In A.D, 597 St. Augustine, a great Roman missionary, came to Kent to try to convert the pagan Saxons to Christianity. He was well received and people all over the country became enthusiastic supporters of the new religion. Among these people was Anna, the King of East Anglia and one of his four daughters, Etheldreda, who became an ardent Christian and wished to devote her life to that religion. For political reasons it became desirable to marry her to a prince whose territory bordered East Anglia. As a dowry her new husband gave Etheldreda the land and royal rights of the Isle of Ely.
Three years later her husband died and she became a rich young widow. Non-the-less Etheldreda was still anxious to pursue the religious life and, for five years, she lived on her estates, in near isolation. However, policy necessitated her marriage to a prince and this time her chosen husband was the heir to the Kingdom of Bernicia in the north of England. The marriage was not a happy one and, in due time, she obtained her husband’s consent to retire from worldly affairs. She entered the convent of her husband’s aunt where she received the veil and clothing of a nun at the hands of Bishop Wilfrid.
One year later she moved to her lands in Ely and there, in 673, she founded a monastery for both nuns and monks. Later she became a victim of plague which caused a large swelling in her throat. This was lanced by her surgeon, but she died on 23rd June, 679. Sixteen years after her death the grave was opened in the presence of Bishop Wilfrid and several other witnesses. It was alleged that her body was found to be un-corrupted.
Her shrine was destroyed in 1541, but some relics are alleged to be in St. Etheldreda’s Church, Ely Place, London (where the bishops of Ely formerly had their London residence). 17th October, the date of her translation, or second burial, has been observed at her festival until the present day.
The St. Audrey’s Fair used to be held on this day at Ely with various items such as necklaces, silk ribbons and lace neckerchiefs on sale and these became known as St Audrey’s Laces – later shortened to ‘tawdry laces’.
Modern dictionaries now tell us that ‘tawdry’ means ‘Showy without taste or worth’ but that was not the case in St. Etheldreda’s time. It is recorded that she thought that the growth in her throat was a punishment for wearing jewelled necklaces.