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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume XI: November. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

November 3

St. Wenefride, Virgin and Martyr

[Or Winefride. 1]  HER father, whose name was Thevith, was very rich, and one of the prime nobility in the country, being son to Eluith, the chief magistrate, and second man in the kingdom, of North Wales, next to the king. 2 Her virtuous parents desired above all things to breed her up in the fear of God, and to preserve her soul untainted amidst the corrupt air of the world. About that time St. Beuno, Benno, or Benow, a holy priest and monk, who is said to have been uncle to our saint by the mother, having founded certain religious houses in other places, came and settled in that neighbourhood. Thevith rejoiced at his arrival, gave him a spot of ground free from all burden or tribute to build a church on, and recommended his daughter to be instructed by him in Christian piety. 3 When the holy priest preached to the people, Wenefride was placed at his feet, and her tender soul eagerly imbibed his heavenly doctrine, and was wonderfully affected with the great truths which he delivered, or rather which God addressed to her by his mouth. The love of the sovereign and infinite good growing daily in her heart, her affections were quite weaned from all the things of this world: and it was her earnest desire to consecrate her virginity by vow to God, and, instead of an earthly bridegroom, to choose Jesus Christ for her spouse. Her parents readily gave their consent, shedding tears of joy, and thanking God for her holy resolution. She first made a private vow of virginity in the hands of St. Beuno, and some time after received the religious veil from him, with certain other pious virgins, in whose company she served God in a small nunnery which her father had built for her, under the direction of St. Beuno, near Holy-Well. 4 After this, St. Beuno returned to the first monastery which he had built at Clunnock or Clynog Vaur, about forty miles distant, and there soon after slept in our Lord. His tomb was famous there in the thirteenth century. Leland mentions, 5 that St. Benou founded Clunnock Vaur, a monastery of white monks, in a place given him by Guithin, uncle to one of the princes of North Wales. His name occurs in the English Martyrology.  1
  After the death of St. Beuno, St. Wenefride left Holy-Well, and after putting herself for a short time under the direction of St. Deifer, entered the nunnery of Gutherin in Denbighshire, under the direction of a very holy abbot called Elerius, who governed there a double monastery. After the death of the abbess Theonia, St. Wenefride was chosen to succeed her. Leland speaks of St. Elerius as follows: 6 “Elerius was anciently, and is at present in esteem among the Welch. I guess that he studied at the banks of the Elivi where now St. Asaph’s stands. He afterwards retired in the deserts. It is most certain that he built a monastery in the vale of Cluide, which was double and very numerous of both sexes. Amongst these was the most noble virgin Guenvrede, who had been educated by Beuno, and who suffered death, having her head cut off by the furious Caradoc.” 7 Leland mentions not the stupendous miracles which Robert of Salop and others relate on that occasion, 8 though in the abstract of her life inserted in an appendix to the fourth volume of the last edition of Leland’s Itinerary 9 she is said to have been raised to life by the prayers of St. Beuno. In all monuments and calendars she is styled a martyr; all the accounts we have of her agree that Caradoc or Cradoc, son of Alain, prince of that country, having violently fallen in love with her, gave way so far to his brutish passion, that, finding it impossible to extort her consent to marry him, or gratify his desires, in his rage he one day pursued her, and cut off her head, as she was flying from him to take refuge in the church which St. Beuno had built at Holy-Well. Robert of Shrewsbury and some others add, that Cradoc was swallowed up by the earth upon the spot; secondly, that in the place where the head fell, the wonderful well which is seen there sprang up, with pebble stones and large parts of the rock in the bottom stained with red streaks, and with moss growing on the sides under the water, which renders a sweet fragrant smell; 10 and thirdly, that the martyr was raised to life by the prayers of St. Beuno, and bore ever after a mark of her martyrdom, by a red circle on her skin about her neck. If these authors, who lived a long time after these transactions, were by some of their guides led into any mistakes in any of these circumstances, neither the sanctity of the martyr nor the devotion of the place can be hereby made liable to censure. St. Wenefride died on the 22d of June, as the old panegyric preached on her festival, mentioned in the notes, and several of her lives testify: the most ancient life of this saint, in the Cottonian manuscript, places her death or rather her burial at Guthurin on the 24th of June. The words are: “The place where she lived with the holy virgins was called Guthurin, where sleeping, on the eighth before the calends of July, she was buried, and rests in the Lord.” Her festival was removed to the 3d of November, probably on account of some translation; and in 1391, Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, with his clergy in convocation assembled, ordered her festival to be kept on that day throughout his province with an office of nine lessons, 11 which is inserted in the Saurum Breviary. The time when this saint lived is not mentioned in any of her lives; most with Alford and Cressy think it was about the close of the seventh century. Her relics were translated from Guthurin to Shrewsbury in the year 1138, and deposited with great honour in the church of the Benedictin abbey which had been founded there, without the walls, in 1083, by Roger Earl of Montgomery. Herbert, abbot of that house, procured the consent of the diocesan, the bishop of Bangor, (for the bishopric of St. Asaph’s in which Guthurin is situated, was only restored in 1143,) and caused the translation to be performed with great solemnity, as is related by Robert, then prior of that house, (probably the same who was made bishop of Bangor in 1210,) who mentions some miraculous cures performed on that occasion to which he was eye-witness. The shrine of this saint was plundered at the dissolution of monasteries.  2
  Several miracles were wrought through the intercession of this saint at Guthurin, Shrewsbury, and especially Holy-Well. To instance some examples: Sir Roger Bodenham, knight of the Bath, after he was abandoned by the ablest physicians and the most famous colleges of that faculty, was cured of a terrible leprosy by bathing in this miraculous fountain in 1606; upon which he became himself a Catholic, and gave an ample certificate of his wonderful cure signed by many others. Mrs. Jane Wakeman of Sussex, in 1630, brought to the last extremity by a terrible ulcerated breast, was perfectly healed in one night by bathing thrice in that well, as she and her husband attested. A poor widow of Kidderminster in Worcestershire, had been long lame and bed-ridden, when she sent a single penny to Holy-Well to be given to the first poor body the person should meet with there; and at the very time it was given at Holy-Well, the patient arose in perfect health at Kidderminster. This fact was examined and juridically attested by Mr. James Bridges, who was afterwards sheriff of Worcester, in 1651. Mrs. Mary Newman had been reduced to a skeleton, and to such a decrepit state and lameness that for eighteen years she had not been able to point or set her foot on the ground. She tried all helps in England, France, and Portugal, but in vain. At last she was perfectly cured in the very well whilst she was bathing herself the fifth time. Roger Whetstone, a quaker near Bromsgrove, by bathing at Holy-Well was cured of an inveterate lameness and palsy; by which he was converted to the Catholic faith. Innumerable such instances might be collected. Cardinal Baronius 12 expresses his astonishment at the wonderful cures which the pious bishop of St. Asaph’s, the pope’s vicegerent for the episcopal functions at Rome, related to him as an eye-witness. See St. Wenefride’s life, written by Robert prior of Shrewsbury, translated into English with frequent abridgments and some few additions from other authors, (but not without some mistakes,) first by F. Alford, whose true name was Griffith, afterwards by J. F., both Jesuits: and printed in 1635; and again with some alterations and additional late miracles by F. Metcalf, S. J. in 1712. Lluydh, in his catalogue of Welch manuscripts, mentions two lives of St. Wenefride in that language, one in the hands of Humphrey, then bishop of Hereford, the other in the college of Jesus, Oxon.  3
Note 1. This name in the English-Saxon tongue signifies Winner, or Procurer of Peace; but in the British Fair Countenance. (Camd. Rem. p. 104.) The English Saxons in West-Sex seem to have borrowed it from the neighbouring Britons; for St. Winfrid changed his name in foreign countries into Boniface, a Latin word of the same import. St. Boniface by this change rendered a rough uncouth name familiar to foreigners among whom he lived. Otherwise, such changes, made without reason, occasioned great obscurity in history. Yet this madness has sometimes seized men. Erstwert, or Blackland, would be called from the Greek Melancthon; Newman, Neander; Brooke, Torrentius; Fenne, Paludanus; Du Bois, Sylvius; Reucklin or Smoke, Capnion, &c.
  That this was the etymology of St. Wenefride’s name appears—first, because she was of British extraction; secondly, in the best MSS., and by the most correct antiquarians, she is called Wenefride, or Guenfride, or Guenvera; and thirdly, in her Cottonian life by an allusion to her name she is styled the Fair Wenefride, Candida Wenefreda. [back]
Note 2. The English editor J. F., construing ill the text of Prior Robert, says: “Eluith the Second was then king;” whereas the author says: “Eluith was the second man from the king. Thevith qui fuit filius summi senatoris et a rege secundi, Eluith.” [back]
Note 3. Vit. Wenefr. in app. ad Lei. Itiner. t. 4, p. 128, ed. Nov. [back]
Note 4. Several objections made by some Protestants to this history are obviated by the remarks on the saint’s name, and other circumstances inserted in this account of her life. They allege the silence of Bede, Nennius, Doomsday Book, and Giraldus Cambrensis. Bede wrote only the church history of the English, which the king had desired of him. If he touches upon the British affairs, it is only by way of introduction. He no where names St. David, St. Kentigern, and many other illustrious British saints. Nennius, abbot of Bangor, wrote his history of the Britons, according to Cave and Tanner, about the year 620; but, according to the best manuscript copies of his book (see Usher, p. 217, et ed. Galæi, p. 93,) in 858; but is a very imperfect and inaccurate historian, and gives no account of that part of Wales where St. Wenefride lived. At least Bede preceded her; which is also probable of Nennius, who certainly brings not his history down low enough. Doomsday Book was a survey to give an estimate of families and lands. A well or prodigy was not an object for such a purpose; and many places are omitted in it, because comprised under neighbouring manors. Giraldus Cambrensis, bishop of St. David’s, in South Wales, wrote his Itinerary of Wales in the year 1188, and died in 1210; before which times we have certain monuments extant of St. Wenefride and Holy-Well. Many unknown accidents occasion much greater omission in authors. Giraldus is very superficial, except in Brecknockshire, of which he was archdeacon. He had imbibed at Paris an implacable enmity against the monks of his age, (though he commends their founders and institutes,) which he discovers in all his works, especially in his Speculum Ecclesiæ, or De Monasticis Ordinibus, a manuscript in the Cottonian library. His spleen was augmented after he lost his bishopric at Rome. He probably never visited this well, nor the neighbouring monastery: or omitted them, because lately described by the Prior Robert and others. What omissions are there not in Leland himself relating to this very point? No wonder if St. Wenefride is omitted in an old calendar of St. David’s, which church in South-Wales kept its own festivals, but not those of North Wales, as other examples show.
  We have now extant a MS. life of St. Wenefride, in the Cottonian library, written soon after the conquest of England by the Normans, whom it calls French, (consequently about the year 1100,) in which manuscript her body is said to have been then at Guthurin, says Bishop Fleetwood. A second life was compiled in 1140, by Robert, prior of Shrewsbury, who gives a history of the translation of her relics to that monastery in 1138, and who discovers a scrupulous sincerity in relating only what he gathered, partly from written records found in the monasteries of North Wales, and partly from the popular traditions of ancient priests and the people. Both these lives were written before Giraldus Cambrensis; nor had Robert seen the former, their relations differing in some places. The life of St. Wenefride which came from Ramsey abbey, and was in the hands of Sir James Ware, and some others in manuscript, though copied in part from Robert’s, have sufficient differences to show other memoires to have been then extant. Her life in John of Tinmouth, copied from him by Capgrave, is an abstract from Prior Robert’s work. Alford and Cressy seem to have seen no other life than that in Capgrave. All these memoirs are mentioned by Dr. Fleetwood, bishop of St. Asaph’s, afterwards of Ely, in his Dissertation or Remarks against the Life of St. Wenefride. A manuscript which escaped the search of this learned antiquarian, is a sermon on St. Wenefride, preached, as it seems by the rest of the book, at Derby, whilst her festival was kept on the 22nd of June, immediately after it had been appointed a holiday. In it we have a short account of her life and martyrdom, with the mention of the miraculous cures of a leper covered with blotches, of a blind man, and of another who was bedridden, wrought at her shrine at Shrewsbury. This manuscript book called Festivale, is a collection of Sermons upon the Festivals, and is in the curious library of Mr. Martin of Palgrave in Suffolk. We must add the monuments and testimonies of all the churches of North-Wales about the year 1000, which amount to certain proofs of the sanctity and martyrdom of this holy virgin: and several memoirs were then extant which are now lost. Gutryn Owen, quoted by Percy Enderbie, (p. 274,) observes, that even in the twelfth century, the successions and acts of the princes of Wales were kept in the abbeys of Conwey in North-Wales (in Caernarvonshire) and of Stratflur (of Cluniac monks in Cardiganshire) in South-Wales, which are not to be found. [back]
Note 5. Itinerary, t. 5, p. 14. ed Hearnianæ. [back]
Note 6. De Scriptor. Brit. c. 49, ed Hearn. [back]
Note 7. St. Elerius was buried in a church at Gutherin, which afterwards bore his name, and his tomb was held in veneration in that place when Robert of Shrewsbury wrote; he is named in the English Martyrology on the 14th of June. He survived St. Wenefride, and is said by some to have been the original author of her life; (see Tanner, in Leland de Script., p. 258, and Vossius de Historicis Latin., p. 267, Pits, p. 109. and Bale;) but this is no where affirmed by Leland, as Bishop Fleetwood observes. [back]
Note 8. God has often wrought greater miracles than those here mentioned. But as such extraordinary events are to be received with veneration when authentically attested, so are they not to be lightly admitted. Robert of Salop had some good memoirs; but he sometimes relies upon popular reports. With regard to these miracles, we know not what vouchers he had; so that the credibility of these facts is left to every one’s discretion; as it is not impossible that some one, imagining that she had not been at Gutherin before her martyrdom, might infer, that after it she had been raised to life. It is well known that St. Dionysius of Paris, and certain other martyrs are said by some moderns to have been raised again to life, or survived their own death, and carried their several heads in their hands to certain places. Muratori thinks these accounts, which have no foundation in authentic historians or competent vouchers, to have been first taken up amongst the common people from seeing certain pictures of these martyrs with red circles about their necks, or carrying their heads in their hands, as it were offering them to God; by which no more was originally meant than to express their martyrdom. (Murat. Præf. in Spicilegium Ravennatis Historiæ, t. 1, part 2, p. 527. All these miracles are easy to Omnipotence, but must be made credible by reasonable and convincing testimonies. [back]
Note 9. Ed. Hearnii Nov. an. 1744, p. 128. [back]
Note 10. Some Protestants have ascribed the origin of Holy-Well to the monks of Basingwerk in that neighbourhood. But that monastery was only founded in 1131, by Randle, earl of Chester, first for the Grey-brothers, i. e. of the Order of Sevigny, which was soon after united to the Cistercian, which rule this house then embraced. It was so much augmented and enriched by Henry II. in 1150, that he was called the principal founder. Holy-Well was certainly a place of great devotion, and bore this name before that time. Richard, the second earl palatine of Chester, (who was afterwards drowned, in 1120, in a voyage to Normandy,) made a pilgrimage to Holy-Well, and was miraculously preserved in it from an army of Welchmen by the intercession of St. Wereburge, as is related in her life from Bradshaw. Ranulf or Randle, the nephew and successor of this earl, in his charter of the foundation of Basingwerk, in 1131, gave to that monastery, “Haly-Well, Fulbrook,” and other places. It is called Holy-Well in the charter of Henry II. by which that prince confirmed this foundation; also in a charter given to it by Leweline, prince of Wales, and David his son, in 1240. Ranulf Higden, a monk of Chester in 1360, inserts in his Polychronicon, in the part published by Gale, (p. 1,) twenty rhymes on Holy-Well at Basingwerk, in which he describes the wonderful spring stones tinged with red, miraculous cures of the sick, and devotion of the pilgrims:
Ad Basingwerk fons oritur,
Qui satis vulgò dicitur,
Et tantis bullis scaturit,
Quòd mox injecta rejicit:
Tam magnum flumen procreat.
Ut Cambriæ sufficiat:
Ægri qui dant rogamina,
Reportant medicamina;
Rubro guttatos lapides,
In scatebris reperies, &c.

  St. Wenefride’s well is in itself far more remarkable than the celebrated fountain of Vaucluse, five leagues from Avignon, which is no more than a subterraneous river gushing out at the foot of a mountain: or that of La Source two leagues from Orleans, where the famous Lord Bolingbroke built himself a house. He could by no experiments find any bottom, the weights and cords, &c., being probably carried aside deep under water into some subterraneous river. At Holy-Well such vast quantities of water spring constantly without intermission or variation, that above twenty-six tuns are raised every minute, or fifty-two tuns two hogsheads in two minutes: for, if the water be let out, the basin and well, which contain at least two hundred and forty tuns, are filled in less than ten minutes. The water is so clear that though the basin is above four feet deep, a pin is easily perceived lying at the bottom. The spring head is a fine octagon basin, twenty-nine feet two inches in length, twenty-seven feet four inches in breadth, and eighteen feet two inches high, and is covered with a chapel. The present exquisite Gothic building was erected by Henry VII. and his mother, the Countess of Richmond and Derby. The ceiling is curiously carved, and ornamented with coats of arms, and the figures of Henry VII., his mother, and the Earl of Derby. Those who desire to bathe descend by twenty steps into the area under the chapel; but no one can bathe there in the spring head, the impetuosity with which the water springs up making it too difficult: hence the bathers descend by two circular staircases under a larger arch into the bath, which is a great basin forty-two feet long, fourteen feet seven inches broad, with a handsome flagged walk round.
  Dr. Linden, an able physician, who made a considerable stay there, speaks of this well in his book On Chalibeate Waters and Natural Hot Baths, printed at London in 1748. (c. 4, p. 126.) He says, the green sweet-scented moss is frequently applied to ulcerated wounds with signal success, in the way of contracting and healing them: which powerful medicinal efficacy he supposes may be ascribed to a vegetating spirit drawn from the water. For this water is clear of all gross earth or mineral contents. This physician recommends Holy-Well as a cold bath of the first rank, and says it has on its side the experience of ages, and a series of innumerable authentic cures worked upon the most stubborn and malignant diseases, such as leprosy, weakness of nerves, and other chronical inveterate disorders. The salutary effects of cold water baths in several distempers, as well as of the use of different kinds of mineral waters in various cases, used with a proper regimen and method, and with due restriction and precautions, are incontestable and well known. Nor will any one deny such natural qualities in many of those called Holy-Wells. (See Philos. Transact, n. 57, vol. 5, p. 1160). Nevertheless, in the use of natural remedies we ought by prayer always to have recourse to God, the Almighty Physician. (2 Paralip. xvi. 12.) And it is undoubted that God is pleased often to display also a miraculous power in certain places of public devotion, and where the relics and other pledges of saints or holy things render him more propitious, as in the Probatic pond, John v. 2, &c. Thus St. Austin, ordering his clergy at Hippo to send a priest named Boniface to pray in a certain church celebrated for holy relics, said: (ep. 78. ol. 137, t. 2, p. 184. ed. Ben.) “God who created all things is in all places, and is every where to be adored in spirit and in truth. But who can explore the holy order of his providence, in dispensing his gifts, why these miracles should be done in some places and not in others? The sanctity of the place where the body of the blessed Felix of Nola is buried, is well known. And we ourselves know the like at Milan. All the saints have not the gift of healing, nor the discernment of spirits; (1 Cor. xii. 30.) so neither does it please him who distributes his gifts according to his holy will, that such things be performed, in all the memories, or chapels of the saints.” (See Instit. Cathol. or Catech. of Montpell. ed. Lat. t. 1, p. 687 & t. 2, p. 933.) Perhaps no pilgrimage in the North was for some ages more famous than that of Holy-Well, where the divine mercy was implored through the intercession of her who in that place had glorified his name and sanctified her soul. Many cures of corporal distempers, there wrought, are proved by several circumstances to have been miraculous; which the very answers of Bishop Fleetwood and other adversaries suffice to confirm. Some of them were performed through the devotion of persons at a distance from the place, mentioned in the life of this saint; and such as certainly cannot have been produced by imagination, as Bishop Fleetwood would have us believe. [back]
Note 11. Lyndewoode, fol. 76; Johnson’s Canons, t. 2, ad an. 1398. [back]
Note 12. Not. in Martyr. Rom. bac dic. [back]