Sunday, March 29, 2009

Saint Winifride's Holy Well -a 'Baptismal font for the World'


Heaven's fruitfulness before the cooling of the body
Is the virtue of Chastity.'

Following the trip to St Asaph, the following morning, after another comfortable stay at St Winifride's House and an excellent early breakfast, we went down to the shrine itself. There was a piety shop, very well stocked by two lay men who were able to furnish us with guidebooks and information and I bought some holyu medals for friends who had requested prayers. The museum was very interesting telling the story of the shrine from the beginning.The many crutches also stayed there, of people whose illnesses had been cured.

The guidebook begins with the following quote from Caxton's first printed version of the Life of St Winifride

....and after the hed of the vyrgynge was cut of and touchd the ground , as we have said, sprang up a welle of Spryngynge water largely endurying unto this day , which heleth all langours and sekenesses , as well in men as in bestes , which weele is named after the vyrgyne and is called St Wenefredes Well.....(1485)

I have explained the legend in a previous post. When men were still talking and writing Old English, they were building this fine perpendicular Gothic Chapel over the most famous healing well of the British Isles.It may have been the first chapel over the well, though for centuries there was one alongside in the place where the parish church continues to stand.It is here that St Beuno would have built the first wooden chapel in the 7th century. He no doubt used the well as a baptistery.

A stone church was, however what the Countess Adeliza of Chester gave to the Benedictine Monks of St Werbergh's Abbey, Chester in 1093 and it would have been this church, or a successor to it that was 'falling down' in the early fifteenth century. By the end of the 15th century the parish church was rebuilt , of which only the tower remains today -but the present well chapel was also constructed here. This chapel was the final testament to the cult of pilgrimage that had grown steadily through the Middle Ages. St Winifride's Well was already famous when in 1115 was written:

'Earl Richarde intended all thing to the best to visit Sainte Winifride , in herte desirous upon his journey went (myn authour sayth thus) devoutly to Holywell in pilgrimage for his great merite and gostly advantage'.

Attacked by ht e Welsh

When Earl Richard return four years later, he was attacked and fortunes of war affected the ownership and care of the well and church for more than a century.

Henry II rebuilt the castle at Basingwork 1157 but Owain Gwynedd and the Welsh destroyed it again.

Knights Templar

King Stephen during he time in Chester established the Knights Templar in Basinwerk to protect pilgrims, but Owain destroyed it again.

Monks from Savigny in France at Basingwerk

In 1131, these monks came to live in Basinwerk and became Cistercian in 1147.However at Basingwerk archeologists have found Saxon remains , showing a much earlier cell. Since St Beuno laboured to established Catholicism in a framework of monastic settlements , it is not impossible that this was the monastic cell he founded centuries earlier.(Check out Settlements of the Cetic Saints by Porfessor E.G.Bowen)

The link seems to be very old and Mass may have been continuous , except for the wars of England and wrangles with Chester Abbey . Ranulf , the third Earl of Chester built a castle on the hill above the well in 1209 because the monks of Chester had complained to Archbishop of Canterbury Hubert Walter (1193-1209) 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)

The castle did not survive long. The monks of Basingwek were confirmed in their possession of the Well Church by Dafydd ap Llewellyn in 1240 and nothing remains of the castle except the name Bryn y Castell. It is an obvious defensive site.

Winifride(Gwenfrewi's) Parents house

This is believed to be the site of the parents of the saint and these were Tewth ap Eylud and Gwenlo. This was the childhood home of St Winifride.

On the right hand side were some changing cubilcles on the left a chapel, with a stained glass represent ation of St Winifride and St Beuno, and a large Statue of Our Lady and on the other wall a huge crucifix of Our Lord. Our Lady was almost covered in flowers.

I lit some candles and walked around the 15th century chapel, which had been the scene of numerous healings and the hopes of recusant Catholics.The tradition remained unbroken all the way up until today.


You need to stop before the entrance to the shrine and make the sign of the Cross. Then you go to the front of the Well and make your intentions and recite the Apostles Creed. Then as you walk around the shrine three times , reciting the rosary, Our Father and Glory Be and today the Fatima Prayer.

If you yourself are the patient looking for healing, you are meant to do this in the pool, kneeling on the saint's stone in the well pool, or immersed in the deeper water up in the shrine itself. It has a high reputation for healing. Follwing a mining disaster in the 18th century the streams course was temporarily cut off, then found again, but the pool does not gush out as it used to in the old drawings.

Along all three walls are many votive stands bearing candles, and there is an ancient statue of the Sainton a large scale in the chapel surrounded by candles and with medals on her feet. The walls were blackend with the effects of candles over the centuries. The Museum is most interesting giving you the details and history. It was a cold February day, so my son poured the water from the well over my knees - it certainly freshened up my legs, but I know healing works in all sorts of ways. I loved the well and the Latin Mass that followed was the icing on the cake.

The Welsh poet Iolo Goch wrote a 'cywydd' poem

There ran from the earth
A God-given event-sweet are its graces-
A spring of water of which one drop excels all wealth
It's water, light , transluscent,
Is like that of the Jordan, under a fair elm tree,
It is a balm against every disease.
A gracious protection to the weak and the sick;
It redeems the weariness of thousands.

A Blessed Fountain of the Faith,
A clear-shining river from the hillside,
Its water is seen from the meadows
As a wave above its gravelly bed.

Then there is a vivid description of the gushing spring water as its leaps from its source, a description which suffers tin translation.

Ieuan Bryddydd Hir, also wrote a poem about all the miracles wrought by te Saint and the well. 'Generous as the Midsummer sun on the Baptist's Feast'.

He wrote

Here is the Fountain of the Faith
A baptismal font for the World.

Tudor Aled wrote:

It is a breath of heaven in the Vale
And the breeze which comes from it
Is as the honey bees first swarming
A sweet odour over the turf
Of musk or balm in the midst if the world.

The drops of her blood are like the red shower
Of the berries of the wild rose
The Tears of Christ from the height of the Cross

The power of the Saint's prayers spring, says Tudor, from the prayers of the Mass, offered as it was at the site of her martyrdom. Tudor explicitly relates the wonders of Holywell to the great treasury od Christ's merits. His devotion is founded on Theology.

William Byrinsa (early 17th cent) wrote

A well in a much loved dwelling
I know, that on high, it belongs to Gwenfrewi
. (Winefride)

Other poets wrote about the healing of bodily wells because of the prayers and intercessions of St Winefride.

To have a lively and privileged life force
A worthy tenderness made warmer by Jesus
Gwenfrewi's fine well
Cleanses the soul.

The Glory of Hospitality, Family and Marriage

These excerpts of poetry are by T Charles-Edwards and his Historical background. I will finish with his words.

'The Welsh poets saw Wales as a great society composed of families; to use the metaphor of which they were so fond, as a growve of wide-branching trees, sturdy, shapely and fruitful. They saw this society as bound together by friendship and hospitality and reaching right up to the Court of Heaven , and to the very foot stool of God and in the persons of the native saints of the kindred and the countryside. It was suitable that Tudor Aled whose glory it was to see all this so clearly, should grace the cultus of St Winefride with one of the great poems of Welsh literature: for hearth and home, friendship, kindred and hospitality have for their guardian the hard and steadfast virtue of Chastity'.

Heaven's fruitfulness before the cooling of the body
Is the virtue of Chastity.'

So this makes Winefride a modern saint too as Charles Edwards writes

'It was the peculiar glory of this Welsh girl of the seventh century to defend and glorify the tradition of Chastity and the family, this tradition, in its Catholic and Christian setting, against that contemptuous list lust which is the hall mark of a barbarian, bringing to it gifts of spiritual and physical healing. ONce that is clear, it is also clear, why the cultus of Saint Winifride had outlasted the changes and chances of thriteen centuries'.

We visited one more holy place before we left North Wales, but I will write about that again as it is a slightly younger place than the holy well of the saint.Curiously I have to confess I was given this name at birth (Winifride) and really hated it. I felt it was really old fashioned and every time it wasmentioned in school , I squirmed. Yet when I was received into the Catholic Church,by Father Fitz (John Fitgerald) it was at the little Catholic Church of Our Lady and St Winifride in Aberystwyth, and at every Welsh pilgrimage , she is prayed to for intercession and the Conversion of Wales.

1 comment:

Sanctus Belle said...

Ah holy medals! I should LOVE to have a St. Winifred medal!! I would gladly pay the shipping and cost if you could get me one the next time you go? I cannot find a medal or holy card for my beloved patron saint anywhere!