Holy Wells in Yorkshire – 1
by Edna Whelan
St Peter’s Well, York Minster
In the eastern crypt of the Minster is sited a font, under which was a well, which is by tradition the place where King Edwin was baptised on Easter Eve, 627. He was accompanied by his wife, a Christian princess from Kent named Ethelburga.
‘In the vestry of York Minster there is a well of sweet spring water called St Peter’s Well ye saint of ye Church, so it is called St Peter’s Cathedral’ [Celia Fiennes, Diary in Old Yorkshire].
Zouche Chapel Well, York Minster
‘Its water is drawn up by bucket. For centuries this well supplied water for curing many ills, its properties being attributed in part to the lime it absorbed from the limestone walls. Three 17th Century Bellarmines (water bottles) found nearby in 1881 had probably been used to carry some of the precious water to nearby folk in the town.’ [G.B. Wood, Some North Country Wells].
[Note: ‘Bellarmines’ are late sixteenth to early eighteenth century salt-glazed stoneware jugs having a mask representing Cardinal Bellarmine stamped on the neck. They are exceedingly common on sites of this period and were not specifically used for carrying water – John Pile].
St Helen’s Well, Rudgate (SE 451 458)
Situated on the north side of River Wharfe east of Thorpe Arch, and about 400 yards from the river.
‘This well was re-dedicated from a Pagan deity to St Helen’s Well. Metal and pins were thrown into the water and ribbons tied to trees nearby. Waters reputed to be of specific use for eye troubles.’ [Speight, Lower Wharfedale].
‘The well is now dried up due to the lowering water table but in the not too distant past people, particularly young girls, used to give offerings to St Helen in the form of pieces of cloth tied to the branches of trees around it. In this way, if done in secret, you would see your true love. Also, that ghastly hound the Bargest was supposed to haunt St Helen’s Well rattling its chains. Leland mentions a chapel at St Helen’s (now gone).’ [Guy Ragland Phillips].
St Helen’s Cross was found near the spring. There is a plantation to the NE of the well called Chapel Wood and the church at Bilton 3 miles to the North is dedicated to St Helen.
Black Tom’s Well, Newton Kyme, near Tadcaster (SE 465 448)
‘Below the castle is a curious low building covering an ancient well, approached through a passage of stout masonry with arched roof. Legend has it that Black Tom Fairfax hid, whilst being pursued, in the well and it is haunted by his fear. Noises and strange unaccountable sounds have been heard issuing from the well.’ [Speight, Lower Wharfedale].
St Helen’s Well, Kirkby Overblow (SE 324 492)
Near churchyard wall. Waters supposed to have healing powers. Visited by T. Roberts 25/03/84. Stone trough at side of road below church does not hold any water, but there is a cottage across the road called St Helen’s.
See also Source 8 (First Series).
Pin Well, Brayton, near Selby (village at SE 600 305)
There is a legend associated with this well of a serving girl thinking of her lover Robin the Bowyer and going to the well for a drink. She asked the fairy of the well for an image, in a dream, of her future husband. Brayton Braff, a nearby hill, was the dwelling place of a tribe of fairies who could not smelt their own metal and so they caused a vision to appear to the girl to attract people to wish at the well, and drop pins in to the water. These they would use for arrow-heads. The girl awoke to find herself fairy-sized and a fairy with a staff told her that they were imbuing the water with nature so the above would happen. The fairy said or chanted ‘Wish – Pin – Sleep’ – ‘Dream of husband’. The girl awoke and told people of her dream and the well and the fairies kept their promise, until the local clergy exorcised the well and christened it ‘Well of Our Lady’.
Pen Well/Penda’s Well, near Scholes (SE 376 370)
Near Penwell Farm on the York Road from Leeds. Tradition says it was the spot at which Penda and his army quenched their thirst on the eve of battle, and asked the gods for victory.
Sugar Well, Meanwood, Leeds (SE 295 368)
In Meanwood, a suburb of Leeds, on Sugar Well Hill is a very clear spring which never runs dry. Guy Ragland Phillips says that the name of Miles Hill given to the same area is derived from Mil-es, Celtic for Honey Water. 50+ years ago the surrounding trees were decorated with bits of cotton and rags.
Brandon Holy Well, near Scarcroft, Leeds (on A58 NE of Leeds)
The lane leading to this is called Holy-Well Lane. In bygone days the waters were reputed to possess healing virtues and mineral properties. This well was once noted and much frequented. The County Council wished to fill in the well years ago but it being just within the Earl of Harewood’s property, he objected, and rightly so. [Arthur W. Millar, Bradford].
Alegrar Well/Ellitor Well, Harsthead cum Clifton (SE 183 225)
Near Brighouse. Beside present Wakefield Road, and now covered over. By long tradition a Holy Well where baptisms took place in the early days of Christian conversion.
St Helen’s Well, Stainland, near Halifax
A building near this well was used as a chapel. A large stone on one of the walls is called ‘the Cross’. Strangers used to make pilgrimages here.
St John’s Well, Harpham-on-the-Wolds (TA 094 617)
A circular well or trough covered by a dome, at the roadside, from which issues a considerable flow of water. This well is situated a short distance from Harpham church. Amongst the properties it possessed were the taming of animals and the calming and subduing of the fiercest of beasts. William of Malmesbury relates that the most rabid bull became as gentle as a lamb before it. The well and the church are named after St John of Beverley but the well may have been of pre-Christian origin and have been re-dedicated. The site is well preserved and is Listed as an ancient monument. Harpham is between Driffield and Bridlington.
Drumming Well/Poor Tom’s Well, Harpham (TA 093 615)
A circular well surrounded by an iron railing in a field alongside Harpham Church and within ¼ of a mile of St John’s Well. There is a legend about this well that, in the reign of Edward II or III, no-one knows for sure, the St Quintin family (being lords of the manor of Harpham) held a yearly field day at which a competition for archers was held. Young Tom Hewson, the son of the village wise woman, had been in the service of the lord of the manor as an archer, and, being of a soldierly bearing, and an excellent archer, was promoted to the office of trainer and drummer to the local band of archers, in spite of his mother’s uncanny reputation.
His mother had a strange warning dream of evil to befall, but maybe she felt that her magic was strong enough to combat danger. However, at the field day, there was a great jostling throng gathered, and when a local archer muffed his shot, St Quintin strode angrily forward and in passing caught Tom Hewson a blow which overbalanced him and sent him headlong down a well in the field. By the time he was dragged out he was dead.
His mother being grief-stricken, she turned to St Quintin and in a trance gave out that, for all future time, whenever a St Quintin, Lord of Harpham, was about to die, the sound of Tom’s drum beating at the bottom of the well would be heard. From that day to the end of the St Quintin history, the night before each heir died, the entire neighbourhood heard the beating of Poor Tom’s drum echoing from the old deep well. [Margaret Heseltine, from an article in Yorkshire Life, 1963].
St Mungo’s Well, Copgrove Park (SE 343 631)
4 miles WSW of Boroughbridge. Alternatively St Monagh’s Well. Situated near to the gamekeeper’s house. The spring fills an open air bath. The water contains no mineral, its chief virtue being its coldness. It was formerly held in great repute, and people visited it every May.
Sir John Flogers writing in 1697 says; ‘Cold baths and bathing – the people resort here to be recovered of fixed pains with or without tumour, rheumatism; quartans, strains, bruises, rickets and all weaknesses of the nerves etc.’
’17th century records tell of it being visited from as far afield as Fewston, Blubberhouses and Thruscross for its curative powers, especially eye trouble.’ [Guy Ragland Phillips, Brigantia].
‘At one time the numbers of people visiting the well became a nuisance so the owners had it blocked up but the water broke through several times so it was re-opened. St Monagh, Mungo or Kentigern was a native of Scotland who migrated to North Wales to found a religious community.’ [Rev. Smith, Old Yorkshire].
Holy Well, Appleton-le-Street, near Malton (SE 741 711)
On the verge of East-thorpe Wood. A copious and pure spring which tradition affirms to have been much resorted to by the monks of Kirkham Abbey, and even to this day healing properties and virtues are attributed to it.
Greenwell Spring, near Timble (village at SE 180 530)
Near Swinsty Hall, in the Otley area. Now a boggy mess but with a ruin of worked masonry nearby. Possibly once a chapel. There is a legend of money being washed in the spring during plague times, maybe fulfilling the services of a plague stone, or possibly a relic memory of a votive well.
St Simon’s Well, Coverham, Coverdale (SE 086 849)
On the banks of the River Cover at East Scrafton is a spring of this name. Near it was an oratory called St Simon’s Chapel. The well was formerly used as a bath. Tradition says that St Simon the Cananean (the Apostle) was buried here! His memory is observed on the annual feast at Coverham.
See also Source Six (First Series).
St Ive’s Well, Spittal Hardwick
The spring lies in a dell near the old Pontefract and Castleford Road. It has been in existence for at least 1,000 years and was connected with St Hiva (or Heiu) from the earliest Christian conversions in the North.
St Hilda’s Well, Hilderwell (or Hinderwell) (NZ 791 170)
8 miles NW of Whitby. Situated in St Hilda’s Church yard. Near this spring of pure water it is said that the famous Saint and Abbess of Whitby had a retreat. Rowlands thinks that it is probable that in very distant ages churches were dwelling houses for the priests as well as places of worship for the people and that therefore they were generally built near a well of clear water! On Ascension Day (the 6th Thursday after Easter) the children of the locality filled bottles with liquorice and mixed this with the spring water, and the day was also called Spanish Water Day.
St Michael’s Well, Well Village, near Tanfield (SE 260 818)
Between Ripen and Bedale. The well never runs dry and was until recently decorated. It was a religious shrine in Norman times and was probably pre-Roman, as Anne Ross states; ‘it was the focus of a cult in Roman times although the presiding deity is now unknown’. There was a Roman building (now gone) on Holly Hill or Holy Hill.
St John’s Well, Mount Grace Priory (SE 447 980)
7 miles NE of Northallerton. In the wood to the SE of the Priory is the well which formerly supplied the Carthusian Priory with water. It is called St John’s or Wishing Well. Grainge, in his History of the Vale of Mowbray states that young ladies cast bent pins stuck through ivy leaves into the water whilst thinking of the wish most dear to their heart. The water was clear, and drinkable. The wish must must be made in secret, and if kept secret would surely come to pass. A cover was recently put on this well. Further East was a Chapel of Our Lady.
Text © Edna Whelan (1985)
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