Catholic Truth Society of London – Saint Werburgh

Saint Werburga(died 699)

About the beginning of the seventh century, when England was earning for herself the most glorious of her titles, that of “Island of the Saints,” a little girl was born in Staffordshire who was to be the object of the love and devotion of her countrymen, until the chill blast of heresy and unbelief swept away nearly all that was best and holiest from the land. Vet even the Reformation was not able entirely to extinguish the fame of Saint Werburgh: her name is still familiar in some parts, and Chester Cathedral is dedicated to her.

She united in her veins the blood of two widely different races: one the very essence of all that was pagan, fierce and cruel; the other the perfection of all that was Christian, holy, and gentle. Her father, Wulfhere, was the son of the famous or shall we not rather say in famous? Penda, King of the Mercians, who, by the countless victims of his unholy wars, swelled the white-robed army of martyrs, foremost amongst whom were the five kings, Saint Oswald, Egric, Annas, Sigebert, and Edwin. He is described by the chronicler as a man who breathed nothing but fury and war, and loved to tread in ways stained with blood. At length, in 655, he was slain in battle by King Oswin, the brother of Saint Oswald, who had promised that if he got the victory he would consecrate his daughter to serve God in perpetual virginity. Though the pagan army was thirty times as large as the Christian, yet the pagans were cut to pieces and their leaders and generals slain. King Oswin, mindful of his vow, offered his daughter to God in holy religion; “and having spent three score years in our Lord’s service, the happy virgin hastened to the embraces of the heavenly Bridegroom.” Penda was succeeded by his son Peada, who became a Christian, but was assassinated three years later; and Wulfhere then became the rightful heir to the largest kingdom of the Heptarchy.

Saint Werburgh’s birth happened most probably many years before Wulfhere’s accession, as the course of the narrative will show. Wulfhere was married to the saintly and beautiful Ermenilda, daughter to Erconbert, King of Kent, and of Sexburga his wife. The latter was the daughter of the King Annas, of holy memory, who was slain by Penda. Wulfhere and Ermenilda were strangely matched, for if Wulfhere had inherited his father’s courage and military prowess, he had likewise inherited his violent and cruel temper. We wonder how Saint Sexburga could have entrusted her gentle young daughter to a man of such character, and, above all, to a pagan; yet she may have foreseen that Ermenilda’s influence would at length prevail, and that the leaven of her virtues would gradually impregnate the whole country over which she would one day be queen. Besides, it was not the first time in history that the “leopard was to lie down with the kid, and the wolf with the lamb” (Isaias 11:6); a Patricius and a Monica, a Clovis and a Clotilde come readily to mind.

Wulfhere and Ermenilda had four children. Werburgh was the eldest and the only girl; the boys were Ulfald, Rufifin, and Kenred: the last seems to have been much younger than the others. Wulfhere probably did not interfere with the religion of his daughter, since she was baptized and allowed openly to profess her faith. He no doubt thought Christianity good enough for women: but with his sons it was a very different matter. He wished them to be fond of war, to shed blood without scruple, and to shrink from no means so long as they attained their end. Ermenilda was therefore obliged to use her influence with the utmost tact, and to instill Christian principles into them without allowing their father to suspect what she was doing. Fortunately the children all inherited their mother’s temperament and virtues; and she did not cease to water and tend with the utmost care the tender plants entrusted to her, endeavouring to enkindle within their hearts the undying flame of charity, and to impress on their minds the imperishable truths which lead to life eternal.

Werburgh must very soon have noticed the contrast between the violent nature of her pagan father and the gentle sweetness of her Christian mother, since we read of her that she had a serious thoughtfulness beyond her years, and took no pleasure in the usual enjoyments of a child. Her chief delight was to sit by her mother’s side, to learn from her to love God and His Saints, and to go with her to assist at the celebration of Mass and the Divine Office, during which she would kneel the whole time out of reverence. Divine Providence had constituted Ermenilda the refuge of all in distress and the mother of the poor and needy; and in all her exercises of charity she found a constant companion and a ready assistant in Werburgh.

At that time Saint Chad, afterwards Bishop of Lichfield, was living as a hermit in closest union with God in a neighbouring forest. Saint Ermenilda desired very much that her sons should have him for their master in the spiritual life now that they were growing into man’s estate; yet she dreaded her husband’s violence if he should come to know of her plan, and endeavoured to carry it out with the greatest secrecy. It was therefore agreed that the two elder boys should go out on pretence of hunting expeditions, and that in the course of the chase they should slip away and seek out the hermit’s cell. This happened several times, no one apparently suspecting anything; and their young hearts being inflamed by Saint Chad’s instructions, they begged him not to defer their Baptism. At length the Saint acceded to their request, and, pouring upon their heads the regenerating water, washed their souls white in the Blood of the Lamb.

In the meanwhile Werburgh had reached a marriageable age, and on account of her striking beauty and sweet ways, she was eagerly sought after by suitors for her hand. But her chronicler tells us that though her beauty of form made her exceedingly in request, the still greater beauty of her mind caused her to care only for Him who is beautiful above the sons of men; and that the vehement longing she had to taste of His inestimable sweetness caused her heart to pant after Him as a thirsty stag, heated in the chase, pants for water. She had therefore bound her virginity by vow to Christ, and with angelic purity repulsed all suitors, God Himself dwelling in her as sole Master of all her affections.

Among those who sought her in marriage was a powerful nobleman named Werebode. Wulf here was greatly indebted to this man, and was anxious to keep on good terms with him from motives of policy as well as of gratitude. He therefore readily agreed to give him his daughter, provided she herself would agree to the union. Werebode was a headstrong, haughty man, unaccustomed to be thwarted, and with a very exalted idea of his own attractions. When, therefore, Werburgh turned a deaf ear to his proposals, he was stung to the quick, and being mad with passion, his love speedily turned into hate. He understood that it was her religion which had raised a barrier between them, and he determined to be revenged both on Werburgh and her faith. He had noticed the mysterious disappearance of the two young princes in the forest, and had secretly watched their interviews with Saint Chad. He therefore formed the diabolical plan of com passing their ruin.

He sought out their father and poured out a story full of slander and cunning about the deceit of his sons, telling him how they had deserted the gods of their ancestors, Odin and Thor, and had embraced the religion of the Crucified, and how they were plotting to seize their father’s crown and kingdom to make it Christian too. It was easy enough to rouse Wulfhere’s passionate nature, and Werebode so worked upon his feelings that he became beside himself with rage. “Come,” said Werebode, “and I will give you proof of my story;” and with that the two rode off into the forest. It happened that at the moment they reached the hermit’s cell the two boys were kneeling in the rude chapel, having but now received holy Baptism from the hands of Saint Chad. Their souls were clad in the white robe of innocence, a look of unearthly peace and joy lighted up their fair faces. The King was exasperated, and, breaking in violently upon them, demanded angrily of them to renounce their superstition and give up their foolery. But no threats could move them, and the father in his fury bade Werebode murder his own sons. Werebode had attained his end, but his triumph was to be short-lived, for soon after he perished miserably.

We may well imagine the grief, not unmingled with joy, of the holy mother at the news of this martyrdom: grief at the terrible crime committed by her husband, and at the loss of two who were dearer to her than life, yet joy and gratitude for the martyrs death which had won for her sons an immortal crown. Taking Werburgh with her, Ermenilda set out for the hermitage, and there found Saint Chad keeping vigil by the precious relics. Ulfald and Ruffin lay locked in each other’s embrace, apparently wrapped in a deep sleep, for no trace remained on their countenances to tell of the violence of their death; rather the smile which lingered there betokened the souls awakening to gaze for ever on the Master for whom their lives had been sacrificed. Tenderly and reverently Saint Chad, assisted by Ermenilda and Werburgh, laid them in their last resting-place, which was soon to become so favourite a place of pilgrimage. Then the mother and daughter retraced their steps homewards with heavy hearts, not knowing what to expect, scarce knowing what to hope for. But the dying prayer of the sons for their father had not been in vain; the blood which they had shed cried for mercy and -not for vengeance, and even Wulf here’s hard nature could not withstand the flood of grace which the little martyrs obtained for him. Remorse, keen and deep, had taken possession of him, and he bitterly deplored the fearful result of his passion. Humbled and crushed, he listened the more readily to the words of hope spoken to him by Ermenilda and Werburgh, and consented to go to Saint Chad to confess his sin and be instructed by him in the faith for which his sons had died. Finally he embraced Christianity, and with the sacred waters of Baptism expiated his crime. He caused a priory built of stone to be erected on the scene of the martyrdom which has given its name to the place (Stone, Staffordshire); and he undertook to finish and amply endow the monastery of Peterborough, begun by his brother, as a lasting monument of his sin and repentance.

From henceforth he was a changed man, and when in 658 he was proclaimed King of the Mercians, three years after his brother’s death, he utterly rooted out of his kingdom “the pagan worship of devils,” commanding the name of Christ to be preached everywhere and many churches to be built. William of Malmesbury says of him “that at his first accession to the throne, to the end that he might not deceive the expectation of his subjects, he spared no diligence, study, or labour to show himself a good prince who sought the profit and happiness of his kingdom. Moreover that by his favour and counte nance he earnestly advanced the Christian faith, then gasping for life as being but a little before brought in by his brother.” Capgrave, speaking of Saint Ermenilda, says that she was so zealous in promoting the Christian faith that by her persuasion, kindness, and holy example, the rude and perverse nation of the Mercians was brought to submit to the sweet yoke of Christ; while her husband Wulfhere, complying with her desires, assisted her in extirpating idolatrous superstition and filling the kingdom with churches and priests.

Meanwhile, however, Werburgh sighed after a higher and better life than that of the Court. Both she and her mother despised riches; the gold, precious stones, and embroidered robes which form the paraphernalia of royalty were far more burdensome than honourable to them, and while at times of regal state they were obliged to submit to be thus bedecked, they grieved to feel that they were still held prisoners by such vanity.

At length Werburgh obtained her father’s consent to follow the call which had so long sounded in her heart to give herself unreservedly to God and His service in a monastery. The fame of the Abbey of Ely in Cambridgeshire, which had been founded by her great-aunt, the beautiful and gifted Etheldreda, or Audry, was already widespread; but to Werburgh it must have been well known, for besides her aunt, her grandmother had recently taken the veil there. Her grandfather, King Ercombert, died in 664, and Harpsfield tells us how her grandmother, Saint Sexburga, “like a bird which had been a long time enclosed in a cage gladly escaped out of it, and divesting herself of all her royal ornaments and marks of royal pomp and pride betook herself first to the Abbey of Sheppey, and later to the society of holy virgins in the city of Ely governed by her sister the most glorious virgin Etheldreda.” It was, then, most natural that Ely should have been singled out as the future home of Werburgh, and that Wulfhere and Ermenilda should have chosen to entrust their daughter to those who by every title would love and cherish her.

Wulfhere himself escorted Werburgh to Ely, accompanied by a large suite of noblemen and retainers. Upon their arrival they were met in state at the great door of the Abbey by the Abbess and her nuns, Saint Chad, now Bishop of Lichfield, and a number of ecclesiastics. The reception of such a postulant was no small event in the annals of the Monastery, for Wulfhere was the most powerful of all the kings of the Heptarchy, and, besides, there was not one who did not marvel at the generosity of the fierce old Saxon monarch, subdued by penance, and bowed down by the remem brance of a crime forgiven but not forgotten, who thus sacrificed to God his only daughter in all her youth and beauty. Werburgh fell upon her knees before the com munity, and with great humility asked to be received as a postulant into the Abbey. Her request being granted, she was led in procession into the church. When she had laid aside her royal robes, Saint Chad cut off her hair, and gave her the coarse habit of religion in exchange for her rich garments, and the veil of virginity in place of the royal diadem. The “Te Deum” was then sung, and the humble novice, resigning herself entirely into the hands of her superiors, sought to divest herself interiorly, as well as exteriorly, of all that savoured of the world, and to hasten as a pilgrim to her eternal home. Wulfhere left her with many tears, yet found it in his heart to thank God for choosing his daughter for His bride; and how much he valued the honour thus bestowed was showed when he returned the follow ing year to be present at her Profession. He invited for the occasion the King” of Kent, the King of the East Angles, with all the great lords of their kingdoms, and his own three brothers with their retinues. All these he entertained with a magnificence suited to such an occasion as that of the Espousals of the Son of God with his daughter.

Wulfhere did not long survive Werburgh’s consecration: he had reigned seventeen years, and by his zeal for the faith in the latter years of his life had rendered himself beloved both to God and man, when in 675 he was transferred, as we may hope, from an earthly to an eternal kingdom. His widow, while she mourned his loss, rejoiced to be able to cut the chain which bound her to the world, and to embrace the religious state after which she had so long sighed; and she subjected herself to the sweet yoke of Christ together with her daughter in the Monastery of Ely. Here she lived unweariedly in all holiness, giving to the nuns an example of every virtue. Mother and daughter vied with one another in humility, each desiring, to be subject to the other: the mother, honouring the virginity of her daughter, would have Werburgh be the first, while Werburgh naturally desired to give place to her mother. The chronicler gives this account of Saint Werburgh’s life and conduct at this period:’s Her only diligence and solicitude was employed in avoiding all things which might displease the eyes of her heavenly Bridegroom, for whose love she despised gold, jewels, rich attire, and all other vanities admired by the world. All her thoughts were busied in this one thing, how she might excel her religious sisters in observing silence, abstinence, watchings, devout reading, and prayers. Which holy design having compassed, insomuch as she was as far exalted above them in these and all other virtues as in the nobleness of her descent, yet she thought so meanly of herself, and was so free from any arrogance or pride, that she showed herself always ready and willing to obey all, and cheerfully undertook the vilest offices, among which a charitable care of the poor and needy, to whom she was a pious and tender mother, took the principal place. In a word, through the whole course of her life her conversation was such as showed that though her body moved on earth yet her mind was always fixed in heaven.”

In 679 Werburgh and the nuns of Ely suffered a grievous loss in the death of their Abbess Saint Etheldreda, after she had governed the monastery for seven years, and had been to her spiritual children a model of piety and virtue. Venerable Bede relates of her that she rarely eat more than once a day except on great solemnities or when her infirmities forced her to do otherwise; and that from midnight Matins until break of day she would remain in the church absorbed in prayer. He specially mentions her mortification in wearing coarse woollen garments, and in denying herself the luxury of warm baths to which she had been accustomed. She suffered much before her death from a very painful tumour on her neck; but she rejoiced in this humiliating infirmity, saying to those who compassionated her, “I know that I am justly pained in my neck because when I was a young maid I wore about my neck weighty chains of jewels; therefore God in His mercy has thus punished me, that the fierce heat and redness of the swelling in my neck may satisfy for my former pride and levity.”

Saint Werburgh’s grandmother Sexburga was unanimously chosen to succeed her sister in the abbatial office. For fifteen years she had lived under religious discipline and had been all the more assiduous in her devotions and rigorous in her mortifications in that she had come so late in life to the school of perfection. But if she had come late to religion it was from no lack of desire on her part, for her biographer tells us that God thought fit to delay the execution of her aspirations that she might, with no less merit and far more labour in her condition as a sovereign, afford examples of virtue to all her subjects. This she had performed in an admirable manner, being, as Capgrave describes her, “a most reverenced mother to the great ones and a kind patroness to the poor. The former observed her as a princess, the latter as a mother, those venerated her majesty, these admired her humility. To the nobles she was awful, and to meaner persons seemed equal; to all she was amiable and to all venerable, rarely seen in throngs but frequent in churches.” After twenty-five years of married life, her husband, King Ercombert, died, and she retired to the Isle of Shoppy in Kent, where she had founded a monastery for nuns known as “the Minster,” and there received the veil from Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury. As foundress, the reins of government were at once given into her hands, but she longed to live in subjection as a simple nun; so no sooner did she hear of the foundation made at Ely by Saint Etheldreda, her younger sister, than she determined to go and join her. Therefore assembling the nuns about eighty in number she thus addressed them:’s Farewell, my daughters; I leave you Jesus for your protector, the angels for your companions, and I have chosen one among you to be superior in my place. As for me, I go to the place of my birth to live under the rule of my sister Etheldreda, and to share her labours on earth that I may likewise share her crown in heaven.” She was received with the greatest possible joy by her sister, and though her senior in age and probably also in experience of religious life, she lived for some years in perfect obedience and submission to her, until such time as God, having called Etheldreda to Himself, laid once again upon her shoulders the burden of government. In her office as Abbess she was more than ever watchful over herself and more fervent in her prayers, remember ing that she had to give an account to Clod of many souls besides her own.

After she had governed her monastery to the great edification and contentment of all for sixteen years, mindful of the great sanctity of her sister, she desired to translate the body of the latter to a more honourable resting-place, and to substitute a coffin of stone for the simple wooden one in which Etheldreda had been laid to rest. A fitting church had now been built to receive the body of the venerable foundress, and all that remained was to procure suitable stone for the coffin. Venerable Bede tells how “Saint Sexburga commanded certain of the monks from the adjoining monastery to search out a stone commodious for that purpose. Now, the region of Ely being all encompassed with rivers and marshes afforded no such stones of a convenient largeness. They therefore, taking boat, went to a certain city not far distant which lay desolate, where presently near the walls they found a coffin of white marble elegantly made and fitly covered with a stone of the same. Perceiving hereby that God had prospered their journey, they with great joy and thankfulness brought the coffin to the Monastery. Now when the sepulchre was opened and the sacred body of the holy virgin and Spouse of Christ discovered, it was found as free from any corruption as if she had been buried the same day. The religious virgins therefore washed the Saint’s body, and putting new vestments on it, carried it into the church, placing it in the marble coffin lately brought thither. And, which was very strange, the said coffin was found so exactly fit for the holy virgin’s body, as if it had been made on purpose for her. The place likewise of the head, which was distinctly framed, did properly suit with the measure of the virgin’s head.” On account of this striking testimony to Saint Etheldreda’s heavenly glory, her feast is usually kept in October on the anniversary of her translation, and not on June 23rd, the day of her death.

After Saint Sexburga had performed this office of devotion and love for her sister, she herself was called to her reward at a very advanced age, and her daughter, Saint Ermenilda, Werburgh’s mother, was, on account of her great humility and other virtues, chosen by her religious sisters, to whom she had so endeared herself, to be their mother and mistress. How long they enjoyed her gentle government is not known, for though she is mentioned in the Martyrology on February 13th, no year for her death is given. Saint Ermenilda had one other sister, Earthongata, who, as a young girl, desiring to lead a perfect life, went over to a French monastery with two of her aunts, because at that time there were very few religious houses in England. Of her, Venerable Bede writes as follows:’s Many things are related very miraculous concerning Earthongata, but we will only mention briefly her death and the wonders succeeding it. When the day approached on which she was to be called out of this world to eternal happiness, she went about the monastery visiting the cells of the religious virgins, especially such as were more ancient and eminent for piety, to whose prayers she humbly recommended herself, not concealing from them that she was taught by revelation that her departure was at hand. Now on the same night at break of day, she passed from the darkness of this world to the heavenly light. Many of the monks whose lodgings were adjoining the monastery report that they heard distinctly a melody of angels singing and a noise as it were of a great multitude entering the monastery. Whereupon going forth to see what the matter was, they saw a wonderful great light from heaven, in which that holy soul, when delivered from the prison of her body, was conducted to eternal joys. Three days after her burial they, having a mind to take up the stone which covered her sepulchre and raise it higher, as they were busy about this, a sweet odour of so wonderful a fragrance exhaled from beneath, that it seemed to the religious men and sisters there assisting as if a cellar full of precious balm was then opened.”

But to return to Saint Werburgh. At the death of her father her brother Kenred was still so young that her uncle Ethelred succeeded to the kingdom. He had a very high opinion of the sanctity and intellectual capacity of his niece, and was most anxious that all the convents in Mercia should be placed under her direction in order that she might establish in them that perfection of religious discipline which to his great edification he had often witnessed at Ely. This, at length, the Saint consented to undertake, though it must have cost her dearly to leave her mother and the peaceful seclusion she had enjoyed at Ely, to devote herself to the welfare of strangers and to the work of reform, which so often proves a fruitless task. But she did not hesitate before sacrifice, and it was sufficient to her that God had made known to her His will by means of her superiors; while He so blessed her efforts as to make them bring forth fruit a hundredfold. Her uncle, eager in every way to further her pious designs, enabled her to found three new monasteries, one at Trentham, one at Hanbury in Staffordshire, and one at Weedon in Northamptonshire; the latter was a royal palace which Ethelred placed at her disposal.

Werburgh’s exalted position in no wise changed the humility which characterized her, and she seemed to be rather the servant than the mistress of those over whom she ruled, putting herself on the same footing as the very least of her subjects, and seeking as far as was compatible with her office to take the lowest place. She carried all her daughters in her heart, loving them as though they were indeed her own children, and teaching them virtue by her own example. She possessed in their fulness the spirit of peace, kindness, joy, and love. She was cheerful in tribulation, overcoming all difficulties by faith, and rising above earthly trials by fixing her heart on heaven. She preferred fasting to feasting, watching to resting, holy reading and prayer to recreation and dissipation. In God she possessed all things: He was her consolation in sorrow, her counsel in doubt, her patience in trial, her abundance in poverty, her food in fasting, her medicine in sickness.

It was no wonder, says her biographer, that her spiritual children rendered her such ready obedience and loving service, for even the irrational creatures obeyed her. There is a famous legend illustrative of this, which is related even by Protestant historians. It happened that when she was at Weedon, just before the harvest, the cornfields were being greatly injured by a flock of wild geese which the steward had done his best to drive away, but in vain. At last he came to complain of the matter to his mistress. Werburgh, with childlike trust in God, told the steward quite simply to go and call the geese and shut them up in the great barn. The man looked at her amazed, thinking that she must be speak ing in jest, and began muttering to himself about the absurdity of such an order. How could he possibly be expected to confine birds in a barn who had wings to carry them to heaven? “Of course,” he grumbled, “the instant I come up they will all be off like the wind!” But Werburgh urged the command, telling him again to call them in her name and put them into confinement. He dared not disobey any longer; so off he went to the fields where, as usual, the geese were feasting on the corn. “Go all of you to my mistress!” he shouted incredulously; when, to his surprise, they meekly collected and waddled off in front of him like so many naughty children. Not one of the flock raised a wing, and all were imprisoned in the barn to await Werburgh s pleasure. That night after Matins she prolonged her prayer as usual till after daylight, when very early she was roused from her meditation by a tremendous cackling which came from the geese who were getting tired of their confinement. The Saint, who was kindness itself to all God’s creatures, went to set them free, telling them she did so on condition they were never seen again in the place. But one of the farm boys had during the night stolen one of the birds, intending to kill and eat it; the result was that the flock settled on the roof of the church making a dreadful noise, as though demanding restitution of the missing bird. Werburgh either guessed what had happened, or knew by inspiration, for she found the culprit and bade him release his captive. The boy went off much ashamed at being thus convicted, and restored the missing goose. The Saint then cried out, “Bless the Lord, all ye birds of the air,” upon which they flew off without more ado, and no bird of that kind was ever after seen in those parts. “Rightly indeed,” exclaims her biographer,’s did the birds obey one who had always obeyed their Creator with such zeal and love.”

How lowly she was in her own eyes, and how pleasing in the sight of God is known by a miracle of a very touching character. Among the labourers on the Abbey estate was one who was remarkable for his holiness of life. His name was Alnotus. One day some trifling oversight on his part roused the steward’s indignation to such a degree that he completely lost his temper and began beating the poor fellow most unmercifully. At that moment Werburgh arrived on the scene, and was naturally much distressed to see the ungovernable temper of her steward thus venting itself on an innocent man. In her eagerness to bring him to his senses, she threw herself at his feet crying, “Spare an innocent man who is far more pleasing than we are to God who seeth all things.” The steward, however, who was evidently beside himself, paid no attention; upon which Werburgh turned to God for help, and immediately the offender fell paralyzed to the ground. It was now his turn to cry for mercy, acknowledging his sin with many tears. Werburgh, satisfied with his contrition, restored him to his natural strength. The labourer afterwards became a hermit in the forest of Stow, not far from Weedon, where he was martyred by robbers; and how acceptable he was to God was afterwards proved by miracles.

God deigned to show how much Werburgh was beloved by Him and how much power her prayers had with Him, by making her the instrument of many miraculous cures upon the sick and maimed. He also endued her with a spirit of prophecy and the power of discerning spirits and reading the secrets of hearts. At length she felt that her useful and holy life was soon to have an end, and she thought well to prepare her daughters for her departure and arrange about the place of her burial. She knew well how devoted the nuns were to her; each of her monasteries had some claim on her motherly heart; each would have had her always with them, and she was perfectly aware of the pious rivalry which would arise among them as to the possession of her body after death. She therefore determined to forestall all dispute by choosing Hanbury as her last resting-place, probably because it was the largest, and the nearest to Ely her first monastic home. She gave strict orders on this point, saying that no matter where she died her body was to be taken to Hanbury.

On 3 February 699, the day so long desired arrived a day which was to put an end to all the toils and pains of earth and admit her to eternal joys: the day of eternity which was to dissipate all shadows and cause the light of eternal glory to shine upon her. Her blessed soul exulted when the summons came to invite her to the Marriage-Feast; she rejoiced to leave exile for home, a prison for a kingdom, captivity for liberty, the tyranny of this world for the Spouse whom she loved and longed for. She died at Trentham, and her soul was carried by Angels to heaven and admitted among the company of glorious virgins who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth,and who sing the canticle which none but themselves can sing. God willed that she should end her earthly course in this Monastery in order that by a wonderful prodigy He might bear witness to her holiness. The nuns of Trentham, setting aside the last wishes of their Abbess with regard to her burial-place, determined to keep her precious remains among them at any cost. To those who came from Hanbury to claim the body, they gave a decided refusal, and even went so far as to lock up the coffin in a crypt and set a guard over it. However, the people of Hanbury were equally determined not to be done out of their treasure; and when they heard of the nuns refusal to give it up, a whole party of them set out to insist on their claim. They reached Trentham in the middle of the night, and, by an interposition of Providence, all the bolts and bars of the Abbey and its crypt opened at their touch. They found the guards over powered by a deep sleep, and without any opposition were able to carry off the coffin in triumph to Hanbury. Here the holy virgin was buried with great solemnity, while the many miracles which followed clearly showed that her soul reigned in heaven, and that her prayers were powerfully pleading for the people whom she had left in exile to mourn her loss. “In this place,” writes a contemporary, “sick persons recover health, sight is restored to the blind, hearing to the dumb, the lepers are cleansed, and persons oppressed with several other diseases do there praise God for their recovery.”

On account of these marvels, devotion to the Saint very naturally increased, and the people felt that so great a light should not be buried under a bushel, but should be placed in a conspicuous place in a suitable shrine, where the pilgrims could pay their devotions in a proper manner. They therefore referred the matter to Kenred, King of the Mercians, and younger brother to Saint Werburgh. In 704, Ethelred, Kenred’s uncle, had abdicated in favour of his nephew, and retired into the Monastery of Bardeney, in Lincolnshire. He had grown more and more tired of government and the burden of secular affairs. The death of his niece had made him even more eager to devote all his energies to the sanctification of his soul and the acquirement of an eternal crown. He therefore handed over his kingdom to Kenred, and became a simple monk in the Benedictine Abbey that he himself had founded, where, after ten years of exem plary life, he died the death of a Saint. Kenred readily acceded to the request of the people to provide a fitting shrine for his sister, and in 708 he came in person with a great concourse of ecclesiastics and nobles to assist at the translation of the relics. As the body had rested for nine years in the earth, no one expected to find any thing but dry bones; what was then their amazement when the holy virgin’s body appeared absolutely intact, as though she had but now fallen into a refreshing sleep. Her garments were as spotless and unruffled as though freshly placed upon her, and when the Celebrant, in the sight of all present, removed the veil from her face and a gentle flush was seen upon it like that of a summer rose, a great shout of admiration and thanksgiving rent the air, and the whole crowd praised God for His wonderful works. The priests, clad in the richest vestments, reverently raised her upon their shoulders and carried her to the shrine prepared for her, where as a beacon of light she continued to shed her lustre over her faithful people.

This miracle made a very deep impression on King Kenred, and deepened the desire he had for some time cherished of following in the footsteps of his sister, who had despised all the kingdoms of the earth as dirt in comparison with the pearl of great price which she had obtained. Another occurrence of a less pleasing but not less impressive nature fixed his resolution. Among his suite there was a knight to whom he was greatly attached, who had fought side by side with him in many a battle, and had vied with him in performing deeds of valour, for both were endowed with great courage. Unfortunately, however, this knight was utterly reckless with regard to his soul, and many and many a time Kenred, who was always good and loyal to his God, had exhorted him to mend his ways and attend to the affairs of his soul as faithfully as he did to those of his King. The knight took the admonitions in good part, but always put off his conversion, saying he would have plenty of time to attend to his soul when he was old and past work. But he was struck down by the plague in the prime and vigour of his manhood, and had most terrible sufferings, doubtless sent him by God to recall him to a better mind. When the King heard of his condition, he hastened to his bedside and begged him with all possible earnestness not to delay his confession and to make his peace with God before it was too late. To these charitable entreaties the sick man only replied that nothing would induce him to go to confession until he got better, for his comrades would laugh at him for being chicken-hearted and doing that for fear of death which he had not been willing to do when in health.

The following day the King determined to renew his efforts to save that unhappy soul, but the grace of God had knocked and knocked in vain, and now the miser able man was a prey to the most frightful despair. He told the King that during the night two beautiful young men had entered his room carrying a book in which were written all the good actions he had ever done, but their number was very small, and none of them were of very great merit. Then a host of demons burst into the room carrying a book of enormous size and weight, containing all the crimes, evil words, and sinful thoughts of his life. The chief of these demons turned to the young men and exclaimed, “Why stay you here, for you must see that this soul is ours?” “It is true,” they answered; “take him and make him partaker of your damnation.” “Thus,” says Venerable Bede, “died this unhappy, despairing man, and now being for all eternity tormented, he practises without any fruit repentance which he neglected to do in his lifetime, when a short penance might have procured his pardon.”

This terrible death made Kenred resolved to secure his own salvation at any cost; and, knowing by experience the very grave dangers and temptations which beset the life of a monarch, he felt inspired to follow the example of his uncle Ethelred, and abdicate in favour of his cousin, after a short reign of five years, during which he had administered his kingdom with great piety and justice. In order that his sacrifice might be the more complete, he resolved to go right away from a country where his name was famous and where he would always be treated with honour. Early in the year 709 he put on pilgrim’s garb, and in company of two others set out for Rome, to end his days as a humble suppliant at the Tomb of the Apostles. He was accompanied by King Ina, of the East Saxons, who in all the bloom of his youth left his home, his betrothed, his kingdom, and a people who idolized him, to become the servant of the King of kings. These two arrived in Rome after travelling the whole distance on foot, the journey taking the best part of a year. There, kneeling before the Confession of Saint Peter’s, they were tonsured and clothed with the monastic habit by the reigning Pontiff Constantius; and after living for some years in the practice of prayer and penance they died in the odour of sanctity and found awaiting them in Paradise the crowns which they had sacrificed in this world that they might wear them for all eternity in the next.

For many a long year Saint Werburgh rested peacefully among her faithful daughters at Hanbury; but in 875 England was invaded by the Danes, and it was deemed prudent to carry her precious body to a more secure haven than Hanbury, which was in imminent peril of being ravaged by the pagan invaders. Under no other circumstances would the people of Hanbury have consented to part with their treasure, but they were terrified at the approach of the Danes and dreaded desecration for the still incorrupt body of the Saint. King Alfred the Great was then reigning, and he had given his daughter in marriage to Ethelred, whom he had constituted first Earl of Mercia, the race of its kings being extinct. This pious nobleman had Saint Werburgh’s shrine conveyed with the utmost care to Chester, where he caused a fine church to be built for its reception, which he amply endowed, and placed canons there to guard the holy virgin’s body. This church afterwards became the cathedral of the city, and the inhabitants honoured Saint Werburgh as their own special patroness. The Saxon kings and nobles continued to pay homage to the Saint, to visit her shrine, and to enrich it with costly gifts. In the reign of Saint Edward the Confessor the Minster was rebuilt on a more magnificent scale by Leofric, another Earl of Mercia, and a most devoted client of the Saint. On the accession of William the Conqueror, Chester was offered to him by his cousin, Hugh Lupus, on condition that he should fairly win it from the Saxons, which after three attempts he succeeded in doing. He it was who, in 1093, replaced the secular canons, entrusted with the care of Saint Werburgh’s shrine, by a community of Benedictine monks from Bee. It was for the settling and ordering of this monastery that Saint Anselm was first invited to England. Saint Werburgh seems to have kept a watchful care over the city committed to her, and the people of Chester ascribed to her intercession their almost miraculous escapes from the ravages of Danes, Scots, and Welsh. Many sick still sought and found health at her shrine, and in 1180, a terrible fire having broken out in Chester which threatened to destroy the city, the inhabitants fled to her for protection; upon which the monks, taking up her body, carried it in procession to meet the raging flames, which immediately subsided, and the town was saved.

In the course of ages her body fell to dust, probably that it might be saved from pollution, when, in the reign of Henry VIII, the reformers sacked the cathedral and scattered her relics. The shell of her tomb may still be seen in Chester Cathedral. It is ten feet high and embellished with thirty quaint old bas-reliefs of the kings of Mercia and others of her ancestors.

But if her relics are lost to us the fragrance of her virtues still lingers around the land of her birth. While she continues to intercede for her countrymen in heaven, the example of her life is still before us to teach us to live like her a life of faith; to remind us that we have not here a lasting city, but seek one that is to come; and finally to encourage us so to detach our hearts from this world that after her we may be brought with gladness and rejoicing into the temple of the King.

– text taken from the booklet Saint Weburgh, author unknown, published by the Catholic Truth Society of London