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Saint Edith of Wilton

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Saint Edith of Wilton

Edith of Wilton
Born 961
Kemsing, Kent
Died 984
Wilton Abbey
Honored in Anglican Communion, Roman Catholic Church
Feast 16 September
Attributes learning, beauty
Patronage Wilton Abbey

Saint Edith of Wilton (also known as Eadgyth, her name in Old English, or as Editha or Ediva, the Latin forms of her name) was an English nun, a daughter of the 10th century King Edgar of England, born at Kemsing, Kent, in 961. Following her death in 984, she became the patron saint of her community at Wilton Abbey and churches were dedicated to her in Wiltshire and in other parts of England. Her life was written by Goscelin and her feast day is on 16 September.

Life

Edith was the illegitimate daughter of Edgar, by Wilfrida (or Wulfthryth), a woman of noble birth whom Edgar carried off forcibly from the nunnery at Wilton Abbey. He took her to his manor house at Kemsing, near Sevenoaks, where Edith was born.[1] Under Dunstan's direction, Edgar did penance for this crime by not wearing his crown for seven years. As soon as Wulfthryth could escape from Edgar, she returned to Wilton, taking Edith with her.[2]

Edith was educated by the nuns of the abbey, where her mother had become abbess. Standing not far from a royal residence at Wilton, the abbey included as part of its devotional work the contemporary equivalent of a boarding school for young ladies.[1] Edith took the veil very early, with her father's consent. He offered to make the child the abbess of three different communities, but she chose to remain with her mother at Wilton. Edgar died in 975.

In 979, Edith had a dream that she had lost her right eye. She believed that the dream had been sent to warn her of the death of her half-brother Edward, who was indeed murdered at that time whilst on a visit to his stepmother Ælfthryth, at Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

Edith was offered the crown of England by those noblemen who had supported her murdered brother Edward against her young half-brother, Ethelred, but she refused the offer.[3] She always dressed magnificently and was reported by the mediaeval chronicler William of Malmesbury to have worn luxurious golden garments.[4] When rebuked by Æthelwold of Winchester, she answered that the judgment of God, which alone penetrated through the outward appearance, was alone true and infallible, adding, "For pride may exist under the garb of wretchedness; and a mind may be as pure under these vestments as under your tattered furs".[5]

Edith built a church at Wilton and dedicated it to Saint Denis. Saint Dunstan was invited to the dedication and is said to have wept during the Mass. When he was asked why he wept, Dunstan said it was because he knew that Edith would die in three weeks. His prediction was proved to be correct when she died on 15 September 984: the story suggests that Edith was suffering from a fatal illness.[1] She was buried at Wilton in the newly dedicated church.[6]

Sainthood

Edith was greatly celebrated for her learning, her beauty and her sanctity.[7] Minor miracles were reported shortly after her death.[1] A week after she died, Edith appeared in glory to her mother and told her that the Devil had tried to accuse her, but that she had broken his head.[8] The early mediaeval writer Goscelin reported that thirteen years later she appeared in visions to Dunstan and others, to inform them that her body was uncorrupted in the grave. He stated that Dunstan opened her tomb in the presence of her mother, and that its "fragrant perfumes gave off the breath of paradise". However, the dating of this event must be doubted, as Dunstan himself died only four years after Edith. It has been suggested that Goscelin may have chosen to enhance Edith's story by associating Dunstan with her translation.[1]

Following her exhumation and subsequent reburial, Edith's thumb was enshrined separately and became an important relic.[6] She was elevated to sainthood on the initiative of her brother Ethelred and her cause was supported by her nephew, Edmund Ironside. Edmund's successor, Cnut the Great, was renowned for his veneration of Edith. Goscelin wrote that while Cnut was crossing the North Sea from England to Denmark, his fleet suffered a terrible storm and fearing for his life, he appealed to Edith. The storm calmed and on his return to England, Cnut visited Wilton to give thanks for his rescue, "with solemn gifts, and published this great miracle with prolific testimony", subsequently ordering a golden shrine to Edith to be erected at the abbey.[1][9]

Edith became the focus of a major cult in Wilton and an important national saint.[10] Goscelin wrote her Life, under the title Vita Edithe, in about 1080.[11] The community at Wilton, in looking to her as its heavenly patron, remembered her as a royal lady who had been dedicated to its protection.[12] In his Liber Confortatorius, Goscelin wrote that he often thought of Edith and felt her presence.[13]

It is known that three churches were dedicated to Edith, at Baverstock near Wilton, Bishop Wilton in Yorkshire and at Limpley Stoke in Wiltshire. In the 16th century, after some five hundred years, the third of these churches was rededicated to St Mary, but the other two dedications survive.[1] Another eighteen churches in England are dedicated to an unspecified St Edith, and it has been suggested that most of these dedications are intended for Edith of Wilton.[14] According to The Calendar of the Anglican Church, "There are twenty-one churches dedicated in this name in England, eight of which are in Lincolnshire, and three in Warwickshire. It is now impossible to assign them to their respective saints, especially as two were located in the same county; the one whom William of Malmesbury mentions with most honour was S. Editha of Wilton, whose festival he relates was in his time kept in several parts of the kingdom with great solemnity; probably the majority, if not all, these churches are named in her honour".[7]

Wilton Abbey, which was dedicated to St Edith, is typically described in the later Middle Ages as "the convent of the house and church of St Editha of Wilton" or as the "monastery of St Mary and St Editha of Wilton".[15]

Her feast day is on 16 September, the day following the anniversary of her death.[16] It has also been reported as 15 September, the anniversary itself.[7]

Seal

The seal of Edith has survived. Dated to the period 975–984, it contains a portrait of her, showing her standing with one hand raised and the other holding a book. The inscription identifies her as regalis adelpha, or 'royal sister', which is taken to be a reference both to her status as a nun and to her being the sister of Edward and Ethelred. The handle of the matrix has a rich acanthus decoration: the seal is the only one surviving from the Anglo-Saxon period which shows this feature.[4]

Bibliography

  • Goscelin, Life of St Edith (of Wilton), ed. Stephanie Hollis, Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber Confortatorius (Medieval Women Texts and Contexts 9; Turnhout: Brepols, 2004)
  • O. S. B., St Editha of Wilton (Catholic Truth Society, 1903, 6th edition, 24 pp.)[17]

References

External links

  • St Edith of Wilton at catholic.org
  • St Edith of Wilton at Britannia.com

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