Posted by: anna | February 16, 2010

St Werburgh, abbess of Chester

icon of St Werburgh from the parish of St Elisabeth the New Martyr, Wallasey. Image from here.

Today (3 February) we commemorate Werburgh of Chester, abbess of Hanbury (700). St. Werburgh, abbess of Bardney (ca. 785). From Miss Dunbar:

St. Wereburga (1), WERBURG, or VERBOURG, Feb. 3, V. + 699 or 700, fourth abbess of Ely. Patron of Chester. Abbess of Weedon, Hanbury, Trentham and Minster. Daughter of Wulphere, king of Mercia ; her mother was ST. ERMENILDA. She was thus granddaughter of the great heathen King Penda, and of ST. SEXBURGA, and nearly related to all the most famous royally born abbesses of her time.

Legend says that Wulphere wished to promote a marriage between his daughter Wereburga and Werebode, a powerful heathen Thane and great military leader, to whose brilliant services he was much indebted. Wereburga’s brothers Wulfad and Rufinus objected to their sister marrying a heathen. Werebode, unable to defeat their opposition, poisoned the king’s mind against his sons, and obtained his authority to have them arrested for treason. Wulphere too hastily accepted the evidence, and the guiltless young men were condemned to death. No sooner were they executed than the king saw with futile clearness the conspiracy and treachery of which he had been the dupe. Wereburga found herself set free from the royal command to marry a heathen, and was emboldened to beg that her father would never again speak of giving her to any mortal husband, but would suffer her to mourn in a cloister the crime to which he had consented and of which she was the cause.

In 674 Wulphere, yielding to the wishes of his wife and daughter and probably supported by the counsels of St. Chad, consented with tears and regrets to part with his daughter, not to a warrior husband but to Christ. It is probable that she was destined by her mother to be a nun and was educated as such. No place was so fit for her novitiate as Ely, where her grandmother SEXBURGA was a nun, and which was then ruled by her great-aunt ETHELREDA, already accounted a saint. At Wereburga’s reception at Ely, several kings with their attendant lords and warriors were present, as well as all the chief men of her father’s kingdom, as if attending a great wedding feast. Dressed in purple and silk and gold, Wereburga went with this royal escort on horseback and in boats to Ely. The royal abbess Ethelreda with her sister Sexburga and a great procession of nuns and clerics came out to meet the king of the country and receive the new postulant.

When the two processions met, Wereburga, kneeling at the feet of the venerable abbess, begged to be received as a penitent. Ethelreda gladly adopted into her fold this lamb of Christ and strove to feed her faithfully.

On the death of Sexburga, Ermenilda became third abbess of Ely and appointed her daughter Wereburga to succeed her as abbess of Minster. When Ermenilda died, Wereburga succeeded her as fourth abbess of Ely.

Her father’s brother and successor Ethelred invited her to preside over the monasteries in his kingdom. She ruled over those of Weedon, Hanbury and Trentham. The church of St. John the Baptist at Chester was built for her, but it does not seem certain that she ever lived there.

She died at her own monastery of Trentham but the monks of Hanbury carried off her body to enrich their own church. In the ninth century during the ravages of the Danes, the venerable body was removed for greater safety to the church of SS. Peter and Paul at Chester.

One of her most famous miracles occurred at Weedon. The lands around the monastery were infested by wild geese which devoured the crops and caused great damage. One day when they were committing their usual depredations Wereburga drove them into a stable and left them shut up there all night. In the morning when the door was opened they came running to her as if asking leave to go away. She allowed them to depart in safety but charged them never again to come marauding about Weedon. They flew off but when they had gone a short way, they returned and kept clamouring and fluttering about, until they made her understand that one of their number was nefariously detained. She found that one of her vassals had stolen and eaten the missing goose. She restored it alive and in full plumage to its companions, and the whole flock took their departure and no wild goose has ever dared to molest the agriculturists of Weedon since that day.

Once Wereburga saw one of the overseers cruelly beating a man. She punished him by making his head turn right round on his shoulders. On his repentance she prayed for him, and his head returned to its proper position.


Troparion, Tone 4
Thine illustrious life filled the angels with awe and put the demons to flight in terror, while it adorneth the congregations of the faithful with the splendour of grace, O venerable mother Werburga! As in thy charity thou didst extend thy love to all thy fellow creatures, intercede with God in our behalf, that our souls be saved from perdition!

Holy St Werburga, pray to God for us.


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