Discovering St Eadburh of Lyminge

Followers of this blog who have delved into the list of suggested reading may have downloaded my paper ‘Antiquarians, Victorian Parsons and Re-writing the Past: How Lyminge Parish Church acquired an invented dedication’, which was published in Archaeologia Cantiana, the journal of the Kent Archaeological Society, in 2017.  This explores how the Rector of Lyminge in 1897, Robert Eves, decided to change the dedication of the church from St Mary and St Eadburg to St Mary and St Ethelburga.  He knew that the church was believed to have been founded by Queen Ethelburga around 633, and in this he was almost certainly correct.  Where he was wrong was in believing that the dedication was a variation of the name Ethelburga, (or Æthelburh in Old English).  In fact the church was dedicated to St Eadburg, (or St Eadburh in Old English), the Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet who died in 751 and whose body had been translated to a shrine at Lyminge by the year 804 when her presence is recorded in a charter.

I was helped in writing that paper by Dr Rosalind Love, Head of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, who kindly shared her thoughts and the text of a manuscript she had studied in the library of Hereford Cathedral.  This was an account of the life and miracles of St Eadburh, which clearly placed her shrine in the church at Lyminge close to the holy well named after her.

RSW Poster image

The view above is well-known to residents of Lyminge, showing the public pump-house that was erected in 1898 over the perpetual spring that is one of the sources of the Nailbourne.  After the recent wet weather, this river is flowing strongly at the present time, but often it is dry for much of its course.  It runs north from Lyminge to join the Little Stour near Littlebourne and then on to join the Great Stour which flows into the sea near Sandwich.  Until the end of the 19th Century, this spring was known as St Eadburg’s Well, and like the church was only re-named after St Ethelburga because it was thought St Eadburg was a variant spelling of the name Ethelburga.

Dr Love has now published the Hereford Life and Miracles of St Eadburh, and provides an interesting discussion on when it was probably written.  She believes this was around the year 1000, when Lyminge had come into the possession of the Archbishops of Canterbury.  Her paper gives a full Latin text with a translation into English.

There is little likelihood that the miracles recorded for St Eadburh are the record of actual events.  They are in many respects a commonplace collection of the kind of miracles often found in hagiographies written about this time.  It is thought possible that there was increased interest in the lives and miracles of saints around the end of the 10th Century because this is when England was being badly oppressed by Viking raids, and the defence of the country under King Ethelred the Unrede (which means ‘ the poorly advised‘) was not going well.  Indeed, there was a view at the time that things were going badly not least because the ancient saints of the country were being neglected and their powers ignored.  Hagiographies written at this time, like that for St Eadburh, were intended to draw attention to these largely-forgotten saints whose powers could and should be called upon once more to protect the interests of the kingdom, as they had in the past.

For anyone who knows Lyminge and the spring in Well Field, or who saw Queen Ethelburga’s church when it was excavated last summer, the Life and Miracles of St Eadburh provide a vivid link back to the 990s when the shrine was still active and attracting pilgrims.  You can read the full hagiography yourself, but here is a taster of the somewhat dramatic power attributed to our patron saint:

Also, two men were sitting on the privy for the emptying of their bowels. And one of them had committed a theft. Then, as is wont to happen, they began to talk about the matter. And the innocent man said to the guilty one “You weren’t thinking fairly, mark you, when you went stealing other people’s things, but put it right, I beg you, by giving things back. For we are all sure that you are the thief in this case”. But the other man said, “May the Lord, examiner of all secrets, and the blessed virgin EADBURH, whose place I am now looking at, never let me rise from this spot alive and well if I have perpetrated the crime of theft of which you accuse me”. For from the spot in which they were then seated for their bodily need, he could see the church in which the holy virgin lay at rest.  And then upon voicing that most wretched of choices, he instantly poured out all the entrails of his guts through his back passage, and as his voice had requested, he did not rise up alive from that spot.

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