Outside the town of Mogenstrup is one of the most famed holy wells of Denmark. A holy well dedicated to a saint whose following spread across the Danish world, a saint still remembered from Orkney’s to Denmark – St Magnus or Mogens, a Danish Royal Martyr. Local traditions believes that the well was a pagan sacrifice site taken over by the early church and dedicated to the saint. When this re-dedication was done is unclear but it was certainly since 1292 as the area around has been called Magnus torp since.
The best time to visit the well was Midsummer by the sick and weak. There were certain ceremonies which had to be adhered to, which ensure the water’s best powers were bestowed, such as the giving of swords, jewellery or even animals. When the church was established they encouraged the giving of money into a box , a block and hence called block money, in the church. This paid for the church, the poor and those who had to guard the spring. It is said that its waters were particularly officious at midnight and that pilgrims were so keen to take its waters that fights would occur. On is recorded between two women in 1670 from Næstved in 1670 who fought to reach the spring first and the fight resulted in a law suit of the 1st July 1670.
Another tradition to ensure that the water was effective was that the applicant should approach the well in silence. Thus, they must not greet people once they had been to the spring, avoid again meeting anyone on a return visit. Of course you could collect water for someone else but it must not be sampled on the journey back or else its power would be lost. It was also thought that the water flowed greatest and was more efficacious at midnight and bowing three times against the sun was also recommended.
The water could be used for internal diseases including cancer, insanity and mental illnesses, or external one which require the area being rubbed. In the donation of money it is said that odd money was needed for external diseases but also rags were would be used where the affected area would be rubbed or tied to and then left at the site. There are accounts of those suffering from arthritis donating their crutches to the church as firewood! Unlike British clouts it is said that the clothes were buried as local people would steal them or burn. Local accounts tell sometimes people came had their sight restored or even their life by virtue of the saint!
The Reformation here too had an impact and in 1536 there are records of the clergy trying to prevent people access the site. However, over a hundred years later, accounts of 1681-86 record that the weak and crippled were still visiting the spring donating 3-5 shillings. There were said to be several thousand at midsummer.
A turnpike was established in 1824 through the woods, the outflow was channelled into a fountain with a lion’s head which itself was restored by 1862 by the owner of a local brewery obviously tapping the water. However, the move was to have a negative impact on the supposed powers of the spring and numbers of visitors dropped.
The holy well still survives arising in a circular basin whose overfull continues to the lion’s head, however the vast concourse of pilgrims have long gone.
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.
“It could have been Illmington Spa not Leamington Spa” Newfoundwell, the forgotten chalybeate spring of Warwickshire
Leamington Spa is a well-known spa town, although its spa heritage is not capitalised much, however if only by a twist of fate or geography that the main spa town would be Leamington and not Ilmington spa. For not far from the Gloucestershire border is the village of Ilmington, a quiet sleepy village but once hopes were high for the settlement when in 1681 a plan was made to capitalise on a chalybeate spring found in the parish. Local legend tells that the Lord of the Manor, Henry Lord Capel, saw a local woman washing her eyes in the water of the spring and asked why. She said they eased her eyes and as a result he then contacted local physicians. It was publicised by Oxford Physicians Samuel Derham and William Cole. In their Hydrologia Philosophica or An Account of ILMINGTON WATERS the author describes it great details the qualities of the emerging potential spa. He notes after a lengthy background:
“Now I shall proceed to Enquire, what are the Ingredients of Ilmington Spaw, first taking notice of its Colour, which is far more pale then Rock-spring water. With Syrup of Violets it would turn green, like Alkalizate Liquors with that syrup: with Galls, to a Purple; like Martial Vitrioline Waters: for Cuprous Vitrioline with Galls turn muddy with a very little Purple or Black; but of this more afterwards. Its body being of a thick muddy consistence, I weighed (in a very dry Season) a Pint of this Spaw-water against a Pint of ordinary Water, but the Spaw exceeded near half a Drachm. Another time after a wet Season and when the Ocre was fallen an old Pint pot of common Pump-water weighing 18 Ounces did equalize (and if either, did turn the Scales) the same quantity of the Spaw-wa∣ter: which may caution us from prefixing a determinate Weight to any Spring-water. Variety in the Weight of Waters may appear by comparing That Salt spring water of Droitwich with sweet springs, yea to him that compareth the Waters of several sweet springs together, For the Esurine salt many times being carried along with the water sliding through its secret Meanders or veins of the Earth; of which part insinuateth itself into, and part corroding occurrent bodies; it fretteth off fragments, such as fragmenta ferrea from Iron-stones, and particles from ordinary stones, which are carried along with the water, and lie latent to the naked eye in its pores, but by Distillation, Evaporation &c. will appear, Whence of necessity followeth a great variety in weight, according to the greater or less quantity of sabulum or fragments therein contained.”
He then notes about the mineral properties. He continues:
“Then I proceeded to enquire after the Mineral, with which this Spring was impregnated. And first I took about half a pint of new milk, upon which in a Porringer I poured this water fresh from the Spring-head, but could not discern any coagulation; yea, for anything did appear, this mixture differed not from a mixture of milk and ordinary spring water. After four miles carriage of the water, when the reddish Ocre began to subside, I poured upon warm milk from the cow a pretty quantity of this water, and let it stand at least twelve hours; but neither in this mixture, nor in milk and this Spaw-water boiled together, did any Coagulum appear. Hence I began to suspect, that its brackish taste was not from an acid Salt; therefore on this spring-water I instilled some oyl of Tartar, but upon the instillation, and the standing of the water all night, a very small curdling did ensue; only the mixture looked more white than the Spaw-water itself, which alteration of colour proceeded from the oyl of Tartar. Whereupon I concluded, that no Acid salt was here predominant, yea rather as such, scarce discernable in this Spring; it being, as I shall hereafter prove, far nearer to an Alkali than to an Acid salt.”
After trying with galls, a common method of testing mineral waters, the author notes:
“Now considering the small quantity of Galls, with which a Pint of water was thus tinged, I believe we may compare our new found Spaw (in this particular) with any of the English Medicinal waters, yea with the German Spaws so much in request.”
One of the important aspects of promoting a new potential spa was to compare it to well-known others. The author notes:
“Besides, Aluminous Springs are purgative, witness the Scarbrough Spaw, Epsom and Barnet Waters, &c. but this near Ilmington worketh most what by Urine. Yea perhaps (and truly) I might conclude, That this Spaw in respect of its mineral ingredients worketh not by Siedge. I know it may be objected, That some persons drinking of this water do there upon find a loosness, perhaps to the number of four or five stools or more, To which I might answer, That any simple Spring-water drank in a large quantity, will purge by its own weight: for as it lyeth heavy upon the stomach and intestines it oppresseth Nature, whence the Peristaltick motion is excited to expell that which infests and is burdensome; and if the water doth much oppress the sto∣mach before it pass through the Pylorus, vomiting is the effect according to Dr. Willis. Besides that, Alum is an Acid, as I have al∣ready proved, and also is a Cathartick; both which properties are not to be found in this Spaw, comparatively more than in ordinary Spring-water. I observed also, that the Excrements of those that drank this water were turned blackish, which is a consequent to the taking of Chalibeat Medicines, but not to the drinking of Aluminous waters. But observing this Water after its being exposed to the open air for some time, either stagnating at the Spring-head, or else as it is set in open vessels hath a blewish Cremor swimming on the top or surface of the Water, much resembling waters that stand long upon sulphureous bogs; I began to enquire, whe∣ther this might not be a Sulphureous Spring, like that at Knarsbrough, &c. By an Analysis of this Water into its Principles, not one grain of combustible Sulphur is to be found.”
The new spa begun to popular, it was described by William Dugdale in his 1730 Antiquities of Warwickshire as:
“much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.
However, it would look like the visitors were not enough. The site attracted no well-known visitors, no royalty, no patronage of note and so within the same century the well fell out of favour. It went largely out of use about the time of the enclosure of the common fields in 1781. The Well House built to provide shelter for the users of the well, remained standing for another 80 years. Later the spring became a watering place for stock. In 1998 erosion of the bank of the pond revealed the worked stone. On recovery, it was found to be a sizeable fragment of the basin. This is now incorporated into a fountain a plaque on which reads:
“This is a fragment of a basin installed around 1682 by the Lord of the Manor, Lord Capel to collect water from the chalybeate spring known as Newfound Well. The spring (1/4 m NW of Ilmington on the path to Lower Larkstoke) was described by Dugdale (1730) as: “much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.
Today the site is a large oval shaped pool in fields above the village. Two plastic pipes in the western end of the pool pour copious amounts of water into it which flows beyond the path into a stream. On one side of the pond can be seen stone work which may be part of the bath house, if so it is unrecorded.
Standing on this remote quiet location it is difficult to imagine what the place could have been like if the spring had had more money poured into its development. One the county’s first spas, which ironically unlike its better known cousin still flows from its main source rather from a pipe!
Extracted from forthcoming Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
A holy well?
Brighton has two noted sites, although the second strictly speaking should not be on the website and the first is rather confused. The most famed being that of St. Anne’s Well. Its waters were noted as Clifford Musgrave in his 1970 Life in Brighton, From the Earliest Times to the Present notes:
“The waters of the well had some reputation for promoting fruitfulness, local shepherds having observed the remarkable fecundity of the sheep that drank from it, but Dr .Relhan was somewhat sceptical about it having a similar effect with human beings.”
The site is recorded in having a long history, but there does not appear to be any substantial history. As Musgrave (1970) again notes:
“A chalybeate spring known as St Anne’s Well, at the Wick, half a mile west of St. Nicholas’s Church, and now in Hove. Dr Russell is said to have made this primitive little spa more impressive and convenient by having the spring ‘enclosed within a bason.’”
However, this may be a back derived story to support its latter existence as Spa, certainly it was operating in the 1700s but it was until the 1760s that improvements were made and by 1800 a pump room was built over it and a pump house was constructed at the top of the hill in the park. The pump room was improved by a Reverend Thomas Scutt adding a colonnade.
At first the spa was popular a ‘Mrs. Fitzherbert’ visiting in 1830 wrote that:
“….the waters have wonderfully improved my health and strength.”
Indeed a favourable 1882 review in the Brighton Gazette wrote it was:
“one of the finest springs in Europe”.
Sadly, despite these good reviews, the attraction of the sea and the spas distance from it was one of the factors which lead to its decline and closure. The pump house went through several uses and was finally demolished in 1935 as the spring had slowed down. A mock well head considered but finally a circular brick well was constructed upon a circular plinth. The spring or rather some water flows from it, it does not appear to be a chalybeate in nature.
A fake spa!
The other site was the German Spa. This was however, an artificial mineral water spa to capitalise on the fact that St. Ann’s was too far away but there was still a demand. Subsequently, a Frederick Struve, a research chemist from Saxony, invented a machine that reproduced the characteristics of natural mineral water using chemicals. Bizarrely at the Spa, it was claimed that the waters of Karlsbad, Kesselbrunnen in Bad Ems, Marienbad, Bad Pyrmont amongst other continental spas could be obtained. In 1825 Struve opened the pump room of his ‘German Spa’. A building was constructed, which the Brighton Gazette’s Fashionable Chronicle described as:
“The building consists of a large handsome room fifty or sixty feet in length, and of proportionate breadth and height. A fine flight of steps lead to the noble saloon, on which are placed Ionic columns, supporting a portico in the purest Grecian taste. On the side of the Saloon opposite the entrance runs a counter, behind which are ranged cocks that supply different kinds of waters.”
The enterprise was successful, and it had 333 subscribers in the first season, which ran from May to November, and after ten years even King William IV became a patron and such it was renamed Royal German Spa. However, by 1850 the pump room was closed by mineral water was still being made on site from water extracted from a 150 foot well. The company in 1963 moved to a larger building and the spa building became derelict and was largely demolished in the mid-1970s but the neo-classical colonnade of the spa building survives.
Possibly one of the easiest of North Wales’s holy wells located a few feet from the roadside down a cobbled path, all part of the local vicar’s attempt to landscape and preserve the site in the 1970s. A plaque on the wall tells us it is Ffynnon Sara. The well itself consists of a large stone lined bath like structure, 4.5 by 2.3 metres and fills to around a metre depth although when I visited it appeared only a few centimetres in depth, the water being reached by four steps in one corner.
The well was once firmly on the pilgrim’s trail from Holywell to St Davids being marked on maps until the 17th century. A cottage was located nearby and may have been used by visitors. Peering into the duckweed covered sluggish water it is difficult to see how these waters had thought to have a wide range of powers. Amongst the usual claims of eczema and rheumatism, cancer was said to be cured here. Patients would bathe in the well and leave pins! Presumably those who bathed afterwards would be aware of this. Crutches were said to have been left in the cottage which existed on the site, said to have been lost in the 1860s. Now a sign proclaims unfit to drink!
Who’s well is it?
There has been some confusion over the origin of the name. Whilst the name could easily derive from the owner of the nearby lost cottage, possibly a family name, others have sought to associated with a saint. St Saeran, a sixth century saint has been suggested. He established a monastic settlement at Llanynys, eight or so miles from the site. However, there is no reason why they should be the original dedication. Indeed in the 17th century it was called Fynnon Pyllau Perl – pearl ponds – perhaps after pearl producing mussels in the water.
Upon visiting the well I was greeted with a delightful encounter. Peering into those murky waters was a lady who unbeknownst to her got me interested into holy wells in the first place. It was author Janet Bord. With her was fellow enthusiast, Tristan Grey Hulse (founder of the Source new series, author and St Winifred Wells companion) and a number of others. They had simply stopped there to have a quick look and were actually only visiting churches. I suppose after visiting so many wells it was bound to happen but it was a fitting finish to my North Wales Holy well pilgrimage.
The other noticeable spring, (see here for the other) in the picturesque suburb of Carshalton is St. Margaret’s Well. It appears to be an obvious holy well with that name, however it may not that clear cut. The area was redeveloped by the noted John Ruskin, social reformer, philanthropist, art critic and environmentalist, as a memorial to his mother. A rectangular stone reading:
“In obedience to the giver of Life,
of the brooks and fruits that fed it,
and the peace that ends/may this well be kept sacred,
for the service of men’s flocks and flowers,
and be by kindness called/Margaret’s well.”
This pool was beautifie and endowed by John Ruskin Esq M.A.,L.L.D.,/1876.”
Ruskin kept detailed notes on the work to repair the site. He wrote of his first intentions he mused:
“Half-a-dozen men, with one day’s work could cleanse these pools and trim the flowers about the banks…”
By 1872 Ruskin he was repairing the site using George Brightling, a local historian to help him and it is his letters of correspondence which tell us something of the work done on it. As the area was a manorial waste, Ruskin had to get approval from the manor court and in 1872 they agreed that Ruskin:
“be at liberty to make improvements to the rear of the Police Station by forming a Dipping Well with a pathway thereto and outlet from the pond, and in so doing to give the same facilities for the use of the water as now exist and to clear out the pond at his own expense and to continue to do so and to plant shrubs and flowers by the paths.”
This is clearly suggests that there was not a well already on the site, but whether there was a spring which already bore the name is not clear. By April 12th that year Ruskin had asked Mr Scott to draw up plans and to protect the opening from all possibility of pollution and to face the wall above the pond with stone. A further letter from from a Gilbert Scott to Brightling dated 15 April 1872 describe:
“It consists mainly of a facing of the central part of the wall – say equal to those central arches – with marble – I would say a foot thick, with projecting counter- points from the piers of – say – 2 to 2½ ft projection, & 3 ft wide. I think that the side arches of his work will not be so wide as the present side arches, though the central arch will coincide with the present one in width. The main thing probably is the foundation for all this, which must be based on whatever substratum there is capable of supporting the work..”
However, the marble fountain was never constructed. By 1877 it was basically constructed and every photos show a rustic wooden bridge over the outflow and similarly rustic fencing. Today, the pool is very rarely full of water, but the decorative remain and most can be seen peering through the railings. Beside the railings on the footpath remains the dipping well supplied by a pump…sadly dry.
Holy Well or not?
Whitaker in his Water supplies of Surrey calls it Lady or St. Margaret’s Pond. The spring is certainly the main one of the settlement that referred to in the place name of Auueltone in 675. Sadly, the church which can aid in identifying holy wells is called All Saints. On reflection I think it is likely considering Ruskin’s concern for nature that he found a well named the same his mother rather than invent it. One hopes that a modern day Ruskin could tidy it up once again!
Interested in Surrey holy wells? Check out James Rattue’s Holy wells of Surrey.- an indispensable guide
Our Lady’s Well which in on the north side of Burley Road, Oakham, about a quarter of a mile east of the Odd House Inn. Rev Thomas Cox’s New Survey of Great Britain (1720-31) states:
“In ancient Times, before the Reformation, there was a Custom among the devout People of this Nation, and especially of these Parts, to go on Pilgrimage in Honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, to a Spring in this Parish, about a Quarter of a Mile from the Town, which is still known by the Name of our Lady’s Well, near which we may perceive in several Places the Foundations of an House or two remaining; but that which will confirm our Belief of such an Usage, is a Record found in the First fruits Office, containing, among other Things these Words, That very many Profits and Advantages belonging and appertaining to the Vicarage of Okeham did consist in divers Obventions and Pilgrimages to the Image of the Virgin Mary at the Well, and St. Michael the Archangel, and diverse other Rites and Oblations, which now are quite abolished, with the Benefits and Advantages which accrued there-from to the Vicar.”
As suggested above in the mid-1200-1300s, indulgences could be obtained by visiting it and the church during its patronal festival. By 1565/6, Jones (2007) states compensation was confirmed for the loss of:
“various offerings and pilgrimages [including] the late image of Blessed Mary at the spring.”
The site is recorded as Ladies Well in 1632, the Lady’s Well, 1691 and then Lady Well in 1801, becoming Our Lady’s Well in the 1885 OS map. The spring’s water was said to be good for sore eyes, only as Palmer (1985) notes:
“It was still renowned for healing powers in the Victorian era, and its water was applied to the eyes for soreness, provided that a pin had first been thrown into the well”
The site was even visited according to Matthews (1978) by Princess (later Queen) Alexander in 1881 when she stayed at Normanton Park. Now a boggy hole surrounded by modern housing in a nature reserve managed by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
Cox (1994) notes the field name Helwelle in 1498. The site may be another name for the above site. The first part of the name suggesting it derived from hæl meaning ‘omen’ or hælu meaning ‘health.
Alternatively, it may be another name for Chriswell, a lost site on the opposite side of Burley Road to Our Lady’s Well. Its name may derive from Christ. Whatever its origins, it was said to have been used by a Belgian refugee in the First World War to cure his sick cow. It appears to have been a holy well as apparently the church collected money from the well.
Lost in the undergrowth
Sadly Oakham’s Lady Well is a far cry from its former self. Enclosed in dense and impenetrable undergrowth; brambles, nettles and briars, meaning that the source cannot be reached without considerable effort and pain. However, through the help of a local who was able to give an easier route to the well, I managed to reach it in a private garden. However unfortunately although the spring still flows the source is a boggy morass. Considering its fame one would imagine that the well head may retain some form of infrastructure, but nothing remains, bar some iron staining. Enclosed in a 1990s housing estate and largely forgotten, unfortunately there is little to excite even the most ardent holy well researcher!
It is nice to easily find a holy well for once, for Rhuddlan’s St Mary’s Well lying as it does in the grounds of Bodrhyddan Hall, is easily seen by the side of the drive to the hall (the gardens of which are open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and well worth exploring)
Pure folly or holy?
What greets us today is a typical folly building but does the well have any provenance before the current construction. The earliest reference is as Ffynnon Fair and is made by Lhuyd in 1699 however it does not appear on an estate map until 1730, although an engraving on the fabric of the well states emphatically 1612! Significantly neither of these dates are associated with any traditions and there appears to be no pre-Reformation reference.
The only hints of its importance are traditions of clandestine marriages at the well, although it is possible that this is a mixed up tradition with a more famous Ffynnon Fair at St Asaph. The other hint is found in the hall, where a possibly unique stone fish inserted in the flooring of the hall shows the boundary of the parishes and as you may have gathered regularly reading this blog many holy wells mark parish boundaries. Neither pieces are particularly emphatic!
The well itself is a delightful edifice consisting of an octagonal stone four metre well house and adjacent stone lined ‘bathing pool’. The well has arched entrance with cherub kerbstone. Inside the rather cramp well are seats around the inside and although access to the water is prevented by a metal grill. On the top of the well house is a carved pelican and a stylised fish (more similar to classical images of dolphin) pours its water into the cold bath which is surrounded by a stone ballastrade.
Keeping up with the Joneses?
One of the biggest issues with site is who built it. On the well house it is proclaimed that Inigo Jones was responsible. Jones was a noted architect and garden designer, so the building has the appearance of something he could have built, the date was when he was at the height of his fame so it is surprising nothing more official is recorded. Was this a local of the same name or the family adding the date and person at a later date to impress visitors? Certainly the building looks late 18th or early 19th century, probably being built when the house was restored then. Whatever, the well is part of a larger landscape including other wells, tree lined walkaways and now a summerhouse above a landscaped pool.
Its absence in 1730 but present on the 1756 one suggests not. Furthermore, Norman Tucker 1961’s Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy, Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy states that the lettering is on the wrong period! Another possibility is that the architect may have been involved with designing the gardens and when the well was constructed later as the central piece the date of the garden design was recorded…but of course this does not explain who the well’s designer was!
Wishing well or healing well?
Today a sign, rather tacky to my mind (and I removed it to take photos) claims it is a wishing well. Visitors have certainly have paid attention to the sign as the well is full of coins. It is worth noting that although there is no curative history to the waters, anecdotally its powers could be significant. All the owners who have drunk from the well have lived to a considerable age, indeed the present owner is in his 100s I believe. Perhaps it might be worth bottling it!
Whatever its origin the well is a delightful one and certainly a change from muddy footpaths, negotiating brambles and nettles and getting completely pixy led…and there a nice garden and fascinating hall to see too.
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Our guest blog post this month is from author Michael Houlihan who has recently published an excellent work on the Holy Wells of County Clare which includes 60 colour plates, maps and invaluable information. Michael completed an MA in Arts (Local History) in 2015, having previously done courses in Archaeology and Regional Studies. He has published two books, “Puck Fair, History and Traditions” (1999) and “The Holy Wells of County Clare” (2015). He is currently working on a book entitled “The Sacred Trees of County Clare” of which this article is a very welcome introduction. A review of his book is coming soon.
When considering writing a piece on Clare holy wells recently, I thought that instead of focussing on the springs I might instead take a look at sacred trees, which form such an intimate part of the holy well space. I am no expert, but it seems to me that these trees seldom get the attention they deserve and are now only recognized as an additional artefact, there to complement the blessed well. Before starting, for those of you who may not know Clare, it is one of the 32 Irish counties, lying in the lower half of the west coast, hemmed in by the Atlantic, the river Shannon to the east and south, and ferocious Galway men (at least when playing the game of hurling) to the north.
Debate on the age of Irish holy wells ebbs and flows. Currently it’s thought that many wells (not all) came into use in the early medieval period. They were in active use for several centuries, faded a bit and were re-invigorated around the late 16th century (possibly prompted in part by Counter Reformation activities?) Sacred trees are generally grouped with the wells, lending both status and sanctity to the holy well site. There is little doubt that during the enormous deforestation that took place in Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries it was a significant advantage to trees to stand within the termonn or protected area of the well. This location also shielded them during searches for kindling or charcoal material in later years, as no sacred wood could be burned.
There is a growing school of thought pushing scholars towards the notion that a very early deep reverence for trees might indeed have been a significant Irish phenomenon. These trees may have been a source of veneration in themselves and part of a belief system at least as old as the sacred spring. There are clues to this in the literature (cf. Dindsheanchais) but perhaps one of the best indicators of an ancient tree custom is the word bile, pronounced ‘bill-a’, meaning ‘sacred tree.’ Anglicised to bella, billa, billy, villa, vella and many other variants, it occurs in hundreds of place-names across the country. A short exercise identified eight bile place-names in county Clare alone. A deeper look would certainly lead to more.
There is no doubting the very early and constant presence of sacred trees in the story of Ireland. Without visiting the history too closely, the earliest written records – transcriptions taken from a long oral tradition – speak of the five sacred trees of Ireland, reaching back to the mythic era. At the beginning of the Christian age a little after 400 AD as writing began to come into use, trees were important to both secular and religious. No king had a cathair or estate without his sacred tree (bile ratha), no inauguration or assembly site was without one or more trees, churches and saints were all the stronger for the presence of trees. The tree as source or symbol was associated with power.
When this age passed, trees maintained their presence at holy wells and abandoned monasteries or were left standing apart in open plains. Many trees stood for centuries. Gnarled and heavy, they finally keeled over in exceptional old age. Even then, lying spent, they were honoured with votive rags or coins hammered into their trunks.
Holy Wells and Sacred Trees: It is generally understood that a tree or bush beside a holy well partakes of the sanctity of the well. Many folktales combine the origins of the holy well and sacred tree. In others the tree came later, or perhaps more correctly, the story explaining the presence of the tree came later. One such tale describes a severe drought on Scattery Island in the Shannon estuary, forcing the sixth century Saint Senan to dig a pit with a hazel stick. When finished he stuck the rod in the ground beside the hole. The following morning crystal clear waters flowed from the hollow and the stick had grown to a full sized tree. Bile cuill (the sacred hazel) is said to have stood beside the well for generations.
When Saint Finghín’s well was deliberately filled in, water was seen dripping from a nearby tree. Tobercrine (tobar i gcrainn – the tree well) can still be pointed out beside the ruined abbey today. A tree that grew from a stick blessed and planted by St. Feicín at Loughcooter (now Loughcutra) was much venerated (3). St. Muaghan’s tree stood as an emblem of sanctity at Kilmoon holy well in the north of the county until old age caused it to topple in the nineteenth century… and so the stories continue.
Trees are not only cherished companions of the well but also serve as markers around which people move when performing the prescribed ‘rounds’ or ‘stations’ – walking meditations if you will. When prayers are completed, rags are tied to the tree or bush as an offering of thanks and a means of leaving concerns in the care of the saint. One remote Clare well, dedicated to St. Colman Mac Duagh, has extensive offerings on its rag tree. It lies hidden in a grove of hazels for much of the year and contains many of the elements of an early Irish eremitical site – holy well, rag tree, hermit’s cave, 7th century oratory and two leachta (altars), as well as having a significant corpus of stories about its past.
There is one reference from the early 1900’s which might suggest remnants of tree veneration near a holy well, which reads ‘The devotees take off their shoes, stockings, and hats, (or, if women, their shawls and bonnets), and start for the well repeating the prescribed prayers. They climb to kiss a cross on the branch of one of the weird old weather-bent trees in the hollow, and, lastly, pour water from the well on their faces, hands, and feet.’ 4 The addition of a crucifix to the tree here may have Christianized an older practice. However the tree may also have been nothing more than a ‘station’ in the prescribed ‘rounds’ of the well.
The types of trees found at holy well sites vary enormously. The ash seems to have been by far the most important tree in ancient Ireland (not the oak as one might think, even as a leftover of things Celtic – blame Pliny.) A study of 210 holy wells in Cork in the 1960’s found a prevalence of thorns or whitethorns (103), ash (75) and oak (7), with a mixture of other trees making up the remaining 25.5 The blackthorn – small, wizened and nearly indestructible – has always been a favourite as a rag bush, especially on poor land.
Saints, Holy Wells and Trees: Patricius/Patrick, arriving from Romano-Britain in the 430’s with his missionaries started a religious conflagration that, it could be argued, has not yet been fully extinguished. He introduced Christianity gradually to the Irish, permitting the new religion to disseminate slowly, mixing the best of what went before with the new faith. In this context, Christian missionaries recognized the importance of venerated springs and trees to the Irish (or likely already had a sense of these connections themselves?) Patrick re-dedicated former indigenous cult centres to Christianity. From the annals we read that he went to Tobar Slán, a spring venerated by the druids, which he blessed and thus Christianized. Sometime later he “went thereafter to Bile Tortain and near to Bile Tortain he built for Justian the presbyter a church, which now belongs to the community of Ard Brecáin.” Bile Tortain was one of the five great trees of Ireland that stood at Ardbraccan in county Meath. (6) There is a tale about another of the five sacred trees, Eo Rossa, that when it died of old age St. Molaisse divided it among the saints of Ireland. St. Moling of Carlow utilised his portion in making shingles to roof his oratory. This tale might be read as a form of Christian triumphalism or more kindly, an acknowledgement and retention of sacredness in a new role.(7)
A great love of the natural world permeated early Irish Christianity. One has only to read some first millennium nature poems by the saints to see this. Here is a small flavour from a longer piece entitled Atá Uarboth Dam I Caill, translated here as ‘The Hermit.’ The 9th century poem is attributed to Saint Marbáin, in which he describes nature’s bounty at his little hermitage.
I have a bothy in the wood –
none knows it but the Lord, my God;
one wall an ash, the other hazel,
and a great fern makes the door.
The doorsteps are of heather,
The lintel of honeysuckle;
and wild forest all around
drops mast for well-fed swine.*
Trees of apple, huge and magic,
great its graces;
crop in fistfuls from clustered hazel,
green and branching.
Sparkling wells and water-torrents,
best for drinking;
green privet there and bird-cherry
and yew-berries. 8
As well as the cherished trees at holy wells there are several other tree types held in affection across the Clare countryside. These include inauguration and assembly trees, religious trees directly associated with a church, monastery or graveyard, trees found within liosanna or ‘fairy forts’, funerary trees at which a funeral might pause, Mass trees and lone bushes. It is with lone bushes we will complete our story.
Lone Bushes: Lone bushes tend to be in a category separate to the trees we have been discussing, coming from a long-held indigenous belief system that has only recently faded. They are mostly stand-alone whitethorns that grow at a distance from other trees. In Irish the whitethorn is called Sceach gheal meaning bright or shining (thorn) tree, because of its profusion of splendid white flowers in early summer. The single whitethorn is strongly associated with fairy folk who, as people will know, are at the best of times a bit temperamental. Consequently lone bushes are never interfered with; the month of May being the only time some latitude is given. Being supernatural trees they serve as important foci for the Lucht Sidhe (the fairies), particularly before important events. Here our Clare story lies.
In the late 1980’s the main motorway going north from Limerick city (M18) was being significantly upgraded. To facilitate road expansion a fairy tree at Latoon, Newmarket-on-Fergus would need to be destroyed. Local folklorist Eddie Lenihan objected saying that this tree marked territories between two groups of Sidhe (Shee) and was an important assembly point before and after fairy battles. Its removal would not alone be an outrage to folklore and tradition – much worse – should the wrath of the Sidhe descend, it could have serious repercussions for traffic users passing the spot in the future. Whichever aspects of Eddie’s argument were most cogent, he won his case. The route of the motorway was altered and the tree still stands.
A last word on an important aspect of holy wells and trees not yet mentioned is the modern pilgrim. A cohort of people across county Clare, mostly made up of the very young and the no longer young maintain the wonderful tradition of holy well visitation, including interacting with the bile, especially on the saint’s patron day. For them the well is a living entity, to be honoured and enjoyed. It’s a day of rosary beads and prayer, flasks of tea and sandwiches, small courtesies and chats with fellow pilgrims, with plastic bottles of blessed water being filled for friends at home. Later they will return to help maintain the holy well site or perhaps cajole their sons to fix a damaged wall or fallen stone. Whether they know it or not, and I think they do, they are the last remains of a vast tradition.
1 Irish Folklore Collection, Ms. 466, p. 398.
2 Daniel Mescal, The Story of Inis Cathaigh, (Dublin 1902), p. 65.
3 Irish Folklore Collection, Journal 12, p. 73.
4. TJ Westropp, recorded on a visit to what is now St. Joseph’s Well, Kilmurry Ibrickane, in Limerick Field Club Journal. Vol III No 9 1905 p 15.
5 A.T Lucas, ‘The sacred trees of Ireland’ in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, (JCHAS), lxviii, (Cork, 1963), pp 16-54.
6 The Tripartite Life of Patrick, 9th Century, CELT, (UCC, Cork) p. 185.
7 J. F. M. Ffrench, ‘St. Mullins, Co. Carlow’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. ii, No. 4 (Dec., 1892), pp 377-388
8 James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, The Dolmen Press, (Dublin 1967), pp 67-72.
Available from Limerick & Clare Books
The Holy Wells of County Clare
County Clare contains one of the greatest concentrations of holy wells in Ireland. While most wells are associated with local saints, some have earlier origins and different affiliations. In this book, Michael Houlihan tours these wells, examining their long history from earliest times and reviewing their unique traditions. The defining characteristics of native wells and their distinctive physical features are explored along the way.Holy Wells have been of service to generations of Irish people. In spite of repeated waves of invasion and suppression, followed by political and religious strife, over 3,000 wells still exist in Ireland today. They once proved a centre for religious expression when no other existed, offered shelter in Penal times and served as a focus for communal solidarity. In Clare, participation was strongest in the decades before the famine, when venerated springs made a huge contribution to local communities. They performed a key role in village healthcare systems and erased the pain of bereavement, especially involving infants. Te continuing loss of the Irish language and the slow attrition of long-held folk beliefs, also at this time, deeply impacted daily life, including holy well usage.
The great holy well patterns of the late 18th century, once the high point in the rural social calendar, are discussed, including those in Clare on Scattery Island and Inis Cealtra and at Killone. When the Catholic Church began reasserting itself, aided in part by Daniel O’Connelll’s in the 1828 Ennis by-election, the Patron Day gatherings and other aspects of folk life were slowly surrendered, as the last vestiges of the old Gaelic world slipped away. The Famine compounded these changes, with congregations forfeiting the fields and wells for the new chapels.
The holy wells story continues into the presentm including its occasional high points in the twentieth century. Ten contemporary Clare wells are visited, from the popular St. Brigid’s at Ballysteen to others since fallen out of favour. A final section discusses the health of the holy well tradiiton in the county today.
The book contains nearly 60 colour photographs from across the county, with some basic maps and tables for those interested in doing their own exploration. While Clare’s holy wells have long been associated with peace and health, they are also an archaeological and historical treasure trove waiting to be rediscovered. This book will help those who want to better understande a neglected feature of the landscape while catching up on a lost part of Clare’s social history.
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