Holy Wells and Crosses

Click to a larger version of Bardsey Island, Gwynedd (Bardsey Island Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Bardsey Island, Gwynedd (Bardsey Island Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

A simple cross has long been used as an image of the cosmos, and a cross within a circle as a symbol of solar movement. This Celtic-style cross marks the burial vault of Lord Newborough beside the thirteenth-century tower remaining from St Mary’s priory. In the early 1870s he built a chapel on the island along with ten ‘model’ farmhouses, outbuildings and walled stockyards. Close by is another Victorian-Celtic cross commemorating ‘the 20,000 saints buried near this spot’. This legend may have grown from a Celtic tendency to use large numbers for emphasis, combined with a misreading of Roman capital letters as numerals in an inscription of c AD500. The memorial stone to Senacus the priest, who was buried ‘with the multitude of the brethren’, along with another to Veracius the priest, was found at Capel Anelog on the mainland just north of Aberdaron. Monks from Capel Anelog may have played a part in founding the Celtic monastery on Bardsey and used the island as a retreat after the example of Egyptian monks who retired into the desert or ‘wilderness’ for the period of Lent. The island’s reputation as ‘the Rome of Britain’ was such that many did choose to be planted there along with the monks and early saints. Some of those sown in the soil of Bardsey were dug up again during work on the road and farmhouse foundations close to the monastic remains. Stone-lined graves contained adult male skeletons laid out with their feet pointing to the east and so many bones spread about that, reputedly, quantities were crushed for fertilizer and some of the longbones employed in garden fences.
Click to a larger version of Iona, Argyllshire (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Iona, Argyllshire (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

St Martin’s Cross, just west of St Mary’s Abbey on the island of Iona, is a genuine eight-century, Celtic High Cross showing a fusion of art and stone-carving styles from Ireland, Northumbria and the Pictish areas of Scotland. The stone was brought specially from Mid Argyll as the local schist proved unsuitable. The east face ripples and bulges with a serpent-and-boss design while the west side features biblical scenes such as King David with Musicians, Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac and Daniel in the Lions’ Den for use as teaching aids. The vertical slots in the short side-arms once held decorated metal extensions. To the rear is Torr an Aba - ‘Rock of the Abbot’ - on top of which were found remains of a small cell containing clean beach pebbles and a rock-hewn bed. According to his biographer Adamnan, St Columba used a water-worn stone for a pillow and his cell was built overlooking the Sound of Iona ‘in a higher place than the rest of the monastery’.
Click to a larger version of Jarrow, Tyne and Wear (Jarrow 700AD Ltd): photo © Jean Williamson

Jarrow, Tyne and Wear (Jarrow 700AD Ltd): photo © Jean Williamson

This replica Anglian cross by Keith Ashford is one of the exhibits at Bede’s World Museum of Early Medieval Northumbria. The exhibition centre and experimental farm give a taste of life in the time of the Venerable Bede (673-735) who spent most of his life in prayer, scholarship and teaching at the adjacent monastery of St Paul’s. Inspired by Anglo-Saxon crosses of the period 700-850, especially the Ruthwell Cross (Dumfries and Galloway), Ashford’s cross features biblical scenes suitable for Christian instruction and inspiration. From the top: the Lamb of God, Christ in Majesty with his feet resting on the heads of a pair of animals, and the hermit saints Anthony and Paul meeting and ‘breaking bread’ in the desert. The mid-1990s cross overlooks the docks and River Tyne to the north, and the Anglo-Saxon hall and other timber buildings of the reconstructed farm to the south.
Click to a larger version of Llangan, Vale of Glamorgan (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Llangan, Vale of Glamorgan (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Up to the 1500s, when the Church of England (including Wales) broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, church services were in Latin and not much concerned with Bible readings and sermons. Preaching and Gospel studies were given infrequently on special religious holidays and usually in the open air from the steps of crosses often set up in the southern half of the churchyard. Protestants were much concerned with the Word - the Bible and the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) were made available in English - but pulpits and lecterns inside church became the focus of attention. Many of the ‘papist’ crosses had their ornate tops showing scenes of the Crucifixion removed while others were broken off at ground level. In the 1600s Parliament decreed that surviving cross-shafts should be reduced to four feet six inches high and some of the stumps were later used as bases for metal sundials. Fortunately, parliamentary commissioners could not be everywhere and this 15th-century example of a preaching cross outside St Canna’s church survives with its original steps, shaft and two-tier calvary intact. In the same churchyard there also survives a 9th-century Celtic disc-headed cross-slab, badly weathered but with a vivid and affecting depiction of Christ on the cross flanked by Stephaton the sponge-bearer and the soldier Longinus with his spear.
Click to a larger version of Nevern Pilgrims’ Cross, Pembrokeshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Nevern Pilgrims’ Cross, Pembrokeshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Beside a footpath through trees, above and west of St Brynach’s church, is a prayer station for long distance pilgrims travelling between St Winifred's holy well, near the North Wales’ coast, and the shrine of St David at the far north-western tip of Pembrokeshire some twenty-five miles to the south-west. Below the Latin cross carved in relief on the cliff face is a kneeling ledge with an incised cross, and there are other incised crosses in smoothed hollows just to the north. Pembrokeshire abounds with sacred sites and a network of pilgrim paths, so this important stopping place would have been used by those on more local pilgrimages as well. In medieval times, Nevern was a busy settlement and a key location as its grand church and remains of a motte and bailey castle suggest. There are several early-Christian memorial slabs at the church and the magnificent Celtic High cross of St Brynach (c 1000AD), stands in the churchyard. It was here that those pilgrims too ill to continue their journey to St Davids found their final rest. Offerings of coins are still inserted into cracks in the rock around the pilgrims’ cross but care should be taken as the site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and should not be damaged.
Click to a larger version of Partrishow, Powys (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Partrishow, Powys (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

A small Maltese cross incised in a stone slab beside the lane leading up to St Issui’s church marks the start of the path to his secluded well. A Celtic missionary of the sixth century, St Issui established a hut beside the spring on a wooded hillside above the Nant Mair stream. The saint’s missionary life came to an abrupt end and he was found one morning in his well, murdered by a man he had healed. In 1060 a wealthy leper cured by the holy water left a hatful of gold at the well for the building of a church further up the hill. St Issui is believed to be buried on the site of that church, under the stone altar of the small mortuary chapel attached to the more recent nave. In the churchyard stands a restored lantern cross at which Archbishop Baldwin, accompanied by Gerald of Wales, preached the merits of taking the Third Crusade to a congregation sitting on the stone benches running along the south wall of the church. On one of my visits the well had been recently vandalised, but it usually seems loved and cared for, surrounded by hazel pilgrim crosses and supplied with simple offerings. On one occasion a candle, a Walsingham leaflet with a note of thanks written on it for a positive reply to a prayer, a postcard of Issui’s aluminium statue and other tokens had been used to create a shrine in the lichenous niche above the well chamber.
Click to a larger version of Alderley Edge, Cheshire (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Alderley Edge, Cheshire (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Water issuing from a rocky groove falls, in an arc blown by the wind, into a carved stone basin. A sketch in Christina Hole’s ‘English Folklore’, published in 1940, shows the basin unbroken while the author states that crooked pins were still being dropped into the ‘wishing well’. This and an adjacent rectangular basin are now called holy wells, but the ancient springs, heathland and woods of the 600-foot-high sandstone escarpment were frequented when ‘God were a lad’ and Christ just a glint in his eye. Copper was mined in the Bronze Age at Stormy Point nearby and bronze palstaves were deposited in the springs and pools of the area. With rocks and trees taking expressive forms, Alderley Edge has a sense of otherness which is a magnet for tales and legends. Arthur and his Knights are reputed to lie asleep in a hidden cave, further west along the cliff, beside Merlin’s Well where another rock spring fills a stone trough while the weathered face of a wizard glares from the outcrop above. With so much magic on his home ground, it is no wonder that the writer Alan Garner drew inspiration from the Alderley myths and locations for his very popular children’s books ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’.
Click to a larger version of Glastonbury, Somerset (Chalice Well Trust): photo © Jean Wiliamson

Glastonbury, Somerset (Chalice Well Trust): photo © Jean Wiliamson

In Chalice Well Gardens, between Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Hill, spring water is piped to the lion’s head drinking fountain, then channelled downhill to the pilgrims’ bathing pool before joining other streams flowing under the abbey. The original source of the spring is now twelve feet below the modern well-head, but there is still a flow of 25,000 gallons (112,500 litres) of water a day at a constant temperature of 52℉ (11℃). Earlier names include Chalk Well, signifying a limestone or cold well, and Blood Spring because of the iron-red waters which became associated with the blood of Christ. One strand of the Glastonbury legends has Joseph of Arimathea, in AD37, burying the chalice used at the Last Supper beside the well, or under Chalice Hill where there may have been an established religious community of some sort. Some modern visitors consider the flow to be the womb-waters of the earth goddess - the regenerative blood of birth and menstruation - charged with power by proximity to the Tor. It is possible that ancient Britons also saw the therapeutic waters of chalybeate springs as the gift of a goddess. Finds from the original ground level around the well show that it was visited long before Roman times, and the stump of an ancient yew from the same level may be the remains of a processional avenue approaching the original spring from the east. It is perhaps best not to think too deeply when drinking the water, but to just appreciate its metallic tang with hints of salt, smoke and blood.
Click to a larger version of Munlochy Well, Black Isle, Inverness: photo © Mick Sharp

Munlochy Well, Black Isle, Inverness: photo © Mick Sharp

Mineral-rich water issuing from a small cave above the A832 and piped to a roadside basin is still appreciated enough to be taken away in bottles, jerricans and other large containers. Ritual at the well (also known as St Boniface’s after a seventh-century local bishop), has become the usual mix of pagan and Christian with many variations: turn three times sun-wise, spill the water three times from cupped hands, take three sips in the names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then tie an offering before making a wish. When I was last there, thousands of knotted rags or ‘clouties’ smothered the fence and trees, and there were many more personal items speaking eloquently of individual suffering: I found the baby clothes particularly poignant. The original spring was traditionally visited at the four major Celtic calendar festivals; Beltain (May Day), the start of the lightest half of the year, and Samhain (Hallowe’en), the start of the Celtic year, were the most popular. Some have found the massed offerings a grotesque and disturbing sight and they do have something of the atmosphere of pagan Celtic healing sanctuaries where carved votive limbs and organs were cast into the water and propped up in shrines, coins and silver feathers swung from the trees, newly skinned heads were nailed to the temple walls or placed in threshold niches. But consider the Christian shrines, also with votive body parts, objects and offerings, the discarded crutches and clothes, the statues encrusted with jewels and centuries of spittle, the fervent pleas and the heartfelt thanks.
Click to a larger version of St Cybi’s Well, Lleyn, Gwynedd (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

St Cybi’s Well, Lleyn, Gwynedd (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Parts of the ritual at Ffynnon Gybi hark back to some of the practices at Roman-Celtic healing sanctuaries such as Lydney (Forest of Dean), where patients were placed in dormitories or ‘abatons’ to undergo incubation, the sacred sleep which brings about cures and prophetic dreams. Cybi was a much travelled Cornish saint and healer who, in the sixth century, established a cell close by on the site of the present Llangybi church. He went on to settle in an abandoned Roman fort at what is now Holyhead (Caergybi, Anglesey), where there was a major shrine to him in the Middle Ages and his relics were carried through the town during his festival (Gwylmabsant). The well long held a reputation for powers of healing and prophesy and in the 1700s the local squire, William Price of Rhiwlas, turned it into a spa. A lavatory was built over an exit channel, and a bathing pool and cottage were built on to the original well chamber. Cures of warts, lameness, blindness, rheumatism and much else were achieved. Treatment consisted of drinking equal amounts of well and sea-water each morning and afternoon for a prescribed period, usually a week or more, then bathing in the pool and being put to bed in the cottage to rest, sleep and be dosed with more spring water mixed with such things as the soporific valerian. An increase in the patient’s temperature was deemed to indicate that a cure was taking place. A cure was also considered to be assured if the well’s resident eel curled around the bare legs of the patient. A sick person’s fate could also divined by placing one of their garments on the water: sinking foretold death, floating recovery. The well was also used to test how true a lover was - or would be - by interpreting the movements of a rag or feather floated on the water.
Click to a larger version of Lady’s Well, Holystone, Northumberland (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Lady’s Well, Holystone, Northumberland (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

This holy well is on the course of the Roman branch-road running SW-NE between Dere Street (A68) and the Devil’s Causeway (A697), the main roads running north-west and north-east from Corbridge by Hadrian’s Wall. The stone-lined pool and walled enclosure may originally date from Roman or medieval times, but the cross and statue were added when repair work was undertaken in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. St Ninian in the fifth century, and St Paulinus in the seventh are reputed to have used the the well to baptize Christian converts by total immersion. Paulinus is credited with dipping 3000 converts in one go in the nearby Pallinsburn stream. The name Lady’s Well came into use after a priory of Augustinian canonesses dedicated to St Mary the Virgin was established in the twelfth century. The original lady may have been a Celtic goddess presiding over a healing spring that was adopted by the Romans and subsequently used by wandering Christian missionaries travelling the Roman roads.
Click to a larger version of Ralph Cross (East), North Yorkshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Ralph Cross (East), North Yorkshire: photo © Jean Williamson

There was a tradition of erecting wooden or stone crosses in wild and desolate places for the guidance and comfort of travellers trying to navigate featureless tracts, labyrinthine sunken lanes and obscure footpaths. The stone crosses of West Penwith (Cornwall), Dartmoor (Devon) and the North York Moors immediately spring to mind. Young Ralph Cross is such an intrinsic feature of the area that it is used as the emblem of the North York Moors National Park. Its companion, Old Ralph, standing 200 yards to the west, may have been named after the Bishop of Guisborough Priory who had grazing rights over the land, or after a dalesman who did odd jobs at Rosedale Priory and lived to a grand ‘aud’ age. The founding of both crosses dates back to at least 1200AD, but the present Young Ralph was erected in the 1700s. It is a local tradition for travellers to place pennies on top of many of the moorland crosses and one story provides an origin for this. A local farmer called Ralph found the body of a lost traveller who had died of exhaustion without money or food. Young Ralph decided to erect a cross on the spot, and the pennies of walkers make up in death for the pennies the poor traveller lacked in life. The cross is an ancient and universal symbol used by many cultures to represent many different things. For Christians it was initially too strongly associated with crucifixion - the ‘cruelest and most shameful’ form of capital punishment used on slaves in the Jewish and Roman world for theft, blasphemy and treason - but gradually became the emblem of Christ’s triumph over death, his dual nature and the salvation won through his sacrifice.

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