The Other St Winifred’s Wells

by Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse

For the 500 years following her death, veneration of Winifred as a saint was limited to N-E Wales, to the areas around her grave at Gwytherin, in Denbighshire, and around her well at Holywell, in Flintshire. In 1093, the Norman countess of Chester, Adeliza, gave the church of ‘Haliwel’ to the Benedictine monks of St Werbergh’s abbey, in Chester. That Holywell already had an Anglo-Saxon name (northern Flintshire had been contested territory for centuries) might suggest that St Winifred’s cult was already beginning to spread into England, a process which the Chester Benedictines might have been expected to promote, though there is no surviving evidence for this. The turning-point came in 1138, when Winifred’s relics were removed from Gwytherin and enshrined in Shrewsbury. Her shrine there became a focus of popular pilgrimage, and her cult gradually spread across England, gaining strength, until in 1415 the archbishop of Canterbury upgraded her feastday on 3 November into a major solemnity. With the exception of Holywell parish church, and her grave-chapel (Capel Gwenfrewi) at Gwytherin, no medieval Welsh churches were dedicated to Winifred [1]; but by the end of the 15th century, 5 churches in England honoured her as patroness [2]. Numbers of surviving painted, carved and stained-glass images of the saint testify to this widespread devotion, as perhaps do – though much more marginally – a number of holy wells.

Of these, the most significant is that at Woolston, near Oswestry in Shropshire:

‘A rare example of a well covered by a secular building, in this case a half-timbered cottage originally used as a courthouse. The present sixteenth- or seventeenth century building may have succeeded a chapel…the well itself and the pool into which it flows are seen behind the cottage. The various stone troughs through which the water flows could be dammed up to form bathing pools’. [3].

That the house replaced a medieval well-chapel is in fact far from certain; and even the patronage of St Winifred is attested only from the early 19th century:

     ‘”Woolston’s Well”, dedicated, according to Hulbert’s History of Salop (1838) to St Winifred. Some have sought to explain this dedication (now locally forgotten) by supposing that the relics of St. Winifred may have rested here on their way from Gwytherin in North Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey, in the twelfth century; but it is easily accounted for by the fact that certain small stones spotted with indelible red marks singularly resembling bloodstains are occasionally found in the water, which have obviously led to the former localizing here of the legend of the well which sprang up on the site of St Winifred’s decapitation’. [4]

The ‘local forgetfulness’ mentioned by Charlotte Burne, coupled with what is evidently antiquarian speculation rather than genuine tradition, suggests that the dedication is not original. If Hulbert’s reference is the earliest, it is worth noting that it was just at this time that the Holywell pilgrimage was reviving, after Catholic Emancipation.

     ‘The water…is supposed to have wonderful powers of healing wounds and bruises and broken bones. When I visited the place in June 1885, a broken arm was in course of treatment there’. [5]

Laurens Otter in his study of Shropshire wells mentions the possibility of there being another well of St Winifred nearby.

‘Only one writer – in The Shropshire Magazine – refers to the other St Winifred’s Well, at Oswestry, and as Woolston is only five miles from that town, I would assume he was confusing the two were it not that his list also includes Woolston, albeit only as ‘Holy Well’. [6]

No other information is available; but, as Otter observes, wells having the same dedication ‘in close proximity are not all that surprising’. Drawing on the monograph of Dom Ethelbert Horne, O.S.B., [7] Jeremy Harte drew attention to a St Winifred’s Well which formerly existed in Somerset.

     ‘St Winefred’s Well, Sion Hill, Lansdown [Swainswick]. In certain title deeds relating to the property on which St Winefred House now stands, a “well called St Winefred’s Well” is described. Horne goes on to say it “has been covered in and its exact position is doubtful. The water is said to be of a hard brackish nature”, and he quotes Peach’s Historic Houses in Bath that from 1730 to 1780 ‘women with superstitious hopes of maternity’ took the waters of this well’. [8]

Harte also noticed a further well in southern England, at Sherborne, in Dorset.

     ‘At the northern edge of the town, beside a pub called the Traveller’s Rest, is St Winifred’s Well. The name may be modern as it has not been tracked down in any medieval documents’. [9]

A St Winifred’s Well in Oxford has been the source of much confusion. It stood somewhere in the vicinity of the church of Holywell, a Norman foundation dedicated to the Holy Cross.

     ‘At the distance of about thirty yards, on the north side of the church, considerable remains of the manor house rebuilt in 1516 are still standing…Between this house and the church is [a] well, from which the parish is supposed to have taken its name. It was dedicated to St Winifred and St Margaret, and very much frequented for the reputed holiness of the water. Wood says, “I find many persons yearly relieved by these wholesome waters to this day”. At present they have entirely lost their former celebrity, and are deserted for more fashionable springs. The water is remarkably pure, intensely cold, but seldom freezes: there is still a cold bath, but it has few visitors. About the year 1488 Dr. Fitzjames, warden of Merton, erected a stone building over it, “to receive the prayers of people”. The present building is in good repair’. [10]

Ingram goes on to note that ‘some persons are of opinion that the holy well was not situated as here described by Wood, but in Jackson’s or Holywell green, about a hundred yards due east of the church, where there is a well, called Jenny Newton’s well, still in repute for “curing the eyes”‘, but defends his own attribution on the grounds of Wood’s ‘explicit’ statement. [11] James Rattue, in his inventory of Oxfordshire wells, gathers the references to these wells, and adds further possible claimants to being the true St Winifred’s Well, but without being able to decide between them; and even records a reference to another Oxfordshire St Winifred’s Well, ‘said in 1887 to have been E. of St Bartholomew’s Well, Cowley’. [12]

Jim Taylor Page found a single reference to a holy well of St Winifred in Cumbria. [13] This relates to a well in Brough, but its dedication is problematic.

     ‘Opposite to the cross, in the said further Brough, on the right hand as one goes towards Stanemore, behind a house, was a well covered over with a milestone, at the eye of which they took up the water, which was called St Mary’s (or St. Winifred’s) well. Perhaps it got the name of St Mary after founding of the chapel. [Elsewhere the authors make reference to persons “solemly certifying miracles to have been performed in the said chapel”.] Many came hither on pilgrimage in the times of popery, and the vicar of Burgh had a diploma from the pope…to receive the oblations of all pilgrims there.’ [14]

The well itself has been lost, and no memory of it survives.

‘Brough itself is divided into Church and Market Brough and I believe the cross mentioned by Nicolson and Burn is the ancient cross in Market Brough, about half way up the main street. There’s now no sign of a well and it’s likely that it’s either under the road or under one of the houses: though the old cross still exists it may have been moved as the road was improved’. [15]

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the discovery that there is a well called St Winifred’s in Dublin. This well has been restored recently.

‘The enclosed is what appears on the wall plaque in Eustace Street, Dublin – the wall belonging to a pub!’ [16]

“St Winifred’s Well

…St Winifred’s Well was a medieval well known to have been in Eustace Street, perhaps further up towards Dame Street. St Winifred…was revered in North Wales in the middle ages and like St Bridget in Ireland, her name was associated with wells and springs. It is not clear how a well in medieval Dublin came to bear her name. It is known that Dublin had trading contacts with North Wales from the 11th century onwards and settlers from there probably came to live in Dublin after the Anglo-Normans captured the city in 1170. One of these may have given the well its name…

The present well has been covered over by the Street at some point in the past. It has been restored to expose the ground water resource that flows all the time below the foundations of the city…

Joint project involving Dublin Corporation & Temple Bar Properties Ltd.”‘

The first sentence of this excerpt suggests that the restored well is not in fact the original well named for the saint; and as the plaque also notes that ‘Eustace Street was laid between 1680 and 1720’, one wonders whether the ‘medieval’ associations are demonstrable or simply assumed. If the latter, then it must be observed that a medieval origin for the ‘St Winifred’ dedications – as opposed to the actual wells themselves – can be demonstrated for none of the above holy wells. Two of them have their dedications reported in ways which confirm that the dedications to Winifred are not the original ones: the Oxford and Brough wells were almost certainly anciently dedicated to St Margaret (whose cult was widespread in England long before Winifred’s was established there) and our Lady respectively. (In the case of the Brough well, this is confirmed by the report of miracles and pilgrimages at the nearby chapel of St Mary.) This, and the post-Reformation dates available, suggest that all these wells and their (re)dedications are part of the fully-developed cultus of St Winifred, as this manifested itself in British Counter- Reformation Catholicism. Though Winifred was the object of an important late-medieval cult, and though Holywell was an important medieval pilgrimage centre, Winifred was only one among many popular indigenous saints, and Holywell only one of many popular shrines. After the Reformation, this position altered radically. Holywell was the only such shrine to remain relatively intact, and from the late Tudor period onwards, it became the only place where Catholicism could be practised more or less openly. Its importance for Catholics during the whole period when Catholicism was a scribed religion cannot be overestimated, and by the time of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, it had assumed the status of being the paramount British shrine, with Winifred as a sort of pan-British patroness – a status frequently read back into the medieval period, somewhat distorting modern understanding of Holywell’s history, and of the cult of St Winifred itself. In the absence of any evidence of medieval origins, it might be suggested that these other wells of St Winifred are a reflection of this situation, with persecuted Catholics trying to ‘recreate’ in some way the Holywell shrine in their own locality (a process documented for other shrines in Ireland during ‘Penal Times’ [17], either by associating Winifred with extant minor sacred sites still accessible to Catholics (Brough, Oxford, perhaps Woolston), or by dedicating ordinary wells in her honour (Lansdown, Dublin). These severely restricted, late-established (i.e., at a time when the well-cult generally was disintegrating in Britain), and short-lived cults could have made little impression on local folk-memory; while even the name, newly-imposed and used regularly by comparatively few people, could have become established as at best an alternative to an older name. If this hypothesis be accepted, then these wells assume quite unexpected importance, as possibly the last British wells either to acquire a sacred character, or to redefine a pre-existent sacrality. And if this is the case, then the actual process of imparting or redefining this sacred character should be studied if at all possible, for the clues it might yield as to the possible ways by which numbers of holy wells in the medieval period, whose origins are known only through their legends, first acquired their sacred status.



1. With the dubious exception of a now-extinct capella in the parish of LlandysuI, Cardiganshire: cf. I.T. Hughes & J.R. Jenkins, ‘The church of St. Tysul, Llandysul’, Ceredigion,V, 4, 1967, p. 426.
2. Manaton and Branscombe, Devon; Kingston-on-Soar and Screveten, Notts.; Stainton, Yorks.: S. Baring-Gould & J. Fisher, Lives of the British Saints, III, London 1911, p. 193.
3. Janet & Colin Bord, Sacred Waters, London 1986, p. 206. There is a photograph of the well on p. 97.
4. Charlotte S. Burne, Shropshire Folk-Lore, London 1883, pp. 429-30. Miss Burne tells us, p. 430, that she had some of the pebbles examined at the British Museum, ‘where the red marks are pronounced not to be mineral, but organic; probably a kind of fresh-water alga’ – perhaps the Byssus jolithus formerly found in the Holywell well?
5. Ibid., p. 430.
6. Laurens Otter, ‘Notes Towards a Survey of Shropshire Holy Wells: 5’, Source, First Series, number 8 (1988), p. 23.
7. Ethelbert Horne, Somerset Holy Wells, Somerset Folk Series 12, London 1923.
8. J.M. Harte, ‘The Holy Wells of Somerset’, Source, First Series, number 2 (1985), p. 10.
9. J.M. Harte, ‘Dorset Holy Wells’, Source, First Series, number 1 (1985), p. 6.
10. James Ingram, Memorials of Oxford, Vol III, Oxford 1837, pp. 7-8.
11. Ibid., loc. cit.
12. James Rattue, ‘An Inventory of Ancient and Holy Wells in Oxfordshire’, Oxoniensia 55 (1990), p. 175.
13. Jim Taylor Page, Cumbrian Holy Wells, North West Catholic Hist. Soc., Wigan 1990, p. 21.
14. J. Nicolson & R. Burn, History and Antiquities of the Counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, Vol. I, London 1777, p. 575 – not 275, as inadvertently given by Mr Taylor Page. He has also confused Brough with the separate village of Brough Sowerby, which had neither chapel nor cross.
15. Dawn Robertson, in litt. to T.G.H., 6 Oct.1993.
16. Gerry Glennon, in litt. 23 June 1994.
17. Cf. e.g., Philip Dixon Hardy, The Holy Wells of Ireland, Dublin 1836, pp. 27-9 (recreations of St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg).

[The editors would welcome further information on any of these wells.]

Text  © Roy Fry& Tristan Gray Hulse (1994)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 15/11/99

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