Pilgrims’ Ampullae and the Well of St Menas – 1

by Tristan Gray Hulse


Fr Warner’s account of the well-cult in the modern Anglican shrine of our Lady of Walsingham (Source 3, Spring 1995, pp. 27-8) omitted any mention of one important aspect of the cult: the water from the well is not only drunk at the shrine, but also bottled and carried away by pilgrims, for use at home. It is also posted to clients of the Virgin of Walsingham, upon request. Any bottle will do, of course, but special bottles are on sale at the shrine, small glass bottles bearing a label depicting the vision of our Lady to Richeldis in 1061. Mary hovers in the air, showing to Richeldis a model of the Holy House she requires to be built, while a spring bursts forth at her feet (fig. 1). This revives an ancient custom, and numbers of the little metal bottles or ampullae in which medieval pilgrims carried Walsingham Water from the earlier well to their homes have been found and can be seen in our museums (see Part 2).

This practice has been observed continuously at St Winifred’s Well, Holywell (see articles in Source 1, Autumn 1994, pp. 11-17), for over 800 years. In the earliest surviving account of the saint and her well – the so-called First Life of c. 1130 – we hear of a priest filling a flagon or amphora (the Latin word used is lagena) with the water, which was then ‘transmitted everywhere to the sick, and drunk’ (Wade-Evans 1944, 307). No early accounts describe in any detail the containers in which the water was conveyed away by pilgrims (one c. 1620 account mentions ‘a little bottle’ – see Source 1, p. 15), but in the 1890s Fr Beauclerk S.J., who oversaw and orchestrated the phenomenal rebirth of the Holywell pilgrimage, had special glass bottles made. About 250mm tall, these bottles were moulded with an image of St Winifred, the words ‘St Winefrides Well Holywell’, and Fr Beauclerk’s own name. The bottles were sold to pilgrims at the shrine, or dispatched around the world, upon request. In the first number of a little magazine produced for pilgrims by Fr Beauclerk (The Holywell Record, I, i, May 1896, p. 22) is found the following advert:

The same number (p. 29) shows to what end the water sent for was put:

A client of St. Winefride writes from Charlestown, Co. Mayo, Rev. Sir, – kindly send me per return more water. The previous water received has wrought wonderful cures here.

Today Fr Beauclerk’s bottles, though they had been sold and dispatched in their thousands, are exceedingly rare. Some idea of their appearance may be gained from a mineral water bottle from Holywell, c. 1880. (Fig. 2: glass, 175 mm tall.) From the mid-19th century, the water from the Well supported a number of mineral water factories and breweries. The example illustrated shows St Winifred – with the Well to her left – identified in Welsh as ‘Gwenfrewi Santes’. It was produced for Owens Bros. & Co. StWinifred’s Well was entirely responsible for the prosperity of the town of Holywell, and her image or that of her Well is common on local products, from soap to the banknotes of the Holywell Bank! It seems likely that Fr Beauclerk based his own design on one or other of the mineral water or beer bottles already in use. St Winifred’s image was to be found on Holywell ‘pop’ bottles until the 1960s. Today bottles for water are still on sale at the Well (some 8,000 were sold in 1994), and are still dispatched by post, when requested. Charge is made for the bottle, plus postage. No charge is made for the water itself – as is the case with the other wells discussed here. The modern bottle is made of plastic, with a transfer- picture of the saint (fig. 3: screw-topped, 117 mm), but essentially is only a modern duplicate of the bottles produced for Fr Beauclerk 100 years ago. Fig. 4 (ceramic, cork-stoppered, 175 mm) is a modern pilgrim-flask, made by the potter Karen Bates, and sold to pilgrims on the Orthodox pilgrimage to Holywell in 1992.

Walsingham and Holywell are perhaps the only holy wells in Britain for which special water bottles are produced today, but such containers are still common at holy wells throughout the Christian world. The spring at Lourdes is possibly the most famous holy well on earth, and most readers are probably familiar with at least the outlines of the story of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the grotto of Masabielle to the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. The first apparition was on 11 February. On 25 February the Virgin told Bernadette to drink at the spring.

The onlookers were dismayed to see her go to the river, return, [and] smear her face with muddy water from the cave…She was thought to have gone quite mad, even when she explained that Aquerò [lit. ‘it’ – the dialect term Bernadette used at that time to describe the apparition] had asked her to drink from the fountain, not the river, [and] to wash herself in it…[By next day] a subterranean spring had transformed the muddy puddle into clear water which people had begun to drink and bottle, and which was to become the 27,000 gallons a day which may now be seen rising from the floor of the cave before it is piped into taps and baths…[Mary’s] words ‘Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself in it’ are engraved in stone above the taps from which the water may be drunk or taken away (Ashton 1988, 92, 94).

As with Holywell and Walsingham, the water of the Lourdes spring is collected by pilgrims, and distributed across the world by the shrine authorities (the ‘mechanics’ of this enormous operation are described by Patrick Marnham in his excellent study of the present-day pilgrimage – [Marnham 1981, 151-2]: the shrine has an office devoted solely to this operation); and a variety of types of bottle is on sale to pilgrims in the town. 100 years ago, the water was despatched in ‘long straw-enswaddled bottles’ (Parfait 1893, 2). As at Holywell, a journal, the Annales de Notre-Dame de Lourdes, published details of cures claimed to have been worked through the water. Paul Parfait, in his vicious but entertaining attack on Catholic devotional practices, wrote:

Lourdes [water] is employed in various ways, as lotions, beverages, and compresses…it operates instantaneously, as its Annals bear witness – a prospectus whose wording moreover reminds us of those about White Mustard and Barry’s Revalenta food. Nothing is wanting in it, not even the ‘Whilst begging you to address to me a fresh supply of miraculous water, I am pleased to say, &c.’ (Parfait 1893, 2).

Today, the bottles available at Lourdes are varied and – to say the least! – inventive. The most famous are those shaped like the cult image of our Lady of Lourdes, wearing a large blue crown which unscrews to form the cap (fig. 5, plastic, 157 mm). These come in a variety of sizes. Others depict the apparition of Mary in the grotto, with the spring appearing beside the kneeling Bernadette (fig. 6, plastic, screw-topped, 100 mm).

The Marian shrine at Fatima, in Portugal, is almost as well known as Lourdes; but the fact that it too has a holy well is much less well known. The shrine began in 1917 with a series of visions of Mary to three small children. Building of the shrine began in 1921. The apparition site is on a high, dry rocky plateau, at that time without any water supply.

Msgr. da Silva [the bishop] ordered the digging of a cistern to collect the rain water…for the works of construction, and to provide for the needs of pilgrims…The workmen had scarcely begun to dig the cistern when, to their astonishment, at the first few blows of the picks, little streams of water began to flow. Soon the rivulets joined, forming a considerable stream. Before long this had filled the cistern…not with rain water, but with clear, fresh spring water, sufficient for all the needs of pilgrims and builders. This event took place in November, 1921…Soon, miracles like those at Lourdes were attributed to the use of this water, confirming the opinion of its supernatural origin (Barthas & Fonseca 1947, 58-9).

A fountain to dispense the water was constructed, and since that time the water has been collected and distributed like the other waters discussed. One Fatima pilgrims’ bottle is round and flat, and bears the moulded inscription: ‘Our Lady of Fatima Pray For Us’ (fig. 7, brown glass, cork-stoppered, 98 mm). It is interesting to note that, among contemporary examples, this is the closest in shape to the medieval pilgrims’ ampullae.

The custom is not restricted to Western Europe or to Catholicism. On the little Greek island of Tinos, in the Aegean, is a shrine of the Virgin celebrated throughout the Orthodox world. Here, Mary appeared in a dream to a nun called Pelagia, and told her to look for an icon hidden in the ruins of an ancient church.

The nun went to her Abbess, and after determined and extensive excavations the icon was found on 30 January 1823. Through Pelagia’s directions received from Mary, the excavations were begun in an uncultivated field, where a dry well and the ruins of a very early Byzantine church were discovered…[the ancient icon, of the Annunciation, was uncovered close to the well]…By 1830 a new church on two levels had been completed. It was begun near the dry well, which filled unaccountably with pure water as the bishop was about to consecrate the corner-stone, and it is this well which has since supplied healing water to the many pilgrims. The lower church is over the well and the place near it where the Icon was discovered; the upper church…enshrines the Icon (Ashton 1988, 101-2).

Various types of bottles for the water are sold on Tinos. Figure 8 shows one modern example (plastic, screw-topped, 80 mm: stamped on the reverse with the words , lit. ‘that-which-is-hallowed of Tinos’).

Tinos, Lourdes, Fatima, and the Anglican shrine at Walsingham have holy wells of more or less modern origin and international repute. But all over Europe there are numerous wells whose purely local cults have survived for centuries, and which, at least until comparatively recently, dispensed their waters in containers whose design indicated or directly reflected their places of origin. To cite just one example: the Hildburgh Collection of Austrian and Bavarian amulets (now on deposit in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford) includes four bottles from St Wolfgang, in Austria, dating from c. 1910.

About 976 A.D., St Wolfgang retired for five years to the wild borders of the Abersee, where a natural cave in the ‘Falkenstein’ is said to have served as a hermitage…Suffering from the lack of drinking water, the hermit-saint struck the ground with his staff, whereupon a spring burst forth. Its water was believed to cure any disease, especially eye-troubles, and to retain its virtue for a long time. Special bottles, impressed with pictures of the saint and the hermitage, were sold in the market of St Wolfgang to enable the numerous pilgrims to carry this water home (Ettlinger [n.d.], 54: the bottles are here catalogued as nos 140 and 141).

The Wolfgangsflaschen, as they are termed (fig. 9, dark blue glass, 120 mm), are moulded to depict, on the front, St Wolfgang as a bishop with mitre and crozier and carrying a model of his chapel, and on the reverse, the well-chapel at the Falkenstein. These modern pilgrims’ bottles are evidence for the lively continuation of a very ancient cult practice associated with holy wells. Glass and plastic have replaced the pottery, metal, and wood of earlier times, but the practice and its rationale are the same. This particular aspect of the well-cult in the medieval and Late Classical periods will form the subject of the remainder of this article. It is a fascinating story.

To be continued.



  • Ashton, Joan, 1988, Mother of Nations: Visions of Mary, The Lamp Press (Basingstoke)
  • Barthas, C., & Fonseca, G. da, 1947, Our Lady of Light, Clonmore & Reynolds (Dublin)
  • Ettlinger, Ellen, [n.d.], Catalogue of the Hildburgh Collection of Austrian and Bavarian Amulets, unpublished
  • Marnham, Patrick, 1981, Lourdes: A Modern Pilgrimage, Granada (St Albans)
  • Parfait, Paul, 1893, The Arsenal of Devotion, Paternoster Press (London) Wade-Evans, A.W., 1944, Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae, Univ. Wales Press (Cardiff).
  • Wade-Evans, A.W., 1944, Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae, Univ. Wales Press (Cardiff).

Text © Tristan Gray Hulse (1995) | Illustrations © Jenny Brown (1995)

Designed by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 15/11/99

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