Mildrith, Princess of Kent and Mercia

Mildrith was Princess Æbbe’s daughter.  (She spelled her name with a final "ð", the Old English letter Eth which looks like a D, hence the modern name Mildred, but is in fact a TH sound.)  She was thus a great granddaughter of King Eadbald of Kent and great great niece of Queen Æthelburh, who built the church at Lyminge.  Through her father Merewalh she was also a princess of Mercia.  His father was the King Penda who had killed her great great uncle King Edwin of Northumbria, husband of Queen Æthelburh, at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633 (or possibly 634).

Æbbe sent Mildrith away to the monastery at Chelles, to the east of Paris in Francia, in order to learn the way of being a nun.  At that time in the 670s and 680s, monasticism was much more developed in Francia than it was amongst the English kingdoms.  There were strong family as well as trading links across the Channel, so it was easy for royal women like Mildrith to travel.  She would have learned not just what it was like to be a nun but also what it meant to run an abbey and to support the spiritual interests of the ruling family.  For the nuns at Chelles in Francia, the royal family in question were Mildrith's cousins, and she would have learnt the role she was intended to adopt back in Kent.

Upon her return to Kent, Mildrith rejoined her mother Æbbe at Minster, where by 694 she had become abbess.  She died sometime after 732 and was initially buried in the abbey church of St Mary.  However subsequently her successor Eadburh founded a new abbey dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, where the abbey in Minster stands today.  Mildrith’s remains were translated there by around 748.  At that time, translation of the body from its original burial site to a new shrine elevated above ground was an important step in the progression to sainthood.

Shrine of St MildrithShrine of St Mildrith containing her relics in the chapel at the Priory of St Mildred, founded in 1937 on the site of the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul that was founded by St Eadburh some time before 748 to house the original shrine of St Mildrith (© Rob Baldwin)

 

 Mildrith became a very popular local saint and her shrine was the subject of much pilgrimage during the Anglo-Saxon period.  However, by the 11th Century, most of the old Kentish royal monasteries had been taken over by other monasteries and the abbey in Minster had come into the possession of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.  In 1030, the Abbot of St Augustine’s led a party of monks to seize St Mildrith’s relics and carry them back to Canterbury.  When the residents of Thanet living around Minster learned what was happening they banded together and attacked the monks who beat a hasty retreat.  However, the monks had already achieved what they had set out to do and they carried away St Mildrith who remained ever afterwards at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.

 

Shrine of St MildrithShrine of St Mildrith in St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury (third from bottom on the left), illustrated in the early 14th Century by Thomas of Elmham in his History of St Augustine's Abbey (© Trinity Hall, Cambridge)

 

The church dedications to St Mildrith in the Pas de Calais suggest that her influence extended across the English Channel, either in life or in death.  In the 11th Century, she was popular enough that some of her relics were given to the church at Deventer in what is now the Netherlands.  Miraculously, these have survived, and when in the 20th Century a Benedictine Priory dedicated to St Mildred was founded at Minster on the site of the former abbey of Saints Peter and Paul, by nuns fleeing Nazi persecution, the relics were returned to their original home.  Remarkably, therefore, the shrine of St Mildrith at Minster holds once again relics that were first translated there in the middle of the 8th Century.