Category Archives: Leicestershire
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!
Leicestershire is sadly not renowned for its holy and healing wells, this is despite two works, Bob Trubshaw’s seminal 1990 Holy Wells of Leicestershire and Rutland and James Rattue’s 1993 work on An Inventory of Ancient, Holy and Healing Wells in Leicestershire in LAHS. The majority of wells in the former are either lost or dubious wells, i.e not necessarily holy! One curious exception was the Sister’s Well at Hoton or Prestwold. Trubshaw (1990) records:
“Sisters’ Well (also known as Jacob’s Well) is on the perimeter of the disused airfield. A simple stone structure with steps down and wooden doors stood until World War II but the flow has now been culverted.”
Structurally this sounded like one of the more structure of the county’s holy wells and its loss was a considerable one. Another reason why this site was of interest is due to a local legend:
“A legend associated with this well tells how, during a three-month long drought, a sixteenth century maiden lady called Gertrude Lacey dreamed three times in one night of finding a stream by sticking a pilgrim’s staff from the Holy Land in a specific place. It was located in Langdale Field, and known as Spring Close after Enclosure. A pilgrim’s staff was dug up and, with the help of her sister Grace, she went off to the location. When the staff was stuck in the ground a supply of water was created which ‘has never run dry’. A double effigy in Prestwold church reputedly depicts these two sisters.
It is a common holy well origin motif and is found across the country and even overseas. However, rarely is it associated with secular figures which either emphasises the importance of the sisters or is a story transferred from a lost saint tradition. An interesting well who I thought only remembrance was the farm across from its location Shepherd’s Well farm.
It seemed clear that this was a lost site and then searching on the web for references to well in preparation of my Leicestershire holy wells I was amazed to come across this from Bob Trubshaw:
“In March 2015 the ‘solar farm’ on Wymeswold airfield was being extended. I received an email from Alexander Haddington to say that a friend of his had noticed that an old well had been uncovered to the north of the perimeter track. He thought the photographs his friend had taken ‘would be of interest’. ‘Yes, very much so!’ was the gist of my reply.”
I was similarly very keen to examine the site and photograph it for the book. I contacted the owners of the Solar farm and via a series of emails was welcomed to the site.
The landscape is perhaps the strangest to find a holy well. In a sea of solar cells, panels which spread across the relics of the airbase like a waves on the sea, enclosed in a wooden fence is the well. We removed a cone and some coverings and I peered inside.
The first thing that could be noticed was a series of steps into some deep murky water. The steps nearly reached the top of the concrete lid suggesting there may have been one on which the current covering rested on. The water arose from under an arch which was a right angles to the step and peering in there old stone work could be seen. .
The arch was a strong stone one upon which could be read slightly in the light ‘HL 1851’, did this refer to the Holy Land as the legend suggested? In the article for the Wold’s Historian, a Joan Shaw did some research for Bob Trubshaw and noted:
“The date and initials intrigued us and I was looking through the 1851 census last night to try and identify HL. As soon as I found the name Henry Lacey I was fairly satisfied that it was the Lacey family who had either found the well or, assuming it is older, had built the approach to it.
We looked at a map of the estate, the field appears to belong to the Packe Estate (or did) but the Lacey family owned land close by so it would be likely that they rented it and had perhaps rented it for many generations.”
The name Lacey being that of the two sisters showing that the family were keen to continue their beneficence. Either side of the arch was a piece of metal sticking out of the brickwork, which would appear to have been placed there to attach a metal or wooden set of doors on their as can be seen currently on a number of wells as shown below. Perhaps this would prevent the water being contaminated. These doors of course would not prevent it today as the water table has risen here compared to other places.
The site is remarkably well preserved and the landowners are keen to preserve it. I suggested that the whole concrete roof could be fully removed to allow a complete restoration and this may happen in the future. Whatever happens it is great to see this most interesting of Leicestershire holy wells being restored and rising from the ground like the origin spring – it holds out hope for similar rediscoveries perhaps.
As the world’s cameras pour upon a curious funeral ritual of a long lost King, it is appropriate perhaps to examine a noted well associated with the monarch and the event which resulted in his demise. For in the grounds of the supposed Bosworth Battle field is King Richard’s Well, (SP 402 000) and here lies a mystery. Why celebrate a well associated with a loser?
The name first appears on the Ashby Canal Company map of 1781, 1784 Montague Estate survey of Sutton Cheney Dixie Estate map of 1788 notes simply as Ambion Well after the Hill The earliest written descriptive record of the well I have uncovered appears to be Ireland (1785) who notes in Picturesque views on the Upper of Warwickshire Avon:
“near the scene of the action is a Well, which still retains the name King Richard’s Well, there were formerly a flight of steps leading down to it; it is now long overgrown with rushes and running to waste.”
This would suggest the existence of an older structure, but how old this is unclear. The statement ‘long overgrown’ suggests some age before the date of the publication but how much we cannot know for sure. The description of the structure is too little to date it, although a similar structure was to be encountered in the county at based on a legend dating from….but that along gives no support for antiquity. Certainly, Nichols *() fails to mention the well, which is unusual considering his interest in holy and ancient wells elsewhere in the county, was it an oversight or was it not very well known then.
Hutton in the Gentleman’s magasine Vol 83 part 2
“ I paid a visit in July 1807 to Bosworth Field; but found so great an alteration since I saw it in 1788, that I was totally lost. The manor had been inclosed: the fences were grown up; and my prospect impeded. King Richard’s well, which figures in our Histories was nearly obliterated; the swamp where he fell became firm land; and rivulet proceeding from it lost in an under-drain, so that future inspection is cut off.”
Dr. Parr visited the site in 1812 found in drained and closed up since he had visited in six or seven years previous. He organised a subscription with a suitable Latin inscription. Of course as Peter Foss (1990) notes in The Field of Redemore the cairn may not mark the exact one as there are a number of springs there. Nevertheless the site was repaired in 1964 with limestone rubble.
A local legend records that it was from the spring which Richard drank before the battle. This might suggest that the well was already noted and perhaps a holy well? Another legend records that on a hawthorn tree near the spring King Richard’s crown was found which would be very coincidental if the former legend was correct. This seems likely to be a piece of folklore later adapted to support the well rather than vica versa.
Why commemorate the King’s well at all?
The association of royalty with springs is an understudied aspect of the subject and I have already given an overview here. It appears such dedications fall in three groups: Holy wells (such as those associated with saintly kings), true historical associations and antiquarian musings! But which one does Richard’s Well belong to? Certainly the later two, but is there another tradition hiding beneath that?
His burial in Greyfriars suggests that the community perhaps wanted to capitalise on any cult which might developed. Kings after all did develop into cult figures, England has a number from Edward II to Henry VI although only pre-Norman Kings have ever been canonised. Perhaps, as I have hinted those who die could be considered martyrs and the church attempted to develop a cult around them. Was this one still born due to the Reformation?
Interestingly, Dickie’s Well is not the only well associated with the unfortunate king, in Warwickshire at Kineton, perhaps giving more evidence. More significantly perhaps is King Dick’s Hole, a deep part of the Anker where local tradition Richard bathed before the battle, may have stationed his troops at Mythe Hall.
Again all this supposition especially as the name appears only the late 1700s it perhaps more a romantic notion than record any cult tradition.
In the right place?
This is an obvious question, as in 2011 archaeologists and historians cast serious doubt over the belief that Bosworth field was the location. However, a number have used the well to support the view. In support of his for example Daniel Williams (1985) in A place mete for twoo battayles to encountre’: the siting of the Battle of Bosworth, 1485 cites the local tradition of King Richard’s Well, near the top of Ambion Hill on its western side, from which Richard is supposed to have drunk before the battle. There is also the discovery of cannonballs on Ambion Hill.
A number of historians have placed the marsh to varying degrees south and south-westward of Ambion Hill. Hutton located it on the slopes of the hill itself, created, he argued, by poor drainage of the spring at Richard’s Well. Others have tended to site the marsh nearer the Sence brook, regarding this as the probable source of waterlogged ground. Peter Foss (1990), however, in keeping with his theories about Redemore, has the marsh over half a mile to the south-west at the Fenn Lanes crossing.
Whatever the truth, Richard’s Well is one of the most famous springs associated with a King and a great part of the battlefield landscape.
Below is brief selection of sites in an understudied County, Leicestershire. Extracted from the forthcoming volume
In a lane close by the church, is a conical so called Holy Well (SK 724 229) although any history concerning the site is unclear. The spring is still very active although access to the water is not possible as the basin has been removed and placed on top of this truncated pyramidical yellow stone structure and the chamber is now grated. The water is said to be good for rheumatism, but beyond this little is known.
St Anne’s Well (SP 728 938) of which Nichols (1795-1815) notes:
“About a quarter of a mile North of the church, near the public road leading towards Staunton Wyvile, is an excellent well, or spring, called St Anne’s or Saddington’s Well, which in dry seasons has frequently been found highly serviceable… At the time of the inclosure, this spring was carefully preserved.”
Easily found and still marked on the appropriate OS map, the spring is found just by the roadside in a small copse but now directly flowing onto it. The water arises in a small bricked area and flows into a large pool. The water appears to be mildly chalybeate, as there is some sign of iron-red staining.
Nichols (1795–1815) notes that the parish had:
“a famous chalybeate spring, or spa, called Holwell Mouth (SK 738 236), which is considered as serviceable in many distempers; whence it obtained the name of Holy-well.”
Despite this it is probably derived from O.E hol for ‘hollow’. It is reported that at some time the area was improved and a stone table was set up there. This may be connected with the fact that the land was called Well Dole and was granted to Vicarage 1403 and paid 10s p/a paid in 1790s for its upkeep. Was the table used to provide a dole? Otherwise would it not be a stone seat? The site was much frequented until the landowner discouraged its use and the site is still on private land but visible, more so in winter, from the footpath. However the spring currently is very overgrown but the spring head still gushes out at some speed among the foliage but quickly forms a boggy morass just off a footpath.
The Holy Well (SK 502 056) is first noted by Nichols (1795-1815) notes in reference to Bury Camp above the site:
“Not far from the encampment is a place called Holywell; the water antiscorbutic.”
Its association with Bury Camp suggests it may have had some significance, possibly ritual, but certainly function although the inhabitants would have had a long walk down! Richardson (1931) describes it as:
“a good spring, “never been known to freeze”…has been piped into a now well-kept pond in the grounds of Holy Well House.”
The spring is tapped at its source, but still fills a wall lined pool to the left hand side of the house. The wall is appears to be made from local slate and may be of some age, but it is difficult to date. The water then flows into a brook. Sadly, no one was in when I visited. I made a couple of photos and left a note..no reply yet.
In the middle of a field is the interestingly named King Charles’s Well or Carles Trough (SP 722 949). This appears first noted by Nichols (1795-1810). The spring fills a large trough as the name implies and appears to be chalybeate in nature. Local legend tells how Charles I watered horse here after Naseby. John Wilsons (1870-72) in his Imperial Gazetteer noted:
“Charles I., in his flight from the battle of Naseby, watered his horse here, at a place still called King Charles’ Well.”
However, it is more probable that this is a back derivation as it appears to be a back derivation from ceorl. The well is easily found along a footpath from the village.
On the outskirts of Loughborough is an area called holywell, but pronounced ‘holly’, I have found very little about the well which gave its name. Trubshaw (1990) in his book on holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland mentions it and there is a post with a modern picture on Megalithic Portal, but shows a rather boring brick structure and not he elliptical basin the former mentions. So I decided to investigate the twin sites of the well and it’s associated Holywell Haw.
A cursory glance at the map shows that it is virtually swallowed up by Loughborough University (hence the honours joke) is the estate of Holywell Haw, the present farmhouse taking its name from a spring nearby. Of the house itself it probably began life as a hostel for those lost in the most substantial Charnwood forest which has retracted around it. However by 1180 it had become a hermitage owned by Garendon Abbey and is first noted by the name of Holywell Haw, the later deriving from haw meaning enclosure, the same origin as hawthorn. Potter in his “History and Antiquities of Charnwood Forest”. (1842) notes it was described in a grant by Robert de Jort to the abbey the site being described as heremitorium de Halliwellhaga. The Testa de Nevill, 13th century records ‘a dairy, with a small wood, called Haliwelle Hawe’, which by the 14th century the Leicester Abbey purchased from a Henry Lord Beaumont ‘a certain parcel of wood called Holy-well Haw for £28′. They appear to have developed the area to what can be seen today: fishponds and moats, and probably used the site as a grange and possible a diary. What remains today is mainly 15th century with fragments of a medieval structure such as gothic doorways and timbers. Whether it was Holywell Haw or Hall is unclear. It has been blamed on the Ordnance Survey and indeed some blunders have been done in the past. However, it is possible that a 19th century owner, March Philips, had some sort of pretensions for the building and thought the name was better. By the eighteenth century name to Holywell Dyke, an eighteenth-century boundary mark for Charnwood Forest .It is now better known as a farm.
The Holy Well
The spring, is icy cold and never run dry, produces, according to Trubshaw 20,000 galloons a day and is one of the only non-incorporated spring in the Severn Trent catchment classed as A1 Drinkable. Local tradition states that it has medicinal qualities. Nichols (1795–1815) notes:
“The excellent spring is yet preserved”
Potter (1852) notes that it:
“.derives part of its name from a well, to the waters of which, even in recent times, considerable virtues have been attributed.”
However, its most famous legend is said to date from the 15th century
Potter (1852) notes that:
“The popular idea seems to be, that the Comyns (of Whitwick Castle) were great giants. One of them, said my informant, attempted to carry off one of the Ladies of Groby Castle, who left that place for security, intending to take sanctuary at Grace Dieu. Going, however, by a circuitous route, to avoid Charley and Whitwick, she was benighted, and would have perished in the Outwoods, but for one of the Monks of the Holy Well.”
The legend tells how after a considerable pursuit, she upon reaching the hermitage, collapsed and died. A monk then used the water to bring her back to life. Potter (1942) tells the story in verse:
|The oaks of the forest were Autumn-tinged, And the winds were at sport with their leaves When a maiden traversed the rugged rocks That frown over WOODHOUSE EAVES.||The Hermit upraised the stiffened form, And he bore to the HOLY WELL: Three Paters or more he muttered o’er, And he filled his scallop shell.|
|The rain fell fast – she heeded it not Though no hut or home appears; She scarcely knew if the falling drops Were rain drops or her tears.||He sprinkled the lymph on the Maiden’s face, And he knelt and he prayed by her side Not a minute’s space had he gazed on her face Ere signs of life he spied…..|
|Onward she hied through the OUTWOODS dark (And the Outwoods were darker then) She feared not the Forest’s deepening gloom She feared unholy men.||Spring had invested the CHARNWOOD oaks With their robe of glistening green, When on palfreys borne, one smiling morn, At the HOLY WELL’s HAW were seen.|
|Lord Comyn’s scouts were in close pursuit, For Lord Comyn the Maid had seen, And had marked her mother’s only child For his paramour, I ween.||A youth and a Lady, passing fair, Who asked for the scallop shell: A sparkling draught each freely quaffed, And they blessed the HOLY WELL.|
|A whistle, a whoop from the BUYK HYLLS side, Told Agnes her foes were nigh: And screened by the cleft of an aged oak, She heard quick steps pass by.||They blessed that Well, and they fervently blessed The Holy Hermit too; To that and to him they filled to the brim The scallop, and drank anew.|
|Dark and dread fell that autumn night: The wind-gusts fitful blew: The thunder rattled: – the lightning’s glare Showed BEACON’s crags to view.||“Thanks, Father! Thanks! – To this well and thee,” Said the youth, “But to Heaven most, I owe the life of the fairest wife That CHARNWOOD’s bounds can boast.|
|The thunder neared – the lightning played Around the sheltering oak; But Agnes, of men, not God afraid, Shrank not at the lightning’s stroke!||“The blushing bride thou seest at my side. (Three hours ago made mine) Is she who from death was restored to breath By Heaven’s own hand and thine”.|
|The thunder passed – the silvery moon Burst forth from her cave of cloud, And showed in the glen “Red Comyn’s” men, And she breathed a prayer aloud:-||“The Prior of ULVERSCROFT made us one, And we hastened here to tell How much we owe to kind Heaven and thee, For the gift of the HOLY WELL”.|
|Maiden mother of God! Look down List to a maidens prayer: Keep undefiled my mother’s sole child The spotless are thy care”||“In proof of which – to the HOLYWELL HAW I give as a votive gift, From year to year three fallow deer, And the right of the Challenge drift”.|
|” The sun had not glinted on BEACON HILL Ere the Hermit of the HOLY WELL Went forth to pray, as his wont each day, At the cross in Fayre-Oke dell.||“I give, besides, of land two hides, To be marked from the Breedon Brand: To be held while men draw from the Well in this Haw A draught with the hollow hand”.|
|Ten steps had he gone from the green grassy mound Still hemming the HOLY WELL HAW, When, stretched on the grass – by the path he must pass A statue-like form he saw!||The Hermit knelt, and the Hermit rose, And breathed “Benedicite! And tell me”, he said, with a hand on each head, “What heaven sent pair I see!”|
|He crossed himself once, he crossed himself twice, And he knelt by the corse in prayer: “Jesu Maria! cold as ice – Cold – cold – but still how fair!”||“This is the lost de Ferrers’ child, Who dwelt at the Steward’s Hay; And, father, my name – yet unknown to fame Is simply EDWARD GREY”.|
It is thought that after being revived she gave her name to God and became a prioress and some historians link it to a real life account of Eleanor Ferrars whose was carried off. It also has similarity to legends associated with Essex’s Running Well and Kent’s St. Thomas’s well at Singlewell.
The well today
Despite a leaflet mentioning the well from the University, available as pdf, it is a little reticent in regards to whether it can be visited. However, exploring around the back of the enormous Holywell complex a small path passes some gas cylinders and then to a stile. No keep out signs are present so I assumed it was okay to jump over. There almost in front of me is a large brick chamber covered by two large fibre glass up turned boats. These appear to cover the well. Peering between a gap however this rather unpromising edifice reveals something more interesting. The brick chamber encloses an elliptical natural stone or possibly medieval basin, into which a copious flow enters and fills and then flows through a pipe into the brook below. Despite the rather ugly surrounds there is still something ancient and mysterious about this most well known of Leicestershire sacred springs. The local farm, the Holywell Haw, still apparently uses the water and it is regularly checked by the Uni authorities. One hopes it can get a better cover, surely the university could afford a metal grid more worthy of this venerable site.
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Leicestershire is perhaps not readily associated with medicinal springs or mineral springs but it does have a number of sites including one called once the nobliest spring in England. Roughly speaking there are three main types of springs: Saline, Chalybeate and Sulphurous. Leicestershire had examples of each. Often as at Loddinton’s Eye Well, the impregnation with Epsom salts made it undrinkable and in this case was used for ocular complaints. In other cases, surveys by antiquarians, in particular Nichols (1795-1810) referred to them as medicinal such as at Newton Linford, Shawell’s Shady Well and Ullesthrope Cawdel Well. Chemically many of the springs contained salts, although this did not make them necessarily salty in the general meaning to this although , Nichols (1795-1810) describes a spring at Belvoir as ‘Brackish Well’ and he also refers to a Salt Spring at Donisthorpe. Which he says was used for used against scorbutic disorders, and was visited on summer Sunday mornings. Nichols refers to a salt well at Saddington once used for scrofula and scurvy, but was thought to be useless in point of medicine at the time of his survey perhaps suggesting contamination or the dropping of the water table.
Chalybeate springs were more common such as Holwell’s spring, but also at Hinckley where Richardson (1931) notes a Cogg’s Well, at Old Dalby, as well as Neville Holt’s spa.
Indeed the name Spa is associated with minor springs in the county as it is across the midlands it appears, the name is recorded at Thorpe Arnold, Hinckley, called Christopher spa perhaps after the saint or its founder/owner and the most interesting at Burton Lazar. Here the spring with its sodium chloride and hydroxide brackish water was perhaps used by the inhabitants of a lazar house in the village. However, a minor spa was established in 1760 after a discovery that the health of cattle was improved by drinking the spring. The spa continued until at least 1849
Often in the county the colour of the spring suggests its properties, such as Nevill Holt’s Goldthorpe Spring was said to be curative and at Sapcote the Gold Well was noted a sulphur spring. Here the water was used to cure nervous complaints, consumption, scurvy, eyes. A bath house built in 1806 by a Mr. J. Turner for £600 still stands and is a private house. By 1853 apparently it was little resorted and may have closed soon after, At bath was supposedly to be found at Staunton Harold although very little was left by 1795. These sites hint at the wider establishments set up elsewhere, the true spas. However, only three sites reached what we could consider as a true spa.
Leicester had a spa, commemorated in 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”.
Nevill Holt’s spa, a separate site from the Goldthorpe spring it would appear, was discovered by 1728 when a local farmer utilising a spring found that he could get his cattle to drink from it. Within two years it was identified as a spa water and christened Holt Spa. Its fame appears to have been cemented by Shorts work on mineral springs. The site was soon developed, utilising the Hall as a residence for attendees and a season from April to October was established. Over the spring the Countess Migliorocci of the Hall built a fountain head. The waters were chalybeate in nature and that:
“became famous for their speedy and surprising cures of the most stubborn diseases: externally applied they removed complaints of the eyes, healed fresh wounds, and died up old ones. Taken inwardly they have cured the rheumatism, bloody flux, stone, spitting of blood, scurvy and restored lost appetites.”
Such was the fame of the spring that it was called the nobliest spring in the county. Despite this it soon appears to have fallen into decline. Close by is Shearsby Well, located in a hollow and mentioned by the Leicestershire 18th century historian, John Nichols. This was converted into a spa and became renowned as a famous salt spring. Bath hotel remains and supposedly one can bath in its waters in the cellar but I have failed to have this confirmed. Hinckley’s mineral spring, whose water was said to resemble Harrogate, Tunbridge, Buxton and Carlsbad, were developed into baths in the 1830s with the opening of the Mineral Baths hotel and its pleasure grounds in 1849 for bathing and drinking of its waters. The main bath being 20 feet by 60 feet. The outlay never met the profit and in 1892 or thereabouts the baths were demolished and the New Mineral Bath’s Hotel built on the site. The waters have vanished but the pub remains.
But the most famous was Ashby de la Zouch’s spa. This was a prospected spring so to speak, having arisen as a result of colliery work at Moira in 1801, water being struck some 700 feet below the surface. Its waters were said to be good for skin diseases, scrofula. First the water was transported in carts or boats to the town. However, the first Marquis of Hastings realising the commerciality of the waters set about developing a proper spa, with hotels, theatre, elegant terraces and a bath house. The bath house was completed in 1822 and named Ivanhoe baths after the association of the Sir Water Scott’s book with the nearby castle. Six baths were established in the Doric portico temple spa and the waters were recommended for gout and ‘full neck, nerve-ache, green sickness and ringworm’ However, it was too late a spa and could not compete with established spas and the growing trend for maritime spas.
The springs of which were on the borders with Derbyshire and now fill ponds at the Conkers activity centre where there is a small information board about it. The famed baths were destroyed in the early 1970s. This was the last attempt at undertaken to develop mineral springs in the county.
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.