HOLYWELL’S proud claim is that it is the only shrine in Britain to show an unbroken history of pilgrimage from the seventh century to the present, writes John Jolliffe.
Hundreds of years older than Canterbury and Chaucer’s cheerful crowd, St Winefride’s Well retains a faint but definite sacred aura.
Many cures have been effected there which can only be described as miraculous, unaccountable by science. Not for nothing is it regarded as Britain’s answer to Lourdes. Such was its importance that the route to it was signposted from as far away as Jesmond Dene in Northumberland, from Walsingham in Norfolk and from St David’s in south Wales.
Several royal pilgrims made their way there, Henry V doing so on foot from Shrewsbury in thanksgiving for Agincourt. Edward IV is said to have smeared some earth from the shrine on his crown; and in the brief respite for Catholics in the 1680s. James II and his Queen came “to crave that they might be blessed by a son”. Their prayers were answered, but the result fizzled out, through no fault of St Winifrede. The chief practical benefactor of the shrine was the ultra-pious Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and mother of Henry VII, who completed Christ’s College at Cambridge and founded what was to become St John’s. She died in 1509, but her grandson Henry VIII is said to have heeded what was left of his conscience, and refrained from demolishing the building that had been completed in celebration of his father’s victory at Bosworth Field, and the foundation of the Tudor dynasty. Perhaps also through this connection efforts to stop pilgrimages under Queen Elizabeth were unusually unsuccessful. There was a decline in pilgrimages in the 17th and 18th centuries, but by 1859 the Sisters of Charity established a small convent there, and 10 years later a larger house was acquired. The well was celebrated in a fine poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Last month I joined a band of pilgrims under the banner of the Order of Malta. We came to Holywell, but I fear not on foot. The party consisted of volunteers and members of the nursing staff as well as Knights and Dames of the Order. The pilgrimage was skilfully organised by Caroline Armstrong-Jones. Earlier, we had progressed down the Pilgrims’ Route towards the even older shrine at Bardsey Island, at the extreme end of the Llyn Peninsula, which stretches out, shaped like a leg and a foot, south-west from Caernarvon. Bardsey, whose name in Welsh means the Island of Currents, centres on a monastery built by St Cadfan in AD 516. It became an Augustinian Abbey in the 13th century, but was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1537. In the Middle Ages three pilgrimages to Bardsey were counted equal to one to Rome. Many pilgrims remained to die and be buried there.
Nowadays, ironically, with all the modern developments of navigation, access is sometimes impossible, and we were unable to make the crossing: a shining example of the way in which “more” so often means “worse”. Still, as we stopped at the churches on the route down the peninsula, it was good to know that Bardsey and its history are still there.