Celts to the Creche: Abbess Ethelburga of Barking

 In this icon, there is in the lower part of the center a row of four female saints. The first on the left, wearing a monastic habit, facing somewhat to the right, is Hildelith, nun at Barking Monastery. To the right of Hildelith is St. Ethelburga, in a brown monastic cloak, facing forward. Icon by Mother Justina, Greek Old Calendarist Convent of St. Elizabeth, Etna, California

In this icon of the Saints of London, there is in the lower center part a row of four female saints. The first on the left is Hildelith, 2nd Abbess of Barking Monastery. To the right of Hildelith is St. Ethelburga, in a brown monastic cloak, facing forward.
Icon by Mother Justina, Greek Old Calendarist Convent of St. Elizabeth, Etna, California

Celts to the Creche: Day 15

Abbess Ethelburga of Barking

7th c. AD

On this 15th day of our journey with the Celts to the Creche, we meet St. Ethelburga (Æthelburh) who was the  first Abbess of the double monastery (meaning men and women live and worship in the same monastery) of Barking that was founded about 660.

Bishop Erconwald of Lonon

Bishop Eorconwald of London, Brother of Ethelburga

She  was the sister of Eorcenwald, Bishop of London, who supposedly converted King Sebbi (reigned 664-694) of Essex to Christianity. It is recorded that Bishop Eorcenwald with family money helped finance the building of two monasteries, Chertsey  on the Thames in the land of Surrey and Barking in Essex, now a suburb of London. Yet, it is interesting that there is an early charter believed genuine and drafted by Bishop Eorcenwald in the reign of King Sebbi of Essex, that records a grant of lands in Essex by a certain Æthelred to Æthelburh and Barking. This is dated to between 686 and 688.

The main source of information on Ethelburga’s life is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which recounts the foundation of Barking, the early miracles there, and Ethelburga’s death. Evidently a Life of Ethelburga was in circulation in Bede’s day as he refers to a book which was the source of his information on her.

Bede describes Ethelburga as “upright in life and constantly planning for the needs of her community”.  He also said that she “established an excellent form of monastic rule and discipline there.”  During her tenure, the plague was virulent and Bede has two stories of how Ethelburga and the Community of Barking dealt with the many members who died.

Stone statue of St. Ethelburga on the left. All Hallows Church, Barking

Stone statue of St. Ethelburga on the left. All Hallows Church, Barking. Notice her Abbess’ staff in her right hand and her Abbey in her left hand.

Place of Resurrection: Bede records a vision by a nun of Barking named Tortgyth who saw a body wrapped in a shroud being taking to heaven pulled up by golden cords. She realized that it was someone from their Community. A few days later Ethelburga died (c686) and they realized that the vision was about  their Abbess. She was buried at Barking.

A page from the manuscript of St. Ethelburga (it is not certain if this is Ethelburga of Barking as there are several Ethelburga's in early medieval history

A page from the manuscript BL MS Harley 2900 f.68v. of St. Ethelburga (it is not certain if this is Ethelburga of Barking as there are several Ethelburga’s in early medieval history)

Ethelburga’s Successor: Abbess Ethelburga was succeeded by Hildelith. It was to Hildelith and nine of her nuns that Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury dedicated his Latin prose work, De Virginitate, a lengthy treatise on the merits of the virgin life. Aldhelm praised the women at Barking for their education, but berated them for golden embroidered headbands. Aldhelm wrote in very highbrow Latin and he obviously knew that the nuns of Barking were well educated and could understand his letters.

A view of a foundation wall at the ruins of Barking Abbey, Sept. 2009

A view of a foundation wall at the ruins of Barking Abbey. I took this photo on my visit there in Sept. 2009.

Barking was destroyed by the Vikings in 870, but was reestablished as a Benedictine nunnery in King Edgar’s reign 100 years later with Abbess Wulfhild, whom according to Goscelin he tried to seduce. In medieval times, it  became one of the richest and most influential abbeys in England.

Today, one can visit the ruins of Barking that are located next door to the very active Sts. Mary and Ethelburga’s Church. I visited Barking in September 2009, had a yummy lunch in their tea room, and had an interesting time afterwards visiting the ruins.

Restored St. Ethelburga the Virgin Church that is now a center for reconciliation and peace

Restored St. Ethelburga the Virgin Church that is now a center for reconciliation and peace

St.Ethelburga the Virgin Church in London: The church of St. Ethelburga the Virgin in the City of London is dedicated to her. It survived the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of WWII but was extensively damaged in an IRA attack in 1993; however, it has been restored and is now a center for international reconciliation.

On our long awaited, first trip to England in 1993, my husband and I had just gotten off the airplane and we were taking the double decker tour bus around the City of London. All of a sudden there was a huge explosion that rocked the streets. The tour bus we were on was redirected away from the center of London as the police quickly shut that area down. We soon learned that it was an IRA attack that had destroyed the ancient church of St. Ethelburga the Virgin.

Gate into St. Mary's Church and the ruins of Barking Abbey

Gate into grounds of  Sts. Mary  and Ethelburga and the ruins of Barking Abbey. I took this photo on my Sept. 2009 visit there.

Recent excavations have found timber building footings, evidence of weaving and a glass-working furnace, and a range of objects including gold thread, pins, manicure sets, style (used to write on wax tablets), and coins.

Meditation

Feast Day, October 11

O God of the communion of saints, as we continue our journey with the Celts to the Creche, open our often clouded eyes to the needs of those who pilgrimage with us. May we be the heart, hands, feet, and mind of Christ to help bring healing, peace, wholeness, and reconciliation to a broken and fragmented world. Amen.

—————————————–

Some Resources:

“Barking” by John Blair. Lapidge, Blair, Keynes, and Scragg.  The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford:Blackwell, 1999.

Barnes, Teresa L. A Nun’s Life: Barking Abbey in the Late-Medieval and Early Modern Periods. Master’s Thesis, 2004. Portland State University. 

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book IV.

Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland.  Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2006.

Foot, Sarah. Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 600-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gallyon, Margaret. The Early Church in Eastern England. Lavenham, UK: Terence Dalton Ltd., 1973.

Horstmann, C. The Lives of Women Saints of Our Contrie of England. London. Early English Text Society by N. Trubner & Co., 1836, reprint.

Kirby, D. P. The Earliest English Kings. London: Routledge Press, 1991, 1994 reprint.

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

Lucas, Angela M. Women in the Middle Ages: Religion, Marriage, and Letters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.

St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconcilation and Peace.  London.

Schoenbechler, Roger. “Anglo-Saxon Monastic Women,” Magistra. Vol 1. No. 1

Whitelock, Dorothy. Anglo-Saxon Wills, no. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930.

Wilson, David M., ed. The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Routledge, 1990, 1992 reprint.

__________. Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London, UK: Continuum, 2003.

 

About pastorpilgrim

Pastor Pilgrim is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) clergy. I am married with two grown sons, a Hurricane Rita gift cat, and two Maine Coons. My interests include illuminated manuscripts, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, comfy cute shoes, Native American spirituality, and genealogy. I am a "Dancing Monk" with the online Abbey of the Arts (known as the Disorder of Dancing Monks!). Join me as we travel with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in an Advent devotional entitled, "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org. I also write of some of my pilgrimages, musings, and another Advent devotional, "Pilgrimage to Bethlehem" at www.pastorpilgrim.wordpress.com
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