The Liber Eliensis makes a rather startling claim for Augustine of Canterbury:
“there had not yet been any church on the island [of Ely] other than the one founded by blessed the Augustine, the apostle of the English, but that was demolished right down to ground level by army of the unbelieving King Penda. This church Æthelthryth, lover of God, labored with all her might to renew and rebuild after its prolonged desolation. And as soon as it was rebuilt, dedicated as of old, in honour of Mary, the holy Mother of God, it became a shining light, through innumerable signs and miracles, as God carried out His work every day.” (LE i.15, p. 43)
It is quite possible that there was indeed a church or chapel on the Isle of Ely before she married Ecgfrith because tradition claims she retired to the Isle of Ely after the death of her first husband Tondbert. Owine and others who came to Northumbria as managers of her household could have been her staff from her retirement at Ely. It would make sense that she would return to what ever dwellings that she had on her estate at Ely when she returned to found the monastery. Perhaps Penda destroyed it, perhaps he didn’t. Penda becomes the fall guy for all mid-seventh century destruction, particularly of churches. The problem though is that Æthelthryth would have been living there until about 661 long after Penda was dead. If she returned to Ely after Penda destroyed it, then she didn’t have a church there during her religious retreat from the world before her second marriage.
What I find highly suspect is that Augustine had founded the original church and that it was dedicated to St. Mary before c. 605 (when Augustine died). There is no evidence whatsoever that Augustine worked outside of the Thames estuary, except the meeting at Augustine’s Oak and that was under the special protection of King Æthelberht. How likely is it that Augustine ventured up into the fenlands northwest of East Anglia? It just seems incredible to me. Also, I believe that this would be the earliest known dedication to St. Mary in England, if true. Now, when Æthelthryth built her church in the 670s, dedications to St Mary were becoming very popular. There is no reason to doubt that Æthelthryth had the church of Ely dedicated to St Mary.
So why credit Augustine of Canterbury with a church of St Mary at Ely? I think that Ely had a problem in that they were founded under the direction of the extra-territorial Bishop Wilfrid of York. Although it was founded on private property of a local royal woman, there is no evidence that the East Anglican church took part in its foundation or supported it in anyway in the early years. We might even imagine that the East Anglican church took offense at Bishop Wilfrid’s trespass in their diocese. This made the royal family more important than usual in the governance of the church of Ely. Thus, there was a hunt to keep finding more female heirs of Æthelthryth to govern the church, and act as intercessors in this life and beyond. Overall, the LE pulls in as many major saints of East Anglia and beyond as it can to support Æthelthryth’s veneration, but I’ll come back to that another day.
Only the need to court Canterbury can explain why they deferred credit to Canterbury, rather than give Æthelthryth the full credit. Why else would they even mention a church that had been completely razed to the ground over a decade before her arrival? Granted it gives the church a claim for antiquity probably greater than an existing East Anglican church. The church is said to be leveled to the ground to give Æthelthryth full credit for the fabric of the original church in the time the LE was written. (Æthelthryth’s new church was probably dedicated by Bishop Wilfrid while he stuck on his first nomadic exile.) In deferring to Canterbury for the foundation of Ely, they also divert credit for the early church away from Bishop Felix (who converts King Anna and his family, says the LE) and the East Anglian establishment. Or, could it be just a statement that says that the contemporary monastery of Ely should be directly accountable to the Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than local bishops? Indeed, was a statement of loyalty to Canterbury required in the wake of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s murder?
Janet Fairweather, trans. Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. Boydell, 2005.