St. Winifred’s Well

3 March 20 | Posted in Events, Global Catholic, Saints, Supernatural

Saint Winifred (or Winefride, Welsh: Gwenffrewi) was a Welsh martyr in the 7th century.  The spring associated with her martyrdom and restoration is now a shrine.  It is called St Winefride’s Well in Holywell, Flintshire, Wales.  It is the oldest active pilgrimage site in Britain.  The well is open most days of the year and people still go there to bathe and sit on St. Beuno’s stone to ask for favors and blessings. There is a tradition that before he left Holywell, Beuno seated himself on the stone and declared: “Whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winifred would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul.”

According to legend, Winifred’s family were descendants of Vortigern, a 5th century warlord. Her mother’s name was Wenlo, and she was a sister of Saint Beuno. Her father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, was the lord of Tegeingl, an area in northeast Wales which later became part of the county of Flintshire.

At the time of her martyrdom, Winifred was a teenage girl preparing to enter religious life.  Her uncle, Beuno, was an abbot and her mentor.  A local noble by the name of Caradoc approached her to propose marriage. Winifred was not interested in the man’s advances and refused to lay with him. She became frightened and ran to the church where her uncle was saying Mass. The rejected and angry Caradoc followed and caught up with her on the slope of a hill.  He drew his sword and cut off her head. The head rolled down the slope and eventually came to rest. As soon as it stopped, a spring of water bubbled up out of the ground.

On hearing of the terrible murder, Beuno left the church and went to the newly formed spring where Winifred’s head lay.  He returned the head to the body and covered it with his cloak.  After Mass he returned to the body and prayed. Legend says Winifred sat up as if she had been in a deep sleep, with only a thin scar to show where she had been decapitated.

Seeing Caradoc leaning on his sword with an insolent and defiant air, Beuno called on God to punish him. According to one legend, he died on the spot. Another legend said the ground opened to swallow him. Some historians think he was killed by Winifred’s brother, Owain.

Fearing the encroaching Saxons, Winifred and her companions left Holywell and joined a community of nuns living in Gwytherin near the River Elwy. Winifred eventually became abbess and passed away on November 3 sometime between 650 to 660 A.D.

The oak reliquary of St. Winifred was identified in 1991 from earlier drawings and descriptions.  The reliquary probably contained a piece of clothing or article identified with the saint but not her bones. It provides evidence that Winifred was recognized as a saint soon after her death.

The details of St. Winifred’s life are found in two manuscripts.  The one in the British Museum is by a monk named Elerius, a contemporary of Winifred.  The other manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford is generally believed to have been compiled in 1130 A.D. by Robert, prior of Shrewsbury Abbey. Prior Robert promoted the cult of St. Winifred.  In 1138 A.D. her bones were carried with great ceremony from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury where they became an extremely popular destination for pilgrims. To further enhance the prestige of the abbey, Abbott Nicholas Stevens built a new shrine for St. Winifred, and had some of his monks steal relics of St. Beuno to add to the abbey church. They abbey was fined, but they were told that they could keep the relics. 

Many royal pilgrims have visited St. Winifred’s Well over the centuries.  The earliest recorded visit was by Richard I (King Richard the Lionheart) in 1189. King Henry V made the pilgrimage in 1415 before his victory at Agincourt.  In 1416, he went on foot from Shrewsbury Abbey to Holywell as an act of reverence for his victory.  In 1461, the future King Edward IV of England went on pilgrimage shortly before the Battle of Towton.  According to an account by Welsh poet Tudur Aled, the young king took earth from beside the well and placed it upon his crown.  The future Henry VII is thought to have made a secret visit before winning his crown at Bosworth in 1485.

St. Winifred or St. Winifred’s Well have found their way into poems, plays and novels.  St. Winifred’s Well is mentioned in the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  William Rowley’s 17th century comedy, A Shoemaker, A Gentleman dramatizes St. Winifred’s story.  Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins memorialized St. Winifred in his unfinished drama, St. Winifred’s Well. 

 The most famous references to St. Winifred are in Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries.  The story of Winifred’s relics being taken to Shrewsbury Abbey forms the basis of the novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first in her series of Cadfael books. The celebration of her feast day provides the setting for The Rose Rent and The Pilgrim of Hate. The casket containing her relics is stolen from the shrine in The Holy Thief. Brother Cadfael, a Welsh monk at Shrewsbury Abbey is also a former knight and crusader.  He has a special affinity with St. Winifred, who he affectionately calls “The Girl.” 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Wistan’s Miracle of the Hair

25 February 20 | Posted in Events, Global Catholic, Saints, Supernatural

St. Wistan, also known as Saint Wystan and Saint Wigstan, died in 840 A.D. His grandfather, King Wiglaf, ruled Mercia from 827 to 839.  His father, Wigmund, died of dysentery shortly before him. A young Wistan may have been proclaimed king, but more likely he abdicated in favor of King Beorhtwulf (Bright Wolf), who ruled from 840 to 852.  Wistan appointed his mother, Aelfaed, as regent.  Wistan’s godfather, Beorhtric, son of King Beorhtwulf was appointed as her advisor.

Wistan was scalped and slain with a blow to the head because he protested his widowed mother’s marriage to his godfather, Beorhtric.  In canon law at that time, baptism established a link of spiritual consanguinity between the parents and godparents of the baptized. As a spiritually close relative, Wistan’s godfather was forbidden from marrying her.

Aelfaed was the daughter of King Ceolwulf of Mercia who ruled from 821-823, the last of an ancient Mercian royal line descended from Offa, a legendary warrior and ruler.  The prestige of marriage to woman descended from the last branch of ancient Mercia was reason for Wistan’s murder. His death resulted from a Mercian power struggle between his family and that of his uncle Beorhtwulf and his son, Beorhtric.  They may have inherited claims to the Midland kingdom from an earlier Mercian king, Beornwulf (823-825) or Beornred, who was deposed by Offa in 757.

There are various accounts of Wistan’s death on June 1, 840. Beorhtric cut off his head while he was standing in prayer. Beorhtric cut off the upper part of his head with is sword, while a companion stabbed him. Beorhtric struck Wistan on the head with the shaft of his dagger while his servant ran him through with a sword. Wistan’s companions were killed as well.

Most writers identify this spot with the village of Wistow in Leicestershire, although another candidate is Wistanstow in Shropshire.  According to legend, the true site of Wistan’s murder was identified by a miraculous shaft of light, and an annual crop of human hair on the anniversary of his death. 

Miracles from heaven were not wanting in testimony of his martyrdom; for a column of light shot up to heaven from the spot where the innocent saint was murdered, and remained visible to the inhabitants of that place for 30 days. — Florence of Worcester

In 1077, Walter of Cerisy, the first Norman abbot of Evesham, subjected Wistan’s relics to the ordeal by fire. He was skeptical about the authenticity of Anglo-Saxon saints and relics. Since the fire had no effect on Wistan’s bones, the abbot decided to return St. Winstan’s relics to the shrine.  By accident he dropped the saint’s head on the ground. It began to sweat and spread a sweet fragrance throughout the church.

The legend of the murder anniversary “crop of human hair” persisted for several hundred years. The miracle was apparently verified by a special commission set up by Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury in 1187.

St. Wistan’s relics disappeared during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII between 1536-1541.

A detailed article about St. Wistan can be found on Clas Merdin, a good source for Arthurian legends.

 

 

Saint Hugh and the Swan

22 January 20 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints

The son of a noble, Hugh was a monk at La Grande Chartreuse in France when King Henry II of England asked him to come to Witham, England to head up a new Carthusian house.  The house was founded by Henry II in reparation for his role in the death of Saint Thomas Becket.  Hugh was a good man and a tough one.  He insisted the king pay the residents who had been displaced from their homes on the property intended for the new monastery. He supported people when they suffered from the treatment by the king’s foresters. He stood down an angry mob determined to punish Jews.  He convinced them to release their victims.

Nevertheless, the affable Hugh became a favorite of the king. In 1186 he was appointed bishop of Lincoln, the largest diocese in England.  Shortly after his election, during his first visit to the manor in Stowe, Hugh was presented with a large wild swan that had recently come to the manor lake. Hugh offered the swan scraps of bread, and from that moment, the swan became devoted to him. When Hugh was away from the manor, the swan kept to the middle of the lake.  But when the bishop came for a visit, the swan flew to him, tenderly placing his beak in the sleeve of the Hugh’s garment.  If any of his attending clerics came near, the swan would jealously attack them.  Their friendship lasted for 15 years.  The swan lived a few years after Hugh, but never became close to another person.

Antiquarian books often have the most charming stories and illuminating details. Here is one about St. Hugh from 100 years ago:

St. Hugh as a Monk – Hugh grew up into a splendid young man, and he desired above all things to be a priest; so he was ordained and became a Carthusian monk in a monastery high up in the mountains.  The monks lived a very austere life, fasting much, and never speaking to each other, living alone, each in his own cell. But for Hugh there were friends and companions with whom he might speak and yet keep his rule. He had always loved birds and beasts, and they knew it and loved him in return. When he sat down to supper his friends the birds would come hopping in, ready to share his meal; and the squirrels would scamper down from the trees and make themselves quite at home in his room, even whisking the food from his plate. Wherever he lived the wild creatures became his friends.”

St. Hugh as a Bishop – One day the prior of Hugh’s monastery received a letter from King Henry II of England asking for a good monk to take charge of a monastery…There was a lake in the grounds, and one day a splendid wild swan swooped down on it and killed or drove off all the tame ones, and then sounded a shrill cry of triumph.  The servants knew how the Bishop loved wild creatures, and they managed to get the swan up to the palace; St. Hugh at once made friends with it, and coaxed it to eat bread from his hand, and the creature became devoted to him from that moment.  It followed him everywhere, and even slept in his room.  The servants dare not go near the bed when St. Hugh was asleep, for the great bird would raise its huge wings in defense and hiss fiercely.  It would never let anyone but Hugh touch it, but it would nestle its head up his sleeve, and fondle him with queer loving cries.  When the Bishop was away from Stow the swan never entered the palace, but it seemed to know when he was expected, and as soon as the luggage carts and servants began to arrive  it would leave the lake and go striding up to the house. When it heard its master’s voice it would run to him and follow him about all the time he remained at Stow. But when St. Hugh came to Lincoln for the last time, just before his death, the swan seemed to know what was coming, and would not go near him, but hid in the reeds, drooping and ill, broken-hearted at losing his beloved master.” Faith & Duty by Judith F. Smith, Benzinger Bros., 1920 

St. Melangell, Hares and the Origin of the Easter Bunny

17 December 19 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

St. Melangell (pronounced “Mel-eng-eth”) is the patron saint of hares and rabbits.  They are sometimes called St. Melangell’s lambs.

According to Welsh legend, Melangell was the daughter of King Cyfwich Addwyn, who is mentioned in the Tales of Culhwch and Olwen as a member of King Arthur’s court.  King Cyfwich Addwyn was said to be related to St. Helen of Caernarvon, the famous Elen Luyddog (Helen of the Hosts) who married the Roman general, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig) the 4th century emperor in Britain, Gaul and Spain. Elen’s story is told in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, one of the tales associated with the Welsh epic, Mabinogion.

In most accounts Melangell is described as the daughter of an Irish king who fled from her father’s court to avoid marriage. Around 590 A.D., she arrived at the valley of the river Tanat, at the foot of the Berwyn mountains in Powys, Wales. 

In 604 A.D. the prince of Powys, Brochwel Ysgithrog, went hunting close to where Melangell lived and prayed. His hounds pursued their prey into a thicket, where he found a young woman with a hare lying under the fold of her garments. She boldly faced the hunting dogs and they retreated. The prince gave up the chase and sat down to listen to Melangell’s story. She told him she was a hermitess who lived nearby and had dedicated herself to God.  The prince and his huntsmen were the first men she had seen in 15 years.

So moved was the prince that he offered her the valley where she lived as a perpetual asylum and refuge for animals, and anyone who was fleeing harm.  Melangell lived there the rest of her life, eventually attracting a small community of women for whom she served as abbess.  A church was eventually built in the spot where she lived and it remained a place of sanctuary throughout the Middle Ages.  The killing of hares and rabbits has long been forbidden in the region, because people believe they are sacred animals under the protection of St. Melangell.  People in the parish still honor this custom. 

The association of religious female figures and hares is legendary and predates Melangell by several centuries. When the Romans invaded the British Isles, Julius Caesar saw that Celtic people did not regard it lawful to kill and eat the hare.  In Ireland the hare was associated with women who could shapeshift into their form, so eating them was taboo.  There is a legend that the God and warrior, Oisin, hunted a hare, wounding it in the leg.  He followed the wounded animal into a thicket, where he found a door leading down into the ground. He went in and came to a large hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a leg wound.

Boudicca, the British warrior queen, was said to have prayed to a hare goddess before going into battle with the Romans and released a hare from beneath her gown to divine the outcome of the battle from the hare’s movements.  She also took a hare with her into battle to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak.

Boudicca probably prayed to Eostre, the Celtic version of the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ostara.  Ostara gave her name to the celebration of Easter.  She was associated with the seasonal change from winter to spring.  Ostara was a shapeshifter who took the form of a hare at each full moon. All hares were sacred to her and acted as messengers. 

Eostre/Ostara is mentioned by Saint Bede in his treatise, The Reckoning of Time, written around 725 A.D.  Bede states that during the time period equivalent to April, Anglo-Saxons held feasts in Eostre’s honor.  The tradition had died out by his time, replaced by the Christian Paschal month, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

In his 1892 study on the hare in custom and mythology, folklorist Charles J. Billson cited numerous incidents of folk customs in northern Europe involving hares around the Easter season. Billson said, “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon and British worship, there are good grounds for believing the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”

The story of St. Melangell is a blend of local history, custom, folklore and pre-Christian goddesses and practices. Was Melangell created to legitimatize these beliefs, or is she another in a long line of spiritually powerful women with a hare as her symbol and companion?

St. Cuthbert and the Otters

13 October 19 | Posted in Animals, Saints

St. Cuthbert (634-687 A.D.) was a Scottish shepherd boy until he was 15 when he became a monk in Melrose Abbey.  He is also associated with Lindisfarne. He was a monk, bishop and hermit. Cuthbert lived most of his life in Northumbria, a region in northeast England by the Scottish border.  While St. Cuthbert is famous for his protection of the eider ducks of Inner Fame island, he is known as the patron saint of otters. Many of his stories are taken from “The Life of St. Cuthbert” by St. Bede of Jarrow (672?-735 A.D.) 

Cuthbert liked solitary prayer and contemplation with only the seabirds and seals for company. It was his habit to walk alone down to the water after dark.  One of the monks was suspicious or intrigued about his behavior and followed him to see what he was doing in the dead of night. From his hiding place the monk watched Cuthbert wade out into the dark North Sea until the water reached his neck and pray with the rhythm of the waves.  At the first light of dawn he returned to the shore and knelt for more prayer.  Two otters followed him out of the water. They warmed his feet with their breath and snuggled against his body to warm him with their fur. After Cuthbert gave them his affectionate blessing they returned to the water. 

The curious monk confessed his spying and Cuthbert forgave him.  I thought the otter story was a little fanciful until I saw the behavior of this otter in a YouTube video.