Category Archives: Berkshire

A tree, a bird and a holy well: Bisham’s curious Elizabeth’s Well

Elizabeth's Spring, Bisham

Laying on private farm land is one of the most curious holy wells in the country. A well associated with a curious 14th century legend. The earliest account is as a place name Holywellfette in 1534.  Compton (1979) in his work on Bisham Abbey records:

“A spring of water that rose from beneath a chalky hill in a field that for some time took on the name of Holy-well. The site, now being disfigured by the making of a road, is on the left at the foot of Bisham hill, coming from Maidenhead”

Rutherfurd’s 1935 A rationalised miracle in medieval England states:

The well had been associated with the curing of a man who bathed his eyes in the well. Nothing unusual there but the cult that developed obviously concerned the religious authorities. In short it records how in 1385 Bishop Erghum was attempting to prevent ‘pilgrims’ from Marlow and Wycombe visiting a well at Bisham. It is stated:

“to the Bishop of Lincoln urging him to take steps against those commiyting idolatory at the new well near Bustleham.”

What is more unusual is that it was associated with a tame bird who sat on a nest over the well and would not fly away, could be handed and placed offerings in its nest. According to the Bishop they were:

“blinded by the phantasy of diabolical deceit”

The report records in Latin as follows:

Et pro eo quod, ut dicitur, in eodemn fonte, iuxta quem in quodam arbore insuper nidificans quedam duis minibus hominum in nido suo tacta illorum, ut asseritur, non recessit, ymmo quia domestica et satis domita in nido reposita pacifice requievit, lippus quidam vir fantasticus, suos nuper lauans oculos defluentes estu feruido autumpnali* adustos et potu superfiuo plus solito humectantes, oculorum suorum lippitudines frigore aquatico naturaliter operante refrigescere senciebat, hoc nunc reputat pro miraculo multorum erronie credentium ceca lenitas scandalizans; unde modernis temporibus ad fontem eundem tanquam ad locum sanctissimum multi confluunt, et ibidem offerunt et adoran’t. Quorum quidam in nidum dicte auis, vile gizofilacium suis et pullorunm suorum stercoribus maculat-um, es iactant, et nephanda manu prophanas oblaciones turpissima deuotionte reponunt, in sancte matris ecclesie scandalum, fidei catholice preudicium, perniciosum exemplum plurimorum, ac ipsorum sic ut premittitur ydolatrantium grave periculum animarum.”

A rough translation meaning:

“And because, as stated in place, the spring, according to which, moreover, a bird makes its nest in a tree which men touched, as it is asserted, is not gone, but it is enough for domestic and tamed in the nest is laid to rest in peace,

His eyes just wash away the heat of battling autumn dour and drink more than usual superfluous humectants, his eyes rheumy cold the water naturally functioning cold feel, that counts for a miracle now believed by many erroneous blind leniency offending;

Hence, in these modern times to the same source, as many flock to the holy place, and there they must not show adoration. Some said the bird in the nest, which you provide nefarious profane offerings with ugly devotion. This is a scandal of our holy mother church scandal and disastrously prejudice the Catholic faith and is an example of many of them and so that the aforementioned idolatry a grave danger to souls.”

This profane and heathen devotion appears to be more about the bird’s nest and its bird who’s tameness was put down to the holiness of the place. A peculiar cult had thus developed. However, it was possible that the Bishop was wrong in viewing the bird as part of the cult. The leaving of money deposits in the nest was probably because it was a convenient and safe place rather than being ‘for the bird’.

The Bishop had informed them that the coldness of the water was responsible for the cure and the rural dean was ordered to fill in the well and tear up the tree. Excommunication was threatened against anyone who visited the site. This was apparently done, but it is clear at some point the well was uncovered. Presumably the bird flew away.

The cult of Elizabeth I

I have made the connection before between holy wells and Elizabeth I. It is evident that as the populace still needed holy wells, and the move to protestant ideology prevented this. However some wells appeared to have been rededicated to Elizabeth at the height of her cult and thereafter, perhaps allowing legitimate visits. The cult was short lived perhaps as scientific understanding allowed the development of spas. The earliest reference to the site is the John Nichol’s 1788 Progresses and public processions of Queen Elizabeth:

“In this Parish in the fields called the Moors is a well which still bears the name of Queen Elizabeth’s Well, and seems to be the only remembrance left of her frequent visits to the spot.”

In this case local legend states that when she stayed with the Hoby family of Bisham Abbey during her three day stay used the water to bath due to its traditions of healing. This traditions continued until recent as Compton (1979) notes:

 “Local belief in the healing properties of the spring, however, lingered on in the minds of those who, traditionally and by birth, were part of the district. Less than a lifetime ago there were people still living who claimed that application of the water (which broadens into a stream running at the base of Quarry Woods) had relieved some complaint of their eyes or bettered their vision. In 1905 the water, after being analysed, was said to owe any curative effect to suspended gases.”

The Lady Well of Speen, a quiet oasis in modern Berkshire

Ladywell03260904 (2)

Visiting holy wells often allows one to travel back to a past time, a pilgrimage to St. Mary’s or Our Lady’s Well Speen is an example, a rare holy well in a rather modern and largely urbanised county of Berkshire. It is a county not famed for holy wells, but just off the busy main A4 road to Newbury, down a grassy track and to the right, is this relic from a bygone age, although what age it actually is, is unclear. The earliest mention is in the 1783 Collections towards a parochial history of Berkshire:

“about a pistol shot above the church is a well called Lady’s Well, where there is a distinct and clear an echo as ever I heard. It repeats but once, but as such a distance of time, and so oud, that you can hear a word of four or five syllables as distinctly from the echo as you can from the person who speaks it.”

This echo is commonly noted by subsequent authors, however Edward Williams Gray’s 1839 The History and Antiquities of Newbury and its Environs is the first to describe the well’s properties He describes it as:

“A well about two hundred yards above the Church,…is called ‘Our Lady’s Well’… At the present day, the water is deemed to possess some peculiar healing qualities.”

These peculiar healing qualities are not that peculiar is Bayley’s 1994 account The Lady Well of Speen is current as he nots it was used to cure eyes ( as well as other undescribed ills). William Money (1882) in his History of Speen describes these other properties as including measles and rickets. Bayley relates that a travelling doctor, who visited the Newbury Maundy Thursday Horse and cattle Fair, called Doctor Parzianus Fisher used to promote its waters for their healing qualities. In more recent times Bayley informs us local children would throw a coin in it to hopefully get a wish. Although it is unclear if anyone visits it for healing, although I have noticed some neo-pagan interest, the well is still part of its community. There is a regular service at the well. In 2011 the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard visited the well on the 10th August and attended the thanksgiving service

How old is the well? Well the present structure despite a local of antiquity, looking as it does one of those Cornish medieval structures, is fairly recent. Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of holy wells notes:

“the appearance of the well has of late years been spoilt by the addition of a wooden curb and cover.”

Perhaps someone read this for not long after, as the plaque above the well notes, it was restored, proclaiming:

“Ye Ancient Ladye Well – restored 1902.”

speen (2)image

This well consists of a stone built square structure and may have re-used some materials. It has a stone cap with a semi-circular decorative panel with sun rays. Sadly early records of the well appear non-existent although it does appear on the 1880 Ordnance Survey Map it does not appear on earlier maps. The biggest clue is the church of course, it is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and is only 200 metres from the well. Geographically of course this is a significant place, off the old A4 Bath Road, an ancient Roman roadway, Ermin Street. Did the Romans know of the well? Gray (1839) does indeed note ‘some remains or impressions of its once sacred character.’ Did the Saxon’s settle here because of the well? What of the echo? It’s an unusual and unique association does it relate to the strange things seen here? For Bayley’s notes that a 20th century resident had seen a ghostly figure standing beside the well. Ghosts are often used as evidence for ancient origins and may remember an ancient pagan deity. Whatever the truth, the site retains that other worldly feel. Furthermore, despite some vandalism it remains as it did in the Edwardian period – when it was a common subject for postcards – a delightful escape for the modern age.

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If you go down to the woods today….Rebra’s Well, Wargrave, Berkshire

If one walks up a small lane into the woods above Henley on Thames, just north of the village of Wargrave is one of the country’s largest, most attractive but little known wells. A holy well, although the evidence is lacking to confirm, but a source who’s Victorian community was so much dependent upon that the local vicar decided that it must be Christianised once and for all.

That the site has ancient origin is probably indicated by the name, Crazies hill, some authorities believe it which from the O.E cray meaning clean water and its waters were said to be health giving probably because of the local water was boggy.

Its old name is said to be Rebra, although it is known as Rebekah now, named after the Old Testament prophetess, indeed the Rebra name sounds more like a contraction of this than an original name as there is no evidence of its name before the current improvements. These improvements were down by the local Reverend Greville Phillimore who in 1870 decided it was necessary to improve and sanitise the supply. It was subsequently called Phillimore’s spring.

Artistic folly

Phillimore constructed a considerable building for the well. The spring flows into a round shaped basin which is enclosed in the arch of a 10 foot high brick edifice, plastered over to an exposed brink face upon which is the well’s most eye catching and unique facet, a painting which illustrates Rebecca and a servant, standing at the well of Nahor. Either side of the scene as the following inscriptions:

“Rebeka and the Servants of Abraham at the well of Nahor. And the servants ran to meet her and said let I pray thee drink a little water of thy pitcher”.

The well house has a conical tiled roof with gabled frontage with an iron gate which prevents the idle falling in perhaps. At the back is a caved stone inscription with a stone in a segmental stone panel. The structure deserves to be better known being that its artwork was designed by famed garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and thus makes it unique in the country.

 

Why Rebecca?

let I pray thee drink a little water of thy pitcher”

So said Abraham when he met Rebecca at Nahor and she was is remembered as providing water for Mesopotamian camels. Therefore as someone who provided water for thirsty villagers of this small Berkshire community.

Once a place of pilgrimage….St. Anne’s Well, Caversham

It is difficult to imagine that Caversham, a suburb typical of many, was once a place of great Catholic pilgrimage but apparently it was. Whether there was a genuine holy well as part of the pilgrimage it is not clear. Let us examine it. St Anne's Well Caversham2

A common theme in holy research is the association of a well with a chapel. Whilst in many occasions, such as St. Clether’s Well, Cornwall, there is a genuine connection others it is not so clear. St Ann’s Well in Caversham is such an example. Let’s deal with the chapel first. On 17th  September 1538 a Dr. John London wrote:

“I have pulled down the Image of Our Lady at Caversham, whereunto was great pilgrimage . .. I have also pulled down the place she stood in with all other ceremonies, as lights, shrouds, crutches and images of wax hanging about the chapel and have defaced the same thoroughly as eschewing of any further resort thither .. .”

 

Yet no field nor road name preserve the location or tradition and mentions in grants and gifts are scant especially in the 1500s. Therefore there is no evidence of its origin.   However, it certainly existed by 1106 for it is mentioned in the cartulary or Nutley Abbey:

“In the year in whjch king Henry imprisoned his brother Robert Cunhose, Agnes, countess of Ripon) sister of the said Robert, secretly took the iron of the lance of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the chapel or the Blessed Mary or Caversham, together with many other relics….”

What of course is interesting here is the name of Blessed Mary an acceptable early dedication. . It is known that  Walter Giffard, Earl or Buckingham gave the  Park at Long Crendon, the parish church at Caversham, and the chapel or St. Mary in the same place, each with their possessions. What is clear here is that the chapel and church were two different entities. This grant to Nutley was confirmed by both Henry II in 1179 and John in 1200 and indeed was their property until the dissolution in 1536.

The Shrine contained a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. Pilgrims came from far and wide to pray at the Shrine and to donate gifts and relics. These included donations from Henry 111 and from many noble families. In 1437 Isabel, Countess of Warwick, gave gold, weighing 20 pounds, to be made into a jewel-encrusted crown for the statue. Despite considerable note of some of the relics there in, there is no mention of the well. Now the only reference to the well appears to be a 1727 letter by the Revd Loveday:

 “from thence [the chapel of St Anne] the Religious went at certain times to a well now in the hedge between the field called The Mount and the lane called Priest-lane, which is supposed to have its name from their going through it to this well, which was called formerly St Ann’s Well… There was in the memory of man a large ancient oak just by this well, which was also had in great veneration”.

Margrett (1906) identifies this as a well of dressed chalk and flint, apparently of c.1500, uncovered at the south side of Priest Hill. Janet and Colin Bords (1985) Sacred Water claims:

 “There is a tradition that people buried their valuables beside the well to hide them from the Roundheads and others, and early this century some gold coins are said to have been discovered near the well”.

caversham st ann's well

A clear link with the chapel although a clear confusion with Thomas Cromwell and Oliver I feel! This was rediscovered by the owners of the land, the Talbots in 1906 and they preserved it. But is it anything to do with a holy well? Certainly the claim made on the excellent Caversham 100 years on leaflet http://www.caversham100yearson.org.uk/pdf/heritage_leaflet_download.pdf is unsupported and contradictory (if the chapel was to Our Lady):

 “Dating back to medieval times, the mineral spring waters, with their reputation for healing, drew many pilgrims. The well was then lost until workmen uncovered it in 1906. In 1908, a memorial drinking fountain and a cover were built and officially dedicated. This holy well and the medieval ‘little Chapel on the Bridge’ were both dedicated to St Anne, patron saint of women in childbirth.”

Sadly no archaeological work has even been done on the well. The well itself is a deep chalk lined pit. The hole is covered by a delightful example of road furniture, called the Memorial Drinking fountain. It is set upon two platforms of redbrick and is itself red brick oval shaped with a white marble basin and tap and covered by a bulbous metal frame. One the front a plaque  dating from its construction in 1908 reads:

 “The Holy Well of St Anne, the healing waters of which brought many pilgrims to Caversham in the Middle Ages”.

The rediscovery of the well at the turn of the 20th century and there is possibly a clue. In 1897 there was revived Catholic interest in the shrine. This was a problem considering the lack of evidence of any fabric and even its exact location. Therefore a well nearby the supposed location would be a good fit. Sadly it would not provide the modern pilgrim with healing waters…it’s dry.