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Holy wells in Wales - sacred or profane?
(ffynnon is the Welsh word for well)
The best known ancient holy well in Wales is that of St. Winifred, located at the place called Holywell near Flint in the north of the country. It might surprise some of our visitors to find that holy wells were once very important to the Welsh people and that they existed in quite large numbers. Francis Jones, the authority on the subject (The Holy Wells of Wales, U. of Wales Press, 1954) listed hundreds throughout Wales. The picture below shows modern pilgrims gathered at the Virtuous Well at Trellech - in search of knowledge rather than cures for ailments. They came to hear an archaeologist talk about the history of the well and its surroundings. The Wellsprings Fellowship is a charitable organisation devoted to the conservation of these fascinating sites and to encouraging public interest. It is very good to hear that the Fellowship is collaborating with the landowner, Cadw (Welsh Historic Monuments), various agencies and the local people in a plan to carry out an archaeological investigation and conservation work at the Virtuous Well in 2004.

Francis Jones was in no doubt that many of these wells were important religious sites in pre-Christian days. Our pagan ancestors regarded wells, springs, lakes and rivers as the abodes of gods. No doubt a range of ceremonies were associated with them and they remained dear to the populace. In the year 601 Pope Gregory instructed missionaries to destroy the idols of Britain but to purify existing temples. Ancient pagan sites, including wells, gradually came to be associated with the early missionary saints and Jones found almost 200 examples of Welsh churches built at or near holy wells. 

Many of the wells were roofed and acquired small chapels with niches for statues of saints but over the centuries the upheavals in the religious life of Britain led to the desecration and destruction of many old shrines and the majority of the old well chapels disappeared. Ffynnon Fair Penrhys was a south Wales well belonging to Llantarnam Abbey at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. In 1538 Thomas Cromwell, vicar-general to King Henry VIII, ordered that the effigy of the Virgin Mary be removed "as secretly as may be" and the "Image and her apparel" were sent to London to be burned. The country folk were not easily swayed by the reformers and intellectuals of London, however, and pilgrimages to holy wells continued. In 1595 a large number of people were apprehended at Ffynnon Gwyddfaen in Carmarthenshire and brought before the local magistrate Morgan Jones of Tregib (a descendant of the ancient Welsh prince Urien Rheged). The squire refused to examine or imprison them and later referred to them as poor sickly persons who had wished to wash at the well "hoping by the help of God thereby to have their health". 

In the light of opposition by the established church of England, it is somewhat surprising that St. Winifred's well at Holywell has survived with associated buildings intact. The well and chapel were granted by the Countess of Chester to the monastery of St. Werburg in 1093. Later, possession reverted to the Welsh lords and in 1240 Dafydd ap Llewelyn granted it to Basingwerk Abbey. Kings Richard I and Edward IV are said to have made pilgrimages there and in 1439 the Countess of Warwick presented her "russet velvet gown" to the chapel (an early example of the present trend in which famous people donate garments for the benefit of favourite charities). Richard III met the cost of maintaining a priest at the well. The present architectural remains resulted from the largesse of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the future King Henry VII. It is possible that she prayed there for his success and when he was indeed victorious at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the Tudor dynasty attained the throne. The Tudors were proud of their Welsh ancestry and the royal connection seems to have accounted for the survival at Holywell.

As is often the way in Wales, some of the wells retained their ancient associations despite the religious and social upheavals of the centuries. Francis Jones notes the way in which wells often figure in the "Lives" of the saints. The surviving manuscripts date from around 1100 to 1400 and the theme of a saint's battle with dark forces at the site of a well is commonly encountered. Giants, demons (and sometimes women!) slew or were slain by saintly figures and the Lives confirm that even after the many hundreds of years in which Christianity had been the state religion, the wells were still associated with the ancient pagan beliefs of the Celts. It is remarkable that at least two wells appear to have retained, in their names, a connection with the Celtic gods. Ffynnon Gwenhudw seems to refer to a female water deity, the prefix Gwen "evidently represents an effort in Christian times to disguise the true origin of the goddess". (Jones) 

If you are interested in this facet of Welsh history and are planning travel in Wales, you might like to know that these sites are especially prolific in north Wales and the Isle of Anglesey and in the western county of Pembrokeshire. Local libraries and museums will have further information.

 John Weston 2002/3
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