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  • Print publication year: 1989
  • Online publication date: May 2010

6 - The royal cults of Ely

Summary

THE SEVENTH AND EIGHTH CENTURIES: THE ORIGIN OF THE ELY CULTS

The cult of the royal patron received its clearest expression in the veneration at Ely of St Æhelthryth. To Bede, as to the hagiographers of St Edburga and St Edith, the essence of his subject's sanctity lay in her preservation of uirginitas and in the replacement of secular by monastic goals which this both implied and symbolised. But to Bede as to the later writers virtue depended for its effectiveness upon the resources of an earthly kingdom. In the kingdom of the East Angles the Christian faith had been received with some hesitancy in the early decades of the seventh century. The attitude of Redwald, the first East Anglian ruler to receive baptism, had been ambivalent, if not downright cavalier: ‘After the manner of the ancient Samaritans’, Bede wrote with some distaste, ‘he seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods whom he had previously served; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another smaller altar on which to offer victims to devils.’ A second attempt to convert the East Angles had proved abortive when Redwald's son, Eorpwald, was killed by a heathen almost immediately after receiving the faith. It was not until the 630s, when King Sigebert joined forces with the Burgundian bishop Felix, that any real progress was made towards the establishment of the church.