The Shrine that Survived the Reformation

by frankbeswick

The destruction of the monasteries at the Reformation was total, and with them went chantry houses and shrines. Except one.

Western Britain was a place access to which was not easy even in the Tudor period. So the Reformation, which raced through lowland Britain like a wild fire had a hard job there, and there is one shrine that was never destroyed, though its times were hard. St Winefride's Well situated in the aptly named town of Holywell, in the North Welsh county of Flint. Like all ancient wells in this land where relics of paganism still remain in the landscape it was a sacred well with a Christian mythos appended to it. So here is its story.

Photo of Holy Water courtesy of Jeffjacobs of Pixabay

The Earliest Years

Holywell is a quiet place not greatly blessed with visitors, unless they have come for the shrine. I visited the town several times as a boy, as it was my mother's favourite shrine. We visited the chapel which was erected around the well, saw the waters, but did not go in, prayed, and then went back to our holiday location, with mother happy and satisfied with her trip.

The well was not discovered by Christians, for the ancient Britons knew of its waters for millennia before Christianity arrived in these islands, but in the post-Roman period in these isles when the Celtic Church was thriving it acquired a Christian story. St Winefride was a young woman who committed herself to virginity for religious reasons, but one day when she was alone at home a prince came to woo her. She spurned his advances and under the pretext of going to get some clothes to go with him fled. He followed her and in anger cut off her head with a swipe of his sword. The head fell to the ground, whereupon a spring opened up where it fell .Just then her uncle, St Beuno, arrived, cursed the prince, who promptly  fell down dead. In hope Beuno  held the severed head to her body, whereupon she sprang back to life, unharmed except for a thin white scar around her neck. She went on to become a nun and abbess of her convent. This legend reflects the ancient Celtic interest in the human head and was adopted and adapted by Christianity. It is one legend among many that were absorbed into Celtic Christian culture.

The sacred well soon acquired a reputation and pilgrims began to visit, often for the healing that the sacred spring was reputed to bring. This reputation persisted into the Middle Ages and still has some traction today, as people still visit in the hope of healing, and over the years pilgrims grateful for the healing have left their crutches behind as testimonies to the miracle that they have had wrought for them. The town of Holywell is not far from the English and Welsh border, and so pilgrims have come from both Wales and England. Pilgrims sometimes bathe in the waters of the spring and/or take bottles of water away with them, though we never did.

The site had an uneventful history up to the Reformation. Little happened until the Norman Conquest and after that the shrine changed hands, coming under the jurisdiction of different monasteries at times as ecclesiastical jurisdiction of different monasteries changed. Giraldus Cambriensis travelled in Wales, but did not find the shrine important enough to note, The shrine received royal support at times when royalty visited it. The relics of St Winefride, the preserved bones were, translated to Shrewsbury. Abbey, an event which inspired Ellis Peters' novel, A Morbid Taste For Bones.  Monarchs who visited during the Mediaeval period, included Richard the Second and Henry the Fourth, who may have been giving thanks to the saint for the survival of his son who had been hit by an arrow in battle. Henry erected a chapel at the site, but it did not survive long as it was not strong enough to withstand the force of the shrine's flowing waters.


Reformation and Aftermath

The heyday of the shrine was in the late Middle Ages, when there was a growing interest in female saints, but there were dark clouds on the horizon. In 1534 Henry the Eighth dissolved the monasteries and as Winefride's shrine was supervised by Basingwerk Abbey in Cheshire, a county of North West England, it passed into the hands of the state. The Crown passed it onto a courtier, who promptly leased it to a man calledWilliam Holcroft. The deal was that Holcroft would collect the donations made by visitors and pass them on to the Crown. This deal assumed that the shrine would persevere as a holy well with a healing function,. This might seem strange, but not all Protestants were against holy wells as they were against images. The scheme failed. Pilgrims still came but paid no money, instead Catholic sympathizers placed collection boxes for charity there, and the state got nothing.The pilgrims simply kept on coming. 

The reign of Elizabeth the First saw some tighter restrictions, especially after the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth and enjoined Catholics to rise against her. That was in 1570. But the shrine was still running in 1579 when Elizabeth ordered that the waters be investigated to see if they were rich in minerals, as many speculated that mineral riches might explain the shrine's healing function. Lack of healing would have got it closed down, but by 1590 the shrine was still operating and able to accept  a pilgrimage from Enfield organized by the Jesuit Robert Garner, later wrongly implicated in the gunpowder plot. The pilgrims rested at houses of known Catholics en route and back. 

The death of Elizabeth did not end the persecution, and in 1617 the Protestant bishop of Chester suggested that visitors to Holy Well be obliged to swear the oath of allegiance, which no Catholic would take. This may have had a deterrent effect, but not much, as in 1620 Bishop Lewis Bayly set off to Holy Well to personally arrest Catholics visiting the shrine. The visit did not end well, as the local area, Protestants included, rose in defence of the shrine. The bishop was "roughed up" to use modern parlance, and thrown into a ditch. In 1626 John Brigeman, chief justice of Chester, proposed a scheme in which innkeepers were obliged to keep records of who visited the shrine. Again this might have had a small, temporary effect, but in 1629 there was a mass pilgrimage of Catholics numbering about fourteen hundred which went unhindered.  In 1637 Bridgeman, who was nothing if not persistent, proposed closing all but two inns in Holy Well, depriving pilgrims of places to stay. He also suggested that a wall be constructed to keep Catholics away from the water. There is some evidence that this proposal was started, but by that time the earliest signs of the impending civil war were showing and the scheme was abandoned. In 1643 parliamentary troops did some damage to the shrine, but not much.

The last significant public involvement was during the brief reign of the Catholic James the Second, who supported the shrine, but then the so called Glorious Revolution restored the Protestant order. However, the days of persecution were coming to an end. There were no more political troubles.

The Shrine to the present day

The Eighteenth Century saw a lessening of Catholic pilgrims to the shrine, possibly because Walsingham was beginning to be influential, but a rise in tourists curious about the miracles wrought there and inspired by a  romantic interest in the past. Britons were becoming aware of the cultural deprivation left by the iconoclastic orgy of violence left by the dissolution of the monasteries. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was numbered among them. The popularity of the spring was boosted by a miracle when a woman named Winefride White who had long been paralysed on the left side with what seems to have been a stroke bathed in the well and instantly recovered. As testimony to the healings which have been recorded at the shrine cured pilgrims have left their crutches as testimony, and some are still displayed on site.  

The rituals at the shrine involve pilgrims bathing in the well at certain times of day. The traditional method of bathing is to go thrice through a small outer pool before you go into the main pool. Pilgrims then kneel on a submerged round stone known as St Beuno's stone while saying a decade  of the rosary and dip their heads under water for as long as the prayer takes to be completed. The origin of this ritual is said to have come from St Beuno who told Winefride that pilgrims should do this while making a wish, though the rosary was not known as a prayer in Winefride's time, for it originates with St Dominic a few hundred years later. Pilgrims often visit the shrine's stock of relics, which are said to contain a fragment of one of the saint's bones, along with relics from other saints. There is also said to be a fragment of the true cross, but as Catholic altar stones all contain a fragment, or at least are said to, this is not exceptional. A small fragment of wood from what is said to have been the original oak reliquary box containing Winefride's remains is said to be among the relics .Pilgrimages to the shrine take place a few times a year.

The shrine is a pleasant place with a a nice atmosphere, attended by friendly nuns. As a young boy I found the nuns warm and welcoming to visitors. It is worth a visit.


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Updated: 11/29/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 12/17/2023

Irish monks under Columbanus reached North Italy and other parts of Europe, so they are a possibility, but this is only a possibility. But what is certain is that the presence of your name indicates an Irish influence somewhere, sometime.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/16/2023

Your comments three boxes down consider my name in central and northern Italy as caused by an Irish-monk presence.

When was that presence and why were they where they were in "various parts" of (just continental?) Europe?

frankbeswick on 12/15/2023

Possibly. Archaeology is unlikely to solve this problem, due to absence of material evidence. Only documentary evidence can handle this one.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/14/2023

My Runa Shimi ("language of the people") professor -- the daughter of a Yale University professor and the holder of one PhD in anthropology and another in linguistics -- and her two native speakers accepted the ancient Inca people as native speakers of an unknown language.

Perhaps they archived among themselves their birth, native language even as they assessed very carefully any interactions with the conquered people whose language they assumed.

Might it not be possible that the Tokharians did likewise? Perhaps they nurtured one language for in-group interactions and another -- Gaelic? -- for outsider interactions.

frankbeswick on 12/08/2023

The Tokharians are a real puzzle. Why a language close to Gaelic was spoken so many miles from Ireland is a mystery that will take some solving.
Your name is, as you say, found in Umbria, but I think that the presence of Irish monks in various regions of Europe might have had something to do with this, but I don't know.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/08/2023

The computer crashed and displayed my immediately previous comment as ending differently that I entered it!

The Troy-settled areas that preserve my name involve north Italy and then jump into central Italy at Umbria.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/08/2023

It's interesting that the Tarim River Basin mummies between present-day India and China establish cultural and linguistic overlaps of ancestral Gaelic- and Sanskrit-speaking peoples.

The Tocharian language of the Tarim River Basin peoples is most related to Gaelic languages. Perhaps my name someday may be found there inscribed in a Basin cave or on a Basin artifact.

Perhaps Gaelic language-related Tocharian speakers numbered among those who traveled back westward from India with Alexander the Great and his Troy-descended mother, Olympias. Perhaps they were responsible for their descendants anciently introducing into, and preserving to the present day, my name in such Troy-settled areas of north Italy as Umbria.

Perhaps, perhaps...perhaps ;-D!

frankbeswick on 12/07/2023

I don't speak Sanskrit and my Irish is liminted, so I cannot say.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/06/2023

Thank you!

My name perhaps is derived from Sanskrit. Mahatma Gandhi particularly liked the name Daridranarayan ("God of the poor").

Sanskrit preserves many definitions and meanings for its words. Daradra sometimes translates as running hither and thither, not too far from Old Irish etymological contexts, eh?

frankbeswick on 12/06/2023

Just today I was reading John Matthews's encycopaedia of Celtic Wisdom, where I read that the word druid is derived from the Sanskrit Veda, meaning to know. The derivation is a distant one going back two maybe three thousand years.

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