Leicester unsurprisingly being an ancient settlement boasts a number of wells all of which have been lost. The most noted is the spring-name called Tostings Well, which some authorities believe derives St Augustine’s Well. An author with the name ‘Leicestriensis’ says in 1852 (quoted in Potter (1985)) that it was
“now covered and enclosed; but within the memory of persons still living it was in the state… described by Nichols… “Good for sore eyes”… even since the enclosure of the well, many applications for water from the pump erected in the adjoining ground have, I know, been made… On making some enquiries a few years ago of “the oldest inhabitant”, he… exclaimed “Oh! You mean Tostings’s Well!”’.
Nichols (1795–1815) places near a footbridge called Bow-Bridge ran from the Friary near the West Bridge, over a back water of the Soar, to the garden called Bow Church Yard. He describes it as:
“for the use of the friars to a constant spring of limpid water, on the paved road side, a few paces distant, called St Austin’s Well”
It is noted when the Corporation mended the bridge in 1688, St Austin’s well was mending for £2 14s 8d. Nichols (1795-1815) notes that it was:
“Still overflowing with contribution to the back water… the well is three quarters of a yard broad, and the same in length within its inclosure, the depth of its water from the lip or back-edging on the earth, where it commonly overflows, is half a yard. It is covered with a mill-stone, and enclosed with stone and brick on three sides; that towards Bow-bridge and the town is open.”
Sadly it has now been entirely destroyed, occasioned by widening the road.
Slightly more difficult were the springs associated with Leicester Abbey were the Merrie Wells which Potter (1985) and Rattue (1993) suggest derivation of St. Mary’s Well, although no record confirms this. The springs too have been lost. .
More likely is unusually named St Sepulchre’s Well, recorded as Pulcre well in 1476 and was believed to be associated with a chantry of Corpus Christi recorded in 1458 in the payment records of de Joh. Paulmer pro crofto juxta fontem S. Sepulchri. It appears that by 1574 it was called according to Cox (1998-2004) ‘the spring at St James Chapell’ 1573, ‘the hermitage well’ 1638, and ‘the Chappell Well’ 1689,
‘Leicestriensis’ (1852) calls it St James’s Well, as the Chapel of St James survived that dedicated to St. Sepulchre. Billson (1895) notes it as:
“a holy well close to the old pond at the corner of Infirmary Square. This well had a never-failing supply of fresh water, until the deep drainage of the town diverted it from its original outlet.”
Leicester had two attempts at developing a spa, Spa place a terrace of four late Georgian houses remembers the first. Here in 1787 a mineral spring was discovered when a well was being sunk for cattle, and Spa Place. Watts (1820) comments how:
“furnished by the proprietor with neat marble baths and easy convenient appendage for bathing, has not been found to be sufficiently impregnated with mild properties to bring proper use”.
The Leicester Journal reported in 1794 that ‘Leicester Spa is now in high perfection’, Yet it was unsuccessful and by 1798 to a General Baptist College had taken over the site, this became a private house and latter offices. It is remember as Spa Lane.
Another mineral spring was discovered close to what is now Fosse Road North in 1830 by a local market gardener called Isaac Harrison. As a result the area becoming known as Newfoundpool. At the site a Hydropathic Institution was built but by 1835 it was converted into a private residence, Newfoundpool House where the Harrison family lived. However, some of the baths remained open for occasional use. There was another attempt in 1853 to advertise them as having:
“these baths will be found equal, if not superior, to any other baths in the neighbourhood”.
However the revival did not work and when in the 1880s ,the area was being developed, the Hydropathic Institution became the Empire Hotel. This become derelict in the 2005 and was demolished to build a Lidl supermarket in 2014.
The only other surviving of the city’s water history is the Cank Well a plaque of which exists on Cank Street.
Local tradition states that it was famous as a meeting place of gossips, the word cank being a term for cackle. However, this might be folk etymology as in Leicestershire it is a name of a hard ferruginous (i.e iron rich) sandstone and it may record chalybeate (iron rich) and those healing qualities. Alternatively cank may refer to cancer and it was a curative well…but we can debate and gossip that all we want, there is no evidence!
As the world’s cameras pour upon a curious funeral ritual of a long lost King, it is appropriate perhaps to examine a noted well associated with the monarch and the event which resulted in his demise. For in the grounds of the supposed Bosworth Battle field is King Richard’s Well, (SP 402 000) and here lies a mystery. Why celebrate a well associated with a loser?
The name first appears on the Ashby Canal Company map of 1781, 1784 Montague Estate survey of Sutton Cheney Dixie Estate map of 1788 notes simply as Ambion Well after the Hill The earliest written descriptive record of the well I have uncovered appears to be Ireland (1785) who notes in Picturesque views on the Upper of Warwickshire Avon:
“near the scene of the action is a Well, which still retains the name King Richard’s Well, there were formerly a flight of steps leading down to it; it is now long overgrown with rushes and running to waste.”
This would suggest the existence of an older structure, but how old this is unclear. The statement ‘long overgrown’ suggests some age before the date of the publication but how much we cannot know for sure. The description of the structure is too little to date it, although a similar structure was to be encountered in the county at based on a legend dating from….but that along gives no support for antiquity. Certainly, Nichols *() fails to mention the well, which is unusual considering his interest in holy and ancient wells elsewhere in the county, was it an oversight or was it not very well known then.
Hutton in the Gentleman’s magasine Vol 83 part 2
“ I paid a visit in July 1807 to Bosworth Field; but found so great an alteration since I saw it in 1788, that I was totally lost. The manor had been inclosed: the fences were grown up; and my prospect impeded. King Richard’s well, which figures in our Histories was nearly obliterated; the swamp where he fell became firm land; and rivulet proceeding from it lost in an under-drain, so that future inspection is cut off.”
Dr. Parr visited the site in 1812 found in drained and closed up since he had visited in six or seven years previous. He organised a subscription with a suitable Latin inscription. Of course as Peter Foss (1990) notes in The Field of Redemore the cairn may not mark the exact one as there are a number of springs there. Nevertheless the site was repaired in 1964 with limestone rubble.
A local legend records that it was from the spring which Richard drank before the battle. This might suggest that the well was already noted and perhaps a holy well? Another legend records that on a hawthorn tree near the spring King Richard’s crown was found which would be very coincidental if the former legend was correct. This seems likely to be a piece of folklore later adapted to support the well rather than vica versa.
Why commemorate the King’s well at all?
The association of royalty with springs is an understudied aspect of the subject and I have already given an overview here. It appears such dedications fall in three groups: Holy wells (such as those associated with saintly kings), true historical associations and antiquarian musings! But which one does Richard’s Well belong to? Certainly the later two, but is there another tradition hiding beneath that?
His burial in Greyfriars suggests that the community perhaps wanted to capitalise on any cult which might developed. Kings after all did develop into cult figures, England has a number from Edward II to Henry VI although only pre-Norman Kings have ever been canonised. Perhaps, as I have hinted those who die could be considered martyrs and the church attempted to develop a cult around them. Was this one still born due to the Reformation?
Interestingly, Dickie’s Well is not the only well associated with the unfortunate king, in Warwickshire at Kineton, perhaps giving more evidence. More significantly perhaps is King Dick’s Hole, a deep part of the Anker where local tradition Richard bathed before the battle, may have stationed his troops at Mythe Hall.
Again all this supposition especially as the name appears only the late 1700s it perhaps more a romantic notion than record any cult tradition.
In the right place?
This is an obvious question, as in 2011 archaeologists and historians cast serious doubt over the belief that Bosworth field was the location. However, a number have used the well to support the view. In support of his for example Daniel Williams (1985) in A place mete for twoo battayles to encountre’: the siting of the Battle of Bosworth, 1485 cites the local tradition of King Richard’s Well, near the top of Ambion Hill on its western side, from which Richard is supposed to have drunk before the battle. There is also the discovery of cannonballs on Ambion Hill.
A number of historians have placed the marsh to varying degrees south and south-westward of Ambion Hill. Hutton located it on the slopes of the hill itself, created, he argued, by poor drainage of the spring at Richard’s Well. Others have tended to site the marsh nearer the Sence brook, regarding this as the probable source of waterlogged ground. Peter Foss (1990), however, in keeping with his theories about Redemore, has the marsh over half a mile to the south-west at the Fenn Lanes crossing.
Whatever the truth, Richard’s Well is one of the most famous springs associated with a King and a great part of the battlefield landscape.