Posted by: anna | August 2, 2009

St Ethelwida

Today the Church (Old Calendar at least) celebrates the feast of the Holy Prophet Elijah, but I’m writing about someone much further down today’s list: St. Ethelwida, widow of King Alfred the Great (9th c.) It’s a good example of how things balance out in the calendar. Elijah (Elias) spent much of his life alone in the wilderness, dedicating his whole life to contemplation and prayer, yet he also spoke out against the king and queen, and helped an ordinary poor woman who didn’t have even enough food in the house to feed her child. Ealhswith/Ethelwida was the queen of Alfred the Great, a woman of consequence and wealth in her own right. Elijah is now commemorated as one of the Holy and Glorious Prophets, and Ethelwida has left little trace of the monastery she founded and less of her own life. But today they are both honoured by the Church.

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints doesn’t include her – except as the Mercian princess who married Alfred the Great – so again I have had to resort to the ODNB. Ethelwida is mentioned numerous times in Anglo-Saxon royal charters, but the citations are incidental and include very little real information about her. Her saintly commemoration must stem from her foundation of the convent of St Mary, known as Nunnaminster, at Winchester, after her husband’s death in 899. It was finished by 908. British Library MS Harley 2965 is a prayer book from Nunnaminster – it may have belonged to Ealhswith herself.

‘Ealhswith died on 5 December 902, and was buried, with Alfred, by their son Edward, in the newly consecrated New Minster, Winchester. She is commemorated in two manuscripts of an early tenth-century metrical calendar as ‘the true and dear lady of the English’ (McGurk, 110), finally but posthumously sharing the honour so recently won by her husband.’ (this para from the ODNB entry)

Lina Eckenstein’s book Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (Cambridge: University Press, 1896) has now been digitised, hurra. It provides a good history of the Anglo-Saxon ‘princess foundations’, pre-Conquest monasteries founded by female members of the ruling houses of England.

Holy St Elijah and St Ealhswith, pray to God for us.

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