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


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Ely and the influence of Bishop Wilfrith.

The further history of the monastery of Whitby and the history of the foundation of Ely are closely connected with the prelate Wilfrith, and for this reason his actions and attitude claim our attention. In him we recognise a direct advocate of the principle that a queen could if she chose leave her husband and retire to a religious settlement, and that such a course would secure her the favour of the Church.

  [p. 96]  

It has been said of him that he was the most important man in Northumbria for forty years after the Whitby synod.[1*] He owed his education to Queen Eanflaed, whose attention he had attracted when quite a youth, and who had sent him into Kent to complete his education; there he imbibed strong Roman sympathies. He lived for some years in France and Italy in the society of Bennet Biscop, and he was already held in high esteem at the time of the Whitby synod, which he attended in the character of abbot of the monastery at Ripon, a house he had founded with the help of Ealhfrith.

When Colman and his adherents beat a rapid retreat to the north in consequence of the decision of the synod, Wilfrith became bishop of York, an appointment which meant ecclesiastical supremacy over the whole vast province of Northumbria. His intellectual brilliancy gained him many admirers, but an innate restlessness of disposition and a wilful determination to support the power of Rome to the national detriment launched him into repeated difficulties with temporal and spiritual rulers. He was at the height of prosperity and popularity when Ecgfrith succeeded Oswin in 670 after the death of Ealhfrith. Wilfrith had hitherto been on good terms with Ecgfrith, but a breach in their relations soon occurred, partly owing to the conduct of Ecgfrith's wife, Aethelthrith, whom Wilfrith supported against the king.

Aethelthrith, known to a later age as Etheldred or Awdrey, was the daughter of King Anna of the East Angles (635--645), whose province, including the present shires of Norfolk and Suffolk, was removed from direct intercourse with others by the almost impassable reaches of the fens. Anglia has not left any annals of her own, and we have to depend for the names and dates of her kings on the slight information which other provinces have preserved.

Written legends generally consider Anna as the father also of Sexburg, the foundress of Sheppey, and of Aethelburg and Saethrith, two princesses who had settled in France, as well as of Wihtburg, a woman-saint of whom very little is known, and who was associated with a religious foundation at East Dereham in Norfolk.[2*] We further learn from legend that King Anna was married to Hereswith, sister of Hild of Whitby, and Aethelthrith is spoken of as niece   [p. 97]   to the great abbessHild. But this connection is discredited by a statement in Bede which suggests that Hild's sister Hereswith was married not to King Anna but to his successor King Aethelhere (654--664). It is difficult to decide to which of the kings of the East Angles Hereswith was married, but Anna was certainly not her husband.[3*]

The princess Aethelthrith at the time of her marriage with the king of Northumbria was the widow of Tunberht prince of the South-Gyrvi, or fen-country men. Anglia stood at this time in a relation of dependence to Northumbria, and in 664, four years before the Whitby synod, Aethelthrith a woman of over thirty was married to Ecgfrith a boy of fifteen, the heir-apparent to the throne of Northumbria. The marriage was no doubt arranged for political reasons.

The consequences which followed render these facts worthy of notice. For Aethelthrith on her arrival in the north at once conceived a great admiration for the prelate Wilfrith, while she treated her husband with contumely. She bestowed on Wilfrith the extensive property at Hexham which she had received from her husband, and on which Wilfrith built the church which was spoken of in his days as the most wonderful building on this side of the Alps.[4*] Judging from what Wilfrith himself told him about the queen's attitude Bede says 'the king knew that she loved no man more than Wilfrith.'

The events that followed bear out this statement, for after living about ten years with the king, Aethelthrith left him and repaired to the monastery of Coldingham (Coludesburg) in Berwickshire, which had been founded and was ruled over by Aebbe, sister, or perhaps half-sister, of the kings Oswald and Oswin.[5*] King Ecgfrith may or may not have agreed to this step. Eddi, the friend and biographer of Wilfrith, maintains a judicious silence on the relations of the king and queen, while Bede represents[6*] that Aethelthrith had always had an aversion to the married state and describes how he had been told by Wilfrith himself that Ecgfrith   [p. 98]   promised much land and money to the prelate if he persuaded the queen to allow him conjugal rights.

At Coldingham Wilfrith gave Aethelthrith the veil; this act involved her breaking all marital ties. But she cannot have deemed her position secure, for she presently left Coldingham, which was within her husband's territory, and went to Ely, the island in the fens which her first husband Tunberht had bestowed on her.

Under the date 673 stand in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these words: 'And Aetheldryth began the monastery at Ely.' It was situated on a hill prominent above the flatness of the surrounding fen-land, which at that time consisted of a wilderness of marsh and water. Men and women readily flocked thither to live under the guidance of the queen. We hear that she received material aid from her cousin King Ealdwulf of Anglia, that Hunna acted as her chaplain, and that Bishop Wilfrith stayed with her on his passage from Northumbria to Rome. Thomas of Ely (fl. c. 1174) has embellished the account of Aethelthriths flight and journey south by introducing into the story various picturesque incidents, which Bede does not mention. She, with her companions Sewenna and Sewara,[7*] was saved from her pursuers by water rising round a rock on which they had taken refuge, and she was sheltered by an ash-tree which grew in one night out of her pilgrim's staff and which can still be seen at a place called Etheldredstowe.[8*] As Aethelthrith of Ely is a favourite saint of English legend it is interesting to find water and the tree miraculously associated with her.

Shortly after Aethelthrith's departure Ecgfrith summoned Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, to the north to divide the diocese of York into three separate districts. Wilfrith resented these proceedings as an infringement of his rights, but as he was unable to influence the king he determined to seek the intervention of the Pope and set out for Rome. His absence extended over several years.

It was at this time, Bede tells us, that Aethelthrith 'having built a monastery at Ely began both by example and by admonition of heavenly life to be a virgin mother of very many virgins.'[9*] The particulars he gives of her life show that she had renounced the splendours which constituted so essential a feature of royalty and had willingly devoted herself to humility and self-denial. She wore no linen, only wool, rarely used a warm bath, save on the   [p. 99]   eve of great festivals, and assisted at the washing of others. When she fell ill of a tumour in her throat, she told the physician Cynefrith, who lanced it, that she looked upon it as a chastisement for her love of wearing necklaces in her youth. And on her death-bed she desired to be buried in a wooden coffin in the nun's ordinary cemetery.

The fame of Aethelthrith spread rapidly. She was looked upon as a virgin, and her name with the epithet virgin was inscribed at an early date in both the Anglo-Saxon and Roman Calendars, and to this day it is to be found in the Book of Common Prayer. Later writers of her legend say that she lived with Ecgfrith 'not as a wyfe but as a lady,' and add as a fitting pendant to this story that she maintained similar relations with her first husband Tunberht.[10*] She died in the year 679, having presided over her monastery only six or seven years, but during that time it had gained marked importance. Many women had come to live there with her, and among them her sister Sexburg, widow of the king of Kent, who had founded the monastery at Sheppey and now succeeded Aethelthrith as abbess of Ely.

The chief event of Sexburg's rule at Ely was the exhumation of the bones of Aethelthrith in 695, which were transferred to a stone coffin of antique workmanship which had been opportunely, or miraculously as contemporaries thought, discovered at the old Roman colony of Grantchester near Cambridge.[11*] This translation took place on the 17th of October, a day on which the relics were again transferred in xo6, and which is the date of the important fair of Ely.[12*]

In a supplement to the History of Ely by Bentham, Essex gives an account of the ruins of the conventual church begun by Aethelthrith.[13*] Judging from his investigations the church consisted of two parts, the nave and the choir, the windows of the nave outside being ornamented with pillars and arches, and the choir being arched with stone. Traces were still left of the apartments of the abbess from which she could enter the church in a private manner, and of a building opposite of equal dimensions which served as a dormitory for the nuns. At a little distance the remains of another large building were discovered, one room   [p. 100]   of which, near the entrance to the settlement, was a parlour for the reception of strangers, and the apartment over it a dormitory for the men.

We know little more than the name of the next abbess of Ely. She was Sexburg's daughter Eormenhild, wife of King Wulfhere of Mercia, who had hitherto dwelt in the monastery of Sheppey. Eormenhild in her turn was succeeded by her daughter, the celebrated St Werburg of Chester, who was never married. Various stories are preserved about Werburg's influence, but without reference to her work at Ely. We are indebted to Gocelin for the oldest account of her.[14*] He tells us that her uncle King Aethelraed of Mercia entrusted her with the care of all the monasteries in his kingdom, that she had founded religious houses at Trentham and at Hanbury, besides turning a palace at Wedon-le-Street into a monastery.[15*] He speaks of her as a person of great cheerfulness and benevolence, and of a peaceful and happy disposition. Several accounts of her are extant in manuscripts of different dates, and as late as the 15th century her life was made the subject of a most graceful metrical epic by the poet Henri Bradshaw († 1513).[16*]

We are told that Werburg died at Trentham and that the society of that place wished to keep her body, but the nuns of Hanbury carried it off by force and enshrined it at Hanbury where the day of her deposition was kept.[17*] During the viking invasion in 875 the body for the sake of safety was conveyed to Chester, of which town St Werburg then became patron saint. This incident gave rise at a later date to the story that the saint had founded the monastery and the chief church at Chester on land given to her by her father. Livien mentions that nine churches in England are dedicated to St Werburg, who appears to have been a person of considerable importance.[18*]

Once more we must return to the north and to the work of Bishop Wilfrith, as he came into contact with various other religious women. When he returned to England after an absence of several   [p. 101]   years Aethelthrith was dead, but King Ecgfrith's hatred of him had not abated. Insulted in his person and nation he caused Wilfrith to be thrown into prison, offering to give him back part of his bishopric and other gifts if he would submit to royal authority and disclaim the genuineness of the document brought from Rome.[19*] Queen Eormenburg, whom Ecgfrith had taken to wife in place of Aethelthrith, further embittered the king against the unlucky prelate. She appropriated the reliquary Wilfrith had brought from Rome and wore it as an ornament. For nine months the prelate was kept imprisoned, and the story how he regained his liberty brings us back to Aebbe, abbess at Coldingham, who had formerly sheltered Aethelthrith.[20*]

According to the account of Eddi, Wilfrith's biographer, the king and queen of Northumbria were staying at Coldingham when the queen w as suddenly taken ill. At night she was seized like the wife of Pilate by a devil, and worn out by many ills, hardly expected to see the day alive.' The abbess Aebbe went to King Ecgfrith and represented to him that the reason of this seizure was their treatment of Wilfrith.

'And now, my son,' she said, 'do according to the bidding of your mother; loosen his bonds and send back to him by a trusty messenger the holy relics which the queen took from him and like the ark of God carried about with her to her harm. It were best you should have him as your bishop, but if you refuse, set him free and let him go with his followers from your kingdom wherever he list. Then by my faith you will live and your queen will not die; but if you refuse by God's witness you will not remain unpunished.'

Aebbe carried her point and Wilfrith was set free. He went into Mercia which was at war with Northumbria, but he was not suffered to stay there, for Queen Ostrith, the sister of King Ecgfrith, shared her brother's hatred of him. Forced to fly from Mercia he went into Wessex, but King Centwin's wife prevented him from staying there. It is curious to note the hatred with which these married women pursued him while lady abbesses were his friends. At last he found protection among the south Saxons, who fifteen years before had nearly killed him, but their king Aethelwalch († 686) had lately been converted to Christianity and gave him a friendly reception. Wilfrith is represented as joining   [p. 102]   his civilizing influences to those of the Irish monks who had settled on the coast. An interesting episode of his sojourn here was his intercourse with Caedwalla, afterwards king of Wessex (685--688), who at the time was living as an outlaw in the forests of Sussex.[21*]

We get further glimpses of Aebbe and the settlement at Coldingham. She entertained a great admiration for the holy man Cuthberht († 687), one of the most attractive figures among the evangelizing prelates of the north, of whom Bede has left an account.

Cuthberht was brought both by birth and education under Scottish influences. He was prior at Melrose before the Whitby synod, but after it came to Lindisfarne where his gentleness of temper and sweetness of disposition won over many to accept Roman usages. Overcome by the longing for solitude and contemplation which was so characteristic of many early Christian prelates, he dwelt as a recluse on the desert island of Fame from 676 to 685. There are many accounts of his life and of his wanderings.[22*]

At the time when Cuthberht's fame was spreading, Aebbe of Coldingham 'sent to this man of God, begging him to come and condescend to edify both herself and the inmates of her monastery by the grace of his exhortation. Cuthberht accordingly went thither and tarrying for some days he expounded the ways of justice to all; these he not only preached, but to the same extent he practised.'[23*]

It is recorded that during his stay at Coldingham Cuthberht went at night to pray on the deserted beach, and the seals came out of the water and clustered around him.

The first instance mentioned by Bede of a lapse of monastic discipline was at Coldingham where disorders occurred during Aebbe's rule.[24*] An Irish monk who was on a visit to the monastery had a vision of its destruction by fire, and when questioned about it by the abbess interpreted it as an impending retribution for the tenor of life of those assembled there.

'For even the dwellings,' he said, 'which were built for praying and reading are now converted into places of revelling, drinking, conversation and other forbidden doings; the virgins who are vowed to God, laying aside all respect for their profession, whenever   [p. 103]   they have leisure spend all their time in weaving fine garments with which they adorn themselves like brides, to the detriment of their condition, and to secure the friendship of men outside.'

Through Aebbe's efforts things somewhat improved, but after her death, the date of which is uncertain, the monastery really was destroyed by fire.[25*] The story is told that Cuthberht at Lindisfarne forbade women to cross the threshold of his conventual church on account of the life of the nuns at Coldingham,[26*] but another version of his doings considers that his attitude was due to an episode with a Scottish king's daughter which turned him against the sex.[27*]

Cuthberht was also the friend of Aelflaed, abbess of Whitby, who entertained unbounded reverence for him. On one occasion[28*] she had fallen ill and, as she herself told the monk Herefrid, suffered so from cramp that she could hardly creep along. 'I would,' she said, 'I had something belonging to my dear Cuthberht, for I believe and trust in the Lord that I should soon be restored to health.'

In compliance with her wish the holy man sent her a linen girdle, which she wore for a time and which entirely cured her. Later a nun by the help of the same girdle was relieved of a headache, but after that the girdle of miraculous power miraculously disappeared. The reason given for this disappearance illustrates naively enough how divine power was considered to be justified in making itself manifest with a reservation. 'If this girdle had remained present,' Bede argues, 'the sick would always flock to it; and whilst some one of these might not be worthy to be healed, its efficacy to cure might have been denied, whereas their own unworthiness was perhaps to blame. Therefore, as was said above, Heaven so dealt its benevolence, that, after the faith of believers had been confirmed, then immediately the opportunity for detraction was entirely withdrawn from the malice of the unrighteous.

Contemporary witnesses bear testimony to the wisdom and prudence of the abbess Aelflaed of Whitby, for Bede says in the life of Cuthberht that 'she increased the lustre of her royal lineage   [p. 104]   with the higher nobility of a more exalted virginity' whilst Eddi speaks of her as 'the most virtuous virgin who is actually a king's daughter,' and in another passage characterizes her as 'ever the comforter and best counsellor of the whole province.

We find her in Cuthberht's society on more than one occasion. Once he met her at the monastery of 'Osingadune' (Easington) where he went to dedicate the church, and while sitting by her at table he had a prophetic vision of the death of one of her servants.[29*]

The abbess Aelflaed directly appealed to this prophetic insight of Cuthberht's when troubled in her mind about her brother King Ecgfrith, whose expedition against the Picts filled her with apprehension. [30*] In the words of Bede: 'At another time, the same most reverend virgin and mother of Christ's virgins, Aelflaed, sent to the man of God, adjuring him in the name of the Lord that she might be allowed to see him, to converse on some pressing affairs. Cuthberht accordingly went on board ship, accompanied by some of the brethren, and came to the island which from its situation opposite to the river Coquet receives its name, and is celebrated for its community of monks; there it was that the aforesaid abbess had requested him to meet her. When she was satisfied with his replies to her many enquiries, on a sudden, while he was yet speaking, she fell at his feet and adjured him by the sacred and venerable Name of the Heavenly King and His angels, to tell her how long Ecgfrith, her brother, should live and rule over the kingdom of the Angles; "For I know," she said, "that you abound in the spirit of prophecy, and that you can tell me this, if you will." But he, trembling at her adjuration, and yet not wishing openly to reveal the secret which she asked for, replied, "It is marvellous that you, a woman wise and well-instructed in the Holy Scriptures, should speak of the term of human life as if it were long, seeing that the Psalmist says, 'Our years shall be considered as a spider,' [31*] and that Solomon warns us that, 'If a man live many years and have rejoiced in them all, he must remember the darksome time and the many days, which, when they shall come, the things passed shall be accused of vanity.' [32*] How much more then ought he, to whom only one year of life remains, to be considered is having lived a short time, when death shall stand at his gates?"

  [p. 105]  

'The abbess, on hearing this, lamented the dreadful prophecy with floods of tears, and having wiped her face, with feminine boldness she adjured him by the majesty of the sovereignty of God to tell her who would be the heir of the kingdom, since Ecgfrith had neither sons nor brothers. Cuthberht was silent for a short time, then he replied, "Say not that he is without heirs, for he shall have a successor whom you may embrace with sisterly affection as you do Ecgfrith himself." But she continued: "Tell me, I beseech you, where he is now." And he said, "You see this mighty and wide ocean, how it abounds with many islands. It is easy for God from one of these to provide a ruler for the kingdom of the Angles." Then she understood that he spoke of Ealdfrith (Aldfrid) who was said to be the son of Ecgfrith's father, and who at that time lived in exile, in the islands of the Scots, for the sake of studying letters.'

This meeting, if we credit the historian, took place in 684, and Aelflaeds forebodings were realized. Ecgfrith lost his life, and part of his kingdom was taken by the Picts. In consequence of his defeat the settlement Whithern, set up as a religious outpost in the territory south of the Firth of Forth, was destroyed. Trumwin who had been entrusted with it was forced to fly. He and his friends sought refuge at Whitby where he remained and had much intercourse with Cuthberht and Aelflaed. Bede says that the abbess found 'great assistance in governing and also comfort for her own life' in Trumwin.[33*]

Northumbria had now passed the zenith of her greatness as a political power, for the territory in the north which was lost through Ecgfrith's defeat was not regained, while in the south the province of Mercia began to shake off the Northumbrian yoke. King Ecgfrith had been succeeded by his half-brother Ealdfrith († 705) and owing to his attitude Wilfrith's exile came to an end. Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a letter in his behalf to Ealdfrith and also one to Aelflaed of Whitby begging her to be at peace with him.[34*] The prelate left Sussex for the north, where he remained for five years in undisturbed possession of his see.[35*] But again the old quarrels revived, and Wilfrith in consequence of a council assembled by order of Ealdfrith at Eastrefield was robbed of his episcopal dignity and reduced to his abbacy at Ripon. He again insisted that the king and bishops should submit to the Pope, and at the age of well-nigh seventy he under-   [p. 106]   took another journey to Rome. But it was in vain he sent envoys to the king on his return. Ealdfrith was determined not to relent, but afterwards approaching death intimidated him. Feeling his end draw nigh he sent for Aelflaed of Whitby, who with the abbess Aethelburg (probably of Hackness) came to where he lay ill at Driffield in the East Riding. Aelflaed received the king's dying words, and at a council of prelates subsequently assembled on the river Nidd bore testimony that he had spoken in favour of making peace. Wilfrith regained part of his influence but remained in retirement at his monastery.

Aelflaed outlived him and her friend Cuthberht who died in 687. It is probable that she assisted at the translation of Cuthberht's body in 698, for in the inventory of the church at Durham one of the linen cloths or outer envelopes of his body, which was taken from it in 1104, is described as 'a linen cloth of double texture which had enveloped the body of St Cuthbert in his grave; Elfied the abbess had wrapped him up in it.'[36*]

Aelflaed is the last abbess of Whitby known by name. Her death is supposed to have taken place in 713. Her monastery, like so many houses in the north, which had grown to prosperity with the rising power of Northumbria, sank into insignificance with the decadence of that power. This decline was partly due to political reasons, but the dislike which the later kings of Northumbria felt towards monasteries may have had something to do with it. For as we shall see later on the example Queen Aethelthrith had set was probably followed by two other Northumbrian queens, Cyneburg, the wife of Ealhfrith, and Cuthburg, wife of Ealdfrith († 705), who returned to their own countries and there founded monasteries.


[1*] Raine, Historians of the Church of York, Rolls series, vol. 1, Preface p. xxvii. This volume contains reprints of several accounts of the life of Wilfrith, including the one by Eddi.

[2*] A. SS. Boll., St Withburga, March 17; Dugdale, Monasticon, East Dereham,' vol. 2, p. 176.

[3*] Haigh, D. H., 'On the monasteries of St Heiu and St Hild,' Yorkshire Archaeol. Journal, vol. 3, p. 352, decides in favour of Aethelric.

[4*] Bright, W., Early English Church History, 1878, p. 235.

[5*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Coldingham,' vol. 6, p. 149. The promontory of St Abb's Head retains her name. She is believed to have founded another religious settlement at a place in Durham on the river Derwent called Ebbchester, and the village church there is dedicated to her (Dict. of Nat. Biog.).

[6*] Bede, Eccles. History, bk 4, ch. 19.

[7*] A. SS. Boll., St. Etheldreda June 23, Thomas of Ely Vita ch. 41.

[8*] Bright, W., Early English Church History, 1878, p. 252 footnote.

[9*] Bede, Eccles. History, bk 4, ch. 19.

[10*] Kalendre of the newe Legende of Englande, printed 1516 (Pynson) fol. 39 b.

[11*] Bede, Eccies. History, bk 4, ch. 19.

[12*] Dictionary of National Biography,'Etheldreda, Saint.'

[13*] Bentham, History of Ely, 1817, p. 9.

[14*] Gocelinus, Vita St Wereburgae (in Migne, Patrol. Cursus Compl. vol. 155.

[15*] Stanton, R., Menology of England and Wales, 1887, p. 49, calls it Weedon in Northamptonshire; Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Wedon,' vol. 6, p. 1051, doubts its existence.

[16*] Life of St Werburgh, 1521 , reprinted for the Early Engl. Text Soc., 1887.

[17*] Stanton, R., Menology of England and Wales, 1887, p. 49.

[18*] Livien, E., 'On early religious houses in Staffordshire,' Journal of the British Archaeolog. Assoc., vol. 29, p. 329. (The widespread cult of St Werburg may be due to there having been several saints of this name; comp. Stanton, R., Menology.)

[19*] Eddi, Vita, c. 34 (in Raine, Historians of the Church of York, Rolls series).

[20*] Bright, W., Early English Church History, 1878 p. 300, casts discredit on this story, which is told by Eddi, Vita, c. 38.

[21*] Bright, W., Early English Church History, 1878, pp. 301 ff.

[22*] Hardy, Th. D., Descriptive Catalogue of Materials, 1862, vol. 1, pp. 297 ff.

[23*] Bede, Life of St Cuthbert, ch. 10.

[24*] Bede, Eccles. History, bk 4, ch. 25.

[25*] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives 679 as the date of the fire; Eddi's account represents Aebbe as alive in 681. Perhaps she died in 680; comp. Smith and Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography, 1877, Ebba, nr 1; also Bright, W., Early English Church History, 1878, p. 300, footnote.

[26*] Bright, W., ibid., p. 255, footnote.

[27*] Hardy, Th. D., Descriptive Catalogue of Materials, 1862, vol. 1, p. 312.

[28*] Bede, Life of St. Cuthbert, ch. 23.

[29*] Bede, Life of St Cuthbert, ch. 34.

[30*] Ibid., ch. 24.

[31*] Psalm lxxxix. 10 (The Vulgate here follows the LXX.; it would be interesting to know what sense they or indeed Bede gave to the passage).

[32*] Eccles. xi. 8.

[33*] Bede, Eccles. Hist., bk 4, ch. 26.

[34*] Eddi, Vita, c. 3.

[35*] Bright, W., Early English History, 1878, p. 448, from 686--691.

[36*] Haigh, D. H., 'On the monasteries of St Hild,' Yorksh. Archaeol. Journal,vol. 3, p. 375.

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