The Shepherd, April 2005

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The Translation of St Withburga's Relics

How Abbot Brithnoth translated the body of the gracious virgin Withburga to Ely - [this explains the contention described on previous page].

Along with other verifiable things, the monastery got together a splendid military force, provided by King Edgar and proceeded towards Dereham and its most precious treasure Withburga, for whom translation was to be provided.

Following consultation between the most holy Bishop Ethelwold and the most devout Abbot Brithnoth, it was agreed unanimously that the most illustrious adornment of the Church was to be moved without upheaval, to a superior dwelling where the most brilliant and pure virgin of church domain would adorn and illumine (with her decoration and brilliance) a higher sanctuary than the one in which she rested.

Having been provided with royal largess and support by the obliging King Edgar, and supported by the great favour and wishes of the Virgin Withburga herself, Brithnoth sought her assistance through earnest prayers, so that they might fulfil their holy intention and without disorder.

Thus the faithful robber Brithnoth, having besought the presence of the Lord through confession, psalms and fasting, and having foreseen the outcome of events, together with the more skillful of the brethren, came with a military force to the aforesaid Church of Dereham. He came to his own hereditary possession and thus no one questioned the reason for his arrival. Though he had been granted by royal authority to act with power and violence, he preferred to carry out his purpose with respect and prudence, lest insurrection or confusion should break out amongst the townsmen of Dereham.

He invited the citizens to abundant feasts in accordance with the exercise of the rights of the townsmen. He left the hired hall to them and took himself to the church sanctuary for vigil and worship and for the purpose of the theft of sacred things, a faithful theft and advantageous plunder, like unto Jacob supplanting the blessing of his brother Esau.

As night drew on, the townsmen and dignitaries of Dereham (now fully sated and drunk) took to their quarters and beds, whilst the vigilant robber of God and his monks went into hiding, waiting to carry out the holy villainy. Next, Brithnoth went on bended knees, and with profuse warm prayers begged the kind maiden to be friendly to him, justifications now being tiresome.

In due course, after a sermon and a censing, they opened up the tomb with reverence and due trembling, together with wonderment, and discovered the incorrupt and springtime beauty of the whole body, as though resting only in a pleasant slumber. They raised her out with due respect, having removed and replaced the tomb cover with sliding braces and levers, and carried her away with assiduous psalm singing and triumphal rejoicing, just as victors triumph with seized prisoners. The soldiers and attendants ran out to meet and reinforce them with arms and rigor and prepared to resist anyone who might oppose them.

Thus they progressed twenty miles, reaching the river at Brandon [Creek], and boarded ship with the precious litter, and with oars and tackle they eagerly watched over her. In truth, an astonishing and unsurpassed sign was given. Whilst on their journey, a most brilliant and large reddish star shone forth above the shining body of Withburga, with bright beams of light pouring forth. It shone perpetually whilst their companion was making her journey.

The parishioners of Dereham, following the burden of their deep sleep, slowly organised an inspection of the quarters of the Abbot in the Church. They discovered the unbolted doors and a total silence with no one present, and realised that the tomb had been emptied of their blessed mother Withburga, abducted by way of the trap of hospitality.

Horrible shoutings and lamentations were made, the noise of trumpets… [and then the pursuit as described in the extract above -

Tradition tells us that a clear spring of water sprang up from the site of St Withburga’s first grave.

Primary Sources: ASS, Liber Eliensis, Vita Withburgae 1 [Corpus Christi College, Cambridge], Vita Withburgae 2 [Trinity College, Dublin]

Translation: Marilyn Back and Fr Elias Trefor-Jones

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