The Long Legacy of a Short Life
A young Anglo-Saxon woman with a taste for the finer things in life is the unlikely inspiration for a new pilgrim route.
One of the most intriguing pieces of lost medieval art was a work of embroidery made in the second half of the tenth century, now known only from a written description. It was an alb, a clerical vestment, adorned with gold, gems and pearls, and it showed the Apostles, all in gold, surrounding a figure of Christ. Among them, the female artist depicted herself in the posture usually ascribed to Mary Magdalene; kissing the feet of her Lord. She boldly placed herself among such illustrious company, ensuring that when the vestment was worn, her art and her self-portrait would be carried to the altar.
The artist was a young woman named Edith. Though she chose to depict herself in a penitent posture on this alb, she was a king’s daughter and not often inclined to humble herself before anyone. She was born around 963 at Kemsing in Kent, the result of a short-lived relationship between King Edgar and a noblewoman named Wulfthryth.
After the relationship ended, Wulfthryth went to live at Wilton Abbey near Salisbury, the pre-eminent religious house for aristocratic women in Anglo-Saxon Wessex. There, she raised her daughter, in time becoming abbess of the community. Edith only just lived to adulthood – she died in her early twenties – but she packed a lot into her short life and her memory was treasured in the community at Wilton. After her death she was venerated as a saint, so her habits, tastes and talents were passed down in oral tradition within the nunnery and preserved in writing.
These descriptions give a vivid and appealing picture of this talented young woman. Edith was given the best education a tenth-century woman could have, with the support of her father, who brought teachers from the Continent to oversee her studies. She seems to have been an able pupil, with a talent for the visual arts; not only embroidery, but painting, too. When a new church was built at Wilton, Edith designed a scheme of wall paintings to adorn the church, which one of her teachers executed to her plans. She could also write: Wilton Abbey preserved her prayer book, in which she had written out favourite prayers as well as some of her own composition.
Thoughtful and devout as she clearly was, however, Edith also shared the tastes of many young women of her day. She had a particular love of fine clothes – appropriate for a girl who took such keen pleasure in art and beauty, but not exactly the usual garb of a nun. When a bishop tried to reprove her for dressing too ornately, Edith responded composedly that God cared about her mind, not her clothing, and kept on dressing as she liked. One story tells how a chest full of her beautiful clothes was once set on fire by a carelessly placed candle. To Edith’s relief, the clothes were miraculously saved from destruction, which was taken as a hint that God was on her side and not the bishop’s.
She also had a fondness for hot baths (again, not something one would expect of medieval nuns) and for animals; she kept her own private menagerie, adjoined to the abbey, made up of animals that had been given to her as gifts. Altogether Edith comes across as a forceful personality; a lively, clever girl, who might have done much more if she had lived longer.
So much of Anglo-Saxon art survives only as scraps and fragments that it can be hard to imagine the kinds of artwork Edith loved, such as the church with its walls and ceiling covered in paintings, but they must have been an impressive sight. A writer who saw Edith’s church a century after its construction said that it was so beautifully painted ‘throughout the whole interior’ that it had to be seen to be believed; no written description could be sufficient. As often with Anglo-Saxon art, however, written accounts are all we have, though these are better than nothing.
Those paintings, like Edith’s alb and the abbey where she lived, were destroyed centuries ago. But as a saint – with a feast day on 16 September – her memory lives on. This summer a new pilgrimage route, the ‘St Edith of Wilton Way’, was launched under the auspices of the British Pilgrimage Trust. Pilgrims can walk to Wilton from Limpley Stoke in Wiltshire, where the church was once dedicated to St Edith. It’s a marvellous thought that such a short life can leave such a long legacy. Even if her artworks are lost, she still inspires new creations.
Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.