Early Memories of Audrey of Ely

I’ve been reading Virginia Blanton’s Signs of Devotion (2007) and I find that I need to review what is actually recorded in the four earliest texts on Audrey (Æthelthryth) of Ely, all seventh century. So what follows here is a short bullet point list of some of the facts on Audrey in the earliest sources and their possible relationship to the 11th century Liber Eliensis.

Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid (c. 710-720)

  • Oldest work to mention Audrey
  • Chapter 19: “pious King Ecgfrith” and Queen Æthelthryth had fruitful years and “joy at home and victory over their enemies” as long as they were obedient to Bishop Wilfrid. “Queen Æthelthryth’s body did not corrupt in death, an indication that it was unstained in life”… Ecgfrith is compared to the biblical King Joas of Judah. “While he was on good terms with the bishop, as many will tell you, he enlarged his kingdom by many victories; but when they quarreled and the queen separated from him to give herself to God, the kings triumphs ceased, and that within his own lifetime.” It then discusses Ecgfrith’s early victories over the Picts and his control over them, until he was slain (by them).
    • Ecgfrith’s victories actually continue against the Picts and Mercia until he exiles Bishop Wilfrid in 678, six years after Æthelthryth takes the veil.
  • Chapter 22: Bishop Wilfrid builds the Church of St Andrew at Hexham on land given by “saintly Queen Æthelthryth”.
  • Chapter 39: Abbess Æbbe of Coldingham does enter the scene at one point on behalf of Bishop Wilfrid to explain that his poor treatment of Wilfrid was causing the illness of his second queen, Irmenburgh (Eormenburgh?). Here she acts as a wise woman convincing her nephew King Ecgfrith to release Wilfrid from prison, restore the relics the queen has stolen from him and to rescue the health of his seemingly dying queen.
    • Stephan writes more passionately and in greater volume on Ecgfrith’s second queen Irmenburg than on Audrey.
    • Æbbe’s role as a wise women pleading with King Ecgfrith for the benefit of his queen is similar to that of her role in the Liber Eliensis in protecting Audrey from King Ecgfrith.
  • Stephen follows the primary rule of hagiography writing. Do not allow anyone to upstage your favorite saint! So even though Wilfrid had a much closer relationship than vitae suggests and this vitae has a huge number of women, Æthelthryth is not a very strong presence in the vitae. There is no mention of her entry into Coldingham, founding of Ely or her translation.

Bede, Martyrology , 720s?

  • Æthelthryth is included here among the martyrs. Her inclusion is exceptional because Bede includes very few fellow Anglo-Saxons.

Bede, ‘Greater Chronicle’ within On the Reckoning of Time, 725

  • This is an abstract of what he includes in the History. He mentions her father Anna, her husband Ecgfrith, her perpetual virginity, her transformation from a queen to consecrated virgin, building of Ely, and her uncorrupted body found 16 years after her death. All included in the long entry on the year 4639.
  • This is a good judge of how important Bede believed Æthelthryth to be because he only refers to the English seven times in the ‘Greater Chronicle’: Augustine of Canterbury’s arrival in Kent during the time of Ælle and Æthelfrith, Bishop Paulinus’ arrival in York in the time of Edwin of Northumbria, Æthelthryth’s life and death, Willibrord’s consecration as Bishop of the Frisians, Cuthbert’s life and death, Egbert’s conversion of the Irish [Iona] to Rome, and Abbot Coelfrith’s life and death. It is extraordinary that Bede believed that Æthelthryth was among the seven most important events/people in English history.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731)

  • Bede is the earliest sign of veneration of Æthelthryth. Stephan mentions knowledge of her uncorrupted body but really makes no reference to any details.
  • Book IV, Chapter 3: Owine the monk, former head of Queen Æthelthryth’s household, joined Lastingham and became part of Bishop Chad’s household. He heard the joyful music of an angels visitation to Chad before his death.
  • Book IV Chapter 19:(Primary life of Audrey used by the Liber Eliensis).
    • Æthelthryth the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia marries Ecgfrith, later king of Northumbria.
    • She had previously married Tondberht, ealdorman of the South Gwyre, who died shortly after their marriage.
    • She preserved her virginity through the two marriages, including 12 years with King Ecgfrith.
    • Bede personally interviewed Bishop Wilfrid on Æthelthryth’s virginity because some doubted it. Wilfrid told Bede of the land and money offered to him by Ecgfrith if he would tell Æthelthryth to consummate the marriage.
    • Her uncorrrupted body proves that she had maintained her virginity.
    • After asking Ecgfrith to allow her to enter the church for years, he finally allows her to leave. She enters Coldingham under the rule of Ecgfrith’s aunt Abbess Æbbe. Bishop Wilfrid gives her the veil and habit of a nun.
    • After one year at Coldingham, she is “appointed” abbess at Ely where she built a monastery.
    • Description of Æthelthryth’s ascetic lifestyle.
    • Claims that she prophesized her death and the number of people from Ely who would die of the plague.
    • She died seven years after becoming abbess and was buried at her command among the other sisters in a common wooden coffin.
    • Succeeded as abbess by her sister Sæxburgh, widow of King Eorcenberht. After 16 years Sæxberht had her raised and placed in a new stone coffin. They miraculously found a stone coffin that fit precisely at Grantacester, because Ely had no stones.
    • Body is examined by Sæxburgh, Bishop Wilfrid, and her former physician Cynefrith who treated her before her death. He describes the last days of her illness and the wound he lanced before her death. The account of her last illness and the discovery of her uncorrupted body are told by the physician Cynefrith. He relates that Æthelthryth claims that she deserves this tumor on her neck because of her youthful vanity in wearing necklaces of gold and pearls. Her burial cloths and the original coffin are said to have expelled devils from people and worked miraculous healings. She was reburied in the newly discovered stone coffin in the church.
    • Description of the Isle of Ely as 600 hides within the kingdom of East Anglia. Æthelthryth is said to have wanted her monastery here because these were her people. There is no claim that she received the land from her first husband.
  • Book IV, Chapter 20: Bede inserts his hymn on Æthelthryth. The hymn doesn’t add any new information, but that was not the point of writing or including it. This hymn is included in the Liber Eliensis.

Bede’s text lacks dating information or her feast day. The most he says is that she had seven years as abbess before her death. His martyrology did provide the feast day. McClure and Collins believe that Bede was using a lost Life of Æthelthryth written at Ely. It is easy to see why they might believe that because all the elements of a brief vitae are here. It seems almost certain that he had a written account of Æthelthryth’s death and translation, although other parts clearly came from his interview with Bishop Wilfrid. It does have a bit of a constructed feel to it. There are too many symbolic numbers: 12 years of marriage and 7 years as abbess. Seven is symbolic for completeness, so this is symbolic of her accomplishing all she needed to as abbess. By what Bede himself writes, she had been a nun for 8 years, but seven is the number stressed.

Given as much as Bede does write about Æthelthryth, it is odd that he didn’t write a formal vitae for her. The only reason why I can think that he didn’t is because an sufficient one already existed. Given what all he wrote in his Greater Chronicle, this lost ‘life of Æthelthryth’ must have made its way to Wearmouth-Jarrow before 725.

For further reading:

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Judith McClure and Roger Collins, eds. Oxford UP, 1994. (includes the Greater Chronicle)

Stephan of Ripon, Life of Wilfrid in The Age of Bede, DH Farmer, ed. Penguin, 1988.

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