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The Veneration of water in 12 objects……number four, St. Teilo’s skull

This is the 101th post and I’ve picked a famous sacred well association the head cult. Much has been commented on the connection between sacred springs and heads, in particular. The term ‘head cult’ often being applied to a number of wells, but in reality there is little to prove the existence of anything concrete as a cult or continued worship. Such is the most famed site associated with a skull: St. Teilo’s Well or Ffynonn Deilo in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, a noted holy man who has given his name to many wells and churches. This well itself is nothing particularly impressive nor archaeologically significant, consisting of shallow square chamber and fills a series of ponds. However, the legend is quite remarkable.  Asaph Dar’s Wales and the Welsh notes:

 “The faith of some of those who used to visit the well was so great in its efficacy that they were wont to leave it wonderfully improved. An old inhabitant of the district, Stephen Evans used to relate a story to the effect that a carriage drawn by four horses came over to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids from the cockle village of Penclawdd, in the Gower Peninsula, who had determined to try the waters in the well. They returned, however, no better than they came; for though they had drunk of the well they had neglected to do so out of the skull. This was afterwards pointed out to them by somebody and they resolved to make the long journey to the well again. This time, we are told, they did the right thing and departed in excellent health. Such is the great persistence of primitive beliefs that while the walls of the church have long fallen into decay the faith in the well continues in a measure intact.”

Skulls (and heads) have a long and possibly confused association with sacred springs. Yet how did a piece of this saint’s skull end up being separated from the body and be associated with a holy well. Tradition asserts that when Llandaff Cathedral was stormed in the 15th century by Owen Glyndwr, a local man, Sir David Mathew paid for its restoration and was given the skull as a gift by the grateful Bishop. This was then set into a reliquary.

For seven generations, the Mathew family owned this private relic, until it handed over to the Melchoir family who owned Llandeilo farm in the 17th century. By then probably as a result in changing Christian views concerning relics, the skull was stripped of its reliquary, although its then use a drinking cup goes against this view, unless there was a period when the relic was disregarded followed by a period when the family either realised a possible income source or became more ‘Catholic’. Whatever, this is how the skull became associated with a holy well for own the farm as the name suggests is a site associated with the saint.

The Melchoir family, where the water would be lifted from the well using the skull and according to Sir John Rhys, quoted in Bailey (2003) that it had to be an heir of Llandeilo. Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales notes that a man in 1906 stated that a boy and two other lads were cured of an illness by drinking out of the skull early in the morning and that he reported that the waters were botted by the family.     

However, the use of the skull to drink from would have stopped around….when the skull disappeared only to be returned by the last of the family to Llandaff Cathedral in 1993 where it now remains. The search for the skull makes an interesting read, especially the lack of publicity wanted for it by its ‘owners’ and can be read in Bailey’s excellent volume.

What is interesting is that the cult of head worship should develop so late in this story. This suggests perhaps the widespread survival of such beliefs into the 1600s, unless there was a local well already using the skull independently? Much has been said about the possibility of the Melchoir families being some sort of well guardians preserving a cult, although this is unlikely and more wishful thinking by new age antiquarians. More likely is that the family identified the coinage in developing the ‘worship’. An interesting postscript is for an examination of the skull in the Office of Works volume on ancient and historical buildings in Pembrokeshire records of the skull:

“the cranium is very old, and is polished from constant handling. A part of one superciliary ridge remains, and this is of such slight elevation as to make it almost certain that this skull is that of a female, while the open sutures point to the same conclusion.”

Well there you go! Clearly, the combination of faith and the water worked more directly than anything is ‘relic’ could add if this analysis was indeed correct. Yet whatever the facts the use of a skull in such activities is an interesting form of water veneration.


I’ve posted this on the 8th as the first posts were on the 8th October.

Gumfreston’s church wells

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWales is much endowed with holy wells many dedicated to local saints. Behind the evocative 14th century church of Gumfreston, lay three wells which should be right be dedicated to some saint, but they only have the name – Church wells. Nevertheless, these wells are a fascinating example of water lore in this region of Wales. Three springs arise here, two enclosed in rough stone walling the other a simple spring. According to tradition, the uppermost spring is pure water, middle one chalybeate and lower one sulphur although all appear to be chalybeate. Francis Jones (1954) Holy Wells of Wales states that the wells were visited on Easter Day and bent pins were dropped into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’, a recognised custom this appears to have been last recorded in the 17th century when the rector of the church was removed by puritans. However, despite the superstitious popularity of the well  being removed by the 18th century the water was being analysed. A Dr. Davis, a physician to William IV, described the warers as being chalybeate and were ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’. At this time nearby Tenby had developed as a spa and visitors would visit Gumfreston to take the waters and there was a growing business to provide bottles for those unable to reach it. In the 1830s plans were drawn to enclose the springs and build a pump house and changing rooms for these visitors. This does not appear of have occurred but the wells continued to be regarded. Later a Dr. Golding Bird who was a ‘Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’. He described it as follows, reported in Samuel Hall and Anna Hall The Book of South Wales 1861:

“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted. The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron. The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water. The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity if iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution. In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”

Traditionally cures such as leg problems were associated with the upper spring due to its shape like a leg, the middle for hands and arms, and the lower for eyes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACustoms associated with the well

Jones notes that it was custom here and at other wells to visit at New Year to get ‘New Year’s Water’. He recalls that children would collect it and carried it to local houses to sprinkle on their front doors with sprigs of evergreen or box. They sung a song which went:

Here we bring new water from the well so clear, For to worship God with, this happy New Year, Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine, With seven bright gold wires, the bugles that do shine, Sing reign of fair maid, with hold upon her toe, Open you the west door, and turn the old year go. Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her chin, Open you the east door, and let the new year in.”

When the custom ceased is unclear, but traditions continue at the well. The custom of throwing Lent away has been recently revived with nails used to symbolise the crucifixion and done on Easter Sunday. Within recent years a number of newer customs have arisen. Davis (2003) in his Sacred Springs states that for a small donation visitors can make a wish or make a prayer and hang a ribbon and bell from one of the trees overhanging the springs. Since the 1990s a simple well dressing has been developed in Easter.

Image and text Copyright Pixyledpublications

St. Govan’s Well and Chapel

A more romantic spot for a holy well one could hardly find and as such it is one of my favourite sites. Tucked within a rocky chasm struck from the Pembrokeshire coast, the sound of sea birds crying, the wind whistling and the waves crashing forcefully on the rocks below; one could easily imagine oneself back in the time of the saints, when a new faith was brought into these heathen heartlands and changed them perhaps forever. A remote site and perfect for a hermit. To reach the well below and its romantic chapel, the modern pilgrim descends a long row of steps, said impossible to count and these enter this delightful chapel of St. Govan.

Who was St. Govan?

No hard evidence can be found of the founder of this chapel. Some authorities identify him as King Arthur’s Gawain, but he is more likely to be Gobhan of Wexford as in the early medieval period there would have been links between the coasts. A legend tells that the saint journeyed to reach the family of St. David, the saint who trained him. Another legend identifies him as a repentant thief.  Doubtless a chapel existed from the early times but the present algae covered chapel was built sometime between 1300-1500.

The birth of a chapel

Local legend tells that the saint was sent upon by pirates and at the spot the cliff opened up to form a cave which allowed him to escape and prevented them from reaching him. Another legend is that the saint’s hand prints were imprinted upon the chapel floor. A story tells that he had a silver bell which he placed in the chapel tower. It was stolen by the pirates but it was reclaimed by angels who encased it in a rock at the sea’s edge. It is a legend with is similar to that of St. Declan at Ardmore where his bell was left on the rock. When the saint died he was buried beneath the altar and indeed may still remain there. This cave formed the nucleus of the chapel and he survived on fish and water from two springs one within the chapel and the other covered in well house, both are now dry but the later is traceable.

The Holy Well.

This holy well is tucked below the chapel almost blending into the boulder below is St Govan’s Well It is a small well house made of the nearby boulders and stones with a round rough roof.  The chapel itself is said to be built over the springhead and local legend records it never flooded. The water cured lameness, eye problems and rheumatism and those cured would leave their crutches and walking sticks at the altar. Its waters were collected by a limpet shell by the faithful. However there are cures no more as if one looks inside we shall see nothing but small wave worn boulders. Despite the dryness of the well, the atmosphere of this rocky crevasse and its delightful chapel is worth the pilgrimage.

copyright Pixyledpublications