Category Archives: Worcestershire
Now, take St Kenelm’s life which I’ve been reading;
He was Kenulph’s son, the nobel king
Of Mercia. Now St Kenelm dreamt a thing
Shortly before they murdered him one day.
He saw his murder in a dream, I say . . .
Chaucer The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
Ever since my visit to St. Kenelm’s Well at Winchombe some twenty years ago I have wanted to see his other well. For some unknown reason it has taken me until recently to complete the pilgrimage to the site of his martyrdom. However, unlike his other well at Winchombe the search is less clear cut here!
His legend spawned a town Kenulstowe, which boasted a pub named the Red Cow named after the cow who stood over his temporary grave in his legend – more of which latter. It was a major source of pilgrimage causing major settlements like Halosowen Abbey.
The first site we can identify is the 14th century church. Dedicated to the saint it lays in Clent Hills and despite its more recent date is supposedly built upon an older foundation. Sadly it was locked on the day I visited.
Here in this remote corner of Worcestershire, still remote and isolated despite the beckoning conurbations of Dudley and Wolverhampton on the horizons, the story of the saint begins. It is said that in around 819, Kenelm became the King of Mercian at the death of his father Kenulph. A powerful title but a dangerous one for a boy of seven with many jealous and plotting eyes looking on.
To protect the new King he was placed under the care of his sister Quendryh and foster-father Askebert. However, like many familiar stories of children with inheritances given over to step parents, black days were ahead. At first they tried poisoning but this failed. Then they agreed on a plot which would work. Take the boy hunting and then kill in such a way which would suggest an accident. However, the night before the fateful event, Kenelm had a prophetic dream. In the dream he climbed a tree decorated with lanterns and flowers and from here he was able to see all his kingdom in four parts. All but three bowed down before him but the last refused and instead tried to cut down the tree and in doing so he fell. Upon falling he was transformed into a white bird and flew away. He work and wondered the meaning of the dream and was told by an old Winchombe wise-women who wept with sorrow. Resigned to his fate, he rode with Askbert as arranged and as he knelt to pray was decapitated by the traitor. His body was then hidden beneath a thorn tree or else placed a twig in the ground which sprouted into an ash tree. But Askbert would not escape justice because as the boy died a dove rose from his body and it carried a scroll to Rome dropping it at the Pope’s feet. Reading it, it states:
“Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereaft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born”.
Realising what the message meant, the Pope sent men to England to recover the body. These missionaries met upon an old cattle herding woman and they noticed that one of her herd would always be separate from the flock and stand by a sole thorn tree, never drinking nor eating. This they saw as a sign and so they begun to dig. Soon they discovered the boy’s body and by doing so a spring arose:
“as the holy and gracious sod was lifted up, right from his dusty grave a holy spring burst forth, which to this day flows into the stream and gives healing to the many who drink from it”.
Shorter Life of St Kenelm tells how:
“where the martyr fell stained by his rich red blood, there a holy well flowed out, a source even now of both water and health to the faithful.”
A confused legend?
Obviously the legend has suffered from considerable embroilment over the mediaeval years. What is known is that a Kenulph did reign and he did have a son called Kenelm who was born in 786. This Kenelm is mentioned in a number of documents, charters, deeds and letters, until 811. Then he died. It fits the legend except the age – Kenelm was a 25 year old not 7! He did have a sister, Quendryh but she was a nun at Kenulph death! Smith and Taylor (1995) suggest the significance of number 7 as a mystical number, his name deriving from the words rune and tree, and the sacrificial importance of kingly death suggest a story resonant in pagan origins.
Evidence of the well
It was evident that his cult spread quickly as churches in France were already remembering him by the 10th century. However, the first historical mention of the well is in the endowments of Halesowen Abbey’s foundation in 1215 when a chapel was erected by the well. By the 14th century this was enlarged presumably as the church we can see today. An estate on the Clent Hills around this spring formed part of the foundation endowments of Halesowen Abbey in 1215. There was a chapel by the well, which was rebuilt on a larger scale in the fourteenth century. It stood at the head of a valley with the ground sloping downwards to the east, so the east end of the building was reconstructed in two storeys with a crypt or under croft below the chancel to enclose the spring. There was an arch (now blocked) in the south wall of the chancel, opening on a stairway which led down to the well. This would appear to be based on the original chapel mentioned in the 1473 Patent Roll where a grant was made for repair and installation of a chaplain.
Treadway Nash (1781–2) in his Collections for the History of Worcestershire notes:
“at the east end of St Kenelm’s chapel-yard is a fine and plentiful spring, and till of late years there was a well (now indeed filled up) handsomely coped with stone and much resorted to, both before and since the Reformation, by the superstitious vulgar, for the cure of sore eyes and other maladies”.
Yet by the end of the century it was described as
“now dry, and nearly hid with weeds and brush.”
However, in 1848 the local Lyttleton family restored the building but:
“the water, which up time had flowed from the east end of the church, was in some way diverted, and the well is now some yards from the building.”
This appears to have been the beginning of the confusion by 1890, Amphlett was stating:
“there is no spring under the present St Kenelm’s church; there is one, however, but a very small one, under a hedge some fifty yards away. But a little further off, perhaps some five hundred yards, in the garden of the Spring Farm, is a magnificent spring of water; and this is, perhaps, the original spring round which the tradition has formed”.
It was as if the well beneath the church did not exist and the original well lie elsewhere. Soon Richardson (1927) in his Survey of Worcestershire water supply stated that it was:
“a small dip-well under a stone that carries the footpath from the Church down the valley.”
This was probably the same noted by The Bords (1985) in their Sacred Waters they appear to have reinforced this location and Bord (2008) produces a photo of the said well in her Holy Wells of Britain. Nevertheless, in his The Crown and the Well for On the Edge Journal Mike Smith and David Taylor (1995) identifies as a pool among the earthworks of the deserted village north of the church. They add that:
“a small stone-covered hollow with its brightly rag-covered tree nestles to the east of the church and probably dates from Victorian times. The monstrous brick wall well-head situated close by was built in 1985 by Lord Cobham of nearby Hagley Hall”.
The site today
Behind the church can be easily found the valley where the spring arises and flows. Although where is the actual well? If it is said to arise beneath the church it is certainly not here – but does that mean geographically below? The most obvious finding is a large stone or concrete well head with a semi-circular dip well. Is this the well? Some say yes, but it does not appear to be that shown in the Bords and was only built in 1985 as above states, was it the confusion over where exactly it is that prompted its construction? However, it is the proliferation of cloutties around a nearby tree give us a clue. Here prayers, gloves, teddy bears, bunting, even socks litter the trees and bushes nearby. Just below appears to be a small arch of stone, natural or man-made? It is difficult to tell, but this would appear to be match that shown by Bord as the genuine well – sadly dry. However, does this really matter as it appears that the true well has moved around as the spring line has changed? Yet among the thickets and gnarled old trees, the sound of birds and mud under foot, one can cast oneself back to the scene of this strange story – which whatever the truth has captivated through the centuries, whatever its origins..
Where did his body go next? https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/st-kenelms-well-at-winchcombe/
The third of April is St Richard’s Day a day which was greatly celebrated in his home town of Droitwich for his associations with the local brine pits which became holy in association with him.
Take with a pinch of salt
John Leland in his Itinerary, written around 1540 gives the legend:
“Some say that this salt springe dyd fayle in the tyme of Richard de la Wiche Byschope of Chichester and that after by his intercession it was restored to the profit of the old course. Such is the superstition of the people. In token whereof, or for the honour that the Wiche-men and saulters bare unto this Richard their cuntre-man, they used of late tymes on his daye to hang about this sault spring or well once a yeere with tapestry, and to have drinking games and revels at it.”
John Aubrey noted that:
“on the day of St Richard the Patron of ye Well (i.e.) saltwell, they keep Holyday, dresse the well with green Boughes and flowers. One yeare sc. Ao 164-, in the Presbyterian times it was discontinued in the Civil-warres; and after that the spring shranke up or dried up for some time. So afterwards they kept their annuall custome (notwithstanding the power of ye Parliament and soldiers), and the salt-water returned again and still continues.”
This appears to have been an early record of well dressing in the country, albeit not as elaborate as those of Derbyshire today and simply arches over the well to give thanks. When this custom fell into abeyance is unclear, but it was probably around the Reformation
Worth his salt
Richard was born in Wyche, and a house in the town records this, around 1197 and his image in the church was a site of pilgrimage. A ‘new’ statue, in 1935, was erected in Vynes Park, once an industrial site where the salt was removed.
The brine pits
In Vynes Park was the Upwich Pit which is believed to be St. Richard’s Well it was built in 1264-5. Excavation in the 1990s revealed a long history dating from the Roman period. However, what greets us now is a bit of a controversial site – a replica erected in 2000! It is filled with salty algae covered water which is not directly connected to the source below as it was capped. So strictly speaking St. Richard’s well no longer exists but a replica sort of does!
The return to a modern celebration
A version of the old celebration have been recently restored but set at the end of April or beginning of May, when the weather can be better (generally!) Now, the town of Droitwich celebrates the saint with a modern event which combines elements of the traditional custom with modern twists. The replica Upwich pit and a brine pump in town are imaginatively dressed in honour of the saint with a model of a swan made of flowers and other flower dressing. Around the town, there are displays of Morris dancers, Maypole dancing, historical re-enactments and a most bizarrely vintage car display…..which rather surreally spreads through the quaint streets of the town. Certainly worth a visit when you’re in the area.
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.