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Christina of Markyate

Christina of Markyate the daughter of affluent Anglo-Saxon parents, born in Huntingdon, probably in the years 1096-8, was taken to St. Albans Abbey as an impressionable teenager. She was so moved by the monks’ religious bearing that she made a private vow of chastity and surrendered herself to God. She grew up to be a beautiful young woman and caught the eye of Ranulph Flambard, who later became Bishop of Durham. While visiting his mistress Alveva, who was Christina’s aunt, Ranulph attempted to rape Christina in his own bedroom and was humiliated by her wily escape.

Around 1114 to 1115 a battle of wills raged between Christina and her parents, who wanted to settle her in marriage. She was betrothed, against her will, and eventually married to Burthred, a local noble chosen in revenge by Bishop Flambard. The marriage was never consummated despite many attempts by Burthred.

Eventually c. 1115-16 Christina fled with the help of a local hermit Edwin and a network of Anglo-Saxon recluses to an anchoress at Flamstead called Alfwyn. Here she spent her days reading and singing the psalms by day and night. Around 1118 she was invited by Edwin’s relation, Roger the hermit, to join his cell across the wooded valley at Markyate.

For four years she was shut in a tiny closet beside Roger’s cell, barricaded in with a tree trunk, only allowed out at night to answer the call of nature and visit the chapel where she prayed with the old man. Just before Roger’s death in c. 1121-2 her marriage was finally annulled by Archbishop Thurstan of York at Redbourn. The Priory set up there kept a copy of her Life.

Geoffrey de Gorham became Abbot of St. Albans in 1119 but it was some time before Christina met him. He had a reputation for being worldly and haughty, ignoring the advice of his chapter. It was with great presumption that Christina intervened to thwart one of Geoffrey’s private schemes, asking him to desist. With the help of dreams and divine intervention Geoffrey decided, ‘from now on I will obey her messages promptly’. Geoffrey was summoned to Rome and Christina embroidered three mitres and sandals ‘of outstanding workmanship’ to be presented to Pope Adrian IV in 1155.

Under Geoffrey’s tutelage the informal gathering of holy women flourished around Roger’s old cell. Christina took her monastic profession at St. Albans in 1131 and Markyate Priory was officially founded in 1145, dedicated to Holy Trinity. The charters of dedication by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and a donation of land by the dean and chapter of St. Paul’s Cathedral still survive.

Christina was still alive in 1155 when King Henry II paid for her support, but she is not mentioned after that date. Under Geoffrey’s protection she had been venerated as a partner of St. Alban himself but after Geoffrey’s death in 1146, a rival faction led by Prior Alchinus took over at St. Albans. The abbot’s allegedly scandalous liaison with Christina was condemned and his financial support for external foundations like Markyate were terminated. Christina was awarded no fine burial at St. Albans Abbey and her foundation left short of funds. During excavations at the Priory, by Worthington George Smith of Dunstable, a coffin lid was found and can now be seen in the north aisle of the church.