Queen and Abbess
Born the daughter of a king in about 630 in Northumbria, Saint Etheldreda, sometimes called Audrey, was brought up in the fear of God. Her mother and three sisters are also numbered among the Saints. Etheldreda had but one aim in life, to devote herself to His service in the religious state. Her parents, however, had other views for her, and, in spite of her tears and prayers, she was compelled to become the wife of a certain prince named Tonbert. She lived with him as a virgin for three years, and at his death retired to the isle of Ely which she had inherited, that she might apply herself wholly to heavenly things. This happiness was but short-lived; for the powerful King of Northumbria pressed his suit with such insistence that she was forced into a second marriage. Her life at his court was that of an ascetic rather than a queen; she lived with him not as a wife, but as a sister, and devoted her time to works of mercy and love, while observing a scrupulous regularity of discipline.
After twelve years, she retired with her husband’s consent to Coldingham Abbey, then under the rule of Saint Ebba, and received the veil from the hands of Saint Wilfrid, who had been for many years her spiritual guide and protector. As soon as Etheldreda had left the court of her spouse, he repented of having consented to her departure, and followed her, meaning to bring her back by force. She took refuge on a headland on the southern coast near Coldingham; and here a miracle took place, for the waters forced a passage and hemmed in the hill with morasses, barring the further advance of the king. The Saint remained in this island refuge for seven days, until her royal spouse, recognizing the divine will, agreed to leave her in peace.
In 672 she returned to Ely and founded there a double monastery. She governed the convent herself, and by her example was a living rule of perfection to her Sisters. Some time after her death in 679, her body was found incorrupt, and Saint Bede records many miracles wrought by her relics.
Reflection. We learn from the life of Saint Etheldreda that God, who by a miracle confirmed the Saint’s vocation, will not fail those who with an undivided heart choose to serve Him. Let us resolve, in whatever state we may be, to live entirely detached from the world, and to separate from it as much as possible.
Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894); Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 7