At Holywell the faith never died out

Butler's Lives of the Saints

Saints and Martyrs

St Winefride

Feast 3rd November

St Winefride, who came from Flintshire, Wales, is honoured as secondary patron of the Diocese of Shrewsbury after Our Lady Help of Christians.

She died in the year 650 in a convent in Gwytherin, Denbighshire, and in 1138 her relics were transferred with great pomp to the Benedictine abbey in Shrewsbury where they were enshrined and venerated. It was at about that time, some 500 years after her death, that fascinating legends about her life began to be recorded.

The most amazing of these is the claim that the young Caradog, a chieftain of Hawarden, had fallen in love with Winefride but she shunned his advances. He pursued her as she fled to the church that St Beuno, her uncle, had built and in a rage he cut off her head. Robert of Shrewsbury’s life of the saint says that Caradog was swallowed up by the earth at the scene of the crime, while at the place where Winefride’s head hit the ground a fragrant spring suddenly appeared. St Beuno raised her to life again, placing her severed head back on her shoulders, before departing to found a church at Clynnog Fawr Arfon. She left home to become a nun, and then an abbess. She is said to have died naturally 15 years after her miraculous resuscitation.

It is too late to establish any of the truths of the legends but, according to historians, there is no doubt that the saint existed.

The spring attached to her legend has given its name to Holywell (Tre Ffynnon), Clwyd, and down the centuries, and right up to the present day, pilgrims have travelled there in the hope of finding healing for their illnesses, as depicted in the image above from a window in the Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians and St Peter of Alcantara, Shrewsbury.

Such pilgrimages even continued throughout the Reformation with 14,000 people and 150 priests gathered there on St Winefride’s feast day in 1629 – a time when Catholics were still dying as martyrs. Indeed, at Holywell the faith never died out; it became a centre during penal times for Jesuits missionaries, with the Society of Jesus giving up its stewardship of the ancient sanctuary to the control of the local bishop only in 1930. Holywell fell within the Diocese of Shrewsbury when the see was first established in 1851 but in 1895 it was incorporated into the Diocese of Menevia. Since 1987, the shrine has belonged to the Diocese of Wrexham.

St Winefride is one of the few Welsh saints to be honoured as a virgin-martyr in Roman martyrology.

Source: Butler’s Lives of the Saints