Etheldreda (Æthelthryth, Ediltrudis, Audrey) (d.679), queen, foundress and abbess of Ely.

The daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, born (probably) at Exning, near Newmarket, Suffolk.

At an early age she was married (c.652) to Tondberht, ealdorman of the South Gyrwas, but she remained a virgin. On his death, c.655, she retired to the Isle of Ely, her dowry.

In 660, for political reasons, she was married to Egfrith, the young king of Northumbria who was then only 15 years old, and several years younger than her. He agreed that she should remain a virgin, as in her previous marriage, but 12 years later he wished their marital relationship to be normal. Etheldreda, advised and aided by Wilfred, bishop of Northumbria, refused. Egfrith offered bribes in vain. Etheldreda left him and became a nun at Coldingham under her aunt Ebbe (672) and founded a double monastery at Ely in 673.

(from FARMER, David: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed. OUP, 1992.)

Etheldreda restored an old church at Ely, reputedly destroyed by Penda, pagan king of the Mercians and built her monastery on the site of what is now Ely Cathedral. After its restoration in 970 by Ethelwold it became the richest abbey in England behind Glastonbury.

Etheldreda died c.680 from a tumour on the neck, reputedly as a divine punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces in her younger days. (At St Audrey's Fair, necklaces of silk and lace were sold, often of very inferior quality, hence the derivation of the word tawdry - from St Audrey). in reality it was the result of the plague which also killed several of her nuns, many of whom were her sisters or nieces.

17 years after her death her body was found to be incorrupt. Wilfred and her physician, Cynefrid, were among the witnesses. The tumour on her neck, cut by her doctor, was found to be healed. The linen cloths in which her body was wrapped were as fresh as the day she had been buried. Her body was placed in a stone sarcophagus of Roman origin, found at Grantchester, and reburied.

Her shrine was destroyed in 1541, but some relics are alleged to be in St Etheldreda's Church, Ely Place, London (where the bishops of Ely formerly had their London residence). Her hand, which was discovered in a recusant hiding place near Arundel in 1811, is claimed by St Etheldreda's Roman Catholic church at Ely.

St Etheldreda's Feast Day is 23rd June.

Eternal God,
who bestowed such grace upon your servant Etheldreda
that she gave herself wholly to the life of prayer
and to the service of your true religion:
grant that we, like her,
may so live our lives on earth seeking your kingdom
that by your guiding
we may be joined to the glorious fellowship of your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Etheldreda Banner was made by Miss Yams of Bayswater in 1910 and is still used today during great processions at Ely Cathedral. It depicts Saint Etheldreda with a crosier as first Abbess of Ely. Around her the coats of arms of the See, the University of Cambridge, the Dean and Chapter of Ely, and the Borough (now City) of Cambridge. The arms of Frederick Henry Chase, Bishop of Ely 1905-1924 are shown at the top.