Ten Saintly Sisters Stories

Durham Cathedral’s new temporary exhibition Saintly Sisters has just launched in Open Treasure, bringing to light the fascinating stories of women in Durham Cathedral’s history. From Anglo-Saxon princesses and Abbesses who supported early Christianity in the North, to Victorian women who were some of the first to be ordained at Durham Cathedral, Saintly Sisters tells fascinating stories that enrich our understanding of women’s role in Durham Cathedral’s nearly one thousand year old story. Join us as we examine the stories of Durham’s Saintly Sisters…

One brilliant story about Hilda, Anglo-Saxon Abbess of Whitby and one of the North’s best known female saints, is the miracle of the stone snakes. The Whitby coast is known for ammonites, tightly coiled fossilised shells of sea creatures that lived millions of years ago. To explain their abundance before fossils were understood, the story developed that the site Hilda had selected for her monastery at Whitby was overrun with snakes. Hilda prayed that the snakes would be made as harmless as the stones of the ground, and the snakes gathered at the cliffs, coiled up and turned to stone! Enterprising nineteenth century Whitby craftsmen carved snakes’ heads onto the ammonites to ‘prove’ the legend to visitors!

Etheldreda wished from an early age to devote her life to God and skilfully persuaded her two husbands, who were both powerful kings with desires for heirs, to allow her to live separately from them. A friend of Cuthbert, Eltheldreda used the lands she was given by her husbands to establish monasteries at Hexham and Ely, contributing greatly to the early foundations of Christianity in the North East.

Osana was not recognised as a saint until years after her death in 750, when the concubine of a church rector sat thoughtlessly on Osana’s tomb. The concubine couldn’t get up, and realised her back and dress were torn as if she had been beaten. Distressed, it was only when she repented that she was freed.

The tragic story of Maryne shows how some women attempted to circumvent restrictions on women. Maryne dressed as a boy from childhood in order to enter a monastery and kept up the pretence her whole life, becoming ‘Brother Marinus’. She was accused of fathering a child and treated badly, forced to live in a hovel by the side of the monastery. It was only after her death that her gender was revealed, proving her innocence.

Fritheswith is the patron saint of Oxford who founded a convent there in the eighth century. Like many female saints she is linked to miracles of healing, associated with a spring of water said to have appeared after she prayed.

Begu was a nun at Hackness, a daughter house of St Hilda’s Whitby monastery. One night she had a vision of Hilda’s soul being guided to heaven by angels, and the next day news came that Hilda had died. Begu’s feast day is 31 October, although today that day is overshadowed by another annual event!

Ebba, an Anglo-Saxon princess, founded several monasteries for men and women, and was Abbess of the St Abb’s Head monastery at Coldingham. Her shrines became known for miracles of healing, and some of her relics were brought to Durham in the eleventh century. The place-names of the sites at which Ebba founded religious communities bare evidence of her prominence: Ebchester means Ebba’s castle, and St Abb’s Head includes a variant spelling of Ebba.

Margaret of Scotland was an eleventh century Scottish Queen known for her piety and charity. She founded a monastery at Dunfermline and was already acknowledged as a saint at the time of her death in 1093. Margaret has several links to Durham: her ‘life’ (biography) was written by Prior Turgot of Durham, and today, she has an altar in the Cathedral’s Chapel of the Nine Altars. Several relics of St Margaret are recorded in a 1383 inventory of the Cathedral’s relics including her cross and prayer book, but the most legendary of St Margaret’s relics is the ‘Black Rood’, a fragment of the True Cross brought by St Margaret to Scotland. It ended up at Durham Cathedral after the Scottish King David II carried the Black Rood into battle against the English in 1346. The Scottish forces were defeated by Sir Ralph de Neville, who presented the Rood to St Cuthbert’s Shrine at Durham Cathedral.

Elfleda was raised at Hilda’s Whitby Abbey and eventually rose to become Abbess. Bede writes in his Ecclesiastical History that Elfleda was a great friend of Cuthbert, and that they visited each other to discuss issues in theology and religious life. Legend has it that Elfleda and another nun were healed by a girdle sent from Cuthbert.

Elizabeth Clarkson is an example of how women increasingly became involved at Durham into the modern era. Elizabeth Clarkson was the first Head Deaconess of the Society of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin, a group of women who worked to improve the lives of those in the most deprived areas of County Durham between 1884-1963. They lived a strict religious life and abstained from marriage in order to devote themselves to their work. You can see her beautifully carved grave marker which once stood near the North door to the Cathedral.

Saintly Sisters is a temporary exhibition as part of Open Treasure, running until 3 February 2018.

 Open Treasure is open Monday to Saturday from 10.00am – 5.00pm (last entry 4.00pm) and Sundays from 12.30pm – 5.00pm (last entry 4.00pm).

 Tickets: £2.50 – £7.50 (under 5s free, family ticket £17.50) available from www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/open-treasure and from the Visitor Desk in the Cathedral.

Open Treasure annual passes are also available so you’ll never miss an Open Treasure exhibition!

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