Like many of the early Christian Saints, Æbbe was from royal blood.
Æbbe was the daughter of King Æthelfrith the Ravager of Bernicia and his third wife Acha of Deira. She was also related to St. Oswald and St. Edwin, King of Northumbria. Æthelfrith had become the first king of Northumbria when he had invaded the kingdom of Deira in 604, he had taken princess Acha of Deira as his wife to strengthen his position at the same time deposing Edwin her brother who fled into exile. Into this troubled kingdom Æbbe was born in 615.
At the age of ten her father died and the throne passed to Edwin who had returned from exile. Escaping possible persecution Æbbe fled with her seven brothers to Scotland. They were taken into the care of Dumnual Brec, the King, and were converted to Christianity.
Æbbe took to her new religion with some degree of enthusiasm. Deciding to follow a celibate life she took the veil from St. Finan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. This did not please Aidan, a Scottish prince who had intended to marry Æbbe and he decided to pursue her and take her by whatever means at his disposal (‘courting’ was not quite as delicate a ritual as it has become more recent times!). Æbbe escaped to a place of safety on a high rock by the sea. As she prayed and Aidan approached the tide came in around the rock, cutting it off from his advance. There the tide stayed high for three days and Aidan took the hint and gave up his attempt at wooing.
Oswiu, her brother decided to give her a site of an old roman camp in County Durham where she could found a monastery. This site was called Ebchester (Aebbe’s castle or camp), however her more famous monastery was built on the site of her escape from Aidan further north in Berwickshire. The site was extremely defensible with high cliffs on three sides and a mostly impassable marsh on the other. The site is known as St Abbs Head.
The Monastery was held in high regard, visited by St. Cuthbert, Prior of Melrose, and Abbot of Lindisfarne.
It is said that Æbbe gave him a piece of cloth as a gift and that the saint treasured the gift so much that he was buried in it. The monastery was also a famous place of refuge, helped by the tidal phenomenon that had also saved Æbbe, St. Etheldreda wife of Egfrith, King of Northumbria escaped there. When Egfrith attempted to bring her back the tide once again flowed into the marsh and sealed off the island. Etheldreda then became a nun under Aebbe’s care.
Egfrith soon married again taking Ermenburga as his Queen. Egfrith was also Æbbe’s nephew and visited the monastery under a more peaceful banner one evening as he toured his kingdom with his new Queen. However during the night the Queen suffered a severe flagellation and was found in convulsions the next morning. Æbbe immediately identified the cause of the suffering to be the result of their persecution of St. Wilfrid, Abbot of Hexham and Bishop of York. The pair had imprisoned him at Dunbar and Ermenburga had stolen from him of a valuable reliquary which she carried with her wherever she went. After Æbbe’s intervention St. Wilfrid was released and his property restored.
The community Æbbe had founded was a mixture on both nuns and monks, this was common in Saxon times but did lead to trouble, human nature and temptation being what it is. Behind her back all manner of antics went on. The cells, which had been built for prayer, were converted into places of revelry, drinking, and other amusements. The nuns would also dress in fine garments rather than their more pious habits which led to greater temptation.
One night a monk called Adomnan had a vision that the monastery would be burned to the ground as a punishment from God. He immediately told Æbbe of his vision and she was greatly distressed, however Adomnan told her that the vision had conveyed that the event would not happen in Æbbe’s lifetime. The divine warning also alarmed the other occupants of the monastery and they mended their ways.
Alas their new found piety only lasted until the death of Æbbe in 683, after this they fell back into their old ways with even greater zeal and whether through fulfilment of the prophesy or perhaps just drunken carelessness the monastery caught fire and did indeed burn to the ground.
Much later, around 1099 another priory was built slightly further inland. Build by Edgar, King of Scots this one was dedicated to three saints; Cuthbert, Mary and St Aebbe.
St Aebbe would have been delighted to learn that in recent years the area around St Abbs head has once again become a refuge of a different sort as a sanctuary for wildlife and in particular nesting seabirds.