Robin Hood’s Well, near Helmshore

by John Crawshaw

  Situated near Helmshore, on the edge of the ancient Forest of Rossendale in Lancashire is Robin Hood’s Well. This well is near an ancient pilgrim’s route which passes by the Pilgrim’s Cross (which was in existence in AD 1176), on Halcombe Moor, and goes through the town of Haslingdon on its way to Whalley. In Anglo-Saxon times, Whalley church was an important Minster and the mother church of an enormous parish. Later, in the medieval period, several chapels-of-ease were attached to Whalley church for the ‘ease’ of the scattered population providing access to the Mass and the sacraments.

After the move made by the Cistercian monks of Stanlow to Whalley at the end of the thirteenth century, traffic would have increased along this route. About one mile to the north of Pilgrim’s Cross, near this pilgrimage route is Robin Hood’s Well.

The spring issues out from beneath a large, worn stone capping: shaped rather like a flattened pyramid with a blunt apex. This is set against a dry-stone wall by the side of Stake Lane. The water falls from the well-head into a small pool and the whole arrangement of stones has the appearance of great age.

   The flattened-pyramid-shaped piece of sandstone covering the well has several worn, carved indentations upon it, one of which, near the left-hand side at the front is a wide groove. It is possible that this was made by the wearing down of the stone by a chain securing a drinking cup at its end. However, no trace of any chain or cup can now be discerned.

Though it is reasonable to assume that this well was used by pilgrims on their way to Whalley church and later, the great Cistercian abbey there, I have not been able to discover any recorded references to its original dedication: nor does there seem to be any written record reciting any healing properties attributed to the water. It is possible of course that any such references are lost or were never recorded, or perhaps the well’s reputation in the middle-ages was merely that of a providential source of drinking water on a pilgrim’s route, where prayers were said in gratitude for the slaking of the pilgrim’s thirst.

Whether the name Robin Hood’s Well has anything to do with the famous outlaw is not known nor has it been possible to discover if the well name dates back to this early period. However, Robin Hood does have a place in Lancashire folklore. From a Victorian history of Bury (which is not far from Helmshore), I have found information about the ‘Robin Hood Festival’, which was held up to about the year 1776. After that year, the festival gradually declined in importance to eventually die out in the early 19th century. The Robin Hood Festivals were apparently very popular in Lancashire and seem to have taken the form of May Day or May-time celebrations which included sports, plays and mummings accompanied by quantities of ale. One would expect the merry-makers to have staged such a festival in the towns and villages – the centres of population – rather than a remote spring on a wild moorland. It is perhaps interesting to note that a public house in nearby Helmshore is named the Robin Hood Inn.

     I have a theory that in fact the name of the well may have been brought into use following the 16th century religious reformation. I understand the term, ‘the play of Robin Hood’ was used by the 16th century Lancastrian religious reformers as a derogatory nick-name to describe the rituals and ceremonies of the old English Catholic Church. These reformers had no use for pilgrimages to holy sites such as ancient parish churches, the shrines of saints or holy wells; indeed they denounced them as being of no spiritual value.

One of the most famous Lancastrian reformers, John Bradford, in his Christmas sermon delivered in Manchester in 1552, threatened the people that if the town did not ‘readily embrace the Word of God, the Mass would be said again in that church, and the play of Robin Hood acted there’ [1], which did indeed come to pass during the reign of Queen Mary. I believe that this ancient spring derives its name from this time, when the practice of visiting such wells was being denounced as ‘superstitious’.

The Elizabethan ‘settlement of religion’, having swept away the piety and traditional Catholic practices of the old Ecclesia Anglicana, had no use for pilgrimages which, in theory at least it had outlawed. So, following the dissolution of Whalley Abbey and the official prohibition of the old Faith, this spring on an ancient pilgrim’s route appears to have fallen into being regarded merely as a source of water by the side of a little-used moorland lane.




The medieval heraldic symbol for a spring or well appears in some 14th and 15th century coats of arms. This device of a fountain appears in the arms of the Stourton family, where six wells, which form the source of the River Stour appear with a bend on the shield, viz. circa 1350.




1. Haigh, Christopher, (1975); Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire, p. 168, Cambridge University Press.

Text & Illustrations © John Crawshaw (1998)

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