Adomnan, Cuthbert, and King Aldfrith

St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral

I was really looking forward to Barbara Yorke’s paper “Adomnan at the court of King Aldfrith” from the Adomnan conference published in Adomnan of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker. I have a couple of her books and I’ve learned a lot from her. Unfortunately there are a few things in her chapter that I don’t think work very well.

While I agree that Cuthbert appears to have worked himself into King Ecgfrith’s confidence there really isn’t much evidence that he arranged for Aldfrith to be Ecgfrith’s heir to the family’s relief. If King Aldfrith owed his succession to Cuthbert, it is strange that there is not one episode of Cuthbert being in the presence of Aldfrith or Adomnan in Bede’s History, either Life of Cuthbert, or Adomnan’s Life of Columba. Strange given that there are several episodes of Cuthbert with King Ecgfrith and his queen. We know that Adomnan visits King Aldfrith’s court one year after his succession, in 686, and this is about the same time that Cuthbert essentially abandons his episcopate to become a hermit on Farne island again (for which health is not an excuse). He is trying to get away from the world, perhaps the new king.  After Cuthbert’s death in 687, Bishop Wilfrid takes control of Lindisfarne, hardly a friendly appointment, and there is great turmoil at Lindisfarne during his tenure there. Adomnan visits again in 688 and this roughly coincides with the appointment of a new bishop for Lindisfarne, ending Wilfrid’s jurisdiction there. How much influence Adomnan had on King Aldfrith in these matters is unknown, maybe none. However we do know that Adomnan was successful in redeeming Irish hostages taken by King Ecgfrith in 684 on both his 686 and 688 trips. Rather than seeing Cuthbert’s prophecy as evidence that he arranged Aldfrith’s succession, it may be intended to cover up friction between Bishop Cuthbert and King Aldfrith. Someone so closely tied to Ecgfrith, intrusted with the queen before his death and seeing her safely into a convent as a widow, may not have been trusted by Aldfrith.

Here we remember Cuthbert’s dying instructions to Lindisfarne included

“But have no communion with those who err from the unity of the Catholic faith, either by keeping Easter at an improper time, or by their perverse life. And know and remember, that, if of two evils you are compelled to choose one, I would rather that you should take up my bones, and leave these places, to reside wherever God may send you, than consent in any way to the wickedness of schismatics, and so place a yoke upon your necks.” (Life of Cuthbert, Ch. 39)

Adomnan was the leader of those schismatics and Iona its fountain head, where the Aldfrith was when his brother was killed in battle. Cuthbert had spent years as prior of Lindisfarne bringing that community into communion with Rome, so he had no energy or desire to back peddle by improving their relationship with Iona.

Barbara Yorke’s paper also doesn’t recognize that Adomnan made a third trip to Northumbria in 702-3, as recorded by Bede. I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say, that I think Adomnan’s visit to Wearmouth-Jarrow occurred in c. 702-3 rather than in 688.

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2 comments on “Adomnan, Cuthbert, and King Aldfrith

  1. Tim says:

    I guess it boils down to whether or not we agree with the idea of Cuthbert aligning himself with the ecclesiastical ‘middle party’ who hoped to reconcile the Celtic and Roman traditions. Yorke’s theory seems to hinge on Cuthbert’s conversation with Abbess Aelfflaed in 684, and his prophecy about Ecgfrith, in which he revealed that he knew the whereabouts of Aldfrith (who was living on Iona). Before reading Yorke’s paper, I hadn’t considered the possibility that Cuthbert was actually putting Aldfrith forward as a successor to Ecgfrith (and as a candidate favoured by the ‘middle party’). I’m still not convinced that this is what Cuthbert had in mind. Both Aelfflaed and Ecgfrith knew about their half-brother but they had apparently decided that he wasn’t in the running for the Northumbrian kingship. My reading of the situation is that they were quite happy for Aldfrith to remain in Ireland or on Iona or wherever, as long as he stayed away from Northumbria. I don’t buy the suggestion that Cuthbert’s revelation of Aldfrith’s current whereabouts solved Ecgfrith’s anxieties about who would take over the kingdom in the event of his own demise. On the other hand, Yorke does set out a good case for it, so I’ll take another look when I’ve got the sources handy. At the moment I’m inclined to agree with you, Michelle, about Cuthbert not being Aldfrith’s best buddy. His ‘prophecy’, as you suggest, looks like a later attempt to smooth things over. I’m not sure he liked Ecgfrith very much either, even if he did manage to get the Lindisfarne bishopric out of him.

  2. [...] two good blogs, Heavenfield and Contagions. She recently put up a post discussing her thoughts on Cuthbert’s impact on Aldfrith’s succession to the English throne in the late 7th century. Contagions is good if you’re interested in a more scientific [...]

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