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Saint Werburh, Chester Cathedral.
|Born||early 7th century
|Died||February 3, 699
|Major shrine||Hanbury then
She was born at Stone (now in Staffordshire), and was the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia (himself the Christian son of the pagan King Penda of Mercia) and his wife St Ermenilda, herself daughter of the King of Kent. She was a nun for most of her life, and was tutored under her great aunt Etheldreda (or Audrey), the first Abbess of Ely and former queen of Northumbria.
By the year 708 her brother Cenred had succeeded as king of Mercia; he now decided to move his sister's body to a more conspicuous place within the church at Hanbury. Her body was found to be miraculously intact. This was considered to be a sign of divine favour, and her tomb therefore became an object of veneration and a centre for pilgrimage. Her brother is said to have been so affected by this miracle that he decided to abdicate and enter holy orders himself; however, he came from a notably religious family (his mother, grandmother and great-aunt all being abbesses). It is possible that the anecdote about the saint reviving a goose dates from this time.
The shrine of St Werbergh remained at Hanbury for the next 160 years or so but due to the threat from Viking raiders in the 9th century, the shrine was relocated in 875 to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul which lay within the protection of the city walls of Chester.
The city of Chester therefore became the focus for the cult of Werburga. Sometime later, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was re-dedicated to St. Werburh and St Oswald around the year 975, when a monastery was also built in the names of these two saints.
In 1057 the church was rebuilt and further endowed by Leofric, Earl of Mercia. By this time, St. Werburh was regarded as the protector and patron saint of the city, after the supposed miraculous withdrawal of the Welsh king Gruffudd ap Llywelyn from a siege of the city.
St. Werburh remained popular after the Norman conquest. In 1093, the Norman Earl of Chester, Hugh d'Avranches, better known as "Hugh the Wolf" to the Welsh, further endowed the abbey and its church. He also established a Benedictine monastery, with monks from Bec Abbey in Normandy, which had provided the first two post-Conquest Archbishops of Canterbury: Lanfranc and Anselm. Like many other Anglo-Norman barons, Hugh d'Avranches entered the monastery himself shortly before he died. He was buried therein. The abbey became Chester Cathedral in 1540 and was rededicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
An elaborate shrine had been constructed in the fourteenth century but did not survive the reign of Henry VIII. When the abbey was dissolved, the shrine was broken up and the remains of the saint scattered. The various remains of the shrine that survived were collected together in 1876, reassembled, and now remain on display to this day at the Lady Chapel of the cathedral.
A village in Kent is named Hoo St Werburgh
- Gordon Emery, Curious Chester (1999) ISBN 1-872265-94-4
- Gordon Emery, Chester Inside Out (1998) ISBN 1-872265-92-8
- Gordon Emery, The Chester Guide (2003) ISBN 1-872265-89-8
- Roy Wilding Death in Chester (2003) ISBN 1-872265-44-8
- Life of St Werbergh
- St Werberga and her royal and saintly relatives at Ely
- Reference to Earl Hugh building the abbey church
- Steve Howe's 'Chester: a Virtual stroll Around the Walls'
- Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912: St. Werburgh