The Cotswold area is justly noted amongst those who visit holy and healing wells as being a notable place, as can be seen from this blog. What is not very well known is that Gloucester itself had a notable well that of St Cynburgh’s Well. It is not mentioned in Ancient wells, springs and holy wells of Gloucestershire by Skyking-Waters (1923) curiously enough as indeed is its legend of how it became holy.
How did the well arise?
St Cynburgh’s Well is recorded in a local legend recorded in a Gloucester Abbey Lectionary, 15th century which is summarised in Historia Monasterii Sancti Petri from 1863–7. It tells how St Cynburgh, vowed to a holy life, fled from her royal family rather than marry. She arrived in Gloucester where she began working for a baker, whose wife was so jealous that she murdered the princess by chopping of her head and threw the body into a nearby well. When the baker, returning home and missing his assistant, he called for her and heard her voice answering from the well.
Miracles at the well
Her body was recovered and buried near it. A chapel was built over the well and it became a site of miracles and a medieval hospital was established at the site. This recorded as being dedicated in 1147, and appears in later records from 1267 onwards, with miracles of healing recorded there; it was near the city wall by the south gate. Archbishop Courtney ordered a new translation in 1390 and when the establishment was finally suppressed in the 1500s a local MP Sir Thomas Bell converted the site to an alms-house called St Kyneburgha’s.
Who was St Cynburga?
The saint behind the legend is a bit of a mystery. She is thought to have been around in the late 600s. It is believed that she was the sister King Osric the founder of St. Peter at Gloucester Monastery. The King appointed his sister, Cyneburga, as the first Abbess of Gloucester. However, there was another St. Cyneburga of Castor in Northamptonshire and it possible they are one and the same. However, how the legend arose based on the association with the monastery is unclear.
A relics of the holy well?
A lead box in Gloucester museum is a curious relic of the saint’s veneration. Said to have come from Woodchester Church it depicts the saint and another local saint said to have been the last Roman Bishop of the town, St Aldate. It is believed to have been used either to hold relics or as a container for holy water. Did it contain water from her well one wonders and as such is the only relic surviving from this site.
A modern remembering of the well
This relic in Gloucester museum was at one time the only remembrance of this holy well then in 2011 an art installation was installed. Part of an £7m project which linked the city centre with the docks is the 16m (53ft) Kyneburgh Tower will was built in Kimbrose Square designed by British sculptor Tom Price to design it stating that according to the BBC New website it:
” told the story of a girl’s journey from life to death and beyond…..I intended it to be both a spectacle and a place for quiet contemplation. Both artworks function like a metaphysical sundial. They point to the invisible histories we rarely seek out, but which permeate the landscape around us.”
They recorded that:
“The artworks will be dedicated by the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Stephen Lake, and the Reverend Canon Nikki Arthy as part of the official opening ceremony.”
Perhaps a Dean who may have stood at a site once frequented by those seeking the holy waters of this lost and lamented holy well.
Our Lady’s Well (SO 814 173) is certainly one of most interesting and picturesquely placed Holy well in Gloucestershire and one of the best near the city of Gloucester, overlooking as it does over the Severn valley. The spring itself issuing from the sand/bunter pebble stratum, probably of glacial origin, and fills the well house overflowing to fed a large stone trough replacing the previous structure.
Traditionally it is believed that the well was built by the Canons of St Mary’s Priory, of Llanthony in the 14th Century ( the ruins of which are presently being restored and can be visited ). However, another tradition asserts that the dedication of this well is that of St Anne, rather than St Mary which we shall explore later. The water of the well was associated with medicinal virtues and cured any ailment bathed within its waters. Indeed as Walters notes it may well have been a place of pilgrimage. Another tradition is that it is referred to as Lady’s Wash house being were the ancient ladies washed!!
An engraving of Our Lady’s Well is given by Maclean 1888–9 who describes it as
“a small cell or chapel erected over a well… The plan is nearly a square of 7 feet, on a wider basement. The east and west ends are gabled; in the latter is an ogee door, and a narrow ogee window of one light. On the east end is some sculpture, which seems to have been a rood. The covered roof is of stone, and the ridge is finished with a rib. The whole is of good ashlar masonry. This little building stands on the side of rather an abrupt slope, overlooking the valley of the Severn. A fine thorn tree which overhangs it adds much to its picturesque beauty.”
The well-house is probably of early fourteenth-century date and made of oolite limestone. The pitched roof, is comprised of large slabs of this stone, of which rebates have been cut to ensure overlap and keep watertight. The north and south sides are plain, however the of the east side are the worn remains of a sculptured carving. Remains of steps are visible on the north and south sides of the structure.
In Maclean’s time this was built in, but afterwards it was opened, being blocked for a time by an iron door
A curious discoverer
Roy Palmer in his 1994 Folklore of Gloucestershire describes a legend that the Virgin herself discovered the spring. On her way to visit Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, her boat was washed up near here by the Severn Bore and climbing the steep slope from the Severn and found the spring. However he is the first to record this most curious of legends!
Who is the carving?
The sculpture on the east side has been variously interpreted. The virgin addressed by kneeling figures was Ashworth (1890) xxx suggestion. Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) xxx :
“the central figure is a woman, probably St. Anne, standing between her daughter St Mary and an angel or perhaps her husband Joachim.”
They say that ‘Mr Hurry of Hempsted Court mentioned a tradition of two children being drowned in this well while bathing’, and the carvings may have been popularly supposed to commemorate this. It has also been suggested that the site was of pre-christian importance and was derived from Wan, the pagan god of fire, later becoming St Ann although the lateness of her cult, which is 14th century suggests not.
Holy Well or Wash House?
The well lay on land belonging to Llanthony Priory as a water supply and the well was thus a conduit. Its alternative name was called Our Lady’s Washhouse and Ashworth (1890) notes that many who washed in the waters were relieved of their infirmities and that this was the reason it was called Lady Well or Lady’s Wash House. Another notes that it was where as Walters (1923) notes:
“it was a place where ancient ladies washed”
They would find it difficult to wash from now as it has been dry. However, the well is still easily found by taking the road to Hempstead before Gloucester and after the roundabout. Take this road and then turn into the road of the church. Park here enter the graveyard and follow to the other end where there is a gate. Enter this follow the path between the hedges and into the field and the well will be quite self-evident.http://www.megalithic.co.uk/a558/a312/gallery/England/Gloucestershire/lady_well_hempsted.jpg