Category Archives: Leicestershire
Bob Trubshaw’s trailblazing 1990 work on the Holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland was the first time I had heard of this fascinating spring arising beneath the church. He recorded it as follows:
“Where the footpath leaves the churchyard to cross the brook there are five steps down and a spring gushes from a recess in the churchyard wall, draining away into the brook. This is about thirty yards to the east of the chancel. The spring originates under the crypt of the church and piped to the churchyard wall; during the nineteenth century the water was used to power the organ. The crypt was rebuilt in 1848 and now contains the heating boilers etc. There were apparently never any tombs or graves in it.
Where the water issues from the churchyard wall is densely shaded by trees and is muddy underfoot as a result of the water flowing towards Grace Dieu Brook. The water maintains a good flow and is quite cold (about three gallons per minute at 10C on 4th February 1989); it is pleasant tasting.“
But despite Trubshaw’s inclusion is it a holy well?
Well Trubshaw does not explicitly call it a holy well but does its location suggest so? Many holy wells do arise from beneath churches – there are examples across the country but more are not of course. Although it is interesting to note that springs associated with churches would suggest an origin from the earliest days of the church. The wikipedia site for the village notes:
“It is possible that this site was regarded as sacred in pre-Christian times, thereby influencing the choice of location for the church.”
I am not sure who it is specifically regarded by though to be honest! Thomas Charles Potter in his work on 1842 The History of Charnwood Forest: The Villages Of The District includes a drawing of the church with the spring clearly shown but makes no reference to it at all in the text.
How old is the church?
One of the earliest mentions of the place, as Witewic, is in the Domesday Book and the fragments of a pre-Norman cross shaft appear to be found in the wall of the chancel suggesting the site was Christianised at least in the Saxon times. A recent visit I was given access to the crypt to explore whether there was any evidence of a spring. However, nothing could be found and as Trubshaw noted it was probably removed in the Victorian period.
What is in a name?
What is particularly significant is that the church is called John the Baptist. A saint who of course was decapitated. Heads and sacred springs have a considerable connection according to some researchers, Does this indicate a previous association with the spring of a headless saint as can be found in other sites or is it pure coincidence? Is this a further indication of the site being a holy well? Of course there are plenty of St John the Baptist churches without associated springs.
A lost mineral spring?
Interestingly Whitwick had three firms who specialised in mineral waters. Wikipedia notes:
“The largest of these was the firm of Bernard Beckworth on Cademan Street, which was established in 1875 and ran until the 1970s; it is listed in Kelly’s Directories of Leicestershire from 1904 through to 1941 as ‘Beckworth and Co. Ltd, Charnwood Mineral Water Works’.
By 1904, the firm of Stinson Brothers, based on Loughborough Road, had appeared. By 1912, this firm is listed as simply Horace Stinson and it had disappeared from the Whitwick Directories by 1928.
The firm of Richard Massey appears from 1916, listed at 36, Castle Street, Whitwick. Massey’s has disappeared by 1941.
A Stinson Bros codd bottle appeared among lots listed for auction in Barnsley (BBR Auctions) on Saturday 8 January 2006. It was described as a 9 inch tall emerald green glass codd bottle, embossed, ‘STINSON BROS/WHITWICK.’ The guide price was £80 – £100, the relatively high estimate presumably reflecting the rarity of the glass, but the bottle was in fact sold for £515. The bottle was turned up by a plough in a field opposite A.W. Waldrum’s Coal Merchant’s premises on Grace Dieu Road, Whitwick and is the only known example.
There is also known to have existed a ‘Botanical Brewery’, though it is believed that this may have been a part of the Stinson or Massey enterprises, both of which later moved to Hermitage Road. Both firms are listed on Hermitage Road (under Coalville) in a trade directory of 1941. There are also known to have been examples of 19th-century bottles bearing the name of McCarthy and Beckworth, Coalville.”
Does this suggest that the spring itself is a medicinal water? Strangely despite these firms no one appears to have tried it! So there is nothing to suggest that the Whitwick spring is a holy well but as a remarkable survival in the 21st century of a flowing urban spring it is no doubt miraculous!
Frog and toads not unsurprisingly you might think are associated with springs. Two old English words O.E frosc meaning frog or O.E paddock for a ‘toad’ and their derivations can be found across the country.
In Essex there are a number of Freshwell derivations which suggest from Frosc. The earliest being a Freshwell mentioned in 1086 in Great Sampford, Freshwell in the 13th century and another in Saffron Walden first mentioned in 1605. In Panfield there was a Froshwell mentioned in 1586 and Upminster a Frogwell.
There seems a strange conglomeration of such sites in Essex and elsewhere it is more common to find toads. In Staffordshire, Padwalle first mentioned in 1481in Longnor and Padwell in Barborough, as Padwell (1830) and Edwalston and Wyaston a 1314 Padewalle. In Leicestershire there is a Paddock Well noted in 1638 in Church Langton, Leicestershire and Padwell in Fulstow (from the 1840 Tithe map) and Tadewell a 13th century mention in Ferriby. Kent’s Birling has a Puddle Well noted in 1837 and a Tadwell in Minster in Sheppey (noted in 1840). There are surely others but why?
The obvious answer is that frogs and toads live in springs. However, they do not or rather very rarely. I’ve never seen one in a spring or well – perhaps the rarity offers a reason but it may be deeper than that. Toads in particular have supernatural connotations and a clue may be found in the Frogwell at Acton Burnell in Shropshire which folklore suggests the well was a guardian. Did people visit these wells to utilise the frogs for magical practices or was the frog seen as some sort of harmful creature.
Another possible source is that these animal represent totem animals which specific prehistoric groups associated with – akin to the spirit animals of first nation groups such as in the USA and Canada. This might explain the frequency of them in areas such as Essex perhaps.
Griffy’s Well can be found signposted along the Bottom road in the small settlement of Griffydam. A natural spring which arises from the sandstone and is enclosed in a stone chamber. The earliest reference appears to be Edward Gibbon’s revised 1722 edition of William Camden’s Britannia:-
In this Parish of Cole-Overton (became Coleorton) is a noted mineral water call’d Griffy-dam. (as others also have been lately discover’d in this County, at Dunton and Cadeby.)”
Thus suggesting that the site was being exploited as a mineral spring although it was more likely to have been a domestic water supply. The Post Office Directory of Leics & Rutland 1855 states that:
“Griffy Well at Griffydam is worthy of some attention”.
The London General Gazetteer of 1825 makes mention of Griffydam mineral waters. In the “Beauties of England 1791 by Philip Luckombe he states that:
“near the town of Ashby de la Zouch is a noted mineral water called Griffydam”.
However, the well’s main notoriety is to do with its association with a legendary creature – a griffin, a beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. An account is given in Leicestershire legends retold by Black Annis
“The story goes that an old well at the side of the road got taken over by a griffin – a mythical beastie with the bottom half of a lion and the top half of an eagle. The villagers were a bit put out because this meant they had to walk two miles to the next village to get water. Anyway, one day a knight comes by and asks for water for himself and his horse. When he hears the problem he obligingly went along and put an arrow straight through the beastie’s neck – though don’t ask me why the villages couldn’t have done this themselves anyway, suppose it just makes a slightly better tale.”
As a result the well was restored to the villagers. It is unclear what reward the knight received however! The earliest account would appear to be Eric Swift’s 1954 Folk Tales of the East Midlands and perhaps as such could the author made it up? The above author stating that:
“Seems quite likely someone’s imagination ran away with them and thought the name Griffydam had something to do with griffins, which it doesn’t, it’s a corruption of “Griffiths’ Dam”, though no one seem to know who Mr Griffiths was.”
However, Roy Palmer in his 1985 Folklore of Leicestershire and Rutland states that nearby Breedon church has a column with a griffin carved on it and I was said that that the skin was hung in the church and that every bride passed beneath it on their wedding day. This tradition perhaps suggests a greater age to the tradition and significance. Does it record some pagan tradition?
One of the most fascinating lost Leicestershire holy wells was St. Mary’s Well or Everlasting well – although there is no clear evidence they are one and the same I should add but it is more than likely. Why is it more fascinating than most? It was because it was associated with David Papillon, said to be a local mystic.
Who was David Papillon?
David Papillon (1691-1762) was great-grandson of the builder of Papillon Hall, locally he was called Pamps and stories state he had psychic powers and that he had the power to bewitch people with his ‘evil eye’. One local tale tells how he criticised two farm labourers for ploughing a field poorly and so mesmerized them so they could not move all day and only released them at the end!.. As a result villagers made the sign of the cross in dough when baking bread to protect them. It is not clear how he used the well but it was probably thought he cast spells over it!
Holy well come evil well?
Pen Lloyd 1977, in their The History of the Mysterious Papillon Hall, Market Harborough, notes:
“A chalybeate spring in the grounds used to be known as St Mary’s Well”
The site of the Hall was thought to have been on the site of a Leper colony established by Leicester Abbey. Another name of this was the “Everlasting Well”, which was reported to be David Papillon’s magic well, which was supposed to possess great medicinal virtue. In my research for my Holy wells and Healing springs of Leicestershire volume I aimed to discover if the site survived and what remained of it.
History of the well
The first account is John Nichols (1795–1815) in his The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester:
“within a few yards of the Welland… in a stone cistern, formerly in some repute for weak eyes’
But he fails to suggest its name or refer to it in reference to David Papillon. Lloyd (1877) records an account by a Mr Walker, a previous owner of the Hall, who had a fragment of the well cover which still showed a P and one of the butterflies from the coat of arms. He gave it to Pelham Papillon who lived in Sussex in 1908 and the stone was supposed to have been built into a stone wall in the garden at Catsfield Place. Why it was given away is unclear and perhaps suggests at this time the well itself had become derelict and being removed. Whatever, it is also reported that he experienced some misfortune followed and he was forced to return it. However, where it is now is unclear.
What happened to the well?
In Old Pamp and the Slippers of Papillon Hall by David Allen or Lubenham.org.uk states:
“around 13 years ago (1988). It was at this point I decided to take a closer look…… I was surprised at what was still standing including……… the remains of St Mary’s well”
So it would appear it probably survived when Bob Trubshaw was recording it in his 1990 Holy wells of Leicestershire. No photo or drawing exists of the well that I can find but it must have been large enough to have a slab over it or on its enclosing wall.
Does the Everlasting Well last today?
Contacting a Mrs Barbara Burbidge, Secretary of the Lubenham Heritage Group I was informed that the well no longer existed. She also informed me of a local man called Bernard remembered when his parents and many others would get water because the mineral content was supposed to have therapeutic healing powers. Bernard’s mother used it to bathe her eyes. Even Jack Gardiner the famous boxer from Market Harborough is reported to have used it after his fights to help him recover.
She continued by informing me:
“Unfortunately I can verify that the well itself was removed several years ago and when I visited the site about five years ago doing research on Papillon Hall, all that remained was a slight staining in the ground and a few pieces of brick and rubble. I expect ploughing in the field in subsequent years has removed even those traces.”
According to Mrs Burbidge the well was situated about a mile to the west of Lubenham and south of what is now the A4304. The site can be found by following an avenue of trees from the road (opposite the entrance to Papillon Hall Farm and Branfield Residential Park) towards the River Welland. As you approach the river, turn left into an arable field and the well was in that corner of the field. Following those instructions I could not find any evidence and it looks like the Everlasting well lasts no more.
Leicester unsurprisingly being an ancient settlement boasts a number of wells all of which have been lost. The most noted is the spring-name called Tostings Well, which some authorities believe derives St Augustine’s Well. An author with the name ‘Leicestriensis’ says in 1852 (quoted in Potter (1985)) that it was
“now covered and enclosed; but within the memory of persons still living it was in the state… described by Nichols… “Good for sore eyes”… even since the enclosure of the well, many applications for water from the pump erected in the adjoining ground have, I know, been made… On making some enquiries a few years ago of “the oldest inhabitant”, he… exclaimed “Oh! You mean Tostings’s Well!”’.
Nichols (1795–1815) places near a footbridge called Bow-Bridge ran from the Friary near the West Bridge, over a back water of the Soar, to the garden called Bow Church Yard. He describes it as:
“for the use of the friars to a constant spring of limpid water, on the paved road side, a few paces distant, called St Austin’s Well”
It is noted when the Corporation mended the bridge in 1688, St Austin’s well was mending for £2 14s 8d. Nichols (1795-1815) notes that it was:
“Still overflowing with contribution to the back water… the well is three quarters of a yard broad, and the same in length within its inclosure, the depth of its water from the lip or back-edging on the earth, where it commonly overflows, is half a yard. It is covered with a mill-stone, and enclosed with stone and brick on three sides; that towards Bow-bridge and the town is open.”
Sadly it has now been entirely destroyed, occasioned by widening the road.
Slightly more difficult were the springs associated with Leicester Abbey were the Merrie Wells which Potter (1985) and Rattue (1993) suggest derivation of St. Mary’s Well, although no record confirms this. The springs too have been lost. .
More likely is unusually named St Sepulchre’s Well, recorded as Pulcre well in 1476 and was believed to be associated with a chantry of Corpus Christi recorded in 1458 in the payment records of de Joh. Paulmer pro crofto juxta fontem S. Sepulchri. It appears that by 1574 it was called according to Cox (1998-2004) ‘the spring at St James Chapell’ 1573, ‘the hermitage well’ 1638, and ‘the Chappell Well’ 1689,
‘Leicestriensis’ (1852) calls it St James’s Well, as the Chapel of St James survived that dedicated to St. Sepulchre. Billson (1895) notes it as:
“a holy well close to the old pond at the corner of Infirmary Square. This well had a never-failing supply of fresh water, until the deep drainage of the town diverted it from its original outlet.”
Leicester had two attempts at developing a spa, Spa place a terrace of four late Georgian houses remembers the first. Here in 1787 a mineral spring was discovered when a well was being sunk for cattle, and Spa Place. Watts (1820) comments how:
“furnished by the proprietor with neat marble baths and easy convenient appendage for bathing, has not been found to be sufficiently impregnated with mild properties to bring proper use”.
The Leicester Journal reported in 1794 that ‘Leicester Spa is now in high perfection’, Yet it was unsuccessful and by 1798 to a General Baptist College had taken over the site, this became a private house and latter offices. It is remember as Spa Lane.
Another mineral spring was discovered close to what is now Fosse Road North in 1830 by a local market gardener called Isaac Harrison. As a result the area becoming known as Newfoundpool. At the site a Hydropathic Institution was built but by 1835 it was converted into a private residence, Newfoundpool House where the Harrison family lived. However, some of the baths remained open for occasional use. There was another attempt in 1853 to advertise them as having:
“these baths will be found equal, if not superior, to any other baths in the neighbourhood”.
However the revival did not work and when in the 1880s ,the area was being developed, the Hydropathic Institution became the Empire Hotel. This become derelict in the 2005 and was demolished to build a Lidl supermarket in 2014.
The only other surviving of the city’s water history is the Cank Well a plaque of which exists on Cank Street.
Local tradition states that it was famous as a meeting place of gossips, the word cank being a term for cackle. However, this might be folk etymology as in Leicestershire it is a name of a hard ferruginous (i.e iron rich) sandstone and it may record chalybeate (iron rich) and those healing qualities. Alternatively cank may refer to cancer and it was a curative well…but we can debate and gossip that all we want, there is no evidence!
An Act for Making and Maintaining a Navigable Canal from the Coventry Canal records
“Use of the said Canal or Works from or out of a certain Spring called the Holywell in the Parish of Ashby de la Zouch or out of the Stream or Brook flowing from the same whereby Town is in Part supplied with Water nor in any way to divert or the Course of the said Spring Stream or Brook but that the same shall and may at all Times hereafter flow as freely fully and beneficially to said Town of Ashby de la Zouch and along the antient Course thereof to Intents and Purposes as heretofore.”
Such an important notice to preserve Ashby de la Zouch’s holy well one would have thought it had been better known perhaps. However, although Ashby-de-la Zouch is famed for its Spa a more ancient spring. These 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 portico was destroyed in the early 1970s and the site of the springs is still noted in the Conkers adventure park although there is nothing to see. However, there is something to see at the Holywell at the town.
It first appears in the LRO Description of Ashby De La Zouch in 1735 as Hollywell a name we will come back to. John Nichols (1795–1815) in his work The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester notes is the first to note site stating that:
“Ashby is well watered with springs, by the name of… Holywell”
In the 1831 A descriptive and historical guide to Ashby-de-la-Zouch and the neighbourhood it notes:
“Ashby possesses several fine springs of water they are distinguished as Holy Well Lyon sWell and Perring’s Well”
This spring still arises as John Richardson (1931) the Water supply of Leicestershire calls it as:
“a good spring (30,000 to 35,000 gallons a day, not now used)… half-a-mile NNW of the Church”.
Holy or Hollow?
A lack of tradition, legends, folklore or even properties can be problematic. However what is more problematic is the name Hollywell compared to the geography of the well. Such names can often derive from the Old English word ‘Holh’ for hollow rather than ‘Halig’ for holy! The well not only appears to rise in a small cave but the whole stream flows to the town in a deep hollow! So is it Hollowell? Possibly.
The site today
The site still exists being near Holy Well Farm on the outskirts of the town. The spring arises in a dense thicket at the edge of Holywell Spring Farm. Some years back I was given assistance to examine it, a rather hazardous occupation, as the site is very steep.
Its source is fills a large rectangular pool which is brick and stone lined. Water then flows under a small arch into a much large rectangular pool. The exact source is too overgrown to see clearly, but its water then cascades over the basin to form a small sandy stream. The structure appears to be too ornate to be modern and probably in parts date back to the use of the water in the spa period. Its waters are said to feed two taps in the town: one in the Spa and the other in council grounds. The area around the springhead is soon to be developed for housing so hopefully this ancient water source will survive the change!
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.