Category Archives: Cursing well
Guest blog post: Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Elian, Llanelian… the ‘Cursing’ well? by Jane Beckerman
A great pleasure to have an account of North Wales most infamous well from the person who restored this once lost site, Jane Beckerman. We met briefly last year at last month’s holy well site Ffynonn Sara with Janet Bord and Tristan Grey Hulse and she has kindly provided this account, extracted from her forthcoming book on its history a great way to end our twelve months of North Welsh wells…
Near the small village of Llanelian in North Wales, lies one of the most important holy wells not just in Wales, but the British Isles. She looks very different now but two hundred and fifty years ago, beside the small, old road leading from Colwyn Bay to Llanelian Church, there was a large square wall surrounding an inner well with a lockable door, a fountain, pathways and even a bathing pool. From her untraceable beginnings to the middle of the 19th century, thousands of people visited the well and the nearby church, in order that their wishes might be granted by Saint Elian.
Ffynnon Elian (The holy well of St. Elian) has a long history, but from the beginning of the 18th century to half-way through the 19th, she was both famous and feared for her power to grant destructive wishes, or to ‘curse’. Known far and wide as the ‘Cursing Well’ and reaching the height of her notoriety in the early years of the 19th century, Ffynnon Elian was thought of as the place where it was possible to put a terrifying and successful curse on your enemies. The flood of sensational writing about the well, beginning in the 1780s tells us that people lived in fear and died of fright if they thought, or were told, that they had been ‘put in the well’. Only one of the writers, who visited the well during the period of her greatest notoriety challenged the idea that a holy well would have been used in so overwhelmingly poisonous and destructive a way. This fearsome reputation has continued and until recently has never been challenged.
Recent research shows that the ‘power’ of Ffynnon Elian was a fascinating and complex phenomenon and that the well was used essentially to undo supposed ill-wishing. The power of the well that endured was her reputation for curing the ‘curses’ of everyday life, for exposing wrong-doing and returning property to its rightful owner.
The ‘curses’ of life in North Wales during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, when the ‘cursing’ reputation became established, were many. Enclosure acts took away areas of common land for grazing a few animals and growing small amounts of food; the war with France took men, and their wages, away from homes and families; the weather between 1795 and 1816 was so poor that harvests were ruined or insufficient. Corn prices soared, riots ensued. Industrialisation brought new employment opportunities to North Wales, but new dangers with it. Improved farming methods and machinery brought some relief through better harvests, but there were fewer jobs available and staple crops like oats and barley were being neglected in favour of the ‘new’ crops, potatoes and wheat; less reliable in the uncertain weather of North Wales, and less nourishing.
A report prepared for Thomas Pennant in around 1775, in preparation for his Tours of Wales, contains the account given above of the way Ffynnon Elian looked at that time and also the first account of well’s powers to redress wrong doing. A woman at the beginning of the eighteenth century visited the well with a friend, to find out who had stolen her coverlet, and to ask that the item be returned to her. The two women had come to Ffynnon Elian from Llandegla, 40 miles away, past several other holy wells and places of healing. After visiting the well they both knelt before the altar in the church at Llanelian, a few hundred yards away, to ask for Saint Elian’s blessing. After praying, the petitioner waited outside the church, while her friend was unable to rise from her knees. St Elian refused to let her rise until she had confessed to the theft of the coverlet. Ffynnon Elian at that time was thought of as literally a ‘fountain’ of truth and justice that was not available elsewhere.
Thomas Pennant, a wealthy landowner, and a JP as well as a travel writer, promoted the myth of Ffynnon Elian as a place of malignant ‘cursing’ and wrote that he himself had been threatened. Further reading tells us that he had been astonished to find that other wealthy landowners were not bringing thieves to court because they were scared of being ‘put in the well’ (‘cursed’ at Ffynnon Elian). He reports his dismay that people were ‘stealing turneps’ with no threat of redress. It is difficult to be wholly sympathetic when one realises the circumstances in which people were stealing cattle food, almost certainly to eat themselves. And it points to another way Ffynnon Elian was used; as a way of redressing the very unequal social balance of the time.
Ffynnon Elian helped those who believed themselves or family members to have been ‘cursed’, or wronged, down on their luck, or ill. Depositions from a court case in 1818 described exactly why they went to the well. The depositions also describe what actually happened there. The ancient practice of transformation through water, traceable in Wales to pre-Roman society, and certainly used by the Romans in Wales in the shape of ‘cursing tablets’, impelled people to seek guidance, help and healing, in the absence of other agency, through the intercession of St Elian. A recent article in this blog talks about ‘cursing tablets’. Ffynnon Elian stands near to one of the Roman roads running towards Anglesey. Ritual at the well revealed at the 1818 court case shows that comparison can usefully be made with Roman custom at holy wells.
Ffynnon Elian, like all living things, changed her shape, her looks and her customs over the centuries. Her last, and best-known guardian, Jac Ffynnon Elian, only stopped offering his services in the 1850s. The continuing ‘magic’ of Ffynnon Elian was the deep belief she inspired in her power to transform lives. Jac Ffynnon Elian wrote that a man could be cured by the strength of his own beliefs, or he could suffer because of them. The history of this extraordinary well is testimony to his words.
A complete history of Ffynnon Elian is in preparation
“Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.”
So translates a thin lead rectangular sheet one of 130 found in 1979-80 in the hot spring at Bath, deposited in the shrine of Sulis Minerva, the Goddess of the spring. Theses so called curse tablets were written with a stylus in a cursive script and then rolled up with the writing innermost. Sometimes these sheets are nailed interestingly the word defixio being translated into fasten and curse! Sometimes the words are written backwards or lines written in alternating directions called asboustrophedon in Greek.
Interestingly, all bar one of the 130 concerned curses to do with stolen goods, so called ‘prayers for justice’. Thefts from Roman baths appeared to be a common problem and goods from gemstones, jewellery to clothing were stolen. Often the ‘victim’ was the perpetrator of a crime and the curse would range from sleep deprivation to death. For example:
“To the goddess Sulis Minerva. I ask your most sacred majesty that you take vengeance on those who have done [me] wrong, that you permit them neither sleep…”
Sometimes the curse would be more detailed in its instruction:
“Docilianus [son] of Brucerus to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that .. the goddess Sulis inflict death upon .. and not allow him sleep or children now and in the future, until he has brought my hooded cloak to the temple of her divinity.”
“ To Minerva the goddess Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.”
This named the culprits:
“I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact [them] from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola,”
“Whether pagan or Christian, whether man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free whoever has stolen from me, Annianus [son of] Matutina (?), six silver coins from my purse, you, Lady Goddess, are to exact [them] from him. If through some deceit he has given me…and do not give thus to him but reckon as (?) the blood of him who has invoked his upon me.”
So curses appeared a little extreme considering:
“Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”
The inscriptions follow a general formula, suggesting perhaps that there was a commercial scribe more than probable as many people were illiterate around that time. The formula was as follows the stolen property was declared and transferred to the deity so it becomes their loss, the suspect and victim are named and then the later asks for punishment to induce the theft back. The language is interesting being in Latin lettering but in a Romano-British hybrid, some argue some may be Celtic. The tablets are on show in the excellent Roman Bath museum for all to wonder at this curious custom.
My attention was first brought to this curiously named well in Janet and Colin Bord’s excellent Sacred Waters, then I traced the quote to Ruth Tongue’s 1965 Somerset Folklore. However neither sources gave any idea of whether it was extant but both state it was near the church (of course Tongue’s work is the original source no doubt). A few years later I found myself in Bishop’s Lydeard and thought I’d look for it. I found the church and in a lane nearby I found a fish and chip shop. I asked there and they said although they had never heard of the well, there was a well down the lane. A few yards down and there it was. An elderly lady was walking past as I peered in and I asked her if she knew the name of the well..”Devil’s whispering well” she replied.
But why the Devil?
One theory underlined by the name is that one could commune with Old Nick. And the structure could lend support to this bizarre usage. The well is a red brick structure with an arched entrance, but oddly with the well’s basin is to the side of the structure rather being face on like most wells, so we could whisper? But why whisper to the Devil? One possible reason is that the well is a cursing well. As a cursing well it would not be unique countrywide. Indeed, the most well documented site is less than 100 miles away at Bath. But are the two connected? Bath’s reputation comes from the discovery of a hoard of cursing tablets There appease to be no evidence of a Roman connection to the settlement that I am aware of, but then again the other well known site St Elian’s Well in Llanelian similarly does not have a Roman connection.
Walling in the Devil Is it possible that the cursing aspect is a confused red herring? This is suggested by another possible original is recorded in an article in the Local Notes and Queries of the Somerset Herald of the 31st August 1935:
“Walling in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – many years ago, when I was a child , I remember hearing my grandmother say that the Devil kept appearing near a well at Bishop’s Lydeard, where some men were building. They were very frightened and went to the clergyman and asked him what to do. He promised to go with them when they thought he would appear again and he did so. When Satan appeared in the form of an ordinary man, but with a cloven hoof, the clergy man approached and said ‘In the name of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost, why troublest thou me?’ and he gradually disappeared and the clergy man told the workman to ’wall him in’. So they built round the place, and he disappeared forever. I have always had the impression it was somewhere along the wall opposite Lydeard House. I wonder if anyone else had heard of it? I know my grandmother used to say they walled in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – H”
What does this legend mean? Was it that the Devil was walled up and that’s why you could whisper to him? A reply came a month later and printed in the 28th September edition, where an Isabel Wyatt suggests
“One or two features of this legend suggest the interesting possibility that it may originally have had quite a different significance from the one which we read into now. In the middle ages a person walled into masonary while still alive was one of the punishments for witchcraft; thus in 1222 an old woman and a young man was accused of witchcraft were sentenced by Stephen Langton, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to be plastered alive into a wall.”
She goes on to suggest that the Devil is not the real Devil, but a human devil who was the chief of each witches coven. Witches are associated with other wells in the county, indeed not that far away at Parlestone Common on the Quantocks. This makes some sort of sense as witchcraft is strong in the region. Is it possible that the head of a coven was walled up in the well and members of the surviving coven would visit them and whisper to them? Or is the walling up part of another legend as the first correspondent suggests. Perhaps the well was a well associated with the witches. This might explain why the well was never Christianised despite close proximity to the church. Perhaps this well was their ritual well, a pagan well escaping rededication despite the proximity of the church. What do we make of Palmer (1975) who details in his Folklore of Somerset that Snell (1903) give details from Thornton’s Reminiscences of an old West County Countryman tells of a black dog in the village?