The Mystery of Lady Anne’s Well

Dave Weldrake, Archaeologist and Freelance Heritage Educator

 Acknowledgement: A slightly different version of this article was published in the magazine, Northern Earth. I am grateful to the publishers for permission to use it here.


The ruins of Howley Hall

The ruins of Howley Hall

Although it is almost forgotten now, the story of Lady Anne’s Well was familiar to many citizens of Morley (West Yorkshire, UK) during the Victorian era. It even attracted the notice of such famous authors as Mrs Gaskell and gets a mention in her Life of Charlotte Bronte. The basic story can be outlined briefly as follows:

Lady Anne Savile, wife of Lord Thomas Savile owner of Howley Hall, was in the habit of bathing at a well near to the hall. One day she was set upon by wild animals and fatally wounded. The well still bears her name today.


During the early 1900s the spring was frequented by local people at six on the morning on Palm Sunday when it was believed that the waters of the well ran with a multitude of different colours.  This was followed by other games and amusements. The event was known as Feildkirk Fair. Some Victorian authors therefore thought that they could trace a connection to an Anglo-Saxon, if not a pagan past.

Taken at face value it all seems fairly straightforward and elements of the story have been repeated on many occasions since (e. g. Goor, 2006, Parsons 1834, Scatchard 1874, Witham 1997). However much of this has been done without critical thought and it is time that the story was examined in more detail. There are several problems which need some explanation.


Stone Arch, Howley Hall

Stone Arch, Howley Hall

The story is fairly solidly located in both time and space. Howley Hall near where the events took place is situated between Morley and Batley in West Yorkshire at approximately SE 254 255. I t was built for Sir John Savile in the late 1500s, possibly to a design by the noted architect Robert Smythson (English Heritage n. d.). The well itself was situated to the south east of the house. However, the site is now lost

This railway cutting destroyed Lady Anne’s well but the water still flows down this cascade.

This railway cutting destroyed Lady Anne’s well but the water still flows down this cascade.

having been obliterated by the construction of the Great Northern Railway from Batley to Leeds via Woodkirk. The section in question was opened in 1858 (Leeds City Council 1 n. d.).  The approximate site may be indicated by an estate map of 1711 which shows a field named Lady Anne’s Close to the south east of Howley Hall (an abstract if this is given in Ainsworth 1989).  Its outflow may still survive as a canalized stream running alongside the old railway line. Incidentally, this is not the existing Batley to Leeds line although paradoxically the existing railway line does have a Lady Anne Crossing, which can lead to confusion amongst the unwary.

 Who was Lady Anne?

It is generally accepted that the unfortunate victim was Lady Anne Savile (nee Villiers) wife of Thomas Savile of Howley. Any work of genealogy will give you basic information about Thomas. It’s less easy to find out anything substantial about Lady Anne. Given this strange convention we have that names and family only go by the male line, genealogists and family historians don’t seem to be too interested in the female of the species. I’ve not therefore been able to confirm either the circumstances of her death nor the place of her burial. The closest which I can get is that she died sometime between 1660 and 1670 (the n. d.)

Is the story of her death likely to be true?

It doesn’t seem likely. The Saviles were an important family in the 17th century. Thomas Savile, husband of Lady Anne, was the first Earl of Sussex (Leeds City Council 2 n. d.). A macabre incident such as the folk tale outlines would surely have been the talk of the district yet I can find no contemporary written source which refers to it.

The question of wild animals also seems equally preposterous. There seems to be some disagreement about when, for example, the last wolf in England was slain. If you ask the inhabitants of Rothwell (West Yorkshire), they will tell you that the last wolf was slain by John of Gaunt. This would put the event in the mid-thirteen hundreds.  Wikipedia on the other hand suggests it took place in the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509). Either of these dates would be far too early for Lady Anne. Perhaps the animals had escaped from a zoo. Private menageries were popular among the rich at the time. But if Lady Anne had been gored to death by her own pet, you’d think the story would mention it. It would add to the pathos.

Could she at least have used the well for bathing?

Waddington’s Spa Bath, Gledhow Valley Leeds. An open air plunge bath of the sort that might have been visited by Lady Anne.

Waddington’s Spa Bath, Gledhow Valley Leeds. An open air plunge bath of the sort that might have been visited by Lady Anne.

Again I wouldn’t think so. Lady Anne was rich enough to have her own bath indoors with plenty of servants to keep topping it up with hot water. I suppose that she could have considered the well as a spa or medicinal bath of some sort.  However, I think that this would be likely to imply a permanent structure even if it was open to the air.  An example of the kind of thing I have in mind is Waddington’s Bath which still survives on the edge of Gledhow Woods in Leeds. Built in 1681 (Parsons 1834.), the bath house is a simple two-celled affair consisting of a single changing room with a fireplace and an adjacent plunge bath surrounded by a high stone wall. Similar arrangements were made for the first baths at White Wells (Ilkley, West Yorkshire). However, such a building at Howley seems unlikely as none of the early sources mention any trace of a structure.

Was there ever a chapel on the site?

The name Fieldkirk has also caused some speculation. Taking it to mean ‘chapel in the field’, some commentators have sought to prove the existence of a chapel of ease on the site. For example, Whitaker (quoted in Scatchard 1874) notes that the former mansion was relegated to agricultural use when the Saviles developed the site. He nevertheless thought he could discern part of an old chapel among the outbuildings that was ‘probably not later than 1200’. Scatchard himself claimed that he had seen herring-bone masonry in the structure of this putative chapel. This is often taken as evidence for Anglo-Saxon or early Norman work. It is not entirely impossible.  At Bradford on Avon (Wiltshire) there is an Anglo-Saxon chapel which was not recognised as such until 1856 (Wiltshire Council 2002). However, the observations of Scatchard and Whitaker have not been verified by modern architectural historians.

Palm Sunday

The water now flows red because of its high iron content

The water now flows red because of its high iron content

Palm Sunday (the last Sunday of Lent and the one preceding Easter is a natural focus for folk ritual. I can remember my own grandmother making crucifixes of pussy-willow (complete with catkins) which she referred to as ‘palm’. Crosses of this sort were once thrown into Our Lady of Nants Well at Little Conan in Cornwall on Palm Sunday (Hunt 1871, page 300). In this case the purpose was for divination, a practice which would have scandalized my grandmother. If the cross floated the person who threw it into the water would survive the year. If it did not, s/he would not. Examples of other wells which were visited on Palm Sunday for the more common practice of drinking sugared water include the Ash Well at Baschurch in Shropshire (Hope 1893, page 133) and Alegar Well at Brighouse, West Yorkshire (Anonymous 2, n. d.).


So where does all this get us? The brief answer is not very far. We seem to be little nearer to sorting out the details of Lady Anne’s death or of the true origins of the Fieldkirk Fair. There are modern authorities such as Faull and Moorhouse who would see holy wells as a link with a ‘celtic’ past.  Such a theory has been proposed for lady Anne’s Well. Scatchard, for instance, seems almost desperate to prove the antiquity of the custom of visiting the site on the morning of Palm Sunday. This is why he is predisposed to see a chapel complete with Anglo-Saxon masonry hidden away among the farm buildings at Howley. He also knows the story of Our Lady of Nants and suggests that the two may be the same. This allows him to slip effortlessly from talking about Lady Anne’s Well to Saint Anne’s Well. Without any pre-19th century corroborative evidence it all seems to me a little far-fetched.

Instead, let me propose an alternative theory – that the whole thing is a relatively new affair and that the story of Lady Anne’s death was a back invention to add a little glamour to something that was already happening. It is, I realize, a point of view which will meet with disfavour in some quarters but to me it seems logical.  In the 1800s Howley was no rural backwater nestling in the green belt between Morley and Batley. It was a centre of industry surrounded by mills, quarries and coal mines. The people who worked in those industries were not all local. The majority came from rural areas to find work in the growing towns of the West Riding. Such settlements in the early years of the Industrial Revolution were not truly urban in the modern sense of the word. They were an agglomeration of rural people forced by circumstance to live together. With them these people brought the ritual baggage of the countryside, but not their cult centres. If they came from one of those communities which were used to going to a well on Palm Sunday, surely they would seek out somewhere they could go on doing that. If a good time was had by all then the event would just grow to such an extent that it finally came to the notice of the Victorian folklorists. They in turn were desperate to see antiquity in every aspect of custom and practice. It is they who turned something new into something old.


To learn more about West Yorkshire’s springs and wells click here.

For details of my talk on historic wells click here.


Ainsworth Stuart 1989 ‘Howley Hall, West Yorkshire: Field Survey’ in Bowden, M., Mackay, D. and Topping R. From Cornwall to Caithness BAR 209 British Services
Anonymous 1 n.d. The
Anonymous 2 n. d. ‘Alegar Well, Brighouse’ (part of Ghosts and legends of the Lower Calder Valley)
English Heritage n.d. The National Heritage List for EnglandList Entry Number: 1016323
Faull M. J. and Moorhouse   S. A. 1981 West Yorkshire: an archaeological survey to  AD 1500
Gaskell E. C. 1857 The Life of Charlotte Bronte
Goor Kenneth 2009 Haunted Leeds
Hope Robert Charles 1893 The legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England
Robert 1871 Popular Romances of the West of England (Second Edition)
Leeds City Council 1 N.d. Leodis: a photographic Database of Leeds ‘Woodkirk Station’ (Subject I. D. 2007116_165176)
Leeds City Council 2 Not dated Leodis: a photographic database of Leeds‘Sir Thomas Savile, 1st Earl of Sussex, portrait’  (Subject I. D. 2006622_161438)
Parsons Edward 1834 The civil, ecclesiastical, literary, commercial, and miscellaneous history of Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield, Bradford, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Otley and the manufacturing district of Yorkshire, Volume 1
Scatchard Norrison 1874 History of Morley  (Second Edition) 
Wikipedia Not dated ‘Wolf Hunting’
Witham Jay 1997 A Brief History of Howley Hall
Wiltshire Council 2002 Church of St. Laurence, Bradford on Avon

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