Category Archives: Herefordshire
I am very pleased as a bit of festive gift to welcome another post from Janet Bord one of the great contributors to the field….Merry Christmas, happy Yuletide and Happy 2019
100 years ago many homes in Britain did not have a mains water supply, with water having to be fetched from nearby wells and springs. Domestic wells were a fact of life for many even in the mid 20th century, whereas today we turn on taps in the comfort of our homes without a second thought. The intricacies of water supply in Herefordshire on the Welsh border in earlier times are shown in a detailed survey by Linsdall Richardson which was published in 1935: Wells and Springs of Herefordshire (HMSO, London, 1935). In addition to the most well-known holy wells of the county, he also describes many more named wells, some holy, many used for healing purposes. I have no idea how many of them can still be identified, but they are worth recording, and so here is a run-through of the most interesting examples, with quotations from Richardson’s book. Remember that references to the present-day within the quotes will mean the early 1930s! I have given map references for those wells I have visited. Many of them are also described in Jonathan Sant’s useful 1994 book The Healing Wells of Herefordshire, sadly no longer easily available.
Cae Thomas (or St Thomas’s) Well, Llanveynoe (p.40)
‘This very attractive and copious spring issues from the rock in a steep bank two-fifths of a mile up stream from Ford and courses down the bank into the Olchon Brook…. [It] has long had a local reputation for its medicinal properties…’ At the time of writing in 1935, the owner planned to market the water as Glen Olchon Water, but he died and so the plan was thankfully never carried out. The commercialisation of this spring doesn’t bear thinking about, and luckily it remains unspoilt, tucked away in the remote borderland, needing persistence to discover but well worth the effort.
St Clodock’s or St Clydog’s Well, Clodock (p.41) SO326273
‘… a dip-well fed by a spring from rock close to the R. Monnow. In times of flood the Monnow invades the well.’ The spring can still be located on the river bank under a low stone slab among the grass. Clodock was a 6th-century Border king who was murdered and whose body was taken away by ox-cart until it broke, so he was buried at that spot, and a church was built there. His well is only a few minutes walk away along the riverside footpath.
St Peter’s Wells, Peterchurch (p.43) SO353388
There were three springs originally, the two highest being good for eye troubles; pins were thrown into them. ‘The water of the larger [lower] well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers of rheumatism.’ The well has been restored so that the water still flows, or did in 2009 when I saw it, through the stone head. The site of the pool below is now overgrown.
St Mary’s Well, Peterchurch (p.43)
‘A small spring called St. Mary’s Well, but known locally as Sore Eyes’ Well, issues from rock in the steep side of the dingle in Park Wood… A small basin-like hollow appears to have been made in the rock and the spring is still resorted to by many in search of relief for eye afflictions.’
St Margaret’s Well, St Margarets (p.44)
‘This spring is on Green Court Farm, three-tenths of a mile south of Urishay. The spring issues from beneath a prominent rock band and discharges direct into the stream… The only information that could be obtained locally was that it was believed that there used to be a bathing pool here.’
Heavenly Well, Vowchurch (p.45)
‘This is a dip-well fed by a small spring from cornstone close to the track’ one mile from Vowchurch church. No information is given as to the well’s use, but its name alone meant I had to include it in this listing.
Golden Well, Dorstone (p.49)
‘This is a shallow-seated spring issuing from loamy soil just within the western boundary of Bell Alders, half a mile north-west-by-west of St. Mary’s church, Dorstone. According to the legend: “In this well, once upon a time, a fisherman caught a fish with a gold chain round its neck. In commemoration a sculptured representation of the fish in stone, with its chain, was placed in the church [at Peterchurch], where it may still be seen.”’ [Quotation from The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, p.12]
St Peter’s Well, Whitney (p.50)
‘This is a “spout spring” issuing from the steep bank between the railway and the road north-east of SS. Peter and Paul Church.’
St Ann’s Well, Aconbury (p.51)
‘For a long time it was the local belief that water taken from this spring after twelve o’clock on Twelfth Night possessed great curative properties and was especially good for eye troubles.’
St Edith’s Well, Stoke Edith (p.59) SO604406
‘This is a copious spring, probably an overflow spring from the Downton Castle Sandstone, emerging near the church and below the churchyard and by which the memorial trough on the Hereford—Ledbury road was supplied. The well is called after St Edith, daughter of King Edgar, who at the age of fifteen was made Abbess of Wilton. She died in her twenty-third year, on September 16th, 984. According to a legend the spring issued in answer to her prayer for water which was needed for mixing the mortar required for a church. For many years the villagers believed that those who bathed in its water were cured of various ailments, and to stop the bathing, bars were at length placed in front of the well.’ That sounds like a most vindictive, unsympathetic course of action to take, at a time when the villagers would have had little or no access to medical care.
Holy Well, Luston (p.84)
‘At the northern end of Luston village, at the turning to Eye, is a Holy Well the water of which is now collected in a concrete tank from which it emerges through a pipe.’
Holy Well, Adforton (p.87)
‘This spring, which is on government property and said to have “a pretty constant make,” emerges in Wenlock Shale ground at a point 960 yds. from Adforton Church in a south-westerly direction. There are said to be seven springs which locally are reputed to have medicinal properties.’
Laugh Lady Well, Brampton Bryan (p.89)
‘A cairn has been erected over this spring the yield of which is now small since the bulk is taken for the Park and village supply. The legend attached to this well is that if a pin be dropped in and bubbles arise from it, the wish then made will be granted.’
Cawdor Well, Ross Rural (p.99)
‘This well, on the northern boundary of the Ross Urban District, was fed by five weak springs from sandstone, but has now been filled up with earth. For long its water was held in high esteem for curing rheumatism, etc.’
Holy Well, Garway (p.105) SO455224
‘In the churchyard of St. Michael’s Church is a Holy Well. The water comes through a spout in the churchyard wall, but it is the overflow of a stone tank (in a hollow at the back) into which a spring from sandstone runs…. The occurrence of this spring caused the Knights Templars to select the site for one of their preceptories.’
Holy Well, Holywell, Blakemere (p.108)
‘At Holywell, the Holy Well is a perennial spring of good water, issuing from a gravel bed in a field at the back of the school, from which all the people in the hamlet fetch their supplies.’
The Dragon’s Well, Brinsop (p.109)
‘”The church…is dedicated to St. George…The Dragon’s Well is in Duck Pool meadow, on the south side of the church, while on the other side is a field called ‘Lower Stanks’…where St. George slew the Dragon.”’ [quoted from Mrs Leather’s Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, p.11]
Eye Well, Mansell Gamage (p.110)
‘There is an Eye Well in Eye Well Field on the top of the hill.’
Eye Well, Bromyard (pp.114-15)
‘This spring (about half a mile south-west-by-south of Bromyard Church) is on land…by the side of the Hereford road…The water had for long the reputation of being “good for the eyes” and was used for bathing them up to about twenty years ago [i.e. c. 1915]. “Eye Well” has now become erroneously “High-well” and a house built near by bears this name.’
Crooked Well, Kington (p.115)
‘This spring – the source of the town’s supply – according to tradition was “good for the eyes.” By some it is said to be so called because a crooked pin was necessary as an offering; but Mr. G. Marshall suggests that the name comes from the old word “crooked” (crokyd), which was equivalent to lame or crippled.’
St Ethelbert’s Well, Castle Hill, Hereford (p.127) SO511396
‘According to tradition a spring “is said to have sprung up on the spot where St. Ethelbert’s body touched the ground on its removal from Marden [to Hereford Cathedral] in 793. A mutilated sculptured head of St. Ethelbert, part of an effigy which formerly stood at the west end of the Cathedral, is fixed above the well. A circular stone within the garden of Mr. Custos Eckett’s house marks the exact position of the spring.” “Some years ago, when the well was cleaned out, a quantity of pins were found in it. The water was held especially good for ulcers and sores.”’ [First quotation from Trans. Woolhope Nat. F.C. for 1918; second quote from Mrs Leather’s Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, pp.11,12]
“The stone head from the mouth of which the main spring flows, pictured in Mrs Leather’s the Folklore of Herefordshire has miraculously survived the tanking of this well for a water supply, although he is now buried almost up to his nose in concrete.”
Jonathan Sant 1994’s Healing wells of Herefordshire
Such was the description that when I was touring the area visiting holy and healing wells in Herefordshire I gave St Peter’s Wells a miss thinking I’d be disappointed. However, the well was a notable one John Littlebury in his 1876, Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire notes that:
“The water of these wells was formerly extensively used for the cure of rheumatism and sore eyes.”
Indeed these appear to other springs, and this explains the name, St Peter’s Wells, Ella Leather in her Folklore of Herefordshire notes of these:
“There were formerly three springs here. Two near together, above the large well, were good for eye troubles; into these pins were thrown. They are now closed up.”
Ella Leather continues:
“The water of the larger well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers from rheumatism. Mr J. Powell, of Peterchurch, told me in 1905, that he could remember this chilly remedy being actually used: it was in his boyhood. The ash tree which formerly stood near the well had been cut down, and still lay above it.”
It is evident from Leather’s photo that the head no longer had a flow of water through it and it appears that the bath was no longer beneath it. I would suggest that the head had not flowed for some time because it is clean and lacking in any moss which would come with constant water. L. Richards in his 1935 Wells and Springs of Herefordshire notes that:
“A considerable quantity of water issues from sandstone in the neighbourhood of St. Peter’s Wells above Wellbrook Farm and gives rise to Well Brook—joined by a tributary from a good spring in Bradley’s Wood—which flows under the road at Crossway and so into the River Dore. The spring water is hard, especially that from the ‘ Limestone ‘ which is well displayed in a quarry below Urishay Castle and on analysis by C. C. Duncan, F.I.C., F.C.S., proved to be 96.37 per cent, carbonate of lime.”
This hard water may explain its use for rheumatics perhaps.
Ancient pagan well?
With such a prominent head it is not surprisingly that there has been conjecture over a pagan origin, citing the Celtics fascination with heads, especially in connection with wells It is interesting that an ash tree is mentioned Ash trees were thought be sacred in pagan times and where associated with the legend of Odin’s eye and the well, but of course it is a common tree and it could be a coincidence. Sant (1994) notes:
“An iron cross has been found in the wood above the well, and this may have come from the well where it would have lent a less pagan air to the place.”
Where there was a link is not clear considering it was found in the woods and not at the well
A bath and baptism
Sant (1994) notes that the baths were provided with a:
“ shed for the rheumatic bather’s use.”
And according to George Marshall in 1933–5, ‘Fourth field meeting, 1933’, Tr. of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club 1933–5: xxvi–ix states that:
“up to quite recent times, baptisms were performed here, the bath being approached by eight stone steps. Mr Watkins explained that the steps and bath into which they lead was choked to the top with earth and the head was covered with water until recently, when excavations were made and the well renovated.”
Adopted for a water supply
The bath was restored in 1932 according to Richardson 1935 but this was short lived for it was soon adopted as a local water supply for the town
“Village Supply.—This belongs to the ‘ Peterchurch Water Supply Company ‘—a company constituted by an Indenture dated 2nd February, 1921,and consisting of the users of the scheme. There are two separate undertakings: a spring from sandstone collected at outburst into a brick tank above Wellbrook (by the side of the road to Stockley Hill where it is joined by the lane from St Peter’s Wells supplies the lower part of the village….”
The current reservoir was installed here in the 1960s, and its insensitive positioning rendered the ancient stone head redundant as noted by Sant 1994 and shown below.
However in 2015, as part of an infrastructure upgrade, a way was found to direct excess water through the stone head and water once again flowed through its mouth. In periods of very low groundwater levels the flow from the stone head may be reduced to a trickle due to demands from the water supply network.
When I did finally visit the site in 2017 I was delighted indeed to see this head restored to its usage and the well chamber visible, albeit difficult to approach as a result of the fence which understandable is around the site to protect the water supply. It now boasts to be the most notable holy well in the county once again.
In the last post, we discussed the well dedicated to St, Ethelbert, in this post I shall introduce the other curious piece of local waterlore, the tale of the bell and the mermaid. Ella Mary Leather in her 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire. She relates in a story communicated by a Mr Galliers, of King Pyon and completed from other oral versions:
“In former times Marden church stood close to the river, and by some mischance one of the bells was allowed to fall into it, it was immediately sized by a mermaid who carried it to the bottom and held it there so fast that any number of horses could move it.”
She continues to state how the bell could be recovered:
“The people of the parish were told how to recover it, by wise men, according to some; others say the bell itself gave directions from the bottom of the river. A team of twelve white Free Martins heifers was to be obtained and attached to the bell with yokes of the sacred yew tree and bands of wittern or in some versions, the drivers’ goads were to be of witty or wittern mountain ash.”
Here interestingly is related a common folklore motif. The recovery by a set number of oxen, often unblemished of pattern in some way, the number twelve being a significant folklore number of course. Also interesting is the mention of yew and wittern – or mountain ash. Mountain Ash was an important plant often used in May time as adornment on houses and was held against witchcraft. Indeed, Aubrey noted
“They used when I was a boy to make pinnes for the yoakes of their oxen of them believing it had virtue to preserve them from being fore spoke. As they call it and they used the plant one by their dwelling house believing it to preserve them from witches and Evil Eyes.”
The next stage again is often told at other locations when treasure needs to be uncovered:
“The bell was to be drawn out in perfect silence it was successfully raised to the edge of the river with the mermaid inside fast asleep. In the excitement a driver, forgetting that silence was all important called out
“In spite of the Devils in hell, now well land Marden’s great bell”
This woke the mermaid, who darted back into the river, taking the bell with her ringing.”
The Mermaid replying:
“If it has not been for your wittern bands or witty goads and your yew tree lin, I’d have you twelve free martins in.”
This of course appears to indicate the power of the sacred foliage used which prevented the full effort of the mermaid.
“So Marden folks have never had their bell back from the bottom of the river to this day, and sometimes it may still be heard ringing, echoing the bells of the church. It does in a deep clear pool.”
A common story
Now this is as I have said a common folk motif. A similar story is recorded at the Callow Pit, Southwold in Norfolk about not speaking. Here an iron chest filled with gold said to lay at the bottom of the pit. Many years ago, two adventurous men determined to retrieve it. Having placed a platform of ladders across the pit they were success to insert a staff into the ring in the lid of the chest, and bore it up from the water. They then placed the staff on their shoulders and prepared to bar their trophy off. As they did so one of them exclaimed: ‘We’ve got it safe, and the devil himself can’t get it from us.’ Instantly a cloud of sulphurous steam arose and a black hand from the pool and latched onto the chest. A terrible struggle ensued and after much exhaustion, their treasure sank back down into the murky depths. All the men retained was the ring.
A closer version is told at Newington Kent, associated with the Libbet Well, the legend blames the church wardens, who decided to sell thechurch’s great bell to pay for the repair of the others. So as not to be seen they did it at night, but the Devil appeared and threw it in the well. At first they had great success at raising the bell to the surface, but the rope broke, they tried again and failed. A local witch arrived, and told them that the only way it could be raised was by drawing it up by four pure white oxen. This was done, and it was almost raised to the surface until, a local urchin, who was passing, shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘Look at the black spot behind that bull’s ear’. The rope instantly broke, and the bell was lost forever!
Rediscovery of the bell!
Now these other legends are just that legends and usually such a story ends, but this one has a postscript. Leather (1912) further records:
“In 1848 in cleaning out a pond in Marden, an ancient bronze bell was discovered . It lay at a depth of eighteen feet, beneath the accumulated mud and rubbish of centuries. The bel, which is now in the Hereford museum is rectangular in shape the plates are riveted together on each side. The clapper is lost , but there remains the loop inside from which it was suspended.”
Now of course what is unknown here is what came first, the bell’s discovery or the legend. The bell’s rediscovery would be vindication for such a legend but as Leather is the first to record it, it could be that the legend was constructed around the bell. However, I feel less sceptical about it considering how complex the legend is.
Let us first consider the bell. Leather herself introduces the idea that these were bells that the sexton or clerk took to the houses of the deceased on the day of the funeral. However, they originated as portable bells often associated with saints, indeed one in Glascwm a bell called Bangu was said to have belonged to St David,. Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In his work Wirt Sykes 1880 British Goblins it is noted that:
“Clergy were more afraid of swearing falsely by them than the gospels, because of some hidden and miraculous power with which they were gifted, and by the vengeance of the Saint to who, they were particular pleasing; their despisers and transgressors were severely punished…. Have in all probability hidden long ago by reformers on account of the superstitious beliefs attached to them.”
Now it seems likely that the bell was perhaps used to warn off the mermaid (whatever that might be) as a way of Christianizing the site and removing any pagan imaginary. Does the story recall the battle between the pre-Christian world and the Christian world? The message being in this remote region that paganism still has its grip despite the church!
What was the mermaid?
It might seem unusual to hear about a freshwater Mermaid, certainly one so far from the sea. However, she is not alone. There are mermaids in the Peak District, Lancashire and elsewhere – indeed there are more freshwater ones than sea water in England. Why? It is probable that these are folk memories of water deities which are converted to otherworldly creatures. In the case of Marden’s slightly sympathetically, in other mermaid stories she steals people and drowns them.
Was the mermaid the deity which was originally associated with St Ethelbert’s Well? It is possible although there is a long gap between a likely Celtic deity and Saxon Christian conversion, although it is possible that a Saxon deity like Nerthus could be the origin. That is of course if St Ethelbert is the original saintly dedication. His legend is so generic as stated in the earlier post, he could have easily replaced or been mistaken for a local pre-Saxon saint. Certainly Leather suggests the bell has an association with the saint:
“The Marden bell was perhaps associated with St Ethelbert ; the pond in which it was found is near the church which stands on the spot on which the body was first buried before its removal to Hereford. “
Such a bell is not a Saxon type but it is not without reason that the style continued into the Saxon period, especially in boarder country. Alternatively, the bell may be an indication of the existence of the pre-Saxon saint I muted. Certainly the discovery of the bell in a pond may indicate the true location of the village’s holy well and not the dry pit that survives in the church. Whatever the truth it is an interesting and little known story and one would welcome observations by readers.
“by the side of the ditch arose a spring, which superstition consecrated to St Ethelbert, there is a handsome old stone arch erected over it.”
William Stukeley (1724) Itinerary
Hereford’s St Ethelbert’s well sadly does not have a handsome old stone arch over it but down on Castle Green the site of the well is still marked. It is a well with a good degree of pedigree being first mentioned on a 1250 deed which in referring to a property records:
“a road leading towards the former fountain of blessed St Ethelbert”
Similarly a grant in 1359 to a John of Evesham refers to:
“the lane leading to the well of St Ethelbert”.
John Speed on his map of the town in 1611 draws it and Thomas Dingley in 1683 draws it.
The cult of St. Ethelbert
I have discussed the martyrdom of the saint in a previous post but it is worth recalling two traditions. One that as the body with its decapitated head was being carried to Hereford it fell and tripped over a blind man who was miraculously able to see. The other is that this was a resting place for the coffin before transfer to the cathedral but it is not mentioned in his main Vita. His body was transferred to the cathedral and became a shrine lost in the reformation. In 2008 a shrine surrounding a pillar near the high altar was established it shows scenes of the saints martyrdom.
The original well
In 1802 the well ‘appears on a plan… drawn as a circular feature enclosed by walls and approached by five stone steps. It was situated in the eastern corner of a garden soon to be occupied by St Ethelbert’s House’
By Wright (1819) A Walk through Hereford he was noting that:
“Some disjointed remains of this arch may yet be noticed; on each side the door in the modern wall are key stones, ornamented with foliage or corolla, with terminations of rib-work. In a niche above, defended by an iron palisade, is a head, wearing a crown, carved in stone; it is part of the image of St Ethelbert, which formerly stood in a niche on the ancient west front of Hereford Cathedral… The well is now provided with a pump erected and kept in repair during her life-time, by the late Johanna Whitmore, of this city.”
Thus by 1869 Havergal notes in Fasti Herefordenses and other Antiquarian Memorials of Hereford:
“the superstructure has long since disappeared, and the well itself is entirely excluded from sight by four brick walls and a vast accumulation of rubbish.”
In 1904, the original site was stopped up, although it was said then that a circular stone within Mr Custos Eckett’s garden marked the exact position, but that exact position itself was lost.
James Brome in his 1700 Travels Over England, Scotland and Wales stated that the well was:
“by the Trench near the Castle… a very fine Spring, call’d St Ethelbert’s Well, famous formerly for Miracles.”
Wright (1819) records it as:
“a beautiful limpid spring, formerly much reverenced; and even now in great esteem for its medicinal properties.”
Storer (1814–19) records that:
“the place is still visited by person s afflicted with ulcers and sores, to which the washing is often very salutary.”
Havergal again notes:
“many wonderful cures are said to have been effected at this well.”
W. J. Rees in their 1827 The Hereford Guide says that the water was:
“reputed to be of service to persons afflicted with bad eyes, ulcers, and sores of various kinds.”
“caused the cases to be ascertained in which the use of the water was of service.”
Yet in December 1822 when the water being analysed by Mr J. Murray:
“his opinion was that the medicinal qualities were not very important”.
It would appear if Wright is correct that it was traditional at some point to give a pin for he notes:
“In cleaning it out for that purpose, a great quantity of pins were found in its bottom.”
Watkins 1918-1920 noted that there was more than one site which claimed to be the well indeed there were four. These were as well as to the circular stone where the medieval well-house had been, and the new drinking fountain there was also:
“a pump and well in Dr Du Buisson’s yard in the line of the ditch…..a flowing spout of water, formerly running close under Castle Cliffe house at a spot which is, or ought to be, a public watering or landing approach to the river, and which ceased to flow on being cut off in laying a main sewer in 1888. Half a century ago my father investigated the possibility of bottling this water (with its medicinal reputation and attractive name) and secured its analysis, but was much surprised to find (in its organic impurities ) stronger indications of an origin in at own ditch than in a rock spring.”
Whitehead records how this drinking fountain was erected in 1904 and has been restored twice once by the Hereford Civic Trust and rededicated by the Right Reverend J.R.G. Eastaugh, the Lord Bishop of Hereford on St Ethelbert’s Day, 20 May 1978’
Sadly the waters are now not obtainable for Sant (1994) says it dried up during building works after the war. Today the sadly worn face of Ethelbert stares over a dry lion’s head.
Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
To those reading this blog, who may not be overly familiar with the study of Holy wells and healing springs, may be familiar with the throwing of coins into springs. However, this is a relatively recent invention, before this activity, itself of course quite expensive in older times – pins were used.
Pins you may ask? Why would you have a pin on you? Well of course in those days pins were commonly used, especially by women to hold hats on and so were generally available. A glance through works such as Jones on Holy Wells of Wales and Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells produces quite a number.
The custom was quite widespread from Northumberland (Worm Well) to much of Wales where at for example at Ffynnon Enddwyn, Merioneth, Wales evil spirits were ward off by doing so. At Piran’s Well, Cornwall, Hope (1893) tells us:
“Beside a path leading to the oratory of St. Pirian’s, in the sands, there is a spot where thousands of pins may be found. It was the custom to drop one or two pins at this place when a child was baptized.”
At Bede’s Well, Jarrow Durham, as noted before ill children were brought to the well and crooked pin was put in and at St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire would inquire about the fidelity of their lovers, dates of marriage etc by as Hope (1893) notes:
“the turning of the pin- point to the north or any other point of the compass.”
In Chepstow, Monmouthshire a well called, the Pin Well, Hope (1893) again notes:
“those who would test the virtues of its waters said an ave and dropped a pin into its depth.”
Certain days were associated with giving pins. May time, particularly at St Maddern’s Well, Madron the first Thursday in May to consult this oracle by dropping pins states Borlase (1769) in his Antiquities of Cornwall.The Wishing well of St. Roche, Cornwall it was visited on Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. At Wooler, Northumberland, the Pin Well was visited by a procession of people from the village on May Day and each would drop a crooked pin into it and made a wish. Cruelly bent pins were daily thrown into St. Warna’s Well, Isle of Scilly to wish for ship wrecks! However in the majority of cases it was for a benefit of the depositer in a positive way. Quiller Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall (18??) notes that at Menacuddle Well:
“On approaching the margin, each visitor, if he hoped for good luck through life, was expected to throw a crooked pin into the water, and it was presumed that the other pins which had been deposited there by former devotees might be seen rising from their beds, to meet it before it reached the bottom, and though many have gazed with eager expectation, no one has yet been permitted to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. “
There appears to be an association with fairies and pins. At the Pisky Well, Altarnun Hope (1893) states:
“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”
Such an association appears as far north as Cartmel, Cumbria. Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel notes:
“Near to this holy well are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”
In many places, such as at St. Philip’s Well, near Keyingham, Yorkshire girls would caste pins for love predictions. At Brayton Barf, Yorkshire, a reason for this is given. A local woman is said to have been enchanted by the fairies looking into a well here and they appeared to explain to her their need for pins. Apparently, they used hawthorn thorns for their arrows and these were very ineffective but some of the fairy folk had noticed that the pins used by local women would be an ideal replacement. However, the fairies had no real way of obtaining the pins by enchantment and so they arranged that any women who visited the well and dropped a pin would find out the identity of their true love reflected in the water. After awaking from her enchantment she threw a pin in and she saw the face of her sweetheart and so spread the news and the fairies got their arrows! Sadly, the well is lost. However, the tradition has spread as far as Rhosgoch in Herefordshire where Hope (1893) was told:
“who haved close to the well for two years, tells me that the bottom was bright with pins — straight ones he thinks — and that you could get whatever you wished for the moment the pin you threw in touched the bottom.” ” It was mostly used for wishing about sweethearts.”
Despite this rather imaginative reason for dropping pins, why were pins dropped. Well in many cases, when the pin was bent, this action resembled that done in prehistoric times to swords deposited in ritual areas as votive objects. For example it may be significant that at some wells pricking the finger before casting it away may have had a deeper meaning. Does it represent a sacrificial aspect to giving a votive offering? So perhaps take a small pin box and caste a pin not a coin if you must.
If you walk into Peterchurch, Herefordshire, one of the most intriguing images is found high on the wall – a trout with a chain around its neck. This image, a sculptured stone painting, said to have been copied from an older one, has been associated with a local legend, which has resonance elsewhere. Hope (1893) in his Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“Tradition has it that a fish was once caught in the river Dore, with a golden chain round its body, which was afterwards kept in the Golden Well, from whence the river rises.”
Although in some cases, a nearby well St. Peter’s, newly restored or simply the river Dor itself is given as the source. The image is much copied locally, especially by the school. However, is it really associated with a well? Wells and fish, sacred usually and often prophetic can be found in places as far away as North Wales to Cornwall, a names like Fish Well in Lincolnshire are also given as support for a cult associated with fish in wells. Over the years the simply story has been elaborated upon. The chain in Christian imagery is associated with St. Peter (again with a nearby well) and he is claimed to have placed it there, whilst he and fellow apostle St. Paul converted the locals – the name Apostle Lane.
However, the story goes further for the fish was supposed to live in the pool the people of Dorstone tried to capture it and steal it chain and so injured it made its way to Peterchurch, where one would expect perhaps it would receive refuge, but no, it was killed and the chain removed.
What does this story mean? Is there any truth to it? Well yes and no. It seems likely that the fish escaped from some local paradise ponds or fisheries on the river probably owned by the monks of Abbey Dore. Records show that three existed on the Dore and no doubt in times of shortage local people might attempt to liberate them. It may also be possible that these fisheries caught fish travelling up the river, such as salmon and they could have been chained up to prevent removal? I think that’s perhaps unlikely and the chain element may have been introduced to validate its association with St. Peter. The well association is the vaguest but perhaps the source was the fishery or else there is another less fishy story lost in the legend.
St Edith’s Well, Stoke Edith
This is a substantial spring head arising in a square pool and beside a niche and then flowing into a large brick-lined bathing pool. Over the whole structure is a stone arch. The spring was said to have been formed when the Saxon saint, the daughter of King Edgar, was carrying water from a nearby brook to mix with the mortar so that the church could be built, but became exhausted, prayed for water and the spring arose. The pool was used for healing, although this did not stop the Lady of the Manor, Emily Foley, installing a grill inside the arch preventing locals using it. However this grill is now open, although it would be a bit of a squeeze, as only part of the grill fully opens.
Higgin’s Well, Little Birch
In what could be described as the muddiest lane in England, well it was when I visited, the reason for the mud is easily found being the substantial Higgin’s Well. The brick work of the structure dates from the early 19th century with some improvements such as the creation of a large pool as an animal trough for Victoria’s diamond jubilee, although this structure does mean now it is very difficult to get the water if you are not an animal. Perhaps this was the intention; as the foundation of the well enshrine the landowners attempt to stop people taking the waters. It is said that the spring was originally further up the hill, but Higgins the land owner filled it to stop locals who crossed his land to reach it. As a result the spring forced itself through the floor of his house! As a result Higgins established a well at the bottom of the hill as a compromise.
Holy Well, Garway
This is a small spring, dried when visited, just outside the south-east corner of the churchyard. When it flows the water flows through a spout into a small rectangular pool. Beside is a niche perhaps where offerings or a saint was placed. The site is associated with a Templar church, but whether they utilised it is unclear.
The Holy Well, Kenchester
The National Trust gardens of the Weir hide an interesting anomaly, a small spring head surrounded by a series of circular steps down. Said to be a holy well by some authorities, it was filled in by the Bishop of Hereford, however others believe it to be a Roman water shrine.
A colourful legend tells that a Roman soldier who had an ancient Briton lover, this lover misconstrued a visit from on order to a ‘lady’ and threw herself into the river. He went to save her and was himself drowned. It is said that every year they haunt the well and that the well fills with their tears, and if collected the water would have special properties for lovers.
Is it a holy well? It’s not clear, the fact that the site lies in a landscape garden suggests it is folly although there was a Roman villa. Local accounts state it was rediscovered in the 1891 drought, whilst searching for a water supply.
St. Ann’s Well, Aconbury
This is a delightful well to finish our survey. Found in a copse in a small field. It arises in a small medieval structure which enclosures a small pool, being tanked, the flow can change and when I visited it was rather dry. I have included this site in my January entry this year, as its water said to be good for eyes, where visited on Twelfth night or New years day, when it was thought to be more powerful.
Much has been written regarding holy wells culminating in Harte (2008) magnus opus but no survey has attempted to record all those wells and springs named after monarchs as far as I am aware. With Jubilee fever all around I thought it would be fitting to start an overview of this aspect of water lore in England. Starting with King well, a generic name, is by far the commonest with sites recorded at Chalk (Kent), Cuffley (Hertfordshire) (although associated with James I), Chigwell (Essex) (although probably cicca’s well)), Lower Slaughter (Gloucestershire), Kingsthorpe (Northamptonshire), Orton (Northumberland), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Ellerton (Staffordshire), Wartling (Sussex), and Bath (Somerset). Some of these such as Chigwell may be a etymological mistake being more likely derive from Cicca’s well and some such as Orton are thought to be associated with Iron age sites.
However, English wells and their associations with monarchs starts perhaps starts with King Arthur’s Well (Cadbury ) but taking this probably mythical king aside, and not considering those monarchs associated with the Celtic and Saxon Kingdoms (after all a high percentage of these early saints were the sons of Kings (such as those begat by King Brechan) or early kingly Christian converts for example St Oswald or St Ethelbert ) which are better known by their sanctity rather than their majesty, I start with sites associated with who is seen as being the first King of England; Alfred.
King Alfred’s Well (Wantage) is of unclear vintage arising as it does in a brick lined chamber although his association with the town is well known. However as Benham (1911) notes in his The Letters of Peter Lombard:
“a clear and bright spring, but I fear that the evidence that King Alfred ever had anything to do with it is not forthcoming. The site of his birthplace is not very far from the well”
Although that did not stop a procession to the well in the year 2000! St Peter’s Pump at Stourhead (Wiltshire) too has become associated with Alfred and it is said he prayed for water her before a battle, there is again little evidence if any of this. In East Dean (Sussex) there is another well named after him. Interestingly the direct descendents of Alfred do not appear to have gained any association with wells, perhaps being a measure of either their impact on folk memory. The next king is the rather tragic figure of Harold. Harold’s Well laying in the Keep of Dover Castle (Kent) is an interesting site, it is a typical castle well and unlikely to be the site where Harold is said to have according to Macpherson (1931) (MacPherson, E. R., The Norman Waterworks in the Keep of Dover Castle. Arch Cant. 43 (1931)) been were the King swore he would give with the castle to William of Normandy, later William I. (Wartling’s King well may record Harrold or William)
I can find no wells associated with the Norman Kings or Queens and the next monarch to appear is King John. He is interestingly the monarch with most sites associated with him, being in Heaton Park (Newcastle), Odell (Bedfordshire), Kineton (Warwickshire) and Calverton (Nottinghamshire) (although the later is recorded as Keenwell). This may be the consequence of his infamy and association with Robin Hood sites taking on his name in the telling and re-telling of Robin Hood tales. However, in most cases it would appear to be sites associated with a castle although surely King John was not the only monarch to have used such sites.
The next monarch associated with a well is a prince, a man who despite being heir apparent, never reached the throne. The Black Prince, a very romantic figure and with an evocative name, his spring is perhaps the most well known of those associated with royalty: the Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown (Kent). Legend has it that he regularly drank from the well and asked for a draught of it as he lay sick and dying of syphilis. However, the water’s powers did not extend to this and he died never becoming king. The well has the three feathers, sign of the Prince of Wales, an emblem captured at Crecy although the origin and age of the well is unknown it is the only such spring with any insignia of a monarch.
The subsequent centuries saw a number of squirmishes and conflicts which also created some springs associated with royalty. Perhaps the most interesting well associated with a monarch is King Henry VI’s Well, Bolton in Craven (North Yorkshire). It is interesting because the King’s reputation was that of sanctity and as such any well would have pretentions to be a holy well. Indeed the local legend states that when a fugitive at Bolton Hall he asked for the owner to provide a bathing place. No spring was available and one was divined with hazel rods and where they indicated water the site was dug. The king prayed that the well may flow forever and the family may never become extinct. The site still exists and is used for a local mineral water firm!
The years of conflict between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ended at Bosworth field and here a we find King Richard’s Well, Sutton Cheney (Leicestershire). Traditionally Richard III drank from a spring that Lord Wentworth in 1813 encapsulated in large conical cairn shaped well house with an appropriate Latin inscription. Curiously both wells of course mark the losers of the battle and no wells record the victors of such conflicts. One wonders whether this records our interest in the underdog and lament for the lost. The strangest extrapolation of this is a well found in Eastwell (Kent). Here generations have pointed to a circular brick well in the estate grounds and a tomb in the derelict church and associated them with the lost son of Richard III. The Plantagenet’s Well may indeed have some basis in fact although the only evidence is the account of the legend during the building of Eastwell Manor in 1545, the landowner, Sir Thomas Moyle, was amazed to find one of his workman reading a book in Latin. Naturally curious, he decided to ask him about this ability. Thus the man informed him, that in 1485, at Bosworth Field, he was the illegitimate son of King Richard III, who had previously clandestinely acknowledged him as sole heir. The following day, fearing reprisals after Richard’s loss, the boy fled, avoiding being recognition by disguising himself as a bricklayer and thus was years later, employed in the manor’s construction. Sir Thomas, believed the man’s story, and being a Yorkist sympathiser, adopted him into his household. This story of Richard Plantagenet remained a family secret, until it was revealed in Gentleman’s Magazine, as a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Brett, of Spring Grove (near Eastwell) to a friend Dr. Warren. He had heard the story from the Earl of Winchelsea at Eastwell House about 1720. This story is further enforced by Parish records showing that on December 27th 1550 V Rychard Plantagenet was interred, the notation V being a notification for a royal personage. However, having never seen the record myself I am unsure of its validity.
The next monarch encountered in a well dedication is a surprising one perhaps. In Carshalton (Surrey), we find Anne Boleyn’s Well, which is an perplexing dedication considering her unpopularity and association with a monarch who would have seen holy wells another trapping of the papist money making machine he had excluded from his realm (although there is little evidence that Henry VIIIth had any real direct effect on holy wells as would the newly established Scottish Kirk). The legend of its formation related that when the King and Queen were out riding from Nonsuch Palace, her horse’s foot hit the ground and a spring arose. No reason for is given and it is probable that the spring was re-discovered and perhaps dedicated to St. Anne. Bedford’s Park is not far from Pygro’s Park which has an association with Henry VIII so one assumes the Queen Anne’s well is again Boleyn although I know nothing more and indeed missed it from my survey!
Unlike her mother, Elizabeth I was a popular monarch, much as the present monarch is, especially in the strongly protestant counties, hence Queen Elizabeth Wells at Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex). In the case of Rye, the spring was part of a water improvement system which provided water via a conduit system. It was so named after her visit to Rye in 1573, when she drunk the water and met the town dignitaries, or Jurats, there, before they processed into the town. Amusingly the well was also known as Dowdeswell, from O. E. dowde for a plain woman, a scold or shrew a fact which may have tickled some recusant families in the vicinity no doubt. so like many a holy well the name was changed for the monarch. Interestingly, Winchelsea’s site was and still is called St. Katherine’s Well so perhaps the monarch’s name was used to remove Catholic associations (especially considering Queen Katherine of Aragon), although St. Leonard’s well remained intact. Bisham’s Queen Elizabeth’s Well (Buckhamshire) is even associated with miraculous cures which certainly predate the monarch and perhaps her visit and taking of the waters when visiting Lady Hoby her cousin may have been the opportunity to move away from the holy well name? Queen Elizabeth also gave her name to a well in Friern Barnet (Middlesex) and Blackheath (Surrey)
Perhaps in the day when the site of the monarch was an extremely rare occasion folk memory has preserved it. This may explain King James Well Mickley (Yorkshire) whose only reason for the dedication was that he stopped to drink at it! This well does not appear to have then developed any note as a consequence. However, a spring at Cuffley (Hertfordshire) was visited by the King and developed into a minor spa called the King’s Well.
Interestingly, if England had not broken from Rome we may have seen those associated with Charles I develop in the same fashion, after all he does have churches and chapels named after him. Charles is often associated with wells, in some cases such as Carles Trough, (Leicestershire) where he is said to have watered horse here after Naseby. Ellerton’s (Staffordshire) King’s Well and Longhope (Gloucestershire) Royal Spring are both associated with the monarch.
However, stopping to drink is a common theme. A well in Appledore (Kent) is called Queen Anne’s Well because she is said to have stopped there and asked the landlord for a sip. It is possible that such associations may stem from a desire for a local land owner to support a developing spa trade, Queen Anne’s Bathhouse exists in Lullingstone (Kent), however there is no record of such an attempt at Appledore. Furthermore, it is unclear which Queen Anne is recorded at Appledore and it is possible considering the age of the brickwork in the cellar and around the well at this site that it was once St. Ann’s well. This is probably true of Lincoln’s Queen Ann’s Well, Chalvey’s Queen Ann’s Well (Buckinghamshire), Queen Anne’s Wishing Well (South Cadbury) and Blythborough’s (Suffolk) site now known as Lady Well! However of that of Chalvey, perhaps not as there is no pre-18th century record, although if it did not it soon attracted a reputation for healing and was called a spa. Interestly Queen Charlotte is also noted as being involved and as such according to the Mirror, of 1832,:
“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.
An accompanying woodcut to the piece showing the stone with the royal monogram carved in the centre. In 1698 Anne of Denmark gave money to create a basin at Tunbridge wells and well was called the Queen’s well.
Of course in the next two centuries, the rise of the spas saw many mineral springs develop the patronage of the monarch such as George IV, yet despite this times had changed and the wells did not take the monarch’s name directly. By the reign of Victoria, her name was then applied to fountainheads and pumps, as old wells were filled in and channelled away amidst growing concerns for the need for clean and freely accessible water. A few sites such as the confusing named Coronation or Jubilee Well (so marked on the 1844 OS map so difficult to record which monarch and which jubilee or coronation is referred to) in Wessington (Derbyshire) buck the trend.
In summary it is interesting that despite a large number of memorable and in some case not so memorable monarchs, there is are a limited number of them associated with wells. Why? Is it due to these particular monarchs having pricked the public’s folk memory, or in some cases inherited some sort of pious notion akin to that associated with holy wells.
Wells associated with Royalty can be divided into the following categories:
a) Those drunk before a battle or whilst on the run from a battle. This could include the Battle Well Evesham (Worcestershire), with its associations with Simon de Montford is out of the scope of this blog but shows this trend, the water becoming curative.
b) Those associated with their castles, palaces, hunting lodges. But why these particular monarchs is unclear?
c) Those made by miraculous events such as that associated King Henry VIs well. It seems perhaps these sites had developed in anticipation of the eventual sanctifying of the individuals which of course never happened.