One of the first holy wells that I discovered in my first forays into the subject was the variously named site which hides itself beneath the old leper hospital at Harbledown. Having my appetite whetted by journeys in the west country I was eager to find similarly romantic sites in the east and the well did not disappoint.
Like many sites in those days I had read of it bit not seen a picture, so I was very pleased to see the spring emerging at the foot of the hill enclosed in a six foot high semicircular domed well head made from Kentish rag stone and surrounded by brightly coloured flowers.
The well was noted as being able to cure leprous ailments, and presumably this is why the leper hospital was built in 1084 by Archbishop Lanfranc to exploit its properties, although this is not recorded. Why the Black Prince? It is the only well associated with the would-be monarch and joins a select group of well connected with royalty which have ‘religious’ and healing connotations.
The reason by for it is said that amongst its many early pilgrims looking for a cure for this complaint was Edward the Black Prince, who patronised the well twice: the first on his last journey to Canterbury, when he was cured, and then finally, on his death bed in 1376. Unfortunately in this latter case the waters were obviously of no use, being unable to rid him of his syphilis, of which he died. The well subsequently named after the knight.
It would appear previously and not unsurprisingly it had been named after nearby Canterbury’s holi blissful martyr Thomas Becket. For Canterbury pilgrims, it was their first view of the great Cathedral and so it have become a significant watering hole before they made the last steps to that great Shrine of St. Thomas. According to Francis Watt (1917) in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways this was the seventh St. Thomas’s Watering at Harbledown – one of a whole list stretching the Pilgrim’s way. It still bears the alternative name of St. Thomas’s Well, a dedication unlike other sites would seem to be related to be a direct relationship, for it is recorded that he drunk from the well, accidentally leaving a shoe. Understandably, after the martyrdom, this became an important relic, and was held by the Hospital. It is also from this well that Henry II being responsibly for Becket’s murder walked barefoot into Canterbury where he was flogged by all the bishops as part of his penance. He also Henry II established an annual 40 marks grant to the leper hospital which apparently is still paid by the City Treasury today apparently.
For those unable to drink straight from the well, water was often administered to those living far from it. Evidence for this being the discovery of a leather pouch found near the well. Indeed, even the early part of this century the water was still used, especially by those from afar, for H. Snowdon Ward (1904) Tales of Canterbury Pilgrimages remarks that:
“the water is still in some repute for its curative powers. The sub-prior of the hospital told us that he still occasionally receives small remittances from various parts of the continent…”
Julian Mary Cartwright (1911) The Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury illustrates that its local reputation was still current before the Great War. He records that it was:
‘still believed by Country folks to be of great benefit to the eyes.’
Most interesting a carved stone, in its central apse, depicts the Black Prince’s coat of arms, three feathers taken from the King of Bohemia at Crecy. This stone appears to have been possibly derived from another structure rather than being carved especially for the well head, as do the fluted stones shown in earlier photos (cf Goodsall (1968) in his Kentish Patchwork), which are now apparently missing. An 1836 woodcut shows a circular basin above the lower step and a venerable old tree growing from its roof.
Either side of the well head are two courses of rag stone walling. The well is reached by a series of stone steps between two courses of stone walling. The water emerges, as a small trickle, through a five inch diameter red clay pipe, flowing to fill a circular basin. Often it is dry. Yet it is c
ertainly the well is one of the most interesting and enchanting of Kent wells.
(taken from the Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent)
Directions: The Black Prince’s Well is found to the right of a path that curves around past the Leper Hospital / almshouses, and through the forecourt of a house.