On the outskirts of Loughborough is an area called holywell, but pronounced ‘holly’, I have found very little about the well which gave its name. Trubshaw (1990) in his book on holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland mentions it and there is a post with a modern picture on Megalithic Portal, but shows a rather boring brick structure and not he elliptical basin the former mentions. So I decided to investigate the twin sites of the well and it’s associated Holywell Haw.
A cursory glance at the map shows that it is virtually swallowed up by Loughborough University (hence the honours joke) is the estate of Holywell Haw, the present farmhouse taking its name from a spring nearby. Of the house itself it probably began life as a hostel for those lost in the most substantial Charnwood forest which has retracted around it. However by 1180 it had become a hermitage owned by Garendon Abbey and is first noted by the name of Holywell Haw, the later deriving from haw meaning enclosure, the same origin as hawthorn. Potter in his “History and Antiquities of Charnwood Forest”. (1842) notes it was described in a grant by Robert de Jort to the abbey the site being described as heremitorium de Halliwellhaga. The Testa de Nevill, 13th century records ‘a dairy, with a small wood, called Haliwelle Hawe’, which by the 14th century the Leicester Abbey purchased from a Henry Lord Beaumont ‘a certain parcel of wood called Holy-well Haw for £28′. They appear to have developed the area to what can be seen today: fishponds and moats, and probably used the site as a grange and possible a diary. What remains today is mainly 15th century with fragments of a medieval structure such as gothic doorways and timbers. Whether it was Holywell Haw or Hall is unclear. It has been blamed on the Ordnance Survey and indeed some blunders have been done in the past. However, it is possible that a 19th century owner, March Philips, had some sort of pretensions for the building and thought the name was better. By the eighteenth century name to Holywell Dyke, an eighteenth-century boundary mark for Charnwood Forest .It is now better known as a farm.
The Holy Well
The spring, is icy cold and never run dry, produces, according to Trubshaw 20,000 galloons a day and is one of the only non-incorporated spring in the Severn Trent catchment classed as A1 Drinkable. Local tradition states that it has medicinal qualities. Nichols (1795–1815) notes:
“The excellent spring is yet preserved”
Potter (1852) notes that it:
“.derives part of its name from a well, to the waters of which, even in recent times, considerable virtues have been attributed.”
However, its most famous legend is said to date from the 15th century
Potter (1852) notes that:
“The popular idea seems to be, that the Comyns (of Whitwick Castle) were great giants. One of them, said my informant, attempted to carry off one of the Ladies of Groby Castle, who left that place for security, intending to take sanctuary at Grace Dieu. Going, however, by a circuitous route, to avoid Charley and Whitwick, she was benighted, and would have perished in the Outwoods, but for one of the Monks of the Holy Well.”
The legend tells how after a considerable pursuit, she upon reaching the hermitage, collapsed and died. A monk then used the water to bring her back to life. Potter (1942) tells the story in verse:
|The oaks of the forest were Autumn-tinged, And the winds were at sport with their leaves When a maiden traversed the rugged rocks That frown over WOODHOUSE EAVES.||The Hermit upraised the stiffened form, And he bore to the HOLY WELL: Three Paters or more he muttered o’er, And he filled his scallop shell.|
|The rain fell fast – she heeded it not Though no hut or home appears; She scarcely knew if the falling drops Were rain drops or her tears.||He sprinkled the lymph on the Maiden’s face, And he knelt and he prayed by her side Not a minute’s space had he gazed on her face Ere signs of life he spied…..|
|Onward she hied through the OUTWOODS dark (And the Outwoods were darker then) She feared not the Forest’s deepening gloom She feared unholy men.||Spring had invested the CHARNWOOD oaks With their robe of glistening green, When on palfreys borne, one smiling morn, At the HOLY WELL’s HAW were seen.|
|Lord Comyn’s scouts were in close pursuit, For Lord Comyn the Maid had seen, And had marked her mother’s only child For his paramour, I ween.||A youth and a Lady, passing fair, Who asked for the scallop shell: A sparkling draught each freely quaffed, And they blessed the HOLY WELL.|
|A whistle, a whoop from the BUYK HYLLS side, Told Agnes her foes were nigh: And screened by the cleft of an aged oak, She heard quick steps pass by.||They blessed that Well, and they fervently blessed The Holy Hermit too; To that and to him they filled to the brim The scallop, and drank anew.|
|Dark and dread fell that autumn night: The wind-gusts fitful blew: The thunder rattled: – the lightning’s glare Showed BEACON’s crags to view.||“Thanks, Father! Thanks! – To this well and thee,” Said the youth, “But to Heaven most, I owe the life of the fairest wife That CHARNWOOD’s bounds can boast.|
|The thunder neared – the lightning played Around the sheltering oak; But Agnes, of men, not God afraid, Shrank not at the lightning’s stroke!||“The blushing bride thou seest at my side. (Three hours ago made mine) Is she who from death was restored to breath By Heaven’s own hand and thine”.|
|The thunder passed – the silvery moon Burst forth from her cave of cloud, And showed in the glen “Red Comyn’s” men, And she breathed a prayer aloud:-||“The Prior of ULVERSCROFT made us one, And we hastened here to tell How much we owe to kind Heaven and thee, For the gift of the HOLY WELL”.|
|Maiden mother of God! Look down List to a maidens prayer: Keep undefiled my mother’s sole child The spotless are thy care”||“In proof of which – to the HOLYWELL HAW I give as a votive gift, From year to year three fallow deer, And the right of the Challenge drift”.|
|” The sun had not glinted on BEACON HILL Ere the Hermit of the HOLY WELL Went forth to pray, as his wont each day, At the cross in Fayre-Oke dell.||“I give, besides, of land two hides, To be marked from the Breedon Brand: To be held while men draw from the Well in this Haw A draught with the hollow hand”.|
|Ten steps had he gone from the green grassy mound Still hemming the HOLY WELL HAW, When, stretched on the grass – by the path he must pass A statue-like form he saw!||The Hermit knelt, and the Hermit rose, And breathed “Benedicite! And tell me”, he said, with a hand on each head, “What heaven sent pair I see!”|
|He crossed himself once, he crossed himself twice, And he knelt by the corse in prayer: “Jesu Maria! cold as ice – Cold – cold – but still how fair!”||“This is the lost de Ferrers’ child, Who dwelt at the Steward’s Hay; And, father, my name – yet unknown to fame Is simply EDWARD GREY”.|
It is thought that after being revived she gave her name to God and became a prioress and some historians link it to a real life account of Eleanor Ferrars whose was carried off. It also has similarity to legends associated with Essex’s Running Well and Kent’s St. Thomas’s well at Singlewell.
The well today
Despite a leaflet mentioning the well from the University, available as pdf, it is a little reticent in regards to whether it can be visited. However, exploring around the back of the enormous Holywell complex a small path passes some gas cylinders and then to a stile. No keep out signs are present so I assumed it was okay to jump over. There almost in front of me is a large brick chamber covered by two large fibre glass up turned boats. These appear to cover the well. Peering between a gap however this rather unpromising edifice reveals something more interesting. The brick chamber encloses an elliptical natural stone or possibly medieval basin, into which a copious flow enters and fills and then flows through a pipe into the brook below. Despite the rather ugly surrounds there is still something ancient and mysterious about this most well known of Leicestershire sacred springs. The local farm, the Holywell Haw, still apparently uses the water and it is regularly checked by the Uni authorities. One hopes it can get a better cover, surely the university could afford a metal grid more worthy of this venerable site.
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Much has been written regarding holy wells culminating in Harte (2008) magnus opus but no survey has attempted to record all those wells and springs named after monarchs as far as I am aware. With Jubilee fever all around I thought it would be fitting to start an overview of this aspect of water lore in England. Starting with King well, a generic name, is by far the commonest with sites recorded at Chalk (Kent), Cuffley (Hertfordshire) (although associated with James I), Chigwell (Essex) (although probably cicca’s well)), Lower Slaughter (Gloucestershire), Kingsthorpe (Northamptonshire), Orton (Northumberland), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Ellerton (Staffordshire), Wartling (Sussex), and Bath (Somerset). Some of these such as Chigwell may be a etymological mistake being more likely derive from Cicca’s well and some such as Orton are thought to be associated with Iron age sites.
However, English wells and their associations with monarchs starts perhaps starts with King Arthur’s Well (Cadbury ) but taking this probably mythical king aside, and not considering those monarchs associated with the Celtic and Saxon Kingdoms (after all a high percentage of these early saints were the sons of Kings (such as those begat by King Brechan) or early kingly Christian converts for example St Oswald or St Ethelbert ) which are better known by their sanctity rather than their majesty, I start with sites associated with who is seen as being the first King of England; Alfred.
King Alfred’s Well (Wantage) is of unclear vintage arising as it does in a brick lined chamber although his association with the town is well known. However as Benham (1911) notes in his The Letters of Peter Lombard:
“a clear and bright spring, but I fear that the evidence that King Alfred ever had anything to do with it is not forthcoming. The site of his birthplace is not very far from the well”
Although that did not stop a procession to the well in the year 2000! St Peter’s Pump at Stourhead (Wiltshire) too has become associated with Alfred and it is said he prayed for water her before a battle, there is again little evidence if any of this. In East Dean (Sussex) there is another well named after him. Interestingly the direct descendents of Alfred do not appear to have gained any association with wells, perhaps being a measure of either their impact on folk memory. The next king is the rather tragic figure of Harold. Harold’s Well laying in the Keep of Dover Castle (Kent) is an interesting site, it is a typical castle well and unlikely to be the site where Harold is said to have according to Macpherson (1931) (MacPherson, E. R., The Norman Waterworks in the Keep of Dover Castle. Arch Cant. 43 (1931)) been were the King swore he would give with the castle to William of Normandy, later William I. (Wartling’s King well may record Harrold or William)
I can find no wells associated with the Norman Kings or Queens and the next monarch to appear is King John. He is interestingly the monarch with most sites associated with him, being in Heaton Park (Newcastle), Odell (Bedfordshire), Kineton (Warwickshire) and Calverton (Nottinghamshire) (although the later is recorded as Keenwell). This may be the consequence of his infamy and association with Robin Hood sites taking on his name in the telling and re-telling of Robin Hood tales. However, in most cases it would appear to be sites associated with a castle although surely King John was not the only monarch to have used such sites.
The next monarch associated with a well is a prince, a man who despite being heir apparent, never reached the throne. The Black Prince, a very romantic figure and with an evocative name, his spring is perhaps the most well known of those associated with royalty: the Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown (Kent). Legend has it that he regularly drank from the well and asked for a draught of it as he lay sick and dying of syphilis. However, the water’s powers did not extend to this and he died never becoming king. The well has the three feathers, sign of the Prince of Wales, an emblem captured at Crecy although the origin and age of the well is unknown it is the only such spring with any insignia of a monarch.
The subsequent centuries saw a number of squirmishes and conflicts which also created some springs associated with royalty. Perhaps the most interesting well associated with a monarch is King Henry VI’s Well, Bolton in Craven (North Yorkshire). It is interesting because the King’s reputation was that of sanctity and as such any well would have pretentions to be a holy well. Indeed the local legend states that when a fugitive at Bolton Hall he asked for the owner to provide a bathing place. No spring was available and one was divined with hazel rods and where they indicated water the site was dug. The king prayed that the well may flow forever and the family may never become extinct. The site still exists and is used for a local mineral water firm!
The years of conflict between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ended at Bosworth field and here a we find King Richard’s Well, Sutton Cheney (Leicestershire). Traditionally Richard III drank from a spring that Lord Wentworth in 1813 encapsulated in large conical cairn shaped well house with an appropriate Latin inscription. Curiously both wells of course mark the losers of the battle and no wells record the victors of such conflicts. One wonders whether this records our interest in the underdog and lament for the lost. The strangest extrapolation of this is a well found in Eastwell (Kent). Here generations have pointed to a circular brick well in the estate grounds and a tomb in the derelict church and associated them with the lost son of Richard III. The Plantagenet’s Well may indeed have some basis in fact although the only evidence is the account of the legend during the building of Eastwell Manor in 1545, the landowner, Sir Thomas Moyle, was amazed to find one of his workman reading a book in Latin. Naturally curious, he decided to ask him about this ability. Thus the man informed him, that in 1485, at Bosworth Field, he was the illegitimate son of King Richard III, who had previously clandestinely acknowledged him as sole heir. The following day, fearing reprisals after Richard’s loss, the boy fled, avoiding being recognition by disguising himself as a bricklayer and thus was years later, employed in the manor’s construction. Sir Thomas, believed the man’s story, and being a Yorkist sympathiser, adopted him into his household. This story of Richard Plantagenet remained a family secret, until it was revealed in Gentleman’s Magazine, as a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Brett, of Spring Grove (near Eastwell) to a friend Dr. Warren. He had heard the story from the Earl of Winchelsea at Eastwell House about 1720. This story is further enforced by Parish records showing that on December 27th 1550 V Rychard Plantagenet was interred, the notation V being a notification for a royal personage. However, having never seen the record myself I am unsure of its validity.
The next monarch encountered in a well dedication is a surprising one perhaps. In Carshalton (Surrey), we find Anne Boleyn’s Well, which is an perplexing dedication considering her unpopularity and association with a monarch who would have seen holy wells another trapping of the papist money making machine he had excluded from his realm (although there is little evidence that Henry VIIIth had any real direct effect on holy wells as would the newly established Scottish Kirk). The legend of its formation related that when the King and Queen were out riding from Nonsuch Palace, her horse’s foot hit the ground and a spring arose. No reason for is given and it is probable that the spring was re-discovered and perhaps dedicated to St. Anne. Bedford’s Park is not far from Pygro’s Park which has an association with Henry VIII so one assumes the Queen Anne’s well is again Boleyn although I know nothing more and indeed missed it from my survey!
Unlike her mother, Elizabeth I was a popular monarch, much as the present monarch is, especially in the strongly protestant counties, hence Queen Elizabeth Wells at Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex). In the case of Rye, the spring was part of a water improvement system which provided water via a conduit system. It was so named after her visit to Rye in 1573, when she drunk the water and met the town dignitaries, or Jurats, there, before they processed into the town. Amusingly the well was also known as Dowdeswell, from O. E. dowde for a plain woman, a scold or shrew a fact which may have tickled some recusant families in the vicinity no doubt. so like many a holy well the name was changed for the monarch. Interestingly, Winchelsea’s site was and still is called St. Katherine’s Well so perhaps the monarch’s name was used to remove Catholic associations (especially considering Queen Katherine of Aragon), although St. Leonard’s well remained intact. Bisham’s Queen Elizabeth’s Well (Buckhamshire) is even associated with miraculous cures which certainly predate the monarch and perhaps her visit and taking of the waters when visiting Lady Hoby her cousin may have been the opportunity to move away from the holy well name? Queen Elizabeth also gave her name to a well in Friern Barnet (Middlesex) and Blackheath (Surrey)
Perhaps in the day when the site of the monarch was an extremely rare occasion folk memory has preserved it. This may explain King James Well Mickley (Yorkshire) whose only reason for the dedication was that he stopped to drink at it! This well does not appear to have then developed any note as a consequence. However, a spring at Cuffley (Hertfordshire) was visited by the King and developed into a minor spa called the King’s Well.
Interestingly, if England had not broken from Rome we may have seen those associated with Charles I develop in the same fashion, after all he does have churches and chapels named after him. Charles is often associated with wells, in some cases such as Carles Trough, (Leicestershire) where he is said to have watered horse here after Naseby. Ellerton’s (Staffordshire) King’s Well and Longhope (Gloucestershire) Royal Spring are both associated with the monarch.
However, stopping to drink is a common theme. A well in Appledore (Kent) is called Queen Anne’s Well because she is said to have stopped there and asked the landlord for a sip. It is possible that such associations may stem from a desire for a local land owner to support a developing spa trade, Queen Anne’s Bathhouse exists in Lullingstone (Kent), however there is no record of such an attempt at Appledore. Furthermore, it is unclear which Queen Anne is recorded at Appledore and it is possible considering the age of the brickwork in the cellar and around the well at this site that it was once St. Ann’s well. This is probably true of Lincoln’s Queen Ann’s Well, Chalvey’s Queen Ann’s Well (Buckinghamshire), Queen Anne’s Wishing Well (South Cadbury) and Blythborough’s (Suffolk) site now known as Lady Well! However of that of Chalvey, perhaps not as there is no pre-18th century record, although if it did not it soon attracted a reputation for healing and was called a spa. Interestly Queen Charlotte is also noted as being involved and as such according to the Mirror, of 1832,:
“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.
An accompanying woodcut to the piece showing the stone with the royal monogram carved in the centre. In 1698 Anne of Denmark gave money to create a basin at Tunbridge wells and well was called the Queen’s well.
Of course in the next two centuries, the rise of the spas saw many mineral springs develop the patronage of the monarch such as George IV, yet despite this times had changed and the wells did not take the monarch’s name directly. By the reign of Victoria, her name was then applied to fountainheads and pumps, as old wells were filled in and channelled away amidst growing concerns for the need for clean and freely accessible water. A few sites such as the confusing named Coronation or Jubilee Well (so marked on the 1844 OS map so difficult to record which monarch and which jubilee or coronation is referred to) in Wessington (Derbyshire) buck the trend.
In summary it is interesting that despite a large number of memorable and in some case not so memorable monarchs, there is are a limited number of them associated with wells. Why? Is it due to these particular monarchs having pricked the public’s folk memory, or in some cases inherited some sort of pious notion akin to that associated with holy wells.
Wells associated with Royalty can be divided into the following categories:
a) Those drunk before a battle or whilst on the run from a battle. This could include the Battle Well Evesham (Worcestershire), with its associations with Simon de Montford is out of the scope of this blog but shows this trend, the water becoming curative.
b) Those associated with their castles, palaces, hunting lodges. But why these particular monarchs is unclear?
c) Those made by miraculous events such as that associated King Henry VIs well. It seems perhaps these sites had developed in anticipation of the eventual sanctifying of the individuals which of course never happened.