Daily Decoration: St Etheldreda

Textile Christmas tree ornament representing a woman in a purple robe, holding a book and a sceptre, and with a gold halo

Saint Etheldreda here is my second-newest decoration. (The newest one is the latest in the now-traditional I-can’t-be-with-you-for-Christmas-but-this-ornament-can series, and will probably appear in a later post.)

The St Nicholas decorations are great fun, very beautifully made, and rather expensive. Expensive, I think, because they’re beautifully made, but nevertheless outside what I think of as a sensible price for a Christmas tree ornament. I bought several of the Alice in Wonderland ones a couple of years ago, week by week, and had to write them into my budget.

However! I went into the cathedral shop several months ago, and there was an Etheldreda in the sale, so I bought her.

St Etheldreda was a princess of East Anglia and, after a vow of chastity, two marriages, and no children, founded the monastic house that became, several hundred years later, Ely Cathedral. Of course it’s difficult to pick one’s way between histories and hagiographies, and this is the period of English history where plenty of rulers ended up as saints. I’ve devoted very little time to research, but I get the impression that she was a formidable woman. All her sisters ended up as saints. I think they must have been quite formidable, too.

I’ve lived in a few cathedral cities in my time – Winchester, Exeter, Guildford (look, I’m not going to be picky), and now Ely. We left Winchester before I could read, and almost every time we’ve gone back it’s been to ride on buses. In Exeter, I lived most of my life on the university campus. Guildford’s only had a diocese since the twentieth century, and the cathedral is somewhat set apart, up on a hill.

In Ely, though, I get the sense of a city that exists because of its cathedral and because of its market. Ely is tiny as cities go: it can’t get much bigger because most of the land around it is below sea level. The big expansion has happened fifteen miles south, around Cambridge. In Ely I get the sense of a city that exists in very much the same way that it has for centuries. These days the cathedral brings in tourists as well as pilgrims and the market… well, the market attracts people wishing to buy stuff, some of which the medievals would have recognised and some of which they wouldn’t.

In some ways, Ely feels like everywhere I’ve ever lived, all at once: the rich light on old stone of Winchester and Exeter and Cambridge, the proximity to agriculture (tractors!) of the Welsh borders and the Isle of Wight, the excellent rail connections of Woking, the hills and the cobbles of Guildford. In others, it feels like nowhere else.

Etheldreda wouldn’t recognise the lush farmland and the complex system of drainage ditches that supports it. She’d be completely boggled by the railway, the fact that I can get to London in little more than an hour. She’d be bewildered by my bicycle, come to that. But there’s not much you can do to that big wide sky. Contrails aside, she’d recognise that.

One last thing: it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that St Etheldreda was also, later, known as St Audrey. St Audrey as in St Audrey’s Fair. St Audrey as in tawdry. The absolute blinginess that the designers have endowed her with her is really rather fitting.

While I’m on the subject of cathedrals, I loved Dr Eleanor Janega’s latest piece. (Even if she doesn’t talk about Winchester, Exeter, Guildford or Ely.)

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