Holystone : Potential For Further Research
Holystone is unique amongst the villages selected for the Historic Village Atlas Project in being built on the site of a substantial medieval ecclesiastical complex, the Augustinian nunnery. The layout of many of the village’s present buildings clearly reflects this origin notably the demolished cottages to the south of the church and the ranges of Priory Farm, which are aligned parallel or perpendicular to the long axis of the church. It has generally been supposed that the main claustral ranges of the priory lay to the south of the church on the site of the cottages; however Ryder suggests the north side where the present graveyard is located. Certainly the alignments of Priory Farm imply some ranges of the nunnery lay in this area – perhaps the outer court with service ranges such as barns, stables etc. The field to the west was called Barn Yards at least as early as 1539.
The combination of a clear estate map of 1765 (PRO 242) and a detailed rental made in 1539, following the nunnery’s dissolution, allows us to trace elements of the surrounding township through time, showing that field plots such as Well field and the Barn Yards preserved a remarkable continuity over time. The map reveals additional details such as the existence of a second watermill, situated beside the Salmon Inn, which evidently functioned as a fulling mill (‘walk mill’). Most intriguing of all, the 1765 map depicts a conical dovecote of typical medieval form in the north-east corner of the field labelled Barn Yards, the same field where the 1539 rental also records the existence of a dovecote.
To the north of the village, the Lady’s Well (or Lady Well as it is named on the earliest map evidence) is a particularly atmospheric site. Roman origins have been suggested for this monument. Although the current stone lining of the basin reflects late 18th century refurbishment and perhaps medieval construction work, a Roman origin cannot be excluded.
The close proximity of this powerful spring to the Roman road link road between High Rochester and Low Learchild, which passes to the north west of the village, would have undoubtedly rsulted in it attracting some attention in that period. Numerous shrines with a watery focus have been identified along Hadrian’s Wall, and these obviously reflect a longstanding Iron Age, or earlier, religious tradition focussing on pools, springs, rivers and lakes.
There is, however, no firm evidence for any associations with St Ninian during the early medieval period and, despite the comments of local historians during the early-mid 20th century there is no indication that the name ‘St Ninian’s Well’ was traditionally applied to the site. This name which is first recorded at the begnning of the 20th century may reflect a local desire for a saintly association with the well, once the earlier link with St Paulinus’ baptising of the Northumbrians had been demolished by more careful textual analysis of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.
The authenticated traditional name – the Lady Well – implies an association with the nunnery and the Virgin Mary, to whom the church is dedicated, and although the nuns may not have been the first to make use of the spring, it is likely that the Priory played the major role in fashioning the well into its present form. This would have had both a practical purpose, to provide the nunnery with a reliable water supply, and perhaps a more spiritual and economic one, to foster the development of Holystone as a centre of local pilgrimage based on its erroneous association with St Paulinus’ baptising of the Northumbrians in AD 627.
The belief that Holystone was the site of the events recorded by Bede had certainly taken hold by the early 16th century and perhaps had a much longer pedigree. The current plan of the basin, with a rounded north end, is already shown on the 1765 estate plan, prior to the late 18th century refurbishment. In the early 18th century the antiquary Warburton records that the well still remained a focus of devotion for the local catholic gentry in the centuries following the nunnery’s dissolution. The Lady Well is thus a monument which has been continuously reinvented to suit the needs of different ages and it would clearly merit detailed archaeological investigation.
The nunnery is interesting precisely because it was never a grand or wealthy institution like the great Cistercian monasteries of Rievaulx or Fountains, which have received much attention. It provides an example of a how a minor religious institution in a remote Northumbrian valley survived the most turbulent events over a period of around four hundred years.
Many components of the village would merit investigation. The precise location of the dovecote could be revealed by geophysical survey. The intriguing nature of Priory Farm has been noted, apparently 17th century in date, but with relatively thin walls which might conceivably point to a much earlier, more peaceful era. At Mill House it is unclear whether the fine medieval stonework is in situ or reused. Targetted excavation might resolve some of these questions.
Assembling and documenting all the fragments of medieval stonework which have been uncovered over the years could shed light on the appearance of the priory buildings.
The Lady Well would also merit further study. Geophysical survey could be used to trace the course of the Roman link road in this area and define well’s spatial relationship to it. More invasive investigation could test some of the interpretations arrived at in the course of this study.