The magnificent Ely Cathedral stands on the site of a monastery established in Saxon times by the popular Anglo-Saxon Saint Etheldreda (also known as Æthelthryth, Ediltrudis, Audrey, or Awdrey), queen, foundress and Abbess of Ely.
The story of Etheldreda is an interesting one. At an early age she took a vow of chastity, but for political reasons her father arranged her marriage (ca. 652) to Tondberht, described by the Venerable Bede as a “prince” of the South Gyrwas, one of the many tiny sub-Kingdoms of the Mercian Fenlands. Tondherht died in approximately 655, after which Etheldreda took up residence on the Isle of Ely, a gift to her from her husband.
A few years later, in 660, a second marriage was arranged, again, for political reasons. Etheldreda was married to Egfrith, King of Northumbria. Several years her junior, he at first agreed to respect her vow of perpetual virginity. However, some twelve years later Egfrith demanded a normal marital relationship, at which point Etheldreda made her escape and became a nun at Coldingham under the guidance her aunt, St. Ebba. In 673 Eltheldreda established a double monastery, for both men and women, at Ely which survived until its destruction by the Danes some two hundred years later.
Etheldreda – Commemorated as a Saint
Etheldreda died from a tumour on the neck, on 23rd June 679, a victim of the plague. She was interred outside the church, but seventeen years later her sister, Sexburga, who had succeeded her as abbess, decided her remains should be re-buried within the church.
When Etheldreda’s grave was opened, in the presence of several witnesses, including Bishop Wilfrid and her physician, the body was reputed to be uncorrupted, and the tumour was healed. Furthermore, the fabric in which the body was wrapped was said to be in pristine condition. Etheldreda was commemorated as a Saint and reburied in a shrine in the church where it lay for over 800 years.
For centuries medieval pilgrims travelled to Ely to pray at Etheldreda’s shrine. It was destroyed in 1541, but its location in the Cathedral is clearly marked. Ely Cathedral still observes major festivals on 23rd June and 17th October, being the anniversaries of the Saint’s death and her second burial, respectively.
Etheldreda’s story is not unusual. Many other medieval women, such as Christina of Markyate took vows of chastity and entered convents to protect themselves.