St Winefride’s Well
St Winefride’s Well
For more than 1,300 years, this well has been a site of pilgrimage. Nowhere else in Britain has such a long, unbroken tradition of public pilgrimage. Winefride (Gwenfrewi in Welsh) was a 7th century saint, a niece of St Beuno. Her family lived in what’s now Holywell, named after Winefride’s holy well.
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According to legend, when she spurned the advances of Caradog, a prince’s son, he cut off her head. It rolled a short way downhill. Where it came to rest, water began to flow from a spring. Beuno interrupted a service when he heard the news. He placed her head beside her body and prayed. Winefride returned to life, with a thin white scar around her neck. Thereafter she devoted herself to a holy life.
Before returning to Gwynedd from Holywell, Beuno is said to have sat on a stone – now by the outer pool – and said that anoyne who prayed to God and invoked Winefride’s name would obtain the grace, provided this benefitted the person’s soul. Winefride lived at Holywell for some years then moved to the remoteness of Gwytherin, less vulnerable to Saxon attack.
The spring at Holywell quickly became renowned as a place of pilgrimage and healing. The unique shrine you see today, along with the Well Chapel, date from c.1500. The buildings were reputedly funded by Henry Tudor’s mother Margaret Beaufort, after he had become King Henry VII in 1485. The well is in a chamber which is open on one side. The upper storey houses the chapel nave.
The well remains a place of Roman Catholic pilgrimage where visitors of any or no faith are also welcome. In 2005 a museum and library were opened in the Victorian building formerly home to the well’s custodians. Objects on display include a reliquary casket from c.800, known as Arch Gwenfrewi (“Winefride’s coffin”). This is thought to be the oldest known object directly connected to a native Welsh saint.
Also on show are 17th-century chalice veils depicting St Winefride and signed by Mary Bodenham. She embroidered the veils after witnessing her father-in-law, Sir Roger Bodenham, being cured at the well in 1606. Another exhibit from the same period is a child’s bodice, which provides a rare insight into ordinary people’s clothing at the time. It survived because it was used to wrap relics of Catholics who were martyred in that era for refusing to become Protestants.
Postcode: CH8 7PN
Website of St Winefride’s Well – for more history, opening hours and times when pilgrims may bathe in the well
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