Friday 5 April 2013

The story of Æthelburh of Kent

Ethelburga in her mother's church at St Martin's, Canterbury

April 5 is the anniversary of the death of Æthelburh, the daughter of Ethelbert, king of Kent, the first Anglo-Saxon king to accept Christianity. Æthelburh played an important role in the history of Anglo-Saxon England, because it was by her marriage to Edwin, king of Northumbria, that the Christian mission brought by St Augustine and his companions from Rome began to spread northwards. This is how Bede tells the story in the Historia Ecclesiastica, Book II:
At this time the nation of the Northumbrians, that is, the nation of the Angles who live on the north side of the river Humber, with their king, Edwin, received the faith through the preaching of Paulinus... The occasion of this nation's embracing the faith was their aforesaid king being allied to the kings of Kent, having taken to wife Ethelburga, otherwise called Tate, daughter to King Ethelbert. He having by his ambassadors asked for her in marriage from her brother Eadbald, who then reigned in Kent, was answered, "It was not lawful to marry a Christian virgin to a pagan husband, lest the faith and the mysteries of the heavenly King should be profaned by her cohabiting with a king who was altogether a stranger to the worship of the true God." This answer being brought to Edwin by his messengers, he promised in no manner to act in opposition to the Christian faith, which the virgin professed; but would give leave to her, and all that went with her, men or women, priests or ministers, to follow their faith and worship after the custom of the Christians. Nor did he deny but that he would embrace the same religion, if, being examined by wise persons, it should be found more holy and more worthy of God.

Hereupon the virgin was promised, and sent to Edwin, and pursuant to what had been agreed on, Paulinus, a man beloved of God, was ordained bishop, to go with her, and by daily exhortations, and celebrating the heavenly mysteries, to confirm her and her company... But his mind was wholly bent upon reducing the nation to which he was sent to the knowledge of truth; according to the words of the apostle, "To espouse her to one husband, that he might present her as a chaste virgin to Christ." Being come into that province, he laboured much, not only to retain those that went with him, by the help of God, that they should not revolt from the faith, but, if he could, to convert some of the pagans to a state of grace by his preaching.
Paulinus was a member of the second mission sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great; he was consecrated as Bishop of York in 625 by Justus, fourth Archbishop of Canterbury. When Bede describes Paulinus labouring to make Northumbria a bride for Christ (the allusion is to St Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:2), he draws an implicit parallel with Æthelburh's marriage to Edwin. Æthelburh's father Ethelbert had been drawn towards conversion by his Frankish Christian queen Bertha (and the advantages of political alliance with her Christian nation); clearly it was intended that the process was to be replicated by Æthelburh's marriage.

Since Edwin was something of a hero to Bede, we are in the fortunate position of having a good deal of information about him and his conversion. (Our information is therefore, of course, much influenced by Bede's hero-worship, and should be interpreted accordingly!) Bede has a particularly dramatic story about what happened after Æthelburh's marriage:
The next year there came into the province a certain assassin, called Eumer, sent by the king of the West Saxons, whose name was Cuichelm, in hopes at once to deprive King Edwin of his kingdom and his life. He had a two-edged dagger, dipped in poison, to the end that if the wound were not sufficient to kill the king, it might be performed by the venom. He came to the king on the first day of Easter, at the river Derwent, where then stood the regal city, and being admitted as if to deliver a message from his master, whilst he was in an artful manner delivering his pretended embassy, he started suddenly, and drawing the dagger from under his garment assaulted the king. Lilla, the king's beloved minister, observed this, and having no buckler at hand to secure the king from death, interposed his own body to receive the stroke; but the wretch struck so home, that he wounded the king through the knight's body. Being then attacked on all sides with swords, he in that confusion also slew another soldier, whose name was Forthhere.

On that same holy night of Easter Sunday, the queen had brought forth to the king a daughter, called Eanfled. The king, in the presence of Bishop Paulinus, gave thanks to his gods for the birth of his daughter; and the bishop, on the other hand, returned thanks to Christ, and endeavoured to persuade the king, that by his prayers to Him he had obtained that the queen should bring forth the child in safety and without much pain. The king, delighted with his words, promised that if God would grant him life and victory over the king by whom the assassin had been sent, he would cast off his idols and serve Christ; and as a pledge that he would perform his promise, he delivered up that same daughter to Paulinus, to be consecrated to Christ. She was the first baptized of the nation of the Northumbrians, on Whitsunday, with twelve others of her family.
That Easter Sunday was a momentous night for the Northumbrian royal family! Æthelburh and her baby daughter thus played a key role in Edwin's conversion, at least as told by Bede. It's fascinating to imagine Paulinus and the king amicably discussing which of their gods had brought about Æthelburh's safe delivery (did the Anglo-Saxons associate any particular deity with childbirth? We have no idea).

Edwin proceeded to go to war against the West Saxons, and defeated the king who had attempted to assassinate him. On his return, Bede says he hesitated about whether to convert:
He would not immediately and unadvisedly embrace the mysteries of the Christian faith, though he no longer worshipped idols, ever since he made the promise that he would serve Christ; but thought fit first at leisure to be instructed, by the venerable Paulinus, in the knowledge of faith, and to confer with such as he knew to be the wisest of his prime men, to advise what they thought was fittest to be done in that case. And being a man of extraordinary sagacity, he often sat alone by himself a long time, silent as to his tongue, but deliberating in his heart how he should proceed, and which religion he should adhere to.
His thoughtful deliberations, as told by Bede, included one of the most famous pieces of Anglo-Saxon philosophy, the episode in which one of Edwin's counsellors compared the life of man to the flight of a sparrow through a lighted hall:
Another of the king's chief men, approving of his words and exhortations, presently added: "The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed." The other elders and king's counsellors, by divine inspiration, spoke to the same effect.


Less poetically, Edwin received letters from Pope Boniface IV urging him to convert (which Bede quotes), and Æthelburh too received a letter:
To the illustrious lady his daughter, Queen Ethelburga, Boniface, bishop, servant of the servants of God:

The goodness of our Redeemer has with much providence offered the means of salvation to the human race; which He rescued, by the shedding of his precious blood, from the bonds of captivity to the Devil; so that making his name known in divers ways to the Gentiles, they might acknowledge their Creator by embracing the mystery of the Christian faith, which thing, the mystical purification of your regeneration plainly shows to have been bestowed upon the mind of your highness by God's bounty. Our mind, therefore, has been much rejoiced in the benefit of our Lord's goodness, for that He has vouchsafed, in your conversion, to kindle a spark of the orthodox religion, by which He might the more easily inflame in his love the understanding, not only of your glorious consort, but also of all the nation that is subject to you.

For we have been informed by those, who came to acquaint us with the laudable conversion of our illustrious son, King Eadbald [Æthelburh's brother], that your highness, also, having received the wonderful sacrament of the Christian faith, continually excels in the performance of works pious and acceptable to God. That you likewise carefully refrain from the worship of idols, and the deceits of temples and auguries, and having changed your devotion, are so wholly taken up with the love of your Redeemer, as never to cease lending your assistance for the propagation of the Christian faith. And our fatherly charity having earnestly inquired concerning your illustrious husband, we were given to understand that he still served abominable idols, and would not yield obedience or give ear to the voice of the preachers. This occasioned us no small grief, for that part of your body still remained a stranger to the knowledge of the supreme and undivided Trinity. Whereupon we, in our fatherly care, did not delay to admonish your Christian highness, exhorting you, that, with the help of the Divine inspiration, you will not defer to do that which, both in season and out of season, is required of us; that with the co-operating power of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, your husband also may be added to the number of Christians; to the end that you may thereby enjoy the rights of marriage in the bond of a holy and unblemished union. For it is written, 'They two shall be in one flesh.' How can it be said, that there is unity between you, if he continues a stranger to the brightness of your faith, by the interposition of dark and detestable error?

Wherefore, applying yourself continually to prayer, do not cease to beg of the Divine Mercy the benefit of his illumination; to the end, that those whom the union of carnal affection has made in a manner but one body, may, after death, continue in perpetual union, by the bond of faith. Persist, therefore, illustrious daughter, and to the utmost of your power endeavour to soften the hardness of his heart by insinuating the Divine precepts; making him sensible how noble the mystery is which you have received by believing, and how wonderful is the reward which, by the new birth, you have merited to obtain. Inflame the coldness of his heart by the knowledge of the Holy Ghost, that by the abolition of the cold and pernicious worship of paganism, the heat of Divine faith may enlighten his understanding through your frequent exhortations; that the testimony of the holy Scripture may appear the more conspicuous, fulfilled by you, 'The unbelieving husband shall be saved by the believing wife.' For to this effect you have obtained the mercy of our Lord's goodness, that you may return with increase the fruit of faith, and the benefits entrusted in your hands; for through the assistance of his mercy we do not cease with frequent prayers to beg that you may be able to perform the same...

We have, moreover, sent you the blessing of your protector, St. Peter, the prince of the apostles, that is, a silver looking-glass, and a gilt ivory comb, which we entreat your glory will receive with the same kind affection as it is known to be sent by us.
Whether or not it was the gifts which tipped the balance (they sound rather nice!), Edwin did eventually agree to accept Christianity, and was baptised at York on Easter Sunday 627. Nearly five hundred years later, when the Anglo-Saxons had been Christians for almost half a millennium, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted the same Biblical verse which the Pope cites to Æthelburh here in reference to St Margaret of Scotland:
Be þam se apostol Paulus, ealra þeoda lareow, cwæð, Saluabitur uir infidelis per mulierem fidelem, sic et mulier infidelis per uirum fidelem et reliqua, þæt is on uran geþeode, Ful oft se ungeleaffulla wer bið gehalgad 7 gehæled þurh þæt rihtwise wif, 7 swa gelice þæt wif þurh geleaffulne wer.
'Of this the Apostle Paul, teacher of all nations, said, "Saluabitur uir infidelis per mulierem fidelem, sic et mulier infidelis per uirum fidelem et reliqua"; that is in our language: "Very often the unbelieving husband is hallowed and saved through the righteous wife, and likewise the wife through the faithful husband".'

Margaret, a member of the English royal family exiled by the Norman Conquest, married Malcolm, king of Scotland, and (in the eyes of the chronicler, at least) brought Christianity to her husband and his northern kingdom, much as Æthelburh had done to Northumbria. The eleventh-century author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was probably familiar with Bede's narrative, as most learned Anglo-Saxons would have been, and perhaps he saw a parallel between these two English women - royal daughters and queens, bearers of Christianity to their pagan husbands. From Æthelburh to Margaret, with many others in between, the five centuries of Anglo-Saxon Christianity was powered by some remarkable women.

York Minster, founded by Paulinus

Bede continues:
Afterwards other children of his by Queen Ethelburga were baptized, viz. Ethelhun and his daughter Etheldrith, and another, Wuscfrea, a son; the first two of which were snatched out of this life whilst they were still in their white garments, and buried in the church at York... So great was then the fervour of the faith, as is reported, and the desire of the washing of salvation among the nation of the Northumbrians, that Paulinus at a certain time coming with the king and queen to the royal country-seat, which is called Adgefrin, stayed there with them thirty-six days, fully occupied in catechising and baptizing; during which days, from morning till night, he did nothing else but instruct the people resorting from all villages and places, in Christ's saving word; and when instructed, he washed them with the water of absolution in the river Glen, which is close by.
This is how Bede describes Edwin's reign:
It is reported that there was then such perfect peace in Britain, wheresoever the dominion of King Edwin extended, that, as is still proverbially said, a woman with her newborn babe might walk throughout the island, from sea to sea, without receiving any harm. That king took such care for the good of his nation, that in several places where he had seen clear springs near the highways he caused stakes to be fixed, with brass dishes hanging at them, for the conveniency of travellers; nor durst any man touch them for any other purpose than that for which they were designed, either through the dread they had of the king, or for the affection which they bore him.
This was to be said of many a later king by many a later writer; Bede's view of Edwin became the pattern for descriptions of an archetypal good king. Unfortunately, it was not to last. Edwin was killed in battle in 633, and it turned out that Christianity in Northumbria was not very well-established after all. Queen Æthelburh had to flee back to her family in Kent, accompanied by her children and Paulinus. Paulinus (who according to Bede 'brought with him many rich goods of King Edwin, among which were a large gold cross, and a golden chalice, dedicated to the use of the altar, which are still preserved, and shown in the church of Canterbury') was made Bishop of Rochester, and Æthelburh sent her sons across the sea to King Dagobert I for protection. They died there while still children.

Æthelburh in the crypt at York Minster

As for the fate of Æthelburh herself, for this we have to turn from Bede to another source, known as the Kentish Royal Legend. This tells us:
Æðelburh hatte heora dohtor, oþrum naman Tate. Heo wæs forgyfen Eadwine Norðhymbra cyninge to cwene, & Sanctus Paulinus se bisceop for mid hyre & gefullode þone cyningc & ealle his þeode. And heo þa eft æfter Eadwines dæge gesohte Cantwara byrig. And hyre broðor Eadbald wæs þa Cantwara cyningc. And he hyre þa forgeaf þæt land on Limmingce & heo þa þæt mynster getimbrade & þǽr nu resteð.
'Their daughter [i.e. Ethelbert and Bertha] was named Æthelburh, otherwise called Tate. She was given to Edwin, king of Northumbria, as queen, and St Paulinus the bishop went with her and baptised the king and all his people. After Edwin's time she returned to Canterbury. Her brother Eadbald was then king of Kent, and he gave her land at Lyminge. She built a minster there, and now rests there.'

Æthelburh died around 647, and was commemorated at the minster she had founded. Lyminge is a village in the south of Kent about five miles inland from the port of Folkestone. It has recently undergone extensive archaeological investigation, which you can read about on the project website here. The project has found some fascinating things, including the outline of a royal hall, 'one of the most important Anglo-Saxon buildings yet excavated in Kent', dating to Æthelburh's lifetime. (Think of Edwin and the sparrow!) You can see images of the site and some of the finds in this BBC slideshow. The importance of Lyminge as a royal site helps to explain why King Eadbald gave his sister land there, and further discoveries will doubtless tell us more about Æthelburh and the minster where she ended her eventful life.

Most of the pictures in this post are of the church dedicated to Æthelburh at Lyminge. When I visited in August 2013, the excavation was in progress on the village green:

Above the green on a hill is the church, the site of Ethelburga's minster:

It's a small village and would doubtless be a quiet and peaceful spot, when not being explored by archaeologists! Between green and church is a well - actually the source of the river Nailbourne - known as 'St Ethelburga's well':

The church, which is dedicated to St Mary and St Ethelburga, stands on a slope:

And as a result had to be propped up in the thirteenth century:

The exterior stonework is a beautiful combination of textures, the relic of various phases of building and rebuilding over the past 1400 years:

This wall is the oldest part of the church; the church guide says:

The visible remains of the original Church, erected by Queen Ethelburga soon after she came here in 633, are to the east of the porch. The eastern apse where the altar stood, and the beginnings of the rectangular nave (the north wall of which is continued under the present porch) can be seen clearly. In shape and materials this obviously Saxon Church resembles others in Kent... The Nave and Chancel of the present Church are late Saxon, but some regard the rudimentary string courses in the Chancel as evidence of Roman work. Perhaps the lower walls were originally part of the domestic buildings.

And the Kent Archaeological Society says:

The earliest part of the existing church must date from after the Norman conquest. It was perhaps built c. 1080... The original 7th century church (excavated by Canon Jenkins in the 1860s) was immediately to the south of the present church with the saint[']s body in a north porticus that was later (from the 1080s) covered by the south wall of the present church.
Although the existing church is later than her time, this seems to be the site of Æthelburh's tomb:

Inside, on the other side of the wall, its site is visible in the texture of the stone:

This is Roman brick; I was reminded of similar walls among the ruins of St Augustine's, Canterbury, where Æthelburh's parents are buried.

The unplastered walls give the interior of the church a rugged, unKentish look, to my eye:

On the day I was there, the sun was shining through a very yellow window, which turned the chancel a bright shade of gold.

The reredos is by Sir Ninian Comper; the female saints are the Virgin and St Æthelburh, and the male ones Paulinus and Dunstan:

Æthelburh's community of nuns survived her death for nearly two centuries, but probably abandoned Lyminge in the course of the ninth century; monasteries near the coast were vulnerable to Viking raids, and the nuns seem to have taken refuge in Canterbury, where they were granted land for that purpose in 804. By the tenth century the community seems no longer to have been in existence, and the church had passed into the possession of the Archbishops of Canterbury. First Dunstan (in 965) and then Lanfranc (in the 1080s) rebuilt the church - which explains Dunstan's presence on the reredos. The fate of Æthelburh's relics in all this is not clear, and they may have been taken to Canterbury in the late eleventh century. But although her body may have gone, Æthelburh left many traces here: the church, the well - and whatever remains to be found on the village green.


Anonymous said...

I have just discovered your blog and it is wonderful to find someone who shares so many of my enthusiasms! I am spending a great deal too much time catching up on 'back numbers' !

Clerk of Oxford said...

That's great to hear! Thanks for commenting - I hope you enjoy digging through the archives!

dilettantus in interrete said...

My Nun in my Kindergartentimes (Germany, Ruhrarea end of the sixties) was "Schwester Edelburg" - so thanks a lot for this post!

Adam D. Jones said...

This is amazing work you've done. Thank you so much for sharing. I'm a medievalist by hobby and I have never seen anyone describe Æthelburh of Kent so well. Absolutely wonderful.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you! Fortunately Bede did most of the work for me ;)

Rosemary Firman said...

I find so much of interest in your blog and your enthusiasm for ererything medieval is infectious.
Ethelburga of Kent is often muddled up with Eadburg whose life and miracles are recorded in a sole complete (Latin) source here at Hereford Cathedral Library where I work (MS P.7.6), but I think they are two different people, one a Queen, the other a virgin, but both connected with Lyminge. For more on our MS, see Rosalind Love's 'Wars of the Word', Cambridge Alumni Magazine, 73 (2014), 34-37. I've looked at various reference books without being able to get to the bottom of it. I wondered what do you think?
Eadburg sounds great fun and a potential patron saint for archivists -in one miracle a land charter relating to Eadburg's lands at Lyminge refuses to burn along with others which the Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to dispose of as supposedly 'superuacuas et inutiles'!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks for commenting! I've read Rosalind Love's article and it does seem that more information about St Eadburg is emerging from that Hereford source, which is really very interesting.