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 on the outskirts of London that was founded about 660.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Feast Day, October 11
Prayer: 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. There continues to be much terror on planet earth and we need your help as the Prince of Peace. Amen.
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Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.
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Schoenbechler, Roger. “Anglo-Saxon Monastic Women,” Magistra. Vol 1. No. 1
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__________. Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London, UK: Continuum, 2003.