08 February 2019

Venerable Ælfflæd, Holy Abbess of Whitby

Saint Ælfflæd meeting Saint Cuðberht

On the eighth of February we celebrate the feast of Saint Ælfflæd, Abbess of Whitby. Saint Ælfflæd was the infant daughter of Oswiu King of Northumbria, who was given to Abbess Hilda as an infant oblate to the Benedictine Order by Oswiu as thanksgiving to God for his victory over the heathen Penda of Mercia at the Battle of the Winwæd. Hilda was then abbess at Hartlepool; however, she would go on to found Whitby Abbey some three years later, and brought the young child Ælfflæd with her.

Ælfflæd grew up in the midst of the holy life and never regretted the choice of life her father had made for her. Indeed, as Saint Bede describes her, she became a nun of great distinction. After Oswiu’s death, his widow Saint Eanflæd too became a nun at Whitby; for a time after Saint Hilda’s repose, Eanflæd and Ælfflæd served together as co-abbesses of Whitby.

Ælfflæd, then only twenty-five years of age, was assisted as abbess by Bishop Saint Trumwine of Abercorn, who had been a missionary among the stubborn Picts, and who made his home ultimately at Whitby until his own death. She was also a friend to Saint Cuðberht of Lindisfarne, Saint Wilfrið of York and Saint John of Beverley. At one point, Abbess Ælfflæd, out of concern for her rather headstrong brother Ecgfrið, went to visit Saint Cuðberht concerning him. (Ecgfrið had, against Cuðberht’s counsel, sent an ill-fated punitive expedition against the Irish.) Cuðberht told her, rather harshly, that Ecgfrið had no more than a year to live – at which point Ælfflæd began weeping for her brother. She bore herself up and asked Cuðberht again, whether there would be a meet heir for him – at which point Cuðberht answered her and spoke:
How many islands there be in this mighty ocean! Surely thence can God bring a man to reign over the English!
Saint Cuðberht, in his wisdom, was referring to Saint Ælfflæd’s and Ecgfrið’s half-Irish half-brother Ealdferð, who was a friend of Saint Wilfrið and who was living in Iona, in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Ecgfrið, on his mad campaign against the Scots and Picts, was drawn into an ambush at Nechtansmere and was there killed along with most of his men, who were hacked brutally to pieces. That battle ended any hope of Northumbrian suzerainty over the Picts. However, Ealdferð came at once from Iona and was chosen king of Northumbria – history records that he was a good and fair ruler, and that his friendship with Saint Wilfrið served him in good stead. At one time, also, Saint Ælfflæd was afflicted with a crippling illness – Saint Cuðberht sent to her his girdle as a gift; she wore this girdle for three days and within that time was cured of her illness and the use of her limbs restored to her. The girdle gifted to her by Saint Cuðberht also cured one of her sister-nuns of a painful tumour of the head. Saint Ælfflæd was present at her friend Cuðberht’s translation, at which ceremony she wrapped his relics with a linen cloth.

Saint Ælfflæd was, in the north very much like her southern monastic counterpart Saint Eorcenwald, a peacemaker by temperament, and did what she could to bring her rather stiff-necked Bishop Saint Wilfrið to an accord with Saint Theodore of Tarsus during their controversy over church offices. She also helped to bring about a compromise between Northumbria and Canterbury giving Saint Wilfrið ecclesiastical sway over the monasteries at Ripon and Hexham; and she served as an advisor to Ealdferð as well as his heir, Osred – and enjoined upon them the importance of obedience to the Church.

As we can see, the piety of Saint Ælfflæd was far from a passive or apolitical one; indeed, she took a leading rôle in effecting compromises and brokering peace between her ecclesiastical superiors as well as between the Church and her sæcular kin. Holy Mother Ælfflæd, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

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