The Life of St Withburga of Dereham and Holkham
+ 16th April, 743 AD [Translation - 8th July, 974 AD]
SAINT WITHBURGA was the youngest of the daughters of Anna [Onna], King of
the East Angles, and was thus nobly born. She was taught all things
regarding the Heavenly Kingdom and was brought up close to the sea by a
guardian and tutor at a village within her father’s royal estate. This
village is known as Holkham, where a church was eventually built in her
memory and which is still called in English - Wihtburhstow. Hearing of the
demise of her father, the holy maiden took recourse to the profession of
vows as a nun. Thus in the protection of the wings of the Lord, she
Shortly after this, the young nun travelled about 20 miles and reached a
place called Dereham, a place of low origin but also a royal estate of her
late father. There she chose to live as a solitary, but also founding a
It so happened that when she had built a church in honour of the Lord she
had no victuals, other than the dried bread which she customarily served to
the attendants of the monastery who were helping to build the church. Thus
she had recourse to the Holy Mother of God and besought her with prayers to
come to her assistance. Whilst St Withburga was dreaming in her sleep, the
Holy Virgin Mary came to her and taught her not to be anxious concerning
food for the body, nor to be anxious about worries regarding the morrow.
Thus the maiden of the Lord of Heaven, having been thoroughly instructed,
in the following morning sent milkmaids to a woodland spring which had been
prophesied to her, and which was close to a pleasant stream. Upon their
arrival, the maidens saw two roe deer. The deer belonged to the monastic
household and were allowed to be milked. One by one they submitted to the
hands of the milking girls and filled up the vessels, sufficient for two
men to carry, thrown upon their shoulders, using the handles as levers.
This abundance of milk supplied all the guests of the monastery.
Whilst such devotional practice continued the community also assisted (?)
the reeve of Dereham. He was a man of trickery who gave little regard to
such miracles. Driven by spite and ambition, he brought dogs to seize the
deer at the spring in order to show sheer contempt for the favours which
the deer had bestowed upon St Withburga's monastery. The dogs became
exasperated and were frightened away by the servants of God. Thus the reeve
held his spite in check and decided to postpone the punishment.
Very early one morning, the reeve came to the said place on a stallion,
driving the wild animals before him. Having spurred his horse on, he ran
into the sharp stake of a fence which pierced him through. His horse reared
backwards and thus was the arrogant rider executed with his face upwards
and killed with a broken neck.
Consequently the wild doe milk was not taken away and our Lord did not fail
his flock, the food having returned in abundance. The community never ran
short of food, for somehow manna rains from Heaven. Thus was Elias fed by
means of a raven and by the Zarephathan Widow. Such abundance has also been
bestowed upon many of the Saints.
After a time, Withburga, full of good works and goodness of character,
committed her flock to the Eternal King and died on the sixteenth of April
and was accordingly buried in the graveyard of Dereham Church. After almost
fifty-five years her body was found to be incorrupt and was duly translated
into the church which she had founded. There she was venerated until the
time of King Edgar and up until the time of 974 AD. So she rested in
Dereham churchyard for 176 years.
In 974 AD, Abbot Brithnoth, with the consent of King Edgar and Bishop
Ethelwold caused St Withburga to be translated from Dereham to Ely on the
8th of July, and to be buried there.
Just as if the country was burning or an enemy host was carrying out
slaughter and destruction, they were lamenting that the sole glory of the
province of East Anglia had been removed by way of cunning tricks and
deceit, just as the Ark of God had been removed by the Philistines, a
captive had been abducted. Immediately they took recourse to weapons and
proceeded to investigate, united in their fury. Thus, dividing their band
into two parts, they occupied both the right and left sides of the river,
as in a blockade, and determined to obstruct the river courseway. Uttering
reproaches, they stretched out spears and cursed the treacherous theft of
sacred things which had been undertaken through deception. They filled the
air with shouting, terrors, threats and abuse. They did not abuse the Abbot
himself, due to his status, and uttered no threat against sacred and
virginal land of Ely. The Abbot, as though deaf and oblivious to the
roaring, invoked divine assistance with repeated utterances and urged the
sailors and their ship onwards with much encouragement, just as a soldier
drives the horse with spears. So they escaped with the protection of God,
the wearied pursuers retiring in confusion.
Having travelled with great hurry for twenty miles by water and as far as
Tidbrightsey [that is the Isle of Tidbeorht], secure in their sweet and
pleasant triumph, with transport arranged, they escorted their charge
overland and sang praise and glory to the Lord. Thus arriving with new fame
for herself and much eulogy provided for her, Withburga was received into
her new shrine and for long exposition, many of the people running to meet
her and many of the monks and clergy singing together with great rejoicing
Her most blessed sister and principal of the Monastery of Ely, Etheldreda,
together with her exalted sister, the holy matron Queen Sexburga and her
daughter, Ermenhilda, in the company of the choir of holy souls who shone
forth for the Lord, surpassing human understanding and measure, embraced
Withburga’s arrival at her permanent abode.
The solemn service of the festival of the translation of Withburga, in the
region of Ely, was instituted on the 8th of July by King Edgar who ruled
over the oceanic domain of the English, with the goodness of David and the
peace of Solomon, together with that true prelate Dunstan of Worcester [who
radiated glory throughout our native land] and with Ethelwold, Bishop of
Winchester, who was like an eagle in the ark of the Church and who caused
Withburga's fame to become illustrious.
How Abbot Brithnoth translated the body of the gracious virgin Withburga to
Ely - [this explains the contention described on previous page].
Along with other verifiable things, the monastery got together a splendid
military force, provided by King Edgar and proceeded towards Dereham and
its most precious treasure Withburga, for whom translation was to be
Following consultation between the most holy Bishop Ethelwold and the most
devout Abbot Brithnoth, it was agreed unanimously that the most illustrious
adornment of the Church was to be moved without upheaval, to a superior
dwelling where the most brilliant and pure virgin of church domain would
adorn and illumine (with her decoration and brilliance) a higher sanctuary
than the one in which she rested.
Having been provided with royal largess and support by the obliging King
Edgar, and supported by the great favour and wishes of the Virgin Withburga
herself, Brithnoth sought her assistance through earnest prayers, so that
they might fulfil their holy intention and without disorder.
Thus the faithful robber Brithnoth, having besought the presence of the
Lord through confession, psalms and fasting, and having foreseen the
outcome of events, together with the more skillful of the brethren, came
with a military force to the aforesaid Church of Dereham. He came to his
own hereditary possession and thus no one questioned the reason for his
arrival. Though he had been granted by royal authority to act with power
and violence, he preferred to carry out his purpose with respect and
prudence, lest insurrection or confusion should break out amongst the
townsmen of Dereham.
He invited the citizens to abundant feasts in accordance with the exercise
of the rights of the townsmen. He left the hired hall to them and took
himself to the church sanctuary for vigil and worship and for the purpose
of the theft of sacred things, a faithful theft and advantageous plunder,
like unto Jacob supplanting the blessing of his brother Esau.
As night drew on, the townsmen and dignitaries of Dereham (now fully sated
and drunk) took to their quarters and beds, whilst the vigilant robber of
God and his monks went into hiding, waiting to carry out the holy villainy.
Next, Brithnoth went on bended knees, and with profuse warm prayers begged
the kind maiden to be friendly to him, justifications now being tiresome.
In due course, after a sermon and a censing, they opened up the tomb with
reverence and due trembling, together with wonderment, and discovered the
incorrupt and springtime beauty of the whole body, as though resting only
in a pleasant slumber. They raised her out with due respect, having removed
and replaced the tomb cover with sliding braces and levers, and carried her
away with assiduous psalm singing and triumphal rejoicing, just as victors
triumph with seized prisoners. The soldiers and attendants ran out to meet
and reinforce them with arms and rigor and prepared to resist anyone who
might oppose them.
Thus they progressed twenty miles, reaching the river at Brandon [Creek],
and boarded ship with the precious litter, and with oars and tackle they
eagerly watched over her. In truth, an astonishing and unsurpassed sign was
given. Whilst on their journey, a most brilliant and large reddish star
shone forth above the shining body of Withburga, with bright beams of light
pouring forth. It shone perpetually whilst their companion was making her
The parishioners of Dereham, following the burden of their deep sleep,
slowly organised an inspection of the quarters of the Abbot in the Church.
They discovered the unbolted doors and a total silence with no one present,
and realised that the tomb had been emptied of their blessed mother
Withburga, abducted by way of the trap of hospitality.
Horrible shoutings and lamentations were mad
Translation: Marilyn Back and Fr Elias Trefor-Jones