The Lady's Well and section of Roman road


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Northumberland (Unitary Authority)
National Park:
National Grid Reference:
NT 95282 02912

Reasons for Designation

Holy wells are water sources with specifically Christian associations. The custom of venerating springs and wells as sacred sites is also known to have characterised pre-Christian religions in Britain and, although Christian wells have been identified from as early as the 6th century AD, it is clear that some holy wells originated as earlier sacred sites. The cult of holy wells continued throughout the medieval period. Its condemnation at the time of the Reformation (c.1540) ended new foundations but local reverence and folklore customs at existing holy wells often continued, in some cases to the present day. The holy wells sometimes functioned as sites for baptism but they were also revered for less tangible reasons, some of which may have had origins in pre- Christian customs, such as folklore beliefs in the healing powers of the water and its capacity to effect a desired outcome for future events. Associated rituals often evolved, usually requiring the donation of an object or coin to retain the 'sympathy' of the well for the person seeking its benefits. At their simplest, holy wells may be unelaborated natural springs with associated religious traditions. Structural additions may include lined well shafts or conduit heads on springs, often with a tank to gather the water at the surface. The roofing of walled enclosures to protect the water source and define the sacred area created well houses which may be simple, unadorned small structures closely encompassing the water source, or larger buildings, decorated in the prevailing architectural style and facilitating access with features such as steps to the water source and open areas with stone benching where visitors might shelter. At their most elaborate, chapels, and sometimes churches, may have been built over the well or adjacent well house. The number of holy wells is not known but estimates suggest at least 600 nationally. They provide important information on the nature of religious beliefs and practices and on the relationship between religion and the landscape during the medieval period.

The well at Holystone is a fine example and the best preserved well in Northumberland. Its putative longevity of use from the Roman period to modern times, in particular its association with early Christian use and an adjacent medieval nunnery renders this monument of considerable archaeological interest.


The Lady's, or St Ninian's, Holy well is situated on the north west side of the small village of Holystone, immediately north of the well established course of the Roman road from High Rochester Roman fort to the River Aln, and at the opposite end of the village from the site of a medieval Augustinian priory. The main feature of the well today is a rectangular stone tank with a rounded north east end which measures 13m by 7.8m and is orientated south west to north east. This tank is considered to be of Roman origin located on a halting place along the Roman road. A natural spring feeds the tank, the water being filtered through fine sand at the bottom. In the medieval period the Augustinian nuns who inhabited the priory at Holystone gained possesion of the well and it is thought that the name Lady's Well may have been given at this time. The well, which had been ruinous for some time, was repaired in 1780 when the stone edging walls were rebuilt and a 15th century stone statue was brought from Alnwick Castle and erected in the centre of the well. A stone table which resembles an altar is situated at the east end of the tank and this may also date from the 18th century repairs. In the second half of the 19th century the statue was removed from the centre of the well to the south west end and a stone cross erected in its place. The statue is situated within the socket hole of a large roughly squared stone of unknown origin and date but not unlike the base of a medieval cross. The well has served a variety of functions during its long history; in early Christian times the myths surrounding it claim that it was a baptismal well, in the early 18th century it was a healing well but by the early 20th century it was a wishing well into which crooked pins and occasionally coins were thrown. It is today used as the water supply for the village of Holystone. An ancient myth associated with the well states that in AD 627 Paulinus baptised 3000 Northumbrians at the well; it is now accepted that this myth stemmed from a misreading of the writings of the Venerable Bede, a monk and historian born near Jarrow around AD 673. The name of St Ninian, Bishop of Whithorn in south western Scotland between AD 500 and AD 550, is also attached to the well although any association is unsubstantiated. The monument is also a listed building Grade I. The course of a Roman road enters the well enclosure at its north western corner and passes immediately north of the water tank to leave the enclosure at the north eastern corner where it proceeds in a north westerly direction to cross the River Coquet.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


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This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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