The area of Charlcombe and Lansdown on the outskirts of Bath boasts three holy wells. The first one is of these is St Mary’s Well which attracted some notoriety in the 1980s when its existence seemed threatened. An article in the Bristol Evening Post of 6th June 1986 entitled ‘Hermit told to quit holy well site’, related according to an article in the Source Journal of Holy Wells how:
“the Bishop of Bath and Wells had obtained a court order to evict ‘bearded 42 year-old artist Alan Broughton’ who had made a makeshift home under a tree in the grounds of Charlcombe Rectory, near Bath. The rectory is due to be sold by the church even though its grounds include St Mary’s holy well. Churchwarden John Kirkman is leading a campaign to preserve the well in some way and I sent a letter of support on behalf of Source to be added to similar letters from other concerned parties for presentation to the Church Commissioners. It is to be hoped the Church will not put profit before sanctity.”
A report in the Proceedings of the Bath and District Branch of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society for 1909-1913 records:
“Mr. Grey … tells me he has known of this one, under the name of St. Mary’s Well, for a great number of years. It is close to the old Norman Church at Charlcombe, in the Rectory garden, amid a clump of ferns. The inhabitants have a tradition that the water is good for the eyes, and some twenty years ago persons were known to come and take it away in bottles. It is also stated to be a “wishing well,” and I believe the water is still taken from this source for baptisms. Mr. Grey gives an extract from a letter in which the writer states that a lady derived considerable benefit from this well, through applying the water to her eyes.”
The Rectory was sold and the hermit was removed. But what happened to the well? Dom Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells records the site as being:
“ situated in a bank, now covered with ferns, and the water flows through a pipe into a small natural basin. The village people used to take away the water from this well, as it was reputed to be ‘good for the eyes’, and the font in the church was filled from the same source.”
Searching for the site in the 1990s I couldn’t get access to the Rectory and feared it may have been lost but soon found a sign for it! It had been moved a controversial option for a holy well. It now lay in a public garden and filled a small elliptical pool. Overlooking the pool is a stone carving of Christ being baptised in the river Jordan This according to Quinn’s 1999 xxx it was done in 1989. It was very good to see someone preserve it, but I did wonder what had happened to the origin stonework. Was there something still in the Rectory, Quinn is silent on this. In a way this sort of modern day action underlines the contradictory views of those who look upon the site in regards to its waters and those, such as historians, who might be more concerned with its fabric. The Holy Well is used for baptisms and Christian festivals such as Ascension Day and Easter Day.
Above the village not far from Beckford’s Tower is another well, one which is in a way far more interesting by virtue of its dedication. This is St Alphege’s Well. Its first reference was in the 15th century were it is recorded that there were lands
“apud fontem Sancti Alphege.”
When Horne visited he stated that:
“This well is situated on…the opposite side of the road to the old cricket ground. A steep path, which looks as if it was once made with cobblestones, leads down from the road to the bottom of the field. The water issues from a bank and falls into a Roman coffin. This…was brought from Northstoke about forty or fifty years ago, by a farmer who wanted to make a drinking place for his cattle…A mile from this well, on the road to the Monument, is Chapel Farm. This was originally St Laurence’s Hospice for pilgrims on their way to Glastonbury. It is not uncommon to find a holy well by frequented pilgrim tracks, and this is a good example…This is probably the only well in England dedicated to this saint.”
Horne is not correct there are records of other Alphege wells one in far way Solihul and a possible another one in Kent. Both lost! What is interesting concerning St. Alphege’s well is that a path remains as a track linking it to a fifteenth-century chapel which half a mile away which suggests it was on a pilgrim route. Indeed Quinn (1999) relates that its waters were sought until recently:
“by the Catholic Church of St Alphege in Bath, who came to take away a gallon of the holy water for use in the baptismal font. At one time there was a deposit of soot on the roof of the well chamber, left by the burning candles of generations of pilgrims’.
Today they would find it difficult to fill the water for the access to the well is very overgrown and the doorway locked. One hopes that soon access can be improved otherwise I fear the well may be forgotten
Alphege was a local saint so to speak living in Gloucestershire at the Deerhurst monastery near Tewkesbury in the late 900s. Why here? Well he is said to lived as a hermit in a small hut here and was latter associated with the building of Bath Abbey before meeting a death of a Dane in the early 11th century Greenwich, the site being now a church!
The final well is now lost St Winefredes Well, Sion Hill, Lansdown. St Winifred unlike St. Alphege probably needs little introduction being a noted Welsh Martyr whose death at the hands of a pagan ‘husband’ she was forced to marry and resurrection by her uncle St Beuno are well known in hagiographical terms and of course a well-known healing water shrine arose – The Lourdes of Wales. But in Bath’s suburbs such as dedication is curious. Of this well it is described in 1749 in John Wood’s An Essay Towards a Description of Bath as:
“A Spring of Water, which, for some Mineral Quality, was, in former times, dedicated to St Winifred; the Fountain still bearing the name of Winifred’s Well; and it is much frequented in the Spring of the Year by People who drink the Water, some with Sugar and some without.”
As such this would make it the furthest south and west of the Sugar wells i.e those where people would drink them on specific days with sugar or licorice. However finding provenance for the well is difficult and it seems likely that its name was adopted at a later date when it became acceptable once again to visit the Flintshire shrine. Evidence may be drawn from Robert Peach’s 1883, Historical Houses in Bath and their Associations which recalls that Mary of Modena lived nearby. Now it is known this was around the same time as she travelled back from the more famous St Winifred’s Well in Flintshire to utilise the Cross Bath and other local springs to hopefully fulfil a wish to conceive. Did someone locally know her location and puffed a local mineral spring as a St. Winifred’s Well. Indeed Peach notes that the spring was sought by:
“women with superstitious hopes of maternity.”
Of course a St Winifred’s Well did exist, 19th century deeds for a Winifred House refer to
“Pasture-Ground, called the Barn-piece, wherein was a well called Winifred’s Well.”
And it does appear as St Winifred’s Well on the 1888 OS at ST 742661 and although John Collinson in his 1791 The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset does mention a chapel of St. Winifred he is the only one. By the time of Dom Horne (1923) looked for it he stated that it
“been covered in and its exact position is doubtful. The water is said to be of a hard brackish nature.”
Nothing remains at Sion Hill to note it today and many people will have forgotten this interesting footnote in the local history.
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!
Well it’s been a great few years and pleasing to note that I’ve had views from nearly two thirds of the globe..so thanks reader especially the followers. You’ll see some other changes new pages etc, so hopefully it’s all new and improved, on the 19th, but as the first post was on the 8th I’ve posted earlier than usual.
There is no contest what healing spring must be discussed for the 100th post…no well has such a long recorded history of cures, no well has an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage, no well has such a complete infrastructure, unique in its Perpendicular splendor…only St. Winifred’s Well at Clywd, so famed it gives its name to the town and so famed it is now called the Lourdes of Wales, although it is much older and more significant than that. However, it is a daunting task to discuss such an important site, but here I go
The origin of the well
The story dates back to the seventh century. It involves St. Winifred, real name Gwenfrewi, was originally the daughter of a local lord, Tyfid ap Eiludd and his wife Wenlo, and after being taught by a monk called Beuno, her uncle, became a nun. However, Prince Caradog took a fancy to her and kidnapped her. However, she escaped and trying to reach Beuno was caught and beheaded by Caradog. Beuno cursed Caradog, who then disappeared. Where Winifred was beheaded the spring arose, however Beuno prayed over her body and she came back to life and ended her days as the Abbess of Gwytherin. There her grave was a pilgrimage site until her relics were removed to Shrewsbury in 1138.
A potted history of the well
The first mention of the well is in 1093, when Haliwel was granted to Chester’s St Werburgh’s Abbey. By 1240, to Basingwerk Abbey had been granted it by the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Llewelyn. This established the link between the two sites and it was administered by the Cistercian monks until the Reformation. The fame of the saint and her well attracted many pilgrims, Royalty amongst them: Henry V, Richard III and Henry VII. It was the latter’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who built the current prestigious well house and chapel and by doing so probably ensured it escaped destruction under her grandson Henry VIII. Evidence suggests that Catherine of Aragon was also a patron. Unsurprisingly, it became a location for Catholic resistance, the Jesuits, and even in 1686 James II and his queen visited to pray for an heir, before later exile.
Its construction begun in around 1500 and took probably 15 years to finish. The structure consists of a star-shaped basin into which the water arises and flows into an oblong bath with steps either side. Originally reached from the chapel above, although this access is blocked, the structure is set into the hill side. It has a vaulted ceiling supported by columns with its Gothic tracery. The chamber is reached by a triple arcade entered from the north. The centre of the ceiling is a worn pendant showing the story of St. Winifred looks over the spring head. A niche to the side a statue of St Winifred, which replaced one destroyed in the 17th century in the 1886. Above the well chamber is a chapel full of carved figures. This has seen many uses over the years, such as a school or courthouse, is a simple single nave and side isle with an altar in the apse.
Sacred healing Moss
“But the ground stained with her blood cracked, and a rapid spring gushed out in that place full of water, the stones of which to this day are seen bloody as on the first day. The moss also smells as incense, and cures divers diseases.”
An interesting feature sadly now gone was a red staining moss, called Jungermannia asplenioides which was said to be indelible stains of St Winifred’s blood. Another moss, Byssus jolithus was ‘St Winifred’s Hair’. This moss was dried, made into wreaths and sold in the 17th century for its healing qualities.
The ritual undertaken at the well is to pass three times through the small inner bath, saying the Rosary; the pilgrim enters the outer pool and prays on St Beuno’s Stone or Maen Beuno. The stone as the name suggests is intrinsically linked with the legend of the well. It is on this stone that the Beuno was told that anyone who asked Winifred for help would receive their request by the third time. The stone is certainly very ancient and perhaps prehistoric in origin.
A catalogue of cures
“Moreover one born blind, service being duly performed in the tabernacle of the virgin, went of to the well, and washed, and saw, and gave thanks…And many times this most benign virgin relieves dropsical persons, restores the paralytic, heals the gouty, cures the melancholy. No less does she remove sciatica, eradicate cancer, cure shortness of breath, extirpate piles…Why by enumerating a few things do I try to mention all? So many and so great are the gifts of the virgin, that their infinity defies enumeration.”
What is also remarkable about the site is the catalogue of cures, graffiti around the well accords. Perhaps the most noted was that which occurred after a sick monk at Shrewsbury Abbey was told by a vision of the saint to say mass at the well. After this had been done, the monk began to recover, and went to Holywell himself, where his cure was completed. It was this Holywell cure which determined the Shrewsbury monks to adopt Winifred as their patroness, seeking out her grave, and removing her bones to their church in 1138.
No complete record apparently has ever been produced. The main source for the early accounts in the saint’s Vita or Life. The first version, Vita Prima of which was written in 1130, and the second life. Vita Secunda, written some ten or so years later at the occasion of the relic’s translation by Robert of Shrewsbury. This was translated in 1635 and then rewritten by Jesuit Fr Metcalf. Through the protestant period, miracles continued and from this period one describes:
“About the yeare 1590 Fr Edward Oldcorne of the Society of Jesus with another English priest…travelling in the kingdome of Naples…had poyson given them…there still remained in them an extraordinaire inward heate of the liver with other diseases, and especially Father Oldcorne, whose tongue and mouth contracted a hard sore many yeares after his coming into England…And as all cure and human remedied failed and being very sensible of losing his speech, he was bent…to undertake a pilgrimage to Holy Well…But whether the occasions permitted not…some yeares after being at a gentlemans house in Worcester, he chanced to see a little blood stone…of S. Wenefrides Holy Well, he presently honoured it with great veneration, prostrating himself on his knees before the altar, he putt it in his mouth, and turning it therein to and fro with his soare tongue…he sayd 5 Paters et Aves with Creed. And immediately he found himself much better, his tongue cooled, and his stomack in farr better temper then before; then…he went to Holy-well: where drinking of the water of the sacred fountain with other devotions performed, etc., he was perfectly cured, and never after troubled with the sayd disease.”
Miracles are recorded throughout the next two centuries such that the 1817 The Life and Miracles of Saint Wenefride, states in discussion of a cure that the witnesses:
“numerous and consist of persons of different stations, religions, countries, and places of residence, with Protestants, Catholics, English, Welsh, residents in Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Holywell, who could not possibly be combined for the purpose of attesting a series of falsehoods.”
Until the 1960s the crypt was filled with crutches, these can now be found in the small museum. And so the cures continue.