As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.
The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?
An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—
“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”
He was further informed that :
“People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”
An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:
“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”
This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!
Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:
“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”
Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area
In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring she states that:
“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”
And records that:
“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”
Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.
A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.
A rather uninspiring pond in a field outside of Evesham is the site of perhaps one of the most fascinating healing springs in England.
A saintly Simon de Montfort?
Much is written of Simon de Montfort but it short his establishment of two parliaments during his interloping coup against Henry II and short rule he is seen as the father of parliamentary democracy. His death at the Battle of Evesham, which saw the rightful monarchy restored, resulted after miracles were reported at his shrine, to be an politico-religious saint and pilgrimages occurred through the late 1200s. Amongst the cures at his tomb Gunnell of Ketton’s son Harry who took dust from it to cure his paralysis and a hen from Sulgrave, Northants was revived to life!
The miraculous creation of a spring
Not unsurprisingly, what with the evocation of Simon and his miracles at the tomb, attention would turn to the site of his demise or in the eyes of his followers ‘martyrdom’. In the 1840 Halliwell translation of the circa 1280 The Miracles of Simon de Montfort, an account records how a Piers de Saltmarsh in 1274 was travelling in the retinue of William Beauchamp of Elmley, one of the Kings’ supporters over the site of the Battle of Evesham. This is said to have happened before June 1266 it is said. Piers doubted Simon’s saintliness and called on him to prove it by providing them, miraculously, with living waters, Piers then:
“seized a horse’s shoulder blade, and began to dig. God works wonders! Out of that dusty hard ground there shot up a spring of sweet water, high as the hills”.
An interesting precursor to this would appear have to been recorded by William rector of Warrington who is said to have taken away earth from the site of the earl’s death and was able to have a dying man by mixing this with water.
Of course the discovery of the spring need not be that miraculous as William Tindal noted in 1794 the spring was normally dry in summer and was just a depression in the ground. Of course both William and Piers were not local and thus would not be familiar with any intermittent spring in the area.
Miracles and cures at the well
Halliwell (1840) again tells how a‘ contemporary authority’ in the 1270s that:
“some say that there have been many miracles at his tomb, and that on the spot where he was killed there is now an excellent spring which has healed those suffering from all kinds of sickness; but nobody dares tell the world of this, for fear of the King and his party”.
The Miracles of Simon de Montfort tell how between 1274 and 1279 record ten miracles of healing from ‘the Earl Simon’s well’ Alice of Burton Overy Leicestershire merely kept vigil and was cured. However most cures were from drinking or washing themselves in water which was brought to them; water was taken as far as Oxfordshire, Thanet, Dunstable and London. Such were Stephen Aungevin’s young son at Dunstable Bedfordshire, Alexander of Suffolk, a citizen of London although some immobile recipients lived nearer such as Harry Chaunteler of Bretforton and a woman at Elmley Castle. Of her a supplementary miracle is recorded. . She is said to have journeyed with a jug to fill it with the miraculous water for her mistress. However, at the time there was an attempt to stem the cult and visitors to the well. As such some soldiers sent to prevent people visiting stopped her and when they looked inside the jug saw only beer and let her pass. However by the time she gave it to her mistress at Elmley, it contained water!
Certainly large numbers appear to have attended the site, when Ralph of Boklande of Thanet bathed his leg in the well it is said that he was cured:
“in the site of many people.”
It is recorded that people were even carried in carts from as far away as Leicestershire and even London. A ritual was established in which they would drink at the well, and either worship there or at Evesham Abbey. Even animals were cured A winded palfrey ( a docile horse), being rode by the Countess of Gloucester being cured there. The Miracles recording:
“The Countess of Gloucester had a palfrey that had been broken-winded for two years. In returning from Evesham to Tewkesbury, the horse having drunk of the Earl’s Well and having had its head and face washed in the water, recovered of this. The Countess and all her company are witnesses”,
The 1910 Evesham Journal reports that:
“until a very little time ago… there was a belief that this water was very efficacious for weak eyes… People often visited the spring and took water away with them to bathe their eyes’
The establishment of a chapel
Understandably, the well attracted considerable trade and obviously money. Alms being given at the spring by a follower of Simon, Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford around either 1273 or 1279.
Despite a decline in the cult by the 1280s the well’s famed did not die with it and it appease to have survived long after it with a chapel. In 1448 The Brut by Richard Fox, a monk of St Albans it is recorded:
“where the battle and murder was is now a well, and grete elmes stande about the well; there is over the well an hovel of stone (a canopy), and a crucifix and Mary and John”.
This appeared to suggest that something of a wayside cross or Calvary was present there but no other authority records it and there is certainly not trace. By 1457 the site was called Battle Well and in that year Abbot John Wickham’s receiver accounted for the abbots expenditure of one penny there. A flyleaf inscription in a missal of 1489 indicates that:
‘to the chapel of le Battell Welle’.
After the Reformation
The chapel appears to have continued until the Reformation, and the Battle well was still remembers long after. In 1702 a man was fined for ‘nuisance at Battle well’ suggesting either he was disturbing those visiting the site or annoying the landowner in attempting to gain access.
Richard Pococke records in his 1757 Travels records:
‘I walk’d near a measured mile to Battle Wells, in the northern road… They say the battle was in the road…and they told me that they found in the road a vault full of bones, which formerly might be under some chapel’.
William Tindal in their 1794, The History and Antiquities of the Abbey and Borough of Evesham records:
‘a little nearer the town, on the same side, is the spot called Battle-well’,
Nathan Izod names and precisely marks it on his 1827 map and it appears on the 1886 OS map as well. It then lay 120 yards west of the road about 200 yards northwest of the mile post and about 145 yards southwest of the Worcester road junction. Richardson (1927) in their Wells and springs of Worcestershire identifies it as
“simply a field-pond situate at the head of a valley that runs down to the River Avon.”
Cox in his translation of the Chronicle of Evesham Abbey provides a map, and says that:
‘examination of the site in 1961… confirmed that Battlewell at present derives its water from land-drainage, and often dries up completely in Summer. In a rainy season, however, it may be filled’.
As D.C. Cox in their Battle of Evesham a new account records:
“The apparent continuity of the name Battle well from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth and the consistency of the early written references, both with each other and with the nineteenth century maps, make it reasonable to suppose that the present Battle well is the fifteenth century one.”
However they cautiously note:
“Earl Simon’s well, according to the thirteenth century collection of Montfortian miracle stories, lay near the Evesham -Kenilworth road at the top of the hill which the battle was fought. That it was the later and present Battle well cannot be proved but cannot easily be doubted.”
Today one can trace this site quite easily although it is unclear of access rights. The site is free to observe during the annual blessing at the well each August however, A simple spring fed pool but one where history, folklore and belief are intrinsically intertwined.
The seaside Kent town of Folkestone has three notable water sites The first is perhaps the commonest picture postcard available and there are several versions as can be seen here. This is surprising as the site is not particularly well known or celebrated. Indeed its’ provenance may be perhaps a little dubious. This is the Holy Well or St. Thomas’s Well (TR 221 382) is. Its first description by S. J. Mackie in their 1856 Handbook of Folkestone gives the greatest detail and describes the scene around the well:
“Whence we look down its sheep trodden sides into the deep dell, where, sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark un-ruffled waters of Holy Well. Do these raise tracings on the grass cover the remains of some lonely hermitage. The Country people tell you something about the pilgrims to Becket’s Shrine, it is called also St. Thomas’s Well, resting here on their way to Canterbury.”
Watt (1917) in discussion of the town notes in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways:
“..also on the hills above it we have St. Thomas’s Well, but such are scattered all over the district.”
Samuel J Mackie records in 1856 A description and historical account of Folkestone
“Sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark waters of Holy Well Do those raised tracings in the grass cover the remains of some hermitage The country people tell you about the pilgrims to Becket’s shrine it is called St Thomas’s Well resting here on their way to Canterbury I confess it seems to me slightly out of road but there it is and all I can tell about it is there is nothing now to be told.”
In the 1865 an illustrated hand-book to Folkestone and its picturesque neighbourhood by H Stock
“A short distance from this to the immediately at the bottom of Sugar Loaf Hill a remarkable spring of beautiful water known as Well or St Thomas’s Well Why so called saith not By some it is thought that it was resting place of the pious souls who worshipped shrine at Canterbury but how those worthies here cannot be conjectured It is now used as sheepwash”.
This latter point would explain the odd concrete structure, now lost, seen in some postcards.
In the 1925 Wonderful Britain by John Alexander Hammerton he noted:
“Folkestone’s Holy Well, sometimes called St. Thomas’s well…the old highway to Canterbury runs close by and tradition says that pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket used to drink here and that Henry II himself did so when he went to do penance at the Cathedral whose Archbishop he had murdered and martyred.”
When visiting in the 1990s the information board states that the name holy well is a modern name for these springs, and 80 years ago one was called St. Thomas’s Well but the account above disagrees. There appears to be some confusion over the site. Consequently it is difficult to pinpoint the exact site. I was informed by a local in his late 60s that, when he was a boy, the second now dry spring was called Holy Well. The spring arose in a deep gully, now covered with bramble and heavily eroded at the source. However, continuing the path around to the base of the hill, one comes across a large pool, fed by all the springs. This is the site called the Holy Well on an early 1900s postcard. So perhaps there were two sites after all?
When William Parsons of the excellent British Pilgrimage Trust visited the site was largely overgrown and derelict as can be seen here in 2016, he repairing it with some stones found around which may have been part of the original structure.
Next time we shall be exploring Folkestone’s attempt to develop a spa.
Sweden boasts a number of sacred springs or skalla. Many of these are what are called in English sacrifice springs where objects of wealth of deposited. One of the commonest dedications is to St Olof and so we shall explore two of these first.
Who was Sankt Olof ?
Born in 995 in Norway, Olav, Olov or Olof II Haraldsson as the King of Norway, Christianised the country and many miracles were associated with him after his death in 1015. That he was elevated to saints was due to the miracles that were said to have happened after his death. The saint fame spread throughout the Nordic countries and St. Olof’s day, the July 29 is celebrated widely. In the folklore, Olav appears as a patron saint against the pagan evil powers.
St Olof’s well Vasterlanda
The spring may have been a pre-Christian site of sacrifice with the saint’s name being applied to Christianise it in the 1100s. Its water was considered good for eyes being recorded as such in 1693 to cure eye diseases.
The site was a popular pilgrimage site with people coming on the saint’s day, although the church was uncomfortable with the mix of sacredness and drinking. People came to leave money at the spring and poorer people left meat meaning that the spring was often covered with a layer of fat
Famous scientist Carl Linnaeus writes in his Skåne journey:
“The most beautiful party is St. Olof’s day, when the people here storm to a great extent from distant places to interrogate the sermon and to sacrifice.”
St Olof’s Spring, Hallaröd
The information at the site neatly describes it. Its states:
“In the Middle Ages, about 1050-1500 AD, the source cult received a boost and many and special rites were created through the direct involvement of the Catholic Church. After the Reformation, in 1536, the saint’s cult was considered superstitious and primitive. The church was now trying to eradicate it in various ways, but the interest in the sources lived partly, sometimes until the end of the 19th century. It mainly concerned the custom of sacrificing money and drinking and washing in the health-care source water. At the end of the 17th century, the art of healing also began to be interested in health sources and surpluses. The biggest holiday day was of course the day of the holidays on July 29.One offered money or perhaps food and asked for health, prosperity and about the daily bread. Olof also kept beasts, snakes and trolls away from the creature and he protected and blessed the annual growth. The journey to Hallaröd’s sacrificial source was usually concluded with a visit to the market which was held near the church. By the middle of the 18th century, the market was moved to Hörby.”
The Hammarby Kalla
Considered to have considerable healing powers was this source just northwest of the church at Lake Fysingen in Uppland . To secure a cure one would drink seven sips on a triple evening , which is seven days after the Pentecost .Hence the spring was called a triple well. The site was restored in 2011 and re-blessed on Sunday 4th September. People can be baptised and married at the well in the summer.
At the Fagertofta burial ground there is a site where coins were left at Midsummer Spring . It is two meters in diameter and 3 decimeters deep and surrounded by a wooden fence. According to the saying, you drank or washed here during the midsummer night to stay healthy. This is one of the source of sacrifice or Osterkalla were objects of value such as coins would be added. These were often associated with midsummer and youths.
This sacrifice spring was one of the most famed. As the source flowed north it was thought to make the water more magical and healthy and on certain times it had extra healing powers. In “Witchcraft, disbelief and house cures in Danderyd and Lidingö at the year 1783” noted:
A source flowing to the north has wholehearted waters, than the one that flows to other directions […] Near Landsnora Qvarn is such a source, running out of the halle mountain, from there water is collected for the cure of numerous diseases, especially for sick eyes.
It is difficult to imagine that this small and remote village was once the scene of great pilgrimage. The centre of this being St. Faith’s Well (TL 103 303). St Faith also known as Foy, a third century martyr and virgin, burned alive and beheaded at Agen in Gaul, is associated with Saints Hope and Charity. Her body translated to Conques where a splendid shrine and reliquary was established. The saint was popular with pilgrims and crusaders, and one shrine was established at Hasham, near Norwich.
It is believed that the dedication arose due to the land being in the charge of a homesick French monk: hence the church and well shared the same dedication. In 1243, Abbot John assigned the rectory of Hexton to the sacrist of the Abbey, and the revenue was so great that it was shared with the almonry. Indeed the revenue was greater than the parson’s holdings and tithes. The well thus attracted great numbers and an alehouse was established for their benefit, this is now Red Lion cottage next to the school.
Unfortunately, St. Faith’s Well fell afoul of the Reformation, but luckily lord of the manor Francis Taverner, recorded a great deal of details regarding it. Indeed, his description has become a valuable guide to the possible complexity of less recorded sites. He described the well and its position as follows:
“There is a small persell of ground adjoining to the churchyard called St Ffaith’s Wick Court, about a pole in measurement, anciently divided from Malewick by a ditch in the same place now a large moat is made. The greatest parte standing upon a bedde of springs, and undrained was very boggye, towards the churchyard. But the west side of the wick, being higher ground….neer adjoining unto which…the Craftye Priests had made a well.”
The well itself was:
“about a yard deep and very cleere in the bottome, and curbed about. Now over this well, they built a house.”
Pilgrimage to the well involved adulation to an image of the dedicated saint, for he notes that:
“..in this house they placed an image or statue of St Ffaith and a cawsey they had made…. for people to passe, who resorted thither from four and neere to visit our lady and to perform their devotions.”
The well would seem to be beneficial for foot complaints for pilgrims would be:
“… revently kissing a fine colured stone placed on her toe’ which was believed to bestow cures.”
Also the sick would throw something (nothing is specifically described) into the well:
“..which if swamme above they were accepted and there petition granted, but if it sinke, then rejected which the experienced Prieste had arts enove to cause to swymme or sinke according as himselfe was pleased with the partye, or rather with the offering made by the partye.”
It would appear that the priest was able to influence the object like some kind of wizard. Unfortunately, the land was drained and levelled in 1624 being noted that:
“St. Faith’s Well continued as a waste and unprofitable and neglected piece of land till such time as the footpath was turned through the midst of it to the outside on the south by the highway, and their clearing and levelling the ground.”
It is worth noting that the effigy of the saint was dressed and in an old book of churchwarden’s accounts, in the reign of Henry VIII it is noted that:
“that they had delivered unto the St. Faith a cote and a velvet tippet.”
Land lying in Mill Field, called St. Faith’s ½ acre, which associated with the shrine, came to the King’s hands at the dissolution, and is now parcel of the demesnes. The approximate site can be seen to the side of the church, where a small picturesque pool of water is apparent. The collapse of the tower may have been as a result of undermining from the spring.
In our days of heritage protection it seems astounding that single handed one man could remove this great site, but they did. However, the name St Faith’s wick court is remembered and the water from the well still remains it appears to fill the moat but it is a poor replacement for what sounded like a fascinating site in this remote area of Hertfordshire.
Russia boasts hundreds of holy wells or Святой колодец however their history is a troubled one and many suffered from the atheist Soviet regime – pilgrimages were banned, chapels closed and holy wells filled in and destroyed. However, since the fall of the USSR Russia is reviving and restoring these ancient water sources and in this post I thought it would be of interest to followers.
One such example is the Polovinka holy well in the Venerovsky district. The site was associated with the finding of a miraculous icon of the holy martyr Paraskeva Friday, a hermit who named herself after the Lord’s passion day and was persecuted by emperor Diocletian in Roman Iconium in Asia Minor. This was found on the shore of a lake and the transferred to the church in Voznesenka but when the next day the people went to see the icon it was not there but back at the lake. This happened several times. Seen as a sign, the local people dug a well on its bank and over it a chapel and placed the icon within it. The water was blessed and taken by the pilgrims. Large number of pilgrims came and a convent was even established there.
The loss of the site
Then came the Soviets who in 1979 burnt down the church and destroyed the holy well chapel, dismantling the foundation and burying the well. Despite this the memory had not been erased. Priests came with their people in secret to the site where the spring despite the burial still flowed. Over time people became bolder with their visits and then in 1995, three years after the collapse of USSR, remains were found and a restoration of the well was planned. Soon followers with their priests from Tatarsk, Chanov, Chistoozerny and Vengerovo visited. And recently a roof with a dome and cross were placed back over the well.
Hieromonk Dimitry in the Novosibirsk Diocesan Herald (2006, No. 1) describes the pilgrimage of remembrance of Paraskeva Friday, the 9th Friday of Easter:
“Usually visiting pilgrims meet in the morning in the village of Voznesenka. Here at the site of the burnt church a prayer service is served. Then local residents join the pilgrims, after which everyone gets on the buses and goes to Polovinka. Before one kilometer, people go out and with a procession of the cross, with icons and banners, move to the holy well. To meet them come those who came here earlier. A prayer service with water consecration is served at the well and the akathist to the holy martyr Paraskeva is read. Sanctified well water is bottled to all present. Then – a common meal in nature, and in good weather – and pouring fresh, icy water, which relieves fatigue and gives new strength. Everyone’s mood on this day is festive.”
The white well
A similar site is that of the White Well. This too is linked to a miracle working Icon, this time of Nikola Zaraysky. It is said that in 1225 the spring arose when the icon was rested on the ground on its journey from Korsun to Prince Fydor Yurievich being carried by Eustathius a priest. Then in the following centuries the seven centuries, the inhabitants of Zaraysk celebrate the day of St. Nicholas as a religious Orthodox holiday and after visiting the icon in the Cathedral a procession would form of those visiting the spring head. Its waters were said to be good for those suffering mental and physical suffering. This custom like above died out in the days of the USSR. Then in 2002 a new wooden chapel, called Nikolskaya, was built above the spring with stairs down to the springhead. A special spring filled plunge bath was constructed Now every year on August 11, processions have returned with people from all over Russia coming for its waters.
New wells for old
The restorations of Russia’s sacred wells continues and new holy wells constructed. In Birobidgan, a new holy well has been built in association with St. Innocent Convent on its 220th anniversary a well will be built and opened.
A report states that:
“The territory of the monastery was chosen for the first source of holy water in the Birobidzhan diocese because the water in the territory of the village of Razdolnya is very qualitative in terms of physico-chemical indicators,” said Bishop Efrem of Birobidzhan and Kuldur. – It is located close to the surface of the earth – the wells of local residents are usually four to five meters deep.”
The process involved:
“The rite of consecration “treasure” was held in front of the relics of St. Innocent, which on this occasion were brought from the Annunciation Cathedral, where they are stored permanently. Prayer was held by Vladyka Ephraim, who asked the Lord to give the water “sweet and tasty, satisfied to the needy, and harmless to the reception.”
This new wall will have concrete walls and an hexagonal wooden frame over it with a dome.
Russia restoring and creating holy wells in equal measure. A superb place for the religious tourist
Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site
Who was St. Decumen?
Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion. There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.
St Decumen’s martyrdom.
The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:
‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’
They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:
“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.
However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell. It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.
Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!
The holy well
Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that
“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.
This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.
Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.
Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!
In this second and final part I shall examine the other noted springs on the edge. Mention Alderley Edge to anyone interested in folklore and if they are worth their salt they will recall the legend of the sleeping knights. This legend involves a wizard and it first appeared in print in the Manchester Mail in 1805 the source being a servant of the Stanleys, Thomas Broadhurst who was also known as ‘Old Daddy’:
“According to this veteran the tradition says that once upon a time a farmer from Mobberley, mounted on a milk-white horse, was crossing the Edge on his way to Macclesfield to sell the animal. He had reached a spot known as the Thieves’ Hole, and, as he slowly rode along thinking of the profitable bargain which he hoped to make, was startled by the sudden appearance of an old man, tall and strangely clad in a deep flowing garment. The old man ordered him to stop, told him that he knew the errand upon which the rider was bent, and offered a sum of money for the horse. The farmer, however, refused the offer, not thinking it sufficient. ‘Go, then, to Macclesfield,’ said the old man, ‘but mark my words, you will not sell the horse. Should you find my words come true, meet me this evening, and I will buy your horse.’ The farmer laughed at such a prophecy, and went on his way. To his great surprise, and greater disappointment, nobody would buy, though all admired his beautiful horse. He was, therefore, compelled to return. On approaching the Edge he saw the old man again. Checking his horse’s pace, he began to consider how far it might be prudent to deal with a perfect stranger in so lonely a place. However, while he was considering what to do, the old man commanded him, “Follow me!” Silently the old man led him by the Seven Firs, the Golden Stone, by Stormy Point, and Saddle Bole. Just as the farmer was beginning to think he bad gone far enough he fancied that he heard a horse neighing underground. Again he heard it. Stretching forth his arm the old man touched a rock with a wand, and immediately the farmer saw a ponderous pair of iron gates, which, with a sound like thunder, flew open. The horse reared bolt upright, and the terrified farmer fell on his knees praying that his life might be spared. “Fear nothing,” spoke the Wizard, “and behold a sight which no mortal eye has ever looked upon.” They went into the cave. In a long succession of caverns the farmer saw a countless number of men and horses, the latter milk-white, and all fast asleep. In the innermost cavern heaps of treasure were piled up on the ground. From these glittering heaps the old man bade the farmer take the price he desired for his horse, and thus addressed him: “You see these men and horses; the number was not complete. Your horse was wanted to make it complete. Remember my words, there will come a day when these men and these horses, awakening from their enchanted slumber, will descend into the plain, decide the fate of a great battle, and save their country. This shall be when George the son of George shall reign. Go home in safety. Leave your horse with me. No harm will befall you; but henceforward no mortal eye will ever look upon the iron gates. Begone!” The farmer lost no time in obeying. He heard the iron gates close with the same fearful sounds with which they were opened, and made the best of his way to Mobberley.”
Alderley Edge is littered with old mine openings and anyone retelling this story would have a number of such caves to refer to. But what does this have to do with wells or springs you may ask. Well the location of these iron gates was said to be somewhere between Stormy Point and the Holy Well, which I discussed in the previous post. However, also on the edge is an evocative spring called the Wizard’s Well. Indeed, when I first visited the landscape I was unaware of the other springs, this being the principle one. The Wizard’s Well has upon it a carved face and a legend which reads:
“Drink of this and take thy fill for the water falls by the Wizhard’s will”
The Wizard’s face is aid to be the work of a local stone mason, Robert Garner, the great-great grandfather of local renowned author Alan Garner who utilised the legends of Alderley Edge for his The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, it is said he also collected his pocket money from the coins left at the well. Interestingly there is another caved face on the track towards Caste rock. When exactly the Wizard’s face was carved is unknown but it was mentioned in an 1843 guide book. The inscription was believed to have been added by a Mr Simeon Slater of Leigh Lancashire. The Wizard’s Well flow is very slight but beneath the face is a stone trough which is nearly always full.
Despite the relatively modern landscape improvement feel of the Wizard’s well, carved at the same time as the Stone circle on the edge, there is something otherworldly of it.
The final site is the Wishing well of which, despite getting confused with the Holy well and Wizard’s well, has title tradition associated with it. An account on Alderley Edge.org notes:
“I have it on the authority of a local guide that the Wishing Well is indeed the circular well a few yards below the Holy Well but the two often get mixed up. He likes to believe that passers-by will get 7 years bad luck unless they place a rhododendron leaf in the fissure. The Wishing Well is likely to have pagan links but does not relate to the hollow which predates it. Miners probably created the hollow as a trial working when searching for ore minerals such as copper.”
The well is also called de Trafford Well indicating the author of its creation Alan Garner has linked the cave to the landscape improvements in the eighteenth century as the cave was cut to resemble a hermit’s cave.
This month we have the letter q which restricts us to one country! Fortunately, Qater does have some historical water supplies. However details are limited and so this month is a rather shorter blog post so apologies.
In the dry terrain of Qatar water was understandably an essential resource. However, like many places modern water systems have meant that the 107 ancient wells of the country have slowly been lost and forgotten. One of the most significant is Ain Hleetan Well.
Found on the west coast of Al Khor, Ain Hleetan Well was the principle source of the Al Mahanda or Al Muhannadi tribe of the city of Al Khor settled in the 18th century. A local legend states that a group of hunters were hunting a hare and found the spring, which sounds like a classic folklore motif but details are lacking. More realistically, a new water supply was needed as the city expanded. Al Khor towers were built in 1900 to defend this well.
The water arises in a circular well head and then fills a cylindrical basin. Locally people called it the ‘Doctor’ as its water were believed to be curative according to old oral sources. Details of which are difficult to find though.
The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part two): Hoxne, Suffolk
Last month we discussed the history and location of St Edmund’s springs or well at Hunstanton at the site where the saint arrived in England, in this post we move forward to the time of Edmund’s martyrdom and to Hoxne, a place said to be historically associated with that event.
The Martyrdom of King Edmund
Edmund’s death is recorded by his chronicler Abbo occurring at Haeglisdun. Although Hellesdon near Norwich or Bradfield St Clare, where there is a Heelesdon ley near Bury, are perhaps phonetically more likely sites. Neither have any folklore associations only Hoxne. Which is said to be associated with the account as early as 1101 has a tree, woods, chapel, holy well and bridge connected with the King. Aside from the spring there are or rather were four sites associated with the saint – a chapel, a woods, a tree and a bridge.
The most notable being the tree and the bridge. Of the bridge called Goldbrook Bridge, it is said that the saint hid from the Danes, however his golden spurs glinting in the water were seen by a newly-wed couple who thus gave him away to the Danes. As he was dragged to his martyrdom he cursed all wedding couples who would cross the bridge and well into the 19th century, wedding corteges would go the long way around.
Of the tree a more direct link exists to his death. For on the 20th November 869 Edmund was captured by the Danes and tortured being tied to a tree, shot with arrows, speared with javelins and scourged and then beheaded. Hoxne claims the tree:
“DEAR Sir, I send you the particulars which I able to collect respecting the St Edmund’s Oak which was a remarkable tree and full of was entirely demolished on the llth of any apparent cause the trunk was shivered pieces and the immense limbs with the all round in a very remarkable manner The of the trunk were 12 feet in length 6 feet 20 feet in circumference it contained about St timber and the limbs 9 leads 11 foot of excellent the branches which spread over 48 yards yielded four loads of battens and 184 faggots.”
I examined the trunk carefully and found the an arrow partly corroded projecting from the inside of the hollow part of the trunk about 4 or 5 feet from which part had warted nearly feet quite inside of the tree and Wes perfectly decayed arrow and was covered a little more than a foot sound wood the annual ring or layer shewing of more than 1000 years as near as can be made.”
Now at the site of this tree is a monument reading:
“‘St. Edmund the Martyr, AD 870. Oak Tree fell August 1848 by its own weight.”
The other wood association is Home wood which the account above records where was found between the legs of a wolf the:
“adjacent head of St Edmund was supposed to have been was cleared many years ago”
What of the chapel? Well there were two one at the site of his death at Cross Street and another in a wood called Sowood possibly where the head was found. Only 80 years after his death, Hoxne had become a see of the church and by 1226 a priory was founded. All suggesting Hoxne was important.
Will the correct site reveal itself?
Like at Hunstanton tracking down the true location of St. Edmund’s Springs or Well is problematic as again multiple sites via for its location. Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 notes of:
“ST EDMUND’S OAK ……inexhaustible character of the spring of water which is tabled we to have miraculously flowed from the place the head of the martyr lay may we have no doubt explained by natural causes.”
This source most certainly places it in the same field:
“There is also a spring of the spot where the St Edmund’s tree grew which of the field have never been able to divert”
This is the site stated by Burgess (1988) Crosses and holy wells of Norfolk and Suffolk being a stagnant pond enclosed in trees, twenty yards from the memorial cross marking the location of the tree the saint was martyred on. The author states that it was used by pilgrims visiting the site of the saint’s supposed martyrdom which does appear to be a more likely location.
Yet Taylor (2016) places it as a spring said to arise on an island in a moated pond stating:
“Near Hoxne in Suffolk – one possible site for Edmund’s martyrdom – is a deep moat enclosing a small island on which the very same freshwater spring was said to be found.”
This is now enclosed in the grounds of a modern house but fieldwork cannot indicate a spring and the island itself is inaccessible. Unfortunately no one was in to ask.
Another source, states that it was enclosed in a modern well house to the North of Abbey Farm. In the Historic England entry for Hoxne Abbey it is recorded that: “
“There was also a cistern, presumably to collect water for domestic use, and a well known as St Edmund’s Well.”
This I presume is the small tile pitched roof brick square structure beside the drive to the house. This is engulfed in briars and close inspection was difficult.
Interesting it does not appear to have been referred to as St Edmund’s Well and it appears Burgess (1988) is the first to record this name. It is worth noting also absent in Jeremy Harte’s (2008) English holy wells. However, a possible fourth location was indicated by the manager of a business close to the Abbey Farm, a building built 15 years ago was placed over a copious spring which made its construction difficult. It was filled with concrete.
Head and spring?
The Eastern Counties Magazine & Suffolk Note-Book’ records something interesting that the :
“freshwater spring, said to have emerged on the spot where Edmund’s head was found between the paws of a grey wolf.”
Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 records also:
“the character of the spring of water which is tabled to have miraculously flowed from the head of the martyr lay may we have no be explained by natural causes”
Now this is an interesting part of the legend which compares favourably hagiographically speaking with many holy wells where the head lands on the ground a spring arises. A spring arose where St Alban’s head fell after decapitation, St Juthware’s well, Dorset, St Osyth’s Essex, St Kenelm’s at Client and even a recent one that of St Thomas’s well at Windleshaw from a Roman Catholic decapitated in the protestant persecutions. It looks like we can add St Edmund’s Spring to this list.
A lost pre-Saxon saint?
It is thought that these associations with the saint and particularly the legend of Goldbrook Bridge are later embellishments and it is possible that the account recorded above of the tree in the Gentlemen’s magazine may have been a concoction of the writer of that piece especially as he even calls it Belmore’s oak. So it begs the question why? Does this mean the spring at Hoxne is not holy? I think no and I think it hides something more interesting perhaps; the record of a pre-Saxon probably Celtic hermit saint. All the clues are there; the island an ideal hermitage location with its spring, the bridge curse, curses being associated with hermit saints to discourage visitors and of course the decapitation a common motif (which many have argued indicate the survival of a head cult but this is debatable). Did local memory of a saint survive long enough into the Norman conquest to have the Saxon saint’s story be grafted onto the holy landscape as a sort of patriotic response?