St Mary at Ely

[I’m going to use Audrey for St Aethelthryth because of the similarity of her name to Queen Aelfthryth.]

I was reading a paper by Mary Clayton recently and she mentions that the re-dedicated house of Ely was dedicated to Sts. Mary, Peter and Audrey, but that Audrey soon became the dominant patron after the death of the initial reformers (ie Bishop Aethelwold and his colleagues). What caught me up here is the dedication to Peter….doesn’t that sound more like Bishop Wilfrid? It also calls to mind that when Wilfrid has his stroke-like illness on return from his last trip to Rome one of his instructions from the Archangel Michael is to dedicate a church to St Mary before he dies. Fair enough, but this vision is long after Audrey is dead. Now Audrey’s church might not of counted because Wilfrid didn’t own it or build it but it still gives me pause to think that we don’t really know who her church was dedicated to, if anyone.

Clayton goes on to discuss how the Virgin Mary was really the unifying saint of the whole reform movement and was used to bolster the position of the queen, initially Queen Aelfthryth. In St Audrey Bishop Aethelwold had the perfect setting, a native virgin queen to be the focus of his Marian dedications (already suggested by Bede). Further, Queen Aelfthryth was the first consecrated queen of England. The increase in her prestige was in parallel to the support for the virgin queen St Audrey and the Queen of Heaven, St Mary. Building up Queen Aelfthryth proved disastrous though as she is associated with ruthless means of bringing her son Aethelred Unred to the throne and at Ely, with the murder of their first abbot after re-foundation, so that by the time the Liber Eliensis was written she was remembered as an evil witch.

Clayton observes that St Mary became a supporter of native saints because there were no established pilgrimages to Marian shrines in the Anglo-Saxon period. St Mary could be venerated anywhere, and nowhere had corporal relics of her. She also argues that veneration to Mary was restricted to monastic settings in the Anglo-Saxon period; she simply didn’t appeal to the laity until after the Norman conquest.

St Mary continues to have a significant presence at Ely because the association has antiquity in Bede’s writings and she supports Audrey’s veneration so well. Yet, as we saw with the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, St Mary is pushed to the side in favor of St. Audrey. The extra large Lady Chapel and rich Marian-Audrey iconography will later been a great boon to Ely when Ely is placed on the pilgrim trail from London to the great Marian shrine at Walsingham.


Mary Clayton (1994) Centralism and Uniformity versus Localism and Diversity: The Virgin and Native Saints in the Monastic Reform. Peritia 8: 95-106.


Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑