Perhaps Hertfordshire’s most famed well, dedicated to the first British Christian Martyr, and thus called St. Alban’s Well or Holy Well (TL 149 068) and as such one could argue it is the earliest Christian holy well in Britain.
Who was St. Alban?
Gildas and Bede accredit his martyrdom to the ruler Diocletian (c305), later authorities attribute Septimus severnus (c209) or Decieus (c254) to the act. His conversion to Christianity occurred when he sheltered a wanted priest (later St. Amphibalus). The priest taught Alban and baptised him as a Christian. The two exchanged clothes and, allowing the priest to escape, Alban was captured instead. He was tried and sent to be executed. The journey to his execution, now locally commemorated each weekend close to St Alban’s Feast Day, is when the spring arose!
The legend of the spring
It is said that upon climbing the hill to his martyrdom became tired and thirsty. Falling to his knees he prayed to God to quench this thirst and miraculously a spring of fresh water appeared. This is however only one origin for the spring. The other story states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, he refused to offer pagan sacrifice, and was executed. His severed head rolled down the hill and where it rested a spring burst forth. This is a common holy well motif. After the adoption of the Christian church in the third century the spring gained great notoriety (although it is of course plausible that the spring was a pre-Christian site, gaining greater pilgrimage with Christian doctrine). St. Alban was also adopted, and finally installed in a Shrine in the Abbey. This was restored after the Reformation and is a beautiful example of a Pre-Reformation Shrine.
A spring of Arthurian romance?
This spring was strangely absorbed into Arthurian romance. It has been associated with mythical Romano-Celt ruler Uther Pendragon, father of the also possibly mythical King Arthur. The spring is said to have healed his wounds, and the incident is recorded during the reign of Richard II, by Chronicler Brompton:
“….Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven ..”
The well through the ages
The Benedictine nuns of the nearby nunnery were according to Matthew Paris, said to have dipped their bread in the well, and hence earned it the name of Sopwell. Until the reformation the well rivalled Walsingham in its popularity among the sick and troubled. Even in the 19th century the ‘Holy-well’ was “still held in some estimation, for its purity and salubrious qualities.” It then lay on the lawns of the Duke of Marlborough’s Holywell House, which was latter demolished.
Until the 1980s, the site was marked by a stone on the playing fields of the local Grammar school. However, in the 1980s, the site was at risk from developers, as the school wished to sell off its fields. This precipitated local interest, and a campaign organised by a Mr. Tony Haines, and set out to rediscover the well and ensure that it was preserved. This they finally did, although the site was not officially recognised by the local council, despite it corresponding to ancient maps, local knowledge as well as remains of medieval brickwork. Fortunately, the developer was sympathetic and in a rare example of preservation, restored it. It now stands in a small walled garden. The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille over it. Interestingly, a combination of wet weather coupled with the water authorities ceasing pumping from the Ver’s source, has meant that the water table has returned and water can be seen in the well.
This restored site can be found by going up Holywell Hill Road, then taking the righthand road, Belmont Hill ( if approaching from Junction one M10 ). Take next right, into new housing estate, then left and the well is found in a small garden on the left.
The well survives, well as long as the housing estate does! It has become the centre of a local religious groups devutions as well!
Latvia’s has a number of notable healing and holy springs. Many of them have folklore and associations which followers in the British isles will recognise. Such as Karalavoti’s The Seven Springs who’s waters were used by Sweden’s King Carl VII. Its waters were said to have worked on him when official doctors had failed and its waters remain a popular site. Flowing from the mouth of a lizard as the Kemeru Lizard springs. These are sulphur spring which have rejuvenating powers making old men young again!
Rags, coins and rings
Deposits are associated with a number of the countries wells. The Bolēni or Bolenu Spring is rag well where offerings can still be seen in the form of ribbons tied around the tree above the spring, which erupts in a small pool at the base of the tree.
A sulphur spring first recorded in 1739 at Barbele being spring is also associated with the tying of rags to nearby trees. Indeed it is said that when a Riga physician brought 10 ill soldiers to take the water, it too a day to clear the rags. However, in more rag traditions this would have been unwise and deadly perhaps, not for these soldiers as 9 of them were healed. Interest in the well disappeared after the amount of mineralisation was reduced by World War II. The well survives arising in a tank set into a wooden platform.
Another sulphur spring was that of Baldone spring. Which was discovered when it was noticed cows drunk from it and so by the 1800 500 people a year took the cure as the town became a spa town. Yet despite pretensions to be a spa it is evident that those visiting it felt the need to involve themselves in a ritual cult. The evidence for this being rings, including earrings and coins being found in the basin when it was repaired in the 19th century. The spring flows from a pipe set into a small stone which is housed in an hexagonal roofed shelter.
Deities of the springs
The Goddess Laima is associated with Bolenu spring who is said to have cried after breaking a glass she dropped. Her tears made the spring which is said to be good for sore eyes. It is recorded in 1838 that:
“Once in a summer morning when the sun was rising, Laima sat on the edge of the ash ravine. She was weeping, and her tears were running towards the morning against the Sun. The God was passing by and he asked why she was crying. Laima poured out her complains then. She wished the humans good life and health, but then many were afflicted and she felt sorry for them. Then the God made a spring flow out on that spot and ordered the water flow along Laima’s tear way. In this way the Oši Spring in the ravine and the river appeared flowing against the Sun. The spring and river waters were granted healing powers so that all diseases could be healed in them, and Laima would never have to cry again. Since that time Laima has been walking around smiling, she often comes to the Health Spring and the Raganīte River.”
Another spring which is said to arise from tears is that found in the Gutman’s Cave. The origin of these tears being recorded in the Latvian Folklore repository in 1860 notes:
“The Livs’ Chief Ringalds went in war. At home he left his beautiful wife warning her to remain faithful to him until he returned from the war. His wife waited and waited for him, however, still became unfaithful to him. When her husband returned his wife was remorseful and was asking him to forgive, however, Ringalds did not forgive her. He ordered to bury his wife alive in the ground. She has been crying there under the earth up to this day her tears of regret. They have turned into a spring and run out onto the surface of the ground. Thus the spring has eroded the Gūtmanis’ Cave”
She cried so much that the tears created the biggest cave in the Baltics and the spring became healing. The name of the cave is said to derive from the German, Gut being good and mann meaning man, therefore the Cave of the Goodman, the good man being a possible faith healer later a deity. A Jacob Benjamin Fisher in 1778 wrote in the earliest account:
“At Turaida there is a cave which consists of sandstone and is called the “Good Man”.
The spring which still rises in the cave and flows through a stone lined channel out hugging the rock of the cave. It was a site of offering until the 19th century, but no rags or coins are deposited now. These are but a small sample of notable springs and more can be learnt watching this excellent documentary
Haiti is a fascinating country for those interested in the overlap between pagan beliefs and the Catholic church. This is particularly evident in the beliefs associated with springs and particularly on the island, water falls.
Voodoo or Vodou is a religious practice which origins in the Caribbean from West African slaves under the French colonists adapting Yoruba and Kongo, Taíno (indigenous Caribbean) beliefs as well as Roman Catholicism and even Freemasonry.
One of the most notable features is the association of the springs and water bodies with spirits. One of the most important was Simbi a guardian of marshes and fountains, where he would help those in need of a cure from supernatural illness. However he can be a troublesome character and would kidnap fair skinned children who would come to fetch some water to drink and make them work under the water releasing them years later with the gift of second sight as a compensation!
Another water deity was the Damballah, a snake whose lives in the water and the land. He is said not to be able to communicate but create a feeling a comfort, optimism and fertility. Interestingly he is associated with St. Patrick who is of course famed for vanquishing serpents in Ireland.
The most famed spring site is Machann Dessalines, where there is a small cave or gròt, associated with a man-made pool, where Vodou spirits Ezili Freda and Simbi reside giving their healing powers to those who submerge in the pool.
However, the most sacred water place of the Haiti’s is the Saut d’Eau found in the Mirebalais district where physical illness, social and psychological issues can be cured – it is hoped! Why? For it is here that in the 19th century either a vision of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel or her Vodou counterpart Lwa appeared in a palm tree nearby. It is recorded that a French priest afraid of the repercussions cut it down. It did not work for the site became the main pilgrim destination on the island. Those Roman Catholic attend the church of the Virgin Mary whilst the Vodou followers bath in the waters of the waterfall. The most important day is during the festival of Our Lady of Carmel, July 14-16th During this period the eucharist is said at the site.
The waterfall is also sacred to Damballah and it is said that its waters also cure infertility and it is said that many women give offerings of underwear. At the time of the festival the waterfall is a great spectacle of people in different stages of rapture taking in the sacred waters. They scrub themselves with soap in preparation for a leaf bath where medicinal herbs are used. They then bath again and after rinsing off the water, the priest and priestesses tell the attendees to them remove their clothes and offer them to the waterfall. By doing so they remove any illness or negativity and are reborn healthier with new clothes. The spectacle of so many people here all hoping for 7intervention from either the deity or the Virgin Mary, in a place where the pagan and Christian combine harmoniously.
“O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim”
John Keats Ode to a Nightingale
Sacred springs were an integral part of Greek Mythology. Perhaps the most famous were the springs said to have arisen on Mount Helicon. Here overlooking the Valley of the Muses was a spring formed by the hoof of the Horse Pegasus (a theme which has transferred to Ann Boleyn’s Well in Carshalton). It is said that he hit the rock with such force that the spring arose as a result. This was called Hippocrene or Horse’s fountain. Being associated with the muses, (those providing poetical inspiration) drinking its water was supposed to induce that poetic inspiration. The poet Hesiod in his work, Theogeny refers to the spring in the late 7th century BC:
|“From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,
Who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,
And dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring
And the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and,
When they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus
Or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius,
Make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon
And move with vigorous feet.”
Callimachus in his 3rd century BC Aitia follows in Hesiod’s footsteps and in the work, Tiresias finds the spring and Athena bathing with it and is blinded as a result. However, as a compensation he gains the ability to prophesize.
The Hippocrene spring is identified as a spring which still flows on the mountainside arising in a stone hollow. Also on the mountain was the spring where Narcissisus looked upon his own beauty but its location appears to have been lost.
Perhaps the second most famed spring is that found at the sacred landscape of Delphi. It too was thought to provide poetic inspiration. The Roman saw this as the location where Apollo killed the Python who guarded over the spring. This was the Castalian Spring. Pausanias stated that its name was derived from a local lady called Castalia, a daughter of the river Achelous
Interesting the site may have been a sanctuary associated to a local hero who vanquished the Persions, called Autonous according to Greek writer Herodotus which may have been a precursor to its association with Apollo .
However its greatest importance was to provide preparation for those visiting the famed Delphic Oracle. Here the priests would cleanse themselves before invoking the oracle, sprinkling it over the temple, and pilgrims according to Euripides Ion would prepare according to their background. For many just a wash of their hair would be enough, but murderers would have to completely cleansed! Pausanias Guide to Greece stated that the water had a delicious taste!
The spring was said to have arisen from two rocks called the Pheriads becoming a stream called Papaddia and joining the river Pleistos below Delphi. In the grounds of the ruined Delphi the Greek and Roman fountains fed by the springs survive. Water is delivered by s small aqueduct to the Greek fountain emptying through lion-headed spouts into a marble-line basin, nine by three metres, surrounded by benches. It dates from the 6th Century BCE. Interestingly, the Roman fountain from the 1st BC is found higher up from the original spring. It has niches carved into the rocks for the giving of votive offerings and it is interesting that it was later converted into a church of St. John the Baptist. Water reached the fountain by an aqueduct and seven bronze spouts on the fountain.
Interestingly, it is claimed in the English translation of Pausanias’s Guide to Greece by Peter Levi that the water was still bottled and secretly supplied for its magical healing properties!
Hot springs can be found across Greece, historically one of the most famed was the Thermopylae, hot sulphur springs. These were thought to be the Hot Gates and as such the entrance to Hades. The site was first associated with the cult of Demeter but later Greek myths associate him with Heracles. Here it is said to have jumped in of wash of the poison from the Hydra which had attached to his cloak. This is why the spring became hot and sulphurous. The springs still arise but no structure exists around them.
In Southwestern Greece is the Kaiafas Thermal Spring which have unlike the above been developed into a spa town. Arising in a natural cave at the foot of Mount Laphithas, historically, here the Angrides, cave dwelling nymphs were found and people would pray at the waters hoping to be relieved of leprosy, which the nymphs could cure. The waters which have a temperature around 340C are rich in sulphur compounds and are thought to be good for musculosketal diseases. In 1907 a spa facility was established outside the mouth of the cave which still provides healing support today.
Greece is a country whose ancient wells continue to provide spiritual and physical healing into the modern age.
In early May I had the pleasure to present my interim findings of my study into votive offerings at holy and healing wells at the #rituallitter workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (more in a future post hopefully). My presentation particularly focused on rag wells, or as has erroneously been applied nationwide, clootie wells (see this post). This lend me to exploring the custom in the wider geographical context and as I am monthly recording holy and healing wells globally, this month I decided to detail three rag or loque wells (strictly sources a loque) in France. However, a map below will show the distribution of the wells across the county that I am aware of so far.
Research indicated as a custom this is just as vibrant as it is in Britain although in most cases the visitors adhere more often to rags, but as can be seen personal items can also be left
Interestingly the custom is most frequently encounter in the Nord Pas de Calais region and into Belgium. (It is also interesting to focus on holy wells not in Brittany as well) Furthermore, it is an activity associated not only with springs but calvaries, chapels and trees as well – none of which are associated with a springhead.
However typical site is that of St Latuin’s Well, at Clerey Belfonds near Seez. A site which is associated with an evangelizing saint, the envoy of Pope Boniface I who is said to have built an oratory at the spring. He was famed to for converting pagans by healing the death and blind. The curative reputation of the spring harks from curing the blindness of a local widow he stayed with when he arrived there.
At the well, pilgrims would pray first to the saint and then wash at the springhead, hoping to cure skin diseases, fevers, scabies and eye aches. Indeed even the plague was thought to be cured. The site was so popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century that it prompted the expansion of the town. The legend of how the spring, a red chalybeate spring arose is told in Charles Corlet’s Legendes de Basse-Normandie d’Edouard.
“Saint Latuin or Lin passes to be the first apostle of the Orne, It is attributed the foundation of the cathedral of Sees. Saint Latuin, on arriving at Sees, took refuge in a poor woman, a widow whose daughter had been blind for many years. The saint restored the sight to the unhappy woman, and then, preaching in public the word of God, performed many miracles of healing. Satan, annoyed at the beneficial action of the saint, aroused against him Fatisie, who wished to take revenge on the saint who had refused his advances. Fatisie intimated to Latuin, on penalty of death, to cease to preach in Christ’s favor. The saint paid no attention to these threats, but his disciples advised him to retire for some time. What he did in the forest of Clairay. There he set up his oratory near a fountain. His tranquility was short-lived, for Fatisie sent murderers to him with the mission of killing him and bringing back his tongue. At the approach of the saint, the murderers prostrated themselves and converted to the Christian faith. As they were to account for their mission, they consulted the saint in order to know the best way to deceive Fatisie. Latuin advised them to kill their dog, to take away their heart, and to defile their clothes with the blood of the animal. Fatia soon died of a fatal death. But the waters of the spring were tinged with blood. Latuin returned to Sées. He often went to his hermitage. It was in this place that death took him peacefully and he still worked miracles.””
Today the spring fills a large square stone basin beneath a statue of the saint dressed in Bishop robes holding a crozier and those coming to cure complaints have tied rags to the top of the metal fence surrounding it. The spring and its church are now the location for an annual pilgrimage. This year on http://www.ville-sees.fr/dimanche-24-juin-pelerinage-saint-latuin/ website it recorded:
“25 years ago, the association “Les amis de Saint Latuin” was created to offer the pilgrims of Saint Latuin the annual animation of the pilgrimage and to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the church of Cléray , Its cemetery and its fountain. On Sunday 24 June: 7.45 am: laudes at the cathedral, 8 am: departure of the march towards the church of Cléray (7.5 km), 10.45 am: gathering at the Cléray fountain, procession followed by the Mass chaired by Bishop Habert. “
In La Croupte, is a spring dedicated to St Martin, with its 15th century chapel. Near here is a statue of the saint festooned with ribbons and different socks, particularly baby socks, close to the springhead. Why are there socks? The spring is said to help children suffering from rickets and hence helping children to walk.
After praying and lighting a candle the clothes or socks are attached nearby. It is recorded that other saints are prayed to according to the healing required as it too cures skin and eye problems. The springhead fills a square basin surrounded by a metal fence upon which the votives are attached.
The final spring is that associated with a sacred landscape of Pre D’Auge, Calvados I Basse Normandie. Indeed it is unclear in this case whether the tree is more sacred than the spring head. Both are named after Saint Meen’s. This is a site which associates with a ragged oak which generations upon generations have attached rags to. The oak itself being called the Oak of Saint Meen, thought to be over a 1000 years old although it is now hollow and in the hollow is a small wooden statue of the saint (it is said that the original remains in a local castle). Indeed, there was concern about the condition of the oak and that in 2009 its final branch was removed and all that is left is the oak. However, the owners of the land concerned that the tradition would disappear ensured that two other oaks can replace it should the time come, one being planted in 1920 and the other in the 2000s. The hulk of the original tree has not prevented the pilgrims attaching rags which range from strips through to handkerchiefs to whole clothes. The spring is said to cure skin complaints and like at other springs, the cloth is first immersed into the spring and applied to the skin, before being left.
The rationale behind the springs use is related to the Saint, who was Breton monk who travelled these areas converting the pagans, who would appear to dislike rudeness and selfishness. It is reported that when on a journey to Rouen, thirsty he rested in the village. Seeing two young girls he asked them if he could drink, one said she would help but other complained about the scarcity of water and refused. As a result, he caused the spring to burst forth to thank the helpful one saying to the less than generous one:
“You will be covered with pustules and you will be obliged to come and wash yourself there praying to ask for your cure which will remind you of your lack of charity.”
A good reason to justify a rag well not doubt!
Hidden deep in the woods on St. Anne’s Hill is the mysterious St Ann’s or Nun’s well…mysterious for many reasons, least of all its difficulty in finding (although read at the end of a sure-fire way to find it)
St Ann’s well or Catholic folly?
Although the first account of the well is by John Aubrey in his 1718 Surrey he describes it as:
“Westwards of this Town, on a steep Hill, stood St Anne’s Chapel, where, in the Time of the Abbots, was Mass said every Morning… Near the Top of the Hill is a fine clear Spring, dress’d with squar’d Stone.”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey similarly do not name it only stating it was:
“a spring, lined on the sides with hewn stone”
It is only in S.C. Hall’s 1853 Chertsey and neighbourhood that the name appears. It is also curious that the the current structure does not resemble that shown in Hall’s work either more in keeping with Aubrey’s description. It is probable that as the site was gaining a more religious name that it was getting a new structure. This is probably to do with the then owners of the hill, Lord and Lady Holland, who had converted to Roman Catholicism which would explain the improvements in 1850s and its associated with the saint and closer affinity to the chapel. This lending it to the idea of being a sort of romanticised folly.
The chapel itself is first mentioned in 1402 as the capella Sancte Anne is recorded although a chapel was licensed in 1334, but in 1440 St Anne’s hill was still the “hill of St Anne… otherwise called Eldebury Hill.” when a fair was granted which continues today although not unbroken as the Blackcherrry Fair in the town. The chapel is associated with an Abbey which was founded by St Erkenwald in 666 and such the cradle of Christianity in Surrey but it is a big jump to assume the well dates from then. This chapel remains on the hill, the guide in the car park refers to a mound near the house but the nearby mysterious Reservoir cottage incorporated most. However, it is improbable that a considerable amount of water would have been left untapped. The area was a hill fort whose exact history is unclear due to the predations over the centuries, but a Bronze Age date has been suggested.
A Topographical History of Surrey by Edward Brayley and Edward Mantell (1850) state
“and up to within recent years the country folk round about have been used to fetch away water from it, in the belief that it has virtues as an eye lotion. It has a strong taste of iron; would that be good for the eyes?”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey were stating that the waters were:
“not now used for any medicinal purpose. It rarely freezes when other springs do”.
Yet Hall (1853) under the name Nun’s Well states that:
“even now, the peasants believe that its waters are a cure for diseases of the eyes.”
Looking at its dirty murky waters today one would suggest it might cause as many eye problems as it cures!
Ghostly goings on!
Long in his 2002 Haunted Pubs of Surrey records the legends associated with the hill. It is possible that the nun’s well name may derive from a legend of a murder of a nun at St Ann’s convent who was buried in a sandpit. The veracity of this story and even the location of a convent is unclear. The well, it is said being the resort of the nun:
“whose deep begging signs can be heard on certain nights…on such a day, this place reeks of remorse, suffering or sorrow.”
On a spring evening with no one around one could quite imagine such ghostly cries.
A prehistoric landscape
In A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) it notes:
“Another curiosity is the so-called Devil’s Stone, or Treasure Stone. Aubrey calls this “a conglobation of gravel and sand,” and says that the inhabitants know it as “the Devil’s Stone, and believe it cannot be mov’d, and that treasure is hid underneath.” There have been many searchers after the treasure. One of them once dug down ten feet or more, hoping to come to the base of the huge mass, but his task grew unkinder as he got deeper, and he gave it up. He might well do so, for what is pretty certain is that he was trying to dig up St. Anne’s Hill. All over the face of the hill there are masses of this hard pebbly sandstone cropping up, though they are not so noticeable as the so-called Devil’s Stone because they are flat and occasionally crumbling, and have not had their sides laid bare by energetic treasure-seekers.”
Such stones are often found in conjunction with stones and the treasure may suggest the giving of votive offerings. The combination of a healing spring, an ancient stone and as the name of the hill might suggest a sacred tree is something of considerable interest to those interesting in sacred landscapes and suggests a possible old cult hereabouts. The existence of a ghostly nun may also be significant, there are near identical legends at Canwell and Newington Kent and, the later associated with another Devil’s stone. Do they remember old pagan deities, water spirits who lived by the spring? But this is the only evidence, the old writers are silent on anything more! My musing are just that musings!
The well today is indeed a substantial is ruined structure. It resembles an ice well in structure, its plan being a key shape with a rectangular basin and a dome over the source, although this is difficult to locate. Much of the dome has been weathered and ruined by the ages and being built into the earthen back this has preserved it. The brick work is a curious mix of redbrick, iron slag, cobbles and some older possible reused squared medieval stone work.
Another healing spring?
In their A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) again:
“Another Spring, once highly reputed for its medicinal virtues, rises on the north-east side of the hill, in the wood or coppice called Monk’s Grove, which gives name to the seat inhabited by the Right Hon. Lady Montfort. This spring, according to Aubrey, had been long covered up and lost; but was again found and re-opened two or three years before he wrote. The water is now received into a bason about twelve feet square, lined with tiles. “
James Rattue in his indispensable 2008 Holy wells of Surrey found this site stating that it resembled in part the Nun’s well and was clearly part of the landscapers attempt to improve the area. It was a dry circle of brickwork and filled with leaves. He describes it as being on the flat part of the hill. However with his instructions, OS reference and old maps showing a spring I failed to find it – although I did find another spring overgrown in the rhododendrons.
However, despite this author and others claims I did find the Nun’s well easy and here the fail-safe way to find it. Don’t go through the car park and continue along the road, passing the second car parking area in the dingle and then as the lane drops just past a house on the right there is a signposted public footpath. Take this and continue until passing a crossroads of another public footpath just past a hedge in the field on the left. As you past this and before the path you are on drops into a series of wooden steps there is a path to the right where the Nun’s well can be seen – simple! Good luck!
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.
Cambridgeshire is not a county readily associated with holy wells, however my research for volume VIII in my series suggests that there are a number of little known sites. Frustratingly, there a number of attractive and curious streams in the county, especially in the chalk regions, but their names tell nothing – often being called simply – the spring head or numerically named such as Nine springs. One such Springhead has given us a bit more to go on, its alternative names – Robin Hood Dip or bizarrely Giant’s Grave are far more tantalising.
A peacefully evocative site sandwiched between two rather busy roads. A delightful place in spring when its surrounding cherry trees are rich in blossom. Very little is written down about the spring head except that in modern terms it was used as a water source for the village and as a laundry! However it is surrounding landscape and legends which perhaps provide a clue.
Who is the giant?
All that is known is that the giant was buried at the site and that he is thought to be Gogmagog, the name also applied to nearby hills. One of these hills, Wandlebury, is a hill fort to which a considerable amount of confused history, mystery and legend has been attached. What is interesting is that when folklorists collected stories of the giant (or giants as it really is Gog and Magog traditionally) it was noted that they were buried nearby but not where. This is along with a golden chariot at Fleam Dyke.
It is worth recording the legends of this hill fort. They were recorded as early as 1219 by One Gervase of Tilbury:
“Osbert, a bold and powerful baron, visited a noble family in the vicinity of Wandelbury, in the bishopric of Ely. Among other stories related in the social circle of his friends, who, according to custom, amused each other by repeating ancient tales and traditions, he was informed, that if any knight, unattended, entered an adjacent plain by moonlight, and challenged an adversary to appear, he would be immediately encountered by a spirit in the form of a knight. Osbert resolved to make the experiment, and set out, attended by a single squire, whom he ordered to remain without the limits of the plain, which was surrounded by an ancient entrenchment. On repeating the challenge, he was instantly assailed by an adversary, whom he quickly unhorsed, and seized the reins of his steed. During this operation, his ghostly opponent sprung up, and, darting his spear, like a javelin, at Osbert, wounded him in the thigh. Osbert returned in triumph with the horse, which he committed to the care of his servants. The horse was of a sable colour, as well as his whole accoutrements, and apparently of great beauty and vigour. He remained with his keeper till cockcrowing, when, with eyes flashing fire, he reared, spurned the ground, and vanished. On disarming himself, Osbert perceived that he was wounded, and that one of his steel boots was full of blood. Gervase adds, that as long as he lived, the scar of his wound opened afresh on the anniversary of the eve on which he encountered the spirit.”
Of course the Knight and the Giant may be unconnected entities. I shall return to the Knight in a moment, but the giant in more recent times has created more legends. In 1955 archaeologist TC Lethbridge intrigued by reports by various 17th and 18th century antiquarians. The first of these, John Layer (1586–1640) wrote that he thought on the hill was a hill figure on the hill was believed with the work of Cambridge undergraduates being cut with ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’ as does William Cole (1714–82) noting the ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’) and Dr Dale recording it ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ in the 1720s. Bishop Joseph Hall:
“A Giant called All Paunch, who was of an incredible Height of Body, not like him whose Picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills, but rather like him that ought the two Aple Teeth which were digged out of a well in Cambridge, that were little less than a man’s head. When I was a boy, about 1724, I remember my father or mother as it happened I went with one or other of them to Cambridge……always used to stop and show me and my brother and sisters the figure of the giant carved on the Turf; concerning whom there were then many traditions, now worn away. What became of the two said teeth I never hear.”
Lethbridge using rather unusual archaeological methods apparently revealed this figure, or as it turned out figures and although his work was criticised, traces of his giants remain and his theories have relevance to Cherry Hinton’s spring head. Does the name of the camp remember Wandle, an ancient God or Woden, a deity often associated with water?
Or does as the Cherry Hinton Chronicle of 1854 records in 1854 the discovery of Iron Age burials unearthed locally on Lime Kiln Hill whose the skeletons were unusually tall gave rise to the legend!?
The Footprint stone
Across the road from the spring head at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn is a curious stone. Rather unceremoniously placed by the car park the large round stone looks like a glacial erratic and clearly left there or placed there at some time. But why? A closer inspection reveals it to be hollowed out and the hollow is like a footprint or more like a shoe, around a size 11 as it fits my shoe well!
Carved foot print stones are widespread, often associated with prehistoric burial chambers as far afield as the Calderstone at Liverpool to a burial chamber Petit-Mont Arzon in Brittany, France. The Romans too carved such footprint stones inscribing them with pro itu et reditu, translating as‘for the journey and return’, the tradition would be to place one’s feet before and then after the journey as a good luck. Footprint stone and wells are not infrequently met. There are two in Kent for example, St Mildred’s or St. Augustine’s stone near Sandwich (now lost) and the Devil’s footprint at Newington once associated with a barrow (now lost). So there might be some precedence?
Does the Knight story have relevance here? Does the stone record an ancient ritual of kinship, that knight with his challenge record? There are Celtic and Pictish traditions of kingship or installation stones. These would work in the equivalent way as placing crowns on a King, by placing their feet in the holes would mean they had taken over the tribe and such places survive on the Isle of Man and Scotland (for more information refer to Janet Bord’s Footprints in Stone (2004)
Of course the hollow could have a much simpler explanation. It could have been made as a socket for a cross. However, here we have another interesting possibility, such holed stones called bulluans are associated with holy wells, and although none exist in Cambridgeshire it is tantalising that this could have been one.
Robin Hood in Cambridgeshire?
The alternative name, Robin Hood Dip is one which creates the most curiosity. There is no record of the folk hero in Cambridge, as far as I am aware, and this is well beyond Sherwood Forest! Taking to one side the possibility that it’s a site which achieves its name from story-telling about the folk hero’s exploits, explaining its name appears at first difficult. However, folklorists will have another explanation. Robin Hood is a commonly met name for an elemental, a fairy folk or spirit and what is more interesting he is often associated with springs and water places. See this article for more of an overview. Why is this name associated with springs? I have made various suggestions. Firstly, the associated with a sprite may discourage use – i.e a warning off children and secondly it may record an earlier cult presence. Perhaps the Giant and Robin Hood are the same folk memory of a deity which was celebrated at this spring. The name Thirs interesting is also associated with springs and water holes and this is Saxon word meaning possibly ‘giant’!
The Roman connection may also give support to this idea. It is known that the river Rhee, arising at Ashwell was associated with Roman shrines and a deity called Seunna. Was Granta a Roman deity? Is there an unwritten story which connects Granta and Woden which would explain the grave?
Piecing it all together
So what do all these different facets bring to the site at Cherry Hinton? The legend of Wandlebury is rather lacking of any location for a grave and its fairly obvious perhaps that the name is derived from the large grave shape size of the springhead. But does this remember a folk memory of it being dug? Or does it remember the presence of large bodies in prehistoric graves? The interesting point is that the island is called the grave according to local tradition. Did this mark a barrow?
Nearby on the Fulbourne Road were found three Bronze Age ring-ditches and Neolithic flint artefacts and Early Bronze Age pottery were found in the locality suggesting a long period of history. As well the Iron Age material earlier. It is very likely they settled here for the water supply and it is very likely it was culted.
What of the stone? Is it coincidentally located near the springhead or does it remember practices at the well? Is it a Kingship stone, a receptacle for healing water or a simple cross base?
There appears to be a considerable amount of unknown history to this simple, but picturesque, spring head and whilst we must always be wary of neo-pagan exaggerations, it does seem plausible that this is a long lost sacred spring. Sacred to the Saxons, Sacred to the Romans and perhaps long before this!
Read more of Cambridgeshire water lore in
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Cambridgeshire.
If holy wells had a token head, a site which makes the non-enthusiast an enthusiast, it would be St Cybi’s Well. Why? Firstly, it is well signposted, secondly it is well looked after, thirdly it is well written about – why all of these? This is because St. Cybi’s Well is a rare thing amongst holy wells – a site looked after and managed by a heritage organisation – CADW. Now although this may make you think that means it is sanitised and over populated…nothing can be further from the truth. Despite its CADW guardianship this is still a remote site, one still needs to traverse footpaths, cross muddy fields and still possibly get lost. This still is not an ‘exit through the gift shop’ site – there are no facilities at all in fact. It remains an eerie isolated place. I have been there a number of times and even at the height of summer it is still has the feeling of a special place however many people are there. Its walls echo a time long gone and it is captivating in its ruination.
What greets the visitor is quite unlike other holy wells in many ways, for these are the remains of a commercial enterprise – a house which served a guardian, a bath, well and even a latrine – fortunately down river – useful but often missing today from most holy well sites! The house itself is thought not be that old dating from around 1750, but were thought to have been built by the then landowner a Mr. Price to capitalise on the known properties of the well.
Who was Cybi?
A Cornish man descended from it is thought a Roman military leader of minor King and his mother was thought to be the first cousin to St. David. A much travelled man said to have be taught religious studies in France and travelled even to Jerusalem and Rome. When he returned to Cornwall becoming the leader of a failed uprising which forced him to travel northwards, first to South Wales and then to Ireland. He was not received well in Ireland being involved in territory squabbles and ended on the Lleyn Peninsula settling and founding the church of Llangybi. The spring is said to have arisen in a classic fashion for holy wells, him striking the ground with his staff and the spring arising!
A catalogue of cures and a sacred eel!
The well here appeared to cure one of the widest range of ailments from warts, scrofula, scurvy, lameness to even blindness, one 18th century account telling of how a man blind for 30 years bathed his eyes for over three weeks in the well’s water and was cured. It was also used to love predictions. This was done by using a handkerchief. It would be floated on the water and somehow would tell who their love would be. For those unable to get the cure on site, water was often placed in bottles or casks. Jones (1954) in his Holy Wells of Wales even tells of smugglers being challenged by exercise men claimed the casks contained not spirits but holy well from this well!
A specific ritual arose for its use involving patients having to bathe in the water once or twice a day for seven to ten days, then sleep in a room in the adjoining cottage where they would be given the well’s water mixed with an equal volume of sea water. If the patient became warm in their bed then the treatment had worked. Offerings were left at the church being placed in a box called Cyff Gybi and crutches were found around the well; left by the cured.
Whilst I was at the well, I slipped and ended up falling into it – not enough to get too wet but enough to hopefully awaken its famed resident – it still remained. This was a large eel. It was claimed that if the patient stoop bared legged in the water the eel would effect a cure by wrapping around their legs. No eel appeared. Apparently it was removed some time ago and it was said the spring water’s powers was lost!
Certainly, what has not been lost is the magic of this site. Even on a day when the rain is torrential, there is still a mysterious and tranquil air to this site. Worth a restful moment on any day.