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The mystery of St Hugh's Well, Lincoln

R.W. Morrell.

I recently purchased an old postcard which the caption described as depicting St Hugh's Well, Jew's Court, Lincoln. This well had been, along with the saint's shrine, a focal point for medieval pilgrims to Lincoln, particularly those who were ill and hoped to receive miraculous cures through the intercession of the saint. However, I was rather puzzled by the card for after the reformation the well had faded from memory and as far as I knew it no longer existed, yet here was a card which on stylistic grounds I dated to the first part of the present century not only showing it but locating it in Jew's Court. Now I had visited Jews Court several times but I had seen no indication there of the building housing the old holy well. So did the well still exist?

Before attempting to provide an answer to the question it is not out of place to take a look at the story of St Hugh, who, I might add, was never formerly canonised. The saga is similar to that of several other young boys who in the medieval period were thought to have been ritually murdered by the Jews.

Hugh was nine years of age and lived with his widowed mother in Dernstall near the bottom of Steep Hill, an area where many Jews lived. On July 31st 1255, he disappeared and his mother instituted a search for him which lasted several days before she learned he had been seen playing with some Jewish children. Entering the house we now know as Jews Court, she discovered the body of her son in a well in the basement. Following this the authorities thereupon arrested a large number of Jews and eventually eighteen were hanged, another, considered to be the ring leader, was done to death by being dragged around Lincoln by a horse. Heavy fines were also imposed upon the Jewish community.

No effort appears to have been made to discover whether anyone else might have murdered the boy, the conclusion was drawn that the Jews had ritually tortured and crucified him, and they were tortured until they confessed to having done so.

After the body of the boy had been taken home a large crowd collected at the house and soon stories of miraculous cures were circulating, including one concerning a blind woman who regained her sight after touching the corpse. These claims naturally interested the cathedral authorities who took possession of the body, which they buried in the cathedral, erecting an elaborate shrine above it.

In common with so many other shrines Little St Hugh's did not survive the reformation. Henry VIII's commissioners, when they turned up at Lincoln cathedral, ordered the shrine to be demolished and anything of value put into the care of the king's master of jewels. There is a story of the shrine having survived until the 17th century, when the Parliamentarian troops destroyed it, but the evidence for this is unsatisfactory, though it may refer to the remains of the shrine which had perhaps been put into storage to await better days.

The cathedral eventually had to make do with a notice telling the traditional tale of the martyrdom of Little St Hugh, but in 1959 this went the way of the shrine, the Dean and Chapter ordering its removal because, in the words of the Dean, the Rev D.C. Dunlop, they did not wish 'to see things that are untrue up on the walls of the cathedral'. He said a new notice would be erected which would set the record straight concerning 'trumped up stories of ritual murders of Christian boys by Jewish communities'. These 'fictions', Mr Dunlop added, 'cost many innocent Jews their lives...', and, 'such stories do not rebound to the credit of Christendom' (Daily Telegraph 15/10/1959).

Jews Court dates from 1175, but the story of the well shown on my postcard dates from 1910, the year in which the property was acquired by an individual who wanted to commercially exploit the building by exploiting its Little St Hugh associations. Unable to locate the well in which his body was found the owner instructed the builders who were carrying out renovations on the property for him to dig a well in the basement, though their action was not publicised and when the property was opened to the public visitors were invited, on payment of a small entrance fee, to inspect St Hugh's Well, as though it was the genuine article.

The secret of the 1910 well became public in 1928, when the man who had actually dug the well, Mr Harry Staples, gave details of it in an interview published in the Lincolnshire Echo on June 15th of that year. Mr Staples said the well was three feet deep and filled by buckets of water, sometimes being allowed to overflow. A board was erected in front to prevent anyone from testing the depth with a stick. Despite the failure to locate an actual well it was observed that water from an unknown source was discharged from a pipe beneath the pavement outside Jews Court.

The reason for the interest in the old holy well did not arise from a religious revival in Lincoln involving the cult of St Hugh, but because Lincoln Corporation proposed to demolish Jews Court as part of a slum clearance programme, although it was proposed to preserve the well and make it available for public inspection. There was an outcry about the plan to destroy what was considered to an historic building and eventually it presented to the Lincoln Archaeological and Architectural Society on the understanding they restored it. The society amalgamated with the Lincolnshire Local History Society in 1966 and ownership of the house was passed to the Jews Court Trust The pseudo St Hugh's Well is not open to the public.

The reason why the well was not found in 1910 could be due to the fact that the new owner and the building firm he employed were searching for a conventional well-shaft whereas what was called St Hugh's Well was a natural spring, the water of which emerged from a rock face and was collected in a stone or wood container, the overflow being allowed to run off via a pipe or channel into the street outside, where there would probably have been a central drain. With the passage of time the container would probably have rotted away, if it was of wood, or destroyed or re-used if of stone. Building work on Steep Hill may also have reduced the flow of water or diverted its path.

Evidence for there being a natural spring somewhere in the basement of Jews Court has been noted by the present tenants, for according to the Chairman of the Society for Lincolnshire Archaeology, who are based in Jews Court, the basement is so liable to excessive dampness that they have been forced to use a dehumidifier (pers. com.).

Although the traditional site of St Hugh's Well is firmly located in Jews Court, which may also have housed a synagogue in the medieval period as well as a school - Hugh was reported as playing with Jewish children, it has been suggested that the well was elsewhere. W.C. Oulton in his Travellers Guide or English Itinerary, published in 1805, writes of a well in Newport, or the New City, where many rich Jews had resided, called Grantham's Well, into which they had thrown a child 'they impiously crucified...' A map dated 1722 shows this well to be a little to the north of the Newport Arch, the old Roman gate in the upper part of the town. However, Oulton writes of it in the past tense, thus indicating it to no longer existed. There are a number of versions of the St Hugh story, one, a 13th century ballad, refers to St Hugh's Well being 'west of the castle'. If this is correct then both the Jews Court well and Grantham's Well cannot be the authentic St Hugh's Well. On the other hand the anonymous writer of the ballad may have got his town geography wrong, and this, I suspect, was the case for the overwhelming mass of tradition locating it in Jews Court.

To return to my postcard. The mystery was solved for what it shows is not the authentic well but that which Mr Staples dug, for, it would seem, not only did the owner charge people to visit the well he but he also had postcards printed showing it, and the card I purchased is is one of these, for at the bottom can be seen the board Mr Staples mentioned in his newspaper interview.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.14 February 1993.


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