Outside the town of Mogenstrup is one of the most famed holy wells of Denmark. A holy well dedicated to a saint whose following spread across the Danish world, a saint still remembered from Orkney’s to Denmark – St Magnus or Mogens, a Danish Royal Martyr. Local traditions believes that the well was a pagan sacrifice site taken over by the early church and dedicated to the saint. When this re-dedication was done is unclear but it was certainly since 1292 as the area around has been called Magnus torp since.
The best time to visit the well was Midsummer by the sick and weak. There were certain ceremonies which had to be adhered to, which ensure the water’s best powers were bestowed, such as the giving of swords, jewellery or even animals. When the church was established they encouraged the giving of money into a box , a block and hence called block money, in the church. This paid for the church, the poor and those who had to guard the spring. It is said that its waters were particularly officious at midnight and that pilgrims were so keen to take its waters that fights would occur. On is recorded between two women in 1670 from Næstved in 1670 who fought to reach the spring first and the fight resulted in a law suit of the 1st July 1670.
Another tradition to ensure that the water was effective was that the applicant should approach the well in silence. Thus, they must not greet people once they had been to the spring, avoid again meeting anyone on a return visit. Of course you could collect water for someone else but it must not be sampled on the journey back or else its power would be lost. It was also thought that the water flowed greatest and was more efficacious at midnight and bowing three times against the sun was also recommended.
The water could be used for internal diseases including cancer, insanity and mental illnesses, or external one which require the area being rubbed. In the donation of money it is said that odd money was needed for external diseases but also rags were would be used where the affected area would be rubbed or tied to and then left at the site. There are accounts of those suffering from arthritis donating their crutches to the church as firewood! Unlike British clouts it is said that the clothes were buried as local people would steal them or burn. Local accounts tell sometimes people came had their sight restored or even their life by virtue of the saint!
The Reformation here too had an impact and in 1536 there are records of the clergy trying to prevent people access the site. However, over a hundred years later, accounts of 1681-86 record that the weak and crippled were still visiting the spring donating 3-5 shillings. There were said to be several thousand at midsummer.
A turnpike was established in 1824 through the woods, the outflow was channelled into a fountain with a lion’s head which itself was restored by 1862 by the owner of a local brewery obviously tapping the water. However, the move was to have a negative impact on the supposed powers of the spring and numbers of visitors dropped.
The holy well still survives arising in a circular basin whose overfull continues to the lion’s head, however the vast concourse of pilgrims have long gone.
Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
Harrison is a typical Canadian settlement. Clinging to the wilds, remote, a mixture of desolate and delightful. Full of welcoming people and for following of this blog a curious water source which is the very reason for its existence!
Ancient sacred springs
The Harrison area is an area rich in ancient First Nation relics. The local tribe here are the Sts;Ailes (Chehalis) who established themselves along the Harrison River. The spring was called Waum Chauk and said to have supernatural properties and had healing properties if drunk. The nature of their veneration is unclear but as a tribe their association with the ‘mythical’ Sasquatch is an interesting side observation especially as I visited on their Sasquatch Day.
I spoke at length to the elder of the Sts’Ailes on Sasquatch Day who informed me that they no longer bless the source of the Harrison hot springs but another spring further around the lake edge. Water was still important to their community and the morning of the Sasquatch Day, the tribe’s holy man had blessed the lake water in a private ceremony.
Two hot springs
There are two springs nearby. One which produces potash whose temperature is 40 °C, and presumably that is the one which flows rather unannounced a few yards from the larger and more obvious sulphur spring. It’s temperature is 65 °C and this is very noticeable. The spring produces 1300 ppm of dissolved mineral solids which is the highest of any mineral spring.
From the hotel a path leads to the left around the side of the lake and beneath the dense mossy woods. It reaches the source of the spring and stops. This source of the sulphur spring is like one would have imagined Bath’s sacred spring looked. The spring arising to fill in a large pool, which produced a considerable amount of steam even on a hot June day. The actual source is enclosed in an odd concrete chamber flowing out to one side. Huge plumes of hot steam arise from it and the smell of sulphur is considerable. In the pool nearby are small fishes who appear to be making nests of pebbles, the temperature whilst not as hot as 65 °C perhaps, is still very warm and these species clearly are adapted to the warm waters.
Discovery by the European settlement happened when three miners from the Cariboo gold field capsized in the lake and should have frozen to the their death but surprisingly they lived – kept alive by the warm waters of the town’s titular springs. Whatever the truth behind the story is unclear but soon after the discovery commercial use was being investigated.
A Joseph Armstrong purchased the 40 acres of land around the spring in 1873 and set about building a spa complex. He named the well St Alice’s Well, a pun based on his daughter’s name and possibly on the original First nation Sts’Ailes. He separated the spring from the lake, which was thought to have been impossible by engineers and by 1886 St. Alice Hotel was built which could accommodate 50 guests. The building was burnt down in 1905 and the present Harrison Hot Springs hotel built nearby.
The Modern spa complex
The hot spring water is piped to two locations. One the public baths and the other the Harrison Hot Springs resort. The Harrison Hot Springs Hotel was opened in May 1926 by a Belgium emigre Mme Marguerite de Guesseme. She stayed until 1943 when the building was taken over for the war effort. Here six baths of differing temperatures are established. If you visit Harrison, a stay at the hotel is a must. The hot spring is directly piped to a central bath of which a sign reads not to sit in there for more than 10 minutes. Despite this a number of people were ignoring this and staying for too long. The middle temperature pool was the best and one could sit there for hours looking on the snowcap mountains ahead and listening to the cries of wild animals in the surrounding woods – or perhaps Sasquatch.
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.
“It could have been Illmington Spa not Leamington Spa” Newfoundwell, the forgotten chalybeate spring of Warwickshire
Leamington Spa is a well-known spa town, although its spa heritage is not capitalised much, however if only by a twist of fate or geography that the main spa town would be Leamington and not Ilmington spa. For not far from the Gloucestershire border is the village of Ilmington, a quiet sleepy village but once hopes were high for the settlement when in 1681 a plan was made to capitalise on a chalybeate spring found in the parish. Local legend tells that the Lord of the Manor, Henry Lord Capel, saw a local woman washing her eyes in the water of the spring and asked why. She said they eased her eyes and as a result he then contacted local physicians. It was publicised by Oxford Physicians Samuel Derham and William Cole. In their Hydrologia Philosophica or An Account of ILMINGTON WATERS the author describes it great details the qualities of the emerging potential spa. He notes after a lengthy background:
“Now I shall proceed to Enquire, what are the Ingredients of Ilmington Spaw, first taking notice of its Colour, which is far more pale then Rock-spring water. With Syrup of Violets it would turn green, like Alkalizate Liquors with that syrup: with Galls, to a Purple; like Martial Vitrioline Waters: for Cuprous Vitrioline with Galls turn muddy with a very little Purple or Black; but of this more afterwards. Its body being of a thick muddy consistence, I weighed (in a very dry Season) a Pint of this Spaw-water against a Pint of ordinary Water, but the Spaw exceeded near half a Drachm. Another time after a wet Season and when the Ocre was fallen an old Pint pot of common Pump-water weighing 18 Ounces did equalize (and if either, did turn the Scales) the same quantity of the Spaw-wa∣ter: which may caution us from prefixing a determinate Weight to any Spring-water. Variety in the Weight of Waters may appear by comparing That Salt spring water of Droitwich with sweet springs, yea to him that compareth the Waters of several sweet springs together, For the Esurine salt many times being carried along with the water sliding through its secret Meanders or veins of the Earth; of which part insinuateth itself into, and part corroding occurrent bodies; it fretteth off fragments, such as fragmenta ferrea from Iron-stones, and particles from ordinary stones, which are carried along with the water, and lie latent to the naked eye in its pores, but by Distillation, Evaporation &c. will appear, Whence of necessity followeth a great variety in weight, according to the greater or less quantity of sabulum or fragments therein contained.”
He then notes about the mineral properties. He continues:
“Then I proceeded to enquire after the Mineral, with which this Spring was impregnated. And first I took about half a pint of new milk, upon which in a Porringer I poured this water fresh from the Spring-head, but could not discern any coagulation; yea, for anything did appear, this mixture differed not from a mixture of milk and ordinary spring water. After four miles carriage of the water, when the reddish Ocre began to subside, I poured upon warm milk from the cow a pretty quantity of this water, and let it stand at least twelve hours; but neither in this mixture, nor in milk and this Spaw-water boiled together, did any Coagulum appear. Hence I began to suspect, that its brackish taste was not from an acid Salt; therefore on this spring-water I instilled some oyl of Tartar, but upon the instillation, and the standing of the water all night, a very small curdling did ensue; only the mixture looked more white than the Spaw-water itself, which alteration of colour proceeded from the oyl of Tartar. Whereupon I concluded, that no Acid salt was here predominant, yea rather as such, scarce discernable in this Spring; it being, as I shall hereafter prove, far nearer to an Alkali than to an Acid salt.”
After trying with galls, a common method of testing mineral waters, the author notes:
“Now considering the small quantity of Galls, with which a Pint of water was thus tinged, I believe we may compare our new found Spaw (in this particular) with any of the English Medicinal waters, yea with the German Spaws so much in request.”
One of the important aspects of promoting a new potential spa was to compare it to well-known others. The author notes:
“Besides, Aluminous Springs are purgative, witness the Scarbrough Spaw, Epsom and Barnet Waters, &c. but this near Ilmington worketh most what by Urine. Yea perhaps (and truly) I might conclude, That this Spaw in respect of its mineral ingredients worketh not by Siedge. I know it may be objected, That some persons drinking of this water do there upon find a loosness, perhaps to the number of four or five stools or more, To which I might answer, That any simple Spring-water drank in a large quantity, will purge by its own weight: for as it lyeth heavy upon the stomach and intestines it oppresseth Nature, whence the Peristaltick motion is excited to expell that which infests and is burdensome; and if the water doth much oppress the sto∣mach before it pass through the Pylorus, vomiting is the effect according to Dr. Willis. Besides that, Alum is an Acid, as I have al∣ready proved, and also is a Cathartick; both which properties are not to be found in this Spaw, comparatively more than in ordinary Spring-water. I observed also, that the Excrements of those that drank this water were turned blackish, which is a consequent to the taking of Chalibeat Medicines, but not to the drinking of Aluminous waters. But observing this Water after its being exposed to the open air for some time, either stagnating at the Spring-head, or else as it is set in open vessels hath a blewish Cremor swimming on the top or surface of the Water, much resembling waters that stand long upon sulphureous bogs; I began to enquire, whe∣ther this might not be a Sulphureous Spring, like that at Knarsbrough, &c. By an Analysis of this Water into its Principles, not one grain of combustible Sulphur is to be found.”
The new spa begun to popular, it was described by William Dugdale in his 1730 Antiquities of Warwickshire as:
“much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.
However, it would look like the visitors were not enough. The site attracted no well-known visitors, no royalty, no patronage of note and so within the same century the well fell out of favour. It went largely out of use about the time of the enclosure of the common fields in 1781. The Well House built to provide shelter for the users of the well, remained standing for another 80 years. Later the spring became a watering place for stock. In 1998 erosion of the bank of the pond revealed the worked stone. On recovery, it was found to be a sizeable fragment of the basin. This is now incorporated into a fountain a plaque on which reads:
“This is a fragment of a basin installed around 1682 by the Lord of the Manor, Lord Capel to collect water from the chalybeate spring known as Newfound Well. The spring (1/4 m NW of Ilmington on the path to Lower Larkstoke) was described by Dugdale (1730) as: “much frequented’ and of particular value for the treatment of ‘scrophulous and leprous cases”.
Today the site is a large oval shaped pool in fields above the village. Two plastic pipes in the western end of the pool pour copious amounts of water into it which flows beyond the path into a stream. On one side of the pond can be seen stone work which may be part of the bath house, if so it is unrecorded.
Standing on this remote quiet location it is difficult to imagine what the place could have been like if the spring had had more money poured into its development. One the county’s first spas, which ironically unlike its better known cousin still flows from its main source rather from a pipe!
Extracted from forthcoming Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire
One of the first holy wells that I discovered in my first forays into the subject was the variously named site which hides itself beneath the old leper hospital at Harbledown. Having my appetite whetted by journeys in the west country I was eager to find similarly romantic sites in the east and the well did not disappoint.
Like many sites in those days I had read of it bit not seen a picture, so I was very pleased to see the spring emerging at the foot of the hill enclosed in a six foot high semicircular domed well head made from Kentish rag stone and surrounded by brightly coloured flowers.
The well was noted as being able to cure leprous ailments, and presumably this is why the leper hospital was built in 1084 by Archbishop Lanfranc to exploit its properties, although this is not recorded. Why the Black Prince? It is the only well associated with the would-be monarch and joins a select group of well connected with royalty which have ‘religious’ and healing connotations.
The reason by for it is said that amongst its many early pilgrims looking for a cure for this complaint was Edward the Black Prince, who patronised the well twice: the first on his last journey to Canterbury, when he was cured, and then finally, on his death bed in 1376. Unfortunately in this latter case the waters were obviously of no use, being unable to rid him of his syphilis, of which he died. The well subsequently named after the knight.
It would appear previously and not unsurprisingly it had been named after nearby Canterbury’s holi blissful martyr Thomas Becket. For Canterbury pilgrims, it was their first view of the great Cathedral and so it have become a significant watering hole before they made the last steps to that great Shrine of St. Thomas. According to Francis Watt (1917) in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways this was the seventh St. Thomas’s Watering at Harbledown – one of a whole list stretching the Pilgrim’s way. It still bears the alternative name of St. Thomas’s Well, a dedication unlike other sites would seem to be related to be a direct relationship, for it is recorded that he drunk from the well, accidentally leaving a shoe. Understandably, after the martyrdom, this became an important relic, and was held by the Hospital. It is also from this well that Henry II being responsibly for Becket’s murder walked barefoot into Canterbury where he was flogged by all the bishops as part of his penance. He also Henry II established an annual 40 marks grant to the leper hospital which apparently is still paid by the City Treasury today apparently.
For those unable to drink straight from the well, water was often administered to those living far from it. Evidence for this being the discovery of a leather pouch found near the well. Indeed, even the early part of this century the water was still used, especially by those from afar, for H. Snowdon Ward (1904) Tales of Canterbury Pilgrimages remarks that:
“the water is still in some repute for its curative powers. The sub-prior of the hospital told us that he still occasionally receives small remittances from various parts of the continent…”
Julian Mary Cartwright (1911) The Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury illustrates that its local reputation was still current before the Great War. He records that it was:
‘still believed by Country folks to be of great benefit to the eyes.’
Most interesting a carved stone, in its central apse, depicts the Black Prince’s coat of arms, three feathers taken from the King of Bohemia at Crecy. This stone appears to have been possibly derived from another structure rather than being carved especially for the well head, as do the fluted stones shown in earlier photos (cf Goodsall (1968) in his Kentish Patchwork), which are now apparently missing. An 1836 woodcut shows a circular basin above the lower step and a venerable old tree growing from its roof.
Either side of the well head are two courses of rag stone walling. The well is reached by a series of stone steps between two courses of stone walling. The water emerges, as a small trickle, through a five inch diameter red clay pipe, flowing to fill a circular basin. Often it is dry. Yet it is c
ertainly the well is one of the most interesting and enchanting of Kent wells.
(taken from the Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent)
Directions: The Black Prince’s Well is found to the right of a path that curves around past the Leper Hospital / almshouses, and through the forecourt of a house.
Guest blog post: Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Elian, Llanelian… the ‘Cursing’ well? by Jane Beckerman
A great pleasure to have an account of North Wales most infamous well from the person who restored this once lost site, Jane Beckerman. We met briefly last year at last month’s holy well site Ffynonn Sara with Janet Bord and Tristan Grey Hulse and she has kindly provided this account, extracted from her forthcoming book on its history a great way to end our twelve months of North Welsh wells…
Near the small village of Llanelian in North Wales, lies one of the most important holy wells not just in Wales, but the British Isles. She looks very different now but two hundred and fifty years ago, beside the small, old road leading from Colwyn Bay to Llanelian Church, there was a large square wall surrounding an inner well with a lockable door, a fountain, pathways and even a bathing pool. From her untraceable beginnings to the middle of the 19th century, thousands of people visited the well and the nearby church, in order that their wishes might be granted by Saint Elian.
Ffynnon Elian (The holy well of St. Elian) has a long history, but from the beginning of the 18th century to half-way through the 19th, she was both famous and feared for her power to grant destructive wishes, or to ‘curse’. Known far and wide as the ‘Cursing Well’ and reaching the height of her notoriety in the early years of the 19th century, Ffynnon Elian was thought of as the place where it was possible to put a terrifying and successful curse on your enemies. The flood of sensational writing about the well, beginning in the 1780s tells us that people lived in fear and died of fright if they thought, or were told, that they had been ‘put in the well’. Only one of the writers, who visited the well during the period of her greatest notoriety challenged the idea that a holy well would have been used in so overwhelmingly poisonous and destructive a way. This fearsome reputation has continued and until recently has never been challenged.
Recent research shows that the ‘power’ of Ffynnon Elian was a fascinating and complex phenomenon and that the well was used essentially to undo supposed ill-wishing. The power of the well that endured was her reputation for curing the ‘curses’ of everyday life, for exposing wrong-doing and returning property to its rightful owner.
The ‘curses’ of life in North Wales during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, when the ‘cursing’ reputation became established, were many. Enclosure acts took away areas of common land for grazing a few animals and growing small amounts of food; the war with France took men, and their wages, away from homes and families; the weather between 1795 and 1816 was so poor that harvests were ruined or insufficient. Corn prices soared, riots ensued. Industrialisation brought new employment opportunities to North Wales, but new dangers with it. Improved farming methods and machinery brought some relief through better harvests, but there were fewer jobs available and staple crops like oats and barley were being neglected in favour of the ‘new’ crops, potatoes and wheat; less reliable in the uncertain weather of North Wales, and less nourishing.
A report prepared for Thomas Pennant in around 1775, in preparation for his Tours of Wales, contains the account given above of the way Ffynnon Elian looked at that time and also the first account of well’s powers to redress wrong doing. A woman at the beginning of the eighteenth century visited the well with a friend, to find out who had stolen her coverlet, and to ask that the item be returned to her. The two women had come to Ffynnon Elian from Llandegla, 40 miles away, past several other holy wells and places of healing. After visiting the well they both knelt before the altar in the church at Llanelian, a few hundred yards away, to ask for Saint Elian’s blessing. After praying, the petitioner waited outside the church, while her friend was unable to rise from her knees. St Elian refused to let her rise until she had confessed to the theft of the coverlet. Ffynnon Elian at that time was thought of as literally a ‘fountain’ of truth and justice that was not available elsewhere.
Thomas Pennant, a wealthy landowner, and a JP as well as a travel writer, promoted the myth of Ffynnon Elian as a place of malignant ‘cursing’ and wrote that he himself had been threatened. Further reading tells us that he had been astonished to find that other wealthy landowners were not bringing thieves to court because they were scared of being ‘put in the well’ (‘cursed’ at Ffynnon Elian). He reports his dismay that people were ‘stealing turneps’ with no threat of redress. It is difficult to be wholly sympathetic when one realises the circumstances in which people were stealing cattle food, almost certainly to eat themselves. And it points to another way Ffynnon Elian was used; as a way of redressing the very unequal social balance of the time.
Ffynnon Elian helped those who believed themselves or family members to have been ‘cursed’, or wronged, down on their luck, or ill. Depositions from a court case in 1818 described exactly why they went to the well. The depositions also describe what actually happened there. The ancient practice of transformation through water, traceable in Wales to pre-Roman society, and certainly used by the Romans in Wales in the shape of ‘cursing tablets’, impelled people to seek guidance, help and healing, in the absence of other agency, through the intercession of St Elian. A recent article in this blog talks about ‘cursing tablets’. Ffynnon Elian stands near to one of the Roman roads running towards Anglesey. Ritual at the well revealed at the 1818 court case shows that comparison can usefully be made with Roman custom at holy wells.
Ffynnon Elian, like all living things, changed her shape, her looks and her customs over the centuries. Her last, and best-known guardian, Jac Ffynnon Elian, only stopped offering his services in the 1850s. The continuing ‘magic’ of Ffynnon Elian was the deep belief she inspired in her power to transform lives. Jac Ffynnon Elian wrote that a man could be cured by the strength of his own beliefs, or he could suffer because of them. The history of this extraordinary well is testimony to his words.
A complete history of Ffynnon Elian is in preparation
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
The other noticeable spring, (see here for the other) in the picturesque suburb of Carshalton is St. Margaret’s Well. It appears to be an obvious holy well with that name, however it may not that clear cut. The area was redeveloped by the noted John Ruskin, social reformer, philanthropist, art critic and environmentalist, as a memorial to his mother. A rectangular stone reading:
“In obedience to the giver of Life,
of the brooks and fruits that fed it,
and the peace that ends/may this well be kept sacred,
for the service of men’s flocks and flowers,
and be by kindness called/Margaret’s well.”
This pool was beautifie and endowed by John Ruskin Esq M.A.,L.L.D.,/1876.”
Ruskin kept detailed notes on the work to repair the site. He wrote of his first intentions he mused:
“Half-a-dozen men, with one day’s work could cleanse these pools and trim the flowers about the banks…”
By 1872 Ruskin he was repairing the site using George Brightling, a local historian to help him and it is his letters of correspondence which tell us something of the work done on it. As the area was a manorial waste, Ruskin had to get approval from the manor court and in 1872 they agreed that Ruskin:
“be at liberty to make improvements to the rear of the Police Station by forming a Dipping Well with a pathway thereto and outlet from the pond, and in so doing to give the same facilities for the use of the water as now exist and to clear out the pond at his own expense and to continue to do so and to plant shrubs and flowers by the paths.”
This is clearly suggests that there was not a well already on the site, but whether there was a spring which already bore the name is not clear. By April 12th that year Ruskin had asked Mr Scott to draw up plans and to protect the opening from all possibility of pollution and to face the wall above the pond with stone. A further letter from from a Gilbert Scott to Brightling dated 15 April 1872 describe:
“It consists mainly of a facing of the central part of the wall – say equal to those central arches – with marble – I would say a foot thick, with projecting counter- points from the piers of – say – 2 to 2½ ft projection, & 3 ft wide. I think that the side arches of his work will not be so wide as the present side arches, though the central arch will coincide with the present one in width. The main thing probably is the foundation for all this, which must be based on whatever substratum there is capable of supporting the work..”
However, the marble fountain was never constructed. By 1877 it was basically constructed and every photos show a rustic wooden bridge over the outflow and similarly rustic fencing. Today, the pool is very rarely full of water, but the decorative remain and most can be seen peering through the railings. Beside the railings on the footpath remains the dipping well supplied by a pump…sadly dry.
Holy Well or not?
Whitaker in his Water supplies of Surrey calls it Lady or St. Margaret’s Pond. The spring is certainly the main one of the settlement that referred to in the place name of Auueltone in 675. Sadly, the church which can aid in identifying holy wells is called All Saints. On reflection I think it is likely considering Ruskin’s concern for nature that he found a well named the same his mother rather than invent it. One hopes that a modern day Ruskin could tidy it up once again!
Interested in Surrey holy wells? Check out James Rattue’s Holy wells of Surrey.- an indispensable guide