Æbbe of Coldingham
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|St Æbbe the Elder|
- For the later Abbess of Coldingham, see Æbbe the Younger.
Æbbe was the daughter of King Æthelfrith of Bernicia and Acha of Deira. Æthelfrith had invaded the neighbouring kingdom of Deira in 604, deposed Edwin of Northumbria, heir to the throne and brother of Acha, who fled into exile. To cement his claim to the throne of Deira, Æthelfrith took Princess Acha of the royal house of Deira as his wife. He united Deira with Bernicia thus becoming the first king of Northumbria.
Edwin took refuge in the court of King Rædwald of East Anglia, and with his support in 616, raised an army against Æthelfrith. In the subsequent battle, Æthelfrith was defeated and killed. Edwin then gained the throne of Northumbria. Edwin on the throne meant Northumbria was no longer safe for the children of Æthelfrith as they had a potential rival claim to the throne. Therefore, when Æbbe was still young she, her mother and brothers fled north to exile in the court of King Eochaid Buide of Dál Riata. It was during this time of exile in western Scotland that she and her brothers were converted to Christianity.
While the sons of Æthelfrith always represented a threat to Edwin, he was finally deposed by an alliance of the Mercian King Penda and the Welsh King Cadwallon. They raised an army against Edwin and killed him in battle in 633. Eanfrith, eldest son of Æthelfrith, and Æbbe's half-brother, returned as King of Bernicia, however he was double-crossed and murdered by Cadwallon. The year following Æthelfrith's son Oswald returned and drove the invaders from both Bernicia and Deira, thus establishing himself on the throne of Northumbria. He was however defeated and killed in battle, in 642, by Penda of Mercia, and was succeeded as king by his brother Oswiu.
With her brothers on the throne of Northumbria, Æbbe could return from exile and with their support established a monastery at Ebchester and later at urbs Coludi, now known as Kirk Hill at St Abb's Head, latterly evolving into Coldingham Priory. This religious house lasted for about 40 years and was a double separate monastery of both monks and nuns governed by Æbbe. Legend says she became a nun to avoid the attentions of a certain Prince Aidan. However, he refused to give up his suit and it is said that due to her prayers the tide stayed high around Kirk Hill for three days and protected her.
Æbbe was a great teacher and politician, bringing Christianity to the then pagan Angles who had been settling along the east coast of Britain since the 5th century. She educated the ex-queen Ætheldreda first wife of Ecgfrith, who later after graduating from Æbbe's tutelage established a religious site on which now stands Ely Cathedral.
Her political prowess also proved important in rectifying a dispute between her nephew Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, who had succeeded his father Oswui in 670, and the Bishop Wilfrid. The dispute started with Wilfrid's support for Queen Ætheldreda, who wished despite her marriage to preserve her virginity, and to enter a monastery. With his support she had become a nun at Æbbes monastery. The ill feeling in court against Wilfrid continued with Ecgfrith's second wife, Iurmenburh, who became hostile to Wilfrid on account of the vast estates which he had acquired and the way he travelled about with a large armed retinue, like that of a king. This culminated in Wilfrid being imprisoned at Dunbar at Ecgfrith's whim. Thanks to Æbbe's political skills, on a visit by Ecgfrith to the monastery on Kirk hill, she managed to persuade her nephew to release the bishop.
The reality of life in the early Christian establishment was not always strict on sexual piety. Due to the noble background of members of the religious community, the monastery would also have been a place for eating, drinking and entertainment. While Æbbe, herself was noted for her own piety, she had trouble enforcing discipline at the monastery. The monks and nuns thus became very lax and worldly. This leads to one of the most famous miracles surrounding the patron saint of southeast Scotland and northeast England, St. Cuthbert who visited Æbbe's monastery to instruct the community. At night Cuthbert would disappear to bathe and pray in the sea, to stop himself succumbing to temptations of the flesh. Very early one morning, a monk from the monastery spied him praying and singing psalms in the sea and as Cuthbert came ashore, he saw or imagined he saw two otters bound out of the sea and join Cuthbert. The most likely location for this event is Horse Castle bay at the base of the Kirk Hill.
Shortly after the death of Æbbe, and as foretold in prophesy by the monk Adamnan, in 683 the monastery burned down. The monastic site was abandoned, and by the first half of the 8th century, as Bede confirms, the site was deserted. The early work of Æbbe in establishing the Christian religion in south east Scotland was not forgotten, and in a book written about c.1200 by the monks of Coldingham, they tell of many pilgrims visiting the Kirk Hill and the spring at Well Mouth, located at the top of the beach now called Horse Castle Bay. St. Æbbe's feast day is celebrated on 25 August.