St. Winefride and her Well
For modern men and women, it is not so much the wonderful restorations to health which happened and still happen at the Well which pose a problem of belief and understanding, but the double "miracle" at the heart of the medieval legend of St. Winefride which initiated the pilgrimage and the sequence of healings - the sudden appearance of the water and the resurrection of the dead woman. How is one to interpret the legend, without explaining away the truth that countless numbers of people down the centuries have found at its core?
Of course, before modern times these miracles presented no real problem: to God, after all, all things were possible. Every Christian believed that the Son of God rose from the dead after His crucifixion; and before that Jesus had restored His friend Lazarus to life, in order, as He prayed to His Father, "that they may believe that Thou hast sent me" (St John 11:42).
The legend of St Winefride was only written down 500 years after the events it describes were said to have occurred. But it is important to recognise that Winefride and Beuno were real people who had really lived in 7th-century Wales.
Their written "Lives" are not history as this is understood today, but symbolic explorations of such facts about them that local oral tradition had preserved. Historians are free to interpret this rich mixture of fact and legend as best fits all the information.
An economical explanation would tell us that the Well was always here, but took on a new meaning in the light of the events that happened beside it in the 7th century; and then with time this meaning suggested to tradition that the Well itself was new. Beuno's own medieval Welsh "Life" strongly suggests that he had an extraordinary power to heal troubled minds. Perhaps it was that Winefride was not killed in the brutal rape attack, but was severely wounded and traumatised, to be nursed back to mental and physical health, to "new life", by St Beuno. Both "Lives" of St. Winefride stress the scars that she bore to the end of her life.
The "Lives" also stress that people came to visit the girl who had returned to life, and to see the scars that witnessed to that restoration. Symbolically, Winefride had returned from the dead. But the medieval exploration of the symbolism went further than this, as the "Lives" and other medieval texts reveal. Like Lazarus, Winefride pointed towards the resurrection of Jesus, and beyond Jesus, to the eventual resurrection of all who would believe in Him. Symbolically, Winefride's resurrection guaranteed to all who cared to meditate upon her story the general resurrection promised to all believers. The symbolism went further still. Christian teaching understood that believers were incorporated into Christ through the sacrament of baptism; the going into and coming out of the baptismal font was experienced as a death to sin and a rising to new life; and baptism was in this way the means of approaching the general resurrection.
Winefride - the Welsh Lazarus - went down into death and returned to life through a special mercy of God. For Christians, their baptism paralleled this experience and, like Winefride going down to death and rising to life, and like the Christian entering the waters of baptism and coming forth to spiritual wholeness, the sick pilgrim to Holywell went down into the waters of the Well and came out restored to health. Symbolically imitating Winefride, renewing their own baptisms, and incorporating themselves into Christ, all devout pilgrims to Holywell have experienced their pilgrimage as a profound symbol of their whole spiritual life.
In the words of the ancient Litany of St.Winefride:
That through thy pious intercession we may receive perfect health of our souls and bodies,
O holy Virgin and Martyr, pray for us.
Now if Christ be preached, that He arose again from the dead, how do some among you say,
that there is no resurrection of the dead?
But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ be not risen again...
And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, for you are yet in your sins.
Then they also that are fallen asleep in Christ, are perished...
But now Christ is risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep:
For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead.
And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.
(I Corinthians 15: 12-13, 17-18, 20-22)