Sunday, 29 June 2008

Excellent Women: St Etheldreda of Ely

Now, our hymn to God upraising,
Sing we of a queen's amazing
Lowliness of mind, today;
Who her royal state rejected
And, impelled by love, elected
In Christ's holy rule to stay.

Or you can also call her Æthelthryth, Ediltrudis, Audrey or Awdrey. But, however many names I include will not hide the fact that this post is nearly a week late as her feast is on 23 June. Real life has got in the way of hunting for saintly ladies recently.

Etheldreda was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and so was married off for political reasons at an early age. However, she managed to persuade her first husband, the fenland prince Tondberht, to respect her vow of perpetual virginity. Unfortunately he died after only a couple of years and her new husband, Egfrith, King of Northumbria, wasn't prepared to be accomodating. After twelve years, he had had enough and attempted to bribe Bishop Wilfrid of Northumbria to persuade her to break her vow. When Wilfrid refused to do this, Egfrith had her snatched from her convent but Etheldreda escaped and took refuge on the Isle of Ely, a gift from her first husband.

She founded a double monastery on the site of Ely Cathedral which, despite being sacked by the Danes, eventually became the richest abbey in England after Glastonbury, although she was something of a social reformer, freeing bondsmen on her land and living a life of austerity. Etheldreda died from a tumour on her neck which was rumoured to be a divine punishment for wearing too many necklaces in her youth. Fortunately for those of us who own rather too much jewellery, this was probably actually a symptom of the plague. Excellent women certainly ran in her family as her sister, niece and great-niece also became abbesses of Ely. Seventeen years after her death, her body was discovered to be incorrupt and so, her shrine at Ely became an important place of pilgrimage until its destruction in 1541. Some of her relics are supposed to have ended up at St Etheldreda's, Ely Place which is, incidentally, the oldest Roman Catholic church in England.

St Audrey's Fair, which is still periodically held at Ely in her honour, was originally the place to buy cheap necklaces and lace and the origin of the word 'tawdry' as a comment on the poor quality of the goods on sale. Her Wikipedia entry calls the wares "modestly concealing lace goods", hence the black and lacy illustration to this post.

Etheldreda's holy living
Urgeth us to heartfelt giving
Of ourselves to God today.
May her prayers, for us ascending,
Gain us joys that know no ending
With the saints on high for aye.
Amen. Alleluya.

(The Ely Sequence, as sung in Ely Cathedral on her feast days)

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