Saint Mildred and Her Kinsfolk

bronze plaque of Saint Milded at the Minster Abbey; created by Concordia Scott, OSB, 1863; photographed on 20 June 2013 by Mum's taxi; swiped from Wikimedia Commons(660-725)

Among the many virgin saints once so popular in this country, none rivalled the great Saint Mildred, Abbess of Minster in Thanet. Historians tell us that for many centuries after her death her fame surpassed that of England’s great Apostle, Saint Augustine. This is all the more wonderful, considering how very little is known of her life. But if the incidents of her earthly pilgrimage were not striking enough to be handed down to us, we have a very long catalogue of miracles, graces, and .extraordinary occurrences con nected with her after death, and we ask ourselves, Who is this whom God so honours? what are the virtues which have so great power in heaven? The answer seems to be that God, in thus honouring one of His hidden saints, would prove to the world how precious in His sight are those who have kept their hearts wholly for Him, and whose purity has never been tarnished by the foul breath of sin, or scorched by the glare of the world.

The world and society may have changed, and customs and manners have doubtless altered since the days of Saint Mildred, but God is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; that which attracted Him then- attracts Him no less now, and He continues to look for pure souls in which He can delight to dwell; for souls who are willing to remain with Him and to listen to what He has to say; for souls who have time to mourn over His sorrows; for souls who desire only His love and approval; for souls, in short, who, like Saint Mildred, are content to lead their lives here unknown and unapplauded, realizing that in another and a better world they have begotten a spiritual progeny who will owe salvation and eternal happiness to their prayerful, hidden lives, and that having sown here in much patience and still greater faith, their harvest will be reaped in heaven.

When, in the year 616, the excellent King Ethelbert, converted to Christianity by Saint Augustine, died, his son Eadbald succeeded to his kingdom, but not, alas! to his virtues. He was a sensual, passionate man, who found the Christian religion extremely inconvenient, and determined to have nothing to do with it. He even went so far as to invite his subjects to return to their idolatry and former impious manner of life. A reaction set in, and the newly-converted Saxons, encouraged by the example of their king, were nothing loath to give themselves a loose rein, at least for a time. Saint Laurence, who succeeded Saint Augustine as Archbishop of Canterbury, did all he could to stem the tide; but his exhortations, whether to king or people, seemed as so many words thrown away. At length he gave way to discouragement at the sight of evil which he could not remedy, and of efforts always renewed yet always fruitless; and he resolved to return to Italy, where he might serve God freely, and, as he thought, with far more profit to himself and others.

The night before his intended departure he felt too anxious to go to bed, and went instead to the church, where he threw himself upon his knees before the tomb of Saint Augustine, and there prayed with tears for the flock which he was about to leave. As he prayed he was overcome by a -deep sleep, and while he slept Saint Peter appeared to him. In his hand he held a scourge with which he scourged the Arch bishop till his back was scarred with wounds. At the same time he asked him how he dared to desert the flock entrusted to him, and to whom he had confided his sheep, while he was flying like a hireling from the wolves. “Are you,” continued Saint Peter, “so unmindful of my example, I, who, for the sake of those committed to my care by Christ, endured stripes, imprisonment and death?” The next morning the Archbishop, braced by the Apostle’s reproof and the chastisement he had received, went to the king, and throwing back his tunic showed him his wounds. The king was very indignant at the sight, for in spite of his evil life he could not help reverencing the saint. However, when he heard what had happened he was speechless with amazement, and being doubtless in great fear lest he should be treated by the Apostle in the same sort, he determined to forestall the punishment and to turn over a new leaf. He renounced idolatry, and put away his unlawful wife, and embracing the faith of Christ did all he could to propagate it.

By his wife, good Queen Emma, he had two sons, the elder of whom died prematurely, leaving a daughter and two sons, both infants. These were brought up by their uncle Ercombert, who became king in 640, his nephews being too young to reign. The daughter was the Lady Domneva, mother to Saint Mildred. The sons were educated by their uncle as became their rank, “yet,” says their biographer, “they were even more enriched by divine grace than by secular ornaments, for after their baptism they remained in their innocence and voluntary neglect of worldly advantages, fortifying their other virtues by the safe guard of humility.” King Ercombert was a man of solid piety, who, at his accession, overthrew all the idols and temples in his kingdom, leaving not so much as a trace of the former superstition. “More over,” writes Venerable Bede, “he by royal authority commanded the fast of the forty days of Lent to be strictly observed, and ordained condign punishment against all transgressors, thus teaching those of his nation too much addicted to gluttony to accustom themselves to sobriety and temperance.”

When the Lady Domrieva, who seems to have been much older than her brothers, had reached a marriageable age, she was wedded to Merwald, a prince of Mercia, youngest son of the old pagan tyrant Penda. Merwald had been converted while a mere youth, and, unlike his father, was of a gentle disposition, much addicted to piety. The union of this holy couple was blessed with a still more holy offspring: three daughters who were named Mildburga, Mildred, and Mildgytha, and a son named Meresin; the latter a child of eminent sanctity, “being made perfect in a short space fulfilled a long time, and God hastened to bring him out of the midst of iniquity lest concupiscence should overturn his innocent mind.” Merwald evidently looked upon gentleness as the most beautiful adornment of a woman, since he prefixed the word “mild” to each of his daughters names. Mild they were, imitating in this their God, who had deigned to say “Learn of Me, for I am meek.” The three sisters have been aptly likened to the three theological virtues; Mildburga to faith, Mildgytha to hope, and Mildred to charity, because she surpassed the others in the fame of her sanctity and the devotion which she evoked. All three were destined to be of the number of those whom Holy Church describes as souls of a nobler stamp; those, namely, who abstain from the espousals of earth and aspire with all the love of their hearts to that divine union of which earthly marriage is but a symbol. They each, therefore, refused to accept any spouse but Jesus; yet this sublime dignity was not to be attained, at least by the two elder, without much suffering and a determination on their part to obtain their end notwithstanding all opposition.

Mildburga was sought in marriage by a neighbouring prince, who was completely captivated by her beauty. When he learnt her resolution to remain a virgin he was equally resolved to have her for his wife, even at the cost of violence. Mildburga, having probably had proof of his passionate nature, determined to escape an outburst by flight. The young man, baulked of his prey, followed in hot pursuit, and being well mounted steadily gained on her. Then, when all escape seemed impossible, God interposed His Almighty power in favour of His chosen spouse. The river which she had just crossed in her flight suddenly became so swollen that it was impossible for her pursuer to ford it, and he was obliged to desist from his impious design. Mildburga’s father built a monastery for her at Wenlock in Shropshire, where many pious virgins gathered round her, and where eventually she was consecrated first abbess by Arch bishop Theodore. Of her Harpsfield writes: “That though of royal descent and the eldest of her family, she generously despised those privileges which the world admires, aspiring only after God and celestial things. She fixed all her thoughts and desires on this one design, i.e., how she might remove all such impediments as hindered her from consecrating her whole life to heavenly contemplation. For the effecting of this she made a joyful exchange of splendid palaces for a monastery, of royal purple for sackcloth, of a princely diadem for a religious veil, and of all pretensions to the highest earthly espousals for Christ her heavenly Bridegroom. She therefore founded a monastery of religious virgins at Wenlock in Shropshire, which was endowed with ample possessions by her father and her uncle Wulfhere, King of Mercia, and adorned with great privileges and many precious relics of saints. So that the said place represented a new paradise, considering the heavenly society living there, of virgins wholly employed in divine things, especially Saint Mildburga, a worthy mother of so holy an offspring; among whom there was a devout emulation and contention in promoting the zealous care of humility, chastity, and all other offices of piety.”

Mildburga’s younger sister Mildred had been sent for her education to the Benedictine Abbey of Chelles, near Paris. This house had been founded by Saint Batilde some years previously, and was the favourite resort of Saxon ladies before convents became so numerous in our own land.

When Mildred arrived at Chelles Saint Batilde was living in humility as a simple nun, but her former position in the world and her romantic history made her by far the most striking and interesting personality in the monastery. By birth a Saxon princess, she had been kidnapped by some Frankish pirates and exposed for sale in the slave market. Though little more than a child, a French nobleman (Lord Chamberlain to Clovis II) was so struck by her beauty and refinement that he bought her and made her one of his household. Batilde was a Christian, and her faith in God’s providence, together with the remembrance of the sufferings of Christ, enabled her to bear patiently, if not gladly, a captivity which would otherwise have been unendurable to one of her birth. Not that her master was unkind to her. On the contrary, he treated her from the outset with a consideration which her position as a slave could scarcely lead her to expect. He saw that she was utterly unfit for menial work, and entrusted her with the lighter duty of waiting on him at table. As she grew in beauty and grace, he even offered to make her his wife, but she refused his suit. Her fellow-slaves, far from envying the confidence placed in her by their master, loved and respected her. They loved her for her sweet manner, modest bearing, and gentle condescension towards them, while they could not fail to respect her for her superior talents and education, and to feel that she was of a very different standing from themselves.

The young King Clovis, who was but seventeen years old, had often been struck by the fair slave who waited upon him when he dined with his chamberlain, and at last he became so enamoured of her that he made her a proposal of marriage. “Sir,” she quietly answered, “I am your slave, and whether or no I am bound to submit.” “No,” exclaimed Clovis, “a slave can never be Queen of France. I not only free you henceforth from slavery, but I give you full liberty either to reject or to accept my offer.” “I thank you,” she answered, “for the great favour you show me and for the freedom you have given me, but though no longer your slave, I am still under the guardianship of my father, and cannot accept your offer without leave from my king.” Clovis respected the wishes of Saint Batilde, and sent ambassadors to England to arrange matters for him. The outraged parents seem to have looked upon the indignity offered to their daughter as a felix culpa, since it was to be the means of placing her on the throne of France, and the marriage was duly solemnized to the satisfaction of all parties in 650.

Her life, however, was destined to be anything but a happy one, on account of the troublous times in which she lived, the continual wars between father and son, brother and brother, the murder of several of those nearest and dearest to her, and the calumnies to which she was often a victim. Yet with the brave heart and dauntless spirit which characterized Saxon women she set herself to fill her difficult position, retaining upon the throne that same humble sweetness, charity, and piety which she had shown as a slave. She spent many hours every day in prayer; her almsgiving was boundless, and she built many churches, sanctuaries, and monasteries as the old chronicle says, she “covered her kingdom with them.”

After six years of married life her husband died, and Batilde was appointed regent, an office which she filled for ten years with consummate tact and prudence. At the end of that time she handed over the reins of government to her eldest son, and determined to carry out her long cherished wish of devoting her widowhood to prayer and retirement. She commissioned a trusty servant to seek out a secluded spot near Paris where she might found a monastery in which to end her days. “Go,” she said, “and find me a place where I can contemplate the heavens undisturbed.” A royal manor named Chelles, four leagues from Paris, was selected, and a monastery soon erected on a site where a foundation had formerly been made by Saint Clotilde.

At Batilde’s request a nun was sent from the Abbey of Jouarre to train herself and her companions in monastic life; this was Bertille, who, though still young, had already earned for herself a great reputation for sanctity, and was the loadstone which soon attracted a large and flourishing community to Chelles. Alban Butler tells us that “in this numerous family of holy queens, princesses, and virgins no contests arose but those of humility and charity; no strife but as to who should first submit and humble herself lowest, and who should outdo the rest in meekness, devotion, penance, and in all the exercises of monastic discipline. The holy Abbess Bertille, who daily saw two great queens at her feet, seemed the most humble and the most fervent among her sisters, and showed by her conduct that no one commands well or with safety who has not first learned and is not always ready to obey well.” The second queen here mentioned was Saint Hereswith, sister to Saint Hilda, and Queen of the East Angles, who, emulating the example of Saint Batilde, came to Chelles to consecrate her widowhood to God. These two sainted queens could never bear their former position to be alluded to; they considered themselves privileged to be the last among the novices, and were never so happy as when they were ignored or treated as menials. Once when Batilde was asked how she could relish her humble state of servitude after having enjoyed such widespread influence, she answered, “When I think of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and the Lord of the Universe, who came not to be waited upon but to serve, and when I see Him washing the feet even of a traitor, I know not where to place myself, and it seems to me that the greatest happiness imaginable would be to be trodden under foot by all.”

With so many and so great examples of virtue continually before” her, Mildred soon became versed in the science of the saints, and made such rapid strides in the way of perfection that her biographer tells us that she excelled her companions in humility and virtue. The Abbess Bertille, seeing how the child was endowed with uncommon gifts both of nature and of grace, singled her out for more special attention, fostering and develop ing her talents, and seeking to satisfy her eager desire for a more profound knowledge of God and holy things. She seems to have been diligent with her pen, for during her sojourn at Chelles she transcribed the Psalter, probably in the much ornamented style of the day. Yet she had not been sent to Chelles with a view to being trained to monastic life, but merely to be suitably educated before taking the high place in society which would naturally fall to her. When, then, she was asked in marriage by a very rich and powerful French noble man of the neighbourhood, the Abbess thought the match a very suitable one for her and pressed her to accept the offer, in spite of Mildred’s assurance that she wished to be a nun. The Abbess possibly thought it prudent to put her vocation to a thorough test, and not to throw away so advantageous an offer for a mere sentiment of piety. At any rate, Mildred was proof against all persuasion, and constantly and courageously resisted all arguments, passing unscathed through this fiery ordeal. Soon after a letter arrived from England, inviting her to rejoin her mother at the Abbey of Minster in Thanet, and the Abbess gladly availed herself of this opportunity to send her charge out of harm’s way, for she feared that Chelles would be no longer a safe refuge for her, in such close proximity to the baffled suitor.

Before accompanying Mildred to her future home, let us look back and see how it was that the Abbey of Minster was so closely associated with her family, and why her mother was then living there. Ercombert, King of Kent, died in 664, and though his nephews Ethelred and Ethelbert (Mildred’s uncles) had prior right to the kingdom, his son Egbert succeeded him. Ethelred and Ethelbert seem to have been devoid of any desire to hold the reins of government, and were quite content to see their cousin on the throne; while he, being of a kindly disposition, was very glad that the two brothers should continue to make their home with him. For a time all went on well, and no thought of jealousy or rivalry arose to mar their peace. But the king had a prime minister named Thunder, who, as his name well describes, was destined to disturb those who would have lived quietly together. He conceived a violent hatred for the two brothers, whose blameless lives were a continual reproach to him, seeing that he was the embodiment of all wicked ness. Satan, who reigned supreme in the heart of this monster, suggested to him the diabolical plan of sowing the seeds of envy and suspicion in the king’s mind. The crafty minister began hinting to his master that he was in a very dangerous position with two claimants to his throne so near his person; all the more so as they were growing in popularity to his own prejudice. After many insinuations of a like nature he at length proposed that they should be secretly removed. At first Egbert would not listen to such an idea; but after Thunder had worked upon him for some time he grew silent a silence which his minister feigned to take for consent, though the king was not at all prepared for what was to follow.

Thunder had no difficulty in carrying out his evil design. He was a consummate hypocrite, and had treated the objects of his dislike with so good a show of respect and affection that the guileless young men had admitted him to their intimacy. He asked them one evening to take a stroll with him, and as they were talking he suddenly turned on them and despatched them both with his sword. The unexpectedness of the attack prevented them from escape or defense, for they were unarmed. The crime was no sooner perpetrated than Thunder began to fear the consequences. He knew not where to hide the bodies, knowing that search would surely be made for the missing princes, and that freshly-dug earth would excite suspicion. He then conceived the extraordinary plan of burying them under the seat upon which the king was wont to hold audience in the open air, persuading himself that would be the last place likely to be searched. But God, to whom all secrets lie revealed, desired to show forth the innocence of those whose lives had been so ruthlessly stricken down, and He caused a wondrous light to shine round the throne, which led to the discovery of the murder. The king immediately sent for Thunder, and asked him whether he knew anything of the crime; upon which he at once threw all the odium upon his master, saying that he had only acted in the king’s interest and, as he thought, with his consent. At this confession the king was overwhelmed with remorse and true sorrow for what had occurred. The sequel is related as follows by Matthew of Westminster: “Inwardly considering what had passed, the king imputed the whole crime to him self alone, and being wonderfully confounded in mind, spent the whole night following in tears. As soon as the morning light appeared he commanded an assembly to be convoked of his nobles and the newly-arrived Archbishop Theodore, and to them he freely related all former passages touching the business, and likewise how the night before a pillar of fire had descended from heaven on the bodies of those holy princes. The Arch bishop thereupon gave his advice that the bodies should be carried to the metropolitan church and there buried after a royal manner. Thence proceeding, therefore, to the place, they found the relics indecently laid under the king’s chair. These things befell in a village belonging to the king called Estrey, near Sandwich. Wherefore taking up the bodies and honourably placing them in coffins, the Archbishop commanded them to be carried to Christchurch in Canterbury. But in vain was this attempted, for with all the force they could use they could not remove them from the place. Where upon, changing his purpose, he advised that they should be taken to the Church of Saint Augustine, but with as little success as before. At last it was agreed that they should be carried to the monastery of Wakering, of great renown in those days. Which being resolved upon, the sacred bodies were as easily removed as if they had no weight at all. Being arrived therefore at that place, the exequies were solemnly performed by the Arch bishop, who buried the bodies near to the great altar.” After the funeral the king, desirous to make atone ment as far as might be for the crime, asked the Arch bishop to appoint some suitable monument of expiation.

Archbishop Theodore first reproved the king very sharply for his indirect share in the murder of his cousins, and then advised him to make a grant to the Lady Domneva, sister to the victims, of some land, upon which she might found a monastery, where the praises of God should never cease, and where the holy lives of the nuns should rise daily before the throne of God as an odour of sweet incense, causing the Divine vengeance to be turned away from the founder. To this proposal Egbert readily agreed, and sent for his cousin the Lady Domneva (Mildred’s mother), who was now a widow, and had consecrated her mourning to God by a vow of perpetual chastity. When she arrived the king met her with downcast face, and begging her forgiveness, asked her to name the place and the extent of land in his dominions suitable for this holy purpose. She selected the Isle of Thanet, off Kent, a very beautiful and fertile spot, and asked that the limits of the donation should be fixed by the distance that her pet hind could run in one course. The whole party thereupon set out for Thanet, and the animal was started, while the king looked on, his face brightening as he watched the course, following on horseback. The more the animal encompassed the more pleased he was, for his heart was generous and his repentance true. Not so the real murderer, Thunder, who had accompanied the expedition. Mad with rage, he could not at length contain his passion, and declaring the hind bewitched, he set spurs to his horse to overtake and kill it. But his hour of reckoning had come; in jumping over a well his horse slipped and horse and rider fell in and were drowned, and as William of Malmesbury adds, “descended quick into hell.” The scene of the accident has ever since borne the name of “Thunder’s Leap.”

There are accounts still extant of this curious grant of land. For instance, in a chart granted by Edward the Confessor to the Abbey, henceforth known as “the Minster,” we find the following passage: “I who am descended from the stock of King Edelbert and, by the divine grace, do enjoy his kingdom, do in like manner grant the Isle of Thanet, which King Egbert gave for an hereditary possession to the venerable Queen Domneva, the mother of Saint Mildred, as much thereof as a hind in her course encompassed, in satisfaction for the murder of her two brethren, Ethelred and Ethelbert, who by command of the said king were unjustly slain by the accursed Thunder, whom presently after the divine vengeance pursued in a terrible manner by a sudden death.”

The gift included some ten thousand acres. The building of the Abbey was promptly set in hand, and in a short time a stately pile arose and a flourishing community soon peopled its walls. The first Abbess was named Sabba; she had probably grown old under the yoke of religious discipline in another monastery, which had rendered her capable of training up her young flock. To her the Lady Domneva readily submitted herself, and when the church was completed Archbishop Theo dore came in person with much pomp to consecrate it.

Saint Mildred was then about fifteen years of age, and not long after her mother recalled her to England, a summons she was all the more willing to obey seeing the danger which threatened her in France. Arrived at Minster, she was soon admitted to make her religious profession according to the Rule of Saint Benedict by the vows of Obedience, of Stability, and Conversion of Manners. Here she exercised herself especially in the three virtues laid down by Saint Benedict as essential to the monastic state, silence, obedience without delay, and humility which leads to that love of God which is perfect and casteth out fear, while her charity towards her sisters caused her to bear patiently with their weak ness and ever to consider their will and pleasure rather than her own. Her virtuous life, learning, and wisdom induced the nuns to choose Mildred as their Superior on the death of their Abbess Sabba, which happened soon after Mildred’s profession. Her youth was compensated for by the great prudence of her character. The Minster community numbered then some seventy members, and these Mildred instructed more by deeds than by words, making the wisdom of her precepts manifest by her actions. She loved all her spiritual children with the tenderness which characterized her, and ever exhorted them to live up to their high calling and to go forward in virtue. She knew how to adapt herself to the intelligence and temperament of each, mingling sweetness with necessary severity. The peace which is stamped upon the monastic state as its leading feature had so taken possession of Mildred’s heart that it overflowed upon those with whom she came in con tact, making her beloved of God and man. In short, her biographer sums up her virtues as follows: “Archbishop Saint Theodore consecrated Saint Mildred Abbess over seventy religious virgins, among whom she behaved herself rather as a servant than as a mistress, desiring more to be loved than to be feared by them; and by continual watching, fasting, and praying spent her life in the service of God.”

We have only two incidents of Mildred’s life at Minster, both of which serve to prove the innocence of her heart and her close union with God. We are told that she had a special devotion to her angel guardian, who often favoured her with his visible presence, and who, on more than one occasion, showed how truly God had given His angels charge of her. The devil, as is his wont, was filled with envy at the sight of the peace of soul enjoyed by the Saint, and, if he could not tarnish her purity, determined at least to disturb her peace. One night, as she slept after Matins, she was rudely awakened. With the quick instinct of the saints she realized the nearness of evil, and in fear and apprehension called to her angel to take care of her. The summons was quickly responded to, and she saw her faithful guardian standing before her, resplendent with power and beauty, to preserve her from the wily attacks of her enemy. This vision stayed at her bedside during the remainder of the night. But the devil, though baffled once, was not ashamed to make another attempt, and some time after, when she was keeping vigil in the church, he drew near and in an insulting way put out the light by which she was reading her Psalter, leaving her in the dark. Again she was frightened at the approach of her foe, and cried aloud to her angel; and lo! a heavenly light filled the church a light which the son of darkness could not brook; nor do we again hear of him tormenting the Saint.

At Folkestone, not very far from Minster, dwelt Saint Eanswitha, Mildred’s great aunt, a most holy Abbess who, while she lived, must have been a most powerful help to Mildred in her youth and inexperience. Eanswitha’s father had wished her to marry a prince of Northumbria, but she constantly refused; and at length persuaded him to give her an estate where she might build a monastery and consecrate herself to God, together with other virgins who, moved by her example, had joined themselves to her company. They were clothed in the habit of Saint Benedict by the monks who had come from Rome, and as the people of Kent had never seen the like before, they christened them the Black Nuns. We read that the great devotion of these nuns was to return unceasing thanks to God for the inestimable blessing of the Faith conferred upon their country. There is a story told of Saint Eanswitha which Capgrave relates as follows: “These sacred virgins found only one incommodity in this their happy retirement, which was a penury of sweet water. For the monastery being seated on the top of the high rocks, the water necessary for their daily use was, with great labour, to be brought from a spring a good way distant. The holy virgin Eanswitha was sensible of this inconvenience, and, after she had by prayer solicited our Lord, she went to the fountain, more than a mile remote from the monastery, and striking the water with a staff commanded it to follow her. The deaf element heard and obeyed the sacred virgin’s voice and, against the inclination of nature, followed her steps, till overcoming all the difficulties of the passage, it mounted up to the monas tery, where it abundantly served all their uses. One particular more increased the admiration of this event; for this little rivulet in the way being to pass through a pool, flowed notwithstanding pure and free from all mixture. After several years innocently and chastely spent in the office of Abbess she was at last seized with a languishing infirmity, during which the fame of her love to her eternal Spouse increased, and at last she was called to His embrace. Her body was deposed in the same monastery, where it was held in great veneration, till the sea, breaking in, forced them to remove it to the church in the adjoining town of Folkestone.”

Meanwhile Mildred’s elder sister Mildburga was advancing daily in God’s holy love, and rivalling Saint Mildred in the practice of virtue. She was much given to prayer and contemplation, and the country people, honouring the power of her prayer with God, would often come to her in their troubles to make her their intercessor. As a rule she was only too willing to be their mediatrix; but on one occasion the demand was too extraordinary for her to accede to it without much per suasion. While she was praying in a little oratory in the garden a poor widow came to her and placed her dead child at the Saint’s feet. Then with tears and entreaties she implored Mildburga to restore it to life. The Saint was filled with compassion for the grief of the afflicted mother, yet she told her it was madness to ask her for such a thing, since God alone could restore life. “Go rather,” she continued, “and bury your child, remembering that you yourself will shortly follow him, for all mankind must die.” The mother, however, was not to be put off; and she only protested the more that she knew God would restore life to her child if only Mildburga would ask it of Him, since He had never refused her anything. Moreover, she added that nothing would induce her to move from the spot until her request was granted. Poor Mildburga was torn with conflicting emotions of humility and compassion. At length, like “Saint Benedict, in a similar predicament, she prayed: “O God, look not upon my sin, but on the faith of this woman who asks for the life of her child, and restore to life the body which Thou hast created.” As she prayed the widow saw a bright light encircling her, as though the fervour of her prayer could not be con tained within her heart, and at the same moment the little lifeless corpse was restored to its former health and strength and returned to the enraptured mother.

The account of her death is given by Harpsfield as follows: “Mildburga, having thus made a wonderful progress in all kinds of virtue, and desiring nothing but her heavenly Spouse and His divine presence, when her age and strength began to decline, her beloved Saviour called her to Himself, after she had been purified with daily fevers. In her last sickness, therefore, she called together her whole community, which she commended in her prayers to God and desired them after her death to make choice of a pious and fitting superior. She exhorted them likewise to unity and purity of heart, often repeating: Blessed are the peaceable, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Having added other like admonitions, and religiously armed herself against death by the Holy Sacraments of the Church, she departed happily on 20 February 722, to her eternal Bridegroom, to reign with Him for ever for whose love she had despised all things of earth. And for a testimony of her present happiness, God was pleased after many ages to discover her sacred body to the knowledge and veneration of pious Christians in the year 1101, during the reign of Henry I.”

Regarding the finding of her relics William of Malmsbury writes: “Saint Mildburga rests at Wenlock. In ancient times her memory was celebrated by the inhabi tants, but after the coming in of the Normans, by reason that the place of her sepulchre was unknown, she became forgotten. But of late a convent of Cluny monks having been established there, whilst they were busy in erecting the fabric of a new church, a certain child running earnestly over the pavement, the vault of her sepulchre broke under him, by which means the body of the holy virgin was discovered. Which being taken up, a most odoriferous vapour, as of a most precious balm, perfumed the whole church. And such a world of miracles was wrought by her intercession that wonderful multitudes flocked thither, both rich and poor, insomuch that there was scarce room in the open fields to receive them, so strong a faith they had to find remedy there for their maladies. Neither did they fail of their expectation, for none departed away without a cure, or, at least, a mitigation of their disease. And particularly the king’s evil, incurable by physicians, was through the merits of this holy virgin healed perfectly in certain persons.”

Three years later Saint Mildred followed Mildburga to the grave. Of the third sister, Mildgytha, all that we know is that she entered the monastery of Estrey in Kent, built by the penitent King Egbert, where she lived in all purity, and died the death of the saints on February 26th, on which day we find her name in the martyrology. She seems to have died long before her sisters, while still quite young, which accounts for so little mention being made of her.

After long years spent in that daily fidelity which earns the crown of life, Mildred’s earthly pilgrimage drew to a close. Like other chosen souls, God did not fail to purify her with suffering, sickness, and pain; yet in suffering she grew not weary, but like a faithful servant she showed herself willing, nay glad, to bear all things for her crucified Lord; and resting in the hopes of the reward she would receive from His hands, she continued to rejoice amid her protracted pains. She was sixty-five years old when she died. We have no record left by the historians of the exact manner of her happy departure, but of her posthumous fame Montalembert writes that “it would require many pages to narrate the violent struggles, the visions and other incidents connected with the history of her relics; and that though her name has once more become fashionable in our days, it recalls to our ungrateful contemporaries nothing but the vague poetry of the past, whereas it was mixed up with the real history of the Danes and Normans, of Canute the Great, of Edward the Confessor, of Lanfranc and of Edward I, the terrible conqueror of the Scots and Welsh.”

For many years Mildred’s body rested in peace among her sisters at Minster. But the island was devastated by the Danes, and the monastery burnt to the ground, the Abbess and nuns preferring to perish in the flames which destroyed their home than to risk the outrages of the pirates. Amid the general destruction Saint Mildred’s body lay unharmed, and her tomb was still held in great veneration by the surviving inhabitants of Thanet. The island was eventually given by King Canute to the monks of Saint Augustine s, Canterbury. The monks were very anxious to have the relics of Saint Mildred in this their own abbey church, but it was long before they could obtain the king’s permission to translate them there, for he justly feared the indignation of the people of Thanet if robbed of their treasure. How ever, after he had been saved from shipwreck through the intercession of Saint Augustine, he was disposed to allow the monks whatever they might ask, and consented to the removal of the relics, provided the utmost secrecy was preserved regarding the pious theft. Thereupon the cunning Abbot ordered a great banquet to be prepared, to which he invited the leading people of Thanet; and while they were all feasting and making merry the monks stole away, and having dug up the relics, placed them on a boat waiting in readiness. But the removal was not effected without great difficulty, as the stone coffin was hard to break into, and the heavy lid could not be lifted without much pains. The result was that the merry-makers got wind of the affair, and before the monks with their precious burden had rowed far down the river they found themselves hotly pursued. They had, nevertheless, the advantage of a good start, and succeeded in getting safely away. When the news of their arrival at Saint Augustine’s got spread abroad the people came in crowds to welcome and to do honour to the Virgin Saint. She was laid in a suitable shrine near the high altar of Saint Peter, and there, according to a vow made by the Abbot in the event of becoming possessed of her relics, a Mass was daily said in her honour.

William of Malmsbury quaintly remarks that “the sacred body of Mildred was translated to the monastery of Saint Augustine in Canterbury, where it is with great devotion venerated by the monks, and for the fame of her piety and sweetness, answerable to her name, honoured by all. And although all the corners of the said monastery are full of saints bodies, eminent for their sanctity and merits, inasmuch as any one of them might suffice to give lustre to the whole kingdom, yet the relics of none are with more affectionate honour venerated, than hers. She is present to all who love her, and ready to fulfill the requests of every one.”

The truth of this latter statement was experienced by the wife of Saint Edward the Confessor, Oueen Editha, who, at a time when troubles and persecutions rained thickly upon her, had recourse to Saint Mildred. As she prayed she was favoured with a vision of the Saint, who sweetly consoled her, and promised her that her grievances should be redressed, and that she should end her days happily. This is only one of many instances of Mildred’s intervention on behalf of the afflicted, whether in mind or body. William the Conqueror, at his accession, was deeply impressed by the veneration paid to the Saint, nor would he venture to violate the right of sanctuary claimed at her tomb.

In later years some of her relics were translated to Daventrv in Holland, and preserved in the church of SS. Lebuin and Marcellinus, two English mission aries and the first apostles of the Low Countries. These relics were restored to her native land by the Archbishop of Utrecht in 1882, in answer to the petition of the Benedictine nuns who had founded a monastery in her honour at Minster in Thanet. The holy relics were received with great rejoicing and solemn procession and ceremony by her countrymen, and her cultus, which had never ceased in Holland and Belgium, was once more revived in her own land.

Her Feast is celebrated on July i3th in more than one monastery; and those who wear her habit and strive to walk in her footsteps pray that she may continue to show herself the powerful intercessor and advocate of the England she loved so well, taking her share in the “second spring” which we so gladly and confidently see budding forth in our land.

– text taken from the booklet Saint Mildred and Her Kinsfolk, author unknown, published by the Catholic Truth Society of London