Category Archives: Monmouthshire
As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.
The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?
An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—
“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”
He was further informed that :
“People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”
An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:
“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”
This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!
Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:
“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”
Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area
In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring she states that:
“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”
And records that:
“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”
Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.
A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.
This month sees insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com is 7 a good birthday for sacred spring researchers – look it up@! Also it becomes the platform to host the Source and Living Spring Archive. The Source Archive consists of articles written in the mid 1980s and early 1990s for the Source Journal a short-lived but very influential attempt to bring together research on the topic. with Living Spring an even shorter lived but important online attempt to do the same. The original journal (divided into new and old series) was influenced by the burgeoning earth mysteries movement on the late 70s and early 80s and one of the most prominent exponents was Janet Bord. As is commonly said Janet needs no introduction amongst anyone interested in the space between archaeology and folklore. Janet work in the holy well field includes the Curses and Cures, Holy wells in Britain and the seminal Sacred Waters – a copy of which I myself purchased back in a Truro bookstore in 1985. A purchase which was very influential and lead to the birth of my fascination and research into the area. So it is with great honour that I introduce the first of a Source inspired articles (the next three from similarly influential James Rattue, Mark Valentine the original founder and Tristan Gray-Hulse editor of the new Series)
Anyone who regularly visits holy wells must be aware of how they can differ in appearance and atmosphere. We all know the delight of finding a hidden spring bubbling into a clear pool, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the landscape; and probably we can also all remember wells that are unloved and derelict. Those can often have a charm of their own too, perhaps being in an evocative place, or with enough remaining to suggest what the place was once like. Sadly there are also wells that are in awful locations, and perhaps have also been badly restored; but luckily I can’t remember too many that come into this last category. One that does is St Tewdrig’s Well at Mathern in Monmouthshire (ST52279116), just to the south-west of Chepstow and distressingly close to the M48 motorway. It’s a shame that the well has been so insensitively and over-thoroughly restored, because the area around the church and well has an interesting history.
St Tewdrig was a king and martyr, probably born in the late 6th century. He handed over his kingdom to his son Meurig and lived as a hermit – until an angel appeared to him advising him to go and help Meurig who was in danger of being overrun by his enemies. Despite also being told by the angel that he would die, Tewdrig went to help his son, and the enemies fled on seeing the two men and their army standing on the bank of the River Wye at Tintern. Unfortunately Tewdrig was stuck by a lance thrown by a fleeing soldier, and mortally wounded. He was taken in a cart pulled by stags to a meadow near the River Severn, where a spring began to flow, and there he died and was buried. The place was given the name Merthyr Tewdrig (now Mathern) and a church was built over his grave. The name confirms that this is a genuinely ancient tradition, a ‘merthyr’ being an early Christian martyr’s burial place.
In the early 17th century, Francis Godwin, Bishop of Llandaff, gave orders that a coffin found beneath the church floor was to be repaired, as it was thought to be Tewdrig’s: ‘I discovered his bones, not in the smallest degree changed, though after a period of a thousand years, the skull retained the aperture of a large wound, which appeared as if it had been recently inflicted.’ On his orders, the coffin was reburied in the chancel and a stone tablet put on the wall above, telling the story of St Tewdrig and his death. In 1881 the coffin was rediscovered when repairs were being carried out, and in 1946 an old lady told author Fred Hando that the vicar had taken her into the church when she was a child and showed her a big hole that had been dug in the chancel, and ‘in a stone coffin, she saw the remains of King Tewdrig, with the hole made by the spear-point still visible in his skull.’
The well named for St Tewdrig is to be seen beside the lane just north of Mathern church, immediately south of the motorway. There seems to be no record as to what it looked like before being restored by the Monmouth District Council in 1977. Although they are to be thanked for ensuring the well wasn’t lost, it’s a pity that they decided on this earnest municipal restoration that is completely lacking in atmosphere. With its steep steps leading down between walls to the well below, it puts one in mind of a drinking water well, rather than a place where a saintly king died over a thousand years ago. But… it is impossible to be absolutely sure if this really was the spring which flowed where he died, because I have found no mention of it before 1847, at which time it was called Ffynnon Gor Teyrn. This name may possibly derive from the Welsh word cateyrn, meaning a ‘battle-king’, and is all the evidence we currently have that might confirm this as the saint’s well. But it is very close to the church, and all the evidence we have does suggest that this is indeed St Tewdrig’s well.
The small village of Trellech provides much to excite the antiquarian. Its curiosities being forever immortalised in the 17th century sundial in the church. The most obvious is the Tump Turret, a large mound once a Norman motte and bailey castle. However, a local myth states that this was the burial mound in a battle between Harold Godwinson and the opposing Welsh in Gwent in 1063. This claim is also given to three large conglomerate stone monoliths. Here folklore states that three chieftains fell in that battle with Harold. Another theory is that they were arranged to indicate local springs and that is significant in consideration of the village’s most famed site – St Anne’s or the Virtuous Well.
The springhead arises in a horseshoe shaped stone built well enclosure. Stone benches are set up either side along the curved walls of a small paved courtyard. The spring arises in the arched recess through a stone basin. There are two squared niches in the rear wall which may have been used to place offerings. Although the stone work is medieval in date it has gone through periods of dereliction as noted by 19th century writer W. H. Thomas described it as ‘neglected fountain’ and the owner needed to ‘cleanse out its channels and invite guests to a festival of health’ as well as ‘rebuild its ruined walls’. Sir Joseph Bradney’s History of Monmouthshire (1913) shows the walls overgrown, soil virtually reaching the wall and the central forecourt flooded. It was fortunately the advice was headed and it was restored, the last time fully in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. A local legend claims that the water is connected to Tintern Abbey by a three mile tunnel, but this is more likely a confusion between the discovery of drainage channels and the knowledge that the Abbey owned property in the area.
Although not apparent today, the spring is a chalybeate one. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unpleasant-tasting water was considered especially beneficial for eye ailments and according to Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709)
‘very medicinall to such as to have the scurvy, collick and distempers’
and ‘complaints peculiar to women’. These wide range of powers owed it the name the Virtuous Well, a convenient name to re-focus from any popish reflections. Furthermore the spring is one of the traditional locations for the hanging of cloutties, which dipped in the water and rubbed on the skin, took away the affliction as it rotted on the trees around. Cloutties are the only evidence today of veneration at this site regularly seen however there were none there when I visited last in a snowy January.
The commonest form of well-wishing here was that by throwing a stone into the water, a maiden could find out by the number of bubbles how many months it would take to be married. Other folk would throw a stone which by the number of bubbles rising would indicate whether the wish would be granted.
A well for the fairies
The well was said also to be the haunt of fairies who were particularly visible in Midsummer. A local legend tells how a farmer dug up a fairy ring near to the well and the next day found the well dry which never happened. However it was clear that to others it had water and that it only happened to him, the other villagers could draw water! Finally he was told by an old man sitting on a wall that if he returned the ring he would be able to withdraw water – he did and the water was restored to him.
Another story tells of a witch who displeased with the suitor of her daughter sent him to the well where he was pulled into the water. After a struggle, three times over, he escaped and running back to the house saw the mother as an evil witch stirring a pot and he ran!