WELLS IN DEPTH: Processions


WELLS IN DEPTH –  Tristan Gray Hulse

Processions  Francis Jones made several references to Ffynnon Ddeier (Jones 1954, pp.90, 105, 178), but offered nothing which is not already covered in the above; and even then he missed the true import of one of his sources. Despite Jones’ assertion that Ascension Day was a, or even the, time of particular resort to Ffynnon Ddeier (p.90), Bishop Maddox’s note, already quoted, cannot be made to yield up such an interpretation. During the pre-Reformation period, Ascension-tide was one of the times when Rogation processions were made, to implore blessing and protection upon the parish and its crops and livestock. Regularly these made their way around the parish boundaries, and after the Reformation they became part of the ceremony or custom known as Beating the Bounds – though, as here, the religious dimension of the ceremony often survived for centuries. The ‘Major Rogation’ of 25 April ‘is a Christianized version of the pagan observance of the Robiglia, which took the form of processions through the cornfields to pray for the preservation of the crops from mildew’; while the ‘Minor Rogations’, properly observed on the three days preceding Ascension Day, ‘derive from the processional litanies ordered by St Mamertus of Vienne, circa 470, when his diocese was troubled by volcanic eruptions’. First adopted in England circa 800, they were universally observed across Europe throughout the Medieval period. After the Reformation, the Royal Injunctions of Elizabeth I, 1559, ‘ordered the perambulation of the parish at Rogationtide’ (Cross 1957, p.1172: art. ‘Rogation Days’). In the post-Reformation period, the rite gradually came to be observed particularly on the feast of the Ascension itself, and in traditionally-minded parishes the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer replaced the singing of the Litanies of the Saints which, with the carrying of the parishes’ relics, crosses, and banners, had accompanied the processions since at least the time of Pope Gregory I. For the period here under consideration, the general purpose of the Rogationtide perambulation was neatly summarised by George Herbert, in his Country Parson (1652):

‘The country parson is a lover of old customs if they be good and harmless. Particularly he loves procession, and maintains it, because there are contained therein four manifold advantages. (1) A blessing of God for the fruits of the field; (2) Justice in the preservation of bounds; (3) Charitie in loving, walking, and neighbourly accompanying one another; (4) Mercy in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of largess which at that time is or ought to be used. Therefore he exacts of all to be present at the perambulation, and those that withdraw and sever themselves from it he mislikes and reproves as uncharitable and unneighbourly, and if they will not reform, presents them.’

(Quoted in Vaux 1902, p.321: Vaux has numbers of entertaining anecdotes about Rogation processions; also a chapter on ‘Holy Wells’, pp.356-73).

Water being one of life’s essentials, stations were often made at wells in the course of the processions, when the waters were blessed and prayers offered for rain in due season. Ffynnon Ddeier was not the only sacred well visited in the course of such a Rogation procession. In a gossipy letter on 29 May 1701, Humphrey Foulks, the rector of St George/Llansansiôr, just over the county border, in Denbighshire, wrote to his friend Edward Lhuyd:

‘Having just done my Parochial Perambulation on Ascension Day I come among the last of yr friends when I hope I may be admitted to congratulate yr happy arrival at Oxford from yr tedious and dangerous Travells…I almost forgot to tell you one of ye most material ceremonies in the Procession, which was to visit St George’s Well, & to read a Prayer or two by it as they normally do at a Crossway ye principal standing amongst us. Our St George has been reckoned ye tutelary patron of Horses & they have used within these 20 years to bring their sick Horses from Caernarvonshire & the Uwchmynydd of Denbighshire to this well where they throw some of the water over their backs saying Rhâd duw a St Sior arnat [‘The blessing of God and St George be on you’] & then offered a groat in the Church box.’

(Lhuyd 1911, p.101; on this well, cf. Jones 1954, pp.175, 90, 106, 118).

Here, too (p. 90), Jones misses the point about the Rogationtide procession. The folk-religious use of closely-similar blessings at other sacred sites (e.g., at Ffynnon Gynfran, Llysfaen, Denbighshire: Lhuyd 1909, p.40; and at Pennant Melangell, Montgomeryshire: Pryce 1994, p.35) perhaps argues for an origin in a precise liturgical formula for the benediction of animals. The groat – 4d – from the records (e.g., as part of the involved curative ritual at Ffynnon Degla: ‘They give the Clerk a groat at ye Well, and offer another groat in ye Poor’s Box’ – Lhuyd 1909, p.146; after visits to Ffynnon Eilian, Llaneilian, Anglesey, groats were offered in the saint’s church ‘in order to obtain a blessing upon cattle and corn and for the cure of agues, fits, scrofula and other ills’ – Jones 1954, p.102; etc) seems to have been almost a standard form of offering in the post-Reformation period in North Wales.

In the instances of Bodfari and St George, the recognition that it is to a Rogation procession that the texts refer, prevents one from following Jones’ mistake; a visit to a well on Ascension day during the beating of the bounds does not imply that it was not visited at other times. In other instances, the documentary evidence suggests that Jones was right to argue for Ascension Day being the special time to visit certain wells. Thus, in the nineteenth century women visited Ffynnon Saint, on Mynydd y Rhiw, in Caernarfonshire, on that day ‘to wash their eyes and to offer pins’ (ibid. p.153). Lhuyd recorded of Ffynnon Barruc, on Barry Island, Glamorganshire, that it was ‘famous for ye cure of the King’s Evill by lotions & ye fever by Potations’ (Lhuyd 1911, p.45) adding elsewhere ‘agues…paine in ye Head &…sore eyes’ (ibid.p.73); but by the nineteenth century its cult was an exact duplicate of that at Ffynnon Saint, and was similarly associated with Ascension Day, though the well was also reputed to reform drunkards, who threw their empty bottles into the well, at any time (Jones 1954, pp.180, 98). Possibly the above two examples may be explained as residues of obsolete Rogationtide customs (especially as Lhuyd, writing upwards of 100 years earlier, knows of no particular date for visiting Ffynnon Barruc); but the same explanation is certainly inadequate for the complicated curative ritual, reminiscent in some ways of the sacred incubation observed in association with visits to saint’s wells and their churches at Llandegla, Clynnog Fawr, Llanddwyn, Llangelynin, Llangeler, Penmynydd and other such sites in Wales, which Lhuyd records at Ffynnon Gybi, at Llangybi, in Cardiganshire.

‘… tradic’only said to be very medicinal & effectual to cure distempers. Ye times of repairing to it is Ascension Eve: they wash in ye spring: & yn [then] repaire to a stone hard by called Llech gyby: wch is supported by other stones: & by ye stone ye sick person lyes all yt [that] night after his washing in ye spring.’

And elsewhere he writes that after washing in the well ‘they put ye sick under ye Lhech where if ye sick sleeps it is an infallible sign of recovery, if not of death’ (Lhuyd 1911, pp.88, 68). Llech Gybi, which was an excavated chamber tomb, was once regarded as St Gybi’s house, and Jones notes that this body of traditions was still alive in Llangybi in 1911 (Jones 1954, p.159).

The incidence of sacred incubation at so many Welsh shrines so long after the Reformation is noteworthy. The practice, as an integral element of the cults of numerous saints, was still widely in use throughout the Christian world at the time of the conversion of the Celtic nations. At that period, they adopted a fully-developed cultus of the saints, including sleeping for cures at the saints’ tombs. Exactly similar practices were to be observed until recently in Brittany and Ireland (countries which never renounced their original Catholicism), and it seems to be the case that the natural religious conservatism of the Celts preserved the cult practice of incubation long after it had ceased to be a major component of continental sanctoral cults – an ancient Christian custom sufficiently deeply embedded in the Welsh religious psyche for it to survive the Reformation by several centuries. The reason why the pilgrimage to Llangybi should have fixed itself on the feast of the Ascension must remain an open question.

(For some account of the comparable cults at the other six named places, cf. the entries, respectively, for ‘St Tegla’, ‘St Beuno’, ‘St Dwyn’, ‘St Celynin’, St Celer’, and ‘St Gredifael’ in Baring-Gould and Fisher 1907, pp.1908, 1911, 1913. There is a circumstantial account of the cult at Llangeler in Lhuyd 1911, p.76.)



Ffynnon Ddeier: legend

Ffynnon Ddeier: cultus



How do wells become holy?



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