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.