Saturday, 29 January 2011

Saints of Britain – St Werburgh of Chester
Werburga or Werburgh, as she is more commonly known in modern English, was
born at Stone sometime early in the seventh century which makes her a very local
saint indeed. 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
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.
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 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
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 reconstituted goose, then
departed and in gratitude never returned again.
The tale explains why Werburga is often depicted
in iconography with a goose somewhere nearby.
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.
Troparion (Tone 4)
Thine illustrious life filled the angels with awe
and put the demons to flight in terror,
while it adorneth the congregations of the faithful with the splendour of grace,
O venerable mother Werburga!
As in thy charity thou didst extend thy love to all thy fellow creatures,
intercede with God in our behalf, that our souls may be saved!