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Holy Wells and Other Holy Places

by Jeremy Harte


   A thousand years and more have passed since Anglo-Saxon surveyors, working their way through the parish of Halse in Somerset, passed by ‘an ash tree which the ignorant call holy’: fraxinum quem imperiti sacrum vocant (Grundy 1935; Turner 1953, p.118). Ignorant they may have been, but they probably had a clearer understanding of the local landscape than many of their descendants. Ash trees are not uncommon in the vale of Taunton Dene. So what made this one special?

   Actually, the tree was known to the locals simply as an halgan sc. Turning a holy tree into a tree ‘which the ignorant call holy’ is a significant gloss, apparently added by a sniffy scribe from Winchester who was given the job of translating the boundary marks, which derive from an original of 854, into Latin. The tree lay in a rather remote part of the abbey’s domains, (OSGR ST 127 277 on the modern map), so the anonymous monk was not disallowing the possibility of its holiness from personal experience. He must have had reasons for believing that trees, generally speaking, could not be holy and that anyone who thought they were was a credulous rustic.

   Other people thought differently. There was another holy tree in Somerset north of the Mendips, at Hallatrow, Helgetrev 1086. In the East Riding there is Hallytreeholme, Halitreholme c1180, ‘island with a holy tree’. While the ash may have been sacred in Somerset, there is also Holyoaks in the Rutland parish of Stoke Dry, Haliach 1086 (Ekwall 1960, pp.212,246-7).

   In fact holiness was quite common in the Anglo-Saxon landscape. Besides the trees, there were holy places of one sort or another at High Halstow and Lower Halstow in Kent, Hastoe Farm in Hertfordshire and Austy Wood (Halwestowe) in Warwickshire (Reaney 1961, p.126). Forms with stow are normal, but there are two with stoc, Halstock (Halganstoke 998) in Dorset (Mills 1986, p.81) and Halstock Farm (Halgestok 1240) on the edge of Dartmoor (Gover et al. 1931-2, p.203).

   Still, the most common element to be compounded with halig commemorates neither a place nor a tree, but a spring of living waters: wella, or often wylle in the West Saxon forms, wlle in the West Midland ones. In the North Country the equivalent Old Norse kelda is often used (Smith 1956, 2.3, 2.250). Significant settlement names of this kind occur in Huntingdonshire, Kent, Lincolnshire and Northumberland (Gelling 1984, p.31). Half of the halig compounds in Ekwall refer to wells or springs, and the proportion would probably be higher if a systematic survey of field and other minor names could be added to the reckoning. Out of the nineteen forms with halig found by the English Place-Name Survey for Devon, fifteen relate to wells (Gover et al. 1931-2, pp.67, 105, 109, 122, 141, 203, 245, 247, 250, 268, 309, 313, 323, 352, 367, 478, 483, 537).

   Holy wells have been a minor theme in landscape history ever since there was such a thing. To say that a spring was a holy well was to classify it, without much hesitation, as a focus of popular beliefs – superstitions which, under a thin Christian veneer, preserved the immemorial traditions of the pagan past. And there are still people who write like this.

   But of late the idea of the holy well has become a little more complicated. The tightly knotted conceptual bundle which held together healing wells, wells featured in popular customs, haunted wells, wells named after saints and so on has come undone. If we no longer believe in ‘pagan survivals’ then we have lost the unifying concept which made sense of almost all traditions about springs and fountains by regarding them as aspects of a single, archaic cult of wells.



Editors' note


The significance of 'holy'

Pagan or Christian sanctity?

A chronology of well-names

Cultural development and well-names

What a picture!

What a picture!

Final thoughts



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