Claiming St Hild

One of the most perplexing ‘mistakes’ in the Liber Eliensis is the claim that St Hild’s sister Hereswitha was the mother of St Æthelthryth. Bede makes it very clear that this is not the case and we know that the author of the Liber Eliensis leaned heavily on Bede. The heavenly pedigree leans on other hagiography:

…the mother to whom the important family owned its birth was the daughter of Hereric, the nepos of Edwin, King of Northumbrians, and her name was Hereswith. This, certainly, is what one reads in the life of the holy virgin Milburh. The eldest daughter of Anna, Saexburgh — sister of the holy virgin Æthelthryth, whose mother was called Hereswith — was given in marriage to Eorconberht, king of the people of Kent.

I think the author of the LE did it intentionally. This ‘mistake’ allowed him to do two things — add St Hild’s to Æthelthryth’s holy kindred and second, to make Æthelthryth the sister of King Aldwulf and aunt of later East Anglian kings. In reality, King Aldwulf was Æthelthryth’s paternal first cousin. It is unlikely that the author of the HE wanted to admit that Æthelthryth’s family had lost the throne. Yet, by the time the LE was written, the kings of East Anglia were all long gone. On the other hand, St Hild was very much still a patron of the church

Marie de France’s Life of Saint Audrey continues to link Audree with Hild and further elaborates.

Bede says that her name was Hereswith, the daughter of a certain baron Hereric. He was the nephew of King Edwin to whom Northumbria was subject. Saexburga, Anna’s oldest daughter, was married to Erconbert, a king of Kent, as Saint Bede who wrote the book tells us. Aldulf was king after Anna’s death, and Elfwald reigned after him. The writing tells us that Aldulf’s mother Hereswith was the sister of Saint Hilda, a good woman and an abbess of great and noble repute….(lines 175-189)

It goes on to further muddle Audrey’s genealogy and goes on to mention that Hild first traveled to East Anglia to await transport to France to enter Chelles.

I find it fascinating that the cult of St Æthelthryth, generally considered to have been the largest for a native woman before the Reformation, itself leans on St Hild to help her accumulate holiness by association. It is worth pondering how Hild’s memory and legacy was manipulated by her successors and later generations today, her feast day.

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One comment on “Claiming St Hild

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