This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.
Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:
a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record
b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties
Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history
I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!
Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?
Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well
Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?
Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors
Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!
Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!
Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed
Bags – good luck for school
Plaster casts – speak for themselves
Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?
This one’s been here for a while!
And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!
When doing field work for holy wells you can never know what you might find. A boggy hole surrounded by nettles or a fantastic romantick folly! Sadly more often it is the former as regular readers of this blog could attest. However,
There is said to be a little south of the old church is according to Francis Blomefield in his 1805 An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk :
‘a curious spring called Holy or Ladyes Well’
No such name appears on the first series OS but a well is marked to the south-east and this would be the same as that which is marked on the early 17th century map as Ladyeswell. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle. The site lies in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard area, around 50m south east of the church.
When I first looked for the site I was thwarted by the gate and barbed wire. My sources suggested that there was a spring beside the lake and old maps did show this but I assumed it had been absorbed by the pond. Returning on a fine spring day I realised that the fence and barbed wire had a gap and a small gate which opened and a path lead towards the trees where the lack of foliage indicated some sort of well structure.
It consists of an approximately semi-circular basin, lined with stone blocks, with a shelf or sitting area, although the water filled the whole area. Three steps go down into the water. Above this is a probably 19th century wellhead on its east side, consisting of a round headed wall with a central niche which constructed of some reused architectural fragments and stone blocks some laying on the bench surrounding the spring. These coming from the ruined church above which is Saxon in date. Above the niche is a piece of relief carving. This would appear to be the same that Michael Burgess in his 1988 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk notes as in West Newton called Pilgrim’s Well, which tradition suggests was used by pilgrims on the way to Walsingham. The field contained the remains of a deserted village the street plan of which apparently can still be seen in the snow
A connection with a most likely Marian well cult can be found at the Augustinian priory of St. Mary at Flitcham with Appleton. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle.
Who built it?
William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (1845) may provide one suggestion a Rev. W. Allen, of Narborough, who he records ‘who performs divine service in the ruins once a year.’ With such an interest in continuing services in the ruined church it would suggest that he would have had an interest in restoring the local holy well if only to provide clean water for those services. Sadly nothing can be found to validate this claim but it makes a likely person. Landowners would have to be involved and it is known that AJ Humbert was interested in improving the area. Again nothing can be located to suggest so. As Bromefield would perhaps only have heard of extant and interesting wells – ie not boggy holes – it suggests that there was some structure at the time of his work.
The final solution is a possibly obvious one is King Edward VII. One of his friends wrote after his death in 1910:
“Up to the last year of his life he was continually improving his domain, repairing churches, spending money on the place in one way or another.”
Could the monarch have improved the spring? Sadly, the local parish council and Sandringham estate appear to have drawn a blank when I enquired.
However, the enigmatic origins lend itself to this little known and undoubtedly best of the county’s holy wells.
A rather uninspiring pond in a field outside of Evesham is the site of perhaps one of the most fascinating healing springs in England.
A saintly Simon de Montfort?
Much is written of Simon de Montfort but it short his establishment of two parliaments during his interloping coup against Henry II and short rule he is seen as the father of parliamentary democracy. His death at the Battle of Evesham, which saw the rightful monarchy restored, resulted after miracles were reported at his shrine, to be an politico-religious saint and pilgrimages occurred through the late 1200s. Amongst the cures at his tomb Gunnell of Ketton’s son Harry who took dust from it to cure his paralysis and a hen from Sulgrave, Northants was revived to life!
The miraculous creation of a spring
Not unsurprisingly, what with the evocation of Simon and his miracles at the tomb, attention would turn to the site of his demise or in the eyes of his followers ‘martyrdom’. In the 1840 Halliwell translation of the circa 1280 The Miracles of Simon de Montfort, an account records how a Piers de Saltmarsh in 1274 was travelling in the retinue of William Beauchamp of Elmley, one of the Kings’ supporters over the site of the Battle of Evesham. This is said to have happened before June 1266 it is said. Piers doubted Simon’s saintliness and called on him to prove it by providing them, miraculously, with living waters, Piers then:
“seized a horse’s shoulder blade, and began to dig. God works wonders! Out of that dusty hard ground there shot up a spring of sweet water, high as the hills”.
An interesting precursor to this would appear have to been recorded by William rector of Warrington who is said to have taken away earth from the site of the earl’s death and was able to have a dying man by mixing this with water.
Of course the discovery of the spring need not be that miraculous as William Tindal noted in 1794 the spring was normally dry in summer and was just a depression in the ground. Of course both William and Piers were not local and thus would not be familiar with any intermittent spring in the area.
Miracles and cures at the well
Halliwell (1840) again tells how a‘ contemporary authority’ in the 1270s that:
“some say that there have been many miracles at his tomb, and that on the spot where he was killed there is now an excellent spring which has healed those suffering from all kinds of sickness; but nobody dares tell the world of this, for fear of the King and his party”.
The Miracles of Simon de Montfort tell how between 1274 and 1279 record ten miracles of healing from ‘the Earl Simon’s well’ Alice of Burton Overy Leicestershire merely kept vigil and was cured. However most cures were from drinking or washing themselves in water which was brought to them; water was taken as far as Oxfordshire, Thanet, Dunstable and London. Such were Stephen Aungevin’s young son at Dunstable Bedfordshire, Alexander of Suffolk, a citizen of London although some immobile recipients lived nearer such as Harry Chaunteler of Bretforton and a woman at Elmley Castle. Of her a supplementary miracle is recorded. . She is said to have journeyed with a jug to fill it with the miraculous water for her mistress. However, at the time there was an attempt to stem the cult and visitors to the well. As such some soldiers sent to prevent people visiting stopped her and when they looked inside the jug saw only beer and let her pass. However by the time she gave it to her mistress at Elmley, it contained water!
Certainly large numbers appear to have attended the site, when Ralph of Boklande of Thanet bathed his leg in the well it is said that he was cured:
“in the site of many people.”
It is recorded that people were even carried in carts from as far away as Leicestershire and even London. A ritual was established in which they would drink at the well, and either worship there or at Evesham Abbey. Even animals were cured A winded palfrey ( a docile horse), being rode by the Countess of Gloucester being cured there. The Miracles recording:
“The Countess of Gloucester had a palfrey that had been broken-winded for two years. In returning from Evesham to Tewkesbury, the horse having drunk of the Earl’s Well and having had its head and face washed in the water, recovered of this. The Countess and all her company are witnesses”,
The 1910 Evesham Journal reports that:
“until a very little time ago… there was a belief that this water was very efficacious for weak eyes… People often visited the spring and took water away with them to bathe their eyes’
The establishment of a chapel
Understandably, the well attracted considerable trade and obviously money. Alms being given at the spring by a follower of Simon, Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford around either 1273 or 1279.
Despite a decline in the cult by the 1280s the well’s famed did not die with it and it appease to have survived long after it with a chapel. In 1448 The Brut by Richard Fox, a monk of St Albans it is recorded:
“where the battle and murder was is now a well, and grete elmes stande about the well; there is over the well an hovel of stone (a canopy), and a crucifix and Mary and John”.
This appeared to suggest that something of a wayside cross or Calvary was present there but no other authority records it and there is certainly not trace. By 1457 the site was called Battle Well and in that year Abbot John Wickham’s receiver accounted for the abbots expenditure of one penny there. A flyleaf inscription in a missal of 1489 indicates that:
‘to the chapel of le Battell Welle’.
After the Reformation
The chapel appears to have continued until the Reformation, and the Battle well was still remembers long after. In 1702 a man was fined for ‘nuisance at Battle well’ suggesting either he was disturbing those visiting the site or annoying the landowner in attempting to gain access.
Richard Pococke records in his 1757 Travels records:
‘I walk’d near a measured mile to Battle Wells, in the northern road… They say the battle was in the road…and they told me that they found in the road a vault full of bones, which formerly might be under some chapel’.
William Tindal in their 1794, The History and Antiquities of the Abbey and Borough of Evesham records:
‘a little nearer the town, on the same side, is the spot called Battle-well’,
Nathan Izod names and precisely marks it on his 1827 map and it appears on the 1886 OS map as well. It then lay 120 yards west of the road about 200 yards northwest of the mile post and about 145 yards southwest of the Worcester road junction. Richardson (1927) in their Wells and springs of Worcestershire identifies it as
“simply a field-pond situate at the head of a valley that runs down to the River Avon.”
Cox in his translation of the Chronicle of Evesham Abbey provides a map, and says that:
‘examination of the site in 1961… confirmed that Battlewell at present derives its water from land-drainage, and often dries up completely in Summer. In a rainy season, however, it may be filled’.
As D.C. Cox in their Battle of Evesham a new account records:
“The apparent continuity of the name Battle well from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth and the consistency of the early written references, both with each other and with the nineteenth century maps, make it reasonable to suppose that the present Battle well is the fifteenth century one.”
However they cautiously note:
“Earl Simon’s well, according to the thirteenth century collection of Montfortian miracle stories, lay near the Evesham -Kenilworth road at the top of the hill which the battle was fought. That it was the later and present Battle well cannot be proved but cannot easily be doubted.”
Today one can trace this site quite easily although it is unclear of access rights. The site is free to observe during the annual blessing at the well each August however, A simple spring fed pool but one where history, folklore and belief are intrinsically intertwined.
In this post I thought I’d examine some little known holy and healing springs from East Kent extracted from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
This parish is associated with the Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, whose proneness to fantastic illusions, attracted great numbers of followers, angered by Henry VIII’s split from Rome. Frightened of any connection with Rome, or power she may hold over the peasant folk, she and her collaborators, local monks, were hung at the Tyburn in London. Neame (1971) notes that there was another reputed ‘holy well’ at Goldwell manor apparently associated with the Holy Maid, called the Golden Well (TR 066 371). This was never known to fail, and was still frequented in the 1930s. It lay in the north-east corner of the house and was reached via steps in the cellar, being surrounded by a low brick coping. Sadly it has now blocked up and lost.
The remains of the Chapel of Our Lady (TR 090 353) judging from early engravings, has degraded considerably over the centuries, and sadly all that now remains are three walls with traces of Romanesque archways. A large water cress covered pool, lies beside this. This was the pool used by the pilgrims visiting the Chapel. However, below this is a spoon shaped stone lined chamber, which appears to be a well and may have been a holy well. Although much of it is filled in, and dry, one can envision, a series of steps flowing down to the stone-lined circular pool. It would appear to be unrecorded by other authorities. Perhaps an excavation can be employed to discover its origin.
Charles Igglesden (1900-46) in his Saunters through Kent notes a ‘Pilgrim’s Well’ (TR 082 354):
“Here is a bridle path from Smeeth Station to Lympne Road, called Pilgrim’s Way, from the fact that there is a well at the Lympne end.”
This dubious site, however, appears to have been lost.
Here is an ancient well, called Queen Anne’s Well (TQ 958 291), because its waters it is said were drunk by a thirsty Queen Anne, asking for refreshment at the house. Consequently, the house was named ‘The Queen’s Arms’ to commemorate the event. Considering the Queen’s liking for spas, the water may have been a mineral water. Perhaps, although one naturally associates the well with the Stuart monarch, she may have been the wife of James II, Anne Hyde or even further back James I, Anne of Denmark. The well lies in the cellar of a private house of The Queen’s Arms, the one nearest the church. I was informed by the owner that its water flows from the wall behind and then flows via a series of drains to and from the well. Niches facing the well indicate a great antiquity, and emphasise that the house may be built on an old chapel or even priory, as it appears medieval in period, which was the view of the owner. Considering the antiquity of the surroundings, its name may derive from St. Anne. Little is known of its history, it may have been a main ancient water source.
To the east of St. Augustine’s Priory at the edge of a field is a site called the Holy Well (TR 044 356). However, I have been unable to discover any reasons for the dedication; it may not be a particular old dedication although it is likely to be the water supply of the priory. It is a simple spring without any sign of structure.
Igglesden (1901-1946) records a tradition of a curative spring, called The Golden Well (TQ 969 425) which he considers a feeder of the Medway, arising beneath the private cellar of a house. He notes that the house:
“Takes its name from a golden well that lies under the cellar and there used to be a legend the effect that the water possessed curative powers over the certain diseases.”
It arises at the base of the rag stone cellar wall, into a circular stone lined well shaft. This although appearing to be only a foot or so deep, was once deeper, but filled when the present house was erected over the cellar. Recent analysis shows it was not potable, yet it is remarkable clear. Interestingly, the owner, Mr. Peter Green, told me of a tradition of a tunnel which lead from the cellar to the edge of Romney Marsh, or rather the sea. He thought he came across the tunnel whilst building a wall.
However, the origin of the well is not clear cut. Wallenberg (1934) in his Place names of Kent, conversely, believes that the Manor’s name derives from the Goldwell family. The explanations are not exclusive. The family may have obtained the name from being guardians of the well. Goldwell may derive from golden votive offerings given to the spring, or the discovery of a hidden hoard from the Reformation, a common myth embroiled around such sites.
“O Lady graced by God,
you reward me by letting gush forth, beyond reason,
the ever-flowing waters of your grace from your perpetual Spring.
I entreat you, who bore the Logos, in a manner beyond comprehension,
to refresh me in your grace that I may cry out,
“Hail redemptive waters.”
The ancient city of Istanbul is a melting pot of religions and cultures. As a result it is an excellent place to search for holy wells. The most famous is the Life Giving spring or font or Hagiasma which survives despite a history of destruction revealed to a Byzantine soldier called Leo Marcellus who became the Emperor Leo 1 who reigned between AD 457-474.
The legend according to Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos a Greek Historian writing in 1320 occurred on April 4th 450. At the time outside the Porta Aurea of the city of Constantinople there was an overgrown grove of trees where a shrine with a polluted spring existed. It is described that as Leo was passing a grove of trees, he passed a blind man who was lost. Leo helped him find the path and seated him in the shade. The blind man was thirsty and so Leo looked for some water. In his search, Leo heard a voice say
“Do not trouble yourself, Leo, to look for water elsewhere, it is right here!”
However,he looked around and could see any. Then he heard the voice again
““Leo, Emperor, go into the grove, take the water which you will find and give it to the thirsty man. Then take the mud and put it on the blind man’s eyes. And build a temple here … that all who come here will find answers to their petitions.”
Rather surprised by the voice he did as told and once mud was placed on the blind man’s eyes and he miraculously regained his site. Finally when Leo became Emperor he built a church on the site of the spring.
After his accession to the throne, the Emperor erected a church to Theotokos or St Mary. The spring continued to provide healing waters and in particular was said to allow people to be brought back from the dead hence its name. Indeed, the name Life giving font’ became an epithet for St Mary It became a major pilgrimage site in the Greek Orthodox church who celebrate the spring on Bright Friday in the Orthodox church. .
The present church is also rectangular and the spring arises in a crypt outside the church adorned with icons and paintings surmounted by a dome painted with an image of Christ in a starry sky. It is accessed a stairway parallel to the longer side of the church. The springs water flows into a marble basin. Inside the basin can be seen fishes who have been present in the water for several centuries. This is remembered in the complex’s Turkish name balikli the “place where there are fishes.
How did the fish end up in the holy well? It is said that a monk was frying fishes in a pan nea the shrine when a fellow monk told him of the conquest of the city by the Ottomans. He did not believe the other monk saying he would only believe it if the fish he were frying came back to life. At that point they did, jumped from the pan and into the water and began swimming!
Joseph the Hymnographer in the 9th century wrote a hymn to St Mary called Zoodochos Pege:
As a life-giving fount, thou didst conceive the Dew that is transcendent in essence,
O Virgin Maid, and thou hast welled forth for our sakes the nectar of joy eternal,
which doth pour forth from thy fount with the water that springeth up
unto everlasting life in unending and mighty streams;
wherein, taking delight, we all cry out:
Rejoice, O thou Spring of life for all men.
The seaside Kent town of Folkestone has three notable water sites The first is perhaps the commonest picture postcard available and there are several versions as can be seen here. This is surprising as the site is not particularly well known or celebrated. Indeed its’ provenance may be perhaps a little dubious. This is the Holy Well or St. Thomas’s Well (TR 221 382) is. Its first description by S. J. Mackie in their 1856 Handbook of Folkestone gives the greatest detail and describes the scene around the well:
“Whence we look down its sheep trodden sides into the deep dell, where, sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark un-ruffled waters of Holy Well. Do these raise tracings on the grass cover the remains of some lonely hermitage. The Country people tell you something about the pilgrims to Becket’s Shrine, it is called also St. Thomas’s Well, resting here on their way to Canterbury.”
Watt (1917) in discussion of the town notes in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways:
“..also on the hills above it we have St. Thomas’s Well, but such are scattered all over the district.”
Samuel J Mackie records in 1856 A description and historical account of Folkestone
“Sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark waters of Holy Well Do those raised tracings in the grass cover the remains of some hermitage The country people tell you about the pilgrims to Becket’s shrine it is called St Thomas’s Well resting here on their way to Canterbury I confess it seems to me slightly out of road but there it is and all I can tell about it is there is nothing now to be told.”
In the 1865 an illustrated hand-book to Folkestone and its picturesque neighbourhood by H Stock
“A short distance from this to the immediately at the bottom of Sugar Loaf Hill a remarkable spring of beautiful water known as Well or St Thomas’s Well Why so called saith not By some it is thought that it was resting place of the pious souls who worshipped shrine at Canterbury but how those worthies here cannot be conjectured It is now used as sheepwash”.
This latter point would explain the odd concrete structure, now lost, seen in some postcards.
In the 1925 Wonderful Britain by John Alexander Hammerton he noted:
“Folkestone’s Holy Well, sometimes called St. Thomas’s well…the old highway to Canterbury runs close by and tradition says that pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket used to drink here and that Henry II himself did so when he went to do penance at the Cathedral whose Archbishop he had murdered and martyred.”
When visiting in the 1990s the information board states that the name holy well is a modern name for these springs, and 80 years ago one was called St. Thomas’s Well but the account above disagrees. There appears to be some confusion over the site. Consequently it is difficult to pinpoint the exact site. I was informed by a local in his late 60s that, when he was a boy, the second now dry spring was called Holy Well. The spring arose in a deep gully, now covered with bramble and heavily eroded at the source. However, continuing the path around to the base of the hill, one comes across a large pool, fed by all the springs. This is the site called the Holy Well on an early 1900s postcard. So perhaps there were two sites after all?
When William Parsons of the excellent British Pilgrimage Trust visited the site was largely overgrown and derelict as can be seen here in 2016, he repairing it with some stones found around which may have been part of the original structure.
Next time we shall be exploring Folkestone’s attempt to develop a spa.
Just a small distance from the highly visited Dovedale is a sacred landscape of hermitage, holy well and shrine. Ilam boasts a rarity in England a largely intact shrine with its foramina (holes in which the pilgrim could insert ailing limbs and get closer to the holy person). The shrine is that of Beorhthelm or Bertelin, Bettelin or more commonly Bertram. The patron saint of the county town of Staffordshire, Stafford.
Who was Bertram?
Bertram is an interesting local saint, dating from around the 7th-8th century in what was the Mercia. Briefly, he is said to be of Royal Irish lineage but after making a princess pregnant, escaped to England where he sheltered in the woods around Ilam. The story is told by Alexander, a monk, in the 13th century who notes:
“They were in hiding in a dense forest when lo ! the time of her childbirth came upon them suddenly ; born of pain and river of sorrow! A pitiful child bed indeed! While Bertellinus went out to get the necessary help of a midwife the woman and her child breathed their last amid the fangs of wolves. Bertellinus on his return imagined that this calamity had befallen because of his own sin, and spent three days in mourning rites”.
As a result he became a hermit living in a cave in the valley near Ilam. Despite the earliest mention being Plot, the local geography is suggestive that this is the site of an early Christian hermitage site, although no mention of a well is noted in his legends it can be noted. The cave itself still exists but reaching it appears to be problematic. Only being accessible when the river Manifold dries which suggests a very useful hermitage site. However, it is worth noting that some accounts have the cave being Thor’s cave further up. Perhaps this is significant as it suggests a Christianisation of a pagan site.
One well up on the hillside has perhaps the greatest provena is surrounded on four sides by varying low stone walling, about two feet or so at its highest (although it appears to have been built up and down over the time I have visited the well). The spring flows from a small, less than a foot square chamber, enclosed in stone and set into the bank through a channel in the rubble flow and out along the path towards it.
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well.
Interestingly, literature available from the National Trust shop fails to mention this well, but notes a more substantial second St Bertram’s Well. This is close by the church and surrounded by a rectangular stone wall with steps down, the water arises here at greater speed and flows into the nearby River Manifold. Visually it is more impressive and more accessible but whether there is any long tradition of this second well is unclear, but authors such as the Thompsons’s (2004) The Water of Life: Springs and Wells of Mainland Britain and Bord (2008) Holy Wells of Britain appear to have fostered its reputation.
Little is recorded of the wells, but Browne (1888) in his An Account of the Three Ancient Cross Shafts, the Font, and St Bertram’s Shrine, at Ilam, noted that the ash had gone, but the water was still being used. He states that:
“The late Mrs Watts Russell always had her drinking water from it.”
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well. Interestingly, literature available from the
More is recorded is rather curious. Plot (1686) in his The Natural History of Stafford-Shire, the earliest reference of this fascinating site and he records that a
“St Bertram’s Ash… grows over a spring which bears the name of the same Saint… The common people superstitiously believe, that tis very dangerous to break a bough from it: so great a care has St Bertram of his Ash to this very day. And yet they have not so much as a Legend amongst them, either of this Saint’s miracles, or what he was; onely that he was Founder of their Church”
Such ash trees are commonly associated with holy wells. It is worth noting that in North myth, the sacred Yggdrasil was an ash tree associated with divination and knowledge. In some places rags would be tied to such trees but no such record exists here. By the late 1800s as noted in A general collection of voyages and travels digested by a J. Pinkerton in 1808 that the:
“Ash tree growing over it which the country people used hold in great veneration and think it dangerous to break a bough from or his in the church which are mentioned by Plot I did not hear of it at the village.”
Thus suggesting by that time it had gone by this time
A final observation is that in the 1800s a Roman relic found there:
“In the parish of Ilam near the spring called St Bertram’s there was found an instrument of brass somewhat resembling only larger a lath hammer at the edge end but not so the other This Dr Plot has described in the XXIII Tab 6 This he takes to have been the head of a Roman Securis which the Papoe slew their sacrifices.”
Does this suggest that sacrifices were made at the spring by the Romans?
It is difficult to imagine that this small and remote village was once the scene of great pilgrimage. The centre of this being St. Faith’s Well (TL 103 303). St Faith also known as Foy, a third century martyr and virgin, burned alive and beheaded at Agen in Gaul, is associated with Saints Hope and Charity. Her body translated to Conques where a splendid shrine and reliquary was established. The saint was popular with pilgrims and crusaders, and one shrine was established at Hasham, near Norwich.
It is believed that the dedication arose due to the land being in the charge of a homesick French monk: hence the church and well shared the same dedication. In 1243, Abbot John assigned the rectory of Hexton to the sacrist of the Abbey, and the revenue was so great that it was shared with the almonry. Indeed the revenue was greater than the parson’s holdings and tithes. The well thus attracted great numbers and an alehouse was established for their benefit, this is now Red Lion cottage next to the school.
Unfortunately, St. Faith’s Well fell afoul of the Reformation, but luckily lord of the manor Francis Taverner, recorded a great deal of details regarding it. Indeed, his description has become a valuable guide to the possible complexity of less recorded sites. He described the well and its position as follows:
“There is a small persell of ground adjoining to the churchyard called St Ffaith’s Wick Court, about a pole in measurement, anciently divided from Malewick by a ditch in the same place now a large moat is made. The greatest parte standing upon a bedde of springs, and undrained was very boggye, towards the churchyard. But the west side of the wick, being higher ground….neer adjoining unto which…the Craftye Priests had made a well.”
The well itself was:
“about a yard deep and very cleere in the bottome, and curbed about. Now over this well, they built a house.”
Pilgrimage to the well involved adulation to an image of the dedicated saint, for he notes that:
“..in this house they placed an image or statue of St Ffaith and a cawsey they had made…. for people to passe, who resorted thither from four and neere to visit our lady and to perform their devotions.”
The well would seem to be beneficial for foot complaints for pilgrims would be:
“… revently kissing a fine colured stone placed on her toe’ which was believed to bestow cures.”
Also the sick would throw something (nothing is specifically described) into the well:
“..which if swamme above they were accepted and there petition granted, but if it sinke, then rejected which the experienced Prieste had arts enove to cause to swymme or sinke according as himselfe was pleased with the partye, or rather with the offering made by the partye.”
It would appear that the priest was able to influence the object like some kind of wizard. Unfortunately, the land was drained and levelled in 1624 being noted that:
“St. Faith’s Well continued as a waste and unprofitable and neglected piece of land till such time as the footpath was turned through the midst of it to the outside on the south by the highway, and their clearing and levelling the ground.”
It is worth noting that the effigy of the saint was dressed and in an old book of churchwarden’s accounts, in the reign of Henry VIII it is noted that:
“that they had delivered unto the St. Faith a cote and a velvet tippet.”
Land lying in Mill Field, called St. Faith’s ½ acre, which associated with the shrine, came to the King’s hands at the dissolution, and is now parcel of the demesnes. The approximate site can be seen to the side of the church, where a small picturesque pool of water is apparent. The collapse of the tower may have been as a result of undermining from the spring.
In our days of heritage protection it seems astounding that single handed one man could remove this great site, but they did. However, the name St Faith’s wick court is remembered and the water from the well still remains it appears to fill the moat but it is a poor replacement for what sounded like a fascinating site in this remote area of Hertfordshire.
Russia boasts hundreds of holy wells or Святой колодец however their history is a troubled one and many suffered from the atheist Soviet regime – pilgrimages were banned, chapels closed and holy wells filled in and destroyed. However, since the fall of the USSR Russia is reviving and restoring these ancient water sources and in this post I thought it would be of interest to followers.
One such example is the Polovinka holy well in the Venerovsky district. The site was associated with the finding of a miraculous icon of the holy martyr Paraskeva Friday, a hermit who named herself after the Lord’s passion day and was persecuted by emperor Diocletian in Roman Iconium in Asia Minor. This was found on the shore of a lake and the transferred to the church in Voznesenka but when the next day the people went to see the icon it was not there but back at the lake. This happened several times. Seen as a sign, the local people dug a well on its bank and over it a chapel and placed the icon within it. The water was blessed and taken by the pilgrims. Large number of pilgrims came and a convent was even established there.
The loss of the site
Then came the Soviets who in 1979 burnt down the church and destroyed the holy well chapel, dismantling the foundation and burying the well. Despite this the memory had not been erased. Priests came with their people in secret to the site where the spring despite the burial still flowed. Over time people became bolder with their visits and then in 1995, three years after the collapse of USSR, remains were found and a restoration of the well was planned. Soon followers with their priests from Tatarsk, Chanov, Chistoozerny and Vengerovo visited. And recently a roof with a dome and cross were placed back over the well.
Hieromonk Dimitry in the Novosibirsk Diocesan Herald (2006, No. 1) describes the pilgrimage of remembrance of Paraskeva Friday, the 9th Friday of Easter:
“Usually visiting pilgrims meet in the morning in the village of Voznesenka. Here at the site of the burnt church a prayer service is served. Then local residents join the pilgrims, after which everyone gets on the buses and goes to Polovinka. Before one kilometer, people go out and with a procession of the cross, with icons and banners, move to the holy well. To meet them come those who came here earlier. A prayer service with water consecration is served at the well and the akathist to the holy martyr Paraskeva is read. Sanctified well water is bottled to all present. Then – a common meal in nature, and in good weather – and pouring fresh, icy water, which relieves fatigue and gives new strength. Everyone’s mood on this day is festive.”
The white well
A similar site is that of the White Well. This too is linked to a miracle working Icon, this time of Nikola Zaraysky. It is said that in 1225 the spring arose when the icon was rested on the ground on its journey from Korsun to Prince Fydor Yurievich being carried by Eustathius a priest. Then in the following centuries the seven centuries, the inhabitants of Zaraysk celebrate the day of St. Nicholas as a religious Orthodox holiday and after visiting the icon in the Cathedral a procession would form of those visiting the spring head. Its waters were said to be good for those suffering mental and physical suffering. This custom like above died out in the days of the USSR. Then in 2002 a new wooden chapel, called Nikolskaya, was built above the spring with stairs down to the springhead. A special spring filled plunge bath was constructed Now every year on August 11, processions have returned with people from all over Russia coming for its waters.
New wells for old
The restorations of Russia’s sacred wells continues and new holy wells constructed. In Birobidgan, a new holy well has been built in association with St. Innocent Convent on its 220th anniversary a well will be built and opened.
A report states that:
“The territory of the monastery was chosen for the first source of holy water in the Birobidzhan diocese because the water in the territory of the village of Razdolnya is very qualitative in terms of physico-chemical indicators,” said Bishop Efrem of Birobidzhan and Kuldur. – It is located close to the surface of the earth – the wells of local residents are usually four to five meters deep.”
The process involved:
“The rite of consecration “treasure” was held in front of the relics of St. Innocent, which on this occasion were brought from the Annunciation Cathedral, where they are stored permanently. Prayer was held by Vladyka Ephraim, who asked the Lord to give the water “sweet and tasty, satisfied to the needy, and harmless to the reception.”
This new wall will have concrete walls and an hexagonal wooden frame over it with a dome.
Russia restoring and creating holy wells in equal measure. A superb place for the religious tourist
Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site
Who was St. Decumen?
Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion. There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.
St Decumen’s martyrdom.
The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:
‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’
They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:
“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.
However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell. It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.
Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!
The holy well
Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that
“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.
This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.
Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.
Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!