Seventh century Christian Saint and Martyr
Also known as Winefride, Winifrid, Wenefrida, Gwenfrewi or Gwenfrewy
The Patron saint of virgins

The martyrdom of Gwenfrewi

Winifred's real name was Gwenfrewi, and it is believed that she lived sometime during the early seventh century in the cantref of Tegeingl in north-east Wales in what is today Flintshire. Her uncle was a priest named Bueno, who was later to be venerated as a saint himself, and who had already persuaded Gwenfrewi to take holy orders as a nun.

As the story goes, one day when she was alone in the house, a prince from the neighbouring cantref of Penarlag named Caradog happened by and called at the house to ask for a drink. Once he realised that Gwenfrewi was on her own, this Caradog made strenous efforts to seduce her. Anxious to protect her virtue she fled from the house towards the sanctuary of the church whilst Caradog, enraged at being rejected, chased after her, drew his sword and hacked her head off just outside the church.

Her uncle Bueno came out of the church to investigate the source of the commotion, and on discovering his niece's corpse, laid a curse upon Caradog who promptly dropped down dead and was swallowed up by the earth. Bueno then fell to his knees and prayed that his niece might be restored to life. His prayers were duly answered and Gwenfrewi sprang back to life again, her head miraculously re-attached to her body with a faint white line around her neck to indicate that this had not always been the case.

Furthermore, on the ground where Gwenfrewi's head had fallen, a spring appeared whose waters where later the cause of further miraculous cures, and hence the place was afterwards known in the Welsh as Treffynnon the 'town of the spring' and or in the English as Holywell in Flintshire.

The revived Gwenfrewi did indeed go onto become a nun and rose to become the abbess of the convent at Gwytherin (near Llanrwst in Denbighshire). When she died she was buried at Gwytherin and both her final resting place and the spring at Holywell developed as shrines to this saint and martyr.

The Cult of Winifred

It so happened that the monks at the Benedectine foundation at Shrewsbury Abbey were labouring under the disadvantage that no one particularly saintly had ever died in the vicinity. This lack of saintly relics naturally was a source of concern for the management since there was a simple equation at the time that related the sancitity of relics to the value of offerings received by the abbey.

In 1138 the Prior, Robert Pennant decided to remedy this by sending an expedition into Wales which 'acquired' the bones of Gwenfrewi from her resting place at Gwytherin and brought them back to Shrewsbury. Gwenfrewi was of course, far too difficult a name for the mainly English monks to pronounce hence the name was rendered into English as 'Winefride 'or in the modern variant of 'Winifred'.

Then abbot Robert was also responsible for writing a life of Saint Winifred which served to popularise the tale of her martyrdom and of course promote her newly established shrine at Shrewsbury Abbey itself. But despite now having the patronage of Shrewsbury Abbey behind her, Winifred remained very much a local saint whose fame was limited to the north-east Wales and the Welsh Marches for the next two and a half centuries.

The cult of Winifred became more widespread in 1398 when Roger Walden, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered her feast to be celebrated throughout the whole province of Canterbury. In 1415 his successor, Chichele, (who had previously been Bishop of St. David's and seems to have developed a taste for Welsh saints) continued the practice and further elevated the importance of Winifred in the church.

The practice of going on pilgrimage (the medieval equivalent of the tourist industry) experienced a a general increase in popularity across the whole of Europe at around this time and this promotion of the name of Winifred therefore had a ready audience. The shrines at both Holywell and Shrewsbury benefited greatly from this free advertising and developed rapidly some of the major centres of pilgrimage in Britain. Both Henry V and Edward IV made pilgrimages from Shrewsbury to Holywell and Winifred received a further boost with the arrival of the Tudor dynasty in the late fifteenth century. Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII financed the building of a fine Chapel built over the well at Holywell in about 1500 and and Henry VII himself was buried at Westminster with an effigy of Saint Winifred placed to watch for ever over his tomb. Hence Winifred became one of the most important and highly regarded of British saints.

Post Reformation

Everything changed however in 1536 with the dissolution of the monasteries and by order of the government the shrine at Shrewsbury Abbey was broken up and Winifred's relics destroyed. (Or almost destroyed; one finger-bone was saved and secretly taken back to Rome for safe keeping.)

The veneration of saints naturally became rather frowned upon in the new Protestant Britain. But as both the chapel and the well at Holywell remained intact, despite official disapproval Holywell continued to be a place of pligrimage and became one of the centres of Catholic resistance in Wales.

In time of course, these religous differences were forgotten about. Winifred's surviving finger bone was returned to Britain in 1852, when it was divided in two with Holywell and Shrewsbury getting half each. Holywell continues as a shrine to Winifred to the present day and people still go there to bathe in the waters continuing a tradition that has so far lasted for over 1300 years.

Here is a fountain of the Faith,
A baptismal font for the World.
Ieuan Brydydd Hir, 15th century Welsh poet

The feast commemorating her martyrdom is held on 2nd June and that commemorating her death is held on 3rd November.


NOTES

1 Various versions of the tale exist, often expanded to include a great deal of unverifiable details but the essentials remain the same.

2 The fictional character Brother Cadfael was a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey and the recovery of Winifred's relics is featured in the novel A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters.

3 As an example of the sort of wealth that could flow into a shrine consider the example of William Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick, made provision in his will that a gold statuette should be made in his likeness to adorn the shrine at Shrewsbury to the weight of twenty pounds. Which is a fair chunk of gold.


SOURCES

T. Charles-Edwards, Saint Winefride and her Well: The Historical Background at http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~dylanwad/StWinefride/Pamphlet.htm

Roy Fry and Tristan Gray Hulse, Holywell - Clwyd at http://www.bath.ac.uk/lispring/sourcearchive/ns1/ns1tgh2.htm

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