Cerne Abbas is full of hidden wonders. If you venture down Abbey Street and turn right through the churchyard gate, follow a small path that hugs the cemetery wall and venture down a small slope through a cluster of trees then you will find a beautiful though rather obscure spot – St Augustine’s Well. But what is the link with St Augustine?
There are several variations of the story which connect Augustine of Canterbury to Cerne Abbas. To briefly summarise William of Malmesbury’s account:
Augustine was sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great on a conversion mission. Augustine found he was not welcome in Dorset – fish tails were even tied to his clothes in an effort to drive him away. However, Augustine cried out ‘Cerno deum!’, a Latin phrase translating as ‘I see God!’. The non-believers repented and begged Augustine for forgiveness. In this moment a spring emerged from the ground, providing Augustine with the water needed to baptise the local people. The place in which this spring sprung was called ‘Cernel’ by the saint, a mixture of Latin ‘cerno’ (‘I see’) and Hebrew ‘El‘, (‘God’).
St Augustine’s Well is allegedly the same spring mentioned within this tale. John Leland also refers to the Well as ‘Silver Well’ when describing how St Edwold, brother of St Edmund, King of East Anglia, came to live as a hermit near the Well following Edmund’s death in 869. A small chapel dedicated to St Augustine used to stand over this place. However, all that exists now is a small stone water channel and a more recently constructed stone altar. On one of the stones next to St Augustine’s Well a carving of a Catherine wheel can still be seen. This is potentially a stone from St Catherine’s Chapel which was located on a nearby hill to the North-East of the village.
There are a few different legends associated with the St Augustine’s Well. The (very cold) water is said to be able to heal sore eyes, to cure infertility and to help young women find husbands. Moreover, it is said that if you look into the water at Easter you will see the faces of all those destined to die that year. St Augustine’s Well is a site of wishing, healing and prophecy.
The cover of tree branches and the ribbons hanging from them, many containing tributes to lost loved ones, creates the impression of a sort of naturally formed chapel. Indeed, there is utter silence here – you almost forget that a village exists down the road. This is a place to leave behind the worries and heaviness of modern-day life. It is a site that still channels a sense of ancient sacredness. One cannot help but take a moment to stop and reflect.
By Micah Mackay
Bibliography and Further Reading
Dugdale, William, ‘Cerne, or Cernell Abbey in Dorsetshire’, Monasticon Anglicanum: A History of the Abbies and Other Monasteries, Hospitals, Frieries, and Cathedral and Collegiate Churches with their Dependencies in England and Wales, (London: 1846), pp.621-624.
‘In the Shadow of a Giant…St Augustine’s Well of Cerne’, Holy and Healing Wells, (2019), https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/category/dorset/, Accessed: 26th September 2019.