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