It would not be possible to keep a blog on the holy wells of North Wales without reference to St Winefride’s Well at Holywell; however it would be difficult to say anything new about this site without extensive original research. St Winefride’s is a fully described in numerous guidebooks and has been the subject of extensive more scholarly research. IIt shrine of national if not international importance, the only shrine in Britain to have survived the Reformation; and has, since late Victorian times provided the town with the epithet of “The Lourdes of Wales”.
Unlike the other wells I have described, this is very much an “exit through the gift shop” attraction. Strongly promoted on the tourist trail, it is the only well to charge an entrance fee, albeit a modest 80p, and to be a fully fledged “visitor attraction”. Saying this, however, it remains at the same time a place of pilgrimage, holds regular services and many visitors travel long distances to bathe in the well or to take away well water. By tradition the visitor should enter the water three times for the cure to be effective although even this process does not necessarily guarantee success; cures have also been obtained through prayer or drinking the well water. Today the well receives around 36000 visitors a year and recently numbers have been said to be increasing significantly.
St Winefride’s Well has one of the most detailed recorded histories amongst the local wells, Throughout its history it has been visited by royalty, and the well and its surrounded beliefs managed to survive the reformation almost intact, which is virtually unique in the area.
The story of St Winefride has become embellished with miracles in its telling.
We shall continue to call her Winefride for the purposes of consistency in this article. This name is an anglicised version of the Latin Wenefreda. The original Welsh version of her her name is Gwenfrewy; in previous times it was rendered as a more prosaic Winifred. Winefride was the daughter of a noble land owning family in the region in the 7th century. She was intended to be a nun, her aunt Tenhoi was abbess of Gwytherin, near Llanwrst. However, a local prince, Caradog, met her. Whilst some stories suggest he wished to marry her, most suggest that he was already married his intentions were less honourable. Either way she refused him and he first tried to rape her, and then took out his sword and sliced her head off. Later embellishments to the story record that her head went rolling down the hillside and out from the earth where her head had landed burst forth a stream of water forming what is now St Winefride’s Well.
Fortunately her uncle (saint) Beuno was close at hand, celebrating mass in his church and was able to reattach the head and restore Winefride to life. Caradog was taken by the devil and Winefride was able to return to her destined religious life, first founding a convent near Holywell before joining her aunt at Gwytherin and eventually becoming abbess herself. Pictures and statues of her, in accordance with the legend traditionally bear the white scar around her neck showing where her head had been reattached. She died and was interred at Gwytherin, however, following reports of cures at the well her remains were transferred to Shrewsbury in 1138. Although most of her relics were lost and destroyed during the Reformation a bone, too small to be identified, although accounts describe it as part of a finger bone, survives and is now at Holywell.
Although the beheading is clearly an improbable story, it was not written down or widely repeated until some 500 years after her death, and is a not a unique embellishment to the stories of the Welsh saints, although Winefride is the only one to have been restored to life after the vent, we might believe ofther aspects of the story and that much of the Winefride’s history is based on elements of fact..
The history of this well has been recorded for 1000 years. The church at “Haliwel” was given to St Werbergh’s Abbey in Chester in 1093 indicating that the place name of Holy Well was already established by that date. References to the well as a place of pilgrimage and specifically of healing date certainly from the twelfth century. Apart from the existance of the name, there is no recorded evidence of the significance of the well before that date. A number of writers have drawn attention to the fact that no record of the well or chapel are made in the Doomsday Book, implying that had the well had such a reputation at that date then it would certainly have merited a mention. Although in fact the Domesday Book contains very little information from Flintshire so this omission is not necessarily significant. Similarly Giraldus of Wales, who toured the region with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1188, lodging for a night at Basingwerk Abbey, makes no mention of the well, despite having described another notable well in the area, probably Ffynnon Asa.
From 1240 up until the Reformation the well belonged to the nearby Basingwerk Abbey By the fourteenth century the cult of the saint had spread nationwide. Her feast day was kept throughout Wales and Southern England. It was made obligatory in 1398 to keep St Winefride’s Day, Richard II provided funds. She was invoked and honoured by kings. Henry V relied upon her aid in his battle at Agincourt, the year following his victory he made a pilgrimage from her tomb in Shrewsbury to the well at Holywell. Edward IV also visited the well, and Richard III provided funds for its upkeep.
It is often repeated that Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, was one of the leading sponsors of the building work in the early 1500s that remodelled the well and church resulting largely in the buildings that we see today. More recent research has indicated that this is not the case, and neither is there any recorded evidence that Catherine of Aragon, wife to Prince Arthur and later Henry VIII, was a benefactor although her arms appear on the roof of the well chamber. The heraldry on the roof is particularly complex and confusing.The building work, which was completed in 1512 was undertaken by Abbot Pennant of Basingwek.
Much too has been made of similarities between the star shaped well basin here and that at Ffynnon Fair at Cefn Meriadog suggesting that the same patrons or architects may have been involved with each. The two wells are linked by a common route of pilgrimage, although there is no evidence for greater links; and it has been suggested that the well basin at Cefn Meriadog may be an early nineteenth century forgery.
Some 50 years later however, Henry VIII led the Reformation in Britain, leading to the destruction of the abbeys. Several elaborate wells and well chapels across the country were also destroyed in the following century, as beliefs in the power of pilgrimage and healing were discouraged as being superstitious or heretical. St Winefride’s was no exception to this, and throughout the reigns of Henry and Elizabeth the state went to great lengths to discourage visits to the shrine. However such was the strength of belief, and probably the power and influence of certain local families, that it managed to survive relatively intact through a period in which most other shrines of a more local importance vanished.
In 1579 Queen Elizabeth’s council issued a command to the Council of the Marches to
“discover all Papist activities and recommend measures for suppressing them… to pay particular attention to the pilgrimages to St Winefride’s Well and in view of the claim that the water is medicinal to appoint two men to test its properties; if not medicinal the Well should be destroyed.”
However attempts to suppress the well seemed to have the opposite effect and visitor numbers may have increased throughout the seventeenth century
In 1625 the Bishop of Bangor reported
“There is a great concourse of people at St Winefride’s Well, in an old church near a public Mass is said continually”
In the 1630s the statue of Winefride in the shrine was described as having been whitewashed to cover up any decoration on it; it was later were broken up and destroyed. The statue standing there now dates from the 1880s.
In the interludes of Catholic monarchy, with Mary and later James II, the well enjoyed periods of recovery and reconstruction. James II and his wife Mary of Modena visited the well in 1677, finding it in a poor state of repair, to ask for Winefride’s help in producing a male heir. The visit is supposedly commemorated by a stone set in the wall of the well basin during reconstruction at that time. A son James was born to the king and queen the following year.
Mary of Modena made arrangements at the time for the chapel’s ownership to be transferred to the Jesuits, it being in public ownership at the time.I In the early 1700s the chapel building was appropriated for use as a school and religious use finally ceased.
Thomas Pennant, who lived nearby would have known the shrine well. In his Tour of Wales, written at the end of the eighteenth century he reported:
The resort of pilgrims of late years to these Fontanalia has considerably decreased; the greatest number are from Lancashire. In the summer still a few are to be seen in the water in deep devotion up to their chins for hours, sending up their prayers, or performing a number of evolutions round the polygonal well; or threading the arch between well and well a prescribed number of times. Few people of rank at present honour the fountain with their presence.
Later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the persecution of pilgrims lessened, and the well gained favour as a tourist attraction. The young Princess, later Queen, Victoria is reported to have visited the well whilst on holiday in the area in the 1820s.
Pennant also noted in 1778 that
The spring is certainly one of the finest in these kingdoms; and by the two different trials and calculations lately made for my information, is found to fling out about twenty-one tons of water in a minute. It never freezes. After a violent fall of wet, it becomes discoloured by a wheyey tinge.
The stream formed by this fountain runs with a rapid course to the sea, which it reaches in little more than a mile’s distance. The industry of this century hath made its waters of much commercial utility. The principal works on it at this time are battering-mills for copper ; a wire-mill, coarse paper-mill, snuff-mill, a foundry for brass; and a cotton manufactory is now establishing. During the reign of pilgrimages, nothing but a corn-mill or two, the property of the monks, found employ for this beneficial stream.
All early descriptions and illustrations of the well indicate that the volume of water flowing from the well was much greater than that seen today, the spring forming a small river that ran from the well. Disaster struck the well at 8am on 5th january 1917 when nearby mining works struck and diverted the underground stream that fed the well causing the well to run dry. Eventually another source was found to feed the well; however the force of this is much less and the well now forms a modest bathing area outside the shrine rather than the rapid stream that used to flow from the building in earlier days.
St Winefride’s Day is celebrated on November 3rd. This commemortaes her death which occured on November 2nd; howver that being All Soul’s Day her feast was moved to the next available date. A second festival is celebrated at Holywell on June 22nd which commemorates the day on which her head was removed and replaced.
In addition to the shop, the visitors centre houses an interpretive exhibition with panels showing scenes from Winefride’s life and the history of the well. The centrepiece of which is a large scale model of Winefride and Beuno at the well. The exhibition also includes a number of ancient crutches discarded by healed pilgrims. There is also the Museum of the Pilgrimage on the site, which also acts as a library for the Well, housing documents and records of healings attributed to the well. there is a small display of various items relating to the history of the pilgrimage, although take note this museum is not always open during the well opening times.
On the hillside overlooking the well is the location of another well dedicated to St Beuno. Formerly another important location, this is now little more than a deep oval depression, muddy in the bottom and ringed around with thorn trees, ferns and high nettles.. A visit to this well was difficult on this occasion, however since then clearance has begun and the well is beginning to re-appear.
St Winefride’s Well – A History and Guide.by Rev Christopher David (2002)
St Winefride, Her Holy Well and the Jesuit Mission c650 – 1930. T W Pritchard (2009)
Wellhopper gratefully acknowledges the invaluable comments and information provided by Tristran Gray Hulse and Janet Bord used in the preparation of this article.