Category Archives: Somerset
“the most beautiful of the Holy wells of Somerset.”
Here in this small community, consisting of a manor house, associated farm and pleasing church, is a delightful find: an ancient conical well house called St. Agnes’ Well (ST 184 318 ) which in 1994 was swamped by tall horsetails and covered in fernery and herbs, which lent a rustic and mysterious feel to the site. Removing the surrounding vegetation will reveal more of this little six foot high conical stone structure. It resembles many such sites encountered in Cornwall, and one can agree with Horne (1923), as noted above who describes it as ‘the most beautiful of the Holy wells of Somerset’. The earliest reference is Jeboult in A General Account of West Somerset (1873):
“Near Cothelstone old Manor House is a fine spring of water, said to have been named St Agnes’ Well, and to have possessed excellent curative and cooling properties.”
Its water is accessed via an arched doorway on the west side, believed by Horne ( 1923 ) to show clearly its Perpendicular origins ( although there is no written evidence.) Once opening the small wooden door, one can see that a large volume of clear shallow water. According to Horne ( 1923 ) the water rises from the centre and flows under the step to an underground channel some distance to emerge as a large pool : obviously for livestock. A pipe leads out of the well indicating that it is directly tanked for farm use. Horne (1923) describes it as:
“A little stone building about six feet square… There is a doorway on the west side, well made, with a cut stone head. Inside, the whole floor is covered with shallow clear water, which rises about the centre and flows out under the door-step. It then follows an underground channel for some little distance, when it comes to the surface and forms a fairly large pond”.
Tongue (1965 ) adds that the well was once visited by lovers, usually on St Agnes’ Eve to find their futures. Palmer (1973) in Somerset Folklore notes some of the folklore of the site:
“It was thought necessary to leave a coin, usually silver… It was lucky if the coin fell flat, though sometimes tradition held that if the coin fell to the left the answer was no, but if it went to the right the wish was granted.”
Please don’t know as the water is used for a domestic supply! A stream nearby was called the Pixie Stream and it was thought that the well was where pixies lived!:
“It was said to have been a wishing well of considerable power, but many local people wouldn’t use it because it was also the place where mischievous pixies lived The waters are thought to be good for sore eyes and sprains, as well as for finding a husband, but only if you are not married! Once an old maid servant“coming to the end of her womanhood” did long for a husband and children. She did not wish to worry St Agnes when there were so many younger maids needing husbands. St Agnes had different ideas. When the old maid visited the well, her future husband just happened to be out walking that same night! Within a year they were married with children! The night before the feast of St Agnes (20th January) is when maidens would creep over to the well after dark to whisper their heart’s desires, hoping to see romantic visions of their future husbands! If St Agnes “do fancy the maiden she’ll send a husband that year!”
However, Harte (2008) in his English Holy Wells believes these traditions are spurious and possibly I suggest Victorian in date. Indeed, it may date from the time of Edward Stawel who married an Agnes, daughter of John Cheyney of Pinhoe Devon during the reign of Henry VII. The well may be simple called Agnes Well, there is an Agnes Well in the Selworthy estate in Somerset..interestingly this too has been ‘canonised’. It seems likely that the well was associated with the saint in the 1800s in a reverse of the secularisation of holy wells elsewhere.
In 1987 the Friends of The Quantocks repaired the Well but by the 1990s when I visited it was looking very forlorn. Fortunately in the 2000s the landowner, a Mr Hugh Warmington agreed to a full restoration and a group was formed to restore it using funding from the Quantock Hills Sustainable Development Fund and using the scheme to help the employment prospects for adults with learning disability. With permission from the County Archaeologist a small dig was made to find if there was an original base. By 2008 the progress of repair and improvement was already well on its way.
By 2009 a sign had been set up and a kissing gate. Leaflets were produced and a medieval fayre was established in September 2009 in a field opposite the well. All in all, raising interest and knowledge of this delightful site.
A stone channel and basin was created with the water flowing into this space and towards the river. During the restoration the most splendid find was an engraved stone with the words St. Agnes and a small cross, probably by the look of it from a Victorian restoration. Finally in 2015 the following was reported:
“£8,700 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant for promotion of the heritage and restoration of the surrounding area of the well in partnership with Land-based Studies students from Bridgwater College. Bishop’s Lydeard Parish Council also kindly donated towards the project. The initiative is thought to be the only project of its kind in the country.”
Fantastic news and hopefully this will be the trailblazer for future restorations. Find out more at www.wellobsessed.com. (be careful who you copy and paste the website by the way!) http://www.wellobsessed.com/HolyWellsLeaflet.pdf
“Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.”
So translates a thin lead rectangular sheet one of 130 found in 1979-80 in the hot spring at Bath, deposited in the shrine of Sulis Minerva, the Goddess of the spring. Theses so called curse tablets were written with a stylus in a cursive script and then rolled up with the writing innermost. Sometimes these sheets are nailed interestingly the word defixio being translated into fasten and curse! Sometimes the words are written backwards or lines written in alternating directions called asboustrophedon in Greek.
Interestingly, all bar one of the 130 concerned curses to do with stolen goods, so called ‘prayers for justice’. Thefts from Roman baths appeared to be a common problem and goods from gemstones, jewellery to clothing were stolen. Often the ‘victim’ was the perpetrator of a crime and the curse would range from sleep deprivation to death. For example:
“To the goddess Sulis Minerva. I ask your most sacred majesty that you take vengeance on those who have done [me] wrong, that you permit them neither sleep…”
Sometimes the curse would be more detailed in its instruction:
“Docilianus [son] of Brucerus to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that .. the goddess Sulis inflict death upon .. and not allow him sleep or children now and in the future, until he has brought my hooded cloak to the temple of her divinity.”
“ To Minerva the goddess Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.”
This named the culprits:
“I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact [them] from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola,”
“Whether pagan or Christian, whether man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free whoever has stolen from me, Annianus [son of] Matutina (?), six silver coins from my purse, you, Lady Goddess, are to exact [them] from him. If through some deceit he has given me…and do not give thus to him but reckon as (?) the blood of him who has invoked his upon me.”
So curses appeared a little extreme considering:
“Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”
The inscriptions follow a general formula, suggesting perhaps that there was a commercial scribe more than probable as many people were illiterate around that time. The formula was as follows the stolen property was declared and transferred to the deity so it becomes their loss, the suspect and victim are named and then the later asks for punishment to induce the theft back. The language is interesting being in Latin lettering but in a Romano-British hybrid, some argue some may be Celtic. The tablets are on show in the excellent Roman Bath museum for all to wonder at this curious custom.
My attention was first brought to this curiously named well in Janet and Colin Bord’s excellent Sacred Waters, then I traced the quote to Ruth Tongue’s 1965 Somerset Folklore. However neither sources gave any idea of whether it was extant but both state it was near the church (of course Tongue’s work is the original source no doubt). A few years later I found myself in Bishop’s Lydeard and thought I’d look for it. I found the church and in a lane nearby I found a fish and chip shop. I asked there and they said although they had never heard of the well, there was a well down the lane. A few yards down and there it was. An elderly lady was walking past as I peered in and I asked her if she knew the name of the well..”Devil’s whispering well” she replied.
But why the Devil?
One theory underlined by the name is that one could commune with Old Nick. And the structure could lend support to this bizarre usage. The well is a red brick structure with an arched entrance, but oddly with the well’s basin is to the side of the structure rather being face on like most wells, so we could whisper? But why whisper to the Devil? One possible reason is that the well is a cursing well. As a cursing well it would not be unique countrywide. Indeed, the most well documented site is less than 100 miles away at Bath. But are the two connected? Bath’s reputation comes from the discovery of a hoard of cursing tablets There appease to be no evidence of a Roman connection to the settlement that I am aware of, but then again the other well known site St Elian’s Well in Llanelian similarly does not have a Roman connection.
Walling in the Devil Is it possible that the cursing aspect is a confused red herring? This is suggested by another possible original is recorded in an article in the Local Notes and Queries of the Somerset Herald of the 31st August 1935:
“Walling in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – many years ago, when I was a child , I remember hearing my grandmother say that the Devil kept appearing near a well at Bishop’s Lydeard, where some men were building. They were very frightened and went to the clergyman and asked him what to do. He promised to go with them when they thought he would appear again and he did so. When Satan appeared in the form of an ordinary man, but with a cloven hoof, the clergy man approached and said ‘In the name of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost, why troublest thou me?’ and he gradually disappeared and the clergy man told the workman to ’wall him in’. So they built round the place, and he disappeared forever. I have always had the impression it was somewhere along the wall opposite Lydeard House. I wonder if anyone else had heard of it? I know my grandmother used to say they walled in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – H”
What does this legend mean? Was it that the Devil was walled up and that’s why you could whisper to him? A reply came a month later and printed in the 28th September edition, where an Isabel Wyatt suggests
“One or two features of this legend suggest the interesting possibility that it may originally have had quite a different significance from the one which we read into now. In the middle ages a person walled into masonary while still alive was one of the punishments for witchcraft; thus in 1222 an old woman and a young man was accused of witchcraft were sentenced by Stephen Langton, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to be plastered alive into a wall.”
She goes on to suggest that the Devil is not the real Devil, but a human devil who was the chief of each witches coven. Witches are associated with other wells in the county, indeed not that far away at Parlestone Common on the Quantocks. This makes some sort of sense as witchcraft is strong in the region. Is it possible that the head of a coven was walled up in the well and members of the surviving coven would visit them and whisper to them? Or is the walling up part of another legend as the first correspondent suggests. Perhaps the well was a well associated with the witches. This might explain why the well was never Christianised despite close proximity to the church. Perhaps this well was their ritual well, a pagan well escaping rededication despite the proximity of the church. What do we make of Palmer (1975) who details in his Folklore of Somerset that Snell (1903) give details from Thornton’s Reminiscences of an old West County Countryman tells of a black dog in the village?
When the foundations of the Grand Pump room were made in 1790, some strange pieces of a unique carving were discovered. Thought to represent a Gorgon’s head, it is said to have been sculptured by Gaulish artists around the first century AD and believed to hang over the entrance to the temple.
What is this image of?
One intretation is that the head, with its beard and thick moustache is surrounded by snakes . The Gorgon of course was killed by Perseus with the aid of Athene and significantly Minerva, part of the goddess complex of Sulis Minerva, is her Roman equivalent. This seems quite appropriate especially as the carving also appears to show wings which is commonly shown in Medusa images.
But wait a minute Medusa is female it is clearly a man!! I have another interpretation. I believe that this is a water god and the flowing serpents are not that but flowing water. I cannot clearly see any snake mouths. Certainly the face looks very Celtic, expectedly if it was carved in Gaul! So who is it? Well clearly it must be the original Celtic God of Sulis before its attachment to its female side – Minerva. Whatever, the real origin, we shall perhaps never know, but clearly the power of this image, reproduced in the shop many times is still evocative.
Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests.
Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.
Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.
As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).
It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:
“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.
Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.
The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record. Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:
“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”
Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:
“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”
An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:
“twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.
Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm”.
The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:
“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.
In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.
This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.
An ancient tradition?
The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.
A modern tradition
Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:
“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.
And so it continues. Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!
Now remarkably lying in a green oasis in some of the worst areas of industrialised Bristol is the St. Anne’s Well (ST 621 725). This lies in St Anne’s wood, which was acquired by the Bristol Corporation, and since then very little has been done thankfully to change its situation. The circular brick rounded well, was restored early this century. A suitable inscription reads:
“Wishing well, St Anne’s Well. This Holy Well was associated with the chapel of St Anne, which stood about 300yards to the NW; throughout the Middle Ages , pilgrims were made here, and especially by the sailors of Bristol, Henry VII. Visited this spot in state in 1485, and hither his Queen came in 1502.”
“The Chapel, dating from about 1392 was destroyed with Keynsham Abbey, to which it belonged, in 1539 by Henry VIII.”
William Worcester described the chapel as:
“58ft by 80ft high, with colossal square candles, renewed yearly at the Pentecost, that touched the roof nearly at the roof and cost £ 5 each. Thirteen others burnt before the image of St Anne. There were also 32 models of ships and boats, 20 shillings each, for receiving and containing offerings and sometimes to burn incense in .”
It was founded by a certain Lord de la Warr, of Brislington. One can say without doubt that the pilgrims, many of the important, must have contributed greatly to the coffers of Keynesham Abbey. A typical entry is shown in the Duke of Buckingham (1502) diary:
“ My Lord’s and my young Lady’s oblation to St Anne in the wood, seven shillings and four pence.”
The chapel was controlled by a custodian or warden. One particular individual is remembered in the Keynesham church. It reads:
“Hic Jacit Walternus Jose canonicus nuper custos capelle Sancti Anne in the Wode cujus animo propicietur alissum amen.”
From 1635-1800 the chapel was used as a pottery works when it was demolished. In 1889 action was brought about concerning a public right of way through the wood and passing the well. This footpath had been used for centuries for passing to St Anne’s Ferry, and to make pilgrimage to well and chapel. This is referred by Leland in 1542:
“At two miles above Bristow was a commune trajectus by bote (ferry boat) where was a chapel of St Anne on the same side of the Avon that Bath standeth on , and here was great Pilgrimage to St Anne.”
Interestingly none of these authors directly make reference to the well and authorities such as Harte (2008) in a magnus opus question that there was ever a holy well. This may be so, certainly the recorded history of St Anne’s Chapel being much greater than that of this well, which does not get mentioned until the 1880s, when Morris (1885) who discusses ‘the Shrine Well of St Anne’s-in-the-Wood, Brislington’. The well becoming at this time a place of pilgrimage by local Catholics who perhaps replaced the chapel as it was no longer possible to re-build or even trace its remains with the well. Indeed, it may be when as Hope (1893) notes a Father Grant cleared out the well in 1878 and found:
“some coins were found in this well… 1. Half groat, Edw.IV; 2. An abbey token; 3. A half groat, Hen.VII; 4. A Portuguese coin; 5. A reckon-penny or counter.”
By the time Hope (1893) refers to this he states that:
“The water of this well was formerly considered good for affectations of the eye”.
Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells monologue reports that the well:
“has been cleaned out to a depth of twenty feet, and the stone work at its sides is in perfect condition. The spring enters the well about six inches from the bottom, on the north side.”
According to Jones (1946) in his The Glory That Was Bristol, states that by the turn of 1900s the well was ruined again who adds:
“The writer as a boy often visited the well taking away, with others, the water for the bathing of weak eyes. Its water is used to-day for weak eyes, rheumatism, and blood impurity. “Johnny Onion Men” from Brittany made annual pilgrimages to the well till recent years… The writer commenced in 1920 a movement for the restoration of the Well”
This also resulted in the woods containing the well being given to Bristol Corporation to allow continued access to the site. Winchester (1986) in St Anne’s, Bristol: A History,, notes that:
“in front were five large stepping stones, said to be Holy Stones. The Stones were very old and worn, with deep impressions made by hundreds of feet. They were removed in 1924 but replaced… In 1926, the City of Bristol had the well covered with a picturesque canopy and surrounded by a protective wall… Few people lived in the area, but I do not think that any child passed the well without standing on the stepping stones and stirring the waters with a twig, hoping to find Queen Anne’s ring!”
Another account records that the Cordwainers:
“In May, 1939, members of the Guild with their friends and distinguished visitors made a pilgrimage to the “Holy Well” in St Anne’s Wood. They were led by the sheriff of Bristol, Colonel Lennard, who was a cordwainer.”
The fortunes of the well and its pilgrimage over the last 90 or so years have been mixed. In the 1920s a circular well was constructed with a conical tiled roof. However, the well has gone through several stages of neglect. Winchester (1986) records in 1975 that rubble filled the well with a metal disc cover over it but a local holy wells pagan group, The Source set about restoring the site and created a new circular well chamber and a statue of St. Anne, although this statue now lays prostrate. They also established a regular visit to the well. Currently, a theatre group enacting the characters of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York for a mile long community walk to the well with readings at it on the Sunday closest to the saint’s day following the ancient route.
More can be found out here, with some excellent photos and illustrations http://brislingtonarchaeology.org.uk/projects/st_anne/index.html
and https://www.facebook.com/events/133809176814235/ for the events
Copyright Pixyledpublications. Happy for photos to be used on amateur websites/blogs but please give attribution to this website. Thanks
Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells. Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day. This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:
“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”
Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.
Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:
“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”
In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.
These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:
“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”
Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire
“a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:
“People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”
When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6) in an article called Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:
“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”
Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.
The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo. This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.
Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:
“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”
Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:
“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.
Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker, Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln. One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.
When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.
Much has been written regarding holy wells culminating in Harte (2008) magnus opus but no survey has attempted to record all those wells and springs named after monarchs as far as I am aware. With Jubilee fever all around I thought it would be fitting to start an overview of this aspect of water lore in England. Starting with King well, a generic name, is by far the commonest with sites recorded at Chalk (Kent), Cuffley (Hertfordshire) (although associated with James I), Chigwell (Essex) (although probably cicca’s well)), Lower Slaughter (Gloucestershire), Kingsthorpe (Northamptonshire), Orton (Northumberland), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Ellerton (Staffordshire), Wartling (Sussex), and Bath (Somerset). Some of these such as Chigwell may be a etymological mistake being more likely derive from Cicca’s well and some such as Orton are thought to be associated with Iron age sites.
However, English wells and their associations with monarchs starts perhaps starts with King Arthur’s Well (Cadbury ) but taking this probably mythical king aside, and not considering those monarchs associated with the Celtic and Saxon Kingdoms (after all a high percentage of these early saints were the sons of Kings (such as those begat by King Brechan) or early kingly Christian converts for example St Oswald or St Ethelbert ) which are better known by their sanctity rather than their majesty, I start with sites associated with who is seen as being the first King of England; Alfred.
King Alfred’s Well (Wantage) is of unclear vintage arising as it does in a brick lined chamber although his association with the town is well known. However as Benham (1911) notes in his The Letters of Peter Lombard:
“a clear and bright spring, but I fear that the evidence that King Alfred ever had anything to do with it is not forthcoming. The site of his birthplace is not very far from the well”
Although that did not stop a procession to the well in the year 2000! St Peter’s Pump at Stourhead (Wiltshire) too has become associated with Alfred and it is said he prayed for water her before a battle, there is again little evidence if any of this. In East Dean (Sussex) there is another well named after him. Interestingly the direct descendents of Alfred do not appear to have gained any association with wells, perhaps being a measure of either their impact on folk memory. The next king is the rather tragic figure of Harold. Harold’s Well laying in the Keep of Dover Castle (Kent) is an interesting site, it is a typical castle well and unlikely to be the site where Harold is said to have according to Macpherson (1931) (MacPherson, E. R., The Norman Waterworks in the Keep of Dover Castle. Arch Cant. 43 (1931)) been were the King swore he would give with the castle to William of Normandy, later William I. (Wartling’s King well may record Harrold or William)
I can find no wells associated with the Norman Kings or Queens and the next monarch to appear is King John. He is interestingly the monarch with most sites associated with him, being in Heaton Park (Newcastle), Odell (Bedfordshire), Kineton (Warwickshire) and Calverton (Nottinghamshire) (although the later is recorded as Keenwell). This may be the consequence of his infamy and association with Robin Hood sites taking on his name in the telling and re-telling of Robin Hood tales. However, in most cases it would appear to be sites associated with a castle although surely King John was not the only monarch to have used such sites.
The next monarch associated with a well is a prince, a man who despite being heir apparent, never reached the throne. The Black Prince, a very romantic figure and with an evocative name, his spring is perhaps the most well known of those associated with royalty: the Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown (Kent). Legend has it that he regularly drank from the well and asked for a draught of it as he lay sick and dying of syphilis. However, the water’s powers did not extend to this and he died never becoming king. The well has the three feathers, sign of the Prince of Wales, an emblem captured at Crecy although the origin and age of the well is unknown it is the only such spring with any insignia of a monarch.
The subsequent centuries saw a number of squirmishes and conflicts which also created some springs associated with royalty. Perhaps the most interesting well associated with a monarch is King Henry VI’s Well, Bolton in Craven (North Yorkshire). It is interesting because the King’s reputation was that of sanctity and as such any well would have pretentions to be a holy well. Indeed the local legend states that when a fugitive at Bolton Hall he asked for the owner to provide a bathing place. No spring was available and one was divined with hazel rods and where they indicated water the site was dug. The king prayed that the well may flow forever and the family may never become extinct. The site still exists and is used for a local mineral water firm!
The years of conflict between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ended at Bosworth field and here a we find King Richard’s Well, Sutton Cheney (Leicestershire). Traditionally Richard III drank from a spring that Lord Wentworth in 1813 encapsulated in large conical cairn shaped well house with an appropriate Latin inscription. Curiously both wells of course mark the losers of the battle and no wells record the victors of such conflicts. One wonders whether this records our interest in the underdog and lament for the lost. The strangest extrapolation of this is a well found in Eastwell (Kent). Here generations have pointed to a circular brick well in the estate grounds and a tomb in the derelict church and associated them with the lost son of Richard III. The Plantagenet’s Well may indeed have some basis in fact although the only evidence is the account of the legend during the building of Eastwell Manor in 1545, the landowner, Sir Thomas Moyle, was amazed to find one of his workman reading a book in Latin. Naturally curious, he decided to ask him about this ability. Thus the man informed him, that in 1485, at Bosworth Field, he was the illegitimate son of King Richard III, who had previously clandestinely acknowledged him as sole heir. The following day, fearing reprisals after Richard’s loss, the boy fled, avoiding being recognition by disguising himself as a bricklayer and thus was years later, employed in the manor’s construction. Sir Thomas, believed the man’s story, and being a Yorkist sympathiser, adopted him into his household. This story of Richard Plantagenet remained a family secret, until it was revealed in Gentleman’s Magazine, as a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Brett, of Spring Grove (near Eastwell) to a friend Dr. Warren. He had heard the story from the Earl of Winchelsea at Eastwell House about 1720. This story is further enforced by Parish records showing that on December 27th 1550 V Rychard Plantagenet was interred, the notation V being a notification for a royal personage. However, having never seen the record myself I am unsure of its validity.
The next monarch encountered in a well dedication is a surprising one perhaps. In Carshalton (Surrey), we find Anne Boleyn’s Well, which is an perplexing dedication considering her unpopularity and association with a monarch who would have seen holy wells another trapping of the papist money making machine he had excluded from his realm (although there is little evidence that Henry VIIIth had any real direct effect on holy wells as would the newly established Scottish Kirk). The legend of its formation related that when the King and Queen were out riding from Nonsuch Palace, her horse’s foot hit the ground and a spring arose. No reason for is given and it is probable that the spring was re-discovered and perhaps dedicated to St. Anne. Bedford’s Park is not far from Pygro’s Park which has an association with Henry VIII so one assumes the Queen Anne’s well is again Boleyn although I know nothing more and indeed missed it from my survey!
Unlike her mother, Elizabeth I was a popular monarch, much as the present monarch is, especially in the strongly protestant counties, hence Queen Elizabeth Wells at Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex). In the case of Rye, the spring was part of a water improvement system which provided water via a conduit system. It was so named after her visit to Rye in 1573, when she drunk the water and met the town dignitaries, or Jurats, there, before they processed into the town. Amusingly the well was also known as Dowdeswell, from O. E. dowde for a plain woman, a scold or shrew a fact which may have tickled some recusant families in the vicinity no doubt. so like many a holy well the name was changed for the monarch. Interestingly, Winchelsea’s site was and still is called St. Katherine’s Well so perhaps the monarch’s name was used to remove Catholic associations (especially considering Queen Katherine of Aragon), although St. Leonard’s well remained intact. Bisham’s Queen Elizabeth’s Well (Buckhamshire) is even associated with miraculous cures which certainly predate the monarch and perhaps her visit and taking of the waters when visiting Lady Hoby her cousin may have been the opportunity to move away from the holy well name? Queen Elizabeth also gave her name to a well in Friern Barnet (Middlesex) and Blackheath (Surrey)
Perhaps in the day when the site of the monarch was an extremely rare occasion folk memory has preserved it. This may explain King James Well Mickley (Yorkshire) whose only reason for the dedication was that he stopped to drink at it! This well does not appear to have then developed any note as a consequence. However, a spring at Cuffley (Hertfordshire) was visited by the King and developed into a minor spa called the King’s Well.
Interestingly, if England had not broken from Rome we may have seen those associated with Charles I develop in the same fashion, after all he does have churches and chapels named after him. Charles is often associated with wells, in some cases such as Carles Trough, (Leicestershire) where he is said to have watered horse here after Naseby. Ellerton’s (Staffordshire) King’s Well and Longhope (Gloucestershire) Royal Spring are both associated with the monarch.
However, stopping to drink is a common theme. A well in Appledore (Kent) is called Queen Anne’s Well because she is said to have stopped there and asked the landlord for a sip. It is possible that such associations may stem from a desire for a local land owner to support a developing spa trade, Queen Anne’s Bathhouse exists in Lullingstone (Kent), however there is no record of such an attempt at Appledore. Furthermore, it is unclear which Queen Anne is recorded at Appledore and it is possible considering the age of the brickwork in the cellar and around the well at this site that it was once St. Ann’s well. This is probably true of Lincoln’s Queen Ann’s Well, Chalvey’s Queen Ann’s Well (Buckinghamshire), Queen Anne’s Wishing Well (South Cadbury) and Blythborough’s (Suffolk) site now known as Lady Well! However of that of Chalvey, perhaps not as there is no pre-18th century record, although if it did not it soon attracted a reputation for healing and was called a spa. Interestly Queen Charlotte is also noted as being involved and as such according to the Mirror, of 1832,:
“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.
An accompanying woodcut to the piece showing the stone with the royal monogram carved in the centre. In 1698 Anne of Denmark gave money to create a basin at Tunbridge wells and well was called the Queen’s well.
Of course in the next two centuries, the rise of the spas saw many mineral springs develop the patronage of the monarch such as George IV, yet despite this times had changed and the wells did not take the monarch’s name directly. By the reign of Victoria, her name was then applied to fountainheads and pumps, as old wells were filled in and channelled away amidst growing concerns for the need for clean and freely accessible water. A few sites such as the confusing named Coronation or Jubilee Well (so marked on the 1844 OS map so difficult to record which monarch and which jubilee or coronation is referred to) in Wessington (Derbyshire) buck the trend.
In summary it is interesting that despite a large number of memorable and in some case not so memorable monarchs, there is are a limited number of them associated with wells. Why? Is it due to these particular monarchs having pricked the public’s folk memory, or in some cases inherited some sort of pious notion akin to that associated with holy wells.
Wells associated with Royalty can be divided into the following categories:
a) Those drunk before a battle or whilst on the run from a battle. This could include the Battle Well Evesham (Worcestershire), with its associations with Simon de Montford is out of the scope of this blog but shows this trend, the water becoming curative.
b) Those associated with their castles, palaces, hunting lodges. But why these particular monarchs is unclear?
c) Those made by miraculous events such as that associated King Henry VIs well. It seems perhaps these sites had developed in anticipation of the eventual sanctifying of the individuals which of course never happened.
Many years back, when I lived in Bristol, I started working on a book on holy and healing wells of Somerset. I still hope one day to complete it but until then, here are some field notes from some of the sites.
Horne had difficulty in dry weather finding this site and indeed the walk to Childen Polden’s Holy well is probably not worth it, as the well arises in small circular area with some signs of rockwork around it but ruined by rather ugly farm shed. Nothing of any antiquity remains, which is indicated by the blue writing on the current pathfinder. It is said to be a noted sulphur spring, but upon visiting I failed to notice any distinctive features. above it This site is clearly marked on the Landranger map is the Holy Well with the note (Sulphur), and said by Kelly’s Directory to have healing qualities and that people from Bridgewater came to take its waters, and Tongue as an eye well.
Edington’s Holy Well by comparison is far more impressive structure. Indeed it comes as quite a surprise as one takes Holywell Road through the village and come across it at the corner of this road protected by a clump of trees. Unfortunately the source of water has now dried or else seasonal ( although this may have been the result of a summer drought ). The first mention is by Collinson (1791) describes this as a
‘perpetual spring, which contains sulphur and steel, and stains silver yellow in two hours… It has been found efficacious in scorbutick cases’
He interestingly fails to call it a holy well and it was until Phelps (1836–9) would the name holy well be applied to the site so perhaps it is his invention, the name being immortalised for good on the 1886 OS map. Phelps notes that the spring was the same quality as a holy well at Shapwick but contained less sulphuretted hydrogen. Horne ( 1923 ) states :
“ ..water gathers in a well-made stone tank about three feet square, the top of which is level with the surrounding ground. It is covered with two stone slabs, one of which at the date of visit in April 1915 had been removed, and the tank was half full of decaying leaves as a consequence. The water was three feet in depth and ran through a stone spout. The flow was slight, and the water of a greenish milky colour, with a strong and horrible smell of sulphur.”
As I noted, the well appears to be dry although the structure is still in good condition consisting of seats set around a stone forecourt. This structure was restored in as a stone plaque recalls :
“Edington Holy Well was renovated in 1937 in the memory of Margaret Charlotte Fownes Luttrell”
It is an interesting well to discover, but in the nearby village of
One of my favourite villages, with its delightful church full of hidden treasures including a plesiosaur, the overly picturesque castle ruins and St Andrew’s Well, one of the largest in the county. Down this side lane one is greeted with the most impressive structure surrounding a Holy Well in Somerset. One enters a large archway into a forecourt where two small ‘brick huts’ are apparent (now with windows) within which apparently the waters arise and perhaps custodians sat. The water emerges beneath these ‘huts’ a series of three pipes. Two to the left and one to the right. There water gushes out at some force filling stone throughs and then draining away.
In a delightful private garden set amongst cascading is a particularly venerable looking Holy Well called St. Pancras’s or Holy Well, although some doubt over its antiquity. It consists of a stone walled structure with two larger stones set across its opening, with one inside having fallen in. The lady owner stated they were worried that it was going to collapse any day : but has not! Indeed this condition was noted by Horne in 1914 that it has:
“has two slabs of stone over the top gable-shaped, but the stonework inside has fallen in somewhat, and is moss and fern grown… It is locally known as the HolyWell”
The water travels through a narrow liverwort covered channel, and then underground. The owner stated that they had had the water tested and found it purer than any water around!
Horne (1914) notes that:
“The well is in the garden of an old cottage which was once a chapel, though it has been much re-constructed. The cottage has always been known as St Pancras, and this was no doubt the dedication of the chapel, of which little remains beyond a built-in lancet window and the doorway”
Its position in the enclosed area of an old chapel, dedicated to St Pancras suggests perhaps that it may have had a role in supplying water for visitors to Old Cleeve Abbey . The owner noted that recently the well had received some notice in the local press, which pleased her it seemed.