Wednesday, December 21, 2016

St. Etheldreda: Twice Married and Still a Virgin

By Kim Rendfeld

The only husband East Anglian Princess Etheldreda ever wanted was Christ, but her family needed her to marry a lord and secure an alliance against the Mercians threatening her homeland. What was a seventh century lady to do?

Known today at Saint Audrey, Etheldreda was a dutiful daughter to King Anna. Politics in her world were violent. Her father had ascended to the throne around 641 after the deaths of two cousins in battle, one of whom seized the crown from a murderous usurper. She probably was 5 years old. She must have sensed that royalty was both privileged and dangerous. Very few kings died of old age or even natural causes.

Her family were devout Christians, even though they were in the Uffing clan, which claimed descent from the pagan god Wodan. Two of her sisters (who also became saints) were abbesses, and Etheldreda wanted that vocation. In Etheldreda’s case—as with all medieval aristocrats—family needs came before her heart’s desire.

Then a teenager, Etheldreda married Tonbert, ealdorman of the Southern Gyrwe in the Fens, around 652. Yet she persuaded him to respect her wish to remain a virgin, not an easy feat when conjugal relations were consider a husband’s (and wife’s) right.

Tonbert might have been much older than his bride and might have already had heirs. If that was the case, one less son to accommodate might have worked to his advantage. If he needed to sate his lust, he could do so with a whore. True, it was a sin, and he would need to confess and do penance. But in early medieval eyes, it was not that big a deal.

Tonbert’s morning gift to Etheldreda, usually bestowed after the marriage was consummated and thus deemed valid, was strategic. It was the Isle of Ely. This tract of land on the border with Mercia was surrounded by water and marshes, formidable natural defenses. In early medieval times, a morning gift would always belong to the wife, even if her husband set her aside.

Etheldreda’s marriage did not protect her father, who was killed with her brother (another saint) in a 754 battle against his longtime adversary, the pagan Mercian King Penda. Anna’s brother Athelhere ascended to the throne and recognized Penda as an overlord.

Etheldreda and Tonbert’s marriage would also be short-lived. Tonbert died around 655, the same year Athelhere and Penda died in battle against Northumbrian King Oswy, a Christian. Etheldreda retired to the Isle of Ely, a common act for early medieval widows. She might have thought she could pursue the religious life she always wanted.

From a 10th century illuminated manuscript
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was not to be. In 660, her family, probably led by her father’s brother Athelwold, arranged for her to marry Egfrith, Oswy’s heir and a former hostage in King Penda’s court. It was another strategic marriage in which Northumbria and East Anglia could form an alliance against Mercia.

Egfrith was probably 15 at the time. Etheldreda might have been 24. Again, she persuaded her husband to respect her wishes to remain a virgin.

At first, Egfrith consented and held her in high regard. For about a decade, Etheldreda lived at court, enjoying the society of learned monks and nuns and becoming friends with Bishop Wilfred. When Egfrith succeed his father in 670, he had a problem. He needed heirs born within wedlock. He could have forced himself upon his wife—although horrific to modern eyes, medieval folk would not recognize the act as rape. Or he could have asked Etheldreda to retire to an abbey and thus free him for another marriage.

Instead he asked Bishop Wilfred to persuade Etheldreda to willingly come to the marriage bed. Perhaps Egfrith feared losing his alliance with East Anglia, control of his wife’s dowry, and the connections she had made. Perhaps he thought his sons’ connections to the Uffings would help form alliances. Perhaps he truly loved Etheldreda and wanted her to be a real wife.

It would have been easier for Wilfred if he complied with the king’s request and accept the rewards Egfrith offered for the bishop and his churches. But Wilfred did just the opposite. He encouraged Etheldreda to hold fast to her vow of virginity. Maybe he believed Etheldreda’s desire to be a nun was her true calling and feared God’s anger for meddling with that more than the king’s.

Egfrith was none too happy when Etheldreda asked him for his permission to leave. At first, he reluctantly agreed, and she traveled to his aunt’s convent. Apparently, he missed her and was determined to get her back, even if she wanted no such thing.

Egfrith’s aunt advised Etheldreda to flee. Disguised as a beggar, she left with only two nuns to accompany her. The legend includes a few miracles in her escape such as a tide that rose and stayed high at just the right time and a staff that transformed into a tree.

Whatever the circumstances, she made it to Ely, where 600 families already lived, and built a double monastery. Wilfred made her abbess. (Egfrith did remarry. His second wife hated Wilfred.)

Saint Ethelreda's statue at Ely Cathedral
(photo by Jim Linwood, CC BY 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)

Etheldreda’s abbey thrived over the next seven years. During that time, she choose an austere lifestyle, wearing only woolen garments rather than linen near the skin. She also abstained from warm baths—not bathing was a form of penance in early medieval times—with the exception of four great festivals. Even then, other nuns had used the water first.

Shortly before she died, she had a quinsy, a painful abscess in her tonsil, which she believed to be punishment for her earlier fondest for necklaces. A surgeon cut it out, but it didn’t help. She died June 23, 679.

Sixteen years after Etheldreda’s death, her sister (a third one) and successor St. Sexburga wanted to move Etheldreda’s remains from a wooden coffin to a more fitting tomb within the church. If we are to believe legend, Etheldreda’s body was not at all corrupted—even the surgical incision had healed—proof that she had been chaste her whole life.


Bede on St Etheldreda

"St. Etheldreda" by Ewan Macpherson, The Catholic Encyclopedia.

A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Volume 1, Agnes Baillie Cunninghame Dunbar

The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley

The Peterborough Version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Rewriting Post-Conquest History, Volume 27 of Anglo-Saxon studies, by Malasree Home

“The Retreat of St. Etheldreda” Catholic World, Volume 62, Paulist Fathers

Etheldreda” (Northumbria Community)


Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in early medieval times and is working on a third.

You can order The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a Saxon peasant who will fight for her children after losing everything else, at AmazonKoboBarnes & Noble, and iTunes. Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.


  1. An interesting story, even if based upon incorrect assertions.

  2. Love the time period discussed here! My novel actually takes place around the same time, but is from the Welsh perspective. Great article! :)

  3. Thanks for the interesting post! Is Etheldreda a character in anything of yours?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.