Holy Yet Cursed Medieval Well Unearthed in England
Archaeologists working in England have excavated a holy well dated to the Medieval period. Local legends speak of pilgrims bathing in its waters to cure their eye and skin diseases. However, a later urban myth also linked the well to a more sinister story and claims that the site is cursed.
The shallow spring is known as St Anne’s Well and it is located between Rainhill and Sutton St Helens, near Liverpool. Science Alert says the well was built to honor Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother, “who had a cult following in Britain during the late Medieval Period (1066-1485 AD).” Local legends say that St Anne had bathed in the well, providing the waters with healing powers.
Saint Anne with Mary as a child. (Renardeau/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
It is generally believed that 12 monks were living in a priory near the holy well before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. "The well attracted numbers of pilgrims, necessitating the building of a small three-roomed structure around the well and the custodianship of two of the monks," Jamie Quartermaine, an archaeologist who supervised the dig said.
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A structure built around the Dupath Well in Cornwall / Kernow. (1912) ( Public Domain )
Local folklore states that the steward of a neighboring landowner named Hugh Darcy argued with the prior, Father Delwaney, about access to the well and land boundaries. The two men got into a heated argument at which point Darcy apparently told Delwaney that the prior would likely not hold his important position much longer, before stomping back toward his master’s estate.
Soon thereafter the monks were apparently removed from the priory by the king’s men. On their way out they passed by the holy well where Father Delwaney saw Hugh Darcy (who seemed to be awaiting them and to have had an “understanding” with the commissioners taking the monks away). The prior was angered by Darcy’s appearance and possible role in the loss of the monastery and he said: “The curse of the serpent be on thee, thou spoiler of the Lord’s inheritance, thy ill-gotten gains shall not profit thee, and a year and a day shall not pass ere St. Anne thy head shall bruise.” Not long after placing this curse on Darcy, the prior fainted and then died.
The story continues by saying that Darcy wasted no time in gaining access to the farmlands around the holy well and tearing down the building made for the pilgrims who visited it. Although things seemed to be going smoothly at first Darcy “could not get rid of the strange foreboding of coming evil.” Three months later his son died of a mysterious illness and soon after he suffered heavy financial loss. The legend ends with Darcy disappearing after a night of drinking. His body was allegedly found beside the well where his head was crushed in.
It is probable that the story is nothing more than an urban myth, but it is true that eventually the holy well had fallen into disuse and was filled with earth. Before it was excavated, St Anne’s Well had “just a patch of barren grass and a couple of stones” marking its location in a large field. [Via Historic England ] The holy well was known about for years by local archaeologists and the property owner and it was on the “Heritage at Risk Register” since 2010.
St Anne’s Well as it appeared in 2015. ( Historic England )
As Jamie Quartermaine, told Discovery News “When we first got to the well we found that there was very little indication of it on the surface, but after excavation it was found to be in reasonable condition.”
Oxford Archaeology North carefully worked to unearth the legendary feature, and two days later they excavated the large sandstone well. Historic England reports that St Anne’s Well measures almost 2 x 2 meters (6.6 x 6.6 ft.) and has three steps which led to the pool where the pilgrims would have bathed.
The well during excavations. ( Historic England )
Historic England says that works were completed on the holy well with the team repairing some of the fallen stones and setting up a wooden perimeter to protect it from soil filling it in again and possible damage from farm machinery.
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Members of Rainhill Civic Society and Merseyside Archaeological Society with the repaired holy well. ( Historic England )
As the website Seomra Ranga points out, “holy wells are places of popular religious devotion where people come to pray and leave simple offerings. Holy wells invariably tend to date from pre-Christian times, during which they served as a form of natural religion in which the well was held to be sacred.”
Often, said wells are actually springs which have been provided with a special significance in local folklore and have specific legends associated with them. The importance of the sites can be linked to the global reverence humans tend to have for water - especially when it is clean or pure.
St. Brigid's well, Near Buttevant, County Cork, Ireland. (Alison Cassidy/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Another holy well was found in January 2016. It was discovered in the basement of Australia House, the nation’s diplomatic mission, in London. As Mark Miller wrote in his article for Ancient Origins, the well dates back about 900 years. It is one of the few holy wells that can still be accessed in the city.
Two interesting points of interest about this well are its association with theater and the clean water it is said to still provide. As High Commissioner Alexander Downer told ABC. “They were used for ceremonial purposes and plays were performed around the well. And as a result of that this part of London evolved as an area where theatres were built.” Mr. Downer also said a medieval monk wrote about the well, describing it as “sweet, wholesome and pure.”
Australia House. (Richard Rogerson/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
And more recently, Duncan Howitt said he drank a cup of the water about seven years ago. “He was encouraged by a colleague from the Canadian High Commission who had an interest in history when a group of about five people went into the basement. Howitt called the water “fresh and clear. Better than tap water.”” [ Via Ancient Origins ]
Top Image: St. Anne's Well, between Rainhill and Sutton St Helens, near Liverpool, UK. Source: Jamie Quartermaine
At least some people still treat holy wells with respect
In Anglia et Cornubia.