by Robert Bartlett CBE FBA FRSE Bishop Wardlaw,
Professor of Mediaeval History Emeritus, University of St Andrew’s
We were very privileged to welcome Professor Bartlett to the Guildhall this month to talk about the miracles of St Aebbe of Coldingham. He first gave us a fascinating insight into the 7th century world of Princess Aebbe born in 615 CE, the daughter of a pagan King of Northumbria. He explored the ‘rules’ to becoming a Saint and gave us an understanding of what can be deemed a miracle before describing accounts of St Aebbe’s miracles.
Following the murder of her father, Aebbe’s mother fled with her children to the Kingdom of Dal Riata in the North of Scotland an area closely connected to Ireland and already a Christian
community. By the time Aebbe and her family were able to return to Northumbria she had adopted Christianity as her own faith. It was said that in her efforts to flee from a unwanted marriage she went to the headland 2 miles north of Coldingham. Her prayers were answered and the suitor was thwarted. In gratitude she established a small monastery on the site of an iron age fort, on Kirk Hill, the headland which had been her refuge.
Later Aebbe became the Abbess of a ‘double monastery’ which she established at nearby Coldingham. St Aebbe’s influence as a wise and holy woman who contributed to the spread of Christianity in Northumbria grew over her lifetime. She was a compatriot of St Hilda of Whitby and St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. She died in 683 CE and we owe it to Bede’s History of the English People in 735 who gave the only account of her story for the next 400 years during which time the original monastery buildings became ruins following fire and war.
It was in the 12th century that there was a new interest in Aebbe and a desire to make her a saint. Her sainthood was prompted by two people: i) A Coldingham monk (now part of the Monks of Durham) was said to have found the tomb of Aebbe’s body at Kirk Hill and taken it to Coldingham Priory. ii) A local man, Henry, a poor serf but described as a Christian, a ‘man of St Aebbe’, was said to have been driven to madness following a tumultuous love affair. Following prayers he had a vision of St Michael and was told to build an oratory on Kirk Hill. He did so and was cured of his madness. This led to the Monks rebuilding the oratory and re-establishing the church and Priory of Coldingham.
In the next 20 years there were accounts of 43 miracles of St Aebbe’s. Professor Bartlett gave us an example of a local folk singer and fiddler who was cured of the plague after prayer though not of his long term gout until he appealed to St Aebbe. Miracles form a recognised pattern – illness or disability; an appeal to St Aebbe; a visit to a holy site; a vision during sleep; and finally a cure than can not be assigned to natural causes. Miracles were usually recorded as happening more to men (60%) than for women (40%) but in St Aebbe’s accounts it is noted that many more women than men received miracles.
For an hour we were immersed in St Aebbe’s world. She was a holy princess; a 7th century powerful woman who contributed to the Christian enlightenment of the Region. We followed her influence through the mediaeval age and have a greater understanding of the significance of St Abb’s Head (from ‘St Aebbe’) which I am sure we will see with different eyes on our next visit thanks to Professor Bartlett.
Sandra Gann 20th October 2022