Past Lives

St Milburga at Wenlock Priory

How an Anglo-Saxon princess became a miracle-working saint at this Shropshire monastery founded during England’s conversion to Christianity.

Image: St Milburga

Princess, abbess and miracle worker, St Milburga of Wenlock (died 715) lived when the peoples of Anglo-Saxon England were being converted to Christianity. Of royal birth, Milburga’s family was distinguished by its holiness. Her mother and two of her sisters were all destined for sainthood, while her father, Merewalh ‘sub-king’ of Mercia, founded a monastery at Wenlock (in Shropshire) in about 670–80. Milburga became its second abbess, governing a community – a so-called ‘dual house’ – of both nuns and monks, who worshipped in separate churches and would also have had their own dormitories and refectories.

Most of what we know about Milburga comes from a ‘Life’, or idealised biography. Written in Latin by a monk called Gocelin in the late 11th century, it describes Milburga’s miracle-working powers, which included raising the dead. It also recounts how, through Milburga’s prayers, geese that were destroying the abbey’s corn were banished, never to return. Because of this, Milburga is depicted in art as an abbess accompanied by geese. Milburga was immediately regarded as a saint after her death in 715. Her remains were buried in the nuns’ church at Wenlock. By the 11th century, this had fallen into ruins and the location of Milburga’s grave forgotten.

Between 1080–82, a community of Cluniac monks settled at Wenlock, building their church on the site of the former Anglo-Saxon one. Soon after 1100, boys playing amid the ruins of the nuns’ church fell into a tomb where the bones of Milburga were rediscovered. Esteemed as holy relics, these were solemnly enshrined in the monks’ church. Numerous miracles were attributed to them, including the healing of lepers and the curing of the blind.

The Cluniac monastery at Wenlock was dedicated to St Milburga and St Michael, both of whom were depicted on the priory’s seal. Feasts, or holy days, in honour of St Milburga were celebrated by the monks on 23 February and 25 June.

Words by Michael Carter

Illustration by Jasmine Whiteleaf

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