The story of Anna, the 7th century king of East Anglia is, as many of that time, rather convoluted. Here is not the place to try and unravel that but it is important that we look at the life of two of his daughters – Etheldreda and Sexburga – in our story of the monastic communities of the Fenlands.
The story of Ely’s monastic community begins with the life of its founder, Saint Etheldreda (sometimes recorded as Saint Audrey), a Saxon princess, who was born c630AD at Exning near Newmarket. She was drawn to God but, for political reasons, was forced to marry – twice – retaining her virginity through both marriages. Her first husband was Tondberht, an alderman of the South Grywas tribe who, on his death c655, gave her, as her dowry, the Island of Ely.
In 660 she remarried – again for political reasons – Egfrith, the fifteen year old son of King Ethelfrith of Northumbria. Egfrith agreed that Etheldreda should remain a virgin but, 12 years later, he changed his mind. What happened next provides ‘interesting’ reading. One story has her refusing to comply, leaving Northumbria and heading south being chased by her husband and his supporters. Drawing close to the Fenlands she took refuge on an island in the North Sea. Egfrith and his band waited for the tide to go out. It didn’t. Fed up with the whole idea he released Etheldreda from her marriage vows and returned home. No sooner had he left than the tide went out and Etheldreda continued her journey to the Isle of Ely in peace.
Another story has her leaving Egfrith and going straight from her Northumbrian home to the newly founded abbey of Coldingham in Berwickshire. There Etheldreda became a nun before heading south to Ely in the Fenlands where, in 673, she founded a double monastery for monks and nuns and was installed as the first Abbess. The present Cathedral is considered to have been built on that site. Whatever the facts – the monastery flourished. However, on 23rd June 679, Etheldreda died of a throat tumour and was buried in the grounds of her monastery.
Sexburga was another of King Anna’s daughters. She married King Erconbert of Kent and became mother of two future Kings, as well as two saintly daughters. Within her husband’s lifetime she began to build a religious house at Sheppey where holy virgins might attend divine service for her, day and night. Her husband, King Erconbert, died in 664AD and Sexburga became regent until her son Egbert was of age. She then retired to her nunnery – it housed seventy-four nuns. Sexburga, though, wanted to live a more obscure life and moved to her sister’s community in Ely. There she became a nun.
On the death of her sister Etheldreda, Sexburga became Abbess of Ely. On 17th October 695, during her time as Abbess, she translated (moved/transferred) her sister’s body into an old Roman sarcophagus brought from nearby Grantchester. The historian Bede tells us that Etheldred’s body was found to be well preserved with the tumour healed. Sexburga died on 6th July c700.
Etheldreda’s & Sexburga’s monastery flourished for 200 years until it was destroyed by the Danes. The nuns were scattered and the nunnery destroyed. However the church and shrine escaped, and when peace returned, became the parish church. In 970 King Edgar gave Ely, along with many other monasteries destroyed by the Danes, to the Bishop of Winchester. He restored Ely.
We shall hear more of Ely in the next part of our story – and its beautiful building can be viewed to this day.