Saint Winifride

Holy Recluse and Miracle Worker

By Father Pancratios Sanders

By the time of the departure of the Roman Legions in the fourth century Britain was slowly developing a Christian character. Its first flowering is generally thought to have occurred in the immediate sub-Apostolic age and there is some archaeological evidence to confirm the presence of Christianised natives at and shortly after this period. Whether one accepts or rejects the ancient story of the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea in Glastonbury or the martyrdom of the Apostle Simon Zelotes in North Yorkshire (cf Dorotheos of Gaza who recorded the details around the year 300), it is evident that there was a Christian presence among both the native population and Roman settlers.

Persecutions generally passed Britain by, though it is unclear if this is through lack of recorded evidence (which seems peculiar) or a lack of martyrs, Alban the Protomartyr, and Julius and Aaron at Caerlyon notwithstanding. Constantine’s ascension to the Imperial Throne and his approval of Christianity in 313 allowed citizens of the islands to adopt the faith without let or hindrance and assorted hoards and other archaeological finds suggest a growth in the numbers present despite the decline in Roman influence over the population.

Relative peace prevailed between the departure of the Legions and the first Saxon arrivals by the middle of the fifth century and it is this period which first allows us to name individual Christians and see faint signs of an ecclesiastical structure. The incursions of the Saxons were to spread over the next hundred years before the native British presence was submerged or driven into the mountains of the west and conquest could be considered complete with the battle of Bindon in Dorset in the year 614.

The Celtic church began its fight back with the rise of the great missionaries Aidan and Cuthbert who brought the Gospel to the Saxons of Northumbria. In Wales, comparatively untouched by what was going on east of Offa’s Dyke quiet saints beavered away in the towns and villages proclaiming the Gospel to all who passed by. Best known of them were Dewi Sant (Saint David) reposed 589 or 601 and Gwenfrewi or Winifride the virgin of Holywell.

Much has been written about the latter over the centuries and it is sometimes difficult at this remove to disentangle fact from legend in her life. The Wales into which she was born consisted of three principal kingdoms: Glamorgan of Arthurian fame in the south, Powysland, to the east and Gwynedd, once the home of Maelgwyn, lying to the north-west. Ynys Mon Anglesey, the bread basket of Wales, had already fallen to the Saxon invaders. Despite the difficult times and the barbarism of some of its leaders, Wales was very much a Christian land with a significant monastic backbone. For example, it is said that nearly a thousand monks resided at Saint Asaph following a gift of land to Saint Kentigern in the late sixth century.

All accounts suggest that Saint Winifride was born at the beginning of the seventh century at the time of the kingship of Cadwal of Gwynedd who was commander in chief of the British forces ranged against the Saxons. This places her birth shortly before the repose of Saint Augustine who laboured so valiantly to convert the Saxons of south-east England. Cadwal and many of his princes were slain in the disastrous defeat at Chester in 613 and he was succeeded by Cadvan who established his court near Caernarfon. This is confirmed by the activity of Saint Beuno who after the ‘martyrdom’ of Saint Winifride, visited Cadvan’s court to seek a grant of land for a monastery. Since Cadvan was himself slain in the battle of Dilston (near Hexham. and close to Hadrian’s Wall), after his successful rally of the British forces against the Northumbrian Saxons in 635, this comes together neatly to suggest that Saint Winifride was between fourteen and eighteen years of age at the time of her ‘martyrdom’.

Winifride is intimately connected with Saint Beuno whose life has already been recorded by the late Archimand­rite Barnabas. Beuno was a peripatetic saint, like so many of his kinsmen, and his presence is recorded in many parts of northern Wales. After an early life in Powys, Beuno travelled northwards into the disputed lands of Deeside on the borders of Powysland and Gwynedd. Not only was this land subject to border disputes between the two kingdoms, it was also subject to forays from Saxon Chester down the sea way which was the principal west coast sea route to the rest of the Saxon lands.

Beuno settled for a while on the estate of Gwenfynnan, one of Cadvan’s senior offic­ers and a kinsman of the saint. From here he applied for a grant of land to build a church and he chose the dry hollow of Sechnant just below what is now the town of Holywell. Here he built a chapel and a well was dug or restored below the chapel and this was long known as Saint Beuno’s Well.

We are indebted to one Saint Elerius, or Hilary, a contemporary of Saint Winifride for details of her vita. However, we only have a late and somewhat fragmentary Latin manuscript copy (Vita B. Wenfredae, per Elerium Britm. Monachum, Cottonian Library, British Museum) of this work and it is unclear how much embroidery may have been tacked on over the centuries. Robert of Shrewsbury set her details down in the time of King Stephen in honour of her translation to the Abbey church there but much has undoubtedly been lost that could have clarified her life for the present generation.

The child now known to us as Winifride was by this time maturing into a young woman and appar­ently a devoted follower of Saint Beuno. It is recorded that she was born to Tevith and Wenio as an only child and is likely to have been given the name of Guenevrea; the Fair or Holy Brea. Freda of Winifride is a Saxon appellation and it seems that later Saxon influence gave her the name by which she is known to the world.

As a growing child who clung to every word of the saint, it was not unsurprising that she might wish to dedicate herself to God but, as yet, she was too young to be allowed to make that commitment.

It is into this idyllic scene that the first major event of her life takes place. It is writ­ten that one Sunday she was preparing to follow her parents to church with some of the ‘necessities’ for the Liturgy when a stranger rode up to the house. It is said that this was Caradoc (Caragog), the son of Alauc, possibly the nephew of the king of Powys, and that he was out hunting. We must assume that he was either a pagan or that his Christianity sat very lightly upon him to be out hunting on a Sunday morning.

Whatever the truth may have been, Elerius writes that he became enamoured of the young Winifride and sought to possess her. How strong his desire may have been, we know not, but Winifride, in seeking to preserve her virginity for her future monastic life, begged to change her dress into one more fitting for a prince of Powys. Using this ruse, it is said that she then escaped from her home by another way and fled down the hill towards Saint Beuno’s chapel and sanctuary. The ruse did not last long and the thwarted prince pursued her on horseback. Elerius records that the prince ran her down on the hillside just above the chapel and, when she refused his advances, drew his sword and severed her head from her body.

Hearing the commotion Saint Beuno, who was even then preparing to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, came out of the chapel to catch Caradoc in the act. Beuno, cursing the prince for his wicked deed, then collected Winifride’s head from where it had come to rest. Here in this small dry valley (Beuno’s own well was below the scene of this event, further down the valley) a spring had broken out and was gushing forth a torrent of sweet water – a flow which has never ceased since. Reverently collecting her head, Beuno returned to the chapel where her body lay blood­ stained and lifeless Praying to God for the restoration of the maiden to life, Elerius tells us that Beuno places his cloak over her head and body and breathed into her nostrils. After the Liturgy he tells us that Winifride was indeed restored to life and health, remaining with only a thin white line around her neck to remind her of the event.

Quite what exactly did occur on this Sunday in the early seventh century will not be known this side of the Judgement but it must have been a monumental and miraculous happening to have been kept dear in the hearts of the local folk and to have spread so widely in following centuries. Forensic scientists and mass murderers will tell you that it is exceedingly difficult to back through the vertebrae of the neck and so it is quite likely that Caradoc actually cut Winifride’s throat and that she either died or came near to death. Beuno’s action in breathing into her nostrils sounds remarkably like artificial resuscitation (mouth-to-mouth) and that perhaps his cloak was used to bind the wound up. This is not to demean the recorded miracle in any way for the restoration to life of anyone suffering such a horrendous wound is indeed a God-given miracle and this is surely confirmed by the appearance of the spring where previously there was no water.

In the aftermath of her attack, Winifride confirmed her desire to become a nun and lived close to Saint Beuno and the miraculous well as a recluse. Beuno, his work completed in the education of his disciple, departed in 616 for Gwredog in Arfon to establish the monastery eventually completed at Clynnog Fawr. Bereft of her teacher, the young Winifride continued to live as a hermit near the site of her ‘martyrdom’. However, she held close to her heart the prophecy of Saint Beuno which said that she would remain in that place for a further seven years before being called elsewhere to minister for the Lords sake.

Robert the Prior of Shrewsbury offers an elaborate version of the prophecy that not only would she remove from the scene of her ‘martyrdom’ but that the stones surrounding the spring would forever bear marks, as of blood, within them to remind all of the sacred event that had taken place there. He also records Beuno prophesying that through her prayers many would reap spiritual and physical blessings in this world and spiritual comfort in the next. Robert also comments the Beuno and Winifride would remain miraculously in contact for the remaining time of their lives irrespective of where they were.

Saint Winifride indeed kept her promise to Beuno by making a set of vestments for him each year that she would then place upon a small raft and leave to float down the stream from Holywell. It would eventually turn up at Clynnog, coming ashore at the appropriately named Porth y Casseg (Port of the Chasuble)!

At the end of the predicted seven years, Winifride learned of the death of Saint Beuno and, accord­ing to Elerius, a council of bishops was held that decreed that virgin recluses should not live as hermits but in community. Some accounts suggest that she was present at the council as the abbess of a community based on Holywell. This may or may not be so but the outcome was that she left the place of her ‘martyrdom’ with a solitary com­panion and made her way to Bodfari which lies on the county boundary between Flintshire and Denbighshire and about three miles from both Saint Asaph and Denbigh. Here she found Saint Diheufar, one of a family of saints that includes Saint Tudno amongst its number. Saint Diheufar lived close to a well that eventually became dedicated to him and had miraculous properties. This well was much revered until the middle of the last century when it was submerged beneath the track bed of the Mold  – Denbigh branch of the London and North Western Railway. The line itself closed in the 1960’s but the whereabouts of the well remains unknown.

Following customary monastic hospitality, Diheufar sent her across the Vale of Clwyd to Henllan (two miles north-west of Denbigh) and Saint Sadwrn. Enlightened by God, Sadwrn directed Winifride to Gwytherin as the place of her abode. Gwytherin lies about four miles east of Llanrwst above the Conwy Valley. However, Winifride did not go direct to Gwytherin but was sent by Sadwrn, in the company of a deacon to the monastery of Saint Elerius situated on the River Elwy, possibly near the village of Llangernyw. This is the same Elerius who recorded Winifride’s life and he is described as being related to the saint. Elerius duly accompanied Winifride to the place of her calling at Gwytherin on the slopes on Moel Llyn where his mother Theonia, and therefore also related to Winifride, was the aged abbess of a community of nuns. Elerius’ words to his mother ac­knowledge Winifride’s unique situation as a living saint, “She is come to die a blessed death among you, having already a high place reserved for her among the most glorious martyrs in heaven”.In this remote spot, Winifride lived out the remainder of her days untroubled by the world. Elerius seems to have been a frequent visitor to the nuns for he records that Winifride had the gift of foreknowledge. He records that he hoped that Winifride would be there to assist at his burial but she replied that he would bury both his mother and Winifride herself, and would live some further years before attaining his own blessed repose.

Winifride spent some time as in charge of novices until, at the death of Theonia, she was called to lead the community as its abbess. It is said that she lived in a state of perpetual prayer and ecstasy until she was acquainted with the day and hour of her death. She fell into a final sickness which she endured with great patience despite the frequent and violent convulsions that accompanied her last days. The illness gave Winifride time to bid her farewells to the sisters of the community and to make her funeral arrangements. Among these was the request that she be laid to rest beside the holy Theonia in the monastery cemetery.

Winifride was indeed laid to rest by her beloved Theonia and in the company of other illustrious Welsh saints, notably Saint Cybi, a disciple of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Saint Seriol, brother of Saint Enion of Bardsey. Cybi and Seriol are the saints of Anglesey and they were active in the sixth century as founders of monasteries and missionaries.

Saint Elerius records that the saint’s repose occurred on the eve of the Nativity of the Forerunner, 23rd June, the very same day she sent her annual gift of vestments to the holy Beuno. Some suggest this was also the same day as her first martyrdom. It appears true that her original feast day was indeed 23rd June and this became the occasion of the chief pilgrimage to Holywell.

The present feast day of Saint Winifride on 3rd November is a much later addition to the calendar and this commemorates the translation of her holy relics to the Abbey Church in Shrewsbury. The year of her death is not certain but must have occurred in the 650’s since Elerius himself reposed in 660.

Winifride lay in the monastic cemetery for almost five hundred years at one of the centres of a growing devotion. Veneration of the saint does not seem to have been particularly widespread but it was there nonetheless. The devotion comes to prominence in the century following the Schism (!) between East and West in 1054 and the Norman Conquest in 1066.

As was common in the post schism Norman church, the acquisition of relics, by fair means or foul, was considered essential by monastics and the completion of the new Abbey Church in Shrewsbury was just such an occasion. The severe sickness contracted by one of the community in Shrewsbury led to prayers being offered both there and in the Abbey Church in Chester. This led to a vision of Saint Winifride appearing to the sub-prior of Chester and she indicated that a mass should be served for the sick monk in the chapel at the well. At the same hour as the mass was said, the Shrewsbury monk recovered.

It was clear from this, according to Robert of Shrewsbury, that her relics were important to the success of the new abbey foundation and accordingly in 1138 a deputation led by Prior Robert, one might call it a ‘heavy mob’, descended on Gwyth­erin and removed the relics to Shrewsbury. Local opposition was simply brushed aside. Her relics were carried away, probably along the present route of the A5 trunk road to Shrewsbury and the site of her stations were appropriately marked. That at West Felton, near Oswestry remains as a spring with chapel over it, and although recently fallen into private hands it is occasionally accessible to the faithful. On arrival in Shrewsbury her relics were placed in Saint Giles church outside the walls until the shrine was completed. There she re­mained until at the Reformation her relics were scattered to the four winds, though in fact they were probably burned. All that remains today is a knuckle bone that is mounted in a reliquary and cared for by the Roman Catholic Church in Holywell. This relic is always made available to the Orthodox on the occasion of the Annual Pilgrimage.

While devotion to Saint Winifride died at the Reformation in Shrewsbury, it continued, as it had for nearly a thousand years, at the place of her martyrdom. Not only devotion, but the miracles, reported from the earliest days, continued unabated.

In the years following her death, the little chapel of Saint Beuno must have been swept away and replaced with something more appropriate to the memory of the saint. How this appeared we have no means of telling but church and well were inextricably linked. In mediaeval times stone structures were provided to encase the well with the parish church standing close by. On the eve of the Reformation, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Derby, the mother of Henry VII built the fine chapel (1485) over the well-house which we see today. Used as a lumber room after the Reformation, the chapel was restored to use in the time of James 11, but latterly was a school room for the Anglican parish.

Though the chapel itself is now empty it is used on the first Saturday of each October by Orthodox in Britain for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in connection with the Annual Pilgrimage organised by the Parish of Saint Barbara, Chester. Although the chapel stands empty for almost all of the year, the fine stonework and timber roof stand testimony to the expense lavished by Margaret Beaufort. The windows are now of plain glass following attempts to destroy the chapel, but fragments of the origi­nal glass were recovered from the ground close by and these were incorporated into the east window on restoration of the chapel by the Welsh Office.

Today, the shrine is administered by local Roman Catholics and it supports a very busy pilgrimage season from May to October. This, it should be noted, is the only Christian shrine in Britain where the flow of pilgrims never ceased, even in the darkest days of the Reformation and with that, the flow of miracles also never ceased.

Richard the Lionheart is recorded as visiting the shrine while Henry V walked from Shrewsbury in pilgrimage to Holywell in 1416. He was followed by Edward IV and, after the Reformation, by James II. Many humbler folk also walked the same roads. In 1629, it is claimed that 1,400 recusant laity and their priests visited on her feast day. The indefatigable Doctor Johnson visited Holywell in 1774 and saw people bathing in the waters and noted the multitudes of crutches left by grateful pilgrims. Many thousands continue to tread the same paths today despite temporary interference with the flow of waters in 1917 through mining activities.

In the difficult times for recusants, spies recorded the names and numbers of those making pil­grimage to the well. In that same year 1629 noted above, the list of nobility and gentry recorded is like a ‘who’s who’ for the North West and all the well-known families are represented.

From the earliest of days the waters of the well effected many cures and miracles. One of the earliest records a dead girl who was laid in the well and restored to life. Or another child, born blind, who was brought to the well on her request where she bathed her eyes and slept in the chapel. On waking her sight was restored. This single miracle is said to have led to the establishment of Basingwerk Abbey lower down the valley.

More recent miracles attributed to the waters of Holywell have been better recorded and these have included cures from leprosy, cancer and paralysis of various sorts. The waters continue to be efficacious especially for diseases of the legs and numerous are the reports of cripples being restored to full health.

Interestingly, those who have scoffed at the miracles attributed to Saint Winifride and those who have attacked her shrine have themselves been the subjects of miracles of a sort! Thieves have been betrayed by the objects of their theft. Others have been sub­jected to illness until they have restored the stolen property to its owner. Even at Gwytherin where miracles have also been attributed to the intervention of the saint, one who attempted to take the branch of a tree that sheltered pilgrims found himself paralysed and unable to move until he prayed for forgiveness.

Many of these miracles have been witnessed by the respected folk of their time who recorded carefully the events they encountered. Like the recipients of the miraculous cures they have come from many different backgrounds ranging from Orthodoxy to Quakerism. Indeed among those affected are many for whom their cure has led to an awakening of faith.

The message of Saint Winifride for today is that the age of miracles is not past, and that the power of God to change the manner of our lives continues unabated. Saint Winifride with her miraculous yet humble way of life is a saint for all times and seasons. She alone of all the saints of Britain, apart from the Theotokos herself, is the one saint to whom devotion has continued vibrant and unsuppressed from the day of her repose to the present time. Holywell has been a place of pilgrimage for almost 1350 years, there is no doubt that it will continue to be so while even a single Christian soul bears the name of Winifride on his lips.

Holy Saint Winifride, pray to God for us.