St. Helen’s Well, Stainland

The eastern portion of the hilltop village of Stainland, above Elland, is known as Holywell Green, on account of St. Helen’s Well, a renown healing well the sad remnants of which can be seen beside Station Road. The well stood near a former Catholic chapel also dedicated to St. Helen, which by the 18th Century had been converted into a private dwelling, although a carved cross was still built into its walls.

In 1597, a charity inquiry recorded “St. Ellen Chapel, Stainland” as already “decayed”, suggesting it was probably abandoned during the Reformation earlier that century. The well itself was first recorded in print by Dr. John Watson in his 1775 work “The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax”, in which he also mentions record of a Henry de Sacro Fonte de Staynland (Henry of the Sacred Well of Stainland) living in the area in the 13th Century.

It is likely that the chapel was dedicated for the well, rather than the other way round as St. Helen was a popular patron of holy wells in Britain, and seems to have been imposed on those wells which already had a reputation for sanctity long before the coming of Christianity. The exact traditions of the well have been lost, although Watson records that Catholics were still making pilgrimages to it in the late 18th Century.

The Victorian fashion for spa-waters saw a resurgence in the popularity of the well, when crowds would gather at  such springs on the morning of Spaw Sunday (the first Sunday of May) to “take the waters” for therapeutic purposes. As a result of this revival, a spring beside Station Road was restored in 1843, although a late 19th Century woodcut shows that by that period it had once more been left to fall into ruin.

Today, this well is something of a pitiful prospect. Whilst it was again restored in 1977 and still stands today, the spring itself has long since dried up due to building work in the area lowering the water table. It is now little more than a trough used for flowers, whilst the views it once commanded across the valley have been disfigured by an ugly estate of modern bungalows. A hostelry named Holy Well Inn still stands nearby.

Curiously, however, there is no historical basis for the original holy well at the extant 1843 site, despite the name of this part of the village. Local antiquarian J.A. Heginbottom argues that the original site is more likely to have been just over half a mile away at Helen Hill Farm on Jagger Green Lane in the valley below. Here, there is a stone cistern with three compartments dating from approximately the late 18th Century, still fed by a spring rising nearby.

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Curiosities of Coley Hall

The earliest references to settlement at Coley are found in the Wakefield Court Rolls in 1277 and 1286, pertaining to land owned there by Sir John de Coldelay, whose surname the word Coley was no doubt corrupted from. Later, in 1326, Brother Thomas Larchier, prior of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem recorded that Henry de Coldelay “held a certain tenement in Coldelay of their house,” which is to say that de Coldelay rented the land from the Knights, for the sum of five shillings per annum. For such a tenure, the de Coldelays would have enjoyed certain privileges including not having to submit their corn to be ground at the mill of the Lord of the Manor, or “do suit at his court”.

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaller, were a Christian military order originally established in 1080 to care for sick pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, their martial designation stemming from the frequent need to provide an armed guard during the Crusades. The Knights were granted an exemption from all but papal authority and from the payment of tithes, whilst they were gifted land across Christendom from which to draw an income. In England, however, all property of the Knights was confiscated during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540 whereupon their land at Coley passed to the Manor of Batley.

The 17th Century Nonconformist preacher and diarist Oliver Heywood, who was for a time incumbent at Coley Chapel wrote that Coley was “once a priory in popish times” but whilst the Hospitalalers certainly owned the land, there is no primary historical or archaeological evidence to suggest they actually maintained a community on the site (although neither has it been strenuously sought). However, certain clues do remain in the name of nearby Priestley Green and the preponderance of holy wells in the area, including Helliwell Syke, Lister Well and St. John’s Well which was believed to possess healing powers and can still be found in a field above the hamlet at Coley Hall.

Nonetheless, several remembrances of the Hospitallers’ ownership of Coley do still endure. The patron saint of the Order was John the Baptist and in addition to St. John’s Well, Coley Church (built in 1812 on the site of the earlier 16th Century chapel) is similarly dedicated, whilst preserved inside the church is the original cross from Coley denoting its tenure. It is also interesting to note that John the Baptist was often depicted as a severed head and the gateway to Coley Hall features a particularly fine example of the archaic stone head motif. Although the relief was carved in 1649 more than a century after the Hospitallers had lost the land, that fact does not preclude the persistence of the image in the local psyche.

The land at Coley passed into the hands of the Sunderland family (of High Sunderland) on 29th April 1572 and it is thought that the body of the current Hall was built by Samuel Sunderland around 1640, passing to his nephew Langdale in 1646. During the Civil Wars, Langdale fought for the Royalists as a Captain of a Troop of Horse under the Earl of Newcastle and whilst he was resident at the Hall, it suffered badly from bombardment by passing Parliamentary troops, necessitating the rebuilding of its south frontage. The victorious Commonwealth later imposed a decimation tax on Langdale forcing him to sell Coley along with the family estates at High Sunderland.

In 1657 the new owner William Horton leased the Hall for fifteen years to Captain John Hodgson, who’d fought for the Parliamentarian cause in the Civil Wars. For a period, Hodgson gave refuge there to Oliver Heywood whose uncompromising Nonconformity had seen him driven out as vicar at Coley Chapel, jailed under the Acts of Uniformity in 1659, prosecuted for riotous assembly and twice excommunicated in 1662 and 1685. Heywood’s controversial reputation was such that he was even accused of witchcraft, when John Hanson declared that following a visit to Heywood’s house the wife of one B. Jagger had “got power” over a maid of Anthony Waterhouse, who soon died.

Over the next few hundred years, Coley Hall passed through the hands of a succession of owners until 1961 when it was bought by Richard Pickles who found it in a near-derelict state and set about restoring it. In articles for the Brighouse Echo dated 24th February and 24th March 1962, Mr. Pickles describes experiencing a number of hauntings at the Hall. In one particular room the bed seemed vibrate for no reason and his dog would growl at some invisible presence moving around the room, whilst a motor mechanic working in a garage converted from old stables adjacent to the Hall was the victim of poltergeist activity which saw him showered with soil and stones.

However, it was Mrs. Pickles who witness the apparitions most associated with the Hall when she was confronted by the figure of a Cavalier leaning against the mantle. This experience was echoed by testimony from Mr. G.E. Gudgin, trustee of the estate of the late John Herbert Fletcher whose wife Anne Sunderland had been the last member of that family to reside at Coley. Gudgin recalled being told by Fletcher that on one occasion he had descended for breakfast to find the ghostly figures of two cavaliers in the morning room. A neighbour also recalled Anne Sunderland once showing him a priest-hole in the Hall, where there was a bloodstain reputed to belong to a murdered cavalier found hiding there.

Some have speculated that one of the Cavalier ghosts was that of Langdale Sunderland, expressing his displeasure at the Hall’s later occupancy by his Parliamentarian rivals John Hodgson and Oliver Heywood. However, this doesn’t entirely fit as Langdale dies in 1698, long after Hodgson’s tenancy had ended and ownership of the Hall returned to the Sunderland family in 1775. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers were the most frequently seen spectres, even though there were supposedly others; Anne Sunderland also used to speak of the ghost of a white lady known as Caroline Anne who would appear from the oak panelled bedroom at the top of the main staircase.

St. Peter’s Church, Hartshead

 

Although this church lies on the very border of Calderdale with Kirklees, its status as an integral part of the ancient parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton means that its associations with the region are strong enough to warrant its inclusion here. It is one of the oldest churches in the district and a place of worship is first recorded at the site in 1120 when the Earl of Warren granted it to the Priory of Lewes, although it was possibly the location of an earlier Saxon chapel. Although the church was extensively restored in 1881, the chancel arch, west tower and south door are believed to be remnants of the 12th Century Norman structure.

Arguably, the church’s greatest claim to fame is that Reverend Patrick Brontë, father of the famous literary sisters, was incumbent here between 1810 and 1815. The Luddite attack on Cartwright Mill at Rawfolds occurred during his tenure and his memoirs from that period provided his daughter Charlotte with material for her novel “Shirley”. Although Brontë was an opponent of the Luddite movement, it is said that one night he witnessed some of the men killed during the failed assault receive a surreptitious burial in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard and did not intervene. There is still a space where their unmarked graves lie.

It was a curious local superstition for Hartshead folk to hold a vigil in the porch of the church every year on St. Mark’s Eve (24th April) from 11pm to 1am. The vigil had to be carried out for three years in succession and on the third year, the watchers were supposed to witness the spirits of all those who would die in the year ahead process into the church. It is said that if anybody whose name was mentioned as amongst those seen on St. Mark’s Eve fell ill during the course of the following year, they often despaired of recovery and some are actually supposed to have died as a result of their anxiety arising from such gossip.

Given the proximity of Kirklees Park and the long association of the Armytage family with the church, it is unsurprising that a couple of Robin Hood legends have attached themselves to it. It is said locally that he cut his last arrows from a yew tree in the churchyard, the dead trunk of which can still be seen standing there today. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society has suggested that the original stone from his grave — recorded by Nathaniel Johnston and others in the 17th Century but which some believe vanished from the grave site long ago — may be the medieval slab inscribed with a simple Calvary cross lying next to the south-east door of the church. However, this has been disputed.

Just to the north of the church, now almost entirely concealed beneath a hawthorn tree, lies the Lady Well. The origin of the name is likely to be Our Lady’s Well, referring to the Virgin Mary, which suggests it was once an important holy well used for baptisms in the earliest period of Christianity in England. Local historian H.N. Pobjoy thinks it possible that the 7th Century missionary and first Archbishop of York Paulinus may have performed baptisms here and like many such wells, it was probably regarded as sacred long before the arrival of Christianity. It’s presence certainly attests to the antiquity of worship around the site of the church.

Curiosities of Priestley Green

Located in the pastoral tract of land between Lightcliffe and Norwood Green, just down the road from Coley, the community of Priestley Green is a remarkably serene locale, its sense of repose only ever disturbed by the thrum of the 4x4s which seem so popular in this disproportionately affluent district. There is a distinct sense of place here. Perhaps it is simply a reflection of the relative lack of population density compared to surrounding areas. Or perhaps it is an atmosphere which has always been felt here, an atmosphere of sanctity which led a community of monks to settle here in the early Middle Ages and provide it with its name. Perhaps it had been regarded as a holy place long before that even, a conclusion which might be drawn from the concentration of holy wells in the vicinity of the hamlet.

The first and most imposing of these is Helliwell Syke Well (which means “holy well by boggy land”) where a spring feeds a series of four troughs adjacent to Syke Lane as it approaches Priestley Green from Lightcliffe. It is set amidst a profusion of ash-trees, which are often associated with sacred waters. There has been evidence of a well at Helliwell Syke since Saxon times according to J. Horsfall Turner’s 1893 History of Brighouse, Rastrick & Hipperholme. By 1373 the Wakefield court rolls record that a nearby settlement of the same name had been abandoned following the enclosure of the site by Henry de Bentley. However, the well was clearly important enough to have remained in common use after that time. Indeed, it was clearly still utilised in the 19th Century when the trough complex seen today was constructed.

The second site is set into the pavement in the centre of the hamlet and is known as Lister’s Well or more simply just as the Holy Well. Less is known about this and some writers on the subject have speculated as to whether this well and Helliwell Syke have been conflated in the literature over the ages. However, a 1904 reference records that it was believed to “possess magic cures for all who drank its crystal waters, and pilgrimages were made to it”. Meanwhile, the fact that it has been retained as part of the structure of the pavement when so many others holy wells (such as Alegar Well or a holy well recorded at Woodhouse Lane in Rastrick which appears on Ordnance Survey maps until 1938) were simply tarmacked over suggests that some memory of its importance survived.

The third example – St. John’s Well – is technically at Coley but still lies within the same square mile, whilst the history of Priestley Green and its neighbour are possibly connected. The story of Coley will be explored more fully in a subsequent entry on Coley Hall but it is germane to mention here that between the 13th and 16th Century the tenure of the land was held by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem also known as the Knights Hospitaller. As their name suggests, John the Baptist was their patron and this is reflected in the dedication of the church at Coley today and of course, St. John’s Well. There are also suggestions that the Knights’ actually founded a priory at Coley and whilst there is no archaeological evidence for this, it would certainly tie in with the tradition of a monastic community at Priestley Green and its abundance of holy wells.

A more recent tradition concerning Priestley Green pertains to the Sisters’ House, which stands directly behind Lister’s Well. A dwelling on this site is recorded as far back as the 13th Century but the current cottage was built in 1630 by Samuel Sunderland of nearby Coley Hall. Local legend says that it was once home to the Appleyard sisters who for want of a place to worship nearby decided they would found a church themselves. However, they disagreed over precisely where it should be located so they built one each, Coley Chapel and Eastfield Chapel, with the house supposedly exactly half-way between the two. The story is doubtless intended to explain how two chapels came to be built so close together but it is demonstrably apocryphal as the chapels were built in 1529, a whole century before the Sisters’ House.

Robin Hood’s Grave, Kirklees Park (Part One)

STOP PRESS: My book “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place” has now been published by CFZ Press. It examines the history and legend surrounding Robin Hood’s grave at Kirklees in great depth. More information can be found here and the book can be purchased by clicking here.

Sited in a hollow between Hartshead Moor and the River Calder and adjacent to the M62 yet seemingly entirely isolated from the clamour of modern life, Kirklees Park is a delightfully rural oasis amidst the jumble of housing and industry crammed into this tract of the Calder Valley. The Park is the estate of Kirklees Hall, constructed in 1610 and home to the Armytage family until the death of Sir John in 1983 when it was sold and after many unsuccessful ventures along with much legal wrangling, finally converted into residential apartments in 1999. His widow Lady Armytage continued living on the estate until her death in 2008, in a grotesquely inappropriate modern bungalow which still sits like a carbuncle amidst the meadows and ancient buildings.

The site was originally a Roman encampment but it is in the medieval period that its history really begins. The name Kirklees (the Park still stands in Calderdale despite lending its title to a more nebulous neighbouring municipality) derives from the Old English words “kirk” and “lees” meaning “church by the clearing”. The Priory was founded on the site by Reyner le Flemyng, a local lord of the manor, in 1135 and housed between eight and twenty nuns until like all such institutions it was abandoned in 1539 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was to supply the priory that a farm was originally built on the site and it is primarily as a farm that the estate is still worked today. However, elements of its ecclesiastic history can still be seen, including the 14th Century grave of the prioress Elizabeth de Staynton and the early 16th Century timber-frame gatehouse.

However, even in its heyday, the Priory was not always the most sanctified environment. In 1315, the Archbishop of York heard that “There are scandalous reports in circulation about the nuns of Kirklees, and especially about Elizabeth de Hopton, Alice de Raggede, and Joan de Heton, that they did admit both clergy and laymen too often into the secret places of the monastery, and have private talks with them, from which there is a suspicion of sin, and great scandal arises.” And indeed, over the centuries, Kirklees Park has repeatedly been the focus of suspicion and scandal, with a great deal of that controversy centred on its most famous and yet perversely neglected asset, the site of Robin Hood’s Grave, a place forbidden to visitors for half a century now at least and so still a source of great intrigue.

The story of the death of legendary outlaw Robin Hood is found in the 15th Century ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hode His Death, part of the fragmentary 17th Century Percy Folio. These sources tell how in his dotage Robin travels from his habitual haunt of Sherwood to Kirklees Priory – where the prioress is his cousin – to be bled, a common medieval procedure for the treatment of all manner of ailments, accompanied by his faithful comrade Little John (who one of the ballads asserts Robin had originally met at “Clifton-under-Calder”). On the road they are stopped by an old hag by some black water who curses Robin, although the details of the curse are obscure because the manuscript is damaged at this point, but it is nonetheless a classic mythological harbinger of the tragedy about to unfold.

Upon their arrival at Kirklees, Robin is installed in the gatehouse, the only part of Priory in which a man could’ve been received and the bleeding goes ahead. However, his cousin the Prioress and her lover Red Roger of Doncaster conspire against the outlaw for reasons which are never entirely made clear and proceed to drain his blood to such an extent that his life ebbs away. With the assistance of Little John, Robin makes it to the gatehouse window and with the last of his strength fires an arrow, commanding that he should be buried where the arrow falls. He also commands John not to harm any of the inhabitants of the Priory and so following the death of his master, Little John leaves Kirklees with a curse which some have claimed still blights the area today.

The first record of an actual gravestone at Kirklees purporting to be that of Robin Hood can be found in Grafton’s Chronicle of 1569 which describes a stone beside the highway engraved with the name Robert Hood amongst others. Then, in the 1607 edition of his seminal topography Britannia, William Camden mentions that Kirklees is known for Robin’s tomb. Camden obtained his information from local antiquarian John Saville, whose family briefly owned Kirklees before the Armytages. A sketch of the grave made by the Pontefract historian Nathaniel Johnston in 1665 supports Grafton’s descriptions of the grave (although it may have been later embellished by William Stukeley). These sources suggest that the gravestone seen today is not the original marker, the only remaining evidence of which may be the large eroded fragment of sandstone which lies on the floor of the modern enclosure.

Instead, the current gravestone bears the epitaph “Here beneath this little stone / Lays Robert Earl of Huntingdon / Never was an archer so good as he / And people called him Robin Hood / Such outlaws as he and his men / Will England never see again” It is dated “24 kalends of December 1247.” There are two substantial problems with this inscription. Firstly, the date given does not exist in the Roman calendar and secondly, the inscription is rendered in a pseudo-archaic version of Old English which is certainly a later invention. An epitaph of these words is mentioned by Thomas Gale, the Dean of York between 1697 and 1702 but from the style of the script it seems the gravestone is even later than that, probably added when the walling – complete with pillars and finials – was constructed in the late 18th Century.

The current grave stands on unhallowed ground 660 yards uphill from the priory gatehouse, a distance which expert archers insist could not have been covered by an arrow, even shot by a longbow. Moreover, it is reported that Sir Samuel Armytage excavated the grave in the 18th Century to a depth of three feet but found no evidence of human remains or even that the earth had ever previously been disturbed. Whether these factors count as evidence against the burial of Robin Hood at the site, however, is a matter of perspective. Some will maintain that the grave has simply been moved and the outlaw’s remains now lie unmarked somewhere else in the vicinity. Others will maintain that Robin Hood never existed to be buried in the first place. Meanwhile, wise men will point out that it does not matter whether or not he is buried there, but that successive generations have believed it to be the case and as a result the site has become a locus of myth and legend.

Yet whilst the site was certainly once well-known – Kirkless Park appears as “Nunwood” in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley where it is described as a “one of Robin Hood’s haunts” – and it was an attraction at fairs held by Sir John Armytage in the early to mid 20th Century, in the last couple of decades it has become the centre of a storm over access. Kirklees Park is still a private estate and for many years following her husband’s death, Lady Armytage refused to allow people to visit it, despite the indefatigable efforts of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society. Moreover, it is claimed that Lady Armytage actively suppressed any mention of the grave in tourist literature or the media and more fancifully that MI5 were involved in a conspiracy to prevent mention of Robin Hood’s Yorkshire connections damaging the Nottinghamshire tourist industry!

Following the death of Lady Armytage in 2008, it is possible this situation may change and indeed, in her later years Calderdale Council had managed to negotiate a number of open-days every year. Still, the grave today is in a sorry state, overgrown by the surrounding vegetation, the railings and pillars fallen down. It remains a local rite of passage to sneak over the wall into the estate in the dead of night and seek the grave amongst the tenebrous woodland. Indeed, whilst a site of such socio-historical importance should certainly be easily accessible to the public, there is an argument to say it’s the very mystique this lack of admittance has engendered which has contributed to the substantial body of folklore that has built up around the site in recent years and which will be discussed in the second part of this article.

Link to Part Two

Alegar Well, Brighouse

Today, Alegar Street is probably best known to residents of the town as a rat-run for motorists between Clifton Common and Wakefield Road. However, the name of the road is the only surviving indication that nearby was the site of the Alegar Well, a holy well of some local repute in days gone by. Doubtless many may have briefly wondered at the name “Alegar” which is unique to Brighouse and derives from the older name, Ellicker Well, believed to a corruption of the Old English “helly carr” meaning “holy slope”. Sadly, the well itself has long since been lost beneath the sprawl of the adjacent Armytage Road Industrial Estate.

In an article for the Brighouse Echo, dated 6th October 1994, local history correspondent “Rowan” describes how in the 19th Century, young men and women from across the area would gather at the well on the morning of Palm Sunday. They would have with them a corked bottle which they filled with waters from the well, then added Spanish liquorice and shook up to form a black concoction known locally as Popololli. It was renown as an occasion to meet the opposite sex and you wonder if couples who met there would “plight their troth” by drinking from the same bottle, as was the practice at certain other holy wells in the north of England.

It is probable that the Victorian custom was a remembrance of when in earlier centuries the holy well was a place of Christian pilgrimage owing to a belief in the healing properties of its waters and according to Edna Whelan in Source magazine, to perform baptisms. Certainly if the name does derive from “holy slope” that confirms the well as having a much older provenance than the 19th Century. Indeed, some folklorists have suggested that the very notion of healing waters is a folk memory of the pre-Christian veneration of wells, springs and other water sources, which were regarded as liminal zones close to the Otherworld.