Bede and King Ecgfrith’s Associates

I was thinking yesterday about the phases of Bede’s career and his devotion to two local saints in particular — St. Aethelthryth (Audrey) and St. Cuthbert. I think interest in both of these saints began early, around 705-709, and are in part a response to Wearmouth-Jarrow’s foundation by King Ecgfrith, the only point of commonality between them.

Every monastery, medieval and modern, needs patron saints to rally their community around and give them a common identity. In the early medieval period, this was almost always the founders of the monastery, usually both a monastic founder and a royal founder (who gives them claim to the land). Sometimes a later abbot or monk is given this honor if the founders are either unavailable or problematic. Boisil probably becomes the patron saint of Melrose because the Abbot Eata and other abbots go on to become bishops who are associated with other foundations and buried elsewhere. His relationship as teacher of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne also reflects Melrose’s place as the training ground for abbots and bishops of Lindisfarne. Having the body of your patron saint is always a boon, if for no other reason than it gives your monastery primacy over others that may also revere your saint.

Wearmouth-Jarrow had a problem when it came to their patron saints in 695-715. Benedict Biscop was a perfectly fine monastic founder saint, but he wasn’t going to impress anyone outside of Wearmouth-Jarrow. He didn’t found an extensive monastic network or do anything spectacular (except build possibly the best library in England). Coelfrith is still abbot, though they will later try to make him a co-founder after his death. King Ecgfrith was an even greater problem. His rash military behavior in the last 12-18 months of his life left him condemned by the church and his successor was a rival half-brother.

King Ecgfrith (r. 670-685) was the only royal patron Wearmouth-Jarrow ever had. He was intimately involved in its foundation and even personally oversaw plans for the construction of the church at Jarrow. It has been speculated that Ecgfrith had planned to be buried at Wearmouth-Jarrow as his father Oswiu had been buried in the church at Whitby. Prior to his last two years, he was a patron Wearmouth-Jarrow could have been proud of, but his unprovoked attack on Ireland in 684 and his invasion of Pictland that ended in his death, not only were condemned by the church as unnecessary, but also ended the golden age of Northumbrian growth. To put Ecgfrith’s aggression in perspective, he is the only Anglo-Saxon king to have ever invaded Ireland during the period of Anglo-Saxon recorded history, much less to have raided its monasteries carrying off Irish monks as hostages. He died in battle at Dunnichen, north of Stirling in Scotland potentially the furthest north of any Anglo-Saxon battle. Famously, from Ecgfrith’s death, Bede recorded that the strength of Northumbria ebbed away.

King Ecgfrith’s behavior in his last two years, while his friend and counselor Abbot Benedict Biscop was away on the continent, must have left Wearmouth-Jarrow distraught. He had a very successful reign up to 684 leaving me to wonder what happened to push him to such aggressive behavior over just maybe 12-18 months. Even in this last year, he was still a friend to the church. In 684-685, he convinced his friend Cuthbert to consent to become Bishop of Lindisfarne (going so far as personally going by boat out to Cuthbert’s hermitage on Farne Island to convince him) and just two months before his death was at Jarrow for the dedication of St. Paul’s church.

Dedication of the Basilica of St. Paul on the 9th day of the Kelans of May in the 15th year of King Ecgfrith [Efridi], and the fourth year of Abbot Coelfrith [Ceolfridi] founder, by God’s grace, of this church.

Dedication stone from St. Paul’s church, Jarrow, 23 April 685

Interestingly a Scottish poem on Ecgfrith’s death refers to his penance (perhaps for his invasion of Ireland?).

“Today Oswiu’s son was slain in battle against iron swords, even though he did penance, it was penance too late.”

Riagail of Bangor, The Battle of Dunnichen

(T.O. Clancy ed., The Triumph Tree, 1998, p. 115)

Wearmouth-Jarrow’s position with Ecgfrith’s successor, his half-brother and rival Aldfrith (r. 685-705) was fairly neutral. Aldfrith can not be considered even a minor patron of Wearmouth-Jarrow, nor can his son and successor Osred (r. 706-716). So the time that Bede’s monastery could expect royal patronage had long past, now it becomes time to manage the heritage they are left with. Fortunately for them, Ecgfrith’s initial land grants had been very generous and Benedict Biscop had received papal dispensations to guarantee their land and holdings. Ties to other monasteries now became their best security and support.

In their patronage of Sts. Cuthbert and Audrey we see Bede and Wearmouth-Jarrow reaching out to close associates of King Ecgfrith and two very different communities. The Stonyhurst Gospel of John placed in Cuthbert’s coffin at the time of his translation came from Wearmouth-Jarrow during Abbot Coelfrith’s time. It was probably produced for the translation in 695. The Anon Life of Cuthbert (c. 705) quickly made its way to Jarrow where Bede produced his Verse Life of Cuthbert in 705-715. As the political climate changed during the reign of King Osric, Lindisfarne commissioned Bede to write his Prose Life of Cuthbert by about 721. From the Gospel of John placed in Cuthbert’s coffin to the two Lives of Cuthbert produced by Bede, Wearmouth-Jarrow was actively involved in the development of St. Cuthbert’s veneration and at least Bede developed close ties with Lindisfarne. King Ecgfrith’s good relationship with Lindisfarne, often against Bishop Wilfrid, may account for Wearmouth-Jarrow’s good relationship with Lindisfarne, even though they were in the diocese of Hexham under the control of Wilfrid’s handpicked successor Bishop Acca. Patronage of St. Cuthbert was a way for Lindisfarne and Wearmouth-Jarrow to continue their association after the death of King Ecgfrith.

St Cuthbert Gospel of John (Stonyhurst gospel) in its original cover with the tree of life produced at Jarrow and placed in Cuthbert’s coffin.

The second saint that Bede was particularly fond of was St. Aethelthryth (Audrey) who had been Queen of Northumbria, and first wife of King Ecgfrith. She left Ecgfrith for the convent two years before the foundation of St. Peter’s at Wearmouth. At the dissolution of her marriage she gave the estate of Hexham (a wedding gift from Ecgfrith) to Bishop Wilfrid to found a monastery; in Bede’s time, the seat of the Bishop of Hexham. So Wearmouth and Hexham were of close age and both owed their land to King Ecgfrith or his queen. Bede tells us that he personally quizzed Bishop Wilfrid about Aethelthryth’s marriage and sanctity. This was only possible after Wilfrid’s return from his second exile in 705 and before his death in 709. I suggest that Bede wrote his hymn to Aethelthryth shortly afterwards. He says that he wrote it long ago when he includes it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in c. 731.

Of all Bede’s writings, he left us only three on local saints he obviously admired: the verse and prose Lives of Cuthbert, the hymn on Aethelthryth included within his History, and one sermon on Benedict Biscop. I think Bede’s interest in Cuthbert and Æthelthryth are not merely his admiration for them, but also their association with Wearmouth-Jarrow’s royal patron. Some other time I will come back and look at how Bede discusses Ecgfrith himself.

3 thoughts on “Bede and King Ecgfrith’s Associates

  1. I know, the second saint that Bede was particularly fond of was St. Aethelthryth (Audrey) who had been Queen of Northumbria.

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