Monastic Saints – Saint Etheldreda (Audrey) – 23 June
[This is a series on saints from the Benedictine family ( monks and nuns, generally, as distinct from other charisms—such as canons regular, mendicants, and clerks regular—that developed from the late Middle Ages on). There used to be a commemoration of all saints of the Benedictine family on 13 November. But even in the days when the liturgical calendar was much more heavily festooned with saints’ feastdays, I suspect there were many monastic saints who had been lost to memory. This series tries to introduce or re-introduce us to at least a few in this monastic cloud of witnesses.]
[Image: photo of St. Etheldreda statue at Ely Cathedral, U.K.]
St. Etheldreda – Born: ca. 636, Exning, Suffolk – Died 23 June 679, Ely, Cambridgeshire – Foundress, Abbess of Ely Abbey
Etheldreda (the spelling of whose name varies—e.g. Æthelthryth—and who is also known as Audrey) was a princess from East Anglia born in 636. As a princess, she was compelled to enter into two marriages for political reasons. The first marriage was to Tondberct, prince of the South Gyrwe, who was considerably older than she was and was apparently content with her vow of virginity. He also gave her the Isle of Ely, so identified in those days, because it was accessible only by boat before the tidewaters of the Fens were drained in the seventeenth century.
Tondberct died in 655, and by 660, Etheldreda was compelled to enter into a second marriage in, this time to Ecgfrith of Northumbria, who was fourteen or fifteen years of age, a good decade younger than Etheldreda. At first, Ecgfrith was content to allow Etheldreda to live as a nun at Coldingham nunnery. But on acceding to the throne in 670, Ecgfrith’s perspective shifted, resulting in claims of marital rights over religious vows. St. Wilfrid became involved in trying to persuade Ecgfrith to respect Etheldreda’s religious vows. Not known as an able diplomat, Wilfrid did not convince Ecgfrith. Fearing she would be forcibly carried away by the king, Etheldreda fled to the Isle of Ely with two nuns as companions. One legend claims they evaded capture because of a miraculous rising of the tide that lasted days and days until her husband acknowledged the primacy of Etheldreda’s religious vows.
Etheldreda founded a double monastery at Ely where she was abbess for seven years, living a life of piety.
She died on 23 June 679, principally from a large tumor on her neck. She felt that this was as a result of wearing necklaces during her privileged upbringing. A surgeon examined her after death by making an incision into her neck, and swore that the wound had healed. For this reason, she is patron saint of neck and throat illnesses.
In 695 or 696, Etheldreda’s body was exhumed and moved from a common grave to a white marble coffin in the new Church at Ely. Her body was found to be incorrupt. The solemn translation of the relics occurred 17 October. Her old clothes and coffin were said to possess miraculous powers.
A number of churches and chapels, both Anglican and Catholic, are under Etheldreda’s patronage. St. Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place, Holborn, London, is one such. Originally on the grounds of the London palace of the bishops of Ely, the chapel was made available to Spain’s ambassadors to England at the time of the English Reformation and has therefore remained a place of Catholic worship ever since.
It has been a place of Catholic worship since the English Reformation because it was made available to Spain’s ambassadors to England, thus allowing continued Roman Catholic worship.
Several sources, including this etymological source at Merriam-Webster online, tell us we get the word “tawdry” from the annual fair on the feast of the translation of St. Etheldreda’s relics, but the fair was known by Etheldreda’s popularized name of St. Audrey: “Vendors would sell cheap gewgaws at these fairs, including a kind of necklace which was named St. Audrey’s lace. St. Audrey’s lace eventually became tawdry lace, still in reference to a bit of fabric worn around the throat. By the beginning of the 17th century this had begun to be shortened to tawdry, and shortly thereafter the word tawdry was extended to be used not only the fabric worn round the throat, but also to be used as an adjective to refer to things that were ‘cheap and gaudy in appearance or quality.’”