Etheldreda of Ely

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Our venerable Mother Etheldreda of Ely, also Ethelthrith, Audrey, and Æthelthryth, was the third and most renowned of the saintly daughters of King Anna of East Anglia in seventh century Anglo-Saxon England. She founded and was the abbess of Ely Abbey. Her feast day is June 23.

Life

Etheldreda was the third of four daughters of the Christian King Anna and his wife Saewara. She was probably born at Exning in Suffolk in 636. Although she had ambitions to be a nun, in 652 she was married, against her will, to King Tondbert of South Gyrwe. He apparently recognized her desire for a monastic vocation and allowed Etheldreda to live as a nun during the three years of their marriage. Also, as part of their marriage agreement, Tondbert gave his wife an estate that became known as the Isle of Ely.

After the death of King Tondbert in 655, Etheldreda retired to Ely with a few friends to devote herself to religious meditation. After some five years, in 660, she was forced into a political marriage with the very young Egfrith, the second son of King Oswy of Northumbria. As she had, with Tonbert's consent, retained her virginity during the three years of their marriage, she also insisted upon doing so during the twelve years of her marriage to Egfrith. When, after he succeeded his father to the throne of Northumbria in 670, Egfrith became insistent on his rights as her husband Etheldreda fled to the monastery of Coldingham where she took the veil as a nun.

In 673, she returned to Ely with a few followers to found a monastic community for both men and women of which she was installed as abbess by Bishop Wilfrid of York. Etheldreda, living a strict ascetic life, led the community until her death on June 23, 679, apparently of bubonic plague during an epidemic. She was succeeded as abbess by her elder sister Sexburga, the widow of King Ercenbert of Kent, who had moved earlier from her monastery at Sheppey to Ely.

On October 17, 695, during the abbacy of St. Sexburga, the relics of St. Etheldreda was moved from the original humble wooden coffin to a marble Roman sarcophagus that had been discovered among the ruins of the town of Cambridge. The sarcophagus was then translated to a place near the altar of the monastery church.

Sources

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