University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The History Collection

Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)


Next subsection Next


Early Houses in Kent.

THE early history of the convent life of women in Anglo-Saxon England is chiefly an account of foundations. Information on the establishment of religious settlements founded and presided over by women is plentiful, but well-nigh a century went by before women who had adopted religion as a profession gave any insight into their lives and characters through writings of their own. The women who founded monasteries in Anglo-Saxon England have generally been raised to the rank of saint.

'In the large number of convents as well as in the names of female saints among the Anglo-Saxons,' says Lappenberg,[1*] 'we may recognise the same spirit which attracted the notice of the Roman army among the ancient Germans, and was manifested in the esteem and honour of women generally, and in the special influence exercised by the priestess.'

A great proportion of the women who founded religious houses were members of ruling families. From the first it was usual for a princess to receive a grant of land from her husband on the occasion of her marriage, and this land together with what she inherited from her father she could dispose of at will. She often devoted this property to founding a religious house where she established her daughters, and to which she retired either during her husband's lifetime or after his death. The great honour paid by Christianity to the celibate life and the wide field   [p. 80]   of action opened to a princess in a religious house were strong inducements to the sisters and daughters of kings to take the veil.

We have trustworthy information about many of the Anglo-Saxon women who founded and presided over religious settlements and whom posterity reverenced as saints; for their work has been described by writers who either knew them, or gained their information from those who did. But there are other women whose names only are mentioned in charters, or correspondence, or in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Historians however welcome such references as chronological evidence and as proofs of these women's real existence; without them they would have nothing to rely upon but accounts dating from a later period and often consisting of little more than a series of incidents strung together in order to explain the miracles with which the saints' relics were locally credited. There is a certain similarity between these later accounts and those we have of pseudo-saints, but they differ from those of an earlier date, for the writers of the 8th and 9th centuries were not actuated like those of later period by the desire to give a miraculous rendering of fact. Bede († 735) stands pre-eminent among the earlier writers, and our admiration for him increases as we discover his immense superiority to other early historians.

Most of the women who were honoured as saints in England belong to the first hundred years after the acceptance of Christianity in these islands. A few other women have been revered as saints who lived in the 10th century and came under the influence of the monastic revival which is associated with the name of Dunstan († 988). But no woman living during Anglo-Norman times has been thus honoured, for the desire to raise women to saintship was essentially Anglo-Saxon and was strongest in the times which immediately followed the acceptance of Christianity.

It was more than two hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons first set foot on British shores that they accepted Christianity. The struggles between them and the inhabitants of the island had ended in the recognised supremacy of the invaders, and bands of heathen Germans, settling at first near the shore, for the sake of the open country, had gradually made their way up the fruitful valleys and into adjoining districts till they covered the land with a network of settlements. After the restlessness of invasion and warfare the Anglo-Saxons settled down to domestic life and   [p. 81]   agriculture, for compared with the British they were eminently tillers of the soil. Under their regime the cities built by the Romans and the British fastnesses alike fell into decay. The Anglo-Saxons dwelt in villages, and the British either lived there in subservience to them or else retired into districts of their own which were difficult of access.

The re-introduction of Christianity into these islands is associated with the name of Pope Gregory. Zealous and resolute in his efforts to strengthen the papal power by sending forth missionaries who were devoted to him, he watched his opportunity to gain a foothold for the faith in Kent.

Tradition connects the first step in this direction with the name of a Frankish princess, and Bede in his Church History tells how the marriage of Berhta, daughter of King Charibert of Paris (561--567), to King Aethelberht of Kent (586--616) brought an ecclesiastic to Canterbury who took possession of the ancient British church of St Martin: this event was speedily followed by the arrival of other ecclesiastics from Rome, who travelled across France under the leadership of Augustine.

At the time of Augustine's arrival the position of Kent was threatened by the growing supremacy of Northumbria. Through the activity both of Aethelfrith († 617) and of Eadwin his successor, the land extending from the Humber to the Firth of Forth had been united under one rule; Northumbria was taking the lead among the petty kingdoms which had been formed in different parts of the island. The king of Kent strengthened his independent position by accepting the faith which had proved propitious to the Franks and by entering into alliance with his neighbours across the Channel; and it was no doubt with a view to encouraging peaceful relations with the north that Aethelburg the daughter of Aethelberht and Berhta was given in marriage to King Eadwin of Northumbria during the reign of her brother Eadbald (616--640).

Again the marriage of a Christian princess was made an occasion for extending the faith; an ecclesiastic as usual followed in her train. Paulinus, the Roman chaplain who came north with Aethelburg, after various incidents picturesquely set forth by Bede, overcame King Eadwin's reluctance to embrace Christianity and prevailed upon him to be baptized at York with other members of his household on Easter day in the year 627. The event was followed by an influx of Christians into that city,   [p. 82]   for British Christianity had receded before the heathen Angles, but it still had strongholds in the north and was on the alert to regain lost ground. The city of York, during Roman rule, had been of great importance in affairs of administration. The Roman Eboracum nearly died out to arise anew as Anglian Eoforwic. King Eadwin recognised Paulinus as bishop and a stone church was begun on part of the ground now occupied by the Minster.[2*]

Bede loves to dwell on the story of this conversion, which was endeared to all devout churchmen by many associations. Eanfiaed, the child of Eadwin and Aethelburg, whose baptism was its immediate cause, was afterwards a staunch supporter of Roman versus British Church tendencies. She was the patron of Wilfrith, in his time the most zealous advocate of the supremacy of Rome.

Among the members of Eadwin's household who were baptized on the same Easter day in 627 was Hild, a girl of fourteen, who afterwards became abbess of Whitby. She was grand-niece to Eadwin through her father Hereric, who had been treacherously made away with; her mother Beorhtswith and her sister Hereswith were among the early converts to Christianity. Hereswith afterwards married a king of the Angles, and at a later period was living in the Frankish settlement of Chelles (Cala), where her sister Hild at one time thought of joining her. Nothing is known of the life of Hild between the ages of fourteen and thirty-four, but evidently she had not dwelt in obscure retirement, for the Scottish prelate Aidan in 647, knowing that she was living in the midlands, begged her to return to the north. It is a noteworthy circumstance if, in an age when marriage was the rule, she remained single without taking the veil, but she may have been associated with some religious settlement.[3*]

It was only a few years after the acceptance of Christianity at York that the days of King Eadwins reign, 'when a woman with her babe might walk scatheless from sea to sea,' came to an abrupt close. Eadwin was slain in 633 at the battle of Hatfield, a victim to the jealousy of the British king Caedwalla, who combined with the heathen king Penda of Mercia against him.   [p. 83]   Queen Aethelburg with her children and Paulinus fled from York to the coast and went by sea to Kent, where they were welcomed by her brother King Eadbald and by Archbishop Honorius.

At the beginning of his reign Eadbald of Kent had been in conflict with the Church owing to his marriage with his father's relict, a heathen wife whom Aethelberht had taken to himself after the death of Berhta. It is characteristic of the position held at first by Christian prelates in England that they depended entirely on the ruling prince for their position. Paulinus fled from York at the death of Eadwin, and Eadbald's adherence to heathen customs temporarily drove the Kentish prelate abroad. The king of Kent had, however, found it well to repudiate his heathen wife and to take a Christian princess of the Franks in her stead. This act restored him to the goodwill of his prelate, who returned to English shores.

Eadbald had settled a piece of land at Folkestone on his daughter Eanswith, and there about the year 630 she founded what is held to be the first religious settlement for women in Anglo-Saxon England.[4*] The fact of this foundation is undisputed, but all we know of Eanswith's life is in the account given of her by Capgrave, an Augustinian monk who lived in the 15th century.[5*] He tells us how she went to live at Folkestone and how a king of Northumbria wished to marry her, but as the king was a heathen, she made their union conditional on his prevailing upon his gods to manifest their power by miraculously lengthening a beam. In this he failed and consequently departed. There follows a description how Eanswith made a stream to flow againste the hylle,' from Smelton, a mile distant from Folkestone, possibly by means of a well-levelled water conduit. Capgrave also describes how she enforced the payment of tithes.

Eanswith's settlement was in existence at the close of the century, when it was destroyed or deserted during the viking invasion. A charter of King Athelstane dated 927 gives the land where 'stood the monastery and abbey of holy virgins and where also St Eanswith lies buried' to Christ Church, Canterbury, the   [p. 84]   house having been destroyed by the 'Pagans.'[6*] Capgrave says that its site was swallowed by the sea, perhaps in one of the landslips common to the coast; the holy woman's relics were then transferred to the church of St Peter. A church at Folkestone is dedicated conjointly to St Mary and St Eanswith, and a church at Brensett in Kent is dedicated solely to her.[7*]

Queen Aethelburg coming from the north also settled in Kent at a place called Liming.[8*] Bede knows nothing of her after her departure from the north, and we have to depend on Canterbury traditions for information concerning her and the religious house she founded. Gocelin, a monk of Flanders who came into Kent in the 11th century, describes Queen Aethelburg as 'building and upraising this temple at Liming, and obtaining the first name there and a remarkable burial-place in the north porch against the south wall of the church covered with an arch.'[9*] Modern research has shown that the buildings at Liming were so arranged as to contain a convent of monks as well as of nuns. The church is of Roman masonry and may have been built out of the fragments of a villa, such as the Anglo-Saxons frequently adapted to purposes of their own, or it may have been a Roman basilica restored.

Queen Aethelburg, foundress of Liming, is not usually reckoned a saint; she has no day[10*] and collections of saints' lives generally omit her. The identity of name between her and Aethelburg († c. 676), abbess of Barking at a somewhat later date, has caused some confusion between them.[11*] Gocelin mentions that both Queen Aethelburg and 'St Eadburga were buried at Liming.[12*] A well lying to the east of the church at Liming is to this day called St Ethelburga's well, and she is commonly held to be identical with Queen Aethelburg.[13*]

At a somewhat later date another religious settlement for women was founded at Sheppey in Kent by Queen Sexburg, the wife of Earconberht of Kent (640--664), the successor of Eadbald.   [p. 85]   We know little of the circumstances of the foundation.[14*] Sexburg was a princess of East Anglia, where Christianity had been accepted owing to the influence of King Eadwin of Northumbria[15*] and where direct relations with France had been established.

'For at that time,' says Bede, writing of these districts[16*] , 'there being not yet many monasteries built in the region of the Angles, many were wont, for the sake of the monastic mode of life, to go from Britain to the monasteries of the Franks and of Gaul; they also sent their daughters to the same to be instructed and to be wedded to the heavenly spouse, chiefly in the monasteries of Brie (Faremoutiers), Chelles, and Andelys.

Two princesses of Anglia, Saethrith and Aethelburg, who were sisters or half-sisters to Sexburg, remained abroad and became in succession abbesses of Brie as mentioned above. Sexburg's daughter Earcongotha also went there, and was promoted to the rank of abbess. Both Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speak in praise of her. For her other daughter Eormenhild, who was married to Wulfhere, king of Mercia, Queen Sexburg of Kent founded the house at Sheppey; she herself vent to live at Ely in her sister Aethelthrith's convent.

The statement of Bede that women at this time went abroad for their education is borne out by the traditional records of Mildthrith, first abbess of a religious settlement in Thanet which rose to considerable importance.[17*] A huge mass of legend supplements the few historical facts we know of Mildthrith, whose influence, judging from the numerous references to her and her widespread cult, was greater than that of any other English woman-saint. Several days in the Calendar are consecrated to her, and the site where her relics had been deposited was made a subject of controversy in the 11th century. As late as 1882 we find that some of her relics were brought from Deventer in Holland to Thanet, and that Pope Leo XIII granted a plenary indulgence on the occasion.[18*] Churches in London, Oxford, Canterbury and other   [p. 86]   places are dedicated to St Mildred[19*] , and Gapgrave, William of Malmesbury and others give details of her story, which runs as follows:

Her mother Eormenburg, sometimes called Domneva, was married to Merewald, prince of Hacanos, a district in Hereford-shire. King Ecgberht (664--673) of Kent gave her some land in Thanet as a blood-fine for the murder of her two young brothers, and on it she founded a monastery. She asked for as much land as her tame deer could run over in one course, and received over ten thousand acres of the best land in Kent[20*] .

Besides Mildthrith Eormenburg had two daughters, Mildburg and Mildgith, and a boy, the holy child Merwin, who was translated to heaven in his youth. Mildburg presided over a religious house at Wenlock in Shropshire, and her legend contains picturesque traits but little trustworthy information[21*] . We know even less of the other daughter Mildgith. It is doubtful whether she lived in Kent or in the north, but she is considered a saint[22*] . An ancient record says that 'St Mildgith lies in Northumbria where her miraculous powers were often exhibited and still are,' but it does not point out at what place[23*]

According to her legend, Mildthrith, by far the best known of the sisters, was sent abroad to Chelles for her education, where the abbess Wilcoma wished her to marry her kinsman, and on the girl's refusal cast her into a burning furnace from which she came forth unharmed. The girl sent her mother a psalter she had written together with a lock of her hair. She made her escape and arrived in England, landing at Ebbsfleet. 'As she descended from the ship to the land and set her feet on a certain square stone the print of her feet remained on it, most life-like, she not thinking anything; God so accomplishing the glory of his handmaid. And more than that; the dust that was scrapen off thence being drunk did cure sundry diseases[24*] .' It appears that a stone to which a superstitious reverence was attached was walled into the Church of St Mildred in Thanet.

  [p. 87]  

Other incidents told of her influence are not without their humorous side. One day a bell-ringer, forgetful of his duties, had dropped asleep, when Mildthrith appeared to him and gave him a blow on the ear, saying, 'Understand, fellow, that this is an oratory to pray in, not a dormitory to sleep in,' and so vanished.

Thus writes the author of her legend. The fact remains that Mildthrith was presiding over a settlement in Kent towards the close of the 7th century. For in a charter of privileges granted between 696 and 716 by King Wihtred and Queen Werburg to the churches and monasteries of Kent granting them security against interference, her name is among those of the five lady abbesses who place their signatures to the document[25*] . These names stand after those of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Rochester and are as follows; 'Mildritha, Aetheldritha, Aette, Wilnotha and Hereswytha.' The settlements mentioned in the body of the charter[26*] as being subject to them are Upminstre (or Minstre) in Thanet, afterwards known as St Mildred's, Southminstre, a colony of Minstre, Folkestone, Liming and Sheppey, the foundation of which has been described.

Thus at the close of the 7th century there existed in the province of Kent alone five religious settlements governed by abbesses who added this title to their signatures, or who, judging from the place given to them, ranked in dignity below the bishops but above the presbyters (presbyteri), whose names follow theirs in the list. From the wording of the charter we see that men who accepted the tonsure and women who received the veil were at this time classed together. Those who set their signatures to the charter agreed that neither abbot nor abbess should be appointed without the consent of a prelate.

The charter is the more valuable as it establishes the existence of the Kentish convents and their connection with each other at a period when we have only fragmentary information about the religious houses in the south. We must turn to the north for fuller information as to the foundation and growth of religious settlements presided over by women during the early Christian period.


[1*] History of the Anglo-Saxons,transl. Thorpe, 1845, vol. 2, p.247.

[2*] Raine, Historians of the Church of York. Rolls series, vol. 1, Preface, p. xxiii.

[3*] It is probable such settlements existed. Dugdale, Monasticon, vol. 3, p. 302, holds a religious foundation to have existed in Tinmouth founded 617--33, but in Bede, Life of Cuthbert, transl. Stevenson, T., 1887, ch. 3, it is referred to as a monastery formerly of men, now of 'virgins.

[4*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Folkestone,' vol. 1, p. 451.

[5*] Hardy, Th. D., Descriptive Catalogue of Materials, 1862, vol. 1, p. 226: the life of Eanswith cannot be traced to any earlier authority than John of Tinmouth († c. 1380) whose account Capgrave († 1484) embodied in his collection of saints' lives.' The work of Capgrave, Catalogus SS. Angliae, was printed in 1516; the Kalendre of the neue Legende of Englande, printed 1516 (Pynson), from which expressions are quoted in the text, is an abridged translation of it into English.

[6*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Folkestone,' vol. I, p. 451, nr. 2

[7*] Smith and Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography, 1880, 'Eanswitha'; alsoA. SS. Boll., St. Eanswida, Aug. 31.

[8*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Liming,' vol. p. 452.

[9*] Jenkins, R. C., in Gentleman's Magazine, 1862, August, p. 196 quotes this statement; I do not see where he takes it from.

[10*] Stanton, R., Menology of England and Wales, 1887, p. 144.

[11*] Hardy, Th. D., Descriptive Catalogue of Materials,1862, vol. I. p. 475.

[12*] Gocelinus, Vita St Wereburgae, c. I (in Migne, Patrol. Cursus Coml., vol. 155).

[13*] Bright, W., Early English Church History, 1878, p. 130 footnote.

[14*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Sheppey,' vol. 2, p. 49.

[15*] Bright, XV., Early English Church History, 1878, p. 123.

[16*] Bede, Hist. Eccles., bk 3, ch. 8, transl. Gidley, 1870.

[17*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Thanet,' vol. 1, p. 447; Hardy, Th. D., Descriptive Catalogue of Materials, 1862, on lives of St Mildred, vol. 1, p. .376; A. SS. Boll., St Mildreda, July 13.

[18*] Stanton, R., Menology of England and Wales, 1887, July 13.

[19*] Smith and Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography, article 'Mildred' by Bishop Stubbs.

[20*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Thanet,' vol. 1, p. 447.

[21*] A. SS. Boll., St Milburga, Feb. 23.

[22*] Ibid., St Mildwida, Jan. 17.

[23*] Stanton, R., Menology of England and Wales, Jan. 17.

[24*] 'Lives of Women Saints' (written about 1610) p. 64, edited by Horstman for the Early Engl. Text Soc., London, 1887.

[25*] Haddon and Stubbs,Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents,1869, vol. 3, p. 240.

[26*] 'Upmynstre, Suthmynstre, Folcanstan, Limming, Sceppeis.'

Next subsection Next

Go up to Top of Page