|Kentish Royal Legend|
|Full title||Vita Deo delectae virginis Mildrethae|
|Also known as||Minster-in-Thanet foundation story, þa Halgan, S.Mildryð, Vita S. Mildretha|
|Language||Old English and Latin|
|Date||mid-11th century onwards|
|Historia Regum text|
|Cotton Caligula A (OE|
|British Library: Stowe MS 944, ff 34v-39r (þa Halgan, OE)|
|Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge No. 201, pp. 147–151 (þa Halgan, OE)|
|Cotton Vitellius A 2 ff 3-5 (Latin þa Halgan)|
|Hugh Candidus text|
|Subject||Genealogy, Abbey Foundation, Hagiography|
|Period covered||Anglo-Saxon England|
|Aethelberht, Eadbald, S. Æthelberht, S. Æthelred, Domne Eafe, S. Mildreth and others|
The Kentish Royal Legend is a diverse group of Medieval texts which describe a wide circle of members of the royal family of Kent from the 7th to 8th centuries AD. Key elements include the descendants of Æthelberht of Kent over the next four generations; the establishment of various monasteries, most notably Minster-in-Thanet; and the lives of a number of Anglo-Saxon saints and the subsequent travels of their relics. Although it is described as a legend, and contains a number of implausible episodes, it is placed in a well attested historical context.
Almost all the accounts begin by describing how Æthelberht of Kent was baptised by Augustine. The fullest accounts (such as Bodley 285, see below) then provide a substantial genealogy, involving not only his direct descendants but also the families some of the daughters marry into, the kings of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. The family tree below is David Rollason's summary of the individuals thus described. (♂=male, ♀=female).
|Æthelberht and his descendants|
The central subject of several versions of the Kentish Royal Legend is an account of the murder of two young princes, restitution by way of land to found an abbey by Domne Eafe, and the life of its second Abbess, Mildrith. Although the details and emphasis of the different tellings of the legend vary, the following covers the main elements of that story.
Among the genealogies and Thanet narratives are details of the lives and shrines of a large number of Anglo-Saxon saints, particularly those linked with Kent, but also some from (or who went to) Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. Some of the texts are specifically concerned with other saints. The two princes, St Mildburh and St Werburgh all have their own medieval 'Life', in which the other events of the legend are woven in with varying amounts of detail. In the texts that form 'On the Resting-Places of the Saints', a version of the legend (þa Halgan) appears to be provided in place of a Kentish list of saints, to complement the much more systematic lists of saints (the Secgan) from other parts of the country.
It seems likely that precursors to the extant texts must have been written down almost as soon as Mildrith had died. However, the earliest surviving documents containing the legend date from the middle of the 11th century, and others are later still. They clearly draw from now lost source material. These texts now exist as passages within larger manuscripts, and often subsequently either copied into, or bound into still larger volumes. The essentials of the legend are remarkably consistent in the broad outline, the cast of characters, and the various events they describe. But they are also diverse in their detail, and appear to have been substantially moulded to suit the needs of different authors and different perspectives. Some of the texts that contain substantial portions of the legend are:
There are at least four key moments in the telling of the events surrounding the foundation of Thanet Abbey, and the emphasis and purpose of the story changes substantially to suit the needs of each of these contexts.
The earliest telling would appear to be when the story was set out by Eadburg, the third abbess at Thanet. There is no text dating to that time, but Hollis and Rollason both contend that the Caligula A text has a strong claim to representing the 'Thanet' version of the story. Written in Old English, with considerable uncertainty about its author and date, it recounts the foundation of the Abbey in ways that may be much closer to a mid-8th century account than the other surviving texts. The themes, on that basis, are to chronicle a history of the Abbey, to set out its legal claim to the land, to talk up the Mercian links of the founder (Domne Eafe) and the saint (Mildrith), at a time when Kent was under Mercian rule, and to provide a 'Life of Mildrith' to accompany the translation of her remains from St Mary's Church to Eadburg's new church of St Peter and St Paul, Thanet.
Two texts (known as The Historia Regum text and Bodley 285 text) were written at Ramsey Abbey, both probably by a monk called Byrhtferth, perhaps in preparation for, and subsequent to, the translation of two martyred princes, saints Æthelred and Æthelberht, from their original burial place at Wakering, south-east Essex, to Ramsey Abbey, Huntingdonshire. The two princes were the brothers of Domne Eafe, and all versions agree that it was their murder, as young innocents, that was the spur to Egbert's giving of the land for a monastery. However, the distinctive features of Byrhtferth's Ramsey account are to emphasise the sanctity and virtue of the princes. The genealogy section makes no mention of the many women that are included in the other texts,. It describes a miraculous rather than 'trained' behaviour of the hind, which has the effect of reducing the pro-activeness of the abbess. Byrthferth portrays the Abbesses as meek and holy women, rather than scheming and pro-active. He obscures the wergild origin of the gift of land, perhaps because by the 10th century, such a means of acquiring monastic lands was severely disapproved of.
Goscelin's Vita St Mildrithae, written at St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury some time between 1089 and 1099, followed the translation of Mildrith's relics from Thanet to Canterbury in 1030. Thanet had been attacked by Danes on a number of occasions in the 9th and 10th centuries, and the Abbey was finally abandoned in 1011AD. (In 1091 they were translated to the newly built chapel of the Holy Innocents.) Goscelin's account attempts to create a more conventional 'life of the saint' than the earlier texts, but the source material imposes a much more detailed genealogy, Abbey foundation story and explanation of the saint's mother than most such hagiographies would expect. In a number of places Goscelin meets the expectations of his own times in claiming the involvement of Archbishop Theodore where other texts suggest Domne Eafe acted on her own authority, such as the dedication of the Minster, and permission for Mildrith to succeed her as Abbess.).
Founded at Canterbury in 1084-5, St Gregory's Abbey began to claim, from 1087, to have the relics of both St Mildrith and her successor as Abbess, St Eadburg, having translated them from Lyminge Abbey. At the time of the translation, two or three years before, they had translated the relics of St Eadburg and an unknown saint. The production of a full account of the lives of Domne Eafe and Mildrith appears to have been made to further this claim. That they produced a text that is broadly very harmonious with other known texts suggests they had a good source document, and it would seem likely that a Thanet-based text had come from Lyminge with the relics. Goscelin, in a document known as the contra usurpatores, strongly refuted their claim on Mildrith. In doing so he describes two separate documents produced by the Gregorians, and it would appear these are now combined into what is known as the Gotha text.