24 November 2018

Eanflæd the Venerable, Abbess of Whitby

Ruins of Whitby Abbey

On the twenty-fourth of November we commemorate another Orthodox Yorkshirewoman of great holiness and virtue, Eanflæd daughter of Éadwine King of Northumbria, wife of Oswiu of Berenice, Benedictine nun, contemporary and kinswoman of Saint Hilda, friend to Saint Cuthbert and Saint Theodore, mentor to Saint Wilfrid, mother of four including Ælfflæd of Whitby and with her, co-abbess of the monastery at Whitby.

Her father Éadwine was still a Teutonic heathen when Eanflæd was born, but her mother Æthelburh was a Christian who had been accompanied by Bishop Paulinus northward to York at her wedding. Saint Bede tells the tale that Cwichelm of Wessex afterward sent an assassin to murder Éadwine, but a servant of his, Lilla, sacrificed herself to save her king’s life. The shock of the attack caused Æthelburh to go into labour, and she gave birth to Eanflæd that same night. Bishop Paulinus prevailed upon Éadwine to have young Eanflæd baptised and to be baptised himself if Éadwine would recover from his wounds and be granted a victory over Cwichelm. He and Eanflæd were baptised together on the twelfth day after Pentecost; a Welsh tradition has it also that the one who baptised Eanflæd was Rhun ap Urien of Rheged.

Éadwine was received into the Church by baptism the following year, and many in Yorkshire were baptised with him. He led the Northumbrian armies into battle against Penda of Mercia, but was slain in the fighting – as a result, Orthodox and Catholic Christians commemorate Éadwine as a martyr for Christ. Eanflæd was raised by her saintly mother and by Bishop Paulinus at Lyminge in Kent, in exile from Northumbria as the Mercian king laid waste the Christian works that her father Éadwine had begun. Eanflæd went back to Northumbria to marry Oswiu of Berenice, who was still then a heathen. When Oswiu had his Christian cousin Oswine murdered to gain control of Deira, Eanflæd convinced her husband to lay the cornerstone of a new monastery in Oswine’s name, at the very spot where Oswine fell, at Gilling. Trumhere, Oswine’s kinsman, became the first abbot of the new monastery.

This was around the same time as the controversy in England over whether to follow the ‘Celtic’ or the ‘Roman’ calculation of Eastertide, which led to the Synod of Whitby. Most Northumbrian Christians at the time followed the ‘Celtic’ calculations, and Oswiu himself was a partizan of the Celtic date, though Eanflæd (who had been raised in Kent) favoured the Roman date. The king of Northumbria summoned the Synod, at which Saint Colmán of Lindisfarne, Saint Hilda of Whitby, Saint Cedd of Lastingham, Saint Agilbert of Paris and Saint Wilfrid were all present. Though Saint Bede himself is far from a neutral historical observer of the event, we may take his word for it that Saint Wilfrid was the man of the hour at the Synod, since he managed to convince Oswiu and most of the Celtic party (except for Saint Colmán, sadly) to adopt the Roman date calculation for Easter.

Oswiu died six years after the Synod at Whitby, as he was on pilgrimage to Rome. The widowed Eanflæd was tonsured a nun at Whitby in obedience to Saint Hilda while she was still Abbess there. Eanflæd and her daughter Ælfflæd became joint Abbesses after Hilda’s repose, and she had her husband and saintly father translated to Whitby and buried there and began promoting their glorification. She devoted the rest of her life, as Bede recounts, to the ascetic life, to charitable works, and to prayers for the souls of her departed husband and father. Her daughter, in turn, was made of similar stuff as her saintly forebears Æthelburh and Eanflæd were; she too was an energetic and devoted Abbess of Whitby, and a saint in her own time, after her mother met her repose on the twenty-fourth of November.

Holy Mother Eanflæd of Whitby, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

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