St. Etheldreda (Audrey)

(D. 679 A.D.)

St. Etheldreda became the most popular of Anglo-Saxon women saints. She lived in the early era of the Germanic invasion of Britain. It was a rough age, but she was an excellent illustration of how these pagan invaders, once Christianized, could reach Christian perfection.

Etheldreda (or Aethelthryth in Anglo-Saxon) was daughter of Anna, king of the East Angles. Her parents must have been devout Catholics (or perhaps converts), for of their seven children, the five daughters came to be venerated as saints: Etheldreda. Sexburga, Ethelburga, Sethrid and Withburga. Indeed, after the king tied, their mother Hereswytha entered the convent in Paris. Especially for a royal family that was a pretty good record, even though today’s parents are not likely to choose the names of these five sainted women for their daughters!

Etheldreda showed an early desire to become a nun. But her father, for dynastic reasons, wanted her to marry Tonbert, prince of the South Gyrwas, aged 16. She consented, but apparently on the understanding that they would live as brother and sister. Tonbert died soon after, leaving his widow free to take the veil. But now her uncle Ethelwold asked her to marry Egfrid, son of King Oswy of Northumberland. She agreed, but on the same virginal understanding as before. Egfrid went along, and even allowed her to become a nun for a period. Eventually, however, he demanded that she return to him as a full-fledged spouse. Rather than forfeit her calling, Etheldreda, though by now queen, took flight to her property, the “Island of Ely.” St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, defended her choice against King Egfrid.

Liberated, Queen Eltheldreda, around 672, founded at Ely a “double monastery” (one building for nuns, one for monks). She did a good job as abbess of both monastic houses. She lived austerely, spent her nights mostly in prayer, and worked to promote holiness among her people. As respect for her grew, her influence increased. Women of the highest nobility sought her counsel and entrusted to her the education of their children. She also had the gift of prophecy. Most notable of her prophecies was that of her own death by plague, and the exact number of her monks and nuns who would be carried off by the same epidemic. She died June 23, 679. When her body was disinterred 16 years later, it was found incorrupt.

Reports of her miracles brought countless pilgrims to the shrine of the queenly abbess. As usually happens, the shopkeepers at Ely began to sell religious items and other souvenirs to those who visited the tomb. Now the name of the saint had been simplified to St. Audrey. This name became popularly applied to the souvenirs on sale at Ely: “St. Audrey stuff.” From this evolved the expression “tawdry stuff.” Thus another word was added to the language: “tawdry,” meaning cheap and gaudy.

During the English Reformation, the government decreed the destruction of all sorts of “superstitions” in England. This included the bodies of saints. Fortunately, one hand of Audrey, incorrupt, was preserved. It is now venerated in the Catholic parish Church of St. Etheldreda in Ely. In London there had been a Chapel of St. Etheldreda from the 13th century on. This came into Catholic hands in 1873, and it remains the only pre-Reformation church building in London used for Catholic worship.

It was no fault of St. Audrey that her name should have been attached to cheap and gaudy ornaments. There was nothing personally cheap or gaudy about this queenly and gifted Anglo-Saxon nun. She was a genuine jewel!

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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