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03/08/2005 Archived Entry: "Wells"
I was asked recently if there is any distinction between a holy well and a wishing well. The short answer is "No."
In medieval times, our region was rich with both types of well, a well at that time being little more than a spring of water issuing from the ground. It did not necessarily have any kind of structure built around it but inevitably as the well became more popular, it was protected by building either wooden or stone surrounds. More formal wells were constructed as deep mine-type shafts, but those early holy wells are much smaller and not so formal, often little more than springs.
Many still exist in our region and there is a prime example in the village of Lastingham in the North York Moors National Park. King Ethelwald asked a monk at Lindisfarne to build a monastery on a piece of land at Lastingham. The monk, whose name was Cedd, set about his task but, unfortunately, he was struck down with the plague and died in 664 before the monastery was completed. However, the well, which is one of four in the village, was dedicated to his memory; it can be found near the bridge.
It was that clean, pure and fresh water which made wells so important. In ancient times, and into our medieval past, the drinking water of our forebears was often dangerously impure due to a lack of sanitation and care, but water from deep wells was pure. This made it very special because the people thought it cured all manner of ailments.
In fact, the water was probably not always curative. What happened was that it did not make them sick or ill. Because people could drink it without becoming ill, the pagans thought it was magical and some believed it was the dwelling place of a god. For this reason, wells became places of pilgrimage, with sick people trekking long distances in the hope of a cure. When they arrived, they tried to influence the resident god of the well by placing precious things in the water, things which he or she might find useful. This could be anything from coins, pins, crockery, buttons or flowers and greenery; as they were thrown in, the thrower expressed his or her hopes.
Those wishful hopes might be anything from wanting good health to finding a life-time companion or even becoming rich, and by drinking the water, which often contained health-giving minerals, such desires were sometimes granted. This served only to enhance the reputation of these sacred wells, and it is not surprising some were considered able to grant miracles. Those places were holy wells of pagan times, granting wishes and helping people to become healthier.
One must assume that the presence of such gifts in the precious water did not foul it but when Christianity came to these islands, the church had great difficulty persuading the local people to abandon their holy wells. The simplest thing was to adapt them to the Christian way of life and so the pilgrimages continued. Gifts, often in the form of money, were thrown into the wells, and instead of pagan wishes at the well-side, Christian prayers were said. There can be little doubt that the prayers sought the same blessings as those wishes of earlier times.
Holy wells and wishing wells are therefore exactly the same, even if some wells are now dedicated to Christian saints. In Christian times, beliefs in the efficacy of these wells were commonplace, with some wells being accredited with special powers. Some could cure ailments in cattle, for example, others were said to cure sterility in men and women while yet more were capable of effecting cures of almost any human ailment. In addition, of course, they were thought to grant one's prayers, provided one made a suitable offering, just as the pagans had done with their wishes centuries earlier.