Building » Holywell – St Winefride

Holywell – St Winefride

Well Street, Holywell, CH8 7PL

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

Holywell is an important place of pilgrimage with a long history of faith and spiritual renewal. St Winefride’s church is one of a group of very significant buildings in an attractive setting. It is ‘listed as an especially well-preserved nineteenth century classical church’, but its history of development is complex, the present building being the result of several phases of extension and alteration. Its presbytery, which is also listed, incorporates the fabric of a seventeenth century inn, which has links to the pre-Reformation well chapel.

St Winefride’s Well is thought to be the only British shrine that has a history of uninterrupted pilgrimage from the Middle Ages, through the period of Catholic persecution up until the present day. The first recorded reference to its existence as a place of pilgrimage is 1115. The well marks the spot where the legendary martyrdom and miraculous recovery of the saint took place in the early seventh century. The well was granted to the Benedictine monks of Basingwerk in 1246, who held it until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The well chamber with chapel above was built in the early sixteenth century, under the patronage of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby. For a long period its care was shared by the Jesuits and the secular clergy. The former held gatherings at The Star, and the latter at The Cross Keys, two inns that stood on what became the site of St Winefride’s church.

The present church has a complex history. In 1808 a chapel was opened by Fr Francis Lythgoe at Ye Olde Star Inn, as it was then known. This was remodelled in 1832-33 to serve as a presbytery when the present church was built to the design of J. J. Scoles of London. At that time the church was entered from New Street up a steep set of steps. In 1909 the church was considerably enlarged, and re-orientated through 180° so that the entrance was taken from Well Street. The Lady Chapel, baptistery and St Winefride’s Shrine were added in 1911 by James Mangan of Preston, the shrine incorporating a statue of the saint by Joseph Swynnerton.

In 1895 Baron Corvo, alias Hugh Walpole Rolfe, took up residence at Holywell under the hospitality of the priest Fr Beauclerk. In exchange for his upkeep, he painted a series of five colourful banners of saints, including St Winefride, which are now in the museum at St Winefride’s Well.


A classical church designed by J. J. Scoles and built in 1832-33, St Winefride’s was greatly enlarged and altered in 1909. Originally it was entered from New Street, and what is now the main front on Well Street was the sanctuary end, facing east. This front, and the first four bays of the nave are faced in ashlar and represent the original extent of the church. The front is stepped forward and pedimented with a crucifix finial, but the central doorway with bracketed cornice was presumably inserted or possibly the whole front was rebuilt when the orientation of the church was reversed in 1909. The extension roughly doubled the length of the nave, as can be seen from examining the side elevation from the car park, which shows a further four bays of round headed windows with cornice and parapet, matching the original design. The extension, however, was built of brick and rendered, not ashlar. Beyond the nave extension, added in 1911-12 by James Mangan, is a transept containing St Winefride’s Chapel. On the other side of the nave, attached to the presbytery, are the former baptistery and the Lady Chapel, also added by Mangan. At the liturgical south east end is a squat bell tower, probably dating from 1909.  

The nave interior is plain with a flat plastered ceiling. There is a gallery at the west end which was added in 1909. The sanctuary arch has over-scaled Ionic pilasters which are matched in the arches leading to the two transepts. Several of the nave windows have stained glass; the glass in the lunette window above the reredos is by T. M. Cox. Both the Lady Chapel and St Winefride’s shrine are decorated in the Byzantine style. The statue to St Winefride is by Joseph Swynnerton, who worked in Rome, where the statue was blessed by Pope Leo XIII in 1896. (There is a detailed account of the occasion written by the sculptor in The Tablet, 29 August 1896; the attribution to M. Blanchart of Ghent in the list entry and The Buildings of Wales: Clwyd is therefore incorrect). The neo-Grecian monument to Mary and Charles Sankey is by W. Spence.

The sanctuary was reordered in 1975 when the altar was brought forward and the fresco was relocated from above the reredos to the west gallery. The font has also been moved, and the baptistery is used as a repository.   

List descriptions


Reference Number: 490
Grade: II  
Date of Designation: 19/08/1991  
Date of Amendment: 19/08/1991  
Name of Property: St Winefride’s Roman Catholic Church  
Unitary Authority: Flintshire  
Community: Holywell  
Easting: 318532  
Northing: 376073  
Location: On slopping site set back from the new road (A 5026). Presbytery to right.

History: Begun 1832 by J J Scoles, the well-known architect of Roman Catholic churches; said to have been entered then from New Road – see steps at rear. Replaced the chapel opened in 1808 at Ye Olde Star PH (now Presbytery) where Catholics had long gathered under threat of suppression. In 1909 it was greatly enlarged and turned around so that the entrance was from Well Street (facing E). A Lady Chapel and a Shrine to St Winefride were added in 1911-12 by James Mangan of Preston. This church is known for its associations with the controversial figure known as Baron Corvo (alias Hugh Walpole Rolfe) who moved to Holywell in 1895 and, in exchange for his keep, he painted a series of banners. Despite this Corvo later demanded payment and a well-known row ensued resulting in Father Beauclerk being removed, but soon after Corvo was exposed as a fraud.  

Exterior: Ashlar to earlier work, otherwise cement rendered brick; slate roof. Neo-classical front with quoins, stepped forward and pedimented to centre with crucifix finial. Blind rectangular panel over entrance with bracket cornice and panelled doors; steps with pierced parapet added in 1909. Later baptistery extension to right overlapping the corner up to the Lady Chapel. As first built it had 1+3+1-bay side elevations with parapets and plinths; tall round arch headed windows. Some of the earlier ones are small-pane and the others have marginal glazing bars. A further 3 bays, transepts and sanctuary were then added – see masonry break on left hand side. 2-window Classical ‘front’ to left (S facing) transept with 4-panel side door. To right the transverse Lady Chapel is set back from the front; thermal windows and polygonal end. At liturgical SE end is a low cement rendered bell-tower.  

Interior: The main part of the interior is Classical with flat ceiling and coved cornice; organ gallery over lobby. Varied stained glass to nave – window to St John Fisher is notable. The pilastered alter has been brought forward and has entombment depicted to centre. Sanctuary arch has Ionic pilasters with disproportionately large capitals and fluted inner sides. Similar arches to transepts. High up either side are plaster relief panels. Panelled dado to sanctuary and tall recess to end wall with small thermal window – glass by T M Cox. Pointed arch stained glass windows to right hand transept; left hand transept has putti to roundels on ceiling and pointed arch alter recess. Shrine of St Winefride to W of this is in Byzantine style with foliated basketwork capitals linked across splayed corner; canopy to statue of St Winefride by M Blanchart of Ghent (1881); 3-light stained glass window. The Lady Chapel at NE end is in similar (Byzantine) style with ribbed segmental arched ceiling; detached with entasis both at entrance and flanking alter. Commemorative plaque to donor – Gertrude Manners. In the former Baptistery, reached off the front lobby, are the 5 remaining colourful banners (1896-8) by Baron Corvo of major saints including St Winefride.  

Reason for designation: Listed as an especially well preserved C19 Classical church.  


Reference Number: 491
Grade: II  
Date of Designation: 19/08/1991
Date of Amendment: 19/08/1991  
Name of Property: Presbytery at St. Winefride’s Roman Catholic Church  
Unitary Authority: Flintshire  
Community: Holywell  
Easting: 318532  
Northing: 376088  
Location: Adjoining the right hand side of St Winefride’s RC Church; set in the slope with steeply terraced gardens to rear down to New Road.  

History: Late C17 origins; the building was originally a public house and known as Ye Olde Star. The overall character is late-Georgian, possibly ca 1808 when official permission was granted for public use of the chapel at Ye Olde Star; more probably the remodelling is ca 1832 when the church was built. Some later alterations. The main entrance to the building was, like the church, originally on the W side facing New Road  

Exterior: 2-storey scribed stucco elevations to rubble structure; slate roof with end chimney stacks; lower hipped roof former chapel range to right. Mostly horned 4-pane sashes to 1st floor at front; small single storey range forward to left, alongside the church, with round arched small-pane sash windows. The 3-window original main front (now rear) has a variety of types including full-height tripartite bay to right; central round arched doorway with fanlight and sidelights. The lower chapel range has flat arched Gothick windows with intersecting glazing bars – now storeyed internally; 1st floor balcony links the two ranges. Sundial dated 1812 in garden.  

Interior: The main interest of the interior is in the extensive cellars which almost entirely relate to the C17 public house building; cobbled floors, stop-chamfered cross beams and cambered voussoir arches to individual chambers; barrel ramp etc.. Late-Georgian detail above includes panelled doors and ‘S’-shaped tread ends to staircase at former rear of central hall  

Reason for designation: Included for group value with the attached St Winefride’s RC Church and for the special interest of its C17 origins which provide an important historical link between the prosperous period of Well Chapel before the Reformation and the open revival after the suppression.  

St Winefride’s Chapel (Scheduling description)

Reference Number: FL101
Name: St Winefride’s Chapel  
Unitary Authority: Flintshire  
Community: Holywell  
Easting: 318509  
Northing: 376268  

Summary Description and Reason for Designation: The following provides a description of the Scheduled Ancient Monument. This monument comprises the remains of a medieval chapel and holy well built in the late 15th century. The holy spring of St Winifred, an important centre of medieval pilgrimage still venerated today, is said to have risen where St Beuno restored his niece St Winifred to life after her head had been severed by Caradoc, a rejected suitor. The shrine was first mentioned as a place of pilgrimage in 1115, and from 1240 to the dissolution it was part of the possessions of Basingwerk Abbey. The present remarkable and architecturally unique building is set into the hillside. It was probably built for Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, to replace an earlier structure, and is richly ornamented on the exterior with a frieze of animals, and the badges of Henry VII and Thomas Stanley (Margaret Beaufort’s third husband); the quality of the workmanship suggests that royal masons may have been employed. The two storey structure that stands today is one of the most perfect examples of perpendicular architecture in Wales. The well-chamber is open on the northern side, while there is level access from the south into the chapel above. A copious spring of clear water rises in a central basin in the shape of a truncated eight-pointed star, with steps at the front for access. The water flows beneath the surrounding walkway into a more recent swimming pool. The basin is enclosed by a low wall from which columns rise to form part of an elaborately ornamented vault of unusually complex design, matching the form of the pool below. Around ninety sculptured bosses at intersections of the vaulting ribs give a profusion of decorative devices including angels, the green man, the arms of the Stanley family, patterns incorporating foliage and strange beasts. In the centre, a pendant boss has six scenes from the life of St Winefride and Beuno. A corbel by the entrance portrays a pilgrim carrying another on his back, acting as a reminder of the importance of the well as a place of pilgrimage and healing. Graffiti attest to numerous visitors, including James II and Mary of Modena who came in 1686 to pray for a son; James (the Old Pretender) was born in 1688. The chapel has a north aisle and an apsidal chancel. The same decorative motives are reproduced in an elaborate frieze around the exterior walls between the well and chapel and below the roof. The three bays of the aisle mirror the three arcades of the vault in the well-chamber below, although stairs linking the two floors are now blocked. This monument is of national importance for its potential to enhance our knowledge of medieval religious practices. The scheduled area comprises the remains described and an area around them within which related evidence may be expected to survive.

Heritage Details

Architect: J. J. Scoles

Original Date: 1832

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II