Category Archives: Northamptonshire
Boughton is a curious place, a place of desolation and decline…it’s ancient parish church lies ruined, now a distance from its settlement, its famed fair forgotten, its great Hall gone and its estate overgrown and little visited. It is a settlement which is associated with a number of noted ancient wells –two of which can be visited and one as yet mysteriously untraceable.
The easier to find is that at the ruined church of St John’s. Called St John’s Well it lies in its shadow creating a picturesque scene of forlornness. Despite a supposed medieval origin, the church is first recorded in the 13th century, its first mention is by Baker (1822–30) in his History of Northamptonshire:
“St John the Baptist, whose name is appended both to the church and the spring in the church yard.”
In William Whellan’s 1849 History of Northamptonshire states:
“St John’s spring which rises from the east bank of the church yard formerly furnished the element for the holy rite of baptism, but now supplies the water for culinary purposes at the fair’”
This fair was what the settlement was famed for. Being a three-day chartered event being established in 1351. It was focused around the feast of St John the Baptist suggesting it was based on the patronal festival of the now ruined church. Nothing is left of the fair, its last vestige, the Shepherd’s Race turf maze cut on a triangular piece of church overlooked by the church, survived to the first world war when practice trenches were cut across it, obliterating in once and for all, although some accounts suggest it survived until 1946.
Beeby Thompson (1913–14) in his Peculiarities of Water and wells describes it as:
“enclosed on all sides but one by stone local sandstone apparently like the main portion of the church the opening to the east being approximately one yard square. The covering slab had on it a cross fleury.”
This covering slab I have never been able to find, perhaps the earth has built up too much since, yet it was pleasing to see that on a recent visit the site had even improved since my first in the 1980s, when the nettles and bramble were virtually enclosed upon it and the church. This was certainly the experience of Mark Valentine who in his 1985 Holy Wells of Northamptonshire noted:
“When I last visited this site, the Spring trickled into a ditch which was chocked up with abandoned refuse. With a little imagination, this spot could be the scene of a wayside park, with appropriate displays to recall its past glories. As it is, it remains tumbledown and forlorn.”
Perhaps they heeded his word? Now the grass it kept short and the water flows quite freely the outflow protected by a curb of stones. While it is not exactly a country park, there are information boards and it is more cared for. Yet despite the tidy up there’s still a rather otherworldy feel when one peers inside the chamber and the place does have an unquiet feeling – perhaps because of the ghost of Captain Slash! (but that is another story)
Even more otherworldly is the Grotto Well or Petrifying Spring, a spring which arises within a simple Grade II listed Grotto in the estate of Boughton Hall. Although grotto is perhaps a rather too enticing name for what is basically a limestone rubble hemisphere beneath an earth mound and consisting of unadorned stone walls. The whole structure interestingly seems devoid of cement or mortar. It was constructed by William Wentworth, the second Earl of Stratford around 1770. The spring itself being the supply for his artificial lake which lay at the bottom of the valley.
However he could have improved upon an earlier structure for a local A local legend tells that when Charles I was imprisoned at nearby Holdenby House in 1647 he visited the spring. He is said to have bathed in it and used the grotto as a changing room. This suggests that there was a structure predating the 1770s one ascribed to it. Indeed this association may have started when the King was sent a skull said to have been petrified in the waters of the well. The Northamptonshire Mercury of 25th August 1810 records:
“At Boughton is a spring, conceived to turn wood into stone. The truth is that it doth encrust anything with stone. I’ve seen a skull bought thence to Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge, candied over with stone…The skull was sent for by King Charles the First to satisfy his curiosity and again returned to the college.”
Although it was indeed loaned to Charles I and according to a letter written by the college to the author Simon Scott to The Follies of Boughton Park it still survives. It is housed in a wooden box dated 1627. However before head cult theorists get too excited the origins of the skull are dubious. The skull of what appears to be a child’s, are Cretian not Northamptonshire! Was it a hoax to support a project to advertise the well or a simple mistake. Is it the correct skull? Is the association with Charles correct or is it a confusion with the bathing legend. All in all it is a confused story.
Charles Kimbell in 1946 in the Boughton Parish magazine wrote that:
“The spring cascaded into a gloomy pond whose waters were black through layers of decomposing leafage…about 50 years ago my father made a water pit under the archway and piped the stream out of the little wood and down the valley. And so the petrifying spring was incorporated into the village xx system without apparently any ill effects on consumers.”
Our third and final peculiar water source, to quote Beeby’s phrase, was the Marvel-Sick. The account by topographer John Morton (1712) Natural history of Northamptonshire recording:
“THIS spring is in Boughton Field, near Brampton Bridge, near the Kingsthorpe Road; it is of great note with the common people. It never runs but in mighty gluts of wet, and whenever it does so, it is thought ominous by the country people, who consider these breakings out of the spring to foretell dearth, the death of some great person, or very troublesome times.”
This is a common folk motif based on geology, a woe water, the name sick referring to an old English word for stream still current in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire place names. Where was this stream? It is impossible to say with any certainty however Brampton Bridge to the west can still be found and the road which crosses it does go to Kingsthorpe. No spring is marked on the map but there area does have a number of streams. Is this one? Of course in a way this a spring we don’t want to find, warn as it does of war…another word of warning should you go looking for Boughton’s surviving springs don’t go in high summer…as your journey to find the grotto well will involve a considerable fight against the undergrowth.
Rushton Hall is famous as the home of Thomas Tresham, a family famed for its associated with recusancy and the Gunpowder Plot. North of the Hall is the well-known Triangular Lodge, with its Catholic imagery. However, to the south of the hall is another folly.
This is a delightful yellow stone rectangular bath house. The site being interesting for it incorporates a holy well called St Peter’s Spring, indeed it is this rather than the bath house which is marked . Of which John Taylor (1895) ‘Rushton and its owners: II’ in Northamptonshre Notes & Queries notes:
“St Peter’s petrifying spring. The head of the water at this spring furnishes the drinking fountain and the adjacent bath. The bath is within a small building now falling to decay. The only door opens directly into the bathroom, the only apartment. The bath occupies the centre; there is a marginal path of about two feet all round. Along the two sides are several niches in the walls serving as seats. The roof is absolutely gone; formerly it was glazed. Steps at the head lead to the bottom of the bath, the water in which is within a few inches of the margin. The floor is of brick. Two posts with iron staples stand in the water. Until recently chains were attached, placed there for the convenience of the bathers.”
Verses engraved around the bath included Campani’s Huius nympha loci reading:
“Huius nympha loci,
sacri custodia fontis,
Dormio dum blandae sentior murmur acquae,
Parce meum quisquis tangis cava Marmora somnum,
Rumpere: sive bibas,
sive lavere taces.”
Which translated as:
“Nymph of this place, sacred guardian of the fountain,
I sleep while the water babbles sweetly,
Beware of breaking my slumber as you approach the marble basin,
Either you drink or you bathe in silence.”
Another plaque taken from Virgil reading:
“Fortunatus et ille, deos qui novit agrestes
“Happy the man who knows the rural gods.”
Holy well or well by a chapel?
The age of the spring is difficult to ascertain. Certainly topographer Morton (1712) knew it:
“as being a Collection of Nine little Springs which gush forth, it’s said, at as many distinct Apertures, within a small Compass of Ground, and are now drawn into a Stone Basin over which a handsome Summer House was built, by the late Lord Cullen.”
Thompson (1917–19b) in his Peculiarities of water and wells in Northamptonshire suggests that the name appears after the church which was located by Rushton Hall was demolished in 1785, when the church was demolished which sat near Rushton Hall. It appears that before this it was called Nine-Spring-Head before this.
Properties of the waters
Many plunge pools and bath house utilise simple springs, some actually streams, most claim no direct healing properties. Rushton’s bath house is unusual perhaps because it utilises a holy well, so perhaps being recusant Catholics this was intentional and it is not beyond reason that it was ceremonially used – even for baptism! The name Nine Springs is also significant, there are many nine springs most numerically difficult to justify. Could it be that the word nine derived from the Roman noon meaning ‘mysterious’. Interestingly, also is Taylor’s statement of the waters being petrifying is also interesting suggesting that the hard water was part of the function of the bath. Unfortunately as with many holy wells little was written down.
The site today
Rushton Hall is now a hotel, but the route to the bath house over an ornate bridge appears to be locked and closed off. No one could help in the Hall, but I was directed to down the lane where there was a local fishing club. One of the members directed me, although stressed it was private property! The bath house is found in a small opening in a copse in the woods, being reached by crossing over an ornamental weir. The bath house although missing a room, a glass one I imagine would have been too expensive and easily damaged, was restored in 2000. Through the main entrance, padlocked, can be seen the large rectangular pool which is still full of water. Indeed the structure was not too different from Taylor’s description above. Above the bath in a niche is a reclining figure of a nymph, two other niches have missing figures. In a niche on the outside wall is a pump which supplied the water for drinking.
Perhaps the most curious structure lies to the south of the bath house, an indent in the ground which is stone lined. This would apparently be the original well. The water however is dry and I would presume may have been such since the bath house utilised its water.
It was soon provided with all necessary Conveniences and Accommodations, and made one of the most beautiful and convenient places of that sort in England, much and deservedly celebrated, and frequented, and it’s certain that County, nor Warwickshire have any of this class comparable to it.”
So states Morton in his 1712 Natural History of Northamptonshire. Standing in this remote part of Northamptonshire, in a field far away from any urbanisation it is difficult to picture how this site could have been developed akin to something like a Spa town. Perhaps the clue to the decline is in the line: “tho it be neglected at present.” Did it ever recover…certainly Leamington Spa developed to overshadow it! Thomas Beeby (1915) in his invaluable Peculiarities of Waters and Wells. How They Were Explained 200 Years Ago and how They are Explained To-day tells us that the water was recognised before 1670 but little used. Morton (1712) describes its location as:
“The mineral waters at Cliffe, or the Spaw, as it is there called, arises at the foot of a clayey hill in a pleasant wood about a mile south of the village.”
Morton (1712) visited it in 1703 and his account states:
“The Reverend Mr. John Broughton, formerly Fellow of St. John’s College in Cambridge was the first who observ’d it to be a mineral water. In 1670 or thereabouts, it was approv’d of, and publically recommended by the Learned Dr. Brown, a Physician, then residing at Cliff, And has ever since been apply’d to, and deservedly celebrated, for the real Services it has done the Drinkers of it in divers Distempers, and especially those arising from Obstructions. It has likewise been successfully used externally in the Way of Bathing or from the spring, to take in Water for the Use of those who have cutaneous Diseases or Ulcers.” Short (1734) in his Natural, Experimental, and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters in states that the water rises in a round stone basin; is a clear laxative or purging water, requiring 3,4 or 5 quarts to purge strong people and that it had cured several lame people. “It was soon provided with all necessary Conveniences and Accomodations, and made one of the most beautiful and convenient places of that sort in England, much and deservedly celebrated, and frequented, and it’s certain that County, nor Warwickshire have any of this class comparable to it, tho it be neglected at present.”
He notes that:
Bridges (1791) in his History and antiquities of Northamptonshire adds that the spring was in Cock’s pits Coppice, between two hills and was made up with stone work. Beeby (1915) describes it as:
“The main chamber is a depression in the ground practically 18 feet square inside, with limestone walls and coping. Since it is on a slope, two of the walls also slope, the up-hill side sidewall being a little over 5 feet high and the downhill side one a little under 4 feet. There are five steps down to the floor from the coping on the lower side of the excavation, and the floor is cemented. On the floor is a circular, cup shaped cistern about 15 inches deep and 18 inches across, and on the rounded bottom if this, a little on one side, is a circular hole about 1 inch or more across, through the water comes. The water runs away through a trench about 41/2 inches wide and 2 inches deep, into a second chamber, which has an overflow to a drain. The smaller chamber is set an angle with the larger one the corner nearest the exit of the trench; it has 5 steps down like the larger chamber. Without the steps the chamber would be less than 6 feet square in area and taking out the space occupied by the steps there is left a space near to but somewhat under 6 feet by 2 feet, in which the water stands, also that this is scarcely a bath in the sense that Dr. Short’s remarks would lead one to anticipate; but apparently there was no other.”
He also adds that the water is still used to a small extent by people in the neighbourhood as a medicinal water, but more so for outward application in cases of cutaneous diseases and diseases of the eyes. Today, the site is forlorn but still remains much as Beeby describes although it looks when I visited during a rainy May, that the spring no longer flows.
Standing beside the main road to Bedford is one of the most impressive wells in the Northamptonshire, that of St Thomas a Becket’s Well. According to Markham and Cox (1898) in The Records of the Borough of Northampton, it was first mentioned in the thirteenth century and it is shown on John Speed’s 1611 map as ‘St Thomas well’. It was still highly regarded in 1629 as there were orders that no glover was to hang or lay any sheep skins or leather upon the hedge of St Thomas’ well. However, this was probably to preserve the source as a drinking water source and cleaning of the well is noted every year in the chamberlain’s accounts from 1765 until the turn of the century when:
“Cave and others for underdraining and work at St Tho’s Well, £4 3s 9d.”
Renovations of the well are noted in these accounts. An iron dish and chain being bought in 1718 costing 2s 6d, and 9d accordingly and In 1765 10s 6d bought a ladle.
Thompson (1909–10) in A history of the water supply of Northampton was told that people still visited the well, bathing their eyes in the water and taking water home with them.
Rise, fall and rise of the well
An old print dating from 1830 shows a large brick or stone structure with a square opening and pitched roof. A wooden frame goes across the entrance. This structure, if the proportions can be believed is a much greater one than the present. This was constructed by the corporation in 1843 at a cost of £210. The well chamber is made of local yellow sand stone and resembles a chapel with a pitched tiled roof topped with a Celtic cross finial. The well entrance is arched Gothic with two carved heads either side. A central stone bears the date of its building. Inside two golden lions are spouts filling a rectangular basin. Above this on the wall inside a maroon plaque topped with a gilded Northampton Crest reads:
“St Thomas a Becket’s WELL rebuilt by the CORPORATION 1943 E b Burwell Esq MAYOR.”
However, in the 1950s, the well itself was sealed up and served as a bus-shelter. However, by the time Bord and Bord (1985) report it for Sacred Waters it had been recently restored in 1984. This restoration included a fresco made by local children from Abington Vale and Kingsley Vale depicting St Thomas à Becket’s life which remains. Visiting in the 1990s I found the site again looking a little forlorn, the basin was empty. A visit this year, showed that it had been in 2006 been restored again. Although the water fills the basin, it appears not to flow from the lions although they have been nicely re-gilded. Access to the water is prevented by a metal frame work which is topped by ornate gold tipped arrows.
Truth in the legend?
Thompson (1909-10) in his work on Northamptonshire wells, suggests the well was previously named Swinewell, suggesting a name called Swinewell Street. Why the well is named after the saint is due to a legend that he stohis famous night escape from the castle on October 19th, 1165. However, it is known that Becket fled is on the other side of Northampton. It would be clear that this was the best well to associate with the saint. The possible origin may relate to the hospital which was founded in 1450 but of course this is after the first references if they are to be believed. Whatever, the truth it is great to see despite the hurtling traffic Becket’s Well remains in as better shape as it has in its long history.
Copyright Pixyledpublications. Happy for photos to be used on amateur websites/blogs but please give attribution to this website. Thanks
The well fresco
Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells. Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day. This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:
“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”
Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.
Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:
“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”
In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.
These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:
“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”
Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire
“a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:
“People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”
When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6) in an article called Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:
“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”
Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.
The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo. This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.
Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:
“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”
Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:
“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.
Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker, Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln. One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.
When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.
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.
The following is copied and edited from an article on the defunct Living Spring website –
One of the country’s most interesting and yet little-known holy wells can be found incongruously situated behind a modern housing estate a few miles from Peterborough. The site consists of a natural spring which bubbles up through oolite limestone. Around this have been built three chambers of undressed stone, the whole of which is enclosed in an artificial mound on which trees and shrubs have encroached. It is one of my favourite holy wells, despite being much neglected.
Folklore and History
Much of the site’s folklore and history derives from a story entitled The Knight of the Red Cross, a story based in the twelfth century, in Richard I’s reign. There is some confusion about the place where this work is published. Thompson (1913, p.111) in his Peculiarities of water and wells states that it is contained within a work called Wild flowers gathered: original pieces in prose and rhyme, printed by J. S. Clarke, with no author or date; whereas Arrowsmith (n.d., p.20) states it comes from a similarly titled, A list of wild flowers found in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, by F. A. Paley. Arrowsmith further notes that the work is advertised on the back of the same author’s Notes on twenty Parish churches round Peterborough, published in 1859. Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace either of these to confirm which is the right source. How much the story is based on any ancient account is unclear. It may be ‘faction’ or fiction, a problem of course with many sites. The applicable parts are produced below as Thompson notes:
‘There is a beautiful spot, called Holywell, in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, well known, and much frequented by the inhabitants. the road lies through a pleasant park, where stands an ancient edifice belonging to the Fitzwilliam family, called Thorpe Hall… After passing the front of this mansion, turn to the left, by the stables and outer buildings will lead, through a white gate, to a small green field from whence this picturesque little spot is seen, with its ivy clad walls, and its dark cypress and yew trees, casting their gloomy shadows around. Passing some broken steps which form the entrance, a shady path conducts to a modern niche, supported by two pilasters, over a slab pavement to a stone basin about six feet in depth and thirty in circumference. This is constantly supplied with clear water, running from the mouth of a subterraneous passage which connects Holywell with the cathedral of Peterborough. An artificial mound of earth is thrown up above this cavity, which is covered with creepers, ground-ivy and a few wild flowers.
Contiguous to the basin are some small fish ponds, partially shaded by beautiful trees; and the green rushes which grow at their bank form undisturbed retreat in which the moor-hen builds her solitary nest. A little further on is a piece of an old pillar, which is gracefully overhung with a wreath of ivy… An old wall surrounding Holywell on two sides, in which traces of windows and doorways are still discernible, is the last feature we shall mention.’
These pools have been called ‘Monk’s Stew Ponds’ or ‘Paradise Ponds’, although Arrowsmith considers that the long distance from the Abbey makes it unlikely, as the Abbey was close to good fishing waters (Arrowsmith n.d., p.21). He continues, ‘The waters of this well were formerly in high repute, and were much frequented by those who came on pilgrimages’ (Arrowsmith n.d., p.19).
Its waters, according to Thompson (1913, p.115), are said to be slightly ferruginous, though he detected no sign of it, and nor did I. It was also thought to be efficacious for gout, rheumatism, skin diseases, and good for eyes.
It was believed that a Hermit, called St Cloud, lived at the site. Thompson (1913, p.112) continues, quoting J. S. Clarke, that he was ‘of great celebrity, whose pious councils and paternosters were generally in request amongst all pilgrims who visited the spot.’
Some authorities, such as Arrowsmith, have identified this hermit as St Botolph, who is said to have lived within a mile of his chapel during its construction on the Thorpe Avenue site. He is associated with other wells, such as that at Hadstock, Essex, so it is not impossible.
The well was enclosed in grounds belonging to St John family, an estate laid out in a style similar to the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall. Within these grounds was an 18th century summerhouse, which has now vanished. A distillery was established here by a Doctor Skirmshire, who lived at Longthorpe, for making ‘considerable quantities of lavender and peppermint, cultivated in adjacent fields..’ (Arrowsmith, n.d., unpaginated).
Sadly, there appear to be no ancient records which justify ascribing an ancient date to the Holy Well complex. Indeed, it would appear to be contemporary with the summerhouse. Perhaps it was built to provide a folly-hermitage to support the legend? It is said that the summerhouse was demolished in the mid-ninteenth century because of the disorderly proceedings undertaken in it by visitors from Peterborough! According to Thompson (1913, p.113), the dressed stone was used for the kitchen floor of the nearby Manor House.
Thompson gives a plan of the well along with an accurate description, which luckily does not differ from the sight which greets the visitor today (although there is now an ugly metal gate on the structure):
‘The subterranean chambers constitute a medley of design and structure; they are not caves, although now underground, but were apparently first built….
The walls and domed roofs consist of undressed stone. The passage from the pool runs in a direction of N 60 W, and is some six feet long. The entrance being two feet four inches wide by five feet high. The first chamber or antechamber is mostly to the left and nearly at right angles to the passage; it is approximately ten feet by eight feet. In this there is a window high up, evidently a more recent introduction, for the frame is of dressed stone, and the rough stone roof cuts across it, so that external appearance rather than internal use would appear to have been the dominating factor in its design. On the opposite wall of the window is a doorway, and at one time evidently a door, for one stone jamb of dressed stone is left. This doorway opens into the very irregular second or main chamber, roughly twenty feet long, by fifteen feet wide near the widest part. Immediately within the doorway is a well, with dressed stone curb, of three feet internal diameter, and exactly above, in the roof is another smaller circular opening lined with dressed stone as though arranged to draw water from the well from the mound above without going into the chamber, but this is not now open. The well is now choked with stones, but the water used to overflow from the well and run down the passage way to the pool outside, it now flows out oat a lower level leaving the passage way dry. Immediately on the right, after entering the large chamber is am opening leading to a third chamber, smaller, crudely oval, but an indescribable shape, approximately eight to nine feet one way by twelve feet another. One side of this is the opening, now blocked up, to a supposed underground passage to Peterboroug Cathedral, by which the monks of the Abbey of Burgh, it is said used to come to bathe in the pool….
To the left of this large chamber, on entering the latter, is a recess some fifteen feet wide and nine feet deep, with a floor consisting essentially of two steps, both apparently of ‘live’ rock, i.e. rock in situ; the upper step being the wider and more like a dais. There is a rather small opening high up on the outer wall of this recess, some five feet from the dais, and is about seventeen inches wide by twenty two feet high, but goes four feet or more in the thickness of the wall or mound without providing an external opening.’
(Thompson 1913, p.114)
The site’s greatest fame stems from the tunnel mentioned above by Thompson, which is said to run from the Holy Well to the Abbey at Peterborough (also described by Bord and Bord 1985, p.76). A blocked-up doorway in the third chamber is described as the entrance to this tunnel, although one can imagine that the nature of the whole edifice would lend to such a belief. Certainly records show that the Abbey was supplied by a conduit at the Infirmary end of the Chapel of St Lawrence. However, it is more likely that this took its waters from the St Leonard’s Well at Spital, whose water also filled the Boroughbury Pools and Swan’s Pool.
Yet records show that the Abbey was interested in the site. During Abbot Godfreys tenure, in 1130s the following document states:
‘Amos ejus viii inclusat porceum Burgi Sumptus iiij I lb: xv sol. Item feat fossutum salveunium inter Thorpe fen et le Dom Sumptus xx sol‘.
(Anon. 1904-1906, p.22)
This enclosure cost four pounds and fifteen shillings. Under Abbot Gyerge another document notes the extent of this land (Halywelle), of four acres, three rood and twenty pearches, which until the building of the estate remained the same (Anon. 1904-1906, p.22 ). Yet neither of these documents explicitly refers to the laying of a conduit.
The only possible justification for this belief came in November 6th 1964, when workmen, excavating to set up telephone kiosks beside the old Guildhall on Cathedral square, unearthed an underground passage. This continued for twenty five feet under church street, and ran parallel to land belonging to the Almoner’s Garden that was exchanged in the 1194-1200 agreement between the Abbot and the Vicar of Burgh and Longthorpe. Although the passage was only four feet six inches high, it was not impossible that it could have been a tunnel, especially considering the average height of mediaeval people. Unfortunately, the underground passage turned out to be some kind of eighteenth century fire precautions.
Comparing Thompson’s description and the photograph, one can note a few differences, the main one being that the site in general has become noticeably overgrown. The wall which appears to run along one side has become overgrown and derelict, the pool overgrown, and rubbish-strewn. Within the structure, the curbed well has gone and now one can see the water bubbling from the rock.
In 2010 I was asked to talk about the well from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and detailed the history and folklore for their religious strand on sacred places.
Despite the construction of a housing estate, the old Holy Well remains to mystify and fascinate us. Ignore the rubbish and the ugly metal doorway, and you can imagine it being the site of great pilgrimage from olden days to the Victorians. Today, nearly forgotten and forlorn, it is an amazing surprise, especially if you seek the site without knowing what you expect to see!