One of the first English plagues with a significant record of its effects is the plague of 664. Everything we know of this plague comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The few chronicle records that refer to the plague year derive from Bede’s History. The royal ramifications seem to be fairly mild; only King Eorcenbert of Kent died in the plague and was successfully succeeded by his son. On the other hand, the plague had profound repercussions in the church.
Initially, I thought that Archbishop Deusdedit’s strange absence or even mention in association with the Synod of Whitby in 664 could mean that he had already died in the plague. However, Bede directly contradicts this. When Chad is sent to Canterbury for his consecration in c. 665-666, after King Oswiu had already gotten tired of waiting on Wilfrid to return from his consecration on the continent, they first learn that Deusdedit had died in the plague in July 664. This is a startling lack of knowledge on events in Kent. Northumbria appears to have accepted Rome (for up to two years!) without making contact with Canterbury, and recall that Wilfrid was sent to Bishop Agilbert of Paris for consecration. The reason given is that there are not enough canonically consecrated bishops in England to consecrate him, but there is no mention of knowledge of Deusdedit’s death. For that matter, as archbishop of the province he should have approved of Tuda’s appointment to Lindisfarne, and then his successors. King Oswiu clearly believed that he was still in control, even after deciding for Rome.
To stay on track here though, late knowledge of Deusdedit’s death in the plague highlights the lack of contact with Canterbury at this critical time. It also means that his death can not be used to help further date the synod. Had the Archbishop of Canterbury at least been consulted on episcopal selections the double consecration of Wilfrid and Chad to replace Tuda would not have occurred.
When Northumbria discovers Deusdedit’s death, the kings of Northumbria and Kent agreed to send Wigheard to Rome to be consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. He also died of plague in Rome and finally Theodore of Tarsus was chosen to come and sort out the mess in England. He doesn’t arrive until 669, five full years after the synod and plague. Given the political climate an outsider as archbishop with no local political loyalties was a blessing. It is hard not to see Agilbert as a shadow over many of these events, but that is a topic for another day.
Lindisfarne is left crippled after the double blow of the synod of Whitby and the plague. The new Irish Bishop of Lindisfarne, Tuda, dies of the plague within months of his consecration, exact date unknown. On 26 October 664, Bishop Cedd dies of the plague while visiting his Northumbrian monastery of Lastingham and is buried there. When word quickly reaches his see in Essex, Bede says that about 30 of his followers from Essex come to live at Lastingham and all but one boy die in a second wave of pestilence. Cedd’s brother Chad is recalled from his study in Ireland to become abbot of Lastingham, probably indicating that their other two brothers Cynebill and Caelin, who were both associated with the founding of Lastingham, had also died in the plague. The loss of Tuda and Cedd and so many Anglo-Celtic monks and clergy seemingly left Lindisfarne and the Anglo-Celtic party weak.
Lastingham wasn’t the only monastery depopulated by the plague. The monastery of Gelling, founded to pray for kings Oswine and Oswiu, was allowed to dissolve as its monks joined Wilfrid’s monastery of Ripon (presumably with their lands). Not surprisingly given the association of Bishop Aidan with both kings Oswiu and Owine, Gelling seems to have had an Irish orientation before Whitby. Bede’s Abbot Ceolfrith was one of the monks of Gelling to join Ripon in 664. His brother, a previous abbot of Gelling, died that year of the plague in Ireland, where he had retired to study.
The Rise of Wilfrid
The plague had a direct role in the rise of Wilfrid of Ripon to Bishop of York. Had Tuda not died at such a critical time in the reformation of the Northumbrian church, it is unlikely that Wilfrid would have been promoted to the episcopate so young or gained so much power. Indeed, had Theodore already been archbishop, the see would have been divided from its reception into the Roman system.
Wilfrid’s rise in power was meteoric. He had only been ordained a priest by Agilbert a few months before the Synod of Whitby, and had been given the monastery of Ripon, confiscated by his patron King Alhfrith from Abbot Eata, probably only within the year before Whitby and now within a year after Whitby he was sent to Gaul for a grand consecration as Bishop of York in splendor in Compiegne and took a two year tour of Gaul. No doubt much of his tour was to highlight the work of Agilbert among those rough barbarians to the north, but Wilfrid seems to have soaked it up well. One wonders how much else Wilfrid learned from Agilbert…
Wilfrid was a very complex character, both a great builder and a stubborn obstacle. There is no doubt that Wilfrid built up the church and brought in needed innovation from the continent. He also stubbornly refused to let his vast see be divided, even though there was no way he could possibly serve it all. He learned to like the lordly displays of the Gaulish metropolitans and has been called both a Germanic lord and a prince-bishop. To the humble, ascetic Irish, Wilfrid’s behavior was deeply offensive.
Conversion of Iona
The plague highlights the number of influential Englishmen studying in Ireland in 664, of whom the most notable was an English noble named Egbert. In thanksgiving for surviving the plague, Egbert vows to remain in voluntary exile from his home (England) for the rest of his life. He becomes a bishop, perhaps to English peregrini, in Ireland. We know that he is the driving force behind the missions to Frisia that Willibrord eventually spearheads, and he finally undertakes his mission to Iona. After many years of work, he convinces Iona to accept Rome in about 716. For Bede, this was the crowning achievement of the Northumbrian church of his age. And so history comes full circle, the plague that came in the wake of the synod of Whitby produce a pilgrim that finally brought Iona into the church catholic.
In summary, the plague becomes a full participant in the unfolding of events in the late seventh century. It highlights how marginalized Canterbury had become before the arrival of Theodore. It weakens the entire church by carrying away many of the conversion age generation. It is a vital cause for the rise of Bishop Wilfrid of York, who became a dominant figure in England for the entire second half of the seventh century. Lastly, it produced the thankful pilgrim who eventually brought Iona, the mother church of most of England, into the catholic church and back into communion with its former daughter territories in England and Pictland.