Friday 13 July 2012

St Mildred and the Foundation of Minster-in-Thanet

A statue of St Mildred at Whippingham, on the Isle of Wight

If I had to pick a favourite Anglo-Saxon abbess-saint, it would probably be the Kentish princess St Mildred of Minster-in-Thanet. (What, doesn't everyone have a favourite Anglo-Saxon abbess-saint? It's a totally normal thing to have.) I posted about St Mildred here, and in that post I gave a summary of her life and the long and eventful history of the abbey at Minster - but I didn't include the best bit of the story, the legend of the foundation of the abbey some time around the year 670. This foundation-legend is interesting, so let's have a look at it today.

The abbey was founded by St Mildred's mother, Eormenburh or Eafe (known as Domneva, probably from a contraction of 'Domina Eafe' - 'domina' as in 'lady', a courtesy title for an abbess). Domne Eafe belonged to the family of the kings of Kent, and legend has it that her young brothers, Æthelberht and Æthelred, were murdered while under the care of their cousin, King Ecgberht. They were presumably rivals for Ecgberht's throne, and whether Ecgberht himself was directly to blame or not (the sources differ), he took responsibility for their deaths: he offered compensation for the murder of these Anglo-Saxon Princes in the Tower by granting their sister Domne Eafe land on the Isle of Thanet as wergild, for the foundation of a monastery. Æthelberht and Æthelred were subsequently commemorated as saints and martyrs, and in the tenth century, at the instigation of St Oswald, their bodies were taken to Ramsey Abbey, where their feast was kept on 17 October.

An eleventh-century text tells the story as follows:

Þonne wæs Sancte Eormenbeorge oðer naman Domne Eue. heo wæs forgyfen Merwale Penda suna cyningces. 7 þær hi begeaton Sancte Mildburge 7 Sancte Mildryðe 7 Sancte Mildgyðe 7 Sancte Merefin. Hi þa for Godes lufon hi gedældon be him lybbendan 7 heo þa Domne Eue for eft to Centlande. 7 hyre broðra wergildes onfengc binnan Tenetlande æt Ecgbyrhte þam cyningce þe hi ær acwellan het. Þunor hatte his gereua þe hi acwellan het 7 he hi bebyrigde under þæs cyningces heahsetle on Eastrege innan his healle. 7 hi þa wurdon þurh Godes naman gecydde swa þæt þurh Godes mihte se leoma stod ymbe midde niht up þurh þære healle hrof swylce þær sunne scine 7 þæt se cyningc himsylf geseah. 7 he wæs swiðe afyrht 7 he þa be þam wiste þæt he hæfde Gode abolgen, 7 he þa het heora swustor Domne Euan him to gefeccean þæt heo heora wergyld onfon mihte. 7 heo þa swa dyde. þæt is þonne LXXX sulunga landes. þæt hi þæt mynster on arærdon þam sawlum to gebedrædenne þe hit heora wergyld wæs.

[St Eormenburh, also called Domne Eve, was married to Merewalh, son of king Penda, and their children were St Mildburh, St Mildred, St Mildgyth and St Merefin. For God's love they separated while still alive, and Domne Eve then went back to Kent. And she received as her brothers' wergild land within Thanet from King Ecgberht, who had had them killed. Thunor was the name of his reeve who he ordered to kill them, and he buried them under the king's throne at Eastry within his hall. And then by the name of God it was revealed so that through the power of God a beam of light rose up in the middle of the night through the roof of the hall, as if the sun were shining, and the king himself saw it, and he was very afraid. Then he knew that he had angered God, and he ordered their sister Domne Eve to be brought to him, so that she might receive their wergild. And she did so, and that is the 80 sulungs of land on which she built that minster to pray for the souls of those whose wergild it was.]

This is from a version of the 'Kentish Royal Legend', which can be read in full here. But the fun part of the story is the choosing of the land, and we get that from another Old English source, an eleventh-century text which is edited in M. J. Swanton, 'A Fragmentary Life of St. Mildred and Other Kentish Royal Saints', Archæologia Cantiana xci (1975), 15-27. Here's the crucial bit:

And hio ða swa dyde þæt hio þæt wergeld geceas þurh Godes fultum on ðam iglande þe Teneð is nemmed: þæt is þonne hundeahtatig hida landes þe hio ðær æt þæm cyninge onfeong. And hit ða swa gelamp þa se cyning and hio Domne Eafe ærest þæt land geceas, and hi ofer þa ea comon, þa cwæð se cyning to hire hwylcne dæl þæs landes hio onfon wolde hyre broðrum to wergilde. Hio him andsworode and cwæð þæt hio his na maran ne gyrnde þonne hire hind utan ymbe yrnan wolde, þe hire ealne weg beforan arn ðonne hio on rade wæs. Cwæð þæt hire þæt getyðed wære þæt hio swa myceles his onfon sceolde swa seo hind hire gewisede. He ða se cyning hire geandsworode and cwæð þæt he þæt lustlice fægnian wolde. And hio ða hind swa dyde þæt hio him beforan hleapende wæs, and hi hyre æfter filigende wæron, oðþæt hi comon to ðære stowe þe is nu gecwedon Þunores Hlæwe. And he ða se Þunor to ðam cyninge aleat, and he him to cwæð, 'Leof, hu lange wylt ðu hlystan þyssum dumban nytene, þe hit eal wyle þis land utan beyrnan? Wylt ðu hit eal ðære cwenon syllan?' And ða sona æfter þyssum wordum se eorðe tohlad.

[And she so acted that through God's aid she chose that wergild in the island which is called Thanet; that is, the eighty hides of land which she received there from the king. And it so happened that when the king and Domne Eafe first chose that land, and they came over the river, the king asked her which part of the land she wished to have as wergild for her brothers. She answered him and said that she desired no more of his than her hind could run around, which always ran before her when she was out riding. She said that it was granted to her that she should receive as much of his as the hind indicated to her. The king answered her and said he would gladly accept that. And the hind so acted that it went leaping in front of them, and they were following after it, until they came to the place which is now called Thunor's Hlæwe. And then Thunor bowed before the king and said to him, 'Sir, how long are you going to listen to this dumb animal, which is going to run round this whole land? Do you want to give it all to this woman?' And at once after these words the earth opened.]

The text breaks off here, but Thunor was swallowed up by the earth and punished for his crime, and Domne Eafe received the land which had been marked out by the running of her deer. The course which Domne Eve's deer ran cut the Isle of Thanet roughly in two - this map of the island, based on a fifteenth-century drawing, shows the deer's course:

The line corresponds to an ancient earthwork which was later known as 'St Mildred's Lynch' (linch = OE hlinc, 'ridge, rising ground').

A story like this blends myth and history so thoroughly that it's impossible to tell where the line really is - or at least, the line seems as wobbly as the deer's course. Was Domne Eafe granted land for a nunnery as wergild for her brothers? That seems quite possible. Were there deer involved? Well, who knows, but this type of foundation-legend is fairly common, especially in regard to the apportioning of land and the formation of islands. Lots of things about it intrigue me, though. The deer is like a personification of Domne Eafe's thought, or her will, and she is one of several Anglo-Saxon female saints associated with deer (others include St Osyth and St Wihtburh). Another interesting thing is the name of the reeve Thunor, who carries out the crime, tries to prevent Domne Eafe getting the land, and then - while the deer is running its course - is punished by the ground opening up under him. The big hole this left in the earth is marked on the map above (next to the windmill). There's still a big hole roughly in that place near Minster (it's actually a chalk pit), now known as Smuggler's Leap because of a different legend. So is the Thunor character an explanation for that feature of the landscape, just as St Mildred's Lynch might explain the earthwork which once ran across the island? In Old English this mound is called Þunores Hlæwe, a place-name which has not survived in the area - but if it had, it would be interpreted as 'tumulus [for the worship] of Thunor', Thunor being the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Norse god Thor. Why is a man named Thunor the villain in a story about the foundation of a Christian nunnery, one wonders...

Anyway, this story explains why St Mildred, when not being shown with geese (something I still haven't figured out), is usually shown with a deer or two. Here for instance is St Mildred in the Pugin-designed church at St Augustine's, Ramsgate:

And in the east window of St Peter's, Broadstairs (the church where I was christened):

Like Domne Eafe's monastery, this window is a memorial to a young man - in this case a boy killed in the First World War.

Here's Mildred in a tapestry in the chapel of Minster Abbey, together with Domne Eafe, and Eadburh, Mildred's successor as abbess:

Saintly power was genetic in this royal family, as in so many others: as well as Mildred, Domne Eafe had two other daughters who became nuns and saints, Mildburh and Mildgyth. Abbess Eadburh is an interesting woman, a saint in her own right, who seems to have fostered literature and learning among the nuns of Minster in the eighth century; letters to her survive from St Boniface which ask her to copy a text for him 'in letters of gold', and thank her for sending him books.

I visited the chapel at Minster Abbey for the first time last Christmas:

The chapel is modern (dating only to the 1990s), but part of the original Saxon nunnery is incorporated into the monastic buildings, making Minster Abbey one of the oldest inhabited buildings in England.

The chapel contains this beautiful sculpture of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom:

It's the work of a former abbess of the community, Mother Concordia Scott, who also made this statue of St Bertha at the church of St Martin's in Canterbury.

That doesn't have anything to do with Mildred; I just think it's really lovely, and fitting for this home of so many wise and learned women.

As we have seen, the murder of Æthelberht and Æthelred supposedly took place at Eastry, which was then the site of a Kentish royal palace but is now a (very pretty) village twelve miles east of Canterbury. One post-Conquest tradition says that Mildred's sister Mildgyth was a nun in a religious community at Eastry, although it's difficult to find evidence to support this statement. Eastry has an impressive church, which in this context we'd have to call 'only' thirteenth-century. Here's its tower:

The church is usually closed but over Easter I was lucky enough to be there just as a meeting of some sort was going on (of bellringers, I believe) and they let me look around briefly. Maybe the best thing about the church is its wall-paintings:

The church was built under the auspices of the monastery at Christ Church, Canterbury, which is why it's on a grand scale; they always did things well. The wall-paintings were, apparently, made while the mortar was still wet, and so can be precisely dated to the period when the church was being built, c.1230. If you click to enlarge, you can see that the painting is composed of medallions with four motifs: a lion, a griffin, two doves, and a trefoil lily.

In this context the lily presumably stands for the Virgin, the dedicatory saint of the church; notice how the lilies run right down the centre of the painting. But it seems appropriate to remember, too, that Goscelin called St Mildred 'the lily of the English'.

This church seems very ancient, yet already when it was built half a millennium (almost exactly) had passed since Mildred's death in 733. It was probably another five hundred years, or a little more, before this later painting was made on the wall of the church:

It feels so, here.


Anonymous said...

A very interesting post. Thanks for sharing all this.

Heliopause said...

Thank you! I really enjoyed that!

Hey, in one of medallions, second bottom row, second in from the left, is the griffin killing a dragon? -- or am I mis-seeing it?

Clerk of Oxford said...

Oh, interesting... I think it's just the griffin's wing, but it's hard to tell! The medallion on the far right of the same line is the same design, I think, and it's clearer there.

Unknown said...

Hello Clerk of Oxford. Thank you I really enjoyed reading your post. We live in what was once a Norman chapel at Thorne on the Isle of Thanet (near Minster) and are starting to research it's history. We would be grateful for your input and any ideas or suggestions to guide us if you were able to offer any help?

Clerk of Oxford said...

Hi Graham, thanks for commenting. That sounds like an interesting quest! I would suggest getting in touch with the people at the Thanet Archaeological Society ( if you haven't done so already - they should be able to point you in the right direction. The website of the Kent Archaeological Society ( has some resources available online which you might also find useful. I hope that helps!

Christene said...

Very nice piece! But all of your posts are so fun and informative :)

In regards to why St. Mildred is depicted with geese, I thought it might have to do with St. Martin of Tours. One of the iconographic representations of St. Martin is the goose (most likely because he went on pilgrimage during the yearly migration of the geese), and he is associated with charity. But what struck me as the parallel between him and St. Mildred's mother is that they both began their pious course in earnest on an island, and both founded monasteries from lands they claimed from kings despite hardships they had to endure to obtain them (St. Martin founded Liguge Abbey).

Should you be as interested in this goose business as I am, here is a rather interesting article on the perception and uses for geese from the Roman Empire until the Middle Ages in Britain:!/file/Albarella-2005-duck-goose-domestication.pdf

I know, this is very silly of me, but I do love the odd little bits of trivia.

Clerk of Oxford said...

That's really interesting! I didn't know that St Martin of Tours was linked to geese - he was popular in Anglo-Saxon England, so a connection with his cult would be very plausible.

And that had never occurred to me about the relative domestication of ducks and geese, but thinking about how they appear in various literary sources, it absolutely makes sense! Odd bits of trivia are always welcome here, the odder the better ;)

David Wilson said...

What a lovely blog, which I came across by accident through a retweet by Dr Caitlin. As a Kentish Man myself I love Kentish history too, esp A/S Kent. So thank you very much. I shall have happy hours reading your other stuff. And I've just sent this to my 89-year-old Mum to read on her i-Pad

Deborah said...

I enjoyed this. We just spent a few days staying near Minster and discovering the Abbey and church. I was looking for the legend of the hind and your blog has answered me beautifully.

LucyAnn said...

The original of Thomas Elmham's map, drawn in the 15th century, is held by Trinity Hall of Cambridge University. It's page 90 in a book, written in Latin, called Speculum Augustiniam (it's a History of St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury): The map is in colour and it has the path of the deer or 'hind' as a green line. There's even a sketch of the deer! THe original is much much more interesting and beautiful than the 19th century copy. You can zoom it up.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, thanks - the original is indeed much better! The manuscript hadn't yet been made available online in 2012, when this post was published.