Venerable Etheldreda, Abbess of Ely

An Orthodox icon of St. Etheldreda of Ely
An Orthodox icon of St. Etheldreda of Ely
Etheldreda (Aethelthryth, Audrey) is the most
venerated English female saint. The main sources of
her life are the Venerable
Bede of Jarrow who speaks about Etheldreda in his
History of the English Church and People, Abbot
Aelfric of Eynsham who wrote about her in the late
tenth century, and Goscelin who composed her Life in
1082. There were accounts of her life in Old and
Middle English, Latin and even Old French. Apart from
this, there are numerous annals, chronicles
(including the chronicle of Ely Cathedral) and early
calendars which mention her.

The future saint was born early in the 630s in the kingdom
of East Anglia and was a daughter of the pious King Anna,
who ruled from 634 till 654. Her birthplace was probably
in Exning which is now a village in the county of Suffolk.
Her father, King Anna, was responsible for the spread of
Orthodoxy and formation of Church life in his kingdom
(East Anglia comprised Norfolk, Suffolk and eastern parts
of Cambridgeshire). Under his influence the rulers of the
kingdoms of Wessex and Essex converted to Orthodoxy and
were baptized; through his holy children this influence
stretched even to Northumbria, Mercia and Kent. King Anna
is first of all notable for his six devout children,
all of whom are listed among the saints. These were:

St. Jurmin (either his son or nephew; slain by pagans in
654; feast: February 23); St. Sethrid (+ 660, she moved to
Gaul where she became Abbess of Faremoutiers-en-Brie;
feast: January 10); St. Ethelburgh (+ 664, became abbess
of the same monastery in Gaul, feast: July 7); St.
Sexburga (+ c. 700, married the King of Kent, becoming a
mother to two other saints, founded the Monastery of
Minster-in-Sheppey in Kent and eventually served as Abbess
of Ely; feast: July 6); St. Etheldreda—the greatest
of them; and St Withburgh (+ c. 743, an anchoress in
Holkham and foundress of East Dereham Convent in Norfolk).

Little is known of St. Etheldreda’s early years.
Possibly in her youth her spiritual mentor was the saintly
Bishop Felix who had come from Burgundy as a missionary
and became the Apostle of the East Angles. She led a holy
life and made a vow of chastity at a very young age. She
entrusted her life to the hands of God and patiently
waited for the time when she would become a nun. In 652
she had to marry Tondberht, ealdorman of the south Gyrwas
in the Fens region. The saint received from him as a dowry
the Isle of Ely (at that time, Elge) on the border of East
Anglia in present-day Cambridgeshire. The name
“Elge” means “the district of
eels” because many eels inhabited that fenland
region. Some researchers believe that the Lord predestined
a great future for this place from the beginning.

Although she married, St. Etheldreda remained a virgin.
Her husband respected her celibacy and died in 655, after
three years of marriage. Nearly at the same time the
heroic king Anna, father of Etheldreda, was killed by the
pagan king Penda of Mercia. For the following five years
St. Etheldreda retired to the Isle of Ely where she lived
as an ascetic and anchoress amid the ruins of an old
church, devoting most of her time to prayer. But the time
for her to become a nun was still not ripe.

In 660, for political reasons Etheldreda had to marry
again—this time to Egfrith, the young king of Deira
and (from 670) of Northumbria, who was then fifteen years
old and much younger than her. Thus Etheldreda became
Queen of Northumbria. This marriage was aimed at
strengthening relationships between the kingdoms of East
Anglia and Northumbria. The saint treated him as a son or
a younger brother rather than a husband. She taught him
the Word of God, helped him grow spiritually and live in
piety. Egfrith admired Etheldreda and regarded her as a
saint; he learned wisdom from her and helped her in her
works of mercy. Etheldreda, as ever, devoted her energies
to the service of Christ. She communicated often with the
clergy, inviting the most learned and godly priests and
bishops to the court.

Among them were St. Cuthbert
of Lindisfarne, “the Wonderworker of all
England”, and St. Wilfrid of York, “the
Apostle of Sussex”—her close friend and
spiritual mentor. It was Queen Etheldreda who helped St.
Wilfrid found his famous Hexham Monastery in Northumbria
by donating lands and it was she who helped him to bring
the Good News of Christ to the Kingdom of South
Saxons—the last early English kingdom to become
Christian. Etheldreda was a generous benefactor also to
the monastery ruled by St. Cuthbert; she embroidered for
Cuthbert a stole and liturgical cuffs with great
craftsmanship. She also visited the Monastery of Whitby
high on a cliff in Northumbria, ruled by her illustrious
relative St. Hilda. Twelve years passed.

King Egfrith was no more a boy, but a man, and his former
attachment and admiration for Etheldreda grew into love.
So he began to demand that their marriage be consummated.
The saint avoided it. She enlisted the support of St.
Wilfrid of York. The king wanted to bribe the bishop, but
in vain. In 672 St. Etheldreda fled from her husband to
Coldingham—another monastery situated high on a
cliff in Northumbria (now across the border with Scotland)
which was ruled by her husband’s aunt, St. Ebbe.
There Etheldreda spent a year and it was there that St.
Wilfrid tonsured her a nun. (Egfrith soon remarried and
St. Wilfrid was consequently expelled from Northumbria).

Fearing that the husband would come and take her by force,
in 673 Etheldreda left Coldingham monastery disguised as a
beggar accompanied by two nuns and went south. During
their journey the Lord assisted them by performing
miracles. Some scenes from those miracles are depicted in
sculptures and stained glass windows in English cathedrals
to this day. Here are some of those miracles:

King Egfrith ordered his soldiers to bring Etheldreda back
home. On the first day the soldiers nearly caught the
fugitives, but the virgin hid on the promontory of
Colbert’s Head. Suddenly a strong tide appeared
which cut the promontory off the coast and barred the
pursuers’ way. Egfrith decided to wait for the water
to subside, but it did not subside for seven days;
Etheldreda and her companions spent all that time in
prayer. Only then did Egfrith understand that the Lord
Himself was helping Etheldreda and it pleased Him that she
be among holy nuns; so he stopped pursuing her and agreed
to annul their marriage.

According to tradition, during their journey a holy spring
gushed forth by Etheldreda’s feet through her

One day the weather was very hot. Etheldreda felt that she
was very exhausted. There was no shelter to hide from the
sun. The saint stuck her staff to the ground and lay down
in the boiling sun. When she woke up she noticed that the
staff had turned into a mighty green tree.

The sisters walked day and night and at last reached the
Isle of Ely, so dear to Etheldreda’s heart. The soil
there was fertile and it could provide food for up to 600
families. The marshes that surrounded it served as an
effective protection. In the same year Etheldreda founded
a double monastery there with communities for monks and
nuns, who lived separately but prayed together in the
common church. At that time such monasteries existed in
Whitby, Coldingham—mentioned above—and in many
other places. Etheldreda became the first Abbess of Ely.
The monastery was situated on the site of the present Ely
Cathedral. Prayer, taking Communion, meekness and charity
were the most essential elements of the Christian life for

Abbess Etheldreda gave up wearing garments of thin linen
cloth and wore only those of woolen cloth. At that time in
England it was the custom to take hot baths, but
Etheldreda despite her royal origins preferred to bathe
only in cold water, allowing herself hot water only on the
feasts of Easter, Pentecost and the Baptism of the Lord.
But even on these festivals she showed true humility and
used the water left after other sisters. The holy woman
ate only once a day and kept this rule throughout the
year, breaking it only during illness or on great
festivals. Very often she stayed up for the whole night,
fervently praying in church on her knees right till the
morning. She lived very modestly and in solitude. Many of
her friends, relatives and former courtiers followed her
example and chose the path of monasticism and service to
God. Some of them remained at her monastery or entrusted
their daughters to her loving care. Many of the faithful
and even clergy flocked to her for advice and asked her to
become their spiritual mother. St. Etheldreda’s
confessor at the monastery was the saintly hieromonk Huna
(+ c. 690, feast: February 13) who later lived as a hermit
near Chatteris in Cambridgeshire.

St. Etheldreda died of the plague on June 23 (according to
the old calendar) 679 after some six years as abbess.
Shortly before her repose a large tumor appeared on her
neck which was very painful. The saint bore the pain with
humility and explained it as Divine punishment for her
pride in her young years when she used to wear luxurious
necklaces. The monastery doctor removed her tumor, the
pain disappeared but several days later all returned
again. According to tradition, St. Etheldreda had the gift
of prophecy. Thus, she predicted the coming of the plague
beforehand and foretold that she would die from this
plague. St. Etheldreda’s sister, St. Sexburga,
became her successor as Abbess of Ely. Sixteen years

In 695 Sexburga decided to exhume her sister’s body
from the grave. To the great amazement of Sexburga and
everybody who was present at the ceremony, the relics of
St. Etheldreda appeared to be absolutely incorrupt. More
than that, the scar from the tumor had completely
disappeared. The saint’s face looked fresh and
young. The linen cloth in which her body was wrapped
remained absolutely intact as well. The holy body of the
abbess was laid in a marble coffin of Roman work with a
stone lid that had been miraculously found by the brethren
at Grantchester and perfectly fitted her. On October 17,
696, the relics of Etheldreda were solemnly translated
into the monastery church for veneration. Numerous
miracles occurred through her intercession.

A stained glass window of St. Etheldreda
A stained glass window of St. Etheldreda
received help not only at her shrine with the relics,
but also from her linen cloth (mentioned above) and
the wooden coffin from her grave. Among those healed
were many demoniacs, sufferers from headache, from
throat and neck diseases, blindness and poor sight.
Very rapidly she became one of the most celebrated
early English saints: a virgin, a queen, an
anchoress, an abbess and mentor, a wonderworker. The
Venerable Bede half a century after the saint’s
death composed a special hymn in praise of virginity
which was dedicated to Etheldreda.

Pilgrims came to venerate St. Etheldreda’s shrine at
Ely throughout the Middle Ages. No fewer than thirteen
ancient churches were dedicated to her in various regions
of England. The double monastery founded by Etheldreda was
ravaged by the Danes in 870 and was restored exactly one
hundred years later by the holy right-Believing King Edgar
the Peaceful and the holy Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester
as a monastery for men. Monastic life there prospered for
many centuries, and at one time Ely became the largest and
wealthiest monastic community in the whole country after
Glastonbury. Early in the eleventh century the town of Ely
was famous for the school of embroidery and the making of
necklaces, under the protection of King Canute and Queen

After the Norman Conquest, Ely for a time became the
center of national resistance to the invading
Normans—St. Etheldreda thus remained a uniting and
inspiring figure of the English nation against occupants.
She remained such until the Reformation. There were many
recorded cases of miracles of St. Etheldreda protecting
her people, her monastery and town from disasters and
enemies of all kinds. Soon common folk began to call St.
Etheldreda by her short name Audrey. This became one of
the most popular female names in England and it is still a
baptismal name for girls in England and several other
countries. Interestingly, a word in the English language
owes its origin to our saint. Some 500 years ago there
used to be a St. Audrey’s Fair in Ely where
fashionable necklaces of silk and lace were sold; they
were called “tawdry laces”—a corruption
of “Audrey’s laces”. But they were often
of such poor quality that the word “tawdry”
derived its modern meaning; that is, something cheap and
showing lack of taste.

The building of a Norman monastery at Ely began in about
1081. The edifice became known as an excellent example of
the Romanesque style. Early in the twelfth century Ely
became an episcopal see—the status it retains to
this day. In 1106 a translation of the relics of four
great Ely saints—Etheldreda, Sexburga, Ermengild and
Withburgh took place and the relics of Sts. Etheldreda and
Withburgh appeared to be absolutely incorrupt. Another
translation of St. Etheldreda’s relics took place in
1252 when the cathedral was consecrated—it was
dedicated to St. Peter and St. Etheldreda. Ely Cathedral
is mentioned in many works of English literature. Thus, in
the play The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
the shepherd promises the shepherdess Mopsa to bring her
lace from Ely.

In 1531 the Bishop of Ely arranged a sumptuous reception
for King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of
Aragon. The feast lasted five days, but it was clouded
because the king and the queen dined in separate rooms. It
was the first sign that Henry was going to divorce…
Soon the Reformation followed. The bloody reformers looted
Ely Cathedral’s treasures and jewels. The shrines of
all its saints, including St. Etheldreda, were destroyed,
and their relics burned, dozens of its unique sculptures
were decapitated or smashed. However, some relics of St.
Etheldreda did survive.

Ely Monastery ceased to exist and since that time it has
been used as an Anglican Cathedral. Etheldreda is usually
represented in art as an abbess, crowned, with a pastoral
staff and a book in her hands, with two does, sleeping
under a blossoming tree, holding a model of Ely Monastery,
expelling the devil, with a book and a lily, with a spring
gushing at her feet. To this day some English Christians
venerate St. Etheldreda as a protectress of chastity,
widows, healer of throat diseases as well as the patroness
of Cambridge University. Now let us talk about the
surviving ancient shrines associated with St. Etheldreda.

St. Etheldreda's Church in Ely Place, London (taken from
St. Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place, London (taken from
Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place, Holborn,
. Holborn is situated close to the
center of London and is one of the capital’s
oldest streets. It derived its name from a river that
once flowed there. Court officers, jewelers and
others settled in Holborn, but the most famous is
Charles Dickens who described the area in his novels.
Holborn has many architectural monuments, but its
real gem is St. Etheldreda’s Church in Ely
Place which is the oldest Catholic building in
Britain now in use and one of only two surviving
London buildings dating back to Edward I. The church
consists of an upper chapel and the crypt or lower
chapel. The church was built in 1250-1290 and for
centuries was part of the complex of the palace of
the Bishops of Ely in London.

William Shakespeare mentions this palace in his plays
Richard II and Richard III. Beautiful orchards and
vineyards were located near. The bishops distributed food
to 400 poor people every day. In 1534, by order of Henry
VIII, the chapel in Holborn was closed. Catholic services
were prohibited in England till 1829. For some while the
chapel was used as a tavern, and after the Civil War
– as a prison and hospital. In the 1620s it was
given to the Spanish ambassador and Catholic masses
resumed, but only for two years. A miracle occurred in
1666 during the Great Fire of London: when the fire
approached the church of St. Etheldreda, the wind changed
direction and the church remained intact.

In the 1770s the church was restored in the Georgian style
and used for Anglican worship. In the 1820s the church was
transferred to an Irish community and later to Welsh
Anglicans. Finally, in 1874 the church was purchased by a
Catholic priest of the Rosminian order, its original
appearance was restored by the architect George Gilbert
Scott and Catholic services resumed. With time part of the
hand relic of St. Etheldreda was given to the church and
it is kept there to this day in a jeweled casket in the
niche of the eastern wall, to the right of the high altar.

The reliquary containing a small portion of St. Etheldreda's relics, kept at St. Etheldreda's Church in Ely Place, London
The reliquary containing a small portion of St. Etheldreda’s relics, kept at St. Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place, London

During the Blitz in 1941 the church roof was damaged and
Victorian stained glass destroyed, but the church was
restored rapidly. This wonderful church with its history
and atmosphere is very fine both inside and out. It is the
only church in London which has the relics of an ancient
national saint. Apart from the saint’s relics the
following monuments are in this church: statues of
Catholic martyrs who suffered under Henry VIII and
Elizabeth I; the great east window (probably the largest
stained glass in London and depicting the Holy Trinity,
Mary with Joseph, angels, the Evangelists, the Last
Supper, Sts. Etheldreda and Brigid); the west window; the
statue of Etheldreda above her relics.

St. Etheldreda's RC Church in Ely (photo from
St. Etheldreda’s RC Church in Ely (photo from

The Catholic Church of St. Etheldreda in
This church is just over one hundred years
old. It is situated not far from the Cathedral. This
church houses one of the most precious surviving relics of
the early English Church: the incorrupt left hand of St.
Etheldreda. The fact is that a portion of the
saint’s relics was separated from the main body long
before the Reformation and kept elsewhere (Durham, York,
Salisbury Cathedrals, Glastonbury Abbey all claimed parts
of her relics). In 1811 this relic was discovered in a
farmhouse near the town of Arundel in West Sussex which
was a hiding place for a recusant Catholic family; the
relic had been carefully preserved by family members for
years. That part of Sussex was a center of Catholic
resistance to the established Church. The hand was found
on a silver plate of the tenth-century style with an
inscription indicating what a relic it is and to whom it
belongs. Later the relic was transferred to the estate of
the Duke of Norfolk and then to Dominican Sisters at Stone
in Staffordshire.

In 1953 the relic was given to the Catholic church of Ely
where it can be venerated by pilgrims (a piece of the hand
was also donated to St. Etheldreda’s Catholic Church
in Ely Place, London). According to an earlier
description, the hand was of white color with
perfectly-preserved skin and fingers. Not long ago it was
reported that the color turned to brown due to air
conditions but the hand is still practically intact. It is
housed in a glass reliquary inside the church and a modern
statue of the saint is nearby. The stained glass window
behind the high altar depicts St. Wilfrid, the Mother of
God and St. Etheldreda. The church is a destination for

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire
Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire
The Holy Trinity
Ely Cathedral.
The magnificent tall Ely
Cathedral dominates the town of Ely and its
surroundings. It is locally nicknamed “the ship
of the Fens”. Ely ceased to be an isle long
ago; all the marshes were drained, though the site is
still rather isolated. The sense of holiness is
present there. The Cathedral dates mainly to the
twelfth century. Both the Cathedral exterior and
interior are light and elegant. Its length is 164
meters (537 feet) making it one of the longest
English cathedrals. Unfortunately, it houses no
saints’ relics as all of them were destroyed
under Henry VIII.In fact the last abbot and the
brethren of Ely Monastery were sympathetic to the
ideas of the Reformation, as was Bishop Thomas
Goodrich, whose grave (by irony) survives in the
Cathedral to this day undamaged. It was he who issued
the main Reformation decree which said that all the
images, relics, monuments of miracles, and shrines
must be totally demolished so that no traces or
memory of them should be found for the future.
However, several interesting monuments inside the
Cathedral can nevertheless be found. A stone of black
marble at the presbytery—between the high altar
and the choir—marks the site of the former
shrine of St. Etheldreda. An inscription reads:
“Here stood the shrine of Etheldreda, saint and
queen, who founded this house 673 A.D.”.

The site of the shrine of St. Etheldreda inside Ely Cathedral
The site of the shrine of St. Etheldreda inside Ely Cathedral

St. Owin (Owen) of Lichfield
St. Owin (Owen) of Lichfield
south aisle contains a memorial to another
saint—St. Owin (Owen) of Lichfield (+ c. 680,
feast: March 4). He was a faithful steward of St.
Etheldreda when she was a queen. Later he became a
simple monk and disciple of St. Chad of Lichfield.
This eighth-century Cathedral’s oldest monument
is called “the Owin stone”; it is the
base of a memorial cross in honor of this saint. The
inscription here reads: “To Owin give Thy
light, O Lord, and rest, amen.”

There is a more recent chapel of St. Etheldreda with her
statue at the east end of the Cathedral, beneath the great
east window. The impressive fourteenth-century lantern
tower of the Cathedral uniquely has windows on all sides
(another and the higher tower in the Cathedral is the west
tower). The Lady Chapel is the largest in England. It is
also very bright due to its huge windows and contains a
large number of fine fourteenth-century statues. Off the
south aisle is the ancient prior’s door which has a
rare twelfth-century carving of Christ in Majesty. The
cathedral has sculptures depicting scenes from the life of
St. Etheldreda, many Victorian stained glass windows, St.
Edmund’s Chapel with a depiction of his martyrdom,
the modern Chapel of Sts. Ethelwold and Dunstan used for
quiet prayer and many other treasures. Near the entrance
to the Cathedral there is a stained glass museum which
displays examples of stained glass from the thirteenth
century to present day. The Cathedral is visited by tens
of thousands of pilgrims annually.

Church of St. Etheldreda in Horley, Oxon (taken from
Church of St. Etheldreda in Horley, Oxon (taken from

St. Etheldreda's Church in Hatfield, Hertfordshire (taken from
St. Etheldreda’s Church in Hatfield, Hertfordshire (taken from

St. Etheldreda's Church in West Halton, Lincolnshire
St. Etheldreda’s Church in West Halton, Lincolnshire

Among Anglican parish churches dedicated to St. Etheldreda
let us mention the following: St. Etheldreda’s
Church in the village of Guilsborough in Northamptonshire
(the church is Norman with some traces of the Saxon
period; it may have been founded by St. Wilfrid to whom it
was originally dedicated, but has been unusually
rededicated in honor of his spiritual friend St.
Etheldreda since then—both saints are depicted on a
stained glass window there); the twelfth-century St.
Etheldreda’s Church in the village of Horley near
the town of Banbury in Oxfordshire; St. Etheldreda’s
Church in Fulham, Greater London; the Church of St.
Etheldreda in the village of Hatfield near the town with
the same name in Hertfordshire (it is of the thirteenth
century though a church may have existed here earlier; a
palace and residence of Bishops of Ely was once located
nearby); the late seventeenth-century Church of St.
Etheldreda in the village of West Halton near the Humber
estuary in Lincolnshire; the pretty Church of St.
Etheldreda of pre-Norman origin in the hamlet of White
Notley in Essex (some of its fabric is Roman; a window
depicting the saint is medieval); the Church of Sts.
Philip and Etheldreda in Exning in Suffolk at the
saint’s supposed birthplace (this was the chapel
attached to an old workhouse—the only surviving
workhouse chapel in Suffolk); the Church of St. Etheldreda
in the village of Hyssington in the Welsh county of Powys
near the Shropshire border (it is of Saxon origin).
Formerly there used to be churches of St. Etheldreda in
the city of Norwich in Norfolk (now redundant) and in the
village of Queen Adelaide in Cambridgeshire.

St. Etheldreda's Church in White Notley, Essex (photo from
St. Etheldreda’s Church in White Notley, Essex (photo from

RC Church of Sts. Joseph and Etheldreda in Rugeley, Staffs (photo from
RC Church of Sts. Joseph and Etheldreda in Rugeley, Staffs (photo from

There are Catholic churches in honour of Our Lady and St.
Etheldreda in Newmarket in Suffolk, in honor of Sts.
Joseph and Etheldreda in Rugeley in Staffordshire and
others. St. Etheldreda is commemorated on stained glass,
in sculptures, carvings, effigies, and statues in many
churches and cathedrals across England. Her icons can be
found in Orthodox parishes.

Holy Mother Etheldreda, pray to God for us!

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