Using GIS to Illustrate and Understand the Influence of St Æthelthryth of Ely

by Ian Styler

1. Introduction

Throughout the Middle Ages the shrine at Ely of St Æthelthryth was the focal point of the saint’s cult and the destination for pilgrims who would have visited it seeking cures, redemption, or forgiveness. The cult at Ely was established by Æthelthryth’s sister and successor as abbess, Seaxburh, sixteen years after Æthelthryth’s death. An account written by the Northumbrian monk and chronicler Bede in the early eighth century tells us that her coffin was opened in 695 with the intention of moving her remains to a larger stone tomb that was to be placed in a more prominent position in the abbey (Colgrave and Mynors, 1969). Her body was found to be intact and a tumour on her neck that was the likely cause of death was found to have healed post-mortem, leaving only a scar behind. Miracles were witnessed at the tomb, and from that time on and throughout the Middle Ages it was the subject of veneration and a place of pilgrimage until her shrine was destroyed and her relics disbursed during the reign of Henry VIII. The popularity of her shrine was such that, by its peak at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the total value of offerings to St Æthelthryth had reached almost £95 per annum, far greater than that of many of the other major shrine centres of the time (Nilson, 2001). 

However, over the course of the nine-hundred-year history of its saint’s cult, the community at Ely had been constantly responding to events that affected or threatened it, of which there were a significant number. In the ninth century the abbey was subjected to a series of destructive raids by the Vikings, while in the tenth it was refounded as a Benedictine house and its secular priests replaced with monks. The abbey was on the side of the rebels opposed to William the Conqueror and was the site of their stronghold during the Siege of Ely in 1070. It was eventually taken under Norman control and was declared a bishopric in 1109, but only after a lengthy dispute with the diocese of Lincoln. Throughout the Middle Ages the Ely community was the target of numerous legal challenges over the abbey’s landholdings while it also strived to maintain and enhance its position as a powerful ecclesiastical force in East Anglia, in competition with other local foundations such as Bury St Edmunds, Peterborough, Ramsey, and Norwich. Any of these events could have jeopardised the future of Ely and the continuation of its cult, but the common defence relied upon by the Ely monks was their saint, Æthelthryth, and to this end they employed her character many times and in numerous different guises. 

Prior to the commencement of the research upon which this paper is based, the geographical extent of her cult had not been precisely defined and so, to understand the saint’s influence, a wide range of sources was collated and analysed. These sources included texts relating to Æthelthryth’s life and miracles, archaeological evidence, material culture and dedications from parish churches, records of ecclesiastical calendars and litanies, relic lists, charters, wills, and medieval cartography. The collation of this wealth of data allowed Æthelthryth’s cult to be considered from a much wider standpoint than had previously been possible. One of the key findings was the emergence of geographic patterns of evidence that provided indications of the journeys that late medieval pilgrims and other travellers would have made between sites with significance to St Æthelthryth. These relationships and patterns would not have been as distinguishable, nor their significance as clearly illustrated, were it not for the application of a GIS to the data identified from within the sources.

2. The Application of GIS to the Study of the Cult of St Æthelthryth

The use of GIS within the humanities, and specifically within historical research, is a relatively modern development, with historians exploring its application and beginning to recognise its benefits only in the last twenty years. As defined by two of the earliest proponents of using GIS within the humanities, Ian Gregory and Paul Ell, the system is ‘a spatial database technology concerned with structuring, integrating, visualising and analysing spatially referenced data’ (Gregory and Ell, 2007, pp. 89-90). The true value of a historical GIS is its ability to integrate spatial data from multiple sources, manipulate them, and then display them, revealing patterns that would otherwise have been far more difficult to spot (Bodenhamer, 2010). At its most fundamental level, the building of a database of sources, essential to the functioning of a GIS, provided a structured, accessible, and flexible method of storing the variety of data related to the cult of Æthelthryth. However, aside from its organisational benefits, the GIS also enabled the discrete datasets to be displayed cartographically, and then for spatial analysis on the entirety of the data to be undertaken which revealed the hitherto unrecognised patterns of potential pilgrimage activity.

The fundamental reliance of a GIS on spatial data – in other words the need for a set of geographical co-ordinates for each piece of information used by the GIS – presented challenges that have been difficult to overcome. These difficulties were not unique to the analysis of Æthelthryth’s cult but have in fact been recognised by scholars for almost as long as have the benefits of GIS to the humanities. Anne Knowles, another of the earliest specialists in historical GIS and editor of the first volume to collate case studies of its use within historical research (Knowles, 2002), was also probably the first to articulate the problems associated with its introduction. She recognised the dichotomy between the technological dependence upon accurate, precise data and the often-uncertain nature of historical sources, the limitations of a GIS to handle qualitative information (for instance within textual sources such as charters), and the problems involved with using a GIS for any kind of temporal analysis (Knowles, 2005). Evidence that these are not just issues affecting the earliest GIS historians and that they continue to be problematic is demonstrated by their continued discussion within academic scholarship (Gregory and Ell, 2007; Bodenhamer, 2010; Griffiths, 2013). To this end, the range of source types used within the analysis of the cult of Æthelthryth has meant that considerable effort was made to attach co-ordinates to each of the data items. The twelfth-century place names recorded in the charters contained in the Liber Eliensis (a key medieval text that was written at Ely, and which contains the story of Æthelthryth, a history of the foundation, and a narrative of charters relating to the abbey’s landholdings), for example, were in many cases spelt differently from their modern-day counterparts, and in some cases the name had completely changed. Similarly, the recording of distance within the narratives was not uniform and may not have been representative of how far someone travelled, especially as the mode of transport is often not mentioned. While in no way diminishing the value of the application of the GIS to the data pertaining to Æthelthryth’s cult, these issues had to be recognised and their effects considered to maintain the validity of the conclusions drawn.

Figure 1 (below) shows the geographical extent of the cult of Æthelthryth in England and Scotland from just before her death in 679 until the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the disbursement of her relics in c. 1540. Employing the map-making functionality of the GIS, it clearly demonstrates the range and complexity of Æthelthryth’s cult and the variety of sources that were available to try to articulate its scope and influence. However, it only tells part of the story. Nine centuries of cultic activity is compressed here into a single snapshot, which means that the chronological development of the cult over this period cannot be immediately ascertained, and instead the map projects the image of a static cult, the boundaries of which were defined and did not subsequently alter. In fact, Æthelthryth’s cult was dynamic and constantly changing in nature, and it is better described as having comprised several spheres of influence that became established and evolved at different periods during its lifetime. 

Figure 1: The Geographic Extent of the Cult of St Æthelthryth across England and Scotland

What the map does show, however, is that the cult of Æthelthryth was not just centred on Ely and East Anglia. Limiting the data shown on the map to that relating to parish churches with links to Æthelthryth (i.e., churches either dedicated to her or that contain images of her) means that the data layer that represents Ely’s significant landholdings, which were predictably concentrated in the East Anglian counties, is removed, providing a much clearer picture of the variability in the reach of Æthelthryth’s cult across the country. This parish church data revealed discrete areas of venerative activity in the southwest of England, and to the north and the south of Ely, with further isolated links to such disparate locations as the Welsh Marches and south Oxfordshire, as shown in Figure 2, below. The four major distinct spheres of influence are highlighted, these being: 1, North of Ely; 2, Norfolk; 3, South of Ely; and 4, South West England.

Figure 2: Clusters of Evidence of Æthelthryth from Parish Churches

3. Evidence of Æthelthryth in Parish Churches

3.1. Church Dedications

For the most part, the significance of the churches whose dedications are to Æthelthryth stems more from their locations rather than any specific event that may have taken place there, with the majority most likely originating from the transfer to Ely of the land upon which they were sited, transactions that quite often had origins dating back to the tenth century. Exact dating of the dedications is difficult, but, despite this uncertainty, the documentary evidence proves that all the churches identified were dedicated to St Æthelthryth by the beginning of the fifteenth century. 

The two earliest of these dedications, dating to the late seventh century, can, however, be linked to important events in the life of Æthelthryth. They are the parish churches of West Halton and Stow Green, both in Lincolnshire. West Halton is just to the south of the River Humber and is probably the place that Æthelthryth stayed for a few days after crossing the river while on a journey from the monastery at Coldingham in Northumberland (where she had placed herself in an effort to protect her virginity from her husband, King Ecgfrith of Northumberland) to Ely in around 670. The Liber Eliensis describes how she travelled for about ten furlongs after coming ashore at Wintringham (now Winteringham) before she arrived at a settlement called Alftham, where during her stay she constructed a church (Blake, 1962). The turning to West Halton is little more than one mile (or eight furlongs) from Winteringham, and it is probable that the name Halton is a derivation of the Alftham mentioned in the text. Archaeological excavations in the area have reinforced the textual evidence of Æthelthryth’s presence. In the early 1980s, traces of a defensive bank and ditch were unearthed just to the north of the church at West Halton, while a much larger-scale excavation between 1989 and 1991 at Flixborough, about five miles south-west of West Halton, produced finds and the remains of buildings pointing to a large, monastic settlement with an earliest date of the late seventh century (Youngs et al., 1983).

The second Lincolnshire site, Stow Green, is also mentioned in the Liber Eliensis as a place where Æthelthryth stayed on her journey south to Ely and is the site of one of the earliest recorded miracles performed by Æthelthryth while she was alive. She had fallen asleep in a field after securing her wooden staff in the ground next to her and discovered on waking that it had sprouted branches and leaves, which subsequently grew into the ‘biggest ash tree of all the trees in the region’ (Blake, 1962, Book I, ch. 13). As a result of this miracle, she is recorded as having founded a church there dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and the settlement subsequently became known as Ædeldrethestowe, or ‘the resting place of Æthelthryth’. It is likely that Ædeldrethestowe was the settlement of Stow Green, a now-deserted village which in the twelfth century contained the church dedicated to Æthelthryth, and which is recorded in the thirteenth century as holding a fair annually on 23 June, one of Æthelthryth’s feast days (Roffe, 1986). These two dedications to Æthelthryth served to memorialise the link between the saint, the location, and what happened there, and acted as enduring reminders to those who visited the churches of the trials she endured in order to protect her virginity.

One further dedication that is of interest for the seeming inexplicability of both its church’s location and its origin is St Audrie’s in Somerset (Audrie or Audrey are names by which Æthelthryth is also known in later medieval French and English texts). It is in the village of West Quantoxhead, in the north of the county close to the border with Devon in the parish of St Audries and is the most remote from the epicentre of Æthelthryth’s cult in Ely. The Liber Eliensis makes no mention of landholdings in this area of the country, and historical records relating to either the parish or the village are scarce. There is a local legend that Æthelthryth herself visited the area and founded a priory in the late seventh century (Stafford, 2006), although this is highly improbable, not least because there would have been some textual record of such a foundation. However, early nineteenth-century maps of the area identify the field within which the present church stands as ‘Priory Piece’, and stone foundations were unearthed by a gravedigger in 1965 which could conceivably have been some kind of monastic structure, but no investigations or excavations have been carried out on the site to date and so any theory is currently pure conjecture.

The name of St Audrie is not confined to the church, however. The adjacent manor house, local school, the parish itself, and the bay that is overlooked by the village of West Quantoxhead are all called St Audries, and this combined weight of evidence points to something more substantial than the dedication just being perhaps the result of the appearance of the saint in a liturgical calendar. What is slightly more compelling is the proximity of West Quantoxhead to the ruins of Canonsleigh Abbey, an Augustinian priory that was refounded as a nunnery dedicated to Æthelthryth. The abbey is located twenty miles south of the village and was the only monastic foundation dedicated to her outside East Anglia. Again, no documentary evidence of a link between the parish of St Audries and the abbey at Canonsleigh has been found, but it is coincidental that these places, both with links to Æthelthryth, are so isolated from her East Anglian powerbase, while yet being located relatively close to one another.

3.2. Images in Paris Churches

Increasingly throughout the late fourteenth and especially the fifteenth centuries, and coincident with a large-scale rebuilding of parish churches in England, local priests and their congregations were making decisions regarding their choices of saints and venerative practices (Pounds, 2000). During this time, naves and chancels were being widened and enlarged, side aisles were being incorporated into churches’ plans, and chapels were being added, all of which provided an ideal canvas for the inclusion of stained glass windows, wall paintings, and statues which would sit in specially-built niches incorporated into the walls (Marks, 2004). Another embellishment to the church fabric that began to appear towards the latter part of the fourteenth century was the addition of a rood screen between the nave and the chancel. Its presence was a physical symbol that served to highlight the separate responsibilities the clergy and the laity had for the two main areas of the church. Everything to the west of the chancel arch, which included the rood screen, was controlled, financed, and maintained by the parishioners, with the clergy responsible for the church’s east end which comprised the altar and, where one was present, the choir. The parishioners’ control of the nave meant that they were able to decide on the decorative features and images they wanted to incorporate within it (Duffy, 2005). Consequently, along with the churches’ windows and walls, the western side of the rood screens (i.e., the side facing into the congregation) also came to be used as a medium upon which representations of saints’ figures were painted and gilded.

In total, there are thirty-nine documented instances of images of Æthelthryth from within parish churches, represented by a statue or carving, on rood screens, as wall paintings, or in stained glass. Most of these images, nineteen in total, appear on rood screens, with fifteen found on stained glass windows and four as medieval wall paintings, with just one example of a carving. The identification of Æthelthryth on some of these images is far from certain, however, and, in the case of the wall paintings only one of the four is recognisable, with the other three having either been destroyed or painted over, which means no corroboration of the identity of the saint has been possible in these cases (Styler, 2019).

All but one of the images of Æthelthryth date from the fifteenth century. The exception to this is the solitary wall painting that has been identified with any degree of certainty as Æthelthryth. The painting can be found at Willingham church in Cambridgeshire and has been dated to the thirteenth century (Victoria County History, 1989). It appears on one side of the splay of a lancet window, with which it is probably contemporary, and faces another painting, possibly of Æthelthryth’s sister Seaxburh. The defining feature of the painting, and one which made the identification significantly more certain, is the bright red curved detail that is still visible on the saint’s neck. At the time of the opening of her tomb in 693, a tumour was supposedly found to have miraculously healed leaving only a scar behind, representative of her fondness for a necklace that she had retained when all her other belongings were given away, and this was taken as evidence of her sainthood (Blake, 1962). The rest of Æthelthryth’s face in the wall painting was painted using only pale colours, thus highlighting the scar, and this emphasis has been interpreted as sending a direct message to the members of the congregation of the dangers of material possessions.

Figure 3: The Willingham Wall Painting of Æthelthryth (Medieval Wall Painting)

In respect of the stained glass and rood screen images, the figures portrayed tended to be of a similar stylistic form, as both stained glass production and the manufacture and decoration of rood screens were undertaken by a small number of tradesmen based in the major towns and cities (Marks, 1987; Duffy, 1997). The stained glass figures of Æthelthryth were usually portrayed holding a staff or crozier in her left hand, a book or sometimes a building (showing her as the founder of Ely Abbey) in her right, while wearing a crown to signify her royal status (Figures 4, 5, and 6, below).

Figures 4, 5, and 6: Three Fifteenth-Century Stained Glass Images of St Æthelthryth. They are, from left to right: Norton, Suffolk; Field Dalling, Norfolk; and Salle, Norfolk

Despite the best efforts of the iconoclasts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, approximately five hundred rood screens have survived in England, of which forty per cent are to be found in Norfolk and Suffolk (Fox, 1890; Constable, 1929) and their quality reflects the skill of their manufacturers. The majority of the screens can be dated to between 1450 and 1530, with production being abruptly halted at this date due to the onset of the Reformation (Duffy, 1990). Like the stained glass panels, the images of Æthelthryth are generally similar, with the recognisable features of the crozier, book, and crown much in evidence.

Figures 7, 8, and 9: Examples of Rood Screens from (l to r): Ranworth, Norfolk; Upton, Norfolk; and Woolpit, Suffolk. All images photographed by the author

4. The Identification of Pilgrimage Routes Associated with Æthelthryth

While the clusters of locations defined in Figure 2 show four discrete spheres of influence relating to the cult of St Æthelthryth, they do not provide evidence of pilgrimage routes or of journeys that would have been undertaken between the sites shown on the map. The key to identifying these potential routeways is the inclusion of medieval roads to see whether and how the individual locations were linked. There are two main sources of medieval roads that have been overlaid using the GIS on to the locations of evidence of Æthelthryth’s cult, these being the Gough Map and surviving itineraries of the journeys made by medieval kings. 

The Gough Map is the earliest surviving map of the British Isles and contains detail of the coastline, rivers, and towns and cities of the fourteenth century. What provides an indication of the map’s use at the time it was drawn and what makes it unique as a modern cartographic resource, however, is that it also includes a network of routeways, shown as thin red lines, complete with numbers representing the distances between the locations they connect. The map’s production, potential audience, and value as a historical resource has been researched in detail (Millea, 2007), and the development of a digitised version of the map (link here) has made it accessible to a much wider range of scholarly application. A by-product of the map’s digitisation was the creation of data files containing differing elements of its contents for use within a GIS, and these have been overlaid on to the data for Æthelthryth’s cult to provide detail of Britain’s transport network in the fourteenth century.

The Gough Map could not be used on its own, however, as it has been shown to omit several major routes identifiable from other sources. For instance, a key road from London through Canterbury to Dover, present in a 1250 map by Matthew Paris, is missing from the Gough Map. To increase the volume and accuracy of the medieval road network, details of journeys undertaken by medieval kings (who spent a significant amount of time travelling across the areas they controlled) were also introduced into the Æthelthryth analysis. These itineraries exist for several kings, including King John, Edward I, and Edward II, with outlines also available for Henry I, Henry II, Richard I, and Henry III, and were collated and amalgamated into a usable resource by Brian Hindle (Hindle, 1976). The combination of the Gough Map and Hindle’s royal itineraries resulted in a network of approximately three thousand miles of medieval roads in England and Wales being made available to aid in the analysis of the routeways linking sites relating to the cult of St Æthelthryth.

4.1. The Pilgrimage Route from Coldingham to Ely

The first route identified from the evidence clusters in Figure 2, above, re-creates Æthelthryth’s journey from the monastery at Coldingham in Northumberland to Ely in about 670. The locations of West Halton and Stow Green in Lincolnshire have been identified as places where miracles were performed by Æthelthryth as well as being the sites of churches dedicated to her. However, there is little historiographical narrative of the route she would have taken between them, and no mention of the two-hundred-mile journey she would have had to have made from the monastery at Coldingham to reach the River Humber. The introduction of the network of medieval roads does provide more than one alternative route that Æthelthryth could have taken when travelling south to Ely, however, with five of the churches where images of the saint exist located on or very close to these thoroughfares. The route incorporates the important religious centres of Durham, York, and Lincoln, all of which have significant links with Æthelthryth. York’s pre-fourteenth century relic list records that a relic of the saint was held there (Thomas, 1974), while a list from Durham states that it was the recipient of the dress in which she was buried at the time of the opening of her tomb in 693 (Surtees Society, 1899). Lincoln was the seat of the bishopric of which Ely was a part prior to the creation of its own diocese in 1109. The potential route also includes the towns of Newark and Stamford, the churches of which contained stained glass images of Æthelthryth, as well as passing very close to the parish church at Willingham, the only location known to contain an identifiable wall painting of the saint. Furthermore, the distances between the sites that lie on the routeways are compatible with those that could be covered on foot in one day. For instance, a traveller walking between Lincoln and Newark would cover approximately nineteen miles, while the distance between Newark and Stow Green is just over twenty-four miles, both within the capabilities of medieval pilgrims, and in line with a calculation undertaken by Diana Webb which suggested travellers could cover twenty to twenty-five miles per day (Webb, 1999).

Figure 10: The Potential Pilgrimage Route from Coldingham to Ely

4.2. The East Anglian Pilgrimage Routes

Unpicking the plethora of sites in East Anglia (the second cluster outlined in Figure 2) is more complicated than it first appears. As well as seven church dedications to Æthelthryth, it incorporates thirty-four images of the saint, representing nearly seventy per cent of the total number identified. Furthermore, there is a scarcity of known medieval roads through the region, with only those linking the population centres of Cambridge, Thetford, Norwich, King’s Lynn, and Ely being defined from the medieval routeway sources.

Figure 11: The Potential East Anglian Pilgrimage Routes

One medieval pilgrimage route that has previously been identified is that between Ely and Walsingham in north Norfolk. Martin Locker used a combination of archaeological and documentary evidence overlaid with the royal itinerary of Edward I to plot the route pilgrims would have taken, linking three medieval trackways, the Hereward Way, Palmer’s Way, and the Pilgrim Walk (Locker, 2015), leaving Ely on the city’s eastern side before turning northwards. At the time pilgrims would have been travelling this route, access to the Isle of Ely was severely limited as the surrounding fenland had not yet been drained, and so entering and exiting the town was confined to three principal causeways, only one of which, known as the Stuntney Causeway, was on the eastern side of the town (Holton-Krayenbuhl, 2011). Consequently, travellers wishing to visit the shrine of Æthelthryth from anywhere to the east of Ely would have converged on to this road at the edge of the Fens, with the only other alternative being a much longer journey to the south through Cambridge.

The volume of East Anglian images of Æthelthryth that have been identified, especially in Norfolk, combined with the small amount of cartographic evidence of medieval roads to the east of Ely makes any supposition regarding potential pilgrim routes in the area outside the Fens much more difficult. It is probable that a substantial network of local routes existed linking the villages and settlements in the area which would have been used by the local population and visitor alike. It is therefore likely that pilgrimage to Ely in this area consisted more of shorter, local trips from the pilgrims’ home villages rather than longer and lengthier journeys. This hypothesis is strengthened when the distribution of wayside crosses in Norfolk is considered as well. These crosses were positioned at key locations such as crossroads and parish boundaries and acted as direction indicators to religious sites such as chapels, wells, or parish churches. Nicola Whyte has mapped the current locations of medieval wayside crosses in Norfolk, which she says significantly underestimates the number that existed in the Middle Ages, and their geographical pattern is not dissimilar to that of the images of Æthelthryth (although the number of crosses is much greater) (Whyte, 2009; 2012). The ubiquity of the crosses and their wide distribution suggests that journeys were being made to religious centres across Norfolk, of which those to churches with links to Æthelthryth were a subset.

4.3. The Route to the South of Ely

While the number of churches dedicated to Æthelthryth in the area to the south of Ely (cluster number three in Figure 2, above) is the same for that of East Anglia, with a total of seven churches stretching broadly north-south between Ely and London, there are none that contain images of her.

Figure 12: The Potential Route to the South of Ely

The Liber Eliensis is key to understanding the origins of the dedications, and points to an alternative to veneration of the shrine of Æthelthryth at Ely as the main reason for activity along this route. Instead journeys to and from Ely incorporating the churches dedicated to the saint were far more likely to be made by ecclesiastical than by lay communities. The churches at Ely Place in London and twenty miles north at Bishop’s Hatfield were both built on land owned by the see of Ely and were the sites of bishops’ palaces. Ely Place was the official residence of the bishop of Ely in London, while Hatfield was a convenient stopping-off point on the journey between London and Ely, and the road between the two palaces would have been very well-travelled, as it follows the route of Watling Street, an ancient trackway that was paved in Roman times. A number of the other churches along the route were also situated on land that had been donated to Ely during the reign of King Edgar (ruled 959 to 975) (Blake, 1962), and the dedications are very likely to have been made as a result of the gift of the land to the abbey.

4.4. The Pilgrimage Route in the Southwest of England

The final evidence cluster (cluster four in Figure 2), situated in the southwest of England, is unusual because of its distance from Ely. There is only one parish church dedication in this area – St Audries on the north Somerset coast at West Quantoxhead – and activity relating to Æthelthryth was centred around the Augustinian abbey dedicated to the saint at Canonsleigh on the border between Somerset and Devon. The Canonsleigh dedication dates from 1284, which is when the community of canons who had been its occupants for the previous century were replaced with canonesses on the instructions of the bishop of Exeter (Elworthy, 1892). The dedication of the parish church at West Quantoxhead could be contemporary with that of the abbey, and their proximity to each other – they are twenty miles, or one day’s journey, apart – indicates that a link between them is a possibility.

Figure 13: The Potential Route in the Southwest of England

There is evidence of potential routeways between the southwestern sites, but it is by no means as compelling as that for those north of Ely. Four of the five churches containing images of the saint lie on or very close to the medieval road network, and of these the two to the east of Canonsleigh Abbey, at Langport and North Cadbury, are also located only fifteen miles from Glastonbury Abbey, which claimed to hold a relic of Æthelthryth in its collection (Carley and Howley, 2001). The other two churches, at Kenn and Plymtree in Devon, are situated further to the southwest along the same route as that linking the Somerset churches with Glastonbury, and which also includes the diocesan seat of Exeter. The proposition, therefore, of a pilgrimage route that incorporated the four churches and the site of the relic of Æthelthryth at Glastonbury Abbey along this established road is a feasible one. The inclusion of Canonsleigh Abbey and St Audries church in this potential route are less evident, however. There are no immediately obvious major route-ways that link the road between Exeter and Glastonbury with either Canonsleigh or West Quantoxhead, although the distances between them do not preclude the possibility of smaller, local routes being used to incorporate them in any pilgrimage itinerary. One day’s walk would bring the traveller to Canonsleigh Abbey from Plymtree, with a further day needed to reach St Audries church, from where it would be possible to re-join the more established route at Langport in Somerset. A major medieval road also stretched from Exeter through Sherborne to Salisbury and Winchester, all of which had links to Æthelthryth. Salisbury’s sixteenth-century relic list claimed the abbey held a fragment of the saint (Wordsworth, 1901), while calendrical evidence shows that both Sherborne and Winchester celebrated Æthelthryth’s feast days. It would therefore have been possible to incorporate several major shrine centres with connections to Æthelthryth along with several parish churches in one journey.

5. Conclusion

The detailed analysis of the clusters of churches that have been identified here produces a mixture of hypotheses as to the connections between them and the religious centres with links to Æthelthryth, and the potential routes that medieval travellers could have used to travel to them. Relatively strong evidence supports the claim for the existence of a pilgrimage route through Lincolnshire to Ely, following the path of Æthelthryth’s own journey from Coldingham. Slightly less evidentially compelling, but nonetheless still an intriguing supposition, is the possibility of a route in the southwest of England that incorporates Glastonbury Abbey and Canonsleigh Abbey, along with several parish churches containing images of the saint. The separate location of this cluster of sites, isolated as they are from the heartland of Æthelthryth’s cult in East Anglia, definitely indicates a focus of activity remote from Ely, but which could have been centred on Canonsleigh Abbey, and promoted by the foundation’s canonesses who had chosen Æthelthryth as their patron.

The likelihood that local pilgrimages were more common than longer-distance journeys was the conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence presented for East Anglia, principally because of the plethora of locations containing rood screens and stained glass images of Æthelthryth. Travellers would have used the network of roads and tracks linking the towns and villages of Norfolk with each other and with the major centres of the area, and then converged on the very few available routes across the Fens to reach the shrine of Æthelthryth at Ely. In contrast to this scenario, it is ecclesiastical journeys that are evidenced by the locations of churches dedicated to the saint to the south of Ely, with the two bishops’ palaces in London and Hatfield and the establishment of churches on land donated to the abbey following the line of the main route between Ely and the capital. The absence of images of the saint when compared to the other clusters – especially in Norfolk – adds weight to the supposition that pilgrims wishing to visit sites relating to Æthelthryth were less likely to use this route than any of the other three outlined here.

The distribution of churches dedicated to Æthelthryth coupled with the geographic locations of monuments and images of the saint give greater significance to the journeys that pilgrims would have made, however. They appear not to have been just an interim stopping point on the journey but would have acted as precursors to the arrival at the main shrine where the penitent would have built an increasing awareness and knowledge of the saint. Visitors would have had a picture of the likeness (or likenesses) of the saint in their minds, would have either overtly or more subliminally received the messages that the religious community wished to impart through the use of the saint’s images, and would have established some kind of spiritual relationship with the saint before arriving at the principal shrine itself. Exposure to multiple images of a particular saint along with visits to churches dedicated to them on the journey to the shrine would have served to heighten the overall experience the pilgrims encountered once they had arrived there. It has been possible through this analysis to identify a number of potential pilgrimage routes, some more convincing than others, and comprised of a mix of local and longer distance journeys. What also has come to light is an indication of motivations for the journeys to the shrines not made by pilgrims, but by the ecclesiastical community themselves, which would also have had an impact on the infrastructure that is evident within this analysis.

The combination of the variety of source data, the computational and visual capacity of the GIS, and the interdisciplinary methodology applied to their interpretation clearly demonstrates the popularity of St Æthelthryth’s cult throughout the Middle Ages and the geographic extent of her influence.  Overlaying the evidence of the saint with known medieval roads has revealed several potential routeways between the sites and has reinforced the premise that the journey to the shrine of a medieval saint was as much an important constituent of the pilgrimage as was the shrine itself. Parish churches could be seen as interim pilgrimage destinations, attracting travellers to view images or hear stories of their chosen saint prior to reaching their ultimate destination, which in the case of Æthelthryth was her tomb at Ely.

While their one common feature is the saint herself, the four routes have differing characteristics and uses, the nuances of which would not have become apparent without the application and analytical power of the GIS. Both GIS specialists who wish to see the tools used more widely within the humanities, and humanities scholars who want to explore new ways of interpreting and evaluating historical data are beginning to recognise the potential for the application of GIS into historical research, and the analysis undertaken here is evidence of that.

6. References

BLAKE, E. O. (ed.) 1962. Liber Eliensis, London: Royal Historical Society.

BODENHAMER, D. J. 2010. The Potential of the Spatial Humanities. In: BODENHAMER, D. J., CORRIGAN, J. & HARRIS, T. M. (eds.) The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

CARLEY, J. P. & HOWLEY, M. 2001. Relics at Glastonbury in the Fourteenth Century: An Annotated Edition of British Library, Cotton Titus D.vii, fols. 2r-13v. In: CARLEY, J. P. (ed.) Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

COLGRAVE, B. & MYNORS, R. A. B. (eds.) 1969. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

CONSTABLE, W. G. 1929. Some East Anglian Rood Screen Paintings. The Connoisseur, 84, 141-147, 211-220, 290-294, and 358-365.

DUFFY, E. 1990. Holy Maydens, Holy Wyfes: The Cult of Women Saints in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century England. In: SHIELS, W. J. & WOOD, D. (eds.) Women in the Church: Papers Read at the 1989 Summer Meeting and the 1990 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

DUFFY, E. 1997. The Parish, Piety, and Patronage in Late Medieval East Anglia: The Evidence of Rood Screens. In: FRENCH, K. L., GIBBS, G. C. & KÜMIN, B. A. (eds.) The Parish in English Life, 1400-1600. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

DUFFY, E. 2005. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, London: Yale University Press.

ELWORTHY, F. T. 1892. Canonsleigh. Reports and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 24, 359-376.

FOX, G. E. 1890. Notes on Painted Screens and Roofs in Norfolk. Norfolk Archaeology, 47, 65-77.

GREGORY, I. N. & ELL, P. S. 2007. Historical GIS: Technologies, Methodologies and Scholarship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

GRIFFITHS, S. 2013. GIS and Research into Historical “Spaces of Practice”: Overcoming the Epistemological Barriers. In: VON LÜNEN, A. & TRAVIS, C. (eds.) History and GIS: Epistemologies, Considerations and Reflections. Berlin: Springer.

HINDLE, B. P. 1976. The Road Network of Medieval England and Wales. Journal of Historic Geography, 2, 207-221.

HOLTON-KRAYENBUHL, A. 2011. The Topography of Medieval Ely, Cambridge: Cambridgeshire Records Society.

KNOWLES, A. K. (ed.) 2002. Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History, Redlands, California: Esri.

KNOWLES, A. K. 2005. Emerging Trends in Historical GIS. Historical Geography, 33, 7-13.

LOCKER, M. 2015. Landscapes of Pilgrimage in Medieval Britain, Oxford: Archaeopress.

MARKS, R. 1987. Stained Glass, c. 1200-1400. In: ALEXANDER, J. & BINSKI, P. (eds.) Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England, 1200-1400. London: Royal Academy of Arts.

MARKS, R. 2004. Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England, Stroud: Sutton.

MARSHALL, A. St Etheldreda & another Saint: Willingham, Cambridgeshire, viewed 7 March 2017, <>

MILLEA, N. 2007. The Gough Map, Oxford: The Bodleian Library.

NILSON, B. 2001. Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England, Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

POUNDS, N. J. G. 2000. A History of the English Parish: The Culture of Religion from Augustine to Victoria, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ROFFE, D. 1986. The Seventh Century Monastery of Stow Green, Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 21, 31-33.

STAFFORD, D. 2006. The Book of St Audries and West Quantoxhead: An Amble Through History, Wellington, Somerset: Halsgrove.

STYLER, I. D. 2019. The Story of an English Saint’s Cult: An Analysis of the Influence of St Æthelthryth of Ely, c.670-c.1540. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham.

SURTEES SOCIETY 1899. Rotuli Feretrariorum, 1375-1538. In: FOWLER, J. T. (ed.) Extracts from the Account Rolls of the Abbey of Durham from the Original MSS. Durham: Andrews and Co.

THOMAS, I. G. 1974. The Cult of Saints’ Relics in Medieval England. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London.

VICTORIA COUNTY HISTORY, 1989. Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds: Willingham Church. In: WRIGHT, A. P. M. & LEWIS, C. P. (eds.) A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely. London: Victoria County History.

WEBB, D. 1999. Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, London: Taurus.

WHYTE, N. 2009. Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800, Oxford: Windgather Press.

WHYTE, N. 2012. Norfolk Wayside Crosses: Biographies of Landscape and Place. In: HESLOP, T. A., MELLINGS, E. & THØFNER, M. (eds.) Art, Faith and Place in East Anglia: From Prehistory to the Present. Woodbridge: Boydell.

WORDSWORTH, C. (ed.) 1901. Ceremonies and Processions of the Cathedral Church of Salisbury, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

YOUNGS, S. M., CLARK, J. & BARRY, T. B. 1983. Medieval Britain and Ireland in 1982. Medieval Archaeology, 27, 161-229.

About the Author

Dr Ian Styler is an independent scholar specialising in the cults of English early medieval saints and completed his doctorate on St Æthelthryth of Ely from the University of Birmingham in 2019. He has a specific interest in developing the use of digital humanities tools and techniques (such as Geographic Information Systems and Social Networking Analysis) into the study of medieval sainthood, and has recently published a chapter entitled ‘Digital Humanities Perspectives on Pilgrimage’ in the volume ‘Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Pilgrimage’, edited by Heather Warfield in 2023 and published by Peter Lang.