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St. Werburga, Abbess of Canterbury


Commemorated on February 3

The patroness of Chester, England, St. Werburga was born of a line of kings, being a daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia. From her mother, the saintly Ermingilde, she learned the Christian faith. By temperament, she was pious and virtuous, and her beauty attracted many admirers, among them a prince of the West Saxons, who offered her rich gifts and made flattering proposals, and also Werbode, a powerful knight of her father's court. Refusing all her suitors, she secured, after much persuasion, her father's permission to enter a convent.

When the time came, the King and his courtiers escorted her in great state to the Abbey of Ely, where they were greeted at the gates by her aunt, the royal abbess, Ethelreda, and her nuns. Werburga fell upon her knees and asked that she might be received as a novice, and to the chanting of the Te Deum, they entered the cloister, where she was stripped of her costly apparel, exchanged her coronet for a veil, and in a rough habit began her new life.

She made good progress, and after many years, she was chosen to superintend all the convents of the kingdom. This opened to her a large and fruitful sphere of duty, and the religious houses under her care became models of monastic discipline. She also founded new convents at Trentham in Staffordshire, Hanbury near Tutbury, and Weedon in Northamptonshire, and established the collegiate Church of St. John the Baptist in Chester.

Werburga won many from dissipation and vice, and God crowned her life with many blessings. Her work was deeply rooted in prayer and discipline. She took but one meal daily and that only of the coarsest food. She set before her the example of the desert fathers and recited the whole of the Psalter daily upon her knees.

She lived to a ripe age, and before her death, she journeyed to all her convents, paying to each a farewell visit. She then retired to Trentham where she died. She was buried in the monastery of Hanbury in Staffordshire. Later, her remains were transferred with great ceremony to a shrine in Leicester, which attracted many pilgrims.

In 875, for fear of the invading Danes, her relics were removed to Chester. In 1095, they were translated within Chester, where in the course of time a great church, now the cathedral, was built over it, and where the remains of it may still be seen, carved with the figures of her ancestors, the ancient kings of Mercia. On its four sides the deep niches remain, where the pilgrims knelt, seeking healing, afterwards receiving a metal token to show that they had visited her shrine. The shrine was destroyed under King Henry VIII, although part of its stone base survives. Twelve ancient English churches were dedicated to her, including Hanbury and Chester.

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