From The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore, etc., edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1898; pp. 29-67.




Holy Wells.


THAT water should be regarded by primitive man with a species of reverence is easily explicable. Whether it be the sea, the rivers, or the deep cool wells, we find the savage and the semi-civilised races regarding them with superstitious awe, and not unfrequently designating them as divinities. In the age of myths every river had its presiding goddess and its nymphs, to whom oblations were due. Various pleasing legends arose from this initial idea, only one of which we may now stay to notice, inasmuch as we are able to quote Milton’s fine lines in illustrating the point. We refer to the legend of Sabrina and the river Severn, told in the luxurious lines of “Comus,” wherein the nymph is depicted as swaying “smooth Severn stream” with “moist curb,” in consequence of which — 

                “The shepherds at their festivals
Carol her goodness loud in rustic lays,
And throw sweet garland wreaths into her stream
Of pansies, pinks, and gaudy daffodils.”


Some early tribes venerated the rivers as their chief or only deities; others simply regarded them as the abodes or the refuges of the gods. The Swedes believed that the Pagan gods fled to the rivers when defeated by Christianity.

The savage, investing everything in nature with personality, peopled the wells and streams with benign or malignant spirits as his mood or fancy dictated. Christianity did no more than substitute the name of a saint for the indigenous water-kelpie, and Chad, Winifred, Margaret, Catherine, Anthony, and many others figured in the place of the early myths.

Thus, one of the most curious and interesting chapters in history is that which shows how the shrewd Christian missionaries of old grafted Pagan customs upon the religion they brought over. Christianity borrowed from heathendom for purposes of good policy, and the wells at which idolatry had flourished, were transformed into the shrines of saints. The old gods were supplanted, and yet no violence was done to a faith to which early man clung with the utmost tenacity. In the records of hagiology we find with what consummate skill and ingenuity the missionaries worked, purging the wells of 31 supposed demons, consecrating them to higher and more beneficent uses, inspiring a grateful and reverent regard in their virtues, and making them the means of keeping alive the names of the saints of the church. None of the reformers worked harder to achieve this object than Cuthbert, Columba, and Chad. The task was made easier by the undoubted healing and sanative powers of the wells; the prophets were not preaching a vain thing. Even in the grossest of the water-superstitions there is an underlying truth, and nature’s marvels when rendered into folk-lore become the outward signs and manifestations of good and evil deities. There is no folly in primitive creeds, only in the incomplete and limited expression of them. Behind all shadowy and grotesque superstitions lies the primal law, the original truth, recognized by the child-mind of undeveloped man.

“When wells were dedicated to Christian saints,” writes Mr. Jas. M. Mackinlay (in “Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs”), “the latter were usually considered the guardians of the sacred water. This was natural enough. If, for instance, St. Michael was supposed to watch over a spring, why should not his aid have been sought 32 in connection with any wished-for cure? It is interesting, however, to note that his was not so in every instance. In many cases the favourite, because favourable, time for visiting a sacred spring was not the festival of the saint to whom it was dedicated, but a day quite distinct from such festival. Petitions, too, were frequently addressed not to the saint of the well, but to a character possessing fewer Christian attributes. All this points to the fact that the origin of well-worship is to be sought, not in the legends of mediæval Christianity, but in the crude fancies of an earlier Paganism.”

Water is, moreover, the symbol of purity, and from very ancient times its use in connection with religious ceremonies can be traced. The lustral or purifying water was prescribed both for private and public acts of sanctification, and to this day the holy water, blest by the priest, enters largely into the rites of the Roman Catholic and the Oriental churches. The ordinances of the Jewish law in regard to water were approved and sanctioned by our Lord when he instituted baptism by the sprinkling of water upon the head. The Romans had an annual religious feast in honour of the nymphs of the wells, when odes 33 were sung and floral wreaths brought to garnish the waters. The feast was known as Fontinalia.

Relics of Paganism may be found in the nomenclature of wells in England, Gloucestershire having a Woden’s Well, Yorkshire a Thor’s Well, and so forth. Wherever the Celtic element is, there will be found the superstition concerning water leading to strange rites, and sometimes to appalling sacrifices.

The Franks offered human sacrifices to those rivers they were about to cross, and in Wales horses were annually sacrificed at St. George’s Well, near Abergelen. Bulls, sheep, cats, and other animals were also offered up to pacify or please the well-gods in other places. Coins, vases, and silver spoons were frequently offered as tribute to the tutelary deities. That the waters annually required a number of victims was a fixed article of belief, and hence arose the terrible custom in some parts of never attempting to save a drowning person. The rivers Tyne, Spey, and Dee, among others, had a specific number of animal or human victims allotted to them every year, and in Orkney and Shetland the belief prevailed that unless sacrifices were made to appease the water-gods a terrible 34 revenge would be taken upon the inhabitants. Sir Walter Scott refers to this belief in “The Pirate,” when Bryce the pedlar is solemnly warned not to save a shipwrecked sailor, lest the rescued man should bring some capital injury” upon him. To save a sinking man was, in the idea of the ancients, an act of impiety and a dangerous defiance of the will or decree of the gods.

The subject of well-worship naturally divides itself into two sections; first, the examples, and second, the origin and significance. In order the clearer to understand the latter, it is advisable to commence with typical instances of the custom as it prevails throughout Great Britain and Ireland. When we have observed the various forms of well-worship and the rites associated with it, we shall be able to draw conclusions with greater certainty, though it may here be premised that the subject is an obscure one, and has occasioned considerable difference of opinion among the students of folk-lore. I propose to allude to some of the best known holy wells in Great Britain, and to their legends and the customs connected with them, and then to proceed to the likeliest explanation of the whole matter.

Mr. Hope’s summary of Holy Wells in 35 England, in his valuable work on that subject, is important as showing their prevalence throughout the country, no county being without examples. Yorkshire heads the list with 67; then comes Cornwall with 40; Shropshire has 36; Northumberland 35; Staffordshire 30; Cumberland 26; Derbyshire 24; Oxfordshire 19; Middlesex 16; Devonshire 14; Hampshire 11; Somerset 11; while the rest of the counties are represented by single figures. These figures, however, are comparative rather than complete.

The favourite saints (next to “Our Lady”) to whom the Holy Wells are found dedicated are St. Margaret, St. Chad, St. Anne, St. Helen, St. Cuthbert, St. John, St. Peter, St. Augustine, St. Bede, and St. Hawthorn.

Like some of the incantations of old which, according to tradition, sometimes produced the results desired and sometimes had results exactly the reverse, the holy wells could injure as well as benefit the persons resorting to them. Tasso and Petrarch tell of springs whose waters caused whomsoever should drink of them to die of mad laughter. In England there were wells which cured, and wells which caused, insanity. Some added to the years of life, and some subtracted 36 from them; some possessed the magic elixir which would prolong existence indefinitely, but alas! those wells were always inaccessible.

The holy wells of Cornwall are really a study in themselves. Their history begins with, or at all events is intimately connected with, the history of the Druids, who were strong believers in the supernatural potentiality of natural springs. Cornwall was one of the first parts of England to accept Christianity, and the missionaries found it politic not to interfere with the deep-rooted faith of the people in their sacred wells, each with a guardian spirit. But with much adroitness a patron saint was substituted for the kelpie, and small chapels or oratories were built near the sacred places. The saints whose names were given to the wells are often not of any considerable reputation out of Cornwall; to nearly all of them fantastic miracles are attributed. Divination is largely credited by means of certain rites connected with the wells, and here we may have a relic of Druidical teaching, for the Druids were strong on prophecy by means of incantations at the well-side. At Our Lady of Nant’s Well the future can be made known by casting a palm cross into the water on Palm Sunday; and at the      [37]
Holy Well at Gulnal the health of relatives and friends can be ascertained by the bubbling up of the water when a question is asked. Other superstitions are still more curious. By bathing in the Carn Brie Well, near Redruth, a man for ever avoided the risk of being hanged. This convenient well must have been in high favour in olden times.

A black and white photograph, provided by Chas. J. Clark, publisher, of the Well of St. Keyne.


The drinking of the waters of the Well of St. Keyne, popularised in Southey’s greatly over-rated ballad, enabled a man about to be married to be master for life over his wife — but woe to him if his wife drank first or “took a bottle to church.” Other of the wells belong to the healing or medicinal class, and here we come to a mingling of fact with superstition, though we should strongly doubt the power of the waters of St. Nun’s Well to cure insanity. It appears, however, that the patients were “boussed” or tossed into the cold water until “they forgot their fury.” Half-drowned men might well be cured of their violence in this way; the marvel is that they remembered anything. The virtue of the well may have had less to do with the cure than the persistence of the application.

In that extremely interesting and informing volume, “Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall,” 40 by M. and L. Quiller-Couch, an account is given of about ninety-six holy wells in that county alone, and even that list is not supposed to be exhaustive. The late Mr. Thomas Quiller-couch, whose notes are chiefly used in the volume, made a pilgrimage of several months’ duration to the sacred springs. Some of them he found to be little more than names and traditions; others had no history, or the history was lost, but the majority were still legend-haunted, the abode of superstition, the scenes of quaint ceremonies, and connected by name with the early Christian saints. “In places the most remote and secluded,” he wrote, “the old pisky tutelage of pre-historic date still clings to and protects them, and still claims to dispense the virtues of the water . . . My humble aim is to save, within my very small tether, all that continues to us of a nearly extinct faith, its material remains, and its legendary fragments.” The Cornish saints were almost wholly from Ireland and Wales, and the worship and ritual connected with the Cornish springs is almost identical with that in those two countries. No doubt the most popular, because the most singular, is the Well of St. Keyne, and the 41 history of the pure and beautiful woman whose name it commemorates is full of charm. She hoped, as it is worded, “to benefit the world by giving to woman a chance of equality with her lord and master,” hence the peculiar powers of the spring which she blessed, and by the side of which she died.

A black and white engraving, provided by Chas. J. Clark, publisher, of Menacuddle Well.


Menacuddle Well, of which we 42 give an illustration, belongs to a totally different class, being wholly medicinal. It is near St. Austell, and is in private grounds. The water obtained a high reputation for purity and health-giving properties, and weakly children were regularly bathed in it. The people ascribed mystical virtues to the spring, and trusted to it for the total cure of ulcers and other diseases. It was a “pin well” also, and brought good luck to those who wished as they threw crooked pins into the granite basin.

The illustration of the Well of St. Keyne and of Menacuddle Well are from the charming volume entitled “Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall,” by M. and L. Quiller-Couch, and have been kindly lent to us by the publisher, Mr. Chas. J. Clark, 4, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, W.C.

The Rev. R. S. Hawker’s ballad of the “Doom-Well of St. Madron,” tells us of a visit of King Arthur who was bidden by the monks to try the ordeal — 

“Plunge thy right hand in St. Madron’s Spring,
  If true to its troth be the palm you bring;
  But if a false vigil thy fingers bear,
  Lay them the rather on the burning share.”

The man of pure heart came out unscathed, 43 but the traitorous Mordred’s hand was scalded by the furiously bubbling water when he also submitted to the test. In regard to this same well, Mr. Borlase, the great authority on all folk-lore and antiquities connected with Cornwall, says — “Here people who labour under pain, aches, and stiffness of limbs, come and wash; and many cures are said to have been performed. Hither, also, upon much less justifiable errands, come the uneasy, the impatient, and the superstitious, and by dropping pins or pebbles into the water, and by shaking the ground round the spring so as to raise bubbles from the bottom at a certain time of the year, moon, and day, endeavour to settle such doubts and injuries as will not let the idle and the anxious rest.”

There is no doubt that the Pool of Bethesda, which figures so prominently in one chapter of the New Testament, was a Holy Well in the usual meaning of the term. Its virtues bore a strong resemblance to the particular curative properties of many wells in Great Britain, the waters being efficacious in diseases affecting the limbs. It may well be compared with that most famous of all the holy wells in this island, the Well of St. Winifred at Holywell.


Saint Winifred was a virgin who lived in the seventh century in a nunnery founded by her uncle, a holy man and a priest, named Beuno. She was of noble family, her father being the second man in the kingdom of North Wales. Winifred was observed by Caradoc, Prince of Wales, who was struck by her beauty, and sought her in marriage. She refused him, and he endeavoured to carry her away by force. Then, says the legend, she fled towards the church, pursued by the prince, who, in overtaking her, drew out his sabre in his rage, and struck off her head. The severed head bounded down the hill, entered the church door, and rolled to the foot of the altar where Beuno was officiating. Where the head rested a spring of uncommon size and purity burst forth; a fragrant moss (now called St. Winifred’s hair) adorned its sides, and her blood spotted the stones, which, like the flowers of Adonis, annually commemorate the facts by assuming colours unknown to them at other times. It has been discovered, however, that this moss is not peculiar to the spring at Holywell; a similar growth is found in Carnarvonshire. As for the redness of the stones at the bottom of the basin it is found to be due to a moss which 45 Linnæus termed Bissus Jolithus. It causes any substance to which it adheres to have the appearance of being smeared with blood, and if rubbed it yields a smell like violets. Linnæus believed it to be serviceable in eruptive disorders. But to return to the miracles of St. Winifred. The head was picked up by Beuno, who at once offered up prayers and intercessions for the restoration of the ill-fated virgin’s life. His petitions were heard; the head joined again to the body; and St. Winifred lived fifteen years longer in the highest repute. Miracles were wrought at her tomb as well as at the sacred well.

In 1774 the following account, which I think fully deserves quotation for more than one reason, was written of the Well of St. Winifred: — “As to the legend of St. Winifred, it is more than enough to discredit it that Giraldus, who seldom misses either a miraculous well or an extraordinary story, when they come in, should yet be silent as to both; and this, too, though he passed a night at a religious house near the place. But besides his, there is also as deep a silence amongst all our ancient historians. There is, however, a chapel dedicated to this St. Winifred, hewn out of the solid rock, and very neatly adorned, 46 that stands over the spring, which rises with great force, and runs afterwards with such rapidity as to turn a mill. It is from various circumstances probable that this is not so properly a fountain as a subterraneous current diverted hither by miners in working the rocky hill, and therefore Giraldus Cambrensis, though he says not one word of either saint or well, helps us to a good account of the surprising coldness of the bath by telling us a silver mine had been wrought or sought for thereabouts. Be that as it will, the name of Holy Well is ancienter than that of St. Winifred, and might very naturally induce the monks of Basingwerk, to whom by that name it had been granted, to frame the legend of Winifred and her martyrdom for that purpose. Independent of all that, it is an admirable spring, and deserves to be called the principal one of its kind.” In 1784, the tourist, Pennant, found the roof of the chapel overlooking the well hung with crutches of cripples who had been cured. “In the summer,” he said, “persons are to be seen in the water, in deep devotion, up to their shins for hours, sending up their prayers, or performing a number of evolutions round the polygonal well, or threading the arches a prescribed number of times.” 47 This custom was fatal to Sir George Peckham, of whom it is recorded that in visiting the well in 1635, he “continued so long repeating his pater nosters, and ‘Sancta Winifreda, ora pro me,” that the cold struck into his body, and after his coming forth of that well he never spoke more.” It is worth noting as a matter of history that St. Winifred’s Well was visited by King James II. in 1688, and he “received for his pains the shift worn by his great-grandmother at her execution.”

Of miracles wrought at the wells we have numerous traditions, and a great variety of subjects and experiences is provided. We will give some typical instances, varying form the sublime to the ridiculous, and proving that local gossip was occasionally mixed with ancient legends.

On the authority of Richard Baxter, the divine, we learn that there was a well at Oundle, in Northamptonshire, which could emit drum-like sounds when great historic events were in progress. He heard it “drum” when the Scots came into England, was told it drummed” again when King Charles II. died. The reason of this is hard to understand.

St. Tecla’s Well, in Denbighshire, was believed 48 to have the special and peculiar virtue of curing epilepsy by transferring the complaint to a cock or a hen. The patient went to the well after sunset, washed himself in the well-water, and made an offering of fourpence. Then he walked three times round the well, repeating the Lord’s Prayer each time. If the patient were a man, he carried a cock in his arms on these occasions; if a woman, she carried a hen. After due observance of these formalities at St. Tecla’s Well, the patient went to the church, crept under the altar, used the Bible for a pillow, and the communion cloth for a coverlet, and slept in the sacred place all night, keeping fast hold of the bird all the time. Next morning the patient made a further offering of sixpence, and departed, this time leaving the bird in church. If the bird died, it died of a disease which had been transferred to it; if it survived, the patient had to seek another remedy, or regard his case as hopeless.

The “Ebbing and Flowing Well,” near Settle, has characteristics which must naturally have excited attention and wonderment in olden times. A rapid change in the level of the water can be observed by the visitor, and for a long period many theories were vainly advanced to account 49 for the phenomenon. At length one, Thomas Hargreaves, constructed an imaginary model on the principle of the double syphon, and supposed to represent the syphon-like conduits of the rock. As this model imitated the action of the water it was regarded as affording the long-sought explanation. About the well a quaint legend clings, having something in common with various other legends connected with fountains, streams, and springs. A satyr pursued a lovely maiden; she, breathless and exhausted, prayed the gods to save her, and was immediately converted into the well, and the rising and falling waters represent the panting of her virtuous breast. Variations of this legend exist in great quantity.

Two hundred years ago, Dr. Knerden made record of the custom of dropping pins into wells, notably into that dedicated to St. Helen, at Brindle, in Lancashire. On August 18th, which was the Saint’s day (Helen being the famous Empress who defended the persecuted Christians of Britain after her marriage with Constantine), the people assembled and cast pins into the holy water, a pin, especially a crooked one, being believed to be peculiarly acceptable to the saints, and even to the Virgin Mary. There are “Pin Wells” in 50 many parts of England and Wales, and so great is the efficacy of the offering that those who drop the pins may wish for what they like with the certainty of having their wish gratified.

It thus became customary for the Pin Wells to be much restored to by sighing maidens and dejected lovers, as well as by people in search of “good luck.” A new superstition also arose that whenever a new pin was dropped into the well all those which had been cast in previously rose to greet it. Eye-witnesses could be produced to attest to this fact. Why saints and fairies should be so easily propitiated by so small an offering, however, is more or less a mystery. By throwing pins into the Holy Well at Rorrington, Shropshire, the villagers believed that they would enjoy good luck, and be preserved from being bewitched.

It is not only crooked pins that are in favour as offerings or as a means of divination. Occasionally the presents take a more costly form. To Saint Helen, the guardian saint of a well in Yorkshire, pieces of cloth are most acceptable. The belief prevails that weakly children can be cured of their infirmities by dipping them in St. Bede’s Well, Jarrow, and meanwhile dropping crooked pins in the water. The pins were held 51 to be equally efficacious at Sefton, in Lancashire, to test the fidelity of lovers, and at St. Dwynwen’s Well, in Anglesey, to prevent love-sickness.

The hypothesis has been ingeniously set forth that the offering of pins, pebbles, twigs, and rags, was not primarily a thank-offering but an endeavour on the part of primitive man to effect a union or connection between himself, the worshipper, on one part, and the divinity or genius of the place on the other. But this seems a far-fetched theory, and an ignoring of the meaning more obvious and close at hand. Just as the warrior of old hung his buckler or casque in the temple of his gods, just as the victors in the Olympian games brought their wreaths to the sacred places, just as to-day thank-offerings are placed in the church, so in early times tributes, rich and poor, were brought to the holy wells by those who had received or still sought benefits. As for the common use of pins in these observances, it is well-known that to these simple articles a great deal of superstition has attached, and an inordinate amount of magical properties been attributed. The professor of folk-lore solves the mystery of the offering by declaring that “country girls imagine that the 52 well is in charge of a fairy or spirit who must be propitiated by some offering, and the pin presents itself as the most ready or convenient, besides having a special suitableness as being made of metal.” This cannot be taken as final. Pins were neither cheap, ready, nor convenient, centuries ago when the custom was observed. I incline to the belief that the pin-offering was originally a costly one, and that a pin-superstition led to the general adoption of the custom. In addition to all this it must be remembered that the holy wells of Great Britain may be divided into groups, and that in certain defined sections of the country observances obtain which are not met with, or only met with in isolated cases, elsewhere. The pin-wells are one separate group; garland-wells are another; rag-wells are another. A map might be drawn portioning out these districts. Then there are wishing-wells, and medicinal-wells, and again we may find the two sorts fairly well grouped in different districts. Distinctive elements of worship and ritual are to be traced in these districts, and the conclusion arrived at is that though there were common influences at work, there were various origins and developments of the customs. The ultimate 53 height of well-worship is represented in the “animal god’ which Celtish imagination evolved as the animating element of the waters. “From the small beginnings,” writes Mr. Laurence Gomme, “where the survival of some ancient cult is represented by the simple idea of reverence for certain wells mostly dedicated to a Christian saint, through stages where a ceremonial is faintly traced in the well-dressing with garlands, decked with flowers and ribbons; where shrubs and trees growing near the well are the recipients of offerings by devotees to the spirit of the well; where disease and sickness of all kinds are ministered to; where aid is sought against enemies; where the gift of rain is obtained; where the spirits appear in general forms as fairies, and in specific form as animal or fish, and finally, it may be, in anthropomorphic form, as Christian saints; where priestesses attend the well to preside over the ceremonies; with the several variants worshipping at every stage, and thus keeping the whole group of superstition and custom in touch one section with another; with the curious local details cropping up to illumine the atmosphere of Pagan worship, which is so evidently the basis of reverence for wells — there 54 is every reason to identify this cult as the most widespread and the most lasting in connection with local natural objects.”

From “Pin Wells” we now come to the wells at which the ceremony of “dressing” takes place. The decoration of the five wells at Tissington, near Ashborne, Derbyshire, has acquired considerable notoriety in consequence of the elaborate and imposing nature of the ceremonial. On Holy Thursday in Ascension week the whole village devotes itself to the festival. The inhabitants keep open house, and indulge in general rejoicings. Garlands of newly-gathered flowers, or boards covered with soil and fantastically arranged with floral mosaic work, are arranged about the wells; and after service at church a procession is formed, and the shrines are visited. Various sacred services are performed, the psalms for the day being read and hymns sung; then the bells are rung, and music is rendered in public by bands. The proceedings are strongly reminiscent of the Roman and Greek customs of building altars near springs, and worshipping the goddess Flora at the beginning of the month of May. There is little question of this being a genuine survival of a very ancient, and probably 55 Pagan, practice — one that is found in varied forms in other parts of England, as well as throughout Europe.

A black and white engraving of the Town Well at Tissington.


Well-flowering, or well-dressing, in the May-time of the year is not the least charming of the many observances or rituals connected with the sanctified waters. To visit a well at sunrise in the month of May was deemed most propitious, and neither the interdict of the Council of Tours nor the imposition of penances by King Egbert, 56 nor the proscriptions of the early saints, nor the prohibitions of the bishop, could abolish the “heathenish practices.” There is no doubt that although the Christian Church tolerated the re-dedication of the wells to the saints, it regarded well-worship with much aversion and with some dread. All authorities agree that the custom was discountenanced by the missionaries and their successors, who, however, finding it impossible to eradicate a belief so deeply rooted in the minds of the Celtish races, wisely gave to the custom of well-worship a newer and higher significance.

At Droitwich there was a salt well which was annually “dressed” on the day of the tutelary saint. One year the custom was omitted, and the spring dried up soon afterwards. The custom was revived the following year, and the water again burst forth. The righteousness of the “dressing” was thus established beyond all cavil.

St. Chad’s Well, Lichfield, was named after the evangelist whose custom it was, so tradition says, to stand naked in the water and pray. The stone upon which he stood is still to be seen. The well was “dressed,” and the Gospel 57 was read to the assembled people on Ascension Day, until the beginning of the present century.

The Holy Well, near Dalston, Cumberland, was the scene of religious rites on stipulated occasions, usually Sundays. The villagers assembled and sought out the good sprit of the well, who was “supposed to teach its votaries the virtues of temperance, health, cleanliness, simplicity, and love.”

There is little doubt that well-worship originally had a direct connection with sun-worship; hence arose the custom of visiting the wells for special purposes at times when the sun was rising, setting, or exactly overhead. In some cases, too, the patient had to “turn round with the sun,” in order to obtain his desire from the well.

A spiritual significance also attached to some of the traditions. The man who declared that the spirit of wisdom lay at the bottom of Mimir’s well no doubt knew the use of symbolism. Those who told of marvellous transformations after a visit to, and a use of, pure, stimulating, life-giving water instinctively spoke truth, even if it were cast in the form of allegory. To the soiled, the weary, the feverish, the struggling pilgrims of old, there can be no question that the wells 58 appeared to be enchanted, and of their potentiality mysterious fables would arise.

Cursing wells, Prophetic wells, Demon wells, and wells of mysterious origin, numerous as they are, may be very briefly dealt with. I select a few examples: — 

An olden record runs — “At Funthill Episcopi, higher towards Hindon (Worcestershire), water riseth and maketh a streame before a dearth of corne, that is to say, without raine, and is commonly looked upon by the neighbourhood as a certaine presage of a dearth, for example, the dearness of corne in 1678.” Here we have the water, by some phenomenal means, becoming voluntarily prophetic.

The best known “Cursing well” is that of St. Elian in Denbighsire, where by casting a pin and a pebble into the water a man may cause an enemy to pine away and die. To ensure the doom falling upon the right enemy the name of the person cursed must be inscribed upon the pebble.

Leland in the sixteenth century found a strange legend attached to St. Oswald’s well at Oswestry. A supernatural origin was ascribed to the waters, for it is said that when the saint was martyred 59 an eagle snatched away one of his arms from the stake, and eventually let it fall where the spring subsequently gushed forth. This is a famous wishing well, and anyone may have his or her legitimate desire by bathing the face in the water, or casting a twig into the well.

A black and white engraving of the Hall Well at Tissington.


St. Cuthbert’s well, Bellingham, Northumberland, was the scene of an extraordinary and much-famed “cure” in the twelfth century, when a foolish girl who loved frippery and fine dress was 60 given a lesson of unusual severity. It seems that she had determined to finish making a rich and costly garment instead of going to church, when suddenly her left hand contracted “so that she could not move the fingers to open the hand, nor could those who were with her draw away by force the cloth she grasped.” She was bidden to drink of the water of St. Cuthbert’s well and spend a night in prayer. This injunction was obeyed, and during the night St. Cuthbert himself came and restored the girl’s hand. To him, and to the water of the well, was the cure therefore attributed.

At Wavertree, there is a well at the bottom of which lay, not truth, but a devil. All travellers were supposed to give alms on drinking; if they omitted to do so a sardonic laugh from the devil sounded in their ears. An inscription over the well, dated 1414, runs — “Qui non dat quod habet, Dæmon infra videt.” This is improved upon in the case of a well situated between Ruckley and Acton where, according to popular belief, the devil and three of his imps are to be seen in the form of frogs.

There is (or was) a holy well in Ireland in which lay a sacred trout, and was much resorted to by reason of the marvellous cures it wrought. 61 At Kilmore two black fish, which never get larger or smaller, are the guardian spirits of the well. At Tober Kieran the well is inhabited by two beautiful trout. One was caught by a soldier, when it immediately turned into a woman. In awe the man loosed his hold; the woman sank back into the water, and turned into a trout again.

The Holy Well, or Blood Spring, at Glastonbury is supposed to have its source in the Chalice of the Last Supper which was buried on the hillside by Joseph of Arimathæa. The legend has been many times cast into verse, and is fit for a poet’s theme. The crystal water, we are told, bubbles up incessantly, affected neither by frost nor drought, and defying man’s invention to direct its course or find its origin: — 

                                   “No hill supplies
Its shining waters; straight from out the cup
It springs, and shall spring ceaselessly, for aye
A gift, a miracle, from God to man.”

It is chalybeate water, and the iron in it is easily oxidised as it becomes exposed to the atmosphere. It thus leaves a red deposit on the stones it passes over and these spots are known as “blood drops,” and regarded as confirmation of the legend of the origin of the spring. The water is decidedly 62 medicinal. Mr. Hope in his exhaustive work on “The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England” (1893) ascribes a two-fold origin to such legends and traditions. They are, he says, sacred and pagan — the sacred being derived from the miracles recorded in Scripture, and the Pagan being due to the primitive belief in Naturalism. As primitive man advanced in his Natural Religion he associated each specific deity with attendants, and thus around the well-gods were grouped the nymphs and naiads. The prevalence of the belief seems to be world-wide. Magic powers were invariably, and as a matter of course, attributed to medicinal wells, and their peculiar properties were regarded as the characteristics of the presiding or guardian deities.

A quaint old writer in a disquisition on the mineral springs of Great Britain, pertinently sums up the matter by showing how in process of time, religion came to have a share in remedial and beneficial usages, and “those places in which the first preachers of Christianity (who in the next age were all canonised) had commonly baptized their converts were supposed to have a certain degree of sanctity, and were from thence styled Holy Wells. The monks improved upon this, and in 63 their fictitious legends attributed miraculous properties to certain springs, in some of which they had discovered medicinal virtues. At the Reformation, as if all things introduced or commended by the Papists were infected with Popery, the use of these wells was unaccountably run down, till man’s mind being settled by degrees, reasons again recommended what had been discredited by superstition: for undoubtedly there was not less folly in refusing to make use of springs and lakes, because their virtues were attributed to false causes by Divines, than to decline their assistance because physicians disagree about their contents. The all-wise Creator has given us waters for drink and for physic, and it is an act of Religion to point out and preserve the memory of these blessings.” And so forth, in the same commendable strain of common sense.

Folk-lorists can tell us of the universality of water-worship among the Celtic races, of the reason which led them to regard wells and springs and rivers with veneration, of the Pagan rites which were afterwards adapted to Christian customs, of the direct connection between well-worship and rain-worship and sun-worship, of the inner meanings of the legends concerning wells 64 and miraculous cures, and the survival to this day, in various forms and disguises, of the archaic creeds and ceremonials. The maiden who seeks a good husband at the well-side, the peasants who sing their songs and cast pins into the water, the mothers who dip their babes in the healing springs, the crowds who bedeck the wells with flowers, are all perpetuating the time-old superstitions of primitive man.

“What ethnography has to teach of that great element of the religion of mankind, the worship of well and lake, brook and river, is,” says Dr. Tylor, “simply this — that what is poetry to us was philosophy to early man; that to his mind water acted not by laws of force, but by life and will; that the water-spirits of primeval mythology are as souls which cause the water’s rush and rest, its kindness and cruelty; that, lastly, man finds in the being which, with such power, can work him weal and woe, deities with a wider influence over his life, deities to be feared and loved, to be prayed to and praised, and propitiated with sacrificial gifts.”

Well-worship has been identified with the agricultural life of aborigines who had not been able to conceive or develop higher ideas of deities. 65 The superstition prevailed throughout England, and in Ireland no religious place was without its holy well. As the cult is everywhere found to be prevalent, special reasons have to be sought to explain it, for no local or isolated factors will suffice. Some great dominating force must have been operative to have such wide-spread results, and we have to consider whether well-worship “originated from above and spread downwards among the people until it became universal, or whether it began from the people and penetrated upwards.” We have next to discover whether it was itself a primitive creed, or the outcome of other creeds or forms of worship. It can be ascertained that it was incorporated into the Roman Catholic ritual; but on the other hand, the Saxon clergy forbade the people to continue the ancient and decidedly popular custom. Mr. Laurence Gomme thinks the facts tend to show that well-worship did not become prevalent by the agency or through the medium of the Christian Church; neither does he think it is due to the influence of Aryan culture, which received rather than generated it.

These quaint superstitions linger in rural spots; the legends are cherished, the naiads, the fauns, and 66 the water-saints are subjects of firm faith — and on the whole we need not regret that these things are so. Few of the ancient survivals are less harmful and more poetic. The lover of romance and sentiment, and even the least susceptible to the charms of nature, will never grow weary of the creed which tells him that the sparkling waters are the haunt of laughing nymphs or listening saints, and that in the glint of streams, or the placidity of deep, cool wells may be detected the reflection of the visage of the attendant sprite. There is something too felicitous in the idea to abandon it willingly; something too alluring in the fancy to submit it to a too rigid analysis of science. A wealth of mediæval lore has gathered about the revered places where the watersprings bubble, and they preserve the names of many blessed men and women, who, by their good deeds, deserve so delightful a memorial. For ourselves we are ready to say, let benedictions still be uttered by the water’s edge, let the old wells still be decked with mottoes and wreaths, let the villagers still assemble to offer alms or to receive, and even let the crooked pins still be dropped to propitiate a patron saint, or to satisfy a shy maiden’s anxiety as to the devotion of her lover. These are the superstitions 67 and observances which are rather to be encouraged than despised, for they link us with generations of the past, and in pleasant, unoffending form draw continuous attention upon those places of balm and reflection which our ancestors not unfittingly deemed consecrated, and to which they therefore rendered homage or worship “simple and more dignified than a senseless crouching before idols.”