The ‘Welsh Lourdes’, one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Wales’, this is as near as you will get in the UK to the uninhibited enthusiasm of worship at great Continental shrines like Lourdes and Fatima. The well marks the spot where St Winifred (Gwenfrewi in Welsh) was attacked by her royal suitor Caradoc. Winifred was the daughter of a chieftain of Tegeingl. As a child she vowed herself to Christ. But Caradog, the king’s son, desired her and when she resisted him he attacked her and cut off her head. Winifred’s holy uncle Beuno cursed Caradog so that he melted into the ground. He then replaced Gwenfrewi’s head and healed her. Where the head had fallen, a healing spring arose: Holywell, Wales's most important healing well.(The story is reminiscent of several other stories of virgin saints, and there may even be links with Celtic head cults.)
Surviving versions of Winifred’s legend concentrate on this near-martyrdom in defence of her virginity and on the miracles performed by her and at her well after her death. In his sermon for her feast day, John Mirk described her as a martyr. However, telescoped in the middle of her story is the account of a life very similar to that of one of the male missionary saints of Wales: how she went on pilgrimage to Rome, founded a monastery where she taught and provided spiritual leadership to a number of other women, and summoned a synod of the whole church in Wales.
Like Catherine, therefore, Winifred can be considered as one of the learned saints as well as those who were prepared to suffer in defence of their chastity. Her representation in stained glass at Llandyrnog and Llanasa focusses on her learning and her status as an honorary martyr, but the third aspect of her life, her religious leadership, is also commemorated visually. On the seal of the cathedral chapter of St Asaph (now in the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Cathays Park, Cardiff), she appears wimpled as an abbess, bearing a crozier, symbol of leadership and authority and a book.
Winifred went on to found a nunnery at Gwytherin, south of Conwy, where she died. Her relics were taken to Shrewsbury by the Benedictine abbey there in the twelfth century, but the well remained as a focus for pilgrimage. It became one of the most important shrines in Wales and many miraculous cures were attributed to it. It was given into the custody of the Cistercian monks of Basingwerk in 1240. It is possible that the monks chose their site because of its links with the Celtic saints. Henry V walked here in 1415 from Winifred’s other shrine at Shrewsbury to give thanks for the victory of Agincourt.
The present well chamber and chapel were built in the early sixteenth century. Some of the building may have been done under the patronage of the devout and formidable Margaret Beaufort. She was Henry VII’s mother and, as the wife of Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, one of the wealthiest women in north Wales. The well chamber is delicately vaulted, with roof bosses bearing emblems of the Stanley family and depicting scenes from St Winifred’s life. One particularly moving carving shows a sick pilgrim being carried to the water by a helper - a practice which continues today.
Above the well itself is the well chapel. This was completed just before the Dissolution by the abbot of Basingwerk. It was mutilated in the eighteenth century but restored in the mid-twentieth. It is now a wonderfully airy space, full of peace and light, with its many windows, elaborate vaulting and carved roof bosses.
The well and chapel at Holywell survived the Reformation (possibly because of the connection with Henry VIII’s formidable grandmother) and remained as a focus for pilgrimage throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Gunpowder Plot conspirators went there, travelling from Winifred’s other shrine at Shrewsbury, where her relics had been taken by the Benedictine monks. James II and Mary of Modena went there in 1687 to pray for a son. (Their prayers seem to have been answered - but the boy’s birth provoked a political crisis which led to James’s defeat and exile. The son became the ‘Old Pretender’, father of Bonnie Prince Charlie.) Carvings on the walls of the well chamber record those who have found help and healing there.
The shrine is still fully operational, though the water supply has suffered as a result of mining nearby. Water is now fed into the pool from another source. Most pilgrims use the outer pool, though it is sometimes possible to bathe in the inner pool. They traditionally immerse themselves in the water three times. This is a reminder of St Beuno’s prophecy that Winifred would be able to grant her petitioners’ requests, if not at the first time of asking, then at the second or third. (The triple request is also reminiscent of Celtic legends - three wishes, three curses, the three times that the lady of Llyn y Fan Fach was beaten by her husband.) Near the pool is Beuno’s Stone, on which the saint is said to have sat to teach his niece (or to have stood to say farewell to her). Pilgrims kneel on the stone to complete their devotions.
There is a small charge for entry to the well. You can buy holy water bottles for filling, and candles to light in the well chamber. An exhibition in the entrance building has a meticulously-researched account of the saint and the history of the shrine. The well chapel is in the care of CADW and the key to this is also available at the well.