St. Æthelthryth (Etheldreda), whose feast day is celebrated on June 23 (the anniversary of her death in AD 679), was one of four daughters of King Anna of East Anglia–one of the independent kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy that eventually united into a single England later in the Anglo-Saxon period. Some time around 652, at the age of sixteen, she was married off to one Tondberct, a chieftain of the South Gyrvians, a tribal marsh-dwelling people of the Fens region. Perhaps the prospect of being wed to a swamp-man was not particularly to her liking, for she made a vow of perpetual virginity prior to the marriage and somehow convinced her new husband to honor it! When her husband died a mere few years later, Æthelthryth retired to the Isle of Ely, which had been given to her as her morning gift–a sort of dower in Anglo-Saxon society.
But retirement mustn’t have agreed with her, because in 660, Æthelthryth remarried Ecgfrith, who was in line to become King of Northumbria (another part of the heptarchy). Although seemingly a step up from the swamp prince, Æthelthryth nonetheless chose to become a nun shortly after her new husband ascended the Northumbrian throne. Ecgfrith agreed at first to allow his wife to continue to maintain her virginal state, but he later changed his mind and sought to consummate their marriage. First he bribed the Archbishop of York into pressuring Æthelthryth to hop into her husband’s bed, and when this failed he simply tried abducting her by force from her cloister. Æthelthryth fled to Ely, her escape made good in part due to the miraculous rising of the tide–or so the legend goes. In thanks, she founded a monastery at Ely in 673.
But what this stubbornly virginal saint is perhaps best remembered for is the fact that her devotees often honored her modest chastity by wearing concealing swaths of lace, which they bought at Ely’s annual fair commemorating the saint. In time the lacy fashion accessories came to be seen as outdated, often as cheap or of inferior quality. Æthelthryth was often referred to by a diminutive form of her name–Audrey or Awdry–and it is from a shortening of the first part of the term St. Awdry’s lace that the word tawdry entered the English language to describe something cheap or gaudy. Not the most flattering etymological legacy, but perhaps Æthelthryth would be pleased; for according to the Venerable Bede, the enormous tumorous growth on her neck that eventually killed her was something she herself considered a divine punishment for her youthful fondness for showy necklaces. If the social fear of looking tawdry is protecting other women from a similar fate, then Æthelthryth’s job as the patron saint of throat ailments is well in hand!