A-Z of Saints: Winifred

St Winifred (or Winifride, Gwenfrewi, Guinevere, etc…) was born in Holywell, Flintshire in Wales some time around 600AD.

She was the daughter of a Welsh nobleman, known with equal multiplicity as Thevit, Trevith or Tyfid ap Eiludd, and his wife Wenlo, a sister of St Beuno.

Details of her life are inevitably vague after all these centuries, and mainly derive from two manuscripts, one the work of a monk called Elerius (St Elwy), said to be her contemporary, and the other being a 12th century account by the prior of Shrewsbury.

With a saint for an uncle, it is perhaps no surprise that Winifred fell under his influence, and at the age of 15 would listen to him preaching in a hollow nearby.

She soon gave herself to a life of devotion, with her parents’ consent, and was renowned for both her virtue and her learning.


Being beautiful as well as smart, Winifred was known in the area and soon caught the attention of Caradoc of Hawarden, a chieftain and son of a prince, who resolved to take her as his wife.

The story runs that he found her alone one day and pressed his suit, with her chaste refusal only serving to fuel his ardour. Eventually this turned into threats, and she fled to church.

Caradoc’s inflamed state persisted, and driven mad by his frustration he drew his sword and killed her by slicing off her head. One story tells that her head then rolled down the hill they were on and a spring sprang forth where it came to a rest.

Meanwhile news had got out and St Beuno brought her head back to her body and covered them with a cloak – when he removed it, she was restored to life, albeit with a ring mark round her neck.

Meanwhile Beuno cursed Caradoc, who was swallowed up by the earth. (The real Caradoc apparently was killed in revenge by her brother Owain, suggesting that these events may have had some basis in fact.)


Winifred is then said to have lived on in poverty and chastity, becoming abbess of a convent built on her father’s land; the spring meanwhile became a sacred well, where a chapel was built.

Winifred remained there until the death of Beuno, and went on her own pilgrimage into the mountains around Snowdon. At Gwytherin she met Elerius, and eventually became abbess, performing further miracles until her death some time around 660.

Winifred’s relics were taken to Shrewsbury, where a shrine lasted until Henry VIII’s time (it is featured in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones); other relics went to Rome and were returned to Holywell and Shrewsbury in the 19th century.

Her well was a place of pilgrimage and said to have healed people of leprosy and other conditions.

Winifred is remembered on 3 November and is patron of incest victims and Shrewsbury.

Another well is named after her near Oswestry, said to have sprung up when her body rested there on the way to interment. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote an unfinished play called St Winifred’s Well.

Other ‘W’ saints

  • St Wilfred of York (or Ripon) – 634-709 – was son of a Northumbrian nobleman. He was nearly killed by pagans in Sussex and later returned to convert many of them, and found Selsey Abbey. His memorial day is 12 October.
  • St Wenceslaus is the king of Bohemia remembered by the Christmas carol and was murdered by his brother Boleslaus at the door of a church in 929. He is remembered on 28 September and is patron of brewers as well as the Czech Republic.

Methodism in the madness

A few weeks ago someone suggested to me what’s needed to make people really wake up to climate change and the root-and-branch alterations to daily life it will inevitably demand is a new religion. I think, in a sense, we already have it.

Last night we went to Tom Dyson‘s excellent talk on climate change, which neatly summarised the main issues, tackled some of the criticisms, and advocated personal carbon rationing. Sitting there in Ramsden Memorial Hall, a beautiful converted barn with ancient beams gnarling across the ceiling, not to mention aided by the local brewery’s imaginative stimulant, I half found myself back in the 1740s. The occasion reminded me (I say ‘reminded’ – I mean, I’m getting on, but I’m not 300 years old) of the early days of Methodism, where small village groups would assemble to hear the new message.

The meeting had a mixture of locals of all ages, plus a bunch of us loyally going to swell Tom’s crowd, where most were already receptive or indeed converted to the message. In the Q&A afterwards, a few theological niceties, as it were, were discussed; and there were only one or two voices of dissent, notably one from a chap who thought the whole thing was highly suspicious, but nevertheless led perhaps one of the least carbon-consumptive lives of us all. I bet John Wesley met people like him too – people already living ‘the Way’ but deeply sceptical of imported justifications for it. One or two in the audience were perhaps even leaning towards the temperance movement in spirit.

Ever since the age of 12 when I harangued our school chaplain with unanswerable questions, I’ve been on the side of unbelief. But now, suddenly, that seems to have changed. All round the country, likeable lay preachers such as Tom are spreading the word; further afield, there are charismatic prophets such as George Monbiot (let’s leave aside Al Gore’s messianic tone for now). The difference, of course, is that the ‘revealed truth’ underpinning this belief system is a set of 928 scientific papers, and not a book written by a motley collection of marketeers a couple of millennia ago.

(I’m going to stop now as I’ve just been invited to expand on this theme in a paid article!)