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Madron Holy Well

Sacred Well

<b>Madron Holy Well</b>Posted by goffikImage © Graham Orriss
This site is of disputed antiquity. If you have any information that could help clarify this site's authenticity, please post below or leave a post in the forum.
Also known as:
  • Boswarthen Chapel

Nearest Town:Penzance (3km ESE)
OS Ref (GB):   SW446328 / Sheet: 203
Latitude:50° 8' 22.3" N
Longitude:   5° 34' 29.33" W

Added by Alchemilla

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Monday 19/4/2010: walked along the fairly quiet B road to the well which is clearly signposted. Stopped of at the site of a cairn en route - we entered by a wooden gate and were dismayed at the sight that lay before us. Like other parts of the country, West Penwith has a policy of rhododendron clearance and what lay before us was acres of rhododendron stumps - probably necessary though not an attractive sight.
The wooded walk to the well was lovely; the low growing trees not yet in leaf and the lichen covered branches gave them a silvery quality. Spent a bit of time at the cloutie tree - I did a few jumps across onto some moss covered boulders to get a better feel of the place. I understand this is not the source the well and I have to admit I didn't get a sense of it being a 'holy' or mystical place. On to to the Baptistry where we sat for a bit before continuing the walk along the wooded path to a field before retracing our steps. I have since read the wellspring is hidden a bit away from the path - this I can believe as I came away feeling I had missed something.
tjj Posted by tjj
7th May 2010ce
Edited 7th May 2010ce

The access to this site has been much improved, especially for those with limited mobility. It does not seem to have taken any of the wonderful energy away from the area, and has improved the 'vibe' at the car park, which was dreadful - even those who didn't know the car park's reputation for vandalism felt awful leaving their cars and it was making visiting more difficult. Nice one! Incoming Traveller Posted by Incoming Traveller
30th August 2006ce

Remedial work at Madron is 'well' under way. The area around the baptistry has been relandscaped, and a gated wall has been built up. The stonework at the cloutie tree has been improved (though the well is some way off, this is where most people think the well is), and the path from the car park has been widened, cleared and laid, making the whole site wheelchair accessible at last (see photos).

The car park is still being relaid and landscaped, and work should be completed in a few weeks time.

It still rains every time I come here though, so some things don't change!
ocifant Posted by ocifant
11th July 2006ce

I'd been to Madron before, and was aware that the well itself was away from the wishing well and chapel, but thought the only way to get to it was wearing waders!

On my last visit, however, I was impelled to try one of the many gaps in the trees on by the path, and try to find this path I'd heard of - found it! The path is a nuber of small logs - well, branches - laid out across the mire - very slippery when I was there (May 2003) and I was glad of my sturdy walking boots! I felt like Indiana Jones, leaping across huge puddles, swinging on overhanging branches (just like he did in that film, oh, Indiana Jones & the Fat Bastard, I think it was - not one of his best...)

After what seemed like ages, I came to the end of the path, and discovered some old clouties hanging above what looked like a pond - the well! Some stones were visible, but due to the amount of water, it was suitably submerged.

I felt I was in the middle of nowhere - it was so quiet. Gorgeous. Must pop back during drier weather...

goffik Posted by goffik
29th April 2004ce

A very very popular site with tourists, and locals, yet many actually miss the original well which lies half a mile from the baptistry, lying in very boggy ground, until recently imposible to reach.The local 'Earth Mysteries' group have now though made it more accessible if taken with care!!!.A stone surround now marks the location of the well, also uncovered recently at the site is a green mound, marking the location of 'St Madderns' bed, on which pilgrims used to sleep on as part of the 'healing' cure. paul1970 Posted by paul1970
4th May 2003ce


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Borlase was less impressed. But he was the reverend at Ludgvan. So he probably couldn't be officially doing with too much superstitious behaviour.
The soil round Madern Well, in the parish of Madern, is black, boggy, and light, but the stratum through which the Spring rises, is a grey moorstone gravel, called, by the Cornish, Grouan. Here people who labour under pains, aches, and stiffness of limbs, come and wash, and many cures are said to have been performed, although the Water can only act by its cold and limpid nature, forasmuch as it has no perceivable mineral impregnation. Hither also upon much less justifiable errands come the uneasy, impatient, and superstitious, and by dropping pins or pebbles into the Water, and by shaking the ground round the Spring, so as to raise bubbles from the bottom, at a certain time of the year, Moon, and day, endeavour to settle such doubts and enquiries as will not let the idle and anxious rest. Here therefore they come, and, instead of allaying, deservedly feed their uneasiness; the supposed responses serving equally to increase the gloom of the melancholy, the suspicions of the jealous, and the passion of the enamoured. As great a piece of folly as this is, 'tis a very ancient one. The Castalian Fountain, and many others among the Grecians, was supposed to be of a prophetic nature.
From The Natural History of Cornwall by William Borlase (1758).
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
24th November 2012ce

Maderne, called also St Maderne, a parish situate under the craggie hills north of Penzance, nere which is a well called Maderne Well, whose fame in former ages was great; for the supposed vertue of healinge, which St Maderne had therinto infused: And manie votaries made annale pilgrimages unto it, as they doe even at this daye unto the well of St Winifride, beyounde Chester, in Denbigheshire, whereunto thowsands doe yearly make resorte: But of late St Maderne hath denied his or hers (I know not whether) pristine ayde; and as he is coye of his Cures, so now are men coye of cominge to his conjured Well; yet soom a daye resorte.
From the Cornwall section of Speculi Britanniae, by John Norden (written 1610 but published 1728).
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
23rd November 2012ce

On passing over a stile and entering the moor in which the well is situated, cross the moor at a right-angle to the hedge, and a minute's walk will bring one to the noted spring, which is not seen until very near, as it has no wall above the surface, nor any mark by which it can be distinguished at a distance.

Much has been written of the remarkable cures effected by its holy waters, and the intercession of St. Madron, or Motran; when it was so famous that the maimed, halt, and lame, made pilgrimages from distant parts to the heathy moor.

It is still resorted to on the first three Wednesdays in May, by some few women of the neighbourhood, who bring children to be cured of skin diseases by being bathed in it. Its old repute as a divining fount has not yet quite died out, though young folks visit it now to drop pebbles or pins into the well, more for fun and the pleasure of each other's company, than through any belief that the falling together, or the separation of pins or pebbles, will tell how the course of love will run between the parties indicated by the objects dropped into the spring; or that the number of bubbles which rise in the water, on stamping near the well, mark the years, in answer to any question of time; but there was not such want of faith, however, half a century ago.

A short time since I visited an elderly dame of Madron, who was a highly reputed charmer for the cure of various skin ailments; I had known her from my childhood; and my object was to glean what I could about the rites practised, within her remembrance, at Madron Well, the Crick-stone, and elsewhere.

She gave the following account of the usages at Madron Well about fifty years ago. At that time, when she lived in Lanyon, scores of women from Morvah, Zennor, Towednack, and other places, brought their children to be cured of the shingles, wildfires, tetters, and other diseases, as well as to fortify them against witchcraft or being blighted with an evil eye.

An old dame called An' Katty, who mostly lived in the Bossullows, or some place near, and who did little but knitting-work, picked up a good living in May by attending at the well, to direct the high country folks how they were to proceed in using the waters.

First she had the child stripped as naked as it was born; then it was plunged three times against the sun; next the creature was passed quickly nine times around the spring, going from east to west, or with the sun; the child was then dressed, rolled up in something warm, and laid to sleep near the water; if it slept, and plenty of bubbles rose in the well, it was a good sign. I asked if a prayer, charm, or anything was spoken during the operations? "Why, no, to be sure," my old friend replied, "don't 'e know any better, there mustn't be a word spoken all the time they are near the water, it would spoil the spell; and a piece rented, not cut, from the child's clothes, or from that of anybody using the well must be left near it for good luck; ever so small a bit will do. This was mostly placed out of sight between stones bordering the brooklet, or hung on a thorn that grew on the chapel wall. Whilst one party went through their rites at the spring, all the others remained over the stile in the higher enclosure, or by the hedge, because if a word were spoken by anybody near the well during the dipping, they had to come again."

The old woman, An' Katty, was never paid in money, but balls of yarn, and other things she might want, were dropped on the road, outside the well-moors, for her; she also got good pickings by instructing young girls how to "try for sweethearts" at the well. "Scores of maidens" - the dame's words - "used, in the summer evenings, to come down to the well from ever so far, to drop into it pins, gravels, or any small thing that would sink." The names of persons were not always spoken when the objects which represented them were dropped into the water; it sufficed to think of them; and as pins or pebbles remained together or separated, such would be the couple's fate. It was only when the spring was working (rising strongly) that it was of any use to try the spells; and it was unlucky to speak when near the well at such times.

The old woman that I visited said she had never heard that any saint had anything to do with the water, except from a person who told her there was something about it in a book; nor had she or anybody else heard the water called St. Madron's Well, except by the new gentry, who go about new naming places, and think they know more about them than the people who have lived there ever since the world was created. She never heard of any ceremony being performed at the old Chapel, except that some persons hung a bit of their clothing on a thorn tree that grew near it. High Country folks, who mostly resort to the spring, pay no regard to any saint or to anyone else, except some old women who may come down with them to show how everything used to be done.

There is a spring, not far from Bosporthenes, in Zennor, which was said to be as good as Madron Well; and children were often taken thither and treated in the same way.

Such is the substance of what the dame related; and she regarded the due observance of ancient customs as a very solemn matter.
In answer to the questions of "What was the reason for going round the well nine times? Leaving bits of clothing? Following the sun, &c.?" It was always the same reply, "Such were the old customs, and everybody knew it was unlucky to do any such work, and many things besides, against the sun's course; no woman, who knew anything, would place pans of milk in a dairy, so as to have to unream (skim) them, in turn, against the sun, nor stir cream in that direction to make butter.

By following down the well-stream or hedge, mentioned above, we come to the Chapel. [...]
From Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall by William Bottrell (1873).
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
20th November 2012ce
Edited 20th November 2012ce

.. an account of St. Maddern's Well in the parish of Penzance, Cornwall. From Camden. Ed. Gibson, p21, 22.

"Bishop Hall tells us (Mystery of Godliness), that a cripple, who for sixteen years together was forced to walk upon his hands, by reason of the sinews of his legs being contracted, was induced, by a dream, to wash in this well; which had so good effect, that himself saw him both able to walk, and to get his own maintenance. Two persons that had found the prescriptions of physicians altogether unprofitable, went to this well (according to the ancient custom), on Corpus Christi eve, and laying a small offering on the altar, drank of the water, and lay upon the ground all night, in the morning took a good draught more, and each of them carried away some of the water in a bottle. Within three weeks they found the effect of it; and (their strength increasing by degrees) were able to move themselves upon crutches. Next year they took the same course, after which they were able to go up and down by the help of a staff. At length one of them, being a fisherman, was, and, if he be alive is, still able to follow that business. The other was a soldier under Sir William Godolphin, and died in the service of King Charles I.

After this the well was superstitiously frequented, so that the rector of the neighbouring parish was forced to reprove several of his parishioners for it. But accidentaly meeting a woman coming from it with a bottle in her hand, and being troubled with cholical pains, desired to drink of it, and found himself cured of that distemper.

The instances are too near our own time, and too well attested, to fall under the suspicion of bare traditions, or legendary fables: and, being so very remarkable, may well claim a place her. Only, 'tis worth our observation, that the last of them destroys the miracle; for, if he was cured upon accidentally tasting it, then the ceremonies of offering, lying on the ground, &c., contributed nothing; and so the virtue of the water claims the whole remedy."

I suspect, that the patients who are said to have lain on the ground, did so under the altar of the church; as it was the custom in other cases of a similar kind. Borlase says, the water is simply pure, without any mineral impregnation, and rises through a stratum of grey moor-stone gravel. He adds,

"Hither also, on much less justifiable errands (than to cure pains in the limbs), come the uneasy, impatient, and superstitious; and by dropping pins, or pebbles, into the water, and by shaking the ground round the spring, so as to raise bubbles from the bottom, at a certain time of the year, moon, and day, endeavour to settle such doubts and inquiries will not let the idle and anxious rest."
Oh I think Mr Cameron would like this well very much. He'd like the way the Cured Cripples went back to gainful employment. Don't tell him about it though or he'll probably privatise the damn thing.

This is from 'The Cambrian Popular Antiquities' by Peter Roberts, 1815.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
19th May 2011ce

I know this is long, and it's about a well, but maybe the bit that says "A small piece torn (not cut) from the child's clothes was hung for luck (if possible out of sight) on a thorn..." isn't something often quoted in your new age holy well books. Might be something to think about at the Swallowhead Springs for example. Or will it just become a different type of geotrashing.
In East Cornwall they have a custom of bathing in the sea on the three first Sunday mornings in May. And in West Cornwall children were taken before sunrise on those days to the holy wells, notably to that of St. Maddern (Madron) near Penzance, to be there dipped into the running water that they might be cured of the rickets and other childish disorders. After being stripped naked they were plunged three times into the water, the parents facing the sun, and passed round the well nine times from east to west. They were then dressed, and laid by the side of the well to sleep in the sun; should they do so and the water bubble it was considered a good sign. Not a word was to be spoken the whole time for fear of breaking the spell.

A small piece torn (not cut) from the child's clothes was hung for luck (if possible out of sight) on a thorn which grew out of the chapel wall. Some of these bits of rag may still sometimes be found, fluttering on the neighbouring bushes. I know two well-educated people who in 1840, having a son who could not walk at the age of two, carried him and dipped him in Madron well, a distance of three miles from their home, on the two first Sundays in May; but on the third the father refused to go. Some authorities say this well should be visited on the first three Wednesdays in May; as was for the same purpose another holy well at Chapel Euny (or St. Uny) near Sancred.

The Weslyans hold an open-air service on the first three Sunday afternoons in May, at a ruined chapel near to Madron-well, in the south wall of which a hole may be seen, through which the water from the well runs into a small baptistry in the south-west corner.

Parties of young girls to this day walk there in May to try for sweethearts. Crooked pins, or small heavy things, are dropped into the well in couples; if they keep together the pair will be married; the number of bubbles they make in falling shows the time that will elapse before the event.

Sometimes two pieces of straw formed into a cross, fastened in the centre by a pin, were used in these divinations. An old woman who lived in a cottage at a little distance formerly frequented the well and instructed visitors how to work the charms; she was never paid in money, but small presents were placed were she could find them. Pilgrims from all parts of England centuries ago resorted to St. Maddern's well: that was fames, as was also her grave, for many miraculous cures.
p228-30 in
Cornish Feasts and "Feasten" Customs. [Continued]
M. A. Courtney
The Folk-Lore Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3. (1886), pp. 221-249.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
3rd April 2007ce
Edited 3rd April 2007ce

In Cornwall, Madron Well near Penzance had till recently—probably still has—a large thorn-tree growing against the wall of the baptistry which encloses the well. Young children suffering from skin-complaints are dipped in the well and carried round it three times, after which rags from their clothing are laid beside the streamlet and hung on the tree. This should be done about the beginning of May—the first Sunday if possible.
From Notes and Queries, May 23, 1942.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
26th August 2006ce

Plenty of testaments to the well's healing properties can be found in Hunt's 'Popular Romances of the West of England' (1886), online at the sacred-texts archive, here:

You can also find out when you will be married:
In Madron Well--and, I have no doubt, in many others--may be found frequently the pins which have been dropped by maidens desirous of knowing "when they were to be married." I once witnessed the whole ceremony performed by a group of beautiful girls, who had walked on a May morning from Penzance. Two pieces of straw, about an inch long each, were crossed and the pin run through them. This cross was then dropped into the water, and the rising bubbles carefully counted, as they marked the number of years which would pass ere the arrlval of the happy day.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
16th June 2005ce


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The holy well at St.Madron is one of Cornwall's oldest and most famous wells. St.Madern, of whom nothing is known may have been unique to this area, though apparently it has been a local surname. Madron church is an ancient church with a pre-christian standing stone now in the church, it was re-used in the 6th/7th C to mark a christian burial
St.Madern's well is a mile north of the church, it is set in a grove of sallows and bubbles up through marshy ground.
Hung on the branches are hundreds of clouties and strips of cloth; these are symbolic prayers for healing or in gratitude of a cure. The chapel is 75 metres along the track, foundations of a 12th C building with a granite altar and a baptismal basin in its n/w corner. During the 17th century a great thorn tree's branches formed a leafy roof over the ruined chapel, and the people used turf to repair a green bank by the altar which they called St.Madern's Bed, and which, of course, sick people lay on and were cured......

Above taken (almost verbatim) from Elizabeth Rees - Celtic Saints in their Landscape.
moss Posted by moss
17th February 2006ce
Edited 17th February 2006ce