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PATRON OF NORTH WALES AND SHREWSBURY

Father Francis's picture
Saint Winifred

In these days of easy travel many of us have been to Lourdes, Fatima or Assisi, and these towns have become world famous. But in a small village in North Wales there is a far more ancient centre of devotion. It is the shrine of Saint Winifred, the only shrine in Britain with an unbroken history of pilgrimage from the 7th century to the present day.

Winifred lived in Holywell (Treffynnon) during the early 600s. Her family were wealthy landowners and she obtained her parents' consent to be a nun. The Welsh were known for their hospitality and travellers could call at any house and be welcomed with food, entertainment and lodging. The women of the house were treated with respect and dignity. No male visitor would abuse the hospitality of the hostess.

However, according to legend, Winifred was at home one Sunday while her parents were at Mass. Prince Caradoc arrived, thirsty from a hunting trip, and asked for drink. Finding the girl alone, he tried to take advantage of the situation, but Winifred ran from the house towards the church. He chased her and at the very door of the church hacked off her head with his sword. Winifred's uncle, the monk St. Beuno, is said to have restored her to life through his prayers, and at the spot where her head fell a spring of water began to flow. Winifred lived for another 15 years, achieving her desire to become a nun.

Her life would have been arduous. The nuns were expected to be self-supporting, which meant hard daily toil cultivating the land, milking the cows, grinding corn and baking bread. The framework of their lives was prayer and the Mass. They cared for the poor and for travellers, and Winifred and her sisters were responsible for sewing vestments and altar cloths for churches, monasteries and mission stations.

After Winifred's death, the spring at Holywell quickly became a centre of pilgrimage. People came to honour their local saint, and the sick and disabled prayed for a cure. Many healing miracles, both spiritual and physical, were obtained through Winifred's intercession and she gradually became known far beyond her native North Wales. In 1138 her relics were transferred to Shrewsbury in the care of the Black Monks who built a beautiful shrine for her, and she was adopted as the patron saint of the town. In 1398 the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered Winifred's feast to be kept with nine lessons, and from the 14th century onwards her feast day was being celebrated with great splendour.

Throughout the Middle Ages pilgrims were travelling the roads of England and Wales visiting places of special devotion. They would pray at St. Winifred's shrine at Shrewsbury, St. Werburgh's in Chester and then go on to Winifred's healing well. A special hospice was built at Ludlow in Shropshire to accommodate pilgrims on their way to Holywell.

Many kings and queens came to pray to St. Winifred at Holywell: Henry V in 1416 in preparation for his second campaign in France, and Edward IV at the height of the Wars of the Roses. Richard III gave alms to maintain a priest at the well chapel and Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, paid for the present chapel to be built. Sadly, her grandson, Henry VIII, ordered the destruction of monasteries and chapels throughout the country. However, Holywell escaped, but Shrewsbury did not. Winifred's relics were scattered, all except one finger bone, half of which is still preserved at Shrewsbury and the other half at Holywell.

During the Reformation pilgrims continued to visit Holywell. In fact, Winifred's well became the headquarters of Catholic resistance and even under Elizabeth I it was not suppressed. Catholic marriages were secretly performed at the chapel as late as 1640.

Today we can look back at the Catholic history of England and Wales and thank St. Winifred for the part she has played in it. Her goodness and holiness attracted popular devotion and helped to keep the Catholic faith alive throughout very difficult times. Let us pray that Saint Winifred will continue to watch over us and give us the courage to combat the evils of our own time.