Everyone has heard of Lourdes, the French town that pilgrims have been flocking to since 1858 in the hope of miraculous cures. Yet St Winefride’s Well, in the north Wales town of Holywell, is much lesser known. Even though it has been a place of pilgrimage and healing for more than a thousand years, and is now known as the “Lourdes of Wales”.
The Story of St Winefride
St Winefride herself was a real person, who grew up in Wales in the 7th century. She became a nun and was later Abbess of Gwytherin. She died around 660 and her relics were moved to Shrewsbury Abbey in 1138. However she is best known for the curious legend that is associated with her.
The story goes that Winefride fled to the Church of St Bueno to escape the attentions of Caradog, a nobleman who wished to seduce her. Infuriated by her rejection, Caradog caught her just before she reached the church and cut off her head. St Bueno himself appeared, picked up her head and placed it back on her shoulders, enabling her to live for many more years.
A miraculous spring arose at the place where Winefride’s head came to rest as it rolled down the hill. Presumably the spring had healing powers from its first appearance, but the first record of cures dates from the 12th century. The fame of the site grew: it was mentioned (by its medieval name of Holy Head) in the poem of St Gawain and the Green Knight, and it became a place of royal pilgrimage. King Richard I came here in 1189 to pray for success in his forthcoming Crusade, and Henry V visited after his success at Agincourt in 1415. A chapel was built beside the well in the 15th century.
St Winefride’s Well Today
St Winefride’s Well is still a place of pilgrimage today, attracting pilgrims from different Christian denominations. Many come as part of organised pilgrimages, including the Annual National Pilgrimage that takes place at the end of June each year. Others come on their own, whether as pilgrims, tourists or those in search of a cure.
The well is still important for healing as well as pilgrimage. The existence of changing rooms beside the pool suggests that immersion in the water is a common event. And in the exhibition area is a collection of crutches, left behind by early 20th century pilgrims who had no further use for them once they had bathed in the spring. It seems that St Winefride’s Well truly is the Lourdes of Wales.