At a time when women were often treat more as property than they were as human beings, Etheldreda stands out as a woman of strong faith and determination.
Etheldreda was born into the Royal Family of East Anglia and, as a young girl she was married to an Alderman named Tondberht; this in spite of her making a vow to remain a virgin in order to serve Christ. It is presumed that Tondbreht was an older man as he died three years later and Etheldreda retired to the Isle of Ely. Her retirement however, was short lived, as King Oswy of Northumbria sought a bride for his son, Edgrith.
Although very large, Oswy realised that his kingdom was far from secure and could only be maintained through political alliances; therefore his son Edgrith would marry Etheldreda, despite the fact that he was only fifteen and Etheldreda was considerably older, and she still vowed to remain a virgin.
Initially the arrangement worked well but, as Edgrith grew older so he began to desire a normal marriage and started to put pressure on his bride. Etheldreda remained resolute and was given spiritual support from Wilfrid, in return for which she began giving him huge tracts of land, including Hexham, on which to build Churches. The situation finally came to a head in 672 when Edgrith admitted defeat and released his wife, who was received into the community at Coldingham by Wilfrid himself. There, under the careful guidance of Saint Ebbe, Etheldreda finally became a nun.
Etheldreda stayed at Coldingham for about a year before returning to her native East Anglia, where she restored an old Church at Ely which had been destroyed by the pagan King Penda. Here, on the site of what is today Ely Cathedral, Etheldreda's new community began to flourish. It was a simple place, and despite her royal connections Etheldreda lived a very simple life: she insisted on wearing rough woollen clothes instead of linen, she ate only one meal a day and spent most of her time in prayer.
After only seven years at Ely, Etheldreda finally died of a tumour in her neck which she attributed to the vanity of wearing a necklace in her younger days. The truth however is much more mundane as Etheldreda was a victim of a plague which seemed to take so many of that era. Seventeen years later however, when it became necessary to move her body, Wilfrid and her physician Cynefrid discovered that it was totally uncorrupted, and the tumour which had killed her was completely healed.