Heavenfield Round-up 4: A Golden Hoard of Links

Cross of the Trumpington 'princess', c. 650-680

The news of the last week or so has certainly been the announcement of the discovery of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon “Trumpington Princess” and the blogs have been all over it. Here is a mini round-up of the coverage:

  • I think I may have been the first blog on the story (based on the earliest news reports) here 🙂
  • Antiquarian’s Attic was also fast off the block with her story.
  • Nicola Griffith of Gemæcca has a post on Hild and the princess.
  • Past Horizons has a nice, complete post on the discovery.
  • Anthropologist Rosemary Joyce of Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives writes about nuns and princesses with a different focus on the finds at Trumpington.
  • Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie writes about Anglo-Saxon bed burials.

I also posted a presentation I did a couple years ago on St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary.

Tim Clarkson wrote about Govan and the kings of Strathcldye on his new blog Heart of the Kingdom. Tim writes about his visit to the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Dacre in Cumbria and its stonework on his blog Senchus.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words explores the early medieval history of Workington in Cumbria.

Gold plaque, Bamburgh. Found summer 2011.

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore writes about Loki the Trickster and the Norse who brought him to  Cumbria.

Bamburgh Research Project updates us on the analysis of their gold fragment from last year’s excavation. The photo of Dr Whitfield with the fragment really puts its size in perspective.

I don’t usually cover pre-Roman Celtic society but there have been a couple interesting posts in the last few weeks. Past Horizons has a post on the virtual reconstruction of the Celtic village of the Remi in pre-Roman Gaul. Katy Meyers of Bones Don’t Lie examines the diet and health of the Britons of Dorset during the late Iron Age and early Roman periods.

Moving on from Roman Britain, we have the Arthurian bloggers. Clas Merdin has an interesting post discussing the legends behind the standing stones named after the Sons of Arthur. Yes, its only in the post-Geoffrey world of Romance that Arthur is childless. Clas Merdin also has a second post teasing out the 40 tasks of Culhwch in the oldest Arthurian tale, How Culhwch won Olwen.

Mak Wilson of Badonicus continues his series exploring Arthurian lore with part IV on Arthur the Giant or Giant Slayer, part V on Arthur the Soldier, and part VI on the three types of Arthur in British lore – the giant, the superhero, and the soldier. Mak had an explosion of posts taking this series up to part 12! Just keep following the next post from the above links.

This time we have a little Beowulf to counterbalance Arthur. Michael Drout of Wormtalk and Slugspeak asks if Grendel can speak, how does he curse their weapons? I didn’t know there was a ‘current monster theory’… I learn something new all the time. In a second post, he muses some on the size and shape of the dragon in Beowulf.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of the Tenth Century has returned to his blog with a review of the Treasures of Heaven exhibit at the British Museum, and on an unfortunately misnamed boundary tree, and a couple more seminars written up.

Guy Halsall of Historian on the Edge writes about the historical assumptions expressed in a 19th century painting of Late Antiquity.

Andy Gaunt of the Archaeology and History of Sherwood Forest writes about Queen Joan’s tenure as the keeper of Sherwood and about a case of trespass and pig rustling from Bestwood Park in 1440.

Carl Pyrdum of Got Medieval brings us Cake month to replace pi day.

Whew! and that’s it for this round-up.


St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

I’m experimenting with methods of putting up presentations. This one is put up through slideshare. Its conversion function doesn’t seem to have liked all of my text as you can see from the title page. This is the presentation I gave at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2010. If you open up the presentation on full screen mode in the corner it will open in a new window so you can have it side by side with the text. Let me know what you think of this format for the presentation and comments are welcome on the presentation itself too!

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

View more PowerPoint from hefenfelth

(slide 1) St Æthelthryth is both one of the earliest and most prominent Anglo-Saxon saints. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, born to first generation Christians. She was married at a very young age to a minor local ruler, Tondbert of the South Gywre, probably in exchange for the fenland people’s military support against Penda of Merica. Tondbert gave her the Isle of Ely as part of her wedding present and dies shortly afterwards with the marriage unconsummated. She retreats to her island hermitage at Ely but doesn’t remain there long. Within a few years her father has died and her uncle King Æthelhere forces her to marry Ecgfrith, the son of King Oswiu of Bernicia who is several years her junior. After 12 years of marriage and Ecgfrith’s eventual succession to the throne of Northumbria, Æthelthryth with the help of Bishop Wilfrid of York persuades Ecgfrith to allow her to leave their unconsummated marriage and enter his aunt’s convent at Coldingham. After a year of training, she leaves Coldingham to establish her own convent at Ely where she is abbess for seven years before dying of the plague. At her translation 16 years later she was found to be incorrupt and this was taken as proof of her perpetual virginity, a claim that Bede quizzed Bishop Wilfrid on to his satisfaction.

Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary have been linked together since virtually  the beginning of recorded memory of Æthelthryth. For the first century or so, the linkage wasn’t part of her narrative history but that would eventually change. In the beginning, the links between Æthelthryth and Mary were confined to Bede’s hymn on Æthelthryth included within his Ecclesiastical History. Bede makes no suggestion that Æthelthryth herself had a special devotion to Mary and his narrative does not make the link. Neither do the other two early prose references to Æthelthryth, Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid and the 9th century Old English Martyrology, a narrative martyrology probably compiled in Mercia.  Bede, Stephan of Ripon, and author of the Martyrology all stress Æthelthryth’s purity and virginity, but none of them directly or indirectly compare her to the Virgin Mary in their narrative.

(slide 2) Bede adds his hymn on virginity in honor of Æthelthryth, he says in imitation of sacred history. Given that the most important canticle in sacred history is the Magnificant sung by Mary, it is perhaps no coincidence that Bede’s song focuses on Mary nearly as much as Æthelthryth. It is easy for us to overlook how Marian this hymn is in part because all modern translators omit Mary’s name, even though Bede certainly names her in the F couplet.  Where Colgrave and Mynors oddly translate “God’s wicket gate”, Bede specifically said, porta Maria Dei, Mary God’s gate. Mary is the leader of heaven’s Choir of Virgins and Bede places Æthelthryth her among an illustrious list of virgin martyrs. As Virginia Blanton notes in her book Signs of Devotion, Æthelthryth’s inclusion among the illustrious martyrs of the past shows such sanctity is available in their own times but Bede isn’t satisfied with mere inclusion in the choir. In the R stanza Bede moves beyond including Æthelthryth in the Choir of Virgins by suggesting that Æthelthryth may be a mother of Christ as well.

“Royal Mother of Heaven’s King your leader now; You too, maybe a mother of Heaven’s King.”

Unlike the Virgin martyrs Æthelthryth is a mother of part of the body of Christ. In his narrative of her life, Bede specifically calls her “the virgin mother of many virgins”.

A further allusion that can only be explained by Bede’s equation of Æthelthryth with the Virgin Mary occurs in the Z couplet.

“Zeal frenzied tears the foe that conquered Eve; Truimphs the saint, zeal frenzied tears of the foe”

Colgrave and Mynors substitute the word “Saint” for the less specific “virgo” used by Bede, which makes that assumption that Bede is referring to Æthelthryth rather than Mary. Bede knew that Mary was routinely considered to be the redeemer of Eve. Yet here again he is being intentionally vague as this couplet is in the context of a discussion of Æthelthryth. Bede ends this hymn by portraying Æthelthryth as a bride of Christ represented as the lamb.

Through all of these comparisons Bede has shown Æthelthryth to be another Mary – she is a perpetual virgin, a leader of other virgins and a mother of the body of Christ, the redeemer of Eve, a queen in heaven as she had been on earth and last but not least the bride of the lamb.

This hymn adds no new information on Æthelthryth’s life; its purpose is to show that Æthelthryth not only belongs in the heavenly virginal choir, but also that she compares well with the Virgin Mother herself.  She is another Mary for Bede’s age.

There is reason to believe that this hymn circulated separate from History as part of Bede’s book of hymns. It survives in Cologne MS. 106, a manuscript indirectly associated with Alcuin that includes Bede’s breviate psalter and 12 of Bede’s hymns including the hymn to Aethelthryth. How widely Bede’s Book of Hymns circulated is unknown as it does not survive intact. When found in isolation it is impossible to tell whether the hymn came from the Book of Hymns or the History. Nevertheless, Bede’s History was the primary source for Æthelthryth’s story until the completion of the Liber Eliensis in the 12th century.

The linkage between Æthelthryth and Mary appears only once between Bede’s History and the 12th century Liber Eliensis, that is in the Benedictional of Æthelwold. (slide 3) Bishop Æthelwold was responsible for refounding Ely as an all male Benedictine monastery where he put his reform agenda that stressed monastic virginity into action. Æthelthryth is one of only two native saints featured in full portraits in his Benedictional, here coupled with a portait of Christ and is inserted at the benediction for her feast day. It is the most elaborate portrait in the book. Blanton notes that this arrangement is symbolic of Æthelthryth’s marriage to Christ.  She also notes that the Æthelthryth’s lily is symbolic of her virginity and, with the mirrored frame, is arranged in such as way to reflect Christ’s benediction in the opposing page.

(slide 4) Æthelthryth is also portrayed as a leader among the choir of virgins. An inscription written on the books the figures hold indentifies Æthelthryth as the haloed figure on the left in red, with her dress matching her full portrait completely. The central haloed figure has been a subject of controversy. The inscription identifies her as a Mary but the second word in unreadable. Authorities have been split on whether this figure represents the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, with most siding for Mary Magdalene. I believe that if we consider the decoration of the rest of the benedictional, rather than trying to reconstruct the badly damaged inscription, then this figure must be the Virgin Mary.

(slide 5) When we look at the other depictions of the Virgin Mary most of them are decorated as in this illutstration of the annunciation. The rose dress with a flower pattern matches the leader of the choir of virgins exactly. In all illustrations of the Virgin Mary, she is given a gold halo or nimbus, gold veil, cuffs and sometimes an undertunic. This illustration of the assumption is the only illustration of the Virgin Mary who is not dressed in a rose tunic, but even here she is adorned with a gold halo, veil and trim.

(slide 6) In contrast, in the only illustration of Mary Magdalene in the Benedictional she is not distinguished from the other two women at the tomb. None of the women have a halo or wear any gold on their apparel. Only their instruments are gold. Further, the book lacks a benediction for the feast day of Mary Magdalene. If the leader of the choir of virgins is Mary Magdalene then we have to explain why she is not mentioned in the text and illustrated so differently at the empty tomb.

(slide 7) Returning to the choir of virgins, I believe this illustration must represent the choir of Virgins led by the Virgin Mary and Æthelthryth, as suggested in Bede’s poem. This also matches the overall theme of Bishop Aethelwold’s reforms that highly valued virginity and lifted up the Virgin Mary and Aethelthryth as role models. By this time, Mary Magdalene was well established, following Gregory the Great, as the sinful woman and therefore ill suited for Bishop Aethelwold’s agenda.

(slide 8) We have to jump two centuries from the 10th century Benedictional of Aethelwold to the 12th century Liber Eliensis before we get another glimpse of the evolution of Æthelthryth’s veneration.  In the Liber Eliensis Æthelthryth’s story and the related comparisons to the Virgin Mary reach their textual peak. The author of the Liber Eliensis, completed around 1170, uses Bede’s History and Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid to develop a much more complete story for Æthelthryth that embellishes the roles of Bishop Wilfrid, Abbess Æbbe, and St. Owine in addition to Abbess Æthelthryth.  Bede’s hymn is replicated exactly. Comparisons between Mary and Æthelthryth become more direct. The Liber Eliensis uses Mary and Joseph’s chaste marriage as president for Æthelthryth’s unconsummated marriages.

The Liber Eliensis also tells two new tales that will feature in iconography within the Cathedral of Ely. Cathedral construction began in the late 11th century with the Lady Chapel being constructed between 1321 and 1352. In the first new story, Æthelthryth miraculously escapes from Ecgfrith’s attempts to remove her from Coldingham and flies to Ely. While en route at a stopping place she plants her staff into the ground while her party rests, it takes root and grows into a strong ash tree. Ann Stanton describes how these miracles are depicted in iconographic panels within the Cathedral of Ely, at the crossing in her paper “The Virigin, the Queen and the Cathedral”. These panels date to the 14th century when the Lady Chapel was being constructed. Within the Lady Chapel itself iconographic panels stress Mary’s journey to Bethleham. The second story is of a Dane who tries to violate Æthelthryth’s tomb only to be struck blind, literally to have his eyes ripped out. This story explained a hole in the saracophagus from the era of the Danish destruction of the monastery and at the same time discouraged anyone from trying to use the hole to see her corpse within. According to Stanton this story is not depicted in the surviving relief panels of the Cathedral but the corresponding Marian story of a Jew attempting to overturn Mary’s tomb only be caught with his hand stuck in the tomb is depicted in the Lady Chapel. Other relief panels in the Lady Chapel reflect the commonalities in the lives of Mary and Æthelthryth.

(slide 9) The Liber Eliensis makes one additional Marian claim for the first time. It claims that

““there had not yet been any church on the island [of Ely] other than the one founded by blessed 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)”

This is the first claim that the church of Ely was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Yet, it is extremely unlikely that Augustine ventured up into the fenlands to found a church dedicated to Mary. I believe that this is a fictional claim that expresses loyalty to the Archbishops of Canterbury while trying to make a claim of antiquity. If this claim were true then it would likely be the oldest English church dedicated to Mary. However there is no reason to believe that the dedication to Mary is any older than the refoundation of the house under Bishop Æthelwold.

Balancing the special relationship between Mary and Æthelthryth, the structure of Ely Cathedral is unique in England. Typically, the Eastern trancept is the where the Lady Chapel is found in English cathedrals. Yet, here this is the site of Æthelthryth’s shrine and chapel (L and N) on the diagram. Æthelthryth’s shrine was located where N is on the diagram, and it is marked on the floor today. This leaves the main body of the cathedral without a Lady Chapel. To compensate for Our Lady not having a special place in the cathedral, they built the largest and most elaborate Lady Chapel in England just outside the main plan (J). How do we account for such an elaborate Lady Chapel?

(slide 10) After the time of Bishop Aethelwold, Ely’s position on the trail from London to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham must have amplified interest in Mary. Although not mentioned in the Liber Eliensis, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was founded in the 11th century, significantly before the writing of the Liber Eliensis. The omission of Walsingham from the Liber Eliensis or the 12th century French Life of Audree by Marie de France,  may be due to some sense of competition. Yet, the Life of Audree in particular gives the feeling that Ely was a pilgrimage destination. Its unclear how often Ely was a final destination or whether it was a feature on the Walsingham trail.  By the Reformation, Walsingham was the primary Marian shrine in all of England and Ely benefited by being on the trail from London to Walsingham. It is also clear that East Anglia was a major region of Marian devotion with several other shrines in the area including Our Lady of Ipswich. This leaves me to wonder if perhaps the popularity of Æthelthryth and her Marian connections may have fostered the growth of Marian shrines in East Anglia.

At the Reformation the Lady chapels and shrines at Walsingham and Ely were especially targeted for destruction by the reformers. The shrine of Æthelthryth was completely destroyed and the Cathedral of Ely was defaced.

(slide 11) Throughout the 20th century, Æthelthryth slowly began to retake her former position at Ely. The processional banner shown here was made in 1910 and has been used for processions ever since. Among the Millennial restorations made to the cathedral in 2000 was a new covered processional way linking Æthelthryth’s chapel with the Lady Chapel (I on the diagram). Since the third great renovation of the cathedral began in 1986 Æthelthryth’s presence has been steadily growing at the Cathedral. Within the last decade, St Etheldreda’s fair has been re-established as a major community event. A new Order of St Etheldreda was founded in 1992 under the patronage of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to provide for the cathedral and in 2004 they published a new complete liturgy including processions and new hymns for her feast and the feast of her translation. This new liturgy is available on the Cathedral website.

(slide 12) Two more communities have been founded more recently, including a Benedictine inspired Ely-based Community of St Etheldreda established in 2005 that continues to use the Lady chapel for monthly services (shown here). As the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has been restored and is regaining its popularity over the last decade, a new St Etheldreda Cell of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham has also formed at Ely.

To celebrate the completion of the third great restoration of the cathedral in 2000, three sculptures were commissioned for the cathedral including a new sculpture for the Lady chapel. (slide 13) This controversial new sculpture represents the moment of the annunciation. What strikes me the most about this statue is not its modernity, but its startling golden hair and dress that resembles a Saxon princess so much more than an Middle-Eastern teenager.

Hello Eadgyth!

Eadgyth and Otto I. . Statue from Magdeburg Cathedral. Photo from Medieval News.

Earlier this week an Anglo-Saxon princess, Eadgyth, made a splash in the news. Her grave and body had been found in a German Cathedral. As the granddaughter of Alfred the Great, and half-sister of Æthelstan, first recognized king of the English, she has got the interest of historians and archaeologists in England. Being of interest only for her links to them – rather than for herself – is a feeling Eadgyth would have been all too familiar. Its pretty well known that Æthelstan sent 19 year old  Eadgyth and another sister Algiva/Adiva to 17 year old Otto (912-973), son of King Henry of Germany, and told him to take his pick, the other being married off to some Alpine prince whose name has never been recorded. King Henry probably got to arrange that marriage as another perk. Nice guys all around, huh?

Eadgyth married Otto in 929 when she was about 19. He (or perhaps really his father King Henry) gave her the city of Magdeburg as a wedding gift. I’ve read elsewhere that it was dowry, but husbands don’t give dowry. She gave birth to their son Liudolf in 930 and then a daughter Liutgarde. Otto became King of Germany and Duke of Saxony upon the death of his father in 936. She was Queen of Germany for ten years before her death at age 36 on 26 January 946. She was buried in convent in Madeburg, where she was probably a patron. She was recently discovered in a stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral. After her death, Otto continued his conquests until he became Holy Roman Emperor in 962. Otto lived nearly another 30 years and remarried, but he still returned to Magdeburg where he was also buried.  Eadgyth was moved and reburied in stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral in 151o.

Tests are being done to confirm that these remains are Eadgyth’s because they were found in a lead coffin inside the stone sarcophagus with the inscription “The rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus, after the second renovation of this monument in 1510.” The bones wrapped in white silk appear to be of a woman in her thirties. Isotope analysis will be able to identify where the woman spent her childhood. Presumably they will also do radiocarbon dating and it would be nice if they did a facial reconstruction. Assuming the skull is intact and they have access to it, they should be able to make an accurate model of it and do a facial reconstruction with that without damaging the remains.

Eadgyth gains special attention from English historians (and Anglophiles) because she is believed to have promoted the veneration of St Oswald, King of Northumbria in Saxony and Germany. Why did she have a special attraction to St Oswald? The women of the house of Wessex had a special attraction to King Oswald because his wife was the daughter of King Cynegisl of Wessex, later recorded as Cyneburg. Eadgyth’s half-brother Æthelstan may have been a fosterling in the court of their aunt Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, when she rescued St Oswald’s relics from Viking-occupied Bardney in the year before Eadgyth’s birth. Æthelflaed moved the relics to their new minister at Gloucester, later renamed St Oswald’s Priory. This priory was to be the primary church for the Mercian royal family and their burial place. Lady Æthelflaed also established veneration of St Oswald at Chester alongside St Wereburg (Thacker,1995), a daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and great niece of St Æthelthryth of Ely. It is interesting that Lady Æthelflaed translated Wereburg’s relics to Chester but not the relics of St Æthelthryth of Ely, especially given that Wereburg was Abbess of Ely. Yet, Wereburg was a daughter of Mercia where the other abbesses of Ely did not have a connection to Mercia or Wessex.  Chester and Gloucester were the two primary cities of Mercia under Lady Æthelflaed with eastern Mercia either ruled by Vikings or in the frontier zone.

Through this marriage, Oswald becomes kinsman and uncle of the Wessex royal family. When Æthelstan sent his sisters to Germany to marry Otto, Eadgyth was described as being of of the “blessed line of King Oswald” (nata de stirpe beata Oswaldi regis) (Thacker, 1995). A bit of an exaggeration that she was a descendant at least by our understanding of kinship and descent. How a culture views kinship is dynamic, not a static thing. In the Gesta Ottonis, written under the orders of Otto’s niece Abbess Gerberga by Hrotsvitha of Gandrersheim in c. 965, Eadgyth’s lineage is held to be greater than her half-brother Æthelstan in part because of her kinship with St Oswald. Otto’s marriage to this Anglo-Saxon princess helped solidify his rule over Saxony (O’Riain-Radel, 1995). It is possible that Eadgyth came to Otto bearing relics, possibly of St Maurice, the leader of the Theban legion, to whom the Cathedral of Madeburg is dedicated. As we know that Æthelstan had received relics of St Maurice, O’Riain-Radel hypothesizes that she brought some of these relics with her to Saxony and were established in the Cathedral where they were both eventually buried. St Maurice, like Oswald, was another soldier saint and perhaps attractive to warrior kings like Æthelstan and Otto. We also know that manuscripts were gifted in both directions between Æthelstan and Otto, including gospel books but perhaps also hagiography. It seems likely that written legends would have accompanied Eadgyth on any saints Wessex wanted to promote in Germany. These would have been valuable to Otto and his father King Henry as information on a holy (Anglo-)Saxon king could have been used to help them get established in Saxony. Yet, the fact that Oswald was a foreign king meant he would not have had local kinsmen to challenge their rights in Saxony.

As the romance of Oswald developed around the marriage of Oswald to Cyneburgh, he would have become all the more attractive to other Wessex girls.  From the German point of view, a Wessex princess like Eadgyth could have easily been portrayed as being like Cyneburgh, the Wessex princess that became St Oswald’s wife. There is little evidence of Oswald’s romance within England (and few English medievalists today are aware of it) but it flourished in Germany where these Wessex girls sponsored his veneration. The only trace of the romance in England is the raven and ring iconography found in some Oswald artwork, but most of this artwork is quite late and often lacks the ring (so it could represent the raven in Reginald’s Life of Oswald that had nothing to do with romance). Editions of the German romances are listed in the reference section below; Kalinke being the most complete analysis.


Alan Thacker, (1995) “Membra Disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult”. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

Dagmar O’Riain-Radel (1995) “Edith, Judith, and Matilda: the Role of Royal Ladies in the Propagation of the Continental Cult” Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

Medieval News. (20 Jan 2010) Remains of Eadgyth, Anglo-Saxon Queen, discovered in German Cathedral. (actually Anglo-Saxon Queen of Germany)

Additional references for St Oswald on the continent:

Marianne  Kalinke    (2005)  St. Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphoses, with an Edition and Translation of the ‘Osvalds saga’ and ‘Van sunte Oswaldo deme konninghe’. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Annemiek Jansen. (1995) The Development of the St Oswald Legends on the Continent. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

JW Thomas. (1989) The ‘Strassburg Alexander’ and the ‘Munich Oswald’: Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages.

Peter Clemoes. (1983) The Cult of St Oswald on the Continent. Jarrow Lecture 1983.

EP Baker. (1949) St Oswald and his church at Zug. Archaeologia 93: 103-123.

EP Baker (1951) The Cult of St Oswald in Northern Italy. Archaeologia 94: 167-194.

Audrey, Cuthbert and the Durham Stole

St Cuthbert\'s stole[I haven’t been able to post much lately, but life seems to be getting straightened out so I hope on a regular basis back soon. It may be August before I’m back to the frequency I had last spring though. Hang in there with me…]

Today is the feast of St Æthelthryth so I can’t let today pass without a post on Audrey. Did you know that according to Marie de France, St Audrey made the very stole that is among St Cuthbert’s treasures at Durham (pictured right)?

“But above all others she loved Saint Wilfrid who advised her and Saint Cuthbert for his goodness and his great integrity. To Saint Cuthbert she often gave very generously of her wealth: Saint Audrey made a finely-worked stole and maniple out of gold and silk, adorned it with precious stones and gave it to him. These adornments are still kept with great affection in Durham. To honor God in memory of Saint Cuthbert the church made a monstrance for them. The love between these two [Cuthbert and Audrey] was proper and acceptable to God for they were both virgins who led chaste and holy lives. One was always mindful of the other, [praying] that God would bring each of them into His glory.” [Vie Seinte Audree, lines 1091-1110, McCash and Barban, p. 77, 79]

It is highly unlikely that Audrey ever gave Cuthbert, only a prior when she died, a gold and jewel encrusted stole and maniple. It is true that this stole, considered part of the treasures of St Cuthbert, is not jewel encrusted but that could either be an elaboration on Marie’s part or the jewels may have been removed over the years. It appears as though the backing of the stole and perhaps its edges have been removed at some point. (See the frayed edges to the right.) If this stole was kept in a monstrance (a type of reliquary) that could explain how it survived so well and very little of it would likely have been visible to see jewels or much of the design.

The stole and maniple was actually made by Queen Aelfflaed, the second wife of Edward the Elder for Bishop Frithestan of Winchester. It was donated to Durham by Aelfflaed’s step-son King Aethelstan in 934. Indeed, it seems likely that if former Queen Aethelthryth of Northumbria had given Cuthbert a jewel encrusted gold and silk stole, he would have been buried in it! King Aethelstan’s gift may have been used by the Bishops of Durham as a sign of their loyalty to Wessex or it may have been intended for a statue of St Cuthbert in Durham cathedral.

It is possible that we have yet another case of Marie’s inability to read or discern Anglo-Saxon names so that Aelfflaed was mistaken for a version of Aethelthryth (whose English name would have been spelled more like Audree by Marie’s time). It is also possible that the monks of Durham were trying to boost the relationship between Audrey and Cuthbert for their mutual benefit. Keeping it in a monstrance would have prevented many people from inspected the inscription.

Looking at the stole itself, it is a work of art. It is clear that needlework of the tenth century was at least as good as illuminations, if not better. I have long thought that these two art forms influenced each other a great deal. The photo to the left comes from The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 1913, vol 23 (121), at p. 4. You should be able to enlarge it by clicking on the picture or the link above (if you have access to JSTOR). The picture to the left is the prophet Amos and then the ends of the stole that record the name of its maker Aelfflaed and Frithestan who it was made for. A few years ago I picked up a bunch of slides from Durham of the stole and other treasures, I must get them scanned someday.

Enjoy this fine summer day and think a little of Audrey on her feast day. We commemorate what would not have been a fine summer day for Ely at all. Not only did they loose their founder and abbess, it was the beginning of a plague upon the Isle of Ely.


June Hall McCash and Judith Clark Barban, eds. (2006) The Life of Saint Audrey: A Text by Marie de France. McFarland.

PW: St Owine

St Owine is a somewhat malleable figure in the veneration of St Audrey.

He first appears in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People where he is a member of St Chad’s household at Lichfield. Owine witnesses an exchange between Chad and an angel shortly before Chad’s death. Bede goes on to explain that Owine had been chief of her officers and the head of Æthelthryth’s household when she married prince Ecgfrith of Northumbria (Bede, HE IV.3). Bede goes on to relate that Owine joined Chad at Lastingham dressed plainly and carrying only an axe and adze to show that he came to work. He was not skilled at the study of Scriptures but more than made up for this in his earnest manual labor. When Chad moved to Lichfield to become bishop he asked Owine to join his household there. He was working outside of Chad’s personal oratory when he overheard Chad conversing with an angels. Chad then sent Owine to collect the others of the household and he gave them all, including Owine, his last instructions. Chad died on March 2, 672; the same year Æthelthryth (Audrey) left her marriage and entered Coldingham. Thus, Owine had left Æthelthryth’s service long before she left her marriage. Owine is also only associated with Lastingham and Litchfield by Bede. To join Lastingham while Chad was there he would have joined between 664 and 670; most of this time Chad was also Bishop of York (c. 665-669).

The Liber Eliensis expands Owine’s role. It casts Owine as Æthelthryth’s protector who only entered the church after she took up monastic life. He is clearly portrayed as following her lead. This is clearly impossible. It does claim that Owine entered Lasthingham when it was ruled by Bishop Chad of Mercia whose great friend he became, so it pushes his entry into Lasthingham as late as possible (LE i.8, 10). In LE i.23, Owine is, ironically, called her tutor. This may be a plea to link the cults of Chad and Audrey, particuarly after Ely largely came under the control of Mercia in the time of Offa. However, the expansions are not too great over what Bede reports.

This caution to keep within the outline laid out by Bede is completely lost in Marie de France’s Life of St Audrey. Marie claims that Audrey founds the church of St Andrew at Augustaldeus (Hexham) which she staffed with ‘her people’ who established the house there. Audrey placed the monk Ovin (Owine) as the “master of that church and its religious life”. Ovin became friends with Chad but is not said to have joined Chad’s household. Later, Marie claims that Ovin, “spiritual leader of Saint Audrey’s people” followed Audrey into Coldingham.

We can see an escalating of Owine’s relationship to Audrey. I haven’t yet found a source that claims that Owine came to Ely with her, but that may be the implication of Marie’s claim that he followed her into Coldingham. Commemoration of St Ovin — notice Marie’s French spelling — is part of remembrances of St Audrey at Ely today. This cross is apparently a medieval relic from a neighboring village. This drawing is from Cambridgeshire History.

Today at Ely Cathedral, a procession to St Ovin’s Cross takes place at second evensong on both St Audrey’s day and the feast of her translation in October using the ‘verses and collect’ of St Ovin.


Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731

Janet Fairweather, trans. Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. Boydell, 2005.

June Hall McCash and Judith Clark Barban, trans and ed. The Life of Saint Audrey: A Text by Marie De France. McFarland, 2006.

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.

Augustine of Canterbury in the Liber Eliensis

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.