To find a more delightful oasis in suburban London would be harder to find. Despite the traffic which flows through this town, a significant calm is created by the bubbling waters which give Carshalton its name which derives from Cars – Aul – ton with aul means well or spring and there are a number of notable water sites.
“There is a well at Carshalton, A neater one never was seen; And there’s not a maid of Carshalton, But has heard of the well of Boleyn. It stands near the rustic churchyard, Not far from the village green; And the villagers show with rustic pride, The quaint old well of Boleyn.”
One of the springs which supply these pools is the best known in the town – Anne Boleyn’s Well. It would be difficult to understand how, as its been dry for many years, but it was once a spring of note and a site which regularly props up as a ‘holy well’ in work such as Hope’s Legendary Lore and the Bords Sacred Waters. Usually such associations are fanciable antiquarian suggestions. However this time there may be more evidence.
The well is a simple structure for many years obscured with weeds and a rather vigorous lavendar, probably in homage to the town’s famed agricultural export. It has recently been tidied up and now a small brick well head can be seen surrounded by railings. It perhaps looks a little unloved and forlorn but at least it has survived. The site was once in the middle of the roadway as old postcards attest..other urban sites would have been long lost if they were in that position in other locations. Unusually, the pavement was extended to include the site and now it sits in the shadow of All Saint’s Parish church. The move clearly resulted in a rebuild as early pictures show a domed shaped structure surrounded by a stone surround. Sadly, also the chain and bowl once attached for wayfairs to drink from has long gone, not that a drink could be had anyhow!
The legend of its origins
The legend is recorded, possibly for the first time in G.B. Brightling’s History and Antiquities of Carshalton (1827) and notes that Henry VIIIth and Anne were riding over from Nonsuch Palace to Beddington Park to see Sir Nicholas Carew when at the spot the horse rose up and striking the ground a spring formed. The villagers then enclosed the well and named it after her as a memorial.
The problems with the legend
The clear problem was that if they were travelling from Nonsuch, no such place would have existed then – it was constructed after the Queen’s execution in 1538! However, this does not completely remove the legend as it must have come from somewhere.
The true origins?
A number of possible alternative origins are suggested for the well. The commonest suggestion is that it was dedicated to St. Anne, whilst this is a convenient and obvious origin, there is no evidence. A more prosaic origin is hinted by the alternative name Bullen does it originate from Old English billen refering to roaring and perhaps describes the nature of the spring, and perhaps explained the legend of the spring erupting. However, the most accepted origin is that the name derives from the Count of Boulogne who was Lord of the Manor in Carshalton in the 12th century. This would explain the legend that Anne had a house near the well as well. A variant of this is that the well was associated with a small cottage, sadly long since demolished, which abutted the churchyard. This cottage was called Dame Duffin’s Cottage but was believed to have originally been a chantry chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Boulogne. A chapel was given by Nicholas Gainsford in 1497 according to Michael Wilks 2002 Book of Carshalton. The well appears likely to have been the spring probably used by the chapel as its water source. Whether it was truly a holy well or rather a well named by association is unclear. There is no clear reason for a chantry chapel in the location, although of course it is close to a bridge and often chapels are built nearby to these for offering purposes. It is just as probable that the chapel was established for those attracted to the spring. It has been suggested that the recess behind the well may have originated as a resting place for visitors and maybe all that remains of the chapel and was where the spring arose. Interesting Hogpit pond is suggested as the true origin of its water. This is significant in justifying its holy well origin as hog is most often derived from Old English halig for holy and pit derives from putte for spring.
So why Anne?
However, we should not completely dismiss the Boleyn connection perhaps because it is rather interesting legend and one with a familiar motif. There a number of springs across the country such as Beckett’s Well at Otford where a saint has thrust their staff into the ground and a holy spring arose. Similarly saints have lost heads and springs arose at the point they hit the ground! So taking this into account what do we read into the legend? I have speculated that Anne became a cult figure of the Reformation and sites became associated with her akin to they would have done with Saints. Local people berift of their saints reattached legends to her in response. Perhaps if this did happen, and I suggest the same happened with Elizabeth, it was a sort transitional development, but the name stuck. However, the question asks where did the legend come from. If it was a construction of Brightling, no further back than antiquarian musings, but if its older than something more significant could be read into it.
Queen Anne Boleyn’s Well is not the only supposed holy well in Carshalton and in a future instalment I will investigate other sites.
Interested in Surrey holy wells? Check out James Rattue’s Holy wells of Surrey.
Well it’s been a great few years and pleasing to note that I’ve had views from nearly two thirds of the globe..so thanks reader especially the followers. You’ll see some other changes new pages etc, so hopefully it’s all new and improved, on the 19th, but as the first post was on the 8th I’ve posted earlier than usual.
There is no contest what healing spring must be discussed for the 100th post…no well has such a long recorded history of cures, no well has an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage, no well has such a complete infrastructure, unique in its Perpendicular splendor…only St. Winifred’s Well at Clywd, so famed it gives its name to the town and so famed it is now called the Lourdes of Wales, although it is much older and more significant than that. However, it is a daunting task to discuss such an important site, but here I go
The origin of the well
The story dates back to the seventh century. It involves St. Winifred, real name Gwenfrewi, was originally the daughter of a local lord, Tyfid ap Eiludd and his wife Wenlo, and after being taught by a monk called Beuno, her uncle, became a nun. However, Prince Caradog took a fancy to her and kidnapped her. However, she escaped and trying to reach Beuno was caught and beheaded by Caradog. Beuno cursed Caradog, who then disappeared. Where Winifred was beheaded the spring arose, however Beuno prayed over her body and she came back to life and ended her days as the Abbess of Gwytherin. There her grave was a pilgrimage site until her relics were removed to Shrewsbury in 1138.
A potted history of the well
The first mention of the well is in 1093, when Haliwel was granted to Chester’s St Werburgh’s Abbey. By 1240, to Basingwerk Abbey had been granted it by the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Llewelyn. This established the link between the two sites and it was administered by the Cistercian monks until the Reformation. The fame of the saint and her well attracted many pilgrims, Royalty amongst them: Henry V, Richard III and Henry VII. It was the latter’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who built the current prestigious well house and chapel and by doing so probably ensured it escaped destruction under her grandson Henry VIII. Evidence suggests that Catherine of Aragon was also a patron. Unsurprisingly, it became a location for Catholic resistance, the Jesuits, and even in 1686 James II and his queen visited to pray for an heir, before later exile.
Its construction begun in around 1500 and took probably 15 years to finish. The structure consists of a star-shaped basin into which the water arises and flows into an oblong bath with steps either side. Originally reached from the chapel above, although this access is blocked, the structure is set into the hill side. It has a vaulted ceiling supported by columns with its Gothic tracery. The chamber is reached by a triple arcade entered from the north. The centre of the ceiling is a worn pendant showing the story of St. Winifred looks over the spring head. A niche to the side a statue of St Winifred, which replaced one destroyed in the 17th century in the 1886. Above the well chamber is a chapel full of carved figures. This has seen many uses over the years, such as a school or courthouse, is a simple single nave and side isle with an altar in the apse.
Sacred healing Moss
“But the ground stained with her blood cracked, and a rapid spring gushed out in that place full of water, the stones of which to this day are seen bloody as on the first day. The moss also smells as incense, and cures divers diseases.”
An interesting feature sadly now gone was a red staining moss, called Jungermannia asplenioides which was said to be indelible stains of St Winifred’s blood. Another moss, Byssus jolithus was ‘St Winifred’s Hair’. This moss was dried, made into wreaths and sold in the 17th century for its healing qualities.
The ritual undertaken at the well is to pass three times through the small inner bath, saying the Rosary; the pilgrim enters the outer pool and prays on St Beuno’s Stone or Maen Beuno. The stone as the name suggests is intrinsically linked with the legend of the well. It is on this stone that the Beuno was told that anyone who asked Winifred for help would receive their request by the third time. The stone is certainly very ancient and perhaps prehistoric in origin.
A catalogue of cures
“Moreover one born blind, service being duly performed in the tabernacle of the virgin, went of to the well, and washed, and saw, and gave thanks…And many times this most benign virgin relieves dropsical persons, restores the paralytic, heals the gouty, cures the melancholy. No less does she remove sciatica, eradicate cancer, cure shortness of breath, extirpate piles…Why by enumerating a few things do I try to mention all? So many and so great are the gifts of the virgin, that their infinity defies enumeration.”
What is also remarkable about the site is the catalogue of cures, graffiti around the well accords. Perhaps the most noted was that which occurred after a sick monk at Shrewsbury Abbey was told by a vision of the saint to say mass at the well. After this had been done, the monk began to recover, and went to Holywell himself, where his cure was completed. It was this Holywell cure which determined the Shrewsbury monks to adopt Winifred as their patroness, seeking out her grave, and removing her bones to their church in 1138.
No complete record apparently has ever been produced. The main source for the early accounts in the saint’s Vita or Life. The first version, Vita Prima of which was written in 1130, and the second life. Vita Secunda, written some ten or so years later at the occasion of the relic’s translation by Robert of Shrewsbury. This was translated in 1635 and then rewritten by Jesuit Fr Metcalf. Through the protestant period, miracles continued and from this period one describes:
“About the yeare 1590 Fr Edward Oldcorne of the Society of Jesus with another English priest…travelling in the kingdome of Naples…had poyson given them…there still remained in them an extraordinaire inward heate of the liver with other diseases, and especially Father Oldcorne, whose tongue and mouth contracted a hard sore many yeares after his coming into England…And as all cure and human remedied failed and being very sensible of losing his speech, he was bent…to undertake a pilgrimage to Holy Well…But whether the occasions permitted not…some yeares after being at a gentlemans house in Worcester, he chanced to see a little blood stone…of S. Wenefrides Holy Well, he presently honoured it with great veneration, prostrating himself on his knees before the altar, he putt it in his mouth, and turning it therein to and fro with his soare tongue…he sayd 5 Paters et Aves with Creed. And immediately he found himself much better, his tongue cooled, and his stomack in farr better temper then before; then…he went to Holy-well: where drinking of the water of the sacred fountain with other devotions performed, etc., he was perfectly cured, and never after troubled with the sayd disease.”
Miracles are recorded throughout the next two centuries such that the 1817 The Life and Miracles of Saint Wenefride, states in discussion of a cure that the witnesses:
“numerous and consist of persons of different stations, religions, countries, and places of residence, with Protestants, Catholics, English, Welsh, residents in Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Holywell, who could not possibly be combined for the purpose of attesting a series of falsehoods.”
Until the 1960s the crypt was filled with crutches, these can now be found in the small museum. And so the cures continue.