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A Hebrew holy well? The mysterious Synagogue Well of Frodsham, Cheshire

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Lying in a public park in a small town in Cheshire is a curiously named holy well. My first attempt to find the site in the 1990s was unsuccessful but it is reassuring that a return in 2014 not only found the park it lies in being much improved but now there were signposts to the well.

The Synagogue Well is perhaps uniquely named in the country a point I shall refer to later. Charles Hope in his 1893 notes:

The Synagogue Well, evidently one of great antiquity, and, before an attempt was made to improve it, of most picturesque appearance, is in the grounds of Park Place, Frodsham, late belonging to Joseph Stubs, Esq.”

Hope’s claim that it was of great antiquity however does not appear to easy to substantiate. However it certainly attracted antiquarian interest, William Beaumont in his 1888 An Account of the Ancient Town of Frodsham in Cheshire records in comparison to a similar site in the county:

“Such a fount there is at Frodsham, called ‘The Synagogue Well,’ which sends forth waters as copious and as limpid as that once frequented by Numa. It seems as if such a fount was necessary near an ancient castle; for as this fount rises close to the site of Frodsham Castle, so at the foot of Beeston Castle there is a similar spring. They both spring from the living rock, and both have a large square stone basin to receive the surplus water as it flows away.”

A poet’s romantic origin

In an unusual feature for a holy well, the site was immortalized in a poem which records:

“THE SYNAGOGUE WELL

The Roman, in his toilsome march, Disdainful viewed this humble spot, And thought not of Egeria’s fount And Numa’s grot.

No altar crowned the margin green, No dedication marked the stone; The warrior quaffed the living stream And hasten’d on.

iii.

Then was upreared the Norman keep, Where from the vale the uplands swell But, unobserved, in crystal jets The waters fell.

In conquering Edward’s reign of pride, Gay streamed his flag from Frodsham’s tower, But saw no step approach the wild And sylvan bower ;

Till once, when Mersey’s silvery tides Were reddening with the beams of morn, There stood beside the fountain clear A man forlorn;

And, as his weary limbs he lav’d In its cool waters, you might trace That he was of the wand’ring tribe Of Israel’s race.

vii.

With pious care, to guard the spring, A masonry compact he made, And all around its glistening verge Fresh flowers he laid.

viii.

“God of my fathers!” he exclaimed, Beheld of old in Horeb’s mount, Who gav’st my sires Bethesda’s pool And Siloa’s fount,

Whose welcome streams, as erst of yore, To Judah’s pilgrims never fail, Tho’ exil’d far from Jordan’s banks And Kedron’s Vale

Grant that when yonder frowning walls, With tower and keep are crush’d and gone; The stones the Hebrew raised may last, And from his Well the strengthening spring May still flow on! “

A Jewish Mikveh, consonantal drift or folly bath?

Despite the poet’s assertion that “he was of the wand’ring tribe, Of Israel’s race.” and that: “The stones the Hebrew raised may last” relics of Britain’s Jewish heritage are scant and any site associated with them historically is of course of great interest and importance. But is Frodsham Castle’s an example? Such baths have been uncovered which were originally ritual baths called Mikveh or Mikvah was this site one? It might be convenient to associate the site with a Jewish community attached to Frodsham Castle. However, there no evidence of a community ever being located there or in the more likely medieval Chester.

So where does the name come from? Beaumont (1888) records that:

“Some have suggested that Saint Agnes was its’ patron, and that thence it won its name.”

This belief is recorded on the current sign beside the well but the name itself is problematic. The majority of St. Agnes dedications appear to associated with late or spurious holy wells such as St. Agnes at Cothelstone where legends of love-lorn visits are linked – all Victorian romantic stuff. The clue to the origin of the well is again recorded by Beumont who states:

“The basin of that at Horsley is called a bath, and, as might be expected, the Synagogue well was also called, for once there was a curate at Frodsham who was an inveterate bather, and he resorted thither every morning and bathed in the well even when it was frozen over, and he had to break the ice before he could have his invigorating bath. But he was of a swimming family, and his father, Sir Lancelot Shadwell, Master of the Rolls, might often be seen leading his seven sons in a swim down the Thames.”

This suggests that the site was probably a plunge pool or cold bath folly. Indeed the steps down in one corner suggest this and the sandstone fabric does not look old enough to be anything of antiquity. Perhaps one of the bathers was Jewish at some point and a local joke developed? Unlikely.

Another option may be that the chamber was the water supply for the castle or great houses. Similar basins exist associated with castles such as Wollaton Hall’s, coincidentally called the Admiral’s Bath due a local resident bathing in it, despite it being a water supply at the time!

Perhaps now the site is no longer being used a receptacle for garden waste, more research may be done to reveal the details.

The veneration of water in 12 objects ….number two Lindow Man and the Bog People

Not sure it is wise describing the remains of people as objects…although some would argue many museums do…indeed, the display of such objects has caused some controversy and that one of these bog relics has understandably now been removed from exhibit.

A mistaken murder

Lindow Museum in the London Museum  Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

Lindow Museum in the London Museum
Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

On the 13th May 1983, commercial peat cutters on Lindow Moss near Wilmslow, Cheshire made a grim discovery, parts of a human skull with hair! Bizarrely, overhearing this discovery was Peter Reyn-Barn, who had long be suspected of murdering his wife in the 1950s but no evidence was ever found. He thought that the ‘jig was up’ and confessed, stating that he had buried her in his back garden which backed onto the bog! The remains were later to be dated to 250AD. He was charged even though this evidence was revealed before the trial, he had confessed after all. Significant perhaps over a year later 1st August 1984, these peat cutters found an even grimmer discovery: the remains of another body, strangled, throat cut and head beaten in. Again not Beyn-Fern wife, her body was never found, but a man of his mid 20s, the most complete bog person found in the UK.  The evidence of two bodies in this area of peat bog was strong evidence of a ritual significance to the peoples in the area over 2000 years ago.

Why peat bogs?

Compared to springs, peat bogs and marshes provide an interesting contrast. They provide water but it would have been generally inaccessible to prehistoric peoples as a source of drinking water, yet they emphasized the very mystery of watery areas; the giving of water by the mother earth. Thus it is perhaps understandable that ritual activities would focus here where the water was less utile but still as unwordly.

Lindow Moss copyright Roger Gittins

Lindow Moss
copyright Roger Gittins

Why was he sacrificed?

Sadly although the majority of authorities agree these are the remains of sacrifices, little supporting evidence survives beyond them. Was he a significant member of the group This is more due to the fragmentary nature of such cultural survivals. One view is that it may be linked to the Celtic head cult, a cult I shall return to again in this blog. Date wise this would be concurrent with the Celtic period when this was undertaken. Who they were sacrificed to is unclear. Anne Ross quoted in Joy’s 2009 book on Lindow Man suggests that the three forms of execution, may suggest different offerings to different gods. Glob (1969) in The Bog People notes:

“the rope nooses which several of the bog people carry round their necks, and which  caused their deaths, are a further sign of sacrifice to the goddess Nerthus. They are perhaps replicas of the twisted neck-rings which are the mark of honour of the goddess, and a sign of consecration to her. The neck-ring is expressly the sign of the fertility goddesses of the period.”

It was Roman Tacitus who recorded that she was celebrated by remote Suebi tribes in Germania. Nerthus was an Anglo-Norse Goddess of fertility which it would be likely transferred to England in the early pagan period of the colonisation, but evidence is scant I believe. Some have suggested it was an opportunist murder. But of course we really may never know. Joy notes:

“The jury really is still out on these bodies, whether they were aristocrats, priests, criminals, outsiders, whether they went willingly to their deaths or whether they were executed – but Lindow was a very remote place in those days, an unlikely place for an ambush or a murder.”

However, again as Glob (1969) notes murder and ritual sacrifice are not so far apart: often murderers would be sacrificed to atone for their guilt and again Tacitus notes:

“cowards, poor fighters and notorious evillivers are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads.”

Dieck (1963) in The Problem with Bog People has recorded 690 bog bodies, the majority in North-western Europe, the stronghold of the Celts. Glob (1969) in The Bog People records 41 bodies recovered across England and Wales. 15 Scotland, as well as 19 Ireland in bogs, although few are as well preserved as Lindow Man found after his work of course. Less well known is the fact that over 20 years early in August 1958, a severed head was found. This again was thought be a recent murder but primitive chemical tests and X rays suggested at least 100 years. Post Lindow analysis showed him too to show evidence of a ritual killing with remains of a garrotte, although some believed it to be a necklace, from the late Iron Age-Romano British period and was again around 20-30 years old.  The English remains which exist from a window of 1st to 4th centuries is interesting. Indeed The 150 years between the death of Lindow and Worsley man, is a period spanning the late Iron-Age to Roman occupation. What is interesting is that pre-Roman rituals were still clearly being undertaken in a period of occupation, after of course the Romans had outlawed it. It gives support to the survival of any pre-Christian ritual into Christianized times perhaps. What is fascinating about the Lindow Man and his other ‘bog people’ is that they provide a real tangible link to ancient water worship even if we never find out the true reasons for his murder.

A secluded well and chapel: Chadkirk’s St Chad’s Well and Chapel

Nestling in a quiet valley beneath the suburban overspill of Stockport is Chadkirk chapel and its well, protected in this cocoon in a country park.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (3)

A picturesque chapel

The first record of the Chapel is around 1306, but by the early 16th century it was referred to as a Chantry Chapel with a Chaplain, Ralph Green, in Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535. This suggests a pre-Reformation chapel on the site perhaps nearer the well. However by 1621 when William Webb wrote about the Macclesfield Hundred he noted:

“At the foot of Werneth Low, towards the merzey, lies an old dearn and deavly chappell, so people call desert places out of company and resort: called Chad Chappell where seems to have been a monkish cell.”

An archaeological survey undertaken in 1994 showed that there was a previous chapel on the site which was the same size. The present chapel is aligned east west and is a simple two cell building much in keeping with an Anglo-Saxon style. The oldest part was revealed to be the north and east walls of the chancel. Upon these stone walls is a wooden frame in traditional Cheshire black and white style.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (6)

Is it an ancient well?

Middleton (1939):

“A picturesque well near the chapel – its walls built of rubble stone, covered with moss and ferns – bears the name of St Chad’s Well, or the Holy Well, and is traditionally said to have been the scene of miraculous cures.”

Despite this it is a problematic well, as it is first named in 1872 on the first Ordnance Survey. A stone found in a garden nearby at Romiley is mentioned on the information display board at the well is linked to the ancient British head cult, it shows three heads and its tentatively linked to the well…very I would say.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (4)The guide, A Short history of Chadkirk Chapel says:

“The well was probably here before that time but these small details were sometimes missed off the maps.”

The well house was probably built around 18th -19th century and is built of sandstone blocks having a doorway with a flat lintel where there is evidence of both inner and outer door. It was probably roofed protecting it. Three steps step down into a rectangular well chamber, with a chamber measuring 1.8m x 1.6m. The wells seem to have been repaired or renovated several times in the past.

Every year since 1998 at the end of July a well dressing of the Derbyshire style has been produced and it is opened by the Mayor and is associated with the very popular festival.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (5)St Chad's Well and Chapel (7)

What about St. Chad?

The earliest reference to the saint is possibly in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Cedde’ although some believe that this refers to Cheadle. There is a tradition that the saint visited the area, but there is no direct evidence. Sadly, this is a trend quite common in wells associated with this saint.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (10)