PW: St Aldhelm, Prince-Bishop of Sherborne

I was just reading an interesting article by Michael Lapidge in the most recent Anglo-Saxon England volume on the life and career of St. Aldhelm. As many of you know, Lapidge has done a great deal of work on Aldhelm, so his discussion of Aldhelm’s life carries weight.

So sifting through all the clues in Aldhelm’s writings and writings about him he has decided that Aldhlem was the son of King Centwine, a brother of long-reigning King Cenwealh. Aldhelm’s father was initially passed over when Cenwealh died, perhaps because of his age. Cenwealh is reputed to have reigned for 30 years. Some of you may be interested to know that the clue that Aldhelm was the son of Centwine is a note in William of Malmesbury’s writings that he consulted King Alfred’s Handboc, now lost, where Alfred kept all his genealogical notes and information on Wessex history. Lapidge reminds us that King Alfred was a fan of Aldhelm’s writings and its likely that he was a valued relative.

Lapidge notes that Cenwealh apparently had no sons, but this may not be true. If it were true that Cenwealh was heirless, then Aldhelm would have been a possible heir to the throne. However, if Alex Woolf is right that the Mercian lineage that succeeded Offa of Mercia were descended from Cenwealh and Penda’s repudated sister, it is possible that Cenwealh had at least one half-Mercian son whom he may have disinherited when he turned out Penda’s sister. (?) This has always seemed strange to me given that Cenwealh had no male heirs that we know of, but it is possible that he did have other sons and for some reason they didn’t live to succeed their very old father. He may have also simply planned on having more sons with his second wife Saexburgh, who was strong enough in her own right to rule for a year afer Cenwealh’s death. [I seem to recall somewhere that Saexburgh’s rule ended when she married the next king which might explain why Centwine didn’t succeed his brother, as he may not have been able to marry his former sister-in-law, but a more distant cousin could or simply that Centwine was currently married.]

So back to Aldhelm, Lapidge believes that he began his education in IONA, or less likely northern Ireland in the 660s under the instruction of Adomnan of Iona. Lapdige contends that Aldhelm and Aldfrith became friends, and Aldhelm became Aldfrith’s confirmation sponsor, a form of godfather then. More on Aldhelm’s time with the Irish in another post, but by the 670s Aldhelm had moved on to Canterbury, but still retaining some of what he learned from Adomnan. Some of these traces of Aldhelm’s education on Iona in his later works makes much of this reconstruction possible.

Other observations of Aldhelm’s family: Lapidge notes that if Aldhelm is the son of King Centwine, then Abbess Bugga was Aldhelm’s sister, whom he speculates was the Osburga mentioned in On Virginity. He also reminds us that King Centwine retired to a monastery, suggesting that this was a very pious family.

Lapdige does have one linkage that I think might be wrong. He notes that Bishop Wilfrid was kept out of Wessex in his first exile by Queen Iremenburgh’s sister who was the wife of King Centwine and he suggests that this means that Aldfrith and Aldhelm could have been cousins. I don’t follow the logic here. If Aldhelm’s mother was Northumbrian then it is unlikely that she was the sister of Ecgfrith’s second wife. Persumably Ecgfrith and Centwines married two sisters of some other valued ally, possibly Kent or East Anglia. Now this doesn’t mean that Aldhelm’s mother couldn’t have been Northumbrian since Centwine was an old man by 678/679 and his current wife then could easily have been Aldhelm’s step mother. If Osberga is Aldhelm’s sister, then the usual use of the Os- prefix in Wessex could suggest a Northumbrian mother but there is alot of speculation all around here.

St Aldhelm
St Aldhelm

Lapidge further hypothesizes that Malmesbury may have been founded on royal family land for King Centwine’s retirement and put under the management of his son Aldhelm who became abbot. He further hypotheses that the monasteries that Aldhelm keeps control over while bishop, notably Malmesbury, Frome, and Bradford on Avon, were other family lands that Aldhelm kept control over during his lifetime. By securing land for Aldhelm’s use (and a monastery for Centwine’s daughter Bugga) and securing Aldhelm’s position as abbot, Centwine and his son Aldhelm came to a fruitful accomadation with Caedwalla’s lineage. Aldhelm gave up his right to power in return for a peaceful life controlling family land. Charters suggest that Caedwalla and Ine were both generous to Aldhelm, suggesting that they were grateful for the peaceful and perhaps profitable neutrailzation of this rival. Lapidge hypothesizes that Aldhelm’s known trip to Rome was to accompany Caedwalla to Rome for his retirement and death. If that is true, I wonder if Caedwalla had intended to delay his cousin in Rome with him to help Ine secure Wessex in his absence? If so, Caedwalla’s death shortly after his arrival would have ensured that Aldhelm could have returned as soon as he wished.

We should note that two of Aldhelm’s kinswomen were married to Northumbrian kings. If Aldhelm is indeed the son of King Centwine, brother of Cenwealh, then his aunt Cyneburg was married to King Oswald of Northumbria. In this way, Aldhelm and Aldfrith would have had a kin-relation, sharing an aunt.  Then I have long suspected that Aldhelm may have helped to arrange the marriage of his friend Aldfrith to the sister of King Ine.

Lapdige concludes:

“In short, we will better understand Aldhelm’s extraordinary achievement if we think of him as a well-connected prince-bishop rather than a retiring monk whose only link to reality was expressed through deliciously difficult Latin prose and verse.” (p. 66)


Michael Lapidge. (2007). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England. p. 15-69. (55 pages) [A surprisingly bland title for a paper with some rocking hypotheses!]


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