Celts to the Crèche: Day 27
Abbess Æbbe of Coldingham
On this 27th day of our journey with the Celts to the Crèche, we travel with Abbess Æbbe (Abb, Ebba) of Coldingham. She was a friend of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne (see day 1 of Celts to the Crèche) and of St. Cuthbert.
Æbbe established a monastery first at Ebchester (some say the Ebchester Monastery is legend) and later about 640 AD at Urbs Coludi (meaning Colud’s fort), likely a British fort now known as Kirk Hill at St. Abb’s Head. This later monastery became Coldingham Priory, a double monastery where men and women lived and worshipped together. Coldingham was located on the the southeast coast of Scotland, north of Lindisfarne.
Bede (see day 23 of Cèlts to the Creche) honored her for her piety and nobility, and Eddius in his Life of Wilfrid describes her as a very wise and holy woman. Also the Liber Elenesis portrays Æbbe as a wise woman. Yet, Adomnan, an Abbot of Iona prophesied that her monastery would be destroyed by fire because as she got older, he said that her rule over the monastery was too lax. She was so distraught over this prophecy, that he promised her the fire would not happen until after she died. The monastery did later burn to the ground.
The site of Æbba’s monastery is on the coast one mile north of St Abbs. At the bottom of the hill was the holy Spring of St. Ebba. This is most likely the spring still running at the small bay called the Well Mouth.
You may desire to continue reading more about Æbbe or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.
Her Family: Æbbe was the daughter of King Æthelfrith of Bernicia (northern part of Northumbria) and either Acha or Bebbe of Deira (southern part of Northumbria). Michelle Ziegler of the website, Heavenfield thinks that Bebbe was likely her mother since her name is so similar to her mother’s.
When she was young, her father was killed in battle and she and her mother/step-mother Acha and her half-brothers, the future Kings Oswald and Oswiu fled to the lands of the Dal Riata in western Scotland where they became Christians.
Ætheldreda at Coldingham Monastery. Abbess Æbba educated her niece, the ex-Queen Ætheldreda, one of the daughters of the famous King Anna of East Anglia and the first wife of King Ecgfrith. While at Coldingham, Ætheldreda received the veil and habit of a nun from Bishop Wilfrid. After a year at Coldingham, Ætheldreda moved to East Anglia where she established Ely Abbey and Cathedral.
A Visit from St. Cuthbert. Abbess Æbbe invited St. Cuthbert, the Prior of Melrose and later the Abbot/Bishop of Lindisfarne (see day six of Celts to the Creche) to visit her monastery to instruct the community. He generally avoided the society of women, but thought so highly of Æbbe that he came to stay with her. We do know that he also visited Abbess Æfflæd of Whitby several times.
At night Cuthbert would disappear to bathe and pray in the sea, to stop himself succumbing to temptations of the flesh. Very early one morning, a monk from Æbbe’s monastery spied him praying and singing psalms in the sea. As St. Cuthbert came ashore, he saw two otters bound out of the sea and join Cuthbert licking his feet dry. The most likely location for this event is Horse Castle Bay at the base of the Kirk Hill.
Prophecy about Coldingham. According to Bede, in Æbbe’s senior years, her rule became lax and her many royal nuns and monks probably took advantage of the situation. Bede considered it an act of divine judgment that Coldingham burned down. He included the story of how Adomnan, who had been a monk at Coldingham and later the Abbot of Iona reproved the community for spending their time weaving fine clothes, making friends with strange men, feasting, drinking and gossiping, instead of praying and studying. Adomnan prophesied that the monastery at Coldingham would burn down as the morals were so lax. Abbess Æbba was so disheartened to hear the news and in such despair, that Adomnan assured her Coldingham would not burn down in her lifetime.
Bede said he received this source of information from a priest named Eadgisl who lived there for awhile. He attested that they were unconcerned with their souls’ welfare, being “sunk in slothful slumbers or else awake for the purposes of sin.”
Place of Resurrection: Æbbe likely died at Coldingham probably about 682 or early 683. After the death of Æbbe, on the 25th August AD 683, the community fell into greater disorder than ever and through carelessness, the monastery caught light and was burnt to the ground. The monastic site was abandoned, and by the first half of the 8th century, as Bede confirms, the site was deserted.
Coldingham Priory was reestablished in 1098 by King Edgar of Scotland further inland than the orginal monastery.
The early work of Æbbe in establishing the Christian religion in southeast Scotland was not forgotten. In a book written about c.1200 by the monks of the reestablished Coldingham, they tell of many pilgrims visiting the Kirk Hill and the spring at Well Mouth, located at the top of the beach now called Horse Castle Bay. It is interesting, that among other gifts, King James IV bestowed revenues from the priory at Coldingham on his new queen, Margaret Tudor in 1503.
The reestablished Coldingham Priory is in the center of Coldingham. There is a piscinae or stone basin for washing vessels and vestments used in the Mass. It is thought to be from St. Æbbe’s original Coldingham Monastery.
Updates on Archaeological Excavation of Coldingham: In June, 2018, Dig Ventures conducted an archaeological excavation at Coldingham. We look forward to hearing about their findings. According to a March 2019 BBC article, the boundary ditches have likely been located by Dig Ventures. The original Coldingham Abbey is closer inland, likely underneath the standing Coldingham Priory. Archaeologists in the past thought the original 640 AD Coldingham Abbey would be nearer the sea.
Feast Day, August 25
Our hearts go out to this wise woman whom many notables of royalty came to visit and ask her for advice. Somewhere along the way, the “inmates took over the prison.” There is no telling what caused this, whether in her senior years, she was just too tired or too ill to “keep an eye” on things and expected her monks and nuns to be mature enough to behave. Or perhaps, there was some sort of political correctness going on that made her have to “back off” of keeping her community in line. So, for 1400 years, this noble woman has had her reputation as an Abbess tarnished by Bede’s including the condemnations of Adomnan and Cuthbert.
Yet, her valuable work on the borders between SE Scotland and NE England helped transform this rather “wild and wooly” area of this isle. We do not know how many monasteries there were in the 7th c. in that area, likely not many. She was brave and courageous to set up a place for Christ in that area. For almost 1400 years, since her resurrection, this area of the UK has considered itself Christian, because of spiritual leaders like Æbbe, Aidan, and Cuthbert. A phoenix of a powerful Christian presence and witness arose from the ashes. Instead of ministering from within a monastery, after the fire, monks and nuns were scattered throughout the region sharing the Gospel of God’s love and grace.
May you rest in peace dear Abbess Æbba and thank you for your good work in bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to southeast Scotland and northeast England. We join with Bede, Eddius, and Cuthbert and the Communion of Saints is saying, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
Prayer: O God, thank you for Abbess Æbba and for her good work in establishing a monastery in the wild places of the eastern borders of Scotland and England. Help heal her broken heart and all those hearts that have been broken in life through tarnished reputations and through circumstances that are often not of our own making or beyond our control. Amen.
Abbess Æbbe of Coldingham. http://hefenfelth.wordpress.com/2007/11/21/pw-abbess-Æbbe-of-coldingham/. Michelle Ziegler.
Bartlett, Robert, ed. and trans. The Miracles of St.Æbbe of Coldingham and St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.
BBC News. 30 May 2018. South Scotland. Hopes high of unearthing lost monastery in Coldingham.
BBC News. 08 March 2019. South Scotland. Home of 7th Century Princess Unearthed in Coldingham.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Book IV. Chapter 25.
Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.
Dales, Douglas. Light to the Isles: Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Cambridge, James Clarke & Co., 1997.
Dig Ventures. June 19-July 1, 2018. Archaeological dig at Abbess Aebbe’s double monastery of Coldingham.
Dig Ventures. Coldingham Talks: Chris Bowles. Youtube. June 30, 2018.
Eddius, Stephanus. “Life of Wilfrid” in The Age of Bede, trans. by J. F. Webb and edited by D. H. Farmer. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.
Rees, Elizabeth. Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.
Yorke, Barbara. Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London, UK: Continuum, 2003.