St Tegla’s Well, Llandegla

Ffynnon Degla

ffynnon tegla  This post has subsequently been updated in December 2012 and again in January 2020 with additional photographs. the original pictures were taken in summer, newer ones in winter which enable the details of the construction of the well to be seen much more clearly.

Ffynnon Degla

Last Sunday we visited the Holy Well of St Tegla at Llandegla in Denbighshire. Accounts on the internet suggested that it might be overgrown and difficult to find, but on arriving it seems as though the well has very recently undergone a rediscovery, and is now signposted and accompanied by an interpretation panel. This does tend to detract from the romance of the well, but at least we were able to find it quickly.

ffynnon tegla

ffynnon tegla

St Tegla’s well is a healing well, with a reputation for curing epilepsy, which was known locally at least as Clwyf Tegla – Tegla’s disease. It does, however, require a particularly complex ceremony to be carried out to be successful, which have been recorded in detail several times, the earliest record being from the 1690s, and clearly the practices described must date back significantly before that date.

Antiquarian Edward Lhuyd compiled his Parochial Queries in the mid 1690s sending out a questionnaire to each parish to collect historical and demographic information on the parish, including details of primary wells. The rector of Llandegla provided him with a detailed account of the cure of John Abraham who, when aged about 13 was troubled with Clwyf Tegla.

The practice, which was to take place on a Friday, Abraham followed was to go about the church three times repeating the Lord’s Prayer. Then to lie under the altar and to sleep the night with a cockerel. Then give the parish clerk a groat at the well and offer another groat to the poor box. The cockerel was then given to the clerk. If the cockerel then caught the disease the patient would then recover. The cure was clearly successful for John Abraham as in the 1690s when Lhuyd reported he was still living and working as a smith in Llangollen. [1]

Lhuyd’s informant is precise to note that if the party seeking cure is a man then he should bring a cock, a woman should bring a hen, a boy a cockerel and a girl a pullet.

Clearly the practice continued, though how often successful and how seriously it was taken may be open to doubt. It was reported that in 1749 the then rural dean attempted to have the practice stopped. He “gave strict charge to the parish clerk at his peril to discourage that superstitious practice, and to admit none into the church at night on that errand” [2]

(the urn below stood beside the well in 2011, it has since vanished) 

ffynnon Tegla

It may be supposed that the Rural Dean’s instruction was not completely successful. Thomas Pennant visited the site reporting upon it in his Tours of Wales in the 1770s. He was supported by John Lloyd, a native of nearby Llanarmon who should have been able to provide him with details of the well. Pennant reports a similar, more detailed, tradition noting that

The patient washes his limbs in the well; makes an offering into it of four pence; walks around it three times; and thrice repeats the Lord’s prayer, These ceremonies are never begun till after sunset, in order to inspire the votaries with greater awe. If the afflicted be of the male sex, like Socrates he make an offering of a cock to his Esculapius, or rather Tecla Hygeia; if of the fair sex; a hen. The fowl is carried in a basket, first round the well; after that into the churchyard; where the same orisons, and the same circum-ambulations are performed around the church. The votary then enters the church; gets under the communion table; lies down with the Bible under his or her head; is covered with the carpet or cloth, and rests there till break of day; departing after offering six pence and leaving the fowl in the church. If the bird dies, the cure is supposed to have been effected and the disease transferred to the devoted victim. [3]

It is supposed that the performance of this rite was dying out towards the end of the 18th century when Pennant visited. A note from 1888 suggests that the last person who went through the ceremony was one Evan Edwards, the son of the sexton of the parish about 75 years ago – thus around 1810 to 1815. [3]  Belief however died out more slowly and it was reported in 1856 that money is still thrown into the water by persons desirous of recovering from sickness, especially from fits. An old man living then remembered quite well having seen birds staggering about from the effects of the fits thus transferred.

ffynnon Tegla

By this time the details of the practice must have been becoming forgotten or changed in the retelling. A travel guide published in 1878, reputedly based on detailed research in the area by the author added new detail. This added a second well to the practice, the nearby Berthriniog well in which the bathing took place, although the circulation still occurred at the original well. It also added the complication that while sleeping under the altar the sufferer should ensure they kept the bird’s beak in their mouth. [4]

As the customs faded from fact and memory the well was increasingly neglected. In 1888 it was reported that Tegla’s well was filled up with soil. The rector thought of having it fully restored that summer but the project fell through. On the other hand Berthriniog well still flowed, its crystalline waters possessing healing qualities in severe cases of rheumatism, sprain and gout. [3] The fading of Tegla’s well and the remaining strength of the second well possibly leading to the transference in people’s memories of customs from one to the other. While the attachment of the ffynnon Tegla cure to this well, which is also known variously as Berthrhiniog and Berthyriniog is probably a later error, the well is a substantial structure and clearly has had an importance in some respect at some time. 

In 1891 Elias Owen visited the wells describing both. Tegla’s well he notes is

…a mere hole, overgrown with weeds and alder trees. It measures on the north side 4ft 6in and on the west and east sides 3ft 6in. The south side is open and through it the water from the spring emerges and empties into the river Alun. From the appearance of the well in our days a stranger unacquainted with its previous glory would pass it by without perhaps glancing at it. The well and its surroundings present a neglected appearance.

The other well, called Berthriniog well, likewise dedicated to St Tegla is in a quillet of ground called Wern. On three of its sides are artificial mounds measuring nine paces, the south side being open. There is here also a fairly large body of water and the stream that escapes from the well after running a few yards mingles with the waters of the Alun. This bath is as neglected as Ffynnon Degla . Weeds of various kinds and rank and vegetation cover the most part of the surface and alder trees thrive in and about its banks.

The villagers are thoroughly indifferent to these wells that made formerly their parish so celebrated. [5]

In 1911 the well was visited by investigators for the  Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales noting then that it rises on boggy ground and is enclosed in masonry of good character. [6]

Yet the story continues to mutate. In his book Holy Wells of Wales Francis Jones adds an additional, somewhat gruesome step to the ritual in which he suggests that the bird is pricked with a pin to draw blood and that the pin is then thrown into the well. I’m still not quite sure of his source for this or whether he has confused it with another ritual.. [7]

An excavation at the well by Alwyn D Rees in the 1930s identified two distinct layers under the path. The upper layer  yielded a large number of pins and 18th and 19th century coins, The lower layer, which was not dateable, contained  a quantity of white pebbles and calcite, which have been noted at other holy wells sites .

On later visits we have noticed  the remains of ribbons hanging in the tree beside the well, a more recent tradition spreading from other wells.

ffynnon Tegla

The identity of the patroness of both church and well remains uncertain.  It has in the past been assumed that Tegla is a Welsh modification of St Thecla,  a saint from the early Christian Church, widely known as the first virgin martyr and one of the most ancient saints in the church calendar. However, more recent theory suggests that it is possibly  more likely that Tegla was actually a local Welsh saint, although no records of her life exist. [8]

St Tecla of Tarsus

According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla was a young noble virgin who listened to Paul’s “discourse on virginity” and became Paul’s follower and a Disciple of Paul’s teachings and Ministry. She had been betrothed to Thamyris, in an arranged marriage, and took Paul’s teachings as a reason to escape from this unwanted future. Thecla’s parents however became concerned that Thecla would follow Paul’s demand “that one must fear only one God and live in chastity”. Rather than simply grounding here for a few weeks, Thecla’s mother decided that the only suitable punishment was for her was to be burned at the stake. This punishment was followed through, however Thecla was miraculously saved by the onset of a freak localised rainstorm.

St Thekla

Having so escaped Thecla travelled with Paul to Pisidian Antioch where a nobleman, Alexander desired Thecla and attempted to take her by force. Thecla fought him off, assaulting him in the process, and was put on trial for assaulting a nobleman. This time she was sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts – they generally had more interesting punishments back then. However, once again, she was saved from death by a series of miracles when the female beasts protected her against her male aggressors. In the Eastern Church, the wide circulation of the Acts of Paul and Thecla is evidence of her veneration. She was called “Apostle and protomartyr among women” and even “equal to the apostles.”  

How St Thecla came to be associated with this small village in Wales is uncertain. She was known in Britain during the Saxon period; Bede’s martyrology written around 720 includes an account of her life. Alternatively it has been suggested that the story of Thecla was reintroduced by returning crusaders.

 

 

Ffynnon Tegla

There is a story that many years ago six stone heads were found in the vicinity of the Well, and it may be assumed that they played some part in the Well/head cult. Each head measured about 11″, and until fairly recently they stood in the porch of the farmhouse at Rhosddigra. Unfortunately their current whereabouts is unknown.  St. Tegla’s feast day on 23rd September. The well is about 100 yards from the church the route signposted and an information board is located beside the well.

Interpretation board at St Tegla's Well

[1] Edward Lhuyd (1696) Parochial Queries. Reprinted Archaeologia Cambrensis 1910
[2] Thomas D R (1874) A History of the Diocese of St Asaph
[3] Pennant, Thomas (1778) Tours in Wales
[4] Jenkinson H I (1878) A Practical Guide to North Wales
[5] Owen E (1892) St Tegla’s Well or Ffynnon Degla. Y Cymro 18th Nov 1892
[6] Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales (1914) Inventory: Denbighshire.
[7] Jones, Francis (1954) Holy Wells of Wales
[8] Bartrum, Peter (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary. National Library of Wales.

 

Below are pictures of Berthriniog Well.

Berthriniog well

Berthriniog well

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