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The Catholic Pilgrimage to Holywell, Flintshire

The Catholic pilgrimage to Holywell includes bathing in the holy well, a visit to the national shrine of St Padre Pio, and concludes with a splendid High Mass in the Traditional Roman Rite

If you wish to register your interest and receive information by mail about the next pilgrimage then please click here.

Padre Pio

The Beautiful Unspoilt Shrine

On the 1st Sunday of July every year, thousands of Catholics descend upon the beautiful shrine St Winefride’s Well in Holywell, Flint, North Wales. What brings them back to this pilgrimage spot year after year?

In the first half of the seventh century, where Holywell now stands, there lived the girl who is today famous as Saint Winefride.  For a long time after her death her fame was merely local; it was part of the greater fame of her uncle, Saint Beuno, the most famous of the saints of North Wales.

In 1138 relics of St Winefride were translated to Shrewsbury, and she became the patron saint of that town.  Her relics were venerated there by pilgrims until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.  Her shrine and its relics were then destroyed on the orders of the Government.  One finger-bone was saved, half of which is today preserved at Holywell, while the other half is in the possession of the Catholic Church at Shrewsbury.

The Legend

Winefride was the daughter of a local prince.  One day Caradoc, a chieftain from Hawarden, attempted to seduce Winefride.  She ran from him towards the church built by her uncle St Beuno.  Caradoc pursued her and cut off her head.  In the place where her head fell a spring of water came forth.  St. Beuno came out from the church, took up her head and placed it back on her body.  He then prayed and raised her to life.  A white scar encircled her neck, witness to her martyrdom.  St Beuno then laid a malediction on Caradoc who sank into the ground and was never seen again.  Winefride subsequently became a nun and joined a community where she became the Abbess.  While this legend may seem essentially unbelievable, it is nevertheless based upon real people and real events.

Padre Pio

Pilgrims making the Way of the Cross at nearby

The Government, however, proved powerless to put a stop to the pilgrimages to her well, which became the center of Welsh Catholic resistance to the Protestant ascendancy and oppression and has links with a number of the English and Welsh martyrs.  Alone of all the Pilgrimages in Wales it has continued unbroken down to the present day.  Nothing was able to stop it.  It links modern Wales through her mediaeval past with the Age of the Saints and the founding of the Welsh nation.

Indeed, so valuable were the offerings at Holywell that the chapel was not destroyed by Henry VIII but leased to a Protestant, one William Holcroft.  There is an amusing account of Mr Holcroth complaining that certain “bold Catholics” were entering the well-chapel with collecting boxes shouting: “Put your money in here where it shall do good to your souls; if you put it into the regular collection box, it will go to the King and shall not benefit you”.

Famous Pilgrims

PilgrimPadre Pio

A Pilgrim Praying at the Nearby
National Shrine of St Padre Pio

It is against a background of a crowded and popular pilgrimage spot that we should visualize the long list of famous men and women who came to Holywell.

Henry V is reported to have walked bare foot from Shrewsbury in 1416.  This was the year he was preparing for his second and greater invasion of France that followed the Agincourt campaign.  I like to imagine that he also came to do penance for the number of French prisoners whom he had ordered murdered in cold blood following the battle of Agincourt.

Edward IV made a pilgrimage to Holywell, which was a stronghold of the Yorkist cause at the time.  Richard III gave alms to maintain a priest at the well, and Henry Tudor, came in secret to the neighborhood to take counsel with his allies.  It was Henry's mother, the Lady Margaret, who played a large part in the construction of the present chapel, and Caxton's Life of the Saint Winefride may well be due to Lady Margaret’s influence.

Saint Winefride is among the saints placed to watch for ever over the tomb of the first Welsh King of England, Henry VII's, in his chapel at Westminster.

The last King to come on pilgrimage was James II, who came on 29 August 1686 with his Queen, Mary of Modena, to pray for a Stuart Prince of Wales.  Mary of Modena's gave to Saint Winefride's shrine part of the shift, which Mary Queen of Scots had worn at her execution.  A son, James Edward, was born less than two years later.

The Wales of Saint Winefride

We know a surprising amount about the Wales in which Saint Winefride lived.  It was a world in which the civilization of Rome, which still loomed large in men's minds and memories, had passed.  It was an age of violent transition.  In Wales this crisis was met and mastered by the Welsh Saints.

Padre Pio

A Pilgrim Bathing in the Holy Well

Saint Winefride lived in a Wales composed of a number of small kingdoms ruled by hereditary kings, a state of affairs which bridged the period between the departure of the Roman armies and the gradual unification of the country in the ninth century.  These rulers thought of themselves as carrying on the traditions of the late Roman Empire, and they were in touch with Gaul by means of the old sea routes and consequently with what was happening on the Continent.  Undoubtedly, travel was slow and communications uncertain, but we shall be making a great mistake if we think of these men as savage chieftains.  Instead, we must think of them as proud, energetic, and masterful men, conscious that their dynasties had turned back the Irish invasion of the Welsh coastline, and stabilized their position in post-Roman Wales.  They had now to consider the threat from the East, where the pagan kingdoms set up by the leaders of the war-bands of Saxons and Angles had become powerful.  Saint Beuno was the leader of a mission into North-West Wales, playing a similar role in North Wales as did Saint David in the South.  At a time when the wave of pagan invasion was eating its way forward to the Eastern borderlands, he established Catholicism in a framework of fortified monastic settlements.

Saint Beuno was clearly a notable example of the Catholic principle that grace does not destroy, but perfects nature.  As one reads the traditional story of how he rebuked the formidable prince Cadwallon, or laid his malediction on Caradoc, the man who had attacked his niece at Holywell, one is irresistibly reminded of an early account of how the Welshmen of his own day were remarkable for a "boldness and confidence in speaking and answering, even in the presence of their Princes and Chieftains."  St Beuno was a monk, a master of monks, a patriot, a challenger of tyrants, a principal founding father of his nation and is one of the greatest of the saints of Wales.

A Welsh Nun in the Age of the Saints

And what of Saint Beuno's niece?  Of Saint Winefride's life as a nun it is possible to have a reasonably clear impression.  Today, when we think of a girl becoming a nun, we naturally think of a sharp break between her life "in the world" and her life when, she enters a convent.  Among the Celtic nations, however, women often began their life as religious within their own families.  Subsequently, as and when the opportunity offered, they joined a religious community.

The working day of a Celtic nun was exceedingly arduous.  Apart from the Mass and the Psalter that, then as now, provided the framework of the day; apart from the long, slogging, disciplined task of prayer, there was an immense burden of work to be carried and completed.  There was the labour of the morning and evening milking, the churn, the bread making, and the slow, heavy work of grinding the corn.  The nuns had to be, to all intents and purposes, self-supporting and, into the bargain, there were the poor and the travelers to be cared for and entertained.  Saint Winefride must have known all the problems of sheep-rearing, harvesting, the dairy, the larder, and the bake house, and especially the task of stretching slender resources to meet never-ending need.

Then again, it was largely upon the nuns, as they toiled at the loom, at the vat, and with the needle, that the churches, monasteries, and mission-stations depended for vestments, altar coverings, and wall hangings.


Padre Pio

Pilgrims Enjoying Sharing a Meal Together

It is important to appreciate the position which was held by women in the Wales of Saint Winefride's day, a position that is clearly reflected, not only in literature, but in Welsh law of that time.  For the social tradition in which she was raised provides the necessary means of seeing her story in focus.  In particular, it provides the authentic context for the story of her encounter with Caradoc.

The position of women in Wales, as compared with most other countries of Europe, was one of very real dignity.  A woman could not be forced to marry against her will.  When she came of age, she was entitled by law to a share in her father's movable property, equal to half her brother's.  On marriage she was entitled to a dowry from her father; she had of legal right a definite and substantial share in her husband's goods.  Nor could she normally be struck by her husband.  Her legal worth, which fixed the standard of compensation if she was killed or injured, was six times greater in Wales than among the Anglo-Saxons.  Thus Saint Winefride grew up in a society in which she enjoyed a position of assured dignity in virtue of her womanhood.  Further, that she came of noble stock is almost certain.

Much of St Winefride’s time as a girl would have been spent in helping her mother and the other women of the household in the exacting duties of hospitality.  This business of hospitality was an important feature of Welsh society, and it remained so for centuries to come.

A famous Description of Wales In the twelfth century has this to say: "No one of this nation ever begs, for the houses of all are common to all; and they consider kindness and hospitality amongst the highest virtues.  So much does hospitality here rejoice in communication, that it is neither offered nor requested by travelers, who, on entering any house, merely deliver up their arms.  When water is offered to them, if they allow their feet to be washed, they are received as guests; for the offer to wash the feet is, with this nation, an invitation to accept hospitality.  But if they refuse the proffered service, they only wish for morning refreshment, not lodging.

The young men move about in troops and armed bands, each under the direction of a chosen leader ever ready to defend their country.  And so, also, they have free admittance into every house as if it were their own.  But, as for those who arrive in the morning, they are entertained till evening with the conversation of the young women, and the music of the harp, for each house has young women and harps allotted to this purpose.  In each family the art of playing on the harp is held higher in esteem than any other learning or skill.

Pilgrimage Tours and Travel Graphic

Traditional Mass in the Shrine

In the evening, when no more guests are expected, the meal is prepared according to the number and dignity of the guests, and resources of the household.  Although the whole family is engaged in waiting on the guests, the host and the hostess remain standing, paying unremitting attention to everything, and they take no food themselves until everyone has eaten his fill, so that any lack may fall upon them."

This is a passage which deserves careful study if we wish to understand the story of Saint Winefride.  For this tradition of hospitality goes right back to the very beginnings of Welsh literature, thirteen hundred years ago; as also does the war-bands of young men, undergoing what we would nowadays call "battle-training" in the mountains and forests, and then coming weary and hungry to claim hospitality.  It was part of the essential framework on which the whole Welsh way of life depended.

Furthermore, it depended primarily on the lady of the house, her daughters and the womenfolk, and without the assured position which law and culture alike accorded to them, it would have been impossible.  This position necessarily involved a high standard of breeding and chivalry among the men who claimed hospitality.  Against this background, the attempt by Caradoc to seduce St Winefride, a deliberate yet casual insult to the house in which he was seeking hospitality, would have been an unspeakable and absolute abomination to the Welsh of St Winefride’s time.  It struck right to the heart of that tradition of Catholic generosity and hospitality which was the crowning glory of the society that it was Caradoc’s inherited duty to protect.

His fellow nobleman, especially those with blood ties to St Winefride, would have seen it as their sacred duty to hunt down and slay Caradoc like a dog.  So it is very probable that he would not have survived St Beuno’s malediction by very long, which would account for the legend that the ground swallowed him up: in a very real sense, it would have done.


Almighty and everlasting God, Who didst enrich St. Winefride with the gift of Virginity, grant us we beseech Thee by her intercession to set aside the delights of the world, and to obtain with her the throne of everlasting glory, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Almighty and everlasting God, grant we humbly beseech Thee, that St. Winefride may obtain for us such spiritual and temporal benefits as are expedient to Thy holy service and our eternal salvation, through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Recite the Station or Special Pilgrimage Prayer

1. Make the sign of the cross at entrance.

2. Proceed to the front of the Well and make your intentions.

3. Recite the Apostles creed.

4. Recite one decade of the rosary while walking round the Well or the Pool.

If you wish to register your interest and receive information by mail about the next pilgrimage then please click here.

The classic "A Morbid Taste For Bones" (Book 1 in the Cadfael Chronicles) by Ellis Peters is based on the story of St Winefride


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