That today is the day the church remembers St Etheldreda more commonly called St Alfreda.
My maternal grandfather wasn’t religious but it was him that told me about her something no one else has done before or since. He was proud of his Anglo-Saxon roots and as we lived in Scotland and had a Scottish name I think he saw it as his duty to make sure we also knew something of English history. But on this occasion he was telling the story as an example. My maternal grandparents lived in Budliegh Salterton in south Devon and my sister and I used to spend the summer holidays with them. They had a milkman who we nicknamed as ‘Ernie’ he would arrive at all times of the day, never before breakfast though and most usually around lunch time, this particular day he still hadn’t arrived and it was near 3 o’clock and we were speculating as to what might have happened to make him so late.
St Alfreda of Crowland – not to be confused with St Alfreda of Mercia whose story is close to the bizarre and not one my grandfather told me but one I discovered later – was the beautiful daughter of King Offa of Mercia, one of the most renowned of all the Saxon kings a great warrior who was a very successful King ruling over an area which all but coved much of what we now know as England. Cwendreda, Offa’s queen was an ambitious woman just like her husband and when, King Aethelbert of East Anglia came to court Etheldreda, Cwendreda saw an opportunity to increase King Offa’s power and thus her own. There are two stories as to how the death of King Aethelbert came about, both start with the queen. In the first she persuades the King Offa, that the visiting King isn’t after his daughters hand in marriage but his kingdom and that he should be killed and his kingdom taken instead. King Offa agrees and arranges for King Aethelbert’s head to be cut off. The second story is more elaborate, in it, it is the Queen not the King who arranges King Aethelbert’s death. She places a chair in his bedroom covered in silk cushions to make it comfortable and attractive for the King to sit on and then throws a lavish banquet for him. After the banquet the King retires and tired and drunk flops himself into the waiting chair. However the chair is a trap for under it there is a secret door which opens and he falls down into a cellar where the Queen’s servants suffocated him with the silk cushions. As King Aethelbert had come to see Alfreda she felt indirectly responsible for what her parents had done and fled to the monastery of St Guthlac at Crowland. Where she became a recluse for forty years and died about AD 834.
The moral of the story as far as my grandfather was concerned was this – There are always two sides to a story and speculating about them doesn’t change the facts, King Aethelbert was murdered and we had no milk; so the best thing we could do was remove ourselves from the situation just as Alfreda had and go to the shop and buy some milk!