The Copgrove Well

by P. D. Hartley


     In 1922, Basil Blackwell of Oxford published privately a book by the Revd. Henry Dewsbury Alves Major B.D. entitled Memorials of Copgrove. The Revd. Major was a scholarly man who, after his incumbency as the Rector of the small church of St Michael from 1911 until his retirement in 1919 dedicated 'The Memorials' rather charmingly as follows: 'Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman GCB, GCVO, Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the Admiralty thereof and to Lady Bridgeman of Copgrove Hall, Lady of the Manors of Copgrove & Walkingham, and to the Parishioners of Copgrove, these memorials of their Parish with affection and respect I dedicate.' The book must have been produced at no small cost; everything about it is good, even to the careful choice of the typescript and the quality of the paper used in the printing.

     Small villages with an individual charm are often described as 'sleepy' and this description certainly applies to Copgrove. Lying in the rolling, morainic land between Knaresborough and the market town of Boroughbridge and on the western flanks of the Plain of York, it is dominated by The Hall, set on a low hill overlooking a large, reed-fringed lake, and by a thousand acres of wooded, game-filled land. The distant low roar of traffic on the modern Great North Road seems to add rather than to detract from the charm and solitude of the place.

     Little has happened in Copgrove since the legions marched away from nearby Isurium Brigantum, the important, fortified Romano-British town which lies some three miles to the north east. Today the village of Aldborough covers the site, for Isurium is many feet below, preserved in the silts of the River Ure. In 1309 Archbishop William de Greenfield of York passed by Copgrove, remarking derogatorily on the dilapidation at that time of the church; something was done, and parochial pride restored.

     But what of The Well - St Mungo's Well - what indeed of the Copgrove well? It can hardly have been by chance that in 1626 Dr Edmund Deane found it necessary, in his Spadacrene Anglia to blast off a broadside against this 'innefectual superstitious relique of Popery', for people were coming from far and wide to seek a cure for their ills in the miraculous waters of St Mungo's Well. Dr Deane may be said to have had a vested interest in curative waters issuing from the earth, for after all, such waters were known in the mountains of Bohemia, and in parts of France, and more importantly had recently been discovered at Starbeck on the outskirts of nearby Knaresborough and in adjoining Harrogate. Sulphur water, Chalybeate water, Magnesia water which stank abominably but under medical supervision (such as that of the good Doctor) purged the body of its humours, relieved aching joints, and cured or alleviated a variety of ills.

     But people being people, they still came to the clear waters of St Mungo's Well and immersed themselves, totally and uncomfortably, in the cold, pure, silently bubbling water in the stone cistern which even today stands on the lands which briefly, for such is the nature of life, belonged to the good Admiral. An entry in the Copgrove Parish Register gives a rather sad insight into the fact that St Mungo's holy water was more mystical than medical: 'A stranger Yt. came to Ye well was buried May 27 1710'.

     The question now arises as to how the well got its reputation for magical powers and how it came to be named after an obscure Celtic saint. There are five tenuous clues which, if they can be accepted point to a dark, indeed even a sinister history, going back far in time. The first three clues are geographical and all are within a radius or four miles from the well. They are the known site of Isurium Brigantum, the known presence of a 'roman road' which must have run close to the well and was probably on the site of an even earlier track, and three Standing Stones - Druid Stones, they have been called. The remaining clues consist of five coins found in the well precincts, and a carved stone of undeniable antiquity, now set in the north wall of Copgrove church.

     Four of the coins range over the reigns of William III to George III, but the fifth is a Bronze of the Emperor Hadrian. How did it get there, and why? In Roman times, the surrounding country was primeval forest of oak and ash. There remains the 'Devil's Stone' in the north wall of the church. Much eroded by time, it still clearly portrays the figure of a man. Hanging from his left hand is a roughly circular object and to his right is what has been described as a TAU cross; whatever the latter may have been designed to represent, it is certainly in the form of a letter T.

     Discussing Druidism, Prof. Lloyd Laing states tersely and somewhat dryly, 'skulls have a habit of being discovered without their skeletons in Romano-British wells'. And so a scenario is set. There is no surviving record of human remains ever having been recovered from St Mungo's Well, but a severed head and a sacrificial knife would describe the objects on the Devil's Stone far better than any alternative suggestions so far forthcoming.

     Then, when the Romans made their third and final push north of the Humber in the conquest of Britain, Isurium was already a populous, thriving Celtic Brigantian town and remained so throughout the occupation. Druidism would be established, and would certainly linger on.

     How did the Bronze find its way to the well? People both use and lose coins; they drop out of pockets, pouches and purses; sometimes they are thrown, confidently or privily as offerings to ambition, of propitiation or simply, hope. Was it an offering made secretly and perchance fearfully in the gloom of the forest, or was it simply - lost?

     Finally, to the matter of St Mungo and a dedication made to him in the Dark ages, far from his native land in the ancient, Celtic kingdom of Strathclyde. Bishop Kentigern (for 'Mungho' is a pseudonym meaning 'dearest one') was a reforming cleric in the days when much of Britain was pagan and even in the christianised parts, many held firmly to the Old Beliefs. Was there a dark power invested in the waters of the well which was so great that the Holy Man deemed it necessary to exorcise it himself? Certainly he was associated in some way with the ancient Minster of Ripon some eight miles away, where his pastoral staff, given him by St Columba, was revered as a relic in early mediaeval times. Did he really tread the ancient road now lost, through the forest, to the Druid's Well?

     On such things we may speculate, but the truth we may never know.

 

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Text P. D. Hartley (1986)

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