Celts to the Creche: St. Hereswith

Celts to the Creche: Day 3

St. Hereswith

c612 – September 3, c680/690AD

On this 3rd day of our Advent journey with the Celts to the Creche, we pilgrimage with St. Hereswith, perhaps even dancing with abandon to this place of new life and fresh new starts. St. Hilda and St. Hereswith are my special saints, they are “friends on the other side” as Father James Martin so aptly describes saints in his awesome book, My Life with the Saints.

Life: St. Hereswith was the older sister of St. Hilda of Whitby (see Day 2 of Celts to the Creche). These two sisters were born into a royal family of Deira in Northumbria in Northeastern England. Their parents were Hereric and his wife Breguswith.

Royal Marriage: To help seal diplomatic relations between Northumbria and East Anglia, Hereswith was married to King Æthelric (probably also known as King Ecgric of East Anglia who was killed by King Penda in battle along with King Sigeberht about 637.) Hereswith’s husband was likely the nephew of King Rædwald who was buried with his magnificent treasure at  Sutton Hoo in East Anglia.

The Liber Elenesis, a 12th century manuscript of Ely Abbey recorded that Hereswith was married to good King Anna and other sources say she was married to King Æthelhere, but both of those ideas have been disproved with the discovery of the regnal list in the Anglian Collection proving her marriage to King Æthelric.

East Anglian tally from the Textus Roffensis of the Anglian Collection. (photo from wikipedia.com)

Exile: What we know about Queen Hereswith comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede states that Hereswith went to a convent at Chelles that was located just east of Paris  on the Marne River. This famous convent was  founded by Queen Bathilde (see Day 23 of Celts to the Creche), widow of King Clovis II, king of Burgundy and Neustria. Yet I disagree with Bede that Hereswith went to Chelles as Chelles was not established until about 658.

I believe that it is much more likely that Queen Hereswith was sent into exile to the already established Faremoutiers  after the death of her husband in 636/7.   Faremoutiers was a Celtic inspired double monastery, where men and women lived in the same monastic grounds ruled by the Abbess Burgundofara (see Day 21 of Celts to the Creche) who was a disciple of the Irish St. Columbanus (see Day 11 of Celts to the Creche). Faremoutiers  was established about 620 AD and is located east of Paris and very close to modern day EuroDisney. It was much influenced by the Celtic St. Columbanus.

I also believe that Hereswith may have been  accompanied  to France about 640 by St. Fursey, an Irish monk who was a monk/evangelist/monastery founder in East Anglia and was close to Hereswith’s marital family.  St. Fursey moved to France to establish his new monastery of Lagny in the same area not far from Faremoutiers and the future Chelles.  For further information on St. Fursey and why I think that he accompanied Queen Hereswith to France see (see Day 9 of Celts to the Creche).

In the Vita Columbanus by Jonas there is a reference to a Saxon who was at Faremoutiers in the lifetime of the Abbess Burgundofara who died in 645. Could this have possibly been Hereswith who would have likely arrived about 640/641?

Two of Hereswith’s nieces, Æthelburg and Sæthrid (King Anna’s daughter and step-daughter) were abbesses at Faremoutiers after Burgundofara. Royal widows were often sent/exiled to monasteries to prevent them from remarrying and keep them “out of the way.” Monasteries were often chosen  because of maternal or familial connections. We cannot even begin to imagine the sorrow Hereswith must have experienced as she had to leave her young son, the future King Aldwulf behind and perhaps other children also.

A most beautiful Bridge in the village of Faremoutiers that was probably part of the original lands of the double monastery of Faremoutiers. I took this photo in September 2009. Sort of reminds me of a bridge to heaven.

One of the buildings of Faremoutiers, France. I took this photo when I was there in September 2009. I tried to converse with the current Abbess, but she only spoke French and I speak very little French. My husband and I had a lovely, very French picnic of cheese, bread, and eclairs under one of the gorgeous huge oaks in front of the convent.We tried to go to the museum at Chelles near where the Chelles monastery was…we drove in circles for 2 hours in that very busy little suburb of Paris…sadly, we never found it!!!

Children and Grandchildren: Hereswith was the mother of King Aldwulf (ruled 663-713) and the grandmother of of two and possibly three well-known devoted Christian leaders: King Ælfwald (ruled 713-749); Ecburgh, an Abbess of Repton, or possibly Wirksworth and Hackness; and likely Œdilburga,  an Abbess of Hackness.

Some scholars say that Sæthrid, who is considered to be a step-daughter of King Anna, was actually a daughter of Hereswith.

Resurrection: Queen Hereswith, a devoted follower of Christ probably died about 680-690 at Faremoutiers or she possibly transferred to Chelles before her death.


Feast Day September 3

Even though Hereswith has lived in the shadow of her sister, St. Hilda of Whitby for over 1400 years, she lived a good life as a Queen of East Anglia, a nun, and perhaps a leader in the Faremoutiers monastery. Her royal son, grandson, and granddaughter lived devout and holy lives helping evangelize the last pagan parts of England.

Her faith in God even in the soulful sorrow of being  exiled to another land away from her familial home and her son is to be commended. We join Hereswith on the Celts to the Creche pilgrimage as a trusted guide who has journeyed to unknown places and found new life and resurrection on earth and on the other side of the veil.

Prayer: O God three in One, we ask for a trusted guide and friend to walk beside us as we pilgrimage to new places in life that seem fearful and scary. Amen.

Hymn: African American spiritual, I Want Jesus to Walk with Me

I want Jesus to walk with me
I want Jesus to walk with me
All along my pilgrim journey
I want Jesus to walk with me

In my trial, Lord, walk with me
In my trials, Lord, walk with me
When the shades of life are falling
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me

In my sorrow, Lord walk with me
In my sorrows, Lord walk with me
When my heart is aching
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me

In my troubles, Lord walk with me
In my troubles, Lord walk with me
When my life becomes a burden,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me

Some Resources:

Click on the posts listed below as most of the resources for these four saints will also pertain to Hereswith:

Her sister Hilda of Whitby,  Day 2

St. Fursey, Day 9

Abbess Burgundofara of Faremoutiers, Day 21

St. Bathilde of Chelles, Day 23  

About Pastor Brenda

Pastor Brenda is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister. I am married with two grown awesome sons; and an equally awesome daughter-in-love; and two Maine Coon cats named for Celtic saints: “St. Fursey” and the paternal line of St. Columba, “Nialls.” Nialls is a gorgeous, huge, charming re-homed cat and he arrived with the name Niles. My pets must have Celtic/Anglo-Saxon names and since he seemed past the age to change his name...it became “Nialls.” My son asked me how to pronounce the cat’s new name and I said, “Niles.” As a former public and theological Library Director, I love doing research that has helped me in composing this Advent devotional. My research has been enriched by libraries, way too many books and journals purchased, and numerous pilgrimages to the places where these saints lived and worked and had their being. I cannot even begin to express what a great gift it has been to meet like-minded friends along the path who have generously and kindly shared their scholarship, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints. I often wonder if the saints have in some way been instrumental in introducing me to their friends on both sides of the thin veil. "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org. is one of my blogs. I have written of some of my pilgrimages and random musings at pastorpilgrim.wordpress.org. Some of my recent sermons can be found on YouTube under First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), San Angelo, Texas.
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1 Response to Celts to the Creche: St. Hereswith

  1. Lichen Craig says:

    I have studied this person extensively. I like your theory about Aethelric and Ecgric possibly being the same, and I agree. I have to discuss your ideas about Chelles, because I ran into the same dates discrepancies you did, however I resolved it differently. It started when I ran into the comment somewhere that historians believe Hilda of Whitby had some animosity toward Bathilde, who founded Chelles. I wondered why. Then I realized: Hereswith, according to Bede, left E Anglia about 647. Not in 637, after her husband’s death. This would make sense to me, since their son would have been only 9-11 years old, and she would have been regent. (The age of majority in Anglo-Saxon England was 12, and for a monarch, the age of coming into one’s own rule was 14-15.) Hilda had been to Lindisfarne to study under St. Aidan, and then went on to East Anglia to join her sister, something she was likely greatly anticipating, since both were by this time quite interested in all things religious. According to Bede, Hereswith had already left when Hild arrived, something which must have been a disappointment. (Hild stayed a year, then went north again, and eventually founded Whitby – also a double, co-ed house.) Meanwhile, there was already a “royal oratory” and residence at what is now Chelles – it was called Cala at that time. This had been established by Queen Clothilde a few generations before. So it was already a holy site, of some reputation, and a place where royalty often stayed. I can see Hereswith going there with the intention, perhaps, of deciding where to continue on from there. She would have been welcomed by the nobility of Gaul, who were already familiar with the site. I found one date to suggest Berthild, first abbess at Chelles, was appointed in 646. Now, as you state, Queen Bathild is said to have founded it in 658, HOWEVER, 1) no charter exists, so this date may not be exact; and 2) any of the original Frankish sources could be mistaken. Also, its being founded at that date, doesn’t preclude buildings being erected earlier. I think this makes a lot of sense, given that Queen Bathilde was an Anglo-Saxon, sold into slavery and taken to Gaul as a young teen. She is believed to have come from E. Anglia. It is likely she could have been known to Hereswith and Hild as a child (she was about 10-15 years younger) or even a relative. All of this leads me to believe the tie between Hereswith and Chelles is very logical. There is no such logic in another location, especially given that Chelles had long been favored by women of the royal families of Gaul/Frankia. The only detail giving me pause is this: Bathilde did not become queen until 649 or thereabouts – 2 years after Hereswith went to Chelles. This date could be fudged a few years one way or another. Bathilde, before being married, was already entrenched into the royal household as a servant (specifically attached to the household of the Mayor of the Palace, who was actually ruling over boy-king Clovis 2 at the time). A smart girl, given to prayer (and we know she was), may have already been dreaming of establishing the house at Chelles as an abbey… An alternative explanation is that when Hereswith went to Gaul initially she could have gone first to Faremoutiers or elsewhere, then when the opportunity to go to Chelles arose, gone there. It would have been exciting to be amongst the first nuns to inhabit a new house. I see no reason to doubt Bede’s accounts and dates – all historians agree that he was a meticulous historian. For this reason above all, in addition to those I’ve listed, I believe she went to Chelles, if not initially, then with the first wave of founding sisters under St. Berthild, and likely lived there for 20-30 years until her death. I also wanted to comment on your comment that widows were disposed of into convents. I don’t doubt that was occasionally the case, but I would suggest that they often looked forward to going and did so quite willingly. Convents and monasteries were the ONLY places a smart woman could feed her mind. In the 7th century, abbesses could become quite politically influential. These women were nobility: they had been given in political marriages at least once at age 12, if not a second or third time. By widowhood at 30, they were good and tired of it. I’m sure a quiet life of learning would be attractive. (Don’t underestimate the political and financial power of a noble woman at that time: nowadays historians believe that women in the early “dark ages” in England had as much power as women in the early 20th century. Christianity and the Norman Conquest saw their loss of power.) Also, again, Hereswith would likely not have left a young boy who was likely the rightful heir of the house of Wuffingas, and vulnerable as such. (Widows at that time commonly ruled as regents.) Historians estimate his birthdate in the late 620’s. By 647, he would have come into full manhood, and she would have been willing to leave: he took the throne about 664. .

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