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Suffolk-born (probably at Exning) Etheldreda was a princess, the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia. Married twice, she managed, despite some resistance, to remain chaste within both marriages, and was eventually able to pursue her true vocation as a nun. In 673 she founded a double monastery at Ely, on the site of the present-day cathedral. She is not unknown to art by any means, appearing on at least six screens in East Anglia, but this is the only wall painting of her known to me, and it is the earliest of the paintings, which span more than three centuries, in the church at Willingham.
In her left hand is a book with an elaborate cover, and in her right she holds two palm branches, although she was not a martyr in the usual sense of the word. Etheldreda actually died of plague, during an outbreak which carried off several members of her community. A tumour in her neck, caused by her illness, was removed by her doctor, and when her uncorrupted body was examined seventeen years later, the wound from the surgery was found to have healed.
Although Etheldreda is sometimes shown as an Abbess, holding a pastoral staff, at Willingham the emphasis is on the miraculous post-mortem healing of the wound in her neck - what looks at first glance like a rather clumsily painted red mouth is in fact the livid scar left - in life, at any rate - after the surgery. The saint (also known familiarly as St. Audrey in England) attributed the neck tumour to divine punishment for her youthful fondness for necklaces - the tawdry lace promised to the shepherdess Mopsa in Shakespeares Winters Tale¹ is a direct reference to the lace necklaces sold cheaply at St. Audreys fairs, usually held in late June.
Etheldreda is in a window-splay on the west wall of the south aisle, and in the splay opposite is a painting of another female saint. She has never been conclusively identified, but I suspect that she might be St. Sexburga, Etheldredas sister and her immediate successor as Abbess of Ely. She is far less clear than Etheldreda, but her blue shoes, and her elegantly draped robe, looped over her left arm, show well. Like Etheldreda, she wears a veil over her head and carries a book in her left hand.
Painted on the background is a stoning and roses pattern incorporating delicate tendrils of foliage - an early example of this kind of design.
There are many more paintings at Willingham; not all are medieval, but those from the early 17th century provide an interesting insight into the way attitudes to church decoration changed after the Reformation. The fine medieval St. Christopher is newly on the site, more will be added in due course, and the link below will take you to the website of Willingham church, where many of the others can be seen.
¹ Shakespeare, The Winters Tale, 1V, 1
Website of Willingham church, Cambridgeshire
|St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland||St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire||St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire||St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk||St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent||St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs||St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW||St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk|
|St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants||St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks||St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk||St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW||St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW||St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon.||Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW||St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs|
|St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk||St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk||St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent||St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk||St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk||St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks||St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland||St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk|
|St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon||St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks||St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants||St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks||St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs||St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs||St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks||St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk|
|St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants||St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk||St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks||St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk||St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk||St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon||St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire||St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks|
|St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW||St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks||St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk||Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire||St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex||St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW||St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks||St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk|
|St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire||St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants||St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks||Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset||St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent||St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk||St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants||St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire|
|St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland||St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey||Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex||Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire||Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW||St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds||St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, Dorset||St Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire|
|St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks||St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk||St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire||St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the barrel, Bishopsbourne, Kent NEW||St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon||St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon||St. Paul : Selling, Kent||St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon|
|St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon||St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants||St. Peter : Selling, Kent||SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire NEW||St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs||St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs||S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon||St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon|
|St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk||St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants||Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire||St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs.||Archbishop, possibly Thomas Becket, blessing, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire NEW||St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset||St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire||St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk|
|St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire||St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk||St. Zita : Horley, Oxon||St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon||Unidentified female saint : Heydon|
© Anne Marshall 2003