St Winifred was a holy woman who lived and died in the seventh century in Wales. She has been venerated as a Saint since that time and a number of legends about her early life have developed to illustrate her purity and devotion to God. Sharlet Francis Xavier tells her story.
HER EARLY LIFE
Saint Winifred (sometimes spelled Winefride) was born in the seventh century in Holywell, Wales. Her father was Thevit, a rich land owner and her mother was Wenlo, the sister of St. Bueno, a priest, who built a chapel close to their home where he celebrated Mass and preached. Even though St. Winifred came from a rich family, she was a pure and gifted girl who was greatly influenced by her uncle. By the age of fifteen and with her parent’s consent she had decided to consecrate her life to the Lord and become a nun.
The story is told that her beauty and talents were well known throughout the country and a Welsh Prince, Caradoc came to her parent’s house to seek her hand in marriage. When he got there, he found Winifred alone. She told him that she planned to become a nun and devote herself to God and could not marry him despite his pleas and threats. In a rage, Caradoc chased her as she ran towards the church where St Beuno was celebrating Mass and, overtaking her on a slope, he drew his sword and severed her head from her body. The head rolled down and on the spot where it rested, a spring of water gushed up from the ground. St Winifred’s Well, which still attracts pilgrims today, draws water from this spring.
One story that has been passed down through the ages is that as soon as this news reached him, St Beuno left the altar accompanied by Winifred’s parents and found her head beside the spring. He carried it to her body and covered both with his cloak before returning to finish the Mass. Later kneeling beside the young girl’s body, St Beuno cried out to God in prayer then removed the cloak. Winifred is said to have arisen with no sign of decapitation apart from a faint white circle around her neck. Caradoc was standing defiantly nearby and according to popular belief, when St Beuno invoked heaven’s punishment on him, he was struck down dead and swallowed up by the ground beneath him.
FACTS ABOUT ST WINIFRED
Whatever the legends about Winifred’s early life, we know that she was a nun who lived in the seventh century and she led a life of prayer in poverty and seclusion. She became the Abbess of a convent which was built on her father’s land and later Winifred and her fellow nuns went to Gwytherin, with St. Elwy, the author of her first biography, where she is said to have lived ”as an acknowledged saint on earth, first in humble obedience to the abbess and, after the latter’s death, as abbess herself” until her death in 660. Throughout the centuries since her death there have been many reported healings and miracles gained through the intercession of St Winifred.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. Song of Songs 8:5-6
SAINT WINIFRED’S WELL
After her death, Winifred’s body was buried in her abbey but in 1138, her relics were carried to Shrewsbury and a shrine was built for her there. The shrine and well became major places of pilgrimage in the late middle ages but the shrine was destroyed by Henry the VIII in 1540. St Winifred has been venerated as a saint since her death when her well at Holywell became a place of pilgrimage for people seeking healing. Royalty including King Richard 1, King Henry V, James II and Queen Victoria have visited the site and thousands of people still visit the shrine each year. It is the only place in Britain with a continuous history of pilgrimage for over 13 centuries and many healings and conversions are still being reported by pilgrims. It is a place of spiritual revival offering pilgrims a sense of serenity and peace.
INTERPRETING THE LEGENDS
St Winifred was very holy and devout and was probably well known in her lifetime. Pilgrims would visit her at the abbey asking for her prayers for healing and many would be cured. That was why she was declared a Saint and her intercession was sought after her death.
Stories would have been told about her miraculous deeds and these may have tried to explain why she was so saintly. Choosing death rather than dishonor shows how devoted she was to God, that she was willing to die for him. The story of St Winifred being brought back to life mirrors the story of Lazarus in the Gospels when Jesus called him out of the tomb and Lazarus was restored to life. If Jesus could restore Lazarus to life why could he not bring the saintly Winifred back from the dead? It also reminds us that like St Winifred we have experienced in our Baptism the death of our old life of sin and our rebirth into new life in Christ. So let St Winifred be our model of holiness and virtue so that we too may become a Saint. St Winifred’s Feast Day is on 3rd November.
Written By : Sharlet Francis Xavier