SAINT MILDRED, ABBESS OF THANET IN KENT (ca 700)
By Vladimir Moss
Our holy Mother Mildred was the second daughter of King Merewald of Mercia and his wife St. Ermenburga, and the sister of Saints Mildburga and Mildgitha. She was sent for her education to the convent of Chelles in France, which had been founded by the English slave-girl, later Queen of France, St. Bathildes. Mildred was received by Abbess Wilcoma, and by her humility and gentleness soon became a favourite with the other pupils, excelling them in learning and even equalling her teachers.
But then a certain rich, good-looking young nobleman who was a near relation of the abbess fell in love with the saint. He proposed marriage, offering her lands, riches and honours. The abbess also pressed his suit, tempting her with gifts and the prospect of becoming a member of the royal house of France. But Mildred refused, saying: "I have come to school to learn, not to be married. I beg to be taught the discipline and fear of the Lord, and not the sin of ambition. Your entreaties terrify me more than your threats." The abbess was furious at this refusal; and after she had heated a furnace with a huge fire, she pushed Mildred into it, fastening the door. Three hours later she came back, expecting to find only ashes. But instead she heard the virgin singing in a clear voice: "Thou hast tried me, O Lord, in the fire, and hast found no wickedness in me." When the doors were thrown open, she appeared as if arrayed in gold. Everyone was terrified, as if the dead had come to life. The whole town was astonished, and multitudes came filling the house, the market place and the fields, counting themselves fortunate just to catch a sight of the virgin. For was it not a miracle that not one hair of her head or thread of her clothing was harmed?
Some days later, the abbess rushed at Mildred, threw her to the ground, stamped on her, kicked her, thrashed her, scratched her, pulled the hair out of head, and left her half dead. The virgin picked up the hair, and later, when she was transcribing a psalter in a way that she knew would be recognized by her mother, she placed it, still covered with dried blood, as if it were a relic of the martyrs, in the upper margin of the little book. At the same time she begged, with tears falling on the letter, that she might be delivered from the tribulations of her life, and rest in the Lord. St. Ermenburga, filled with compassion, wanted to set out immediately to rescue her daughter. But she felt her end was approaching, so instead she sent reliable people with some sailors to demand the return of her daughter from the abbess. The messengers were hospitably received, but the day of their departure was delayed; for the abbess in her rage and hatred of the English persuaded the bishop that Mildred should remain in France for the honour of the country.
Mildred serenely put her trust in God, and one night, in accordance with an agreed plan, she stole out and met her friends the messengers. After they had gone a short way, however, she remembered with grief that she had left behind a nail from the Cross of the Lord, which she had obtained at great price and which she intended as a gift for her mother. She decided to return, while her companions waited for her. Having recovered the treasure, she ran back, and eventually reached the sea and the ships which were to take her away.
In the morning her flight was discovered, and amidst great commotion a thorough search for her was undertaken. The bishop was blamed for his inactivity, and the abbess agitatedly asked him to assemble an armed force and go after the girl. The saint and her companions were already on board ship, with everything in order and the sails swelling in the wind, waiting for the tide to change. But then in the distance they saw crowds of Frenchmen and cavalry in warlike array advancing towards them with a dull murmuring sound. The sailors, who were few in number and unwarlike, began to lose hope; for with the tide out, the ships were on dry land.
Suddenly the pursuers started to fight against each other and kill each other. Seeing this, Mildred cried out in the words of David: "I have called upon Thee, O Lord, and Thou hast heard me. More and more do I cry, incline Thine ear and hearken unto me. O Thou Creator and Lord, Who hast made all things in heaven and on earth, and didst lead Thy people through the midst of the sea, deliver me from mine enemies that follow after me, and bring me in safety to my homeland and to my mother." Scarcely had she said this when the tide flowed in impetuously and the shore quickly became the sea. The sea floated the ships, caused confusion among the soldiers and fought on the side of the sailors. The rowers took to their oars, and with sails set the keels clove the waves, while the enemy in vain discharged their arrows and javelins across the water. Then Mildred like a new Miriam sang a song of praise to God.
After a pleasant voyage, they arrived at Ebbsfleet on the coast of Kent. As Mildred stepped out of the boat, her foot imprinted itself on the rock as if it had been soft mud. This indelible sign of her landing caused many cures. For sick people came, made a solution from the dust scraped from the rock, and were healed. The people enclosed the footprint in a shrine, and healings continued to be wrought there.
In about 690 Mildred was tonsured a nun by her mother in the monastery founded by her at Minster-in-Thanet, on land provided by King Egbert of Kent in compensation for the murder of her brothers the Martyr-Princes Ethelred and Ethelbricht. A few years later Mildred was consecrated abbess in succession to her mother by St. Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury. And in 694 she attended and signed a council held in Kent.
After ruling the community for thirty-five years, Mildred reposed in peace after a long illness in about the year 700, on July 13. In 741 her successor, Abbess Edburga, translated the relics of Saint Mildred to a new monastery built somewhat further inland, on the site of what is now Minster Abbey. At that time the holy virgin's body together with her vestments were found to be completely incorrupt as if she were sleeping. Many miracles were wrought at her tomb.
Once, during the time of Abbess Edburga, a bell-ringer fell asleep while on duty. St. Mildred appeared to him, boxed him on the ear and said to him: "Understand, fellow, that this is an oratory to pray in, not a dormitory to sleep in". Then she vanished.
The monastery was destroyed by the Danes in about 840, the bodies of St. Mildred and her sister St. Mildgytha were transferred to Lyminge, and from there, in 1085, to St. Gregory's hospital in Canterbury. According to another tradition, however, in 1027 the monks of St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury begged King Canute to give them the site and the relics of St. Mildred. He readily granted them the site, but promised them the relics only on condition that he returned safely from a pilgrimage to Rome which he made in 1031. In the event, he returned safely after having been rescued from shipwreck through the intercession of St. Augustine. And so Abbot Elfstan of Canterbury was granted his request.
The king's letter reached him on the eve of Pentecost. On the same day he came to Minster, accompanied by Provost Godwin and two trusted monks, Bennet and Rudolph. On the next day, since it was a great feast, he invited many of his friends and neighbours to a meal, so that no-one suspected anything.
When night came on, Elfstan and his three brethren went noiselessly to St. Mildred's shrine and tried to force it open. In this they were at first unsuccessful, but after much prayer the lid of the sepulchre was raised and the remaining relics of the saint were reverently folded in a white cloth and borne secretly away. The burden was light, consisting of fleshless bones, many of them already crumbled into dust.
The people of Thanet heard of what the monks were doing and rushed off in pursuit, arming themselves with swords and staves and weapons of all kinds. But the monks had a fair start, and when the angry multitude first sighted them, they had already secured the ferry-boat at Saare, which belonged to their abbey, and were rowing over the broad waters of the Wantsum. And the pursuers, having no boat in which continue the chase, returned home.
Once Queen Emma, the widow of King Canute, being reduced to poverty and despair because she was in disfavour with her son, King Edward the Confessor, had a dream in which the saint promised to help her because she and her husband had permitted the translation of her relics from Thanet to St. Augustine's, Canterbury. Then Emma borrowed 20 shillings and sent it to Abbot Elfstan of St. Augustine's, and, miraculously, the king's heart was changed. Edward felt shame for the injury he had done his mother, begged her forgiveness and restored her to her former dignity.
Fifty-five years after the translation, a certain knight broke into a military storeroom and stole a large quantity of material. On the eve of the feast of the Translation of St. Mildred's relics, he was captured, closely confined in Canterbury Castle, and placed in fetters. But such was his devotion to the holy virgin that when the bell of the monastery began to ring, his chains fell off, his jailors were paralyzed and the prison doors opened before him. He rushed towards the shrine of the saint, and although the doors of the monastery were closed he clung so tightly to the window of the crypt that no-one was able to drag him away. Eventually the matter was referred to the king who pardoned the knight who was so evidently under the protection of St. Mildred. Some of the saint's relics have now been returned to Minster Abbey.
St. Mildred is commemorated on July 13.
Holy Mother Mildred, pray to God for us!
(Sources: An Old English manuscript Caligula A. xiv (tenth century); Goscelin, Life of St. Mildred (eleventh century); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (c. 1120); St. Mildred and her Kinsfolk, Ramsgate: Monastery Press, 1950; Frank Barlow, "Two Notes: Cnut's Second Pilgrimage and Queen Emma's Disgrace in 1043", English Historical Review, lxxiii (1958); Dom Gregory Bush, Minster Abbey 670 to 1965)