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article imageLiverpool's St. Anne's Well may be both blessed and cursed

By Karen Graham     Nov 5, 2016 in Science
Liverpool - Relying on an old 1983 photo, archaeologists say they have rediscovered a large, sandstone well that's waters were said to cure eye and skin diseases and wash away sins in Medieval times.
Archaeologists believe they have found that Medieval well, called St. Anne's well. It was rediscovered on private farmland close to the border between the townships of Rainhill and Sutton St Helens, near Liverpool, U.K. The well was placed on the Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register about six years ago.
The site of the well had been known, but after decades of neglect, the site was only marked with a couple of large rocks on top of a big patch of dead grass. Archaeologists found little evidence of a well at the site at first because the well was covered and filled in with earth.
St Anne s Well in Rainhill was at risk of being lost before the excavation.
St Anne's Well in Rainhill was at risk of being lost before the excavation.
Historic England
Discovery Seeker says that according to Historic England Heritage, which commissioned Oxford Archeology North to excavate the site, "the well had become completely filled with earth due to plowing."
It took two days of digging before the well was revealed. The well is shallow, being five foot by nine inches square and four feet deep. It was constructed of local ashlar sandstone blocks with a level stone floor and three stone steps leading down to the bottom.
Jamie Quartermaine, an archaeologist who supervised the dig, said the well appeared to be in reasonable condition, adding "The fabric of the well is consistent with a Medieval date." But there were a couple of things missing.
A stone conduit that at one time carried overflow water away from the well is missing, and a medieval carved relief of a woman carrying a pitcher, last seen in the mid-19th century when the well was still in use, is gone.
Even though there is no exacting association of St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, with water or wells in Catholic or Orthodox traditions, many water sources in England were believed to have healing powers, and all were dedicated to St. Anne.
"This well was probably a late Medieval foundation as the cult of St. Anne did not become widespread in England until after the end of the 14th century," Quartermaine said. And the dating of the well is important because "a Medieval past for many healing wells was assumed or even invented by later antiquaries, especially in the 19th century," said Alexandra Walsham, professor of modern history at Cambridge's Trinity College.
Saint Anne with Mary as a child.
Saint Anne with Mary as a child.
The legend of St. Anne's well
This particular well is also associated with what was the nearby Sutton Priory, which had 12 monks. But the priory was abandoned after Henry VIII's draconian dissolution of the monasteries. But at one time, the priory owned a quite extensive tract of land, including where the well was located.
Legend has it that St. Anne herself had bathed in the well, causing the well to have healing powers for eye and skin afflictions. Those people making pilgrimages to the well began to report that the holy waters also washed away their sins. The well became such a draw that the monks constructed a small, three-room house over the well.
Two monks lived in the house to tend the well and take care of the pilgrims and their gifts. The faithful would come to the well, and after dipping themselves in the healing waters would leave gifts. Sometimes it was only a shirt or maybe a cane or crutch. But there were also more lucrative gifts, such as a gold coin.
The story of the curse associated with the well
Now Sutton Priory was very well off, especially with all the good farmland it owned. It leased these lands to the local gentry, including a man by the name of Sir Richard Bold, who owned land that bordered on the priory's lands.
An event took place in 1536 that turned the sacred well into a cursed well, the result of a boundary dispute between the prior, Father Delwaney, and Hugh Darcy, the estate manager of the neighboring landowner, Sir Bold, according to a story recounted in the local 1877 YMCA's journal, the St. Helens Leader (pdf).
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. He was Chief Minister for Henry VIII and Vicegerent in Spirituals; crea...
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. He was Chief Minister for Henry VIII and Vicegerent in Spirituals; created the administrative machinery for the Dissolution.
Hans Holbein the Younger 1497 or 1498
Darcy and the prior had some harsh words and Darcy, sneering, ended the dispute by saying that maybe the prior wouldn’t be a prior for very much longer. Well, two days later, Layton and Leigh, agents of Thomas Cromwell charged with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, notified Father Delwaney that Sutton Priory was no longer.
Basically, the Crown claimed the priory and all of its land. The monks were given a robe, a few pounds and sent on their way. Father Delwaney realized that Darcy was probably behind the dissolution of the priory. The prior was enraged and cursed Darcy.
According to the St. Helens Leader, Delwaney 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.”
And sure enough, one year and a day after the curse was uttered, after a night of drinking, Darcy disappeared only to be found dead at the bottom of St.Anne's well, his head crushed in.
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