St. Æthelthryth of Ely: An Enduring Saint

Blessed St. Æthelthryth’s day!

Æthelthryth (Audrey) Abbess of Ely may be the most important Anglo-Saxon saint we have today. Not Cuthbert, or Oswald or Dunstan, or Bede…not even close to Æthelthryth. Why you may ask is this so? Æthelthryth is no mere academic curiosity …her veneration is actually growing again! Since about 2000, the Cathedral of Ely has begun to truly celebrate their patron saint again. This year there will be Æthelthryth pageants and parades, an Æthelthryth Fair, and perhaps most significantly an Etheldreda Liturgy (12 pages, 2004) for both her feast day and her translation from the Cathedral of Ely. Now that the Eastern Orthodox have settled comfortably into Britain, they have begun to adopt local saints, like Æthelthryth, and are composing new Orthodox liturgies for them.

Perhaps, Æthelthryth’s reappearance is a sign that the Reformation rejection of saints is wearing thin and they can return in a visible but reformed manner. It may be no coincidence that the Virgin Mary is also making a simultaneous comeback in the Church of England, most evident at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and the Anglican Communion’s tentative agreement with the Roman Catholic church on Mary. There has always been a close association between Æthelthryth and Mary. Bede’s hymn on Æthelthryth included within his History, possibly the earliest composition on her, goes so far in comparing Æthelthryth and the Blessed Mother, that it would not be much of a stretch to call her Bede’s ‘Mary of the English’. Bede’s devotion to Æthelthryth was not limited to his History; she is also a rare Anglo-Saxon inclusion in his Martyrology and the Greater Chronicle from his On the Reckoning of Time.

Every era has found a reason to continue its veneration of St. Æthelthryth. No doubt part of our is a reclaiming of the past rejected at the Reformation. This continuous history of devotion has been the subject of two major recent publications on her. A new translation by Janet Fairweather of the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) written early in the Norman era chronicling the life of Æthelthryth and the first 500 years of the monastery and church of Ely. It was published in 2005, as a millennium project commissioned by the Deans of Ely. Just this year, Virginia Blanton published her monograph Signs of Devotion: The Cult of St. Æthelthryth in Medieval England 695-1615 (Penn State UP, 2007).

Let us remember St. Æthelthryth here today with her collect from Exciting Holiness:

Eternal God, who bestowed such grace upon your servant Etheldreda that she gave herself wholly to the life of prayer and to the service of your true religion: grant that we, like her, may so live our lives on earth seeking your kingdom that by your guiding we may be joined to the glorious fellowship of your saints; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

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One comment on “St. Æthelthryth of Ely: An Enduring Saint

  1. Brenda says:

    Blessed St. AEthelthryth’s Day to you. Thank you for your awesome Anglo-Saxon blog.

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