St. Werburga of Chester
c 630-February 3, 699 AD
Life: Werburga (Werburgh) is the patron saint of Chester, England and was the Abbess of several abbeys in England. She was born at Stone in Mercia in the mid 7th century. Her father was Wulfhere, King of Mercia and her mother was Eormenhilda. Werburga’s maternal grandparents were Eorcenberht, King of Kent and Seaxburga, daughter of the much-loved King Anna of East Anglia.
The earliest account of Werburga’s life was recorded by the Flemish monk Goscelin at Canterbury in the late 900’s. William of Malmesbury later used this account to produce his writings about her.
Calling as a Nun and Abbess: Princess Werburga felt a call to be a nun and not be married. She entered the famous Abbey of Ely in East Anglia which had been founded by her great-aunt Etheldreda (Audrey) who was the current abbess at the time. It is said that when Werburga was ordained at Ely that not only her father, King Wulhere was in attendance, but that many kings and princes were there also.
It is interesting that Werburga’s Grandmother Sexburga succeeded her sister Etheldreda as Ely’s Abbess. Werburga’s own mother, Queen Eormenhilda also joined her daughter at Ely after King Wulfhere’s death in 675. Eormenhilda later became abbess of Ely. Anglo-Saxon scholars have noted that often when royal husbands died, the widow was sent to live in a convent or double monastery connected in some way to their maternal lineage.
Later, Werburga’s uncle Æthelred became King of Mercia and invited her to return home to Mercia and become Abbess of the all the convents in his kingdom. Werburga transformed the existing abbeys and founded new convents and double monasteries (a double monastery is where men and women live in the same monastery under an Abbess) including those at Hanbury, Trentham, Threekingham (dedicated to St. Etheldreda) and Weedon.
A Wild Goose Chase: Legend says that St. Werburga brought a goose or flock of geese back to life. There are several stories of how the goose/geese died.
Often geese are displayed with St. Werburga on icons and carvings including the pilgrim badges that medieval visitors to her shrine collected.
Place of Resurrection: Werburga passed away on February 3rd, 699 AD at her convent at Trentham. She had wanted to die and be buried at Hanbury, but the nuns at Trentham refused to give up her body and carefully protected her coffin. A group from Hanbury came in the stealth of night, stole her body, and took her back to Hanbury.
By the year 708 Werburga’s brother Coenred had succeeded Æthelred as king of Mercia and decided to move her body to a more conspicuous place within the church at Hanbury.
Her Shrine Goes Traveling: About nine years after her death, when Weburga’s coffin was opened during the transition to another part of the church, her body was found to be incorrupt, still looking the same as she did the day she died. Her brother, King Coenred was so effected by this miracle of incorruption of his sister’s body that he decided to abdicate and enter holy orders himself. With that miracle, her tomb became an object of veneration and a center for pilgrimage.
Werburga’s shrine remained at Hanbury for the next century and a half, but was moved in 875 to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul that was located within the city walls of Chester on the border between western England and northeastern Wales for more protection from the voracious Viking raids.
With Abbess Werburga’s shrine in Chester, it became a place of pilgrimage. The church’s name was rededicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald, probably about 975 when a monastery was founded there and dedicated to those two saints.
In the 14th century, an elaborate brightly painted shrine was constructed featuring 34 carved figures and a number of niches where supplicants could kneel in prayer to the saint. Her coffin was jewel encrusted. With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Werburga’s shrine was destroyed and her remains scattered.
Later some of the shrine’s remains were gathered up and built into the Bishop’s throne. In 1876, Sir A. W. Bloomfield who was in charge of the restoration of Chester Cathedral used the rest of the remains to reconstruct her shrine. These can be seen in the Lady Chapel of Chester Cathedral.
What a joy it was when I stayed and studied at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales in September 2009 as I was able to go several times to the Chester Cathedral to visit Weburga’s shrine. It was a short bus ride from Hawarden to the historical and beautiful city of Chester.
Feast Day February 3
The Spirit gives us each gifts to use for the kingdom. Werburga was blessed with the gift of administration and spiritual leadership. With these gifts and skills, she was able with strength, courage, wisdom, and deep faith to transform and reform the religious houses in Mercia.
Prayer: O Spirit of the living God, thank you for Celtic St. Werburga who as part of the Communion of Saints is journeying with me to the creche. Please use the gifts I have been bestowed with by Your Spirit to bring blessing to God’s kingdom on earth. Amen.
BBC News. On the Trail of the Mercian Anglo-Saxon Saints. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-12965515
Bradshaw, Henry, Goscelin of St. Bertin. The Life of Saint Werburge of Chester. London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society by N. Trübner & Co., 1887.
Crook, John. English Medieval Shrines.Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2011.
David Nash Ford’s Early British Kingdoms. St. Weburga of Chester: Abbess of Ely.
Goscelin of St. Bertin. Rosalind C. Love, ed. The Hagiography of the Female Saints of Ely. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 2004.
“Werburg, St” by Paul Anthony Hayward in Lapidge, Blair, Keynes, and Scragg. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001.
Ridyard, Susan J. The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Schoenbechler, Roger. “Anglo-Saxon Monastic Women,” in Magistra: A Journal of Women’s Spirituality in History, Vol. 1, Number 1
Yorke, Barbara. Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London, UK: Continuum, 2003.