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The truth and legend of St Winefride and Gwytherin

Gwytherin Church
Gwytherin Church stands on the foundations of St Winefride's convent

These days St Winefride is most associated with Holywell and its miraculous waters, but she spent much of her life in Gwytherin, where the church still bears her name.

So how much of her story is true and which place has the greatest claim to her?

Lolita L'Aiguille, custodian of Winefride's Well in Holywell, relates this story.

"She was of royalty and Prince Caradoc wanted to marry her, but she'd kept herself pure to become a nun, having been taught about religion by her uncle, Beuno.

"She refused Caradoc, he got angry, tried to rape her and beheaded her. Her head rolled down the hill, an earthquake took place, the earth opened up and a stream of water burst forth. This is the site of the well today.

"St Beuno and God gave her the power to live again, so she is known as the Welsh Lazarus."

As this legend has it, Winefride then became abbess of a convent at the remote village of Gwytherin, east of Llanrwst, where she died and was buried.

St Winefride's Well
Pilgrims still flock to St Winefride's Well, many in search of healing

Now only a fragment of bone remains as a precious relic of the saint and pilgrims come to pray to St Winefride and bathe in the waters, often hoping to be cured of an illness.

This story may sound incredible to modern ears, but historian Tristan Hulse thinks it is based on some truth.

"To medieval minds, it wasn't difficult to understand her living after losing her head because they accepted unquestioningly the gospel of the raising of Lazarus," said Tristan.

In the old Latin writings about her life a lot of attention is given to a scar on her neck, so she could well have been attacked by Caradoc.

The legend goes on to say that Caradoc was cursed by St Beuno and the earth opened up and swallowed him, or that he was taken by the devil.

After research into the family, Tristan thinks it's more likely her brother Owain killed Caradoc in revenge for the attack on his sister.

He suggests that those who wrote down her story in Latin in the 11th century did not understand the Welsh language or history, and so failed to mention her brother or other significant relations.

Religious sites tied to family lands tended to be run like family businesses between a small number of land-owning Welsh families
Tristan Hulse

According to his research, Winefride came from a noble land-owning family. Her aunt was abbess of the convent in Gwytherin and the chaplain was her cousin.

"It was the family monastery," said Tristan. "So regardless of what tradition later said of her being divinely directed to Gwytherin, she was probably always intended to take over from her aunt as hereditary abbess.

"She would have been the girl with a vocation, like her aunt. Religious sites tied to family lands tended to be run like family businesses between a small number of land-owning Welsh families."

Tristan thinks Winefride, who probably lived for 30 years in the early 7th century, took over at Gwytherin for the last few years of her life after looking after Beuno's church in Holywell.

She died in Gwytherin and remained buried in the churchyard until the 11th century when a monk from Shrewsbury was cured of an illness after bathing in her well. They exhumed her bones and took her to their cathedral.

"A chapel was built over her open grave and people came on pilgrimages to sleep in the grave and to be cured," said Tristan.

"This carried on until the 1700s when an old lady used the chapel as a cottage and dug up the graveyard. According to local tradition, she came to a very bad end."

Finger bone

The cottage was then demolished and the local rector used the stone for a stable.

Now all that's left of Winefride's former burial site is a field to the south side of the churchyard and the present church, built on the foundations of the old convent.

As for her bones, only a fragment remains.

"There's not enough of the bone to tell what part of the anatomy it came from," said Tristan, referring to the belief that it's her finger bone which is revered as a relic.

"It was found in Rome in 1852, when a monk who was flicking through the register of relics came across St Winefride. He asked if half could be taken back to Shrewsbury.

"Then it was cut in half again, and one part sent to Holywell. The other is still on show in Shrewsbury Cathedral, inside a beautiful silver reliquary."

And as for the correct spelling of her name, Tristan has come across over 20 variations.

"They use Winefride because someone in the 19th century thought it looked fancy and gothic," he said. "But Winifred is probably the best one as it's closest to the Latin, Wenefreda. It's just their version of the original Welsh Gwenffrewi, which would have been pronounced without the 'g' in those days."

Whatever the truth of her story, Winefride has certainly made her mark. Over 1,400 years later, there are numerous churches named in her honour and pilgrims continue to visit Gwytherin and Holywell.

"I'd never heard of her," said Lolita, explaining how she has come all the way from Mauritius to spread the word about Winefride. "But I had a vision of my journey to her well.

"I was sick, but when I came here, I was healed. So now I try to help people learn all about her."

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