Posted by: anna | November 5, 2009

St Ethelfleda of Romsey

Today we commemorate St Ethelfleda, abbess of Romsey. Miss Dunbar lets us down on this one, surprisingly, and mentions online (by any spelling) are very patchy. There seems to be some confusion (at least on my part) about which Elfleda is which – daghter of Ethelwold or of King Edward the Elder. Oh well. The Rev. Baring-Gould comes through with an, at times, surprisingly humorous story:

Rumsey Abbey anciently possessed the bodies of two saintly abbesses, who were regarded as the patrons of the monastery; these were Merwinna and Elfleda. Of these the latter was the more famous. She was the daughter of Ethelwold, a noble, a friend of King Edgar and Oricgiva, who was closely related to his queen, Elfreda, daughter of Earl Ordgar of Devon.

By his wife Ethelwold had many children; the youngest and fairest was Elfleda, or Ethelfleda. He died shortly after her birth, and his widow married again. She neglected Elfleda, and King Edgar, pitying the child, sent her to Rumsey, to the care of the Abbess Merwinna, to be educated. She was consecrated by Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester. Her biographer tells some wonderful tales of the virgin. One night, when she had to read the lesson at mattins, having received the benediction of the abbess, she went to the lectern, carrying her candle. But it was extinguished by the wind. Then she held up her hand, and light streamed from it so that she was able to read by it.

One day the mistress of the girls went out into the willow ground to cut some switches for whipping the poor children. Before coming in she hid the rods in the folds of her dress. Elfleda ran to her as she entered, threw herself at her feet, and cried with tears, ” O, mistress, do not whip us: we will sing the psalms as well as possible, as many and as long as you like, without a whipping.” The mistress said, with surprise, ” Rise, my daughter ; how do you know that I was going to whip you?” ” Because,” said Elfleda, ” I saw you cutting the switches, and I know you have them hidden about you somewhere now.”

This is related as miraculous, for how, without a miracle, could Elfleda have known that she was going to be whipped, or have seen the mistress getting the instrument of chastisement? It did not occur to the biographer that the previous conduct of Elfleda in the matter of psalm-singing may have raised lively suspicions in her mind as to the purpose of the mistress precipitately leaving her pupils, nor did it probably enter the historian’s head that with such an unpleasant suspicion hovering about her, Elfleda may have clambered up into the school-room window to watch whether her suspicion was being verified.

Elfleda was wont, somewhat later, to go at night from her bed, and stand in a pond whilst singing psalms. She was summoned to Court, and slept in the queen’s bedroom. There was a fountain outside, and at night Elfleda would go forth, in the lightest possible attire, by the door when not locked, and through the window when it was, and jump into the spring. The queen became aware of these nocturnal excursions, and did not think well of them. Indeed, her suspicions were that Elfleda was paying visits most objectionable in any girl, especially in a nun. So one night she followed her — not out of the window, we presume; that would hardly have been dignified in a queen—and when she saw Elfleda singing psalms in a pond, she went into a fit of hysterics, which collected at once a crowd of male and female servants on the spot. The situation was not agreeable to Elfleda.

S. Merwinna died in 993, and was succeeded by Elwina, who, however, remained abbess only three years ; after her dath, in 996, Elfleda was summoned to assume the dignity and authority of abbess. She exhibited in that capacity great charity towards the poor—a charity almost excessive, as she spent rather more than the abbey could afford. She died at an advanced age, probably about the year 1030.


  • Of Romsey Abbey [a very beautiful Norman abbey, well worth a visit or at least a look on flickr] the Victoria County History has this to say: ‘The statements with regard to the early foundation of Romsey are confusing and conflicting, but it would seem probable that Edward the Elder founded this house about the year 907, and that his daughter St. Elfleda became abbess and was buried there. In 967 Edgar, grandson of Edward the Elder, reconstituted the abbey, dedicating it to the honour of St. Mary and St. Elfleda, and placed there nuns under the Benedictine rule over whom he appointed Merwenna as abbess. (fn. 17) In this reconstitution Bishop Ethelwold (96384) took a considerable part.’ From: ‘Houses of Benedictine nuns: Abbey of Romsey’, A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 2 (1973), pp. 126-132. URL: Date accessed: 05 November 2009.’
  • Wikipedia
  • Romsey Abbey
  • an interesting article from the Romsey Daily Echo about local celebrations of the saint’s feast

Collect for St Ethelflaeda from Romsey Abbey

Almighty God, by whose grace the Abbess Ethelflaeda, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in the Church: inflame us with the same spirit of discipline and love, that we may ever walk before you as children of light: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Holy St Ethelflaeda, pray to God for us.

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