St. Peter’s Well, York Minster, North Yorkshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – SE 6038 5219

Also Known as:

  1. Holy Well, York Minster

Archaeology & History

Old photo of the well

Old photo of the well

For people who like to visit the sacred sites that determined a cross-over from Earth-based animism to one which ceased sanctifying the Earth, this ancient water source in the cellars beneath York Minster would be a good example.  Sadly, the church has closed off access to this ancient heritage and you can no longer see it.  Yet despite the fact that the modern-day christians have closed off your encounter with this important heritage site (York Minster’s website doesn’t even mention its existence!), we should not forget its mythic history…

As you walk into the building (at some great expense, it has to be said), the location of the holy well is said to be at its more western end, albeit in the crypt underground—although there does seems to be some confusion with some authors about exactly where the well is positioned.

1850 sketch of the well

1850 sketch of the well

The earliest account we hear of the place relates to when the northern tribal King Edwin, along with his sons Osfrid and Esfrid, came here to be “baptized” in the waters of this clear spring “on Easter day, April 12, 627” CE.  Immediately thereafter a small wooden chapel was constructed next to or above the well.  From then on, as the centuries passed, the renown of the well grew and eventually the magnificent ritual temple of York Minster was eventually built.  The waters eventually became dedicated to St. Peter and an annual festival occurred here soon after the Midsummer solstice on what became known as St. Peter’s Day (June 29).  After the year 1462, a secondary festival date was also given to the site by the Church and another annual celebration occurred here on October 1 too.  Its waters remained accessible to people for drinking, healing and rites throughout the centuries.  It is only now, in the 21st century, that its sacrality and spirit has been closed-off.  This is a situation that must be remedied!

In Mr Goole’s (1850) survey of York Minster, his architectural illustration of the building showed that the water from the well had been brought up onto the ground floor, on the southeast side of the inner cathedral building in the easternmost vestry, and named as St Peter’s Pump.  This is illustrated in the 1850 drawing above-left.

A whole series of early writers mention the well in earlier centuries—of whom a brief sample is given here.  When Celia Feinnes came here in the 17th century, she said that,

“In the vestry of York Minster there is a well of sweet spring water called St Peter’s Well ye saint of ye Church, so it is called St Peter’s Cathedral.” (Smith 1923)

Mr Torre (1719) gave it equal brevity, saying simply that,

“at the south-west corner thereof is a draw-well (called St. Peter’s Well) of very wholesome clear water much drunk by the common people.”

In R.C. Hope’s (1893) national survey of sacred wells, he told that

“There is a draw well with a stone cistern in the eastern part of the crypt of York Minster… The Crypt is about 40 feet by 35 feet.”

The well was even included in Murray’s Handbook to Yorkshire (1892) as being “in the southwest corner of the Minster.” William Smith (1923) included the site in his fine survey, telling his readers that,

“The water is excellent in quality, which in measure, so chemists say, is due to the lime washed into it by the rain from the walls of the Minster.  The water has for centuries been used for baptisms, and is so used today.  The well has now for some years been covered with a pump.”

Folklore

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous early History, we find that King Arthur visited here. …And one final note, about which we know not for certain whether it was relevant to the holy well hiding in the crypt, but a fascinating heathen custom was enacted here in bygone days, almost above the spring.  Mistletoe, as Christina Hole (1950) told,

“was ceremonially carried to the cathedral on Christmas Eve and laid upon the high altar, after which a universal pardon and liberty for all was proclaimed at the four gates of the city for as long as the branch lay upon the altar.”

Mistletoe is one element that is known to have been sacred to the druids (not the present-day druids!) and was sacred to the ancient Scandinavians (who came here), and also possessed the powers of life and death in its prodigious folklore and phytochemistry.  Fascinating…

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Bord, Janet, Cures and Curses: Ritual and Cult at Holy Wells, HOAP: Wymeswold 2006.
  2. Gutch, Mrs, County Folk-lore volume 2 – North Riding of Yorkshire, York and the Ainsty, David Nutt: London 1901.
  3. Hole, Christina, English Custom and Usage, Batsford: London 1950.
  4. Hole, Christina, English Shrines and Sanctuaries, Batsford: London 1954.
  5. Hope, Robert Charles, Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, Elliott Stock: London 1893.
  6. Murray, John, Handbook for Travellers in Yorkshire, J.Murray: London 1874.
  7. Parkinson, Thomas, Yorkshire Legends and Traditions, Elliot Stock: London 1888.
  8. Poole, G.A., An Historical and Descriptive Guide to York Cathedral and its Antiquities, R. Sunter: York 1850.
  9. Purey-Cust, A.P., York Minster, Isbister: London 1898.
  10. Rattue, James, The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, Boydell: Woodbridge 1995.
  11. Smith, William, Ancient Springs and Streams of the East Riding of Yorkshire, A. Brown: Hull 1923.
  12. Torre, James, The Antiquities of York, York 1719.
  13. Whelan, Edna, “Holy Wells in Yorkshire – part 1,” in Source, No.3, November 1985.
  14. Whelan, Edna, The Magic and Mystery of Holy Wells, Capall Bann: Chieveley 2001.
  15. Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Dunnington 1989.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

St Peter’s Well, York Minster, North Yorkshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – SE 6038 5219

Also Known as:

  1. Holy Well, York Minster

Archaeology & History

Old photo of the well

Old photo of the well

For people who like to visit the sacred sites that determined a cross-over from Earth-based animism to one which ceased sanctifying the Earth, this ancient water source in the cellars beneath York Minster would be a good example.  Sadly, the church has closed off access to this ancient heritage and you can no longer see it.  Yet despite the fact that the modern-day christians have closed off your encounter with this important heritage site (York Minster’s website doesn’t even mention its existence!), we should not forget its mythic history…

As you walk into the building (at some great expense, it has to be said), the location of the holy well is said to be at its more western end, albeit in the crypt underground—although there does seems to be some confusion with some authors about exactly where the well is positioned.

1850 sketch of the well

1850 sketch of the well

The earliest account we hear of the place relates to when the northern tribal King Edwin, along with his sons Osfrid and Esfrid, came here to be “baptized” in the waters of this clear spring “on Easter day, April 12, 627” CE.  Immediately thereafter a small wooden chapel was constructed next to or above the well.  From then on, as the centuries passed, the renown of the well grew and eventually the magnificent ritual temple of York Minster was eventually built.  The waters eventually became dedicated to St. Peter and an annual festival occurred here soon after the Midsummer solstice on what became known as St. Peter’s Day (June 29).  After the year 1462, a secondary festival date was also given to the site by the Church and another annual celebration occurred here on October 1 too.  Its waters remained accessible to people for drinking, healing and rites throughout the centuries.  It is only now, in the 21st century, that its sacrality and spirit has been closed-off.  This is a situation that must be remedied!

In Mr Goole’s (1850) survey of York Minster, his architectural illustration of the building showed that the water from the well had been brought up onto the ground floor, on the southeast side of the inner cathedral building in the easternmost vestry, and named as St Peter’s Pump.  This is illustrated in the 1850 drawing above-left.

A whole series of early writers mention the well in earlier centuries—of whom a brief sample is given here.  When Celia Feinnes came here in the 17th century, she said that,

“In the vestry of York Minster there is a well of sweet spring water called St Peter’s Well ye saint of ye Church, so it is called St Peter’s Cathedral.”(Smith 1923)

Mr Torre (1719) gave it equal brevity, saying simply that,

“at the south-west corner thereof is a draw-well (called St. Peter’s Well) of very wholesome clear water much drunk by the common people.”

In R.C. Hope’s (1893) national survey of sacred wells, he told that

“There is a draw well with a stone cistern in the eastern part of the crypt of York Minster… The Crypt is about 40 feet by 35 feet.”

The well was even included in Murray’s Handbook to Yorkshire (1892) as being “in the southwest corner of the Minster.” William Smith (1923) included the site in his fine survey, telling his readers that,

“The water is excellent in quality, which in measure, so chemists say, is due to the lime washed into it by the rain from the walls of the Minster.  The water has for centuries been used for baptisms, and is so used today.  The well has now for some years been covered with a pump.”

Folklore

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous early History, we find that King Arthur visited here. …And one final note, about which we know not for certain whether it was relevant to the holy well hiding in the crypt, but a fascinating heathen custom was enacted here in bygone days, almost above the spring.  Mistletoe, as Christina Hole (1950) told,

“was ceremonially carried to the cathedral on Christmas Eve and laid upon the high altar, after which a universal pardon and liberty for all was proclaimed at the four gates of the city for as long as the branch lay upon the altar.”

Mistletoe is one element that is known to have been sacred to the druids (not the present-day druids!) and was sacred to the ancient Scandinavians (who came here), and also possessed the powers of life and death in its prodigious folklore and phytochemistry.  Fascinating…

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Bord, Janet, Cures and Curses: Ritual and Cult at Holy Wells, HOAP: Wymeswold 2006.
  2. Gutch, Mrs, County Folk-lore volume 2 – North Riding of Yorkshire, York and the Ainsty, David Nutt: London 1901.
  3. Hole, Christina, English Custom and Usage, Batsford: London 1950.
  4. Hole, Christina, English Shrines and Sanctuaries, Batsford: London 1954.
  5. Hope, Robert Charles, Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, Elliott Stock: London 1893.
  6. Murray, John, Handbook for Travellers in Yorkshire, J.Murray: London 1874.
  7. Parkinson, Thomas, Yorkshire Legends and Traditions, Elliot Stock: London 1888.
  8. Poole, G.A., An Historical and Descriptive Guide to York Cathedral and its Antiquities, R. Sunter: York 1850.
  9. Purey-Cust, A.P., York Minster, Isbister: London 1898.
  10. Rattue, James, The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, Boydell: Woodbridge 1995.
  11. Smith, William, Ancient Springs and Streams of the East Riding of Yorkshire, A. Brown: Hull 1923.
  12. Torre, James, The Antiquities of York, York 1719.
  13. Whelan, Edna, “Holy Wells in Yorkshire – part 1,” in Source, No.3, November 1985.
  14. Whelan, Edna, The Magic and Mystery of Holy Wells, Capall Bann: Chieveley 2001.
  15. Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Dunnington 1989.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  53.962277, -1.081200 St Peter\'s Well

Merlin’s Mount, Marlborough, Wiltshire

Tumulus:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1836 6867

Also Known as:

  1. Marlborough Mount
  2. Merlin’s Barrow
  3. Merlin’s Mound

Getting Here

Pretty simple.  Get to the chapel in front of Marlborough College, and look at the stepped hill in the grounds thereof (with a big hole cut into the top where a water tower once stood).  That’s it!  Please be aware that this monument is on college ground, so it might be worthwhile telephoning them if you wanna wander upon the hill.

Archaeology & History

Merlin’s Mount (from Colt-Hoare’s Ancient Wiltshire)

This curious rounded, pyramidal hill is thought by some to have given the town of Marlborough its very name.  Described in Domesday as ‘Merleberge’, which is reckoned to derive from “the hill or barrow of Maerla”: Maerla in this case being a lost olde English name, said in local folklore and tradition to have been our old heathen magickian, Merlin, of Arthurian fame and legend.  Long ago his bones were laid to rest here and this great ‘tomb’ built over him.  We might never know…

The exact nature and date of this mound has yet to be satisfactorily explained.  Commonly ascribed as Norman in origin (based mainly on the notion that it wasn’t mentioned before Domesday and there being motte and bailey ruins here), the finding of Roman remains near its base then led some to think they had built the hill; but when “antler picks used by its prehistoric builders were unearthed in the late nineteenth century and again in 1912 when a trench was cut for the flue of a new engine-house chimney” (Burl 2002), the dates for its origin went a lot further back!

One of the earlier commentators on this archaeological curiosity was Sir Richard Colt-Hoare (1812) in the days when much more of this and other sites were visible in the landscape, saying:

“The Mount within the gardens of the Castle Inn is a remarkable earthwork: it is a huge pile of earth, and inferior in proportions only to Silbury Hill.  Each is situated on the River Kennet; the one near its source, the other near its margin; and I have no doubt but that in ancient times each had some corresponding connection with each other.”

A sentiment echoed by our modern megalithic scholar, Aubrey Burl. (2002)  But as Burl points out, the distance between Silbury and Merlin’s Mount would have been measured not in distance by those who constructed these giant mounds, but in time.  And the focus of our ancestors here in relation to these two great artificial mounds, would not be esteemed as much by engineering or measurement — for both mounds are gigantic — but a wholly mythic one.  Colt-Hoare continued:

“This mound has been so mutilated, as well as lowered in its height, that it is impossible to calculate an exact measurement of either its circumference or height; but as nearly as we could guess with our chains, we found the base to be about 1000 feet in circumference, and the diameter of the summit 100 feet.”

A piece of Merlin’s Mount!

When the reverend A.C. Smith (1885) described Merlin’s Mount — or ‘Marlborough Hill’ as he preferred it named — more than seventy years later as, “an artificial tumulus which deserves careful examination”, it seems little further investigation had been done.  And despite Smith’s wish for such care and attention, even today no detailed archaeological investigation has been undertaken.  Astonishing!  This fascinating-looking pyramidal “barrow” was thought by several early writers to have been constructed along similar architectural designs as that of Silbury Hill.  In Massingham’s (1926) fascinating Egyptian-origin hypothesis, he tells us the following:

“Merlin’s Mount encompasses only an acre-and-a-half of ground in comparison with Silbury’s five-and-a-half, and reaches a trifle more than half its height (60 feet).  In every other respect the twain are alike.  Both were raised at the foot of a gentle slope, both were made of chalk resting on a thin layer of clay, both were trenched around the bases, and in both were buried the antlered picks of the builders.  Both were built near the banks of the (River) Kennet within five miles of one and other.”

It certainly is impressive!  When Michala Potts and I came here last year in the fine company of Pete Glastonbury and others, we were somewhat in awe of the fact that so little has been said of this site in modern archaeological terms.  Indeed, the fact that the jury is still out as to the age of its construction we found quite surprising at the time.  Though another quick reading of Mr Burl’s Avebury work, combining the Roman finds and the antler picks here, makes him think that “a prehistoric origin for the mound likely.”

The name of Marlborough itself has been given a number of interpretations, most notably the attempt to derive it from the great shaman-poet Merlin.  But on a down-to-earth peasant level we find, in John Aubrey’s Monumenta Britannica there’s a note in the margin concerning the ‘marl’ element in the place-name that was told to him by a local man called Edward Leigh, which said,

“Marga, marle, we use instead of dung to manure our ground. It (Marlborough) lieth near a chalky hill, which our ancestors knew.  They borrowed this name ‘chaulk’ of the Latin, calx, named marle.”

More recently Margaret Gelling (1984) thought that the name of this hill or mound “is variously interpreted as a plant-name or a personal name.”  Which for some brings us back to Merlin!  We might never know…

References:

  1. Best, J., “The Marlborough Mound,” in A. Whittle’s Sacred Mound, Holy Rings (Oxford 1997).
  2. Burl, Aubrey, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press 2002.
  3. Field, David, Brown, Graham & Crockett, Andrew, “The Marlborough Mound Revisited,” in Wiltshire Archaeologial & Natural History Magazine, 94, 2001.
  4. Gelling, Margaret, Place-Names in the Landscape, Phoenix: London 1984.
  5. Hoare, Richard Colt, The Ancient History of South Wiltshire and the Ancient History of North Wiltshire, London 1812.
  6. Massingham, H.J., Downland Man, Jonathon Cape: London 1926.
  7. Smith, A.C., Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs, WANHS 1885.

Links:

  1. Merlin’s Mount on Press TV

Acknowledgements:

With many thanks to Pete Glastonbury and Brian Edwards for their hints and corrections.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Merlin's Mount

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Merlin\'s Mount 51.416627, -1.737211 Merlin\'s Mount