St Oswald and the Sussex Plague

Modified from the vault for St Oswald’s Day:

Happy St. Oswald’s Day!

It has been a while since I wrote but I can’t miss the feast of St. Oswald.

What little time I have had for medieval topics this summer has been focused on the plague, so this brings to mind the unique place King Oswald has in Anglo-Saxon plague history.

oswaldPlague isn’t recorded in Anglo-Saxon England during Oswald’s lifetime. Oswald’s legacy surely was in the thoughts of his countrymen in 664 when the plague is first recorded, but his role as founder of the Irish church of Lindisfarne would have made him a rather controversial topic in 664. Remembrances of St Oswald were also just beginning in 664. Although I think that his hand had probably been translated into a shrine in the church of Bamburgh by this time, other sites associated with his veneration (like Heavenfield and Bardney) still didn’t have official recognition or had not yet been established.

By the time the second major wave of plague circulated around Britain in the 680s much had changed. Although there are no plague associated miracles at Bardney, this is about the time it was established and he was credited with healing miracles there. Likewise, the site of Heavenfield was probably contained within the monastic grounds of Hexham by then under the rule of Bishop Wilfrid of York.

It was at one of Wilfrid’s monasteries in Sussex that St Oswald was said to have interceded on behalf of the monastery to stop a plague. As far as I can recall, this is the only plague intercession in Bede’s History. [As a matter of fact, I can only think of two plague intercessions in 7-8th century Britain -- this one by Oswald and Adomnan's credit of his preservation from the plague while visiting Northumbria to Columba.]  It is significant that Bede notes that it was from this point that Oswald came to be widely celebrated throughout southern England. This may indicate that he was, at least for a while, seen as an intercessor for the plague in a time of plague.  The vision of Sts. Peter and Paul telling the child that the monastery was being spared further plague by the intercession of St. Oswald for his people on the day of his own death (August 5), the day of the vision, is surely unique. It also satisfies the Wilfridian circle’s need for a Romanist vision vouched for by two primary Romanist saints.

We can be skeptical that this miracle occurred in one of Wilfrid’s monasteries, given that Wilfrid also controlled Heavenfield, but Wilfrid is unlikely to have really embraced the idea of a royal intercessor, given his own troubles with kings and that royal power was in conflict with episcopal power. I’ve discussed Acca’s role in developing Oswald’s veneration before, but it is possible that this miracle, a late insertion into Bede’s History, really was considered a major event in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede surely didn’t have to make such a late insertion. Its unlikely that this is the type of material that King Ceolwulf would have demanded.

In much later medieval times, Oswald was considered a plague intercessor in Italy. People would make long pilgrimages into the Alps to visit his shrine there seeking his intercession for their illnesses, so this was a theme of Oswald’s medieval cult.

What ever you think about such miracles, today is a day to recall St Oswald and ponder on the cultural role of Anglo-Saxon kings.

Bishop Wilfrid and the Sussex Famine

When I was working on my Kalamazoo presentation last spring, I was looking for references to famines or malnutrition. Bede’s History is pretty pitiful in this regard. He only records two famines, one before the arrival of the English and the second when Bishop Wilfrid first came to Sussex. As we will see below, this famine is more than suspect.

“For three years before his coming to the kingdom no rain had fallen in those parts, so that a most terrible famine assailed the populace and pitilessly destroyed them. For example it was said that forty or fifty men, wasted with hunger, would go together to some precipice or to the sea shore where in their misery they would join hands and leap into the sea, perishing wretchedly either by the fall or drowning. But on the very day on which the people received the baptism of the faith, a gentle but ample rain fell; the earth revived, the fields once more became green, and happy and fruitful season followed. So, casting off their ancient superstitions and renouncing idolatry, ‘the heart and flesh of all rejoiced in the living God'; for they realized the He who was the true God had, by His heavenly grace, endowed them with both outward and inward blessings.

The hagiographical tools are hard to miss. A drought induced famine that is only relieved by a gentle ample rain that began on the day of the first baptisms. A three-year drought without a single drop of rain, in coastal Sussex? I find a three-year drought hard to believe anywhere in England. Then there are the very strange ‘suicides’. According to Bede its desperation that drove 40-50 men who hold hands and jump off a cliff into the sea. A single person might be driven to suicide but a whole group of only men? I have to wonder if these were not pagan sacrifices to the sea, perhaps of slaves or prisoners of war who were tied together. The suicide story could have come up when Bishop Wilfrid’s party inquired about bones scattered on the shore.

Wilfrid, Apostle to South Saxons , holding a net of fish.

When the bishop first came to the kingdom and saw the suffering and famine there, he taught them how to get their food by fishing: for both the sea and rivers abounded in fish but the people had no knowledge of fishing except for eels alone. So the bishop’s men collected eel-nets from every quarter and cast them into the sea, with the help of divine grace, they quickly captured 300 fish of all kinds. There were divided into three parts: a hundred were given to the poor, a hundred to those who supplied the nets, while they kept a hundred for their own use. By this good turn the bishop won the hearts of all and they had the greater hope of heavenly blessings from the preaching of one by whose aid they gained temporal blessings.” (Bede IV.13, McClure and Collins, p. 193-194)

More fishiness in Wilfrid’s net casting. Apparently people in Sussex are happy to believe that Wilfrid taught them to fish (as seen in this church window).  So let me get this straight, the rivers are full of fish but all they can catch in nets are these slippery, snake-like eels?

Wilfrid doesn’t bring any new technology or reported techniques. He teaches them how to catch fish with their own eel nets?

Wilfrid’s party may have brought more modern administrative skills and organizing the community into a church owned collective would have improved production. Yet, Wilfrid’s fishing skills appear to be as hagiographic as the drought. It mimics the large fish catches of Jesus in the gospels.

There is good reason why the people of the South Saxons venerated Bishop Wilfrid. For all his abrasive actions with other parts of England, it is very likely that Bishop Wilfrid made lives better in Sussex. At least for some Wilfrid may have been a protector during the worst ravages of King Caedwalla of Wessex in both Sussex and the Isle of Wight. After Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, the West Saxon overlords of Sussex annexed Sussex to the territory of the Bishop of Wessex. After he was gone, the South Saxons could romanticize Wilfrid for bringing them the faith under their last independent kings.

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

I’m experimenting with methods of putting up presentations. This one is put up through slideshare. Its conversion function doesn’t seem to have liked all of my text as you can see from the title page. This is the presentation I gave at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2010. If you open up the presentation on full screen mode in the corner it will open in a new window so you can have it side by side with the text. Let me know what you think of this format for the presentation and comments are welcome on the presentation itself too!

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

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(slide 1) St Æthelthryth is both one of the earliest and most prominent Anglo-Saxon saints. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, born to first generation Christians. She was married at a very young age to a minor local ruler, Tondbert of the South Gywre, probably in exchange for the fenland people’s military support against Penda of Merica. Tondbert gave her the Isle of Ely as part of her wedding present and dies shortly afterwards with the marriage unconsummated. She retreats to her island hermitage at Ely but doesn’t remain there long. Within a few years her father has died and her uncle King Æthelhere forces her to marry Ecgfrith, the son of King Oswiu of Bernicia who is several years her junior. After 12 years of marriage and Ecgfrith’s eventual succession to the throne of Northumbria, Æthelthryth with the help of Bishop Wilfrid of York persuades Ecgfrith to allow her to leave their unconsummated marriage and enter his aunt’s convent at Coldingham. After a year of training, she leaves Coldingham to establish her own convent at Ely where she is abbess for seven years before dying of the plague. At her translation 16 years later she was found to be incorrupt and this was taken as proof of her perpetual virginity, a claim that Bede quizzed Bishop Wilfrid on to his satisfaction.

Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary have been linked together since virtually  the beginning of recorded memory of Æthelthryth. For the first century or so, the linkage wasn’t part of her narrative history but that would eventually change. In the beginning, the links between Æthelthryth and Mary were confined to Bede’s hymn on Æthelthryth included within his Ecclesiastical History. Bede makes no suggestion that Æthelthryth herself had a special devotion to Mary and his narrative does not make the link. Neither do the other two early prose references to Æthelthryth, Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid and the 9th century Old English Martyrology, a narrative martyrology probably compiled in Mercia.  Bede, Stephan of Ripon, and author of the Martyrology all stress Æthelthryth’s purity and virginity, but none of them directly or indirectly compare her to the Virgin Mary in their narrative.

(slide 2) Bede adds his hymn on virginity in honor of Æthelthryth, he says in imitation of sacred history. Given that the most important canticle in sacred history is the Magnificant sung by Mary, it is perhaps no coincidence that Bede’s song focuses on Mary nearly as much as Æthelthryth. It is easy for us to overlook how Marian this hymn is in part because all modern translators omit Mary’s name, even though Bede certainly names her in the F couplet.  Where Colgrave and Mynors oddly translate “God’s wicket gate”, Bede specifically said, porta Maria Dei, Mary God’s gate. Mary is the leader of heaven’s Choir of Virgins and Bede places Æthelthryth her among an illustrious list of virgin martyrs. As Virginia Blanton notes in her book Signs of Devotion, Æthelthryth’s inclusion among the illustrious martyrs of the past shows such sanctity is available in their own times but Bede isn’t satisfied with mere inclusion in the choir. In the R stanza Bede moves beyond including Æthelthryth in the Choir of Virgins by suggesting that Æthelthryth may be a mother of Christ as well.

“Royal Mother of Heaven’s King your leader now; You too, maybe a mother of Heaven’s King.”

Unlike the Virgin martyrs Æthelthryth is a mother of part of the body of Christ. In his narrative of her life, Bede specifically calls her “the virgin mother of many virgins”.

A further allusion that can only be explained by Bede’s equation of Æthelthryth with the Virgin Mary occurs in the Z couplet.

“Zeal frenzied tears the foe that conquered Eve; Truimphs the saint, zeal frenzied tears of the foe”

Colgrave and Mynors substitute the word “Saint” for the less specific “virgo” used by Bede, which makes that assumption that Bede is referring to Æthelthryth rather than Mary. Bede knew that Mary was routinely considered to be the redeemer of Eve. Yet here again he is being intentionally vague as this couplet is in the context of a discussion of Æthelthryth. Bede ends this hymn by portraying Æthelthryth as a bride of Christ represented as the lamb.

Through all of these comparisons Bede has shown Æthelthryth to be another Mary – she is a perpetual virgin, a leader of other virgins and a mother of the body of Christ, the redeemer of Eve, a queen in heaven as she had been on earth and last but not least the bride of the lamb.

This hymn adds no new information on Æthelthryth’s life; its purpose is to show that Æthelthryth not only belongs in the heavenly virginal choir, but also that she compares well with the Virgin Mother herself.  She is another Mary for Bede’s age.

There is reason to believe that this hymn circulated separate from History as part of Bede’s book of hymns. It survives in Cologne MS. 106, a manuscript indirectly associated with Alcuin that includes Bede’s breviate psalter and 12 of Bede’s hymns including the hymn to Aethelthryth. How widely Bede’s Book of Hymns circulated is unknown as it does not survive intact. When found in isolation it is impossible to tell whether the hymn came from the Book of Hymns or the History. Nevertheless, Bede’s History was the primary source for Æthelthryth’s story until the completion of the Liber Eliensis in the 12th century.

The linkage between Æthelthryth and Mary appears only once between Bede’s History and the 12th century Liber Eliensis, that is in the Benedictional of Æthelwold. (slide 3) Bishop Æthelwold was responsible for refounding Ely as an all male Benedictine monastery where he put his reform agenda that stressed monastic virginity into action. Æthelthryth is one of only two native saints featured in full portraits in his Benedictional, here coupled with a portait of Christ and is inserted at the benediction for her feast day. It is the most elaborate portrait in the book. Blanton notes that this arrangement is symbolic of Æthelthryth’s marriage to Christ.  She also notes that the Æthelthryth’s lily is symbolic of her virginity and, with the mirrored frame, is arranged in such as way to reflect Christ’s benediction in the opposing page.

(slide 4) Æthelthryth is also portrayed as a leader among the choir of virgins. An inscription written on the books the figures hold indentifies Æthelthryth as the haloed figure on the left in red, with her dress matching her full portrait completely. The central haloed figure has been a subject of controversy. The inscription identifies her as a Mary but the second word in unreadable. Authorities have been split on whether this figure represents the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, with most siding for Mary Magdalene. I believe that if we consider the decoration of the rest of the benedictional, rather than trying to reconstruct the badly damaged inscription, then this figure must be the Virgin Mary.

(slide 5) When we look at the other depictions of the Virgin Mary most of them are decorated as in this illutstration of the annunciation. The rose dress with a flower pattern matches the leader of the choir of virgins exactly. In all illustrations of the Virgin Mary, she is given a gold halo or nimbus, gold veil, cuffs and sometimes an undertunic. This illustration of the assumption is the only illustration of the Virgin Mary who is not dressed in a rose tunic, but even here she is adorned with a gold halo, veil and trim.

(slide 6) In contrast, in the only illustration of Mary Magdalene in the Benedictional she is not distinguished from the other two women at the tomb. None of the women have a halo or wear any gold on their apparel. Only their instruments are gold. Further, the book lacks a benediction for the feast day of Mary Magdalene. If the leader of the choir of virgins is Mary Magdalene then we have to explain why she is not mentioned in the text and illustrated so differently at the empty tomb.

(slide 7) Returning to the choir of virgins, I believe this illustration must represent the choir of Virgins led by the Virgin Mary and Æthelthryth, as suggested in Bede’s poem. This also matches the overall theme of Bishop Aethelwold’s reforms that highly valued virginity and lifted up the Virgin Mary and Aethelthryth as role models. By this time, Mary Magdalene was well established, following Gregory the Great, as the sinful woman and therefore ill suited for Bishop Aethelwold’s agenda.

(slide 8) We have to jump two centuries from the 10th century Benedictional of Aethelwold to the 12th century Liber Eliensis before we get another glimpse of the evolution of Æthelthryth’s veneration.  In the Liber Eliensis Æthelthryth’s story and the related comparisons to the Virgin Mary reach their textual peak. The author of the Liber Eliensis, completed around 1170, uses Bede’s History and Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid to develop a much more complete story for Æthelthryth that embellishes the roles of Bishop Wilfrid, Abbess Æbbe, and St. Owine in addition to Abbess Æthelthryth.  Bede’s hymn is replicated exactly. Comparisons between Mary and Æthelthryth become more direct. The Liber Eliensis uses Mary and Joseph’s chaste marriage as president for Æthelthryth’s unconsummated marriages.

The Liber Eliensis also tells two new tales that will feature in iconography within the Cathedral of Ely. Cathedral construction began in the late 11th century with the Lady Chapel being constructed between 1321 and 1352. In the first new story, Æthelthryth miraculously escapes from Ecgfrith’s attempts to remove her from Coldingham and flies to Ely. While en route at a stopping place she plants her staff into the ground while her party rests, it takes root and grows into a strong ash tree. Ann Stanton describes how these miracles are depicted in iconographic panels within the Cathedral of Ely, at the crossing in her paper “The Virigin, the Queen and the Cathedral”. These panels date to the 14th century when the Lady Chapel was being constructed. Within the Lady Chapel itself iconographic panels stress Mary’s journey to Bethleham. The second story is of a Dane who tries to violate Æthelthryth’s tomb only to be struck blind, literally to have his eyes ripped out. This story explained a hole in the saracophagus from the era of the Danish destruction of the monastery and at the same time discouraged anyone from trying to use the hole to see her corpse within. According to Stanton this story is not depicted in the surviving relief panels of the Cathedral but the corresponding Marian story of a Jew attempting to overturn Mary’s tomb only be caught with his hand stuck in the tomb is depicted in the Lady Chapel. Other relief panels in the Lady Chapel reflect the commonalities in the lives of Mary and Æthelthryth.

(slide 9) The Liber Eliensis makes one additional Marian claim for the first time. It claims that

““there had not yet been any church on the island [of Ely] other than the one founded by blessed Augustine, the apostle of the English, but that was demolished right down to ground level by army of the unbelieving King Penda. This church Æthelthryth, lover of God, labored with all her might to renew and rebuild after its prolonged desolation. And as soon as it was rebuilt, dedicated as of old, in honour of Mary, the holy Mother of God, it became a shining light, through innumerable signs and miracles, as God carried out His work every day.” (LE i.15, p. 43)”

This is the first claim that the church of Ely was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Yet, it is extremely unlikely that Augustine ventured up into the fenlands to found a church dedicated to Mary. I believe that this is a fictional claim that expresses loyalty to the Archbishops of Canterbury while trying to make a claim of antiquity. If this claim were true then it would likely be the oldest English church dedicated to Mary. However there is no reason to believe that the dedication to Mary is any older than the refoundation of the house under Bishop Æthelwold.

Balancing the special relationship between Mary and Æthelthryth, the structure of Ely Cathedral is unique in England. Typically, the Eastern trancept is the where the Lady Chapel is found in English cathedrals. Yet, here this is the site of Æthelthryth’s shrine and chapel (L and N) on the diagram. Æthelthryth’s shrine was located where N is on the diagram, and it is marked on the floor today. This leaves the main body of the cathedral without a Lady Chapel. To compensate for Our Lady not having a special place in the cathedral, they built the largest and most elaborate Lady Chapel in England just outside the main plan (J). How do we account for such an elaborate Lady Chapel?

(slide 10) After the time of Bishop Aethelwold, Ely’s position on the trail from London to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham must have amplified interest in Mary. Although not mentioned in the Liber Eliensis, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was founded in the 11th century, significantly before the writing of the Liber Eliensis. The omission of Walsingham from the Liber Eliensis or the 12th century French Life of Audree by Marie de France,  may be due to some sense of competition. Yet, the Life of Audree in particular gives the feeling that Ely was a pilgrimage destination. Its unclear how often Ely was a final destination or whether it was a feature on the Walsingham trail.  By the Reformation, Walsingham was the primary Marian shrine in all of England and Ely benefited by being on the trail from London to Walsingham. It is also clear that East Anglia was a major region of Marian devotion with several other shrines in the area including Our Lady of Ipswich. This leaves me to wonder if perhaps the popularity of Æthelthryth and her Marian connections may have fostered the growth of Marian shrines in East Anglia.

At the Reformation the Lady chapels and shrines at Walsingham and Ely were especially targeted for destruction by the reformers. The shrine of Æthelthryth was completely destroyed and the Cathedral of Ely was defaced.

(slide 11) Throughout the 20th century, Æthelthryth slowly began to retake her former position at Ely. The processional banner shown here was made in 1910 and has been used for processions ever since. Among the Millennial restorations made to the cathedral in 2000 was a new covered processional way linking Æthelthryth’s chapel with the Lady Chapel (I on the diagram). Since the third great renovation of the cathedral began in 1986 Æthelthryth’s presence has been steadily growing at the Cathedral. Within the last decade, St Etheldreda’s fair has been re-established as a major community event. A new Order of St Etheldreda was founded in 1992 under the patronage of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to provide for the cathedral and in 2004 they published a new complete liturgy including processions and new hymns for her feast and the feast of her translation. This new liturgy is available on the Cathedral website.

(slide 12) Two more communities have been founded more recently, including a Benedictine inspired Ely-based Community of St Etheldreda established in 2005 that continues to use the Lady chapel for monthly services (shown here). As the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has been restored and is regaining its popularity over the last decade, a new St Etheldreda Cell of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham has also formed at Ely.

To celebrate the completion of the third great restoration of the cathedral in 2000, three sculptures were commissioned for the cathedral including a new sculpture for the Lady chapel. (slide 13) This controversial new sculpture represents the moment of the annunciation. What strikes me the most about this statue is not its modernity, but its startling golden hair and dress that resembles a Saxon princess so much more than an Middle-Eastern teenager.

Herefrith of Lindisfarne

Some of the most important additions to Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert came from Herefrith, a former abbot of Lindisfarne. I think its worth exploring what Bede tells us about Herefrith in  the Life of Cuthbert and what we can deduce.

When Bede first introduces material from Herefrith in the plague of Melrose chapter [Ch 8] he tells us that Herefrith was a former priest of Cuthbert’s and a former abbot of Lindisfarne. In chapter 37,  where Bede relates Cuthbert’s instructions for his burial, Herefrith is described as being the abbot of Lindisfarne at that time (March 687).

Herefrith relates three key elements of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert: 1) account of the plague at Melrose, 2) Cuthbert’s healing of Abbess Ælfflaed by his girdle, and 3) the account of Cuthbert’s last days. Contrary to what Colgrave says in his notes on the plague of Melrose, Herefrith does not say that he was a member of Melrose. He says that he was a member of Cuthbert’s community and abbot at Lindisfarne and that Cuthbert used to relate the events at Melrose.   It seems likely that Herefrith had been a member of Cuthbert’s community at Lindisfarne only. As his abbot at Lindisfarne, he would have been close to the bishop especially during his last illness.

Now being the abbot of Lindisfarne when Cuthbert died gives us several possibilities for how he lost the abbacy.He would have been abbot of Lindisfarne when Bishop Wilfrid succeeded Bishop Cuthbert for a year. This was remembered as a terrible time when many of the brothers left Lindisfarne. Was Herefrith among those who abandoned Lindisfarne? Could he have led some of the brothers away? Or is it more likely that he lost the abbacy over not being able to keep it together during the stress of Wilfrid’s tenure?

Since he is not mentioned at all in the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, it is possible he was gone from Lindisfarne before then. If he did leave Lindisfarne and was seeking to get away from Bishop Wilfrid, then Whitby is the most likely refuge powerful enough to protect monks from Lindisfarne. When King Ecgfrith was killed Bishop Trumwine abandoned his see at Abercorn and went to Whitby. Thus Whitby would be the one place where members of the Irish party would be out of Bishop Wilfrid’s reach. Bishop Trumwine was one of the bishops who convinced Cuthbert to accept the episcopacy would have been sympathetic to his former community. There is one secure connection between Herefrith and Whitby. The story of Abbess Ælfflaed’s healing by Cuthbert’s girdle came from Ælfflaed herself to Herefrith, and from Herefrith to Bede.

Bede tells us that Herefrith was very active in reviewing notes and the text of his Life of Cuthbert. Herefrith is the only reviewer that Bede names specifically and says that he came to him to work on it. It is possible that Herefrith waited to return to Lindisfarne until after Bishop Wilfrid’s death in 709. As Lindisfarne’s former abbot he would have been most likely to want to improve the first Life and counter Stephan’s Life of Bishop Wilfrid. Although there are few direct comparisons between the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid, they present two very different models for bishops. It is as competing models more than quotes or common episodes that marks these two lives as being produced in opposition to one another.

We know little of Herefrith outside of his role in Cuthbert’s life and the production of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert. There is a Herefrith the priest listed among the anchorites in the Durham Liber Vitae. If this is the same man, then he seems to have followed Cuthbert’s model to his last days.

Benedict Biscop

I’ve gained a new appreciation for Benedict Biscop this week after rereading the History of the Abbots and the Life of Ceolfrith, along with Ian Woods’ contribution to the new Cambridge Companion to Bede. What follows is a little musing on Biscop and questions his life open up.

I used to think of Biscop as a restless retired warrior who spent his time seeking ecclesiastical treasures. The History of the Abbots reminded me first that Biscop was not an old or retired warrior but in his mid-twenties when he left the king’s service to explore the church. When King Oswiu made him a thane and gave him land it was recognition that it was time for him to begin the life of an active adult male. His warrior days were not expected to be over. In any major campaign the thegns would be expected to participate along with what ever men they could bring. The kings retinue that Biscop would have left were mostly teenagers in various levels of training and responsibility. Biscop was a young man in his prime when he began his first trip to Rome.

Biscop’s contacts

He must have been a very charismatic person. Just think about all the contacts he made across England and the continent. Setting out on his first trip with young Wilfrid (future bishop of York) he knew well enough not to get bogged down in Lyon with Wilfrid. After his visit to Rome he made his way to Lérins, one of the most influential monasteries of the late antique world, where he stayed for two years, learned their rule and was tonsured. We all probably way underestimate the influence of Lérins on Biscop and ultimately Bede. It was probably at Lérins that he took the name Benedict. He must have been good with languages, speaking at least fluent Latin and probably learned Frankish. He must have known Latin before he left Britain, or he couldn’t have been Theodore of Tarsus’ translator, much less navigated his way to Rome or had a meaningful stay at Lérins.

Thinking of Theodore, Biscop just happened to be handy to the Pope in Rome for an assignment to escort Theodore to Britain. While Biscop may have sought out the English group in Rome when the grapevine brought him news of their arrival, it is still significant that he was chosen to be Theodore’s escort rather than a survivor of Wighard’s party. Theodore liked and trusted Biscop enough to make him Abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury for his first two years, until Hadrian arrived from Gaul. When Biscop then returned to Northumbria (after a detour to Wessex), he told King Ecgfrith of his travels and his close relationship with the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Ecgfrith then gave him 70 hides of land, a large grant, at Wearmouth. We shouldn’t underestimate Biscop’s connections with Canterbury through Archbishop Theodore and the monks at St Peter’s whom Biscop worked with for two years. Biscop’s dedication of his new monastery to St Peter may not only be due to his dedication to Rome, but also because he had just ended his tenure as abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury. We need to see Bede’s connections to Canturbury and admiration for Theodore through the lens of Biscop and his personal connections.

Biscop’s secular contacts were impressive too. It is well-known that Biscop received land from two Bernician kings, more on that below. He  had a close relationship with King Alchfrid of Deira who wanted to accompany Biscop to Rome but was stopped by his father. (This is the same trip that Wilfrid did accompany Biscop on.) Like Wilfrid, he also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex, but apparently not with his successor. He only goes home to Bernicia/Northumbria because King Cenwealh has died.

What are the underlying connections? An obvious connection between Northumbria/Deira and Wessex is King Oswald’s widow, who was the sister of Cenwealh. Both Biscop and Wilfrid were too young to be associated with King Oswald, but his widow and children may have continued on in Northumbria, possibly Deira specifically, even under Oswald’s cousin King Oswine.  (I remember reading somewhere that Oswine may have been sheltered in Wessex during Oswald’s reign.) If Oswald had his main seat at York, where he completed the cathedral, then his widow and sons may have continued to live in York. Given that Oswald himself was the son of Acha of Deira, sister of Edwin, he may have spent his childhood more in York than Bamburgh. The continued presence of Oswald’s widow and children in Deira could explain how Bishop Aidan was welcomed so warmly by Oswine (but that is another topic). If Oswine was given refuge from Oswald in Wessex, then he could hardly have retaliated against Oswald’s sons because they were also the grandsons of King Cynegisl and nephews of King Cenwealh of Wessex. This could explain how Oswald’s son Oethelwald, nephew to both King Oswiu of Bernicia and possibly king Cenwealh of Wessex, became king of Deira. If he did not have an adult heir, King Oswine could have made King Cenwealh of Wessex’s sister’s son  Oethelwald son of Oswald his heir in Deira. After Oethelwald’s death/disappearance, his successor Oswiu’s son Alchfrith also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex specifically on ecclesiastical issues.

The relationship between Deira and Wessex was longstanding. It seems likely that King Edwin of Deira, Oswald’s maternal uncle, was instrumental in Cynegisl becoming the sole (or primary) king of Wessex after Edwin drove out previous kings in c. 625. King Oswald’s role in standing as godfather to Cenwealh’s father Cynegisl and confirming the land grant to Bishop Birinus, Apostle to Wessex, could have provided a way in for Wessex to play a role in bringing first Deira and then all of Northumbria into the sphere of Rome. Recall that Birinus’ mission was part of the Roman church but sponsored from Gaul, initially independent from Canterbury. As part of the Roman church, Bishop Birinus accepted the authority of Canterbury, although Gaulish influence is strongly felt for another two generations. Birinus’ successor, the Frankish bishop Agilbert was very influential on Wilfrid.

Biscop was part of the relationship between Deira/Northumbria and Wessex not only in his early travels. As the familial relationship between the house of Cyngisl and Edwin eventually faded they were renewed by another royal marriage, between King Aldfrith and the sister of King Ine of Wessex, a probable cousin of Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Significantly, not only were Aldfrith and Aldhelm friends, but this marriage likely occurred during a time when Biscop was an adviser to King Aldfrith.

Biscop’s land

Benedict Biscop (Source: Wikipedia commons)

In his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Bede, Ian Wood demonstrates that the land ownership for Wearmouth and Jarrow are not as simple as Bede or the Anon. Life of Ceolfrith claim. Like much hagiography on founders, there is reason to believe that Bede wrote the History of the Abbots to establish land claims, even though he didn’t list specific pieces of property. I want to come back to this in another post someday but just to point out one of the discrepancies:  in the History of the Abbots, Bede writes that King Oswiu gives Biscop land due a thane, but he never says that land is at Wearmouth or part of the monastery’s holdings. Bede writes in the introduction and later in the work that Wearmouth was given to Biscop from his own (Ecgfrith’s) royal land. So we have to consider the claims of Biscop’s blood family to his lands and the monastery’s desires to keep as much land as possible. Did Biscop’s brother have a claim to his thane land, or did that thane land intended to be familial land give him a claim to more of Biscop’s property? The land ownership discrepancies are food for further thought.

Biscop as founder

I suppose I also have a renewed appreciation for Biscop as an ideal monastic founder, perhaps in no small part to Bede’s skills. Biscop did the two things that a founder must do: provided their rule with careful consideration from the best of what he learned in his many travels, and provided a physical space with all the supplies in enviable quantities. His many connections outside of Northumbria also established ecclesiastical ties that the monastery could build upon over the next two generations. Without Biscop there would not have been a scholar of Bede’s quality in Britain because Bede’s skills were only honed with the library Biscop built.

So this is what I have been pondering this week. I hope to be able to blog on a more regular basis this fall on a variety of topics.

References:

The History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow and the Anonymous History of Ceolfrith. in  The Age of Bede, trans. DH Farmer. Penguin Classics, 1998.

Ian Wood. “The foundation of Bede’s Wearmouth-Jarrow” in Cambridge Companion to Bede, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Patrick, Wilfrid and Rome

What an unusual Irish saint Patrick is! He is the only early Irish saint I can think of who was not a monastic, that is based from a monastery. Now there may have been other very early saints, possibly earlier than Patrick who may not have been monastic either but their hagiographers depicted them as such so that is how they are remembered. Ailbe is one of those southern Irish saints who is as early, if not earlier, than Patrick and it’s unlikely that the monastic model had made it to Ireland before Patrick. It was so new that monasticism wasn’t wide-spread anywhere before the mid-5th century. Yet, in the Voyage of Brendan, Ailbe’s monastery is depicted as being as close to perfect as anywhere in Ireland/ the known world. I don’t think Patrick was a fan of monasticism; he doesn’t seem to be a fan of conformity. I suspect that he had been exposed to monasticism while studying in Gaul, but preferred the then more traditional Roman style church organization of his youth in Roman Britain.

Patrick had more in common with Wilfrid of York/Ripon than Columba. In his Confessio, Patrick writes in a self-deprecating, pseudo-rustic style but he is clearly not humble! Like Wilfrid, he is a champion of Romanitas. We don’t know how much support Patrick really had from Rome because the British were not about to ask for arbitration, but Patrick certainly claimed his authority from Rome. Moreover in his Confessio abundantly shows his pride in his Roman citizenship. Like Wilfrid, Patrick didn’t see anything wrong about traveling with a retinue. Patrick travels with an armed retinue that he pays with gifts from the wealthy. Like Wilfrid, women give Patrick important support in his ministry.  I wonder if some of Wilfrid’s friendly contacts in Ireland were with Patrick’s people at Armagh?

Berht of Dunbar?

Dunbar fortress at its height before it was intentionally dismantled.

Dunbar fortress at its height c.1400 before it was intentionally dismantled. Painting of Dunbar castle from the Marie Stuart Society Website.

I was reading Tim Clarkson’s The Picts: A History (2008) last week and I came across the following:

The sources credit him [Cinead mac Alpin] with six campaigns in Northumbria, during which he seized the coastal fortress of Dunbar and burned the monastery of Old Melrose on the River Tweed. Dunbar was an important stronghold of the hereditary guardians of Northumbria’s Pictish frontier. Among the family’s renowned ancestors was the warlord Berht — who led Ecgfrith’s ill-fated attack on Ireland in 684 — as well as other key figures in the Anglo-Pictish wars of the the late seventh and early eighth century. Cinead’s capture of Dunbar was of great symbolic importance for his Pictish subjects in the troubled border zone around the Firth of Forth. Not since the mighty victory at Dunnichen in 685 had an army from the old Pictish heartland inflicted so much damage upon the English. (p. 162)

I know Cinead is probably most people’s focus in this passage, but my interest is in Ealdorman/Duke Berht who also led the ill fated Northumbrian campaign into Pictland that ended at Dunnichen. Do we really know that Dunbar was the base of the hereditary guardians of the Northumbrian frontier?

Just a review of Berht’s claims to fame. First to attach this family to the Pictish frontier, Bede mentions two Berhts leading Northumbrian troops against the Picts in his chronilogical summary: Berhtred is killed by the Picts in 698 and Berhtfrith fought the Picts in 711. Both references suggest that Berhtred and Berhtfrith were leaders of the Northumbrian army and therefore, second only to the king. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid specifically calls Berhtfrith second only to the king. There is a Berctred listed in the Durham Liber Vitae immediately before Altfrid who is almost certainly King Aldfrith, exactly where he should be. There is no Berhtfrith listed but Eadwulf is, and as Eadwulf was Berhtfrith’s enemy in the succession of the child king Osred, which may explain why Berhtfirth isn’t listed.  We know that Berhtfrith was allied with Bishop Wilfrid, which may have also caused him to be left off of Lindisfarne’s Liber Vitae. It has been hypothesized that Berhtred and Berhtfrith were father and son, although of course they could be brothers or other kinsmen.

There are three specific traditions of these Berhts. First and foremost, a duke Berht (presumably Berhtred) led King Ecgfrith’s forces in an invasion of the Brega region of Ireland carrying off many hostages, at least several boat loads full. Adomnan brought back hostages from two trips to Northumbria and we don’t know that he got them all. Over years that it took Adomnan to negotiate the release of his hostages, it is likely that some had died and others were integrated into the monasteries of Northumbria and did not want to leave. Given Berht’s prominence in this successful invasion, it is almost certain that he was with Ecgfrith at the battle of Dunnichen against the Picts in the very next year. This also means that Berhtred may have been present when King Bridei took Ecgfrith’s body to Iona for burial, where Ecgfrith’s half-brother Aldfrith was waiting with Abbot Adomnan. If he was second only to the king and was apparently effective during Aldfrith’s reign, he must have supported Aldfrith and indeed, his support may have been vital for the succession of Ecgfrith’s half-Irish brother who had been gone from Northumbria for so long. His role as the Norhtumbrian king’s warlord appears to have been maintained judging by his death in battle against the Picts in 698, the middle of Aldfrith’s reign.

It is probably not a coincidence that Duke Berhtfrith was the critical figure supporting Aldfrith’s eight year old son Osred for the throne in 705 against Eadwulf who initially succeeded for three months. According to Duke Berhtfrith’s account of Eadwulf’s seige of Bamburgh in early 705 at the synod of Nidd, he was both young Osred’s protector and chief supporter for the throne against Eadwulf and credited their success to God’s support for Bishop Wilfrid who they vowed they would support if they were successful. Berhtfrith’s support for the boy may also reflect his families reliance on the descendents of Oswiu for their power. I do have to wonder if we don’t have a royal princess somewhere among the maternal ancestors of the Berhts (perhaps a daughter of Oswald or Oswiu, or Aebbe’s husband?). Berhtfirht is last heard from in a record of a Pictish battle in 711, the middle of Osred’s reign. It is likely that he was gone from the scene before young Osred takes power on his own and ultimately dies at the hands of his men in 716. I tend to think of Berhtfrith as being like a Mayor of the Palace. Like so many young Frankish kings, Osred didn’t survive coming in to his majority for long dying at age 18. Any survivors of Berhtfrith’s family were probably invovled in the political chaos that followed Osred’s death and may have seen some support in Osred’s reputed brother Osric. Ironically, the throne eventually passed to Eadwulf’s lineage in his cousins Cenred and Coelwulf.

Had Bede not written the Historia in the reign of King Coelwulf, we might know much more about these powerful dukes, but with their rivals in power Bede barely mentions them. Their inclusion in the chronilogical summary suggests that were was much more known about them somewhere in Bede’s sources. He either excised material about them, leaving the summary entries or they were in one of his chronical sources and got copied into the summary. While the latter may be true, I suspect Bede picked his entries in the chronilogical summary more carefully. Given that King Coelwulf had been deposed earlier in the year that Bede finished the Historia, Bede may initially included more on the Berhts only to later excise almost all contemporary information.

So coming back to Dunbar, it is mentioned only once that I know of in Bede’s time. It is the site of another miracle of Bishop Wilfrid. King Ecgfrith sends Wilfrid to Dunbar to be imprisoned in its dungon by its sheriff Tydlin. Whether Tydlin is the highest ranking official in Dunbar or not is unknown but it seems likely. Tydlin’s failure to imprison Wilfrid may have led to his loss of Dunbar and it being turned over to Berhtred, but then again Berhtred is higher up the food chain than a sheriff, so this makes me wonder how high status Dunbar was in the 680s. It makes sense for Dunbar to eventually become the seat of the march warden but was it all the way back to Berhtred’s time?

The real question though is if not Dunbar, then where would Berhtred’s fortress have been? Surely such a warlord would have controlled a hillfort, given the Northumbrian’s fondness for British style hillforts. Edenburgh is possible, but like Stirling it may have been far too close to the border. Tim may be right that after the battle of Dunnichen in 685, Dunbar may have been the fortress of the frontier guardian. It is interesting that Cinead also hit Old Melrose in the same campaign that ravaged Dunbar. Given the importance of Old Melrose to Northumbria, it is likely that there was protection nearby. Edenburgh keeps coming to mind as Berht’s fortress though maybe because I can’t imagine that it was sitting empty. It is likely that Berht’s fortress would have been on the coast though given that the sea-road was still dominate (as seen in all Northumbrian hillforts — Bamurgh, Dunbar, Edenburgh, Stirling…). Although old Roman fortresses that were particularly prominent in Northumbria  along both walls and inland as well, but the English haven’t been particularly associated with any of them. Dunbar may have been the best compromise position for a march warden who was as heavily involved in the politics of the kingdom as the Berhts. Dunbar was close enough to the Firth of Forth to keep tabs on the Picts and respond, while closer by sea to Bamburgh. Dunbar also has the added advantage of being an ideal spot to monitor naval activity along the coast.