Last Sunday we visited the Holy Well of St Tegla at Llandegla in Denbighshire. Accounts on the internet suggested that it might be overgrown and difficult to find, but on arriving it seems as though the well has very recently undergone a rediscovery, and is now signposted and accompanied by an interpretation panel. This does tend to detract from the romance of the well, but at least we were able to find it quickly.
St Tegla’s well is a healing well, with a reputation for curing epilepsy. It does, however, require a particularly complex ceremony to be carried out to be successful. This is described in Jones’ Holy Wells of Wales as follows:
· Visit the well on a Friday after sunset
· Wash the hands and feet in the well
· Walk around the well three times repeating the lord’s prayer and carrying a cock in a hand basket
· Prick the cock with a pin, which is then thrown into the well
· Give a groat at the well to the parish clerk
· Then walk around the parish church three times with the cock, again repeating the Lords prayer
· Enter the church and place another groat in the poor box
· Lie under the communion table, with the Bible as a pillow until daybreak
· Place the cock’s beak in the mouth and blow, before letting the bird go
· Put a piece of silver in the poor box and leave the church.
If the cock dies then the patient would be cured, if not, then the process could be repeated.
The process did ensure a regular income for the parish poor, many Welsh parishes became quite wealthy on proceeds from their holy wells.
What isn’t clear however is how St Tegla became to be attached to the well, and indeed to the village whose name translates as the church of St Tegla.
It is generally assumed that Tegla is a Welsh modification of St Thecla, Thecla is a saint from the early Christian Church, widely known as the first virgin martyr and one of the most ancient saints in the church calendar. She was supposedly a follower of Paul of Tarsus, not mentioned in the New Testament, the earliest record
of her comes from the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla,
probably composed in the 2nd century. St Tegla’s Well
According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla was a young noble virgin who listened to Paul’s "discourse on virginity" and became Paul’s follower and a Disciple of Paul’s teachings and Ministry. She had been betrothed to Thamyris, in an arranged marriage, and took Paul’s teachings as a reason to escape from this unwanted future. Thecla’s parents however became concerned that Thecla would follow Paul’s demand "that one must fear only one God and live in chastity". Rather than simply grounding here for a few weeks, Thecla’s mother decided that the only suitable punishment was for her was to be burned at the stake. This punishment was followed through, however Thecla was miraculously saved by the onset of a freak localised rainstorm.
Having so escaped Thecla travelled with Paul to Pisidian Antioch where a nobleman, Alexander desired Thecla and attempted to take her by force. Thecla fought him off, assaulting him in the process, and was put on trial for assaulting a nobleman. This time she was sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts – they generally had more interesting punishments back then. However, once again, she was saved from death by a series of miracles when the female beasts protected her against her male aggressors.
In her work The Lost Apostle (2006) Rena Pederson writes:
"There are multiple examples of art honouring Thecla in Egypt….In Rome, scholars found a sarcophagus with a relief showing Paul and Thecla travelling together in a boat….A catacomb of St. Thecla can be found on the Via Ostiensis, not far from the burial place of St. Paul, and is mentioned in the seventh-century itineraries to the graves of the Roman martyrs. Santa Thecla also is the patron saint of Tarragona, Spain, and there are Iberian wall designs from the first century showing Paul preaching to Thecla….There appear to have been attempts to obscure Thecla’s role in later years….One of the foremost Jesus scholars in the United States, John Dominic Crossan, of DePaul University, and Jonathan L. Reed, a leading authority on first-century Palestinian archaeology, recently brought to light an attempt to suppress the Thecla story. In their book In Search of Paul, Crossan and Reed tell of a cave that was discovered around 1906, high above the ruins of Ephesus. Just to the right of the entrance are two sixth-century images of St. Thecla and St. Paul. Both are the same height, an iconographic sign that they are of equal importance. Both have their right hands raised in a blessing gesture, again an iconographic sign that they are of equal authority. While the image of Paul was left untouched over the centuries, someone later scratched out the eyes and upraised fingers of the Thecla figure, erasing her blessing gesture….If both figures had been disfigured, Crossan and Reed point out, it could be chalked up as a random act of vandalism. But it was only the Thecla figure that was defaced. Paul remains as an authority figure. The woman is blinded and silenced. Crossan and Reed observe that ‘even the cave’s present name, ‘St. Paul’s Grotto,’ continues the negation of female-male equality once depicted on the walls’."
Thecla was widely cited as an ascetic role model for women. Her society flourished particularly at Seleucia (where she was said to be buried), Iconium (present day Konya), and Nicomedia. The society also appeared, at least as early as the fourth century, in Western Europe. She is supposedly buried at Ma’loula in Syria, where there is another holy well in her name and a Greek Orthodox nunnery.
How St Thecla came to be associated with this small village in Wales is uncertain. She was known in Britain during the Saxon period; Bede’s martyrology written around 720 includes an account of her life. Alternatively it has been suggested that the story of Thecla was reintroduced by returning crusaders. It is possible, as with so many of the Welsh wells that the site was already a centre of Druidic or pagan veneration in the pre Christian period and this usage continued with rites and customs adapted to suit the new religion.
Many years ago six stone heads were found in the close vicinity of the Well, and it may be assumed that they played some part in the Well/head cult. Each head measured about 11", and until fairly recently they stood in the porch of the farmhouse at Rhosddigra. Unfortunately their current whereabouts is unknown.
St Tegla’s Church, Llandegla, Denbighshire