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A “Cursed” English Well Has Been Rediscovered

An old photograph led archaeologists to the long-lost well

The historic St. Anne's Well after it was rediscovered and excavated. (Historic England)
smithsonian.com

For religious pilgrims traveling through medieval England, a visit to a little well near modern-day Liverpool was a must. But while it started out as a blessed site, records indicate a strange death at the well and local legends gave it a reputation for being cursed. Over the years, it was filled in by weather and ploughing from nearby farms, until the historic site disappeared from the map. Recently, a look at an old photograph revealed the well’s original location, allowing archaeologists to finally uncover the long-lost historic site.

Back in the medieval period, the well was dedicated to Saint Anne, a figure who was believed to be the mother of the Virgin Mary. Originally, the well sat on the grounds of a small priory, and many pilgrims believed that bathing in its four-foot-deep waters would wash away their sins and even cure conditions like blindness, Josh Hrala reports for ScienceAlert.

"This well was probably a late Medieval foundation as the cult of St. Anne did not become widespread in England until after the end of the 14th century,” Jamie Quartermaine, an archaeologist with Historic England, tells Rossella Lorenzi for Discovery News. "The well attracted numbers of pilgrims, necessitating the building of a small three-roomed structure around the well and the custodianship of two of the monks."

Over the centuries, the well took on a more sinister reputation. According to local legend, during the 16th century, the manager of a neighboring estate conspired with the ruling authorities to take over the priory. When the monk in charge found out, he laid a curse on the conspirator and promptly died, Lorenzi writes. In the following months, the curse’s victim lost his son to illness and fell into financial ruin, finally disappearing one night after a heavy turn at a nearby pub. The stories say he was later found dead in the well, his skull crushed.

Despite the eerie legend, pilgrims continued to journey to the well through the 19th century, when it became a historical curiosity. Despite its age and significance to local lore, the well was eventually abandoned and buried, Hrala reports.

In recent years, archaeologists have canvassed the area surrounding the town of Rainhill in hopes of once again uncovering Saint Anne’s Well. Archaeologists working with Historic England then came across a photograph of taken in 1983 that indicated a nearby field could hide a long-buried structure, Connor Dunn reports for The Liverpool Echo.

“The well had become completely filled with earth due to ploughing, with just a patch of barren grass and a couple of stones to mark its location,” Historic England wrote in a statement. “It was on the Heritage at Risk Register, and in need of help.”

After just two days of excavation, Quartermaine and his team uncovered the well, which was mostly intact and still full of water to boot, Dunn reports.

“Everyone must have been feeling healthy and sin-free, as nobody tried to take a sneaky healing dip,” Historic England writes in a statement.

Since it was uncovered, Saint Anne’s Well has been emptied of dirt and reinforced with wooden walls to keep it from being damaged by farm equipment. Healing powers or not, the rediscovery of this historic space is certainly a boon to the region’s cultural heritage.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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