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St. Ethelburga of Lyming,
Abbess of Lyming

(Died 647)

St. Ethelburga was the daughter of St. Aethelbert, first Christian King of Kent and founder of the See of Canterbury, and his wife, St. Bertha. In AD 625, Ethelburga was married to St. Edwin, who, after many wars and vicissitudes, was now sole King of Northumbria, and the fifth and greatest of all the Bretwaldas. He promised her and all her entourage, of whatever rank and sex, full liberty to observe their own religion in his Kingdom. He furthermore undertook to consult with wise persons and examine Christian worship. If he found it more holy and worthy than the religion he up till then professed, he would himself adopt it. With Ethelburga went Paulinus, ordained bishop for the occasion, that he might strengthen the party's faith, lest any should be corrupted by associating with pagans.

On Easter Day, the year after Ethelburga's marriage, an assault was made upon Edwin with a poisoned weapon by an assassin sent by Cwichelm, the heir of Wessex. Edwin's faithful servant, Lilla, interposed his body and died in his master's stead. Ethelburga was pregnant at the time, and the shock appears to have initiated the labour that same night. The Queen was safely delivered of a daughter, who was called Enflaed and the King gave thanks to his gods. Paulinus gave thanks to Christ, saying that it was through his intervention that the Queen's life had been spared. Edwin retorted that, if the Christian God would procure him victory over Cwichelm and recovery from his wound, he would be converted. As a pledge of his sincerity and to Ethelburga's delight, he delivered up the new-born princess to Paulinus to be baptised.

The King travelled south with an army against Cwichelm but, returning victorious, he hesitated still about adopting Christianity. Ethelburga and Paulinus offered him much instruction on the subject and he consulted also the wisest men of his own Kingdom. Pope Boniface even took an interest in his conversion and, about this time, wrote two letters, one to Edwin and one to Ethelburga, urging the great religious change and he sending them presents, with the blessing of St. Peter. The Queen received a silver looking-glass and an ivory gilt comb.

Eventually, Edwin convened his Witan at Londesborough where he and his thegns agreed to accept Christianity. On Easter Day AD 627, in a new wooden church at York, Edwin was baptised with his and Ethelburga's son, Ethelhun, and several other Royal relations. Their example was soon followed by thousands of people of all ages and conditions. Ethelhun died while still wearing his white baptismal robes and was buried in York Minster.

Penda, king of Mercia - a fierce heathen warrior, brother of Edwin's first wife, Cwenburga - invaded Edwin's dominions and defeated the Northumbrians in the great Battle of Hatfield in Nottinghamshire. Edwin and his eldest son, Osfrith, were killed. Queen Ethelburga, with Paulinus and her young children, managed to escape by sea to Kent, to the court of her brother King Edbald. She took with her many of Edwin's treasures, especially a golden cup and cross, which were preserved at Canterbury in Bede's time. Edbald gave Ethelburga a ruined Roman villa at Lyming, between Canterbury and the sea. There, she built the first nunnery in England where she was joined by her sister St. Edburga of Lyming and there they both took the veil.

Ethelburga sent her son, Wuscfrea, and Yffi, son of her late step-son, Osfrith, to Dagobert, King of the Franks, to be educated. They died young and were buried in France with Royal honours. Besides Wuscfrea and St. Enflaeda, she had two children, who died before their father and were buried in York Minster. Ethelburga lived as Abbess of Lyming for several years. She died 8th September AD 647 and her grave may still be seen there. Ethelburga was the first queen and the first widow of Anglo-Saxon race to take the veil. 

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

    Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.