Specific Features SEARCH
Locality SEARCH
Web Sites INDEX
Malverns Worldwide
Malvern Bookshop
British National Parks


Inspiration for Epsom Spa (1550 - 1660)
Dr Bruce E Osborne

Spa in the Ardennes, Epsom Wells, the discovery, Lord North, early popularity and visitors, the Interregnum (1649-1659). 


The town of Spa in the Ardennes had a particular reputation for healing and bathing by water during the sixteenth century. Originally an ancient Roman bathing and healing establishment, Spa emerged in the late Middle Ages as a thriving health resort strongly influenced by the Renaissance.

3.1. The well at Spa in 1603 on the front cover of Crismer's 1983 (first edition) book.

The Roman naturalist Pliny possibly referred to the town of Spa although the nearby Pliniusbrunnen, on the Mulka Road out of Tongres, is a more likely candidate.[1] Coins found at the Peter-the-Great Pouhon in Spa nevertheless confirms a Roman presence. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages produced a cult figure, St Remacle. A builder of religious establishments and a destroyer of idols, this saint had the power to purify fountains and cause water to issue from the ground as sacred springs. The Miracula S. Remacli (851-861) relates that a blind woman from Hesbaye miraculously recovered her sight after bathing in St Remacle's spring at Spa. Cures were recorded at the springs in mediaeval literature. The Roman de Renart refers to the "pouhons of St Remacle". The Sauveniere spring was reputed to confer remarkable fecundity on those who drank its waters. Brides during the later Middle Ages were often brought to the spring where St Remacle's footprint was preserved in stone. A combination of placing the bride's foot in the print and drinking the waters brought about the desired effect. The footprint was rediscovered in the 20th century.[2]

The name Spa was first used in 1326, possibly as an acronym for the Latin "sanitas per aquas", first expounded by Nero in ancient Rome. In 1351 the town was so popular that it imposed a cure tax.[3] The Capuchin monks, an Italian order,[4] arrived at Spa during the sixteenth century, bringing healing knowledge with them. By establishing religious houses, this order perpetuated and promoted the culture of water and health through many parts of Europe. Henry VIII's Italian physician, Dr Augustine Augustini, had visited Spa at the height of its Renaissance era as a healing centre.[5] He is reputed to have been the first to cure rheumatism at Spa.[6] The visit reflected the King's abundant interest in the Renaissance culture and his rejection of Popery within Catholicism. Under the measures of the Reformation, Henry VIII suppressed the idolatry of the English holy wells with the result that Spa became a focus for Roman Catholic recusants, as well as a centre of healing.

Spa was soon patronised by the English gentry and nobility in the 16th century. This led to a growing awareness of the powers of mineral springs and in turn a search for efficacious sources in England. Spa became the archetypal resort and the inspiration for English spas including Epsom. Faced with a threatening gathering of emigrant English Catholics at Spa and the reluctance of the English to stop using holy well water for curing at home, caused Elizabeth's Government to relax the prohibitions of the Reformation. This all added momentum to the search for, and establishment of, English spas.[7]

Initially it was the old Roman baths of Bath and Buxton that gained official sanction together with the abortive King's Newnham in Warwickshire. Elizabeth visited Bath and also tried the waters from Buxton. It will be shown later that she was also conversant with alum waters of the type found around Epsom and aware of the use of alum as an industrial and medicinal product. The Elizabethan search for new spas was soon to eclipse Ewell and the abundant springs therein which had been the focus of Henry VIIIs endeavors. It was also to coincide with a growing realisation that the health giving qualities of mineral waters were linked with substances within the waters rather than with the overall cleansing, and flushing effects combined with superstitious beliefs. This in turn led to a greater understanding of the internal use, as well as the external application. The use of waters by drinking increased, particularly as a result of the greater appreciation of the efficacy of chalybeate springs. The classical approach to healing, linked strongly with mythology was giving way to a more scientific based approach.

As the advances in water therapies progressed so did the demand for facilities within the realm. Such a search was soon to produce results as has been indicated by Brayley’s History of Surrey. Towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603), the pond on Epsom common had become noted for its ability to cure ulcers and other ailments.[8] Physicians who visited the well in 1603 found it to be impregnated with bitter purging salt. This information originated from an editorial in the Lloyd's Evening Post of 1769, the significance of which is discussed later.[9]

Surface water on Epsom Common was once much more apparent than today, due to changes in the water table and drainage schemes. John Speede's map of Surrey engraved by Jodocus Hondius in 1610 shows the substantial Willmore Pond between Epsom and Ashtead in the general area of the common. Even earlier John Norden's map of 1594 shows similar. There is a watercourse draining to the Thames northward. John Seller's 1693 map of Surrey shows the Willmore pond between Epsom and Ashtead to the south of the highway. A watercourse drains the pond to the north, first tracking through Epsom. The pond and watercourse do not appear on John Senex's map of 1729 or thereafter, suggesting that they may have been lost by then. More recently Furniss (1992) recalls the Bourne and Earthbourne in the town centre giving rise to seasonal floods and the problems of underground water experienced by building contractors.[10]

3.2. The Willmore Pond and stream tracking northward between Ebsham (Epsom) and Ashtede (Ashtead) in the vicinity of where the Epsom Wells were to be later located. Norden 1594.

The traditional account of the discovery of Epsom Wells has a typically humble quality. Most celebrated spa resorts have a conjectural legend accounting for the initial discovery of spring and its healing qualities, such stories usually involve animals. After the Restoration in 1660, but before 1662, Thomas Fuller in The History of the Worthies of England outlined the story of Henry Wicker in 1618, discovering the well on Epsom Common (Toland describes it as Flowerdale). Wicker enlarged a small hole on the common to enable his cows to drink from the water therein, which they declined to do. By experimentation he discovered the efficacy of the waters. Fuller went on to record that the "Aluma" based water was initially used as a cleanser and ointment and later taken orally. Exwood points out that this is the earliest and otherwise unauthenticated account of Wicker's discovery. There are several variations to this folklore tale.[11] It may therefore be suspect although all versions appear to stem from Fuller’s account.[12] Hembry identifies the original well as "Wicker's Well".[13] Certainly by 1618-1620, Epsom waters had been discovered to be medicinal and used by country people for external application to ulcers and internally as a purgative. However it was not until several years later that real fame came. During the intervening period, in 1621, a wall was built around the Epsom Well and a shed erected for the benefit of invalids.[14]

By 1629 there were indications of escalating spa activity at Epsom Wells; Abram Booth visited Nonsuch and Epsom Wells and observed that there were always people on the heath who offered visitors the waters in glasses and other vessels. Erroneously described as Ipsom-Well it was made accessible by the people of the village of that name nearby. The waters were healthy and promoted effortless purging. After a few glasses and then walking up and down the effect became apparent. People came from far away places to drink and collect the waters in bottles and jugs. The well was supposedly found a few years before Booth's visit. As Clark points out, this is the first authentic account of Epsom Wells. Booth was the secretary of a diplomatic mission from Holland which was endeavoring to sort out the deaths of some Englishmen in the Dutch East Indies. The diplomats were accommodated in London, at the King's expense, for 16 months and this gave them time to explore England. Booth made his way to Epsom with two companions on Aug. 16th. His journal was published in Amsterdam in 1942. Included in his observations is the fact that the well was made available at the expense of the village. This suggests a public enterprise probably inaugurated by the lord of the manor.[15]

Dudley, the third Lord North, was one of the great promoters of both Epsom and Tunbridge mineral waters. It was c.1630 that Lord North first tried the water, soon followed by Maria de Medici, the Earl of Norwich and others. Maria de Medici was the mother-in-law of Charles I and Philip IV of Spain and mother of Louis XIII of France. She stayed at St James' Palace between 1637 and 1641 and so likely visited Epsom Wells during this period.[16] Authority for this stems from Nehemiah Grew's writings of the late seventeenth century, of which there is more later.[17] In 1645 Lord North mentioned the wells as being famous and claimed credit for making them so in Forest of Varieties.[18] The exit of money from the Kingdom as the wealthy took the inconvenient journey to Spa in the Ardennes, then in Germany, was a sound reason for the establishment and promotion of English spas.[19] Lord North may well have had a hidden agenda therefore in "discovering" new spas, perhaps acting with the support of the treasury. Ironically, although they were first discovered and used apparently by local peasants, it was the nobility who were able to exploit the Epsom waters to social and commercial advantage.

How did Epsom become one of the most celebrated 17th century spas? John Toland was a scholar and controversial free-thinker who fortuitously moved to Woodcote Green, Epsom in 1710. He wrote much about Epsom Spa in an extended letter to his lady friend Eudoxa in 1711. In it he states that the fortuitous and legendary cure of a leprous shepherd, an early attribute of the well, was never to be repeated.[20] This can possibly be explained by the fact that leprosy, as known today, died out in England during Tudor times. It was generally considered incurable at the time. The term was later confusingly used to describe any chronic skin ailment.[21] This suggests that the legendary cure was possibly contrived subsequent to the demise of leprosy and referred to a chronic skin complaint. It is also possible that the legend of the discovery of the hot springs at Bath provided suitable inspiration for those who make legends.

With hindsight, we can deduce that it was the "marketing” of Epsom waters to the nobility and gentry by Lord North that really set Epsom on the road to fame. To a degree this was opportunistic in that the political climate and medical science were such that the moment was right for a resort to be established near London. After the earlier promotion by Lord North, patronage ensued. The North family, earls of Guilford, had settled in Epsom at Durdans, which they owned, by 1711.[22]

In 1648 a London barrister, John Greene, recorded in a manner that suggests it was a matter of course, that he visited Epsom for a few days before going on to Tunbridge where he stayed a fortnight. Dr Madden in 1687 was to advocate this procedure of using Epsom waters as a precursor to those at Tunbridge.[23] Lord North is reputed to have discovered Tunbridge waters just before those at Epsom. The former is chalybeate iron water whereas Epsom was an "alum" water, later identified as a magnesium sulphate bearing water. The two waters complimented each other for medicinal purposes.

As the 17th century progressed the instability of the monarchy was to lead to the civil wars. It also led to the establishment of entertainment and sporting events at the spa and these two circumstances were to become entwined. Horseracing became popular on the Downs overlooking Epsom town. But racing on the Downs was also a cover for Royalist supporters on the build up to the Interregnum. Roundheads and Royalists were arriving to take the waters and this brought horses to Epsom in considerable quantity, something that in turn prompted the development of horse racing. On 16th May 1648, after the King had addressed the two Houses of Parliament at Guildford, a meeting on Banstead Downs under the pretense of a race resulted in 600 horses gathering and a march on Reigate.[24]

Following the wider publicity of Epsom, the declaration of the Commonwealth (1649-1659) threatened any immediate enhancement of the resort facilities. Political uncertainty gave rise to economic faltering as the new regime caused entrepreneurial caution in the deployment of capital investment. However it did not prevent people from continuing to visit Epsom, as is evidenced by the 1652 letters of Dorothy Osborne who visited the town.[25] Dorothy was the daughter of Sir Peter Osborne. She met Sir William Temple on the Isle of Wight in 1650. He was born in 1628, the son of Sir John Temple and was eventually to marry Dorothy and pursue a career in public service.[26] Their premarital relationship is recorded in Dorothy's published letters to Sir William.[27]

3.3. Dorothy Osborne, an early visitor to Epsom to take the waters. Moore Smith C G.1928.

In January 1653 Dorothy noted that she had needed to drink the waters because of a scurvy spleen. This was a general term used to describe "a lowness of spirit". She had spent the latter part of the summer (of 1652) so doing. Reference to her brother Henry's diary indicates that she had visited Epsom several times in that year.[28] In 1653 Epsom was again mentioned in her letters. June 5th: Dorothy Osborne commented on the proper action of Epsom Waters on the spleen. June 19th: She gave further personal reasons, unconnected with the town, not to visit Epsom. Aug.7th: Dorothy Osborne recorded that Sir William Temple had been to Epsom, drinking the water as she had done previously. Aug.14th: She wrote that Temple had returned presumably from Epsom. Also that when she visited at that time of year the well was low and that she was forbidden to drink the water immediately. When the vessel had stood all night the bottom was covered in an inch thick white clay which had no quality.[29]

"But did you drink them imediatly from the well? I remember I was forbid it, and mee thought with a great deal of reason, for (Especially at this time of yeare) the well is soe low, and there is such a multitude to bee served out on't, that you can hardly gett any but what is thick, and troubled; and I have marked that when it had stood all night (for that was my direction) the bottom of ye Vessell it stood in, would be coverd an inch thick, with a white clay, which sure has noe great virtue int, and is not very pleasant to drink." [30]

It is apparent that The Wells were not of the quality or as prolific as the customers might wish.

Another visitor during the Commonwealth was the great Surrey historian John Aubrey. In 1654/5 he drank the waters and conducted some experiments. "In the year 1654, or 1655, I was there, and drank of them. I experimented it only by Evaporation, and it yielded (from about a Gallon) a Sediment of flakey Stuff, of the colour of Bay-Salt, in loose Flakes, as much as fill’d a Tobacco-Box. I gave it to old Dr W. Harvey, who thought it to be a sort of gray Nitre; but he spake ar Random."[31] While conducting his trials, Aubrey could well have been rubbing shoulders with prisoners from The Tower. During the 1650s it is recorded that prisoners were released on parole to take a cure at Bath, Tunbridge or Epsom.[32]

With the dissolution of parliament in 1654 England became a dictatorship and this continued to impact on the spa. Sanctions were taken against Roman Catholics and Royalists who were obliged to meet clandestinely at obscure locations under other guises. Bax identifies the movements of a number of suspect persons removing to and from Epsom in 1656. These included Roger Britterbridge, Baptist Lord Noel Viscount Campden and Richard Lee.[33] Kershaw notes that malcontents held meetings at Epsom during the Commonwealth under the guise of taking the waters.[34]

One of the ancillary attractions to Epsom during its brief period as a fashionable spa was Box Hill, situated between Leatherhead and Dorking and accessible as a place of recreation for visitors. Sometime between 1625-1649, legend suggests that the Earl of Arundel brought evergreen box trees from Kent and planted them on White Hill as it was then known. There is also evidence that box existed on the hill in 1602. It is a native species of Britain. Normally a shrub, in Surrey and Kent the species, buxus sempervirens, grows to a substantial tree.[35] The trunks produce the hardest and heaviest wood in Britain. Box Hill was originally developed as a commercial plantation but the tree growth lends itself to shaping and trimming. These avenues and glades provided opportunity for early visitors from Epsom Spa to debauch. The involvement of the Earl of Arundel suggests that visitors to Nonsuch may have also taken advantage of the facilities.

"Many ladies lost their reputation
in the Earl of Arundel's box plantation"

During these early years of popularity the manor of Epsom was in the hands of Anne Mynne, the widow of George Mynne of nearby Horton Manor. She was the daughter of Sir Robert Parkhurst and had purchased the manor from Edward Darcy. The manor had therefore come into the Parkhurst family of which more later. Anne Mynne left the manor by will to her daughter Elizabeth, wife of Richard Evelyn, brother of the diarist John.[36] Manorial involvement was to play a crucial role in the future development of Epsom Spa, initially under Richard and then Elizabeth Evelyn and later the Parkhursts.

Epsom maintained its role as a social and healing spa during the Interregnum, no doubt aided by the intrigues that interrupted everyday life at the time. It was not until after the Commonwealth in 1659 and the monarchy restored in 1660, that something resembling the old order ensued and the spa could pursue further development of its social as well as healing functions. The Hearth Tax returns for 1664 give a picture of a town of some substance about this time. There were 62 householders in Ebsham (Epsom) liable to hearth tax on 326 hearths with a further 14 householders not chargeable for a further 29 hearths. Horton, within the Ebsham parish in addition had 12 householders liable for 41 hearths.[37]

Click on website below to return to Index and Introduction.

Website: Click Here


Springs and Wells General Interest
History & Heritage

(c)2023 SPAS Research Fellowship Terms & Conditions