Sacred Places of Wales

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Winifred's Well, Basingwerk and the Greenfield Valley

Winifred's Well
Holywell (Treffynnon: Tray Funnon) in Flintshire (less than 20 miles from Chester, on the English border) is "the town of the Holy Well." For over 1,000 years, the well at Holywell was renowned throughout Britain and beyond for its healing powers, a reputation that somehow managed to survive the Reformation. During the author's boyhood, a large collection of crutches and canes left behind as a testament to the water's curative powers was a prominent feature of the site (they have since been removed by order of the Catholic Church).

The Greenfield Valley, just below Holywell is important in Welsh industrial history and its Heritage Trail is well worth a visit, as are the remains of Basingwerk Abbey. Founded in 1131 as a Savignac Monastery, but mostly demolished as a Cistercian House at the Reformation, its parts are scattered throughout the area having been relocated in many local churches. The vestiges that do remain give no hint of the abbey's former importance, but their situation in a large green meadow overlooking the wide Dee Estuary, is pleasant enough.

But it is to the holy well at the upper end of the Valley, just before the steep climb up to the town itself, that you will make your pilgrimage. The well, formed from a mountain spring, is housed inside the shrine of St. Winifred (Gwenffrwd: Gwen Frude or Gwenfrewi: Gwen Frewee) regarded as the finest surviving example of a medieval holy well in Britain. The legend of St. Winifred is responsible for the erection of the present shrine on a site chosen originally chosen by St. Beuno (St. Bye No) for a chapel. When a local chieftain named Caradoc (Car Add Og) attempted to rape Beuno's niece Gwenffrwd, she ran to the chapel for sanctuary but failed to reach the doors. Her refusal to submit to her pursuer caused him to cut off her head in rage. The head rolled down the hillside, a spring miraculously appearing where it came to rest in a deep hollow. Beuno reattached Gwenffrwd's head, and she lived to become an abbess (at Shrewsbury) and later, a saint. Would-be rapist Meanwhile, Prince Caradoc fell dead under the holy man's curse.

The saint was to become the patroness of virgins. The well, formed from the gushing spring, then became a place of pilgrimage. The well was visited by Richard I, who prayed for his Crusade; Henry V (both before and after his famous victory at Agincourt), who came on foot from Shrewsbury; and King James II, who came to pray for a son (a prayer granted by the birth of the Old Pretender). It is bitterly ironic that the success of his prayer led to James' deposition from the throne, for the British Constitution would not allow a Catholic heir.

In the 12th century, the religious house at Shrewsbury (where she had spent the remainder of her days as abbess) acquired Winifred's relics, and her shrine became a popular place of pilgrimage. In the early 15th century, the Pope granted the monks at Basingwerk, who took charge of the well up until the Reformation the right to sell special indulgences to all pilgrims visiting Holywell. In 1415, the feast of St. Winifred was ordered by statute to be celebrated throughout the realm along with that of St. George (of England) and St. David (of Wales).

About 1490, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and mother of Henry VII, who was particularly devoted to the saint, had a new two-storied chapel built over the star-shaped well, which is covered by an ornate vault and surrounded by a processional passage. The stone walls are covered with graffiti dating back centuries that tell of miraculous cures obtained from immersion in the icy waters.

A long bathing pool fed by the spring lies in the courtyard outside the chapel. Just below the surface of the water you can see the stone of St. Beuno upon which he taught Winifred or bade farewell to her. In the valley below the well are a number of stones said to be stained with Winifred's blood or covered with a fragrant red moss miraculously renewed each year.

St. Winifred's Well is the only shrine in Britain that has an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage since the early Medieval period. Because the well was regarded as medicinal as much as religious, the chapel escaped the merciless destruction of the Reformation. At the Dissolution, however, Winifred's bones were scattered by the agents of Henry VIII (the one finger that survived was then taken to Powys Castle and from there to Rome, only returning to Britain in 1852).

In 1605, a group including Anne Vaux, her sister Eleanor Brooksby and others, Catholic recusants who refused to swear allegiance to James I as head of the Church in England visited the Well. Their pilgrimage to Holywell was seen by the authorities as a cover-up for activities connected with the famous "Gunpowder Plot" to blow up the King and Parliament, an act of treason that led to untold recriminations against the country's Catholic minority and centuries of suspicion and mistrust.

On November 3, 1629, St. Winifred's Day, over 1,500 people gathered at the chapel, and it has continued to be an important place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics ever since, despite many attempts to stop the practice, including the shutting down of many of the town's hotels and hostels by Chester justices in 1637. At that time, the walls of the chapel were also whitewashed and the safety railings around the well removed (more than one historian has queried "so that pilgrims might accidentally drown?"

Only two years after King James' visit in 1686, the holy well and the chapel in which it was housed were ransacked by supporters of the ardent Protestant William III. It was once again restored, and in 1774 was visited by the well-known literary critic Dr. Samuel Johnson on his journey around North Wales. The learned, but prudish doctor remarked on the indecency of a woman bathing there, yet the popularity of the shrine continued to attract pilgrims. More than 1,000 visited during the first year of a new hospice opened in the 1880's.

Since World War II, the Well has received a new lease on life. The automobile and motor coach (and up until the early 1960's the railroad) have brought many more pilgrims to partake of the healing waters and to undergo the ritual of passing three times through the inner well. This custom may date from a Celtic practice of triple immersion or it may result from a prayer written by a 12th Century prior of Shrewsbury who cautioned that more than one immersion may be necessary for a cure.

You have come to the end of your pilgrimage of the most sacred sites in Wales. From Holywell, about 16 miles west of Chester, just off the A55, it is but one hour by major highways to Manchester Airport.

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