Guest Blog Post: In search of holy and healing springs in Jersey by James Rattue
Great pleasure yet again to have a guest blog post from one of the great experts in the field James Rattue. Author of The Living Stream and his indispensable local field guide books – Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Kent, together with gazetteer articles on Dorset Leicestershire and Oxfordshire and some first contributions for both series of Source – although he does stress they need a re-evaluation! From a recent holiday in the Channel Islands he has provided us with a unique overview of Jersey sites…or rather his attempt to find them!
Our recent sojourn in Jersey turned out to be another on which I managed to visit precisely no holy wells at all, although this wasn’t for lack of looking, nor not having a car to get around (the island bus service is astonishingly efficient and can take the visitor to within walking distance of most places). In fact, the dearth of sacred wells, as such, on the largest of the Channel Islands is a distinct puzzle.
There were, apparently, a number of healing springs on Jersey. La Fontaine ès Yeux at Grève de Lecq was good for the eyes, an ability (as usual) shared by several wells, including the most resorted-to site on the island, La Fontaine ès Mittes on the headland of La Belle Hougue – whose name might refer to some foul-smelling property, or be a corruption of ‘l’Hermite’. Other sites were the refuge of supernatural beings: there were fairies at the Fontaine dé la Bouonnefemme at St Mary and the Fontaine ès Fées at La Belle Hougue, an unnamed monster at Les Puits dé Maufant, and the dreadful being called the Cocangne which inhabits potentially any well, spring or pond on the island (especially, perhaps, the one that gave its name to La Cocangne in St John parish).
The most celebrated well of all, out on the north coast rocks near Sorel, goes under various names: La Fontaine dé La Princesse, Lé Pits d’la Tchuette or, intriguingly and so far inexplicably, Lé Pits d’la Tueuthie – Well of the Killing Ground. Here at this tidal pool, the legend states, the fairies wash, and woe betide any human who sees them. Yet another alternative name, La Lavoir dé Dames, links the site with the other lavoirs around the island – walled pools fed by streams or springs constructed to wash laundry or people, some of which I suspect may have originated as holy wells.
But holy wells proper – there seems to be but one. La Fontaine de St Martin is in the parish of St Lawrence in the middle of Jersey, although interestingly two different online sources have photographs of what seem to be entirely different sites! If the Société Jersiaise’s version is correct, this well was probably rebuilt in 1734. And that seems to be it. There is a well at the Neolithic site of La Hougue Bie sometimes claimed as a medieval holy well, but it seems to date no earlier than the 19th century, with an old well-head moved here and placed on top in 1925.
Of course Jersey is small: but Guernsey is smaller, and that rival island had at least seven holy wells. St George’s Well at St George is perhaps the best-known, possessing a series of interesting legends, but there were also wells of St Peter and St Mary at St Peter Port; St Anne at Kings Mills; St Clair at St Andrews; and St Martin in Forest parish, as well as a spring near St Germain’s chapel at Castel very probably dedicated to that saint.
At first I wondered whether this disparity might be due to religious differences between the islands. Despite the Catholic culture of the French mainland being so close to hand – and being part of the diocese of Coutances in Normandy until as late as 1569 – Jersey was very early affected by Calvinist ideas, and provided a refuge for Protestants driven from France itself. Despite being a possession of the English Crown, Jersey churches worshipped according to Jean Calvin’s French-language Ecclesiastical Prayers from the 1540s until 1620 when the English Book of Common Prayer was translated into French. Even after Anglicanism was officially imposed the tenor of Jersey religion was far more thoroughly Calvinist than in England. However in fact Jersey and Guernsey were no different in this respect.
GJC Bois, author of Jersey Folklore, lamented that so much of the island’s legends were recorded so late and that there had been no equivalent of Guernsey’s Sir Edgar MacCulloch, whose manuscript collections in 1903 formed the basis of Guernsey Folk Lore with its details of the wells described above. But MacCulloch had related that the first record of St George’s Well was in 1408, and that the two holy wells of St Peter Port were ‘mentioned in early ordinances of the Royal Court’. Why weren’t Jersey’s wells so recorded?
Perhaps most puzzlingly of all, why does the doyen of Jersey saints, St Helier after whom its capital is named, have no well? He has many other elements of a classic well-saint’s legend: a hermitage, miraculous healings, a martyrdom at the hands of the ‘Vandals’, and he is a cephalophore – having after his decapitation carried his head some distance, where it was subsequently found before being taken away for enshrinement. What is missing is a spring: neither a hermit’s well used during Helier’s lifetime, nor a martyr’s well which arose where the saint’s head fell. Helier is something of a made-up saint: certainly the details of his Life, written at an unclear date but certainly later than the 11th century, were provided from standard narratives of the sort to flesh out the bare bones of the saint’s name and the hermitage site. This can only have meant that there wasn’t a well to build into the story. Helier has wells in his name on the Normandy mainland, but not, apparently, on Jersey.
I don’t have any clear rationale to offer: it could be that there are records of holy wells on Jersey waiting to be discovered in local archives, but in that case we wait. The closest I got to seeing well was this nice, albeit dry, fountain near the beach at Grève de Lecq, which looks rather like one of the public fountains provided around the island in the 18- and 1900s. It has the battered suggestion of lettering on the lintel stone above the niche, and, just to the left, what looks like the faint remains of the word LADIES. Ladies Well? or, perhaps, a direction to a now-long-vanished loo?
GJC Bois, Jersey Folklore & Superstitions, Milton Keynes: 2010, pp.245-267
P Hunt, A Guide to the Churches of Jersey, St Helier: 2010
E MacCulloch, Guernsey Folk Lore, London: 1903, pp.187-197
Is there a Sir John’s Well at Upchurch, Kent?
In 2015 I finally got around to publishing my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent which includes over 200 sites (an overview blog post will appear soon). This is an expanded extract from the book covering a little known but fascinating lost site!
small settlement, pronounced ‘Hallywell’ or ‘Hollywell’ by locals, is named after a Holy Well possibly called ‘Sir John Schorne’s’ Well (TQ 851 669). Rattue (2001) in his Holy Wells of Kent erroneously states that the pond is the well but that is not what I was told. Apparently the site was rediscovered in 1949 by a Mr. Stevens of Holywell Farm, when his plough hit a large flat stone. This stone lay one foot below the surface of the ploughed field, and measured roughly five feet by five feet, with an average thickness of nine inches. This stone was raised, and it was found to cover a roughly circular opening filled in with flint nodules.
Probing the hole, he found that the well was five feet six inches deep with a water level about four feet six inches down. No trace of masonry or brickwork was observed, although the infill was not removed. The well is believed locally to be Druid in origin, possibly receiving attention during Roman occupation, (as there an important pottery factory here) and considering the name of the settlement, Halstow, important in Jutish times, as Halstow means Holy Place, in Jutish.
An association with Sir Schorne?
In mediaeval times, the well was probably frequented by pilgrims travelling along Watling Street. Yet, the well was possibly associated with the popular ‘saint’, Sir John Schorne. He was born in Shorne, but became famous as the Rector of the small Buckinghamshire village of North Marston ( 1290-1314 ). His fame was centred around a number of miracles, most famous of which, was his conjuring of the devil into a boot. He is also commonly associated with healing wells, and his shrine and well at North Marston, became a major 14th Century pilgrimage.
It would appear that the well’s field was dedicated in 1574 to the ‘saint’. Called ‘Master John Shorne’s Field’. There is also record of the giving of one penny to Master John Shorne of Halstowe, in a Sixteenth Century will of ‘Rest Redfyns’ of Queensborough. This was apparently done to fulfil overdue pilgrimage duties. The name is preserved at Shockfield, a derivation from Shornfield or Shernfield. Thus it would suggest that the holy well would have had a shrine chapel beside it to serve the pilgrims. There is of course another Sir John’s Well in Buckinghamshire.
A Neolithic monument?
It appears then that the well may have been filled in during Reformation times, and the stone dragged over the site to prevent the locals reopening it. It is possible that the stone may have been originally around the well, possibly comprising of a prehistoric stone circle or ancient marker, as at Tottington. This appears to be the remains of a sandstone rock covering the Downs / Wealden chalk much of which was worn away, and accordingly, these stones were still held in some mystical regard in ancient times. Indeed, a Neolithic road passes through the Parish from Gillingham to Newington, and to the east, leaves it a mile to the North. Thus, it would appear that the settlement was of considerable past influence and importance. I spoke to the owner of Holywell Farm, who regretted the loss of the site, as he would have appreciated it now. He said that the stone was removed from the site to the other side of the public footpath to Lower Halstow making locating the exact location of the well now difficult. The stone is now lost in undergrowth beside the path. Roughly, the site of the well is indicated by the start of this scrubby copse opposite the ploughed field, and within this field. Hopefully, considering its long history, one can hope that the well will be explored and restored for future generation.
More details in
Holy Wells and healing springs of Kent
Restored to glory – St Osyth’s Well Bierton
When I first started researching holy wells I failed to find the well. I clearly was not the only one if this report attests in Megalithic Portal:
“reported as being next to the church…I walked around the churchyard without success.”
However it is excellent to hear that unlike other noted wells the local community restored and repaired the site. This has made it more visible and it is now as James Rattue in his excellent Holy Wells of Buckinghamshire notes:
“physically (St. Osyth’s Well) the most impressive holy well in the county.”
What is certain is that the well was associated with a local Osyth, who local tradition records was born in Quarrendon nearby. This was around.660, when the site of the now Abbey ruins was her father Frithuwold’s royal residence. Her mother was the sister of King Wulfhere of Mercia, Wilburh, the sister of king Wulfhere of Mercia (658-674). Eadgyth, the sister of Wilburh. Osyth was the first abbess of Aylesbury’s minster. Whether this is the same as the more famed martyr is open to subjector although Bethell’s Lives of St. Osyth of Essex and St. Osyth of Aylesbury in Analecta Bollandiana claim they are the same. If so the body after its decapitation in Essex was transported back to Aylesbury’s St. Marys where a shrine was established.
The exact location of a St. Osyth’s well has been confused. The antiquaran John Leland is perhaps the first to record this well in 1540 as:
“the well of S. Osythe at Querendune bytwyxte Aeilsbury and Querendune.”
However there is a problem, this is clearly another site as Bierton is not between these two places so why should this well be named. As noted above Quarrendon would make sense as Quarrendon is supposed the saint’s birthplace. James Rattue’s Holy Wells of Buckinghamshire he notes that Victorian writers note that it was:
“a never failing spring on Dunsham Farm whilst ‘another well ‘associated with St. Osythe’ lay in the corner of a field between Dunham and Watermead.”
Interestingly some local folklore records that the spring arose when the body of the saint was carried back from her martyrdom in Essex. Certainly by the time of the local topographer Sheahan in the 1800s, the location had moved to Bierton. He describes it as:
“a remarkable old well of the same date of the church, which was lately restored by the parish and is a most valuable spring…this well was formerly walled around, and had a drinking-trough for cattle. In ancient times it was called by the name of the Quarrendon Saint; now the spring is known as Up Town Well.”
One wonders where his evidence came from and it is noticeable if it had been a holy well it had slipped into vernacular by the authors time and was further sliding into obscurity perhaps.
Restoring the well
Yet it was not forgotten and was ripe for a millennium refit. Rattue states that:
“The well used to be a low brick structure capped with concrete and accompanied by a pump close by. In 2000, however the Parish Council restored it in grand fashion with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The cap was removed, the low drum-like well built up to a height of several feet, and a garden laid out complete with information panel and seating.”
Interestingly, he also notes that an archaeological watching brief was kept but no very old remains were found. This perhaps suggesting that the well was of no significant age?
James Rattue’s excellent book on Holy Wells of Buckinghamshire is well worth seeking out for further information on the counties wells.
An Oxfordshire Field Trip- some holy wells in the county
Oxfordshire is not a county synonymous with holy or healing wells, but a number still survive in the county. A good gazetteer was produced by fellow enthusiast James Rattue in Oxenensia.
St. Margaret’s Well, Binsey
This is perhaps the most famous of the county’s holy wells. Its waters despite the dedication being association with the local saint and patron of Oxford, St. Frideswide, the reason being that the saint prayed to St. Margaret for her sight to be restored and the spring arose, the event occurring in either the late 6th or early 7th century. Her shrine became an important site, but her well was regularly frequented in the medieval period. It is said pilgrims would first visit the saint’s shrine in Oxford and then went on to visit the well which was enclosed in a stone well house. The water was thought to be so valuable for curing infertility as well as eye complaints that it was sold at a guinea a quart. One of the well’s most famed pilgrims being Henry VIIIth who came with Katherine of Aragon in hope of fertility luck! Hope (1893) in his The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England notes:
“Over St. Margaret’s Well was a covering of stone, and thereon on the front the picture of St. Margaret (or perhaps St. Frideswyde), pulled down by Alderman Sayre, of Oxon, a little before the late war, 1639.”
For many years the well lay overgrown and forgotten. Hope (1893) notes:
“The well is now in better condition. When I visited it on 25th October, 1887, the churchyard was tidily fenced and very neatly kept. At the well a descent of some five steps brought one to an arched vault, beneath which, in the centre of the flooring, was a round basin containing the water of the well, the surface of the water being about six feet below the level of the ground. On the wall above the arch was this inscription:
‘S. MARGARET’S WELL. S. Margaretae fontem, precibus S. Frideswidæ (ut fertur) concessum, nquinatum diu obrutumque in usum revocavit T. J. Prout, Aed. Xti alumnus, Vicarius, A. S. MDCCCLXXIV.’
This structure seen by Hope was erected by 1874 when the Reverend Prout and happily it remains much as described. The antiquarian also notes that:
“At the time of the restoration of this well, an Oxford wit, having regard to its proximity to the church, suggested for an inscription: Ariston men hydor, When you open your pew-door, This may comfort supply, Should the sermon be dry”
More famously is the involvement of Reverend Dodsgson, or Lewis Carroll, who suggested that the inscription should read ‘leave well alone’, and that he based the treacle well in Alice in Wonderland on this site. Fortunately, progress has left this ancient spring well alone and it continues despite the busy A34 nearby flows peacefully on.
Holy Well, Tadmarton
Not so this ancient spring. For here on the golf course, in a small copse, is all that remains of a possibly quite significant site. Any actual structure is difficult to trace as a number of pipes draw its chalybeate water off for domestic use. Roman coins were found in the location suggesting that the spring was well known in those days.
Fair Rosamund’s Well, Woodstock
Here is another famed well, named after the lover of King Henry II, Rosamund Clifford. Despite the local legend which recalls she was poisoned by Eleanor, Henry’s queen, in reality she retired to Godstow Nunnery dying around 1176. Interestingly, her tomb became a shrine and as such the spring may have become a holy well, indeed water, called Rosamund’s water, was sold suggesting it may have had a sanctity. It is significant perhaps that there is another Rosamund’s well, in Shropshire. The age of the present structure is difficult to date but it is unlikely to date from either the 12th century or from the last incarnation of the old royal palace before the building itself was torn down by Vanburgh in the landscaping of the modern Blenheim. A sketch in the Bodleian Library by John Aubrey refers to Three Baths in Trayne, the first of which is perhaps the Rosamund’s well It appears likely that the large virtually swimming pool sized well was constructed when the park was landscaped in the 1700s. Although the name Rosamund being only traceable to the 16th century, the well itself is certainly very old and the name Everswell, possibly from its reputation that it never dries, is recorded in the locale.