This carries a gory health warning but all turns out well in the end.
Winifred (‘healing’) was born in the early 600s, the daughter of Tyfid ap Eiludd, a Welsh nobleman in South Wales. From early years, she sought a monastic life but being of noble blood (and, by accounts, beautiful), she was sought after as a bride. She favoured holy orders, but one spurned suitor, Caradog, attacked her after she rejected him. Some legends are that he actually beheaded her and she was brought back to life; other accounts are that he slit her throat causing a serious but not fatal injury with lasting scars. But certainly, for the medical standards of the day, her healing was considered miraculous.
Perhaps this healing triggered her godly calling; perhaps it was always her godly gift, but Winifred was healed and then became associated with the healing of others.
There was more to her, but there was always the healing. Winifred became known for her wise counsel and administration … and her healing abilities. In North Wales, north of Wrexham and west of the Wirral peninsula, she founded a dual monastery and convent. It was known first as Winifred’s Well and then as Holywell. As its name suggests, it was famous for its healing spring. Winifred is one of the few Celtic saints to have been venerated throughout medieval times and into the present day, and the Holywell shrine is still frequented by pilgrims.
After seven years at Holywell (note the Biblical number for completion), Winifred was guided to Gwytherin in Denbighshire, North Wales where she founded and led another convent.
Over the years, only the legends survived and her life story was doubted. However, in 1991, some pieces of a reliquary (a container for relics in a shrine) from the early 8th century were discovered and, from earlier drawings, the pieces were identified as belonging to Winifred, providing evidence of her historicity.
She is often represented with images representing her wisdom and leadership – usually a crozier (bishop’s staff of office) and the wimple of an abbess (not just the ‘ordinary’ wimple of a nun). But the images often also depict the tell-tale scarring at her throat, and the stories told of her always touch on the healing that others experienced.
She died around AD650 at her convent in Gwytherin and was buried there. She was much revered and, in fact, was the patron saint of Wales until her relics were moved to Shrewsbury Abbey in 1138 whereupon the Welsh turned to David, not wanting a saint who was buried in England!
Henry V walked the 50 miles from Shrewsbury to Holywell to give thanks for his victory at Agincourt and to pray for healing – physical, emotional and economic – after the fighting.
It is important to remember that for Winifred, it was not a conveyor belt of physical healing and moving on. The healing was often emotional or spiritual as well. We should acknowledge those who have medical training and godly gifts of healing and at the same time we should ourselves step forward and act, for we help each other by caring for each other’s soul needs:
Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. (3 John 1:2)
[from Timothy Pitt]