‘The blind do see, the dumb do speak
Disease which in bodies lurk
St Winefride’s Well as a holy spring and shrine are unique within the British Isles. No other holy shrine within these islands can boast 1300 years of unbroken Christian pilgrimage and worship. Through even the years of unfettered religious turmoil set in motion by the Reformation of the 1530s, Winefride’s Well remained - a destination for the hopeful and repentant, the desperate and devout. Winefride’s Well and shrine is profound.
Why did it survive, when even the shrines at Canterbury and Walsingham fell to the iconoclasts hammer and puritanical fervor? Well, there’s a tale worth telling, and one to make even the most cynical doubt themselves and think twice and thrice of their convictions.
The tale as commonly told begins in the 7th century, with the lustful decapitation of the maiden Gwenfrewi, but of course there’s an older history yet. If we push further back, through the Christian construct of its origin, into a more shadowy age, that of the Mesolithic, we are left with some interesting possibilities. Our hunter gatherer ancestors roamed freely in these lands that came to be known many thousands of years later as Denbighshire and Flintshire. When the first Christians arrived, perhaps as missionaries, perhaps as religious exiles or hermits seeking solitary contemplation, the spring was ancient, much older than the Book that told them of the God they worshipped. And this spring was no meagre thing, but a torrent, unignorable, and as such a life sustaining resource that would undoubtedly have been utilized by those Mesolithic peoples whose archaeological footprint have been left in the landscape at Rhuddlan, Prestatyn, Dyserth and elsewhere. And when these people were swept away by the Neolithic Revolution and farmers settled, it was the spring that watered their livestock and became the focus of their settlements and surely veneration. Before the spring cured ailments, its waters maintained life and the communities that relied upon it. Water as a source of community.
And as the people settled, the questions began to be asked. How did this spring come to be? Who was it, what was it that caused these life sustaining waters to flow? Thus the spring would have become not just a practical source of water, but a source of wonder and mystery, veneration and ritual. And this then would have been the state of things as Christianity arrived, and with it came a need to give the spring a Christian context.
St Winefride and her uncle, St Beuno represented beautifully in stained glass. Note the scar about Winefride's throat.
And so to the legend, often told but remarkably consistent. Dated to the 7th century, around 640 AD, Gwenfrewi was of noble birth, the daughter of Tyfid ab Eiludd and Gwenfo. In some accounts she has a brother, Owain, in others she is an only child. It is possible if not entirely probable that their llys was upon the hill that still overlooks the well, known now as Bryn y Castell, reflecting its later history as a fortress. By all accounts, Gwenfrewi was devout, intent on a life in the service of God, but also beautiful, of course. And it would seem it was her beauty, rather than her religious piety that caught the attention of the high born Caradoc. Gwenfrewi’s martyrdom came as a consequence of her rejection of Caradoc’s advances. As the young nobleman’s attentions became more aggressive, Gwenfrewi fled down the hill towards the church that had been raised by her uncle, Beuno, her mother’s brother. Caradoc was not to be denied, and incandescent with rage at being rejected, pursued the maiden. Before Gwenfrewi could reach the safety of Beuno’s church, Caradoc took hold of her and drawing his sword, struck off her head in a sweep of his blade. Hearing the commotion outside, Bueno hurried to the scene to find his headless niece, the murderous Caradoc, his blood stained blade still in hand, stood above her. Immediately, Beuno called upon the power of God and Cardoc, for his sin was swallowed up by the earth, in itself a fairly common mythological motif. In some accounts, Caradoc melts away, in others Gwenfrewi’s brother, Owain, butchers the man. The absence of Owain from the later legend might have been so as to bring into the tale the ground swallowing vengeance of God. With Caradoc punished, Beuno sought Gwenfrewi’s head, and found it had rolled a little further down the hill. Miraculously, where it had come to rest, a tremendous spring had erupted from the ground. Beuno picked up the head and with a heartfelt prayer, replaced it on the bloody stump of Gwenfrewi’s neck. And in a second miracle, her life was restored, though forever after she bore a pale white scar around her throat, a reminder to all who saw her of the power of God and indeed her uncle, Beuno. Further, where Winefride’s blood had spattered the ground about the well, a blood coloured moss grew profusely, the gathering of which was a source of cures. Gwenfrewi, devout before her martyrdom, became entirely dedicated to the worship of God, and some years later entered the nunnery at Gwytherin (now in Conwy County), eventually becoming the Abbess there. On her death she was buried there, until her bones were translated to Shrewsbury Abbey in 1138.
Within the ornately fashion well basin, the waters flow strong and clear
Predictably, the tale has been dismissed as entirely far-fetched, even by those that can quite comfortably believe that water turns to wine each Sunday morning, and the essential building blocks of the tale are in no way unique to the Winefride legend. Essentially, the dominant themes quite neatly accommodate Christian motif - the chaste virgin dedicating her life to God to the exclusion of a more worldly, venal life, the presence of a would-be saint of tremendous faith and with the God-given power to perform miracles, and the presence of a holy site where it was possible to glimpse the paradise promised to the faithful, a place to which pilgrimage was a means of witnessing the magnificence of God’s kingdom. There is water, there is blood, and then there is the no small matter of the head. And the importance of the head to both our pre-Christian ancestors and those that followed has been hotly debated. Was there such a thing as a cult of the head amongst the peoples of North East Wales in our dim and distant past? There are tantalizing hints of one within the landscape. There can be no doubt that the head was held in reverence by the peoples of these islands long before Christianity began to stamp its mark and authority on the people, and it is clear that the head was of some considerable importance to Judeo-Christian religion - it is after all worth remembering the fate of John the Baptist. Perhaps the topic is for another time, but suffice to say that the legend of St Winefride ticked all the boxes for a worthy incorporation into a Christian scaffold.
But should we dismiss the tale entirely? What we consider myth, the peoples of the time saw as faith and more, an explanation, the answer to a question. To be sure, we would look for our explanation now in science, in empirical investigation and by, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ to see further, deeper. But our ancestors also looked for those answers, unhappy to accept things blindly, and even if we struggle to accept the method of their inquiry and explanation we should not assume they did not try. And it’s possible of course, that many people of the time did not fully believe the legend, seeing it instead as a metaphor for the importance of faith, for maintaining social norms that kept their communities ordered. And it is possible, of course, that the legend remembered something older, a communal muscle memory for which an explanation was necessary. Perhaps there was a shocking murder here, the victim remembered in the waters of the extraordinary spring. In truth the possibilities are endless.
Our first written records of the Winefride legend, of which more will be said, are from the 12th Century, some 400 years after her martyrdom, but it is impossible to believe that the spring was not held in the highest regard by the peoples of the area before this time. We are told that Gwenfrewi fled from Caradoc towards Beuno’s church, that the spring gushed forth from where her head fell. Now it is possible that a church had been sited at the base of the hill as part of Tyfid’s llys, there for no other reason than because of the court, but is it not possible that both the llys and the church were connected to an already present spring? In truth, the spring was probably already so important to the communities in the area that both nobility and Christianity sited their court and church on the hill above it, both claiming it as theirs and legitimising their power. Indeed both temporal and spiritual power were closely related, quite literally at Holywell, since it is worth remembering that Beuno was the brother of Tyfid’s wife, Gwenlo. It is hard to accept that Christian missionaries and hermits moving into North East Wales, as there is good evidence that they did, did not become quickly aware of the spring, its growing reputation as a curing well and just as quickly lay claim to its powers in the name of Jesus Christ. It is more than probable that the well was being used as a baptistry at this time, hence the tradition of triple immersion being particularly successful in healing ailments. One can only imagine the perceived prestige of being baptised within the sacred waters of Winefride’s Well. It can only have added to the growing reputation of the site within the area.
It seems then likely that by the time of the arrival of the Normans at the end of the 11th century, there was an organised infrastructure at the well and shrine, and that a stone church of some sort stood at the site, the well with walls and steps perhaps. An interesting thought experiment here, is in considering the effect of the well and shrine on Welsh-Saxon relations. Holywell and Greenfield sat on what would have been the border between them, with dykes, forts, outposts, watchtowers scattered about the region. What difference, if any, did the well and shrine have on this fragile relationship?
Beuno, of course, was a revered memory by the time of the Norman appearance in the area. He had actually moved on from Holywell before Winefride entered the nunnery at Gwytherin. He had become the most revered saint in north Wales by some considerable measure, more so than David. Beuno’s presence can be seen within the landscape throughout north Wales. There is a well dedicated to him quite literally a stone’s throw from St Winefride’s, and a more fabulous example at Tremerichion, through which the overflow passes through a sculpted human head, if you please. We should also remember that at the well is Beuno’s Stone, sited by the steps of the outer bath, upon which it is said the saint sat as he tutored Winefride who ‘sat at the feet of the blessed man’. Having settled at Clynnog on the Llyn Peninsula and founding a monastery there, Beuno became renowned for his miracles, including the ability to resurrect the dead. A well there dedicated to him was known for curing sore eyes and to which heifers were offered in his name. Not quite as impressive a list of cures as at his niece’s well, but there are few, if any holy wells in Britain that come close to Holywell.
It has been stated that the well and shrine were first presented to St Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester by one Adeliza, countess of Chester in 1093, but I have found little evidence of this. In 1093, the Earl of Chester was Hugh d’Avranches, otherwise known as Hugh the Wolf or Hugh the Fat. His wife and countess was Ermentrude of Clermont, who had a sister by the name of Adeliza (Alice) who did indeed marry into Anglo-Norman nobility. How Adeliza would have the authority to award the well and shrine within her brother-in-law’s domain is a struggle to understand. Since it is likely that the well and shrine at Holywell was under the ownership of St Werburgh’s by the end of the 11th century, it is perhaps simply a mistake of confusing the two sisters, and that it was actually Ermentrude that granted them to the Abbey. What is more certain however, is that it was the attention of the Normans that brought the well to national recognition.
The Normans were nothing if not opportunistic. The Earls of Chester, arriving at what would have been one of the most dangerous places in Britain at the end of the 11th century, would have recognised the geo-political possibilities of controlling the well. Doubtless they were devout, but owning the already famous and fabulous well at Holywell would have been entirely too important to ignore. In granting the well to the recently founded St Werburgh's in Chester, the Normans would have possibly enhanced their standing amongst the largely hostile Welsh and, possibly more importantly at this time, a defeated, conquered but not yet entirely assimilated Saxon English population.
The roof boss is worn and obscure in places, but the image of Winefride, however, remains clear enough
Between 1115-1119 it is thought Richard d’Avranches, the 2nd Earl of Chester made a pilgrimage to the well and shrine. In the ‘Life of St Werburge’, written by Henry Bradshaw in 1513, we are told,
‘Erle Richard intended all thyng to the best to visit Saynte Winefride, in hert desirous upon his journey went (myn authour sayth thus) devoutly to Holywell in pilgrimage for his great merit and ghostly advantage.’
This was no small thing. Indeed this was a pilgrimage with considerable risks attached. Richard was no friend to the Welsh of the region and one imagines him travelling with a well armed retinue of some size. Indeed, Bradshaw continues his account with details of an attack on Richard’s pilgrimage by ‘wicked Walshemen’ who, ‘descended from the mountaynes most furiously’. This tale became the basis for the legend of the ‘Miracle of St Werburgh’. For Richard to have risked a pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well suggests, of course, that it was worth the risk, underlining the well and shrine’s reputation was one of the highest regard.
The well was in the ownership of St Werburgh’s until 1131, when with the founding of Basingwerk Abbey in that year (possibly 1132) by Ranulph II, Earl of Chester, Winefride’s Well was granted to the new Savigniac monastery, much to the indignation of the Benedictine monks at Chester. It should be mentioned here that at its initial foundation, Basingwerk Abbey was not where we find it today in the Greenfield Valley, but some small distance away at Bagillt, by what was the original Basingwerk Castle (probably Hen Blas Castle). Crucially, Basingwerk Abbey became a Cistercian foundation in 1147 with the merger of the two orders, and Cistercian foundations were ever favoured by the Welsh and enjoyed considerable patronage from Welsh princes. Basingwerk Abbey was relocated in 1157 to the Greenfield Valley, no more than a mile or so from St Winefride’s further up the hill. Curiously, by the time of the move, Winefride’s Well was back in the hands of St Werburgh’s, certainly by 1181, returned to them by Ranulph’s son, Hugh II. Having said that, it would seem that with the vicissitudes of warfare the well, shrine and church at Holywell had been lost to Chester, at least on a temporary basis, since St Werburgh’s wrote a letter of complaint to Archbishop Hubert Walter (1193-1205) that,
‘In the wars with the princes of Wales they have lost their church at Hallewell which was £100 value.’
Chartulary of the Abbey of St Werburgh
However, by 1240, the area was once again in the hands of the Welsh Princes, and in that year the well was returned to Basingwerk by Dafydd ap Llywelyn. It remained in their ownership until the Dissolution.
Much of the legend as told here comes from two 12th century sources, those being the anonymous Vita S. Wenefrede and the Vita et translatio S. Wenefredae, written in 1138 by Robert Pennant, Prior of Shrewsbury Abbey. Of the two, the anonymous vita is considered to have written a little earlier than Pennant’s, and so they are often also referred to as Vita prima and Vita secunda. Much of what they tell us about Winefride is common to both, and as a result it is thought my some, including Fiona Winward, that both authors relied heavily upon a now lost copy of a vita of St Beuno. To be sure, there are differences between the two, so it is clear that both authors indulged in a certain amount of creative freedom in adding information from other traditions and legends.
As for the reasons behind the writing of the two vita, it seems obvious that Pennant’s motivation was to enhance the reputation of his Abbey at Shrewsbury which, fairly recently established, found itself without the saintly relics required to underpin the financial viability of a monastic institution. The title of his work says it all, and tells firstly of the life of Winefride, her legend and many of the miracles for which she was famous, followed about the moving, or translation of her bones from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury, a process not without its difficulties. Pennant’s vita was written as a concerted effort to ensure that Shrewsbury became a part of the extremely lucrative pilgrimage route that centred on the well and shrine at Holywell.
The motivations of the anonymous author of the Vita prima are less clear, but would seem to be focused on enhancing the reputation of the well and shrine. It seems likely that the author was a monk at Basingwerk Abbey, and his vita written within a year or two of the founding of the Abbey in 1131-32, and that in praising the virtues of Winefride, and telling of her legend, he was enhancing the prestige of his abbey, that had been gifted the well and shrine on its foundation. The anonymous vita has a distinctly native flavour, while demonstrating a distance from the people he was writing about, consistent then with a monk born outside of north Wales but familiar with the people he lived amongst.
Both vita tell of the miracles attributed to Winefride but it is to Pennant that we should be grateful to for the inclusion of the prayer that is still spoken today by pilgrims craving the blessing of Winefride,
‘That they might receive an answer to their request at least at the third time’.
Certainly the vitas underpinned a surge in interest in Winefride and by the middle of the 12th century, the well and shrine had become more than a local landmark. In 1189, it is thought Richard I of England, Lionheart himself, made pilgrimage to Holywell to seek the favour of Winefride for his upcoming crusade to retake Jerusalem - the first known monarch to make the journey and a sure sign of how important the shrine had become. The relocation of Winefride’s bones from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury in 1138 was a clear attempt to take ownership of some of that fame, adding Shrewsbury to the pilgrimage route through Shropshire and North Wales.
One would have thought that the growing discontent in North Wales at the increasingly overbearing and ambitious presence of the Anglo Normans during the later years of the 13th century would have stymied the numbers of pilgrims to Winefride’s well and shrine. Far from it. It is doubtless indicative of the powerful draw of the shrine at Holywell that the often open warfare between the Kings of Gwynedd and the Kingdom of England did little to lessen pilgrimage at this time. It is almost as if the importance of the shrine to both the English and the Welsh declared devotees of the well off limits to attack.
Having said that, it is clear there was some damage, at least to the church at Holywell during the war of 1282-83, since Edward I saw fit to award compensation of 1 mark on Winefride’s feast day of 3rd November 1284,
‘For damage done by the King’s forces to Holywell Church’.
And still the shrine grew in fame and standing. St Winefride’s became an integral part of the pilgrim routes than ran through these islands, an arterial network of spirituality upon which thousands made their way in an effort for relief from all that ailed them, a network that included Walsingham in Norfolk and St Mary’s Chapel at Jesmond Dene in Northumberland, neither of which would survive the Reformation as anything other than rubble and memory.
In 1398, the well and shrine was recognised by the Archbishop of Canterbury Roger Walden and became a major part of the liturgical calendar. This recognition was confirmed by Walden’s successor, Henry Chichele who in 1415 ordered the feast days of both David and Winefride to be observed with choral accompaniment which was and is a facet of the most important feast days.
There is little direct evidence that Owain Glyndwr’s great rebellion against English rule in Wales targeted the well and shrine. To do so would not have gained him any friends amongst his people. As a man of the north, it is unlikely that he was not very aware of the importance and love held by all for the well and shrine. In fact his targets were largely the centres of English colonialism, settlement and authority - Ruthin, Denbigh and so on. Winefirde’s Well was something to everyone. However, though the well and shrine were spared Glyndwr’s wrath, they were in need of restoration. Wear and tear had taken its toll. In 1427 Basingwerk sought and gained permission from Pope Martin V to award indulgences, for a price of course, the monies from which were used to repair the site of the shirine. And well they might, since the shrine had recently welcomed possibly its most celebrated pilgrim in its long history to date.
In 1416, in the second of his pilgrimages to the site, Henry V made an astonishing journey to Holywell, in grateful thanks for his just as astonishing victory at Agincourt in 1415.
‘The King with great reverence went on foot in pilgrimage from Shrewsbury to St Winifred’s Well in North Wales.’
Adam of Usk (1352-1430)
We have come to take for granted the success of that battle, in the 600 intervening years, but the victory was entirely shocking - the complete and utter annihilation of the flower of French nobility by a ragtag company that included Welsh archers and was led by a Monmouthshire born young whippersnapper of an English king whose teeth had been filed to feral points in the Marches of Wales, fighting an elusive Glyndwr. Well he might thank Winefride for a victory that many have described as miraculous - then and now.
It is thought, though there remains some doubt, that the Yorkist Edward IV made pilgrimage to St Winefride’s in early 1461 during what Walter Scott later called, The War of the Roses. It seems on arriving at the shrine, he took a pinch of earth and rubbed it on his crown in devotion, hoping for a blessing on his troubled reign. Edward’s overwhelming victory in the March of 1461 at Towton Moor, believed to be the bloodiest battle on British soil, was no doubt attributed to Winefride’s intervention, the unseasonal snowstorm and high winds that blew the Yorkist arrows further than what was considered their maximum range into the massed ranks of Lancastrian infantry, a heaven sent reward for his devotions to Winefride earlier in the year.
His Yorkist successor, Richard III met with less support. It is clear, however, that the word was out. St Winefride, it seems was the go-to saint for 15th century kings, and Richard while not making the journey himself, provided,
‘Yearly sustentacione and salary of a prieste at the Chappelle of St Wynfride’.
This clearly was not enough. His nemesis at Bosworth, Henry Tudor born of the Penmynydds of Anglesey, arrived in North East Wales shortly before that fateful battle, seeking counsel from the Mostyn’s - a family whose connections with Winefride’s Well and Shrine were profound. There is no direct evidence that Henry visited the well, but given the extraordinary patronage awarded to the shrine by the Tudors in the years subsequent to their victory at Bosworth, it is tempting to see the devout and certainly pragmatic Henry seeking Winefride’s blessing there.
Miraculously healed, what need did pilgrims have for the crutches that had brought them to the Well? Left behind, they now form part of the display at the entrance.
With Henry’s victory at Bosworth and his elevation to the throne, the Tudors became generous benefactors to the shrine at Holywell, largely through the support of the mother of the new king, Margaret Beaufort, wife of Thomas Stanley. It is thought that her generosity was behind the building of the well chapel at the end of the 15th century, supervised by Thomas Pennant, Abbot of Basingwerk Abbey (1481-1522), as well as probably being responsible for the commissioning of William Caxton’s 'The lyf of the holy and blessid vyrgyn saynt Wenefryde', prossibly in 1485. There are some who believe that it was Pennant that was actually responsible for the chapel, and Basingwerk was certainly in a position to fund the work, given the considerable sums of money generated by the shrine, but the nature of the chapel, its decorative content and the fact that the Stanleys were responsible for an immense amount of rebuilding and renovation throughout North East Wales makes it seem likely that it was Margaret’s money and influence that was behind the work. It seems improbable that they would ignore a shrine of such importance. It is interesting at this point to wonder as to what the well and shrine precinct looked like before the chapel was built. There are no drawings or etchings to work with, no terribly detailed writings. Was the well and shrine a simple affair, little changed from the 10th century - a stone church of some simple substance, a well much like St Saeran’s at Derwen, a shrine lacking an organised manufacture but displaying the chaotic gatherings and devotions of the faithful? There is beauty in that.
The well and shrine as seen today, then, is largely that of Margaret’s patronage and Thomas Pennant's direction. The chapel is beautiful, a stately affair, and has gravitas. It suffered, in Hubbard’s words, ‘mutilation’ from the 17th century onwards, but has been lovingly restored to its original Stanley restoration. Clearly meant to compliment the importance of the well chamber beneath, one can imagine the devout making the short walk down the hill from the chapel to the well itself, the last few moments of their pilgrimage before hopefully finding that which they sought in the cold waters of the well. And the chapel would have done much to ensure that pilgrims were clear as to who they should be grateful to for the benefits that were to come. It is a testament to the Italianate tastes of its patron. The chapel forms an upper storey to the well chamber below and has a simple enough plan, although that simplicity belies its beauty.
Special mention should be made of the decorative carvings within the chapel, and they will reward close study. Here you will find fantastical animals, such as a manticore, a griffin, along with men in combat and comical faces gurning at each other from across the nave. In the sanctuary itself, a scene from the judgment, an angel carrying a shield, and carvings representing the seasons - all a testimony to the skull of the carvers that worked upon the building. The sanctuary shows similar skill, with angels and scenes of the Judgement educating those that looked upon them. During the early years of the 16th century, the chapel would have been aflame with light, its delicate stained glass aglow, drawing pilgrims as a moth to a flame. The chapel fittings, long since gone, would have been rich and wonderful, all to Winefride’s honour, all to recognise the power of the well and shrine. This then would have been the high-point of the shrine’s existence, a brief period of some 30 years in which freely expressed wonder and awe within the newly raised opulence of the chapel was possible, without censure, without the need to consider who was watching.
The Custodians House, dated to 1869, now houses a small museum
The 15th century, or more specifically the years 1435-1535 also happened to be the time of ‘y ganrif fawr’, which translates as, ‘the great century’, of which Welsh poetry of the highest quality flourished under the patronage of the great and good, including Nicholas Pennant, the last abbot of Basingwerk. These patrons were often attempting to enhance themselves, or perhaps the institutions they represented, and it is perhaps the latter that motivated Pennant. Tudur Aled was perhaps responsible for what is considered the greatest poetic offerings to Winefride. These poems were written by the Welsh, for the Welsh, and revel in extraordinary exaggeration and hyperbole, claiming for example that the waters of well exceeded the flow of the Euphrates. Many of these poems have never been translated into English, and in truth would probably be the lesser for a rendering into English, but they do make clear the power and the majesty of the well and shrine, the virtues of Winefride. There is often a vague threat incorporated into the poems, probably more for dramatic effect than any basis in ‘truth’. For example, Aled writes,
‘Aed i’w nofio’r dyn afiach
Ef ai naill ai’n farw neu’n iach’
This translates as,
‘The sick man who immerses himself will emerge either cured or dead.’
And it is Tudur Aled’s poetry that gives us an extensive list of the ailments cured by the waters of Winefride’s Well. The list far exceeds any other well, and even if we take into consideration, as we must, the rather excitable exaggerations of Aled, it remains impressive, and suggests a holy well of immense power. Altogether, the well was able to cure blindness and lameness, paralysis and ‘madness’, cancer and leprosy - indeed all possible skin disorders. It could even cure infertility, which as will be seen was of huge importance. But Aled was also at great pains to make clear to his audience that the well was not just about the curing of illnesses, but also about the spiritual health of pilgrims,
‘Y ddau iechyd a ddichon,
Iechyd y corff, uchod y caid,
A chadw in iechyd enaid.’
Y ganrif fawr came to an end in around 1535, which was of course the age of Reformation, and it was of course the end of the freedoms that had been enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church and its institutions in England and Wales. It seems ironic now that the shrine’s greatest patron was the grandmother of the king who instigated the Reformation in these islands, son of a king who had sought Winefride’s blessing by having a statue of the saint placed with him at his tomb in Westminster Abbey. And then again, consider that the shrine was the only place of pilgrimage that survived the breakneck white waters of the 400 years of Catholic oppression, and is it possible that the early Tudor favour afforded the well and shrine was a reason for its survival?
Basingwerk Abbey was dissolved in 1537, by which time Thomas Pennant’s son, Nicholas had become abbot, which if one wishes to see it as such, is an indication of the inherent corruption in the church at this time. The shrine was handed over to one William Holcroft who was supposed to collect the offerings made at the shrine and send them on to the Crown exchequer, which if one wishes to see it as such, is an indication of the inherent corruption in the state at this time. In any case, Holcroft found the collection of the monies somewhat difficult, complaining in 1538 that Nicholas Pennant, erstwhile abbot of Basingwerk along with various accomplices,
‘Did several times take away the corn valued at 8 marks and on St Winefride’s Day brought boxes into the Chapel crying ‘such money as you offer into the common stock shall never be a remedy for your souls for there stands one of the King’s servants who will soon take it forth.’ And, inviting them to put their oblations in their boxes, they received £5.13.4d and an ox to the value of 23/4d.’
Records of the Court of Augmentations relating to Wales 1538-9
There is no indication as to how Pennant used the monies collected, but it is hard to avoid cynicism.
Pennant’s brazen act, and Holcroft’s powerlessness, suggests that Holywell was a long way from London, that within North Wales people were more likely to hold onto the old ways, possibly even the oldest of ways, probably because the new ways did not benefit them directly, unless you were in a position to buy up the confiscated properties - in which case you were as likely to become an instant Protesant zealot of the highest order.
Little is known about the direct effect of the Reformation on the shrine in the early years of this religious upheaval, the reigns of Henry and his son, Edward. Frankly, it’s difficult to see the shrine retaining its disposable riches, its gold and silver religious paraphernalia, which were usually the first things to go. By the time of Edward’s death in 1553, the shrine would have more than probably been a stone shell - but clearly standing still, and drawing pilgrims still.
The Outer Pool is used for bathing - pilgrims still welcome.
And so to the reign of Henry’s oldest daughter, a devout Catholic, and a return to Papal authority. Championed by Thomas Goldwell, the Catholic bishop of St Asaph, the shrine was returned to its pre-Reformation vitality, the Pope persuaded to reinstate the sale of indulgences at the site, ironically one of the reasons why the Protestant cause was born in the first place. And it would seem that it was during the brief reign of Mary (1553-58) that the shrine became something of a centre of Catholic resistance to the ‘new’ religion. Why this would be the case is not clear, but is likely to have something to do with the simple fact that the shrine continued to exist despite the pressures that had gathered upon Catholicism and Catholics in the land, that it continued when all else had failed - healing the devout and faithful and the waters flowing still. Where other shrines had lapsed into disuse and ruin, St Winefride’s well and shrine continued. And it is worth mentioning here, that the shrine remained popular with Protestants, who brought themselves and their livestock to the well, unwilling to give up all the trappings of the old religion, especially in the face of illnesses unhealed by more conventional means.
The establishment of the Protesant state by Mary’s sister, Elizabeth I was a threat to the shrine. As hard and pragmatic as her father, her longevity alone was threat enough. It would seem that for the shrine the end was nigh when in June 1579, Elizabeth instructed 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.’
Nothing more is known of this extraordinary direction, whether or not ‘two men’ were ever actually employed to test the waters. The fact that the shrine survived such a direct order is rather incredible, and suggests a curious reluctance to take action. Given the connection between the shrine and the Tudor and Stanley families, is it possible that Elizabeth was desirous of having a written record to her opposition to the shrine, while in reality happy to allow the well to remain? After all, she had only to visit her grandfather’s tomb to see the value he placed on Winefride’s blessing, and her great grandmother’s magnificent patronage of the shrine must have given her cause to pause. It is possible that the order was ignored at a local level, of course, although this seems fraught with threat. The Mostyns, avowedly Catholic, were great supporters of the shrine - did they exert influence enough to spare the well and shrine? It is also possible, of course, that the waters were tested and found to be medicinal. The nub of the matter is that the shrine continued. And still the pilgrims came. A report of 1590 claims of the Welsh,
‘They doe still goe in heapes to the wonted welles and places of superstition.’
But that is not to say that during the Elizabethan years open worship continued to take place at the shrine unmolested. A good example would be the lengths to which one Anne Edwards of Chirk went to in her efforts to worship at St Winefride’s. It is claimed she,
‘Went to Holywell by night and there heard mass in the night session and that several priests dressed so that they could not be known.’
Clearly, care had to be taken. And then there is the extraordinary Douai educated Father John Bennett, who arrived at Holywell in 1574 to take charge at the shrine. In 1582 he was caught, how is not recorded and condemned to death. That sentence was commuted to three years of prison followed by exile, probably as a consequence of the strong local support for the priest. Incredibly, he returned to Holywell in 1587 and continued in his role as the father in charge at the shrine. It was he that welcomed the various one of the Gunpowder Plotters, Sir Everard Digby and his chaplain, Edward Oldcorne to St Winefride’s in the late summer, early autumn of 1605. Father Bennett continued to minister to those that made their way to the well and shrine until his death in 1625. His survival for all of those years in the face of the oppression of his religion is a result of the love and loyalty held for him by the local people of Holywell, surely including those that were not Catholic, and of course the pilgrims that visited. However, it is worth noting that Daniel Defoe, writing some hundred years later to be fair, states that Holywell was full of priests, disguised as, ‘physicians, sometimes surgeons, sometimes gentlemen and sometimes patients, or anything as occasion presents’, but that, ‘no body takes notice of them, as to their profession, tho’ they know them well enough’.
The Well Chapel, otherwise known as the Beaufort Chapel, after its patron and mother to Henry VII, Margaret, is shell now, but takes little imagination to see it resplendent as it would have when built at the end of the 15th century
With Elizabeth’s death in 1603, little immediately changed. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was the beginning of a long descent into night for the Catholic faith in these islands. The motives of the Plotters are beyond the remit of this article, but it is indicative of the continued veneration held for Winefride that so many of those that were either central or at least aware of the attempt to assassinate the King and his court made pilgrimage to the well and shrine. It was perhaps Oldcorne that persuaded them to do so, since he claimed to have been cured of mouth cancer on a previous visit. At his gruesome execution, Oldcorne was said to have uttered St Winefride’s name with his dying breath. Others of the party travelling to Holywell included Nicholas Owen, famous for his ingenious priest holes and Father Henry Garnett, both of whom were tortured and killed in 1606.
But still the pilgrims came, even in the face of ever greater oppressions - and Protestants too. In 1606, just a year after the Gunpowder Plot, the Protestant Sir Richard Bodenham visited the shrine and is said to have found relief from his leprosy. Henry Herbert, known as the ‘Parliament Man’, visited the shrine to seek a cure for his cancer. In 1624, John Gee, clearly aware of the continued popularity of the well and shrine and concerned with what he must have thought was the quiet accommodation of the shrine by local Protestants, wrote, in his deeply felt anti-Catholic ‘Foot of ye Snare’,
‘Every year about midsummer many superstitious Papists of Lancashire and other more remote places go in pilgrimage meeting with divers priests who make it their chief synod or convention for promoting the Catholic cause, as they call it...let me add that they intruded themselves several times into ye church or public chapel at Holywell and there said mass without contradiction.’
In 1625, the Bishop of Bangor, the ardent Puritan Lewis Bayley concurred with Gee, writing,
‘There is a great concourse of people to St Winefride’s Well. In an old chapel near, a public mass is said continually.’
The sense one gets from these writings is one of outrage, certainly, that worship, pilgrimage and devotion should be so open and suspicious also that it was tacitly accepted by Protestants. Despite a watch being placed on the well, and the names of those visiting being taken, the devout continued to visit, and boldly it seems. A rather startling document of 1629 in the Public Records Office lists a stunning array of the great and good visiting the well at Holywell, amongst them Lord William Howard of Shrewsbury, Sir Thomas Gerard, Sir William Norris, Sir Cuthbert Clifton, Sir John Talbot, Lady Falkland and her priest and a Mr Lathom of Mossborough, who arrived with his five brothers, all of whom were priests, in tow. What happened, if anything, to these visitors is unknown, but the openness of this seems shocking in light of the political and religious circumstances in which the visits took place. Puritanical fears in Parliament that the open Catholicism of Henrietta Maria, the Queen of Charles I was an encouragement to those of the old religion seems well founded. In 1633, the Bishop of St Asaph, John Owen wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury,
‘The number and boldness of Romish recusants increased much in many places and was much encouraged by the superstition and frequent concourse of some to Holywell otherwise called St Winefride’s Well.’
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the hammer would come down eventually. In 1636, Sir John Bridgeman, the Chief Justice of Chester made concerted efforts to suppress the use of the shrine and well. In the February of that year, Bridgeman reported to the Council of the Marches his efforts against the shrine thus far, as suppressing all unnecessary alehouses, all of which were doing excellent business from the travelling pilgrims and often doubling as chapels, forcing innkeepers to take note of those staying at their alehouses and reporting those names to the Justices’ of the Peace. Finally, he insisted that a close watch be kept on the well and shrine,
‘Which is all I do conceive can be done at present until I repayre thither myself the week after Easter next.’
And ‘repayre thither’ he indeed did in April 1637. On visiting the shrine, he ordered the iron posts which were used to support the infirm on entering the waters to be removed, the shrine mutilated, all but two of the town’s alehouses to be closed and the names of pilgrims to be taken and passed onto the authorities. In the September of that year, he demanded an update on the execution of his orders and was told that the posts had been removed, the statue of Winefride whitewashed, but that the remaining innkeepers had refused to give up the names of pilgrims at their establishments and had been fined as a consequence. It is worth noting that the subsequent death of Bridgeman in January 1638, the stroke suffered by one of the wardens responsible for the desecration of Winefride’s shrine and the burning down of the house of another was seen by many as the punishment by God and Winefride for their actions, since as the Vitas tell us, Winefride was not above punishing those that disrespected her shrine or people. And the pilgrims continued to come - but so to, did the pressure build.
This beautiful statue of St Winefride was an 1886 replacement for the statute destroyed in the 17th century
The bold attempt in 1639 to create a hospice for pilgrims at the Star Inn, bought by George Petre who’s father had been imprisoned for his faith at the Tower of London, was blocked. During the Civil Wars of 1642-49 the well and shrine were very badly damaged in that tremendous paroxysm of swivel-eyed vandalism, the whitewashed statue of Winefride completely destroyed. In 1656 the Jesuit priest at Holywell, Humphrey Evans was imprisoned and badly beaten. In 1679, Father John Plessington was hung, drawn and quartered (quite the most vile of executions, and one which would probably make the Romans shiver) at Boughton in Chester, his remains thought to have been smuggled into Holywell and hidden in the Star Inn. By the June of 1686, Jesuit priests at the shrine were not in a position to take mass, though whether this was because of the state of repair of the chapel at the time, or for fear of discovery and arrest is unclear. The keys to the chapel were then with a secular priest, one Mr Brian who lived at the Cross Keys Inn.
But in the August of 1686, the Catholic James II and his Queen, Mary of Modena visited the shrine as pilgrims,
‘To crave the prayers of St Winefride that they might be blessed with a son,’
Clearly they were aware that one of the miracles that Winefride was renowned for, was that of curing infertility. James presented the shrine with part of a dress worn by Mary Queen of Scots and in light of the damage and disrepair of the chapel, the Queen gave £30 towards a restoration. This money was given to the Jesuit in charge at the shrine, Father Thomas Roberts which irked Mr Brian considerably. The legal dispute raised by Brian was eventually dismissed in favour of the crown. In the May of 1687, the Queen wrote to Sir Roger Mostyn, stating that,
‘Having pleased the King, by his royal grant, to bestow upon me ye ancient chapell adjoining to St winefride’s Well, these are to desire you to give present possession, in my name, of the said chapell, to Mr Thomas Roberts, who will deliver this letter into your hands. It being also my intention to have the place decently repaired, and put to a good use. I further desire that you will afford your favour and protection, that he may not be disturbed in the performance thereof. You may rest assured that what you do herein, according to my desire, shall be very kindly remembered.’
This seems to have emboldened the Jesuits at Holywell, who perhaps felt that with the support of both James and Mary, the good times had returned. The Jesuits demanded the keys to the chapel, and on Brian’s refusal to hand them over, their agents ‘broke open the door’ of his room at the Cross Keys, ‘and delivered possession thereof to the Jesuits’. Mr Brian, it seems, did not wish to incur the displeasure of the Queen any further than he already had, and accepted the loss of the keys and the chapel. The Queen’s money was put to good effect, the chapel substantially restored and a stone, dated to 1687 incorporated into the well basin. It is possible that it was at this time that the pool was built, further enabling pilgrims to immerse themselves in the waters of the spring.
However, while things must have seemed to be improving for weary Catholics, in June 1688 the Queen gave birth to a son an heir - a Catholic son and heir, and once again the Protestant hammer fell resounding. It must have seemed for a moment that Winefride’s blessing had been granted, but the Glorious Revolution of 1688 forced James and Mary into exile. The Protestant rule of William of Orange and Mary, his Queen and daughter of Charles II, invited to rule by a Parliament fearful of a further Catholic monarch brought with it a backlash against the old religion, even, perhaps surprisingly, in Holywell. A crowd plundered the Star Inn, burnt books - never a good sign - and went as far as to burn a cross in the market place. Father Roberts was forced, apparently, ‘to spend the next three summers sleeping out’. You can imagine Mr Brian’s reaction. Of the events of 1688, Thomas Pennant, writing a century later, claims of James that he was,
‘A prince who lost three kingdoms for a mass.’
But still the pilgrimages continued. Celia Fiennes, travelling through the North West in 1698, visiting family in Chester, made her way to Holywell, and gave a brief but rather fabulous account of her visit, writing that, ‘there I saw abundance of ye devout papists on their knees all round a well.’ In fact, she seems most concerned with the apparent impropriety of pilgrims getting changed by the side of the well. She continues that they are to be, ‘pity’d by us yt have the advantage of knowing better’, while describing the Welsh of Holywell as speaking Welsh, which seems to have come as something of a surprise, and going around, ‘barefoote and bare leg’d - a nasty sort of people.’ Still, causal bigotry aside, it is clear from her report that despite the Protestant ascendancy and the anti-Catholic legislation of 1695 and 1700, St Winefride’s well and shrine were still very much in business, a fact confirmed by the Jesuit Father Philip Metcalf writing in 1712 that,
‘In the travelling season the town of Holywell appears populous, crowded with zealous pilgrims from all parts of Britain. The well itself receives a succession of visitants from sunrise till late at night.’
Bishop Fleetwood of St Asaph was incandescent with rage at the use of the shrine and well within his diocese, claiming that,
‘Great resort is had to Holywell by pilgrims (as they call them) from all the different quarters of the kingdom and even from Ireland...the enemy we have to deal with grows more numerous, is active, vigilant and daring, daily pushes on its conquests, is in good heart and under no discouragement but that of laws.’
This last assertion was perhaps a spur to the authorities to take action. In 1718, following information given regarding the considerable religious riches held within the ‘Popish chapels’ at the Star Inn and Cross Keys, dragoons were sent, under the pretence of travelling to Chester, to seize them. At the Cross Keys they apparently arrived as mass was being said and found, ‘a priest at the altar’. Taking both the priest, a Mr Wilmot, and ‘their trinkets’, the dragoons retreated. The Star Inn was also targeted, but either because of the furore at the Cross Keys, or through prior warning, little was found. And in 1723 the chapel, which has provided unbroken service to the Catholic faithful and pilgrims for so very long was taken over by the authorities and turned into a day school, used so that poor children may be,
‘Instructed by proper masters in reading, writing and arithmetick.’
Thomas Pennant ‘The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell’ 1796
Over the next few years, the fabric of the chapel was substantially altered or obscured by walls, rendering the building unusable as a place of worship. And the chapel’s demise as a place of worship seems to have coincided with a gradual decline in numbers of pilgrims to the well. As a contrast, we have two distinguished authors as sources. Writing in 1724, Daniel Defoe claimed in his ‘Tour thro England and Wales’, that the numbers of pilgrims,
‘Thronging hither to receive the healing sanative virtue of the water, which they do not hope for as it is a medicinal water, but it is a miraculous water, and heals them by virtue of the intercession and influence of this famous virgin, St Winifrid; of which I believe as much as comes to my share.’
However, by the time Dr Johnson and his friend Hester Thrale visited Holywell in 1774, those ‘throngs’ had declined significantly. Thrale claims,
‘The bath is completely and indecently open. A woman bathed while we looked on’.
So, Defoe’s throngs of 1724 had fallen to a single individual bathing by 1774. This in itself is no definitive evidence of a decline, but in 1796, Thomas Pennant writes,
‘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’.
The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (1796)
Thomas Pennant also went to great lengths to explain away the blood coloured moss that grew about the well as, ‘mere vegetable productions, far from peculiar to our fountain’, and while entirely correct, you get the sense that he is trying far too hard to undermine the myth and mystery. As for the moss being, ‘far from peculiar’, it is worth noting that with the loss of the Halykn Mountain flow to the spring, so to was lost the moss.
So while the 18th century seems to have seen a gradual decline in the number of pilgrims visiting the shrine, St Winefride’s continued. And things were soon to change markedly with the advent of the 19th century. In 1808 the Clerk of the Peace for Flintshire allowed permission for the Star Inn to be used as a chapel - effectively ending nearly 300 years of Catholic suppression. And even though the Cambrian Travellers Guide of 1840 claimed that, ‘devotees of the saint were formerly very numerous but of late years they have happily decreased’, it would seem its information was somewhat out of date. With the lifting of the legal fetters on Catholic worship in 1808 and, more famously in 1829, the numbers of pilgrims making their way to the shrine began to rise again. And, once again, it should be said that not all of those attending the waters were Catholic. In all the years after the Reformation through to Catholic Emancipation in 1829, a goodly number of Protestants made use of the well waters, and for the very same reasons Catholics did - because they sought the blessing and help of their God. Though attempting to divide Christians down lines of rite and liturgy, the authorities could do little to alter the fundamental faith and hope in the hearts of the people.
The following decades saw the return of an organised Catholic presence in the town. The present Catholic Church in Well Street was built in 1832, beside the Star Inn which had carried the Catholic torch for so long. The Star Inn is now two private properties, but the siting of the Catholic church in Well Street was undoubtedly due to it being the home of the Star Inn. In 1852 in nearby Pantasaph ‘over the hill, a Capuchin community was founded. The Sisters of Chantry arrived in Holywell in 1859 and were given the two Loyola Cottages as a convent, and in 1869 the Jesuit Father Mann bought back the Cross Keys which became a new hospice in 1870. In 1873, Father J.B. Di Pietro managed to obtain a lease on the well from Holywell Town Council for some £162 per year. By 1875 the area around the bathing pool was fitted with cubicles to protect the bathers from the view of passers by - Celia Fiennes and Hester Thrale would have been very pleased. In 1886, a new statue of St Winefride was commissioned to replace the one destroyed in the middle of the 17th century. And in 1895, St Winefride’s Catholic Hall and School was opened on New Road, a little further up the hill from the well and shrine. These buildings are now private homes, but still retain the rather fabulous WVM (Winefride Virgin Martyr) and AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam) upon their roofs.
And on to the 20th Century. In 1917 catastrophe struck the well, when underground mining on Halkyn Mountain cut the stream which fed the spring at Holywell. Not only did this lead to the well running dry, but led to a considerable decline in industry within the Greenfield Valley that also relied upon the waters of the spring. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this led to some loss of faith amongst the erstwhile devout and is considered, in all its long life, one of the lowest points of the well and shrine’s existence. Happily, however, another source was found not far from the original, and the flow to the well was restored, if much reduced. Little, it seems, is made of the fact that Winefride’s original miraculous flow now makes the surface at Bagillt. In 1930, St Winefride’s Mill and Brewery was acquired and turned into the well gardens and custodian’s house we see today. By 1976 work on restoring the well chapel to its original state had been completed, the 18th century school room amendments removed.
Over the years, the devout have left their mark upon the walls, fearless it seems of reprisals, eager to show in any way their grateful thanks
And so as we bruisingly make our way through the 21st century, Winefride’s Well and Shrine remains currently in good repair and rude health. Open to all, the devout and the curious, Protestant and Catholic, and anyone of any faith who wishes to visit. It remains a draw to those who have recognised the inability of the material world to provide them the substance of a life well lived.