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Winefride, Saint

B. at Holywell, Wales, about 600; d. at Gwytherin, Wales, Nov. 3, 660

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Winefride, , b. at Holywell, Wales, about 600; d. at Gwytherin, Wales, November 3, 660. Her father was Thevit, a Cambrian magnate, the possessor of three manors in what is now Flintshire; her mother Wenlo, a sister of St. Beuno and a member of a family closely connected with the kings of South Wales. St. Beuno had led at first a solitary life, but afterwards established a community of cenobites at Clynog-vawr. While in search of a suitable place for a monastery he came to visit his sister's husband, whose lands lay on a bluff overlooking the town of Holywell on the valley side of the well, and over against the present ruins of the Abbey of Basingstoke; tradition points this out as the spot on which the convent of St. Winefride was afterwards built. From this eminence there is a steep incline down to the stream and the well. In the hollow, then called the "Dry Hollow", beneath this incline St. Beuno lived and built a chapel in which he said Mass and preached to the people. Winefride was then one of his most attentive listeners. Though only fifteen years old she gave herself to a life of devotion and austerity, passing whole nights watching in the church. Prior to the conquest of Wales the saint was known as Guenevra; after that her name was changed to the English form Winefride. She was a maiden of great personal charm and endowed with rare gifts of intellect. Under the guidance of St. Beuno, Winefride made rapid progress in virtue and learning and with her parents' consent prepared to consecrate herself to God.

The fame of her beauty and accomplishments had reached the ears of Caradoc, son of the neighboring Prince Alen, who resolved to seek her hand in marriage. Coming in person to press his suit he entered the house of Thevit, and found Winefride alone, her parents having gone early to Mass. The knowledge that Winefride had resolved to quit the world and consecrate herself to God seemed only to add fuel to his passion, and he pleaded his cause with extraordinary vehemence, even proceeding to threats as he saw her turn indignantly away. At length, terrified at his words and alarmed for her innocence, the maiden escaped from the house, and hurried towards the church, where her parents were hearing Mass, that was being celebrated by her uncle, St. Beuno. Maddened by a disappointed passion, Caradoc pursued her and, overtaking her on the slope above the site of the present well, he drew his sword and at one blow severed her head from the body. The head rolled down the incline and, where it rested, there gushed forth a spring. St. Beuno, hearing of the tragedy, left the altar, and accompanied by the parents came to the spot where the head lay beside the spring. Taking up the maiden's head he carried it to where the body lay, covered both with his cloak, and then reentered the church to finish the Holy Sacrifice. When Mass was ended he knelt beside the saint's body, offered up a fervent prayer to God, and ordered the cloak which covered it to be removed. Thereupon Winefride, as if awakening from a deep slumber, rose up with no sign of the severance of the head except a thin white circle round her neck. Seeing the murderer leaning on his sword with an insolent and defiant air, St. Beuno invoked the chastisement of heaven, and Caradoc fell dead on the spot, the popular belief being that the ground opened and swallowed him.

Miraculously restored to life, Winefride seems to have lived in almost perpetual ecstasy and to have had familiar converse with God. In fulfilment of her promise, she solemnly vowed virginity and poverty as a recluse. A convent was built on her father's land, where she became the abbess of a community of young maidens, and a chapel was erected over the well. St. Beuno left Holywell, and returned to Caernarvon. Before he left the tradition is that he seated himself upon the stone, which now stands in the outer well pool, and there promised in the name of God "that whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winefride would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul". St. Winefride on her part made agreement with St. Beuno that so long as she remained at Holy-well, and until she heard of his death, she would yearly send him a memorial of her affection for him. After eight years spent at Holywell (reckoning from the departure of St. Beuno), St. Winefride, hearing of his death, received an inspiration to leave the convent and retire inland. There was reason to fear that Holywell would soon be no longer safe from the Saxon. The Kingdom of Northumbria was pressing upon the borders of North Wales; Anglesea and Chester were already in the hands of the Saxon. It was time for the British recluses to seek the safety of the mountains; accordingly St. Winefride went upon her pilgrimage to seek for a place of rest. Ultimately she arrived at Gwytherin near the source of the River Elwy. This is still a most retired spot, where Welsh alone is spoken.

Some ten miles further across the vale of the Conway rises the double peak of Snowdon. St. Winefride was welcomed at Gwytherin by St. Elwy (Elerius), who gives his name to the River Elwy, and by whom the first life of the saint was written. She brought her companion religious with her, and found there other nuns governed by an abbess. She seems to have lived at Gwytherin as an acknowledged saint on earth, first in humble obedience to the abbess, and, after the latter's death, as abbess herself until her own death. Her chief feast is observed on November 3, the other feast held in midsummer being that of her martyrdom. Her death was foreshown to her in a vision by Christ Himself.

During her life she performed many miracles, and after her death, up to the present day, countless wonders and favors continue to be worked and obtained through her intercession.

The details of St. Winefride's life are gathered from a MS. in the British Museum, said to have been the work of the British monk, Elerius, a contemporary of the saint, and also from a MS. life in the Bodleian Library, generally believed to have been compiled (1139) by Robert, prior of Shrewsbury.

P. J. CHANDLERY


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