A Tawdry Tale of Saints and Lace

Ely Cathedral
St Audrey of Ely

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald 14th of March 2018.

I love it when I discover an unusual fact that I never knew before thanks to reading my Dad’s 40-year-old columns. I have come across many and this week was no different as I learned the interesting story behind the word ‘tawdry’, thanks to Dad mentioning that someone had asked him if he knew the origins of the word in his column from 18th March 1978.

Tawdry, as we know, describes something that is cheap, nasty and gaudy. But its origins are far from it. The word comes from the very pious St Etheldreda, more commonly known as St Audrey, who was daughter of King Anna of the East Angles. She died on 23rd June AD679 the age of 43 after contracting the plague and developing a huge, unsightly tumour on her neck. Although a doctor removed the tumour, it didn’t save her life. According to the Venerable Bede, writing  around 50 years later, Etheldreda declared it divine retribution for having enjoyed wearing ostentatious necklaces when she was a young girl.

Before she became a nun, Etheldreda managed to work her way through two husbands without ever losing her virginity, steadfastly sticking to a vow of chastity she had made in her youth. To be fair the first one died quite quickly, and the second one, Egfrith, son of King Oswy of Northumbria, was only 15 when they wed. She was forced to marry him for political reasons, and after a few years, once he had (shall we say) ‘matured’, he realised what he was missing out on, and so demanded to be granted his conjugal rights.

Horrified, Etheldreda fled, and eventually her frustrated husband gave up and found satisfaction in the arms of another. Etheldreda then became a nun and was free to live the prayerful life she craved at the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire, where she founded a monastery on the site of the current Ely Cathedral.

St Audrey has two saints days, both of which are still commemorated by the cathedral. One is the date she died, and the second is on 17th October when her remains were exhumed, 17 years after her death, and moved into the church within the monastery. It is said that when Etheldreda’s casket was opened, her body was found to have not decayed and the tumour scar had miraculously healed. Therefore the wearing of necklaces made of lace or ribbon in her honour became common as they were believed to bring good health to the wearer, especially if they were suffering from illnesses around the throat area. They were known as St Audrey’s lace which, by the end of the sixteenth century, had been shortened to tawdry lace (overheard in Yorkshire, I suspect!).

An annual fair was established in her memory, and although I don’t have a date for when it began, it was still going strong in 1600. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written around 1601, the shepherdess Mopsa says to her sweetheart, “Come, you promised me a tawdry-lace and a pair of sweet gloves.” Over time, St Audrey’s fair had become notorious for selling lace and trinkets of very poor quality, and soon the the word ‘tawdry’ was associated with anything of that nature, and is the reason why its meaning today is so far from its very holy beginnings.

As I was researching this, I did wonder why the Isle of Ely was called ‘Isle’ when the Cambridgeshire city was some way from the coast (about 35 miles in fact) or from any significant body of water. It turns out that it used to be slap bang in the middle of fenland, and only accessible by boat until the seventeenth century when the waterlogged land was drained. The original name meant ‘Isle of Eels’ from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘eilig’.

It led me to wonder how many other isles (that were not islands) were within our shores, as I only knew a couple off the top of my head, the Isle of Dogs and the Isle of Thanet. I found 21, most of which were in the southern half of the country, although there are three that I can associate with Yorkshire, including Kelham Island, which is one of Sheffield city’s 11 quarters, the village of Sunk Island, which was originally a sandbank in the Humber estuary, and the Isle of Axholme, which separates Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, lying between the River Don, near Doncaster, and the River Trent near Scunthorpe.

Are there any more I have yet to discover, I wonder? (Source: elycathedral.org)