The Stowe bandstand
or: what not to do with a holy well
The ancient parish church of St Chad at Stowe, Lichfield, is an interesting historic building, traditionally thought to stand upon the site of a small monastic settlement established there by St Caedda, better known by its latinised rendering as Chad.
Chad was brought up and trained for the priesthood of the Celtic Church, considered schismatical by the Roman Catholic Church, which strove to suppress it, eventually succeeding in doing so at the Synod of Whitby in 664 CE. Chad, who accepted the decision even though he remained Celtic in spirit, soon had occasion to discover what Roman domination brought, for he was appointed bishop of York in place of Bishop Wilfred, a Romanist (who, on being appointed set off for France to obtain consecration from Roman prelates, and liking life there - and the fuss made of him - stayed put for two years). The archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore, decided to depose Chad, maintaining that Wilfrid was still bishop of York and there was no place for two bishops in the town. In addition, he held Chad's episcopal consecration to be defective, so he was sent packing back to Lastingham, where he had been abbot of a monastery founded by his brother.
Perhaps the treatment accorded Chad caused a row, details of which Bede, to who we owe most of what is known about Chad, kept silent about, for in 669 Theodore made good the defect in his consecration, presumably by sub-conditional reconsecration, and appointed him bishop of Mercia, an area which then took in the east and west Midlands, parts of what became Dorset, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire and even a bit of Wales, his seat being at Lichfield. Chad has been described as the first bishop of Mercia, but in fact there had been at least four previous Celtic bishops with the title. However, as Rome considered Celtic episcopal consecrations defective they became, in effect, non-persons.
Chad reigned as bishop for only three years, dying in 672 CE., possibly of the plague, as Bede hints when referring to heaven sending a plague which 'bore away the living stones of the Church from their earthly stations....' (History of the English Church and People, Penguin, 1970. p.208) before describing a divine warning given Chad that he did not have long to live.
To the north west of Stowe church in Lincoln is a paved area in the centre of which is what looks like a square fish pond, above which has been placed a structure looking for all the world like a glorified bandstand. The pond is brick lined and the water in it still and clear. Near the 'bandstand' covered 'pond' is a notice informing all and sundry that the area is sacred, but nothing is said of Chad or his well, so anyone visiting who has read about it will probably go wandering off to seek it. However, the pond is the well, though you will peer into the water in vain to see the stone upon which Chad is said to have stood and prayed. It is all cold and clinical with no sense of feeling, perhaps this fact prompted the church to have the notice put up.
Old photographs of St Chad's Well show it to have been covered by a domed stone structure about ten feet high, with an arched entrance and steps leading down to the water. At the apex of the arch was a stone bearing a two line inscription reading: CE EP/DCLXIX, the last being the roman numerals for 669, the year of Chad's appointment. The other four letters are probably initials. Stylistically the well house dates from the 19th century and was situated in an arboreal setting. Tradition says the well water was for bathing in, being effective in curing skin complaints and easing rheumatic pains, but some illustrations indicate it was consumed for they depict cups being available. One I have shows a lady in Victorian dress actually holding a cup. I suspect the well was rather further back than that which is now passed off as St Chad's Well.
While visiting the site I got into conversation with an elderly couple who had lived all their lives in the area and knew the old well building. They did not understand why it was demolished, for they said it was as far as they could see sound. As children they had played around and in the well, and drank the water with no ill effects. They had never seen any ceremonies at the well, but near by, and now replaced by a community centre, was an old cottage which when they were children had been lived in by an old woman who kept a large number of cats. She was firmly believed to be a witch.
It would appear that the old well building had been demolished in the late 1940s, though the vicar, when contacted by post, was unable to give a precise date, and this is now being looked into. The reason for the demolition was the unsound condition of the well house, but, as noted, doubts exist as to whether this was so, and one suspects the real reason was a reluctance on the part of the church authorities to maintain the building. Whatever the case, what was done to the well is in my opinion nothing less than official vandalism.
All this is far removed from what used to happen at St Chad's Well, which on Ascension Day (Holy Thursday) was decked out with flowers and greenery. A service was held in the church following which the congregation processed to the well where another short service was held. Once the religious rites had been performed feasting, games and general merrymaking took place. In the early part of the 19th century the celebrations were reduced to a procession to the well of cathedral choristers carrying green boughs and singing a psalm. On arrival the vicar read the gospel for the day and the party then returned from whence it came. Even this practice had died out by the second half of the century and the well became progressively ignored, except by sick people who still visited in the hope of obtaining relief or a cure.
As mentioned earlier, Chad was abbot of a monastery at Lastingham, to where he returned following his sacking as bishop of York. In that village can still be seen two holy wells, one dedicated to St Cedd, Chad's brother, the other to Chad himself. At one time there was a well in London dedicated to him. This was eventually developed into a small leisure garden but by the early 1840s William Hone described its run-down state. The well water was considered good for curing indigestion and, one suspect, hangovers, and he refers to people paying 6d for a glass of its water in preference to a half-penny for a mixture concocted up 'by the ingenious chemists art' which did exactly the same sort of thing the well water did. He also gives the charges for using the well and garden, for which customers could drink as much or as little of the water as desired. A year cost one guinea, a quarter 9/6d., a month 4/6d, while a week cost 1/6d. Hone says the water was put into 'an immense copper' and heated before being served. This ancient well turned spa was destroyed when its site became part of King's Cross Railway Station, though it is a pity they did not name the station after Chad.
Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.13 November 1992.
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