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A chronology of well-names

   Wella is one of the words which are not employed in the earliest phase of name-formation in English (Cox 1976). When it does appear in early instances, it is usually a simplex name, as in Wells, Wielea 766. Despite the importance of this site, the religious associations which went back to (or were grafted onto) a Roman origin, and the later tradition which would make it St Andrew’s Well, there was no question of designating it as halig. This point is made by James Rattue, who follows it by at least four similar instances – Willesden in Middlesex, Wilton in Somerset, Welton in the East Riding and Well in the North Riding. In each case wella forms either a simplex name or the first element of a name: and it refers to a spring which, in later tradition at least, we find as a holy well (Rattue 1995, pp.58, 64, 84; cf. Scherr 1986, p.82).

   So the first class of place-names for holy wells consists of names in wella with no overt reference to the sanctity of the waters. The second class, the halig wella names, is later than this. Where kelda rather than wella is the second element, these names clearly postdate Scandinavian settlement. But even in the untroubled South-west, there are signs of a relative chronology of name formation. Fontmell Magna in Dorset, Funtemel 877, is a surviving Celtic name from funton, mailo-, ‘spring by the bare hill’. The survival of the name suggests that Fontmell was an estate passed over from the British to the West Saxon Church in 700 or thereabouts (Barker 1984). The name would refer to Springhead, source of the Fontmell Brook and clearly a significant central place, even though there are no records of it being venerated. Instead we meet with a halgan welle in 932, on the parish boundary (Mills 1989, p.110), evidently a later and marginal formation.

   The third class of place-names, those in which holy wells are named after saints, originates at the same time as the halig wella type. Rattue has located a possible Eadburgeswelle of 795, a Cynburge wella of 926 and a Ceollan wylle of 952 (Rattue 1995, p.63). Formally, there is nothing to distinguish these sites from the very large number of wells that are named after landowners. It is only with the benefit of local records that we can identify Edburga, Cyniburg and Ceolla as saints, their ownership of the wells being spiritual rather than territorial. It is possible, given the imperfect survival of traditions about local Saxon saints, that many other apparently tenurial well names could actually be reflecting lost local cults – the sort that, further west, were kept alive by the flickering fires of Cornish separatism. What is certain is that, at the time of Domesday, place-names of the halig wella type were much more common than any which can be identified as preserving the names of saints.

   By about 1300, the use of ‘Saint’ as a prefix makes it obvious that a holy man or woman is being referred to. Plemstall in Cheshire, Pleymundestowe 1291, is named after an Archbishop of Canterbury who retired here to a hermit’s life and died in 914. The name of Seint Pleymondes Well, 1302, shows as much (Cameron 1996, p.125). By the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, ‘Saint’ had become a required title in formations of all kinds, and place-names of the Kirkbride type gave way to forms like that of St Bees.

   Until recently, with the publication of studies such as The Living Stream, there was very little emphasis on how well cults had changed over time. Perhaps because of this, the literature on holy wells – extensive though it is – does not contain many early forms for their names. There are few pre-Reformation records for place-names of the St X’s Well type: indeed, there are comparatively few records for mediaeval holy wells at all.

   But it seems likely that this, the fourth class of place-names for holy wells, became current after the late thirteenth century. The saints who most often give their names to wells are not obscure local figures, but the sacred protectors found throughout Christendom – James, John, Catherine and Peter, with the Virgin Mary heading the list. The dedication of wells to St Anne reflected an interest in the Holy land from 1150 onwards (Morris 1989, p.90) although the first recorded instance of St Anne’s Well as a place-name seems to be at Brislington, outside Bristol, in the 16th century (Quinn 1999, pp.147-9). Physical evidence for veneration, in the form of well chapels and so on, also dates from this period (Hutton 1991, p.167).

   This new, more personal interest in patron saints led to onomastic speculation, as secular well names were rewritten to put them under the protection of a sacred figure. Babwell in the Somerset parish of Cucklington, derived from the OE personal name Babba, had become associated with St Barbara by the fifteenth century (Scherr 1986, p.85). Chad’s well, a pre-Reformation dedication at Chadshunt in Warwickshire, owes its sanctity to a reinterpretation of the name of the village, Caedelesfuntan 949 (Rattue 1995, p.86).

   In fact the national popularity of St Chad’s Wells probably owes much to mangling of OE ceald ‘cold’. In the same way one suspects that many examples of St Helen’s Well derive from a reworking of hęl ‘omen’. But there are insufficient data to determine this point: not because her cult was obscure – there are 233 sites dedicated to St Helen in the British Isles, according to one survey (Jones 1986, p.64) – but because so little work has been done to locate its manifestation in time, either through documents or archaeology. Of course, there is little doubt that many cults recorded in the nineteenth century are likely to be much older. But inferences about pre-Reformation cults are not the same as actual mediaeval evidence, and we need a national survey of the latter.

   In the absence of this, it is not at all certain when place-names of the second class ceased to be given to wells. Holywell Wood in Monmouth (Halliwell 1343) must postdate the arrival of the English language with an English castle garrison in 1071 (Charles 1938, p.262). In the thirteenth century, folk-etymology could create new names of the halig wella type, through the alteration of initial elements such as hol, as easily as it could discover doubtful saints. But there was a growing prejudice in favour of saints. The well at Stainland, south of Halifax, must have been known by a halig wella form up until 1279-1324, when it was the home of Henry de sacro fonte: after that it appears as St Helen’s Well (Haigh 1986). In the North Riding, at Middleham, a saint owes her very existence to the name of a well. This spring in this village appears to have been halig kelda, but by the late thirteenth century, when kelda had ceased to be a vocabulary word, the name was reinterpreted as that of a St Alkelda. The parish church is dedicated to her along with the well (Whelan 1986, p.4).

   Halig wella forms survived where they had become transferred from the original spring to a settlement – as in the most famous case, Holywell in Flintshire. After it was granted to an abbey at Chester in 1093, this became the English name for the settlement which was Treffynnon in Welsh. The holy well itself was Ffynnon Gwenfrewi to the locals (Charles 1938, p.224). Clearly, in the eleventh century at least, English conventions of place-name formation discouraged direct reference to a saint, using halig instead. The contrast with the native language is very obvious, for neither Welsh nor the other Celtic languages have any form of well-name analogous to our halig wella; and there are no names of the fourth class, with a word for ‘saint’, either. ‘It should be noted that wells bearing English names usually retain the title ‘saint’, e.g. St Mary’s Well, but those bearing Welsh names rarely do so, e.g. it is Ffynnon Seiriol but never Ffynnon Sant Seiriol’ (Jones 1954, p.6).

   There is no onomastic history to the Welsh well-names; they are all of one type. But the names of English holy wells do form a chronological series, even if exact dates are hard to come by. This suggests that they can act as clues to the cultural evolution of the holy well, and of other holy places.


Cultural development and well-names

   Halig names typically refer to obscure places. The ‘ignorant’ inhabitants of Taunton Dean had chosen the most out-of-the way corner in which to venerate šan halgan ęsc. Central places, under the watchful eye of major clerics and landowners, were less likely to develop irregular devotions of this kind. Several of the halig wella forms refer to uncultivated areas or upland farms: this may explain the frequency of names in Devon, where – due to the dispersed pattern of settlement – more early mediaeval farm names survive than elsewhere. And this sense of the marginal continues in more recent sources. Holy Well, at Ditcheat in Somerset, is typically obscure: ‘a small patch of water under a hedge, on the right side of the road leading from Evercreech Junction to Castle Cary, and about half-a-mile distant from the station’ (Horne 1923, p.28).

   Impressions can be misleading, especially when several of the early halig wella forms are derived from boundary marks in charters. This may make the class in general seem more peripheral than it really is. Nevertheless, regional comparisons can be made for the topography of well-names from the second and fourth class. The evidence from Dorset (Harte 1985; Rattue 1992) show that the county has place-names of both kinds, some being halig wella forms, while others are of the St X’s Well type. Keeping to those place-names recorded before 1800, there are eight called holy wells, and six dedicated to saints.

   It is true that an exclusive citation of early forms will underestimate the evidence for mediaeval traditions. There are saints’ wells which only appear in recent records, such as Lady Well at Hermitage and St Andrew’s Well at Bridport, but which nevertheless appear to go back to the Middle Ages: others, however, may come from the imagination of antiquarian vicars. Similarly there are Holywell place-names recorded after 1800 – at Abbotsbury, East Stoke, Fifehead Neville and Trent – which seem unlikely to be romantic coinages, although they may well have come into being through the corruption of an element other than halig. But where there is so much uncertainty in the evidence, it seems best to take 1800 as a cut-off point for both classes of place-name.

   The two sites recorded in charters as halig wella – Portesham and Fontmell Magna – are naturally enough at a distance from the main settlement, but most of the other forms also appear as the names of small farms; in the later references, the wells seem to be in outlying fields. This is true of Child Okeford, Gillingham, Hazelbury Bryan, and Radipole. Two of the sites, however, are found in towns – Shaftesbury and Sherborne. There is also a Haliwell at Wilksworth Farm near Wimborne, recorded in 1389 (James Rattue pers. comm.): this would seem to be another small farm site.

   On the other hand, all but one of the saints’ wells are centrally located. Alhallon well 1545 is just off the main streets of Wareham. St Andrew’s Well in Lyme Regis, which appears in fifteenth-century documents, lay within the town. In Beaminster, St Mary’s Well, on record since 1692, lies in the next street to the church.

   Two saint’s wells, those at Cerne Abbas and Corfe Castle, are associated with incidents in the life of saints. At Corfe the well first appears in the Early South-English Legendary (§17 lines 119-121) in a retelling of the events surrounding the death of St Edward, King and Martyr;

'Že put žare he was feorst i-founde: a welle žare gan springue,
Fair and cler, žat zeot.gif (972 bytes) i-last: and is ofte gret botningue,
Žat men zeot cleopieth  to žis day: 'seint Edwardes welle''.

   This text of the Legendary was compiled in the 1280s, apparently at Gloucester. This would make it one of the earliest references to a well incorporating ‘saint’ in its name.

Please click here for larger image    At Cerne Abbas a mediaeval well chapel dedicated to St Augustine survived long enough to be recorded by the antiquary Thomas Gerard. It lay in the grounds of the Abbey, just north of the village. William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century life of the saint introduces a miracle at a well, but again this is a standard story from saints’ lives, rather than being inspired by a pre-existing spring. St Augustine’s Well was identified, book in hand, after the local tradition had been created – perhaps as late as the fifteenth century, which from a few surviving details of the stonework would seem to be the date of the chapel (Castleden 1996, pp.87, 112).

   All of these wells are associated with churches or chapels: it is because of this that they are central to their settlements. The odd one out is St Whyte’s or Wite’s Well – there is no early form for the name, but in 1545 it was being pointed out on the slopes of a hill, over a mile south of Whitchurch Canonicorum, where the saint used to retreat for prayer and contemplation. This well is unusual also in being dedicated to a local Anglo-Saxon saint, rather than one of the major late mediaeval intercessors, and seems to be a survival from an earlier state of things.

Please click for larger image    The tendency to choose a central location – and the wells of Wareham, Lyme, Beaminster and so on appear to have been chosen, rather than spontaneously emerging through some popular process – suggests that these wells are part of the late mediaeval passion for expressing Christianity through minor monuments. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a golden age for market and wayside crosses, bridge and hilltop chapels, hermitages and so on. All of these traditions had existed earlier, but the great majority of sites date from after 1300. It is tempting to see the saints’ wells as part of this pattern.

   On the other hand, a case has been made by James Rattue for dating many wells in this class to a much earlier date – they could be from before 900 or thereabouts, in the formative years of the Anglo-Saxon church (Rattue 1995, pp.53-62). Although actual documentation is lacking, there is a close correlation between cults at wells and early church foundations. In fact all the ten sites which he identifies as Dorset minsters have a later tradition of wells. Admittedly the designation of any given site as a minster is a matter of debate among historians, as it was no doubt amongst clergy at the time. The two senses of mynster, ‘monastery’ and ‘central church with daughter foundations’, do not always match up: besides, there is no reason to suppose that the whole landscape was neatly divided into separate, non-competing minster parochiae.

   Still, the fact remains that there were a great many central places in the early English church, distinguished by monastic houses, territories with daughter churches, boundaries co-extensive with those of villae regales and so on. And it is at these settlements that we find the saints’ wells. Among the Dorset examples, for instance, Wareham has a major early church, Whitchurch Canonicorum an early cult site and an extended parish, and Beaminster another extended parish with a mynster place-name.

   The correlation of wells with early church centres is certainly real, but it does not prove that the wells are early too. Most of the minster sites of the eighth and ninth centuries were well chosen geographically and administratively. For years afterwards, they continued to form a focus for the people of the surrounding countryside: in most cases, they still do. Wareham, Lyme and Beaminster are towns, while Cerne, Corfe and Whitchurch, if not exactly urban, nevertheless occupy a geographical niche for which we seem to have no word – that of a large village providing services to a hinterland of smaller settlements. We are more likely to find holy wells in these central places, just as we find pubs or shops, because people are around to make use of them.

   What use did people expect to make of these sites? Other places of veneration which grew in popularity after 1300 – gild chapels and so on – depended on a mutual bond between saint and patron, on a prominent role in the daily business of society, and on a constant traffic of vows and offerings. Saints’ wells were seen in the same way: people intended to make gifts at these shrines and so it made sense to have them by the roadside near inhabited places. The locations selected for typical modern wishing wells, as put up by Rotarians, Lions or other charitable groups, have a lot to tell us here. Access is important, and so is security. Not everyone respects charity now, and presumably there were people prepared to risk offending saints then. So the sacristan of the church or chapel would have to be on hand to clear away the money at regular intervals.


Final thoughts

   This is all a far cry from the lonely springs known as halig in the earlier period – say between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. No chapels marked them: as far as we can tell, they received no processions, no offerings. Apart from being venerated and being wet, they have little in common with monuments of the other class and it may be misleading to group them together in the uniform concept of ‘holy well’. Of course it is our detachment from the usual sources of water in the ground that encourages us to find a special mystique in all these sites – even the Rotarian wishing well. Mediaeval observers might have taken a quite different view. A thousand years on, it is not the Anglo-Saxon peasantry who are ignorant: it’s us.



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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