Holy Wells in Wales and Early Christian Archaeology
by Dr Nancy Edwards
Most of the Lives of the Welsh saints which have come down to us were written in the late- eleventh and twelfth centuries, some five hundred years or more after the Saints are thought to have lived. Therefore they cannot be seen as biographical; rather they are hagiographical, a collection of stories and legends woven around the saint. Such stories are often formulaic and may compare the life of the saint with that of Christ or the Old Testament prophets. However they also reveal what was important to the churchmen who wrote them: the continuing power of the saint and the role the saint played in protecting the rights, privileges and territories of their church.
Holy wells and springs figure fairly frequently in the Welsh saints’ Lives. The saint is often depicted as striking or piercing the ground with his staff in the manner of Moses, whereupon water gushes forth. For example, Lifris’ Life of St Cadog of Llancarfan (Glamorgan) written c. 1100 describes how St Cadog, while on a pilgrimage in Cornwall, caused a spring to flow in this way which afterwards became a healing well. ‘For if any sick person drink from that fount, trusting firmly in the Lord, he will receive soundness of belly and bowels, and he will throw up in his vomit all slimy worms out of himself. After the Cornishmen had perceived that by divine pity frequent recoveries of health of both sexes were incessantly being effected at the same well, they built a little church of stone by the fountain in honour of St Cadog’ [Wade-Evans, (1944); 94-5].
One or two hagiographical references hint at the pagan cult of the severed head and thereby the pre-Christian origin of some holy wells. The most famous is the legend concerning the origin of Holywell (Flintshire) found in a twelfth century anonymous Life of St Wenefred. It describes how St Wenefred’s head was cut off by her rejected suitor Caradog. St Beuno restores Wenefred’s head to her body, ‘But the ground stained with her blood cracked, and a rapid spring gushed out in that place full of water, the stones of which to this day are bloody as on the first day. The moss also smells as incense, and cures divers diseases’ [Wade-Evans, (1944); p. 292-3]. At the end of the Life is a lengthy list of miracles associated with St Wenefred’s well demonstrating its importance for healing by the twelfth century.
Hagiographical accounts such as these reflect the importance by the eleventh and twelfth centuries of holy wells which were believed to have healing properties. They also suggest that their importance was not new but stretched back to the early centuries of Christianity; indeed, some springs associated with pagan water cults may have been taken over as part of the process of conversion to Christianity. However the paucity of early medieval documentary sources for Wales [Davies, (1982); p. 198-216] means that the only way in which such inferences may eventually be proven is through archaeological investigation. Up to now there has been relatively little archaeological excavation of Welsh holy wells and the little that has been done has failed to prove their early medieval use. In the 1930s Alwyn D. Rees excavated Ffynnon Degla, Llandegla (Denbighshire). Underlying mud and stones containing early nineteenth century coins, he uncovered a layer of white quartz and calcite pebbles. But unfortunately there was no dating evidence for these, and, although it is known that white quartz has been collected since prehistoric times because of its striking appearance, and that in the early medieval period white pebbles were sometimes associated with water and healing, they were also being thrown into holy wells to obtain a cure as late as the eighteenth century [Rees, (1935)]. Likewise, the excavation of part of the forecourt of St Seiriol’s well, Penmon (Anglesey), failed to reveal any pre-nineteenth century artefacts [Edwards, (1986); p. 26-27]; the well-house is probably eighteenth century and the associated round-hut, once identified as the cell of St Seiriol, is unlikely to be of any great antiquity because the rock face behind it appears to have been quarried away in comparatively recent times and brickwork used to fill some of the cracks. The investigation of Ffynnon Beuno, Aberffraw (Anglesey), which had had a brick structure and hand pump built over it in the early twentieth century, only revealed successive undated layers of an adjacent trackway [Kelly, (1991)].
However many holy wells are clearly associated with ecclesiastical sites with known early medieval origins. At present we use a combination of indicators to suggest the antiquity of church sites, of which the presence of a holy well is one. Some ecclesiastical sites are mentioned in early documents, but many others are not. Early medieval stone sculpture, for example inscribed stones, stones with cross symbols and monumental crosses, can provide an important clue, as also the occasional survival or discovery of early medieval metalwork or the preservation of an illuminated manuscript. Burials with early medieval radiocarbon determinations can provide another indicator and, though difficult to date, it is also now thought that curvilinear churchyard enclosures may be suggestive of an early medieval foundation. Other factors likely to be of significance include the topography of the site, its place-name and dedication, and the one-time existence of more than one church building within the enclosure [Edwards and Lane, (1992); p. 3-8]. For example, St Seiriol’s well at Penmon is located adjacent to the twelfth century church and at least three tenth or eleventh century crosses are also known from the site. The earliest documentary reference to Penmon is the Viking raid of 971 [Edwards, (1986); p. 24-8: Royal Commission, (1937); p. 119-23]. Similarly, the recently restored well of St Teilo at Llandeilo Fawr (Carmarthenshire) is located in the perimeter wall of the large curvilinear enclosure surrounding the church. This site also has early medieval sculpture and c. 820 the eighth century Gospel Book of St Chad was displayed on the altar of St Teilo and marginalia written in it record some of the foundation’s estates [Evans, (1991); p. 245-9].
It is now some forty years since Francis Jones‘ important work on The Holy Wells of Wales (1954) was first published. Since then many of the wells he recorded have been destroyed or their precise locations lost, and some others have never been recorded at all. Therefore it is very important that the locations of holy wells which do survive, together with the systematic recording of well-houses and any other structural remains (as well as the oral associations associated with the wells) is carried out without delay. There is a role for the amateur as well as the professional archaeologist in such recording. Co-operation should be sought with the local archaeological trust and results should be deposited with the local sites and monuments record. It is only such systematic recording which will be able to prevent further destruction and which will enable a suitable archaeological response to be made prior to conservation or if destruction is unavoidable. It is only with large-scale archaeological investigation of holy-well sites with known archaeological potential using modern methods of geophysical survey and scientific dating techniques as well as excavation that we may be able to uncover more about the early Christian, and, indeed, possibly the prehistoric use of these sites.
Davies, W., (1982); Wales in the early middle ages, Leicester.
Edwards, N., (1986); ‘Anglesey in the early middle ages: the archaeological evidence’, Trans. Anglesey Antiq. Soc., p. 19-41.
Edwards, N. & Lane, A. (Eds.), (1992); The early church in Wales and the west, Oxford.
Evans, J.W., (1991); ‘Aspects of the early church in Carmarthenshire’, in James, H. (Ed.) Str Gâr: Studies in Carmarthenshire history, essays in memory of W. H. Morris and M. C. S. Evans, Carmarthenshire Antiq. Soc. monograph 4, p. 239-53.
Jones, F., (1992); The holy wells of Wales, Cardiff, 2nd edition.
Kelly, R. S., (1991); ‘Ffynnon Beuno, Aberffraw’, Archaeology in Wales, p. 31, 37.
Rees, A. D., (1935); ‘Notes on the significance of white stones in Celtic archaeology and folk-lore with reference to recent excavations at Ffynnon Degla, Denbighshire’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 8-9, p. 87-90.
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales, (1937); An inventory of the ancient monuments in Anglesey, London.
Wade-Evans, A. W. (Ed.), (1944); Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae,Cardiff.
Text © Dr Nancy Edwards (1994)
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