Category Archives: Saints

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.

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.

Two wells?

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.

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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

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Sacred tree

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?

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Some Swedish sacred källa

Sweden boasts a number of sacred springs or källa. Many of these are what are called in English sacrifice springs where objects of wealth of deposited. One of the commonest dedications is to St Olof and so we shall explore two of these first.

Who was Sankt Olof ?

Born in 995 in Norway, Olav, Olov or Olof II Haraldsson as the King of Norway, Christianised the country and many miracles were associated with him after his death in 1015. That he was elevated to saints was due to the miracles that were said to have happened after his death. The saint fame spread throughout the Nordic countries and St. Olof’s day, the July 29 is celebrated widely.  In the folklore, Olav appears as a patron saint against the pagan evil powers.

St Olof’s well Vasterlanda

The spring may have been a pre-Christian site of sacrifice with the saint’s name being applied to Christianise it in the 1100s. Its water was considered good for eyes being recorded as such in 1693 to cure eye diseases.

The site was a popular pilgrimage site with people coming on the saint’s day, although the church was uncomfortable with the mix of sacredness and drinking. People came to leave money at the spring and poorer people left meat meaning that the spring was often covered with a layer of fat

Famous scientist Carl Linnaeus writes in his Skåne journey:

“The most beautiful party is St. Olof’s day, when the people here storm to a great extent from distant places to interrogate the sermon and to sacrifice.”

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By John-Eric Gustafsson / Riksantikvarieämbetet, CC BY 2.5,

St Olof’s Spring, Hallaröd

The information at the site neatly describes it. Its states:

“In the Middle Ages, about 1050-1500 AD, the source cult received a boost and many and special rites were created through the direct involvement of the Catholic Church. After the Reformation, in 1536, the saint’s cult was considered superstitious and primitive. The church was now trying to eradicate it in various ways, but the interest in the sources lived partly, sometimes until the end of the 19th century. It mainly concerned the custom of sacrificing money and drinking and washing in the health-care source water. At the end of the 17th century, the art of healing also began to be interested in health sources and surpluses. The biggest holiday day was of course the day of the holidays on July 29.One offered money or perhaps food and asked for health, prosperity and about the daily bread. Olof also kept beasts, snakes and trolls away from the creature and he protected and blessed the annual growth. The journey to Hallaröd’s sacrificial source was usually concluded with a visit to the market which was held near the church. By the middle of the 18th century, the market was moved to Hörby.”

 The Hammarby Kalla

Considered to have considerable healing powers was this source just northwest of the church at Lake Fysingen in Uppland . To secure a cure one would drink seven sips on a triple evening , which is seven days after the Pentecost .Hence the spring was called a triple well. The site was restored in 2011 and re-blessed on Sunday 4th September. People can be baptised and married at the well in the summer.

Fagertofta spring

At the Fagertofta burial ground there is a site where coins were left at Midsummer Spring . It is two meters in diameter and 3 decimeters deep and surrounded by a wooden fence. According to the saying, you drank or washed here during the midsummer night to stay healthy. This is one of the source of sacrifice or Osterkalla were objects of value such as coins would be added. These were often associated with midsummer and youths.


Mjölnarens källa

This sacrifice spring was one of the most famed. As the source flowed north it was thought to make the water more magical and healthy and on certain times it had extra healing powers. In “Witchcraft, disbelief and house cures in Danderyd and Lidingö at the year 1783” noted: 

A source flowing to the north has wholehearted waters, than the one that flows to other directions […] Near Landsnora Qvarn is such a source, running out of the halle mountain, from there water is collected for the cure of numerous diseases, especially for sick eyes.

Av Holger.Ellgaard – Eget arbete, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The lost well of St Faith’s Hexton, Hertfordshire

It is difficult to imagine that this small and remote village was once the scene of great pilgrimage. The centre of this being St. Faith’s Well (TL 103 303). St Faith also known as Foy, a third century martyr and virgin, burned alive and beheaded at Agen in Gaul, is associated with Saints Hope and Charity. Her body translated to Conques where a splendid shrine and reliquary was established. The saint was popular with pilgrims and crusaders, and one shrine was established at Hasham, near Norwich.

It is believed that the dedication arose due to the land being in the charge of a homesick French monk: hence the church and well shared the same dedication. In 1243, Abbot John assigned the rectory of Hexton to the sacrist of the Abbey, and the revenue was so great that it was shared with the almonry. Indeed the revenue was greater than the parson’s holdings and tithes. The well thus attracted great numbers and an alehouse was established for their benefit, this is now Red Lion cottage next to the school.

Unfortunately, St. Faith’s Well fell afoul of the Reformation, but luckily lord of the manor Francis Taverner, recorded a great deal of details regarding it. Indeed, his description has become a valuable guide to the possible complexity of less recorded sites. He described the well and its position as follows:

“There is a small persell of ground adjoining to the churchyard called St Ffaith’s Wick Court, about a pole in measurement, anciently divided from Malewick by a ditch in the same place now a large moat is made. The greatest parte standing upon a bedde of springs, and undrained was very boggye, towards the churchyard. But the west side of the wick, being higher ground….neer adjoining unto which…the Craftye Priests had made a well.”

The well itself was:

“about a yard deep and very cleere in the bottome, and curbed about. Now over this well, they built a house.”

Pilgrimage to the well involved adulation to an image of the dedicated saint, for he notes that:

“ this house they placed an image or statue of St Ffaith and a cawsey they had made…. for people to passe, who resorted thither from four and neere to visit our lady and to perform their devotions.”

The well would seem to be beneficial for foot complaints for pilgrims would be:

“… revently kissing a fine colured stone placed on her toe’ which was believed to bestow cures.”

Also the sick would throw something (nothing is specifically described) into the well:

“..which if swamme above they were accepted and there petition granted, but if it sinke, then rejected which the experienced Prieste had arts enove to cause to swymme or sinke according as himselfe was pleased with the partye, or rather with the offering made by the partye.”

It would appear that the priest was able to influence the object like some kind of wizard. Unfortunately, the land was drained and levelled in 1624 being noted that:

“St. Faith’s Well continued as a waste and unprofitable and neglected piece of land till such time as the footpath was turned through the midst of it to the outside on the south by the highway, and their clearing and levelling the ground.”

It is worth noting that the effigy of the saint was dressed and in an old book of churchwarden’s accounts, in the reign of Henry VIII it is noted that:

“that they had delivered unto the St. Faith a cote and a velvet tippet.”

Land  lying in Mill Field, called St. Faith’s ½ acre, which associated with the shrine, came to the King’s hands at the dissolution, and is now parcel of the demesnes. The approximate site can be seen to the side of the church, where a small picturesque pool of water is apparent. The collapse of the tower may have been as a result of undermining from the spring.

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In our days of heritage protection it seems astounding that single handed one man could remove this great site, but they did. However, the name St Faith’s wick court is remembered and the water from the well still remains it appears to fill the moat but it is a poor replacement for what sounded like a fascinating site in this remote area of Hertfordshire.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Some holy wells of Russia

Russia boasts hundreds of holy wells or Святой колодец however their history is a troubled one and many suffered from the atheist Soviet regime – pilgrimages were banned, chapels closed and holy wells filled in and destroyed. However, since the fall of the USSR Russia is reviving and restoring these ancient water sources and in this post I thought it would be of interest to followers.

One such example is the Polovinka holy well in the Venerovsky district. The site was associated with the finding of a miraculous icon of the holy martyr Paraskeva Friday, a hermit who named herself after the Lord’s passion day and was persecuted by emperor Diocletian in Roman Iconium in Asia Minor. This was found on the shore of a lake and the transferred to the church in Voznesenka but when the next day the people went to see the icon it was not there but back at the lake. This happened several times. Seen as a sign, the local people dug a well on its bank and over it a chapel and placed the icon within it. The water was blessed and taken by the pilgrims. Large number of pilgrims came and a convent was even established there.

The loss of the site

Then came the Soviets who in 1979 burnt down the church and destroyed the holy well chapel, dismantling the foundation and burying the well. Despite this the memory had not been erased. Priests came with their people in secret to the site where the spring despite the burial still flowed. Over time people became bolder with their visits and then in 1995, three years after the collapse of USSR, remains were found and a restoration of the well was planned. Soon followers with their priests from Tatarsk, Chanov, Chistoozerny and Vengerovo visited. And recently a roof with a dome and cross were placed back over the well.

The pilgrimage

Hieromonk Dimitry in the Novosibirsk Diocesan Herald (2006, No. 1) describes the pilgrimage of remembrance of Paraskeva Friday, the 9th Friday of Easter:

“Usually visiting pilgrims meet in the morning in the village of Voznesenka. Here at the site of the burnt church a prayer service is served. Then local residents join the pilgrims, after which everyone gets on the buses and goes to Polovinka. Before one kilometer, people go out and with a procession of the cross, with icons and banners, move to the holy well. To meet them come those who came here earlier.  A prayer service with water consecration is served at the well and the akathist to the holy martyr Paraskeva is read. Sanctified well water is bottled to all present. Then – a common meal in nature, and in good weather – and pouring fresh, icy water, which relieves fatigue and gives new strength. Everyone’s mood on this day is festive.”

The white well

A similar site is that of the White Well. This too is linked to a miracle working Icon, this time of Nikola Zaraysky. It is said that in 1225 the spring arose when the icon was rested on the ground on its journey from Korsun to Prince Fydor Yurievich being carried by Eustathius a priest. Then in the following centuries the seven centuries, the inhabitants of Zaraysk celebrate the day of St. Nicholas as a religious Orthodox holiday and after visiting the icon in the Cathedral a procession would form of those visiting the spring head. Its waters were said to be good for those suffering mental and physical suffering.  This custom like above died out in the days of the USSR. Then in 2002 a new wooden chapel, called Nikolskaya, was built above the spring with stairs down to the springhead. A special spring filled plunge bath was constructed Now every year on August 11, processions have returned with people from all over Russia coming for its waters.

New wells for old

The restorations of Russia’s sacred wells continues and new holy wells constructed. In Birobidgan, a new holy well has been built in association with St. Innocent Convent on its 220th anniversary a well will be built and opened.

A report states that:

“The territory of the monastery was chosen for the first source of holy water in the Birobidzhan diocese because the water in the territory of the village of Razdolnya is very qualitative in terms of physico-chemical indicators,” said Bishop Efrem of Birobidzhan and Kuldur. – It is located close to the surface of the earth – the wells of local residents are usually four to five meters deep.”

The process involved:

“The rite of consecration “treasure” was held in front of the relics of St. Innocent, which on this occasion were brought from the Annunciation Cathedral, where they are stored permanently. Prayer was held by Vladyka Ephraim, who asked the Lord to give the water “sweet and tasty, satisfied to the needy, and harmless to the reception.”

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This new wall will have concrete walls and an hexagonal wooden frame over it with a dome.

Russia restoring and creating holy wells in equal measure. A superb place for the religious tourist

Springing from the fight between Paganism and Christianity – St Decumen’s Well, Watchet, Somerset

Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site

Who was St. Decumen?

Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion.  There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.

St Decumen’s martyrdom.

The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:

 ‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’

They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:

“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.

However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell.  It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.

Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!

The holy well

Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that

“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.

This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.

Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.

Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!

The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part two): Hoxne, Suffolk

Last month we discussed the history and location of St Edmund’s springs or well at Hunstanton at the site where the saint arrived in England, in this post we move forward to the time of Edmund’s martyrdom and to Hoxne, a place said to be historically associated with that event.

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The Martyrdom of King Edmund

Edmund’s death is recorded by his chronicler Abbo occurring at Haeglisdun. Although Hellesdon near Norwich or Bradfield St Clare, where there is a Heelesdon ley near Bury, are perhaps phonetically more likely sites. Neither have any folklore associations only Hoxne. Which is said to be associated with the account as early as 1101 has a tree, woods, chapel, holy well and bridge connected with the King. Aside from the spring there are or rather were four sites associated with the saint – a chapel, a woods, a tree and a bridge.

The most notable being the tree and the bridge. Of the bridge called Goldbrook Bridge, it is said that the saint hid from the Danes, however his golden spurs glinting in the water were seen by a newly-wed couple who thus gave him away to the Danes. As he was dragged to his martyrdom he cursed all wedding couples who would cross the bridge and well into the 19th century, wedding corteges would go the long way around.

Of the tree a more direct link exists to his death. For on the 20th November 869 Edmund was captured by the Danes and tortured being tied to a tree, shot with arrows, speared with javelins and scourged and then beheaded. Hoxne claims the tree:

DEAR Sir, I send you the particulars which I able to collect respecting the St Edmund’s Oak which was a remarkable tree and full of was entirely demolished on the llth of any apparent cause the trunk was shivered pieces and the immense limbs with the all round in a very remarkable manner The of the trunk were 12 feet in length 6 feet 20 feet in circumference it contained about St timber and the limbs 9 leads 11 foot of excellent the branches which spread over 48 yards yielded four loads of battens and 184 faggots.”

I examined the trunk carefully and found the an arrow partly corroded projecting from the inside of the hollow part of the trunk about 4 or 5 feet from which part had warted nearly feet quite inside of the tree and Wes perfectly decayed arrow and was covered a little more than a foot sound wood the annual ring or layer shewing of more than 1000 years as near as can be made.”

Now at the site of this tree is a monument reading:

‘St. Edmund the Martyr, AD 870. Oak Tree fell August 1848 by its own weight.”

The other wood association is Home wood which the account above records where was found between the legs of a wolf the:

“adjacent head of St Edmund was supposed to have been was cleared many years ago”

What of the chapel? Well there were two one at the site of his death at Cross Street and another in a wood called Sowood possibly where the head was found. Only 80 years after his death, Hoxne had become a see of the church and by 1226 a priory was founded. All suggesting Hoxne was important.

Will the correct site reveal itself?

Like at Hunstanton tracking down the true location of St. Edmund’s Springs or Well is problematic as again multiple sites via for its location.  Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 notes of:

“ST EDMUND’S OAK ……inexhaustible character of the spring of water which is tabled we to have miraculously flowed from the place the head of the martyr lay may we have no doubt explained by natural causes.”                                   

This source most certainly places it in the same field:

“There is also a spring of the spot where the St Edmund’s tree grew which of the field have never been able to divert”

This is the site stated by Burgess (1988) Crosses and holy wells of Norfolk and Suffolk being a stagnant pond enclosed in trees, twenty yards from the memorial cross marking the location of the tree the saint was martyred on. The author states that it was used by pilgrims visiting the site of the saint’s supposed martyrdom which does appear to be a more likely location.

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Yet Taylor (2016) places it as a spring said to arise on an island in a moated pond stating:

“Near Hoxne in Suffolk – one possible site for Edmund’s martyrdom – is a deep moat enclosing a small island on which the very same freshwater spring was said to be found.”

This is now enclosed in the grounds of a modern house but fieldwork cannot indicate a spring and the island itself is inaccessible. Unfortunately no one was in to ask.

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Another source, states that it was enclosed in a modern well house to the North of Abbey Farm. In the Historic England entry for Hoxne Abbey it is recorded that:                                                “

“There was also a cistern, presumably to collect water for domestic use, and a well known as St Edmund’s Well.”                                           

This I presume is the small tile pitched roof brick square structure beside the drive to the house. This is engulfed in briars and close inspection was difficult.

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Interesting it does not appear to have been referred to as St Edmund’s Well and it appears Burgess (1988) is the first to record this name. It is worth noting also absent in Jeremy Harte’s (2008) English holy wells. However, a possible fourth location was indicated by the manager of a business close to the Abbey Farm, a building built 15 years ago was placed over a copious spring which made its construction difficult. It was filled with concrete.

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Head and spring?

The Eastern Counties Magazine & Suffolk Note-Book’ records something interesting that the :

“freshwater spring, said to have emerged on the spot where Edmund’s head was found between the paws of a grey wolf.”

Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 records also:

“the character of the spring of water which is tabled to have miraculously flowed from the head of the martyr lay may we have no be explained by natural causes”

Now this is an interesting part of the legend which compares favourably hagiographically speaking with many holy wells where the head lands on the ground a spring arises. A spring arose where St Alban’s head fell after decapitation, St Juthware’s well, Dorset, St Osyth’s Essex, St Kenelm’s at Client and even a recent one that of St Thomas’s well at Windleshaw from a Roman Catholic decapitated in the protestant persecutions. It looks like we can add St Edmund’s Spring to this list.

A lost pre-Saxon saint?

It is thought that these associations with the saint and particularly the legend of Goldbrook Bridge are later embellishments and it is possible that the account recorded above of the tree in the Gentlemen’s magazine may have been a concoction of the writer of that piece especially as he even calls it Belmore’s oak. So it begs the question why? Does this mean the spring at Hoxne is not holy? I think no and I think it hides something more interesting perhaps; the record of a pre-Saxon probably Celtic hermit saint. All the clues are there; the island an ideal hermitage location with its spring, the bridge curse, curses being associated with hermit saints to discourage visitors and of course the decapitation a common motif (which many have argued indicate the survival of a head cult but this is debatable). Did local memory of a saint survive long enough into the Norman conquest to have the Saxon saint’s story be grafted onto the holy landscape as a sort of patriotic response?


The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part one): Old Hunstanton, Norfolk

“In Catholic times the devout clients of St. Edmund flocked to their crystal waters, as pilgrims journeyed to St. Winifred’s Well on the western side of the isle. Now, however, the holy wells of Hunstanton belong to the forgotten past. Farmers, indeed, for miles round send their water-carts to be filled at them, and one of the springs supplies the new town with its sparkling water ; but, though marvelous cures are said to be wrought at them, few recognise their miraculous power, and only now and then does a solitary pilgrim linger over the spot, and recall to memory the stranger prince who knelt there to pray for his country.”

James MacKinlay (1893) Saint Edmund King and Martyr: A History of His Life and Times with an Account of the Translation of His Incorrupt Body, Etc. From Original Mss

The ancient cross said to show pilgrims the way to the well but it didnt have a sign on it!

Who was St. Edmund

Despite being England’s first patron saint Edmund is only known only from two Saxon period sources: the Anglo Saxon Chronicle circa 877 – 899 and the minting of a commemoration coin from 890.The later suggests a figure of considerable importance but beyond of this, St Edmund’s life is full of miracles and a well-known martyrdom were written long after his death.

As a King of East Anglia he was perhaps less well-known to his people as Redwald, buried in Sutton Hoo in the mid 600s, by the late 800s, the King had been overtaken in importance by Mercia and Northumbria, but his standing up to and final death at the hands of the Vikings were an important part of the cultural mythos of the Saxon resistance perhaps. Not unsurprisingly for an early Kingly Saxon saint he has sacred springs associated with him.

The legend of St Edmund’s return

The first of the noted springs arose at Hunstanton a town proud of its St Edmund association. It is here that legend tells he arrived from Nuremberg, to claim the throne being nominated as the successor of Offa, as noted Allen Mawer, (1911). In his Edmund King of East Anglia is possibly apocryphal  This note withstanding John Lydgate in his Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund, 1434 (translated by Horstmann (1881) says that on a safe arrival on dry land of East Anglia:

“In tokne that god herde his praier, Vpon the soil, sondy, hard and drie, Ther sprong bi miracle fyue wellis clier, That been of uertu, helthe and remedie Ageyn ful many straunge malladie.”

Geoffrey of Fountains Abbey too states in the The Youth of St Edmund how when Edmund and his companions returned to East Anglia from exile, they landed about a bowshot from the promontory of Maydenebure near Hunstanton. Here the prince knelt and prayed for his country at a spot afterwards distinguished for its fertility:

“and at the very place where he rose up from prayer, and mounted his horse, twelve sparkling springs broke out from the ground. They still run today, a wonder to all who see them, and then join together to trickle with a pleasant chuckling murmur into the salt sea. Many sufferers from disease have washed themselves with these waters and recovered their health. When the water is taken for the benefit of people living further away, if they are ill or for any other reason, it retains its healing power. And it so happened that, when St Edmund had won his crown, he liked this place best of all for its memories, and had a royal palace built on the rising ground near these springs”.

Geoffrey had lived at Thetford, compared to other historians not that far from Hunstanton, so he may well have learnt this story from tradition rather than from books.

The remains of the chapel tastefully restored but no spring there!

Will the correct number of springs reveal themselves?

White (1845) in his directory of Norfolk records that:

 “A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs”.

The number of springs varies according MacKinlay (1893) Saint Edmund King and Martyr: A History of His Life and Times with an Account of the Translation of His Incorrupt Body, Etc. From Original Mss who reports that the Gaufridus says twelve springs; Lydgate says five; Capgrave only states that “a fountain sprang up, curing many infirmities”.

The name the Seven Springs appears to have been a later name and of course seven springs are not uncommon across the British isles and have a cult significance. James MacKinlay (1893) states that Gaufridus:

“These springs, to this our own day excite the admiration of the beholder, flowing as they do with a continuous sweet and cheering murmur to the sea. Many sick wash in these fountains and are restored to their former health, and pilgrims carry the healing water to remote parts for the infirm and others to drink.”

Will the location of the springs please reveal themselves?

The site of these springs is debatable. The obvious location is the chapel near the lighthouse but if they were there there is no sign or perhaps they have now fallen into the sea. One possibly location is by the Old Church. This is a very plausible location and indeed there is a large duckpond in the location, another is a boggy woodland called the pools which may also be the source.

However, the most likely is that by the old Waterworks. Here the springs are still present in the garden of what is now a private dwelling in Old Hunstanton. The spring’s water was pumped to the water tower (now demolished) at Lincoln Street and was the town’s principle source.

The springs fill a considerable pool which flow out as a stream although a recent fence makes it nigh impossible to view them. This would fit with MacKinlay (1893) who notes that:

St. Edmund’s springs are situate about a quarter of a mile from the ancient and beautiful church of St. Mary in Old Hunstanton.”

It would be nice to have some signage to this, perhaps historically (if he did indeed land here) the most important of Hunstanton’s relics after the chapel.

Guest blog post: Ffynnon Leinw – Holy Well or natural wonder by Tristan Gray Hulse (part four)

It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s fourth part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw. 

In his Commentarioli Llwyd had passed on immediately from the Cilcain spring to discuss St Winefride’s Well:

Nec procul hinc est celeberrimus ille fons a superstitioso Wenefridae virginis cultu nomen habens [&c] (Lhuyd 1562, 57).

True, he describes the powerful spring, but his main thrust is to note the well as a place for the “superstitious worshipping of the virgin Winefred”, where many cures are worked by drinking and bathing in the water (for this passage, see Schwyzer 2011, 116-17). He is here clearly describing, not simply a natural wonder, but what is in general understood as a “holy well”.

No-one from Llwyd to Pennant ever discussed Ffynnon Leinw in this manner; despite this, it is now very generally accounted a holy well (cf. e.g. Owen 1899; Jones 1954, 180; Davis 2003, 71). Llwyd, Powel, Camden, and the rest understood that they were following Giraldus’ account of a natural wonder, and wrote accordingly. In general uninterested in such “superstitious” survivals as holy wells, they may perhaps have neglected to record information on the Cilcain well which failed to echo Giraldus. But by the end of the seventeenth century the scope of antiquarian information gathering had considerably widened, and springs could now be considered, not simply as natural wonders, but as elements in the historical landscape. The national antiquities section of Lhwyd’s “Parochial Queries” (Query XIV) had asked for:

Names of the Lakes & remarkable Springs; & whether anything be noted of them extraordinary (Lhwyd 1909, xi);

and this resulted in the first important gathering of information – however incomplete and often frustratingly imprecise – on the holy wells of medieval Wales, in the Parochialia responses. After this period information on the old holy wells begins to be more widely reported. Pennant, for example, not only mentioned the ebbing and flowing of Ffynnon Leinw, but described it as “a long oblong well with a double wall round it” (Pennant 1810, 59-60); the first surviving hint of an artificial structure around the spring. (One wall, now vanished, surrounded the bathing tank, perhaps ensuring privacy; the tank was situated within a large rectangular walled enclosure.) Pennant’s account was copied almost verbatim (but without reference) into the first and second editions of the Cambrian Traveller’s Guide (Anon. 1808, no. 418; 1813, p. 911).

The natural spring described by Llwyd and the rest would have required no such structure, however wonderful its supposed ebbing and flowing was held to be. The elaborate structure hinted at by Pennant is explained in the entry for “Kîlken” in Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Wales (first ed., 1833).

Near Kîlken Hall, in the Vale of Nannerch, is the celebrated Fynnon Leinw, or “flowing well”, which Camden describes as flowing and ebbing with the tide; but this peculiarity has long ceased to distinguish it; it is a copious and limpid spring, and is much resorted to for bathing, for which purpose it has been inclosed, and is said to possess properties fully equal, if not superior, to those of the far-famed spring at Holywell (Lewis 1848, 448).

The Dictionary was edited for Lewis by the North Wales scholar Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain: 1761-1849 – his role as editor is noted in Rees and Walters 1974, 165; and Stephens 1998, 169), so that there is no need to doubt the otherwise unnoticed use of the well for bathing for cures. It is of course possible that such a use was comparatively recent, perhaps in line with the eighteenth-century mania for discovering and exploiting new “spa” springs (though, if so, one would have expected to have encountered further mentions); but the elaborate structure surrounding the spring, with its tank for bathing for cures within a large walled enclosure (the enclosure walls still survive, though in ruins), is also reminiscent of a very large number of Welsh holy wells whose use is understood to date from the middle ages, even though, often enough, accounts of the ritual behaviour at these wells are not found before the nineteenth century. (Alexandra Walsham has shown how numbers of medieval holy wells in England survived the purge of sacred sites to become spas in the post-Reformation period: Walsham 2011, 395-414. A similar change in perceived status occurred at St Dyfnog’s Well at Llanrhaiadr, near Denbigh: e.g., Jones 1954, 68-70, 173.) The outer enclosure is much larger than those surviving at most other Welsh holy wells, and might thus indicate that large numbers of people seeking to bathe there for cures were once customary at Ffynnon Leinw.

For the last few years of his life, quite literally until his death in 1899, the Welsh folklorist the Revd Elias Owen worked on a book to be called The Holy Wells of North Wales (for Owen, see Anon. 1901). It remained unfinished, and has never been published. Eight pages of the manuscript, with an attached plan, deal with “Ffynon [sic] Leinw, an Ebbing and Flowing Well”. He quotes many of the earlier sources noticed here, along with further examples of supposed ebbing-and-flowing wells in England and Wales from a variety of sources; but his most valuable contribution is his own account of the well, which helps to substantiate the account in the Topographical Dictionary. Owen had visited the well on 25 October 1890.

It was overgrown with weeds and its sides were covered with nettles. Alder trees were growing around it. The double walls were still standing with the exception of a portion of the [enclosure] walls on the south side which have fallen near the outlet to the extent of 4 feet 5 inches. The well was filled with water which flowed out at the S.W. corner. Mrs Cartwright of Old Efel Parci gate [the turnpike gate, in nearby Hendre] told me she remembered the well and that it was once used for drinking purposes. The cistern was large and had two entrances to it both on the N. side of the well. The water was reached by means of three stone steps. These steps were not complete nor were they in position. The depth of water was from three to four feet. The water was cold and clear. The water was frequented by many for the purpose of bathing. Some five or six yards distance from the well was a small artificial lake, 35 yards in length and 15 yards wide, for fish. The lake was once kept in good order but it is not so now.

The Rev. James Jones, Rhydymwyn Vicarage, Mold, thus writes of the well in a letter dated 15 Nov. 1899:- “This well is now fed by surface water. It is dry every summer and its original source has been tapped by the Hendre Mine” (Owen 1899, 8).


There is one other piece of possible evidence in support of a suggestion that Ffynnon Leinw may have been a holy well, in addition to being a natural wonder. In 1623 Sir Thomas Mostyn married Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir James Whitelocke, of Chester. The couple lived in Cilcain, where the Mostyn family owned considerable property. In 1627/28 they were visited by Elizabeth’s brother Bulstrode (the date implied should fall between 1 January-24 March 1628; for Bulstrode Whitelocke, see Spalding 1975, and Whitelocke 1860). He stayed at a house which he calls Shoe, which is presumably the Cilcain gentry house noticed in the Parochialia as Plas Hugh (Lhwyd 1909, 80; today, called Plas Yw, to the west of Cilcain village). Whilst there, as his diary recorded (as usual, in the third person):

He went to view severall rarities & monuments, as St Katherines Well of which they report, That if any garbage or uncleane thing be cast into it, the water (as offended att the filth) will cease springing & become drye, & so continue till the next St Katherines day, after which, it begins to spring & fill again, till the like injury be again offered. & it hath water enough to drive a Mill.

He also viewed St Wynifreds Well, which they call Holywell [&c] (Spalding 1990, 56).

Noticing Whitelocke’s concern to visit local “rarities & monuments”, it is worth considering his likely sources for learning about these. In view of the fact that he follows his visit to “St Katherines Well” with one to the well at Holywell, it is perhaps relevant to note that accounts of St Winefride’s Well immediately follow accounts of the Cilcain well in Humphrey Lhwyd and Drayton; Speed notices Ffynnon Leinw immediately following his Holywell account; while accounts of both wells are found in Camden’s brief chapter on Flintshire.

“St Katherine” is certainly Catherine of Alexandria; no other saint of the name had anything approaching a popular cultus in medieval Britain, and no well is likely to have been named for any St Catherine in the post-Reformation period. (For Catherine of Alexandria, see e.g. Farmer 2003, 95-6; for her cult in Wales, Cartwright 2008, 149-75 – “5: Buched Seint y Katrin: The Middle Welsh Life of Katherine of Alexandria and her Cult in Medieval Wales”; the more usual spelling of the name is Catherine, but currently scholars studying her cultus prefer Katherine.) Supposedly a fourth-century martyr, it is unlikely that she ever existed historically. Her cult began around her purported relics at Mt Sinai in the ninth century, and was most probably introduced into Europe by returning Crusaders. Originally an essentially aristocratic cult, it eventually became one of the most popular of the later middle ages. In part, this was because of an incident recorded in her legend; as, for instance, in the account of her life composed c.1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, in his Legenda Aurea:

When she was led to the place of execution, she … prayed: “O hope and glory of virgins, Jesus, good King, I beg of you that anyone who honours the memory of my passion, or who invokes me at the moment of death or in any need, may receive the benefit of your kindness”. A voice was heard saying to her: “… Heaven’s gates are opened to you and to those who will celebrate your passion with devout minds” (Jacobus 1995, 339).

Because of this she was universally invoked against sudden or unprepared death (Duffy 1992, 175-6).

In England, 62 medieval churches were dedicated to her (Farmer 2003, 95); as were 31 holy wells (Rattue 1995, 71). Three surviving medieval churches in Wales have her as patroness, while a number of extinct chapels are also known to have borne her name (Cartwright 2008, 158-9). St Catherine’s church at Cricieth is likely to have replaced an earlier dedication to a native saint or saints, for there is a holy well near the church, Ffynnon y Saint [“the Saints’ Well”], “which only became associated with Katherine in the modern period” (ib. 159). There were or are however several wells bearing her name: the Parochialia notices a “F[fynnon] S[eint] y Katrin” in Mold parish (Lhwyd 1909, 93) and a “Fynnon St Katrin wrth Gaerhyn” at Caerhun (ib. 31); she had a well at Gresford (Jones 1995, 4, 31-2, 90-1, 138-9; there was a chapel of St Catherine in the church at the end of the middle ages); and there is a St Catherine’s Well near the site of her bridge-chapel and hermitage at Rudbaxton, in Pembrokeshire (for the bridge and chapel, RCAHM 1925, 316: § 921; knowledge of the well remains in the oral domain: inf. Julie Trier). (Of the wells, Francis Jones noticed only the dubious example at Cricieth: Jones 1954, 153.) Madeleine Gray has noticed former or surviving medieval images of St Catherine in Wales, in wall-paintings, glass, and sculpture; in North Wales she is/was shown in stained glass at Llangystennin, Gresford, Llandyrnog, Llansanffraid Glan Conwy, and Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd (Gray 2000, 27-8). To these Jane Cartwright adds a former window in Bangor cathedral, and an image on a tomb in Beaumaris parish church (Cartwright 2008, 155, 157). That St Catherine was, in at least some instances, a late-comer to the medieval ritual landscape might be shown from the example of Gresford. There, she had a chapel in the church, and a holy well. There was a chapel of St Leonard of Noblac elsewhere in the parish from c. 1165 (RCAHM 1914, 79, § 254; Cox 1970), with a nearby holy well of the saint (Jones 1995, 152, 138-9). Gresford church was substantially reconstructed in the later fifteenth century, and the Perpendicular font has an image of St Leonard (Gray 2000, 31, and 127 illus 26c). St Sytha/Zita is also depicted on the font, as well as appearing as a single figure in a window panel (ib. 31-2, and 125 illus. 25a, 127 illus. 26d), so she was presumably popular in Gresford at that period; but she never acquired a holy well. There is no image of St Catherine on the font, only her depiction, not as a single figure, but as one of a small group of other virgin martyrs in the great east window of 1500 depicting the whole court of heaven around the Trinity (ib. 28, 120 illus. 20a) – Gresford church is dedicated to All Saints. (The church had an image of All-Saints, to which pilgrimages were made, and there is a Well of All Saints in the parish: Jones 1995, 32; Lhwyd 1909, 144.)

Whitelocke’s “St Katherines Well” was clearly associated with the veneration of St Catherine, for a legend had been evolved to account for what was obviously its intermittent or periodic spring: if polluted (thus offending the saint) it dried up (cf. e.g. the legend attached to the well of St Trillo at Llandrillo, Merioneth: Jones 1954, 116), to re-emerge on or near St Catherine’s feastday (25 November). Identifying the location of the well is more problematic. There is no further reference to it as “St Katherines Well”. According to the Parochialia there was a Ffynnon Seint y Katrin somewhere in the extensive Mold parish, about which nothing is known beyond this mention and one other (see below). “St Katherines Well” was clearly in or close to Cilcain parish, where Whitelocke was staying. Beyond Ffynnon Fihangel, Ffynnon Leinw, and the re-appearance point of the river Fechlas, Tardd y Dŵr, there are no further named wells in Cilcain noticed in the relevant literature (but see Appendix). In Mold, the Parochialia failed to notice the fennon dessilio in Rhual township mentioned in a document of 1493, or the Ffynnon Rhual with which Ken Lloyd Gruffydd was disposed to identify fennon dessilio (Gruffydd 2000, 8; for Ffynnon Rhual, reconstructed as a baptistery by the Baptists in the late seventeenth century, see Gruffydd 1999, 78-80; Davis 2003, 85). The Parochialia also failed to notice the Ffynnon Fair in the Mold township of Nercwys (for which, see Williams 1846, 54), or the Ffynnon Fair in another Mold township, Rhual. (The only evidence for the latter is a field name, dole y fynnon fair, “Ffynnon Fair Meadow”, mentioned in 1634 in Trovarth MS 1576: see the online Archif Melville Richards. Two Ffynhonnau Fair in a single parish is distinctly unusual, but might be explained here by the facts that the ancient Mold parish was exceptionally large and that both Mold parish church and the Nercwys chapelry were and are dedicated to St Mary.) There is no trace of a “St Katherines Well”, or of a cult of St Catherine, in any other parish neighbouring upon Cilcain.

As the instance of Ffynnon Rhual/Dysilio indicates, some wells may have more than one name, or may change their name over time. If it was not a now utterly forgotten and unlocated spring, only one of these named wells local to Cilcain might be plausibly identified with the well visited by Whitelocke: Ffynnon Leinw. “St Katherines Well” had to have been within easy riding distance from Whitelocke’s temporary home at Shoe, in Cilcain. As Humphrey Llwyd had recorded, Ffynnon Leinw was known as a periodic spring. And Whitelocke was intent on viewing “rarities & monuments” in the area, and – via Llwyd, Powel, Camden, Speed, not to mention Giraldus Cambrensis – Ffynnon Leinw was one of the most famous rarities of North Wales.

Wells dedicated to the same saint in adjacent parishes might indicate a strong local cultus of St Catherine. However, it is not possible that the Mold Ffynnon Seint y Katrin and Ffynnon Leinw can be identified. An account of Mold parish published in 1819 has the following:

[T]here are three wells or springs of ancient note in the parish, viz. Ffynnon Maes Garmon […], Ffynnon St. Catrin, and Ffynnon y Bedi (Anon. 1819, 300);

and the Cilcain well Ffynnon Leinw, made famous by Camden, Pennant, and the rest, and still widely known in the early nineteenth century, could hardly have been confused with the Mold well of St Catherine, otherwise noticed only by Lhwyd but still identifiable in 1819.

It is probably also worth considering whether “St Katherines Well” (though the name is known seemingly only from Whitelocke) was not properly the late-medieval dedication of the Cilcain well, while its now universally accepted name was merely originally used as a description of the perceived physical properties of “St Katherines Well”: that is, as suggested by Professor Owen, “a flowing well” became imperceptibly “the flowing well”, to become finally (? perhaps via David Powel, ultimately) simply “Flowing Well” – y ffynnon a leinw > y ffynnon leinw > Ffynnon Leinw.

If the suggested identification of “St Katherines Well” as an alternative name for Ffynnon Leinw be accepted (one name recording the late-medieval dedication of the well, the other describing its physical properties), then it becomes possible to reconcile the “natural wonder” accounts of Ffynnon Leinw given by Llwyd, Powel, and Camden, with the “holy well” account of the well in Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary: neither natural wonder nor holy well, but both.


Tristan Gray Hulse (2018)



A single otherwise unused source known to me noticed two further named wells in Cilcain parish. Glenys Wynne, in her booklet Cilcain, published by the Cilcain W.I. in 1944, wrote:

The village depended once for its water supply on St Mary’s well near “White Cottage.” This was once regarded as a holy well. Another well that is worthy of note if only for the fact that it is marked on the Ordnance Map is “Ffynnon y Gweithiwr” – “The Workman’s Well.” It is to be found on the mountainside [presumably either Moel Famau or its spur Ffrith Mountain is intended] roughly opposite the lane leading to “Ty Newydd” […] Children were taken to this well for a cure from childish ills, and even whooping cough was considered cured after a picnic meal here (Wynne 1944, 14).

As the well noticed by Edward Lhwyd as “Fynnon mihangel” is situated on the roadside almost opposite the house still called White Cottage, on a lane running westwards from the village, it must be certain that Wynne’s “St Mary’s well” was actually that more properly named for St Michael. The explanation here would seem to be that found in association with numbers of other wells in Wales: by the later eighteenth century, presumably because of the sheer number of Ffynhonnau Fair found all across the country, there developed a tendency to call any Welsh holy well a “Ffynnon Fair”, using thus a particular term in a generic sense. In illustration, the Revd John Evans’ 1812 book The Beauties of England and Wales may be cited for its examples. Discussing the settlements of the early Welsh hermit-saints, Evans wrote:

These in Wales were designated by the name of Llan […] Most had generally near them some spring, or well, denominated a Ffynnon vair; the waters of which, according to the estimation of the saint, for his communication with the Deity, were held in repute for their salutiferous effects (Evans 1812, 380-1).

His work offers numbers of examples of this use of “Ffynnon Fair” as a generic: for instance, at Clynnog Fawr, the “holy well dedicated to St Beuno” is also described as “the neighboring Ffynnon vair” (ib. 374); while St George’s Well at Llan Sain Siôr is “a ffynon vair, or holy well, whose salutiferous qualities were ascribed to the tutelar saint [i.e., George, not the Blessed Virgin]” (ib. 531); etc.. It seems significant that this confusion over names and original functions coincided in time with the swift and country-wide abandonment of the earlier para-religious and folk-medicinal usages of holy wells, in tandem with the (usually unsuccessful and temporary) promotion of numerous pseudo-scientifically accredited spas. (It is entirely possible that numbers of Ffynhonnau Fair across Wales, with little or no attestation beyond the name, acquired their present names in this manner, and had no original association with the cult of our Lady. In this way older and original names may have been lost; this is certainly worth consideration where older parishes and churches preserve a dedication to a native or universal saint, but where the parish has preserved no memory of a well named for this native or universal patron. Similarly, the recognition that Ffynnon Fair could on occasion be used as a generic might be of help in determining an original name where it is one of two or more names attached to a single well; for example, at Gwyddelwern, where Ffynnon Fair is one of four names recorded for a well – see Jones 1954, 191. It might also be of use in determining why there were two Ffynhonnau Fair in Mold parish.) In Cilcain, the suggestion must be that the old Ffynnon Fihangel, recorded in 1698 by Edward Lhwyd, later came to be categorised – as in the examples noticed by Evans – as “a ffynon vair, or holy well”, this Welsh generic over time being Englished as “St Mary’s well”, as recorded by Glenys Wynne. Lhwyd’s account of “Kilken” was finally published in 1909 (Lhwyd 1909, 79-81, with “Fynnon mihangel” noted on p. 81; he also recorded that the parish wakes were celebrated on a feast of St Michael – “Their wakes gwyl Vihangel Vechan”: p. 79 – which confirms the well dedication), and this has resulted in the old name being definitively re-established, and the fact that, for a time, it was also known as a Ffynnon Fair/St Mary’s Well has now been completely forgotten.

Realistically, Ffynnon Fihangel is too far from Cilcain village ever to have been its regular source of water. If Wynne’s statement was anything other than a guess, it might have been a decayed memory of water having once been taken to the village on particular occasions; and if so, then it might have been taken to the church for baptisms. This certainly happened elsewhere in north-east Wales, as is indicated in one of a number of excerpts published in 1885 from a now-unidentifiable manuscript of the early eighteenth century.

From the localities named it is evident that they relate to the diocese of St Asaph, and they look as if they were taken from the Returns of Rural Deans on some of the ecclesiastical uses of their parishes (Anon. 1885, 154).

One of the excerpts reads as follows:

If there be a “Ffynnon Vair” (well of our Lady) or other saint in the parish, the water for baptism in the font is fetched from thence. Old women are very fond of washing their eyes with the water after baptism (ib. 150).

The lost manuscript may perhaps have been excerpted from ruridecanal reports for Thomas Pennant, who printed this passage in the second volume of his Tours in Wales, in 1781. Certainly a manuscript containing this quotation once belonged to Pennant, as it afterwards came into the hands of John Brand, who cites it as his source for the identical passage which he quoted in his Popular Antiquities (Brand’s Introduction was dated 1795, but the book was first published in 1813).

Nicholas Carlisle reported that the custom had until recently been observed at Ffynnon Armon, at Llanfechain (Carlisle 1811, art. “Llan Fechain”), while the Revd John Williams (Ab Ithel) wrote that the practice had been observed at Ffynnon Fair, in Nercwys, in the memory of persons then living (Williams 1846, 54). Francis Jones wrote: “Another ancient custom was the use of water drawn from holy wells for baptism” (Jones 1954, 81), and implied that it was once common throughout Wales, referencing the custom at various other wells (ib. 82, 119, 150, 152, 189, 197, 198, 207, 210). But, aside from the Llanfechain well (he missed that at Nercwys), none of these references predate the 1890s, and cannot be relied on. Far from being a pan-Welsh custom, it appears from the evidence to have been restricted to north-east Wales. It was once in use at nearby Nercwys, and it is certainly not impossible that it was once observed in Cilcain as well; but there is no real evidence, beyond the fact that no other explanation of Wynne’s assertion suggests itself.

I have failed to find any other reference to or evidence for Ffynnon y Gweithiwr.



It is a real pleasure to be able here to thank the following: Professor Hywel Wyn Owen, for unscrambling the complexities of the nameform Ffynnon Leinw for me; Professor Jane Cartwright, for discussions and comment on the medieval cultus of St Katherine in North Wales; Dr Shaun Evans, who first drew my attention to the mention of St Katherine’s Well in Whitelocke’s diary, thus sparking my interest in Ffynnon Leinw; Julie Trier, for locating and afterwards guiding me to the supposedly lost St Catherine’s Well at Rudbaxton; and – for innumerable (and often interminable) conversations on this and all other well-related topics – Janet Bord, dear friend, and all-round good egg.

An earlier draft of this paper was epitomised and translated into Welsh by Howard Huws, and published in the newsletter of Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru, the Welsh Holy Wells Society: Tristan Gray Hulse, “Ffynnon Leinw, Cilcain”, Llygad y Ffynnon 41 (Nadolig 2016) 9-11, & 42 (Haf 2017) 5-6. My thanks to Howard for the supererogatory care taken over this doubtless thankless task.



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The Holy and Ancient Wells and Springs of Gloucester: St Cynburgh’s Well

The Cotswold area is justly noted amongst those who visit holy and healing wells as being a notable place, as can be seen from this blog. What is not very well known is that Gloucester itself had a notable well that of St Cynburgh’s Well. It is not mentioned in Ancient wells, springs and holy wells of Gloucestershire by Skyking-Waters (1923) curiously enough as indeed is its legend of how it became holy.

How did the well arise?

St Cynburgh’s Well is recorded in a local legend recorded in a Gloucester Abbey Lectionary, 15th century which is summarised in Historia Monasterii Sancti Petri from 1863–7. It tells how St Cynburgh, vowed to a holy life, fled from her royal family rather than marry. She arrived in Gloucester where she began working for a baker, whose wife was so jealous that she murdered the princess by chopping of her head and threw the body into a nearby well. When the baker, returning home and missing his assistant, he called for her and heard her voice answering from the well.

Miracles at the well

Her body was recovered and buried near it. A chapel was built over the well and it became a site of miracles and a medieval hospital was established at the site. This recorded as being dedicated in 1147, and appears in later records from 1267 onwards, with miracles of healing recorded there; it was near the city wall by the south gate. Archbishop Courtney ordered a new translation in 1390 and when the establishment was finally suppressed in the 1500s a local MP Sir Thomas Bell converted the site to an alms-house called St Kyneburgha’s.

Who was St Cynburga?

The saint behind the legend is a bit of a mystery. She is thought to have been around in the late 600s. It is believed that she was the sister King Osric the founder of St. Peter at Gloucester Monastery. The King appointed his sister, Cyneburga, as the first Abbess of Gloucester. However, there was another St. Cyneburga of Castor in Northamptonshire and it possible they are one and the same. However, how the legend arose based on the association with the monastery is unclear.

A relics of the holy well?

A lead box in Gloucester museum is a curious relic of the saint’s veneration. Said to have come from Woodchester Church it depicts the saint and another local saint said to have been the last Roman Bishop of the town, St Aldate. It is believed to have been used either to hold relics or as a container for holy water.  Did it contain water from her well one wonders and as such is the only relic surviving from this site.

A modern remembering of the well

This relic in Gloucester museum was at one time the only remembrance of this holy well then in 2011 an art installation was installed. Part of an £7m project which linked the city centre with the docks is the 16m (53ft) Kyneburgh Tower will was built in Kimbrose Square designed by British sculptor Tom Price to design it stating that according to the BBC New website it:

” told the story of a girl’s journey from life to death and beyond…..I intended it to be both a spectacle and a place for quiet contemplation. Both artworks function like a metaphysical sundial. They point to the invisible histories we rarely seek out, but which permeate the landscape around us.”


The Kyneburgh Tower, Gloucester

They recorded that:

“The artworks will be dedicated by the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Stephen Lake, and the Reverend Canon Nikki Arthy as part of the official opening ceremony.”

Perhaps a Dean who may have stood at a site once frequented by those seeking the holy waters of this lost and lamented holy well.