Edith of Wilton

Edith of Wilton
Born 961
Kemsing, Kent
Died 984
Wilton Abbey
Venerated in Anglican Communion, Roman Catholic Church
Feast 16 September
Attributes learning, beauty
Patronage Wilton Abbey

Saint Edith of Wilton (961-15 September 984) (also known as Eadgyth, her name in Old English, or as Editha or Ediva, the Latinised forms of her name) was an English nun, a daughter of King Edgar of England (born 943, died 975; ruled 959-975) The Peaceful. She was born at Kemsing, Kent, in 961. Following her death in 984, she became the patron saint of her community at Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire and churches were dedicated to her in Wiltshire and in other parts of Anglo-Saxon England. Her biography was written by Goscelin and her feast day is on 16 September.


Edgar the Peaceful

Edith was the daughter of Edgar, by Wilfrida (or Wulfthryth), a woman of noble birth whom Edgar carried off from the nunnery at Wilton Abbey. He took her to his residence at Kemsing, near Sevenoaks, where Edith was born.[1] Under Dunstan's direction, Edgar did penance for this crime by not wearing his crown for seven years. Although forms of bride abduction were a traditional part of Anglo-Saxon society, whether Edgar took Wulfryth forcibly is unclear. What we do know is that she stayed with him for at least a year, and that for some time after her return to Wilton, they were on good terms. As soon as Wulfthryth could, she returned to Wilton, taking Edith with her. Edgar continued to support the abbey monetarily and with land grants. [2]

Edith was educated by the nuns of the abbey, where her mother had become abbess. Standing not far from a royal residence at Wilton, the abbey included as part of its devotional work the contemporary equivalent of a boarding school for young ladies, as did many abbeys at the time.[1] As was the custom of the time, Edith probably took the veil in her latter teens. Edgar died in 975, when Edith was about 14.

According to legend, in 979, Edith had a dream that she had lost her right eye. She believed that the dream had been sent to warn her of the death of her half-brother Edward, who was indeed murdered at that time whilst on a visit to his stepmother Ælfthryth, at Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

Religious texts, and in particular her biography, written by Goscelin, have probably embellished many details of her life for political and dramatic effect; she was likely never offered position as abbess anywhere, since she was only about 14 when Edgar died and would have been a simple novice at Wilton at the time. It is uncertain whether she was offered the crown after the death of her brother, Edward the Martyr; Anglo-Saxon kingship was traditionally built not upon primogeniture, but kings were chosen by "acclamation". Like Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (d. 918) before her, she could have been offered a throne as a woman. But given her convent upbringing, Edith would not have had any training in leadership in the practical sense, and certainly not military strategy. She was reported to have always dressed magnificently and was reported by the mediaeval chronicler William of Malmesbury to have worn luxurious golden garments.[3] When rebuked by Æthelwold of Winchester, she answered that the judgment of God, which alone penetrated through the outward appearance, was alone true and infallible, adding, "For pride may exist under the garb of wretchedness; and a mind may be as pure under these vestments as under your tattered furs".[4] It is known that Abbess St. Wilfrid, Edith's mother, preferred that all the nuns at Wilton to dress in white habit with gold ornamentation, to the glory of God. What we can know without doubt is that Edgar continued to support Wulfthryth and Edith through the abbey, and that Edith made a great impression on those around her during her short life.

Edith built a church at Wilton and dedicated it to Saint Denis. Saint Dunstan was invited to the dedication and is said to have wept during the Mass. When he was asked why he wept, Dunstan said it was because he knew that Edith would die in three weeks. His prediction was proved to be correct when she died on 15 September 984: the story suggests that Edith was suffering from a fatal illness.[1] She was buried at Wilton in the newly dedicated church.[5]


According to hagiography, Edith was greatly celebrated for her learning, her beauty and her sanctity.[6] Minor miracles were reported shortly after her death.[1] A week after she died, Edith appeared in glory to her mother and told her that the Devil had tried to accuse her, but that she had broken his head.[7] The early mediaeval writer Goscelin reported that thirteen years later she appeared in visions to Dunstan and others, to inform them that her body was uncorrupted in the grave. He stated that Dunstan opened her tomb in the presence of her mother, and that its "fragrant perfumes gave off the breath of paradise". However, the dating of this event must be doubted, as Dunstan himself died only four years after Edith. It has been suggested that Goscelin may have chosen to enhance Edith's story by associating Dunstan with her translation.[1]

Following her exhumation and subsequent reburial, Edith's thumb was enshrined separately and became an important relic.[5] She was elevated to sainthood at her mother's instigation, and also upon the initiative of her brother Aethelred and her cause was supported by her nephew, Edmund Ironside. Edmund's successor, Cnut the Great, was renowned for his veneration of Edith. Goscelin wrote that while Cnut was crossing the North Sea from England to Denmark, his fleet suffered a terrible storm and fearing for his life, he appealed to Edith. The storm calmed and on his return to England, Cnut visited Wilton to give thanks for his rescue, "with solemn gifts, and published this great miracle with prolific testimony", subsequently ordering a golden shrine to Edith to be erected at the abbey.[1][8]

Edith became the focus of a major cult in Wilton and an important national saint.[9] Goscelin wrote her Life, under the title Vita Edithe, in about 1080.[10] The community at Wilton, in looking to her as its heavenly patron, remembered her as a royal lady who had been dedicated to its protection.[11] In his Liber Confortatorius, Goscelin wrote that he often thought of Edith and felt her presence.[12]

It is known that three churches were dedicated to Edith, at Baverstock near Wilton, Bishop Wilton in Yorkshire and at Limpley Stoke in Wiltshire. In the 16th century, after some five hundred years, the third of these churches was rededicated to St Mary, but the other two dedications survive.[1] Another eighteen churches in England are dedicated to an unspecified St Edith, and it has been suggested that most of these dedications are intended for Edith of Wilton.[13] According to The Calendar of the Anglican Church, "There are twenty-one churches dedicated in this name in England, eight of which are in Lincolnshire, and three in Warwickshire. It is now impossible to assign them to their respective saints, especially as two were located in the same county; the one whom William of Malmesbury mentions with most honour was S. Editha of Wilton, whose festival he relates was in his time kept in several parts of the kingdom with great solemnity; probably the majority, if not all, these churches are named in her honour".[6]

Two stories exist related to supernatural events and supposed violaters of her body. In one story, a monk from Ghent tried to cut off a piece of her tunic, and when his knife slipped, it hit her body, which gushed with blood. In another story a nun tried to steal her head-dress, but when she touched it, the head of Edith's corpse raised itself up. [14]

Wilton Abbey, which was dedicated to St Edith and later to her mother St. Wilfrid as well, is typically described in the later Middle Ages as "the convent of the house and church of St Editha of Wilton" or as the "monastery of St Mary and St Editha of Wilton".[15]

Future abbesses of Wilton have stories relating to private revelations given by St Edith in later times. In one story, in which an abbess' authority perhaps was being doubted, one of the members of the community had a vision in which she saw St Edith appear and put her own veil on the abbess' head, and said that she would bring many goods for the community but would not last long, and these words proved to be true. In another story during the time of Herman, bishop of Sherborne, an abbess complained to the bishop that Edith was not protecting them. After she said this, however, the abbess' cousin had a dream of Edith, in which Edith asked why the abbess had said these things, and Edith had glowing hands and said 'Whatever I want to do with divine aid, I can' and after this was reported to the abbess, she made public repentance of her words. [16]

Her feast day is on 16 September, the day following the anniversary of her death.[17] It has also been reported as 15 September, the anniversary itself.[6]


The seal of Edith has survived. Dated to the period 975–984, it contains a portrait of her, showing her standing with one hand raised and the other holding a book. The inscription identifies her as regalis adelpha, or 'royal sister', which is taken to be a reference both to her status as a nun and to her being the sister of Edward and Ethelred. The handle of the matrix has a rich acanthus decoration: the seal is the only one surviving from the Anglo-Saxon period which shows this feature.[3]



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Kate Pratt, St Edith at bishopwilton.com
  2. Mrs Jameson, Legends of the monastic orders: as represented in the fine arts p. 95 online at books.google.com
  3. 1 2 Catherine E. Karkov, The ruler portraits of Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004; p. 114
  4. Jameson, op. cit., p. 96 online at books.google.com
  5. 1 2 Sabine Baring Gould, 'S. Edith of Wilton' in his The Lives of the Saints, vol. X [September] (London: John Hodges, 1875), pp. 269-271
  6. 1 2 3 Church of England, The calendar of the Anglican Church illustrated: with brief accounts of the Saints who have churches dedicated in their names, or whose images are most frequently met with in England (1851) pp. 226-227 at books.google.com
  7. Agnes Dunbar, 'Edith of Wilton', in her A Dictionary of Saintly Women (1904)
  8. Goscelin, Vita Edithe, quoted in Hollis et al., Writing the Wilton Women (2004), p. 40
  9. Karkov, op. cit., p. 116
  10. Susan Janet Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: a study of West Saxon and East Anglian cults. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988; p. 40
  11. Ridyard, op. cit., p. 149
  12. Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, Forgetful of their sex: female sanctity and society, c. 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; p. 340
  13. 'H. N. R.', in William White, ed., Notes and Queries, vol. 44 (1877) p. 127
  14. Studies in the Early History of Shaftesbuy Abbey. Dorset County Council, 1999
  15. William Campbell, Materials for a history of the reign of Henry VII from original documents (1873), pp. 74 & 90
  16. Studies in the Early History of Shaftesbuy Abbey. Dorset County Council, 1999
  17. Francis Goldie, Saints of Wessex and Wiltshire (1885) p. 28
  18. St Editha of Wilton at books.google.com

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