Celts to the Creche: Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby

Abbess Aelflaed is cured by St. Cuthbert's linen girdle. From the Life of St. Cuthbert, originally produced at Durham, late 12th c. Image from the British Library

Abbess Ælfflæd is cured by St. Cuthbert’s linen girdle. From the Life of St. Cuthbert, originally produced at Durham, late 12th c. Image from the British Library

Celts to the Crèche

Day 29

December 13

Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby

About 655 or 656-February 8, 713 AD

On this 29th day of our journey to the crèche where Christ was born, we meet Ælfflæd who was the second or third Abbess of Whitby following the death in 680 of her Mother’s first cousin St. Hilda of Whitby  (see day 2 of Celts to the Crèche). Like Hilda, Ælfflæd led the Whitby Abbey for 33 years and also established churches.

It was recorded by the biographer of Wilfrid that Abbess Ælfflæd was “always the source of consolation for the entire kingdom, and the best of advisers.”  She was a friend of St. Cuthbert (see day 6 of Celts to the Crèche) and her “inspired words” and education led her to be part of at least one synod and other Bishops’ meetings.

The ruins of the later Whitby Abbey probably built upon St. Hilda's original monastery of Streonsahalh where Aelflaed was the next Abbess

The ruins of the later Whitby Abbey probably built upon St. Hilda’s original monastery of Streonsahalh where Ælfflæd was the 2nd Abbess

We mainly know about Ælfflæd from the writings of Bede (see day 23 of Celts to the Crèche) his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and The Life of St. Cuthbert; and also in Eddius Stephanus‘ (Stephen of Ripon) Life of St. Wilfridand the Anonymous Life of St. Cuthbert. 

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

Early Life and Familial Relationships: Ælfflæd had quite a pedigree! She was born into the Northumbrian royal family of King Oswiu (Oswy) and his wife, Queen Eanflæd who was the daughter of King Edwin.

King Oswiu (Oswy) with Benedict Biscop of Jarrow Abbey

King Oswiu (Oswy) with Benedict Biscop of Jarrow Abbey. Unknown writer of this icon

On her maternal side, Ælfflæd was the granddaughter of the King of Deira, Edwin and his wife Queen Æthelburg  and the great-granddaughter of  King Æthelberht of Kent and his wife Queen Bertha (see day 11 of Celts to the Crèche). On Ælfflæd’s paternal side she was the granddaughter of King Æthelfrith and Queen Acha of Deira and the great-granddaughter of King Ælle. The much-loved King Oswald was her uncle. Yes, she was well-connected!

When Ælfflæd’s parents, Oswiu and his second wife, Eanflæd married in 643, this union joined the two Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. Ælfflæd had a sister Osthryth  who became the Queen of Mercia. She also had at least three brothers that we know of, Eahlfrith, Ecgfrith, and Ælfwine, and a half-brother Aldfrith who was born out of wedlock to an an Irish princess named Fin. This illegitimate son Aldfrith was raised on the isle of Iona and was considered by both Bede and Alcuin to be a most learned and wise man. It is thought by some that Oswiu’s first wife may have been a princess of Rheged named Rieinmellt according to the Anglo-Saxon genealogies in the Historia Brittonium.

Hilda Receives Land for Whitby: Ælfflæd’s father, King Oswiu  gave 12 parcels of land of 10 hides each to establish 12 monasteries as a thank offering for his win at the Battle of Winwaed  over the Mercian King Penda on November 15, 654 or 655. One of those parcels of land was at Streanaeshalch, later called Whitby. As part of that gift of thanksgiving, Bede tells us that Oswiu offered his infant daughter Ælfflæd who was scarcely a year old, “in perpetual virginity” to the monastery at Hartlepool under the guidance of the Abbess Hilda.

Icon of St. Hilda of Whitby by Ellen Francis, OSH

Icon of St. Hilda of Whitby by Ellen Francis, OSH

St. Hilda's Church, Hartlepool. Built over the original abbey founded by Hieu. Hilda became the second Abbess

St. Hilda’s Church, Hartlepool.
Built over the original abbey founded by Hieu. Hilda became the second Abbess. The infant Ælfflæd was given to Hilda to care for at Hartlepool before they moved to Whitby. I visited in 2007 and Sept. 2014

Two years later, in 657, Whitby was established and Hilda and toddler Ælfflæd together moved to this new abbey from Hartlepool. So it is likely that Ælfflæd was born about 655 or 656. It is interesting that her father  King Oswiu is the one who convened the Synod of Whitby in 664 to resolve the Easter controversy and which chose the Roman way over the Celtic form of worship and life.

Synod of Whitby Mural by Juliet MacMichael in the St. Hilda Room St. Hilda's Priory, Sneaton Castle, Whitby, Yorks. Sept. 2014. Notice King Oswiu at the table

Synod of Whitby Mural by Juliet MacMichael in the St. Hilda Room
St. Hilda’s Priory, Sneaton Castle, Whitby, Yorks. I visited Sept. 2014. Notice King Oswiu at the table


Years as Abbess of Whitby: Even though Abbess Hilda never liked or trusted Wilfrid, Ælfflæd’s mother Eanflæd who was raised with a Roman-based faith in East Anglia, was a supporter of the Roman favoring Wilfrid. Yet, many others of this family did not care for Wilfrid at all. Ælfflæd, raised with the Celtic ethos of Hilda and  as a trusted friend of both the very Celtic Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (see day 6 of Celts to the Crèche) she became a bridge between the Roman and Celtic way of life in early medieval England.

Friendship with St. Cuthbert of  Lindisfarne: One day Ælfflæd was very ill almost to the point of death. She could not stand upright, was only able to move on all fours, and had much internal pain. Her  dear friend Cuthbert came to her mind and she wished she had something belonging to him, for she was certain that would help her.

A gift of friendship and healing from Cuthbert. Soon afterwards a messenger arrived with the gift of a linen girdle from Cuthbert. Ælfflæd was  thrilled with the gift and  realized that her wishes had been made known to him by heavenly means. She put this girdle on and the next morning she was able to stand up straight. Within three days she was restored to health. A few days later, one of the Whitby nuns came to her with a terrible headache, so Ælfflæd bound up her head with Cuthbert’s girdle  and her headache was gone that day. The nun took it off and hid it in her locker. When the Abbess returned to retrieve it, it was gone. Bede says that it was a “God-thing” that it disappeared otherwise it would have become a sacred item of healing to which  people would have flocked.

Another time, in 684, Ælfflæd persuaded Cuthbert to leave his hermitage on Farne Island and meet her at Coquet Island, halfway between Lindisfarne and Whitby. It was at that meeting, that Ælfflæd asked Cuthbert three questions: 1. How long would her brother King Ecgfrith live? 2. Who would succeed Ecgfrith? 3. Would Cuthbert himself become a Bishop?  In response, Cuthbert prophesied of the imminent death of her brother Ecgfrith and the coming to the throne of her half-brother Aldfrith. Cuthbert did become a reluctant Bishop.

Cuthbert meeting Abbess AElfflaed of Whitby at Coquet Isle.

Cuthbert meeting Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby at Coquet Isle. From The Life of Cuthbert. From the British Library

Cuthbert even met Ælfflæd once again at Osingadun, where there was a newly established cell of Whitby with a church that Cuthbert was dedicating. Some believe that Osingdun may be modern-day Kirkdale as the church has Saxon work. It is also interesting that the church is dedicated to St. Gregory whom the anonymous monk of Whitby wrote about.

Another time, Ælfflæd hosted a dinner for Cuthbert in which he had a vision while at the dinner table of someone who had died.  Ælfflæd asked who it was and he replied that it was someone from her monastery. The next day she learned that Hadwald, one of the monks of Whitby who may have also been a shepherd fell from a tree and died at the exact time that Cuthbert “saw” it in his vision.

St. Gregory's Minster of 11th c. built over original Anglo-Saxon church. It is similar to St. Hilda's Church at Ellerburn.

11th c. St. Gregory’s Minster in Kirkdale  built over original Anglo-Saxon church that was a cell of Whitby that Cuthbert dedicated. It is similar to St. Hilda’s Church at Ellerburn. photo from wikipedia

Friendship with Wilfrid. Ælfflæd continued to be friendly with Wilfrid, even though her predecessor Hilda, who raised her could not abide him. According to Ælfflæd, it was the dying wish of her half-brother Aldfrith who had become King, that his successor should come to terms with Bishop Wilfrid.

Bishop Wilfrid. icon from CatholicIreland.net

Bishop Wilfrid. icon from CatholicIreland.net

Trumwine, Bishop to the Picts Moves to Whitby: Bede records that the Bishop  Trumwine, chose to live out his retirement at Whitby and he was buried there. He  helped Ælfflæd administer this large and prestigious double monastery and was also a comfort to her. Bede relates that Trumwine was a good source of information about Cuthbert as he wrote about this saint of Lindisfarne.

King Edwin’s Body Translated to Whitby: Even though King Edwin, who was Eanflæd’s father and Ælfflæd’s grandfather, had died on October 12, 632/3, his body was translated to Whitby almost 50 years later.This was done as it is thought that Ælfflæd and her mother wanted Whitby to become a place of pilgrimage much like King Oswald’s relics had done for the Bardney Abbey in Lindsey.

Interestingly, later Oswald’s relics were later moved to Durham Cathedral, where he was buried with Cuthbert. Bede goes into detail to describe how Edwin’s body was rediscovered and the process of the translation  of his body to Whitby. It seems that Whitby became a sort of mausoleum, as other abbeys were, for this royal family. Not only  was Edwin buried there, but  also Hilda, Ælfflæd,  Eanflæd, and Oswiu. Some say that these relics, especially of Hilda’s and maybe the others were taken to Glastonbury when the Vikings began invading northeast England and they began their horrific plundering of the monasteries and churches.

Stained Glass depiction of King Edwin of Northumbria. St. Mary's Sledmere, Yorkshire. from wikipedia

Stained Glass depiction of King Edwin of Northumbria. St. Mary’s Sledmere, Yorkshire. from wikipedia

Further Reflections on Ælfflæd:  Not only did Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Ripon) in his Life of Wilfrid describe Ælfflæd as “always the comforter and the best counselor of the whole kingdom, ” but also the great writer and historian Bede thought very highly of her.  He says of her in his Life of St. Cuthbert, she had “increased the nobility of a royal pedigree by the much more potent nobility of the greatest virtues.”  Abbess Ælfflæd must have been a very strong, courageous, compassionate, and wise leader of this double monastery. Hilda raised her well!

When Aldfrith, King of Northumbria was dying at Driffield in 705, he summoned to his bedside, several leaders including Ælfflæd, Abbess of Whitby, and Œedilburga, Abbess of Hackness. He gave to them his last will and testament.

Abbess Ælfflæd was considered one of the religious leaders of Northumbria. Eddius Stephanus further wrote in his Life of Wilfrid  concerning Ælfflæd that she was among the gathered Bishops during the Synod of Nidd in 706 and boldly spoke “inspired words.” This synod dealt with the Pope’s directive to make peace with Wilfrid and to return the monasteries of Hexham and Ripon and their revenues to him.

She was also included in the Bishops’ special confab near the conclusion of the synod in which the Archbishop gave his advice and Abbess Ælfflæd gave them hers. In the Anonymous Life of St. Cuthbert, it refers to a church being consecrated by a Bishop that Ælfflæd established on one of her estates outside of Whitby.

There is a letter written about 700 that some think that well-educated Ælfflæd wrote in a very florid and “high-brow” Latin letter addressed to the Abbess Adolana of Pfalzel near Treves. In this letter, Ælfflæd was commending one of  friends, another Abbess who was staying at Whitby who was very ready to begin her journey back home. Even, the anonymous Life of St. Gregory was written at Whitby while Ælfflæd was Abbess.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey, likely built upon the original Whitby Abbey. photo from the dailymail.co.uk

Excavations in the 1920s at Whitby by Radford and Peers found several building foundations and two inscribed memorial stones believed to record the deaths of Ælfflaed, Abbess of Whitby, and Cyneburgh, Queen of King Oswald.

Likely part of Abbess Aelfflaeda's gravestone. On loan to the English Heritage Whitby Abbey Museum from the Whitby Town Museum.

Likely part of Abbess Ælfflæd’s gravestone at Whitby. On loan to the English Heritage Whitby Abbey Museum from the Whitby Town Museum. I saw this in 2007, 2009, and October, 2017. photo from English Heritage.



Feast Day February 8

As we continue on our Advent journey with the Celts, we may be discovering that we need to cross a bridge of some kind to reach the crèche where Christ is born anew in our lives.  Sometimes we may even need to be a “bridge.” A bridge between two people or two sides of a disagreement.

Abbess Ælfflæd knew about this as she was a bridge. A bridge between two strong religious leaders of varying theological opinions, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and Wilfrid of Hexham. Even her life experiences of being in a family of both the more Roman East Anglians and the more Celtic Northumbrians influenced her ability to be a bridge.

It’s not easy being a bridge as people often think you are not taking sides with them or that you cannot make up your own mind and you are wishy-washy. Yet, some people like Ælfflæd seem to have an inner gift of being able to see both sides of an issue, of being able to see the good in people with whom they do not necessarily agree.

St. Peter seemed to have the gift of “bridging.” In Acts chapter 10 and 11, we read about Peter’s  vision of the sheet coming down from heaven filled with all kinds of unclean animals and reptiles of which this good kosher Jew was told to “kill and eat.” This vision allowed him to reach out in full welcome to Cornelius the Roman Centurion who was searching for God. He also courageously told of this vision to the Jerusalem Council who believed his words and from that point on non-Jews were readily accepted into the Christian fold.

Jesus the Christ was an incarnational bridge between the divinity of God and humanity. Sometimes we have to be bold and courageous to be a “bridge” and sometimes being a “bridge” requires that  we be quiet and fully listen with our hearts and souls.

This world needs some human, yet very deeply spiritual bridges with open minds. Do you know a “bridge” person? What makes them a “bridge?” How might we become more open to be a “bridge?”


© Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org, 2018-2029. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org (Celts to the Creche) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Some Resources:

“Ælfflæd”  by Michael Lapidge in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

An Anonymous Monk of Whitby. The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great. Text, Translation, and Notes by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. ii. 9, 20;  iii. 24, 25; iv. 26. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University.

_____. Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University.

Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1990.

Bonner, Gerald, David Rollason, Clare Stancliffe, eds. St. Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD1200. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1989.

Breay, Claire and Bernard Meehan, eds. The St. Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular  Manuscript of the Gospel of John. London: British Library, 2015.

Colgrave, Bertram, ed. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Stephanus Eddius.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985 online version, January, 2010. 

__________________. Two Lives of St. Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Cambridge,  UK: Cambridge University Press, 1940, 1985 ed.

Eckenstein, Lena. Woman Under Monasticism. Available on google books.

Harrison, Dick. The Age of Abbesses and Queens: Gender and Political Culture in Early Medieval Europe. Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic Press, 1998.

Heinrich,  Mary Pia. The Canonesses and Education in the Early Medieval Ages. Available on google books. 

Hudson, Allison. “Lives of St. Cuthbert Now Online” March 20, 2016 .British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Online.  

Karaove, Katherine E. The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England: Basic Readings. available at googlebooks.

 Kirby, D. P. Bede, Eddius Stephanus and the Life of Wilfrid in The English Historical Review. Vol. 98, No. 386 (January, 1983), pp. 101-114. (This article may be purchased at JSTOR.org.)

D. P. The Earliest English Kings. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Nennius. Historia Brittonum. Edited by St. Mark the Hermit and Rev. W. Gunn. London: 1819. Available at googlebooks.

Rollason, David W., A. J. Piper, Margaret Harvey, eds. The Durham Liber Vitae and Its Context. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2004.

 Stephen of Rippon (Eddius). The Life of Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus. Text, Translation and Notes by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Webb, J. F., tr. and D. H. Farmer, ed. “Eddius Stephanus: Life of Wilfrid” in The Age of Bede. London: Penguin, 1965.

Whitehead, Annie. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Pen & Sword History, 2020.

Whitby Abbey. English Heritage website.

Yorke, Barbara. Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London: Continuum, 2003. (note: I love this book as it is chock full of information on the nunneries and double monasteries led by women).

Ziegler, Michelle. “Anglian Whitby” in The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter, 1999.

About Brenda

Rev. Warren is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) retired Pastor, that still does some preaching. I am married to a wonderful guy with two grown awesome sons; an equally awesome daughter-in-love; adorable grandchildren; and a very large, much-adored Maine Coon cat. I love reading, writing, travel, mountains, and beachcombing. As a former public and theological Library Director, I love doing research that has helped me in composing this Advent devotional, “Celts to the Creche” at www.saintsbridge.org. My research has been enriched by libraries, way too many books and journals purchased, and numerous pilgrimages to the places where these saints lived and worked and had their being. I cannot even begin to express what a great gift it has been to meet like-minded friends along the path who have generously and kindly shared their scholarship, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints. I often wonder if the saints have in some way been instrumental in introducing me to their friends on both sides of the thin veil.
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