Sunday, November 27, 2011

St. Werburgh and Chester Cathedral

Following up on the surrender of Fountains Abbey, let's look at the Chester Abbey church that became Chester Cathedral in 1541. It was surrendered in January of 1540. The church at Chester had been famed as the site of St. Werburgh's tomb. St. Werburgh was a seventh century royal Benedictine abbess. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912, she was

born in Staffordshire early in the seventh century; died at Trentham, 3 February, 699or 700. Her mother was St. Ermenilda, daughter of Ercombert, King of Kent, and St. Sexburga, and her father, Wulfhere, son of Penda the fiercest of the Mercian kings. St. Werburgh thus united in her veins the blood of two very different races: one fiercely cruel and pagan; the other a type of gentle valour and Christian sanctity. In her, likewise, centred the royal blood of all the chief Saxon kings, while her father on the assassination of his elder brother Peada, who had been converted to Christianity, succeeded to the largest kingdom of the heptarchy. . . . On account of her beauty and grace the princess was eagerly sought in marriage, chief among her suitors being Werebode, a headstrong warrior, to whom Wulfhere was much indebted; but the constancy of Werbrugh overcame all obstacles so that at length she obtained her father's consent to enter the Abbey of Ely, which had been founded by her great- aunt, St. Etheldra, and the fame of which was widespread.

When her uncle Ethelred succeeded to the throne, he asked St. Werburgh to take on a great challenge:

This king invited St. Werburgh to assume the direction of all the monasteries of nuns in his dominion, in order that she might bring them to that high level of discipline and perfection which had so often edified him at Ely. The saint with some difficulty consented to sacrifice the seclusion she prized, and undertook the work of reforming the existing Mercian monasteries, and of founding new ones which King Ethelred generously endowed, namely, Trentham and Hanbury, in Staffordshire, and Weedon, in Northamptonshire. It had been the privilege of St. Werburgh to be trained by saints; at home by St. Chad (afterwards Bishop of Lichfield), and by her mother, and in the cloister by her aunt and grandmother. Her position worked no change in the humility which had always characterized her, so that in devotedness to all committed to her care she seemed rather the servant than the mistress. Her sole thought was to excel her sisters in the practice of religious perfection. God rewarded her childlike trust by many miracles, which have made St. Werburgh one of the best known and loved of the Saxon saints.

After her death:

So numerous and marvellous were the cures worked at the saint's tomb that in 708 her body was solemnly translated to a more conspicuous place in the church, in the presence of her brother, Kenred, who had now succeeded King Ethelred. In spite of having been nine years in the tomb, the body was intact. So great was the impression made on Kenred that he resolved to resign his crown and followed in his sister's footsteps. In 875, through fear of the Danes and in order to show greater honour to the saint, the body was removed to Chester. The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, on the site of the present cathedral of Chester, was rededicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald, most probably in the reign of Athelstan. The great Leofric, Earl of Mercia (who was likewise styled Earl of Chester), and his wife, Lady Godiva, repaired and enlarged the church, and in 1093, Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, richly endowed the abbey and its church. By the instrumentality of this noble, Chester, which had been in the hands of secular canons, became a great Benedictine abbey, the name of St. Anselm, then a monk at Bee, being associated with this transformation.

Her shrine, of course, was demolished and her remains scattered with the dissolution of the abbey. According to the wikipedia article (source of the image above), Chester Cathedral is a magnificent Norman/Gothic structure. It was, however, one of those cathedrals that suffered much damage, especially to its stained glass, from Parliamentary troops in the English Civil War. St. Werburgh is still the patron saint of Chester, and this site provides some detail of her reconstructed shrine.

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