I’ve been to a few Holy Wells in my time, some ancient pagan wells and some slightly less ancient but still extremely old Christian ones. The problem with wells in cities and particularly near to London is that they are either blocked up or entirely built over. Some times is simply due to the rise of piped water in the last century or two and sometimes to stop disease outbreaks but often it is simply because no-one cares anymore unless you’re like my neighbour who lovingly restored their well.
Whilst hugely bored during lockdown which sort of narrows it down for me between 6th February 2020 and last week, I became aware that there was a well not too far from where I live in St Albans. The clue is in the name of the district of the city ‘Holywell’ though that of course is no indication that what was once present 1,000 years ago might still be here today.
This well isn’t just Hertfordshire’s most famed well but possible the first well dedicated to a British Christian Martyr, and thus called St. Alban’s Well or Holy Well. Interestingly most people pronounce Holy Well like the plant Holly rather than Holy and in my experience that seems to be the case for most Holywell places in Britain.
Who was St. Alban?
Gildas and Bede accredit his martyrdom to the ruler Diocletian (c305), later authorities attribute Septimus severnus (c209) or Decieus (c254) to the act. His conversion to Christianity occurred when he sheltered a wanted priest (later St. Amphibalus). The priest taught Alban and baptised him as a Christian. The two exchanged clothes and his Roman cloak allowed the priest to more easily escape the city with Alban being captured instead. He was tried and sent to be executed. The journey to his execution, now locally commemorated each weekend close to St Alban’s Feast Day, is when the spring arose!
The legend of the spring
It is said that upon climbing the hill to his martyrdom became tired and thirsty. Falling to his knees he prayed to God to quench this thirst and miraculously a spring of fresh water appeared.
A tall Roman soldier had been walking beside Alban, carrying a great sword with which to cut off his head. But when he saw how gentle and good Alban was and how the people loved him, he began to feel sorry for what he had to do. As Alban knelt upon the grass the soldier threw down his sword, crying out, “This is a holy man. I cannot kill him.”
The captain of the soldiers was very angry at this. “Take up your sword,” he said, “and do your duty.” “I cannot,” replied the man, “I would rather die.”
“Then you shall die,” replied the captain. And drawing his own sword, with one blow he cut off Alban’s head and with a second the head of the soldier. At the same moment, we are told, the captain lost his sight and remained blind for the rest of his life.
This is the story of how the first martyr in Britain died. He was brave, and wise, and kind and, like Jesus, he gave his life for others.
This is however only one origin for the spring. The other story states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, he refused to offer pagan sacrifice, and was executed. His severed head rolled down the hill and where it rested a spring burst forth. This is a common holy well motif. After the adoption of the Christian church in the third century the spring gained great notoriety (although it is of course plausible that the spring was a pre-Christian site, gaining greater pilgrimage with Christian doctrine). St. Alban was also adopted, and finally installed in a Shrine in the Abbey. This was restored after the Reformation and is a beautiful example of a Pre-Reformation Shrine.
One might wonder how a holy well with such wondrous origins might have an even more illustrious history but incredibly Holywell in St. Albans has an almost equally incredible piece of ancient history to add to it.
Around the year 495AD Holywell was also visited by Uther Pendragon. If his name sounds familiar then it may be as you may be more familiar with his legendary son, King Arthur. It is said that on this year King Uther was a very old man when he came to St Albans to battle Saxon invaders from Kent. In fact Uther was so unwell it is written that he arrived at the battle pretty much being dragged along on a vehicle even less grand than a cart and his enemies mockingly labelled him “the half-dead King”.
Half-dead or not, Uther inspired his men to a legendary victory over the invaders and an medieval chronicle records ‘Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven’.
So as Holy Wells go, it’s hard to imagine one with much more going for it and as I all ready do tours of St Albans then I thought it would be an interesting addition to the mix. It does seem that hardly anyone knows about it and I’ve read that even the city council is largely unaware of it.
With 2 million people vaccinated in the U.K. over the weekend alone, I took the plunge and decided to head off on a little journey of discovery to find the well and incredibly I found it exactly where I thought it might be, my not having any sort of smart phones means all my expeditions are done the old fashioned way with a bit of research, intuition and sometimes a bit of luck.
I got on a deserted bus at the end of my street which took 9 minutes to get to a deserted train station. 3 minutes later I got on an empty train and less than half an hour after closing my front door, I was in Roman St Albans, or at least a Victorian part of it and I hadn’t seen another person.
On my way, I got myself a Soya Hot Chocolate from Costa Coffee and had my usual chocolate sprinkles added to the top. The Polish man who served me told me that he can split up his customers into 3. Fat people generally have marshmallows and cream on top, they are always so happy apparently. Skinny people don’t have any topping whilst people in the middle have chocolate sprinkles added. And that was my first incidental human interaction of 2021… it only took 3 months.
Knowing St Albans fairly well, it does help the you’re doing tours there, I went down Holywell Hill and knew it was on the other side of the road to the Abbey-Cathedral so followed my hunch and about a minute after leaving the almost deserted main street and taking a short cut down an alleyway, I set my eyes on this innocuous late 1980’s housing estate with some sort of open space in front of the first houses.
This must surely be the place!
Sure enough it was and not only was there still water in the admittedly very banal looking well but there was also a picnic table nearby so I could enjoy my hot drink whilst thinking back almost 2 millennia to think of the momentous events that took place here.
Whether you believe in the account of God making the spring appear or not, doesn’t take a way from the fact that Roman soldiers once marched over the very spot I was rest on. It’s unknown to what degree the legends of King Arthur has a historical basis but it is as a fairly safe assumption that a great battle took place here between a Roman-Celtic army from the west and a Saxon one from the east around 495AD so even if only the dry historical facts are true, it’s probably still one of the most historical wells in the world.
How many plagues and catastrophes must people have witnessed in the intervening years as they went for a refreshing drink here, just as I did. I thought it was quite funny, everyone else in the world is waiting to go in shops or eat out and here am I, the first tentative trip out was to find a very obscure bit of history.