In North Wales, this holy well that is said to have miraculous properties is the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Britain.
St. Winefride’s Well and Shrine is tucked into a wooded hillside in the North Wales town of Holywell (whose name honors the sacred site in its midst).
The shrine is associated with a miracle story from the seventh century involving a young woman who rejected the amorous advances of a local prince. The furious man cut off her head, and where the head bounced, a spring began to flow.
Fortunately, St. Bueno (who was Winefride’s uncle) was nearby. He restored her head and called down the wrath of heaven upon the prince, who sank into the ground and was never seen again. Winefride later became a nun, then an abbess, and after her death was acclaimed as a saint.
OK, so perhaps the story is embellished a bit. But it’s clear that St. Winefride was an important devotional figure during the Middle Ages. Several kings and queens have visited her shrine, beginning in 1189 with Richard I, the Lionheart. Henry V prayed for the saint’s aid in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and the following year made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to her tomb. In 1686 James II and Queen Mary Beatrice came here to pray for an heir (it worked). For mystery fans, the bones of St. Winefride also make an appearance in the first of the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones.
Basingwerk Abbey, a nearby Cistercian community, held control of the shrine from 1240-1537, much to its financial benefit. An abbot of the abbey supervised the building of a chapel above the spring in the late-fifteenth century. After the monastery was dissolved in 1537 as part of King Henry VIII’s actions against all the monasteries in his realm, the shrine at the holy well survived because it was under the patronage of Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was the king’s grandmother. Pilgrims continued to visit the shrine even during the years of Catholic persecution.
Today St. Winefride’s Well, which is administered by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wrexham, is still an active pilgrimage site. The spring bubbles up into a star-shaped basin and flows into an outdoor pool where people bathe (or dip their hands or feet into the water if they’re not willing to entirely immerse themselves in the chilly water). The traditional way to take the waters is to immerse yourself three times.
A small entrance fee is charged, which includes entrance to a museum with interesting exhibits on the history of the shrine. The staff can inform you of the next available bathing time. Most days have three periods when people can enter the water. And while you’re there, ask for the key to the chapel above the spring—it’s well worth a visit.
Visitors are asked to be quiet and respectful at the shrine, which continues to attract the faithful and those seeking healing.
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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy Rover, Near the Exit, The Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is Home. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.Share This!