Who was John Wycliffe?
He was a Yorkshire born scholastic philosopher, with his critical views on the the veneration of saints, the taking of sacraments, use of requiem masses, the concept of transubstantiation, monasticism, and the pomp of ceremonial worship, the status of clergy and the existence of the Pope he is seen quite rightly as the morning star of Protestantism. His views influencing the great protestant reformers of a hundred years or so later. Famed also for translating the bible into English. His views and activities were clearly a thorn in the side of the Catholic church but he was protected by influential figures such as John Of Gaunt. He was Rector of Lutterworth, where he died in 1384 on New Year’s Eve giving a sermon! After his burial the Papacy demanded he be dug up and burnt, his remains being thrown in the river. And it is this terrible act of ‘sacrilege’ which is pivotal to his Holy Well.
A miraculous origin
“Tradition also says, that, at the time of this ceremony [the exhumation or burning of John Wycliffe’s bones], one person who staid, after the rest had left his grave, in order to search as strictly after the least bit of bone… having found one, ran hastily to his companions with it in a triumphant manner; but, before he reached them, fell down, and dashed his brains out; and from the very place where he fell immediately gushed out a spring of water, which to this day is called St John’s Well.”
Dyson (1913) in Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, notes a later version of the legend tells how this bone fell from the bier and was later dug out, and how a spring issued from the place. It would be ironic if this well was really named after the reforming cleric and opponent of pilgrimages and adoration of saints.
“THE HOLY WELL OF ST. JOHN THAT the name of Wycliffe was regarded with something more than veneration by the people of Lutterworth during the Middle Ages is proved by the story of the Holy Well of St. John. The legend is that, as the bones of the holy man were being carried on a bier from the church to the riverside for burning, in accordance with the ecclesiastical decree, in passing down the steep slope at what is now the bottom of High Street a bone fell to the ground and was immediately trampled into the soft soil of the unmade roadway by the crowds which followed. Some years afterwards a man working upon the spot brought to light the missing bone, and, upon taking it from its position, forthwith there issued from the hole where it had lain embedded a fountain of the purest water, which ceased not to flow day or night to the joy of the inhabitants of the town, who regarded it as a display of Divine favour upon the remains of their local saint. The water was immediately looked upon as miraculous and was conveyed to a stone drinking- fount placed by the side of the way at the spot where the discovery was made.”
Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, also notes that it had:
“For ages the power to cure all manner of diseases especially where the eyesight was affected, was attributed to this water, and the actual stone basin which received it is believed still to exist behind the brick wall which was built in front of it some sixty years ago. The spring itself was tapped a few years ago in excavating for a sewer, and was so strong that it had to be conveyed into the common drain.”
Holt (1884) in John de Wycliffe; the first of the reformers, and what he did for England notes;
“Even then, thirty years after his voice had been stilled in death, evidence remains to show that his parishioners at Lutterworth had regarded him with a heart-veneration which, had he fought for Rome instead of Christ, would have gone far to earn him canonization. Legends sprang up and took root among them, to the effect that no water would flow under that arch where Wycliffe’s ashes had been flung ; and that on the spot where one of his bones had fallen sprang ” St. John’s Well,” which still runs clear and abundant, never drying up even in the hottest seasons.”
A noted well
Finding evidence for the site’s provenance is illusive. The 15th century topographer William of Worcestre never visited the town and certainly when Leland visited in 16th century he did not mention it, despite mentioning springs arising in the hills in the area but not this well. However it is possible that earliest record may be a note of 1695 by Edmund Gough which was referred to be Camden (1695)):
“Lutterworth… near which is a spring of water so very cold, that in a little time it converts straws and sticks into stone.”
Yet no later authority refers to a different site a petrifying spring especially as Harte (2008) in his Holy Wells of England states Gough mentions it just before discussing the exhumation of Wycliffe’s body. Of St. John’s Well, a contributor to Nichols (1795–1815) does describe it as petrifying and that:
“in the neighbourhood of Lutterworth is a petrifying spring called St John’s well, the water of which is exceeding cold, and so strongly impregnated with petrifying qualities, that in a very little time it is said to convert wood and several other substances into stone.”
But Nichols himself gives the name to a different site:
“St John’s Well is in the town, opposite to the last house, on the left hand side towards London. It is a soft water, and used for drinking.”
The association with the bones giving a petrifying properties to the spring and hence the association.
Despite an obvious association with John Wycliffe, it appears more likely to be named after a hospital in the town which was dedicated to St John the Baptist, over time local memory of this would have been forgotten but the name remembered. Indeed even Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, relays this:
“It has been thought bv some to have been called the Holy Well of St. John from its position within sight of the Hospital of that name, to which we have already alluded, but it seems to us, in the face of the above tradition, that the dedication to St. John was far more likely to have had reference to the Christian name of Lutterworth’s great rector.”
The spring was clearly an important water source hence reference in the Town Masters account book of 1716 it is recorded that four shillings was paid for “a spout of elm 7 foot long to lay at St. John’s Well”
Searching for the well
Field researchers (record on pastscape as F2 FDC 18-AUG-1960) in 1960 stated:
“Enquiries of the owner/occupier revealed that the building was so named from “St John’s Spring” which is in the ornamental garden at the rear of the house and which was surveyed. The owner was aware of the legend… and stated that the well was believed to lie beneath an ash tree adjacent to the spring but that structural remains had not been found. The spring, freely flowing, is perpetual.”
According to the Bords (1985) Sacred Waters:
“It is now situated in the garden of a private house, but can be visited by making an appointment with the owner, John Daniell, of the Springs”
Since I picked up the book in 1986 I have been planning to search out the well. I had written to the address, kindly provided in Sacred Waters – but to no avail. So 32 years I decided to look for it. I found The Springs, easily found on the road to Rugby and knocked on the door – no answer. It looked like the property was now a busy property and empty. I knocked next door and noticed a small garden adjoining – was this where the spring was? Unlikely. I saw an elderly man engaging with another in a house overlooking the springs and decided to ask him. At first he was not sure of what I was talking about but when I mentioned spring he realised he knew where it was.
I was right the spring was no longer in the grounds of The Spring in the subsequent decades houses have been built in the garden of the house. In fact he told me that when the houses were built the builders had a problem with the spring. He remembered it as a circular dip or pool. Fortunately, the builders did not destroy the site and it remains in the front garden of the house. No one was home but as it was in the front garden I decided it did not harm taking a few photos. The spring now flows rather sluggishly through a pipe enclosed in a brick and stone structure. It fills an oval pool, possibly that referred to by the neighbour and then flows out into a small brick structure.
The rediscovery of the original well was a bonus. A foot away it could be found obviously discovered when the original wall was removed to build these new houses. The well a circular stone line structure is dry and crosses under the fence into the next door property. Which was a great find!
A common theme
What is interesting hagiographically is that this was a frequently encountered trope which was used to show the sanctity and power of saintly figures; a theme in itself derived from a pagan folk belief. Furthermore, the emergence of a spring underlines not only the sanctity of the person but emphasised that the act was unjust, being a victim of persecution such as many saints murdered by pagan kings or jealous step-mothers! In this case it might appear strange to associate such a site with a figure so firmly connected with the Reformation. However, this is perhaps a post-modern revisionist view point. To the followers of Wycliffe, the common town folk, who perhaps did not know the full ramifications of his politicised religious views, worthy religious people became saints and feasibly they did not see why their Wycliffe would not. Saints needed sites to justify their saintliness and a local mineral spring already named after a John would be a likely candidate. It is an irony to those who understood his anti-veneration of saints view but lost to the generations just after him, they would only remember his importance to the town. Indeed in 1518, a John Stilman was indicted for saying that ‘Wycliffe was a saint in heaven’. The date may be significant and may explain the lack of appearance of the spring until the late medieval period. It was a local site whose fame would only be noted post the Reformation’s most zealous period. I have discussed how sites associated with Queen Elizabeth I also took on the properties of saint’s wells and it is also possible that in the vacuum created by the Reformation figures associated with the principles of the Reformation were treated like the pre-Reformation saints by the uneducated faithful to provide the same forms of solace. Even today it is clear from the church the importance of Wycliffe where his pulpit, door he passed through when he collapsed on New Years Eve 1384, a font from his era and possibly his garments are proudly on show..all saintly equivalents!