Category Archives: Warwickshire
Sitting rather incongruously beside a main road is the Beggar’s Well. A site which is often without explanation included in works on holy wells however there is no folklore or history recorded of the site. Described Patchell and Patchell (1987) Old Wells of Warwickshire describe it as like a dog kennel. Indeed this structure is very confusing. When Lichfield road was widened the well was rebuilt sometime 13 metres to the west of its original location between 1962 and 1983 it appears and surprisingly no one remembers exactly when or by whom. Even more confusing is that a surviving photograph held in Warwickshire Record Office showing woman standing by Beggar’s Well which is dated between 1900-1909 it appears completely different in shape, size and appearance. When I visited it was evident to me that the brickwork did not match that seen in the photo. Thus it asks the question why were new bricks used, what happened to the original brickwork or is this the original brickwork which could be found behind encasing possibly seen in the photo. It is possible that the brickwork is that seen below the conical shape but one might ask why not completely rebuild and what happened to the conical top. It is all very odd. Furthermore the site is now completely dry no one thought it appears to direct the spring (assuming it was still flowing when moved). All in all it looks like an amateur job but someone must know for sure.
Is it a holy well?
Some sources emphatically include it in surveys of obvious holy and healing wells. But there is no evidence of this. Nor is there evidence of any age either. It’s earliest reference is on the first series OS map it appears. Yet could it be a holy well? Is there more to its history? Let us examine the evidence.
Is it really St Peter’s Well? St Peter’s Well ‘appears in many old documents’. The parish church is dedicated to Sts. Peter & Paul, but the wells exact location is unclear unless it refers to the Beggar’s Well? The evidence against this, but not exclusively problematic, is that many wells which share the same name as their parish church are located near the parish church – the Beggar’s well is not. Furthermore one could suggest that St Peter as a dedication suggests that as a holy well it may have derived its name from the church and thus emphasising its proximity.
Is there any other evidence? Well no but perhaps it is worth exploring the name Beggar’s Well. No authority appears to give reason for its origin. The obvious answer is that this was a site frequented by beggars which provided free water. There are other Beggars wells in the country, perhaps the most similar and indeed it even looks like Coleshill’s Beggar’s Well, is that of Threapwood, Staffordshire. Here its is said that workers at the now disused sandstone quarry discovered this source of water in the 1840s. Landowner Earl of Shrewsbury allowed locals to use it. Although that does not really explain the name!
There is another possible if rather hypothetical origin to the name. Is it derived from St. Bega? It seems unlikely St Bega as a saint is restricted to the north west of England it appears and I know of no evidence of her cult in this area of the country. However what is more interesting is that she was a Celtic saint and there is evidence of Celtic remains here.
Is the Romano-British settlement a clue?
In 1978, local enthusiasts discovered Roman pottery and more significantly it is I discovered this unattributed record:
“workmen removing the original stone lining in preparation for sinking a new well to one side of the dual carriageway found a crock pot buried behind one of the sandstone blocks, breaking it open they found it was full of Roman and Romano-Celtic coins – not one of which had been minted after 63ad.”
This report is of the Beggar’s well and indicates the ancient use of the well and the deposit of coins an offering. The date link suggesting perhaps to prevent the impact of Bouddican raids. This finally suggests that if the well in the article in question is the Beggar’s well we can state fairly emphatically that it was a sacred spring.
Was the well linked to a Roman settlement with a Roman temple found on Grimstock Hill. This was occupied from the 1st to 3rd century and the discovery of silver plaque showing a figure holding a shield suggests it was dedicated to Mars or Mercury. Unfortunately, such a deity is not a strong indication of a local water cult. What was worked out was that the square shrine was built on top of earlier ovens where food may have been offered to the gods.
An important Celtic religious site would be likely in Coleshill as it was the meeting point of three Celtic tribes: the Cornovii, the Dobunni and the Coritani. Of course the observant amongst you will see the name of the hill is significant – Grimstock – is this our final clue albeit a Germanic one? It is highly suggestive that Grim derives from Grimr, a version of Odin the Norse chief god and stock derived from Old English ‘stoc has been suggested as meaning ‘place’ quite often for a holy place. Was this a name given by Germanic settlers seeing the temple remains one wonder or did they celebrate their god here and utilise the spring? Interesting here might be another clue to the age of the well and its name. Böðgæðir is another name for the god, as is Báleygr, and whilst there is no evidence of either being used locally or indeed how they are pronounced, consenental drift over the years may have made it sound like beggar and the ill informed made it so.
Is the Hawkswell evidence?
Also in the parish is a Hawkeswell. Now I have mooted a theory that such named wells are vestiges of ancient motif wells which were named after the motif animal of different tribal groups that met there perhaps.
There is a record of a Cold Bath in the parish which was said to cure leprosy. Where this was I have been unable to ascertain but it may have been possibly associated with the spring. Its association with leprosy is significant often leprous beggars were an issue for many medieval towns and villages was this a way to prevent lepers reading the centre. It was after all on the edge of the settlement.
So in summary I would say there is not much evidence for Beggar’s well to be a holy well in the Christian sense but there is some circumstantial evidence that it is sacred spring in the Roman British time and possibly into Anglo-Saxon times. It does feel that the Beggar’s well holds more secrets and perhaps one day these will be revealed. So for now Beggar’s well is not a holy well.
This year I will finish my book on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire a county which has been surprisingly rich in fascinating sites and last summer I had the pleasure of doing a field trip with fellow wellie and member of the Holy wells and sacred springs of Britain Facebook Group and admin of the Holy, ancient and roadside wells of Warwickshire group Steve Bladon as we explored a number of sites around Rugby. Perhaps one of the most unusual wells is found at Watergall Bridge on the outskirts of the parish is the Monk’s Well (SP 418 548).
The Monk’s Well is not marked on the map as such but its location can be surmised by the presence of a blue W above an old farm house off the A423 road. A footpath went from the road, past an old farm house and directly to the well or rather veered a little to the left but close enough to have a quick look anyway. However when we arrived there, there was no sign of a path beyond the gate. As we pondered map in hand our next move, the farmer appeared. He was curious of what we wishing to do but as soon as he learnt we were interested in the well he became very welcoming and told us about the history of his house which appeared to have been once a manor house with the remains of the walls of a very large garden being visible to the side of the house. The farmer gave us permission to explore the well; he added that he used to go down into it when he was a teenager but hadn’t looked inside for years. He knew of the legend an unusual one, and one I had not read associated with any British holy well.
A hidden well
Climbing the hill where the spring was marked on the map in blue lettering the first significant site we encountered was the large conduit house. This is a substantial brick building, an arch approximately eight metres in diameter over a large rectangular pool of clear water, 14 by 25 metres. Originally the date 1618 was over the arch but this has now been lost. It is a substantial structure.
Climbing further up to the site of a well one is greeted by a modern metal drain cover. Not very promising. But carefully lifting it a shaft can be seen. This shaft itself is remarkably well made being made of dressed stone with stones projecting out allowing someone to climb down into the well, the spring of which appears to arise around two metres into the ground.
The bottom of the well is rather unusual being about 37 metres across and again well made of dressed stone with a stone seat. The spring arises beneath a rectangular slab of stone. It is the seat which is of interest. A pipe conveys the water away to the conduit house which itself supplied the house below. The earliest record of both sites appears to be C. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land:
“About a quarter of a mile west of the house is an eminence with an irregular hollow forty yards across and oft. or 6ft. deep, in the centre of which is a singular rectangular pit lined with dressed stone, having angle stones on two sides to facilitate the descent. It is 7ft. 7inches. deep, 2ft. square at the top, and 4ft. at the bottom, where there is a stone trough through which the water flows from a spring in the hill above.”
A Monk’s penance
As stated the seat if on interest for an oral tradition records that the monks inhabited the nearby manor house and were sent down into the well as a form of penance explaining the seat. An unusual form of penance but in line with other traditions perhaps of immurement. Evidence for the tradition that transgressing monks were somehow incarcerated in walls is scant however a discovery of a skeleton found with a book and candle behind a wall in Thorney Abbey Lincolnshire may well record it. However, was there ever a religious community at the site? The only scant evidence is that records show that early in the 13th century Henry son of William Boscher gave to the monks of Combe Abbey land on Heidune for building a new mill, and a little later John de Lodbroke gave 3 acres ‘below the mill’, this being evidently a windmill It is also recorded that on 14 February, 1227, the prior and monks of Coventry were granted in perpetuity a weekly market on Wednesdays at their manor of Southam (Suham) and a yearly fair at Coventry on the feast of St. Leger and the seven following days. However, this does not suggest there was any property here. A tradition records that they may have had a grange there. The local legend was known by the owner of the land but he believes there was never a religious house here the land being owned by the Spencers in medieval times. But it seems unlikely they had enough monks that would need such a bespoke penance.
Perhaps a better alternative is that the custom remembers the time when a hermit lived by the spring in a chamber, maybe the surviving chamber, protected from the elements. As the start appears never to have been investigated archaeologically. There are the lumps and bumps of a lost village not far from the spring although interesting not really near enough to have had the settlement settled around it, it feels. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land is more prosaic
“On the north side is a recess with a seat in it, probably to accommodate the person who cleared the trough.”
Whatever the truth it is the most unusual of sites in the county and perhaps the oddest legend in the country. Interesting in an area noted once for a large lake, hence the name Watergall, gall deriving from an Old English word for watery, it is not alone. Before the farm near the road is a mineral spring of which is noted by the owner of the farm that there were plans to develop it into a spa in the 1920s with full details being published locally but I have yet to find them. It arises in dilapidated wooden shed in a rectangular basin. Iron chalybeate water can be seen but the flow is sluggish.
Warwickshire does not perhaps have the greatest reputation for holy and healing springs and appears to be hide in the shadows of nearby Gloucestershire. However, my research into the county has revealed there’s more to the county’s healing waters than Leamington Spa. Here are a few lesser known sites towards the Banbury side of the county; any further information on them is gratefully received. Hopefully the book is out this year!
Many of the county’s healing springs are compared to Leamington, the Stockwell is no exception, being saline in nature it was bound to be compared such, as Leamington was. However, that is as far as the comparison goes for little other than it made a decent cup of tea is recorded of it. It currently arises in a three feet by three foot roughly square chamber with stone surrounds. Old railings enclose the spring head and steps go down from the road.
It is worth contemplating on the thoughts of Bob Trubshaw on the origin of Stockwells Old English stoc meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ being the apparent same derivation as stow. That would give the site an explanation perhaps for the belief in its healing waters but it could equally derived from the place cattle stock were watered or even less interesting Old English stocc for ‘spring by stumps’, a description which could describe it today.
Not far away is St. Anne’s Well which arises a small stone chamber beside the footpath from the hamlet of Arlescote. The well consists in a shallow square basin and flows downhill forming a muddy area beneath. A stone set into the back of the fabric reads:
“ST. ANNE’S WELL / Reparavit M. L / A. D. / MCMXI”
However, beyond that nothing is recorded. It is likely to be ancient as it found below an iron-age earthwork and clearly the footpath past it is of some age and past significance, yet the early forms of the OS only record spring.
Considering that the hamlet above the well is called Knowle End it is possible that the legend recorded considering fairies moving the stone is related to this site and not the Knowle End in Birmingham as reported by folklorists. Again little is recorded but it must have been thought well enough in the 1930s considering how far the spring is from any houses. A site to visit in the winter or spring however, because it gets very overgrown!
The next holy well is a considerable find and it is surprising that no photo exists of it or more recorded, considering it survives in a popular National Trust garden and is quite strikingly unique. Found in the Bog Garden in the grounds of Upton Hall is an 18th century stone Monk’s Well. The Bog Garden consists of a number of ponds originally Stew ponds fed by this spring improved in the 17th century. Trace the flow back and be ready for a surprise. For the spring erupts from the base of a rock face in a cave/grotto and flows over mossy stones to fill the ponds. The spring head is enclosed in an early C18 red brick vaulted chamber (listed grade II) set into the rock face laying c 100m west of the House. All in all pretty unique and surprisingly unheralded. Indeed the Bog Garden was closed off when I visited but the gardeners were happy to allow me over to see it. I cannot say whether access is achievable without asking however. The well is so named because Upton was held in the twelfth century by the canons of St Sepulchre’s at Warwick but it may have a grange property as no one has worked out where any house would have been located. The site does not have any recorded properties and it is only holy by its name association
The last well is a bit of an enigma, in the deserted Burton Dassett village in Northend, is found a substantial well head which has claims to be a ‘Holy Well’ although the provenance is unclear. Burgess (1876) in his Warwickshire History simply notes that it was used for baptism and immersion. Whilst Bord and Bord (1985) Sacred Waters appear to be earliest to refer to it as such stating:
“the holy well with its stone cover will be seen on the left-hand side of the lane as you approach the church”.
The present stone well house is of a considerable size being constructed of local red sandstone around 1840 in a Grecian style. The central doorway is party below ground level and has steps down into a square chamber. Over the stone lintel but the worn instruction is an inscription with carved flowers. It possibly states 1534 but it was not clear. It is evident that the well was part of an estate improvement but when and by whom? And did it exist before? If it does say 1534 that is an early date for a landed estate improvement. It certainly is still visited by well wishers as coins are found in its waters. Sadly, despite a substantial water supply it did not stop the demise of the village and now only the substantial church remains, which incidentally is worthy of a visit.
With many more sites yet to explore…Warwickshire is proving to be another interesting County.
“It could have been Illmington Spa not Leamington Spa” Newfoundwell, the forgotten chalybeate spring of Warwickshire
Leamington Spa is a well-known spa town, although its spa heritage is not capitalised much, however if only by a twist of fate or geography that the main spa town would be Leamington and not Ilmington spa. For not far from the Gloucestershire border is the village of Ilmington, a quiet sleepy village but once hopes were high for the settlement when in 1681 a plan was made to capitalise on a chalybeate spring found in the parish. Local legend tells that the Lord of the Manor, Henry Lord Capel, saw a local woman washing her eyes in the water of the spring and asked why. She said they eased her eyes and as a result he then contacted local physicians. It was publicised by Oxford Physicians Samuel Derham and William Cole. In their Hydrologia Philosophica or An Account of ILMINGTON WATERS the author describes it great details the qualities of the emerging potential spa. He notes after a lengthy background:
“Now I shall proceed to Enquire, what are the Ingredients of Ilmington Spaw, first taking notice of its Colour, which is far more pale then Rock-spring water. With Syrup of Violets it would turn green, like Alkalizate Liquors with that syrup: with Galls, to a Purple; like Martial Vitrioline Waters: for Cuprous Vitrioline with Galls turn muddy with a very little Purple or Black; but of this more afterwards. Its body being of a thick muddy consistence, I weighed (in a very dry Season) a Pint of this Spaw-water against a Pint of ordinary Water, but the Spaw exceeded near half a Drachm. Another time after a wet Season and when the Ocre was fallen an old Pint pot of common Pump-water weighing 18 Ounces did equalize (and if either, did turn the Scales) the same quantity of the Spaw-wa∣ter: which may caution us from prefixing a determinate Weight to any Spring-water. Variety in the Weight of Waters may appear by comparing That Salt spring water of Droitwich with sweet springs, yea to him that compareth the Waters of several sweet springs together, For the Esurine salt many times being carried along with the water sliding through its secret Meanders or veins of the Earth; of which part insinuateth itself into, and part corroding occurrent bodies; it fretteth off fragments, such as fragmenta ferrea from Iron-stones, and particles from ordinary stones, which are carried along with the water, and lie latent to the naked eye in its pores, but by Distillation, Evaporation &c. will appear, Whence of necessity followeth a great variety in weight, according to the greater or less quantity of sabulum or fragments therein contained.”
He then notes about the mineral properties. He continues:
“Then I proceeded to enquire after the Mineral, with which this Spring was impregnated. And first I took about half a pint of new milk, upon which in a Porringer I poured this water fresh from the Spring-head, but could not discern any coagulation; yea, for anything did appear, this mixture differed not from a mixture of milk and ordinary spring water. After four miles carriage of the water, when the reddish Ocre began to subside, I poured upon warm milk from the cow a pretty quantity of this water, and let it stand at least twelve hours; but neither in this mixture, nor in milk and this Spaw-water boiled together, did any Coagulum appear. Hence I began to suspect, that its brackish taste was not from an acid Salt; therefore on this spring-water I instilled some oyl of Tartar, but upon the instillation, and the standing of the water all night, a very small curdling did ensue; only the mixture looked more white than the Spaw-water itself, which alteration of colour proceeded from the oyl of Tartar. Whereupon I concluded, that no Acid salt was here predominant, yea rather as such, scarce discernable in this Spring; it being, as I shall hereafter prove, far nearer to an Alkali than to an Acid salt.”
After trying with galls, a common method of testing mineral waters, the author notes:
“Now considering the small quantity of Galls, with which a Pint of water was thus tinged, I believe we may compare our new found Spaw (in this particular) with any of the English Medicinal waters, yea with the German Spaws so much in request.”
One of the important aspects of promoting a new potential spa was to compare it to well-known others. The author notes:
“Besides, Aluminous Springs are purgative, witness the Scarbrough Spaw, Epsom and Barnet Waters, &c. but this near Ilmington worketh most what by Urine. Yea perhaps (and truly) I might conclude, That this Spaw in respect of its mineral ingredients worketh not by Siedge. I know it may be objected, That some persons drinking of this water do there upon find a loosness, perhaps to the number of four or five stools or more, To which I might answer, That any simple Spring-water drank in a large quantity, will purge by its own weight: for as it lyeth heavy upon the stomach and intestines it oppresseth Nature, whence the Peristaltick motion is excited to expell that which infests and is burdensome; and if the water doth much oppress the sto∣mach before it pass through the Pylorus, vomiting is the effect according to Dr. Willis. Besides that, Alum is an Acid, as I have al∣ready proved, and also is a Cathartick; both which properties are not to be found in this Spaw, comparatively more than in ordinary Spring-water. I observed also, that the Excrements of those that drank this water were turned blackish, which is a consequent to the taking of Chalibeat Medicines, but not to the drinking of Aluminous waters. But observing this Water after its being exposed to the open air for some time, either stagnating at the Spring-head, or else as it is set in open vessels hath a blewish Cremor swimming on the top or surface of the Water, much resembling waters that stand long upon sulphureous bogs; I began to enquire, whe∣ther this might not be a Sulphureous Spring, like that at Knarsbrough, &c. By an Analysis of this Water into its Principles, not one grain of combustible Sulphur is to be found.”
The new spa begun to popular, it was described by William Dugdale in his 1730 Antiquities of Warwickshire as:
“much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.
However, it would look like the visitors were not enough. The site attracted no well-known visitors, no royalty, no patronage of note and so within the same century the well fell out of favour. It went largely out of use about the time of the enclosure of the common fields in 1781. The Well House built to provide shelter for the users of the well, remained standing for another 80 years. Later the spring became a watering place for stock. In 1998 erosion of the bank of the pond revealed the worked stone. On recovery, it was found to be a sizeable fragment of the basin. This is now incorporated into a fountain a plaque on which reads:
“This is a fragment of a basin installed around 1682 by the Lord of the Manor, Lord Capel to collect water from the chalybeate spring known as Newfound Well. The spring (1/4 m NW of Ilmington on the path to Lower Larkstoke) was described by Dugdale (1730) as: “much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.
Today the site is a large oval shaped pool in fields above the village. Two plastic pipes in the western end of the pool pour copious amounts of water into it which flows beyond the path into a stream. On one side of the pond can be seen stone work which may be part of the bath house, if so it is unrecorded.
Standing on this remote quiet location it is difficult to imagine what the place could have been like if the spring had had more money poured into its development. One the county’s first spas, which ironically unlike its better known cousin still flows from its main source rather from a pipe!
Extracted from forthcoming Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire
Whilst researching for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire there as in many counties a few wells which question marks are placed over. The Wikipedia entry concerning the village states it all:
“Berkswell’s toponym is derived from the Berks Well, a 16 ft (5 m) square, stone-walled water well just outside the churchyard. It is said to have been used for baptisms by immersion and can still be seen today.”
That all too familiar term now thanks to Wikipedia – citation needed – is what I often want to cry out when discussing many assumed and often famed holy and healing waters, who’s histories and holiness can be a murky as their waters. Berkswell’s well is a classic example of an assumed holy well, often cited in books and articles on the subject and taken for granted as one. This one, being a large stone tank about five feet deep enclosed by a 15 feet by 15 feet stone wall, appears to be a classic baptismal well and such amongst many neo-pagans and Earth mystery enthusiasts it is one…but is it?
Who’s well is it anyhow?
The well is certainly an old one if the Domesday is anything of an indication. Noted as Berchewelle, W.H. Duigan (1912) in his Place-names of Warwickshire states that it is Beorcoles well or Beorcol’s spring, the Beorcol(e) in question we assume is a Saxon landowner. However it could equally be berc for birch. But does that really matter? As the name is a secular one it gives little clue to the origins.
However, it is not the neo-pagan and Earth Mystery speculators who are the only ones the Parish Church of Berkswell unequivocally quotes:
“The Christian faith came to Berkswell when the village was just a cluster of huts gathered round a well, in the great Forest of Arden – which, in the centuries before the Norman Conquest, covered a large part of Warwickshire.
The well remains to this day, outside the churchyard gate, and it is here that the monks, who brought the faith from Lichfield, would have baptised their converts. We think that the name of the village derives from that of the Saxon landowner, Bercul. The present preaching cross, just inside the churchyard, a medieval replacement of an earlier, perhaps even dating back to Bercul’s conversion in the 8th century.”
Interestingly it is noted that the church even claim that the well’s founder (for want of a better term) was even baptised in it – a big leap of faith. The other claims is the piece again I have been unable to ascertain.
Location is the obvious factor in considering this site to be more than a village springhead. It lies a few yards from the churchyard of the parish church of St John the Baptist. Such a large springhead would have not only provided a valuable drinking source but as the church website notes an ideal place for baptism. The church itself may provide further physical and etymological based evidence. The latter is perhaps a little glib, but naming a church after the famous biblical Baptist may be a considerable indication or else the source of the mistake. The best evidence for its significance lies below the church itself, the crypt. This is the gem in the village, a beautifully preserved Norman crypt. Such a crypt in a small village church indicates a greater importance for the community and it was likely to be a shrine church and the church a minster. The topographer John Leland believed that the 8th century Bishop of Worcester, St Milred was buried there. Sadly there is no corroborate evidence but this would although in a Jethro Cossins and the Rector H. W. Watson said they discovered Saxon stone work, possibly the base of a tomb, when digging in the crypt. Other Saxon fragments have been found subsequently indicating that there was a church here in Saxon periods when the well was named. It should be noted that there have also been traditions about the water being good for eyes but that is no firm evidence either way of course.
However if this was the case why does the well have a secular name? Documentary evidence may reveal who the name. A Bercul is noted in a 748AD document drawn up by Mercian King Ethalbald which granted the church indemnity from any services or taxation. So the name was a significant one in region Berkswell would lay. Yet the two are not necessary the same. Examining the structure of the well a plaque reading:
“restored by subscription”
The date of 1831 suggests that the present structure is no older and such a design would have had a considerable use for the villagers being ideal to wash clothes in. Certainly it would be too late for any baptism use, certainly linked to the parish church. If any baptism was undertaken it may have disrupted the real domestic use and would have been by non-conformists. However, again there is no record of such non-conformist use in the parish. So we draw a blank. Despite this I feel that the well is too significant a springhead to have not been utilised by the church. However, we may never really know – that does not matter for many well enthusiasts and peering into these bright bubbling waters it is easy to feel the natural sacredness of the spring.
Perhaps the most ancient holy well in the country is also one of the most delightful with presently presumed 18th century and medieval features it is certainly a remarkable survival – even more remarkable since its’ splendid restoration.
Oldest recorded holy well in England?
The first mention of the well is apparently 998, when it is mentioned in a charter to Leofwine by King Ethelred the Unready as a consequence as the term holy well per se derives from Old English halig this is probably the oldest recorded. However, it does not appear to be specifically mentioned as such. However in a Feet of Fines there is a notice in 1206 of a:
“half acre land at Hallewellcul to the north”
Over the next 800 years there then appear to be regular references to the well. By the 18th century there is reference to some sort of protective structure, although the date of the current structure cannot perhaps be gauged from these references. By 1701 a record notes that the Rector was exempted from keeping the well and fencing in repair:
“one footway of the breadth of three feet leading from a certain stile at the bottom of an ancient enclosed ground called Bury Orchard towards Ufton by the Brook to the said well called Holy Well.”
By 1760, a public footpath to the well was made permanent in an Act of Parliament and the enclosures act noting:
“it is hereby further enacted and declared, That the said Well, called Holy Well, in the said Open Fields of Southam aforesaid, shall not be allotted to any of the said Proprietors, but shall be inclosed round with Posts and Rails, Three Yards at least distant from the Stone-work of the said Well, by, and at, the Expence of all the said Proprietors, and shall be kept for the Benefit of all the Inhabitants of the Parish of Southam aforesaid; and which said Posts and Rails shall, forever thereafter, be repaired and kept in Repair by, and at, the Expence of the Inhabitants of Southam aforesaid; and that the said Commissioners, or their Successors, or any three or more of them, shall assign, or lay out, a Footway from the Town of Southam aforesaid, to the said Well..”
Healing eye water
The main two properties, other than a possibly being better than beer, is that it was very cold but never froze and that it was good for eyes. Indeed, its powers in restoring eyes lead to a Henry Lilley-Smith establishing in 1818 an eye and ear hospital not far. Local remedies also recall how to make a tincture with the well water for eyes.
The well of St Fremund?
One of the possible reasons for the site being a holy well is that it was associated with the Mercian saint Fremund. The Life and Death of the Most Holy Fremund, King and Martyr by Burghard, 12th century (tr. from text in Nova Legenda Anglie ) tells how St Fremund, having been beheaded:
“stood up as if nothing had happened, picked his head up off the ground, and set out with the head in his hands. The crowd were amazed at this miracle and followed in his tracks, praising God. He made his way to a spot between Itchington and Harbury, and when he got there he took a stand and thrust the point of his sword in the ground. He prayed to God for a little water to wash his head and body, and what he sought, he gained. For a spring welled up at this very spot, flowing in an unfailing stream and proving the merits of this famous martyr before all the world. He drank of its waters, he washed his wounds, he gave honour to that God in whom all live and have their being. Then turning his head to the east, he sank dead to the ground”.
The Metrical Life of St Fremund by William of Ramsay, 1194×1220 (tr. from text in Pinchbeck Register 1925) repeats the story from Burghard, detailing how ‘No sooner had he wished for water than a spring appeared/ Purer than dew, clearer than crystal, finer/ Than gold, and scattering silver sands’. Later, the Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund by John Lydgate, 1434 tells how
“there sprong up a welle/ With crystal watrys the stremys gan up welle;/ And wessh away the blood that was so red,/ Which doun disttillyd from his hooly hed”.
egend has it that Fremund was a son of Kind Offa of Mercia. After his death, a great battle ensued at Radford Semele against the invading Vikings in which Fremund was completely victorious. However as Fremund knelt in prayer of thanksgiving one of his own men envious of his success struck off his head. However the legend suggests that the well was not at Southam. For when his corpse stood up, picking up his head and walking away; he stopped somewhere between Harbury and Whitton, possibly Whitnash and there a miraculous well sprung up at his feet, in the water of which he washed his head then lay down and died. This would go against the view that the Southam well is the same.
Well preserved fabric
The first description of the site is Carlisle (1812) ‘Observations on the positions of the alien cell of Begare, and of Halywell upon Watling Street’ who describes:
“a well of very fine clear water, called Holywell, or Halywell, which has always been reputed salubrious. It is… perpetually overflowing, without much variation from the seasons. It is a basin on the declivity of a rising ground. Its form is the larger section of a circle; the bottom is paved with smooth stones; and the sides are walled with the same, a little higher than the water stands, which is about two feet deep. It was formerly nearly encompassed with another wall, and upon a stone, at the mouth of the well, the words Utere, sed non abutere were inscribed.”
However it was apparently in decline by the 1850s as an article written on the 6th October 1855 in the Warwickshire Advertiser describes:
“on the foot road from Southam to Stoney-Thorpe, the residence of H T Chamberlain Esq., is an Ancient Well called ‘Holy Well’ now in a dilapidated condition; but even in its present state, the massive stone work, with curious and not very elegant carved head shews it to have been at one time an object of interest. Its earlier history is not clear, some asserting that it was the source from which Stoney Thorpe was supplied with water when used as a Priory ……it is a large semi-circular well about five feet deep embanked with massive stone masonry, and is supplied by a powerful spring of the Purest Water. It lies at a lower level than the Town, otherwise it might without much expense, be made most valuable for domestic and sanitary purposes. Tradition says it formally had a stone seat placed round it; was furnished with drinking vessels, and covered by an Arched Stone Roof; thus affording refreshment to the Traveller, and a pleasant resort to the health seeker. It is now proposed to restore by a public subscription, this beautiful relic of antiquity, and a considerable sum has already been promised.”
This restoration is described by Freton (1890) in his The Warwickshire Feldon: a sketch of its hills and valleys, waters, famous trees, and other physical features in the Proceedings of Warwickshire Naturalists’ & Archaeologists’ Field Club, states that around 40 years ago:
“I and a few enthusiastic friends undertook to clear out this old well, in the hopes that it might lead to its ultimate restoration. Our efforts as amateur navvies excited little sympathy among the rough labouring lads of the neighbourhood, who seemed to look upon us as having a slate off, and we invariably found our labour of one evening fruitless the next, so after a week’s hard work we gave it in.”
Certainly when Richardson (1928) found it as:
“a semicircular recess in the bank. A low retaining wall – recently renovated – prevents the bank from slipping down into it. At its foot is a flagged path along the curved margin of the semicircular well. Impounding the water in the well… is low two buttressed stonework. The stonework is much mutilated, the water flowing over the two broken and worn ends; but the central portion is higher and has three faces sculptured on it from orifices below which the water spouts out. Two flights of steps– that on the left with three steps, that on the right with four – lead down to a “trough” below the stonework”.
The most curious facet of the well are the well worn, and hence presumably ancient carved heads. What is their origin? Thoughts have ranged from effigies of sun gods to the recycled remains from a priory or church. I certainly favour the later and they were probably gargoyles and incorporated in the fabric in the 18th century. This may explain why they look more worn than would be expected if was last constructed in that century. However, it seems odd to have incorporated them and it may have been an attempt to produce a folly for a local lord. Well restored
However, despite Richardson’s favourable visit, not everything was positive. In 1925 the water was diverted into a reservoir and the provision of mains water artesian wells in the 1930s took their toll on the flow, an article in a local newspaper noting that:
“the Holy Well itself a few yards away has been partly emptied, and no water now flows into its basin in dry weather.”
By 1981, Brian Townsend noted in Southam Through the Centuries III notes it was little more than a trickle but a year after clearing out and restoration by the Community Enterprise Programme restored the flow through the heads. Yet by 1991 it was dry again, possibly as the result of quarrying and work on a by-pass. This is what it was like when I first visited…filled with rain water and polluted by crab apples. Through the 1990s restoration was planned but due to various reasons it was never attempted until the early 2000s. By 2005 the water supply was relocated and it could be restored, a Holy Well community was established an Heritage Lottery Fund money of £102,500 was successfully obtained. By 2005-7 the site was splendidly restored with seats and a palisade fence with delightful well related carvings on the posts…a fantastic return to the glory..the crowning of that glory the fact the water flows as profusely as ever. A delightful site and a holy well must.
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.
A visit to the enormous Sutton Park will reward any curious well researcher. The magnificent park, once a royal hunting park, and then after Henry VIII gave it to Bishop Vesey, it is now a park, which is now municipally owned and admission is free. It contains half a dozen man-made pools and three named wells The most obvious of the ‘holy’ wells is that marked at the south-west end of Bracebridge Pool called St Mary’s Well. Burgess and Hill (1893) notes that it was:
“… very popular with visitors to the Park, is that of St Mary, commonly called the Druids”.
Ribton-Turner (1893)’s Shakespeare’s land being a description of central and southern Warwickshire.notes that
“Sutton Coldfield and Park have several wells other than that of Rowton, which are deserving of notice ; of these Another well, very popular with the visitors to the Park, is that of St. Mary, commonly called the Druids’. This is at the south-west end of Bracebridge Pool (the Queen pool of the Park). How it tame to be called the Druids’ Well is not known, it is scarcely necessary to say that it can have no Druidical connection ; it is very probable, however, that it was dedicated to Saint Mary long before the dam of Bracebridge Pool was made by Ralph Bracebridge in the reign of Henry V.”
This is association with the Druids may owe something to Hutton’s History of Birmingham (1783), who suggested that there was a Druid site near Sutton Coldfield on a Druid sanctuary near Sutton Coldfield and it was said to be the seat of the Archdruid, Sadly the well has seen better days. I was informed when looking for the site by a man surveying the area that it no longer existed and that he himself had never found it. He informed me that the distinctive well house was taken away due to damage caused by vandals and stored somewhere by the local council. However, dogged searching in the underground where the site was marked on the appropriate OS did reveal something. Ducking under some Rhodendrons, I found what would certainly be the well, its spring found filling a rectangular stone lined pool which was still full of clear water emptying into a channel just beyond. Despite what I was told, the well house shown in Bord (2008) appears to be lying beside looking rather forlorn and the other side a more modern structure takes the water. Hopefully one day it can be fully restored.
Rowton Well is a medicinal pool about ten feet in diameter, with a neat low circular curb of large stones, now enclosed by a new post and rails fence. Ribston-Turner (1893) notes that:
“Rowton Well lies near the Roman Ikenild Street, and has therefore a claim to very early fame. Rohedon was the name of a family in the neighbourhood, temp. Edward I., and there was also a Rohedon Hill and a Rohedon Green at Erdington. This name, probably the origin of Rowton, may be of early derivation, and there is a tumulus near the well which favours that view, yet a dedication to the Holy Rood in Saxon days may possibly be the original source of the name.”
The Keeper’s Well is the copious source of supply to the pool of that name. This pool is nearly surrounded by woods of great natural beauty, and is supposed to have derived its name some four centuries ago from John Holt, who was park keeper or ranger under the Earl of Warwick in the reign of Edward IV., and probably constructed the dam. A final interesting well, not perhaps in the park but was called Robin Hood’s Well in the parish, but I have been unable to discover more information. It may have been another name from one of the other wells.
Whilst researching for a future volume on holy and healing wells in Warwickshire, I came across an interesting site called Margaret’s well. This site one would assume takes its name from a saint, but no, showing how easy it is for holy well researchers to be confused. However, this site has a far more interesting origin, it is cited by some as being the site where a local girl committed suicide. That in itself, although tragic, is not perhaps that interesting, but the suicide may have been the inspiration for the tragic character of Ophelia who drowned in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
A tragic suicide?
For those unfamiliar with Hamle: Ophelia loves and was courted by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but is helpless when he starts behaving strangely after his uncle marries his mother, having killed Hamlet’s father. After, Hamlet treats her poorly and abondons her she goes mad and drowns in a pool prompting the Laertes and Hamlet duel which results in both dying.
Who was Margaret?
Margaret Clopton, was the daughter of a leading Catholic family in the town and was a contemporary of Shakesphere. She was abandoned by her lover, drowned herself. News of her death would have reached Shakespeare as the family was so well known even if he was living in London especially as his wife, Anne Hathaway still resided in Statford. The dates certainly match, Hamlet is believed to have been written by the Bard in the 1590s, shortly after Margaret’s supposed death.
Searching on line for evidence, I found the following website: http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/History/article/whats-the-evidence-for-ophelia/
In it a Dr. Bearman, who is the chief archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said the evidence was open to interpretation, but a possible link with Ophelia could not be denied. He stated that although there was a Margaret Clopton there are no records of her marriage or death which would lead you to suspect she died in infancy or early youth. However, he does note that there is a tradition of a young woman drowing in the well and the death is first recorded in Jordan’s History of Stratford written in1790. Whether this was Margaret and whether this was the source perhaps can never be proved! Indeed the vagueness of a ghost haunting the well may suggest a religious origin? Is the Margaret St Margaret?
Nearly lost for good?
The well built as a conduit for the hall was constructed in 1686 as the inscribed stone SJC 1686 records. The SJC refering to Sir John Clopton, but is obviously a pool or well before this but nothing is recorded. The site was for many inaccessible for years due to its being immersed in thick briars, bramble and boggy underneath and only the very top of the stonework being visible. It was decided in October 2002 to restore the well and a new path was laid to it, the work being completed in 2003. Archaeological field work once the land was drained revealed the brick vaulting, steps and flagstones. Masonry foundations were were found south-west of Margaret’s Well, and may have been remains of arbours shown on the 1848 Tithe map and estate plans of 1849.Once the private estate of Clopton house, the site now in a public park.
Visiting in 2011, the site is marked out by a fence and has a small plaque, but unfortunately this and the well itself have been vandalized. The well which consists of a barrel shaped structure over a rectangular pool has lost some of the brick work from the top and the concrete rendering. The water arises clearly from within, but I could not see the carved stone described.