The Story of St. Aebba

In the late 19th century due to Victorian romanticism and the desire to distinguish the growing village of Coldingham Shore from its larger neighbour Coldingham, the village change its name to St. Abbs. This name was derived from the headland to the north of the village, which is itself named after the 7th century Abbess Æbbe who at the dawn of the Christian faith in South East Scotland founded a monastery on the summit of the Kirk Hill, located out on the headland.

There are several local legends associated with Æbbe, however historians now only accept a source as genuine if it is contemporary with what it describes. Therefore we can call into question these legends that have developed surrounding Æbbe.

The most often recounted legend is of Æbbe and her nuns mutilating themselves in the attempt to preserve their chastity from a pillaging Viking horde. This legend is very popular locally but there is no contemporary record of this event happening. The first documentary evidence of this attack dates from 14th century, 500 years after the presumed event. This 14th century account gives the year of the attack as 870. Not only had the monastery been abandoned for nearly 200 years, but also historians have been unable to identify any raider on the coast of southeast Scotland for that year.

We can however explain this anomaly if we accept that the author of the 14th account, the hagiographer Matthew Paris of Alba, confused Æbbe with her pupil Ætheldreda. Ætheldreda after graduating from Æbbe's tutelage founder a religious site at Ely. It is record that in 870 the Vikings who where active in East Anglia at the time, sacked this Christian site which Ætheldreda founded.

This 14th century account has also resulted in the erroneous creation of a second Abbess Æbbe to explain the fact that the attack happen nearly 200 years after Æbbe had died. The historically more accurate information we can gleam from the contemporary records, Bede's 'History of the English Church and People' and his 'Life of Cuthbert' and also Eddius' 'Life of Wilfrid', offer just as fascinating a portrait of Æbbe life as that portrayed of in legend. Therefore who was this princess who helped establish Christianity in southeast Scotland?

Æbbe was a princess the daughter of King Æhelfrith of Bernician and Acha of Deira. Æhelfrith had invaded the neighbouring kingdom of Deira in 604. Assuming the throne he united Deira with Bernician thus becoming the first king of Northumberland. To cement this claim upon Deira he took the princess Acha of the royal house of Deira as his wife. However when Æhelfirth had invaded Deira, he deposed prince Edwin, heir to the throne and brother of Acha, who fled into exile.

Edwin took refuge in the court of King Rædwald of East Anglia, and with his support in 616, raised an army against Æthelfrith. In the subsequent battle, Æthelfirth was defeated and killed. Edwin then gained the throne of Northumberland. Edwin on the throne meant Northumberland, was no longer safe for the children of Æhelfirth as they had a potential rival claim to the throne. Therefore when Æbbe was still young she, her mother and brothers fled north to exile in the court of the Scots of Dalriada. It was during this time of exile in western Scotland that she and her brothers where converted to Christianity.

While the sons of Æhelfrith always represented a threat to Edwin, he was finally deposed by an alliance of the Mercian king Penda and the Welsh king Cadwallon. They raised an army against Edwin and killed him in battle in 633. Eadfrith eldest son of Æhelfrith, and Æbbes half-brother returned as King of Bernicia, however he was double-crossed and murdered by Cadwallon. The year following Æhelfriths son Oswald returned and drove the invaders from both Bernicia and Deria, thus establishing himself on the throne of Northumberland. He was however defeated and killed in battle, in 642, by Penda of Mercia, and was succeeded as king by his brother Oswiu.

With her brothers on the throne of Northumberland Æbbe could return from exile and with their support establish a monastery at urbs Coludi, now known as Kirk Hill. This religious house lasted for about 40 years and was a double separate monastery of both monks and nuns governed by Æbbe.

Æbbe was a great teacher and politician, bringing Christianity to the then pagan Angles who had been settling along the east coast of Britain since the 5th century. She educated the ex-queen Ætheldreda first wife of Ecgfrith, who later after graduating from Æbbe's tutelage established a religious site on which now stands Ely cathedral.

Her political prowess also proved important in rectifying a dispute between the then King of Northumberland, her nephew Ecgfrith, who had succeeded his father Oswui in 670, and the Bishop Wilfrid. The dispute started with Wilfreds support for Queen Ætheldreda, who wished despite her marriage to preserve her virginity, and to enter a monastery. With his support she had become a nun at Æbbes monastery. The ill felling in court against Wilfred continued with Ecgfrith's second wife, Iurmenburh, who became hostile to Wilfrid on account of the vast estates which he had acquired and the way he travelled about with a large armed retinue, like that of a king. This culminated in Wilfrid being imprisoned at Dunbar at Ecgfrith's whim. Thanks to Æbbe political skills, on a visit by Ecgfrith to the monastery on Kirk hill, she managed to persuade her nephew to release the bishop.

The actuality of life in the early Christian establishment was not always strict on sexual piety, due to the noble background of members of the religious community the monastery would also have been a place for eating, drinking and entertainment. While Æbbe, herself was noted for her own piety she had trouble enforcing discipline at the monastery. The monks and nuns thus became very lax and worldly. This leads to one of the most famous miracles surrounding the patron saint of southeast Scotland and northeast England, St. Cuthbert who visited Æbbe's monastery to instruct the community. At night Cuthbert would disappear to bathe and pray in the sea, to stop him succumbing to temptation of the flesh. Very early one morning a Monk from the monastery spied him praying and singing psalms in the sea and as Cuthbert came ashore, he saw or imagined he saw two otters bound out of the sea and join Cuthbert. The most likely location for this event is Horse Castle bay at the base of the Kirk Hill.

Shortly after the death of Æbbe, and as foretold in prophesy by the monk Adamnan, in 683 the monastery burned down. The people at the time could not go against their God's wish so the monastic site was abandoned. In the first half of the 8th century Bede verifies this by telling us that the site was deserted. The early work of Æbbe in establishing the Christian religion in south east Scotland was not forgotten and in a book written about c.1200 by the monks of Coldingham, they tell of many pilgrims visiting the Kirk Hill and the spring at Well Mouth, located at the top of the beach now called Horse Castle Bay. St. Æbbes feast day is celebrated on 25th August.

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