Reflections on the Life and Legacy of “Saint” Katherine of Ledbury

What makes a saint? For most of the Catholic church’s early history, the canonization process was ill-defined. In the early church, all saints were martyrs, agreed upon to be in heaven after dying for the faith. However, as the Byzantine empire adopted Christianity after the reign of Constantine in the early fourth century, this strict definition of sainthood became outdated; the new legal status of the Christian faith made holy self-sacrifice much rarer.

First to be included amongst the saints were the confessors, or those prepared to become martyrs after a public confession of their faith in Christ, but were “cheated of martyrdom” by not dying.1 Saints were those who were not afraid to die, knowing they would be reborn in the kingdom of heaven like Christ himself. After these first saints came those modeling other aspects of Jesus’s life, namely asceticism and poverty, in the tradition of imitatio Christi. Jesus fasted and renounced worldly pleasures; those who made the most valiant of efforts to model this aspect of his life had the opportunity to become venerated as a saint.

“Saint” Katherine of Ledbury fits in with this emergent paradigm of sainthood. Katherine was born in 1272, the daughter of Baron John Giffard of Brimsfield. She would later marry into the prominent Audley family with her marriage to Sir Nicholas de Audley in 1287 or 1288. Towards the end of her life, Katherine de Audley became an anchoress, withdrawing from the world to focus on prayer and devotion to God. The anchoritic life, a relatively popular vocation for religious aristocratic laywomen in medieval England, represents a kind of martyrdom in itself, in which material possessions and personal attachments are relinquished in favor of religious contemplation. Given funerary rites at the time of their immurement, anchorites conceptualized their undertaking as a Christ-like self-sacrifice for the spiritual health of the community. It is for this reason that virgin martyr stories were specifically associated with the female anchoritic population – and why anchoresses were particularly admired and venerated in medieval popular culture. 

This paper presents a preliminary account of our joint venture into the history and historiography of Katherine de Audley. By beginning to locate Katherine in her world, we seek to better understand how she functions in both contemporary religious and later literary discourse. From a methodological standpoint, our inquiry into Katherine de Audley is characterized by an exploration of medieval English documentary records as well as nineteenth-century hagiographical literature venerating the mythic recluse. Instead of pronouncing a conclusive thesis about the legend of Katherine of Ledbury, what we report here are the preliminary findings in what could become a larger investigation into the life and times of Katherine de Audley.

The act of giving up one’s wealth in pursuit of devotion to God is a tried-and-true method to become a saint, and a popular one at that. Look no further than St. Francis of Assisi, canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1228. Born in 1182 to a wealthy silk merchant, Francis lived a luxurious and hedonistic lifestyle. After a long period of soul-searching, Francis disavowed his father and his inheritance, committing himself to a life of poverty. This vow of poverty inspired the Franciscan order of monks, who still operate today. The current pope took his name from St. Francis, citing his admiration of Francis’s dedication to the spirit of the poor. Francis is arguably one of the most influential saints not part of the early church. While St. Francis might be the most prominent example of a saint who gave up his or her wealth to pursue Christ, he is not the only example of such a saint. In this way, Katherine of Ledbury might not seem so special.

In 1232, St. Katherine’s Hospital was built in Ledbury. Without observing that date in comparison to Katherine of Ledbury, the building’s namesake might appear obvious. The hospital was named for St. Katherine of Alexandria, who, according to tradition, was martyred in the fourth century. A former princess, Katherine is said to have converted hundreds of people to Christianity before being martyred, as well as visited by the Virgin Mary, undergoing a “mystical marriage” to Christ, a scenario that was popularly depicted in artistic works through the eighteenth century. By all accounts, Katherine was a widely venerated saint in the thirteenth century, especially by women, as an example of chastity and religious zeal. In fact, the contemporaneous virgin martyr hagiography particularly relevant to our study of Katherine de Audley is that of St. Katherine of Alexandria, specifically as it appears in the “Katherine Group” series contained within MS Bodley 34. As J. R. R. Tolkien identified in 1929, this early-to-mid thirteenth-century text can be located linguistically to the English West Midlands along the Welsh border.2 This is, of course, in close proximity to Herefordshire and the town of Ledbury, and the original date and provenance of the Katherine Group suggests that it would have been in circulation during the time of Katherine de Audley’s anchoritic confinement.

Katherine of Ledbury would not have been the first Katherine to give up her wealth and social status, nor would she have been the last. A more modern example of this saintly path is Katharine Drexel, the second saint to have been born in the United States. Drexel was born the daughter of a successful investment banker. After witnessing her stepmother die of cancer, she realized that money could not prevent suffering and death. Katharine of Drexel became a nun, giving up her fortune to help Native Americans, which shocked the community. Much like Katherine of Ledbury, she went through a social death of sorts, choosing to withdraw from high society life and become a devotee of Christ.

Given this information, Katherine of Ledbury would seem a particularly unremarkable saint, at least from a modern standpoint. She followed a very standard saintly path, one that was not as exciting as being a martyr nor so unique as to be otherwise notable. She was an anchoress, choosing to withdraw from the world in prayer, rather than spreading the word of Jesus and making a name for herself. Her name was overshadowed by an already existing saint, one that had an existing cult and the distinction of being an early martyr. And on top of that, Thomas Cantilupe, the bishop of Hereford, had just been canonized at the time of her death, in an era where the canonization process was newly restricted due to incidents of local veneration of people of questionable saintly prowess. Nothing about Katherine of Ledbury attracted the particular attention of papal investigators. Perhaps they were right not to canonize her because Katherine of Ledbury does not seem to add much new to the communion of saints. The medieval canonization process is a fascinating subject in itself, one that could benefit our historical analysis of “Saint” Katherine with further research. This is especially true if we consider Katherine’s proximity to Thomas Cantilupe, her contemporary, who was able to attain official sainthood.  

As such, it would be irresponsible not to address Katherine of Ledbury in comparison to Thomas Cantilupe. Thomas Cantilupe was canonized in 1320, recognized as both a great bishop as well as a fervent devotee to charity. One crucial difference between Cantilupe and Katherine is that Cantilupe had not only a local following, but also a zealous advocate in his successor, Gilbert Swinfield. In the years following Cantilupe’s death, Swinfield offered indulgences in exchange for prayers for Thomas Cantilupe. Between Cantilupe’s death in 1282 and 1312, 500 miracles had been attributed to his handiwork. Is it possible that Katherine’s confinement to the anchorhold, in contrast to Cantilupe’s involvement in the local community, precluded her from official recognition, despite the local interest in her story? Such a question requires further exploration of the records to approach an answer.

The legend associated with Katherine leaves something to be desired as well. As chronicled in John Masefield’s authoritative work on Katherine of Ledbury’s life, Katherine supposedly had a “spiritual urge to wander” until she saw a miraculous sign to stop.3 She stopped her wandering at Ledbury after hearing the bells ring in the cathedral with nobody there to ring them. It is a lovely story, but it is not even unique to her; Thomas of Cantilupe supposedly also heard the cathedral bells ringing on their own as he arrived, welcoming him into his new role as Bishop. Masefield provides two explanations for this supposedly miraculous phenomenon. Firstly, Ledbury is one of the few earthquake centers in England, and a weak earthquake could still be enough to set the bells ringing. It is possible that both Cantilupe and Katherine were welcomed by spontaneously ringing bells. But it could also have been that Cantilupe’s story was itself borrowed from accounts of Katherine of Ledbury. Given Bishop Swinfield’s aggressive solicitation for accounts of Cantilupe’s miracles, perhaps a less-than-accurate story slipped in. 

After the death of her husband in 1299, Katherine, age 27, was left a widow with three children, but fabulously wealthy. A few months before Nicholas de Audley’s death, Katherine had inherited the town of Llandovery, along with its castle, the neighboring districts of Perveth and Hirnion, and all the rents paid upon them. Here is the 1299 record of the inheritance of Llandovery, excluding an earlier record that acknowledges John Giffard to be “deceased”:

Order to the same to deliver to Katharine de Aldithelegh [Katherine de Audley], second daughter and heir of the same Maud Lungespeye [Maud Longespee], her like pourparty, to wit, the castle of Thlanadeury [Llandovery] with the commotes of Perveth and Irurin [Hirnion] in Wales, extended at 35l. 3s. 3d. a year, except an acre of land extended at 4d. a year, and except 10l. of yearly rent in Thlanadeury assigned to Maud Gyffard, fourth sister and heir of the same Maud Lungespeye, to hold with knights’ fees, advowsons and other appurtenances; Katharine having done homage.

Calendar of Fine Rolls 1272-1307, pp. 421-2.

And another 1299 record of Katharine’s inheritance from John Giffard:

Whereas John Gyffard [John Giffard] of Brimnesfeld acknowledged by a fine levied in the king’s court before Thomas de Weyland and his fellows, then justices of the Bench, that the manors of Moniton and Dilewe and the advowson of the church of Moniton were the right of Richard de Emneberewe, and Richard granted, for this acknowledgment, the manors and advowson to John, to hold for life of the chief lords of the fee by the services thereto appertaining, with remainder to Nicholas de Audeleye [Nicholas de Audley] and Katharine, his wife, and to the heirs that Nicholas should beget upon her, to hold of the chief lords of the fee by the services pertaining thereto, as appears by inspection of the fine; the escheator, having no consideration for the form of the fine, has taken the manors into the king’s hands by reason of John’s death, as if he had died seised thereof in his demesne as of fee, and detains them from Nicholas and Katharine, to their damage and contrary to the fine: the king, being unwilling to injure Nicholas and Katharine in this behalf, orders the escheator to cause the manors to be delivered to them, with everything received from them since they were taken into the king’s hands, if they were taken into his hands solely for this reason. 

Calendar of Close Rolls 1296-1302, p. 255.

We include these fascinating records in their entirety in part to demonstrate the extent of Katherine’s inherited wealth independent of her husband’s fortune. So, when Nicholas de Audley died later in 1299, Katherine became even richer. From her late husband, she inherited a significant amount of land in Newport, Staffordshire, and Cheshire. With this level of wealth, Katherine could have lived luxuriously for the rest of her life. But in 1308, she granted her husband’s former lands to her son, with £100 to be paid to her yearly for her living expenses. In 1312, she granted the remainder of her Audley family lands in Llandovery to her married daughter. We believe that, by 1313, Katherine had officially become a recluse. Katherine was most likely immured in her anchorhold sometime not long after October 1313, when the Calendar of Close Rolls records her estate’s transfer to her daughter and son-in-law:

Enrolment of grant from Katharine de Audeleie [Katherine de Audley] to James de Perrers, knight, and Ela his wife, her daughter, of the castle and town of Thlanandevery [Llandovery] in Wales, with the commote of Hirnirn [Hirnion] and the commote of Pervet [Perveth], and all appurtenances of the castle, town, and commotes; with remainder to the king in case they die without an heir. Witnesses: Sir Richard, bishop of Hereford; Sir John de Kemeseie, treasurer of Hereford; Sir James de Henleie, canon of Hereford; Sir William, vicar of Ledebury; Sir Walter de Lugwardyn, rector of the church of Monesleie; William Esgar and Robert le Chaumberlein. Dated at Ledebury, on Monday before St. Nicholas the Confessor, 6 Edward II. 

Calendar of Close Rolls 1313-1318

The list of witnesses to this legal property grant include several important local ecclesiastical authorities, including Sir Richard Swinefield, the Hereford bishop who would have overseen Katherine’s anchoritic confinement. The relatively large concentration of high-ranking church leaders present for the creation of this document suggests that it was Katherine’s final “worldly” act before her retreat to spiritual contemplation. Indeed, no legal records of Katherine exist after the certification of this document.

In her recent comprehensive study of Katherine of Ledbury, Liz Herbert McAvoy pieces together the historical Katherine by contextualizing her within the social community of Welsh Marcher lordship.4 Medieval aristocratic families were constantly assuaging patriarchal anxieties about dynastic lineage and inheritance. That Katherine refused to remarry might have been, as McAvoy suggests, a conscious resistance to the patriarchal sexual economy that traumatized her mother. Katherine’s father, John Giffard, had kidnapped the wealthy aristocratic widow Maud de Longspeé and forced her into marriage; Katherine resulted from this union. The Calendar of Close Rolls records a 1270 legal suit filed against Giffard for Maud’s abduction. We will not reproduce here the contents of the complaint because it is written in Latin, but we note that the text refers to Giffard’s “transgressio” using a form of the word “rapere,” a linguistic ancestor of the modern English word “rape.”5 Several scholars of the Middle Ages have identified the economic and political implications of this fraught term as it is used in medieval legal rhetoric.6 Tragically, King Henry III and his clerical authorities sanctioned the compulsory marriage, almost surely because it constituted a valuable political alliance and consolidation of wealth. As exemplified in Maud’s violation, the sexual economy that structured medieval English patrilineal systems of power depended on violence against female personhood. McAvoy astutely notes that Katherine’s ambivalence toward or even defiance against this dehumanizing patriarchal order might have been part of what made Katherine the perfect candidate for legendary status: “…Katherine’s resistance to swift remarriage would have sent out shock-waves within this powerfully patriarchal Anglo-Norman environment and would certainly have provided the fodder for a future mythologizing of her life, as has clearly been the case.”7

Through our investigation into the Katherine constructed in discourse, we discovered that the legend of Katherine de Audley was most likely subsumed into the extant cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria. The names of both St. Katherine’s Hospital in Ledbury and St. Katherine’s Chapel in Hereford precede Katherine de Audley’s immurement, and yet the cultural fascination with the recluse of Ledbury indeed suggests a conflation of the two Katherines. As noted elsewhere in this study, Ledbury’s famous recluse was never officially canonized; is it possible that the combination of the Katherines led to an assumption of Katherine de Audley’s preexistent saintly status? Further research on this topic is required to bolster our conceptualizations of both Katherine of Ledbury herself and the ecclesiastical discourse that approves sainthood. This amalgamation of Katherine of Alexandria and Katherine of Ledbury was most likely facilitated at least in part by the precedence of a local cult to the apocryphal fourth century virgin martyr. It is important to note here that Katherine of Alexandria is an exclusively mythic figure, meaning that she can perhaps be more easily combined with similarly venerated women.

Moreover, the ease with which the Katherines have been combined into a singular entity is interesting when considered from the theoretical perspective of gender construction and how the body is created by and through the episteme. Several critics and philosophers have explored notions of how culture categorizes, describes, and assigns identity to the sexed body, perhaps most notably including Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. Our inquiry into the cultural creation of a sanctified anchoress would benefit from further investigation into the potential applications of gender theory and metaphysical experience to Katherine’s case.

Katherine of Ledbury, as assembled in literary representation, demonstrates how the discursively rendered female anchoress can function as a particularly clear reflection of socio-cultural preoccupations. In other words, the conceptualization of Katherine’s legend and body reveals more about the episteme than the historical Katherine de Audley. William Wordsworth’s sonnet “St. Catherine of Ledbury” implicitly reveals certain aspects of gender at work in patriarchal understandings of female spiritual contemplatives. We reproduce the poem here:

When human touch (as monkish books attest)
Nor was applied nor could be, Ledbury bells
Broke forth in concert flung adown the dells,
And upward, high as Malvern’s cloudy crest;
Sweet tones, and caught by a noble Lady blest
To rapture! Mabel listened at the side
Of her loved mistress: soon the music died,
And Catherine said, “Here I set up my rest.”
Warned in a dream, the Wanderer long had sought
A home that by such miracle of sound
Must be revealed: she heard it now, or felt
The deep, deep joy of a confiding thought;
And there, a saintly Anchoress, she dwelt
Till she exchanged for heaven that happy ground.

William Wordsworth, ‘St Catherine of Ledbury’, in Wordsworth: Last Poems 1821–1815, ed. Jared Curtis (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), 91.

Wordsworth sonnet is of particular interest to our project on St Katherine; not only does it reveal how and why the legend of the Ledbury lady recluse persisted in regional culture, the poem also has broader implications for a study of Romantic medievalism and literary nostalgia.

The sexed body is an apt place to start when considering literary representations of medieval anchoresses. Even during the height of anchoritic popularity in medieval England, the vowed chastity and containment of anchoresses rendered them separate from established cultural notions of femininity; because women were considered material, bodily creatures associated with the corporal chaos of childbirth and menstruation, anchoritic life effectively ungendered women. “St Catherine of Ledbury” reifies this paradox as it gathers tension between feminine gendered appellations and the perhaps more masculine nature of Katherine’s vocation. Beginning with an invocation to male discursive authority – that “monkish books attest” to Katherine’s experience – Wordsworth articulates an interest in Katherine’s veneration even among male systems of religious power. This is perhaps ironic considering Katherine’s unauthorized sainthood, but it is also possible that Wordsworth’s implicit conflation of Katherine of Ledbury with St Katherine of Alexandria (the namesake of both St. Katherine’s Hospital in Ledbury and a chapel in nearby Hereford) led him to believe in the former’s officially recognized saintly status. Similarly, the reference to Katherine as “the Wanderer” suggests that Wordsworth imagines Katherine as a formulation of the more fundamentally male character of the nomadic philosopher. As a wanderer who eventually finds her “home,” Katherine straddles gendered categories by being implicated in both the more masculine philosophical spirituality and feminine domesticity topoi.

Wordsworth is also invested in the gendered categories of affective presentation and emotional experience. Many critics have noted the paradoxical notion of Wordsworth’s investment in “feminine” emotional and bodily experiences and his simultaneous indoctrination into the patriarchal world of language, most notably Mary Jacobus and Robert Essick.8 Overall, “St Catherine of Ledbury” transforms the historiographical Katherine available to the poet into a mirror through which contemporaneous concerns about gender and affect are reflected. Not only that, Wordsworth’s tribute to Katherine also exemplifies certain religious and political questions that characterize the English Romantic period. Attached to a nationalistic identity of Anglicanism, yet nostalgic for the iconography of a lost Catholic past, Wordsworth appropriates an imagined medieval past in the character of Katherine of Ledbury. These concerns are similarly explored in Wordsworth’s more famous “Tintern Abbey,” which ruminates on how sacred spaces, such as the post-Dissolution ruins of an abbey, retain symbolic power over time. Like the ruins of the cloister, Katherine’s body provides a space through which Wordsworth can consider the metaphysical consequences of memory as it connects to religious and epistemic destruction. The anchoritic undertaking, as presented in Wordsworth’s poem, is of particular relevance to the Romantic period’s medieval revival. 

In the same cultural moment as Wordsworth’s poem, Katherine was also immortalized in a play about her life. Catherine Audley, the Recluse of Ledbury opened in 1835 at the local Ledbury theater. Focusing on the political intrigue of Katherine’s family and larger social circle, The Recluse of Ledbury appropriates and reaffirms regional fascination with the famous aristocratic anchoress. But to connect our interest in this hagiographical play with our earlier thoughts on Wordsworth’s sonnet, The Recluse of Ledbury also imagines Katherine to operate outside of a prescribed gender binary. More literary analysis is needed to construct a compelling account of the drama’s gendered idea of Katherine, but we offer a particularly interesting detail from the text to demonstrate its availability to a gender theory reading: Katherine and her handmaid Mabel make their entrance onto the stage disguised as male peasants. Their transvestism from the very opening of the play – as well as their deeply close homosocial relationship – suggests that the literary Katherine eschews gendered categorization. Perhaps this ambiguity allows her to have a more universal following, as even men can identify with her trials and experiences. 

Katherine de Audley’s mythic status in the Herefordshire region has persisted for hundreds of years. While serving as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Ledbury native John Masefield published a pamphlet (cited above) detailing the life and times of the legendary Katherine. Similar to the scope of our project, Masefield’s pithy publication expresses some interest in Katherine’s discursive legacy, noting authoritatively that “poets were thus busy about Katherine Audley some five centuries after her death.”9 The literary power of Katherine’s legacy is clear when we consider how contemporary depictions of her life reflect the philosophical concerns of that period. While we have provided a cursory examination of the literary Katherine here, more research is needed to construct a more comprehensive account of how Katherine’s body and world is translated into text. In fact, we are convinced there are more, yet undiscovered literary versions of Katherine out there waiting to be found. A well-rounded collection of Katherine of Ledbury hagiography would bolster a review of Katherine’s meaning in culture specifically and that of medieval women characters in general. 

The St Katherine of Ledbury project outlined here is ambitiously broad in scope. We have sought to gather as many materials and documents as possible that contain information about both the historical Katherine and the mythical Katherine. Regrettably, the time and resources required to reconstruct Katherine and locate her in her world are excessive; we hope to have the opportunity to engage in the process of discovering this fascinating figure in the future. 


  1. Kenneth L. Woodward. Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why. (Touchstone-Simon and Schuster, 1996), 54.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, “Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meiðhad,” Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, vol. 14 (1929): 104-26. This regional dialect is called “AB language” and is particularly notable for its similarity to Old English.
  3. John Masefiled, St. Katherine of Ledbury and Other Ledbury Papers. Ledbury, UK: CN Bibliographic, 2010. First published in 1951.
  4. Liz Herbert McAvoy, “Uncovering the ‘Saintly Anchoress’: Myths of Medieval Anchoritism and the Reclusion of Katharine de Audley,” Women’s History Review 22, no. 5 (October 1, 2013): 801–19.
  5.  CCR 1268-72, 294.
  6. See Kathryn Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).
  7. McAvoy, “Uncovering the ‘Saintly Anchoress,’” 810.
  8. Mary Jacobus, Romanticism Writing and Sexual Difference: Essays on the Prelude (New York: Clarendon Press, 1989); Robert Essick, “Gender, Transgression, and the Two Wordsworths in ‘Tintern Abbey,’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 36, no. 3 (1994): 291-305.
  9. Masefield, “St. Katherine of Ledbury.”