Yeah, I’m late this week. Also I haven’t posted anything since the last Obscure Saint Blog.
St. Etheldreda, nicknamed St. Audrey, is one of a great many Anglo-Saxon saints from long long ago whose real names are completely impossible to think about, let alone pronounce: Æthelthryth. Yeah, you try it.
She was one of the Wuffings of East Anglia, meaning she lived in what’s now England at one of those times when most laypeople have no idea who ruled what or who was speaking what language. Probably Stonehengese, right? Her father was King Anna of East Anglia, and her mother was Saewara, who was apparently a devout Christian. Born in 636 CE, from an early age she was really into Jesus and being a nun.
Everything was peachy until her father Anna wanted her to marry for political reasons in 652. Taking a different approach from previous Obscure Saint Aldegundis, she agreed to the union on the condition that she be permitted to keep her virginity and live the life of a nun. Her new husband, Tondberct, chief of the South Gyrvians, agreed and gave her the Isle of Ely as a wedding present. They must have had a hell of a registry.
As a sidenote, apparently the name “Ely” was originally “Eel-y,” as in, “It’s a patch of dirt in the middle of a giant swamp full of eels.” Sadly it is no longer eel-y, since the swamp was drained in the 1700’s.
Tondberct died after three sexless years, though of causes unrelated to the sexlessness–namely, killed in battle. Maybe with eels. Afterwards she retired to the Isle of Ely for five years, once more living the nun’s life meant for her.
But again in 660, she was convinced to marry Ecgfrith, prince of Northumbria. At the time he was all of fourteen, so she ruled in his stead for ten years. In 670, when he finally ascended the throne, all hell broke loose in a complicated and tribal way that I won’t go into much. Basically, the Scots and Picts tried to take Northumbria, and Ecgfrith kicked their asses instead. After all this, the Dictionary of Saintly Women says he “had arrived at the age of passions,” the best phrase ever for hitting puberty, and of course wanted to have sex with his wife.
Since virginity = Godliness in these stories, obviously she refused. When Ecgfrith insisted, she ran away to her own lands of Ely. When the king chased her, God sent a high tide that lasted for seven days separating them–enough time for Ecgfrith to decide to give up and go home.
Once on Ely, she founded a famous double monastery there, which lasted until the Danes burned it down in 870. Did you even know the Danes invaded Britain? I didn’t. She died on quinsy, which is like tonsilitis but worse, there in 679. St. Audrey’s in London is the only pre-Reformation Catholic church in Britain.
Her saint day is June 23, so marry someone you’re not gonna have sex with.
ETYMOLOGICAL BONUS: The English word “tawdry” comes from a shortening of “St. Audrey,” since there was a yearly fair on Ely where cheap, tacky stuff was sold.
Life of Saint Aethelthryth (fair warning: this is in Old English, so it’s not so much useful as just kinda neat)