The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 10—Saints and Sanctity (May 2007)   |   Issue Editors: Celia Chazelle & Deanna Forsman

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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History by Biography—St. Æthelthreda

History by Biography—St. Elisabeth


The Changing Hagiography of St. Æthelthryth

Stacie Turner  

©2007 by Stacie Turner. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2007 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  George Orwell noted that, "[h]e who controls the past, controls the future," (1984) and this was as true of medieval saints' vitae as of twentieth century states. Both Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica and the Liber Eliensis tell the story of St. Æthelthryth. However, as the concerns of the authors' changed, so did the saint's vitae. For Bede, writing in the eighth century, Æthelthryth was akin to the virgin martyrs and her sexual purity was her most remarkable feat—she maintained her virginity through her two marriages, to which her uncorrupted corpse attests. Ælfric, who included her in his tenth century Lives of the Saints, also focused on Æthelthryth's virginity and explicitly upheld her as an example for women to follow. However, the author of the Liber Eliensis, writing in the twelfth century, had a more complex agenda and thus expanded the story, removing the attention from her virginity alone and attributing numerous new miracles to the saint.

§2.  The basic facts of Æthelthryth's life, such as they can be determined, tell us she was born in Exning in 636, the third daughter of Anna, King of East Anglia (d. 654). She was first married to Tondbert, King of South Gyrwe in the Fens, in 652. Whether Tondbert respected her apparent desire to be a nun or simply did not particularly like his political bride cannot be determined—Bede tells us only that Tondbert died shortly after the wedding—but Æthelthryth managed to avoid consummating her marriage for all of its three years (HE 4.19). She made her second political marriage to Edgfrith, king of Northumbria (670–685) in 660 when he was only a child. She had more trouble maintaining her celibacy in this marriage once Edgfrith grew up, and her travails in escaping and establishing her double abbey at Ely provide the color, and miracles, for much of the latter part of her life as related in the Liber Eliensis. Having founded her abbey, she died in 679.

§3.  Bede provides a fairly simple version of Æthelthryth's life. He relates that she did not eat much, did not bathe often and prayed throughout the day. Most importantly, of course, she never had sex and Bede includes her, along with Agatha, Eulalia, Thecla, Euphemia, Agnes and Cecilia1 in his catalog of notable virgins (HE 4.20). He speaks of "the miraculous preservation of her body in the tomb" as evidence "that she had remained untainted by bodily intercourse" (HE 4.19). Bede mentions only a few other miracles; the most notable is a custom-fitted sarcophagus that appeared when Sexburga, who succeeded Æthelthryth as abbess at Ely, decided to translate the saint's body (HE 4.19). He also notes that her original coffin evidently "cured diseases of the eye, relieving pain and failing sight in those who placed their heads on the coffin as they prayed" (HE 4.19). The ability to cure blindness is attributed to many saints in Historia Ecclesiastica—St. Alban's relics (HE 1.18), Augustine's prayers (HE 2.2) and prayer at the tomb of St. Hildred (HE 4.10) are noteworthy examples. Prayer at Cuthbert's tombs did not cure blindness per se, but eye disease (HE 4.32). Æthelthryth's miracles are enough to establish her as a holy woman, but are not, as we see, particularly remarkable.

§4.  Bede's agenda regarding Æthelthryth is subtle and tied to her social status. Like most seventh century British female saints, Æthelthryth was royalty: daughter of one king, and married to two others—her sisters also married kings.2 She had the potential as a saint to serve as an example of virtuous womanhood, and possibly influence much of England as the Church solidified conversion to Christianity among the English. Other religious women of the period, according to Bede, used their religious position to aid their families and their political positions to aid the Church. In additional to Æthelthryth we find women such as Eanfled (d. 626), Queen of Northumbria, who convinced her husband to endow a monastery as compensation for murdering one of her relatives (HE 3.24). Eanfled eventually retired to this monastery, which her daughter Aelffled ruled (HE 4.26).

§5.  As we see, royal women could bring wealth and prestige to their monastic communities. This did not stop at their deaths. Through canonization, they continued to help their foundations as patron saints. Indeed, by creating a cult of sainthood around a founder, an abbey might be able to strengthen royal interest. Susan Ridyard notes that a saint could help cast an aura of divine right and prestige over her relatives'—and former husband's—reigns. Having a patron saint to call upon "provided both a superior moral right and a powerful protector in heaven" (Ridyard 1988, 192). In addition, abbesses tended to pass control of their abbeys, and the often-considerable lands attached, to family members. This ensured that the local royalty, as well as the ruler of the religious community, had vested family interests in preserving the abbey. Aelfric tells us in his tenth century Lives of the Saints that Æthelthryth was succeeded by her sister, Sexburga. The Life of Sexburga includes her succession as well as the later succession of Sexburga's daughter and Æthethyth's niece, Eormenhilda to the position of abbess at Ely. The author of the Liber Eliensis echoes the texts of the Life of Sexburga and the Life of St. Eormenhilda when he relates both Sexburga's (LE 1.25) and Eormenhilda's (LE 1.36) successions. However, while he borrowed passages from the Life of Sexburga and Life of St. Eormenhilda practically word for word, he breaks this pattern when he borrows from the Life of St. Werburga by Goscelin; St. Werburga's vita does not expressly make her an abbess at Ely, noting only that she was a nun there. The Liber Eliensis claims: "virgo Domini Werburga post obitum matris sue Eormenhilda monasterium Elge regendum suscepit" (LE 1.37).

§6.  Ely prospered during the seventh century, was destroyed during the Danish invasions and was re-founded as a Benedictine monastery in 970 by King Edgar (943–975) and Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester (909–984). There is sparse documentation detailing religious residence at the site for a period of at least 100 years after the Danish invasions and what sources we do have are often contradictory. St. Æthelwold's vita, written c. 1000, claims that the site was deserted when the Bishop reinvigorated it (Life of Æthelwold 1.1). The Liber Eliensis does say that Æthelwold had to expel clerics from the site, eight of whom had returned after the Danes had destroyed the original abbey. There is reason, however, to doubt the claim of the Liber Eliensis to continuity. Blake notes in his introduction that: "King Eadred's charter in ch. 28 would prove that there was a community at Ely before its refoundation, if there were not reason to suspect that it was originally a grant to Wulfstan, emended later into a direct gift to the abbey" (1962, xii). We seem to have a situation in which the site was uninhabited but where the later monks wanted to establish continuity by claiming the land had been a religious site since the time of the original foundation. Much of the Liber Eliensis addresses the ongoing land disputes between the monastery and local landowners. Thus anything that would help them bolster their claims to the land, whether grants from the king, an unbroken history of religious occupation, or a powerful patron saint, was beneficial.

§7.  Bede's Æthelthryth was a virtuous Christian woman with some political clout. However, the author of the Liber Eliensis required more from Ely's founder than her family connections, although those were certainly helpful. By the twelfth century, when the history of the abbey was written, almost 500 years had passed since Æthelthryth's lifetime and almost 200 since the new house had been established. The monks at Ely had little connection to the site's original founder other than sharing her address. Despite this lack of continuity, when the local community made claims against the church holdings—which they often did—the monks used Æthelthryth to bolster their claims to the property. She could both help to create a sense of connection with the Anglo-Saxon past and strike fear into potential enemies.

§8.  Since Æthelthryth served a more complex need in the twelfth century, it is hardly surprising that her vita also became more complex. Both Bede and Ælfric told similar, straightforward stories of a virgin saint. The Liber Eliensis adds additional details and miracles to the story of St. Æthelthryth; by the twelfth century the holy virgin with a knack for curing eye diseases had a far more impressive set of miracles under her belt. These new miracle stories fall into three basic categories and illustrate the areas where the monks felt they needed additional help from the holy virgin.

§9.  The first group of new miracles focuses on the inception of the original foundation. According to the Liber Eliensis, after her second husband, Edgfrith, granted Æthelthryth release from their marriage she retreated to Coldingham where Edgfrith's aunt, Ebba, was abbess. Edgfrith eventually changed his mind and came to fetch his wife. Warned of this, Æthelthryth fled and Edgfrith followed. The subsequent miracles both enabled Æthelthryth to evade her husband and further established her sanctity. First, an unusually high tide seperated her from her pursuers (LE 1.11). The water was too rough to cross, further protecting her, and when she finally left her refuge, her footprints permanently marked the rocks.

. . . vestigia pedum illius ascendentis et descendentis in latere montis infusa, tamquam in calida cera, nunc usque ostenduntur ad laudem domini nostri Jesu Christi (LE 1.11).3

On her journey to found Ely, an exhausted Æthelthryth lay down to sleep and placed her staff into the ground. When she awakened:

. . . invenit baculum itineris sui, quem ad caput antea fixerat aridum et diu inveteratum, iam viridi amictum cortice fronduisse ac folia prodisse (LE 1.13).4

These miracles, added to the legend sometime after Ælfric wrote his vita, suggest that the founding of Ely was divinely ordained. If the original abbey had indeed been the will of God, the later monks could reasonably suggest that their newer monastery continued to carry out that will.

§10.  The second group of additional miracles attributed to St. Æthelthryth by the Liber Eliensis expands on her healing abilities. Although Bede had limited Æthelthryth's healing miracles to eye-diseases cured by her coffin, according to the author of the Liber Eliensis the locus of her post-mortem power centered on a spring that had appeared where the saint was first buried—a site that was, of course, on the monk's land.

De loco autem, in quo huius virginis corpus fuerat primo sepultum, fons aque oritur lucidissime et usque in evum manare non desinit. Unde in potum si egroti quilibet sumpserint sive de illo conspersi fuerint, in pristinum convalescere vigorem memorantur. Verum que ipsi perspicere meruimus loco congruo describentur (LE 1.31).5

Healing miracles ascribed to the powers of the waters, made holy by the one-time presence of the body of the saint, include the healing of a virtuous poor man (LE 3.116), a monk (LE 3.117), and a band of brothers (LE 3.118). Other similar miracles appear throughout the text.

§11.  The third, and most interesting, additions to Æthelthryth's miracles show her as protecting both her own body, and by extension the abbey, for the first time. On one occasion, she struck dead a Danish raider who attempted to disturb her tomb.

. . .thesaurum virginalem et incorruptibilem inquietare non timet. Tota vi ferientis percutitur lapis sepulcralis...Multiplicantur ictus, foramen efficitur, quod usque manens cernitur. Quo facto, nulla celestis vindicate fit dilatio, sed confestim, oculis ab eius capite divinitus avulsis, sacrilegam inibi vitam finivit (LE 1.41).6

§12.  Other examples include a group of nosy priests who doubted that the body had never decayed and attempted to look into the coffin, even going so far as to pull out some of Æthelthryth's linens. Outraged, she yanked her burial clothing back into the coffin and all the men involved died of plague, madness, or paralysis (LE 1.49). Æthelthryth, having died of plague herself, apparently had no qualms about passing it on. In another miracle story, a noble named Ingulf who had seized the lands of Ely found that he could neither eat nor drink, and he died of starvation along with his wife and child before his brother repented and returned the lands (LE 3.120). Æthelthryth had been known originally as a virgin. Because she had protected her body from sexual contact while alive, to the point that her corpse remained uncorrupt, it was logical step to ascribe miracle stories to the saint wherein she protected herself from depredation after death. After all, a saint who was able to maintain her chastity through two marriages would hardly permit Danes, priests or local nobles to defile her corpse. From these miracles in which Æthelthryth protects herself, it requires only another small step to extend her protection to the abbey as a whole, essentially making the monastery a physical extension of the actual saint. The monks at Ely were not especially original with their threatening stories and their history borrows some of the miracles practically verbatim from Libellus quorundam insignium operum beati Aethelwoldi episcope (Blake 1962, ix). However, they were clearly attempting to instill a sense of fear of the saint to the point of including a story describing a king's fear of the powerful saint. The author notes that when William the Conqueror visited Ely sometime around 1071 he stayed as far from Æthelthryth's relics as possible and tossed a gold coin onto the alter, "not daring to approach closer, for he feared to bring down on himself the judgment of God for the harm that his men had done in that place" (LE 2.111). The defense miracles show that Æthelthryth herself takes an interest in, and by extension blesses, the current residents of Ely.

§13.  The three types of miracles all serve the same purpose, albeit in different ways; all argue that the land should remain in the control of Ely. If the foundation of the original abbey was ordained by God, the twelfth century monks can claim that they, the current residents, still have divine favor as Æthelthryth's spiritual heirs. The assorted miracle stories could also subtly remind local landowners that the monks were the custodians of St. Æthelthryth's remains and that land belonging to the monastery was, in some sense, held in trust for the saint. Increasing Æthelthryth's power with new healing miracles made her a more desirable saint to venerate—which could include donations of land. Increasing her power with threatening miracles made her more dangerous to cross.

§14.  The author of the Liber Eliensis did not, however, just record new miracles. He also added one important detail to the story of Æthelthryth's life: a betrothal gift. Bede only states that she was made abbess in "a district called Ely" (HE 4.19). However, the Liber Eliensis claims that the lands were part of the saint's betrothal gift, Æthelthryth ". . .accepta iure dotis insula a Tomberto primo sponso suo" (LE prologue).7 Blake notes that this "must be a local tradition . . . for which there is no corroboration from an independent source" (1962, 4). However, there is some evidence that substantial gifts from bridegroom to bride were customary during the early Anglo-Saxon period. In Procopius' The History of the Wars, finished in 558, he tells the story of a political marriage in which an unnamed English princess formally accepts a betrothal to Radigis, prince of a nearby tribe, by accepting a large gift of gold from Radigis' father, King Hermegisclus (Procopius Wars 8.20). We see another example of the traditional bridal gift in an Anglo-Saxon maxim, which begins "A king shall buy his queen with goods, with beakers and bracelets" (Cyning sceal mid ceape cwene gebicgan, bunum ond beagum) (Maxims I-B ll). By explicitly bringing up Tondbert's gift of Ely, the Liber Eliensis clearly establishes that the lands belonged to Æthelthryth, a point that may have been too obvious for Bede to mention. However, because customs changed after the Norman Conquest, the monks at Ely in the twelfth century may have felt it necessary to emphasize that Æthelthryth owned the land and, thus, could will it as she pleased. Although property ownership was denied to Norman women, as Kathleen Herbert reminds us, early English wills, charters and suits "make it clear that females owned and disposed of their own property and estates" (1999, 13). Thus, using both a record of Tondbert's gift and the legal tradition that permitted Anglo-Saxon women to dispose of their own property, the monks at Ely could insist that they, as the current religious settlement at the site, were legally Æthelthryth's de facto heirs.

§15.  Possession of Æthelthryth's relics also served to reinforce the idea that the monks were her heirs. The argument went thus: if the land had indeed belonged solely to Æthelthryth she could dispose of it as she wished and as possessors of her body the current residents were clearly her heirs. They clearly added land to the monastery's holdings that were donated to St. Æthelthryth, as we see in the Liber Eliensis when King Edgar "gave Hatfield to St. Æthelthryth" (LE 2.7).8 In another instance "Æthelstanus, Mann's son, gave 100 acres in Walde to St. Æthelthryth when he died" (LE 2.13).9 Similar types of donations occurred at Cluny, where donations were made "quite straightforwardly" to St. Peter (Rosenwein 1989, 4).

§16.  Furthermore, that Æthelthryth does not permit her body to be moved, or even disturbed, by people not from Ely, indicates that she has chosen her resting place, and it is Ely. The later history of Ely certainly takes some pains to establish the continuity of the relics at Ely. The saint's uncorrupted, immovable body was a tangible symbol of the current residents' proprietorship. Indeed, Æthelthryth's most important donation to the new church, after the land upon which it was built, may well have been her body, for the respectability it could convey in the eyes of the local population and the link it provided to the Anglo-Saxon past. The second foundation at Ely also took control of the relics of Æthelthryth's immediate successors as well. According to the Liber Eliensis, Bishop Æthelwold translated the remains of St. Sexburga and St. Eormengilda to Ely (LE 2.53). Then, in 1106, Britnoth, the first abbot of the new Ely monastic house, essentially stole the remains of St. Wuthberga to join her mother, grandmother and great-aunt at Ely (LE 2.53). After emphasizing in various miracle stories Æthelthryth's refusal to be moved, that her successors do allow their bodies to be translated to Ely suggests their desire to return and gives their blessing to the current foundation at Ely. The monks could use this de facto blessing of the current monastery by its early abbesses to strengthen their spiritual claim to the site.

§17.  The possession of the relics was one tool the monks used to protect their rights to the land at Ely. Much of the latter portion of the Liber Eliensis addresses the regular court battles in which the monks of Ely engaged to preserve their holdings. Blake understates the matter elegantly when he notes in his Foreword "much litigation over the Ely lands arose after the death of Edgar" (1962, ix). In addition to conflicts with local landowners, the monks at Ely might have contended with competing religious groups, for although King Edgar (943–975) gave the land to Bishop Æthelwold, according to the anonymous Life of St. Oswald, Edgar also offered the land to Oswald. The Liber Eliensis grounds even the story of their re-foundation in a lawsuit and tells us that during King Edgar's reign (959–975) two different magnates claimed the Isle of Ely. The history of the relics enshrined there convinced the king that the land should be rededicated as a monastery for perpetual use by the church. Because of the relics, according to the Liber Eliensis, Edgar donated the land to Bishop Æthelwold and the church (LE 2.5).

§18.  Bede devotes a significant amount of time to Æthelthryth, indicating that she was, in some way, particularly important to him. She is the only woman for whom he composes a poem—even St. Hilda receives no versification. However, her function in his prose was simply that of a virtuous woman to serve as an example as the Church solidifies its hold on England. The twelfth century monks needed more. Embroiled in almost constant struggles to preserve their holdings, they drew up and developed Æthelthryth's cult as a valuable tool to help strengthen their link to the local culture. The twelfth century monks not only devote the first section of their cathedral history to Æthelthryth's life, but they also return to her later in their history, portraying her as both a recipient of land donations and as a defender of their rights. The Liber Eliensis emphasizes Æthelthryth's claim to the land, ties the current holdings to her via both legal and spiritual inheritance, and enhances the miracle stories. It seems likely that the author of the Liber Eliensis included the expanded version of Æthelthryth's life in order to accommodate the political and economic conditions several hundred years after the saint herself had died.


1.  St. Agatha was martyred for steadfast profession of faith in approximately 250. According to legend, she was put to death at the end of a series of brutal tortures that included the removal of her breasts. St. Eulalia, the patron saint of Barcelona, was martyred in Spain during the persecution of Diocletian (c. 304). St. Thecla was an Anglo-Saxon saint who lived, and later ruled, in an abbey in Germany. St. Euphemia and her companions suffered martyrdom at Chalcedon, probably under Galerius (305-11). The Council of Chalcedon (451) was held in her church. St. Agnes was one of the most venerated virgin saints of the early church; she died during the persecution of Diocletian, c. 304. St. Cecilia's death date is unclear, but her feast was already being celebrated in the fourth century.  [Back]

2.  In Women of Grace: A Biographical Dictionary of British Saints, Martyrs and Reformers, Kathleen Parbury claims that thirty-four women living during the seventh century became recognized as saints. Twenty-one of these can be connected in an elaborate family tree that traces marriages among the ruling families of East Anglia, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. These include, along with Æthelthryth, Aelfflaed, Ceunburga, Cuthberga, Domneva, Eadburga, Eanfled, Eanswitha, Earcengota, Ebba, Ermengytha, Ermenilda, Ethelburga of Faremoutier-in-Brie, Ethelburga of Lyminge, Hilda, Milburga, Mildgytha, Mildred, Sexburga, Werburga and Wuthburga. Women from another group were not royal, but nevertheless were connected to wealth and power: St. Winefride, who was Welsh; St. Ethelburga of Barking and St. Hildelith, who had close connections with St. Eorconwald, Bishop of London from 675-686; St. Bees, the daughter of an Irish king, who moved to England and who may be synonymous with St. Hieu; and St. Pega, who was distantly connected to the Mercian noble house through her father, Penwahl. Of the rest we either know very little: Amabilis, Bugga, Cuthswith, Cwenburgh, Ecgburga, Frideswide, Hereburg and Osythe (Parbury 1985).  [Back]

3.  . . . the signs of her feet going up and coming down were marked into the rocks of the mountain, just as in hot wax, and they are displayed even now as praise to our lord, Jesus Christ.  [Back]

4.  . . . she found that her journey staff, which she had thrust earlier into the dry ground by her head and had fixed for a long time, now had blossomed a covering with green bark and had brought forth leaves.  [Back]

5.  Out of the place in which the body of this maiden was first buried, a spring of the clearest water rose, and even into eternity it shall not cease to flow. If anyone drank out of it in a draught, or was sprinkled with water from that spring, they were said to recover into pristine vigor.  [Back]

6.  . . . he did not fear to investigate the incorrupt body and the maidenly treasure. The stone of the tomb was wholly struck through by the power of the sword…The strikes were multiplied, an opening was made, and that remaining was opened all the way. By which deed, there was no postponing of heavenly vengeance, but immediately, with his eyes having been divinely torn away from his head, he ended his sacrilegious life in that place.  [Back]

7.  . . .having accepted by the law of the marriage portion the island from Tondbert, her first spouse.  [Back]

8.  dedit sancta Ætheldrethe Helfelde  [Back]

9.  Æthelstanus, filius Manne, dum moreretur, dedit sancta Ætheldrethe c acras in Walde.  [Back]

Works Cited

Aelfric. 1881. Saint Aethelthryth, virgin. In Aelfric's lives of the saints, Vol I. Ed. Walter W. Skeat. London: Early English Text Society.  [Back]

Bede. 1990. Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Trans. Leo Shirley Price. Revisions by R.E. Latham. New York: Penguin.  [Back]

Blake, E. O. 1962. Liber Eliensis. London: Royal Historical Society.  [Back]

Goscelin. 1887. The Life of Saint Werburge of Chester. Ed. Carl Hostmann. Trans. Henry Bradshaw. London: Early English Text Society.  [Back]

Herbert, Kathleen. 1999. Peace-weavers & shield maidens: Women in early English society. Norfolk, England: Anglo-Saxon Books.  [Back]

Parbury, Kathleen. 1985. Women of grace: A biographical dictionary of British saints, martyrs and reformers. Boston: Oriel.  [Back]

Procopius. 1914. History of the Wars. Ed. & trans. H. B. Dewing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  [Back]

Ridyard, Susan J. 1988. The royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  [Back]

Rodrigues, Louis, trans. 1999. Anglo-Saxon verse charms, maxims and heroic legends. Lampeter, Wales: Llanerch Press.  [Back]

Rosenwein, Barbara H. 1989. To be the neighbor of St. Peter: The social meaning of Cluny's property, 909-1049. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.  [Back]