The Beauty of Welsh Pilgrimage

Today I would like to share a guest post from Tim Guile who lives near Oxford, England. Tim is a teacher and a writer specialising in  late medieval/early modern history and has published a number of articles both online and in print on aspects of English church history such as Marian shrines and devotion, saints, iconoclasm and Catholic recusancy. He is on the committee of the English Catholic History Association and some of his articles have been published in their newsletters. He  has been a speaker at the More than a Memory, Tolkien Spiritual Conference held at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford in 2019. You can check out his two Facebook groups: British Medieval Christian Tradition and British Celtic Christian Tradition.


There are many holy places in Wales today which have ancient links to the insular British or medieval Christian tradition. Bardsey Island off the coast of north Wales, Holywell in north Wales, Pen Llyn in south Wales and many more. Today, with the increasing popularity of long or short distance hiking trails and revival of pilgrimage, these places are once again becoming the centre of a revived spiritual tradition. 

Winifred

Winifred, sometimes written as  Winefride or Gwenffrewi in Welsh, was a seventh century Welsh martyr associated with Gwytherin and is remembered at Holywell, Flintshire.  She was said to have been the daughter of a local chief and niece of St Bueno. Her family connections mean she is sometimes called a princess. Winefride was supposedly pursued by a suitor named Caradoc, but she told him she had decided to become a nun rather than give in to his advances, or so the story goes. 

Caradoc was said to have become angry and frustrated and decided to cut off Winefride’s head with his sword. Versions of the story differ, but one popular version is that her head rolled down the hill, and where it came to rest a spring gushed forth from the ground. This spring, and the well that later developed around it, were thought by some pilgrims to have healing powers. 

Fortunately, according to one version of the legend, Winefride’s uncle, Bueno, was passing, and managed to heal her and restore her to health.  He then called on the almighty to punish her assailant, Caradoc, who was promptly struck dead on the spot, and the ground conveniently opened up to swallow him. 

Bueno then sat upon a stone and vowed that if anyone should stand or sit on that spot and three times ask God for help in Winefride’s name, that help would be granted. The stone upon which he made this vow is called Bueno’s Stone and lies in the outer pool of the holy well. As for Winefride, she carried out her wish to become a nun at Gwytherin in Denbighshire and later rose to be abbess of that convent. She died around 660 AD and was buried at her abbey. From the time of her death Winefride was venerated, and the holy well became a place of pilgrimage.

In 1138 her bones were carried with great ceremony to Shrewsbury Abbey, where her shrine became an extremely popular destination for pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages.  It is thought that St Winefride’s Well has been a destination for pilgrims for over a thousand years, longer than most other Christian sites in the British Isles. 

This long history as a place of pilgrimage has led Holywell to become known as the Lourdes of Wales. The well is contained within a beautiful early sixteenth century gothic building. This beautiful structure has a bathing pool within a star-shaped inner chamber, joined to a more modern rectangular bathing pool for pilgrims. 

In the inner pool is St Bueno’s Stone, taken from the nearby streambed. The spectacular vaulted canopy over the pool was constructed on the orders of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, and carries elaborate carvings of Tudor family symbols. There are carvings representing St Winifred in several places and one large carving is set on the ceiling, showing the saint with a staff and a crown upon her head. 

Pilgrimages must have begun soon after her death but the earliest written records of pilgrimages date to the twelfth century, when pilgrims claimed healing from illness after bathing in the waters of the well. Among the treasures on display in the museum are wooden crutches thrown aside by pilgrims after healing. Most visitors focus on the holy well and shrine, but there is also a late fifteenth century chapel. Thomas Pennant (1726-98) the multitalented naturalist, antiquarian, traveller and writer, wrote about the holy well in 1776.

The holy well is still very much a place of pilgrimage with the local sign informing visitors that it is the Lourdes of Wales. St Winefride’s Day is today celebrated on the third of November. A second festival is celebrated at Holywell on June 22nd which commemorates the day on which her head was said to have been removed and replaced.

Melangell

The church of St Melangell near Pennant Melangell in the Berwyn Mountains of north Wales, provides the setting for a reconstructed medieval shrine. Saint Melangell was a female saint of the seventh century. According to tradition she came here from Ireland and lived as a hermit in the valley. It is said that one day Brochwel, Prince of Powys, was hunting and pursued a hare which took refuge under Melangell’s cloak. 

The Prince’s hounds fled, and he was moved by her courage and sanctity. He gave her the valley as a place of sanctuary, and Melangell became Abbess of a small religious community. After her death her memory continued to be honoured, and Pennant Melangell has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Melangell remains the patron saint of hares. 

The Churchyard is almost circular and has been used since ancient times. Bronze age burial pits have been found with remains carbon dated to between 1000 and 1500 BC.  Four ancient yew trees grace the church yard which have been estimated to be around a thousand years old. The Shrine of Saint Melangell is thought to have been constructed around 1160-70 to house the relics of the Saint. 

In 1561, the shrine was ordered to be demolished. Stones from the shrine were built into the Lych gate and into parts of the wall of the nave and were rediscovered in 1894. Some of the stones were recovered and the shrine was rebuilt in 1989 in its present position in the chancel, with any missing stones being clearly identified by the concrete used to avoid any confusion by their replacement.  

During an excavation in 1958, skeletal remains were found beneath the floor and further fragments in 1989. A lead casket containing the bones was examined by an orthopedic surgeon who identified them as being from a woman around five feet tall. These have been placed in the reconstructed shrine. Pilgrims and visitors once again visit this ancient site and some may pray at the shrine of this Welsh saint.

Modern Pilgrimages

Some ancient pilgrim routes survived the Reformation in Wales and a few can still be traced. Cistercian Way from St David’s to Holywell, which links these two important shrines, was recorded by John Ogilby when he mapped it in 1675. The route is almost certainly medieval, though parts of it may have changed over time. 

The pilgrimage route between Cardiff and Penrhys survived, as did the importance of the holy well in popular culture. In the twentieth century the holiness of the site was confirmed when in 1953, the Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff erected a new statue of Our Lady, carved from Portland stone, on the site of the medieval Cistercian chapel dedicated to her. It has become, once again, a site of pilgrimage associated with Our Lady of Penrhys and a place of great importance to many Welsh Catholics. 

The Penrhys Pilgrimage Way is now established as a popular hiking or pilgrimage trail starting from the Welsh capital. The trail is a twenty-one-mile walking route that recreates the historic pilgrimage route between Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff and Penrhys. Today, hikers and pilgrims still walk the paths to the Llyn Peninsula and Bardsey is sometimes a destination for pilgrims. 

There is now a route called the Pilgrims Way which has been waymarked there from Holywell, the ancient Welsh pool in Flintshire, The route goes via ancient churches, thousand year-old stone crosses, sacred springs and waterfalls. It passes through woodlands and across great rivers, up mountains and along coast paths, along ancient roadways, through wilderness and human settlements. 

Tiny stone churches nestled into the hills provide shelter and rest along the Way, much as they would have done in the past original pilgrim places. It is tricky crossing to Bardsey Island in a simple boat, like so many pilgrims did long ago. It will no doubt continue to attract hikers and pilgrims in the future. 

Modern interest in Celtic places of worship and wells still attracts visitors and the curious alike. Those who love the physical landscape and the beauty of nature are undoubtedly drawn to parts of Wales. Recent waymarked path still links ancient churches and wells dedicated to the saints of the early and later medieval period whose gentle faith and witness combined with the beauty and wonder of nature, still echoes with us today.


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