Sacred wells (or ‘holy wells’) were once found throughout the British Isles and represent an aspect of pre-Christian belief which survived as a result of ecclesiastical ‘reinterpretation’ rendering them (just about) orthodox. The idea underpinning sacred wells is that there is a benevolent spirit (akin to a genius loci) which somehow inhabits, or has responsibility for, the well and can be engaged with in order that the water of the well might have a healing effect. While such wells came to be associated with various saints in order that they should be cleansed of pagan connotations, the same underlying principles remained intact.
A person in need of some kind of healing (which could include healing of both bodily and mental ailments) would visit a sacred well and make an offering to the spirit/saint of the well. An offering might be made as a down-payment in advance of a successful healing or left out of gratitude for a healing that had already occurred. Sometimes ritual words would be spoken or ritual actions undertaken (walking around the well a certain number of times, and so on). Sometimes a well would be visited at a particular time of year which was said to be especially fortuitous or powerful. Offerings and rituals varied from place to place but some common practices do emerge.
Rag wells were a common form of sacred well, particularly in Scotland and the North of England. At such wells, rags were left as offerings to the spirit of the well and were often tied to trees and bushes adjacent to or overhanging the well. In addition to rags, other common offerings included pins, needles, nails, shells, pebbles, and coins of low value. Such devotion was still in evidence in the Nineteenth Century. John Brand, writing in 1841, comments:
The leaving of rags at wells was a singular piece of popular superstition… This absurd custom is not extinct even at this day: I have formerly frequently observed shreds or bits of rag upon the bushes that overhang a well in the road to Benton, a village in the vicinity of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which, from that circumstance, is now or was very lately called the rag-well. The name is undoubtedly of long standing: probably it has been visited for some disease or other, and these rag offerings are the reliques of the then prevailing popular superstition.
(Brand, 1841, p.224)
The leaving of rags at sacred wells continues to this day, although I am unsure as to whether this is through unbroken local tradition or through modern revival; perhaps it is a mixture of both.
In addition to these traditions, particular types of tree are also associated with sacred wells and have often been found over them or nearby. The types of trees held to have sacred qualities that were found near holy wells are hawthorn, elder, ash, oak, hazel, holly, yew, and rowan (Varner, 2009, p.62). The elder was long associated with pagan devotion and was the object of censure from church authorities (ibid, p.63). Wulfstan, an 11th Century Archbishop of York, for example, had the following to say:
And it is right that every priest eagerly teach Christianity and crush all heathenism; and forbid the worship of springs, and necromancy, and divination and incantations, and the worship of trees and stones, and the devilish trick people perform in which a child is dragged across the earth, and the superstitions practiced with various auguries on New Year’s night and at pagan shrines and elder-trees, and a great many other errors which men practice much more than they should.
The yew has also long been held to be a tree of special significance, being planted in numerous churchyards, a practice which Brand suggests ‘might be nothing more than a remnant of that superstitious worship paid by the ancient northern nations, in their Pagan state, to trees in general, and to oaks and yews in particular – a deeply rooted habit, which for a long time infected the Christian converts of the north of Europe’ (Brand, 1841, p.260-261).
Further reading on the topic of sacred wells: