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.

St Thecla

Feast Day (new calendar): 
October 28th
Feast Day (old calendar): 
October 15th

Multiple identities

Chapel rock at BeachleyChapel rock at Beachley

There are several attestations of the cult of Thecla in Britain. All of them seem to have some relation with the cult of ancient Thecla protomartyr, Paul's companion, known from the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. This indicates the acquaintance of the church on the British Isles with Eastern saints in general and the cult of St Thecla in particular.

Whereas St Thecla of Kitzingen is presented well in historical sources, another saint – Tetha or Tecla is more obscure. She was venerated in Cornwall as a companion of 5th century female saint, Irish nun Breaca in her missionary work in Cornwall. Even more obscure is St Tecla or Tegla Virgin known at a Welsh village Llandegla which means “Parish of Saint Tecla” in Welsh. She is said to be the daughter of a ruler of Gwynedd, north Wales. A church dedication to Thecla can be read also in the town Llandegley, Radnorshire.

The calendar is also problematic. St Thecla of Kitzingen is celebrated either on October 15 or 28, while Tetha's feast day is on October 27, according to one source. Both Welsh places bearing Tegla's names had festivals around 24th September, which is the feast day of Thecla the protomartyr. One of them, Llandegla, had a large fair on October 15th, the day of St Thecla of Kitzingen.

Baring-Gould in the Lives of British Saints is sceptical about the fact that the chapel on an islet rock at the mouth of Wye, near Bristol, was originally dedicated to the Welsh Tecla Virgin. Nevertheless, the story goes that the saint abandoned her father's court in Wales to become an anchoress on the island and suffered martyrdom from sea pirates there. The island is tiny and rocky and the access to it is restricted by the tidal waters. The ruins of the hermitage chapel date to the 13th century although an older building preceded it.  

Thecla of Wimborne/Kitzingen

Thecla protomartyrThecla protomartyr

Thecla of Wimborne/Kitzingen’s choice of name may well reflect a conscious choice to identify with the the story of Paul and Thecla, and to take upon herself a dedication to the path of virginity and asceticism. Thecla pursued this path, initially at Wimborne abbey in Dorset where, for a time she became part of a community of nuns. The community at Wimborne was one of a number with which the 8th century monk, St Boniface maintained an intimate relationship through exchanges of letters via which he and the monastic communities supported and encouraged one another in their tasks and life of faith. It is this contact with Boniface which led Thecla to pursue the role for which she is best known. For a long time, Boniface had desired to establish a mission to the Germans. The Germans were, at the time, at odds with the beliefs and practices of the rest of the church "liberal in tolerating heathen practices, and ignorant of matters of ritual and creed which were insisted on in the Church of Rome" (Eckenstein). Boniface was “conscious that the mere conversion of people and the provision of churches for them to worship in was insuficient … A succession of teachers of caliber, imbued with a strong spirit of sciripline, obedient to authority and motivation by the highest spiritual ideals [were needed]” (Sladden). In 716, therefore he set out towards the continent. Such a mission was not, however, a solo project, and Boniface’s relationship with the abbey in Wimborne (and, in particular with another sister, Lioba) here bore fruit. Thecla was one of a number to join Boniface on the continent and to establish monastic communities there. It was a period in the history of Anglo-Saxon church when double monasteries flourished with monks and nuns helping each other, even though living separately, and this gave women an opportunity to take on leadership and rule over communities that included both males and females. Boniface saw women's leadership as important for his mission. Thecla became abbess of communities at Kitzingen and Ochsenfurt, and it is clear that her life and work there carried a great deal of weight. A later document, the Passion of Boniface describes Thecla as shining like a light in a dark place, whilst a letter from Boniface shows signs of obvious affection, spiritual esteem and reliance upon Thecla and those around her. 

To my beloved sisters worthy of all honour and affection, Lioba and Tecla and Cynehilda, and all the dear sisters in Christ who live with you, greetings of undying love. 

I beseech, nay all but command you, my dear daughters, to implore God with incessant prayers, as I trust that you do now and have done and will do unceasingly, that we may be delivered, in the words of the apostle, “from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith”

Men and Women

Boniface baptising and being martyred Boniface baptising and being martyred

Thecla’s story, at least according to the documents we have, may seem somewhat overshadowed by that of Boniface. The story we find, however, shows Boniface as a man who derived much of his courage and persistence from the presence of the female communities around him, suggesting that it was their devotion to prayer and their steadfastness in faith, as much as his initial journey, which lay behind the mission. Thecla, as an abbess, was a spiritual leader, not simply a follower, shining not just a reflected light from others around her, but giving forth spiritual light from her own reserves of prayer and dedication into the communities and world around her. If we refocus the narrative around her we find the story of a saint to whose community Boniface comes in need, who, within her prayers finds room for his tasks and mission and who, perhaps on the basis of such prayers, sees it right to enact their fulfilment in the world and not simply to stand on the sidelines. 

Monasticism and mission

It is not hard to see why monasticism was at the heart of the mission to the Germans. Faced with the challenges of the continental situation, it provided a means of remaining strong in the faith and of total devotion to the teachings and ways of the church. Without such dedication it is easy to see the missionary endeavour faltering and fizzling out, lacking the spiritual heart which provided both much of its courage and its ability to embody the gospel. It may well be that the disciplined life of prayer compelled Boniface to go out in the first place while the dedication to this life meant that the missionaries had anything to offer the German people. A monastic community of nuns could easily become a centre of mission, attracting those around as they followed their chosen path of dedication and interceded to God so that others, too, would be delivered and blessed. One story of Thecla tells of the rise of a storm which so terrifies the people of the village that they urge the nuns to pray for their deliverance. Thecla, turning to fellow nun, Leoba, urges her to pray that the storm might stop, reminding her that 'all the hopes of these people lie in you'. 

Whilst we are not aware of a Troparion dedicated specifically to Thecla of Wimborne/Kitzingen, the following prayer from the service to all British saints makes specific mention of her mission to the Germans.


With zeal overspilling from the Isles, to those who knew not the Word of Christ thou didst go out with streams of living water, O divine Clement, Apostle of the Frisians, followed by the Archpastor Boniface, Apostle of the German lands, who with all his helpers, Willibald, Winnibald, Walburgh, Lioba, Thecla and Willehad, brought light to the darkness, and together with a great host, wast counted worthy of a martyr's crown, and ye were followed by Sigfrid out of Glastonbury, the Apostle of the Swedes.

Image credits:,_Beachley.jpg

Sources for further reading:

On Thecla of Wimborne/Kitzingen and the German mission: 
Sabine Baring-Gould (1907) The lives of the British saints.  London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. (
Lina Eckenstein (1963) Woman under monasticism. New York: Russell & Russell. (
Felice Lifshitz (2004) The persistence of late antiquity: Christ as man and woman in an eight-century miniature. Medieval Feminist Forum 38: 18—27. (
Edward Kylie (1911) The English Correspondence of Saint Boniface. London: Chatto & Windus. (
Miriam Schmitt & Linda Kulzer (1996) Medieval women monastics: wisdom’s wellsprings. Collegeville: Liturgical Press. 
John Cyril Sladden (1980). Boniface of Devon. Greenwood: Attic Press.
St Thecla. Catholic Encyclopedia.

On Thecla Protomartyr: 
Stephen J Davis (2001) The cult of St Thecla: A tradition of womens’ piety in late antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla (

St Frideswide

Feast Day (new calendar): 
November 1st
Feast Day (old calendar): 
October 19th

Her life

St FrideswideSt Frideswide Our knowledge of Frideswide (c.680-727) comes from three main interrelated sources: a brief narrative by the 11th Century historian William of Malmesbury and two, much longer, 12th century lives written in Latin. Whilst Malmesbury’s account has traditionally been the most highly regarded, John Blair has argued persuasively that the Latin accounts are based on earlier traditions rather than, as is often assumed, being mere elaborations of Malmesbury’s work. These three surviving accounts describe how Frideswide, the daughter of a king, renounced the prosperity of marriage in order to devote herself to Christ as a nun, steadfastly devoting herself to learning, fasting and prayer alongside a community of 12 other girls. After the death of Frideswide’s father, King Algar succeeded to the throne and attempted to force the saint into marriage contrary to her vows, desiring Frideswide as ‘partner for his bed and kingdom’. However God offered his protection, blinding, variously in the accounts, both Algar and the men he had sent to capture Frideswide. Whilst Malmesbury records how the blinded king recovered his sight through repentance and a change of heart, the Latin lives describe how Algar’s envoys recover their sight whilst the king himself ends his days in continued blindness. Despite the accounts’ disagreement on specifics, Frideswide’s later life is marked in each by healing miracles of some kind: the story, for example, of a leper who, making the ‘outrageous’ request of a kiss from the saint, is ‘to everyone’s wonder’ healed at the touch of their mouths and another of how, after attempting to hide away in the seclusion of Thornbiri, (which Malmesbury tells us later became Binsey) Frideswide is persuaded to cure a youth whose hand has somehow become stuck to his axe whilst chopping wood. 


The minster in Oxford before the University

Church of St Margaret, BinseyChurch of St Margaret, Binsey


Geographically, the life of St Frideswide can be mapped around several locations in Oxfordshire. Firstly, Oxford itself: This is where Frideswide's family lived and ruled, where she was born and where she was consecrated to be a nun. The lives inform us that king Didan, Frideswide's father, constructed new buildings for the nuns within the city. This account is in agreement with the common Anglo-Saxon pattern of royal foundation and support for nunneries predestined for the highest-ranking women in the society.

After Frideswide's death her remnants were buried in St Mary's church, presumably, the minster, which was enlarged above the saint's grave and later transformed into the Christ Church Cathedral. In 1002 the fire destroyed the buildings of the monastic community along with all the records. The canons were refounded at that place only in 1122, now following the Rule of St Augustine. The Augustinians excavated Frideswide's grave in 1180 and translated her relics with great solemnities to a special shrine within the church. The cult of the saint was thus established: pilgrims started visiting the relics and miracles were recorded and publicized. Frideswide's association with Oxford was quite strong: in one of Chaucer's tales, John, the Oxford carpenter, invokes Frideswide as his patron saint. During the Reformation Firdeswide's shrine in the cathedral was destroyed and her relics desecrated.

Frideswide's nunnery outside the city

Another significant location is Binsey ('Byne's island'), one of the places where – according to the lives – the saint took refuge from king Algar and where she spent a period of her life performing miracles. The biographical account says that Frideswide went to Binsey for ascetic reasons, seeking solitude from the admiring crowds: “So they travelled swiftly by boat to the estate called Binsey near the city. Here they disembarked, and Frideswide decided to stay for a while in solitude; their sisters could come there easily, and it would be protected from the crowds of townsfolk”. Then the abbess built an oratory and other buildings for the nuns and opened a spring of water known as St Margaret's well. However, it is possible that the whole episode is a late addition and Binsey became associated with Frideswide as late as the 12th c. through the author of the life. It's not unlikely that the Binsey estate came into the possession of the monastery after St Frideswide's death. In any case, the accounts imply that the Binsey chapel had already existed for some time in the 12th century and was considered to be a place of special holiness. The Thames also plays an important role in the lives because Frideswide made several journeys traveling with her nuns from and back to Oxford by the river.  

Connections to St Margaret

Interestingly, the story of St Frideswide and her nunnery is associated with the cult of St Margaret as the latter is the patron saint of the church in Binsey. Although the 12th century writer Robert of Cricklade, prior of St Frideswide's priory in Oxford and author of the saint's life, attributes the Binsey chapel to St Frideswide, other, later, sources speak of it as dedicated to St Margaret. A text dated 1323 refers to the chapel at Binsey in honour of St Frideswide and St Margaret. St Margaret of Antioch is celebrated as a virgin-martyr in Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches. She was one of the most important female saints of the English church in the 14th-15th centuries, having been a popular saint since the 9th century According to the legends, St Margaret was tortured around 2nd/3rd century AD by the Roman ruler Olybrius who wished to persuade her to marry him and to renounce Christianity. Miraculous incidents of her martyrdom include conquering a dragon through the power of the holy Cross. The parallels between Frideswide, the Western nun, and Margaret, the Eastern martyr, are obvious: they were both virgins who chose to serve Christ, renouncing marriage offered by an impious royal figure. The episodes in which royal suitors approach them and try to incline them into earthly love and marriage are common to many female saints lives of both East and West and record particular ideas that existed in the Christian church about female religious and social roles. At the same time, although St Frideswide herself was not a martyr, the ascetic toils and inner fight with the passions which she undertook during her life as a nun correlate in the church tradition with the sufferings typically associated with a martyr.

Binsey and us

Binsey, for us, has become a place of regular pilgrimage. The church provides a place of connection with the Christian traditions of earlier times, and with the devotion of Frideswide herself. The countryside and opportunities for meetings with different animals on the way to the church offer space for reflection on the journey away from Oxford’s busy city life, whilst the empty space of the building itself has become an environment in which we have been able to recreate traditions of Orthodox prayer in a place where they often remain silent. Whilst in many ways idyllic, Binsey is nevertheless a very human environment; the different devotional practices of visitors to the church frequently come face to face with those out to enjoy the beauty of the spot and the journey to the church is frequently taken alongside those setting out to the visit the local pub or to enjoy the pleasures of port meadow. Binsey remains, as it did for Frideswide, a place where heavenly and earthly realities interact and engage in both competition and cooperation.


Come, let us solemnly rejoice today, and let us laud the virtues and struggles of the most splendid luminary of the Western lands: Frideswide, great among ascetics, the most praiseworthy instructor of nuns, who watcheth over us from her dwelling-place on high; for the Lord hath truly made her wondrous among His saints. By her supplications may He save our souls.  

See for discussion of Troparia.

Further liturgical material can be found in the Canon of St Frideswide (based largely on material from A canon is an part of Orthodox service that praises the saint. It has 9 odes based on 9 Biblical canticles, 


Sources for further reading:

Lydia Carr, Russell Dewhurst, and Martin Henig (Editors), Binsey: Oxford's holy place—Its saint, village and people. Archaeopress and St Frideswide's PCC, 2014.

John Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon society. Oxford University Press, 2005.

John Blair, 'Saint Frideswide Reconsidered', Oxoniensia 52, 1987. Pp. 71-127. (

John Blair (Editor), Saint Frideswide's Monastery at Oxford: Archaeological and Architectural Studies. Gloucester, 1990.

Sherry Reames (Editor), Middle English Legends of Women Saints. Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2003. (

And a forthcoming book by Juliana Dresvina on the cult of St Margaret of Antioch in Western Europe.