Cornish culture is legendary and mystery awaits around every corner in its land.
Despite holy wells are water sources with specifically Christian associations, identified from as early as the 6th century AD, and the custom of venerating springs and wells as sacred sites have characterised pre-Christian religions in Britain, it is clear that some originated as earlier sacred sites.
The cult of holy wells continued throughout the medieval period. Its condemnation at the time of the Reformation, around 1540, ended new foundations but local reverence and folklore customs at existing holy wells continued, in some cases until today.
They sometimes functioned as sites for baptism but they were also revered for more abstract purposes, some of which may have had origins in pre-Christian customs, such as beliefs in the healing powers of the water and its capacity to affect a desired outcome for future events.
The number of holy wells is not known but estimates suggest at least 600 nationally and, of these, over 200 are in Cornwall.
Less than a mile southeast from Lanyon Quoit sits Madron Well, where the water that bubbles from an underground spring is reputed to have healing powers. The spring itself isn’t easy to see, but it is marked by a nearby wishing tree festooned with colorful strips of material known as clooties and more unusual items such a toys or wooden shapes.
Here, under the shade of the tree, Pagan custom dictates that after the ritual has been complete, the clootie placed by the pilgrim will disintegrate, and so too will the illness or disability.
Around 100 meters from the well stands a rectangular structure open to the elements and covered in moss and vegetation. It was a chapel, and to one side is a stone dais that is recognizable as an altar. The current structure was built in the 12th century atop an old pagan site and is named, like the nearby village, after the Cornish hermit Madron, who became the patron saint of cures and protection against pain. The chapel became a baptistery, and the nearby well supplied the necessary water thanks to an artificial waterway. The chapel’s north facing entrance is unusual in Christian belief, as it is considered the devil’ door.
Moreover, there is a second, more indistinct well across a muddy field from the chapel. This is the original well, where many legends abound, including one about a paralyzed local named John Trelille, who, in the 12th century, bathed three times in the well, after each time spending the night on a nearby hillock. At the end of the ritual, he was cured of paralysis. His miraculous recovery was verified by the Bishop of Exeter, and his story attracted pilgrims throughout medieval times.
Unmarried women would also visit the site and place a straw crucifix upon the surface of the well water. The number of bubbles would have rised to the surface would indicate the number of years until they would be married. This ceremony was said to have stopped in the 19th century.
Images from web – Google Research