Celts to the Creche: Day 9
St. Winifred of Wales
died about 660 AD
On this 9th day of our journey with the Celts to the Crèche, we meet St. Winifred of Wales (Grenfrewi in Welsh meaning “radiant or holy Freda”). She was an Abbess in Wales and is especially known for having her head cut off by a spurned suitor, but replaced by her uncle. Where her head fell off, a well of water came forth. People come from all over the world to wash in her well and be cured of their illnesses.
Her Early Life: According to legend, Winifred (Winefride) was the daughter of a Welsh nobleman, Tyfid ap Eiludd in the area of Flintshire in northern Wales. Her mother was Wenlo, a sister of the Welsh St. Bueno. From early childhood she had been devout and felt called to devote her life to God. Her parents gave her permission to become a nun.
Legend of Losing Her Head: There are several versions of the legend of Winifred’s suitor. One says that Prince Caradoc was out hunting and stopped by Winifred’s home for a drink as he was thirsty. He was enraptured with her beauty and wanted to marry her. She refused his advances and he pursued her to the church where she fled. But before she could get into the church, Caradoc caught up with her and in a fit of rage chopped off her head with his sword. Immediately a well sprang forth from the earth where her severed head lay. St. Beuno, her mother’s brother who was priest of the church, picked up her head, and put it back on her body as he prayed over her. Seeing the murderer leaning on his sword with an insolent and defiant air, St. Beuno cursed Caradoc and he not only dropped dead, but the ground also opened and swallowed him.
Before St. Bueno left Holywell and returned to Caernarfon, legend says that he seated himself upon a stone, which now stands in the outer well pool, and there promised in the name of God “that whoever on that spot should ask three times for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winifred would obtain the grace they asked if it was for the good of their soul.”
Abbess: Winifred established a convent at Holywell and was Abbess there for eight years. She then went on a pilgrimage to seek a place of rest.
After several stops along the way, she ultimately entered the double monastery of men and women at Gwytherin in Wales near the source of the River Elwy. She later succeeded her mother’s aunt, St. Thenoia as Abbess.
Gwytherin’s current church is from the 19th c., but a Celtic grave slab inscribed with a cross is set into the chancel steps.
Place of Resurrection: Winifred died at Gwytherin and her relics were placed in a typically Celtic house-shaped wooden reliquary decorated with ornamental metalwork. Her relics were transferred to Shrewsbury in 1138 and the Legend of St. Winefride was written then also. The story of the Normans taking her relics to Shrewsbury Abbey has been incorporated into Ellis Peters’ first volume of her Caedfael Chronicles, A Morbid Taste for Bones.
Her influence: Even though much of Winifred’s life was a legend, there seems to be some legitimacy to the story. It is said that Winifred had a scar around her neck her whole life and her brother Owain is said to have killed Caradoc as a revenge for a crime.
Pilgrims come from all over the world to bathe in the waters of Holy Well where many are said to find cures. At Holywell, an artesian spring gushes up with an estimated 24 tons of water welling up to the surface every minute. There is a little museum before one enters the well area that is filled with crutches that people have left behind when they exited the holy waters cured and whole.
Upon entering the waters, one is supposed to walk down three steps into the pool and walk across or be carried across the pool three times, likely part of a Celtic ritual of baptism by triple immersion.
Holywell has been visited by numerous royalty throughout the years and is the only place in the U.K. of continuous pilgrimage since its inception over 1400 years ago.
One can even stay in a Landmark Trust place, where it is thought that St. Winifred’s relics stopped along route from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury.
She lost her head and I kissed her finger: When visiting Holywell in September of 2009, it was my first encounter with a relic being brought out to venerate and to kiss. The woman who is in charge of Holywell was insistent that I attend the veneration of St. Winifred’s finger. A suitcase was ceremoniously opened and a finger was brought forth to kiss. This was a first for this former Southern Baptist, now mainline Protestant, but yes, I did kiss the finger.
Feast Day November 3
Mary C. Earle and Sylvia Maddox in their book, Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints, speak of St. Winifred’s neck scar as a sign of wounding and a sign of healing. That awesome thought brought to my mind Jesus’ poignant resurrection encounter with doubting Thomas. This disciple struggled with Jesus’ broken body coming back to life.
Thomas who shared his life 24/7 with Jesus for three years, swore he would not believe that the Lord was resurrected unless he touched the nail scarred hands and put his hand in the wound in his Rabbi’s side. Jesus walked through that locked up door into that room in Jerusalem filled with his huddled up and frightened disciples. Jesus, who in his resurrected and glorified body was able to walk through locked up doors, still bore the wounds of crucifixion.
Sometimes, even though our soul may have found healing and new life over time, we often still bear the wounds of a painful experience in life as a reminder to not only ourselves but also as a testimony to others, that a battle was won. We were wounded, but we have been healed.
Prayer: As the Psalmist praised God, we too join in the chorus of saints, “O Lord my God, I cried out to you and you restored me to health…you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.” Thank you for mending, restoring, and for making me whole. I even thank You for the battle scars. Amen.
A Few Resources:
BBC Northwest Wales. The Truth and Legend of St. Winefride and Gwtherin. Feb 1, 2010.
Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.
Charles-Edwards, T. Saint Winefride and Her Well: The Historical Background. Printed by W.Williams & Son, Holywell, Wales, n.d.
David, Christopher. St. Winefride’s Well: a history & guide. Printed by Gomer Press, Llandysul, Ceredigion, Wales, new edition 2002.
Gregory, Donald. Country Churchyards in Wales. Gwynedd, Wales: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1991.
Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.
Jones, Kathleen. Who are the Celtic Saints? Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2002.
Landmark Trust. St. Winifred’s Well. Woolston, near Oswestry.
Meehan, Bridget Mary and Regina Madonna Oliver. Praying with Celtic Holy Women. Hampshire, UK: Redemptorist Publications, 2003.
Pennick, Nigel. The Celtic Saints. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1997.
Rees, Elizabeth. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. London: Burns & Oates, 2003.
___________. Celtic Saints in Their Landscape. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2011.
___________. Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.
Williams, Peter. The Sacred Wells of Wales: A Tour. No publisher info. 2001.
Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.