By Kimberley Steele
Quest, the Online Journal of Queens University, Belfast, Vol.6 (2009)
Introduction: The ‘sisters’ of Ely were among the most venerated saints of Anglo-Saxon England, regularly rivalling even the Canterbury cults in the number and value of donations received from supplicants, and Æthelthryth, the leading figure in this esteemed family, was the most celebrated native woman of the pre-Conquest era, with a cult that continued, seemingly uninterrupted, from the time of her death in 697 until the dissolution of the monasteries.
During the centuries in which these cults flourished, the characters of the saints at their centre were to evolve from pious virginal ladies to strident, oftentimes violent, protectors of Ely lands and privileges, adapting to the needs of the community that venerated them.
The earliest surviving source for the events of Æthelthryth’s life, and that of her sister, Seaxburh, is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, in which the author claims that his knowledge is based on the verbal accounts provided by Bishop Wilfrid, friend and confidant of the saint, and Cynifrid, who had acted as surgeon for Æthelthryth and been present, together with Wilfrid, at her first translation. It is immediately apparent from the text that the author greatly admired his subject, speaking with much more ardour than that which is devoted to other comparable figures, such as St. Hild of Whitby.
The reason Bede gives for his fervent admiration of Æthelthryth is that ‘even in our own time…’ a saint of such calibre lived, a woman who piously preserved her virginity despite tremendous pressure to consummate her marriages, and who renounced the wealth and comfort of royal position in order to found a house of monks and nuns. She is likened to such women as Agatha and Cecilia, martyrs of the early church who had died in defence of their virginity, thus responding to a concern common during the medieval period. In the age of the Church Fathers saints were most often distinguished by the sacrifice of their lives for their faith; by the Anglo-Saxon period, however, paganism was less widespread, and the nationalisation of Christianity rendered such martyrdoms infrequent. Was sainthood therefore to be attainable only to those who perished during such events as the Viking invasions, or were there other paths to sanctification? Æthelthryth represented to her contemporaries and near-contemporaries the new and increasingly common breed of saint, distinguished by asceticism and piety, but not necessarily martyrdom.