Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Holystone: Lies & Legend (NT952029)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse 

Scarcely can an ancient site have attracted so much in the way of historical speculation than that of the Lady’s Well, a little to the north of Holystone, Northumberland. For such a well-known site, incredibly little is known of the origins of its fame, save that it has been there for a very long time and that folk never tire of making up tales about the place.

Essentially, of course, it is a natural feature of the landscape: a spring. And it is an abundant one at that, issuing forth an astonishing 560 gallons per minute. Clean, fresh water being such a precious commodity in the old days, these sorts of places were very important to our ancestors. This particular spot has gone by a number of names in its time: St.Ninian’s Well, Paulinus’ Well and (Old) Lady’s Well being the best known. It has given rise to all sorts of stories over the centuries, too, the most famous being that the early Christian missionary, Paulinus, baptised King Edwin and 3,000 of his followers there in 627AD. A flat stone which once lay near the spring was even said to have been the platform upon which the mass ceremony was conducted.

Nobody even seems to know the sequence of events which took the originally natural site through to its present look. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that it was revered from the earliest days of human habitation of the region. The Roman road that passes almost over the spot would suggest that the invaders made much use of the watery facilities, too, in the early centuries AD (the NE-SW orientation of the pool matches the course of the ancient road). It may well have been the Romans who tidied and paved the area, and it probably acted as a shrine of some sort, too, to the passing legions.

There can be no doubt that the early Christian leaders thereafter made use of the spring, though any links to the likes of Paulinus and St.Ninian are purely speculative. However, when the nearby nunnery (originally Benedictine, then Augustinian) was built at Holystone around 1124 the legends came crawling out of the woodwork – an attempt, of course, to attract attention and funds to the impoverished institution. In all likelihood, the legend of Paulinus and the baptising of the 3,000 probably took place in York, in fact.

By the time the nunnery was dissolved in the days of Henry VIII the lies and legend surrounding Holystone’s Lady’s Well had become well established ‘fact’. The local catholic gentry in particular latched on to the stories and propagated them in the ensuing centuries. Then, at some point in the 1780s, the site was restructured along the lines we see today, supplemented by a little Victorian tinkering during 1861-2 (when the statue of St.Paulinus was moved and the cross erected to replace it).

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