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Venerable Werburgh of Mercia

Venerable Werburgh of Mercia

Commemorated: 3/16 February

St Werburgh lived in the era known as ‘the golden age of the English Orthodoxy’, when piety, monasticism, culture and literature prospered. At that time representatives of whole generations of families in England often became saints. Werburgh was born in the mid-seventh century. Her mother was the holy Kentish princess Ermenhild, and grandmother – the holy queen Seaxburgh. Ermenhild married prince (the future King) Wulfhere of Mercia, who at first was a pagan, but under his pious wife’s influence converted to Christianity. Mercia was the largest early English kingdom and was situated mostly in the central part of England. The birthplace of Werburgh may have been the town of Stone in Staffordshire.

Ermenhild raised her children in piety but Werburgh surpassed them. As a child she received instruction from St Chad, the enlightener of Mercia. Werburgh was humble, obedient and meek. Every day she helped her mother in domestic work, spent most of her time in church, and knelt in prayer for hours. From her childhood she was wise and desired to help others. With great joy the princess  listened to sermons on spiritual life, refused the riches of this world, with all her heart wishing to devote her life to the service of God and people.

King Wulfhere died in 675 when Werburgh was very young. She spent several years at the convents of Minster-in-Sheppey and Ely, where she lived under the care of  her mother and grandaunt. In these convents Werburgh  absorbed the traditions of family and monastic piety and holiness, and in the future she was destined to return and spread all these practices to her native Mercia.

Later she became a nun and Abbess of Minster-in-Sheppey and Ely. Werburgh successfully ruled both convents despite her youth. As she was very experienced, her uncle, king Ethelred of Mercia, asked her to take over three convents in Mercia and improve discipline there. These were the communities in Weedon, Hanbury and Threekingham. Werburgh was a very able and wise abbess. Her abbacy over the nuns was not mere governance, but rather a ministry based on love. Werburgh handed over the souls of nuns to Christ by her word and deed alike.

She attended church services every day, read the Psalter; often she stayed in the church long after services, praying on her knees and shedding tears. The saint never ate more than once a day and used to read the Lives of the Desert Fathers. She was always quick to go and cure sick children in neighbouring settlements, to give advice to their parents, to console those suffering, to find necessary words to the young for spiritual life.

Stories of the life of Werburgh abound with examples of her close communication with nature. Since time immemorial Werburgh has been venerated as patroness of geese. Many wild geese spoiled crops in Weedon fields. The abbess taught the birds not to do it, and they obeyed her. Once the local steward complained to her about the geese and the abbess told him to lock them in a farmhouse. But the man yielded to a temptation: he caught and ate one goose. The next morning Werburgh called her geese but they did not move and began to make noise. She realised what had happened – the Lord opens even secret things to His saints. Werburgh rebuked the steward  and ordered him to bring her the bones of the eaten  goose. The saint made a sign with her hand, and miraculously the bones were covered with flesh, skin, feathers and the whole bird was restored to life. All the birds took wing high up in the  sky, gladly nodding towards the abbess.

The goose has become the St Werburgh’s emblem. Geese inside a basket were depicted on pilgrims’ badges of St Werburgh that were distributed at her shrine in the Middle Ages. To this day geese do not damage corn in the fields near Weedon!

Werburgh worked many miracles. She reposed in c.700, after many years of labours for the glory of God. She predicted the day of her repose beforehand. Before death she visited all her convents for the last time. The uncovering of her relics occurred with participation of her brother, king Coenred, in 708. Her relics were transferred to Hanbury where they were visited by thousands of pilgrims until 875. When there was danger of Danish conquest,  they were translated to Chester in Cheshire. The church where her relics rested in Chester was at first dedicated to Sts Peter and Paul, but with time it was dedicated to St Werburgh. Werburgh has been venerated as the patroness of this picturesque former Roman town in north-western England for 1000 years, and the saint is often called “St Werburgh of Chester”. In 975 a monastery appeared in Chester.

In 1095,  her relics were translated into a new splendid shrine. In the Middle Ages Werburgh was among several English saints whose relics remained absolutely intact! She healed many sick, many times rescued the city from fires and destruction by Vikings, Scots and the Welsh. She remained one of the most venerated female saints of England. In 1540, Henry VIII dissolved Chester monastery, the relics of Werburgh were most probably destroyed and her shrine desecrated. The former monastery church became  a cathedral in honour of Christ and the Mother of God.

Late in the nineteenth century, the ancient shrine of Werburgh was restored. Today it is displayed at the cathedral.

The street leading to the cathedral is called “St Werburgh’s Street”. Today children and young women especially ask for St Werburgh’s intercession. At least twelve churches in England are dedicated to her, there are also a church and a well named after her in Ireland. The places where Werburgh laboured bear the memory of her. 

(c) Dmitry Lapa


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