Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume II: February. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Wereburge, Virgin and Abbess, in England, Patroness of Chester
From Harpsfield, Bede, Brompton, Florence of Worcester, Higden, Langhorns Chronicle, Lelands Collections, Powels History of Wales, the Saxon Chronicle, Simeon of Durham, and her curious life, written in old English metre, from the Passionary of the monastery of Chester, by Henry Bradshaw, a monk of that house, who died in 1521, on whom see Wood, Athen. Oxon. vol. 1. p. 9. n. 14. and Tanner, Bibl. p. 121. This scarce history was printed in 1521, by Richard Pynson, printer to King Henry VIII. See her ancient life, a MS. copy of which Camden sent to F. Rosweide, published by Henschenius, with notes, p. 386. See also the summary of the life of St. Wereburge, with an historical account of the images carved on her shrine, (now the episcopal throne,) in the choir of the cathedral of Chester, by William Cooper, M.D. at Chester, 1719.
ST. WEREBURGE was daughter of Wulfere, king of Mercia, by St. Ermenilde, daughter of Ercombert, king of Kent, and St. Sexburge. In her was centred the royal blood of all the chief Saxon kings; but her glory was the contempt of a vain world, even from her cradle, on the pure motive of the love of God. She had three brothers, Wulfade and Rufin, who died martyrs, and Kenred, who ended his life at Rome in the odour of sanctity. Her father, Wulfere, resided near Stone, in Staffordshire. His eldest brother Peada, had begun to plant the faith in Mercia. Wulfere promised at his marriage to extirpate the remains of idolatry, and was then a Christian; but worldly motives made him delay the performance of his promise. Ermenilde endeavoured to soften the fierceness of his temper; but she found it a far more easy task to dispose the minds of her tender nursery to be faithful to divine grace; and, under her care, all her children grew up fruitful plants in the garden of the saints. Wereburge excelled the rest in fervour and discretion. She was humble, obedient, and meek; never failed of assisting with her mother at the daily performance of the whole church office: besides spending many hours on her knees in private devotion in her closet. She eagerly listened to every instruction and exhortation of piety. At an age in which youth is the fondest of recreations, pleasures, and vanities, she was always grave, reserved, and mortified. She was a stranger to any joy but that which the purity of her conscience afforded her; and in holy compunction bewailed before God, without ceasing, her distance from him, and her other spiritual miseries. She trembled at the thought of the least danger that could threaten her purity; fasting and prayer were her delight, by which she endeavoured to render her soul acceptable to her heavenly bridegroom. Her beauty and her extraordinary qualifications, rendered more conspicuous by the greater lustre of her virtue, drew to her many suitors for marriage. But a mountain might sooner be moved than her resolution shaken. The prince of the West-Saxons waited on her with rich presents; but she refused to accept them or listen to his proposals, saying, she had chosen the Lord Jesus, the Redeemer of mankind, for the Spouse of her soul, and had devoted herself to his service in the state of her virginity. But her greatest victory was over the insidious attempts of Werbode, a powerful wicked knight of her fathers court. The king was greatly indebted to the valour and services of this knight for his temporal prosperity, and entertained a particular affection for him. The knight, sensible of this, and being passionately fond of Wereburge, made use of all his interest with the king to obtain his consent to marry her, which was granted on condition he could gain that of the royal virgin. Queen Ermenilde and her two sons, Wulfade and Rufin, were grievously afflicted at the news. These two princes were then upon their conversion to Christianity, and for this purpose resorted to the cell of St. Chad, bishop of Litchfield, under pretence of going a hunting; for the saint resided in an hermitage, situate in a forest. By him they were instructed in the faith, and baptized. Werbode, finding them an obstacle to his design, contrived their murder, for which he is said to have moved the father to give an order in a fit of passion, by showing him the young princes returning from the bishop, and incensing him against them by slanders: for the king was passionate, and had been likewise prevailed on by his perfidious minister to countenance and favour idolatry. Werbode died miserably soon after, and Wulfere no sooner heard that the murder was perpetrated, but, stung with grief and remorse, he entered into himself, did great penance, and entirely gave himself up to the advice of his queen and St. Chad. He destroyed all the idols, converted their temples into churches, founded the abbey of Peterborough, and the priory of Stone, where the two martyrs were buried, and exceedingly propagated the worship of the true God, by his zealous endeavours and example.
Wereburge, seeing this perfect change in the disposition of her father, was no longer afraid to disclose to him her earnest desire of consecrating herself to God in a religious state of life. Finding him averse, and much grieved at the proposal, she pleaded her cause with so many tears, and urged the necessity of preparing for death in so pathetic a manner, that her request was granted. Her father even thanked God with great humility for so great a grace conferred on her, though not without many tears which such a sacrifice cost him. He conducted her in great state to Ely, attended by his whole court, and was met at the gate of the monastery by the royal abbess St. Audry, with her whole religious family in procession, singing holy hymns to God. Wereburge, falling on her knees, begged to be admitted in quality of a penitent. She obtained her request, and Te Deum was sung. She went through the usual trials with great humility and patience, and with joy exchanged her rich coronet, purple, silks, and gold, for a poor veil and a coarse habit, and resigned herself into the hands of her superior, to live only to Christ. King Wulfere, his three brothers, and Egbright, or Egbert, king of Kent, and Adulph, king of the East-Angles, together with the great lords of their respective states, were present at these her solemn espousals with Christ,1 and were entertained by Wulfere with a royal magnificence. The virgin here devoted herself to God with new fervour in all her actions, and made the exercises of obedience, prayer, contemplation, humility, and penance, her whole occupation, instead of that circle of vanities and amusements which employ the slaves of the world. King Wulfere dying in 675, was buried at Litchfield. Kenred, his son, being then too young to govern, his brother Ethelred succeeded him. St. Ermenilde was no sooner at liberty, but she took the religious veil at Ely, under her mother, St. Sexburge, at whose death she was chosen third abbess, and was honoured in England among the saints on the 13th of February. Her daughter, St. Wereburge, at her uncle King Ethelreds persuasion, left Ely to charge herself, at his request, with the superintendency of all the houses of religious women in his kingdom, that she might establish in them the observance of the most exact monastic discipline. By his liberality she founded those of Trentham in Staffordshire; of Hanbury, near Tutbury, in the county of Stafford, (not in the county of Huntingdon, as some mistake,) and of Wedon, one of the royal palaces in Northamptonshire. This king also founded the collegiate church of St. John Baptist, in the suburbs of West-Chester, and gave to St. Egwin the ground for the great abbey of Evesham; and after having reigned twenty-nine years, embraced the monastic state in his beloved monastery of Bardney, upon the river Witham, not far from Lincoln, of which he was afterwards chosen abbot. He resigned his crown to Kenred his nephew, brother to our saint, having been chosen king only on account of the nonage of that prince. Kenred governed his realm with great prudence and piety, making it his study, by all the means in his power, to prevent and root out all manner of vice, and promote the knowledge and love of God. After a reign of five years, he recommended his subjects to God, took leave of them, to their inexpressible grief, left his crown to Coelred, his uncles son, and making a pilgrimage to Rome, there put on the monastic habit in 708, and persevered in great fervour till his happy death.
St. Wereburge, both by word and example, conducted to God the souls committed to her care. She was the most perfect model of meekness, humility, patience, and purity. Besides the church office, she recited every day the psalter on her knees, and, after matins, remained in the church in prayer, either prostrate on the ground, or kneeling till day-light, and often bathed in tears. She never took more than one repast in the day, and read with wonderful delight the lives of the fathers of the desert. She foretold her death, visited all places under her care, and gave her last orders and exhortations. She prepared herself for her last hour by ardent invitations of her heavenly bridegroom, and languishing aspirations of divine love, in which she breathed forth her pure soul on the 3rd of February, at Trentham, about the end of the seventh century. Her body, as she had desired, was interred at Hanbury. Nine years after, in 708, it was taken up in presence of King Coelred, his council, and many bishops, and being found entire and uncorrupt, was laid in a costly shrine on the 21st of June. In 875 her body was still entire; when, for fear of the Danish pirates, who were advanced as far as Repton, in the county of Derby, a royal seat (not Ripon, as Guthrie mistakes) within six miles of Hanbury, (in the county of Stafford,) her shrine was carried to West-Chester in the reign of King Alfred, who marrying his daughter Elfleda to Ethelred, created him first earl of Mercia, after the extinction of its kings. This valiant earl built and endowed with secular canonries a stately church, as a repository for the relics of Saint Wereburge, which afterwards became the cathedral. His lady rebuilt other churches, walled in the city, and fortified it with a strong castle against the Welch.2 The great kings, Athelstan and Edgar, devoutly visited and enriched the church of St. Wereburge. In the reign of St. Edward the Confessor, Leofrick, earl of Mercia, and his pious wife, Godithe, rebuilt many churches and monasteries in those parts, founded the abbeys of Leonence, near Hereford, also that of Coventry, which city this earl made free. At Chester they repaired the collegiate church of St. John, and, out of their singular devotion to St. Wereburge, rebuilt her minster in a most stately manner. William the Conqueror gave to his kinsman, and most valiant knight, Hugh Lupus, the earldom of Chester, with the sovereign dignity of a palatinate, on condition he should win it. After having been thrice beaten and repulsed, he at last took the city, and divided the conquered lands of the country among his followers. In 1093, he removed the secular canons of Saint Wereburge, and in their stead placed monks under an abbot, brought over from Bec in Normandy. Earl Richard, son and heir to Lupus, going in pilgrimage to St. Winefrids at Holywell, attributed to the intercession of St. Wereburge his preservation from an army of Welchmen, who came with an intention to intercept him. In memory of which, his constable, William, gave to her church the village of Newton, and founded the abbey of Norton on the Dee, at the place where his army miraculously forded that great river to the succour of his master, which place is still called Constable Sondes, says Bradshaw. The same learned author relates, from the third book of the Passionary of the Abbey, many miraculous cures of the sick, and preservations of that city from the assaults of the Welch, Danes, and Scots, and, in 1180, from a terrible fire, which threatened to consume the whole city, but was suddenly extinguished when the monks carried in procession the shrine of the virgin in devout prayer. Her body fell to dust soon after its translation to Chester. These relics being scattered in the reign of Henry VIII., her shrine was converted into the episcopal throne in the same church, and remains in that condition to this day. This monument is of stone, ten feet high, embellished with thirty curious antique images of kings of Mercia and other princes, ancestors or relations of this saint. See Coopers remarks on each.
Note 1. Some authors in Lelands Collectanea place her religious profession after the death of her father; but our account is supported by the authority of Bradshaw. [back]
Note 2. This noble lady, heiress of the great virtues of her royal father, rebuilt, after the death of her husband, the churches and towns of Stafford, Warwick, Tamworth, and Shrewsbury; and founded, besides some others, the great abbey of St. Peters in Gloucester, which church she enriched with the relics of St. Oswald, king and martyr, and in which she herself was buried. See Bradshaw, Dugdale, Camden. [back]