Etheldreda (also known by the names Æthelthryth and Audrey) was one of the most popular saints to come out of early Anglo-Saxon England. In particular, she found an admirer in Bede (c. 673-735), the author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which recorded events in England from the days of the Roman Empire up to Bede’s own time; in it the monk included a chapter on Etheldreda, drawing largely from clergymen who had known the saint, specifically her friend and mentor, Bishop Wilfrid.
King Anna of East Anglia (d. 654) fathered several saintly daughters, one of which was Etheldreda. The young princess was said to have begun dreaming about life as a nun relatively early on in her childhood. Even though she was not allowed to join a religious order, she reportedly still tried to live with extreme virtue. Most importantly, she vowed to live in chastity and remain a virgin. Despite her vow, noblemen still sought her hand in marriage, for the union (even if only symbolic) would still bring the prospective husband into an alliance with the East Anglian king. Therefore, Etheldreda was married to a certain Tondbert, a prince or king from South Gyrwas. Apparently, the couple struck up an accord—she received her own estates, he became the king’s son-in-law, and neither husband nor wife bothered about consummating the marriage. As such, when Tondbert died shortly after the marriage had occurred, Etheldreda was still widely considered to be a pure virgin princess.
Unfortunately for Etheldreda, that meant she was still an eligible pawn in the political marriage unions of antiquity. Her second husband was Ecgfrith (also known as Egfrid), a future king of Northumbria. The two were married sometime before Ecgfrith took the throne, and he was still rather young when the match was made. Again, Etheldreda made her vow of chastity known to her husband, claiming that she was there for politics, not for procreation. At the beginning of the marriage, young Ecgfrith seemed willing to put up with his wife’s strict abstinence. Yet, in 670, he became the king of Northumbria, and as a king, it was vital to obtain heirs. Therefore, he began to pressure Etheldreda to come to bed, and when his propositions failed, he was desperate enough to offer Bishop Wilfred land and treasure if he could somehow manage to sway the queen to break her vow of chastity. Yet, every scheme failed, and the queen was said to have remained strictly chaste for all 12 years (c. 660-672) that the two were married.
Eventually, Etheldreda either convinced King Ecgfrith to let her join a religious order, or ran away to escape his urges. Whatever the case, the marriage was eventually annulled (around 672) and Etheldreda joined the convent of Coldingham, where she officially became a nun. She quickly left from there and returned home to East Anglia, where she became an abbess of her own convent, in the region of Ely.
Meanwhile, King Ecgfrith remarried and attempted to expand his realm. He was an ambitious king, but he had little success in his endeavors. He conquered the region of Lindsey from the kingdom of Mercia in 674, only to relinquish it back to the Mercians after losing a battle at the River Trent in 679. He launched an unadvised invasion of Ireland in 684, followed by another unwise expedition against the Picts in 685. During this later campaign, he died in battle at Nechtansmere (modern Forfar, Scotland).
While her former husband was seeing to his kingdom, Etheldreda was living the life of a devout nun. While at Ely, she made a name for herself as a virtuous ascetic. She allegedly wore only wool clothing, and refused finer textiles. She scorned the luxury of hot water for bathing, and only allowed her baths to be heated on the eves of important religious festivals. As for her diet, she was said to eat only one meal per day, yet she did sometimes let herself indulge on holidays. Etheldreda was also said to have been blessed with the gift of prophecy; however, this meant she had the unfortunate ability to see her own impending death.
Around 679, Etheldreda fell severely ill with a large and painful red tumor somewhere on her neck, underneath her chin. Modern observers have suggested that she may have suffered from quinsy, an infection of the tonsils. No matter what the illness was, Etheldreda seemed to face it with poise, even joking that the ugly abscess bulging from her neck was punishment for all of the expensive necklaces that she had worn during her days as a noblewoman and queen. Nevertheless, after days of agony, Etheldreda finally found relief in death.
Yet, the saint’s tale was far from over. After a span of 16 years, Etheldreda’s sister, Sexburg, exhumed the body of the saint in order to move her remains inside a nearby church. During the process, the coffin was opened and all onlookers (including Bishop Wilfrid) were astonished—Etheldreda’s body was still perfectly preserved, and her tumor even looked partially healed. The burial sheets and her clothing also allegedly still seemed as fresh as they had on the day she was entombed. These old sheets and garments were taken away and the saint was outfitted with new burial clothes before being sealed away in a specially designed sarcophagus. The textiles that were taken from her tomb were said to have had the power to exorcise demons. Even more miraculous, people who suffered from blindness or eye pain could allegedly be cured by running their hands along Etheldreda’s tomb, especially if they could manage to touch the wood of her coffin. Today, Etheldreda is considered a pre-congregational saint (predating modern Catholic canonization processes), and is regarded as a patron for widows and sufferers of neck ailments.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (cropped 10th century depiction of Saint Æthelthryth (Etheldreda) of Ely from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, illuminated manuscript in the British Library, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- From Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.