wells


wells
   Healing or holy wells are rarer in England than in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland; even so, almost 200 are extant, and hundreds more once existed, as indicated on old documents. Those that remain are often regarded as *wish-ing wells. They are the latest phase in a long tradition of ritual activity, traceable archaeo-logically through Roman and *Celtic culture to prehistoric times; its present form was shaped by medieval Catholicism, where wells were often dedicated to a saint - sometimes a local one. Thus, St Oswald's Well at Winwick (Cheshire) reputedly marks the place where he was killed; St Withburga's Well at East Dereham (Norfolk), the place where she was buried; St Chad's Well at Lichfield (Staffordshire) was sanctified by the fact that he baptized converts there.
   Medieval *pilgrimage centres often had holy wells; the water of one in Canterbury Cathedral (now blocked up) allegedly turned red when dust stained with Thomas a Beckett's blood was thrown into it, and little flasks of it were sold to pilgrims and drunk as medicine. The ailments most often mentioned in connection with medieval wells were sore eyes, skin diseases, epilepsy, and insanity. Some were said to enable barren women to conceive after drinking the water, for example Bore Well near Bingfield (Northumberland), and Child's Well at Oxford. During the vogue for spas in the 18th and 19th centuries, the medicinal value of some ancient water-sources was recognized, notably at Bath (Somerset) and Malvern (Herefordshire).
   Medieval ritual usually involved making an offering, while folk customs include dropping *pins or *coins in, and tying strips of cloth to nearby trees. The latter had become rare by the 19th century, though a few 'rag-trees' remained in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cornwall. Currently, there seem to be three: one at
   St Helen's Well at Walton, the second at St Helen's Well at Eshton (both in Yorkshire), the third at a unnamed well at Madron (Cornwall) which is still much visited. The modern pilgrimages to Walsingham (Norfolk) also involve drinking from a holy well, and there is a cult of the 'Chalice Well' at *Glastonbury.
   From the 17th century onwards, certain wells were credited with prophetic powers. One at Oundle (Northamptonshire) emitted noises like a drum beating a march. Richard Baxter, in The Certainty of the World of Spirits Fully Evinced (1691), 157, says he heard it himself as a boy when a Scottish invasion was expected, and that it was also heard at the death of Charles II. St Helen's Well at Rushton Spencer (Staffordshire) would dry up, and St Nipperton's Well at Ashill (Somerset) would ebb and flow, before national calamities. Others offered *omens for individuals; if the shirt or shift of a sick person floated when thrown into a certain well dedicated to St Oswald, he or she would recover, but if not, not.
   See also *well-dressing, *wishing wells.
   ■ Hope, 1893/1968; A. Lane-Parker, Holy Wells of Cornwall (1970); J. Meyrick, Holy Wells of Cornwall (1982); Mark Valentine, The Holy Wells of Northamptonshire (1984).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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