The Holywell Cure Records

by Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse


     St Winifred lived in the first half of the seventh century, and since that time her well at Holywell has been a place of pilgrimage and healing. It still is. One of the factors that make Holywell so fascinating, and which powerfully reinforces its unique status among British holy wells, is that for 900 of these1300 or so years there exists a more or less continuous record of its cures. No attempt has ever been made to compile a comprehensive list of these records, though various partial collections have been published. The earliest of these is found in the first account of Winifred’s life and legend to have survived, the anonymous Latin First Life. This was written c.1130, at or near Holywell; and its description of the miraculous appearance of the spring is doubly significant, in that it mentions, besides the healing water itself, the ‘blood-marked’ stones and the trailing moss which were both found in the well. It was of course long believed that the red spotted stones bore the indelible stains of St Winifred’s blood; and the long waving sweet-scented moss was poetically referred to as ‘St Winifred’s Hair’. Both are found referred to in the cure accounts, and both were themselves agents of cures. During the seventeenth century, the moss was dried, woven into wreaths, and sold around the country for its healing properties. The naturalist and historian Thomas Pennant identified ‘the sweet moss, and the bloody stains’ as ‘mere vegetable productions’. The moss, which is illustrated by Pennant, is Jungermannia asplenioides, which is also found in a number of other holy wells; while the ‘blood stains’ are a velvet-like growth called Byssus jolithus (Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales, vol. 1, London 1784, p.39). Neither plant is now found in the Well – victims, presumably, of the chemicals which the local Council insist be admixed with the water to guarantee its ‘purity’ for drinking purposes!

     The First Life also gives brief descriptions of a large number of cures, the types of illnesses represented there recurring over and over again down the centuries in the cure accounts. Shortly after the First Life, a Second Life was written c.1140, by Robert of Shrewsbury. This was occasioned by the translation of Winifred’s relics from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury Abbey. Some years earlier, one of the Shrewsbury monks had fallen mortally ill, and Winifred appeared to a monk of the sister abbey of Chester, to which Holywell then belonged, and told him to say a Mass in her chapel by the Well for the sick month. After this had been done, the monk began to recover, and went to Holywell himself, where his cure was completed. It was this Holywell cure which determined the Shrewsbury monks to adopt Winifred as their patroness, seeking out her grave, and removing her bones to their church in 1138.

     There is an excellent modern translation of the Vita Prima by Wade-Evans; but the only complete translation of Robert’s Vita Secunda is that made in 1635 by Fr John Falconer. Falconer’s work is more a paraphrase than a strict translation, but it set the standard for the many English Lives of Winifred which appeared over the next 250 years. It was rewritten in 1712 by Fr Metcalf, another Jesuit, and this version was reprinted periodically until the 1850s. Each of these editions brought the cure lists up to date, by including the most striking contemporary cures. Besides these, there exist numbers of other written or printed accounts of cures extending from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, and many of these provide fascinating incidental details of the cure rituals at Holywell. And not only at Holywell: many refer to the use of the water elsewhere, either drunk or used externally. It is during this period that accounts of triple bathing at the Well begin to be encountered, though the practice is likely to be older; and probably refers ultimately to the account in the Second Life, where Beuno promised Winifred that anyone asking a favour in her name, that is, through her prayers, ‘In three times so doing they shall assuredly be made partakers of their desire’ (rather than being a survival of the putative ‘triple immersion’ of Celtic Christian baptism, as is often suggested). Many of these accounts were collected by the Bollandist Pere de Smedt in 1887. One of the best-publicised, and closely investigated, of the cures of this period was that of Winifred White, in 1805.

     After 1850, the Holywell pilgrimage revived and prospered, and the cure accounts survive in quite astounding numbers. The cures themselves were accepted in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way. The individual parish priests often sought to obtain substantiating evidence, from the doctors or neighbours of the cured persons; but the Church itself never proclaimed any of them as ‘miracles’ (and constantly urged its individual members not to do so either), neither did it set up any kind of investigative ‘medical bureau’, even though by the end of the century Holywell was widely known as the ‘Lourdes of Wales’. The Holywell cure tradition had survived unscathed from the Middle Ages, and the medieval acceptance of cures at ‘face-value’, that is, on the word of the cured themselves, remained the norm. It became common for the cured to acknowledge their return to health by writing to the Well authorities, and numbers of these letters have survived. Some still arrive today. Many were published, not only in Catholic papers and periodicals, but in the newspapers of the day. Particularly important in this respect was the Flintshire Observer, which was published in Holywell, and over the decades printed hundreds of accounts of cures. Sometimes the cured even paid to have these published accounts reprinted as broadsheets, which were then distributed in the streets of Holywell, to demonstrate their own gratitude, and to encourage other sick pilgrims.

     A few sample cures from this 900-year-old record may be quoted.

     ‘The Life of St Wenefred’ (anonymous First Life), in A.W. Wade-Evans, Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae, Cardiff, 1944, pp. 288-309 (Latin text and English translation):

But the ground stained with her blood cracked, and a rapid spring gushed out in that place full of water, the stones of which to this day are seen bloody as on the first day. The moss also smells as incense, and cures divers diseases (p. 239).

Moreover one born blind, service being duly performed in the tabernacle of the virgin, went of to the well, and washed, and saw, and gave thanks…And many times this most benign virgin relieves dropsical persons, restores the paralytic, heals the gouty, cures the melancholy. No less does she remove sciatica, eradicate cancer, cure shortness of breath, extirpate piles…Why by enumerating a few things do I try to mention all? So many and so great are the gifts of the virgin, that their infinity defies enumeration (p. 305).

     J[ohn] F[alconer], S.J., The Admirable Life of Saint Wenefride, Virgin, Martyr, Abbesse. Written in Latin above 500 yeares ago, by Robert, Monke and Priour of Shrewsbury, [St-Omer] 1635:

His brethren…presently believed…that it was S. Wenefride herselfe who had appeared unto him. Wherefore sending forthwith two of their Company to the forsaid Chappell, to say Masse accordingly, the sicke Monke at that very instant, being then in Shrewsbury, recovered his health. Who soone after this miraculous recovery, came himselfe in person, unto the said Chappell and Well, as he greatly desired, to give God thankes for the same; and after having bathed himselfe in the water, and also drunke thereof, he joyfully returned home to Shrewsbury perfectly cured…the rest of his Brethren likewise began to be singularly devoted unto her, and laboured by all means possible to get some particle of her Virginal sacred Body unto them (pp. 214-16).

     Carolus de Smedt, ‘Documenta de S. Wenefreda’, Analecta Bollandiana, VI, 1887, pp. 305-52:

About the yeare 1590 Fr Edward Oldcorne of the Society of Jesus with another English priest…travelling in the kingdome of Naples…had poyson given them…there still remained in them an extraordinaire inward heate of the liver with other diseases, and especially Father Oldcorne, whose tongue and mouth contracted a hard sore many yeares after his coming into England…And as all cure and human remedied failed and being very sensible of losing his speech, he was bent…to undertake a pilgrimage to [St Winifred’s] Holy Well…But whether the occasions permitted not…some yeares after being at a gentlemans house in Worcester, he chanced to see a little blood stone…of S. Wenefrides Holy Well, he presently honoured it with great veneration, prostrating himself on his knees before the altar, he putt it in his mouth, and turning it therein to and fro with his soare tongue…he sayd 5 Paters et Aves with Creed. And immediately he found himself much better, his tongue cooled, and his stomack in farr better temper then before; then…he went to Holy-well: where drinking of the water of the sacred fountain with other devotions performed, etc., he was perfectly cured, and never after troubled with the sayd disease (pp. 312-13).

About the yeare 1620 Mrs Talbott of Grafton…having lost her hearing…she determined to go to St Wenefrides Well in pilgrimage…where she performed her devotions according to the accustomed manner, by going severall times into the waters, saing many prayers, bestowing almes amongst the poore, etc. And though at that time she perceaved not any greate alteration in herself, yet coming home she made severall stoppells of some of the mosse of the Holywell (which she brought along with her, as also some of the water in a little bottle) binding it in smale pieces of linnen and steeping it in the Holywell water, applied it now and then to her eares, and in a short time by the merittes of Bd St Wenefride (as we piously beleeve) she recovered her hearing as perfectly as ever she had it before (p.322).

     J. M[ilner], Authentic Documents relative to the Miraculous Cure of Winefrid White, of Wolverhampton, at St. Winefrid’s Well…On the 28th of June 1805, 3rd ed., London, 1806:

I the undersigned…concerning the past and present state of health of Winefred White…now aged 26 years, do hereby certify as follows: I first visited the aforesaid Winefrid White, as appears by my day-book, Sept. 1, 1802; at which time, as well as afterwards, I found her in a very debilitated and languishing state, owing to an internal disorder, accompanied with the most fatal symptoms. These brought on an enlargement of the vertebrae, with a relaxation of the ligaments, and a paralytic affection, particularly of the left side; so that, at length, the patient could not hold herself upright, nor move herself from place to place, except in the most feeble manner, and by the help of a crutch…I have frequently seen her and conversed with her since, without discovering any change in her for the better, down to the 22d or 23d of last June; being two or three days before she is reported to have made a journey to Holywell…All the above mentioned fatal symptoms, as she declares, and as I have reason to believe, have disappeared. The ligaments of the vertebrae are contracted and firm, as I ascertained yesterday…These changes so extraordinary, compleat, and performed in so short a time, I am unable to account for, by any principle of medicine I am acquainted with, or by any experience I have had in it.

SAML. STUBBS, Surgeon

Wolverhampton, Sept. 11, 1805. (pp.12-13).

     [Fr Metcalf], The Life and Miracles of Saint Wenefride, Dublin [1817]:

The aforesaid Wenefride White is living at the present day, in a state of perfect health, and now superintends a Catholic charity school in Wolverhampton…The witnesses to the above cure are numerous and consist of persons of different stations, religions, countries, and places of residence, with Protestants, Catholics, English, Welsh, residents in Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Holywell, who could not possibly be combined for the purpose of attesting a series of falsehoods (p.88).

     Herbert Thurston, ‘Holywell in Recent Years’, The Month, July 1916, pp. 38-51. Among other cures, Thurston describes that of Kitty O’Brien on July 13, 1914; and reproduces Kitty’s own letter, written 2 or 3days later, and her doctor’s opinion of the cure, solicited by Thurston two years later:

Holywell cure records

Holywell cure records

 

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Text & Illustrations Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse (1994)

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