Also known as Werburgh, Werburg, Werebrurge, Werbyrgh or Wereburg
Early English Saint and Patron Saint of Chester
Abbess of Weedon, Trentham, Hanbury
Born ? Died c699-700
Feast Day 3rd February

The Life of Werburga

Werburga or Werburgh, as she is more commonly known as in modern English, was born at Stone in modern day Staffordshire, England sometime early in the seventh century. Her father was Wulfhere king of Mercia whilst her mother was Ermenilda who was herself a daughter of Ercombert, king of Kent and Sexburga who was herself the daughter of a king of East Anglia.

Not a great deal is actually known about Werburga as such. There are no real contemporary records of her activities and the earliest account of her life was written by a Flemish monk named Goscelin towards the end of the 10th century, whose account was used by later writers such as William of Malmesbury to further popularise her sanctity.

The traditional tale is that despite her beauty and her obvious attractions as a very well connected royal princess, she rejected all suitors and resolved to dedicate her life to God. Therefore, with her father's consent, she took holy orders and entered the Abbey of Ely, which lay within the borders of the kingdom of East Anglia, and which had been founded by her great aunt Etheldreda and who was the current abbess at the time.

It is worth noting that her grandmother Sexburga was to succeed Etheldreda as abbess, and indeed her own mother was to enter the convent after Wulfhere's death in 675, and eventually to become abbess herself. Which was the way that religious houses tended to be run at the time, with an almost dynastic succession of abbots and abbesses.

In due course her uncle Aethelred became ruler of Mercia and invited her to return home and assume control of all the convents within the kingdom. Werburga was therefore to dedicate the rest of her life to the business of reforming the existing Mercian establishments and founding new religious houses including those at Trentham, Hanbury and Weedon.

After a life of service to the religious administration of Mercia Werburga finally died on the 3rd February in either 699 or 700. She had apparently already decided on Hanbury as her final resting but happened to be at Trentham when she died. The nuns at Trentham refused to give up the body and even instituted security arrangements to prevent its removal. Despite this an expedition from Hanbury succeeded in recovering her remains. (It is said that all the bolts and bars sprang open once touched and that all the guards were overpowered by sleep and remained oblivious to the theft.)

The Miracle of the Geese

The most noted miracle attributed to Werburga relates to an incident at a farm in Weedon close to Chester which was being plagued by flock of wild geese, who were feasting on the farm's cornfields much to the detriment of its overall productivity.

Werburga dealt with the problem by ordering the geese to be shut up for the night (the geese meekly obeyed her command); the next day she scolded them for ravaging the fields and told them to go away.

The geese however refused to leave, as the previous night, one of their number had been caught, killed and eaten by the farm's steward. Werburga ordered the steward to bring forth the bird's remains, at which point Weburga restored the bird to life. The flock, including the now resurrected goose, then departed and in gratitude never returned again.

It might surprise people to learn that the tale is most likely a fabrication. It first saw the light of day, in the 'Vita' composed by Goscelin who simply 'borrowed' the story from his own previous work on the life of the Flemish Saint Amelburga and relocated it to Chester to suit the requirements of the authorities at the time.

The tale does, however explain why Werburga is often depicted in iconography with a goose somewhere nearby.

The Cult of Werburga

By the year 708 her brother Coenred had succeeded Aethelred as king of Mercia and decided to move her body to a more conspicuous place within the church at Hanbury.

Her body was found to be miraculously intact despite the passage of some eight or nine years since her death, which was naturally considered to be a sign of divine favour and her tomb therefore became an object of veneration and a centre for pilgrimage. Coenred himself is said to have to have been so effected by this miracle that he decided to abdicate and enter holy orders himself.

The shrine remained at Hanbury for the next 160 years or so but due to the threat from Viking raiders it was decided, in the year 875, to relocate the shrine to Chester, and more specifically Church of St. Peter and St. Paul which lay within the protection of the city walls.

The city of Chester therefore became the focus for the cult of Werburga, and sometime later the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was re-dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald; some suggest by Aethelflaed a daughter of Alfred the Great, but most probably sometime during the later reign of Athelstan, as it was around the year 975 that a monastery was founded there and dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald.

In 1057 the church was rebuilt and further endowed by one Leofric, the earl of Mercia by which time Werburga was very firmly linked with Chester and regarded as the protector and patron saint of the city. It is said that when the Welsh king Gruffudd ap Llywelyn appeared at the walls of Chester and threatened to lay siege to the city that the shrine was lifted up and paraded around the battlements; at which point Gruffudd was struck blind and decided to go home.

Werburga remained popular after the Norman conquest; in 1093 the Norman earl of Chester Hugh of Avranches, better known as 'Hugh the Fat', further endowed the abbey and its church and established a Benedictine monastery, with specially imported monks from the abbey of Bec in Normandy. Hugh the Fat even entered the monastery himself shortly before he died, no doubt as a last-minute attempt to atone for a life spent indulging in a wide variety of sins.

The cult of Werburga therefore persisted beyond the conquest and an elaborate shrine was eventually constructed in the fourteenth century that featured some 34 carved figures and a number of niches were supplicants could kneel in prayer to the saint.

The shrine however, did not survive the attentions of Henry VIII, as when the abbey was dissolved the shrine was broken up (fragments were used in the construction of a new episcopal throne) and the remains of poor Werburga scattered. The various remains of the shrine that survived were collected together in 1876 by one A.W. Blomfield who was in charge of the restoration of Chester Cathedral at the time and reassembled. The rather battered results of the reconstruction remain on display to this day at the Lady Chapel of the cathedral.


There are apparently a total of seventeen churches dedicated to Saint Werburgh in England, together with one in Dublin, one in West Australia, as well as a village in Zimbabwe and the Lady chapels at both Chester and Lichfield cathedrals. There is also a district of Bristol named St Werburghs.


SOURCES

The Catholic Encyclopedia at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15588b.htm
Chester Cathedral at http://www.bwpics.co.uk/cathedral.html

Articles on Werburgh/Werburga at
http://users.erols.com/saintpat/ss/0203.htm
www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=2100
http://www.st-werburgh-spondon.org.uk/Page_7x.html

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