Elfleda, St.

views updated


Abbess of Whitby; b. 653; d. Feb. 8, 714. A daughter of Oswy, king of Northumbria, and of St. Eanfled, and the sister of three kings and two queens, Elfleda (or Aelbfled in Bede, Ethelfleda, Edilfleda, Elgiva, Æflaed) was a woman of great sanctity and influence. In fulfillment of a vow following his defeat of King Penda of Mercia, Oswy consecrated his year-old daughter Elfleda to a life of virginity at the abbey of (St.) hilda, then at Hartlepool. Two years later Hilda purchased land at whitby, where she erected her famous double monastery. Elfleda was reared and educated at Whitby; at the death of Hilda (680), she and her mother ruled the monastery.

Elfleda was a friend of the great Northumbrian saints cuthbert of lindisfarne, wilfrid of york, and john of beverley. John sought her counsel several times, on one occasion spending several days at Whitby. Wilfrid became a ward of King Oswy when he was 13, and it was Queen Eanfled who sent him to study at lindisfarne and then to Rome. Because of her great admiration for Cuthbert, Elfleda opposed Wilfrid and his Roman rites. However, when her father declared for the Roman rites and Cuthbert accepted the judgment of the Council of Whitby (664), the difference between Cuthbert and Wilfrid was settled, and throughout the latter part of Wilfrid's stormy life Elfleda became his advocate. It was largely because of her testimony after the death of her brother, King Aldfrith, who repented his treatment of Wilfrid, that as late as 703 he was able to retain his archbishopric of York. Elfleda kept in close touch with Cuthbert throughout her life, even after he retired to farne. In 684, at the request of her brother, King Ecgfrith, she met Cuthbert on Coquet Island to try to persuade him to accept the bishopric at Hexham. Elfleda was buried at Whitby, as were her father, mother, and grandfather, St. edwin of northumbria.

Feast: Feb. 8.

There are two other saints of this name: (1) an Anglo-Saxon princess (d. c. 936) who became hermit under the obedience of Glastonbury Abbey and was venerated by St. dunstan (feast: Oct. 23); and (2) an abbess at Ramsey Abbey (d. c. 1000; feast: Oct. 29).

Bibliography: bede, Ecclesiatical history 3.24; 4.26. Acta Sanctorum Feb. 2:177186. b. colgrave, ed. and tr., Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert (Cambridge, Eng. 1940). a. butler, The Lives of the Saints, ed. h. thurston and d. attwater (New York 1956) 1:278279.

[m. e. collins]