Jun 232015


Today is the feast day of Æthelthryth (or Æþelðryþe) an Anglo-Saxon saint also known, particularly in a religious context, as Etheldreda or Audrey. She was an East Anglian princess, a Fenland and Northumbrian queen and Abbess of Ely. Æthelthryth was probably born in Exning, near Newmarket in Suffolk. She was one of the four saintly daughters of Anna of East Anglia, all of whom eventually retired from secular life and founded abbeys.

Æthelthryth made an early first marriage in around 652 to Tondberct, chief or prince of the South Gyrwe. She managed to persuade her husband to respect her vow of perpetual virginity that she had made prior to their marriage. Upon his death in 655, she retired to the Isle of Ely, which she had received from Tondberct as a morning gift.

Æthelthryth was subsequently remarried for political reasons in 660, this time to Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Shortly after his accession to the throne in 670, Æthelthryth became a nun. This step possibly led to Ecgfrith’s long quarrel with Wilfrid, bishop of York. One account relates that while Ecgfrith initially agreed that Æthelthryth should continue to remain a virgin, in about 672 he wished to consummate their marriage and even attempted to bribe Wilfrid to use his influence on the queen to convince her. This tactic failed and the king tried to take his queen from the cloister by force. Æthelthryth then fled back to Ely with two faithful nuns and managed to evade capture, thanks in part to the miraculous rising of the tide. Another version of the legend says that she halted on the journey at ‘Stow’ and sheltered under a miraculously growing ash tree which came from her staff planted in the ground. Stow came to be known as ‘St Etheldred’s Stow’, when a church was built to commemorate this event. It is likely that this ‘Stow’ refers to a village near Threekingham. Ecgfrith later married Eormenburg and expelled Wilfrid from his kingdom in 678. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelthryth founded a double monastery at Ely in 673, which was later destroyed in the Danish invasion of 870.


Bede told how after her death, Æthelthryth’s bones were disinterred by her sister and successor, Seaxburh and that her uncorrupted body was later buried in a white, marble coffin. In 695, Seaxburh translated the remains of her sister Æthelthryth, who had been dead for sixteen years, from a common grave to the new church at Ely. The Liber Eliensis describes these events in detail. When her grave was opened, Æthelthryth’s body was discovered to be uncorrupted and her coffin and clothes were said to possess miraculous powers. A sarcophagus made of white marble was taken from the Roman ruins at Grantchester, which was found to be the right fit for Æthelthryth. Seaxburh supervised the preparation of her sister’s body, which was washed and wrapped in new robes before being reburied. She apparently oversaw the translation of her sister’s remains without the supervision of her bishop, using her knowledge of procedures gained from her family’s links with the Faremoutiers Abbey as a basis for the ceremony.

After Seaxburh, Æthelthryth’s niece and her great-niece, both of whom were royal princesses, succeeded her as abbess of Ely.


St Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place in Holborn is dedicated to the saint. It was originally part of the palace of the bishops of Ely. After the English Reformation, the palace was used by the Spanish ambassadors, enabling Roman Catholic worship to continue in the church.

St Etheldreda’s is a Roman Catholic parish church in Ely, Cambridgeshire. It is part of the Diocese of East Anglia within the Province of Westminster. The church contains the shrine and relics of Æthelthryth, including her hand.


St. Etheldreda’s Church in White Notley, Essex, is a Church of England parish church, of Saxon construction, built on the site of a Roman temple, with a large quantity of Roman brick in its fabric. The church has a small Mediaeval English stained glass window, depicting St. Etheldreda, which is set in a stone frame made from a very early Insular Christian Roman Chi Rho grave marker.

The common version of Æthelthryth’s name was St. Audrey, which is the origin of the word “tawdry,” by a shift of the “t” from “saint” to “Audrey.” On St Audrey’s Day (‘Tawdry’s) in the Middle Ages, a fair was held in Ely where lacework was sold. In the 17th century the East Anglian Puritans considered this lacework to be cheap and immodest – hence “tawdry.”


Ely (pronounced “Eelie”), especially Ely cathedral, is one of my favorite places in England. The name is said (possibly by folk etymology) to be derived from “Isle of Eels” from the time when it was surrounded by water and marshland and eels were plentiful. Here is Anglo-Saxon Ely showing Ely as an island in the marshes.


Eels are still caught there in the Great River Ouse by the locally well known eel catcher, Peter Carter. Historically eels were part of the local staple diet. You can still get smoked eels at the Ely Farmers’ Market, and eel stew or eel pie at the Lamb Hotel.


For reasons unknown eels have tended to follow me around. The fishermen of the village in the sounds and marshes of the North Carolina village where I did my Ph.D. fieldwork made a handsome profit from eel catching (in pots) – which they mostly sold to Japanese tradesmen, and outside my house on the Neversink River in Orange Co. New York there was a very successful eel trap. Some of the eels caught there were smoked for local markets.


I’ve had elvers (baby eels) in Tokyo, and once watched a sushi chef being taught how to dissect live eels in a restaurant in the famed Tsukiji Market.


When I was a teenager I often went to this pie and eel shop in London with friends of mine who were displaced East Enders. Originally these shops sold eel pies (and there has been a small resurgence of late), but when I went there in the 1960’s the pies were meat – although they still sold jellied eels.

Here’s a 17th century recipe for eel pie from A NEVV BOOKE Of Cookerie. “Coffins” in this context means hot water pastry pie shells.

To bake Eeles.

CUt your Eeles about the length of your finger: season them with Pepper, Salt, and Ginger, and so put them into a Coffin, with a good piece of sweet Butter. Put into your Pye great Razins of the Sunne, and an Onyon minst small, and so close it and bake it.

Here’s also a classic recipe from Mrs Beeton


253. INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of eels, a little chopped parsley, 1 shalot; grated nutmeg; pepper and salt to taste; the juice of 1/2 a lemon, small quantity of forcemeat, 1/4 pint of béchamel (see Sauces); puff paste.

 Mode.—Skin and wash the eels, cut them into pieces 2 inches long, and line the bottom of the pie-dish with forcemeat. Put in the eels, and sprinkle them with the parsley, shalots, nutmeg, seasoning, and lemon-juice, and cover with puff-paste. Bake for 1 hour, or rather more; make the béchamel hot, and pour it into the pie.

Time.—Rather more than 1 hour.

Seasonable from August to March.