Saint Werburgh, Abbess

February 3

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

Saint Werburgh (Werburga) was born in Staffordshire early in the seventh century.  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 valor and Christian sanctity. In her, likewise, centered 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. (1)

Werburgh inherited her mother’s temperament and gifts.  (1)

Legend says that Wulfhere wished to promote a marriage between his daughter, Werburgh, and Werbode, a powerful heathen thane and great military leader, to whose brilliant services he was much indebted. However, Werburgh’s brothers, Wulfad and Rufinus, objected to their sister marrying a heathen. Unable to defeat their opposition, Werbode poisoned the King’s mind against his sons and obtained his authority to have them arrested for treason. Wulfhere too hastily accepted the fabricated evidence and the guiltless young men were condemned to death. No sooner were they executed than the king saw, with futile clearness, the conspiracy and treachery of which he had been the dupe. Werburgh found herself set free from the Royal command to marry a heathen and, thus emboldened, she persuaded her father to never again speak of giving her to any mortal husband. She would suffer her to mourn in cloister the crime to which he had consented and of which she was the cause. (2)

In AD 674 Wulfhere yielding to the wishes of his wife and daughter and probably supported by the counsels of St. Chad, consented with tears and regrets to part with his daughter, not to a warrior husband, but to Christ. It is probable that she was destined by her mother to be a nun and was educated as such. (2)

Wulfhere did not long survive his daughter’s consecration. On his death, St. Ermenilda took the veil at Ely, where she eventually succeeded her mother, St. Sexburga, as abbess. Kenred, Werburgh’s brother, being a mere child at his father’s death, his uncle Ethelred succeeded to the throne. 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. (1)

On the death of Sexburga, Ermengilda became third abbess of Ely and appointed her daughter Werburga to succeed her as Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet. When Ermengilda died, Werburga succeeded her as fourth Abbess of Ely.

Her father’s brother and successor, Aethelred, invited her to preside over the monasteries in his kingdom. She ruled over those of Weedon, Hanbury and Trentham. The church of St. John the Baptist at Chester was built for her, but it does not seem certain that she ever lived there. Once Werburga saw one of her overseers cruelly beating a man. She punished him by making his head turn right round on his shoulders. On his repentance, she prayed for him and his head returned to its proper position.

One of her most famous miracles occurred at Weedon. The lands around the monastery were infested by wild geese which devoured the crops and caused great damage. One day, when they were committing their usual depredations, Werburga drove them into a stable and left them shut up there all night. In the morning, when the door was opened, they came running to her as if asking leave to go away. She allowed them to depart in safety but charged them never again to come marauding about Weedon. They flew off, but when they had gone a short way, they returned and kept clamouring and fluttering about, until they made her understand that one of their number was nefariously detained. She found that one of her vassals had stolen and eaten the missing goose. She restored it to life and full plumage to its companions and the whole flock took their departure. No wild goose has ever dared to molest the agriculturists of Weedon since that day.

She died on 3rd February AD 699 at her own monastery of Trentham but the monks of Hanbury carried off her body to enrich their own church. In the ninth century, during the ravages of the Danes, the venerable body was removed for greater safety to the Church of SS. Peter and Paul in Chester. (2)

Image: Chester (England). Cathedral: Refectory – Eastern window (1916): Saint Werburga (detail). (3)

Research by REGINA Staff



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