This year I will finish my book on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire a county which has been surprisingly rich in fascinating sites and last summer I had the pleasure of doing a field trip with fellow wellie and member of the Holy wells and sacred springs of Britain Facebook Group and admin of the Holy, ancient and roadside wells of Warwickshire group Steve Bladon as we explored a number of sites around Rugby. Perhaps one of the most unusual wells is found at Watergall Bridge on the outskirts of the parish is the Monk’s Well (SP 418 548).
The Monk’s Well is not marked on the map as such but its location can be surmised by the presence of a blue W above an old farm house off the A423 road. A footpath went from the road, past an old farm house and directly to the well or rather veered a little to the left but close enough to have a quick look anyway. However when we arrived there, there was no sign of a path beyond the gate. As we pondered map in hand our next move, the farmer appeared. He was curious of what we wishing to do but as soon as he learnt we were interested in the well he became very welcoming and told us about the history of his house which appeared to have been once a manor house with the remains of the walls of a very large garden being visible to the side of the house. The farmer gave us permission to explore the well; he added that he used to go down into it when he was a teenager but hadn’t looked inside for years. He knew of the legend an unusual one, and one I had not read associated with any British holy well.
A hidden well
Climbing the hill where the spring was marked on the map in blue lettering the first significant site we encountered was the large conduit house. This is a substantial brick building, an arch approximately eight metres in diameter over a large rectangular pool of clear water, 14 by 25 metres. Originally the date 1618 was over the arch but this has now been lost. It is a substantial structure.
Climbing further up to the site of a well one is greeted by a modern metal drain cover. Not very promising. But carefully lifting it a shaft can be seen. This shaft itself is remarkably well made being made of dressed stone with stones projecting out allowing someone to climb down into the well, the spring of which appears to arise around two metres into the ground.
The bottom of the well is rather unusual being about 37 metres across and again well made of dressed stone with a stone seat. The spring arises beneath a rectangular slab of stone. It is the seat which is of interest. A pipe conveys the water away to the conduit house which itself supplied the house below. The earliest record of both sites appears to be C. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land:
“About a quarter of a mile west of the house is an eminence with an irregular hollow forty yards across and oft. or 6ft. deep, in the centre of which is a singular rectangular pit lined with dressed stone, having angle stones on two sides to facilitate the descent. It is 7ft. 7inches. deep, 2ft. square at the top, and 4ft. at the bottom, where there is a stone trough through which the water flows from a spring in the hill above.”
A Monk’s penance
As stated the seat if on interest for an oral tradition records that the monks inhabited the nearby manor house and were sent down into the well as a form of penance explaining the seat. An unusual form of penance but in line with other traditions perhaps of immurement. Evidence for the tradition that transgressing monks were somehow incarcerated in walls is scant however a discovery of a skeleton found with a book and candle behind a wall in Thorney Abbey Lincolnshire may well record it. However, was there ever a religious community at the site? The only scant evidence is that records show that early in the 13th century Henry son of William Boscher gave to the monks of Combe Abbey land on Heidune for building a new mill, and a little later John de Lodbroke gave 3 acres ‘below the mill’, this being evidently a windmill It is also recorded that on 14 February, 1227, the prior and monks of Coventry were granted in perpetuity a weekly market on Wednesdays at their manor of Southam (Suham) and a yearly fair at Coventry on the feast of St. Leger and the seven following days. However, this does not suggest there was any property here. A tradition records that they may have had a grange there. The local legend was known by the owner of the land but he believes there was never a religious house here the land being owned by the Spencers in medieval times. But it seems unlikely they had enough monks that would need such a bespoke penance.
Perhaps a better alternative is that the custom remembers the time when a hermit lived by the spring in a chamber, maybe the surviving chamber, protected from the elements. As the start appears never to have been investigated archaeologically. There are the lumps and bumps of a lost village not far from the spring although interesting not really near enough to have had the settlement settled around it, it feels. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land is more prosaic
“On the north side is a recess with a seat in it, probably to accommodate the person who cleared the trough.”
Whatever the truth it is the most unusual of sites in the county and perhaps the oddest legend in the country. Interesting in an area noted once for a large lake, hence the name Watergall, gall deriving from an Old English word for watery, it is not alone. Before the farm near the road is a mineral spring of which is noted by the owner of the farm that there were plans to develop it into a spa in the 1920s with full details being published locally but I have yet to find them. It arises in dilapidated wooden shed in a rectangular basin. Iron chalybeate water can be seen but the flow is sluggish.
Whilst researching for a future volume on holy and healing wells in Warwickshire, I came across an interesting site called Margaret’s well. This site one would assume takes its name from a saint, but no, showing how easy it is for holy well researchers to be confused. However, this site has a far more interesting origin, it is cited by some as being the site where a local girl committed suicide. That in itself, although tragic, is not perhaps that interesting, but the suicide may have been the inspiration for the tragic character of Ophelia who drowned in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
A tragic suicide?
For those unfamiliar with Hamle: Ophelia loves and was courted by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but is helpless when he starts behaving strangely after his uncle marries his mother, having killed Hamlet’s father. After, Hamlet treats her poorly and abondons her she goes mad and drowns in a pool prompting the Laertes and Hamlet duel which results in both dying.
Who was Margaret?
Margaret Clopton, was the daughter of a leading Catholic family in the town and was a contemporary of Shakesphere. She was abandoned by her lover, drowned herself. News of her death would have reached Shakespeare as the family was so well known even if he was living in London especially as his wife, Anne Hathaway still resided in Statford. The dates certainly match, Hamlet is believed to have been written by the Bard in the 1590s, shortly after Margaret’s supposed death.
Searching on line for evidence, I found the following website: http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/History/article/whats-the-evidence-for-ophelia/
In it a Dr. Bearman, who is the chief archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said the evidence was open to interpretation, but a possible link with Ophelia could not be denied. He stated that although there was a Margaret Clopton there are no records of her marriage or death which would lead you to suspect she died in infancy or early youth. However, he does note that there is a tradition of a young woman drowing in the well and the death is first recorded in Jordan’s History of Stratford written in1790. Whether this was Margaret and whether this was the source perhaps can never be proved! Indeed the vagueness of a ghost haunting the well may suggest a religious origin? Is the Margaret St Margaret?
Nearly lost for good?
The well built as a conduit for the hall was constructed in 1686 as the inscribed stone SJC 1686 records. The SJC refering to Sir John Clopton, but is obviously a pool or well before this but nothing is recorded. The site was for many inaccessible for years due to its being immersed in thick briars, bramble and boggy underneath and only the very top of the stonework being visible. It was decided in October 2002 to restore the well and a new path was laid to it, the work being completed in 2003. Archaeological field work once the land was drained revealed the brick vaulting, steps and flagstones. Masonry foundations were were found south-west of Margaret’s Well, and may have been remains of arbours shown on the 1848 Tithe map and estate plans of 1849.Once the private estate of Clopton house, the site now in a public park.
Visiting in 2011, the site is marked out by a fence and has a small plaque, but unfortunately this and the well itself have been vandalized. The well which consists of a barrel shaped structure over a rectangular pool has lost some of the brick work from the top and the concrete rendering. The water arises clearly from within, but I could not see the carved stone described.