6th July is a day of three saints, St Godelva (d. 1070), St Sexburga of Ely (679-700) and St Merryn of Andresey. I have only previously heard of St Sexberga. Were they all celebrated on this day in medieval churches? (The above illustration is merely an example of an early church – the building depicted is not specifically concerned with any of the three saints.)
Who were they, these three holy ladies who share a day in early July?
St Godelva of Gistel (aka Godelieve, Godeleva, Godeliève and Godelina) was a Flemish saint. According to Wikipedia she was a pious young girl and then a beautiful woman, much sought after by lusty suitors. A lord called Bertolf/Berthold was determined to marry her, and sought the help of her father’s overlord. Successfully married to her, although maybe not able to get into her bed, Berthold ordered his servants to feed her with only bread and water, which she promptly shared with the poor. She managed to escape and go home to her father, but he, with two bishops and the Count of Flanders, forced her to go back to her husband. She escaped again and returned to her father. Her husband then had her strangled by two servants and tossed into a pool, to make it appear that she had drowned by accident. She died on 6th July 1070.
Legend has it that Berthold married again and had a daughter, named Edith, who was born blind. St Godelva intervened and cured her. Berthold repented his sins and went to Rome for absolution. Then he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and became a monk. Edith founded a Benedictine monastery at Gistel, which was dedicated to Saint Godelieve. This saint is regarded as a “weather saint”, like St Swithun. I do not know why.
St Sexburga of Ely (also various other spellings) She is the only one of the three of whom I had heard before, she led a blessedly dull life in comparison with Godelva. She was the queen of a king of Kent, as well as an abbess and she had four sisters. Her marriage produced two daughters, and two sons, both of whom ruled. Sexburga acted as regent until her eldest son came of age.
Next, she founded the abbeys of Milton Regis and Minster-in-Sheppey, where one of her daughters became a nun. Then Sexburga moved to the monastery at Ely, and succeeded one of her sisters (St. Etheldreda) as abbess. Her saintly status came when her coffin was opened after sixteen years, and her body was found to be miraculously preserved. No terrible death, then, just a good, pious and holy woman.
As a matter of interest to Ricardians, and indeed to anyone interested in the ancestry of the Kings of England, Sexburga was the great-niece of Raedwald, the king of the East Angles, who died circa 616-627. He was a very sensible man, who on conversion to Christianity, did not forbid the continued worship of the old Anglo-Saxon gods. Raedwald may be the king who is buried at Sutton Hoo, and thus provided us with such amazing treasures from that far-off time. Collateral descent from Raedwald leads through the Houses of Wessex and Dunkeld, to include Richard III, which means that Sexburga was one of Richard’s ancestresses. Richard’s coronation was on St Sexburga’s Day, which cannot have been an accidental coincidence!
The third saint is St Merryn of Andresey. It seems that she is also known as St Modwenna/Monnina, who was a Christian anchorite on the island of Andresey in the River Trent at Burton-upon-Trent, just across from the then abbey. She is said to have been the daughter of a pagan Irish king, who rejected a robber baron’s offer of marriage, and then gathered a troop of virgins around her to travel to Britain. She raised a number of churches, particularly in southern Scotland. Conflation may have introduced elements from other saints, so that Modwenna’s father sought to have an incestuous relationship with her, or tried to force her to marry his powerful pagan ally. Or maybe her father finds her when she runs away, beheads her and seals her body in a cave.
Another version of her story: “Born to the Flemish nobility, the daughter of Hemfried, Lord of Wierre-Effray. Married to Bertulf of Ghistelles, a Flemish nobleman, who abandoned her before the wedding feast was over. Abused by her in-laws, especially her mother-in-law, Godelieve was variously locked in a cell, starved, and subjected to assorted physical and mental abuse. Her father threatened to turn the husband and in-laws over to state and Church authorities; Bertulf appeared to repent, Godelieve returned to him, and was soon after murdered; she is generally considered a martyr. Always a friend of the poor and sick, post-mortem miracles ascribed to her include restoration of sight to her step-daughter.”
The road to sainthood was usually a terrible one, mostly strewn with danger, torture and, ultimately, martyrdom. Of the above three ladies, only St Sexburga was blessedly free of such things. She led a flawless Christian life, and—presumably—died a natural death. It is good that this is so, and that her kindly and pious ways led to becoming a saint. It seems a pity that she would not have known of her destiny when she passed away. But I think that her descendant, Richard III, honoured her example. Not that I imagine he strove to be a saint! No, but I do think he did all he could to reign by example. Thanks to traitors, he was murdered in battle before he could prove himself to the full.
So…which of these ladies was most generally venerated on 6th July in medieval times? One? Two? Or all of them?