–Princess, Queen, Abbess & Saint

George James


An original paperback

first published in 1999 by Fern House

19 High Street, Haddenham, Ely, Cambs CB6 3XA

01353 741229


© Copyright Norman Sneesby 1999

All rights reserved


The right of Norman Sneesby to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with The Copywright, Design and Patents Act 1988


ISBN 0 9524897 7 5






Etheldreda, Princess of East Anglia and the island of Ely, Queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely, was born in the year 630 in her father’s residence at what is now the village of Exning in Suffolk. Today’s Exning is modest in size and very much involved with horse racing. In the seventh century its local shopping centre, the town of Newmarket, did not exist but in medieval times the ‘old market’ at Exning was supplanted — probably due to a plague — by the ‘new market’ on higher, better-drained land a couple of miles away.


Etheldreda’s father Anna — the name in broad translation from the Anglo-Saxon can be taken to mean ‘Unity’ — was a prominent member of the ruling family of the Kingdom of East Anglia. He was a nephew of the great King Redwald, who had his main seat at Rendlesham, near the present town of Woodbridge in Suffolk. The Rendlesham buildings stood on dry sandy land close to an inlet of the sea, perfectly placed for trade with the continent. The Exning palace, by contrast, was sited in a stream valley, surrounded by open chalk hills. When Anglo-Saxon settlement came to be contemplated this sheltered little hollow, with clear fresh water, good fishing, lush grassland for cattle, and trees for fuel would have been an obvious choice. The Celts had earlier used the valley as a tribal meeting place before the Anglo-Saxons arrived and drove them from their homes. To the invaders the site was an ideal one; they were valley dwellers by nature. But why would a nephew of the King want to live here, fifty miles from the royal headquarters by the sea?

The answer can only lie in the fields of politics and of warfare. and particularly the latter. What we now know as England was divided into seven kingdoms of which East Anglia, though perhaps the richest, was only one. The dense forests of East Anglia were separated by a line of open chalk uplands from a tract of impassable swampland and beyond, over to the west, was the Kingdom of Mercia, soon to be governed by the implacable Penda. Even before he came to the throne in 626 Penda the warrior was much dreaded by his neighbours. Resentful — he never forgave a slight, real or imagined — and ferocious, he was said never to have lost a battle, and he seemed only to be content when engaged in the bloodiest of warfare. The plunder of wealthy East Anglia for the appeasement of his heathen gods would have provided a driving motive — or perhaps simply an excuse — for leading his men along the wind-blown ridges of chalk which were from the earliest times the route into the sandy heartland of East Anglia. Once into the vast tract of wild open country we know as the Breckland men could be mustered in their thousands, ready to track downstream along the gravelly river meadows, ransacking villages and slaughtering their inhabitants, and so reaching the sea where, if the crucial battle against the East Anglian king had not already taken place it would be fought out at Rendlesham itself.

It was therefore essential that the narrow tract of chalk land be held at all costs if East Anglia were to survive, and someone of power, authority and skill had to be there to keep an eagle eye on any signal which might mean an imminent invasion.

At this time there was a series of parallel ‘dykes’ built across the downland, extending between the forested clays and the impenetrable marshes. No one knows how old these ditches might have been by the seventh century; they could have been created by the Celts and renewed by the Saxons, but recent investigations have suggested that the Saxons themselves threw up these four great defensive works. Each successive one was a deep dry ditch filled with brush with, on the northeast side — the side to be defended — the diggings of earth thrown up into a high bank with its crest reinforced with sharpened stakes, behind which a reserve of men could assemble at short notice to face an attack. The sole point of weakness would have been the causeway through which access had to be maintained between one ditch and the next and along which, in peacetime conditions, trading traffic could roll its way through and up into East Anglia.

With these considerations in mind, the secondary ‘palace’ — more, in truth, a military advanced base — was set up in the fertile Exning hollow, no more than two miles behind the final and most formidable ditch, still existing today as the Devil’s Dyke. And here it was that Anna, an intelligent leader of men, would have been charged with defending the Kingdom.

Anna’s residence — however it may be described — would have been a simple rectangular hall, wooden-planked with a thatched roof, with small rooms perhaps partitioned off within the building. Outside would have been all the paraphernalia of a military base: huts for the soldiers and their supporters, weaving sheds, artisans’ units, enclosures for horses and cattle, and so on. One imagines that the army, standing in reserve for the most part, occupied themselves on the land, with sentries manning the palisaded banks ready to sound an alarm at any time. Anna would probably have had his spies on the Mercian border — men who knew the tortuous pathways through the fenland and followed them to report regularly to Anna.

Although basic in construction, the royal seat of residence would not have been too uncomfortable a place in which to have been brought up, particularly as it was sited in idyllic countryside. Though the hall itself was rudimentary, soft furnishings of all kinds would have hung from the walls, carpeted the wooden floors, and been draped over the tables and chairs, cheating cold draughts and providing comfortable resting places, while the beds would have been covered with warm furs. The bright colours of the materials, the shining metals of the jugs and goblets, the treasured ceremonial pieces, would have reflected the winter log fire, ever burning in the middle of the hall, to produce a feeling of well being — albeit a somewhat smoky one — among those lucky enough to have been born within the royal family.


Etheldreda was one of these fortunate few. She was born at a time of peace. That peace was soon to be disturbed, but for a few years at least the borders with Mercia were to remain quiet. The great King Redwald had lived by his wits, treading a fine line between traditional paganism and the new Christian religion which had been introduced into Kent by Augustine and transmitted, however tenuously, into East Anglia. On Redwald’s death, probably in 624, his kingdom reverted to paganism. What this meant in practice was that the royal court re-embraced paganism; the ordinary people in their villages would have simply followed their rulers or, more likely, been totally unaware of conflicts of belief, struggling as they were with crop failure, incessant fires within the villages, frequent accident and injury, and ever-present disease. Their short lives beset with hardship, they had little or no time to reflect upon matters of religion, and they pursued their wearisome ways almost akin to those of the farm animals upon which they relied for milk, meat, leather and fur.

This great defensive ditch, embanked on the East Anglian side, would have been even more pronounced in the seventh century.

We have seen that Anna was given the responsibility for the defence of the ditches. Who charged him with this task we cannot know, but one may believe that King Redwald, as he grew older, chose to return to Rendlesham to live out his final years and picked as his western commander the best man for the job. Sigbert his younger son could have done it, and done it well, but Redwald had fallen out with him and sent him to France. Eorpwald, his dynastic successor, was still at that time a pagan like his mother, and was perhaps just as likely to accept Mercian domination as to oppose it. Anna was not in line for the throne, and not subversive by nature. Moreover he had always leaned towards the Christian faith, though he had taken no formal vows; certainly he would have had no dealings with pagan Mercia.


So in the year 630 we see Anna at Exning with his wife and their then four children: three daughters and a son. Things were quiet along the ditches: Penda, Mercia’s most powerful warrior, had only recently become its king while Sigbert, a noble and upright man and a strong Christian, had commenced his reign — in equal measure just and popular — over the kingdom of East Anglia. It was a good time by the standards of the day for the child Etheldreda to be born, to live out her infant years by the clear running stream, to play amid the meadows and woodlands and, before long, to join with her whole family in baptism into the Christian faith, by the springs sparkling their way through the copse which, secluded and mysterious, exists to this day.



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