23 February 2019

Venerable Mildburg, Abbess of Wenlock

Saint Mildburg of Wenlock

The holy mother of the præ-Schismatic Old English Church whose memory we celebrate today is a somewhat familiar one to me, though for a rather roundabout reason. She is mentioned in one of Edith Pargeter’s Chronicles of Brother Cadfael – the first one, actually, A Morbid Taste for Bones – as a proximate reason for the brothers of Shrewsbury Abbey to make an expedition into Gwytherin to retrieve the bones of Saint Gwenffrewi, or Winefride. At some time prior to Saint Winefride’s translation, the relics of Saint Mildburg of Much Wenlock were themselves translated into a place of honour in Wenlock Priory in 1101. This was to the great consternation of Shrewsbury’s prior, Robert Pennant, who sought to bring honour to his own house by securing a Benedictine saint from over the border in Wales some thirty-five years later.

The eldest daughter of Saint Æbbe by the Mercian princeling Merewalh, and elder sister of Saints Mildþrýð and Mildgýð, Mildburg made up her mind quite early to pursue a life of devotion to Christ. She was educated in a Benedictine institution in France, and this apparently made a significant impact on her. All three sisters lived deeply devout and holy lives. Indeed, in Anglo-Saxon hagiography, the three daughters of Æbbe and Merewalh each correspond to one of the three theological virtues: Mildburg represents faith; Mildgýð represents hope; and Mildþrýð represents love.

Her mother Æbbe had made a religious retirement to Thanet in Kent after the wrongful deaths of her brothers at the hands of her more distant kinsman Ecgberht, the king of that land. Mildburg sought the permission of her father Merewalh and her uncle Wulfhere to take her own religious vows. The Mercian kings were agreeable, and set her up at a small tract of land in the Magonsætan – this would become her Wenlock Priory. Though she entered its life as a simple nun, upon the death of Wenlock’s first abbess she was installed as successor, being consecrated by Saint Theodore of Tarsos.

Under her meek and gentle rule, Wenlock flourished into a paradise, an icon of the new creation in the Resurrection of Christ. The flowers and fruits of Wenlock’s gardens were said to have been of an otherworldly sweetness, and nature there was sacramentally transfigured through the patience and faithful living of the sisters there. The Old English holy mothers always had a special connexion with nature and a gift with wild animals, and Saint Mildburg was no exception. Birds especially, even the ones which would harass farmers and destroy crops, would obey her as though they were tame.

She was also beautiful after a worldly sense as well, and similarly to her Welsh sister across the Severn, Gwenffrewi, she did sometimes draw unwanted the attentions of worldly men. A certain English nobleman desired to take her as his wife, but she – jealous of her vows – refused him. He pursued her with his þegnas until they came to the River Corve, which after she crossed it began to flood, swell and rage furiously, blocking her pursuers.

Saint Mildburg was very much active in the life of the Middle English folk as well, though. She ventured into the wooded areas to bring the Gospel to its people, for Mercia was then as yet not quite thoroughly christened. Before she even spoke of Christ, however, she demonstrated her love for people through wondrous acts of healing; and she had a particular gift for restoring sight to the blind. She would cure the sick with herbal remedies, and comfort the sorrowful. In this way the Christian faith of much of western Mercia and the Magonsætan was affirmed and strengthened.

On one occasion, a widow came to Wenlock Priory in great distress, bringing with her the lifeless body of her young son. She threw herself at Saint Mildburg’s feet and begged her to restore him to life, for her son was her only hope of survival in her old age. Mildburg at first put her off with hard words, telling her to submit to God’s will and accept her son’s death. However, the widow persisted in imploring her, saying that she had faith that Saint Mildburg could indeed raise him up. At that, Saint Mildburg took pity on the widow and knelt over her son’s body in fervent prayer. As she prayed, it seemed to those who watched that flames which gave off intense light but no heat caught at the hem of her habit and surrounded her. These flames subsided as she finished her prayer, and at once the little boy again caught breath as a newborn might, and was returned to his mother’s arms alive.

In her waning years, the humble and gentle abbess was afflicted with a slow infirmity, which she bore with equanimity and grace. She reposed in the Lord in the year 727 on the twenty-third of February, and her last words were taken from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, from the Beatitudes. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Saint Mildburg was buried in the graveyard within the Priory, nearby the altar of the church. However, the priory was destroyed along with many other English monasteries during the Danish invasion of the late 800s, and the exact location of her burial was lost. When Cluniac monks from France arrived at Wenlock and reëstablished a monastic life there in the wake of the Norman Conquest, they somehow managed to locate her grave and translate her into a reliquary for the rebuilt Priory. This resulted in a great influx of pilgrims. Holy abbess Mildburg, friend of animals and intercessor for the poor, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

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