Holy Wells & Unholy Castles (Transcribed)

Published on
7 December, 2023


A man looks at the relationship between a Holy Well and a Border Reiver era castle in the far North of England

Written by
Mark Nicol

Historian – Filmmaker – Blogger – Guided Tours – Group Speaker

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Holy Wells & Unholy Castles (Transcribed)
“Holy Wells & Unholy Castles”
Join me on a journey in the far North of England.


I’m at this beautifully peaceful tranquil and scenic site today known as the Lady’s Well.

It’s near a little village known as Holy Stone in the northern section of Eastern England

The No Man’s triangle north of the wall but south of the Scots English border


In the days before the Roman Invasion – and probably for hundreds of years after of the Roman Invasion also, the people who inhabited these lands were the exact same people and the same tribes that inhabited the south of Scotland and particularly the East, the Eastern Southern Scotland and eastern Northern England.


The site here has been this natural well or spring for forever in terms of human imagination. Apparently it spews for 360 gallons of fresh drinkable water every single minute which has made it this really, really important place.

But it’s became over the centuries and Millennia this sacred and holy place for many, many people.


I’ve made a few films about holy Wells and the Scottish borders, but this one really does have that feeling of magic and power, this amazing source of water which just appears from nowhere.

Constantly nourishing the people around here and it has been worshiped through the Centuries by different, different peoples, the pagan people of this land, Millennia ago long before the Romans would have worshiped this site. The Druids, the Celts, the votadini, this would been such an important place for them such a place of magic that kept them, kept them alive.


There’s no doubt that the Celtic people of this land would have dedicated this well to one of their Goddesses probably. This is probably the beginnings of this place being this feminine Lady’s Well.


But the next group of people to worship, revere, fear maybe even this well, were the Romans when they arrived here in the first century AD.


We’re not far here at all from the Hadrian’s wall site so, for two three maybe even 400 years the Roman activity in this area would have been intense, but the well here is 100% parallel to the Roman Road – there’s a Roman Road which runs just by here from the camp or the fort at Bremenium right over to the east coast, and the Roman Road ran right past this well purposefully for water and it was actually the Romans who constructed this almost rectangular with an oval shape at the End Pool to collect the waters from the well so, this well as you see it today is actually a Roman Construction.


But as we know the Romans weren’t here forever, you know and at this point I could quite easily regurgitate my national pride and my stories about how Scotland was the only country, the only country in the entire European and North African area which was not conquered by the Romans. We were quite simply the hardest soldiers and Army in the whole, the whole continent at that time but I’m not going to talk, I’m not going to talk about that because everybody knows that story.


But anyway the Romans left, but the well, the well survived – obviously. And very, very soon after the Roman withdraw from this area the well was overtaken by another force, and that force was Christianity.


St Ninian,  St Ninian was one of the very first people ever to bring Christianity to the shores of Greatm Britain.
And he worked tirelessly in the south of Scotland and north of England to convert the Pagan peoples to Christianity and it’s believed that Ninian used this site here to promote Christianity and use these wonderful healing waters to baptize people into the faith.


Ninian could have gone anywhere to promote this new-fangled Christianity but he chose this place, he chose this well in the middle of the Norther England Countryside to promote his Christianity.


Now I think that alone is an indication of how holy a site and how revered the site this was even before the advent of Christianity.


So yeah Christianity really did take hold here in the site around holy Stone well became, in the 12th century a Nunnery, a really important monastic place probably quite Grand buildings and a place of pilgrimage for people and particularly women and nuns from all over the world, and it’s reputedly then that this site took the name of Lady’s Well because the Nunnery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.


for me this has always been a site of feminine goddesses yeah the nunnery was destroyed pre-reformation in the 1540s, the statue at the end here was brought in from Alnwick Castle in the 1780s and it depicts a man known as St paulinus, St paulinus and apparently at some point St paulinus baptized 3,000 people in the well here but for me I hate the way that they have masculinized the site with this statue of a guy St Paulinus whoever he was some important Christian person.


Because the reason the ladies well and the monastic establishment there were never developed or redeveloped over the centuries was because of this place:


Harbottle Castle


There’s been a castle on this site at Hardbottle since the 1100s it was really in the 15 and 1600s this place became a key element in the defense of the English realm against us marauding Scots and Scottish border reivers.


 Thomas Darcy lived at Harbottle castle in the 15 1600s, he was appointed by King Henry the 8th, he was supposed to be the Army Commander on the warden of the area, he was meant to govern but instead he stirred up an era of border reiving which ran up to and beyond the union of the crowns in 1603. Really this place was a major, major military place in this, in the Scottish English Wars through 1300 all the way up to 1603.


You know in the 1500s it would have been unthinkable impossible for a man of my national origin, Aye Scottish to walk right up to these castle walls without being brutally killed.

The Scottish did take the castle a few times but mainly it was an English stronghold, a place to be attacked and maybe avoided.


Yeah it really is an amazing, amazing old site, it’s kind of like one of the old Motte and Bailey Castle ruins that you find quite often but usually all that’s left is the hill and the ditches whereas here there’s quite a bit of the masonry left.




But why did Harbottle Castle stop the development and evolution of the religious site that lead as well into something bigger?

But it wasn’t just hard bottle Castle on its own it was the fact of geography to Lady’s Well is situated or was situated in the place of bloodiest and oldest Warfare in all of Europe, and that never stopped never stopped for 400 years. The thought of lavishing money on a religious establishment to build something Grand was unthinkable because it was only going to be destroyed, it was only a matter of time before it would have been destroyed so the border reivers and the English and Scottish armies may have stopped the development, the development of that site Lady’s Well.


But they’ve preserved it, preserved it in that ancient State it’s fascinating to look at now, otherwise it might have been something more 1800s.


Yeah Hardbottle here is just one of countless English castles that were put up along the Scots English border to keep us Maurding Scots at bay.


This one’s a beauty, well worth going to see a visit Lady’s Well there that I was at earlier there only a couple of miles down the road!

Fancy seeing these places for yourself?

Mark offers dedicated day trips that focus on experiencing these places and finding out more about your family history in the Scottish Borders.
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