“O Lady graced by God,
you reward me by letting gush forth, beyond reason,
the ever-flowing waters of your grace from your perpetual Spring.
I entreat you, who bore the Logos, in a manner beyond comprehension,
to refresh me in your grace that I may cry out,
“Hail redemptive waters.”
The ancient city of Istanbul is a melting pot of religions and cultures. As a result it is an excellent place to search for holy wells. The most famous is the Life Giving spring or font or Hagiasma which survives despite a history of destruction revealed to a Byzantine soldier called Leo Marcellus who became the Emperor Leo 1 who reigned between AD 457-474.
The legend according to Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos a Greek Historian writing in 1320 occurred on April 4th 450. At the time outside the Porta Aurea of the city of Constantinople there was an overgrown grove of trees where a shrine with a polluted spring existed. It is described that as Leo was passing a grove of trees, he passed a blind man who was lost. Leo helped him find the path and seated him in the shade. The blind man was thirsty and so Leo looked for some water. In his search, Leo heard a voice say
“Do not trouble yourself, Leo, to look for water elsewhere, it is right here!”
However,he looked around and could see any. Then he heard the voice again
““Leo, Emperor, go into the grove, take the water which you will find and give it to the thirsty man. Then take the mud and put it on the blind man’s eyes. And build a temple here … that all who come here will find answers to their petitions.”
Rather surprised by the voice he did as told and once mud was placed on the blind man’s eyes and he miraculously regained his site. Finally when Leo became Emperor he built a church on the site of the spring.
After his accession to the throne, the Emperor erected a church to Theotokos or St Mary. The spring continued to provide healing waters and in particular was said to allow people to be brought back from the dead hence its name. Indeed, the name Life giving font’ became an epithet for St Mary It became a major pilgrimage site in the Greek Orthodox church who celebrate the spring on Bright Friday in the Orthodox church. .
The present church is also rectangular and the spring arises in a crypt outside the church adorned with icons and paintings surmounted by a dome painted with an image of Christ in a starry sky. It is accessed a stairway parallel to the longer side of the church. The springs water flows into a marble basin. Inside the basin can be seen fishes who have been present in the water for several centuries. This is remembered in the complex’s Turkish name balikli the “place where there are fishes.
How did the fish end up in the holy well? It is said that a monk was frying fishes in a pan nea the shrine when a fellow monk told him of the conquest of the city by the Ottomans. He did not believe the other monk saying he would only believe it if the fish he were frying came back to life. At that point they did, jumped from the pan and into the water and began swimming!
Joseph the Hymnographer in the 9th century wrote a hymn to St Mary called Zoodochos Pege:
As a life-giving fount, thou didst conceive the Dew that is transcendent in essence,
O Virgin Maid, and thou hast welled forth for our sakes the nectar of joy eternal,
which doth pour forth from thy fount with the water that springeth up
unto everlasting life in unending and mighty streams;
wherein, taking delight, we all cry out:
Rejoice, O thou Spring of life for all men.
The seaside Kent town of Folkestone has three notable water sites The first is perhaps the commonest picture postcard available and there are several versions as can be seen here. This is surprising as the site is not particularly well known or celebrated. Indeed its’ provenance may be perhaps a little dubious. This is the Holy Well or St. Thomas’s Well (TR 221 382) is. Its first description by S. J. Mackie in their 1856 Handbook of Folkestone gives the greatest detail and describes the scene around the well:
“Whence we look down its sheep trodden sides into the deep dell, where, sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark un-ruffled waters of Holy Well. Do these raise tracings on the grass cover the remains of some lonely hermitage. The Country people tell you something about the pilgrims to Becket’s Shrine, it is called also St. Thomas’s Well, resting here on their way to Canterbury.”
Watt (1917) in discussion of the town notes in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways:
“..also on the hills above it we have St. Thomas’s Well, but such are scattered all over the district.”
Samuel J Mackie records in 1856 A description and historical account of Folkestone
“Sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark waters of Holy Well Do those raised tracings in the grass cover the remains of some hermitage The country people tell you about the pilgrims to Becket’s shrine it is called St Thomas’s Well resting here on their way to Canterbury I confess it seems to me slightly out of road but there it is and all I can tell about it is there is nothing now to be told.”
In the 1865 an illustrated hand-book to Folkestone and its picturesque neighbourhood by H Stock
“A short distance from this to the immediately at the bottom of Sugar Loaf Hill a remarkable spring of beautiful water known as Well or St Thomas’s Well Why so called saith not By some it is thought that it was resting place of the pious souls who worshipped shrine at Canterbury but how those worthies here cannot be conjectured It is now used as sheepwash”.
This latter point would explain the odd concrete structure, now lost, seen in some postcards.
In the 1925 Wonderful Britain by John Alexander Hammerton he noted:
“Folkestone’s Holy Well, sometimes called St. Thomas’s well…the old highway to Canterbury runs close by and tradition says that pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket used to drink here and that Henry II himself did so when he went to do penance at the Cathedral whose Archbishop he had murdered and martyred.”
When visiting in the 1990s the information board states that the name holy well is a modern name for these springs, and 80 years ago one was called St. Thomas’s Well but the account above disagrees. There appears to be some confusion over the site. Consequently it is difficult to pinpoint the exact site. I was informed by a local in his late 60s that, when he was a boy, the second now dry spring was called Holy Well. The spring arose in a deep gully, now covered with bramble and heavily eroded at the source. However, continuing the path around to the base of the hill, one comes across a large pool, fed by all the springs. This is the site called the Holy Well on an early 1900s postcard. So perhaps there were two sites after all?
When William Parsons of the excellent British Pilgrimage Trust visited the site was largely overgrown and derelict as can be seen here in 2016, he repairing it with some stones found around which may have been part of the original structure.
Next time we shall be exploring Folkestone’s attempt to develop a spa.
Just a small distance from the highly visited Dovedale is a sacred landscape of hermitage, holy well and shrine. Ilam boasts a rarity in England a largely intact shrine with its foramina (holes in which the pilgrim could insert ailing limbs and get closer to the holy person). The shrine is that of Beorhthelm or Bertelin, Bettelin or more commonly Bertram. The patron saint of the county town of Staffordshire, Stafford.
Who was Bertram?
Bertram is an interesting local saint, dating from around the 7th-8th century in what was the Mercia. Briefly, he is said to be of Royal Irish lineage but after making a princess pregnant, escaped to England where he sheltered in the woods around Ilam. The story is told by Alexander, a monk, in the 13th century who notes:
“They were in hiding in a dense forest when lo ! the time of her childbirth came upon them suddenly ; born of pain and river of sorrow! A pitiful child bed indeed! While Bertellinus went out to get the necessary help of a midwife the woman and her child breathed their last amid the fangs of wolves. Bertellinus on his return imagined that this calamity had befallen because of his own sin, and spent three days in mourning rites”.
As a result he became a hermit living in a cave in the valley near Ilam. Despite the earliest mention being Plot, the local geography is suggestive that this is the site of an early Christian hermitage site, although no mention of a well is noted in his legends it can be noted. The cave itself still exists but reaching it appears to be problematic. Only being accessible when the river Manifold dries which suggests a very useful hermitage site. However, it is worth noting that some accounts have the cave being Thor’s cave further up. Perhaps this is significant as it suggests a Christianisation of a pagan site.
One well up on the hillside has perhaps the greatest provena is surrounded on four sides by varying low stone walling, about two feet or so at its highest (although it appears to have been built up and down over the time I have visited the well). The spring flows from a small, less than a foot square chamber, enclosed in stone and set into the bank through a channel in the rubble flow and out along the path towards it.
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well.
Interestingly, literature available from the National Trust shop fails to mention this well, but notes a more substantial second St Bertram’s Well. This is close by the church and surrounded by a rectangular stone wall with steps down, the water arises here at greater speed and flows into the nearby River Manifold. Visually it is more impressive and more accessible but whether there is any long tradition of this second well is unclear, but authors such as the Thompsons’s (2004) The Water of Life: Springs and Wells of Mainland Britain and Bord (2008) Holy Wells of Britain appear to have fostered its reputation.
Little is recorded of the wells, but Browne (1888) in his An Account of the Three Ancient Cross Shafts, the Font, and St Bertram’s Shrine, at Ilam, noted that the ash had gone, but the water was still being used. He states that:
“The late Mrs Watts Russell always had her drinking water from it.”
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well. Interestingly, literature available from the
More is recorded is rather curious. Plot (1686) in his The Natural History of Stafford-Shire, the earliest reference of this fascinating site and he records that a
“St Bertram’s Ash… grows over a spring which bears the name of the same Saint… The common people superstitiously believe, that tis very dangerous to break a bough from it: so great a care has St Bertram of his Ash to this very day. And yet they have not so much as a Legend amongst them, either of this Saint’s miracles, or what he was; onely that he was Founder of their Church”
Such ash trees are commonly associated with holy wells. It is worth noting that in North myth, the sacred Yggdrasil was an ash tree associated with divination and knowledge. In some places rags would be tied to such trees but no such record exists here. By the late 1800s as noted in A general collection of voyages and travels digested by a J. Pinkerton in 1808 that the:
“Ash tree growing over it which the country people used hold in great veneration and think it dangerous to break a bough from or his in the church which are mentioned by Plot I did not hear of it at the village.”
Thus suggesting by that time it had gone by this time
A final observation is that in the 1800s a Roman relic found there:
“In the parish of Ilam near the spring called St Bertram’s there was found an instrument of brass somewhat resembling only larger a lath hammer at the edge end but not so the other This Dr Plot has described in the XXIII Tab 6 This he takes to have been the head of a Roman Securis which the Papoe slew their sacrifices.”
Does this suggest that sacrifices were made at the spring by the Romans?
It is difficult to imagine that this small and remote village was once the scene of great pilgrimage. The centre of this being St. Faith’s Well (TL 103 303). St Faith also known as Foy, a third century martyr and virgin, burned alive and beheaded at Agen in Gaul, is associated with Saints Hope and Charity. Her body translated to Conques where a splendid shrine and reliquary was established. The saint was popular with pilgrims and crusaders, and one shrine was established at Hasham, near Norwich.
It is believed that the dedication arose due to the land being in the charge of a homesick French monk: hence the church and well shared the same dedication. In 1243, Abbot John assigned the rectory of Hexton to the sacrist of the Abbey, and the revenue was so great that it was shared with the almonry. Indeed the revenue was greater than the parson’s holdings and tithes. The well thus attracted great numbers and an alehouse was established for their benefit, this is now Red Lion cottage next to the school.
Unfortunately, St. Faith’s Well fell afoul of the Reformation, but luckily lord of the manor Francis Taverner, recorded a great deal of details regarding it. Indeed, his description has become a valuable guide to the possible complexity of less recorded sites. He described the well and its position as follows:
“There is a small persell of ground adjoining to the churchyard called St Ffaith’s Wick Court, about a pole in measurement, anciently divided from Malewick by a ditch in the same place now a large moat is made. The greatest parte standing upon a bedde of springs, and undrained was very boggye, towards the churchyard. But the west side of the wick, being higher ground….neer adjoining unto which…the Craftye Priests had made a well.”
The well itself was:
“about a yard deep and very cleere in the bottome, and curbed about. Now over this well, they built a house.”
Pilgrimage to the well involved adulation to an image of the dedicated saint, for he notes that:
“..in this house they placed an image or statue of St Ffaith and a cawsey they had made…. for people to passe, who resorted thither from four and neere to visit our lady and to perform their devotions.”
The well would seem to be beneficial for foot complaints for pilgrims would be:
“… revently kissing a fine colured stone placed on her toe’ which was believed to bestow cures.”
Also the sick would throw something (nothing is specifically described) into the well:
“..which if swamme above they were accepted and there petition granted, but if it sinke, then rejected which the experienced Prieste had arts enove to cause to swymme or sinke according as himselfe was pleased with the partye, or rather with the offering made by the partye.”
It would appear that the priest was able to influence the object like some kind of wizard. Unfortunately, the land was drained and levelled in 1624 being noted that:
“St. Faith’s Well continued as a waste and unprofitable and neglected piece of land till such time as the footpath was turned through the midst of it to the outside on the south by the highway, and their clearing and levelling the ground.”
It is worth noting that the effigy of the saint was dressed and in an old book of churchwarden’s accounts, in the reign of Henry VIII it is noted that:
“that they had delivered unto the St. Faith a cote and a velvet tippet.”
Land lying in Mill Field, called St. Faith’s ½ acre, which associated with the shrine, came to the King’s hands at the dissolution, and is now parcel of the demesnes. The approximate site can be seen to the side of the church, where a small picturesque pool of water is apparent. The collapse of the tower may have been as a result of undermining from the spring.
In our days of heritage protection it seems astounding that single handed one man could remove this great site, but they did. However, the name St Faith’s wick court is remembered and the water from the well still remains it appears to fill the moat but it is a poor replacement for what sounded like a fascinating site in this remote area of Hertfordshire.
Russia boasts hundreds of holy wells or Святой колодец however their history is a troubled one and many suffered from the atheist Soviet regime – pilgrimages were banned, chapels closed and holy wells filled in and destroyed. However, since the fall of the USSR Russia is reviving and restoring these ancient water sources and in this post I thought it would be of interest to followers.
One such example is the Polovinka holy well in the Venerovsky district. The site was associated with the finding of a miraculous icon of the holy martyr Paraskeva Friday, a hermit who named herself after the Lord’s passion day and was persecuted by emperor Diocletian in Roman Iconium in Asia Minor. This was found on the shore of a lake and the transferred to the church in Voznesenka but when the next day the people went to see the icon it was not there but back at the lake. This happened several times. Seen as a sign, the local people dug a well on its bank and over it a chapel and placed the icon within it. The water was blessed and taken by the pilgrims. Large number of pilgrims came and a convent was even established there.
The loss of the site
Then came the Soviets who in 1979 burnt down the church and destroyed the holy well chapel, dismantling the foundation and burying the well. Despite this the memory had not been erased. Priests came with their people in secret to the site where the spring despite the burial still flowed. Over time people became bolder with their visits and then in 1995, three years after the collapse of USSR, remains were found and a restoration of the well was planned. Soon followers with their priests from Tatarsk, Chanov, Chistoozerny and Vengerovo visited. And recently a roof with a dome and cross were placed back over the well.
Hieromonk Dimitry in the Novosibirsk Diocesan Herald (2006, No. 1) describes the pilgrimage of remembrance of Paraskeva Friday, the 9th Friday of Easter:
“Usually visiting pilgrims meet in the morning in the village of Voznesenka. Here at the site of the burnt church a prayer service is served. Then local residents join the pilgrims, after which everyone gets on the buses and goes to Polovinka. Before one kilometer, people go out and with a procession of the cross, with icons and banners, move to the holy well. To meet them come those who came here earlier. A prayer service with water consecration is served at the well and the akathist to the holy martyr Paraskeva is read. Sanctified well water is bottled to all present. Then – a common meal in nature, and in good weather – and pouring fresh, icy water, which relieves fatigue and gives new strength. Everyone’s mood on this day is festive.”
The white well
A similar site is that of the White Well. This too is linked to a miracle working Icon, this time of Nikola Zaraysky. It is said that in 1225 the spring arose when the icon was rested on the ground on its journey from Korsun to Prince Fydor Yurievich being carried by Eustathius a priest. Then in the following centuries the seven centuries, the inhabitants of Zaraysk celebrate the day of St. Nicholas as a religious Orthodox holiday and after visiting the icon in the Cathedral a procession would form of those visiting the spring head. Its waters were said to be good for those suffering mental and physical suffering. This custom like above died out in the days of the USSR. Then in 2002 a new wooden chapel, called Nikolskaya, was built above the spring with stairs down to the springhead. A special spring filled plunge bath was constructed Now every year on August 11, processions have returned with people from all over Russia coming for its waters.
New wells for old
The restorations of Russia’s sacred wells continues and new holy wells constructed. In Birobidgan, a new holy well has been built in association with St. Innocent Convent on its 220th anniversary a well will be built and opened.
A report states that:
“The territory of the monastery was chosen for the first source of holy water in the Birobidzhan diocese because the water in the territory of the village of Razdolnya is very qualitative in terms of physico-chemical indicators,” said Bishop Efrem of Birobidzhan and Kuldur. – It is located close to the surface of the earth – the wells of local residents are usually four to five meters deep.”
The process involved:
“The rite of consecration “treasure” was held in front of the relics of St. Innocent, which on this occasion were brought from the Annunciation Cathedral, where they are stored permanently. Prayer was held by Vladyka Ephraim, who asked the Lord to give the water “sweet and tasty, satisfied to the needy, and harmless to the reception.”
This new wall will have concrete walls and an hexagonal wooden frame over it with a dome.
Russia restoring and creating holy wells in equal measure. A superb place for the religious tourist
Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site
Who was St. Decumen?
Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion. There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.
St Decumen’s martyrdom.
The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:
‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’
They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:
“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.
However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell. It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.
Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!
The holy well
Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that
“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.
This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.
Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.
Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!
The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part two): Hoxne, Suffolk
Last month we discussed the history and location of St Edmund’s springs or well at Hunstanton at the site where the saint arrived in England, in this post we move forward to the time of Edmund’s martyrdom and to Hoxne, a place said to be historically associated with that event.
The Martyrdom of King Edmund
Edmund’s death is recorded by his chronicler Abbo occurring at Haeglisdun. Although Hellesdon near Norwich or Bradfield St Clare, where there is a Heelesdon ley near Bury, are perhaps phonetically more likely sites. Neither have any folklore associations only Hoxne. Which is said to be associated with the account as early as 1101 has a tree, woods, chapel, holy well and bridge connected with the King. Aside from the spring there are or rather were four sites associated with the saint – a chapel, a woods, a tree and a bridge.
The most notable being the tree and the bridge. Of the bridge called Goldbrook Bridge, it is said that the saint hid from the Danes, however his golden spurs glinting in the water were seen by a newly-wed couple who thus gave him away to the Danes. As he was dragged to his martyrdom he cursed all wedding couples who would cross the bridge and well into the 19th century, wedding corteges would go the long way around.
Of the tree a more direct link exists to his death. For on the 20th November 869 Edmund was captured by the Danes and tortured being tied to a tree, shot with arrows, speared with javelins and scourged and then beheaded. Hoxne claims the tree:
“DEAR Sir, I send you the particulars which I able to collect respecting the St Edmund’s Oak which was a remarkable tree and full of was entirely demolished on the llth of any apparent cause the trunk was shivered pieces and the immense limbs with the all round in a very remarkable manner The of the trunk were 12 feet in length 6 feet 20 feet in circumference it contained about St timber and the limbs 9 leads 11 foot of excellent the branches which spread over 48 yards yielded four loads of battens and 184 faggots.”
I examined the trunk carefully and found the an arrow partly corroded projecting from the inside of the hollow part of the trunk about 4 or 5 feet from which part had warted nearly feet quite inside of the tree and Wes perfectly decayed arrow and was covered a little more than a foot sound wood the annual ring or layer shewing of more than 1000 years as near as can be made.”
Now at the site of this tree is a monument reading:
“‘St. Edmund the Martyr, AD 870. Oak Tree fell August 1848 by its own weight.”
The other wood association is Home wood which the account above records where was found between the legs of a wolf the:
“adjacent head of St Edmund was supposed to have been was cleared many years ago”
What of the chapel? Well there were two one at the site of his death at Cross Street and another in a wood called Sowood possibly where the head was found. Only 80 years after his death, Hoxne had become a see of the church and by 1226 a priory was founded. All suggesting Hoxne was important.
Will the correct site reveal itself?
Like at Hunstanton tracking down the true location of St. Edmund’s Springs or Well is problematic as again multiple sites via for its location. Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 notes of:
“ST EDMUND’S OAK ……inexhaustible character of the spring of water which is tabled we to have miraculously flowed from the place the head of the martyr lay may we have no doubt explained by natural causes.”
This source most certainly places it in the same field:
“There is also a spring of the spot where the St Edmund’s tree grew which of the field have never been able to divert”
This is the site stated by Burgess (1988) Crosses and holy wells of Norfolk and Suffolk being a stagnant pond enclosed in trees, twenty yards from the memorial cross marking the location of the tree the saint was martyred on. The author states that it was used by pilgrims visiting the site of the saint’s supposed martyrdom which does appear to be a more likely location.
Yet Taylor (2016) places it as a spring said to arise on an island in a moated pond stating:
“Near Hoxne in Suffolk – one possible site for Edmund’s martyrdom – is a deep moat enclosing a small island on which the very same freshwater spring was said to be found.”
This is now enclosed in the grounds of a modern house but fieldwork cannot indicate a spring and the island itself is inaccessible. Unfortunately no one was in to ask.
Another source, states that it was enclosed in a modern well house to the North of Abbey Farm. In the Historic England entry for Hoxne Abbey it is recorded that: “
“There was also a cistern, presumably to collect water for domestic use, and a well known as St Edmund’s Well.”
This I presume is the small tile pitched roof brick square structure beside the drive to the house. This is engulfed in briars and close inspection was difficult.
Interesting it does not appear to have been referred to as St Edmund’s Well and it appears Burgess (1988) is the first to record this name. It is worth noting also absent in Jeremy Harte’s (2008) English holy wells. However, a possible fourth location was indicated by the manager of a business close to the Abbey Farm, a building built 15 years ago was placed over a copious spring which made its construction difficult. It was filled with concrete.
Head and spring?
The Eastern Counties Magazine & Suffolk Note-Book’ records something interesting that the :
“freshwater spring, said to have emerged on the spot where Edmund’s head was found between the paws of a grey wolf.”
Cuttings from newspapers, etc. relative to the county of Suffolk, 1806-1847 records also:
“the character of the spring of water which is tabled to have miraculously flowed from the head of the martyr lay may we have no be explained by natural causes”
Now this is an interesting part of the legend which compares favourably hagiographically speaking with many holy wells where the head lands on the ground a spring arises. A spring arose where St Alban’s head fell after decapitation, St Juthware’s well, Dorset, St Osyth’s Essex, St Kenelm’s at Client and even a recent one that of St Thomas’s well at Windleshaw from a Roman Catholic decapitated in the protestant persecutions. It looks like we can add St Edmund’s Spring to this list.
A lost pre-Saxon saint?
It is thought that these associations with the saint and particularly the legend of Goldbrook Bridge are later embellishments and it is possible that the account recorded above of the tree in the Gentlemen’s magazine may have been a concoction of the writer of that piece especially as he even calls it Belmore’s oak. So it begs the question why? Does this mean the spring at Hoxne is not holy? I think no and I think it hides something more interesting perhaps; the record of a pre-Saxon probably Celtic hermit saint. All the clues are there; the island an ideal hermitage location with its spring, the bridge curse, curses being associated with hermit saints to discourage visitors and of course the decapitation a common motif (which many have argued indicate the survival of a head cult but this is debatable). Did local memory of a saint survive long enough into the Norman conquest to have the Saxon saint’s story be grafted onto the holy landscape as a sort of patriotic response?
The sacred spring of England’s first patron saint – searching for St Edmund’s Springs in East Anglia (part one): Old Hunstanton, Norfolk
“In Catholic times the devout clients of St. Edmund flocked to their crystal waters, as pilgrims journeyed to St. Winifred’s Well on the western side of the isle. Now, however, the holy wells of Hunstanton belong to the forgotten past. Farmers, indeed, for miles round send their water-carts to be filled at them, and one of the springs supplies the new town with its sparkling water ; but, though marvelous cures are said to be wrought at them, few recognise their miraculous power, and only now and then does a solitary pilgrim linger over the spot, and recall to memory the stranger prince who knelt there to pray for his country.”
James MacKinlay (1893) Saint Edmund King and Martyr: A History of His Life and Times with an Account of the Translation of His Incorrupt Body, Etc. From Original Mss
Who was St. Edmund
Despite being England’s first patron saint Edmund is only known only from two Saxon period sources: the Anglo Saxon Chronicle circa 877 – 899 and the minting of a commemoration coin from 890.The later suggests a figure of considerable importance but beyond of this, St Edmund’s life is full of miracles and a well-known martyrdom were written long after his death.
As a King of East Anglia he was perhaps less well-known to his people as Redwald, buried in Sutton Hoo in the mid 600s, by the late 800s, the King had been overtaken in importance by Mercia and Northumbria, but his standing up to and final death at the hands of the Vikings were an important part of the cultural mythos of the Saxon resistance perhaps. Not unsurprisingly for an early Kingly Saxon saint he has sacred springs associated with him.
The legend of St Edmund’s return
The first of the noted springs arose at Hunstanton a town proud of its St Edmund association. It is here that legend tells he arrived from Nuremberg, to claim the throne being nominated as the successor of Offa, as noted Allen Mawer, (1911). In his Edmund King of East Anglia is possibly apocryphal This note withstanding John Lydgate in his Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund, 1434 (translated by Horstmann (1881) says that on a safe arrival on dry land of East Anglia:
“In tokne that god herde his praier, Vpon the soil, sondy, hard and drie, Ther sprong bi miracle fyue wellis clier, That been of uertu, helthe and remedie Ageyn ful many straunge malladie.”
Geoffrey of Fountains Abbey too states in the The Youth of St Edmund how when Edmund and his companions returned to East Anglia from exile, they landed about a bowshot from the promontory of Maydenebure near Hunstanton. Here the prince knelt and prayed for his country at a spot afterwards distinguished for its fertility:
“and at the very place where he rose up from prayer, and mounted his horse, twelve sparkling springs broke out from the ground. They still run today, a wonder to all who see them, and then join together to trickle with a pleasant chuckling murmur into the salt sea. Many sufferers from disease have washed themselves with these waters and recovered their health. When the water is taken for the benefit of people living further away, if they are ill or for any other reason, it retains its healing power. And it so happened that, when St Edmund had won his crown, he liked this place best of all for its memories, and had a royal palace built on the rising ground near these springs”.
Geoffrey had lived at Thetford, compared to other historians not that far from Hunstanton, so he may well have learnt this story from tradition rather than from books.
Will the correct number of springs reveal themselves?
White (1845) in his directory of Norfolk records that:
“A well in the parish also bears the name of the name of the Royal martyr; but is sometimes called the Seven Springs”.
The number of springs varies according MacKinlay (1893) Saint Edmund King and Martyr: A History of His Life and Times with an Account of the Translation of His Incorrupt Body, Etc. From Original Mss who reports that the Gaufridus says twelve springs; Lydgate says five; Capgrave only states that “a fountain sprang up, curing many infirmities”.
The name the Seven Springs appears to have been a later name and of course seven springs are not uncommon across the British isles and have a cult significance. James MacKinlay (1893) states that Gaufridus:
“These springs, to this our own day excite the admiration of the beholder, flowing as they do with a continuous sweet and cheering murmur to the sea. Many sick wash in these fountains and are restored to their former health, and pilgrims carry the healing water to remote parts for the infirm and others to drink.”
Will the location of the springs please reveal themselves?
The site of these springs is debatable. The obvious location is the chapel near the lighthouse but if they were there there is no sign or perhaps they have now fallen into the sea. One possibly location is by the Old Church. This is a very plausible location and indeed there is a large duckpond in the location, another is a boggy woodland called the pools which may also be the source.
However, the most likely is that by the old Waterworks. Here the springs are still present in the garden of what is now a private dwelling in Old Hunstanton. The spring’s water was pumped to the water tower (now demolished) at Lincoln Street and was the town’s principle source.
The springs fill a considerable pool which flow out as a stream although a recent fence makes it nigh impossible to view them. This would fit with MacKinlay (1893) who notes that:
“St. Edmund’s springs are situate about a quarter of a mile from the ancient and beautiful church of St. Mary in Old Hunstanton.”
It would be nice to have some signage to this, perhaps historically (if he did indeed land here) the most important of Hunstanton’s relics after the chapel.
The Cotswold area is justly noted amongst those who visit holy and healing wells as being a notable place, as can be seen from this blog. What is not very well known is that Gloucester itself had a notable well that of St Cynburgh’s Well. It is not mentioned in Ancient wells, springs and holy wells of Gloucestershire by Skyking-Waters (1923) curiously enough as indeed is its legend of how it became holy.
How did the well arise?
St Cynburgh’s Well is recorded in a local legend recorded in a Gloucester Abbey Lectionary, 15th century which is summarised in Historia Monasterii Sancti Petri from 1863–7. It tells how St Cynburgh, vowed to a holy life, fled from her royal family rather than marry. She arrived in Gloucester where she began working for a baker, whose wife was so jealous that she murdered the princess by chopping of her head and threw the body into a nearby well. When the baker, returning home and missing his assistant, he called for her and heard her voice answering from the well.
Miracles at the well
Her body was recovered and buried near it. A chapel was built over the well and it became a site of miracles and a medieval hospital was established at the site. This recorded as being dedicated in 1147, and appears in later records from 1267 onwards, with miracles of healing recorded there; it was near the city wall by the south gate. Archbishop Courtney ordered a new translation in 1390 and when the establishment was finally suppressed in the 1500s a local MP Sir Thomas Bell converted the site to an alms-house called St Kyneburgha’s.
Who was St Cynburga?
The saint behind the legend is a bit of a mystery. She is thought to have been around in the late 600s. It is believed that she was the sister King Osric the founder of St. Peter at Gloucester Monastery. The King appointed his sister, Cyneburga, as the first Abbess of Gloucester. However, there was another St. Cyneburga of Castor in Northamptonshire and it possible they are one and the same. However, how the legend arose based on the association with the monastery is unclear.
A relics of the holy well?
A lead box in Gloucester museum is a curious relic of the saint’s veneration. Said to have come from Woodchester Church it depicts the saint and another local saint said to have been the last Roman Bishop of the town, St Aldate. It is believed to have been used either to hold relics or as a container for holy water. Did it contain water from her well one wonders and as such is the only relic surviving from this site.
A modern remembering of the well
This relic in Gloucester museum was at one time the only remembrance of this holy well then in 2011 an art installation was installed. Part of an £7m project which linked the city centre with the docks is the 16m (53ft) Kyneburgh Tower will was built in Kimbrose Square designed by British sculptor Tom Price to design it stating that according to the BBC New website it:
” told the story of a girl’s journey from life to death and beyond…..I intended it to be both a spectacle and a place for quiet contemplation. Both artworks function like a metaphysical sundial. They point to the invisible histories we rarely seek out, but which permeate the landscape around us.”
They recorded that:
“The artworks will be dedicated by the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Stephen Lake, and the Reverend Canon Nikki Arthy as part of the official opening ceremony.”
Perhaps a Dean who may have stood at a site once frequented by those seeking the holy waters of this lost and lamented holy well.
It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s third part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw
For Giraldus, the ebbing-and-flowing spring near Rhuddlan was a wonder of the natural world. Such watery natural wonders were a source of perennial fascination to the people of the medieval period. For example, in Wales, the “De mirabilibus Britannice insule” chapters of the early ninth-century Historia Brittonum of “Nennius” are almost entirely taken up with the anomalous behaviour of springs, lakes, and the tides (Morris 1980, 40-2, 81-3). They held an equal fascination in the Early Modern period. This fascination is clearly revealed in one of the Queries (No. XXIV) in the series of “Parochial Queries” which Edward Lhwyd printed and distributed throughout Wales c. 1695, which resulted in the priceless assemblage of information now generally known as the Parochialia. Lhwyd asked for:
An Account of the subterraneous or diving Rivers; & of such as are totally absorbed; or no where distinguishable afterwards; also of sudden Eruptions of Water, & periodical Streams. A Computation of the Number of Springs in the Parish. How near the Tops of the Hills are the highest running Springs: Or are there any in very even Plains remote from Hills? Any Fountains that ebb and flow? Waters that petrify or incrustate Wood, Moss, Leaves, &c. Medicinal Springs, or Waters of an unusual Taste, Smell, or Colour, or remarkable for their Weight or tinging the Stone or Earth whence they proceed? (Lhwyd 1909, xiii.)
Thus, it was simply as a natural wonder that writers from Humphrey Llwyd to Pennant chose to describe Ffynnon Leinw; but attitudes were beginning to change, and interests slowly to widen. In 1613 Michael Drayton (1563-1631) published the first eighteen sections (of an eventual thirty) of his epic poem Poly-Olbion, or a Chorographicall Description of all the Tracts, Rivers, Mountains, Forests, and other Parts … of Great Britaine. Mapping England and Wales with reference to their noted springs and rivers, he used this imagined framework to relate the history, real and legendary, of the two countries. In the course of this (Tenth Song, lines 132-40) he versified Humphrey Llwyd’s Commentarioli passage on the Cilcain well.
As also by thy Spring, such wonder who dost win,
That naturally remote, six British [i.e., Welsh] miles from sea,
And rising on the firm, yet in the natural day
Twice falling, twice doth fill, in most admiréd wise,
When Cynthia [the moon] from the East unto the South doth rise,
That mighty Neptune [the sea] flows, then strangely ebbs thy Well;
And when again he sinks, as strangely she doth swell;
Yet to the sacred Fount of Winifrid gives place;
Of all the Cambrian Springs of such especial grace [&c] (Hooper 1876, II, 49-50).
At the end of each Song Drayton’s friend the jurist and antiquarian John Selden (1584-1654) supplied detailed references and commentaries for the various locations, sights and wonders celebrated in the Poly-Olbion. For lines 132-8 Selden identified the well as Finon Leinw in Kilken, and referenced the accounts of Llwyd and Powel; and he further noticed the ebbing-and-flowing wells at Newton (from Stradling’s account in Camden) and Dinefwr (from Giraldus). But when he came to account for the ebbing-and-flowing phenomenon itself, he seemed to suggest – doubtless, tongue-in-cheek – that such wonders existed simply to tease the antiquarians.
Nor think I any reasons more difficult to be given, than those which are most specially hidden, and most frequently strange in particular qualities of Floods, Wells, and Springs; in which (before all other) Nature seems as if she had, for man’s wonder, affected a not intelligible variety, so different, so remote from conceit of most piercing wits; and such unlooked-for operations both of their first and second qualities (to use the School phrase of them) are in every Chronographer, Naturalist, and Historian (ib. 59).
Without a trace of humour, the “experimental philosopher” Robert Hooke, in his Micrographia of 1665, aimed to remove the very idea of certain springs as wonders altogether.
The same Spring may be fed and supplyed by divers Caverns, coming from very far distant parts of the Sea, so as that in one place be high, in another low water; and so by that means the Spring may be equally supply’d at all times. Or else the Cavern may be so straight and narrow, that the water not having so ready and free passage through it, cannot upon so short and quick mutations of pressure, be able to produce any sensible effect at such distance. Besides that, to confirm this hypothesis, there are many Examples found in Natural Historians, of Springs that do ebb and flow like the Sea: As particularly, those recorded by the Learned Camden, and after him by Speed, to be found in this Island: One of which, they relate to be on the Top of a Mountain, by the small Village Kilken in Flintshire … Which at certain times riseth and falleth after the manner of the Sea. A Second in Caermardenshire … (ut scribit Giraldus) … The Phaenomena of which two may be easily made out, by supposing the Cavern, by which they are fed, to arise from the bottom of the next Sea (Hooke 1667, 27).
He goes on to deal with the Newton well in the same manner. The age of the natural wonder was drawing to a close. The dawning, more self-consciously scientific, age was to be that so wonderfully represented by Sir Thomas Browne’s popular Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very many received Tenents And commonly presumed Truths, popularly known as Vulgar Errors (1646 and many subsequent editions). This was designed, according to Browne’s modern editor Sir Geoffrey Keynes, “to combat the popularity of a large variety of erroneous beliefs” (Browne 1970, “Introduction”). In the opening words of the Pseudodoxia:
Would Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledge were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colourishing of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before. For what is worse, knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know (ib. 227).
It is interesting, not to say salutary, to recognise how very few of the learned people who wrote about Ffynnon Leinw had ever seen the well. That had probably been necessary for it to retain its natural wonder reputation; the end of the natural wonder age with the triumph of the age of the Vulgar Errors allowed other aspects of Ffynnon Leinw’s history to be brought to the fore, and a new model to be proposed – one rather closer, it may be, to the actual facts, and certainly one more in keeping with the dawning Gothick and Romantick sensibilities of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Ffynnon Leinw comes belatedly to be understood as a holy well.
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