Sacred Wells and Springs

by frankbeswick

In ancient Britain the well or spring had special ritual significance, and this tradition echoes on today.

When society adopted Christianity, an adoption which was never fully complete, ancient ritual customs did not die out. Some were absorbed by the new faith, but others lingered on as pagan practices. One such example is customs that apply to wells and springs. Across Britain and Ireland there are sacred wells and there have been ritual practices associated with them, some of whose origins are remembered. The custom of dropping coins into wells is long established, as is well dressing, but there are and were others.

Coins in the Fountain

Look back into your childhood and recall a time when your mother took you past a wishing well and told you that if you threw in a penny you would get your wish; or if you walk past a fountain in any one of our cities, you will see a smattering of small coins tossed in, perhaps by lovers hoping for the affections of the desired one. Sometimes you see this at waterfalls or special spots in streams, as you can see in the picture above.  

This appears to be some kind of a fairy tale for children, but it is the lingering remnant of ancient pagan belief that once spread across Europe. If you visit the Trevi Fountain in Rome you will see the place is littered with coins thrown in by tourists. This custom was promoted by the American film Three Coins in the Fountain, but it struck a chord in hearts and minds.

Across Britain and Ireland we find that certain pools seem to have had swords or other precious bronze objects deposited in them. Such a place is Flag Fen in the East of England, near Peterborough, where evidence of a wooden walkway into the fen is found. In the proximity of this walkway, which is now swallowed up by the now drained fen [an Eastern English name for a marsh] archaeologists have recovered bronze items long buried in the peat. Many were of great metallurgical quality, though they had been damaged to take them out of mere human use.

All of these objects were offerings, we believe, to a water deity. This deity was a goddess, who was associated with water, particularly dark pools. Tlhis is probably because in depth psychology female is asssociated with dark and wet,  like the womb, whereas male is light and dry. Yet goddesses need not have been linked to dark pools. Wells and springs were also sacred to the goddess in one of her many forms.

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Well Dressing

 A peculiar British custom found mainly in Derbyshire, but also Staffordshire and West Cheshire adjoining it, is well dressing. At midsummer locals decorate the wells in their villages with elaborate pictures or flowers. This is an ancient British, Celtic tradition that in pagan times honoured the deities of water at a time when the summer heat might have rendered water scarce.

Some people might be surprised at a Celtic tradition lingering on in England. Surely the Celts al went away, kiled or driven to Wales, when the Anglo-Saxons arrived and conquered. This is a historical myth that is best dispensed with.The Anglo-Saxons intermingled with the Britons, and even those who fled to Wales, whom I suspect were dispossessed aristocrats,  fled to an area which included modern Wales and Western England, as Wales was much larger once in the past than it is now. Derbyshire remained an area with strong Celtic connections, and Cheshire borders on Wales.  

The custom has had a chequered history. It seems to have been rooted in ancient pragan practice, as a way of honouring water spirits or goddesses, and as such it was frowned on by the Christian church and probably faded out except in remote areas, but in 1349 the custom was revived in Derbyshire at Tissington, where locals attributed their survival of the plague, the Black Death, to pure water from the ancient well there. It is clear that the memory of the practice had survived in what was a remote,moorland area. But at that time it was given a Christian tinge, in keeping with the dominance of Christianity. It is one of the strengths of Catholicism that it does not destroy customs but absorbs them. Since then the custom has spread into other parts of West Britain, and the Malvern hills on the borders of Worcestershire and Herefordshire, now has about forty wells that are dressed at festival times.

The dressing is quite simple. A board is covered in clay and then designs in flowers and or petals are placed on it. The designs vary according to the village and the creativity of the locals at the time. Generally they are pictures of nature or representations of local life.

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Christian Wells

As I said in the previous paragraph, Catholicism absorbed the customs of an earlier age. Across Britain and Ireland there are many sacred wells, all associated with a Celtic saint, who is supposed to have blessed it or worked some kind of miracle there

The most famous sacred well in Britain is St Winefride's well, situated in Wales, but not far from the English border,  which was the only Catholic shrine to function through the Reformation. The well is associated with St Winefride and is lined to an ancient Celtic head legend.  Head legends are common inCeltic mythology, so this is a sign that this was an ancient Celtic sacred site Christianized by the church.

The story goes that Winefride was a consecrated virgin who was chased by a prince, Caradog. When she spurned his advances to keep her vows and fled from him, he beheaded her. Her devout uncle, Beuno, credited with introducing monsticism to Wales, heard the racket and on running out found the beheaded Winefride. Not daunted he placed the head on her shoulders and prayed, whereupon the girl was restored to life. She is still depicted with a scar round her neck.

The shrine was popular in England and Wales and at the reformation it was due for destruction. But its saviour had an idea.He went to Henry and suggested that he kept it open so that pilgrim spending could come to Henry. As Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort,  had endowed the shrine and built the chappel there, the tyrant was softened and allowed the shrine to surivive. But he obtained little revenue as the Catholics who continued to visit spent little money, on the advice of surviving, dispossessed monks, who told them that the money spent would not avail to their salvation. The shrine lingered on as a place of Catholic pilgrimage. It was attacked and ransacked by a Protestant mob in 1688, but after that England was becoming ever more tolerant, and nothing like this ever happened to the shrine again. It remains a site of Catholic pilgrimage today, and the nearby town is known as Holywell.

A sacred well, Chalice Well, exists at Glastonbury,a  town sacred to pagans and Christians in Britain. This is at the foot of Glastonbury tor,a breast shaped hill sacred to pagans on which the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were supposed to have been found [it is only a legend and the find was faked to suit king Henry 11.]

What is special about Chalice Well is that it springs up at the foot of a sacred hill, so the site is special in two ways. The site is now protected by the Chalice Well trust which works for interreligious understanding, which is far better than the  intolerance described in this and the subsequent section.  

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Well Guardians

Yet while some wells were Christianized, others were not. The non-Christian ones were found on the Celtic fringes, in Scotland and Wales, but there were not many of them.Pennick [Celtic Sacred Landscapes, pp74-75]   mentions two of them, one of which was semi-Christianized by having a Christian legend attached, though the Christianization was superficial.

Until the nineteenth century when road building in Britain was developed parts of the Scottish highlands were remote territory visited by but few. In areas like this ancient traditions lingered on, and one of which was at Loch Maree, on St Maelrubha's Isle. Whether there was a Saint Maelrubha who dwelt as a hermit on the isle is unknown, as he may have been a pagan deity converted into a Christian saint, as happened elsewhere in Europe. But people attended the island in the remote loch as a  cure for mental illness. There they were attended by the derilans, pagan priests who served the well on the isle. Pennick suggests that derilan derives from the Gaelic dereoil, afflicted, and suggests that these may have been a kind of shaman who entered trances. But the order of derilans is dead and no records remain, so we cannot know. The derilans are unlikely to have been a fully professional priesthood, but certain local people who were called on occasion to serve.

The ritual on the island was for the afflicted person to kneel before the altar, and then to make an offering of money. As the Scottish Highlands only developed a cash economy quite late, sometime in the eighteenth century, it is likely to have been an offering in kind for much of the history of the well. However, as the well was still in use up to 1896 money was donated, and the oak tree that grew on the isle [it is now dead] has pennies and halfpennies embedded in its trunk. The patient sips some of the holy water and makes another offering, and then is dipped thrice int the lake. The well for some reason is now dry.

In Wales a well guardian was less fortunate than the derilans were. At Ffynon Eilian near Abergele in North Wales stood a well "embosomed in a grove." That it was surrounded by a grove is significant, as groves were sacred to ancient druids and pagans in general. They were the temenos, the sacred place. For many years in the nineteenth century the well was guarded by Mrs Hughes, who probably served as a priestess. But an extremist Protestant minister was unhappy and decided to expunge all pagan remnants from the area. When she died he  had the well blocked. Her successor, John Ffynon Elian [John Evans] resisted and twice went to prison for his pains, but the well was finally blocked in 1829. Thus do extremists ruin ancient traditions and put no good in their place, as sadness and resentment help no one.

A lack of tolerance was evident in 1656 at Loch Maree, when the Presbyterian Kirk, the ruling ministers,  heard evidence that bull sacrifices had been made on the sacred isle. They were enraged and had the perpetrators disciplined by being condemned in the kirk, the church, as if that mattered to some of them, and informers were sought so that it would not happen again.

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Wells and Mental Illness

Pennick[Celtic Sacred Landscapes, p73] gives an interesting account of how a well was used to cure epilepsy. At St Tegla's Well in Llandegla, Wales. The sufferer would walk thrice round the well saying three times the Lord's Prayer. While they did this they carried a basket, if a man it carried a cock, if a woman it carried a hen. They offered four pence, then after further prayer and circumambulation of the church, the person slept overnight beneath the altar/communiion table. After this the sufferer put the beak of the fowl into his/her mouth and transferred the sickness to the animal. This is a kind of magical practice mixed up with Christianity.

Interestingly, sleeping overnight at the church echoes the practice of the ancient Romans, whose suffferers would sleep overnight in the temple of Aesculapius on an island in the Tiber, hoping to be cured.We must not make the common mistake of thinking that a parallel between a British custom and a Roman one indicates that the Romans introduced the custom to Britain Far from it. Customs in both lands arise from a common European cultural heritage.

We would not look to a well now to cure mental illness, but linking up to our landscape and traditions is good for our emotional well-being. We need to cherish our ancient traditions and our sacred places. They link us to the sacred.

Updated: 03/21/2013, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Veronica on 01/07/2016

I try to visit the Derbyshire well dressings every year, Thy are a marvellous day out .

frankbeswick on 10/14/2013

Off hand I know not any oracular wells. However, the book Echoes of a Savage Land, which deals with Sligo, Ireland, tells of a large kiln into which girls used to call so that they could hear the name of the person they were to wed. This might indicate that caves and possibly wells, which are deep and dark, were used for oracular purposes across Celtic lands

I have not heard of any places in Wales where subterranean fumes were inhaled.Remember that the Mediterranean region, where Delphi is located, is geologically more active than Wales is, as the rock of Wales is more ancient than the rocks of the Mediterranean, so more active chemicals come out of the ground in the Mediterranean region than they do in Wales

DerdriuMarriner on 10/14/2013

frankbeswick, It's interesting that King Henry VII allowed St Winifred's well to continue functioning even though he was not getting much revenue, since history can portray him as a number cruncher. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and it looks like in the case of Henry VIII's father that the elbow nudges came from his mother, not his wife.
Do you know if there are any legends or stories of similarly sacred spaces underground and near water (but not a well)? I'm wondering if ancient Wales had any equivalents of Greece's oracles who benefited, not from subterranean water, but from mind-enhancing subterranean fumes?
Well dressing and well visiting are lovely to read about and to witness.
Thank you for taking us on this charming tour of wells and very appealing times in their history.

Holistic_Health on 07/08/2013

When you think about it there are still many holdover customs and traditions that have nothing to do with Christianity. I believe they do have a place in society and speak to needs people don't get fulfilled in church.

frankbeswick on 05/16/2013

Thankyou, Sue. Glad that you like itt

whitemoss on 05/16/2013

Fascinating! You obviously know a lot about your subject.

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