Do Norfolk’s wells have magical powers?

PUBLISHED: 07:00 20 August 2020

St Withburga Festival at St Nicholas Church in Dereham - St Withburga Well. Picture: Matthew Usher.

St Withburga Festival at St Nicholas Church in Dereham - St Withburga Well. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© Archant Norfolk 2014

Dene Bebbington takes a look at some of Norfolk’s wells and whether there is any truth in the beliefs that the waters could heal.

The anglican shrine at Walsingham. Photo Dene BebbingtonThe anglican shrine at Walsingham. Photo Dene Bebbington

Water is life. Perhaps that is why historically it’s had a spiritual significance beyond something we need to drink to survive. Ancient peoples couldn’t take accessible and clean water for granted, so it’s not surprising that water was considered sacred and to be worshipped. With worship comes rituals. A past ritual associated with water was the throwing of gifts into a well, a practice which continues to the present day with coins thrown into wishing wells.

Britain is dotted with relics of ancient history including holy and wishing wells, a few of which can be found in Norfolk. At Ashill village two timber lined shafts were discovered in 1874 during railway excavations. Dating back around 2,000 years, they probably had ritual use because pottery and toad bones were found in them.

People spreading Christianity across Britain tried to eradicate pagan beliefs by converting sacred places to Christian worship. This included wells, but it didn’t happen quickly as some people clung to old beliefs, despite decrees against them.

It’s recorded that under the reign of Saxon King Edgar in the year 960 priests were instructed, among other things, to “industriously advance Christianity, and extinguish heathenism, and forbid the worship of fountains. . .”

The remains of Walsingham Priory. Photo: Dene BebbingtonThe remains of Walsingham Priory. Photo: Dene Bebbington

Further Christian co-opting of pagan rituals occurred with well water being used in baptisms and handwashing. Wells were often dedicated to saints and churches built nearby.

In the town of Dereham the foundations for a church and convent were laid in 654 by St Withburga, but a couple of centuries later Danish raiders destroyed the church. The Norman church at the site was built in 1120 and extended at various times over the following centuries. When the remains of St Withburga were disinterred to be moved to Ely Cathedral – her body supposedly not decayed – a spring appeared in the emptied tomb.

These events led people to believe that the waters had healing properties and pilgrims then came in even greater numbers to the site to also drink the water.

The well can be found in the St Nicholas churchyard. Once covered by a chapel over St Withburga’s tomb, a bath house from the late 1700s is also long gone, having been removed in the 19th century since it didn’t attract visitors and was considered to be a hideous building. Yet the well still plays a role in Christian ritual. On the first Sunday of each July well water is blessed and sprinkled onto the church congregation.

The wells at Walsingham Priory. Photo: Dene BebbingtonThe wells at Walsingham Priory. Photo: Dene Bebbington

Over time the religious devotion to wells faded and making wishes replaced praying to a saint. The practice of leaving offerings such as pins or coins in healing wells carried over to wishing wells. Throwing a coin into a well may be harmless fun or a waste of small change in the hope of a wish coming true, but there may be an element of truth about its healing power.

Copper and silver have been used in coins for a long time. The oligodynamic effect is how these metals can act as a biocide to kill harmful bacteria, possibly making the water in healing wells receiving coin offerings safer to drink.

Elsewhere in the county at the village of Walsingham are the remains of a priory destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. A square stone bath and two circular stones basins can be found in the Well Garden by the remains Walsingham Priory. The two wishing wells are said to work if you follow the correct ritual.

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Beliefs about water weren’t restricted to the uneducated majority. The renowned Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus who visited in 1511 wrote that the well water was good for health, “Before the chapel is a shed, under which are two wells full to the brink; the water is wonderfully cold, and efficacious in curing pains in the head & stomach. They affirm that the spring suddenly burst from the earth at the command of the most holy Virgin.”

To benefit from the water, wishers were supposed to kneel with their right knee on a stone between the wells, put their wrists in the pools, make a wish and then drink the water cupped in their hands. Visitors can no longer do this since the wells are covered by a metal mesh, and the pooled water does not look inviting to drink. It’s doubtful that ritual played any part in healing beyond the placebo effect and quenching thirst.

Also at Walsingham is the Anglican Shrine near the ruined priory. Within the Shrine Church is a holy well discovered in 1931 when foundations for the Church were being prepared. Linked to the wells in the priory, this well became part of the shrine. It’s covered by glass and half surrounded by a brick alcove. An effigy of Our Lady with infant Jesus has been placed above the well within the alcove.

During the Middle Ages the shrine was one of Europe’s major pilgrimage locations because it was claimed that in 1061 Lady Richeldis de Faveraches was told by the Virgin Mary to build a replica of Christ’s Nazareth home. Travel is much easier now and over 200,000 pilgrims still come to Walsingham every year. In 2019 government and European Union funding was given to the Walsingham Way Project, a medieval pilgrimage route.

Sacred wells are remembered in literature as well as oral folklore and written records. A traditional poem called “The Holy Well” used in a folk song exemplifies this in two of its verses:

Sweet Jesus turned him round about,

To his mother’s dear home went he,

And said, “ I have been in yonder town,

As after you may see:

I have been down in yonder town,

As far as the Holy Well;

There did I meet with as fine children

As any tongue can tell.

We take safe water for granted and use it in far more ways than our ancestors could have done. But some of their beliefs still live on in wishing wells. Reminders can be found in the names of the Wishing Well cottage at Thursford and a care home at Happisburgh.

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