A mile up the hill from Basingwerk Abbey, on the B5121 and close to the small town of Holywell, is St. Winefride’s Chapel and Well, a Grade l listed building and Scheduled Ancient Monument known to many as ‘The Lourdes of Wales’. The only such place in Britain with a continuous history of public pilgrimage for over 13 centuries, the well itself is attributed to a legend dating back to the 7th century.
Winefride (Gwenfrewi in Welsh) was of noble birth, a young niece of St. Beuno, and in the 7th century lived with her family in the place now known as Holywell. According to legend, when she spurned the advances of Caradoc, a prince’s son, he drew his sword in anger and severed her head which rolled a short way down the hill, and where it came to rest water began to flow from a spring. When Beuno heard the news he interrupted a service in the nearby church, retrieved Gwenfrewi’s severed head, placed it beside her body and prayed. His prayers were answered and Gwenfrewi returned to life, though forever after she bore a thin white scar around her neck.
There are a few different versions of the legend, probably told by several different people over the years and further embellished with each telling, so predictably the tale has long been dismissed as far-fetched but Winefride herself was a real person rather than a legendary one. Devout even before her supposed martyrdom she became entirely devoted to a holy life and later entered the nunnery at Gwytherin, eventually becoming the Abbess there. On her death she was buried in the grounds of the nunnery and lay there until her bones were exhumed and relocated to Shrewsbury Abbey in 1138. Her enduring personality meant that she was revered as a saint from the moment of her death and her well at Holywell became a place of pilgrimage and healing.
In the late 11th century the well came into wider recognition when the Earls of Chester granted its ownership to the recently founded St. Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester. Ownership of the well stayed with St. Werburgh’s until 1132 when it was granted to the newly founded Basingwerk Abbey, but by 1157 it had been returned to St. Werburgh’s by Hugh II, the son of Ranulph de Gernon, Basingwerk’s founder. In 1240 however, ownership of the well was once more back with the Cistercians at Basingwerk, gifted to them by Dafydd Llywelyn, son of Llywelyn the Great, and it remained with them until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.
The original shrine and its church were relatively simple affairs but by the middle of the 12th century they had become more than a local landmark. In 1189 Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart) made a pilgrimage to Holywell to pray for the success of his forthcoming crusade – he was the first known monarch to make the journey, which was a sure sign of how important the shrine had become.
Although the shrine itself escaped unscathed during the Welsh/English wars of the late 13th century the church did sustain some damage, for which King Edward I paid compensation of just over 13 shillings on November 3rd 1284, the day marked as St. Winefride’s feast day. The well and its shrine may have been spared from damage during any subsequent battles but general wear and tear eventually took their toll and in 1427 the Basingwerk Cistercians sought permission from Pope Martin V to repair and renovate the site.
The shrine and its chapel which can be seen today date from around 1500. After Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth in 1485 and his subsequent elevation to the throne, becoming King Henry VII, the Tudors became generous benefactors of St. Winefride’s shrine, mainly through Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother and wife of Thomas Stanley, and it’s probable that her generosity was behind the building of the new chapel and its well chamber. The work was supervised by Thomas Pennant, Abbot of Basingwerk between 1481 and 1523, and the quality of the workmanship, including a frieze of animals and the badges of Thomas Stanley (Margaret Beaufort’s third husband) round the building’s exterior suggests that royal masons may have been employed.
In April 1637, after many attempts over the years by various people, including Elizabeth I at the turn of the 17th century, to suppress the many pilgrims and their use of the shrine, Sir John Bridgeman, the Chief Justice of Chester, ordered the removal of the iron posts used to support the infirm when entering the waters and the shrine to be mutilated. On demanding an update six months later he was told that the posts had indeed been removed and the statue of Winefride had been whitewashed. The following year the death of Bridgeman himself, the stroke suffered by one of his wardens responsible for the desecration of the shrine, and the burning down of the house of another were seen as a divine punishment for their actions.
During the Civil Wars of 1642-49 the chapel and shrine were badly damaged and the whitewashed statue of Winefride was completely destroyed. In August 1686 James II and his wife, Mary of Modena, visited the shrine to pray for the gift of a son and heir and while there Mary gave £30 towards the building’s restoration. This money was put to good use, the chapel and shrine were substantially restored and a stone, dated 1687, was incorporated into the well basin, though it wasn’t until two centuries later, in 1886, that a new statue of St. Winefride was commissioned to replace the one which had been destroyed.
In 1723 the chapel, which had for so long provided unbroken service to pilgrims and the faithful, was taken over by the authorities and turned into a day school for the education of poor children, being substantially altered by the addition of various walls and rendering it unusable as a place of worship, although pilgrims still continued to visit the shrine below. It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that steps were taken to restore the chapel to its original state.
The only shrine in Britain to have survived the 16th century Reformation, the two storey architecturally unique building is set into the hillside, with the chapel immediately above the well, and it’s one of the most perfect examples of Late Gothic perpendicular architecture in Wales. The chapel itself has a north aisle, a nave and an apsidal chancel with one large stained glass window, while the three bays of the aisle mirror the three arcades of the vault in the shrine below, although the outer stone stairs linking the two floors are now blocked.
In the shrine the spring rises in a central basin in the shape of a truncated eight-pointed star, with steps at the front for access. The basin is enclosed by a low wall with columns rising to form part of an elaborately ornamented vault of unusually complex design, while the water flows beneath the surrounding walkway into a rectangular outdoor bathing pool. Around ninety sculptured bosses sit at the intersections of the vaulting ribs, these include angels, the green man, the arms of the Stanley family, and patterns incorporating foliage and strange beasts. In the centre, a pendant boss has six scenes from the life of St Winefride and Beuno and a corbel by the entrance portrays a pilgrim carrying another on his back, acting as a reminder of the importance of the well as a place of pilgrimage and healing.
In a separate small building to one side of the bathing pool is the Gatehouse Chapel where pilgrims and visitors can light a candle in prayer or in memory of loved ones. This simple little chapel contains a replica of “The Virgin with the Laughing Child”, an original statuette which was made around 1465 and attributed to the prominent Florentine sculptor Antonio Gambarelli Rossellino, although some believe it was actually created by Leonardo da Vinci. Although there’s no information on when this replica was actually made it was presented to St. Winefred’s shrine in 1996 by Fr Bernard Lordan (Parish Priest 1988-98) and was restored in 2018.
Moving forward into the 20th century, in 1917 disaster struck the shrine when underground mining on Halkyn Mountain cut the stream which fed the well spring. Not only did this lead to the well running dry, it also led to a decline in the Greenfield Valley industry which relied on the waters of the stream, but eventually another source was found not far from the original and the flow to the well was restored although much reduced. Strangely though – or maybe not – the fact that Winefride’s original miraculous flow now surfaces some distance away at Bagillt seems to be completely ignored.
In 1930 the Victorian St. Winefride’s Mill and Brewery were acquired and turned into the well gardens and custodian’s house which is now the museum we see today, and after the 18th century school room amendments had been removed work on restoring the chapel to its original state had been completed by 1976. Still in use to this day, Holy Mass is celebrated each Sunday at 5pm during the summer season until the end of September and an annual pilgrimage is held on June 22nd (or the following Sunday if the 22nd is a weekday) as this is the anniversary of Winefride’s death and miraculous return to life.