Lying in a public park in a small town in Cheshire is a curiously named holy well. My first attempt to find the site in the 1990s was unsuccessful but it is reassuring that a return in 2014 not only found the park it lies in being much improved but now there were signposts to the well.
The Synagogue Well is perhaps uniquely named in the country a point I shall refer to later. Charles Hope in his 1893 “notes:
“The Synagogue Well, evidently one of great antiquity, and, before an attempt was made to improve it, of most picturesque appearance, is in the grounds of Park Place, Frodsham, late belonging to Joseph Stubs, Esq.”
Hope’s claim that it was of great antiquity however does not appear to easy to substantiate. However it certainly attracted antiquarian interest, William Beaumont in his 1888 An Account of the Ancient Town of Frodsham in Cheshire records in comparison to a similar site in the county:
“Such a fount there is at Frodsham, called ‘The Synagogue Well,’ which sends forth waters as copious and as limpid as that once frequented by Numa. It seems as if such a fount was necessary near an ancient castle; for as this fount rises close to the site of Frodsham Castle, so at the foot of Beeston Castle there is a similar spring. They both spring from the living rock, and both have a large square stone basin to receive the surplus water as it flows away.”
A poet’s romantic origin
In an unusual feature for a holy well, the site was immortalized in a poem which records:
“THE SYNAGOGUE WELL
The Roman, in his toilsome march, Disdainful viewed this humble spot, And thought not of Egeria’s fount And Numa’s grot.
No altar crowned the margin green, No dedication marked the stone; The warrior quaffed the living stream And hasten’d on.
Then was upreared the Norman keep, Where from the vale the uplands swell But, unobserved, in crystal jets The waters fell.
In conquering Edward’s reign of pride, Gay streamed his flag from Frodsham’s tower, But saw no step approach the wild And sylvan bower ;
Till once, when Mersey’s silvery tides Were reddening with the beams of morn, There stood beside the fountain clear A man forlorn;
And, as his weary limbs he lav’d In its cool waters, you might trace That he was of the wand’ring tribe Of Israel’s race.
With pious care, to guard the spring, A masonry compact he made, And all around its glistening verge Fresh flowers he laid.
“God of my fathers!” he exclaimed, Beheld of old in Horeb’s mount, Who gav’st my sires Bethesda’s pool And Siloa’s fount,
Whose welcome streams, as erst of yore, To Judah’s pilgrims never fail, Tho’ exil’d far from Jordan’s banks And Kedron’s Vale
Grant that when yonder frowning walls, With tower and keep are crush’d and gone; The stones the Hebrew raised may last, And from his Well the strengthening spring May still flow on! “
A Jewish Mikveh, consonantal drift or folly bath?
Despite the poet’s assertion that “he was of the wand’ring tribe, Of Israel’s race.” and that: “The stones the Hebrew raised may last” relics of Britain’s Jewish heritage are scant and any site associated with them historically is of course of great interest and importance. But is Frodsham Castle’s an example? Such baths have been uncovered which were originally ritual baths called Mikveh or Mikvah was this site one? It might be convenient to associate the site with a Jewish community attached to Frodsham Castle. However, there no evidence of a community ever being located there or in the more likely medieval Chester.
So where does the name come from? Beaumont (1888) records that:
“Some have suggested that Saint Agnes was its’ patron, and that thence it won its name.”
This belief is recorded on the current sign beside the well but the name itself is problematic. The majority of St. Agnes dedications appear to associated with late or spurious holy wells such as St. Agnes at Cothelstone where legends of love-lorn visits are linked – all Victorian romantic stuff. The clue to the origin of the well is again recorded by Beumont who states:
“The basin of that at Horsley is called a bath, and, as might be expected, the Synagogue well was also called, for once there was a curate at Frodsham who was an inveterate bather, and he resorted thither every morning and bathed in the well even when it was frozen over, and he had to break the ice before he could have his invigorating bath. But he was of a swimming family, and his father, Sir Lancelot Shadwell, Master of the Rolls, might often be seen leading his seven sons in a swim down the Thames.”
This suggests that the site was probably a plunge pool or cold bath folly. Indeed the steps down in one corner suggest this and the sandstone fabric does not look old enough to be anything of antiquity. Perhaps one of the bathers was Jewish at some point and a local joke developed? Unlikely.
Another option may be that the chamber was the water supply for the castle or great houses. Similar basins exist associated with castles such as Wollaton Hall’s, coincidentally called the Admiral’s Bath due a local resident bathing in it, despite it being a water supply at the time!
Perhaps now the site is no longer being used a receptacle for garden waste, more research may be done to reveal the details.
One of the fundamental important aspects of humanity is the understanding of both the importance of water and its purity. In the Hebrew faith, the significance of water in having a ritual cleansing function has been distilled into the mikveh, Mikvah, Mikve or Mikva which literally translated means ‘collection of water’. Unlike many of the sites recorded on this blog, mikveh still have a central and pivotal role in all forms of the faith.
The Mikveh thus has a wide range of purifying functions. Firstly, to enter the Temple, the person needed to be purified, but the convert would also need such purification. Secondly, the body of a woman would become ‘purified’ by immersion after child birth and menstruation, Niddah, so that marital relations could be resumed. However, deeper research of the Torah suggest an even greater amount of uses:
• after Keri — normal emissions of semen, whether from sexual activity, or from nocturnal emission;
• after Zav/Zavah — abnormal discharges of bodily fluids;
• after Tzaraath — certain skin condition(s).
• by anyone who came into contact with someone suffering from Zav/Zavah,
• by Jewish priests when they are being consecrated
• by the Jewish high priest on Yom Kippur, after sending away the goat to Azazel, and by the man who leads away the goat
• by the Jewish priest who performed the Red Heifer ritual
• after contact with a corpse or grave, in addition to having the ashes of the Red Heifer ritual sprinkled upon them
• after eating meat not dispatched kosher
Consequently, with such a wide range of demands, Mikveh would be placed in domestic and public locations. Importantly, the water used for a Mikveh, natural spring water was preferred if clean and not affected by mineralisation, like chalybeate springs. Alternatively, water derived from rain, snow or ice is considered pure enough.
However, I am focusing on the discovery of one particular Mikveh which dates from the mid-13th century. A medieval Jewish community existed in England from 1066, when William the Conqueror invited the community to establish themselves in a ghetto until its expulsion in 1290 by Edward I. A report in the Guardian from October 25th 2001 reported that what is thought to be the oldest physical evidence of Jews in Europe and the only found in London was discovered. This was during a routine excavation of the gold bullion vault of the State Bank of India in development of office works. It was in the area called the Old Jewry in London, on the corner of Gresham Street and Milk Street. So far no concrete evidence of Jewish life had ever been found in the area, supposedly because no difference could be seen in domestic buildings between Jews and gentiles. Howver, Dayan Ehrentreu, head of the Court of the Chief Rabbi, indentified it as a genuine mikveh.
It has been elucidated was that it was built for a local Medieval Jewish family called the Crespin family, however where it was a private site or part of a synagogue is not clear. The site made of well cut greensand stones consists of a semi circular basin around four feet across and four feet deep with a flight of stone steps leading down into it. The next oldest Mikveh site was found in the 1950s in Cologne, Germany and dates from 1170. Of course there may be many more Mikveh waiting to be discovered, another Mikveh may have been unearthed in the 1980s. It was described as “‘A rather strange tank-like structure was found about 100 yards from where this mikvah was found. It was identified at the time as possibly a strongroom, photographed, and cleared away,” It is said that years later, an archaeologist working in Israel looked at the photographs identified it as a Mikveh
The survival of this mikveh illustrates that water is important to all communities of the country and that water is important in ritual to all faiths. The Bevis Marks Synagogue paid to have the site removed and were to rebuild it in their grounds, but in the end it was set up in London’s prestigious Jewish Museum where it can be examined….a rare medieval relic.
The arid land of the holy land is watered by a number of ancient springs. Perhaps the most famed is the Ain il-‘adra or Mary’s Well, a well which has served its Arab community well over the millennium. It is located below Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in modern-day Nazareth. The church is so called because it is believed that the well was the location where the Annunciation occurred, Mary learnt she would be carrying Jesus from the Archangel Gabriel.
However, neither the Four Gospels nor The Koran mention her drawing water from the well at the time and it only appears earliest written account that lends credence to a well or spring being the site of the Annunciation comes from the 2nd century Protoevangelium of James non-canonical gospel which reads:
“And she took the pitcher and went forth to draw water, and behold, a voice said: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, you are blessed among women.”
The spring itself was one which fed the ancient city of Nazareth, and it was called ‘Spring of the Guardhouse’. Rae Wilson also describes “a well of the Virgin, which supplied the inhabitants of Nazareth with water” in his book, Travels in Egypt and the Holy Land (1824). An account in 1853 notes that:
“the water at this spring was very deficient this summer season, yielding only a petty trickling to the anxious inhabitants. All night long the women were there with their jars, chattering, laughing, or scolding in competition for their turns. It suggested a strange current of ideas to overhear pert damsels using the name of Miriam (Mary), in jest and laughter at the fountain of Nazareth.”
The present semi domed structure appears to be largely symbolic and no longer functions, although it was still used as a local watering hole until 1966. This was undertaken in 2000. During the late 1990s, evacuations revealed underwater systems suggestion its use as the town’s water supply from the Byzantine period and a separate accidental discovery revealed an underground bath house with Carbon dating it from the 1300s at the latest.
Hammat Gader’s mineral springs, one cold and four hot, fill the remains of a Byzantine bath house complex. Another Roman spa can be found on the southern side of Hammat but not as well preserved. The name Hammat means hot spring in Hebrew.
Another Mary’s Well is found in Jerusalem and is so named after the belief that she stopped there for a drink whilst visit John the Baptist’s parents and as a consequence it was a source of pilgrimage. Little can be found out regarding its history but it is thought that the spring has been used since the Bronze Age. The well is covered by a 19th century mosque.
More prominently mentioned in the bible is Jacob’s Well or Bir Ya’qub now lying in the Eastern Orthodox monastery named after it in Nablus. The Book of John states that Jesus:
“came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the field which Jacob gave to his son Joseph, Jacob’s Well was there.”
It was at this location that a Samaritan Women spoke to Jesus according to the Gospel of John. By the early 300 AD it is believed that the well was being used by Christians for baptism and by 380 AD a church was built over it according to Saint Jerome which survived into the 500s. Another church was built in the 700s but this was ruinous when the Crusaders mention the well as no church is mentioned. However, the Crusaders built a church for an account from the 12th century noted:
“it lies in front of the altar in the church built over it, in which nuns devote themselves to the service of God. This well is called the Fountain of Jacob.”
This church fell in 1187 during Saladin’s raids. For over 700 years, no church was built over the well and only ruins are noted as being nearby, then in 1860, a Greek Orthodox Church was constructed but this too was lost to an earthquake in 1927. But the site was rebuilt to resemble a Crusader church where the well is enclosed in the crypt where it now consists of a winch well complete with its bucket surrounded by icons and votive candles. Its deep burrowed into the rock is 41 feet and still contains water.