St. Winifred (+November 3, 660)
Commemorated November 3
St. Winifred, whose name in her own language was Gwenfrewi, was born in North Wales in the early seventh century, when Christendom was still whole, and many great saints where living on the British Isles. She was of noble lineage, a descendant of the early Welsh kings of Powys, and the only daughter of Tyfid, Lord of the townships of Abeluyc (Trefynnon, later named Holywell), Maenwen & Gwenffynnon in Tegeingl. Her mother’s brother was St. Beuno, Abbot of Clynnog Fawr in Gwynedd. After difficulties he had encountered from the local princes of Clynnog, St. Beuno sought refuge with his sister’s family, and thus received land from her husband, Tyfid. From an early age, Winifred was instructed in the spiritual life by her uncle, and her sole desire was to dedicate herself to God and become a nun. She lived under St. Beuno’s care, near a chapel he had built in her native town of Abeluyc.
One Sunday, while St. Beuno was serving the Liturgy at the church, Winifred was alone in her house. A prince named Caradog was riding by, and stopped at the house to ask for a drink of water. Winifred was very beautiful, and Caradog was stricken with the desire to have her in marriage. The maiden’s resolve to preserve her virginity and become a nun was unshakeable, however, so the prince attempted to take her by force. Winifred struggled free and ran toward the church, but Caradog soon caught up with her on his horse. Out of anger at the refusal, he struck off her head with his sword. Her severed head rolled down the hillside to the churchyard. When her uncle and the congregation—which probably included Winifred’s other kin—saw what had happened, they were horrified. The wicked Caradog fell dead on the spot. (Other historical sources say that Caradog was killed by Winifred’s brother, Owain, as an act of revenge.)
A spring of healing water sprang forth at the place where St. Winifred’s head fell. St. Beuno took Winifred’ head and replaced it to her body, then prayed to God that she be restored whole. By St. Beuno’s prayers, Winifred came back to life. The two sat on a rock which was later named, “St. Beuno’s rock,” and her uncle told her that anyone seeking help through her prayers at that spot would find it. A red mark remained around her neck, as a remnant of her miraculous restoration.
With her parents’ blessing, Winifred soon received the monastic tonsure at her uncle’s hand. St. Beuno advised Winfred to remain at that church to live the monastic life, which she did, eventually gathering around her eleven honorable virgins, and instructing them in the Christian faith. St. Beuno himself became a missionary, traveling west to Ireland.
St. Winifred made a pilgrimage to Rome, and was greatly influenced by the order of monastic life there. When she returned home, she called a synod known as the “Synod of Winifred,” attended by other Christian ascetics of Wales, Dumnonia, and the North. The common ascetic practice in Wales at the time was the eremitic life. At the synod, all agreed that the safety of the coenobitic life she led was preferable to the solitary life. Thus, after seven years in Abeluyc, Winifred decided to go out and help establish other coenobitic communities. It is said that two hermits she approached with the idea, Sts. Diheufyr and Sadwrn, were not interested in what seemed to them an innovation. It was not until she reached Gwytherin that she was welcomed by her mother's cousin, St. Eleri. Here, Winifred was presented to his mother, St. Tenoi, and together they established a double monastery in the village.Winifred eventually succeeded St. Tenoi as abbess there.
St. Winifred reposed on November 3, 660 AD, and was buried in the monastic cemetery.
Recently a fragment of an eighth-century reliquary from Gwytherin, the Arch Gwenfrewi (Winifred's Casket), was found, witnessing her status as a recognized saint almost from the moment of her death, the earliest such surviving evidence for any Welsh saint.
Veneration of the saint was mainly limited to Wales until the late eleventh, early twelfth century, when it began spreading throughout the British Isles. Other wells have been recorded as dedicated to her, including one in Dublin, Ireland. In 1136. Her relics were translated to an ornate shrine in Shrewsbury, while her original tomb was retained at Gwytherin and a fragment at Holywell. The spring that had broken forth in Holywell on the site where her severed head fell is still active; the temperature of the water never changes, summer or winter, and the supply remains constant regardless of drought or flood in the locality. It is so clear that the pebbles at the bottom are distinctly seen to be stained as though with blood. It is lined with fragrant moss, the Jungermannia oplevoides.
More information about St. Winifred as well as information about her holy spring can be found here.
A longer very scholarly publication of the Life of St. Winifred can be found here.