St Werburgh was the daughter of the Mercian King Wulphere and his wife Ermenild who was a princess from Kent. She may have been born at Bury Bank (formerly Wulpherecestre) near Stone. Under the influence of her mother she learned the Christian faith from the Roman perspective and developed a pious and virtuous nature. She was very beautiful and attracted many admirers but she refused them, declaring that she wished to be married only to Christ. She eventually managed to persuade her father to allow her to enter a convent.
When the time came, she was escorted in great state to to the Abbey of Ely where she was welcomed by her aunt Etheldreda, who was the abbess. Werburgh fell on her knees and asked that she might be received as a novice. She was stripped of her coronet and her royal garments and exchanged them for the veil and rough habit of a nun.
Stained glass of St Werburgh from the cloisters, Chester Cathedral
She made good progress and eventually she came to supervise all the convents in Mercia which became models of monastic discipline. Through the wealth of her family she also established new convents at Wheedon in Northamptonshire, Hanbury in Staffordshire and some say at Trentham which is on our route. The original references mention Triccingham or Trytenham and most historians now believe that this convent was at Threckingham in Lincolnshire.
St Werburgh lived to a ripe old age and is said to have visited all her convents for farewell visits before her death which took place late in the seventh century. She was buried at Hanbury, but her body was later transferred to Repton. Around 875, an invading Danish army meant that it was deemed wise to transfer her remains to the walled city of Chester where her body was re-interred at the Saxon church of St Peter and St Paul. This church was rededicated to St Werburgh and St Oswald in 907 by Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great. In due course her shrine there became a major pilgrimage site and eventually it became Chester Cathedral.
The cult of St Werburga continued to develop during the course of the Middle Ages and she was looked upon as the perfect model of Christian womanhood. Here is a short section extolling her virtues from a very long poem about St Werburgh written in 1521 by a monk in Chester called Henry Bradshaw…
Obseruynge the doctryne / of our lorde Ihesu,
Had his commaundymentes / in her herte full tru;
So that no creature / more perfyte myght be
In vertuous gyftes (by grace) than she.
She was replete / with gyftes naturall:
Her vysage moost pleasaunt / fayre and amyable,
Her goodly eyes / clerer than the crystall,
Her countenaunce comly / swete and commendable;
Her herte lyberall / her gesture fauourable.
She, lytell consyderynge / these gyftes transytory,
Set her felycyte / in chryst perpetually.
She hadde moche worshyp / welthe / and ryches,
Vestures / honoures / reuerence and royalte;
The ryches she dysposed / with great mekenesse
To the poore people / with great charyte.
The symbol of the goose associated with St Werburgh is because of a story told in an account of her life, written by the Flemish monk Goscelin. Some wild geese had ravaged her fields at Weedon, so as a punishment she shut the large flock indoors overnight. However being of a kindly disposition, she pardoned and released them the next morning. The geese soon discovered that one of their number was missing, having been stolen by a servant, so they came winging noisily back to Werburgh. She grasped the meaning of their clamour, and, having secured the release of the goose, she rejoiced with them, saying, “Birds of the air, bless the Lord!” The whole flock then flew away and never again interfered with the land of the blessed Werburgh!
A 12th century historian summed up her influence in this way:
“And so the merits of this maid are told at Chester, and her miracles extolled. Yet though she be generous and swift to answer all men’s prayers, yet most gracious is her footfall among the women and boys, who pray as it might be to a neighbour and a woman of their own countryside”
NB There are no contemporary records about St Werburgh. The main source of information here is from a Life written by the Flemish monk Goscelin in Canterbury in the late tenth century.