St. Audrey was the daughter of Anna, king of the East Angles, and the sister of St. Sexburga, St. Ethelburga and St. Withburga. She was born in Exning in Suffolk. When she was still very young, in obedience to her parents she married Tonbert, prince of East Anglia. Three years after the marriage Tonbert died and Audrey went to her island of Ely, which she received as her marriage gift. Ely was called an island because at that time it was surrounded by waters and marshes, and it got its name from the great number of eels which could be caught there. For five years she lived on the island leading a life of prayer. Then her uncle the king asked her to marry again.
In those days kings increased their land and power by letting their sons and daughters marry into the families of other kings. She did not wish to marry, but her uncle convinced her that as a queen she could serve God, and help many people. She married Egfrid, the younger son of Oswy, king of Northumbria. There was much pomp and splendor at their marriage. Egfrid was just a boy at the time and Audrey explained to him that she would do faithfully all the duties that would fall on her, but she could never be a loving wife to him, because her heart was in Ely, where, for the love of God, she wished to build her nunnery. Egfrid allowed Audrey to live at the castle more like a sister than a wife. When Egfrid became king he thought that Audrey would give up her ideas and settle down with him as Queen
She continually asked Egfrid to allow her to return to Ely, but he always refused. At last one day he agreed. She left immediately so that he would not have time to change his mind. She went to the convent of Coldingham where Egfrid's aunt St. Ebba was abbess. St. Ebba received Audrey's vows to God and gave her the veil of a religious. In this way Audrey thought that Egfrid would not dare to take her back because of her vow to God. Ebba said that it might be wiser not to stay at Coldingham but to get outside the boundaries of Northumbria. She was right. Egfrid set out with an army to bring her back.
He came up with her at a place called Coldeburgh Head, a great rock jutting out to sea. She was in disguise, and had with her the two serving-women who had left Court with her. Egfrid was just about to scramble on to the rocky headland to seize her when the sea suddenly swirled round the rock and cut it off from the mainland. The King and his men found they could not cross, so they waited until the tide should go down and the crossing should be possible. The tide did not go down. Day after day went by, and still the sea protected Audrey and her attendants. Egfrid at last decided that this was a sign from Heaven that God wished Audrey to live the life she had chosen, so he said good-bye to her and rode away, leaving her to continue her journey to Ely.
When she returned to Ely a great welcome was given to Audrey by her own people, and especially by her brother, who was now the King. When she was rested she began building the church and abbey where the nuns she hoped would come to live with her could serve God in their special way.
That was the beginning of the great Cathedral of Ely, and for hundreds of years there was a fair held near it called "St. Audrey's Fair." Here they sold brightly colored laces and ribbons, perhaps to remind the people of the splendor which St. Audrey gave up when she refused to be a queen. Poor people would sometimes put these ribbons as little offerings on her tomb, and they became known as "St. Audrey's laces," or 'tawdries.'
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