The Wells of St Swithun

by James Rattue

The cult of St Swithun is an interesting one so far as wells are concerned. Swithun is one of the few Anglo-Saxon saints still known to most ordinary people because of his patronage of the English weather, yet despite having almost sixty ancient churches dedicated to him, he has only a few wells to his name, and none of these are in the main area of his activity, central southern England. His shrine was at Winchester, but none of the wells in the crypt of the cathedral there bear any names.

The closest St Swithun’s Well to Winchester is an isolated one at Walcote on the north side of Bath, which supplied water to several of the city’s conduit. The Well is not recorded until 1791, but the parish church is dedicated to Swithun and so the Well is presumably much older than that [1].

Apart from Walcote, we have only a little knot of wells in Yorkshire, but these are quite interesting. Nothing is known about St Swithun’s Well at Copt Hewick in the West Riding [2], but the one at Stanley near Wakefield is an important site. The first reference to the little chapel of St Swithun here comes in a deed of about 1284 which mentions ‘land at Wodewelle bordering on the road leading to the Chapel of St Swithun’. This was clearly a heavily wooded area, still called ‘the wood of Wakefield’ in 1435, and the chapel was traditionally said to have been founded so that Mass could be said for the sick at a time of plague in a place well away from the town itself. There is supposed to have been a hermit living here, although one is not listed in K.M. Clay’s The Hermits and Anchorites of England (1914) [3].

The chapel was pulled down in 1571, but the fame of the well persisted. One Sir Michael Pilkington built a bath house round it, along with a cottage for a caretaker, and in the mid-1700s a ghostly funeral procession was reported there on St Mark’s Eve making its way to the chapel site, so the area was clearly treated with respect. In about 1766 the Vicar of Kirkthorpe, Mr Garlick, stated that the Well ‘was believed by the vulgar to cure many diseases’, and in 1822 David Dixon, a Wakefield milkman, remembered the hedges round about as hung with rags; a Miss Denison recalled bathing there in the 1830s, and the Vicar of Wakefield, Samuel Sharpe, ‘frequently took a bath there’. The Well only declined after a borehole drew off the water, and by 1876 it was drained and tumbledown [4].

Now all this sounds interesting but fairly ordinary, until we look at the third Yorkshire well. Swithins Well at Lofthouse is first noted in 1841 and it appears to be linked to Swithin Farm nearby. The English Place-Name Survey derives that name from a dialect word swithin, meaning ‘moor cleared by fire’, and the farm is first recorded as far back as 1270 [5]. Other local placenames seem to show similar processes happening at a similar time; for instance, there is Thwaites Farm (1276), a name which also refers to woodland clearances.

This suggests what may have happened at Stanley. Originally, perhaps, there was a wooded area with a spring, the ‘Wodewelle’. In the middle of the thirteenth century, or a bit earlier, an area is cleared and becomes known as ‘the swithin’, and when it is decided to build a chapel to serve local plague sufferers it is put in this isolated but convenient spot. The placename suggests the dedication (which would otherwise be thoroughly bizarre) and the well gains the saint’s dignity by its proximity to, and probably use in, the chapel. Possibly the same thing occurred not only at other Swithun wells, but at Swithun churches too. Now there’s something to look into!



1. J. Collinson, History of Somersetshire, Bath, 1791, i) p.73.
2. A.H. Smith, English Place Name Survey: the West Riding of Yorkshire, Cambridge 1961-3, v) p. 157.
3. J. Walker, History of Wakefield, Wakefield 1939, pp. 226-8.
4. Ibid., pp. 523-4.
5. Smith op.cit., ii) p. 145.

Text & Illustration © James Rattue (1995)

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