Sacred Wells and Springs of Hertfordshire
At one time, Hertfordshire had a name for being a healthy county. According to Thomas Fuller in 1662, “men commonly say that such who buy a house in Hertfordshire pay two years’ purchase for the air thereof.”
Whether or not the air really was healthier, the county could certainly get its share of healing from the many sacred wells and springs scattered about. Most are dedicated to Christian saints, but the probability is that their use pre-dated Christianity, and they were simply repurposed by the Church.
Holy Well, St Albans
Perhaps the most celebrated of Hertfordshire’s sacred springs forms part of the legend of St Alban’s martyrdom. According to the story, when the saint reached the place of his execution, at the top of what is now called Holywell Hill, he was thirsty and commanded a spring to burst forth so that he could drink. He was then beheaded, along with the original executioner, who had refused to strike and declared himself a Christian, and it was here that the abbey dedicated to him was built.
The well itself is at the bottom of the hill and is mentioned in a 14th century chronicle in relation to Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur, who came to Verulanium having:
received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the City, at that time reputed salubrious…
As late as 1815, the well was reported as being “still held in some estimation, for its purity and salubrious qualities.”
St John’s Well, Berkhampsted
It’s likely that most or all of Hertfordshire’s sacred springs were originally pagan, but in the case of St John’s Well in Berkhampsted, this is specifically stated by the records. It’s said that, during the 12th century, Hugh of Grenoble, Bishop of Lincoln, came there to put a stop to the locals worshipping nymphs and sprites by dressing the well with flowers and dancing around it on moonlit nights.
It was possibly at that time that a local monk was supposed to have had a dream directing him to bless the pagan spring, claiming it for Christianity. It was duly dedicated as a healing spring to St John the Evangelist, and a shrine and hospice was built, with a community of monks living there.
The well water was said to be a cure for many diseases, including scrofula and leprosy. However, one aspect of its reputation led to problems. It was said that anyone wearing clothes washed in the well would remain in good health, and in 1400 a group of washerwomen were prosecuted for polluting the well.
St Faith’s Well, Hexton
The sacred well at Hexton is, ironically, known principally from the account by the man who destroyed it as a relic of Catholic superstition. Francis Taverner, lord of the manor in the 17th century, was a hard-line Protestant who took a dim view of this kind of thing on his manor. Nevertheless, he left a detailed record of it, describing how:
the Crafye Priests had made a Well, about a yard deep and very cleere in the bottome, and curbed about, which they called St Faith’s Well.
There was also a shrine with a statue of St Faith, although Taverner seems to confuse her with “our Lady”, where pilgrims came to:
perform there devotions, reverently kissing a fine Colloured stone place in her toe (it seems the good ladye was troubled with Cornes in her feet)…The people that came to offer did cast some thing into the Well, which if it swamme above they were accepted and theire Petition granted, but if it suncke, then rejected…
Taverner scornfully adds that the priest was able to manipulate the result of this — presumably according to the value of the pilgrim’s offering.
The custom of casting an offering into water is, of course, known from Bronze Age offerings to modern superstitions of throwing coins into a fountain, so it’s difficult to judge at what period the custom began, and whether it was pagan or Christian in origin. Nevertheless, Taverner’s destruction was so thorough that it’s since been impossible to pinpoint the location of the well.
Other Sacred Hertfordshire Springs
Chadwell, now one of the two sources of the New River, was dedicated to St Chad (as was Cadwell at Ickleford). This suggests it may have been a sacred spring, although more emphasis was put on the purity of its water. The other source, Amwell (Emma’s Well), has no known sacred or curative associations, although it’s possible it may have once. Bishop’s Storford’s Holy Well, though, dedicated to St Osyth, was said to cure eye diseases.
Sir Henry Chauncy in 1700 referred to springs at Barnet, “Northall” (presumably Northaw) and Cuffley that had healing powers, although he doesn’t record whether they were considered sacred:
These purge most by Siege; the Mineral they are impregnated with is supposed to to be Alom, bur most certainly a mixt fixt Salt, of which ’tis hard to determine…for most Diseases that proceed from sharp and hot humours (if they pass freely) they prove excellent safe Purgers.
Most of the special waters in Hertfordshire, whether sacred, healing or both, have been considered beneficial, but there are exceptions. These are the “woe-waters”, which have been considered to foretell as manner of calamities. Chauncy describes how:
At Redbourne, the Ver was joined by a small brook called Wenmer or Womer, which sometimes breaks forth, and ’tis observed forerunneth a Dearth, or some Extremity of dangerous Import…
The Kine at Kimpton Bottom was also considered a woe-water, as was the Bourne Gutter at Berkhampsted, which “flows in times of war or rumours of war”.
Nevertheless, the great majority of special springs and wells in Hertfordshire have been held in high reverence and are considered beneficial. Some, like St Faith’s, are gone without trace, but the Chadwell and Amwell spring have been supplying London with healthy water for more than four hundred years. Whether or not any rituals were ever connected with them, perhaps this makes them sacred.
See also Doris Jones-Baker, The Folklore of Hertfordshire, 1977, B. T. Batsford Ltd