Category Archives: Suffolk
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Compared to Essex and Norfolk the study of mineral springs and their associated phenomena have been less covered in the Suffolk. Unlike Essex, there does appear to be a paucity. A consequence of poor research or geology?
Like adjoining counties, Suffolk does have some springs which are simply described as mineral springs, such as Elmsett’s Dropping Well which issued out of limestone rock, and producing fibrous crystallizations was said to possess ‘healing virtue for certain complaints’. Halesworth was unnamed but said to be good for eyes and that at Cranmore Green, was so hard it has been blamed for causing arthritis. None of these springs had a history of organised exploitation. As far as I have discovered only one spring was recorded as being chalybeate, that once at Claire priory. The tendency to have iron bearing water is however very common in Essex by comparision.
It does not appear until 1700, that a serious attempt was undertaken to develop a spa. This was at Bungay which was described by spa promoter John Kelly as:
:” …amply supplied with excellent water from numerous springs, some of which we said to possess medicinal properties. ”
The first site to be developed was a chalybeate spring in the grounds of Bigod’s castle. However, Bungay’s first attempt to develop proper facilities, John Kelly’s bathhouse lay over the border in Norfolk in the village of Earsham. Writing a promotion pamphlet ‘An Essay on Hot and Cold Bathing’ he said of the town and spa facilities,:
“Those lovely hills, which incircle the flowery plain, are variegated with all that can ravish the astonished sight. They arise from the winding mazes of the river Waveney, enriched with the utmost variety the watry element is capable of producing. Upon the neck of this peninsula, the castle and town of Bungay, (now startled at its approaching grandeur,) is situated on a pleasing ascent to view the pride of nature on the other side, which the goddesses have chose for their earthly paradise; where the sun, at its first appearance, makes a kindly visit to a steep and fertile vineyard, richly stored with the choicest plants from Burgundy, Champaigne, Provence, and whatever the East can furnish us with. Near the bottom of this is placed the grotto, or bath itself, beautified on one side with oziers, groves, and meadows; on the other with gardens, fruits, shady walks, and all the decorations of a rural innocence. The building is designedly plain and neat; because the least attempt of artful magnificence would, by alluring the eyes of strangers, deprive them of those profuse pleasures which nature has already provided. As to the bathing, there is a mixture of all that England, Paris, or Rome could ever boast of:—no one is refused a kind reception: honour and generosity reigns throughout the whole; the trophies of the poor invite the rich, and their more dazzling assemblies compel the former.”
Sadly the scheme was not fruitful despite the platitudes and no evidence can be found of the town’s spa heritage today.
Seaside towns which appealed to the healthy idea of sea bathing as well attempted to develop spa springs to varying successes. At Lowerstoft one was to be found at the Sparrow Nest, however it was to Ipswich that the greatest attempt appears to have been made. An advert in 1720s records:
“IPSWICH SPAW WATERS
Experimentally found to be good in the gravel of the kidneys, obstructions in the liver, spleen &c. Hectic fevers, the scurvy, violent vomiting, lost appetite, the jaundice, King’s-Evil, salt and hot humours in blood, pains in stomach, frequent spitting of blood, or bleeding at the nose, diarrhoea or blood fluxes. Sold at two pence per flask or quart, or each time of drinking what you will in the morning. By me, JONATHAN ELMER, living on St Margaret’s Green, Ipswich.”
“Ipswich Journal ”The Ipswich Spaw Waters is now opened by Mrs Martha Coward, and Attendance will be given every Morning at the Bath on St Margaret’s Green, from 6 to 9 at One Penny per Morning, and Two Pence for each Falk carried off.”
Around about the 1810s, reports are made of the discovery of a brick arched spring in St. George’s Lane whose water had such a foul taste it was thought to be medicinal. To ensure it was tested by three local doctors who analysis suggested it was equal to Bath. A M.D of Bury St Edmunds favourably also compares them to the German Spas as well as common comparison Tunbridge Wells. Furthermore, in Clarke’s 1830 History of Ipswich records another near the Shears Pub which was never known to freeze and analysis in London suggested its content of Iron sulphate, Iron carbonate and Sulphurated hydrogen could be utilised.
Sadly despite a promising start and some suitable extraneous facilities, the town’s urban growth and remoteness compared to other sites meant its spa aspirations disappeared and nothing remains. This means that Felixstowe has the only surviving mineral spring in the county. The Dripping Well, located in the Spa Gardens were described by the Felixstow Town guide that that its waters were good for ‘depression, nervous prostration and over-work’ and they resembled those the waters of Baden-Baden. A Spa Pavillion was built and still exists and used a theatre facility. One can still parade around the Pulmanite gardens around where the Dripping Well exist, as does the pump tap in the Pavillion, although taking the water is not encouraged.
Suffolk is only is perhaps well known for its Lady’s Well at Woolpit. And altough not particularly associated with holy wells but close reading of a number of texts and old maps reveals there are more sites than this. Last month I noted some Norfolk examples so here are some extracted from a forthcoming book on sites of county.
Situated in a remarkably remote location for this part of Suffolk, the Lady well (TM 061 552) is reached only by a dead end road that peters out into a dirt track at a farm courtyard. One then travels over a muddy field, to reach the site of the well. After such a journey the well it is a bit of a disappointment; the farmer directed me to a boggy circular hollow with no trace of masonry or even indication of any former importance. There is a large thorn tree over the hollow, but there is no sign of any use. Again apart from its description on the O/S maps as ‘Ladywell’ in Old English script, I have found no written account of the well. The farmer knew of the well, but not its history. Only its name remains to remember any past religious activity here, although there is some tradition that it was visited for medicinal purposes. The county record office has no details concerning the well.
A large structure called the Lady’s or Wishing Well or Lady’s Fountain (TM 450762), which is found down Spring Lane at the south end of Henham Park. The structure is made brick and stone arch and has two low seats inside. It was erected by the first Countess of Stradbrooke in the 19th century. It was thought to be a ‘traveller’s rest’ with brass cups attached to the structure for anyone wishing to drink there. It is recorded in 1833 the ‘Lady’s Fountain’ poem by Agnes Strickland An alternative name was Queen Anne’s Well. This itself appears to be a confusion because according to some sources it relates to King Onna. The spring is said to be near the reputed to be the place of King Onna’s death (654 AD) and a structure was erected soon after to mark the spot where the spring arose where the king’s body fell. The structure is now dry and overgrown but clearly has a confused history.
Within the grounds of St John’s well cottage is the said St John’s well (TL 889 669). It consists of a circular approximately two foot high well, with a fastened wooden lid. The brick work consists of a mixture of two red bricks layers sandwiching, a layer of round agate / pebbles, and then topped with a level of brick, and then a final layer of sandstone. Although the lid was locked, the water looked quite deep. A pleasant circular summer house has been constructed around the well. This has a concrete floor and a cone thatched roof supported by timber frames, set on short red bricked columns. A clematis has scrambled across the roof, and the indeed the edges of the summer house are quite obscured with vegetation. The well, to the left of the cottage gates, can also be seen from the road through the hedge, outside the private garden of the cottage. However apart from the marking of its location upon the appropriate O/S maps in Old English Script as ‘ Well ‘ The owners when I visited, a Mr and Mrs Williams knew little of the origin of the well, although the well’s water was still used according an elderly neighbour who had died recently that is back in the late 1990s. Its waters have never been known to dry even in drought conditions, despite being a shallow well of 7-8ft below the surface with 3-4ft of water. It is possible that the well received its dedication from Palgrave Chapel of St John, which was demolished in 1545. The only written report acquired is as follows :
‘Situated in the garden of a private house built c 1923 the well head and canopy probably date from the same time. According to the owner of the house the well is marked on maps as old as the 17th century but there is nothing of this age to be seen in the lining which seems to be modern brick. OD Card TL 86/NE7.’
I too have found no other exact details. It is possibly that the well is that referred to by Cruden in the following account:
‘There is also on Mr Milner Gribson Cullums property near Bury a spot named Holywell, but no traditions….survive.’
I have been unable to place the location of this site of which are a little vague. The county record office has no details concerning the well. Copyright Pixyledpublications
Much has been written regarding holy wells culminating in Harte (2008) magnus opus but no survey has attempted to record all those wells and springs named after monarchs as far as I am aware. With Jubilee fever all around I thought it would be fitting to start an overview of this aspect of water lore in England. Starting with King well, a generic name, is by far the commonest with sites recorded at Chalk (Kent), Cuffley (Hertfordshire) (although associated with James I), Chigwell (Essex) (although probably cicca’s well)), Lower Slaughter (Gloucestershire), Kingsthorpe (Northamptonshire), Orton (Northumberland), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Ellerton (Staffordshire), Wartling (Sussex), and Bath (Somerset). Some of these such as Chigwell may be a etymological mistake being more likely derive from Cicca’s well and some such as Orton are thought to be associated with Iron age sites.
However, English wells and their associations with monarchs starts perhaps starts with King Arthur’s Well (Cadbury ) but taking this probably mythical king aside, and not considering those monarchs associated with the Celtic and Saxon Kingdoms (after all a high percentage of these early saints were the sons of Kings (such as those begat by King Brechan) or early kingly Christian converts for example St Oswald or St Ethelbert ) which are better known by their sanctity rather than their majesty, I start with sites associated with who is seen as being the first King of England; Alfred.
King Alfred’s Well (Wantage) is of unclear vintage arising as it does in a brick lined chamber although his association with the town is well known. However as Benham (1911) notes in his The Letters of Peter Lombard:
“a clear and bright spring, but I fear that the evidence that King Alfred ever had anything to do with it is not forthcoming. The site of his birthplace is not very far from the well”
Although that did not stop a procession to the well in the year 2000! St Peter’s Pump at Stourhead (Wiltshire) too has become associated with Alfred and it is said he prayed for water her before a battle, there is again little evidence if any of this. In East Dean (Sussex) there is another well named after him. Interestingly the direct descendents of Alfred do not appear to have gained any association with wells, perhaps being a measure of either their impact on folk memory. The next king is the rather tragic figure of Harold. Harold’s Well laying in the Keep of Dover Castle (Kent) is an interesting site, it is a typical castle well and unlikely to be the site where Harold is said to have according to Macpherson (1931) (MacPherson, E. R., The Norman Waterworks in the Keep of Dover Castle. Arch Cant. 43 (1931)) been were the King swore he would give with the castle to William of Normandy, later William I. (Wartling’s King well may record Harrold or William)
I can find no wells associated with the Norman Kings or Queens and the next monarch to appear is King John. He is interestingly the monarch with most sites associated with him, being in Heaton Park (Newcastle), Odell (Bedfordshire), Kineton (Warwickshire) and Calverton (Nottinghamshire) (although the later is recorded as Keenwell). This may be the consequence of his infamy and association with Robin Hood sites taking on his name in the telling and re-telling of Robin Hood tales. However, in most cases it would appear to be sites associated with a castle although surely King John was not the only monarch to have used such sites.
The next monarch associated with a well is a prince, a man who despite being heir apparent, never reached the throne. The Black Prince, a very romantic figure and with an evocative name, his spring is perhaps the most well known of those associated with royalty: the Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown (Kent). Legend has it that he regularly drank from the well and asked for a draught of it as he lay sick and dying of syphilis. However, the water’s powers did not extend to this and he died never becoming king. The well has the three feathers, sign of the Prince of Wales, an emblem captured at Crecy although the origin and age of the well is unknown it is the only such spring with any insignia of a monarch.
The subsequent centuries saw a number of squirmishes and conflicts which also created some springs associated with royalty. Perhaps the most interesting well associated with a monarch is King Henry VI’s Well, Bolton in Craven (North Yorkshire). It is interesting because the King’s reputation was that of sanctity and as such any well would have pretentions to be a holy well. Indeed the local legend states that when a fugitive at Bolton Hall he asked for the owner to provide a bathing place. No spring was available and one was divined with hazel rods and where they indicated water the site was dug. The king prayed that the well may flow forever and the family may never become extinct. The site still exists and is used for a local mineral water firm!
The years of conflict between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ended at Bosworth field and here a we find King Richard’s Well, Sutton Cheney (Leicestershire). Traditionally Richard III drank from a spring that Lord Wentworth in 1813 encapsulated in large conical cairn shaped well house with an appropriate Latin inscription. Curiously both wells of course mark the losers of the battle and no wells record the victors of such conflicts. One wonders whether this records our interest in the underdog and lament for the lost. The strangest extrapolation of this is a well found in Eastwell (Kent). Here generations have pointed to a circular brick well in the estate grounds and a tomb in the derelict church and associated them with the lost son of Richard III. The Plantagenet’s Well may indeed have some basis in fact although the only evidence is the account of the legend during the building of Eastwell Manor in 1545, the landowner, Sir Thomas Moyle, was amazed to find one of his workman reading a book in Latin. Naturally curious, he decided to ask him about this ability. Thus the man informed him, that in 1485, at Bosworth Field, he was the illegitimate son of King Richard III, who had previously clandestinely acknowledged him as sole heir. The following day, fearing reprisals after Richard’s loss, the boy fled, avoiding being recognition by disguising himself as a bricklayer and thus was years later, employed in the manor’s construction. Sir Thomas, believed the man’s story, and being a Yorkist sympathiser, adopted him into his household. This story of Richard Plantagenet remained a family secret, until it was revealed in Gentleman’s Magazine, as a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Brett, of Spring Grove (near Eastwell) to a friend Dr. Warren. He had heard the story from the Earl of Winchelsea at Eastwell House about 1720. This story is further enforced by Parish records showing that on December 27th 1550 V Rychard Plantagenet was interred, the notation V being a notification for a royal personage. However, having never seen the record myself I am unsure of its validity.
The next monarch encountered in a well dedication is a surprising one perhaps. In Carshalton (Surrey), we find Anne Boleyn’s Well, which is an perplexing dedication considering her unpopularity and association with a monarch who would have seen holy wells another trapping of the papist money making machine he had excluded from his realm (although there is little evidence that Henry VIIIth had any real direct effect on holy wells as would the newly established Scottish Kirk). The legend of its formation related that when the King and Queen were out riding from Nonsuch Palace, her horse’s foot hit the ground and a spring arose. No reason for is given and it is probable that the spring was re-discovered and perhaps dedicated to St. Anne. Bedford’s Park is not far from Pygro’s Park which has an association with Henry VIII so one assumes the Queen Anne’s well is again Boleyn although I know nothing more and indeed missed it from my survey!
Unlike her mother, Elizabeth I was a popular monarch, much as the present monarch is, especially in the strongly protestant counties, hence Queen Elizabeth Wells at Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex). In the case of Rye, the spring was part of a water improvement system which provided water via a conduit system. It was so named after her visit to Rye in 1573, when she drunk the water and met the town dignitaries, or Jurats, there, before they processed into the town. Amusingly the well was also known as Dowdeswell, from O. E. dowde for a plain woman, a scold or shrew a fact which may have tickled some recusant families in the vicinity no doubt. so like many a holy well the name was changed for the monarch. Interestingly, Winchelsea’s site was and still is called St. Katherine’s Well so perhaps the monarch’s name was used to remove Catholic associations (especially considering Queen Katherine of Aragon), although St. Leonard’s well remained intact. Bisham’s Queen Elizabeth’s Well (Buckhamshire) is even associated with miraculous cures which certainly predate the monarch and perhaps her visit and taking of the waters when visiting Lady Hoby her cousin may have been the opportunity to move away from the holy well name? Queen Elizabeth also gave her name to a well in Friern Barnet (Middlesex) and Blackheath (Surrey)
Perhaps in the day when the site of the monarch was an extremely rare occasion folk memory has preserved it. This may explain King James Well Mickley (Yorkshire) whose only reason for the dedication was that he stopped to drink at it! This well does not appear to have then developed any note as a consequence. However, a spring at Cuffley (Hertfordshire) was visited by the King and developed into a minor spa called the King’s Well.
Interestingly, if England had not broken from Rome we may have seen those associated with Charles I develop in the same fashion, after all he does have churches and chapels named after him. Charles is often associated with wells, in some cases such as Carles Trough, (Leicestershire) where he is said to have watered horse here after Naseby. Ellerton’s (Staffordshire) King’s Well and Longhope (Gloucestershire) Royal Spring are both associated with the monarch.
However, stopping to drink is a common theme. A well in Appledore (Kent) is called Queen Anne’s Well because she is said to have stopped there and asked the landlord for a sip. It is possible that such associations may stem from a desire for a local land owner to support a developing spa trade, Queen Anne’s Bathhouse exists in Lullingstone (Kent), however there is no record of such an attempt at Appledore. Furthermore, it is unclear which Queen Anne is recorded at Appledore and it is possible considering the age of the brickwork in the cellar and around the well at this site that it was once St. Ann’s well. This is probably true of Lincoln’s Queen Ann’s Well, Chalvey’s Queen Ann’s Well (Buckinghamshire), Queen Anne’s Wishing Well (South Cadbury) and Blythborough’s (Suffolk) site now known as Lady Well! However of that of Chalvey, perhaps not as there is no pre-18th century record, although if it did not it soon attracted a reputation for healing and was called a spa. Interestly Queen Charlotte is also noted as being involved and as such according to the Mirror, of 1832,:
“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.
An accompanying woodcut to the piece showing the stone with the royal monogram carved in the centre. In 1698 Anne of Denmark gave money to create a basin at Tunbridge wells and well was called the Queen’s well.
Of course in the next two centuries, the rise of the spas saw many mineral springs develop the patronage of the monarch such as George IV, yet despite this times had changed and the wells did not take the monarch’s name directly. By the reign of Victoria, her name was then applied to fountainheads and pumps, as old wells were filled in and channelled away amidst growing concerns for the need for clean and freely accessible water. A few sites such as the confusing named Coronation or Jubilee Well (so marked on the 1844 OS map so difficult to record which monarch and which jubilee or coronation is referred to) in Wessington (Derbyshire) buck the trend.
In summary it is interesting that despite a large number of memorable and in some case not so memorable monarchs, there is are a limited number of them associated with wells. Why? Is it due to these particular monarchs having pricked the public’s folk memory, or in some cases inherited some sort of pious notion akin to that associated with holy wells.
Wells associated with Royalty can be divided into the following categories:
a) Those drunk before a battle or whilst on the run from a battle. This could include the Battle Well Evesham (Worcestershire), with its associations with Simon de Montford is out of the scope of this blog but shows this trend, the water becoming curative.
b) Those associated with their castles, palaces, hunting lodges. But why these particular monarchs is unclear?
c) Those made by miraculous events such as that associated King Henry VIs well. It seems perhaps these sites had developed in anticipation of the eventual sanctifying of the individuals which of course never happened.
The village boasts a spring of clear and clean water has been an important site of pilgrimage possibly for centuries, called The Lady’s Well ( TL 977 626 ) although the villages most prominent attraction was its church.
Confusion over the Lady Chapel
Before the Reformation Woolpit’s Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Our Lady with its miracle giving Virgin was the religious focal point of this region of East Anglia. Its patron effigy was adorned with riches of silver and gold; the many gifts donated by thankful wealthy and poor pilgrims alike who were cured by the act of prayer here. The chapel even saw was Royal patronage in the form of Henry VII ‘s wife, Queen Elizabeth, who visited it in 1501. First mentioned in 1211 and 1214 in a mandate from the Bishop Of Norwich, which granted all its to the nearby monks of Bury Abbey. It remained an important place of adoration for centuries, and records of Wills show that many legacies were given to upkeep the shrine. As early as the 13th Century, The Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, was established, on the 8th September, a fair to cater for and capitalise on the pilgrim trade. However as with most prominent shrines it ultimately meet the wrath of the overzealous Henry VIII. Around 1538 he ordered that the Image be removed, and the surrounding chapel was consequently removed about 1551. After this the site was largely forgotten and Woolpit slips into the fringes of history. Although archaeologists disagree on the location fine details, it is believed to lie the North side of the church’s Chancel.
Not a mediaeval shrine?
There would appear to be no evidence to suggest, however, that although the village was a pilgrim site, that the well was venerated before the Reformation. Indeed one could suggest that the well’s veneration somehow was a substitute for the loss of the chapel and its effigy. This is supported by the fact that the earliest specific reference to the well is post-Reformation and is mentioned as a piece of land in a survey of the manor of 1573-76, referring back to manorial court of 1557-58:
“..lying alongside the way which led to the spring called our lady’s well.’
However, first description of the well is not until 1778 within church notes written by Sir John Cullum. These state:
“in a close near the near the east ends of the Church is a spring still bricked up called Our Ladys Spring.”
They continue to state that Parish tradition:
“ says there was a chapel near the spring.”
Now is this the Lady chapel or another chapel? This would appear to be the earliest mention concerning a chapel serving the well directly. The lack of contemporary records of such a well chapel would appear to suggest antiquarian confusion with the Woolpit Lady Chapel. However after this mention the existence of this chapel is emphasised in Gough’s 1789 Britannia:
“..a spring which is called Our Ladys Spring, that the inhabitants have traditional report….that there was a chapel near the spring, but there is no remains of it. The spring is a square and bricked and supplies a large moat with very clear water.”
It all depends what is meant by near? An unlikely source, mainly because of its lack of academic rigour, Arthur Mee (1904) mentions a chapel in association with the well and records that Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds travelled to Rome in 1173 to secure the revenue for the well, and Dickinson ( 1957, an update on that of 1904 ) emphasises a mediaeval origin. However neither authors quote earlier sources and on known evidence appear erroneous. Abbot Samson did claim the revenue of the Lady Chapel and thus these authors show how confusion with Our Lady’s Chapel can occur. The earliest record of direct pilgrimage associated with the spring was referred to by the Rev John Cobbold of Woolpit in a letter to David Elisha Davy, a Suffolk Antiquarian. He states that:
“..tradition says that a pilgrimage of Holy Nuns came from Ireland to visit it.”
This was recalled by a local lady of 90 years, and he states that the well was still:
“In great request with antiquated females….for its numerous virtues.”
Indeed from 1794 until 1802, Augustinian Holy Nuns may have come from an English convent at Bruges to live at Hengrave Hall where they established their own Chapel. In Bury St Edmunds and Its Environs ( 1827 ) its anonymous author described it as a ‘ far-famed well ‘ being:
“A perpetual spring about two feet deep of beautiful clear water, and so cold that a hand immersed in it is very soon benumbed.”
This I can personally vouch for in winter! The author continues that: ‘It is used occasionally for the immersion of weakly children, and much resorted by people with weak eyes.’ This benefit for eyes is noted by William Dutt, in his Little Guide to Suffolk (1904), as well as the ubiquitous Arthur Mee (1904). Walker (1988) states the Queen Elizabeth I visited the well. However I have been unable to find any corroborative evidence for this claim and suggest that the author may have confused the incident with Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII, who as previously noted visited the Lady Chapel, and not the well!
Considering the water’s benefits, tests were made by Anglia Water Authority were made in 1978. They revealed the water to be more mineralised than the drinking water supply abstraction around Bury St Edmunds. A high sulphate level was also recorded, which medically is of interest as sulphates were used as an antiseptic, and thus could be useful against trachoma (an eye ailment), explaining the use of the water as a eye curative.
The site became an Ancient Monument in 1978, despite the area of the well being overgrown: the well itself only being identified as being beneath a rotten wooden board. Consequently access to the well was difficult until 1989-1991 when preservation work was done. The work commenced in 1989, and has improved access and preservation considerably. The area now being designated as a Nature Reserve. This preservation work was carried out by English Heritage, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Mid Suffolk Council, Parish Council and brewers Ruddles.
The well is composed of a square structure of grey stone work of about a foot depth. A metal grid with chicken wire has been wielded over the opening to the well. Obviously to prevent it becoming clogged with leaves, and anything or one falling in! The water is clear, and flows in a Northerly direction through a square aperture, large enough to insert ones hand to sample the water, into a small stream that feeds the moat.
The Our Lady’s Well at Woolpit, in its woodland setting, is a magical site. Woolpit itself is a remarkable village, steeped in history and lore. Most of its claims to fame being displayed upon the prominent village sign ( depicted ), the well is however is absent, perhaps it was difficult to depict!! the name of the village is believed, among other possible theories, to originate from a pit dug to dispose of wolves: indeed it is said that wolves are said to haunt here! The village boasts an impressive Parish church ( worthy of a visit for its surviving poppy heads alone ), a village Lock-up and ornate Victorian village well canopy. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame, is the story of the Green Children, a strange Babes-In-The-Woodsesque story that any half decent folklorist will recant at length. For those curious, the church has an original translation from the latin account which describes the appearance of the green boy and girl, of whom the former died, but the latter lived, lost her greenness, and married a Norfolk man. This is despite only eating peas!!? A story owing perhaps more to symbolic fable than substantiated fact.