A Dynasty of Saints
Paper by Jessica C. Brown
Given at Arizona State University on March 22, 2017
By all accounts, St. Æthelthryth was married twice and remained a virgin. During her life she was a princess of East Anglia, queen of Northumbria, and finally abbess and founder of the monastery at Ely. After she left her second marriage some time around 672 AD, she laid the foundation for a dynasty of female leaders. Her sister, niece, and grand-niece each successively inherited the leadership of Ely. The women in her family also established and/or led other religious houses in France and throughout England. Most of these women were canonized. Meanwhile Æthelthryth quickly became one of the country’s most popular and widely known saints. Her shrine was a site of pilgrimage for more than nine-hundred years, and at least twenty-one medieval accounts of her life survive. This dynasty of abbesses whose sororal bond was both literal and spiritual continued to shape English identity well into the fifteenth century. As later authors rewrote Æthelthryth’s life, they incorporated elements of their own national identity by adding political, religious, social, and doctrinal elements that were absent from earlier records. By examining these adaptations of her life we can start to understand how late-medieval writers viewed themselves and their Anglo-Saxon past.
Jessica C. Brown is a PhD candidate in ASU’s English Department and first recipient of the ACMRS Community Council Doctoral Research Abroad Fellowship. During the summer of 2016 this award funded her dissertation research in the Bodleian, Cambridge University, and British Libraries. Her work focuses on late-medieval adaptations of Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives.