July 6 – Sexburga of Ely; Godelieve

Sexburga of Ely (d. 699) came from one of those families that makes yours seem like a den of iniquity. She had three and a half sainted sisters and two sainted daughters (one of whom was a queen consort). All three of her sons became kings (in good time) (if the seventh and eighth centuries can be considered a good time). She married Eorcenberht, king of Kent, bearing him five children (as noted). According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, Eorcenberht overthrew “devil-worship” (paganism?) in his kingdom, and was the first English kinglet to establish the celebration of Easter. After he died in a plague outbreak, Sexburga (“half a dozen White Castles”) ruled as regent for her son Egbert, and founded Kent’s first women’s monastery (in Milton). When Egbert came into his majority, Sexburga went off and founded the abbey of Minster-in-Sheppey, glad to wash her hands of the whole royalty thing.

Shortly thereafter she removed to Ely, where her sister (St.) Audrey (Jun 23) was abbess, and whom she succeeded. After Audrey’s death, Sexburga was instrumental in her canonization, and procured a beautiful marble sarcophagus which miraculously fit Audrey perfectly. One historian wonders out loud why there are so many miraculous coincidences in hagiographies. Another historian questions whether Sexburga might be the same person as Sexburga of Wessex, then notes that virtually all they have in common is their name, and retracts the suggestion. One can be forgiven for thinking that, unlike writers of satirical hagiographies (I name no names), some historians need to do more research and less padding.

Sexburga died at Ely at “a good, late age,” and although the location of her relics isn’t mentioned in my sources, the location and provenance of nearly a dozen manuscripts mentioning her are, which I suppose we’ll have to settle for.

Godelieve (1049–1070) was a pious and charitable girl who desired nunhood, but due to her noble Flemish parentage and exceeding comeliness, she was forcibly married to Flemish nobleman Bertolf of Ghistelles, who at the urging of his less-than-savory mother abandoned his new wife in the middle of their wedding reception. (Which is a wicked (meaning good) run-on sentence describing a wicked (meaning evil) deed.) At this point her wicked (meaning fairy-tale witch) mother-in-law had her locked in a cell, starved, and both mentally and physically abused.

When word of this reached Godelieve’s father, he enlisted the bishop and Bertolf’s father, and the three threatened to turn Bertolf over to both civil and ecclesial authorities unless he took her back and treated her right. He appeared to all appearances to repent, but before long began to abuse her, and when he was (conveniently) away on business, two of his henchman seized Godelieve, strangled her, and threw her in a pond. (Having lured her through the back, not front or side, door of the castle. The import of some hagiographic details can be elusive.) Everyone knew Bertolf was guilty, but no one could produce evidence sufficient for the grand jury (or eleventh century equivalent), so he got away with it.

Bertolf married a second time, and had a daughter who was born blind (the implication being that this was due to his sin). She was healed by the posthumous intercessions of Godelieve, and founded a monastery at Gistel dedicated to her. These events finally softened Bertolf’s heart, and in sorrow and repentance he went to Rome to seek absolution, pilgrimaged to the Holy Land, and returned to become a monk at St. Winnoc’s in Bergues.

Godelieve is celebrated annually in Gistel by a procession on the first Sunday after July 5. Her first hagiographer (Tolkien fans hold onto your hats) was Drogo of Bergues. She is the patroness of people with in-law problems.