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Rediscovered/Restored: Guest blog post: A Saint’s Grave and Well in South Wales by Janet Bord

This month sees insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com is 7 a good birthday for sacred spring researchers – look it up@! Also it becomes the platform to host the Source and Living Spring Archive. The Source Archive consists of articles written in the mid 1980s and early 1990s for the Source Journal a short-lived but very influential attempt to bring together research on the topic. with Living Spring an even shorter lived but important online attempt to do the same. The original journal (divided into new and old series) was influenced by the burgeoning earth mysteries movement on the late 70s and early 80s and one of the most prominent exponents was Janet Bord. As is commonly said Janet needs no introduction amongst anyone interested in the space between archaeology and folklore. Janet work in the holy well field includes the Curses and Cures, Holy wells in Britain and the seminal Sacred Waters – a copy of which I myself purchased back in a Truro bookstore in 1985. A purchase which was very influential and lead to the birth of my fascination and research into the area. So it is with great honour that I introduce the first of a Source inspired articles (the next three from similarly influential James Rattue, Mark Valentine the original founder and Tristan Gray-Hulse editor of the new Series)

The disappointingly modern St Tewdrig’s Well, Mathern Copyright Janet Bord

Anyone who regularly visits holy wells must be aware of how they can differ in appearance and atmosphere.   We all know the delight of finding a hidden spring bubbling into a clear pool, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the landscape; and probably we can also all remember wells that are unloved and derelict. Those can often have a charm of their own too, perhaps being in an evocative place, or with enough remaining to suggest what the place was once like.   Sadly there are also wells that are in awful locations, and perhaps have also been badly restored; but luckily I can’t remember too many that come into this last category.   One that does is St Tewdrig’s Well at Mathern in Monmouthshire (ST52279116), just to the south-west of Chepstow and distressingly close to the M48 motorway. It’s a shame that the well has been so insensitively and over-thoroughly restored, because the area around the church and well has an interesting history.

St Tewdrig represented in the Parish church copyright Janet Bord

St Tewdrig was a king and martyr, probably born in the late 6th century. He handed over his kingdom to his son Meurig and lived as a hermit – until an angel appeared to him advising him to go and help Meurig who was in danger of being overrun by his enemies.   Despite also being told by the angel that he would die, Tewdrig went to help his son, and the enemies fled on seeing the two men and their army standing on the bank of the River Wye at Tintern. Unfortunately Tewdrig was stuck by a lance thrown by a fleeing soldier, and mortally wounded. He was taken in a cart pulled by stags to a meadow near the River Severn, where a spring began to flow, and there he died and was buried.   The place was given the name Merthyr Tewdrig (now Mathern) and a church was built over his grave. The name confirms that this is a genuinely ancient tradition, a ‘merthyr’ being an early Christian martyr’s burial place.

Mathern Church location of the St Tewdrig’s shrine copyright Janet Bord

In the early 17th century, Francis Godwin, Bishop of Llandaff, gave orders that a coffin found beneath the church floor was to be repaired, as it was thought to be Tewdrig’s: ‘I discovered his bones, not in the smallest degree changed, though after a period of a thousand years, the skull retained the aperture of a large wound, which appeared as if it had been recently inflicted.’ On his orders, the coffin was reburied in the chancel and a stone tablet put on the wall above, telling the story of St Tewdrig and his death. In 1881 the coffin was rediscovered when repairs were being carried out, and in 1946 an old lady told author Fred Hando that the vicar had taken her into the church when she was a child and showed her a big hole that had been dug in the chancel, and ‘in a stone coffin, she saw the remains of King Tewdrig, with the hole made by the spear-point still visible in his skull.’

The plaque marking the location of St Tewdrig’s coffin copyright Janet Bord

The well named for St Tewdrig is to be seen beside the lane just north of Mathern church, immediately south of the motorway.   There seems to be no record as to what it looked like before being restored by the Monmouth District Council in 1977. Although they are to be thanked for ensuring the well wasn’t lost, it’s a pity that they decided on this earnest municipal restoration that is completely lacking in atmosphere. With its steep steps leading down between walls to the well below, it puts one in mind of a drinking water well, rather than a place where a saintly king died over a thousand years ago.   But… it is impossible to be absolutely sure if this really was the spring which flowed where he died, because I have found no mention of it before 1847, at which time it was called Ffynnon Gor Teyrn. This name may possibly derive from the Welsh word cateyrn, meaning a ‘battle-king’, and is all the evidence we currently have that might confirm this as the saint’s well. But it is very close to the church, and all the evidence we have does suggest that this is indeed St Tewdrig’s well.

Janet Bord

Ffynnon Fair, Llandecwyn by Tristan Gray-Hulse

 

In 1994 after a period of absence Source was reborn under the helm of Tristan Gray-Hulse and Roy Fry. Under their stewardship Source became more academically minded and in particular focused more on monograms of specific sites which were merticulously researched. Tristan himself due to his monastic background contributing some important pieces as well as questioning some long held folklore views in the subject such as head cults. After source went on to research and write a number of scholarly pieces on saint cults and holy wells including a piece on votive offerings at St Trillo’s well in the folklore journal as well as being involved with St Winifred’s well in Holywell. So it is with great pleasure and a great honour that his unpublished monogram on a north Welsh well – and how Welsh wells doyen Francis Jones could get it wrong – in my celebration of Source. 

Immediately to the north of Plas Llandecwyn, on the side of an ancient lane leading uphill towards the church of St Tecwyn, Llandecwyn, Merioneth, a short distance away, is the holy well of St Tecwyn. It is still just as it was described 100 years ago by the Royal Commission Inspecting Officer.

Ffynnon Decwyn … The antiquary Edward Lhuyd, or a correspondent of his, writing about the year 1698, has the note “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll. Deckwyn not far from ye church”.

Near Plas Llandecwyn is a spring which flows into a cavity about 3 feet at the front and 2 feet at the back by a breadth of 21 inches; the water stands in its rock cistern to a depth of 14 inches, and as there is a slight but steady overflow the water is kept sweet. There can be little doubt that this is the well noted by Lhuyd, but the name of Tecwyn is now not connected with it … Visited, 15 August, 1914 (An Inventory 1921, 82, § 214).

The name Ffynnon Decwyn is apparently now in common use for the well once more.
The Inspecting Officer continued his entry by noting

a spot about 330 yards north-east of the church where is a hole about 21 inches square cut into the rock at the level of the road, water dripping within and overflowing the road”.

This unnamed well also survives much as described, though it is now covered with small rough slabs of stone, for protection. And a few yards south of the lych-gate is another spring, rising at the northern or upper end of what appears to have been a regularly rectangular tank, now choked with water-weeds. It is initially tempting to guess that one or other of these unnamed springs represents a further sacred well claimed for the parish, Ffynnon Fair, listed by Francis Jones in his The Holy Wells of Wales (1954).
Jones, citing Edward Lhwyd in reference, included the well in his list of Ffynhonnau Mair in Merioneth in his gazetteer of Welsh holy wells:
Ff. Fair … 2. ‘By ye Church’ in Llandecwyn parish – Lhuyd Par. ii. 105 (Jones 1954, 191).

However, it turns out that this well is no more than a “ghost”, created by Jones’ trusting but careless reading of Lhwyd in the at-this-point potentially confusing editing of the Parochialia texts by Rupert Morris. As the printed edition stands (Lhwyd Paroch., part 2, 1910), the entry for “Llandekwyn” runs from p. 103 to the foot of p. 106, and notices “Fynnon vair by ye Church” on p. 105 and “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll Deckwyn not far from ye church” on p. 106. The Llandecwyn entry is immediately followed by that for “Mantwrog” (top of p. 107), which, as it stands, consists of only six lines.

But it is clear that a section of this arrangement (from p. 104 line 7 to p. 105 line 30, reproducing pp. 131-133 of the original Lhwyd ms as seen and edited by Morris) has been displaced in the original Lhwyd ms; this section all refers to Maentwrog parish, not to Llandecwyn, and must originally have followed and completed the now minimal Maentwrog entry (at the bottom of original ms p. 137) printed at the top of Lhwyd 1910, p. 107. This restores the original reading, a complete text, of the normal Parochialia format, for Maentwrog immediately following a complete text of familiar format for Llandecwyn (thus, originally: Llandecwyn, ms pp. 129-130, 136-137; Maentwrog, ms pp. foot of p. 137, 131-133).

This explains why the mentions of Ffynnon Decwyn and Ffynnon Fair are separated in the Morris printed text. It also means that “Fynnon vair by ye Church” was in Maentwrog parish, not in Llandecwyn; and that, therefore, there is no mention of a Ffynnon Fair in Llandecwyn parish. The Llandecwyn Ffynnon Fair is an inadvertent creation of Francis Jones, who then duplicates the well by separately noticing the Maentwrog well, from the Royal Commission Inventory for Merioneth:
Ff. Fair … 7. About 80 yards SE of Maentwrog church: it supplied the neighbouring houses – Anc. Mon. Mer. (Jones 1954, 191).

The Maentwrog well still survives, basically as per the Inventory:

Ffynnon Fair … This well is situated on sloping ground about 80 yards south-east of the church, and north of a terrace called Bron Fair. It is now enclosed in a square slate cistern, and [in 1914 still, but no longer] supplies the neighbouring houses (An Inventory 1921, 154, § 498).

Tristan Gray Hulse
25 April 2016

An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire. VI. County of Merioneth, London: HMSO, 1921
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954
Lhwyd, Edward, Parochialia, being a summary of answers to “Parochial Queries in order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”, ed. Rupert H. Morris, part 2, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1910

Down from the Piskies – Pelynt’s Nun’s Well, Cornwall

When I first became enchanted with holy wells in the 1980s it was the old engraving of this well which enchanted me the most but it took a few years to get to see it. The mysterious building overshadowed with by a venerable tree. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells put it succinctly:

“Its position was, until very lately, to be discovered by the oak and bramble which grew upon its roof. It is entered by a doorway with a stone lintel, and overshadowed by an oak. The front of the well is of a pointed form, and has a rude entrance about 4 feet high, and is spanned above by a single flat stone, which leads into a grotto, with an arched roof The walls on the interior are draped with the luxuriant fronds of spleen-wort) hart’s tongue, and a rich undercovering of liverwort. “

A pin well

Hope (1893) states that:

“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”

When I last visited in the 1990s I could see no pins but the chamber was full of tea candles suggesting regular visitation. The most noticeable feature is its delightfully intricate basin, possibly the most ornate in situ for any British holy well, so much one wonders where it came from. QuillerCouch notes:

At the farther end of the floor is a round granite basin with a deeply moulded brim, ornamented lower and all round its circumference with a series of rings, each enclosing a Greek cross or ball. The water must be supplied from an opening at the back; for none runs into it from the rim, and yet it is always full. If emptied, it soon fills again.”

It may have been from a chapel nearby:

“The well, and a small chapel above it, the remains of which are some indistinct mounds, and a vallum, artificially made, on the north and south sides (occasionally the plough turns some shaped stones and roofing slates), were dedicated to St. Nonnet, or St. Nun, a holy woman said to be the mother of St. David, and the daughter of a Cornish chief. She is also said to have lived and died at Altarnun.”

A warning to the sacrilegious

Perhaps the most fascinating legend associated with the well is about its rather ornate basin. Hope (1893) states that:

“An old farmer (so runs the legend) once set his eyes upon the granite basin and coveted it, for it was no wrong in his eyes to convert the holy font to the base uses of a Pigsty and accordingly he drove his oxen and wain to the gateway above for the purpose of removing it. Taking his beasts to the entrance of the well, he essayed to drag the trough from its ancient bed. For a long time it resisted the efforts of the oxen, but at length they succeeded in starting it, and dragged it slowly up the hillside to where the wain was standing. Here, however, it burst away from the chains which held it, and, rolling back again to the well, made a sharp turn and regained its old positions, where it has remained ever since. Nor will anyone again attempt its removal, seeing that the farmer, who was previously well-to-do in the world, never prospered from that day forward. Some people say, indeed, that retribution overtook him on the spot, the oxen falling dead, and the owner being struck lame and speechless.”

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Hope continues to paint a picture which continues to inflict our holy wells:

“Though the superstitious hinds had spared the well, time and storms of winter had been slowly ruining it. The oak which grew upon its roof had, by its roots, dislodged several stones of the arch, and, swaying about in the wind, had shaken down a large mass of masonry in the interior, and the greater part of the front. On its ruinous condition being made known to the Trelawny family (on whose property it is situated), they ordered the restoration, and the walls were replaced after the original plan.”

And as such it was restored.

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St Nonna’s or Piskie?

Hope (1893) notes that:

“The people of the neighbourhood knew the well by the names St. Ninnie’s, St. Nun’s, and Piskies’ Well. It is probable that the latter is, after all, the older name, and that the guardianship of the spring was usurped at a later period by the saint whose name it occasionally bears. The water was doubtless used for sacramental purposes; yet its mystic properties, if they were ever supposed to be dispensed by the saint, have been again transferred, in the popular belief, to the Piskies.”

Now Piskies are the Cornish version of Pixies and interestingly I noticed the high concentration of midges- were they the Piskies I wonder? Quiller Couch continues:

“Dr. O’Connor tells us that in some parts of Ireland there is a belief that by some of their ceremonies at the patterns, or pilgrimages to wells, the daoini maethe {i.e., fairies) were propitiated. In the basin of St. Nun’s may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who avail themselves of the curative qualities of its water, or consult it for intimations of the future. I was curious to know what meaning the. unlettered peasantry attached to this strange but common custom ; and on asking an old man at work near, was told that it was done to get the good-will of the piskies,’ who after the tribute of a pin ceased to mislead them, gave them good health, and made fortunate the operations of husbandry.— T. Q. C.”

Quiller-Couch’s and my visits 100 years apart

This well when visited in July, 1891, was in a very fair state of preservation, though not now used for any particular purpose. A thorn and a nut tree overshadow it, and ivy creeps from between the masonry. Ferns and mosses grow luxuriantly in the interior, where the trough still stands into which were cast pins in former days ; but the surrounding ground was in such a marshy state to make it impossible to approach near enough to examine any carving which may be on it. A woman, on directing us to the spot, smilingly spoke of having visited the well for the purpose of divination in her younger days ; an old man, who stood by, remarked that no one he had ever heard of knew when or why the well was built there, — but that was very possible, — he had heard that people had attempted to move it, with no success.”

My visit in July 1991 found it an enchanting place, obviously the scale shocked me at first as I expected it to be bigger based on the sketch in Hope. The tree which had been overshadowing it was gone and that lost some of the atmosphere. But it still was an enchanting place, especially creeping inside where that old basin remained and there was a feeling of being with the piskies..

Thanks for Carol Ellis for the 2017 photos!

In search of Queen Anne’s Well, Chalvey, Slough

 

A small stream known as Chalvey Brook intersects them, whose water, considered beneficial to the eyes, has its source in Queen Anne’s well, situated in a pretty grove of trees near the village of Chalvey, whence Queen Anne and afterwards Queen Charlotte had the water carried up to Windsor Castle in buckets.”

Handbook for travellers

Now swallowed up by Slough, Chalvey once boasted a curious well said have had royal patronage as noted above. Indeed, Queen Anne is said to have had it dug although whether that meant there was no structure before this is unclear. The Mirror of 1832 recorded that:

“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.

The accompanying drawing shows a stone with water emerging from a spout with a royal monograph centrally carved.

queen-anne

Healing waters

As noted the water was thought beneficial for eyes but it may have had other potential, Maxwell in his 1973 History of Slough noted:

“It appears that an attempt was made to capitalise on the patronage and as such as Wyld’s 1839 Great Western Railway Guide notes a Dr. Heberden liked the water’s properties to that of the better-known Malvern and indeed the name Chalvey Spa was still current in 1925, as noted in a letter to the Slough Observer when a Richard Bentley recorded small quantities of lithia in the water.”

However, this venture does not appear to have been successful and the spring fell into obscurity

Ancient origins?

Local historian Michael Bayley according to Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park on his excellent Strange Britain website (who did much work to locate the exact site) makes an interesting observation linked to the strange mound not far from the well. This mound, called the Montem, rather incongruously remains beside the Leisure Centre. The mound was associated with Eton school who would have an annual ceremony at it. Bayley observes:

“The spring is near an artificial mound, Montem, and was by a river crossing; in this case, of an old branch of the Thames dammed off in the 13th century. Up and down the middle and lower Thames these three things in association – a hill or hillock, a holy well and a ford – are usually connected with the name Anne, either Saint or Queen.”

He then believes that the site was originally dedicated to a pagan goddess, Sanct Anner, the Holy one of the Heifer. However, this is a difficult assumption to make considering firstly that Queen Anne did have a historical association with the well, there is no record before this and that the transfer between a pagan Anna and St. Anne is unlikely as the cult of St Anne did not establish itself until the mid-Medieval period long after any pagan memory I would suggest.

More significant is the fact that Cleaver and Park note:

“Curiously one resident recalls a stone bearing this inscription: “The two monkeys, Romeo and Juliet”. Could this have any connection with the local Stab Monk tradition?”

The Stab Monkey tradition was a Whitsun custom unique to this town and may more likely have an ancient origin of course it may have been used as a village insignia!

queen-anne2

Lost, found and lost?

Robert Tighe and James Davis (1858) Annals of Windsor state:

 “The well, and the original stone trough and spout may yet be traced among a pretty grove of trees and copse wood, but the path which led to it from the village of Chalvey has been stopped up”.

Indeed, Historian Michael Bayley reported in 1970 that this headstone

“went to make a horse trough and the rest was broken up to form a lily pond in the 1920s to discourage the villagers from using the well and the right of way past it.”   

Cleaver and Park again note:

“Today’s villagers recall how rubble has been tipped on the well with the building of the school nearby.”

However, the exact site is disputed, Maxwell (1973) wisely states:

 “The question of the exact site of Queen Anne’s well gives an admirable example of the danger of relying too unquestioningly on local ‘tradition’ and old people’s ‘recollections’. Quite frequently these turn out to be perfectly correct, or to have a basis of fact which can lead to further discoveries, but there are also times when they are misleading, to say the least. Wherever possible, they should be checked from other sources.”

Maxwell (1973) notes that:

“Some natives of Chalvey in this century have said the well was in the garden of Brookside, which was later dug out to make a lily pond. This lily-pond is now hidden under the pile of rubble removed when the swimming pool was constructed at the back of Sinkins House, Tuns Lane. The site is east of Tuns Lane and north of Church Street, Chalvey.”

In A History Of The Parish Of Upton Cum Chalvey, Richard V.H. Burne in 1913 was keen to investigate and he states:

“I was informed by two local inhabitants that ‘Queen Annie’s Spring’ used to be on the north side of Cippenham Lane…. it is even marked in this position on a Tithe Map of Farnham Parish made circa 1846.”

Maxwell (1973) again notes of this site:

“The watercress beds, now neighboured by the High Voltage Switching Station with its pylons, are overgrown with weeds and partly choked with rubbish. It is to be hoped that the site will be cleared, and recognised as the historic spot it is.”

Sadly despite recording the site for posterity no attempt has been made to officially recognise it. When Cleaver and Park investigated they found some stone work remaining with a small arch. The authors provide a very useful map which I used to locate the spring one summer morning. However, my investigations have failed to reveal anything substantial. I looked a spring of water but it was much overgrown and no stonework could be found. Hopefully this blog post will raise its profile again and this important heritage site of Slough can be restored and remembered.

Rediscovered/Restored: Where is St. Fursey’s holy well of Burgh Castle?

Here is potentially a little known holy well of note. It is absent from Charles Hope’s pioneering 1893 work Legendary Lore of Holy Wells nor did it fall into the net of Jeremy Harte’s 2008 Holy Wells sourcebook! Its exact history and provenance is under question but if genuine it is a survival of that early time of Christianisation in East Anglia. The possible site I rediscovered during research for my forthcoming book on Norfolk holy and healing wells…but as always things are not always as clear cut as that!

One possible site?

Image result for "roman well" burgh castle

However there is debate whether this or another well called the Roman Well is the site. That itself is of questionable age, Dahl in his 1913, The Roman Camp and the Irish Saint at Burgh Castle notes:

“There is a public path at the foot of ‘The Hanger’ which leads to a small piece of ground, still belonging to the glebe, but which has been thrown open to the public, and which is termed in some of the old maps ‘The Roman Well,’ but this is a mere tradition and cannot be accepted as having any foundation of truth. There is undoubtedly a spring of water here, but it is certainly not Roman.”                                                   

Of this site local tradition states that the well was restored by Canon Venables in 1893 who is said to have discovered a sump hole, lined it with a wall of flints set into a bank and two upright stones recording the date of April 9th 1893 or 1803. Above the well are biblical verses which read:

“The Lord is my shepherd, he leadeth me beside still waters, He restereth my soul”

By 1928 although the site was already overgrown it remained visible until the 1950s but research in the 1980s failed to find any trace.  Scott (1902) appears to suggest that the Roman well at the foot of the cliffs is the said site marked on the 1883 OS. However, this would be at odds with the report by Saul (2007) in their portrait of the village in the 1950s which states that the well is firmly in the churchyard. It is possible that there of course two wells and they have become confused. The question being of course why would Canon Venables restore a well which was not a holy one (but perhaps he did also restore that in the churchyard) and why does Dahl (1913) not mention the churchyard site?

Who was St Fursey? 

St. Fursey was an Irish missionary saint who had built a monastery at Burgh and as far as I am aware this is the only dedication to him in the country.

Another possible site?

The well above appears lost but the churchyard well, and therefore the more likely origin well survives albeit nearly lost under a considerable amount of ivy and surrounded by nettles in a forgotten section of the churchyard is St. Fursey’s Well (TG 476 049). The site is not recorded by any authorities that I can find.

Although dry and looking forlorn, St. Fursey’s Well can be easily found. It is a six foot brick built arch structure, two feet deep and much covered with ivy.  The brick is plastered over although parts of this plaster are crumbling due to the action of the ivy. It resembles many small well chapels covering wells in Cornwall and is not seen elsewhere in the county and probably dates from the 1800s. Hopefully it can be restored with a flow – if there ever was one that is – such is the confusion over this site.

Taken from and adapted from the forthcoming R. B. Parish Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk

 

The spring of the morning star: St John’s Well, the spring of John Wycliffe, Lutterworth

Who was John Wycliffe?

He was a Yorkshire born scholastic philosopher, with his critical views on the the veneration of saints, the taking of sacraments, use of requiem masses, the concept of transubstantiation, monasticism, and the pomp of ceremonial worship, the status of clergy and the existence of the Pope he is seen quite rightly as the morning star of Protestantism. His views influencing the great protestant reformers of a hundred years or so later. Famed also for translating the bible into English. His views and activities were clearly a thorn in the side of the Catholic church but he was protected by influential figures such as John Of Gaunt. He was Rector of Lutterworth, where he died in 1384 on New Year’s Eve giving a sermon! After his burial the Papacy demanded he be dug up and burnt, his remains being thrown in the river. And it is this terrible act of ‘sacrilege’ which is pivotal to his Holy Well.

 

A miraculous origin

“Tradition also says, that, at the time of this ceremony [the exhumation or burning of John Wycliffe’s bones], one person who staid, after the rest had left his grave, in order to search as strictly after the least bit of bone… having found one, ran hastily to his companions with it in a triumphant manner; but, before he reached them, fell down, and dashed his brains out; and from the very place where he fell immediately gushed out a spring of water, which to this day is called St John’s Well.”  

Dyson (1913) in  Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town,  notes a later version of the legend tells how this bone fell from the bier and was later dug out, and how a spring issued from the place. It would be ironic if this well was really named after the reforming cleric and opponent of pilgrimages and adoration of saints.

“THE HOLY WELL OF ST. JOHN THAT the name of Wycliffe was regarded with something more than veneration by the people of Lutterworth during the Middle Ages is proved by the story of the Holy Well of St. John. The legend is that, as the bones of the holy man were being carried on a bier from the church to the riverside for burning, in accordance with the ecclesiastical decree, in passing down the steep slope at what is now the bottom of High Street a bone fell to the ground and was immediately trampled into the soft soil of the unmade roadway by the crowds which followed. Some years afterwards a man working upon the spot brought to light the missing bone, and, upon taking it from its position, forthwith there issued from the hole where it had lain embedded a fountain of the purest water, which ceased not to flow day or night to the joy of the inhabitants of the town, who regarded it as a display of Divine favour upon the remains of their local saint. The water was immediately looked upon as miraculous and was conveyed to a stone drinking- fount placed by the side of the way at the spot where the discovery was made.”

Dyson (1913)  Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town,  also notes that it had:

“For ages the power to cure all manner of diseases especially where the eyesight was affected, was attributed to this water, and the actual stone basin which received it is believed still to exist behind the brick wall which was built in front of it some sixty years ago. The spring itself was tapped a few years ago in excavating for a sewer, and was so strong that it had to be conveyed into the common drain.”

Holt (1884) in John de Wycliffe; the first of the reformers, and what he did for England notes;

“Even then, thirty years after his voice had been stilled in death, evidence remains to show that his parishioners at Lutterworth had regarded him with a heart-veneration which, had he fought for Rome instead of Christ, would have gone far to earn him canonization. Legends sprang up and took root among them, to the effect that no water would flow under that arch where Wycliffe’s ashes had been flung ; and that on the spot where one of his bones had fallen sprang ” St. John’s Well,” which still runs clear and abundant, never drying up even in the hottest seasons.”

 A noted well

Finding evidence for the site’s provenance is illusive. The 15th century topographer William of Worcestre never visited the town and certainly when Leland visited in 16th century he did not mention it, despite mentioning springs arising in the hills in the area but not this well.  However it is possible that earliest record may be a note of 1695 by Edmund Gough which was referred to be Camden (1695)):

“Lutterworth… near which is a spring of water so very cold, that in a little time it converts straws and sticks into stone.”

Yet no later authority refers to a different site a petrifying spring especially as Harte (2008) in his Holy Wells of England states Gough mentions it just before discussing the exhumation of Wycliffe’s body. Of St. John’s Well, a contributor to Nichols (1795–1815) does describe it as petrifying and that:

“in the neighbourhood of Lutterworth is a petrifying spring called St John’s well, the water of which is exceeding cold, and so strongly impregnated with petrifying qualities, that in a very little time it is said to convert wood and several other substances into stone.”

But Nichols himself gives the name to a different site:

“St John’s Well is in the town, opposite to the last house, on the left hand side towards London. It is a soft water, and used for drinking.”

The association with the bones giving a petrifying properties to the spring and hence the association.

Wrong John?

Despite an obvious association with John Wycliffe, it appears more likely to be named after  a hospital in the town which was dedicated to St John the Baptist, over time local memory of this would have been forgotten but the name remembered.  Indeed even Dyson (1913)  Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, relays this:

“It has been thought bv some to have been called the Holy Well of St. John from its position within sight of the Hospital of that name, to which we have already alluded, but it seems to us, in the face of the above tradition, that the dedication to St. John was far more likely to have had reference to the Christian name of Lutterworth’s great rector.”

The spring was clearly an important water source hence reference in the Town Masters account book of 1716 it is recorded that four shillings was paid for “a spout of elm 7 foot long to lay at St. John’s Well”

Searching for the well

Field researchers (record on pastscape as F2 FDC 18-AUG-1960)  in 1960 stated:

Enquiries of the owner/occupier revealed that the building was so named from “St John’s Spring” which is in the ornamental garden at the rear of the house and which was surveyed. The owner was aware of the legend… and stated that the well was believed to lie beneath an ash tree adjacent to the spring but that structural remains had not been found. The spring, freely flowing, is perpetual.”

According to the Bords (1985) Sacred Waters:

“It is now situated in the garden of a private house, but can be visited by making an appointment with the owner, John Daniell, of the Springs”

Since I picked up the book in 1986 I have been planning to search out the well. I had written to the address, kindly provided in Sacred Waters – but to no avail. So 32 years I decided to look for it. I found The Springs, easily found on the road to Rugby and knocked on the door – no answer. It looked like the property was now a busy property and empty. I knocked next door and noticed a small garden adjoining – was this where the spring was? Unlikely. I saw an elderly man engaging with another in a house overlooking the springs and decided to ask him. At first he was not sure of what I was talking about but when I mentioned spring he realised he knew where it was.

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I was right the spring was no longer in the grounds of The Spring in the subsequent decades houses have been built in the garden of the house. In fact he told me that when the houses were built the builders had a problem with the spring. He remembered it as a circular dip or pool. Fortunately, the builders did not destroy the site and it remains in the front garden of the house. No one was home but as it was in the front garden I decided it did not harm taking a few photos. The spring now flows rather sluggishly through a pipe enclosed in a brick and stone structure. It fills an oval pool, possibly that referred to by the neighbour and then flows out into a small brick structure.

The rediscovery of the original well was a bonus. A foot away it could be found obviously discovered when the original wall was removed to build these new houses. The well a circular stone line structure is dry and crosses under the fence into the next door property. Which was a great find!

A common theme

What is interesting hagiographically is that this was a frequently encountered trope which was used to show the sanctity and power of saintly figures; a theme in itself derived from a pagan folk belief. Furthermore, the emergence of a spring underlines not only the sanctity of the person but emphasised that the act was unjust, being a victim of persecution such as many saints murdered by pagan kings or jealous step-mothers! In this case it might appear strange to associate such a site with a figure so firmly connected with the Reformation. However, this is perhaps a post-modern revisionist view point. To the followers of Wycliffe, the common town folk, who perhaps did not know the full ramifications of his politicised religious views, worthy religious people became saints and feasibly they did not see why their Wycliffe would not. Saints needed sites to justify their saintliness and a local mineral spring already named after a John would be a likely candidate. It is an irony to those who understood his anti-veneration of saints view but lost to the generations just after him, they would only remember his importance to the town. Indeed in 1518, a John Stilman was indicted for saying that ‘Wycliffe was a saint in heaven’. The date may be significant and may explain the lack of appearance of the spring until the late medieval period. It was a local site whose fame would only be noted post the Reformation’s most zealous period. I have discussed how sites associated with Queen Elizabeth I also took on the properties of saint’s wells and it is also possible that in the vacuum created by the Reformation figures associated with the principles of the Reformation were treated like the pre-Reformation saints by the uneducated faithful to provide the same forms of solace. Even today it is clear from the church the importance of Wycliffe where his pulpit, door he passed through when he collapsed on New Years Eve 1384, a font from his era and possibly his garments are proudly on show..all saintly equivalents!

Rediscovered/Restored: Exeter’s St Sidwell’s Well

“So the Divine Pity, which hath distributed gifts of diverse kinds, not delaying to make clear the purity of virginal innocence and the merits of the virgin martyr, made to spring forth, where her blood fell drop by drop, a most sparkling spring. Where it flowed the butchers, alarmed when they could not hide what they had perpetrated by covering the fount with grass, tried to cover up the body.”

So speaks John de Grandison’s 1330 Legend of St Sidwell. Like many similar stories the titular saint was asked to do something by her stepmother only to find those butchers, some mowers lying in wait with scythes. A rather unpleasant death! Like similar deaths her martyrdom was revealed by a column of light. She is then said to have risen from her grave taking her head with her and walked to where a church was built in her honour where a shrine did exist by 1373 according to Roscarrock. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with similar legends associated with wells at St Walstan’s Norfolk and St Elthelbert’s Herefordshire.

The first official mention of the well comes from a grant by the then Dean of Exeter to St. Nicholas Priory in 1226 which records

“a third share in the waters of St Sidwell’s Well”.

Now whether this referred to a share in regards to water supply or money is not clear but similar endowments indicate it was the former. Certainly by 1267 repairs were needed as John de Douglys left money for:

“the repair and maintenance of St Sidwell’s Well, one acre, called Bromeacre, and half an acre called Stokisland, which latter was about forty-five feet from the well towards the north”.

Then at some point between 1150 and 1180 Exeter developed a conduit system. It drew water from a site called Headwell which appears to have been in the same location as St Sidwell that they may have been one and the same. The water being used to provide the Cathedral. However, the Cartulary of St John’s Hospital in 1498 records that:

“in Saynte Sydwylle is Paroche, ther as she was byhedded, ys a well, and the close that lyeth nexte aboff directely is called and named Hedwyllmede. The Prior of St John’s and his Brothers haff moste grounde yn that Hylde or close, and they be bound to repayre the wylle”.

Lega-Weekes (1924–5) recorded that the site was:

“the well that once existed near the foot of Devonshire Place… Mr William French, dairyman (aged about 65)… remembered, as a boy, not only seeing the old well shaft, but dipping water out of it, though it was then choked and muddy. It was very deep, and when fullest the water reached to within six or seven feet of the ground level”.

Roque’s 1774 map of Exeter indicates a Sidwell’s Well near St Sidwell’s Church of Lega-Weekes (1924–5a) in their piece ‘St Sidwell: I’ in Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries states that it

“ stood in Well Street, near the corner of York Road, in what is now a garden between nos. 2 and 5… opposite the Schoolhouse. From old inhabitant I learn that it was commonly known as St Sidwell’s well, and was sometimes also called “the Beehive Well”, from the form of the little circular hut of red Heavitree stone about 8 ft high by about 12 ft (?circumference) which sheltered the shaft that went down to a depth of 75 ft. There was a “sort of window” in the front, at which people filled their jugs”.

When the site disappeared is unclear but by the Lega-Weekes time it had clearly gone and largely forgotten!

Then in the development of 3 Well Street a remarkable discovery was made. The company working on the flat development stated on their website:

“The remains of the ancient holy well of St Sidwell have now been uncovered and our client is considering utilising the ground floor of the development as a tea room to allow public access for viewing of the well, fully supported by Exeter City Council.  The holy well is said to mark where the ‘virtuous maiden’ St Sidwell, an Anglo-Saxon saint who gave her name to this part of the city, was cut down by haymakers’ scythes.  Legend says a spring burst forth where she fell, and it then became a place of pilgrimage throughout the medieval period.  Since at least 1226 the well supplied the cathedral clergy with fresh water, and was linked to the Cathedral by a piped water supply that later became part of the medieval underground passages that can be visited today.  In 1347 however it was disconnected, and replaced by another well (Headwell) further along Well Street near St James Park. It probably still continued to be used as a local supply and place of pilgrimage.”

They continued:

“This is an especially exciting find, as discovering the actual remains of a holy well is not common and we highly recommend a visit to the café when open.  The high quality of the workmanship suggests that the medieval cathedral masons were involved in building it, and it also reflects the importance of the site as a place of pilgrimage. St Sidwell’s Well is clearly shown on this site on historic maps, and as a result the city council made it a condition of the redevelopment that any remains of it should be recorded and preserved within the new building.”

So St Sidwell’s Well returns!

A Warwickshire field trip: Holy and healing wells of the county’s South-west

Warwickshire does not perhaps have the greatest reputation for holy and healing springs and appears to be hide in the shadows of nearby Gloucestershire. However, my research into the county has revealed there’s more to the county’s healing waters than Leamington Spa. Here are a few lesser known sites towards the Banbury side of the county; any further information on them is gratefully received. Hopefully the book is out this year!

KNIGHTCOTE

Many of the county’s healing springs are compared to Leamington, the Stockwell is no exception, being saline in nature it was bound to be compared such, as Leamington was. However, that is as far as the comparison goes for little other than it made a decent cup of tea is recorded of it. It currently arises in a three feet by three foot roughly square chamber with stone surrounds. Old railings enclose the spring head and steps go down from the road.                

It is worth contemplating on the thoughts of Bob Trubshaw on the origin of Stockwells Old English stoc meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ being the apparent same derivation as stow. That would give the site an explanation perhaps for the belief in its healing waters but it could equally derived from the place cattle stock were watered or even less interesting Old English stocc for ‘spring by stumps’, a description which could describe it today.

RATLEY

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Not far away is St. Anne’s Well which arises a small stone chamber beside the footpath from the hamlet of Arlescote. The well consists in a shallow square basin and flows downhill forming a muddy area beneath. A stone set into the back of the fabric reads:

“ST. ANNE’S WELL / Reparavit M. L / A. D. / MCMXI

However, beyond that nothing is recorded. It is likely to be ancient as it found below an iron-age earthwork and clearly the footpath past it is of some age and past significance, yet the early forms of the OS only record spring.

Considering that the hamlet above the well is called Knowle End it is possible that the legend recorded considering fairies moving the stone is related to this site and not the Knowle End in Birmingham as reported by folklorists. Again little is recorded but it must have been thought well enough in the 1930s considering how far the spring is from any houses. A site to visit in the winter or spring however, because it gets very overgrown!

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UPTON

The next holy well is a considerable find and it is surprising that no photo exists of it or more recorded, considering it survives in a popular National Trust garden and is quite strikingly unique. Found in the Bog Garden in the grounds of Upton Hall is an 18th century stone Monk’s Well. The Bog Garden consists of a number of ponds originally Stew ponds fed by this spring improved in the 17th century. Trace the flow back and be ready for a surprise. For the spring erupts from the base of a rock face in a cave/grotto and flows over mossy stones to fill the ponds. The spring head is enclosed in an early C18 red brick vaulted chamber (listed grade II)  set into the rock face laying c 100m west of the House. All in all pretty unique and surprisingly unheralded. Indeed the Bog Garden was closed off when I visited but the gardeners were happy to allow me over to see it. I cannot say whether access is achievable without asking however. The well is so named because Upton was held in the twelfth century by the canons of St Sepulchre’s at Warwick but it may have a grange property as no one has worked out where any house would have been located. The site does not have any recorded properties and it is only holy by its name association

BURTON DASSETT

The last well is a bit of an enigma, in the deserted Burton Dassett village in Northend, is found a substantial well head which has claims to be a ‘Holy Well’  although the provenance is unclear. Burgess (1876) in his Warwickshire History simply notes that it was used for baptism and immersion. Whilst Bord and Bord (1985) Sacred Waters appear to be earliest to refer to it as such stating:

“the holy well with its stone cover will be seen on the left-hand side of the lane as you approach the church”.                                           

The present stone well house is of a considerable size being constructed of local red sandstone around 1840 in a Grecian style. The central doorway is party below ground level and has steps down into a square chamber. Over the stone lintel but the worn instruction is an inscription with carved flowers. It possibly states 1534 but it was not clear. It is evident that the well was part of an estate improvement but when and by whom? And did it exist before? If it does say 1534 that is an early date for a landed estate improvement. It certainly is still visited by well wishers as coins are found in its waters. Sadly, despite a substantial water supply it did not stop the demise of the village and now only the substantial church remains, which incidentally is worthy of a visit.

With many more sites yet to explore…Warwickshire is proving to be another interesting County.

Rediscovered/Restored: St. Alban’s Well, Hertfordshire – Britain’s first Christian holy well?

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!

The mysterious lost well of St Pandonia, Eltisley Huntingdonshire

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?

Possible water from the well fills ponds between the large house and church

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.