portfolio website templates

St Eadburga

At the time of refoundation Pershore Abbey was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saints Peter and Paul, but the two apostles were replaced by St Eadburga after the translation of most of her relics there. It was far from wealthy, since much of its land was given to the ‘new’ Westminster Abbey in the years either side of the Conquest in 1066. It had already lost land following the 1002 fire, when it had been rendered uninhabitable for a time, and other parts had been taken by the avaricious Earl Aelfhere. There was a brief revival of fortune in the early 1050s when Earl Odda restored some of its lands. Odda is sometimes named as Aelfhere’s son, but perhaps was more probably son of the Aethelweard who had been instrumental in the refoundation of Pershore as a Benedictine House. This would account for Odda being such a benefactor to Pershore, and also for the fact that that both he and his brother were buried there. He was recorded as a pious man, who took the cowl towards the end of his life. Odda’s piety remains in the visible form of Odda’s Chapel at Deerhurst, which is a notable Anglo-Saxon building. He had it erected in memory of his brother. Earl Odda died at Deerhurst but was buried in the Lady Chapel of Pershore Abbey. In some accounts it is this Earl Odda who purchased the relics of St Eadburga from the Nunnaminster in Winchester, where she had lived and died. There is, however, circumstantial evidence that it might have been Aethelweard who oversaw the translation at the time of the refoundation. The 1002 fire destroyed nearly all Pershore’s old documents, which does not help matters. There is an entire chapter devoted to the cult of St Eadburga at Winchester and Pershore in The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series) by Susan J Ridyard (CUP 1989). It makes interesting reading, but shows just how little can be pinned down as fact.

Eadburga’s life was set down in the Vita Edburge by Osbert of Clare in the 12th C, by which time the monks of Pershore would have a well told story of how they obtained the saintly relics. . This Life says that at the age of three the infant princess entered the Nunnaminster, a house of nuns founded by her grandmother Aethelswith, wife of Alfred the Great. She died there some time between 950AD - 960AD and was swiftly venerated and beatified. She was renowned for her humility and piety in life, but the tale of how her body was moved several times, at her spirit’s instigation, is in marked contrast. She was at first buried outside the church, but a sister charged with closing the window that was situated near her grave found herself unable to close the window because of an unseen pressure, on several occasions. The nuns took this as a divine sign and reburied Eadburga in the church, but outside the choir. Eadburga’s spirit then appeared to the sisters and indicated she ought to be buried by the high altar. In the face of this otherworldly instruction, the nuns did just as they were told, and moved the royal nun to her desired resting place. Around the 970s, under the auspices of Bishop (later Saint) Aethelwold, and during the monastic reform led by him, Dunstan and Oswald, she was moved once more into a silver and gem encrusted shrine. Osbert says that the Abbess of the Nunnaminster sold the skull, and a major part of the other remains of St Eadburga to Earl Aethelweard (comes Alwardus) at some point in the 970s. The saint was apparently none too pleased about this, and only when sisters of the Nunnaminster walked barefoot to Pershore and prayed for the saint’s forgiveness, did miracles once more occur in Winchester. The abbess was certainly not popular for selling the major part of her abbey’s only saint. Ridyard suggests that in favour of this being the date of the removal of the saint to Pershore is that the division of saintly relics often took place at times of reinterment, as happened with the move to the ornate shrine in the 970s, and the fact that the first abbot of Pershore when it was refounded was Fordbriht, a disciple of St Aethelwold. On the other hand, the translation of the bones may not have occurred until the time of Earl Odda, or they might even have been ‘purloined’. She also raises the possibility of some confusion with the Mercian saintly princess, St Eadburga of Aylesbury, and the Dictionary of National Biography also suggests other Eadburgas. There is St Eadburga of Repton, (died early 700s AD) daughter of King Aldwulf of East Anglia, St Eadburga of Minster, Thanet, (died about 751AD) daughter of King Centwine of Kent, St Eadburga of Aylesbury (died about AD 650) daughter of Ceolric, King of Wessex, St Eadburga of Bicester ( died about 680AD) daughter of Penda, King of Mercia), and St Eadburga of Deira ( died about 725AD), daughter of Alcfrith, King of Deira. It all gets very murky. However, the version that has lasted over the centuries is that Pershore obtained the relics of St Eadburga of Winchester, and for the purposes of Servant of Death, that is the case.