Category Archives: Pilgrimage
Fons Scotiae – The well of Scotland, the well of monarchs
If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.
A Roman site
It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:
“Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”
It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.
However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:
“ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”
Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.
The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:
“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”
This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.
Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:
“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”
Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.
The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house
In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:
“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”
However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!
Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.
In search of rag wells: Cornish rag wells a photo archive
The clootie tree at St Euny’s Well
Cloutie tree near Madron Well
The cloutie tree near Madron Well
The cloutie tree near Madron Well
Sancreed Holy Well
St Credan’s Well, Sancreed
In search of rag wells: Irish rag wells a photo archive
The Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim
The Eye Well
St Brigid’s Well: Loch Dearg
The Abbey Well
Tobernalt in Co. Sligo
“Do not leave rags” notices, St Malachy’s Well
A holy well in a mysterious sea cave
One of the most evocative holy wells is perhaps one of the most unique fittingly. The first to record it was William Hals in his 1685-1736 History of Cornwall. He records that:
“In this parish is that famous and well-known spring of water called Holy-well (so named the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water was first discovered on Allhallows- day).”
So far not perhaps that unusual. But he continues:
“The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea- cliff’ rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides ; from the top of which cavern foils down or distils continually drops of water, from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks. And accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, it swells to a lump of considerable bigness, and there petrifies to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence it proceeds, and is of a hard brittle nature, apt to break like glass.”
Over a hundred years later, John Cardell Oliver’s 1877 Guide to Newquay romantically records:
“It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well. This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple. Above and beyond the well will be seen a deep hole extending into the cliff.”
Thomas Quiller-Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall
“This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man’s hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?”
Cures for children
Richard Polwhele, in his 1803 History of Cornwall states
“The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.”
Further details are given by John Cardell Oliver
“The legend respecting the well is, that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns ; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.”
“The virtues of this water are very great. It is incredible what numbers in summer season frequent this place and waters from counties far distant.”
Why is it St Cuthbert’s Well?
One account tells how Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, Lindisfarne in 995 AD to take the body of previous bishop, St Cuthbert, to Ireland to escape Danish raiders. However, it is said that the weather drove them to the north coast of Cornwall where they were beached and settled at time and built a church at Cubert. They presumably rested at the cave and the relics touched the spring which then became holy and healing. After settling down in Cornwall, the Bishop and the relics finally set off to Durham where the saint was finally laid to rest.
This seems a fairly unlikely journey and a story made up by the ill-informed it would seem as the parish is named after St Cubert, an 8th century companion of St Carantoc, who came to convert the local pagans. What is interesting is that there are two holy wells in the parish. A more traditional chapel type being found on higher ground and I would hypothesis that this was constructed to sway local people from visiting the more primeval sea cave. Perhaps as that did not work local Christians applied the St Cuthbert story to the sea cave to attempt to finally push out the pagan connotations – the saintly name however still jars in this most primitive and ancient site.
Interestingly despite it being a wholly natural site it became a Scheduled Monument by Historic England in 2001
A little known Suffolk holy well – the holy well of Kedington
Suffolk strangely is not over endowed with holy, healing and noted wells and one is indebted to the pioneering work of Michael Burgess in his nigh impossible to obtain 1978 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk a East Suffolk & Norfolk Antiquarians Occasional Paper 2. So when one is noted it is of considerable interest despite its provenance. The Holy Well at Kedington is mentioned in Burgess’s work.
The village of Kedington near Haverill has such a site simply called the Holy Well. The village is itself a delightful place full of interest namely its church where a rare circular Saxon cross head with an image of Jesus is located.
Burgess (1978) informs us that in the rectory gardens, also called Ketton House and states:
“In the grounds of Kedington rectory is a ‘holy well’ with supposed healing powers. At one time it was actually by the roadside but the road has since been diverted. Covered by a rounded brick hood, the we us about 41/2 feet deep, and has never been known to fail.”
The site has been on my to do list for some while and then last year around Easter time I happened to be in the area and able to visit the site. The gardens are regularly open for the Garden Open Scheme so I felt the owner would be possible amenable to my search. The gates were open and I walked over to the large house walked on the steps and rang the bell. A call came out and the owner appeared. I explained my search and he said I’ll get my wellingtons on and show you. Its current owner Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett was happy to show me and as can be seen it is an unusual well situated below the house but a fair way I would say from the road to suggest this part of the account may be erroneous and perhaps recants a movement of the spring into this well head? Similarly, despite the claim it never failed, he remarked that in the 20 years of living on the property it had never flowed. He also repaired and cleared the well which has an unusual brick built spiral stepped walkway to the well. The well has either lost its hood or else the small curved brickwork is what remains of it or is the hood. Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett could not remember if it had more brickwork but on inspection it seems unlikely. This brickwork looks around Victorian in part and pre-Imperial in other suggesting an early 1700 origin. There is a hole below the level of the floor which is either where the water flows into the well head or out to prevent flooding.
A pilgrim route?
Apart from providing unfailing supply of water, another tradition states that pilgrims used it on their way to Bury stating:
“Tradition says it was used by pilgrims on their way to the shrine to St. Edmund at Bury.”
This could certainly be true as it is close by but perhaps more interestingly, it is also in a straight line passing not far from the holy wells of St Wendreda near Newmarket and Holy Well Row near Mildenhall to the greater shrine of Walsingham.
Holy Well or not?
The site does not appear to be well known. It is not mentioned in a review of the garden in Garden open scheme, the church warden was unaware of it and indeed the current owner, Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett was unaware that it was a holy well. However, he was certainly interested in it being one and me bonded over both sharing a holy well on our property mine being under the house of course! So is it one? It certainly is unusual, indeed I have never seen one with such an unusual path way. However, perhaps as Burgess is the only source should be cautious? The site is also not mentioned in Harte (2008) English Holy Wells. Its location in a rectory garden is significant but how much we can use this as a solution is unclear. This notwithstanding if you are in the area when the gardens are open it is worth examining.
In search of rag wells: The Clootie or St. Boniface’s Well, Munlochy, Scotland – a photo archive
This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.
Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:
a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record
b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties
Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history
I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!
Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?
Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well
Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?
Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors
Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!
Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!
Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed
Bags – good luck for school
Plaster casts – speak for themselves
Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?
This one’s been here for a while!
And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!
Simon de Montfort’s Battle Well – the holy well of a would be saint
A rather uninspiring pond in a field outside of Evesham is the site of perhaps one of the most fascinating healing springs in England.
A saintly Simon de Montfort?
Much is written of Simon de Montfort but it short his establishment of two parliaments during his interloping coup against Henry II and short rule he is seen as the father of parliamentary democracy. His death at the Battle of Evesham, which saw the rightful monarchy restored, resulted after miracles were reported at his shrine, to be an politico-religious saint and pilgrimages occurred through the late 1200s. Amongst the cures at his tomb Gunnell of Ketton’s son Harry who took dust from it to cure his paralysis and a hen from Sulgrave, Northants was revived to life!
The miraculous creation of a spring
Not unsurprisingly, what with the evocation of Simon and his miracles at the tomb, attention would turn to the site of his demise or in the eyes of his followers ‘martyrdom’. In the 1840 Halliwell translation of the circa 1280 The Miracles of Simon de Montfort, an account records how a Piers de Saltmarsh in 1274 was travelling in the retinue of William Beauchamp of Elmley, one of the Kings’ supporters over the site of the Battle of Evesham. This is said to have happened before June 1266 it is said. Piers doubted Simon’s saintliness and called on him to prove it by providing them, miraculously, with living waters, Piers then:
“seized a horse’s shoulder blade, and began to dig. God works wonders! Out of that dusty hard ground there shot up a spring of sweet water, high as the hills”.
An interesting precursor to this would appear have to been recorded by William rector of Warrington who is said to have taken away earth from the site of the earl’s death and was able to have a dying man by mixing this with water.
Of course the discovery of the spring need not be that miraculous as William Tindal noted in 1794 the spring was normally dry in summer and was just a depression in the ground. Of course both William and Piers were not local and thus would not be familiar with any intermittent spring in the area.
Miracles and cures at the well
Halliwell (1840) again tells how a‘ contemporary authority’ in the 1270s that:
“some say that there have been many miracles at his tomb, and that on the spot where he was killed there is now an excellent spring which has healed those suffering from all kinds of sickness; but nobody dares tell the world of this, for fear of the King and his party”.
The Miracles of Simon de Montfort tell how between 1274 and 1279 record ten miracles of healing from ‘the Earl Simon’s well’ Alice of Burton Overy Leicestershire merely kept vigil and was cured. However most cures were from drinking or washing themselves in water which was brought to them; water was taken as far as Oxfordshire, Thanet, Dunstable and London. Such were Stephen Aungevin’s young son at Dunstable Bedfordshire, Alexander of Suffolk, a citizen of London although some immobile recipients lived nearer such as Harry Chaunteler of Bretforton and a woman at Elmley Castle. Of her a supplementary miracle is recorded. . She is said to have journeyed with a jug to fill it with the miraculous water for her mistress. However, at the time there was an attempt to stem the cult and visitors to the well. As such some soldiers sent to prevent people visiting stopped her and when they looked inside the jug saw only beer and let her pass. However by the time she gave it to her mistress at Elmley, it contained water!
Certainly large numbers appear to have attended the site, when Ralph of Boklande of Thanet bathed his leg in the well it is said that he was cured:
“in the site of many people.”
It is recorded that people were even carried in carts from as far away as Leicestershire and even London. A ritual was established in which they would drink at the well, and either worship there or at Evesham Abbey. Even animals were cured A winded palfrey ( a docile horse), being rode by the Countess of Gloucester being cured there. The Miracles recording:
“The Countess of Gloucester had a palfrey that had been broken-winded for two years. In returning from Evesham to Tewkesbury, the horse having drunk of the Earl’s Well and having had its head and face washed in the water, recovered of this. The Countess and all her company are witnesses”,
The 1910 Evesham Journal reports that:
“until a very little time ago… there was a belief that this water was very efficacious for weak eyes… People often visited the spring and took water away with them to bathe their eyes’
The establishment of a chapel
Understandably, the well attracted considerable trade and obviously money. Alms being given at the spring by a follower of Simon, Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford around either 1273 or 1279.
Despite a decline in the cult by the 1280s the well’s famed did not die with it and it appease to have survived long after it with a chapel. In 1448 The Brut by Richard Fox, a monk of St Albans it is recorded:
“where the battle and murder was is now a well, and grete elmes stande about the well; there is over the well an hovel of stone (a canopy), and a crucifix and Mary and John”.
This appeared to suggest that something of a wayside cross or Calvary was present there but no other authority records it and there is certainly not trace. By 1457 the site was called Battle Well and in that year Abbot John Wickham’s receiver accounted for the abbots expenditure of one penny there. A flyleaf inscription in a missal of 1489 indicates that:
‘to the chapel of le Battell Welle’.
After the Reformation
The chapel appears to have continued until the Reformation, and the Battle well was still remembers long after. In 1702 a man was fined for ‘nuisance at Battle well’ suggesting either he was disturbing those visiting the site or annoying the landowner in attempting to gain access.
Richard Pococke records in his 1757 Travels records:
‘I walk’d near a measured mile to Battle Wells, in the northern road… They say the battle was in the road…and they told me that they found in the road a vault full of bones, which formerly might be under some chapel’.
William Tindal in their 1794, The History and Antiquities of the Abbey and Borough of Evesham records:
‘a little nearer the town, on the same side, is the spot called Battle-well’,
Nathan Izod names and precisely marks it on his 1827 map and it appears on the 1886 OS map as well. It then lay 120 yards west of the road about 200 yards northwest of the mile post and about 145 yards southwest of the Worcester road junction. Richardson (1927) in their Wells and springs of Worcestershire identifies it as
“simply a field-pond situate at the head of a valley that runs down to the River Avon.”
Cox in his translation of the Chronicle of Evesham Abbey provides a map, and says that:
‘examination of the site in 1961… confirmed that Battlewell at present derives its water from land-drainage, and often dries up completely in Summer. In a rainy season, however, it may be filled’.
As D.C. Cox in their Battle of Evesham a new account records:
“The apparent continuity of the name Battle well from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth and the consistency of the early written references, both with each other and with the nineteenth century maps, make it reasonable to suppose that the present Battle well is the fifteenth century one.”
However they cautiously note:
“Earl Simon’s well, according to the thirteenth century collection of Montfortian miracle stories, lay near the Evesham -Kenilworth road at the top of the hill which the battle was fought. That it was the later and present Battle well cannot be proved but cannot easily be doubted.”
Today one can trace this site quite easily although it is unclear of access rights. The site is free to observe during the annual blessing at the well each August however, A simple spring fed pool but one where history, folklore and belief are intrinsically intertwined.
An East Kent Field Trip
In this post I thought I’d examine some little known holy and healing springs from East Kent extracted from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
This parish is associated with the Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, whose proneness to fantastic illusions, attracted great numbers of followers, angered by Henry VIII’s split from Rome. Frightened of any connection with Rome, or power she may hold over the peasant folk, she and her collaborators, local monks, were hung at the Tyburn in London. Neame (1971) notes that there was another reputed ‘holy well’ at Goldwell manor apparently associated with the Holy Maid, called the Golden Well (TR 066 371). This was never known to fail, and was still frequented in the 1930s. It lay in the north-east corner of the house and was reached via steps in the cellar, being surrounded by a low brick coping. Sadly it has now blocked up and lost.
The remains of the Chapel of Our Lady (TR 090 353) judging from early engravings, has degraded considerably over the centuries, and sadly all that now remains are three walls with traces of Romanesque archways. A large water cress covered pool, lies beside this. This was the pool used by the pilgrims visiting the Chapel. However, below this is a spoon shaped stone lined chamber, which appears to be a well and may have been a holy well. Although much of it is filled in, and dry, one can envision, a series of steps flowing down to the stone-lined circular pool. It would appear to be unrecorded by other authorities. Perhaps an excavation can be employed to discover its origin.
Charles Igglesden (1900-46) in his Saunters through Kent notes a ‘Pilgrim’s Well’ (TR 082 354):
“Here is a bridle path from Smeeth Station to Lympne Road, called Pilgrim’s Way, from the fact that there is a well at the Lympne end.”
This dubious site, however, appears to have been lost.
Here is an ancient well, called Queen Anne’s Well (TQ 958 291), because its waters it is said were drunk by a thirsty Queen Anne, asking for refreshment at the house. Consequently, the house was named ‘The Queen’s Arms’ to commemorate the event. Considering the Queen’s liking for spas, the water may have been a mineral water. Perhaps, although one naturally associates the well with the Stuart monarch, she may have been the wife of James II, Anne Hyde or even further back James I, Anne of Denmark. The well lies in the cellar of a private house of The Queen’s Arms, the one nearest the church. I was informed by the owner that its water flows from the wall behind and then flows via a series of drains to and from the well. Niches facing the well indicate a great antiquity, and emphasise that the house may be built on an old chapel or even priory, as it appears medieval in period, which was the view of the owner. Considering the antiquity of the surroundings, its name may derive from St. Anne. Little is known of its history, it may have been a main ancient water source.
To the east of St. Augustine’s Priory at the edge of a field is a site called the Holy Well (TR 044 356). However, I have been unable to discover any reasons for the dedication; it may not be a particular old dedication although it is likely to be the water supply of the priory. It is a simple spring without any sign of structure.
Igglesden (1901-1946) records a tradition of a curative spring, called The Golden Well (TQ 969 425) which he considers a feeder of the Medway, arising beneath the private cellar of a house. He notes that the house:
“Takes its name from a golden well that lies under the cellar and there used to be a legend the effect that the water possessed curative powers over the certain diseases.”
It arises at the base of the rag stone cellar wall, into a circular stone lined well shaft. This although appearing to be only a foot or so deep, was once deeper, but filled when the present house was erected over the cellar. Recent analysis shows it was not potable, yet it is remarkable clear. Interestingly, the owner, Mr. Peter Green, told me of a tradition of a tunnel which lead from the cellar to the edge of Romney Marsh, or rather the sea. He thought he came across the tunnel whilst building a wall.
However, the origin of the well is not clear cut. Wallenberg (1934) in his Place names of Kent, conversely, believes that the Manor’s name derives from the Goldwell family. The explanations are not exclusive. The family may have obtained the name from being guardians of the well. Goldwell may derive from golden votive offerings given to the spring, or the discovery of a hidden hoard from the Reformation, a common myth embroiled around such sites.
An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Spring of Giving Life of Istanbul, Turkey
“O Lady graced by God,
you reward me by letting gush forth, beyond reason,
the ever-flowing waters of your grace from your perpetual Spring.
I entreat you, who bore the Logos, in a manner beyond comprehension,
to refresh me in your grace that I may cry out,
“Hail redemptive waters.”
The ancient city of Istanbul is a melting pot of religions and cultures. As a result it is an excellent place to search for holy wells. The most famous is the Life Giving spring or font or Hagiasma which survives despite a history of destruction revealed to a Byzantine soldier called Leo Marcellus who became the Emperor Leo 1 who reigned between AD 457-474.
The legend according to Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos a Greek Historian writing in 1320 occurred on April 4th 450. At the time outside the Porta Aurea of the city of Constantinople there was an overgrown grove of trees where a shrine with a polluted spring existed. It is described that as Leo was passing a grove of trees, he passed a blind man who was lost. Leo helped him find the path and seated him in the shade. The blind man was thirsty and so Leo looked for some water. In his search, Leo heard a voice say
“Do not trouble yourself, Leo, to look for water elsewhere, it is right here!”
However,he looked around and could see any. Then he heard the voice again
““Leo, Emperor, go into the grove, take the water which you will find and give it to the thirsty man. Then take the mud and put it on the blind man’s eyes. And build a temple here … that all who come here will find answers to their petitions.”
Rather surprised by the voice he did as told and once mud was placed on the blind man’s eyes and he miraculously regained his site. Finally when Leo became Emperor he built a church on the site of the spring.
After his accession to the throne, the Emperor erected a church to Theotokos or St Mary. The spring continued to provide healing waters and in particular was said to allow people to be brought back from the dead hence its name. Indeed, the name Life giving font’ became an epithet for St Mary It became a major pilgrimage site in the Greek Orthodox church who celebrate the spring on Bright Friday in the Orthodox church. .
The present church is also rectangular and the spring arises in a crypt outside the church adorned with icons and paintings surmounted by a dome painted with an image of Christ in a starry sky. It is accessed a stairway parallel to the longer side of the church. The springs water flows into a marble basin. Inside the basin can be seen fishes who have been present in the water for several centuries. This is remembered in the complex’s Turkish name balikli the “place where there are fishes.
How did the fish end up in the holy well? It is said that a monk was frying fishes in a pan nea the shrine when a fellow monk told him of the conquest of the city by the Ottomans. He did not believe the other monk saying he would only believe it if the fish he were frying came back to life. At that point they did, jumped from the pan and into the water and began swimming!
Joseph the Hymnographer in the 9th century wrote a hymn to St Mary called Zoodochos Pege:
As a life-giving fount, thou didst conceive the Dew that is transcendent in essence,
O Virgin Maid, and thou hast welled forth for our sakes the nectar of joy eternal,
which doth pour forth from thy fount with the water that springeth up
unto everlasting life in unending and mighty streams;
wherein, taking delight, we all cry out:
Rejoice, O thou Spring of life for all men.
The sacred landscape of Ilam Staffordshire – the Holy Well of St Bertram, his shrine and cave
Just a small distance from the highly visited Dovedale is a sacred landscape of hermitage, holy well and shrine. Ilam boasts a rarity in England a largely intact shrine with its foramina (holes in which the pilgrim could insert ailing limbs and get closer to the holy person). The shrine is that of Beorhthelm or Bertelin, Bettelin or more commonly Bertram. The patron saint of the county town of Staffordshire, Stafford.
Who was Bertram?
Bertram is an interesting local saint, dating from around the 7th-8th century in what was the Mercia. Briefly, he is said to be of Royal Irish lineage but after making a princess pregnant, escaped to England where he sheltered in the woods around Ilam. The story is told by Alexander, a monk, in the 13th century who notes:
“They were in hiding in a dense forest when lo ! the time of her childbirth came upon them suddenly ; born of pain and river of sorrow! A pitiful child bed indeed! While Bertellinus went out to get the necessary help of a midwife the woman and her child breathed their last amid the fangs of wolves. Bertellinus on his return imagined that this calamity had befallen because of his own sin, and spent three days in mourning rites”.
As a result he became a hermit living in a cave in the valley near Ilam. Despite the earliest mention being Plot, the local geography is suggestive that this is the site of an early Christian hermitage site, although no mention of a well is noted in his legends it can be noted. The cave itself still exists but reaching it appears to be problematic. Only being accessible when the river Manifold dries which suggests a very useful hermitage site. However, it is worth noting that some accounts have the cave being Thor’s cave further up. Perhaps this is significant as it suggests a Christianisation of a pagan site.
One well up on the hillside has perhaps the greatest provena is surrounded on four sides by varying low stone walling, about two feet or so at its highest (although it appears to have been built up and down over the time I have visited the well). The spring flows from a small, less than a foot square chamber, enclosed in stone and set into the bank through a channel in the rubble flow and out along the path towards it.
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well.
Interestingly, literature available from the National Trust shop fails to mention this well, but notes a more substantial second St Bertram’s Well. This is close by the church and surrounded by a rectangular stone wall with steps down, the water arises here at greater speed and flows into the nearby River Manifold. Visually it is more impressive and more accessible but whether there is any long tradition of this second well is unclear, but authors such as the Thompsons’s (2004) The Water of Life: Springs and Wells of Mainland Britain and Bord (2008) Holy Wells of Britain appear to have fostered its reputation.
Little is recorded of the wells, but Browne (1888) in his An Account of the Three Ancient Cross Shafts, the Font, and St Bertram’s Shrine, at Ilam, noted that the ash had gone, but the water was still being used. He states that:
“The late Mrs Watts Russell always had her drinking water from it.”
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well. Interestingly, literature available from the
More is recorded is rather curious. Plot (1686) in his The Natural History of Stafford-Shire, the earliest reference of this fascinating site and he records that a
“St Bertram’s Ash… grows over a spring which bears the name of the same Saint… The common people superstitiously believe, that tis very dangerous to break a bough from it: so great a care has St Bertram of his Ash to this very day. And yet they have not so much as a Legend amongst them, either of this Saint’s miracles, or what he was; onely that he was Founder of their Church”
Such ash trees are commonly associated with holy wells. It is worth noting that in North myth, the sacred Yggdrasil was an ash tree associated with divination and knowledge. In some places rags would be tied to such trees but no such record exists here. By the late 1800s as noted in A general collection of voyages and travels digested by a J. Pinkerton in 1808 that the:
“Ash tree growing over it which the country people used hold in great veneration and think it dangerous to break a bough from or his in the church which are mentioned by Plot I did not hear of it at the village.”
Thus suggesting by that time it had gone by this time
A final observation is that in the 1800s a Roman relic found there:
“In the parish of Ilam near the spring called St Bertram’s there was found an instrument of brass somewhat resembling only larger a lath hammer at the edge end but not so the other This Dr Plot has described in the XXIII Tab 6 This he takes to have been the head of a Roman Securis which the Papoe slew their sacrifices.”
Does this suggest that sacrifices were made at the spring by the Romans?