On This Day in December

Death of Bishop Trumwine, 2nd December 704

King Egfrid and Bishop Trumwine persuade Cuthbert to be made Bishop,
King Egfrid and Bishop Trumwine persuade Cuthbert to be made Bishop, by William Bell Scott (1856), Wallington © National Trust

Bishop Trumwine died on 2nd December 704 AD.

In 664 AD King Ecgfrith of Northumbria had called a synod which had unanimously voted Cuthbert as Bishop of Lindisfarne but Cuthbert refused the honour “though many messengers and letters were sent to him” according to Bede. Trumwine, who was a friend of Cuthbert’s, went with the King and persuaded Cuthbert to accept the Bishopric. Initially it was intended Cuthbert should be the Bishop at Hexham but he negotiated for Eata to take that See and for himself to take Lindisfarne.

Then in 678 AD Ecgfrith and Bishop Wilfrid had a huge disagreement and Wilfrid was driven out. In his place the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore, ordained Bosa as Bishop of Deira based at York, and Eata as Bishop of the Bernicians based at Hexham. When Ecgfrith conquered Lindsey, Theodore also ordained a Bishop of Lindsey and Trumwine as Bishop of the Picts in 681 AD; the kingdom of the Picts was “at that time subject to the English”. Trumwine was based at Abercorn for the next few years.

Pictish submission was short-lived. By 685 AD, in Bede’s words:

“From that time the hopes and strength of the English crown “began to waver and retrograde”; for the Picts recovered their own lands, which had been held by the English and the Scots that were in Britain, and some of the Britons their liberty, which they have now enjoyed for about forty-six years.”

At this point Ecgfrith over-reached himself and met with disastrous defeat at the Battle of Nechtansmere. Among those affected by the Pictish resurgence was Trumwine who was forced to withdraw back to Northumbria, and he retired to the Abbey at Whitby until his death.

 “Among the many English that then either fell by the sword, or were made slaves, or escaped by flight out of the country of the Picts, the most reverend man of God, Trumwine, who had been made bishop over them, withdrew with his people that were in the monastery of Abercurnig, seated in the country of the English, but close by the arm of the sea which parts the lands of the English and the Scots. Having recommended his followers, wheresoever he could, to his friends in the monasteries, he chose his own place of residence in the monastery, which we have so often mentioned, of Men and women servants of God, at Streaneshalch; and there he, for several years, led a life in all monastical austerity, not only to his own, but to the benefit of many, with a few of his own people; and dying there, he was buried in the church of St. Peter the Apostle, with the honour due to his life and rank. The royal virgin, Elfled, with her mother, Eanfled, whom we have mentioned before, then presided over that monastery; but when the bishop came thither, this devout woman found in him extraordinary assistance in governing, and comfort to herself.”

Known as “Tumma” to his friends, Trumwine probably knew many of those who represented Northumbria’s Golden Age even though he is himself less well-known. Certainly he knew both Cuthbert and Bede, and provided Bede with source material for his “Life of Cuthbert”.

Feast Day of Birinus, 3rd December

Detail of a stained glass window of St Birinus, Dorchester Abbey
Detail of a stained glass window of St Birinus, Dorchester Abbey, StephenPaternoster [CC BY-SA 3.0]

3rd December is the Feast Day of Birinus, Apostle to the West Saxons.

In 634 AD Birinus, a Frankish monk in St Andrew’s monastery in Rome, was sent to Britain by Pope Honorius (the Pope who had corresponded with Edwin and Athelburh of Northumbria over converting the kingdom). It had been Birinus’ intention to travel to areas outside Anglo-Saxon control to preach but when he arrived in the Kingdom of the Gewisse, ruled by King Cynegils, he discovered that the kingdom was still pagan and decided to preach there instead. The Gewisse were later to be known as the West Saxons.

Cynegils had an interest in converting as he was under pressure from Oswald of Northumbria who had taken the throne following Edwin’s death. Oswald was negotiating marriage to Cynegils’ daughter Cyneburh, which would have provided each of them with a strong and valuable ally as both kingdoms sought to counter the rising power of Penda in Mercia. However, Oswald also insisted that Cyneburh should become a Christian first. Birinus could not have timed his arrival better.

Following Cynegils’ baptism he gave Dorchester to Birinus to build a church and Birinus was made Bishop.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists the impact of Birinus’ mission over the next few years:

“AD 635. This year king Cynegils was baptized by Birinus the bishop, at Dorchester, and Oswold king of the Northumbrians was his godfather.

AD 636. This year king Cuichelm was baptized at Dorchester, and the same year he died. And bishop Felix preached the faith of Christ to the East-Angles.

AD 639. This year Birinus baptized king CuAthelred at Dorchester, and received him as his (god)son.”

The next few years were important for the various Christian missionaries in Britain: Eorcenberht came to rule in Kent and restored Christianity which had lapsed there, and Penda killed Oswald who was driving the further spread of Christianity in the north. Cynegils died in 643 AD and was succeeded by his son Cenwalh who eventually completed the building of the Minster at Winchester although he was not baptised until later. He had married Penda’s daughter, then put her aside for another wife. In response Penda drove him out of Wessex. Cenwalh took his first wife back and accepted baptism before being restored to his kingdom in 646 AD.

We don’t know much about Birinus’ activity in this period but churches were still being established.

Then it seems Birinus died:

“AD 650. This year Aegelbyrht, a native of Gaul, obtained the bishopric of the West-Saxons after Birinus the Romish bishop.”

After his death Birinus was buried at his church in Dorchester, where his remains were venerated until he was moved by Bishop Headda to Winchester around 40 years later. He was moved several times after that and the current whereabouts of his relics are not entirely clear.

Later miracle stories and shrines for pilgrimage did appear but we have no original accounts of these, either from Bede or even Alfric. Cnut did present a reliquary to Winchester for Birinus’ relics in the 11th century but otherwise Birinus’ popularity seems to have started later.

Death of Ealhswith, 5th December 902

Queens Ealhswith
Queens Ealhswith in the Cartulary And Customs Of Abingdon Abbey, British Library

Alfred’s wife, Ealhswith, who died on 5th December 902 AD, was known as “the true and beloved lady of the English”.

Her father was a Mercian ealdormann, Athelred Mucil, who held lands around Gainsborough in East Mercia. Her mother Eadburh was a Mercian princess and a respected scholar at court. Ealhswith married Alfred in 868 AD, probably as part of the alliance between Mercia and Wessex. It was at the wedding feast that Alfred became ill with what some modern historians tentatively identify as Crohn’s disease or a similar illness.

Ealhswith remains in the shadows, little recorded. She did not witness any of Alfred’s charters, nor was she called Queen (Wessex was not fond of queens, unlike Mercia), but other snippets of information imply that she was a respected member of the household.

She was the mother of all King Alfred’s recorded children, and there is no record of him fathering any other children or having a mistress. Asser lists the children in his “Life of King Alfred”:

“The sons and daughters, which he had by his wife above mentioned were Ethelfled the eldest, after whom came Edward, then Ethelgiva, then Ethelswitha, and Ethelwerd, besides those who died in their infancy, one of whom was Edmund.”

In his will Alfred left her three symbolically important estates: Wantage where he was born; Lambourn, near where a number of the Viking earls who died at the Battle of Ashdown were buried; and Edington, where he obtained his victory over Guthrum.

When Alfred died in 899 AD Ealhswith founded St Mary’s Abbey (Nunnaminster) at Winchester and retired there to live quietly. She was buried at Winchester next to her husband.

Although we know little about her, she was the ancestress of a hugely important and influential family. Her daughters were as formidable as her sons, and her mother was a scholar of repute.

Feast Day of Diuma, 7th December

Kingdom of Mercia from 6th-8th centuries
Kingdom of Mercia from 6th-8th centuries, TharkunColl, CC-SA 3.0

On 7th December we remember Diuma who was the first Bishop of Mercia (the See of Mercia had originally been under the See at Dorchester of Birinus – see 3rd December).

Bede provides us with the background, telling us that when Peada, the son of Penda, was baptised in 653 AD he returned to his kingdom with four priests from Northumbria, one of whom was Diuma. Although the other three (Cedd, Adda and Betti) were Northumbrian, Diuma himself was Scots and was not in fact consecrated until after the death of Penda at Winwaed in 655 AD, when Bishop Finan performed the ceremony.

Diuma was made Bishop of both the Middle Angles and the Mercians due to a lack of qualified priests. When he died at Feppingham in the kingdom of the Middle Angles he was buried locally, and this cannot have been long after his consecration. His immediate successor, Ceollach (who was also a Scot) effectively resigned and returned to his home country. He in turn was followed by Trumhere, an Englishman, who was made Bishop around 658 AD.

Death of Edburga, 13th December 759

Minster Abbey
Minster Abbey, Simon Burchell, CC BY-SA 4.0

13 December 751 or 759 AD saw the death of Edburga (also called Bugga), Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet, Kent. She is said to have been the daughter of King Centwine of Wessex and a disciple of St. Mildred whom she succeeded as Abbess in AD 733.

She corresponded with Boniface whom she met while visiting Rome. Overall she was a woman of considerable ability and influence as well as a builder of churches. For example, we can still read a copy of her letter to Boniface congratulating him on his success in Frisia and dated to 720 AD:

“Be it known to you, my gracious father, that I give thanks without ceasing to Almighty God because, as I learned from your letter, He has shown His mercy to you in many ways and jealously guarded you on your way through strange and distant lands. First, He inspired the Pontiff who sits in the chair of Peter to grant the desire of your heart. Afterwards He humbled at your feet King Radbod, the enemy of the Catholic Church; finally He revealed to you in a dream that you would reap God’s harvest and gather many souls into the barn of the heavenly kingdom. I am led to believe that, no matter what our circumstances on earth may be, nothing can separate me from the affectionate care you have always shown. The strength of my love increases the more I perceive for certain that through the support of your prayers I have come into a haven of security and peace. And so again I humbly beg you: deign to offer your earnest intercession to God for my unworthy self, so that through your protection His grace may keep me safe from harm.

Know also that I have been unable to obtain a copy of The Sufferings of the Martyrs which you asked me to send you, but I shall send it to you as soon as I can. And you, my best beloved, [70] comfort me in my weakness by sending me some select passages of Holy Scripture in fulfilment of the promise made in your last letter. I beg you also to offer some holy Masses for the soul of a relative of mine, who was dear to me beyond all others and whose name was N____

By this same messenger I am sending you fifty shillings and an altar cloth, because I was unable to get for you a more precious gift. Small as they are, they are sent with great love.

Farewell in this world,  in love unfeigned

She apparently built a church in Wessex dedicated to St Mary as commemorated in a poem by Aldhelm “On the Church of Mary Built by Bugga” (Carmina Ecclesiastica III).

After Edburga became abbess of Minster-in-Thanet she decided that the abbey was too small. She built another one nearby dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. Her predecessor Mildred had become a saint and Edburga translated Mildred’s remains to the new abbey resulting in many miracles at her shrine.

Edburga died in the 750s (the year is disputed), and was buried under a marble shrine. She was succeeded by Abbess Sigeburga.

Marriage of Judith of Wessex, 13th December 862

Baldwin I of Flanders and Judith of France, Jan van der Asselt
Baldwin I of Flanders and Judith of France, Jan van der Asselt, 14th century

On 13th December 862 AD Judith of Frankia married Baldwin of Flanders.

Judith was, however, not only “of Frankia” but also “of Wessex” and twice a Saxon Queen (though that title was not used).

Back in 856 AD King Athelwulf of Wessex was on his way home from Rome having been on a pilgrimage there. He had with him his little boy Alfred, and they stopped at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks, to break the journey and do some alliance-building. Judith was about 13 at the time, while Alfred was around 7 years old at most.

It would seem Alfred’s mother Osburh had died, because and Judith were married on 1st October. The marriage was political; both Athelwulf and Charles were concerned with Viking attacks.

Asser reports that the marriage was well-received and that Judith was recognised as Queen-Consort. Although Wessex did not recognise Queens, Judith was consecrated Queen at the same time, presumably at the insistence of her father:

“[Athelwulf] bade Judith, daughter of King Charles, whom he had received from her father, take her seat by his own side on the royal throne, without any dispute or enmity from his nobles even to the end of his life, though contrary to the perverse custom of that nation. For the nation of the West Saxons does not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called queen, but only the king’s wife”

However, the marriage was not popular with Athelwulf’s eldest son Athelbald, who had been ruling Wessex while his father was in Rome. Fearing he would be replaced by any children Judith had with Athelwulf, Athelbald rebelled. Father and son negotiated a division of the kingdom and things settled down. When Athelwulf died a couple of years later Athelbald cemented his position as successor by marrying Judith himself.

Asser was outraged as this was contrary to the teachings of the Church:

“But when King Athelwulf was dead (and buried at Winchester), his son Athelbald, contrary to God’s prohibition and the dignity of a Christian, contrary also to the custom of all the heathen, ascended his father’s bed, and married Judith, daughter of Charles, King of the Franks, incurring much infamy from all who heard of it.”

Judith did not have any children with either of the Wessex kings, and when Athelbald died after reigning 2½ years she returned to Frankia. Her father sent her to a nunnery, a traditional solution, probably while he was looking for a new husband for her.

However, Judith was apparently tired of political marriages, and may have felt she had done her share. She eloped instead with Baldwin of Flanders and they married.

Charles, her father, demanded they be excommunicated. Eventually Judith and Baldwin made their way to the papal court in Rome to plead their case. The Pope persuaded Charles to let them return peacefully and they were then married formally on 13th December 862 AD.

Baldwin was made Margrave of Flanders (the first to hold the title, and later was known as the Count of Flanders) and dealt very effectively with the Viking threat to the area. He remained a strong supporter of Charles and West Frankia.

The couple also had at least three sons, including a junior Baldwin, who became the second Count of Flanders, and who married Alfthryth, the daughter of Alfred of Wessex.

Death of King Aldfrith, 14th December 705

Sceatta from Aldfrith
Sceatta from Aldfrith, Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

King Aldfrith of Northumbria died on 14th December 705 AD after a mostly peaceful reign of almost 20 years. He was the illegitimate son of King Oswiu by the Irish princess Fin, and lived in exile in Ireland, possibly based on Iona, during the reign of Ecgfrith, his half-brother. He certainly had a reputation for scholarship, unusual among kings, and Bede tells us that:

“Alfrid succeeded Egfrid in the throne, being an Irian [Irish] most learned in Scripture, said to be brother to the other, and son to King Oswy: he nobly retrieved the ruined state of the kingdom, though within narrower bounds.”

Ecgfrith had been killed at the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685 AD, while Aldfrith had been studying apparently without any expectation of succeeding to the throne. However, as the last male member of the dynasty he was chosen as king regardless of his suitability and training for the role.

His rule was relatively peaceful, with only a campaign against the Picts in 698 AD, and his background in both Irish and Roman theology was valuable in attempting to heal the division between the two interpretations of the faith which continued after the Synod of Whitby. He recalled Wilfrid, who had been exiled by Ecgfrith, although Aldfrith was forced to send him away again in 691 AD as Wilfrid’s aggressive Roman Christianity caused more difficulties.

The legacy of Aldfrith’s reign was the artistic output of the Northumbrian monasteries of the late 7th century. It was under his patronage that the Lindisfarne Gospels and Codex Amiatinus were produced. It is likely that he knew, and may have studied under, Adomnan of Iona who came to ransom the Irish hostages and presented the king with one of his works. Aldfrith is recorded as having purchased at great expense a codex cosmographiorum which he donated to Jarrow-Monkwearmouth’s library. The scholar Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne (and Abbot of Malmesbury) also dedicated one his major works to the king.

Aldfrith married Cuthburh, sister of Ine of Wessex, and they had at least one son, Osred, and possibly also Osric, but this is less certain.

Despite a reign of 20 years, coins from his time are rare. They do, however, provide the earliest examples of sceattas. 

Death of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, 16th December 956

Murton Park Viking Village, York
Murton Park Viking Village, York, by Martin Norman [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Today we remember Wulfstan I, Archbishop of York, who died on 16th December 956 AD.

He was appointed to the Archbishopric in 931 AD and his career spanned the rule of four kings, with whom he had varying qualities of relationship.

He would have been appointed under Athelstan at a time when ensuring the loyalty of the north was uppermost in royal strategic thinking. Athelstan had married one of his half-sisters to Sihtric, the Viking ruler of York, in 926 AD but Sihtric had died soon after at which point Athelstan invaded. He won control of the north at the Battle of Eamont Bridge in 927 AD and peace was maintained until 934 AD, by which time Wulfstan had been installed.

Wulfstan attested all the king’s charters 931-935 AD and then seems to have disappeared from court. It is not entirely clear whether he supported or opposed the king in the campaign ending with the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD. However, he did support Olaf Guthfrithsson as ruler of York against King Edmund in 939 AD and helped to broker peace. He then appeared at Edmund’s court in 942 AD after Olaf was driven out by the Northumbrians. Furthermore the chronicler Athelweard tells us that:

“AD. 948. After seven years, therefore, bishop Wulfstan and the duke of the Mercians expelled certain deserters, namely, Reginald and Anlaf from the city of York, and gave them into the king’s hand.” [nb. That is Reginald/Ragnald Guthfrithsson and Anlaf/Olaf Sihtricsson, not Olaf Guthfrithsson.]

Wulfstan continued to attend court and also was present at the coronation of King Eadred in 946 AD. However, things deteriorated after that as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains:

“AD. 947. This year king Eadred came to Taddene’s-scylf, and there Wulstan the archbishop and all the Northumbrian witan plighted their troth to the king: and within a little while they belied it all, both pledge and also oaths.

AD 948. This year king Eadred ravaged all Northumberland, because they had taken Yric to be their king: and then, during the pillage, was the great minster burned at Ripon that St. Wilferth built. And as the king went homewards, then the army of York overtook him: the rear of the king’s forces was at Chesterford; and there they made great slaughter. Then was the king so wroth that he would have marched his forces in again and wholly destroyed the land. When the Northumbrian witan understood that, then forsook they Hyryc, and made compensation for the deed with king Eadred.”

Wulfstan was back at court attesting charters but not for long. By 951 AD he was back in York supporting Olaf Sihtricsson. Eadred had had enough.

“AD. 952. In this year king Eadred commanded archbishop Wulstan to be brought into the fastness at Judanbyrig, because he had been oft accused to the king: and in this year also the king commanded great slaughter to be made in the burgh of Thetford, in revenge of the abbat Eadelm, whom they had before slain. This year the North-humbrians expelled king Anlaf, and received Yric, Harold’s son.” [Yric is Eric Bloodaxe]

However, Wulfstan didn’t stay locked up for long; he was attesting charters again, still as Archbishop, the following year.  Eric was driven out of York in 954 AD and Eadred took control, for the final time. By now Wulfstan was in Dorchester rather than York, although still being referred to as an Archbishop.

Eadred died in 955 AD and was succeeded by Eadwig. Wulfstan appeared at his court too initially but then is absent in 956 AD. This may have been due to his own failing health.

After his death on 16th December he was buried at Oundle which is in the diocese of Dorchester. 

Death of Queen Edith, 17th December 1075

Coronation of Queen Edith
Coronation of Queen Eadgyth, from The Life of King Edward, Cambridge University Library

Edith of Wessex, sister of King Harold Godwinson and wife of King Edward the Confessor, died on 17th December 1075.

“Edgitha, sister of King Harold, and formerly queen of England, died at Winchester on the fourteenth of the calends of January, that is in the month of December [the 19th]. Her corpse was, by the king’s command, carried to London, and buried with great pomp near the body of her husband, king Edward, at Westminster, where the king held his court at the ensuing Christmas”

So records John of Worcester, although he has 19th December against the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s 17th (or 18th) December.

Eadgyth was the only daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and therefore sister to King Harold. She was probably born around 1025, between Harold and Tostig. She was also the wife of Edward the Confessor and probably anointed as Queen of England. She was admired for her beauty, education and skill at embroidery.

Her husband was at least 25 years her senior and their marriage did not produce children, leading to various stories about Edward’s celibacy from his vow of chastity to his determination to deny Godwin a royal grandchild.

When Edward exiled Godwin and his sons in 1051, he also separated from Edith and sent her to a nunnery. He may have been intending divorce at this point but had to reinstate the entire family in 1052. She remained at his side until his death, and commissioned a biography of him, entitled the “Vita Edwardii Regis” (Life of King Edward) which she used to portray herself as pious and devoted.

Edward’s building of the great new church at Westminster was matched by her church at Wilton, also dedicated in 1065.

She supported her brother Harold in his role as second to the king, but appears to have been closer to Tostig, as indeed was Edward. In fact John of Worcester claimed that she was behind the murder of Cospatric in Northumbria:

“1064: Soon after the feast of St. Michael, the archangel, on Monday, the fifth of the nones [the 3rd] of October, the Northumbrian thanes, Gamelbearn, Dunstan, son of Thneth, and Glonicorn, son of Heardulf, entered York with two hundred soldiers, to revenge the execrable murder of the noble Northumbrian thane, Cospatric, who was treacherously killed by order of queen Edgitha at the king’s court on the fourth night of Christmas, for the sake of her brother Tosti; as also the murder of the thanes Game), the son of Orm, and Ulf, the son of Dolfin, whom earl Tosti had perfidiously caused to be assassinated in his own chamber at York, the year before, although there was peace between them.”

When Tostig was exiled, William of Poitiers (a somewhat unreliable source) claimed she preferred William of Normandy as Edward’s successor to Harold due to Harold’s failure to support Tostig in 1065 when Tostig was driven out of his earldom by his nobles.

After Edward’s death she retired to Winchester but had to surrender it in 1066. She was allowed to remain there for her lifetime and does not appear to have had any involvement in the later revolts of her mother, nephews or other nobles.

She was probably in her late forties when she died.

Death of Winebald, 18th December 761

Saint Winebald
Saint Winebald, 11th century, Pontifikale Gundekarianum of Eichstatt, picture by KBWEi

St Winebald’s Feast Day is 18th December. He died in 761 AD and came from a family which had several saints among its members. He was the brother of St Willibald and St Walburga; his father was Richard the Pilgrim (not necessarily his actual name, as it is only from much later sources that this is recorded) and his uncle was St Boniface. It is not entirely surprising therefore that he became a missionary on the Continent along with his relatives.

He travelled to Rome on pilgrimage with Willibald and their father. An account of their journey is preserved in the writings of Huneberc which tells the story of Willibald, and which were based on Willibald’s own account. Huneberc was a nun at Heidenheim, where she arrived shortly after Winebald’s death, and she claimed to be a relative of his.

Their father was taken severely ill at Lucca in Italy and died of the sickness. Winebald and Willibald had him buried there at the Church of Saint Frigidian.  They then continued their pilgrimage through Italy until they reached Rome. Huneberc  tells us about their time in Rome:

“The two brothers remained there from the feast of St. Martin until Easter of the following year. During that time, whilst the cold and bare winter was passing and spring with its flowers was beginning to appear and Eastertide was shedding its sunny [159] radiance over the whole earth, the two brothers had been leading a life of monastic discipline under the prescriptions of the Holy Rule. Then with the passing of the days and the increasing heat of the summer, which is usually a sign of future fever, they were struck down with sickness. They found it difficult to breathe, fever set in, and at one moment they were shivering with cold, the next burning with heat. They had caught the black plague. So great a hold had it got on them that, scarcely able to move, worn out with fever and almost at the point of death, the breath of life had practically left their bodies. But God in His neverfailing providence and fatherly love deigned to listen to their prayers and come to their aid, so that each of them rested in turn for one week whilst they attended to each other’s needs. In spite of this, they never failed to observe the normal monastic Rule as far as their bodily weakness would allow; they persevered all the more zealously in their study and sacred reading, following the words of Truth, who said: “He who perseveres unto the end shall be saved.””

Willibald travelled on as far as Jerusalem but Winebald stayed in Rome. Newman claims that Winebald was of a sickly constitution, and more inclined to contemplation than his active brother. He therefore concluded that this was why Winebald did not continue to Jerusalem with the others:

“His health probably prevented him from being one of the pilgrims to the Holy Land; and he stayed at Rome while his brother and fellow-pilgrims went away. There he first received the tonsure, and during his illness he had learned the Psalter by heart, and given himself up to the study of Scripture, in which he became deeply versed, and excited the admiration of his companions by his learning. Already hospitia or houses of refuge for pilgrims from England had been established in Rome, and he was probably received into one of these, together with the remainder of the followers of the two princes from England. It may be argued from the eagerness with which he now plunged into the study of Divine things, that he had not been so devoutly disposed in his earlier years, until the call of his brother to leave an earthly kingdom, and the death of his sainted father at Lucca, and his sickness at Rome, had awakened a deeper sense of religion.”

After about seven years Winebald finally returned to England, and gathered a group of friends and family to join him in another pilgrimage to Rome. Soon he was back there and studying again. However, his uncle Boniface found him at the monastery and persuaded him to come to Germany to support his mission there. Winebald agreed, and with some others soon joined his uncle in Thuringia in Germany in November 740 AD. Newman goes on to tell us that:

“He was now consecrated priest, receiving his orders from the hands of St. Boniface. His age was probably between thirty-eight and forty when he was admitted to priest’s orders. Seven churches were committed to his care in the newly converted Thuringia. These he was to instruct more fully in the knowledge of Christianity. From his deep knowledge of Scripture, St. Winibald was well fitted for preaching and explaining.”

The Duke of Bavaria sent for him to preach at his court and rewarded him with great wealth for the Church. However, it seems Winebald was better suited to monastic seclusion and he withdrew to Heidenheim where he founded a double monastery for men and women. He was joined by his sister Walburga and remained there until his death. He grew increasingly infirm and was partially paralysed, having never fully recovered from the sickness in Rome in his youth. In his final months he had wished to go to Monte Cassino to end his days but died at Heidenheim on 18th December 761 AD with his sister and brother at his side.

As well as the account of Willibald’s life Huneberc also wrote a Life of Winebald and provides personal testimony regarding some of the miracles after his death.

Discovery of the Lenborough Hoard, 21st December 2014

Some of the cleaned coins from the Lenborough Hoard
Some of the cleaned coins from the Lenborough Hoard, The British Museum, CC-SA

On 21st December 2014 the Lenborough Hoard was discovered on Buckinghamshire farmland by detectorist Paul Coleman. It comprised 5248 silver pennies and two cut halfpennies of Athelred and Cnut in a lead parcel. It was eventually valued at £1.35m.

The following is an extract from comments on the hoard by Gareth Williams, Curator of Early Medieval coins at the British Museum:

“A small number of coins were more heavily corroded, or have accretions from the lead container, or were worn or badly struck at the time of use, and have not therefore been fully identified. All coins can be confidently attributed to specific rulers and types, and most coins can be attributed to individual mints and moneyers….

The hoard contains a total of 5,248 silver pennies, including two cut halves. There are 985 coins in the name of Ethelred II of England (978-1016) and 4,263 in the name of his successor Cnut (1016-35). At least three of the coins in the name of Ethelred are contemporary imitations minted in Dublin, which at that time was an independent kingdom. ….All of the coins in the name of Cnut appear to be English issues….. The coins in the name of Ethelred are a mixture of different types, issued consecutively in the latter part of his reign, probably beginning at some point in the 990s, through to those current at the time of his death in 1016. The coins in the name of Cnut (including both of the cut halves) were all of the Short Cross type, which is generally accepted as the final type of his reign, although it cannot be precisely dated….

The absence of any earlier coins from Cnut’s reign is statistically significant in such a large hoard, and means that on the currently accepted chronology of the coinage there is a gap of 10-15 years between the latest of the Ethelred coins in the hoard and the earliest of the Cnut coins. This suggests that there were originally two distinct parcels within the hoard, one probably representing accumulated savings, and the other drawn from coins circulating as currency at the time of deposition….. However, the fact that all of the coins were recovered from within the lead container means that there is no doubt that they were deposited at the same time, and represent a single group…”

The Buckinghamshire County Museum managed to raise funding to secure the hoard for the museum on 9th August 2016 and coins are on permanent display in a dedicated room at its building in Aylesbury.

Burning of Beorn, 24th December 780

Erling Skakke burns the house of a supporter of the pretender Sigurd Markusfostre (Heimskringla)
In the Heimskringla, Erling Skakke burns the house of a supporter of the pretender Sigurd Markusfostre, illus. Wilhelm Wetlesen (Norway 1871-1925)

This is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 780 AD:

 “AD 780. This year the Old-Saxons and the Franks fought; and the high-reeves of the North-humbrians burned Beorn, the ealdorman, at Seletun, on the 8th of the kalends of January [25th December]”

In fact it is more likely this was 24th December. Chaos that was reigning in Northumbria during the 8th century; lots of kings were coming and going, and sometimes coming back again and going again.

Here’s a summary of the 8th century kings of Northumbria prior to this date:

  • Eadbert abdicated in favour of Oswulf in 757 AD.
  • Oswulf was then assassinated in 758 AD by Athelwold Moll’s faction (we talked about that on 24th July).
  • Athelwold Moll ruled 759-765 AD when he was deposed on 30th October.
  • Alchred was chosen to succeed, and ruled 765-774 AD when he was deposed in turn at Easter and exiled. He married Osgifu, Oswulf’s daughter, and they had a son called Osred – he succeeded our man Alfwald, who was his uncle.
  • Athelred Moll, Athelwold’s son, now took the throne. He had probably been too young back in 765 AD to succeed his father but he now ruled 774-779 AD executing three ealdormen in 778 AD which was deeply unpopular.
  • And so to Alfwald, who ruled 779-788 AD.

Beorn’s fate provides an example of the difficulties faced lower in the hierarchy. Norse sagas also provide examples of arson attacks as part of a blood feud.

According to Symeon of Durham the high-reeves in question were Osbald and Athelheard, and they raised an army to burn Beorn, a nobleman of King Alfwald. Alfwald was eventually assassinated by Sicga in 789 AD so it may be that this was part of the in-fighting between dynasties that characterised this period of Northumbrian history. His killers were probably men in Athelred Moll’s household.

Although Alfwald was succeeded by his cousin Osred, he in turn was replaced by Athelred Moll coming back for his second term in 790 AD.

List of events on 25th December

Joachim, Anna and the Virgin Mary
Joachim, Anna and the Virgin Mary, in the Caligula Troper, 1060, British Library Cotton MS Caligula A XIV f.26v

Christmas Day was often the day of coronations.

Here’s a list of some:

  • In 855 AD Edmund was crowned king of East Anglia
  • In 1013 Sweyn Forkbeard was declared king of England
  • In 1066 William of Normandy was crowned King of England
  • It wasn’t just in England either:
  • In 333 Constantine the Great made his youngest son a Caesar
  • In 800 AD Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor
  • In 1000 Stephen was crowned the first king of Hungary
  • In 1025 Mieszko II Lambert was crowned king of Poland

Other events on 25th December

In 597 AD Augustine and his colleagues baptised thousands of people in Kent.

King Alfred famously celebrated Christmas at Chippenham in 877 AD but had a nasty surprise coming shortly after.

On 25th December 828 AD there was an eclipse of the moon, and in 916 AD Athelflaed was building burhs:

“After our Lord’s Nativity [25th Dec], Aegeliled, the lady of the Mercians, built two cities, namely Cyricbyrig [Cherbury] and Weadbyrig: she also built a third called Runcofan [Runcorn]; but that was before the Nativity”

Meanwhile, the Danes thought it was an ideal time to go on the attack (with varying success):

“AD 1008: As the latter [the Danes] returned (for the winter was now at hand) they crossed over to the Isle of Wight with great booty, and remained there until the feast of the Nativity of our Lord [25th Dec]; when, as the king was staying in Shropshire, they went through Hampshire into Berkshire, and burned Reading, Walinford, Cholsey, and many other places. Thence they moved on, and crossing Ashdown came to Cuuicelmeslawe [Cuckamsley-hill]. Returning thence by another road, they came upon the people who dwelt near the Kennet drawn up there in battle array, and immediately attacked them and put them to flight: they then returned to their ships with the spoil which they had taken.”

Then again in 1010:

“they [the Danes] burned Northampton and as much of its environs as they pleased; going thence, they crossed the river Thames, went into West Saxony, burned Caningamersce, and the greater part of Wiltshire, and, with great spoil as usual, returned to their ships about the feast of our Lord’s Nativity [25th Dec.].”

In 1017 King Cnut ordered an execution:

“on the feast of our Lord’s Nativity [25th Dec.], being at London, he ordered the traitorous ealdorman, Edric, to be slain in the palace, (fearing that he himself would at length suffer from his perfidy in the same manner as Aethelred and Eadmund, Edric’s former lords, had frequently suffered,) and commanded his body to be thrown down from the walls and left unburied.”

Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Abbey, 28th December 1065

Westminster Abbey on Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry. Scene 26
HIC PORTATUR CORPUS EADWARDI REGIS AD ECCLESIAM S[AN]C[T]I PETRI AP[OSTO]LI Here the body of King Edward is carried to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle, Image on web site of Ulrich Harsh

Today we commemorate the establishment of Edward the Confessor’s church at Westminster, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

 “1065: King Eadward’s health began gradually to fail: however, at Christmas, he held his court as well as he was able, at London, and on the feast-day of the Holy Innocents [28th Dec.] he caused the church [of Westminster], which was entirely of his own building, to be dedicated with great splendour to St. Peter, the prince of apostles.”

It was planned to balance the Church of St Paul, the East Minster, and since that day has played a pivotal role in the history of the nation. It was built on a marshy area by the Thames called Thorney Island, surrounded by tributaries of the Tyburn river.

According to an 11th century monk of the Abbey, Sulcard, a church had been founded there by Bishop Mellitus in the 7th century. He describes the foundation of Westminster in the days, as he claims, of King Athelberht of Kent, and the patronage and endowment extended by various benefactors, notably Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury and King Edward the Confessor. Sulcard also records the marvellous dedication of Westminster by St. Peter, patron of the church, and two other miracles worked in Westminster by him.

Dunstan and King Edgar are known to have established a Benedictine abbey on the site in the 960s for 12 monks, and in the mid-11th century Edward started to rebuild it with the intention of it being suitable to hold his tomb. It was actually completed about 1060 but not consecrated until 1065, a matter of days before Edward’s death. The king was too ill to attend and when he died soon afterwards his remains were interred in front of the High Altar. He remained there until 1161 when his remains were translated to a new shrine following his canonisation.

His wife Edith was buried alongside him with King William’s permission. It is also likely that Harold Godwinson was crowned there although this is not recorded. However, William of Normandy certainly was, and so was every English, and later British, monarch since (except Edwards V and VIII who were not crowned).

Very little of the original Edwardian building survives; there are some remains of the monastic dormitory in the Norman Undercroft. There is only one illustration of the church available, that on the Bayeux Tapestry.

In the 13th century Henry III, a devotee of Edward the Confessor, rebuilt the abbey as a shrine to his hero and as a site for his own grand tomb. The building was not completed before Henry died and was finished later.

The Benedictine monastery survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when it was dissolved in 1539.

Coronation of Charles the Bald, 29th December 875

Charles the Bald receives the Vivien Bible
Charles the Bald receives the Vivien Bible made at ST Martin de Tours Abbey, 845 AD, Bibliothèque nationale de France – Bible de Vivien Ms. Latin 1 folio 423r détail

On 29th December 875 AD Charles the Bald, King of West Frankia, Italy and the Carolingian Empire, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Pavia by the Pope. Interestingly his grandfather Charlemagne was canonised on 29th December 1165.

Charles was not an Anglo-Saxon of course, but his daughter Judith was married to two Wessex Kings: Athelwulf (see 13th December) and Athelbald. Charles was an important man in European politics and Athelwulf had married Judith to form a strategic alliance.

He was, as mentioned above, the grandson of Charlemagne and had succeeded to the western third of the empire through the Treaty of Verdun in 843 AD following civil war with his half-brothers after the death of their father in 840 AD.

Charles may have been influential but he was not popular. He had had to pay the Viking raiders to leave his kingdom, much as other rulers found themselves being forced to do. There were repeated rebellions against him during his reign. However, he can be credited with the innovative idea of defending Paris from the Vikings by ordering fortified bridges across the Seine. Two of these were critical in the defence of Paris against later Viking incursions a century later.

It was in 855 AD, 20 years before Charles’ rise to the position of Holy Roman Emperor, that Athelwulf and his son Alfred appeared at his court. By the time Charles was in Pavia, Alfred had unexpectedly become King of Wessex after the deaths of his four older brothers and was fighting Guthrum in Wessex with only limited success.

His eldest daughter Judith had returned from Wessex in 860 AD and then eloped with Baldwin of Flanders in 861 AD. By now, Baldwin had proven himself to be a staunch ally and the couple had had at least three sons. Judith’s son Baldwin II (born about 865 AD) married Alfred’s youngest daughter, Alfthryth , who was born around 877 AD, after Charles’ elevation.

Charles’ by-name of “Bald” is not necessarily referring to a lack of hair. Contemporary pictures show him with a full head of hair. It may have been an ironic nickname for someone who actually had a very full head of hair, or possibly referred to his lack of land which was a factor in the civil war with his brothers; compare “John Lackland” for King John.

Death of Ecgwin, 30th December 717

Evesham, St Lawrence's church window, story to Ecgwin
Evesham, St Lawrence’s church window, story to Ecgwin, Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK [CC BY 2.0]

St Ecgwin, who died 30th December 717 AD, was Bishop of Worcester and founded the Abbey of Evesham. However, despite his reputation as a protector of orphans his career was not without controversy and he ended up having to go to the Pope to clear his name. 
Ecgwin was born a member of the Mercian royal family, possibly a nephew of King Athelred of Mercia, who was one of Penda’s many sons. He became a monk early on and was elevated to Bishop some time after 693 AD, allegedly due to popular acclaim. Byrhtferth of Ramsey records that Athelred loved to discuss theology with Ecgwin.

However, Ecgwin failed to retain his popularity. Although a father to orphans, protector of widows and fair judge of disputes, he was also a strict disciplinarian at a time when Christianity was a new and confusing faith for most people.  In particular he struggled to enforce clerical celibacy and the Christian form of marriage and was finally expelled from the diocese.

He decided to go on pilgrimage to Rome to seek papal authority for his rule.  He set out with a group of pilgrims, locking shackles to his feet and throwing the key into the River Avon before he went. This was to expiate the sins of his youth.

Approaching Italy by ship a huge fish leaped onto the deck and was killed. When it was cut open keys were discovered in its belly which unlocked the shackles. Ecgwin accepted this as a divine message to unfasten his shackles and did so accordingly.

Another version of the story has the fish caught in the Tiber after he had reached Rome. However, the fish, wherever and whenever caught, had keys in its belly.

On reaching Rome and having his audience with the Pope, Ecgwin’s case was supported, the charges against him dismissed and he was restored to his episcopate. When he returned to Mercia, Coenred was now king, Athelred having retired to a monastery in 704 AD and passed the throne to his nephew; this means Coenred and Ecgwin were probably cousins, if not brothers.

Upon his return Ecgwin founded the Abbey at Evesham and then set out again for Rome in 709 AD, this time in the company of Coenred and Offa of Essex, both of whom had abdicated with the intention of becoming monks in Rome.

In 716 AD he attended the first Council of Clovesho, which Archbishop Theodore had established to be held annually.

Ecgwin died on 30th December AD 717 and was buried in his Abbey at Evesham. Hagiographies of his life were written by Byrhtferth of Ramsey and Dominic of Evesham.

His shrine was very popular and his relics were taken on a tour of Southern England in 1077 to raise funds for the Abbey’s repair. However, his tomb did not survive the destruction wrought during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.

Battle of Englefield, 31st December 870

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the battle
Entry from the C manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the battle, British Library Cotton Tiberius B i.

31st December 870 AD saw the Battle of Englefield, near Reading in Berkshire. Here a group of Vikings had ventured out from Reading, which they had taken on 28th December, but were soon driven back by the men of Wessex. The Vikings had had it their way for much of the previous year and most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen by now. Only Wessex remained.
The battle was one in a series of engagements between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 

“the army came to Reading in Wessex and about three days after this, two of their earls rode forth. Then Aethelwulf the ealdorman met them at Englafield, and there fought against them, and got the victory: and there one of them, whose name was Sidroc, was slain.”

The battle is also recorded a little more rousingly by the chronicler Athelweard as follows:

“the army of the barbarians above-mentioned set out for Reading, and the principal object of the impious crew was to attack the West-Saxons; and three days after they came, their two consuls, forgetting that they were not on board their fleet, rode proudly through fields and meadows on horseback, which nature had denied to them.

But duke Ethelwulf met them, and though his troops were few, their hearts resided in brave dwellings: they point their darts, they rout the enemy, and triumph in abundant spoils.”

Athelwulf was a well-established ealdorman. He had fought a band of pirates near Winchester in 860 AD, as also recorded in the Chronicle:

“AD 860. King Aethelbald died, and was buried at Sherborne; and Aethelbert, his brother, added Kent, Surrey and Sussex to his own kingdom, as was proper. In his days, a great army of the Pagans landed and assaulted Winchester, and laid it waste. As they were returning to their ships with great booty, they were man fully opposed by Osric, ealdorman of Hampshire, and his men, and by Aethelwulf, the ealdorman, with the men of Berkshire. They joined battle, and the Pagans were cut down on all sides; and when they could no longer resist, like women they began to flee, and the Christians remained masters of the field of carnage.”

There were a couple more battles in the area over the next few days – so keep reading in January for more on the campaign.