St. Cybi’s Well is one of many sacred wells in Wales. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this period of time in Wales is known as the Age of Saints. I also talked a little bit about how the church in the 6th century wasn’t organized in the same way as it is today. While there was officially only one ‘Church’, what we know today as the Catholic Church, the way people practiced Christianity in these early centuries after the death of Christ was different depending upon where they lived.
Celtic Christianity, meaning Christianity in Cornwall, Brittainy, Wales, and Ireland specifically, developed its own, somewhat isolated, trajectory with small groups of people following the teachings of a ‘saint’, and the common people, who were Christian, worshipping in parish churches with possibly little connection to any other church. Even though the ability to read was more common in Wales than in most places at that time, most people couldn’t read at all, so they were dependent upon a more knowledgeable person for their religious understandings. That made the place these saints chose to settle the center of religious worship—and in some instances a place of pilgrimage—for large numbers of believers.
Though it is possible this particular well was sacred prior to Christianity’s spread, the well is traditionally associated with St Cybi, a cousin of St. David, who is reputed to have come to Wales sometime around the middle of the sixth century A.D. Cybi is one of a group of Welsh saints whose Lives are to be found in a manuscript dating to this period called Vitae Sanctorum Cambriae—Lives of the Welsh Saints.
According to the document, Cybi was born the son of the King of Cornwall and travelled widely, including through south Wales and Ireland, establishing churches as he went, before he came with his disciples to north-west Wales towards the end of his life. Cybi established his church at Holyhead around 540 AD, within the walls of a ruined Roman fort. The well credited to him is actually on the Llyn Penninsula, created when he is supposed to have struck a rock with his staff to allow the water to gush forth. The well then became a place of pilgrimage, and the waters were reputed to cure warts, lameness, blindness, scrofula, scurvy and rheumatism. The well continued in use, in one form or another, after the Reformation through as late as the 18th century.
Treatment consisted of giving patients an equal quantity of well-water and sea water, morning and evening, for a period varying from seven to ten days. They then had to bathe in the well water once or twice a day, retiring after each bath to a bedchamber in the adjoining cottage where they were given a quantity of healing water to drink. The success or otherwise of the treatment was judged by whether the patient became warm in bed or remained cold, with the former condition indicating the treatment was progressing satisfactorily. The patients used to throw pennies and pieces of silver into the water after each immersion and they would sometimes take bottles and casks of the water away with them.
Another story tells of a local tradition where a girl who wished to know her lover’s intentions would spread her handkerchief on the water of the well. If the water pushed the handkerchief to the south the man was honest and honourable; but, if the water shifted the handkerchiefs northwards, the opposite was true. It’s possible is quality of the well is tied more to its pagan traditions, about which we know nothing, than its Christian ones.
Next week we get to visit St. Seriol’s well on Anglesey.