Eata of Melrose: Shouldering the Burden

St. Eata died of dysentery on October 26, 686/7 at Hexham in Bernicia, 22 years to the day after St Cedd, Aidan of Lindisfarne’s other famous disciple. I have to admit that I have always like Eata. Although consistently described by Bede as the “gentlest and simplest of men”, he was the real worker of Aidan’s mission who did whatever had to be done. Eata is the only one of Aidan’s original twelve English boys who is positively identified by Bede. He is the first one entrusted with a major assignment — he was abbot of Melrose before the death of Aidan in 651 when Cuthbert enters Melrose. It is possible that Eata was the founder of Melrose. The name Mailros is Old British, but that does not mean that there was a British church or monastery there.

Eldon Hills near Old Melrose. Old Melrose was situated on a peninsula in a bend of the River Tweed.

Melrose was a monastery intimately tied to Lindisfarne throughout the seventh and eighth century. From the time of Eata, Melrose became the training ground for future bishops of Lindisfarne.

In about 660, Alhfrith son of Oswiu, King of Deira (655-c.665) invited Eata into his kingdom to found a monastery, which he did at Ripon. Coming south with Cuthbert and others from Melrose, established the monastery at Ripon following the Irish rule of Lindisfarne and Melrose. After a couple years, King Alhfrith decided that he wanted his kingdom and the monasteries that he supported to follow the Roman rite. He gave Eata an ultimatum to either change to the Roman rite or surrender the monastery of Ripon. Eata chose to remain loyal to Lindisfarne and he left Ripon, which was handed over to the young monk Wilfrid. This was Eata and Wilfrid’s first clash. It must have been very bitter for Eata to turn over Ripon, where he and the monks of Melrose had labored for a couple years to build a monastery, over to a young arrogant monk who was supporting Alhfrith’s religious rebellion against his father. Wilfrid was not ordained by Bishop Agilberht until he already had possession of Ripon. Eata returned to Melrose for the next few years.

At the synod of Whitby in 664, that same young priest, Wilfrid, convinced King Oswiu to accept Roman rule and Lindisfarne’s church thrown into chaos. Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne got King Oswiu to grant two concessions: 1. an Irish Romanist, Tud, would become the next Bishop of Lindisfarne and 2. Eata, one of Aidan’s original twelve disciples, would become the next Abbot of Lindisfarne. We must remember that under Lindisfarne’s rule everyone, including the bishop, was subject to the Abbot of Lindisfarne (following Iona’s model). Bishop Tuda died of the plague after only a couple months, and King Oswiu was persuaded by his son to send Wilfrid to be consecrated in Gaul. Leaving aside the conflicts between Wilfrid and Chad, Eata continued as Abbot of Lindisfarne until c. 678 when Bishop Wilfrid was exiled for the first time. I think passing over Eata at this time for Bishop of York was probably more of a reflection of Lindisfarne’s need rather than preference for Chad who had only recently returned to the kingdom.

Eata was chosen as one of three men consecrated to Wilfrid’s divided see in 678. He was consecrated by Archbishop Theodore at York as Bishop of Bernicia seated at Lindisfarne and Hexham. By making Hexham as one of his episcopal seats, Eata took direct control of Wilfrid’s best Bernician monastery. He remained Bishop of Bernicia until 671 when the see was split again to form two diocese — Lindisfarne and Hexham. Easta remained Bishop of Lindisfarne while Hexham returned to one of Wilfrid’s men, Tunberht. Cuthbert had worked closely with Eata since their time together at Melrose before the founding of Ripon. He had transferred everywhere with Eata and when Eata became Abbot of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert became his prior trusted with enforcing the new Roman rites. In 685 Cuthbert had actually been elected to the new see of Hexham recently vacated by the deposed Bishop Tunberht, but he refused to accept episcopal office if he had to leave Lindisfarne. Again, Eata did what was necessary and accepted the transfer to Hexham. It was at Hexham that Eata later died of dysentery on October 26th of the next year.

He was given a burial fitting for a bishop but was soon forgotten. He had only ruled over Hexham for 4-5 years, 3 years after Bishop Wilfrid was initially exiled and 1-2 years after Bishop Tunberht (Wilfrid’s man) had been deposed. Both periods would have been a time when Hexham was hostile to those imposed upon them from outside of Wilfrid’s monastic family. Eata was succeeded by John of Beverly, who had been trained at Whitby. John remained Bishop of Hexham from 687 to 706, when Wilfrid returned from his second exile and regained his old monastery. Just as we know next to nothing of Eata’s activities at Hexham, memories of John at Hexham are limited to those kept at his monastery in Beverly. Hexham’s willful amnesia over Eata is best illustrated by the fact that he is not mentioned in the Life of Wilfrid even once! His main monastery of Melrose lacked his body/grave, and instead seems to have focused on the legacy of Boisil (whose body they presumably did have) and his disciple Cuthbert. The relationship between Boisil and Cuthbert mirrored the relationship between Melrose and Lindisfarne. The second most likely place to remember Eata was Lindisfarne but their history is dominated by Aidan and Cuthbert. Yet, it was Eata’s career that spanned the entire lifetime of the Irish mission in England from the earliest days of Aidan until the switch to the Roman rite had been completed by the 680s. Joining Lindisfarne in about 636, he lived for 50 years within its monastic system.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book III Chapter 26; Book IV Chapter 12, 27, 28; Book V Chapters 2, 9

Bede, Life of Cuthbert, chapters 6, 7, 8, 16


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