Druids and Holy Wells

What is the connection between Druids and holy wells? The Druids may well have originated in Britain in the Late Bronze Age, and one place to look for them is Flag Fen Near Peterborough in Cambridgeshire. Here Bronze Age Britons deposited swords, brooches and spearheads in the waters of the fen as offerings to the gods. Nearby is the late Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm, recently dubbed “Britain’s Pompey” (it burned and collapsed into the water, preserving the last meal of some of the inhabitants).
In the medieval period, Ely, a large island in the Cambridgeshire Fens, was home to the early Anglo-Saxon saint Etheldreda. In the 12th century a well was constructed over her original grave. and the well was associated with miraculous events. St. Ivo of St Ives (Cambridgeshire) was associated with a miraculous spring in the Middle Ages, and there is still a holy well at the nearby (and aptly named) Holywell.
Many holy wells are associated with pagan sites, and I’ll choose just one example. Coventina’s Well at Carrawburgh Roman fort near Hexham (Northumberland) was a focus of offerings to the gods throughout the Roman period. Not far from Coventina’s Well is St Cuthbert’s well at Bellingham (Northumberland), and the medieval shrine and holy well of Our Lady at Jesmond near Newcastle Upon Tyne.
I’m currently doing research into holy wells, and I hope to publish much more in the near future. Meanwhile I strongly recommend the websites Holy and Healing Wells (mostly for England), Well Hopper (mostly for Wales), and the short lived journal “Source, which is available on the internet.

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6 thoughts on “Druids and Holy Wells

  1. Dear mr Melrose, I made a message here on my interest in Celts following the books of Cunliffe and Koch saying Celts went east fron the Atlantic coast. You seem to say the opposite: west from the east. I am not sure whether my message came through (it says a wrong e mail adress, but I could not find my message back), so in short: I am very interested in Atlantic cultures from Englnd and Scotland, Brittany uo to Spain Portugal. Thousands. And I learned, many older than 4000 BC. So there must be a much older English culture (oplder than the Druids you focus on in your books) that used the stone circles and megalithes for varying goals like religion and agriculture. You had a part in the book on Druids and King Arthur about ancient astronomy, and that is for me the 2nd reason to seek contact. I am a retired agriculturist and especially interested in old use of stars for astronomy for agriculture (knowing the seasons) and also for sailing (fishing and travelling at ancient days in those older cultures) and their use to find teh way on land and sea. Is it possible for you to advice about books or articles on these themes other than your writing? I also saw on BBC 2 the new findi8ngs on Orkneys (partially under water and estimated 5000 BC). So, where to find an overview of especially the astronomic knowledge?

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    1. Apologies for the delay in moderating your interesting post. I did indeed say in the “Druids and King Arthur” that the Celts spread from east to west. However, in my more recent book, “Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur”, I do accept that the Celts came from the west, from the Atlantic coasts of Iberia, Ireland and Britain. I also say much more about ancient astronomy, and also possible links between astronomy and agriculture. For example, at the Thornborough Monument Complex in North Yorkshire, Orion’s Belt was visible over the western bank terminal of all three southern henge entrances between 3300-3000 BC. This would have happened by mid-August to mid-September at Thornborough. Hesiod, writing around 700 BC (over 2000 years later, and in Greece!) says in his “Works and Days”: “when the Pleiades, Hyades and strong Orion begin to set, then remeber to plough in season”, and associated Orion with gales. I also mention Orkney, particularly Maeshowe. The best site for finding out about the Ness of Brodgar is the Orkneyjar website, which has reliable information on all the archaeology of Orkney. I agree that Orkney was very important in the Neolithic. Julian Thomas, in “Rethinking the Neolithic” explains that Late Neolithic Grooved Ware originated in Orkney and spread as far south as Durrington Walls near Stonehenge and even into Dorset.
      If you’re interested in prehistoric astronomy before the Neolithic, look for information on the Mesolithic site at Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire. Excavations of a field there found a series of 12 pits which appear to mimic the phases of the moon and track lunar months.

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      1. Dear mr Melrose,

        Thanks for this very quick answer and info on the Scottish lunar calendar of mesolithic times. I will study the data on these findings. For me, at the moment, is of interest that astro-observations in Scotland and French Lascaux were much older than the mesopotamian and that the Atlantic cultures between Spain and Scotland are older than the Greece and Egyptian culktures and perhaps have more to offer than expected. I did buy via internet your book on the Druids and will probably do the same with the book you mention, especially with respect of astronomy. I will of course look further in the Scottish lunar calendar as you suggested. Thanks, this may lead to visit some places on the British isles.
        Other info on ancient astronomy is welcome!
        For your info: I am a Dutch retired agriculturist trying to learn more about the Atlantic cultures: the thousands of monuments spread along the coasts are a prove of important communities and culture that disappeared by some reason (sealevel rise as in the Orkneys and Brittany, climate and worser weather for food production???)

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  2. Yes, weather is an important factor in prehistoric communities. This is clear at the Thornborough Monument Complex. The area around the complex was active until the Middle Bronze Age, then showed no activity until the Late Iron Age. The upland areas of Britain (including Dartmoor in Devon) became colder and wetter for a time. This probably coincided with the Bronze Age Collapse, when the Mycenaean and Hittite civilisations vanished, and ancient Egypt went into decline.
    This must have affected agriculture in Britain, but we don’t know very much about this. In the Middle Bronze Age land in the Wessex area (e.g. Wiltshire and Hampshire) was divided into small square plots called “Celtic” fields. Later, in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age, the lines of these “Celtic” fields were cut by so-called “ranch boundaries”, which divided the land into much larger areas (you can find this information in Barry Cunliffe’s “Iron Age Communities in Britain”). I don’t know what this says from an agricultural point of view, but perhaps you have some ideas.

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    1. There is a remark on Flag fen at Petersborough and Druids. Is that another person writing this or is it mr Melrose? I myself visited Flag fen last year and the connection with Druids is new for me. I did not make that remark
      Henk van Oosten

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      1. The remark about Flag Fen and the Druids is mine. I connected the two because there were Druids on Anglesey in the Late Iron Age, and there was a sacred lake at Llyn Cerrig Bach. It seems likely that the Druid priesthood originated in Britain in the Late Bronze Age, and Flag Fen was Late Bronze Age and a watery place. I have no proof that there were Druids at Flag Fen, but there were obviously priests. And given the recent discovery of “Britain’s Pompeii” nearby, the people living there had a well organised society of the type that Caesar implies when he writes of the Druids.

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