In Adomnan’s Life of Columba he relates a curious episode that seems to be pointed directly at Northumbria (from the Medieval Sourcebook, Ch XLII):
“Of one Lugne, surnamed Tudida, a Pilot, who lived on the Rechrean island (either Rathlin or Lambay), and whom, as being deformed, his wife hated.
ANOTHER time, when the saint was living on the Rechrean island, a certain man of humble birth came to him and complained of his wife, who, as he said, so hated him, that she would on no account allow him to come near her for marriage rights. The saint on hearing this, sent for the wife, and, so far as he could, began to reprove her on that account, saying: “Why, O woman, dost thou endeavour to withdraw thy flesh from thyself, while the Lord says, ‘They shall be two in one flesh’? Wherefore the flesh of thy husband is thy flesh.” She answered and said, “Whatever thou shalt require of me I am ready to do, however hard it may be, with this single exception, that thou dost not urge me in any way to sleep in one bed with Lugne. I do not refuse to perform every duty at home, or, if thou dost.command me, even to pass over the seas, or to live in some monastery for women.” The saint then said, “What thou dost propose cannot be lawfully done, for thou art bound by the law of the husband as long as thy husband liveth, for it would be impious to separate those whom God has lawfully joined together.” Immediately after these words he added: “This day let us three, namely, the husband and his wife and myself, join in prayer to the Lord and in fasting.” But the woman replied: “I know it is not impossible for thee to obtain from God, when thou askest them, those things that seem to us either difficult, or even impossible.” It is unnecessary to say more. The husband and wife agreed to fast with the saint that day, and the following night the saint spent sleepless in prayer for them. Next day he thus addressed the wife in presence of her husband, and said to her: “O woman, art thou still ready to-day, as thou saidst yesterday, to go away to a convent of women?” “I know now,” she answered, “that thy prayer to God for me hath been heard; for that man whom I hated yesterday, I love today; for my heart hath been changed last night in some unknown way–from hatred to love.” Why need we linger over it? From that day to the hour of death, the soul of the wife was firmly cemented in affection to her husband, so that she no longer refused those mutual matrimonial rights which she was formerly unwilling to allow.”
This episode seems to be aimed at Northumbria because when Adomnan wrote in c. 700-704, the current and previous king of Northumbria had allowed their wives to leave their marriages and enter convents. Adomnan’s good friend and pupil King Aldfrith of Norhtumbria had allowed his wife Cuthburgh (sister of King Ine of Wessex and kinswoman of Abbot Aldhelm of Malmesbury) to leave their marriage and enter a convent. The previous Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith, had also dissolved his marriage to Aethelthryth after 12 years of marriage.
If we go back 12 years from her vows in 672, Aethelthryth would have been married in c. 660 by Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne who died in 661. Just as importantly though, she would have been living under bishops from Lindisfarne until 669, first Bishop Colman and then Bishop Chad. Neither of them are likely to have been sympathetic to her desire to leave her marriage. It seems likely that dissolving the marriage wasn’t possible while her father-in-law King Oswiu lived. We might even wonder if Ecgfrith would have wanted his father or the wider kingdom to know of his marriage difficulties until he was securely on the throne. Either way for 9 out of the 12 years of Aethelthryth’s marriage separation from Ecgfrith would have been impossible. By 672 Aethelthryth recognized the right confluence of events: Ecgfrith was securely on the throne, and Wilfrid was securely set at York and, unlike the Irish trained bishops, could be talked into indulging her piety.
We don’t really know enough about the marraige of Aldfrith and Cuthburgh to say much. We know that they had separated during their lifetimes and we have plenty of evidence to back this up. She was already in Barking Abbey when Aldhelm wrote his works On Virginity and mention her in the preface. This might suggest that like his brother, Aldfrith separated from his first wife. This might explain how Aldfrith’s oldest son was only 8 years old when he died after 19 years on the throne.
Returning to Adomnan, it is interesting that the saint who is most directly associated with protecting women was not only be the author of the Columban story above but also of a canon law that takes this sentiment one step further. Among the Canons of Adomnan (not to be confused with Cain Adomnan), the 16th canon is that a man whose wife is a ‘harlot’ and leaves him for another man (or two or three), still can’t divorce her and take another wife. It makes some reference to the questions of Romans turning on a legal point over witnesses. Recall that Adomnan was a lawyer for whom a question of witnesses (and the quality thereof) are vital. Adomnan’s views on women are more complex that simply protecting them from violence. The stress he places on women as wives and mothers may be a reflection of his growing devotion to the Virgin Mary.
On the canons of Adomnan, see Medieval Handbooks on Penance, p. 133.