|Died||June 23, 679
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church; Anglican Communion; Eastern Orthodoxy|
|Major shrine||St Etheldreda’s Church, Ely Place, Holborn, London; Originally Ely Cathedral (now destroyed)|
|Attributes||Abbess holding a model of Ely Cathedral|
Æthelthryth, or Æðelþryð, (c. 636-June 23, 679) is the proper name for the popular Anglo-Saxon saint often known, particularly in a religious context, as Etheldreda or by the pet form of Audrey (or variations). She was an East Anglian princess, a Fenland queen and Abbess of Ely in the English county of Cambridgeshire.
Although, for twelve years, Egfrith had been a mere humble adorer of his beautiful wife, he had, by now become a man – with manly desires. His affection had grown to a love which could no longer be satisfied with worship at a distance.
He had hitherto consented to let Etheldreda live in his house like a nun in her convent, but now he wanted, and even demanded, more. He entreated Wilfred to use his influence to induce his wife to become, in fact, what, as yet, she had been only in name.
He promised Wilfred great things for himself and for his churches, should he be able to persuade the Queen that her duty to God was her duty to her husband.
Wilfred feigned to enter into the King’s view of the matter, but, in fact, he steadfastly encouraged the Queen to persist in her celibate life and even advised her to ask permission to leave the court and become a nun. Egfrith never forgave him.
After many painful scenes, an unwilling consent was wrung from the King, no sooner given than repented. However, before he could give orders to the contrary, Etheldreda had fled to Coldingham beyond the Tweed, where Egfrith’s aunt, St. Aebbe the Elder, was abbess.
Egfrith found life intolerable without Etheldreda, and determined to bring her back with or without her consent.
St. Aebbe heartily sympathised with Etheldreda but, seeing that, should Egfrith insist on reclaiming his wife, resistance would be impossible, advised her to escape from Coldingham in the disguise of a beggar. Etheldreda did this, attended by two nuns of Coldingham, SS. Sewara and Sewenna.
She did not go to her own aunt’s sister, St. Hilda, at Whitby, as she would have opposed anything advised by Wilfred, but decided to go back to her own lands at Ely. Many stories are told of her adventures on the journey, and they have often been the subject of sculpture and painted glass in the English monastic churches.
On the first day of her flight, Etheldreda was all but overtaken by her husband.
She arrived at a headland, Colbert’s Head, jutting into the sea, and her pious intention was protected by the tide, which at once rose to an unusual height around the rock, making the place inaccessible to her pursuers.
Egfrith resolved to wait till the ebbing waters should leave the path open to him, but instead of going down in a few hours, the waters remained at high tide for seven days.
The baffled pursuer then realised that a power greater than his had taken Etheldreda, and her vow, under his protection.
So he gave up the idea of compelling her to come back to him and returned home.
Renaissance Singers St Etheldreda’s church.
Part of the Hidden London tour