St Winefride's Well - an amazing mediaeval survival rich in history and mythology
Above: St Winefride's Well at Holywell in Flintshire - a wonderful survival with a unique atmosphere
In the middle-English masterpiece, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we are given a rare insight into the geographical knowledge of the anonymous poet when he describes Sir Gawain's journey across North Wales. In particular, he refers to a place called the Holy Head; now understood to be St Winefride's Well at Holywell in Flintshire.
The legend of the well
The well here was a well known site of pilgrimage in the middle ages. According to legend, Winefride (or Gwenfrewi, to give her her Welsh name), was the daughter of a local prince Tewyth and his wife Gwenlo. A chieftain from nearby, a certain Caradoc, was so besotted by her that was overcome with lust; she sought to escape his clutches in the church built by her uncle.
Caradoc caught up with her and ,when she refused his aggressive advances, he cut off her head and in the place where it fell, a spring welled up. St Bueno emerged from the church and replaced the girl's head on her body, at which point Caradoc collapsed into the earth and was never seen again. Winefride, bearing forever the scar of her beheading, betokening of her miraculous recovery, became a nun.
The source of the spring then became the holy well and remained a popular pilgrim destination throughout the middle ages and is still so today,
St Winefride's Well today
Today the spring emerges into an open crypt beneath a substantial chapel building, dating to the late fifteenth century. Here, the visitor can see the waters emerging from the ground within a grand vaulted chamber which, though much damaged by time and by significant desecration in the 17th century, still retains a unique atmosphere and grandeur.
Almost certainly, this structure replaces an earlier building although no trace of that remains. Instead, the visitor is confronted with a fine vaulted chamber which, when first completed, must have been truly astonishing with its main fanned vaults, bosses and elaborate arches. Despite the removal of many of the sculptures within this well-lit crypt, it is still possible to stand there and gain some sense of the impression the building would have made when new.
Above the crypt itself is the main chapel. At the time of my visit I was unable to gain access to the chapel but I am told it contains a fine array of decorative carvings of animals, grotesques, contemporary figures and much more. A return visit is therefore essential.
While the buildings confronting the visitor today would have been unknown to the Gawain-poet, the spring itself, which at one point gushed so much that a mill was powered from its flow, could not be mistaken. Indeed, the site has been venerated since the seventh century and the pool just outside the well itself contains St Bueno's stone, at which he is said to have sat when instructing St Winefride following her miraculous return to life.
In relatively recent times (1917), the well almost dried up completely following nearby mining works which cut through the underground source of the waters resulting in their emergence at Bagillt. However, eventually a new spring emerged only a few hundred yards away and was diverted below ground to re-emerge at St Winefide's well. Proof indeed of the powers of the Saint!
I strongly recommend a visit to this wonderful site, which is still maintained by the local church and is accessible for a very reasonable entry fee. An excellent site to visit not just for the architecture and the wonderful story but also for its unique atmosphere. If you're on your way into North Wales do visit St Winefride's - it offers something truly unique and is one of the great unsung architectural gems of North Wales, if not the entire British Isles.
St Winefride's Well is easily accessible from within the town of Holywell and is well signposted. There is a small car park just opposite. Although this fills quickly, you'll usually find that if you wait in a layby just outside that spaces become available.
About the author
Michael Smith is a printmaker and historian. His new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, illustrated with his own linocuts, will be published by Unbound in 2018. To learn more about the book and to pre-order your own collector's first edition, click here.