mercredi 8 juillet 2015

Sainte WITHBURGE de DEREHAM, vierge bénédictine et abbesse

Sainte Withburge de Dereham

Religieuse à Dereham

Fête le 17 mars


† 17 mars v. 743

Autre mention : 8 juillet

Autres mentions : Withburge, Withburgh, Witburh ou Withburga

Fille la plus jeune d’Anna, roi de l’Est-Anglie, elle forma autour d’elle une communauté à East Dereham, dans le comté de Norfolk, mais elle mourut avant que la communauté ne fût complètement organisée. Fondatrice de l’église de Dereham, une chapelle s’élève sur le site de sa tombe. D’autres fêtes sont célébrées le 18 avril à Cambridge et le 8 juillet ; aujourd’hui la fête commémore la translation de ses reliques.


Withburga of Dereham, OSB V (AC)
(also known as Withburge, Witburh) 

Died March 17, c. 743; other feasts are celebrated on April 18 at Cambridge and on March 17; today's feast commemorates her translation. She was the youngest daughter of King Anna of the East Angles. Like her holy sisters, she devoted herself to the divine service, and led an austere life in solitude for several years at Holkham, near the sea-coast in Norfolk, where a church dedicated to her was afterwards built. After the death of her father she changed her abode to East Dereham, now a market-town in Norfolk, but then an obscure place of retirement.

Withburga assembled there some devout maidens, and laid the foundation of a church and convent, but did not live to finish the buildings. Her body was interred in the churchyard at East Dereham and 50 years later was found incorrupt and translated into the church. In 974, with soldiers and under the cover of night but with the blessing of King Edgar and Saint Ethelwold, Abbot Brithnoth of Ely removed it to Ely. They moved the body to wagons, drove 20 miles to Brandun River, and continued their journey by boat--much to the dismay of the men of Dereham who had pursued them by land and could only watch helplessly as their treasure drifted away. At Ely Brithnoth deposited Withburga's relics near the bodies of her two sisters.

In 1102, Withburga's relics were moved into a new part of the church. In 1106, the remains of four saints were translated into the new church and laid near the high altar. The bodies of Saints Sexburga and Ermenilda were reduced to dust, except the bones. That of Saint Etheldreda was entire, and that of Saint Withburga was not only sound but also fresh, and the limbs flexible. This is related by Thomas, monk of Ely, in his history of Ely, which he wrote the following year.

He also tells us that in the place where Saint Withburga was first buried, in the churchyard at Dereham, a spring of clear water gushed forth when her body was first exhumed: it is to this day called Saint Withburga's well. The church at Holkham is dedicated to her honor (Benedictines, Farmer, Walsh).

In art, Saint Withburga is portrayed as an abbess with two hinds at her feet because William of Malmesbury described her as being provided milk in her solitude by a doe. She may be holding a church inscribed Ecclia de Estderham. She is venerated at Barham, Burlingham, and Dereham in Norfolk (Roeder). 

St. Withburge, Virgin

SHE was the youngest of the four sisters, all saints, daughters of Annas the holy king of the East-Angles. In her tender years she devoted herself to the divine service, and led an austere life in close solitude for several years at Holkham, an estate of the king her father, near the sea-coast in Norfolk, where a church, afterwards called Withburgstow, was built. After the death of her father she changed her dwelling to another estate of the crown called Dereham. This is at present a considerable market town in Norfolk, but was then an obscure retired place. Withburge assembled there many devout virgins, and laid the foundation of a great church and nunnery, but did not live to finish the buildings. Her holy death happened on the 17th of March, 743. Her body was interred in the church-yard at Dereham, and fifty-five years after, found uncorrupt, and translated into the church. One hundred and seventy-six years after this, in 974, Brithnoth, (the first abbot of Ely, after that house, which had been destroyed by the Danes, was rebuilt,) with the consent of King Edgar, removed it to Ely, and deposited it near the bodies of her two sisters. In 1106 the remains of the four saints were translated into the new church and laid near the high altar. The bodies of SS. Sexburga and Ermenilda were reduced to dust, except the bones. That of St. Audry was entire, and that of St. Withburge was not only sound but also fresh, and the limbs perfectly flexible. Warner, a monk of Westminster, showed this to all the people, by lifting up and moving several ways the hands, arms, and feet. Herbert, bishop of Thetford, who in 1094 translated his see to Norwich, and many other persons of distinction were eyewitnesses hereof. This is related by Thomas, a monk of Ely, 1 which he wrote the year following, 1107. This author tells us, that in the place where St. Withburge was first buried, in the church-yard of Dereham, a large fine spring of most clear water gushes forth. 2 It is to this day called St. Withburge’s well, was formerly very famous, and is paved, covered and inclosed; a stream from it forms another small well without the church-yard. See her life, and Leland, Collect, vol. iii. p. 167.

Note 1. Anglia Sacra, t. 1, p. 613, published by Wharton. [back]

Note 2. Ib. p. 606. [back]

Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73).  Volume VII: July. The Lives of the Saints.  1866.


Today, July 8, we celebrate the feast of Saint Withburga (died 643), sister of Saint Etheldreda, miracle worker, foundress of the Convent at East Dereham, and Abbess. The simple and obedient life of Saint Withburga inspires us to discern the will of God in our own lives, following His plan to our best ability.

Born the youngest daughter of Anna, King of East Anglia, Withburga grew up in a privileged class, considered a princess. Upon her father’s death, while she was still quite young, Withburga was sent with her nurse to live in a small town near Norfolk called Dereham. There, she grew in piety and love for the Lord, and established a small nunnery with the help of her sister, Etheldreda. She served as Abbess of the fledgling community, which grew considerably under her direction. As the community grew, Withburga eventually began construction of a church.

It is at that point that miracles began to occur, spreading her notoriety and drawing pilgrims to her construction site. As construction of the church continued, money was short. At times, Withburga had little more than bread to feed her workers. One night Our Blessed Mother appeared to Withburga, saying “Send two of your women down to the stream every morning, where two does will stand to be milked.” This she did without question, and the two nuns found the deer waiting, as promised. As a result, there was butter and cheese for all to add to their diet, and the construction progressed with great speed.

Saint Withburga came to be recognized for her great piety, patience, and advice. She was sought out be locals, as well as by leaders from far away. The local official, jealous of the positive attention she was receiving, set off with his hounds to kill the miraculous deer, but was instead thrown from his horse and died of a broken neck. All present reported this as miraculous, which only increased the stream of pilgrims to the area—visiting the stream, the church, and hoping for an audience with Withburga herself.

Saint Withburga died prior to the completion of the church. Pilgrims continued to flock to her graveside, where numerous miracles were reported. Upon exhumation (55 years after her death), her body was discovered to be incorrupt, and moved into a shrine contained within the completed church. Having consecrated herself a virgin while alive, Saint Withburga’s corpse is said to have blushed when one of the men who exhumed the body brushed her check with his finger. Years later, the saint’s relics were stolen from her tomb (by a well-intentioned bishop), and translated to Ely, to be placed next to her sisters. Where her body had been, fresh water sprang forth, and continues to flow freely today. Saint Withburga’s Well has never run dry (despite drought), and some have claimed miraculous healing due to prayer and imbibing of the clear water.

Saint Withburga’s simple faith and obedience allowed her to create an active religious community, offer healing and advice to believers, and feed those who were hungry. Her life is remembered as one of purity and hard work, turning from a privileged life and dedicating herself to the Lord. We look to her for inspiration—just as the pilgrims of her day did-- in making our daily life choices. What advice might Saint Withburga give each of us, were we to ask her today?


St. Withburga of Dereham, 

Abbess of Dereham

(Died AD 743)

Withburga was the youngest of the saintly daughters of Anna, King of East Anglia. Her sisters were SS. Ethedreda and Sexburga; they had an elder half-sister St. Saethrith and an illegitimate half-sister, St. Ethelburga of Faremoutier-en-Brie. Withburga was also aunt of St. Ermengild. When a young girl, she was sent to live with her nurse at Holkham in Norfolk where, in process of time, a church was built in her honour and the place called Withburgstowe. After her father's death, she built a convent at East Dereham. While she was building it, she had, at one time, nothing but dry bread to give her workmen. She applied for assistance to the Blessed Virgin Mary who directed her to send her maids to a certain fountain every morning. There, they found two wild does which yielded plenty of milk. In this way, the workmen were fed and the work prospered until the overseer of those lands, in contempt or dislike of the saint and her miracles, hunted the does, with dogs, and made them leave off coming to the fountain to be milked. He was punished for his cruelty, for his horse threw him and he broke his neck.

Withburga died on 17th March AD 743 and was buried in the cemetery of the Abbey of Dereham and her body, being found uncorrupted fifty-five years afterwards, was translated into the church which she herself had built. In AD 974, Brithnoth, Abbot of Ely, determined to lay the body beside those of her sisters. He went, with armed followers, to Dereham where he invited the townsmen to a feast and made them drunk. He carried off the body. They awoke and went in pursuit, and the men of Ely and the men of Dereham fought lustily for their treasure. Javelins wore thrown and hard blows were exchanged. At last, however, Brithnoth triumphantly carried off the saint and deposited her at Ely.

Edited from Agnes Dunbar's "A Dictionary of Saintly Women" (1904).