Milburga (or Milburgh) was born in the latter half of the seventh century, one of three daughters of Ermenburga, a Kentish princess. The family was devout and completely devoted to Christ, and all three sisters – Milburga, Mildred and Mildgytha – were canonized as saints.
It was commonplace in Anglo-Saxon England for royal women to use their wealth and influence to support the Church and promote learning. They were involved in founding (and running) abbeys, in education, in patronage of sacred art, and in care for the poor and sick.
It was not unusual for these royal women to marry, raise their children, and then retire to a nunnery or to some other form of consecrated life, and this is precisely what Ermenburga did.
Milburga was keen to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and enlisted the support of her father Merewald and of her uncle Wulfhere (who happened to be King of Mercia), she established a monastery at Wenlock (in modern-day Shropshire), of which she became the second abbess, being consecrated by St Theodore of Canterbury.
Milburga’s abbey was intended to reflect and represent the beauty of the human soul redeemed and graced by God. Milburga in effect created a foretaste of heaven, in icon of God’s new creation, in which the surpassing perfection of the fruit in the orchards, of the flowers in the gardens, and, in short, of the entire physical environment, was so charged with intimations of redemption and renewal that it possessed a sacramental quality
However, Miburga did not shut herself up within this living, breathing icon of the new creation, but regularly went forth into the wild and dangerous world beyond the abbey walls to bring conversion and consolation to the abandoned souls who inhabited the remote fastnesses of the Mercian countryside.
On one occasion while engaged upon works of mercy she encountered a young prince, who, wishing to marry her, sent his soldiers to sieze her. In an episode which recalls the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites, she fled across a stream called the Corve which then swelled up to the size of a small river, thereby frustrating the pursuing soldiers.
Like many Anglo-Saxon saints, Milburga had a tremendous affinity with the natural world – an affinity which found expression not only in the arrangements of the abbey gardens which teemed with herbs and flowers and birds (with which Milburga had a special and mysterious relationship), but also in a love of country people and country life in general.
She used to visit the surrounding villages, treating the ailments of the country-dwellers (probably with herbs), and occasionally effecting miraculous cures, and was known for her gentleness and kindness, her sanctity of life, and her ability to levitate.
After her death (some time between 700 and 722) she was buried near the altar of the abbey, but, in the wake of the destruction of the church by Danish invaders, the exact location of her mortal remains was unknown. However, after the re-founding of Wenlock Abbey by Cluniac monks from La-Charité-sur-Loire in 1079, her tomb was discovered and opened up, giving forth a heavenly fragrance which recalled the sensory paradise of the old monastery garden.