After visiting the Black Prince’s Holy Well near Canterbury earlier this year, I was keen to visit more holy wells in my home county of Kent. In particular, I was eager to visit one of Kent’s most cherished wells: St Edith’s Well in the village of Kemsing, near Sevenoaks.
Every holy well and sacred spring has its own character. The Black Prince’s Well, although easy to reach as it’s walking distance from a major city, is rather hidden and not particularly well known. It’s rather eclipsed by the many famous sites of neighbouring Canterbury. This gives the Black Prince’s Well an air of mystery.
In contrast, St Edith’s Well is a little harder to reach; it’s in a tiny village, 25 minutes’ walk from the nearest train station. But once you reach Kemsing, it couldn’t be easier to find the well. It is the focal point of this quiet little village.
Who was St. Edith?
Eadgyth, or Editha or Ediva as she would have been called in Old English, was born in Kemsing in 963 to Wilfrida (Wulfthryth) and King Edgar of England. King Edgar had in fact abducted Wilfrida from Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire, and as soon as she could, Wilfrida returned to Wilton with Edith.
Edith was educated at Wilton Abbey, and there are a number of legends surrounding her life. One is that when she was criticised by the Bishop of Winchester for dressing in fine, luxurious clothes, Edith replied that that the judgment of God was alone true and infallible, saying “For pride may exist under the garb of wretchedness; and a mind may be as pure under these vestments as under your tattered furs.” Edith was said to have been celebrated for her beauty, learning and sanctity. Some sources also say she was charitable to the poor and loved wild animals.
Edith died on September 15th 984 at only 21 years of age. She was canonised as Saint Edith of Wilton. Following her death, she is said to have appeared to her mother to tell her that she had broken the head of the Devil. Her remains were also said to be miraculously uncorrupted years after internment, and stories were told of misfortune befalling those who tried to violate her corpse to claim relics.
St. Edith’s Legacy in Kemsing
St. Edith maintains a strong presence in Kemsing. There’s St. Edith’s Hall, which features a statue of the saint, as well as a St. Edith’s Road and we even spotted a St Edith’s Cottage when we were there. But of course, the most prominent symbol of the saint is her well.
The well may once have been enclosed in a chapel, perhaps that of St Edith the Virgin, recorded in 1419.
Like the Black Prince’s Well, and many other wells in Britain, St Edith’s Well is attributed with curing eye ailments. It has also been said to cure women of infertility. The day after the anniversary of St. Edith’s death, September 16th, is now celebrated as St Edith’s Day, and on this day each year a special service is held at her well, including well-dressing. You can read a description of the service at R.B. Parish’s Holy Wells And Healing Springs blog here.
R.B. Parish has also found evidence suggesting that some of the folklore surrounding St. Edith’s well may have its origins in pagan traditions. Parish highlights that the historian William Lambarde said that an image of St. Edith in the local churchyard was attributed with protecting crops from blight. Lambarde wrote in 1571:
“Priest made uses to toll the greatest portion, and then to take all handful or little more of the residue the which after aspersion of Holy Water, and mumbling a fewe woordes of conjuration, he first dedicated to the image of Saint Edithe and then delivered it back to the parte that brought.”
Parish suggests that this ritual may be related to an older pagan rite:
“This appears to be some persistence of an ancient fertility rite to a pagan deity, further supported by with the cure of cure barren women. Lambarde (1571) believed this, suggesting the Roman god, Robigus (after Robigo, a canker of corn), was the earlier cult focus here. It is recorded that similar ‘sacrifices’ were made to ‘him’, and so it seems likely that even the saint’s effigy could have directly replaced his and the church being built on his temple. The holy water, used in the ritual, may have originated from the well, and in pre-Christian days this may have been an important part of the ritual.”
A Pilgrimage to the Well
My aunt and uncle took my husband and I to the well in April. My dad’s side of the family is Catholic, so it’s nice for us to visit a site that has spiritual significance to both Christians and Pagans (I still very much enjoy visiting Christian sacred sites anyway).
The well itself is located in a pretty walled garden:
On entering, you cross a small bridge over the little stream running through the garden. The signs make it clear that this garden is a sacred sanctuary.
The well itself is a large, well-preserved keyhole-shaped structure. As you can see, there is a flowerbed bordering the well. It’s a bit of a shame that the stairs down to the well water are behind a locked gate, but I suppose this helps to preserve the well.
There’s a grill over the well that’s meant to help keep rubbish out, but it doesn’t entirely work as you can see from the photo below.
It also doesn’t stop pilgrims from leaving offerings. Can you spot the pink rosary someone’s left? It’s interesting that the offerings I saw at the Black Prince’s Well appeared to be more typically pagan (coins, gemstones), while this one is clearly Catholic.
The baby pink colour of this rosary is interesting. Was it left as a thanks for the safe delivery of a baby girl? Or as a petition for a safe pregnancy? Or, perhaps, in memory of a child? Whatever the significance, I hope the offerer’s prayer was answered.
The grill also meant that I could not gather any water directly from the well. So instead, a filled a small bottle of water from the stream running beside the well.
I think that St. Edith’s Well has to be one of the most impressive wells in Kent, and the surrounding peaceful garden makes it a very special pilgrimage. And it’s wonderful to see the village take such pride in its well and go to such efforts to keep it in good condition.
Perhaps this September I’ll have to try to get to the village for the well-dressing service on St. Edith’s Day…
Sources and further reading: