The Miracles of St Etheldreda

By: Andrew McRae

Added: 19 July 2019

St Etheldreda is the patron saint of Ely Cathedral. She was so passionately committed to chastity that she fled from her husband, who was stranded in his pursuit on the wrong side of a river estuary while the tide remained high for three days. At that point he appears to have accepted that God had a greater claim upon her, and left her in peace to settle on her land at Ely – like, all of Ely. And that’s pretty much how we come to have such a monumental cathedral in this fenland town.

            St Etheldreda was with us for our time in Ely in June, working in partnership with the Cathedral and coinciding with the week in which they celebrate their patron saint. We ran some workshops with local schools, and spent the Saturday in our own poetry-chapel in the Cathedral. All activities were led by the wonderful Jen Hadfield (supported in the schools by Michelle Madsen), who was also charged with writing an Ely poem for Places of Poetry. (Coming soon – and it’s wonderful.)

            The schoolchildren, from Lantern Primary School and Ely St Mary’s, produced some excellent poems. A number of the writers considered St Etheldreda, occasionally focusing on the gory details of her tale. (And yes, there are some gory details: most notably a disinterment epilogue to her life. But I’ll leave you to read about that for yourselves.) Others wrote about the Cathedral: its gargoyles, for example, are always a great place to start.

            The poetry chapel had a real creative energy. We were visited by some friends of Places of Poetry, such as Rennie Parker (author of several Places of Poetry poems, including ‘Chamberlain & Martin’s Best Example’) and Alice Willitts. Beth Hartley came with a poem about her housing estate, and information about writers in the region. An elderly man spent some time telling stories of the fens, that we helped him turn into poems. Some people just dropped by to look at the children’s poems that we had on display.

            But the show-stealer was Angela Brown. She spent a long time talking with Jen, explaining how she had spent over a year struggling with an illness that for a long period had robbed her of her voice. Yet she eventually read one of her poems: her first public reading since her illness, and a poem now pinned on the map (very well worth a look). In the subsequent days she also wrote ‘To Ely’s St Etheldreda, Patron Saint of Throat Conditions’, as a record of her experience.

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