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St. Ethelburga of Wessex
(Died 740)

Ethelburga was the wife of Ine, King of Wessex, and sister of his successor, Aethelhard. Ine reigned long and prosperously, making wise and useful laws, and laying the foundation for the ascendancy which Wessex ultimately gained over the other kingdoms of England. In the 680s, Ine re-founded two large monasteries at Abingdon and Glastonbury. He built a minster church at Wells and, with his sisters, Cuthburga and Cwenburga, set up a monastery at Wimborne. Ethelburga was associated with her husband in all these pious labours.

She also took part in some of his more warlike deeds. In AD 722, one Albert, a hostile Prince of Wessex, took Ine's most westerly fortress at Taunton. The King being engaged in fighting a distant foe, Ethelburga, with what troops she could gather, made a vigorous assault on the fort, razed it to the ground and compelled Albert to flee.

During many years of prosperity and glory, Ine and his wife had been friends to the Church and the poor. They had often talked of withdrawing from the cares and pomp of Royalty and of passing their remaining years in religious retirement. Ine, however, kept putting off the decisive step. Eventually, Ethelburga, finding her arguments and lectures of no avail, with the feminine zeal which ignores defeat, resorted to a stratagem to impress upon him the corruptible nature of all Worldly things. For the time had come for them to turn their attention exclusively to things spiritual, in preparation for death and eternity.

They held a party, at one of the King's palaces, with every luxury and splendour that the age and the nation could command. After spending a night or more in feasting and revelry, the King and Queen set out for another of their residences. However, when they had ridden but a few hours, Ethelburga begged her husband to go back to the palace where they had been so happy. He agreed and they returned. By the Queen's orders, the hours of their absence had been employed in destroying and disfiguring the place, dirt and squalor taking the place of riches and splendour. Everything was made as revolting as possible - pigs were lying in the very bed where the Royal couple had slept. Ine understood the lesson his queen intended to convey, and agreed with her to forego the pleasures of this World and devote himself to preparation for the next. He assembled the Witan, resigned his crown and recommended as his successors. In AD 728, the Royal couple travelled to Rome, where they lived among the poorest of the pilgrims, wearing the dress of the common people, Ine supporting them by the labour of his hands. They never betrayed their lofty origin. Within a year, however, Ine was dead and Ethelburga, the first English queen to visit Rome, returned to England and became a nun at Barking. There she died about AD 740. She is generally commemorated on the same day as her husband, 6th February.

Edited from Agnes Dunbar's "A Dictionary of Saintly Women" (1904).


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