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!
In the quiet village of Eltisley in the old county of Huntingdonshire, now Cambridgeshire was a uniquely dedicated holy well associated with a saintly shrine. This was St Pandonia’s Well of which Charles Hope in his 1893 notes stood outside the chancel until being filled in the 16th Century by the Reverend Palmer for ‘superstitious purposes’. It is noted:
“The vicar… Robert Palmer, who was charged before the Consistory court in 1576 with many misdemeanours. Amongst them… that he had broken the stonework round a well in the churchyard to the great danger of children playing in the churchyard. To the latter he replied “that it was a well used for superstitious purposes, therefore he broke it down”
Despite the obvious desecration the Parish church still shares this unusual dedication combined with St. John the Baptist. It is evident from the fact the vicar was charged that the villagers still considered their well important.
Who was St Pandonia?
Pandonia was a local saint but not Huntingdonshire born and bred. It is recorded in the 13th century to c.1250 to St Pandonia or Pandionia; original name appears to have been O.E Pendwynn. St. Pandonia was a nun at Ely, the daughter of a Scottish Prince who died in 904. When her body was translated into the church in 1344 miracles occurred. Leland, c. 1540 (1906–10) notes:
“at “Eltesle was sumtyme a nunnery wher Pandonia the Scottish virgine was buried, and there is a well of her name yn the south side of the quire’, and, ‘it appearithe by the legende of S. Pandonia that she was a kynge of Scotts dowghter, and after flienge them that would have deflowrid hir, she cam to a kynns woman of hirs, priorese of a nunrey at Eltesley in Cambridgeshire, 4 myles from Saint Neotes, and aftar dyenge was byried in Eltesley by a well cawled S. Pandonia Welle. She was translatyd into Eltesley Churche anno 1344 as it aperithe by the lessons of hir translation made by one Ser Richarde, parishe priste there”.
Kelly’s directory (1929) notes:
“There was formerly a convent of Benedictine nuns here, subsequently removed in the reign of William I. to Hinchinbrooke, in Huntingdonshire. St. Pandionia was the daughter of a Scottish king, who, in her flight from some persons who attempted her chastity, is said to have taken refuge in the nunnery of Eltisley, the prioress of which was her kinswoman; she eventually adopted the religious life, and on account of her piety was canonized; she died, it is said, in the convent, and was buried by a well called St. Pandionia’s Well, whence her body was removed into Eltisley church in the year 1344.”
In the 1808 Cambridgeshire volume it is recorded the priory was where the rectory was and destroyed at the Conquest. However, another view places it some distance out of the village at Papley Grove, where a modern farm house is to be found.
Any sign of the well?
There is an interesting aspect to the tradition. Why was she buried near the well and not in the church of the Priory she was nunnery? Was if the story above is true still considered an outsider? Was she diseased and those needed to be buried elsewhere? Why bury her near a well? Surely this would both contaminate the grave and the water. How close was it to the church. Hope appears to state it outside the chancel which sounds pretty close to the church and his accounts states that a bricked around well was in the churchyard. If so perhaps some remains of it still exist awaiting to be discovered. But why was she buried near a well? Had she become a hermit there? Is there more to the story – was she buried and a spring arise like nearby St Ive’s Well in the town? The account appear to suggest that it might have arose after her body was transferred to the high altar. A local story states that her spirit appeared to local children revealing the location of the spring; perhaps this was at a time when there was a drought.
Sacred garden pool?
Interestingly, it is said that the water of the well fills pool in an adjoining property. It is a far distance from the chancel end but not impossible. They are hidden by trees on the picture shown on Google maps. They are not accessible to the public however…hopefully one day they excavate the churchyard and find remains of the well and restore it so far as the village history website (http://www.eltisleyhistorysociety.org.uk/) suggests it and the priory have yet to be discovered.
Back in the mid 90s when I started seeking out holy wells, I came across reference to a site just outside of Thetford. I’d planed to visit the site and found it to be one of the most curious in the county. It is marked on the first series of the OS map in Gothic writing but was it that old?
A substantial site is located in Shadwell Park called St. Chad’s Well (TL 933 830). However, despite the name I can find no history or traditions about it, the first author to refer to the well is Bryant (1901) who states it is marked on an ancient map but as I note below I have been unable to substantiate this. Was it an ancient well?
Icewell, holy well or folly?
The well is enclosed is a circular dome of flint and mortar with a passage entrance facing west. The structure is supported by a stone pillar. The structure is not dissimilar to an ice-well which indeed it has been claimed it was but no-one would build an ice-well with a spring in it. A medieval fabric claim was made, but is of probable 19th Century date and is an estate folly; a grottification of a simple spring, utilising old stone work. This spring arises from the hillside and enters into a basin kerbed in stone through a hole in the flint wall of the structure. Above this is an arched recess. The water is channelled into a narrow gutter to exit through the north wall. The concrete floor of the chamber is below ground level reached by five stairs in the passageway. There are two lighting niches in the walls at the east and the southwest. Six stone blocks are arranged to form seats. Below the arch of the spring of the arch of the domed roof are six brackets which possibly served as candle stands.
St Chad or Boundary spring?
Unlikely although St Cedd his brother evangelised East Anglia, Chad wells are very common in the region. This is because they arise from the Old English Chaud meaning cold and thus cold spring! In this case it is apparent that the name may well be a back-derivation as its location on East Hall and Gonville Manors boundary suggests name derives from O.E scead for ‘boundary’ this is emphasised by the name of the estate Shadwell – sceadwell! Indeed the estate Shadwell Court is only first mentioned in White (1845) as the house was built in the 1830s with associated statues. Historic England records:
“Robert Buxton acquired the manor of Rushworth in Shadwell during the C16, initially holding a lease from the fourth Duke of Norfolk. In c 1715 John Buxton, amateur architect of Channonz Hall in Tibenham, began to rebuild what he called Shadwell Lodge and to lay out the grounds. The main features however of the design which survives today (1999), including the layout of the plantations and the creation of the lake, are the work of his son, also John, between the 1740s and 1760s and these are recorded on William Faden’s map of the county dated 1797. “
This suggests the well was a folly capitalising on the spring name using the carved stonework which may have originally been part of Thetford Priory, giving it a rustic religious feel. However this does not mean that the well was not of significance. Boundaries often incorporated springs as sites of note, or as disputed sites and having them on boundaries allowed equal access. As many Parish boundaries date from Angl0-Saxon periods it is possible that the well had a significant position in the settlement. There is evidence of an ancient settlement here with flint flakes and blades from the Neolithic and Bronze Age were found around the well and Roman funeral urns and Saxon tumuli in the park. Furthermore the well is also located close to Peddar’s Way, suggesting pilgrim use perhaps. So was it a Holy well as noted 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales:
“SHADWELL……It takes its name from a spring called St. Chad’s well, formerly much frequented by pilgrims.”
This begs the question is this just antiquarian fancy or are we missing some records of its history? Was it frequented by those on the way to Walsingham…if so its forgotten by them now.
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
The modern seaside town of Porthcawl is classic British seaside and in the summer the eateries swam with visitors, surfers ride the waves and children clamber over rocks in search of crabs…a few miles from this buzz of seaside fun are three watery relics which have survived the spread of the town. How many of those seaside visitors come and examine them is unclear but if they did they would be privy to a magic otherworld..quite literally in fact!
The first of our wells really does appear to contact to another world being Ffynnon Fawr. A flight of stone steps descend into a world deep beneath us into a pool where light just about penetrates. Inside a large chamber brimming with clear water. Ffynnon Fawr lives up to its name – it is indeed a large well!
It is not the easiest to find. My sources pinpointed it on a modern roundabout on the outskirts, but on the wrong side so I spent a fair time looking in the wrong place and resigned myself to not finding it. However, I was determined and returning found it below the level of the ground at the roundabout.
The well is a rectangular grey stone building with a camber headed doorway with an iron gate. On the side it reads:
“Y Fynnon Fawr”
“Mae Dwr Yn Fendith Angenreidol Rhoddes Duw Inni Ar Lawr; Cofiwyn ‘Awdur Pob Daioni’ Wrth Yfed Dwr O ‘r Fynnon Fawr’
“Water Is A Necessary Blessing Which God Has Given Us On Earth; Let Us Remember ‘The Author Of All Goodness’ As We Drink From Fynnon Fawr”.
The well provided water for the older village of Newton Nottage now absorbed into the Porthcawl sprawl however no legends or traditions are recorded.
Not far away is St. David’s Well sitting just beside the edge of a lane but still feeling from a distant age. This is a true holy well and its present fabric albeit early 20th century doubtlessly includes medieval work as noted by Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient Church situate at Newton, Porthcawl in the Parish of Newton Nottage.:
“A few years ago there was but a muddy heap of stones by the way-side; lately a partial restoration has been attempted, but without even indicating the name that gives it importance and interest.”.
Charles Davies further states:
“We are justified in surmising that the Well at Nottage owed its origin to the Memory of St. David, for the axiom of archaeology states that, when found in proximity, the shrine and its adjacent spring both commemorate the identical saint. A chain of evidence is available showing that such was the case. The remains of an ancient roadway bearing the significant name of “Heol-y-Capel” (Chapel Road), can be traced through the Croft leadmg from The Holy Well to the site of the Vanished Chapel and the adjoining “Cwrt Offeiriad”. Now this Chapel was situated on the west bank of the little valley, watered by Ffynnon Dewi (David’s Well), which is known today as “The Rhyll”, but in the 12th century was named “Dewiscumbe”. These facts prove an intimate relationship between the little hamlet and the National Saint of Wales in Pre-Norman days the nourishing of a Davidian Cultus – and all that is implied by Saint David having been its Patron Saint.
It is regrettable that the memory of the Shrine and Valley has completely faded ; not without shame do we remember our neglect of the Holy well itself, which has been the means of our resurrecting the past. …. Many are still spared who can remember It as it was some forty years ago. The limped water, of a constant depth, flows to the rough stone font, unaffected by winter flood or summer drought, incapable of gain or decline The rivulet still makes tremulous music as it meanders down the little valley of Dewiscumbe. Here, in mediaeval days, many a pilgrim quest found its consummation, and even today the idyllic surroundings appear to summon up the long-vanished atmosphere of the Welsh Saint.”
The site consists of a small stone enclosure with a style, said to be the church’s old altar, to prevent animals access it. The well itself is an ancient looking structure whose roof is made of large stone slabs and steps again go deep into the ground to a roofed chamber.
It is said that the ghost of a girl peering into its waters in the evening having been seen on a number times. She may have drowned in its deep waters. Today this is not possible as access again to the waters is no longer possible.
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.
Leicestershire is sadly not renowned for its holy and healing wells, this is despite two works, Bob Trubshaw’s seminal 1990 Holy Wells of Leicestershire and Rutland and James Rattue’s 1993 work on An Inventory of Ancient, Holy and Healing Wells in Leicestershire in LAHS. The majority of wells in the former are either lost or dubious wells, i.e not necessarily holy! One curious exception was the Sister’s Well at Hoton or Prestwold. Trubshaw (1990) records:
“Sisters’ Well (also known as Jacob’s Well) is on the perimeter of the disused airfield. A simple stone structure with steps down and wooden doors stood until World War II but the flow has now been culverted.”
Structurally this sounded like one of the more structure of the county’s holy wells and its loss was a considerable one. Another reason why this site was of interest is due to a local legend:
“A legend associated with this well tells how, during a three-month long drought, a sixteenth century maiden lady called Gertrude Lacey dreamed three times in one night of finding a stream by sticking a pilgrim’s staff from the Holy Land in a specific place. It was located in Langdale Field, and known as Spring Close after Enclosure. A pilgrim’s staff was dug up and, with the help of her sister Grace, she went off to the location. When the staff was stuck in the ground a supply of water was created which ‘has never run dry’. A double effigy in Prestwold church reputedly depicts these two sisters.
It is a common holy well origin motif and is found across the country and even overseas. However, rarely is it associated with secular figures which either emphasises the importance of the sisters or is a story transferred from a lost saint tradition. An interesting well who I thought only remembrance was the farm across from its location Shepherd’s Well farm.
It seemed clear that this was a lost site and then searching on the web for references to well in preparation of my Leicestershire holy wells I was amazed to come across this from Bob Trubshaw:
“In March 2015 the ‘solar farm’ on Wymeswold airfield was being extended. I received an email from Alexander Haddington to say that a friend of his had noticed that an old well had been uncovered to the north of the perimeter track. He thought the photographs his friend had taken ‘would be of interest’. ‘Yes, very much so!’ was the gist of my reply.”
I was similarly very keen to examine the site and photograph it for the book. I contacted the owners of the Solar farm and via a series of emails was welcomed to the site.
The landscape is perhaps the strangest to find a holy well. In a sea of solar cells, panels which spread across the relics of the airbase like a waves on the sea, enclosed in a wooden fence is the well. We removed a cone and some coverings and I peered inside.
The first thing that could be noticed was a series of steps into some deep murky water. The steps nearly reached the top of the concrete lid suggesting there may have been one on which the current covering rested on. The water arose from under an arch which was a right angles to the step and peering in there old stone work could be seen. .
The arch was a strong stone one upon which could be read slightly in the light ‘HL 1851’, did this refer to the Holy Land as the legend suggested? In the article for the Wold’s Historian, a Joan Shaw did some research for Bob Trubshaw and noted:
“The date and initials intrigued us and I was looking through the 1851 census last night to try and identify HL. As soon as I found the name Henry Lacey I was fairly satisfied that it was the Lacey family who had either found the well or, assuming it is older, had built the approach to it.
We looked at a map of the estate, the field appears to belong to the Packe Estate (or did) but the Lacey family owned land close by so it would be likely that they rented it and had perhaps rented it for many generations.”
The name Lacey being that of the two sisters showing that the family were keen to continue their beneficence. Either side of the arch was a piece of metal sticking out of the brickwork, which would appear to have been placed there to attach a metal or wooden set of doors on their as can be seen currently on a number of wells as shown below. Perhaps this would prevent the water being contaminated. These doors of course would not prevent it today as the water table has risen here compared to other places.
The site is remarkably well preserved and the landowners are keen to preserve it. I suggested that the whole concrete roof could be fully removed to allow a complete restoration and this may happen in the future. Whatever happens it is great to see this most interesting of Leicestershire holy wells being restored and rising from the ground like the origin spring – it holds out hope for similar rediscoveries perhaps.
“There is not a wife in the west country but has heard of the Well of St. Keyne” St. Keyne’s Well, St Keyne’s Cornwall.
A Well there is in the west country, And a clearer one never was seen; There is not a wife in the west country But has heard of the Well of St. Keyne. An oak and an elm-tree stand beside, And behind doth an ash-tree grow, And a willow from the bank above Droops to the water below. A traveller came to the Well of St. Keyne; Joyfully he drew nigh, For from the cock-crow he had been travelling, And there was not a cloud in the sky. He drank of the water so cool and clear, For thirsty and hot was he, And he sat down upon the bank Under the willow-tree. There came a man from the house hard by At the Well to fill his pail; On the Well-side he rested it, And he bade the Stranger hail. “Now art thou a bachelor, Stranger?” quoth he, “For an if thou hast a wife, The happiest draught thou hast drank this day That ever thou didst in thy life. “Or has thy good woman, if one thou hast, Ever here in Cornwall been? For an if she have, I’ll venture my life She has drank of the Well of St. Keyne.” “I have left a good woman who never was here.” The Stranger he made reply, “But that my draught should be the better for that, I pray you answer me why?” “St. Keyne,” quoth the Cornish-man, “many a time Drank of this crystal Well, And before the Angel summon’d her, She laid on the water a spell. “If the Husband of this gifted Well Shall drink before his Wife, A happy man thenceforth is he, For he shall be Master for life. “But if the Wife should drink of it first,– God help the Husband then!” The Stranger stoopt to the Well of St. Keyne, And drank of the water again. “You drank of the Well I warrant betimes?” He to the Cornish-man said: But the Cornish-man smiled as the Stranger spake, And sheepishly shook his head. “I hasten’d as soon as the wedding was done, And left my Wife in the porch; But i’ faith she had been wiser than me, For she took a bottle to Church.”
This picturesque holy well is perhaps the most unusually associated with the properties that Southery alludes to above. Richard Carew in his 1602 Survey of Cornwall is the first to note the well and its trees:
“I will relate you another of the Cornish natural wonders, viz., St. Kayne’s Well ; but lest you make a wonder first at the saint, before you take notice of the well, you must understand that this was not Keyne, the man queller, but one of a gentler spirit, and milder sex— to wit, a woman. He who caused the spring to be pictured added this rhyme for an exposition : —
‘The name to lot of Kayne befell, No over holy saint, The shape four trees of divers kind, Withy, oak, elm, and ash, Make with their roots an arched roof . Whose floor this spring doth wash. The quality, that man or wife, Whose chance, or choice, attains, First of the sacred stream to drink, Thereby the mastery gains.’”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells records:
“It is a spring of rare virtues in the belief of the country people. It is covered in by masonry, upon the top of which formerly grew five large trees–a Cornish elm, an oak, and three antique ash-trees–on so narrow a space that it is difficult to imagine how the roots could have been accommodated. There now remain only two of these trees–the elm, which is large and fine, and one of the ash-trees.”
The Quiller-Couches (1894) consider in their Holy Wells of Cornwall relates to these trees:
“The trees are not as they were in the time of Carew and Norden. The oak, elm, and withy were blown down in a very fierce storm which occurred in the November of 1703. Some years afterwards, Mr. Rashleigh of Menabilly planted the present trees in their place, five in number, — two oak, two ash, and an elm ; and it is a double wonder, firstly, where in such a scant place they get nourishment ; secondly, why by their roots they do not disrupt the masonry, and ruin the well. When standing on the top of the well, all the trunks could be reached by the extended arms.”
However, they then note:
“On my last visit, one of the oaks was much decayed, and supported by a prop. The well has now no architectural interest, the entrance being a plain round-headed arch of native stone.”
Today these trees have lone gone a result of a repair to the well. Quiller-Couches again note:
“On visiting the well in 1891, we found it in a very dilapidated state, the arch tumbling to pieces. Of the five trees only two are left, an elm and an ash, both fine trees, particularly the elm.”
These concerns prompted the Liskeard Old Cornwall Society in 1936 to completely renovate the well, guided by A. C. Glubb according to Lane Davies who records:
“The trees decayed, the lane was widened….it all looked very new at first with bright granite stones, but will mellow in time.”
Now the well has indeed mellowed and is a delightful find by the roadside
Who was St Keyne?
A daughter of the Prince of Brecknockshire and aunt of St. David, she was said to be a beautiful and very holy women, who was sought by many important men as a bride. She is said to have vanquished serpents from the land by converting them to stone, the remains being fossilised ammonites. She is said to have lived in seclusion but was finally convinced by Cadock to return to which he provided the local people with a water supply by hitting the ground with his staff.
Hope (1893) notes that:
“The well is said to share with St. Michael’s Chair at the Mount the marvellous property of confirming the ascendancy of either husband or wife who, the first after marriage, can obtain a draught of water from the spring, or be seated in the chair.”
It would seem plausible that it was a property derived from a pagan fertility tradition, so unusual is it in its nature. But do people visit it for this? Of this property, the Quiller Couches again comically noted:
“It has been related that Mr. Leah, then rector of the parish of St. Keyne, sent two dozen bottles of this gifted well water to a bazaar in the grounds of Mount Edgcumbe, and that they met with a ready sale at two shillings a bottle, with a loud demand for more.”
When I visited a man was there filling a bottle, I asked him what for and he wryly smiled well ‘just in case’ it was clear he was well aware. I peered into the well, the murky nature of the water, possible as a consequence of a dead mole in it, if I had to drink this to ensure dominance I would be happy to be henpecked!! I much prefer equality anyhow and one wonders in this day and age whether taking a draft was anyway acceptable?
“by the side of the ditch arose a spring, which superstition consecrated to St Ethelbert, there is a handsome old stone arch erected over it.”
William Stukeley (1724) Itinerary
Hereford’s St Ethelbert’s well sadly does not have a handsome old stone arch over it but down on Castle Green the site of the well is still marked. It is a well with a good degree of pedigree being first mentioned on a 1250 deed which in referring to a property records:
“a road leading towards the former fountain of blessed St Ethelbert”
Similarly a grant in 1359 to a John of Evesham refers to:
“the lane leading to the well of St Ethelbert”.
John Speed on his map of the town in 1611 draws it and Thomas Dingley in 1683 draws it.
The cult of St. Ethelbert
I have discussed the martyrdom of the saint in a previous post but it is worth recalling two traditions. One that as the body with its decapitated head was being carried to Hereford it fell and tripped over a blind man who was miraculously able to see. The other is that this was a resting place for the coffin before transfer to the cathedral but it is not mentioned in his main Vita. His body was transferred to the cathedral and became a shrine lost in the reformation. In 2008 a shrine surrounding a pillar near the high altar was established it shows scenes of the saints martyrdom.
The original well
In 1802 the well ‘appears on a plan… drawn as a circular feature enclosed by walls and approached by five stone steps. It was situated in the eastern corner of a garden soon to be occupied by St Ethelbert’s House’
By Wright (1819) A Walk through Hereford he was noting that:
“Some disjointed remains of this arch may yet be noticed; on each side the door in the modern wall are key stones, ornamented with foliage or corolla, with terminations of rib-work. In a niche above, defended by an iron palisade, is a head, wearing a crown, carved in stone; it is part of the image of St Ethelbert, which formerly stood in a niche on the ancient west front of Hereford Cathedral… The well is now provided with a pump erected and kept in repair during her life-time, by the late Johanna Whitmore, of this city.”
Thus by 1869 Havergal notes in Fasti Herefordenses and other Antiquarian Memorials of Hereford:
“the superstructure has long since disappeared, and the well itself is entirely excluded from sight by four brick walls and a vast accumulation of rubbish.”
In 1904, the original site was stopped up, although it was said then that a circular stone within Mr Custos Eckett’s garden marked the exact position, but that exact position itself was lost.
James Brome in his 1700 Travels Over England, Scotland and Wales stated that the well was:
“by the Trench near the Castle… a very fine Spring, call’d St Ethelbert’s Well, famous formerly for Miracles.”
Wright (1819) records it as:
“a beautiful limpid spring, formerly much reverenced; and even now in great esteem for its medicinal properties.”
Storer (1814–19) records that:
“the place is still visited by person s afflicted with ulcers and sores, to which the washing is often very salutary.”
Havergal again notes:
“many wonderful cures are said to have been effected at this well.”
W. J. Rees in their 1827 The Hereford Guide says that the water was:
“reputed to be of service to persons afflicted with bad eyes, ulcers, and sores of various kinds.”
“caused the cases to be ascertained in which the use of the water was of service.”
Yet in December 1822 when the water being analysed by Mr J. Murray:
“his opinion was that the medicinal qualities were not very important”.
It would appear if Wright is correct that it was traditional at some point to give a pin for he notes:
“In cleaning it out for that purpose, a great quantity of pins were found in its bottom.”
Watkins 1918-1920 noted that there was more than one site which claimed to be the well indeed there were four. These were as well as to the circular stone where the medieval well-house had been, and the new drinking fountain there was also:
“a pump and well in Dr Du Buisson’s yard in the line of the ditch…..a flowing spout of water, formerly running close under Castle Cliffe house at a spot which is, or ought to be, a public watering or landing approach to the river, and which ceased to flow on being cut off in laying a main sewer in 1888. Half a century ago my father investigated the possibility of bottling this water (with its medicinal reputation and attractive name) and secured its analysis, but was much surprised to find (in its organic impurities ) stronger indications of an origin in at own ditch than in a rock spring.”
Whitehead records how this drinking fountain was erected in 1904 and has been restored twice once by the Hereford Civic Trust and rededicated by the Right Reverend J.R.G. Eastaugh, the Lord Bishop of Hereford on St Ethelbert’s Day, 20 May 1978’
Sadly the waters are now not obtainable for Sant (1994) says it dried up during building works after the war. Today the sadly worn face of Ethelbert stares over a dry lion’s head.
The best recorded holy well in the Cambridgeshire is that of St. Audry’s Well (TL 540 801). It is noted in the 12th century that a spring arose at the place where the saint was first buried
St Audry or rather Ethelreda or Æthelthryth was an Anglo Saxon saint who was a 7th century East Anglian princess, one of four saintly daughters of Anna, queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely. Interestingly she was born at Exning in Suffolk where a well is also associated with her. She died and was buried at Ely and it is recorded by Bede that when her body was disinterred her body was uncorrupt as such her powers and clothes were said to have special powers. She was reburied in the Cathedral and her shrine remained until the reformation. She is best known for the term tawdry for rubbish, a term which derived from the poor quality clothing sold at fairs on her feast days.
In the 12th century it is reported that:
“If any sick people take a drink from this spring, or have been sprinkled with its water, it is reported that they subsequently recover their original vigour…. in account of her merits, are acquainted with remedies and assiduous in curing the sick”.
It is noted that the monks made the spring site into a pit like cistern so that they could collect some of their water. Several miracles are associated with the well. One tells how a blind woman washing her face and eyes became able to see, how a man travelled from Northamptonshire to be healed and found the door locked. He was apparently barred entrance and was told that there was no bucket at the well and nothing to collect it with. He did not take no as an answer and so barged his way in where he found the well overflowing into the courtyard and thus cupped some water into his hands. He evoked the saint’s name and as he did so begin to recover. Another story tells how a woman fell into the well after accidently being pushed in by a crowd at the well. She was apparently left in the water for two hours and was found still alive by the monks.
The established site of the well is at Barton Farm to the east of the Cathedral. The site is shown on a Moore’s map of the fens dated in 1684 shown as St. Aldreth’s Well. According to Hippisley-Coxe in his 1973 Haunted Britain this site still survived as a muddy pool in a clump of elms near Barton Farm. The spring fills a small tree lined pool on the edge of the grounds of Ely’s Cathedral School, which has absorbed Barton Farm, and the Golf course. There does not appear to be any evidence of fabric but at some point, some brickwork has been used to create a channel to allow the water to flow way showing that the spring is still active.
Conversely the metrical Life and Miracles of St Æthelthryth by Gregory of Ely, c.1120 states that ‘the holy precinct of the church includes a spring’, but does not identify this as a holy well; the original grave of St Audrey lay:
“somewhere in the vicinity of the former Bishop’s Palace, the area close to the Fountain Inn, and the present St Mary’s Church, where the water-table is high.”
This was where:
“…where the people of the neighbourhood do now resort to drink the waters of it, it being a sort of mineral water”.
This suggests two things, one that it was an arrangement like current St. Withburga’s well at East Dereham and that it was nearer the Cathedral. Indeed I was shown by Mr Hart of Ely School a possible alternative site, a small duck pond in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. This however although might be a more likely sight indeed it lay across from the school’s old chapel and in the shadow of the Bishop’s Palace.
Details in Holy Wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of the Ely.