Book review: Etheldreda’s World: Princess, abbess, saint by Charles Moseley
07 JULY 2023
Sarah Foot considers a devout queen whose cult is still popular
IT IS 1350 years since an East Anglian princess, Æthelthryth, established the first religious community at Ely, the “isle of eels”. In the saint’s honour and to mark this anniversary, Charles Moseley has written an engaging and slightly quirky account of Etheldreda (her Latinised name), her world, and the afterlife of her cult. He is fortunate in his publishers, Merlin Unwin Books, who have created an attractive, slender volume with a few illustrations of appropriate medieval artefacts. Not a history, or a work of hagiography, Moseley’s book provides a meditation on sanctity and on the place of pilgrimage over time and in the modern world.
Etheldreda, daughter of the East Anglian king Anna, was born at Exning in west Suffolk. Her first marriage to a nobleman, Tondberht, proved short-lived (and never consummated); her second to the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith lasted for 12 unhappy years, during which Etheldreda continued to preserve her virginity. The intervention of Bishop Wilfrid enabled the two to separate and Etheldreda to become a nun.
After a short period with her husband’s aunt at the monastery of Coldingham, she returned to her native East Anglia in 673 and built the monastery at Ely, where she devoted her life to God as virgin mother of many virgins. Etheldreda died six years later of a tumour of the neck — punishment, she believed, for the lavish jewellery that she had enjoyed wearing in her youth. When her body was exhumed in 685 in the presence of bishop Wilfrid, it was found to be incorrupt. A cult rapidly developed, as miraculous cures were reported by those who had contact with her bodily remains, grave clothes, or coffin. Despite the vicissitudes of warfare, conquest, and Reformation, that cult persisted and grew in strength to remain popular today.
Moseley weaves this narrative with his own reflections on the nature of pre- and post-Conquest English society, particularly its material culture, and on the enduring significance of saints’ relics. He makes a strong case for the restoration to Ely Cathedral of the portion of a hand of St Etheldreda now in Ely Place, in Holborn.
Etheldreda’s World: Princess, abbess, saint
Merlin Unwin Books £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69