British Saint of the Day: Etheldreda of Ely
SAINTS ETHELDREDA, SEXBURGA AND ERMENHILDA, QUEENS AND ABBESSES OF ELY,
AND HUNA, PRIEST-HERMIT OF HONEY HILL
Our holy Mother Etheldreda (Audrey) was born at Exning in Suffolk to the good King Anna of East Anglia and his wife Hereswytha, the sister of St. Hilda. King Anna and his wife had two sons, Adulph and Jurmin, and five daughters - Etheldreda, Sexburga, Ethelburga, Saethryda and Withburga - all of whom are counted as saints of the Church. After the death of Anna in battle against the pagan King Penda of Mercia in 654, his wife received the monastic tonsure and went to live in a monastery near Paris.
In about 652 Etheldreda was given in marriage by her father to Tondbert, the alderman of the South Gyrwas, who gave her the Isle of Ely as a dowry. He was at that time 16 years old, and she - 30. But Tondbert soon died, leaving Etheldreda still a virgin.
The saint then entrusted her estate to her faithful steward Ovin, and prepared to receive the monastic tonsure. However, her uncle Ethelwold wanted her to marry King Egrith of Northumbria. Again, she submitted to the marriage, but remained a virgin. King Egfrid made great efforts to persuade her to change her mind. St. Wilfrid, metropolitan of York, who was a confidant of the virgin, told the Venerable Bede that the king had promised him land and money if he could persuade his wife to consummate the marriage. Eventually, after twelve years of unconsummated marriage, Egfrid acceded to her repeated request and allowed the holy virgin to receive the monastic tonsure at the hands of St. Wilfrid in the monastery of Coldingham. The abbess of the monastery at that time was St. Ebba.
However, the king changed his mind and set out for Coldingham with the intention of bringing Etheldreda back. Thomas of Ely writes: "The Queen, going forth secretly with two handmaids of God, Sewenna and Sewara, came to a lofty hill situated not far from the monastery which she ascended [Colbert's Head]. There the sea leaving its natural channel and pouring out its waters abundantly surrounded the hill on which the holy virgins had taken refuge; and so we are told by the inhabitants of the place, for seven whole days while they continued in prayer and fasting the tide protected them, and - what is still more wonderful - forgetting its natural ebb, it tarried there as long as the king remained. And so, the handmaiden of Christ, secured on her rocky eminence, escaped the wrath of the king and suffered no harm from him." Egfrid then withdrew and took another wife, Ermenburga.
Continuing on her journey to Ely, Etheldreda lay down in a quiet resting place sprinkled with flowers of many colours and fresh with sweet scented grasses. On awaking, she found that her staff, which she had fixed in the ground at her side, dead and dry, had put forth branches clothed with green bark and bearing leaves. She then left it in the ground, and it grew to become a large ash tree. The place where it grew came to be called Etheldreda's Stow. Passing on through Winteringham and Alftham, where she built a church, the saint came to her domain of Ely in 672.
At first the saint wanted to rebuild the half-ruined church built by St. Felix at Cratendune. But then she decided to build a new monastery a mile away, near the river, where the cathedral now stands. The foundation was laid in 673; it was financed by her brother King Adulph and the architect was St. Wilfrid. When it was completed St. Wilfrid installed her as the first abbess.
She was like a mother to her nuns, training them by the good example she herself provided of the monastic life. The Venerable Bede writes that she had only one meal a day, was a great lover of solitary prayer, and wore woollen garments. She would seldom bathe except on the eves of great feasts, and then she would first bathe all the others in the convent, and wait on them as a servant, before washing herself last. Men and women of noble families would place themselves under her guidance, and bring their children to the monastery for their education. She worked many miracles, and demons would flee not only when she was present or spoke, but even at the mere invocation of her name when she was absent.
The saint prophesied not only that she would die of the plague, but also the number of those in the monastery who would die of the same disease. She was afflicted by a large tumour growing on her throat, for which she earnestly thanked God, saying: "I know for certain that I very much deserve to be afflicted with this suffering in my neck, for in my youth I adorned myself with many neck-chains, and now I think God in His justice is cleansing me of my sin. For now I have this swelling which shines instead of the gold, and this scorching heat instead of the sparkling gems." There was a certain doctor there by the name of Cynefrith, who lanced the tumour; and for a time the saint's condition improved. But the pain returned, and on the third day, June 23, 679, she reposed in peace. She was buried, as she had commanded, in the cemetery in a plain wooden coffin.
Our holy Mother Sexburga was another daughter of King Anna and a sister of St. Etheldreda. She married King Erconbert of Kent, from whom she had two sons, who later became kings of Kent in succession to their father, and two holy daughters, Ercongota and Ermenhilda. She founded a monastery at Minster-in-Sheppey, where she retired as abbess after the death of her husband in 664.
"When the monastery had been built," we read in an Old English manuscript, "an angel of God came in a vision of the night and announced to her that in time a heathen people [the Danes] would conquer this nation of ours. She had then held the kingdom for thirty years to deliver it to her son Hlothere. And she bought from him his share of the district, Sheppey, so that it should be free for the uses of the monastery as long as Christianity would be maintained in England."
Having obtained privileges for her monastery from the Pope (as did her sister Etheldreda for Ely through St. Wilfrid), Sexburga resigned the government of the monastery, handed it over to her daughter Ermenhilda and hastened to Ely to place herself under the direction of her sister. The sisters greatly rejoiced at their meeting, and in 679, on the death of Etheldreda, Sexburga became abbess of Ely.
In 695 she wanted to translate the relics of her holy sister into the church. Then she sent the monks to looks for a suitable stone for a coffin, for in the fen-country of East Anglia there are few hewn stones. They rowed to Grantchester, and God immediately granted them success; for coming to the small abandoned town of Grantchester, they found, near the town walls, a white marble coffin of exquisite workmanship and covered with a lid of the same kind of stone. Giving thanks to God, they brought it back to the monastery. When the grave was opened, the body of St. Etheldreda was found to be completely incorrupt, as if she had died that very day. The doctor Cynefrith removed the veil covering her face and found to his astonishment that the incision which he had made in the tumour had healed up, leaving only a slight scar. The linen in which the body had been buried was also as if new, and at the touch of it many demons were expelled and diseases healed. Also, the coffin in which she had originally been buried was reported to have cured people with diseases of the eyes who pressed their eyes to it. After washing the virgin's body, and clothed it in new garments, she was brought into the church and laid in the coffin that had been brought. It was found to fit her exactly, with the stone hollowed out at the head as if made for the head of the holy virgin.
The translation of the relics of St. Etheldreda took place on July 6, 695, and on the same day some four years later St. Sexburga died. She was succeeded by her daughter St. Ermenhilda, who had married King Wulfhere of Mercia and borne him a son, Kenred, and a daughter, St. Werburga. After Wulfhere's death she became a nun at Minster-in-Sheppey under her mother Sexburga. When her mother went to Ely, she became abbess at Minster; and when her mother died, she succeeded her as abbess at Ely. She died on February 18 in an unknown year.
In 869, one of the Danish invaders tried to take hold of the pall which covered the still incorrupt body of St. Etheldreda and struck the marble tomb with his battle-axe. But a splinter flew back from off the ground and entered his eye, and he fell dead. At this, the others left the tombs of the other saints,which they were thinking of violating, and fled.
During the tenth century the monastery of Ely was restored, and priests were introduced from other regions to perform the Divine services. "One of these," writes William of Malmesbury, "being more presumptuous than the rest, tried - not, I think, with an honest mind - to stir up his fellows to make themselves more certain about the incorruption of the virgin's body. These placed before themselves the danger of the thing, but he approached. First he put a candle through the hole which the blow of the Dane had made and put it next to the virgin, trying as far as he could to search out everything. Then he tried to draw to himself the clothes with which the holy body was wrapped. And he had already drawn a part through when the virgin, angered that her naked body should be seen by a good-for-nothing, violently pulled back the clothing into the tomb, so that he was thrust onto the earth on his back. Because of this he was ever after weak, and even suffered somewhat from amentia. The hole was filled with stone and cement by St. Ethelwold the bishop, who threw out the priests and introduced monks."
In 1106 the bodies of Saints Etheldreda, Sexburga, Ermenhilda and Withburga were translated again.
Miracles continued to take place at the shrines of these saints. We shall describe one of them. In the 12th century there was a man who vowed that if he were restored to health he would become a monk. On being restored to health he was going to fulfil his vow, but was accused of seeking to escape retribution for certain robberies. On being imprisoned in London, he fervently prayed to Saints Benedict and Etheldreda. It is said that they appeared to him and at St. Benedict's touch his chains fell away. On hearing about the miracle, Queen Matilda ordered that the case be investigated. Eventually the man was released and became a monk in Ely, where the broken chain hung as witness to the intercession of the saints.
The incorrupt left hand of St. Etheldreda can still be seen in the Roman Catholic church in Ely.
Our holy Father Huna was a priest-monk of great strictness of life and humility. He was the personal chaplain of St. Etheldreda, by whom he was greatly honoured, and whom he was counted worthy to bury. After her death he retreated to a solitary island in the fens, called Huneya, now Honey Hill in Chatteris, where he lived as a hermit until his blessed repose. Many miracles of healing were wrought at his tomb. In the tenth century his tomb was opened and his relics were translated to the monastery of Thorney.
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History; Abbot Aelfric, Life of St. Aethelthryth (10th century); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum; MS Lambeth 427 (tenth century); Liber Eliensis; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints; Trevor Bevis, Fenland Saints and Shrines, March: Westrydale Press, 1981)