Category Archives: Nottinghamshire
I’ve mentioned Frank’s work in last month’s 101st post. Frank is very well known in what is or was called Earth Mysteries, circles. A true pioneer and very knowledgeable, he has just had the book A-Z of Nottinghamshire curiosities published (see link below) More can be read of his credentials on the link below too. He recently wrote and published this article in a local Nottingham newspaper and I am more than happy to re-publish an abridged and slightly edited version below. I hope next year to bring more guest writers in…so if you fancy writing about holy and healing wells let me know.
Fair Maids seem to populate the folklore of Nottinghamshire, one such beautiful women, Lady Isabel de Cauldwell, – who we might well call the Fair Maid of Newark, – is a central character in the legend of St. Catherine’s Well. Unfortunately, this one too has a tragic ending.
Lady Isabel de Cauldwell was said to be the beautiful daughter of Alan de Cauldwell, who in the 14th century lived in Newark Castle. Her great beauty, intelligence and ready wit, attracted many suitors but Isabel had eyes for only two, Sir Guy Saucimer and Sir Everard Bevercotes, Lord of Balderton. Some say that all three were childhood friends. Both men were handsome, rich and full of knightly virtue. Each in turn had asked Isabel for her hand in marriage but she loved both equally and refused to give an answer. With each new rejection the bitterness in the two Knights grew. Finally the two rivals told Isabel that she must choose one of them as her husband and if she did, the rejected suitor would be content.
Although she searched to the depth of her heart, Isabel could not choose between them. The Knights decided that the only honourable alternative was to fight for her hand, God would decide the victor. On St. Catharine’s eve (23rd/24th Nov.) the combatants met in a field on the bank of the river Devon, just outside the town gates. First both men broke their lance on the others shield and then, on foot the sound of sword against sword rang-out in the night air. Both were equal to the other and for hours the fight continued. Finally, Sir Guy began to get the upper-hand and landed a mighty blow on Sir Everard’s helm. For a brief moment Everard stood motionless and then fell mortally wounded to the ground. A great gout of blood gushed from his gaping wound propelled by his still beating heart. As if to receive the blood the earth opened, but instead a clear spring of water erupted from ground. Blood and water mixed and flowed in a stream down to the river. Sir Guy gazed down at the lifeless corpse with horror and then ridden with guilt fled the scene.
When news of events on the banks of the Devon reached the Castle, Lady Isabel, – the Fair Maid of Newark, – fell into a swoon. Grief stricken she was taken to her sick-bed and within hours died of a ‘broken heart’. Meanwhile, Sir Guy had reached London where he joined a band of pilgrims bound for Roman. Throughout the vogue from Dover to Calais, Sir Guy became increasingly weak in body and soul and his fellow pilgrims were forced to abandon him in France. As if to add to his troubles Guy’s body became wracked with leprous sores, which he saw as God’s punishment. For a long time Guy wondered the French countryside as a leper and beggar. Finally he hide himself away in the Forest of St. Avold where he lived a poor and wretched life. The days and nights past slowly for Sir Guy until the night when St Catherine appeared to him in a dream. The shinning vision told him that the only relief for his torment was to be found in the water of the spring that issued from the spot where he had slain Sir Everard.
Sir Guy made a long and painful journey back to England where seeking full absolution for his sins he was consecrated as a hermit. On returning to Newark, Guy bathed in the spring and his leprosy was cured. In grateful thanks Guy built a carved stone wall around the spring and close by a small chapel dedicated to St Catherine. For many years, until he died of old age, Guy lived as a holy hermit by the spring, where he administered to the needs of those seeking a cure from its healing waters. Locals called him St Guthred. The waters of St Catherine’s Well, – now in the grounds of a private house, – still flow to this day.
The St. Catherine’s Well legend purports to have been first written down in the 15th century, although no document of this date containing the story can be found. One of the most complete written versions of the story is that of W. Dickinson in his book ‘The History and Antiquities of the Town of Newark’ 1816. Here Dickinson falls into the trap of accepting the tale as a first-hand account of the Well’s 13th or 14th century origin. He goes on to state that proof of this is found in the fact that two of the names mentioned in the story, Caldwell and Saucimer are found in the Chantries founded in St Mary Magdalene’s Church in Newark. However, a number of other later authors suggest that Dickinson was in fact given an ‘invented’ story as a joke. If I believed this to be the case then our investigation would end here!
If indeed the St Catherine’s Well legend is what we might term a fake, then it is a ‘good one,’ created by someone with knowledge of tradition and folklore. At first glance the story does appear to be a medieval tale, whether a 19th century invention or not. However, a more detailed examination shows that it very carefully combines elements of two or more classic folktales. Just because the story has a medieval setting does not mean it has a medieval origin. True folkstories of this kind are often subtly changed to incorporate elements from the age in which they are told.
Springs, wells and other valuable water sources, – especially those believed to have healing properties, – have been venerated since the remote past. With the later Christian acquisition of ‘pagan holy wells’ and healing springs, the sites were rededicated to an appropriate Christian Saint. Likewise, any existing oral tradition relating to the sites former use or origin was likewise changed. As the St Catherine’s Well legend can be directly compared with very similar stories of other holy wells, it appears to have been given a medieval Christian ‘gloss’.
Can we see any distinctly ancient or pagan roots in the St Catherine’s Well Legend? In telling the story of the Well, the legend appears to combine two classic themes. The first of these is that of the Fair Maid. The idea of the beautiful women, – the fair maid, – and her two rival lovers is a very ancient one. It is believed to depict the annual cycle of the solar year with two distinct seasons of light and dark, – summer and winter, – conflicting for possession of the Earth goddess. The primary story is to be found in the Celtic myth of Creiddylad. Here the two halves of the solar year, represented by the gods Gwyn ap Nudd, – winter, – and Guthyr, – summer, – must fight every May Day for the possession the goddess Creiddylad, – spring. As at this point in the year, their powers are equal; their battle is destined to be eternal. However, at other significant times of the year, one season, – god, – or other is dominant and has temporary control of the goddess. The Creiddylad myth begins with Gwyn, – winter, – kidnaping Creiddylad, – spring. This sets in motion a bloody war between the factions of Gwyn and Guthyr. Such is the slaughter on both sides, (a cosmic imbalance), the high king Arthur intervenes and declares that the two adversaries must fight annually at the midpoint of the year until the end of time.
If we now compare the St Catherine’s Well legend with the primary Celtic myth, we can see there are many similarities. Does this point to an ancient Celtic origin and veneration of the Well? Given the time of year at which the fight is said to have taken place, St Catherine’s Eve, – which approximates the winter solstice, – and Sir Guy’s apparent victory, it may be speculated that Guy is Gwyn the winter king. If we take the story further we can see that Guy’s victory results in his self-imposed exile and the death of Isobel, his ultimate prize. His victory is therefore incomplete. I believe that at this point the original ending to a Celtic story has been lost or deliberately changed when the Well received its Christian dedication to Saint Catherine.
We have already seen that the first part of St. Catherine’s Well legend bares strong similarities to stories told about pre-Christian sacred sites. There is evidence too that the remainder of the story suggests a pagan context.In the 13th and 14th centuries, – the time of the supposed origin of St. Catherine’s Well in Newark, – many pagan and early Christian ‘holy wells’ and ‘healing springs’ received what today we would call a ‘make over’. The established Church through the many Monastic Houses saw the perceived increase in the popularity of such sites as a valuable way of making money from those seeking cures for their ills In a strong marketing ploy pre-Christian sites were re-branded with a name change and dedication to an appropriate Christian Saint relevant to earlier associated traditions of the site. In some case, originally open springs were enclosed and new attendant chapels were built. To control access to the sites monks or hermits were installed to collect a revenue from those seeking a cure.
Remember that the second part of the St. Catherine legend tells how Sir Guy returns to Newark seeking a cure for his leprosy in an existing healing spring, – all be it one of his own accidental creation. The legend goes on to say Guy encloses the original source of the healing waters and builds a chapel. He dedicates the Well and chapel to St. Catherine and becomes its first Christian guardian, – a holy hermit attending the needs of others seeking a cure from the spring.
This medieval Christian adoption of healing springs and holy wells is clearly demonstrated in the history of Nottingham’s ‘premier spring’, St. Ann’s Well. The well had been known as a place of healing long before the monks of Lenton Priory ‘seized the great spring of the town’. The earliest references to this site include the names Brodwell, and Owswell, – the later associating it with the pagan Saxon goddess Eostre.Much to the annoyance of the local population, the Priory dedicated the Well to St. Ann. In 1409 a chapel of the same dedication was built next to the Well, thus sealing the Priory’s authority over the site.
The dedication of the Newark ‘holy well’ to St. Catherine is also highly significant. St Catherine is one of the ‘Virgin Martyrs’ who dedicated her life in ‘mystical marriage’ to Christ. Tradition says that she was the beautiful daughter of the pagan King Costus and Queen Sabinella, who governed Alexandria. She converted to Christianity at the age of 14 and declared that she would remain a virgin and only marry someone who surpassed her in beauty, intelligence, wealth and dignity. The basic story of her martyrdom tells how the Roman Emperor Manutius fell in love with her whilst she was attempting to convert him to Christianity. When she spurned his advances he had her tortured on a spiked wheel, which miraculously broke. Submitted to further torture, she still refused to marry him and Maxentius finally had her beheaded. An early tradition has it that angels carried her body to Mount Sinai where her burial site became a monastery. It is said that when her tomb was opened, it was found that a constant stream of scented oil with curative properties flowed from her body. This part of her story gave rise to her association with healing waters
There are many familiar themes in St. Catherine’s story. We have already seen that her ‘feast day’ approximates the time of the mid-winter solstice. In St. Catherine’s story we once again find a ‘Fair Maid’ wooed by a ‘dark lord’ at the time of mid-winter. Part of the celebration of her feast day was the lighting of a wooden wheel, – .the origin of our modern Catherine wheel firework. The origin of this practice is unknown, but it is interesting to note that in many parts of pagan Britain it was customary to mark the winter solstice by rolling a burning cart-wheel down a hill.
Given the evidence so-far, the St. Catherine’s Well legend seems to suggest that the healing spring was once a pagan sacred site dedicated to a spring goddess, – the Fair Maid, – and her progress through the winter months of the cycle of the year.
Like St. Catherine’s, there are many holy wells that are said to have miraculously sprung from the ground where blood was shed such as St. Winifred’s Well in last month’s post
When Sir Guy returned to Newark seeking the healing waters of the spring where he had slain Sir Everard, he was suffering from leprosy. This dreadful disease would have been familiar to the medieval audience of the legend, as would its association with healing spring and wells. Leprosy, self-imposed exile and a healing spring are the themes behind the founding of the City of Bath. Around AD 43, Roman engineers began to develop a and was i local deity, the goddess Sulis whom the Romans associated with their own Minerva. A town which the Romans called ‘Aqua Sulis’, – the Waters of Sulis’, – grew up around the spring. Writing in the 12th century, the Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth, give his own account of the founding of Bath in his book ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, (History of the Kings of Britain). He tells how a young prince, Bladud caught leprosy and was imprisoned by the Royal Court to prevent an imperfect King ascending to the throne. Bladud escapes prison and goes into exile far from the Court. He becomes a swineherd tending is pigs in a remote forest. As time passes he notices that his pigs have also contracted leprosy. However, observing the pig closely he finds that each morning when he ‘turn‘s out’ his animals some of them wonder off out of the woods. When they return, they are covered in a black mud and free from disease. The next morning Bladud follows the pigs and finds that the animals roll in the mud of a hot spring some two miles distant from his dwelling. Bladud decides to bathe in the spring and finds that when he emerges he is free from his leprosy. Cured, he returns to his father’s Court and later succeeds him to the throne. Bladud himself is later succeeded by his son Lear, made famous by Shakespear. Bladud does not forget the place of his miraculous cure. He builds a ‘bath’ around the spring so that others might take the cure. Geoffrey’s book is not a true history of actual Kings. He sets Bladud’s story over 800 year after the Romans had founded the city of Bath. Bladud’s tale is taken from pre-Roman Celtic mythology. Here we find him as the father of the sea god Lier and not a king.
We can now see how the St. Catherine’s legend compares with those of other holy wells and healing springs and has all of the elements of these ancient tales. However, there is one final twist to the story which other writers on the subject have missed. The story contains the name of another Christian Saint. The story tells how as the hermit guardian of the well Sir Guy is known locally as St Guthred. St. Guthfrith or Guthred is a saint associated with the 9th century king of Northumbria and Viking York. Could it be that the Newark well was original dedicated to Guthred, a name which remained in the popular imagination long after it was dedicated to St. Catherine in the 13th/14th century. No archaeological evidence for a chapel close to St. Catherine’s well has ever been found. Perhaps this is because the search has been in the wrong place. An alternative ending to the St. Catherine’s story states that Sir Guy could not build his chapel next to the well as the site frequently flooded. Instead he chose the site of a second spring in the same aquifer, which was on slightly higher ground. Could it be that St. Catherine’s Well is one of two or more healing spring? Evidence of this is perhaps to be found in the words of an inscription on a stone which is said to have once covered the well; ‘St. Catherine’s Well Sutton springs 1882’.
You may be interested in my article on this website.
Thanks go again to Frank and I direct you to purchasing the excellent book A-Z of Nottinghamshire curiosities from http://nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam.wordpress.com website.
New Book Available From May 2014:
The A-Z of Curious Nottinghamshire
by Frank E Earp
“Weird, spooky, gruesome, humorous, and strange but true stories come alive in The A-Z of Curious Nottinghamshire. ‘Curious’ is perhaps not the first word you would use to label Nottinghamshire. But ‘curiouser and curiouser’ it becomes when you dig below the surface. Here the reader will meet highwaymen and hangmen, saints and martyrs, flying cars and bedsteads. To sum up, eccentrics, legends, folklore, murders, scandals, ghosts, incredible characters and oodles of wow factor, all may be found within the pages of this book”.
Available from all good book shops and also available on-line. The book can also be ordered directly from The History Press:
Next quarter (Summer) – An article on the Alton Springs, Wiltshire evidence for prehistoric worship examined by Heart of Albion publisher Bob Trubshaw
For my 99th post I’ve decided to revisit one of the blogs most popular posts https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/perhaps-not-so-jolly-old-well-friar-tucks-well-at-blidworth/,….with new photos and hopefully with a new appraisal.
Towards a restoration of the well?
In my post about Friar Tuck’s Well I bemoaned the lack of any good photos. Whilst my search for photos of the whole structure have drawn a blank so far an exciting discovery via fellow folklorist Frank Earp in his photo collection which will go some way to reassessing and understanding the structure if and hopefully when it is fully restored. Frank had to scan the photo in two sections and I have ‘glued’ them back together digitally (I include two different glued versions) I include the photos as they are
He believes the photos were taken between 1975-78 I have included them compared to recent photos labelled to where I suggest the lost features are. My question being do these structures seen in the picture lie beneath the mud and mire seen in the recent photo or has all the stone work been removed. Frank described the ‘basin’ as being cut out of the sandstone rather than being built with gives hope. Sadly, the photo fails to show the position of the railings. If combined with this image from the late Bill Richard’s Book on Friar Tuck and Blidworth Forest we can just work that the railings enclosed the basin seen in Frank’s photo just traceable as a depression.
What the photo does go to show is the importance of those pictures taken by ‘amateur’ well enthusiasts…keep photographing. I hope one day that the land the well is on can be purchased and the site repaired and this photo will help I feel in that venture. Especially as taking a walk….I found….
Big changes at Blidworth
A recent visit found all the trees uprooted and channels made to drain the pool above. I thought at first that the well itself had been gone, but some focusing on the area revealed it still remained but the spring head brickwork looked more dilapidated and the railings gone. No sign still of anything like Frank’s photo above however, I think the sediment needs to be removed and a long period of dryness required. Fortunately the site is listed, grade II, and on an at risk register suggesting the authorities are aware of but something still needs to be done to reveal the ashlar trough below.
The name Friar Tuck maybe a bit of misdirection. If we look at the word Frere Tuck this means ‘troublesome brother’ the former from tucian perhaps if we combine this with the fact that the spring is intermittent, a piece of local lore recorded in my book, does it perhaps refer to the damage caused by this flow, in short a woe water, who’s flow either caused problems or predicted trouble. Frank has also focused on the possible folklore behind the famous fight between Tuck and Robin. Rather than be a ‘historical’ event it probably has a deeper folklore message of dark battling light or the Winter fighting the Spring.
I stress the copyright on these important photos lays with Frank. Thanks go again to Frank and I direct you to purchasing the excellent book A-Z of Nottinghamshire curiosities from http://nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam.wordpress.com website. I asked Frank to contribute his excellent article on the origins of Newark’s St Catherine’s Well, in what I hope will be a regular feature of guest bloggers
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.
March is a time when the Trent Aegir is at its strongest with the High Spring tides with heights ranging from 8 feet to 13 feet. However in 2013, July and August have the highest predicted Aegir and much of its impact has been reduced by dredging. Brown’s (1874) Notes about Notts describes it as:
“Near the mouth of the Trent at spring-tides the influx of sea water causes that of the river to mount up into a tidal wave six or eight feet high which rolls on its onward course between the confined banks in a remarkable manner. Boatman call it the Eagre, and woe betide the craft that upon such occasion has not a man standing by to pay out a sufficient of cable.”
Firth’s (1915) Highways and Byways of Nottinghamshire notes:
“At Littleborough if you have good fortune, you may see the Aegir. This is the bore, or wall of water, which rushes up the Trent during the spring tides, followed by a series of waves known as the ‘Whelps’. It is caused by the tide moving up the Humber to the mouth of the Trent where they are met by the big volume of water coming down. A wall rises and flows rapidly up the river, sweeping round the bends with great speed and with a curious rippling sound. Sometimes the wall of water is six feet high, and it brings disaster to any boats which it catches unprepared. George Elliott speaks of the Aegir and the floods in the Mill on the Floss, for the Floss is the Trent.”
Swinnerton’s (1910) Nottinghamshire History notes:
“The influence of the spring tide is felt as far as Sutton, but for some miles above Stockwith it is shown as remarkable bore.”
Sadly although West and East Stockwith is still a good place to see it, weirs to the north of Newark and dredging beyond means that locations such as Littleborough are no longer good view points.
Origin of the name
Marsden’s Lincolnshire stated that it derived from a Norse god of the sea, Kaye in Lincolnshire and South Humberside, suggests that it took its name from ‘Oegir the Terrible’ a Danish god and significantly refers to St. Oggs in the Gainsborough area. It could itself also mean Og suggests it is the same as the sea-giant Hlér, who lives on the isle of href. Aegir is said to be the brother of Logi (fire), Kari (wind) and his wife a sea goddess”Rán”Their children were nine billow maidens who were Unnr (or Uðr, wave), Bára (or Dröfn, wave), Blóðughadda (bloody sea), Bylgja (large wave), Dúfa (the pitching wave), Hefring (the surging wave), Himinglæva (reflecting) Hrönn (the grasping wave) and Kólga (cold wave) doubtless waves which may have gone up the Trent.
A sacrifice to appease the god
The suggestion of an origin from a pre-Christian god, is indicated by the fact that sacrifices were given to the Aegir. This is recorded by Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar. Animal sacrifice was according to Sutton (1996) to be celebrated in the Gainsborough area within living memory:
“It was said that the river Trent was a greedy river and would take seven lives a year, so in March when many of the lambs were born a farmer would sacrifice to the river a cade or weak lamb. He believed that by his action a human life would be saved.”
Latter perhaps the giving of a coin was good enough:
“It was the custom to throw a coin into the Aegir to appease the anger of the flow. A number of people believed that the more money the less angry it became.”
From Gainsborough in the 1920s:
“When I was a boy it was the custom to throw a piece of silver into the Trent during the Aegir at the high spring tide and the autumn tide (the equinox). The piece of silver was a toll fee to prevent you from drowning in the Trent. I’ve done it a few time myself as a bot; the silver was a silver three-penny bit, or a tanner (6d). I was once out on the river in a cob-boat diring an Aegir and was lifted very high on the tidal wave. It was very scary at the time but being a kid I didn’t realise just how lucky I was to get away with it. The Aegir always dumped plenty of mud along the river bank and when the mud dried out it was like Fuller’s Earth, a kind of fine powder. It was custom for local mothers to gather this mud for babies’ nappy rash: it was very effective for a sore bottom.”
The Aegir and King Cnut
Another legend is that whilst Gainsborough castle, now covered by Gainsborough Old Hall, King Cnut annoyed by the flattery heaped upon by his courtiers asked to be carried down to the sea in his throne. It is thought that the Aegir was what he was trying to repel. He was of course unsuccessful, noting:
“Let all the world know that the power of monarchs is vain…no one deserves the name of King but He whose Will the Heavens, Earth and Sea obey.”
Other Trent traditions
It was at some point believed to be lucky to cross the river by boat and it conferred healing in some cases, this as may explain why the ferryman across the Trent received a very warm welcome at Clifton, where every Christmas he received a free meal and hospitality on the Parish. The family at North Clifton were famously said to be haunted by a great fish which appeared in the river as a harbinger of doom for one of its members. Notes on it suggest it was a considerable sized surgeon.
Similarly 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.
The Trent is still a mysterious and foreboding river, much of its route quiet and remote…that is until the sound of the tidal wave appears.
Interestingly this is the only other site within the mediaeval borders of Sherwood forest associated with the legend and its pedigree could be considered dubious. Friar Tuck’s Well which is associated with his legendary hermitage. The well was surrounded by ornate railings and low walling and a cascade of water would have run down a series of angled stones after arising at first to fill a small chamber above. Considerable damage was done when an ash tree fell on the site in the 1980s or before. Consequently, the low walling stones have nearly all gone, but when first visited parts of the railings lay buckled and bent emerging from the boggy water. The spring no longer appears to flow down the cascade and there is no water in the chamber above it, but its chalybeate water still emerges from the left hand side of the structure.
A local legend
Local legend suggests that the remains of the moat just before the spring head were where Friar Tuck resided. It is said that when he was ousted from his cell by a Roger de Tallibois, he cursed the springs in this area, making them dry for seven year intervals and indeed in recent heavy rainfall periods the spring has not flowed! Other sources suggest it was Danish raiders who not finding gold in the area cursed the springs.
He also notes that the spring water was still collected by local people for its healing qualities. Was it a pagan site? Does the site have some connection with the Blidworth Boulder, a nearby holed glacial erratic? This is suggested to be able to heal children with rickets and interestingly is also associated with Friar Tuck.
A forlorn folly or hopeless holy well?
It is possible that the site records a local hermit or saint who has become tangled up with Friar Tuck legend. The fact that the well may have been dedicated to a saint is supported by the Rev. R. H. Whitworth, local vicar (1895-1908) who notes to local historian Ernest Smedley that the spring was called St. Lawrence’s Spring. However, I have been unable to find any supporting evidence for this view and it may be wishful thinking by the vicar, (the original church was dedicated to the saint). It could be the Heghwelles noted in documents of 1350 at Ravenshede.Does its name possibly derive from O.E halig or is it another site? Equally the spring could have been purely an estate invention to impress visitors to Fountaindale and the name Friar Tuck attached, especially as the story of Tuck was possibly from Sussex, as two royal writs referring to a Frere Tuk survive from 1429, but of course this date is too late to be associated with Robin Hood who generally is accepted to be ‘active’….
This is also at variance to the presence of the character in May plays in the 15th century such as that from 1475’s Robin Hood and the Knight or Robin Hood and the Sheriff, which suggests either a rapid rise to fame or else the Sussex friar was an actor playing the part in this play and using a pseudonym.
Fountain dale or Fountain’s abbey?
The other problem is that it is possible that there is a confusion occuring over the location. It is possible that Fountaindale has been confused by Fountain’s Abbey, and this may be the fault of authors such as Washington Irving who stayed at Fountaindale house and did much to support the legend. The obvious problem with this location is that it was Benedictine and not a Franciscan establishment; they were of course established in Nottingham in the 13th century. It is also worth noting that Fountains Abbey does have a Robin Hood’s Well and a notable stream to cross. The most famous story, of their encounter to refer to Fountaindale however is recorded by Arthur Quiller-Couch, in the Oxford Book of Ballads (1910).
|‘But how many months be in the year?
There are thirteen, I say;
The midsummer moon is the merryest of all
Next to the merry month of May.
|‘Shoot on, shoot on, thou fine fellòw,
Shoot on as thou hast begun;
If thou shoot here a summer’s day,
Thy mark I will not shun.’
|IN summer time, when leaves grow green,
And flowers are fresh and gay,
Robin Hood and his merry men
Were [all] disposed to play.
|Robin Hood shot passing well,
Till his arrows all were gone;
They took their swords and steel bucklers,
And fought with might and maine;
|Then some would leap, and some would run,
And some use artillery:
‘Which of you can a good bow draw,
A good archer to be?
|From ten o’ th’ clock that day,
Till four i’ th’ afternoon;
Then Robin Hood came to his knees,
Of the friar to beg a boon.
|Which of you can kill a buck?
Or who can kill a doe?
Or who can kill a hart of grease,
Five hundred foot him fro?’
|A boon, a boon, thou curtal friar!
I beg it on my knee;
Give me leave to set my horn to my mouth,
And to blow blasts three.’
|Will Scadlock he kill’d a buck,
And Midge he kill’d a doe,
And Little John kill’d a hart of grease,
Five hundred foot him fro.
|‘That will I do,’ said the curtal friar!
‘Of thy blasts I have no doubt;
I hope thou’lt blow so passing well
Till both thy eyes fall out.’
|‘God’s blessing on thy heart,’ said Robin Hood,
‘That hath [shot] such a shot for me;
I would ride my horse an hundred miles,
To finde one could match with thee.’That caus’d Will Scadlock to laugh,
He laugh’d full heartily:
‘There lives a curtal friar in Fountains Dale
Will beat both him and thee.
|Robin Hood set his horn to his mouth
He blew but blasts three;
Half a hundred yeomen, with bows bent,
Came raking over the lee. ‘Whose men are these,’ said the friar,
‘That come so hastily?’
‘These men are mine,’ said Robin Hood
‘Friar, what is that to thee?’
|‘That curtal friar in Fountains Dale
Well can a strong bow draw;
He will beat you and your yeomen,
Set them all on a row.’
|‘A boon, a boon,’ said the curtal friar,
‘The like I gave to thee!
Give me leave to set my fist to my mouth,
And to whute whutès three.’
|Robin Hood took a solemn oath,
It was by Mary free,
That he would neither eat nor drink
Till the friar he did see.
|‘That will I do,’ said Robin Hood,
‘Or else I were to blame;
Three whutès in a friar’s fist
Would make me glad and fain.’
|Robin Hood put on his harness good,
And on his head a cap of steel,
Broad sword and buckler by his side,
And they became him weel.
|The friar he set his fist to his mouth,
And whuted whutès three;
Half a hundred good ban-dogs
Came running the friar unto.
|He took his bow into his hand,
It was made of a trusty tree,
With a sheaf of arrows at his belt,
To the Fountains Dale went he.
|‘Here’s for every man of thine a dog,
And I my self for thee!’ —
‘Nay, by my faith,’ quoth Robin Hood,
‘Friar, that may not be.’
|And coming unto Fountain Dale,
No further would he ride;
There was he aware of a curtal friar,
Walking by the water-side.
|Two dogs at once to Robin Hood did go,
T’ one behind, the other before;
Robin Hood’s mantle of Lincoln green
Off from his back they tore.
|The friar had on a harness good,
And on his head a cap of steel,
Broad sword and buckler by his side,
And they became him weel.
|And whether his men shot east or west,
Or they shot north or south,
The curtal dogs, so taught they were,
They kept their arrows in their mouth.
|Robin Hood lighted off his horse,
And tied him to a thorn:
‘Carry me over the water, thou curtal friar,
Or else thy life’s forlorn.’
|‘Take up thy dogs,’ said Little John,
‘Friar, at my bidding be.’—
‘Whose man art thou,’ said the curtal friar,
‘Comes here to prate with me?’
|The friar took Robin Hood on his back,
Deep water he did bestride,
And spake neither good word nor bad,
Till he came at the other side.
|‘I am Little John, Robin Hood’s man,
Friar, I will not lie;
If thou take not up thy dogs soon,
Ile take up them and thee.’
|Lightly leapt Robin Hood off the friar’s back;
The friar said to him again,
‘Carry me over this water, fine fellow,
Or it shall breed thy pain.’
|Little John had a bow in his hand,
He shot with might and main;
Soon half a score of the friar’s dogs
Lay dead upon the plain.
|Lightly leapt the friar off Robin Hood’s back;
Robin Hood said to him again,
‘Carry me over this water, thou curtal friar,
Or it shall breed thy pain.’
|‘Hold thy hand, good fellow,’ said the curtal friar,
‘Thy master and I will agree;
And we will have new orders taken,
With all the haste that may be.’
|The friar took Robin Hood on’s back again,
And stept up to the knee;
Till he came at the middle stream,
Neither good nor bad spake he.
|‘If thou wilt forsake fair Fountains Dale,
And Fountains Abbey free,
Every Sunday throughout the year,
A noble shall be thy fee.
|And coming to the middle stream,
There he threw Robin in:
‘And chuse thee, chuse thee, fine fellow,
Whether thou wilt sink or swim!’
|‘And every holy day throughout the year,
Changed shall thy garment be,
If thou wilt go to fair Nottingham,
And there remain with me.’
|Robin Hood swam to a bush of broom,
The friar to a wicker wand;
Bold Robin Hood is gone to shore,
And took his bow in hand.
|This curtal friar had kept Fountains Dale
Seven long years or more;
There was neither knight, lord, nor earl
Could make him yield before.
One of his best arrows under his belt
Slowly vanishing from view..
The site really should be better looked after and could make a good local project if the site could be bought from the local landowner to avoid trespass. However, I have been unable to find an old photo or illustration to suggest what the structure looked like when in best order (according to local historian Mr. Richards there is not one). Something needs to be done soon as even in the last year the iron railings which once surrounded the site have been removed. It would be sad to see this noted spring, whatever its provenance, fall to vandals and apathy. Sign up below to show your support.
One of the most unusually sited on Nottinghamshire’s holy wells record in Holy Wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire is St. John’s Well at Welham. I have touched upon this site in my first post on unusual holy well locations and thought it was worth examining in detail.
The well itself is undoubtedly an ancient one. The Domesday Book refers to Wellun, this changed to Wellum by 1166 and by the 16th century had become Wellom but in Chapman and Andres map of Notts in1775 was shown as Welham. None of these sources call it St John’s Well and it is not so named until 1710, either as a re-dedication, once the Reformation zealouts had died down, or perhaps coined by John Hutchinson to give the bath so back story to explain its healing waters. It is shown on Chapman’s map of Nottinghamshire (1774) as ‘Well House’. Piercy (1828) gives the greatest information and states that the hamlet of Welham was named after St. John’s Well whose waters contained magnesium and gypsum and was:
“good for rheumatics and scorbutic diseases. Its waters formed into a large bath, and remained entire during the early part of the 18th century, it was famous for many cures, but latterly it has lost much of its celebrity.John Hutchinson, Esq. erected a cottage adjoining, and enclosed the bath, to preserve it from injury. Here was, until lately, 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. Cold baths like this were formerly regarded with superstitious reverence, being supposed to possess a sovereign remedy for agues such as rheumatism.”
What is interesting about this account is the reference of games and a fair suggesting that if the well itself did not have such a dedication, the saint was celebrated in the locale. This may indicate that indeed the well was so dedicated or that Hutchinson chose this name because of the local fair. Without further information we shall never know.
By 1832 White’s Directory notes that it had lost much of its former celebrity. A Robert Walker was a bath keeper at the Well house and may well have been the last one as it appears the well soon fell into terminal decline and I can find nothing is noted of it until 1938. At this time it is noted that its water was still used to provide several cottages in the village. An article written in 1957 states the bathhouse disappeared stating the coming of the railway encouraged people to move away to find more effective spas around the 1830s. It goes on to note that the actual spring location was lost. This I thought was to be the situation, but local investigations not only showed the house to be still existence but the bath still remained! Records show that the estate, was bought by an Arthur Robert Garland of Welham Hall from the deceased estate of John Henry Hutchinson of Clarborough Hall acres117.3.16 along with Well House Cottage and garden for the sum of £3200 on in 1910. He then sold the cottage and garden to Fred Anderson on 1910 for £130. This was subsequently bought by the late Mr Eric Durham on 1955, later to be purchased by the current owner, Mr Whelan, in 1975.The site is still called Well House. Which although it had been added onto in the last century, its core fabric remains as John Hutchinson built it. The large house being the well keeper’s abode with the side building, now a modern kitchen was the bath house.
Arriving at the house, I was at first shown the site by Mr. Whelan the spring which filled the bath which was diverted to the side of the house, the spring itself arising close to the footpath behind the house. A man-hole cover in the drive way revealed that the spring flows at a fast rate, several gallons per minute. He notes that it had a very high mineral content, soaking through the gypsum in Clarborough hills. He stressed it is drinkable, in small quantities, due to its high magnesium and sulphate (like Andrews Liver Salts). It is quite chalky to taste flat but is very pleasant to drink if aerated. However he did not recommend long term drinking was probably not good for one’s health.
In he kitchen, a small trap door can be removed and beneath the remains of the bath is revealed. This appears to as Mee (1938) describes; a stone basin twelve feet square with a flight of steps entering the water. I scrambled down into this bath and found it presently to have two stone steps which enter the bath, although bricks built upon these suggest that there may have been more.
Remarkably the bath still remains enclosing an area fifteen feet by twelve feet, and despite the water being diverted, was full to over a two foot of water. The present kitchen is supported by four brick pillars but this does not appear to have damaged the fabric of the bath which is in fine condition, being made of good quality neat squared stonework. A pipe is found four feet high or so in the wall and a line around it made by the presence of water indicates that the water was of a considerable depth supporting the fact that it was large enough to be a hazard, explaining how Thomas Heald, Vicar of Babworth drowned in it on the 18th June 1759. Mr. Whelan informs me that although the house is not a listed building previous owners had sensibly preserved the bath. Around 30 years ago he was often showing local school children, but it appears now to forgotten. So there it remains a curious relic preserved in its most unusual place.
It must be noted that due to its location, under a private kitchen, that the site is not readily viewable so please don’t turn up unannounced. More details in the book see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Holy-Wells-Healing-Springs-Nottinghamshire/dp/0956044220 or contact this blogger
This is information is edited from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire
Morrell’s (1988) work on Nottinghamshire holy wells was one of the first non-Celtic volumes on the subject (ie not Cornwall, Wales or Scotland) in the later half of the 20th century. At first I was reluctant to research the area thinking the work had already been done, but no I discovered double the number of sites. Nottinghamshire can claim record of 94 related sites (including some dubious sites and possible repetition) over 834 square miles. This would give a density of 8.8 square miles per well. This would compare with Leicestershire 9.9 wells per square mile (Rattue (1990) perhaps controversially removing those probably not healing or holy from this survey on this basis the concentration increases to 6.5 square miles per well in Nottinghamshire compared to 6.1 in Rattue’s survey (Full details on Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire being not available when this survey was completed.)
I have included within this survey wells associated with the term holy, saint’s names or religious institutions. (Often springs associated with churches can be added to this list, but one must be cautious as such arrangements can be coincidental. Wardie (2003) notes 12 such sites on his map, but none are explained. )To this are added those with healing traditions e.g. noted mineral, chalybeate and spa waters and those with folklore associations; petrifying, ebbing and flowing or possible pagan deity names.
In general there is little folklore associated with water in the county. Thurgarton had a boggart which lived in the dumble (the source of whose booming voice was found to be a bittern), The Clifton family (at Clifton) had their harbinger fish, appearing at times of death (which was a sturgeon), Girton’s bottomless Horsepool and the Aegir, the most famed feature of the Trent, a tidal wave named after a Norse god. Interestingly, Nottingham appears to have few wells explicitly associated with rituals or folk customs unlike neighbouring Derbyshire or even Lincolnshire. There are only four rag wells, all in Nottingham and although well dressing has taken place in the county, this is a modern invention.
The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed). I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C (those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E).
In regards to those of category D, archaeologically speaking, many wells may have had an ancient pre-historic origin. Some in the county may have been Romano-British shrines, such as Kingshaugh and Newton. Similarly, it has been argued that sites named Hart’s Well and a number of wells with prefixes possibly deriving from Here O.E for ‘army’ are probably associated with tribal totems particularly of Danish use (although Morrell (1988) does note that Harwell is near the Roman road to Segontium), as is a site called Norsput. Sadly, it should be stressed that the general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, such claims cannot be ascertained.
The range of dedications is much more limited than surrounding counties, particularly Yorkshire, most being called simply Holy wells (10 confirmed sites, 20 possible sites), and those with names are restricted to presumably foreign or biblical saints: St. Mary (or rather Lady Wells) (9 with an extra 3 possible), (not including Orange’s (1840) Lady’s Bath as a possible origin of Lady Bay and a possible Lady Well at Egmanton, said by the Reverend Levy to have been associated with the vision of Our Lady to a local women at the edge of Ladywood. However, correspondence to long time residents in the parish has not revealed knowledge of the site nor has the Nottinghamshire record office. Interestingly, the suggested site does have oil wells which may suggest that the vision was due to a Willo the wisp!), St. Ann’s Well (2), St. Helen (1/2), St. Catherine’s (2) and St. John (2). With a possible St. Lawrence dedication, Jacob Well, Lord’s Well and others hidden in place name changes, to add to the list. There does not appear to be any local dedications or native saints. Class A wells thus totalling a confirmed 38 (unconfirmed total of 48). Of Class B there are four associated with crosses, but none with churches. There are thirteen Spas or mineral springs and 18 with varied names but healing traditions (Class C), 9 (Class D) and 5 (Class E) although there are a number in the inventory.
Harte (2008) argues that many holy well sites; in particular St. Catherine’s Well are spurious modern sites, due to the lack of earlier evidence. However, one must be careful here as absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; much of what we know of medieval England could be considered fragmentary due to the purges of documents during the Reformation and Commonwealth. Where it may be necessary to err on the safe side it is just as probable (if unlikely) that a site remains unknown to antiquarians or past historians until recent times retained in generations of local knowledge. (Indeed as many communities lose this tradition it is more important to record sites).
The reasons for this are unclear, but it maybe the affect of the Reformation and like in other counties can we assume many of these old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas? Harte (2008) argues against this convincingly, but there are at least two sites which may have existed previously as holy wells; Clarborough and Westthorpe, Southwell. Although one could argue that these may have had a back developed origin as details are scant.
Another possible example is Retford’s Spa, although its pre-Spa history may be confusion with St. John’s Well at Clarborough. Nottinghamshire does not appear to have developed a major spa like neighbouring Derbyshire, or even Lincolnshire. Spa names are applied to eight sites. Interesting, it would appear that using spa was a local word meaning medicinal waters however parochial in nature. Indeed, the term was apparently still being used in the early 20th century in Langold. (One must be careful as there is a Spa Lane in Sutton in Ashfield but this is close to Leamington Street so is unlikely to preserve a site name.) There are others which are mineral waters having apparently never being formally named but appear to have been exploited…….
To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire
In my searches for holy wells, here are ten of the oddest places I have found them. If you know any odder ones let me know. I’ve hyperlinked to megalithic portal for most were a page exists. Note due to the locations some of these sites are on private land.
Under a church. Much is spoken of the Christianisation of pagan springs by siting churches over them but the evidence is not common, St Ethelbert’s Well in Marden Herefordshire is one such example, located in a room to the west end of the nave, existing as a circular hole in the carpet mounted by a wooden frame.
In a bridge, Bridge chapels are a rarity in England and so were bridge holy wells and as far as I can tell of those said to exist at Barking in Essex and possibly in Nottingham at Trent bridge, only Biddenham’s Holy Well still survives in an ancient bridge, probably dating from the 17th century its worn steps lead down to a chamber beneath the bridge, although access is hampered by a locked gate.
Under my kitchen. A visit in search of St John’s Well near Retford, Nottinghamshire reveals a subterranean rectangular stone lined chamber designed to be a plunge pool for body immersions beneath a trap door in a person’s kitchen. More can be learned here or in Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire.
In the shadow of the tower blocks. Urbanisation has a tendency to sweep away anything inconvenient and messy like an ancient well and have in conduited away in pipes or just filled in, luckily one of oldest of Derbyshire’s holy wells (or at least with one of the oldest provenances) survives in a juxtaposition between some older housing and some tower blocks. Vandalised over the years and currently protected by an unsightly metal cage it St. Alkmund’s Well, flows on at the point where his body is said to have rested on the way to his shrine (supposedly in the city museum)
On a golf course. Surprisingly, despite what you would think would be an inconvenience, a number of holy wells arise between the bunkers and fairways of the countries golf courses. In Kent we have St Augustine’s Well at Ebbsfleet, Oxfordshire’s Holy Well at Tadmarton, and Jesus’s well at Miniver, Cornwall. My favourite, although it may not be a holy well per se (deriving from O.E holh or hol) is Holwell on Newstead Golf Course, Nottinghamshire. A natural fern, moss and liverwort adorned cave whose sweet waters are still available via a cup attached to a metal chain.
In the grounds of a school. As long as they don’t fill them with paper aeroplanes and rubbers, wells can survive in school estates well. The best example is the Lady’s Well located within the Bedgebury School Estate, a large sandstone structure has been raised over the spring either to celebrate Our Lady, original landowner Vicountess Beresford or perhaps a past Bedgebury School Headmistress!
Amongst the rock pools on the beach. Although now dry, St Govan’s Well and its associated Chapel are undoubtedly the most atmospherically positioned of any of this list. A small stone well house covers the spring which has either dried or being filled up by too many pebbles.
In a cave. Perhaps the most atmospheric of holy wells is the Holy Well of Holy Well bay near Newquay Cornwall. A large sea cave reveals a magical multicoloured series of troughs made by a natural spring that has dripped its mineral load over the rocks and formed a perfect immersion set up. Its origins are linked to the resting of St. Cuthbert on his way to Durham. Crotches were left on the beach outside by healed pilgrims.
Under a holiday home and an old Courthouse – St Winifred’s Well Woolston is a delightfully picturesque black and white tudor courthouse now a holiday home sitting up top of the chambers of St Winifred’s Well. A site associated with the pilgrim route to her shrine in Shrewsbury and well at Holy Well in Flintshire.
Restored in a new housing estate. Developers of new estates are not always sympathetic to history perhaps and certainly not water history, but the designers of De Tany Court in St Alban’s took good advice and preserved the newly discovered St. Alban’s Well, lost for decades in the grounds of the nearby school’s playing fields, in their new housing estate and made it a garden feature.