For the final examination of water veneration finishing with one of the most distinctive objects. Of course the most important aspect of visiting a holy well is to take the water. However, sometimes it is not possible to drink the water in situ often it had to be given to some in more need for example far away. However, no run of the mill vessel would do, no one would need an ampulla, a small bottle or vial, often made of pewter or terracotta often sealed over to be broken open when received. It was often worn around the neck and did itself act as a sacred souvenir much like the allied pilgrim badge, deposits at river crossings in particular showing that they themselves acted as a votive offering.
The earliest ampulla, is one of the earliest pieces of evidence for British Christianity, from Abu Mena, dating from the 6th–7th century which was found at Meols in the Wirral. One of the most notable accounts is at Canterbury Cathedral’s St. Thomas Becket shrine where a spring was used as a holy well. It is accounted that all pilgrims who visited the shrine went away with some water. Indeed the 14th Polistoire states even Henry II after his penance:
“drank from the water of St. Thomas’ well… and took away with him an ampoule full of this water, in the manner of a pilgrim.”
Harte (2008) Holy Wells believes that the water derived its miraculous reputation after it had come into use to fill the votive ampulla. Whatever, it is reported that sometimes even ampullae emptied before the leaving the Cathedral precincts as the saint’s judgement on the individual. The use was widespread as indicated by this account in the Exeter Express and Echo:
“THIS tiny lead container, called an ampulla, is modest in appearance, but is nonetheless important evidence for medieval pilgrimage in Devon. Found using a metal-detector in 2009 near Whimple by Simon Wildman, it once contained water from a holy well. The water from holy wells was ascribed sacred qualities through their association with particular saints or certain miracles. Prior to Henry VIII’s Reformation, Devon was littered with holy wells, few of which survive today. One such holy well was that of St Sidwell in Exeter, which was purported to have sprung up instantaneously on the spot where her decapitated head hit the ground. This well was once a popular pilgrimage site, and pilgrims could purchase ampullae full of holy water.”
Of course, we are unaware what holy well it came from of course, it may have not been from Devon of course. The most active holy well in the county, St. Winifred’s Well at Holywell, unsurprisingly has a long history of producing ampullae. A mention is even made in her 1130 first Life where the priest fills a lagena with the water, which was ‘transmitted everywhere to the sick, and drunk’ certainly by 1620 ‘little bottles’ we being used.
In revival of the pilgrimage under Fr Beauclerk S.J., in the 1890s, a 250mm bottle was specially tall which held an image of St Winifred, with the words ‘St Winefrides Well Holywell’, and Fr Beauclerk’s. An advert in the The Holywell Record of May 1896 stated that ‘a bottle of water can be sent post free to any part of the United Kingdom’ a promise I believe that is still upheld although the bottle and postage is now paid. A longer account of the development of these bottles post 1890s is given in this article.
Similarly, at Walsingham small bottles are provided with the image of the vision to Richeldis in 1096 with the Virgin hovering above with the spring below the Lady Richeldis showing how to build the Holy House. These were an improvement of the simple medieval ones with a cross and a W.
And the trend for ampulla is still present and can be seen at ‘new’ holy wells – Lourdes and Fatima – suggesting that the basic function of the holy well has not ceased!