Friday 27 June 2008

In search of a sacred spring

Around the corner from where I work, in London EC2, is Holywell Lane. It is an ordinary city street, with office blocks and a few shops, but the name suggested a sacred well must have been there in the past, so I decided to ask some questions about it.

A woman I work with told me that in the Middle Ages, Holywell Lane, in Shoreditch, marked one edge of Holywell nunnery, which was founded by 1158. It covered eight acres and was the richest Augustinian nunnery in England.

However, this was slightly contradicted by something I found on a great website Sacred Sites, which said that Holy Well in EC2 is mentioned in John Noorthouck's History of London, published in 1773:

“In the parish are two prebends, and part of a third, belonging to St Paul’s cathedral, in the city of London: The first dominated by Eald-Street, or Old Street, received that appellation from the Saxons being part of the Roman military way: the second, which had been a separate village for many years, by the name of Hochestone, vulgarly Hoxton, likewise itself to be of a Saxon origin: the third called Haliwell, had its name from a vicinal fountain, which, for the salubrity of its water, had the epithet Holy conferred on it.

In King John’s Court, Holywell-lane, are to be found the ruins of the priory of St. John Baptist, of Benedictine nuns, founded by Robert the son of Gelranni, prependary of Haliwell, and confirmed by charter of Richard I in the year 1189. It was rebuilt in the reign of Henry VII by Sir Thomas Lovell, knight of the garter; who was there buried: and the following ditty was in consequence painted in most of the windows.

All the nuns of Holywell, Pray for the soul of Thomas Lovell.”

I couldn't find out for certain whether the nunnery was Augustinian or Benedictine, but both sources confirmed there had been a well in the area.

Many springs or wells were revered as sacred long before Christianity came to the British Isles and it is possible that the holy well in Shoreditch was one of these, as well as being respected for the "salubrity" of its water. I do not know if any archaeological finds have linked it to pre-Christian ritual practices.

There are more than 20 holy wells in and around the London area. Some still exist, although usually hidden beneath man-hole covers. The one in Holywell Lane has long been lost under roads and buildings.

I intend to spend more time visiting other sacred springs around London and will write about them on A Bad Witch's Blog.

If you have any more information about the history of Holywell Lane, or other sacred sites, email me or leave a comment on my blog.


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