What is a Holy Well?


What makes a well holy?  All holy wells are sources of regular, clean water;  a ‘well’, in other words, is really a spring – a source of fresh, reliable, abundant, clean water.  Fairly obviously, this was a feature of enormous importance to every community before the arrival of water out of a tap;  such a site would have been well looked after.

Most such wells, if they can be found, are but a shadow of their former glory, which makes it hard to appreciate their earlier importance.  Now that the water is no longer needed, nearly all have become overgrown, and the stonework which once defined a clear pool and allowed easy access will probably have fallen away.  Others have simply been annexed during the twentieth century – Threshfield spring, named Ladywell and one of the most well-known in this area, is now part of an ornamental garden pond.  Few elements of our past history have been so comprehensively abandoned.

This makes it difficult to establish the precise nature of any individual spring in former centuries.  It would be a mistake to suppose that there are clear and distinct categories, but we can distinguish different types, even if there is considerable overlap.  Some were noted for their mineral content, as the name ‘Sulphur Wells’ near Broughton suggests.  The Petrifying Well at Knaresborough attracted many visitors and gained a wide reputation for healing powers in the sixteenth century, but was never taken to be holy nor to have any religious significance.  This ‘secular’ healing aspect becomes clearer still in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with such spa towns as Harrogate.

Healing qualities

It is possible that some ‘holy’ wells were revived at this time along the new, scientific basis.  St Cydi’s Well in Gwynned may, as its name suggests, have been visited in medieval times for religious reasons, though it is some distance from the village and its church.  If you go there now you will find the ruins of eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, signs of its popularity as a source of medical-healing waters, so popular indeed that there are not only several different pools through which the springs flows, but also a caretaker’s cottage built alongside the complex.  The pools are designed for people to walk into and immerse themselves in the water, and one of them is completely covered, to protect the modesty of women.

In our own well, one should note the three steps down into the square basin, which were added after the construction of the basin itself.  These were presumably not for cleaning or maintenance, which would have been only infrequently required after Mr Richardson’s covering:  they look as though they were there to allow people to walk down and immerse themselves, though more than that would be speculation.

Some wells were known for their healing qualities.  At the simplest this comes from the mineral content of the water, but what about the religious quality of healing wells?  This is where things have become a little confused.  A village spring was often dedicated in popular parlance to the same saint as acted as patron to the church, for both were vital to life and in need of the community’s care and protection.  That a well is named after a saint is not of itself evidence of any ‘holiness’ other than that offered to the church.

More interestingly, it may happen that the well’s patron is ‘older’ than that of the church.  St Helen’s Well at Eshton carries just such an early name.  Helena was the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, who was proclaimed emperor at York, and in legend she therefore became English, and a favourite saint of both British and Saxons.  Such age itself makes a site venerable, especially in the context of persecution from later Vikings and Normans.  

Holy wells that aren’t

There are other instances of later holy wells that turn out to be no more than remnants of medieval monastic water systems.  The so-called ‘holy well’ at Glastonbury, the Chalice Well, which features in all the tourist literature, and is the focus for a delightful mix of cod-archaeology, Arthurian legend and New-Age therapies, is in fact no more than the late monastic water supply for the abbey.  The real holy well is all but forgotten, but we shall return to that later.

In some cases there is a direct connection to a holy person of proven historical detail, such as the well of John Schorne in Buckinghamshire, found some two hundred yards from the church where he was rector in the thirteenth century.  After he died, and was buried within the church at North Marston, pilgrims naturally flocked there, and took the waters for healing;  and the legend grew that in a time of drought he had struck the ground with his staff, and like Moses was rewarded by water gushing forth from that spot.  So great was his cult that in the late fifteenth century his body was moved (by papal authority) to St George’s, Windsor, until both bones and cult were destroyed by Henry VIII.

It is important to remember that even here it was the prayer of the pilgrims which helped to create the holiness of the site, and that any miracles of healing were understood to be the result of that prayer (albeit ‘sacramentalized’ in the water) and not of any mineral quality.  As well as prayers we must also include the offerings of the pilgrims:  what was offered had its part in what was received.

This is most clearly seen at the holy well at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, the greatest shrine in England.  There does not appear to have been any particular quality suggested for this water, either in the Saxon period when the shrine was built, nor in its medieval heyday, nor in its twentieth century revival;  its qualities derive from the totality of prayer and worship offered at the shrine and the holiness of that place of pilgrimage.

Once this principle has been grasped – prayer first, water second – one can partially let it go.  The spring at Holywell in North Wales is the most important and most visited holy well in the British Isles, a site of pilgrimage, prayer and healing for over 1400 years.  Here is a truly holy well, as the sixteenth century late Perpendicular Gothic structure erected over it testifies.  We have therefore a spectrum from simple springs cared for by village communities to great shrines that attracted thousands of pilgrims – a glorious and largely forgotten heritage.  And then there is the yet more important ‘category’ of holy well, even more forgotten.

The church as font

To grasp the importance of our own well, one should look first at the church and reflect upon its significance.  Why is St Mary’s church sited where it is?  It is not the most obvious place to build a church, into a slope of the hill.  Or, to look at it from a different angle, ask yourself whether our forebears ever excavated wells inside churchyards?  No.  Did they build churches near wells that had been made holy by sacred use?  Yes, as Holywell so clearly shows.

The well, in other words, is the first church in Thornton, and it was the well or rather spring that decided the siting of the building which we now see.  In the early Saxon church, particularly away from the larger and richer settlements, it was the sacrament of Baptism, celebrated once for each member of Christ’s Church at a place of flowing water, that was more significant than the sacrament of the Eucharist, which was celebrated regularly and required the regular presence of a priest.  The church was not so much an altar (and the rest) as a font (and the rest).  By ‘more significant’, we mean to the local community:  while the Eucharist was under the authority of the minsters and monasteries, Baptism was the responsibility of the local community, even if it too required the presence of a minister.

It is probable that the early Christian community would have gathered around the spring to celebrate the Baptism of one of their members when a priest visited, and returned to the spring later, to collect water of course, and to offer their continuing prayer and worship.  It is probable that the Eucharist would have been celebrated at the same time as Baptism, and preaching and teaching also been offered at the same place.

Saxon sacred space

In the ninth century, when parishes were beginning to form across the country, there was a move to formalize the sacred space.  Often it would be the erection of a cross or a church and certainly a churchyard adjacent to the manor – this seems to have been what happened at East Marton.  At other places, the holy wells or fonts were enclosed to form a clear sacred space or even  a covered  church.   Historians tell us that this occurred most often in the border between the Celtic west, which had used holy wells for much longer, and the Saxon east – areas such as here on the Pennine watershed.  

We should not be too pious;  it may be, as elsewhere, that this enclosure was part of the wider movement in the ninth and tenth centuries in Saxon England to Christianize the landscape, in some measure to order and formalize wider, looser, local practices – such as the use of water for direct and immediate physical healing.

A most ancient spring–font

The finest example of such a spring–font, and certainly one of the oldest, is found in Glastonbury.  To one side of the crypt of the great abbey ruins, behind a gate now kept locked against vandals, and unmentioned in the current guide books, is a well surrounded by later, Norman stonework.  

It is this modest spring or font that is the most probable origin of the whole, vast Glastonbury complex that was the glory of the late middle ages and one of the greatest victims of the Dissolution – the oldest religious site of that famous town, ignored now by Christian and pagan alike.

Where is the closest parallel to our own spring–font?  There does not seem to be anything like it in the Yorkshire Dales nor the Diocese of Bradford, but in Eskdale on the North York Moors, there is the village of Hinderwell. 

Below the church, in its churchyard at the end of a stone path, is the holy well associated with the great Saxon abbess, St Hilda of Whitby.  Restored in 1912, the similarity of both form and position to our own is striking:  again we can see how the church is built above the earlier, more sheltered, holy site.  It is good to hear that the Archbishop of York celebrated a baptism at that well in September 2006.

Ours is a holy well, not because of any miraculous powers it may contain, but because it is the fons (Latin for font, spring, and in this context, origin) of our church.  We can be sure in the absence of written records, thanks to the conservative character of communal geography, that this is indeed the original church site of Thornton-in-Craven, from which the rest has evolved.