The bishops of England and Wales have elevated St Winefride’s Well to the status of a national shrine.
The shrine at Holywell in Flintshire, North Wales, has been a site of pilgrimage for almost 1,400 years since St Winefride was decapitated there by Caradog, a spurned suitor, and miraculously re-headed by her uncle, St Beuno.
St Winefride inspired King Henry V, who made a pilgrimage to the shrine, and also novelists like Ellis Peters, the author of the Cadfael detective series, and poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Victorian Jesuit.
The elevation of the shrine was agreed by the bishops at their autumn plenary meeting this week.
Bishop Peter Brignall of Wrexham, the local ordinary for Holywell, said that the national status was a recognition of both the importance of St Winefride to the Church in the British Isles and also its significance as a heritage site.
He said: “Everyone is more than welcome, whether they are of faith or not, to come and discover a bit of our country’s tradition and heritage, and that they come with open hearts to that commitment to God that they may not have within their own lives, but are able to recognise in the lives of others and be prepared to be touched by that.”
The bishop added that he hoped the shrine would appeal particularly to women who sought healing as a result of violence or abuse and might draw inspiration from the saint who is honoured there.
St Winefride is one of the few Welsh saints to be honoured as a virgin-martyr in Roman martyrology and, according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, has always been “venerated outside her own country more than any other of the numerous Welsh saints”.
She was the daughter of Teryth, a wealthy nobleman from Tegeingl, and her mother, Wenlo, was the sister of St Bueno, the 7th century Welsh abbot.
According to tradition, as a girl she was deeply influenced by her saintly uncle and she listened with great eagerness to him preaching.
Although venerated as a martyr, she died of natural causes in the year 650 in a convent in Gwytherin, Denbighshire, and in 1138 her relics were transferred with great pomp to the Benedictine abbey in Shrewsbury where they were enshrined and venerated.
It was at about that time, some 500 years after her death, that fascinating legends about her life began to be recorded.
The most amazing of these was the claim that Caradog, a young chieftain of Hawarden, had fallen in love with St Winefride but she shunned his amorous advances, feeling the pull of a religious vocation instead.
His rejection boiled over into a murderous rage and he pursued the maiden as she fled to the safety of a church which St Beuno had built.
The chieftain caught up with her and cut off her head.
Robert of Shrewsbury’s life of the saint says that Caradog was swallowed up by the earth at the scene of the crime, while at the place where St Winefride’s decapitated head tumbled to a halt a fragrant spring suddenly appeared.
According to this account, there were pebbles and rocks in the bottom of the spring which were streaked red, as if by blood, and the moss that grew along the sides of the spring emitted a fragrant smell.
St Beuno placed his niece’s severed head back on to her shoulders and by his prayers raised her to life again, before departing to found a church at Clynnog Fawr Arfon. A white scar is said to have encircled the virgin’s neck for the rest of her life.
Although it is too late to separate legend from fact there is no doubt that both St Winefride and St Bueno existed.
Some sources suggest there is also an historical basis for the oral tradition about her attack by Caradog, with old Latin writings speaking about a scar on her neck, giving rise to speculation that the saint might well have been attacked and mutilated by him. There are also claims that St Winefride’s brother Owain slew Caradog in revenge for the crime.
In any case, soon after the death of Caradog, St Winefride left home to become a nun, joining a double, or mixed sex, monastery at Gwytherin in Denbighshire governed by the holy abbot St Eleri.
There, she succeeded St Tenoi, the abbess and also her relation, and she died some 15 years after her miraculous resuscitation. She was buried at Gwytherin by St Eleri but her remains were moved to Shrewsbury, some 50 years after the abbey was founded, by Robert Pennant, the fifth abbot.
A fictionalised account of this translation of the relics appears in the first of Ellis Peters’s 20 novels about Brother Cadfael, the Benedictine sleuth.
St Winefride’s shrine thereafter became an important and popular pilgrimage destination, visited even by royalty. In 1398 the entire province of Canterbury was ordered to keep her feast and churches were dedicated to her. The shrine was destroyed in 1540 when the abbey was dissolved by King Henry VIII.
William Caxton is produced one of the first printed account of her life in 1485, based on an oral tradition, and which speaks of the spring water at the scene of her murder which today “heleth al langours and sekenesses”.
This spring attached to her legend has given its name to Holywell (Tre Ffynnon) in Clwyd, and down the centuries, and right up to the present day, pilgrims have travelled there in the hope of finding healing for their illnesses. It is celebrated almost as the “Lourdes of Wales” and pilgrimages and healings have continued uninterrupted at Holywell for more than 1,000 years.
Pilgrims have included King Richard I, the “Lionheart”, who offered prayers for the success of his Crusade; King Henry V, who, according to Adam of Usk, made a pilgrimage on foot from Shrewsbury to Holywell for thanksgiving for his victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415, at which he put himself under the protection of St Winefride, and to atone for the slaughter that followed the battle, and King James II and his wife, Mary of Modena, who prayed for an heir when they visited the Well.
Seven years ago the 70-mile St Winefride Pilgrim Trail was inaugurated in the footsteps of Henry V from Shrewsbury Abbey to the shrine.
The Well Chapel owes its existence to royal patronage, with Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII – and a good friend of St John Fisher – generously paying for its construction.
Pilgrimages to the well even continued throughout the Reformation. In 1593, the esteemed Jesuit missionary Father John Gerard made a pilgrimage there on St Winefride’s feast day, which is celebrated on November 3, and the well was also visited by martyrs St Nicholas Owen and by Blessed Edward Oldcorne, who died with the name “St Winefride” on his lips.
Astonishingly, some 14,000 people and 150 priests gathered there on St Winefride’s feast day in 1629 – a time when Catholics were still dying as martyrs for the faith in this country.
Eventually, in 1808 – two decades before Catholic emancipation – permission was granted for the celebration of Mass to resume at the shrine and pilgrimages became public events.
The Jesuits, who maintained stewardship of the ancient sanctuary during penal times, handed control over to the local bishop only in 1930.
The Jesuits had also established the nearby retreat house of St Beuno’s and it was while staying there that the acclaimed Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins went to bathe in the waters of the well on Boxing Day of 1879.
He later wrote the poem “St Winefride’s Well” in honour of the saint, putting a prediction into the mouth of St Beuno that her name will live, that the spring would become a place of pilgrimage, and that the well will always be a place of healing.
The well is also the setting for one of Hopkins’s most famous poems, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” (subtitled Maidens’ Song from St Winefride’s Well), in which one voice sounds the sullen notes of despair at the loss of beauty to advancing age only to hear another voice suggesting the cultivation of a different kind of beauty, an inner spiritual beauty, which will never fade and die. Give beauty back to God, urges the voice, just like St Winefride had done herself.