Category Archives: Wales
Compared to Tremeirchion the provenance for St. Beuno’s Well at the fascinating Clynnog Fawr is much better. After following King Cadwallon from Holywell to Caernarvon, he was offered land here by his cousin Gwyyddaint after a falling out with the King! It is said that this was his final resting place, where he built his last cell, a chapel said to have been located at the site of the church. Thus in the seventh century a monastery was established which was destroyed in a 10th century Viking raid. Nothing is left from this period the present Chapel and church dating from the sixteenth century but excavations within have revealed earlier buildings.
A substantial well
St Beuno’s Well is of a style commonly met – a quite substantial well. The spring arises to fill a large rectangular bath surrounded by stone seats. The whole enclosure being walled around and raised above the roadway presumably to prevent animals reaching it and soiling it. Although the main road now thankfully bypasses the village and the well, the roadway was and still is, the pilgrim route down the Lleyn peninsular to the sacred isle of Bardsey beyond (a fact emphasised by the presence of a stamp collection for pilgrims)
A healing well
Here we come across a more confirmed usage of the well. This was mainly for children suffering from epilepsy and rickets for also conversely was linked to curing impotency. Scrapings from the pillars in the church were mixed with the water to cure sore eyes. An even more fascinating the tradition was that the bather would then visit St. Beuno’s chapel and laid on a bed of rushes upon a stone called Beuno’s tomb. A good night’s sleep procured a cure. I was denied even an attempt at this as the Chapel a unique side chapel reached by a small walkway was locked! However, I am not sure how good my cure would be as the stone itself was only a fragment of its original being removed in 1856. The practice itself was still being undertaken long after the reformation as accounted for by Thomas Pennant:
“and I myself once saw on it (the tomb) a feather bed on which a poor paralytic from Merioneddshire had lain the whole night after undergoing the same ceremony.”
A pagan tradition?
What has been related so far is strongly suggestive of some long lost pre-Christian tradition. Indeed today by the door is a large sarsen stone possibly part as perhaps Beuno’s stone, of a megalithic monument. What is even more curious is the tradition of St Beuno’s cattle. These were cattle with ear markings which were slaughtered and offered to the saint to ensure well-being of the stock. This was later replaced by monetary offerings based on the sale of livestock and the chest, Beuno’s cyff, remains within the church. The money being used for the poor. The ‘sacrifice’ of stock is clearly very resonant of pre-Christian practises and perhaps the area was dedicated to a deity visited for such wishes.
“Here is to be seen the well of the saint, enclosed with a wall. The Sybil of the place attends, and divines your fortune by the appearance or non-appearance of a little fish, which lurks in some of its holes”
Thomas Pennant (1778) Tours in Wales
Compared to last month’s post we have a bit of a reversal – Ffynnon Peris has much written about it but less about the saint. This is a well which is not only one of the best positioned picturesquely but one of the most curious tradition wise – its sacred fish.
The well is fairly easily found in a private garden of a house called Tynyffynnon arising delightfully at the bottom of a small rocky cliff. It is a roughly square well made up of stone lined basin, around four feet, surrounded by stone benches. Niches are found in the back wall either to place offerings or leave buckets.
Who was the saint?
Saint Peris is a bit of a mystery. He was thought to have existed around the 6th century and called Bonedd y Saint the ‘cardinal of Rome’. His connection with Nant Peris is that he is said to retired presumably by the side of the spring. With such a dubious hagiography, it seems likely that this was an ancient pagan site of which the following tradition gives some support.
A fishy story?
Baring Gould and Fisher in their 1908 Lives of British Saints states that:
“There is also an alms box in the church, the key of which is kept by the wardens and into which the 6d and 4d pieces were formerly put very frequently by persons who either bathed their children or came themselves for the purpose in St Peris’s Well. These small offerings to the Saint amounted at the end of the year to a considerable sum, but at present they are very trifling.”
Of the fish, these were trouts of which Catherall in his 1851 Wanderings in North Wales records:
“A poor woman who lives in a cottage near the spring has a few pence given to her by strangers for showing one or two large trout which she feeds in the well.”
The fish tradition may have been continual from the time of the saint or from some pagan tradition and they were fiercely protected by the locals and tradition tells of someone stealing one of the fish being forced to return it. Baring Gould recorded that the fish would live up to 50 years, and that it was practice that two fish should be always kept in the well. It appeared to be strictly two added at the same time, so that when one died…it remained there until it died and then two were added together. In 1896 it was recorded:
“The last of the two fish put into the well about fifty years previously died in August 1896. It had been blind for some time. It measured 17 inches and was buried in the garden adjoining the well.”
What is quite remarkable is that the tradition was maintained at least until the mid-20th century and perhaps beyond. A correspondent to the Wellhopper.com article on the well noted that there were fishes in the well until the early 1970s.
Why were these fishes there? The fishes had a role in the curative nature of the well. The appearance of the fishes whilst the sick person bathed was thought to be necessary to effect a cure…such the guardian of the well no doubt would tempt them out with food morsels, as Pennant noted:
“divines your fortune by the appearance or non-appearance of a little fish.”
For a higher fee no doubt!
A number of cures could be solicited from the well – scrofula, rheumatism and rickets could be cured – the later from bathing hopefully with the fish’s help. The height of the well’s popularity was in the mid-18th century and offerings were given at the church and these were sufficient to pay the salary of the Parish clerk.
The well clothed in moss and ferns has a delightfully rustic feel, but it was evident that there were no longer any fish in it – the water actually looked a little too anoxic to provide two trout with any healthy environment.
“This township is situated on the left bank of the river Elwy, and near that river is a beautiful and romantic dingle, in which is a fine spring, called Y Ffynnon Fair, discharging about 100 gallons of water per minute, and strongly impregnated with lime. It is enclosed in a richly-sculptured polygonal basin, which was formerly covered by a canopy supported by ornamental pillars, and was then much resorted to as a cold bath. Adjoining the well are the ruins of a cruciform chapel, in the decorated and later English styles, parts being overgrown with ivy. Prior to the Reformation, this was a chapel of ease to St. Asaph, and was served by one of the vicars to that church. ……”
Samuel Lewis A Topographical Dictionary of Wales 1849
Ffynnon Fair must rank as one of the most romantically atmospheric sites in the whole country. It has been a site which has graced many books on the subject – even one on English well traditions. It has been immortalized in poetry and its ruins do not disappoint. I have had this one site on my to do list for some time
On my way to the well, I came across an elderly gentlemen. He came towards me and I said have you been to the well. He relied, he could not find a way in…it could not be that difficult I thought and realising he looked rather crestfallen at not succeeding at his mission I turned him and around and thought I would help him. He was not best dressed for well hunting appearing to have sandals and socks which soon became sodden as we had to cross the small brook formed from the springhead. I asked him whether there was a reason for his visit. He said he was an artist and was planning to paint a number of holy wells using the water from the well – I took his name but to my regret I failed to remember it. At the well we soon found the old rusty gate, untied the loop and let ourselves in, closing it behind for fear of letting some livestock here.
The site has a delightful restfulness and one could clearly see even as a ruin how this chapel could be a pilgrim site. The gentlemen asked me to fill his beaker and I obliged. He then produced a pen wrote the name of the well and date and duly vanished!
What we can see is a bit of an enigma. The well chapel is a star shaped structure around eight feet whose water flows in channel under the chapel. The well chapel is said to have been built in the 13th century which additions and rebuilding in the 1500s. What remains aside from the well is a chancel, a north and south transect under which the water flows, with some Perpendicular tracery in the windows and doorways. Paul Davis in his ‘Sacred Springs’ believed like St Winifred’s Well, the well chamber had elaborate vaulting over it, probably contained within a projecting wing creating a cruciform plan. He also believes the well could have been a hostel for pilgrims – all interesting theories but unsupported.
This was another site for clandestine practices. It is said up until 1640 marriages were performed here – probably Catholic ones. It seems likely that the place was a place of pilgrimage like St Winifred’s past the Reformation but if so how did it become so ruinous?
The water was quite cold on that particular August day, typical of waters associated with the cures its water claim to give for rheumatism and arthritis. There was also claimed to be a ‘sweet scented moss much esteemed by pilgrims’, that presumably once found at St. Winifred’s Well on which this well was on the pilgrim route to. Audrey Doughty in her book ‘Spas And Springs Of Wales’ suggests it was used for fertility and eye complaint, but I am unclear what her sources are. There appeared at some point possibly to develop the waters as a minor spa in the Victorian period as a small bath was excavated beside. However, by this time it was already becoming the picturesque ruin attracting poets and artists such Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) Jesuit priest and poet and Felicia Hemans 1793-1835 who wrote Our Lady’s Well:
“FOUNT of the woods! thou art hid no more From heaven’s clear eye, as in time of yore. For the roof hath sunk from thy mossy walls, And the sun’s free glance on thy slumber falls; And the dim tree shadows across thee pass, As the boughs are swayed o’er thy silvery glass; And the reddening leaves to thy breast are blown, When the autumn wind hath a stormy tone; And thy bubbles rise to the flashing rain,— Bright fount! thou art nature’s own again!
Fount of the vale! thou art sought no more By the pilgrim’s foot, as in time of yore, When he came from afar, his beads to tell, And to chant his hymn at Our Lady’s Well. There is heard no Ave through thy bowers, Thou art gleaming lone midst thy water flowers! But the herd may drink from thy gushing wave, And there may the reaper his forehead lave, And the woodman seeks thee not in vain,— Bright fount! thou art nature’s own again!
Fount of the virgin’s ruined shrine! A voice that speaks of the past is thine! It mingles the tone of a thoughtful sigh With the notes that ring through the laughing sky; Midst the mirthful song of the summer bird, And the sound of the breeze, it will yet be heard!— Why is it that thus we may gaze on thee, To the brilliant sunshine sparkling free? ’T is that all on earth is of Time’s domain,— He hath made thee nature’s own again!
Fount of the chapel with ages gray! Thou art springing freshly amidst decay; Thy rites are closed and thy cross lies low, And the changeful hours breathe o’er thee now. Yet if at thine altar one holy thought In man’s deep spirit of old hath wrought; If peace to the mourner hath here been given, Or prayer from a chastened heart to Heaven,— Be the spot still hallowed while Time shall reign, Who hath made thee nature’s own again!”
Chapel or folly?
Her work included a sketch which suggests that this ruin is not all what it seems. In particular her drawing shows the west wall of chapel only been a few feet high and no bell tower. More shocking is the lack of a star shaped basin. This has been used for well researchers to suggest a date and construction in line with that of Holywell’s St. Winifred’s Well. Was the site rebuilt in the Victorian period by the landowners as a quaint folly and a pretend St Winifred? Considering its time exposed to the elements it is remarkable well preserved! Indeed research has indicated despite the attempt to reconstruct via drawings a chapel akin to that of St Winifred excavations show that the well was never actually enclosed in the chapel. It was not thus a well chapel but a chapel beside the well! Water would thus run through the chapel in a manner similar to St Clether’s Well, Cornwall.
But pretend or pilgrimage site…one verges towards the later of course, this is a delightful site which must be on anyone’s list of North Wale’s sacred springs.
This year the monthly theme is wells of North Wales. This is a region rich in holy and healing springs – so much that it would take many years to discover or rather re-discover them all – as has done my fellow holy well researcher over at Wellhopper.com – please visit and follow his blog its excellent!
This month, I am covering a fairly well known site named after a well-known Welsh saint, indeed he is the patron saint of North Wales. It’s also an opportunity to highlight a remarkable site which readers will be interested in knowing can be holidayed at!
The well lies on the outskirts of the village of Tremeirchion and is dedicated to the famed Welsh saint – St Beuno – a name we have already heard mention in the legend of St Winifred at Holy Well and we shall meet again. Overlooking this much reported and unique well are St. Beuno’s Huts.
Who was St Beuno?
St. Beuno was a 7th century abbot, being based in Clynnog Fawr, and confessor who was born in Powys from a royal dynasty said to have descended from Vortigern one of the last Kings of Britain. He was a missionary across North Wales, having 11 churches named after him – one being in Somerset. A number of miracles, particularly concerning raising the dead, such as St. Winifred are attributed to him. It is said to have died in 640 on the seventh day of Easter.
Unlike other sites in this region there is no direct evidence of the saint having resided or even visiting at the spring. Moreover the village is on a pilgrim route to Holy Well and like similar pilgrim routes, such as the pilgrim’s way to Canterbury, springs dedicated to the saint who was the main pilgrim focus, in that case St. Thomas. Yet Winifred should be the dedication in that case however I theorize that Holywell celebrated both saints and indeed, albeit overgrown, there is a St. Beuno’s Well in that town. I am also of the belief that well changed fluxed over time, adopting new names as the saints popularity waxed and waned and the names changed like franchises. It is probable also that a local hermit adopted the name of the saint, much as Popes do today, a point I shall return to later.
The well, a substantial one, lies tantalising just off a small road in a private garden. Fortunately, although the internet is rife with rumours of new owners being restrictive and unapproachable, I found the owner, Mr. Chris Marsh completely the opposite – in fact I don’t think he could be any more welcoming if he tried! It is worth noting that the sign which was once associated with the sign in which a correspondent to Megalithic portal saw as a sign…was removed because it was broken and has yet to be fixed! The owners were more than happy, but I would advise ringing or emailing first. The contact details can be gained from below’s link to their holiday lets.
The well consists of a brick lined tank covering 18 feet by 10 feet with a sandy bottom, although this appears to cover a constructed one. The depth was around two feet. Its clear water bubbles up arising it appears from under the present St. Beuno Cottage. Interestingly, there appear to be steps on one side which led to nowhere and it is possible that the house footings have changed over the time and that perhaps the house itself was originally a room for changing to bath in the well. Was this an early spa, using the name of a saint to justify its existence as seen elsewhere? It is a theory I shall visit in a moment.
The well chamber is surrounded by a rough wall which has a doorway and a pump. Both of which probably date from an 1800 period of restoration. However the two most remarkable features are those involved with drainage. The most photographed is a supposed stone head embedded within the wall which apparently would flow into a chamber reached by stone steps. Much has also been written of this monument in support of the head cult and holy well theory. Some have seen it as a pagan god, others as St. Winifred. Yet I think we can largely discredit these theories straight away as it is clearly not just a head but a torso and head, the arms held in benediction. I believe any link with a head cult is further dismissed by closer inspection. The origin of the piece is clearly a gargoyle possibly moved here in that 19th century restoration to give the rather mundane structure some rustic antiquarian charm. It may have come from a nearby church restoration or from the ruins of a nearby monastery. It is no more evidence for a head cult than any other gargoyle, grotesque or boss seen in churches across Christendom! Furthermore it has failed to work for many years – and the owner was told that any photo that shows water running through it has been faked by throwing buckets of water through it from the other side! I was resisted the temptation.
The other feature is more strange and as far as I aware unique. The other side of the wall from the head is a large plug hole – the plug of which is attracted to a chain – which can be pulled out to empty the well! I was informed that although the bath took possibly 24 hours to fill – it could be emptied in just under an hour – a fact demonstrated to me.
What was it?
Theory one – a medieval bath
How old is the well structure? Much of it appears to be only a few hundred years old by the nature of the stone work and the concretion makes it difficult to judge. This recent date would explain the lack of any recorded history – the well was too insignificant to be recorded. It is also worth noting that the original house dates from a post-Reformation 1560 so was unlikely to be capitalising of its holy credentials. In 1897 it was suggested that the site was medieval but was this antiquarian fancy. I would hazard to suggest the presence of Jesuit College founded in the 1840 may have had a role in either naming or cementing the saint especially as no pre 1800 date for the site can be found. It is worth noting that both antiquarians Dr. Johnson and Thomas Pennant visited the Parish church but did not mention the well.
Below emptying the well
Theory two – a spa bath
There is more evidence for the development of the site, probably in the 18th century as either a private plunge pool or even a spa. These are quite common, and there is a nearby stately home, but it does not appear to been linked to the well site. There is certainly circumstantial evidence for its development as a spa and this would explain its later appearance, wells as far afield as in London, Nottinghamshire and Sussex appear to have adopted saintly dedications to justify their importance. Selling healing waters would be more successful if a pre-Reformation association could be advertised. Especially as it is evident that its waters had no apparent qualities! It is interesting to record that H Morton Stanley, noted African adventurer who lived in the 1820s stated it had:
“no virtues beyond purity and sweetness.”
The day I visited I was informed that a local nun regularly visits the well to pray and collect water for the poor, although the owner questioned the quality of the water. However, the lack of reportage from Pennant and Johnson suggests it was not used as a spa.
Theory three – a reservoir for drinking water
It appears more likely that the structure was made as a source of permanent water for the local farm. This cannot of course be disputed as most holy wells are used for this purpose at some time, however this does not negate against an ancient origin only an old origin for the current structure. Perhaps this explains the gargoyle outflow provided to give villagers access to the water for whatever reason.
Evidence for an ancient origin.
As the well chamber emptied I was shown the cave up above the well in the hill side. A large entrance which opened up into a series of larger chambers. Within this have been found some fascinating finds – remains of cave bears, hyenas and a lion. However more significantly the cave was 35,000 years ago the last refuge in Northern Europe of the Neanderthal Man.
This cave is a remarkable site and illustrates more than anything else the continuation of use which frustrating lies undocumented at many holy well sites. It would have been the combination of a suitable shelter and fresh water which brought these early people to settle here and whilst they may not have seen any religious significance to the water – we can only postulate they did.
What is even more intriguing is the likelihood that this was also a hermit’s cave. There is no archaeological evidence of this, yet it is difficult to deny that it is more than probable.
So what can we conclude? Is it a holy well? To many people today it is seen as a typical holy well – indeed like many typical ones I could add it has little historical evidence. But does that really matter? I feel that whatever its’ true origins it is likely to be an ancient site.
Indeed it seemed more than fitting that Chris Marsh had decided to establish these unique St. Beuno’s Huts, a far more all mod cons and modern take on the religious hermit – although you could take your partner and children too! So if you are a real holy well enthusiast who is looking for somewhere unique to stay I couldn’t recommend the uniqueness and hospitality of St. Beuno’s Huts, a chance to commune with this unique landscape.
The small village of Trellech provides much to excite the antiquarian. Its curiosities being forever immortalised in the 17th century sundial in the church. The most obvious is the Tump Turret, a large mound once a Norman motte and bailey castle. However, a local myth states that this was the burial mound in a battle between Harold Godwinson and the opposing Welsh in Gwent in 1063. This claim is also given to three large conglomerate stone monoliths. Here folklore states that three chieftains fell in that battle with Harold. Another theory is that they were arranged to indicate local springs and that is significant in consideration of the village’s most famed site – St Anne’s or the Virtuous Well.
The springhead arises in a horseshoe shaped stone built well enclosure. Stone benches are set up either side along the curved walls of a small paved courtyard. The spring arises in the arched recess through a stone basin. There are two squared niches in the rear wall which may have been used to place offerings. Although the stone work is medieval in date it has gone through periods of dereliction as noted by 19th century writer W. H. Thomas described it as ‘neglected fountain’ and the owner needed to ‘cleanse out its channels and invite guests to a festival of health’ as well as ‘rebuild its ruined walls’. Sir Joseph Bradney’s History of Monmouthshire (1913) shows the walls overgrown, soil virtually reaching the wall and the central forecourt flooded. It was fortunately the advice was headed and it was restored, the last time fully in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. A local legend claims that the water is connected to Tintern Abbey by a three mile tunnel, but this is more likely a confusion between the discovery of drainage channels and the knowledge that the Abbey owned property in the area.
Although not apparent today, the spring is a chalybeate one. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unpleasant-tasting water was considered especially beneficial for eye ailments and according to Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709)
‘very medicinall to such as to have the scurvy, collick and distempers’
and ‘complaints peculiar to women’. These wide range of powers owed it the name the Virtuous Well, a convenient name to re-focus from any popish reflections. Furthermore the spring is one of the traditional locations for the hanging of cloutties, which dipped in the water and rubbed on the skin, took away the affliction as it rotted on the trees around. Cloutties are the only evidence today of veneration at this site regularly seen however there were none there when I visited last in a snowy January.
The commonest form of well-wishing here was that by throwing a stone into the water, a maiden could find out by the number of bubbles how many months it would take to be married. Other folk would throw a stone which by the number of bubbles rising would indicate whether the wish would be granted.
A well for the fairies
The well was said also to be the haunt of fairies who were particularly visible in Midsummer. A local legend tells how a farmer dug up a fairy ring near to the well and the next day found the well dry which never happened. However it was clear that to others it had water and that it only happened to him, the other villagers could draw water! Finally he was told by an old man sitting on a wall that if he returned the ring he would be able to withdraw water – he did and the water was restored to him.
Another story tells of a witch who displeased with the suitor of her daughter sent him to the well where he was pulled into the water. After a struggle, three times over, he escaped and running back to the house saw the mother as an evil witch stirring a pot and he ran!
With the sun shining, many of us will head to the seaside to soak up the rays, do some rock-pooling and eat some ice-cream, however hundreds of years ago, when the sea was predominantly an industrial location and the therapeutic nature of sea bathing unknown, pilgrims would visit the sea-side to sample its sacred springs as they would elsewhere.
A classic example is recorded by Wallis (1769) in his Natural History of Northumberland, he tells us that:
“Among the sea-rocks, on the north side of the church at Newbiggen, is a sacred fresh-water spring, called St Mary’s well, over which the tide flows.”
Such an arrangement would mean that often springs would have greater powers because the high tide would mean they were available for less time. A similar spring being St. Agnes’s Well Humphrey Head (Cumbria) where at the foot of the limestone cliffs is the spring arising in a rectangular chamber. A similar well has already been discussed at St. Govan’s chapel, but sadly dry. In Wales, a location which cannot be bettered for grandeur can be found at St. Mary’s Well on the Lleyn Peninsula. Regularly covered by the tide with its salty water, the spring remains fresh at low tide. The natural spring was said to be the location pilgrims to Bardsey Island would stop. To get a cure it is said that a mouthful of water from the well would be needed as you would climb the cliff above to walk around the chapel above three times.
The most famous seaside spring is the most evocative, Holy Well in a sea cave Holywell Bay near Newquay (Cornwall). Many doubtlessly pass this sea cave on the way to the sea without a second thought. Many hundreds of years ago it is said that the bay was littered with crutches as evidence of those who had been cured there. Despite no sign of any obvious Christianisation, a legend is told of its creation. It is said that the cave was one of the places that the cortège carrying the body of St. Cuthbert rested here on their way to Iona. However, that sounds like a convenient story to cover and explain attendance at this most pagan of wells. The water trickles across multicoloured natural basins of limestone, in the dim light of a torch, the pinks and blues, provide a remarkable view of a peaceful refuge.
Not surprisingly, being a fluid environment, such spring can be lost to the erosive power of the sea. Such may have happened to that at Eastbourne (Sussex), first recorded in the 15th century. Described by Horsfield (1835), no exact location is given. It reports:
“the chalybeate springs at Holywell, a short distance west of the Sea House, are highly worth the attention of the visitor. The quality of the water is said intimately to resemble the far-famed springs at Clifton.”
Then in 2010 they were re-discovered, repaired and rededicated and cures are now reported…goes to show that some seafronts can provide all aspects, so if you are off with bucket and spade consider there may be a sacred spring somewhere to give a quench to the spirit and thirst perhaps.
For the final examination of water veneration finishing with one of the most distinctive objects. Of course the most important aspect of visiting a holy well is to take the water. However, sometimes it is not possible to drink the water in situ often it had to be given to some in more need for example far away. However, no run of the mill vessel would do, no one would need an ampulla, a small bottle or vial, often made of pewter or terracotta often sealed over to be broken open when received. It was often worn around the neck and did itself act as a sacred souvenir much like the allied pilgrim badge, deposits at river crossings in particular showing that they themselves acted as a votive offering.
The earliest ampulla, is one of the earliest pieces of evidence for British Christianity, from Abu Mena, dating from the 6th–7th century which was found at Meols in the Wirral. One of the most notable accounts is at Canterbury Cathedral’s St. Thomas Becket shrine where a spring was used as a holy well. It is accounted that all pilgrims who visited the shrine went away with some water. Indeed the 14th Polistoire states even Henry II after his penance:
“drank from the water of St. Thomas’ well… and took away with him an ampoule full of this water, in the manner of a pilgrim.”
Harte (2008) Holy Wells believes that the water derived its miraculous reputation after it had come into use to fill the votive ampulla. Whatever, it is reported that sometimes even ampullae emptied before the leaving the Cathedral precincts as the saint’s judgement on the individual. The use was widespread as indicated by this account in the Exeter Express and Echo:
“THIS tiny lead container, called an ampulla, is modest in appearance, but is nonetheless important evidence for medieval pilgrimage in Devon. Found using a metal-detector in 2009 near Whimple by Simon Wildman, it once contained water from a holy well. The water from holy wells was ascribed sacred qualities through their association with particular saints or certain miracles. Prior to Henry VIII’s Reformation, Devon was littered with holy wells, few of which survive today. One such holy well was that of St Sidwell in Exeter, which was purported to have sprung up instantaneously on the spot where her decapitated head hit the ground. This well was once a popular pilgrimage site, and pilgrims could purchase ampullae full of holy water.”
Of course, we are unaware what holy well it came from of course, it may have not been from Devon of course. The most active holy well in the county, St. Winifred’s Well at Holywell, unsurprisingly has a long history of producing ampullae. A mention is even made in her 1130 first Life where the priest fills a lagena with the water, which was ‘transmitted everywhere to the sick, and drunk’ certainly by 1620 ‘little bottles’ we being used.
In revival of the pilgrimage under Fr Beauclerk S.J., in the 1890s, a 250mm bottle was specially tall which held an image of St Winifred, with the words ‘St Winefrides Well Holywell’, and Fr Beauclerk’s. An advert in the The Holywell Record of May 1896 stated that ‘a bottle of water can be sent post free to any part of the United Kingdom’ a promise I believe that is still upheld although the bottle and postage is now paid. A longer account of the development of these bottles post 1890s is given in this article.
Similarly, at Walsingham small bottles are provided with the image of the vision to Richeldis in 1096 with the Virgin hovering above with the spring below the Lady Richeldis showing how to build the Holy House. These were an improvement of the simple medieval ones with a cross and a W.
And the trend for ampulla is still present and can be seen at ‘new’ holy wells – Lourdes and Fatima – suggesting that the basic function of the holy well has not ceased!
This is the 101th post and I’ve picked a famous sacred well association the head cult. Much has been commented on the connection between sacred springs and heads, in particular. The term ‘head cult’ often being applied to a number of wells, but in reality there is little to prove the existence of anything concrete as a cult or continued worship. Such is the most famed site associated with a skull: St. Teilo’s Well or Ffynonn Deilo in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, a noted holy man who has given his name to many wells and churches. This well itself is nothing particularly impressive nor archaeologically significant, consisting of shallow square chamber and fills a series of ponds. However, the legend is quite remarkable. Asaph Dar’s Wales and the Welsh notes:
“The faith of some of those who used to visit the well was so great in its efficacy that they were wont to leave it wonderfully improved. An old inhabitant of the district, Stephen Evans used to relate a story to the effect that a carriage drawn by four horses came over to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids from the cockle village of Penclawdd, in the Gower Peninsula, who had determined to try the waters in the well. They returned, however, no better than they came; for though they had drunk of the well they had neglected to do so out of the skull. This was afterwards pointed out to them by somebody and they resolved to make the long journey to the well again. This time, we are told, they did the right thing and departed in excellent health. Such is the great persistence of primitive beliefs that while the walls of the church have long fallen into decay the faith in the well continues in a measure intact.”
Skulls (and heads) have a long and possibly confused association with sacred springs. Yet how did a piece of this saint’s skull end up being separated from the body and be associated with a holy well. Tradition asserts that when Llandaff Cathedral was stormed in the 15th century by Owen Glyndwr, a local man, Sir David Mathew paid for its restoration and was given the skull as a gift by the grateful Bishop. This was then set into a reliquary.
For seven generations, the Mathew family owned this private relic, until it handed over to the Melchoir family who owned Llandeilo farm in the 17th century. By then probably as a result in changing Christian views concerning relics, the skull was stripped of its reliquary, although its then use a drinking cup goes against this view, unless there was a period when the relic was disregarded followed by a period when the family either realised a possible income source or became more ‘Catholic’. Whatever, this is how the skull became associated with a holy well for own the farm as the name suggests is a site associated with the saint.
The Melchoir family, where the water would be lifted from the well using the skull and according to Sir John Rhys, quoted in Bailey (2003) that it had to be an heir of Llandeilo. Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales notes that a man in 1906 stated that a boy and two other lads were cured of an illness by drinking out of the skull early in the morning and that he reported that the waters were botted by the family.
However, the use of the skull to drink from would have stopped around….when the skull disappeared only to be returned by the last of the family to Llandaff Cathedral in 1993 where it now remains. The search for the skull makes an interesting read, especially the lack of publicity wanted for it by its ‘owners’ and can be read in Bailey’s excellent volume.
What is interesting is that the cult of head worship should develop so late in this story. This suggests perhaps the widespread survival of such beliefs into the 1600s, unless there was a local well already using the skull independently? Much has been said about the possibility of the Melchoir families being some sort of well guardians preserving a cult, although this is unlikely and more wishful thinking by new age antiquarians. More likely is that the family identified the coinage in developing the ‘worship’. An interesting postscript is for an examination of the skull in the Office of Works volume on ancient and historical buildings in Pembrokeshire records of the skull:
“the cranium is very old, and is polished from constant handling. A part of one superciliary ridge remains, and this is of such slight elevation as to make it almost certain that this skull is that of a female, while the open sutures point to the same conclusion.”
Well there you go! Clearly, the combination of faith and the water worked more directly than anything is ‘relic’ could add if this analysis was indeed correct. Yet whatever the facts the use of a skull in such activities is an interesting form of water veneration.
I’ve posted this on the 8th as the first posts were on the 8th October.
Well it’s been a great few years and pleasing to note that I’ve had views from nearly two thirds of the globe..so thanks reader especially the followers. You’ll see some other changes new pages etc, so hopefully it’s all new and improved, on the 19th, but as the first post was on the 8th I’ve posted earlier than usual.
There is no contest what healing spring must be discussed for the 100th post…no well has such a long recorded history of cures, no well has an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage, no well has such a complete infrastructure, unique in its Perpendicular splendor…only St. Winifred’s Well at Clywd, so famed it gives its name to the town and so famed it is now called the Lourdes of Wales, although it is much older and more significant than that. However, it is a daunting task to discuss such an important site, but here I go
The origin of the well
The story dates back to the seventh century. It involves St. Winifred, real name Gwenfrewi, was originally the daughter of a local lord, Tyfid ap Eiludd and his wife Wenlo, and after being taught by a monk called Beuno, her uncle, became a nun. However, Prince Caradog took a fancy to her and kidnapped her. However, she escaped and trying to reach Beuno was caught and beheaded by Caradog. Beuno cursed Caradog, who then disappeared. Where Winifred was beheaded the spring arose, however Beuno prayed over her body and she came back to life and ended her days as the Abbess of Gwytherin. There her grave was a pilgrimage site until her relics were removed to Shrewsbury in 1138.
A potted history of the well
The first mention of the well is in 1093, when Haliwel was granted to Chester’s St Werburgh’s Abbey. By 1240, to Basingwerk Abbey had been granted it by the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Llewelyn. This established the link between the two sites and it was administered by the Cistercian monks until the Reformation. The fame of the saint and her well attracted many pilgrims, Royalty amongst them: Henry V, Richard III and Henry VII. It was the latter’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who built the current prestigious well house and chapel and by doing so probably ensured it escaped destruction under her grandson Henry VIII. Evidence suggests that Catherine of Aragon was also a patron. Unsurprisingly, it became a location for Catholic resistance, the Jesuits, and even in 1686 James II and his queen visited to pray for an heir, before later exile.
Its construction begun in around 1500 and took probably 15 years to finish. The structure consists of a star-shaped basin into which the water arises and flows into an oblong bath with steps either side. Originally reached from the chapel above, although this access is blocked, the structure is set into the hill side. It has a vaulted ceiling supported by columns with its Gothic tracery. The chamber is reached by a triple arcade entered from the north. The centre of the ceiling is a worn pendant showing the story of St. Winifred looks over the spring head. A niche to the side a statue of St Winifred, which replaced one destroyed in the 17th century in the 1886. Above the well chamber is a chapel full of carved figures. This has seen many uses over the years, such as a school or courthouse, is a simple single nave and side isle with an altar in the apse.
Sacred healing Moss
“But the ground stained with her blood cracked, and a rapid spring gushed out in that place full of water, the stones of which to this day are seen bloody as on the first day. The moss also smells as incense, and cures divers diseases.”
An interesting feature sadly now gone was a red staining moss, called Jungermannia asplenioides which was said to be indelible stains of St Winifred’s blood. Another moss, Byssus jolithus was ‘St Winifred’s Hair’. This moss was dried, made into wreaths and sold in the 17th century for its healing qualities.
The ritual undertaken at the well is to pass three times through the small inner bath, saying the Rosary; the pilgrim enters the outer pool and prays on St Beuno’s Stone or Maen Beuno. The stone as the name suggests is intrinsically linked with the legend of the well. It is on this stone that the Beuno was told that anyone who asked Winifred for help would receive their request by the third time. The stone is certainly very ancient and perhaps prehistoric in origin.
A catalogue of cures
“Moreover one born blind, service being duly performed in the tabernacle of the virgin, went of to the well, and washed, and saw, and gave thanks…And many times this most benign virgin relieves dropsical persons, restores the paralytic, heals the gouty, cures the melancholy. No less does she remove sciatica, eradicate cancer, cure shortness of breath, extirpate piles…Why by enumerating a few things do I try to mention all? So many and so great are the gifts of the virgin, that their infinity defies enumeration.”
What is also remarkable about the site is the catalogue of cures, graffiti around the well accords. Perhaps the most noted was that which occurred after a sick monk at Shrewsbury Abbey was told by a vision of the saint to say mass at the well. After this had been done, the monk began to recover, and went to Holywell himself, where his cure was completed. It was this Holywell cure which determined the Shrewsbury monks to adopt Winifred as their patroness, seeking out her grave, and removing her bones to their church in 1138.
No complete record apparently has ever been produced. The main source for the early accounts in the saint’s Vita or Life. The first version, Vita Prima of which was written in 1130, and the second life. Vita Secunda, written some ten or so years later at the occasion of the relic’s translation by Robert of Shrewsbury. This was translated in 1635 and then rewritten by Jesuit Fr Metcalf. Through the protestant period, miracles continued and from this period one describes:
“About the yeare 1590 Fr Edward Oldcorne of the Society of Jesus with another English priest…travelling in the kingdome of Naples…had poyson given them…there still remained in them an extraordinaire inward heate of the liver with other diseases, and especially Father Oldcorne, whose tongue and mouth contracted a hard sore many yeares after his coming into England…And as all cure and human remedied failed and being very sensible of losing his speech, he was bent…to undertake a pilgrimage to Holy Well…But whether the occasions permitted not…some yeares after being at a gentlemans house in Worcester, he chanced to see a little blood stone…of S. Wenefrides Holy Well, he presently honoured it with great veneration, prostrating himself on his knees before the altar, he putt it in his mouth, and turning it therein to and fro with his soare tongue…he sayd 5 Paters et Aves with Creed. And immediately he found himself much better, his tongue cooled, and his stomack in farr better temper then before; then…he went to Holy-well: where drinking of the water of the sacred fountain with other devotions performed, etc., he was perfectly cured, and never after troubled with the sayd disease.”
Miracles are recorded throughout the next two centuries such that the 1817 The Life and Miracles of Saint Wenefride, states in discussion of a cure that the witnesses:
“numerous and consist of persons of different stations, religions, countries, and places of residence, with Protestants, Catholics, English, Welsh, residents in Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Holywell, who could not possibly be combined for the purpose of attesting a series of falsehoods.”
Until the 1960s the crypt was filled with crutches, these can now be found in the small museum. And so the cures continue.