St. Anne’s Well rescued from oblivion

A medieval holy well in the village Rainhill, in Merseyside, England, used for centuries by pilgrims for its reputed miraculous healing powers, has been recovered after decades of neglect. The location of St. Anne’s Well was known, but after decades of ploughing in the surrounding fields, it had filled up with soil and was marked only by a couple of rocks perched on a patch of half-dead grass. In danger of disappearing from the landscape all together, six years ago it was placed on the Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. Earlier this year, Historic England commissioned Oxford Archeology North to excavate the site and find out what was left.

Two days of digging revealed a shallow well 5’9″ square and four feet deep constructed of local ashlar sandstone blocks with a level stone floor and three steps lead down to the water basin. There is a thin layer of water at the bottom of the well even now. A stone conduit on the north side of the well which once carried overflow water from the well to a carved stone basin is no longer extant. Also missing is a medieval carved relief of a woman carrying a pitcher that was last recorded on site in the mid-19th century when the well was still in use.

While there doesn’t seem to be an explicit association of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, with water or wells in Catholic or Orthodox traditions, in England many waters believed to have healing powers were dedicated to her. Veneration of sacred springs, wells and fonts was a common in pre-Christian religions, so it seems likely the powers of earlier divinities or forces were mapped on to Anne in the late Middle Ages when her cult became increasingly popular. The wells were sometimes said to have been visited by an apparition of St. Anne who bathed in the waters rendering them miraculous; other times her image appeared in the water or structure of the well, like Jesus on a potato chip.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Rainhill St. Anne’s Well had a reputation for specializing in the treatment of skin diseases. Pilgrims seeking healing would walk down the steps and dip into the water that naturally filled the basin, seeping in from below the stone floor. The faithful who sought aid from the healing waters would leave offerings, from the simple (crutches, shirts) to the rarefied (gold coins), another practice long predating Christianity. As the holy well became a greater and greater draw, Sutton Priory, the monastery about a mile away which owned the well, had a small three-room house built over the well. Two of the priory monks lived in the house to tend to the well, the pilgrims and their gifts.

Sutton Priory was small in population, having about a dozen monks, but large in income. Besides the well, which by the 16th century was very lucrative, it owned the valuable surrounding farmland which it leased to moneyed members of the gentry. A boundary dispute between the priory and its neighbor Sir Richard Bold would transform the holy well into a cursed one.

The legend of how the holy well became the locus of a curse was recounted in the St. Helens Leader (pdf), the journal of the local YMCA, in 1877. Hugh Darcy, Bold’s steward met Prior Delwaney and traded harsh words with him. Darcy sneered that maybe the prior wouldn’t be a prior a much longer. The year was 1536, and one or two days after that tense exchange, Layton and Leigh, agents of Thomas Cromwell charged with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, notified Delwaney that Sutton Priory was to be no longer. All the monks were given a couple of pounds, a robe and packed off to another monastery (until that one too was dissolved), and the crown claimed all of the priory’s property, including the holy well.

When the prior and the crown’s agents went to the well, they found Dancy there, gloating. Delwaney became enraged at Dancy’s taunts and hissed: “The curse of the serpent be on thee, thou spoiler of the Lord’s inheritance. Thy ill-gotten gains shall not profit thee, and a year and a day shall not pass ere St. Anne thy head shall bruise.” Three hours later, Delwaney was dead. Dancy did fine at first, acquiring the farmland that included the well and demolishing the house over it. But within months his only son was dead, his lost his money in dubious investments and he took to drinking heavily. One night, after an evening of imbibing at the tavern, he failed to come home. He was found dead the next morning, head smashed against the well.

The story of the curse and the loss of the priory didn’t stop people from seeking healing in the waters of St. Anne’s Well. It was in use into the 19th century, adding to its previous reputation one for healing diseases of the eye. It was captured in a sketch by naturalist and fossil-hunter Richard Owen in 1843, and it still had its basin and the relief of the lady with the pitcher. By 1877, however, when the St. Helens Leader article was written, the stones were broken, the water dried up and weeds grew unchecked.

The well is on private property today, but Historic England has struck an agreement with the farmer to keep the well from getting clogged with dirt and disappearing again.

New wooden edging to the perimeter of the excavation will prevent soil falling in, and provide a buffer to protect the well from damage by farm machinery. It can now come off the Heritage at Risk Register.

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Comment by Rob
2016-11-03 10:04:52

Odd for there to be such a large patch of dead grass around a well. Can’t see that wooden border doing much to keep soil or farm implements away. Sounds like a good spot for a bit of metal detecting.

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Comment by Michael/Canada
2016-11-03 11:30:48

I find the photo of the restored well with its garland of old white people somewhat poignant; partly because I am also an “old white person” with an interest in history. Not one young person or “person of colour” as the Yanks say…

Do the young or indeed any of the new immigrants care about the restoration of such relics of a former age. In a sense, why should they as pride in one’s origins and a sense of history have largely gone out of style, especially with the young.

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Comment by picturerock
2016-11-03 11:49:14

Well, It’s probably that with the passage of years, people become more appreciative and interested in the ages gone by and their traditions. I’m sure that the young of today will do the same as their elders, given enough of the seasoning of time.

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Comment by Cathy J
2016-11-03 15:17:15

The “Jesus on a potato chip” line is a rather uncharacteristically cheap shot.

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Comment by Andersson
2016-11-03 16:22:49

Jesus on toast would be far more reverent, but either is a suitable modern equivalent to St. Anne in a water stain. I wonder if the more creative pagans saw Apollo in their fish saucepan, would referring to it be a cheap shot? Facts is facts

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Comment by Michael/Canada
2016-11-03 16:36:51

One person’s item of faith or miracle is another person’s snort of derision. Twas ever so and it will remain that way unless the Christian or Muslim fundamentalists have their wicked way with the rest of us.

I’m less tolerant than I used to be of comedians or anyone else making fun of anyone’s religious beliefs, for any reason, but it is also a fact that people continue to find well-publicized holy images in toast, crackers, mildew in cracks in walls etc. Should we take such instances as proof of Godly intervention? I don’t but I won’t make fun of someone for feeling that way. To be fair, I didn’t think that was the intent of the writer of this post.

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Comment by BruceT
2016-11-04 02:00:20

The potato chip remark reminds me that you can buy pans that will produce Jesus or the Virgin on grilled cheese sandwiches on demand. Tortilla presses with both and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Better than indulgences and healthier for the plucked.

Farm equipment costs a boatload of money to buy and keep up. No farmer in their right mind is going to run it into into a wooden barrier on purpose. The barrier is likely more to mark the location of the well so farmers in the future will know to stay well clear. Who would ruin a piece of equipment possibly costing close to six figures by running it into nearly six feet wide, four feet deep rock lined pit knowing darned well where it is?

It looks from the before photo as if the grass around the area of well may have been cleared earlier to probe in preparation for excavation. Two, due to the well the water table under that particular patch is likely lower than in the surrounding soil. A dry well to drain water away from a house can have the similar effect on the surrounding grass.

The main problem for the farmer will be keeping debris from filling it and the curious and vandals from damaging it. Keep the shotgun close at hand and give the dogs free run to keep the uninvited out.

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Comment by dearieme
2016-11-04 09:05:28

I too object to “Jesus on a potato chip”: over here it would be “Jesus on a crisp”. But as a waspish remark I rate it highly. If a God-botherer doesn’t have a sense of humour, that’s his problem. Or maybe His.

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Comment by Anne
2016-11-05 00:06:33

It’s thought that the number of wells devoted to St Anne were earlier sacred places dedicated to the Celtic goddess Anu (who has various other names). She was an earth/mother goddess associated with wild places, who became conflated with St Anne in the early medieval period. This was a typical approach taken during the establishment of Christianity – Christianize a long-standing pagan practice rather than stir the pot by trying to abolish it.

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Comment by dearieme
2016-11-05 10:34:11

“This was a typical approach taken during the establishment of Christianity – Christianize a long-standing pagan practice rather than stir the pot by trying to abolish it.”

I guess that’s analogous to the origin of the nativity fables: if Zeus could impregnate women, why not Jehovah?

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Comment by Neo Cortex
2016-11-05 13:31:36

Apparently, there is a Celtic goddess ‘Annea’ that was venerated in northern Italy, later referred to as ‘Anu’ or ‘Danu’.

This name may be derived the Proto-Celtic theonym *Φanon- or *Dānu, which seems to indicate ‘floating water’, and therefore in the Celtic heartlands of central Europe, the ‘Danube’ might flow for a reason.

Additionally, in Celtic languages, there is the connotation of ‘Ann, Anu/Ana’ to ‘Mother’, and surprisingly the same connotation exists the Turkish language (‘ana/ anne’).

I remember when I was invited to some friends of mine of turkish origin, they spoke to a certain ‘Ane’ over the phone and I was later informed that my friend had only spoken to her mother – An(n)e ? Which Anne ? 😆

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Comment by Annie Delyth
2016-11-05 19:55:43

Interesting discussion. I am drawn to springs and seeps, and was told once that it is related to my name. Made no sense to me then, but it does now. After I bought my current home at the end of a harsh winter, as the ground thawed I learned that it has a spring at one side. It had been filled in so that it made a kind of bog of much of the yard at that side. A friend helped me dig it out, recreate the outlet, and now I have a sweet little streamlet that runs under a tiny bridge and thence disappears into a sand seam that once was the beach of a glacial lake. My own Anu shrine.

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Comment by Graham Clive
2016-11-06 07:06:40

I recall Tom Slemen talking about this well on the radio about ten years back, and the radio presenter kept saying “Pull the other one”. The well was exactly where Tom said it was. Great find.

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Comment by BruceT
2016-11-09 15:08:49

A further comment on the lack of green grass above the well.

I was knocking around an archaeological web page the other day and there was a picture of the well uncovered, but not fully excavated. When I looked at the uppermost picture, of the two rocks and the bare ground you can see where clumps of sod have been disturbed and the pattern of the missing grass resembles the layout of the well.

My guess is the well was uncovered for a preliminary excavation, then filled in until a full scholarly excavation and cleaning could take place. It explains the the disturbed soil and the lack of thriving grass along the outline of the well below.

The second picture down is similar to the one I saw on the site, but with much less mud and dirt fill and lot more of the stone lining exposed and dirt free.

Again, it’s just a guess.

I grew up in a region of abandoned farms that coalesced into larger cattle, corn, tobacco and soybean operations. The old hand dug wells were filled in as they were a danger to animals and people alike. After the coming of public service districts and county water most modern drilled and lined wells were capped except those used for irrigation and livestock. Filling in and capping old wells is something country folks generally do out of necessity. No one wants to hear Lassie bark out, “Timmy’s down the well!” for umpteenth time.

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Comment by James
2016-11-10 20:12:35

That’s so fantastic! What a simple and wonderful restoration. All the talk of ‘at risk’ monuments, heritage, etc seems always to focus on grand palaces and homes. There’s so many instances of older but less ostentatious heritage like this that also needs help!

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Comment by Deborah Smith
2016-11-13 17:47:14

Fascinating story! Love history.

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Comment by Deborah Smith
2016-11-13 17:50:04

Will follow-up on this bit of history.

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Comment by Brian Renshall(Rainhill)
2016-12-08 14:37:57

How did Delwaney die ?

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Comment by Karl
2016-12-21 15:08:27

Nice one. Being a hungarian, I can tell You for sure, that in my language, which is called Magyar, the words ‘anya’, ‘anyu’ means mother. This language has a lot of words from slavic, turk, finnish origin but it’s kinda unique in overall.

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Comment by Nancyk
2017-08-30 15:10:26

St Andre Bessette in Ecorse MI USA has a pirogi with Jesus on it from cooking. They are very proud of it & the Diocese of Detroit has blessed it. So I’m not offended by the Jesus on a potato chip comment. It does happen.

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