Holywell

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The faithful regularly flock to the site where Saint Winefride was healed after being beheaded in the seventh century by the cruel prince Caradoc. Holywell, as the name implies, is a well said to contain miraculous healing waters. Getty Images.

Holywell (Wales)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Holywell, or Saint Winefride’s Well, the most prominent healing site in Great Britain, dates to the seventh century. Around 660 CE, a young woman named Winefride refused the advances of a local prince named Caradoc. Refusing to take “no” for an answer, he drove the woman to seek sanctuary in the local parish church. Before she could reach the church, however, he overtook and beheaded her.

At this point legend takes over. As the story proceeds, a spring of water emerged at the spot where her head lay on the ground. The water’s healing powers were initially put to use by Winefride’s uncle, who reunited the head to the body. After he offered a prayer, Winefride was resurrected and lived another 15 years as a nun. The area around the spring grew into the present-day city of Holywell, Wales.

She was buried at Guetherin, Wales, but in the twelfth century her body was exhumed and taken to Shrewsbury in England. The church at Shrewsbury became a new pilgrimage site without negatively affecting the number of pilgrims traveling to Holywell, where the waters were gathered in a pool and a chapel erected over it. Steps were created for easy access to the water for those who wished to immerse themselves. It joined a number of other holy water sites across Great Britain.

In the fifteenth century, the mother of Henry VII saw to the construction of a larger stone building over the pool. The internal walls were decorated with pictures of Winefride’s life. It appears the shrine to Saint Winefride was particularly favored by Lady Margaret, the grandmother of Henry VIII, which may be why Henry skipped the destruction of the site when he moved against other Catholic sites in the 1530s. Still, the body and relics of Saint Winefride were taken from Shrewsbury and lost. As Great Britain became predominantly Protestant, the well remained a popular pilgrimage spot. Today the walls are covered with graffiti written by people who have been healed over the centuries.

Since Catholics again attained legal status in Great Britain in the nineteenth century, the Jesuits have managed the site. In 1851 and 1887, Rome assisted in a new emergence of the well into prominence by issuing indulgences for pilgrims. Saint Winefride’s feast day is July 22, and the following Sunday each year is a national day for pilgrimage to Holywell. The pilgrimage includes a procession during which a reliquary containing the only surviving relic (Saint Winefride’s finger) is marched from the town to the well.

Sources:

Charles-Edwards, T. Saint Winefride and Her Well: The Historical Background. Holywell: W. Williams and Son, n.d.
David, Christopher. St. Winefride’s Well: A History and Guide. London: Kenion Press, 1971.
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