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Æthelthryth of Ely, perpetual virgin

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Full page miniature of Æthelthryth, London, British Library, Add MS 49598

Full page miniature of Æthelthryth. London, British Library, Add MS 49598, fol. 90v

The 23rd June is the feast day of Æthelthryth, an Anglo-Saxon queen and founder of a double monastery at Ely, who took a vow of celibacy despite being married twice. She was born c. 636 near Newmarket, Suffolk, and died at her monastery in 679 where she had been abbess for seven years, and is sometimes known as Etheldreda, or Audrey. She lived at a time when Christianity was really taking a foothold in England, and the story of her fiercely-protected virginity made her an ideal icon for spreading the message of the new church. According to Bede, her body remained uncorrupted after death, a sure sign she had not been defiled. In Signs of devotion : the cult of St. Aethelthryth in medieval England, 695-1615, the long-standing popularity of Æthelthryth is explored from its origins in the seventh century through to the early modern period. The story of the Northumbrian queen preserving her chastity as a sign of her devotion to God, fleeing from her second husband Ecgfrith when he tried to rape her and travelling back to her homeland to found the monastery at Ely in 679 obviously struck a deep chord in the medieval psyche, and her royal lineage propelled her to cult status. She also had a sister who succeeded her as abbess at Ely, and The Kentish Queen as Omnium Mater : Goscelin of Saint-Bertin’s Lections and the Emergence of the Cult of Saint Seaxburh explores the importance of themes such as maternity and sanctity in medieval hagiography.

 

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral

 

Æthelthryth’s life has been well-documented in medieval sources such as Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, Ælfric’s Lives of Saints and Goscelin’s Lives of Female Saints, and her elevated status is also apparent in the tenth-century manuscript, London, British Library, Add MS 49598. The manuscript contains the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, written in a beautiful caroline minuscule and sumptuously decorated with gold initials. The article The Structure of English Pre-Conquest Benedictionals discusses the possibility that Æthelwold himself wrote the blessing for the feast of Æthelthryth. As Æthelwold was a pioneer of the tenth-century monastic reform, it is easy to see how the promotion of the cult of Æthelthryth would have suited his agenda. Ely had been destroyed by Viking raids and was refounded in 970 by Edgar and Æthelwold as part of their rebuilding programme.

 

Benedictional for Æthelthryth

Benedictional for Æthelthryth, from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, London, British Library, Add MS 49598

 

The writing on the leaf pictured above (fol. 90r, using the Latinised version of her name yet retaining the Anglo-Saxon letter forms), highlights her sanctity, declaring the blessing for the feast day of saint Æthelthryth the perpetual virgin: Benedictio in natale s[an]c[t]e Aethelðryþae perpetue virg[inis].

Æthelthryth died from a tumour on her neck (probably plague), which she interpreted as a punishment for her former love of fine dresses and jewels, and Anglo-Saxon Woman : Fame, Anonymity, Identity and Clothing and The Adornment of Virgins : Æthelthryth and Her Necklaces explore the theme further. Unlike the miracles of St Brigid, Æthelthryth does not seem to have performed anything remarkable during her lifetime (apart from evading Ecgfrith and choosing a site for the monastery), but saved her powers for use posthumously. The Liber Eliensis (book of Ely), written some 500 years after her death, embellishes the miracles recorded by Bede, and The Changing Hagiography of St. Æthelthryth discusses her healing abilities, apparently curing people’s eye-diseases when they touched her coffin. She also inflicted death on those who disturbed her tomb, including a Viking, and a group of priests sceptical about her uncorrupted body. Sixteen years after her death, Seaxburh wanted her body interred inside the cathedral, and miraculously chanced up a white marble sarcophagus for the purpose, which happened to be an exact fit for Æthelthryth’s corpse. The symbolism of her virgin body and connection to Ely is explored in Ely’s St. Æthelthryth : The shrine’s enclosure of the female body as symbol for the inviolability of Monastic space.

Shrine and relics of Æthelthryth. Image from Wikipedia

Shrine and relics of Æthelthryth. Image from Wikipedia

Æthelthryth’s popularity has continued to the present day. She is often depicted with a crown of flowers or a book, and is the patron saint of throat ailments. Her church in Holborn, known as St Etheldreda’s church, is the oldest Roman Catholic church still surviving in England, and she continues to be worshipped in her hometown of Ely at St Etheldreda’s church, where her shrine and relics are contained. Lace and silk necklaces are associated with her cult, and were sold on her feast day in Ely at St Audrey’s Fair. The work ‘tawdry’ derives from this, referring to the inferior quality of these tokens.

To explore the cult of Æthelthryth further, please visit the Bibliography of British and Irish History:

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Figure 1. Screenshot for advanced search for ‘Æthelthryth’

 

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Figure 2. Screenshot for search results for ‘Æthelthryth’

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