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A town in North Wales, situated on the declivity of a hill overlooking a picturesque valley, through which flows a broad stream, the effluent from St. Winefride's Well, joining the River Dee at a distance of two miles from the town. It was once a flourishing place because of the lead and copper mines in its vicinity, but with the decay of the mining industry its commercial glory has fled, and at present the only attraction to visitors is St. Winefride's miraculous well.
I. The Miraculous Well
For more than a thousand years this well has attracted numerous pilgrims. Two documents of the twelfth century, preserved in the British Museum, and printed by the Bollandists, give us its history, with the earliest record of the miraculous cures effected by its waters. These ancient cures included cases of dropsy, paralysis, gout, melancholia, sciatica, cancer, alienation of mind, blood spitting, obstinate cough, chronic pain and fluxion of the bowels, also deliverance from evil spirits. The concourse of pilgrims to the well continued in the sixteenth century during the days of persecution, and Dr. Thomas Goldwell, Bishop of St. Asaph , who went into exile at the accession of Elizabeth, obtained from the sovereign pontiff the confirmation of certain indulgences granted by Martin V (1417-31) to pilgrims who visited the well. In the seventeenth century, in spite of the severe penal laws, pilgrims still resorted to the well, and the record has been kept of many remarkable cures, one being that of [Blessed] Father [Edward] Oldcorne, S.J. , the martyr, who was healed miraculously of a gangrene that had formed in the roof of his mouth.
II. Origin and History of the Well
The stream is said to have burst from the ground more than 1200 years ago on the spot where St. Winefride (Gwenfrewi) was slain by Caradoc, son of an Armorican prince, about the year 634 (see WINEFRIDE, ST.), and has flowed unceasingly ever since. The place where it rises was previously known as Sechnant or the "Dry Valley"; but the name was changed to Ffynnon Gwenfrewi (Winefride's Well), and later to Trefynnon (Holywell), the appellation which it retains to the present day. In 1093 the church at Holywell and the sacred fountain were given by Adeliza, Countess of Chester, to the monastery of St. Werburgh in that city. In 1115 Richard, Earl of Chester, her son, went on a pilgrimage to St. Winefride's Well. In 1240 David, son of Llewellyn, Prince of Wales, granted the church and well with extensive possessions to the monks of Basingwerk Abbey, who held them until 1537, the year of the dissolution. King Richard III ordered the sum of ten marks to be paid annually from the treasury for the support of the chapel of St. Winefride, and the stipend of the priest, and a few years later, probably before 1495, the beautiful buildings now surrounding the Well were erected.
III. Description of the Well
The buildings referred to are in the perpendicular style, and were erected over the spring partly through the munificence of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby, the mother of King Henry VII; but the armorial bearings introduced into the sculpture show that several noble Welsh families, including those of Stanley, Pennant, and Lewis, had a share in the work. Though time has dealt somewhat harshly with the stonework, sufficient remains to show that it was originally a most beautiful structure, abounding in delicate tracery and other carved work. The spring forms a basin enclosed by an octagonal parapet, from which rise eight delicately chiselled columns; these meet overhead in a beautiful traceried canopy, forming a crypt or vault. Above this stands what was once the chapel or oratory of St. Winefride, where pilgrims were wont to spend the night in vigil before bathing. Unfortunately it is now in Protestant hands, and used for the Welsh services of the parish church; but the Well itself, the property of the corporation of Holywell, has for a considerable time been held at an annual rent by the Jesuit Fathers of the Mission.
The water of the spring is of a pale bluish colour, and so clear that at the bottom of the basin, seven feet below the surface, even a pin may be seen. The stones at the bottom, as well as portions of the masonry, are marked with deep crimson or purple stains, which Catholic tradition loves to regard as the blood of the martyr, but which naturalists account for as a peculiar kind of moss, Junger mannia asplenioides . The spring sends forth eighty-one tons of water per minute, the water being very cold, never rising above 50 degrees Fahrenheit in any weather, and never freezing. Chemical analysis has never detected any mineral or medicinal properties peculiar to it, that would account for the extraordinary cures, which are often instantaneous. The overflow from the octagonal basin passes into a long narrow piscina, which is entered by steps at either end. Those seeking a cure pass through this piscina, reverently kneeling in the cold water and kissing an ancient cross carved in the stonework. The hard limestone steps are literally worn away by the bare feet of pilgrims. From this piscina the water passes under a low arch into a small swimming bath, with bathing cots on either side, and then flows onward through Greenfield Valley to join the River Dee, affording on its way motive power to several flannel and flour mills. In a corner opposite the entrance to the crypt where the spring rises, a statue of St. Winefride stands in a decorated niche. The pilgrims on emerging from the piscina throw themselves on their knees before this statue, earnestly imploring the saint's intercession.
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