Thursday, June 23, 2011

St. Etheldreda, Anglo-Saxon Princess and Abbess

June 23 is the memorial of St. Etheldreda aka St. Audrey. According to this website, she was:

Sister of Saint Jurmin. Relative of King Anna of East Anglia, England. Princess. Widowed after three years marriage; rumor had it that the marriage was never consumated as Etheldrda had taken a vow of perpetual virginity. She married again for political reasons. Her new husband knew of her vow, but grew tired of living as brother and sister, and began to make advances on her; she refused him. He tried to bribe the local bishop, St. Wilfrid of York, to release her from her vow; Wilfried refused, and instead helped Audrey escape to a promontory called Colbert’s Head. A high tide then came in – and stayed high for seven days; it kept her separated from her husband and was considered divine intervention. The young man gave up; the marriage was annulled, and Audrey took the veil. She spent a year with her neice, Saint Ebbe the Elder. Founded the great abbey of Ely, where she lived an austere life.

Etheldreda died of an enormous and unsightly tumor on her neck. She gratefully accepted this as Divine retribution for all the necklaces she had worn in her early years.

In the Middle Ages, a festival called Saint Audrey’s Fair, was held at Ely on her feast day. The exceptional shodiness of the merchandise, especially the neckerchiefs, contributed to the English language the word tawdry, a corruption of Saint Audrey.

Her connection to the English Reformation is St. Etheldreda's at Ely Place in London. Along the North and South walls of the Upper Church are eight statues of the English Martyrs, featured in the church's website gallery.

The Church of England also honors St. Etheldreda, and Ely Cathedral, one of those monastic establishments transformed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, celebrates her memory, even though her shrine was destroyed in 1541.

Father Dwight Longenecker tells the story, possibly apocryphal, about Queen Elizabeth II visiting Cambridgeshire: "on a tour of the cathedral [she] met the crusty Irish priest of the little Catholic Church. She asked him if it wouldn’t be a 'nice gesture' to return the hand of St Etheldreda to the cathedral and he asked her if it wouldn't be a nice gesture for her to return the cathedral to the Catholic church." If it is apocryphal, that's too bad: it should be true!

More from The Catholic Herald.


  1. If the queen had offered, the crusty little priest would have bitten her hand off.

  2. Sorry, bit obscure I guess. To bite the hand off, an expression used in Ireland - what a hungry dog will do when offered food.

  3. Oh--see, I was comparing to this quote: "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man." - Mark Twain