St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

I’m experimenting with methods of putting up presentations. This one is put up through slideshare. Its conversion function doesn’t seem to have liked all of my text as you can see from the title page. This is the presentation I gave at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2010. If you open up the presentation on full screen mode in the corner it will open in a new window so you can have it side by side with the text. Let me know what you think of this format for the presentation and comments are welcome on the presentation itself too!

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

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(slide 1) St Æthelthryth is both one of the earliest and most prominent Anglo-Saxon saints. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, born to first generation Christians. She was married at a very young age to a minor local ruler, Tondbert of the South Gywre, probably in exchange for the fenland people’s military support against Penda of Merica. Tondbert gave her the Isle of Ely as part of her wedding present and dies shortly afterwards with the marriage unconsummated. She retreats to her island hermitage at Ely but doesn’t remain there long. Within a few years her father has died and her uncle King Æthelhere forces her to marry Ecgfrith, the son of King Oswiu of Bernicia who is several years her junior. After 12 years of marriage and Ecgfrith’s eventual succession to the throne of Northumbria, Æthelthryth with the help of Bishop Wilfrid of York persuades Ecgfrith to allow her to leave their unconsummated marriage and enter his aunt’s convent at Coldingham. After a year of training, she leaves Coldingham to establish her own convent at Ely where she is abbess for seven years before dying of the plague. At her translation 16 years later she was found to be incorrupt and this was taken as proof of her perpetual virginity, a claim that Bede quizzed Bishop Wilfrid on to his satisfaction.

Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary have been linked together since virtually  the beginning of recorded memory of Æthelthryth. For the first century or so, the linkage wasn’t part of her narrative history but that would eventually change. In the beginning, the links between Æthelthryth and Mary were confined to Bede’s hymn on Æthelthryth included within his Ecclesiastical History. Bede makes no suggestion that Æthelthryth herself had a special devotion to Mary and his narrative does not make the link. Neither do the other two early prose references to Æthelthryth, Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid and the 9th century Old English Martyrology, a narrative martyrology probably compiled in Mercia.  Bede, Stephan of Ripon, and author of the Martyrology all stress Æthelthryth’s purity and virginity, but none of them directly or indirectly compare her to the Virgin Mary in their narrative.

(slide 2) Bede adds his hymn on virginity in honor of Æthelthryth, he says in imitation of sacred history. Given that the most important canticle in sacred history is the Magnificant sung by Mary, it is perhaps no coincidence that Bede’s song focuses on Mary nearly as much as Æthelthryth. It is easy for us to overlook how Marian this hymn is in part because all modern translators omit Mary’s name, even though Bede certainly names her in the F couplet.  Where Colgrave and Mynors oddly translate “God’s wicket gate”, Bede specifically said, porta Maria Dei, Mary God’s gate. Mary is the leader of heaven’s Choir of Virgins and Bede places Æthelthryth her among an illustrious list of virgin martyrs. As Virginia Blanton notes in her book Signs of Devotion, Æthelthryth’s inclusion among the illustrious martyrs of the past shows such sanctity is available in their own times but Bede isn’t satisfied with mere inclusion in the choir. In the R stanza Bede moves beyond including Æthelthryth in the Choir of Virgins by suggesting that Æthelthryth may be a mother of Christ as well.

“Royal Mother of Heaven’s King your leader now; You too, maybe a mother of Heaven’s King.”

Unlike the Virgin martyrs Æthelthryth is a mother of part of the body of Christ. In his narrative of her life, Bede specifically calls her “the virgin mother of many virgins”.

A further allusion that can only be explained by Bede’s equation of Æthelthryth with the Virgin Mary occurs in the Z couplet.

“Zeal frenzied tears the foe that conquered Eve; Truimphs the saint, zeal frenzied tears of the foe”

Colgrave and Mynors substitute the word “Saint” for the less specific “virgo” used by Bede, which makes that assumption that Bede is referring to Æthelthryth rather than Mary. Bede knew that Mary was routinely considered to be the redeemer of Eve. Yet here again he is being intentionally vague as this couplet is in the context of a discussion of Æthelthryth. Bede ends this hymn by portraying Æthelthryth as a bride of Christ represented as the lamb.

Through all of these comparisons Bede has shown Æthelthryth to be another Mary – she is a perpetual virgin, a leader of other virgins and a mother of the body of Christ, the redeemer of Eve, a queen in heaven as she had been on earth and last but not least the bride of the lamb.

This hymn adds no new information on Æthelthryth’s life; its purpose is to show that Æthelthryth not only belongs in the heavenly virginal choir, but also that she compares well with the Virgin Mother herself.  She is another Mary for Bede’s age.

There is reason to believe that this hymn circulated separate from History as part of Bede’s book of hymns. It survives in Cologne MS. 106, a manuscript indirectly associated with Alcuin that includes Bede’s breviate psalter and 12 of Bede’s hymns including the hymn to Aethelthryth. How widely Bede’s Book of Hymns circulated is unknown as it does not survive intact. When found in isolation it is impossible to tell whether the hymn came from the Book of Hymns or the History. Nevertheless, Bede’s History was the primary source for Æthelthryth’s story until the completion of the Liber Eliensis in the 12th century.

The linkage between Æthelthryth and Mary appears only once between Bede’s History and the 12th century Liber Eliensis, that is in the Benedictional of Æthelwold. (slide 3) Bishop Æthelwold was responsible for refounding Ely as an all male Benedictine monastery where he put his reform agenda that stressed monastic virginity into action. Æthelthryth is one of only two native saints featured in full portraits in his Benedictional, here coupled with a portait of Christ and is inserted at the benediction for her feast day. It is the most elaborate portrait in the book. Blanton notes that this arrangement is symbolic of Æthelthryth’s marriage to Christ.  She also notes that the Æthelthryth’s lily is symbolic of her virginity and, with the mirrored frame, is arranged in such as way to reflect Christ’s benediction in the opposing page.

(slide 4) Æthelthryth is also portrayed as a leader among the choir of virgins. An inscription written on the books the figures hold indentifies Æthelthryth as the haloed figure on the left in red, with her dress matching her full portrait completely. The central haloed figure has been a subject of controversy. The inscription identifies her as a Mary but the second word in unreadable. Authorities have been split on whether this figure represents the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, with most siding for Mary Magdalene. I believe that if we consider the decoration of the rest of the benedictional, rather than trying to reconstruct the badly damaged inscription, then this figure must be the Virgin Mary.

(slide 5) When we look at the other depictions of the Virgin Mary most of them are decorated as in this illutstration of the annunciation. The rose dress with a flower pattern matches the leader of the choir of virgins exactly. In all illustrations of the Virgin Mary, she is given a gold halo or nimbus, gold veil, cuffs and sometimes an undertunic. This illustration of the assumption is the only illustration of the Virgin Mary who is not dressed in a rose tunic, but even here she is adorned with a gold halo, veil and trim.

(slide 6) In contrast, in the only illustration of Mary Magdalene in the Benedictional she is not distinguished from the other two women at the tomb. None of the women have a halo or wear any gold on their apparel. Only their instruments are gold. Further, the book lacks a benediction for the feast day of Mary Magdalene. If the leader of the choir of virgins is Mary Magdalene then we have to explain why she is not mentioned in the text and illustrated so differently at the empty tomb.

(slide 7) Returning to the choir of virgins, I believe this illustration must represent the choir of Virgins led by the Virgin Mary and Æthelthryth, as suggested in Bede’s poem. This also matches the overall theme of Bishop Aethelwold’s reforms that highly valued virginity and lifted up the Virgin Mary and Aethelthryth as role models. By this time, Mary Magdalene was well established, following Gregory the Great, as the sinful woman and therefore ill suited for Bishop Aethelwold’s agenda.

(slide 8) We have to jump two centuries from the 10th century Benedictional of Aethelwold to the 12th century Liber Eliensis before we get another glimpse of the evolution of Æthelthryth’s veneration.  In the Liber Eliensis Æthelthryth’s story and the related comparisons to the Virgin Mary reach their textual peak. The author of the Liber Eliensis, completed around 1170, uses Bede’s History and Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid to develop a much more complete story for Æthelthryth that embellishes the roles of Bishop Wilfrid, Abbess Æbbe, and St. Owine in addition to Abbess Æthelthryth.  Bede’s hymn is replicated exactly. Comparisons between Mary and Æthelthryth become more direct. The Liber Eliensis uses Mary and Joseph’s chaste marriage as president for Æthelthryth’s unconsummated marriages.

The Liber Eliensis also tells two new tales that will feature in iconography within the Cathedral of Ely. Cathedral construction began in the late 11th century with the Lady Chapel being constructed between 1321 and 1352. In the first new story, Æthelthryth miraculously escapes from Ecgfrith’s attempts to remove her from Coldingham and flies to Ely. While en route at a stopping place she plants her staff into the ground while her party rests, it takes root and grows into a strong ash tree. Ann Stanton describes how these miracles are depicted in iconographic panels within the Cathedral of Ely, at the crossing in her paper “The Virigin, the Queen and the Cathedral”. These panels date to the 14th century when the Lady Chapel was being constructed. Within the Lady Chapel itself iconographic panels stress Mary’s journey to Bethleham. The second story is of a Dane who tries to violate Æthelthryth’s tomb only to be struck blind, literally to have his eyes ripped out. This story explained a hole in the saracophagus from the era of the Danish destruction of the monastery and at the same time discouraged anyone from trying to use the hole to see her corpse within. According to Stanton this story is not depicted in the surviving relief panels of the Cathedral but the corresponding Marian story of a Jew attempting to overturn Mary’s tomb only be caught with his hand stuck in the tomb is depicted in the Lady Chapel. Other relief panels in the Lady Chapel reflect the commonalities in the lives of Mary and Æthelthryth.

(slide 9) The Liber Eliensis makes one additional Marian claim for the first time. It claims that

““there had not yet been any church on the island [of Ely] other than the one founded by blessed Augustine, the apostle of the English, but that was demolished right down to ground level by army of the unbelieving King Penda. This church Æthelthryth, lover of God, labored with all her might to renew and rebuild after its prolonged desolation. And as soon as it was rebuilt, dedicated as of old, in honour of Mary, the holy Mother of God, it became a shining light, through innumerable signs and miracles, as God carried out His work every day.” (LE i.15, p. 43)”

This is the first claim that the church of Ely was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Yet, it is extremely unlikely that Augustine ventured up into the fenlands to found a church dedicated to Mary. I believe that this is a fictional claim that expresses loyalty to the Archbishops of Canterbury while trying to make a claim of antiquity. If this claim were true then it would likely be the oldest English church dedicated to Mary. However there is no reason to believe that the dedication to Mary is any older than the refoundation of the house under Bishop Æthelwold.

Balancing the special relationship between Mary and Æthelthryth, the structure of Ely Cathedral is unique in England. Typically, the Eastern trancept is the where the Lady Chapel is found in English cathedrals. Yet, here this is the site of Æthelthryth’s shrine and chapel (L and N) on the diagram. Æthelthryth’s shrine was located where N is on the diagram, and it is marked on the floor today. This leaves the main body of the cathedral without a Lady Chapel. To compensate for Our Lady not having a special place in the cathedral, they built the largest and most elaborate Lady Chapel in England just outside the main plan (J). How do we account for such an elaborate Lady Chapel?

(slide 10) After the time of Bishop Aethelwold, Ely’s position on the trail from London to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham must have amplified interest in Mary. Although not mentioned in the Liber Eliensis, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was founded in the 11th century, significantly before the writing of the Liber Eliensis. The omission of Walsingham from the Liber Eliensis or the 12th century French Life of Audree by Marie de France,  may be due to some sense of competition. Yet, the Life of Audree in particular gives the feeling that Ely was a pilgrimage destination. Its unclear how often Ely was a final destination or whether it was a feature on the Walsingham trail.  By the Reformation, Walsingham was the primary Marian shrine in all of England and Ely benefited by being on the trail from London to Walsingham. It is also clear that East Anglia was a major region of Marian devotion with several other shrines in the area including Our Lady of Ipswich. This leaves me to wonder if perhaps the popularity of Æthelthryth and her Marian connections may have fostered the growth of Marian shrines in East Anglia.

At the Reformation the Lady chapels and shrines at Walsingham and Ely were especially targeted for destruction by the reformers. The shrine of Æthelthryth was completely destroyed and the Cathedral of Ely was defaced.

(slide 11) Throughout the 20th century, Æthelthryth slowly began to retake her former position at Ely. The processional banner shown here was made in 1910 and has been used for processions ever since. Among the Millennial restorations made to the cathedral in 2000 was a new covered processional way linking Æthelthryth’s chapel with the Lady Chapel (I on the diagram). Since the third great renovation of the cathedral began in 1986 Æthelthryth’s presence has been steadily growing at the Cathedral. Within the last decade, St Etheldreda’s fair has been re-established as a major community event. A new Order of St Etheldreda was founded in 1992 under the patronage of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to provide for the cathedral and in 2004 they published a new complete liturgy including processions and new hymns for her feast and the feast of her translation. This new liturgy is available on the Cathedral website.

(slide 12) Two more communities have been founded more recently, including a Benedictine inspired Ely-based Community of St Etheldreda established in 2005 that continues to use the Lady chapel for monthly services (shown here). As the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has been restored and is regaining its popularity over the last decade, a new St Etheldreda Cell of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham has also formed at Ely.

To celebrate the completion of the third great restoration of the cathedral in 2000, three sculptures were commissioned for the cathedral including a new sculpture for the Lady chapel. (slide 13) This controversial new sculpture represents the moment of the annunciation. What strikes me the most about this statue is not its modernity, but its startling golden hair and dress that resembles a Saxon princess so much more than an Middle-Eastern teenager.


The Mortality of Children, Ireland 683-685

683 The beginning of the children’s plague in the month of October (AT, AU, AI), which lasted for three years in Ireland. (FAI); A plague was in Ireland (AC)

684: The plague of youths, in which all the chieftains and nearly all the young Irish noblemen perished. (FAI); The mortality of little ones (AT) / children (AU). Loch nEchach was turned into blood this year. (AU)

AU= Annals of Ulster; AT = Annals of Tigernach, FAI= Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, AC = Annals Cambriae

When I first found the annal entries above, I was intrigued. These brief annal entries rarely give clues to the type of disease, and almost never refer to children at all. Before we dig into these entries a little deeper, lets look at why some diseases at times occur primarily in children.

What makes a ‘childhood disease’? This simplest answer is that it is disease that the adults are immune to due to previous exposure. There is nothing special about these organisms that targets them to children or makes children uniquely vulnerable to them. The one thing they have in common is that these organisms are so abundant in the environment that few children get through childhood without being exposed.

Which pathogens cause ‘childhood diseases’ change over time depending on the available organisms and the immunity of the collective community (herd immunity). When I was a child, chickenpox was the most common childhood disease that most of my classmates all contracted. When my parents were children, measles and mumps were the common dangers of childhood. For my grandparents generation the most feared childhood disease may have been polio, whooping-cough and diphtheria/croup.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death", bef. 1538

The nature of childhood diseases has changed rapidly over the 20th century solely because vaccines have immunized children before exposure. Today it’s not uncommon for my college students to have never seen a case of chickenpox. Nevertheless, the organisms are still very present in our environment as the climbing rate of measles in the last few years illustrates.

When looking at medieval populations, the same factors come to play but in different expressions. Not  all pathogens that we are familiar with today existed in the seventh century. For example, measles is predicted to have evolved around the twelfth century. Other diseases did not yet have a global (or Old World) spread. Conversely diseases like the plague that are infrequent today were much more common in the early medieval period. Vaccines obviously did not exist to provide safe immunity. Previous epidemics were the only way for a community to develop herd immunity.

Returning to the seventh century, the context of these entries can suggest the nature of this ‘mortality of children.’ Three years earlier in 680 the Annals of Ulster records a “most severe leprosy in Ireland called bolgach (smallpox)”. If smallpox had been a major epidemic just a couple of years before there wouldn’t be the kind of differential in immunity between adults and children needed for a children’s epidemic, so we can rule out smallpox. There are records of other adult deaths due to ‘pestilence’ around this time in Britain and in 685 the deaths of two elites by disease are recorded in the Annals of Ulster. Bede also writes about plague in Northumbria before and after 685 in the Life of Cuthbert. The British sources, including Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, indicate widespread disease and depopulation that doesn’t single out children as the victims. With that being said, the one detailed example Bede gives of the plague of c. 685 is of Bishop Cuthbert comforting a mother who had already lost one young son to the plague and was holding another dying son whom Cuthbert blessed and survived. William MacArthur (1949) also concluded that these entries refer to a wave of bubonic plague based on their context. He also compared these entries to similar records of child deaths in the second wave of plague that followed the Black Death in England, 1361.

The later Fragmentary Annals of Ireland suggests that the mortality of children doesn’t necessarily refer only to actual children. The epidemic when “all the chieftains and nearly all the young Irish noblemen perished” suggests a succession crisis more than indicating the age of the victims. The Irish practiced a form of succession where a couple of generations of descendents of a previous king were eligible to succeed. It was not uncommon for cousins to succeed each other and sons were not necessarily favored to succeed. This method would normally weather epidemics, famines, or constant petty warfare well because there were so many eligible successors. If this is the bubonic plague as the context suggests then this would be the second major wave of plague within twenty years, and therefore, two successive generations were severely depopulated causing rare succession crises.

This does tell us something about the severity of both the plague of 664 and 683 in Ireland. Enough adults in the 680s must have been survivors of a bubonic plague infection in the 660s to be immune. This would tilt the incidence of the disease toward youth up to 20 years old. A loss of teenagers would have depleted any major kingdom of a majority of its young nobles and a considerable proportion of its young warriors. Then as traditionally now, most warriors would have been 15-25 years old. It is quite possible that there may not have been many young nobles in their early twenties because they would have been vulnerable infants during the plague of the 660s.

There isn’t much evidence of plague-related succession crises in Britain. Although, it is possible that we just don’t have reference to the deaths of secondary heirs or really any children. Northumbria’s succession crisis upon Ecgfrith’s death in 685 is usually considered to be more political secondary to his potential infertility and the early death of his younger brother. Yet there does appear to be a lack of other eligible Æthelfrithings which could be due to the plagues. We are usually all too ready to accept that other Æthelfrithings died in battle or due to political intrigue.  Even if Ecgfrith had a son, it unlikely he would have been old enough to successfully succeed in 685. The Annals Cambriae also credits the death of King Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd to this plague. Succession of the major British kingdoms in Wales seem fairly unstable at this time as well, but we don’t have enough information about them to understand why. So, while there isn’t evidence of plague-related royal instability it is a possibility.

One further thing to explore in these entries is the claim that the water in Ireland and Britain turned red that year. In entry 684 above “Loch nEchach was turned into blood this year (AU).” Loch nEchach is the largest freshwater lake in Ireland, sometimes called the ‘eye of Ireland’. Likewise in Britain there are  claims that “rain turned to blood in Britain, and ‡in Ireland‡ milk and butter turned to blood (AC, 689)”. In 685 there are also widespread records of an earthquake, probably in the Irish sea. Given the way these early annals are constructed and differences between them, it is unclear that these environmental events were securely after the beginning of the plague or what they mean by water turning to blood over such a large area. None of this suggests that the epidemic was anything other than the plague. Environmental disruption could also trigger a plague outbreak from rodent hosts within the islands.


Colgrave,Bertram. (1940, 2007 repr.) Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Cambridge University Press.

MacArthur, William P. (1949) The identification of some pestilences recorded in the Irish annals. Irish Historical Studies, 6 (23), 169-188.

AU= Annals of Ulster; AT = Annals of Tigernach, FAI= Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, AC = Annals Cambriae

Plague in a time of war

One of the oddities of the plague in Britain and Ireland is the absence of any visible impact on political history. The few kings who died of plague were apparently replaced peacefully from within their kingdom, if not their dynasty. The effects of the plague on the church, particularly in the loss of bishops, may suggest that the effects of the plague on political history have not been appreciated enough, though the infrastructure of the early medieval kingdoms was significantly stronger than the fledgling church in Britain. While churchmen were mourned in Ireland, it doesn’t seem to have caused a crisis.

The Northumbrian plague of c.684-688 gives us an opportunity to look at the effect of a specific wave on plague on politics and particularly warfare. We don’t know exactly when this round of plague began in Northumbria. We know that it began at least a year before Cuthbert became bishop, so at least 683-684.  So this means that the plague was present in the kingdom, indeed at Lindisfarne, when King Ecgfrith sent ealdorman Berht with an “army” to Ireland to wreck devastation and perhaps more importantly take many hostages. We know that they attacked several churches and monasteries and took clerical hostages. We can probably assume that they took secular hostages as well. These hostages, perhaps including secular exiles, living in the monasteries were probably Ecgfrith’s real goal. Regardless of King Ecgfrith’s motivation, the plague did not stop him from sending an army far from home. Indeed, this is the only known English war band to be sent on a campaign by sea to Ireland or anywhere else in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

This attack on Ireland was roundly condemned by churchmen including within Northumbria. King Ecgfrith had apparently been in contact with the wandering English bishop Egbert who urged him not to attack Ireland. Egbert was either living in Ireland or Pictland at the time, so King Ecgfrith’s Irish campaign was discussed long distance for some time before it was undertaken. Given that the Northumbrians were not known for having a navy it would have taken some time to build the ships necessary to take the warband there. This raid was no impulse by a rash king. Perhaps the planning that went into the raid made it more likely that it would proceed even during the plague.

The Pictish rebellion just a year after the successful raid on Ireland doesn’t seem very wise. King Ecgfrith had brutally put down the previous Pictish rebellion about a decade earlier. After such a display of power in Ireland, why would King Bridei ap Beli have thought now was a good time to rebel? Although Berht brought back over 20 hostages, they still may have lost many of their warriors in Ireland, potentially weakening their army. They could have lost more warriors to the sea or battle injuries. Perhaps after such a victory Ecgfrith’s tribute demands went up so high that Bridei couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. The plague, of course, is another factor. If the plague wasn’t in the north, as Adomnan implies, then perhaps Bridei thought that Northumbria had been weakened enough by the plague that he could not field a typical Northumbrian army. I don’t think the plague has been considered before as a factor in the Pictish rebellion or in Ecgfrith’s unexpected defeat before.

King Bridei did have a plan. He had been waging war on his other borders for several years, racking up victory after victory. Presumably his warband was at its peak in size and experience. Even so he planned an ambush for Ecgfrith’s war band that was a critical part of his success.  It is believed that the campaign is memorialized on the stone to the right with ravens picking on Ecgfrith in the lower right corner.

We will never really know what effect the plague had on events in 684-685. It didn’t stop King Ecgfrith from launching two major campaigns. If the plague did weaken Ecgfrith’s forces or give Bridei the belief that this time he could win, then it played a significant role in the unexpected death of Ecgfrith. In turn, the death of Ecgfrith in battle was one of the most significant events in the history of the Northumbrian kingdom. It was from that point that Bede marked the deminishing of Northumbrian power.

In an era when warfare is so frequent and local, it is difficult to to discern the role the plague may have played. It is likely that plague weakened regions were more vulnerable to attack, if the attacker would venture into a plague stricken area. Of course, it takes more than a few years for the population to recover a plague. The plague would also lower a regions ability to produce crops as workers are lost and crops go unharvested. It may have played a role in the smaller independent regions ultimately being incorporated into the larger kingdoms. They would be unable to resist incorporation and would have wanted the protection. It may not be a coincidence that many of the smaller independent regions listed in the tribal hinge disappear shortly after the plague of 664.

Primary Sources:

Bede, Life of Cuthbert

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Iurminburgh’s Warning

Still working on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert —  I’ve been thinking about  Cuthbert’s prediction on Ecgfrith’s last campaign, and I find myself wondering about his warning to Queen Iurminburgh.

“But he immediately said to the queen, and secretly addressing her, it being Saturday, said: “See that you mount your chariot early on Monday — for it is not lawful to travel by chariot on the Lord’s Day — and go and enter the royal city quickly, lest perchance the king has been slain. But since I have been asked to go to-morrow to a neighboring monastery to dedicate a church there, I will follow you at once, as soon as the dedication is complete.” (Colgrave, p. 245)

First, according to the medieval calendar calculator May 20, 685, was indeed on a Saturday. This law about not traveling by chariot on a Sunday seems odd. Apparently Cuthbert could travel on foot or by horseback to the neighboring monastery, but they couldn’t use a “chariot”? Interesting. Also, where is she going by chariot? Which royal city? Its hard for me to imagine that Bamburgh was very approachable by chariot from Carlisle. I think Bamburgh was most approachable by sea, or by horseback. I suppose there were some trackways for carts or chariots but not like the old Roman roads south of the wall. Could Ecgfrith’s “royal city” be York? On the other hand, Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne, not York. If he is following her then it would be to Bamburgh rather than York. This in turn re-enforces the continuing importance of the Bishop of Lindisfarne in royal politics. Given Ecgfrith’s role in elevating Cuthbert to the epsicopacy, it is also possible that he was personally invested in the welfare of Ecgfrith’s family. He may have had a specific role in protecting the queen and mediating the transfer of power (which may have implications for his retirement to Farne within of year of the transfer).

Perhaps more importantly, Bede isn’t claiming that Cuthbert knew that the king was dead. He is sending the queen, Iurminburgh, to the royal city in case the king has been slain. Is he sending her to safety or into danger? She will later take the veil at Carlisle, so presumably entering her sister’s monastery. Presumably she would have been as safe, if not safer, in the monastery as in the royal city. If they did have minor children or wards of the king, then she may be fleeing back to protect the children. On the other hand, a contemporary queen of Wessex, Saexburgh wife of Cenwealh, ruled from c. 673-674 after Cenwealh’s death until she was succeeded by Æscwine. Interestingly only a few years later in 678,  Æscwine of Wessex’s queen was the sister of Iurminburgh, whose name is unfortunately unknown, who with Iurminburgh made it difficult for Bishop Wilfrid to find refuge during his exile. So we know that Iurminburgh like her mother-in-law Eanflaed and her sister in Wessex was politically active. It is possible that Iurminburgh, perhaps with the counsel of Bishop Cuthbert, ruled during the transition between Ecgfrith and his half-brother Aldfrith who was on Iona when Ecgfrith was slain. That possibility is an interesting glimpse into the authority of a seventh century queen.

Reference: Bertram Colgrave, trans. (1940, rep. 2007) Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Oxford University Press.

Benedict Biscop

I’ve gained a new appreciation for Benedict Biscop this week after rereading the History of the Abbots and the Life of Ceolfrith, along with Ian Woods’ contribution to the new Cambridge Companion to Bede. What follows is a little musing on Biscop and questions his life open up.

I used to think of Biscop as a restless retired warrior who spent his time seeking ecclesiastical treasures. The History of the Abbots reminded me first that Biscop was not an old or retired warrior but in his mid-twenties when he left the king’s service to explore the church. When King Oswiu made him a thane and gave him land it was recognition that it was time for him to begin the life of an active adult male. His warrior days were not expected to be over. In any major campaign the thegns would be expected to participate along with what ever men they could bring. The kings retinue that Biscop would have left were mostly teenagers in various levels of training and responsibility. Biscop was a young man in his prime when he began his first trip to Rome.

Biscop’s contacts

He must have been a very charismatic person. Just think about all the contacts he made across England and the continent. Setting out on his first trip with young Wilfrid (future bishop of York) he knew well enough not to get bogged down in Lyon with Wilfrid. After his visit to Rome he made his way to Lérins, one of the most influential monasteries of the late antique world, where he stayed for two years, learned their rule and was tonsured. We all probably way underestimate the influence of Lérins on Biscop and ultimately Bede. It was probably at Lérins that he took the name Benedict. He must have been good with languages, speaking at least fluent Latin and probably learned Frankish. He must have known Latin before he left Britain, or he couldn’t have been Theodore of Tarsus’ translator, much less navigated his way to Rome or had a meaningful stay at Lérins.

Thinking of Theodore, Biscop just happened to be handy to the Pope in Rome for an assignment to escort Theodore to Britain. While Biscop may have sought out the English group in Rome when the grapevine brought him news of their arrival, it is still significant that he was chosen to be Theodore’s escort rather than a survivor of Wighard’s party. Theodore liked and trusted Biscop enough to make him Abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury for his first two years, until Hadrian arrived from Gaul. When Biscop then returned to Northumbria (after a detour to Wessex), he told King Ecgfrith of his travels and his close relationship with the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Ecgfrith then gave him 70 hides of land, a large grant, at Wearmouth. We shouldn’t underestimate Biscop’s connections with Canterbury through Archbishop Theodore and the monks at St Peter’s whom Biscop worked with for two years. Biscop’s dedication of his new monastery to St Peter may not only be due to his dedication to Rome, but also because he had just ended his tenure as abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury. We need to see Bede’s connections to Canturbury and admiration for Theodore through the lens of Biscop and his personal connections.

Biscop’s secular contacts were impressive too. It is well-known that Biscop received land from two Bernician kings, more on that below. He  had a close relationship with King Alchfrid of Deira who wanted to accompany Biscop to Rome but was stopped by his father. (This is the same trip that Wilfrid did accompany Biscop on.) Like Wilfrid, he also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex, but apparently not with his successor. He only goes home to Bernicia/Northumbria because King Cenwealh has died.

What are the underlying connections? An obvious connection between Northumbria/Deira and Wessex is King Oswald’s widow, who was the sister of Cenwealh. Both Biscop and Wilfrid were too young to be associated with King Oswald, but his widow and children may have continued on in Northumbria, possibly Deira specifically, even under Oswald’s cousin King Oswine.  (I remember reading somewhere that Oswine may have been sheltered in Wessex during Oswald’s reign.) If Oswald had his main seat at York, where he completed the cathedral, then his widow and sons may have continued to live in York. Given that Oswald himself was the son of Acha of Deira, sister of Edwin, he may have spent his childhood more in York than Bamburgh. The continued presence of Oswald’s widow and children in Deira could explain how Bishop Aidan was welcomed so warmly by Oswine (but that is another topic). If Oswine was given refuge from Oswald in Wessex, then he could hardly have retaliated against Oswald’s sons because they were also the grandsons of King Cynegisl and nephews of King Cenwealh of Wessex. This could explain how Oswald’s son Oethelwald, nephew to both King Oswiu of Bernicia and possibly king Cenwealh of Wessex, became king of Deira. If he did not have an adult heir, King Oswine could have made King Cenwealh of Wessex’s sister’s son  Oethelwald son of Oswald his heir in Deira. After Oethelwald’s death/disappearance, his successor Oswiu’s son Alchfrith also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex specifically on ecclesiastical issues.

The relationship between Deira and Wessex was longstanding. It seems likely that King Edwin of Deira, Oswald’s maternal uncle, was instrumental in Cynegisl becoming the sole (or primary) king of Wessex after Edwin drove out previous kings in c. 625. King Oswald’s role in standing as godfather to Cenwealh’s father Cynegisl and confirming the land grant to Bishop Birinus, Apostle to Wessex, could have provided a way in for Wessex to play a role in bringing first Deira and then all of Northumbria into the sphere of Rome. Recall that Birinus’ mission was part of the Roman church but sponsored from Gaul, initially independent from Canterbury. As part of the Roman church, Bishop Birinus accepted the authority of Canterbury, although Gaulish influence is strongly felt for another two generations. Birinus’ successor, the Frankish bishop Agilbert was very influential on Wilfrid.

Biscop was part of the relationship between Deira/Northumbria and Wessex not only in his early travels. As the familial relationship between the house of Cyngisl and Edwin eventually faded they were renewed by another royal marriage, between King Aldfrith and the sister of King Ine of Wessex, a probable cousin of Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Significantly, not only were Aldfrith and Aldhelm friends, but this marriage likely occurred during a time when Biscop was an adviser to King Aldfrith.

Biscop’s land

Benedict Biscop (Source: Wikipedia commons)

In his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Bede, Ian Wood demonstrates that the land ownership for Wearmouth and Jarrow are not as simple as Bede or the Anon. Life of Ceolfrith claim. Like much hagiography on founders, there is reason to believe that Bede wrote the History of the Abbots to establish land claims, even though he didn’t list specific pieces of property. I want to come back to this in another post someday but just to point out one of the discrepancies:  in the History of the Abbots, Bede writes that King Oswiu gives Biscop land due a thane, but he never says that land is at Wearmouth or part of the monastery’s holdings. Bede writes in the introduction and later in the work that Wearmouth was given to Biscop from his own (Ecgfrith’s) royal land. So we have to consider the claims of Biscop’s blood family to his lands and the monastery’s desires to keep as much land as possible. Did Biscop’s brother have a claim to his thane land, or did that thane land intended to be familial land give him a claim to more of Biscop’s property? The land ownership discrepancies are food for further thought.

Biscop as founder

I suppose I also have a renewed appreciation for Biscop as an ideal monastic founder, perhaps in no small part to Bede’s skills. Biscop did the two things that a founder must do: provided their rule with careful consideration from the best of what he learned in his many travels, and provided a physical space with all the supplies in enviable quantities. His many connections outside of Northumbria also established ecclesiastical ties that the monastery could build upon over the next two generations. Without Biscop there would not have been a scholar of Bede’s quality in Britain because Bede’s skills were only honed with the library Biscop built.

So this is what I have been pondering this week. I hope to be able to blog on a more regular basis this fall on a variety of topics.


The History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow and the Anonymous History of Ceolfrith. in  The Age of Bede, trans. DH Farmer. Penguin Classics, 1998.

Ian Wood. “The foundation of Bede’s Wearmouth-Jarrow” in Cambridge Companion to Bede, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Ecgfrith’s Heir

During a fall when I’ve been too busy for blogging, I got a great medieval surprise in my snail mailbox. For the first time I can remember the Jarrow Lecture has been published in the year it was given! Kudos to Barbara Yorke! She gave a very interesting and thought provoking lecture. So thought provoking that I’ll divide my comments up into three or four posts. So without further ado, here is the citation:

Barbara Yorke. Rex Doctissimus: Bede and King Aldfrith of Northumbria, Jarrow Lecture 2009.

One of the more thought-provoking theories advanced by Yorke is that Cuthbert, then prior of Lindisfarne, arranged for the Aldfrith to be embraced as Ecgfrith’s heir  by Ecgfrith and the family for a year or so before his death. Yorke sees Cuthbert’s prophetic announcement to Abbess Ælfflaed that Ecgfrith would be succeeded by a brother that she should love as much this one as a hagiographic method of recording Cuthbert’s involvement.

Yorke notes that of all existing sources on Aldfrith only Bede questioned Aldfrith’s paternity, though she doesn’t doubt that he had an Irish mother. The Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, written in the last years of Aldfrith’s reign, implies that he is a brother to Ælfflaed equal to the first. Indeed, if only paternity counts in determining the royal family, than Aldfrith was Ecgfrith’s equal. In this sense, other writers may have seen Aldfrith as a rightful successor and as many have written before, it is likely that there had been many Anglo-Saxons kings before Aldfrith born from irregular unions or at least marriages not recognized by the church. Oddly though, Yorke believes that Aldfrith had never been to Northumbria or been officially declared by Oswiu making his succession more difficult. She believes that if Symeon of Durham is correct, that Ecgfrith was buried on Iona, that his personal retinue knew that Ecgfrith’s heir was on Iona and fetched him. Aldfrith returning at the head of Ecgfrith’s personal retinue would have been the best argument, along with Bishop Cuthbert’s support, for Aldfrith being accepted as king.

She sees Cuthbert’s rise to the episcopate and his ability to demand Lindisfarne as his see, forcing his mentor elderly Bishop Eata to relocate to Hexham, was due to his assistance in this matter. Yorke notes that to make Cuthbert a bishop, King Ecgfrith had to depose Bishop Tunbert of Hexham (cousin to Abbot Coelfrith of Jarrow).  King Ecgfrith managed to have three Northumbrian bishops who were friendly with the Irish in the year after his invades Ireland – Eata at Hexham, Cuthbert at Lindisfarne and Bosa at York. She believes that Wearmouth-Jarrow may have opposed all of these changes beginning with Tunbert’s removal through Aldfrith’s succession. She notes that Bede’s slurs on Aldfrith’s parentage would be typical if the monastery opposed succession. Of course, it should be noted that Ecgfrith was at Jarrow personally planning the church there after Cuthbert’s consecration, only weeks before his death. So what ever Ecgfrith’s reasons for deposing Tunbert, he was at the same time endowing a new monastery for Tunbert’s cousin Abbot Coelfrith.

As for Cuthbert being a protector of Ecgfrith’s family, it may not be a coincidence that Bede records that Bishop Cuthbert was with Queen Iurminberg when news of Ecgfrith’s death reaches her and she follows Cuthbert’s directions to seek sanctuary in a monastery. Cuthbert is portrayed again as her protector, Ecgfrith’s family’s protector. Was Cuthbert promoted to bishop to protect Ecgfrith’s family, his wife, his mother and sister, and perhaps most of all his son? Yes, possibly his very young son. If Oslac son of Ecgfrith in the Historia Brittonum really was Ecgfrith’s son then he would have a very young heir who needed a protector. There would be few actual kinsmen he could trust with  a very young son. Most would try to keep the throne in their own line once they succeed. However, a childless clerical brother might be just the ticket especially if heavily promoted and supported by Lindisfarne. At least with Aldfrith, Ecgfrith would know that his own son would have no rivals older than the boy. Ecgfrith would not have been planning on his brother succeeding so soon or living for so long, perhaps longer than Oslac. The succession crisis that occurred on Aldfrith’s death could have been because Oslac died before his uncle. While Yorke mentions Ecgfrith’s reputed young son in note 54, she doesn’t seem to have considered that Aldfrith could have been caretaker of the boy. Without any children of his own in c. 684 it would have been easy for Aldfrith to have promised Ecgfrith that he would make Ecgfrith’s young son is own heir. As it was, after a 19 year reign Aldfrith’s oldest son was still only age 8.

As for Ecgfrith’s reasons for acknowledging Aldfrith (or anyone else) as a formal heir when he did, I think we can point to the battles he fought in his last two years. King Ecgfrith did not personally go on the invasion of Ireland in 684, perhaps because he did not have a heir lined up at home. Ecgfrith must have had nephews and plenty of cousins. Oswiu was reputed to have six brothers who surely had surviving sons and by the 680s grandsons. Indeed ambitious grandsons of Æthelfrith may have been getting desperate because their chances of succeeded where becoming more dim the stronger the children of Oswiu clung to the throne. In 684 only one son of Oswiu had succeeded to all of Northumbria, so that his first cousins were viable successors. It must have galled Ecgfrith greatly that he had to stay home from such an important military expedition as the invasion of Ireland had been in 684. It was a glorious success bringing back many (probably royal) clerical hostages. For Ecgfrith to lead the invasion of Pictland in 685 he must have lined up a heir and made it widely known enough that he was comfortable going.

If Yorke is correct in Cuthbert’s role in Aldfrith’s succession, then this shows how well Lindisfarne was connected with its old Columban network. Bede inadvertently tells us as much when he says that Ecgfrith had been warned against his 684 invasion of Ireland by wandering Bishop Ecgberht in Pictland. We also know from writings on Cuthbert that he traveled to Pictland, at least once during the winter. Of course, Ecgberht’s best claim to fame is that he eventually converted Iona to Rome over 25 years later. Could Lindisfarne and Iona have been nurturing Aldfrith for his succession to the Northumbrian throne for decades? He would have been well known in both monasteries not only as the son of King Oswiu but as the sister’s son of Lindisfarne’s Bishop Finian, son of Irish King Colman Rimid. He had long been educated on Iona where he became good friends with Adomnan, Abbot of Iona and probably there also Aldhelm of Wessex. Although Lindisfarne must have continued to prosper during Aldfrtih’s reign, the illness and death of Cuthbert and their confrontations with Bishop Wilfrid for the next year must have tempered their success a great deal. Given the power that Lindisfarne may have demonstrated in Aldfrith’s succession, it makes Bishop Wilfrid’s hard line with them after Cuthbert’s death more understandable.

How ironic it is that many, perhaps even a majority of depictions of St Cuthbert show him holding the head of Ecgfrith and Aldfrith’s saintly uncle King Oswald. Cuthbert may have had no ties to King Oswald in his lifetime but, if Yorke is correct, he could have been a king maker who kept Oswald’s family on the throne for another twenty years and made Aldfrith’s transformation of Northumbrian society possible. I’ll save discussion of Aldfrith’s influence for the next post.

Berht of Dunbar?

Dunbar fortress at its height before it was intentionally dismantled.

Dunbar fortress at its height c.1400 before it was intentionally dismantled. Painting of Dunbar castle from the Marie Stuart Society Website.

I was reading Tim Clarkson’s The Picts: A History (2008) last week and I came across the following:

The sources credit him [Cinead mac Alpin] with six campaigns in Northumbria, during which he seized the coastal fortress of Dunbar and burned the monastery of Old Melrose on the River Tweed. Dunbar was an important stronghold of the hereditary guardians of Northumbria’s Pictish frontier. Among the family’s renowned ancestors was the warlord Berht — who led Ecgfrith’s ill-fated attack on Ireland in 684 — as well as other key figures in the Anglo-Pictish wars of the the late seventh and early eighth century. Cinead’s capture of Dunbar was of great symbolic importance for his Pictish subjects in the troubled border zone around the Firth of Forth. Not since the mighty victory at Dunnichen in 685 had an army from the old Pictish heartland inflicted so much damage upon the English. (p. 162)

I know Cinead is probably most people’s focus in this passage, but my interest is in Ealdorman/Duke Berht who also led the ill fated Northumbrian campaign into Pictland that ended at Dunnichen. Do we really know that Dunbar was the base of the hereditary guardians of the Northumbrian frontier?

Just a review of Berht’s claims to fame. First to attach this family to the Pictish frontier, Bede mentions two Berhts leading Northumbrian troops against the Picts in his chronilogical summary: Berhtred is killed by the Picts in 698 and Berhtfrith fought the Picts in 711. Both references suggest that Berhtred and Berhtfrith were leaders of the Northumbrian army and therefore, second only to the king. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid specifically calls Berhtfrith second only to the king. There is a Berctred listed in the Durham Liber Vitae immediately before Altfrid who is almost certainly King Aldfrith, exactly where he should be. There is no Berhtfrith listed but Eadwulf is, and as Eadwulf was Berhtfrith’s enemy in the succession of the child king Osred, which may explain why Berhtfirth isn’t listed.  We know that Berhtfrith was allied with Bishop Wilfrid, which may have also caused him to be left off of Lindisfarne’s Liber Vitae. It has been hypothesized that Berhtred and Berhtfrith were father and son, although of course they could be brothers or other kinsmen.

There are three specific traditions of these Berhts. First and foremost, a duke Berht (presumably Berhtred) led King Ecgfrith’s forces in an invasion of the Brega region of Ireland carrying off many hostages, at least several boat loads full. Adomnan brought back hostages from two trips to Northumbria and we don’t know that he got them all. Over years that it took Adomnan to negotiate the release of his hostages, it is likely that some had died and others were integrated into the monasteries of Northumbria and did not want to leave. Given Berht’s prominence in this successful invasion, it is almost certain that he was with Ecgfrith at the battle of Dunnichen against the Picts in the very next year. This also means that Berhtred may have been present when King Bridei took Ecgfrith’s body to Iona for burial, where Ecgfrith’s half-brother Aldfrith was waiting with Abbot Adomnan. If he was second only to the king and was apparently effective during Aldfrith’s reign, he must have supported Aldfrith and indeed, his support may have been vital for the succession of Ecgfrith’s half-Irish brother who had been gone from Northumbria for so long. His role as the Norhtumbrian king’s warlord appears to have been maintained judging by his death in battle against the Picts in 698, the middle of Aldfrith’s reign.

It is probably not a coincidence that Duke Berhtfrith was the critical figure supporting Aldfrith’s eight year old son Osred for the throne in 705 against Eadwulf who initially succeeded for three months. According to Duke Berhtfrith’s account of Eadwulf’s seige of Bamburgh in early 705 at the synod of Nidd, he was both young Osred’s protector and chief supporter for the throne against Eadwulf and credited their success to God’s support for Bishop Wilfrid who they vowed they would support if they were successful. Berhtfrith’s support for the boy may also reflect his families reliance on the descendents of Oswiu for their power. I do have to wonder if we don’t have a royal princess somewhere among the maternal ancestors of the Berhts (perhaps a daughter of Oswald or Oswiu, or Aebbe’s husband?). Berhtfirht is last heard from in a record of a Pictish battle in 711, the middle of Osred’s reign. It is likely that he was gone from the scene before young Osred takes power on his own and ultimately dies at the hands of his men in 716. I tend to think of Berhtfrith as being like a Mayor of the Palace. Like so many young Frankish kings, Osred didn’t survive coming in to his majority for long dying at age 18. Any survivors of Berhtfrith’s family were probably invovled in the political chaos that followed Osred’s death and may have seen some support in Osred’s reputed brother Osric. Ironically, the throne eventually passed to Eadwulf’s lineage in his cousins Cenred and Coelwulf.

Had Bede not written the Historia in the reign of King Coelwulf, we might know much more about these powerful dukes, but with their rivals in power Bede barely mentions them. Their inclusion in the chronilogical summary suggests that were was much more known about them somewhere in Bede’s sources. He either excised material about them, leaving the summary entries or they were in one of his chronical sources and got copied into the summary. While the latter may be true, I suspect Bede picked his entries in the chronilogical summary more carefully. Given that King Coelwulf had been deposed earlier in the year that Bede finished the Historia, Bede may initially included more on the Berhts only to later excise almost all contemporary information.

So coming back to Dunbar, it is mentioned only once that I know of in Bede’s time. It is the site of another miracle of Bishop Wilfrid. King Ecgfrith sends Wilfrid to Dunbar to be imprisoned in its dungon by its sheriff Tydlin. Whether Tydlin is the highest ranking official in Dunbar or not is unknown but it seems likely. Tydlin’s failure to imprison Wilfrid may have led to his loss of Dunbar and it being turned over to Berhtred, but then again Berhtred is higher up the food chain than a sheriff, so this makes me wonder how high status Dunbar was in the 680s. It makes sense for Dunbar to eventually become the seat of the march warden but was it all the way back to Berhtred’s time?

The real question though is if not Dunbar, then where would Berhtred’s fortress have been? Surely such a warlord would have controlled a hillfort, given the Northumbrian’s fondness for British style hillforts. Edenburgh is possible, but like Stirling it may have been far too close to the border. Tim may be right that after the battle of Dunnichen in 685, Dunbar may have been the fortress of the frontier guardian. It is interesting that Cinead also hit Old Melrose in the same campaign that ravaged Dunbar. Given the importance of Old Melrose to Northumbria, it is likely that there was protection nearby. Edenburgh keeps coming to mind as Berht’s fortress though maybe because I can’t imagine that it was sitting empty. It is likely that Berht’s fortress would have been on the coast though given that the sea-road was still dominate (as seen in all Northumbrian hillforts — Bamurgh, Dunbar, Edenburgh, Stirling…). Although old Roman fortresses that were particularly prominent in Northumbria  along both walls and inland as well, but the English haven’t been particularly associated with any of them. Dunbar may have been the best compromise position for a march warden who was as heavily involved in the politics of the kingdom as the Berhts. Dunbar was close enough to the Firth of Forth to keep tabs on the Picts and respond, while closer by sea to Bamburgh. Dunbar also has the added advantage of being an ideal spot to monitor naval activity along the coast.