Holy Well (covered): OS Grid Reference – TQ 3157 8111
Archaeology & History
Close to the centre of that corporate money-laundering place of homo-profanus that is the City of London, was once a site that represents the antithesis of what it has become. Tacked onto the southeastern side of St. Bride’s church along the appropriately-named Bride Lane, the historian Michael Harrison (1971) thought the Holy Well here had Roman origins. It “was almost certainly,” he thought,
“in Roman times, the horrea Braduales, named after the man who probably ordered their construction: Marcus Appius Bradua, Legate of Britain under Hadrian, and the British Governer in whose term of office the total walling of London was, in all likelihood, begun.”
This ‘Roman marketplace of Bradua’ that Harrison describes isn’t the general idea of the place though. Prior to the church being built, in the times of King John and Henry III, the sovereigns of England were lodged at the Bridewell Palace, as it was known. Mentioned in John Stow’s (1720) Survey of London, he told:
“This house of St. Bride’s of later time, being left, and not used by the Kings, fell to ruin… and only a fayre well remained here.”
The palace was eventually usurped by the building of St. Bride’s church. The most detailed account we have of St. Bride’s Well is Alfred Foord’s (1910) magnum opus on London’s water supplies. He told:
“The well was near the church dedicated to St. Bridget (of which Bride is a corruption; a Scottish or Irish saint who flourished in the 6th century), and was one of the holy wells or springs so numerous in London, the waters of which were supposed to possess peculiar virtues if taken at particular times. Whether the Well of St. Bride was so called after the church, or whether, being already there, it gave its name to it, is uncertain, more especially as the date of the erection of the first church of St. Bride is not known and no mention of it has been discovered prior to the year 1222. The position of the ancient well is said to have been identical with that of the pump in a niche in the eastern wall of the churchyard overhanging Bride Lane. William Hone, in his Every-Day Book for 1831, thus relates how the well became exhausted: ‘The last public use of the water of St. Bride’s well drained it so much that the inhabitants of the parish could not get their usual supply. This exhaustion was caused by a sudden demand on the occasion of King George IV being crowned at Westminster in July 1821. Mr Walker, of the hotel No.10 Bridge Street, Blackfriars, engaged a number of men in filling thousands of bottles with the sanctified fluid from the cast-iron pump over St. Bride’s Well, in Bride Lane.” Beyond this there is little else to tell about the well itself, but the spot is hallowed by the poet Milton, who, as his nephew, Edward Philips records, lodged in the churchyard on his return from Italy, about August 1640, “at the house of one Russel a taylor.”
In Mr Sunderland’s (1915) survey, he reported that “the spring had a sweet flavour.”
Sadly the waters here have long since been covered over. A pity… We know how allergic to Nature those official ‘city-minds’ in London are (especially fresh water springs), but it would be good if they could restore this sacred water site and bring it back to life.
Bride or Brigit has her origins in early British myth and legend, primarily from Scotland and Ireland. Her saint’s day is February 1, or the heathen Imbolc (also known as Candlemas). Although in christian lore St. Bride was born around 450 AD in Ireland and her father a Prince of Ulster, legend tells that her step-father (more probably a teacher) was a druid and her ‘saintly’ abilities as they were later described are simply attributes from this shamanic pantheon. Legends—christian and otherwise—describe Her as the friend of animals; possessor of a magickal cloak; a magickian and a healer; and whose ‘spirit’ or genius loci became attached to ‘sacred sites’ in the natural world, not the christian renunciation of it. St Bride was one of the primal faces of the great prima Mater known as the Cailleach: the Gaelic deity of Earth’s natural cycles, whose changing seasons would also alter her names, faces and clothes, as Her body moved annually through the rhythms of the year. Bride was (and is) ostensibly an ecological deity, with humans intrinsically a part of such a model, not a part from it, in contrast to the flawed judaeo-christian theology.
- Foord, Alfred Stanley, Springs, Streams and Spas of London: History and Association, T. Fisher Unwin: London 1910.
- Gregory, Lady, A Book of Saints and Wonders, Colin Smythe: Gerrards Cross 1971.
- Harrison, Michael, The London that was Rome, Allen & Unwin: London 1971.
- McNeill, F. Marian, The Silver Bough – volume 2, William MacLellan: Glasgow 1959.
- Morgan, Dewi, St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, in the City of London, Blackfriars: Leicester 1973.
- o’ Hanlon, John, Life of St. Brigid, Joseph Dollard: Dublin 1877.
- Sunderland, Septimus, Old London Spas, Baths and Wells, John Bale: London 1915.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian