This month sees insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com is 7 a good birthday for sacred spring researchers – look it up@! Also it becomes the platform to host the Source and Living Spring Archive. The Source Archive consists of articles written in the mid 1980s and early 1990s for the Source Journal a short-lived but very influential attempt to bring together research on the topic. with Living Spring an even shorter lived but important online attempt to do the same. The original journal (divided into new and old series) was influenced by the burgeoning earth mysteries movement on the late 70s and early 80s and one of the most prominent exponents was Janet Bord. As is commonly said Janet needs no introduction amongst anyone interested in the space between archaeology and folklore. Janet work in the holy well field includes the Curses and Cures, Holy wells in Britain and the seminal Sacred Waters – a copy of which I myself purchased back in a Truro bookstore in 1985. A purchase which was very influential and lead to the birth of my fascination and research into the area. So it is with great honour that I introduce the first of a Source inspired articles (the next three from similarly influential James Rattue, Mark Valentine the original founder and Tristan Gray-Hulse editor of the new Series)
Anyone who regularly visits holy wells must be aware of how they can differ in appearance and atmosphere. We all know the delight of finding a hidden spring bubbling into a clear pool, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the landscape; and probably we can also all remember wells that are unloved and derelict. Those can often have a charm of their own too, perhaps being in an evocative place, or with enough remaining to suggest what the place was once like. Sadly there are also wells that are in awful locations, and perhaps have also been badly restored; but luckily I can’t remember too many that come into this last category. One that does is St Tewdrig’s Well at Mathern in Monmouthshire (ST52279116), just to the south-west of Chepstow and distressingly close to the M48 motorway. It’s a shame that the well has been so insensitively and over-thoroughly restored, because the area around the church and well has an interesting history.
St Tewdrig was a king and martyr, probably born in the late 6th century. He handed over his kingdom to his son Meurig and lived as a hermit – until an angel appeared to him advising him to go and help Meurig who was in danger of being overrun by his enemies. Despite also being told by the angel that he would die, Tewdrig went to help his son, and the enemies fled on seeing the two men and their army standing on the bank of the River Wye at Tintern. Unfortunately Tewdrig was stuck by a lance thrown by a fleeing soldier, and mortally wounded. He was taken in a cart pulled by stags to a meadow near the River Severn, where a spring began to flow, and there he died and was buried. The place was given the name Merthyr Tewdrig (now Mathern) and a church was built over his grave. The name confirms that this is a genuinely ancient tradition, a ‘merthyr’ being an early Christian martyr’s burial place.
In the early 17th century, Francis Godwin, Bishop of Llandaff, gave orders that a coffin found beneath the church floor was to be repaired, as it was thought to be Tewdrig’s: ‘I discovered his bones, not in the smallest degree changed, though after a period of a thousand years, the skull retained the aperture of a large wound, which appeared as if it had been recently inflicted.’ On his orders, the coffin was reburied in the chancel and a stone tablet put on the wall above, telling the story of St Tewdrig and his death. In 1881 the coffin was rediscovered when repairs were being carried out, and in 1946 an old lady told author Fred Hando that the vicar had taken her into the church when she was a child and showed her a big hole that had been dug in the chancel, and ‘in a stone coffin, she saw the remains of King Tewdrig, with the hole made by the spear-point still visible in his skull.’
The well named for St Tewdrig is to be seen beside the lane just north of Mathern church, immediately south of the motorway. There seems to be no record as to what it looked like before being restored by the Monmouth District Council in 1977. Although they are to be thanked for ensuring the well wasn’t lost, it’s a pity that they decided on this earnest municipal restoration that is completely lacking in atmosphere. With its steep steps leading down between walls to the well below, it puts one in mind of a drinking water well, rather than a place where a saintly king died over a thousand years ago. But… it is impossible to be absolutely sure if this really was the spring which flowed where he died, because I have found no mention of it before 1847, at which time it was called Ffynnon Gor Teyrn. This name may possibly derive from the Welsh word cateyrn, meaning a ‘battle-king’, and is all the evidence we currently have that might confirm this as the saint’s well. But it is very close to the church, and all the evidence we have does suggest that this is indeed St Tewdrig’s well.