Eanswith – c.614 – c.640 – Kent, England

Britain, England

Eanswith

Eanswith (sometimes Eanswythe or Eanswide) was an Anglo Saxon princess who founded the first nunnery in England.

She was the granddaughter of Bertha of Kent, and her family were the first Anglo-Saxon royals to convert to Christianity – at the time a very new religion. Kent was a powerful kingdom and Eanswith would have been one of the most highborn women in England.

Eanswith was clearly beloved by her father, King Eabald, who helped finance her plans to build the nunnery. He also listened to his daughter when she refused a proposal of marriage from a neighbouring prince.

The Benedictine Folkestone priory was completed in about 630, and Eanswith quickly moved in and adopted a monastic lifestyle, along with a number of other women. It was the first religious settlement for women in the British Isles.

After her death in 640, Eanswith was canonised as a saint by the Catholic Church. Her feast day is celebrated on 12th September.

Unfortunately the site founded by Eanswith eventually eroded into the sea, though a second building, Folkestone Priory, was constructed further inland in 1137. This site included a church dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswith, and contains Eanswith’s remains.


References:

Woman under Monasticism Lina Eckenstein

A Companion to British Literature, Volume 1: Medieval Literature, 700 – 1450Heesok Chang, Robert DeMaria, Jr., Samantha Zacher

On Wikipedia:

Radegund – c.520 – 587 – Poitiers, France

France, Germany

Radegund

Radegund (also Rhadegund, Radegonde or Radigund) was a German princess and a Frankish queen who founded the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. She was also the granddaughter of Basina through her father.

At the time Radegund was born, the kingdom of Thuringia was ruled by three men; her father Bertachar and his brothers, Baderic and Hermanfrid.

In 529, Hermanfrid killed Bertachar in battle, leaving nine-year-old Radegund an orphan. She was taken into Hermanfrid’s household while he continued his campaign for sole kingship, killing Baderic shortly afterwards.

Hermanfrid’s victory had come at a cost – he had sought the help of Theuderic, king of the Franks, agreeing that they would share sovereignty of Thuringia. However, you can’t trust a man who will kills his own brothers in the pursuit of power, and Hermanfrid did not make good on his promise.

Furious at the betrayal, Theuderic and his own brother, Clotaire I marched into Thuringia in 531, defeating Hermanfrid and claiming his kingdom. When the victorious brothers returned to Gaul (France), they took twelve-year-old Radegund with them.

She was raised in Clotaire’s villa in Picardy, and in 540 Radegund became one of his six wives. Little is known about her life as Clotaire’s concubine, other than that they had no children.

In 550, Radegund’s family was in peril again when Clotaire had her brother, the last surviving male, murdered. With her own life potentially in danger, Radegund left the Frankish court and sought shelter within the church. She pleaded her case to the Bishop of Noyon, who agreed to make her a deaconess.

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Radegund retiring to the monastery (source)

While living in the Frankish court Radegund had been noted for her charitable giving, but once she joined the church she really came into her own, founding the monastery of Cainte-Croix in Poitiers.

As a deaconess, Radegund’s life was governed by a very strict set of instructions, known as the Rule for Virgins. This required nuns to live cloistered lives, away from the public. They were expected to devote much of their time to reading the Bible and copying out manuscripts, and had a restrictive vegetarian diet of legumes and green vegetables.

As well as founding the monastery, Radegund personally tended to the sick, gaining a reputation as a gifted healer. In addition, Radegund wrote poetry (likely with a religious theme) which has sadly been lost.

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Radegund retiring to the monastery (source)

Through her writing, Radegund corresponded with a number of very learned men of her generation, including Gregory of Tours, who attended her funeral, and the hermit Junian of Mairé, who was said to have died on the same day as Radegund.

Radegund died in 587 in her late seventies, and was buried in Poitiers in a church which later became the Church of St Radegonde. Due to the strict Rule for Virgins the nuns of Radegund’s abbey were not permitted to attend the funeral.

Radegund is venerated as a saint in the catholic church, her feast day is celebrated on 13th August each year. She is also the patron saint of Cambridge University’s Jesus College. A number of churches and building across Britain and France are named in Radegund’s honour.


References:

Information on St Radegund – Jesus College Cambridge

St. Radegund from Sainted Women of the Dark Ages.-  Jo Ann McNamara, John E. Halborg, with E. Gordon Whatley

On Wikipedia:

Olympias – c.361/368 – 408 – Constantinople

Ancient Turkey, Constantinople

Olympias

Olympias (also known as Olympias the Younger and Olympias the Deaconess) dedicated so much of her time and money towards good works and charity that John Chrysostom told her that she had done ‘almost too much’.

As with Marcella, Paula and Fabiola before her, Olympias began life as a wealthy noblewoman of lofty lineage. She grew up in Constantinople, at the time the capital of the Roman Empire, and was ethnically Greek.

Like every good Roman woman she was married to a man of equal status once she reached adulthood. Her husband Nebridius was Prefect of Constantinople, making her social position even more public. When Nebridius died and left Olympias widowed, she chose not to remarry, but instead focussed her efforts on supporting the church as a deaconess.

Olympias was not the first woman to be ordained as a deacon in the church. The Didascalia (a Christian treatise from the third century) encourages bishops to appoint women to these positions in the church hierarchy because women were often capable of ministering to other women while male deacons might not be appropriate:

“Appoint a woman for the ministry of women. For there are homes to which you cannot send a male deacon to their women, on account of the heathen, but you may send a deaconess … Also in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required.”

Olympias herself personally financed and oversaw the construction of a hospital and an orphanage and dedicated much of her time to caring for monks exiled from Nitria (Egypt).

She attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, with her good works and the two became lifelong friends. The friendship got her into trouble when Chrysostom was banished after his feud with the Roman Empress, Aelia Eudoxia. Olympias herself was exiled in 404 to Nicomedia (Turkey), where she remained for the last four years of her life.

Olympias is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic (feast day 17th December) and Eastern Orthodox Church (feast day 25th July).


In the arts:

Olympias is one of the 140 Colonnade saints which adorn Saint Peter’s Square.

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Saints on the colonnade, St Peter’s Square, The Vatican (Source)


References:

Catholic onlineSt. Olympias

This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age – Gillian Cloke

On Wikipedia:

Marcella – 325 – 410 – Rome

Ancient Rome

Marcella

Marcella was a Roman noblewoman who was active in the early Christian church as one of the founders of monasticism (renouncing a worldly life to dedicate oneself to spiritual service).

The majority of information we have on Marcella comes from a letter written by Saint Jerome, a theologian and doctor of the church, in which he gives a biography of her life and praises her intelligence and good works.

“I will not set forth her illustrious family and lofty lineage… I will praise her for nothing but the virtue which is her own and which is the more noble, because forsaking both wealth and rank she has sought the true nobility of poverty and lowliness.”

– Saint Jerome on Marcella

Like Faltonia Betitia Proba, who lived around the same time, Marcella was born into a wealthy and influential Roman family. She was widowed young, after only seven months of marriage, and while it was Roman custom to remarry quickly, Marcella chose instead to dedicate the rest of her life to serving the poor, rather than a husband.

This was shocking to her contemporaries, including her mother, Albina, who had already found her a suiter, the elderly consular Cerealis. After hearing that Marcella planned to remain unmarried, Cerealis attempted to win her over by promising her his fortune, claiming that she would be more of a daughter to him than a wife, due to their age difference. Marcella’s cutting response was:

“Had I a wish to marry and not rather to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I should look for a husband and not an inheritance.”

Being uninterested in material wealth was an unusual trait at the time, particularly in a Roman Matron, for whom wealth and status was everything. Still, Marcella’s life of quiet prayer, chastity and charity struck a chord, and soon other young women were following her example.

Known as ‘the brown dress society’, Marcella and her community of Roman women dressed in coarse plain garments and stopped dressing their hair or wearing makeup. Marcella opened up her luxurious mansion as a refuge for the poor and a house of hospitality for pilgrims travelling to Rome.

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Painting of the Tiber with the Aventine Hill where Marcella’s house once stood. 1690 (Source)

It was through her hospital that Marcella met Jerome in 382 as he stayed with her while visiting Pope Damasus I. An intelligent and learned woman, Marcella thrived on the opportunity to debate with Jerome, a leading mind in theological matters. Fluent in Greek and Hebrew as well as her native Latin, she was invaluable to the scholar as he spent three years translating the Bible from her home.

Not content to simply listen and learn, Marcella was active in her pursuit of knowledge, openly challenging Jerome a number of times, impressing him immensely:

“..she never came to see me without asking me some questions about [the scriptures]… nor would she rest content at once, but on the contrary would dispute them; this, however, was not for the sake of argument, but to learn by questioning the answers to such objections might, as she saw, be raised. How much virtue and intellect, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say, both lest I may exceed the bounds of men’s belief… This only will I say, that whatever I had gathered together by long study, and by constant meditation made part of my nature, she tasted, she learned and made her own.”

Marcella’s influence spread throughout Rome, reaching another future collaborator of Jerome’s – Paula. Eventually Jerome and Paula chose to travel to the holy land to set up churches and monasteries there, but Marcella opted to stay in Rome and oversee her brown dress society.

The virgins in her society called Marcella ‘Mother’, and their lives can be compared to convent nuns in later Christianity. She was in her late seventies when the Goths attacked and ravaged Rome. Marcella’s house was invaded by soldiers seeking the treasure which was by then long gone on various charitable causes.

Marcella fled to the church of St Paul, where she died soon after. She is honoured today in the Roman Orthodox and Easter Orthodox churches as a saint. Her feast day is 31st January.


References:

Letter from Saint Jerome ‘To Principia’ detailing the life of Marcella – 412 AD

Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church – Ruth A. Tucker

On Wikipedia: