St Etheldreda, known as Æthelthryth or Audrey, was an East Anglian princess in the mid-seventh century during the very earliest years of the faith in Anglo-Saxon England.
Born in 636, probably near Newmarket, she was one of four daughters of King Anna of East Anglia who went on to be canonised for founding abbeys.
Etheldreda was married, early, in 652, to Tondberct, chief of the Gyrwas, a tribe that had yet to be fully incorporated into the Kingdom of the East Angles. However, she had made a vow of perpetual virginity and he respected this until his death in 655, upon which she retired to the Isle of Ely.
The politics of the time dictated that five years later she be remarried, this time to Ecgfrith of Northumbria, who became ruler of the northern kingdom in 670. However, at this point Etheldreda decided to become a nun, leading to a quarrel between the new king and Wilfrid, Bishop of York.
Ecgfrith was not so understanding and tried to bribe the bishop into persuading her to grant him his marital privileges. But he had no luck, and so the king tried to take her from the cloister by force, only for her to flee to Ely with two nun companions. They evaded capture by a miraculous rising of a tide or, depending on which chronicler you believe, sheltered under a miraculously planted ash tree which grew above them. Stow, where she fled, became known as a St Etheldreda’s Stow. A church was built there, even though some historians argue that the event took place in another spot.
Etheldreda founded a double monastery at Ely in 673, destroyed two centuries later by the Vikings. King Ecgfrith had his revenge, after a remarriage, by expelling the unhelpful Wilfrid from the kingdom.
After Etheldreda’s death her uncorrupted body was disinterred by her sister, Sexburh, and translated to a new church in Ely. Etheldreda became a local cult in Ely, and therefore gave her name to St Etheldreda’s in Holborn, central London, which had been part of the Bishop of Ely’s palace.
There is also a St Etheldreda’s Catholic church in Ely, where her relics, including her hand, are preserved.
St Etheldreda’s cult soon spread after her death and inspired a lace goods fair held every year in Ely. The Audrey Fair gave us the word “tawdry” to describe cheap, poor quality goods.
According to one historian, there were more biographies of her in the medieval period than of any other female saint.