St. Etheldreda (Audrey), Queen, Virgin, and Abbess

Posted by Fr. Mason Waldhauser on

Today, we commemorate the feast of St. Etheldreda, another Anglo-Saxon saint. Etheldreda is a more historically-accurate way of referring to her, but over time, her name was corrupted to Saint Audrey, which is where we get the name Audrey from. Incidentally, we also get the word "tawdry" from her name, after a lace that was sold at a yearly fair in Ely, held in her honor as patroness of the city. "St. Audrey lace" became "tawdry lace."

But there actually wasn't anything vulgar or showy about this saint's life. She was a queen and virgin. She was daughter of a king of East Anglia and was given in marriage to a prince who respected her desire to remain a virgin and never consummate their marriage. After his passing, she married the king of Northumbria, but still, she would not consummate the marriage and desired to become a nun. St. Wilfrid, who we commemorated on Monday, was her spiritual director, and told the king that he should give her space to remain a virgin and to become a nun, and Etheldreda escaped to Ely to found a double monastery, which means a monastery and a convent linked together. There are many legends about her journey to Ely while she fled her husband which were told by the medievals. She was abbess of that convent until her death. Seventeen years after her death, St. Wilfrid and a physician discovered her body to be incorrupt.

To me, her life represents strong commitment and inner conviction. Not many people would stay true to a vocation to celibacy through two marriages or give up being a queen in order to become an abbess; but St. Etheldreda followed the life of a virgin which she felt called to, and God made a way. It is for her unwillingness to deviate from her vocation rather than for virginal purity per se that I think she deserves to be remembered, and so for anyone who is married, if they would approach their own vocation with the same tenacity embodied by St. Etheldreda the virgin, they would do just as well, I think.

Finally, a note on the timing of her feast. Many Christians commemorate her on June 23, which is the day she died; but we commemorate her on this day because it is the day of her translation, i.e., when her body was moved and discovered to be incorrupt.