Celts to the Creche: St. Hereswith

A most beautiful Bridge in the village of Faremoutiers that was probably part of the original lands of the double monastery of Faremoutiers in which Hereswith may have lived. I took this photo in September 2009.

Celts to the Crèche: Day 3

November 17

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.

Hereswith was a 7th c. Queen of East Anglia and the older sister of St. Hilda of Whitby. After her husband was killed in battle, she was likely exiled to a convent in Merovingian France. Her deep faith influenced her family. Her son and grandson were long-time Kings of East Anglia and faithful followers of Christ and her granddaughters who were Abbesses in England.

You may desire to continue reading more about Hereswith or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.

Life: St. Hereswith was the older sister of St. Hilda of Whitby (see Day 2 of Celts to the Crèche). These two sisters were born into a royal family of Deira in Northumbria in Northeastern England. Their parents were Hereric and his wife Breguswith. Hereswith was likely baptized with her family by Paulinus when her uncle King Edwin had all the family baptized at a hastily built church in York in 626/7.

Stained Glass representation of  St.Paulinus who likely baptized Hereswith at York in 626/7

Royal Marriage: To help seal diplomatic relations between Northumbria and East Anglia, Hereswith was married to King Æthelric (some say, but others disagree that Æthelric is the same person  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 19 of Celts to the Crèche), 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.

13th c. reconstruction of the dormitory of Chelles

I conjecture 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 Crèche) who was a disciple of the Irish St. Columbanus (see Day 8 of Celts to the Crèche). 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 10 of Celts to the Crèche).

Chapel of St. Fursey on former Lagny Monastery grounds

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. Æthelburg may have been an Abbess at Hackness before going to Faremoutiers. 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.

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! The Museum has now closed, but the death clothes of Bathilde, the first Abbess of Chelles Monastery are still housed in the museum.

Children and Grandchildren: Hereswith was the mother of King Aldwulf (ruled 663/4-713) (see day 17 of Celts to the Crèche) and the grandmother 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 (Æthelburga?),  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 younger sister, St. Hilda of Whitby for over 1300 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 granddaughters 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 Crèche 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 10

Abbess Burgundofara of Faremoutiers, Day 21

St. Bathilde of Chelles, Day 19  

Blanton, Virginia. Signs of Devotion: The Cult of St. Aethelthryth in Medieval England, 695-1615. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.

deFrance, Marie. The Life of Saint Audrey. Translated by June Hall McCash and Judith Clark Barban. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2006. (there are two informative notes concerning Hereswith being married to Aethelric (Ecgric) and not King Anna p. 250n.175, 253n.1672.)

Fairweather, Janet, translator. Liber Eliensis: a History of the Isle of Ely from the the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. (compiled by a Monk of Ely in the Twelfth Century). Woodbridge, UK. Boydell Press, 2005. 

Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015. 

Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Routledge, 1990.

About Rev. Brenda Griffin Warren

I am an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) recently retired pastor. I am married with two grown sons, a daughter-in-love, two Maine Coon cats, and spend a lot of my life at the beach shell-shopping. My interests include illuminated manuscripts, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, Native American spirituality, genealogy, and comfy cute shoes. Let us pilgrimage together with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in my 40 Day Celtic Advent Devotional entitled, "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org.
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