Gwenffrewi - Sarah Woodbury


Today we’ll be talking about Gwenffrewi, an early Welsh saint, who endowed an abbey and a sacred well. She is the only woman so credited, which seems a woeful gap in the record. Still, the legend of Gwenffrewi, or Winifred in English, follows a similar pattern to that of her male counterparts in that she was born noble. After that, her story takes quite a dark turn. As was written down in the 12th century, she had a suitor who was enraged at her rejection of him to the point that he decapitated her. A healing spring flowed from the spot upon which her head fell, and then St. Bueno, her uncle, restored her head to her body.

After this miracle Beuno turned to her suitor, Caradog, who is described as leaning on his sword and unrepentant, called up to the heavens, and Caradog was struck down on the spot. According to the story, Bueno seated himself upon a stone, which now stands in the outer well pool, at Gwenffrewi’s Well and there promised, in the name of God “that whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winefride would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul.”

As a woman myself, it’s a little dishearteneing that the saint aspect of this story is really all the doing not of Gwenffrewi but her uncle, Bueno, who was known for raising seven different people from the dead and the establishment of 11th churches that are known to this day.

Gwenffrewi herself did, however, go on to have an auspicious career in the church. She lived at the holy well for a time before becoming abbess of the convent of Gwytherin, a position her aunt had filled. Like the monasteries we talked about last week, the position was likely hereditary and would have been filled by a family member regardless.

Two small pieces of an oak reliquary from the 8th century were discovered in 1991 and identified based on earlier drawings as belonging to her reliquary, which probably contained an article of clothing or another object associated with her, rather than her bones. According to one scholar, the existence of this reliquary provides “good evidence for her having been recognized as a saint very soon after her death” and may even be “the earliest surviving testimony to the formal cult of any Welsh saint”.

It is after her death that Gwenffrewi becomes Winifred and enters the records as an English saint, when her bones were transferred from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury at the behest of the monks at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul. This story is memorialized in the Brother Cadfael novels, by Ellis Peters, which I highly recommend. To top off this English appropriation of Welsh sanctity, an abbot from the same abbey in Shrewsbury later stole the bones of her uncle St. Bueno and built a shrine for him at St. Peter and St. Paul too. Thus, in the middle ages, pilgrims visited her shrine in Shrewsbury more than her healing well.

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