Outline of the life of Saint Ovin


Ovin was born in about 620, son of a farmer in the fertile heart of the Fens.  As he grew his leadership and administrative skills became apparent and, at the age of 21 years he was appointed deputy to Prince Tonbert managing a large swage of the Fenland.  During this time he met Etheldreda, daughter of Anna the Christian King of East Anglia who had, under some duress married Tonbert.  During 654 Etheldreda’s father was killed in battle with the pagan King of Mercia and a year later, when Tonbert died, Etheldreda appointed Ovin as her Bailiff to manage her estate and care for it’s inhabitants whilst she herself vowed to live a religious life with a group of friends on the nearby Isle of Elge.  The widowed and fatherless Etheldreda became more and more reliant on Ovin to manage her extensive holdings. 

Later however when the pagan King of Mercia was himself killed, the supremacy of his heathen kingdom in central England was broken enabling the two great Christian Kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia to draw closer together.  In 695 Etheldreda was ‘persuaded’ to cement this liaison even more firmly and travel north to marry the teenage Prince Egfrid, heir to the Kingdom of Northumbria.  Ovin took charge of her journey and attended the wedding in York.  This ill-matched union almost immediately.

dissolved and with the help of Archbishop Wilfrid it was agreed that Egfrid should seek another wife and Etheldreda should take the veil in a monastery at Coldingham, north of Berwick-on-Tweed.

Perhaps after all this Ovin should have returned to care for the Fenland estates, however he decided to remain in the north and it was at this time that he presented himself to Abbott Chad at Lastingham, armed only with a spade and mattock, indicating that he came to undertake manual work.  Ovin developed a strong understanding with Chad and when the latter was created Abbot of Litchfield it was natural that the two should continue to work together. 

Chad died of the plague in 672 just as news reached Ovin that his beloved Queen Etheldreda intended to return to East Anglia and establish a monastery for monks and nuns on the Isle of Elge.  Ovin immediately joined Etheldreda’s party and helped with the practical aspects of building her Abbey.  In the sixth year of her rule at Ely Etheldreda was attacked by the plague and after three days of illness died on the 23rd June 679.

By this time Ovin was in his late fifties and we believe he returned to his farm where he died.  His influence and contribution to Queen Etheldreda during the early years of the Monastery at Ely were invaluable and, after her death, the Foundation expanded and became a place of great piety and pilgrimage.  The warrior monks protected the monastery for the next 300 years against all comers including the Vikings and even, for twelve months, the mighty Norman conquerors.  However the timber structures were eventually torn down and replaced by the magnificent masonry Cathedral that today is The Holy and Undivided Trinity at Ely.

Amongst the priceless treasures of the Cathedral are two simple stone fragments that form part of St Ovin’s Cross, salvaged from farmland outside the city where they had been used for generations as a horse mounting block.  The plinth bears the moving prayer:


Which loosely translates as:


A prayer that I have said many times in the crypt of Lastingham Church

Dennis Adams   

High Bailiff of Ely   July 2004