Elthelthrith (630–679)

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Elthelthrith (630–679)

Queen of Northumbria and abbess of Ely. Name variations: Aelthelthrith; Aethelthrith; Aethelthryth; Saint Audrey; Ethelreda; Etheldreda; Ethelthrith or Ethelthryth. Born in 630 in East Anglia, England; died in 679 at convent of Ely; daughter of Saewara and probably Anna (635–654), king of East Anglia; sister of Saint Sexburga (d. 699?) and Withburga and half-sister of Saint Ethelburga (d. 665); married Tondberht of South Gyrwas, ealdorman of South Gyrwas, also known as Prince Tonbert (died three years later); married Ecgfrith or Egfrid, king of Northumbria, around 671 (died 685).

Elthelthrith was probably the daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, although she may have come from a royal Saxon house. Like most young noblewomen, her marriage was arranged by her parents for their financial and political benefit. Elthelthrith, however, was committed from childhood to a religious life and persuaded her new husband, Prince Tonbert, to agree not to consummate their union and to give up all claims on her as his wife. Following his death three years later, Elthelthrith retired to a life of prayer until political considerations compelled her to marry Ecgfrith in 671, shortly after his accession to the throne as king of Northumbria. Their nuptials, performed in the presence of their spiritual father, St. Wilfrid, archbishop of York, included a vow to live together as brother and sister. When Ecgfrith began to tire of the arrangement, St. Wilfrid advised Elthelthrith to abandon the marriage and take up her religious pursuits once again. By 678, Ecgfrith would take a second wife Eormenburg .

Around 672, using her personal fortune, Elthelthrith founded two abbeys on the island of Ely, one for men and one for women, which she supervised until her death. (According to one source, she established only the abbey for women.) Those entering the abbeys received an excellent education, as well as spiritual guidance, and were trained in the arts of calligraphy and illumination. Ely eventually became renowned for its scriptorium and for the beauty of the manuscripts produced there.

Elthelthrith's personal life was one of great austerity. Except for official feasts, she ate but once a day and frequently prayed through the night. Toward the end of her life, she suffered from an abscess of the throat; she would be deemed the patron of those suffering similar afflictions following her death of the plague in 679. Her feast day is June 23.