Part legend, part reality, St. Winifred was a member of Welsh royalty who lived in Holywell, Wales during the seventh century. However her life story didn’t become popular until the 12th century in England.
As the story goes, Winifred was a beautiful and devout young woman from a noble family. Her maternal uncle was St. Beuno, who was known for founding monasteries and raising people from the dead. Beuno founded a chapel in the town where Winifred’s family lived and she spent much of her time listening to her uncle preach. She had a great love of scripture and was preparing herself to live a life of celibacy.
One day while her family and uncle were at the chapel, a young man named Caradog came to seduce Winifred and ask her to marry him. He was the son of a neighboring prince, and had previously asked for her hand. He had been frustrated by her repeated refusals of his proposals. When she spurned him again this time, his frustration turned to anger and he chased Winifred from her house to a nearby hill. Her desire to remain a virgin only inflamed his desire to have her, and he attacked her violently. She fought back, he drew his sword and cut off her head.
Her family heard the commotion, and rushed to the scene. When Beuno saw his decapitated niece, he immediately pressed her head to her body. She miraculously healed and came back to life as if she were only asleep. At the spot where he head had lain, a spring sprang forth from the ground.
Beuno turned to see Caradog casually leaning on his sword and was enraged. The saint called down the wrath of heaven; the ground beneath the young man opened up and swallowed Caradog.
After this incident, Winifred seemed to become even more serene and spiritual. She convinced her family to build an abbey on their land and she lived a contemplative life with 11 other women there for many years.
After the death of St. Beuno, Winifred decided to travel inland, and she began a long pilgrimage toward England, searching for a place to retire. She may have well been called St. Winifred of the Water; it seemed everywhere she went, a holy spring popped up. Calling to mind her previous “death and resurrection” it seemed that springs appeared in any town where she stopped to rest, including Woolston, Holywell Farm, Lansdown Hill and Gwytherin, the place where she lived her last years.
Historians have determined that although Beuno was a real person, Winifred may not have been. Her legend lives on, though, in British Catholic culture, as she is mentioned in the historical works of Elerius, Robert of Shrewsbury and John of Tynemouth. A reliquary was found that many claimed to be hers, but it did not contain bones, only cloth.
A shrine to Winifred was erected at Shrewsbury and it was a major pilgrimage site until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1540. The well at Holywell where her famous resurrection occurred is now housed on the side of a hill and considered an excellent example of a British holy well.
Winifred’s name in the original Welsh was Guenevra; Winifred is an Anglicization of her name. She is also a popular figure in fiction. St. Winifred’s Well is mentioned in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; she is also featured in Gerard Manley Hopkins unfinished work, St. Winifred’s Well and Winifred is a character in the Brother Cadfael series of books by Ellis Peters.
St. Winifred’s feast day is Nov. 3.
Read more about Winifred and the well here: