This month being important to St Mary or Our Lady I decided to do all the posts on wells related to this saint…..
Despite being close to the busy M6 motorway, the shrine of Our Lady of Fernhalgh remains a quiet and often difficult to find sacred place. The well arises in a square chamber with a wooden lid, which can be lifted to reveal the iron rich chalybeate water. This is enclosed by a roughly oval or rather octagon shaped walling which may have been the remains of a well house. Overlooking the well is a carving of Our Lady and Jesus enclosed in a stone niche and protected by a low grill with the words Ave Marie on it.
Ferny field or ancient shrine?
The age of this noted holy well is under some dispute. Some authorities believe that the name of the settlement name, Fernyhalgh is believed to mean in Anglo-Saxon “ancient shrine”; Etymologist Skeat used Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as evidence extracting ‘to ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londres’ meaning to distant shrines known in many lands. Ferne being distant or possibly ancient and halwe derived from Anglo-Saxon halgian meaning hallow. however it is more likely that it means “watery meadow abounding in ferns, “halgh being interchangeable with haugh”. “Fernig halth,” the Old English for “a field with ferns”
Possible confusion of sites
It is possible that the traditions associated with Fernyhalgh were transferred from a site in Preston itself. Taylor (1908) in his….. wrote: “The site is marked on the ordnance map at a spot about one hundred yards north-east from the Franciscan friary, from which it is now separated by the Lancaster Canal. To the east of it is Ladywell Street. Baines states that at a short distance from the Friary, there was an ancient well called Lady Well, frequented within living memory by the devout. Mr Hewitson, in his History of Preston, says that he examined the site in the year 1883, but could find no trace of the well. It was probably destroyed when the canal was made. Mr Hardwick, writing on ‘Well worship’ [Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, p.218] remarks that water, both in ancient and modern times, has been largely employed as a symbol of purity, and in the Roman Catholic church especially has been consecrated to religious purposes and rendered ‘holy’. He writes, “Hence, it is not surprising that many springs, and especially in the neighbourhood of religious houses should in the Middle Ages have been invested with a sacred character, or that superstition of a more ancient or heathen origin should yet as it were haunt their precincts. Many such wells, as those in connection with the ‘Old Friary’ at Preston which gave the name to Ladywell Street in that borough, like that which performed a similar office for the late, notorious ‘Holywell Street’ near The Strand in London, have passed away, and left nothing behind but the street nomenclature referred to….”
Taylor (1906) does not mention any legends but it is possible that confusion may have arisen and because Our Lady’s Shrine was still functioning traditions were transferred when the present building was constructed in 1685 with a group much more keen to encourage its venerability.
Father Christopher Tootel, writing in 1730 is said to have learnt from his parishioners around the end of the seventeenth century the story of its foundation. He was told that a merchant called Fergus Maguire was caught in a terrible storm on the Irish sea and prayed to the Virgin saying that if he would be saved he would do some deed of great piety. Soon the storm passed and upon arriving unharmed on the Lancashire coast was instructed by a vouch to find a place called Fernyhalgh and build a chapel there where a crab tree bore fruit without cores and near a spring. He searched for a long time and finally reached Preston was served by a girl who apologised for being late because she was tending to a stray cow at Fernyhalgh. He was then guided to the place and did find both tree and spring as well as a statue of the Virgin. He such built a chapel with a cross there and the site soon became a goal of pilgrims.
The finding of a statue suggests that it may have been an earlier site, however the account despite an interesting origin has no provenance further than the 19th century although it is said to be a family tradition of the Maguire family (in Thomas Maguire Fermanagh-The Native Chief and clans). The date varies as well from 1100 to 1484. However, giving support to the tale, Historian Whittle (1821) states that the: ‘
“the ancient cross stone… stands close to the Lady’s Well”.
And that he shown the crab-tree which was only felled in the early nineteenth century; although he is the only authority to refer to it and one has the feeling that this was said to support the legend. The cross by the well had been removed by 1843, although it only dated from the 1600s.
Restoration or creation?
The big question that hangs over the site is how old is it? If the legend above dates from the 1100s what happened to this chapel as the earliest true reference to anything at the site is in the Register of Archbishop Zouch of York which states that on the 8th January 1348-9. This states that:
“a licence was granted to Thomas son of Gilbert de Singleton to have divine service by a fit chaplain within the manors of Broughton, Fernyhalgh and Farmholes for three years..”
The date is significant being around the time of the Black Death and so is the length of time, over which they perhaps hoped the plague would die out. This still does not answer the question what happened to the chapel? It is possible that the any village associated with the site died out but there is no evidence.
The next mention is in 1454 when Nicholas Singleton of Broughton and his wife Margaret had a licence for a chaplain to celebrate divine service in the chapel of Fernyhalgh and in the oratory of their manor house. Such chapels were common in remote areas and remains of them in varying states can be found in Northern England. Obviously the chapel was closed in the 1547 Act in the Reformation. This appears to only suggest a small chapel or even a private one and does not suggest in any way that there was a shrine here. It seems more probable that the site was chosen by recusants because of some presence of a chapel; the well may have been domestic and chosen to create a shrine, with a story being back created to attract pilgrims. This was purchased in 1685 by local Catholics and soon according to Gillett (1957) records show that the site was being well used, two years later:
“Bishop Leyburn confirmed at Ladywell Chapel (St Marie’s) one thousand and sixty-nine persons.”
This raised the ire of the authorities who in 1718 sent twenty solders from Preston to suppress worship at the chapel. The appearance of the soldiers appears to have forced the worship underground, as the Rev Christopher Tootel records that
“June the twenty-ninth, 1718, was the last day of public praying at Our Lady’s Well”,
Tootel later adds that:
“we began to pray at our Lady’s Well, privately Aug. 5th, 1723”
Yet from that day to this the Catholic community have retained this site and preserved it against Protestant mobs and fires (the later in 2011). Now in the Diocesan Shrine of Lancaster, with a sort of strange Catholic theme park feel about it, pilgrims from all denominations visit from May to the end of October.