Elizabeth’s Well at Bisham

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

Not far from the roar of traffic on the A404 Marlow by-pass above is the neglected site of a once important part of our local history. Elizabeth’s Well at Bisham carries the name of the Tudor Princess who spent some years confined at Bisham Abbey in her youth before she ascended to the throne. One may safely assume that this local example of a holy well would have already been ancient before it ever acquired the name of the Virgin Queen however.

Holy wells were frequently pagan sacred sites that had later become Christianised.* It is likely that the place where the spring that emerges from the chalk through a natural arch of tree roots on Bisham hill would have been venerated for hundreds of years, maybe far back into the Celtic past. There is evidence of brickwork around the spring, but this is now in a poor state of repair, showing how this place of significance has become neglected.

Elizabeth’s Well
Elizabeth’s Well

An early mention of the well at Bisham occurs in 1338 when its fame for cures had begun to spread across the county. Springs acquired reputations for particular healing qualities and Bisham’s well became renowned for curing eye conditions.

Much folklore grew around these locations and ceremonies or rituals were often centred on holy well sites. At Bisham a tame bird and a hermit were said to live in the tree next to the well. The miraculous nature of the cures claimed for the well attracted the attention of the 14th century Bishop Erghum of Salisbury who had a manor house not far away at Sonning. Concerned at the attention this location was attracting, and deeming it to be a threat to Mother Church, the Bishop had the spring filled in with stones and the tree associated with the well cut down. The power of the common people prevailed, however, and some ‘sons of the devil’, as they were described at the time, from Marlow and High Wycombe soon restored the well to use.

Some of the brickwork around Elizabeth’s Well
Some of the brickwork around Elizabeth’s Well

Piers Compton, the historian of Bisham Abbey writing in the 1970s, reported that people within living memory still attributed healing powers to the waters that bubble out at Elizabeth’s Well. Analysed in 1905, it appears that the spring water’s qualities match those of well-known spas. The field in which it stood had even once taken the name of Holy-well. Today, an ancient oak tree towers massively over the site of the spring, perhaps a successor to the tree that was deliberately felled. The oak, of course, was sacred to the Druids. One sees in this tree and the neglected well both a link with the distant past and a lingering belief in the curative nature of holy water down the ages.

Please note that Elizabeth’s Well is on private land.

by Jeff Griffiths

*The characteristics of such places have been described in an earlier AiM Newsletter. See Holy? – Well, Well, Well! by Gerry Palmer, AiM Newsletter April 2011.

The Story of Bisham Abbey by Piers Compton was first published by Thames Valley Press in 1973.

Some intriguing links with paranormal activity and folklore associated with wells, including that at Bisham, are recounted at http://www.strangebritain.co.uk/holywells/elizabeth.html

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3 thoughts on “Elizabeth’s Well at Bisham”

  1. Pleased to have found this article. I have been visiting this well for at least 15 years whenever I have visited my brother and his growing family living on The Green. I have always been interested in holy wells (I live in Cornwall where we have a plethora of them) and as soon as I knew there was one nearby I sought it out and was not disappointed. In fact, I have taken each one of my three nephews when babies to the well to be ‘christened’! This well has a very special feel to it, in my view, despite the proximity of the busy road above (if you sit down right next to the water you cannot see or barely hear it and the place can seem almost timeless) and I’m sure it had this many years before it became itself re-christened as Elizabeth’s Well – the funny thing is that I’m sure my brother originally told me it was called Lady Well, but recently said no, he has only ever known it as the above name or Princess Elizabeth Well. True, Lady Well is not an unknown name for a well, though I have only ever very recently been to one other one, very decimated, of that name before, in North Devon, so I do wonder where I got that impression from.

  2. As a child, I lived in Bisham from about 1951 onwards!.my father worked on Bisham Abbey estates as a farm labourer for a number of years.
    In those days the area in question belonged to Bisham Abbey estates . I was told by one of the old farm workers who lived in a cottage about a hundred metre’s away from the well.
    That when he was a small boy it was called Queen Elizabeth springs and the large oak tree was planted by her.? We always called it “Queen Elizabeth spring”?
    Myself and all my brother’s and sister’s and everyone we knew drank gallons of the ice cold water from the springs ,even on the hottest day it was always very refreshing.
    There was always loads of watercress growing there too.!.I bet there is none now ?

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