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
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
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.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
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.
End of official listing