Saint Winifred and Cadfael

Saint WinifredI’m a big fan of the Cadfael television series. It is about the 12th century Welsh monk, Brother Cadfael. He came to the church late in life after having been a soldier. So he is pretty much the only monk who knows the ways of the world. And his position at the abbey is as an herbalist. But his position in the series is as Miss Marple—an amateur sleuth who solves the murders that inevitably happen during each episode.

The other night, I watched the episode, A Morbid Taste for Bones, which is based upon the first novel. It involves Shrewsbury Abbey’s acquisition of the bones of Saint Winifred. It’s a fabulous episode because there is much about the general corruption of the church. And most other episodes make at least some reference to the bones of Saint Winifred and the fact that pilgrims come to the abbey to be healed by the saint. The only problem is that it ain’t Saint Winifred’s bones that are in that ornate box.

I won’t “spoil” the episode for you, because the plot is rather clever. But it is interesting that throughout the rest of the series, Cadfael is the only one that knows this secret. And he’s fine with it, because from his perspective, Saint Winifred’s magic or whatever doesn’t need to be constrained by distance. You also get the impression that Cadfael think it is all a bunch of hocus pocus anyway. That’s the great thing about such stories: the anachronisms. So we can all feel very good about ourselves that we don’t believe in trial by ordeal. Throw a suspected witch in a lake with a millstone around her next and if she sinks, “Witch!”

After watching the episode, it got me wondering if there really was a Saint Winifred. And not only is there, she appears to have been an actual person. If you’ve spent any time studying the saints, you will quickly find that a lot of them are nothing more than folklore. And it is getting kind of pathetic as more recent saint candidates like Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa have what can only be termed “coincidences” in place of “miracles.”

Saint Winifred was probably a Welsh nun who lived in the 7th century. And according to legend, when she was young and nubile, a man by the name of Caradoc wanted to marry her. But when she told him that she was going to be a nun, he raped her and cut off her head, because nothing says “Can we still be friends?” like a good decapitation. Her head rolled down hill and where it stopped St Winifred’s Well sprung up—kind of the Welsh equivalent of the Fountain of Youth. After the incident, he uncle, Saint Beuno put her head back on her body and she came back to life. And there are other stories like her pilgrimage to Rome.

The only actual writing about her occurred four hundred years later. In it, there is much said about a scar on her neck. Now that could mean that the basic story is correct, but she was only wounded an survived. Or it could be that since the writers took it as a given that she had been decapitated, they figured she would of course have a scar. You can imagine a Welsh man seeing the decapitation and thinking, “Oh, that’s gonna leave a scar!” Although you would think that if God could heal a decapitation, he could manage to do it without a scar.

Regardless, I thought it was pretty interesting that Edith Pargeter introduced this historical character into her novels. But it apparently isn’t the only one. The two abbots were actual people, as was the corrupt and power-hungry Prior Robert. None of this is a reason to watch the series or read the books. Mostly it is all interesting because the Cadfael character is so great. But the historical setting adds a great deal to the enjoyment.

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