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Winefride


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(7th century),

Welsh virgin. The principal interest of this saint lies not in the few known facts of her life, but in the ancient, widespread, and persistent character of her cult. The earliest Life by ps-Elerius is a tissue of improbabilities. What seems certain is that the place where she lived was Holywell or Treffynnon (Flintshire, now Clwyd) and her cult was subsidiary to that of her uncle Beuno. The Legend, written at Shrewsbury by Robert, prior of this abbey where her relics were translated in 1138, using the early Life, described her as a maiden who lived at home. Caradoc, the son of a neighbouring prince, attempted unsuccessfully to seduce her with a promise of marriage. In his rage at being refused, he pursued her and as she fled to a church, struck off her head. A fountain sprang up where her head touched the ground. Beuno raised her from the dead and for many years afterwards she was abbess of a nunnery at Holywell according to one account. But another said that when Beuno went to Clynnog, she went to Bodfari, then to Henllan and finally to Gwytherin where under St Eleri's direction she became a nun in a remote mountain valley.

In the early Middle Ages her cult was confined to the Marches of North Wales and to Euias and Erging in the Southern ones. Evidence for this is certain from the 12th century, but this probably reflects a much earlier cult. In 1398 her feast was extended to the whole Canterbury province by Roger Walden, who was archbishop during the exile of Thomas Arundel; in 1415 his successor Henry Chichele, who, when bishop of St David's had been interested in Welsh saints, raised it to a higher rank. The development of both Holywell and Shrewsbury as pilgrimage centres to Winefride benefited from these liturgical alterations and from the important roads which passed through both, enabling pilgrims to visit several shrines in the neighbourhood on a single visit. A guest-house for them was built at Ludlow. The highest point came in the 15th century: Henry V made the pilgrimage on foot from Shrewsbury to Holywell in 1416; Edward IV is reputed to have done the same, while Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, built the fine chapel still standing at Holywell after the battle of Bosworth Field (1485).

The pilgrimage and the cures at the spring of Holywell survived the Reformation: in 1629, it is claimed, 14,000 laity with their priests visited it on her feast. Although the number is almost certainly exaggerated, it is certain that Holywell became an important recusant centre with Jesuits and secular priests in more or less permanent residence and that the well continued to attract pilgrims. In 1774 Dr. Johnson saw people bathing there. In the 18th and 19th centuries the pilgrimages continued, as they do at the present day, in spite of the diversion of the original source of water through mining operations in 1917. The architectural complex of chapel and well forms the best-preserved medieval pilgrimage centre of its kind in Britain today. Six ancient churches are dedicated to her. Feast: 3 November; translation 22 June: some Welsh calendars commemorate her on 19/20 September or 4 November.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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