Person of the Week: Abbess Æthelhild

Abbess Æthelhild ruled over a monastery in Lindsey near Bardney. Bede tells us all we know of her, and he doesn’t name her house. She was abbess of her monastery during the lifetime of Queen Osthryth who died in 697 and that she was still living in when he wrote his History in c. 731. She seems to have been on friendly terms with Queen Osthryth who with her husband King Æthelred of Mercia were the primary patrons of the monastery of Bardney in Lindsey.

We know that she was the sister of Bishop Æthelwine of Lindsey, Abbot Ealdwine of Partney of Lindsey, and the monk Æthelhun who died during the plague of 664 at the monastery of Rathmelsigi in southern Ireland. Such a well connected family may also suggest that they were nobility of Lindsey. It is likely that the church became a refuge for families that lost power in annexed territory. In 731, all three of her brothers appear to have died; Bede writes of them as the former bishop and former abbot. For her brother to have died, apparently an adult, in 664 and her to still be alive in 731, Æthelhild must have been quite elderly when Bede wrote.

The siblings were probably trained under Lindisfarne’s network, as we would expect since they controlled Lindsey most of the time prior to 679. Two of Æthelhild’s brothers Æthelhun and Æthelwine studied in Ireland. Æthelhun died there in 664 with Egbert and Chad. Æthelwine “went to Ireland to study; when he had been well grounded he returned to his native land and was made bishop in the kingdom of Lindsey” (HE III.27; p. 162). Æthelwine became bishop of Lindsey in 680 immediately after Northumbrian Bishop Eadhead was ejected after Mercia annexed Lindsey. He was bishop from 680-692. The siblings were clearly acceptable to the Mercians.

Abbess Æthelhild was one of the primary witnesses of the miracles of St. Oswald at Bardney. Abbess Æthelhild is a primary character in the story of how Oswald’s relics came to Bardney. We should expect that she may be the source for Bede’s informant on the story of their arrival and the situation of the shrine, including its covering with Oswald’s purple and gold royal banner. Æthelhild told Queen Osthryth that she witnessed the beam of light that illuminated the relics of St. Oswald on the night they arrived at Bardney. She was also a witness to healing miracles credited to the soil where the water that washed Oswald’s bones was dumped. She also told Osthryth that she had taken some of this soil back to her monastery where it cured a man on convulsions (perhaps epilepsy?).

It is possible that information the history of Æthelhild and her brothers came to Bede via the Abbot Deda of Partney who passed the description of Paulinus of York’s activities in Lindsey to Bede (HE II: 16). As Æthelhild’s brother Eadwine had been an abbot of Partney, it seems likely that Deda continued to look after the elderly Æthelhild’s monastery after the deaths of her brothers.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book III Chapter 11 and 27. [Judith McClure and Roger Collins, eds. 1994, Oxford UP]

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