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Saint Etheldreda
Born c. 636, Exning, Suffolk
Died June 23, 679, Ely, Cambridgeshire
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church; Anglican Communion; Eastern Orthodoxy
Major shrine St Etheldreda's Church, Ely Place, Holborn, London; Originally Ely Cathedral (now destroyed)
Feast June 23
Attributes Abbess holding a model of Ely Cathedral
Patronage Throat complaints

Æthelthryth, or Æðelþryð, (c. 636-June 23, 679) is the proper name for the popular Anglo-Saxon saint often known, particularly in a religious context, as Etheldreda or by the pet form of Audrey (or variations). She was an East Anglian princess, a Fenland queen and Abbess of Ely in the English county of Cambridgeshire.



Æthelthryth was probably born at Exning, near Newmarket in Suffolk. She was one of four daughters of King Annas of East Anglia (kd. 654), all of whom eventually retired from the world and founded abbeys.

Æthelthryth made an early first marriage (c. 652) to Tondberct, chief or prince of the South Gyrvians, or "fenmen" (gyr, Old English "fen") (d. 655). However, she managed to persuade her husband to respect her vow of perpetual virginity that she had made prior to their marriage. Upon his death in 655, Æthelthryth retired to the Isle of Ely, given to her as her "morning gift" by Tondberct.

Æthelthryth subsequently remarried in 660, this time to Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria again for political reasons. Shortly after Ecgfrith's accession to the throne [670 AD], Æthelthryth became a nun. This step possibly led to Ecgfrith's long quarrel with Wilfrid archbishop of York. One account holds that while Ecgfrith initially agreed that Æthelthryth should continue to remain a virgin, in about 672 he wished to consummate their marriage and even attempted to bribe Wilfrid to use his influence on the queen to convince her. This tactic failing, the king tried to take his queen from the cloister by force. Æthelthryth fled to Ely with two faithful nuns and managed to evade capture thanks, in part, to the miraculous rising of the tide. Ecfrith later married a second wife, Eormenburg, and expelled Wilfrid from his kingdom in 678. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelthryth founded the monastery at Ely in 673; the monastery was later destroyed in the Danish invasion of 870.


Bede tells how after her death, Æthelthryth's bones were disinterred by her sister and successor, Abbess Seaxburh of Ely, and buried in a white, marble coffin from Cambridge. The sister, Æthelthryth's niece, and great-niece, all royal princesses and two of them widowed queens (of Kent and Mercia), followed her as abbesses of Ely. In Ely Place, Holborn, London, there is a church dedicated to St Etheldreda. It was originally part of the palace of the Bishops of Ely. After the English Reformation, the palace was used by the Spanish Ambassadors, enabling Roman Catholic worship to continue in the church.

The common version of Æthelthryth's name was St. Awdrey, which is the origin of the word tawdry. Her admirers bought modestly concealing lace goods at an annual fair held in her name in Ely. As years passed, this lacework came to be seen as old-fashioned or cheap and poor quality goods. This was particularly so in the 17th century when some Puritans in eastern England looked down on any form of lacy dressiness.[1]

See also

The hymn 'Aethelthryth' by the Venerable Bede


  1. ^ Waite, Vincent (1964). Portrait of the Quantocks. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 0709111584.  

2. Virginia Blanton, Signs of Devotion: The Cult of St. AEthelthryth in Medieval England, 695-1615 (Penn State Press, 2007), ISBN 0271029846.

3. McCash, June Hall and Judith Clark Barban, ed. and trans. The Life of Saint Audrey. (McFarland, 2006), ISBN 0-7864-2653-5

4. M. Dockray-Miller, Saints Edith and Æthelthryth: Princesses, Miracle Workers, and their Late Medieval Audience. The Wilton Chronicle and the Wilton Life of St Æthelthryth, Turnhout 2009, Brepols Publishers, ISBN 978-2-503-52836-6

External links


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