A Royal visit – Queen Elizabeth’s Well at Rye
As this April, we mark 90 years old Elizabeth II, I thought it is worth looking at a well associated with her famed same named ancestor, Queen Elizabeth I. She as we have seen has been associated with quite a number of wells and springs, so many to suggest that perhaps a cult was developed to capitalise on her. One of the most interesting is situated in a private garden of a house in Rye. Called the Queen’s Well or Queen Elizabeth’s Well it was one of the principal source of water for the extensive conduits of the town. It arises at the base of grey stone walling in a semi-circular hole. A keystone over well reads:
The origin of the name is said to have derived from the Queen’s visit in 1573 when she met Thomas Walsingham and the Jurats of the town. The story is recorded by William Holloway (1847) The History and Antiquities, of the Ancient, Town and Port of Rye, In The County of Sussex, Incidental Notices of the Cinque Ports, Compiled from Manuscripts and Original Authorities in his who records:
“in a northerly direction, beneath a high bank, once a wild and sequestered spot, and still overshadowed by some ancient oaks, rises a perennial spring of clear and sweet water, honoured with the high and royal appellation of ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Well,’ from the circumstance of her Majesty, in one of her progresses through the kingdom, having visited Rye, when she halted at this spot, either to drink of the water which flowed from this spring, or for the purpose of receiving the corporation of the town, when the mayor and jurats went in procession out of the town to receive her, clad in scarlet robes.
Whereupon the queen, as Jeake says, “from the noble entertainment she had, accompanied with the testimonies of love and loyalty, duty and reverence she received from the people, was pleased to call it ‘Rye Royal.’”
Adam’s. 1925 London noted that:
“The event was not recorded until 1588, when two stones were placed over the head of the spring, bearing the following inscription : “1588E.R.” (signifying Elizabeth Regina) ; and ” M. Gaymer, Maior” (Michael Gaymer, who was Mayor when the stones were put up). There is a traditionary report that the members of the Corporation went out of the town in procession, clad in scarlet robes, to-‘ receive and welcome Her Majesty, she probably halting for this purpose at the spring above mentioned, afterwards entering the town by the Postern Gate, which then faced the road leading to this spot.”
Interestingly Holloway (1847) notes:
“But though the year is thus distinctly inscribed on this stone as being 1588, yet Jeake sets down the date of the queen’s coming to Rye in 1573. How these dates are to be reconciled I know not, unless we conclude, which seems to be the case, that her Majesty came to Rye in 1573, while the event was not recorded until 1588.”
Lost traditions of the well?
Deacon (1911) in his Ancient Rye raises some interesting points. Why did Elizabeth process from the well? Was it recording a tradition that the Jurats of the town knew of?
Furthermore, the 1588 dedication is interesting. Why did it take so long from her 1564 visit till then to name the well? The answer is easier probably because in the euphoria of the Armada celebration many sites were probably dedicated to the Queen as a mark of solidarity.
It is interesting to note that the house, Mountsfield, beside the well was built upon land donated by Elizabeth and the owners allowed local people to use the land for festivals and I wonder whether this is significant. A point I will refer to in a moment. Lost healing well?
Another name for the well is Dodeswell, which derives from O.E dowde for a ‘plain woman, a scold or shrew’, presumably describing the women who gathered there! Moreover were these women local white witches one wonders who knew the powers of the well? In L. A. Vidler’s 1934 book ‘A New History of Rye’ states that the alternative name for the well was ‘Blekewell’ rather than ‘Brekewell’, so it probably does not refer to the bricked nature of the well, but from O.E bleke, referring to the ‘blay’ a freshwater fish. Alternatively it may refer to bleak meaning in medieval times pale or sickly, rather than its common usage today. Does this suggest the well was curative? Another piece of potential evidence is recorded in 1762, when an acre of Brickwell field was leased to for the building of an isolation house for smallpox victims. Is this still coincidence? Did Elizabeth stop because she knew of the healing waters? Another rather more prosaic alternative origin is from a local landower, there was a Thomas Blekewelle living in the town in 1459. Whether it was a holy well is unclear, it appears to have soon fallen out of domestic use in the 1800s as Holloway (1847) notes that:
“Queen Elizabeth’s Well is about four hundred and eighty yards from the foot of Conduit hill, where the Postern gate formerly stood. The well was always visible from the road which passes by it till the year 1843, when a wall was erected which excluded it from the public view.”
Deacon (1911) notes that in 1858, Mr Curteis, owner of Grove Cottage, where the well lies was asked by the Borough Treasurer to deposit a keys so that the public could see the well. I am not sure that such an arrangement exists today but I was lucky to find the owner in when I called and the well was in full flow overfilling the small semi-circular dip hole filling a small pool and then into a round brick built conduit house. Comparing with early photos the well has changed a bit. The wall remains the same, although the plaques may have moved, it is the square hatch at the basin covered by a wooden lid, which has markedly has gone, being filled with stonework to match the wall. This access appears to have been replaced by the dip well which does not appear to exist in the early photos. I have been unable to find out when it was done.
I am sure there is much to be learnt about this ancient Sussex well but holy, healing or just politically famous, the old Queen’s Well is at least a great memorial to a time of political and religious change.