The severing of heads in moments of heightened excitement plays an intriguing part in the annals of the Welsh folk culture. This must seriously shine a light on the foibles of the Celts who lived in Wales in ancient times. Many may recall the ‘Old Welsh’ saying:  ‘Broad swords do not kill people, people kill people’.

 

SAINT WINEFRIDE’S WELL

- SONNET CYCLE

 

I.        Pilgrims Way [abba]

 

Step by step, the weary pilgrim’s way,

to far off Flint, a blessed resting place,

long journey, for faithful seeking grace,

by zealous supplication, a need to pray.

 

Chaste Celtic sister, not to be claimed,

or taken by proud youth of royal line,

rejected his advances, so in quick time,

and in a legend, he left her disarranged.

 

Her lovely head fell to a stony ground,

and blessed all with her flowing blood,

created a healing spring, pure and good,

to comfort pilgrims by touch and sound.

 

To a martyr, in blood and faith will stand,

a shrine… here to guard this Celtic land.

 

II.      The Obedient Earth [abab]

 

Divine Winefride of Wales, a pious maid,

devout niece of Beuno, Abbot and Saint,

to be a bride of Christ was ever unafraid,

rejected a wild youth and urged restraint.

 

Caradog in lust, and impatient to be wed,

his love turned fast to vile fury and hate,

drew his broad sword and cut off her head

and in his bloody anger sealed his own fate.

 

When Saint Beuno came, returned her head,

to her shoulders… he restored her to life,

a thin white line around her neck, it’s said,

marked her confrontation with carnal strife.

 

The holy uncle cast vengeance upon the youth,

and by God, the earth swallowed him in truth.

 

III.     Across Chaotic Time [abba]

 

In all this hyperbole, may we find a truth?

a scintilla, a sparkling glittering particle,

of accuracy, a proven, believable article,

did uncle save niece from a lusty youth?

 

Brother Owain, in the old Latin writing,

for revenge, put the malefactor to death,

Caradog, insolent, unto his last breath,

must feel cruel flames of Hades biting.

 

Winefride gave her life to faithful souls.

After eight hard years, by divine revelation,

took the road to Gwytherin in inspiration,

leader, abbess, servant to pilgrim’s goals...

 

Come, death, interred at her abbey shrine,

sustained by faithful, across chaotic time.

 

IV.     Charabanc and Kiosk [abab]

 

Visit Winefride’s cool reassuring place,

revered by all that come in faith to call,

upon St Winefride to gain her holy grace,

guarded by cloister and stout stone wall.

 

In 1138 relics of the saint to Shrewsbury,

were carried to form an elaborate shrine,

by priests, to make a profit in a great hurry.

In 1540 Henry Tudor perpetrated his crime.

 

Thus this Holywell gives refuge and relief,

as voyagers seek an invisible communion,

brings pilgrims a blessing though visit brief,

and being here, it achieves some conclusion.

 

The kiosk beckons, stale buns and weak tea,

pricey plastic Winefrides, nothing ever free.

 

 

LEGEND AND REALITY

 

Saint Winefride of Holywell [or Winifred if you will] a famous Welsh radical-tonsillectomy recipient, appears to have existed as a person of interest in both Celtic legends and in the Latin writing of the 7th century and beyond. Clearly, she was a passably attractive young woman and much noticed by the testosterone driven young men of the time.

 

Her most attentive suitor, Caradog or Caradoc, son of a king and a chap who was used to getting his own way, wanted Winefride as his bride. She rejected him in favour of becoming a nun. Enraged and insulted by her rejection he thought it reasonable to whip out his broad sword and chop off her head.

 

In legend the head rolled down a hill and where it came to rest, gushing blood, a healing-well came into being. Also in legend, her uncle Beuno, Abbot and Saint, recovered the head, put it back on her shoulders and thus made her whole again. He also wreaked havoc on Caradog by commanding, with the help of God, the ground to open up and swallow upstart, which it did.

 

In reality, if reality can apply to any part of an apocryphal tale of this nature, the saintly uncle, clearly an accomplished fellow, stepped in and administered first aid, thus saving the life of the wounded Winefride, to the plaudits of the often gullible faithful and tacit recognition of often inaccurate historical records. The vainglorious Caradog, according to the scribes, actually met his grisly end at the hands of Winefride’s brother Owain, also a handy lad with the broadsword.

 

After almost a decade as a nun, spent at Holywell, Winefride decided to leave the convent and travel. She went upon a pilgrimage to seek for a place of ultimate rest. In time she arrived at Gwytherin, now Conway, in Denbighshire.  After her death, circa 660, or any other 7th century number that seems reasonable, her followers interred their Abbess, Saint Winefride, at her abbey.

 

March of Time

 

The strength of local devotion to Saint Winefride attracted the attention of the senior management cabal of the Universal Church. Ever conscious of the need for profit, the finance and marketing departments put their corporate heads together to exploit a revenue opportunity too good to miss.

 

In the year of grace and fiscal creativity 1138 the head office of Vatican Inc decreed that a carefully selected group of trustworthy clerics must transport certain relics of Saint Winefride from the shrine in Holywell, Wales to the English monastery of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, the holy and revered relics to form the basis of a sophisticated shrine, a major attraction to pilgrims, a feather in the cap of the Shrewsbury Abbot and a pocket-warming money spinner for the ecclesiastical wise guys of the Universal Church.

 

The Shrewsbury Shrine became the focus of pilgrimage and a great source of revenue, providing an excellent profit margin throughout the late middle ages. Unfortunately Henry VIII [1491-1547] destroyed it in 1540 as part of his confrontation with the Vatican. Perhaps the cash-strapped monarch would have profited by simply taking a percentage of the gate.

 

However, the Shrine at Holywell survived and remains to this day a popular pilgrimage destination. The old burghers of Saint Winefride's Holywell claim it to be the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in the United Kingdom. Saint Winefride's Well has been a religious hot-spot since the seventh century. It has left an influential footprint on British history or at the very least has demonstrated for many that ‘hope springs eternal’.

 

In 1189, Richard I, the Lionheart, [1157-1199], apparently made a royal pilgrimage there to pray for the success of his somewhat bloody crusade.

 

 In 1416, Henry V, [1386-1422], also made a royal pilgrimage to the shrine: the Welsh Priest, canonist, late medieval historian and chronicler Adam of Usk [1352-1430] reports that Henry V, possibly with a band of brothers, travelled there on foot from Shrewsbury. To pray for what, I wonder.

 

In the late 15th century, Lady Margaret Beaufort [1443-1509] an influential matriarch in the House of Tudor ordered built a chapel overlooking the well, which now opens onto a pool where visitors may bathe.

 

In the 17th century Saint Winefride’s, Holywell became a symbol of the survival of Catholic recusancy, the resistance of true believers to the rites of the Anglican Church in Wales.

 

From early in their mission to England, the Jesuits, the Vatican equivalent of MI6, supported the activities at the well. In 1605, many of those involved with the infamous Gunpowder plot visited Holywell accompanied by the English Jesuit priest Edward Oldcorne [1561-1606]. His given purpose for the visit was to give thanks for his deliverance from cancer. However, the vigilant secret police of the mildly paranoid James I [1566-1625] suspected that the true purpose of the visit was to plan the destruction of the parliament. Oldcorne and several others met an untimely end on the gallows, executed the following year for their colossal impudence.

 

In 1686, James II [1633-1701], visited the well with his wife Mary of Modena, after his little fishes failed to produce an heir to the throne. Shortly after this visit, Mary became pregnant with a son, James [1688-1766]. Did the bracing Welsh air, the efficacious well water or the intervention of the saint produce this result? In any event, the son, a pretender to the throne, lived in exile, died in Rome.

 

In 1828, Princess Victoria, [1819-1901] Hanoverian to her Teutonic bootstraps and soon to be broodmare extraordinaire and German leaning Queen of England [1837-1901], visited the shrine whilst staying in Holywell with her uncle, the Belgium King Leopold. History is silent on any outcomes of the visit. Perhaps Saint Winefride was not amused.

 

Many Christian true believers know the shine as the ‘Lourdes of Wales’. Diverse others, now including Plaid Cumru Welsh Nationalists, refer to it as one of the seven wonders of Wales. An anonymous verse records the latter claim.

 

Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,

Snowdon's mountain without its people,

Overton yew trees, St Winefride's well,

Llangollen bridge and Gresford bell.

 

In the creative world, as apposed to the religious world, from medieval times [5th to 15th century] onward, Saint Winefride’s Well has attracted the attention of artists, writers, poets, pseudo historians and, in the 20th and 21st centuries, film makers, television producers and bloggers.

 

William Rowley [1585-1626] an English Jacobean dramatist, an actor and playwright, wrote the comedy ‘A Shoemaker - a Gentleman’. It dramatizes Saint Winefride's story. The actual composition date of this work seems to have slipped through a crack in the historical record but various informants give a printing date of 1638. This play, based on an extract from ‘The Gentle Craft’ written in 1584 by the former Norwich silk weaver turned London writer, Thomas Deloney [1543-1600] achieved a degree of popularity.

 

English Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins [1844-1899] featured Saint Winefride in his memorial drama, ‘Saint Winefride’s Well’, unfinished at the time of his death.

 

Millennium and Beyond

 

Edith Mary Pargeter [1913-1995] writing as Ellis Peters in ‘A Morbid Taste for Bones’, the first of the Brother Cadfael novels, centres her plot on the moving of Saint Winefride's bones from the shrine in Holywell, Flintshire, Wales to the new shrine in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. The twist in the plot arrives when the movers and shakers conspire to and succeed in secretly leaving Saint Winefride’s bones in Wales whilst substituting other skeletal remains for despatch to the English shrine.

 

In the Brother Cadfael series, novels and television dramatisations, Saint Winefride is a significant character. The celebration of her Feast Day provides the setting for two adventures, ‘The Rose Rent’ and ‘The Pilgrim of Hate’. In the story ‘The Holy Thief’, miscreants steal the saint’s casket from its shrine; the effort to find and restore it drives the narrative and screenplay.

 

In the television series, now available on DVD, Brother Cadfael is a Welsh monk at the English monastery at Shrewsbury, Shropshire near to the border of England and Wales. He has to contend with an idiosyncratic monastery hierarchy, internal politics, the internecine squabbles of the Universal Church and the warring adherents of King Stephen the usurper and Queen Maude the usurped. Each side in this royal battle appears to be trying to out-bloody the other as opportunist nobility and senior churchmen look on, butter up both sides and play a waiting game.

 

Brother Cadfael a former crusader turned monk and apothecary works assiduously for the poor and needy and struggles to hide his contempt for the rest. He has, however, a remarkably powerful vocation and a very special and affectionate understanding with the saint, demonstrated by his personal references to her and by their compassion in common cause to serve the truly needy.

 

Derek Jacobi [Chorus in Henry V] a most able and eminent Shakespearean despite claiming that all Shakespeare’s plays were written by Edward De Vere 17th Earl of Oxford [1550-1604], he lives and breathes the role of Brother Cadfael with consummate skill and convincing sincerity in four powerful television series, all well worthy of viewing more than once.

 

Saint Winefride’s Holywell in the 21st century is busier than ever. Construction work at the Shrine goes on at a great pace. There is now an Exhibition Hall with exhibits setting out in microscopic detail the story of the Saint, her legends and the history of her holy well.

 

The rituals get richer and yearly more flamboyant as Cardinals, archbishops, bishops and an army of priests and religious perform their ‘traditional’ pilgrimages to the shrine, and they get in free.

 

‘Everything is getting bigger and better,’ crooned one marketing evangelist - but of course, and unmentioned - for the great unwashed, the congregation of the rusted-on faithful, everything is getting much more expensive. Approximately 30,000 pilgrims and tourists visit Saint Winefride’s Shrine each year. It is a great little earner. Halleluiah…

 

Revision June 2014 – Strathfield Poets © Dermott Ryder

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