Wednesday, 13 July 2011

St Mildred of Thanet, "The Fairest Lily of the English"

13 July is the feast of St Mildred, Anglo-Saxon abbess and patron of the island of Thanet in Kent, where I was born. She was also the dedicatee of my first school and (oddly, for such an obscure saint) of one of my Oxford colleges, so I have to declare a personal interest in her. A daughter of the Kentish royal house, she lived around the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth century, some 100 years after St Augustine brought Christianity to the coast of east Kent.

Mildred was the great-great-granddaughter of Ethelbert, the king of Kent whom Augustine encountered when he landed in England, and his wife Bertha. Ethelbert's great-granddaughter Æbba or Eormenburh, popularly known as Domne Eafe or Domneva, founded an abbey in 670 near the site of Augustine's landing in Thanet, at the place now called Minster (no prizes for guessing where that name came from). I've posted more on the wonderful origin-legend of the abbey, deer and blasphemers and royal murderers and all, here. Before entering religious life at Minster Domne Eafe had been married to the king of Mercia, and had three children with him, including Mildred. Mildred was educated in France, supposedly became a nun to escape an unwanted marriage, and eventually became abbess of Minster after her mother. The surviving hagiographical sources for her life are late ones (from the eleventh century onwards), but they say that she was known for her holiness, wisdom and generosity to the poor, and after her death in c.733 she was soon regarded as a saint; her successor as abbess, St Eadburh, built a church at Minster to enshrine her relics and support her growing community.

(What's that? You want to hear it in Old English? Of course you do. Everything's better in Old English:

[Domne Eafe] hyre leofe bearn georne lærde, and to Gode tihte. Wæs hit hyre eac eaðdæde, swa lange swa hyre ingehyd wæs eal mid Godes gaste afylled. Næs heo swa nu æðelborene men synt, mid ofermettum afylled, ne mid woruldprydum, ne mid nyðum, ne mid æfeste, ne mid teonwordum; næs heo sacful, ne geflitgeorn; næs heo swicol nanum þæra þe hyre to ðohte. Heo wæs wuduwena and steopcilda arigend, and ealra earmra and geswincendra frefiend, and on eallum þingum eaðmod and stille.
M. J. Swanton, 'A Fragmentary Life of St. Mildred and Other Kentish Royal Saints', Archæologia Cantiana xci (1975), 15-27 (26).

[Domne Eafe] gladly taught her dear child and led her to God. And that was an easy thing for her to do, because her mind was entirely filled with the spirit of God. She was not, as nobly-born people are now, filled with arrogance, or with worldly pride, or with malice, or with envy, or with angry words; she was not quarrelsome or quick to argue; she was not false to those who looked to her. She was a protector of widows and orphans, and comforter of all the poor and afflicted, and in all things she was humble and gentle.
The very last word here, stille, is an interesting word to describe her - it's not commonly used for people, I think. It's almost synonymous with mild, the first element of Mildred's name, but with an added suggestion of quietness or stillness. 'Mild' today has unfortunate overtones of weakness, perhaps of excessive softness, but the Old English word doesn't - it's a thoroughly regal word, its sense something like 'gentle, kindly, moderate' and (when applied to rulers or to God) 'merciful, gracious'. Mildred's full name (Mildþryð) means 'gentle strength' - as Etheldreda, Æþelðryþ, means 'noble strength' - and it's not supposed to be an oxymoron.

Mildred is Thanet's only saint, and she seems to have been genuinely popular in the area; even operating in the same general sphere as the much more glorious St Augustine, she managed to outshine him. For instance, legend said when she returned to Thanet from France to join her mother's nunnery, she landed at Ebbsfleet (the same place Augustine had landed - that's the ancient Ebbsfleet and not the modern one) and left the print of her foot permanently in the rock where she disembarked. That rock was considered a relic and kept in its own chapel, where miracles of healing took place.

The cliffs of Thanet from Pegwell Bay, where Mildred would have landed

In later centuries Minster, so near to the coast, was especially vulnerable to Viking raids. The nuns may have joined for a time with the community at Lyminge, and by the tenth century the abbey in Thanet had apparently been abandoned. The nuns may have removed to Canterbury: an abbess Leofrun who was perhaps of that community was captured during the Viking siege of the city in 1011, along with Archbishop Alphege, who was later to be martyred. We don't know what happened to the abbess. The church in Canterbury now dedicated to St Mildred may be due to the nuns' presence in the city then. It's the only pre-Conquest church surviving within the city walls (St Martin's is much older - it predates Mildred herself - but is outside the walls), and it looks like this:



It's not open very often, but I managed to sneak in last Easter while they were doing some building work, and found this window of Mildred, depicted as a mature abbess rather than a young princess:


And in medieval glass:


Mildred's abbey at Minster was refounded on the same site in 1937 by a community of nuns leaving Nazi Germany, and it's still going strong, in one of the oldest inhabited buildings in England. To have survived both Vikings and Nazis demonstrates 'gentle strength' of an extraordinary kind.

This picture and the one at the very top are of the parish church at Minster; for images of Minster Abbey, see their website or this post.

Mildred's relics were taken from Minster to St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury in the 1030s by grant of King Cnut, that great patron of monasteries, and she was held in high esteem there. In the 1090s accounts of Mildred's life and translation were written by the hagiographer and monk Goscelin (it's he who calls Mildred "the fairest lily of the English"). After his wanderings around England, Goscelin eventually found a permanent home at St Augustine's, and wrote about several of its saints. He fiercely defended St Augustine's claim to possess Mildred's relics against a challenge from the new Norman foundation of St Gregory's, and his passionate espousal of this cause indicates something of the relics' value for his community. St Gregory's asserted it had acquired the relics of Mildred and Eadburh from Lyminge, but Goscelin pours scorn on their attempts to substantiate their claim, with all the disdain of a professional watching amateurs blunder around in his area of expertise; he is particularly entertaining on the subject of their muddled genealogies of the royal family of Kent (and as someone who has both tried to get her head around these genealogies and tried to untangle other people's mistakes about them, I sympathise with both St Gregory's and Goscelin here...)

Goscelin also attributes some interesting miracle-stories to St Mildred, including one which says that in c.1043, just after Edward the Confessor came to the throne, Mildred defended and protected Edward's mother Queen Emma when the king stripped her of her wealth - in retribution (this story claims) for her support of a Norwegian invasion led by Magnus the Good against her own son. This story is hard to verify but it might possibly be an intriguing little insight into the complicated Anglo-Norman-Scandinavian politics of the 1040s - or it might not. Either way, it shows Mildred taking the part of a royal woman like herself against an act of cruelty from the king (which did actually happen, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1043), a kind of solidarity across three centuries.

Let's have a look at some manuscripts of Goscelin's writings on Mildred. British Library, Harley 3908, a manuscript produced at St Augustine's in the early twelfth century, contains music for the Office for St Mildred's Day:


The Latin text can be found here. It tells us that among the saints of St Augustine's, 'Fulget Mildretha candida ut lilium inter rosas aut rosa inter lilia', 'Mildred shines white as a lily among roses, as a rose among lilies...' She is 'pearl of the Mercians, Canterbury's crown, the star of all England'.

The manuscript also contains the Life and Translation of the saint, as the big bold 'T' will show:



Here's a dragon opening Goscelin's Vita of St Mildred in another twelfth-century Canterbury manuscript (BL Harley 105, f. 138):


And more about St Mildred in yet another St Augustine's manuscript, BL Harley 652, f.209v - spot Cnut's name in the second paragraph:

(There are more manuscripts of these texts, of which I don't have images.) What you're seeing here is evidence of Mildred's importance to St Augustine's in the eleventh and twelfth centuries - among that monastery's plethora of saints, an illustrious roll-call of Italian missionaries, archbishops and kings, this Kentish nun held an honoured place.

Apart from Canterbury and one or two churches in Kent, there aren't many places where St Mildred is remembered now; but Oxford is one of them, for reasons which remain obscure (to me at least).  There was a church dedicated to St Mildred on the site where Lincoln College now stands, on the corner of Turl Street and Brasenose Lane (once called St Mildred's Lane). It was pulled down in the fifteenth century, and the parish was absorbed into that of St Michael at the Northgate. A statue of St Mildred was installed on the tower at Lincoln on Ascension Day, 2009:


The things which look like fighter jets are actually geese, with which St Mildred (like other female saints, including St Werburgh) is particularly associated.

In St Michael at the Northgate, the parish's old connection with St Mildred is remembered in the Lady Chapel, where a statue of Mildred, made in the 1930s, stands in the reredos alongside the Virgin and Oxford's St Frideswide:



Mildred is on the right of this picture, a willowy figure with an abbess' staff:



A decorated notice, describing the history of the chapel, bears what I take to be the crest of Minster Abbey:


And above the reredos, as chance would have it, is late-medieval glass of a lily crucifix:


Such iconography had not even been thought of when Mildred lived, or when Goscelin wrote, but it's a felicitous chance. Life is full of such coincidences. St Mildred's story was probably the first bit of Anglo-Saxon literature I ever learned, aged five or six, long before I knew what 'Anglo-Saxon' meant, but it was nothing more than coincidence which subsequently brought me to study at Lincoln College, on the ground where St Mildred's church stood; I didn't even know of Mildred's connection with the college until that Ascension Day in 2009, when I had been there two years already. She later found her way, quite by accident, into my doctoral thesis, for Cnut-related reasons. I thought I had left St Mildred behind me in Thanet, the only place where people have really heard of her; but she was here before me, and as it turned out, some of the happiest times of my life have been spent in the little island of enclosure between Turl Street and Radcliffe Square, bounded on the north by what was once St Mildred's Lane.

11 comments:

Steffen said...


Thank you for another lovely blogpost! I always delight in knowledge about saints of whom I know very little, and although I've seen Mildred depicted in the St. Michael reredos, I did not know anything about her then.

I was particularly interested to read the liturgical text for St. Mildred, and I was in particular struck by two phrases.

The first of these is the phrase "O decus patrum insigne". In my own blog I've looked at some usage of the term "decus" in liturgical texts (http://my-albion.blogspot.com/2013/08/o-decus-ecclesie-comparative.html), but this formulation - glory of the father's household - is new to me. I wonder how widespread it is in 12th century liturgy.

The second phrase is "tocius anglie stella" which I find to be remarkably unparochial for such a parochial saint. It brings to mind an office text for Edward the Confessor in which he is referred to first in the capacity as a local saint (Westminster), then a saint of the kingdom (England) and then a saint of the entire Christendom. Granted, you don't see the same escalation in the Mildred liturgy, but it is interesting to note the movement from "glory of the household" to "star of all England". Again, I would be curious to know whether this was a common occurrence in 12th century liturgy.

Clerk of Oxford said...

I'm glad you found this old post, and that you found it interesting! Your comments on the liturgical text are intriguing. My impression is that the reinterpretation of a local saint in a national context is quite typical of twelfth-century attempts to deal with saints from the early Anglo-Saxon period - in the case of Mildred, her original significance as a royal nun/saint was closely tied to the Kentish royal house (no longer in existence by the time this text was written), and so for a hagiographer to make anything of her cult in the later period it was necessary to invent for her a national importance she did not actually have. The other point is that this liturgical text is based on Goscelin's hagiography, which is itself part of a series of texts he wrote for St Augustine's, Canterbury, about their early saints - these all present the St Augustine's saints (the Augustinian mission and the first archbishops of Canterbury) as founders of the English church, etc., and the emphasis on national context is key to their status for an age with a different concept of 'nationhood'.

So an interesting comparison with Edward the Confessor, who actually *was* a nationally significant (if not nationally culted) saint! Do let me know if you do any more research on this or on 'decus' - I'd be intrigued to know more about the specific liturgical phrases.

Steffen said...

Reinterpretation of Anglo-Saxon saints makes good sense in the 12th century for many reasons. First of all there's the upsurge of fascination for the English and pre-Norman that came in the reign of Henry I (according to Peter Rex). Secondly you have the paradigm shift of sanctity that began around the same time and which lead to reformulations of saints such as Oswald and Edmund. It is only natural that these currents may in some way have affected local saints as well.

As for decus, I know only two academic works which delve into that specific phrase. The oldest is an article by Bernhard Scholz on the use of "decus" up until the 12th century or so. This research is summed up and added to research on the liturgical text for Edward the Confessor in my MA thesis which is available online. If you're interested I'll provide a link.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, please do!

Steffen said...


There you go: http://ntnu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:570873/FULLTEXT01.pdf


The section dealing with "decus" is chapter 4, section 6. You may find some good secondary literature there.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks, Steffen, I look forward to reading it.

Steffen said...

A little addendum concerning the use of "decus":

I'm currently reading an article on the liturgy for St. Edmund and in a motet - I think it was from the 14th century - called De flore martiris, the text refers to Edmund's triple crown comprised of the palm of martyrdom, the privilege of kingship, and the glory of virginity ("Decusque virginis".)

Just a minor detail, but I always love finding such small pieces of a greater puzzle.

Michael Meckler said...

Another enjoyable post.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you :)

Caroline said...

What a fascinating post! I live in London SE12 where there is a church dedicated to St Mildred. I also used to live in Oxford and know the corner of Turl Street and Brasenose Lane well...isn't that near the Kings Arms? One of my favourite Oxford pubs, along with the Turl Tavern!

mary mildred said...

I just want to say, "thank you" for having published into your blog the life and history of St. Mildred. She is my patron saint for the fact that I bear her name. My grandmother used to tell me that my patron saint personalizes what really her name signifies. And from then on I learned to love and venerate her, taking her as part of me and seeks for her intercession always.Honestly, I know little about her and I'm glad to have found your blog, it's interesting. Once again,"Thank you". God bless...