The story of St Winifred (or Winefride), the young noblewoman born around the year 600 in Holywell, Wales, emerges from a mixture of historic manuscripts, legend and tradition. But it is above all a story about a pure and gifted soul who was prepared to sacrifice everything, and indeed her very life, so as to live for Divine Love alone.
Already as a fifteen year old, St Winifred embraced a life of devotion and austerity, and would keep many night vigils in church. A charming and intellectually gifted girl, she grew in virtue and knowledge under the guidance of her uncle, St Beuno (priest, missionary and abbot), and with her parents’ consent prepared to consecrate herself to God.
However, the neighbouring Prince Caradoc, who had learned of her beauty and gifts, came to her house to seek her hand in marriage. On arrival he found Winifred alone, her parents having gone early to Mass. Hearing of her resolution to live a consecrated life, the impassioned Prince besieged her with pleas, advances and threats. Terrified and protective of her innocence, the girl ran towards the church where St Beuno was celebrating Mass. The thwarted Caradoc followed her in a rage and, overtaking her on a slope, drew his sword and severed her head from her body. The head rolled down and on the spot where it rested, a spring gushed forth. As soon as this news reached him, St Beuno left the altar and found her head beside the spring. He carried it to the body, covered both with his cloak and returned to complete the Holy Sacrifice. After Mass, kneeling beside the young girl’s body, St Beuno beseeched God in prayer and had the cloak removed. As if waking from a deep sleep, Winifred is said to have arisen with no sign of the decapitation apart from a faint white circle around her neck. Caradoc stood by, insolent and defiant; according to popular belief, when St Beuno invoked heaven’s chastisement upon him, he was struck dead and swallowed up by the ground beneath him.
Following her miraculous restoration to life, Winifred lived as a mystic in virginity, poverty and reclusion. She became abbess of a convent built on her father’s land and later, having fled from the Saxons, found refuge in Gwytherin, with St Elwy, the author of her first biography. There Winifred and her companion nuns joined an established community where she is said to have lived “as an acknowledged saint on earth, first in humble obedience to the abbess and, after the latter’s death, as abbess herself” until her own death on November 3rd c. 650. Her grave there was a place of pilgrimage until her body was taken to Shrewsbury in 1138.
In recent times a fragment of an eighth-century reliquary from Gwytherin, the Arch Gwenfrewi (Winifred’s Casket), was found, witnessing her status as a recognised saint almost from the moment of her death – the earliest such surviving evidence for any Welsh saint.
The details of St. Winifrede’s life are gathered from a manuscript in the British Museum, said to have been the work of the British monk, Elerius (St Elwy) and also from a manuscript life in the Bodleian Library, generally believed to have been compiled around 1130 by Robert, prior of Shrewsbury.
The Holywell Cure Tradition
After St Winifred’s miraculous return to life and the simultaneous appearance of a new spring, St Beuno set off from Holywell to Cærnarvon. Tradition relates that prior to his departure he seated himself upon the stone, which now stands at the site near the spring in the outer well pool, and there promised in the name of God “that whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winifred would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul”. Ever since, people have made pilgrimages to St Winifred’s holy well. There they have bathed and prayed for over 1,350 years.
A larger outer pool was later added, a testament to the great numbers of pilgrims who flocked to Holywell even in times of persecution. By the late 19th century, as pilgrims were arriving in their thousands, a branch rail line into Holywell was built. A carving opposite the bath depicts healthy pilgrims bearing the sick through the waters on their backs. The stonework of the well is covered with graffiti, initials of hopeful or grateful pilgrims, some clearly testifying to cures received at the shrine. The well crypt was stacked with discarded crutches and each reported cure was recorded in the popular press. Holywell soon came to be known as the ‘Lourdes of Wales’.
For many centuries there has been a continuous record of cures and other favours claimed at the well through the prayers of St Winifred. Despite the increasing secularism of our time and the general decrease in religious devotion, people from all walks of life still come to Holywell on pilgrimage. To this day they pray at the shrine, in the chapel and as they bathe. They come individually or in groups, for silent prayer, for prayer services, candlelight processions and Masses. As they bathe, they pass three times through the small inner bath, praying a decade of the Rosary. They then enter the outer pool to complete their prayers kneeling on St Beuno’s Stone. Some pray for a cure, others offer up the discomfort of the icy waters for loved ones, or simply in honour of St Winifred, or as a gesture of thanksgiving. A water pump near the pool provides a steady supply of the healing water for drinking or pouring into bottles. There is now a small library, museum and repository shop.
To quote directly from Holywell – Clwyd, by Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse:
“Centuries of letters testify to the power of God and His saints in this place: records of cures not only of Catholics, but of Protestants and even of those without faith. One account, touching in its simplicity, a scrap of paper left at the Well a hundred years ago, can stand for all the rest:
A Protestant father wishes to return thanks to God that through the use of St Winifred’s water, his only daughter was cured miraculously, three years ago of a serious malady, which had resisted the efforts of several doctors and friends for the period of three and a half years.
Saint Winifred of Holywell, pray for us!
Additional source: Catholic encyclopaedia.
See here for the official site of the shrine of St Winifred in Holywell.