By Susan Abernethy
Eadburh, daughter of King Edward the Elder and grand-daughter of King Alfred the Great, was dedicated to the Nunnaminster at Winchester when she was a young child. The only contemporary historical evidence regarding her is a Winchester charter dated from 939 in which she was the beneficiary of land at Droxford in Hampshire, granted to her by her half-brother King Aethelstan. The earliest full-length biography of her was written by Osbert of Clare, prior of Westminster Abbey in the twelfth century. He is also known as the biographer of King Edward the Confessor. Osbert’s biography of Eadburh explains her evolution into a young woman of virtue, humility, charity and miraculous powers.
The most likely date of Eadburh’s birth is c. 921. She was the daughter of King Edward the Elder, son of King Alfred the Great. Her mother was Edward’s third wife Queen Eadgifu. There was a close relationship between the city of Winchester and the house of Wessex, Alfred and Edward’s family. The city served as a royal residence and for a while was the depository of the royal treasure. Edward’s mother, Ealhswith, had founded the monastery of Nunnaminster at Winchester but it was not completed before she died and King Edward would go on to finish the foundation. It was common practice at the time for children to be dedicated to monasteries when they were young.
Shortly after Eadburh was born, Edward wanted to know if she was destined for the world or the church. The legend says he placed objects in front of her reflecting each choice. For the worldly option he selected items that represented the riches of royalty. He also chose a communion plate, a chalice and a gospel book of religion. Eadburh, at the age of three, showed no interest in the former items and moved immediately toward the religious objects. This was taken as a sign she was destined for a life of religion and she was committed to the care of the abbess Aethelthryth at her grandmother’s foundation at Nunnaminster. Eadburh was brought up in the monastery and lived her entire life there becoming a nun. Her spiritual goodness is explained by Osbert in five different episodes.
The prioress found a nun reading alone, a breach of the monastic rules. The prioress began beating the nun until she recognized it was Eadburh. She immediately prostrated herself and apologized profusely. This was mostly due to Eadburh’s royal status and an acknowledgement of her as a political asset to the monastery.
Eadburh’s humility was demonstrated by one of her acts as related by Osbert. She was caught more than once rising in the middle of the night to clean the shoes of her fellow nuns in the monastery. Her superiors chastised her for this because it was beneath the dignity of her royal status. Sometime after one of these incidents, King Edward visited Nunnaminster to inquire after his daughter. The nuns gave her an overall favorable report but the king knew they were holding back on telling him something. He finally prevailed upon them and they confessed to the shoe cleaning episodes. Contrary to their expectations, he reacted positively to the tale.
Eadburh’s presence was essential for increasing the wealth and holdings of the monastery. The foundation had outgrown its surrounding precincts and needed more room. On the occasion of another visit from her father, the king asked Eadburh to sing for his entertainment. She was reluctant and he offered to give her a just reward. She interceded for the monastery at the request of the nuns and obtained an estate at All Cannings, Wiltshire from her father in exchange for her singing. This estate was one of the major possessions of the Nunnaminster in the Domesday Book in 1086.
The other indications of Eadburh’s piety, as explained by Osbert were her renowned charity to the poor and her pious death. Her worldly goods were left to the monastery in her final act of patronage. She died in her thirtieth year and was buried in a humble grave outside the monastic church. Then, a miracle occurred. There was a window near the tomb which was closed by a certain nun every night. One night she went to close the window and was unable to due to pressure from the outside. This happened for three successive nights. The nun reported the incident to her fellow sisters and they all took it as a sign that Eadburh was unhappy with the location of her burial.
The nuns became excited as this was taken for a miracle and they hastily moved her remains to a second burial place outside the choir of the monastic church. But once again Eadburh showed her displeasure by appearing to the nuns. Her remains were unearthed and it was discovered her body was intact and un-decayed. She was translated into the conventual church to a place near the high altar. Thus the cult of Eadburh began and she became the patron saint of Nunnaminster.
Osbert attributes five conventional miracles to Eadburh. He says she cured four people. One was a cripple from Winchester and another was a clerk from Saint-Quentin who was visiting the Nunnaminster and was seized by madness. She supposedly cured two poor women whose place of origin is unknown and also a man from Wilton who was possessed by demons. For the fifth miracle Osbert says she freed a man who had been locked in chains by the king.
Later, Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984, recognized there were miracles happening at Eadburh’s tomb. He re-founded the nunnery and arranged to have Eadburh’s body raised from the tomb by the altar and placed in a silver shrine in the sanctuary. Her name occurs in most late Anglo-Saxon calendars and in some early litanies. There is some confusion as to how and if she became the patron saint of Pershore which is about 104 miles away. She may have been confused with another Saint Eadburh. But there is no doubt Eadburh’s sanctity originated among the nuns at Nunnaminster and the cult was kept alive by them with the help of Bishop Aethelwold.
“Edward the Elder 899-924” edited by N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill, “The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon & East Anglian Cults” by Susan J. Ridyard, entry on Eadburh in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Barbara Yorke, “The Life of Saint Edburga of Winchester by Osbert of Clare, Prior of Westminster”.
Susan Abernethy is the writer of The Freelance History Writer.
Follow Susan on Twitter: @SusanAbernethy2