Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
If you walk into Peterchurch, Herefordshire, one of the most intriguing images is found high on the wall – a trout with a chain around its neck. This image, a sculptured stone painting, said to have been copied from an older one, has been associated with a local legend, which has resonance elsewhere. Hope (1893) in his Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“Tradition has it that a fish was once caught in the river Dore, with a golden chain round its body, which was afterwards kept in the Golden Well, from whence the river rises.”
Although in some cases, a nearby well St. Peter’s, newly restored or simply the river Dor itself is given as the source. The image is much copied locally, especially by the school. However, is it really associated with a well? Wells and fish, sacred usually and often prophetic can be found in places as far away as North Wales to Cornwall, a names like Fish Well in Lincolnshire are also given as support for a cult associated with fish in wells. Over the years the simply story has been elaborated upon. The chain in Christian imagery is associated with St. Peter (again with a nearby well) and he is claimed to have placed it there, whilst he and fellow apostle St. Paul converted the locals – the name Apostle Lane.
However, the story goes further for the fish was supposed to live in the pool the people of Dorstone tried to capture it and steal it chain and so injured it made its way to Peterchurch, where one would expect perhaps it would receive refuge, but no, it was killed and the chain removed.
What does this story mean? Is there any truth to it? Well yes and no. It seems likely that the fish escaped from some local paradise ponds or fisheries on the river probably owned by the monks of Abbey Dore. Records show that three existed on the Dore and no doubt in times of shortage local people might attempt to liberate them. It may also be possible that these fisheries caught fish travelling up the river, such as salmon and they could have been chained up to prevent removal? I think that’s perhaps unlikely and the chain element may have been introduced to validate its association with St. Peter. The well association is the vaguest but perhaps the source was the fishery or else there is another less fishy story lost in the legend.
St Edith’s Well, Stoke Edith
This is a substantial spring head arising in a square pool and beside a niche and then flowing into a large brick-lined bathing pool. Over the whole structure is a stone arch. The spring was said to have been formed when the Saxon saint, the daughter of King Edgar, was carrying water from a nearby brook to mix with the mortar so that the church could be built, but became exhausted, prayed for water and the spring arose. The pool was used for healing, although this did not stop the Lady of the Manor, Emily Foley, installing a grill inside the arch preventing locals using it. However this grill is now open, although it would be a bit of a squeeze, as only part of the grill fully opens.
Higgin’s Well, Little Birch
In what could be described as the muddiest lane in England, well it was when I visited, the reason for the mud is easily found being the substantial Higgin’s Well. The brick work of the structure dates from the early 19th century with some improvements such as the creation of a large pool as an animal trough for Victoria’s diamond jubilee, although this structure does mean now it is very difficult to get the water if you are not an animal. Perhaps this was the intention; as the foundation of the well enshrine the landowners attempt to stop people taking the waters. It is said that the spring was originally further up the hill, but Higgins the land owner filled it to stop locals who crossed his land to reach it. As a result the spring forced itself through the floor of his house! As a result Higgins established a well at the bottom of the hill as a compromise.
Holy Well, Garway
This is a small spring, dried when visited, just outside the south-east corner of the churchyard. When it flows the water flows through a spout into a small rectangular pool. Beside is a niche perhaps where offerings or a saint was placed. The site is associated with a Templar church, but whether they utilised it is unclear.
The Holy Well, Kenchester
The National Trust gardens of the Weir hide an interesting anomaly, a small spring head surrounded by a series of circular steps down. Said to be a holy well by some authorities, it was filled in by the Bishop of Hereford, however others believe it to be a Roman water shrine.
A colourful legend tells that a Roman soldier who had an ancient Briton lover, this lover misconstrued a visit from on order to a ‘lady’ and threw herself into the river. He went to save her and was himself drowned. It is said that every year they haunt the well and that the well fills with their tears, and if collected the water would have special properties for lovers.
Is it a holy well? It’s not clear, the fact that the site lies in a landscape garden suggests it is folly although there was a Roman villa. Local accounts state it was rediscovered in the 1891 drought, whilst searching for a water supply.
St. Ann’s Well, Aconbury
This is a delightful well to finish our survey. Found in a copse in a small field. It arises in a small medieval structure which enclosures a small pool, being tanked, the flow can change and when I visited it was rather dry. I have included this site in my January entry this year, as its water said to be good for eyes, where visited on Twelfth night or New years day, when it was thought to be more powerful.
Picture the scene, waiting at the church with fresh buckets in hand, a collection of faithful villagers. The clock strikes 12 O’clock, it’s New Year’s and the race is on….to get to the holy well to draw what was called the Cream of the Well….the most valuable water available at that time of the year… In Northumberland, Birtley’s Crowfoot well was one such site and the water was to be kept in a bottle, and as well as giving good luck was believed to stay fresh throughout the year. Three wells at Wark on Tyne taking the first draft would allow a person to fly or pass through a keyhole!
Mackinlay (1893) notes that the tradition in Scotland, where it may have been stronger, where there was considerable rivalry between farm girls and on their way they would chant:
The flower o’ the well to our houses gaes, An I’ll the bonniest lad get. (This term flower of the well I shall refer to in a moment.)
In Wales the lucky lady was called the Queen, and this may perhaps indicate some pagan association with the tradition. The Welsh had a similar tradition and the water best between 11 and 12 on New Year’s eve was sprinkled into houses. Here it was known as the crop of the well and often a box covered with mistletoe or holly was used to contain it. Unlike that of Northumberland, the water would lose its powers until the next New Years although in some sites it would turn to wine. On the Isle Of Man, it is reported by Roeder (1904) of the quarrel between neighbours over the Cream of the well:
“Such as were envious of their neighbour’s success, and wished to draw away their prosperity, creamed the well they drew water from. This act was believed to be particularly cacious in ensuring a rich supply of milk and butter to the one who had cows, and performed the act on the well of those who also owned cows. All the utensils used in the dairy were washed with part of the cream of the well, and the cows received the remainder to drink. It was gone through in some districts on the last night of the year.”
The tradition was also undertaken in fishing communities where a handful of grass was plucked and thrown into the pail containing the water. This appears to be related to the related custom of Flower of the well, where it is said that by throwing a flower or grass on the spring to tell others that you had got their first. The furthest south example appears to be a Alconbury in Herefordshire where the St Ann’s Well, although the date has slipped. Here it was thought to be more effective in curing eye problems in the water being drawn from the well after midnight on Twelfth Night. The spring was said to produce blue smoke on this date.
The tradition does not appear to be noted further south than the Herefordshire example above and mainly in areas affected by neighbouring Celtic areas such as Wales and Scotland. Similar traditions occur at Beltaine/May day further south indicating that the 1st of January was a rather unEnglish tradition. New year was more often celebrated in the spring in the South, although even in Scotland at some wells, the cream of the well could be obtained on the first Sunday of May..however this is another tradition to discuss at a later day.
For those interested in old customs and ceremonies would be interested in a new blog I am starting in this January, Traditions ceremonies and customs in which every month I hope to cover a surviving ancient custom, a lost custom and a revived custom.