Tag Archives: Local history

Custom demised: Rochford Lawless Court, Essex

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Now largely forgotten is a curious legal custom which persisted until the late 1800s in Essex. Personal recollections of which are given by Courtney Kenny (1905) in the article The Lawless Court of Essex in the Columbia Law Review Vol. 5, No. 7 notes:

“It was in 1878 that, on October 5th (the Tuesday following Old Michaelmas-day), I went down from London to witness the Lawless Court. The railroad could only take me as far as Southend, a watering place at the mouth of the Thames in the south-eastern corner of Essex. But even there I found, as the evening drew on, that some mysterious excitement was abroad. There seemed a gradual disappearance of the male inhabitants of the town between the ages of fifteen and fifty; the streets grew silent, and the public houses became deserted. I caught a stray youth whom an unenterprising disposition or a maternal injunction had detained at home, and asked him the reason of this sudden emigration. ‘It is Cockcrowing Night’ he replied. And in every village and hamlet throughout the Hundred of Rochford that watchword had been passing from boy to boy all day long–” It is Cockcrowing night.”

What was this court? Morant in his 1768 History of Essex states that at King’s-hill, about half a mile northeast of Rochford Church, in the yard of a house once belonging to Crips, Gent,, and afterwards to Robert Hackshaw, of London, merchant, and to Mr. John Buckle. Here the tenants kneel, and do their homage. The time is the Wednesday morning next after Michaelmas Day, upon the first cock-crowing, without any kind of light but such as the heavens will afford.

Why was it called whispering court?

Apparently those who appeared at the court

“all such as are bound to appear with as low a voice as possible, giving no notice, when he that gives not an answer is deeply amerced. They are all to whisper to each other ; nor have they any pen and ink, but supply that office with a coal ; and he that owes suit and service thereto, and appears not, forfeits to the lord double his rent every hour he is absent. A tenant of this manor forfeited not long ago his land for non-attendance, but was restored to it, the lord only taking a fine. The Court is called Lawless because held at an unlawful or lawless hour.”

Pivotal to this was a post called the Whispering post quadrilateral in section, five feet in height and topped with a conical carving representing a candles flame. Here the orderly line was formed about the post as the lighted torch was put out. Here the scroll and announced:

“’Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!, all manner of persons that do owe suit and service to this Court now to be holden in and for the Manor of Kings Hill in the Hundred of Rochford draw near and give your attendance and perform your several suits and services according to the custom of the said Manor. God Save The King’”

The origins of the custom

Kenny (1908) notes that:

“Hundreds of years since, so their tradition ran, there had dwelt at Rayleigh a sturdy baron, who was Lord of the Manor of King’s Hill. One autumn night as he lay in bed he was disturbed from his slumbers by the premature and pertinacious crowing of a barn-door cock. He rose and sallied out; and, as he walked through the chill air, he overheard whispers. He listened, and to his amazement found that he was listening to a party of the vassals of his manor, arranging the details of a plan to murder him. I suppose he strode back to the manor house, and summoned Jack and Giles and Roger and all the other knaves and varlets of the household to his assistance. But whether he was thus backed by aid, or whether he was single-handed, matters little, for anyhow (so says the story) he interrupted the conspirators, convicted them of their treason, and made them tremble for their lives and their lands. Then, of his clemency, the puissant lord consented to a compromise. The crime should be pardoned, the forfeiture should be waived, the homage and fealty of the penitent rebels should be again accepted. But, to secure the perpetual remembrance of their crime, they and their heirs were forever to hold the restored lands by a shameful service.”

As a result as he continues:

“Year after year as the anniversary of the detected plot returned-the Wednesday following Old Michaelmas Day, i. e., following October 1st -the tenants of this Manor of King’s Hill should assemble, as soon as the midnight of Tuesday was past, in the open air, with no light but such as the sky might give, on the spot where their traitorous ancestors whispered over their plans. There the lord’s steward should whisper out the roll of their names with as low a voice as possible; and the tenant that answered not when his name was whispered should forfeit to the lord double his rent for every hour he was absent. The steward should have no ink and pen to record his minutes; the blackened end of a piece of burned wood must suffice to make all the entries on the roll of this court of shame. Nor must these assembled sons of traitors venture to depart when the business of the court was done. They were to linger on the hill through the cold night, until the bird of warning who defeated their fathers’ crime should give them leave to go.

From midnight, then, to the first cockcrow, must they wait upon the King’s Hill; at the crowing of the cock they were to be free to depart. And in this manner, for unknown centuries, was the court duly held. In something of this manner was it held even when I saw it.”

However as in these cases:

“The court indeed had long lost all forensic importance. For centuries past, no prosecutions and no litigation had taken place in it. Perhaps, indeed, no prosecutions ever had; for its title, ‘Curia Sine Lege’ has been conjecturally explained as ‘ the court without a leet-day.’ And it had ceased to do conveyancing work; no demesne lands or copyhold lands were controlled by it. It had become a mere settling-day for the payment of quit-rents and suit fines. Next, something had come to be conceded to the degeneracy of modern manners. Down to the earlier part of the eighteenth century the fine for non-attendance was still inflicted. But before I8oo the tenants had come to have more fear of late hours and autumn damps than of manorial penalties. So they became accustomed to pay their dues in the morning at the steward’s comfortable office; and to leave King’s Hill and its chilly starlight to the juveniles and the antiquaries. Moreover, even in the matter of the star light an innovation grew to be allowed; and a goodly supply of torches was not only permitted, but actually provided for the suitors. And in the point of cockcrowing, a perfect revolution gradually came about. First of all, a legal fiction was introduced for shortening the proceedings; a stout lunged Rochfordian being bribed to play the part of a cock, and crow lustily as soon as the business of the court was over; so as to save the suitors from having to w three hours for the notes of the veritable chanticleer, and having to incur meanwhile imminent perils of colds and coughs, ‘catarrhs and agues, and joint-racking rheums.’ Next, the paid expert was dispensed with; and the cock crowing was done on the voluntary system. And I found that, without any stimulus from manorial compulsion or manorial pay, the youth of Rochford accepted with spontaneous enthusiasm the steward’s slightest hint that the time had come for their services, and would go on crowing as long and as loud as could be desired by the deafest ten ant or the sleepiest baron. Yet, even with these maimed rites, the court would not have survived till near the end of the nineteenth century, had it not been for one further venerable and admirable usage, of which no mention is made by any of the reverend antiquaries who have described the use and wont of the Manor of King’s Hill. The lords of that ilk had for many a long year had a good old custom,-like fine old English gentlemen of the most olden time,-of spending all the profits of the manor in providing a good supper for the attendants at this Lawless Court. So year by year, when Cockcrowing Night had come, the lord called in all his antiquarian-minded neighbours. And there, in Rochford, at the good old hostelry of the King’s Head, they would sit and sup; as their forefathers had sat and supped.”

Kenny continues to note

“A good supper i’ faith it was, when I sat down at it in the year 1878. It was held in the traditional room, with the steward of the manor presiding in the traditional chair, over the traditional joint and the traditional apple-pie, and ultimately, with the most traditional of ladles, dispensing the traditional bowl of punch, compiled from a traditional receipt of preterhuman cunningness. A jovial supper it was; as we ate up and drank up, at our feudal seigneur’s bidding, all the proceeds of his quit-rents, and chief rents, and fee farm rents, and fines of suit, and profits of rendre and prendre.”

But this curious mix of ancient pointless custom, feast and legal duty did not last beyond Kenny’s description. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century saw the ending of The Whispering Court, and despite a mock revival by the local history society, which I believe no longer enact it, and all is left today is the house, a private dwelling and in the grounds the whispering post.

Custom occasional: Spitting on the Heart of Midlothian, Edinburgh

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Tourists mill to and fro down the Royal Mile passing St Mary’s Kirk may miss an unusual heart shaped mosaic made of stones set into the pavement below them. That is until someone passes raises back their head and lands a big glob of spit upon it and walks off! But why?

The heart together with the brass markers set into the pavement mark the location of the 15th century Tolbooth of Edinburgh, the once administrative centre of the town and also its prison and site of execution.

Spit it out

One possible origin is that it is associated with the Porteous riots of 1736 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted smuggler was publicly hanged and that when his body was cut down against the wishes of the mob a riot ensued. The Lord Provost Captain Porteous called out the guards to deal with them as the mob became violent and began stoning the guards. This then lead to a precipitation of violence which resulted in six people being shot and Porteous being arrested and charged with murder. Testimony differed on whether he was responsible and the people feeling a plot was organised to make him innocent, dragged him from the prison and after some horrendous acts was finally beaten to death. It is said that the stone represented the people’s views on murder of the six people. The tolbooth was immortalised in Water Scott’s 1818 novel ‘Heart of Midlothian’, the year after it was demolished.

I could just spit

The Heart of Midlothian is a heart-shaped mosaic on the pavement of the Royal Mile, which many people spit on in passing, supposedly to bring them good luck.

At first it would appear that understandably those who were or associated with criminals as a form of disdain to show their disgust or ward off evil associated with it. It is said to mark where the death cell was and so looking back as an accused man you would spit although others state it is where the entrance was. By the 20th century it had become associated with good luck as recorded by Florence Marian MacNeil’s 1977 Silver Bough: Scottish folk-lore and folk-belief who recorded that ‘an occasional boy’ would be seen spitting on it.

Even more recently it would appear that Hibernian F.C football team would spit on the stones thinking it was there to demonstrate their hatred of rival team Heart of Midlothian F.C! Indeed a commenter on a Hibernian FC forum suggested they spit for luck for the 1998 Cup final.

However even more recently it has been gum and copper coins deposited there, the later certainly more sanitary. Indeed, a mini documentary does show both confusion of over why it was done and what it represents.

However, the custom continues, as I stood one wet and rainy day on the Royal Mile, a tile red-headed man appeared and drew up some spittle and thrust it down on the heart in front of me…perhaps realising I was a tourist! Interesting, spitting is banned in the city but the heart remains a final sanctuary for the unpleasant act which back in 1967 there was an attempt to ban this ‘filthy act’…however with a tourist conscious city of Edinburgh, even this antisocial custom is worth preserving.

Custom revived: Luddenden’s Mock Mayor

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Nestling in deep valleys with its stone buildings and winding streets, Luddenden looks like a place where traditions survive and indeed on the second Saturday in September crowds assemble to see a wide range of weird and wonderful events from bale, maggot and duck racing – not together of course culminating in a making of a local mayor – a mock mayor, although they are never called that, of Luddenden!

The Mayor making day certainly brought the village alive with a  range of events and stalls around the village’s pub and spilling through the churchyard. The bale race was exciting to watch as they raced around the town carrying straw bales on their shoulders. Indeed, there are a lot of races going on – a maggot, duck, bale and pint. The pint race was particularly enjoyable watching a rather fast and then slow race of people carrying a pint in each hand around the outside of the pub. I did wonder why I had not seen this before. And don’t worry there was a tee-totalers one with water.

By half past four crowd had formed around the Lord Nelson Inn in Luddenden to see the 157th Mayor elected (although not strictly true as the event as we shall see when through a bit of a hiatus ). Then the main event the inauguration of a new Mayor. Standing in front of a large St George’s flag and an equally large Yorkshire flag on the raised area of the war memorial, the outgoing Mayor wearing the red coat, tricorn hat, frilly shirt, chain and ermine gave an leaving speech and then it was over to the new Mayor to be announced by the master of ceremonies in morning suit and top hat. The crowd cheered and laughed as the new Mayor gave their incoming speech full of local in jokes.

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May or May not

Like other Mock Mayors the custom begun as a slight at the growth of local towns such as Halifax and a self-acknowledgement of the settlement’s own growth. The town resented Halifax’s growth encompassing the town and thus having a Mayor who would govern over the settlement. So if one town could have one why could we not? So in 1861, the customs of the local Lord Nelson Inn elected their first Mayor. To make it official they bought a chain of office to match that of Halifax in its elaborate nature and set about giving the Mayor a suitable location. However, Luddenden could not claim to have a Town Hall like Halifax and so the snug of the Nelson became the ‘Mayor’s Parlour’ with a bench known as the Mayor’s chair.

To be elected Mayor one had to sit in the chair. Whether this was by design or accident is unclear. For the person who sat in the chair would become by custom Mayor for a month. However, they were also invited to pay for drinks for everyone in the bar. It seems likely these two aspects might well have arisen after the decline of the custom and that the Mayor role might have been for a year at least! Then after years in abeyance in 1996 the local community decided to revive the custom. Today local people are invited to become the Mayor back in June when adverts appear in the village.

Now though the Mayor is treated a real bone fide entity, especially by the local press. Like a real Mayor Christmas lights are turned on and social events such as Burn’s Night attended.

It is evident that part of this view that the role is a real Mayor is due to the role the Mayor has in the community. As Committee member and licensee of the Lord Nelson pub, Debbie Collinge in the 2005 Halifax Courier:

“It brings the community together and it is all fun and games. The money from the fund-raising keeps things alive in the village.”

In essence she said it ‘keeps the area strong. This is due in no small part to those fund raising activities. The Mayor has a Mayor’s fund with a committee elected at the same time. Fund raising over the years have included money raised for local swings

Each year the Mayor picks a challenge. These have ranged from cycling the equivalent distance between Paris to the village and raising £1600 for Breast Cancer charities to climbing Yorkshire’s Three Peaks for the Atrial Fibrillation Association.  The former being on static bikes and I assume they will be climbing real peaks though!

Luddenden’s Mayor – a mock mayor in principle but one that does not make a mockery of their responsibilities.

Custom demised: Nativity of the Virgin Mary Boar’s Hunt, Grimsby, Lincolnshire

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The town of Grimsby has three boars on its crest you may ask why?

The origin comes from when the town was surrounded by wild woods and when boars were common in these areas. The tradition having two parts the main part being the presentation of a boar’s head. T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1975) notes:

“An old tradition existing within the town of Grimsby asserts that every burgess at his admission to the freedom of the borough anciently presented to the mayor a boar’s head, or an equivalent in money when the animal could not be procured.”

Indeed, an 1828 copy of The Gentlemen’s Magazine states that the Mayor of Grimsby would have three boars heads at the table at his feast. Part of the tradition would be to hunt, for it is also recorded that:

“The lord, too, of the adjacent manor of Bradley, it seems, was obliged by his tenure to keep a supply of these animals in his wood for the entertainment of the mayor and burgesses, and an annual hunting match was officially proclaimed on some particular day after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. In the midst of these extensive woods the sport was carried on, and seldom did the assembled train fail to bring down a leash of noble boars, which were designed for a public entertainment on the following day. At this feast the newly-elected mayor took his seat at the head of the table, which contained the whole body corporate and the principal gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood.”

When did this custom begin? The coat of arms is 17th century but it may go back to a Viking or Saxon tradition. Interestingly, the last boar in England was said to have hunted in Bradley which may have been for the Mayor of Grimsby.

Custom contrived: Blessing Speen’s Lady Well, Berkshire

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“This well is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, after whom the church is also dedicated.  However, the spring around which the well was built is much earlier than the church, and it may have been a sacred spring renowned for healing powers in pre-Christian times.  The present well was constructed in the mediaeval period, and restored in 1902 in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII.”

The wording we have used in recent years to announce the Blessing

Berkshire is not over endowed with calendar customs so when you hear of a new one (new to you that is) it is good. Considering this is associated with a holy well, which hopefully you may be aware I blog about as well (see here in March) even more good to hear. New church customs can be transitory in their nature and sometimes do not survive the enthusiasm of the vicar who often are responsible for re-founding or inventing them. This one although details are scant appears to have survived  a number of vicars.

The Lady’s day

 

Every year the service is done near or at the church’s Patronal Festival, this being the 15th August, which is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The custom has been undertaken for decades however the exact date of its foundation could not be found.

The Newbury Weekly News on the 17th August 2010 stated

“Parishioners of Speen turned out in force on Sunday to continue the traditional blessing of the Lady Well at St. Mary’s church. Around 70 members of the congregation attended. Leading the procession was Rev Canon David Winter, followed by cross-bearer Alan Booth and incense-burner Derek Shailes. Church wardens Jane Burrell and Brian Nobles were also among the procession, which followed the patronal festival service at the church. Around 50 of those who attended also joined for a lunch to mark the blessing of the Lady Well, which is thought to date back before 452 A.D.”

The ceremony begun as noted with a procession following the cross-bearer out of the church and down the lane to the well its a short distance but enough for a decent procession. Here the well is dressed. However, don’t expect Derbyshire style attempts this is a delightful low key affair with posies and bunches of flowers.  The water is not forgotten and it is sprinkled amongst the congregation. Apparently before the last five years, the liturgy was dependent upon whoever was taking the service now it goes as follows:

INTRODUCTION  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All Amen  Our help is in the name of the Lord, All Who has made heaven and earth.  The Lord be with you. All And also with you.   

PSALM 65 1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion:  to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.

  To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins;  when our misdeeds prevail against us,  you will purge them away.

 Happy are they whom you choose, And draw to your courts to dwell there.  We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.

 With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

 In your strength you set fast the mountains and are girded about with might.

 You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves and the clamour of the peoples.

 Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels; the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.

 You visit the earth and water it; you make it very plenteous.

The river of God is full of water; you prepare grain for your people, for so you provide for the earth.

  You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.

 You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty.

 May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness and the hills be girded with praise.

 May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.

 Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;  as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.  Amen.”

The blessing going as follows:

“BLESSING OF THE WATER   

 As St Francis prayed with great gratitude for Sister Water, so we too come in prayer to God today, full of thanks for the life-sustaining generosity of his wonderful gift of water.     In her mysterious beauty, water causes the desert to bloom.  Each tiny drop among countless thousands of other drops does its work to water seeds and plants, to provide harvests to feed us and all creatures, to quench our burning thirst.     Like the body of the earth, our bodies too are over three-quarters’ water.  We are a water people.  We are a water planet.     O compassionate Creator God, whose spirit breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation, we seek forgiveness for our mindless use of water, we beg for wisdom to understand better how to conserve and cherish water, we ask healing for the ways that we abuse and contaminate water.     And what we ask for the creation around us, we ask too for our inner lives.  We welcome the gentle rain of your grace into our souls.  Come free us from hatred, greed, fear and our lack of love for your gifts to us.  Refresh us and renew us with your living streams of water that we may flow green and moist with life, hope and love for all that you have made.     We make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

We bless this well in the name of God, the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who overflows with life within is.  Amen”

Then the following hymn is sung:

“HYMN All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing: Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in heaven along, O praise Him, hallelujah! Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of heaven, find a voice: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear, Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest man both warmth and light: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Let all things their Creator bless, And worship Him in humbleness, O praise Him, hallelujah! Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three-in-One: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”

All in all a great evocative holy well and it is great to see that it is still celebrated by its community.

Church Warden Jane Burrell, and obtained some photos about the annual service which is enacted there each here.

Custom demised: St Bartholomew’s Eve Scholar debate, Smithfield London

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Before schools closed for August, scholars and schoolmasters from the different London schools met at the St. Bartholomew’s’ Priory for disputations on grammar and logic, and wrangled together in verse These were the days when much of the learning was oral  based rather than written and such a debate would really stretch the minds of the student and test their knowledge. John Stow in c1525-1605 Survey of London book recalls that:

“the arguing of the schoolboys about the principles of grammar hath continued even till our time; for I myself, in my youth, have yearly seen, on the Eve of St Bartholomew the Apostle, the scholars of divers grammar schools repair unto the churchyard of St Bartholomew, the Priory in Smithfield, where upon a bank boarded about under a tree.”

He describes the method as:

“one scholar hath stepped up, and there hath opposed and answered till he were by some better scholar  overcome and put down; and then the overcomer taking his place, did like as the first. And in the end, the best opposers and answerers had regards, which I observed not but it made both good schoolmasters, and also good scholars, diligently against such times to prepare themselves for the obtaining of this garland.”

Stow continues to discuss who attended. And it is clear that there was a fair bit of debate and some schools, as today, had a better reputation:

“I remember there repaired to these exercises, amongst others, the masters and scholars of the free schools of St Paul’s in London, of St Peter’s at Westminster, of St Thomas Acon’s hospital, and of St Anthony’s Hospital; whereof the last named commonly presented the best scholars, and had the prize in those days. This Priory of St Bartholomew being surrendered to Henry the Eighth, those disputations of scholars in that place surceased; and was again., only for a year or twain, revived in the cloister of Christ’s Hospital, were the best scholars, then still of St Anthony’s school, howsoever the same be now fallen both in number and estimation, were rewarded with bows and arrows of silver, given them by Sir Martin Bower, goldsmith.”

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the custom also encouraged disputes of a non-scholarly kind which Stow again explained:

“The scholars of Paul’s, meeting with them of St Anthony’s, would call them Anthony’s Pigs, and they again would call the other Pigeons of Paul’s, because many pigeons were bred in St Paul’s church, and St Anthony was always figured with a pig following him; and mindful of the former usage, did for a long season disorderly provoke one another in the open street with “Salve tu quoque, placet mecum disputare?” – “Placet.” And so proceeding from this to questions in grammar, they usually fell from words to blows with their satchels full of books, many times in great heaps, that they troubled the streets and passengers; so that finally they were restrained with the decay of St Anthony’s school.”

Interesting how the use of ‘would you like to debate or discuss?’ became a stimulus for a fight and it appears when it comes to children nothing is new. Indeed, sadly, like a number of school based traditions the reactions of the students curtailed the success of the custom which Stow appears to indicate. The rewards and prizes were not always enough to encourage a positive opinion of the custom:

“The satchels full of books, with which the boys belaboured  one another, really were the weapons that had put an end to the old practice of incessant oral disputation. Schoolmasters and men of learning, years before, had also taken to the thrashing of each other with many books; and books scattered abroad “many times in great heaps” were the remains also of their new way  of controversy. If a man had learning, society no longer made it in any degree necessary for him to go bodily in search of the general public to a Fair, or in search of the educated public to the great hall of a University. Writing was no longer a solemn business, and writing materials were no longer too costly to be delivered over to the herd of schoolboys for habitual use and destruction. Written, instead of spoken exercises, occupied the ‘pigs’ and ‘pigeons’ who ran riot over the remains of a dead system.”

Of course the Reformation was also a final block on the custom and it was never revived. Such great Independent schools still exist in London, they still do Latin of course, but its more book based. Perhaps it would be interested to encourage a more oral based debate again. Time for a revival?

Custom demised: Visiting Downpatrick’s wells on Midsummer’s Eve, County Down

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Midsummer is a time often associated with visiting wells. In the July 1817 Hibernian Magazine it is reported:

“At Struel, near Downpatrick, there is a ceremony commencing at twelve o’clock at night on Midsummer Eve. Its sacred mount is consecrated to St. Patrick ; the plain contains three wells, to which the most extraordinary virtues are attributed.”

The account continues:

“Here and there are heaps of stones, around some of which appear great numbers of people, running with
as much speed as possible ; around others crowds of worshippers kneel with bare legs and feet as an indispensable part of the penance. The men, without coats, with handkerchiefs on their heads instead of hats, having gone seven times round each heap, kiss the ground, cross themselves, and proceed to the hill ; here they ascend, on their bare knees, by a path so steep and rugged that it would too difficult to walk up. Many hold their hands clasped at the back of their necks, and several carry largo stones on their heads. Having repeated this ceremony seven times, they go to what is called St. Patrick’s Chair, which are two great flat stones fixed upright in the hill ; here they cross and bless themselves as they step in between these stones, and, while repeating prayers, an old man, seated for the purpose, turns them round on their feet three times, for which he is paid; the devotee then goes to conclude his penance at a pile of stones, named the Altar. “

The report concludes by stating:

“While this busy scene is continued by the multitude, the wells and streams Issuing from them arc thronged by crowds of halt, maimed, and blind, pressing to wash away their infirmities with water consecrated by their patron saint, and so powerful is the impression of its efficacy on their minds, that many of those who go to be healed, and who are not totally blind, or altogether crippled, really believe for a time that they are by means of its miraculous virtues perfectly restored.”

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Francis Dixon Hardy in his 1840 Holy Wells of Ireland provides greater details;

“About one mile and a half to the east of Downpatrick, and within about half a mile of Slieve-na-Grideal, one of the most celebrated of the ancient Pagan high places is a hill of about 150 feet of perpendicular elevation, called Struel Mountain, which remains uncultivated, producing a little mixture of grass and shamrock, with a few hawthorns, and an abundant crop of furze. At the foot of this hill, which is looked upon as holy ground, at about two miles distance, a monastery, built, as it is said, by St. Patrick and St. Bridget, formerly stood; near which is a well, bearing the name of the former saint, and supposed to possess extraordinary virtues, both in healing the diseases of the body, and in cleansing the pollutions of the soul; a sacred stream, supplied by this spring, runs unpolluted by any other stream until it arrives at Struel. It then flows through the consecrated plain, by a channel covered over with flags and large stones, and supplies in its course two of the four wells which it originally fed. Two of these wells, which are in a higher situation, appear to have been formed by hollowing out a little ground near the course of the rivulet; while the water enters the other two by spouts, having a fall of three feet into one, and six into the other. To these there are coverings in the form of sentry-boxes; the covering of the third is of the form and size of a moderate pig-sty; and that of the fourth is a kind of little cottage, consisting of two apartments.”

He continued rather disparagingly:

“To this place about one thousand people resort every midsummer, for the purpose of doing penance. They come from all parts of Ireland, and even from England and Scotland. Besides these, there is always a large crowd of spectators, amounting probably to another thousand. For the comfort and accommodation of both, a number of tents are erected in the plain, where whiskey is sold, and entertainment of every kind is afforded. The ceremonies commence upon the Sunday preceding, and commonly end upon the Sunday succeeding midsummer-day. As it is not necessary, however, that each penitent should continue here during all this period, few remain longer than one half of the week. The latter half seems to be regarded as the more holy; for the place is, during that time, more frequented, particularly on the last day, which is for that reason called “big Sunday.” No one appears to act as a general superintendent, but the multitudes appear to be left to themselves in submitting to the penance, and performing the ceremonies with which it is connected.”

Downpatrick Struell wells By Ardfern – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8104076

He continues:

“This portion of the penance being over, the penitents descend into the plain, where they move round certain cairns of stones, some crawling, and others running, as before. Each individual, however, must here carry a stone, which he adds to the heap. These cairns are in groups of seven and twelve, which respectively denote the days of the week, and the months of the year; or, as some will have it the seven churches and the twelve apostles. Around these they go seven times, or seven times seven, and twelve times, or twelve times twelve – measured as before by their various degrees of criminality. The next part of the ceremony is to proceed to the large well, termed the body-well, or, by some, the well of sins.  Before entering it, however, they approach with profound reverence a flag of freestone, which is placed in the wall, and is possessed of some peculiarly sanctifying powers. This they touch with their fingers, and then cross themselves repeatedly, and thus become prepared for the purifications of the holy wells. If they can afford a few pence of admission money, they may enter the larger well, where they have room to undress if not, they must content themselves with the second or limb-well, into which they are admitted free of expense, being obliged, however, to strip themselves in the adjoining fields. All modesty is here thrown aside. As they approach the well, they throw off even their undergarments, and with more than Lacedemonian indifference, before the assembled multitudes, they go forward in a state of absolute nudity, plunge in, and bathe promiscuously. After such immersion, they go through the ceremony of washing- their eyes, and conclude the whole by drinking from the fourth well, called by some the well of forgetfulness, and by others the water of life.”

Like many customs involving large numbers the side entertainments developed:

“Thus end the ceremonies of the day. Those of the evening follow, and form a remarkable contrast. The employments of the day seem to be considered as the labours of virtue, those of the evening are her rewards, by which they are amply compensated. Their eyes, after having been bathed in the sacred stream, instantly discover the flowery path of pleasure, which conducts them to the tents prepared for their reception, where they are supplied with copious draughts, of which the water of life was but a faint emblem. In these tents, and in the adjoining fields, under the canopy of a pure sky, they spend the whole night, quaffing the soul-inspiring beverage, and indulging in various gratifications to which the time and place are favourable; for it is understood, that while the jubilee continues, and as long as the happy multitudes remain on the sacred ground, they cannot contract new guilt.”

Sadly, no more, the springs remain but few people visit at Midsummer. They continued until the 19th century but a combination of a drop in water levels and prohibition of devotional exercises by the ecclesiastical authorities due to rowdy behaviour meant the custom slowly died out. People still visit the wells but perhaps the springs are now doomed as 2006 Environment and Heritage Service officials stated that the wells were drying up and two no longer contained water.