Michael P Carroll , in his book 'Irish Pilgrimage' Holy Wells and Popular Catholic Devotion, an excellently researched and thought provoking book-leaving aside perhaps the last chapter (Freudian theories) maintains that the practice of visiting holy wells and mountains was a Catholic devotion, based around the cult of a saint-usually and in Wales we had plenty. He said observances at Holy Wells and groves were a particularly Catholic idea and had various reasons and evolved throughout the ages of the church from the time of the earliest saints.He is deeply sceptical about these devotions having anything to do with Celtic observances, mainly because the evidence for that is thin (and you will have to read the bookto see how thin it is) However we do know that many ancient sites were Christianised at one point or another, but as Carroll points out, that other places became holy wells long after this time and can become so at any time in God's time. St Augustine, likewise was told to tear down idols and statues which might have appeared at these places, and many of the Yew trees associated with these sites still exist today.
The main question is-how were these holy wells used? Were they a kind of Welsh voodoo, a hybrid of Catholicism and a secret Celtic past? There are traditions that a 'sacred bath' was part of the inauguration ceremony of a Druid into the next stage of Enlightenment , but this 'bath' took place by royal persons and those joining the Druid movement at a secret site in a cave in Snowdonia, and had little to do with local wells. Of course the first function of a well is to provide water, neccessary for everyone, and in fact, part of the early fascination was of water bubbling up from the ground, especially with the purity and clarity of so many Welsh springs. Michael Carroll is talking of Irish Wells and pilgrimages to them, but the Welsh interest in Wells is as early,although four centuries of Roman rule had vastly changed the culture of Romano Britain. This was a country that spoke Latin as well as Welsh as the norm (as we speak English/Welsh today)The enterprising businessman had to speak Latin to advance his prospect and it was the language of the whole Empire. Caerleon was not a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. The grandeur of the Roman buildings at Caerleon were remarked on in 1188 AD when Gerald the Welshman accompanied Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury from Llanthony, Patrishow, Monmouth,Abergavenny, Usk, and Caerleon on the way to Newport and Cardiff to collect people to save the Holy Places in Jerusalem from those who had conquered it and closed it off for Christian pilgrims.
'Llechs, and crosses'
Since Gerald was a Welsh speaker, he was able to help the Archbishop by speaking Welsh where needed and actually also commented on some of the low points of the faith of the Welsh. From his comments it can be seen that this Catholic faith, the older version of the Celtic saints, before the new mission sent by Pope Gregory via Augustine, was deeply embedded in the people. It was embedded in this earlier Catholic culture, which Carroll theorises about in Ireland. Many of the 'llechs' the 'special stones' often elaborately carved had been carved in Christian terms, and indeed many of the stones to be observed around Wales' whilst showing Ogham writings, also have Latin inscriptions, and some only Latin inscriptions, and many of Christian Faithful who had passed on. The incidence of large scale Crosses, elaborately carved to be seen throughout Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Britanny as well as Scotland and other places witness the early faith of these brothers and sisters. Michael Carroll mentions the creativity of this ancient form of Catholicism. The Cross of Christ, carved with many symbols was joined together with the symbol of the sun, not now the sun as the dawning of the new day, but the 'Son of Righteousness'. Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead as the sun rises everyday. It did not make this pagan, it made it an interpretation.
This mountain, one of the seven hills of Abergavenny, is climbed every year on the feast of St Michael and All Angels (Michaelmas) and on Good Friday, when the Cross is taken to the top. This devotion went on through two hundred years of terrible persecution of Catholics and Catholic priests, and the mountain is split in two -in legend at the very moment of the Crucifixion by the mighty sword of the Archangel Michael. The Priest climbs as well and sometimes Mass is held. The Welsh Shrine of Our Lady of Penrhys, is also on a high mountain and visited by thousands of pilgrims each year.
And what makes them all come?
1) The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains a great deal about Water.
CCC 1218:Since the beginning of the world, water, so humble and wonderful a creature, has been the source of life and fruitfulness. Sacred Scripture sees it as 'overshadowed' by the spirit of God (Genesis 1:2) 'At the very dawn of Creation, your spirit breathed on the waters, making them a wellspring of all holiness.
2) SS David, Teilo, Cadoc and Illtyd and their priests all baptised their initiates into the Christian mysteries by baptising or Christening them in holy wells and more correctly 'Springs' fountains, or 'fontes'. Of course water later became brought into the church building into a specially carved 'font'. The reasons for this were obvious for wet and cold weather, and sanctification in the Church space.
3)Perhaps another clue to the veneration of a spring comes from the Catechism itself:
So how did the pilgrims use the Water? Healing of Body or soul or both!
Basically by drinking it, or if it was large enough , bathing in it.All sorts of things were found in wellsas prayers. Candles were expensive, but braided bits from the fringe of a shawl, crockery and sometimes people brought things to the well as an oath-or the result of a vow, I will make a pilgrimage to St X's Holy Well in return for a cure or in thanksgiving for a cure.They would leave objects there which was meant to visualise the concept they wanted to separate themselves from the ailment or to bring closer what they wanted to achieve. Hair loss, would make a petitioner leave a lock of hair. In a similar way, they would want to alienate themselves from their fall from grace.Michael Carroll actually gives the prayer said at these sites: 'p 34 'Invoking this Lord, my ailments are deposited in this place'. A rag from the petitioner's clothes or shawl could be torn off, dipped in the Holy Well and then rubbed on the affected body part and hung over the well. As this rag disintigrated, it was believed that the Saint would reverse the progress of the ailment.These were also called 'clouties'. Blessed Water was (as is now) collected from the spring and taken home to be used as required. Perhaps the reason for the crockery found in these sprinks was because the drank the water out of them. Deep down then, spiritual and corporeal ailments were deposited on those rags.Devotees separated themselves also by drinking and bathing in the water.
'Popish Rituals' - a Catholic-hating term.
These are recorded in Carroll's book by many people hostile to Catholicism in the 17th century. With so many Catholic Churches turned over to the new Anglican religion, and others left in ruins with statues etc smashed and Catholic priests threatened with instant execution, it is small wonder that many of the faithful, began to rediscover the ancient outdoor sacred places, which were often very secret. In fact one reason the faith carried on in Skenfrith because the people retired and went secretly to Coed Anghred for Mass, a legendary Druid site. In fact the sacred rituals performed at Holy Wells and places in early times were the Mass and/or Rosary and Benediction. The clergy supported this worship and at very bad penal times when the eyes of the authorities were there all the time, a visiting priest was a great joy and what kept secrets in the Abergavenny area was the fact the priests spoke Welsh and instructions for the gathering be kept in Welsh. The local nobility and judiciary (bar two families-Scudamore and Arnold) stayed loyal to the faith and protected local Faithful. The English vicars of the early years often accepted their livings but lived in England, thus the Faith never died out in some areas.
For Details of such rituals-see tomorrow's Mary in Monmouth.