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St. Etheldreda & another saint (? Sexburga) : Willingham, Cambridgeshire (Ely) mid C.13


St. Etheldreda, Willingham, Cambs (91KB) Suffolk-born (probably at Exning) Etheldreda was a princess, the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia. Married twice, she managed, despite some resistance, to remain chaste within both marriages, and was eventually able to pursue her true vocation as a nun. In 673 she founded a double monastery at Ely, on the site of the present-day cathedral. She is not unknown to art by any means, appearing on at least six screens in East Anglia, but this is the only wall painting of her known to me, and it is the earliest of the paintings, which span more than three centuries, in the church at Willingham.

In her left hand is a book with an elaborate cover, and in her right she holds two palm branches, although she was not a martyr in the usual sense of the word. Etheldreda actually died of plague, during an outbreak which carried off several members of her community. A tumour in her neck, caused by her illness, was removed by her doctor, and when her uncorrupted body was examined seventeen years later, the wound from the surgery was found to have healed.

Although Etheldreda is sometimes shown as an Abbess, holding a pastoral staff, at Willingham the emphasis is on the miraculous post-mortem healing of the wound in her neck - what looks at first glance like a rather clumsily painted red mouth is in fact the livid scar left - in life, at any rate - after the surgery. The saint (also known familiarly as St. Audrey in England) attributed the neck tumour to divine punishment for her youthful fondness for necklaces - the ‘tawdry lace’ promised to the shepherdess Mopsa in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale¹ is a direct reference to the lace necklaces sold cheaply at St. Audrey’s fairs, usually held in late June. female saint ?St. Sexburga, Wilingham, Cambs (75KB)

Etheldreda is in a window-splay on the west wall of the south aisle, and in the splay opposite is a painting of another female saint. She has never been conclusively identified, but I suspect that she might be St. Sexburga, Etheldreda’s sister and her immediate successor as Abbess of Ely. She is far less clear than Etheldreda, but her blue shoes, and her elegantly draped robe, looped over her left arm, show well. Like Etheldreda, she wears a veil over her head and carries a book in her left hand.
Painted on the background is a ‘stoning and roses’ pattern incorporating delicate tendrils of foliage - an early example of this kind of design.

There are many more paintings at Willingham; not all are medieval, but those from the early 17th century provide an interesting insight into the way attitudes to church decoration changed after the Reformation. The fine medieval St. Christopher is newly on the site, more will be added in due course, and the link below will take you to the website of Willingham church, where many of the others can be seen.

¹ Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, 1V, 1

Website of Willingham church, Cambridgeshire

St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk
St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon. Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs
St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk
St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks
St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk
St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire
St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, Dorset St Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire
St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks
St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the barrel, Bishopsbourne, Kent NEW St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon St. Paul : Selling, Kent St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon
St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants St. Peter : Selling, Kent SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire NEW St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon
St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs. Archbishop, possibly Thomas Becket, blessing, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire NEW St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk
St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Zita : Horley, Oxon St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon Unidentified female saint : Heydon

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Anne Marshall 2003