Virgin Saints and Martyrs – Saint Werburga

Saint WerburgaThe words of Montalembert deserve to be transcribed and re-read, so true are they as well as graceful.

“Nothing had more astonished the Romans than the austere chastity of the German women; the religious respect of the men for the partners of their labours and dangers, in peace as well as in war; and the almost divine honours with which they surrounded the priestesses or prophetesses, who sometimes presided at their religious rites, and sometimes led them to combat against the violators of the national soil. When the Roman world, undermined by corruption and imperial despotism, fell to pieces like the arch of a cloaca, there is no better indication of the difference between the debased subjects of the empire and their conquerors, than that sanctity of conjugal and domestic ties, that energetic family feeling, that worship of pure blood, which are founded upon the dignity of woman, and respect for her modesty, no less than upon the proud independence of man and the consciousness of personal dignity. It is by this special quality that the barbarians showed themselves worthy of instilling a new life into the West, and becoming the forerunners of the new Christian nations to which we all owe our birth.

“Who does not recall those Cimbri whom Marius had so much trouble in conquering, and whose women rivalled the men in boldness and heroism? Those women, who had followed their husbands to the war, gave the Romans a lesson in modesty and greatness of soul of which the future tools of the tyrants and the Caesars were not worthy. They would surrender only on the promise of the consul that their honour should be protected, and that they should be given as slaves to the Vestals, thus putting themselves under the protection of those whom they regarded as virgins and priestesses. The great beginner of democratic dictatorship refused: upon which they killed themselves and their children, generously preferring death to shame.

“The Anglo-Saxons came from the same districts, bathed by the waters of the Northern Sea, which had been inhabited by the Cimbri, and showed themselves worthy of descent from them, as much by the irresistible onslaught of the warriors as by the indisputable power of their armies. No trace of the old Roman spirit which put a wife in manu, in the hand of her husband – that is to say, under his feet – is to be found among them. Woman is a person, and not a thing. She lives, she speaks, she acts for herself, guaranteed against the least outrage by severe penalties, and protected by universal respect. She inherits, she disposes of her possessions – sometimes even she deliberates, she fights, she governs, like the most proud and powerful of men. The influence of women has been nowhere more effectual, more fully recognised, or more enduring than among the Anglo-Saxons, and nowhere was it more legitimate or more happy.”

Britain had been invaded, and subdued. From the wall of Antonine that connected the Firth of Forth with the Clyde, to what was now to be called the English Channel, all the east coast and centre of the island was occupied by the conquerors from Germany. The Britons had been rolled back into the kingdoms of Strathclyde, Rheged, Wales, and Cornwall and Devon.

The conquerors had coalesced into three great kingdoms – Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex.

From the island of Iona, missionaries of the Irish Church had effected the conversion of the Northumbrians. Augustine with his handful from Rome had introduced Christianity into the little subject Kingdom of Kent. From Northumbria the disciples of Iona penetrated Essex and made converts also there. But in Mercia Mid-England paganism was supreme, and the terrible Penda made himself paramount from the Thames and Wash to the Severn. The West Saxons were cowed.

But Saint Oswald, the Northumbrian king, restored the older domination of Northumbria, only to fall again. For thirty years Penda flung himself with fury against the Northern kingdom, and devastated it with fire and sword. Towards the end of his long reign he entrusted the government of the Mid-Angles to his son Peada, who married Alcfleda, daughter of the Northumbrian king, and at the same time received baptism from the hands of the Celtic bishop Finan.

Thus Christianity began to infiltrate into Mid-England also from the North and from the Celtic Church; and missionaries from Lindisfarne followed him into his principality.

The savage old pagan Penda acquiesced – perhaps he thought it inevitable that England should become Christian. The Britons to a man believed. All Northumbria had submitted to the Cross; the conversion of the East Saxons and of Wessex was in full progress. Penda raised no opposition, but poured forth the vials of his scorn upon such as had been baptised, and who did not live up to their baptismal promises. “Those who despise,” said he, “the laws of the God in whom they believe, are despicable wretches.”

But, notwithstanding the union by marriage between the families, the rivalry between Mercia and Northumbria could not be allayed; it must be decided on the battlefield. It was only when driven to desperation by the encroachments and insults of Penda, that Oswy resolved to engage in a final conflict with the man who had defeated and slain his two predecessors, Edwin and Oswald. During the thirteen years that had elapsed since the overthrow of Oswald, Penda had periodically subjected Northumbria to frightful devastations. Oswy, knowing his weakness, when the eighty-year-old pagan had got as far north as Bamborough, entreated for peace, and sent him a present of all the jewels and treasures of which he could dispose. Penda set them aside roughly, resolved, so it was believed, to root out and destroy the whole Northumbrian people. Then, in his despair, Oswy vowed – should God strengthen his hand and lead him to victory – that he would give his infant daughter to God and endow twelve monasteries. “Since the pagan will not take our gifts,” he said, “let us offer them to One who will.”

The battle of Winwaed resulted in the complete rout of the Mercians and their wholesale destruction, and Penda himself fell.

For the moment the ruin of Mercia seemed complete, and Oswy extended his supremacy over the whole of it. For three years the Mercians endured this foreign rule; but in 659 they surged up in revolt, drove the Northumbrian thanes from the land, and raised Wulfhere, a younger son of Penda, to the throne.

Under the able arm of this new king Mercia rose once more into a power even greater than that under Penda. Oswy died in 670, and thenceforth no Northumbrian king made any attempt to obtain the dominion over the Mid or Southern English.

During the three years after the death of Penda, Oswy had poured missionaries into Mercia. Peada had already brought the Irish monk Diuma with him, and he became bishop in Mercia. He was followed by another Irishman, Ceolach, a disciple of Saint Columba. The third bishop was Trumhere, a Northumbrian abbot, consecrated at Lindisfarne. His successors, Jaruman and Ceadda, had also been ordained by the Scots.

In 658 Wulfhere had married Ermenilda, daughter of Ercombert, King of Kent, and of his wife Saint Sexburga. This was just before the revolt which raised him to the throne. He does not seem to have been a Christian like his brother Peada, but to have felt much like old Penda, his father.

By her he had four children – Werburga, Ceonred, Rufinus, and Wulfhad.

Under a pious mother, Werburga grew up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; and from an early age her great desire was to embrace the religious life, and spend her days in the peace of the cloister. It was a lawless and godless time. Men were coarse and cruel, the palace was a scene of drunkenness and riot, from which her gentle spirit shrank. She is described as being very lovely and sweet in manner. She daily assisted with her mother at Divine Service, and spent much of her time in reading and in prayer.

When she came of age to be married, her hand was sought by one Werebod, a thane about the court, but she refused him.

Now we come to a story about which some difficulties exist. In the twelfth century one Robert of Swaffham wrote an account of the death of Rufinus and Wulfhad, sons of Wulfhere and brothers of Saint Werburga. The authority is late, too late to be trusted, as we do not know whence the writer drew his narrative.

According to this story, when Rufinus and Wulfhad heard of Werebod’s proposal, they scouted it, and told him to his face that he was not worthy to have her. Werebod dissembled his mortification, and waited an opportunity for revenge. The princes were then at Stone, in Staffordshire, where Wulfhere had a palace.

One day Wulfhad was out hunting, when the stag he was pursuing brought him to the cell of Saint Ceadda or Chad, who exhorted him to receive the faith of Christ and be baptised. Wulfhad answered that he would do so if the stag he had been pursuing would come of its own accord, with a rope round its neck, and present itself before him. Saint Chad prayed, and the stag bounded through the bushes to the spot, with the rope as Wulfhad desired. Saint Chad baptised the prince, and next morning communicated him. Rufinus was led by his brother to receive holy baptism, and when Werebod learned this, he told the king of it, and Wulfhere, in a fit of fury, pursued his sons to the cell of Saint Chad, and killed them with his own hands.

The story as it stands is impossible. There is no early notice of it, so that it reposes on a late tradition. Nevertheless, that there is a basis of truth is most probable, if not certain. The Church of Kinver is dedicated to Saints Rufinus and Wulfhad, and it stands under the Kefnvaur, the great red sandstone ridge on which are earthworks where Wulfhere had one of his strongholds. This is probably the site of the murder. That the two princes in their youthful pride scouted the suit of Werebod and insulted him is likely enough. That they had received lively impressions of reverence for Christianity from their mother is also very probable. That they had placed themselves under instruction by Saint Chad, and had been baptised by him, is also very likely. But that their father should have killed them on that account is inadmissible. Werebod may have poisoned his mind against his sons, and represented them as plotting against him with the Northumbrian king and using Chad as an intermediary, and he may have goaded Wulfhere into ordering their death on that account; or there may have been a violent scene between them which ended in the king killing them; or, more likely still, Werebod may himself have waylaid and assassinated them whilst out hunting. It took very little among the Anglo-Saxons to transform any one who died a violent death into a martyr; and when two royal princes had been killed, some excuse for regarding them as witnesses to the faith was sought and invented.

The bodies of the princes were conveyed to Stone, so called because of a memorial set up over them by Wulfhere, an inscribed pillar-stone; but, moved by compunction, he founded there a religious house for women. Wulfhere himself was baptised, and gave his consent to his daughter retiring from the world. He also founded the great monastery of Medehamstead, afterwards Peterborough, as some expiation for his crime.

Before this, Wulfhere had been constantly engaged in extending the power of Mercia. He detached from Northumbria all the district south of the Mersey, and with it got hold of Chester, of which place in later times his daughter was to be regarded as patroness. He gained a hold on the whole of the Severn valley and the Wye, our Herefordshire, over which he set his brother Merewald as under-king. Then he fought the West Saxons under Cenwalch in 661, and defeated them in a signal battle, and extended his ravages into the heart of Wessex as far as Ashdown. Then he turned his arms east along the Thames valley, and brought the East Saxons and London under his sway. Still unsatisfied, he crossed the river into Surrey, subdued it, and invaded Sussex and forced the King Ethelwalch to submit, and to receive baptism. Werburga resolved to retire to Ely where her great-aunt Etheldreda was abbess. Wulfhere and his court conducted her thither, in great state.

We cannot now see Ely in anything like its ancient condition. Then the entire district from Cambridge to the Wash was one broken sheet of water dotted with islets. In places there were shallows where reeds grew dense, the islands were fringed with rushes and willows. The vast mere was a haunt of innumerable wild birds, and the water teemed with fishes. The vast plain of the fens – which is now in summer one sea of golden corn, in winter a black dreary fallow cut up like a chess-board into squares by dykes – was then a tangle of meres, rank growth of waterweeds and copses of alders and grey poplars. The rivers Cam and Nen lost themselves in the waste of waters. Trees torn up, fallen into the water, floated about, formed natural rafts, lodged, and diverted what little current there was in the streams.

Here and there poles had been driven into the stiff clay that formed the bottom of the swamp, cross-pieces had been tied to them, then platforms erected six, ten feet above the surface of the water, and on these platforms huts had been constructed of poles and rushes, in which lived families, their only means of communication with each other and with the firm land being by boat. On the water and by the water they lived, tilling little bits of land left dry in summer but submerged in winter.

The islets were outcrops of fertile land, natural parks, covered by the richest grass and stateliest trees, swarming with deer and roe, goat and boar, as the water around swarmed with otter and beaver, and with fowl of every feather and fish of every scale.

Of all these islets none could compare with Ely, not, as has been supposed, named from the eels that were found about it, but from the elves who were supposed to have chosen it for their own and to dance in the moonlight on its greensward.

Better, purer beings than elves, had taken possession of this enchanted isle – Saint Etheldreda and her nuns; and it was through them that the wild fen-dwellers, those who lived on platforms above the water, received the rudiments of the faith, and were ministered to in their agues and rheumatic paralysis.

Etheldreda did not found her monastery here till 673. As Wulfhere died in 675, he can have accompanied his daughter there only very shortly after Etheldreda’s settlement in the place. There is no stone anywhere near, every block that has been employed on the glorious cathedral has been brought from a distance, mostly from Barwell, in Northamptonshire.

Etheldreda constructed her monastery and church entirely of wood. Great trunks had been split and these split logs formed the sides of her church, and it was thatched with reeds from the marshes. The king came by boat; the oars flashed in the sun, and the water rippled as the vessels were driven through it to the landing stage. Werburga, eager, stood looking forward to the lovely island that seemed to float on the water; if, as is probable, she was born some time before Wulfhere became king, she would then be between twenty-eight and thirty. At the landing-stage was her great-aunt with her nuns, in black habits with white veils; and no sooner had Werburga descended from the boat than they struck up the Te Deum, and advanced, leading the way, singing, to their wooden church.

Now followed the usual trials: Werburga was first stripped of her costly apparel, her coronet was exchanged for a linen veil, purple and silks were replaced by a coarse woollen habit, and she resigned herself into the hands of her superior, her great-aunt, Saint Etheldreda.

We know the form of the ceremonial, and the prayers used on such an occasion, but we do not know who the bishop was who consecrated Werburga. She was led to the foot of the altar, after the reading of the Gospel, and was then asked for two public engagements which were indispensable to the validity of the act: in the first place, the consent of her parents, and in the next her own promise of obedience to himself and his successors. When this had been done he laid his hands upon her to bless her and consecrate her to God. After prayers he placed the veil on her head, saying, “Maiden, receive this veil, and mayest thou bear it stainless to the tribunal of Christ before whom bends every knee in heaven and on earth.”

By the rules of the Anglo-Saxon Church the taking of the irrevocable vows was not suffered till the postulant had reached her twenty-sixth year, but we cannot be sure that this rule prevailed so early. The Celtic Church allowed it at the age of twelve.

When Wulfhere died, then Werburga’s mother came also to Ely, and on the death of Saint Etheldreda, in 679, her grandmother Sexburga, widow of Ercombert, king of Kent, became abbess, and ruled till 699, when she died, whereupon Werburga’s mother succeeded. At one time three generations of princesses of the blood of Hengest and Odin were seen together in the peaceful isle of Ely, wearing the same monastic habit, and bowing in prayer in the same wooden church. Werburga lived long and happily as a simple nun under her grandmother’s and mother’s kindly rule and direction, till, on her mother’s death, she was summoned to take the place of abbess.

It is very important for us to understand what was the moving principle at this period which led to the foundation of so many religious settlements. The Saxons and Angles had been a people living in war, loving war, and regarding the cutting of throats and the destruction by fire of every house and city as the highest vocation of a man. But when they had occupied the greatest portion of Britain, and further, when they had embraced Christianity, a change took place in their opinions. They came to see that there was some charm in peace, and dignity in the cultivation of the soil. But it was only after a struggle that they could stoop to take hold of the plough and lay aside the spear. They could be brought to this only by example, and it was this which the monks and nuns issuing from their own princely, royal families showed them.

“In the monastic movement of this time,” says Mr. Green, “two strangely contrasted impulses worked together to change the very aspect of the new England and the new English society. The one was the passion for solitude, the first outcome of the religious impulse given by the conversion; a passion for communing apart with themselves and with God which drove men into waste and woodland and desolate fen. The other was the equally new passion for social life on the part of the nation at large, the outcome of its settlement and well-doing on the conquered soil, and yet more of the influence of the new religion, coming as it did from the social civilisation of the older world, and insensibly drawing men together by the very form of its worship and its belief. The sanctity of the monastic settlements served in these early days of the new religion to ensure for them peace and safety in the midst of whatever war or social trouble might be disturbing the country about them; and the longing for a life of quiet industry, which we see telling from this moment upon the older English longing for war, drew men in crowds to these so-called monasteries.”

Wulfhere was succeeded in 675 by his brother Ethelred, a quiet, unambitious king, who devoted his energies to the foundation of monasteries, dotting them about Mercia with the object of softening and civilising a people that had the instincts of the beasts of prey. He entrusted his niece Werburga with a sort of general supremacy over all the nunneries in his kingdom. She visited them, regulated them, and brought them into order, before her mother’s death and her own appointment to the abbacy of Ely. Thus she resided for a while at the head of the communities of Weedon, Trentham, and Hanbury.

One incident of her story may be quoted.

It happened that a shepherd at Weedon was being brutally maltreated by the steward. The daughter of a king flew to the spot, threw herself between the overseer and the poor wretch he was beating and kicking, and arrested his arm and thrust him back, and held him from his victim, till his passion subsided, and he retired shamefaced.

Werburga died at a ripe age at Trentham, on February 3rd, 699.

Two centuries later, in order to save her remains from the Danes, they were conveyed to Chester, where there was a collegiate church that had been founded by her father at her request. Her body was, however, laid in what is now the Cathedral.

– text and illustration taken from Virgin Saints and Martyrs, by Sabine Baring-Gould, F Anger, illustrator, published in New York, 1901