Today is the feast day of St Æthelthryth. She is a fairly obscure saint who for reasons that are not exactly clear is the patron saint of throat ailments. Whilst her patronage is unclear we can trace the origins of the modern English word tawdry from her name.
Tawdry: cheap and gaudy finery
What am I blithering about? Read on to find out.
Æthelthryth was born around 636 in Exning, Suffolk. Both she and all her three sisters were destined to found monasteries and become nuns and as a youth she took a vow of chastity. This would be expected to cause trouble when in 652 she married a local prince called Tondberct, but she managed to persuade her husband to respect her vow of perpetual virginity. Tondberct did not last long and died around 655, at which point Æthelthryth retired to the Isle of Ely, which was actually a wedding gift from her late husband.
A few years later she was obliged by her family to remarry: this time to Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Despite the wedding in 670, Æthelthryth became a nun which although inituially accepted by her new husband soon became a cause of contention as he wished to consummate the marriage. Persuasion failed and now – the story goes – the king tried to take his queen from the cloister and to his bed by force. Æthelthryth fled to Ely. During this flight miracles occured. She planted her staff in the ground which became an ash tree in which she hid. Her flight was also aided by a mysterious rising of the tide which is also seen as a miracle. Ecgfrith must have decided that Æthelthryth was too much trouble because he later married another queen. Meanwhile, finally left in peace, Æthelthryth founded a double monastery at Ely in 673. She died in 679.
In 695, her sister, Seaxburh translated the remains to a new church at Ely. When her grave was opened, Æthelthryth’s body was intact and both her coffin and clothes had miraculous powers. The modern shrine of St. Æthelthryth containing the relic of her hand is at the Roman Catholic Parish church in Ely.
What about the Tawdry thing?
Æthelthryth’s name means “Nobly born Ryth”. Ryth is also spelt Reda and from the name we get the more familiar modern name Audrey or Awdrey. Now in later years the followers of her cult bought modestly concealing lace goods at an annual fair held in her name in Ely. As is the way of fashions by the 17th century, this lacework had become old-fashioned and of cheap of poor quality. The Puritans looked down on any form of lacy dressiness and so it also was seen as sordid. Thus from the name of a 7th century saint we get a word which we might today use in a phrase like the tawdry business of politics.