Well-Wishing in St Albans
by Tony Haynes
‘A plaque on a nearby building would suffice’
That a holy well existed in St Albans has always been beyond doubt. Holywell strete and Holywellbrugge are often mentioned in historical documents from the thirteenth century onwards. In later years this main artery into the town, along which pilgrims to the shrine of Britain’s protomartyr, Saint Alban, would pass, was known as ‘Holywell Hill’ (pronounced ‘Hollywell’ in the native tongue, but then old Albanians pronounce their Catherine Street as ‘Cath-rhine Street’, for reasons unknown!). Another nearby approach to the town centre has always been called ‘Sopwell Lane’.
Legends concerning the well are rife. It is said that Alban, the Roman soldier from Verulanium who sheltered Amphibulus, a fugitive Christian priest, and was converted by him to the faith, refused to recant his beliefs or divulge the priest’s hiding place. He was sentenced to death. He was led to the top of a hill outside the city wall where he expressed a desire to quench his thirst before the execution. Immediately a perpetual spring bubbled forth from the ground at his feet.
According to Bede, in the early eighth century a beautiful church was built on the site of Alban’s martyrdom. It was the scene of frequent cures. The church grew into a monastery, and then an abbey, helped by gifts of land from Offa, King of Mercia and his son Egfrith.
This first legend would probably be better associated with the well which supplied water to the abbey than with the holy well, however. This is believed to be under the bishop’s dining room. (Remember the bishop – he features later in our plot).
It is also said that when Alban’s head was eventually lopped off, it rolled down the hill. Where it came to rest a spring burst forth. This spring is a much more likely candidate for holy status, for it existed towards the bottom of the hill, and probably did so many years before Alban’s head rested there.
An early reference to the well can be found in the writings of Brompton who lived in the time of Richard II. He recorded that the father of King Arthur, a British Prince, was severely wounded in the battles with the Saxons;
‘A long time he lay confined to his bed until at length he was cured by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city. at that time reputed to be salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven.”
Two devout sisters built a shelter near the well. They served the weary pilgrims who trudged up the steep hill towards Alban’s shrine in the abbey, by dipping, or ‘sopping’ their bread in the holy water and offering it to the thirsty travellers. Hence was founded Sopwell Priory, nearby.
Historical reference to the well is sparse, but it must be remembered that one of the most important early sites of pilgrimage was expanding not half a mile away. Alban’s shrine was a great source of revenue to the early church. Robert Shrimpton, four times mayor of St Albans, remembered a hollow statue which existed next to the shrine wherein a monk sat pulling strings. If the pilgrim’s gift was acceptable the statue nodded, if not, it shook its head angrily. A wooden Mediaeval watchers’ gallery still exists today next to the shrine as evidence of the material value, if not the spiritual value, of such gifts.
Is it not logical that the abbots would want to water down the well’s reputation as a pre-Christian holy site, it being so close to their premises? After all, a gift to the abbey which only qualified for a shake of the head would still be worth more to the abbots than one tossed down a well for the use of a deity closer to the earth.
Late in the seventeenth century, when John Churchill, future Duke of Marlborough, pulled down his wife’s house and built a new mansion in the middle of Holywell Hill, thus creating a major diversion, the Holy Well was a feature of his terraced gardens. Maps of the period show the site of the well to be a focal point of his lawns.
In 1815, Shaw’s guide to the town states ‘The holy-well is still held in some esteem for its purity and salubrious qualities’. The Duke’s residence later became the property of the Earl Spencers. It eventually fell into ruin and was demolished in 1837, and the original route of Holywell Hill was restored, no doubt much to the relief of contemporary coach and wagon drivers. After this time, the grounds were left to decay. Ten years later little remained of the gardens but a fishpond and the Duke’s ‘canal’ marking the original course of the River Ver. Of the Holy Well, in his History of St Albans published in 1893, Charles Ashdowne laments that;
‘It is now remembered only as a muddy depression, sheltered by the remains of a dilapidated wall and a mournful specimen of blackthorn.’
Eventually the land was acquired by the St Albans School for Boys as a playing field.
‘The exigencies of athleticism necessitated the ground being levelled and turfed over’, Ashdown continues, ‘and it is much regretted that there is nothing to mark the site of what was essentially one of the most ancient of English Holy Wells.’
This is confirmed by a Miss Lightfoot of Holywell Hill. In 1960, when she was 85, she wrote in a letter to Hertfordshire Countryside magazine;
‘I remember the well quite well, for as a child I often went round it. It was surrounded by a fence, inside was a tree, water and weeds – not very inviting.’
‘Old boys’ of St Albans School recall, about fifty years ago, there being a concrete slab at one end of their football pitch which they knew as the site of the well. Their playing field fell into disuse in the 1960’s, but the exact site of the well was lost long before this.
Early in 1984 the inevitable announcement was made that the owners of the site, Tower McCall and the St Albans Playing Field Trust, had put forward a plan to build a five-storey hotel and a large housing complex. No mention of the Holy Well was made in these plans. This resulted in some lively correspondence in the local press on the lines of ‘Let’s uncover the well before it disappears forever beneath concrete and tarmac.’ As expected, official response to this plea was negative. Officially, the well had already vanished.
A local dowser claimed to have found the site of the well using a Pasquini Amplifying Pendulum. Still officialdom would not swing into action. It became obvious that they were hoping people would lose interest and the site could be developed unhindered by annoying historical considerations. A neighbour whose garden backs on to the site also claimed to have found the well simply by referring to an old map and comparing the colour of the grass on the spot with its surroundings. Again officialdom was unimpressed.
A small band of concerned residents decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. Meeting in the local pub, aptly named ‘The Duke of Marlborough’, they planned to risk prosecution for trespass and uncover the well themselves to prove its existence. They set a date for their investigation on a Sunday afternoon in June, and invited the press and a leading member of the local historical society to attend.
They carefully removed a section of turf and exposed a four foot square stone surrounding which once supported a heavy stone slab. The covering slab was missing, but beneath the stone edging they found a brick-lined hole full of domestic demolition rubble which probably came from the old Duke of Marlborough’s residence, Holywell House. According to their reckoning, the dowser had been only four yards out. Photographs were taken and the location of the hole was notated by surveying. It was then refilled and left in an undamaged, safer condition than it was found.
I quote from the St Albans Review of June 14th 1984;
‘Amateur archaeologists searching for the lost Holy Well of St Albans were slammed this week after they uncovered a rubble-filled hole near the supposed site of the well. The excited diggers say the brick-lined pit they found is undoubtedly a late structure over the much older well, which lies under the site scheduled for a hotel and housing. But museum staff at St Albans council say the hole may not be a Holy Well, and have condemned the amateur efforts to find the almost mythical watering place that gave both Holywell Hill and Sopwell their names. The owners of the land said the unofficial dig on Sunday – accompanied by a prominent St Albans lawyer – amounted to trespass.’
The article went on to say, in somewhat less emotive language, that the museum staff are ‘anxious to excavate the site of the well as soon as possible. There is no question of the well being obliterated by the development before it is investigated‘ (my emphasis).
The St Albans Well-wishers were half way there, but obliteration was still assumed by officialdom to be acceptable. A howl of protest ensued in the letters columns, most of it from members and the president of the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society under the headline ‘FOLLY FOR LAYMEN TO TAMPER WITH HISTORY’ in which he denounced the well-wishers as acting with ‘the height of arrogance, folly and irresponsibility – arrogance in usurping the place of the expert, folly in being incapable in their ignorance of adopting proved techniques or proper conservation methods, and irresponsible in RISKING THE DESTRUCTION OF THE VERY THINGS THEY MAY IMAGINE THEY ARE PRESERVING FOR POSTERITY.
In short, they were outraged that the well-wishers had not done exactly as they had done in the circumstances….nothing.
A few weeks later a ‘planning surgery’ was held by the council in the town hall. At this display five options were exhibited for the site. Each of them located a hotel over the top of the well. Of the well itself, the following statement was made;
‘The council is aware of the public’s concern and interest, however the location of the well is uncertain, and only by excavation can we locate and identify the well to see that it is worthy of preservation. A recent trial excavation failed to positively identify the well. The brick structure recently revealed was found to have been built post 1897, although it caps an earlier structure. This feature is further north than the antiquities cross on the ordnance sheets, and further work and deep excavation will be necessary to seek evidence relating it to the holy well. If conclusive evidence is not found it would be extremely costly, entailing deep excavation over a wide area with no guarantee that a recognisable structure remains. Should the well be in a condition where renovation is possible, whether in its eighteenth century form, perhaps a timber lined structure, the district council’s planning brief could insist on retention. If there is no significant trace of the well, a plaque on a nearby building would suffice.’
Obviously, preservation of an existing structure is all that was being considered, not preservation of the site.
Another local resident took the bold step of writing to Archbishop Runcie, erstwhile Bishop of St Albans (remember the bishop?). A few days later he surprised everybody by producing a reply from which I quote;
‘I am aware that there is a problem regarding the Holy Well in St Albans and I have alerted my archaeological friends to keep a close eye on it.’
True to his word a brief excavation was carried out by the museum staff. Afterwards the director of field archaeology was gracious enough to meet those interested, in the local pub, to tell them what he had founds the structure discovered by the unofficial dig was certainly fairly modern as it contained some dated glass from the turn of the century, but it did cover an earlier wooden structure, which in turn may well cover an even older boring. Of more interest they also uncovered a drain leading from this structure down to the river, which proves that a water source was indeed nearby….a pat on the back for the dowser.
Furthermore, ancient wooden post holes were found quite close, which could mark the location of the Saxon town, hitherto undiscovered. Suddenly the site had taken on enormous importance!
The archaeologist was also good enough to state that although he could in no way condone the unofficial dig, he could understand why it took place; largely through lack of communication between the museum staff and the public.
Construction work is well under way on the site, although a hotel is not now to be built. This decision is more political than for any preservation reasons. Despite the district council’s ambitions, a county council survey found that there is no call for a hotel in this location!
Although the building of houses is to be welcomed it has necessitated massive earthmoving work very close to the well, but excavators are held at bay only by a flimsy wooden fence which enclose an area of grass approximately eighty yards square. The Holy Well is sited roughly central to it.
The well has now become overgrown again, and apart from a few people who know where it is, it is difficult to find any trace of it. But plans recently drawn up for the Water Board show the well distinctly marked in its correct location. Alongside the cross is the statement on the drawing that this is the Holy Well, and it is to be preserved as a feature in a children’s play area.
Of official plans to investigate the site further, at going to press we have heard nothing. There are no plans for another unofficial dig. The first one served the purpose for which it was intended, but several people are watching out for the site’s well-being.
Since the above was written in April 1986, an excavation has been carried out at the site. It revealed a well with three different layers of brickwork, dating from periods not so far specified. There is at present no public access to the site but it is believed it will be kept as some kind of public feature. The local Keeper of Field Archaeology has invited Tony Haynes to discuss the site records and details of the excavation.
Text © Tony Haynes (1986)
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