Posted by: anna | September 7, 2009

St AEbba the Elder

Today we commemorate St. Ebba the Elder – this Life is reproduced from AB Dunbar’s Diciontary of Women Saints (1904)

St Ebba, Aug. 25 (ABB, AEBBA, TABBS), V. +683 or 679. Abbess. O.S.B. Founder of Coldinghame and Ebbchester.

Two saints of the name of Ebba were abbesses of the double Benedictine monastery of Colud, or Coldinghame, near Berwick, with an interval of about two hundred years. The first was daughter of Ethelfrid the ravager, granddaughter of Ida the burner, sister of St. Oswald and Oswin, kings of Northumbria ; and on her mother’s side, niece of Edwin, king of Northumbria.

On the death of Ethelfrid, Edwin, chief of the rival race of Deira, became king, and Ebba, then about ten years old, fled with her seven brothers to Scotland. They were hospitably received by Donald Brek, the king, and there they became Christians.

Adan, or Edan, another Scottish king, wished to marry Ebba, and her brothers favoured his suit, but Ebba, bent on a religious and celibate life, took the veil from St. Finan, bishop of Lindisfarne
(652-661). Edan followed her, intending to take her by force and make her his queen, but Ebba betook herself to a high rock, round which, at her prayer, a high tide ran for three days, forming a perfect defence against her pursuers. Her brother Oswy, who succeeded Oswald (642 ), gave her an old Roman camp. There she founded her first monastery, called Ebbchester (Ebba’s castle or camp), in the county of Durham.

She built her greater and more famous monastery on a promontory in Berwickshire, which rises on three of its sides perpendicularly from the sea, and was cut off from the land on the fourth side by an almost impassable morass, further strengthened by a high wall. The building was a little way south of the rock now called St. Abb’s head. From it can be seen the Scotch coast to the opposite Ride of the Forth, and the English coast as far as Lindisfarne and Bamborough.

A legend of the foundation is given in Carr’s Coldinghame.

Once, when Oswy’s kingdom was distracted by broils and wars, Ebba became a prisoner, but escaped. Finding a boat on the Humber, she went in it alone down the river, and out to sea. Some monks were singing in a church on the cliff, afterwards called by her name. They saw the boat, steered through tremendous waves by a superhuman being, come safely to land a little to the south of the Head, and on that spot she built her church and monastery.

Here she ruled one of the double communities of monks and nuns usual in those times and always governed by the abbess. She invited St. Cuthbert, abbot of Melrose, and afterwards of
Lindisfarne, to visit her and her nuns. Ho generally avoided the society of women, but thought so highly of Ebba that he came to stay with her ; she gave him a piece of cloth, in which eventually he was buried.

Egfrid, king of Northumbria, was Ebba’s nephew. When his first wife, St Etheldreda, left him, she took refuge at Coldinghame, and the phenomenon which had saved Ebba from pursuit was repeated in favour of Etheldreda, for on Egfrid arriving to bring her back, the sea flowed into the marsh on the hindward side of the rock, and made an effectual barrier until he gave up the chase. Etheldreda became a nun under Ebba’s care for a time. When she had become abbess of Ely, and Egfrid had married again, he made a tour through his northern dominions with his second wife Ermenburga, and sought his niece’s hospitality for a night on the way. During the night, the queen suffered a severe flagellation, which some ascribed to angelic, some to diabolic agency. She was found in convulsions in the morning, and Ebba, with all the authority of aunt and abbess, and perhaps already also of saint, told the king this visitation was in consequence of his and the queen s behaviour to St. Wilfrid, abbot of Hexham and bishop of York. They had imprisoned him at Dunbar, and Ermenburga had robbed him of a reliquary which he valued, and which she superstitiously carried with her wherever she went, although, being ill-gotten, it had only brought her ill luck. They promised to liberate the bishop and restore him his property without delay, and the queen recovered. This incident is told in Eddius Life of Wilfrid, and in other histories of the time.

Although Ebba could act with decision on occasion, she did not succeed in maintaining strict discipline in her monastery, for abuses crept in. One of the monks, named Adamnan, was warned in a vision that the place would be burnt to ashes as a punishment for the laxity of the inhabitants. Even the cells, which were built for prayer, were converted into places of revelling, drinking, conversation, and other amusements ; even the virgins, dedicated to God, spent their leisure in making fine garments to adorn themselves, ‘wherefore a heavy vengeance from Heaven is deservedly prepared for this place and its inmates.’ When this was told to Ebba, she was much distressed, but Adamnan gave her the consolation that it should not happen in her life. The monks and nuns having heard the vision, began to be alarmed, and for a time to be more circumspect ; but after the death of Ebba, they fell into greater disorders than ever; and then, through carelessness, the monastery took fire and was burnt down. The first monastery probably consisted of small buildings of wood or wattle and mud. It is not exactly known when it was restored : some have conjectured that it was rebuilt for nuns only, as there is no mention of monks at the time of the martyrdom of Ebba (2); but this does not, of course, prove anything. Some remains of the buildings were to be seen in the middle of the ll th century on the very edge of the cliff.

The priory of Coldinghame was built by Edgar, king of Scotland, about 1099, not on the same spot as the monastery,but farther inland ; it was dedicated in the name of SS. Cuthbert, Mary, and Ebba. Oxford is said to have been the first place where a church was built in honour
of Ebba. AA.SS. Forbes, Scot. Kalendars. Butler, Lives. Carr, History of Coldingham. Bede, Ecc. Hist., book iv. cap. 25.

orthodoxengland provides commemoration prayers for Ebba here.

Troparion, in Tone VIII

In thee, O mother, that which is fashioned according to the image of God was preserved; for, having taken up thy cross, thou didst follow Christ, and by thine example didst teach that the flesh is to be disdained as passing, but that the soul must be cared for as a thing immortal. Wherefore, thy spirit doth rejoice with the angels, O venerable Ebba.

Holy Mother Ebba, pray to God for us.


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