To find a more delightful oasis in suburban London would be harder to find. Despite the traffic which flows through this town, a significant calm is created by the bubbling waters which give Carshalton its name which derives from Cars – Aul – ton with aul means well or spring and there are a number of notable water sites.
“There is a well at Carshalton, A neater one never was seen; And there’s not a maid of Carshalton, But has heard of the well of Boleyn. It stands near the rustic churchyard, Not far from the village green; And the villagers show with rustic pride, The quaint old well of Boleyn.”
One of the springs which supply these pools is the best known in the town – Anne Boleyn’s Well. It would be difficult to understand how, as its been dry for many years, but it was once a spring of note and a site which regularly props up as a ‘holy well’ in work such as Hope’s Legendary Lore and the Bords Sacred Waters. Usually such associations are fanciable antiquarian suggestions. However this time there may be more evidence.
The well is a simple structure for many years obscured with weeds and a rather vigorous lavendar, probably in homage to the town’s famed agricultural export. It has recently been tidied up and now a small brick well head can be seen surrounded by railings. It perhaps looks a little unloved and forlorn but at least it has survived. The site was once in the middle of the roadway as old postcards attest..other urban sites would have been long lost if they were in that position in other locations. Unusually, the pavement was extended to include the site and now it sits in the shadow of All Saint’s Parish church. The move clearly resulted in a rebuild as early pictures show a domed shaped structure surrounded by a stone surround. Sadly, also the chain and bowl once attached for wayfairs to drink from has long gone, not that a drink could be had anyhow!
The legend of its origins
The legend is recorded, possibly for the first time in G.B. Brightling’s History and Antiquities of Carshalton (1827) and notes that Henry VIIIth and Anne were riding over from Nonsuch Palace to Beddington Park to see Sir Nicholas Carew when at the spot the horse rose up and striking the ground a spring formed. The villagers then enclosed the well and named it after her as a memorial.
The problems with the legend
The clear problem was that if they were travelling from Nonsuch, no such place would have existed then – it was constructed after the Queen’s execution in 1538! However, this does not completely remove the legend as it must have come from somewhere.
The true origins?
A number of possible alternative origins are suggested for the well. The commonest suggestion is that it was dedicated to St. Anne, whilst this is a convenient and obvious origin, there is no evidence. A more prosaic origin is hinted by the alternative name Bullen does it originate from Old English billen refering to roaring and perhaps describes the nature of the spring, and perhaps explained the legend of the spring erupting. However, the most accepted origin is that the name derives from the Count of Boulogne who was Lord of the Manor in Carshalton in the 12th century. This would explain the legend that Anne had a house near the well as well. A variant of this is that the well was associated with a small cottage, sadly long since demolished, which abutted the churchyard. This cottage was called Dame Duffin’s Cottage but was believed to have originally been a chantry chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Boulogne. A chapel was given by Nicholas Gainsford in 1497 according to Michael Wilks 2002 Book of Carshalton. The well appears likely to have been the spring probably used by the chapel as its water source. Whether it was truly a holy well or rather a well named by association is unclear. There is no clear reason for a chantry chapel in the location, although of course it is close to a bridge and often chapels are built nearby to these for offering purposes. It is just as probable that the chapel was established for those attracted to the spring. It has been suggested that the recess behind the well may have originated as a resting place for visitors and maybe all that remains of the chapel and was where the spring arose. Interesting Hogpit pond is suggested as the true origin of its water. This is significant in justifying its holy well origin as hog is most often derived from Old English halig for holy and pit derives from putte for spring.
So why Anne?
However, we should not completely dismiss the Boleyn connection perhaps because it is rather interesting legend and one with a familiar motif. There a number of springs across the country such as Beckett’s Well at Otford where a saint has thrust their staff into the ground and a holy spring arose. Similarly saints have lost heads and springs arose at the point they hit the ground! So taking this into account what do we read into the legend? I have speculated that Anne became a cult figure of the Reformation and sites became associated with her akin to they would have done with Saints. Local people berift of their saints reattached legends to her in response. Perhaps if this did happen, and I suggest the same happened with Elizabeth, it was a sort transitional development, but the name stuck. However, the question asks where did the legend come from. If it was a construction of Brightling, no further back than antiquarian musings, but if its older than something more significant could be read into it.
Queen Anne Boleyn’s Well is not the only supposed holy well in Carshalton and in a future instalment I will investigate other sites.
Interested in Surrey holy wells? Check out James Rattue’s Holy wells of Surrey.