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St. Aelfflaed, Abbess of Whitby
(AD 653-714)

Aelfflaed was the youngest daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his second wife, St. Enflaed. She was scarcely a year old when vowed by her father to the service of God in perpetual virginity, as a thank-offering for his victory over the pagan Mercians at the Battle of Winwaed (near Leeds) in AD 655; a triumph which liberated his country and established Christianity in it. Aelfflaed was at once consigned to the care of the holy abbess, St. Hilda, her second cousin, then living at Hartlepool. Her dowry was twelve estates, where holy men and women could carry on spiritual warfare and pray for the peace of the nation. Two years later, Hilda built the famous double monastery of Whitby, from this new found wealth.

At Whitby Abbey, Aelfflaed, never regretting her destiny, lived for sixty years, first as a learner and, afterwards, as a teacher of monastic holiness. She succeeded Hilda as abbess in AD 680. St. Trumwin, formerly a missionary bishop amongst the Picts, assisted her in the management of her monastery, where he rested from his labours and where he was buried. Once when deprived, by illness, of the use of her limbs, Aelfflaed was cured by the girdle of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne which he sent to her. This girdle also cured one of the nuns of an intolerable pain in the head. Aelfflaed worked a winding-sheet for Cuthbert in return and sent it to him.

Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to Aelfflaed, Abbess of Whitby, asking her to befriend St. Wilfred (the Elder) when he was recalled from exile by her brother, King Aldfrith of Northumbria. The king again quarrelled with Wilfred, but on his deathbed he sent for Aelfflaed, and she afterwards declared at a council of prelates that her brother in his last hours desired a reconciliation.

Aelfflaed outlived Wilfred and also her friend, St. Cuthbert, who died in AD 687. She was present at his translation in AD 698 and wrapped him in a linen cloth. She herself died at Whitby on 8th February AD 714.

Edited from Agnes Dunbar's "A Dictionary of Saintly Women" (1904).

 

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