During the eighth century the royal families of England
produced a bumper crop of holy men and women. Within
Milburga's immediate family her mother, Ermenburga, her two
sisters, Mildred and Milgitha, and of course Milburga herself
all became venerated as saints. Ermenburgha and her daughters
devoted themselves to caring for the sick and the poor,
endowing schools at convents and monasteries and
commissioning sacred art for local churches. Once her
daughters were adults, Ermenburga entered the Convent of
Minster on the island of Thanet, where eventually, she was
elected abbess. Like her mother, Milburga chose the life of a
nun, entering Much Wenlock Abbey, a convent her father had
founded in Shropshire near the Welsh border.
The people who lived near the abbey revered Milburga for her
holiness. Often she left her convent to nurse the sick, and
all manner of miraculous cures were attributed to her. The
most dramatic story tells of a widow who brought the body of
her dead son to Milburga and begged her to restore the child
to life. Milburga urged the poor woman to accept the
bereavement God had sent her, but the mother refused to leave
the abbey until Milburga helped her. Reluctantly, Milburga
knelt beside the body and prayed that if it was His will, God
would restore the boy to life. Suddenly the child gasped and
sat up, alive and well.
St. Milburga's patronage of birds comes from another miracle
story. Once, just before harvest, an enormous flock of birds
alighted on the farmers' fields and began gobbling up all the
grain. Nothing the farmers did frightened off the birds, so
Milburga began to pray. To the sound of a tremendous flapping
of wings, the flock rose above the fields and flew away.
Since the Middle Ages, St. Milburga has been venerated as the
patron of wild birds as well as pet birds.
On her deathbed, Milburga's last words were, "Blessed are the
pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers." The nuns buried
her before the altar in the abbey church. A century later,
when Viking raiders ransacked Much Wenlock Abbey, the church
was destroyed and the location of St. Milburgfa's tomb was
lost. The convent lay in ruins until 1079, when monks from
France came and re-established Much Wenlock as a monastery.
During construction of the new church, St. Milburga's tomb
was rediscovered. The monks placed her relics in a shrine and
for nearly 500 years St. Milburga's tomb drew local people as
well as pilgrims from every corner of England and Wales. All
that came to an end when Henry VIII broke with Rome, closed
all the abbeys in England, and sent his men to dismantle the
shrines of the saints. In 1540 the king's commissioners
arrived at Much Wenlock. They stripped St. Milburga's shrine
of its valuables, pried open her coffin, carried her bones
outside the church and burned them.
Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life
(Quirk, 2011) and Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday, 2006).