Michael Linton's Bayeux Tapestry: 1066 - A Medieval Mosaic and Puzzles
QUEENS OF ENGLAND
BEFORE THE NORMAN CONQUEST.
TAGGARD & THOMPSON,
This electronic edition
was prepared by
Michael A. Linton, 2007
QUEEN OF ARVIRAGUS.
Religious enthusiasm—Church building—Queen Hereswytha, "the mother of many Saints"—Her husband, King Anna—Etheldreda and Thonbert—She retires to a monastery—Her second marriage to Egfrid—Their establishment—Egfrid's remonstrance—Etheldreda goes to a convent, accompanied by Bishop Wilfred— Architecture and Church Music patronised by Wilfred—Anger of Egfrid—Their separation: he re-marries—Ermenburge persecutes Wilfred—Anglo-Saxon carriage —Wilfred's trials—Sexburga's piety—Her daughter—The Abbess Hildelitha—The Convent of Minstre—Ermenilda's, and her young daughter Werburga's, piety—Murder of the young princes, Wulfade and Rufin—Werburga's profession—The Abbess Etheldreda's edifying death—St. Audrey's lace, and St. Etheldred's chain—Ely Monastery—Sexburga's happy death—The butterfly shadow—Miracles—St. Werburga, the Patroness of Chester—Ely Cathedral—Antiquities—The stone cross of Etheldreda.
THE distinguishing feature of the seventh century was religious enthusiasm. It was a period when self-negation was looked upon as the prime virtue, and females in high position thought it incumbent upon them to devote their lives to self-sacrifices, of a nature which, in these days, do not carry with them the eminent character of virtue which they were then thought to bestow.
Monkish writers naturally enlarge on the holiness and purity of a life of celibacy, and infinite credit has been given to many persons in those remote ages, whose acts, considered by them worthy, were calculated to cause unhappiness and discontent to others. Of this kind was the conduct of several of the consorts of the Saxon monarchs, who, consenting to become wives, did not comprehend the duties of the state into which they had entered, and adopted the habits of recluses in the midst of a court; disappointing the hopes of the country, which looked to them to become the mothers of princes who should perpetuate the line of succession, and whose example of attachment and tenderness to the husbands they had accepted should afford an example to their female subjects.
Mistaken piety led many royal wives into a perfectly opposite course to what is an evident duty, and much inconvenience, as well as vexation, ensued in the State in consequence. But whatever are our present notions, the ascetic behaviour adopted at this early period of history was looked upon as a proof of every Christian virtue, and was probably a natural reaction from the licentiousness of Paganism.
Unbounded praise is bestowed by most Roman Catholic writers on those Queens who converted their palaces into nunneries, and looked upon their husbands as merely brethren of a community, whose earthly love it was their duty to repudiate, and with whom it was praiseworthy to live on terms of the strictest severity. Occasionally the partners of these holy and religious ladies shared their enthusiasm, and devoted themselves to the same life; but in some cases it was different, and the whole country was thrown into a ferment in consequence of the domestic troubles ensuing.
To have erected and endowed a church or a monastery is always spoken of by early historians as the most praiseworthy of acts, and almost countless are the edifices raised in the seventh century to prove the zeal of the new converts to the true faith. The Queens of Ercombert, Egfrid, and Wulphere were not the least amongst those pious personages, who strove to gain the approbation of man and the favour of Heaven by expending enormous sums on religious buildings.
Not one of the princes of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy was more eminent for piety than Anna, King of East Anglia, who had sheltered Cenwalch from the indignant wrath of his fierce brother-in-law Penda, King of Mercia; nor was there a more excellent and amiable princess than Hereswytha, his consort, who for her own piety and the holiness of her offspring, has been entitled the "mother of many saints." Of her first husband, to whom she bore a son and a daughter, [St. Sethrid, Hereswytha's daughter by the first husband, was honoured by the early English as a saint, though her name is not contained in any calendar. She succeeded St. Fara, abbess and foundress of Faremoutiers, in France, in her high office, and was honoured, on the 6th or 7th of May, as St. Sethrid, or Sessetrudis.— Butler's Lives, Jan. 10 and Dec. 7.] no account is accurately given: three sons and three daughters were the offspring of her union with King Anna. The sons of Hereswytha were Jurminus, Adulphus, and Erkenwald; her daughters were Ethelburga, Sexburga, Etheldreda, Oslave, and Withburga.
Sexburga, whose education had been carefully attended to (for women at this time were highly instructed), became the wife of Ercombert, King of Kent, who was remarkable both for his zeal in religion and his patriotism. He was first to establish the fast of Lent in his division of the Heptarchy, where he razed the temples of heathenism, and extirpated the idolatrous worship so long prevailing. Queen Sexburga encouraged her husband in all his religious undertakings, sharing in his exertions, and confirming his resolution by her counsel and example. "Thus," says the Chronicle, "while her virtue, humility, and devotion excited the admiration and reverence of the people, her goodness and unbounded charity gained for her more especially the love of the poor. Although she had married in obedience to the will of her parents, she would have preferred the cloister to a palace, a church to matrimony, and the service of Christ to worldly empire." [Bromton.]
Etheldreda [The uncertainty of orthography in former times is well exemplified in the name of Etheldreda. Its abbreviation is Eldrude, a compound of Saxon and British, from "Ell," the reduplicative pronoun, and "drud," "illustrious" or I "well-beloved."—Butler. This word, however, is written indifferently—which is sufficiently confusing Etheldrida, Etheldrith, Adelfrida, Adelthrid, Ediltrudis, or Audrey. The name of Etheldreda signifies "noble advice." (Camden.) Hereswytha is indifferently written with a d or th—the sound being the same.] was the destined wife of Thonbert, an Englishman of noble birth. From her infancy she had been distinguished by her humility and devotion, which led her, in conformity with a custom at that time enjoined by the Church, to take upon herself a vow of perpetual celibacy, devoting herself entirely to the service of Christ. This vow she never violated, though she twice entered the connubial state. She was induced to accept Thonbert for her nominal husband, in conformity with the wishes of her parents, and with him she is said to have lived for three years, as a holy sister, in accordance with her early vow. He was Prince of the Southern Girvii, having authority over Rutland, Northampton, and part of Lincolnshire, those districts being ruled by their own princes, who were subject to the Kings of Mercia. To this domain was added the Isle of Ely, upon his marriage with Etheldreda, to whom it was given as a bridal dowry. [Butler, Bradshawe.] At the end of two years, Etheldreda's father, King Anna, with his son Jurminus, was slain in battle by Penda, and the death of her husband followed shortly after. Returning into solitude, the young widow could now uninterruptedly devote herself to religious duties, and humble herself before Him who "loveth those whom he chasteneth."
Her mother Hereswyda, to whom she was tenderly attached, and who, on the death of King Anna, had retired to France with her own sister Hilda, and entered the Monastery of Chelles, died at this time.
The famous Monastery of Chelles, five leagues distant from Paris, on the Marne, though founded by Clotilda, Queen of France, was chiefly endowed by St. Bathilde, a Saxon Queen. Hilda had resolved to end her days in that establishment, but the loss of her sister broke the tie which bound her to the spot, and she suffered herself to be prevailed on by St. Aidan to return into Northumberland, where she is afterwards distinguished as the Abbess of Whitby.
The deaths of Thonbert and of Hereswyda occurred in 655, and the year after Adulphus succeeded to the throne of his father Anna, Etheldreda remaining in Ely, occupying herself in "fasting, prayer, vigils, and penance." Vainly, however, did the widowed princess seclude herself from the world. The fame of her beauty and her virtue had spread, and attracted the attention of Egfrid, one of the most powerful Kings of the Saxon Heptarchy, who then governed Northumberland, and he desired to obtain her in marriage. Etheldreda, however, refused to become his wife,
"Though her sister Sexburge moened her tenderly;"
until the Prince urged his suit with such importunity, promising that her vow should be held sacred, that she yielded her consent;
"And at the maryage was great solemnyte,
Trumphes, honoures, on every side,
Great cost and royalte."
Ely was probably the scene of the nuptial festivity, as King Egfrid came there to seek his bride. [Butler.] Five years had been passed by Etheldreda in widowhood when, by her second espousals to Egfrid, she became Queen of Northumberland.
During twelve years from the date of this union, Etheldreda resided with her consort as his sister, not as his wife; for neither the affection of the husband, the authority of the king, or any other inducement, was of any avail in inducing her to break the vows she had made to Heaven. Egfrid, on the other hand, felt such respect for his wife, and was so much affected by the example of her virtue, that he allowed her full liberty to fast, watch, and pray, and to devote her time to acts of piety and charity, during that space of time; but his own youth, and the great desire of his subjects that he should have heirs, at length led him to make representations, not indeed to Etheldreda herself, whose reproof he feared, but to Bishop Wilfred, who possessed the entire confidence of the Queen, and she was in the habit of consulting him on all occasions. Etheldreda had bestowed on him, with the consent of her husband, Hexham, which she is believed to have obtained as her own bridal dowry from Egfrid, for an episcopal see; and Wilfred built in it a church and monastery, the structure of which surpassed any in England. Italian architects, masons, and glaziers [The art of making glass was known in Britain before the coming of the Romans, and improved by them. It was lost in the invasion of the Saxons, but afterwards imported among them, A.D. 664, for the ornament of churches and religious edifices, as Bede tells us, though not used till after the Conquest, in private dwellings. Specimens of Saxon glass may be seen in Westminster Abbey, cemented into the tomb of Edward the Confessor: they are small square or diamond-shaped pieces, not more than an inch in length, and lined with gold leaf. Similar ornaments were seen in a tomb discovered in repairing Rochester Cathedral, though of rather a later date.] were hired to assist in its erection, and it was furnished with plate and holy vestments, besides containing a large collection of the Lives of the Saints, and a noble ecclesiastical library. [Lives of the Saints.] Sacred music was first patronized in Northumberland in Etheldreda's time. St. Acca, a subsequent Bishop of Hexham, himself a learned musician and author of many literary productions, especially of a religious nature, retained in his service for twelve years a famous singer named Maban, by whose instructions the use of church music and singing of anthems was revived, and who introduced many Latin hymns before unknown in the northern churches. [Biog. Brit. This Acca was interred in Hexham Church, where one stone cross was placed at his head and another at his feet. When, three hundred years afterwards, his tomb was opened, his burial-clothes were found in a state of entire preservation, and a wooden tablet, of the form of an altar, was discovered, which had been placed on the breast of the deceased prelate. It was joined with silver nails, and bore an inscription. Such was the mode of interment in those days used for a bishop among the Angles.]
Several charitable institutions, founded in different parts of Wilfred's diocese, were encouraged by Queen Etheldreda.
Bishop Wilfred, appealed to by Egfrid on the subject of Etheldreda's vow, did not feel at liberty to decline the commission intrusted to him of interfering in this matter, and accordingly addressed himself to the Queen on the subject of her husband's wish. Etheldreda now plainly perceived that the only method of enabling her to keep her resolution, was to endeavour to induce Egfrid to live in a state of separation from her; Wilfred represented, accordingly, to the king that it was the desire of his wife to enter into the seclusion of a monastery. The prelate's entreaties and the importunity of Etheldreda herself at last extorted from the King a consent that she should depart from the court of Northumberland, [Bede, Milton, Lives of the Saints.] and follow her wish in this respect also. Having succeeded in gaining the consent of the King, Etheldreda took an important step, in which she was advised by Wilfred; she repaired to the Monastery of Coldingham, beyond Berwick, of which Ebba, "the King's aunt," was Abbess, and there professed herself a nun. [Holinshed.] She received the veil from the hands of Wilfred himself, and on the occasion expressed her joy by remarking "that she never thought herself a Queen till she was professed, and thus solemnly contracted to the King of Heaven." [Butler.]
Etheldreda remained for some time under the protection of the Abbess Ebba; but at the end of a year from the time of her profession, Wilfred informed the royal nun that Egfrid had formed a design, either by persuasion or compulsion, to make her return to his court. To avoid this alternative, Etheldreda quitted the convent and fled to the kingdom of East Anglia, for greater safety. She was accompanied in her journey by two maidens, and the monkish Chronicles inform us that at every place where they rested on their way thither, "our Lord showed them miracles." [Lives of the Saints.] It is supposed that Ovin, an old and faithful steward of the Queen, attended their flight.
Adulph, who is sometimes called the "natural brother of Etheldreda," received the fugitives; and in due course of time, Etheldreda, assisted by him, erected on her own estate, the Isle of Ely, a double monastery.[Canwod Abbey.—Bradshawe.] This edifice was founded in A.D. 672. [To this period may perhaps be ascribed the foundation of a structure by Etheldreda in the locality now known as Ely Place, Holborn. The work of that Queen has long since fallen to decay; but Shakspeare, on the authority of Holinshed, informs us that the Bishop of Ely dwelt at a palace in what is now called Ely Place—which residence was noted by some of our writers for its strawberry gardens, vineyards, and meadows. On the spot where Queen Etheldreda's foundation existed, was erected, in 1320, the antique chapel bearing her name, of which Newcourt, in his "Repertorium Londinense," written in 1700, says, "is, to this day, a very fair, large, old chapel."] As soon as it was completed, Etheldreda assumed the government. Wilfred himself attended in person at Ely, to assist at the ceremony of the Queen's election as abbess.
This prelate had, as it is natural to imagine, incurred the severe anger of Egfrid, nor was that anger appeased even after he had taken another wife. The new Queen was Ermenburge, sister-in-law to the King of Wessex, [Eddius.] who, unwilling to encourage so great a power as that possessed by Wilfred in the kingdom, irritated the King still more against him; and her mortification at the freedom of the bishop's strictures on the violence of character, soon led to open hostilities between them.
Ermenburge [Lingard.] now employed every means to ruin Wilfred in the King's opinion, and her task was the less difficult as Egfrid was already so much incensed. She gained also an ally in Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was induced to assist her views, owing to misrepresentations, of which he afterwards became aware; for the present, however, he only listened to the grievances brought forward by the Queen, and was prevailed on to depose Wilfred from his dignity, after he had spent ten years in endeavouring to establish the monastery of which he was the support. Richard, Prior of Hexham, speaking of Ermenburge, says: "In her heart Satan stirring up the seeds of hatred against the said bishop, by her tongue incited the King's mind to expel the priest;" and it appears that the Queen was the more displeased, because Hexham, part of Etheldreda's dowry received from Egfrid, had been bestowed on that prelate. It is plain that all parties, Queen as well as bishops, had an interested motive for the disgrace of Wilfred.
Accordingly Theodore parcelled out his great diocese, consecrating Bosa to the see of York, for the Deiri; Eata to that of Lindisfarne, for Bernicia; and Eadhead to the church of Lindissi, or great part of Lincolnshire, which Egfrid had won from Mercia. This great division of Wilfred's bishopric took place A.D. 678. Wilfred on this appealed to the Pope. He raised no clamour, for he dreaded either disturbances or schism, but was sufficiently well acquainted with the canons to perceive the irregularity and nullity of many steps taken against him. He accordingly embarked for Rome, where having pleaded his own cause, he returned to England, and repairing to the presence of Egfrid, handed to him the sealed decrees of the Pope. That prince, having first caused them to be read by the prelates of his own faction, who were at that time present in the apartment, declared that they had been obtained by bribery, and commanded that Wilfred should be committed to prison. The order was obeyed, and during the space of nine months Wilfred was subjected to the most rigorous treatment. It is said, everything but the clothes which he wore was taken from him, and all his adherents were dispersed in different directions. Queen Ermenburge herself took possession of his case of relics, which she hung up in her chamber, and carried about with her in her chariot wherever she went, making an outward display of piety but little in accordance with her conduct.
The following curious account of a lady's carriage exists in an Anglo-Saxon MS. in the Harleian library. It represents the carriage of a lady of rank, of a rather later period than that of Ermenburge: "it has uprights fixed before and behind, with a body, shaped like a hammock, suspended between; the whole, and in particular the spokes of the wheels, are painted with various colours. The lady to whom the gay vehicle belongs, wears on her head a double veil, and has a perforated mantle over the shoulders; her upper gown, which scarcely descends below the knees, is embellished with a border of needlework edged with beads. The sleeves descend only as far as the elbows, and are of considerable width, in shape resembling those now most fashionable. Beneath is worn an under garment, with long tight sleeves, reaching to the ground, so as almost to cover the feet." [Smith and Merrick.]
Wilfred's composure of mind is said to have been so great under his reverses, that his guards overheard him singing psalms in his dungeon: a bright light also is said "to have issued from that dark chamber, which alarmed his guards, and Wilfred having performed an extraordinary cure on the sick wife of their governor, that person refused any longer to guard him; so that the King, for safety, removed him to another prison." [Butler's Lives.]
At length Ermenburge was seized with a dangerous illness while staying at the Monastery of Ebba. The King's aunt was struck with the belief that her malady was caused by the indignation of Heaven for her conduct towards Wilfred; a notion fostered by the abbess, on whose remonstrances at her injustice to that excellent prelate, Wilfred was set at liberty, his relics restored, and his companions sent back to him, on condition, however, that the bishop should never more set foot within the territories of Egfrid. He accordingly retired from Northumberland, and solicited the protection of Brithwald, nephew to the King of Mercia, who granted to him land, on which he built a monastery. Egfrid's emissaries, however, discovered his retreat, and the Mercian was alarmed by his threats; so that Wilfred, unwilling to endanger his friend's safety, quitted his place of refuge, and fled into Wessex. [Lingard.] But Wilfred's trials were not yet over; for Irmenigild, sister of his persecutress, was Queen of Wessex, and, influenced by Ermenburge, so harassed the prelate that he was glad to avail himself of the invitation of Ethelwald, King of Sussex, to reside in his dominions. One prince had remained his firm friend throughout, namely, Alfred, illegitimate brother of Egfrid. When, therefore, in 685, Egfrid was slain, Ermenburge's influence expired with him; as Egfrid had no issue, Alfred became his brother's successor on the throne, and Wilfred was immediately reinstated in all his honours at Hexham, and appointed to the see of York and monastery of Ripon.
For this the prelate was in a great degree indebted to Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, his former persecutor, then arrived at an advanced age, and subject to frequent fits of sickness. The Archbishop sent to Wilfred, and desired him to meet him at London with St. Erkenwald, bishop of that city, brother of Etheldreda. In their interview he confessed all the actions of his past life, and observed, "the greatest remorse I feel is, that I consented with the King to deprive you of your possessions, without any fault committed on your part." He then earnestly entreated that he might be permitted to make all the restitution that was left in his power. Accordingly he wrote letters to King Alfred, to Ethelred, King of Mercia, and to Elfleda, Abbess of Whitby and others, and thus made ample amends to Wilfred for his ancient hostility.
Queen Ermenburge, not long after her husband's death, A.D. 685 assumed the religious habit in the monastery of her sister, at Carlisle, founded A.D. 686.
The Farn island, [Farne, is a corruption of the Celtic word fahren, a recess. Holy Island was called Lindisfarne, from the Lindis, a rivulet which empties itself into the sea from the opposite shore.] the largest of the group, and the nearest to the mainland, is celebrated for having been the residence of St. Cuthbert during nine years. "In that spot he devoted himself to prayer and fasting, after having borne the charge of the priorate of Lindisfarne, and thither numbers came to be edified."
The island on which he dwelt is about eleven acres in extent, and the basaltic rocks with which it is bordered rise abruptly, on the south-west side, to a height of about eighty feet above the sea: the north is entirely exposed to the winds and waves. The site of the buildings erected by the holy recluse has been ascertained, consisting of his oratory, cell, hospitium, and fountain; and the chapel, which had fallen into decay, was restored and roofed by Archdeacon Thorpe.
It is recorded that "when the coffin of St. Cuthbert was brought by the monks of Lindisfarne to the spot where the city of Durham is now built, no power could move it thence." The monastery was, therefore, of course, erected there.
Sexburga, after the death of Ercombert, had departed from England and repaired to France, accompanied by her unmarried sister Ethelburga, and her youngest daughter Ercongeca. Her eldest daughter, Ermenilda, had been previously married to Wulphere, King of Mercia. Her sons were Egbert and Lothair, of whom, hereafter, mention will be made. [Dugdale.]
Sexburga, her daughter and sister, all received the religious veil in France. At this time there were very few conventual establishments in Britain, and it was customary with the Anglo-Saxon princes and nobles to send their children into France to be educated in the monasteries there. The most celebrated of these establishments, which were really schools for education, and noted for resort by the English, were Faremoutiers, Bridge, Andelie, and Chelles. Etheldreda, at some period of her life, is said to have resided at Faremoutiers: [St. Fara was the name of the foundress of the Monastery of Faremoutiers, and is supposed to have been the first abbess. Hildelitha, who afterwards presided there, returned to England to assist Ethelburga in the management of Barking Abbey. St. Sethrid, the daughter of Hereswyda, afterwards held the government of Faremoutiers, prior to her union with King Anna. Etheldreda is esteemed third Abbess of Faremoutiers. According to Holinshed, both Sethrid and Ethelburga became Abbesses of Briege.—See ante, p. 266, note.] perhaps it might have been while waiting for the completion of her edifice at Ely.
At the time the royal princesses of England arrived, Hildelitha was Abbess of Faremoutiers. Ethelburga joined her pious flock, but was at a subsequent period recalled to her native country to assume the government of the celebrated Abbey of Barking, which had been built for her reception by her brother Erkenwald, Bishop of London, a princely prelate, whose virtues afterwards caused his relics to be worshipped in a famous shrine dedicated to him in St. Paul's church.
Ercongeca made her profession either in Briege or Chelles; it is not known to which place Sexburga retired, though she seems to have spent the six following years in France. Sexburga, even during her husband's lifetime, had earnestly desired to devote herself exclusively to the service of God, in a state of religious seclusion; and in order that others, at least, might be enabled to attend on the divine service night and day without impediment, she had commenced erecting a nunnery in the isle of Sheppey, on the coast of Kent, having obtained a grant of land for that purpose. Some say that this was given by her son Egbert, who succeeded his father on the throne, but the building appears to have been commenced during the lifetime of Ercombert, [Dugdale says the edifice was completed in 675. Weever gives as the date 710 (an obvious error). Dugdale numbers the nuns at seventy-seven.] though not formed into a community till A.D. 664. [Weever.]
The establishment consisted of seventy-four nuns in all, who were assembled there by the widowed Queen, who had either taken on herself previously the monastic vows and veil, or did so at this time, when in her own person she assumed the government of the monastery. The ruins of this little edifice, called Minstre, in the isle of Sheppey, have survived the lapse of ages to commemorate their royal foundress. The buildings attached to the monastery were some twenty miles in compass. The original edifice was destroyed by the Danes, but rebuilt in 1130, and consecrated by William, Archbishop of Canterbury, to the honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Sexburga: it subsisted in the hands of Benedictine nuns till the dissolution of abbeys, at which time the "building of Minstre [Ibid.] was valued at the annual sum of 129l. 7s. 10 1/2d.; some part of it is now converted into a parish church, in which are divers funeral monuments, supposed to have been removed out of the adjoining chapel, some of which make a show of wondrous great antiquity."
It is said, that a desire still further to seclude herself from the world afterwards induced Sexburga to seek the solitude of Ely, and to this may be added a wish to dwell under the same roof as Etheldreda, her much-loved sister, who had obtained even then an extraordinary reputation for sanctity. It would appear that this arrangement was made by Sexburga at the period of Wulphere's death, who had succeeded Penda on the throne of Mercia, and who, during the life-time of Ercombert, had espoused her daughter Ermenilda, [She (Ermenilda) was heiress-apparent to the dignity of her father's kingdom. Bromton. During her government of the Monastery of Minster, Sexburga's mind had to sustain a severe shock in the criminal conduct of her son, King Egbert, who was under the necessity of paying the weregild, or fine, imposed on a murderer by the Saxon laws.] Princess-Royal of the house of Kent.
Wulphere had heard of the virtues and piety of Sexburga's daughter with admiration, [William of Malmesbury, Butler.] and professing himself a Christian, undertook, at the time of his union with her, to extirpate the remnants of paganism from Mercia, [There still remained, in the kingdom of Mercia, an excessive and inveterate Pagan barbarism. But Queen Ermenilda, the handmaid of God, having been instructed by her parents in the apostolic alphabet of the first teacher, St. Augustine, by her sweetness, by her soothing exhortations, by her manners and benefits, softened their untamed dispositions, and exhorted them to the sweet yoke of Christ and the rewards of everlasting blessedness; while the perverse and most rebellious she repressed by her power: nor did she rest until she extirpated the idols and demoniacal rites, and filled the kingdom of the Mercians with churches and priests."—Bromton's Chronicle.] where the Christian faith had been already introduced by his deceased brother Peada. Worldly motives delayed the performance of this promise, and "the humble and patient" Ermenilda strove in the interval to soften the fierce temper of her warlike husband. She educated her family in the pure principles of the Christian faith, and daily performed with her only daughter Werburga, the whole of the church service. "This young princess, early distinguished for surpassing piety, was wont to spend many hours daily on her knees in private prayer; she also observed with diligence the fasts enjoined by the religion she professed."
The sons of Ermenilda were Wulphade, Rufin, and Kenred, who emulated their mother's example of virtue and goodness. These Princes were taught in the faith of Christ by St. Chad, who also baptized them. This prelate was Bishop of Litchfield, and had a cell or hermitage in a forest, to which the young Princes were at times accustomed to resort for instruction. The ill-fated youths were, however, destined to come to an untimely end. The circumstances which led to their sad fate were these: Werbode was a knight of Wulphere's court, very powerful, and his influence was great over the mind of Wulphere, to whom he had rendered great services in arms; so that he readily obtained his promise to give him the beautiful Princess Werburga, his daughter, provided her own consent could be obtained. The news of Wulphere's promise much grieved the Queen and her sons, who all confirmed Werburga in her refusal of his suit, more particularly Ermenilda; for Werbode was a pagan, and had induced Wulphere to waver in his intentions regarding the true faith, and at length to renounce it and follow the worship of idols. When the knight found that these young Princes stood in his way to Werburga's favour, he resolved on their death. An opportunity soon offered. He discovered that the royal youths visited St. Chad ["Chad travelled about, not on horseback, but, after the manner of the Apostles, on foot, to preach the Gospel in towns, the open country, cottages, villages, and castles."—Bede.] at times, under pretence of hunting; and contrived that Wulphere should be stationed in a place where he could see his sons pass on one of these occasions, having previously informed him of their secret religious object. The King's passion at beholding them on such a mission was so furious, that he gave an order for their execution; but no sooner was the cruel deed perpetrated, than he was filled with remorse and penitence, and though too late to redeem the loss of his children, threw himself on the pity and devotion of the Queen and St. Chad, and having entered into commune with himself, became a convert to the Christian doctrine, abolished heathenism in Mercia, and by his endeavors and example, propagated the Christian faith. The bodies of Wulfade and Rufin were placed by the Queen in a sepulchre of stone, and over the spot where they were interred this afflicted mother and her penitent husband founded the Priory of Stone. [In Staffordshire.—Stowe, Leycester, Butler.] Wulphere afterwards founded Peterborough Cathedral.
The beautiful Werburga had resolved to devote her life to the service of God, and had refused on that account many suitors for her hand, amongst whom was the Prince of Wessex, who waited upon her with rich presents, to receive the same answer as other aspirants.
Upon the change which took place in the religious views of the King, Werburga no longer dreaded his resentment, and ventured to disclose to her father her intention of embracing the religious profession. To this Wulphere was averse, and testified much grief; but so earnest were the supplications of the Princess, that he at length yielded to her wish.
"Wulphere, in person, conducted his beloved child to Ely in great state, accompanied by his whole court. On their arrival there, they were met at the gate of the monastery by the royal abbess, St. Etheldreda, with the whole of her religious family in procession, singing holy hymns. Werburga, falling on her knees, then begged to be admitted as a penitent. She obtained her request, and Te Deum was sung, after which she went through the usual trials with great humility and patience, exchanging with joy her rich coronet, purple silks, and gold, for a poor veil and a coarse habit, and resigned herself into the hands of her superior, to live only to Christ. King Wulphere, his three brothers, and Egbert or Egbright, the Kentish King, Adulph, King of East Anglia, and the great lords of those respective states, were all present at the solemn ceremony, being entertained by the Mercian King with a truly regal magnificence." [Butler.]
Meanwhile Etheldreda, as Abbess of Ely, afforded the holy sisterhood over whom she presided, a constant example of Christian perfection. She was very strict in the duties of her religion, eating only once a day, except on great festivals or in times of sickness. "She would rarely wash in a hot bath, unless just before any of the great festivals, as Easter, Whitsuntide, and the Epiphany; and then she did it last of all, after having, with the assistance of those about her, first washed the other servants of God then present." [Bede.] She was in the habit of wearing woollen clothes, never making use of linen; and it was her custom never to return to bed after matins, which were sung at midnight, but to continue in the church at her devotions until morning. She seems to have rejoiced in pains and humiliations. The physician, Cynefrid, who attended her in her last illness, and was present at her death, relates that she had a very great swelling under her jaw, which he was ordered to lay open. This operation performed, she was more easy for two days, so that many thought she might recover. At the time she had suffered most pain, she had been much pleased with that sort of distemper, and said: "I know that I deservedly bear the weight of my sickness on my neck; for I remember, when I was very young, I bore there the needless weight of jewels; and therefore I believe the Divine Goodness would have me endure the pain in my neck, that I may be absolved from the guilt of my needless levity, having now, instead of gold and precious stones, a red swelling and burning on my neck." The third day after the incision made by her physician, "the former pains returning, she was soon snatched out of the world, and exchanged all pain and death for everlasting life and health." [Bede.]
Etheldreda had fulfilled her duties as abbess for seven years, and she was deeply mourned by her little flock, who were sincerely attached to her for her many virtues and goodness. [Fuller's Church History of Britain.] The 23d of June, the anniversary of her death, which took place A.D. 679, has ever since been esteemed her festival day, in which the honours of a saint are accorded to her, and her name may still be seen in English prayer-books as St. Audry. "At a fair held on the causey, in the isle of Ely, which is called St. Audry, much ordinary but showy lace was usually sold, whence St. Audry's lace became quite proverbial, and passed into the corruption of Tawdry, a word used to denote not lace only, but any other part of the female costume which was gaudy in appearance. [Clavis Calendaria.] A certain chain also, made of fine small silk, bears the name of St. Etheldred's Chain, perhaps in allusion to the necklaces worn by the Queen, when a child, at the East Anglian court. The Saxon women had several ornaments for the arms and neck, similar to that ascribed to Etheldreda, studded with brilliants, collars, earrings, and bracelets; these a mother was permitted by law, at her death, to leave to her daughter; and by the same legal authority had the right of conveying to her son, her land, slaves and money.
Sexburga, after her sister's death, [Drayton writes thus of her:—
["Sexburg, some time queen to Ercombert of Kent,
Tho' Ina's loved child, and Audrey's sister known,
Which Ely in those days did for her Abbess own."
presided as Abbess of Ely for twenty years, with great advantage to the convent and neighbourhood. In her time the structure of that venerable building, of which the ruins alone at present afford a noble specimen of Saxon architecture, was completed. As soon as the building was in a fit condition, Sexburga removed the holy remains of the Abbess into it. By the particular desire of the Abbess-Queen, her body had been placed in a coffin of wood; from this her humility is plainly to be discovered, for persons of consequence in her days alone were interred in stone coffins. Queen Sexburga, her sister, performed the interesting task of translating her relics, in 694, in the sixteenth year of her own government at Ely. Bromton, in his Chronicle, tells us that St. Sexburga, "inflamed by a divine zeal, prepared to have her venerable bones transferred to the church; and not having a stone suitable for concealing so heavenly a treasure, of her kindness appointed certain persons to seek a stone of the kind, and having found one, to bring it by ship to the Monastery of Ely; for the isle of Ely is, by the nature of the place, entirely surrounded by waters and marshes, whence it is destitute of stones of the sort. [There were no quarries in Ely, but the brethren were sent by Sexburga into Cambridgeshire, to procure a stone coffin, which they were ordered to fashion with their own hands. The stone they discovered was found to fit exactly the size of the virgin abbess' body, having in it a hollow place, equally adapted to the size of the head. The coffin found for Etheldreda was a relic of ancient Roman art: it was a white marble coffin, most beautifully wrought.—Polwhele Bede] They applied to a small town at no great distance, named Grantchester, [Near Cambridge.] which was at that time much reduced, and but scantily inhabited; by the well of which they found, as it were prepared by Providence, a stone exactly suited for the sepulchre, wherein, afterwards, a certain grace of the Divine operation was very remarkable, since it appeared that the quantity of the stone thus providentially found was, as if purposely, exactly that required by the dimension of the virgin's body. They found, also, a lid very like a sarcophagus, likewise of the appearance of marble, and of the proper size and evenness, and without any incongruity or dissimilarity of the parts."
Having fulfilled this purpose, they returned without meeting any obstacle. "Whereon Sexburga, rejoicing in the benefit of the divine gift, blessed God, who doeth wonderful things. Now when the day determined upon for transferring the body of the holy virgin from a wooden coffin to the stone mausoleum arrived, on opening the previous coffin, the venerable body was found entire, without any sign of corruption, as though it had been recently buried on the same day. The blessed Wilfred, Archbishop of York, was present at this spectacle. There was also, for the greater evidence and certainty of the truth, the aforesaid physician, Kinefrid, who had been present at her death, and had opened the tumour of which she died. He, recollecting the wound which he had formerly made on her body, approaching and carefully examining it, recognised it to be the same, wondering at the marvellously curative power of God on the dead; for there remained of the scar only the slightest mark, the size of a thread, and that becomingly surrounded and concealed with what might be the shadow of a butterfly. The brethren stood on one side, and the sisters on the other, blessing God with hymns an,] praises; while St. Sexburga entered with a few, religiously and devoutly to wash the remains of her sister, and after a short space called out from within: 'Glory be to the name of the most high God.' And that what was done might be with the approbation and in the presence of witnesses, she summoned certain who were more worthy of participating in so great secrets, who, on the removal of the pall and the exposure of the countenance, beheld the body of the virgin undecomposed, and more like one sleeping than dead. At length, having carefully wrapped the body in precious vestments suitable to preserve so great a treasure, with a great and manifold chorus of exultation, they carry it to the church, and place it in a new sarcophagus with honour." [Chron. Bromton, Reg. Northumb., Bede.]
Many miracles are said to have been wrought afterwards, by the devout application of the relics of St. Etheldreda, and of the linen cloths taken off her coffin. [Butler. Bede relates this account in the words of Kinefrid, the physician.]
The venerable Bede has written a Latin poem [Eccles. Hist., lib. iv., c. 20.] on the discovery of the relics of St. Etheldreda, which is a curious specimen of the literary composition of the times in which he lived.
It is not quite certain whether Ermenilda retired to Sheppey during the life of Wulphere, and took her mother's government of the monastery there; or whether she deferred entering on a religious life till the death of her consort, which took place in 675. Wulphere was interred at Litchfield, [The word "Litchfield" means, in the Saxon, "Field of the Dead."—Dr. Johnson.] and as his only surviving son, Kenred, was still too young to govern, he left the crown to his own brother Ethelred.
One of our early chroniclers writes thus of the royal widow: "Upon the famous King Wulphure, therefore, after a reign of seventeen years, passing to the eternal kingdom, although his pious wife Ermenilda bewailed her social calamity, nevertheless, with her whole soul wounded in love, she exulted in the liberty of Christ. She forthwith betook herself to the most excellent Monastery of Ely, where her parent Sexburga, daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles, and sister of St. Etheldred, among bands of virgins, was shining as the moon among stars, and where her daughter Werberga humbly served God in virgin integrity. Here, therefore, this Ermenilda laid aside all earthly hope and regal ornaments, and put on the yoke and armour of Christ, with the religious habit of the monastics." As Abbess of the Monastery, after Sexburga's death, Drayton writes of her thus:—
"King Wulphere's widowed pheere, Queen Ermineld, whose life
At Ely is renowned;"
while Bradshawe, in even more courtly language, styles her "a noble Margaryte of high magnificence," and a "rose of paradise full of pre-eminence." [Life of St. Wereburga.]
Sexburga departed this life on the 6th of July, 699, at an advanced age. Her remains were deposited near those of her sister, in the Cathedral Church of Ely, [Millar.] though some have thought her interment took place at Canterbury, where her husband, King Ercombert, lies entombed. Ermenilda was third Abbess of Ely, but could not have become so till twenty-four years after her husband Wulphere's death, when she must have been very aged. This venerable Princess is compared, by Drayton, to her cousin Ermenburga, wife of Merowald, Wulphere's brother, in the following stanzas:—
"Two holy Mercian queens so widowed, saints became;
For sanctity much like, not much unlike in name."
Ermenilda passed to the heavenly kingdom in the month of February, A D.—— [February 13th, on which day, after death, she was honoured among the English female saints.] when her remains were interred with those of her mother and aunt, and, as Bromton expressed it, "having been tossed, she rested in the Lord."
Werburga, her successor, the fourth Abbess of Ely, was induced by the persuasions of her uncle, King Ethelred of Mercia, to quit that establishment for the purpose of undertaking the general charge of the religious foundations throughout Mercia, in which he desired to establish a strictly monastic discipline. Through the liberality of Ethelred, the Abbess Werburga founded several monasteries: those of Trentham and Hanbury, in Staffordshire, and another at Weedon, a royal palace of Northamptonshire. [Weedon, once the royal site of Wulphere's palace, was afterwards converted into a nunnery, at the entreaty of Werburga, who presided over it. The Danes destroyed the edifice; but Werburga's memory was preserved by a fair chapel there, dedicated to her sainted memory.—Green's Worcester, Pennant.] She herself resided at Hearburg, near Stamford, or at Croyland. At the time she died, Werburga was at Trentham; but by her own express wish, her remains were conveyed to Hanbury for interment. The author of her Life assures us that her relics were venerated at Croyland till the ninth century, when they were removed to Leicester.
In 708, nine years after the death of Werburga, her body was taken up, in presence of King Ceolred, his council, and many bishops, when it was found incorrupt and entire, and placed in a costly shrine. In the reign of King Alfred, the shrine of St. Werburga, for fear of the Danes, was carried to West Chester; and the valiant Ethelred, Earl of Mercia, who had married the daughter of that monarch, built and endowed with secular canonries a stately church, as repository for these holy relics, which afterwards became the cathedral. The body of the saint fell to dust, soon after its translation to West Chester.
St. Werburga is considered the especial patroness of the city of Chester: and Malmesbury tells us that "the praises and miracles of these two women (Ermenilda and Werburga), and particularly of the younger, are there extolled and had in veneration; and though they are favourable to all petitions without delay, yet they are more especially kind and assistant to the supplications of women and youth." He speaks of a circumstance which occurred in his own time. "This St. Werburga lies at Chester, in the monastery of that city, which Hugo, Earl of Chester, ejecting a few canons, who resided there in a mean and irregular manner, has recently erected."
The relics of Werburga being scattered in the reign of Henry VIII., her shrine was converted into the episcopal throne in the same church, and remains in that condition to this day, being "one of the most remarkable monuments in the county of Cheshire, and a rich specimen of Gothic architecture in the early part of the fourteenth century. This monument itself is composed of stone, ten feet high, embellished with thirty curious pieces of antique images of Kings of Mercia, and other princes related to this saint, the names of whom were inscribed upon scrolls held in their hands. These figures, having been much mutilated, either at the Reformation or during the civil war, were restored, but in a bungling manner, about the year 1708." [Lysons's Mag. Britannia; Willis's Abbeys; Butler.]
Some further account is here necessary of the Cathedral Church of Ely. Many abbesses in succession followed Werburga in the establishment there, whose names, however, are not on record till A.D. 870, when the monastery was ravaged by the Danes, and shortly after occupied by a college of secular priests. In the reign of King Edgar, the Abbey was refounded by Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, and the structure appropriated to the use of monks only of the Benedictine order, though the dedication was made in the name of "the Blessed Virgin and St. Audry." [Millar's Cathedral of Ely.]
The following is one of the narratives of the monks respecting the relics of their holy foundress: On a former occasion, the corpse of Etheldreda was seen through a hole which the Danes broke in her coffin: a priest, more forward than the rest, prying too busily, and endeavouring to pull the envelope out by a cleft stick, the saint drew back the drapery so hastily, that she tript up his heels, and gave him such a fall as he never recovered, nor his senses, afterwards. Bishop Athelwold stopt up the hole, and substituted monks for the priests. Abbot Brithnoth transferred hither the body of Withburga, the foundress' sister; and when, afterwards, in the time of Abbot Richard, some doubts were entertained about the incorruptibility of the foundress, nobody presumed to examine her body, but they contented themselves with uncovering that of her sister, who was found to be in such good preservation, that she seemed more like a person asleep than dead: a silk cushion lay under her head; her veil and vestments all seemed as good as new, her complexion clear and rosy, her teeth white, and her lips somewhat shrunk. [Gough's Sepulchral Monuments, from Malmesbury de Gestis.]
In 974, when the Monastery of East Dereham, in Norfolk, which King Anna had founded for his daughter Withburga, was destroyed by the Danes, the remains of that princess were translated to Ely, and interred with those of her sisters, Sexburga and Etheldreda. The regal remains of the three ladies, and of Ermenilda, were afterwards removed into the new church of Ely by Abbot Richard,—a solemn and imposing ceremony. Edgar Atheling, and some of the English nobles, having previously defended the isle of Ely against William the Conqueror, that warlike prince paid a visit to the convent, and made an offering at the altar of St. Etheldreda, [Dugdale.] which is dedicated to St. Peter and St. Etheldreda.
The foundation of the present Cathedral Church of Ely was laid in the reign of Henry the First, son of William; and history, which gives us the accurate date of each portion of this interesting structure, assigns the latest part of the building to the year 1534. The removal of the choir, which took place in 1770, was a very great improvement. The original choir contained the relics and shrines of St. Etheldreda, Sexburga, Ermenilda, and Withburga; it was bounded by a stone screen, and niches still remain in the columns to mark the place whence it was removed. It is said that Bishop Mawson had agreed with an artist to fill the window, if the choir with modern stained glass. The middle light of the five was to have contained a whole-length figure of St. Etheldreda, and below it the royal arms: the others were likewise to have had their embellishments. This agreement was made not long before Bishop Mawson's death. He had advanced a considerable sum of money, and sufficiently provided by his will for the rest. The artist, however, was unable to fulfil his contract; a part had, however, been accomplished, and was put up. The heads of St. Paul and St. Etheldreda were completed, which are in two windows in a room at the Deanery.
Later improvements, even in our own times, have been made in this noble edifice. A magnificent painted window was presented to it by the Rev. Bowyer Sparke, one of the canons of the church. It occupies the south-east angle of the lantern, and is of noble dimensions, being forty feet in height. It is designed to commemorate the foundress, by representations of her marriage, and of her consecration as abbess; whilst the four great lights of the window contain, under gorgeous canopies, the figures of Etheldreda as Queen, her father Anna, King of the East Angles, her first husband Thonbert, King of the Girvii, and her second husband Egfrid, King of Northumberland: in the second row, she appears as Lady Abbess of Ely, with Wilfred, Archbishop of York, by whom she was consecrated, and her successors in the government of the monastery, Sexburga and Ermenilda. This great and beautiful work was completed by Mr. William Wailes, of Newcastle, in little more than three months, at a cost of 600l. [Millar's Cathedral of Ely.
"The same liberal benefactor (Mr. William Wailes) proposes to present another painted window, by the same artist, to the south transept, and the church is likewise indebted to him for originating, by a noble gift, the restoration of the southwest transept, which has added so greatly to the beauty of the cathedral. The design for the eight great windows at the east end of the choir, for filling which with painted glass, the late Bishop Sparke left 1500, is nearly completed. Mr. A. B. Hope has undertaken to restore one of the pinnacles of the east end of the church; Lady Mildred Hope to restore the beautiful cross in the eastern gable, and the crocketting which leads up to it; and Mr. H. R. Evans, who has been so long and so honourably connected with the chapter, as steward of the manors, &c., has undertaken to defray the expense of opening and restoring the great lantern of the western tower, which is now concealed by a plaster vault to the floor of the bell-chamber, and of thus bringing into view the most beautiful system of Norman arcading which is to be found in any cathedral in this kingdom."—Bury Paper.]
The lover of English antiquities will linger with delight, to trace, in "that beautiful part of the building called the 'Octagon,' several of the most important historical passages in the life of the pious Etheldreda. These events are depicted upon small clusters of very slender columns, which connect the arches of this part of the building. Beginning at the right side of the north-west arch, the first of these represents her reluctant marriage with Egfrid; the second, her taking the veil in the Monastery of Coldingham; the third, her pilgrim's staff taking root while she slept by the way, and bearing leaves and shoots; the fourth, her preservation, with her attendant virgins, on a rock surrounded by a miraculous inundation, when the King pursued her with his knights, to carry her off from her monastery; the fifth, her instalment as Abbess of Ely; the sixth, her death and burial; the seventh, a legendary tale of one Brithstan, delivered from bonds by her merits, after she was canonized; the eighth, the translation of her body.
"There yet exists in Ely Cathedral, a relic of very great antiquity; it is the lower part of a stone cross with its square pedestal, found many years ago at Haddenham, in the isle of Ely, and placed by Mr. Bentham, historian of the building, in the west end of the southern aisle, under an arch in the wall. The inscription on the pedestal is very legible.
"This cross was erected to the memory of Ovin, the steward and minister of Queen Etheldreda, a monk of great merit, who had accompanied her from the province of the East Angles; and the cross itself is supposed to be a work of the latter end of the seventh, or the very beginning of the eighth century." [Description of Ely Cathedral; Brit. Sancta.]