was once kept in good order but it is not so now.

The Rev. James Jones, Rhydymwyn Vicarage, Mold, thus writes of the well in a letter dated 15 Nov. 1899:- “This well is now fed by surface water. It is dry every summer and its original source has been tapped by the Hendre Mine” (Owen 1899, 8).


There is one other piece of possible evidence in support of a suggestion that Ffynnon Leinw may have been a holy well, in addition to being a natural wonder. In 1623 Sir Thomas Mostyn married Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir James Whitelocke, of Chester. The couple lived in Cilcain, where the Mostyn family owned considerable property. In 1627/28 they were visited by Elizabeth’s brother Bulstrode (the date implied should fall between 1 January-24 March 1628; for Bulstrode Whitelocke, see Spalding 1975, and Whitelocke 1860). He stayed at a house which he calls Shoe, which is presumably the Cilcain gentry house noticed in the Parochialia as Plas Hugh (Lhwyd 1909, 80; today, called Plas Yw, to the west of Cilcain village). Whilst there, as his diary recorded (as usual, in the third person):

He went to view severall rarities & monuments, as St Katherines Well of which they report, That if any garbage or uncleane thing be cast into it, the water (as offended att the filth) will cease springing & become drye, & so continue till the next St Katherines day, after which, it begins to spring & fill again, till the like injury be again offered. & it hath water enough to drive a Mill.

He also viewed St Wynifreds Well, which they call Holywell [&c] (Spalding 1990, 56).

Noticing Whitelocke’s concern to visit local “rarities & monuments”, it is worth considering his likely sources for learning about these. In view of the fact that he follows his visit to “St Katherines Well” with one to the well at Holywell, it is perhaps relevant to note that accounts of St Winefride’s Well immediately follow accounts of the Cilcain well in Humphrey Lhwyd and Drayton; Speed notices Ffynnon Leinw immediately following his Holywell account; while accounts of both wells are found in Camden’s brief chapter on Flintshire.

“St Katherine” is certainly Catherine of Alexandria; no other saint of the name had anything approaching a popular cultus in medieval Britain, and no well is likely to have been named for any St Catherine in the post-Reformation period. (For Catherine of Alexandria, see e.g. Farmer 2003, 95-6; for her cult in Wales, Cartwright 2008, 149-75 – “5: Buched Seint y Katrin: The Middle Welsh Life of Katherine of Alexandria and her Cult in Medieval Wales”; the more usual spelling of the name is Catherine, but currently scholars studying her cultus prefer Katherine.) Supposedly a fourth-century martyr, it is unlikely that she ever existed historically. Her cult began around her purported relics at Mt Sinai in the ninth century, and was most probably introduced into Europe by returning Crusaders. Originally an essentially aristocratic cult, it eventually became one of the most popular of the later middle ages. In part, this was because of an incident recorded in her legend; as, for instance, in the account of her life composed c.1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, in his Legenda Aurea:

When she was led to the place of execution, she … prayed: “O hope and glory of virgins, Jesus, good King, I beg of you that anyone who honours the memory of my passion, or who invokes me at the moment of death or in any need, may receive the benefit of your kindness”. A voice was heard saying to her: “… Heaven’s gates are opened to you and to those who will celebrate your passion with devout minds” (Jacobus 1995, 339).

Because of this she was universally invoked against sudden or unprepared death (Duffy 1992, 175-6).

In England, 62 medieval churches were dedicated to her (Farmer 2003, 95); as were 31 holy wells (Rattue 1995, 71). Three surviving medieval churches in Wales have her as patroness, while a number of extinct chapels are also known to have borne her name (Cartwright 2008, 158-9). St Catherine’s church at Cricieth is likely to have replaced an earlier dedication to a native saint or saints, for there is a holy well near the church, Ffynnon y Saint [“the Saints’ Well”], “which only became associated with Katherine in the modern period” (ib. 159). There were or are however several wells bearing her name: the Parochialia notices a “F[fynnon] S[eint] y Katrin” in Mold parish (Lhwyd 1909, 93) and a “Fynnon St Katrin wrth Gaerhyn” at Caerhun (ib. 31); she had a well at Gresford (Jones 1995, 4, 31-2, 90-1, 138-9; there was a chapel of St Catherine in the church at the end of the middle ages); and there is a St Catherine’s Well near the site of her bridge-chapel and hermitage at Rudbaxton, in Pembrokeshire (for the bridge and chapel, RCAHM 1925, 316: § 921; knowledge of the well remains in the oral domain: inf. Julie Trier). (Of the wells, Francis Jones noticed only the dubious example at Cricieth: Jones 1954, 153.) Madeleine Gray has noticed former or surviving medieval images of St Catherine in Wales, in wall-paintings, glass, and sculpture; in North Wales she is/was shown in stained glass at Llangystennin, Gresford, Llandyrnog, Llansanffraid Glan Conwy, and Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd (Gray 2000, 27-8). To these Jane Cartwright adds a former window in Bangor cathedral, and an image on a tomb in Beaumaris parish church (Cartwright 2008, 155, 157). That St Catherine was, in at least some instances, a late-comer to the medieval ritual landscape might be shown from the example of Gresford. There, she had a chapel in the church, and a holy well. There was a chapel of St Leonard of Noblac elsewhere in the parish from c. 1165 (RCAHM 1914, 79, § 254; Cox 1970), with a nearby holy well of the saint (Jones 1995, 152, 138-9). Gresford church was substantially reconstructed in the later fifteenth century, and the Perpendicular font has an image of St Leonard (Gray 2000, 31, and 127 illus 26c). St Sytha/Zita is also depicted on the font, as well as appearing as a single figure in a window panel (ib. 31-2, and 125 illus. 25a, 127 illus. 26d), so she was presumably popular in Gresford at that period; but she never acquired a holy well. There is no image of St Catherine on the font, only her depiction, not as a single figure, but as one of a small group of other virgin martyrs in the great east window of 1500 depicting the whole court of heaven around the Trinity (ib. 28, 120 illus. 20a) – Gresford church is dedicated to All Saints. (The church had an image of All-Saints, to which pilgrimages were made, and there is a Well of All Saints in the parish: Jones 1995, 32; Lhwyd 1909, 144.)

Whitelocke’s “St Katherines Well” was clearly associated with the veneration of St Catherine, for a legend had been evolved to account for what was obviously its intermittent or periodic spring: if polluted (thus offending the saint) it dried up (cf. e.g. the legend attached to the well of St Trillo at Llandrillo, Merioneth: Jones 1954, 116), to re-emerge on or near St Catherine’s feastday (25 November). Identifying the location of the well is more problematic. There is no further reference to it as “St Katherines Well”. According to the Parochialia there was a Ffynnon Seint y Katrin somewhere in the extensive Mold parish, about which nothing is known beyond this mention and one other (see below). “St Katherines Well” was clearly in or close to Cilcain parish, where Whitelocke was staying. Beyond Ffynnon Fihangel, Ffynnon Leinw, and the re-appearance point of the river Fechlas, Tardd y Dŵr, there are no further named wells in Cilcain noticed in the relevant literature (but see Appendix). In Mold, the Parochialia failed to notice the fennon dessilio in Rhual township mentioned in a document of 1493, or the Ffynnon Rhual with which Ken Lloyd Gruffydd was disposed to identify fennon dessilio (Gruffydd 2000, 8; for Ffynnon Rhual, reconstructed as a baptistery by the Baptists in the late seventeenth century, see Gruffydd 1999, 78-80; Davis 2003, 85). The Parochialia also failed to notice the Ffynnon Fair in the Mold township of Nercwys (for which, see Williams 1846, 54), or the Ffynnon Fair in another Mold township, Rhual. (The only evidence for the latter is a field name, dole y fynnon fair, “Ffynnon Fair Meadow”, mentioned in 1634 in Trovarth MS 1576: see the online Archif Melville Richards. Two Ffynhonnau Fair in a single parish is distinctly unusual, but might be explained here by the facts that the ancient Mold parish was exceptionally large and that both Mold parish church and the Nercwys chapelry were and are dedicated to St Mary.) There is no trace of a “St Katherines Well”, or of a cult of St Catherine, in any other parish neighbouring upon Cilcain.

As the instance of Ffynnon Rhual/Dysilio indicates, some wells may have more than one name, or may change their name over time. If it was not a now utterly forgotten and unlocated spring, only one of these named wells local to Cilcain might be plausibly identified with the well visited by Whitelocke: Ffynnon Leinw. “St Katherines Well” had to have been within easy riding distance from Whitelocke’s temporary home at Shoe, in Cilcain. As Humphrey Llwyd had recorded, Ffynnon Leinw was known as a periodic spring. And Whitelocke was intent on viewing “rarities & monuments” in the area, and – via Llwyd, Powel, Camden, Speed, not to mention Giraldus Cambrensis – Ffynnon Leinw was one of the most famous rarities of North Wales.

Wells dedicated to the same saint in adjacent parishes might indicate a strong local cultus of St Catherine. However, it is not possible that the Mold Ffynnon Seint y Katrin and Ffynnon Leinw can be identified. An account of Mold parish published in 1819 has the following:

[T]here are three wells or springs of ancient note in the parish, viz. Ffynnon Maes Garmon […], Ffynnon St. Catrin, and Ffynnon y Bedi (Anon. 1819, 300);

and the Cilcain well Ffynnon Leinw, made famous by Camden, Pennant, and the rest, and still widely known in the early nineteenth century, could hardly have been confused with the Mold well of St Catherine, otherwise noticed only by Lhwyd but still identifiable in 1819.

It is probably also worth considering whether “St Katherines Well” (though the name is known seemingly only from Whitelocke) was not properly the late-medieval dedication of the Cilcain well, while its now universally accepted name was merely originally used as a description of the perceived physical properties of “St Katherines Well”: that is, as suggested by Professor Owen, “a flowing well” became imperceptibly “the flowing well”, to become finally (? perhaps via David Powel, ultimately) simply “Flowing Well” – y ffynnon a leinw > y ffynnon leinw > Ffynnon Leinw.

If the suggested identification of “St Katherines Well” as an alternative name for Ffynnon Leinw be accepted (one name recording the late-medieval dedication of the well, the other describing its physical properties), then it becomes possible to reconcile the “natural wonder” accounts of Ffynnon Leinw given by Llwyd, Powel, and Camden, with the “holy well” account of the well in Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary: neither natural wonder nor holy well, but both.


Tristan Gray Hulse (2018)



A single otherwise unused source known to me noticed two further named wells in Cilcain parish. Glenys Wynne, in her booklet Cilcain, published by the Cilcain W.I. in 1944, wrote:

The village depended once for its water supply on St Mary’s well near “White Cottage.” This was once regarded as a holy well. Another well that is worthy of note if only for the fact that it is marked on the Ordnance Map is “Ffynnon y Gweithiwr” – “The Workman’s Well.” It is to be found on the mountainside [presumably either Moel Famau or its spur Ffrith Mountain is intended] roughly opposite the lane leading to “Ty Newydd” […] Children were taken to this well for a cure from childish ills, and even whooping cough was considered cured after a picnic meal here (Wynne 1944, 14).

As the well noticed by Edward Lhwyd as “Fynnon mihangel” is situated on the roadside almost opposite the house still called White Cottage, on a lane running westwards from the village, it must be certain that Wynne’s “St Mary’s well” was actually that more properly named for St Michael. The explanation here would seem to be that found in association with numbers of other wells in Wales: by the later eighteenth century, presumably because of the sheer number of Ffynhonnau Fair found all across the country, there developed a tendency to call any Welsh holy well a “Ffynnon Fair”, using thus a particular term in a generic sense. In illustration, the Revd John Evans’ 1812 book The Beauties of England and Wales may be cited for its examples. Discussing the settlements of the early Welsh hermit-saints, Evans wrote:

These in Wales were designated by the name of Llan […] Most had generally near them some spring, or well, denominated a Ffynnon vair; the waters of which, according to the estimation of the saint, for his communication with the Deity, were held in repute for their salutiferous effects (Evans 1812, 380-1).

His work offers numbers of examples of this use of “Ffynnon Fair” as a generic: for instance, at Clynnog Fawr, the “holy well dedicated to St Beuno” is also described as “the neighboring Ffynnon vair” (ib. 374); while St George’s Well at Llan Sain Siôr is “a ffynon vair, or holy well, whose salutiferous qualities were ascribed to the tutelar saint [i.e., George, not the Blessed Virgin]” (ib. 531); etc.. It seems significant that this confusion over names and original functions coincided in time with the swift and country-wide abandonment of the earlier para-religious and folk-medicinal usages of holy wells, in tandem with the (usually unsuccessful and temporary) promotion of numerous pseudo-scientifically accredited spas. (It is entirely possible that numbers of Ffynhonnau Fair across Wales, with little or no attestation beyond the name, acquired their present names in this manner, and had no original association with the cult of our Lady. In this way older and original names may have been lost; this is certainly worth consideration where older parishes and churches preserve a dedication to a native or universal saint, but where the parish has preserved no memory of a well named for this native or universal patron. Similarly, the recognition that Ffynnon Fair could on occasion be used as a generic might be of help in determining an original name where it is one of two or more names attached to a single well; for example, at Gwyddelwern, where Ffynnon Fair is one of four names recorded for a well – see Jones 1954, 191. It might also be of use in determining why there were two Ffynhonnau Fair in Mold parish.) In Cilcain, the suggestion must be that the old Ffynnon Fihangel, recorded in 1698 by Edward Lhwyd, later came to be categorised – as in the examples noticed by Evans – as “a ffynon vair, or holy well”, this Welsh generic over time being Englished as “St Mary’s well”, as recorded by Glenys Wynne. Lhwyd’s account of “Kilken” was finally published in 1909 (Lhwyd 1909, 79-81, with “Fynnon mihangel” noted on p. 81; he also recorded that the parish wakes were celebrated on a feast of St Michael – “Their wakes gwyl Vihangel Vechan”: p. 79 – which confirms the well dedication), and this has resulted in the old name being definitively re-established, and the fact that, for a time, it was also known as a Ffynnon Fair/St Mary’s Well has now been completely forgotten.

Realistically, Ffynnon Fihangel is too far from Cilcain village ever to have been its regular source of water. If Wynne’s statement was anything other than a guess, it might have been a decayed memory of water having once been taken to the village on particular occasions; and if so, then it might have been taken to the church for baptisms. This certainly happened elsewhere in north-east Wales, as is indicated in one of a number of excerpts published in 1885 from a now-unidentifiable manuscript of the early eighteenth century.

From the localities named it is evident that they relate to the diocese of St Asaph, and they look as if they were taken from the Returns of Rural Deans on some of the ecclesiastical uses of their parishes (Anon. 1885, 154).

One of the excerpts reads as follows:

If there be a “Ffynnon Vair” (well of our Lady) or other saint in the parish, the water for baptism in the font is fetched from thence. Old women are very fond of washing their eyes with the water after baptism (ib. 150).

The lost manuscript may perhaps have been excerpted from ruridecanal reports for Thomas Pennant, who printed this passage in the second volume of his Tours in Wales, in 1781. Certainly a manuscript containing this quotation once belonged to Pennant, as it afterwards came into the hands of John Brand, who cites it as his source for the identical passage which he quoted in his Popular Antiquities (Brand’s Introduction was dated 1795, but the book was first published in 1813).

Nicholas Carlisle reported that the custom had until recently been observed at Ffynnon Armon, at Llanfechain (Carlisle 1811, art. “Llan Fechain”), while the Revd John Williams (Ab Ithel) wrote that the practice had been observed at Ffynnon Fair, in Nercwys, in the memory of persons then living (Williams 1846, 54). Francis Jones wrote: “Another ancient custom was the use of water drawn from holy wells for baptism” (Jones 1954, 81), and implied that it was once common throughout Wales, referencing the custom at various other wells (ib. 82, 119, 150, 152, 189, 197, 198, 207, 210). But, aside from the Llanfechain well (he missed that at Nercwys), none of these references predate the 1890s, and cannot be relied on. Far from being a pan-Welsh custom, it appears from the evidence to have been restricted to north-east Wales. It was once in use at nearby Nercwys, and it is certainly not impossible that it was once observed in Cilcain as well; but there is no real evidence, beyond the fact that no other explanation of Wynne’s assertion suggests itself.

I have failed to find any other reference to or evidence for Ffynnon y Gweithiwr.



It is a real pleasure to be able here to thank the following: Professor Hywel Wyn Owen, for unscrambling the complexities of the nameform Ffynnon Leinw for me; Professor Jane Cartwright, for discussions and comment on the medieval cultus of St Katherine in North Wales; Dr Shaun Evans, who first drew my attention to the mention of St Katherine’s Well in Whitelocke’s diary, thus sparking my interest in Ffynnon Leinw; Julie Trier, for locating and afterwards guiding me to the supposedly lost St Catherine’s Well at Rudbaxton; and – for innumerable (and often interminable) conversations on this and all other well-related topics – Janet Bord, dear friend, and all-round good egg.

An earlier draft of this paper was epitomised and translated into Welsh by Howard Huws, and published in the newsletter of Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru, the Welsh Holy Wells Society: Tristan Gray Hulse, “Ffynnon Leinw, Cilcain”, Llygad y Ffynnon 41 (Nadolig 2016) 9-11, & 42 (Haf 2017) 5-6. My thanks to Howard for the supererogatory care taken over this doubtless thankless task.



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About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on March 19, 2019, in Saints, Wales. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Visited the well May 5th 2021, very disappointing most recent baptisms appear to be Red Bull cans and Lucozade bottles looked more like a sess pit.
    Water below scummie surface looks crystal clear, but depth unknown.
    An interesting site though
    If I visit again i will take bin bags, a spade, wellies and secateurs.
    Do not park on the road, fast and dangerous!
    Shutter Company now Alyn Fireplaces park there or at Y Dderwen – The Oak Pub

  1. Pingback: Ffynnon y Gweithiwr, Cilcain – Well Hopper

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