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.
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.
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