Today Holywell is synonymous with the quite glorious St Winefride’s Well, the source of the town’s name and its continued fame. And yet, some two thousand years before the teenage Winfride temporarily lost her head to the slighted and murderous Caradoc, Holywell existed within a Neolithic, early Bronze Age landscape, its peoples beginning to settle, tend to crops and remember their dead with cairn and tumuli. Several of these can still be seen in the lands above the town, straddled by the A55 Expressway.
A curiosity remains the relative absence of a Roman presence, especially given the importance to them of the North Wales coast and the hills around with its abundance of lead. It is possible, of course, that we have simply yet to find them. There are hints, perhaps at nearby Greenfield where the possibility of a quay remains, a means to export the lead they so valued. Could there also have been a settlement at Greenfield? Thomas Pennant writing in 1796, acknowledging the Roman exploitation of the nearby lead, states that a Roman hypocaust was found while the foundations of brass melting houses were being dug.
‘Mr Donbavand discovered an ancient Roman hypocaust, furnished with various flues, with the super incumbent tiles of a fine red colour. These artificial hot-baths and sweating rooms were the greatest luxuries of the Romans. This proves that they had a stationary settlement in this place, probably of merchants concerned in the mineral works, which they certainly had on the adjacent mountains’
The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (1796)
In the absence of further finds, the authenticity of this find as a Roman hypocaust has been subsequently challenged and it has been reasonably suggested that given its nearness to Basingwerk Abbey, what was actually found was in fact a tilery house, made by the builders of the Abbey. Unfortunately, the site has since been lost, so we are unlikely to come to a definitive conclusion. What is not in doubt, however is the existence of the Roman road which ran the length of the North Wales coast, from Chester to Greenfield, by way of Flint and Pentre Ffrwrd before cutting inland at Basingwerk Bluff and running in a more or less direct line to St Asaph, the probable site of the lost Roman city of Varis. While the Roman presence in Holywell and Greenfield has not revealed itself archaeologically, the importance to the Romans of the lead in the hills and mountains surrounding the town makes a total absence here difficult to credit. However, finding that archaeological footprint in Holywell has been made extraordinarily difficult by the development of heavy industry in the Greenfield Valley from the 1ate 18th century onwards, which fairly demolished much of what had previously existed in its place.
After the Romans left Britain to its own devices in 410 AD or thereabouts, the area that became known as Holywell and Greenfield disappears into the mists of time, to coin a cliché. Still, if you squint some you can discern shapes in the mist. The Roman road would have led to the continued use of the Greenfield valley, for convenience if for no other reason. And it is thought that St Beuno founded a small church in the valley some time in the early 7th century, gifted the land by his brother-in-law, Tyfid, husband to his sister and father to his celebrated niece, Winfride. The foundation of an early Christian community in the Holywell area is entirely consistent with the religion’s growing presence in North East Wales.
By the 8th century it is clear that Flintshire has become in effect, border country between the existing British and the advancing Saxon peoples. Flintshire’s near ubiquitous presence in the Domesday Book of 1086 is good evidence of this. However, the most visible evidence of a Saxon presence in the Holywell and Greenfield area is the fact that these settlements effectively exist between the astonishing Saxon earthworks of Offa’s Dyke to the west and Wat’s Dyke to the east. What political turmoil was in play to warrant the building of these enormous earthworks? Where they territorial boundaries, or perhaps defensive bulwarks against the British? The answers are still debated. However, from a political context, it is clear that the Saxons were moving ever further west, out of Cheshire and Shropshire from the 7th century onwards. The Battle of Chester in 614/5 (perhaps a little earlier) was an early indicator of Saxon intent. Given that the Battle of Chester saw the apparent massacre of many hundreds of clerics from the monastery of Bangor on Dee by the pagan Saxon king, Athelfrith of Northumbria, it remains a little curious that Beuno would choose to found a church so close to the front line. Bagillt, a little along the coast from Greenfield was a settlement of Saxon foundation, as was Mertyn by Whitford. And within this landscape, Beuno was building his little church. In truth, looking on these events from a distance, one can come to the inaccurate conclusion that the peoples of the area were having to step over the corpses of British and Saxon dead every time they popped out for milk. That would have been unlikely. It would have been more probable that there would have been intense but brief periods of violence followed by years of relative calm. But the fact that this area became known as [Welsh word for border] suggests that the Holywell and Greenfield area would have seen its fair share of turmoil.
Beuno is discussed elsewhere, but suffice to say that his influence in North Wales and North East Wales is profound. It is possible that his small church was on the site of what is now St James’ Church, a stones throw, or indeed a rolling head’s distance uphill from St Winefrides Well. In any event, it would seem that this area was the core of the new settlement.
The first record of the Holywell place name was in 1093 in the gifting of the, ‘churche of Haliwel’ to St Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester by the gloriously named, Adeliza, the wife of the Earl of Chester, although there are some given doubts as to the veracity of this claim. Of the 400 years between the death and resurrection of Winefride and the gifting of the church we know nothing. This is truly fascinating, even astonishing, since for the settlement to be known as, ‘Haliwel’ by the Normans of 1093, suggests that the village had become well known for the miracle of Winefride’s Well. What that actually looked like remains entirely hidden from us.
It is safe to say that Holywell grew as the fame and importance of the Well increased. The first mention of it as a place of pilgrimage is in 1115. Basingwerk Abbey founded at Greenfield in 1157 (possibly relocated from Bagillt) certainly owned the Well from 1240 onwards, and it is to the abbot and the monks of the Abbey that Holywell as a prosperous and thriving settlement should thank for its early success.
However, as with elsewhere in Flintshire, it was the medieval expansion of industry, specifically mining that gave the town its great boost. The seeming ubiquitous presence of lead, first exploited by the Romans, was thoroughly worked from the early 14th century, with a thriving community of miners making Holywell their home. This growth of the town is seemingly confirmed by Edward Lhuyd at the end of the 17th century, recording that there were some 120 homes in the town – a large number by 17th century standards. Thomas Pennant writing at the end of the 18th century, claims however, that Holywell was a very inconsiderable town. Had Holywell declined as a going concern the 100 years between Lhuyd and Pennant? Had Lhuyd perhaps got his figures wrong. After all, Pennant was a local, while Lhuyd depended on correspondents. But then, perhaps Pennant’s measure of success was in something other than population. It is confusing, since other evidence would suggest that Holywell increasingly thrived in the 18th century, as the Greenfield Valley became increasingly industrialized, its textile, metallurgical and paper businesses flourishing.
The Greenfield Valley is discussed in greater detail elsewhere, but suffice to say here that its great success lay in its fortune of natural resources. The profundity of the Holywell stream pouring from St Winefride’s Well, some 25000 gallons per minute, the abundance of coal and lead within Flintshire (most notably the Englefield Colliery) and the growth of the chemical industry in nearby Flint, all fed the growing industries of the Greenfield Valley. From its possible origins in Roman times, the Greenfield Valley has been an industrial giant of North East Wales, arguably the most important industrial and commercial centre in the region – more populous than Wrexham at its height. During the 20th century, these industries declined, as did heavy industry everywhere, until Holywell returned to where it had begun, a Holy town of international importance, the Lourdes of Wales, a survivor of the Reformation. We all, it seems, return to whence we came.