It seems extraordinary that a Welsh woman who lived nearly 1500 years ago, and whose story is a mix of legend and hagiography, should still exercise such a hold over the life of Shrewsbury.
From her origins as a rather unlucky young woman, Saint Winefride is now celebrated as a patron saint of the town. Indeed, her reliquary bones are housed and cared for here.
The latest evidence of her power in the locality is the news that Shrewsbury Catholic Cathedral is to buy a statue of the saint for the church – which will set it back a cool £2000 by the time it is installed in 2017.
The association of Shrewsbury and Saint Winefride goes back to the 12th century when her bones were removed from their burial place in North Wales and carried to Shrewsbury to form the basis of a very popular medieval shrine. (These bones were completely lost, bar a few fragments, in the Reformation).
Winefride and Marga
Margaret Rope depicted Winifrede quite a few times.
Marga’s greatest image of the saint is in the Winefride window (above) in Ss Peter & Paul Church in Newport in north Shropshire. Marga’s concept is of a very strong figure indeed – with an almost mannish strength in the muscles, though the facial features are feminine.
The window was installed around 1916. The year 1916 would not have been an easy one for Margaret – she was now settling into life in London, where she was having to learn how to earn a living, and four of her siblings were on war-duty – it’s interesting to speculate on how much Marga created this powerful version of Winefride as a model for women like her, who were wanting to ‘go it alone’.
[Interestingly, in the modern church Winifrede has been given the role of ‘protectress of women who suffer unwanted advances’ – based on her legend, where she was killed by a suitor she had refused before being miraculously brought back to life].
In fact, Margaret Rope seems to have had an especial fondness for St Winifrede. Not only did she depict the saint a number of times, she also designed the reliquary in which one of the saint’s bone fragments is housed. The reliquary, in silver, can be seen at the current Heavenly Lights exhibition at Shrewsbury Museum.
Also at the exhibition can be seen the cartoon (i.e. the preparatory drawing) for the Newport window (se pic right). Curiously, the cartoon gives the saint a slightly softer, humbler face than in the finished article where she is a much more assertive figure.
As anyone who has been along to the museum will know, the Winefride cartoon has been loaned to Shrewsbury Museum by the St Winefride Shrine (located at Holywell in north Wales) where it is usually displayed.
Strangely, no one is quite sure how Margaret Rope’s cartoon of St Winifrede came to be in north Wales. The first record of its existence, according to the Wrexham Diocese Historian, is that it was registered as hanging in the Holywell Pilgrims’ Hospice, around 30 years ago. When the hospice closed in 2002, it was transferred to the nearby Holywell Shrine, although it wasn’t identified as being by Margaret Rope for some years.
It is not surprising that the cartoon should have gravitated to Holywell, but it is odd that its owners should have ‘forgotten’ the name of its esteemed artist. However, that is all rectified now!
The Margaret Rope exhibition can only encourage this interest in St Winefride even more, though she seems to have enough ‘fans’ already!
Among those fans are King Henry V who was a devotee and the novelist Ellis Peters, who based one of her Brother Cadfael books around the story of the removal of the saint’s bones.
The local community of Orthodox Christians also, despite being relative newcomers to Shrewsbury, seem to have adopted the saint with alacrity: they even come together with the town’s Catholics to sing a ‘great Vespers’ on her feast-day, November 3rd, every year.
Meanwhile, at Shrewsbury Abbey, the grand old church of the town, a medieval statue of St Winifrede & her uncle, St Beuno has been retrieved and installed.
And, perhaps it comes as no surprise perhaps to find that many treasures of the Abbey are cared for a church-heritage group established there only thirty years ago – called…the Guild of St Winefride.
It seems Shrewsbury’s interest in Saint Winifrede will continue awhile…