Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ebba

EBBA or ÆBBE, Saint (d. 679?), abbess of Coldingham, daughter of Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria, by Acha, sister of King Eadwine [see Edwin], was the sister of the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswiu, and the aunt of Ecgfrith (Bædæ Hist. Eccl. iii. 6, iv. 19). On the defeat and death of her father in 617 she shared the exile of her brothers, and is said to have been sheltered by Donald Brek, a Scottish king, and later to have received the veil from Finan [q. v.], bishop of Lindisfarne, to have been granted the site of a Roman camp on the Derwent by her brother Oswiu, and to have founded a monastery there. The place is called Ebchester after her, the village church is dedicated to her, and the neighbouring promontory, St. Abb's Head, derives its name from her (Acta SS. Bolland. Aug. v. 194; Surtees, Durham, ii. 300–1). She became abbess of Coldingham in Berwickshire, where she received Æthelthryth, the wife of her nephew Ecgfrith, on her retirement from the world, and where St. Cuthberht visited her (Vita S. Cudbercti, c. 10). During a visit that Ecgfrith and his second wife, Eormenburh, paid to Coldingham, the queen was seized with a malady that was held to be the effect of demoniacal possession. Æbbe explained that this affliction was a divine judgment sent in consequence of the persecution of Wilfrith, in which both the king and queen had joined. At her bidding Ecgfrith released the bishop, and the queen recovered (Eddi, c. 39). Another miracle worked by Wilfrith was, Eddi tells us, often related by an abbess named Æbbe, who was alive when he wrote his ‘Life of Wilfrith,’ about 711. Mabillon points out that this must have been another Æbbe, and though Canon Raine holds that he was mistaken (Historians of York, i. 53), the abbess of Coldingham certainly died some years before Eddi wrote. Coldingham was a double monastery, where both monks and nuns lived under the rule of an abbess. Æbbe was not a successful abbess, for one of the monks, named Adamnan, not of course the famous abbot, had it revealed to him in a vision that the house would be destroyed by fire because the congregation led idle, dissipated lives, the brethren spending their nights in sleep or revelry, the sisters in weaving rich garments to attract strangers of the other sex. He told his vision to Æbbe, adding that the evil should not happen in her days. During the short remainder of her life the inhabitants of her house repented, but after her death they fell back into their old evil ways, and Adamnan's prophecy was fulfilled. Coldingham was destroyed by fire in 679 (A.-S. Chron.), and Æbba must therefore have died in, or possibly immediately before that year. Her death is, however, said by her biographer (Acta SS. Bolland.) to have taken place in 683, and Canon Raine considers that it happened after the fire at Coldingham. This, however, is contrary to the express words of Bæda (Hist. Eccl. iv. 25), whose authority is final. It seems probable that the belief that Æbbe lived to some date after 679 may have arisen from a confusion between her and the other abbess of the same name mentioned by Eddi. Her day, sometimes stated as 29 Aug., is correctly 25 Aug. She was buried in her monastery. In later days, probably after the destruction of Coldingham by the Danes in the ninth century, her grave was discovered by some shepherds, and her body was translated and laid in the church on the south side of the altar. In the eleventh century a priest of Durham named Alfred stole her bones, or some part of them, and deposited them along with other relics of the same kind in the tomb of St. Cuthberht (Symeon). Besides the life of the saint by John of Tinmouth in manuscript in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library, which was printed in Capgrave's ‘Aurea Legenda’ and thence in ‘Acta SS.,’ there are manuscript lives of little value in the British Museum, Lansdowne 436, and the Bodleian, Fairfax 6.

Another Ebba is said, in the compilation used by Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, to have been abbess of Coldingham when the house was destroyed by the Danes about 870. The compiler records that she and her nuns cut off their noses and upper lips in order to preserve their chastity. No early writer mentions this story, and it is therefore not to be accepted as historical (Wendover, i. 301, Engl. Hist. Soc.; Paris, i. 391, Rolls Ser.).

[Bædæ Hist. Eccl. iii. 6, iv. 19, 25; Vita S. Cudbercti, c. 10 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Eddi's Vita Wilfridi, c. 37, 39; Historians of York, i. 53, 55 (Rolls Ser.); Symeon of Durham's Hist. Dunelm. Eccl. ii. 7, iii; 7 (Rolls Ser.); Acta SS. Bolland. Aug v. 194–9; Forbes's Kalendars of Scottish Saints, p. 330: Surtees's Hist. of Durham, ii. 300–1; Dict. Christian Biog. art. ‘Ebba,’ by Canon Raine; Hardy's Cat. of MSS. i. 288–90.]

W. H.