Posted by: anna | October 24, 2009

Ven. Ethelburga of Barking

Today we commemorate Venerable Ethelburga, first abbess of the monastery of Barking. (676) The image above is a detail from BL MS Harley 2900 f.68v. There are several Ethelburgas – here’s a quick list (from Miss Dunbar, chiefly):

  1. Sept 10, + 647. Queen of Northumbria, founder of Lyming. Daughter of St bertha (1) and Ethelbert, first Christian king of Kent and founder of the See of Canterbury. Second wife of Edwin (617-634), first Christian king of Northumbria and foudner of the see of York. Mother of St Eanfleda.
  2. Oct 11, +664. First Abbess of Barking. Of the family of Offa, king of the East Angles. Sister of St Earconwald, bishop of London.
  3. July 7, 7th century. Abbess of Faremoutier in Brie. Daughter of Anna, king of the East Angles, and sister of Ethelreda and Seaxburga.
  4. Feb 6 and July 9, +c.740. Queen of Wessex. Wife of St Ina, king of Wessex. Sister of Adalard. First English queen to visit Rome. As a widow, nun at Barking.

Unfortunately, the only icon I can find of an Ethelburga seems to conflate at least nos. 2 and 3. They are also conflated by the writers of the excellent celt-saints entry here but not in their stated source at St Patrick’s DC For All the Saints. Is it possible to have a synaxis of saints with the same name? She is pictured on a 13th century seal, image at Monastic Matrix. Here is Miss Dunbar’s Life of St Ethelburga, Abbess of Barking:

St. Ethelburga, Oct.11 + 664. First Abbess of Barking. Of the family of Offa, king of the East Angles. Sister of St. Earconwald, bishop of London, a most holy saint, honoured by God with the gift of miracles. Before his promotion to the bishopric, he founded two famous monasteries : one for himself at Ceortesei (Chertsey), the other at Bercingum (Barking) for his sister. He invited HILDELITHA from France to teach her monastic customs. Ethelburga proved herself a sister worthy of such a brother, and Barking became celebrated not only for the fervour of its nuns, but for the zeal they displayed for the study of the Holy Scriptures, the fathers of the Church, and even the classic tongues. Like her brother, she had the gift of miracles. Hers was a double monastery. It is recorded that when the pestilence of 664 ravaged the country, and the ranks of the monks were being rapidly thinned by the terrible scourge, Ethelburga consulted her nuns as to where they would themselves wish to be buried when the pestilence came to their part of the monastery. Nothing was decided until one night, at the end of matins, soon after midnight, the nuns had left the oratory to pray beside the graves of the departed monks, when suddenly they saw a light which seemed to cover them as with a shining shroud; it was brighter than the sun at noonday. The sisters, alarmed, left off singing, and the light, rising from that place, moved to the south of the monastery and west of the oratory. After some time, it was drawn up again to heaven. All took this as a heavenly sign to show the place where their bodies were to rest. Several revelations were made to the nuns during this plague as to the deaths of each other. Torchgyth had a vision of a glorified body, wrapped in a shining sheet, and being drawn up to heaven by cords brighter than gold. In a few days the Abbess Ethelburga died, and so fulfilled the vision.

I love this last vision – my research subject, Mechtild of Hackeborn (1241-1299), and her student and scribe Gertrud of Helfta (also known as Gertrude the Great) both had visions of the deaths and spiritual assumptions of their sisters, and the image of golden cords recurs throughout their hundreds of recorded visions, always acting as the conduits and visible signs of love passing between and among Christ, the saints and the nuns, particularly during the Liturgy.

Holy venerable Ethelburga, pray to God for us.

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