Æthelburg (or Ethelburga): saint, abbess, badass

A post by Kathryn Maude

ethelburga-of-barking-manuscript

St Ethelburga from a Book of Hours. France, N. or N. W. (Rouen?), c. 1430- c. 1440. British Library, MS Harley 2900, f. 68v. [bl.uk]

Æthelburg (her Old English name) or Ethelburga (the name that she was remembered by after the Norman Conquest) was abbess of the Anglo-Saxon abbey of Barking. Barking Abbey was a double monastery—a house of worship including both monks and nuns—so Abbess Æthelburg ruled over both men and women.

It was after Æthelburg’s death that her miracle-working really started to get going. The nuns of Barking were in disarray because of repeated Viking attacks, and they had to flee to London, leaving the monastery of Barking and Æthelburg’s tomb completely undefended. When the Vikings arrived to pillage the monastery, the power of Æthelburg’s holiness had called wild animals to protect her tomb.

First a huge wolf blocked the main door and leapt on the Vikings. They tried another door but were set upon by a vicious bear. The final door to the church was blocked by a lion, roaring at them. They fell to their knees and prayed, at which the three wild animals became tame, and the Vikings entered the church. Instead of pillaging, the Vikings left enough treasure to feed the nuns for months.

Æthelburg made herself known in other ways too. After the Conquest, Abbess Elfgiva had commenced a controversial building project that involved moving the bodies of the abbey’s founding saints—including Æthelburg—which had been specifically forbidden by Maurice, the local bishop. Abbess Elfgiva was praying by Æthelburg’s tomb one night when she felt the tomb move by itself. It crushed Elfgiva against the wall, so she couldn’t move or breathe. Elfgiva cried out to Æthelburg:

Spare me, my lady! I am overwhelmed, I am crushed. I can scarcely draw breath or gasp because of the force of your pressure.

At this prayer, Æthelburg relents and releases Elfgiva but then appears to her in person as a giant glowing figure. She tells Elfgiva:

Make haste to take us from here and set us in the place you have prepared. This lodging oppresses us; the narrowness of the place binds us tightly; the coarse couch dishonours us.

Elfgiva meekly agrees, and the giant glowing figure of Æthelburg turns into a little girl and jumps into Elfgiva’s arms, to thank her for her support.

Further Reading:

For the writings of Bede (673-735) concerning Æthelburg and Barking, see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 4, Chapters 6-10 (available on Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook).

This medieval ‘snapshot’ of what it means to be human is one of a series to inspire Karrie Fransman’s medieval comics artwork. To read more, go to project + snapshots.


Dr Kathryn Maude (@krmaude) is currently teaching medieval literature and gender at Swansea University. She is interested in medieval women, religion and the relevance of the Middle Ages to the modern world. She’s always interested in new projects, so get in touch!

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One thought on “Æthelburg (or Ethelburga): saint, abbess, badass

  1. Pingback: Getting medieval with comics | Medieval Comics

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