STS. ERKENWALD, BISHOP OF LONDON (+ 693) AND ETHELBURGA, ABBESS OF BARKING (+ 675)
By Vladimir Moss
Our Holy Father Erkenwald was of noble blood and imbibed the Christian Faith early in life, learning at the feet of St. Mellitus, Bishop of London. Later, he founded two monasteries, one for men and women at Barking, and the other for men at Chertsey, where he was himself the Abbot. Grassy mounds can still be seen marking the buildings of the ancient monastery of Chertsey.
On the repose of St. Cedd, Bishop of London, in 664, Erkenwald was elected Bishop in his place, and was consecrated by St. Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury. His life, according to the Venerable Bede, both before and after his consecration to the Episcopate, was holy and adorned by miracles. Thus the horse-litter in which he used to be carried when sick cured many illnesses; chips of it, when carried to the sick, would immediately restore them to health.
Again, the Bishop was once going to preach to the people when one of the wheels of his two-wheeled carriage left its axle. However, the carriage did not stop but continued to run smoothly, the side without a wheel being supported invisibly in a miraculous manner.
St. Erkenwald was a great peacemaker, helping to end the quarrel between St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, and St. Theodore, which had split the English Church.
When Erkenwald was building his monastery at Barking for his sister, Ethelburga, he came across a beam which was too short for the structure. Taking it into their hands, the holy brother and sister lengthened it by their prayers until it was equal to the others. However, Erkenwald did not immediately entrust the monastery to his sister, but persuaded the holy Hildelitha to come from Chelles in France and become the first Abbess.
Bede relates that "in this monastery many miracles were wrought, which have been committed to writing by many, from those who knew them, that their memory might be preserved and following generations edified..."
Once a pestilence was raging in the men's part of the monastery, and St. Ethelburga consulted with the nuns where they should bury the bodies of the nuns when they, too, would begin to be struck down. One night, just as they had finished their psalm-singing, and had gone out to the tombs of the monks, a great heavenly light far brighter than the sun descended upon them, terrifying them all. Then it moved to the south of the monastery, stayed there for a time, and then disappeared. In this way the nuns understood where their own cemetery should be built.
There was little three-year-old boy named Esica living in the monastery for his education who was suddenly seized by the pestilence. Just before he died he cried "Edith! Edith! Edith!" - the name of one of the nuns. That very moment the nun called Edith was seized by the same pestilence and died later the same day.
At about midnight one of the nuns who was ill shouted out that the candle next to her bed should be put out. She shouted this many times, but no one paid any attention. At length, she explained that the house was filled with such a great light that the candle itself seemed dark, and that the candle could go on burning because a man of God who had died that same year had appeared to her and told her that she would depart for the heavenly light at dawn. And, sure enough, she died as soon as the day appeared.
There was a nun in the monastery by the name of Tortgith, who greatly assisted St. Ethelburga in the government of the monastery. She had been ill for nine years. At dawn one day, she came out of her cell and saw a human body brighter than the sun wrapped in a sheet being lifted up to heaven by golden cords. Her interpretation of the vision was that one of the community would soon die and be lifted up to heaven by the golden cords of her good works. And, sure enough, in a few days the virgin abbess, St. Ethelburga, reposed in the Lord, about the year 675. She is commemorated on October 11.
Another nun who had been suffering from a painful paralysis of all her limbs for several years, on hearing that St. Ethelburga's body was being carried into the church, asked to be carried there. Then, bowing towards the body, she entreated her to pray that she be delivered from her terrible pain. Twelve days later she died.
Three days after that, Tortgith, being very ill and unable to speak, suddenly looked up to heaven and conducted the following conversation with an invisible interlocutor. "Your coming is very acceptable to me, you are welcome!" Then, after a while she said: "I am not happy with this." Then again: "If it cannot be today, I beg the delay may not be long." Then again: "If it is determined thus and cannot be changed, I beg that it be deferred no longer than this coming night." On being asked who she was talking to, she said: "With my most dear Mother Ethelburga". After a further day and night, she reposed in the Lord.
St. Ethelburga had been in the process of building a church to the whole company of the Apostles when she died, in the year 675. After her death she was buried in the place she had designated for herself, but the building work on the church was interrupted for seven years. Then the monks decided to abandon the building altogether, but to transfer the body to another, already finished and consecrated church dedicated to St. Stephen the Protomartyr. On opening her tomb, they found the body incorrupt.
Later, St. Hildelitha transferred the bodies of all the monastery's dead to the church of the Mother of God, where a heavenly light and a wonderful fragrance were often perceived. Once a noblewoman who lived near who had gone completely blind some years before was taken by her two maids to the tomb of St. Ethelburga. Having prayed there, she arose with her sight completely restored, and returned to her house without the aid of her maids.
St. Erkenwald reposed in peace on April 30, 693, at the monastery of Barking, and was buried at his cathedral church of St. Paul in London.
An anonymous twelfth century writer described his repose thus: "When blessed Father Erkenwald came by the Providence of God to Barking, he was seized by the serious illness which ended his temporal life. Foreknowing the imminent dissolution of his body, he called his sons and instructed them all with sound admonition; and, commending them to God with his blessing, he gave up his spirit in their arms. At his passing a fragrance of such wonderful sweetness filled the cell in which he lay that it was as if the whole house was filled with balsam.
"When the clergy of London and the monks of Chertsey heard that the holy man of God had passed over from this life, they quickly came to take away his body. But when the nuns saw that they wanted to take the holy body away, they resisted, saying that the holy body ought most worthily to be buried there, since he had been the founder of that place. In opposition to this, the monks of Chertsey replied: 'He was our abbot, and he will be ours now that he is dead, and we have come to take his body away with us. For we know that he founded your church, but he founded our monastery first and established us there, and was then made abbot by God's will.' But then the clergy and the people of the city of London, impatient with this contest, abruptly replied to them both: 'In vain do you strive, for neither will you have him, nor is it right for you to have him: but if the custom which was preserved in antiquity and came to us from Rome is preserved, he will have his tomb in the city in which he was consecrated bishop by God's decree.'
"Meanwhile, while they were saying these things, the common people of London ran up, and with God's consent took the body of their bishop away with them. Both the monks and the nuns followed the body of the blessed man with tears and groans. When they had left the monastery, a very great tempest arose with wind and rain, evidently to declare the merits of the man. The tempest was such that hardly anyone could bear it, and there was no miracle in the fact that the burning candles which had been placed round the bier of the blessed man were extinguished by it. And so those who were following the most holy body in this tempest came to the river Lea, where they doubtless thought to cross. But when they arrived there, they found that the river, of itself so great and deep, had swelled to overflowing because of the wildly rushing waters, so that anyone who wished to cross there would have been quite unable to without the help of a boat. But there was neither a boat nor a bridge to cross over. And when the monks and nuns saw this, they cried: 'Alas, alas, now we see the injury you have done to us with regard to the body of this most holy man.' And the nuns said: 'Truly the Lord is showing through this excessive flood where He has ordained that this man should be buried and rest. Which is why you must take great care to abandon your plan with all possible speed, and return the body to the place destined for it by God, lest by your importunity and greed you offend God and incur some unheard-of damage. For the reason why the Lord sent him to us while he was still living in the flesh and strengthening us spiritually with many exhortations, was that we should at least have his most famous and holy body after his passing over. But you, with no fear of God, and with the greatest violence, have cruelly invaded our territory; and like hungry wolves you have broken into the sheepfold, seeking, seizing and tearing up whatever you could find, and when you had found it devouring it. And here you have savagely and menacingly rushed in upon us, and have even, to crown it all, despoiled our church of such a great man. May the Almighty God judge between you and us!'
"On hearing this, the citizens of London replied as follows: 'For a long time we have patiently put up with your reproaches and quarrels, putting in no objection. But one thing we know for certain, and we would have you to be no longer in any doubt about it: neither will you ever have him, nor will you ever see us deflected from our course by any fears, nor will you rejoice in any harm suffered by us because of this. You know that we are not like wolves, but are strong men and brave in battle, and we shall not be slow in attacking, subduing, undermining and overthrowing even the most strongly defended and highly populated cities, rather than give up the servant of God and our patron. For it is certainly through him that we and all the people of London, with all its territories, and above all the metropolitan church which he ruled in holiness and truth for a long time - with him as our advocate, we believe and are firmly convinced that we shall be delivered and saved, by the mercy of God, from all attacks of our enemies, both in the present and in the future. And so we wish such a glorious city and such an assemblage of people to be strengthened and honoured by such a patron.'
"Meanwhile, while the whole people was in uproar over the possession of the holy treasure of this sacred body, a certain religious and erudite man, who had been trained by the bishop himself, full of the Holy Spirit, climbed to a high place, and having called for silence, began this speech: 'Your desire is praiseworthy and acceptable to Almighty God, in striving to have the guide of your souls in your possession. But you have departed too far from the rule of truth in coming to this holy work with feuds and hatred. For it is written, since charity is the fulfilling of the law, and he who offends in one thing - that is, in charity - is guilty of all, if you quarrel and are at odds with each other, how will God accept the sacrifice of your prayers, when you offend Him? For, as the Holy Scriptures testify, God is love. So preserve the unity of love with one mind and beseech the Creator of the universe on bended knees that He deign to reveal where He wishes the relics of His precious saint and our patron to be placed.'
"Everyone voluntarily agreed with this speech and exhortation: the clergy led the litanies and psalmody with groaning while the people of both sexes, both small and great, prostrated themselves on the ground, beseeching the mercy of God with tears and sighs, that He would by His Divine Grace end this great dispute by some sign. As the Psalmist says, the Lord is near to all who call on Him in truth, and will hear their petition. For while with one mind they called on the Lord and sweated with their faces to the ground, the wave of the river divided, and showed them a dry path for their feet, just as once the waters of the Jordan dried up when the children of Israel entered the promised land, or as when Elijah, who was counted worthy to be enthroned in peace while still in the flesh, crossed over with dry feet. When they saw this, they joyfully glorified God, and with great reverence lifted up the bier and crossed over in concord, and made their way to the river Stratford.
"There they stopped for a while, for the place was beautiful, clothed with flowers and greenery, while the people went on ahead a little. Then lo! for a second time God Who is wondrous in His saints revealed a miracle, which should not be omitted here. For just when the cloudy tempest had been lulled, and the rain-bearing clouds were becoming fewer and smaller, and the reddish rays of the sun were generating heat, the candles round the bier were lit from heaven. When inquiry had been made whether anyone had brought a flame, they recognized that it had been by Divine power, and leaping for joy they praised the majesty of the Lord and glorified Him. And springing up, they made for the city of London. And when those who were in the city learned of the coming of the holy prelate, they came out to greet him with hymns and songs, rejoicing in an indescribable manner that their city had been exalted by the relics of such a venerable pastor. And as many as touched the bier of the holy man were freed from whatever infirmity they had; and every day health was restored to the sick at his tomb, to those who sought it with a right heart, to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Thus a certain noble from London had a daughter who was good-looking but lame. Because of this infirmity, her parents judged it better for her to go to a convent. Therefore the girl was entrusted to Abbess Alwina of Barking. But the virgin continued in prayer at the tombs of Saints Erkenwald and Ethelburga, promising that if she were restored to health she would dedicate her life to God. Then one night St. Ethelburga appeared to her and told her not to be despondent because she would soon be healed. But she was to increase her prayers to St. Erkenwald because her healing would come through his intercession. A little later, while the nuns were singing Mattins one day, this virgin was overcome by sleep at the tomb of St. Erkenwald. While she was sleeping the saint appeared to her in great glory, took her by the hand and said: "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, arise, and as Peter and John raised the lame man, so will you be raised." Immediately, to the sound of a great crack, the virgin awoke and sprang up, crying: "Holy Father Erkenwald, have mercy, have mercy."
The relics of the saint escaped the fire of 1087 and were buried in the crypt of St. Paul's. In 1148 and 1326 there were further translations to new shrines in the church. Miracles were reported there until the 16th century.
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People; Ex praef. Cod. MS. B. F. 20. a. ac ex Cod MS. in bibl. Cotton. Claudius A.V.; Nova Legenda Anglie; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 134, 137).