PW: Abbess Æbbe of Coldingham

St Æbbe’s Head, Scotland (click picture for attribution and license)

Æbbe of Coldingham was the uterine sister of King Oswiu of Northumbria (Anon Life of Cuthbert). Uterine sister means that they share the same mother. There has been a lot of discussion about what this means for her father. Either she and Oswiu had different fathers (and she was not an Æthelfrithing) or that King Æthelfrith had multiple wives . It is important to note that both may be true. Æthelfrith was a pagan king with at least two known wives, Acha of Deira and Bebbe. Bamburgh is named for her, Bebbanburgh. For her name to have remained attached to the dynastic fortress I believe it means that her son must have ruled long enough for the name to stick and I think Oswiu’s 28 year reign is the best candidate and his sons and grandsons rule for the next 46 years. They would have no reason to remove their foremothers name from the fortress. So I believe that Bebbe was Oswiu and therefore, Æbbe’s mother. Also note the similarity between the names Bebbe and Æbbe. We know that King Oswald’s mother was Acha of Deira so that Æbbe was at best, Oswald’s half-sister. Æbbe lived until about 683, 13 years longer than her brother. If she was born the year Æthelfrith died in 616, then she would have been 67 years old, not impossible. The anonymous Life of Cuthbert refers to Æbbe as a widow, but we have no idea who her husband was. All sources after the Anon. Life of Cuthbert leave her status obscure, probably because the prestigue of widows is lower than that of virgin.

She probably founds her monastery at Coldingham during the time of her nephew King Ecgfrith (r. 670-685). Coldingham is located north of Bamburgh along the sea, possibly founded in an old British fortress. It was located in the region of Æbbe’s headland, shown in the photo above. It is the northernmost monastery of Northumbria that survives after the death of King Ecgfrith. Although Bede claims that her monastery was destroyed after her death because of its loose living, it was visited apparently without complaint by all the notable ecclesiastical figures of the day during Æbbe’s lifetime. It was at Coldingham that the episode of St. Cuthbert and the otters occurs. When Queen Æthelthryth takes the veil from Bishop Wilfrid, she enters Coldingham. This is important, because Bishop Wilfrid is unlikely to have had the queen enter into a monastery of questionable practices. It is possible that Æbbe’s monastery was essentially a retirement facility for noble widows and their daughters. They may not have been as ascetic as other monasteries, but passed Bishop Wilfrid’s standards. Given that Æthelthryth remained at Coldingham for a year of training, we can assume that Coldingham’s rule was similar to that which Æthelthryth established at Ely.

In about 681, Abbess Æbbe intervenes with her nephew King Ecgfrith on behalf of Bishop Wilfrid who he has thrown in a dungeon. Abbe asserts that Queen Irminburgh’s illness comes from Ecgfrith’s treatment of Bishop Wilfrid and Iurminburgh’s wearing a reliquary necklace taken from Bishop Wilfrid. On Abbe’s advice he frees Wilfrid from prison. She suggests that if he is unwilling to obey Rome and restore Wilfrid to his see, then at least give him his freedom and expel him from the kingdom, which he does. Æbbe takes on the role of the ‘wise woman’ in the Life of Wilfrid and in another episode in the life of Audrey of Ely in the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely).

The story of the loose living at Coldingham — after Æbbe’s death — sounds like a standard story to explain why the monastery was completely destroyed by fire. It is likely that a haven for widows may not have been up to the ascetic standards of the Irish like the monk that Bede interviews.

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