Going to Rome

Tony Blair converts to Catholicism, that was yesterday’s news. I wish him the best and he is not the first politician to wait until his career is past its peak to convert or change denominations. I suspect most have been worried about more than pubic opinion.

Retirement to Rome almost became a fad in late 7th to early 8th century England. It was started by King Cædwalla of Wessex who like Constantine waited until near death to be baptized. I suspect the intervention of Bishop Wilfrid here, since he talked Cædwalla into letting him baptize the young princes of Wight before they were executed/murdered for the mere reason that Cædwalla wanted to exterminate their dynasty. As Wilfrid was apparently unable to convert Cædwalla himself, he may have used the legend of Constantine and the lure of a papal baptism to finally get him to convert. I discussed the likelihood that legends of Constantine were known in Hexham here. His brother Mull had been burned alive in a Kentish rebellion the previous year. We know that Cædwalla had plenty of brutality* to complete before he made his first and last confession. It is generally believed that Cædwalla had been mortally wounded in one of his battles, and though young, was indeed going to Rome to die. His successor King Ine also retired to Rome, though he had long been a Christian patron.

Another king who retired to Rome was Coenred (Cenred) son of Wulfhere of Mercia. He succeeded his uncle Æthelred for only four years before retiring to Rome where he became a monk in c.709. He also took an Essex prince named Offa with him, much to the lamenting of Offa’s people. Again, we might suspect that Wilfrid of York was in part behind this. We know that King Æthelred of Mercia was particularly close to Wilfrid and that Æthelred still had quite a bit of sway over his nephew Coenred and his son Coelred. Note that according to the Life of Wilfrid, he made his last trip to Mercia (where he died) because King Coelred son of Æthelred (who was later supposedly possessed by demons) promised to make Wilfrid his spiritual director and to follow Wilfrid’s plans for the whole of his life. It is interesting that 709 is also the year that Coelred became king, after his predecessor and cousin Cenred retired to Rome. Alas, neither King Coelred or Wilfrid’s adopted son King Osred of Northumbria ended very well.

So is it a coincidence that only those kings closest to Wilfrid actually retired in Rome, I think not. We also know from the History of the Abbots that King Alchfrith wanted to accompany Benedict Biscop to Rome but was prevented by his father. This had to be at least a year before 662 since he was at Lerins for two years before going to Rome and Wighard arrived in Rome to be consecrated as archbishop of Canterbury while he was there. We know that Alchfrith had been a major instigator of the Synod of Whitby and close to Wilfrid. Clearly, Oswiu didn’t trust Alchfrith going to Rome. Bede also tells us in his Ecclesiastical History that in 670 King Oswiu wanted Wilfrid to accompany him to Rome for retirement, if he recovered from his last illness — which he didn’t. Wiley King Oswiu may have been thinking that he would give his son a boost by taking troublesome Bishop Wilfrid with him to Rome and finding a way for him not to return or at least having him canonically replaced. Oswiu may have gotten the idea from his son, who may have been acting on Wilfrid’s advice (though Bede doesn’t mention Wilfrid in the H. Abbots). We can only wonder what Benedict Biscop thought about the whole situation since he had already had one falling out with Wilfrid on a previous trip to Rome. Bede doesn’t tell us; only that Biscop went on alone. If Oswiu or his son Alchfrith had retired to Rome, they would have been the first Anglo-Saxon kings to do so.

Although only kings who were in some way associated with Bishop Wilfrid actually retired to Rome, four other notable kings abdicated their thrones to enter a monastery — Sigibert of East Anglia, Sebbi of Essex, Æthelred of Mercia, Coelwulf of Northumbria and Eadberht of Northumbria. Each entered the monastery for their own reasons. Some, Sigibert and Sebbi, for obvious piety. One, Coelwulf, had been forced against his will, only to regain the throne and later leave for Lindisfarne voluntarily. Æthelred and Eadberht both were long reigning kings who may have wanted to retreat from the pressures and also help their chosen sucessors maintain the throne. I’ve always had the feeling that Æthelred’s zest for the throne would have ebbed after the murder of Queen Osthryth. His support of King Oswald’s cult at Bardney, his burial of his queen there, (if I recall correctly) dedication of new monastic lands (in Hwicce?) to her memory or for her soul, and his own eventual retirement to Bardney suggest that he may have really loved her.

Getting back to Tony Blair, he is not the first nor the last English politician to make a major religious move late in his career. As you can see above, early English kings went to Rome for a variety of reasons, some good and some more suspect. All of them kept the political implications of their move in the fore of their mind, no matter how pious their motivations.


* Cædwalla’s brutality was not limited to the Isle of Wight. He also ravaged Sussex and Kent, where his brother Mull was burned alive in retaliation. He then invaded Kent again and must have taken his vengeance.

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