(c. 600-660 AD)
St. Winefride of Wales is the only Welsh saint venerated extensively outside her own section of Britain. Her shrine at Holywell is still frequented by people in search of cures.
Like many biographers of ancient saints, Winefride’s story has become interlaced with folklore, so that it is impossible to say what is history and what is not.
Here is the traditional account. Winefride (or more properly, in Welsh, Guenfrewi) was the daughter of Thevit, a man of wealth dwelling in Tegeingl, Flintshire, in northern Wales. Her mother was Wenlo, a sister of St. Beuno, the Welsh monk who founded the Abbey of Clynnog Fawr.
Before he discovered a site for Clynnog Abbey, Beuno lived for some time as a hermit in a valley called “Dry Hollow” near the present Holywell. Among the people to whom he preached in his little chapel was his niece Winefride. Although only fifteen, she was already a young woman of charm and intelligence. Listening to his discourses she began to live a life of prayer and self-denial in preparation, with her parents’ consent, for entering the religious life.
One day when her parents were attending St. Beuno’s Mass and she was alone at home, Caradoc, the ardent son of a local prince, came to ask her to marry him. He knew that Winefride intended to take the veil, but he, nevertheless, pushed his request vehemently, even threatening her life when she turned away from him. Finally, in fright, she fled towards the church. Caradoc followed her and on the crest of the slope above Dry Hollow drew his sword and beheaded her. The head rolled down the slope and where it ended, a spring burst forth. St. Beuno, hearing of the crime, left the altar and joined her head to her body, praying that the martyr might return to life. His prayer was answered.
Winefride went on to take her vows. First she lived as a recluse, then she became abbess of a convent opened on her father’s property. She built a chapel over the well. Eventually, because of Saxon invasions, she moved to the mountain locale of Gwytherin. She became abbess of a monastery there, already acknowledged as a saint.
Whatever the historical value of this account, Winefride has been the object of strong devotion for over 1,000 years.
Countless pilgrims have journeyed to her well to bathe in its often healing waters, much as one bathes today in the waters at Lourdes. In the Fifteenth Century the mother of King Henry VII erected the buildings around the well. As late as the Seventeenth Century five individual cures were recorded, two of the cures being of Protestants. Even in the days when British laws penalized Catholic practice, the pilgrimages did not cease. Thus, in 1629 over 14,000 people and 150 priests were on hand to celebrate her feast day. In 1774, when the famous literary scholar Dr. Samuel Johnson visited Holywell, he saw pilgrims bathing in the well’s waters. Some physicians have thought the waters may have natural medicinal chemical properties, Even so, God could still be credited with healing bathers who invoked His aid in faith. (One thinks of the way in which Naaman was healed of leprosy when, at the prophet Elisha’s command, he bathed in the River Jordan: 2 Kings, chapter 5).
Unfortunately, “business” intruded upon piety in 1917 when nearby mining operations diverted the spring and the well ran dry. Later, however, an arrangement was made to channel some of the underground water back into the well. The Jesuits, long in charge, handed the well over to the diocesan clergy in 1930.
Today the parish church of St. Winefride, Holywell, still schedules “service at St. Winefride’s well daily … from Whit Sunday to mid-September.” Apparently the Welsh virgin and martyr has her votaries even in our times.
–Father Robert F. McNamara