Category Archives: Folklore
Those who are well versed in the subject of holy wells will be aware of James Rattue’s contribution to the subject. His county guides for Kent, Buckinghamshire and Surrey set a high benchmark for such research – including my own – and his magnus opus – The Living Stream: holy wells in historical context (1995) is as it states in one of the intros to his work on the Living Stream ‘the most detailed and rigorous historical study of holy wells yet published in book format’. He was one of the main contributors to both the first or Old Series and New Series as well as the Living Spring Journal.
The establishment of the old Source magazine in 1985 coincided providentially with my own discovery that there were such things as holy wells. At the distance of over thirty years I can’t now remember quite how I found out about it: I have a memory that I made contact with Mark Valentine about his monograph on Northamptonshire wells and he told me the magazine was about to emerge. What I do remember clearly is the excitement the first edition brought as it plopped through the letterbox, an experience repeated with every one of its eight successors spread over the following few years. There were never enough! And the very first article in that initial, blue-covered, number was Jeremy Harte’s survey of holy wells in my native Dorset. Could it be any better?
Before Source my only guide to the sacred springs of my own county (and pretty much everywhere else) was, for all its shortcomings, RC Hope’s Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. Bournemouth Central Library had a copy and as I turned its pages during one school summer holiday trying not to crumble the edges too much, I wondered how long it had been since anyone looked at it. Hope only lists six wells in Dorset, and of those, one site, the springs near Shaftesbury which were the subject of the annual Byzant ceremony, aren’t really holy wells of any description, while another, the supposed holy spring at Abbotsbury, doesn’t exist at all. Jeremy’s article in Source 1, however, introduced me to the fact that there were lots and lots of these places.
I wanted to visit them, but it would take years before I managed to chase them down, and by then I would realise that even Jeremy’s list was inadequate and that there were over a hundred named springs (if not holy wells, exactly) in Dorset alone. The probable Holy Well of East Stoke I have only just visited, thirty-five years later; I now know that the time I spent uncovering the featureless spring I thought was the well in 1987 or so, sinking in bog over the top of my wellingtons and snagging my jumper on barbed wire, was wasted apart from using up some calories. I couldn’t have visited the Holy Well of Hazelbury Bryan: that was only dug out of the Dorset mud to celebrate the Millennium fifteen years after Jeremy wrote about it.
My own contributions to Source first appeared in issue 5. Most of them were more detailed accounts of wells that Jeremy had mentioned, with the exception of St Andrew’s Well at Bradpole just north of Bridport, and the format of my pieces was heavily influenced by the way John Meyrick had laid out A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall a little before, meticulously listing the date a site was visited and its map reference. That was all very well, but later on I began to deface the surface of holy well research, already far from pristine, with a variety of unwonted speculations. My article in Source 6 included ‘All Saints’ Well Hordle’ in Hampshire, presumed to be holy on the grounds of its proximity to an ancient church, a fact which at least I had the grace to admit. Issue 7 described ‘All Saints’ Well Thorney Hill’, a well in the grounds of a chapel I generously described as ‘no more than 250 years old’ (in fact it dates to 1906). It’s a nice feature but no one has ever treated it as a holy well of any kind. There was more wishful thinking in issue 8 when I wrote about ‘St Andrew’s Well Corton Denham’ in Somerset, another spring I’d given a sacred identity due to its being near a church. All these speculations resulted from me adopting completely uncritically the idea that pre-Reformation Christians had, wittingly or not, sited their places of worship on previously sacred locations which preserved an ancient awareness of the mystical power of the earth. I hope nobody now uses my descriptions of these ‘holy wells’ as evidence that they ever existed, at least not without heavy caveats!
By the time Source re-emerged in 1994 under the editorship of Tristan Gray-Hulse it was as sceptical about these ideas as I had become. I now knew far more about the field of holy wells and therefore that it was beyond the scope of any small journal to list every one that might be found in a given area, and as if in sympathy, the new Source didn’t try to do this. Instead it concentrated on focused studies of particular sites or motifs that could illustrate wider themes. Tristan must have solicited a contribution from me before the first edition appeared as it carried a piece I’d written about the Holy Well of Frome, created by a Victorian Anglo-Catholic clergyman; it was followed by a short article on the folly-wells of Stourhead and one speculating on the origin of some wells dedicated to St Swithun in a Yorkshire dialect word meaning something completely different. These were all elements in the history of holy wells in which I’d become increasingly interested as I’d discovered that their story was much more complicated than I originally thought. No longer were holy wells merely taciturn, numinous features in the landscape: I understood more about them and how they had developed, their enormous diversity as well as the way they intersected with other features and historical themes.
It was something of a necessary loss of innocence, I suppose, and Source had followed me in this, until its final appearance in 1998. But in the same way that coming across a really nice well that I’ve never seen before (even through the accounts of someone else) brings a sense of excitement, and re-visiting one of my favourite sites to see what mood it might be in carries a thrill of anticipation – because the well is continually changing – I will always remember with greatest affection the arrival of that first issue of Source, all those years ago.
“Sowey… risith… at Doulting village owte of a welle bering the name of S. Aldelm.”
John Leland in his Itinerary, c. 1540
Crocker (1796) describes it as
“a fine spring of excellent water, enclosed in a recess in an old wall, and which to this day is called St Adhelm’s well”.
William of Malmesbury tells us that St Aldhelm died at Doulting, where the church is dedicated to him, and William of Malmesbury describes his cult here in the Deeds of the Bishops of England, 1120s. However, he does not make reference to a well and as he shows interest in where the saint’s name is remembered it appears likely here were not any traditions at the time at the well. He is well known to write poetry but probably not as Caroline Sherwood in her 1994 piece for Source, the Divine Juggler of Doulting stand in the cold water and entertain his visitors juggling!
Farbrother (1859) describes how:
‘a spring… darts under cover of an arch; then it tumbles headlong over some descent… I have heard of a late learned divine, who was in the habit of walking thither from Shepton, regularly every morning, for the purpose of bathing his eyes, and whose sight was said to have been much benefited thereby’.
Glastonbury Abbey, owned the land and may have built the original structure. It is believed that in 1867, the Revd Fussell, had the wellhead and basin improved with the old dressed stone from the old church, some of the material not being used being left in the vicinity. This appeared to confuse, Dom Ethelbert Horne in his 1923 Somerset Holy Wells. He this suggested there was a wellhouse and a bath here:
‘The ground about it is strewn with dressed and well-cut stone… The water comes out under two solidly made arches… In front of these arches, a long channel or trough, originally lined with dressed stone, extends for some yards’.
Thompson & Thompson (2004) in Springs of Mainland Britain felt that the Victorian alterations:
“were probably confined to a few additional courses of stonework, on the top of which sat a cross and two finials. They can be seen in two photographs taken c.1929 but all this superstructure was later removed”.
A place of pilgrimage
Horne (1915) notes that:
“In 1896 the Stratton-on-the-Fosse village congregation made a pilgrimage to this well, and again in 1909, the year of the twelfth centenary of St Aldhelm’s death, a second and much larger pilgrimage, joined by Catholics from Wells and Shepton, made its way to Doulting.”
No such organised pilgrimages exist as far as I am aware, but Sherwood in 1994 noted that the well was under the management of the Shepton Mallet amenity Trust and stated that:
“It was customary until recently to use the well water for all christenings…Fred Davis, of the Amenity Trust, told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared… The well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from time to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles.”
Today it is still much visited by the curious and its setting in a small copse is a delight in the spring
Leicester unsurprisingly being an ancient settlement boasts a number of wells all of which have been lost. The most noted is the spring-name called Tostings Well, which some authorities believe derives St Augustine’s Well. An author with the name ‘Leicestriensis’ says in 1852 (quoted in Potter (1985)) that it was
“now covered and enclosed; but within the memory of persons still living it was in the state… described by Nichols… “Good for sore eyes”… even since the enclosure of the well, many applications for water from the pump erected in the adjoining ground have, I know, been made… On making some enquiries a few years ago of “the oldest inhabitant”, he… exclaimed “Oh! You mean Tostings’s Well!”’.
Nichols (1795–1815) places near a footbridge called Bow-Bridge ran from the Friary near the West Bridge, over a back water of the Soar, to the garden called Bow Church Yard. He describes it as:
“for the use of the friars to a constant spring of limpid water, on the paved road side, a few paces distant, called St Austin’s Well”
It is noted when the Corporation mended the bridge in 1688, St Austin’s well was mending for £2 14s 8d. Nichols (1795-1815) notes that it was:
“Still overflowing with contribution to the back water… the well is three quarters of a yard broad, and the same in length within its inclosure, the depth of its water from the lip or back-edging on the earth, where it commonly overflows, is half a yard. It is covered with a mill-stone, and enclosed with stone and brick on three sides; that towards Bow-bridge and the town is open.”
Sadly it has now been entirely destroyed, occasioned by widening the road.
Slightly more difficult were the springs associated with Leicester Abbey were the Merrie Wells which Potter (1985) and Rattue (1993) suggest derivation of St. Mary’s Well, although no record confirms this. The springs too have been lost. .
More likely is unusually named St Sepulchre’s Well, recorded as Pulcre well in 1476 and was believed to be associated with a chantry of Corpus Christi recorded in 1458 in the payment records of de Joh. Paulmer pro crofto juxta fontem S. Sepulchri. It appears that by 1574 it was called according to Cox (1998-2004) ‘the spring at St James Chapell’ 1573, ‘the hermitage well’ 1638, and ‘the Chappell Well’ 1689,
‘Leicestriensis’ (1852) calls it St James’s Well, as the Chapel of St James survived that dedicated to St. Sepulchre. Billson (1895) notes it as:
“a holy well close to the old pond at the corner of Infirmary Square. This well had a never-failing supply of fresh water, until the deep drainage of the town diverted it from its original outlet.”
Leicester had two attempts at developing a spa, Spa place a terrace of four late Georgian houses remembers the first. Here in 1787 a mineral spring was discovered when a well was being sunk for cattle, and Spa Place. Watts (1820) comments how:
“furnished by the proprietor with neat marble baths and easy convenient appendage for bathing, has not been found to be sufficiently impregnated with mild properties to bring proper use”.
The Leicester Journal reported in 1794 that ‘Leicester Spa is now in high perfection’, Yet it was unsuccessful and by 1798 to a General Baptist College had taken over the site, this became a private house and latter offices. It is remember as Spa Lane.
Another mineral spring was discovered close to what is now Fosse Road North in 1830 by a local market gardener called Isaac Harrison. As a result the area becoming known as Newfoundpool. At the site a Hydropathic Institution was built but by 1835 it was converted into a private residence, Newfoundpool House where the Harrison family lived. However, some of the baths remained open for occasional use. There was another attempt in 1853 to advertise them as having:
“these baths will be found equal, if not superior, to any other baths in the neighbourhood”.
However the revival did not work and when in the 1880s ,the area was being developed, the Hydropathic Institution became the Empire Hotel. This become derelict in the 2005 and was demolished to build a Lidl supermarket in 2014.
The only other surviving of the city’s water history is the Cank Well a plaque of which exists on Cank Street.
Local tradition states that it was famous as a meeting place of gossips, the word cank being a term for cackle. However, this might be folk etymology as in Leicestershire it is a name of a hard ferruginous (i.e iron rich) sandstone and it may record chalybeate (iron rich) and those healing qualities. Alternatively cank may refer to cancer and it was a curative well…but we can debate and gossip that all we want, there is no evidence!
Lincolnshire is not the first place on thinks of concerning holy and healing springs but as my research for my book on Holy wells and Healing springs of Lincolnshire showed closer examination can reveal some interesting sites and traditions. One such site now completely forgotten is found in the aptly named Welton. Here the Old Man’s Spring and five wells, which the spring head supplies, in the village were the source of a local little known and forgotten well dressing custom. A correspondent of Maureen Sutton in her excellent Lincolnshire Calendar (1996) a resident of Welton notes:
“The custom of well dressing was an annual event which took place on Ascension day. Five wells in the village were dressed including one in the churchyard, one in the grounds of the vicarage, two in West Carr and one in spring cottage in Sudbeck Lane. The origin of the source being ‘old man’s head spring’ in Welton Cliffe (Westhall Farm) The dressing of the wells took a different format to that of neighbouring counties, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. In Welton each area surrounding the well was marked with an arch formed from a tree branch and decorated with lilac and laburnum. A linen, white calico cloth on which was depicted a text taken from the bible was put into each arch; this was put up by the men in the village early on Ascension Day morning. The ceremony began with a service in Saint Mary’s Church followed by a parade to the decorated beck in the churchyard. Each well was then dressed in turn and a prayer said and a hymn sung. The local Sunday school children took part in the ceremony by placing wild flowers at each well. ”
“On Ascension Day we again propose to continue the custom of ‘Well dressing’ as an act of thanks-giving to Almighty God for the blessing of bountiful supply of pure water to Welton. Celebration of Holy Communion 8 am; Well dressing service 2pm; Procession to the wells 3pm; Public and Day school Tea 4.30pm; Children’s concert and Prize distribution 6.30 pm We pray to God to favour us with fine weather for the festival”.
Rediscovered/Restored: Another St. Anne’s Well near Buxton. Was there a Roman water shrine at Brough, Derbyshire?
Whilst researching for the book Holy Wells and Healings Springs of Derbyshire, I came across a reference to a holy well which appears to have been ignored. Much had been written of Bradwell’s well customs and even consideration made for its thermal spring, but this was unrecorded by authors over the years only being noted on the first series OS map. I was eager to see it if it survived and doubted it had considering I had heard nothing of it.
Overlaying the old map for the new OS map I pinpointed the location and went exploring. Taking a few steps off the main road I was pleased to see there was a well approximately where the well was marked on the older map. Also unlike other such forays this was not some boggy weed filled morass but a substantial structure and over the overflowing trough was carved into a stone the name – St. Anne’s Well. However this was a forgotten or at least unknown St Ann Well for it appears to have been completely missed from previous surveys including the most recent Jeremy Harte (2008) of English Holy Wells. However, a stone erected over the well clearly reads: Town Well or St. Anne’s Well. 1859. What was more interesting, furthermore, across the road from the well was a noted Roman settlement, Navio was there a connection?
A forgotten holy well?
The well is quite a substantial structure consisting of two separate chambers. The spring fills at first a five foot, two foot rectangular stone trough enclosed in a small walled enclosure, which presumably was constructed for people. The overflow from this fills the trough beside the wall enclosure and beneath the large stone where the well’s name is carved. The arrangement is not an uncommon one to prevent contaminating domestic and animal supply.
How old is the dedication?
Bar the inscription, there appears to be very little concrete evidence. The most official being its notation as noted in copperplate writing on the first series of the O/S map. This suggests that the site was an antiquity when the map was drawn, however the Victorian love of antiquarianism as a form of vindication it is dubious. Possibly more convincing is are the names of the houses around, both are 1700s in date and are named after the well.
The support for an ancient well.
Yet despite the lack of any concrete written evidence it is possible that this site is a very ancient one associated with the Navio settlement. Let us look at the support for that argument. Firstly, its position. The spring arises on Batham Gate the Roman road to Buxton and a few yards from the Roman settlement. It would indeed seem odd that the Romans did not know it flowing as it does so close.
Significantly perhaps, in Navio an altar was found dedicated to goddess Arnomectis who has been seen as an adopted Celtic Water deity however authorities believe this is related to the river Noe, but why not the spring? The inscription reading:
DEAE ARNOMECTE AEL MOTIO V S L L M
“To the goddess Arnomecte Aelius, willingly, gladly and deservedly fulfils his vow”
It is also probable that it is the same deity, Arnemetia, which was celebrated at Buxton, so perhaps this is a memorial from there but that it does not preclude the deity being celebrated here.
It is worth noting that on the outskirts, Brough does have another noted well which has been considered a thermal spring utilised by the Romans as a bath. It survives as a campsite pond, called Bath Spring, it is more likely that the bath was that constructed in 1830 by a Robert Middleton of Smalldale.
The evidence against
The main evidence against the theory is the lack of note of this. However evidence of absence is not absence of evidence. It may be also questioned why the well was not enclosed within the Navio enclosure. It may be that it formed a separate temple precinct and so would be kept separate. Of course there is always the possibility that some local antiquarian, decide to re-dedicate it. If they did why then not publicise it? Victorian works are full of these sorts of self-supporting arguments on antiquity so why does no one mention it? It is surprisingly absent from the main work on Bradwell – ancient and modern by Seth Evans (1912). This is surprising because the author took care to include notes on the well traditions of the community. Although he does relate that the settlement may take its name from a well at the Roman settlement. Interestingly, it is worth noting that Nottingham’s lost Saint Anne’s Well may have been called Broadwell (Bradwell?) may have been associated with the well, but it would be strangely coincidental even more so considering the well is dedicated to St. Anne (as is Buxton), this view is supported by Clarke and Roberts (1996) but they are unaware of the well!
Yet here it is a great discovery – a St Anne’s Well a few miles from the famous Buxton one – but all but unknown!
This was first recorded 1366 as ‘Halywalsiche. and then in purchase of the lands of St Catherine’s Chantry, lately dissolved, in 1564, it refers to lands here at ‘Holy well hedge’ and ‘Hollywell siche.’ However, nether of the dates help identify when the structure shown by Hope was actually built. Over the arch was carved inscription an inscription which read:
“Fons sacer hic strvitvr Roberto Nominus Hardinge 16xx”
“this Holy well was built by Robert named Hardinge 16xx“.
Briggs suggested the date of 1660, which is quite likely, as it coincides with the Restoration of Charles II as the family at the nearby hall. The aforementioned Hardinge, were staunch Royalists, and of course puritans disliked holy wells as many other so called ‘popish’ things. However, its restoration may have been for little more than to maintain a good water supply. Later depictions such as pre-war postcards show the date to be quite clearly 1662.
The present condition of the well is tribute to its local community. The arch survived for nearly 300 years but a combination of vandals and the roots of the nearby ash tree caused the arch fall down and it lay in pieces in the 1950s. Sadly the original inscription appears to have been stolen or entirely broken to pieces. However, unlike many similar sites, this was not the final fate of the well. In the 1980s it was restored using as many of the old stones as possible. The landowner was happy to sell the land and Melbourne Civic Society donated money for its restoration. No artifacts were found, apart from 17th century Ticknall ware pottery, later tiles, and drainpipes fragments. Most of the original stones were recovered, but the job of reconstructing them appeared to be a large task and new stone was required. The arch over the well was left blank as it was thought misleading to re-inscribe it. H. Usher in there (1984) The Holy Well at King’s Newton, Derbyshire in the Old Series of holy wells journal Source notes that on the first Sunday after Ascension Day, May 19th 1985, over a hundred people gathered for the opening ceremony when the plaque was unveiled by the Society’s President, the Marquees of Lothian, of Melbourne Hall. It is delightful to see it restored and celebrated by the community.
There appears to be no records regarding its properties baring its ‘superior excellence of its waters‘, and being noted as a mineral spring. Interestingly, its waters are said to flow towards the rising sun.
Extracted from R.B.Parish’s (2011) Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire
There is certainly an otherworldly feel to the woods of Alderley Edge. Unsurprisingly, it is a landscape which boasts three mysterious springs: the Holy Well, Wizard’s Well and the Wishing Well.Roeder and F. S. Graves in 1905s Recent archaeological discoveries at Alderley Edge by C Roeder and F S Graves, in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society states:
“Well and the Holy Well. These, and especially the latter, were in ancient times connected with well-worship, and propitiatory offerings were made by people to the presiding deities, and also were frequently resorted to in Christian times, but doubtless the cult was observed here in much earlier days.”
They detail the cures and nature of the votive offers:
“Their healing powers were considered to be unfailing; the barren, the blind, the lame, and bodily-afflicted constantly made their way thither; maidens whispered their vows and prayers over them, their lovers and their future lives being their theme. Crooked silver coins were dropped into the well, but these have been cleared out long ago. At the present time the devotees are satisfied, in their economical habit, to offer mere pins and hairpins; the custom is not dead yet, for some of the immersed pins are still quite uncorroded and bright. Some of the sex deposit the pins in their straight and original form, others bend them only at right angle, and as many again seem to consider the charm alone to act effectively when carefully and conscientiously doubled up. Maidens of a more superficial cast just give the slightest twist to the object. To judge from the state of corrosion, and the old-fashioned thick, globular heads, some of these pins must have been in the well for at least sixty years. We have brought three cases to show the various forms into which the visitors have tortured the pins, and classified them into groups. There are occasionally to be seen also a few white pebbles in the two wells.”
The Holy Well
The Holy Well is first mentioned in an 1763 Court Rolls of Bollin Fee in a perambulation however its first written account is in Memoires of the Family of Finney, of Fulshaw, (near Wilmslow) Cheshire, by Samuel Finney of Fulshaw, Esquire’, in 1787. Which noted:
“Lower down the Hill, just below the Beacon, is a Spring of very clear Sweet Water, that issues pretty plentifully out of the Rock, called the Holy Well, which, no doubt, in times of Superstition, had its Virtues, which are now unknown, though many young people, in the Summer time, resort to it in parties, and regale themselves with this water, which is still supposed to have a prolific quality in it.”
Robert Bakewell’s 1843 Alderley Edge and Its Neighbourhood, who states:
“this well trickles in a constant stream from a cleft in a large rock about 60 yards below the Beacon… the waters of this well are said to be a cure for barrenness.”
Mystical author Alan Garner in his 1998 The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures work tells us much of the site:
“Our water supply derived from the Holy Well, which granted wishes to tourists at weekends, and an income for the child of our family who, on a Monday morning, cleaned out the small change. Yet for no money would that child have climbed the yew that stood beside the well. “If I ever so much as see you touch that”, my grandfather had said, “I’ll have the hide off you”. And there was a memory that could hardly be restored to words: of how the well was not for wishing, but for the curing of barren women; and the offerings were of bent pins, not of pence.”
Interesting Garner notes:
“And Grandad spoke of rags tied to trees there. That had been a long time ago, he said.”
As such it is the only such recorded rag well in Cheshire/Staffordshire/Derbyshire area and perhaps was imported from Wales however the nearest traditional site would be over 100 miles away and as such it is an odd anomaly or evidence of a wider lost practice!
The Holy Well today
The Holy well is situated beneath a piece of rock filling an old stone trough set into the ground with a break at one end allowing its waters to flow out.
In the next post we shall explore the legend of the Wizard’s Well and the mysterious Wishing well.
Who was John Wycliffe?
He was a Yorkshire born scholastic philosopher, with his critical views on the the veneration of saints, the taking of sacraments, use of requiem masses, the concept of transubstantiation, monasticism, and the pomp of ceremonial worship, the status of clergy and the existence of the Pope he is seen quite rightly as the morning star of Protestantism. His views influencing the great protestant reformers of a hundred years or so later. Famed also for translating the bible into English. His views and activities were clearly a thorn in the side of the Catholic church but he was protected by influential figures such as John Of Gaunt. He was Rector of Lutterworth, where he died in 1384 on New Year’s Eve giving a sermon! After his burial the Papacy demanded he be dug up and burnt, his remains being thrown in the river. And it is this terrible act of ‘sacrilege’ which is pivotal to his Holy Well.
A miraculous origin
“Tradition also says, that, at the time of this ceremony [the exhumation or burning of John Wycliffe’s bones], one person who staid, after the rest had left his grave, in order to search as strictly after the least bit of bone… having found one, ran hastily to his companions with it in a triumphant manner; but, before he reached them, fell down, and dashed his brains out; and from the very place where he fell immediately gushed out a spring of water, which to this day is called St John’s Well.”
Dyson (1913) in Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, notes a later version of the legend tells how this bone fell from the bier and was later dug out, and how a spring issued from the place. It would be ironic if this well was really named after the reforming cleric and opponent of pilgrimages and adoration of saints.
“THE HOLY WELL OF ST. JOHN THAT the name of Wycliffe was regarded with something more than veneration by the people of Lutterworth during the Middle Ages is proved by the story of the Holy Well of St. John. The legend is that, as the bones of the holy man were being carried on a bier from the church to the riverside for burning, in accordance with the ecclesiastical decree, in passing down the steep slope at what is now the bottom of High Street a bone fell to the ground and was immediately trampled into the soft soil of the unmade roadway by the crowds which followed. Some years afterwards a man working upon the spot brought to light the missing bone, and, upon taking it from its position, forthwith there issued from the hole where it had lain embedded a fountain of the purest water, which ceased not to flow day or night to the joy of the inhabitants of the town, who regarded it as a display of Divine favour upon the remains of their local saint. The water was immediately looked upon as miraculous and was conveyed to a stone drinking- fount placed by the side of the way at the spot where the discovery was made.”
Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, also notes that it had:
“For ages the power to cure all manner of diseases especially where the eyesight was affected, was attributed to this water, and the actual stone basin which received it is believed still to exist behind the brick wall which was built in front of it some sixty years ago. The spring itself was tapped a few years ago in excavating for a sewer, and was so strong that it had to be conveyed into the common drain.”
Holt (1884) in John de Wycliffe; the first of the reformers, and what he did for England notes;
“Even then, thirty years after his voice had been stilled in death, evidence remains to show that his parishioners at Lutterworth had regarded him with a heart-veneration which, had he fought for Rome instead of Christ, would have gone far to earn him canonization. Legends sprang up and took root among them, to the effect that no water would flow under that arch where Wycliffe’s ashes had been flung ; and that on the spot where one of his bones had fallen sprang ” St. John’s Well,” which still runs clear and abundant, never drying up even in the hottest seasons.”
A noted well
Finding evidence for the site’s provenance is illusive. The 15th century topographer William of Worcestre never visited the town and certainly when Leland visited in 16th century he did not mention it, despite mentioning springs arising in the hills in the area but not this well. However it is possible that earliest record may be a note of 1695 by Edmund Gough which was referred to be Camden (1695)):
“Lutterworth… near which is a spring of water so very cold, that in a little time it converts straws and sticks into stone.”
Yet no later authority refers to a different site a petrifying spring especially as Harte (2008) in his Holy Wells of England states Gough mentions it just before discussing the exhumation of Wycliffe’s body. Of St. John’s Well, a contributor to Nichols (1795–1815) does describe it as petrifying and that:
“in the neighbourhood of Lutterworth is a petrifying spring called St John’s well, the water of which is exceeding cold, and so strongly impregnated with petrifying qualities, that in a very little time it is said to convert wood and several other substances into stone.”
But Nichols himself gives the name to a different site:
“St John’s Well is in the town, opposite to the last house, on the left hand side towards London. It is a soft water, and used for drinking.”
The association with the bones giving a petrifying properties to the spring and hence the association.
Despite an obvious association with John Wycliffe, it appears more likely to be named after a hospital in the town which was dedicated to St John the Baptist, over time local memory of this would have been forgotten but the name remembered. Indeed even Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, relays this:
“It has been thought bv some to have been called the Holy Well of St. John from its position within sight of the Hospital of that name, to which we have already alluded, but it seems to us, in the face of the above tradition, that the dedication to St. John was far more likely to have had reference to the Christian name of Lutterworth’s great rector.”
The spring was clearly an important water source hence reference in the Town Masters account book of 1716 it is recorded that four shillings was paid for “a spout of elm 7 foot long to lay at St. John’s Well”
Searching for the well
Field researchers (record on pastscape as F2 FDC 18-AUG-1960) in 1960 stated:
“Enquiries of the owner/occupier revealed that the building was so named from “St John’s Spring” which is in the ornamental garden at the rear of the house and which was surveyed. The owner was aware of the legend… and stated that the well was believed to lie beneath an ash tree adjacent to the spring but that structural remains had not been found. The spring, freely flowing, is perpetual.”
According to the Bords (1985) Sacred Waters:
“It is now situated in the garden of a private house, but can be visited by making an appointment with the owner, John Daniell, of the Springs”
Since I picked up the book in 1986 I have been planning to search out the well. I had written to the address, kindly provided in Sacred Waters – but to no avail. So 32 years I decided to look for it. I found The Springs, easily found on the road to Rugby and knocked on the door – no answer. It looked like the property was now a busy property and empty. I knocked next door and noticed a small garden adjoining – was this where the spring was? Unlikely. I saw an elderly man engaging with another in a house overlooking the springs and decided to ask him. At first he was not sure of what I was talking about but when I mentioned spring he realised he knew where it was.
I was right the spring was no longer in the grounds of The Spring in the subsequent decades houses have been built in the garden of the house. In fact he told me that when the houses were built the builders had a problem with the spring. He remembered it as a circular dip or pool. Fortunately, the builders did not destroy the site and it remains in the front garden of the house. No one was home but as it was in the front garden I decided it did not harm taking a few photos. The spring now flows rather sluggishly through a pipe enclosed in a brick and stone structure. It fills an oval pool, possibly that referred to by the neighbour and then flows out into a small brick structure.
The rediscovery of the original well was a bonus. A foot away it could be found obviously discovered when the original wall was removed to build these new houses. The well a circular stone line structure is dry and crosses under the fence into the next door property. Which was a great find!
A common theme
What is interesting hagiographically is that this was a frequently encountered trope which was used to show the sanctity and power of saintly figures; a theme in itself derived from a pagan folk belief. Furthermore, the emergence of a spring underlines not only the sanctity of the person but emphasised that the act was unjust, being a victim of persecution such as many saints murdered by pagan kings or jealous step-mothers! In this case it might appear strange to associate such a site with a figure so firmly connected with the Reformation. However, this is perhaps a post-modern revisionist view point. To the followers of Wycliffe, the common town folk, who perhaps did not know the full ramifications of his politicised religious views, worthy religious people became saints and feasibly they did not see why their Wycliffe would not. Saints needed sites to justify their saintliness and a local mineral spring already named after a John would be a likely candidate. It is an irony to those who understood his anti-veneration of saints view but lost to the generations just after him, they would only remember his importance to the town. Indeed in 1518, a John Stilman was indicted for saying that ‘Wycliffe was a saint in heaven’. The date may be significant and may explain the lack of appearance of the spring until the late medieval period. It was a local site whose fame would only be noted post the Reformation’s most zealous period. I have discussed how sites associated with Queen Elizabeth I also took on the properties of saint’s wells and it is also possible that in the vacuum created by the Reformation figures associated with the principles of the Reformation were treated like the pre-Reformation saints by the uneducated faithful to provide the same forms of solace. Even today it is clear from the church the importance of Wycliffe where his pulpit, door he passed through when he collapsed on New Years Eve 1384, a font from his era and possibly his garments are proudly on show..all saintly equivalents!
Oxford’s ancient and holy wells are well-recorded, Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells dedicates a considerable amount of space to the subject. However by his time many of these wells had already vanished. Hope (1893) records:.
“Ulward’s Well called soe from John Ulward who held lands there of Dionisia Burewald, which she gave to Godstow.”
It has vanished, so too has:
“ARISTOTLE’S Well is not far from Elmer’s (and Wolward’s) Well in the north suburbs, neare or in the fields of Walnercote or Ulgars–or Algar’s Cote. It was anciently (as by some now) called Brumman’s Well, together with that at Walton, because Brumman le Rich or de Walton lived and owned lands about the said wells, most, if not all, of which he gave by the favour of Robert D’oilly, his lord and master, who came into England with the Conqueror, to St. George’s College in the Castell at his first foundation, A.D. 1074.”
He continues that in the Anthony Wood’s 1661 Survey of the Antiquities of the City of Oxford:
“After his time, if not, be likely, before, it was christened by the name of Aristotle’s Well, because that it was then–as now ’tis–frequented in the summer season by our Peripateticks.”
Hope notes that:
“In the present summer (1888) it was built over by the garden wall of a house erected on the south of the road leading to the canal bridge,”
And so it apparently remains. A lane remembers the well but there is no trace of its fabric
Aristotle was not the only philosopher remembered in a well in Oxford. Stoke or more Plato’s Well
“The reason why it was soe called was from a well situated therby called Stoke well, being the same which is to this day apparent to the beholders under the wall of Cornwall Close, and called beyond the memory of man by the students of this University Platoes Well, and Cornish Chough Well. It was on the north edge of the path which ran from the end of Thames (now George) Street to Hythe Bridge.”
The Plato well again is lost. However, the next well survives, this being Walton’s or Bruman’sWell. Hope (1893) again records:
“Still remembered in the name of Walton Well Road, and having on its site a fountain, erected in 1885 by the liberality of Alderman Ward. The inscription is as follows: 1885. Drink and think of Him who is the fountain of life. With the consent of the lords of the manor, this drinking-fountain is erected by Mr. William Ward, to mark the site of a celebrated spring, known as Walton Well, adjacent to the ancient fordway into Colt Meadow, now called Walton Ford.”
This fountain remains although it is now dry but remains. However, whether it has any significance is unclear. The last spring is this part of the survey is the Child Well
“Child’s Well, by the holyness of the chapleynes successively serving there, had vertue to make women that were barren to bring forth children.”
This spring still exists in a form feeding a fen in a nature reserve in the Chiswell Valley. Its name is more likely to be derived from Old English chald meaning cold as found in other childwell types. What is interesting is that the area was called Happy Valley for being the site of picnics the most popular day being Good Friday. Was this a remembrance of taking the waters from this spring on Good Friday as was traditional in other places?
“So the Divine Pity, which hath distributed gifts of diverse kinds, not delaying to make clear the purity of virginal innocence and the merits of the virgin martyr, made to spring forth, where her blood fell drop by drop, a most sparkling spring. Where it flowed the butchers, alarmed when they could not hide what they had perpetrated by covering the fount with grass, tried to cover up the body.”
So speaks John de Grandison’s 1330 Legend of St Sidwell. Like many similar stories the titular saint was asked to do something by her stepmother only to find those butchers, some mowers lying in wait with scythes. A rather unpleasant death! Like similar deaths her martyrdom was revealed by a column of light. She is then said to have risen from her grave taking her head with her and walked to where a church was built in her honour where a shrine did exist by 1373 according to Roscarrock. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with similar legends associated with wells at St Walstan’s Norfolk and St Elthelbert’s Herefordshire.
The first official mention of the well comes from a grant by the then Dean of Exeter to St. Nicholas Priory in 1226 which records
“a third share in the waters of St Sidwell’s Well”.
Now whether this referred to a share in regards to water supply or money is not clear but similar endowments indicate it was the former. Certainly by 1267 repairs were needed as John de Douglys left money for:
“the repair and maintenance of St Sidwell’s Well, one acre, called Bromeacre, and half an acre called Stokisland, which latter was about forty-five feet from the well towards the north”.
Then at some point between 1150 and 1180 Exeter developed a conduit system. It drew water from a site called Headwell which appears to have been in the same location as St Sidwell that they may have been one and the same. The water being used to provide the Cathedral. However, the Cartulary of St John’s Hospital in 1498 records that:
“in Saynte Sydwylle is Paroche, ther as she was byhedded, ys a well, and the close that lyeth nexte aboff directely is called and named Hedwyllmede. The Prior of St John’s and his Brothers haff moste grounde yn that Hylde or close, and they be bound to repayre the wylle”.
Lega-Weekes (1924–5) recorded that the site was:
“the well that once existed near the foot of Devonshire Place… Mr William French, dairyman (aged about 65)… remembered, as a boy, not only seeing the old well shaft, but dipping water out of it, though it was then choked and muddy. It was very deep, and when fullest the water reached to within six or seven feet of the ground level”.
Roque’s 1774 map of Exeter indicates a Sidwell’s Well near St Sidwell’s Church of Lega-Weekes (1924–5a) in their piece ‘St Sidwell: I’ in Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries states that it
“ stood in Well Street, near the corner of York Road, in what is now a garden between nos. 2 and 5… opposite the Schoolhouse. From old inhabitant I learn that it was commonly known as St Sidwell’s well, and was sometimes also called “the Beehive Well”, from the form of the little circular hut of red Heavitree stone about 8 ft high by about 12 ft (?circumference) which sheltered the shaft that went down to a depth of 75 ft. There was a “sort of window” in the front, at which people filled their jugs”.
When the site disappeared is unclear but by the Lega-Weekes time it had clearly gone and largely forgotten!
Then in the development of 3 Well Street a remarkable discovery was made. The company working on the flat development stated on their website:
“The remains of the ancient holy well of St Sidwell have now been uncovered and our client is considering utilising the ground floor of the development as a tea room to allow public access for viewing of the well, fully supported by Exeter City Council. The holy well is said to mark where the ‘virtuous maiden’ St Sidwell, an Anglo-Saxon saint who gave her name to this part of the city, was cut down by haymakers’ scythes. Legend says a spring burst forth where she fell, and it then became a place of pilgrimage throughout the medieval period. Since at least 1226 the well supplied the cathedral clergy with fresh water, and was linked to the Cathedral by a piped water supply that later became part of the medieval underground passages that can be visited today. In 1347 however it was disconnected, and replaced by another well (Headwell) further along Well Street near St James Park. It probably still continued to be used as a local supply and place of pilgrimage.”
“This is an especially exciting find, as discovering the actual remains of a holy well is not common and we highly recommend a visit to the café when open. The high quality of the workmanship suggests that the medieval cathedral masons were involved in building it, and it also reflects the importance of the site as a place of pilgrimage. St Sidwell’s Well is clearly shown on this site on historic maps, and as a result the city council made it a condition of the redevelopment that any remains of it should be recorded and preserved within the new building.”
So St Sidwell’s Well returns!