Tuesday, 21 June 2011

St Etheldreda

In Anglo-Saxon England, as in many other times and places, women were seen as the means for men to guarantee the future of their families.
At first sight nothing could be more natural than this. The future of the family also meant the future of the familys prosperity and status in the community and women were seen as part of this prosperity. It was only a very small step to see women as part of the property that made up this wealth. Therefore, as everyone knows, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. And, of course, vice versa. It would take a woman of very strong character to stand upto this law of society. Saint Etheldreda was such a woman. Etheldreda made a vow while she was still a girl that she would devote her life to God and live as a nun. This was doubly inconvenient for her family who needed her to marry and have children. They married her off at the age of sixteen and humouredher by persuading her husband to respect her vow of celibacy. They no doubt expected nature to take its course. This marriage should have secured the futures of both families. Her father, the King of East Anglia, had been killed the previous year and her husband was a prince of the fenland. Her husband loved her and gave her the Isle of Ely as a wedding gift. Of course there were no children and when her husband also died three years later, power passed elsewhere. Etheldreda went to live on her Isle. Now single, Etheldreda possessed a good fortune which enabled her family to use her as a bargaining chip to make an alliance with Northumbria in 660. Northumbria and East Anglia had been at war up to this point. Ecgfrith, her new husband, was only fifteen years old and he agreed at first to respect Etheldredas vow. This purely political move helped Ecgfrith to become King of Northumbria in 670. He respected her vow of perpetual virginity at first and Etheldreda was able to live as a nun, praying at the proper times and living an austere life. But by 672 Ecgfriths youthful patience was wearing thin and his need for an heir was becoming more urgent. He asked Wilfrid, Bishop of Northumbria, to persuade Etheldreda to give up her vow. Wilfrid refused, perhaps out of respect for Etheldredas desire to be a nun but perhaps Etheldredas gift of land for a monastery in Hexham may have influenced him. Whatever the reason, Etheldredas determination not to fulfil the expectations of society around her and her insistence on her vocation continued to cause problems. Ecgfrith tried to take Etheldreda by force. She fled to the abbey at Coldingham where Ecgfriths aunt was abbess. It only took a week for Ecgfrith to realise he had lost her forever and he soon found and married another. He punished Wilfrid by sending him into exile. Etheldreda was now free and still in possession of a good fortune which she used to found the double monastery, one for nuns and one for monks, at Ely in 673.She governed the nunnery herself. The women of her family,being of the same pious frame of mind as Etheldreda, came to the monastery too. Her sister, her niece and her great-niece all followed her as abbesses of Ely. Etheldreda died of a large tumour on her neck. Legend tells that she bore this stoically as a penance for her frivolity as a young girl when she was very fond of wearing fancy necklaces. Her pet name as a child was Audrey and Saint Audreys Fair was held throughout the Middle Ages at Ely. The shoddy goods sold there became known as tawdry, a word still in use today.
Etheldreda is recognised as a saint because of her persistence and perseverance in putting the priorities of her faith well ahead of the material and social demands of her times. Her mother and three sisters are numbered among the saints.
Author: C B Whittle