Editha or Ediva, the Latin forms of her name) was an English nun, a daughter of the 10th century King Edgar of England, born at Kemsing, Kent, in 961. Following her death in 984, she became the patron saint of her community at Wilton Abbey and churches were dedicated to her in Wiltshire and in other parts of England. Her life was written by Goscelin, and her feast day is on 16 September.
Edith was the illegitimate daughter of King Edgar the Peaceful, by Wilfrida, or Wulfthryth, a woman of noble birth whom Edgar carried off forcibly from the nunnery at Wilton Abbey. He took her to his manor house at Kemsing, near Sevenoaks, where Edith was born. Under St Dunstan's direction, Edgar did penance for this crime by not wearing his crown for seven years. As soon as Wulfthryth could escape from Edgar, she returned to Wilton, taking Edith with her.
Edith was educated by the nuns of Wilton Abbey, where her mother had become abbess. Standing not far from a royal residence at Wilton, as part of its devotional work the abbey functioned as the contemporary equivalent of a boarding school for young ladies. She took the veil very early, with her father's consent. He offered to make her, while still a child, abbess of three different communities, but she chose to remain with her mother at Wilton. Her father died in 975.
In the year 979, Edith dreamt that she lost her right eye and believed the dream was sent to warn her of the death of her half-brother King Edward the Martyr , who in fact was murdered at that very time while visiting his stepmother, Queen Ælfthryth, at Corfe Castle, in Dorset.
In some reports, Edith was offered the crown of England by noblemen who had supported her murdered brother Edward against her young half-brother, Ethelred, but she refused it. Despite her refusal of honours and power, she always dressed magnificently, and was reported by William of Malmesbury to wear luxurious golden garments.When rebuked by Æthelwold of Winchester, she answered that the judgment of God, which alone penetrated through the outward appearance, was alone true and infallible, adding -
For pride may exist under the garb of wretchedness; and a mind may be as pure under these vestments as under your tattered furs.
She built a church at Wilton and dedicated it to Saint Denis. Saint Dunstan was invited to the dedication and wept much during mass. Being asked the reason, he said it was because Edith would die in three weeks. This proved to be correct when she died on 15 September 984 and suggests that Edith was suffering from a fatal illness.She was buried at Wilton in the new church of St Denis.
Edith was greatly celebrated for her learning, her beauty, and her sanctity,and minor miracles were reported shortly after her death.A week after she died, Edith appeared in glory to her mother and told her the Devil had tried to accuse her, but she had broken his head.Goscelin reports that thirteen years later she appeared in visions to Dunstan and others, to tell them that her body was uncorrupted in the grave. He states that when Dunstan opened her tomb, in the presence of her mother, its "fragrant perfumes gave off the breath of paradise". However, the dating of the event must be doubted, as Dunstan died only four years after Edith. It has been suggested that Goscelin chose to enhance Edith's story by associating Dunstan with her translation.
Following her exhumation and subsequent reburial, Edith's thumb was enshrined separately and became an important relic.
Edith was elevated to sainthood on the initiative of her brother Ethelred, and her cause was also supported by her nephew Edmund Ironside. More surprisingly, Edmund's successor Canute the Great was renowned for his veneration of her. Goscelin reports that on one occasion, while crossing the North Sea from England to Denmark with his fleet, Canute suffered a terrible storm, and fearing for his life he appealed to Edith. The storm calmed, and on his return to England Canute visited Wilton to give thanks for his rescue, "with solemn gifts, and published this great miracle with prolific testimony", subsequently ordering a golden shrine to Edith to be erected at Wilton.
Edith became the focus of a major cult in Wilton and also an important national saint.Goscelin wrote her life, under the title Vita Edithe, in about 1080. The community at Wilton, in looking to her as its heavenly patron, remembered her as a royal lady who had been dedicated to its protection.In his Liber Confortatorius, Goscelin wrote that he often thought of Edith and felt her presence.
Three churches were certainly dedicated to Edith, one at Baverstock near Wilton, another at Bishop Wilton in Yorkshire, and a third at Limpley Stoke in Wiltshire. In the 16th century, after some five hundred years, the third of these churches was rededicated to St Mary, but the other two dedications survive. However, another eighteen churches in England are dedicated to an unspecified St Edith, and it has been suggested that most of these dedications are intended for Edith of Wilton.
Edith's feast day is on 16 September, the day following the anniversary of her death. It has also been reported as 15 September, the anniversary itself.
The seal of Edith survives. Dated to the period 975–984, it contains a portrait of her, showing her standing with one hand raised and the other holding a book. The inscription identifies her as regalis adelpha, or 'royal sister', taken to be a reference both to her status as a nun and to her being the sister of Edward and of Ethelred. The handle of the matrix has rich acanthus decoration, and the seal is the only one surviving from the Anglo-Saxon period which shows this feature.
- Goscelin, Life of St Edith (of Wilton), ed. Stephanie Hollis, Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber Confortatorius (Medieval Women Texts and Contexts 9; Turnhout: Brepols, 2004)
- O. S. B., St Editha of Wilton (Catholic Truth Society, 1903, 6th edition, 24 pp.)
- ^ a b c d e f g Kate Pratt, St Edith at bishopwilton.com
- ^ Mrs Jameson, Legends of the monastic orders: as represented in the fine arts p. 95 online at books.google.com
- ^ St Edith of Wilton at catholic.org
- ^ a b Catherine E. Karkov, The ruler portraits of Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004; p. 114
- ^ Jameson, op. cit., p. 96 online at books.google.com
- ^ a b Sabine Baring Gould, 'S. Edith of Wilton' in his The Lives of the Saints, vol. X [September] (London: John Hodges, 1875), pp. 269-271
- ^ a b c Church of England, The calendar of the Anglican Church illustrated: with brief accounts of the of the Saints who have churches dedicated in their names, or whose images are most frequently met with in England (1851) pp. 226-227 at books.google.com
- ^ Agnes Dunbar, 'Edith of Wilton', in her A Dictionary of Saintly Women (1904)
- ^ Goscelin, Vita Edithe, quoted in Hollis et al., Writing the Wilton Women (2004), p. 40
- ^ Karkov, op. cit., p. 116
- ^ Susan Janet Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: a study of West Saxon and East Anglian cults. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988; p. 40
- ^ Ridyard, op. cit., p. 149
- ^ Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, Forgetful of their sex: female sanctity and society, ca. 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; p. 340
- ^ 'H. N. R.', in William White, ed., Notes and Queries, vol. 44 (1877) p. 127
- ^ William Campbell, Materials for a history of the reign of Henry VII from original documents (1873), pp. 74 & 90
- ^ Francis Goldie, Saints of Wessex and Wiltshire (1885) p. 28
- ^ St Editha of Wilton at books.google.com