Orthodox America

  Orthodoxy’s Western Heritage – Saintly British Abbesses

Saint Hilda of Whitby
Saint Etheldreda of Ely

Saint Leoba
Saint Walburga

     Our last feature devoted to Orthodoxy's Western Heritage (OA #57) focused on the "Holy Isle" of Lindesfarne and the Golden Age of Christian missionary work in Britain--the seventh century which witnessed the apostolic labors of St. Aidan, St. Cuthbert, the brother Saints Chad, Cedd, and their disciples. To those acquainted with this period, these are the names which first come to mind. Less familiar, perhaps, are the names of those women who were also to be found laboring in the mission fields from the early morning of Britain's Christianization. While history tends to be more generous in its treatment of men, we are fortunate that the British chronicler of this period, the Venerable Bede, was justifiably impressed by the rich contribution made by women in rooting Christianity into British soil and recorded the particulars for the inspiration of posterity.

    There is more to growing a garden than scattering seed. The new shoots must be carefully nurtured, watered and cultivated. Just so, the Christian dedication of these women--whether as mothers or monastics--was no less vital to the eternal harvest of souls than the preaching and teaching of Britain's apostles.

    Not a few of these saintly women were born or married into the most intimate circles of English royalty where, one can say without exaggeration, some had a direct influence on the history of the country. It was, for example, Queen Ethelburga, daughter of King Ethelbert of Kent, who persuaded her husband, King Edwin of Northumbria, to be baptized. Although King Edwin died in battle against the pagan Mercians only six years later in 633, his official recognition of Christianity greatly facilitated its spread within his realm.[commemorated as a martyr, October 12]. His widowed Queen returned to her homeland of Kent where she established and governed a double monastery for monks and nuns at Lyminge. It is quite certain that her daughter Eanfled was raised there. Like her mother, Eanfled married a king, Oswy, and after his death entered the monastic life; with her daughter Aelffled, she became a joint abbess of Whitby, another double monastery.

    Altogether there are records of over thirty abbesses in Britain canonized by the early Church. Many of them lived in the 7th or 8th centuries, a time of expansion at home and mission in Europe. The monastic communities over which they presided helped spread the ideal of Christian piety and served as centers of theological learning. As we have seen, it was not uncommon for these communities to include both men and women, a tradition already established in northern France where English girls of noble families were often sent for their education. Whether it was a question of finance, simplicity of organization or greater protection for the nuns in a turbulent age, it is impossible to say. The arrangement was acceptable to all, and no scandals seem to have resulted.

Some of these double ministers acquired a considerable reputation under the leadership of their abbesses who became justly renown for their spiritual discernment, theological scholarship and sanctity of life. Printed below are the lives of four saintly British abbesses, compiled for "OA" by a British Orthodox nun. 


Saint Hilda of Whitby
November 17th 

When King Edwin of Northumbria was preparing for baptism, he was instructed in the Faith by the Queen's chaplain, Paulinus, who had been sent from Rome to England in 601 to help St. Augustine in his apostolic mission. (At that time, of course, Rome was still part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.) Living then at the court was the King's grandniece Hilda. Undoubtedly, she also heard Paulinus' teaching, and together with the King and his two sons she was baptized on the holy Feast of Pascha, 627. She was thirteen.

     While Hilda was still an infant, her mother had a dream that she was searching for her banished husband. Although she failed to find him, she discovered something very precious under her garments: a valuable jewel that cast alight so brilliant that all Britain was illuminated by its rays. This dream was fulfilled in her daughter.

    Hilda continued to live at court until she was thirty-three years old, that is, exactly half way through her life. She had, however, always longed for the monastic life, and prepared to join her sister who was already a nun in France. But Bishop Aidan, the saintly abbot of Lindesfarne, recognized her innate spiritual wisdom and persuaded Hilda to undertake her monastic labors on her native soil. Under his guidance she spent a year with a few like-minded companions observing the monastic rule. Soon after her profession she became abbess of a small monastery at Hartlepool, founded by the pious Hieu who is believed to be the first woman in Northumbria to take the monastic vows. There Hilda was often visited by her spiritual mentor, Bishop Aidan, and others who helped prepare her for the increased responsibilities of governing the double monastery which she founded eight years later at Whitby. There the monastics held everything in common and lived a strict, well regulated life, the quarters for men and women being kept entirely separate. Hilda insisted on study of the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, and proper preparation for the priesthood, teaching the monks and nuns by both precept and example. Five of the monks under her care later became bishops, three of whom were glorified as saints. The fame of her holy life spread, so that not only the laity but also clergy and rulers came from afar seeking her advice. Even those who had no direct contact with her profited simply by hearing of her holy life and labors. Bede wrote: "All who knew her called her 'Mother,' such were her wonderful godliness and grace."

     One day in the monastery a worker called Caedmon came to the abbess to relate an extraordinary dream. He was a simple, unlearned man, self-conscious because of his inability to sing to the harp and recite poetry as others did as entertainment at feasts. That evening when he saw the harp being passed his way, he had left and returned disconsolately toms bed in the stables. Falling asleep, he dreamed that someone came and asked him to sing. He said sadly that he didn't know how. "But you shall sing to me." was the reply. "Sing about God's creation." Immediately Caedmon began to sing in praise of God verses he had never known before. When Abbess Hilda heard his beautiful, moving poem, she realized that this was a gift of God. From that time on Caedmon composed devotional songs of such great sweetness and power, that many were moved to greater piety. Until then, all religious writings had been in Latin, the language of the educated. Now for the first time people could hear of Christ's Passion, Resurrection and Ascension in verses in their own tongue--English.

    Because of a dispute between the Roman and Celtic Churches over the computation of the date of Pascha, a Synod was convened in Abbess Hilda's monastery at Whitby in the year 664. A decision was finally reached to follow the Roman practice, as propounded by St. Wilfrid, oneof her former monks, who had visited Rome several times. Inclined to the Celtic tradition of her spiritual mentor, Abbess Hilda nevertheless humbly accepted the change, though not ail the Celtic Church felt able to do so at the time.

    For six years towards the end of her life, the saintly abbess suffered from a painful illness. But she continued to instruct her flock and until the moment of her death never ceased thanking God for her purifying trial. The very night of her repose, a nun in another monastery founded by Hilda was woken by the bell which was normally tolled at the passing away of a nun, and she saw Hilda's soul being guided to heaven by angels in a cloud of light. She informed her abbess of the vision, and all the nuns were called to prayer and the reading of the Psalter. In the morning news reached them confirming that St. Hilda had died that night. She is commemorated November 17th.


Saint Etheldreda of Ely
June 23  

    St. Etheldreda was formerly one of the most venerated of all Anglo-Saxon women saints. Unfortunately we know very little of her life. She was born about the year 630, the daughter of King Anna of the East Angles. Though twice married, she retained her virginity. Her first husband, a very pious man, died soon after they were wed. Her second husband, King Egfrid, after twelve years of a brother-sister relationship, begged Bishop Wilfrid to persuade the Queen to consummate the marriage, promising him great wealth. Failing in his desire, her husband finally conceded to her request to enter a convent where she could serve Christ alone. A year later she built a double monastery at Ely, on the site of the present Cathedral, and became its abbess. 

    All revered Ethelreda for her strict ascetic life and loved her for her grace. She foretold the coming of a plague, indicating how many sisters would die of it; this included herself. Three days before her death in 679, a doctor made a large incision on a painful tumor under her jaw to drain away the poisonous matter, and this relieved her for a time. She nevertheless welcomed the pain, saying that as a girl she had loved to adorn herself with jewelry and necklaces, [1] so God was allowing her through the pain to be released from the guilt of vanity. "Now I wear a burning red tumor on my neck instead of gold and pearls."

    Sixteen years after her death, her sister St. Sexburga, who succeeded Etheldreda as abbess, wished to transfer her remains into the church. When the coffin was opened, her body was found to be completely free of decay; the very cloths in which she was wrapped looked fresh and new. And to everyone's amazement, the incision on her neck had healed, a fact confirmed by the same doctor who had operated on her.

    For many years miracles occurred at her tomb which became a center of pilgrimage. Numerous churches were dedicated to her, and countless girls were given her name (which was gradualIy corrupted to Audrey). To this day her hand remains incorrupt and can be venerated in a Roman Catholic church in Ely. St. Etheldreda is commemorated June 23.


Saint Leoba
September 28 

     In the eighth century Christianity was preached throughout Germany and in the Netherlands by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, the greatest of whom was undoubtedly Boniface. Pope Gregory blessed his work and ordained him bishop. Having baptized many thousands of pagans and built numerous churches, Boniface decided to strengthen the new converts by erecting monasteries as centers of spiritual life. For this purpose he sent to England to Abbess Tetta of Wimborne for thirty of her nuns, under his kinswoman Leoba, to support him in his work.

    Leoba came from a pious noble family. Her mother, who was barren, dreamed in old age that a church bell was in her bosom. As she pulled it out it rang merrily. Her old nurse interpreted it to mean that she would bear a daughter, whom she must give to God. And indeed, in the year 700 a girl was born. She was called Thrutgeba with the added name Leoba meaning "beloved," and by this name she was always known. In gratitude to God, her parents gave Leoba, while she was still quite young--into the care of Abbess Tetta.

    Tetta ruled strictly and with discretion over the double monastery, not allowing even clerics into the community of nuns. She instructed them with loving care, and here Leoba received excellent training. She herself was intelligent, industrious and virtuous. She strove to imitate any nun' s individual good qualities, especially charity. One night she had a dream that a purple thread was coming out of her mouth, so long that she wound it into a ball. An aged pun interpreted this thread as wise spiritual counsels, and the pulling with her hand indicated action as well as words.

    At Boniface's request, Abbess Tetta reluctantly allowed Leoba to join him with her nuns, and he made her abbess of a large monastery at Bischofsheim. So excellent was Leoba's training in monastic life that many of her nuns became superiors of other monasteries, They were hard-working and educated to read and write in English and Latin, so as to be a support to the missionary priests. Leoba herself was always careful not to teach others what she did not carry out herself. She was universal in charity, patient, always cheerful, never ruffled, angelic in face, prudent, learned in the Scriptures, the Fathers and ecclesiastical law. It is said that the Scriptures were never out of her hand. People came to her in need or danger, bishops and royalty sought her advice.

    But the devil tried to disrupt the peace of the monastery. A cripple girl who used to beg at the monastery gate, and was indeed fed and clothed and cared for by the nuns, became pregnant. When the child was born she killed it in fear and threw it into a nearby stream, thus polluting the village water. A woman saw it there, screamed in horror and roused the whole village against the nuns, accusing them of the crime. St. Leoba calmly ordered the nuns to recite the entire Psalter with hands outstretched in the form of a cross, and then to process three times round the church with a crucifix. Afterward:, with hands upraised, she pleaded to God to deliver the community from this reproach. At this the cripple girl loudly called out and publicly confessed her crime. Freed from this sinister rumor, the reputation of the monastery was much enhanced, and people turned more and more frequently to Leoba when in distress.

     Once, when a fire threatened to destroy the entire village, everyone ran in terror to Leoba. She poured some salt which had been blessed by St. Boniface into a bucket of water, told them to throw it into the stream and use water further downstream to extinguish the flames. They obeyed, and to their great astonishment the fire was immediately quenched. On another occasion a violent storm which' was doing great damage terrified the villagers who again rushed to Leoba for protection. She calmed them down and, quietly opening wide the church door, made the sign of the cross in the air, praying to the Mother of God for aid. Her prayer was answered: the winds changed direction, the thunderbolts ceased and the sky cleared.

     One of her nuns was afflicted with a painful disease of the bowels and was growing weaker daily. Her parents asked Leoba to pray for a speedy death. When the Abbess came to her bedside, she found everyone weeping because the nun had already passed away. Unperturbed, Leoba, with her own little spoon, put a few drops of milk she had blessed into the nun's mouth. Gradually the nun showed signs of life; she opened her eyes and spoke. Within a week the nun was able to walk back to the monastery from which she had been carried in a litter.

    News of such holiness aroused religious fervor, so that many nobles entrusted their daughters into Leoba's care. King Pippin of the Franks and his two sons venerated her greatly, and Queen Hildegarde loved her as her own soul and wished to keep her at court, but such a life had no place in Leoba's heart and she would not be persuaded for anything in the world, instead she visited the various convents which she had founded, encouraging the nuns and giving them spiritual advice.

     Although they seldom met or even corresponded, Boniface held Leoba in great affection. Aware that his death was near (indeed, he was martyred shortly afterwards), he summoned Leoba and exhorted her to continue the work she had undertaken, and to give up any thought of ever returning to her native land, assuring her that she would be rewarded in the next life for her struggles. Boniface commended her to his monks, requesting them te treat her with reverence, and expressed his wish that at her death she should be buried close to his tomb in the monastery of Fulda, so that they who had served God with equal sincerity and zeal should await together the day of resurrection.

     Leoba died in 780, after a short illness, and was buried in Fulda near Boniface in fulfillment of his desire. Miracles are said to have occurred at both tombs. St. Leoba is commemorated September 28th.


Saint Walburga

February 25

     Among the clerics and monastics that responded to St. Boniface's appeal for help in Germany was a pious family of two brothers and a sister, his blood-relations, who were all later canonized. St. Willibald worked for forty years as missionary and pastor in Bavaria and became the first bishop of Eichstatt. At Heidenheim near Stuttgart he founded a double monastery, of which his brother St. Winebald was made abbot. For many years it was famous as a center for the education of clergy, and valuable help was given to Boniface by the Abbot and his sister Walburga in the organization of the Church over a wide area. On the death of Winebald in 761, his sister, who like Leoba had been a nun at Wimborne in Dorset, succeeded him as superior, and there she remained as abbess of both men and women until her death in 779.

     Unfortunately, little is known of Walburga's holy life. She was buried in Heidenhelm. Some time later her body was taken to the Church of the Holy Cross at Eichstatt and placed in a tomb from which myrrh soon began to gush forth. Before long news spread of miraculous healings, particularly with eye diseases, and her tomb became a center of numerous pilgrimages. Pregnant women also received help from her in answer to their prayers.

    The translation of her relics took place on May 1st, which happened to be "Walpurgisnacht," the night dedicated to the German fertility goddess Walpurgis, when witches convened to a place in the Harz mountains for wild dances and the practice of magic. The unfortunate similarity between the names easily led to confusion. Perhaps this is the reason why Mussorgsky's tone poem "Night on Bald Mountain," which is descriptive of the witches orgies, ends with the sound of church bells.

    St. Walburga is commemorated on February 25, the date of her repose, and on May 1st.


Recommended for further reading: Bede's History, of the English Church and People; 364 pp. 

[1] A note of interest    "In the 16th and 17th centuries ladies often wore in lieu of necklaces cheap sillk or lace collars, called St. Audrey's Lace,' This 'Tawdry Lace,' sold at St. Audrey's Fair in Ely each year on October 17, became a byword for cheap finery, and thus the word “tawdry” eventually entered our language…” (From John Adair’s The Pilgrim’s Way, Thames & Hudson, 1978)