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The establishment of the cult of Werburgh at Chester was a key element in the development of the city towards the end of the Dark Ages. She never visited Chester and her relics and cult only arrived in the city long after her death.

According to legend Wulfhere had a fortified camp at "Wulferecester" (Bury Bank) near Stone. This kind of hill-fort dates to the Iron Age period, most having been constructed and occupied between the sixth century BC and the mid-first century AD - long before the actual time of Wulfhere and there is no evidence of substantial re-use in post-Roman times.

A Mercian princess who became the patron saint of the city of Chester. Werburgh was born at Stone (now in Staffordshire), and was the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia (himself the Christian son of the pagan King Penda of Mercia) and his wife St Ermenilda, herself daughter of Eorcenberht the King of Kent. She obtained her father's consent to enter the Abbey of Ely, which had been founded by her great aunt Etheldreda (or Audrey), the first Abbess of Ely and former queen of Northumbria, whose fame was widespread. Werburgh was trained at home (traditionally by St Chad, afterwards Bishop of Lichfield), and by her mother; and in the cloister by her aunt and grandmother. Werburgh was a nun for most of her life. The shrine of St Werburgh remained at Hanbury until the threat from Danish Viking raids in 875 prompted their relocation to within the walled city of Chester. A shrine to St Werburgh was established at the Church of St Peter and St Paul (the site is now occupied by Chester Cathedral). Around 907, the Church of St Peter and St Paul was re-dedicated to St Werburgh and the Northumbrian saint Oswald. A monastery in the names of these two saints was attached to the church in the 11th century.

Some of the supposed history of Werburgh seems obviously false, even Chambers in his "Book of Days" is suspicious, especially as regards some of the stories which became associated with her father and brothers. Parts of her story do seem to be backed-up by other evidence - such as the fact that one brother became king after her uncle had stood in as ruler during his youth for some years. Both the uncle and the brother appear to have eventually become monks. Other parts are less believable, including the supposed murder of other brothers by her father. She probably was a very well-connected "royal saint" at a time when royalty who favoured the church found many of their deceased achieving sainthood. There is no definite evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958. In that year Edgar the Pacific, then king of the Mercians, granted to "the familia of St. Werburgh" 17 hides of land in Hoseley (Flints.), Cheveley, Huntington, Upton, Aston, and Barrow.

The problem with the re-location of Werburgh to Chester in 875 is that while it is mentioned by Bradshaw, it is not mentioned in either the brief biography written by Florence of Worcester (died 1118) nor by Goscelin, Werburgh's hagiographer (who was alive in 1106). This was not Werbergh's first post-mortem journey. She died at Trentham (3 February, 699 or 700) and, according to some, was originally buried there. Existence of this nunnery is disputed and a connection with Saint Werburgh is also disputed.

Despite these uncertainties, the cult of St Werburga was sufficiently strong for churches to be founded in her name elsewhere, not least in Dublin where the church of St Werburgh’s was established close to Dublin Castle around 1178 (Jonathan Swift was baptised there in 1667). The street name has been Gaelicised to "Sráid Bharbra": which actually sounds like "Werburgh", the Irish alphabet does not include 'w' and the 'gh' combination is not used.

Weburgh's Times

Werburgh's times overlap with the spread of the Roman christian tradition through Anglo-Saxon England, as well as a period of intense struggle for dominance between the many small kingdoms which covered the country.

The years 600-685 saw a series of battles between the Welsh, Northumbrians and Mercians. The Northumbrians initially did well, under both Æthelfrith (Chester: 616) and Edwin, but then the Welsh and Mercians counter-atacked under Cadwallon ap Cadfan and Penda (Cefn Digoll: c630, Hatfield Chase: 633). Oswald later restored Northumbria's fortunes (Heavenfield: 634), but was himself defeated by the Mercians under Penda (Maserfield: 641-42)). Oswalds brother Oswiu got revenge on Penda (Winwaed: 655) but the Mercians were back on form under their temporary king Æthelred (Trent: 679). Having been defeated, the Northumbrian Ecgfrith turned hiss attention northwards and was destroyed with his army at the Battle of Nechtansmere c685. The Mercians came out on top.

England in AD 600 was ruled almost entirely by the Anglo-Saxon peoples who had come to Britain from northwestern Europe over the previous 200 years. The monk Bede, writing in about AD 731, considered the Mercians to be descended from the Angles, one of the invading groups; the Saxons and Jutes settled in the south of Britain, while the Angles settled in the north. Little is known about the origins of the kingdom of Mercia, in what is now the English Midlands, but according to genealogies preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Anglian collection the early kings were descended from Icel; the dynasty is therefore known as the Iclingas. The earliest Mercian king about whom definite historical information has survived is Penda of Mercia, Wulfhere's father and Werburgh's grandfather.

The extreme and varying fortunes of the main kingdoms in seventh-century England illustrate the instability and fragility of political authority during this period. The acknowledged overlord of southern England at the beginning of the seventh-century was Æthelberht, ruler of the rich kingdom of Kent, who introduced Christianity to his people. Werburgh lived through most of the second half of the seventh century, and in her time Christianity became reasonably well established amongst the Anglo-Saxons.

On the 15th November 655 AD at the Battle of the Winwaed, Penda of Mercia died. He had been defeated in the battle and promptly beheaded. According to Bede, the battle marked the effective demise of Anglo-Saxon paganism. Penda's success in dominating England came from a series of military victories, most significantly over the previously dominant Northumbrians (see: Battle of Chester for more on the lead-up to this). In alliance with Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd he had defeated and killed Edwin of Northumbria at Hatfield Chase in 633, and subsequently he defeated and killed Oswald of Northumbria at the Battle of Maserfield in 642.

Although the Battle of the Winwaed is said to be the most important between the early northern and southern divisions of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, few details are available. The two armies met near a river named the "Winwæd", but this river has never been identified. The battle had a substantial effect on the relative positions of Northumbria and Mercia. Mercia's position of dominance, established after the battle of Maserfield, was destroyed, and Northumbrian dominance was restored; Mercia itself was divided, with the northern part being taken by Oswiu outright and the southern part going to Penda's Christian son Peada, who had married into the Bernician royal line. The victor Oswiu had been converted to christianity while in Irish exile but helped resolve some of the differences between the Celtic and Roman traditions. In 664 a conference was held at Whitby Abbey (known as the Whitby Synod) to decide the matter; Saint Wilfrid was an advocate for the Roman rites and Bishop Colmán for the Irish rites. Wilfrid's argument won the day and Colmán and his party returned to Ireland in their bitter disappointment. The Roman rites were adopted by the English church, although they were not universally accepted by the Irish Church until Henry II of England invaded Ireland in the 12th century and imposed the Roman rites by force. Peada (Werburgh's uncle) did not hold on to his new kingdom for long. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

  • "Peada ruled no length of time, because he was betrayed by his own queen at Eastertide"

Bede also reports that Peada was "very wickedly killed" through his wife's treachery "during the very time of celebrating Easter" in 656.

Family Origins

Werburgh was of mixed Mercian/Kentish ancestry. The Mercian ruling families have a very fragmented history as the Mercians do not appear to have fixed on any one lineage for their rulers. Many of her relatives and other Mercian rulers were depicted on her shrine at Chester.

Werbergh (Werburga) Patroness of Chester, Abbess of Weedon, Trentham, Hanbury, Minster in Sheppy, and Ely, was born in Staffordshire early in the seventh century and died in 699. Her mother was Eormenhild, daughter of Ærconberht, King of Kent, and his wife Sexburga. Her father was Wulfhere, son of the lifelong pagan Penda and eventually to be king of Mercia. He was the first Christian king of all of Mercia, though it is not known for certain when or how he converted from Anglo-Saxon paganism. It is possible that he converted upon his marriage.

Wulfhere's accession marked the end of Oswiu of Northumbria's overlordship of southern England, and Wulfhere extended his influence over much of that region. His campaigns against the West Saxons led to Mercian control of much of the Thames valley. He conquered the Isle of Wight and the Meon valley and gave them to King Æthelwealh of the South Saxons. He also had influence in Surrey, Essex, and Kent. He married Eormenhild, the daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent. No issue from this marriage are recorded in the earliest sources. Later sources record five possible children: Coenred, Berhtwald, Werburgh, Wulfad and Ruffin. Wulfhere brought bishop Wilfrid (c. 633 – 709 or 710), to Mercia. It is not clear where Wilfrid was bishop of. It is posssible that St Chad and Wilfrid were rivals at first for the see at York and then for the see at Lichfield.

The people on the shrine are coloured: blue for Mercian rulers, green for Kentish, women in yellow.

Chambers writes:

  • Wereburge was one of the earlier and more celebrated of the Anglo-Saxon saints, and was not only contemporary with the beginning of Christianity in Mercia, but was closely mixed up with the first movement for the establishment of nunneries in England. Her father, Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, though nominally a Christian, was not a zealous professor, but, under the influence of his queen, all his children were earnest and devout believers. These children were three princes, — Wulfhad, Rufinus, and Keured, — and one daughter, Wereburge. The princess displayed an extraordinary sanctity from her earliest years, and, though her great beauty drew round her many suitors, she declared her resolution to live a virgin consecrated to Christ. Among those who thus sought her in marriage was the son of the king of the West Saxons; but she incurred greater danger from a noble named Werbode, a favourite in her father's court, who was influenced, probably, by ambition as much as by love. At this time there are said to have been already five bishops' sees in Mereia, — Chester, Lichfield, Worcester, Lincoln, and Dorchester; and to that of Lichfield, which was nearest to the favourite residence of King Wulfhere, near Stone, in Staffordshire, St. Chad (Ceadda) had recently been appointed. It appears that Chad had an oratory in the solitude of the forest, where he spent much of his time; and that Wulfhere's two sons Wulfhad and Rufinus, while following their favourite diversion, discovered him there. The legend, which is not quite consistent, represents them as having been pagans down to that time, and as being converted by Chad's conversation.

Legend says that Wulfhere wished to marry his daughter, Werburgh, to Werbode, (a "perverse heathen" according to Chamber's Book of Days). However, Werburga's brothers, Wulfad and Rufinus, objected to the union. Unable to defeat their opposition, Werbode poisoned the King's mind against his sons and obtained his authority to have them arrested for treason. Wulfhere too hastily accepted the fabricated evidence and the guiltless young men were condemned to death. The murder of Wulfad in the 7th century and his subsequent entombment under a cairn of stones is still a traditional story in Stone (described as 'historically valueless' by Thacker 1985). "Rufinus of Mercia" also has his own legend, that he escaped at first and was then recaptured at Stone and killed there. The place of his martyrdom (as St Rufin) became the site of an early chapel in the village of Burston, Staffordshire.

On discovery of the plot, Werburgh decided to become a nun and "Werbode was poisoned by an evil spirit, and died raving mad". This story is unlikely to be true, as the only recorded sons of Wulfhere were Coenred (who was young at the time) and possibly a Berhtwald (who would have been even younger). Werbode, together with Werburgh's two deceased brothers seem like almost unnecessary characters and there is little evidence that any of the three actually existed. Wulfhere was king for about 17 years and according to Bede was relatively young when he became king (658). Wulfhere's relationship with Bishop Wilfrid is recorded in Stephen of Ripon's Life of Wilfrid. During the years 667–69, while Wilfrid was at Ripon, Wulfhere frequently invited him to come to Mercia when there was need of the services of a bishop. This would be the very time of his supposed apostacy. Neither of the brothers appears amongst the figures carved onto the shrine of Werburgh which still survives at Chester Cathedral. The shrine is described in further detail below.

Hemingway, in his "Panorama of the City of Chester", tells an even more unlikely tale for which their seems to be no historical basis at all in the case of Werburgh:

  • "The abbey which gave birth to this see, is of such antiquity as to have been a nunnery more than eleven hundred years ago, founded by Walpherus King of the Mercians for his daughter St Werburgh; who the good wives of the present day will wonder to hear took the veil after living three years with her husband Cedredus in a state of vestal purity!!! Whether this chaste lady's immaculacy was more ascribable to her constiutional coldness or spiritual heat historians have not been kind enough to inform us; nor even have they vouchsafed to say, what sort of a man her husband was!!"

Interestingly, Hemingways story (for which no source is given) is remarkably similar to that of the Flemish saint Saint Pharaildis, of which more below.

The traditional tale is that despite her beauty and attractions as a royal princess, she rejected all suitors and entered the Abbey of Ely, founded by her great aunt Æðelþryð (who was then abbess and later became St Æðelþryð). Werburgh's grandmother (later St Sexburga) succeeded Æðelþryð as abbess, and Werbergh's own mother (later St Eormenhild) was to enter the convent after Wulfhere's death in 675, and eventually become abbess. Great-aunts of Werburgh include St Æthelburg of Faremoutier and St Saethryth among other saints. Aunts included saintly sisters St Cyneburh and St Cyneswith. There was purportedly even an infant grandson of Penda named Rumwold who lived a saintly three-day life of fervent preaching. Not to be outdone by the Mercians, Oswald of Northumbria quickly became a saint as well - Oswald and Werbergh would finally be reunited in a very strange manner.

So many "princess" saints raises the suspicion that the rival Celtic and Roman Churches were attempting to curry favour with the ruling classes. Indeed, at this time King Oswiu of Northumbria had the problem that he (Celtic) and his queen - St Eanflæd (Roman) - celebrated Easter weeks apart. Finally, at the Synod of Whitby in 664, King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter and observe the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome, rather than the customs practised by the Celtic Church. Prior to 1234, local bishops could canonise whoever they wanted (whether they were dead or not) and is not beyond reason that the profusion of saints can in part be explained by attempts by the Church to gain influence with the local rulers.

Coenred (or Cenred, Coinred, Kenred) the son of Wulfhere (and hence the brother of Werbergh), was probably too young to succeed to the Mercian throne when Wulfhere died in 675, and so his uncle Æthelred ruled until around 704, when he abdicated (and became a monk). Æthelred has been descibed as overly pious but he did decisively defeat the Northumbrian Ecgfrith (his brother in law) at the Battle of the Trent in 679. Æthelred provides a clear connection between Werburgh and Chester as he was, at least in legend, the founder of St Johns. Werburgh's brother Coenred probably had no offspring and was only the Mercian king for a short period (704 to 709) before he too retired to a monastery. Whether this was entirely of his own volition is unknown. He was succeeded by his cousin Ceolred (the son of Werburgh's uncle Æthelred). He was to suffer an even stranger fate: Saint Boniface later described him as dying in a crazed frenzy at a banquet, "gibbering with demons and cursing the priests of God". Some have suggested that he was poisoned - sudden "demonic possession" and death did seem common among Mercian royalty and their close associates. Æthelbald, a member of another branch of the Mercian royal line who had been forced into exile during Ceolred's rule, succeeded him. What can be gathered from all this is that Weburgh lived in an environment which combined religious fanaticism and dynastic strife which often ended in murder.

There are no contemporary records of Werbergh's activities - the earliest account of her life was written by Goscelin, a Flemish monk, towards the end of the 10th century. During his reign Æthelred invited Werburgh to return home, assume control of all the Mercian convents and "bring them to a higher level of discipline". Werburgh spent the rest of her life reforming these Mercian establishments and founding new religious houses including those at Trentham, Hanbury and Weedon.


Werburgh's cult appears to have first become established at Hanbury in Staffordshire, with an early branch in Kent, before moving much later to Chester. There were two significant revivals of the cult, first with her promotion at Chester by Æthelflæd and second when the Norman Earls of Chester funded the Abbey which would later become Chester Cathedral.

There are several versions of what followed Werbergh's death and initial burial. In the first Werburgh had apparently decided on Hanbury as her final resting place but happened to be at Trentham (Staffordshire) when she died. The nuns at Trentham refused to give up the body and even instituted security arrangements to prevent its removal. Despite this an expedition from Hanbury succeeded in "miraculously" recovering her remains, when those guarding her fell "asleep" and doors and other fastenings were opened through "divine intervention".

According to a second version her brother Coenred decided that Werburgh should be moved to the more important site at Hanbury. When the tomb was opened, her body was found to be miraculously intact. This preservation was taken as a sign of divine favour.

Other versions have her first buried at Threekingham in Lincolnshire, site of St Æthelthryth's nunnery which had been supposedly set up by Werburgh. Trentham was once known as "Triccingham", so it is possible that confusion could occur. This was the time of the great spread of Christianity in England and every new church was required to have a relic in order to be consecrated so there was great demand for the remains of saints. Thinking that she might be a saint, the people of Threekingham then dug up Werburgh's remains and found that her body was a fresh as when she had been buried, in this version a decade earlier. Taking this as proof of her sanctity, she was moved to Hanbury in Staffordshire. The nunnery at Threekingham ("ST AETHELREDAS MONASTERY AND CHAPEL") was destroyed by the Danes circa 870 and succeeded by a medieval chapel, no visible trace of either now remaining.

The version of the legend favoured by historians appears to be that she died at Threekingham and after some dissention she was re-buried in accordance with her wishes in the monastery of Hanbury, near Repton (Staffs.), where nine years later, in recognition of her sanctity, her remains were elevated at the command of her cousin, the Mercian king Ceolred (709–16), and were found to be preserved and uncorrupted. Werburgh's relatives also showed such remarkable post-morten preservation. Bede told how after her death, Æthelthryth's "bones" were disinterred by her sister and successor, Seaxburh and that her "uncorrupted body" was later buried in a white, marble coffin conveniently found amongst Roman ruins.

Cult at Hanbury

Hanbury and St Werburgh.

Initially, the major centre of Wærburgh’s cult lay in the heartlands of the Mercian kingdom, at Hanbury, where the saint’s remains were elevated and enshrined. Hanbury itself was probably already a place of some importance: King Ceolred’s presence at Werburgh’s elevation suggests that it may well have been the centre of a royal estate, and the name-ending "bury" links it with a number of other ancient administrative and ecclesiastical centres in the north-west Midlands. The church was probably an early minster. In the Middle Ages it was a valuable rectory and it had a large ancient parish with dependent chapelries. Almost certainly that parish was once even larger and probably included the honorial caput of Tutbury, which cuts through the territory of the later medieval parish. By what is probably only a curious co-incidence Hugh of Avranches, who was leter to become effectively the first Norman Earl of Chester, had previously held Tutbury Castle for a brief period after the Norman conquest.

It was at this time that the most famous story about Werburgh appeared, according to which she restored a dead goose to life, as recounted by the medieval hagiographer Goscelin. One version of the Legend is that Werburgh had been interested in a flock of geese that visited the convent meadow and bathed in the pond in Weedon. A variation has Werburgh helping sow seeds for crops in an attempt to avert the famine which was ravaging the land, when a great flock of wild geese descended and began to eat the seeds. Werburgh was angered as the food was intended for the poor and so she chased the geese and penned them into a sheep pen. One goose was her favourite and Werburgh named him Grayking. He had a black ring around his neck and was the fattest and happiest looking of the flock. Grayking was eaten by the convent steward, Hugh, because he looked very tempting and fat, but also because the flock of geese, which Werburgh liked so much, had ruined his field of corn and he felt that they had not been punished enough by Werburgh. When Werburgh found out this she was furious with the steward. She found the bones of the goose Grayking and ordered him to arise. The bones reformed and Grayking was restored to life. Henry of Huntington tells the legend as follows:

  • "St Werburg lies at Chester, about whom, among the many things said of her, one is outstanding and unheard of, which I cannot avoid mentioning. For it is written that a large flock of wild geese were destroying her growing corn by feeding on it: she had them confined in a certain house, as if they were domestic geese. In the morning, when she called them, ready to send them out, she saw that one was missing. On enquiry, she heard that it had been eaten by the servants. "Bring me," she said, "the feathers and bones of the bird that has been eaten." When they were brought to her, this bride of the high God commanded that it should be whole and should live. And it was done. Then she instructed the geese, which were cheering and crying out at the return of their lost companion, that no other of their kind must ever, in all eternity, enter that field. They all departed in safety. And what the virgin commanded has been observed up to the present day."
Lead alloy pilgrim badge from the British Museum with "geese" inside a fenced enclosure. This was probably associated with Werburgh although other saints used similar symbols.

A stained glass window in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire relates to another tale in which she was said to have banished all the geese from the village. Wærburh’s cult was undoubtedly fostered there during the middle ages, for Leland recorded a chapel dedicated to her south of the churchyard. Adjoining Weedon is a village bearing the significant name of Stowe-Nine-Churches (also Northants). The place-name Stow(e), one meaning of which was “holy place,” could designate important ecclesiastical centres, and it is significant therefore that Stowe was reputed the burial-place of Ælfnoth (“Alnotus”), according to the Vita Werburgae, a serf of Wærburh’s who became a hermit and was martyred by robbers. Threekingham, where Wærburh most probably died, presents an interesting parallel. It was clearly an ecclesiastical site of some importance in the pre-Conquest period, since it had two substantial churches at the time of Domesday, both of whose dedications (to St Peter and St Mary) the Survey rather unusually supplies. It has been plausibly suggested that these were dependencies of a further church, two miles to the south-west, which again has a significant place-name, Stow Green, and that this may have been the site of the monastery in which Wærburh died.

The goose myth is remarkably similar to that of Saint Pharaildis- a very popular saint in Flanders, she is said to have performed many miracles after the death of her husband (with whom she had lived chastely) and is often portrayed with a goose, because she is reputed to have once raised a cooked goose from the dead. Pharaildis was the daughter of Witger, Duke of Lorraine and his wife Amalberga of Maubeuge. As the author of the Vita Amalbergae virginis, written before 1062, Goscelin, hagiographer of Werburgh, appears to be very well informed about the hagiographic tradition in Flanders and Brabant, more especially traditions related to Saint Peter's Abbey of Ghent. He probably stayed there at some time before 1062.

Saint Pharaildis is believed to have lived c650-c740 and so comes from a period overlapping with Werburgh. She is not the only other saint known for the restoration to life of cooked Geese. Achahildis of Wendelstein (died c.970) discovered that a servant had killed and stolen some geese, she forgave the servant and brought the geese back to life – including the one that had been cooked. St. Milburgh another member of the Mercian royalty and a relative of Werburgh (she died 715-722 and was also written about by Goscelin) also “instructed” wild geese, which at the time were plaguing local fields near Much Wenlock in Shropshire, and they obeyed her and left the fields alone. It has been suggested that Mildburh was syncretized with a pagan "corn goddess". According to medievalist Pamela Berger, "this saint was chosen to fill the role of grain protectress in Shropshire when the ancient pagan protectress could no longer be venerated."

Cult in Kent

Porch sculpture at the Town Hall - Ecgbert - believed at the time to be the first king of England. Visited Chester once - to invade it. Note the footstool: in the ancient Near East the footstool was seen as a symbol of the king’s power and the root word for footstool that derives from the Hebrew expresses "dominion" - many Near Eastern bas-reliefs use the footstool as a symbol of victory.

An ancient dedication to the saint, on the opposite bank of the Medway to Sheppey, is first mentioned in the 12th-century Textus Roffensis, and was also known to the Chester monk, Henry Bradshaw, who makes Hoo the scene of one of Werburgh's miracles.

Hoo St Werburgh seems to have been an early estate centre, the focus of a primitive administrative unit perhaps originally embracing the whole of the Hoo peninsula. The church itself was a royal foundation, listed among eight diocesan “monasteries” in the 9th-century version of King Wihtred’s privilege. It had a very extensive ancient parish, originally presumably coterminous with the regio of the Howara, the people of Hoo, and almost certainly it should be viewed as a Kentish "primary minster’." The site appears to have been occupied since Roman times, probably as it marked the site of an important river crossing on the Medway near Rochester. Significant evidence of a Roman cemetary was found in 1894.

There was a Mercian takeover of Kent in the late 8th and 9th centuries and this seems to have been greatly resented by the people of Kent. There had been a Kentish royal hall and reeve in Lundenwic until at least the 680s, but the city then passed into Mercian hands. The loss of Lundenwic probably broke Kent's monopoly on cross-Channel trade and its control of the Thames, eroding its economic influence. According to Bede's later account, in 676 the Mercian king Æthelred I led an attack that destroyed many Kentish churches.

The promotion of the cult of St Wærburh at Hoo would fit such a context; the half-Mercian, half-Kentish (through her mother) saint would have been a very suitable patron of efforts to sweeten the bitterness of political dependency. If such was indeed the case, it is especially interesting that when in 823 the Mercian King Ceolwulf granted land in Canterbury to Archbishop Wulfred he performed the deed at a royal vill called Werburging wic, “Wærburh’s wic. This place-name occurs again, some 20 years later, as the location of his successor Beorhtwulf’s confirmation in 844 or 845 of a grant by King Æthelbald (716–57) to the church of Rochester. Werburgh is not a particularly common name and so it is possible that this place derived its name from the same saint.

There is also a Kentish link to the Wessex royalty who later came to dominate Mercia. After King Ealhmund presumably died shortly after witnessing a charter in 784, his son Ecgbert was driven out of Kent and into exile by Offa of Mercia. Ecgbert was later to return, rule Wessex and found the dynasty of which Æthelflæd was a member.

The Anglo-Saxon Cult at Chester

The next significant event was the translation of Werburgh to Chester in 875. This cannot be seen in isolation as two events which occurred shortly afterwards are connected. The first was the brief Viking presence at Chester, at which time some accounts suggest that Chester was deserted. The "A" text of the ASC for the given year 893 Chester is described as:

  • " ... þæt hie gedydon on anre westre ceastre on Wirhealum, seo is Legaceaster gehaten ..." translated as referring to a "deserted" place on the Wirral;

The next event is the restoration of Chester as a "burh" by Æthelflæd in 907:

  • The "C" text of the ASC for the given year 907 states simply "Her wæs Ligcester geedniwod" which is normally translated as "Here was Chester renewed".

Æthelflæd promoted the cult of Werburgh at Chester. Chester already had connections with Werbergh: St Johns was possibly founded in her time. According to a late tradition recounted by Higden in his Polychronicon, her remains were relocated in Chester during the time of the first major Danish invasion. According to Henry Bradshaw (writing c.1513), Æthelflæd, enlarged the original church that is now the Cathedral in honour of St. Werburgh and transferred the original dedication to Peter and Paul to a new parish church in the centre of the city, St Peter.

"Urnes" style runic inscription at St Johns. This is possibly graffiti originally carved on the wall of the Amphitheatre during the Viking raid of 894. As the stone is in the very base of the wall this possibly indicates significant rebuilding after 894, but quite when and for what reason is uncertain.

Bradshaw also mentions that a tablet in St John's church ascribed the foundation of the house of canons to Æthelflaed's nephew, Edmund (921-946). King Athelstan has also been credited with the foundation, since Higden (in his Polychronicon) states that there were secular canons serving St. Werburgh at Chester from the time of Athelstan until the arrival of the Normans. Of the three rival founders Æthelflæd, who, with her husband Ethelred, restored the city in 907, is the most likely, although there is no definite evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958. In that year Edgar the Pacific, then king of the Mercians, granted to "the familia of St. Werburgh" 17 hides of land in Hoseley (Flints.), Cheveley, Huntington, Upton, Aston, and Barrow.

The problem with the re-location of Werburgh is that while it is mentioned by Bradshaw, it is not mentioned in either the brief biography written by Florence of Worcester (died 1118) nor by Goscelin, her hagiographer (who was alive in 1106). Existence of this nunnery at Trentham is disputed and a connection with Saint Werburgh is also disputed. As for a later Chester connection Trentham became an Augustinian monastery house from the 1150s, under the patronage of Ranulph De Gernon, Earl of Chester.

As noted above, the shrine of St Werburgh remained at Hanbury until the threat from Danish Viking raids in the late 9th century prompted their relocation to within the walled city of Chester. Ranulf Higden, who entered the Abbey of St. Werburgh in 1299, tells us that St Werburgh's remains were translated to Chester in 875. As also recorded in the Annales Cestriensis under that year:

  • In the same year, when the Danes made their winter quarters at Repton after the flight of Burgred, king of the Mercians, the men of Hanbury, fearing for themselves, fled to Chester as to a place which was very safe from the butchery of the barbarians, taking with them in a litter the body of S Werburgh, which then for the first time was resolved into dust.

The men of Hanbury may not only have feared the violence of the Vikings at Repton but may also have been concerned about the fact that the Vikings were dropping like flies from what may well have been a plague in their winter quarters.

Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey - daughter of Alfred of Wessex married into the Mercian ruling elite and is traditionally believed to have restored and extended the City Walls along their modern course.

Æthelflæd's refortification of an apparently "deserted" Chester raises many issues. See the article on Chester in 900 for more on this. One such issue is how the city came to be deserted in 893 when it was seen as a place of safety for Werburgh's remains in 875. A second issue is how Werbergh managed to escape the Vikings for a second time. Whatever the circumstances Æthelflæd refortified Chester as a "burh", a fortified settlement which could provide a place of refuge for those within a day's travel. The burhgal system established communities which were of a sufficient size to support themselves and often installed or promoted a saintly cult as part of the process of creating a burh. Æthelflæd's choice of Werbergh is explainable in several ways. Historians have noted the remarkably high incidence of princess saints and abbesses descended from the Mercian line. It appears that the promotion of cults of members of the royal house was part of the Mercian policy for strengthening control of the satellite provinces. Æthelflæd's mother was Mercian and may have transmitted knowledge of how the Mercian court worked. Even the name of the saint was apt, for Werburgh in Anglo-Saxon means "Protectress of the Burh". While Werburgh's relics were traditionally believed to have already been at Chester when Æthelflæd began to promote her cult it is possible that some or all of the story of her translation to Chester is a myth.

Cult Elsewhere

Outside Chester, the saint enjoyed a modest reputation in late Anglo-Saxon times. The feast day of her deposition (3 February) was known in Canterbury by c. 1000, and in all occurs in some seven calendars dating from before 1100.88 She was also invoked in two or three early litanies during the same period. Besides those already mentioned in Hanbury, Chester, and Hoo, there are a few other plausibly pre-Conquest dedications, including most significantly those at London and Derby.

The London evidence is especially interesting; the church, which lay south of Cheapside at the junction of Watling Street and Friday Street, is first recorded c. 1100 in the possession of Christ Church, Canterbury. Previously held by one Gumbert, it had a house next door and almost certainly dates back at least to late Anglo-Saxon times. Like the church of St Bride, Fleet Street, it may well derive from some Chester merchants then active in London.

There was also undoubtedly an interest in Werburgh at Ely as part of the cult of the foundress Æthelthryth and her relatives. There are several layers to the tradition about the royal saints of Ely. Its most developed form is related in the history of the Ely community known as the Liber Eliensis, written in the middle decades of the 12th century. The crucial element in this final stage of the Ely version of the legend is the intrusion of a Kentish theme. Seaxburh, Eormenhild, and Werburgh herself were all alleged to be abbesses of the royal Kentish abbey of Minster-in-Sheppey, which Seaxburh had founded. According to the Liber Eliensis, moreover, they all also became successively abbesses of Ely. This version of events has little to commend it, since Seaxburh was the second abbess from 679-699, leaving no time to fit in the two otherwise unknown Ely abbacies of Eormenhild and of Werburgh herself before the date of Werburgh's death.

Werburgh's shrine at the Cathedral while converted to the bishop's throne. The shrine which is extant in the Cathedral today bears the marks of its complex, troubled history and various phases of destruction, decay and restoration. During the reformation the relics of Werburgh were removed and the shrine was dismembered, with the remnants later forming the burial place for Bishop Downham and then, from 1635, part of the new episcopal throne. After a partial restoration in 1748 of the sections of the shrine incorporated into the thronr, all the remaining pieces were collected in 1888 by Arthur Blomfield and reassembled.

The Norman Cult at Chester

The collegiate church, as it was then, was restored in 1057 by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva. This church was razed to the ground around 1090, with the secular canons evicted, and no known trace of it remains.

The advent of the Normans gave fresh impetus to Werburgh's cult. Norman Earl Hugh of Avranches’s refoundation of the minster as a great Benedictine abbey in the late 1080s and early 1090s undoubtedly enhanced Werburgh's status. It was an enterprise in which the Norman abbey of Bec was much involved. Hugh's closest friend among the higher clergy, the prelate chosen to dedicate his new foundation, was Anselm, abbot of Bec, soon to become archbishop of Canterbury. The first abbot of Chester, Richard (1092–1116), was a monk of Bec and according to Ranulf Higden had been Anselm's chaplain. Interestingly, Richard fitz Richard de Clare, the abbot of Ely and patron of the royal cults there, installed by Henry I shortly after his accession in 1100, was also a monk of Bec and a protégé of Anselm. The major endowments of the abbey at Chester are recorded in charters of confirmation by the first four earls of Chester. All four charters are irregular in form and it has been argued that they are forgeries.

Bradshaw (see below) is the main source for "miracles" during the Norman period. Werburgh was invoked, for example, by the constable William fitzNigel, to divide the waters of Dee so as to enable him to cross to Basingwerk to bring help to Earl of Chester Richard of Avranches then threatened by the "wild and wicked" Welsh. According to one version of the story, Richard, on his return in 1119, from Normandy, where he had been educated, had undertaken a pilgrimage to the well of St. Winifred, and that, either in going or returning, he was attacked by the Welsh, and compelled to seek refuge in Basingwerk Abbey. In this insecure retreat, continues Bradshaw, Richard (not his Constable) applied for relief to St. Werburgh, who miraculously raised certain sands in the estuary of the Dee, between Flintshire and the promontory of Wirral in Cheshire, which enabled Richard's constable to pass over to his assistance; and the sands said to have been thus formed, have to this day borne the designation of "the Constable's Sands." The story is interesting because most sources claim that Basingwerk was only founded some time later by the later earl Ranulph De Gernon.

By the later 13th century, even in Chester, the cult's popularity had waned. The great earldom of which Werburgh had in some sense been the patron had been absorbed by the Crown in the reign of Edward I, whose favour lay with the Abbey he had founded at Vale Royal. Among the citizenry, her cult had been eclipsed by that of the Holy Cross, promoted at Chester abbey’s rival as an ecclesiastical centre, St Johns.

In 1538, during the dissolution of the monasteries, the monastery was disbanded and the shrine of Saint Werburgh was desecrated. In 1541 St Werburgh's abbey became a cathedral of the Church of England, by order of Henry VIII. At the same time, the dedication was changed to Christ and the Blessed Virgin. The last abbot of St Werburgh's Abbey, Thomas Clarke, became the first dean of the new cathedral, at the head of a secular chapter.


The original design of the shrine is unknown. The shrine, which is made of a similar red sandstone as the Cathedral has undergone at least two physical transformations in its long history. It was enlarged around 1340, apparently because of its popularity as a place of pilgrimage and reported miracles. The shrine was smashed in 1538 by Henrician reformers, perhaps in consequence of Bishop Lee's visitation of 1536. In the 1620s, when it was described as a 'fair stone in the middle of the church', it served as the burial place for Bishop Downham, and in 1635 the base and part of the upper section were adapted to make a throne for the bishop. The shrine was restored in 1888 by Arthur Blomfield. The restoration returned earlier pieces of the shrine which had been used for the podium and canopy of the bishop's throne (in the quire) and in the west end of the nave.

The lower part of the present shrine contains a series of six niches. In pre-Reformation times, prayers were spoken by pilgrims while the petitioner knelt at the shrine with their head in a recess. The cavity served both as amplifier and filter, thus giving the petitioner’s voice dramatic and emotional emphasis: only modest vocal effort is required to produce a strong voice. Acoustical experiments have demonstrated that the shape of each recess is such that – with their head in shrine recess - the petitioner’s own speech is greatly enhanced over the entire range of human hearing, and there is also some "mysterious sounding reverberant halo" imparted to petitioner’s voice. It has been suggested that this resonant acoustical effect of the recesses is intentional.

The upper part of the shrine is decorated with statues of the royal houses of Mercia, Kent and others associated with St Werbergh. The statues each carry a scroll which should bear their names although many of these cannot be read. The earliest of the figures that remain is that of Creoda - whose existence is now disputed by some, but has been said to have been the first king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, ruling toward the end of the 6th century. He was almost certainly a pagan. Bede wrote that Penda, the second figure as listed below, tolerated the preaching of Christianity in Mercia itself, despite his own beliefs. The most recent ruler among the figures that survive is Burgred who became king of Mercia in 852. In 865, the "Great Heathen Army" arrived, and, ollowing its successful campaigns against East Anglia and Northumbria it advanced through Mercia, arriving in Nottingham in 867. Burgred then appealed to his step-brothers King Ethelred of Wessex and Alfred for assistance against them. The armies of Wessex and Mercia did no serious fighting as Burgred paid the Vikings off. In 874 the march of the Vikings from Lindsey to Repton drove Burgred from his kingdom after they sacked Tamworth, the Mercian capital. He died in Rome about 874.

It is difficult to say when the shrine was constructed. The legend as preserved in the writings of two monks of Chester: Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, of the mid 14th century and Henry Bradshaw's life of St. Werburgh, of the early 16th. have the body of St. Werburgh, daughter of Wulfhere, king of Mercia (657-74), carried to Chester in 874 from its resting place at Hanbury in Staffordshire by nuns fleeing from the Danes; the shrine was received into the mother church of Chester, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul and founded 'soon after Lucius and afore Kynge Arthure'. The saint's remains, which were apparently at Chester before the end of the 10th century, may have been acquired with Hanbury and its church, which belonged to St. Werburgh of Chester in 1066 but had been lost to Henry de Ferrers by 1086. Of the possible founders Æthelflaed, who, with her husband Ethelred, "restored" the city in 907, is the most likely, although there is no definite evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958: in that year Edgar the Pacific, granted to the familia of St. Werburgh 17 hides of land in Hoseley (Flintshire). From stylistic considerations some have suggested that St. Werburgh's shrine were probably "completed" in the time of Abbot Thomas Birchills (1291-1323).

Several of the figures on the shrine are associated with Kent. The "Kentish Royal Legend" is a diverse group of Medieval texts which describe a wide circle of members of the royal family of Kent from the 7th to 8th centuries AD (after which time Kent was directly ruled from Mercia for a while). Key elements include the descendents of Æthelberht of Kent over the next four generations; the establishment of various monasteries (most notably Minster-in-Thanet) and the lives of a number of Anglo-Saxon saints (including Werburgh) and the subsequent travels of their relics. Although it is described as a legend, and contains a number of implausible episodes, it is placed in a well attested historical context. What appesrs to be happening with the shrine is that the information in the "Kentish Royal Legend" is being combined with that of Mercian history and its list of rulers.

During the Middle Ages, the badge of a basket of geese was adopted as proof of having made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Werburgh. Perhaps as well as sticking their heads in the alcoves the pilgrims could also hear an exposition of the history of the Mercians. However that may have had to be sanitised - in the early years of Coenwulf's reign he had to deal with a revolt in Kent, which had been under Offa's control. Eadberht Præn returned from exile in Francia to claim the Kentish throne, and Coenwulf was forced to wait for papal support before he could intervene. When Pope Leo agreed to anathematize Eadberht, Coenwulf invaded and retook the kingdom; according to one version Eadberht was taken prisoner, was blinded, and had his hands cut off (but Roger of Wendover states that he was set free by Coenwulf at some point as an act of clemency).

The other great attraction at the Abbey was the "Girdle of St Werburgh". For many years during the Victorian period this was believed to be the "Girdle of Thomas Becket", but eventually documents came to light from the reformation which revealed that it was supposedly that of Werburgh.

The figures

William Cowper FSA (1701 – 12 October 1767) was a British doctor and antiquarian. He was the third son of the Reverend John Cowper, MA of Overleigh Hall, Cheshire, by Catherine, daughter of William Sherwin, beadle of divinity and bailiff of the University of Oxford. He was baptised at St Peter's Church, Chester, on 29 July 1701, was admitted a student at Leiden University on 27 October 1719, and probably took his doctor's degree in that university. For many years he practised as a physician at Chester. In 1745 he was elected mayor of Chester. He published anonymously "A Summary of the Life of St. Werburgh, with an historical account of the images upon her shrine (now the episcopal throne) in the choir of Chester. Collected from antient chronicles and old writers, by a Citizen of Chester", Chester, 1749. He died at Overlegh on 20 Oct. 1767, and was buried at St Peter's, Chester.

Cowper's work is said to have been stolen from the manuscripts of the Rev John Stones (died 1738), one of the minor canons of the Cathedral and rector of Coddington. Between them Cowper and Stones appear to identify several figures, but much confusion has since been added by the somewhat haphazard "restoration" work of Arthur Blomfield, whose stonemason appears to have placed some heads on the wrong bodies. The figures, starting at the south-west corner and going clockwise, can somewhat tentatively be identified as follows:

  • 1 Rex Crieda - Creoda son of Cynewald, grandson of Cnebba, great-grandson of Icel; a fourth-generation descendant of the first Angles in England, sources record him as having been the first ruler (584 - 593) of the Kingdom of Mercia.
  • 2 Rex Penda - Penda - St Werbergh's grandfather and a pagan king of Mercia. He died in 655. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives his descent back to Woden as follows: "Penda was Pybba's offspring, Pybba was Cryda's offspring, Cryda Cynewald's offspring, Cynewald Cnebba's offspring, Cnebba Icel's offspring, Icel Eomer's offspring, Eomer Angeltheow's offspring, Angeltheow Offa's offspring, Offa Wermund's offspring, Wermund Wihtlaeg's offspring, Wihtlaeg Woden's offspring"
  • 3 Rex Wolpherus - Wulfhere - St. Werbergh's father. King of Mercia from the end of the 650s until 675. He was the first Christian king of all of Mercia, although nothing is known of his conversion.
  • 4 Rex Ceolredus - Ceolred of Mercia husband of the other St. Werburga (of Mercia) and King of Mercia. Ceolred had none of the Christian piety of his predecessors: his life was riotous and dissolute and he lost the respect and affection of his subjects. Said to have provided the original shrine for the bones of his cousin, St. Werburga of Chester. In AD 716, he was seized with madness and excruciating pains as he sat at a feast; he died shortly afterwards, blaspheming Christ and also the heathen gods. He may have been poisoned.
  • 5 ----------- (unidentified)
  • 6 Rex Offa - Offa of Offa's Dyke, king of Mercia from 757 until his death in July 796.
  • 7 Rex Egfertus - possibly Ecgfrith son of Offa who ruled for 141 days in the year 796.
  • 8 ----------- (unidentified)
  • 9 St. Kenelmus - Cynehelm an Anglo-Saxon saint, venerated throughout medieval England, and mentioned in the Canterbury Tales (the Nun's Priest's Tale. He was the son of Coenwulf (King of Mercia from December 796 to 821) and is believed to have died around 811.
  • 11 Rex Beorna - possibly Beornred briefly King of Mercia in 757, following the murder of Æthelbald. However, he was defeated by Offa and fled.
  • 12 Rex Colwlphus - is mentioned in one chronicle as being the successor of Cenelm. However this could also be Ceolwulf I of Mercia.
  • 13 ----------- (unidentified)
  • 15 ---------us (unidentified)
  • 16 Rex ------dus - possibly Æthelred I of Mercia - Werbergh's uncle. In 704, Æthelred abdicated to become a monk and abbot at Bardney, leaving the kingship to his nephew Coenred (like Coenred he carries a staff).
  • 18 ---------us - possibly Cœnred - brother of St. Werburgh. In 709 Coenred abdicated and went on pilgrimage to Rome, where he later died. The figure carries a staff, suggesting his journey and/or entry into a monastery.
  • 19 ----------- (unidentified)
  • 21 Merwaldus - Merewalh a sub-king of the Wreocensæte. The name Merewalh signifies "Famous Foreigner" or "Celebrated Welshman". He converted to Christianity in about 660, founding Leominster Priory. He is believed to be Werbergh's uncle.
  • 22 Rex Wiglaff - Wiglaf of Mercia: king of Mercia from 827 to 829 and again from 830 until his death.
  • 23 Rex Bertwulph - Beorhtwulf: King of the Mercians from 839 or 840 to 852.
  • 24 Rex Burghredus - Burgred king of Mercia (852 - 874). In 868 he appealed to Ethelred of Wessex and his brother, Alfred the Great, for assistance against the Danes. In 874 the Danes drove Burgred from his kingdom. Burgred retired to Rome and died there. He was buried, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "in the church of Sancta Maria, in the school of the English nation" in Rome.
  • 25 ----------- (unidentified)


  • 26 St -------- - believed to be Æðelþryð. The common version of her name was St. Awdrey, which is the origin of the word tawdry. Her admirers bought modestly concealing lace goods at an annual fair held in her name in Ely. As years passed, this lacework came to be seen as old-fashioned or cheap and poor quality goods.
  • 27 ---------- (unidentified)
  • 28 ---------- (unidentified)
  • 29 Rex Ethelbertus - possibly Æthelberht of Kent (c. 560 – 24 February 616) king of Kent from about 580 or 590 until his death. Bede lists Aethelberht as the third king to hold imperium over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He was the first English king to convert to Christianity.
  • 30 St Mildreda - Mildrith - (floruit 694–716) daughter of King Merewalh and Ermenburga.

It has been suggested that the figures originally numbered 40.

The rulers

The rulers of Mercia in the correct order are given below with the statues numbered accordingly. There is a rough sequence but many of the figures are not in the "correct" order.

Mercian Rulers - the Kings of the Angles were descended from Icel, whose father "Eomer son of Angeltheow" was used by Tolkien in "Lord of the Rings" as the basis for Éomer, literally translating to "Horse-famous".
  • (2) Penda c.626-655 (killed in battle)
  • Eowa c.635-642 (killed in battle)
  • Peada c.653-656 (murdered)
  • (18) Cœnred 704-709 (retired to monastery)
  • (4) Ceolred 709-716 (poisoned - or went mad)
  • (11) Beornred 757 (possibly burnt to death in 769 in Northumbria)
  • (7) Ecgfrith July-December 796 (died "suddenly")
  • (12) Cœnwulf 796-821 (died at Basingwerk near Holywell)
  • Ludeca 826-827 (killed in battle)
  • (22) Wiglaf (1st reign) 827-829 (deposed)
  • (Ecgberht of Wessex 829-830)
  • (22) Wiglaf (2nd reign) 830-839
  • (24) Burgred 852-874 (fled to Rome)


One of the principal sources on Werburgh is Bradshaw, but he is a secondary source who relies in part on the work of others and appears to make many errors in assembling historical events.

The "Life of St Werburge" written by the monk Henry Bradshaw c.1513 is an ambitious verse hagiography of Chester’s patron saint, interwoven with a history of the city and its Benedictine abbey of St Werburgh’s. The work is divided into two Books, each with its own Prologue, and the extant text in the printed edition by Richard Pynson (1521) also includes additional verses by other authors at the beginning and the end, in honour of Bradshaw and Werburgh. The full text is available in an 1887 Early English Text Society edition by Carl Horstmann.

Henry Bradshaw

Little is known about the life and literary career of Henry Bradshaw. He was a monk at St Werburgh’s, Chester, and the seventeenth-century antiquarian Anthony Wood also reports that he was sent, in later life, to study at Gloucester College, Oxford. Bradshaw wrote a Latin treatise De antiquitate et magnificentia Urbis Cestricie, which is lost, and a life of the patron saint of his monastery in English seven-lined stanza. This work was completed in the year of its author's death, 1513, mentioned in "A balade to the auctour" printed at the close of the work. A second ballad describes him as "Harry Braddeshaa, of Chestre abbey monke."

Carl Horstmann describes Henry Bradshaw as:

  • "a man of a childlike, sweet temper, simple, pious, without affectation, warm-hearted, modest, sincere, a friend of the people".

Bradshaw based his history in part on a version of the "Vita Werburgae", imported from Ely in its early 12th-century form, and a record of the saint’s miracles in Chester from the 10th to the late 12th centuries. These were contained in the now lost "Third Passionary". The first to be recorded by Bradshaw tells how the canons took St Wærburh’s shrine to the walls of the city when it was besieged by a Welsh king called "Griffin." The shrine was damaged by a stone thrown by one of the attackers, and as a result the Welsh king and his host were smitten with blindness and retreated. The episode is placed by Bradshaw in the reign of King Edward the Elder, and if authentic would of course be excellent evidence for the presence of Wærburh’s relics in early 10th-century Chester. It seems more likely, however, that Bradshaw confused his Edwards and that the incident should properly be ascribed to the reign of Edward the Confessor. We know little of Edward the Elder’s relations with the Welsh, and when he is in conflict with them the men of Chester were their allies. A "Griffin" does appear in contemporary sources for the Confessor’s reign and is to be identified with Gruffudd ap Cynan, the 11th-century king of Gwynedd who was active against the English in the mid 1050s, and is known to have gone blind in much later life.

Another of Bradshaw’s miracles is very similar and is perhaps based upon an even more garbled version of the same incident. During an attack on Chester by "Harold of Denmark, Malcolm of Scotland, and the king of Goths and Galwedy," the canons again parade with the shrine, it is again damaged, and the man responsible is possessed by devils and dies, a sign which causes the attackers to abandon the city. This may represent a confused memory of an incident of the 1050s, when, for example, Gruffudd intrigued with others including Earl Ælfgar of Mercia, Magnus, son of Harold Hardrada of Norway, and the men of the Isles. Bradshaw may also be confusing matters with a incident which involved Earl Hugh of Avranches in 1098, when Hugh joined with Earl Hugh of Shrewsbury in an attempt to recover his losses in Gwynedd. Gruffudd and his ally Cadwgan ap Bleddyn retreated to Anglesey, but were then forced to flee to Ireland in a skiff when a fleet he had hired from the Viking settlement in Ireland accepted a better offer from the Normans and changed sides. The situation was changed by the arrival of a Norwegian fleet under the command of King Magnus III of Norway, also known as Magnus Barefoot, who attacked the Norman forces near the eastern end of the Menai Straits. Earl Hugh of Shrewsbury was killed by an arrow said to have been shot by Magnus himself. Among those in Magnus' party were Harold Haroldson, son of Harold Godwinson King of England. Harold was probably born posthumously in Chester, where his mother (Ealdgyth the daughter of Ælfgar) had fled to escape the advancing army of William the Conqueror.

Hugh’s refoundation of the minster elevated the status of its patron. In particular, the establishment of a three-day fair around the summer feast (“St Werburgh in Chester”) gave great prominence to that day and by the 12th century it rivalled the traditional feast of 3 February. The late 12th and early 13th century seem to have marked the apogee of Wærburgh’s cult in Chester. It was the period when Ranulf de Blondeville's promotion of the special, princely, status of the Cheshire core of his earldom was stimulating a growing sense of local identity, vis-a-vis both the English and Welsh. It was also the moment when the citizens of Chester were developing their own instruments of self government. Werburgh provided a figure around which these changing regional and civic identities could acrete. Her role in the fire of 1180 perhaps engendered a new level of popularity among the citizens, and the extension of the cult to trading centres such as Bristol and Dublin seems also likely to have been the work of merchants linked with Chester.

Most importantly, perhaps, the post-Conquest stories present Werburgh as protectress of Chester itself. Bradshaw has a particularly circumstantial account of the saint’s defence of the city in the great fire of 1180. The fire having quickly consumed a great part of the town including the minster of St Michael at the Roman south gate, the monks came forth from the abbey bearing the shrine of St Werburgh and chanting litanies. They moved around the fire and (helped as Bradshaw acknowledges by the citizens) the blaze was extinguished. The citizens expressed their gratitude in a solemn procession of thanksgiving. This last story was undoubtedly current almost immediately after the event which it described since it was also recorded by Lucian the Monk, writing in the 1190s.

Bradshaw's Life of St Werburge draws on a wide range of historical sources including Bede, William of Malmesbury, Gerald of Wales and Henry of Huntingdon, as well as Ranulph Higden, a former alumnus of Bradshaw’s own abbey of St Werburgh’s (died around 1363) and author of the Polychronicon. He also makes use of a source described as the "third passionarye" (Book II, l. 1690), which seems to have been a compilation of various different hagiographic and miracle texts relating to Werburgh and her association with Chester. This was almost certainly the twelfth-century Latin text attributed to Goscelin of Saint-Bertin. The "Third Passionary" has since been lost.

While Bradshaw gets some history garbled other parts of his account seem to be complete fiction or based of totally erroneous information. He has the Northgate of Chester attacked by troops gathered on Hoole Heath (using cannon), something which has no historical basis.

Bradshaw's Abbey

Relations between the Abbey in Chester and the people of the city were not always harmonious. The abbey of St. Werburgh, continued until the Dissolution to enjoy an income ranking among the top twenty or so English Benedictine monasteries, but a significant part of the burden fell upon the people of Chester. There were long periods when no-one was commemorated or buried at that Abbey, and at least two fraternities flourished which said masses for the dead. These included the Fraternities of St George (at St Peter) and St Anne (at St Johns). It appears that St John had far better relations with the citizens than the Abbey.

Unloved by the citizens, the abbey became a focus for disorder. In 1394, for example, there was an affray involving Baldwin Radington, controller of the royal household, and in the 15th century monks and servants of the abbey were involved in brawls on several occasions. Abbot Richard Oldham (1455-85) had a particularly turbulent career: imprisoned in the castle in 1461, he was bound over in 1478 to keep the peace towards the mayor, John Southworth, and again, with a large group of the city's tradesmen, in 1480. In the late 15th century there was a revival in the fortunes and discipline of the monastery under Abbots Simon Ripley (1485-93) and John Birkenshaw (1493- 1524). The abbey church was completed and St. Oswald's was rebuilt. Leading citizens, including the former mayors John Southworth and Ralph Davenport (d. 1506), once again chose to be buried there, and by c. 1530 there was a school for local boys. Even so, the abbey continued to be worsted in its conflicts with the citizens. The most telling evidence of its weakness was the curtailment of the abbot's jurisdiction over the Michaelmas fair in 1485.

The Shrine and the Civil War

In the run-up to the Civil War of the 1640's Werburgh's shrine appears as a focus of dissent. At some stage during the Reformation the shrine had been partially dissassembed and even re-used in part as the tomb of Bishop William Downham (c. 1511 — 1577), but in 1635 the base and part of the upper section were adapted to make a throne for the then Bishop of Chester John Bridgeman. Hanshall, in his History of Cheshire, states that the Shrine of St. Werburgh, and the pedestal on which it rested:

  • "formerly stood in the Chapel of the Virgin at the east end of the Choir; and that the pedestal was removed to its present position soon after the Reformation, and converted into the Episcopal Throne."

Later Bishop John Bridgeman had a confrontation with John Ley, the pastor of Great Budworth, Cheshire, a lecturer at the Puritan stronghold of St Peter's. Ley's letter (Against the erection of an Altar) written June 29th 1635, to the Reverend father Iohn L. Bishop of Chester ("Iohn L" appears to be George Lloyd) expressed his opposition to what was variously described as an "altar" or "a funerary monument to St Werburgh". In 1641 William Prynne mentioned it as:

  • "one in the Cathedral at Chester used in times of popery, which he caused to be digged up out of the ground where it was formerly buried".

It would appear that while the shrine had first been re-used as a part of Downham's tomb, there had a been a debate over whether it should be further re-purposed for some time (Lloyd died in 1615) and that it was eventually decided not to use it as an altar. That Werburgh's shrine did play a part, however small, in the build-up of tension prior to the Civil War is a particular irony: "Werburgh" means "Protector of the City" and the Civil War saw Chester largely ruined by bombardment, the High Cross wrecked by iconoclasts and the populaion ravaged by the plague.

Two Saints Way

The Two Saints Way is a long-distance pilgrimage route between the cathedral cities of Chester and Lichfield and runs through the heart of the city. The two saints of the way are St Chad, who is associated with Lichfield Cathedral and Saint Werburgh to whom Chester Cathedral is dedicated. Unusually for a long-distance walking route it journeys through a post-industrial urban place, winding its way alongside the canals, through parks and along streets of the city of Stoke-on-Trent. The Two Saints Way route was created by David Pott supported by a team of local and regional people from a range of organisations, including Staffordshire University and Stoke-on-Trent City Council along with local volunteers, using existing rights of way and a guidebook was launched in 2015. It is maintained by Two Saints Way Project Ltd., with additional help from local co-ordinators who look after sections of the route.


Werburgh appears to have been re-invented on several occasions. Her initial cult prospered at Hanbury from shortly after he death in 700 until her translation in 875 (or perhaps later). This first part of her posthumous career sees her as patron of a specific royal lineage, that of the kings Wulfhere, Æthelred, Coenred and Ceolred. That lineage ended with the death of Ceolred in 716.

However her cult then diffused in Kent which had been taken-over by Mercia. There had been a Kentish royal hall and reeve in Lundenwic until at least the 680s, but the city then passed into Mercian hands. The loss of Lundenwic probably broke Kent's monopoly on cross-Channel trade and its control of the Thames, eroding its economic influence. According to Bede's later account, in 676 the Mercian king Æthelred I led an attack that destroyed many Kentish churches. Werburgh may well have been transplanted to Kent in an attempt to placate a hostile population by emphasising her Kentish ancestry.

Werburgh emerges again in Chester around the year 900. Her strong associations with Mercia’s former greatness explain why Æthelflæd sponsored her cult in Chester and perhaps elsewhere. The move to Chester set the cult on a new course. Plucked from her dynastic monastery and set up in an urban minster, Werburgh became patron first of a military garrison established by an alien royal family governing all that remained of Mercia after the Danish conquests, and then of the rapidly developing city of her adoption.

She has another flurry of miraculous activity under the Norman Earls of Chester: Hugh of Avranches significantly expanded to power of her cult in the city and its environs. Bradshaw records the involvement of later earls with her cult, and miraculous assistance being given to the Earls, but while these are linked to actual historical events, often in a very garbled manner, Bradshaw is the only source for many of them.

When the earldom of Chester was adsorbed by the crown the influence of the cult of Werbergh faded somewhat. This was in part due to difficult relations between the Abbey and the citizens of Chester. Bradshaw's "Life" can be viewed as an attempt to promote her cult for the benefit of the Abbey, which was then in competition with St Johns and Vale Royal for the attraction of pilgrims and patronage.

That Werburgh's shrine did play a part, however small, in the build-up of tension prior to the Civil War is a particular irony: "Werburgh" means "Protector of the City" and the Civil War saw Chester largely ruined by bombardment, the High Cross wrecked by iconoclasts and the populaion ravaged by the plague.

Sources and Links

The sources for Werburgh’s story are scanty and diverse. Besides the fundamental Vita S. Werburgae, there are important, if brief notices of the saint in a number of 12th-century century sources, including of John of Worcester’s Chronicle, Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia and William of Malmesbury’s Gesta pontificum. Other traditions about Wærburh and her relics are related in the 12th-century history of the abbey of Ely (the Liber Eliensis), in the Latin Lives and lections of Eormenhild and Seaxburh, and in the passio of the saint’s supposed brothers, Wulfhad and Ruffinus, an almost entirely fictional, probably post-Conquest, fabrication.

There are also two later sources, both by monks of Chester abbey: the 14th-century Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden8 and the early 16th-century English verse Life of the saint by Henry Bradshaw. In addition, the cult is mentioned in various late Anglo-Saxon lists of the resting-places of English saints and in a number of 11th- and 12th-century calendars, and is represented in scattered ancient parish church dedications. In its present form, all this material is late, very little if any of it from before the 11th century, i.e. at least 300 years after Werburgh’s death.


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