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 Domne Eafe founded an abbey in 670 near the site of Augustine's landing in Thanet, at the place now called Minster (after its monastery). I've posted more on the wonderful origin-legend of the abbey, deer and blasphemers and royal murderers and all, here. In the Anglo-Saxon period Thanet was an island, separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel (since silted up), which was marked at either end by the monumental ruins of Roman forts at Reculver and Richborough. It was already an ancient landscape by St Mildred's time, and ancient landscapes attract legends and associations with holy people; the story of Augustine's landing (as told by Bede) gave Thanet a key role in the foundation-narrative of the Anglo-Saxon church, 'the church of the English', and the legends of Domne Eafe and Mildred perpetuated the sanctity of this holy island.
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).
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.
[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.
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:
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.