Holystone : The Lady's Well
Discussion of the early medieval history of Holystone has traditionally focussed on the 'Lady's Well' or St Ninian's Well, situated a little to the north of the village. This remarkably atmospheric site is one of the best known features of Holystone as David Dippie Dixon commented a century ago (1903, 274).
The powerful spring, said to discharge 560 gallons a minute (Dixon 1903, 274), now issues forth into a rectangular stone-lined basin, which is rounded at the north-east end and measures 13m by 7.8m. The tank is orientated south-west to north-east and is surrounded by fir trees within a stone-walled enclosure. The current layout is largely the result of extensive restoration of the pool in 1788 (or 1780) when the tank was repaired, the walls rebuilt and a statue intended to represent St Paulinus was erected on a pedestal in the centre of the basin. The statue was subsequently moved to the south-west end in 1861-62 and replaced by a simple wheel cross (Hodgson 1907, 109; NCH XV (1940), 455).
The most detailed description of the site prior to its reconstruction is provided by the antiquary and herald, John Warburton, who visited in 1715. His account, which suggests that the present site essentially maintains the earlier layout, is worth repeating in full (Hodgson 1916, 3):
In a field adjacent (to the church) is Paulinus' Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 foot and 21 [foot] in breadth; wall'd about with a curious stone resembling porfire, p[ave]d in the bottome and incompos'd with a grove of trees and at each corner thereoff the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a . . . . stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned Bishop [Paulinus] kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who ofttimes come here on pilgrimage.
Warburton's dimensions - equivalent to 12.6m x 6.3m - are broadly comparable to those of the present site, but he does not refer to the rounded north-east end. However this is shown on an estate map of depicting the entire township in 1765 (NRO 6247.1; PRO MPI 242), some 15 - 20 years prior to the Lady Well's refurbishment in the 1780s, demonstrating that the latter did not alter the basic form of the monument.
The antiquary Leland (Itin. v, 62) associated this well with the site where King Edwin and 3000 others were baptised by St. Paulinus on Easter Day 627, and this has subsequently been followed by many commentators, notably Camden, Warburton (cf. Hodgson 1916, 3), Horsley and Wallis, becoming firmly entrenched in the secondary literature. However the modern consensus regarding the events recorded by Bede (HE 186-7), convincingly places the mass baptism at York, in the newly built church of St Peter's. Leland's identification is based on misreading in ecclesia Sancti Petri apostoli - in the church of the apostle St Peter - as Sancta Petra - Holy Stone (NCH XV (1940), 454-55). Hence this record provides no substantiation for the early medieval status of Holystone.
A local tradition, recorded by David Dippie Dixon, also associates the well with St. Ninian - 'the beautiful well at Holystone known to us as "The Lady's Well", also described as "The Well of St. Paulinus", was formerly known as "St. Ninian's Well"' (1903, 275). J. C. Hodgson (1907, 108) and the County History (NCH XV (1940), 455) in turn follow Dixon in speculating, progressively more imaginitively, on what role that saint may have had in the initial sanctification of the site. However it is very unclear how authentic this tradition is or when it first emerged.
Despite the unreliability and uncertainty of the historical traditions associated with the well, there are other grounds for arguing that it is a site of considerable antiquity. One of its most intriguing aspects is its location right beside the line of Roman road linking Dere Street and the Devil's Causeway (cf. MacLauchlan 1864a, 50; 1864b). Although MacLauchlan (ibid.) indicated that no trace of the road had been found in the immediate vicinity of the well, despite field drainage work, its line was well established on either side, leaving little doubt regarding the road's general position and orientation. Moreover, the south-west to north-east alignment of the stone basin would appear to broadly parallel that of the road, implying that the well was laid out at a time when the road was still in use or at any rate still a significant landscape feature. As a consequence, it has even been suggested that the stone tank was first constructed during the Roman period at a halting place on the link road (NCH XV (1940), 455; Grundy 1988, 198: HAR 33; SMR 1209).
However, although the provision of watering facilities for military convoys and other travellers in the Roman period is not inherently unlikely, there are considerable difficulties in accepting that this was the original function of the stone tank at Holystone. Such facilities would almost certainly have been associated with and protected by a fort or fortlet, yet no such site is known in the vicinity and, even if that lacuna were to be overturned by future discoveries, the likelihood that the link road was intensively utilised as a military highway for only a relatively short duration means it is less likely to have acquired elaborate stone-built waterworks. Similar objections apply if we imagine that the stone tank formed the plunge pool for a bathhouse associated with an as yet unlocated fort. Moreover cold plunges on this scale did not form part of the normal auxiliary-fort bathhouse, as demonstrated by examples excavated at Chesters and Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall, for instance.
Much more plausible is the possibility that the site originated as a rural shrine. Stone lined wells or springs of Roman date, are known at elsewhere in the region, e.g. Coventina's Well at Carrawburgh (Allason-Jones & McKay 1985), the Shrine of the Nymphs and the Genius Loci at the same site (Smith 1962) or the temple of Mars Thincsus at Housesteads (Peter McGowan Associates et al. 2002, 202-3).
A powerful spring, perhaps discharging into a natural pool, might well have attracted the interest of the garrison at High Rochester, as did the cave shrine of Cocidius at Yardhope, forming part of an imagined religious landscape created by the troops. Indeed such a spring and pool would in all likelihood have already been a focus of veneration for local Iron Age communities, as a portal between the tangible world and the underworld of deities and ancestral spirits. However the size of the stone tank at Holystone greatly exceeds that of any of stone lined springs of Roman date in the region. Hence, regardless of whether or not the well was a site of religious significance before the medieval period, it is difficult to believe that the form of the monument, as first described, represents actual Roman work, although only excavation could resolve the issue definitively.
Instead, the construction of the stone tank and the origins of the historical tradition linking it with St Paulinus should probably be sought in the medieval period and in particular may be associated with the activity of the Augustinian nunnery of Holystone. The well was certainly in existence by the end of the medieval period - as evinced by the reference to 'the Well-field' which figures prominently in the list of the demesne property held by Holystone Priory at the time of its dissolution in 1539.
In later centuries the spring fed into the race supplying the water mill and it is likely that it did so during the medieval period as well. It may conceivably also supplied the convent, flushing latrines and such like. It is probable, therefore, that the arrangements described by Warburton were constructed by the priory. Certainly it is difficult to believe that this kind of attention was lavished on the site's infrastructure in the two centuries between the priory's dissolution and Warburton's visit. The Catholic gentry of Coquetdale, the Selbys of Biddlestone for example, who maintained a private chapel from the dissolution onwards, clearly continued to use the site, as Warburton indicates, but, given its obvious 'Popish' associations, any substantial remodelling of the well might have attracted unwelcome attention from the Protestant state and church authorities.
The convent was never a wealthy institution - quite the opposite - but it is possible that it had a further motivation in taking special care over the layout of the spring. A papal mandate of 1375 gave control of Alwinton parish church to 'the Augustinian abbess and convent of Haleston alias Sacropetra'. The use of this alias, which presumably figured in the priory's original petition, implies that the nuns shared the same awareness, albeit mistaken, of the potential historical significance of Holystone's name, in terms of the events recorded by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History (HE, 186-7), as was exhibited by the later antiquaries.
It confirms that when Leland made the first explicit attested identification of Holystone with the site of St. Paulinus baptism of the 3000, he was in fact recording an established tradition, rather than making an original deduction. Such saintly associations could be very lucrative for religious institutions, attracting pilgrims and pious donations, and once conceived were obviously worth fostering. Clearly, Holystone never became a major focus of veneration and pilgrimage, but Warburton's comments regarding the attitude of the local Catholic gentry towards the site suggest that the nuns' endeavours may have met with some modest success helping to supplement the meagre income (£11 in 1536) they derived from their landholdings and parish churches.
Picture : The Lady's Well