Saint Etheldreda, Abbess

June 23

Today is the feast day of Saint Etheldreda.  Ora pro nobis. 

She was known as both Etheldreda and Audrey.   She was born the daughter of a king in about 630 in Northumbria and was brought up in the fear of God. Her mother Bertha and sisters are also numbered among the Saints: Erconwald, Ethelburga, Sexburga, and Withburga.  Etheldreda was married at an early age to Tonbert, prince of the Gryvii.  She convinced him to allow her to retain her virginity during their married life. He died three years after their wedding, and Etheldreda lived in seculsion on the island of Ely for the next five years. (2)

She then married Egfrid, son of King Oswy of Northumbria, who was only a boy at the time. When, after twelve years of marriage, he demanded his conjugal rights.  She refused, saying she had dedicated herself to God. The case was referred to St. Wilfrid, who upheld her claim. As soon as Etheldreda had left the court of her spouse, he repented of having consented to her departure.  He followed her, meaning to bring her back by force. She took refuge on a headland on the southern coast near Coldingham.  Here a miracle took place, for the waters forced a passage and hemmed in the hill with morasses, barring the further advance of the king. The Saint remained in this island refuge for seven days.   Her royal spouse, recognizing the divine will, agreed to leave her in peace.  She returned to Ely, built a double monastery there about 672. 

Not only holy and a model of virtue in shepherding her people to the Lord, Etheldreda also was graced with the gift of prophecy. Most notable of her prophecies was that of her own death by plague, and the exact number of her monks and nuns who would be carried off by the same epidemic. True to her prophesy, Etheldreda died of a quinsy, a form of plague which led to the development of a large tumor upon her neck. Etheldreda, never complaining about the pain or the sight of the growth, regarded is as a punishment for her former love of fine clothing, and, in particular, for having worn jewels on her neck.

She was abbess of the convent for the rest of her life, and died in her convent in Ely.  (2)

Seventeen years after her death, Saint Wilfrid and Saint Etheldreda’s physician discovered her body to be incorrupt. (3)

Unfortunately, the tomb of Saint Etheldreda was desecrated during the English Reformation, with only the incorrupt hand of the blessed saint surviving. Her relics remain at St Etheldreda’s Roman Catholic church at Ely, where many miracles have been reported through her intercession. (3)

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