17 October 2011

17 October - St. Etheldreda

Saint Etheldreda was a Saxon princess, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and his wife Heriswitha, and expected - as were so many people of the ruling classes -  to marry for matters of state.  Having early decided that her chosen Spouse was Our Lord himself, and that she wished only to serve him, she resisted all attempts to marry her to an earthly king.

Only for a little while, though.  Politics being what they were, she was married to Tombert, King of the Gervii, who left her the Isle of Ely as part of her widow's jointure. She founded a convent there.

Upon the death of Tombert she was married, again for politics, to King Egfrid of Northumbria.  After twelve years of marriage, during which (the chroniclers say) she never slept with her husband, she was allowed to remove to the convent at Coldingham.  For some reason, probably political, Egfrid decided that Etheldreda should come back to his court and his bed, but she eluded him and finally ended up on the isle of Ely where she founded a convent.  She died in June of 679, and requested that she be buried without any marker distinguishing her grave, as was the custom with nuns.  However, her sister Sexburga (who followed her as abbess) raised a monument over her burial place on this day in 695.  Later, her relics were moved to the Cathedral at Ely; this shrine was destroyed during the reformation of the English church.

Her name - over time - was contracted to Auldreda, then to Auldrey, then to Audrey.

A fair was held in her island of Ely which was known as St. Etheldreda's or St. Audrey's fair.  Among other things sold at this fair were lengths of lace and ribbons of the five-and-dime sort, more showy and gaudy than quality goods, something that appealed to milkmaids and (in future years) their sisters: secretaries, chemist's assistants, cinema attendants, fast-food servers, grocery check-out clerks, etc.  These were the ribbons that Johnny brought home to his love to "tie up her bonny brown hair". It has been suggested that we get the word 'tawdry' from these St. Audrey fairings.