St AEthelthryth, Naysayer

It’s hard to improve on the AElfrician narrative for sheer weirdness, sometimes.

We will now write, miraculous though it is, regarding the holy St AEthelthryth, the English virgin, who was with two men and nevertheless remained a virgin.

It doesn’t get odder than that. But wait, it does! Her father, a man unfortunately named Anna, was king of the East Angles (which possibly makes AEthelthryth a distant cousin of St Edmund), and Anna was a bit of a god-botherer. His daughters, at least, inherited this trait, and none more so than AEthelthryth. Of Anna, AElfric informs us solemnly that ‘all his team was honoured by God’ (team– ‘line’ of descendants, progeny, family, etc).

This Anna married AEthelthryth off to a fellow named Tondbyrht, as his wife. Who knows what AEthelthryth thought about this at the time, but if she was determined at that stage to avoid hanky-panky, Tondbyrht didn’t put up any resistance. Quite possibly he wasn’t in a state to put anything up, because he carked it not long afterwards, and AEthelthryth was summarily handed off to King Ecfrid of Northumbria.

For twelve years AEthelthryth kept King Ecfrid hanging, and- even more bizarrely- for twelve years King Ecgfrid kept waiting for her to come around. He must’ve been a nice guy, King Ecfrid, and not inclined to enforce his conjugal rights. He stuck it out for twelve years, begging the Archbishop Wilfrid,1 AEthelthryth’s spiritual adviser, to convince her to ‘have enjoyment of his marriage’, with no luck. He promised Wilfrid lands and money and what have you in return for a compliant wife, but no luck.

AEthelthryth, meanwhile, spent twelve years begging for permission to enter a nunnery, which Ecfrid steadfastly refused. Eventually, he gave up, and Wilfrid took her to Coldingham and veiled her as a nun.

There are a few things I wonder about, at this point in the story, and I think it all comes down to one man: Wilfrid.

Q: Why didn’t Ecfrid repudiate AEthelthryth from the day dot? An unconsummated marriage is grounds for annulment, yes?

A: Wilfrid. You don’t get far in your appeal for annulment if your local bishop wants you to stay married. (There could be political reasons here, like not wanting to alienate Anna, and I bet Wilfrid, an astute politician, would have brought them all out whenever the King spoke to him.)

Q: Why didn’t Ecfrid let AEthelthryth go into a nunnery when she first asked?

A: Wilfrid, surely. Was Wilfrid playing one off against the other? Was he telling Ecfrid he’d talk AEthelthryth around, and telling AEthelthryth to ask just one more time? Was he taking Ecfrid’s bribes, smiling, and then taking whatever AEthelthryth was offering him as ‘spiritual adviser’ in her celibacy? (No, not like that. Well, ok, maybe like that. If it amuses you….)

AELfric relies heavily on Bede here, and having poked around in Bede, and Eddius Stephanus,  his biographer, Wilfrid strikes me as a very, very wily politician. I wouldn’t put it past him to be pulling all the strings in the King’s marriage… the question is: why?


1. Have I mentioned my giant crush on the Archbishop Wilfrid of York (or really, of Ripon and Hexham, but his diocese included York)? Um. In case you can’t tell, my taste in dead men runs to powerful reformist prelates…
Yes, I do realise it’s a bit odd.