Eadburh (Eadburga), Princess of Wessex (?)

Mildrith’s successor as abbess at Minster was Eadburh (or in the latinised form of her name Eadburga, Eadburg or Edburg).  However, she is not quite so easy to pin down as the other royal women associated with the Royal Saxon Way.  There are several Eadburhs known from the Anglo-Saxon period, but it is not absolutely certain who the Eadburh at Minster actually was.  A plausible case has been made for her to be both the daughter of King Centwine of Wessex, and the abbess who is known to have been a correspondent with St Boniface, the missionary saint from Wessex who is known as the Apostle of the Germans and who became Archbishop of Mainz in 745.

Boniface once wrote to his correspondent Abbess Eadburh requesting a manuscript written in gold on purple vellum. This would have been an example of the most sumptuous kind of manuscript made anywhere in Western Europe at that time. We know that the Codex Aureus, one of the best examples of this type of lavish manuscript (now in Stockholm), was probably made in Canterbury in Eadburh’s lifetime or shortly after, demonstrating that they were part of the repertoire of the abbeys of Kent. Whether Eadburh of Minster had a scriptorium in her abbey producing such elaborate pieces we just don’t know, but it is possible. Not many scriptoria would have possessed the skills, and even if Boniface’s Eadburh was not the abbess at Minster, it is still striking that Boniface had no hesitation in accepting the output of women as of the highest quality. In his mind, there was no distinction on grounds of gender.

Codex AureusPages from the Codex Aureus, probably made in Canterbury in the mid 8th Century during Eadburh’s lifetime (©Wikimedia Commons)

As abbess, Eadburh set to work promoting the cult of St Mildrith and building for her a new abbey in which she created a shrine.  This work was clearly successful, as St Mildrith gained considerable popularity and was the subject of high levels of pilgrimage from within England and the Low Countries.  It certainly encouraged the Abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey to want to have her relics at his abbey in Canterbury.

Until recently, little more could be said about Eadburh.  However, a manuscript in the Cathedral Library at Hereford has recently been identified as the sole surviving copy of a Life and Miracles of St Eadburh.  This is a manuscript dating to around the year 1000, and it relates that the shrine of St Eadburh, Abbess of Minster, is at Lyminge.  This is curious, but we know from charter evidence that Lyminge and Minster were under the rule of a single abbess, Selethryth, in the early 9th Century and that the blessed Eadburh was buried at Lyminge by 804.  Selethryth is an unusual name, and it seems highly likely that she was the same Selethryth who was sister to one of the powerful nobles at the court of the King of Mercia.  At this time, it was Mercia that was dominating the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England, and there is good reason to see Selethryth as securing the interests of the King of Mercia through prayer, just as royal women had been doing for the past century and half for the Kings of Kent.

 

It is quite possible that Selethryth moved Eadburh’s relics to Lyminge as part of a plan to promote her cult there and develop pilgrimage, just as Eadburh herself had done with St Mildrith in Minster. Although this does not seem to have been quite as successful as the efforts with Mildrith, the profile of Eadburh must have been sufficiently great to justify the creation of a hagiography (or holy biography) around the year 1000. By this time Lyminge was in the possession of Christ Church, the monastic house associated with the Cathedral in Canterbury. Not long afterwards in 1085, Archbishop Lanfranc thought Eadburh’s relics were of sufficient value to justify translating them to his new foundation of St Gregory’s in Canterbury, along with those of Queen Æthelburh. Shortly thereafter, we can see St Eadburh’s feast day being inserted into the liturgical calendar used in Canterbury Cathedral, so she was sufficiently important to be celebrated at the very heart of Christianity in England.


 

St Eadburgs Well

St Eadburg's Well, Lyminge (©Gabor Thomas) 

 But over time, it was gradually forgotten who Eadburh was.  The church at Lyminge remained dedicated to St Mary and St Eadburg, but it was also well-known that the church had been founded by Queen Æthelburh.  It came to be thought that the name Eadburh (in Latin Edburga) must be a variant of the name Æthelburh (in Latin Ethelburga), so it came to be believed that the church in Lyminge was actually dedicated to St Mary and St Ethelburga.  Eventually, in 1897, the Rector of Lyminge actually started calling the church St Mary and St Ethelburga, and this is the dedication it holds to this day.  Sadly, for many years, St Eadburh, the Abbess of Minster, has been forgotten.  Through the Royal Saxon Way, we hope to bring her back into the spotlight and restore her rightful position as the patron saint of the church in Lyminge, alongside the founder St Ethelburga.  In 2020, the Parish Council in Lyminge voted to restore the ancient name of the spring, close to the church.  This spring features in some of the miracles of St Eadburg, so we have good reason to believe this was St Eadburg’s Well for over a thousand years up to the end of the 19th Century.  It is once again.  


 Nuns from Minster

 Nuns from the Priory of St Mildred, Minster-in-Thanet, viewing the excavation of Queen AEthelburh's church in 2019, on their own pilgrimage to the site of the tomb of St Eadburg, whom they still venerate as one of their founding abbesses (© Rob Baldwin)