Make me an island

Edburga of Minster-in-Thanet

Feast Day (new calendar): 
December 25th
Feast Day (old calendar): 
December 12th

A learned Abbess

Saint EdburgaSaint Edburga St Edburga was a Saxon princess who became a nun and abbess of the Minster in Thanet in Kent. She (like Thecla) supported the mission of St Boniface, sending him money and presents, including raiment and an altar-cloth. Their correspondence is well preserved among Boniface's letters, being a fascinating source for the historical life of the saint. In one letter he thanks Edburga for sending him books, in another he commissions her to make him a copy of the Epistle of St. Peter in letters of gold. From this correspondence Edburga appears to be well-educated and involved in the exchange of books and writings. Boniface characterises her as one 'who continues with increasing perseverance in her study of the Scriptures'.

It is clear that Edburga supplied Boniface with necessary literature for missionary and educational purposes in Germany. He frames this as follows:

May the Eternal Rewarder of good works give joy on high among the choirs of angels to my dearest sister, who has brought light and consolation to an exile in Germany by sending him gifts of spiritual books. For no man can shed light on these gloomy lurking-places of the German people and take heed of the snares that beset his path unless he have the Word of God as a lamp to guide his feet and a light to shine on his way.

The endeavour of sending books was not always successful. In a letter Edburga complains about her failure to get a book for Boniface:

Know also that I have been unable to obtain a copy of The Sufferings of the Martyrs which you asked me to send you, but I shall send it to you as soon as I can. And you, my best beloved, comfort me in my weakness by sending me some select passages of Holy Scripture in fulfilment of the promise made in your last letter.

Edburga's correspondence on the whole is remarkably warm, and, alongside the exchange of gifts, is characterised by encouragement and requests for prayer. Boniface, for example requests prayers both for his own struggles: ‘Trusting in your affection, I earnestly beg you to pray for me because, for my sins, I am tossed by the tempests of a perilous sea.’ and asks her to intercede for the people around him who he is hoping to convert to the fulness of the faith of the church. Lul makes similar requests, asking both for her prayers and offering his own services in return. He also sends to her a silver style, incense and cinnamon ‘that you might know from these little things how grateful I am for the gifts of your greeting’ and requests in return that she ‘not refuse to send letters of [her] sweetness’ to him. By such exchanges they both encouraged one another in their spiritual lives and demonstrated their devotion and affection towards each-other in Christ.

Map showing the Isle of ThanetMap showing the Isle of Thanet

The Abbess of the Isle

The monastery Minster-in-Thanet was built on the Isle of Thanet in the 7th century, which at that point was a large island, cut off from the Kentish mainland by a wide Wantsum channel. Thanet has, however, since ceased to be an island and lies at the most easterly point of Kent. The story of the Minster's foundation attributes it to the royal family of Mercia – Queen Ermenburga came there with her two daughters, Mildred being one of them. Later, Ermenburga took vows under the name Domna Eva or Domneva and became the first abbess. Her daughter Mildred joined the community, too, and in 690 took over the leadership from Ermenburga. 

Edburga also came to the Minster-in-Thanet from a royal background. She became a disciple of St Mildred and succeded her in as the Minster's third Abbess in 716. Edburga took care of her spiritual mother after her death – she built a new monastic buildings and a new church and moved Mildred's body into it. Later in 759, St. Edburga was buried there herself. Both women's relics were then translated to the chapel of St. Gregory's Hospital in Canterbury.

Having followed in the footsteps of Mildred, it is equally clear that Edburga serves as just one link in a longer line of women and, alongside them, men constantly in the process of passing on her faith and skills to those around her. Leoba writes of the guidance she has received from Edburga in constructing poetry, using this artistry to send on to Boniface some verses she has composed in invocation of the Trinity. Meanwhile it is clear from his writing that Lul holds her in great respect, expressing openness to her command alongside a desire to advance in Christ. Edburga’s influence within a longer line of women is a crucial part of her service to the church from which both women and men serve to benefit.

Angels and Demons on the Ladder of Divine AscentAngels and Demons on the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Edburga's Request 

You have asked me, my dear sister, to describe to you in writing the marvelous visions of the man who recently died and came to life again in the convent of the Abbess Milburga

One of the longest letters in Edburga’s correspondence is a letter from Boniface, recounting the story of a vision given to a monk who died and came back to life. Edburga, having heard of this monk, asks Boniface for an account of the vision and he, having investigated in person, recounts in great detail. Whilst it is possible that her request was made party out of curiosity, it is likely that it was also motivated by a desire to obtain material that would spur her on in her chosen path and vocation. Indeed, this seems to be a large part of the intention of the vision, directed to help those remaining alive reform their lives and pursue repentance and holiness.

The vision stands in a long stream of Christian and pre-Christian visionary and apocalyptic literature, and depicts a scenes of struggle and contestation, in which angels and demons contend for the merits and sins of souls as they find their destiny with God or in torment:

He said also that there was a crowd of evil spirits and a glorious choir of the higher angels. And he said that the wretched spirits and the holy angels had a violent dispute concerning the souls that had come forth from their bodies, the demons bringing charges against them and aggravating the burden of their sins, the angels lightening the burden and making excuses for them.

Whilst it is clear in the vision that God and the angels are ultimately more powerful and able to overcome, it is equally clear that this is not automatic, and that an individual needs to take advantage of the opportunities offered them in order to pursue a virtuous life and avoid misdoing. The vision is, at points, remarkably specific, recalling individual acts and attitudes of individuals during their lives, and displaying a very immediate connection between judgment and their daily conduct:

He heard all his own sins, which he had committed from his youth on and had failed to confess or had forgotten or had not recognized as sins, crying out against him, each in its own voice, and accusing him grievously. Each vice came forward as if in person, one saying: "I am your greed, by which you have most often desired things unlawful and contrary to the commands of God.”[…] Another: "I am the wandering thoughts and useless notions in which you have indulged too much both in church and elsewhere." Another: "I am drowsiness, by which you were overcome so that you were late to make your confession to God. […] "On the other hand," he said, "the poor little virtues which I had displayed unworthily and imperfectly spoke -out in my defense." One said: 'I am obedience, which he has shown to his spiritual superiors.' And one: 'I am fasting, whereby he has chastened his body against carnal desire.' Another: 'I am true prayer, which he has uttered in the sight of God.’[…] And so each virtue cried out for me in excuse for the corresponding sin. And those angelic spirits in their boundless love defended and supported me, while the virtues, greatly magnified as they were, seemed to me far greater and more excellent than could ever have been practiced by my own strength.”

Boniface closes the letter with a commendation: ‘Farewell, and may you live the life of angelic virginity, and reign forever with good report in heaven’. Edburga, having sought out the narrative, no doubt made use of it to further her pursuit of such goals. Meanwhile the account, documented at her request, has been passed down so that those following in her footsteps can do the same.


O holy Abbesses, Mothers Ethelburgh, Hilda, Ebbe, Mildred, Mildgyth, Milburgh, Werburgh, Ermenburgh, Enfleda, Elfleda, Cuthburgh and Edburgh, hav‌ing acquired the gifts of abstinence and humility, wisdom, faith and perfect love, ye attained the Kingdom that knoweth no evening.


Sources for further reading:
David Farmer (2011). Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edburga’s correspondence:

Minster in Thanet:
Stephanie Hollis (1998). The Minster-in-Thanet foundation story. Anglo-Saxon England, 27, pp 41-64 
Ericka Swensson (2013). St Mildred of Thanet: Biography of a Cult. PhD thesis. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.