Captivated by the Cross

I’ve been captivated by this image since I found it earlier this week. It was taken by David W Coigach and posted at deviantART. Taken at Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway  (Southwest Scotland), this imagery seems so right for Heavenfield  with the ravens circling overhead. Ok, so I’ll admit heavenfield didn’t have a stone cross, which seems really odd, but I guess a miracle working wooden cross was enough!


Heavenfield, Hefenfeld, and Caelestis Campus

Not the cross at Heavenfield!

A little while ago Tim Clarkson of Senchus brought an Andrew Breeze paper  about the history and derivation of the name Hefenfeld*, the Old English version of Heavenfield, to my attention. Its taken me a while to get to it but here is what I think.

It is clear to anyone who has looked at the history of this place-name or even just the place-names that surround it, that versions of hefenfeld have spread over a wide landscape.  S Oswaldes Asche is mentioned in several late medieval accounts presumably referring to the cross or a version of it. The entire valley was called halydene (holy valley) by Leland. I know I’ve read of more heavenfield related place-names than Breeze lists; suffice it to say that the holy site left a big footprint in local place-names and lore.

There is also nothing new about the annoying tendency of  historians and antiquarians to confuse the camp site of Hefenfeld (modern Heavenfield) with the nearby battlefield site of Denisesburna.  (Many otherwise good historians have made real hash out of the places and dates for Oswald’s camp site and battlefield!) This confusion reaches well back into the Middle Ages and may be a reflection of the vague notion about where both were located from the very beginning (though most modern mistakes are just careless reading of Bede).  Breeze reviews all of this in considerable detail, although it is only important to his argument to show that the name for the site was never very fixed. [He says that he has shown the date to be 633 but I don’t think he has shown that at all.]

Breeze then gets down to his main argument on the relationship and derivation of the names hefenfeld and caelestis campus. First he rules out the Old English name Hefa as a source for hefenfeld, though his reasons don’t seem very sound. Hefa’s becoming ‘hefan’ as in modern Hevingham  in Norfolk doesn’t seem that far from Hefenfeld to me. Breeze opts to take Bede at his word, that Hefenfeld is derived from caelestis campus. Fair enough. The English would have been new enough settlers in that area that English place names like X’s field are unlikely to be completely supplanted by alternative place name lore by Bede’s time (though there may have been some intentional renaming of landmarks in English from their British names).

Breeze then turns to the “curious expression” of Caelestis campus. He points to two parallel constructions elsewhere in Bede’s History: campus roborum (‘plain of oaks’, Durrow) and in the Moore Bede campus Cyil, the plain of Kyle in Galloway. Equally he finds more similar constructions in Welsh-Latin texts including Campus Gaii, the plain of Gaius, the name for Bede’s Winwead in the Angles Cambriae and the Historia Brittonum (HB). The HB also includes campus Elleti, where the boy Ambrosius Aurelianus is found my Vortigern’s men. Looking to hagiography Breeze finds campus Heli in the Life of Padarn and Campus Malochu in a charter linked with St Dyfrig. Ok, so we have campus being a common Latin word for plain in Welsh-Latin and apparently taken up for at least place names in early English Latin. This wasn’t really in doubt but its good to see them all collected together. At this point I would like to point out that three of these plains are named for people (Gaius, Elleti, and Malochu) and two are descriptive, plain of oaks in Ireland and plain of brine/salt water (heli) in Brittany. Not surprising for its date and topic, Breeze zeroes in on campus Gaii for comparison.

Since Welsh-Latin used campus Gaii ‘plain of Gaius’ for the battlefield of Uinued, where the Roman road from York to Donchester crosses the river Gwent, Caelestis campus may be explained not as ‘heavenly plain’ but as ‘plain of Caelestis’. It would be a similar place-name survival from Roman times. There is no difficulty about Caelestis as a personal name in Celtic Britain. An inscription of about the year 500 at Barmouth in Gwynedd reads CAELEXTI MONEDORIGI ‘(monument of) Caelestis Mondorix (‘mountain king”). So the evidence suggests that, just as the flood-plain of  Gwent was known in British-Latin tradition as campus Gaii, so also the defensive site used by Oswald was known as Caelestis campus, presumably after a local British chieftain or lord, a namesake** of the fifth-century Caelestis of North Wales. (Breeze, p. 196)

First, Caelestis is a late Roman name rendered in modern English as Celestine. It was not uncommon in late antiquity. Pope Celestine I had a tenure from 422 to 432. There is no problem with it being a name in Roman Britain or post-Roman Britain. I don’t think its helpful to think of 7th century Britain as Celtic Britain. To me, Celtic Britain was pre-Roman or areas never under Roman control. I don’t have a problem with caelestis campus referring to a Roman or Romano-British person. It makes more sense than there being a pagan shrine or sacred tree at the site.

St Oswald in Lee, Heavenfield via Google Earth February 2009

Second, Breeze stresses that it was a plain not a field, a plain being much larger. I just want to say that there is another language issue here between US English and UK English. In US English a plain is a very large, flat stretch of land. When a friend and I visited England several years ago we went to Stonehenge. Apart from our impression that it is much smaller than all of the pictures make it out to be, we both agreed that we would never consider it to be sitting on a plain. We also visited Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall and Hexham; believe me, I didn’t see any plains. There were some large open fields of rolling but very large hills with lots of valleys. Most of what I saw I would consider hillsides.  If you all want to see some plains come the US Midwest.  I don’t have a problem with the translation of campus to field. Besides just because the name wasn’t fixed to a specific spot in the later medieval period doesn’t mean that it wasn’t originally more localized.  When looking at this picture of Heavenfield to the right keep in mind that we don’t know how wooded the area was in the seventh century.  Even so the slope in the land is visible even in this open field picture.

Northumbrian settlers, failing to recognize the personal name in the genitive case here, and taking caelestis as a masculine adjective, seemingly mistranslated the toponym as Hefenfeld. Thereafter Bede could exercise sacred wit on the form, even though in origin it had not more to do with Christian heaven than, say, Anguli in the anonymous Whitby life of Gregory had to do with angeli, Æelli with Alleluia, or Deire with de ira Dei. (Breeze, p. 197)

I’ve never really bought mistranslation explanations. It takes some knowledge of Latin to make this conversion. The average Northumbrian settler would not know that caelestis meant heavenly (as in the heavens, the sky). Knowledge of Latin means churchmen, and churchmen of presumably Hexham would have a motive to use word play to rename the site a fitting name for their shrine. Remember that Bede gives his explanation of the name in an episode that he credits directly to a source at Hexham. It is possible that visiting churchmen or churchmen stationed at the royal estate of Hexham (before it was given for a monastery) renamed the site using word play. It seems to me that the word play translation makes sense and may have been close enough to a translation of the original name (whose namesake would probably have been long dead) to be acceptable to local Britons.


Andrew Breeze. (2007). Bede’s Hefenfeld and the Campaign of 633. Northern History, XLIV: 2, p. 193-197.

*Hefenfeld is also sometimes written as hefenfelth.

**Namesake means different things in US English and UK English. In UK English namesake just means sharing the same name.  In US English namesake usually means that one is named directly after the other, ie. John Jr is the namesake of John Sr but not of unrelated Johns.

Negotiating Conversion

I was just looking at one of my favorite articles on St Oswald this morning. Tolley’s “Oswald’s Tree” is a unique article that sets Oswald’s actions and the development of his veneration within the semi-pagan times that he lived. So few people consider the pre-Christian context and what that means for conversion. Today, the word conversion is often used for switching from one Christian denomination, from one Abrahamic religion to another, or from no religion at all to a faith. While all of these conversions are major life changes, they don’t really compare well to the conversion from Germanic or Celtic belief systems to Christianity. Perhaps the best comparison in today’s would be Hindu to Christian. Of the major world religions today, only Hindu has the multiplicity of gods and the well developed belief system tied to the land and customs that can compare with Germanic and Celtic pre-Christian belief systems. Although Christian missionaries have been in India since the time of the apostles (reputedly St Thomas), Christianity is practiced by less than 5% of the people of India.

I wish I could remember where I read a great quote about conversion being the ability to translate symbols from one system to another. Although every belief system certainly has unique attributes and beliefs, all religious belief systems must be able to answer some of the same questions to the satisfaction of the conversion generation, particularly on questions on creation and an afterlife. Various cultures imagined creation and the afterlife differently -Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Norse and German all imagined differently. Some saw creation as a well-watered garden, others as the products of fire and ice.

As the secondary title title of this blog shows: “Caelestis campus, a name which it certainly received in the days of old…signified that a heavenly sign was to be erected there” shows, Oswald’s first association with a tree was at a place that was already known as a holy site. It was at Heavenfield (hefenfelth) that Oswald chose a tree and had a cross made from it on the site and used it to lead his retinue in prayer before the battle of Denisesburna the next day. Trees held a central role in Germanic belief systems. The World Tree stood at the center of a beautiful meadow with its roots reaching into the underworld and its branches reaching the heavens. The well of wisdom was located at its base and supernatural birds rested in its branches. This is a landscape that will be associated with Oswald’s death at Maserfelth/CrosOswald/Oswestry/Oswald’s Tree in the western midlands as well.  The beginning of his career and evangelistic efforts is at Heavenfield, so the cross at Heavenfield, perhaps envisioned as standing in an open plain, evokes some of the same imagery — the cross linking heaven and earth. Over the 1400 years since King Oswald erected the cross at Heavenfield, its exact location has been lost; the church and meadow there now do not go back to the seventh century. Yet, placenames reflecting the holy place spread wider to include the what was once possibly one continuous highlands meadow or estate. It surely helps that this part of Northumbria is fairly mountainous so there are wide vistas.


C. Tolley (1995) “Oswald’s Tree”, p. 149-173 in Pagans and Christians: The Interplay between Christian Latin and Traditional Germanic Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Edited by T. Hofstra, LAJR Houwen, & AA MacDonald. Groningen: Egbert Frosten.

Christianity in India, Wikipedia.

Medievalist Stocking Stuffers

Aebba Art Gallery

Here we are less than two weeks before Christmas. Are you frantic for a unique gift for your favorite medievalist? Do you need to give a loved one a challenge on your ‘wish list’? (or just a holiday treat for yourself?)

Aebba Art Gallery has a variety of unique pewter ornaments.

  • Oswald at Heavenfield, 634
  • Aidan praying for Bamburgh burning, 651
  • Bede writing the History, 731
  • Cuthbert on Farne, 676
  • Hilda founding Whitby, 657
  • Paulinus baptizing on the River Glen, 627

They also have a few other items including a replica of St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross.

Prices are reasonable, I think, and I have never seen the UK / US exchange rate better than it is now.

Check them out!

Happy Birthday Heavenfield!

Well, May 5th is Heavenfield’s first birthday. It has been a great year with 17,206 actual visitors to the site and quite a few more I know reading along with syndicated readers.

I think I’ll celebrate the anniversary with a run down of the top 5 posts of the last year with their hit count. I should point out that WordPress does not count visits by the site owner.

Out of 154 blog posts, these are the top 5:

  1. Martyrdom: Red, White, and Blue (275)
  2. Which Mary? (254)
  3. You know Easter is coming early when… (206)
  4. Lindisfarne and St. John the Beloved (199)
  5. St Aethelthryth of Ely: An Enduring Saint (197)

None of these got more than 50 posts within their first 2-3 days so these are posts that have turned up almost daily in search engine hits. There are another about 5-7 that also turn up nearly daily in search hits. Its been fun the last couple months watching them jockey for position to finish. At least only one (#3) was found by off topic search words like ‘green beer’!

Excluding the ‘about me’ page, Early Medieval Kings has been by far the most popular web page with 509 hits. Going along with this, early medieval kings is by far the most common search term to find Heavenfield.

Last but certainly not least a big THANK YOU to my two biggest referrers: Dr Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard and Jonathan Jarret at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe!

Now that the semester is winding down to a close over the next week I hope to get back to blogging on a more regular basis. Brendan is getting impatient to move on…

Avatar Challenge

A little fun for the weekend that too many of us are coming to the end of semester crunch… this is a challenge that goes out to all readers and bloggers (but specifically Derek the Anglican, Jonathan Jarret, and Saesferd) to explain your avatar. First, who, what or where is it and then why did you pick it. Reply on your blogs and pass the challenge on. I’ll get it started with my own avatar.

The purple thistle is one of my favorite wild flowers. I like its color and fluffiness, and appreciate that it is one tough, sturdy, prickly plant that most people consider a weed. The cotton thistle is the national flower of Scotland and according to wikipedia, it was allowed to grow around fortresses as a defensive measure. Did I mention it is prickly? Growing in thick, sharp-spiked clusters or hedges it can be quite a barrier, albeit one with pretty purple flowers. 🙂

As Heavenfield has been along the border of England and Scotland for as long as there has been a border, I can easily imagine it growing there and elsewhere along Hadrian’s Wall.


St Andrew’s Appeal

St Andrew‘s appeal in Britain is one of those stories of meandering coincidences that are common in development of the veneration of saints. After all, Andrew is mainly venerated in the East. His missionary work occurred in Asia Minor where he was martyred. He is the patron saint of Greece, Russia, Sicily, Romania, Malta, Prussia, and Scotland. How Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland is one of those curious East-West connections in a time when Britain is supposedly so isolated.

Here is where only the kind of melding that can take place on Sicily comes into play. Although the church of Rome tends to play down this period in Sicilian history, the island was taken by Justinian I in 535 and remained under the rule of Byzantium until it was taken by the Arabs in the mid-ninth century. Throughout this period, Sicily turned back to its ancestral orientation toward Greece and the East, including in the church. To this day, most of the people of Sicily are genetically closest to Greeks with a veneer of each invader (including the Romans). Although Rome ruled Sicily for six centuries they never heavily settled it or tried to Romanize its Greek culture.

Anyway, Gregory the Great came from a high ranking Roman family with vast Sicilian estates. His mother Silvia may have been Sicilian. It is likely that Gregory spent much of his youth in Sicily. We know that Gregory himself is said to have founded six monasteries on Sicily and one in Rome, in his former home, dedicated to St. Andrew. His knowledge of Eastern customs from Sicily, by then under the rule of Byzantium for nearly 50 years, made Gregory the ideal representative from Rome to Constaninople before he became Pope in 590. It was from his monastery of St. Andrew that Gregory chose his former prior Augustine to send to Britain. The reluctant missionary Augustine brought with him dedication to St. Andrew and founded a church in Rochester in his honor.

Northern veneration of St Andrew can also be tied to Gregory the Great’s mission to Britain. When Paulinus of York fled from York back to Kent, he was made bishop of Rochester, seated at the Church of St. Andrew. Bishop Wilfrid of York in particular looked to St Andrew (and perhaps Paulinus of York) as a role model. I wonder if the young Wilfrid visited Rochester where the legends of Paulinus and King Edwin were kept during his year in Kent waiting to go to Rome for the first time? When Wilfrid goes to Rome the first time as a teenager he seeks out the oratory of St Andrew where he kneels before the four gospel books and prays for the skills to preach to the nations. Archdeacon Boniface of the oratory of St Andrew takes him in and teaches his Roman law. Could the “Oratory of St Andrews” have been associated with Gregory the Great’s monastery in Rome? And, could Archdeacon Boniface have taken particular interest in Wilfrid because of common interest in Gregory’s mission to Britain? I don’t know.

William Trent Foley has suggested that Wilfrid’s mediation between King Ecgfrith and Queen Æthelthryth (Audrey) was influenced by legends of St Andrew’s similar intervention between a husband and wife that led to his martyrdom. Andrew counsels the wife to maintain her desired abstinence from marital relations. There is no claim that the wife was a virgin but the similarity between Andrew’s legend and Ecgfrith, Æthelthryth, Bishop Wilfrid triangle is uncanny. Wilfrid’s imprisonment and other abuse at the hands of Ecgfrith are similar to the torture Andrew endures before his martyrdom. Makes me wonder if Wilfrid wasn’t looking for martyrdom like his mentor ‘Bishop Dalphinus’ whom he had wanted to die with according to Stephan of Ripon. Wilfrid dedicated his church at Hexham (on land given to him by Audrey) to St. Andrew. This was his second major church, after St Peter’s at Ripon. The dedication to St. Andrew on land gained after his mediation between king and queen could be seen as support for Foley’s assertion that Wilfrid is intentionally following an Andrew life script. He believes that Stephan is portraying Wilfrid’s exile as a type of martyrdom. Yet, I’m getting the sense that Stephan is particularly good at showing Wilfrid escape from martyrdom opportunities, but perhaps that will be a post for another day.

After Wilfrid’s death, Hexham is inherited by his personal priest Acca, who succeeds him as Bishop of Hexham. Acca had long studied at Wilfrid’s knee but unlike his mentor his efforts had to be restricted to the see of Hexham, a minor fraction of Wilfrid’s vast domain. Bede credited Acca with greatly expanding and enhancing the Church of St Andrew at Hexham. After 21 years as bishop, Acca did follow his mentor in being exiled. Where Acca went for the rest of his life is a mystery. There has been speculation that he went to Galloway where there was a new see forming around Whithorn, but I think Bishop Pehthelm of Whithorn was removed or died about the same time. The first action of new Archbishop Egbert of York in 735 was to place new bishops, Frithuberht and Frithuwold, at Hexham and Whithorn. The Continuer of Bede’s summary (in later editions of the History) lists Egbert’s elevation and the consecration of the two new bishops all in one entry. Bishop Frithuberht of Hexham and Archbishop Egbert both retained their sees until their deaths in 766. Chronicles date Acca’s death to about 740, so he had 9 years in exile. There has been much speculation that he went north to King Oengus of Pictland. His predecessor King Nechtan had contacted Wearmouth-Jarrow in the diocese of Hexham for help in modernizing and adopting Roman rites and customs during Acca’s tenure as Bishop of Hexham. King Oengus of Pictland founded the cult of St Andrews in Scotland. Acca would have been keenly interested in turning the Pictish kingdom away from Iona and veneration of St Columba, and may have been actively involved in King Nechtan’s consultations with Abbot Coelfrith. As the kings of Pictland continued to build and favor St. Andrews, he eventually displaced St. Columba and became patron saint of Scotland.

The last but not least piece of evidence that links Hexham to St. Andrews in Scotland is circumstantial. Since the time that St Andrew became the patron saint of Constantinople, the legends of St Andrew and Constantine the Great became associated. When Wilfrid, Acca and others went to Rome and did research on St. Andrew they likely would have come across legends of Constantine the Great. It has been observed in a variety of places that Hexham’s version of the events at Heavenfield in Bede’s History (III.2) resemble accounts of Constantine at Milvan Bridge. I have never been convinced of this as much as others, but it is certainly told with Roman/Imperial language. The Pictish foundation legend of St. Andrews in Scotland is a far stronger comparison to the Constantine legend that the Heavenfield account. King Fergus of Pictland sees the X shaped Cross of St Andrew in the sky, just as Constantine sees the cross at Milvan Bridge. Fergus promises that he will make Andrew the patron saint of his kingdom Scotland/Pictland if he is victorious in the coming battle, just as Constantine does. St Oswald certainly does not give God or a saint such a challenge! A detraction to the Pictish story is that it is preserved so late that the Constantine imagery could have come at a much later date.

Andrew’s tale in Britain is a thin, long winding story but, ultimately, it leads back to Gregory the Great and his monastery in Rome. As large as Gregory the Great may loom over early Britain, it is clear that Wilfrid looms equally large over the interest in St. Andrew (and his little brother St Peter).

For further reading:

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. McClure and Collins, eds. Oxford UP, 1994

William Trent Foley. (1989) “Imitatio Apostoli: St Wilfrid of York and the Andrew Script” American Benedictine Review 40(1): 13-31.

Ursula Hall. (1994) St Andrew and Scotland. St Andrew’s University Library.