Thine illustrious life filled the angels with awe and put the demons to flight in terror, while it adorneth the congregations of the faithful with the splendour of grace, O venerable mother Werburga! As in thy charity thou didst extend thy love to all thy fellow creatures, intercede with God in our behalf, that our souls be saved from perdition!
In the year 597, 560 years after St Dorotheus of Tyre dates Bishop (Saint) Aristibule as bringing the Christian Faith to England, one of the greatest difficulties faced by the missionaries in reintroducing the Church to the areas invaded by the pagans from northern Europe was the division of the land into a number of often warring kingdoms. The most effective way of overcoming this disunity was dynastic marriage between members of the royal families, families which, once Christianised, were able to spread the Faith with immense zeal. In this undertaking the main and vital role was played by queens and princesses, the women of the royal families, who, as ever, showed far greater sensitivity to the Truth of Christ than the men. Many of them, as widows, together with unmarried sisters or daughters, turned to the monastic life, which in turn helped weld together the seven kingdoms into national unity. Indeed, Old England had no fewer than thirty-seven holy abbesses, many of them of royal origin. The family tree of this golden age of holiness starts in 597 with the first convent, Ethelburt, King of Kent. From his family emerged an extraordinary catalogue of twenty-seven Saints, including St Werburgh.
On her mother's side, St Werburgh was descended from a long line of Saints from the kingdom of Kent. Her father. however, was Wulfhere, prince of the newly-converted Mercia, and her father's father was none other than Penda, the war-like pagan King of Mercia, responsible for the deaths of Christian kings from neighbouring kingdoms - St Oswald, King of Northumbria and St Sigebert, King of East Anglia. Her father died when she was young and so she was brought up by her great-aunt, St Audrey, at Ely, later going to Minster-in-Sheppey in Kent with her mother St Ermenhild and her grandmother, St Saxburgh.
No doubt here she made the acquaintance of her cousins, Milburgh, Mildred and Mildgyth, and the Kentish and East Anglian traditions of family and monastic piety handed down through the generations, as well as the advice of spiritual fathers and mothers whom the family had known, going right back to St Augustine himself. She was destined to take back these traditions with her to her native Mercia. A late tradition says that Werburgh had a suitor whom she rejected, and it was he who was responsible for martyring her two brothers, Wulfhad and Ruffin, who were protecting her. However this may be, it is clear that, when still young, she had already chosen the monastic life. She was to become nun and then abbess at Minster-in-Sheppey and then at Ely itself. But this was not to last.
On account of both her spiritual and practical experience in the great convents of England, she was invited by her father's brother, King and later St Ethelred of Mercia, to take charge of convents in Mercia, at Weedon, Hanbury and Threckingham. Stories about her from this period particularly concern her links with the animal world. A picturesque legend describes the control she had over wild geese which were devastating crops at Weedon. Abbess Werburgh ordered them into a stable and such was their obedience that next morning they asked her to be released. Another story, which shows her humility, is that of how at Weedon she protected a cowherd, Alnoth, a man of simplicity and holiness, from a cruel steward. She threw herself at the steward's feet and asked him to spare Alnoth, whom she said was more acceptable to God than any of themselves. Later, the same cowherd was to become a hermit in nearby woods at Stowe, and then murdered. He was venerated locally as a Saint on 27th February.
The Abbess Werburgh reposed at Threckingham on 3rd February in about the year 700, certainly not later than 710. Apparently at her own request, the relics were taken from Threckingham to Hanbury, where they remained until 875, much venerated. In this year, for fear of the Danish invasions, the holy remains were transferred to Chester, to the church which became known as St Werburgh's. This is the beginning of her long connection with that city, and she is often called "St Werburga of Chester". The site of St Werburgh's church is today that of Chester Cathedral, where part of the stone base of her shrine still survives. In 1540, Henry VIII made the abbey church of St Werburgh into a cathedral, and, as protestants often did, like the Normans before them, rededicated it. However, even today, it still keeps its link with the Saint through the name of the street leading to the cathedral - St Werburgh Street. St Werburgh's prayers were much sought by the young, especially children and young women.
The church at Hanbury is still dedicated to St Werburgh and this may mean that she actually founded the convent whereas she only reformed Weedon and Threckingham. Near Hanbury, another dedication is at Kingsley. Churches at Derby and nearby Spondon and Blackwell are also dedicated to her, and these, too, are probably her foundations, for it is known that she laboured here and also in nearby Repton. Although Chester was rededicated at the reformation, in Cheshire, the village of Warburton is named after the Saint, (Werburgton), and the church there is also dedicated to her, apparently on the site of a monastery. In the Midlands, there used to be another village, now lost, called Werburgewic.
Werburgh's presence is also remembered in Kent in the present-day village of Hoo St Werburgh near the convent at Minster-in-Sheppey and previously in another lost village of Thanet, Werburghingland. Other dedications to her are in Bristol, Wembury in Devon, and at Treneglos and Warbstow (the "stow" or "holy place" of Werburgh), in Cornwall. These dedications may represent a distribution of relics of the Saint in the West.
This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, and is here reproduced by kind permission of Fr Andrew Phillips. The ikon of St Werburgh can be venerated at the Garden Chapel of St Werburgh of Chester at 52 Hawthorne Close in Congleton.
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