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Popular Superstitions - Custom Of Decorating Wells

( Originally Published 1884 )

In the village of Tissington in the county of Derby, a place remarkable for fine springs of water, it has been a custom, time immemorial, on every Holy Thursday, to decorate the wells with boughs of trees, garlands of tulips, and other flowers, placed in various fancied devices ; and, after prayers for the day at the church, for the parson and singers to pray and sing psalms at the wells. I should be glad to be informed by any of your correspondents, what was the original of this custom, whether it is not handed down to us from the Druids, and whether they know of any other custom of the like kind in the kingdom.

Your correspondent F. J. having given you a short account, p. 115, of the custom still prevalent at Tissington, in Derbyshire, of decorating the wells on Holy Thursday, please to inform him that it was antiently no uncommon practice ; and two places in the county of Stafford instantly occurred to my recollection, viz., Brewood and Bilbrook, where the same custom was observed of late years, if not at the present time. And I believe the same kind of ornaments were used to decorate all Gospel-places, whether wells, trees or hills. In Popish times this respect was paid to such wells as were eminent for curing distempers upon the saint's day whose name the well bore, the people diverting themselves with cakes and ale, music and dancing ; which was innocent enough in comparison of what had been formerly practised at different places, when even the better sort of people placed a sanctity in them, brought alms and offerings, and made vows at them, as the antient Germans and Britains did, and the Saxons and English were too much inclined to ; for which St. Edmund's well, near Ox ford, and St. Laurence's at Peterborough were once famous. This superstitious devotion, which was called well-worship, was not approved of by the heads of the Church, and was strictly prohibited by our Anglican Councils : (1) Under King Edgar (Can. 16. in Lambard's Collection) ; (2) Under King Canute (in Spelman's Councils, tom. i. part ii. cap. 5) ; (3) In a council at London, under St. Anselm, Arch-bishop of Canterbury, r 102 (Labbé's Councils, tom. x.) ; as it was also particularly at those two wells near Oxford and at Peterborough by Oliver Sutton, Bishop of Lincoln.

A correspondent in your Magazine for March mentions the custom of decorating wells ; and inquires whether there are any other wells, besides those in his account, which are accustomed to be ornamented. Near Newcastle, on the road to Benton, in my younger years, I have often observed a well with rags and tattered pieces of cloth hung upon the bushes around it. It is known, I presume, still by the name of the Rag Well.

A SON OF THE TYNE.

Throughout the whole of your valuable Magazine, there is no mention made of the ancient and annual custom of decorating, with flowers and boughs of trees, the wells at the village of Tissington, co. Derby. Various are the conjectures respecting this ceremony; some supposing it to be the remains of a heathen worship, observed the four last days of April, and first of May, in honour of the goddess Flora, whose votaries instituted games called Florales or Floralia, to be celebrated annually on her birthday. But because they appeared impious and profane to the Roman Senate, which was the case, they covered their design, and worshipped Flora under the title of " Goddess of Flowers ;" and pretended that they offered sacrifice to her, that the plants and trees might flourish. While these sports were celebrating, the officers or aediles scattered beans and other pulse among the people. These games were proclaimed and begun by sound of trumpet, as we find mentioned in Juvenal, Sat. 6 ; and had they been divested of obscene and lewd practices, so far from incurring censure, they would have handed down to posterity admiration at the innocent pastimes of the ancients, instead of regret, that such proceedings should have been countenanced by the great.

From the above being recorded, it is not unlikely that the custom originated, in some parts of England, of the youth of both sexes going into the woods and fields on the first of May, to gather boughs and flowers, with which they make garlands, and adorn their doors and windows with nosegays and artificial crowns. Triumphing thus in the flowery spoil, they decked also with flowers a tall pole, which they named the May-pole, and which they placed in some convenient part of the village, and spent their time in dancing round it, consecrating it, as it were, to the Goddess of Flowers, without the least violation being offered to it through the circle of the whole year. Nor is this custom alone observed in England, but it is done in other nations, particularly Italy, where young men and maidens are accustomed to go into the fields on the Calends of May, and bring thence the branches of trees, singing all the way as they return, and so place them on the doors of their houses.

In the dark ages of Popery, it was customary, if wells were situated in lonely places, and the water was clear and limpid, having the grass flourishing close to its edge, to look upon it as having a medicinal quality ; and accordingly it was given to some Saint, and honoured with his or her name, as St. John's, St. Mary Magdalen's, St. Mary's, St. Winefred's, St. Anne's. And Stow records that Fitzstephen, Monk of Canterbury, in his " Description of the ancient City of London," has these words :

" There are, on the North part of London, principal. fountains of water, sweet, wholesome, and clear, streaming from among the glistering pebble stones. In this number, Holy Well, Clerken Well, and St. Clement's Well are of most note, and frequented above the rest, when scholars and the youth of the city take the air abroad in the summer evenings."

But I am inclined to think that this custom first originated among Christians, to commemorate the return of the spring, and also to show, that they ascribe praise and thanksgiving to God, for vouchsafing them such a return. The season chosen by the villagers of Tissington, to dress their wells, is on Ascension day. And this ceremony cannot fail to impress on the mind, that immortality is now secured to man, by the Ascension of Christ. The flowers used on this day may be emblematical of ourselves, and that though we may in the morning be full of life and health, yet the evening of life will come, when, like them, we must fade and droop; but not to be seen no more; for provided we are found worthy we shall ascend to the fields of eternal spring, to dwell for ever with Him who is gone up in triumph to His Father. The texts of Scripture, and other religious sentiments that are placed among the greens and flowers about these wells, together with the service solemnized at the Church, show the grandeur and sublimity of a Christian worship, and how different from those religious festivals of the Romans, called Fontanalia, in honour of the nymphs of their wells and fountains ; when they threw nosegays into the Fountains, and put crowns of flowers upon the wells.

I will now proceed to give an exact account of the circumstances attendant on this annual festival, which was on the 8th of May, 1823, while I was on a visit at Ashburn, with my friend the Rev. Thomas Gibbs, second master of the Grammar School there, and curate of Tissington. There are five wells, and the psalms appointed for morning service, with the Epistle and Gospel for the day, being omitted at Church, were read by Mr. Gibbs, one at each well, when a psalm was also sung by the parish choir. I officiated in the Church, and preached a sermon on the occasion, from I Peter, 3rd chap., former part of 22d verse.

The method of decorating the wells is this. The flowers are inserted in moist clay, and put upon boards, cut in various forms, surrounded with boughs of laurel and white-thorn, so as to give an appearance of water issuing from small grottoes. The flowers are adjusted and arranged in various patterns, to give the effect of mosaic work, having inscribed upon them texts of Scripture, appropriate to the season, and sentences expressive of the kindness of the Deity. They vary each year, and as the wells are dressed by persons contiguous to the springs, so their ideas vary. I copied the sentiments and texts from each, at the same time taking an account of the style in which the wells were dressed, and the patterns formed by the flowers.

From the Church, the congregation walked to the first, or the Hall Well, so called from being opposite to the house of the ancient family of Fitzherbert. Here was read the first psalm for the day, and another sung. As there is a recess at the back of the well, and an elevated wall, a great profusion of laurel branches were placed upon it, interspersed with daffodils, Chinese roses, and marsh marygolds. Over the spring was a square board, surmounted with a crown, composed of white and red daisies. The board, being covered with moss, had written upon it in red daisies :

" While He blessed them He was carried up into heaven."

The second, or Hand's Well. This was also surrounded with laurel-branches, and had a canopy placed over it, covered with polyanthuses. The words on the canopy were :

"The Lord's unsparing hand Supplies us with this spring."

The letters were formed with the bud of the larch, and between the lines were two rows of purple primroses and marsh marygolds. In the centre above the spring, on a moss ground, in letters of white daisies :

" Sons of earth

The triumph join."

Beneath was formed in auriculas :"

The second psalm for the day was read here.The third, or Frith's Well. This was greatly admired, as it was situated in Mr. Frith's garden, and the shrubs around it were numerous. Here were formed two arches, one within the other. The first had a ground of wild hyacinths, and purple primroses, edged with white, on which was inscribed in red daisies, "Ascension."

The receding arch was covered with various flowers, and in the center, on a ground of marsh marygolds, edged with wild hyacinths, in red daisies

" Peace be unto you."

Here was read the third psalm for the day.

The fourth, or Holland's Well, was thickly surrounded with branches of whitethorn placed in the earth. This well springs from a small coppice of firs and thorns. The form of the erection over it was a circular arch, and in the center, on a ground of marsh marygolds, edged with purple primroses, in red daisies, these words :

In God is all."

At this well was read the Epistle.

The fifth, or Miss Goodwin's Well, surrounded with branches of evergreens; having on a Gothic arch, covered with marsh marygolds, daffodils, and wild hyacinths, the following in red daisies :

" He did no sin."

On the summit of the arch was placed a crown of laurel, over which was a cross of white' daisies, edged with wild hyacinths; on the transverse piece of the cross, "I. H. S." was placed, in red daisies. At this well was read the Gospel.

The day concluded by the visitors partaking of the hospitality of the inhabitants, and being gratified with a well-arranged band, playing appropriate pieces of music at each other's houses.



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