Thursday, 3 February 2011

St Werburh and The Goose

Werburh (Ely Cathedral)

Today is the feast of St Werburh of Chester, a seventh-century nun and a junior member of an illustrious family of Anglo-Saxon royal female saints. Werburh was the great-niece of St Etheldreda of Ely and her sisters, and was just one of numerous women in her family who founded monasteries, entered religious life, and were later venerated as saints. Etheldreda's sister St Seaxburh married a king of Kent, Seaxburh's daughter St Eormenhild married a king of Mercia, and Werburh was Eormenhild's daughter. So Werburh was related to three of the most important royal dynasties in seventh-century England: Kent and East Anglia, which had been Christian for several generations, and the newly-converted Mercia. Her genealogy is given in the 'List of saints' resting-places' in BL Stowe 944 (f.36):

'Then St Eormenhild, daughter of Eorcenbyrht and Seaxburh, was given in marriage to be King Wulfhere's queen. He was the son of Penda, king of Mercia, and in their time the Mercian people received baptism. Their daughter was St Werburh the holy virgin, and she was buried in the minster which is called Hanbury, and now rests in the city of Chester.'

Werburh's most memorable miracle involves her resurrecting a cooked goose. The story is told by a number of authorities, but since Henry of Huntingdon happens to be by my hand, here's his version:

St Werburg lies at Chester, about whom, among the many things said of her, one is outstanding and unheard of, which I cannot avoid mentioning. For it is written that a large flock of wild geese were destroying her growing corn by feeding on it: she had them confined in a certain house, as if they were domestic geese. In the morning, when she called them, ready to send them out, she saw that one was missing. On enquiry, she heard that it had been eaten by the servants.

"Bring me," she said, "the feathers and bones of the bird that has been eaten."

When they were brought to her, this bride of the high God commanded that it should be whole and should live. And it was done. Then she instructed the geese, which were cheering and crying out at the return of their lost companion, that no other of their kind must ever, in all eternity, enter that field. They all departed in safety. And what the virgin commanded has been observed up to the present day.

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.693-5.

St Werburh's geese (from wikipedia)

This story always reminds me of Thor and his goats, but it's a not uncommon form of saintly power. Werburh's distant cousin St Mildrid is also associated with geese, and other Anglo-Saxon saints who had a particular way with birds (though not with resurrecting them, as far as I know) include St Hilda (reverenced by the sea-birds of Whitby),St Cuthbert (fond of Eider ducks) and St Oswald (had a pet raven).

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