By Janet Bord
Although there are around 700 holy wells in Wales, the majority of them are poorly documented. Most had only local fame, with very few being known outside their parish, and usually no one thought to record them while still in use. Consequently many were eventually forgotten and lost, sometimes only surviving in an old field name. I am currently researching all the saints’ wells in Wales: saints’ wells rather than all the named wells, of which there must be several thousand. Not all named wells or spas are holy wells, which need to be named for a saint or have some specific religious connection; many wells were purely local water supplies, perhaps with a personal name (usually that of the owner or user) but often with no traditions. Very few holy wells were on the 18th and 19th century tourist trail, except for those that had become famous for some significant reason, such as Wales’s best-known and most impressive well, St Winefride’s at Holywell in Flintshire, still visited today by the sick seeking cures, as well as by many devout Catholic pilgrims and non-religious tourists.
In South Wales one small and visually insignificant saint’s well did find its way on to tourist itineraries, largely because of its dramatic location, and as a result, the descriptions of what travellers found there have provided us with an insight into how a holy well’s history can develop and change over the years. I discovered this when I set out chronologically all the descriptions I could find relating to what is now known as St Govan’s Well, in Bosherston parish not far from Tenby in south Pembrokeshire.
Who was St Govan?
The first mystery, as is so often the case with saints’ wells, is the identity of St Govan. ‘Govan’ is the spelling most often seen today, but alternative spellings of his name include, as the earliest form I have found, ‘Sct. Gouen’ on Saxton’s 1578 map of Pembrokeshire; also Gowan (as for example on the 1868 Ordnance Survey map),
Gowen, Goven, Gofan and Gobin. He may have been born around 500 and was possibly a disciple of Eilfyw, the Pembrokeshire saint who baptised St David, and who is usually, but incorrectly, said to have been Irish, and the same person as St Ailbe of Emly, a famous Irish bishop. Govan may also have been St David’s nephew, since one source identifies his mother as St David’s sister. He has also been confused with Gobhan, an Irish saint known from the life of St Ailbe, because of the similarity of names and also because of the confusion between Ailbe and Eilfyw. This confusion dates back as far as the late 11th century, in Rhigyfarch’s Life of St David. A 17th-century spelling of the Pembrokeshire saint’s name as Gobin in an account by John Ray might suggest that he was a native Pembrokeshire saint who had become confused with St Ailbe’s disciple because of their very similar names. The Irish Gobhan is stated in a life of Ailbe to have been St Ailbe’s cook and to have travelled with two of his disciples to Rome to get a copy of the correct way to say Mass. Gobhan was sick on the boat, dying and then coming back to life, an event that appears to have been depicted on one of the misericords inside St David’s Cathedral. However, the balance of probability suggests that Govan/Gobin and Gobhan were two entirely separate people who were later assumed to be one person because of name similarities and a conflation of the sources. 1
To complicate matters further, it has also been suggested that Govan was in fact Gawain, famous in Arthurian legend as one of the knights of the Round Table. This connection has been centuries in the making, if a 19th-century summary by Cosmo Innes is accurate. But his account of the legend only deals with the burial of Gawain once dead, and does not allow for him to have been a saint living in an isolated cell on the Pembrokeshire coast.
Sir Gawain, the renowned knight of the Round Table, was slain by Sir Launcelot, and many places claimed the honour of preserving his remains: Langtoft says that he was buried at Wybre in Wales; Caxton and Leland place his interment at Dover; whilst, according to the Brut, he was conveyed to his country of Scotland. The occurrence of a name so similar as
that of Govan, associated with a remarkable site, was sufficient, it would appear, to justify a claim on behalf of Pembrokeshire. The assertion, singular as it may be, is not modern, since William of Malmesbury relates the discovery on the coast of the province of Ross in Wales, in the times of the Conqueror, of the tomb of Gawain, 14 feet in length; and also that the wounded knight was wrecked on the coast, and slain by the natives. Leland rejects the tale, but records the existence of a ruined castle near the shore, called by the name of Gawain; and Sir F. Madden [an antiquary, 1801-73] observes that the tradition of the locality assigns St. Govan’s Head as the burial-place of King Arthur’s nephew. 2
Gawain has also been claimed to be Gwalchmai, a legendary figure from Welsh tradition, whose name appears in Pembrokeshire. Castell Gwalchmai (Walwyn’s Castle) is about 16 miles to the north-west of St Govan’s Head, and there are other local links: the 18th-century antiquary Lewis Morris said that Gwalchmai’s grave was between the islands of Skomer and Skokholm, not far away off the coast to the north-west. It seems feasible that since the Gwalchmai/Gawain and Govan locations are only a few miles apart, the similarity of the names caused the tradition of Sir Gawain to drift south to St Govan’s territory, as shown by Sir Frederic Madden’s comment noted above. He appears to be the first person to mislocate Gawain’s tomb from Walwyn’s Castle to St Govan’s Head, and so the identification of Govan as Gawain dates from no earlier than the first half of the 19th century. 3
It seems that everyone has had a stab at identifying ‘St Govan’, and also criticising other people’s identifications, as typified in the following footnote from a late 19th-century book about Tenby and its environs:
“The valiant knight – the Sir Gawain, of good King Arthur’s round table – has been transformed, by popular error, into a saint. The superstitious stories to which this singular position of a consecrated building has given rise are without end.” – Malkin. [Benjamin Heath Malkin (1769-1843) in his own writings always refers to ‘Sir Gawaine’s Chapel’ rather tha St Govan’s Chapel.] Malkin here, as well as in many other of his assumptions, is not to be relied on; the name, no doubt, is a corruption of St.Giovanni, to whom the chapel was dedicated.” 4
There is no chance whatsoever that St Govan was the same as an Italian St Giovanni, who is probably St John the Evangelist or St John the Baptist, not a separate Italian St John. An equally unlikely identification makes Govan a woman, St Cofen, the wife of a 6th-century Welsh king: ‘St Cofen, Govein, or Goven, was an early Welsh saint, wife of Tewdrig and mother of Mewrig, kings of South Wales.’ 5 Malkin also refers to a British St Goven, and goes on to say, ‘Both St. Goven, and St. Golwen are sometimes mistaken for Godwin’ and then he mentions ‘a saint Golwin’ 6: it seems that every permutation of spelling has cropped up somewhere to try and explain the identity of this mysterious saint. Today the consensus seems to be that Govan was the Irish St Gobhan – but as noted above, this is probably incorrect and he was most likely a native Pembrokeshire saint of whom nothing is known.
There is some little-known evidence that St Govan was not associated solely with the well-known cliff chapel that now bears his name: it is possible that he was also active at Narberth around 12 miles to the north-east of St Govan’s Chapel, an area in the same rural deanery as Bosherston. The Narberth Tithe Apportionment includes the historic field names Upper Saint Gowens and Lower Saint Gowens, Gowen being one of the alternative name-forms for Govan. Three-quarters of a mile to the north-north-west of these two fields is St Owen’s Well in Stoneditch Lane opposite the house now named The Valley.
‘Owen’ is unlikely to be the obscure St Owen who appears in the life of St Milburga (he has a well at Much Wenlock in Shropshire) or St Ouen, bishop of Rouen, who had a substantial cult in northern France or the Jesuit martyr St Nicholas Owen; instead the name would seem to be a version of ‘Gowen’ probably derived from the Welsh system of mutation where some names following ffynnon or llan lose their initial letter, so that St Gowen’s Well would in Welsh be Ffynnon Owen – just as St Gallgo had his church at Llanallgo on Anglesey, his well being Ffynnon Allgo.
The Valley was formerly the old Rectory and is named as such on the 1888 OS map. A former rector of Narberth was told by ‘a very old parishioner’ around 1884 that his parents had told him that there was an ancient building where weddings took place in the field adjoining the house. Parts of this ruined building were included in the Rectory which was built in 1827. The rector also stated that close to the ruins ‘is now a bee-hive-shaped well of splendid water’: this would be St Owen’s Well, a name recorded around 1700 by Edward Lhwyd. The name ‘Henllan’ (old church) was recorded at Stoneditch in 1688; and a 6th-century inscribed gravestone was also found here. These are all suggestive of there having been a church dedicated to St Govan at Narberth, all memory of which has now been lost except for these few clues. 7
The location of St Govan’s Well
St Govan’s Well is to be found close to St Govan’s Chapel, a mile south of Bosherston in Pembrokeshire (Grid Reference SR96709295). There is open access to chapel and well; however, the road from Bosherston is sometimes closed because of the adjacent army firing range. It is necessary to follow the road towards the coast until the parking area is reached, then walk towards the cliffs and down the long flight of rough stone steps (said to be uncountable) to the chapel and well.
The chapel fills the space between the cliffs, and it is necessary to go through it to reach the well. Nothing appears to be known about the history of the chapel, though it is believed to be of 13th-14th century date, and its origins probably older. It was restored in the 1980s. It is a small stone building, comprising a single chamber 18 feet by 12 feet, with three doorways. One, in the north-east wall, leads into a natural chamber in the rock adjoining the chapel, the so-called saint’s cell which is mentioned again later.
Inside the chapel can be seen a stone altar, a piscina, stone benches and a well. There are in fact two wells at this location, though only one is named for the saint; the other appears to have no name, and is inside the chapel, at floor level to the left of the doorway in the north wall. The saint’s well can be found by leaving the chapel on the southern side and going down rough steps towards the shore; the entrance to the well faces the chapel. It is covered by a stone well house with a corbelled roof and a stone lintel. 8
Earliest recorded visits
The chapel and wells have been famed for centuries, and have long been on the tourist itinerary, especially in the 19th century, so that we now have numerous descriptions of them over the last 350 years. The earliest I have found in print so far is the account by John Ray, following his visit in 1662:
Thence the same Day to St. Gobin’s Well, by the Sea Side, where, under the Cliff, stands a little Chapel, sacred to that Saint, and a little below it a Well, famous for the Cure of all Diseases. There is, from the Top of the Cliff to the Chapel, a Descent of 52 Steps. 9
Ray does not mention the well inside the chapel, but both are included in the entry for ‘Bosherstone’ in Edward Lhwyd’s Parochialia, dating from around 1700.
An ancient Chappell called St Goveans near the sea side between 2 great rocks. Within the Chappell ther’s a spring & another below the Chappell toward the sea. The watter of these springs is found to be good for many distempers. 10
Sir Thomas Gery Cullum’s diary for 1775 included a description of his visit on 27 July to St Gobin’s well, which is especially interesting as he was able to see sick people using the well water. He also refers to ‘the Priestess of the Chapel’, who actively collected donations from visitors, a practice to be found at some other especially popular holy wells where visitors might be pressured into offering money to a female guardian, although in this instance it is not stated whether she actually provided any services to the sick who came seeking cures. She may have been the owner or tenant of the land, or may simply have been someone living close by who found that if she was on hand at the well to guide pilgrims through the rituals, she could earn a little money from them.
[The well] is very near the sea, covered over with some rough stone work. The water is temperate with no particular taste. It still maintains some credit. A poor woman was at it with her husband from Caermarthen, near 40 miles; he had a Pain in his Hip; he bathed the Part and drank the Water. You descend to this [well] through a little Chapel of no great antiquity, 18 by 12. At one end is something like an Altar Mon.[ument?], perhaps the old Altar. On this Altar is laid the money of Visitants, if the Priestess of the Chapel happens to be absent. This was the case when I was there, and the Information I had was from the poor Woman and her Husband; upon my return [i.e. on his way out] I saw her, and she asked me how much I had left for her in the Chapel. The building has a stone seat all round it. In it is a little Puddle which they call a spring, good for the Eyes. The water is taken out with the shell of a Limpet…. The number of the steps to the Chapel is about 70, from thence to the Well, 30….
There is a little Cavity in the rocks close to the Chapel, in which you are told Our Saviour took refuge for fear of the Jews; you may still see the impression of his Person.
By the bye, it may not be very difficult for this Well to support its Reputation, if visited by People who can walk near 40 miles and back again! 11
The saint’s cell, the bell stone, and other traditions
Sir Thomas’s reference to ‘a little Cavity’ refers to the rock chamber mentioned above – a tiny ‘cell’ which can be squeezed into, and which may in fact be the forgotten focal point of the whole chapel and well complex. It is probable that this was the saint’s cave, cell, or penitential bed, and that the chapel may have been built as an adjunct to it. It is telling that the chapel altar is beside the entrance to the cell. A number of traditions have grown up, for example that St Govan, or Jesus, hid there from pirates; and the cavity is so tight that the impression of the saint’s ribs are still visible on the rock. It was believed that a person squeezing into the cavity and making a wish, will have that wish granted if he or she can turn around while making it. There are numerous variations on this theme; clearly the cell was very popular with visitors as it is described, often at length, in most of the accounts.
Another popular feature of the site’s folklore is the so-called bell stone, although as with the cell, the story has many variations. The most familiar version is that pirates came ashore and stole the chapel bell. As they returned to their boat, they rested the bell on certain stones, and ever afterwards those stones would make a bell-like sound when struck. Alternatively, the bell was miraculously returned and became encased inside a rock, which rings like a bell when struck. Like the tradition of the saint’s cell inside the chapel, the bell legend has appeared in various forms over the years.
Some other traditions which may have been active at the chapel and well, though rarely mentioned in the literature, include the so-called ‘sprinkling earth’ referred to in her 1909 book by Marie Trevelyan, obtained from fissures close to the chapel. 12 Presumably the earth was believed to carry the saint’s blessing and was used to sprinkle sick pilgrims hoping for a cure; it may have been the same earth that was mixed with water and applied to the bodies of the sick. A century earlier, B.H. Malkin mentioned in passing that sometimes couples would get married at the chapel. 13 One wonders who would have been marrying them: is it possible that this refers to the clandestine use of the chapel by recusants? In the 1830s Sir Roderick Murchison referred to ‘the rude steps chiselled by the holy man’, but if this was a firm part of the tradition, it is strange that no one else mentions it. 14 Most commentators concentrated on recounting the traditions relating to the saint’s cell and the bell stone, with other snippets tossed in if recalled – there may have been more that were current but never written down.
Two early 19th-century visits by Richard Fenton
Richard Fenton (1746-1821), Welsh historian, topographer and genealogist, wrote two accounts of the chapel and well, both published in 1811 although one of his visits is datable to 1807 and, judging from a remark in the other account, the 1807 visit was his first. On this occasion he came ashore from a boat and so saw the saint’s well before coming to the chapel. He wrote first of the bell stones and the pirate legend, and then about the well:
…in the cavity of a stone skirting the ascent about midway, [is] a little water, believed by the superstitious to be unfailing, but shrewdly suspected, by such as judge of things through an unprejudiced medium, to be adventitious. Many cures are supposed to be performed, by bathing the limbs here; and the place is frequented much in summer by the poorer sort of people from the interior, who leaving their votive crutches behind, to line the walls of the chapel, return restored to their limbs, which perhaps may be ascribed, with more justice, to change of air and the sea-breeze, than to any virtues inherent in this equivocal moisture, found in the stone basin and in the floor of the chapel: and I am of opinion that this may hold good with respect to all watering-places, as I firmly believe that half the cures attributed to them may be oftener placed to the account of a difference in air, diet, exercise, vacancy of mind, and regulations productive of greater temperance, than to any salutary properties in the waters themselves. [In other words, people who believe in the efficacy of holy wells are ill-fed, lazy, ignorant and drunk! Fenton clearly believed that any cures were not the result of the intervention of the saint; but the fact that crutches were left in the chapel does indicate that cures were claimed, however caused. Also, genuine cripples would have found it very difficult to negotiate the steps up to the cliff-top without the aid of their crutches.]
The sailors told me, that, a few years back, such was the veneration the St. Govan’s fluid was held in, it was a common thing for people of the better sort, inhabiting the English parts of this county, to bring their infants there to undergo unction (for bathing it cannot be called), on a supposition, to use their own phrase, that the water made them more cute, and subtle; but if they at all partook of the appearance of the fluid, I am sure it must make them muddy and dull. 15
This description tells us that in 1807 the well had not yet been covered by the stone arched well-house now to be seen: the water is ‘in the cavity of a stone’. It is difficult to determine exactly when the present well-house was erected, but there was probably an antiquarian tidying up of the site during the later 19th century, similar to what had happened at St Non’s Well outside St Davids not too far away, which is also covered by a rounded arched structure. However, there was apparently some kind of cover in the late 18th century, judging by Sir Thomas Gery Cullum’s account quoted earlier, since he said that the well was ‘covered over with some rough stone work’. This had presumably disappeared by the time of Fenton’s 1807 visit. Fenton’s account also suggests that there wasn’t much water in the uncovered well: he talks of ‘a little water’ and how it would make anyone partaking of it ‘muddy and dull’, suggesting more like a muddy puddle than a flowing spring. Another report from later in the 19th century refers to ‘the not very clear stream’. 16 However, in the mid-19th century Thomas Roscoe said that the well was ‘a spring of clear bubbling water, encircled with brick-work’ which disagrees with the other reports of muddy water – and it is not clear what Roscoe meant by ‘encircled with brick-work’. 17 It does not sound as though the well was covered over. Maybe the amount of water was dependent on the weather, how much rain there had been, whether the spring was running fast and clear.
Fenton ended his 1807 account with a description of the cell in the chapel, mentioning only the custom of making wishes while squeezed into it. In his next account, written very soon afterwards, he clearly approached the chapel from the landward side, since this time he began with a long description of the ‘miraculous cell’ which was able to hide ‘a saint closely pursued by his pagan persecutors’ before moving to the well within the chapel, and then to St Govan’s Well itself.
At the north side of the chapel on the floor there is a little cavity, shewing some appearance of moisture as of an oozing from some spring at the top of the cliff, and filtering through there forms a muddy deposit, used and held to be of sovereign efficacy in complaints of the eyes, though it is shrewdly suspected that the venerable Sibyl [i.e. his humorous way of referring to the well ‘guardian’ whom he suspects may be overdoing her claims for the well] who superintends the supposed miraculous waters, by an alchymy peculiarly her own, has the merit of contributing the principal part of their virtues. Leaving the chapel, I continue to descend several stone steps till I arrive at the sainted well, where crippled patients bathe their limbs, many of whom come from the remotest inland parts of the principality to seek relief here, and leave their crutches behind a votive offering on the altar, such as I perceived placed there when I last paid a visit to this hermitage. 18
Colt Hoare’s illustration
A Historical Tour
Sick pilgrims hope to be cured
Two men (Richard Ayton and William Daniell) on a voyage round Great Britain in 1813 paid a visit to the chapel, describing the building, the cell and the well in great detail. Their guide took them inside the chapel to show them the display of crutches:
Our guide, anxious to witness the full confirmation of our faith, accompanied us into the interior, where we beheld, suspended from the walls, several crutches, which had supported the crippled and credulous to the well, and which were hung up here in testimony of their cure, and as offerings of gratitude to their gracious deliverer.
They then continued through the chapel and met two children who had come to the well in search of cures. Ayton’s account is worth quoting in full since it portrays with sincerity the desperate straits in which the sick found themselves 200 years ago when there was no reliable medical care.
A few more steps lead from the chapel down to the well, and as we were descending, we met a miserable, emaciated girl, who was toiling up with the utmost difficulty and pain, and bending under the load of a large pitcher of water, which she told us she was going to drink. She had been in ill health for many years, and had formerly drunk the water with strict regularity during twelve months, but growing worse, had applied to the doctor, who declared, after a long trial, that he could give her no relief, and she had now returned again, as her last refuge, to Saint Gowan. The failure of the doctor had awakened all her confidence in the saint, and she was only fearful that he might be offended at her former impatience. As we were ascending from the well, we perceived another votary who had hitherto escaped our observation, a poor lad perched upon a rock, with paper and pencil in his hands, and his eyes devoutly fixed upon the chapel. He too was suffering from disease, and had been long drinking the charmed water with no benefit to his health, and with no injury to his faith: he was too feeble to work, and spent much of his time among these solitary rocks, amusing himself with his pencil, which he had never been instructed to use, but which he hoped would one day enable him to take a faithful likeness of the steps, the chapel, and the well. These poor people seemed to be utterly ignorant of all particulars relating to the birth and history of Saint Gowan, and delivered themselves up to his keeping without troubling themselves about his credentials. My own enquiries on this subject (and my wishes in the wall [he refers to making a wish while squeezed into the rock fissure] may be supposed to have made me enquire with some earnestness,) have not led to any satisfactory conclusions. There seems to be a doubt whether he was a thorough-bred saint imported from Ireland in the early ages of christianity, or Sir Gawaine, the nephew of king Arthur, and a model of valour and courtesy, canonized after his death by an error of the vulgar. In either case nothing is known of his adventures in connexion with this rude spot, and whether he lived or died here it may never be permitted us to know. 19
Ayton’s observations show that a personal cult of the saint was still flourishing even as late as the early 19th century. The sick girl and boy did not know who the saint was, but still had total faith in his power to cure them.
All the early 19th-century reports demonstrate the popularity of the well with people seeking cures; a Tenby guidebook of 1818 tells us that ‘near twenty patients may be seen at once bathing their limbs and applying to their swollen and crippled joints plaisters of the red clay saturated with the water of the well.’ 20 (I will refer again later to the importance of the red clay.) From the early 19th century onwards, many accounts of the well were published, often taking their information from earlier sources. For example, C. F. Cliffe’s Book of South Wales repeats Fenton’s account almost verbatim, although whereas Fenton uses ‘Govan’, Cliffe prefers ‘Gowan’. 21 Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary, however, settles for ‘Gawen’. It is clear there was no consensus as to the spelling of the saint’s name at that time, but that there does appear to be some change of emphasis developing towards a name similar to Gawain.
Tradition of Christ visiting St Govan’s
An account dating from around 1830 shows how much revered a place St Govan’s Chapel was in the local religious psyche at that time. The vicar of St Florence outside Tenby some 10 miles away asked his Sunday School pupils where the Saviour was first seen after His resurrection from the dead, and they told him ‘At St Govan’s.’
Inquiring from others what gave rise to this strange reply, he was informed: “Once a husbandman was sowing barley on the down-land above St. Govan’s, when his attention was attracted by the dignified and striking appearance of a man who was watching the operation. On seeing that he was observed the stranger beckoned to the husbandman, who approaching him, and in reply to his question of ‘what are you doing?’ answered, ‘sowing barley.’ ‘But,’ said the stranger, ‘this seed you are burying in the ground will decay.’ ‘Yes,’ said the farmer, ‘it will rot, but it will spring again, and at harvest-time I shall come and gather it into my bosom.’ ‘Do you believe that which is dead can come to life?’ ‘I do,’ said the husbandman. ‘Then,’ answered the stranger with an air of majesty, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life; go home, fetch thy sickle and cut thy corn.’ The good man did as he was bidden, and on his return the stranger had disappeared, but the barley was ripe for harvest on the same day it had been sown.” 22
This tale is not unique to St Govan’s but appears elsewhere in Britain, for example at St Milburga’s Well at Stoke St Milborough in Shropshire. When the saint was being chased by her enemies, she fell off her horse and some workmen rushed to help her. She commanded their barley to grow quickly, and told the men that if anyone came asking for her, they were to say that she had passed by when they were sowing their barley. That evening the barley, planted the same morning, was ready to harvest, and St Milburga was thus able to outwit her pursuers. 23 The theme is also found in other countries, and is a localised commentary on the biblical Flight into Egypt when the Holy Family were escaping King Herod who was planning to kill children. The Pembrokeshire version of the tale has been adapted as a preaching tool, and lacks the pursuit and avoidance themes.
At St Govan’s Chapel, Jesus was sometimes substituted for St Govan as the person who hid in the rock cell to avoid his pursuers. The mechanism of the concealment was that Jesus (or Govan) was escaping his enemies and the rocks opened up; he squeezed into the cleft which then closed around him, hiding him until the danger had passed, whereupon they opened again – and thereafter remained open, leaving the aperture we see today, complete with the saint’s rib marks to prove he was there. Most visitors did seem to know the story that the cell was used as a refuge against pursuers, but an unnamed tourist in 1836 apparently had little knowledge of the tradition, since he identified the rock ‘cell’ as a fireplace: ‘the fire-place seems to have been in one corner, as there is a recess in the rock with an aperture through it, probably to allow the escape of the smoke’. This visitor also noted that ‘there is also a tablet of stone fixed against the wall, which may be the remains of an altar, and on the opposite wall is a slab bearing date 1176’ – a detail which I have seen nowhere else. He also described the well, although he wasn’t convinced by the claims made for its water:
Passing through the chapel, the wonderful well is gained by a descent of sixteen steps to the water, which is said to be a cure for all complaints and hurts! It is of an oily nature, but not of inviting appearance; the faith reposed in its efficacy is, however, truly astonish[ing]; and doubtless, if cures are effected, such proceed as much from the operation of that particular feeling, as from any healing property of the fluid: all the peasantry of the neighbourhood are firmly rooted in the belief of its efficacy. 24
Later in the 19th century, a Tenby tourist was told in 1863 that Jesus actually visited the well: ‘Some of the old inhabitants told my landlady that our Saviour came there to the well.’ He also recounted a brief and garbled version of the rapid harvest tale, showing that these traditions were being handed down through the generations.25
Still popular in Victorian times
Moving into the second half of the 19th century, an account from 1859 tells us that the well water was at that time still in demand for its healing properties.
Here is the hermitage (or chapel) of St Gawen, or Goven, in which there is a well, the water of which, and the clay near, is used for sore eyes. Besides this, a little below the chapel, is another well, with steps leading down to it, which is visited by persons from distant parts of the principality, for the cure of scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints. Nor is it the poor alone who make this pilgrimage: a case came more immediately under my notice, where a lady, a person of some fortune, having been for some time a sufferer from a severe attack of paralysis, which prevented her putting her hand in her pocket [meaning that her arm was paralysed, not the current meaning of the phrase!], took up her quarters at a farm-house near the well, and after visiting it for some weeks daily, returned home perfectly cured. 26
It was also the custom at other wells for the sick pilgrims to stay locally and pay many visits to the well; there is even a cottage adjoining Ffynnon Gybi at Llangybi (Caernarfonshire).
This account continues with a description of the legend of the stolen bell, and a long description of the ‘Wishing Corner’, the rock fissure in the chapel where Jesus hid from the Jews who were persecuting him, or St Gawen daily squeezed himself ‘as a penance for his transgressions, until at length the print of the ribs became impressed on the rock’. Pilgrims would turn round nine times and make a wish, which would be fulfilled if the saint approved. This is a form of circumambulation, the ritual circling of a sacred site, usually nine times. Often recorded in Ireland, it also occurs elsewhere in Wales: Edward Lhwyd described in 1693 how he had seen a man ‘march nine times about Gorphwysfa Peris [the resting place of St Peris at Llanberis]… repeating ye Lords Prayer, and casting in a stone at every turn’. 27
It is interesting how the later accounts tend to place more emphasis on the ‘corner’, ‘bed’ or ‘coffin’ than on the wells, as, for example, in an account from the late 1850s by a Scottish visitor, Cosmo Innes. He describes the well: ‘A few yards farther down the ravine, [from the chapel] is a well still covered with a roof of rude architecture, and which the natives still hold in great respect, and visit for the cure of various diseases.’ He then goes on to describe St Govan’s ‘bed’ which was clearly pointed out to him by someone else present: ‘The rock is polished by the number of visitors fitting themselves into the Saint’s bed of penance, and the natives make you feel in the inner surface the indentures caused by the ribs of the Saint!’ 28 Imprints of parts of saints’ bodies are found in many other locations, but they are usually footprints or knee-prints: many more examples can be found in my book Footprints in Stone. 29
Innes writes that people are still visiting the well seeking cures; but there is some uncertainty as to how popular the well was in the mid-19th century, since in her book of 1843 Mary Anne Bourne stated that ‘the holy well is regarded with less veneration than of yore’, 30 but it may have been her personal attitude that caused her to say this, rather than being the reality. It is probable that increasing numbers of tourists would have deterred sick people from exposing their ailments to sight-seers. By the end of the century other writers were reporting that the healing tradition appeared to have died out. In his book published in 1895, H. Thornhill Timmins wrote:
From the chapel we next scramble down to the ‘holy well,’ a neglected spot of no interest save such as tradition can lend. Yet in olden times folk were wont to gather here from far and wide, in anticipation of an instant cure… 31
A sketch by Timmins
However, a report in the Welshman in 1905 would appear to contradict Timmins’ claim that the well was no longer visited for cures, although it does suggest that the well’s reputation was indeed dying.
Tenby ‘County News’ says… ‘…At St. Govan’s was a holy well to which the diseased and infirm were brought to be cured within the last forty years.’…At St. Govan’s – not was, but is a holy well at which several natives of Pembrokeshire have sought cures, to our own certain knowledge less than ten years ago. We doubt very much if some people do not at this day use the water or apply the ‘clay’ near the well to their eyes.32
By 1922 the well was dry, as it is today, and was clearly no longer in use, as reported in the Royal Commission Inventory.
The Well, which lies between the chapel and the sea, is protected by a plain hood of masonry; the entrance is to the north. The spring has been dry for some years past… Visited, 14th June, 1922. 33
It is possible that the act of covering the well with a stone structure at some unknown date in the 19th century (although it was clearly covered to some degree before 1860, as shown by Cosmo Innes’ account) interfered with the water supply. There appears never to have been an abundant supply, judging by a comment in Fenton’s 1807 account, to the effect that the ‘little water’ was believed ‘by the superstitious’ to be unfailing, but ‘shrewdly suspected… [by someone unprejudiced] to be adventitious’, and it is possible that a natural spring was augmented by rainwater, which would not have been the case once the well was covered. However the 1818 account has ‘near twenty patients…seen at once bathing their limbs’, which suggests a copious supply of water. However, by 1870 the well was ‘now almost dry’, and since this was written soon after the well was covered, it may confirm that that act did play some part in reducing the water supply. It also seems likely that the increasing volume of visitors may have had a deleterious effect. C.F. Cliffe, in his Book of South Wales written in the first half of the 19th century, states cryptically: ‘The well has been injured by a class of visitors who everywhere disgrace the British name.’ 34 Unfortunately he does not elaborate, but it sounds as though even then, tourists were thoughtlessly damaging the places they had taken the trouble to visit.
Increasing references to healing clay
These accounts trace the history of the well(s) over 350 years, over much of which period cures have been sought for a wide variety of ailments. The chapel well seems always to have been used only to cure eye problems, but the saint’s well water was used for ‘all diseases’, ‘many distempers’, ‘crippled patients bathe their limbs’, and ‘scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints’. Few of the earlier accounts include any reference to the healing clay to be found by the well. Fenton refers to a ‘muddy deposit’ but this was found in the chapel well. The 1859 account also has the healing ‘clay’ associated with the chapel well. 35 In the 1905 report reference is made to ‘clay’ from near the well being used to treat the eyes but not the whole body. 36
Geologist Sir Roderick Impey Murchison referred to the healing clay of St Govan in a footnote in his book on the geology of Wales dating from 1839.
Saint Goven (or St. Gawin) inhabited a cell cut in the face of this steep and picturesque cliff. Among his good deeds there is one which seems to connect his name with the geologist. His blessing conferred a healing virtue on the red clay or shale, derived from the decomposition of the limestone, which forms a talus in a retiring angle of the cliff. The lame and blind pilgrims are still conveyed by their friends down the rude steps chiselled by the holy man, and after being anointed with a poultice, formed of the moist clay, are left there for several hours to bask under the summer’s sun. The method of cure is similar to that effected by the mud baths of Acqui and Abano in the north of Italy.
The sanctum of St. Goven, a cleft in the rock just large enough to contain one person, is also much frequented as a “wishing place.” The wisher is certain, before the end of a year, of obtaining his request, if he repeats it thrice, each time turning himself round in the narrow nook; but these and other miraculous stories, connected with this wild spot, do not come within my province. 37
Being a geologist, Murchison was clearly interested in the source and composition of the clay and therefore his description of it can be assumed to be the most accurate. One assumes he visited the site to see the source for himself, and at that time picked up a few snippets of tradition, but it is not clear whether he actually saw the clay being used by sick pilgrims.
Since there are varying descriptions of mud or clay being used from two sources, the well in the chapel and the red clay from the cliff, it may be that confusion has arisen over the years. The earliest account I have found that refers to the use of red clay dates from 1818: ‘applying to their swollen and crippled joints plaisters of the red clay saturated with the water of the well’. 38 But it does not say where the red clay came from, only that it was mixed with water from the well, a detail not mentioned by Murchison in his account of the custom 20 years later. Perhaps, as the well began to dry up, more emphasis was placed on the use of clay for healing, but people forgot that the healing mud or clay was supposed to come from the chapel well and began to use any clay they could find. It is also not clear from the Murchison quotation exactly which parts of the body the clay poultice was being applied to, although he does refer to ‘blind pilgrims’. Fenton’s early 19th century account has the mud from the chapel well being used around the eyes 39 and a hundred years later the 1905 account also has clay being applied only to the eyes.40 However, it is also likely that people desperately seeking cures would have applied it to other parts of the body.
St Govan’s Chapel has long been a popular tourist destination, understandably in view of its dramatic location, and over the years the details of the tales and legends have changed and become more elaborate. This is particularly noticeable when comparing the early brief accounts with the extended versions published today. Before the 18th century there was no mention of the saint’s grave, the saint’s cell, the bell stone, etc., all of which are now firmly established components of the legend of St Govan. It is difficult to know when these traditions first came into existence. The saint’s grave being located beneath the altar inside the chapel is an interesting example. This belief is now widely stated in descriptions of the chapel, but strangely does not feature in many accounts before the present century. The earliest reference I have found dates from 1811 when Fenton commented in passing that the altar was ‘where some will have it the hermit Saint is buried.’ 41 The only other 19th century reference to it I have found so far dates from 1852 when Ernest Silvanus Appleyard stated that the chapel ‘contains a raised altar, under which the body of the saint is believed to repose’. 42 20th-century references are also rare; however, in the 21st century the majority of descriptions of the chapel do include the information that the saint is buried beneath the altar. The legend of the bell stolen by pirates has always been widely reported, though an element of tweeness has recently been added: it is now said to have been ‘rescued by sea nymphs who placed it inside a rock near the chapel’ or ‘It was stolen by the pirates but it was reclaimed by angels who encased it in a rock at the sea’s edge.’ Another recent addition is that ‘the saint’s hand prints were imprinted upon the chapel floor.’ One source refers to ‘marks in the boulder that were made by the saint’s fingers when he hid here’ – but the tradition has always been that the marks are of the saint’s ribs not his fingers, so maybe this is another change in the making, or maybe it is a confusion with the other new tradition, that of the saint’s hand-prints on the floor. 43 A modern tendency is to see holy wells as ‘wishing wells’, and a recent description of St Govan’s Well says that it is both ‘a wishing well and a healing well’ – though it would be difficult to use it for either purpose now, since it is dry. 44 In the present century there is also a tendency developing to ‘welshify’ the English names of certain holy wells in Wales. Some wells, mainly those in the more English parts of Wales, have always been named in English and never in Welsh, and St Govan’s is one of these.
Courtesy of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments Wales.
On the basis that it is always preferable to retain the traditional usage, this well should be called St Govan’s Well and never Ffynnon Govan. That version is anyway incorrect: because of the rule of mutation in Welsh, the saint’s name would be Covan if his well was Ffynnon Govan. If his name was Govan, the well name would be Ffynnon Ovan.
A decaying medieval tradition
The story of St Govan, his possible identity, his chapel and well, have changed in accordance with the preoccupations and fashions of the day, and this study of 350 years’ worth of accounts, amply laced with antiquarian speculation, shows how narratives slowly change and develop over time. In this instance, it is probable that we are in fact witnessing the decay of a medieval tradition. The cult landscape of the saint still survives but the majority of visitors do not see it for what it once was. The focal point of the site is the saint’s ‘cell’ which was probably used by the saint as his penitential bed. Later a chapel, focusing on the cell, was erected where pilgrims could honour the saint; and the water sources (the springs or wells inside and below the chapel) were taken into the saint’s legend as places where pilgrims could partake of the saint’s healing powers. There is also a long flight of stone steps down to the chapel which act as a place of transition between our 21st-century world and that of St Govan. The
supposed impossibility of counting the steps adds an aura of uncertainty to the journey from the everyday world into the sacred space, which is entered through a doorway into the chapel. It is also necessary to go through the chapel to get to the saint’s well, another symbol of passing through a doorway from one state of being to the next.
The earliest accounts of 1662 and c. 1700 are brief, mentioning only the saint’s chapel and healing well. But doubtless some of the other traditions were already very much alive, and the pilgrims would have been aware of the rituals that should be performed in order to gain spiritually from entering into the sacred landscape. Over time the traditions were being enhanced, specifically by the tales relating to St Govan’s cell and the benefit that could be gained from squeezing into the place where the saint himself was said to have hidden, and thus making personal contact with the saint. Other traditions grew up, such as the stolen bell and the ringing bell stone, the visitation by Jesus, the burial of the saint inside the chapel, the marks of his ribs inside the cell, his hand-prints on the chapel floor… But as we enter the 20th century, the emphasis has changed. The sea-shore well has already been preserved and enhanced by the addition of a stone cover in the 19th century; but by the 20th century it has become simply a redundant memorial to past beliefs, its water supply dried up and its healing function ceased. Indeed, it may be the lack of water which led to an increased emphasis on the use of clay as a healing medium, at first from the well inside the chapel, but later from anywhere around.
As travel became easier, and more people were able to visit more remote places, the little stone chapel reached by steep steps in a dramatic cliff location became the main draw, with many visitors knowing nothing of the saint or his wells. Slowly, down the centuries, devout pilgrims have turned into secular tourists but their continuing enthusiasm for visiting St Govan’s Chapel, together with the vibrancy of the traditions, shows that the place still captures people’s imaginations, even if they do not realise that they have entered a 1,500-year-old sacred landscape.
- Discussion of St Govan’s identity can be found in S. Baring-Gould and John Fisher, The Lives of the British Saints (London, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1913), III, 143-5; Elissa R. Henken, Traditions of the Welsh Saints (Cambridge, 1987), 258-9; Pádraig Ó Riain, A Dictionary of Irish Saints (Dublin, 2011), 58-60, 367
- Cosmo Innes, quoted in The Cambrian Journal (Tenby, 1860), 76; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: General Introduction and Commentary (Oxford, 1999), II, 26
- Peter C. Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000 (Aberystwyth, 1993), 303-5
- Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall, Tenby: Its History, Antiquities, Scenery, Traditions, and Customs (Tenby, 2nd ed., 1873), 45
- Rev. James B. Johnston, The Place-Names of England and Wales (London, 1915), 428
- Benjamin Heath Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography, of South Wales (London, 2nd ed., 1807), II, 381
- Dyfed Archaeological Trust records of St Owen’s Well: PRN 3756 & PRN 3622. See also The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire, VII County of Pembroke (London, 1925), 249-50
- Further descriptions of the wells can be found in Francis Jones, The Holy Wells of Wales (Cardiff, 1954), 208; Baring-Gould and Fisher, op.cit., III, 144-5; National Monuments Record of Wales online database Coflein – chapel NPRN 95059, well NPRN 32502; Dyfed Archaeological Trust – chapel PRN 630, chapel well PRN 102724, St Govan’s Well PRN 1268
- William Derham, D.D., Select Remains of the Learned John Ray, M.A. and F.R.S. with his Life (London, 1760), 242
- Edward Lhwyd, Parochialia – Being a Summary of Answers to “Parochial Queries in Order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”, Part III – North Wales and South Wales (continued) (London, 1911), 74
- Herbert M. Vaughan, ‘A Synopsis of Two Tours made in Wales in 1775 and in 1811’, in Y Cymmrodor, XXXVIII (1927), 46-7
- Marie Trevelyan, Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales (London, 1909; Wakefield, 1973), 45
- Benjamin Heath Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography, of South Wales (London, 1804), 529
- Roderick Impey Murchison, The Silurian System (London, 1839), 382-3 footnote
- A Barrister: Richard Fenton, Eq., A Tour in Quest of Genealogy, Through Several Parts of Wales, Somersetshire, and Wiltshire (London, 1811), 88-90
- No author named, A Handbook for Travellers in South Wales and its Borders, including the River Wye (London, new ed., 1870), 161
- Thomas Roscoe, Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales (London, 1854), 185
- Richard Fenton, A Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire (London, 1811), 414-16
- Richard Ayton, A Voyage Round Great Britain (London, 1814), 91-2
- No author named, An Account of Tenby (Pembroke and Tenby, 1818), 138-9
- Charles Frederick Cliffe, The Book of South Wales, the Bristol Channel, Monmouthshire and the Wye (London, 2nd ed., 1848), 296-8
- Edward Laws, The History of Little England Beyond Wales (1888; Haverfordwest, 1995), 411
- Janet Bord, Holy Wells in Britain: A Guide (Wymeswold, 2008), 109
- ‘Extract from the Notes of a Tourist – Coast of Pembrokeshire, 1836’, in The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle, for 1837 (London, 1837), 613-15
- No Author Named, My Summer Holiday; being a Tourist’s Jottings about Tenby (London, 1863), 81-2
- Robert J. Allen in ‘Choice Notes from Notes and Queries’, in Folklore (1859), 204
- Baring-Gould and Fisher, op.cit., IV, 93
- Cosmo Innes, ‘Notice of St Govane’s Hermitage, near Pembroke, South Wales’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1862) III, 184-5; accounts of his visit were also published in The Cambrian Journal (Tenby, 1860), 76-7, and in The Archaeological Journal (London, 1859), 198-9, 361
- Janet Bord, Footprints in Stone (Wymeswold, 2004)
- Mary Anne Bourne, A Guide to Tenby and its Neighbourhood (Carmarthen, 1843), 54
- H. Thornhill Timmins, Nooks and Corners of Pembrokeshire (London, 1895), 69-70
- ‘Holy Wells in Wales’, in Welshman, 7 April 1905
- Royal Commission Inventory: Pembroke, op.cit., no.50 p.22
- Cliffe, op.cit., 298
- Allen, op.cit., 204
- ‘Holy Wells in Wales’, op.cit.
- Murchison, op.cit., 382-3 footnote
- An Account of Tenby, op.cit., 139
- Fenton, A Historical Tour…, op.cit., 415
- ‘Holy Wells in Wales’, op.cit.
- Fenton, A Historical Tour…, op.cit., 414
- ‘By the author of “Proposals for Christian Union” [later given as E.S.A., i.e. Ernest Silvanus Appleyard], Welsh Sketches, Chiefly Ecclesiastical, to the Close of the Twelfth Century (London, 2nd ed., 1852), 129
- Examples of modern folklore can be found in: ‘St Govan’s Chapel, Bosherston, Pembrokeshire, Wales’, The Journal of Antiquities, 18 August 2013 – this has references to the grave, the bell, the saint’s finger-marks, and Ffynnon Govan (http://thejournalofantiquities.com/category/st-govans-holy-well-at-st-govans-head-in-pembrokeshire/); Pixyledpublications, ‘St Govan’s Well and Chapel’, has references to the bell and the hand-prints (https://insearchofholywells andhealingsprings.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/st-govans-well-and-chapel
- Monkton Rectorial Benefice has a detailed description of the well and its folklore, and includes mention of the well as a wishing well (http://www.revjones.fsnet.co.uk/govan/govan.html)