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Some notes on St Anne's Well at Buxton

R.W. Morrell

Buxton Well 1610 (4k)

The only early illustration of St Anne's Well, Buxton.
From Speed's map of 1610.

For many centuries a healing spring known today as St Anne's Well at Buxton, Derbyshire, attracted multitudes of people anxious to partake of its water in the hope of obtaining cures for a variety of ailments. Prior to the Reformation it had been a pilgrim shrine, perhaps the best known in Derbyshire. In fact the healing spring was sacred long before the coming of christianity, for when the Romans arrived in what was eventually to become Derbyshire in search of lead and silver, they found a sacred spring and named their settlement at Buxton Aquae Arnemetiae ; Arnemetia being a Celtic deity. Her name consists of two parts, or elements, ar(e), meaning, 'in front of', and nemeton, 'a grove', thus the name the Romans gave their settlement can be said to mean the 'water of she who dwelt, or dwells, against the sacred grove'. The name, it will be noted, may well have druidic undertones or associations.

When the missionary monks of the Celtic Church brought their faith into the remote wilds of Derbyshire they would have come across the great healing spring at Aquae Arnemetiae. Now the Celtic Church was not adverse to utilising pagan holy places and beliefs to promote christianity. Indeed, they openly continued the time honoured practice of the 'Fathers of the Church' of taking over pagan beliefs and practices. Now while it cannot be proved from documentary sources it is likely that either they confused Arnemetia with a Christian saint, or (most likely in my opinion) they sought to show that the goddess was really St Anne under another name.

The cult of St Anne did not become popular in England until the fourteenth century. However, the dedication of Buxton's pagan healing spring to her was of far earlier date, indeed her Buxton dedication is thought to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest in England. There is a medieval legend which tells of a statue being found in the well. This could have been a statue of the Celtic goddess which the monks mistook for a miraculous statue of their saint.

Local records speak of the remains of the Roman well having survived until 1709, but as there is more than one spring at Buxton there is no way of determining that these remains were of the original healing spring, though the fact that a round structure is refered to would suggest they were not. The medieval shrine had achieved considerable local fame and a chapel was erected on the eastern side of the site spring site. In common with other shrines at holy wells the chapel, as local antiquaries believe, may have possessed an antechapel which straddled the spring.

The chapel, also dedicated to St Anne, was demolished some time in the fifteenth century, there being no reference to it in a description of the spring and its healing properties published in 1698. The statue was certainly removed and presumably destroyed by Sir William Bassett, acting on instructions from Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's minister, as his correspondence relating to the matter has survived.

In 1781, when the foundations of the present Crescent were excavated, the remains of what appears to have been a bath were discovered which measured, according to James Pilkington, thirty feet from east to west and fifteen across, with a spring located at the west end. This would suggest it was a bath in which pilgrims could bathe, as in the case of a similar bath still in use for this purpose at St Winefride's Well, Holywell, Flintshire - a healing shrine which has remained a centre of pilgrimage for over seven hundred years, being known today as 'the Lourdes of Wales'.

The Reformation saw what was, in effect, the secularisation of St Anne's Well, though pilgrims, including the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, still came in search of cures. The practice of leaving votive images depicting diseased areas of the body and, in the case of those cured, crutches and similar testimony to having received cures, continued. The objects had previously been left in the chapel, as was the case until recently at St Winefride's Well, as old photographs show, but when this was demolished pilgrims left them in the open near the well. Eventually in the sixteenth century the Earl of Shrewsbury paid for the erection of a pavilion to house them.

In his History of the English Church and People, Bede refers to the Pope giving permission for the pagan practice of decorating holy places with plants and such like to continue at pagan holy places which had been christianised. Thus commenced the ritual of well dressing, still very popular, perhaps for commercial rather than religious reasons, in Derbyshire. St Anne's Well is one of the two wells dressed in Buxton. From published records the practice had died out in the early nineteenth century, probably because the spring had now been replaced by a spa, but when in 1842 the then Duke of Devonshire provided piped water to the town at his own expense, the citizens revived the ancient custom in order to extoll the virtues of the Duke, who owned most of the town. The practice ceased again late in the nineteenth century but was yet again revived, though this time for purely commercial reasons - to attract tourists. The decoration was undertaken by outsiders who did not use the time consuming traditional methods of making the panels used to decorate the wells.

The development of Buxton as a spa town by the Dukes of Devonshire effectively destroyed the sacred character of St Anne's Well, which is now commemorated by a glorified drinking fountain (whether this taps the actual spring I have been unable for the moment to ascertain) nor is the monument sited where once the spring flowed. Perhaps one day when the world becomes a better place and people become aware once again of the sacred things in life and on our planet, the ancient holy place where the healing spring flowed, will once again become a place of pilgrimage.


Among the works I have consulted in compiling these notes the following have been the most valuable:
Henig, M. Religion in Roman Britain. Batsford, 1984.
Hope, R.C. The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. Elliot Stock, 1893.
Naylor, P.J. Ancient Wells and Springs of Derbyshire. Scarthin Books, 1983.
Pilkington, J. A View of the Present State of Derbyshire . . . Vol.1. J.Drewry, 1789.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.18 February 1994.

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