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Etheldreda, Saint

Queen of Northumbria, b. about 630; d. at Ely, June 23, 679

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Etheldreda, Saint, Queen of Northumbria, b. (probably) about 630; d. at Ely, June 23, 679. While still very young she was given in marriage by her father, Anna, King of East Anglia, to a certain Tonbert, a subordinate prince, from whom she received as morning gift a tract of land locally known as the Isle of Ely. She never lived in wedlock with Tonbert, however, and for five years after his early death was left to foster her vocation to religion. Her father then arranged for her a marriage of political convenience with Egfrid, son and heir to Oswy, King of Northumbria. From this second bridegroom, who is said to have been only fourteen years of age, she received certain lands at Hexham; through St. Wilfrid of York she gave these lands to found the minster of St. Andrew. St. Wilfrid was her friend and spiritual guide, but it was to him that Egfrid, on succeeding his father, appealed for the enforcement of his marital rights as against Etheldreda’s religious vocation. The bishop succeeded at first in persuading Egfrid to consent that Etheldreda should live for some time in peace as a sister of the Coldingham nunnery, founded by her aunt, St. Ebba, in what is now Berwickshire. But at last the imminent danger of being forcibly carried off by the king drove her to wander southwards, with only two women in attendance. They made their way to Etheldreda’s own estate of Ely, not, tradition said, without the interposition of miracles, and, on a spot hemmed in by morasses and the waters of the Ouse, the foundation of Ely Minster was begun. This region was Etheldreda’s native home, and her royal East Anglian relatives gave her the material means necessary for the execution of her holy design. St. Wilfrid had not yet returned from Rome, where he had obtained extraordinary privileges for her foundation from Benedict II, when she died of a plague which she herself, it is said, had circumstantially foretold. Her body was, throughout many succeeding centuries, an object of devout veneration in the famous church which grew up on her foundation. (See Diocese of Ely.) One hand of the saint is now venerated in the church of St. Etheldreda, Ely Place, London, which enjoys the distinction of being the first—and at present (1909) the only pre-Reformation church in Great Britain restored to Catholic worship. Built in the thirteenth century as a private chapel attached to the town residence of the Bishop of Ely, the structure of St. Etheldreda’s passed through many vicissitudes during the centuries following its desecration, until, in 1873-74, it was purchased by Father William Lockhart and occupied by the Institute of Charity, of whose English mission Father Lockhart was then superior.

E. MACPHERSON


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