WELLS IN DEPTH –  Tristan Gray Hulse

Boundaries   A community visited not only its sacred springs in the course of the Rogationtide procession, but other important water sources as well. For example, not far from Bodfari, nearly two miles North-West of Caerwys, and belonging to Caerwys parish, is Ffynnon Fedw, ‘Birchtree Well’. Concerning this well, Davies quotes and translates Edward Lhuyd’s Parochialia (Lhuyd 1909, p.68):

‘Ffynnon vedw y Tervyn ar bl[wyf] Dim herchion lhe bydhis ar darlhen yn [for yn darllen ar] amser Prosessiwn (‘Ffynnon Fedw on the boundary of Tremeirchion parish where it was customary to read at procession-time’).’

He notes that this was ‘when beating the bounds at Rogation-tide’ (Davies 1959, p.63). Jones (1954, p.179) quotes Lhuyd without comment. He reads ‘Professiwn’, but this is clearly simply following the same misprint in the printed text of Lhuyd, as his understanding of Lhuyd’s original ‘Prosession’ led him to categorise Ffynnon Fedw in his Class B, ‘Wells associated with churches, chapels, feasts, pilgrimages’. Here again Jones has failed to recognise that, so far as can be known (there being no further shreds of tradition attached to this well), Ffynnon Fedw was never anything more than a named reliable local water source situated on the parochial boundary between Tremeirchion and Caerwys, which in consequence was visited annually during the Rogation-tide procession.

In fact, wells regularly appear as boundary markers; and it must be a matter of question whether the perceived sacrality of numbers of wells is not specifically dependent upon their situation in the landscape as this is articulated by man. In some instances boundary wells are clearly sacred. Thus, one of the Flintshire wells noted by Charles de Smedt (see note 4), Ffynnon Mihangel (St Michael’s Well – Mihangel appears to be a compound name, formed from Michael and angelus, as in the Italian Michelangelo: cf. Davies 1959, p.66), functions as the sacred well of Caerwys, whose church is dedicated to the Archangel. But actually it sits on the boundary between Caerwys and Bodfari, and the little Afon Mihangel (‘St Michael’s River’), which flows from this substantial spring, forms the boundary between the two parishes for a considerable distance. That Ffynnon Mihangel was ‘holy’ in any conventional sense of the word is clearly shown by Lhuyd, circa 1698, who writes that pins were offered there for the cure of ‘weak eyes, warts on the hands etc.’ (Lhuyd 1909, pp.68, 70; cf. Jones 1954, p.179; Davies 1959, p.65); this continued into the nineteenth century, when we are told in addition that the main time to visit the well was at Easter, and that a chapel had once stood near the well (Cathrall 1828, II, p.228; for a recent account of the well, see Lewis Ellis 1974) [6].

In other instances, a name, for example that of some personage identifiable as one once venerated as a saint, is presumptive witness to perceived sacral status, even when all other evidence of cult is absent (for example, Dervell’s Well, on Gower, the source of a boundary river, mentioned as a manorial boundary mark in 1597-8, and named for St Derfel Gadarn: cf. Gray Hulse 1998, p.6). But many boundary wells lack even this rudimentary form of sacral association.

In the Denbigh Corporation records is a detailed account of the route of the boundary perambulation of the Borough:

‘From a well called Ffynnon Ddu, in the parish of Llanrhaiadr-in-Cinmerch, to the river Clwyd, along the rivulet called Aberham, which crosses the turnpike road leading from Denbigh to Ruthin; thence along the Clwyd, northwards, to the place where a rivulet, flowing from a well called Ffynnon y Cneifiwr, enters the said river Clwyd; thence along such rivulet to Ffynnon y Cneifiwr, thence from Ffynnon y Cneifiwr, to, and including Plas Heaton, formerly called Plas Newydd, and a farm called Old Plas Heaton; thence from Plas Heaton, otherwise called Plas Newydd, to, and including Garn House; thence to a field, formerly common land, lying immediately at the back of Henllan Vicarage, including the whole of such field; thence to, and including Henllan Mill; thence along the stream called Abermeirchion to Ffynnon Abermeirchion, where such stream rises; thence to, and including the house called Leger; thence to, and including the house called Fach; thence to, and including the houses called Pandy Ucha‘, and Pandy Isa’; thence to, and including the house called Pen-y-bryn, thence to an ancient boundary-stone on the road from Denbigh to Nantglyn, at a place called Waen Twm Pi; thence to Ffynnon Ddu, the boundary first mentioned.’

(Williams 1859, p.142 – the ‘ancient boundary-stone’ is illustrated on p.143).

Thus the boundary, which was defined by water for more than half its distance, was perambulated from one well, Ffynnon Ddu, and progressed via two others, Ffynnon y Cneifiwr and Ffynnon Meirchion (as the Abermeirchion Well is more commonly known), before returning to Ffynnon Ddu; but which of these were ‘holy’ – in any sense – and which were simply named wells which served as convenient boundary markers? Ffynnon Ddu (‘Black, or Sinister Well’) is not noticed either by Edward Lhuyd or by Francis Jones, and no tradition of any sort has attached to it. It is suggested that wells bearing the name ddu are evil. I have not found evidence to support such theories, and these names, which are numerous in all lands, may be assigned with confidence to the adjectival-name class’: Jones 1954, p.4. Welsh toponyms are, almost without exception, prosaic, descriptive, and functional; and Welsh well names are no different in this respect.

The Ffynnon Meirchion spring rises at Glan Meirchion and is the source of the River Meirchion, a tributary of the Elwy, which flows north through the village of Henllan, past the principal house of the village, which is called Llys Meirchion (‘Meirchion’s Court’). Meirchion is arguably to be identified with the dark age dynast Meirchion Gul (for whom, see Bartrum 1993, p.465). In the present context, it is interesting to note that, according to the Medieval Welsh genealogies, Meirchion was St Winifred’s great-great-grandfather, that this whole area of North Wales seems to have been land belonging to members of her family, and that according to Robert of Shrewsbury Winifred went on to Henllan immediately after leaving St Diheufyr at Bodfari. She is said to have gone to Henllan to meet St Sadwrn, but this is impossible, as he, like Diheufyr, was born some 100 years before her time. Holywell belonged to Winifred’s parents; Bodfari is immediately to the south of Tremeirchion, originally Din Meirchion, ‘Meirchion’s Fortress’ [almost on the boundary between Bodfari and Tremeirchion is Ffynnon Beuno, a well bearing the name of Winifred’s uncle, Beuno]; Henllan is full of Meirchion placenames; and Gwytherin, her goal, and final home, also belonged to members of her family – it appears that throughout the length of her traditionary journey Winifred was travelling across family lands. All of this might seem to suggest that Ffynnon Ddeier was in fact, in addition to its own curative functions, once a station on a pilgrimage route which was widely used in the Medieval period. There is no evidence to suggest that Meirchion himself was ever regarded as a saint, but D.R. Thomas noted the one-time presence of a chapel at his well (‘Another capella appears to have existed in ‘Waun Twysog’ [‘the Prince’s Meadow’], at a spot still marked by an ancient yew-tree, with a once famous well near it’: Thomas 1911, p.32 – interestingly, a tradition still alive in Gwytherin says that the traditional route taken by Winifred, and subsequently used by pilgrims, was marked by a series of yew trees, at least one of which is still pointed out just outside Gwytherin), which suggests a one-time sacred status for the well, perhaps in connection with Winifred herself, who, documentation shows, was still being culted in Henllan in 1623, when one of her relics, ‘inclosed in a stone crystall and silver case’, was used in the miraculous cure of an inhabitant of the parish (Smedt 1887 B, p.325). Apparently missing this note in Thomas, whom he used elsewhere, Jones (1954, p.177) simply enters Ffynnon Meirchion without reference in his Class D: ‘Wells named, apparently, after secular people…some of [whom] may have been…minor or local saints’.

Following Lhuyd, Jones called the third well Ffynnon y Creiriwr (Lhuyd 1909, p.105), associating the name with crair, ‘a relic’, and thus included it in his category B (‘wells associated with churches, chapels, feasts, pilgrimages’) in his type classification of Welsh wells in his gazetteer (Jones 1954, p.176). But as is revealed by the perambulation account the correct form is Ffynnon y Cneifiwr, the ‘Shearer’s Well’, and beyond its function as a boundary marker, there is no tradition of any sort attached to it. If this is not simply the result of a further misprint introduced into Lhuyd’s text by his 1909 editor R.H. Morris, it is, one supposes, just possible that the nameform given by Lhuyd was the original – perhaps connected in some way with the relics once commonly carried in Rogation processions? – locally ‘rectified’ at a later date, to try to make sense of the name in an era when the cult of relics was all but forgotten. Elsewhere – p.215 – Jones noticed a ‘Finnon Crare otherwise Crayre’ somewhere in Pembrokeshire, which he also suggests may be to do with crair, ‘a relic’; but in neither instance can the evidence, derived solely from possibly corrupted toponyms, be considered convincing – and cneifiwr and creiriwr could hardly be considered similar in sound.

The Denbigh perambulation record neatly exemplifies the problem of boundary wells. Three named wells were visited annually at the borough bound-beating, which was itself a successor of the Catholic Rogation-tide processions. One had a presumptive claim to sacred or ‘holy’ status by virtue of its proximinty to the site of a chapel, but lacked any corroborative data; while the others, as their names indicate, were apparently purely utilitarian in character, but had been rendered memorable by being made to function as parochial boundary markers. None of them was so much as mentioned in the various writings of folklorist Elias Owen, who took a great interest in holy wells, and was certainly in a position to know any local traditions, as he was the incumbent of nearby Efenechtyd from 1881 until 1892. Yet two of the three wells are included in the primary survey of the country’s ‘holy wells’.

Here following simply the entries indicated in his Index, Jones in his gazetteer specifically notes some eleven wells as boundary markers: Ffynnon Bleudud, in Cardiganshire (Jones 1954, p.161 – recorded as functioning thus in 1184 and 1426); two unlocated wells called Ffynnon Illtud, and a further Illtud well (fontem Sancti Iltuti) at Llansamlet, all in Glamorgan, and all noted as markers in medieval documentation (Ibid., p.183); Ffynnon Arthur, in Glamorgan (Ibid., p.187 – recorded in 1203); Ffynnon Liss, St Brides super Ely, Glamorgan (Ibid., p.189 – ‘Medieval charter’); Ffynnon Elichguid, Mathern, Monmouthshire (Ibid., p.194 – Liber Landavensis); Ffynnon Arthur, Monmouthshire (Ibid., p.196); St Tyssilio’s Spout, Welshpool, Montgomeryshire (Ibid., p.199 – fons Tessiliau in a charter of 1202); Ffynnon Deilo, ‘on the boundary of the parishes of Crinow and Lampeter Velfry [Pembrokeshire]… once known for its healing properties’ (Ibid., p.206); and Nawffynnon/Nine Wells, on the boundary of St Davids’ parish, in Pembrokeshire (Ibid., p.211) [7]. It is noticeable that none of these wells are said to have played any part in Rogation-tide processions, that numbers of them have disappeared without trace, and that the boundary mark status of the majority is observable only from Medieval documentation (manorial or other non-parochial boundaries seem regularly to change over time, and wells on such boundaries appear simply to lose their status – however this is to be understood – once the defining boundary is moved away from them). The ‘sacred’ character of five of them is otherwise suggested by the fact that they bear the names of Welsh saints: three named for Illtud, and one each for Teilo and Tyssilio [8]. In only a single instance (Ffynnon Deilo) is there any further confirmation of sacral status; though the fact that a cromlech formerly stood beside the Nine Wells might plausibly suggest a sacred site of great antiquity, if further incontrovertible evidence was forthcoming [9].

Elsewhere Jones discusses wells described as manorial, parochial, county, and country boundary markers (Ibid., pp.54-7). Noting that:

‘Medieval deeds and records have preserved the names and locations of some wells (religious as well as secular), because they were used extensively as boundary marks [and that] they persist until the 17th century when enclosures made it possible to identify property with precision [in fact, as the reports of parochial perambulations show, they ‘persisted’ well into the nineteenth century]’.

He proceeds to discuss examples. Some of these have already been noted, from the gazetteer; but of the rest (nineteen of them) only the ‘Spring of the Twelve Saints’ (Llangorse, Brecon), Fynon gattuke (St Cadog’s Well, Aberkenfig, Glamorgan), Dervell’s Well (Gower), and St Yelthut’s Well (unidentified, but as it is mentioned in a Margam Abbey deed, of circa 1200, it is likely to be one of the three Glamorganshire St Illtud wells already mentioned), bear names of an evidently ‘sacred’ character, and none of these have anything beyond their names to confirm such a status. Later he notes that:

‘An account of the beating of the bounds of Church-Stoke parish (Montgomery) in 1702, mentions twelve wells as boundary marks.’

(Ibid., p.67).

His gazetteer notes only one Church-Stoke well, Lady Well (Ibid., p.198 – its name presumably represents a dedication to the Blessed Virgin), with no associated traditions. Was this one of the twelve? How is one to evaluate these boundary wells: were all twelve of them once reputed ‘holy’; or just some of them; or perhaps none at all? As the Denbigh perambulation account shows, parochial (and other) boundaries were regularly in accord with the local landscape, defining themselves according to the courses of streams and rivers. Wells which had acquired some form of ‘status’ – sacred or otherwise – within the local community would obviously be suitable as markers; but did they need to be sacred to be incorporated into or help define boundaries? did the ones not already sacred acquire sacrality simply by virtue of being included in boundary lines? Is a well on a boundary line automatically a ‘holy’ well, simply by virtue of its situation (after all, the liminal character of sacred sites is by now a well-recognised and well-understood phenomenon)? Going simply by their inclusion in his book, Francis Jones appears to have thought so (cf. his remarks on pp.56-7). But if so, why do so few boundary wells provide any evidence at all of sacral status, beyond their location in space and their function in time, i.e. as a mark on the annual perambulation? Unless the boundary itself makes these wells ‘holy’ automatically, should such wells even be included and discussed in a study of holy wells?



Ffynnon Ddeier: legend

Ffynnon Ddeier: cultus



How do wells become holy?



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