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Sunday, 8 July 2007

Black Prince's Well, Harbledown

Post by Graham Mallaghan to National Wells Index forum.
Sunday 8th July 2007


NGR: TR129582
Postcode: CT2 9AF

I live approximately 300 metres from this well, and 200 metres from St Nicholas' Hospital. The well is freely accessible to the public, as are the grounds of St Nicholas Hospital. Entry to the church and frater - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED can be arranged by contacting Gill Raynor, the Sacristan, on 0044 1227 (edit in later).

This well is situated within the grounds of St Nicholas' Hospital, Harbledown which was established as a Leper Hospital in 1094 by Archbishop Lanfranc. With the disappearance of leprosy from England at the end of the C14th, it became a complex of almshouses. Presently, it continues to serve this function, providing accommodation to those elderly people fortunate enough to qualify for a corody from the Archbishop of Canterbury. The medieval site was extensively developed in 1598 and the Elizabethan almshouses were replaced by the present accommodation and frater in 1846. The church is still largely 12th century. St Nicholas' was a parish within the larger parish of Harbledown and Rough Common until 1934 when this status was abolished. The Hospital and the fields and orchards that once comprised Hospital Farm are now simply extra-parochial.

The well lies beneath the almshouses near the road entrance to the hospital site (just inside the grounds). The well is accessed by walking up a bank and then down into the chamber by a series of broad flat steps. I will provide precise dimensions on the part of this site for recording technical information and will also post a photo there. The 5 steps, made of stone flags, are approximately 3 feet wide. At the bottom of the steps there is a flat paved rectangle approximately 3ft x 4ft which floods when the well is full, now a very rare occurrence. The well housing itself is a arched embrasure approximately 5 feet 8 inches high which is set into an earth bank (the height is approx 6ft at the top of the keystone). The stone of the present structure is set upon a circular brick chamber which contains the water that flows into it from a hole at the back. There is no outflow, with excess taken care of by evaporation. The bricks are of the hand fired pre-industrial kind smaller and narrower than their Victorian saw-cut successors. A low retaining extends from each side of the central embrasure to hold up the bank.

The present well structure was constructed in or shortly after 1846, from medieval spolia taken from the structures demolished during the early Victorian redevelopment or from the many ruins cleared from the site at that time. A woodcut of 1776 shows that the well was approached on the flat at that time. This indicates that the steps and their stone-lined passage, also both built of medieval spolia, were products of the late 1840's redevelopment in imitation of other Holy Wells. It is known that the present ground level, about 4 feet higher than that of 1776 is the product of landscaping in 1846. The woodcut also appears to show that the well stood wholly within flat ground at this time, with no bank behind it.

The keystone of the well-housing's arch bears the Prince of Wales' feathers, presumably in reference to the Edward, the Black Prince. The stone on which they are carved has a carved concave curve at the top which indicates that it was the lower part of a medieval floreate church window. A photo of the well taken in the mid nineteenth century is said by local histories not to show this stone, which indicates that it was placed there after 1850, for antiquarian reasons, or to attract visitors. I have not been able to track down this photograph.

There is little evidence of what was located at this well prior to 1846, except for the brick chamber containing the water. Extensive remodelling and the constant ministrations of gardeners have obliterated earlier evidence. Excavation of the gravel and mud filled chamber would be a most useful action, especially as the well is now empty of all but a tiny amount of water never more then 2 inches in depth.

Local historians and previous commentators on the Black Prince's Well have suggested that it existed before the leper hospital and may indeed have attracted that institution to the spot. Others link such a healing tradition to the notion that the place-name Harbledown might derive from Herbal Down, perhaps in reference to the Black Lovage (Alexanders) and comfrey that grow abundantly here. However Herebald's-down is the most probable and widely accepted derivation and follows the anglo-saxon tradition of naming prominent landforms after notable individuals, or after the thegns that held them.

There is little evidence, either archaeological, folkloric, or documentary, to support the notion that the Black Prince's Well predates 1094. The fact that the Roman Road of Watling Street, and the pre-Christian Pilgrim's Way from Winchester meet very St Nicholas' hospital are no more than circumstantial indicators.

In fact, given that the Hospital was where medieval pilgrims stayed on the night before they entered Canterbury, and that a shoe supposedly belonging to St Thomas a Becket was kept as a relic there as late as the early sixteenth century, when Erasmus mentions it, it seems probably that the well was a creation of the hospital, perhaps in an attempt to gain revenue from dissemination of its reputation for healing. The name of the well derives from the fact that the Black Prince drank its waters gain relief from leprosy, an eye complaint, or dysentry in 1376 as he travelled back to London - where he subsequently died from his illness.

The well remains empty today with only a slight trickle of inflow that drains immediately away, so there is no pool of captured water as such. This is despite three weeks of heavy rain and the wettest June on record. The present condition of the site is excellent as its secluded location protects it from vandalism and the elements. It is also tended vicariously by the groundsman of St Nicholas, who has cleared away most of the vegetation in the last week.

There is little information available on traditions associated with this well, and none are currently practiced by the local people. Furthermore, there is no oral tradition among the elderly locals. Essentially, the well has served as a landscape feature to enhance the grounds of St Nicholas and provide a place of meditation for the occasional pilgrim and a photo opportunity for tourists.

In contrast, the hospital itself, and especially 'the leper church' has generated a great deal of folklore, such as the notion that the church has a sloping floor, down to the west door, in order to enable the monks to sweep the fallen body parts of lepers from the floor after services. The more likely notion of course is that such exiles from the community did not warrant high expenditure and that the floor was left sloped as a cost cutting exercise. It may also simply have subsided over time. There is also a wealth of artefactual and documentary history of this site. If strong traditions had existed around the well, then it seems improbable that these would have escaped the attention of the many antiquarians and others who have meticulously recorded the history and archaeology of St Nicholas Hospital.

At present, the well is not used for any purpose by the local community. While the well was full, up until autumn 2003, branches and flowers would occasionally be placed on the water, in front of the water, or in the back of the embrasure. This especially occurred on May 1st and on the Summer Solstice. However, as such votives have not appeared for three years, it is probable that they were placed there by UKC or Christchurch students who have now graduated and moved on, or perhaps reflect the belief of some local who thinks that the well is no longer 'holy' if it has no water in it.

Older people in the village have an unsentimental attitude, in most cases, to the well, as to the surrounding area as many of them were farm and orchard workers in the area for many years. There are a large number of middle class, middle-aged professionals in Harbledown many of who work in Canterbury's two universities or in the public sector and 'caring professions.' Such people, usually incomers, are often 'aware' of many so-called traditions that exist in the area, and have tried to import or restart others, such as the west-country practice of Apple Wossailing. Information about 'local customs' from such individuals should be taken with a pinch of salt due to their propensity for all things 'New Age' and subsequent ability to impose completely new ritual landscapes on their locality and pass off innovations as ancient tradition.

Of course, this is not a new phenomena, and all the available evidence points to the fact that the Black Prince's Well has fallen victim to it before, in the mid nineteenth century, when St Nicholas' Hospital was redeveloped and prior to that in the later middle ages by the monks, lepers, and recipients of alms who sought to exploit (and probably invent) connections with St Thomas A Becket and the Black Prince

A picture of the well can be seen on my blog, here:

Other will follow there shortly along with a scan of the 1776 woodcut (taken from a book before anyone gets excited about me having the original in my possession).


notonmywatch said...

All interesting stuff. the leper hospital being attracted to the site of the well is not unknown. St John's Well in Berkhamsted Hertfordshire, now destroyed, is another such example.

I can add one piece of info on this Well, and that it is that this Well was deemed suitably pretty to have made its way onto postcards, and we have one such image at the NWI.

GeePig said...

Great article!

I remember Harbledown from 20-30 years ago and fully support your comment on people trying to 'import' traditions :)