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St. Edith of Wilton

by Moira Allen

Anyone who imagines that female saints tend to be dreamy, impossibly virtuous ladies whose primary claim to fame seems to involve dying for chastity would do well to consider St. Edith of Wilton. From the very beginning, she sets the customary views of sainthood upon their ear, and continued to do so not only throughout her life but beyond it.

To begin with, she was born in a most unsaintly fashion, as the daughter of King Edgar (then 18 years old) and a Saxon girl named Wulfrith. Edgar, the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, became king of Wessex in 959, a time of peace between Saxons and Danes. One of his royal palaces was at Wilton, whose abbey, dedicated to St. Mary and St. Bartholomew, held some 10,000 acres of land. The abbey included a school for the daughters of nobility and royalty, and it was here that Edgar met 16-year-old Wulfrith in 960. They may have even contracted a "handfast" marriage, which lasted a year and a day and could then be either renewed as a permanent union (it was not) or dissolved. If dissolved, no blame was attached to either party, and any children resulting from such a union were considered legitimate. Such details aren't known, beyond the fact that Edgar apparently took Wulfrith with him to Kent, where Edith was born.

Another account, offered by St. Dunstan (who was Archbishop during Edith's lifetime) states that Edgar actually abducted and raped Wulfrith, and that Dunstan forced him to serve a penance for the crime by going for seven years without wearing his crown. This account seems a bit less likely, however, given Edgar's apparently positive relationship both with his daughter and with Wilton Abbey, of which Wulfrith became the abbess.

Whatever the details behind Edith's birth, once the child was bornWulfrith returned to the abbey, where she took the veil. Within seven years, she had become the abbess. When Edith was eight, Edgar dedicated her life to the cloister, though this appears to have been as much Edith's choice as Edgar's.

Edith is portrayed by Goscelin, a monk of Flanders, as having the voice of an angel, of feeding pet deer and doves, and of going about at night to wash the stockings of her fellow nuns while they slept. She was well educated, having tutors and books aplenty. She also apparently had fine clothes, probably provided by Edgar (who was noted for lavishing her with care and gifts); this annoyed Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, who allegedly scolded Edith for her worldliness. Edith is reported as having replied,

"The true and incontrovertible judgment of God is hidden from the understanding of mere mortals: for as St. Augustine says, squalid and dirty rags can be made a reason for boasting. Therefore I think that the mind can be as pure beneath these garments adorned with gold as beneath your dirty skins."

The comment says as much for Ethelwold's attire as Edith's; Ethelwold would also be elevated to sainthood.

Edith became a nun in the year that Edgar died. Edgar had wished to see her appointed as an abbess to one of the nunneries that Edgar supported, but Edith preferred to remain a nun -- perhaps because, at the time, she was only 14. To appease Edgar, she was given the honorary title of Abbess at Wilton.

Subsequently, Edith and her mother Wulfrith acquired a major treasure for the Abbey: the Holy Nail of Treves, supposedly one of the nails from the Cross. The nail cost 100 pounds, an enormous sum at the time, and it is said that Bishop Ethelwold so desperately coveted a share of this treasure that he ordered a fragment to be filed from it. Apparently someone began the process but failed to complete it before nightfall, and by the next day the nail was whole again; Ethelwold never got his fragment!

In 984, at age 23, Edith died of a fever and was buried in a new chapel that she had helped build, gathering flints in the field and "carrying her load down in a special purple sling." Edith's story did not end with her death, however; as is the way with saints, this was only the beginning. She appeared first to her mother, assuring her that she was now in heaven; then she appeared to her sisters in the abbey. Later, she appeared to the Archbishop Dunstan to demand a burial more fitting for a saint, pointing out that her tomb would soon be a destination for pilgrims, and she informed Dunstan that to prove that this was not merely a dream, he would find that her thumb had remained "incorrupt." Edith did not tolerate having her remains trifled with or sought for relics, however; on one occasion she rose up to rebuke a nun who tried to steal a bit of her dress, and in another case the fabric itself wove around a would-be thief's legs.

Most notable of Edith's post-mortem appearances, however, took place in 1020. In that year, King Canute visited Wilton, probably while traveling from London to Glastonbury. He did not believe the stories he had heard about St. Edith, and made some disparaging remarks about the girl. William of Malmesbury describes him as declaring that "He would never believe that a daughter of King Edgar could be a saint. King Edgar was a tyrant, a vicious man and a slave to his passions." Canute then demanded that Edith's tomb be opened so that he could behold for himself any evidence (or lack thereof) of the girl's sanctity.

According to the story, what happened next was pure Edith: When the tomb was broken open, the corpse rose to a sitting position, its face veiled, and struck the insolent king, who fell backwards to the floor and lay for several moments apparently unbreathing. When he rose, he was deeply humbled, and later endowed a shrine to St. Edith, which he visited whenever he passed through Wilton. He was also said to call upon her for help on one occasion when in danger of being shipwrecked.

Once again, Dunstan has a slightly different story; his version is that when Canute uttered his challenge, Dunstan had the tomb opened and set up the body of St. Edith in front of him. It's a bit difficult to imagine, however, how someone as battle-hardened as Canute could be so deeply affected by someone else opening a tomb and raising a corpse to a sitting position! (Indeed, one can't help but feel, in reading Dunstan's version of Edith's story, that a great deal of his account was designed more to promote Dunstan than Edith. For example, in his account of the dedication of the Chapel of St. Denis at Wilton, which Edith had helped to build, Dunstan wept copiously -- and when asked why, he replied that it was because Edith was to die in three weeks, which she did.)

In any event, after humbling Canute, Edith was credited with a number of healings and visitations, though these remained confined to visions and dreams. She is credited with having healed Aelfgyva, abbess of Wilton from 1065 to 1067, of an eye infection, and it is thought that this event may be depicted in a rather cryptic panel of the Bayeaux Tapestry. Whether this image is of Edith or not, it is certain that her veneration extended long past Saxon times; both Wilton and her birthplace in Kemsing, Kent, were places of pilgrimage well into the 15th century. In 1984, a thousand years after her death, she was honored by a united service in St. Edith's Church, Wilton.

Related Articles:

Wilton: Town of Mints, Saints and Carpets, by Moira Allen

More Information:

The Life of St. Edith of Wilton, by Major G. M. Darbyshire (publication date unknown)

St. Edith of Wilton

Moira Allen has been writing and editing professionally for more than 30 years. She is the author of seven books and several hundred articles. She has been a lifelong Anglophile, and recently achieved her dream of living in England, spending nearly a year and a half in the history town of Hastings. Allen also hosts the Victorian history site VictorianVoices.net, a topical archive of thousands of articles from British and American Victorian periodicals. Allen currently resides in Maryland.
Article © 2007 Moira Allen


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