Leicestershire is sadly not renowned for its holy and healing wells, this is despite two works, Bob Trubshaw’s seminal 1990 Holy Wells of Leicestershire and Rutland and James Rattue’s 1993 work on An Inventory of Ancient, Holy and Healing Wells in Leicestershire in LAHS. The majority of wells in the former are either lost or dubious wells, i.e not necessarily holy! One curious exception was the Sister’s Well at Hoton or Prestwold. Trubshaw (1990) records:
“Sisters’ Well (also known as Jacob’s Well) is on the perimeter of the disused airfield. A simple stone structure with steps down and wooden doors stood until World War II but the flow has now been culverted.”
Structurally this sounded like one of the more structure of the county’s holy wells and its loss was a considerable one. Another reason why this site was of interest is due to a local legend:
“A legend associated with this well tells how, during a three-month long drought, a sixteenth century maiden lady called Gertrude Lacey dreamed three times in one night of finding a stream by sticking a pilgrim’s staff from the Holy Land in a specific place. It was located in Langdale Field, and known as Spring Close after Enclosure. A pilgrim’s staff was dug up and, with the help of her sister Grace, she went off to the location. When the staff was stuck in the ground a supply of water was created which ‘has never run dry’. A double effigy in Prestwold church reputedly depicts these two sisters.
It is a common holy well origin motif and is found across the country and even overseas. However, rarely is it associated with secular figures which either emphasises the importance of the sisters or is a story transferred from a lost saint tradition. An interesting well who I thought only remembrance was the farm across from its location Shepherd’s Well farm.
It seemed clear that this was a lost site and then searching on the web for references to well in preparation of my Leicestershire holy wells I was amazed to come across this from Bob Trubshaw:
“In March 2015 the ‘solar farm’ on Wymeswold airfield was being extended. I received an email from Alexander Haddington to say that a friend of his had noticed that an old well had been uncovered to the north of the perimeter track. He thought the photographs his friend had taken ‘would be of interest’. ‘Yes, very much so!’ was the gist of my reply.”
I was similarly very keen to examine the site and photograph it for the book. I contacted the owners of the Solar farm and via a series of emails was welcomed to the site.
The landscape is perhaps the strangest to find a holy well. In a sea of solar cells, panels which spread across the relics of the airbase like a waves on the sea, enclosed in a wooden fence is the well. We removed a cone and some coverings and I peered inside.
The first thing that could be noticed was a series of steps into some deep murky water. The steps nearly reached the top of the concrete lid suggesting there may have been one on which the current covering rested on. The water arose from under an arch which was a right angles to the step and peering in there old stone work could be seen. .
The arch was a strong stone one upon which could be read slightly in the light ‘HL 1851’, did this refer to the Holy Land as the legend suggested? In the article for the Wold’s Historian, a Joan Shaw did some research for Bob Trubshaw and noted:
“The date and initials intrigued us and I was looking through the 1851 census last night to try and identify HL. As soon as I found the name Henry Lacey I was fairly satisfied that it was the Lacey family who had either found the well or, assuming it is older, had built the approach to it.
We looked at a map of the estate, the field appears to belong to the Packe Estate (or did) but the Lacey family owned land close by so it would be likely that they rented it and had perhaps rented it for many generations.”
The name Lacey being that of the two sisters showing that the family were keen to continue their beneficence. Either side of the arch was a piece of metal sticking out of the brickwork, which would appear to have been placed there to attach a metal or wooden set of doors on their as can be seen currently on a number of wells as shown below. Perhaps this would prevent the water being contaminated. These doors of course would not prevent it today as the water table has risen here compared to other places.
The site is remarkably well preserved and the landowners are keen to preserve it. I suggested that the whole concrete roof could be fully removed to allow a complete restoration and this may happen in the future. Whatever happens it is great to see this most interesting of Leicestershire holy wells being restored and rising from the ground like the origin spring – it holds out hope for similar rediscoveries perhaps.
The best recorded holy well in the Cambridgeshire is that of St. Audry’s Well (TL 540 801). It is noted in the 12th century that a spring arose at the place where the saint was first buried
St Audry or rather Ethelreda or Æthelthryth was an Anglo Saxon saint who was a 7th century East Anglian princess, one of four saintly daughters of Anna, queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely. Interestingly she was born at Exning in Suffolk where a well is also associated with her. She died and was buried at Ely and it is recorded by Bede that when her body was disinterred her body was uncorrupt as such her powers and clothes were said to have special powers. She was reburied in the Cathedral and her shrine remained until the reformation. She is best known for the term tawdry for rubbish, a term which derived from the poor quality clothing sold at fairs on her feast days.
In the 12th century it is reported that:
“If any sick people take a drink from this spring, or have been sprinkled with its water, it is reported that they subsequently recover their original vigour…. in account of her merits, are acquainted with remedies and assiduous in curing the sick”.
It is noted that the monks made the spring site into a pit like cistern so that they could collect some of their water. Several miracles are associated with the well. One tells how a blind woman washing her face and eyes became able to see, how a man travelled from Northamptonshire to be healed and found the door locked. He was apparently barred entrance and was told that there was no bucket at the well and nothing to collect it with. He did not take no as an answer and so barged his way in where he found the well overflowing into the courtyard and thus cupped some water into his hands. He evoked the saint’s name and as he did so begin to recover. Another story tells how a woman fell into the well after accidently being pushed in by a crowd at the well. She was apparently left in the water for two hours and was found still alive by the monks.
The established site of the well is at Barton Farm to the east of the Cathedral. The site is shown on a Moore’s map of the fens dated in 1684 shown as St. Aldreth’s Well. According to Hippisley-Coxe in his 1973 Haunted Britain this site still survived as a muddy pool in a clump of elms near Barton Farm. The spring fills a small tree lined pool on the edge of the grounds of Ely’s Cathedral School, which has absorbed Barton Farm, and the Golf course. There does not appear to be any evidence of fabric but at some point, some brickwork has been used to create a channel to allow the water to flow way showing that the spring is still active.
Conversely the metrical Life and Miracles of St Æthelthryth by Gregory of Ely, c.1120 states that ‘the holy precinct of the church includes a spring’, but does not identify this as a holy well; the original grave of St Audrey lay:
“somewhere in the vicinity of the former Bishop’s Palace, the area close to the Fountain Inn, and the present St Mary’s Church, where the water-table is high.”
This was where:
“…where the people of the neighbourhood do now resort to drink the waters of it, it being a sort of mineral water”.
This suggests two things, one that it was an arrangement like current St. Withburga’s well at East Dereham and that it was nearer the Cathedral. Indeed I was shown by Mr Hart of Ely School a possible alternative site, a small duck pond in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. This however although might be a more likely sight indeed it lay across from the school’s old chapel and in the shadow of the Bishop’s Palace.
Details in Holy Wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of the Ely.
In early May I had the pleasure to present my interim findings of my study into votive offerings at holy and healing wells at the #rituallitter workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (more in a future post hopefully). My presentation particularly focused on rag wells, or as has erroneously been applied nationwide, clootie wells (see this post). This lend me to exploring the custom in the wider geographical context and as I am monthly recording holy and healing wells globally, this month I decided to detail three rag or loque wells (strictly sources a loque) in France. However, a map below will show the distribution of the wells across the county that I am aware of so far.
Research indicated as a custom this is just as vibrant as it is in Britain although in most cases the visitors adhere more often to rags, but as can be seen personal items can also be left
Interestingly the custom is most frequently encounter in the Nord Pas de Calais region and into Belgium. (It is also interesting to focus on holy wells not in Brittany as well) Furthermore, it is an activity associated not only with springs but calvaries, chapels and trees as well – none of which are associated with a springhead.
However typical site is that of St Latuin’s Well, at Clerey Belfonds near Seez. A site which is associated with an evangelizing saint, the envoy of Pope Boniface I who is said to have built an oratory at the spring. He was famed to for converting pagans by healing the death and blind. The curative reputation of the spring harks from curing the blindness of a local widow he stayed with when he arrived there.
At the well, pilgrims would pray first to the saint and then wash at the springhead, hoping to cure skin diseases, fevers, scabies and eye aches. Indeed even the plague was thought to be cured. The site was so popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century that it prompted the expansion of the town. The legend of how the spring, a red chalybeate spring arose is told in Charles Corlet’s Legendes de Basse-Normandie d’Edouard.
“Saint Latuin or Lin passes to be the first apostle of the Orne, It is attributed the foundation of the cathedral of Sees. Saint Latuin, on arriving at Sees, took refuge in a poor woman, a widow whose daughter had been blind for many years. The saint restored the sight to the unhappy woman, and then, preaching in public the word of God, performed many miracles of healing. Satan, annoyed at the beneficial action of the saint, aroused against him Fatisie, who wished to take revenge on the saint who had refused his advances. Fatisie intimated to Latuin, on penalty of death, to cease to preach in Christ’s favor. The saint paid no attention to these threats, but his disciples advised him to retire for some time. What he did in the forest of Clairay. There he set up his oratory near a fountain. His tranquility was short-lived, for Fatisie sent murderers to him with the mission of killing him and bringing back his tongue. At the approach of the saint, the murderers prostrated themselves and converted to the Christian faith. As they were to account for their mission, they consulted the saint in order to know the best way to deceive Fatisie. Latuin advised them to kill their dog, to take away their heart, and to defile their clothes with the blood of the animal. Fatia soon died of a fatal death. But the waters of the spring were tinged with blood. Latuin returned to Sées. He often went to his hermitage. It was in this place that death took him peacefully and he still worked miracles.””
Today the spring fills a large square stone basin beneath a statue of the saint dressed in Bishop robes holding a crozier and those coming to cure complaints have tied rags to the top of the metal fence surrounding it. The spring and its church are now the location for an annual pilgrimage. This year on http://www.ville-sees.fr/dimanche-24-juin-pelerinage-saint-latuin/ website it recorded:
“25 years ago, the association “Les amis de Saint Latuin” was created to offer the pilgrims of Saint Latuin the annual animation of the pilgrimage and to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the church of Cléray , Its cemetery and its fountain. On Sunday 24 June: 7.45 am: laudes at the cathedral, 8 am: departure of the march towards the church of Cléray (7.5 km), 10.45 am: gathering at the Cléray fountain, procession followed by the Mass chaired by Bishop Habert. “
In La Croupte, is a spring dedicated to St Martin, with its 15th century chapel. Near here is a statue of the saint festooned with ribbons and different socks, particularly baby socks, close to the springhead. Why are there socks? The spring is said to help children suffering from rickets and hence helping children to walk.
After praying and lighting a candle the clothes or socks are attached nearby. It is recorded that other saints are prayed to according to the healing required as it too cures skin and eye problems. The springhead fills a square basin surrounded by a metal fence upon which the votives are attached.
The final spring is that associated with a sacred landscape of Pre D’Auge, Calvados I Basse Normandie. Indeed it is unclear in this case whether the tree is more sacred than the spring head. Both are named after Saint Meen’s. This is a site which associates with a ragged oak which generations upon generations have attached rags to. The oak itself being called the Oak of Saint Meen, thought to be over a 1000 years old although it is now hollow and in the hollow is a small wooden statue of the saint (it is said that the original remains in a local castle). Indeed, there was concern about the condition of the oak and that in 2009 its final branch was removed and all that is left is the oak. However, the owners of the land concerned that the tradition would disappear ensured that two other oaks can replace it should the time come, one being planted in 1920 and the other in the 2000s. The hulk of the original tree has not prevented the pilgrims attaching rags which range from strips through to handkerchiefs to whole clothes. The spring is said to cure skin complaints and like at other springs, the cloth is first immersed into the spring and applied to the skin, before being left.
The rationale behind the springs use is related to the Saint, who was Breton monk who travelled these areas converting the pagans, who would appear to dislike rudeness and selfishness. It is reported that when on a journey to Rouen, thirsty he rested in the village. Seeing two young girls he asked them if he could drink, one said she would help but other complained about the scarcity of water and refused. As a result, he caused the spring to burst forth to thank the helpful one saying to the less than generous one:
“You will be covered with pustules and you will be obliged to come and wash yourself there praying to ask for your cure which will remind you of your lack of charity.”
A good reason to justify a rag well not doubt!
Our Lady’s Well (SO 814 173) is certainly one of most interesting and picturesquely placed Holy well in Gloucestershire and one of the best near the city of Gloucester, overlooking as it does over the Severn valley. The spring itself issuing from the sand/bunter pebble stratum, probably of glacial origin, and fills the well house overflowing to fed a large stone trough replacing the previous structure.
Traditionally it is believed that the well was built by the Canons of St Mary’s Priory, of Llanthony in the 14th Century ( the ruins of which are presently being restored and can be visited ). However, another tradition asserts that the dedication of this well is that of St Anne, rather than St Mary which we shall explore later. The water of the well was associated with medicinal virtues and cured any ailment bathed within its waters. Indeed as Walters notes it may well have been a place of pilgrimage. Another tradition is that it is referred to as Lady’s Wash house being were the ancient ladies washed!!
An engraving of Our Lady’s Well is given by Maclean 1888–9 who describes it as
“a small cell or chapel erected over a well… The plan is nearly a square of 7 feet, on a wider basement. The east and west ends are gabled; in the latter is an ogee door, and a narrow ogee window of one light. On the east end is some sculpture, which seems to have been a rood. The covered roof is of stone, and the ridge is finished with a rib. The whole is of good ashlar masonry. This little building stands on the side of rather an abrupt slope, overlooking the valley of the Severn. A fine thorn tree which overhangs it adds much to its picturesque beauty.”
The well-house is probably of early fourteenth-century date and made of oolite limestone. The pitched roof, is comprised of large slabs of this stone, of which rebates have been cut to ensure overlap and keep watertight. The north and south sides are plain, however the of the east side are the worn remains of a sculptured carving. Remains of steps are visible on the north and south sides of the structure.
In Maclean’s time this was built in, but afterwards it was opened, being blocked for a time by an iron door
A curious discoverer
Roy Palmer in his 1994 Folklore of Gloucestershire describes a legend that the Virgin herself discovered the spring. On her way to visit Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, her boat was washed up near here by the Severn Bore and climbing the steep slope from the Severn and found the spring. However he is the first to record this most curious of legends!
Who is the carving?
The sculpture on the east side has been variously interpreted. The virgin addressed by kneeling figures was Ashworth (1890) xxx suggestion. Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) xxx :
“the central figure is a woman, probably St. Anne, standing between her daughter St Mary and an angel or perhaps her husband Joachim.”
They say that ‘Mr Hurry of Hempsted Court mentioned a tradition of two children being drowned in this well while bathing’, and the carvings may have been popularly supposed to commemorate this. It has also been suggested that the site was of pre-christian importance and was derived from Wan, the pagan god of fire, later becoming St Ann although the lateness of her cult, which is 14th century suggests not.
Holy Well or Wash House?
The well lay on land belonging to Llanthony Priory as a water supply and the well was thus a conduit. Its alternative name was called Our Lady’s Washhouse and Ashworth (1890) notes that many who washed in the waters were relieved of their infirmities and that this was the reason it was called Lady Well or Lady’s Wash House. Another notes that it was where as Walters (1923) notes:
“it was a place where ancient ladies washed”
They would find it difficult to wash from now as it has been dry. However, the well is still easily found by taking the road to Hempstead before Gloucester and after the roundabout. Take this road and then turn into the road of the church. Park here enter the graveyard and follow to the other end where there is a gate. Enter this follow the path between the hedges and into the field and the well will be quite self-evident.http://www.megalithic.co.uk/a558/a312/gallery/England/Gloucestershire/lady_well_hempsted.jpg
Hidden deep in the woods on St. Anne’s Hill is the mysterious St Ann’s or Nun’s well…mysterious for many reasons, least of all its difficulty in finding (although read at the end of a sure-fire way to find it)
St Ann’s well or Catholic folly?
Although the first account of the well is by John Aubrey in his 1718 Surrey he describes it as:
“Westwards of this Town, on a steep Hill, stood St Anne’s Chapel, where, in the Time of the Abbots, was Mass said every Morning… Near the Top of the Hill is a fine clear Spring, dress’d with squar’d Stone.”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey similarly do not name it only stating it was:
“a spring, lined on the sides with hewn stone”
It is only in S.C. Hall’s 1853 Chertsey and neighbourhood that the name appears. It is also curious that the the current structure does not resemble that shown in Hall’s work either more in keeping with Aubrey’s description. It is probable that as the site was gaining a more religious name that it was getting a new structure. This is probably to do with the then owners of the hill, Lord and Lady Holland, who had converted to Roman Catholicism which would explain the improvements in 1850s and its associated with the saint and closer affinity to the chapel. This lending it to the idea of being a sort of romanticised folly.
The chapel itself is first mentioned in 1402 as the capella Sancte Anne is recorded although a chapel was licensed in 1334, but in 1440 St Anne’s hill was still the “hill of St Anne… otherwise called Eldebury Hill.” when a fair was granted which continues today although not unbroken as the Blackcherrry Fair in the town. The chapel is associated with an Abbey which was founded by St Erkenwald in 666 and such the cradle of Christianity in Surrey but it is a big jump to assume the well dates from then. This chapel remains on the hill, the guide in the car park refers to a mound near the house but the nearby mysterious Reservoir cottage incorporated most. However, it is improbable that a considerable amount of water would have been left untapped. The area was a hill fort whose exact history is unclear due to the predations over the centuries, but a Bronze Age date has been suggested.
A Topographical History of Surrey by Edward Brayley and Edward Mantell (1850) state
“and up to within recent years the country folk round about have been used to fetch away water from it, in the belief that it has virtues as an eye lotion. It has a strong taste of iron; would that be good for the eyes?”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey were stating that the waters were:
“not now used for any medicinal purpose. It rarely freezes when other springs do”.
Yet Hall (1853) under the name Nun’s Well states that:
“even now, the peasants believe that its waters are a cure for diseases of the eyes.”
Looking at its dirty murky waters today one would suggest it might cause as many eye problems as it cures!
Ghostly goings on!
Long in his 2002 Haunted Pubs of Surrey records the legends associated with the hill. It is possible that the nun’s well name may derive from a legend of a murder of a nun at St Ann’s convent who was buried in a sandpit. The veracity of this story and even the location of a convent is unclear. The well, it is said being the resort of the nun:
“whose deep begging signs can be heard on certain nights…on such a day, this place reeks of remorse, suffering or sorrow.”
On a spring evening with no one around one could quite imagine such ghostly cries.
A prehistoric landscape
In A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) it notes:
“Another curiosity is the so-called Devil’s Stone, or Treasure Stone. Aubrey calls this “a conglobation of gravel and sand,” and says that the inhabitants know it as “the Devil’s Stone, and believe it cannot be mov’d, and that treasure is hid underneath.” There have been many searchers after the treasure. One of them once dug down ten feet or more, hoping to come to the base of the huge mass, but his task grew unkinder as he got deeper, and he gave it up. He might well do so, for what is pretty certain is that he was trying to dig up St. Anne’s Hill. All over the face of the hill there are masses of this hard pebbly sandstone cropping up, though they are not so noticeable as the so-called Devil’s Stone because they are flat and occasionally crumbling, and have not had their sides laid bare by energetic treasure-seekers.”
Such stones are often found in conjunction with stones and the treasure may suggest the giving of votive offerings. The combination of a healing spring, an ancient stone and as the name of the hill might suggest a sacred tree is something of considerable interest to those interesting in sacred landscapes and suggests a possible old cult hereabouts. The existence of a ghostly nun may also be significant, there are near identical legends at Canwell and Newington Kent and, the later associated with another Devil’s stone. Do they remember old pagan deities, water spirits who lived by the spring? But this is the only evidence, the old writers are silent on anything more! My musing are just that musings!
The well today is indeed a substantial is ruined structure. It resembles an ice well in structure, its plan being a key shape with a rectangular basin and a dome over the source, although this is difficult to locate. Much of the dome has been weathered and ruined by the ages and being built into the earthen back this has preserved it. The brick work is a curious mix of redbrick, iron slag, cobbles and some older possible reused squared medieval stone work.
Another healing spring?
In their A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) again:
“Another Spring, once highly reputed for its medicinal virtues, rises on the north-east side of the hill, in the wood or coppice called Monk’s Grove, which gives name to the seat inhabited by the Right Hon. Lady Montfort. This spring, according to Aubrey, had been long covered up and lost; but was again found and re-opened two or three years before he wrote. The water is now received into a bason about twelve feet square, lined with tiles. “
James Rattue in his indispensable 2008 Holy wells of Surrey found this site stating that it resembled in part the Nun’s well and was clearly part of the landscapers attempt to improve the area. It was a dry circle of brickwork and filled with leaves. He describes it as being on the flat part of the hill. However with his instructions, OS reference and old maps showing a spring I failed to find it – although I did find another spring overgrown in the rhododendrons.
However, despite this author and others claims I did find the Nun’s well easy and here the fail-safe way to find it. Don’t go through the car park and continue along the road, passing the second car parking area in the dingle and then as the lane drops just past a house on the right there is a signposted public footpath. Take this and continue until passing a crossroads of another public footpath just past a hedge in the field on the left. As you past this and before the path you are on drops into a series of wooden steps there is a path to the right where the Nun’s well can be seen – simple! Good luck!
Outside the town of Mogenstrup is one of the most famed holy wells of Denmark. A holy well dedicated to a saint whose following spread across the Danish world, a saint still remembered from Orkney’s to Denmark – St Magnus or Mogens, a Danish Royal Martyr. Local traditions believes that the well was a pagan sacrifice site taken over by the early church and dedicated to the saint. When this re-dedication was done is unclear but it was certainly since 1292 as the area around has been called Magnus torp since.
The best time to visit the well was Midsummer by the sick and weak. There were certain ceremonies which had to be adhered to, which ensure the water’s best powers were bestowed, such as the giving of swords, jewellery or even animals. When the church was established they encouraged the giving of money into a box , a block and hence called block money, in the church. This paid for the church, the poor and those who had to guard the spring. It is said that its waters were particularly officious at midnight and that pilgrims were so keen to take its waters that fights would occur. On is recorded between two women in 1670 from Næstved in 1670 who fought to reach the spring first and the fight resulted in a law suit of the 1st July 1670.
Another tradition to ensure that the water was effective was that the applicant should approach the well in silence. Thus, they must not greet people once they had been to the spring, avoid again meeting anyone on a return visit. Of course you could collect water for someone else but it must not be sampled on the journey back or else its power would be lost. It was also thought that the water flowed greatest and was more efficacious at midnight and bowing three times against the sun was also recommended.
The water could be used for internal diseases including cancer, insanity and mental illnesses, or external one which require the area being rubbed. In the donation of money it is said that odd money was needed for external diseases but also rags were would be used where the affected area would be rubbed or tied to and then left at the site. There are accounts of those suffering from arthritis donating their crutches to the church as firewood! Unlike British clouts it is said that the clothes were buried as local people would steal them or burn. Local accounts tell sometimes people came had their sight restored or even their life by virtue of the saint!
The Reformation here too had an impact and in 1536 there are records of the clergy trying to prevent people access the site. However, over a hundred years later, accounts of 1681-86 record that the weak and crippled were still visiting the spring donating 3-5 shillings. There were said to be several thousand at midsummer.
A turnpike was established in 1824 through the woods, the outflow was channelled into a fountain with a lion’s head which itself was restored by 1862 by the owner of a local brewery obviously tapping the water. However, the move was to have a negative impact on the supposed powers of the spring and numbers of visitors dropped.
The holy well still survives arising in a circular basin whose overfull continues to the lion’s head, however the vast concourse of pilgrims have long gone.
Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
Surrey is not the first county associated with holy wells, although James Rattue’s 2008 Holy Wells of Surrey makes it clear there are a number. Visions of the Virgin Mary are! So when we have a holy well and a vision of the Virgin Mary seen together it is an interesting site – but how old and genuine as a holy well is it? Especially curious as Rattue notes it appears in most surveys of holy wells.
Easily found following the sign from the church yard towards the river the well is certainly very picturesque, if a little muddy to get to. The well is unusual in being enclosed in two brick built chambers each covered by a metal lid. The water does not look particularly refreshing being rather stagnant and full of leaves. Over the well is an ornate wooden and tiled cover. A.J.A. Hollins in his 1933 A History of Dunsfold compiled from various sources gives an account of its repair and what was there beforehand:
“Until 1933 it consisted of two brick lined cisterns of uncertain date with wooden lids in a very poor state of repair. Now by the efforts of the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society there has been erected over it a shelter or shrine of old oak with a shingled roof, and on one side of it is an exquisitely carved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child.”
Hollins’ (1933) gives some further details:
“The Holy Well lies on the bank of the river below the church and is approached by a short lane. The water which is singularly pure and cold even in the height of summer, is derived from two streams which have their origin somewhere in the hill on which the rectory stands. These unite just above the Well. From one of them at one time the water supply to the rectory was obtained, a one pony power circular pump being employed. With the advent of Company’s water this has long been derelict.”
A real holy well?
A. Judges (1901) in his Some West Surrey villages is also clear of its ancient origin and perhaps suggests a monastic association:
“As to one tradition connected with the spot, however, there can be no doubt. The well between the church and the river was for generations considered a holy well. Even to this day it is credited with medicinal properties, and people come for the water as a cure for sore eyes. The Rector, the Rev. W. H. Winn, favours the theory that it was on account of this well that the church was built on its present site, some little distance from the centre of the village. Water is scarce in the Weald, and this is the only spring-well rising to the surface of the ground which Mr. Winn knows of in the whole country. It never runs dry, and rises within 4 or 5 feet of the river, with which, however, it has no connection, except in the way of overflow. I ought, perhaps, to add here that the orchard near the mill was known as the Abbot’s Garden, and an old house on it, removed in late years, is supposed to have been connected with the church or some old monastery.”
Similarly, Hollins (1933) is unequivocal:
“Isn’t it significant, bearing in mind what has been said about the places usually chosen by the early peoples for their settlements, that the church is built near the river (which becomes the Arun before flowing into the sea at Littlehampton) practically beside the Holy Well, on one Roman road and very near another? As regards the well, its fame has spread down to modern times, and there is very little doubt but that it was sacred from the very earliest times….. it would form the site of a shrine for primitive worship in heathen days, and when the Christian era began, the builders of the first church would place it, as church builders frequently did, on an already sacred site, and merely substituted their ideas for those already existing. All the oldest churches in this country built on heathen sites have wells in or near them, for the Ancient Britons and their successors needed water for purification rites. The Well under Christianity would naturally have the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this in turn would give the name to the Church.”
The usual claims, heathen worship, possibly Roman adoption by the early church, a theme we will return too in a moment.
Doubt was creeping in to Hollins’ (1933) work:
“The actual history of the Well is obscure. What can be stated is that from the very earliest times it was a sacred spot….There is a strong tradition that the Blessed Virgin has appeared at the Well, and one old belief is that she is always in residence in Dunsfold. The Well was an ideal spot for heathen worship, and when the Christian era began, the worship of St Mary at the Well would naturally follow, and thus give a lead to the church. But the Well was here first. By the very nature of its water, it can be said for certain that its use must have occasioned what no doubt would have seemed miraculous cures in the days when medicine was little understood.…..The shrine was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on Sept. 29th 1933.”
James Rattue (2008) hits the nail it on the head:
“This ought to be a clear-cut case of a holy well linked to a church, and, given its location, probably a comparatively late dedication like the Mary Wells we find in the Kentish Weald. But perhaps it’s even later than that. On the 1897 O.S map it appears merely as a tank, not even a well.”
Most holy wells are marked on old O.S maps if not present today, even those which have been missed off are still springs or wells, not tanks. A tank suggests a modern structure, a purely functional one, one established for farming not faith. Of course, not being mentioned on the map does not 100% go against it being a holy well but it does not give further support. Was it just a local mineral spring established in the age of spas? Hollins’s (1933) notes:
“Possessing notable qualities for the cure of diseases of the eyes – this has recently been confirmed by analysis.”
Hollins’s (1933) gives further details on its properties and its analysis:
“The water is very strongly impregnated with chlorine, a fact only recently discovered, when a noted Harley Street eye specialist took the matter up from a scientific point of view, and this is extremely interesting confirmation of the fact that the water has always been held to be marvellous for eye diseases.”
Indeed, the earliest reference to the site by Lewis Andre in his 1897 Dunsfold Church in the Surrey Arch Collections states simply:
“in the vale south of the church, there is a well, which is said to have been resorted to until recently for medicinal purposes.”
Although a mineral spring is very likely after all, Surrey had a large number of these and many were of nationwide fame. Maybe we shall never know.
Yet Hollins’s (1933) notes
“There are other holy wells in England — and in Surrey — but an old book in Cambridge University Library specifically mentions Dunsfold as being one of four in England.”
Have we all missed something? Neither Rattue, Harte or I have ever located this book which mentions specifically Dunsfold. If it could be found the authenticity of the well would not be in question.
A site of modern pilgrimage
Hollins (1933) notes that:
“Even in modern times it has been a place of pilgrimage, especially by Roman Catholics, and there is indication that this has always been the case. Roman Catholics have been heard to say that one day they will get the church back into their fold. Its dedication to St Mary and the presence of the Well are, of course, the reason for this. From London too even in recent times have pilgrimages been made.”
Whether these pilgrimages occur is unclear
Visions of the Virgin Mary
Judges (1901) notes that:
“A statement has been made that Dunsfold Church is a special object of pilgrimage by Roman Catholics. One ought, perhaps, to say in passing that the sole warrant for this assertion is the fact that the church is visited several times every year by parties of Roman priests from the seminary at Wonersh, and that on one occasion, some little time since, a numerous band of visitors came from London, the explanation being their belief that the ‘ Blessed Virgin Mary was always in residence at Dunsfold.”
Always in residence, a curious statement but delve deeper and it appears it refer to as Rattue places it ‘vague oral traditions’ of the Virgin Mary appearing in the vicinity, as referred to in the Guidebook. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14th October 1933 states she appeared to those who sought the spring’s water. England is not renowned for recorded visions of the Virgin, and indeed the only one appears to be the most famous, Walsingham, if we do not include the discredited Our Lady of Surbiton which begun in the 1980s.
Of course, new age pagans may suggest that some visions record a pre-Christian tradition of a pagan water deity. Certainly this is an ancient location with an old 1500-year-old yew which may have been the original focal point explaining the remote location of the church. So the site may have been pagan and this may be true, but the details are very vague when concerning the well. More likely is that this was a local attempt to create their own ‘Walsingham’ at a time when the Catholic church was beginning to re-establish itself more firmly in the region, after all an Anglo-Catholic movement had re-established itself in 1921 under Father Alfred Hope Pattern. The most famous healing spring associated with a vision of the BVM is of course Lourdes and it is tempting to make a connection. Did the local St John’s Seminary want to establish a local Lourdes? Did they need a well for their ablutions and a local story, possibly from ‘modern’ mystics visiting the area or completely concocted to justify giving the well the association with the Virgin?
In conclusion, I think it is easy to agree with Jeremy Harte (2008) in his English Holy who believes that:
“The cult at the well has the flavour of 1930s Anglo-Catholicism, and seems to have been created then.”
Good for them I suppose you could say and similarly ask does it really does not matter that its provenance for it is difficult to find such a delightful sacred spring?
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
Possibly one of the easiest of North Wales’s holy wells located a few feet from the roadside down a cobbled path, all part of the local vicar’s attempt to landscape and preserve the site in the 1970s. A plaque on the wall tells us it is Ffynnon Sara. The well itself consists of a large stone lined bath like structure, 4.5 by 2.3 metres and fills to around a metre depth although when I visited it appeared only a few centimetres in depth, the water being reached by four steps in one corner.
The well was once firmly on the pilgrim’s trail from Holywell to St Davids being marked on maps until the 17th century. A cottage was located nearby and may have been used by visitors. Peering into the duckweed covered sluggish water it is difficult to see how these waters had thought to have a wide range of powers. Amongst the usual claims of eczema and rheumatism, cancer was said to be cured here. Patients would bathe in the well and leave pins! Presumably those who bathed afterwards would be aware of this. Crutches were said to have been left in the cottage which existed on the site, said to have been lost in the 1860s. Now a sign proclaims unfit to drink!
Who’s well is it?
There has been some confusion over the origin of the name. Whilst the name could easily derive from the owner of the nearby lost cottage, possibly a family name, others have sought to associated with a saint. St Saeran, a sixth century saint has been suggested. He established a monastic settlement at Llanynys, eight or so miles from the site. However, there is no reason why they should be the original dedication. Indeed in the 17th century it was called Fynnon Pyllau Perl – pearl ponds – perhaps after pearl producing mussels in the water.
Upon visiting the well I was greeted with a delightful encounter. Peering into those murky waters was a lady who unbeknownst to her got me interested into holy wells in the first place. It was author Janet Bord. With her was fellow enthusiast, Tristan Grey Hulse (founder of the Source new series, author and St Winifred Wells companion) and a number of others. They had simply stopped there to have a quick look and were actually only visiting churches. I suppose after visiting so many wells it was bound to happen but it was a fitting finish to my North Wales Holy well pilgrimage.