The story of St. Werburga of Chester has it all: royalty, saints, wild geese, Danish raiders — even Lady Godiva.
This 7th-century English saint was born at Stone, Staffordshire, England, to King Wulfhere of Mercia and St. Ermingilde. Her father was the son of King Penda, who became Christian in 656. Her mother was the daughter of St. Sexburga, making Werburga a close relative of all the royal-born abbesses of her time.
Wulfhere planned to use his beautiful daughter for a marriage of political alliance, but her maternal family believed her future was as a nun. Wulfhere reluctantly agreed, after Werburga refused all suitors.
What a sight they must have been the day she entered the abbey. Werburga, wearing purple, silk and gold, went with her parents and their entourage on horseback and in boats to Ely. The abbess, Ethelreda, and her sister, Sexburga, and a long line of nuns and priests welcomed them. Werburga knelt before the abbess — her great-aunt — to beg admittance and accepted the rough habit.
After Wulfhere died, Ermingilde joined the community. Eventually Ermengilde succeeded her aunt as Ely’s third abbess. She named Werburga abbess of Minster-in-Thanet. Werburga followed her mother as abbess of Ely.
Eventually, her uncle, King Ethelred, placed her in charge of all the convents in Mercia. Using family money and influence, she founded convents at Trentham in Staffordshire, Hanbury near Tutbury, and Weedon in Northamptonshire, and persuaded Ethelred to found the collegiate Church of St. John the Baptist in Chester and give land to Egwin for Evesham Abbey.
Werburga’s interests extended beyond the convent. When the steward in Weedon complained that wild geese were eating the grain, she miraculously intervened to save the crops.
Werburga died at Trentham. She was buried, at her request, at Hanbury. In 875, her relics were moved to Chester to protect them from raids by the Danes. Late in the 11th century, they were moved to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which Earl Leofric of Mercia and his wife, Lady Godiva, remodeled. The church was razed a few years later and replaced by St. Werburga Abbey, which was disbanded in 1538. The church became the Chester Cathedral (Church of England) and Werburga’s shrine was desecrated. The shrine was restored in the 19th century.
Sources: “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”; catholic.org; “Dictionary of Saints”; earlybritishkingdoms.com; saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; and wikipedia.org.
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.