My fictional cathedral city of Barchester (and yes, that’s the same fictional city created by Anthony Trollope in the 1850s) needed a founder. In my novel The Lost Book of the Grail, the reader encounters bits and pieces of the history of Barchester from the beginnings in Saxon times through invasions by Vikings and Normans, the upheavals of the Reformation and the Civil War, and even the Nazi bombings of World War II. But through all that history I wanted the spirit of the founder to permeate, and I wanted the founder to be a woman.
Women held greater positions of power in the early English church than they would for centuries after, even though they could not be ordained as priests. In the Saxon times, monasteries were the most powerful ecclesiastical institutions in the land, and they some of them were, for want of a better word, co-educational. These duel foundations with monks on one side and nuns on the other were often ruled over not by an abbot but by an abbess.
Consider St. Hilda, abbess of Whitby. She was among the earliest Christian women in the north of England, baptized at the age of thirteen alongside her uncle King Edwin. She founded the monastery of Whitby and played host to the Synod of Whitby, the first great meeting of the English church at which the main question posed was whether to follow Celtic or Roman traditions. Then there is St. Etheldreda of Ely (they have great names, don’t they!). Her story reads like a Shakespeare play—reluctant princess, even more reluctant queen, she only really wanted to be a nun, and eventually started a foundation on the Isle of Ely (no longer and island now that the fenland surrounding it has been drained).
There are so many more—St. Bertha, queen of Kent who converted her husband and welcomed the first Archbishop of Canterbury to England. St. Frideswide hid in the woods from an unwanted suitor and a miraculous well sprang forth to give her water (it is still there at the churchyard in Binsey, just outside Oxford). She went on to found a double monastery on the future site of Christ Church, largest of the Oxford colleges.
I have long been inspired by the stories of these saintly women, and so I gave Barchester a Saxon founder and named her Ewolda. Her name comes from Trollope (sort of). His Barchester books include mention of the parish of St. Ewold’s—the name has a nice Saxon ring to it, so I simply feminized it to create St. Ewolda. Ewolda’s story is told in a manuscript that has been handed down for hundreds of years but which, as our hero Arthur Prescott knows all too well, has disappeared from the cathedral library. Arthur is out to solve many mysteries—including one involving the Holy Grail. But, if he ever finds out the story of St. Ewolda, he will notice details from the lives of several of the aforementioned women—early saints of the English church who are still remembered more than a millennium after they lived.