Werburga of Chester, OSB
(also known as Werburg, Werebrurge, Werbyrgh)
Born at Stone, Staffordshire, England; died at Threckingham, England, . 690-700; feast of her translati on at Chester, June 21.
Feastday: February 3
Patron of Chester, England
Benedictine nun and patroness of Chester, England. The daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and St. Ermenilda, she was born in Staffordshire. Werburga resolutely refused to marry, insisting instead that she become a nun at Ely. After studying under St. Etheldreda, she departed the convent of Ely in 675 and assisted her uncle Ethelred, who was now king, in reforming the convents of the realm. She also founded communities at Hanbury, Trentham, and in Wedon, in Northamptonshire. Her remains were transferred from Trentham to Chester, where she became venerated as the patron saint of the city. She was reputed to have the ability to read the minds of others and was revered in her lifetime for miracles.
The patroness of Chester, England, Saint Werburga, was born of a line of kings, being a daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia. From her mother, the saintly Ermingilde (Ermenilda), she learned as a child the Christian faith. By temperament she was pious and virtuous, and her beauty attracted many admirers, among them a prince of the West Saxons, who offered her rich gifts and made flattering proposals, and also Werbode, a powerful knight of her father's court. But refusing all her suitors, she secured, after much persuasion, her father's permission to enter a convent (or she did so after her father's death).
When the time came, he and his courtiers escorted her in great state to the abbey of Ely, where they were greeted at the gates by her aunt, the royal abbess, Ethelreda, and her nuns. Werburga fell upon her knees and asked that she might be received as a novice, and to the chanting of the Te Deum they entered the cloister, where she was stripped of her costly apparel, exchanged her coronet for a veil, and in a rough habit began her new life.
She made good progress, and after many years, at the request of her uncle, King Ethelred, was chosen to superintend all the convents of his kingdom. This opened to her a large and fruitful sphere of duty, and the religious houses under her care became models of monastic discipline. Through the wealth and influence of her family she also founded new convents at Trentham in Staffordshire, Hanbury near Tutbury, and Weedon in Northamptonshire, and secured the interest of Ethelred in establishing the collegiate Church of Saint John the Baptist in Chester, and in giving land to Egwin for the great abbey of Evesham.
Werburga won many from dissipation and vice, and God crowned her life with many blessings. Her work was deeply rooted in prayer and discipline. She took but one meal daily and that only of the coarsest food; she set before her the example of the desert fathers; and she recited the whole of the Psalter daily upon her knees.
She lived to a ripe age, and before her death she journeyed to all her convents, paying to each a farewell visit; she then retired to Trentham (Threckingham in Lincolnshire), where she died. She was buried in the monastery of Hanbury in Staffordshire. Later, her remains were transferred with great ceremony in the presence of King Coolred and many bishops to a costly shrine in Leicester, which attracted many pilgrims.
In 875, for fear of the Danes, her relics were removed to Chester. In 1095, they were translated within Chester, where in the course of time a great church, now the cathedral, was built over it, and where the remains of it may still be seen, carved with the figures of her ancestors, the ancient kings of Mercia. On its four sides the deep niches remain, where the pilgrims knelt, seeking healing, afterwards receiving a metal token to show that they had visited her shrine. This final translation was the occasion for Goselin to write her vita. The shrine was destroyed under King Henry VIII, although part of its stone base survives. Twelve ancient English churches were dedicated to her, including Hanbury and Chester .
In art Saint Werburga holds the abbey, while her crown lays at her feet. Sometimes there are wild geese near her (Roeder), because, according to Goselin she restored one to life (see below); however, the writer borrowed the story from his own vita of the Flemish Saint Amelburga (Farmer). She is, of course, the patroness of Chester .
Like a cheerful gossip, William of Malmesbury writes this tale of a local miracle wrought by Saint Werburga:
"It was in the city of Chester that the girl Werburga, daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia, and Ermenilda . . . took her vows, and her goodness shone for many years. The story of one miracle done by her I now shall tell, which made a great stir and was long told about the countryside.
"She had a farm outside the walls, where the wild geese would come and destroy the standing corn in the fields. The stewart in charge of the farm took all shifts to drive them off, but with small success. And so, when he came to wait upon his lady, he added his complaint of them to the other tales he would tell her of the day.
"'Go,' said she, 'and shut them all into a house.' The countryman, dumbfounded at the oddness of the command, thought that his lady was jesting: but finding her serious and insistent, went back to the field where he had first spied the miscreants, and bade them, speaking loud and clear, to do their lady's bidding and come after him. Whereupon with one accord they gathered themselves into a flock, and walking with down-bent necks after their enemy, were shut up under a roof. On one of them, however, the rustic, with no thought of any to accuse him, made bold to dine.
"At dawn came the maid, and after scolding the birds for pillaging other people's property, bade them take their flight. But the winged creatures knew that one of their company was missing; nor did they lack wit to go circling round their lady's feet, refusing to budge further, and complaining as best they could, to excite her compassion. She, through God's revealing, and convinced that all this clamor was not without cause, turned her gaze upon the steward, and divined the theft.
"She bade him gather up the bones and bring them to her. And straightway, at a healing sign from the girl's hand, skin and flesh began to come upon the bones, and feathers to fledge upon the skin, till the living bird, at first with eager hop and soon upon the wing, launched itself into the air. Nor were the others slow to follow it, their numbers now complete, though first they made obeisance to their lady and deliverer.
"And so the merits of this maid are told at Chester, and her miracles extolled. Yet though she be generous and swift to answer all men's prayers, yet most gracious is her footfall among the women and boys, who pray as it might be to a neighbor and a woman of their own countryside" (Malmesbury).