By Jessica Brewer
Saint Etheldreda / Ӕthelthryth / Audrey (636 -679 AD) was an East-Anglian princess who became the Queen of Northumbria and later the founder and abbess of a monastery at Ely in Cambridgeshire. These basic facts about her life are not particularly unique. Most royal women of the seventh century were expected to enter or at least found a monastic community. However unlike the hundreds of noble women who entered the church in Anglo-Saxon England, Etheldreda’s shrine and Etheldreda herself became a major figure within the English religious landscape.
Her popularity as a saint began soon after her death, Bede relates a version of her life in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum about 60 years after her death and her cult remained a focal point of worship in England throughout the Middle Ages. From her cult’s inception she was elevated to a status beyond that of a normal saint, she was regarded almost as an English equivalent of the Virgin Mary herself.
There is an abundance of medieval literature about Etheldreda in the form of saints’ lives, or Vitae, but given the highly stylized narratives of the genre it is difficult to discern how closely the Etheldreda of these stories resembles the actual seventh century princess. While there is no reason to doubt the basic details of her life as recorded in the Vitae, her true character and behavior are lost to history.
Contemporary Anglo-Saxon sources rarely mention women. This dearth of information suggests that the chroniclers did not deem women as important or influential but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t. The few references to women that exist suggest that women were often influential in convincing their consorts to adopt Christianity and allude to access and control over wealth particularly land.
In these positions women had the power to create alliances with the Church and secular rulers. If land is currency the ability to bequeath land is power. The creation of a strong monastic community founded by Etheldreda at Ely helped to bolster the authority of Etheldreda’s secular family in East Anglia who could in turn help financially support the fledgling monastic community. The ties between aristocrat families and monastic communities were forged primarily by women. This function seems to be the primary role for upper-class women in Anglo-Saxon England.
Bede writes that Etheldreda’s sister Ӕthelburgh and her step-sister Sӕthryth both became abbesses in Frankia thus establishing ties between their father King Anna and continental rulers. Like Etheldreda, Ӕthelburgh’s body was exhumed some years after her death and was also found to be incorrupt. The inclusion of multiple saints within the family of King Anna (all of his children were eventually canonized), would have undoubtedly strengthened the bond between the Church and Anna’s kingdom. The Church could use this connection to help develop a Christian stronghold on an island still in the process of conversion. The abbesses of royal blood were able to act as intermediaries in political negotiations and thus able to promote the political agendas of their families.
Written records about female saints and their cults is much greater than that of their secular lives and Etheldreda is no different. The literature espousing her saintliness far exceeds that of her life as princess and queen. In fact, more medieval Vitae exist about Etheldreda than any other English female saint.
According to the various Vitae she was the daughter of the East Anglian king Anna. Following the typical literary conventions of female sanctity, she desired to maintain her virginity and devote her life to Christ so much that she supposedly was able to maintain her virginity through two marriages. Her first husband was Tondbert a king of the South Gwyre in the Fens of East Anglia.
From him she received the Isle of Ely, where she would later found her monastery. When he died, she was married to Ecgfirth, the King of Northumbria, who unsuccessfully tried to consummate the marriage.
During her marriage to Ecgfirth, Etheldreda maintained a close friendship with Wilfrid the Bishop of York. It is documented that she gifted land to him to establish various religious houses including Hexham Abbey in Northumbria. Her patronage of Wilfrid turned him into a powerful ally within the Northumbrian court. In the scant records of Etheldreda’s life it is known that Wilfrid served as her ally against her husband Ecgfirth when she wished to end the marriage to enter religious life.
Ecgfirth unsuccessfully tried to capture Etheldreda after she fled, but she managed to outmaneuver him. She and her nuns eventually arrived at Ely and there she founded the monastery where she ruled as abbess for the rest of her life. Her death in 679 was attributed to a tumor on her neck. The Vitae relate this as a means of penance for her vain indulgence in elaborate necklaces before entering the Church. She bore this burden with pride and even viewed the punishment as a sign of divine grace. After her death she was buried in the monastery’s cemetery in a simple wooden coffin.
Her sanctity was confirmed sixteen years after her death during the abbacy of her biological sister, Sexburgh. Etheldreda’s body was exhumed and found to be undecayed and incorrupt by her physcian Cynefrid. Incorruptibly of the flesh is one of the hallmarks of a saint and thus she was reburied in a Roman sarcophagus inside church and a shrine was later erected.
The monastery was sacked by the Danes in 870, however according to legend the Danes who tried to vandalize Etheldreda’s shrine were struck down by God. After the destruction of the monastery, Etheldreda’s cult fell into decline until it was revitalized in 970 when the monastery was refounded by King Edgar and Ethelwold, the bishop of Winchester as part of King Edgar’s monastic reforms.
The revitalization of Etheldreda’s cult in the late 10th century recreated her image as an English version of the Virgin Mary, a holy mother who metaphorically gave birth to a dynasty of religious women while maintaining her chastity. Etheldreda’s cult continued to grow and attract devotees throughout the Middle Ages.
Etheldreda’s cult continued to grow and attract devotees throughout the Middle Ages. During the reformation her cult was disbanded and her shrine and relics were destroyed and scattered to the wind, thus ending a 900 year tradition of worship. Though she may no longer have the same sway over the hearts and minds of the English as she once did, her life and sainthood provide a rare glimpse of the influence women had in Anglo-Saxon England.
Jessica Brewer received a B.A. in Medieval Studies and Classical Studies from Tulane University in 2006 and a M.A. in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York (UK) in 2010. Her main interests of study are gender and religion. In her spare time she practices ashtanga yoga and is an unapologetic cat lover.
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Yorke, Barabara “‘Carries of Truth’: Writing the Biographies of Anglo-Saxon Female Saints” In Writing Medieval Biography 750-1250 Essays in Honor of Professor Frank Barlow. edited by David Bates, Julia Crick and Sarah Hamilton. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
See also: A Dynasty of Saints