I was really looking forward to Barbara Yorke’s paper “Adomnan at the court of King Aldfrith” from the Adomnan conference published in Adomnan of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker. I have a couple of her books and I’ve learned a lot from her. Unfortunately there are a few things in her chapter that I don’t think work very well.
While I agree that Cuthbert appears to have worked himself into King Ecgfrith’s confidence there really isn’t much evidence that he arranged for Aldfrith to be Ecgfrith’s heir to the family’s relief. If King Aldfrith owed his succession to Cuthbert, it is strange that there is not one episode of Cuthbert being in the presence of Aldfrith or Adomnan in Bede’s History, either Life of Cuthbert, or Adomnan’s Life of Columba. Strange given that there are several episodes of Cuthbert with King Ecgfrith and his queen. We know that Adomnan visits King Aldfrith’s court one year after his succession, in 686, and this is about the same time that Cuthbert essentially abandons his episcopate to become a hermit on Farne island again (for which health is not an excuse). He is trying to get away from the world, perhaps the new king. After Cuthbert’s death in 687, Bishop Wilfrid takes control of Lindisfarne, hardly a friendly appointment, and there is great turmoil at Lindisfarne during his tenure there. Adomnan visits again in 688 and this roughly coincides with the appointment of a new bishop for Lindisfarne, ending Wilfrid’s jurisdiction there. How much influence Adomnan had on King Aldfrith in these matters is unknown, maybe none. However we do know that Adomnan was successful in redeeming Irish hostages taken by King Ecgfrith in 684 on both his 686 and 688 trips. Rather than seeing Cuthbert’s prophecy as evidence that he arranged Aldfrith’s succession, it may be intended to cover up friction between Bishop Cuthbert and King Aldfrith. Someone so closely tied to Ecgfrith, intrusted with the queen before his death and seeing her safely into a convent as a widow, may not have been trusted by Aldfrith.
Here we remember Cuthbert’s dying instructions to Lindisfarne included
“But have no communion with those who err from the unity of the Catholic faith, either by keeping Easter at an improper time, or by their perverse life. And know and remember, that, if of two evils you are compelled to choose one, I would rather that you should take up my bones, and leave these places, to reside wherever God may send you, than consent in any way to the wickedness of schismatics, and so place a yoke upon your necks.” (Life of Cuthbert, Ch. 39)
Adomnan was the leader of those schismatics and Iona its fountain head, where the Aldfrith was when his brother was killed in battle. Cuthbert had spent years as prior of Lindisfarne bringing that community into communion with Rome, so he had no energy or desire to back peddle by improving their relationship with Iona.
Barbara Yorke’s paper also doesn’t recognize that Adomnan made a third trip to Northumbria in 702-3, as recorded by Bede. I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say, that I think Adomnan’s visit to Wearmouth-Jarrow occurred in c. 702-3 rather than in 688.