The Royal Saxon Women of the Royal Saxon Way

Æthelburh Princess of Kent and Queen of Northumbria


Icon of St Ethelburga in St Mary and St Ethelburga, Lyminge

Æthelburh, more commonly known today by the latinised form of her name Ethelburga, was the daughter of King Æthelberht I of Kent and Queen Bertha.  We do not know when she was born, but she married King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 and she could have been as young as 14 or 15 at that time, and probably no older than 20.

Æthelburh is mentioned by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed c. 733) as taking a key role in the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity.  It was a condition of her marriage to King Edwin that he adopted the Christian faith.  Bede records that Pope Boniface wrote to both Æthelburh and Edwin to encourage them in the Christian mission.  This was so significant because Edwin was at the time the paramount king (or Bretwalda) of Anglo-Saxon England, and his conversion to Christianity was of immense political significance.

The early years of Edwin’s reign were remembered as a period of peace and stability when a woman and child could walk unmolested the length of the country.  However, in 633, Edwin was slain in battle at Hatfield Chase near Doncaster fighting the pagan King Penda of Mercia and the Christian King Cadwallon of Gwynedd.  Æthelburh fled back to Kent with her children, seeking sanctuary with her brother King Eadbald.  He gave her the royal estate of Lyminge, and it is highly likely that she lived initially within the complex of great halls discovered in recent years on Tayne Field within the village.

As a Christian,  Æthelburh would have needed a church and it is most likely that she founded the first church in Lyminge on the chalk promontory above the springhead of the River Nailbourne where the parish church remains to this day.  The excavation in the churchyard in 2019 suggests that the masonry church that is the subject of the Pathways to the Past project was her church, built in a single phase around the middle of the 7th Century.  Æthelburh is also credited with founding one of the first monasteries in southern England.  In retiring to Lyminge with a community of women, she was following in the family tradition of her Frankish grandmother Ingoberga and her great great grandmother St Clothilde.

Æthelburh seems to have continued to exercise some influence in the politics of the kingdom, and in the early 640s, her daughter Eanflaed was betrothed to King Oswiu of Northumbria.  You can read more about this union below.

Æthelburh died in 647 and was buried in Lyminge.  It is unclear whether her “monastery” survived her death, or whether it was refounded at the end of the 7th Century around her mortuary chapel.  We know from charter evidence that the monastery was in existence in 697, and the archaeological evidence is consistent with this.  Earlier evidence for monastic activity is currently lacking.  There is a description of Æthelburh’s tomb dating to the 1090s which describes it as a ‘prominent and majestic monument’, and this fits with the porticus (or side chapel) found in the excavation.

23 Jul Porticus 2

The north porticus of the 7th Century church at Lyminge, possible site of Æthelburh’s tomb

However, sadly, her relics were removed from Lyminge by Archbishop Lanfranc in 1085 to endow his new foundation of St Gregory’s in Canterbury.  The relics apparently remained there until the dissolution of the monasteries, and it is most likely that they were taken from their shrine and quietly buried in around 1537 when St Gregory’s Priory was suppressed by the Commissioners of King Henry VIII.

Eanswythe Princess of Kent

Shrine of St Eanswythe

Shrine of St Eanswythe (to the right of the candle) at St Mary and St Eanswythe, Folkestone

Eanswythe was the daughter of King Eadbald of Kent and his Frankish Queen Ymme, and thus she was the niece of Queen Æthelburh.  There is a tradition that she founded a monastery at Folkestone in or around 630, but this is now thought very unlikely.  Her parents were not married until around 624, so she can only have been born in the period from around 625 up to 641, if she was born after her father’s death.  Any church she founded is most likely to have been built a decade or two after 630.

The source for the life of St Eanswythe is a collection of saints’ lives put together by a monk of St Albans Abbey called John of Tynemouth in the mid 14th Century.  John travelled extensively around the monastic houses of England collecting stories about the many saints he encountered, some of whom were very localised, in order to create a great national compendium of the Lives of the Saints.  We know from surviving manuscripts that he copied from his sources reasonably accurately.  This gives us some confidence that where John is the only surviving source for some of the stories, as he is with St Eanswythe, his account is likely to be close to the original.  However, we have no idea how old this original source was.

Based on John’s account, it would seem that King Eadbald had ambitions to use his daughter in much the same way as he had used his sister Æthelburh to promote the conversion of pagan areas of the country to Christianity.  However, Eanswythe was having none of this and rejected her pagan suitor, demonstrating a remarkable independence of mind and a strong will.  Instead, she opted to found a monastery.  At the time, this was a radical act, but within a few years, the role of royal women as abbesses became very well-established.  The purpose of abbeys, which were almost all led by women, was to pray for the King, the royal family and the Kingdom as a whole.  In this intensely spiritual age, prayer was seen as fighting against the forces of darkness to protect the interests of the kingdom, a parallel activity of equal importance to the conflict that the King might wage on the battlefield with his warriors.  Eanswythe’s choice to found a monastery rather than marry a pagan prince can be seen very much as a political act in which she dedicated herself to the interests of the kingdom, protecting it through the prayer and devotions of her community at Folkestone.

Eanswythe’s original foundation of a monastery was probably on the promontory cliff where the parish church of Folkestone still stands, but most likely further south and thus long-since lost to erosion.  In fact the current church was built in the years after 1137 and is the third church in this area to be dedicated to St Eanswythe.  We can imagine that Eanswythe’s original church looked very like the church built by her aunt at Lyminge, which was uncovered during the summer of 2019.

During renovations in 1885, a lead casket was found buried in the chancel wall of the church.  Upon inspection, this was found to contain the bones of what was thought to be a young woman.  The bones were re-examined in early 2020 and were confirmed as those of one well-nourished individual, probably female, aged around 17-21.  The radio carbon-date obtained indicated a date of death around 641-61, which fitted perfectly with the likely life and death of Easnswythe.  It now seems beyond all reasonable doubt that the bones of Eanswythe were preserved at Folkestone from the mid 7th Century, making it extremely likely that she did found a church there, probably at some point in the period 640-60.

The reliquary in which the bones were found are thought to be made from a fragment of Roman lead coffin some time in the 8th or 9th Century.  It now seems most probable that this reliquary was concealed in a chamber in the wall below the original shrine at the time of the Reformation under King Henry VIII in the 1530s, when all saint’s shrines across the whole country were destroyed.  The reliquary is today still housed in the original shrine in the chancel of the church which also still remains dedicated to St Eanswythe.  It is the only parish church in England still known to contain the relics of its original patron saint.  These relics are a unique and very tangible link back to this earliest phase of the conversion of England to Christianity in the 7th Century.

Eanflæd Princess of Kent and Queen of Northumbria

Eanflæd was born in Northumbria and followed her mother Æthelburh into exile in Kent when her father King Edwin was killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633.  It seems highly probable, therefore, that for a period of time, Eanflæd lived with her mother in Lyminge.

Between 642 and 644, King Eorcenberht of Kent, Eanflæd’s cousin, negotiated a marriage alliance with Oswiu who had succeeded to the throne of Northumbria.  At that time, Northumbria was not a truly united kingdom, and many people still considered themselves to come either from Bernicia (roughly Northumberland and County Durham) or Deira (roughly Yorkshire).  Oswiu was from the royal house of Bernicia.  Eanflæd, through her father Edwin, was from the royal house of Deira.  Their marriage united the two houses in a perfect alliance.

Oswiu had succeeded to the throne on the death in battle of his brother Oswald in 642, fighting the same King Penda of Mercia who had killed King Edwin.  Oswald had grown up on the holy island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland, and during his lifetime had established a great reputation for piety.  Very soon after his death, miracles began to be attributed to him and in the years that followed, he became one of the foremost saints of northern England.  But his popularity was distinctly northern.  It is therefore very curious that the only ancient dedication of a church to St Oswald in southern England should be in Paddlesworth, a church that has been associated with Lyminge since before the Norman Conquest.  It would have been fitting for Eanflæd, before her marriage to Oswiu, to found a church and dedicate it to her martyred future brother-in-law.  Whether this can ever be proved, and whether we will ever discover the remains of a 7th Century church in or around the present church (which dates to shortly after the Norman Conquest) remains to be seen.

Eanflæd had a significant influence on King Oswiu who reigned until 670.  From the point of view of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Christianity, one of the most significant events was brought about by Eanflæd, or at least she had a significant impact on its outcome.  This was the Synod of Whitby in 664, where it was debated whether the church should follow the “Celtic” traditions of Iona and Ireland, or the Roman traditions brought over by St Augustine when he came to convert the Kingdom of Kent in 597.  A very tangible (but not the only) difference between the two traditions was the date of Easter.  This frequently meant that Queen Eanflæd, who followed the Roman rite, was still in Lent when her husband, who followed the Celtic rite, was celebrating Easter.  After lengthy and sometimes difficult debate, the King eventually decided in favour of adopting the Roman rite, contrary to his whole upbringing and practice up to that point.  Though the historical account is silent on the matter, one can’t help feeling that Eanflæd may have had a lot to do with this.

Eanflæd’s influence extended further than Whitby and for a period she was patron to St Wilfrid, one of the great movers and shakers of the church in the second half of the 7th Century.  Wilfrid was one of the primary proponents of the Roman rite at the Synod of Whitby.  He was immensely influential but also was heavily involved in the politics of the period and didn’t always come out on top.  He subsequently went on to convert the South Saxons and founded a see at Selsey, near Chichester.

Following Oswiu’s death, Eanflæd retired to the Abbey of Whitby where she succeeded St Hild as abbess.  She died at some point between 685 and 704.

Æbbe (also known as Domne Eafe) Princess of Kent

Æbbe was the daughter of Eormenred, a younger son of King Eadbald of Kent, and thus a niece of St Eanswythe.  The kingship of Kent passed from Eadbald to his son Eorcenberht and then in 664 to Eorcenberht’s son Ecgberht.  Æbbe was thus the cousin of the king.

It would seem that Ecgberht did not feel secure in his throne and, depending on the version of the story, either procured or at least connived at the murder of his cousins Æthelred and Æthelberht, Æbbe’s brothers.  The two boys were buried in the royal hall at Eastry, but the story as recorded in the Kentish Royal Legend, is that the burial place was miraculously revealed by a heavenly light.  Faced with the evidence of his crime, King Ecgberht had to pay a blood-price to the boys’ sister Æbbe.

It was recorded that Æbbe claimed as the blood-price the amount of land that her tame hind could run around in a single lap.  In the event, either through divine guidance, or because the hind went where Æbbe led it, she was able to claim an estate amounting to some 200 acres on the Isle of Thanet.  There at Minster she founded an abbey dedicated to St Mary the Virgin.

Mildryth Princess of Kent

Shrine of St Mildreth

Shrine of St Mildryth containing her relics in the chapel at Minster Abbey

Mildryth was Æbbe’s daughter.  Through her father Merewalh she was also a princess of Mercia, since his father was the King Penda who had killed King Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633.

Æbbe sent Mildryth away to the monastery at Chelles in Francia (the area now largely occupied by France) in order to learn the way of being a nun.  At that time in the 670s or 680s, monasticism was much more developed in Francia than it was amongst the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  Mildryth would have learned not just what it was like to be a nun but would also have seen what it meant to run an abbey and to support the spiritual interests of the ruling family, her royal cousins in Francia.

Upon her return to Kent, Mildryth joined her mother at Minster, where by 694 she had become abbess.  She died some time after 732 and was initially buried in the abbey church of St Mary.  However subsequently her successor Eadburh founded a new abbey dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, where the abbey in Minster is today, and Mildryth’s remains were translated there by around 748.

Mildryth became a very popular local saint and her shrine was the subject of much pilgrimage during the Anglo-Saxon period.  However, by the 11th Century, most of the old Kentish royal monasteries had been taken over by other monasteries and the abbey in Minster had come into the possession of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.  In 1030, the Abbot of St Augustine’s led a party of monks to seize St Mildryth’s relics and carry them back to Canterbury.  When the residents of Mildryth learned what was happening they banded together and attacked the monks who beat a hasty retreat.  However, the monks had already achieved what they set out to do and they carried away St Mildryth who remained ever afterwards at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.

The church dedications to St Mildryth in the Pas de Calais suggest that her influence extended across the English Channel, either in life or in death.  In the 11th Century, she was popular enough that some of her relics were given to the church at Deventer in what is now the Netherlands.  Miraculously, these have survived, and when a benedictine convent was re-founded in the 20th Century in Minster on the site of the abbey, the relics were returned to their original home.  Remarkably, therefore, the shrine of St Mildryth at Minster holds once again relics that were first translated there in the middle of the 8th Century.

Eadburh Princess of Wessex

Mildreth Domneva Eadburg at Minster

Embroidery showing Sts Domne Eafe, Mildryth and Eadburh, in the chapel at Minster Abbey

Mildryth’s successor as abbess at Minster was Eadburh (or in the latinised form of her name Eadburga or Edburg).  However, she is not quite so easy to pin down as the other royal women described in this account.  There are several Eadburhs known from the Anglo-Saxon period, but it is not absolutely certain who the Eadburh at Minster actually was.  A plausible case has been made for her to be the daughter of King Centwine of Wessex, and the abbess who is known to have been a correspondent with St Boniface, the missionary saint in what is now Germany who became Archbishop of Mainz in 745.

As abbess, Eadburh set to work promoting the cult of St Mildryth and building for her a new abbey in which she created a shrine.  This work was clearly successful, as St Mildryth gained considerable popularity and was the subject of high levels of pilgrimage from within England and the Low Countries.  It certainly encouraged St Augustine’s Abbey to want to have her relics at their abbey in Canterbury.

Until recently, little more could be said about Eadburh.  However, a manuscript in the Cathedral Library at Hereford has recently been identified as the sole surviving copy of a Life and Miracles of St Eadburh.  This is a manuscript dating to around the year 1000, and it relates that the shrine of St Eadburh, Abbess of Minster, is at Lyminge.  This is curious, but we know from charter evidence that Lyminge and Minster were under the rule of a single abbess, Selethryth, in the early 9th Century and that the blessed Eadburh was buried at Lyminge by 804.  Selethryth is an unusual name, and it seems highly likely that she was the same Selethryth who was sister to one of the powerful nobles at the court of the King of Mercia.  At this time, it was Mercia that was dominating the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England, and there is good reason to see Selethryth as securing the interests of the King of Mercia through prayer, just as royal women had been doing for the past century and half for the Kings of Kent.

It is quite possible that Selethryth moved Eadburh’s relics to Lyminge as part of a plan to promote her cult there and develop pilgrimage, just as Eadburh herself had done with St Mildryth in Minster.  Although this does not seem to have been quite as successful as the efforts with Mildryth, the profile of Eadburh must have been sufficiently great to justify the creation of a hagiography (or holy biography) around the year 1000.  By this time Lyminge was in the possession of Christ Church, the monastic house associated with the Cathedral in Canterbury.   Not long afterwards in 1085, Archbishop Lanfranc  thought Eadburh’s relics were of sufficient value to justify translating them to his new foundation of St Gregory’s in Canterbury, along with those of Queen Æthelburh.

Over time, it was gradually forgotten who Eadburh was.  The church at Lyminge remained dedicated to St Mary and St Eadburg, but it was also well-known that the church had been founded by Queen Æthelburh.  Over time, it was thought that the name Eadburh (or in latin Edburga) must be a variant of the name  Æthelburh (or in latin Ethelburga), so it came to be believed that the church in Lyminge was actually dedicated to St Mary and St Ethelburga.  Eventually, in 1897, the Rector of Lyminge actually started calling the church St Mary and St Ethelburga, and this is the dedication it holds to this day.  Sadly, for many years, St Eadburh, the Abbess of Minster, has been forgotten.  Through the Royal Saxon Way, we hope to bring her back into the spotlight and restore her rightful position as the patron saint of Lyminge, alongside the founder St Ethelburga.