The lost well of St Faith’s Hexton, Hertfordshire
It is difficult to imagine that this small and remote village was once the scene of great pilgrimage. The centre of this being St. Faith’s Well (TL 103 303). St Faith also known as Foy, a third century martyr and virgin, burned alive and beheaded at Agen in Gaul, is associated with Saints Hope and Charity. Her body translated to Conques where a splendid shrine and reliquary was established. The saint was popular with pilgrims and crusaders, and one shrine was established at Hasham, near Norwich.
It is believed that the dedication arose due to the land being in the charge of a homesick French monk: hence the church and well shared the same dedication. In 1243, Abbot John assigned the rectory of Hexton to the sacrist of the Abbey, and the revenue was so great that it was shared with the almonry. Indeed the revenue was greater than the parson’s holdings and tithes. The well thus attracted great numbers and an alehouse was established for their benefit, this is now Red Lion cottage next to the school.
Unfortunately, St. Faith’s Well fell afoul of the Reformation, but luckily lord of the manor Francis Taverner, recorded a great deal of details regarding it. Indeed, his description has become a valuable guide to the possible complexity of less recorded sites. He described the well and its position as follows:
“There is a small persell of ground adjoining to the churchyard called St Ffaith’s Wick Court, about a pole in measurement, anciently divided from Malewick by a ditch in the same place now a large moat is made. The greatest parte standing upon a bedde of springs, and undrained was very boggye, towards the churchyard. But the west side of the wick, being higher ground….neer adjoining unto which…the Craftye Priests had made a well.”
The well itself was:
“about a yard deep and very cleere in the bottome, and curbed about. Now over this well, they built a house.”
Pilgrimage to the well involved adulation to an image of the dedicated saint, for he notes that:
“..in this house they placed an image or statue of St Ffaith and a cawsey they had made…. for people to passe, who resorted thither from four and neere to visit our lady and to perform their devotions.”
The well would seem to be beneficial for foot complaints for pilgrims would be:
“… revently kissing a fine colured stone placed on her toe’ which was believed to bestow cures.”
Also the sick would throw something (nothing is specifically described) into the well:
“..which if swamme above they were accepted and there petition granted, but if it sinke, then rejected which the experienced Prieste had arts enove to cause to swymme or sinke according as himselfe was pleased with the partye, or rather with the offering made by the partye.”
It would appear that the priest was able to influence the object like some kind of wizard. Unfortunately, the land was drained and levelled in 1624 being noted that:
“St. Faith’s Well continued as a waste and unprofitable and neglected piece of land till such time as the footpath was turned through the midst of it to the outside on the south by the highway, and their clearing and levelling the ground.”
It is worth noting that the effigy of the saint was dressed and in an old book of churchwarden’s accounts, in the reign of Henry VIII it is noted that:
“that they had delivered unto the St. Faith a cote and a velvet tippet.”
Land lying in Mill Field, called St. Faith’s ½ acre, which associated with the shrine, came to the King’s hands at the dissolution, and is now parcel of the demesnes. The approximate site can be seen to the side of the church, where a small picturesque pool of water is apparent. The collapse of the tower may have been as a result of undermining from the spring.
In our days of heritage protection it seems astounding that single handed one man could remove this great site, but they did. However, the name St Faith’s wick court is remembered and the water from the well still remains it appears to fill the moat but it is a poor replacement for what sounded like a fascinating site in this remote area of Hertfordshire.