Oswiu’s Bad Luck

I’ve been reading Marilyn Dunn’s The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons and just thinking about King Oswiu’s bad luck after the Synod of Whitby. He is celebrated by Bede and the Church of England ever after for choosing to accept the authority of Rome over the independent tradition of Iona, the mother house of the Irish missionaries to the Angles (and it was primarily to Angles, not Saxons south of the Thames).

So let’s look at the grace bestowed on Oswiu after his admittance into the Roman fold: first the plague arrives in his lands for the first time in at least English memory taking his new Archbishop of Lindisfarne Tuda, whose gentile nature and Romano-Irish ways were to heal his torn kingdom; then Bishop Cedd (one of beloved Adain’s disciples and an effective missionary bishop) died of the plague,  and his son sub-king Alhfrith of Deira either dies in a rebellion against his father or dies of the plague (never on the scene again) but not before he send Wilfrid to Bishop Agilberht in Paris for consecration as bishop of York (a new see for Deira). Meanwhile, Oswiu chooses Cedd’s brother, currently resident in Ireland, as the next Bishop of Lindisfarne/York, ie. bishop of his kingdom. His choice of Chad studying in Ireland is likely an indication of his esteem for Chad’s brother Bishop Cedd (and perhaps the counseling of Abbot Eata of Lindisfarne) and probably means that Cedd’s other two priestly brothers were dead of the plague at Lastingham or were too closely associated with his traitorous nephew Oethelwald to be bishop. King Oethelwald (son of Oswald) had given Lastingham to Cedd on the advise of Cedd and Chad’s brother who was his personal priest. So, back to Chad, who is now sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury for consecration, but upon arriving he finds out that the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Eorcenberht of Kent (cousin of Oswiu’s queen) had died on the same day probably of plague and they were waiting on a replacement from Rome. The bishop of Rochester had also died, leaving only Bishop Wine of Wessex who called on the help of two British bishops to finally get Chad consecrated. So far this new thing with Rome is not looking so good…

By the Fall of 664, Oswiu had conferred with the new king of Kent to select Wigheard as the next (and first native English) Archbishop of Canterbury and sent him on to Rome to be consecrated. Yet, up pops the plague again and kills Wigheard in Rome (confirmed by a letter from the Pope to the two kings), and the Pope reluctantly send Theodore of Tarsus, a refugee Eastern monk from the Eastern empire to Britain as Archbishop with his own elderly Abbot Hadrian from North Africa to prevent Theodore from introducing any questionable Eastern practices in Britain (hardly a vote of confidence). So not only does Oswiu get an odd Archbishop from the East finally in 670, but one of his first actions is to take a hard-line on the formerly Irish trained clergy, re-consecrate all the Irish founded churches, and declare Chad’s consecration as invalid. Oswiu is now stuck with Wilfrid as bishop of York.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey

Nothing has gone according to plan…. by now news will have come to Oswiu at Bamburgh that the plague stopped near his northern border. According to Adomnan of Iona, it never made it St Columba’s lands.

Theodore does eventually soften his stance on the Irish trained clergy and will re-consecrate Chad as bishop of Mercia. We don’t hear much more about Oswiu and the church until his final sickness. He vowed if he recovered from that illness to have Bishop Wilfrid escort him to Rome. That didn’t work out either. Oswiu never recovered and was buried at the (no doubt re-consecrated) Church of St Peter at Whitby Abbey where his deal with Rome was struck. Perhaps Oswiu wanted to go to Rome to see if it was all worth it.

Filling the Gaps: Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons

Tim and I have been chatting about Strathclyde for longer than either of us would probably care to admit (even before his name was on the cover of any books!). So I was thrilled to tuck in with his latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age in the days running up to Christmas. I have to say my study of Strathclyde (or Alt Clut as Tim would remind me) is pretty much covered in The Men of the NorthI’ve pretty much stuck to the Age of Bede more or less, before moving on to the plague. So finally I was ready for Tim to update me on all the Viking Age goings on in my favorite part of the island, and he did not disappoint.

Tim draws the origins of the Viking era kingdom of Strathclyde from the rubble of the siege of Alt Clut by the Vikings in 870. The vulnerability of the old stronghold had been shown by the sustained siege and sacking. They moved down into the Valley of the Clyde, or Strathclyde, at Govan. While ‘Strathclyde’ begins with this shift, there was strong continuity between ‘Strathclyde’ and the kings of Alt Clut whose kingdom name, if it was ever other than the king of Alt Clut, has not survived. I know Tim has been very active in building up the conservation and visitor experience at Old Govan. It is possible to go to Old Govan be close to the centers of power for the old kingdom, unlike any other British kingdom I can think of.

Tim deftly reconstructs the political context for Strathclyde’s foundation at Govan in the ninth century. The kings of Govan were able to maintain their independence through Viking raids, and delicate relations with the newly melded Picto-Scottish kingdom of Alba, English neighbors at Bamburgh and the ambitions of Wessex.  While they sometimes had to accept the hegemony of their larger neighbors, they avoided outside direct rule. It’s intriguing how important the king of the Cumbrians / Strathclyde were to the kings of Wessex (at least on charters). Perhaps it was their ability to join forces with Alba to both increase the threat from Alba and open a much larger frontier for the English to defend against both Alba and the Vikings.  I really enjoyed Tim’s take on the influence of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians.

I’ve heard a lot of about the battle of Brunanburgh over the years but always from the sidelines. Tim did a good job of explaining the battle and its context. It was good to see his conflict zone analysis in action again. A lot of ink/electrons have been spilt over the location of the battle but Tim makes is clear that there is no clear placename winner. He argues for Lancashire location-based on his conflict zone analysis. While I don’t know the details of all the arguments for locations, I do believe that placename possibilities can’t be the primary evidence. It has to make sense in the entire context of battle and the combatants. To me, the most surprising aspect of Brunanburgh is that it didn’t change anything! It was apparently a very costly battle for everyone, so therefore it had to be built up in heroic verse to satisfy the folks back home, but it maintained the political status quo. Within a just a few years, the combatants were at war again.

Over the rest of the tenth century, the Cumbrians remained active in whole island politics and regional skirmishes with resulting border shifts. Tim does a good job of finding sources that reconstruct the borders and properties of late Strathclyde. By this point, intermarriage must have become common. The names of northern princes often reflected neighboring naming traditions or languages, like Gospatrick of Bamburgh and Mael Coluim of Strathclyde. It is possible that these names had become so common in the region that they don’t necessarily reflect a foreign mother, but if they have become common among the common people, then that speaks to regional mingling. Tim argues strongly and convincingly that the rulers of Strathclyde retained their independence right up to their annexation into Alba under Mael Coluim (d. 1093). Thus, Strathclyde retained their independence through the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

I’m left in the end with two impressions. First, that adding the history of Strathclyde into the mix plugs some significant gaps in the history of period. The major kingdoms tend to dominate narratives of the pre-Norman period with the assumption that lesser kingdoms and rulers fell into line or were unimportant. This study argues strongly against this trend and reminds us how much later royal power is projected back onto earlier periods. Tim’s book adds to Caitlin Green’s recent book of the British kingdom Lindsey in illustrating how adding the history of the Britons adds much flesh to the bones of early medieval history. Now we need similar studies on the kingdoms of Elmet, Powys and Dumnonia at least. Second, I’m struck by how circumscribed and negotiated Anglo-Saxon power was. Hegemony is nice and all, but it has real limits.

Although the relationship between Strathclyde and the English is highlighted in the title, relations with Alba and the Vikings are as important. The beginning and ending of Strathclyde are both indirectly tied to the Norsemen. Then again the Norsemen seem to have altered the trajectory of most kingdoms in the Isles, if not all of northern Europe. Strathclyde’s relationship with Alba was more nuanced. Although they were not the proving ground for Scottish princes as has often been argued, they had a long history of alliance, conflict and intermarriage tying these kingdoms together. All things considered, annexation of most of the kingdom into Alba was the best outcome for Strathclyde even if they lost their southern territory to the English county of Cumberland.

Aldhelm on the Medicinal Uses of Beavers

Riddle 56

I am a dweller on the edge of steep stream banks, and not lazy at all, but warlike with the weapons of my mouth. I sustain my life with hard labour, laying low huge trees with my hooked axes. I dive into water, where the fish swim, and immerse by own head, wetting it in the watery surge. The wounds of sinews and limbs foul of gore I can cure. I destroy pestilence and the deadly plague. I eat the bitter and well-gnawed bark of trees.

Answer: the beaver.

Aldhelm, Enigma 56 ( trans. Nancy Porter Stork, 1990,  p. 170-171)

Reading Cameron’s Anglo-Saxon Medicine this afternoon, I came across his short discussion of Aldhelm’s riddles (Engima) having the earliest mention of Anglo-Saxon medical practices. Aldhelm  includes the medicinal use of the beaver (above) and also of the leech in this riddle on each.  Aldhelm’s riddles were part of a manuscript sent to his good friend, then king Aldfrith of Northumbria (r. 685-704), probably early in his reign.  Michael Lapidge has argued that Aldhelm was a relative of Cuthburgh, wife of Aldfrith and sister of King Ine of Wessex. She is mentioned in another of Aldhelm’s poems (On Virginity) as one of the nuns of Barking. In the letter linked to the text including the riddles, Aldhelm reminds King Aldfrith of their youthful training together and which would have had to have been in the early 660s. We know that Aldhelm later trained under Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus who arrived in Canterbury in 672.  Archbishop Theodore is credited by Bede with being well versed in the medicine, but none of his or Abbot Hadrian’s teachings or texts have survived. Having recently arrived from the Mediterranean where plague was common, it is possible that Theodore or his friend Hadrian the African brought plague treatments with them to their new post in England.

Beaver from the Medieval Bestiary, British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r.

Aesop’s Fables, Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville all mention that the testicles (actually inguinal glands) of beavers are used in medicines.The 13th century bestiary in Harley MS 4551 illustrates the story in Aesop’s Fables,  Isidore and Pliny that beavers will castrate themselves in order to escape hunters (shown to the left).  These glands were the source of an oil called castoreum.  However, at least Isidore does not say what the medicines are used to treat. Cameron notes that Aldhelm’s use of beaver as a component in a remedy is not found in any Anglo-Saxon medical text. I’ve consulted three translations and they all say that the beaver is used to treat plague (Latin text). It makes some sense from their point of view to include castoreum from the inguinal gland in a remedy for a bubo that is usually found in the inguinal or thigh region. If anyone knows of other plague remedies that use any beaver parts, please leave a comment!

Ironically if Aldhelm and Aldfrith were together as students on Iona in the mid-660s they may have been safe from the plague of 664 that Adomnan of Iona claims did not reach Iona. According to Bede, Aldfrith was on Iona when his brother died in May 685, keeping him safe from the plague of the mid 680s until he took the throne. (Adomnan claimed that neither plague epidemic that struck Britain in his time reached Iona, which he credited to St Columba’s protection.) On the other hand, Aldhelm would have been in Wessex during the plague in the mid 680s and if he sent the riddles to Aldfrith shortly after he came to the throne in 685/6, then the plague was still circulating in England at the time. From what is know of King Aldfrith, he was  high educated for a secular man at the time and enjoyed cosmology, and so animal lore is not far removed. Lapidge argues that Aldhelm read and studied Virgil on Iona. So it follows that Aldhelm would have known some of classical literature Aldfrith had learned. (Though it also has to be noted that Bede knew of Virgil’s works and had Pliny’s Natural History and he certainly didn’t study on Iona so these classical works may have been found in the better libraries in England.) Either way, Aldhelm may have included this clue in the riddle to make it harder to solve and allow Aldfrith to show his cleverness to his court.


The Medieval Bestiary: Beaver

M.L. Cameron. Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 7. Cambridge, 1993 (repr. 2006)

Lapidge, M. (2009). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England, 36, 15. doi:10.1017/S0263675107000026

 Nancy Porter Stork, trans. 1990 , Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm’s Riddles in the British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Onterio. (Latin text also found at this link)

Holmes on Animals in Saxon & Scandinavian England

Matilda Holmes, Animals in Saxon and Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society. Sidestone Press, 2014.

I didn’t plan on writing another book review this soon but I do have to share the news on this book – my find of the month. I discovered that this valuable book is available from the publisher in PDF form for only  € 4.50 ! Its also available in print for about $40 and somewhere in between for e-books from other vendors. The PDF works just fine on e-readers.

On to the review: This is the publication of Matilda Holmes PhD thesis on archaeozoology of early medieval England. Holmes cataloged and analyzed 315 archaeological reports or collections from 241 sites. Results are segregated into Early Saxon (450-650 AD), Middle Saxon (650-850 AD), Late Saxon (850-1066 AD), and Saxo-Norman. Not only does she catalog the regular domestic animals (cows, pigs, sheep/goats) but also horses, dogs, chickens and geese. It doesn’t stop there! She also does a variety of deer, hares, 38 species of wild birds, 27 taxa of freshwater and migratory fish, and 37 marine taxa of fish. The main domestic species- cattle, pigs, and sheep – have additional data on age and distribution of butchered parts. All of this data is listed by site and period. She then analyzes it for type of site to look at the economy and evolution of sites like wics and ecclesiastical sites. So if you want to know exactly what was found at Ælfric’s abbey at Eynsham it is here for domestics, game, fish and fowel. Same for site of Hartlepool for the entire period, and multiple collections for sites like York or Wroxter. Unfortunately the ongoing excavations from Lyminge are not included, and neither are the excavations from Bamburgh. I suppose these haven’t been published yet.

I haven’t had time to completely explore all the data tables. A few things jumped out though. Remember that story in Bede’s History that Bishop Wilfrid taught the people of Sussex to fish for something other than eels? Well, guess what, the only fish remains found at Bishopstone in Sussex in the Early Saxon period are eels (freshwater) and whiting (marine). Not an abundance of fish species. This of course doesn’t really say anything about the Wilfrid story other than that they really did fish for eels.  Overall, eels are very abundant at sites all over England. So were pigs in towns, as well as in rural areas. Its not surprising that there were significant differences between rural areas and wics or burghs, but former Roman towns also had distinctive profiles including the early period of Wroxter. There is so much data here it will take a while to digest.

This is an interesting book for practically any topic involving animals in early England. The data presented there is likely to be the foundation for many studies to come and the PDF is at a price that can’t be beat. I couldn’t help but think of the novelists who read here and how useful this would be for them. I hope you all check it out.

King Offa’s tomb

Coin of King Offa

Coin of King Offa

How does one leave a legacy? All leaders care about their legacy. Modern politicians seem preoccupied by both leaving a legacy and what it will be. Medieval kings did not count on historians to keep their legacy or even memory alive. Most early medieval kings are known only as a name in a list, a signatory on a charter, maybe found on a couple of coins if they are lucky. Merican King Offa is a classic case in point. Everything we know about him comes from outside references, coins, charters, and landmarks. These sources suggest a major, long-lived king, but we have no official narrative record of his reign from within England.

“Overall, Matthew’s writings about Offa indicate how, 450 years after his death, even people with the skill and desire to learn about him had little to go on. What St.Alban’s historian wrote about Offa’s tomb is revealing in this regard. Hearsay suggested Offa was buried in 796 in a chapel on the banks of the river Ouse near Bedford, north of St. Alban’s, but the river soon washed the chapel away. Summer time bathers in the Ouse told Matthew  [of Paris] that sometimes one could spy Offa’s sepulcher beneath the river’s clear waters; however, all attempts to retrieve it failed. Like the historical figure about whom Matthew wanted to know, Offa’s tomb was unreachable.” (Squatriti, 2004, p. 51)

 There is at least some basis for Offa’s burial near Bedford. King Offa’s wife Cynthryth became an Abbess at Cookham and has charge over a church at Bedford where her husband was buried. However, was he buried in a church or in a chapel so close to the river that it eventually wound up submerged so deeply that no could get close to it? Or could it be a Roman mausoleum? And why were they trying to reach it? Had St Alban’s or locals really tried to “retrieve it”, or just to confirm that it is Offa? We are left with even more questions that Matthew of Paris.


Squatriti, Paolo. “Offa’s Dyke Between Nature and Culture.” Environmental History, 2004, 37–56.

Btw, this is my 400th post on Heavenfield!

Glasses on Guthlac’s Monks?

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6  'the Guthlac roll'

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6; ‘the Guthlac roll’

I was looking at the Guthlac roll in the British Library online and I noticed something rather odd. Have you noticed it? The two outer figures are wearing glasses! According to the British Library page for the roll, its dates to c. 1175-1225 and is believed to be prototypes for stained glass windows. This seems a bit early for glasses. The guy on the right has particularly modern looking specs. Come to think of it, the one on the left in addition to the glasses has a rather flamboyant feather in his hat. What do you all think? Are these objects c. 12th century or has someone added these to the roll?

St Oswald and the Sussex Plague

Modified from the vault for St Oswald’s Day:

Happy St. Oswald’s Day!

It has been a while since I wrote but I can’t miss the feast of St. Oswald.

What little time I have had for medieval topics this summer has been focused on the plague, so this brings to mind the unique place King Oswald has in Anglo-Saxon plague history.

oswaldPlague isn’t recorded in Anglo-Saxon England during Oswald’s lifetime. Oswald’s legacy surely was in the thoughts of his countrymen in 664 when the plague is first recorded, but his role as founder of the Irish church of Lindisfarne would have made him a rather controversial topic in 664. Remembrances of St Oswald were also just beginning in 664. Although I think that his hand had probably been translated into a shrine in the church of Bamburgh by this time, other sites associated with his veneration (like Heavenfield and Bardney) still didn’t have official recognition or had not yet been established.

By the time the second major wave of plague circulated around Britain in the 680s much had changed. Although there are no plague associated miracles at Bardney, this is about the time it was established and he was credited with healing miracles there. Likewise, the site of Heavenfield was probably contained within the monastic grounds of Hexham by then under the rule of Bishop Wilfrid of York.

It was at one of Wilfrid’s monasteries in Sussex that St Oswald was said to have interceded on behalf of the monastery to stop a plague. As far as I can recall, this is the only plague intercession in Bede’s History. [As a matter of fact, I can only think of two plague intercessions in 7-8th century Britain — this one by Oswald and Adomnan’s credit of his preservation from the plague while visiting Northumbria to Columba.]  It is significant that Bede notes that it was from this point that Oswald came to be widely celebrated throughout southern England. This may indicate that he was, at least for a while, seen as an intercessor for the plague in a time of plague.  The vision of Sts. Peter and Paul telling the child that the monastery was being spared further plague by the intercession of St. Oswald for his people on the day of his own death (August 5), the day of the vision, is surely unique. It also satisfies the Wilfridian circle’s need for a Romanist vision vouched for by two primary Romanist saints.

We can be skeptical that this miracle occurred in one of Wilfrid’s monasteries, given that Wilfrid also controlled Heavenfield, but Wilfrid is unlikely to have really embraced the idea of a royal intercessor, given his own troubles with kings and that royal power was in conflict with episcopal power. I’ve discussed Acca’s role in developing Oswald’s veneration before, but it is possible that this miracle, a late insertion into Bede’s History, really was considered a major event in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede surely didn’t have to make such a late insertion. Its unlikely that this is the type of material that King Ceolwulf would have demanded.

In much later medieval times, Oswald was considered a plague intercessor in Italy. People would make long pilgrimages into the Alps to visit his shrine there seeking his intercession for their illnesses, so this was a theme of Oswald’s medieval cult.

What ever you think about such miracles, today is a day to recall St Oswald and ponder on the cultural role of Anglo-Saxon kings.