Aldhelm’s Adopted Son

hermit.jpgIn his letter to King Aldfrith of Northumbria, whom he pet names Acircius, Abbot Aldhelm of Malmesbury gives the following description of his relationship with the king.



royal04.jpgFor a long time ago, in the era of your young manhood, when your talented Sagacity was equipped with the septiform munificence of spiritual gifts by the hand of a venerable bishop, I recall that I acquired the name of ‘father’ and that you received the appellations of your adoptive station together with the privilege of heavenly grace. (Episola ad Acircium, Aldhelm: The Prose Works, Lapidge and Herren, trans, 1979).

How does an abbot of Malmesbury in Wessex become the godfather of a half-Irish Northumbrian prince in his “young manhood”? There is no reason to think that Aldhelm had ever been to Northumbria. It is possible that Aldhelm became his godfather while Aldhelm was studying in Canterbury, but that would put a young half-Irish Northumbrian prince in Canterbury. Alternatively, Malmesbury was founded by an Irish monk so that the half-Irish Aldfrith could have visited Malmesbury as part of youthful travels.

The first big problem is why was he baptized as a young man. Infant baptism was practiced at this time, and the Irish and King Oswiu were both Christians. Could it be that there were re-baptisms of those who had been baptized by followers of Iona? In his discussion of the causes of the Synod of Whitby in 664 is because they feared that their baptisms were invalid. The actual re-baptism of all or some of the Lindisfarne-baptized clergy and at least nobles is something that the Lindisfarne-friendly Bede might not want to advertise.

If this is the case, then Aldfrith was a young man soon after 664. He must have been born no earlier than 640, so late in King Oswald’s reign. This would rule out that he was born before Oswald and Oswiu returned to Northumbria. It also means that he was of similar age to his brother Alchfrith, who was apparently not considered a bastard like Aldfrith.

It is possible that Aldfrith had consented at the encouragement of Aldhelm to be re-baptized before 664. We know his brother Alchfrith was certainly favorable to the Roman church before 664. Yet, I think this is unlikely. We know that he was also a very good friend of Adomnan of Iona, and Bede claims that Aldfrith was actually present on Iona when his brother King Ecgfrith was killed in Scotland. Adomnan traveled to visit Aldfrith in Northumbria at least twice, and probably three times during Aldfrith’s reign.

Another possibility is that Aldhelm is actually referring to sponsorship of confirmation. I don’t know much about confirmation in this period though. Perhaps Aldhelm’s stress on the bishop’s hand rather than waters of baptism does suggest that this is confirmation. This would be easier to reconcile with his “young manhood”.

Aldfrith’s relationship with Wessex is a very interesting topic that really hasn’t been fully explored. In addition to his relationship with Aldhelm, he also married the sister of King Ine of Wessex, who was a kinsman of Aldhelm. Aldfrith separated from her during their lifetimes and she entered a convent. In fact, she is one of the nuns that Aldhelm’s On Virginity is addressed to. This makes them a very special couple to Anglo-Saxonists — to him was dedicated the beloved riddles of Aldhelm and to her, On Virginity was sent. What does this tell us about Aldhelm’s relationship to this couple?


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