Who was Saint Werburgh?

The Romans invaded England from 50BC onwards, strengthening their hold until around 350AD, then began to withdraw their forces until around 400AD, when other invading forces started to arrive, and were not strongly opposed.  This lead to two main forces, the Saxons from the south of Germany around the southern quarter of England, with the remaining three-quarters occupying the rest of England up to the the Roman wall boundary with Scotland.  This was the main area occupied by forces from Angelm, an area of the north of Germany, and know as Angles.

Early in the invasion era there were hundreds of small parts of England, all individually controlled areas, but gradually within the next one hundred years these areas were beginning to get together and form stronger areas.  It is estimated that up to 3,000 separate areas were formed, but by the year 600 there were seven main kingdoms.  They had become mostly Christian, the seven kindoms being, from the north downwards, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia (all Angles), with Kent, Wessex, Sussex and Essex all Saxon.  The second most powerful of the Kingdoms was Mercia, and it was from this ruling line that Werburgh came.

The first named Angle king of Mercia was Creoda, from 585 to 593; then his son Pybba ruled from 593 to 606.  His son Ceorl then ruled from 606 to 626, after which Mercia went into a decline until King Penda became king in 632.  Penda decided that to ensure continuity if problems occurred, he appointed his four sons to rule under his control a quarter of Mercia each.  Son no. 1 only ruled his area for two years, then was murdered by his wife!  Son no. 2 was King Wulfhere, who took over Mercia in 657.  He became Mercia-s strongest ruler, and ruled until his death in 675. 

Wulfhere was married to a princess from Kent, Princess Ermehilda, and they had four children.  Their first and only daughter, born around 640, was Princess Werburgh.  Ermenhilda was determined that her daughter should be well educated, and saw that she was taught by four nuns for the whole of here childhood.  There were three other children, all boys, but only one survived to adulthood, and later succeeded his father as King.  As was the custom for many hundreds of years after, Wulfhere was determined that Werburgh (or Werburga as is sometimes quoted), should marry a prince of high standing from one of England's other kingdoms, probably at the age of about ten.  Werburgh was determined that she wanted to choose her own way of life, and refused to do anything but to become a nun.  She was so determined, that here father finally agreed to allow her to do what she wished.  At the age of about thirteen  she was finally received into anunnery, with great ceremony, at the East Anglian abbey at Ely.

There was a whole host of guests at her ordination, including the King of East Anglia, her Great Aunt (the Abbess of Ely), and a vast number of guests from three royal families.

She was determined to become an ordinary nun, and for a time left the ordination celebrations.  This was some distance away from the Mercian Royal Family's home, at a fortified hill near Stone in Staffordshire, and the family held vast areas in the Staffordshire area.

After her acceptance into the nunnery, her father was determined that he would ensure she would be able to achieve her goal.  He told her that if she had married, he would have given a wedding gift of land and wealth to her husband, but in view of her determination, he would give the fortune to her.  This he did, and over the years she organised the building of six large nunneries within Mercia.  Could a part of this fortune be the gold treasure found near Lichi=field recently?  Lichfield Cathedral was the main Cathedral in Mercia.

Her father died in 675, and because her brother was considered too young, he was succeeded by King Aethelred, her father's brother.  He was very pround of the success of Werburgh.  He subsequently appointed her the Head Abbess of all the nunneries in Mercia.  She had already been appointed Abbess of Ely, although this was not in Mercia.

Werburgh's work spread far, and she built nunneries from near Bristol to Leicestershire, Nortahmptonshire, et.c  She finally died on 3 February 701 at Trentham, near Stoke, but it was her wish that she was to be buried at Hanbury, near Burton-on-Trent, at one of her nunneries.  The people of Trentham objected, but it was said that the residents of Hanbury took her body and coffin during the night and finally transported it to the location of her choice.

Finally, around the year 850 the Danes invaved England and came up the River Trent.  It ws thought they would destroy her tomb in Hanbury Church, so it was transported across England to a more safe place at Chester Abbey.  She was duly placed in the Abbey Chapel, but later a new church, the original base of what is now Chester Cathedral, was built there, and a portion of it remains today.  It was damaged by a raid of Cromwell's men during the Civil War, and her body remains, presumably only bones. were complete destroyed.


John Hughes