Fostering Princes on Iona

A while back I mentioned that Michael Lapidge has placed Aldhelm on Iona, making him the second Anglo-Saxon prince to study there. This has made me wonder if Iona wasn’t running a school for princes and other nobles. There is one other possible example. Stephan of Ripon seems to indicate in his Life of Bishop Wilfrid that Bishop Wilfrid traveled with a retinue of young nobles who were being educated under his eye but who were not necessarily bound for the church. As kingdoms became complicated enough to need nobles who knew more than war, the church was ideally suited to educate them in basic reading, writing, math, basic theology, etc. In the church’s favor, these young noble men would grow into the nobles of the future who became civilized and pious men, who respected abbots and bishops, and understood the needs of the church (and its politics).

This would be true in Ireland as well as England and on the continent. Recall that exiled prince Dagobert had also been sent to an Irish monastery while in exile. Its also quite possible that pious King Sigebert of East Anglia had spent part of his exile in Burgundy in a monastery, perhaps associated with Bishop Felix. We might even suspect that Oswald and Oswiu had spent time on Iona while in exile among the Scots a generation earlier. Oswiu in particular since he was only about 4 years old when his father Æhtelfrith died, and this could explain how he met Aldfrith’s mother, Fin sister of Finnan (his future bishop). A child raised in the monastic system would have gotten to know male and female members of the monastic system and their families but lets get back to firmer ground a generation later with Aldhelm and friends.

If Aldhelm was on Iona in the 660s, as Lapidge postulates, then it was before Adomnan was abbot. He didn’t become abbot until 679. Cummene Find (d. 669) would have been the likely abbot when Aldhelm was there in the 660s. We know that Cummene Find was involved in scholarly activity. He was the first person to collect and write down miracles of St Columba. Cummene’s successor Failbe (669-679) had been on Iona since at least the time of King Oswald, so may have been there since he entered the church. We know that Failbe had a good and perhaps long relationship with Adomnan (abbot 679-704). Failbe would have also probably been well known to both Aldhelm and Aldfrith. Lapidge argues that Adomnan was a teacher of Virgil while Aldhelm was there and, if so, then Adomnan had been on Iona for many years before he became abbot.

How did Aldhelm make his way to an Irish house first rather than Canterbury? First, Malmesbury is named for an Irish abbot named Maildub and William of Malmesbury claims that Aldhelm was educated by Maildub (Yorke). It seems likely that Maildub may have been an abbot of an original monastery or a hermit who began Aldhelm’s education and then forwarded him to Iona for more complete training. Prior to 664, Iona was the mother house for most of England. Iona would be preferable to Whitby or Lindisfarne in Northumbria as the Irish would be more neutral territory than another English kingdom. We also know that Aldhelm was eventually educated in Canterbury also. Wessex was keeping its usual position of maintaining good contacts with both Ireland and Canterbury. Perhaps as importantly, Wessex was retaining good contacts with Northumbria who until 664 saw Iona as its mother house. We know that King Cenwealh, Aldhelm’s uncle was on good terms with Aldfrith’s half brother Alchfrith, son of Oswiu and Cenwealh’s successor Centwine, Aldhelm’s father, married a sister of King Ecgfirth’s second wife Irminburgh, though this was long after Aldhelm’s time on Iona.

We know that Aldhelm wrote King Geraint of Dumnonia shortly after the Council of Hertford in 672, so he was home in Wessex by then. We should also remember that Aldhelm was the godfather or confirmation sponsor of Aldfrith son of Oswiu. It makes the most sense that he had been Aldfrith’s confirmation sponsor while they were both studying on Iona. On the other hand, Yorke postulates that Aldhelm was indeed Aldfrith’s godfather in a conditional rebaptism that would have made him acceptable to Rome. If this is the case, then it probably would have occurred in northern Ireland, perhaps within the circle of the Englishman Ecgberht (who would send Willibrord to Frisia in the 670s and convert Iona to Rome in c. 719). We also have to wonder where among the Irish that Bishop , later bishop of Paris and one of Bishop Wilfird’s mentors.

Study at places like Iona would have been ideal meeting grounds for young nobles who were keeping their options open between the church and royal duties. Aldhelm was the nephew of the sonless King Cenwealh of Wessex and therefore a prospect for the throne. His father eventually did become a short reigning king in his old age. Regardless, Aldhelm seems to have thought that his chances were best in the church, possibly protecting family lands as an abbot. Cenwealh is bound to have had many nephews and cousins who could have made succession very messy indeed.

We know that Aldfrith spent a considerable amount of time on Iona. Bede tells us he was there when his brother Ecgfrith was killed by Pictish king Bridei son of Beli. We know that Abbot Adomnan considered both Aldfrith and King Bridei of Pictland to be his friends. It is quite possible that Bridei, another multi-ethnic prince, could have spent time on Iona as well. Bridei is the son of the British king of Strathclyde, became a Pictish king and yet was a cousin of King Ecgfrith, so he was part British, Pictish and even English.  While matrilines did not give them rights under the law, those ties would be exploited whenever they could use them. Another possible candidate for the prince’s school is Nechtan mac Derlei, the Pictish philosopher king about a generation after Aldfrith and Adomnan.

As Iona became more and more isolated over their stance over the date of Easter and Roman authority, the school of Iona would have become politically unusable to the royal families in Britain and even Ireland. Further as the churches in respective kingdoms developed each would have developed schools for training nobles. York and Canterbury each hosted a famous school, though we don’t have records of nobles attending theses schools. It is likely though that each major kingdom: Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex would have a favored monastic school or schools to send their young nobles and this could have changed with the personality and interests of the abbots or bishops. Bishop Wilfrid and Abbot Adomnan were surely not the only abbots/bishops intersted in training the nobility.


Michael Lapidge. (2007). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England. p. 15-69.

Barbara Yorke (1994) Wessex in the Early Middle Ages.


2 thoughts on “Fostering Princes on Iona

  1. A very informative post, Michelle. I haven’t seen the Lapidge article but I will certainly make an effort to track it down after reading the above. For me the notion of Aldhelm being on Iona in the 660s still sounds unlikely, mainly because of the Easter controversy flaring up (and in spite of the Irish presence at Malmesbury). The other thing I’m unsure about is the scenario of Aldfrith being re-baptised to make him acceptable to Rome. I seem to remember Caitlin Corning’s article on Edwin and Rhun casting doubt on the idea of re-baptism being permitted in such circumstances, i.e. to “upgrade” someone previously baptised by a Celtic priest. However I don’t have the Corning article to hand and cannot remember if she mentioned any exceptions to this rule.

    1. Good point on the 660s. I’ll have to think about that. I don’t remember of Lapidge gave a date range or just said sometime. I think we are talking about conditional rebaptisms here. The Corning article was about Rhun standing as Edwin’s godfather.

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