Aethelthryth: The Extraordinary Medieval Virgin Queen and Saint
It’s a name most people have never heard of and even fewer can pronounce, but St Aethelthryth of Ely is one of England’s most fascinating saints whose name has survived throughout the centuries and continues to be used today in the modernized name of Audrey (an Anglo-Norman English feminine given name). The story of her life reads like a historical fantasy novel, but it poses some interesting questions for the reader: was Aethelthryth a woman trapped in a man’s world, fighting to win her freedom in whatever way she could? Or was she the essence of holy feminine virtue, wholly dedicated to serving God above all earthly responsibilities? Was her life a shining example of a triumph of faith, or the sad tale of a discarded wife who found refuge in religion? Whatever the truth may be, Aethelthryth’s legacy continues even 1,300 years after her death, making her an important piece of England’s history.
Aethelthryth, Also Known As Etheldreda: A Holy Virgin
Aethelthryth, also known as Etheldreda, was born in mid-7th century England, most probably around the year 636, as a daughter of King Anna of East Anglia. The king also fathered three other daughters who would follow the same path as Aethelthryth, withdrawing from secular politics to live a religious life, eventually earning sainthood following their deaths, but none would achieve the same level of veneration as their virginal sister.
The most detailed narrative account we have of Aethelthryth’s life is a 12th century chronicle, the Liber Eliensis, a comprehensive history of the Isle of Ely written at Ely Abbey by an anonymous monk. In it, Aethelthryth is said to have lived a holy life from the very beginning, that even in her infancy she desired nothing more than to devote herself to the service of God. It is commonplace to find such claims in medieval saint’s lives (called hagiographies), sometimes accompanied by tales of the saint’s portentous birth and heavenly omens not unlike the story of Christ’s birth.
Aethelthryth as St. Etheldreda at Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire, England. (Francis Helminski / CC BY-SA 4.0)
In all likelihood, Aethelthryth’s childhood was much the same as any East Anglian princess of her time and she was raised with the expectation of devoting her life not to her faith, but to marriage and motherhood. Marriage was an important cornerstone of medieval society, maintaining the social structure and enforcing the gender hierarchy, but in early medieval England, marriage played an even more important role by establishing political stability.
A Princess Becomes Queen
In the 7th century, England was not yet a unified nation but rather consisted of warring kingdoms existing in almost continually shifting power dynamic. East Anglia was among the most powerful of these kingdoms, as was the kingdom of Northumbria of which Aethelthryth became queen following her marriage to its prince, Ecgfrith, in 660.
Aethelthryth was in her mid-20s by then and her new husband, not yet the king, hardly more than 15 years old. Such an age difference seems scandalous in this day and age, but the real scandal for Aethelthryth was that she had been married before to a man named Tondbert, a prince of Southern Gyrwe.
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The marriage lasted no more than three years before Tondbert died and left Aethelthryth a widow, but more importantly for the religious community at Ely, he also left her something else: he gifted her the Isle of Ely, upon which the Abbey of Ely would later be founded. Aethelthryth retired there after her husband’s death in 655 to, according to the Liber Eliensis, “rejoice all the more that she was free in the liberty of Christ from the yoke of marriage, and she hoped that thus she had escaped from the encumbrances of the World.”
Alas, it was not to be so, and Aethelthryth was soon encumbered with the yoke of marriage once again. The daughter of a king was far too valuable as a political bargaining chip to be left languishing in widowhood.
Alliances between rulers of powerful kingdoms were made through marriage, and women like Aethelthryth who were given in this manner to forge bonds of family and kinship were powerful forces for peace, which is why they are referred to in some sources as frithuwebbe or “peace-weavers.”
The ancient Liber Eliensis manuscript tells a similar, if somewhat more dramatic tale, of Aethelthryth’s tearful, passionate pleas to her husband for the freedom to pursue her yearning desire to serve her one true love: the “celestial Bridegroom,” Jesus Christ. (Public domain)
From Queen To Abbess
For 12 years, Aethelthryth’s marriage to Ecgfrith formed part of the network of intermarriages that held together the alliance of southern kingdoms, but then in 672 the marriage was dissolved at Aethelthryth’s insistence.
According to the Venerable Bede’s version of events in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Aethelthryth begged her husband to release her from their marriage contract to allow her to retire from worldly affairs and serve Christ at a convent. The Liber Eliensis tells a similar, if somewhat more dramatic tale, of Aethelthryth’s tearful, passionate pleas to her husband for the freedom to pursue her yearning desire to serve her one true love: the “celestial Bridegroom,” Jesus Christ.
Ecgfrith did eventually reluctantly release her, apparently defeated by the fervor of her faith, and Aethelthryth was allowed to join the community of nuns at Coldingham Abbey led by Ecgfrith’s aunt, Abbess Ebba. From there she would go on to establish her own religious community at Ely one year later.
For a king to dissolve his marriage in this manner, particularly at his queen’s behest, was extremely controversial in early medieval England. The political repercussions would have been extreme: not only was Ecgfrith divorcing his wife, but he was also divorcing an entire network of alliances held together by their marriage.
Whether or not Aethelthryth instigated the divorce would not have mattered to those in her family that held power in neighboring kingdoms, who may have seen the divorce as an incitement to war. It is entirely possible that Wulfhere of Mercia’s (Aethelthryth’s nephew by marriage) invasion of Northumbria in 674 was in retaliation to the divorce.
Saint Aethelthryth of Ely from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold depicted in an illuminated manuscript in the British Library. (monk / Public domain)
A Controversial Divorce
So why would Ecgfrith make the decision to divorce Aethelthryth and open his kingdom up to war? Despite what the sources might say, it seems highly unlikely that Aethelthryth’s staunchness of faith would be sufficient reason for her husband to agree to a divorce. No doubt Aethelthryth’s unshakeable desire to maintain her virginity frustrated, even angered, her husband, but the political consequences of ending the marriage were too great.
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Aside from the breakdown of his alliances, for Ecgfrith to divorce his wife at her request went against the established gender hierarchy and would have been heavily frowned upon by Ecgfrith’s subjects. In the medieval era, women were expected to become sexually subservient to their husbands once married and a woman who defied this expectation was a danger not just to the institution of marriage, but to the very social fabric of society.
The church acted as both proprietors and guardians of marriage, and it is therefore very unlikely that any member of a religious order would have been complicit in Aethelthryth’s defiance, but this is exactly what the sources report.
Aethelthryth had a spiritual advisor, a man named Bishop Wilfrid (who was himself canonized as a saint after his death). According to both Bede’s account and the Liber Eliensis, although Ecgfrith offered Wilfrid much personal wealth and power if he would convince the queen to consummate their marriage, Wilfrid counselled her to keep her faith and maintain her vow of virginity. There are a multitude of spiritual reasons for Wilfrid to have taken such a stance, but it is also possible that, mindful of the political delicacy of the situation, Wilfrid in fact did not encourage Aethelthryth in her pursuit of chastity.
Bishop Wilfrid, Aethelthryth's trusted spiritual advisor, receiving a charter from King Caedwella. (Scanned by Michael Jones from a print by T.King / CC BY 2.5)
Was Queen Aethelthryth Barren?
The most important job for Aethelthryth as Queen and frithuwebbe, was to solidify the alliances made through marriage by producing an heir for her husband's throne. Ecgfrith may not have been particularly anxious to produce an heir, given that he had a younger brother named Aelfwine who could inherit and maintain the family’s claim to the throne. Nonetheless, an argument can be made that if a child could not be conceived, it could have given Ecgfrith enough reason to seek a dissolution of the marriage.
Ideas about conception and fertility in early medieval Europe were rooted in a system of scientific reasoning based almost entirely upon a theological view of the world. If a couple could not conceive, it was almost always assumed to be the woman’s fault, unless the man was impotent and physically unable to perform the act of insemination.
In Aethelthryth’s world, her husband would have been justified in spurning her, even sending her away, but in the eyes of the Church, not sufficient grounds for divorce. Perhaps, to uphold Aethelthryth’s honor and for Ecgfrith to be allowed to remarry, the story of an unconsummated marriage was concocted to appease the Church, accepted as factual when Bishop Wilfrid conveyed the story to the Bede to be recorded in the Historia.
Bright Fame on Earth is Thine!
History, however, would not remember Aethelthryth as a failed queen who was cast aside by a dissatisfied husband. Though revered for her earthly nobility, it was Aethelthryth’s heavenly virginity which was her most exalted characteristic. To accompany his tale of her life, Bede wrote a hymn to Aethelthryth praising her virtue:
“Queenly by birth, an earthly crown she wore,
Rightly noble; but a heavenly pleased her more.
Scorning the marriage bed, a virgin wife,
Twelve years she reigned, then sought a cloistered life.
Unspotted to her heavenly spouse she came,
Virgin in soul, her virgin robe and frame,
When sixteen winters they had lain entombed,
Christ willing it, still fresh and unconsumed.”
The final two lines of this verse refer to the most widely known part of Aethelthryth’s story, the legend of her exhumation and reburial sixteen years after her death. Her sister, Seaxburh, who had succeeded her as Abbess of Ely, decided to rebury the bones of her sister in a more prestigious tomb better suited to her status as founder of their beloved abbey.
When Aethelthryth’s bones were unearthed, those who were present to witness the event were stunned by the miracle they beheld: not bones or a rotting corpse, but a body that was “entirely beautiful, fully formed”. Aethelthryth’s body was untainted by decay as if she were asleep or had died and been buried only that same day. The physician, Cynifrid, who had attended Aethelthryth at her death even testified that the scar from a large tumor he had operated on prior to her death had miraculously healed as if it never existed.
The shrine of St. Etheldreda (dated 673 AD) within Ely Cathedral. (Francis Helminski / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Pure in Life, Untainted by Death
As outrageously fictional as this legend appears to the modern reader, it was a relatively common feature of hagiographies in this period. The uncorrupted flesh of a saint after their death was thought to be a reflection of their purity of spirit during life and a sign of one who was untainted by lust or desire.
Some of England’s most famous saints were reputed to be virginal, their bodies found whole and undecayed after their deaths: Saint Edmund the Martyr, captured by the Great Heathen Army and beheaded in 869, was found to have his severed head miraculously reattached to his body when later exhumed. So too was St Edward the Confessor said to lie whole and complete in his tomb, awaiting the day of resurrection.
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The difference between St Aethelthryth and her male counterparts is that while Edmund and Edward are reported to have remained virginal throughout their lives, their virginity is not the primary reason for their rise to sainthood.
For Aethelthryth, her virginity is what makes her a saint. The definition of saintliness was not set down in Church law until the year 1200, so before then ideas about what made someone a saint were more defined by convention and popular consensus. Before Christianity had spread through medieval England, it was common for both men and women to attain saintliness in the same way as Edmund did, through martyrdom.
Once Christianity became more widely accepted though, persecution of Christians occurred far less often and “confessor” saints became more common: those like Edward and Aethelthryth, who lived for their faith but did not die for it.
The Coronation of the Virgin. (Städel Museum / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Aethelthryth: The Virgin Bride Of Christ
For Aethelthryth, and many other female saints who would follow her, the ultimate act of faith was to take a vow of virginity. To pledge themselves in service to Christ as his bride, keeping themselves pure and chaste until their death when they would finally be united with their betrothed in Heaven. Or so we are led to believe.
The version of her story told by Bede, later repeated in the Liber Eliensis, came first-hand from Bishop Wilfrid, Aethelthryth’s spiritual advisor. Wilfrid personally attests to the absolute truth of Aethelthryth’s virginity and her strength of faith, but it is possible he was motivated to bend the truth for his own reasons. Did he seek to improve his own status in the Church through association with a holy person? Perhaps he, or Bede, saw Aethelthryth’s story as an opportunity to set a moral example for other Christians to follow?
Aethelthryth’s own voice is lost to us, so we will never know if she was truly as holy and pure of spirit as the sources say, or whether the stories told about her life are more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, Aethelthryth’s story reveals much about early medieval English society and women’s place within it. Although few now know her name, her story is one that deserves to be remembered.
Top image: Aethelthryth, like the Virgin Mary statue shown here, was an important English saint who defied two husbands at a time when such behavior was scandalous. She was the virgin queen, Queen Etheldreda. She endured, overcame and followed her pure spiritual heart. Source: Mehmed Hasan / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, revised by R. E. Latham. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955.
Bullimore, Katherine. “Unpicking the web: the divorce of Ecgfrith and Æthelthryth.” European Review of History 16, no. 6 (2009): pp. 835-854.
Elliott, Dyan. Spiritual marriage: sexual abstinence in medieval wedlock. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Liber Eliensis. Translated by Janet Fairweather. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2005.