St Anne in the Wood, Brislington
by Chris Lovegrove
Preliminary notes on a medieval shrine and holy well
Who these days, when ancient pilgrimages to Canterbury and Walsingham retain their renown, remembers St Anne in the Wood? And yet, even in the 19th century, ‘this spot is but little known even to many long resident in the neighbouring city’ . The neighbouring city is Bristol which, by the 20th century, has swallowed up the village of Brislington in which lay this once famous medieval chapel and well.
The site is in a bend of the River Avon, bounded to the south by the Bristol-to-Bath railway planned by Brunel, and until 1957 travellers from North of the river crossed over by ferry. A stream has carved itself a rocky valley in what is now known as St Anne’s Park before emptying itself into the Avon.
Nowadays the situation is rather sad. The railings around the park are dilapidated, the stone steps down the sides of the valley overgrown. Dutch elm disease has ravaged 800 trees in what is marked on maps as ‘Nature’s Garden’, and bikes have mashed up the ground in St Anne’s Wood. In late summer 1985 some of the once grassy banks had been re-seeded but rubbish littered the stream.
In the late 15th century the scene must have been different. Four hundred years ago the newly victorious Henry VII visited the chapel of St Anne in the Wood. The contemporary William Wyrcestre, a native of Bristol, described it as 19 by 5 ‘virgas’ in size, with nineteen buttresses. Six thick square candles, rather improbably described as eighty feet tall (though only costing £5 each), were provided just before each Whitsuntide by the guilds of weavers and cordwainers and placed before the altar. There were thirteen other candles before an image of St Anne.
The chapel may have been built by the Barons de la Warr who held the nearby manor of Brislington from the 12th to the 16th century. Six hundred years ago (1378-82) pressure was exerted by the two English Archbishops to include the feast of St Anne on the 26th July in the Roman calendar, though official recognition took another two centuries. St Anne was said to be the mother of the Virgin Mary, though she may have been invented in the 2nd century in imitation of the mother of Samuel (who had the same name) . Her cult was brought to the West in the Dark Ages, first by her relics being carried to Apt, near Avignon in France, and then by her special veneration in Brittany, at Notre Dame d’Auray.
In fact, a 20th century writer noted that ‘Recently (before the 1960s) Brittany onion boys came and said a prayer’ at St Anne in the Wood . This would be rather remarkable in view of the fact that in 1682 a pottery had been erected amongst the ruins of the chapel when only a century before St Anne in the Wood was ‘a highly popular place of pilgrimage’ . It appears to have been under the guardianship of Keynsham Abbey, but after the Dissolution of the monasteries no-one seems to have cared for it.
St Anne was the patroness of sailors, ports and harbours, which explains the presence in the chapel of thirty-two model ships and boats, then worth about 20 shillings each, used for receiving offerings in the 15th century. Five silver ships had incense burned in them.
What precisely drew the pilgrims there I have not yet ascertained. Perhaps there was a medieval legend that brought the Virgin’s mother there, rather in the manner that Mary Magdalene went to Provence, or Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury. Or, more likely, a relic or statue.
Certainly a focus of attention must have been the well. Accounts before this century seem to ignore its presence. Ironically, it is all that remains above ground, but in a rather desperate state. There is a stone surround, but a modern roof has been built over so it looks like a twee wishing well. The council however have made offerings difficult by padlocking an iron cover over the top. Local vandals have found a way round that, and modern offerings are rather less reverential. The interior, though damp, has no visible water, so any attempts to wash sheep in it – a past practice – would come to grief. Railings surround the site but only give a token protection, there being no lock on the gate.
There are two priorities here, I think. One is further research on the well, chapel and history of the site, rather more than this superficial note has revealed. The other is the rehabilitation of this sacred site to a semblance of its former glory, by enlisting local official help, certainly, and perhaps by encouraging the foundation of a voluntary Friends of St Anne’s Well association or similar. If St Anne in the Wood was reputedly so famous in the Middle Ages, perhaps sacred even before that, then there must have been good reason. We might learn from the fate of its former guardian, Keynsham Abbey. In the 1960s its former site was obliterated by the building of a by-pass (Sic transit…). In the 1980s, bikers shatter St Anne’s peace and morons deposit unwanted rubbish. It cannot continue.
Nicholls, J. F. & Taylor John, (1881); ‘Bristol Past and Present’, Vol. II Ecclesiastical History.
Coulson, John (ed.); The Saints (Nicholas Adams), ‘St Anne’.
Fedden, Marguerite, (nd, c. 1963); Bristol Vignettes, Chapter V: ‘St Anne’s Well’.
Latimer, John, (1900); The Annals of Bristol in the Seventeenth Century.
Text & Map © Chris Lovegrove (1986)
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