Category: Events in Anglo-Saxon times

On This Day in April

Battle of Whalley, 2nd April 798

Field on Broken Brow, Whalley
Field on Broken Brow, Whalley by Mr T, CC BY-SA 2.0

On 2nd April 798 AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that:

“AD. 798. This year there was a great fight at Hwealleage [Whalley], in the land of the North-humbrians, during Lent, on the 4th of the nones of April [2d April], and there Alric, the son of Heardbearht, was slain, and many others with him.”

Northumbria at this time was in chaos with a number of families fighting for supremacy. Following the assassination of King Athelred Moll in 796 AD was the spectacularly brief reign of Osbald, who was expelled after only 27 days. Eardwulf then took control until 806 AD. Eardwulf had himself been the target of an assassination attempt by Athelred at Ripon in 791/2 AD, but survived having been nursed back to health by the monks.

According to Simeon of Durham, a conspiracy was formed by the murderers of Athelred:

“A. D. 798. Duke Wada, entering into a conspiracy formed by the murderers of king Etheldred, fought a battle against king Eardwulf, in a place called by the Angles Billingahoth, near Walalege; and many on both sides being slain, duke Wada, with his men, was put to flight, and king Eardwulf royally gained the victory over his enemies.”

Wada seems to have gone into exile in Mercia after the battle. It is recorded that Eardwulf attacked Mercia in 801 AD because the king of Mercia, Coenwulf, had given shelter to Eardwulf’s enemies, and this probably included Wada. Here’s Simeon again:

“At this time [801 AD], Eardulf, king of the Northumbrians, led an army against Kenwulf, king of the Mercians, because he had given an asylum to his enemies. He also, collecting an army, obtained very many auxiliaries from other provinces, having made a long expedition among them. At length, with the advice of the bishops and chiefs of the Angles on either side, they made peace, through the kindness of the king of the Angles. An agreement of sure peace was made between them, which both kings confirmed by an oath on the gospel of Christ, calling God as a witness and surety, that as long as they retained this life, and bore the crown of government, a firm peace and true friendship should exist between them, unshaken and inviolate.”

It’s not clear why Eardwulf and Wada were at odds; possibly Wada had supported the unlucky Osbald. He clearly wasn’t a supporter of Athelred, although he may have gone further and conspired to remove Eardwulf. There is a letter from Alcuin to Osbald, who was in exile among the Picts, referring to an earlier letter advising him to enter a monastery. Osbald had clearly not followed Alcuin’s advice and may have planned a further attack on Northumbria around 798 AD although he is not noted as being at Whalley. Osbald is known, however, to have become an abbot and to have died in 799 AD, being buried at York.

Eardwulf was not supported by Eanbald, the Archbishop of York either. In 801 AD Alcuin also wrote to Eanbald, suggesting that he was bringing troubles upon his own head by supporting the enemies of Eardwulf.

Eardwulf was eventually expelled from his kingdom, and he went to the continent to seek support from Charlemagne and the pope. In a letter to Charlemagne, the pope referred to letters he had received from Coenwulf, Eanbald and Wada in connection with Eardwulf’s expulsion.

The Chronicle also names Alric, son of Heardberht, as a casualty during the battle. It is not completely certain who he was, but the annals record that in 778 AD, by order of King Athelred, the nobles Athelbald and Heardberht slew three ealdormen: Eadwulf, Cynewulf and Ecga. Alric may have been the son of this Heardberht, but whether he fought on the side of Eardwulf or of Wada at Whalley is unknown.

Alhred expelled, 3rd April 774

Sceat of Alhred of Northumbria
Sceat of Alhred of Northumbria, York Mint, by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Prior to the events culminating in the Battle of Whalley (see 2nd April), there was a number of earlier nobles and royals whose behaviour was seen as unacceptable. We’ll take a quick look at the example of Alhred.

Alhred was a member of a Northumbrian royal dynasty who had driven out and replaced Athelwold Moll as king in 765 AD. He was the son of Eanwine and grandson of Beornholm and the family was rooted in Bernicia, the northern half of the Kingdom of Northumbria.

After being chosen to succeed Athelwold, Alhred married Osgifu, the daughter of Oswulf. Who was Oswulf? Well, he was the king before Athelwold. The marriage would have strengthened Alhred’s position by allying him with another royal line opposed to Athelwold. The couple had at least two sons.

For a while he reigned successfully and was known as a patron of the Church, supporting missionary activity to the Continent. He called a Synod in 773 AD which sent Willehad to preach to the Frisians; Willehad later became Bishop of Bremen. Alhred also corresponded with Charlemagne. The Archbishop of York, one Athelred, was a relative and no doubt was supposed to be a supporter. However, the two fell into a dispute.

However, on 3rd April 774 AD at Easter the Council, led by Archbishop Athelred, expelled Alhred, and raised Athelwold’s son, Athelred Moll to the throne. Simeon of Durham tells us that:

“king Alcred, by the design and consent of all his connexions, being deprived of the society of the royal family and princes, changed the dignity of empire for exile. He went with a few companions of his flight, first to the city of Bebba [Bamborough], afterwards to the king of the Picts, Cynoht by name.”

Athelred Moll didn’t rule for long – he was expelled as well in 779 AD. His successor was Alfwold, the son of Oswulf and brother of Osgifu (although Athelred Moll did make a return in 789 AD for an unprecedented second term as King). Athelred Moll ended his life being assassinated on 19th April 796 AD by a man called Ealdred.

However, one of Alhred’s sons, Osred, did briefly become king in 788 AD, and another son, Alhmund, was murdered in 802 AD.

Feast Day of Athelburh of Kent, 5th April

Stone commemorating the burial place of Queen Athelburh
Stone commemorating the burial place of Queen Athelburh on the south wall of the church of St Mary and St Ethelburga, parish church of Lyminge, Kent, by BabelStone [CC BY-SA 3.0]

5th April is the feast day of Athelburh of Kent, daughter of Athelberht and Bertha of Frankia. She was also the second wife of King Edwin of Northumbria.

Like her mother, and latterly her father, Athelburh was a Christian. When the marriage of Edwin to Athelburh in 625 AD was agreed, it was on the condition that she could continue to practise her faith, and so she took a retinue with her including Bishop Paulinus whose mission was to convert the people of Northumbria. As part of this agreement she also promoted the conversion to her husband, and was encouraged in this by the Pope, who wrote to her and sent her gifts of a silver mirror and a gilt ivory comb.

Edwin converted and many of his people followed him, including his two sons from his first marriage, Osfrith and Eadfrith. Edwin’s and Athelburh’s own children were raised as Christians. Bede tells us their names, and their sad history:

“Afterwards other children of his by Queen Ethelberga were baptized, viz. Ethelhun and his daughter Etheldrith, and another, Wuscfrea, a son; the first two of which were snatched out of this life whilst they were still in their white garments, and buried in the church at York. Iffi, the son of Osfrid, was also baptized, and many more noble and illustrious persons.”

Edwin was killed in 633 AD and Athelburh fled to Kent, for safety. With her went Paulinus and her children Eanflad and Wuscfrea, as well as Yffi, the son of Osfrith mentioned above. Osfrith had been killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase with his father and Eadfrith taken prisoner.

Wuscfea and Yffi were threats to Oswald, who became king of Northumbria, as they were the male descendants of Edwin, so they were sent to the court of Athelburh’s cousin King Dagobert in Frankia for safekeeping. Sadly nether survived the perils of childhood and died of illnesses while still very young. Meanwhile Athelburh retired to the monastery she had founded in Lyminge and became abbess. She died in 647 AD.

In a personal touch, Bede records her pet name was Tate.

She was pivotal in the conversion of Edwin and his people to Christianity, although following his death, the Northumbrians returned to their old beliefs for a while.

The period during which she was in Northumbria is one full of stories, recorded in Bede and still told today: Lilla’s heroic defence of the king, the story of the sparrow in the meadhall, the birth of Eanflad and the building of the first minster in York. In all of this Athelburh fulfilled her role as peaceweaver between kingdoms.

Death of Richard Rawlinson, 6th April 1755

Portrait of Richard Rawlinson, Engraver William Smith, after George Vertue [Public domain]
Portrait of Richard Rawlinson, Engraver William Smith, after George Vertue [Public domain]

Richard Rawlinson died on 6th April 1755. He was an English clergyman and antiquarian collector of books and manuscripts, which he bequeathed to the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

His father, Sir Thomas Rawlinson, was a wine merchant, and lord mayor of London in 1706. Richard was educated at St Paul’s school, Eton, and at St John’s College, Oxford, where he matriculated as a gentleman commoner on 9 March 1708, and proceeded BA in 1711, MA in 1713, receiving the honorary degree of DCL in 1719. He was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1714 and was inducted by Isaac Newton. He was also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

In 1716 he was ordained as a Deacon in the non-juring Church of England. As a non0juror, he supported the exiled Stuart dynasty of James II of England and VII of Scotland and refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary who were the King and Queen of England following the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In 1719-26 he travelled in Holland, France, Germany and Italy, gradually amassing a foreign, classical and English library, as well as coins. When his elder brother Thomas, who was also a great book collector, died in 1726, Rawlinson catalogued his manuscripts, and at the sale in 1734 acquired many of them for himself.

He became a Bishop in 1728 but seems to have preferred continuing to collect books and coins. In 1750 he also endowed a professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and was a benefactor to St John’s College. The professorship, later to become the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship, was the one held by JRR Tolkien and is currently held by Andy Orchard.

He died at Islington, London, on the 6th of April 1755. Rawlinson left his manuscripts, his curiosities, and some other property to the Bodleian Library

Discovery of the Gilling Sword, North Yorkshire, 9th April 1976

Gilling Sword
Gilling Sword at Yorkshire Museum, © PWicks

On 9th April 1976 a nine year old boy playing by Gilling Beck in North Yorkshire made a discovery that later earned him one of the most coveted of all awards – a Blue Peter Badge! A second Blue Peter badge was also awarded to the sword.

Gary Fridd spotted metal about 2 feet from the water’s edge and so uncovered one of the finest Anglian swords found in Britain. Fortunately for us it was acquired by the Yorkshire Museum and is frequently on display there.

The sword dates to the 9th-10th century, and is typical of this period. It is made of iron and is about 33 inches (83 cm) long, with a maximum width of 3.4 inches (8.6 cm) across the guard. Of this the blade is about 28 inches (70 cm) tapering to a width of about 2 inches (5 cm).

It is two-edged with five silver bands on the grip and silver plaques on the pommel. The patterns are geometric with horizontal and vertical lines around a circular design.

The Yorkshire Museum gives a more detailed description here:

“Iron blade with five silver bands on grip and silver plaques on pommel. Two edged blade, pattern welding, pommel decorated with silver plates with geometric decoration, five silver bands in grip, grip missing. Elaborate pommel with large central lobe topped with a circular button below which is a silver band decorated with vertical lines, on both sides of the lobe there are small plaques with a geometric circular design. Running vertically on the shoulders of the pommel either side of the lobe are two thin silver bands decorated with horizontal lines. The shoulder beyond these are concave and curve to meet another silver band which runs along the top of the upper guard, again decorated in a geometric pattern. The tang is visible through the silver bands that remain from the grip – which too bear the geometric pattern – between there it can be seen to reduce steeply in size as it reaches the pommel. The guard is thick but short, curving at an angle similar to that of the pommel it is slightly deformed on one arm. The blade by the hilt is black and reasonably intact, it still holds a sharp edge, and the cutting edge is chipped as well as corroded. The condition of the blade becomes worse toward the tip and the wide shallow fuller or plane which runs along the blade becomes obscured in the damaged portion, the blade is also reasonably loose in its hilt.”

Baptism of King Cadwalla in Rome, 10th April 689

Chichester mural of Cadwalla issuing the charter
Chichester mural of Cadwalla issuing the charter, by Lambert Barnard, 16th c. Public Domain

On 10th April 689 AD Cadwalla, former king of the Gewisse (West Saxons) was baptised in Rome by Pope Sergius I, who also stood as his godfather. He died a few days later on 20th April and was buried in St Peter’s Church.

Bede tells us:

“For coming to Rome, at the time that Sergius was pope, he was baptized on the holy Saturday before Easter Day, in the year of our Lord 689, and being still in his white garments, he fell sick, and departed this life on the 20th of April, and was associated with the blessed in heaven.”

Unusually for kings of the time he had abdicated in the previous year and travelled to Rome on pilgrimage, following a campaign of conquest in Sussex, Surrey and the Isle of Wight.

Cadwalla was a West Saxon atheling, or prince, and had spent some time in exile before coming to power in 685 AD. It was during his exile that he ransacked Sussex and killed King Athelwalh. During this time he was befriended and supported by St Wilfrid of Ripon.

He succeeded Centwine in Wessex and expanded the kingdom into Kent and the Isle of Wight, destroying the latter’s royal blood line as part of his campaign. During the fighting he was seriously injured, however, and so in 688 AD he left for Rome on pilgrimage. His late baptism was not unusual for the time.

His brother Mul was burned to death by the Kentishmen in 687 AD but it was Cadwalla’s successor Ine who claimed the wergild owed for the death.

Cadwalla left a quarter of the Isle of Wight to Wilfrid for religious use and founded the monastery at Farnham in Sussex. In 686 he issued a charter confirming the rights and territories previously given to Wilfrid by king Athelwalh and the estate of the Hundred of Pagham including Shripney, Charlton, Bognor, Bersted, Crimsham, Mundham and Tangmere.

The scene is imaginatively depicted in the 16th century mural in the south transept of Chichester Cathedral

Death of Guthlac, 11th April 714

Roundel from the Guthlac Roll
Roundel from the Guthlac Roll depicting Guthlac receiving his tonsure at Repton, c.1175-1215, Guthlac Roll, © British Library, Harley Roll Y6 f.3r

Guthlac. Hermit of Crowland, died on 11th April 714 AD.

He was the son of Penwealh and Tette, and an atheling of the Mercian royal house. He also had a sister called Pega who was a hermit too and lived at Peakirk.

At the age of 15 he became the leader of a war-band, fighting on the western borders with Mercia, although his biographer Felix claimed he always restored a third of the stolen treasure to its owners. He may have lived in exile among Britons for a while and he understood their language.

By the time he was 24 he decided to become a monk and went to the monastery at Repton where he was received by the Abbess Alfthryth. It is recorded that he was unpopular there because he abstained from alcohol and preferred an austere lifestyle.

After two years there he left the monastery with a companion called Beccel and became a hermit in the East Anglian fens at Crowland, arriving at his new home on St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August). He wished to emulate the secluded and aesthetic life of the Desert Fathers among the desolate marshes and fens.  He lived a life of penance, fasting every day, only eating barley bread and drinking marsh water in the evenings. He wore animal skins for clothing. He was often tormented by visions of demons and devils, which are described in gruesome detail in record of his life.

His remote location did not protect him from those seeking his advice and spiritual intervention however.

These visitors included Bishop Headda, who was made Bishop of Leicester in 709 AD, the Abbess Ecgburgh who was the daughter of King Aldwulf of the East Angles and his kinsman Athelbald who had been exiled by King Coelred of Mercia. Guthlac prophesied Athelbald’s future success, and when this came about in due course, Athelbald repaid Guthlac by promoting his cult vigorously.

During his life, many miracles were associated with Guthlac. Sources tell us of how he was able to predict the actions of birds and animals. A year after he died, Guthlac’s sister Pega opened his grave and found his body uncorrupted. It was subsequently moved to a shrine which became a place of veneration.

Two Old English poems have survived, celebrating his life, as part of the Exeter Book.

“There is no worry for death in me. 
Though my bones and blood both will be rendered to the earth’s profit, 
the perpetual part of me shall voyage into bliss, 
where it may enjoy a homestead more fair.”

Baptism of King Edwin and his court at York, 12th April 627

Study of a Flying Sparrow, c 1515-1520, by Giovanni da Udine
Study of a Flying Sparrow, c 1515-1520, by Giovanni da Udine, Public domain

On 12th April 627 AD Edwin of Northumbria and his court were baptised by Bishop Paulinus at York.

It had been a relatively quick turnaround from pagan warlord to Christian king, although he had spent some of his early years in exile at the Christian court of Gwynedd and may have been baptised as a boy during this time. Edwin had married Athelburh in 625 AD, as we saw when looking at her feast day on 5th April. This had heralded the mission to convert the Northumbrians to Christianity, led by Paulinus who travelled with the Kentish princess.

Edwin’s successes had established enemies and he was the target of an assassination attempt in 626 AD which was only thwarted by his thegn, Lilla, who threw himself in the path of the poisoned knife.

Edwin was willing to convert to his wife’s faith, on the basis of a vision he had received while in exile at the court of King Radwald. However he didn’t feel able to agree to baptism of his people without the consent of his counsellors. Bede describes the counsel which took place, when Coifi the heathen priest is alleged to have advocated the conversion on the basis that his gods had failed to reward his dedication to them.

Another of the king’s counsellors is said to have offered the famous analogy of the sparrow in the hall as a reason for accepting the new religion:

“The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”

Death of Paul the Deacon, 13th April 796/799

Paulus Diaconus
Paulus Diaconus. Detail of fol. 34r of Laurentian Plut. 65.35, 10th century, Public Domain
History of the Lombards
History of the Lombards, 11th century copy from Mont St Michel, © British Library Royal MS 13 A XXII

On 13th April 796/799 AD Paul the Deacon died.

Paul was born probably in the 720s to a family of Lombard aristocrats fallen on hard times. His original birth name was probably Winfrid, and his parents were Warnefrid and Theodelinda. Despite family difficulties he received an excellent education and may have served as secretary to the Lombard King, Desiderius. At least he did tutor the king’s daughter, Adelperga.

Later he moved to the kingdom of Benevento. He then became a monk at the monastery of Lake Como and by 782 AD had moved to the monastery at Monte Cassino; it was around this time he came to the attention of Charlemagne and he became an influential force in the Carolingian Renaissance at the court from 782-787 AD, where Alcuin from York also worked from 782 – 796 AD. He had already earned a reputation as an historian, and as a man of good character, and had written for Adelperga a history continuing from the Breviarium of Eutropius. This was written while he was at Benevento and covered history from 364 AD (where Eutropius ended) to 553 AD.

Paul also wrote a history of the Bishops of Metz until 766 AD at the request of Angilram (who was then the Bishop of Metz).

He was also rather liberal in his attitude to children, advocating the avoidance of beatings and the provision of time to play outside in the fresh air.

His great work was the History of the Lombards written between 787-795 AD, drawing on lost works as well as Bede, Isidore of Seville and Pliny. In it he recounted the treachery of Rosemund who murdered her husband, the King of Italy, and married her co-conspirator Helmechis before fleeing to Ravenna. There she was persuaded by the prefect Longinus to murder Helmechis so that they could marry, but things did not go to plan:

“There the prefect Longinus began to urge Rosemund to kill Helmechis and to join him in wedlock.  As she was ready for every kind of wickedness and as she desired to become mistress of the people of Ravenna, she gave her consent to the accomplishment of this great crime, and while Helmechis was bathing himself, she offered him, as he came out of the bath, a cup of poison which she said was for his health. But when he felt that he had drunk the cup of death, he compelled Rosemund, having drawn his sword upon her, to drink what was left, and thus these most wicked murderers perished at one moment by the judgment of God Almighty.”

In 787 AD Paul returned to Benevento and died on 13th April, between 796 and 799 AD, the exact year not being known.

Paul’s works were extremely popular and influential and provide a unique insight into the perspective of European history from that of a Lombard.

Death of Earl Godwin, 15th April 1053

Death of Earl Godwin by William Blake
Death of Earl Godwin by William Blake, 1779 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Earl Godwin, father of Harold Godwinson, died on 15th April 1053. He was taken ill at dinner on 12th April 1053, a few days earlier, probably from a stroke.

He was probably born to the South Saxon thegn Wulfnoth Cild, and at that time his family was not of more than local importance. His father had been accused of treason by Eadric Streona (or Eadric’s brother) and had persuaded 20 ships from the English fleet to follow him in revolt. The resulting fighting destroyed most of the fleet and allowed the Vikings to invade Kent with ease.

Little more is known until Godwin was made an Earl by Cnut in 1018 and was promoted to command the whole of Wessex in 1020. He married a Danish noblewoman, Gytha, whose brother married Cnut’s sister, ultimately providing Godwin with family connections to Danish royalty when her nephew became King Sweyn II of Denmark. Godwin’s power grew steadily and inexorably.

After Cnut died he supported Harthacnut and Emma against Harold Harefoot, but then changed sides. He was then implicated in the murder of Alfred Atheling on Harefoot’s orders, according to the later chronicler, John of Worcester, when he turned on Alfred’s escort and

“some he put in fetters and afterwards blinded, some he tortured by scalping and punished by cutting off their hands and feet; many also he ordered to be sold, and he killed by various and miserable deaths 600 men at Guildford.”

His defection was remembered by Harthacnut when he came to power in turn following Harold’s death and he accused Godwin of Alfred’s murder. At that time Godwin was able to buy his way out of trouble.

When Alfred’s brother Edward the Confessor became king, Godwin continued to wield influence. Edward married his daughter Edith, and Godwin’s sons Swein and Harold were made Earls. Although Edward exiled him in 1051 he was back the following year and remained powerful until his death in 1053.

His career was long and contentious. His family was hugely influential in the development of the kingdom of England. His father had rebelled against the English king, but Godwin thrived in the political turmoil of 11th century England and left his children a solid base of power from which to grow with one son eventually becoming the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.

The people of Leighton defeat the Viking Army, 17th April 914

Map of Burhs
Map of Burhs based on information ‘The Defence of Wessex’ by Hill and Rumble, by Hel-hama / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Around 17th April 914 the folk of (probably) Leighton in the kingdom of Mercia and on the front line of the Danelaw engaged a Viking raiding party. This may be Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, or possibly Leighton Bromswold in Cambridgeshire, or another Leighton altogether.

We turn to John of Worcester for the details:

“AD 914 After Easter [17th April] a Pagan army from Northampton and Leicester came plundering into the province of Oxford and slew great numbers of people in the royal vill of Hockernetune  (Hockerton), and many other vills. Shortly after they returned home another expedition was equipped, consisting of horsemen, and dispatched in the province of Hertford, towards Ligetun (Leighton ?); but the people of the country flocked together to oppose them, and slaying many of them and putting the rest to flight, took some of their horses and most of their arms, recovering also the booty they had collected.”

This was the period when Edward the Elder and his sister Athelflad, Lady of the Mercians, were fighting back against the invaders and building a series of burhs across the country. In 914 AD Edward was concentrating on Essex while Athelflad was in Tamworth and Stafford.

“After Rogation days [23rd May], king Edward detached part of his troops to build a town on the south side of the river Lea, and, marching the rest into Essex, pitched his camp at Maldienne (Maldon?). He took up his quarters there while a town was building at Witham, which was afterwards fortified; and a great portion of the inhabitants who were enthralled by the Pagans submitted themselves to him, with all they possessed. In the early part of the summer, Ethelfleda, the lady of the Mercians, led her people to Tamworth, and by God’s help rebuilt that town; from thence she went to Stafford, and built or threw up a fort on the north bank of the river Sowe. The following winter was exceedingly long and severe. Athelm, bishop of Wells, being promoted to the archbishopric of Canterbury, was succeeded by Wulfhelm.”

The campaign was clearly providing people with a sense of confidence, demonstrating that the Vikings were hardly invincible, but it was still going to be another 60 years until England was finally established as a single nation under Edgar.

Assassination of King Athelred Moll, 18th April 796

A base silver styca of Aethelred I, second reign (789 - 796)
A base silver styca of Aethelred I, second reign (789 – 796), moneyer Cudcils, “shrine” type. See North number 184 or Abramson page 130, Sub Group 3, Series Y, number Y290. It is 14mm in diameter. © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0

18th April was the assassination of Athelred Moll, king of Northumbria (see 3rd April for more about Northumbria at this time).

Simeon of Durham recounts the events for us:

“AD. 796, (which is the seventh year of king Ethelred,) Alric, formerly duke, then cleric, died in the city of York. And a little after, that is, on the fifth of the kalends of April [28th March], an eclipse of the moon took place between cockcrow and dawn. In the same year, king Ethelred was slain at Cobre, on the fourteenth of the kalends of May [18th April], in the seventh year of his reign; Osbald the patrician was appointed to the kingdom by some chiefs of that nation, and twenty-seven days after, forsaken by the whole company of the royal family and princes, having been put to flight and expelled from the kingdom, he, with a few followers, retired to the island of Lindisfarne, and thence went by ship, with some of his brethren, to the king of the Picts.”

In fact Athelred Moll was a little bit unusual in that he had two reigns. His first was 774-779 AD, and he was the son of Athelwold Moll who had previously usurped the throne. His father was deposed and forced into a monastery in 765 AD. Athelred was probably too young at that time to succeed him, and Alhred was chosen instead.  Alhred was in turn deposed in 774 AD with the support of the Archbishop of York, Athelbert.

King Athelred’s first reign shaped up to be a firm one and following the execution of some ealdormen in 778 AD, the king was deposed by Alfwald, who was another kingly hopeful and son of another previous ruler.  But that didn’t stop our Athelred and he got back into power after 10 years of turmoil. Again he showed himself to be a ruthless man and more deaths followed, including a predecessor, Osred, and the sons of Alfwald.

Athelred married the daughter of King Offa of Mercia to boost his authority. However, the Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793 AD was seen as a judgement, by the scholar Alcuin at least, for Athelred’s vindictiveness and his extravagance. Certainly his support ran out at which point he was removed.

Discovery of the Escrick Ring, 19th April 2000

Escrick Ring
Escrick Ring, courtesy of York Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0

19th April 2009 saw the discovery of an enigmatic and unique piece of jewellery near York: the Escrick Ring.

The ring was found by metal detectorist Michael Greenhorn, from York and District Metal Detecting Club. It measures around 2.5cm across and is intricately made of gold, prestige glass and a large sapphire by a highly skilled craftsman. It represents the second known use of a sapphire in jewellery found in England (the first being a 5th Century Roman example).

This beautiful and unusual ring was originally thought to date to the 11th century and to have belonged to a bishop. However, determining its provenance was proving difficult and in 2013 a conference was held in York to gather experts from UK universities and museums together to discuss its possible origins. The issue was that nothing like it had been found before, and its style and material made dating difficult without a specific context.

However it is now thought by many that the ring dates to the 5th or early 6th century. The style of the ring suggests that it was produced in a Frankish workshop, while its design and quality suggests that it was made for someone of high rank and status.

The British Museum has however retained the 11th century date in its description of the ring:

“Description: Gold finger ring set with a large blue gemstone and red glass cloisonné. The central cabochon gem is surrounded by four triangular cells. Where these meet, small round cells have been set. Three of these round cells still contain minute granular inlays, although it is impossible to determine whether they are glass pastes, glass or gem stones. A short, straight cell wall emanates from each roundel and meets the corners of the outer, square frame of the bezel, thus bisecting the space between the triangles. Glass slips are still present in one of the triangular cells and four of the interstitial spaces.

The square frame of the bezel is set onto an eight-lobed base. The lobes are alternately embellished by gold granules and by beaded wire enclosing further gold granules. Where this platform meets the round-sectioned hoop, three further gold granules are set. The underside of the lobed platform is plain.

Analysis: Non-destructive X-ray fluorescence analysis of the surface of the finger ring indicated a gold content of approximately 90%, a silver content of approximately 8%, the remainder being copper. Raman spectrometry identified the blue stone as corundum (sapphire) and Raman and XRF identified the red settings as glass. Dimensions: Diam. of hoop 25.5mm; Th. of hoop 2mm; Diam. of bezel 23.1mm max.; Th. of bezel 8.4mm (including cabochon); Weight 10.2g.

Discussion: The presence of a sapphire is not characteristic for the Anglo-Saxon or Merovingian period and in conjunction with the use of red glass, rather than garnet, for inlay suggests that this ring dates later.

Date: Parallels on stone use, granulation and layout make a date perhaps in the late 10th or 11th centuries likely.

By Sonja Marzinzik, British Museum

Update: a seminar on this ring held at the Yorkshire Museum in early 2013 included contributions from Leslie Webster and Niamh Whitfield, both of whom suggested that this ring may instead be a Continental import and perhaps as early as 5th century in date. The cabochon-cut sapphire could be a re-used classical gem.”

The ring is a rare object in itself, and unique as a find of continental gold jewellery of the broader Anglo-Saxon period from northern England. If you visit York, try and go along to the Yorkshire Museum to take a look.

Death of Archbishop Alfheah (Alphege), 19th April 1012

Martyrdom of St Alphege, 1897
Martyrdom of St Alphege, 1897, from the Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions

Alfheah (Alphege) the Archbishop of Canterbury was killed by the Danes on 19th April 1012 after he refused to allow the payment of a ransom of £3000 for his life.

Alfheah had started his monastic life at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, and possibly spent some time as a hermit. However, Dunstan made him abbot of Bath and then in 984 AD he became Bishop of Winchester. In 994 AD he was instrumental in arranging the truce between King Athelred and Olaf Tryggvason. Then in 1005 he was made Archbishop of Canterbury, until taken prisoner by Thurkell the Tall’s men at the end of September 1011, allegedly by the treachery of the Bishop Almar, the abbot of St Augustine’s monastery.

Simeon of Durham describes Alfheah’s capture:

“The people now being slain, the city plundered and all burnt, the archbishop Alfege was dragged out bound, was driven along and severely wounded, was carried to the fleet, and then again thrust into prison, and there tormented for seven months. In the meanwhile the anger of God being aroused against the murderous people, destroyed two thousand of them by dreadful pains of the intestines. Others of them also being seized in a similar way, they were advised by the faithful to make reparation to the prelate; but they refused. Meanwhile the mortality increased, and destroyed them now by tens, now by twenties, now more.”

Alfheah steadfastly and continuously refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his release, and this enraged the Vikings for whom he represented the most valuable of their hostages. Eventually in a drunken fury they killed him.

John of Worcester names the perpetrator:

“Presently they started up, felled him to the ground with the backs of their battle-axes, and showered on him stones, bones, and ox-skulls. At length one of them, whose name was Thrum, a man he had confirmed only the day before, with compassionate impiety, split his head with an axe.”

His body was taken to St Paul’s in London where it was buried and venerated as a martyr. In 1023 Cnut, by then King of England, had the remains translated to Canterbury under armed escort as the Londoners were furious to lose them and a riot was barely contained by Cnut’s housecarls.

Death of Edward the Exile, 19th April 1057

Edward the Exile
Edward the Exile, from a 13th century genealogy, © British Library, Royal MS 14 B V f1.r

Edward the Exile died on 19th April 1057.

When King Edmund Ironside died on 30th November 1016 he had two sons who might have succeeded him had they been more than small children: Edmund, probably born about 1015, and Edward, born about 1016. Instead Cnut, who took the throne of all England after Ironside’s death, had them sent to King Olaf in Sweden to prevent them being a focus point for rebels. Despite the alleged suggestion by Eadric Streona that the boys should be killed, they were in fact taken, possibly secretly, to Kiev under the care of the Olaf’s daughter. They eventually seem to have ended up in Hungary after reaching adulthood.

While Prince Edmund died sometime between 1046 and 1054, supposedly after marrying an unnamed Hungarian princess, Edward the Exile married a woman called Agatha about whom almost nothing is known. They had three children: Margaret, Edgar and Christina.

By 1056 the English were clear that their king, Edward the Confessor, was not going to produce an heir. Edward was looking for a successor and heard that Edward the Exile was still alive and well, and living in Hungary. The Exile was therefore recalled to England. The first attempt to bring him back by Ealdred, Bishop of Worcester, was not successful. Harold Godwinson was then despatched to try to persuade the reluctant atheling, in 1056. By 1057 the Exile was in London with his wife and children.

Unfortunately he immediately contracted an illness and died, without even meeting the Confessor. The writer of the D manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle felt moved to write a poem about it:

“AD. 1057-

Here came Edward etheling  to Engle-land;

he was king Edward’s brother’s son, Edmund king,

who Ironside was called for his valour.

This etheling king Cnut had sent away

to the land of Hungary  to be betrayed:

but he there grew up to a good man,

as God granted him, and him well became;

so that he obtained the emperor’s kinswoman to wife,

and by her, fair offspring he begot: she was named Agatha.

Nor knew we for what cause that done was,

that he might not his kinsman Edward king behold

Alas! that was a rueful case and harmful for all this nation

that he so soon his life ended after that he to England came

for the mishap of this wretched nation”

While it was the end of the Exile it was not the end of his bloodline. His son Edgar was acclaimed successor to the Confessor by a few of the Witan after the Battle of Hastings but never took the throne. The Exile’s daughter Margaret married King Malcom of Scotland, and their daughter Edith (aka Matilda) married the Conqueror’s son Henry I of England in 1100, uniting the Wessex line with that of the Norman kings.

Death of Athelred of Wessex, 23rd April 871

Athelred of Wessex
Athelred of Wessex 14th century genealogical rolls, Royal MS 14 B VI, The British Library

Athelred (of Wessex) died on 23rd April 871 AD followinga number of  battles against the Vikings. He was succeeded by his brother Alfred, later known as “the Great”.

He fought at the Battle of Meretun (see 22nd March) and so his death may have been related to wounds from that day.

The chronicler John of Worcester recorded Athelred’s death thus:

“In 871 AD, after Easter, on the ninth of the calends of May [23rd April], king Athelred went the way of all flesh, having governed his kingdom bravely, honourably, and in good repute for five years, through much tribulation: he was buried at Winborne, where he waits the coming of the Lord, and the first resurrection with the just. On his death, the before named Alfred, who had hitherto, while his brothers were alive, held only a subordinate rank, at once succeeded to the throne of the whole kingdom, to the entire satisfaction of all the people.”

Death of Athelred Unrede (“the ill-advised”), 23rd April 1016

Ethelred the Unready
Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abingdon, c.1220. MS Cott. Claude B.VI folio 87, verso, The British Library

Athelred Unrede died on 23rd April 1016. He died in London just as Cnut was sailing to fight him, having been sick for some time.  He had also had a confrontation with his eldest son, Edmund Ironside, over how to confront the Viking attacks and their disagreement had split opinion in the country.

Athelred had ruled for 39 years, the longest of any Anglo-Saxon King, albeit with a break in 1013/14 when Swein Forkbeard had been king for a few weeks and driven Athelred into exile in Normandy. 

John of Worcester writes:

“on Monday the ninth of the calends of May [23rd April], in the fourteenth indiction, Ethelred, king of England, died at London, after a life of severe toils and tribulations, which St. Dunstan, on his coronation day, after placing the crown upon his head, predicted, in the spirit of prophecy, would come upon him: “Because,” he said, “thou hast been raised to the throne by the death of thy brother, whom thy mother has slain, therefore hear now the word of the Lord; thus saith the Lord: ‘The sword shall not depart from thy house, but shall rage against thee all the days of thy life, cutting off thy seed, until thy kingdom become the kingdom of an alien, whose customs and tongue the nation which thou rulest knoweth not.’ And thy sin, and the sin of thy mother, and the sin of the men who were parties to her wickedness, shall be expiated only by long continued punishment.” His body was honourably interred in the church of St. Paul the apostle. After his death, the bishops, abbots, ealdormen, and all who ranked as nobles in England, assembled together, and unanimously elected Canute their lord and king, and having come to him at Southampton, and renounced and repudiated all the descendants of king Ethelred, concluded peace with him, and swore fealty to him; and he, on his part, swore that, both as respected divine and secular affairs, he would be faithful to his duties as lord over them. But the citizens of London, and some of the nobles who were then at London, unanimously chose Edmund, the etheling, to be king.”

After Athelread’s death Cnut and Edmund Ironside fought for the throne and finally agreed to share it by splitting the kingdom, until Edmund’s untimely death on 30th November of the same year allowed Cnut to succeed to the whole kingdom of England.

Halley’s Comet portends doom, 24th April 1066

Comet in Bayeux Tapestry
Comet in Bayeux Tapestry, public domainComet in Bayeux Tapestry, public domain

Halley’s Comet is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (and illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry) as appearing over England in 1066. The Chronicle says:

“This year (1066 AD) came Harold the king from York to Westminster, at that Easter which was after the midwinter upon which the king died; and Easter was then on this day, viz. the 16th of the kalends of May [16th April]. Then was there seen all over England such a token in the heavens as no man had ever seen before. Some men said that it was the star Cometa, which some persons call the hairy star, and it appeared first on the eve Litania Major on the 8th of the kalends of May [24th April], and so shone all the seven nights. And soon thereafter came Tostig the earl from beyond sea into Wight, with as great a fleet as he might procure; and there they rendered to him as well money as provisions.”

Tostig was the exiled brother of King Harold II Godwinson, who had been ousted as Earl of Northumbria in the previous year. He had sought refuge with Count Baldwin of Flanders, his wife’s brother, and Baldwin provided him with a fleet and provisions which was how he came to be in the Isle of Wight.

Tostig ultimately persuaded Harald Hardrada of Norway to attempt to take the throne and is a player in one of history’s great “What if” scenarios. If the Earl of Northumbria and his son had not died fighting Macbeth, the Earldom would probably have remained stable. Without Tostig persuading Harald Hardrada and diverting Harold his brother, the English would have been waiting for William of Normandy instead of 250 miles away and suffering decreased manpower following the battles of Fulford and of Stamford Bridge. And then how might things have turned out? But perhaps the portent of the comet cannot be denied and an arrow would still have turned the day.

Presentation of Canterbury Hoard/Liudhard Medalet, 25th April 1844

Replica of the Luidhard medalet in the British Museum.
Replica of the Luidhard medalet in the British Museum. Originals in Liverpool Museum, Merseyside. © British Museum CC BY-SA 3.0

On 25th April 1844 the contents of a 6th century hoard discovered at St Martin Canterbury “a few years since” was discussed at a meeting of the Royal Numismatic Society.

The hoard comprises eight items (only three were reported in April and the rest were acquired in the following September) including the Liudhard medalet.

This gold medalet is dated to around the year 600 AD, so is very early in Anglo-Saxon Roman Christianity. It shows Bishop Liudhard, whose arrival in Kent from the Frankish court with the princess Bertha started the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and was probably given to an early convert.

Although there has been some discussion about whether the items from the hoard are from the same grave, consensus currently points to that being the case. The grave was that of a woman who was buried with a number of items of jewellery and the medalet was probably worn to demonstrate her conversion to the new faith.

As well as offering an insight into the period of the arrival of the Frankish Christians, the medalet is also created from the oldest surviving example of Anglo-Saxon coinage, being made from a coin probably struck in Canterbury around 578-589 AD. The design of the figure on the obverse shows influences from Merovingian and Visigothic coins. However, the reverse with the patriarchal cross on it is the first known Northern European depiction of such a cross anywhere.

Feast Day of Winewald, 27th April

Beverley Minster Frith Stool
Beverley Minster Frith Stool © Steve Cadman CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

April 27th is the Feast Day of St Winewald (or Winebald), the 2nd Abbot of Beverley, who is credited with making Beverley a centre of spiritual and cultural growth. He died in 751 AD after 18 years as Abbot.

While we do not have a huge amount of detail about Winewald, we do know more about Beverley itself and the long term legacy of his leadership there.

King Athelstan granted a charter of liberties and a number of other privileges to the church and town of Beverley where John of Beverley had founded a monastery at the beginning of the 8th century. This was in return for Saint John’s intercession in a battle against the Scots in 934 AD.

One of these privileges was the right of Sanctuary invested on the Church of St John and a frithstol (Frith Stool) was placed near the altar as a symbol of protection for those in need.  The limits of the Sanctuary were a circle with the church at its centre and extending a mile in all directions. The boundary was defined by four crosses placed on the four main roads into the town, at Molescroft (near Leconfield Park), Northburton, Kinwalgraves and to the south on the road to the ferry crossing the Humber. Anyone who took hold of someone seeking refuge within the crosses had to pay a penalty of two-hundredth. If it was within the town, four-hundredth; within the walls of the churchyard, six-hundredth; and within the church, twelve-hundredth; and finally within the doors of the choir, eighteen-hundredth, as well as a penance because of the sacrilege. However, if the person was seized from the Frith Stool itself then the captor would be excommunicated and other secular penalties might also follow.

Given that the wergild for a nobleman was 1200 shillings (twelve-hundredths) the penalties can be understood to be serious or even severe as they escalated, until the ultimate penalty of excommunication was threatened.

Death of King Magnus II of Norway, 28th April 1069

Norwegian ships in the Battle of Niså, by Wilhelm Wetlesen
Norwegian ships in the Battle of Niså, by Wilhelm Wetlesen, 1899 edition of Heimskringla, public domain

28th April 1069 saw the death of King Magnus II of Norway.

Magnus was only recently included in the Norwegian regnal lists but he is of some interest to us, because he was the son of Harald Hardrada. Harald had joined Tostig Godwinson in 1066 in an attempt to take the English throne from Tostig’s brother, King Harold II Godwinson, and died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge after an early victory over the English Earls at Fulford.

As a result Magnus, who was about 18, became the Norwegian King and ruled until 1069 when he died.

In 1058 at the age of only 10 he was appointed the leader of an expedition into the Irish Sea to extend Norwegian influence by providing support to the irish Vikings against Diarmait mac Máel na mBó, the Irish King of Leinster. The Chronicler John of Worcester also linked his force with Gruffydd ap Llewelyn and Alfgar in Wales, who were fighting against Edward the Confessor in order to restore the exiled Alfgar to his Earldom of Mercia. Harold Godwinson was sent to quell the rising on behalf of King Edward, in which task he succeeded. However, Magnus’ main objective seems to have been to been to ensure control of the Orkneys, perhaps as part of a longer term plan by his father to invade England. Tostig’s request for support in 1065/66 would only have played into those ambitions. Harald Hardrada long considered himself to be Edward the Confessor’s rightful heir, and the Godwinson rise in power would have threatened Harald’s claim as much as it unsettled King Edward.

By 1062 Magnus was with his father in a campaign against Denmark and its king, Sweyn Estridsson. The fleets met at the Battle of Niså and the Norwegians had the victory. However, peace was not agreed between the two until 1066, and then Harald Hardrada was free to turn his attention to England. Before leaving, Harald appointed Magnus as regent and king of Norway in his absence, and this time took Magnus’ younger brother Olaf with him to fight. Olaf was one of the few survivors of the Battle of Stamford Bridge and on his return to Norway was declared joint king with Magnus. They split the country between them, with Magnus ruling Trøndelag and the Uplands, Western and Northern Norway, while Olaf ruled Viken in the south-east. Their relationship appears to have been friendly despite the division of land.

Magnus died on 28th April 1069 at Trondheim after only three years. The chronicles claimed he died of ringworm, but it is now believed it may have been ergotism, a fungal poison.

His brother continued as king until 1093 and is known as Olaf III Kyrre (Peaceful). His long reign overshadowed Magnus in Norwegian history, partly because of its longevity and partly because later royal descent was exclusively through Olaf’s line. Magnus did have a son, Haakon, who ruled jointly with his cousin, Olaf’s son, following Olaf’s death in 1093. However, Haakon also died young like his father, after only two years on the throne.

Death of Wilfrid the Younger, 29th April 745

York Minster
York Minster © PWicks

Wilfrid II (the Younger), Bishop of York, died on 29th April 745 AD.

Simeon of Durham provides the following information:

“AD 745. There appeared in the air flashes of fire, such as mortals of that period had never seen before; and they were seen almost all night, to wit, on the first of January. In the same year, also, as some say, lord Wilfrid, the second of that name, bishop of the city of York, departed to the Lord, on the third of the kalends of May [29th April].”

Wilfrid started his church career as a monk studying at Whitby under Abbess Hilda. He was consecrated as Bishop of York in 718 AD, as well as coadjutor to John of Beverley (assisting in the administration of the diocese), and served until 732 AD when he was succeeded by Ecgbert (founder of the school at York Minster where Alcuin studied as a boy). It is not entirely clear whether he resigned or was deposed; either way, he retired to a life of prayer at an unidentified monastery until his death.

During his service as Bishop he dedicated himself to education as well as ensuring the Minster’s treasures were embellished with gold and silver.

Alcuin of York, in his poem on the Saints of the Church of York, refers to Wilfrid as accepted by all, revered, regarded with honour, and loved. (He adorned that rank with kindly services and practices, and was pious and and prudent.

Wilfrid was the last Bishop of York, as the See was elevated to an Archbishopric during Ecgbert’s time. When he died he was buried at Ripon and his remains may have become confused with those of Wilfrid I, who is better known and was a much more turbulent character.

Feast Day of Walburh (Walburga), 30th April

St Walburga's Church, Bruges
St Walburga’s Church, Bruges, sadly no longer dedicated to the saint, photo (c) P Wicks

In Northern Europe there is a tradition of celebrating Walpurgis Night on 30th April. The tradition grew from the Feast Day of St Walburh (Walburga or Walpurgis), an 8th century Anglo-Saxon nun, which is marked on 1st May. She was the sister of Saints Willibald and Winnibald, and a kinswoman of Lioba, and like them she evangelised to the people in the area which is now modern Germany.

She entered the double monastery at Tauberbischofsheim where Lioba was abbess, then after a couple of years she moved to be the abbess at Heidenheim when Winnebald the abbot died in 761 AD. She died three years later and her remains were sent to Eichstatt to be with Winnebald’s.

Her Feast Day of 1st May later became confused with the pagan spring festival.

Death of Henry Sweet, 30th April 1912

Henry Sweet
Henry Sweet, public domain

Henry Sweet died on 30th April 1912. 

Born 15th September 1845, in London he studied both there and in Heidelberg. He later won a scholarship to enter Balliol College at Oxford University where he pursued his interests and was soon recognised for his work.

He was a major influence in the development of Anglo-Saxon studies. In 1872 he produced the basic edition of the “Pastoral Care” for the Early English Text Society, followed by the “Oldest English Texts” in 1885. Sweet’s “A Primer of Spoken English” in 1890 included the first description of a form of London spoken English later to be known as “received pronunciation”.  George Bernard Shaw referenced him when creating the character of Professor Higgins in “Pygmalion”. Sweet was also closely involved in the early history of the Oxford English Dictionary.

He defined language as follows:

“Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts.”

As a pioneer in the study of phonetics Sweet was the first to make the distinction between early and late West Saxon dialects.

He is probably best known today for the eponymous series of primers and readers in Old English, and he outlined the principles of these in his publication “The Practical Study of Languages” in 1899. The first “Anglo-Saxon Reader” had been published as early as 1876. The readers helped to establish a canon of texts for the study of Old English literature and various editions can still be bought today. Sweet’s Readers include a variety of poetry and prose covering a range of dialects and genres, such as an early Northumbrian version of “Caedmon’s Hymn” and 9th century Kentish charters alongside longer texts such as “The Dream of the Rood” and Wulfstan’s “Address to the English”; they also include literary and historical notes to support appreciation and understanding of the texts covered.

In Henry Sweet’s memory the “Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas” was founded in 1984 with the aim of promoting and encouraging the study of the history of all branches of linguistic thought, theoretical and applied, and including non-European traditions.

On This Day in March

Death of St Chad, 2nd March 672

The Crypt at Lastingham
The Crypt at Lastingham (c) Pwicks
Lastingham stone fragments
Lastingham stone fragments (c) P Wicks

Chad (Ceadda) of Mercia died on 2nd March 672 AD. He was one of four brothers with distressingly similar names: the other three were Cedd, Cælin and Cynebill. Bede described them as “famous priests of the Lord.”

Chad was a disciple of Aidan and studied in Ireland. After the death from plague of his brother Cedd in 664 AD, Chad succeeded him as Abbot of Lastingham (North Yorkshire) which Cedd had founded. The church at Lastingham retains some wonderful stone cross fragments in its ancient crypt. The village itself boasts wells to Chad, Cedd and Owin.

It was a significant year for the Christian Church as King Oswiu held a great Synod at Whitby to discuss standardising the church under either the Irish or Roman rule. Oswiu had also chosen Bishop Wilfrid to be the Bishop of York, but Wilfrid went abroad to be consecrated and in his extended absence Oswiu appointed Chad to the bishopric of York in his place.

This resulted in confusion with the boundaries between Chad’s authority and that of Wilfrid until Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, deposed Chad from York in 669 AD and restored Wilfrid to the that Bishopric.  Initially Chad returned to Lastingham, but it was not long before he was appointed to be the Bishop of Mercia and of Lindsey.

The Irish tradition that he followed caused some difficulties, for example as to whether he should ride or walk as he travelled to evangelise. Bede explains how Theodore was not particularly impressed with this behaviour and ended up physically placing the reluctant bishop onto the back of a horse!

“And, seeing that it was the custom of that most reverend prelate to go about the work of the Gospel to several places rather on foot than on horseback, Theodore commanded him to ride whenever he had a long journey to undertake; and finding him very unwilling to omit his former pious labour, he himself, with his hands, lifted him on the horse; for he thought him a holy man, and therefore obliged him to ride wherever he had need to go.”

Among his many activities, Chad established the See at Lichfield near Tamworth and a monastery at Barrow in Lincolnshire.

Bede tells us about the miracles that followed Chad’s death:

“Chad died on the 2nd of March, and was first buried by St. Mary’s Church, but afterwards, when the church of the most holy prince of the apostles, Peter, was built, his bones were translated into it. In both of which places, as a testimony of his virtue, frequent miraculous cures are wont to be wrought. And of late, a certain distracted person, who had been wandering about everywhere, arrived there in the evening, unknown or unregarded by the keepers of the place, and having rested there all the night, went out in his perfect senses the next morning, to the surprise and delight of all; thus showing that a cure had been performed on him through the goodness of God. The place of the sepulchre is a wooden monument, made like a little house, covered, having a hole in the wall, through which those that go thither for devotion usually put in their hand and take out some of the dust, which they put into water and give to sick cattle or men to drink, upon which they are presently eased of their infirmity, and restored to health.”

Death of Owin, 4th March 672

Owin’s Well, Lastingham
Owin’s Well, Lastingham © PWicks

Athelthryth, the founder of Ely Abbey was served by a faithful steward called Owin. He served in her household for many and saw her through her many adventures but finally decided to leave the secular world and retire to the monastic life. He presented himself at Lastingham Monastery (North Yorkshire) in the guise of a humble labourer who wished to devote his remaining years to the service of the church. Chad (see 2nd March) recognised and welcomed him into the little community.

The Liber Eliensis tells us that Owin was a distinguished man as well as a monk of great merit. The writer describes how he came to Lastingham following Athelthryth’s entry into the spiritual life:

“For after the adoption by Athelthryth, this distinguished queen, his lady, of the monastic life, he so completely stripped himself of worldly things, after which people used to think he hankered, that he approached the monastery of Ceadda [Chad}, Bishop of the Mercians, clothed solely in a habit, and with a hatchet and an adze in his hand, and made it clear that he was not entering the monastery for an easy life, as some do. There, on the strength of the reverence of his devotion, he was accepted among the brothers and became a great friend of the saintly bishop, and heard above him the arrival of the heavenly host before Ceadda’s death.”

Bede adds to this that “for as he was less capable of meditating on the Holy Scriptures, he the more earnestly applied himself to the labour of his hands.” However, the Liber Eliensis says Owin was originally a monk and teacher who entered Athelthryth’s household and returned to his monastic calling after she herself took the veil.

Owin was also the monk who heard the singing of the heavenly host which came to Chad and announced that the day of his death was at hand. Bede describes the occasion:

“Which voice he said he first heard coming from the south-east, and that afterwards it drew near him, till it came to the roof of the oratory where the bishop was, and entering therein, filled the same and all about it. He listened attentively to what he heard, and after about half an hour, perceived the same song of joy to ascend from the roof of the said oratory, and to return to heaven the same way it came, with inexpressible sweetness.”

Chad then told Owin to call the monks together and the bishop then announced the message he had received and encouraged the brothers in their devotions.

Owin remained at Lastingham until his death on 4th March 672 AD. He continued to work as a handyman for many years, cutting wood, mending walls and fences, and doing it to the glory of God, the ideal Benedictine of whom it is said:

“In the handiwork of their craft is their prayer.”

Feast Day of Billfrith the Anchorite, 6th March

Judith of Flanders Gospel Book, 11th century
Judith of Flanders Gospel Book, 11th century © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York,  MS M 708

On 6th March is celebrated the Feast Day of Billfrith, commemorating the man named as the goldsmith who decorated the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The four people who created the Gospels were all monks and Simeon of Durham describes the contribution of three of them in his History of the Church of Durham (12th century) as follows:

“Moreover, the book which we have mentioned is preserved even to this present day in the church which is privileged to possess the body of this holy father; and, as has already been remarked, it exhibits no trace of having sustained injury from the water. There is no doubt that this is to be ascribed to the merits of St. Cuthbert himself, and of those other individuals who were employed in its production; that is to say, bishop Eadfrid of holy memory, who wrote it with his own hand in the house of the blessed Cuthbert; and his successor the venerable Athelwold, who directed that it should be adorned with gold and gems ; and the holy anchorite Bilfrid, whose skilful hand carried out the wishes of Athelwold, and executed this beautiful piece of workmanship, for he was a master in the art of the goldsmith. These persons, influenced alike by their affection for this confessor and bishop beloved of God, left in this work a monument to all future ages of their devotion towards him.”

In addition Aldred translated the Gospels into Old English in a gloss which can still be read today on the manuscript. In a colophon to his manuscript he also attests:

“And Billfrith the anchorite forged the ornaments which are on the outside, and bedecked it with gold and with gems, and also with gilded silver – pure wealth.”

Our focus today is on Billfrith the Anchorite and goldsmith who created the casing for the Gospels. As they were intended for ceremonial use, the external casing was as important as the contents. Sadly this original casing has not survived and we have only the echo of Billfrith’s labours through the writings of Simeon, Aldred and others.

If we can’t see what Billfrith made we can at least see another gospel case which has survived, which might give us a slight idea of Billfrith’s work. This is the surviving case for the gospel book belonging to Judith of Flanders, wife of Tostig Godwinson, and therefore dating to the 11th century. In total Judith had four gospel books made and she bequeathed them to various religious foundations on her death. Very few such cases have survived, because their materials were valuable and could be taken apart and re-used. It is difficult to know whether Judith’s case was made in England, like its text, or whether it was added to the book on the Continent later.

Death of Queen Emma, 6th March 1052

Emma receiving the Encomium
Emma receiving the Encomium, ‘The Encomium Of Queen Emma’, 1050 AD, MS 33241 © The British Library

6th March 1052 saw the death of Emma of Normandy, twice anointed as Queen of England. She was the wife of two Kings of England, Athelred Unrede (or “ill advised”) and Cnut (Canute), and the mother of two Kings of England, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. 

Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Count of Rouen. Her mother Gunnor was of Danish descent. The support of Normandy was invaluable to Athelred of England, and in 1002 he married her to secure Norman support against Viking raids, as the Vikings had been using Norman harbours to launch their attacks on England. It was unusual for an English King to marry a foreign woman, and her Danish ancestry may not have made her popular, but nevertheless she played a queenly role at her husband’s court.

Following Athelred’s defeat by Swein in 1013 Emma took her sons Alfred and Edward with her to safety in Normandy, and Athelred joined his family there later.

Cnut succeeded to the throne in 1016 after defeating Edmund Ironside (Athelred’s son by his first marriage), and decided he needed a wife. The Encomium Emma Reginae tells us (at some length) all about this project and how its outcome was received. It also describes Emma’s thoughtfulness to ensure the succession of her sons rather than any other sons of Cnut:

“Everything having been thus duly settled, the king lacked nothing except a most noble wife, such a one he ordered to be sought everywhere for him, in order to obtain her hand lawfully, when she was found, and to make her the partner of his rule, when she was won Therefore journeys were undertaken through realms and cities and a royal bride was sought; but it was with difficulty that a worthy one was ultimately found, after being sought far and wide. This imperial bride was, in fact, found within the bounds of Gaul, and to be precise in the Norman area, a lady of the greatest nobility and wealth, but yet the most distinguished of the women of her time for delightful beauty and wisdom, inasmuch as she was a famous queen In view of her distinguished qualities of this kind, she was much desired by the king, and especially because she derived her origin from a victorious people, who had appropriated for themselves part of Gaul, in despite of the French and their prince. Why should I make a long story of this? Wooers were sent to the lady, royal gifts were sent, furthermore precatory messages were sent. But she refused ever to become the bride of Knutr, unless he would affirm to her by oath, that he would never set up the son of any wife other than herself to rule after him, if it happened that God should give her a son by him For she had information that the king had had sons by some other woman, so she, wisely providing for her offspring, knew in her wisdom how to make arrangements in advance, which were to be to their advantage. Accordingly the king found what the lady said acceptable, and when the oath had been taken, the lady found the will of the king acceptable, and so, thanks be to God, Emma noblest of women, became the wife of the very mighty King Knutr. Gaul rejoiced, the land of the English rejoiced likewise, when so great an ornament was conveyed over the seas Gaul, I say, rejoiced to have brought forth so great a lady, and one worthy of so great a king, the country of the English indeed rejoiced to have received such a one into its towns. What an event, sought with a million prayers, and at length barely brought to pass under the Saviour’s favouring grace! This was what the army had long eagerly desired on both sides, that is to say that so great a lady, bound by a matrimonial link to so great a man, worthy of her husband as he was worthy of her, should lay the disturbances of war to rest What greater or more desirable thing could be wished than that the accursed and loathsome troubles of war should be ended by the gentle calm of peace, when equals were clashing with equals in might of body and boldness of heart, and when now the one side and now the other was victorious, though at great loss to itself, by the changing fortunes of war?”

Emma and Cnut were married in 1017 and Emma outlived her second husband as well. Despite her best endeavours she was confronted with her step-son Harald Harefoot (son of Alfgifu of Northampton) who took the throne and attempted to take her treasure too. She was supported by Earl Godwin and had to send to Normandy for her sons by Athelred who were in exile there. The elder of the two, Alfred, was captured and blinded, dying from his wounds at Ely. Meanwhile Harald exiled Emma to Flanders. Harthacnut later prosecuted Godwin and Bishop Lyfing for the death of Alfred.

When Harald died Emma’s second step-son Harthacnut took the throne and Emma was restored to a meaningful role. This was when she commissioned the Encomium Emma Reginae, quoted above, to defend her career and reputation.

Harthacnut was also short-lived and so Emma’s son Edward (the Confessor) became King in 1042. He was not, however, fond of his mother and in 1043 he deprived her of her lands and treasure, as we read in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:

“And this year, fourteen days before Andrews-mass [16th Nov.], the king was advised to ride from Gloucester, and Leofric the earl, and Godwine the earl, and Sigwarth [Siward] the earl, with their followers, to Winchester, unawares upon the lady [Emma]; and they bereaved her of all the treasures which she possessed, they were not to be told, because before that she had been very hard with the king her son; inasmuch as she had done less for him than he would, before he was king, and also since: and they suffered her after that to remain therein.”

Emma died in Winchester on 6th March 1052 and despite her best efforts, left an imperfect reputation. Anglo-Saxon Queens were at the least pragmatists and in this case arguably Emma was an opportunist. Her options were limited and it seems that a quiet retirement in a nunnery appealed to her when her first husband died.

Death of Eosterwine, 7th March 786

St Paul, Jarrow
St Paul, Jarrow, (c) P Wicks

7th March is the day we remember an abbot of Wearmouth and relative of Benedict Biscop, its founder.

The story of Eosterwine (b. 650 AD) is primarily found in the “Life of St Ceolfrith” and Bede’s “Lives of The Holy Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow”. He originally served as a warrior under King Ecgfrith but at the age of twenty-four he became a monk at Wearmouth. He was ordained as a priest in 679 AD and in 682 AD he was appointed abbot by Biscop to rule during his own absence. This is Bede’s description of him in the “Lives of the Abbots”:

“This man therefore undertook the government of the monastery in the ninth year after its foundation, and continued it till his death four years after. He was a man of noble birth; but he did not make that, like some men, a cause of boasting and despising others, but a motive for exercising nobility of mind also, as becomes a servant of the Lord. He was the cousin of his own abbot Benedict; and yet such was the singleness of mind in both, such their contempt for human grandeur, that the one, on entering the monastery, did not expect any notice of honour or relationship to be taken of him more than of others, and Benedict himself never thought of offering any; but the young man, faring like the rest, took pleasure in undergoing the usual course of monastic discipline in every respect. And indeed, though he had been an attendant on King Egfrid, and had abandoned his temporal vocation and arms, devoting himself to spiritual warfare, he remained so humble and like the other brethren, that he took pleasure in threshing and winnowing, milking the ewes and cows, and employed himself in the bakehouse, the garden, the kitchen, and in all the other labours of the monastery with readiness and submission. When he attained to the name and dignity of abbot, he retained the same spirit; saying to all, according to the advice of a certain wise man, “They have made thee a ruler; be not exalted, but be amongst them like one of them, gentle, affable, and kind to all.” Whenever occasion required, he punished offenders by regular discipline; but was rather careful, out of his natural habits of love, to warn them not to offend and bring a cloud of disquietude over his cheerful countenance. Oftentimes, when he went forth On the business of the monastery, if he found the brethren working, he would join them and work with them, by taking the plough-handle, or handling the smith’s hammer, or using the winnowing machine, or anything of like nature. For he was a young man of great strength, and pleasant tone of voice, of a kind and bountiful disposition, and fair to look on. He ate of the same food as the other brethren, and in the same apartment: he slept in the same common room as he did before he was abbot; so that even after he was taken ill, and foresaw clear signs of his approaching death, he still remained two days in the common dormitory of the brethren. He passed the five days immediately before his death in a private apartment, from which he came out one day, and sitting in the open air, sent for all the brethren, and, as his kind feelings prompted him, gave to each of them the kiss of peace, whilst they all shed tears of sorrow for the loss of this their father and their guide. He died on the seventh of March, in the night, as the brethren were leaving off the matin hymn. He was twenty-four years old when he entered the monastery; he lived there twelve years, during seven of which he was in priest’s orders, the others he passed in the dignity of abbot; and so, having thrown off his fleshly and perishable body, he entered the heavenly kingdom.”

He died at the early age of thirty-six, on 7th March, having fallen victim to a widespread and deadly pestilence. He is not well known outside the local area but Bede was at pains to point out that his promotion was not due to his relationship to Biscop – raising the question that perhaps there was a perceived case to answer.

Feast Day of Felix, 8th March

St Felix at Norwich Cathedral
St Felix at Norwich Cathedral, By Fa, CC BY-SA 3.0

8th March is the feast day of Felix, Bishop to the East Angles under King Sigeberht.

He served for 17 years at Dommoc (Dunwich) and died around 647 AD. He was the author of the “Life of St Guthlac” which he wrote at the request of King Alfwald of East Anglia. Otherwise his life is obscure.

Bede tells us that he was from Burgundy and met King Sigeberht while the latter was in exile in Frankia. When Sigeberht succeeded to the throne after the death of Eorpwald, Felix accompanied him to East Anglia and was made Bishop at Dommoc, being the first Bishop in East Anglia. He also assisted the King in setting up a school for boys to teach them literature.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also reports that he baptised King Cenwalch of Wessex in 646 AD; this was while Cenwalch was in exile, having been driven from his kingdom by King Penda of Mercia.  He was at King Anna’s court for three years during which time he was converted, with Anna standing as his godfather.

Felix died the following year, ending his days in peace, according to Bede.

As with many saints his adventures did not end then. His remains were desecrated in a Viking raid, rescued by monks from Ramsey and transported through the mists and fogs of the fens back to safety. Ramsey was always enthusiastic in its collection of relics and would have been thrilled to win the saint from the grasp of Ely.

The Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) tells us that:

“he departed this life in peace at Dummoc in the twelfth year of King Anna’s reign.

Carried from there, he was buried at Soham which is a vill by a mere. This place, moreover, is said to be at the approach to the Isle of Ely. There used to exist there a large and well-known monastic house, in which a considerable community of monks, assembled by a venerable prince called Lutting, observed the order of a holy rule under an abbot, Warferth. Indeed ones reads in an old English source that Saint Felix was the original founder of the old monastery at Soham and of the church at Redham. But a cruel and impious tribe of pagans, coming from Denmark and running wild over all the regions of England, devastated the aforesaid monastery – and everything in the vicinity – encircling it with iron weaponry and fire, and reduced it thereafter to an unpopulated waste. Hence, after the place had been for a very long time without divine worship, in the time of King Cnut the remains of the most holy confessor Felix were translated to the monastery of Ramsey and reburied with the honour that befitted them.”

The writer adds that it was Felix that had baptised King Anna and all his household as well as the province of East Anglia.

Feast Day of Bosa, 9th March

York Minster
York Minster (c) P Wicks

9th March is the Feast Day of Bosa of York, a Northumbrian educated at Whitby under Abbess Hild and is listed by Bede as one of the five bishops of “singular merit and sanctity” trained by Hild, the other four being Hedda of Winchester, Oftfor of Worcester, John of Beverly, and Wilfrid II of York (a different Wilfrid from the turbulent one at Ripon and Hexham). Later Bosa became the Bishop of York following the removal of that pesky Wilfrid I. Bede tells us in summary:

“In the year 678, a comet appeared; Bishop Wilfrid was driven from his see by King Egfrid; and Bosa, Eata, and Eadhed were consecrated bishops in his stead.”

Ecgfrith and Wilfrid had argued and Ecgfrith banished Wilfrid and Wilfrid’s honours were redistributed. Bosa became Bishop of Deira at York, Eata became the Bishop of Bernicia at Lindisfarne, and Eadhed served as the first sole Bishop of Lindsey which Ecgfrith had recently taken from Wulfhere. The three men were ordained at York by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Bosa and Wilfrid played tag with the Bishopric of York for a few years until Wilfrid was removed for good in 691 AD. Bosa then served undisturbed as Bishop until his death around 704/705 AD.

Bosa is not well known, although he worked and served with great men. He was responsible for the education of Acca, later Bishop of Hexham, according to Bede:

“Bishop Acca himself was a most expert singer, as well as most learned in Holy Writ, most pure in the confession of the catholic faith, and most observant in the rules of ecclesiastical institution; nor did he ever cease to be so till he received the rewards of his pious devotion, having been bred up and instructed among the clergy of the most holy and beloved of God, Bosa, bishop of York.”

Bede referred to Bosa as a man of great humility and sanctity. His successor was John of Beverley.

He was included in the liturgical calendar for York in the 8th century.

Death of Heiu, 12th March

St Hilda’s Church, Hartlepool
St Hilda’s Church, Hartlepool, built on the site of the abbey, photo by Stephen Craven, CC BY-SA 2.0

It is recorded in an early 20th century “Dictionary of Saintly Women” (by Agnes Dunbar) that St. Heiu died on 12th March, in the 7th century. Her footprint on the sands of memory is faint. Bede mentions her in passing in relation to Abbess Hild:

“After this she [Hild] was made abbess in the monastery called Heruteu, which monastery had been founded, not long before, by the religious servant of Christ, Heiu, who is said to have been the first woman that in the province of the Northumbrians took upon her the habit and life of a nun, being consecrated by Bishop Aidan; but she, soon after she had founded that monastery, went away to the city of Calcacestir [thought to be Tadcaster, presumably based on the Roman name of Calcaria for Tadcaster], and there fixed her dwelling.”

Hartlepool was a double monastery, home to both men and women, and ruled over by an abbess. These monasteries originate in the Irish tradition taught by Aidan, and which was followed at this time in Northumbria until the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD agreed to move to the Roman tradition. Based on what has been reconstructed of Hild’s timeline it would appear Heiu may have founded the monastery in the early 640s, with Hild taking up the role of abbess around 649 AD. When the monastery was founded, the peninsula of Hartlepool was probably uninhabited and covered with thick forest. The presence of a monastery would have resulted in the establishment of a settlement and its location on a promontory overlooking a bay would have been attractive for trade as well as for fishing.

In August 2018 an archaeological excavation near the Hartlepool church uncovered between 50 – 100 skeletons of adults and infants. They were dated to between 700-800 AD, and considered to be probably of Christian origin. Excavations have also uncovered monastic cells and evidence for silver working.

The village of Healaugh, three miles from Tadcaster, is thought to be on the site of Heiu’s second foundation, derived from the name Heiusleg, meaning “Heiu’s place”. In 1842 a broken tombstone was discovered about six foot below the surface in the graveyard with an inscription on it which seemed to show two names MADUG and HEIU. The style is said to be similar to the namestones found at Hartlepool in 1833.

After this she vanishes, despite what must have been an immensely significant contribution to the religious life of the early church in Northumbria. Here’s to Heiu: first Northumbrian nun, first abbess of a double monastery in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and apparently a lover of peace and quiet, away from the madding crowd.

Death of Indract, 12th March 854

Ruins of the Abbey at Glastonbury
Ruins of the Abbey at Glastonbury, Pam Brophy, CC BY-SA 2.0

Indract, abbot of Iona, was attacked and killed near Glastonbury on 12th March 854 when the brass on his staff was mistaken for gold.

William of Malmesbury explains that Indract and his companions had been on pilgrimage to Rome and were returning home through southern England:

“They desired visiting Glastonbury, out of respect to St. Patrick [whose relics were there]; and filled their scrips with parsley and various other seeds, which they proposed carrying to Ireland, but their staves being tipped with brass, which was mistaken for gold, they were murdered for the supposed booty”.

It is believed that the attack took place at Shapwick, near Glastonbury and Indract was then buried at Glastonbury. His remains were placed near the altar of the church and could be visited until the church itself was destroyed by fire in the 12th century.

Abbot Indract is also recorded by the Annals of Ulster as moving the relics of St Columba from Iona to Ireland.

Alcuin and Charlemagne meet at Parma, 15th March 781

Copy of one of Alcuin’s letters
Copy of one of Alcuin’s letter in Carolingian Miniscule, © British Library, Harley MS 208
Raban Maur and Alcuin with Archbishop Otgar of Mainz
Raban Maur and Alcuin (middle) with Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, 2nd quarter of the 9th century), Public Domain

In 781 AD Alcuin of York was despatched to Rome to confirm that York should remain an Archbishopric. On his way home he stopped at Parma on 15th March and there he met Charlemagne. It seems the two men immediately made friends.

Later when Charlemagne was beginning to build a centre for learning at his court, ushering in the Carolingian Renaissance, he collected together as many leading scholars as he could at Aachen, and among them he persuaded Alcuin to leave York and come to tutor his sons and the other boys at court.

Their relationship flourished. Alcuin even had a nickname for Charlemagne, “David”, while he referred to himself as (Horatius) “Flaccus” – better known to us today as Horace. Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne that the king’s noble efforts had ‘brought about a rebirth of civilised standards in every kind of knowledge and useful erudition.’

His definition (Epistolae IV) of Wisdom was ‘the knowledge of things divine and human’ which is sought by the whole people. In this search for wisdom, the scholar must debate with and learn from pagan, Jew and Byzantine alike, in order to catch a vision of a nobler, more truly Christian, society. His library therefore extended beyond the traditional corpus of Christian texts to include a wide range of Classical volumes, inherited from the famous library at York Minster, which he described in his poem about York:

“Where books are kept

Small roofs hold the gifts of heavenly wisdom;

Reader, learn them, rejoicing with a devout heart.

The Wisdom of the Lord is better than any treasures

For the one who pursues it now will have the pathway of light.”

Alcuin was always quick to emphasise the debt he owed to his own teacher Alberht of York, who had travelled to the Continent in search of new books and new subjects of study. The range of subjects that Alberht taught included the seven liberal arts – the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic and the quadrivium of astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music. However, he went beyond these and also taught natural history, history, chant, verse composition, computus and biblical exegesis. Such a programme was beyond anything required for a standard Christian framework of learning..

Meanwhile, Alcuin and Charlemagne continued to develop their own programme under what has been called the “Carolingian Renaissance” and book copying and production was essential to its success. To support this project Alcuin was instrumental in developing Carolingian Miniscule as a faster and simpler written form enabling production to be made more efficient. The new script was disseminated first from the royal court at Aachen, and later from the scriptorium at Tours, where Alcuin retired to serve as abbot (796-804 AD).

While Alcuin clearly admired Charlemagne greatly, he was not afraid to rebuke him for his violence towards the pagan Saxons (in “Old” Saxony). He reminded Charlemagne that while he could force pagans to be baptised, he could not force them to believe. It was a testament of their friendship that he could criticise the Emperor in such a direct way and remain a leading member of his court.

Death of King Harold Harefoot, 17th March 1040

Cnut, and his sons Harald Harefoot and Harthacnut
Cnut, king of England, Denmark, and Norway, and his sons Harald Harefoot and Harthacnut, 13th century, public domain

On 17 March 1040 King Harold Harefoot died suddenly at the age of 24, having been King of England for 4 years and 16 weeks.

Cnut had originally intended England to be go to his other son, Harthacnut, and Denmark to go to Harold, but Harold had seized his opportunity 2 weeks after his father’s death in November 1035. Events were summarised in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as follows:

“1035: This year was Harald chosen king over all, and Hartha-Cnut forsaken, because he stayed too long in Denmark; and then they drove out his mother Aelfgyfe [Emma], the queen, without any kind of mercy, against the stormy winter: and she came then to Bruges beyond sea; and Baldwin the earl there well received her, and there kept her the while she had need.”

While Harthacnut was out of the country Harold obtained the support of the Witan and a majority of the Danes in England and was confirmed king at a meeting at Oxford. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to crown him, and forbade any other bishop to do so. In protest Harold refused to attend church services while he remained uncrowned.

Further controversy haunted the short reign of Harold. Athelred’s sons, Alfred and Edward, were in exile in Normandy following the defeat of their father by Swein Forkbeard in 1016. They sailed for England at the news of Cnut’s death. Edward was turned back at Southampton by the townspeople, but Alfred was less fortunate. In 1036 he came to visit his mother, Emma of Normandy, who had been sent to live in Winchester by Harold, but on the way he was met by Earl Godwin, a previous supporter of Emma. Godwin had apparently changed his mind and become a supporter of Harold. He deceived Alfred by promising to help him gain the throne, but then Alfred was seized and his men almost all butchered. Alfred was taken to the monastery in Ely and blinded. He died there soon after, and his death was a source of antagonism between Godwin and Edward the Confessor, Alfred’s brother, in later years.

Following these events, Emma was forced into exile in Flanders under the protection of Baldwin and was joined there by Harthacnut. They gathered a fleet of warships to invade England but the death of Harold made it possible for his Harthacnut to enter England peacefully.

“1040: This year king Harold died at Oxford, on the 16th of the kalends of April [17th March] and he was buried at Westminster.  And he ruled England four years and sixteen weeks ; and in his days sixteen ships were retained in pay, at the rate of eight marks for each steersman, in like manner as had been before done in the days of king Cnut. And in this same year came king Hardacnut to Sandwich, seven days before midsummer. And he was soon acknowledged as well by English as by Danes ; though his advisers afterwards grievously requited it, when they decreed that seventy-two ships should be retained in pay, at the rate of eight marks for each steersman. And in this same year the sester of wheat went up to fifty-five pence, and even further.”

Harold was buried at Westminster. His grieving brother Harthacnut dug him up again and threw his body in a sewer where it was rescued by a fisherman and taken for honourable burial at St Clement Danes.

Death of King Edward “the Martyr”, 18th March 978

Edward the Martyr
Edward the Martyr, Genealogical Roll c 1300-c 1340,© British Library Royal MS 14 B VI

On 18th March 978 AD at the gates of Corfe Castle King Edward (later called “the Martyr”) was killed, and conspiracy theories abound.

Edward was the eldest son of Edgar the Peaceable and Athelflad “the Fair”, although the status of his mother remains murky. It is not clear if she and Edgar were actually married. Edgar’s next relationship was with Wulfthryth, described as a nun whom he seduced. She was the mother of Edith and both of them became abbesses at Wilton. Finally Edgar definitely married Alfthryth, the daughter of Ordgar, a powerful Devon thegn, and even crowned her as queen. Alfthryth was the mother of Edmund (who died young in 971 AD) and Athelred (later called “Unrede” after he became king).

When Edgar died unexpectedly in 975 AD Athelred was still too young to succeed so Edward was given the crown, and Edgar’s widow Alfthryth was confirmed in possession of Dorset. She and her young son settled at Corfe.

In March 978 AD Edward was in the area of Corfe and sent a message that he would be calling on his family for a spot of tea and perhaps an anachronistic crumpet or two.

Alfthryth’s retainers were awaiting the young king at the gate when he arrived with a small retinue. Still sitting in the saddle he was handed a drink (not, it has to be admitted, tea) and then he was attacked and stabbed. His horse bolted in panic and with Edward’s foot caught in the stirrup he was dragged along the ground after it to his ultimate demise. His body was buried at Wareham without honour and his half-brother, Athelred, eventually succeeded to the throne after an interregnum of about a year. He was crowned in May 979 AD following the translation of Edward’s body to Shaftesbury for a more fitting burial.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:

“No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint.”

Earl Alfgar exiled, 19th March 1055

Interior of Westminster Hall
Interior of Westminster Hall, as seen during the Trial of Lambert (before Henry VIII). From the book “London (Volume VI)” by Charles Knight (1841). Public Domain

On 19th March 1055 Westminster a council met to decide the fate of Earl Alfgar, son of Earl Leofric of Mercia.

In July 1054 Earl Siward of Northumbria had died along with his eldest son, Osbearn, fighting King Macbeth of Scotland. Siward left only an infant son to follow him. Clearly the child could not be entrusted with the earldom and a regency was not considered appropriate in such a violent and difficult region. So the council needed to choose who was to become the next Earl.

There were a couple of candidates.

The first was Alfgar, son of Earl Leofric of Mercia and Godgifu. Alfgar had been in charge of East Anglia following the exile of the Godwin family in 1052, having been granted it in place of Harold Godwinson. However, the Godwins were now back in England, Harold had taken back East Anglia until the death of his father in 1053, at which point it was returned to Alfgar and Harold took over his father’s lands and titles.

With Godwin power on the rise again, and the King’s wife being a Godwin herself, the council chose the second candidate, Tostig Godwinson.

Alfgar was not impressed and appears to have made his feelings known, Although there are no details of what he actually said or did, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that:

“Then, within a little time after [Siward’s death], was a meeting of the witan in London, and Aelfgar the earl, Leofric the earl’s son, was outlawed without any kind of guilt;”

Although the E and F versions tell it a little differently:

“they outlawed Aelfgar the earl, because it was cast upon him that he was a traitor to the king and to all the people of the land. And he made a confession of it before all the men who were there gathered; though the word escaped him unintentionally. And the king gave the earldom to Tostig, son of earl Godwine, which Siward the earl before held.”

Alfgar did not take things lying down. He went to Ireland and raised a fleet, then came across to Wales where he allied with Gruffydd ap Llewellyn and attacked Hereford, looting and killing. The description of the attack provides insights into the influence of Norman nobles prevalent under Edward the Confessor – and Earl Ralph, the Norman in question, gets a rather bad press from John of Worcester:

“Earl Ralph, the cowardly son of king Edward’s sister, having assembled an army, fell in with the enemy two miles from the city of Hereford, on the ninth of the calends of November [24th October]. He ordered the English, contrary to their custom, to fight on horseback; but just as the engagement was about to commence, the earl, with his French and Normans, were the first to flee. The English seeing this, followed their leader’s example, and nearly the whole of the enemy’s army going in pursuit, four or five hundred of the fugitives were killed, and many were wounded. Having gained the victory, king Griffyth and earl Algar entered Hereford, and having slain seven of the canons who defended the doors of the principal church, and burnt the monastery built by bishop Athelstan, that true servant of Christ, with all its ornaments, and the relics of St. Ethelbert, king and martyr, and other saints, and having slain some of the citizens, and made many other captives, they returned laden with spoil.”

Harold Godwinson was sent to broker peace, which he achieved, and Alfgar was restored to his lands again.

In 1057 Alfgar’s father Leofric died and Alfgar succeeded him to the Mercian Earldom. However, it appears he was driven out again in 1058, as John of Worcester tells us:

“Algar, earl of Mercia, was outlawed by king Edward for the second time, but, supported by Griflyth, king of Wales, and aided by a Norwegian fleet, which unexpectedly came to his relief, he speedily recovered his earldom by force of arms.”

He had four children: Burgheard, who died in 1060 at Reims on the way home from Rome, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, and a daughter Ealdgyth, who married Gruffydd ap Llewellyn and then Harold Godwinson (not to be confused with Edith Swan-neck, Harold’s common law wife).

It is not known exactly when Alfgar died but it is thought it was before 1066.

Death of Cuthbert, 20th March 687

Cuthbert’s Tomb at Durham Cathdral
Cuthbert’s Tomb at Durham Cathdral, Photo © PWicks

St Cuthbert, who died on 20 March 687 AD, is often called the patron saint of Northern England.

Little is known about his early life: he was born around 634 AD and supposedly raised by a widow called Censwith. Bede wrote a “Life of Cuthbert”, saying that in his early years, until he was about eight, he enjoyed playing with other children and “took delight in mirth and clamour”. It was one day, according to Trumwine who was a friend of Cuthbert’s and told Bede about the incident, that a small child told Cuthbert that he should stop playing foolish games as he was destined to be a priest and teacher of virtue.

Although Cuthbert changed his ways he nevertheless developed a painful swelling in his knee until he could no longer walk. At this point he was visited by a man on horseback who advised him how to prepare a poultice which cured the condition. Cuthbert realised the visitor was an angel and after this encounter became devoted to the study of the scriptures.  Miracles ensued: his prayers saved some ships bringing timber to a monastery; he had a vision of Bishop Aidan entering Heaven; and he discovered a parcel of food when he was hungry and far from any human habitation.

He went to the Abbey at Melrose to enter the monastic life. After some years the Abbot Eata received land at Ripon to build a monastery and Cuthbert was one of the monks sent there so establish the new foundation. Cuthbert’s job was to welcome strangers who visited the monastery, and in this role he looked after a young man who arrived one night, In the morning the lad had vanished without trace leaving three white loaves behind and Cuthbert realised he had entertained another angel.

When suffering from pestilence he was made well by the prayers of his brothers, although he was left with a constant discomfort. Upon his recovery the Abbot Boisil, Cuthbert’s mentor, told him that he himself would die in seven days and asked Cuthbert to study and meditate on St John’s Gospel with him until the time came. Bede comments that:

“After their seven days’ study was completed, Boisil died of the above-named complaint [the pestilence]; and after death entered into the joys of eternal life. They say that, during these seven days, he foretold to Cuthbert every thing which should happen to him: for, as I have said before, he was a prophet and a man of remarkable piety.”

The St Cuthbert Gospel of St John, cover
The St Cuthbert Gospel of St John. (formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel) is the oldest intact European book. British Library MS 89000
Page from Gospel
Opening page of Cuthbert’s St John’s Gospel written in uncial, British Linrary MS89000

Cuthbert continued to preach, traveling around the villages, including the most remote and disadvantaged. Cuthbert remained devoted to the Gospel of John and carried a copy with him as he travelled; it is held at the British Library, retaining its original binding and is the oldest intact European book.

During this time the Abbess Abbe (sister of King Oswiu) asked Cuthbert to visit her, and during his visit it was noticed that he would go out alone at night.

“Now one night, a brother of the monastery, seeing him go out alone followed him privately to see what he should do. But he when he left the monastery, went down to the sea, which flows beneath, and going into it, until the water reached his neck and arms, spent the night in praising God. When the dawn of day approached, he came out of the water, and, falling on his knees, began to pray again. Whilst he was doing this, two quadrupeds, called otters, came up from the sea, and, lying down before him on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned to their native element.”

Cuthbert is also remembered for bringing in special laws to protect the eider ducks and other seabirds nesting on the islands; eider ducks are known as “cuddy ducks” in the north east of England, “Cuddy” being the nickname for Cuthbert, and the ducks are still numerous around the islands where he lived.

Cuthbert continued his preaching and teaching, as well as experiencing a number of new miracles, including putting out a fire by prayer and casting out a devil. His reputation grew accordingly. Eventually he was transferred to Lindisfarne, where he served for a number of years instructing and leading the monks. Eventually he was given permission to retire to one of the nearby Farne islands where he lived as a hermit supported by the monks who visited and took care of him. Even while he was secluded he was able to perform miracles including curing the sick through the application of a linen girdle that had belonged to him and predicting the death of King Ecgfrith.

Meanwhile Archbishop Theodore decided Cuthbert should become Bishop of Lindisfarne, although Cuthbert resisted fiercely. After a couple of years however he returned to his island, feeling that he had not much longer to live.

Bede reports the words of a priest called Herefrid, who attended Cuthbert at the end of his life and provides a personal testimony of Cuthbert’s final days:

“He was brought to the point of death,” said he, “after having been weakened by three weeks of continued suffering. For he was taken ill on the fourth day of the week; and again on the fourth day of the week his pains were over, and he departed to the Lord.”

Herefrid then goes on to describe Cuthbert’s illness, and adds:

“I warmed some water and washed his feet, which had an ulcer from a long swelling, and, from the quantity of blood that came from it, required to be attended to. I also warmed some wine which I had brought, and begged him to taste it; for I saw by his face that he was worn out with pain and want of food. When I had finished my service, he sat down quietly on the couch, and I sat down by his side.”

Cuthbert wanted to be buried on the island but the monks persuaded him to let them take his body back to Lindisfarne after his death and he eventually agreed. In his final hours Herefrid sat with him and talked a little more, and reported Cuthbert’s final advice to his monks, finishing:

“For I know, that, although during my life some have despised me, yet after my death you will see what sort of man I was, and that my doctrine was by no means worthy of contempt.”

Herefrid finished his account explaining:

“When his hour of evening service was come, he received from me the blessed sacrament, and thus strengthened himself for his departure, which he now knew to be at hand, by partaking of the body and blood of Christ; and when he had lifted up his eyes to heaven, and stretched out his hands above him, his soul, intent upon heavenly praises, sped his way to the joys of the heavenly kingdom.”

Herefrid then told the monks who were with him what had happened and they signalled across to Lindisfarne by holding up two candles to let the rest of the community know. The monks there were singing Psalm 59, the very one the monks on Farne had been singing at the same time.

Cuthbert was brought back to Lindisfarne and buried by the altar. But his adventures were not yet over, although Bede could not know what was to happen in the future.

Following the Viking raids on Lindisfarne the community took Cuthbert with them when they left their monastery and he travelled about the north east for more than 100 years until he was finally laid to rest at Durham where his tomb can be visited today and some of the items buried with him are on display. His remains survived the Norman occupation and rebuilding of the cathedral as well as Henry VIII’s commissioners. Close to Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral’s Galilee Chapel lies Bede, his hagiographer.

20th March is also the Feast Day of Herbert of Derwentwater, a priest whom Bede says visited Cuthbert every year. When Cuthbert told Herbert that they were meeting in life for the last time, Herbert prayed that the two of them should enter heaven together. His prayers were heard, and accordingly he died at the same time and date as his dear friend.

Attack on York, 21st March 687

Styca coin, struck circa 862-867 AD,
AE Styca, struck circa 862-867 AD, Obverse: Central cross, inscription around: +OSBERTH. Reverse: Central cross with partly (il)legible inscription: X X M, pelleted border around, by NumisAntica [CC BY-SA 3.0 NL]

On 21st March 867 AD the Northumbrians attacked York, which had been held by the Danes since the previous year. 

The Northumbrians had deposed King Osberht in favour of Alle just before the invasion, and both men died fighting in the Northumbrian attack. It was not a successful venture from the Northumbrian point of view – there was great slaughter inside the city and out, and they were forced to make peace with the Danish.

Little is known of either king, but Osberht may in fact have been in power for quite a few years, possibly from as early as 849 AD until his deposition in 866 AD. He apparently succeeded Athelred II, and given naming conventions in royal families, the implication is that they were of different dynasties. However, the Os- name was familiar among earlier Northumbrian kings and so Osberht may have been from a rival family previously in power under the likes of Oswulf (d. 759 AD), or Osred (d. approx. 790 AD). Roger of Wendover notes that there was an eclipse of the sun in the same year that Osberht succeeded, around 1st October, which was shorthand for “dire warnings”.

Osberht confiscated lands from the monastery at Lindisfarne, which would not have been popular with the the church, and this perhaps indicated his need for wealth to reward his men.

Alle was in fact the last independent king of Northumbria. Simeon of Durham claims he ruled for 5 years, but other chronicles vary in reporting his rule from 4 years to 1 year. This may be due to his reigning jointly with Osberht for a while and perhaps Northumbria broke into its constituent parts of Deira (Alle) and Bernicia (Osberht) for these few years.

It was said that Alle was not of royal blood, although his name was the same as the first recorded King of Deira and father of Edwin, King of Northumbria. His family may have believed in nominative determinism. In Scandinavian sources Alle is credited with throwing Ragnarr Lothbrok in a snake pit, and Ragnar’s sons with torturing Alle to death through the blood eagle in revenge; there is no genuine evidence for either incident.

The two kings were at war when the Danes arrived, and like a feuding family at a wedding, what someone may or may not have said about our Doreen became insignificant in the face of the external threat. They united against the common enemy and marched on York.

Roger of Wendover describes the battle and aftermath:

“In the same year [867 AD], on All Saints’ Day, the cruel army of Danes migrated out of the country of the East-Angles to the city of York. At this time too there was the greatest dissension among the Northumbrians, for the people had expelled their lawful king Osbert from his kingdom, and had raised to the throne a usurper named Ella, who was not of the royal lineage; but by divine providence, on the advance of the Danes, Osbert and Ella, for the good of the commonweal, made peace among themselves, and then with united forces approached the city of York; on which the Danes straightway fled, and determined to defend themselves within the city walls. The Christian kings pursued, made a very fierce attack on the enemy, and cast down the city walls. At length they entered the city, and engaged in battle with the pagans to their own exceeding loss; for in that fight, which was fought on Palm Sunday, there fell the kings Osbert and Ella, and with them eight nobles, with an immense multitude of inferior rank. The most cruel victors after this ravaged the entire country of the Northumbrians as far as the mouth of the river Tyne, and subdued it to themselves. The kings of the Northumbrians being slain, a certain man of the English nation named Egbert next governed that kingdom, for six years, in subjection to the Danes.”

Battle of Merton (Meretun), 22nd March 871

Martin Down, Hampshire
Martin Down, Hampshire by Stuart Buchan CC BY-SA 2.0

On 22nd March 871 AD we come to the final battle of that year against the Vikings in which King Athelred of Wessex participated. The men had already fought the battles of Englefield, Ashdown, Basing and Reading.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that:

“King Aethelred and Aelfred his brother fought against the [Viking] army at Meretun; and they were in two bodies, and they put both to flight, and during a great part of the day were victorious; and there was great slaughter on either hand; but the Danes had possession of the place of carnage: and there bishop Heahmund was slain, and many good men: and after this battle there came a great army in the summer to Reading.”

The site of the Battle of Meretun is not confirmed, although there are a number of candidates. The most quoted options are for either Martin in Hampshire or Marden in Wiltshire. Although it is not certain what caused Athelread’s death it is a possibility that he died from wounds or infection following the battle. We do know he was buried at Wimborne, which is fairly close to Martin and so this may be an indicator. In addition a 10th century charter refers to Martin as “Mertone” which is closer to “Meretun” than perhaps some of the alternatives. However, in the interests of balance, it must be remembered that other site options are available for discussion.

John of Worcester summarises for us:

“Again, after two months had elapsed, king Ethered with his brother Alfred fought against the Pagans, who were in two divisions at Merton, and for a long time they had the advantage, having routed the enemy ; but the Pagans rallied, and gained the victory, remaining masters of the field of death, after great slaughter on both sides.

The same year, after Easter, on the ninth of the calends of May [23rd April], king Ethered went the way of all flesh, having governed his kingdom bravely, honourably, and in good repute for five years, through much tribulation: he was buried at Winborne, where he waits the coming of the Lord, and the first resurrection with the just. On his death, the before named Alfred, who had hitherto, while his brothers were alive, held only a subordinate rank, at once succeeded to the throne of the whole kingdom, to the entire satisfaction of all the people.”

Following another battle at Wilton in May, King Alfred of Wessex paid the Vikings to go away. An uncertain future lay ahead and Alfred’s chances of retaining his throne probably seemed slender indeed.

Feast Day of Athelwold of Farne, 23rd March

Inner Farne
Inner Farne taken from the beach south of Bamburgh Castle, Dave Green CC BY-SA 2.0

After the death of Cuthbert (see 20th March) St Athelwold lived on Farne as a hermit for 12 years and died in 699 AD. His feast day is 23rd March.

Before coming to Farne he was a monk at Ripon, so a good Yorkshireman. Seeking solitude he moved on to the little hermit’s cell on Farne following Cuthbert’s death in 687 AD. On arriving at the cell he discovered it in a terrible state of repair and open to the weather, so he covered the gaps in the wall by nailing up a calf skin.

He was also a miracle worker according to Bede, who relates a story told him by one who was present:

“I will relate one miracle of his, which was told me by one of these brothers for and on whom the same was wrought: viz. Guthfrid, the venerable servant and priest of Christ, who, afterwards, as abbot, presided over the brethren of the same church of Lindisfarne, in which he had been educated.”

Guthfrid told Bede about an occasion when he and two other monks went to Farne to visit Athelwold for advice. On their way back to Lindisfarne a severe storm blew up and they feared for their lives.

Guthfrid went on to say:

“After long struggling with the wind and waves to no effect, we looked behind us to see whether it was practicable at least to recover the island from whence we came, but we found ourselves on all sides so enveloped in the storm, that there was no hope of escaping. But looking out as far as we could see, we observed, on the island of Farne, Father Ethelwald, beloved of God, come out of his cavern to watch our course; for, hearing the noise of the storm and raging sea, he was come out to see what would become of us. When he beheld us in distress and despair, he bowed his knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in prayer for our life and safety; upon which, the swelling sea was calmed, so that the storm eased on all sides, and a fair wind attended us to the very shore. When we had landed, and had dragged upon the shore the small vessel that brought us, the storm, which had ceased a short time for our sake, immediately returned, and raged continually during the whole day; so that it plainly appeared that the brief cessation of the storm had been granted from Heaven at the request of the man of God, in order that we might escape.”

After twelve years Athelwold died and was buried on Lindisfarne, in the Church of St. Peter, near to Cuthbert’s remains. His successor was Felgeld, a man of about 70 years of age at the time Bede was writing.

Athelwold didn’t leave Cuthbert’s side. According to Baring Gould:

“His [Athelwold’s] bones were afterwards taken up in the time of the Danish ravages, 875, and were translated to Durham in 995, and more honourably enshrined in 1160.”

Feast Day of Hildelith of Barking, 24th March

Barking Abbey curfew Tower at St Margaret’s, Barking, East London
Barking Abbey curfew Tower at St Margaret’s, Barking, East London, by Rept0n1x [CC BY-SA 3.0]

24th March is the day we remember Hildelith, Abbess of Barking, from the early 8th century. Barking was a double monastery founded by Athelburh, sister of Eorcenwald, King of Kent. Little is known of Hildelith’s life but what is known indicates the extensive academic and literary culture which she fostered at her Abbey. She communicated with the leading scholars of her time such as Bede, Aldhelm and Boniface. Goscelin wrote a hagiography of her life.

Bede says that in AD 676:

“HILDELITH, a devout servant of God, succeeded Ethelberga in the office of abbess, and presided over that monastery many years, till she was of an extreme old age, with exemplary conduct, in the observance of regular discipline, and in the care of providing all things for the public use. The narrowness of the place where the monastery is built led her to think that the bones of the male and female servants of Christ, which had been there buried, should be taken up, and translated into the church of the blessed mother of God, and interred in one place; whoever wishes to read it, may find in the book from which we have gathered these things, how often a brightness of heavenly light was seen there, and a fragrancy of wonderful odour smelled, and what other miracles were wrought.”

It was in this place that a blind woman was afterwards miraculously cured.

Baring Gould places her death around 720 AD, although admits the date is not known for certain, and describes her life as follows:

“Hildelitha was one of the first virgins of the English nation who consecrated herself a spouse to Christ, going abroad to a French monastery, there being, at that time, none in England. When S. Erkonwald had founded the monastery of Chertsey for himself, and the convent of Barking, in Essex, for his sister Ethelburga, he sent to France for S. Hildelitha, and committed his sister to her care, to be by her instructed in monastic discipline. Thus S. Ethelburga herself, who was the first abbess of Barking, was a disciple of S. Hildelitha, though she died before her, and was succeeded by her in the government of the community.

Bede highly commends the piety of this saint, and that she was highly esteemed by others we may gather from S. Aldhelm having addressed to her his poetical treatise on virginity, and from mention of her in one of the epistles of S. Boniface, where he relates what great things he had learned of her.

S. Hildelitha departed to our Lord in a good old age, but the date of her death is undetermined.”

Aldhelm’s “De Virginitate” was dedicated to Hildelith and the nuns at Barking, and Boniface referred to her in his correspondence to Abbess Eadburg, explaining that Hildelith had told him about a vision seen by a monk of Much Wenlock; so Hildelith was in communication with Boniface as one of his network of correspondents. The ODNB adds:

‘Aldhelm’s remarks imply that these nobly born women were remarkably well educated in the scriptures and in patristic literature. …[A]lthough little is known of Hildelith’s life, it is clear that she enjoyed intimate contact with the outstanding scholars of the time, and may herself be presumed to have achieved a respectable degree of education.’

For more about her influence, read this article by Diane Watt of the University of Surrey

Theodore of Tarsus ordained as Bishop, 26th March 668

Icon of Theodore of Tarsus
Icon of Theodore of Tarsus, public domain

On 26th March 668 AD Pope Vitalian ordained Theodore of Tarsus, at the age of 66, to the episcopate. Theodore was to become the influential and successful Archbishop of Canterbury who arrived in Kent in 669 AD and died in 690 AD at the age of 88.

According to Bede he was the first Archbishop whom all the churches obeyed, providing unity, stability, scholarship and structure to a struggling church decimated by plague and emerging from arguments about Roman vs Irish liturgy.

The See at Canterbury had fallen vacant on the death of Deusdedit on 14th July 664 AD. King Eorcenberht of Kent died around the same time and his son did not find a replacement for the Archbishop for quite a while. Eventually Wigheard was chosen and sent to Rome, along with gifts, to request his pallium. Unfortunately Wigheard died while he was in the Eternal City, along with most of his companions, due to plague.

The Pope looked around for a suitable replacement and selected Hadrian, but Hadrian suggested an alternative: Andrew. Andrew in turn was very infirm and unable to accept the position so the Pope went back to Hadrian again. Hadrian offered another suggestion: Theodore.

Theodore was certainly a suitable candidate, renowned for his learning and piety. However, he was not young; he was already 66 years old. The Pope only agreed to his ordination if Hadrian would accompany Theodore to Britain.

Theodore was then ordained on 26th March and the group set out for Britain on 27th May, travelling in a leisurely fashion and making lengthy visits to various religious houses and people on the way. It seems to have taken him some time to get to Canterbury; the pilgrimage to Rome was usually a journey of around 3-4 months.

According to Bede he was well received:

“669 AD: THEODORE arrived at his church the second year after his consecration, on Sunday, the 27th of May, and held the same twenty-one years, three months, and twenty-six days. Soon after, he visited all the island, wherever the tribes of the Angles inhabited, for he was willingly entertained and heard by all persons; and everywhere attended and assisted by Hadrian, he taught the right rule of life, and the canonical custom of celebrating Easter. It was the first archbishop whom all the English church obeyed. And forasmuch as both of them were, as has been said before, well-read both in sacred and in secular literature, they gathered a crowd of disciples, and there daily flowed from them rivers of knowledge to water the hearts of their hearers; and, together with the books of holy writ, they also taught them the arts of ecclesiastical poetry, astronomy, and arithmetic. A testimony of which is, that there are still living at this day some of their scholars, who are as well versed in the Greek and Latin tongues as in their own, in which they were born.”

Theodore’s and Hadrian’s teachings were especially important to the church as they arrived not long after the Synod of Whitby which had concluded Northumbria should follow Roman tradition instead of the Irish, and there was considerable work to do in bringing all the religious communities under one set of teachings.

Theodore’s rule as Archbishop was long and he remained a widely respected leader. It was he who physically lifted Chad up onto a horse when he wanted to walk everywhere. He also was embroiled in the long-running disagreements over Bishop Wilfrid’s influence.

Feast Day of Alkelda, 28th March

Church of St Mary and St Alkelda, Middleham
Church of St Mary and St Alkelda, Middleham by Bill Henderson [CC BY-SA 2.0]

St Alkelda (Alchhild) has her feast day on 28th March. It was alleged that, around 800 AD, she was strangled by two Viking women while travelling between Middleham and Giggleswick in North Yorkshire. It is not clear who she was, why she was killed or even if she existed.

Alkelda was said to be buried at Middleham and the well there was attributed with healing properties. Apparently the church had extensive renovation in 1878, at which time a primitive stone coffin containing ancient remains was discovered in the vicinity of the area in which tradition claimed St. Alkelda was buried. A doctor declared these remains to be female. The church itself is however dated only to the 13th century.

Traditionally a nearby spring has been assumed to provide a possible conflation of a personal name “Alkelda” with the Old English (halig celde), or Old English combined with the Old Norse (halig kelda), for Holy Well; both Middleham and Giggleswick have wells. The related place name of “hallikeld” is used in two locations in the Vale of York, not far from Middleham. There is Hallikeld Springs at Melmerby and Halley Keld at Sawdon. There was also a local wapentake called Hallikeld. The use of a Norse word in the name indicates a 9th-10th century influence. Furthermore another local well has provided evidence of votive offerings dating to the pre-Roman period, so it is possible the holiness of the well dates back equally far.

However, modern place name studies do not generally support this theory. It is now suggested that the name of Alkelda derives from the Old English name “Alchhild” and dates to the 7th century. The use of her name locally implies a high status, for example an abbess. If she was abbess of a local monastery at either Middleham or Giggleswick, one or other of the wells may have become associated with those establishments and holiness. Unfortunately there is no supporting evidence for such a person at that time. The first historical reference to Alkild in Middleham was in 1389 in a grant from Richard II for the people of Middleham to hold a Fair on St Alkild’s feast day.

There are depictions of St Alkelda’s martyrdom on stained glass windows in both the Giggleswick and Middleham Churches, the only churches dedicated to her. The date of 800 AD usually given of St Alkelda’s death seems unlikely as there were probably few if any Danes in or around Middleham much before 866 AD. Bede tells us that in the 7th century there were very few monasteries or convents for women, which makes an earlier date unlikley.

Most early minor saints were not canonized and the prefix ‘St’ was added to their names by the local people; St Alkelda’s saintly status seems to be of this kind.

Viking attack on Paris, 29th March 845

Paris in the 9th century
Paris in the 9th century, by Sven Rosborn [CC BY-SA 3.0/]

In March 845 AD Ragnar allegedly led a Viking fleet into France raiding up the Seine, attacking Rouen.

On 29th March, Easter Sunday that year, they arrived at Paris with a fleet of longships and plundered the city. It was early in the raiding season and the attack was not expected. However, the Franks drew up defences on both banks of the river. This was of little concern to Ragnar, who attacked the smaller of the two forces, defeated it and took 111 prisoners. These unfortunates he hanged on an island in the Seine in full view of the second force on the other bank.

Despite the Danes being miles from the sea, and therefore perhaps more than usually vulnerable, the Franks were unable to defend the city. Charles the Bald paid the Danish to leave, handing over more than 2,500 kg of gold and silver. This was the first of 13 payments by the French to the Danes. On their way back the Danes pillaged several coastal sites including the Abbey of St Bertin.

Charles was heavily criticised for this payment but in practice he was facing conflict with his brothers over control of the remains of the wider Carolingian Empire, along with rebellion in the provinces and disaffected nobles. Paying off the Danes gave him space to deal with his other challenges, and in fact the agreement held for 6 years.

During the siege of Paris many of the Danes had died of plague which only subsided following a fast which they undertook on the advice of a Christian prisoner. Prayers to the Norse gods had previously proved ineffective. 

In the same year, a fleet of longships sailed up the Elbe and ravaged Hamburg in an attack which destroyed the town, including its church, school and library. A Viking fleet was also present in Moorish Spain; 150 ships had been ravaging in the Garonne and then appeared in northern Spain off the coast of the kingdom of Asturias. They were driven off and after a couple of weeks enter the Guadalquivir and attacked and took Seville. However Abd al-Rahman II was a far more effective deterrent than Charles and the Vikings were soon overcome. It was said that the Moors took so many captives that the city gallows were not sufficient and the palm trees “bore strange fruit”. However, the Moors also wanted to redeem the captives taken by the Vikings so some diplomacy was called for and Abd al-Rahman sent an embassy to their king (it is unclear if this was the Danish or Norwegian king) and it appears trading links were established.

Feast Day of Osburga, 30th March

St Osburga Window, Coventry Cathedral
St Osburga Window, © Coventry Cathedral

St Osburga of Coventry is commemorated on 30th March but she is a woman shrouded in mystery, including where and when she lived. One source claims she founded the first Anglo-Saxon nunnery in the 9th century of which little is known. There is a brief mention of an early nunnery at Coventry in a 14th century manuscript, and also that Cnut destroyed the old minster at Coventry. This could have coincided with his campaign in Warwickshire on 1016.

St Osburga was included in the dedication of a new Benedictine monastery at Coventry in 1043.

 “Leofric, earl of Chester, and Godiva his wife founded the great Benedictine monastery of Coventry in 1043, it being consecrated on 4 October by Archbishop Eadsige. The church was dedicated to the honour of God and His Blessed Mother, and also of St. Peter the Apostle, and of the Holy Virgin St. Osburg and of All Saints. It was endowed by the founder with one-half of the town in which the monastery was situated, and with twenty-four lordships, fifteen of which were in this county, four in Leicestershire, two in Northamptonshire, and one each in Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, and Cheshire. Among the witnesses to this foundation charter were Edward the Confessor, the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of Worcester and Lichfield, the abbots of Winchcombe and Pershore, and the earls Godwin, Harold, Siward, and Ordgar. The king confirmed to this abbot and his successors sac and soc and toll and all other liberties.” [A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 2, London, 1908.]

There are records of the local people venerating Osburga in the 15th century but little else is known, despite the obvious affection and devotion of the people for a long period.

So Osburga remains a mystery, despite her popularity for a number of centuries.

On This Day in February

Candlemas, 2nd February

Floating candles
Candles by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

In the Christian Church 2nd February is Candlemas. Before that some people would have celebrated Imbolc, the mid-point between the winter solstice and Spring equinox, on either 1st or 2nd February. The feast has become associated with the Celtic Feast of St Brigid as the Christians absorbed it into their own calendar.

Alfric of Eynsham wrote a sermon for Candlemas including a discussion of the appropriate gift for new mothers (as Mary was) to bring to the church. Alfric went on to explain that God didn’t need possessions, but faithfulness.

“If thou acknowledgest thy Lord with thy posessions, according to thy ability, it forwards thyself to eternal life; if thou forgettest him, it harms thyself and not God, and thou losest the everlasting meed. God desires the goodness of thy mind, and not of thy possessions.”

Death of King Swein Forkbeard, 3rd February 1014

Edmund killing Sweyn,
Edmund killing Sweyn, Cambridge University Library MS Ee.3.59 p. 4 in Haskins Society Journal Volume 2, 1990 p. 243 [Public Domain]

King Swein Forkbeard died on 3rd February 1014 having ruled England for 5 weeks.

Swein had rebelled against his father, Harald Bluetooth, during the 980s. He then appeared in England with Olaf Tryggvason raiding and looting in the 990s and was possibly present at the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD. He is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having participated in the attack on London in 994 AD:

“AD 994: In this year came Anlaf and Swegen to London, on the nativity of St. Mary [8th Sept.], with ninety-four ships; and they then continued fighting stoutly against the city, and would also have set fire to it. But they there sustained more harm and evil than they ever supposed that any citizens would be able to do unto them. But the holy mother of God, on that day, shewed her mercy to the citizens and delivered them from their foes. And they then went thence, and brought the utmost evil that ever any army could do, by burning, and plundering, and by man-slaying, both by the sea-coast and among the East Saxons, and in the land of Kent, and in Sussex, and in Hampshire. And at last they took to themselves horses, and rode as far as they would, and continued doing unspeakable evil.”

Needless to say, King Athelred bought them off.

Swein reappears in the Chronicle in 1003 AD, attacking Wilton and Salisbury following the failure of the ealdorman, Alfric, to engage him. In 1004 AD his fleet despoiled Norwich, then Thetford, until Ulfcytel was able to rally some meaningful resistance and attempt to drive them off.

By 1013 Swein was back again with a large army and began to receive the submissions of the English, starting with Earl Uhtred of Northumbria. During the year he then led a series of brutal campaigns until the whole country was his and Athelred fled first to the Isle of Wight and from there to Normandy.

Then on 3rd February 1014 he died, leaving his son Cnut with the army at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. John of Worcester helpfully provides more details of his final days:

“AD 1014: The tyrant Sweyn, in addition to his endless and cruel atrocities both in England and other countries, filled up the measure of his damnation by daring to exact an enormous tribute from the town where rests the uncorrupt body of the precious martyr Edmund; a thing which no one had dared to do since the time the town was given to the church of that saint. He frequently threatened, that if the tribute were not speedily paid, he would burn the town and its inhabitants, level to the ground the church of the martyr, and inflict various tortures on the clergy. Moreover, he often disparaged the martyr’s merits, presuming to say that there was no sanctity attached to him; but thus setting no bounds to his frowardness, divine vengeance did not suffer the blasphemer to continue in existence. Towards evening of the day on which he had held a general Thing-Court at Gainsborough, repeating his threats while surrounded by throngs of Danes, he alone of the crowd saw St. Edmund coming towards him with a threatening aspect. Struck with terror at this spectacle, he began to shout with great vehemence: “Help, comrades, help! lo, St. Edmund is at hand to slay me.” While he spoke, the saint thrust his spear fiercely through him, and he fell from the war-horse on which he was seated, and suffering excruciating torments until twilight, died in agony on the third of the nones [the 3rd] of February.”

Swein was succeeded in Denmark by his eldest son, Harald, while Cnut remained in England to campaign that spring against the returning Athelred. Swein’s body was embalmed and later returned to Denmark to be buried at his church in Roskilde.

Death of King Hlothere of Kent, 6th February 685

Site of four Anglo-Saxon royal graves at St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury
Site of four Anglo-Saxon royal graves at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury – Hlothere is second from the left. Photo by Ealdgyth [CC BY-SA 3.0]

On 6th February 685 AD Hlothere, King of Kent, died of his injuries in a battle against the South Saxons in the 12th year of his reign.

He was the younger son of Eorcenbert of Kent and Seaxburh of East Anglia, daughter of King Anna. He succeeded his brother Ecgbert who died on 4th July 673 or 674 AD. Hlothere (or Chlotar) is a unique name for an Anglo-Saxon king; it is Frankish in origin demonstrating the close links that continued to exist across the Channel in the 7th century. He took the throne in opposition to a bid by King Wulfhere of Mercia to rule as regent for his nephews (Ecgbert’s sons), Eadric and Wihtred, as they were too young to succeed directly. Hlothere’s sister had married Wulfhere, making him the boys’ uncle by marriage, but the Kentish nobles seemed to prefer a more independent candidate to rule.

Wulfhere died shortly after and Hlothere attempted to take control of the land west of the River Medway. The new king of Mercia, Athelred, invaded Kent in 676 AD sacking Rochester. According to Bede:

“In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 676, when Ethelred, king of the Mercians,  ravaged Kent with a powerful army, and profaned churches and monasteries, without regard to religion, or the fear of God, he among the rest destroyed the city of Rochester.”

Following this the two men came to terms and Hlothere remained on the throne.

He was a major patron of the church and worked closely to support the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore. He also reissued an updated law code based on that of Athelbert. From about 679 AD he appears to have shared rule with his nephew Eadric.

However after a peaceful decade of his rule Eadric became impatient and invaded with the help of the South Saxons in 684/5 AD. Hlothere was defeated and wounded, dying on 6th February 685 AD.

DP Kirby suggests that Hlothere had been either less efficient or less ruthless in failing to dispose of his nephew from the outset; perhaps he was simply fond of the boy.

At this time fellow kings included Sigehere of the East Saxons, Aldwulf of East Anglia, Ecgfrith of Northumbria (including Deira), Athelred I of Mercia, and Centwine (or possibly Cadwalla) of Wessex. Eadric and Cadwalla appear to have co-operated in the invasion of Kent, and Cadwalla laid waste to Kent in 686 AD and again in 687 AD after his brother Mul was burned to death there.

Feast Day of Alfflaed, 8th February

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey, © PWicks 2015

8th of February is the Feast Day of Saint Alfflaed, daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and sister of the scholarly King Aldfrith and of King Ecgfrith.

She was born in 654 AD, and her father Oswiu promised her to the service of God in return for his unexpected and decisive victory over Penda at the Battle of Winwaed in 655 AD.

Alfflaed was taken to Hartlepool under the care of Hild, her kinswoman. When Hild founded the Abbey at Whitby a couple of years later, she took the little girl with her. Alfflaed’s mother Eanflaed joined the community on 670 AD and they jointly succeeded Hild as the Abbess of Whitby in 680 AD. Following Eanflaed’s death in 704 AD, Alfflaed then ruled solely as abbess until her own death in 713/714 AD. The anonymous Life of St Gregory was written during her rule at Whitby. A brief letter also remains in the collection of letters called the Bonifacian Correspondence. It is addressed to Adolana, the abbess of Pfalzel, and in it AElfflaed expresses her affection for Adolana and introduces a third abbess who is on pilgrimage, asking Adolana to provide her and her companions with help and guidance while en route to Rome. The letter can be read here: https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/338.html

While Hild had favoured the Irish liturgy Alfflaed was firmly Roman in her approach. As a result, she was important and influential in the arguments raging between Bishop Wilfrid and her brother, King Ecgfrith. Later her support for Wilfrid at the Synod of the River Nidd in 706 AD helped him regain his Northumbrian possessions which Ecgfrith had taken from him. Stephen of Ripon, Wilfrid’s hagiographer, remembered her as “always the comforter and best counsellor of the whole province.” Her testimony concerning was instrumental in restoring Wilfrid to his See:

“Meanwhile the most blessed Alffled the abbess spoke with holy words: ” I tell you truly in Christ the testament of King Aldfrith in the illness which brought his life to a close. He vowed a vow to God and to St Peter saying, ‘If I live, I will fulfil all the decrees of the Apostolic See concerning the blessed Bishop Wilfrid which I once refused to obey. But, if I die, bid my heir, my son, in the name of the Lord, that he fulfil for the good of my soul the Apostolic judgment concerning Bishop Wilfrid.”

She was also a close friend of Cuthbert and helped persuade him to accept the bishopric of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert’s friend Bishop Trumwine, had chosen to retire to Whitby after being forced to leave Abercorn, and died there during her rule.

Bede tells a miracle story in the “Life of St Cuthbert” about Alfflaed being cured from an illness which left her completely unable to stand and which she thought might be terminal:

“[she] expressed a wish that she had in her possession some article that had belonged to him; “for I know, and am confident,” said she, “that I should soon be well.” Not long after this, there came a person who brought with him a linen girdle from Saint Cuthbert: she was overjoyed at the gift, and perceiving that Heaven had revealed to the saint her wish, she put it on, and the next morning found herself able to stand upon her feet. On the third day she was restored to perfect health.”

The same girdle was then also used to cure a nun from another illness, after which it vanished having proven Cuthbert’s sanctity beyond doubt.

On another occasion when she and Cuthbert were meeting together she begged him to tell her how much longer her brother Ecgfrith had to live and Cuthbert revealed he had only a year before his death. AElfflaed then tearfully asked who would succeed as Ecgfrith did not have any sons to follow him:

“He answered, “You behold this great and spacious sea, how it aboundeth in islands. It is easy for God out of some of these to provide a person to reign over England.” She therefore understood him to speak of Alfrid, who was said to be the son of her father, and was then, on account of his love of literature, exiled to the Scottish islands.”

Aldfrith was a scholarly king whose reign is considered to be the beginning of the Northumbrian Golden Age, supporting the scholarship of Bede and the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Bede tells us that:

“And that his [Cuthbert’s] prophecies might be fulfilled in all things, Egfrid was killed the year afterwards in battle with the Picts, and was succeeded on the throne by his illegitimate brother Alfrid, who, a few years before, had devoted himself to literature in Scotland, suffering a voluntary exile, to gratify his love of science.”

After her death Alfflaed was buried at Whitby, alongside other members of her family.

Feast Day St Scholastica, 10th February

Benedict and Scholastica
Benedict and Scholastica in a fresco at Klosterkirche Elchingen, 18th-century artist; photographed by Hermetiker [CCA-SA 1.0]

10th February is the Feast Day of St Scholastica, the twin sister of St Benedict of Nursia. She is the patron saint of Benedictine nuns. She and her brother both dedicated themselves to the movement named after her brother and are admired for their devotion by Christians still. Most of what we know about her comes from the writings of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues.

“[Benedict’s] sister, whose name was Scholastica, had been dedicated to the almighty Lord since her very infancy. She used to come to see Benedict once a year and the man of God would come down to meet her at a property belonging to the monastery not far from the gate. Now one day she came as usual, and her venerable brother came down to meet her with his disciples. They spent the whole day praising God and in holy conversation, and when night’s darkness fell, they ate a meal together. While they were seated at table, talking of holy matters, it began to get rather late and so this nun, Benedict’s sister, made the following request: “I beg you not to leave me tonight, so that we might talk until morning about the joys of heavenly life.” Benedict answered, “What are you saying, sister? I certainly cannot stay away from my monastery.” The sky was so clear at the time that there was not a cloud to be seen. When the nun heard the words of her brother’s refusal, she put her hands together on the table and bent her head in her hands to pray the almighty Lord. When she lifted her head from the table, such violent lightning and thunder burst forth, together with a great downpour of rain, that neither the venerable Benedict nor the brothers who were with him could set foot outside the door of the place where they were sitting. For the nun, as she bent her head in her hands, had poured forth rivers of tears on to the table, by means of which she had turned the clear sky to rain. That downpour began just as her prayer finished – in fact, the coincidence between the prayer and the downpour was so precise that she lifted her head from the table at the very moment when the thunder sounded and the rain came down exactly the same moment that she raised her head.

Then the man of God realized that he could not return to his monastery in the midst of the thunder and lightning and the heavy downpour of rain. This upset him and he began to complain, saying, “May the almighty God forgive you, sister. What have you done?” To which she replied, “Look, I asked you and you refused to listen to me. I asked my Lord and He heard me. Go now, if you can. Leave me behind and return to your monastery.” But being unable to leave the building, he had to remain there against his will, since he refused to stay there voluntarily. And so they spent the whole night awake, satisfying each other’s hunger for holy conversation about the spiritual life.”

Gregory used this example to demonstrate that saints do not always get what they want (Benedict was unable to leave because Scholastica’s love was stronger).

Three days after this incident Scholastica died and Benedict had her body brought to his monastery where he laid it in the tomb he had prepared for himself.

The Anglo-Saxons were devoted to her cult and her feast day appears in all the calendars from the period and in a number of litanies. Aldhelm (d. 709 AD) praised Scholastica in his work “De Virginitate” which was a Latin treatise on virginity addressed to the nuns of the double monastery at Barking. In this work he extoled Scholastica to the detriment of her brother Benedict stressing her purity and her miracle. Aldhelm later wrote a poetic version of his work in which he said that “she gained golden rewards by her vow of virginity” and criticised Benedict with the comment that not only did he refuse to stay in response to Scholastica’s pleading, but he “showed scorn of his holy sister.”

Feast Day of Caedmon, 11th February

Image of Caedmon's Hymn
Image of copy (c800) Caedmon’s Hymn in the “Moore” manuscript (737), Cambridge, Kk.5.16, f. 128v, written in Northumbrian. This is the earliest known version of this work. [Public Domain]

11th February is St Caedmon’s Feast Day. Caedmon was the first named English Poet and he wrote a poem in the 7th century which is quoted in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”.

Caedmon’s story is that of a man unable to sing or recite poetry which was a matter of severe embarrassment at a time when these activities were fundamental to social acceptance. At feasts he would make his excuses and leave when the harp began to pass among the assembled company. One night he made his way to watch over the animals, as it was his duty, and while there he had a vison in which he composed poetry on the creation of the world at the urging of a mysterious stranger.

In the morning he told the steward about his dream and was taken to the Abbess Hild at Whitby to recite his poem, so the event would have been before her death in 680 AD. Hild wanted to test the authenticity of his experience so she had another Bible passage read to him and asked him to write a poem based on it. This Caedmon duly did and Hild ordered him to enter the monastery and dedicate himself to composition. 

As Bede tells us:

“Thus Caedmon ‘ keeping in mind all he heard, and as it were chewing the cud, converted the same into most harmonious verse; and sweetly repeating the same, made his masters in their turn his hearers. He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis : and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and his ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the apostles ; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the Divine benefits and judgments, by which he endeavoured to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions”

We know that Bede joined his monastery at the age of seven, around 680 AD so he would have been able to speak to Caedmon’s contemporaries when writing his account many years later.

Bede describes Caedmon’s death as follows:

“Thus it came to pass, that as he had served God with a simple and pure mind, and undisturbed devotion, so he now departed to his presence, leaving the world by a quiet death; and that tongue, which had composed so many holy words in praise of the Creator, uttered its last words whilst he was in the act of signing himself with the cross, and recommending himself into his hands”.

Although Caedmon is often described as “an illiterate cowherd” this is misleading to the modern reader. Society was generally illiterate outside of the Church, and responsibility for protecting cattle, the wealth of the people, was unlikely to be left to the lower ranks. As someone who attended feasts Caedmon was likely a retainer of the local lord. In pre-literate societies we also know that verse may be used to improve memory by increasing the brain’s ability to remember and recall important information. So for Caedmon, fluent in Old English as a native speaker, and immersed in a society where individuals produced verse spontaneously as a matter of course, his sudden ability becomes potentially believable.

Another Old English poem, known in a complete version is “The Dream of the Rood”, which was probably composed in Northumbria c. 700 AD. Parts of it are inscribed on the Ruthwell Cross, which was erected around 730-740 AD. Also from this period we have Bede’s own “Death Song” (a 5 line epigram) which Cuthbert claimed Bede composed shortly before his death in 731 AD (Bede wrote more poetry in Latin).

Various translations of Caedmon’s Hymn exist but the word order and structure allows multiple interpretations, which is typical of Old English verse.

His poem was wildly popular and numerous copies exist in various dialects. Bede translated it into Latin and the Old English version appears as a gloss in the margin. It is not clear if this is a back translation from Bede’s Latin or the original poem. Its date places it early in the Conversion period. It is quite a sophisticated meditation on the story of Creation, and the Trinity, but uses terminology which would have been understandable to people more familiar with a pagan tradition. The 9 lines we have are by no means the complete poem; the rest is sadly lost.

The poem begins:
“Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes Uard…”


“Now we must praise the Guardian of Heaven…”

And you can hear it being recited in YouTube here in Old English and accompanied on a Saxon Lyre:

One of two candidates for the earliest surviving copy of Caedmon’s Hymn is found in “The Moore Bede” (ca. 737) which is held by the Cambridge University Library (Kk. 5. 16, often referred to as M). The other candidate is St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18 (P)

Feast Day of Bishop Athelwold of Lindisfarne, 12th February

Lindisfarne Gospels
Lindisfarne Gospels, © British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV

Athelwold, Bishop of Lindisfarne, has his feast day in 12th February. He died in 740 AD, having been a disciple of St Cuthbert and originally a monk at Melrose. Later he served as Abbot of Melrose and then as Bishop of Lindisfarne from 721 AD (after the death of Eadfrith) until his own death. His relics were carried with St Cuthbert’s when the community left Lindisfarne due to the Scandinavian attacks in the 9th century.

He had a sister who was cured of head pain by St Cuthbert, as related by Bede in his “Life of St Cuthbert”:

“BUT the venerable Bishop Cuthbert effected a cure similar to this [described in previous chapter], of which there were many eye-witnesses, one of whom is the religious priest, Ethelwald, at that time attendant on the man of God, but now abbot of the monastery of Melrose. Whilst, according to his custom, he was travelling and teaching all, he arrived at a certain village, in which were a few holy women, who had fled from their monastery through fear of the barbarian army, and had there obtained a habitation from the man of God a short time before: one of whom, a sister of the above-mentioned priest, Ethelwald, was confined with a most grievous sickness; for during a whole year she had been troubled with an intolerable pain in the head and side, which the physicians utterly despaired of curing. But when they told the man of God about her, and entreated him to cure her, he in pity anointed the wretched woman with holy oil. From that time she began to get better, and was well in a few days.”

Athelwold contributed to the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which had been started under the rule of Eadfrith, by covering and binding them, then he had them decorated by Billfrith with gems and silver. The Lindisfarne Gospels’ script and illustrations was undertaken by just one man, whom the 10th century monk Aldred identified as Bishop Eadfrith. Aldred also recorded that the binding was done by Athelwold and this may have been before he left to serve at Melrose.

Aldred wrote:

“Eadfrith bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne He, in the beginning, wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert and generally for all the holy folk who are on the island.  
And AEthilwald bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders, bound and covered it without, as he well knew how to do.  
And Billfrith the anchorite, he forged the ornaments which are on the outside and
bedecked it with gold and with gems and also with gilded silver-pure wealth.”

Unfortunately the binding has not survived but today the manuscript has been bound in covers made in 1852 commissioned by the Bishop of Durham. The design is based on motifs drawn from the decoration of the manuscript itself.

Feast Day of Eormenhild of Kent, 13th February

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire
The exterior of Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England, viewed from the west. Photo by Diliff [CC BY-SA 3.0]

13th February is the feast day of St Eormenhild, sister of Hlothere, King of Kent (see 6th February). She was the daughter of Eorcenbert and Seaxburh, and was given in marriage to be King Wulfhere of Mercia’s queen.

Wulfhere was a son of Penda, king of Mercia, and he had been made king in Mercia. According to the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) four years after the Battle of Winwaed, where Penda was killed, the Mercians rebelled against Oswiu of Northumbria and made Wulfhere their king, having kept him in hiding in the meantime.

Oswiu had brought Christianity to Mercia, as Penda had been a pagan, but it was Wulfhere who embedded the new faith.

“And thus they [the Mercians] served Christ joyously with a king of their own.”

Eormenhild was also the niece of Athelthryth, the founder of Ely, hence their interest in her. The couple had a daughter who was later known as St Werburh.

Eormenhild retired to the monastery at Minster in Sheppey after Wulfhere’s death in 675 AD and became Abbess there when her mother Seaxburh moved to Ely. Following the death of her mother she then succeeded as Abbess of Ely; it seems this was at some personal cost:

“Setting aside ambition for any position of power whatsoever, she commended to Christ the virgins of whom she had charge, and then followed her most holy mother into the poverty of Christ which she had chosen. She became poor herself and, by fleeing from being honoured in the sight of mankind, achieved a glory which was greater in the sight of God and in the sight of mankind When she had been given a suitable welcome by everyone, she became mother of the entire congregation.”

There she remained until her death, and she was buried at Ely with her mother and aunt. Goscelin wrote a hagiography of her life, which included a miracle in which Eormenhild visited dire retribution on the monk who was school master and was overly severe in his punishment of the boys in his care.

Death of King Oswiu of Northumbria, 15th February 670

Death of Penda of Mercia at Winwaed
Stained glass window in the cloister of Worcester Cathedral representing the death of Penda of Mercia at Winwaed, by Violetriga, CC BY-SA 3.0

King Oswiu (Oswy) of Northumbria died on 15 February 670 AD.

Oswiu was the son of Athelfrith of Bernicia and Acha, daughter of Aelle of Deira. When his uncle Edwin killed Athelfrith at the Battle of the River Idle in 616 AD, Oswiu and his family went into exile in Dal Riata. It is suggested he married, or at least had a relationship with Fin, an Irish princess of the Ui Neill dynasty and they had a son called Aldfrith who later became King of Northumbria in his own turn.

Oswiu succeeded his brother Oswald in 642 AD and recovered his brother’s body from the battle site at Maserfield where it had been dismembered and displayed by Penda following Penda’s victory over the Northumbrians. However, Oswiu’s control was less assured than Oswald’s and Northumbria broke back into its constituent parts of Bernicia and Deira.

In order to placate the Deirans (the southern half of Northumbria, roughly equivalent to Yorkshire) Oswiu married his cousin Eanflaed, Edwin’s daughter, in 643 AD and placed her kinsman Oswine in charge of the sub-kingdom. He is later accused of having Oswine murdered because he refused to engage in battle. Oswiu replaced him with his nephew Oethelwold, the son of Oswald. In gratitude Oethelwold allied with Penda against Oswiu at the battle of Winwaed in 655 AD which Oswiu won. As a result Oswiu replaced his faithless nephew with his own son Ahlfrith.

By now he also had an interesting son-in-law, Peada, who was Penda’s son and who had married Oswiu’s daughter Alchflaed around 653 AD. Peada had been required to convert to Christianity in order to make the marriage, but according to Bede he was eager to do so (it’s not clear if this is Bede’s personal agenda, or actually the case). However, Peada was killed about a year later and Oswiu then ruled southern Mercia directly until the rebellion which installed Wulfhere as King of Mercia in 658 AD.

Oswiu’s sphere of influence at its peak was broad indeed. He ruled from the Firth of Forth in the North down into at least some of the southern kingdoms.

Oswiu was a Christian king and founded the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, home to Bede. Like Oswald he had been brought up in the Irish Christian tradition but his wife Eanflaed was a Roman. As a result he convened the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD which settled the vexed question of the calculation of the date for Easter in favour of the Roman calculation, in part through the impassioned contribution of Wilfrid.

When Oswiu died in 670 AD he was the first Northumbrian king to have died of natural causes rather than in battle.

Death of Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne, 17th February 661

View of mainland from Lindisfarne
View of mainland from Lindisfarne, © PWicks 2012

Fin(i)an of Lindisfarne died on 17th February 661 AD after succeeding Bishop Aidan in 651 AD. 

Finan was an Irish monk from Iona. When he became the Bishop of Lindisfarne he built a new church of oak and thatched it with reeds, as Bede explains:

“IN the meantime, Bishop Aidan being dead, Finan, who was ordained and sent by the Scots, succeeded him in the bishopric, and built a church in the Isle of Lindisfarne, the episcopal see; nevertheless, after the manner of the Scots, he made it, not of stone, hut of hewn oak, and covered it with reeds; and the same was afterwards dedicated in honor of St. Peter the Apostle, by the reverend Archbishop Theodore.”

Finan also baptised Peada, Penda’s son, in 653 AD and sent Cedd and other priests to convert the Middle Angles. Bede describes the event:

“Accordingly he [Peada] was baptized by Bishop Finan, with all his earls and soldiers, and their servants, that came along with him, at a noted village belonging to the king, called At the Wall. And having received four priests, who for their erudition and good life were deemed proper to instruct and baptize his nation, he returned home with much joy. These priests were Cedd and Adda, and Betti and Diuma; the last of whom was by nation a Scot, the others English. Adda was brother to Utta, whom we have mentioned before, a renowned priest, and abbot of the monastery of Gateshead. The aforesaid priests, arriving in the province with the prince, preached the word, and were willingly listened to; and many, as well of the nobility as the common sort, renouncing the abominations of idolatry, were baptized daily.”

Later Finan baptised King Sigeberht, who converted to Christianity following urging by Oswiu of Northumbria. Bede again:

“AT that time, also, the East Saxons, at the instance of King Oswy, again received the faith, which they had formerly cast off when they expelled Mellitus, their bishop. For Sigebert, who reigned next to Sigebert surnamed The Little, was then king of that nation, and a friend to King Oswy, who, when he often came to him into the province of the Northumbrians, used to endeavor to persuade him that those could not be gods that had been made by the hands of men; that a stock or a stone could not be proper matter to form a god, the remains whereof were either burned in the fire, or framed into any vessels for the use of men, or else were cast out as refuse, trampled on and bruised to dust. That God is rather to be understood as of incomprehensible majesty and invisible to human eyes, almighty, eternal, the Creator of heaven and earth, and of mankind; who governs and will judge the world in righteousness; whose everlasting seat is in heaven, and not in vile and fading matter; and that it ought in reason to be concluded, that all those who have learned and obeyed the will of Him by whom they were created, will receive from Him eternal rewards. King Oswy having often, in a friendly and brotherly manner, said this and much more to the like effect, at length, with the consent of his friends, he believed, and after consulting with those about him, and exhorting them, they all agreed and gave their approbation, and were baptized with him by Bishop Finan; in the king’s village above spoken of, which is called At the Wall, because it is close by the wall with which the Romans formerly divided the island of Britain, at the distance of twelve miles from the eastern sea.”

At this point he made Cedd the Bishop of Essex to help establish the new Church there.

However, when disagreement arose over the calculation of Easter, he never accepted the Roman calculation. Bede, a firmly orthodox Roman, was disapproving of Finan’s views:

“At this time, a great and frequent controversy happened about the observance of Easter; those that came from Kent or France affirming, that the Scots kept Easter Sunday contrary to the custom of the universal church. Among them was a most zealous defender of the true Easter, whose name was Ronan, a Scot by nation, but instructed in ecclesiastical truth, either in France or Italy, who, disputing with Finan, convinced many, or at least induced them to make a more strict inquiry after the truth; yet he could not prevail upon Finan, but, on the contrary, made him the more inveterate by reproof, and a professed opposer of the truth, being of a hot and violent temper.”

Finan’s death in 661 AD saved him the pain of the Synod of Whitby 3 years later, at which the Roman rule was adopted.

Ixworth Cross found, 18th February 1856

Ixworth Cross
Ixworth Cross, © Ashmolean Museum AN1909.453

The Ixworth Cross was found on 18th February 1856; the finder took it to Joseph Warren, a watch and clockmaker of Ixworth who also dealt in coins and antiquities.

Later Warren recorded that:

“1856 February 18th. This day was brought me a Gold Cross set with small garnets, also the front of a circular gold fibula, covered with filigree work……they were found by a man raising gravel at Stanton.”

There was also a disc brooch and a number of iron fittings, possibly from a coffin. Although Warren recorded the find as being at Stanton, the collection was attributed to Warren “from Ixworth” and so the cross was named.

An article in “Collecteana Antiqua” described the finds as coming from a grave. The iron fittings were suggested by Warren as coming from a coffin, especially as “mouldering remains of wood” were also detected. The article also speculated on the age of the objects and compared them to finds from Kent and in particular to the object now known as the Wilton Cross.

The cross probably dates from the 7th century and is decorated in the iconic gold and cloisonné work like items from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. It also resembles other finds such as the Trumpington Cross and the Wilton Cross.

The cross measures 4.55 cm wide by 3.88 cm thick and with arms 0.28 cm.The central roundel is divided into concentric rings, comprised of rectangular and T-shaped cloisonné work cells. The flared arms of the cross comprise a central panel divided into four sections, bordered by rectangular cells containing garnets. The upper arm is modified to attach the suspension loop. The back of the cross is made of a single sheet of gold, with a small repair patch on the border between the upper arm and central roundel. However, overall the style is more geometric than its comparison pieces.

More recent research has led to the proposal that this and similar crosses were from bed burials of Anglo-Saxon noble women, and that the cross was sewn to the neck of her garment. Bed burials were only given to high-status women. The Trumpington Cross is a more recent find which is strikingly similar to the Ixworth example.

You can see it in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Death of Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne, 18th February 675

St Colman’s Abbey and graveyard
13th century St Colman’s Abbey and graveyard, Knock, Inishbofin Drow69 [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Colman was an Irish monk from Iona. When Finan died on 17th February 661 Colman succeeded him as Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Finan was opposed to the Roman method of dating Easter and defended the Irish tradition vehemently. His death meant that he was at the Synod of Whitby which decided in favour of Roman practice, but Colman was less fortunate.

Bede provides much detail of the Synod including Colman’s argument for the Irish tradition:

“King Oswy first observed, that it behooved those who served one God to observe the same rule of life; and as they all expected the same kingdom in heaven, so they ought not to differ in the celebration of the Divine mysteries; but rather to inquire which was the truest tradition, that the same might be followed by all; he then commanded his bishop, Colman, first to declare what the custom was which he observed, and whence it derived its origin. Then Colman said, “The Easter which I keep, I received from my elders, who sent me bishop hither; all our forefathers, men beloved of God, are known to have kept it after the same manner; and that the same may not seem to any contemptible or worthy to be rejected, it is the same which St. John the Evangelist, the disciple beloved of our Lord, with all the churches over which he presided, is recorded to have observed.””

He and Wilfrid continued to argue fiercely and passionately but Wilfrid clinched it by reminding the assembly that Peter was left in charge of the Church and therefore the Pope, his successor, was to be obeyed. Oswiu and the Synod therefore agreed to follow Roman orthodoxy.

“Colman, perceiving that his doctrine was rejected, and his sect despised, took with him such as would not comply with the Catholic Easter and the tonsure (for there was much controversy about that also), and went back into Scotland, to consult with his people what was to be done in this case.”

So Colman left Lindisfarne with the other monks unable to accept the decision, having ruled Lindisfarne for three years. He took some of the bones of Aidan with him, and led his followers first to Iona and eventually to the island of Inishbofin where he established a monastery.

Bede describes the problems that then arose:

“Colman, the Scottish bishop, departing from Britain, took along with him all the Scots he had assembled in the isle of Lindisfarne, and also about thirty of the English nation, who had been all instructed in the monastic life; and leaving some brothers in his church, he repaired first to the isle of Hii (Iona), whence he had been sent to preach the word of God to the English nation. Afterwards he retired to a small island, which is to the west of Ireland, and at some distance from its coast, called in the language of the Scots, Inisbofinde [Inishbofin], the Island of the White Heifer. Arriving there, he built a monastery, and placed in it the monks he had brought of both nations; who not agreeing among themselves, by reason that the Scots in the summer season, when the harvest was to be brought in, leaving the monastery, wandered about through places with which they were acquainted; but returned again the next winter, and would have what the English had provided to be in common; Colman sought to put an end to this dissension, and travelling about far and near, he found a place in the island of Ireland fit to build a monastery, which, in the language of the Scots, is called Mageo [Mayo], and brought a small part of it of the earl to whom it belonged, to build his monastery thereon; upon condition, that the monks residing there should pray to our Lord for him who had let them have the place. Then building a monastery, with the assistance of the earl and all the neighbours, he placed the English there, leaving the Scots in the aforesaid island.”

Later, somewhat ironically, this monastery became a centre of Roman influence in Ireland.

Colman died on 18th February 675 AD at Inishbofin.

Edward the Martyr’s body arrives at Shaftesbury Abbey, 20th February 979

Glastonbury Abbey
Glastonbury Abbey, by Vammpi at Bulgarian Wikipedia [Public domain]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that:

“979 AD In this year St. Dunstan’ and Alfhere the ealdorman fetched the holy king’s body, St. Edward’s, from Wareham, and bore it with much solemnity to Shaftsbury.”

On 20th February 979 AD Ealdorman Alfhere and Bishop Dunstan arrived with the body of Edward the Martyr for burial at Shaftesbury, having set out from Wareham on 13th February in deepest winter. Edward’s grandmother, AElfgifu, was already buried at Shaftesbury, which had been founded in 888 AD by AElfred.

On its way Edward’s holy remains had miraculously cured two crippled men who encountered the procession.

This provided the murdered king with an honourable burial at last, almost a year after his death in March 978 AD, and was intended to rehabilitate King Athelred (called Unrede) in the eyes of his people.

Alfhere came from a noble family who served as ealdormenn of Mercia in the 10th century during the reigns of Eadred and Edmund. In his time Alfhere was an extremely important and influential figure in political circles and a strong supporter of Athelred. During the reign of Edward he had supported Alfthryth, the widow of Edgar, in her programme of Benedictine monastic reform led by Dunstan, Oswald and Athelwold. His faction was politically opposed to that of King Edward, whose supporters included Athelstan Half-King and his son Athelwine, Ealdormenn of East Anglia.

Alfhere’s father Ealhhelm was made Ealdorman by King Edmund in 940 AD and the family was described as “kinsmen” by Edmund and Eadred, as well as Eadwig and Edgar in various charters, although their definitive relationship is not known. 

Alfhere had three brothers and at least one sister, who married an Alfric, and whose son Athelwine was killed at the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD. His brother Alfheah was made Ealdorman of central Wessex in 959 AD (after Alfhere’s own elevation in 956 AD), and served Eadwig in s senior capacity before that; when Eadwig and Edgar temporarily divided the kingdom, he served under Eadwig while Alfhere served under Edgar. It also seems likely there was a kinship with Athelweard the Chronicler, if he is the same Athelweard mentioned in Alfheah’s will. His brother Eadric is more obscure, but his third brother, Alfwine, is known to have become a monk, possibly at Glastonbury.

Alfhere was appointed an Ealdorman of Mercia in 956 AD by King Eadwig and at some time he had control of Evesham Abbey. He is described in the Vita Oswaldi (Life of Oswald) as being immensely wealthy. When Edgar became “King of the Mercians” in the rebellion against Eadwig in 957 AD, Alfhere became one of his leading men and it is probably around this time that he became pre-eminent among the ealdormenn of Mercia (there being more than one in different areas of the region) and during the 960s became the sole Ealdorman. He may also have administered central Wessex for some time after his brother’s death in 971/972 AD as there is no record of a succession until 977 AD.

During Edgar’s reign the country was divided into four areas: Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, and rivalry between the Ealdormenn of these regions was inevitable. Following Edgar’s death the conflict intensified between Alfhere and Athelstan Half-King of East Anglia over the territory that lay on their borders; historically part of East Mercia, some lands had been attached to East Anglia following their recovery from the Danelaw by Edward the Elder and Athelflaed in the early 10th century and they remained disputed for subsequent generations.

Alfhere’s support for the one faction over another was likely to have been more political than religious in motivation. It is not known if he played any part in King Edward’s murder and whether his involvement in the translation of the remains was indicative of his closeness to the crime or not. He may simply have been chosen as one of Athelred’s leading supporters. He was granted disputed land following the young king’s coronation and retained his position as premier Ealdorman until his death in 983 AD.

He was buried at Glastonbury and his brother-in-law Alfric succeeded him as Ealdorman of Mercia, although he was exiled in 985 AD. There is no record of Alfhere having a wife or children

Death of Sicga the King-killer, 22nd February 793

Lindisfarne Abbey
Lindisfarne Abbey, © PWicks 2012

Sicga (also Siga / Sigha) was a nobleman in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. He first appears in the historical record as senior lay witness to the proceedings of a council held by Papal Legate, George, Bishop of Ostia in 786, where he is called a patrician (Sigha patricius), a term which may correspond with the Old English term ealdorman.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) records the murder of King Alfwald by Sigca at Scythlecester (which may be modern Chesters in Northumberland) on 23 September 788:

‘This year Alfwald, king of the Northumbrians, was slain by Siga, on the eleventh day before the calends of October [23 Sept]; and a heavenly light was often seen on the spot where he was slain. He was buried in the church of Hexham.’

Other versions of the Chronicle also record that the king was buried at St Peter’s in Hexham and that a brilliant celestial light frequently appeared at the spot where he had been killed. His successor, Osred, was his nephew, and he in turn was king for only a short while as the chaos of the Northumbrian 8th century rolled on.

Sicga’s death, on 22nd February 793, is recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle after the text referring to the sack of Lindisfarne, and Symeon of Durham adds that he died by suicide. Symeon says that his body was taken to Lindisfarne on 23rd April, which was before the Norse raids. In spite of this, and the fact that he was a regicide, Sicga was apparently buried at the monastery of Lindisfarne:

“AD. 793, (which is the fourth year of king Ethelred,) fearful prodigies terrified the wretched nation of the Angles; inasmuch as horrible lightnings, and dragons in the air, and flashes of fire, were often seen glancing and flying to and fro; which signs indicated the great famine, and the terrible and unutterable slaughter of multitudes which ensued. In this year also, duke Sicga, who murdered king Elfwald, died by his own hand; his body was carried to the isle of Lindisfarne, on the ninth of the kalends of May [23d April].”

Lindisfarne suffered Viking attack shortly after, and while Alcuin in his letter to Higbald suggests that the sins of the monks contributed to their misery, he does not explicitly suggest it was because they accepted the body of a suicide / regicide in their sanctified midst; rather he blames vanity, drink and sex (and probably also poetry and story-telling of which the monks were fond: “what has Ingeld [a hero celebrated in poetry] to do with Christ?” as Alcuin put it elsewhere).

Death of Jurmin of East Anglia, 23rd February 654

St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Suffolk
The view looking west towards St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Suffolk, Diliff [CC BY-SA 3.0]

On 23rd February 654 AD Prince Jurmin of East Anglia was killed in battle by Penda of Mercia.

According to the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely), King Anna and his wife Hereswith had a number of children

“whose praiseworthy living and no less precious dying serve as a commendation of them. Yes indeed, there were two sons, Aldwulf and saintly Jurminus, and four daughters, namely Seaxburh, the first born, an incomparable woman, Athelburh, Athelthryth (founder of Ely’s double monastery) and Wihtburh, who by rejecting the enticements of the flesh for the Lord’s sake, earned the right to have oil in their flasks among the wise virgins.”

Anna’s sons had to live up to the expectations of the warrior-led Anglo-Saxon society, and Jurmin was killed in battle against Penda. However the monks at Ely were more concerned with their founder Athelthryth, Jurmin’s sister. So their records only tell us in addition to the above that “his holiness of life and meritoriousness with regard to justice commend him as blessed” according to William of Malmesbury in his book on the Deeds of the English Bishops.

Jurmin was said to be buried at Blythburgh with his father; his remains were translated to his own shrine in the Abbey of St Edmund at Bury in the eleventh century.

Death of King Athelbert of Kent, 24th February 616

Law of Athelbert
Opening page of the 7th century Law of AEthelberht, Rochester Cathedral Library MS A. 3. 5 (Textus Roffensis), folio 1v

Athelbert of Kent died on 24th February 616 AD. He was the first recorded Anglo-Saxon king to be converted to Christianity, following the arrival of Augustine’s mission to the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims he became king in 565 AD and allegedly ruled for 56 years. This may not be entirely accurate; it certainly seems a little generous. It is possible that the records confused his date of birth with his accession and that he actually only became king in the 580s. Gregory of Tours referred to him as the son of a king of Kent at the time of his marriage to Bertha in 581 AD.

Bede recorded him as the bretwalda (high king, or overlord of the Anglo-Saxons south of the Humber) and later Christian writers also developed his reputation but his story is obscure. He was the son of Eormenric and grandson of Aesc/Oesc, one of the legendary founders of the Kent dynasty (another is Hengest – sources conflict). Saeberht, King of Essex, was his nephew.

He seems to have expanded his influence following the overthrow of Ceawlin, the previous bretwalda around 592 AD.

His wife Bertha was the daughter of King Charibert of the Franks, who were Christians, and the link with Frankia may have contributed to Pope Gregory’s decision to send Augustine to Kent as his starting point for his mission.

When Augustine arrived in Kent he landed on the Isle of Thanet. Bede described their arrival and the king’s response:

“They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, taken interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Ethelbert, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God. The king having heard this, ordered them to stay in that island where they had landed, and that they should be furnished with all necessaries, till he should consider what to do with them. For he had before heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the royal family of the Franks, called Bertha; whom he had received from her parents, upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the Bishop Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve her faith. Some days after, the king came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him.”

After Augustine had done some preaching without any magical ill effects, the king agreed to let them stay in Canterbury and preach, saying rather cautiously:

“Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true, and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion.”

He is the first English King known to have issued a law code and provides a glimpse of the structure of Kentish society at the time. This is also the earliest piece of writing in English. The 12th century Textus Roffensis preserves the only surviving copy which resembles most early Germanic law-codes, treating issues such as interpersonal violence, wergeld, rights and obligations, and the status of the king. It is thought to have been issued around the year 600 AD.

He died on 24th February 616 AD and was buried in the church of SS Peter and Paul (St Augustine’s).

Feast Day of St Walburga, 25th February

St Walburga’s Church in Bruges
St Walburga’s Church in Bruges, © PWicks 2018

St Walburga’s main Feast Day is 25th February, although the date of her canonisation was recorded as 1st May in later years and the celebration of this became confused with the May Day pagan spring festival.

Although she is the patron saint of hydrophobia (the condition that afflicts rabies’ victims), storms and sailors, her name has more recently become associated with Walburga Black in the Harry Potter series of stories.

She was born in Devon, supposedly to “King” Richard of Wessex and his wife Wuna, and she trained at Wimborne Minster in Dorset. She later went to the Continent to join her kinswoman Lioba, who was also from Wimborne. Lioba had been appointed as Abbess of Tauberbischofsheim in Germany by Boniface. Two years later Walburga was made Abbess of Heidenheim, a double monastery founded by her brother Winnebald, following his death in 761 AD. It is said that she was skilled in medicine and did much to look after the sick and dying.

Her legend includes some miracles during her life, such as the occasion one night, when one of the monks rather rudely refused to see Walburga back to her cell with a lighted candle. However, shortly after this the monastery was lit by a mysterious light and Walburga gave thanks to God for driving out the darkness.

Walburga died on 25th February 779, and was buried at Heidenheim. However, the monastery declined over the following century. In 870 AD as workmen were restoring the church, the saint’s tomb was inadvertently broken into. The outraged saint appeared to the bishop, Otgar, complaining that her remains were being trampled upon ‘irreverently by the dirty feet of the builders.’ Shortly afterwards, the north wall of the church collapsed, which was widely interpreted as a sign from heaven. As a result, Walburga’s remains were translated to Eichstätt on 21st September to be with Winnebald and miracles were soon recorded at their tomb.

In 893 AD her relics were distributed across Europe. They went in procession to Monheim, where 54 miracles were to take place over the next seven years. 

Alban Butler lists some of the other destinations for her scattered bones:

“Her relics were translated, in the year 870, to Aichstadt, on the 21st of September, and the principal part still remains there in the church anciently called of the Holy Cross, but since that time of St. Walburge. A considerable portion is venerated with singular devotion at Furnes, where, by the pious zeal of Baldwin, surnamed of Iron, it was received on the 25th of April, and enshrined on the 1st of May, on which day her chief festival is placed in the Belgic Martyrologies, imitated by Baronius in the Roman. From Furnes certain small parts have been distributed in several other towns in the Low Countries, especially at Antwerp, Brussels, Tiel, Arnhem, Groningue, and Zutphen; also Cologne, Wirtemberg, Ausberg, Christ Church at Canterbury, and other places, were enriched with particles of this treasure from Aichstadt. St. Walburge is titular saint of many other great churches in Germany, Brabant, Flanders, and several provinces of France, especially in Poitou, Perche, Normandy, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, &c. Her festival, on account of various translations of her relics, is marked on several days of the year, but the principal is kept in most places on the day of her death. A portion of her relics was preserved in a rich shrine in the repository of relics in the electoral palace of Hanover, as appears from the catalogue printed in folio at Hanover in 1713.”

Walburga’s miracles continue to this day through the production of “Walburga’s Oil”. When her relics were taken in 893 AD ‘the workmen found the venerable bones of our holy mother Walburga moistened as if with a film of spring water, so that they were able, as it were, to press droplets of dew-like liquid from them.’ This ‘oil’ has been constantly flowing from Walburga’s shrine, between the months of October and February, for over 1,200 years, stopping only, we are told, during a period when the town was under interdict and after blood was shed in the church by armed robbers. Chemical tests have revealed that the ‘oil’ is actually natural water, although its contact with the bones of the saint is said to justify its use for spiritual purposes.

Death of Ercongota of Kent, 26th February 700

St Fara, founder of the Abbey at Brie
St Fara, founder of the Abbey at Brie, GFreihalter [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The sister of Hlothere and Eormenhild (see 6th and 13th February), was called Ercongota. It is her feast day on 26th February, the day of her death in 700 AD.

According to Bede she:

“was a most virtuous virgin, always serving God in a monastery in France, built by a most noble abbess, called Fara, at a place called Brie; for at that time but few monasteries being built in the country of the Angles, many were wont, for the sake of monastic conversation, to repair to the monasteries of the Franks or Gauls; and they also sent their daughters there to be instructed, and delivered to their heavenly bridegroom, especially in the monasteries of Brie, of Chelles, and Andelys.”

The monastery referred to at Brie is now better known as Faremoutiers-en-Brie and was founded in 617 AD. When Ercongota arrived she joined two of her aunts – Saethryth and Athelburh. They were both daughters of King Anna of East Anglia, and sisters of Ercongota’s mother and both became abbesses at Brie.

After the death of Saethryth, the second aunt-abbess, Ercongota became abbess at Brie in her turn and even Bede cannot tell us much about her brief tenure. She died at a relatively young age and never married. Her life was dedicated to her religious community.

She seems to have been rather over-shadowed by her siblings in the eyes of later authors. William of Malmesbury, for example, in discussing the family says that Seaxburga had two daughters by the king of Kent:

“of Ercongota, such as wish for information will find it in Bede.”

While Bede provides little detail, he describes Ercongota as a nun of outstanding virtue, and describes some miracles around her death:

“Many wonderful works and miracles of this virgin, dedicated to God, are to this day related by the inhabitants of that place; but it shall suffice us to say something briefly of her passage out of this world to the heavenly kingdom. The day of her departure drawing near, she visited the cells of the infirm servants of Christ, and particularly those that were of a great age, or most noted for probity of life, and humbly recommending herself to their prayers, let them know that her death was at hand, as she knew by revelation, which she said she had received in this manner. She had seen a number of men, all it, white, come into the monastery, and being asked by her “What they wanted, and what they did there?” they answered, “They had been sent thither to carry away with them the gold medal that had been brought thither from Kent.” That same night, at the dawn of morning, leaving the darkness of this world, she departed to the light of heaven. Many of the brethren of that monastery that were in other houses, declared they had then plainly heard concerts of angels singing, and the noise as it were of a multitude entering the monastery. Whereupon going out immediately to see what it might be, they saw an extraordinary great light coming down from heaven, which conducted that holy soul, set loose from the bonds of the flesh, to the eternal joys of the celestial country. They add other miracles that were wrought the same night in the same monastery; but as we must proceed to other matters, we leave them to be related by those to whom such things belong. The body of this venerable virgin and bride of Christ was buried in the church of the blessed protomartyr, Stephen. It was thought fit, three days after, to take up the stone that covered the grave, and to raise it higher in the same place, and while they did this, so great a fragrancy of perfume rose from below that it seemed to all the brothers and sisters there present as if a store of the richest balsams had been opened.”

Publication of the Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot, 28th February 1835

A painting by Väinö Blomstedt, possibly depicting the Kullervo of Kalevala
A painting by Väinö Blomstedt, possibly depicting the Kullervo of Kalevala, owned by the National Board of Antiquities [Public domain]

On 28th February 1835 Elias Lönnrot published his first version of his Finnish epic, a written record of oral folklore and mythology. The Kalevala is celebrated annually in Finland.

It is a collection of poetry and stories from all over the country and it is not entirely clear how much of the collection was written by Lönnrot himself. It is an important symbol of national identity and culture, and as such played a big role in the Finnish people’s drive towards independence. The poems and songs follow three major characters through their quests to find brides – although happy endings are in short supply. J R R Tolkien was fascinated with it and reworked the story of Kullervo, but why are we interested in the Kalevala at ASHY?

The Kalevala directly contributed to the development of his mythology. As folklore of early European people it deserves recognition alongside the stories of Germanic myth and legend which were the source of Anglo-Saxon belief and the Norse sagas.

You can read the stories on-line here:

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/index.htm

On This Day in January

Discovery of the Bamburgh Hoard, 1st January 2009

Styca of Athelred II of Northumbria
Styca of Athelred II of Northumbria, By NumisAntica, CC BY-SA 3.0

On Thursday 1st January 2009, a hoard of stycas was discovered at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. There were around 77 copper-alloy coins in the find, identified as 9th century stycas issued in the Kingdom of Northumbria, and dated to 810-867 AD.

Initial investigation revealed traces of organic remains on some coins along with carbon, perhaps from fire. The coins were embedded within a material, identified as grass, sedge or rush. However the corrosion from the coins had preserved, in a few rare cases, traces of cloth. The coins may have been contained by a cloth bag as well as the grass.

The majority of those coins on which inscriptions can be read can be identified as issues of Athelred II of Northumbria. Northumbria at this period was chaotic and Athelred had two reigns – 843-844 AD and 844-852 AD, the intervening period of no more than a year being filled by one Raedwulf who was killed fighting the Vikings. Both Athelred’s reigns are represented in the hoard. Athelred was succeeded by Osberht, and it is possible one of the coins in the Hoard is his, but it is not certain as the name may be that of the moneyer. There are also coins issued by Archbishop Wigmund of York, who ruled 837-854 AD.

Overall it is believed the Hoard dates to around the end of Athelred’s reign or the beginning of Osberht’s reign, placing it more narrowly around 850-860 AD.

By the reign of Osberht, the styca had replaced the sceatta as the most common form of currency in Northumbria. While both the styca and the sceatta depict the name of the monarch on the obverse, the sceatta was a base silver currency portraying a quadruped on the reverse whereas the styca was a base copper currency which denoted the name of the moneyer on the reverse.

J.R.R. Tolkien, born 3rd January 1892

Raising a toast
Raising a toast, Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3rd January 1892 in South Africa to English parents. He served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1945 and Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, from 1945 to 1959.

While he may be best known as the author of fantasy classics such as “The Lord of the Rings”, to those interested in Anglo-Saxon history he is also celebrated for his work in understanding and promoting the literature and culture of the period. Perhaps there is no better example than his lecture in 1936 called “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” which was recognised as a turning point in the interpretation of this literary masterpiece. His vision was subsequently validated by the excavations at Sutton Hoo in 1939 which demonstrated that the people of that period were a sophisticated and wealthy culture trading internationally.

Battle of Reading, 4th January 871

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C Manuscript, for 871 AD
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C Manuscript, for 871 AD

Following their victory at the Battle of Englefield on 31st December, the Anglo-Saxons clashed with the Viking invaders once more, this time at Reading on 4th January 871 AD. 
King Athelred of Wessex and his brother Alfred arrived to relieve Athelwulf, the ealdorman who had led the Englefield troops.

Asser’s account of the battle says that when Athelred and Alfred arrived at Reading first of all, they “cut to pieces and overthrew the heathen whom they found outside the fortifications.” However, they were unable to contain the enemy.

And yet worse was to come, as John of Worcester explains:

“Four days afterwards [after Englefield], king Athelred and his brother Alfred, joining their forces and marshalling the army, came to Reading. When they had succeeded in getting to the gate of the citadel, by slaying and putting to rout all the Pagans whom they found outside, the Pagans did not exert themselves the less, rushing out like wolves from all the gates, and doing battle with all their might; and both sides fought long and fiercely.

But, oh misery! the Christians at last turned their backs, and the Pagans gained the victory, and remained masters of the field of death. The said ealdorman Aethelwulf was among the number of the slain.”

As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle added, “the Danish-men had possession of the place of carnage.”

Athelweard the Chronicler adds in his account a further detail about Athelwulf:

“At length four days after their meeting, Ethelred arrives with his army; an indescribable battle is fought, now these, now those urge on the fight with spears immoveable; duke Ethelwulf falls, who a short time before had obtained the victory: the barbarians at last triumph. The body of the above-named duke is privately withdrawn, and carried into the province of the Mercians, to a place called Northworthig, but Derby in the language of the Danes.”

So Athelwulf was a Mercian, rather than from Wessex. The two kingdoms were not fully integrated at this point (that really only happened in the first quarter of the 10th century after the death of Athelflaed, Alfred’s daughter and Lady of the Mercians) but they had interests in common.

Death of Edward the Confessor, 5th January 1066

Scene 26 from the Bayeux Tapestry showing funeral of Edward
Scene 26 from the Bayeux Tapestry showing funeral of Edward, on web site of Ulrich Harsh

On 5th January 1066 Edward the Confessor died without an heir, and so the Witan chose Harold Godwinson to be his lawful successor. He was duly anointed and crowned the following day.

However, Harold only became king as a result of Edward’s failure to provide an heir, or nominate a clear, adult, successor. There are a number of theories about this:

  • Firstly, Edward chose to remain celibate for religious reasons.
  • Secondly, he was unable to have children; certainly there are no records of other children fathered earlier in his life before his marriage.
  • Thirdly, he was unable to marry until very late (he was in his forties) due to his precarious position as an exile, and so by the time he did marry, he was no longer able to have children.
  • Fourthly, he deliberately didn’t produce an heir to snub his wife, Edith, and her father Earl Godwin of Wessex.
  • Fifthly, he may have been gay.
  • Sixthly, his wife Edith was unable to have children.

None of these theories are well evidenced. The only thing we do know is that there was a lack of an heir.

Regardless of his ability or desire to father an heir, it is hard to know what reason Edward could offer for failing to name a successor in good time. The problem was widely recognised and worried over for a long time before his death. While famously William of Normandy claimed to have been promised the throne (not really within Edward’s remit as the final decision had to be agreed by the Witan), it would appear Edward did have a habit of offering to make someone his successor. He seems to have also promised it to Magnus of Norway to prevent him from invading, which was the tenuous justification used by Harald Hardrada in September 1066.

King Edward did recall Edward the Exile from Hungary in an attempt to address the pending crisis. Edward was the son of Edmund Ironside, half-brother of Edward the Confessor, which made Edward the Exile the King’s nephew. Sadly the Exile died almost as soon as he landed in England, and his son Edgar the Atheling was too young to be seen as a serious successor in 1066, being only around 15 years old and not in a position to meet the threat of invasion.

The Witan’s choice of Harold Godwinson may have been inevitable, but at least he represented proven military ability and had social networks among the noble families at a time when both factors were critical.

Discovery of the Vale of York / Harrogate Hoard, 6th January 2007

Coins and bullion from the Vale of York hoard
Coins and bullion from the Vale of York hoard, JMiall [CC BY-SA 3.0]

On 6th January 2007 metal detectorists David and Andrew Whelan discovered the Harrogate (Vale of York) Hoard. 

It was buried in 927 AD and contains 617 silver coins, which were tightly packed into a Frankish silver cup. As well as coins it contains complete ornaments, ingots (bars) and chopped-up fragments known as hack-silver (67 objects in total as well as the 617 coins). It shows the diversity of cultural contacts in the medieval world, with objects coming from as far apart as Afghanistan in the East and Ireland in the West, as well as Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe.

Vale of York Cup
Vale of York Cup, By vintagedept from Olen (London), CC BY 2.0

The silver cup was made around the middle of the 9th century. It was apparently intended for use in church services, and was probably either looted from a monastery by Vikings, or given to them in tribute. Most of the smaller objects were hidden inside this vessel, which was itself protected by some form of lead container. As a result, the hoard was extremely well-preserved. It also includes a rare gold arm-ring.

According to historian Michael Wood it can be identified firmly as a Viking hoard through its contents, which emphasise the vast trading routes that were used:

“There’s a Viking arm-ring from Ireland, there’s coins minted as far away as Samarkand and Afghanistan and Baghdad. And this gives you a sense of the reach of the age; these Viking kings and their agents and their trade routes spread across western Europe, Ireland, Scandinavia. You read Arab accounts of Viking slave dealers on the banks of the Caspian Sea; Guli the Russian – so-called because of his Russian hat, and he was Irish this guy, you know! – dealing in slaves out there on the Caspian, and those kind of trade routes; the river routes down to the Black Sea – through Novgorod and Kiev and these kind of places; you can see how in a very short time, coins minted in Samarkand, say, in 915, could end up in Yorkshire in the 920s.”

At this time in Britain the Anglo-Saxons had completed a series of relatively successful campaigns under Edward the Elder against the Danelaw leaders. Edward died in 924 AD and now his eldest son Athelstan became king. Athelstan was known as “King of the Anglo-Saxons” until 927, in which year he became “King of the English” following his conquest of the last remaining Viking Kingdom in York.

The hoard therefore relates to this pivotal moment, the early beginning of what eventually became England. It was buried soon after 927 AD because it contains one of the silver coins that Athelstan issued to celebrate that victory. The coin has on it a totally new regnal title, never used before: ‘Athelstan Rex totius Britanniae’ meaning “Athelstan, King of all Britain”.

The hoard was declared Treasure and was valued at £1,082,000 by the independent Treasure Valuation Committee.

Feast Day of Saethryth, 7th January

Map of East Anglia during reign of King Anna
Map of East Anglia during reign of King Anna, Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

7th January is the Feast Day of a rather obscure saint called Saethryth. Bede describes her as “a daughter of the wife of Anna, King of the East Angles” and records that with another natural daughter of Anna, she took the veil at a monastery in Frankia:

“for at that time, but few monasteries being built in the country of the Angles, many were wont, for the sake of the monastic conversation, to repair to the monasteries of the Franks or Gauls; and they also sent their daughters there to be instructed, and delivered to their heavenly bridegroom, especially in the monasteries of Brie, Chelles, and Andelys.”

This would make Saethryth  the half sister of Anna’s other, legitimate, daughters Seaxburh (who married King Eorcenberht of Kent), Athelthryth (a.k.a Athelthryth / Etheldreda / Audrey, wife of Ecgfrith of Northumbria and founder of Ely Abbey), Athelburh and son, Jurmin.

It appears Saethryth  was installed at the monastery of Faremoutiers-en-Brie, Gaul under its foundress Saint Burgundofara, and was the first double monastery in Gaul, with both men and women serving there under its Abbess. Saethryth  became the third Abbess there, succeeding her half-sister Athelburh, and succeeded in turn by her niece Eorcengota, daughter of Seaxburh.

The East Anglian princesses seem to have all become saints and clearly were very important in the foundation of a number of monasteries, but for the most part little information has survived about most of them.

Saethryth  played her part too, and died in the mid- to late 7th century, usually dated around 660-664 AD. While we don’t know more detail of her life, it is appropriate to recall the influence and impact of royal women on the development of the Christian faith in Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent, through marriage, the establishment of religious communities and in some cases missionary work.

Battle of Ashdown, 8th January 871

Alfred the Great at the Battle of Ashdown
Alfred the Great at the Battle of Ashdown, from Hull, E (1913). The Northmen in Britain by Morris Meredith Williams (died 1973) [CC BY-SA 4.0]

After the battles at Englefield (31st December) and Reading 94th January), King Athelred and Alfred his brother met the Vikings once more on 8th January 871. The battle was duly recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“King Aethelred and Aelfred his brother fought against the whole army at Aescesdune; and they were in two bodies: in the one were Bagsecg and Halfdene, the heathen kings, and in the other were the earls. And then king Aethelred fought against the division of the kings, and there king Bagsecg was slain; and Aelfred his brother against the division of the earls, and there earl Sidroc the elder was slain, earl Sidroc the younger, and earl Osbearn, and earl Fraena, and earl Harald; and both divisions of the army were put to flight, and many thousands slain: and they continued fighting until night.”

In his biography of Alfred, Asser gives us lots of detail. We might want to be a little cautious in accepting it at face value given the purpose of the biography was to glorify Alfred, but nevertheless, it may not have been too far from the mark given it was in living memory of the event.

Let’s take a look and some extracts from that work. In the first section we get a little more detail of the shield wall deployment, and the story about Alfred leading his men straight into battle without the King, his brother Athelred, who was at prayers and refused to break off in the middle of mass.

“The heathen, forming in two divisions, arranged two shield-walls of similar size; and since they had two kings and many ealdormen, they gave the middle part of the army to the two kings, and the other part to all the ealdormen. The Christians, perceiving this, divided their army also into two troops, and with no less zeal formed shield-walls. But Alfred, as I have been told by truthful eye-witnesses, marched up swiftly with his men to the battle-field; for King Athelred had remained a long time in his tent in prayer, hearing mass, and declaring that he would not depart thence alive till the priest had done, and that he was not disposed to abandon the service of God for that of men ; and according to these sentiments he acted. This faith of the Christian king availed much with the Lord, as I shall show more fully in the sequel.”

Whether Athelred was wise is another matter; but perhaps he had already agreed with Alfred to have him lead the first attack. Asser tells us that they certainly had agreed that Athelred would lead the attack against the kings, and Alfred should go against the earls. Whatever the case, Alfred was unable to wait, either due to following an agreed plan, his own impetuosity or pressure from the enemy.

“Then Alfred, though only second in command, could no longer support the advance of the enemy, unless he either retreated or charged upon them without waiting for his brother. At length, with the rush of a wild boar, he courageously led the Christian troops against the hostile army, as he had already designed, for, although the king had not yet arrived, he relied upon God’s counsel and trusted to His aid. Hence, having closed up his shieldwall in due order, he straightway advanced his standards against the foe.”

Athelred joined him once he has finished his religious observance. The men of Wessex were forced to fight up-hill, to their disadvantage. The battle centred around a thorn tree and was fiercely contested but Asser tells us that eventually Wessex had the victory, although at great cost of life.

“But here I must inform those who are ignorant of the fact that the field of battle was not equally advantageous to both parties, since the heathen had seized the higher ground, and the Christian array was advancing up-hill. In that place there was a solitary low thorn-tree, which I have seen with my own eyes, and round this the opposing forces met in strife with deafening uproar from all, the one side bent on evil, the other on fighting for life, and dear ones, and fatherland. When both armies had fought bravely and fiercely for a long while, the heathen, being unable by God’s decree longer to endure the onset of the Christians, the larger part of their force being slain, betook themselves to shameful flight. There fell one of the two heathen kings and five ealdormen; many thousands of their men were either slain at this spot or lay scattered far and wide over the whole field of Ashdown. Thus there fell King Bagseeg, Ealdorman Sidroc the Elder and Ealdorman Sidroc the Younger, Ealdorman Osbern, Ealdorman Fraena, and Ealdorman Harold; and the whole heathen army pursued its flight, not only until night, but until the next day, even until they reached the stronghold from which they had sallied. The Christians followed, slaying all they could reach, until it became dark.”

The precise location of the battle site is not known but it was close enough to Reading where the Vikings had based themselves for them to manage a retreat. The battle was won but the war was by no means over. Some suggestions are that it was on or near Lowbury Hill near the Ridgeway, and ancient track crossing the Downs.

With the death of Bacsecg, the surviving Viking leader, Halfdan Ragnarsson, now led the invaders through the coming campaign.

Death of Beorhtwald, Archbishop of Canterbury, 9th January 731

Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Beorhtwald
Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Beorhtwald: Cotton MS Augustus II 18, British Library

9th January is the day we remember Beorhtwald, Archbishop of Canterbury who died on this day in 731 AD.

Two years after the death of Theodore, the Turkish-born Archbishop sent by the Pope to reform the English church, Beorhtwald was elected to the primacy on 1st July 692 AD. Kent had been in turmoil prior to this and so this may be the reason for the delay in electing a replacement for Theodore. Eventually Wihtred won the throne in 691 or early 692 AD, enabling the election to proceed. However, there is another possible factor in the delay which we will discuss shortly.

Beorhtwald was the first native Archbishop of Canterbury in a continuous line until today (there had been two previous Anglo-Saxon holders of the role, Wigheard and Deusdedit, but not in a continuous line). He appears to have been born in Kent, and was formerly the abbot of Reculver, which had been founded in 669 AD by King Egbert.

The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey describes Beorhtwald as being the first Anglo-Saxon Abbot of Glastonbury too, serving there for 10 years before moving to Reculver. It also describes him as the nephew of King Athelred of Mercia (ruled 675-704 AD).

Although we don’t know exactly when Beorhtwald became Abbot of Reculver, he is named as such in a charter in which King Hlothhere of Kent granted land at Westanae in the Isle of Thanet, Kent, and at Sturry, Kent, to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery; this was dated May 679 AD, at Reculver and is the earliest surviving single-sheet Anglo-Saxon charter.

He was consecrated by Godwin, bishop of Lyons, on 29th June 693 AD and received his pallium from Pope Sergius I. He was also provided with 2 letters of privilege from the pope, presumably to emphasise his role with the kings of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, not all of whom were supportive.

He worked with Wihtred to develop the legal text known as the Law of Wihtred, dating to around 695 AD. The sole surviving document is found in the Textus Roffensis, and is the third in a series of Kentish Law Codes contained in the Codex which was collated in the 12th century. It was signed by Beorhtwald as Archbishop as well as Gebmund, the bishop of Rochester, and deals primarily with church and religious issues, defining penalties for giving gifts to pagan idols, working slaves on the Sabbath and for any foreigner or stranger who leaves the track and does not draw attention to himself by blowing his horn. Beorhtwald was also able to secure exemption for taxation for the church in the Laws, and later he was able to have agreed other privileges in a document from 699 AD.

Beorhtwald’s tenure saw the establishment of the Bishopric of Sherborne, consecrated the first Bishop of Selsey and the final conversion of pagan West Sussex.

However, much of his time in office was taken up with the matter of Bishop Wilfrid, and indeed this may have been a contributory factor in the delay of his original election. Despite Beorhtwald allegedly being the nephew of Athelred of Mercia, Wilfrid was Athelred’s Bishop and it is not clear which candidate he supported for the Archbishopric. Certainly Wilfrid was of the opinion he should have been elected.

Beorhtwald followed the approach of his predecessor Theodore with regards to Wilfrid. He opposed Wilfrid in his quest to add back dioceses to the Bishopric of York which had been split off by Theodore. At the Council of Austerfield in 702 AD Beorhtwald presided over the meeting and was described by Wilfrid’s biographer, Stephen of Ripon, as one of Wilfrid’s enemies who tried to deprive him of all his offices and possessions. The Council instructed Wilfrid to retire to Ripon and give up his Bishopric. Wilfrid was not happy with the outcome and appealed to the Pope. Three years later Wilfrid was given the Bishopric at Hexham instead.

Beorhtwald’s surviving correspondence contains other items of interest as well as papal matters. In one he writes to the Bishop of Sherborne asking him to intercede with the Abbot of Glastonbury to ransom a slave. Another letter, this time from the Bishop of London is of interest as the oldest surviving example of a “letter close” in Western Europe; a letter close is a sealed legal document, ensuring that only the intended recipient should read it in the first instance. The letter, dating to around 703-705 AD, also reveals that Wessex had been threatened with excommunication.

Beorhtwald held the See for 37 years, dying on 9th January 731 AD. His feast day is 9th January but his cult never really seems to have been very active.

There was a verse epitaph dedicated to him which may have been placed above his original tomb. The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture records that in the sixteenth century Leland transcribed a number of verse texts from an eighth-century manuscript collection from England and these included the epitaph of Beorhtwald. The epitaph was in elegiac couplets and consisted of twenty-two verses. The inscription contains the interesting information that Beorhtwald had his monument made himself (‘artificum manibus fecerat ipse sibi’) while he was still living, although the inscription was composed and executed after his death. The monument must therefore have been something more than a simple tomb. The author of the epitaph asks for the prayers of the archbishop. It was probably produced after the construction of the new Canterbury Cathedral when the original epitaph had been lost.

Death of Benedict Biscop, Abbot of Jarrow, 12th January 689

St Paul’s Jarrow, showing Anglo-Saxon Tower
St Paul’s Jarrow, showing Anglo-Saxon Tower, © PWicks

12th January is the Feast Day of Benedict Biscop, founder of the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. He was a great traveller, visiting Rome on a number of occasions and amassing an enviable collection of manuscripts which became a famous library. This collection was used by Bede to write his many works of theology, science, mathematics and history.

Although he is best known as the founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow double monastery, he was previously abbot of SS Peter & Paul at Canterbury.

Born under the name of Biscop Baducing he was a member of a noble Northumbrian family. He served in the household of King Oswiu and then around 652 AD he decided to go to Rome on pilgrimage. He set off south and arrived at Canterbury where he met another young man intending to go to Rome; this was Wilfrid, later the Bishop of Hexham, Ripon and York. The two young men were sent off together by King Eorcenberht of Kent but separated at Lyons, with Biscop going ahead.

He made a second trip to Rome around 664 AD, when he became a monk at Lérins and took the name of Benedict. He studied there for two years then returned to Rome.  By now it was 667 AD and Wigheard arrived from Britain as the Archbishop-Elect of Canterbury, hoping to collect his pallium from the Pope. Unfortunately he caught the plague instead and died. The Pope therefore appointed an alternative Archbishop, Theodore of Tarsus, and Benedict was sent back to Britain with him. They left Rome on 27th May 668 AD and arrived in Canterbury a year later. 

In Canterbury, while Theodore took stock of the state of the English Church, Benedict took on the abbacy of the Church of SS Peter & Paul in Canterbury until Hadrian could join them the following year.

Benedict’s next move was to go back to Rome to pick up some books. These were to help him establish a monastic foundation, and when he returned home he went to Northumbria and established a monastery at Monkwearmouth on lands granted by King Ecgfrith, around 673 AD. He was soon joined by a monk called Ceolfrith, who later succeeded him as abbot.

Benedict set to work establishing his monastery, bringing in Frankish stonemasons and glaziers to help him build it. It was completed around 675 AD so Benedict and Ceolfrith set out for Rome to pick up more books and art work; they were creating an enviable library which would be of benefit to scholars, the most well-known of whom was Bede. Bede had joined the monastery as a seven year old boy around 680 AD and never left it as he tells us himself:

“Bede, the servant of God, and priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, which is at Wearmouth and Jarrow; who being born in the territory of that same monastery, was given, at seven years of age, to be educated by the most reverend Abbot Benedict, and afterwards by Ceolfrid; and spending all the remaining time of my life in that monastery, I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching, and writing.”

When Benedict and Ceolfrith got back to Northumbria they had with them a man called John, the precentor of St Peter’s in Rome, who came to teach the monks the techniques of liturgical chant.

The abbey was hugely successful and King Ecgrith endowed a second monastery at Jarrow with Ceolfrith as abbot in 681 AD, just after Bede joined the monastery.

In 685 AD Benedict made his final trip to Rome and came back with more books and treasures.

He died on 12th January 689 AD among his monks after an illness which gradually paralysed him over the three years following his return from Rome. Thanks to his efforts, his monasteries were the centre of learning and scholarship across Western Europe.

Death of King Athelwulf of Wessex, 13th January 858

Miniature of King Athelwulf of Wessex,
Miniature of King Athelwulf of Wessex, 14th century Royal Genealogical Rolls, British Library MS Royal 14 B VI

King Athelwulf of Wessex died on 13th January 858 AD. He was Alfred’s father, and had taken his son to Rome when Alfred was still a young child.

He was succeeded by four of his sons in turn, each dying without adult sons of their own to take the throne, until finally his youngest son, Alfred, unexpectedly became king.
Athelwulf was the son of King Ecgberht of Wessex and traced his descent through the line of Ine, an early King of Wessex. His mother Redburga was a Frankish princess who may have been an illegitimate daughter of Charlemagne, and Athelwulf was born in the early 800s, possibly while Ecgberht was still in exile in Frankia.

He ruled as sub-king in Kent from 825 AD and succeeded his father in Wessex in 839 AD. He married Osburh, daughter of Oslac, a Hampshire ealdormann, and she may have been his second wife. This is suggested based on the age range of Athelwulf’s sons.

Athelwulf was the first West Saxon king to succeed his father for over 100 years, providing much needed stability. However, he was less aggressive than his father had been and preferred to make alliances where possible. This did not prevent him from annexing part of Berkshire in the 840s however. He married his daughter Athelswith to the Mercian King Burghred in 853 AD and the allies attacked Powys driving out King Cyngen. In this year he also sent four year old Alfred to Rome where he met the Pope and Alfred later claimed he was consecrated by him as King.

More urgently Athelwulf faced increasing Scandinavian raids. An attack on Southampton in 840 AD was driven off, but his men lost a fight at Portland in the same year and Athelwulf lost a battle at Carhampton in 843 Ad. His men drove off a fleet at the mouth of the River Parrett in 848 AD and his son Athelstan, sub-king in Kent, defeated another fleet at Sandwich using a navy. However the Vikings over-wintered at Sheppey in 851 AD and a large force moved in to attack London which was then part of Mercia. Athelwulf and his son Athelbald defeated the host at Aclea, where according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle they

“made the greatest slaughter among the heathen army that we have heard reported to the present day, and there got the victory.”

In 855 AD Athelwulf went to Rome with Alfred, presumably feeling the kingdom was safe to leave for a while; this proved ill advised. He dedicated a tenth of his lands to God and the Church and this may have upset his nobles who then supported his son Athelbald in rebellion.

He married again on his way back from Rome, cementing the family relationship with Charles the Bald, king of the Franks, by marrying his teenage daughter Judith on 1st October 856 AD. This was almost certainly a strategic alliance to support a military agreement. However, it also raised the possibility of more children to contest the throne, and with Judith anointed as queen (not the practice in Wessex) this may have made the possibility more real.

Athelbald rose in rebellion, supported by some key figures among the nobility as well as the Bishop of Sherborne. Athelwulf was unable to gather enough support to win his throne back and had to reach a compromise with his son, accepting the smaller kingdom of Kent for his rule and leaving Wessex to Athelbald.

He died at Steyning in West Sussex on 13th January 858 AD, and was buried there. Alfred later had him reburied at Winchester. His reputation has not always been very positive, coming between Ecgberht who established the Wessex hegemony, and Alfred. However, his achievements were significant. He withstood the Viking attacks in 851 AD, created a viable fleet and no doubt inspired his successors to achieve and retain the independence of the last kingdom to stand against the invading Vikings.

Feast Day of King Ceolwulf of Northumbria, 15th January

Ceolwulf of Northumbria
Ceolwulf of Northumbria, from Baring Gould “Lives of the Saints vol 1” [Public Domain]

15th January is the Feast Day of Ceolwulf of Northumbria, King and Saint. Fairly unusually he didn’t die in battle or while feasting.

The Northumbrian kingdom in the 8th century was chaotic, and Ceolwulf’s reign was difficult.

He was the son of Cuthwine, and brother of Cenred  (sometimes called Coenred). He was able to claim descent from the dynastic founder Ida through his family line as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“Ceolwulf succeeded to the kingdom, and held it eight years, and Ceolwulf was the son of Cutha, Cutha of Cuthwin, Cuthwin of Leodwald, Leodwald of Ecgwald, Ecgwald of Aldhelm, Aldhelm of Ocga, Ocga of Ida, Ida of Eoppa.”

Cenred had usurped the throne in 716 AD from Osred, and then was assassinated by Osric, who was Osred’s brother. When Osric died after a short but uneventful reign, Ceolwulf succeeded to the throne in 729 AD as described by Bede:

“immediately after Easter, that is, on the 9th of May, Osric, king of the Northumbrians, departed this life, after he had reigned eleven years, and appointed Ceolwulf, brother to Coenred, who had reigned before him, his successor; the beginning and progress of whose reign were so filled with commotions, that it cannot yet be known what is to be said concerning them, or what end they will have.”

He features in the Irish Annals as Eochaid and may have been educated there. He was certainly a learned and pious man. Bede dedicated his Ecclesiastical History to him:

“TO THE MOST GLORIOUS KING CEOLWULPH, BEDE, THE SERVANT OF CHRIST AND PRIEST

FORMERLY, at your request, most readily transmitted to you the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, which I had newly published, for you to read, and give it your approbation; and I now send it again to be transcribed and more fully considered at your leisure. And I cannot but recommend the sincerity and zeal, with which you not only diligently give ear to hear the words of the Holy Scripture, but also industriously take care to become acquainted with the actions and sayings of former men of renown, especially of our own nation. For if history relates good things of good men, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good; or if it mentions evil things of wicked persons, nevertheless the religious and pious hearer or reader, shunning that which is hurtful and perverse, is the more earnestly excited to perform those things which he knows to be good, and worthy of God. Of which you also being deeply sensible, are desirous that the said history should be more fully made familiar to yourself, and to those over whom the Divine Authority has appointed you governor, from your great regard to their general welfare.”

Given the breakdown in royal control at the beginning of the century, a thoughtful and scholarly king would have been much appreciated by Bede and his fellow monks. And it seems Ceolwulf took inspiration from Bede’s work. He made generous grants of land to the Church, much to the consternation of his nobles; it appears that their resentment was behind the increasing number of attacks on the members of religious communities. Even Bede expressed concerns about the impact such gifts were having on stability in the kingdom. In 731 AD Ceolwulf was deposed and forcibly tonsured but was restored within a few months.

Northumbria was divided into four bishoprics: York (Bishop Wilfrid the Younger); Lindisfarne (Bishop Athelwold); Hexham (Bishop Acca); and Whithorn (Bishop Pectelm). In 735 AD York was made an Archbishopric under Ceolwulf’s relative Egbert.

Finally in 737 AD Ceolwulf abdicated in favour of his cousin, Eadbert, and entered the monastery at Lindisfarne. Eadbert seems to have been Archbishop Egbert’s brother. On entering the monastery Ceolwulf gave many gifts, perhaps the most popular being a dispensation for the monks to drink beer and wine instead of just water or milk, according to Baring Gould:

“There he passed the last thirty years of his life in study and happiness. He had, while king, enriched this monastery with many great gifts, and obtained permission for the use of wine and beer for the monks, who, up to that time, according to the rigid rule of ancient Keltic discipline, had been allowed no beverage but water and milk.”

Ceolwulf lived in Lindisfarne until around 764/5 AD when he died. Simeon of Durham records the death:

“AD 764. Deep snow hardened into ice, unlike anything that had ever been known to all previous ages, covered the earth from the beginning of winter till nearly the middle of spring; by the severity of which the trees and shrubs for the most part perished, and many marine animals were found dead. Also, in the same year, died Ceolwulf, formerly king, at this time a servant of our Lord Jesus Christ, and a monk.”

Feast Day of Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, 19th January

Frontispiece of Wulfstan’s Psalter
Frontispiece of Wulfstan’s Psalter showing King David playing the harp, © Parker Library Cambridge, CCCC MS 391

19th January is the Feast Day of St Wulfstan, 2nd Bishop of Worcester by that name, the last surviving English pre-Conquest Bishop who died in 1095. He is the patron saint of vegetarians.

Wulfstan was born around 1008 at Itchington in Warwickshire and his family were closely connected with the church in Worcester. It is possible he was the nephew of another Wulfstan, also Bishop of Worcester and later Archbishop of York, who is thought to have been Wulfstan’s mother’s brother.

In 1033 Brihtheah became the Bishop of Worcester and Wulfstan joined his household. The two may also have been related as half-brothers. Wulfstan decided to become a monk, and was appointed Prior by 1055, when Ealdred was Bishop. Ealdred went on to become Archbishop of York in 1061 so the See of Worcester became vacant and in 1062 Wulfstan was elevated to the Bishopric by King Edward the Confessor.

Initially Wulfstan had to combat the ongoing influence of Ealdred in the diocese, as Ealdred was still extracting money from it and this continued until the Normans took power. He was closely associated with Harold Godwinson, later King Harold. However, following the Norman invasion Wulfstan demonstrated loyalty to William of Normandy and Lanfranc, the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury and managed to keep his position unlike the other church leaders of England. Later legend said that when he was ordered to surrender his episcopal staff, he stuck it into the tomb of King Edward, declaring that as Edward had appointed him, only Edward could take it from him. At a synod in 1070 Wulfstan was able to demand back the money and lands Ealdred had appropriated and which had transferred to the King after Ealdred’s death. The case was adjourned until a new Archbishop could be appointed at York to defend it, and then it was heard. John of Worcester describes the judgement:

“All the groundless assertions by which Thomas and his abettors strove to humble the church of Worcester, and reduce her to subjection and servitude to the church of York, were, by God’s just judgment, entirely refuted and negated by written documents, so that Wulfstan not only recovered the possessions he claimed, but, by God’s goodness, and the king’s assent, regained for his see all the immunities and privileges freely granted to it by its first founders, the holy king Ethered, Oshere, sub-king of the Hwiccas, and the other kings of Mercia, Cenred, Ethelbald, Offa, Kenulf, Edward the Elder, Athelstan, Edmund, Edred, and Edgar.”

Wulfstan was energetic in protecting Worcester’s rights and in particular was concerned to commission a revised cartulary containing details of all the possession of the cathedral as well as its losses. While supporting tradition he was nevertheless keen to examine new ideas and began to build a new cathedral in the Romanesque style, although it was recorded that he wept when everything finally moved across from the old cathedral. He also supported the tradition of writing in Old English for homilies and religious texts. He preached against the slave trade and defended Worcester during the civil war after William of Normandy’s death by praying for a miracle which stopped the invading army so the defenders were able to slaughter them.

When Wulfstan died in 1095 he was the only English-born bishop left in England. Eadmer the historian described him as “the one sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people” and he was consulted by Anselm, the later Archbishop of Canterbury, on matters of English custom.

His chaplain, Coleman, wrote a “Life of Wulfstan” after his death in Old English, although only a later Latin translation survives, made by William of Malmesbury in the 12th century. Coleman records various stories about Wulfstan’s youth which he used to tell to encourage the boys he was teaching through his own failings and overcoming of difficulties. For example, one was about being overcome by sexual desire for a girl and how after their lovemaking he was overcome by remorse. He hid away and as he lay there regretting his actions, he fell asleep. As he lay there he was surrounded by a bright cloud which he realised was heavenly love and after which experience he was free of sexual temptation.

Coleman also recorded his simplicity and his wit and charm. Wulfstan was teased by Geoffrey of Coutances for wearing lambskin instead of richer furs.

“Wulfstan replied neatly that Geoffrey and other men well versed in the way of the world should wear the skins of crafty animals, but he was conscious of no shiftiness in himself and was happy with lambskin. Geoffrey pressed the point, and suggested he could at least wear cat. But ‘Believe me,’ answered Wulfstan, ‘the Agnus Dei [Lamb of God] is more often chanted than the Cattus Dei.’”

The reason he is the saint of vegetarians relates to another story about him, when he was distracted at his prayers by the smell of goose roasting for his dinner, his favourite dish. He immediately vowed he would never eat meat again (although he did eat fish for festivals).

Following his death John of Worcester tells us that:

“God suffered no man to remove from his finger the ring with which he had received episcopal consecration, that the holy man might not appear to forfeit his engagement to his people, to whom he had often foretold that he would never part with it during his life, nor even on the day of his burial.”

Battle of Basing, 22nd January 871

King Athelred
King Athelred, leader of the Wessex forces, 14th century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England© British Library Royal MS 14 B VI

22nd January 871 AD saw the Battle of Basing, two weeks after the Anglo-Saxon victory at Ashdown (see 8th January).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the events:

“And about fourteen days after this [Battle of Aescesdune], king Aethelred and Aelfred his brother fought against the army at Basing, and there the Danes obtained the victory.”

John of Worcester expands this only enough to say it was a “long engagement” but Simeon of Durham goes further:

“After the lapse of fourteen days, the most excellent king Ethelred, disregarding that the year of jubilee* is one of forgiveness, aided by the trusty help of his brother, called together the army, collected the spoils, and divided arms and many gifts among his comrades. These princes of the people were well aware that states would be happy, if either those persons who loved wisdom were in power, or if it came to pass that their rulers applied their minds to wisdom. The Angles and Danes again met in battle, and applying their utmost strength, the Danes nearly obtained the victory.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t entirely rely on Simeon in this instance as he was writing in the 12th century. Another chronicler writing in the 10th century also concludes with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that in fact the Danes had the victory. Athelweard says:

“Fourteen days after, they again took courage and a second battle was fought at a place called Basing: the barbarians came and took part over against them; the fight began, and hope passed from the one side to the other; the royal army was deceived, the enemy had the victory, but gained no spoils.”

Although opinion favours the Danes it would appear it was far from a rout.  871 is sometimes called “The Year of Battles” precisely because there was not a decisive victory for either side for some time.

The location of the battle is not known specifically, although Basing was around the area now known as Old Basing in Hampshire, and close to the royal centre of Winchester. The   settlement   at   Old   Basing   is   considered   to   be   a   pre-cursor   to   Basingstoke and was recorded in Saxon charters.

Marriage of Edith of Wessex and Edward the Confessor, 23rd January 1045

Coronation of Queen Edith
Coronation of Queen Edith, the wife of King Edward the Confessor. (Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fo. 11v)

Edith and Edward the Confessor married on 23 January 1045 AD. They were not close in age, with a gap of almost 20 years between them, but this was a strategic marriage and not a love match. Edith was also consecrated Queen.

The marriage produced no children (see 5th January), and after Edward’s death in 1065 Edith’s brother sat on the throne of England.

Relationships between Edward and the Godwins were complicated. Edith’s father Earl Godwin had been involved in the death of Edward’s brother Alfred. It is not clear to what extent Edward was willing to marry Edith or whether he was forced into it by the need for Godwin support.

Six years after their marriage the nation experienced the “crisis” of 1051 when the Godwins were exiled by Edward and accused of rebellion. Edith herself was sent to the nunnery at Wilton and Edward confiscated her lands. However, the family was restored to favour the following year and Edith returned to court and her position of influence. The restoration of Edith did, however, seem to represent a change in their relationship with Edith becoming a trusted adviser and witness to many of Edward’s charters.

On Edward’s deathbed he called her a “loving and dutiful daughter” so it seems they were not romantically involved. After Edward’s death Edith commissioned the “Vita Edwardi Regis” (The Life of King Edward) in his honour (and also to promote her own reputation). It has been suggested she was trying to save face regarding the lack of children. After Edith died in 1075 the couple were laid to rest together in Westminster Abbey.

Death of Eadgyth of Wessex, 26th January 946

Arrival of Otto the Great and his wife Edith at Magdeburg
Arrival of Otto the Great and his wife Edith at Magdeburg, Hugo Vogel (1855-1934)

Eadgyth of Wessex died on 26th January 946 AD and was eventually laid to rest in Magdeburg in modern Germany. In 2008 her coffin was discovered, with her body inside.

Eadgyth was one of the many half-sisters of King Athelstan, who arranged strategic marriages for them as part of his diplomatic strategy. The marriages themselves indicated the power and influence he wielded among his contemporaries; Eadgifu had already married Charles the Simple, King of the West Franks, and Athelstan supported them when Charles was deposed in 923 AD. Charles’ enemy Hugh the Great also married a sister, Eadhild in 926 AD and Alfgifu married another Continental prince, who may have been Conrad of Burgundy or a sibling. Another unnamed sister married Sihtric, the Viking King of York also in 926 AD.

In 928 AD Henry the Fowler had approached Athelstan with the suggestion of the arrangement, as he was looking for a West Saxon princess to marry his eldest son. Henry was the Duke of Saxony and had recently made himself King of Germany. Athelstan agreed to make an alliance with the House of Saxony and offered two sisters to Henry’s son Otto for him to make a choice. Otto chose to marry Eadgyth rather than her sister, describing her as a woman “of pure noble countenance, graceful character and truly royal appearance.” The other sister, Alfgifu then married a different prince, possibly Conrad of Burgundy.

Otto already had a son with a woman about whom almost nothing is known and who does not seem to have been a formal wife. Eadgyth and Otto had two children. Their son Liudolf pre-deceased his father while their daughter Liutgarde married Conrad of Lorraine.

At the time that Otto and Eadgyth married it was not known how powerful Otto would later become. Otto succeeded his father in 936 AD and the couple founded the monastery at Magdeburg in the following year. Eadgyth is credited with the spread of the cult of St Oswald in Germany.

Eadgyth’s death was early and unexpected, and Otto did not remarry until 951 AD. She was buried at the monastery in Magdeburg but later moved to the Cathedral.

In 2008 her tomb was opened during archaeological work at the cathedral and a body discovered. Until then it had been thought the tomb did not contain any actual remains, and so an examination of the teeth was carried out which indicated that the individual’s childhood matched the historical records of Eadgyth’s known whereabouts in Wessex and Mercia. It was announced that they were believed to belong to Eadgyth and that they therefore represented the oldest known remains of a member of the English royal family at that time. She was reinterred in Magdeburg in 2010.

Unconfirmed discovery of the remains of King Edward the Martyr, 26th January 1931

Shrine of Edward the Martyr
Shrine of Edward the Martyr at the Church of St. Edward the Martyr, Brookwood, by User:Jack1956 [CC0]

On 26th January 1931 John Wilson-Claridge and his gardener, Bert Richards dug up a lead casket which they claimed contained the skull and bones of King Edward the Martyr.

Edward the Martyr was the successor of King Edgar on 8th July 975, and he reigned for three years before being assassinated at Corfe Castle on 18th March 978. It is alleged that this was under the guidance of his stepmother Elfrida in order to allow her own son Athelred (later called “Unrede” meaning “Ill-advised”) to take the throne.

Edward’s remains had a difficult time. Initially they were taken to a cottage then buried at Wareham “without royal honours” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was a year before they were translated to Shaftesbury and treated with the respect due to them. In return many miracles were attested and his shrine became very popular.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries came to Shaftesbury in the 16th century and the Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and the shrine was dismantled. The relics were then lost.

In 1931 the discovery of bones was made in the grounds of the house owned by the Claridge family, which had been built over the location of the west end of the Abbey church. Two osteology reports on the bones proved inconclusive, and did not agree. The bones remained with John Wilson-Claridge until he sold the house and left the bones behind, although he claimed a “rent” for them. Later the house was sold again and he had the bones moved to a bank vault.

The Saint Edward Brotherhood, an Orthodox Christian monastery established in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey in 1982, negotiated taking the bones to install in a shrine. They were eventually enshrined in 1988 at their church. Following a lengthy and complex court case in 1995 it was finally agreed that they should remain there.

Regardless of the provenance of the bones themselves, the Brotherhood maintains the shrine in memory of the king.

Death of Charlemagne, 28th January 841

Signature of Charlemagne,
Signature of Charlemagne, 31st August 790 AD, from the subscription of a royal diploma, Public Domain

28th January 814 AD saw the death of Charlemagne, on whom many a later king modelled himself. Unusually for people of this period, we have a description of his appearance. According to Einhard, he was six feet four inches tall, and built to scale. He had beautiful white hair, animated eyes, a powerful nose…a presence ‘always stately and dignified.’ He was temperate in eating and drinking, abominated drunkenness, and kept in good health despite every exposure and hardship.

Charlemagne’s name was “Charles” and the “Magnus” (“Great”) was added to distinguish him from other Charleses, especially his own son. However, the title became incorporated into his name from the 9th century onwards and so we know him today as Charlemagne.

Charlemagne was the grandson of Charles Martel who was the effective ruler of Frankia, although not the actual king. His son Pepin the Short succeeded him and took the title of King, and so Pepin’s son Charlemagne, in turn succeeded in 768 AD along with his brother Carloman II.

The brothers did not get on well but Carloman died, possibly in suspicious circumstances, in 771 AD. Charlemagne pursued an aggressive military policy, overwhelming Saxony and ruthlessly driving out pagan practices over a period of 30 years. In Lombardy (in Italy) the Pope requested his support and Charlemagne responded by annexing the kingdom and taking the title “King of the Franks and Lombards”. He imposed full control on Bavaria, theoretically a client kingdom but one which acted too independently for Charlemagne’s tastes. He therefore held a show trial of the Bavarian Duke Tassilo III, had him condemned for disloyalty and imprisoned him in a monastery. Finally he fought the Avars (in Hungary) and sacked the royal residence after which the Avars seem to disappear from history.

The result of the military campaigning was vast wealth which supported the Carolingians (as his dynasty is called) for a generation. The seizure of the treasures of these kingdoms allowed Charlemagne to be generous to those he wanted to reward, further binding loyalty and establishing control.

In 794-5 AD Charlemagne founded his new capital at Aachen and endowed it with riches. Gradually Aachen became a political and administrative focus, although the king and his court still travelled as traditionally had been the case. However, the establishment of a fixed location for much of the administration and politics of the dynasty had a profound effect.

Charlemagne also obtained the title of Emperor on 25th December 800 AD being anointed by the Pope, allegedly in a “surprise” ceremony. Although it was no more than an honorific, Charlemagne eventually had this title recognised by the Emperor of Byzantium in 812 AD.

Charlemagne’s influence cannot be doubted. Offa of Mercia corresponded with him about tunics and trade. The Carolingian Renaissance which grew from Charlemagne’s hegemony was in a large part influenced by the Anglo-Saxon Alcuin of York, who was recruited by Charlemagne to help lead his programme of enhancing education and literacy. Following the political upheaval of the preceding years, Charlemagne’s project saw the emergence of developments in art, literature, theology and ideas which some more recent authors have claimed restored civilisation and justice to a barbarian Europe. Charlemagne was unpopular with the Enlightenment scholars for his support of the church and earlier humanists believed that there was no learning or erudition before their own time (15th century). From the 20th century however the term “Carolingian Renaissance” began to be applied more widely and the contribution of Charlemagne’s project was more readily appreciated.

When Charlemagne died in 814 AD he was succeeded by his son Louis the Pious who marched to Aachen and seized control.

Feast Day of Gildas, 29th January

10th century copy of Gildas, De excidio Britanniae
10th century copy of Gildas, De excidio Britanniae, Cotton MS Vitellius A VI f15r, © The British Library

29th January is the Feast Day of St Gildas Sapiens – the author of “The Ruin of Britain” (De Excidio Britanniae), the British invective against sinful British kings and mercenary Anglo-Saxons.

Gildas probably wrote in the 6th century, and despite his apocalyptic depiction of the state of his country he was clearly the product of a Christian and sophisticated educational upbringing. He is widely misquoted, and his motive in writing was not to record history but to put pressure on the kings of the time. Nevertheless he offers a unique insight into the period, and providing his motives are kept in mind, can show us a picture of this confusing and poorly recorded era.

It is probable that Gildas was a leading figure of his time, whose work was intended to influence society, especially the rulers. Nowadays focus tends to be on his depiction of the Anglo-Saxon “Adventus” (Arrival). Dating the document has proved challenging despite apparent evidence based on the death of King Maelgwn (549 AD), whom Gildas addresses in his letter of denunciation. Gildas also claims to be writing 44 years after the Battle on Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) but again the date of this battle is unconfirmed. Finally his death is quoted as being 570 AD in the Annales Cambriae but unfortunately this is not reliable dating either.

The writing demonstrates that Gildas was well-read and well-educated, being written in elegant but complex Latin.  This in turn implies an education system functioning under Roman-style structures and so potentially places him earlier rather than later. As well as the Excidio Gildas is credited with writing a Penitential for monasteries, and also some fragments of ecclesiastical letters on church affairs.

All of this leads us to conclude that Gildas was writing in the 5th/ 6th century.

What did he actually say?

The Excidio purports to describe the disasters affecting Britain as punishment for the people’s ungodliness. Ironically it is often noted that a very similar approach was taken by Wulfstan in his “Sermon of the Wolf to the English People” in the early 11th century against the Viking invasions; and in fact Wulfstan did quote Gildas in one of his other sermons.

Although Gildas was not interested in writing history, he does provide incidental information about Romano-British religious life and practice and the impact of the Germanic arrivals. He starts with a history before focusing on his lengthy rant against the rulers of the Britons, but here is a sample of the historical part:

“24. For the fire of righteous vengeance, caused by former crimes, blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men; and as it devastated all the neighbouring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue. In this assault, which might be compared to the Assyrian attack upon Iudaea of old, there is fulfilled in us also, according to the account, that which the prophet in his lament says:—-

                    They have burnt with fire thy sanctuary in the land,

                    They have defiled the tabernacle of thy name;

and again,

                    O God, the gentiles have come into thine inheritance,

                    They have defiled thy holy temple,

and so forth. In this way were all the settlements brought low with the frequent shocks of the battering rams; the inhabitants, along with the bishops of the church, both priests and people, whilst swords gleamed on every side and flames crackled, were together mown down to the ground, and, sad sight! there were seen in the midst of streets, the bottom stones of towers with tall beam cast down, and of high walls, sacred altars, fragments of bodies covered with clots, as if coagulated, of red blood, in confusion as in a kind of horrible wine press: there was no sepulchre of any kind save the ruins of houses, or the entrails of wild beasts and birds in the open, I say it with reverence to their holy souls (if in fact there were many to be found holy), that would be carried by holy angels to the heights of heaven. For the vineyard, at one time good, had then so far degenerated to bitter fruit, that rarely could be seen, according to the prophet, any cluster of grapes or ear of corn, as it were, behind the back of the vintners or reapers.

25. Some of the wretched remnant were consequently captured on the mountains and killed in heaps. Others, overcome by hunger, came and yielded themselves to the enemies, to be their slaves for ever, if they were not instantly slain, which was equivalent to the highest service. Others repaired to parts beyond the sea, with strong lamentation, as if, instead of the oarsman’s call, singing thus beneath the swelling sails:

                    Thou hast given us like sheep appointed for eating,

                    And among the gentiles hast thou scattered us.

Others, trusting their lives, always with apprehension of mind, to high hills, overhanging, precipitous, and fortified, and to dense forests and rocks of the sea, remained in their native land, though with fear.

After a certain length of time the cruel robbers returned to their home.”

The Epistle section addressing the kings directly also provides a direct expression of Gildas’ opinions with much quoting of Bible sources and comparisons to the kings and tyrants of old.

Marriage of King Sihtric of York, 30th January 926

Silver penny of Sihtric Caech c. 921-927
Silver penny of Sihtric Caech c. 921-927, Public Domain

King Athelstan had a number of half-sisters whom he married strategically (see 26th January).

On 30th January 926 AD an unnamed sister was married to Sihtric, the Viking King of York who succeeded Raegnald around 921 AD. It is not clear if the marriage was consummated as Sihtric died in 927 AD.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that:

“AD 925. This year king Edward died, and Aethelstan his son succeeded to the kingdom. And St. Dunstan was born: and Wulfhelm succeeded to the archbishopric of Canterbury. This year king Aethelstan and Sihtric king of the North-humbrians came together at Tamworth, on the third of the kalends of February [30th Jan.]; and Aethelstan gave him his sister.”

It is suggested much later by Roger of Wendover (13th century) that this particular sister of Athelstan was Edith of Tamworth who founded the monastery at Tamworth and retired to Polesworth to become a nun:

“A.D. 925. Ethelstan, king of the English, honourably married his sister Eathgita to Sithric, king of the Northumbrians, a man of Danish origin; who for love of the damsel renounced paganism and embraced the faith of Christ; but not long afterwards he repudiated the blessed virgin, and, abjuring Christianity, restored the worship of idols, and miserably ended his life shortly after his apostasy.

The holy damsel thereupon, having preserved her virginity, abode at Pollesbury [Pollesworth], persevering in good works unto the end of her life, devoting herself to fasting and watching, alms-giving and prayer; and after a praiseworthy course of life she departed out of this world on the 15th of July at the same place, where unto this day divine miracles cease not to be wrought.”

It seems she was the only full-sister of Athelstan, based on the writings of William of Malmesbury (12th century) and her identity as Edith of Polesworth is speculative, and not to be confused with the half-sister Eadgyth who married Otto of Germany. It would appear this first daughter of Edward the Elder was overlooked in much the same way as her brother was following Edward’s second marriage, and may have been sent away to the court of Mercia with Athelstan. Although a number of sources equate the bride of Sihtric with Edith of Polesworth this cannot be absolutely confirmed.

In any case, Sihtric died shortly afterwards and Athelstan invaded York instead. The fate of the widow remains unknown for certain.

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. 

On This Day in November

Death of Queen Mathilda, 2nd November 1083

Statue of Matilda of Flanders
Matilda of Flanders by Jean-Jacques Elshoecht, Tom Hilton [CC BY 2.0]

2nd November 1083 saw the death of Mathilda of Flanders, the wife of William of Normandy.

She was the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, and through him she could trace her ancestry back to Alfred of Wessex and Charlemagne. Born in the early 1030s (the year is not known for certain), she grew up in Bruges and may possibly have met Emma, twice Queen of England through marriages to Athelred Unrede and Cnut, when she was in exile during the reign of Harold Harefoot. Emma remained at Baldwin’s Court until 1040.

Orderic Vitalis praised Mathilda’s intelligence and learning; it is possible she learned Latin although she did not learn to write. (Reading and writing were very separate activities at this time, and some copyists could not read, which may account for some of the errors in medieval manuscripts.) She was also graceful and devout, but it seems she had an independent streak. As a princess she would have been expected to be married off to support a dynastic alliance. However, according to the Annals of Tewkesbury Abbey, it would seem that she fell for an English nobleman, Brihtric Meaw of Gloucester, and declared she wished to marry him. Brihtric turned her down and it is sad to say that she exacted revenge later.

A marriage with William Duke of Normandy was proposed and although her father tried to persuade her, Mathilda was not interested due to his illegitimacy. There is an apocryphal story of William attacking her on her way back from Mass, and either beating her or raping her, but it seems unlikely that anything quite so outrageous would have been allowed to pass by her father without strong reprisals. However, in the end Mathilda changed her mind and agreed to marry the Norman Duke. It is interesting William was known for remaining faithful to Mathilda for their entire marriage and never fathering a bastard himself, behaviour which was considered unusual for nobles of the time.

Their marriage was unconventional in other ways; they required Papal dispensation due to alleged consanguinity as they were first cousins once removed, although not through a direct bloodline. However, it is most likely they went ahead and married around 1050 without Papal approval despite this meaning their children would be considered illegitimate. They witnessed a charter together in 1051 with their infant son Robert. The dispensation was not given until around 1059.

Their sons were Robert, Richard, William “Rufus” and Henry; their daughters probably Constance, Matilda, Adeliza (Adelaide), Cecilia and Adela, although the definitive names and numbers of all the daughters is not entirely clear.

The marriage seems to have been successful and generally loving. When William was seriously ill shortly before 1066, Mathilda became distraught and offered 100 shillings at the altar of Coutances Cathedral for his recovery. This did not mean they were always in agreement and stories of violent arguments were recorded.

The Godwin family was exiled from England in 1051, and it was during this time that it is later alleged that Edward offered the succession to William. Godwin found refuge in Baldwin’s court in Flanders and was able to enlist support to return to England in 1052.

According to Eadmer of Canterbury (an 11th century ecclesiastic), in 1064 Harold Godwinson arrived at William’s court to visit, and probably to negotiate the release of, his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Haakon Sweynson, who had been hostages there for some years. They had originally been hostages at Edward’s court during the events of 1051 to secure Godwin’s good behaviour, and seem to have been taken to Normandy when the Norman members of Edward’s court returned there in 1052 following the reinstatement of Godwin and his sons. Mathilda is likely to have met Harold during his visit and allegedly Harold discussed the possibility of his marrying one of their daughters with her, resulting in William becoming jealous of the time they spent together.

Prior to the invasion of 1066, Mathilda secretly built a longship for William which she fitted out and named “Mora”. William was thrilled and immediately made it his flagship and promised Mathilda the revenues of Kent once he was successful in his enterprise. During his absence Mathilda was left to govern Normandy, so firm was William’s faith in her abilities. Their daughter Adela was born soon after the Battle of Hastings, the first of their children to have “royal blood” due to William’s enhanced status as king.

Once her husband had subdued the English sufficiently he felt it was safe to bring Mathilda to England to be crowned as Queen, and this was done at Easter 1068. Although English Queens had been crowned before as consorts of kings, Mathilda was the first to be crowned and anointed separately from her husband.

Mathilda heard pleas with William in court and gave judgements with him, as she had previously done in Normandy as duchess, and witnessed numerous royal charters. William also left her to hear lawsuits about land disputes in his place.

The year of her coronation, 1068, was also the year of the Revolt of the Earls in the north. William rode north, building a castle at Nottingham and two in York (Clifford’s Tower remains today). According to tradition Mathilda followed him and give birth to Henry at Selby in Yorkshire, south of York.

Also in 1068 we meet again Mathilda’s first love, Brihtric. According to the records of the Abbey at Tewkesbury:

“Hayward’s son, Earl Algar, inherited the patronage of Cranbourn and Tewkesbury, and on his death it passed to his son Berthric, or, according to the Isham MS., Britricus Meawe. This Britric, while on an embassy in Flanders, refused the hand of the Earl’s daughter Matilda, who was subsequently the wife of William Duke of Normandy, the conqueror of England. When the lady became Queen of England in 1068 she had Britric’s manors confiscated, and he died in prison at Winchester. Thus Tewkesbury passed into the hands of the Normans.”

However, Brihtric’s lands were closely linked with Gytha, widow of Godwin and mother of Harold Godwinson, so it is possible he supported her rebellion at Exeter, which would have given William reason enough to take his land.

In 1069 William sent Mathilda back to Normandy for safety and to manage his affairs while he remained in England.

In 1072 their son Richard was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest while still relatively young, probably in his teens. She had already lost her daughter Agatha (the girl supposedly betrothed to Harold Godwinson and later to Alfonso, King of Leon). By 1079 her husband and son Robert were at each other’s throats, causing her great unhappiness. She rather unwisely supported Robert with money and advice against William and was found out. He forgave her eventually but she no longer argued Robert’s case and her retainer who had been involved in the affair was executed. The rift was not healed until 1080.

Mathilda was always a generous benefactor to the church and when she died had relatively little personal wealth, having given much of it away. Part of her epitaph reads:

“She was the true friend of piety and soother of distress, enriching others, indigent herself, reserving all her treasures for the poor; and by such deeds as these, she merited to be a partaker of eternal life, to which she passed November 2  1083.”

Feast Day of Rumwold, 3rd November

St Rumwold's Well, Buckinghamshire
St Rumwold’s Well, Buckingham, by Fractal Angel [CC BY 2.0]

3rd November is the Feast Day of Rumwold, an Anglo-Saxon saint who is not well known. This may be because he only lived for 3 days.

According to Alban Butler:

“His father was king of Northumberland, his mother a daughter of Penda, king of the Mercians. He was born at Sutthun, and baptized by Widerin, a bishop, the holy priest Eadwold being his godfather. He died very young on the 3rd of November and was buried in Sutthun by Eadwold. The year following his remains were translated by Widelin to Brackley in Northamptonshire, and on the third year after his death to Buckingham where his shrine was much resorted to out of devotion. The 28th of August was celebrated at Brackley, probably the day of the translation of his relics.”

However, there was also an 11th century hagiography (Saint’s Life) about the child which provides more information.

The Vita S. Rumwold claims that he was born as the grandson of Penda and the son of a Northumbrian king, which is already difficult to square with the known facts. Ahlfrith of Northumbria did indeed marry Cyneburh, daughter of Penda, but he was King of Deira under his father Oswiu. When he disagreed with Oswiu he was replaced by his brother Ecgfrith.

The baby was miraculously able to speak from birth, repeating at least three times “I am a Christian”, demanding baptism and Holy Communion, and preaching to those around him about Wisdom and the Trinity. He then predicted his own death and finally instructed that he be laid to rest in Buckingham (after spending time at King’s Sutton or Brackley).

The Vita explains:

“in a pleasant field, filled with lilies and roses, the servants and soldiers eagerly spread out the camp and the tents, and soon the queen gave birth to the son longed for by many, and sanctified by God. When the baby was born, he immediately cried out with a loud voice: “I am a Christian, I am a Christian, I am a Christian!”. To this Widerin and Eadwald, two priests, responded: “Thanks be to God”. The child went on and said: “I worship God the three in one. I confess and adore the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. The priests and parents and all who were present marvelled and began singing the ‘Te Deum Laudamus’. At the end of the hymn, the child asked to be made a catechumen by the priest Widerin, to be held aloft for the preliminary rite of the faith by Eadwald, and to be named Rumwold.”

It then describes his requirements for the care of his remains:

“Rumwold required that his body remain at his birth place for one year, and then at Brackley for two years and finally be taken to Buckingham where it should rest for all time.”

His feast day is recorded in 10th century liturgical calendars so was known by then, although he seems to disappear from most calendars after 1066, indicating a general lack of support for his cult.

He was also commemorated in Sweden, where he is mentioned in fragments of a 12th century missal and a breviary. It seems likely that the English missionary work in Sweden in the 11th century may have exported his story before it faded away in England, and the prayers probably therefore derive from English ones.

An 11th century list of saints’ resting places includes Rumwold:

“THonne resteth sancte Rumwold on thaere stowe, the is gehaten Buccyngaham, neah thare ea Usan“

“There rests saint Rumwold in the place that is called Buckingham, near the river Ouse“

Rumwold’s bones remained at Buckingham until the 16th century. He also had an altar dedicated to him at King’s Sutton (his birthplace), which was an important ecclesiastical centre in Anglo-Saxon times and also a royal vill.

The Vita ends:

“There and in many places, when invoked, St Rumwold bestows favours upon those who ask, giving sight to the blind, making the lame to walk, and granting deliverance to the sick weighed down by various ailments, with the consent of our Lord Jesus Christ Who, in the unity of the Trinity in the Trinity of unity, lives and is glorified as God, one with the omnipotent Father and the Holy Spirit, throughout infinite ages, AMEN.”

The 17th century antiquary, Thomas Fuller, who researched the story of Rumwold, said at the end:

“Reader, I partly guess by my own temper, how thine is affected with the reading thereof, whose soul is much divided betwixt several actions at once:

1 To frown at the impudency of the first inventors of …

2 To smile at the simplicity of believers in …

3 To sigh at the well-intended devotion abused by …

… such improbable untruths

4 To thank God we live in times of better and brighter knowledge”

However, following the events of 1066 a number of Vitae were produced due to Norman disbelief in the stories they were told and this would tie in with the date of this Vita. In addition, by stressing the links between the various locations of the story, the Minster may have been trying to protect its income by asserting its spiritual authority. Finally the similarity of Rumwold’s story with that of a young Jesus at the Temple is unlikely to be coincidental. Medieval vitae were less concerned with “fact” and more with spiritual learning, which such stories could promote.

Death of Clarus, 4th November 894

The Old Livery Dole, Exeter
Image: Livery Dole Chapel with the old alms-houses taken down in 1850. Picture from W. Spreat of Exeter [Public domain]

The British priest Clarus was martyred on 4th November 894 AD.

According to a British Martyrology, from 1761:

“On November 4th 894 AD in the territory of Rouen in Normandy, the martyrdom of St. Clarus, a British priest, eminent for sanctity retiring into a wilderness, to avoid the solicitations of an unhappy woman, who was inflamed with an impure love for his person, was murdered by two ruffians, at her suggestion; and so fell a martyr of purity.”

Alban Butler expands a little:

“THIS saint was an Englishman by birth, of very noble extraction, was ordained priest, and leaving his own country led many years an angelical life in the county of Vexin in France. He often preached the truths of salvation to the inhabitants, and died a martyr of chastity, being murdered by two ruffians, employed by an impious and lewd lady of quality, about the year 894. He is named in the Roman and Gallican Martyrologies, and honoured with singular veneration in the diocess of Rouen, Beauvais, and Paris. The village where he suffered martyrdom, situate upon the river Epte (which separates the Norman and French Vexins) nine leagues from Pontoise, and twelve from Rouen, bears his name, and is become a considerable town by the devotion of the people to this saint. His rich shrine is resorted to by crowds of pilgrims, who also visit a hermitage which stands upon the spot which was watered with his blood near the town. Another town in the diocess of Coutances in Normandy, which is said also to have been sanctified by his dwelling there before he retired to the Epte, is called by his name St. Clair.”

Although he was an Englishman based in France, there is a chapel dedicated to him in Exeter in the Livery Dole.

Feast Day of Birstan, 4th November

Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral, Author: Antony McCallum WyrdLight.com [CC BY 3.0]

4th November is the Feast Day of St Byrnstan (Birstan or Brinstan), the Bishop of Winchester from 931-934 AD.

He succeeded Frithestan as Bishop, as Alban Butler tells us:

“He was raised for his eminent sanctity to that see in 931, on the resignation of the pious bishop Frithestan, who died the following year. It was his daily custom to wash the feet of a number of poor whom he served at table; he also every day said mass, and at night repeated the psalms for the faithful departed. He died the 4th of Nov. 934.”

Prior to his elevation to the bishopric, Byrnstan was a mass priest in the household of King Athelstan and was put in place of Frithestan who had been a critic of the king. Frithestan meanwhile lived another year.

Byrnstan may have founded St. John’s Hospital in Winchester but other than a reputation for piety little is known about him beyond the fact that he continued to witness the king’s charters. He died on 1st November, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle although his feast day is 4th November.

His rise in popularity was really due to the promotion of his cult by Athelwold in the 10th century following a vision in which he appeared to his successor and declared:

“I am Birstan, former Bishop of this town” and pointing with his right hand, “This is Birinus, who first preached here,” and with his left, “This is Swithun, particular patron of this church and city”.

Byrnstan was clearly unhappy at his lack of recognition in the city and Athelwold duly reinstated the veneration of the saint as an equal to the other two.

Feast Day of Leonard, 6th November

Ruins in Museum Gardens, York
Museum Gardens, York (c) PWicks 2014

6th November is the Feast Day of St Leonard of Limoges (or Noblac), a Frankish saint with a slight connection to York.

Leonard was born to noble Frankish parents in the 5th century at the court of King Clovis I (466-511 AD), who also acted as his sponsor at his baptism. He and his brother Liefhard studied at Miscy under Maximus; eventually Liefhard left to establish a monastery while Leonard went to Limoges and settled into a hermit’s life in the nearby forest.

The forest was sometimes used by the king for hunting and during one such hunt the queen, who was staying with the king at the nearby royal residence, went into labour with their child. She had great difficulty with the birth and Leonard was able to ensure the safe delivery of the baby. The king rewarded him by giving him as much of the forest as he could ride around in one night. Kings should really know better where saints are concerned! Leonard was duly grateful and founded a monastery there, called Noblac in recognition of the nobility of the gift. He ruled the community there until his death.

Leonard is the patron saint of prisoners, as he is said to have obtained permission for the release of every prisoner whom he visited whom he judged capable of benefitting from release.  It is said that prisoners who invoked him from their cells saw their chains break before their eyes. Many came to him afterwards, and he often gave them land to clear and farm, so that they could live honestly.

He turned down the offer of a bishopric, preferring a more reclusive life.

He died in 559 AD.

A Vita (Life) was written in the early 11th century and his veneration became popular in the 12th century, so his story was really only promoted at the very end of the Anglo-Saxon period.

He is associated with York through the 12th century hospital dedicated to him in the city. This was an Augustinian foundation and the ruins can still be seen today in Museum Gardens. It was one of the largest and richest hospitals in England caring for the poor, the sick, orphans and the old. It cared for over 200 people at a time providing food, clothes, medicine and spiritual care.

Death of Willibrord, 7th November 739

Willibrord's Sarcophagus
Willibrord’s Sarcophagus, Cornischong, CC-SA 3.0

7th November is the Feast Day of Willibrord, who was a saint and evangelist.

He was born around 658 AD in Northumberland and sent to the monastery in Ripon under Wilfrid at the age of seven, a not uncommon practice for those boys destined for the church.

When he was 20 he went to Ireland to study at Rath Melsigi, which was a renowned centre of learning, and in 690 AD Abbot Ecgberht approved him to lead a mission to convert the Frisians. Another priest, Wigbert, had previously gone to Frisia but had to return to Ireland after a couple of years having failed to convince the population of the benefits of Christianity. Willibrord therefore set out with Swidbert and ten other English monks on his mission.

The Anglo-Saxon drive to convert other people was based in part on the genuine desire to save souls from damnation, as they understood it. However, they were particularly concerned to convert the Frisians because they saw them as among their ancestral kin.

Willibrord was consecrated by the Pope as archbishop of the Frisians in 695 AD and was based at Utrecht. However it was a difficult time in that part of Europe as the Frisians were fighting the Franks under Charlemagne. Willibrord had to retreat to Echternacht (now in Luxembourg) on more than one occasion. He was given land there by Abbess Irmina who was the mother-in-law of King Pepin II (of Herstal), after he helped save her nunnery from plague by blessing the water and saying mass in the church. Between 704-706 AD he built a larger monastery there which included a scriptorium. This became the production site of the Echternacht Gospels, and was one of the most important scriptoria in Frankia.

The life of the missionary in Frisia was fraught with danger. For example, Bede relates the story of two missionaries, both called Hewald, were killed by the Frisians.

King Pepin died in 714 AD and in 716 AD Radbod, king of the Frisians and still a pagan, drove Willibrord and his companions out of Frisia.

Alban Butler tells us of an event during Radbod’s reign:

“In his return [Willbrord returning from Denmark where he had also been preaching] he was driven by stress of weather upon the famous pagan island, called Fositeland, now Amelandt, on the coast of Friesland, six leagues from Leuwarden, to the north, a place then esteemed by the Danes and Frisons as most sacred in honour of the idol Fosite. It was looked upon as an unpardonable sacrilege, for any one to kill any living creature in that island, to eat of any thing that grew in it, or to draw water out of a spring there without observing the strictest silence. St. Willibrord, to undeceive the inhabitants, killed some of the beasts for his companions to eat, and baptized three persons in the fountain, pronouncing the words aloud. The idolaters expected to see them run mad or drop down dead: and seeing no such judgment befal them, could not determine whether this was to be attributed to the patience of their god, or to his want of power. They informed Radbod, who, transported with rage, ordered lots to be cast three times a day, for three days together, and the fate of the delinquents to be determined by them. God so directed it that the lot never fell upon Willibrord; but one of his company was sacrificed to the superstition of the people, and died a martyr for Jesus Christ.”

Willibrord was only able to return following Radbod’s death in 719 AD, supported by Charles Martel, who was Pepin’s son and successor. This was the period when Boniface also worked alongside him for three years before moving on to preach in Germania.

Alcuin wrote about Willibrord and a number of his miracles. He also described him as follows:

“Now this holy man was distinguished by every kind of natural quality: he was of middle height, dignified mien, comely of face, cheerful in spirit, wise in counsel, pleasing in speech, grave in character and energetic in everything he undertook for God.”

Willibrord died on 7th November 739 AD, at the age of 81, before the mission could be said to have fully succeeded; that was left to Boniface who took a more aggressive approach to conversion with the support of Charles Martel. Alcuin describes Willibrord’s funeral, which had a hitch, resolved by another miracle:

“His venerable body was laid to rest in a marble sarcophagus, which at first was found to be six inches too short to hold the entire body of God’s servant. The brethren were greatly concerned at this, and, being at a loss to know what to do, they discussed the matter again and again, wondering where they could find a suitable resting­place for his sacred remains. Wonderful to relate, however, through the loving­kindness of God the sarcophagus was suddenly discovered to be as much longer than the holy man’s body as previously it had been shorter. Therein they laid the remains of the man of God, and to the accompaniment of hymns and psalms and every token of respect it was interred in the church of the monastery which he had built and dedicated in honour of the Blessed Trinity. A sweet and marvellous fragrance filled the air, so that all were conscious that the ministry of angels had been present at the last rites of the holy man.”

Further miracles of healing were then recorded at his tomb, along with a never-empty flagon of wine.

Discovery of the Trewhiddle Hoard, 8th November 1774

Trewhiddle Hoard items
Trewhiddle Hoard items, ©Trustees of the British Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0]

On 8th November 1774 some Cornish tin miners at Trewhiddle made an important discovery. They uncovered a large number of Anglo-Saxon coins, a silver chalice and other precious objects. The coins were of Mercian and Wessex origin and dated the find to around 868-878 AD. This date is significant in that it represents the period of the Viking incursions, around the time Alfred came to the throne following the death of his brother Athelred in 871 AD after the Battle of Merton. It is therefore supposed that the hoard was buried to protect it from the Vikings.

The items were described in some detail by Jonathan Rashleigh, in “The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Numismatic Society” in 1868. He was the great-nephew of Philip Rashleigh, the local squire and Fellow of the Royal Society who first collected them from the miners and published an account in 1778. Of the coins, 114 were retrieved from the workmen but some were dispersed later. The other items included:

“The ornaments consisted of two gold objects (since lost), one of them having been a circular pendent ornament, enriched with filagree; a silver chalice-shaped cup, broken into several pieces, the hollow of the bowl having suffered much from oxidation; a silver cord (considered to have been a “disciplinarium”) of curious twisted workmanship, terminating in four nobbed lashes, like a scourge, at one end, whilst the other end is looped and rove through a dark mottled amulet of glass; a penannular brooch; the tip of a belt; buckles; richly chased bands, supposed to have been bracelets; a long curved pin, the head of which is curiously fashioned with fourteen facets chased in various ornamental patterns, and partly nielloed. Of the above ornaments, all of which are of a rare period, articles are conspicuous, viz,, the silver cup and the silver “disciplinarium”.”

The find gave rise to the identification of a “style” known as Trewhiddle. It is characterised by small fields, or cartouches, usually with beaded frames, containing lively animals, foliage and geometric designs. The background is often inlaid with niello. The designs are usually found on silver items which contrast sharply with the black niello inlay. It was a very popular style and can be found from Cornwall to Northumbria after the 820s. Other examples come from Pentney in Norfolk on disc brooches.

Pentney Hoard brooches
Pentney Hoard brooches, Trewhiddle style. ©Trustees of the British Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0]

It seems to have been derived from a Mercian animal style but was popular especially with Wessex royalty, of which the finger rings of King Athelwulf and his daughter Athelswith are well known examples. These rings were probably given to their retainers as badges of the household, rather than being worn by the named royals. They also show links to Carolingian designs dating to the time of Charlemagne depicting peacocks drinking from the Fountain of Life. Further examples of the style have been found on the Continent, such as a ring at Bologna, indicating the regularity of journeys to and from Rome and beyond, on pilgrimage or for trade.

Athelwulf Ring
Athelwulf Ring, Anglo-Saxon, Trewhiddle style, ©Trustees of the British Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Athelswith Ring
Athelswith Ring, Anglo-Saxon, Trewhiddle style, ©Trustees of the British Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0]

In his article Jonathan Rashleigh also included a list of the coins and his conclusion on the dating of the hoard.

“The following is a list of the kings, with the number their coins found at Trewhiddle: –

A.D. 757-796. Offa of Mercia (1)

796 – 818. Coenvulf, ditto (2)

820 – 824. Beornvulf, ditto (1)

839-852. Berhtulf, ditto (10)

852 – 874. Burgred, ditto (45)

874 Ciolvulf, ditto (1)

808 – 840. Eanred of Northumberland – silver penny (unique)  (1)

830 – 870. Ceolnoth, Archbishop (6)

800 – 837. Ecgbeorht, sole monarch (3)

887-857. Ethelvulf, ditto (10)

867 – 872. Ethelred, ditto (2)

872-901. Alfred, ditto (2)

814 – 840. Louis le Debonaire of France (1)

Other Saxon pennies never described, about 29

Total 114

Thus, the latest commencement of a reign, amongst these kings, is that of Ciolvulf, AD 874; so that the coins must have been secreted after that date. But as there are but two coins of Alfred, who commenced his reign in AD 872, and who reigned until a later period than any of the other kings whose coins were found at Trewhiddle, it is probable that the treasure was buried about AD 876-7, or early in King Alfred’s reign.”

He then compared them to the coins from other hoards, including Cuerdale and York, as evidence of the spread of a centralised currency issued by “sole monarchs”.

Feast Day of Justus, Archbishop of Canterbury, 10th November

Gravestones of Mellitus, Justus, and Laurence at Canterbury
Gravestones of Mellitus, Justus, and Laurence at Canterbury by Ealdgyth [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Justus, the fourth Archbishop of Canterbury, died on 10th November around 627 AD.

He had been sent to Britain by the Pope, Gregory the Great, in 601 AD to support Augustine’s earlier mission which had finally arrived in 597 AD. He became the first Bishop of Rochester in 604 AD, being consecrated by Augustine, and was present at the Council of Paris in 614 AD.

However, after the deaths of the Christian kings Athelberht of Kent and Saebert of Essex, both in 616 AD, there was a pagan resurgence led by their sons. Justus fled to Frankia with Bishop Mellitus until it was safe to return. The three sons of Saebert were duly killed in battle against the Gewisse (West Saxons). Athelberht’s son, Eadbald, was converted by Laurence, the Archbishop who remained in Canterbury. Laurence then recalled Justus and Mellitus from Frankia, a year after they had fled.

Justus was able to return to Rochester but Mellitus was less fortunate and was not welcomed back to his See at London. King Eadbald was not strong enough to enforce his return.

Justus became Archbishop of Canterbury in 624 AD and served until his death. He was the Archbishop who consecrated Paulinus in 625 AD before he went to Deira (Yorkshire) with the princess Athelburh who was to marry Edwin. Bede tells us:

“Hereupon the virgin [Athelburh] was promised, and sent to Edwin, and pursuant to what had been agreed on, Paulinus, a man beloved of God, was ordained bishop, to go with her, and by daily exhortations, and celebrating the heavenly mysteries, to confirm her and her company, lest they should be corrupted by the company of the pagans. Paulinus was ordained bishop by the Archbishop Justus, on the 21st day of July, in the year of our Lord 625, and so he came to King Edwin with the aforesaid virgin as a companion of their union in the flesh.”

When Justus died, Paulinus as Bishop of York was able to consecrate his successor Honorius, which he did at Lincoln, according to Bede, although technically this was  not proper ecclesiastical procedure.

“IN the meantime, Archbishop Justus was taken up to the heavenly kingdom, on the 10th of November, and Honorius, who was elected to the see in his stead, came to Paulinus to be ordained, and meeting him at Lincoln was there consecrated the fifth prelate of the Church of Canterbury from Augustine. To him also the aforesaid Pope Honorius sent the pall, and a letter, wherein he ordains the same that he had before established in his epistle to King Edwin, viz. that when either of the bishops of Canterbury or of York shall depart this life, the survivor of the same degree shall have power to ordain a priest in the room of him that is departed; that it might not be necessary always to travel to Rome, at so great a distance by sea and land, to ordain an archbishop.”

Edward’s Burh at Hertford, 11th November 912

Edward the Elder in 13th century genealogy
Edward the Elder in 13th century genealogy, (c) British Library Royal MS 14 B V

On 11th November 912 AD Edward the Elder was at the burh (fortification) at Hertford on the southern bank of the River Lea, which he expanded and refortified. The burh had originally been built by his father Alfred in 895 AD, and is now believed to be under the later Norman castle.

This was the time during which Edward and his sister Athelflaed were expanding their father’s original series of burhs to reclaim territory taken by the Scandinavians. Between 910 and 918 AD the brother and sister instigated a campaign of building and aggression against the Scandinavian-led territories (later called the Danelaw).

At this stage Athelflaed had built or strengthened burhs at Bremesburh (probably Bromsberrow near Ledbury), Sceargeat (unknown) and Bridgnorth in the west. Hertford was the first of Edward’s refortifications in the campaign and within months he had added a second burh at Hertford on the north bank of the river. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle year is dated from the September of 912 AD, so Martinmass in November fell in 912 AD (as we would date it) and the later events in 913 AD:

“AD 913. In this year, about Martinmas, king Edward commanded the northern fortress to be built at Hertford, between the Memera, the Benefica, and the Lea. And then after that, during the summer, between Rogation-days [3d May], and midsummer, king Edward went with some of his auxiliaries to Maldon in Essex, and there encamped, whilst the fortress at Witham was wrought and built; and a good part of the people who were before under the dominion of the Danish-men submitted to him: and in the meanwhile some part of his assistants constructed the fortress at Hertford, on the south side of the Lea. This year, by the help of God, Aethelfled, lady of the Mercians, went with all the Mercians to Tamworth, and there built the fortress early in the summer; and after this, before Lammas [1st.], that at Stafford.”

The rivers at Hertford flow to the north and the west of the town. The double fortification at Hertford would have protected London from any forces coming south from the central Danelaw area. At this stage the region of Essex appears to have submitted to Edward, making that border more secure as well.

Edward was able to move on to his next goal by April, but the logistics of the campaign require recognition. He and his sister were able to command and deploy resources to build the fortifications, protect them during the building phase, and garrison the resulting burh before moving on to the next target. This would have also required provisions for the men and animals involved without denuding the surrounding area of food or fodder, as well as providing space for accommodating the body of men and preventing crippling outbreaks of disease from medium to long-term encampments.

After Hertford Edward moved on to Witham; then in 914 AD to Buckingham; in 915 AD Bedford; in 916 AD to Maldon; in 917 AD to Towcester, Wigingamere (possibly Leighton Buzzard), Tempsford, Towcester, Huntindon and Colchester; and then in 918 AD, the year in which Athelflaed died, Stamford and Nottingham (north bank); in 919 AD at Thelwall and Manchester; in 920 AD Nottingham (south bank) and Bakewell; finally in 921 AD Cledemutha (probably Rhuddlan).

While 913 AD saw the submission of Essex in the Danelaw but there was a reaction from elsewhere as the leaders of the Danelaw realised the English were building up for an assault:

“After Easter [17th April], a pagan army from Northampton and Leogereceastre [Leicester], went plundering in the province of Oxford, and slew very many people in the king’s vill of Hokenertune, and in many other vills. Shortly after that one returned home, they equipped another composed of cavalry, and sent it towards Ligetun [Leighton ?] in the province of Hertford. But the natives assembled in force to resist them, and after slaying many of them and putting the rest to flight, captured some horses and the greater part of their arms, and re-captured the booty which they had taken. Leaving a portion of the army to build a city on the south side of the river Lige [Lea], king Eadward marched, after the rogations [23d May], with the greater part of it into East Saxony, and encamped at Mealdune: he remained there until a city was built at Witham and fortified ; and a great number of the people there, who were in subjection to the pagans, submitted themselves and all their property to him.”

Edward is less well-known than his father and often overshadowed by his son, Athelstan, whose success at Brunanburh in 937 AD is quoted as the time when England was united (although of course he was never actually crowned as King of England – that honour went first to Edgar). Nevertheless earlier chroniclers recognised his achievements in setting the stage for what followed.

William of Malmesbury says that:

“he [Edward] was much inferior to his father in literature, but greatly excelled in extent of power. For Alfred, indeed, united the two kingdoms of the Mercian and West Saxons, holding that of the Mercians only nominally, as he had assigned it to prince Ethelred: but at his death Edward first brought the Mercians altogether under his power, next, the West and East Angles, and Northumbrians, who had become one nation with the Danes; the Scots, who inhabit the northern part of the island; and all the Britons, whom we call Welsh, after perpetual battles, in which he was always successful. He devised a mode of frustrating the incursions of the Danes; for he repaired many ancient cities, or built new ones, in places calculated for his purpose, and filled them with a military force, to protect the inhabitants and repel the enemy. Nor was his design unsuccessful; for the inhabitants became so extremely valorous in these contests, that if they heard of an enemy approaching, they rushed out to give them battle, even without consulting the king or his generals, and constantly surpassed them, both in number and in warlike skill. Thus the enemy became an object of contempt to the soldiery and of derision to the king.”

Edward has no statues or popular stories, but he did the hard work needed to help his successors take control of what later became England. It is unlikely he had a vision of England as we would understand it, but nevertheless he contributed to its eventual emergence.

Death of King Cnut, 12th November 1035

King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a cross to the altar of New Minster, Winchester
King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a cross to the altar of New Minster, Winchester, Stowe 944, f. 6 (c) British Library

On 12th November 1035 King Cnut died at Shaftesbury and was buried at Winchester Old Minster. He was succeeded in England by his son Harold Harefoot, while his other son, Harthacnut, took and fought to hold the throne of Denmark. 

According to the Knytlinga Saga:

“Knut was exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men, all except for his nose, that was thin, high-set, and rather hooked. He had a fair complexion none-the-less, and a fine, thick head of hair. His eyes were better than those of other men, both the handsomer and the keener of their sight.”

Cnut was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, the Dane who was briefly King of England (by right of conquest), having finally driven out Athelred Unrede in 1013 after extorting tribute from him for a number of years.  However, Sweyn did not live long to enjoy the fruits of his victory and died in February 1014.

On Sweyn’s death the Danelaw came out in support of Cnut but the other English nobles recalled Athelred from Normandy where he was in exile. Athelred returned to England, and, in a pre-cursor to the events of Runnymede in 1215 when King John Lackland signed the Magna Carta, Athelred swore to be a better king and rule more justly. Cnut at this time was a young warrior, relatively untried as a leader of men, and despite his support in parts of the country he was driven out by the English until he returned in full force in 1015. He was much more effective in this later campaign and took most of the country, with the only meaningful resistance being brought by Edmund Ironside, son of Athelred.

After Athelred’s death in 1016 Edmund fought back even more vigorously against Cnut so that by November the two were brought to an agreement at Deerhurst to split the country between them. However, Edmund died soon after, possibly as a result of wounds but it is not known, and Cnut became sole ruler of England with his coronation taking place on Christmas Day. In 1017 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us:

“AD 1017. In this year king Cnut obtained the whole realm of the English race, and divided it into four parts: Wessex to himself, and East Anglia to Thurkyll, and Mercia to Eadric, and Northumbria to Irke. And in this year was Eadric the ealdorman slain in London, very justly, and Northman, son of Leofwine the ealdorman, and Aethelweard, son of Aethelmaer the great, and Brihtric, son of Aelfeh, in Devonshire. And king Cnut banished Eadwigthe etheling, and afterwards commanded him to be slain, and Eadwi, king of the churls. And then, before the kalends of August, the king commanded the relict of king Aethelred, Richard’s daughter, to be fetched for his wife, ‘that was Elfgive in English, Ymma in French.”

His wife, Emma of Normandy, was daughter of Richard of Normandy, widow of King Athelred Unrede and mother of Edward and Alfred. She and Cnut had two children of their own, Gunnhilda and Harthacnut. Cnut also had a “Danish” wife, Alfgifu of Northampton, with whom he had a son known as Harold Harefoot.

Cnut ruled from 1016-1035. He established the earldoms of England and although he initially controlled Wessex directly he eventually created the Earldom of Wessex which was given to Godwin, establishing that family’s rise to power. Cnut’s brother Harold was King of Denmark, and when he died in 1018 Cnut took the throne of Denmark as well as England. In Norway, Olaf had replaced Sweyn Forkbeard as king but in 1029 his nobles supported the invasion of Cnut and so Cnut became King of Norway as well.

England took up Cnut’s main attention and he placed Alfgifu and their son Harold as regents in Norway with disastrous consequences. Their rule was so unpopular that they were driven out by Magnus, the son of Olaf, in 1035; Magnus was only an eleven year old boy but he was proclaimed king by the Norwegian nobles in preference to Alfgifu and Harold.

Cnut worked with the church, particularly Bishop Wulfstan, to rule England according to English laws and customs from the time of King Edgar. He promoted men he trusted from the English ranks as well as Danish. In 1027 he was able to leave the kingdom securely while he travelled to Rome to witness the coronation of Conrad, the Holy Roman Emperor. While in Rome he negotiated fiercely for better terms for English merchants, pilgrims and churchmen. He wrote in a letter to his nobles:

“I spoke with the Emperor himself and the Lord Pope and the princes there about the needs of all people of my entire realm, both English and Danes, that a juster law and securer peace might be granted to them on the road to Rome and that they should not be straitened by so many barriers along the road, and harassed by unjust tolls; and the Emperor agreed and likewise King Robert who governs most of these same toll gates. And all the magnates confirmed by edict that my people, both merchants, and the others who travel to make their devotions, might go to Rome and return without being afflicted by barriers and toll collectors, in firm peace and secure in a just law.”

Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the 12th century, records a summary of his reign including the curious story of the King Cnut and the Tide:

“A few words must be devoted to the power of this king. Before him there had never been in England a king of such great authority, He was lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of Scotland. In addition to the many wars in which he was most particularly illustrious, he performed three fine and magnificent deeds. The first is that he gave his daughter in marriage to the Roman emperor, with indescribably riches. The second, that on his journey to Rome, he had the evil taxes that were levied on the road that goes through France, called tolls or passage tax, reduced by half at his own expense. The third, that when he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. The he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise onto my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.” Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of King Cnut enjoy rest.”

Cnut was buried at the Old Minster in Winchester, which he and Queen Emma had richly endowed, and his bones were translated to a mortuary chest when the cathedral was rebuilt. In the English Civil War (17th century) his bones were scattered and trampled with others by soldiers, and only later collected and placed back in the mortuary chests, although in a muddled fashion with the other victims of the desecration.

Wasting of Worcester, 12th November 1041

Harthacnut from a Royal Genealogy, 14th century
Harthacnut from a Royal Genealogy, 14th century © British Library  

On 12th November 1041 King Harthacnut laid waste to Worcester after the murder of his tax collectors on 4th May in that city. They had been killed when attempting to collect the hated heregeld or tax that Harthacnut imposed on coming to the throne.

John of Worcester records the year in detail:

“AD 1041: This year Hardicanute, king of England, sent his huscarls through all the provinces of his kingdom to collect the tribute which he had imposed. Two of them, Feader and Thurstan, were slain on the 4th of the ides [the 4th] of May, by the citizens of Worcester and the people of that neighbourhood, in an upper chamber of the abbey-tower, where they had concealed themselves during a tumult. This so incensed the king, that to avenge their deaths he sent Thorold, earl of Middlesex, Leofric, earl of Mercia, Godwin, earl of Wessex, Siward, earl of Northumbria, Roni, earl of Hereford, and all the other English earls, with almost all his huscarls, and a large body of troops, to Worcester, where Alfric was still bishop, with orders to put to death all the inhabitants they could find, to plunder and burn the city, and lay waste the whole province. They arrived there on the second of the ides [the 12th] of November, and beginning their work of  destruction through the city and province continued it for four days ; but very few of the citizens or provincials were taken or slain, because, having notice of their coming, the people fled in all directions. A great number of the citizens took refuge in a small island, called Beverege, situated in the middle of the river Severn, and having fortified it, defended themselves so stoutly against their enemies that they obtained terms of peace, and were allowed free liberty to return home. On the fifth day, the city having been burnt, every one marched off loaded with plunder, and the king’s wrath was satisfied. Soon afterwards, Edward, son of Ethelred the late king of England, came over from Normandy, where he had been an exile many years, and being honourably received by his brother, king Hardicanute, remained at his court.”

Leofric of Mercia, one of the earls sent to Worcester, would have had some concerns. He had supported Harthacnut’s brother Harold Harefoot previously, although he had remained in his seat following Harold’s death. In addition Worcester was the cathedral city of his people and so presumably close to his heart. It had been fortified in Alfred’s burh-building programme under Bishop Waerfrith and became a centre of church learning and influence. Oswald of Worcester had been a key figure in the Church reform movement in the later 10th century along with Athelwold and Dunstan. However, in 1041 the Bishop was Alfric Puttoc (Hawk), a supporter of King Harthacnut, and in fact one of the men who was instructed by him to find King Harold Harefoot’s body, disinter it and throw it in the sewer. In 1040 Alfric had also been the accuser of Earl Godwin and Bishop Lyfing, the then Bishop of Worcester, in the murder of Alfred Atheling; as a result Lyfing lost his Bishopric and Alfric took over. Lyfing however made his peace with Harthacnut and was reinstated in 1041 after the ravaging of the city.

Leofric was a man who gave a great deal of money to the church and Worcester was among the recipients.

Harthacnut died the following year at a wedding feast and Edward the Confessor took the throne.

St Brice’s Day Massacre, 13th November 1002

Christ Church Oxford
Christ Church Oxford, now in the site of the original nunnery, by Peter Trimming CC BY-SA 2.0

The St Brice’s Day Massacre took place on 13th November 1002.

Earlier in the year King Athelred had made a truce with the Danes by agreeing a payment of tribute of 24,000 lbs of silver. It was also the year in which he married Emma of Normandy and translated the bones of Oswald, Archbishop of York to a new shrine. He had to appoint a new archbishop later in the year. Then, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1002:

“Moreover, in this year king Athelred ordered all the Danes who were in England, both great and small, of either sex, to be slain, inasmuch as they had endeavoured to deprive him and his nobles of their lives and kingdom, and to get possession of the whole realm of England.”

Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the 12th century, expanded on the Chronicle’s account:

“In the year 1002, Emma, the jewel of the Normans, came to England and received the crown and title of queen. With her arrival, King Athelred’s pride increased and his faithlessness grew: in a treacherous plot, he ordered all the Danes who were living peacefully in England to be put to death on the same day, namely the Feast of St Brice. Concerning this crime, in my childhood [Henry was born c.1088] I heard very old men say that the king had sent secret letters to every city, according to which the English either maimed all the unsuspecting Danes on the same day and hour with their swords, or, suddenly, at the same moment, captured them and destroyed them by fire.”

It is possible the Danes were in fact the remnants of the troops who had been paid off by the silver, but it is not clear. Similarly a story grew up, reported by William of Malmesbury, that Sweyn Forkbeard’s sister died in the massacre; however William’s account is so muddled it needs to be treated very cautiously as he ascribes her death to 1013 with the massacre following the murder of Archbishop Alfheah. It is however possible she was killed in 1002 as Sweyn did also invade in 1003 which would fit the chronology, but it is by no means certain.

There has been some debate as to whether or how the order was carried out; it would seem unlikely to have been followed in the former Danelaw region of England where many inhabitants had Danish heritage and there was no meaningful distinction between “English” and “Dane”. However, it seems that St Frideswide’s Church in Oxford, on the borders of the Danelaw, was burned to the ground when people took refuge inside. According to a charter of St Frideswide dating from 1004 AD Athelred refers to the incident when he grants the monastery a new title-deed:

“In the year of the incarnation of our Lord 1004, the second indiction, in the 25th year of my reign, by the ordering of God’s providence, I, Aethelred, governing the monarchy of all Albion, have made secure with a liberty of privilege by royal authority a certain monastery situated in the town which is called Oxford, where the body of the blessed Frideswide rests.  And I have restored the territories which belong to that monastery of Christ with the renewal of a new title-deed; and I will relate in a few words to all who look upon this document for what reason it was done.

For it is fully agreed that to all those dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockles amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death; so those Danes who dwelt in the aforementioned town, striving to escape death, entered the sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make a refuge and defence for themselves there in against the people of the town and the suburbs. But when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burned, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God’s aid, it was renewed by me and my subjects, and, as I have said above, it was strengthened in Christ’s name with the honour of a fresh privilege, along with the territories belonging to it, and endowed with every liberty, regarding royal exactions as well as ecclesiastical dues.”

The term “cockles amongst the wheat” is taken from a parable in the Bible in which a field of good seed is infested with cockles, or weeds, planted by an enemy. They are left to grow until harvest when the mature plants are easier to separate from the wheat and can be burned. In medieval times this was interpreted as a warning against sin which needed to be expunged.

Archaeology confirms that a community of Danes was living in the town and it is possible they had been singled out in the wake of the king’s order. Whether they were mercenaries who had settled, or traders, or simply a more identifiably Danish community is unknown.

In the records it is clear the decision was not randomly taken by the king, but made with the agreement of his advising council. This would have included well-known figures such as Alfric of Canterbury, Wulfstan of York, Athelmaer and Queen Emma, who attested a number of charters and decisions at this time.

Two archaeological discoveries have been tentatively linked to the massacre. In 2008, at Oxford, a mass grave at St John’s College was found. The skeletons were all male, mostly aged 16-25 and dumped in a ditch outside the town boundaries. All showed signs of injury at the time of death, most commonly blade wounds to the back which would fit an explanation in which they were attempting escape. Several had been burned. There were virtually no personal items among them, indicating they had been stripped. Dating is inconclusive and may have been earlier than 1002, but it is possible they do in fact date to this event

In 2009 a mass burial in Dorset contained men aged in their teens to twenties of whom at least 31 had come from Scandinavia and lived there until shortly before their death. They display trauma around the head and neck and there are no defensive wounds so they were probably executed. The dates for these skeletons are more securely in the period 980-1020 although Dorset saw a number of attacks in this period and the bodies may have been from a different incident in which a raiding party was captured and killed. However, the lack of other wounds implies they had not fought in self-defence beforehand leading to the possibility they were in fact caught unprepared in 1002.

Whether the skeletons were men killed in 1002 or in other related incidents of the years of Viking invasions we are reminded that such executions did occur.

However, the policy proved disastrous. In 1003 Sweyn Forkbeard descended on England and devastated the eastern coast.

Death of Emperor Justinian, 14th November 565

Mosaic of Justinian at San Vitale
Mosaic of Justinian at San Vitale, Ravenna, By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Emperor Justinian I “the Great” died on 14th November 565 AD. He was Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and immensely influential throughout Europe.

Firstly he was determined to reunite the two halves of the Roman Empire and promulgated a number of military campaigns and wars to achieve this as well as to expand Roman influence. Under his rule, General Belisarius defeated the Vandals in North Africa, then with his colleague General Narses and others he took Rome and much of Italy back from the Ostrogoths. Roman control of the Western Mediterranean was restored and with it, the vast income and wealth from an expanded Roman hegemony.

Justinian also oversaw the extension of Roman influence to the east where previously it had not reached, and engaged the Sassanid Empire.

He also rewrote the legal code, known as the “Corpus juris civilis” (Body of Civil Law) or the “Code of Justinian”. These influenced the canon law of the church in Rome and arguably the whole western legal tradition up to the present day. Much of it was draconian by modern standards and aimed at protecting the Christian church and outlawing paganism. However, in other areas it also established, for example, the distinction between “law” and “custom”.

Justinian was also a builder (or at least, he paid for buildings to be constructed). These include treasures such as the rebuilt Hagia Sophia and the completion of San Vitale in Ravenna, as well as underground cisterns to protect the water supply to Constantinople, a dam at Dara to prevent floods, and the Sangarius Bridge to secure military supply trains.

His reign also saw the flourishing of poets and historians such as Procopius and the establishment of centres of learning. He developed trade and made government administration more efficient as well as combating corruption.

His reign was marked by natural disasters: the Beirut earthquake, extreme weather conditions and perhaps most notably, plague. The latter became known as the Justinian Plague and spread across Europe over the 6th century killing millions at a time when people had been weakened by famine from the extreme weather events of 535-536 AD which may have been caused by volcanic eruptions in the tropics. It is the first documented outbreak of Bubonic Plague, reported by Procopius in 541 AD. As it spread it impacted the outcomes of wars and potentially was affected the British kingdoms at the time of the Anglo-Saxon arrivals, although this is more speculation than historic fact based on a reference in British sources to the “Yellow Plague of Rhos” around 547 AD. The plague continued to have sporadic outbreaks through the next 200-300 years but nothing so overwhelming was seen again until the Black Death in the 14th century.

Much of what we know about Justinian, and also his wife the Empress Theodora, was written by Procopius. However, even here there is doubt and ambiguity, more than simply caused by the usual distance between us in time and cultural perspectives. His “Wars” describe the military campaigns led by Belisarius; then the “Buildings” is a praise document to the emperor about his public building works. However, at the same time as this he wrote the “Secret History”, which is a bitter and disillusioned story about the corruption and immorality of the emperor, the empress, Belisarius and his wife.

Battle of Winwaed, 15th November 655

Stained glass window in the cloister of Worcester Cathedral, the death of Penda of Mercia
Stained glass window in the cloister of Worcester Cathedral, the death of Penda of Mercia, by Violetriga [CC BY-SA 3.0]

On 15th November 655 AD King Oswiu of Northumbria faced the army of Penda which outnumbered him 3:1. Penda of Mercia had killed King Edwin of Northumbria at Hatfield Chase in 633 AD and Oswiu’s brother King Oswald at Maserfield in 642 AD. Penda had had unrivalled military success for years, but Oswiu faced Penda’s opposing forces resolutely. The battle is known as the Battle of Winwaed.

The situation was complicated by the shifting allegiances of other key figures. Bede explains it as follows:

“he [Oswiu] gave battle with a very small army against superior forces: indeed, it is reported that the pagans had three times the number of men; for they had thirty legions, led on by most noted commanders. King Oswy and his son Alfrid met them with a very small army, as has been said, but confiding in the conduct of Christ; his other son, Egfrid, was then kept as hostage at the court of Queen Cynwise, in the province of the Mercians. King Oswald’s son Ethelwald, who ought to have assisted them, was on the enemy’s side, and led them on to fight against his country and uncle; though, during the battle, he withdrew, and awaited the event in a place of safety. The engagement beginning, the pagans were defeated, the thirty  commanders, and those who had come to his assistance were put to flight, and almost all of them slain; among whom was Ethelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles, who had been the occasion of the war, and who was now killed, with all his soldiers. The battle was fought near the river Vinwed, which then, with the great rains, had not only filled its channel, but overflowed its banks, so that many more were drowned in the flight than destroyed by the sword.”

The battle site is a matter for passionate debate but it is generally agreed that it was somewhere in the vicinity of Leeds in West Yorkshire. There is contradictory evidence that Oswiu had agreed tribute to Penda in return for peace; in one chronicle Penda accepted and shared out the treasure, and in another he rejected the offer. There is also a reference to Ecgfrith, Oswiu’s son, being a hostage; however that may have been part of a deal agreed in which hostages were provided.

The combined Northumbrian kingdom had split back into its constituent two kingdoms following Oswald’s death. Bede reported Œthelwald’s decision to stay out of the battle; he was the son of Oswald (so Oswiu’s nephew) and King of Deira at this time, and Oswiu, Oswald’s brother, was King of Bernicia. It is not clear whether the two men agreed to the split or were in opposition to one another, although Œthelwald’s alliance with Penda appears to indicate conflict. After the battle Oswiu installed his own son Alhfrith as King of Deira, although they also clashed, especially at the Synod of Whitby.

Penda was let down by another ally in the battle, Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd who had succeeded Cadwallon in 634 AD. He was later known, according to Nennius, as Cadafael Cadomedd, or “Battle-Seizer Battle-Shirker” because of his perceived cowardice.

Athelhere, son of Eni, was also the nephew of Raedwald of East Anglia. His brother (or possibly cousin) Ecgric had been killed by Penda when he had been King in around 636 AD. His second brother Anna then became king and was killed, again fighting Penda. The presence of Athelhere in Penda’s army suggests that he was Penda’s client king. Henry of Huntingdon tells us that:

“In this engagement the pagans were defeated and all the 30 commanders [with Penda] were slain; for the God of Battles was with his faithful people and broke the might of King Penda, and unnerved the boasted strength of his arm, and caused his proud heart to fail, so that his assaults were not as they were wont to be, and the arms of his enemies prevailed against them. He was struck with amazement at finding that his foes were now become to him what he had formerly been to them, and that he was to them what they had been to him. He who had shed the blood of others now suffered what he had inflicted on them, while the earth was watered with his blood, and the ground was sprinkled with his brains.”

Penda is known as the last pagan king of the Anglo-Saxons, and his death is often seen as the end of the pagan age in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. However, the purpose of the battle was not religious, it was political. It was about power and control of kingdoms and people as can be seen by the mixture of loyalties within and between the armies.

Queen Emma loses her jewels, 16th November 1042

Emma of Normandy with her two young sons fleeing before the invasion of Sweyn Forkbeard
Emma of Normandy with her two young sons fleeing before the invasion of Sweyn Forkbeard (1013) © Cambridge University Library Ee.3.59 fol. 4r c. 1250

On 16th November 1042 Queen Emma’s son Edward (the Confessor) and his earls descended upon her at Winchester and took all of her gold, jewellery and precious things allegedly because of the way she had treated Edward as a boy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us about the new king’s decision:

“AD 1043. This year was Edward consecrated king at Winchester on the first day of Easter [3d April]. And this year, fourteen days before Andrews-mass [16th Nov.], the king was advised to ride from Gloucester, and Leofric the earl, and Godwine the earl, and Sigwarth [Siward] the earl, with their followers, to Winchester, unawares upon the lady [Emma]; and they bereaved her of all the treasures which she possessed, they were not to be told, because before that she had been very hard with the king her son; inasmuch as she had done less for him than he would, before he was king, and also since: and they suffered her after that to remain therein.”

He then deposed Stigand, who had only that year been made Bishop of East Anglia, because of his closeness to Emma and seized all his lands as well. After which he married Earl Godwin’s daughter, Edith.

Meanwhile William of Malmesbury recognised some good in the queen mother:

“his mother had for a long time mocked at the needy state of her son, nor ever assisted him; transferring her hereditary hatred of the father to the child; for she had both loved Canute more when living, and more commended him when dead: besides, accumulating money by every method, she had hoarded it, regardless of the poor, to whom she would give nothing, for fear of diminishing her heap. Wherefore that which had been so unjustly gathered together, was not improperly taken away, that it might be of service to the poor, and replenish the king’s exchequer. Though much credit is to be attached to those who relate these circumstances, yet I find her to have been a religiously-disposed woman, and to have expended her property on ornaments for the church of Winchester, and probably upon others.”

This was also the year in which her son by Cnut, Harthacanut, had died and she had lost not only her wealth but also her power at court. Until this point she had probably been the richest and most powerful woman in England.

Emma died on 6th March 1052.

Death of Queen Margaret of Scotland, 16th November 1042

Margaret and Malcolm Canmore
Margaret and Malcolm Canmore, wife depicted on a frieze by the Victorian painter William Hole at Scottish National Gallery, Wikimedia Commons CC SA 3.0

Margaret of Scotland died on 16th November 1093.

Margaret was born around 1045 in Hungary and was the sister of Edgar the Atheling, the heir apparent to the English throne in 1066, and of Cristina. They had been in England a little over 10 years having returned in 1057 when their father Edward the Exile was invited by Edward the Confessor to return and secure the English succession. Unfortunately her father died of sickness almost immediately upon reaching England but the family remained at the English court and the children grew up with some expectation that Edgar might inherit the throne instead. This view was changed dramatically in 1066 when Edward the Confessor died and Harold Godwinson was chosen as king, Edgar being too young and inexperienced to take the throne at a time when England was under threat from invasion. However, following Harold’s death Edgar was proclaimed king by a number of the nobles although he was never crowned.

Following the coronation of the Norman Duke William, Edgar was taken to Normandy as a hostage and did not return until 1068. At this point the family fled to the Continent but were caught in storms and driven aground in Scotland, traditionally near North Queensferry. Simeon of Durham claims they spent the winter in Scotland but then places them back in York in 1070 after the Harrying of the North, when they once again fled. Meanwhile King Malcolm of Scotland was ravaging Northumbria.

Simeon of Durham tells us how they met:

“When he [Malcolm] was riding along the banks of the river, beholding from an eminence the cruel exploits of his men against the unhappy English, and feasting his mind and eyes with such a spectacle, it was told him that Edgar Atheling and his sisters, who were beautiful girls of the royal blood, and many other very rich persons, fugitives from their homes, lay with their ships in that harbour. When they came to him with terms of amity, he addressed them graciously, and he pledged himself to grant them and all their friends a residence in his kingdom as long as they chose.”

When they returned to Scotland Malcolm and Margaret were married, and she immediately had a positive influence on the rather rough and rowdy king:

“By her care and labour the king himself, laying aside the barbarity of his manners, became more gentle and civilized. Of her he begat six sons, Eadward, Eadmund, king Eadgar, king Alexander, Ethelred, and king David, and two daughters, Matilda queen of the English, and Mary, whom Eustace count of Bologne took in marriage.”

Margaret was very popular in Scotland, renowned for good works and charity, and pious, introducing religious reform to the church to bring it in line with continental practice. As well as establishing a monastery at Dunfermline, restoring Iona Abbey and interceding for English victims of Norman injustice, she set up ferries at Queensferry (hence the name) and North Berwick to ensure pilgrims could cross the Firth of Forth safely on their way to and from St Andrew’s in Fife.

Malcolm undertook several campaigns in support of Edgar’s claim to the throne of England but these were not successful. By 1093 he was attempting to negotiate with William Rufus for peace but not succeeding with that either. On 13th November the English and Scots met at the Battle of Alnwick and Malcolm and their eldest son Edward were killed fighting an army led by Robert de Mowbray.

On hearing the news, Margaret died of a broken heart.

“On hearing of his death, Margaret, queen of Scots, was afflicted with so great distress, that she at once fell into a severe illness; and without delay, summoning her priests, she went into the church, and having confessed her sins to them, she caused herself to be anointed with oil and strengthened by the heavenly viaticum, beseeching God with constant and most earnest prayers, that He would no longer allow her to continue in this miserable life. Nor were her prayers long unheard; for three days after the king’s death, she was freed from the fetters of the flesh, and passed, as we trust, to the joys of eternal salvation. For while she lived she had devoutly cultivated piety, justice, peace and charity. She was frequent in prayers, and kept under her body by watching and fasting; she endowed churches and monasteries; she loved and honoured the servants and handmaids of the Lord; she divided her bread to the hungry; clothed the naked; gave lodging, garments and food to all wanderers who came to her; and she loved God with her whole heart.”

Death of Abbess Hild, 17th November 680

Ellerburn Church, Dalby, North Yorkshire
Ellerburn Church, Dalby, North Yorkshire © PWicks

Abbess Hild died at Whitby on 17th November 680 AD at the age of 66.

Bede tells us that she had spent the first 33 of her years living “most nobly in the secular life” and then spent her remaining 33 years dedicated to God. Bede says:

“she was nobly born, being the daughter of Hereric, nephew to King Edwin, with which king she also embraced the faith and mysteries of Christ, at the preaching of Paulinus, the first bishop of the Northumbrians.”

She was born therefore around 616 AD to Hereric and Bregusuit, and was baptised perhaps at Easter 627 AD with King Edwin and a number of his relatives in York. Hereric was poisoned at the court of King Cerdic (or Ceretic) of Elmet. It is possible he had gone to Cerdic following the annexation of Deira by Athelfrith around 605 AD which saw the death of Aelle, Edwin’s father, and Edwin’s exile; Edwin later deposed Cerdic about 619 AD, possibly in retribution. Hereric’s relationship to Edwin is not known but he may have been a cousin, nephew or even unrecorded brother.

At the age of 33, Hild decided to enter the religious life and went first to East Anglia. Her sister Heresuid was the mother of the king there and had retired to a nunnery in France, and Hild intended to join her. However, after a year in East Anglia she was called by Bishop Aidan to Northumbria where she lived on the north side of the River Wear with a small number of companions.

After a year there she was then sent to a new monastery at Hartlepool (Hereteu), which had been established around 640 AD by Heiu, the first Northumbrian woman to become a nun. Hild took over the rule of the monastery and established a regular system as she had been taught by Aidan and others. King Oswiu entrusted his daughter Alfflaed to Hild’s care during this time. She was recognised for her wisdom and frequently visited by leading churchmen.

In 657 AD she established a foundation at Whitby (Streaneshalch) which she set up on the same principles as Hartlepool.

Bede continues:

“so that, after the example of the primitive church, no person was there rich, and none poor, all being in common to all, and none having any property. Her prudence was so great, that not only indifferent persons, but even kings and princes, as occasion offered, asked and received her advice; she obliged those who were under her direction to attend so much to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might be there found fit for ecclesiastical duties, and to serve at the altar.”

Five bishops were trained under her direction, including Wilfrid.

The Synod of Whitby, held in 664 AD, was convened to discuss a range of important church issues, including the decision to follow either the rule of Rome or the rule of the Irish church, and thus establish the correct way to calculate the date of Easter. Hilda presided over the conference, and was in favour of the Irish rule as was King Oswiu who convened the Synod. However, the final decision went to Rome following passionate argument by Wilfrid, her former protégé.

Another of Hild’s protégés was the poet Caedmon His story describes How he miraculously began to compose poetry on Biblical themes following a vision one night. He repeated his initial composition to Hild and she asked him to make another poem to test that his gift came from a holy source, and upon his successful composition, as Bede describes:

“the abbess, embracing the grace of God in the ‘man, instructed him to quit the secular habit, and take upon him the monastic life; which being accordingly done, she associated him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery, and ordered that he should be taught the whole series of sacred history. Thus Caedmon ‘ keeping in mind all he heard, and as it were chewing the cud, converted the same into most harmonious verse; and sweetly repeating the same, made his masters in their turn his hearers.”

After Hild’s death Eanflaed, King Edwin’s daughter and Oswiu’s widow, became Abbess of Whitby jointly with her own daughter Alfflaed.

Ammonites in Ellerburn Church
Ammonites in Ellerburn Church, © PWicks

A local legend says that when sea birds fly over Whitby Abbey they dip their wings in honour of Saint Hilda. Her symbol, the ammonite, can be seen in a number of locations around the area, such as Ellerburn Church in Dalby, North Yorkshire.

Death of Queen Elfrida, 17th November

Edward the Martyr is offered a cup of mead by Alfthryth at Corfe Castle
Edward the Martyr is offered a cup of mead by Alfthryth at Corfe Castle, by James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain]

17th November around the year 1000 AD saw the death of Elfrida (Alfthryth), the wife of King Edgar and mother of kings Edmund and Athelred.

She was born around the 940s to Ordgar, a wealthy nobleman in Wessex. Her brother Ordulf founded Tavistock Abbey. According to the later chronicler Gaimar, Elfrida was able to get her own way much of the time and was indulged by her father and she probably had a reasonable education and would have been prepared for a suitable marriage to one of the noble families of the period.

Her first husband was Athelwald, son of Athelstan Half-King of East Anglia. However, she was famous for her beauty and King Edgar was famous for having an eye for the ladies. The result was that Athelwald died and Elfrida ended up marrying Edgar. William of Malmesbury likes to tell a legend of considerable intrigue, although limited reliability:

“There was, in his time, one Athelwold, a nobleman of celebrity and one of his confidants. The king had commissioned him to visit Elfthrida, daughter of Ordgar, duke of Devonshire, (whose charms had so fascinated the eyes of some persons that they commended her to the king), and to offer her marriage, if her beauty were really equal to report. Hastening on his embassy, and finding everything consonant to general estimation, he concealed his mission from her parents and procured the damsel for himself. Returning to the king, he told a tale which made for his own purpose; that she was a girl nothing out of the common track of beauty, and by no means worthy such transcendent dignity. When Edgar’s heart was disengaged from this affair, and employed on other amours, some tattlers acquainted him, how completely Athelwold had duped him by his artifices. Paying him in his own coin, that is, returning him deceit for deceit, he showed the earl a fair countenance, and, as in a sportive manner, appointed a day when he would visit his far-famed lady. Terrified, almost to death, with this dreadful pleasantry, he hastened before to his wife, entreating that she would administer to his safety by attiring herself as unbecomingly as possible: then first disclosing the intention of such a proceeding.”

Rather than listen to her husband, Elfrida then so inflamed the king’s passion that he took Athelwald hunting and in the forest ran him through with a spear so he could marry the widow!

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they married in 964 AD:

“Eadgar, the pacific king of the English, married Alftryth, daughter of Ordgar, ealdorman of Devonshire, after the death of her husband Aethelwold, the glorious ealdonnan of the East Angles; and had by her two sons, Eadmund and Aethelred. He had also previously by Ethelfleda the Fair, surnamed Ened, a son called Eadward, afterwards king and martyr; and by St. Wulfrith a daughter named Eadgith, one of God’s most pious virgins.”

When Edgar had his second coronation in 973 AD Elfrida was crowned alongside him as Queen of England; so not only was Edgar the first king crowned King of England, but she was its first Queen. She had probably also been crowned earlier when they were married as she was particularly keen to emphasise that her sons were the legitimate children of Edgar and made sure they appeared higher in the witness list on charters than his first son Edward.

Elfrida and Edgar were keen church reformers and Elfrida founded Wherwell Abbey where she later retired there until her death.

Her negative reputation comes from the murder of her step-son King Edward (the Martyr) at Corfe Castle when he visited her there in March 978 AD.  Her involvement is unclear and much evidence from chronicles can be assigned to misogynist monks, although that does not mean it is untrue.

Following Edward’s death she acted as regent while her son Athelred was in his minority until he came of age in 984 AD. After this she ceased to attend council meetings and went into obscurity until around 993 AD. Although little is known about what happened the parallels with the experiences of Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, are too close to ignore; Edward had deprived his mother of her wealth because of the way she had treated him as a child (see 16th November). However, Elfrida then appeared again witnessing charters, although lower in the hierarchy, and appears to have spent time caring for Athelred’s children, as she was remembered specifically and fondly in the will of Athelstan Atheling who died in 1014. Her son the king was also reconciled to her judging by the grants of land made to her following her reappearance at court. Her reputation however remained forever blackened for some and the monks at Ely recorded in their chronicle that she was observed in practising witchcraft by their Abbot Byrhtnoth and she had him murdered to prevent him from betraying her secret.

She is recorded as dying at Wherwell on 17th November but not in which year. However, on the basis of other records it would have been between 999-1001 AD.

She lived a long life but died before her son’s reign fell completely apart. Her involvement in court affairs set an example for influential queens in future generations.

Death of Abbot Odo, 18th November 942

Benedictional of St Athelwold
Christ entering Jerusalem, Benedictional of St Athelwold, British Library MS 49598

18th November is the Feast Day of St Odo, Abbot of Cluny.

Odo was the son of Abbo, a Frankish knight and was at dedicated the church by his parent as a small child. However, his father removed him from the abbey when he was 16, having changed his mind, and Odo was introduced to the noble pastimes of hunting and hawking. The physical sporting life of a young nobleman did not suit him and he suffered from violent headaches and general weakness until he was 18. Convinced that the headaches were a punishment for his lapse in his church career, he was returned to study at the Abbey of St Martin at Tours.

He settled into a quieter, more studious life, including studying the classics such as Virgil, but following a dream which included a vase of serpents he gave up the secular literature and went to study philosophy in Paris under Remigius of Auxerre, who had opened the first public school there in 900 AD. One winter’s day in Paris he gave his warm fur coat to a beggar who was freezing on the street. Upon returning to his room he went to bed to get warm under the covers and discovered a gold coin there which was more than enough to buy himself a new coat to replace the one he had given away.

Remigius died in 908 AD and Odo probably returned to Tours at this time. Later he went to Bearme and was admitted by the Abbot Berno to become a monk.  Berno became head of the Abbey of Cluny in 910 AD and on his death in 927 AD was succeeded by Odo. There he ensured the Benedictine Rule was followed strictly, and according to some reports, more than a little harshly. In fact when the monks at Fleury heard he was coming to enforce the rule stating they should not eat meat, they took up arms to prevent him coming in.

Odo died on 18th November 942 AD.

Odo’s devotion to the Rule earned the Abbey protection and gifts from Popes and kings, so that it was secure and wealthy. The strictness of its adherence to the Rule made it the leader of monasticism in western Europe. The “Cluniac Reforms” spear-headed by Odo had a profound effect across Europe and in England, via Fleury. In the late 10th century under King Edgar, and led by Dunstan, Athelwold and Oswald, widespread reform was carried out mainly in the south and midlands of England, as the north was still not strongly controlled by the king despite the unification of the kingdoms of the English by 973 AD. The monastic reforms led to the expulsion of secular clergy from monasteries to be replaced by monks. This in turn resulted in high levels of scholarship and artistry, such as that of Athelwold’s Benedictional.

Death of Abbess Abbe, 19th November 694

Minster Abbey, on the Isle of Thanet
Minster Abbey, on the Isle of Thanet, Kent by Nick Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0]

On 19th November 694 AD Abbe (or Domne Eafe) of Minster-in-Thanet died. She founded the Abbey after she was granted the land within the bounds run by her tame doe.

Eormenred of Kent had a number of children including Athelred and Athelbert, Ermengitha and Ermenburga as well as Abbe. She was married to King Merewalh of the Magonsaete (in Mercia) and three of their daughters also became saints: Mildred, Milburga and Milgytha. During her reign it is supposed Abbe owned land which took her name as Abingdon.

However, not all of her family were saintly. Her cousin Egbert came to the throne of Kent in 664 AD after his father’s death on 14th July. He acted swiftly to secure his succession by murdering his cousins Athelred and Athelbert, Abbe’s brothers. The murder was badly received and the young men became the centre of a local cult. Egbert saw the error of his bloodthirsty ways and therefore approached Abbe to offer her the “weregild” or blood compensation for their deaths.

Abbe demanded land for a religious foundation. According to legend she asked for as much land as her tame doe could encircle in one day and so the doe was let out to run on the Isle of Thanet. She circled 48 ploughs of land and this was duly given to Abbe who built a monastery there which became known as Minster-in-Thanet. It became one of the richest and most important nunneries of England. It received land grants and toll remissions on ships trading between London and Frankia. It later fell victim to Danish raids and the nuns fled to Lyminge, although a small community may have continued at Thanet for some time.

Meanwhile Egbert died young, probably aged about 30. His reign saw the installation of the Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus, and he also founded a church at Reculver in Kent and granted a charter to found Chertsey Abbey in Surrey.

Death of King Edmund, 20th November 869

The Wilton Diptych
The Wilton Diptych, created for Richard II, shows Edmund the Martyr on the left as one of Richard’s patron saints, © The National Gallery

King Edmund the Martyr died on 20 November 869 AD at the hands of the Great Heathen Army following his refusal to renounce his faith. It is not known if this story is anything other than legend and he may have died in battle – records of his reign were lost during this period. 

We know little about Edmund, bar a few coins and the legend of his martyrdom. Ironically coins were struck in the Danelaw in the late 9th – early 10th century in Edmund’s name following the conversion to Christianity of the Danish settlers.

It seems he was crowned on Christmas Day in 854 AD, probably succeeding Beorhtric, although his relation to his predecessor is not known. In 865-6 AD the Micel Here, or Great Army, of Scandinavian warriors set up winter quarters in the Fens of East Anglia, determined to settle rather than raid. Edmund appears to have left them alone, and even possibly supplied food and horses, whether under duress is unclear. As they were intending to target York, no doubt he would have been pleased to see them move on as quickly and peacefully as possible, and he received no support from Mercia or Wessex.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“AD.’870. This year the army rode across Mercia into East-Anglia, and took up their winter quarters at Thetford; and the same winter king Eadmund fought against them, and the Danes got the victory, and slew the king, and subdued all the land, and destroyed all the minsters which they came to. The names of their chiefs who slew the king were Ingwar and Ubba.”

Correcting the date for 869 AD, we learn that Ubba and Ivarr the Boneless (Ingwar in the text above) came down to Thetford, clearly confident to stay inland. Having taken York they had failed at Nottingham and moved back to East Anglia instead.

It is possible that at this stage Edmund was told to submit part of his kingdom (rather than give up his religion). In any case he met the Great Army at Hoxne to fight. In the Chronicle’s version of events Edmund is killed in or after battle and is not recorded as explicitly martyred. However, if he was captured he is very likely to have been executed.

He seems to have been beheaded and his remains were later recovered by his men. Although the Vikings now held East Anglia, there is some coin evidence of a puppet king, Oswald, in the 870s.

Edmund’s remains were translated to the monastery at Bury St Edmunds in the 10th century and this remained the centre of his cult. By the 14th century he was the patron saint of England, only to be replaced later by St George.

The first written record of Edmund’s life was by Abbo of Fleury in the late 10th century, over 100 years after the events it recorded. This was then adapted by Alfric who produced a sermon rather than a lengthy hagiography (saint’s life).The story of Edmund’s martyrdom appears in these texts.

In the 13th century Roger of Wendover spins a lengthy yarn in which Ragnar Lothbrock was washed ashore in East Anglia and taken to Edmund’s court where he became a favourite of the king. This roused the jealousy of another of Edmund’s men, his huntsman, who killed Lothbrock. Lothbrock’s sons, Ingvar and Ubba therefore were after revenge for their father and this was why they invaded. Edmund was required to submit to the brothers and reportedly said to his bishop Humbert:

“O Humbert, servant of the living God, and the half of my life, the fierce barbarians are at hand, who have in part devastated my beloved country and destroyed the inhabitants, and are endeavouring to blot out that which remains from the memory of our successors. But oh that I might fall so that my people might thereby escape death; for I will not, through love of a temporal kingdom or the gain of the present life, subject myself to a heathen tyrant, when by dying for my people and country I can become a standardbearer of the eternal kingdom.”

In this way we are made to understand how a truly Christian king is supposed to behave.

After the battle Edmund led his surviving men to the royal vill at Haeilesdune. However he was taken in the church and beaten and then shot with so many arrows until “it was as completely covered with darts and arrows as is the hedgehog’s skin with spines.” He was then beheaded and his body taken to the woods and left in the briars, while his head was thrown away nearby. The invaders then spent the winter pillaging and looting, and finally left in the spring.

Once they had left the people then began to search for the king’s body and head so it could be decently buried.

“When they had all met together and were diligently searching the woods for the martyr’s head, there appeared a wonderful and unheard-of prodigy; for while searching among the woods and brambles, and calling out to each other in their native tongue, “Where are you? Where are you?” the martyr’s head made answer in the same tongue. “Here, here, here,” and did not cease repeating the same till it brought them all to the spot; where they found a huge and horrible looking wolf embracing the head with its paws, and keeping watch over the blessed martyr. Boldly seizing the head and offering praises unto God, they conveyed it to the body, followed by the wolf as far as the place of sepulchre; then uniting the head to the body, they deposited both in a suitable tomb, after which the wolf returned to his wonted solitude.”

Ordination of Willibrord, 22nd November 696

Radbod
Portrait of Radbod, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC 4.0

On 22nd November 696 AD Willibrord was ordained Archbishop of the Frisians at the request of Pepin King of the Franks. This incurred the opposition of the Frisian King, Radbod, who did not wish the missionaries to come into his kingdom. He was the last independent King of Frisia before its incorporation into the growing empire of Pepin and, later, Charles Martel.

Radbod had succeeded to the rule of Frisia from Aldgisl near the end of the 7th century. Aldgisl is a shadowy figure but known for sheltering that rather difficult priest, Wilfrid of Ripon, who had been deposed as Archbishop of York and then exiled. Wilfrid went to Rome to complain in 678 AD and landed on the coast of Frisia on the way where he spent the winter and allegedly converted Aldgisl and a number of his people (there is no strong evidence for this in fact).

When Radbod became ruler after Aldgisl he was determined to remove any Christian influence from his kingdom. Opposition to Christianity was probably tied up with opposition to the Frankish kingdom of the Merovingians, who ruled Frankia until 751 AD.

At this time the Franks were ruled by Pepin of Herstal. Pepin had defeated Radbod at the Battle of Dorestad in 689 AD and driven Radbod out of Nearer Frisia. The following year Willibrord arrived at Pepin’s court with his followers and so was provided with access to Frisia, as Bede describes:

“They arrived there, twelve in number, and turning aside to Pepin, duke of the Franks, were graciously received by him; and as he had lately subdued the Hither Frisland, and expelled King Rathbed, he sent them thither to preach, supporting them at the same time with his authority, that none might molest them in their preaching, and bestowing many favors on those who consented to embrace the faith.”

Radbod went into exile but apparently in 711 AD his daughter Thiadsvind married Grimoald, Pepin’s son; their marriage was officiated by Willibrord.

Pepin died in 714 AD and Radbod forced the monks to leave Frisia. However, there are various conflicting stories about the priest Wilfram who converted Radbod’s son and also nearly converted Radbod himself following a number of miracles. Famously as Radbod was on his way to be baptised he asked Wulfram where his dead ancestors were. Wulfram replied that they were in Hell, with all other unbelievers. Radbod changed his mind about converting and replied that he would rather “live there with my honourable ancestors than go to heaven with a parcel of beggars.”

In 716 AD Radbod assembled a force and marched to Cologne against Charles Martel, Pepin’s illegitimate son and successor. On this occasion Charles Martel had the victory and forced Radbod to submit.

Radbod died in 719 AD.

Kathleen Herbert, born 23rd November 1924

Beowulf sailing to Daneland
Beowulf sailing to Daneland, from Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908), J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

Kathleen Herbert was born on 23rd November 1924 and through her scholarship she made a significant contribution to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon mythology and folklore.

So what tales might have entertained the Anglo-Saxon audience? We do know of quite a few poems which were lovingly preserved by later monks, regardless of their pre-Christian roots. They include religious stories, riddles and heroic tales such as Beowulf, albeit with Christian elements added or interspersed. But the earlier settlers to the island of Britain brought stories with them, and we can find their echoes still.

The migrants in the 5th-6th centuries, as we know from Bede, and also from archaeology and DNA, were primarily Germanic. Most of the later stories which have survived fall into four broad cycles: Germanic heroes; Anglo-Saxon origin stories; non-Germanic characters; Baltic and North Sea characters. So let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

While standard versions of stories do not exist, the Germanic myths can be recognised by common elements. These would include the story of Mathhild and Geat, Sigemund, Weland the Smith and Beaduhild, and Wudga/Widia and Hama, and Theodric. Meanwhile the origin myths based on the founding figures of royal bloodlines include Finn and Hengest (Kent); Freawine (Wessex) and Offa of Angeln (Mercia). The Germanic incomers retained memories of their Continental roots with stories about Atla (Attila), Guthhere of Burgundy, Heoden and Hagena from the Vistula estuary, and Waldere of Acquitaine. From the Baltic and North Sea areas there was Beowulf, of course, Hrothgar (Danes), Hygelac (Geats), Ingeld (Heathobards), Ongentheow (Swedes) and Eormanric (Goths) among others. Many of these characters are referenced in Widsith and / or Deor, two Old English poems. Kathleen Herbert derived versions of some of the stories mentioned in the poem Deor in her book “English Heroic Legends”, reconstructing them painstakingly from the fragments found across a range of sources and adding her own personal flair for storytelling to bring them to life.

When Bede described the origins of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, he was describing their perception of themselves as originating from specific areas of Northern Europe, and need not be taken entirely literally. However, they would have had sufficient reality behind them to be acceptable to their audience. The stories that continued to be told were those of interest to the people paying the storytellers, namely the kings. The stories were also copied into such sources as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to present the legends of the formation of the kingdoms.

Strangely there do not seem to have survived specific stories about the migrations as such, but the interpretation of certain Biblical themes in the later period with the emphasis on the wanderings of the Jewish people as a migration with family and belongings and as a chosen people who then were able to establish rightfully a new homeland may be argued to be a reflection of the prevailing view the Anglo-Saxons had of their history. Here’s the poem Genesis (ll.1730-1738) as an example:

Gewat him tha mid cnosle      ofer Caldea folc
feran mid feorme      faeder Abrahames;
snotor mid gesibbum      secean wolde
Cananea land.      Hine cneowmaegas,
metode gecorene      mid sithedon

of thaere etheltyrf,      Abraham and Loth.
Him tha cynegode      on Carran
Athelinga bearn      eard genamon,
weras mid wifum.  

“He took himself with his family through the people of Chaldea

Journeying with his possessions the father of Abraham;

The wise man with his kin would seek

The land of Canaan. His kinsmen,

chosen by God, travelled with him

from their ancient turf, Abraham and Lot.

Those nobles for themselves in the land of Harran

Sons of men, a homeland took,

Men with their wives.”

(trans. Henson)

Feast Day of Eanflaed, 24th Novermber

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey (11th century), Photo © PWicks

24th November is the Feast Day of Eanflaed, daughter of King Edwin of Northumbria, and later Abbess of Whitby.

Eanflaed was the daughter born to Edwin the day of his attempted assassination by Eumer, a man sent by Cwichelm of Wessex. Bede tells this story in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, and places it at Easter 626 AD. Edwin was saved from the attack but he lost two of his men, Lilla and Forthhere. In gratitude for his safe deliverance Edwin promised his newly born baby daughter should be dedicated to the Church. She was duly baptised by Paulinus the following year along with her father, Hild, and ten others of her family at York.

Following Edwin’s death at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 632 AD, she and her brothers were taken south to Kent with her mother, to her uncle Eadbald’s court where she grew up.

She was later married to Oswiu, King of Bernicia; he was the brother of Oswald who eventually took the throne of Northumbria after Edwin’s death. The marriage was probably designed to increase support for Oswiu against the rising power of Penda in Mercia, and to provide any children with a strong claim to the combined thrones of Bernicia and Deira. However, in 651 AD Oswiu was implicated in the death of Oswine, King of Deira and kinsman of Eanflaed, which resulted in her receiving the wergild for his death in the form of the foundation of an abbey at Gilling in Yorkshire.

She and Oswiu had at least four children together: Ecgwin (sub-King of Deira 664-670 AD, then King of Northumbria 670-685 AD); Alfwin (sub-King of Deira 670-679 AD); Osthryth (married Athelred of Mercia and was murdered by the nobles in 697 AD); and Alfflaed (fostered by Hild and became Abbess of Whitby). 

Oswiu died in 670 AD, and at some point Eanflaed retired to a religious life at Whitby Abbey under Hild, where her daughter Alfflaed was living. Edwin’s relics were translated to Whitby during this time and became the centre of a royal cult.

Eanflaed was a friend of Wilfrid, the rather controversial Bishop. When he was a young man she had helped him enter the monastery at Lindisfarne and later supported him in his trip to Rome by commending him to her cousin Eorcenberht who was then King of Kent.

When Hild died in 680 AD Eanflaed and Alfflaed jointly ruled Whitby until Eanflaed’s own death no later than 704 AD.

Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, 25th November 1936

Beowulf Manuscript
Opening page of Beowulf, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV ff. 132r-201v

Only around 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive and Beowulf comprises around 10% of these, at about 3,000 lines.

On 25th November 1936, three years before the excavation of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Professor JRR Tolkien delivered his seminal lecture to the British Academy – “Beowulf: the monsters and the critics” – in which he aimed to change the prevailing view of the poem and of the Anglo-Saxons.

First of all, Tolkien said, we should understand what the poem is not:

“Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on The Beowulf has been due  either  to  the  belief  that  it  was  something  that  it  was not—for  example,  primitive,  pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappointment at the discovery  that  it  was  itself  and  not  something  that  the  scholar  would  have  liked  better—for example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica.”

Beowulf, he suggested, had been seen primarily as history rather than literature, and it seemed the poem was viewed with embarrassment by the literary establishment. Tolkien argued strongly that the poem was in fact a complex and important piece of art, worthy of recognition for its poetic quality, and that the illusion of historical content was a product of art and not actual documentary evidence for a particular period. This did not stop it being valuable as a resource for Germanic custom, belief and linguistics, but it should always be viewed through the lens of poetry.

“So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.”

Tolkien also argued against the prevailing view of the time that a focus on folk tales and fantastic content (monsters, magic etc) was trivial, childish and not worthy of serious attention. In fact he expanded on this theme in his lecture “On Fairy Stories” in 1939. He argued in favour of a mythological mode of imagination which cannot be mechanically analysed, “For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.” Meanwhile the monsters allowed the poet to examine themes of evil, humanity and mortality.

“it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky”

The discovery of the treaures under Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo three years later further strengthened the argument that the Anglo-Saxon age had not been as dark and impoverished as many had believed. The finds were consistent with the imagery in Beowulf to a very great extent.

A full copy of the talk with appendices and notes can be found here:

https://jenniferjsnow.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/11790039-jrr-tolkien-beowulf-the-monsters-and-the-critics.pdf

Siege of Paris, 26th November 885

Count Odo defends Paris against the Norsemen
Count Odo defends Paris against the Norsemen, Jean-Victor Schnetz, Galerie des Batailles, Palace of Versailles

The Vikings arrived in Paris on 24th or 25th November 885 AD, asking for tribute from the Franks. When this was denied, they began a siege on 26th November.

England in 885 AD was beginning to reap the benefits of Alfred’s strategy against the Vikings. In response to tougher times seeking wealth in Britain the Vikings pragmatically turned to easier pickings in Frankia, where the Carolingian Empire was fragmenting and defences were uncoordinated. Charles the Fat had been paying the Norse to go away, just as the English had before and would again. In 884 AD he paid 12,000 pounds of gold and silver, although the Vikings took both the money and the opportunity to pillage as well.

In November 885 AD a band of Vikings led by Sigfrid demanded further payment from Charles, who refused. The Vikings sailed up the Seine to Paris and on 26th November they attacked the northeast tower. The siege of Paris had begun.

The defence of Paris was led by Count Odo and he held out for over a year. His actions were recorded later by Abbo of Fleury (who also spent a couple of years studying in Ramsey Abbey in England and wrote a well-known “Passion S. Eadmundi” about Edmund the Martyr King). Here is what he says:

“885. The Northmen came to Paris with 700 sailing ships, not counting those of smaller size which are commonly called barques. At one stretch the Seine was lined with the vessels for more than two leagues, so that one might ask in astonishment in what cavern the river had been swallowed up, since it was not to be seen. The second day after the fleet of the Northmen arrived under the walls of the city, Siegfried, who was then king only in name but who was in command of the expedition, came to the dwelling of the illustrious bishop. He bowed his head and said: “Gauzelin, have compassion on yourself and on your flock. We beseech you to listen to us, in order that you may escape death. Allow us only the freedom of the city. We will do no harm and we will see to it that whatever belongs either to you or to Odo shall be strictly respected.” Count Odo, who later became king, was then the defender of the city. The bishop replied to Siegfried, “Paris has been entrusted to us by the Emperor Charles, who, after God, king and lord of the powerful, rules over almost all the world. He has put it in our care, not at all that the kingdom may be ruined by our misconduct, but that he may keep it and be assured of its peace. If, like us, you had been given the duty of defending these walls, and if you should have done that which you ask us to do, what treatment do you think you would deserve?” Siegfried replied. “I should deserve that my head be cut off and thrown to the dogs. Nevertheless, if you do not listen to my demand, on the morrow our war machines will destroy you with poisoned arrows. You will be the prey of famine and of pestilence and these evils will renew themselves perpetually every year.” So saying, he departed and gathered together his comrades.

In the morning the Northmen, boarding their ships, approached the tower and attacked it [the tower blocked access to the city by the so-called “Great Bridge,” which connected the right bank of the Seine with the island on which the city was built. The tower stood on the present site of the Châtelet]. They shook it with their engines and stormed it with arrows. The city resounded with clamor, the people were aroused, the bridges trembled. All came together to defend the tower. There Odo, his brother Robert, and the Count Ragenar distinguished themselves for bravery; likewise the courageous Abbot Ebolus, the nephew of the bishop. A keen arrow wounded the prelate, while at his side the young warrior Frederick was struck by a sword. Frederick died, but the old man, thanks to God, survived. There perished many Franks; after receiving wounds they were lavish of life. At last the enemy withdrew, carrying off their dead. The evening came. The tower had been sorely tried, but its foundations were still solid, as were also the narrow bays which surmounted them. The people spent the night repairing it with boards. By the next day, on the old citadel had been erected a new tower of wood, a half higher than the former one. At sunrise the Danes caught their first glimpse of it. Once more the latter engaged with the Christians in violent combat. On every side arrows sped and blood flowed. With the arrows mingled the stones hurled by slings and war-machines; the air was filled with them. The tower which had been built during the night groaned under the strokes of the darts, the city shook with the struggle, the people ran hither and thither, the bells jangled. The warriors rushed together to defend the tottering tower and to repel the fierce assault. Among these warriors two, a count and an abbot [Ebolus], surpassed all the rest in courage. The former was the redoubtable Odo who never experienced defeat and who continually revived the spirits of the worn-out defenders. He ran along the ramparts and hurled back the enemy. On those who were secreting themselves so as to undermine the tower he poured oil, wax, and pitch, which, being mixed and heated, burned the Danes and tore off their scalps. Some of them died; others threw themselves into the river to escape the awful substance. . . .

Meanwhile Paris was suffering not only from the sword outside but also from a pestilence within which brought death to many noble men. Within the walls there was not ground in which to bury the dead. . . . Odo, the future king, was sent to Charles, emperor of the Franks, to implore help for the stricken city. One day Odo suddenly appeared in splendor in the midst of three bands of warriors. The sun made his armor glisten and greeted him before it illuminated the country around. The Parisians saw their beloved chief at a distance, but the enemy, hoping to prevent his gaining entrance to the tower, crossed the Seine and took up their position on the bank. Nevertheless Odo, his horse at a gallop, got past the Northmen and reached the tower, whose gates Ebolus opened to him. The enemy pursued fiercely the comrades of the count who were trying to keep up with him and get refuge in the tower. [The Danes were defeated in the attack.]”

Odo petitioned Charles for help as things worsened. Naturally the Parisians expected Emperor Charles to support them in their heroic endeavours so they were not delighted with his response after all their suffering.

“Now came the Emperor Charles, surrounded by soldiers of all nations, even as the sky is adorned with resplendent stars. A great throng, speaking many languages, accompanied him. He established his camp at the foot of the heights of Montmartre, near the tower. He allowed the Northmen to have the country of Sens to plunder; and in the spring he gave them 700 pounds of silver on condition that by the month of March they leave France for their own kingdom. Then Charles returned, destined to an early death.”

The Vikings were free to leave, Burgundy was sacrificed to them and Charles was deposed the following year on 11th November 887AD.

Death of Clovis, 27th November 511

Gaul in 511 AD
Gaul in 511 AD, Vidal-Lablache, Atlas général d’histoire et de géographie (1894) [Public Domain]

Clovis I, the first King of the Franks, died 27th November 511 AD.  He was the first pagan European king to convert to Christianity and his story has parallels with that of Edwin of Northumbria in the 7th century.

Clovis united the Frankish tribes under one king, ensured the throne would be passed down to his heirs, and is credited with being the founder of the Merovingian dynasty.

Clovis’ father was Childeric, who had ruled a Frankish tribe, but when Clovis succeeded him in 481 AD aged about 15 or 16. He began to expand his kingdom, taking over other tribes as he went. The remains of the western Roman Empire were under attack by Emperor Justinian, whom we recently discussed on 14th November, and Clovis was responsible for contributing to its final fall as he united northern Gaul.

Clovis did not only unite the Franks, he also took over other territories. In 507 AD he defeated Alaric II and the Visigoths at the Battle of Vouillé. In the 520s he attacked the Burgundians and finally took over their kingdom in 534 AD. He established control over the Alemanni in the upper Rhine. Northern Gaul was no longer a frontier province of Rome, but a major influence on European power and politics.

So it was unsurprising that through Clovis’ power and influence, his conversion to Christianity would impact the religious life of a swathe of northern Europe. His conversion combined with his military success became a blueprint for future rulers who linked success in battle with the gods being followed.

Gregory of Tours wrote a history of the Franks about a century after Clovis, contrasting his behaviour as a pagan with his later conversion. Gregory recorded an incident at Soissons before his conversion:

“At this time [A.D. 486] the army of Clovis pillaged many churches, for he was still sunk in the errors of idolatry. The soldiers had borne away from a church, with all the other ornaments of the holy ministry, a vase of marvelous size and beauty. The bishop of this church sent messengers to the king, begging that if the church might not recover any other of the holy vessels, at least this one might be restored. The king, bearing these things, replied to the messenger: “Follow thou us to Soissons, for there all things that have been acquired are to be divided. If the lot shall give me this vase, I will do what the bishop desires.””

When Clovis gathered his men to divide the treasure he asked that he be allowed to keep the vase in addition to his share. The men agreed with one exception, who smashed the vase. Clovis returned the pieces to the bishop, but a year later he called his men together to display their arms for him to review.

“But when he had reviewed them all he came to the breaker of the vase, and said to him, “No one bears his arms so clumsily as thou; for neither thy spear, nor thy sword, nor thy ax is ready for use.” And seizing his ax, he cast it on the ground. And when the soldier had bent a little to pick it up the king raised his hands and crushed, his head with his own ax. “Thus,” he said, “didst thou to the vase at Soissons.””

Clovis married a Christian princess, Clothild of Burgundy, but she was not able to persuade him to convert. Sadly their son Ingomer died in infancy after baptism and Clovis associated the events as being evidence of the weakness of the Christian god.  Their second son, Clodomir, also fell ill after his baptism but his mother prayed for his recovery and he did indeed get well again.

Needless to say, it was a war that changed his mind, as he was fighting the Alemanni in 496 AD:

“It happened that the two armies were in battle and there was great slaughter. Clovis’ army was near to utter destruction. He saw the danger; his heart was stirred; he was moved to tears, and he raised his eyes to heaven, saying “Jesus Christ, whom Clotilde declares to be the son of the living God, who it is said givest aid to the oppressed and victory to those who put their hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid. If thou shalt grant me victory over these enemies and I test that power which people consecrated to thy name say they have proved concerning thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have called upon my gods, but, as I have proved, they are far removed from my aid. So I believe that they have no power, for they do not succour those who serve them. Now I call upon thee, and I long to believe in thee -all the more that may escape my enemies.”

When he had said these things, the Alemanni turned their backs and began to flee. When they saw that their king was killed, they submitted to the sway of Clovis, saying: “We wish that no more people should perish. Now we are thine.” When the king had forbidden further war, and praised his soldiers, he told the queen how he had won the victory by calling on the name of Christ.”

However, like Edwin in Northumbria he was not ready to convert until he was sure his people would support the change in religion. The conversion of a king necessitated the conversion of all his people, or perhaps their rebellion if they were not willing to make the change.

Clovis later called the First Council of Orleans, a synod of Gallic bishops, which approved a number of laws and made them equally applicable to all people, putting the conquered tribes on a parity with the Franks.

Clovis is said to have died on 27th November 511 AD but it is not certain. However, following his death the kingdom was split between his four sons. Although he had founded a dynasty he had also established a rivalry between regions which was not united, except briefly under Charlemagne in the 8th century, and went on to form the early kingdom of France, the German states, Lotharingia and Burgundy.

Death of King Edmund Ironside, 30th November 1016

Battle of Assandun. Edmund Ironside
Battle of Assandun. Edmund Ironside, 14th century Matthew Paris, Public Domain

Edmund Ironside died on 30 November 1016 at Oxford having negotiated with Cnut to rule half the country following Cnut’s victory at Assandun in October. His death left Cnut as the single ruler of all England.

Edmund was the second son of Athelred “Unrede” (Ill-Advised) born around 988 AD. Athelred had married his first wife, Alfgifu in 985 AD and they had at least 6 sons and 2 or 3 daughters, and the two eldest boys at least were raised by their grandmother. Edmund became his father’s heir following the death of his elder brother Athelstan in 1014. In Athelstan’s will he left his prized sword, originally belonging to Offa of Mercia, along with estates and other war gear to Edmund. This may be taken to indicate that he and Edmund were of similar opinions about a range of issues, because the family itself was divided over how to handle the difficulties of the kingdom at the time.

By this time the king’s current wife, Emma of Normandy, may have been attempting to ensure the supremacy of the claim of her eldest son Edward (the later “Life of Edward” claims as much); there were certainly tensions within the family. Nevertheless Edmund became the chief witness of his father’s charters.

In 1015, with the help of the devious Eadric Streona, Athelred engineered the deaths of two leading northern thanes, Sigeferth and Morcar. Sigeferth’s widow was forced into retirement at the monastery at Malmesbury. Edmund rescued the widow and married her, as William of Malmesbury explains:

“The wife of Sigeferth, a woman remarkable for her rank and beauty, was carried prisoner to Malmesbury; on which account, Edmund, the king’s son, dissembling his intention, took a journey into those parts. Seeing her, he became enamoured; and becoming enamoured, he made her his wife; cautiously keeping their union secret from his father, who was as much an object of contempt to his family as to strangers.”

Sigeferth and Morcar had been in receipt of a string of honours and ranks from 1009 onwards, and yet were among the first to submit to Sweyn Forkbeard in 1013, so they were not the most reliable of the king’s men. As it happens they had also been close associates of Athelstan so Edmund’s actions may have been in support of his brother’s allies.

Edmund took his new wife and marched north, claiming the lands of the murdered brothers and obtaining the submission of the people there. Some have suggested (eg Stafford) that Edmund and Athelstan may have attempted to seize the throne on 1014 after Sweyn’s death before Athelred was reinstated. Athelred was ageing and becoming increasingly reliant on the unpopular Eadric Streona. In fact Athelred is the longest reigning Anglo-Saxon monarch and by now it must have seemed his time was well and truly over. Roach, for instance, suggests that Athelred may even have prevented his sons from marrying to avoid rival households – Athelstan was unmarried despite being in his twenties and Edmund’s first action upon his rebelling was to marry.

It may not have been that Edmund wanted to become king, only to get land in the north. However, this was the moment at which Cnut appeared, and Edmund’s activity may have persuaded him against heading north himself. Athelred meanwhile was ill and unable to respond effectively to the latest threat. Edmund raised a force but being in revolt against his father meant that the other nobles were uncertain how to respond – although Eadric went over to Cnut.

Before Christmas 1015 Edmund raised an army but the men refused to march without the king. He tried again after Christmas and this time his father joined him initially but then left again on the strength of rumours that Edmund would betray him. Clearly even a Danish invasion was not enough to bring them together.

Edmund therefore went north in search of support and joined with Uhtred of York, his brother-in-law. Together they ravaged Staffordshire and Shropshire, Eadric’s lands. Cnut and Eadric then pillaged in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire which were loyal to Edmund and Uhtred. Uhtred abandoned Edmund, who went to London to his father.

Athelred died on 23rd April 1016 and Edmund was declared king. Over that summer he fought five battles against Cnut with no overall victor (see 12th November for example). The country was therefore divided between the two men but Edmund died soon after, possibly of wounds from his last battle. Although later writers have given lurid accounts that he was murdered or poisoned, no contemporary account indicates foul play.

Edmund was the last fully English king from the House of Wessex. He left two sons, Edward and Edmund, who were sent by Cnut to King Olaf in Sweden, who in turn sent them on to Kiev and then Hungary. Edmund died without children but Edward Atheling did marry and had three children, Edgar Atheling, Margaret and Christina.

Edward the Confessor recalled Edward “the Exile” and his family to England in 1056 to be made his heir, although the Exile died shortly after his arrival. His son Edgar was briefly elected by the Witan to be king (although never crowned) after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Of his daughters, Margaret married King Malcolm of Scotland and Christina entered the nunnery at Romsey Abbey. The male line of Wessex ended with the death of Edgar Atheling in or after 1125.

On This Day in October

Death of King Eadwig, 1st October 959

Miniature of Eadwig in the early fourteenth-century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England in the British Library
Miniature of Eadwig in the early fourteenth-century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England in the British Library

On 1st October we remember the death in 959 AD of a ‘wanton youth’ who ‘misused his personal beauty in lascivious behaviour’ (according to William of Malmesbury). The youth in question was King Eadwig, who came to the throne of Wessex at the age of 15, ruled for 4 years, then died mysteriously and early to be succeeded by Edgar, his younger brother.

Eadwig “All-Fair” was born in 940/941 AD to King Edmund and Alfgifu of Salisbury. According to the Chronicle of Athelweard (a 10th century nobleman):

 “His [Eadred’s] successor to the throne was Edwy, who, on account of his great personal beauty, was called Pankalus by the people. He held the sovereignty four years, and was much beloved.”

He succeeded his uncle Eadred in 955 AD, having been too young to take the throne in 946 AD when his father was killed in an altercation at Pucklechurch. He immediately had a confrontation with Dunstan, the Bishop who had been so important in the reigns of his predecessors.

Eadwig’s reign was brief and crisis-ridden, although there was no challenge to the unity of the kingdom from York, despite the fact that Eadred had only recovered it by driving out the Viking ruler Erik Bloodaxe the previous year. Eadwig is possibly best remembered as “the one who had the Coronation Scandal”, where he is reported to have absented himself from the feast in order to indulge in some fun and games with a young lady and her mother. The trio were found in bed by Bishop Dunstan, who forced him to return to the feast; Eadwig exiled Dunstan soon after. However, by exiling Dunstan he earned the enmity of a number of ecclesiastics who were powerful within the kingdom.

Eadwig also confiscated his grandmother Eadgifu’s estates, possibly due to her long and unstinting support of Dunstan. Soon after that he lost the services of another of Dunstan’s supporters, the ealdorman Athelstan Half-King of East Anglia who retired to a monastery in 956 AD; his family had been extremely powerful, but Eadwig now appointed a new ealdorman to some of his estates in Mercia.

Around 60 charters survive from 956 AD as Eadwig attempted to build a loyal base of followers. The charters saw a number of promotions of his royal relations. This favouritism may well have had the opposite effect from that he wanted by alarming the other noble families, including Dunstan’s.

His wife Alfgifu was probably the sister of the chronicler Athelweard and a descendant of Athelred I of Mercia, like Eadwig himself. Eadwig’s marriage would have been a threat to Edgar, Eadwig’s younger brother, as the prospect of a son to contest the throne became more likely. In 957 AD, when Edgar was 14 and considered of age, the kingdom split into two, apparently fairly peacefully. North of the Thames, Mercia and Northumbria gave their loyalty to Edgar and his court, while in the south (Wessex) rule remained in Eadwig’s court. Eadwig appeared as “rex anglorum” (King of the English) in charters after this date, so probably was regarded as the overall king, while Edgar was referred to as King of the Mercians. Coins were still issued in Eadwig’s name both north and south of the Thames as well. However, Edgar did recall Dunstan from the exile imposed by Eadwig.

The split may have been indicative of a revolt by the northern kingdoms, but it is also possible it was agreed in advance. The Worcester manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in particular records:

“AD 955. This year king Eadred passed away, and he rests in the Old-Minster. And Eadwy succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons, and Eadgar, his brother, succeeded to the kingdom of the Mercians: and they were the sons of king Eadmund and of S. Aelfgyfe.”

In 958 AD the Archbishop of Canterbury annulled the marriage between Eadwig and Alfgifu on the grounds of consanguinity (being too closely related). Given that this would not have been new information, it would be more likely that this was for political reasons. There were no children.

Sources for Eadwig’s reign are primarily the “Life of Dunstan”, which is hostile to him, or later from Edgar’s time, and Edgar was his rival. Eadwig’s early death does not allow us to know for sure whether he could have been a strong king or not.

On Eadwig’s death at the age of 18 or 19 on 1st October 959 AD Edgar succeeded to Wessex and was able to re-unite the two kingdoms once more.

Ordination of Bishop Tilberht, 2nd October 779

Spital Cross
Spital Cross, 8th century, Hexham Abbey, Photo (c) PWicks, 2017

Tilberht (Tilbert) was ordained as Bishop of Hexham on 2nd October 779 AD according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“AD 779 Alhmund, bishop of Hexham, died on the 7th of the ides of September [7th Sept.], and on the 6th of the nones of October [2nd Oct.], Tilbert was ordained in his stead.”

Little is known about Tilberht. According to Baring-Gould:

“S.Alkmund was consecrated Bishop of Hexham in 767, and died on the 7th September, 780. He was succeeded in the see by Tilbert or Gilbert, who died in 789. Nothing is known of their acts. The translation of their relics took place in the 12th century, and an account of the miracles then wrought by their intercession was written by a canon of Hexham. This account still exists. The bishops are mentioned by Simeon of Durham and Roger Hoveden.”

Simeon of Durham adds that the consecration took place “in the place which is called Uulfeswelle, that is, the Wolfs Well.” This has been identified as Haltwhistle near Hadrian’s Wall. He also records that in 786 AD:

“Aldulf was consecrated bishop, by archbishop Eanbald and bishops Tilberht and Hygbald, in the monastery which is called Et Corabrige and, enriched with many gifts and donations, was honourably sent back to his own church.”

Putting Tiberht’s episcopate in context, the instability in Northumbria and ominous events in the south can be noted. Firstly, in 787 AD, three ships of Northmen landed in Wessex and the king’s reeve was killed when he tried to take them to the royal estate; these were the first recorded ships of Norse invaders and pre-dated the notorious attack on Lindisfarne in 793 AD. In 788 AD the Northumbrian King Alfwald was assassinated by Sicga and Osred then ruled Northumbria until 790 AD.

Tilberht died in 789 AD and was succeeded by Bishop Athelberht.

Tostig Godwinson driven out of York, 3rd October 1065

Sundial at St Gregory Minster, Kirkdale, Yorkshire
Sundial at St Gregory Minster, Kirkdale, Yorkshire. Photo © PWicks, 2017

On 3rd October 1065 the thanes of Yorkshire occupied York and outlawed Tostig Godwinson, their Earl, for unlawful actions. In his place they called upon Morcar, the brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia. Tostig was subsequently banished by King Edward (the Confessor) and eventually he allied himself with Harald Hardrada and reappeared at the invasion of Fulford and Stamford Bridge the following year, where he was killed.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that:

“all the thanes in Yorkshire and in Northumberland gathered themselves together, and outlawed their earl, Tostig, and slew his household men, all that they might come at, as well English as Danish: and they took all his weapons at York, and gold, and silver, and all his treasures which they might anywhere there hear of, and sent after Morkar, the son of Aelfgar the earl, and chose him to be their earl.”

Alfgar of Mercia was the son of Leofric and Godgifu (Godiva) and he was unjustly outlawed in 1055 by King Edward, but later reinstated. He had four children, one of whom pre-deceased him. The others were his sons Edwin and Morcar, and his daughter Ealdgyth who was first married to Llewellyn ap Gruffydd and then later to Harold Godwinson. Harold had been at the root of Alfgar’s troubles in 1055 over the Earldom of East Anglia. Alfgar’s family and the Godwins were the most powerful in England.

Earl Godwin had a large family, and Tostig was the third son, younger than Sweyn and Harold. Their sister Eadgyth married Edward the Confessor.

Harold and Tostig were not necessarily close. Sweyn had received an earldom in 1043 and Harold received his earldom in 1045, but Tostig was still a thane when the family was briefly exiled in 1051. The family went to Flanders where Tostig married Judith, the daughter of the Baldwin IV, the Count of Flanders. Judith was also the aunt of Matilda of Flanders who married William of Normandy, making William Tostig’s nephew through marriage.

In 1052 the family was able to return to England and pick up their old honours. In 1055 the Earl of Northumbria, Siward, died in York. His surviving son was too young to take over the earldom and Tostig was appointed in his place, as well as receiving the earldoms of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. He was never popular with the Yorkshire nobles, although King Edward was fond of him. He introduced new laws and high levels of taxation, and was seen as tyrannical and unjust. It is alleged that he was involved in the murders of a number of noblemen. Around 1063 or 1064, Gamal, son of Orm, and Ulf, son of Dolfin, were assassinated when they visited Tostig under safe conduct. (The sundial at St Gregory Minster in Kirkdale mentions Tostig, and was set up by Orm, the son of Gamal.)

The ‘Vita Edwardi’, records that Tostig had ‘repressed the Northumbrians with the heavy yoke of his rule’. As he became more unpopular he struggled to raise his levies to defend against Scottish incursions and had to resort to hiring expensive and even more unpopular mercenaries.

However, in 1061 he and Judith made a pilgrimage to Rome with Ealdred, the recently appointed Archbishop of York, and are generally recorded as being very devout. It was not enough to bring him favour at home.

Finally Tostig was ousted on 3rd October 1065.

Harold tried to broker an agreement between the parties, but Morcar was granted the earldom in Tostig’s place and Tostig and Judith went to Judith’s family home Flanders once more. In the following spring of 1066 he visited his nephew William in Normandy to try to persuade him to invade England immediately and left him when William insisted on preparing more thoroughly. Tostig then raised a fleet with the help of Baldwin V (Judith’s brother and now the Count of Flanders) and ravaged the south coast of England. Harold (who was by now the King) drove him off and Tostig made his way north, attempting to bring his younger brother Gyrth onto his side but failing. Edwin and Morcar were similarly robust in their response and also drove Tostig off. Finally Tostig arrived in Scotland where he spent the summer at King Malcolm’s court.

In the autumn he persuaded King Harald Hardrada of Norway to invade England and their forces arrived at Fulford outside York to meet the men of Edwin and Morcar in battle on 20th September 1066.

Meanwhile Henry of Huntingdon tells an unlikely story of how in 1065 Tostig and his brother Harold had a fight in the royal hall at Windsor in front of the king. It was allegedly caused by Tostig who was jealous of Harold’s high standing with King Edward and was unable to restrain himself when Harold was serving wine to the king. The chronicler than claims that Tostig went to Harold’s estate in Hereford and dismembered all the servants, putting body parts into all the vessels of drink. As a result Edward outlawed him and he went into exile.

Death of Osgyth, 7th October

St Osith

Illuminated capital depicting Saint Osith (c. 653). Public domain

On 7th October c. 700 AD there was a Danish raid in Essex which resulted in the death of Osgyth, the Abbess of a convent which later became St Osgyth’s [Osith’s] at Chich in Essex.

Osgyth  was the daughter of Frithuwald of Surrey and Wilburh, his wife. Her uncle, Wilburh’s brother, was Wulfhere of Mercia, son of Penda and his successor as ruler of Mercia. Frithuwald was not only Wulfhere’s brother-in-law but also his sub-king, ruling Surrey as part of the Mercian hegemony.

Osgyth was probably born at Quarrendon in Buckinghamshire where her father had a palace. She was raised by her aunt Edith at Aylesbury, along with aunt Eadburh of Bicester, another two of Penda’s children and both Christian saints.

During her childhood a miracle story tells about her restoration to life following an accident. One day her aunt Edith sent her with a book to St Modwenna. On the way Osgyth had to cross a stream during inclement weather and was blown from the bridge into the water where she drowned. Edith thought she was safely with Modwenna, but Modwenna was unaware she was coming, so the poor girl was not missed for a couple of days. On the third day the alarm was raised and her body was found in the water with the book. Fervent prayers were offered by both the saintly women and Osgyth was miraculously restored to them unharmed (along with the book).

When she grew up Osgyth was married to King Sighere of Essex by her uncle Wulfhere in order to establish his control of Essex. Sighere was joint king with his cousin Saebbi from 663-688 AD when he died and Saebbi became sole ruler. However, Sighere had reverted to paganism and although he agreed to convert upon the marriage the couple separated almost immediately in 673 AD.

There is a miracle story about their separation which enabled Osgyth to enter a religious life as she preferred.

According to Agnes Dunbar’s “Dictionary of Saintly Women”:

“Osith’s inclinations turned towards a religious life, she would rather have been an abbess than a queen, and had secretly made a vow of celibacy. Her fate was decided for her, and she was given to Sighere, but still prayed that she might have no husband but the Lord. On her marriage, she went with her husband, probably to London, which was then the capital of Essex. On one pretence or other, she declined for several days to receive the king in her bower—a separate house for herself and her attendant ladies, within the enclosure of the royal residence. At last her contrivances were exhausted, and so was the king’s patience. Her seclusion came to a sudden end and her husband stood before her. Still she prayed that she might keep her vow. Sighere began to protest that without her, life held no happiness, no interest for him. But even while he spoke, there was a sound of eager voices and hurrying feet. Some of his lords cried, “The stag, the stag! ” and close to the gate was the largest stag that ever was seen. Up sprang Sighere, and with all his court, started in pursuit. Osith regarded this interruption as an answer to her prayers, and took his departure as a release from her engagement. She sent in all haste for Bishops Acca and Bedwin. When the king returned, after a chase of four or five days, he found her a veiled nun. He generously gave her an estate at Chich in Essex, and built her a church and a monastery, where she soon gathered many holy nuns about her, and attained to wonderful sanctity.”

Around the year 700 AD Danish raiders arrived in Essex and came to Chich. When Osgyth refused to renounce her religion, the leader of the raiding band decapitated her, and a spring rose up where her head fell. Later the water from this spring was the miraculous cure of a number of ailments. Osgyth meanwhile was undeterred by her decapitation and, rising to her feet, carried her head bloodily to the church.

Initially her body was buried at Aylesbury by her family. However, following visions of the saintly Osgyth in which she requested that her remains should rest in her own religious house, she was translated some years later to a shrine at Chich which became a centre of pilgrimage.

Feast Day of Iwig, 8th October

St Mary (Old Church), Wilton

St Mary (Old Church), Wilton, CC-SA 2.0

8th October is the Feast Day of St Iwig (Ywi) who is said to have died in Brittany on 6th October c.690 AD. He was, however, of Northumbrian origin and a student of St Cuthbert, who ordained him as a deacon. In the Irish tradition Iwig was inspired to go on “peregrination”, which means leaving one’s homeland and wandering for the love of God. The “Voyage of St Brendan” is a famous example of this.

Iwig set sail on the first boat he found and landed at Brittany where he became a hermit, and he remained there until his death. He was known for his miracles of healing.

The real story begins much later, in the 10th century, when some monks from Brittany brought his relics back to England. They reached Wilton near Salisbury and asked for hospitality. During their visit they left Iwig’s relics safely on St Eadgyth’s altar in the abbey church. When the time came for them to move on, they found they couldn’t move the relics again. The abbess, Wulfthryth, paid them 2000 gold solidi (coins) and the monks “wearied and despairing” returned to Brittany, “surrendering to those who held it the blessing of the incomparable treasure.”

One explanation for this is that Eadgyth had decided the monks were too impure to carry Iwig’s remains. Another might be that the abbey purchased or even appropriated the relics for their own establishment, and a miracle was attached to disguise a rather sordid or even illicit transaction. Certainly the Breton monks did not seem pleased with the outcome, and Wulfthryth is known for having used the abbey’s wealth to increase its possession of relics. She was the mother of the Eadgyth who predeceased her; it was alleged Wulfthryth had been abducted by King Edgar and had Eadgyth as a result. The abbey’s wealth was in large part due to the generous donations of Edgar during his daughter’s lifetime.

Iwig’s feast was commemorated in a number of 11th century church calendars.

Death of Bishop Paulinus, 10th October 644


Depicting Saints Aidan of Lindisfarne, Paulinus (first Bishop of York) and Cuthbert (holding St Oswald’s head) at All Saints Pavement in York. Photo by Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK [CC BY 2.0]

Paulinus, Bishop of York, died 10th October 644 AD. He came to the north with Athelburh, the Kentish princess, who was to marry King Edwin of Northumbria on the provision that Edwin did not hinder her religion and considered converting to Christianity himself.

Paulinus had originally been sent by the Pope to bolster Augustine’s mission to Britain. When Edwin agreed to the terms imposed for the marriage to Athelburh, Paulinus was ordained as a bishop on 21st July 625 AD and accompanied her to the north. Upon arrival he supported the Christian household which had travelled from Kent but also preached to convert the Northumbrians.

When Cwichelm of Wessex sent an assassin against Edwin the following year, Edwin promised his new-born daughter to the Church in thanks for his survival. Bede describes the momentous events:

“On that same holy night of Easter Sunday, the queen had brought forth to the king a daughter, called Eanfled. The king, in the presence of Bishop Paulinus, gave thanks to his gods for the birth of his daughter; and the bishop, on the other hand, returned thanks to Christ, and endeavoured to persuade the king, that by his prayers to Him he had obtained that the queen should bring forth the child in safety, and without much pain. The king, delighted with his words, promised, that in case God would grant him life and victory over the king by whom the assassin had been sent, he would cast off his idols, and serve Christ; and as a pledge that he would perform his promise, he delivered up that same daughter to Paulinus, to be consecrated to Christ.”

After Edwin’s successful campaign of retribution against Wessex he continued to be instructed by Paulinus in the Christian faith but still hesitated to commit his kingdom to the Church. Paulinus increased the pressure by revealing that Edwin’s vision of a mysterious man who spoke to him when he was in exile was in fact Paulinus himself. Edwin had promised he would follow the guidance of this stranger if he was able to help him become king and defeat his enemies. Paulinus now called in the promise on the basis that God had done all this for Edwin, and proved his authenticity by giving the sign the stranger had made in the vision.

Edwin then called his witan to debate the new faith, and it was agreed that they should accept it wholesale. The following Easter Edwin and his court, including his little daughter, his niece Hild (later Abbess) and his son Osfrid from his first marriage, were baptised. Paulinus also directed the king to lay the foundation of a great stone church in place of the wooden one built for the ceremony, and so York Minster was founded.

Bede claims the new religion was received with great enthusiasm, although this may not be entirely accurate:

“So great was then the fervour of the faith, as is reported, and the desire of the washing of salvation among the nation of the Northumbrians, that Paulinus at a certain time coming with the king and queen the royal country-seat, which is called Adgefrin [Yeavering], stayed there with them thirty-six days, fully occupied in catechising and baptizing; during which days, from morning till night, he did nothing else but instruct the people resorting from all villages and places, in Christ’s saving word; and when instructed, he washed them with the water of absolution in the river Glen, which is close by.”

Paulinus also preached and baptised in Swaledale when the king was at his palace there, and in Lindsey, converting the governor of Lincoln and consecrating its bishop.  Somewhat unusually we have a portrait of Paulinus’ appearance, from Bede description:

“he was tall of stature, a little stooping, his hair black, his visage meagre, his nose slender and aquiline, his aspect both venerable and majestic.”

When Edwin was killed in battle in 632 AD, Paulinus took the queen and her children back to Kent by sea, along with a quantity of church treasure. He was then made Bishop of Rochester where he served until his death on 10th October 644 AD.

He was buried at Rochester St Andrew and his successor was Ithamar, the first English-born bishop since Augustine’s arrival. Alban Butler tells us that:

“When Gundulf the Norman was bishop of Rochester, Archbishop Lanfranc rebuilt the cathedral church of St. Andrew, and causing the bones of St. Paulinus to be taken up, placed them in a rich shrine”.

Feast Day of Agilbert, 11th October

Crypt at Jouarre, tomb of Agilbert
Crypt at Jouarre, tomb of Agilbert. Photo by  GFreihalter [CC BY-SA 3.0]

11th October is the Feast Day of Agilbert, a Frank who became the first Bishop of the West Saxons.

Agilbert was born to an aristocratic Frankish family in the district of Soissons. Both his sister and his cousin were important figures in the church and Agilbert himself studied in Ireland before travelling to preach in Wessex, where King Cenwealh invited him to become Bishop of the West Saxons around 650 AD.

He established a See at Dorcherster-on-Thames but his reputation soon lost its glamour as Cenwealh became frustrated that Agilbert did not speak his language. As a result he split the See and appointed the Englishman Wine to be Bishop of a new See based at Winchester. Agilbert failed to exhibit Christian patience and humility, and left Wessex.

Bede summarises the events for us:

“But when Coinwalch was restored to his kingdom, there came into that province out of Ireland, a certain bishop called Agilbert, by nation a Frenchman, but who had then lived a long time in Ireland, for the purpose of reading the Scriptures. This bishop came of his own accord to serve this king, and preach to him the word of life. The king, observing his erudition and industry, desired him to accept an episcopal see, and stay there as his bishop. Agilbert complied with the prince’s request, and presided over those people many years. At length the king, who understood none but the language of the Saxons, grown weary of that bishop’s barbarous tongue, brought into the province another bishop of his own nation, whose name was Wini, who had been ordained in France; and dividing his province into two dioceses, appointed this last his episcopal see in the city of Winchester, by the Saxons called Wintancestir. Agilbert, being highly offended, that the king should do this without his advice, returned into France, and being made bishop of the city of Paris, died there, aged and full of days. Not many years after his departure out of Britain, Wini was also expelled from his bishopric, and took refuge with Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, of whom he purchased for money the see of the city of London, and remained bishop thereof till his death. Thus the province of the West Saxons continued no small time without a bishop.”

In 664 AD Agilbert was in Northumbria where he supported the case for the Roman church at the Synod of Whitby. However, as his spoken English was still poor he appointed Wilfrid to speak for him.

He finally gave up attempts to settle in England and in 668 AD he became Bishop of Paris, where he ordained Wilfrid as a Bishop. He also hosted Theodore of Tarsus over the winter of 668-9 as he travelled north to Britain to become the new Archbishop of Canterbury. One wonders what tips he gave to Theodore about what he could expect to find.

Cenwealh offered to reinstate him in 670 AD but Agilbert refused and sent his nephew Leuthere instead, Cenwealh accepted the substitution and Archbishop Theodore duly consecrated him as Bishop and the kingdom recovered.

Agilbert died around 690 AD and was buried at Jouarre alongside his family.

Battle of Hatfield Chase, 12th October 632

Edwin of Northumbria, at Sledmere St Mary, North Yorkshire
Edwin of Northumbria, at Sledmere St Mary, North Yorkshire by DaveWebster14 [CC BY 2.0]

King Edwin of Northumbria was killed on 12th October 632 AD at the Battle of Hatfield Chase.

Edwin is one of the Bretwaldas, the overlords or “High Kings” of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, the 5th according to Bede, and the first in a line of Northumbrian Bretwaldas which went on to include Oswald and Oswy.

Edwin had come to power after defeating Athelfrith the Twister at the Battle of the River Idle in 616 AD and expanded his kingdom and authority across most of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and even into the Isle of Man, which was Welsh territory. This brought him into conflict with Cadwallon of Gwynedd who allied himself with King Penda of Mercia to fight back.

On 12th October 632 AD Edwin fought them at the Battle of Hatfield Chase and was killed, along with his eldest son Osfrith. His second son, Eanfrith, was captured and later killed by Penda. His wife, young children and his grandson Yffi fled back to Kent. The children were now exiles, as their father had been. Eanflaed grew up in Kent with her mother and uncle, but Wuscfrea and Yffi were sent abroad for their safety to the court of King Dagobert, who was related to them through Athelburh’s mother Bertha. Unfortunately both died in infancy and the male line of Edwin was ended.

Twelve months of chaos followed Edwin’s death in Northumbria as the victors ravaged the land. Order was finally restored by the coming of the next great Northumbrian King, Oswald.

Feast Day of Bishop Wilfrid, 12th October

Anglo-Saxon Crypt at Hexham
Anglo-Saxon Crypt at Hexham © PWicks, 2017

Wilfrid of Ripon’s Feast Day is celebrated on 12th October.

He was born into a noble Northumbrian family around 634 AD and was ambitious and energetic. He left home as a young man to seek royal preferment at court and made himself a friend of Eanflaed, the wife of Oswiu, King of Northumbria. Eanflaed sent him to Lindisfarne to study for a life in the Church and when Wilfrid expressed a desire to study in more depth in Rome, she sent him to Kent, where her uncle was King Eorcenberht. Wilfrid studied there for about a year before finally moving on to Rome in the company of Benedict Biscop of Monkwearmouth- Jarrow. He quarrelled with the group however, and left them at Lyons. He stayed a while with Bishop Dalfinus before eventually making his own way to the Eternal City.

In Rome he met and made friends with Boniface and studied under him. After a stay of some months he received the blessings of the Pope and then, with some relics he had acquired, he returned to Lyons. Bishop Dalfinus there tonsured him. Wilfrid stayed in Lyons with Dalfinus for three years.

Wilfrid finally returned to England where Ahlfrith, the son of Oswiu, established him as Abbot in the newly founded monastery at Ripon. Around 663 AD he was made a priest by Agilbert, former Bishop of the West Saxons; you may recall he was the Bishop sent away by the king because he was unable to speak English. When the Synod of Whitby was held in 664 AD Wilfrid acted as Agilbert’s spokesman, as Agilbert was still unable to speak English well. He argued passionately for the Roman form of rule and eventually persuaded Oswiu to accept it in place of the Irish tradition. He did not make himself popular with a number of the Irish traditionalists such as Colman as a result.

Wilfrid was then appointed to the Bishopric of York which was vacant. However, Wilfrid felt that he should be consecrated by someone in favour with Rome and so he went to Frankia to receive his elevation. He was delayed there for a while and in his absence Chad was made Bishop of York instead.

On his way back to England Wilfrid’s ship was attacked by pagan pirates, but thanks to his prayers they were driven off multiple times, even though they greatly outnumbered the men on Wilfrid’s boat.

Initially Wilfrid returned to Ripon but also acted as Bishop for Kent and Mercia when required at the request of those kings. He spent some time in Canterbury and it was there he recruited as singing-master the man who came later to write his hagiography, Eddius Stephanus (Aedde Stephanus).

In 669 AD Theodore became Archbishop of Canterbury and he restored Wilfrid to the bishopric in York, with Chad going back to Lastingham and then to the bishopric of Mercia. Wilfrid found the church founded by Edwin was in a poor condition, with water coming in through the broken roof and birds nesting inside.

“so, forthwith, in accordance with the will of God, he made a plan to restore it. First of all he renewed the ruined roof ridges, skilfully covering them with pure lead; by putting glass in the windows he prevented the birds or the rain from getting in, although it did not keep out the rays of light. He also washed the walls, and, in the words of the prophet, made them “whiter than snow.” Furthermore, not only did he adorn the inside of the house of God and the altar with various kinds of vessels and furniture, but outside he richly endowed the church with many estates which he had acquired for God, thus removing its poverty by endowing it with lands.”

He also lavished attention on Ripon, decorating it with gold, silver and purple in a splendid fashion. At the dedication of the church Wilfrid made sure that everyone was very clear about what lands had been granted to it for its wealth.

“Then St Wilfrid the bishop stood in front of the altar, and, turning to the people, in the presence of the kings, read out clearly a list of the lands which the kings, for the good of their souls, had previously, and on that very day as well, presythented to him, with the agreement and over the signatures of the bishops and all the chief men, and also a list of the consecrated places in various parts which the British clergy had deserted when fleeing from the hostile sword wielded by the warriors of our own nation.”

Feasting went on for three days and three nights to celebrate the grand occasion. Many other treasures were also provided and it was a glittering and lavish occasion.

Although Wilfrid had great pretensions regarding his power and influence he also made enemies widely. The Northumbrian King Ecgfrith disliked him because Wilfrid had supported Ecgfrith’s wife Athelthryth to take the veil. Meanwhile Abbess Hild of Whitby, who supported the Irish tradition and had opposed Wilfrid at the Synod on 664 AD, may have used her influence with Archbishop Theodore to reduce Wilfrid’s reach. Theodore certainly decided to split the vast Northumbrian See and in 678 AD Wilfrid was driven out. New bishops were installed in Ripon and Hexham and York.

Wilfrid was not a man to take matters lying down and he set off to Rome to complain to the Pope.  As a result he was restored to York, but alongside other bishops chosen by Wilfrid and consecrated by Theodore in the new bishoprics. King Ecgfrith however did not comply and Wilfrid was driven out again, ending up in the pagan kingdom of Sussex. King Athelwalh granted him land at Selsey where he founded a monastery and converted the last pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Cadwalla of Wessex invaded Sussex and killed Athelwalh and made Wilfrid his Bishop, giving him land in the Isle of Wight.

Hild died in 680 AD and King Ecgfrith of Northumbria died in 685 AD at Nechtansmere and with this enemy removed Wilfrid was restored to York and the monasteries at Ripon and Hexham. However he continued to try to regain his full estate, as he saw it, until he was driven out again in 692 AD to Mercia where he remained for about eleven years. He focused on missionary activity in Frisia in this period and one of his students, Willibrord, was an active missionary there, as we have discussed in another post.

In 703 AD the Archbishop of Canterbury Berhtwald (Theodore had died in 690 AD) agreed at a council in Northumbria that Wilfrid should be suspended from office and deprived of his lands except Ripon. Wilfrid tried to reverse the decision by going back to Rome to complain but this time was not met sympathetically and in fact was excommunicated. However, Berhtwald was instructed to call a synod jointly with Wilfrid and the bishops of York and Hexham.

On his way back to England to attend the synod Wilfrid suffered a seizure and never fully regained his strength. Be became reconciled with Berhtwald by 705 AD and in 706 AD he regained control of Hexham when the bishop, John of Beverly, was translated to York.

Wilfrid lived another four years but suffered further seizures. He disposed of his property in a very aristocratic fashion far from in keeping with the Benedictine Rule he had been one of the first to impose on monasteries.

He died in 710 AD at Oundle, and was buried at Ripon, immediately being treated as a saint.

Wilfrid is an example of the very different view of sanctity which existed in the early Anglo-Saxon church. He was ambitious and very aware of his rights and wealth. However, he also inspired great loyalty and genuinely wanted to promote the Christian faith. He proved unable to compromise or work constructively with those in authority who did not follow his guidance or advice.

Translation of Edward the Confessor, 13th October 1163

Edward the confessor touching for the evil
Edward the confessor touching for the evil. from Cambridge University Library, Photo number: M0011314 from Wellcome Images, [CC BY 4.0]

On 13th October 1163, in the presence of Henry II, Edward the Confessor’s body was transferred by Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, to a Shrine specially prepared for it.

Until then Edward had rested in a reliquary of gold and silver made for Edward’s remains by William of Normandy. In 1102 the tomb was opened for some unrecorded reason, and “a wonderful fragrance filled the church”. The king was wrapped in a pall with a sceptre by his side and a crown on his head. On his finger was a ring and sandals were on his feet. The pall which covered his head was cut beneath the chin and the long beard was seen. Miracles were said to have taken place at the tomb and it became a place of sanctuary in the early 12th century. When the body was translated, Edward’s ring was taken off his finger and deposited with the Abbey relics, although all the relics disappeared during the dissolution of the monastery in 1540.

One of the things not often remembered about Edward is that he was the first King of England to touch for the “king’s evil” (scrofula, a form of tuberculosis) and many sufferers from the disease were cured by him. After touching the diseased patient, Edward ordered that they be maintained at royal expense until they were cured.

It was believed that the touch of the king could cure the disease through their holy office as God’s Anointed and thus affirming their Divine Right to rule. Edward (r. 1042-1066), along with Philip I of France (r. 1058-1108), was the first king around whom the custom grew. Later English and French kings were believed to have inherited the touch as an indication that their rule was God-given. During the 13th century the upkeep of the patients was replaced by the donation of a coin to each one.

In ceremonies called “Touching for the King’s Evil” the ruler would touch the heads of those suffering from the disease, and the afflicted were then given a coin, called a touchpiece, which they wore as an amulet.

Charles II restored the practice following his return to the throne after it had been stopped in England during the Commonwealth and people had to travel abroad to be healed. He had continued the practice during his exile in the Netherlands in the 1650s, where he was in such demand that a number of potential patients were trampled to death in the rush to be healed.

The practice ceased once more under William III who thought it a silly superstition. However, it was re-introduced for one last time by Queen Anne (r. 1702-1714). One of her supplicants was a two year old boy called Samuel Johnson, who later became known for his English Dictionary.

Scrofula is now known medically as tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis. It appears as lesions around the neck and throat, today easily cured but in medieval times destined to fester and weep as indications of sin, primarily gluttony. Many medieval physicians therefore recommended restrictive diet and avoidance of “all things that fill the head with fumes,” such as garlic and onions, strong wine, shouting, worry, and anger. Treatment consisted of a plaster of lily root, unripe figs, bean flour, and nettle seed. Attempts might be made to rupture the lesions with the help of blister beetles. Surgery consisted of incision of the lump, scraping away and clamping the flesh overlying it. On occasion, the lesions healed by themselves resulting in stories of miraculous cures.

Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066

Bayeux Tapestry showing death of Harold, Photo by Myrabella [Public domain]
English Companions wreath laying at Battle, photo © PWicks

King Harold Godwinson met William of Normandy at Senlac Hill on 14th October 1066. He had marched his depleted army south from Stamford Bridge after his defeat of Harald Hardrada of Norway, and he spent a week in London before moving to camp near William’s forces on 13th October.

With fewer numbers than the Normans, the English shield wall held for much of the day but broke at last when the king was killed, his house-carls fighting to their last breath. The battle went to the invaders from Normandy. 

Many pages have been written about the battle, whether Harold was overly rash or excitingly bold; whether Edwin and Morcar were treacherous or too weak to fight after the battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge; whether William was lucky or inspired. There are plenty of sources too for the military details. Final figures are unknown but thousands died.

The Anglo-Saxons did not magically vanish that day; they are still here now. But a way of life and culture was irrevocably changed.

The Anglo-Norman writer William of Malmesbury summarises the English warriors thus:

“they were few in number and brave in the extreme; and sacrificing every regard to their bodies, poured forth their spirit for their country.” You can read more about the events of 1066 elsewhere on the website, under “Events in Anglo-Saxon Times”.

You can read more about the events of 1066 elsewhere on the website, under Events in Anglo-Saxon Times | Events of 1066”.

Identification of King Harold’s body, 15th October 1066

The spot marking the place where Harold is supposed to have died, Battle Abbey, Sussex
The spot marking the place where Harold is supposed to have died, Battle Abbey, Sussex; photo by Néstor Daza, Public Domain

Rumour was flying about the fate of the King after his defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings (14th October 1066). Scandinavian sagas written down much later tell a story that Harold was rescued from the battlefield where he had been left for dead. Recognising the judgement of God Harold then chose to live the life of a hermit.

However, the chronicler William of Poitiers tells us that Duke William had him buried on the seashore, in an attempt to prevent a focus for resistance building up around a tomb.

“The two brothers of the King were found near him and Harold himself, stripped of all badges of honour, could not be identified by his face but only by certain marks on his body. His corpse was brought into the Duke’s camp, and William gave it for burial to William, surnamed Malet, and not to Harold’s mother, who offered for the body of her beloved son its weight in gold. For the Duke thought it unseemly to receive money for such merchandise, and equally he considered it wrong that Harold should be buried as his mother wished, since so many men lay unburied because of his avarice. They said in jest that he who had guarded the coast with such insensate zeal should be buried by the seashore.”

Two final resting places have been proposed, perhaps if his body was moved at a later date: Bosham and Waltham Abbey both have a claim to his remains, but neither can be substantiated.

His body was identified by his “Danish” wife Edith Swan-Neck, who recognised him only by a mark which she alone knew, as his face and body had been badly mutilated and could not be otherwise identified.

His wife Edith of Mercia, sister of Edwin and Morcar and widow of Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, was pregnant when Harold died and gave birth to a son, or possibly twin sons soon after. She initially fled to her brothers and stayed in Chester but probably went abroad into exile later with her sons and possibly joined other members of Harold’s family after Edwin and Morcar rebelled and were killed.

Harold and Edith Swan-Neck had had five or six children, and their sons Godwin and Edmund, and possibly Magnus, fled to Ireland. They launched an invasion via Devon in 1069 but were defeated.

Harold’s mother Gytha held Exeter against William in 1068 but was defeated and escaped via Flatholm Island in the Bristol Channel to Flanders. Her grand-daughter Gytha later joined her there. She later married Vladimir Monomachus of Kiev. Harold’s other daughter Gunnhilde went to the nunnery at Wilton.

The King of Denmark, Swein Estrithsson was Harold’s cousin and launched an invasion in 1068 but with little impact.

After Hastings Edgar the Atheling was proclaimed King of England by the Witan in London. Sadly he was never crowned and was forced to submit to William of Normandy. Initially William took him back to Normandy with him, but then returned to England. Eventually Edgar found himself with his family at the court of Malcolm of Scotland, where his sister Margaret married the king. Edgar was the last male descendant of the line of Cerdic of Wessex.

Death of Athelweard, 16th October 922

Will of Alfred the Great,
Will of Alfred the Great, AD 873–888, granting land to Athelweard (11th-century copy, British Library Stowe MS 944, ff. 29v–33r), (c) British Library

According to John of Worcester, the chronicler, Athelweard, the brother of King Edward the Elder, died on 16th October 922 AD:

“AD 922 Ethelward, the etheling, king Edward’s brother, died on the seventeenth of the calends of November [16th October], and was carried to Winchester and buried there.”

This is alarmingly short on details. Furthermore it looks like John was probably wrong by a couple of years and it is more likely Athelweard died around 920 AD. For example, William of Malmesbury, generally thought to be more accurate with his dates for this period, tells us that in 924 AD:

“Edward, going the way of all flesh, rested in the same monastery [Winchester] with his father, which he had augmented with considerable revenues, and in which he had buried his brother Ethelward four years before.”

Athelweard is not well-known and information is scant despite his noble birth.  He was the youngest of five children of Alfred according to Asser, probably born around 880 AD. Asser also describes his education, with that of other royal and noble children, in his work on the life of King Alfred:

“The sons and daughters whom he [Alfred] had by his wife above-mentioned were – Athelflaed, the eldest, after whom came Edward, then Athelgivu, then AIfthryth, and finally Athelward — besides those who died in childhood.

Athelflaed, when she arrived at a marriageable age, was united to Athelred, Ealdorman of Mercia. Athelgivu, having dedicated her maidenhood to God, entered His service, and submitted to the rules of the monastic life, to which she was consecrate, Athelward, the youngest, by the divine counsel and by the admirable foresight of the king, was intrusted to the schools of literary training, where, with the children of almost all the nobility of the country, and many also who were not noble, he was under the diligent care of the teachers. Books in both languages, namely, Latin and Saxon, were diligently read in the school. They also learned to write; so that before they were of an age to practise human arts, namely, hunting and other pursuits which befit noblemen, they became studious and clever in the liberal arts.”

While Edward and AIfthryth were raised at court Athelweard was described as “distinguished in learning”, and it would appear from the records that he was never seen as being in line for the throne after his brother. However, his education seems to have been much more focused on preparing for a career in the church; Alfred himself had indicated Latin should only be taught to those boys who were expected to have such a career, and Asser makes a point of describing his education in the separate school.

Nevertheless Athelweard inherited a wide range of lands in Alfred’s will:

“And to my younger Son the land at Eaderingtune and that at Dene, and at Meone, and at Ambresbyry, and at Deone, and at Sturemynster, and at Gifle, and at Cruaern, and at Whitchurch, and at Axan mouth, and at Brancescumbe, and at Columtune, and at Twyfyrd, and at Mylenburn, and at Exanmynster, and at Sutheswyrth, and at Liwtune, and the lands that thereto belong ; which are all that I in Weal district have, except Triconshire.”

He also inherited 500 pounds of Alfred’s wealth, the same as Edward, representing a quarter of the total amount.

Athelweard witnessed two of Alfred’s charters late in his reign, but is otherwise not notable in the records. He also attested 18 of Edward’s charters between 900-909 and a further 3 allegedly in 923 AD. He is the most prominent of signatories to Edward’s charters which seems to be at odds with the plan for his career in the church; instead he seems to have been present at court for much of the time although he is not mentioned in relation to any of Edward’s military operations.

He appears to have had two sons, Athelwine and Alfwine, both of whom are recorded as dying at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD fighting alongside their cousin King Athelstan. According to William of Malmesbury, they were honourably buried at Malmesbury on the orders of their cousin the King.

Athelweard himself was buried at Winchester in Edward’s New Minster alongside their mother Ealhswith (d. 902 AD) and later his nephew Alfweard and Edward himself, both of whom died in 924 AD.

Translation of Etheldreda, 17th October 695

Saint Athelthryth of Ely from the Benedictional of St. Athelwold,
Saint Athelthryth of Ely from the Benedictional of St. Athelwold, illuminated manuscript in the British Library, (c) British Library

Athelthryth (also known as Etheldreda or Audrey) was the third daughter of King Anna. She married twice, remained a virgin and founded a church at Ely, later to become Ely Cathedral.

Athelthryth died on 23rd June 679 AD. Her translation and elevation to the sainthood took place on 17th October 695 AD, 16 years after her death, when Athelthryth’s body was raised from her coffin and found to be perfect.

The Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) describes these events in detail. It was quite an occasion. The stone for the tomb which was found among the Roman ruins of Granchester had apparently appeared miraculously and was not recognised as having been there previously by the local people. The monks concluded it had been placed there by God for use in Athelthryth’s new sarcophagus.

The day of the translation was attended by huge crowds and among those present as witnesses were Athelthryth’s friend, Bishop Wilfrid, and the doctor Cynefrith, who had attended her when she was dying and tried to relieve the large swelling on her jaw by cutting it open.

When her grave was opened, Athelthryth’s body was discovered to be uncorrupted and her coffin and clothes proved to possess miraculous powers.  Cynefrith’s first-hand account of the events is as follows:

“So a tent awning having been fixed up and arranged in a seemly manner over the place, with the whole congregation, brothers on one side, sisters on the other, were standing around her grave singing psalms, a trench was dug, a heap of earth being removed, and her coffin was raised from the dust. And the holy Abbess Seaxburh, after the casket lid had been opened, went in with a few people, as if to raise the bones and shake them apart, and after there had been a short pause, we suddenly heard her call out from inside in a loud voice “Glory be to the most high name of the Lord!” And so that these things might be made public in the confirmatory presence of the witnesses, a little while later, they called me inside too, and I saw, raised from the tomb and placed on a couch, the body of the holy virgin, looking like someone asleep. And when her body had been brought out from the open tomb into the light, it was found as undecayed as if she had died or been buried that same day.

And when the covering of her face was removed, they showed me also that the wound of the incision which I had made, had been healed, in such a way that instead of the open, gaping wound with which she was buried, there appeared at that time the slightest traces of a scar.”

The Abbess Seaxburh supervised the preparation of her sister’s body, which was washed and wrapped in new robes before being reburied. She apparently oversaw the translation of her sister’s remains without the supervision of her bishop, using her knowledge of procedures gained from her family’s links with the Faremoutiers Abbey as a basis for the ceremony. After Seaxburh, Athelthryth’s niece and her great-niece, both of whom were royal princesses, succeeded her as abbess of Ely.

Miracles were reported relating to the coffin and, the shroud clothes from Athelthryth’s burial, and a spring of water appeared at the place where she had been buried. The water from it had healing properties.

Bede was very impressed by Athelthryth’s works and wrote a poem to her which included teh following lines:

 “Many a triumph is won on Earth by hearts that are sober

Love of sober restraint triumphs mightily on Earth.

Our times too a noble virgin has graced with a blessing.

Now Etheldreda shines, noble our virgin as well.”

You can also listen to a reading from the Book of Ely (Liber Eliensis) commemorating the translation of Athelthryth, along with Seaxburh, Wihtburh and Eormenhild, on 17th October 1106. Their remains were moved to a higher part of Ely Cathedral and placed in a special quadruple shrine. Thanks to William Benjamin for this reading.

Battle of Assandun, 18th October 1016

St Andrew's parish church, Ashingdon, Essex
St Andrew’s parish church, Ashingdon, Essex, Lonpicman [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

On 18th October 1016 was the Battle of Assandun (Ashingdon) when Cnut, son of Swein Forkbeard, King of England in 1014, defeated Edmund Ironside, the son of Athelread Unrede. The two men had fought a punishing series of battles across England since Athelred’s death in April 1016, and In spite of his victory at Assundun, Cnut agreed to divide England between the two of them.

The idea of England as a single country was understood, but not a fixed idea yet. It was still reasonable to split the land in this way, and may even have continued if Edmund had not died fairly soon after. Edmund’s death a few weeks later was the point at which England as a whole became part of Cnut’s “Empire of the North”.

William of Malmesbury describes the events of early 1016:

“Canute, having settled his affairs in Denmark, and entered into alliance with the neighbouring kings, came to England, determined to subdue it or perish in the attempt. Proceeding from Sandwich into Kent, and thence into West Saxony, he laid everything .waste with fire and slaughter, while the king was lying sick at Corsham. Edmund indeed attempted to oppose him, but being thwarted by Edric [Streona], he placed his forces in a secure situation.”

Edmund in fact had raised revolt against his father and married Ealdgyth, whom his father had ordered should be taken to Malmesbury Abbey following the murder of her husband by Eadric Streona. Edmund tried to persuade his army to fight the invading Danish but they dispersed because Athelred did not come to lead them.

Finally on 23rd April 1016 Athelred died, while he and Edmund were in London preparing to defend it from Cnut. Edmund was chosen as King and so began his brief and embattled reign, during which he displayed a more martial spirit than his father. While London held itself against Cnut, who besieged it to no avail, Edmund broke out and headed for Wessex where he raised a further army. Cnut then moved to Wessex to face the threat from Edmund. They fought first at Penselwood (Dorset) where Edmund had a victory, then at Sherston after midsummer, which was inconclusive although some English defected to the Danish side, including Eadric Streona.

Cnut returned to London to try to take the city again. Edmund raised more troops and was then able to relieve London. Some of Cnut’s forces were driven to their ships, and Edmund fought them again at Brentford. He then drove the Danes into Kent and fought at Otford, and Eadric appeared to feel the tide had turned in the English favour and returned to Edmund, although not for long.

The Battle of Assandun was the final and decisive battle of the year. The location is not entirely certain but generally thought to be in Essex near Rochford. Both sides had lost a great many men in the preceding months and the date is late in the campaigning season; but the battle went to Cnut, along with the kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes it tersely:

“then assembled he [Edmund], for the fifth time, all the English nation, and followed after them [the Danes], and overtook them in Essex, at the down which is called Assandun: and there they strenuously joined battle. Then did Eadric the ealdorman, as he had oft before done, begin the flight first with the Magesaetas, and so betrayed his royal lord and the whole people of the English race. There Cnut had the victory; and all the English nation fought against him. There was slain bishop Eadnoth, and abbat Wulsige, and Aelfric the ealdorman, and Godwine the ealdorman of Lindsey, and Ulfcytel of East-Anglia, and Aethelweard, son of Aethelwine the ealdorman; and all the nobility of the English race was there destroyed.”

The Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) also records that “there was a massacre in that place of almost the whole array of the nobility of the English, who never received a more wounding blow in war than there.”

Eadric’s treachery was countered by Edmund’s stirring rally of his men, according to the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written for Queen Emma, widow of King Athelred, who married Cnut after his victory.

“Then Eadmund, observing what had occurred, and hard pressed on every side, said: “Oh Englishmen, today you will fight or surrender yourselves all together. Therefore, fight for your liberty and your country, men of understanding; truly, those who are in flight, inasmuch as they are afraid, if they were not withdrawing, would be a hindrance to the army.” And as he said these things, he advanced into the midst of the enemy, cutting down the Danes on all sides, and by this example rendering his noble followers more inclined to fight.”

Edmund did not want to admit defeat even after this catastrophe, but his support drained away. Skaldic verse refers to one further battle near the Forest of Dean before the peace talks at Deerhurst, where England was divided between the two sides, until Edmund’s death in November. And so England had a second Danish king.

In 1020 Cnut consecrated a church at Assandun on 18th October, the anniversary of the battle, to commemorate the warriors who died.

Death of Frideswide, 19th October 735

St Frideswide's Priory, now Christ Church Cathedral
St Frideswide’s Priory, now Christ Church Cathedral , Wiki alf [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

St Frithuswith (Frideswide), the patron saint of Oxford and Oxford University, died on 19th October 735 AD and was buried in her monastery in Oxford. She cured the blind, healed the sick and was Abbess of the monastery she founded, which was a house for both men and women.

Frithuswith was a noble daughter of the Mercian King Didan and his wife Sefirda, both Christians. She had decided to enter a religious life and with her parents’ blessings she founded a monastery at Oxford. Although her father was a king, he was subject to other more powerful kings, and one of these called Alfgar wanted to marry Frithuswith. When she refused he decided he would abduct her from her monastery. Frithuswith however escaped with two nuns and a young man, and they rowed down the River Isis to Abingdon where she hid. Alfgar was not easily deterred, however, and followed her with great determination. Frithuswith prayed energetically for help from God, who responded by striking Alfgar blind.

He recognised that he was not going to be able to persuade her, and so gave up his intention. Frithuswith then prayed for his sight to be restored, which was granted, and returned to her monastery in peace where she remained for the rest of her days.

This miracle resulted in a belief that the Kings of England could neither live in nor pass near Oxford without being struck blind, until Henry III ignored the story. His reign certainly had some significant challenges although it is not likely the two are connected and he did not go blind.

Miracles abounded around Frithuswith, naturally. For example, Baring Gould tells the story of how she healed a leper:

“It happened on her return to Oxford after her flight to Abingdon, that an unfortunate young man, struck with leprosy, met her on the road, and prayed her, ” I conjure you, Virgin Frideswide, by the Almighty God, to kiss me, in the name of Jesus Christ His only Son.” The maiden, overcoming the horror felt by all towards this loathsome disease, approached him, and after having made the sign of the cross, she touched his lips with a sisterly kiss. Soon after the scales of his leprosy fell off, and his body became fresh and wholesome like that of a little child.”

Baring Gould also relates how her tomb was disturbed in the time of Elizabeth Tudor:

“Her body still rests there, and her shrine is shown; but it must be added that a commissioner of Queen Elizabeth, in brutal disrespect for the sacred relics, placed beside them, and mixed with them the bones of a disveiled nun married to a renegade priest, Peter Martyr. The commissioner having mingled the bones so that it was impossible to distinguish the one from the other, placed them in a stone coffin, on which he engraved the words, now happily effaced, Hie requiescit religio cum superstitione.” Frithuswith’s cult remained popular locally until the later Middle Ages although only two medieval churches and a chapel are known to have been dedicated to her. Her monastery was closed in 1524/5 by Cardinal Wolsey

Feast Day of Bishop Acca, 20th October

Acca’s Cross at Hexham Abbey
Acca’s Cross at Hexham Abbey, Photo © PWicks, 2017

20th October is the feast day of Acca, Bishop of Hexham, who was deposed in 732 AD.

Acca was the chaplain of Wilfrid, Bishop of Hexham, and succeeded him as Abbot in 710 AD. Bede tells us:

“Acca, his priest, succeeded Wilfrid in the bishopric of the church of Hagulstad [Hexham]; being himself a most active man, and great in the sight of God and man, he much adorned and added to the structure of his church, which is dedicated to the Apostle St. Andrew. For he made it his business, and does so still, to procure relics of the blessed apostles and martyrs of Christ from all parts, to place them on altars, dividing the same by arches in the walls of the church. Besides which, he diligently gathered the histories of their sufferings, together with other ecclesiastical writings, and erected there a most numerous and noble library. He likewise industriously provided holy vessels, lights, and such like things as appertain to the adorning of the house of God. He in like manner invited to him a celebrated singer, called Maban, who had been taught to sing by the successors of the disciples of the blessed Gregory in Kent, for him to instruct himself and his clergy, and kept him twelve years, to teach such ecclesiastical songs as were not known, and to restore those to their former state which were corrupted either by want of use, or through neglect. For Bishop Acca himself was a most expert singer, as well as most learned in Holy Writ, most pure in the confession of the catholic faith, and most observant in the rules of ecclesiastical institution; nor did he ever cease to be so till he received the rewards of his pious devotion,  having been bred up and instructed among the clergy of the most holy and beloved of God, Bosa, bishop of York. Afterwards, coming to Bishop Wilfrid in hopes of improving himself, he spent the rest of his life under him till that bishop’s death, and going with him to Rome, learned there many profitable things concerning the government of the holy church, which he could not have learned in his own country.”

He had studied under Bosa as well as Wilfrid. He was a close friend of Bede, supplying him with further material for Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, and encouraging him to write a number of treatises, many of which Bede then dedicated to him. Acca also commissioned, and provided Stephen of Ripon with material to use in, a hagiography of Wilfrid, the “Vita S. Wilfridi”, which Stephen dedicated to Acca in thanks.

Despite this obvious interest in learning and writing we have nothing surviving of Acca’s own writing except part of a letter to Bede which Bede copied in one of his other works, the “Commentarius in Lucam”.

Acca left the bishopric under somewhat controversial circumstances, none of which are clear but are likely to have been political. This was around this time that King Ceolwulf of Northumbria was deposed (although he was restored to power a couple of years later) and it was to this “most glorious king” that Bede had dedicated his “History” in 731 AD. Key figures would no doubt have been at risk. His movements after his deposition are not known, although various stories exist.

Simeon of Durham tells us that:

“AD 732: In this year also, king Ceoluulf, being taken prisoner, received the tonsure, and was sent back into his kingdom. He was imbued with an extraordinary love of the Scriptures, as truthful Beda testifies in the beginning of his preface. In the same year, bishop Acca was driven from his see; and Cyneberht, bishop of the church of Lindisfarne, died.”

However, following Acca’s death about 10 years later he was buried at Hexham Abbey and venerated as a saint. The remains of Acca’s Cross, an intricately sculpted stone cross, can be seen in the Abbey today. It is thought the Cross originally marked his grave.

The chronicler Simeon of Durham has a very lengthy entry about Acca to commemorate his death, beginning:

“AD 742: In the same year, bishop Acca, of revered memory, was raised to the land of the living.’ This blessed man was most vigorous in action, and had in honour before God and man. He was deeply skilled also in the rules of ecclesiastical discipline; and, to the end of his life, aimed at the highest rewards of pious devotion : for as much as from his childhood he was brought up and educated among the clergy of the most holy and beloved of God, Bosa, bishop of York, . Going from thence, with a view to further progress, to bishop Wilfred, he spent his whole time in attendance on him until his death. With him journeying to Rome, he there learnt many useful institutes of holy church, which he could not acquire in his own country, and delivered them to those under him. This holy man was taken from this world on the thirteenth of the kalends of November [20th Octob.]; his spirit was carried by angels to the reward of supreme happiness ; his body was buried on the outside of the wall, at the east end of the church of Hexham, over which he had ruled in episcopal dignity for twenty-four years. Two stone crosses, adorned with exquisite carving, were placed, the one at his head, the other at his feet. On one, that at his head, was an inscription stating that he was there buried.”

Simeon then proceeds to describe how Acca’s remains were later translated following a vision, and many of the miracles associated with him. These included preventing some of his remains from being separated and removed from the church, and curing blindness and a tumour. He was also credited with preventing Malcolm of Scotland from devastating the Abbey by raising the waters of the River Tyne (without any rain!) so that the invading army could not cross, and then enveloping them in fog so that they most of them ran away.

“Acca’s Cross” can be seen at Hexham Abbey, although it may not be the one Simeon refers to, and could instead be a preaching cross. However, it is well worth a visit to Hexham Abbey to see this and a number of other Anglo-Saxon stones, the extraordinary crypt and Etheldreda’s Chapel.

Death of Charles Martel, 22nd October 741

Charles Martel, Grandes Chroniques de France.
Charles Martel, Grandes Chroniques de France. BL Royal MS Royal 16 G VI f. 118v. Public domain.

Charles Martel (“the Hammer”) died on 22nd October 741 AD.

He’s not an Anglo-Saxon but he is a key figure in European history, being the founder of the eponymous Carolingian dynasty (from the Latin version of his name: Carolus).

He was the son of Pepin of Herstal, also called Pepin II, and Alpaida. Pepin had multiple significant women in his life – it’s hard to say whether we would call them wife or mistress – but another of them called Plectrude had persuaded Pepin to designate their grandson as his heir but this was not met with the support of the nobles as the boy was only eight years old, and civil war ensued in 715-719 AD. The victor was Charles Martel who defeated all opponents to take control. At this time the Merovingian dynasty was still providing Kings of the Franks, but the real power now lay in the hands of the “Mayors of the Palace” represented by Pepin’s family.

War continued as Charles established control of the various hegemonies in the Frankish kingdom.  This included attacking the Saxons who had invaded earlier, and whom he defeated in the Teutoberg Forest in 731 AD, establishing a clear border.

On 10th October 732 AD Charles fought the Battle of Tours against Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, Governor-General of al-Andalus (the Moorish kingdom of Andalucia in Spain). The Andalusians were no more than a raiding army planning to pillage St Martin of Tours, and similar armies had been attacking Frankish territory for a while. At Tours however Charles was victorious and the battle may be referenced in Bede, although this may alternatively refer to other raids:

“In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 729, two comets appeared about the sun, to the great terror of the beholders. One of them went before the rising sun in the morning, the other followed him when he set at night, as it were presaging much destruction to the east and west; one was the forerunner of the day, and the other of the night, to signify that mortals were threatened with calamities at both times. They carried their flaming tail towards the north, as it were ready to set the world on fire. They appeared in January, and continued nearly a fortnight. At which time a dreadful plague of Saracens ravaged France with miserable slaughter; but they not long after in that country received the punishment due to their wickedness.”

In 737 AD the Merovingian King, Theuderic IV, died and Charles did not appoint a successor, nor was one proposed by the nobles. For four years there was an interregnum, until Charles’ death in 741 AD in Picardy, and he was buried in Paris. He had already divided his lands between his two sons, Carloman and Pepin (the father of Charlemagne).  Among his other children he also had an illegitimate son called Remigius who became Archbishop of Rouen.

He was an extraordinarily successful commander; he never lost a war, and he established control over rivals, neighbouring leaders and the Merovingian kings. If he is now less well-known it is probably because of his fantastically successful grandson, Charlemagne, who took the lands his grandfather had united and doubled them, establishing a renaissance as he went.

From an Anglo-Saxon perspective, Charles Martel was the ruler who protected Boniface from 723 AD onwards in his mission to the Saxons, probably because his own agenda chimed with Boniface’s desire to replace the pagan religion with Christianity while Charles wanted to break the power of the Saxon warlords and incorporate their lands into his own empire. It was Charles who established the four dioceses in Bavaria to support Boniface.

Equally the constant fighting in Frankia throughout this period would have affected Anglo-Saxon travellers heading and to and from Rome.

Bede completed his history in 731 AD, and died in 735 AD.  This was the time of the growth of Mercian power under Athelbald, whom Bede described as ruling all the lands south of the Humber. In 726 Ine of Wessex abdicated and went to Rome, and Athelheard became the king after defeating a rival claimant, Oswald; he was the first not recorded as descended from Cynric. However, he seems to have been subject to Athelbald of Mercia. Meanwhile there was increasing chaos in Northumbria (we discussed Ceolwulf recently, who was deposed and sent to a monastery but later restored). We can only imagine that Charles Martel’s military might on the Continent was regarded with somewhat envious eyes from Britain.

Fire at Ashburnham House, 23rd October 1731

Ashburnham House in 1880, Photo by Henry Dixon
Ashburnham House in 1880, Photo by Henry Dixon [Public domain]

By 1731 the collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts amassed by Sir Robert Cotton in the 1580s, and augmented by his son (Thomas) and grandson (John), was regarded as a valuable source of precedents for political purposes. It was the richest private collection of manuscripts ever amassed. In 1702 it was transferred to the care of the nation on Sir John Cotton’s death at his request.  This was confirmed by an Act of Parliament that states that the library was to ‘be kept and preserved … for Publick Use and Advantage’, and that it should ‘not be sold, or otherwise disposed of’.  This was the first national collection of documents in Britain.

It was moved to Ashburnham House in the grounds of Westminster Abbey to make it more readily available to Members of Parliament, and also because its previous location was seen as at a high risk from fire. Ironically, on the night of 23rd October 1731 a fire broke out in Ashburnham House itself and many manuscripts were lost, including original copies of key texts known only today through their later transcriptions, such as The Battle of Maldon and Asser’s Life of King Alfred. Other manuscripts were badly damaged including our only copy of Beowulf; the damage from the fire is clearly visible today when viewing it in the British Library where it is on display.

There was a report to Parliament of the distressing events of that night which can be read in full (it’s long and completely heart-breaking) below:

“A Narrative of the Fire which happened at Ashburnham-House, Oct. 23, 1731, and of the Methods used for preserving and recovering the Manuscripts of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries.

On Saturday Morning October 23, 1731, about two o’ Clock, a great Smoak was perceived by Dr. Bentley, and the rest of the Family at Ashburnham-House, which soon after broke out into a Flame: It began from a wooden Mantle-Tree’s taking Fire, which lay across a Stove-Chimney, that was under the Room, where the MSS. of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries were lodged, and was communicated to that Room by the Wainscot, and by Pieces of Timber, that stood perpendicularly upon each end of the Mantle-Tree. They were in hopes at first to have put a Stop to the Fire by throwing Water upon the Pieces of Timber and Wainscot, where it first broke out, and therefore did not begin to remove the Books so soon as they otherwise would have done. But the Fire prevailing, notwithstanding the Means used to extinguish it, Mr. Casley the Deputy-Librarian took Care in the first Place to remove the famous Alexandrian MS. and the Books under the Head of Augustus in the Cottonian Library, as being esteemed the most valuable amongst the Collection. Several entire Presses with the Books in them were also removed; but the Fire increasing still, and the Engines sent for not coming so soon as could be wished, and several of the Backs of the Presses being already on Fire, they were obliged to be broke open, and the Books, as many as could be, were thrown out of the Windows. Some were carried into the Apartment of the Captain of Westminster School; others into the little Cloisters; whence, after the Fire was extinguished, they were convey’d into the great Boarding House opposite to Ashburnham-House, and upon Monday following, October 25, Leave being ob tained, they were removed into the new Building designed for the Dormitory of the West-minster Scholars.

The Right Honorable the Speaker of the House of Commons came down to Ashburnham-House, as soon as he heard of the Fire, to see that due Precaution was taken, that what had escaped the Flames should not be destroyed or purloined; and on Monday following the Right Honourable the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Raymond, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s-Bench, and Mr. Speaker, being Trustees for the Cottonian Library, were all three at the Dormitory; and as great Numbers of the Manuscripts that remained had suffered exceedingly from the Engine-Water, as well as from the Fire, and were in danger of being quite destroyed, if some cure was not speedily provided; the Right Honorable the Speaker of the House of Commons appointed several Persons, some of whom are concerned in Offices, where Records as well of Paper as Parchment are lodged, to meet him October 28, at the said Dormitory, to consider what was proper to be done for preserving and recovering, as much as possible, the Manuscripts, which had so suffered; and they attended accordingly, and having viewed the Manuscripts, they went together, and drew up the following Paper, viz.

We, whose names are hereunto subscribed, having met at the Desire of the Right Honorable Arthur Onslow Esq; Speaker of the Honourable House of Commons, to consider of proper Methods for preserving the Manuscripts of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries, that have suffered by the late Fire at Ashburnham-House, have agreed upon the following Proposals, viz. I. That the Paper Books, that are stained, be immediately unbound, and put into the softest and clearest cold Water, that can be procured, till the Stains disappear, and then shifted into Water, in which Allum has been dissolved, in order to strengthen and fortify them; afterwards to be hung upon Lines till dry, and then bound again.

II. With regard to the Vellum Manuscripts, it is thought proper, that great Care be taken to separate those, that are damaged, from those that are not damaged; and that a farther Separation be also made of those that are damaged by Water, from those, that are damaged by Fire only; and that Care in the first Place be taken of those, that have suffered by Water, preferring, if possible, the most valuable, and most intire.

III. That the wet Vellum Manuscripts be very carefully turned over Leaf by Leaf; that they be laid as strait and smooth with the Hand as may be, gently pressing each Leaf with a clean Flannel; and where the Wet has penetrated to the Backs of those, that are bound, that they be taken out of the Binding, and turned over in like manner; afterwards to be hung upon Lines, three or four Leaves together, frequently separating each Leaf, as well as those that are bound, as unbound, that they may not stick together.

IV. That the Vellum Manuscripts, which are closed together by the Fire, be separated with an Ivory Folder; that they be turned over Leaf by Leaf, and the glewy Substance which has been fried out upon the Edges, be taken off by the Fingers carefully, in order to prevent its infecting and corroding the rest, as we apprehend it will otherwise do; and that such as are so hardened, and shriveled up, as not to be legible in their present Condition, be softned by cold Water, in case no other Method more proper shall be found.

V. That the Fragments be also carefully cleaned and preserved.

Lastly, That a sufficient Number of proper Hands be imployed to proceed in the Work with all possible Diligence and Dispatch.

October 28, 1731.

S. BURROUGHS.
N. HARDINGE.
ROB. SANDERSON, Usher of the Rolls.
JOHN LAWTON, Keeper of the Records inthe Exchequer.
GEO. HOLMES, Deputy-Keeper of the Records in the Tower.
JAMES STEWART, Clerk to the said Mr. Lawton.
W. WHISTON, Clerk to Mr. Lawton.
P. FORBES.
BENJ. AYCRIGG.
RICHARD BENTLEY, Library-Keeper to his Majesty.
DAVID CASLEY, Deputy-Librarian.

This Paper, which was delivered the Day following to Mr. Speaker, was shown to the Lord Chancellor, and Lord Chief Justice of the King’s-Bench; and all three approving of the Method therein proposed, the three Clerks of the Record Office belonging to his Majesty’s Court of Receipt of the Exchequer were directed by Mr. Speaker to assist Mr. Bentley and Mr. Casley in the Work, according to the Method proposed. A Book-binder also was imployed to wash and re-bind the Paper Books; and others were imployed in turning over the Manuscripts for the first Week; the Number of Books damaged requiring many Hands at the first, that each Book might as soon, as was possible, be turned over, at least once, to prevent their mildewing and corrupting.

November I. The said Persons entered upon their Work. They made a Separation of the Paper Manuscripts from those of Vellum and Parchment, beginning with the wet Paper Manuscripts, that were intire, in the first Place; which were immediately taken out of the Binding, and put into Tubs of cold Water, then shifted into Allum Water, and afterwards hung upon Lines, and, when dry, were taken down, and with great Care and Pains collated; and the Leaves, that had been misplaced and transposed by the Operation, were restored to their proper Places again, and were then delivered to the Book-binder to be bound again. The Vellum Manuscripts were in like manner separated, the wet from those that had suffered by Fire only; and the wet were turned over Leaf by Leaf, and placed open upon the Floor for a few Days, and then taken up, and turned over again, and placed, as before; and this Method was in like manner repeated, till they were dry, and they were then put up into their respective Presses. Some that had suffered much by the Water, when they had been turned over once, or twice, and were found more likely to mildew and corrupt, than to be dried by such Process, were turned over and dried Leaf by Leaf before a Fire; and a very few were obliged to be taken quite out of the Binding, and hung upon Lines, two or three Leaves together, to be dried, the Water having so thoroughly insinuated it self into every Part of them, that they would have rotted sooner than become dry by any other Method.

Those that had suffered by Fire only were next taken in hand, and turned over Leaf by Leaf, as the wet Manuscript had before been; and the glutinous Matter, that had been forced out upon the Edges of the Vellum and Parchment by the Heat of the Fire, was carefully taken off by the Fingers, a few only excepted, and those of little or no Value; the glewy Matter having so cemented and incorporated their Leaves together, that they can hardly be separated without being torn and pulled in Pieces. The Paper Fragments were also separated from those of Vellum or Parchment. The former of these were washed, and hung upon Lines to be dried, as the Paper Books had been before; and the latter were turned over, and laid, as thin as might be, to expose them to the Air to be dryed, and, when dry, were several Times looked over; and the Pieces, that were Parts of the same Book, were laid together, as much as could be found; and the remaining single Leaves, or Pieces of Leaves, when it could not be found to what Book or Books they belonged, were put into Drawers to be kept safe.

All the Time this Affair has been in hand, the Right Honorable the Speaker of the House of Commons has been pleased, not only to order one or other of the Persons employed to attend him several Times a Week, to acquaint him with the daily Progress made in it, and to receive his Directions upon any Emergency, but has also visited the Dormitory in Person frequently, that he might see, that nothing was neglected or omitted, that could any way conduce to the Recovery and Preservation of what the Fire has left. And whereas there are two Originals of the MAGNA CHARTA granted by King John in the Cottonian Library, from one of which the Seal has long since been lost, or plucked off; and that, which has the Seal still remaining affixed to it, was greatly shrivel’d up, the Letters being contracted, Part of the Wax of the Seal melted, and one or two Words quite destroyed, and was so much damaged by the Fire, that there is Reason to fear, that some Parts of it will not much longer continue legible; Mr. Speaker was pleased to direct, that a Copy should be exactly taken from it upon Parchment, in a fair and durable Hand, and that the Words or Parts of Words which were eaten out by the Fire, should be supplied in red Letters from the other Original, and then procured it to be compared with both Originals by several Keepers of Records, and others versed in such Writings, to see that the Copy agreed exactly with the said Originals, i.e. Each Part of the Copy with its respective Original, and to testify such Agreement and Correspondence of the Originals and Transcript upon the Back of the Transcript; which was done accordingly December 18: and an Inscription was then also wrote upon the Back of the said Transcript, mentioning the Fire, and the State the two Originals of the Magna Charta were in at the Time of making the said Transcript; which is to remain in the Library ad perpetuam Rei Memoriam.

There having no way hitherto been found out to extend Vellum or Parchment, that has been shrivel’d up and contracted by Fire, to its former Dimensions, Part of several of the Vellum Manuscripts must remain not legible, unless this Desideratum can be supplied by any Person, which is therefore much to be wished; but it is hoped, that the Care, that has already been taken about them, will prevent their receiving farther Damage from what has happened to them.

A few of the Paper Fragments still remain to be examined; and such, as belong to the same Book, placed together; the main Part of them having been gone thro’ in this Manner already, and thereby several large Portions of Books, and some entire Books have been made up out of them; and when this is done, it seems expedient, that each Book, or Portion of Book, so collected together, should be carefully collated, and the Leaves placed, as near as possible, in the same Order, that they were in before the Fire; and then such, as are thought worth being bound again, may be so served, and the Remainder put either into Covers or Drawers, according to the respective Subjects they treat of, that so the least Fragment may not be lost.

W. WHISTON.
January 20, 1731/2

The Number of Manuscript Volumes, which the Cottonian Library consisted of before the late Fire, was 958: of which are lost, burnt, or intirely spoiled, 114, and damaged, so as to be defective, 98. So that the said Library at present consists of 746 intire Volumes, and 98 defective ones; of which a third Part has been preserved by the aforesaid Method; one hundred and upwards of them being Volumes of letters and State Papers, that have been quite taken to Pieces, washed and bound again.”

Gruffydd ap Llewellyn attacks Hereford, 24th October 1055

Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral, Mark Warren 1973 [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The 1050s were an especially unsettled period on the Welsh Marches and on 24th October 1055 Gruffydd ap Llewellyn attacked Hereford killing three canons of the church called Eilmar, Ordgar and Godo, along with Eilmar’s four sons, also canons, as they defended the doors of the cathedral.

Leading up to this attack, King Edward has appointed Tostig Godwinson to the Earldom of Northumbria in opposition to Alfgar. Edward then outlawed Alfgar unjustly, and he had fled to Ireland, where he recruited Viking support. He then went to Wales seeking support from Llewellyn. Meanwhile Llewellyn had succeeded in conquering Deheubarth earlier in the year, probably with help from Alfgar and his men, and had now united almost all of Wales. Alfgar also married Llewellyn’s daughter, either in 1055 or possibly later.

An army was therefore gathered and began laying waste to Herefordshire. John of Worcester describes the battle:

“Earl Ralph, the cowardly son of king Edward’s sister [Godgifu], having assembled an army, fell in with the enemy two miles from the city of Hereford, on the ninth of the calends of November [24th October]. He ordered the English, contrary to their custom, to fight on horseback; but just as the engagement was about to commence, the earl, with his French and Normans, were the first to flee. The English seeing this, followed their leader’s example, and nearly the whole of the enemy’s army going in pursuit, four or five hundred of the fugitives were killed, and many were wounded. Having gained the victory, king Griffyth and earl Algar entered Hereford, and having slain seven of the canons who defended the doors of the principal church, and burnt the monastery built by bishop Athelstan, that true servant of Christ, with all its ornaments, and the relics of St. Ethelbert, king and martyr, and other saints, and having slain some of the citizens, and made many other captives, they returned laden with spoil.”

Ralph was the son of Godgifu, Edward’s sister, and Drogo of Mantes, Count of the Vexin. He came to England with Edward in 1041 and seems to have been provided with an earldom based in the lands of his wife Gytha. He supported Edward against Godwin of Wessex in 1051 but failed to prevent the return of the Godwin family in 1052 when he was in command of the fleet supposed to resist them. He probably took over the Earldom of Hereford from Sweyn Godwinson following the latter’s death on pilgrimage to Rome in 1052. His poor performance at Hereford in 1055 earned him the nickname of “the Timid”.  He died on 21 December 1057 and was buried at Peterborough Abbey.

Earl Leofric of Mercia, who was on the borders with Hereford, did not intervene; Alfgar was his son. It was Harold Godwinson who brought levies from Wessex to chase Llewellyn away.

As a result of Ralph’s defeat a treaty was negotiated and Alfgar restored; he succeeded to the Earldom of Mercia when his father died in 1057.

Bishop Athelstan survived but died the following year, and Edward replaced him with Harold Godwinson’s chaplain, Leofgar. Leofgar was a warrior before he was a man of God, and shockingly wouldn’t even shave off his moustache until he was made a bishop. Llewellyn killed him the following year at the Battle of Glasbury.

Death of King Magnus of Norway, 25th October 1047

Coin of Magnus the Good minted in Denmark.
Coin of Magnus the Good minted in Denmark. Ole Andreas Øverland (1855-1911) [Public domain]

25th October 1047 saw the death of Magnus “the Good”, King of Norway.

Magnus was the son of King Olaf Haroldsson (St. Olaf as he was later known) who was ousted by Cnut the Great, King of England and Denmark, in 1029 and driven into exile in Sweden. Olaf died in 1030 at the Battle of Stiklestad trying to regain his throne.

Magnus was born around 1024 and went into exile with his father and family while still very young. Olaf left him to be fostered by Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Rus, and his wife Ingegerd. In 1031 the news of his father’s death reached the court through the person of Harald Sigurdsson, later known as Hardrada. Harald was half-brother to Olaf and therefore Magnus’ uncle.

Magnus continued to live at Yaroslav’s court, being educated in Greek, Russian and, of course, warfare. In 1035 Cnut died and the Norwegian nobles rebelled against the continuing rule of his son Swein and Swein’s mother Alfgifu. Magnus was brought back from Rus to Norway. Magnus’ mother was also the sister of the King of Sweden, who gave them support and raised an army. Magnus was proclaimed King, still only eleven years old, and the army drove out Swein and Alfgifu. They fled to Denmark where Swein died the following year.

Svein’s half-brother, Harthacnut, was on the throne of Denmark and seeking to take Norway as well. However, a peace treaty was negotiated instead, in which the two agreed that whichever of them died first would be succeeded by the other. When Harthacnut died in England in 1042 Magnus became the King of Denmark. He was opposed by Swein Estrithson, whom Harthacnut had left in charge in Denmark when he went to England. Swein Estrithson had support and so an ongoing conflict between the two countries began.

Magnus had not forgotten about England, which he also felt should be his following Harthacnut’s death. Edward the Confessor had returned from Normandy to take the throne, and Magnus warned him that he intended to attack and regain his rightful inheritance. It appears that Emma, Edward’s mother but also widow of Cnut, in fact had favoured Magnus.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that:

“AD 1045. In this year Eadward, king of the English, collected a very powerful fleet, at the port of Sandwich, to oppose Magnus, king of the Norwegians, who was meditating an invasion of England ; but whose coming was stayed by Sweyn [Estridson], king of the Danes, making war against him.”

In addition Swein Estrithson was a cousin of Harold Godwinson and his siblings, as Godwin of Wessex had married Swein Estrithson’s aunt Gytha. So when Swein asked Edward the Confessor for support against Magnus, Godwin spoke out strongly in his favour. However, Edward preferred not to involve himself, instead leaving the two to fight hoping this would distract Magnus from attacking England.

In 1046 the Chronicle reports that Magnus routed Swein, then:

“AD 1047: Sweyn, king of the Danes, sent his ambassadors to Eadward, king of the English, requesting him to send his fleet against Magnus, king of the Norwegians. Then Earl Godwin advised the king that he should send at least fifty ships, manned with soldiers; but this meeting with the disapproval of earl Leofric and all the people, he declined to send any. Afterwards Magnus, king of the Norwegians, having got together a large and strong fleet, fought a battle with Sweyn, and after many thousands had fallen on both sides, expelled him from Denmark, and subsequently reigned there, and made the Danes pay heavy tribute to him: shortly afterwards he [Magnus] died.”

However, Magnus’ death did not end the threat to England. Harald Hardrada now took the throne for himself, having earlier negotiated to share it with Magnus on his return from Byzantium. He had initially allied himself with Swein in Denmark and forced Magnus to concede a half-share in the throne of Norway in 1046.

“AD. 1048. Sweyn recovered Denmark, and Harold, who was son of Siward, king of the Norwegians, and brother by the mother’s side to St. Olaf, and uncle by the father’s side to king Magnus, went over again to Norway; and shortly afterwards sent ambassadors to king Eadward, making offers of peace and friendship, which were accepted. Sweyn, king of the Danes, also sent ambassadors to him, requesting him to despatch a fleet to his assistance. But although Earl Godwin wished to send at least fifty ships, earl Leofric and all the people unanimously opposed him.”

Harald’s agreement with Magnus was the rather tenuous basis for his claim that he should inherit the English throne, as he had inherited all of Magnus’s lands and rights after his death. And so the stage was set for the first invasion on 1066.

Death of King Alfred, 26th October 899

An Old English Translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis
An Old English Translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis, Bodleian Library MS Hatton 20

“For every man must, according to the measure of his understanding and leisure, speak what he speaketh and do what he doeth.”

Alfred the Great, the only English monarch to be awarded this title, died on 26th October 899 AD. In later times he was called “England’s Darling” and “the most perfect character in history.” He certainly set in place the foundations for the formation of the nation of England, an endeavour completed eventually by his descendants. His achievements cannot possibly be summarised in a Facebook post, but a flavour of them follows here.

Initially Alfred was not expected to be king. He was the youngest of five boys, sons of Athelwulf of Wessex. He even visited Rome twice as as young child with his father, while his brothers stayed at home and were more involved in court. His biography tells us that he was fond of learning, although he learned to read later in life.

However, through various events and disasters he eventually came to the throne after the death of his brother Athelred in 871 AD following nine major battles with the Great Heathen Army. We will discuss them on their appropriate dates, so not go into detail for now. Athelred left a young son who was passed over at a time when military strength and experience were the key requirement in the king.

Alfred had to pay the heathen to leave and successes in further engagements were limited. While celebrating Twelfth Night at Chippenham in January 878 AD Alfred narrowly avoided being captured and killed by a Viking raid, possibly in collusion with some of his nobles. Wessex was the last Anglo-Saxon Kingdom still unconquered and chance of winning against the Vikings must have seemed vanishingly remote.

Alfred fled to the marshes of Atheleny with his family, including the young Athelflaed and Edward. There are many apocryphal stories of this period, including a vision of St Cuthbert. The burnt cakes appear in much later sources. However, it would seem he conducted guerrilla warfare, keeping his nobles aware that he had not left the country and was still intending to fight. But things looked bleak without a doubt.

“878 AD: This year, during midwinter, after twelfth night [6th Jan.] the army stole away to Chippenham, and overran the land of the West- Saxons, and sat down there; and many of the people they drove beyond sea, and of the remainder the greater part they subdued and forced to obey them, except king Aelfred: and he, with a small band, with difficulty retreated to the woods and to the fastnesses of the moors. And the same winter, the brother of Inwaer and of Healfdene came with twenty-three ships to Devon shire in Wessex ; and he was there slain, and with him eight hundred and forty men of his army: and there was taken the war-flag, which they called the Raven. After this, at Easter [23d March], king Aelfred, with a small band constructed a fortress at Athelney; and from this fortress, with that part of the men of Somerset which was nearest to it, from time to time they fought against the army.”

But Alfred wouldn’t give up. He rallied his people and called them to meet him at Ecgbert’s Stone and so they came.

“Then in the seventh week after Easter he rode to Ecgbryhts-stane, on the east side of Selwood ; and there came to meet him all the men of Somerset, and the men of Wiltshire, and that portion of the men of Hampshire which was on this side of the sea; and they were joyful [at his presence]. On the following day he went from that station to Iglea, and on the day after this to Ethandun, and there fought against the whole army, put them to flight, and pursued them as far as their fortress: and there he sat down fourteen days.”

Alfred won the decisive Battle of Ethandun (or Edington) and starved the Vikings into submission. He negotiated peace with their leader, Guthrum, who agreed to be baptised and leave Wessex permanently. Alfred gave him East Anglia under the Treaty of Wedmore and at baptism Guthrum took the Anglo-Saxon name of Athelstan, under which he minted coins. He died in 890 AD and was buried at Hadleigh in Suffolk.

Meanwhile Alfred was determined to ensure his kingdom was better defended against future attack. He initiated a fort building programme of “burhs”, which was further extended by Athelflaed and Edward in their time. He reorganised the levies so that only half was on duty at a time, thus providing continuous cover. He used Frisian expertise to build ships to improve coastal defence. In 886 AD he took control of London, previously controlled by the Vikings, and entrusted it to Athelflaed’s husband Athelred, Ealdorman of Mercia. His preparations paid off when the next wave of Viking invasions occurred in the 890s but with much more limited effect.

Yet he was more than a successful military strategist and commander. He also initiated a programme of religious regeneration and education, and made sure we know about it by employing a biographer to record his deeds. He brought together scholars at his court, such as Grimbald of Saint-Bertin and John the Old Saxon, as well as the Welsh Bishop Asser.

He issued a new law code, founded monasteries and nunneries, and, crucially, made translations of key texts from Latin into Old English – those “most needful for men to know”. Four texts are believed to have been translated by the king himself, although this is a matter of debate. They are nevertheless linked stylistically and are: Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, and the first 50 Psalms. He also commissioned translations of Orosius’ Histories against the pagans and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. It is also thought that he commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself.

It was clear he expected his bishops and leading men to engage with his programme. Ealdormen and other officials were required to study and read, or lose their office. With threats he also issued gifts in true Germanic kingly fashion, among which examples we see the Alfred Jewel (the most ornate of the ones found), the Minster Lovell Jewel, the Yorkshire Astel, the Warminster Jewel, the Bowleaze jewel and the Bideford Bobble. The Borg Astel, found in Borg in Norway, has also been linked with these as Alfred was known to have been visited by Ottar, a powerful Norwegian trader (or perhaps it was looted in a raid).

He also reformed the coinage and was not above annexing church property to make sure he could afford to run his affairs. He was upbraided by the Pope for doing it.

His concern about the rights and responsibilities of kingship may have been fashioned in part by the betrayal at Chippenham. Certainly some key men disappear from the charters after that date. And his poor health is often referred to; he probably suffered from Crohn’s Disease, although it clearly did not prevent him from fulfilling his role or acting on his vision.

In his will, and in fact before he died, he worked hard to ensure his son Edward’s succession in place of his nephew.

Here is part of his Preface to the Pastoral Care (in Old English it’s called the “Hierdeboc” meaning  “Shepherd-Book”).

“Consider what punishments befell us in this world when we neither loved wisdom at all ourselves, nor transmitted it to other men; we had the name alone that we were Christians, and very few had the practices.

Then when I remembered all this, then I also remembered how I saw, before it had all been ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books, and there were also a great many of God’s servants. And they had very little benefit from those books, for they could not understand anything in them, because they were not written in their own language. As if they had said: ‘Our ancestors, who formerly held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and left it to us. Here we can still see their footprints, but we cannot track after them.’ And therefore we have now lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not bend down to their tracks with our minds.”

Death of Bishop Eata, 26th October 686

The Frith Stool at Hexham Abbey
The Frith Stool at Hexham Abbey, photo © PWicks 2017

Eata was Abbot of Lindisfarne and twice Bishop of Hexham (678-81 and 685-6 AD), and he died 26th October 686 AD. 
He was one of Aidan’s “12 boys of the English nation” at Lindisfarne, and later served as Abbot of Melrose during the 650s. One of his young monks was a lad called Cuthbert, who went on to become a saint and friend of otters.

He and Cuthbert worked together briefly at Ripon, founded by King Ahlfrith around 660 AD and invited by the King to come from Melrose to establish the monastery. Later Ahlfrith decided he preferred the Roman rule and asked Eata to change but Eata refused and was replaced by Wilfrid. However, following the departure of Bishop Colman after the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD Eata became Abbot of Lindisfarne and Cuthbert served as his prior.

In 678 AD Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, broke up the Diocese of Northumbria and expelled Wilfrid. He made Eata the Bishop of the Bernicians (Northumbrians) based at Hexham and including Lindisfarne.

In 681 AD the See was divided again and Eata returned Lindisfarne as a Bishop.

In 685 AD the Bishop at Hexham, Tunberht, was also deposed by Theodore and Cutherbert replaced him while Eata was at Lindisfarne. However Cuthbert was reluctant to serve at Hexham and the two men swapped places.

Eata finished his life in Hexham, dying of dysentry in 686 AD. 

Bede described him as a “meek and simple man”. He was someone who seems ot have been reliable and trustworthy and got on with whatever he was asked to do.

Death of Bishop Cedd, 26th October 664

: Lastingham Church © PWicks 2018

Cedd died on 26th October 664 AD at Lastingham in North Yorkshire.

 He was one of four brothers described by Bede as “famous priests of the Lord”. The other three were Chad, Cynebil and Calin.

They all studied under Aidan at Lindisfarne, so were raised in the Irish tradition of Christianity. In 653 AD Cedd went with three other priests to the Kingdom of the Middle Angles at the request of King Peada, son of Penda of Mercia. One of them, the Irishman Diuma, became the first Bishop of the Mercians in 655 AD.

Cedd however moved on to the East Saxons and King Sigebert, friend of Oswiu of Northumbria and also a Christian. There Cedd founded various communities including St Peter’s–on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea, which still survives as one of the oldest intact churches in England, and was built inside the Roman Saxon Shore Fort of Othona.

A story about his time in Sigebert’s kingdom is told by Bede. Cedd had excommunicated a man who was unlawfully married, but the king ignored this and went dine with him. On his way home he met Cedd:

“The king, beholding him, immediately dismounted from his horse, trembling, and fell down at his feet, begging pardon for his offence; for the bishop, who was likewise on horseback, had also alighted. Being much incensed, he touched the king, lying in that humble posture, with the rod he held in his hand, and using his pontifical authority, spoke thus: “I say to you, forasmuch as you would not refrain from the house of that wicked and condemned person, you shall die in that very house.””

Later the man and his brother murdered Sigebert because he was too gentle with his enemies and forgave them according to the Christian fashion.

Following Sigebert’s death, however, the new king was a pagan but Cedd was eventually able to persuade him to accept baptism.

Cedd continued to keep in touch with home and visited Northumbria. The sub-king of Deira (Yorkshire) gave him land at Lastingham to build a monastery. Cedd’s brother Calin was priest to the king already and chose the site, “among craggy and distant mountains, which looked more like lurking-places for robbers and retreats for wild beasts, than habitations for men”. Cedd then fasted and prayed before starting the building work, supported by his brother Cynebil.

While visiting Lastingham in 664 AD he fell ill and died. He was replaced by his brother Chad at Lastingham, who also later became a bishop.

Death of King Athelstan, 27th October 939

The Athelstan Psalter
The Athelstan Psalter, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII (c) The British Library

On 27th October 939 AD Athelstan the Glorious died at Gloucester. As King of the Anglo-Saxons,  he built on the foundations laid by his grandfather Alfred, his father Edward the Elder and his Aunt Athelflaed, with whom he spent much of his youth in Mercia. It is William of Malmesbury who tells us that King Alfred was very fond of his grandson and when he was four years old knighted him and gave him a sword and golden scabbard.

When Edward died in July 924 AD it was Edward’s second son Athelweard who initially succeeded to the throne; but he too died within a few weeks. It was a year before Athelstan was crowned King, indicating political difficulties with his succession, probably due to rivalries between Wessex and Mercia. The Chronicle glosses over the timing in its report:

“AD. 924. ‘This year king Edward died among the Mercians at Fearndun, and very shortly, about sixteen days after this, Aelfweard his son died at Oxford; and their bodies lie at Winchester. And Aethelstan was chosen king by the Mercians, and consecrated at Kingston.”

There was another possible successor, Eadwine, who was Athelweard’s brother, these two young men being the sons of Edward’s second wife, Alfflaed. Eadwine did not succeed and later died at sea in 933 AD, following “disturbance in the kingdom”, according the Annals of St-Bertin where he was buried. Simeon of Durham claims he was drowned at Athelstan’s bidding.

Why was Athelstan so unpopular? His reputation later, and outside England during his reign, was very positive but in Wessex there is a sense his face didn’t fit due to his Mercian upbringing. However, neither was he crowned in Mercia on Athelflaed’s death; her daughter, the rather ineffective Alfwynn, was chosen instead and soon neutralised by Edward the Elder.

In addition, Athelstan ‘s mother Ecgwynn is a shadowy figure described by William of Malmesbury:

“By Egwina, an illustrious lady, he had Athelstan, his first-born, and a daughter, whose name I cannot particularise, but her brother gave her in marriage to Sihtric, king of the Northumbrians.”

There were later claims that Edward the Elder did not marry her and that Athelstan was illegitimate, but this is as likely to have been a smear campaign as anything, just as the claim that he had Eadwine drowned was probably politically motivated.

Athelstan‘s was the first English coronation in which a king wore a crown instead of a helmet. The coronation did not resolve the tensions, and plots seem to have continued with the story of a plan to blind Athelstan, thus rendering him unsuitable for the crown without going so far as to kill him.

Following his coronation Athelstan negotiated with Sihtric of York and in 926 AD he arranged for Sihtric to marry Athelstan’s sister, unnamed but often identified with Eadgyth; but Sihtric died soon afterwards and the settlement died with him.

Athelstan then invaded Northumbria to take control. The Treaty of Eamont Bridge on 12th July 927 AD has been discussed here before. It involved the submission of the Northumbrians, Scots, Welsh and Strathclyde Britons and was followed by seven years of peace in the north. Athelstan was now Lord of all the Anglo-Saxons and effectively a latter-day Bretwalda or Over-King. He gave generous gifts to the church as well as his nobles, including gifts to Beverley and York Ministers, but his control was not without challenge.

In 934 AD Athelstan invaded Scotland although it is not entirely clear why he did so. However he did take time to stop at Chester-le-Street on the way and make generous gifts at the tomb of St Cuthbert, including the maniple and stole which can be seen at Durham Cathedral today.  Opportunities may have arisen from the deaths of various key figures. Simeon of Durham tells us:

“AD. 934. King Ethelstan, going with a large army to Scotland, came to the tomb of St. Cuthbert, commended himself and his expedition to the protection of the saint, bestowed on him many and divers gifts becoming a king, and lands; delivering to the torments of eternal fire whoever should take away any of these from him. After this he subdued his enemies, laid waste Scotland with his land force as far as Dunfoeder and Wertormore, and with his navy he ravaged as far as Caithness.”

In any case, in August 937 AD matters came to a head and the Scots allied with the Dublin Norse and attacked to the south. The armies met at the Battle of Brunanburh, and the battle, which was called “The Great War” was referenced in the Norse Egil’s Saga and the Annals of Clonmacnoise. As well as being recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in poetry, starting with the lines:

“Here king Aethelstan, of earls the lord,

of heroes the bracelet-giver,  and his brother also,

Eadmund etheling, very illustrious chieftain

in battle fought with the edges of swords

near Brunanburh.”

John of Worcester says:

“King Athelstan, and his brother Edmund the etheling, encountered him at the head of their army at a place called Brunanburgh, and the battle, in which five tributary kings and seven earls were slain, having lasted from daybreak until evening, and been more sanguinary than any that was ever fought before in England, the conquerors retired in triumph, having driven the kings Anlaf and Constantine to their ships; who, overwhelmed with sorrow at the destruction of their army, returned to their own countries with very few followers.”

Athelstan was a strategist in politics, marrying at least four of his sisters well to kings and princes across Europe and making alliances. He styled himself “King of the whole of Britain” (rex totius Britanniae) on his coins. He issued seven law codes and his court was packed with foreign scholars and dignitaries with more continental contacts than any previous king, Alfred included. He fostered Hakon, son of King Harold of Norway and also Alan of Brittany.

He was a keen collector of holy relics and many such gifts were brought to him by visitors keen to win his favour. The Athelstan Psalter is a beautiful surviving manuscript linked closely to him, if not his personal book.

He was respected and revered across Europe, including in the Annals of Ulster which described him as the “pillar of the dignity of the western world”.

William of Malmesbury summarises his reign:

“His years, though few, were full of glory.”

Feast Day of King Sigebert, 29th October

Kingdom of East Anglia around the time of Sigebert, Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

29th October is the Feast Day of St Sigebert, the younger son of Raedwald, the King who is probably the man who was in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

Raedwald’s conversion to Christianity is famously ambivalent, and his eldest son and successor Eorpwald was initially a pagan who was converted later at the urging of Edwin of Northumbria. He was then murdered by Ricbert who seized the throne and renounced the new faith. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that:

“Eorpwald, son of king Redwald, whose father was Titell, whose father was Vuffa, was prevailed on by king Edwin to renounce idolatry, and with all his province received the Christian faith and sacraments; but a short time afterwards he was slain by a pagan named Ricbert.”

The East Anglians only accepted Ricbert for a few years before replacing him with Sigebert, Eorpwald’s younger brother.

Raedwald had had a number of sons and it seems that Sigebert was thought unlikely to succeed so had been able to study in a monastery in Gaul. However, like Alfred in the 9th century, he discovered that fate had other plans for him.

Once back home he set about converting the East Anglians with the help of a Frankish missionary bishop called Felix. Felix established a see at Dumnoc (the location is not definite; it may have been either Dunmow or Dunwich, or possibly Walton Castle, an old Roman fort). Bede takes up the story:

“AT this time, the kingdom of the East Angles, after the death of Earpwald, the successor of Redwald, was subject to his brother Sigebert, a good and religious man, who long before had been baptized in France, whilst he lived in banishment, flying from the enmity of Redwald; and returning home, as soon as he ascended the throne, being desirous to imitate the good institutions which he had seen a France, he set up a school for youth to be instructed in literature, and was assisted therein by Bishop Felix, who came to him from Kent, and who furnished him with matters and teachers after the manner of that country.”

SIgebert, as Bede tells us, was responsible for the foundation of monastery schools to train the next generation of Christians, and was clearly a man more interested in a religious life. He abdicated after five years on the throne and entered a monastery, passing control to his kinsman Ecgric. However, he retained the love and confidence of his people and when the kingdom was threatened by Penda of Mercia he was recalled, possibly against his will, to lead them. Whether this was in a military capacity (which frankly seems doubtful) or as a holy talisman is unclear. In any case he refused to take up a sword and so was killed along with King Ecgric by Penda’s army, which had been victorious against Edwin in 632 AD at Hatfield Chase. Ecgric was succeeded by Anna, the son of Raedwald’s brother Eni. Bede continues:

“This king became so great a lover of the heavenly kingdom, that quitting the affairs of his crown, and committing the same to his kinsman, Ecgric, who before held a part of that kingdom, he went himself into a monastery, which he had built, and having received the tonsure, applied himself rather to gain a heavenly throne. Some time after this, it happened that the nation of the Mercians, under King Penda, made war on the East Angles; who, finding themselves inferior in martial affairs to their enemy, entreated Sigebert to go with them to battle, to encourage the soldiers; he refused, upon which they threw him against his will out of the monastery, and carried him to the army, hoping that the soldiers would be less disposed to flee in the presence of him, who had once been a notable and a brave commander. But he, still keeping in mind his profession, whilst in the midst of a royal army, would carry nothing in his hand but a wand, and was killed with King Ecgric; and the pagans pressing on, all their army was either slaughtered or dispersed.”

Sigebert was killed in battle and his body may not have been identified, so relics were not curated. King Anna was not sufficiently closely related to encourage his cult, but nevertheless he became a saint and is recorded in the 11th century Bury Psalter in the Vatican Library.

King Athelwold Moll of York deposed, 30th October 765

Sceat of Ahlred
Sceat of Ahlred from the York mint.
+ALtHRDL (retrograde), cross pattée
EGBERhT AR, cross pattée.
From the Classical Numismatic Group, Inc

On 30th October 765 AD King Athelwold Moll of York was forced from power, to be succeeded by Ahlred.

On 6th August 759 AD Athelwold had become king after the murder of Oswulf the preceding July, and he was supposedly elected by his own people. As Oswulf’s murder was by an internal faction it is possible Athelwold was implicated in the takeover, despite his election, and when he was removed in 765 AD it was at the hands of Oswulf’s kinsman Ahlred. Confusingly, Athelwold’s son Athelred Moll then became king after Ahlred.

Ahlred (sometimes Alchred) was the son of Eanwine and the grandson of Beornholm, from a branch of the Bernician dynasty. Their family may have originally been based in Lothian. After replacing Athelwold, Ahlred married Osgifu , who was Oswulf’s daughter and sister of Alfwold, who also became King of Northumbria after Athelred Moll.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the event:

“AD 765. Moll abdicated the kingdom of Northumbria, and was succeeded by Ahlred, son of Eanwin, who was the son of Birnhom, who was the son of Bofa who was the son of Bleocman, who was the son of Auric, who was the son of Ida.”

Ahlred was closely associated with the church and in 773 AD supported a mission into pagan territories conquered by the Franks. He communicated with Charlemagne, as did Offa of Mercia at this same period.

In December 766 AD the Archbishop of York died and was succeeded by Athelred, a relation of Ahlred’s. This did not prevent him from leading the meeting which deposed Ahlred at Easter in 774 AD, as the Chronicle explains:

“AD 774. A red figure like a cross appeared in the sky after sunset. The Mercians and the men of Kent fought a battle at Otford. Frightful and exceeding wonderful serpents appeared in the province of the South Saxons. On the feast of Easter [3d April], the Northumbrians expelled their king Alhred, who had succeeded king Moll, from York, and raised Moll’s son, Aethelbert [Athelred], to the throne.”

Ahlred went into exile at the Pictish court with his son Osred.  Simeon of Durham tells us more about their experiences:

“AD 774. Duke Eadwlf was withdrawn from the wreck of this life; and, at the same period, king Alcred, by the design and consent of all his connexions, being deprived of the society of the royal family and princes, changed the dignity of empire for exile. He went with a few companions of his flight, first to the city of Bebba [Bamborough], afterwards to the king of the Picts, Cynoht by name. The city of Bebba is exceedingly well fortified, but by no means large, containing about the space of two or three fields, having one hollowed entrance ascending in a wonderful manner by steps. It has, on the summit of the hill, a church of very beautiful architecture, in which is a fair and costly shrine. In this, wrapped in a pall, lies the uncorrupted right hand of St. Oswald, king, as Beda the historian of this nation relates. There is on the west and highest point of this citadel, a well, excavated with extraordinary labour, sweet to drink, and very pure to the sight. Moreover, Ethelred, the son of Ethelwald, in the place of this person, received the kingdom; who, crowned with so great honour, held it scarcely five years, as the subsequent narrative of the writer tells.”

Osred returned in 788 AD and succeeded Alfwold (Ahlred’s brother-in-law).

On This Day in September

Calendar page for September
Calendar page for September in Cotton MS Junius A VI f7r (c) British Library

Welcome to our page for September, where you will find information about events of interest related to specific dates during the month.

Mostly these happened during the Anglo-Saxon period but we also commemorate events or people whose contributions to the study of Early Medieval Britain have enhanced our understanding, or others whose lives, legacy or actions affected the Anglo-Saxons themselves profoundly.

Death of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, 1st September 1067

Seal of Baldwin V of Flanders

Seal of Baldwin V of Flanders, from Charles François Toustain, René Prosper Tassin, Jean Baptiste Baussonnet [Public domain]

Count Baldwin V of Flanders was intimately involved with English affairs. During his reign he influenced events in England in a number of ways.

Baldwin was born around 1012 and became Count of Flanders in 1035 on the death of his father, Baldwin IV. He could trace his descent from Charlemagne and also from King Alfred of Wessex, whose daughter had married Baldwin II and was his 3 x great-grandmother.

Baldwin V’s reputation was outstanding. The 11th century Frankish chronicler William of Poitiers described him as famed throughout Christendom as the wisest of men, a man of great power who towered above the rest. Baldwin also ruled one of the greatest territories in northern Europe, uniting Flanders with Hainault. His wife contributed to his status; she was Adela, sister of the King of France, and they were married in 1028. His reputation was so strong that in 1060 he was appointed to act as regent for his nephew, Philip of France, by his brother-in-law, Henry I of France, just before Henry’s death.

Early in his reign he provided refuge for Queen Emma, who was the widow of two English kings, Cnut and Athelred Unrede, and who had to go into exile. In 1037 Emma was driven out of England by Harold Harefoot, her stepson, and fled to Baldwin’s court in Bruges where she stayed until 1040. When Harold died and her own son, Harthacnut, succeeded to the throne she was able to return home safely. Harthacnut was also able to visit Emma in Bruges in 1039.

Baldwin´s influence in England did not end with Emma. He was a pivotal factor in the foreign policy of Edward the Confessor. Edward pursued a defensive policy against Scandinavian raiders who might attack England from the harbours of Normandy and Flanders. However, Baldwin was not sympathetic and this resulted in Edward turning to Eustace of Boulogne, who was Edward’s brother-in-law, and to other kingdoms which lay between Flanders and Normandy. The Normans were more amenable to Edward and their harbours were not made widely available to English invaders at this period. Meanwhile, Edward kept on good terms with Henry I of France, Baldwin´s brother-in-law, and also with the German Emperor Henry III who was an enemy of Baldwin.

In 1051 Baldwin, as well as Henry of France, tried to intercede on behalf of Earl Godwin when he was banished from England. Their requests were not successful and Godwin was not restored until the following year. The majority of the Godwin family, including Baldwin´s sister Judith, who had married Tostig Godwinson, obtained protection at Baldwin´s court, much as Emma had done fifteen years previously. Sweyn Godwinson, Godwin’s eldest son, had also enjoyed Flemish hospitality during his periods of exile in 1047 and 1049.

Baldwin´s daughter Matilda married William of Normandy around 1051, despite William being of lower rank than she was. There is a legend associated with the marriage that when she initially refused to marry him, William assaulted her violently and Baldwin was enraged. Before the two could resort to violence Matilda agreed to the marriage despite a papal ban due to them supposedly being too closely related. She was crowned Queen of England in 1068 but spent most of her time in Normandy governing the duchy for her husband. The only one of her and William´s children to be born in England was Henry, later Henry I Beauclerc. It seems that he was born in Yorkshire, probably in or near Selby, during the Harrying of the North. This meant that Baldwin was father of an English Queen and grandfather of an English King.

Some historians have suggested that Harold Godwinson may have passed through Bruges on his way to Hungary to seek the return of Edward the Exile to address the English succession crisis in Edward´s court.

In 1055 Tostig was made Earl of Northumbria and Baldwin’s sister Judith became its Countess. When Tostig was in exile in 1065 he and Judith again made their way to Flanders as part of Tostig´s campaign to raise an army to regain his earldom of Northumbria from which he had been ousted. They stayed at St Omer where Baldwin made Tostig the town´s military governor, in command of the garrison and in receipt of its revenues. 

Baldwin died on 1st September 1067, still acting as regent to Philip of France, and was succeeded by his son, Baldwin VI of Flanders.

Death of J.R.R. Tolkien, 2nd September 1973

The Tolkiens’ headstone, photo by Álida Carvalho, public domain

The Tolkiens’ headstone, photo by Álida Carvalho, public domain

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died on 2nd September 1973. He was an Anglo-Saxon scholar of great repute and worked tirelessly to promote the beauty and sheer creativity of the literature from the early medieval period. In addition, through his own fictional creations, he was able to imagine a world heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon ideas and language.

Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, now South Africa, of English parents. His mother came back to England in 1895 with Tolkien and his younger brother. His father died while still in Africa in 1896. Tolkien´s memories of Africa were slight, although he did recall a frightening hairy spider.

His mother became a Catholic, resulting in estrangement from both sides of the family, and Tolkien was brought up in that faith. Tolkien went to school in Birmingham, and following the death of his mother in 1904 when he was 12 he lived first with his aunt and later boarded with a landlady. He and his brother were cared for through the intervention of a priest who looked after their material and spiritual needs. Tolkien met his future wife, Edith, as a boarder when he was 16 and a romance started against the advice and wishes of his Catholic guardian.

In 1910 he won a scholarship to Oxford Exeter College and started his studies in the Classics, Old English, and the Germanic languages. He was a natural linguist, mastering Latin, Greek, Finnish, Gothic, Welsh and other modern languages as well as creating his own languages which he later used in his fictional works.

Shortly after his 21st birthday in 1913 he and Edith became engaged. By 1914 he was already producing work which can be recognised as relating to the later stories of Middle Earth, and he graduated with a first class degree in 1915. In 1916 he and Edith married before he entered the signal corps as a Battalion Signalling Officer and served in France on the Somme. He returned to England with trench fever after four months during which time he lost a number of close friends in the fighting. He was eventually admitted to Brooklands Officers’ Hospital in Hull.

In 1918 the family returned to Oxford and Tolkien worked as a freelance tutor in addition to working for the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1920 he began work as a Reader in English Language at Leeds University, West Yorkshire, where he collaborated with E. V. Gordon on the famous edition of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. In addition, he and Gordon founded a “Viking Club” for undergraduates devoted mainly to reading Old Norse sagas and drinking beer.

He was appointed as Professor of English Language in 1924. A year later he was successful in his application for the post of Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, where he met C S Lewis and established a firm friendship. His academic publications are not extensive, but what he did publish was often influential. By 1936 he had produced the first draft of “The Hobbit” and in the same year delivered his lecture, “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics”, to the British Academy in London. This work was incredibly influential in changing the appreciation of Old English poetry from historical to literary material and pre-dated the excavation of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939. The treasures discovered there served to underpin the accuracy and reality of the riches described in the poetry of the period.

Nor was Tolkien only involved in Anglo-Saxon matters. He published a number of translations of Middle English works such as “Ancrene Wisse”, “Sir Orfeo” and “Pearl”. He also taught undergraduates and contributed to the administration of the university.

At home he wrote annual illustrated letters from Father Christmas for his children and told them bedtime stories, many of which were later developed into published works.

He was one of the founder members of a group with similar interests, known as “The Inklings” which included CS Lewis among other notable names. The origins of the name were to do with writing, and sounded loosely Anglo-Saxon.

Both his essay on Beowulf and “The Hobbit” were published in 1937 and Tolkien was urged by his publisher, Unwin and Allen, to write a sequel to the latter.

During the Second World War Tolkien continued working at the university and also served as an air raid warden. In 1945 he became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature.

Despite completing his manuscript for “The Lord of the Rings” in 1949 it was not published until 1954 as the publisher felt it was too long and in 1952 made the decision to decline the work. A few months later Allen & Unwin agreed to publish it on a profit-sharing basis.

The following year Tolkien´s poem “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” was published, a work of historical fiction told after the events of the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon”. In 1954 Tolkien was awarded a D.Litt from Dublin University and publication of “The Lord of the Rings” began, each volume being published separately. The BBC began to serialise it almost immediately and Tolkien became increasingly busy dealing with fans and struggled to complete his more academic work.  Eventually he and Edith had to move house and change their phone number to avoid all the calls and visits.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1957 and retired from university life in 1959. However he continued to work on his literature.

Among other works he was responsible for the translation of the Book of Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible, which was published in 1966.

Edith died in 1971 and Tolkien received a CBE in 1972. He died of a stomach ulcer in 1973.

The couple were buried together under a headstone that reads:

“Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889–1971

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892–1973”

Ordination of Pope Gregory, 3rd September 590

Mosaic of Saints Augustine and Gregory, "Non Angli sed Angeli ", at the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine, Westminster Cathedral,
Mosaic of Saints Augustine and Gregory, “Non Angli sed Angeli “, at the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine, Westminster Cathedral, London. Public Domain

“Act in such a way that your humility may not be weakness, nor your authority be severity. Justice must be accompanied by humility, that humility may render justice lovable.”

Pope Gregory I (c.540-604)

On 3rd September 590 AD Gregory became the first Pope of that name until his death on 12th March 604 AD. Later remembered as Gregory the Great, he was the Pope who sent Augustine to bring the British church and people back to Rome, and who wrote “On Pastoral Care”, one of the books translated by Alfred the Great as most needful for men to know.

Gregory was in fact an administrator from a noble family of Roman Christians. By the age of 30, he was the chief administrative official of the city, responsible for finances, police, provisioning, and public works. This experience stood him in good stead for his future role. After his father died in 574 AD Gregory turned his house into a monastery and took to a religious life of study and prayer.

His peaceful retreat was short lived. In 577 AD Pope Benedict appointed him as one of the deacons of Rome, and the following year Pope Pelagius II sent him to Constantinople as representative to the imperial court. He was later recalled to serve as the Pope’s confidential adviser. When Pelagius died in 589 AD Gregory was elected in his place.

Although reluctant he took on the role with energy and commitment, and among other tasks reformed the church, including removing high officials for “pride and misdeeds”.

His role also included the civic administration of the state, dealing with the military, organising famine relief, negotiating with invading forces and paying salaries. At the same time he wrote his most famous work, the “Pastoral Care”, as an instruction book for his bishops on how to govern the Church and how to live a religious life reflecting on their frailty. It is from this that the quotation at the top of this article is taken. He also published his “Homilies on the Gospels”, which continued in use in the Christian Church for centuries, “Dialogues”, hagiographies (lives of saints) and sermons.

In 596 AD, as we mentioned, he sent Augustine to Britain. The members of the group were not entirely enthusiastic and in fact turned back. Bede tells us about their crisis of confidence and Gregory’s response:

“they having, in obedience to the pope’s commands, undertaken that work, were, on their journey, seized with a sudden fear, and began to think of returning home, rather than proceed to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation, to whose very language they were strangers; and this they unanimously agreed was the safest course. In short, they sent back Augustine, who had been appointed to be consecrated bishop in case they were received by the English, that he might, by humble entreaty, obtain of the Holy Gregory, that they should not be compelled to undertake so dangerous, toilsome, and uncertain a journey. The pope, in reply, sent them a hortatory epistle, persuading them to proceed in the work of the Divine word, and rely on the assistance of the Almighty. The purport of which letter was as follows:

“Gregory, the servant of the servants of God, to the servants of our Lord. Forasmuch as it had been better not to begin a good work, than to think of desisting from that which has been begun, it behooves you, my beloved sons, to fulfil the good work, which, by the help of our Lord, you have undertaken. Let not, therefore, the toil of the journey, nor the tongues of evil speaking men, after you; but with all possible earnestness and zeal perform that which, by God’s direction, you have undertaken; being assured, that much labour is followed by an eternal reward. When Augustine, your chief, returns, whom we also constitute your abbot, humbly obey him in all things; knowing, that whatsoever you shall do by his direction, will, in all respects, be available to your souls. Almighty God protect you with his grace, and grant that I may, in the heavenly country, see the fruits of your labour. In Inasmuch as, though I cannot labour with you, I shall partake in the joy of the reward, because I am willing to labour. God keep you in safety, my most beloved sons. Dated the 23rd of July, in the fourteenth year of the reign of our pious and most august lord, Mauritius Tiberius, the thirteenth year after the consulship of our said lord. The fourteenth indiction.””

So Augustine braced himself and continued to the barbarous island of Britain and the court of King Athelberht of Kent, having picked up some interpreters along the route to help him communicate. Once established in Kent, Augustine then proceeded to bombard Gregory with questions about how to manage the mission and Gregory patiently replied. For example, when Augustine didn´t know what to do about variations in church practice Gregory said to him:

“You know, my brother, the custom of the Roman church in which you remember you were bred up. But it pleases me, that if you have found anything, either in the Roman, or the Gallican, or any other church, which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, you carefully make choice of the same, and sedulously teach the church of the English, which as yet is new in the faith, whatsoever you can gather from the several churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Choose, therefore, from every church those things that are pious, religious, and upright, and when you have, as it were, made them up into one body, let the minds of the English be accustomed thereto.”

He also reminded Augustine not to become overly proud or boastful about the miracles he had performed.

“I know, most loving brother, that Almighty God, by means of your affection, shows great miracles in the nation which He has chosen. Wherefore it is necessary that you rejoice with fear, and tremble whilst you rejoice, on account of the same heavenly gift; viz., that you may rejoice because the souls of the English are by outward miracles drawn to inward grace; but that you fear, lest, amidst the wonders that are wrought, the weak mind may be puffed up in its own presumption, and as it is externally raised to honour, it may thence inwardly fall by vainglory.”

Gregory died on 12th March 604 AD and his relics are now enshrined at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The English Christians called Gregory “our Gregory (Gregorius noster)” and in 713 AD at Whitby a full length “Life of Gregory” was written, believed to be the first of its kind.

Death of Birinus, 4th September 650

Stained glass roundel in Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, representing the commissioning of Birinus (centre) by Asterius (left).
Stained glass roundel in Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, representing the commissioning of Birinus (centre) by Asterius (left). Photo from David Nash Ford’s Early British Kingdoms website, Public Domain

St Birinus died on 4th September 650 AD, and it is he who is credited with converting King Cynegils of Wessex to Christianity, along with pressure from the Christian King Oswald of Northumbria who wanted to marry Cynegils’ daughter but did not want to ally with a pagan. The conversion of Cynegils opened the way for the conversion of his entire kingdom. This was the usual pattern of conversion in Anglo-Saxon England, whereby people followed their lord in matters of religion as in other areas of life.

In 635 AD Birinus arrived in Britain from Italy having been sent by Pope Honorius to preach the gospel in Britain. He landed in the kingdom of the Gewisse (later Wessex) and found the people there were still pagan. Bede describes the mission for us:

“Now, as he preached in the aforesaid province, it happened that the king himself, having been catechized, was baptized together with his people, and Oswald, the most holy and victorious king of the Northumbrians, being present, received him as he came forth from baptism, and by an alliance most pleasing and acceptable to God, first adopted him, thus regenerated, for his son, and then took his daughter in marriage. The two kings gave to the bishop the city called Dorcic, there to settle his episcopal see; where having built and consecrated churches, and by his labour called many to the Lord, he departed this life, and was buried in the same city; but many years after, when Hedda was bishop, he was translated thence to the city of Winchester, and laid in the church of the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul.”

St Birinus’ efforts were not long-lasting though. Following Cynegils’ death his son and successor Cenwealh rejected the new religion and was, according to Bede, punished by God. He lost his kingdom in a war with King Penda of Mercia having put aside his wife, who happened to be one of Penda’s sisters, in order to take a new one. He was banished from the kingdom and lived among the East Saxons for three years during which time he apparently saw the error of his ways and converted to Christianity.

The translation of Birinus’ relics to Winchester would have been around 690 AD, and they moved again to a new shrine in 980 AD and yet again to another in 1150. In the 13th century the Augustinian Canons of Dorchester claimed to possess the relics of Birinus, and this was accepted on very slender evidence. The result was the creation of a very popular place of pilgrimage bringing significant revenue to the Abbey.

Feast Day of Bega, 6th September

North Head, St. Bees Head, Cumbria
North Head, St. Bees Head, Cumbria, by Dave.Dunford  – public domain

6th September is one of the days on which we commemorate St Bega, who seems to have lived in the 7th century.

An 1844 “Lives of the English Saints” has a chapter about Bega, also called St Bees, who is really best known and loved in Cumbria. The disclaimer to her legend reads as follows:

“We have now to tell the legend of St. Bees, so far as it may be told, so far as history can take cognizance of it. There seems to have been more than one St. Bega; for if, as Alford thinks, St. Heyne, the first nun in Northumberland, and who received the veil from St. Aidan, is the same with St. Bega, then she can hardly be the Bega who succeeded St. Hilda at Hacanos, for that St. Bega died a hundred years after St. Aidan, and yet she is generally taken to be the same. Mabillon makes her to die at Hacanos, Alban Butler at Calcaria, supposed to be Tadcaster. It seems next to impossible to reconcile the chronology or conflicting statements which have come down to us, and it is therefore but right to advertise the reader that the following pages can make no claim to historical accuracy. They follow for the most part the monkish legend printed from the Cottonian MSS. (Faust. B. 4. fol. 122–139) among the Carlisle tracts; and at any rate put the reader in possession of what St. Bega’s own monks believed about their holy foundress some centuries later than her own time.”

So, with all that in mind, what is the slightly confusing story of Bega/Bees?

Bega was the daughter of an Irish King and was raised as a Christian. Like many other Anglo-Saxon female saints, she wished to remain a virgin. She spent her time studying scripture and becoming an expert worker of gold and jewels with which she embroidered decorations for the church. However, she was a princess and marriage to a suitable consort became an important issue for her father, despite her preference to become a nun.

One day while she was meditating upon her wish to enter the holy life, she had a vision of a man or angel who encouraged to keep to her vow and gave her a bracelet engraved with a cross as a gift, saying to her:

“Receive this blessed gift sent to you by the Lord God, by which you may know that you are for His service and that He is your Spouse. Place it therefore as a sign upon your heart and upon your arm, that you may admit no one else beside Him.”

Meanwhile her father the King had decided that Bega should marry a Norwegian prince to cement an alliance with that kingdom. The prince duly arrived in Ireland and started feasting to celebrate the betrothal. However, Bega did not want to marry and prayed for divine assistance. Her prayers were answered and she was directed to go to the shore to find a boat which would take her across the sea to safety. Her bracelet now served its miraculous purpose. The guards were all asleep under some kind of enchantment, and the touch of the bracelet to the locks on the doors and gates of the stronghold made them open to help her escape.

To be clear, this was a controversial decision on Bega’s part, heavenly voices or not. Her father had made a pledge to the Norwegians, which put his honour at stake. As a princess she also had duties and responsibilities to act as “peace-weaver” between kingdoms. In addition, leaving in the middle of the night without any messages and going off in a boat with a group of unknown sailors does seem a little thoughtless, possibly even reckless. Bega was assuming without any clear corroboration that the voices were in fact heavenly and not, shall we say, of a different persuasion.  It turns out being a saint is not necessarily about making everyone happy!

However, she crossed the sea safely and landed in Cumbria at Copeland, although the final approach to land was very dangerous and Bega vowed that if she survived she would build a church on the headland; she did survive and founded St Bees.

Initially she lived in a “cell”, or cave, as a hermit. As well as her embroidery and learning, she was also a skilful healer with a full knowledge of the use of medicinal herbs and plants. This allowed her to help the people around her and cure them of various ailments.

However, after living for some time in this way, she was eventually forced to move by a series of pirate attacks which threatened her safety. In her rather sudden departure she left behind her bracelet, making her way eastwards until she found St Aidan who was living and working in Northumbria and who consecrated her as a nun. According to Bede she was the first nun in Northumberland; that is, if she is the same person as Heru (but see the difficulties quoted above). The claim of her foundation is in the 12th century hagiography of her life: “Vita et Miracula S Bege Virginis in Privincia Northanhimborum”. 

This is where the dates jump.

We are going to interpret the story as referring to two different women so the rest of the tale is covered under the story of Bega of Hackness.

Meanwhile back in Cumbria Bega’s bracelet had been found and kept safe, where it continued to perform miracles and where her memory was devotedly preserved by the local people. A priory was built in the 11th century on the headland at St Bees, which is a corruption of the Norse name for the village “Kyrkeby becok” – the church at the settlement of Bega. Her hagiography mentions a number of miracles relating to the bracelet or the saint herself, most famously the “Snow Miracle”:

“Ranulf le Meschin [3rd Earl of Chester, 1070-1129] had endowed the monastery of St Bees with its lands, but a lawsuit later developed about their extent. The monks feared a miscarriage of justice. The day appointed for a perambulation of the boundaries arrived – and, lo and behold, there was a thick snowfall on all the surrounding lands but not a flake upon the lands of the priory.”

This was taken to indicate a divine definition of the boundaries of the priory lands and no further action was taken to deprive the monks.

Death of Bishop Ealhmund, 7th September 781

Bishops Rood Screen, Hexham Abbey
15/16th century Bishops Rood Screen, Hexham Abbey, Photo PWicks © 2016

St Ealhmund (Alkmund), the 4th Bishop of Hexham after Bishop Wilfrid, died on 7 September 781 AD, having been Bishop since 766 AD. He was then succeeded as Bishop by Tilberht.

As with so many of the records of Northumbria, much was lost during the Viking invasions and Ealhmund was largely forgotten until centuries later. When he died he was buried next to Acca, another Bishop of Hexham, and then records of him seem to have been lost for 250 years. Then, according to the 12th century chronicler Simeon of Durham, a man called Dregmo, a very virtuous man, received a vision one night, with instructions regarding the translation of Ealhmund’s remains:

“there appeared to him [Dregmo] a man adorned with a pontifical mitre, and holding in his hand a pastoral staff. Striking him with it, he said to him, “Arise, go and tell Elfred, the son of Westneor, priest of the church of Durham, that, assembling the population of the territory of Hexham, he must translate my body from the place where I am interred, and deposit it in a more honourable position within the church; for it is right that they should receive veneration from all on earth, whom the King of kings deigns to clothe with the robe of glory and immortality in heaven.”

When he inquired, “Lord, who art thou?” he replied, “I am Alchmund, bishop of the church of Hexham, who, by the grace of God, presided over that see the fourth in succession after the blessed Wilfrid. My body was placed near my predecessor of revered memory, the sainted bishop Acca. At its translation do you also assist with the priest.”

The next morning Dregmo went to talk to Alfred the priest, who made the necessary arrangements. Watched by a large crowd they removed the remains of the Bishop but as it was getting late by the time they were finished they had to leave them overnight in the church, ready for a solemn service in the morning. Alfred kept watch with some other priests, who all fell asleep. So Alfred rather cheekily got up and removed a small finger bone which he intended to give to the church of St Cuthbert in Durham as a holy relic.

The next day everyone gathered again and it was time to move the body for its interment. Needless to say, the body declined to be moved, no matter who tried to lift it, much to everyone’s consternation.  Alfred didn’t realise it was his fault so he asked everyone to pray for God to tell them what the problem was. 

“And so it came to pass, while those who passed the night in the church were praying to God on this account. Saint Alchmund again appeared to the same man as before, who chanced then to be within the church, overpowered by slumber, which had suddenly overtaken him, and, with a somewhat severe countenance, addressed him thus : “What is this that you have endeavoured to do? Do you suppose that you can carry me, mutilated in my members, into the church in which I served God and his apostle Saint Andrew, with my whole body and spirit? Arise, therefore, and proclaim before all the people that the portion which has been rashly abstracted from my body must speedily be restored; otherwise you will be utterly unable to remove me from my present position.” Having said this, he showed him his hand, wanting the middle joint of one finger.”

The next morning Dregmo told everyone about his vision and demanded justice. Alfred admitted what he had done and explained why he had done it. Having returned Ealhmund’s finger bone to its proper place, the saint forgave him and allowed his body to be translated to its new tomb and all was well that ended well.

Unfortunately for Ealhmund, Hexham was destroyed again in the 12th century and when it was restored all the saints were put together into a single shrine. Finally the shrine was destroyed by the Scots in a border raid of 1296.

Viking attack on London, 8th September 994

Map of VIking Raids in England 980-1016
Viking Raids 980-1016, A short history of England and the British Empire (1915),
Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions

On 8th September 994 AD Olaf Tryggvason and Sweyn Forkbeard came to London with 94 ships and set fire to the city. However, the Londoners resisted fiercely and the Danes were forced to retreat. Instead they raided along the south coast, burning and slaughtering in Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes events:

“[They] burnt the vills, laid waste the fields, destroyed as many as possible of both sexes by fire and sword, and carried off great spoil. Finally, they obtained horses by force, and madly scouring numerous provinces, spared neither women nor children of tender age, but slew all with brutal ferocity.”

King Athelred paid the Vikings off so that they stopped raiding and instead they over-wintered at Southampton. Wessex was forced to feed them all and the Vikings also received 16,000 pounds from the English nation as a whole. Hostages were given, and finally the king made a covenant with Olaf not to raid England again, and stood as sponsor for him at his baptism.

Olaf had earlier been converted by the hermit of the Scillies, St Lide. Lide was credited with prophesying a mutiny which Olaf would survive and that he would go on to become a great king. When the prophecy about the mutiny came true Olaf converted and was baptised, so if this was true it is more likely that he was only confirmed, not baptised, at Southampton in 995 AD. 

Meanwhile Sweyn appears not to have agreed to the covenant, or else reneged some years later. In due course he would drive Athelred from his throne, sending him into exile in Normandy with potentially long-term consequences for England as relations between the two dynasties became more deeply entwined.

English Army disbands, 8th September 1066

Ships of William the Conqueror
Ships of William the Conqueror, 1066 – Atkinson, John Augustus (engraver); Merigot (engraver); P and D Colnaghi and Co Ltd and Co (publishers); S, C H (artist), Public domain

On 8th September 1066 King Harold had to disband his army, which had been on the south coast to defend England from the anticipated arrival of the Norman fleet of Duke William.

Harold had already chased his brother Tostig away from Sandwich in Kent earlier in the year, then he had spent the summer on the Isle of Wight, and posted his army on the south coast watching for the invasion from Normandy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the situation:

“It was now the nativity of St. Mary [8th Sept.], when the men’s provisions were gone; and no man could keep them there any longer. They therefore had leave to go home: and the king rode up, and the ships were driven to London; but many perished ere they came thither. When the ships were come home, then came Harald, King of Norway, north into the Tyne, unawares, with a very great sea-force — no small one; that might be, with three hundred ships or more; and Earl Tosty came to him with all those that he had got; just as they had before said: and they both then went up with all the fleet along the Ouse toward York. When it was told King Harold in the south, after he had come from the ships, that Harald, King of Norway, and Earl Tosty were come up near York, then went he northward by day and night, as soon as he could collect his army.”

And so the first of the three battles of 1066 were set to take place while King Harold scrambled to assemble his forces and race northwards.

Death of King William, 9th September 1087

memorial slab to William, Saint-Étienne, Abbaye aux Hom
memorial slab to William, Saint-Étienne, Abbaye aux Hommes, Caen, by Supercarwaar [CC BY-SA 4.0]

9th September commemorates the death of William of Normandy who died on this day in 1087 in Normandy.

He is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in part as follows:


“Truly in his time men had much labour and very many sorrows. He caused castles to be built, and the poor men to be made to labour heavily. The king was so exceedingly stern, and took from his subjects many a mark of gold, and more hundred pounds of silver, that he took by right and with great unright of his people, for little need. He was fallen into covetousness, and he loved greediness above all.”

According to Orderic Vitalis, a monk with a Norman father and English mother, writing in the early 12th century, William made the following death-bed confession:

“I’ve persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple. I have cruelly oppressed them and unjustly disinherited them, killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword and become the barbarous murderer of many thousands both young and old of that fine race of people.”

However, it is unlikely he ever said this but it is interesting that a generation or two after his death this was how he was being portrayed.

The story of William’s death and subsequent funeral is a mixture of tragedy and farce.  After he had finally subdued England he spent many of his final years facing rebellions in Normandy. He didn’t see the two domains as a single kingdom and bequeathed England to his second son, William Rufus, and Normandy to his eldest son, Robert Curthose. However, William and Robert quarrelled viciously, with Robert leading a band of young followers on raids into Normandy against his father and being supported by many of William’s enemies in other kingdoms. In 1079 Robert defeated his father at the siege of Gerberoi, when his forces sallied out of the castle and surprised William. Robert even unhorsed his father in the fight and almost killed him.

William’s defeat was reported widely. It was followed by raids from Malcolm of Scotland and rebellion once more in Northumberland which William left to his half-brother Odo to sort out. Later he sent Robert (with whom he had now reached an agreement) to fight the Scots. Robert brought Malcolm to terms and constructed the castle at Newcastle on Tyne.

William was in England from 1080-1081 but had to return to Normandy to deal with problems in Maine. In 1082 he fell out with Odo, although it is not clear exactly what caused the rift, and had him put in prison where he remained until William’s death.

At Christmas 1085 William ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book:

“after very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men.  Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out how many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire.  Also he commissioned them to record in writing, how much land his archbishops had, and his diocesan bishops, and his abbots, and his earls; and though I may be prolix and tedious, what, or how much, each man had, who was an occupier of land in England, either in land or in stock, and how much money it were worth.  So very narrowly, indeed, did he commission them to trace it out, that there was not one single hide, nor a yard of land, nay, moreover (it is shameful to tell, though he thought it no shame to do it), not even an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine was there left, that was not set down in his writ.  And all the recorded particulars were afterwards brought to him.”

In 1087 he was campaigning in the Vexin on the continent when he fell ill and died. Following his death at Rouen the leading men all hurried home to deal with their own affairs and the monks had to make the arrangements for him to be taken to Caen which he had endowed and where his wife was already buried.

His funeral there was disturbed by a legal dispute which disrupted proceedings and when he was finally lowered into the tomb, his body wouldn’t fit. He had become rather fat in later years. As his body was forced into the space available in a very undignified fashion it burst open and released a disgusting stench throughout the church.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded his death at length:

“Rueful was the thing he did; but a more rueful him befell.  How more rueful?  He fell sick, and it dreadfully ailed him.  What shall I say?  Sharp death, that passes by neither rich men nor poor, seized him also. He died in Normandy, on the next day after the Nativity of St. Mary, and he was buried at Caen in St. Stephen’s minster, which he had formerly reared, and afterwards endowed with manifold gifts.  Alas!  how false and how uncertain is this world’s weal! He that was before a rich king, and lord of many lands, had not then of all his land more than a space of seven feet!  and he that was whilom enshrouded in gold and gems, lay there covered with mould!”

However, William’s personal piety was greatly praised by his contemporaries, as was his strength and prowess in martial arts; but he was also described as harsh and greedy and excessively controlling.  Unusually for the time he appears not to have been unfaithful to his wife or had any mistresses.

Battle of Svolder, 10th September 1000

Battle of Svolder
Battle of Svolder by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Norway 1831-1892), public domain

10th September 1000 AD saw the Battle of Svolder and the death of King Olaf Tryggvason leaping from the deck of Long Serpent, his ship. The Battle of Svolder is one of the greatest Viking naval battles recorded and Olaf is an almost legendary figure.

He was the great-grandson of Harald I Fairhair and the son of Tryggve Olafsson. Tryggve was killed shortly before Olaf was born, and as a result he may have been born in the Orkneys as his mother fled Norway for safety. However, what does seem more certain is that he eventually found himself in Kiev at the court of Vladimir I.

In English records he appears as a raider in the 990s, probably the leader of the Vikings who fought and killed Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of  Essex, at the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD; he was also the leader of the fleet which attacked London on 8th September 994 AD.

Following his agreement with King Athelred not to invade England again, Olaf kept his word and turned his attention to the Norwegian throne. He was able to use the wealth he had acquired in England to finance his campaign and he achieved his ambition to rule Norway in 995 AD. He is the king responsible for the full Christianisation of Norway, for which contemporary Church writers praised him. In fact the conversion was brutally imposed on the population.

The Battle of Svolder was fought in the Baltic when Olaf was returning from the east and ambushed by King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (Sweyn of course is also of keen interest to the English as our first, albeit shortlived, Danish King). Sweyn had pulled together a coalition of Olaf’s enemies and ambushed him, bringing seventy-one ships against Olaf’s eleven, which included Olaf’s own ship, Long Serpent. One of the ambushers who is about to feature in the story was Eiríkr Hákonarson, Jarl (Earl) of Lade, and he later accompanied Cnut in the invasion of England and became the Earl of Northumbria.

The ambushers saw a number of splendid ships passing by as they waited, and argued over whether any were the Long Serpent, but the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason tells us that

“when they beheld the ‘Long Serpent’ and none gainsaid this, then knew all that now indeed was Olaf Tryggvason sailing by.”

When Olaf saw his enemies ranged against him he encouraged his men not to run away, but to stay and fight.

“But King Olaf stood up on the poop, and shouted with a loud voice: ‘Let no men of mine lower sail or think of fleeing; never have I fled in battle. May God look to my life, for never will I turn to flight.’ And it was done even as the King said. Thus saith Hallfrod:

‘Fain would I name those words,

Which Olaf’s warriors tell us

The lord deed-mighty spake there,

To his men before the battle.

The warlike King forbade

His champions to think of flight,

And how they live, the words the loved one of the people spoke.’”

Olaf continued in feisty form, boasting and building morale. The fight was bloody; ships grappled; swords rang and arrows flew but finally Olaf was left with only Long Serpent which now held all his surviving men who had managed to scramble across from other doomed ships.

“Into so hard a trap fell now the “Long Serpent”

(The shields were cut asunder, together clashed the swords),

And when the axe-bearer laid his bearded ship high bulwarked beside the “Serpent,”

The Earl [Eirik] did victory win at Holm.

Earl Eirik took his stand in the forehold of his ship encompassed by a wall of shields, & his men fought both with trenchant arms, and by the thrusting of spears, and by the throwing of everything that could be used as a weapon, though some shot with the bow or threw javelins with the hand. From all sides had the war-ships been brought up around the ‘Serpent,’ and so great was the shower of weapons which fell on her, and so thickly flew the arrows and javelins from all sides, that men could but hardly ward off the missiles with their shields. The men that were with King Olaf had ere now waxed so furious that they had climbed up on to the bulwarks to the end that they might reach their foemen with their swords and slay them; but many of their foes would not come so nigh alongside the ‘Serpent’ that they could be beguiled into close combat, whereas a many of the folk of Olaf being unmindful that they were not fighting on a level field themselves fell overboard and so sank down together with their weapons.”

Despite their stout defence eventually Olaf’s men were overwhelmed and as all was lost. Olaf took his shield and leapt head-first into the waves to avoid being captured by Earl Eirik.

A story quickly circulated that Olaf was able to remove his mail shirt and was picked up by another ship with his daughter Astrid aboard, which then made its way back east. Tales of Olaf’s wanderings were told but he was not seen again.

Meanwhile Eirik was pleased to win the Long Serpent and profited in gifts of land too after the battle was all done.

Feast Day of Eanswithe, 12th September

St Mary and St Eanswyth. Folkestone
St Mary and St Eanswythe, Folkestone by Immanuel Giel [CC BY-SA 3.0]

12th September is the Feast Day of St Eanswithe of Folkestone who died 31st August 640 AD and was the granddaughter of Athelbert, Kent’s first Christian king.

Athelbert had two children, Eadbald, who succeeded him to the throne in Kent and reverted to paganism, and Athelburh, who married Edwin of Northumbria and with Paulinus brought about the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity.

Eadbald married first of all his father’s widow, in keeping with Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian tradition. Then he was converted to the new religion by Laurence, the second Archbishop of Canterbury, who had a a vision from St Peter. Eadbald put aside his first marriage and respectably married Emma, daughter of the King of the Franks, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.

According to the “Anonymous Life of St. Eanswith”:

“Ethelbert, King of Kent, who was converted to the faith by Saint Augustine the Bishop, begat Edbald and Ethelburga the virgin, whom her father Ethelbert gave as wife to Edwin, King of the Northumbrians, as is more clearly set forth in the Life of that Saint and King which follows. Edbald, however, begat by Emma, daughter of the Franks, Ermured and Ercombert and a daughter Eanswida, who from infancy renouncing worldly pomps, studied to serve God, trod under foot all the treasures of the world, and having embraced the holy doctrine with all her might, longed with constant desire for the life of the heavenly kingdom, and meditated submitting herself to the rule of life of holiness. For the convenience of his observance she selected a suitable place, remote and unfrequented, called Folkestone, where also her father Edbald built a Church in honour of Saint Peter the Apostle.”

So Eanswithe followed in the footsteps of her aunt, and her grandmother Bertha, rather than her father. She is sometimes said to have been the first woman in England to lead a religious community, although it’s a close run thing with her aunt Athelburh’s foundation. Tradition has it that Eanswithe founded Folkestone Abbey around 630 AD while Athelburh founded a community at Lyminge in 633 AD, having escaped Penda in Northumberland after the Battle of Hatfield Chase.

Alban Butler has little further information about the saint:

“Eanswide added lustre to her birth by the eminent sanctity of her life. The great truths of our holy religion sunk so deep in her tender heart, that, from her infancy, her whole delight was in prayer and the love of God. Hence she despised the world, and all its foolish vanities and amusements. She rejected all proposals that tended to engage her in marriage, fearing the duties of that state, though good and just in themselves, would interrupt her darling exercises of devotion and heavenly contemplation. Having, by perseverance and importunity, obtained at length her father’s consent, she founded a monastery of nuns upon the sea-coast, close by Folkstone, in Kent. Here she sacrificed the affections of her heart to her heavenly Spouse night and day in penance and prayer, till she was called to rest from her labours on the last day of August, in the seventh century. The sea having afterwards swallowed up part of this priory, the nunnery was removed to Folkstone, and the saint’s relics were deposited in that church which had been built by her father, King Eadbald, in honour of St. Peter; but, after this translation of her relics, was often known by her name. St. Eanswide was famous for many miracles; her chief festival in the English calendar was kept on the 12th of September, probably the day of the translation of her relics, or of the dedication of some church in her honour.”

The translation therefore seems to have happened on 12th September 1138.

Two of her miracles, from a later medieval legend, claim she diverted water to supply the nunnery, and that she prevented birds destroying crops in her fields.

However, Eanswithe’s story has had further developments following the modern analysis of bones uncovered at Folkestone. This analysis concluded that they were consistent with those of a high status female of the mid-7th century aged 17-20. The bones had been found by workmen in 1885 in a lead container which appeared to have been hidden at the time of the Reformation, presumably to prevent their destruction.

Andrew Richardson, of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, said “everything is consistent with it being her.” He added that the result of the analysis was of national significance:

“It now looks probable that we have the only surviving remains of a member of the Kentish royal family, and one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon saints.

There is more work to be done to realise the full potential of this discovery. But certainly the project represents a wonderful conjunction not only of archaeology and history, but also of a continuous living faith tradition at Folkestone from the mid-seventh century to the present day.”

Feast Day of Wulfthryth, 13th September

St. Mary Wilton
St Mary Wilton, Trish Steel, geograph.org.uk

13th September is the Feast Day of Wulfthryth (Wilfreda) who died on 21st September 998/1000 AD at Wilton where she had served as Abbess following her marriage to King Edgar. 

She was also the sister of Saint Wulfhild, whom Edgar had previously tried to seduce. The story is told in the “Life of St Wulfhild”, written by Goscelin in the 11th century, that Edgar approached Wulfhild to marry him and she refused as she felt called to live as a nun. Edgar did not give up easily. He turned to a woman called Wynflaed for help in arranging the marriage despite Wulfhild’s response. Wynflaed entered into a deception, arranging for Wulfhild to come to her house to write her will, and there Edgar met her and tried to take her to bed. She hid in her room and was locked in until she agreed to the marriage; however, she managed to escape through some sewers, and Edgar finally had to admit defeat.

Undeterred, Edgar arranged to marry Wulfthryth, equally as beautiful and eligible, who had been educated alongside Wulfhild but had probably not become a nun. Confusingly, the “Life of St Dunstan” records that Edgar seduced a nun from Wilton and made her his mistress despite being married. This is likely to be due to the fact that his first wife, Athelflaed Eneda, was still alive but had been put aside. St Dunstan nevertheless allegedly made Edgar do penance for seven years by abstaining from wearing a crown, because Wulfthryth had been in a monastery (regardless of whether she had become a nun; noble women were often educated in monasteries before returning to secular life). This story may have been devised to explain Edgar’s later coronation in 973 AD, a number of years after he actually took the throne. However, it is also possible, even probable that he had more than one coronation.

Edgar and Wulfthryth married around 961 AD and soon had a daughter, Edith, later St Edith of Wilton. Wulfthryth was not happy in the marriage and decided to retire to the monastery at Wilton after 963 AD, taking her baby daughter with her. Edgar and his court accompanied her on her journey and the whole town of Wilton came out to see her. With great ceremony Wulfthryth and her daughter were admitted to their new lives and Edgar was free to marry again; at least traditionally he would have been, but there were later accusation that his third relationship was adulterous because Wulfthryth was still alive. (This had also been the reason for Edgar’s penance when marrying Wulfthryth.)

The marriage had clearly not been satisfactory for either party and Edgar was known to have had mistresses during it. William of Malmesbury records the story of one, a servant girl in Andover. The king had sent for a nobleman’s beautiful daughter to entertain him one night, and the servant had been substituted by the girl’s mother. When the king found out in the morning about the deception, he freed the servant and put her in charge of the nobleman’s family, and kept her as his mistress until his third marriage.

Wulfthryth’s retirement was probably a relief to them both, but cost Edgar a great deal of money in order to appease her powerful family. The marriage had been very brief, and Edgar married almost immediately afterwards, so the divorce was almost certainly political. Wulfthryth was recorded at Wilton as being extremely wealthy. Edgar had also made a gift of the Abbey at Barking to Wulfhild, later St Wulfhild of Barking, presumably to maintain good relationships with her family and enable him to marry her sister Wulfthryth.

The divorce and retirement of Wulfthryth seems to have been managed by the Bishop of Winchester, Athelwold, who later became a great ally of Edgar’s third wife, and first anointed Queen of England, Alfthryth. Meanwhile Wulfthryth seems to have clashed with him in later years in her role as Abbess of Wilton, resenting his interference and his attempt to obtain a relic from the Abbey, a nail from the True Cross which she had bought herself. Wulfthryth also successfully resisted the reforms being introduced by Athelwold and Alfthryth, indicating her status as a powerful Abbess.

Her daughter Edith pre-deceased her in 984 AD and Wulfthryth lived many more years at Wilton, reportedly dying in 998 AD, according to Goscelin, “after a long martyrdom of bereavement and heavenly desire.”

Discovery of the West Yorkshire Hoard, 14th September 2008

The West Yorkshire Hoard
The West Yorkshire Hoard, Mylearning.org,  CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

14th September 2008 saw the discovery of the West Yorkshire Hoard near Leeds.

The original find comprised five objects but two more were found later, and following analysis of the contents they were later declared treasure due to their age and precious metal content. In total there are four rings, a brooch fragment, a gold ingot and a spindle whorl. However, dating the hoard has been challenging.

It seems to have been buried in the 10th century but includes high quality objects dating probably from the 10th back to the 7th century.  There are no coins, which are usually clear indicators of earliest date.

Perhaps the most striking of the finds is the garnet ring, dated to the 10th century. The bezel is 42mm long and 32mm wide on a hoop of 3mm thickness of twisted gold. The entire ring weighs in at just over 30g. The garnet in the centre is surrounded by three rounds of filigree work. The gold content is very high and the detailed work indicates the ring was a high status possession, perhaps of a bishop.

However, there are also two filigree rings of intricate workmanship, also 10th century, and a gold and niello ring which has been dated less specifically to the 8th-10th century.

The brooch fragment is older, probably 7th century.

The larger filigree ring has a band which is about 1cm wide, in contrast to the more delicate garnet ring. The gold filigree work is again very complex and high status.

The smaller filigree ring is a slightly lower quality and more worn, so probably not such a high status object (although by no means mediocre).

The niello ring is quite different in design. Niello is a mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphites which creates a black colouring to metal objects. The hoop is 27mm diameter, and there are four niello panels arranged around the circumference in quarters with ridged patterning between them. It is not as fine as the other rings.

The gold ingot is very small, 19mm x 9mm, weighing just over 8g. It would have been used as currency.

There is only a fragment of the brooch, which included cloisonné work. Attempts to reconstruct its appearance have been made by archaeologists.

The final object is the lead spindle whorl, a slightly odd item to be included with precious jewellery. It is an everyday object of value for its insight into domestic activities but not valuable in terms of material.

It is not clear why they were buried together; perhaps the brooch was an heirloom.  It is thought they were buried around the 10th century, and could have been during a period of Viking invasions. The reign of Edward the Elder in the early part of the century and the reign of Athelred Unrede at the end of the period ascribed to the hoard both saw Viking incursions. The pit in which the items were buried was disturbed a number of times, so it is possible that it was accessed by the family or group over time to provide additional resources.

Death of Cyneburh, 15th September 680 (date unconfirmed)

Bewcastle Cross
Bewcastle Cross, North and West Faces, Albert S. Cook (1853–1927) [Public domain]

Cyneburh is thought to have died on 15th September 680 AD. She was the eldest daughter of King Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia.

Cyneburh married Oswiu’s son Alchfrith, while Peada her brother married Oswiu’s daughter in an act of diplomacy to bring the kingdoms to peace. Both Cyneburh and Peada were required to convert as the Northumbrians were Christian. However, the conversion seems to have been genuine given Cyneburh’s later career as an Abbess. The marriage also seems to have been successful and four of the children became saints like their mother.

Penda had spent many years fighting the Northumbrians, and in 642 AD he had killed Oswiu’s brother King Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield where he cut Oswald’s body into several pieces. Penda was later killed at the Battle of Winwaed in 655 AD by Oswiu’s forces.

In 656 AD, the following year, Cyneburh was one of the signatories to the foundation of the monastery at Medehamsted (Peterborough) with extensive lands granted by Wulfhere, another of her brothers and one who had succeeded Penda to become the Mercian king. She signed alongside a number of family members and with Oswiu, King of Northumbria.

In fact the list of signatories reads like a Who’s Who of 7th century Anglo-Saxon kingdoms:

“These are the witnesses who were there, who subscribed it with their fingers on the cross of Christ, and assented to it with their tongues. King Wulfhere was the first who confirmed it, first by his word, and afterwards with his fingers wrote on it the cross of Christ; and said thus:

I, king Wulfhere, with the kings, and earls, and dukes, and thanes, the witnesses of my gift, do confirm it before the archbishop Deusdedit with the cross of Christ. And I, Oswi, king of the Northhumbrians, the friend of this monastery and of abbat Saxulf, approve of it with the cross of Christ. And I, king Sighere, grant it with the cross of Christ. And I, king Sibbi, subscribe it with the cross of Christ. And I, Aethelred, the king’s brother, grant that same with the cross of Christ. And we, the king’s sisters, Cyneburh and Cyneswith, we approve it. And I, Deus-dedit, archbishop of Canterbury, grant it.

After that, all the others who were there assented to it with the cross of Christ. They were by name Ithamar, bishop of Rochester, and Wine, bishop of London, and Jeruman, who was bishop of the Mercians, and bishop Tuda, and Wilfrid the priest, who was afterwards bishop, and Eoppa the priest, whom king Wulfhere sent to preach Christianity in Wight, and abbat Saxulf, and Immine the ealdorman, and Eadberht the ealdorman, and Herefrid the ealdorman, and Wilberht the ealdorman, and Abo the ealdorman, Aethelbold, Brorda, Wilberht, Elhmund, Frethegis. These and many others who were there, servants of the king, all assented to it.”

Cyneburh and Alchfrith also founded the Abbey at Ripon, although there was controversy over whether it should follow the Roman or Irish liturgical rule. Alchfrith had been taught his Christianity by the pro-Roman Wilfrid and so wanted it be a Roman foundation but the monks refused to follow it. Eventually Bishop Wilfrid took control and ensured the Roman rule was adopted.

The couple also attended the Synod at Whitby in 664 AD at which Oswiu decided in favour of the Roman rule for the whole kingdom, despite having previously followed Irish tradition himself. This had been a matter of contention between him and Alchfrith (and presumably also Cyneburh). Although Oswiu’s decision would have pleased them, Alchfrith still argued with his father over the appointment of Wilfrid as a bishop, and ended up sending Wilfrid to Frankia to be consecrated. After this Alchfrith rather suspiciously disappears from the historical record.

Cyneburh would have been in a difficult position at this point. It appears she returned to her brother Wulfhere in Mercia, and founded a combined (men and women) Abbey at Castor, where she served as the first Abbess and was joined by her sister Cyneswide and another female relative, Tibba. Cyneswide and Tibba duly served as abbesses in their turn, and Tibba is also remembered as the patron saint of falconers.

King Wulfhere died in 675 AD and another brother, a signatory on the charter above, succeeded to the throne as King Athelred of Mercia (Bede says it was after three years). He then asked the pope to confirm the charter they had signed and the pope duly did. A synod was called to read the papal letter, following which King Athelred declared:

“All those things which my brother Peada, and my brother Wulfhere, and my sisters Kyneburh and Kyneswith, gave and granted to St. Peter and the abbat, it is my will shall stand; and I will in my day increase it for the good of their souls and of my own soul.”

Cyneburh influenced both her kingly brothers to act charitably and donate land and money to the church and for the care of the poor.

Alban Butler in his Martyrology says:

“By his [Alchfrith’s] death she was left a widow in the bloom of life, and, renouncing the world, governed a nunnery which she built; or, according to others, found built by her brother Wulfere, in a moist fenny place, on the confines of the counties of Huntingdon and Northampton, then called Dormundcaster, afterwards from her, Kyneburgecaster, now Caster. The author of her life in Capgrave says, that she lived here a mirror of all sanctity, and that no words can express the bowels of charity with which she cherished the souls which served God under her care; how watchful she was over their comportment, and how zealous in instructing and exhorting them; and with what floods of tears she implored for them the divine grace and mercy. She had a wonderful compassion for the poor, and strongly exhorted her royal brothers to alms-giving and works of mercy.”

Cyneburh, Cyneswide and Tibba had their remains translated to Peterborough Abbey by Alfsige, Bishop of Winchester and later Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 10th century.

The Bewcastle Cross which is dated to the 7th-8th century and has a runic inscription which is now much faded, but is believed to include on the west face:

“This Victory Cross set up Hwatred, Wothgar, Olwfwolthu in the memory of Alcfrith a king and son of Oswiu; Pray for his soul”

The north face is also thought to include the name of Cyneburh.

The cross may have been erected in the reign of Ecgfrith, Oswiu’s son, who ruled Northumbria 670-685 AD.

Feast Day of Bishop Ninian, 16th September

Book of the Hours of the Virgin and Saint Ninian
Book of the Hours of the Virgin and Saint Ninian, Public domain

16th September is the Feast Day of St Ninian: Bishop and Evangelist to the Picts.

Bede in the 8th century mentions him as the precursor to Columba while Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a biography in the 12th century. However, for such a significant saint his story is hidden from us by the fact that he lived in difficult times with low levels of literacy and high levels of violence and war. As Alban Butler puts it, rather quaintly:

“It was St. Ninian’s lot to live at that critical period, when the Roman power was breaking, and the empire was giving way under internal divisions, and the inroads of the Northern tribes. And Britain, which had been raised from a wild and savage condition to considerable civilization, was again to be thrown back into a more miserable barbarism by the inundations of the Caledonians, and the occupation of the Saxons.”

Now here´s Bede, who probably derived his information from his colleague Pechtelm, who had been elected Bishop of Whithorn:


“for the southern Picts, who dwell on this side of those mountains, had long before, as is reported, forsaken the errors of idolatry, and embraced the truth, by the preaching of Ninias, a most reverend bishop and holy man of the British nation, who had been regularly instructed at Rome, in the faith and mysteries of the truth; whose episcopal see, named after St. Martin the bishop, and famous for a stately church (wherein he and many other saints rest in the body), is still in existence among the English nation. The place belongs to the province of the Bernicians, and is generally called the White House, because he there built a church of stone, which was not usual among the Britons.”

The name of the “White House” (“Candida Casa” in Bede´s Latin) was translated into Old English as “hwit aern” and in time this became Whithorn.

What Bede tells us is quite brief but does tell us that the period was after the death of Martin of Tours, the St Martin mentioned, who died 397 AD, and that Ninian was a British Christian but “properly” instructed in Roman tradition, a matter of great concern to Bede. This was before Columba’s mission to Britain in the 6th century.

Modern archaeologists have been busy around Whithorn and uncovered remains from the 5th century settlement showing that people were trading and importing luxury goods from the Mediterranean and were working the land. The Latinus Stone found there is the earliest Christian monument in Scotland, dating from around 450 AD. It was erected to Latinus and his daughter, and may have stood in the nearby early Christian cemetery. The inscription reads:

“TE DOMINVM/ LAVDAMVS/ LATINVS/ ANNORVM/ XXXV ET/ FILIA SVA/ ANNIV/ ICSINUM/ FECERVNT/ NEPVS/ BARROVA/ DI,

We praise you, the Lord! Latinus, descendant of Barravados, aged 35, and his daughter, aged 4, made a sign here.”

There is a Chi-Rho (Christian) symbol traced above the lettering.

The anonymous 8th century hagiographical poem “Miracula Nynie Episcopi” describes the miracles of St Ninian and was used by Alred in writing his own “Life of St Ninian”. There was a (now lost) 7th century “Life of Ninian” written at Whithorn as well. These include miracles not reported by Bede, who generally only reported stories he felt he could verify from multiple accounts or eye-witness testimony.

According to Aelred´s 12th century work, Ninian was the son of a British King and was probably born near the Solway and raised as a Christian. He led a pious childhood, studying Scripture. At this time the British Church tended to teach an unapproved form of Christianity and so Ninian became a missionary to his own people following a visit to Rome where he learned over the course of a number of years the “correct” teachings. Eventually the Pope consecrated him as a Bishop and he then returned home. Alred suggests that Ninian visited St Martin at Tours on his way home, and that Martin provided masons to build the White House, but this is not feasible given the dates; in general Alred sets Ninian‘s story a century earlier than it seems likely to have happened.

Ninian settled in Galloway at Whithorn where his experiences in the Eternal City inspired him to build a stone church in the style of Roman architecture. This may have enhanced his teachings of the Roman rule among his countrymen. He soon established a religious community to preach to the people.

Based on Aelred’s work, Newman describes one of Ninian‘s miracles involved producing food for the community when it seemed none was available:

“The Bishop and his brethren went one day into the Refectory, but their usual meal of leeks and other herbs did not appear. The brother who should have provided them was called. He had only the disappointing tale to tell that they had no provisions left, all the leeks had been put into the ground for seed, and none remained for them to eat. Perhaps it had been a bad season and their garden crops had failed. The Saint bid him go to the garden and bring what he found. He was astonished at the command, knowing there was nothing there, but habitual obedience and the thought that the Bishop could not command any thing without good reason prevailed.”

Of course, there were now plenty of leeks and herbs ready to be eaten.

Ninian also founded a school at Whithorn where he himself taught the children. One of the boys had been caught in some misdemeanour and decided to run away to avoid punishment. However he took with him Ninian‘s staff as a comfort, and jumped into a boat to escape across the sea. However the boat was not properly finished and began to take on water. He prayed for pardon from Ninian and used the staff to plug one of the holes in the boat, which was then gently blown back to shore. On landing the boy planted the staff and prayed it would become a tree to prove the power of Ninian to everyone. Not only did it do so but also a stream appeared and the waters from it cured many ailments.

There are a number of other miracles attributed by Aelred to Ninian but primarily he was remembered as the saint who converted the southern Picts, then displayed a supreme level of organisational skill in ordaining clergy, arranging parishes and establishing churches to support the new faith.

He is said to have died at Whithorn and been buried at the church after many years of labour among the people of Galloway, who remembered him devotedly for centuries thereafter. His followers mourned his passing as he was believed to have ascended to Heaven in reward for his devotion.

“For lo! the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

Feast Day of Edith of Wilton, 16th September

Edith of Wilton
Edith of Wilton, 13th century royal genealogy, MS Royal 14BV, public domain

Edith of Wilton’s Feast Day is on 16th September.

Edith (Eadgyth) was one of the daughters of King Edgar the Peaceable, by his first wife, Wulfthryth. Wulfthryth was the nun Edgar was alleged to have abducted, but interpretations of their relationship vary widely (see entry for 13th September).

Meanwhile Edith was born at Kemsing in Kent, and brought up in the monastery in Wilton where her mother had spent her youth. Later Wulfthryth became the Abbess of Wilton when she and Edgar separated and Edgar took a new wife. Edith remained with her mother at Wilton for the rest of her life after also choosing a religious career. According to her biographer, Goscelin, she had numerous opportunities to leave Wilton, either to join secular society or to serve as an abbess at other establishments, but preferred to remain there.

Edith was described as humble and delighted in being of service to those around her. This included persuading her father to make generous donations to the Abbey. She was said to have dreamed that she lost her right eye, which she interpreted as representing the death of her half-brother Edward. This occurred when he was assassinated at Corfe Castle.

Despite apparently turning down the opportunity to become Queen (this does not seem a very likely request in actual fact) following Edward’s murder, she continued to dress as befitted a royal woman and was criticised for it by Bishop Athelwold. She replied somewhat feistily that God was interested in her mind not her attire. She also kept a number of animals as pets in a private zoo, and insisted outrageously in having a heated bath-tub.

She died on 15th September 984 AD, aged only about 23, soon after the dedication of a church she built in Wilton. Her death was predicted by Dunstan at the dedication ceremony. The church was dedicated to St Denis, and Edith designed the paintings which decorated the interior. She was well educated and highly literate, reading widely and writing prayers in her gospel book. Wilton Abbey provided a high standard of education for its girls, and Goscelin served there as a chaplain, writing in Latin for his charges.

At the time Goscelin was writing her biography Wilton still had an alb embroidered by Edith with gold and pearls. Her nickname among the nuns was “Goda” which means “good” but is also a personal name.

She pre-deceased her mother, who promoted her vigorously as a saint, to the ongoing and lasting benefit of Wilton. Thirteen years after her death her tomb was opened and her body was found to be incorrupt. She was venerated by her brother Athelred Unrede, her nephew Edmund Ironside, and also by King Cnut who ascribed his survival of a storm at sea to her intervention.

Harold Hardrada lands in England, 18th September 1066

Monument to Harald Sigurdsson
Monument to Harald Sigurdsson at Harald Hardrådes plass in Gamlebyen, Oslo, Norway. Relief by Lars Utne 1905, by Wolfmann [CC BY-SA 4.0]

On 18th September 1066 the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada (Old Norse: harðráði meaning “stern ruler”), landed on the English coast at Scarborough and began his invasion of England.

Harald is also known as Harald Sigurdsson, as he was the son of Sigurd Syr, and his half-brother (through his mother Åsta) was Olaf, who later became King Olaf II Haraldson and was declared a saint (known as “St Olave” in York for example).

Harald was born around 1015, during the reign of Cnut the Great, King of England and Denmark. His brother Olaf took the throne of Norway in the same year. However, in 1028/29 Olaf was driven out of Norway in favour of Cnut. In 1030 Olaf raised an army to retake his throne and the 15 year old Harald raised a force of 600 men and fought alongside him at the Battle of Stiklestad despite Olaf’s initial reluctance to involve his younger sibling, as reported in the Heimskringla:

“It appears to me advisable,” says the king, “that Harald my brother should not be in the battle, for he is still in the years of childhood only.” Harald replies, “Certainly I shall be in the battle, for I am not so weak that I cannot handle the sword; and as to that, I have a notion of tying the sword-handle to my hand. None is more willing than I am to give the bondes a blow; so I shall go with my comrades.”

Stiklestad was a victory for Cnut. Olaf was killed and Harald badly wounded. He was forced to flee and was taken by Ragnvald Brusason to a farmer’s house where he was able to recover in secret. He then crossed the mountains with the farmer’s son and found Ragnvald and others of Olaf’s men who been forced to flee after Stiklestad. In the following spring they made their way to the court of Jaroslav of Kiev.

There he stayed for a few years until around 1034 when he decided to make an expedition to Constantinople.  Once there he and his men joined the Varangian Guard in the pay of the Empress. He soon became the commander of the Guard and spent much of his time fighting pirates in the Mediterranean, taking castles and building up his wealth.

After a few more years Harald led his men to Jerusalem.

“Harald went with his men to the land of Jerusalem and then up to the city of Jerusalem, and wheresoever he came in the land all the towns and strongholds were given up to him.

Here it is told that this land came without fire and sword under Harald’s command.  He then went out to Jordan and bathed therein, according to the custom of other pilgrims.  Harald gave great gifts to our Lord’s grave, to the Holy Cross, and other holy relics in the land of Jerusalem.  He also cleared the whole road all the way out to Jordan, by killing the robbers and other disturbers of the peace.”

Eventually he returned to Constantinople, planning to go back to Norway. He discovered that his nephew, Olaf’s son Magnus, had become King of both Norway and Denmark. However, the Empress was not willing to see him leave and had him imprisoned.

At this point his dead half-brother, now Saint, Olaf stepped in and appeared to a woman in a vision to send her to rescue Harald, which she did. In revenge Harald led the Varangian Guard to the Emperor, made him their prisoner and blinded him. They then took ship to leave Constantinople, but this was not easy as there was a chain across the harbour to control entry and exit.

“When they came to the place where the iron chain is drawn across the sound, Harald told his men to stretch out at their oars in both galleys; but the men who were not rowing to run all to the stern of the galley, each with his luggage in his hand.  The galleys thus ran up and lay on the iron chain.  As soon as they stood fast on it, and would advance no farther, Harald ordered all the men to run forward into the bow. Then the galley, in which Harald was, balanced forwards and swung down over the chain; but the other, which remained fast athwart the chain, split in two, by which many men were lost; but some were taken up out of the sound.  Thus Harald escaped out of Constantinople and sailed thence into the Black Sea.”

He returned to Jaroslav’s court and that winter married the Princess Elizabeth, Jaroslav’s daughter. After this he made his way back north and eventually gathered a force to attack Denmark, which they raided.

Meanwhile Magnus was in Norway raising his own army in response to Harald’s threat. However, under pressure from their advisors Harald and Magnus agreed a truce, splitting Norway between them and sharing their wealth. They ruled together until Magnus died on 25th October 1047.

In 1048 Harald attacked Denmark which was ruled Swein Estrithson; Swein had sheltered Edward the Confessor during his exile but Edward failed to offer him support in return when Harald attacked, despite the efforts of his brother-in-law Earl Godwin.  Harald failed to take the land but continued his attacks every year without any success until 1064 when a peace treaty was made. Meanwhile in Norway he was able to develop increased trade links with the Rus and Constantinople thanks to his experiences of living among those peoples.

In 1066 Edward the Confessor died without a clear heir and Harold Godwinson was chosen as the King of England. His estranged and exiled brother Tostig Godwinson was stirring up trouble and persuaded Hardrada that he was entitled to a claim on the throne of England. He argued that in earlier negotiations Edward had hinted Harald might succeed him (William of Normandy also made this claim, but in England the succession was not the king’s to grant, although he could indicate a preference which was often followed). Additionally in 1038 Magnus had signed an agreement with the then King of England, Harðacnut, that if either died without children the other would inherit his lands.

Hardrada’s claim on the English throne was not strong but his resources and skill in battle made him a significant threat. He sailed via the Orkneys with a large fleet, met up with Tostig Godwinson and landed at Riccall near York. This sets the scene for the first of three battles for the throne of England, which took place in September and October:

20th September Battle of Fulford

25th September Battle of Stamford Bridge

14th October Battle of Hastings.

The back story in Harald’s Saga (in Heimskringla) is much more negative towards Harold Godwinson and describes Tostig as the leading Earl (Jarl) in England under Edward who was deprived of the throne by his younger brother. Tostig Godwinson had been trying to gain support in Denmark and Scotland without success and now he approached Norway. Harald was initially not very keen to put energy into invading England but Tostig persisted, finally saying:

“If you want to gain England, then I can bring it about that the majority of the leaders in England will be your friends and supporters. I lack nothing more in comparison with my brother Haraldr than just the name of king. Everyone knows that no such fighting man has been born in Northern Lands as you, and I find it surprising that you have been fighting for fifteen winters to win Denmark, but you will not take England, which now lies open to you.”

Harald raised a levy and collected a fleet of around 200 ships, while Tostig went back to raise his own supporters. Initially Harald sailed to Orkney to meet up with more men and to leave his wife and daughters safe. He then sailed south down to Cleveland and then to Scarborough which he burned.

“The Norwegians slew many people there, and took all the wealth they got hold of. There was then nothing else the English people could do, if they were to stay alive, but submit to King Haraldr. He then subjected all the land to himself wherever he went.”

The fleet made its way up the Humber Estuary via the River Ouse towards York, where the English forces were gathering their defences in readiness for the encounter at Fulford.

Death of Archbishop Theodore, 19th September 690

Theodore of Tarsus
Theodore of Tarsus, public domain

Theodore of Tarsus died on 19th September 690 AD.

He was born in the Byzantine Empire around 602 AD and was the Pope’s second choice to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury when Wigheard died unexpectedly before he could be consecrated. He took up the post at the age of 66 and turned out to be not only long-lived but also, in Bede’s words, the “first archbishop whom all the English church obeyed.” 

Theodore was born in Tarsus which is in modern south east Turkey. He was an exceptional scholar and probably studied at Antioch. The region was invaded twice in the time he was likely to have lived and studied there, so he probably had to leave as a refugee on one of those occasions. The next record of him is in Constantinople which was also an important centre of biblical study at that time, and had a university and several libraries.

Theodore later left Constantinople for Rome. He seems to have lived as a monk at the monastery of St Anastasius just outside the city’s southern gate, and was almost certainly there around 649 AD.

In 667 AD the Archbishop-Elect of Canterbury, one Wigheard, was in Rome to collect his pallium from the pope, but unfortunately died of plague. Initially the Pope asked Hadrian to take Wigheard’s place, but Hadrian rather cunningly suggested Theodore instead. Theodore was duly consecrated on 26th March 668 AD and set out for the distant, chilly shores of Britain, and Hadrian was sent with him. He arrived on 27th May 669 AD, at the age of 67. It was only five years after the Synod of Whitby which had ruled in favour of accepting Roman orthodoxy. Bede says:

“Theodore arrived at his church the second year after his consecration, on Sunday, the 27th of May, and held the same twenty-one years, three months, and twenty-six days. Soon after, he visited all the island, wherever the tribes of the Angles inhabited, for he was willingly entertained and heard by all persons; and everywhere attended and assisted by Hadrian, he taught the right rule of life, and the canonical custom of celebrating Easter. It was the first archbishop whom all the English church obeyed.”

His age however was of little consideration to him as he set about reforming the native church. He appointed a number of bishops where there had been vacancies and called a synod in 672 AD at Hertford.

Bede tells us that he planned to break up some of the vast dioceses, such as Bishop Wilfrid’s Northumbria, and to hold synods every two years. Wilfrid, being unimpressed with his threatened loss of power, disputed this strongly. In 677 AD Theodore finally lost patience, deposed him and broke up the diocese anyway. In its place he created dioceses in Bernicia, Deira and Lindsey. Wilfrid promptly went to Rome to appeal to the pope and although Theodore reinstated him, he was only made Bishop of York (Deira).

Theodore remained a strong proponent of orthodoxy, ensuring the papal authorities were followed, and in teaching canon law. He also introduced the prayer called the “litany for the saints”.

However, due to his fame as a scholar he was perhaps most influential through the number of students who came to study under him at Canterbury, including Aldhelm. There are numerous commentaries recording his teachings, word for word in some cases, as well as his writings, which survive displaying an exceptional talent and level of scholarship.

Theodore was not simply an academic though; he also brokered peace between warring kings, as Bede explains:

“[A.D. 679] IN the ninth year of the reign of King Egfrid, a great battle was fought between him and Ethelred, king of the Mercians, near the river Trent, and Elfwin, brother to King Egfrid, was slain, a youth about eighteen years of age, and much beloved by both provinces, for King Ethel red had married his sister Osthritha. There was now reason to expect a more bloody war, and more lasting enmity between those kings and their fierce nations; but Theodore the bishop, beloved of God, relying on the Divine assistance, by his wholesome admonitions extinguished the dangerous fire that was breaking out; so that the kings and their people on both sides being appeased, no man was Put to death, but only the usual mulct [fine] paid to the king for his brother that had been killed; and this peace continued long after between those kings and their kingdoms.”

When he died in 690 AD he was buried at the cathedral in Canterbury, and again we have Bede to provide more details of his memorial:

“He held the bishopric twenty-two years, and was buried in St. Peter’s church, where all the bodies of the bishops of Canterbury are buried. Of whom, as well as of his Companions, of the same degree, it may rightly and truly be said, that their bodies are interred in peace, and their names shall live from generation to generation. For to say all in few words, the English churches received more advantage during the time of his pontificate than ever they had done before. His person, life, age, and death, are plainly described to all that resort thither, by the epitaph on his tomb, consisting of thirty-four heroic verses.

The first whereof are these –

Here rests fam’d Theodore, a Grecian name,

Who had o’er England an archbishop’s claim;

Happy and blessed, industriously he wrought,

And wholesome precepts to his scholars taught.

The four last are as follow –

And now it was September’s nineteenth day,

When, bursting from its ligaments of clay,

His spirit rose to its eternal rest,

And joined in heaven the chorus of the blest.”

Battle of Fulford, 20th September 1066

The arrival of King Harald of Norway

The arrival of King Harald of Norway and his defeat of the Northumbrians at Fulford, from The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris 13th century. Public domain

On 20th September we remember the men who fought and died in the first of the three Battles of 1066 which was at Fulford near York. 

Henry of Huntington, a 12th century chronicler, gives us an overview of events just as William of Normandy was preparing his forces in France:

“Meanwhile Earl Tosti came into the Humber with sixty ships. But Earl Edwin came with an army and put him to flight. Fleeing to Scotland, Tosti met Harald, king of Norway, with 300 ships, and very gladly submitted to him. Then they both came up the Humber as far as York, and Earls Edwin and Morcar fought against them near the city. The site of the battle is still pointed out on the south side of the city. But King Harald of Norway and Tosti with him took possession of the Field of Mars.”

Hardrada and Tostig had made their way down to York, ravaging on the way in Cleveland and Yorkshire (see 18th September). The English Earls, Edwin and Morcar, stood against their combined armies at York.

There were three key earldoms in England at the time: Wessex held by Harold Godwinson alongside his throne; Mercia; and Northumbria. The latter two were held by the brothers Edwin and Morcar and these two earldoms balanced the power of Wessex. Their sister Eadgyth had married Harold Godwinson by 1066, bringing the families closer together dynastically. Morcar had replaced Tostig when he was expelled as Earl of Northumbria in 1065 by a revolt in York. With the dual threat of invasion from Norway and France, it is likely King Harold Godwinson kept watch in the south while Edwin and Morcar managed defences in the North.

The prevailing northerlies which were frustrating William in Normandy helped speed Hardrada across the North Sea to Britain. The Heimskringla tells us Harald had over 200 ships and Tostig will have added some more, although nowhere near an equal number, probably more like 30. This implies a force of around 8,000-10,0000 men in the Norwegian fleet. It is estimated around 6,000 of them deployed at Fulford, with a significant number remaining in Riccall with the ships. Meanwhile at least 1000 men were deployed on the English side, and possibly up to 5000.

The land around what is now called Germany Beck at Fulford allowed a shield wall of approximately 400m to be drawn up. Its position was weak, with the marsh limiting English movement and Hardrada having the advantage of higher ground. The English were flanked and routed and the battle saw a Norwegian victory; the cost in lives lost was enormous and possibly was as high as 1500 men.

The Saga of Harald Hardrada in Heimskringla describes the battle:

“When King Harald saw that the English array had come to the ditch against him, he ordered the charge to be sounded, and urged on his men. He ordered the banner which was called the Land-ravager to be carried before him, and made so severe an assault that all had to give way before it; and there was a great loss among the men of the earls, and they soon broke into flight, some running up the river, some down, and the most leaping into the ditch, which was so filled with dead that the Norsemen could go dry-foot over the fen. There Earl Morukare fell.”

The forces of Mercia and Northumbria were decimated, although both Edwin and Morcar did survive despite the passage above.  York capitulated and was not ransacked, possibly at Tostig’s request. Hostages were provided and supplies sent to the Norwegian camp at Stamford Bridge.

It is probable that news of the size of Hardrada’s force had already reached King Harold Godwinson and he was already on his way north despite the threat from Normandy. The next battle would be on 25th September at Stamford Bridge.

Death of Snorri Sturlason, 22nd September 1241

Statue of Snorri Sturlason
Statue of Snorri Sturlason in Bergen © PWicks, 2019

Snorri Sturlason died on 22nd September 1241. In fact, he was assassinated. He was pivotal in recording the oral stories of the Northern Scandinavians in written form, so they have survived to the modern day. These stories tell us about many eventsnd people of the Anglo-Saxon period, but from an external viewpoint.

Born in 1179 into the powerful Icelandic Sturlunga family, his father was Sturla Thordarson and his mother Guthný Böthvarsdóttir. His father Sturla had been involved in a lawsuit with the priest and chieftain Páll Sölvason. Páll’s wife had attacked Sturla with a knife, trying to cut out his eye, but fortunately was prevented. Because the settlement in the lawsuit would have ruined Páll, a nobleman called Jón Loftsson offered to raise Snorri in his own home instead. Jón Loftsson was related to the Norwegian royal family and so Snorri received an elite education and became part of the most influential circle in Icelandic society.

In 1199 Snorri married Herdis, the daughter of a very wealthy family, and inherited land and a chieftainship. His lands and honours increased over time despite the couple divorcing in 1206. He had a number of children with different women and was able to secure strategic marriages for them which further enhanced his own position in society.

In 1215 Snorri became the Lawspeaker of Iceland. This was the only official role in Iceland at the time and was created in 930 AD when the Icelandic Parliament (Althing) was established. It dated back to the oral tradition and required the recitation of the laws of the land at the annual summer meeting, a third of the laws being recited each year in a cycle; the Lawspeaker was therefore appointed for three years at a time.

Snorri then visited Norway in 1218 and in 1220 became a Baron there, attracting even greater wealth and privilege. He supported the Norwegian King being made ruler of Iceland. When he returned to Iceland in 1222 he reprised his role as Lawspeaker, and held it until 1232, during which time he was the most powerful man in the country.

He made a number of enemies through quarrels and failed lawsuits, and because of his political support for Norway. He also had a relationship with Hallveig Ormsdottir, who was a widow, but whom he never married; this relationship had disastrous consequences later for him.

As well as his political and legal roles Snorri was a famous poet. He is the first Icelandic author we know by name and his writings have helped to shape Nordic identity and contributed more widely to world heritage. His main works were the Poetic Edda, a collection of myths; the Prose Edda, a treatise on writing poetry; Heimskringla, sagas telling the history of the Kings of Norway until 1277; and almost certainly Egil’s Saga, from whom he was descended.

King Haakon IV of Norway felt that Snorri was not being sufficiently active in achieving his goals in Iceland. However, his reign was beset with difficulties due to his unpopularity. In 1237 Snorri returned to Norway and now joined the opposition to the king for a couple of years. In 1239 he left Norway against the King’s command and sailed back to Iceland. However, he was not welcomed there by his feuding relatives. King Haakon demanded that Snorri should be brought to Norway or killed if he refused to obey.

In June 1241 Hallveig died of an illness and her children demanded half of Snorri’s estates as their inheritance despite the fact the couple had not been married. When Snorri refused they made a complaint against him and this provided an excuse for his enemies to attack him.

On 22nd September 1241, he was assassinated by Haakon´s order in his home. The killer was Árni Beiskur, who hit Snorri with an axe.

“Don’t strike,” were Snorri’s last words. He died unarmed in his own cellar.

“The rough storm has robbed me 
Of my best riches, 
It’s cruel to recall 
The loss of that kinsman, 
The safeguard, the shield 
Of the house has sailed 
Out in the death’s darkness 
To a dearer place.”
(from Egil’s Saga)

Death of King Alfwald, 23rd September 789

Map of Britain about 802 AD
A detail from William Shepherd’s map of the British Isles about 802 AD, showing the kingdom of Northumbria and neighbouring domains, public domain

The King of the Northumbrians, Alfwald was assassinated on 23rd September 789 AD. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle even names his killer:

“AD. 789. ‘This year Alfwald, king of the North-humbrians, was slain by Sicga, on the 8th of the kalends of October [24th Sept.]; and a heavenly light was frequently seen at the place where he was slain; and he was buried at Hexham, within the church; and Osred, the son of Alcred, succeeded to the kingdom after him: he was his nephew. And a great synod was assembled at Aclea.”

Alfwald had succeeded to the throne of Northumbria following the deposition of Athelred Moll in 779 AD. This was the century of which saw the beginning of the chaotic instability in Northumbria with kings coming and going in rapid succession. Alfwald was the son of Oswulf, himself assassinated in 759 AD by Athelwold Moll, Athelred Moll’s father, so relationships between the families were not warm.

Let’s just take a look at the kings briefly because it’s a confusing time.

  • 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.

Alfwald, son of Oswulf, drove out Athelred Moll in 779 AD and took the throne, which brings us up-to-date. He was probably supported by the Archbishop of York and the nobles who were discomfited by the fate of the three ealdormen the previous year. However, his feud with the Moll family did not end and Athelred’s men killed one of his allies, Beorn, in December 780 AD. The Archbishop died in the same year.

“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]; and archbishop Aethelbert died at York, in whose place Eanbald was consecrated”

Alfwald did not establish firm control of his kingdom and Eanbald did not keep his diocese in order either. In 786 AD the pope sent a legate to restore good governance, and a decree was duly issued supporting Alfwald as legitimate king and as sanctified ruler. The legate was accompanied by Alcuin from Charlemagne’s court, and formerly of York. Alcuin later laid the decline of morality in the Kingdom of Northumbria firmly on the assassination of Alfwald.

However it was not long before Alfwald was accused of tyranny and assassinated, and the miracle of the shining light followed.

The culprit, Sicga, was a thegn who had been present at a Church council held with the papal legate in 786 AD. He didn’t live much longer: the death of someone called Sicga is reported in the Chronicle in 793 AD, presumably the same man. This of course was the year of the assault on Lindisfarne and the beginning of further woes for Northumbria and elsewhere in Britain.

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25th September 1066

Memorial, Stamford Bridge
Memorial, Stamford Bridge © PWicks, 2012

On 25th September 1066 we commemorate the 2nd battle of that fateful year, at which Harald Hardrada of Norway, somewhat to his surprise, was faced with the forces of King Harold Godwinson of England.

Our King Harold had marched his men north at great speed and arrived in York in just over a week, averaging around 25 miles per day. They had been in the south looking out for the expected invasion from Normandy but the threat of the Norwegian forces, probably larger than anticipated, made the move essential.

The English arrived at Tadcaster on the 24th September, just eight miles south of York. The next day they went to York and learned that the Norwegians were camped at Stamford Bridge. Immediately they headed out to engage them.

Meanwhile Hardrada was unaware of the English arrival, probably assuming they would not abandon their watch for the Normans. Many of the Norwegians had returned to Riccall, 12 miles away, while Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson waited at Stamford Bridge for the supplies promised by the citizens of York as part of the negotiated agreement following the Battle of Fulford.

Estimates for the size of forces are uncertain but the English may have now numbered 10,000 men and the Norwegians perhaps had 6,000 surviving. The English crossed the river Derwent to engage the Norwegians, as described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“Then came Harold, our king, on the North-men unawares [24th Sept.], and encountered them beyond York, at Stamfordbridge, with a great army of English folk: and there during the [whole] day there was a very strong fight on both sides. There was slain Harold Hardrada and earl Tosti; and the North-men who there remained were put to flight, and the English from behind slew them furiously, until some of them came to their ships. Some were drowned, and some also were burned, and so in different ways destroyed that few were left; and the English had possession of the place of slaughter. The king then gave his protection to Olaf, the son of the king of the Norsemen, and to their bishop, and to [Paul] the earl of Orkney, and to all those who were left in the ships; and they then went up to our king, and swore oaths that they would ever keep peace and friendship towards this land, and the king let them go home with twenty-four ships.”

Hardrada was killed quite early in the battle, by an arrow in the throat, but when offered an amnesty Tostig refused and the fighting continued to its bitter conclusion. Norwegian reinforcements eventually arrived from Riccall, but were too few and too late although they inflicted heavy casualties on the English before they were routed. As at Fulford the loss of life was substantial. The Norwegian survivors were sent home in only 24 of their original fleet of around 300 ships, which indicates the numbers that must have died.

The Saga of Harald Hardrada (also “Sigurdson”) has a slightly different perspective, unsurprisingly:

“The weather was uncommonly fine, and it was hot sunshine. The men therefore laid aside their armour, and went on the land only with their shields, helmets and spears, and girt with swords; and many had also arrows and bows, and all were very merry. Now as they came near the castle a great army seemed coming against them, and they saw a cloud of dust as from horses’ feet, and under it shining shields and bright armour. The king halted his people, and called to him Earl Toste, and asked him what army this could be. The earl replied that he thought it most likely to be a hostile army, but possibly it might be some of his relations who were seeking for mercy and friendship, in order to obtain certain peace and safety from the king. Then the king said, “We must all halt, to discover what kind of a force this is.” They did so; and the nearer this force came the greater it appeared, and their shining arms were to the sight like glancing ice.”

The saga then goes on to describe an exchange of offers between the two armies which is unlikely as the Norwegians were unaware of the English arrival, but it is described in the saga:

“One of the horsemen said, “Is Earl Toste in this army?”

The earl answered, “It is not to be denied that ye will find him here.”

The horseman says, “Thy brother, King Harald, sends thee salutation, with the message that thou shalt have the whole of Northumberland; and rather than thou shouldst not submit to him, he will give thee the third part of his kingdom to rule over along with himself.”

The earl replies, “This is something different from the enmity and scorn he offered last winter; and if this had been offered then it would have saved many a man’s life who now is dead, and it would have been better for the kingdom of England. But if I accept of this offer, what will he give King Harald Sigurdson for his trouble?”

The horseman replied, “He has also spoken of this; and will give him seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he may be taller than other men.”

“Then,” said the earl, “go now and tell King Harald to get ready for battle; for never shall the Northmen say with truth that Earl Toste left King Harald Sigurdson to join his enemy’s troops, when he came to fight west here in England. We shall rather all take the resolution to die with honour, or to gain England by a victory.”

Then the horseman rode back.”

A second, later, story about a sole warrior holding the bridge over the Derwent is equally apocryphal, but here it is anyway from Roger of Wendover writing in the 13th century:

“Harold king of England hastened thither with all his strength, and arriving at a town called Stanford, he found there his armies aforesaid, and, though it is hard to believe, a single Norwegian, standing at the entrance of the bridge, slew a number of the English, and kept their whole army from passing over. On being invited to surrender, he mocked the English, and said that they were men of no spirit, who could not overcome a single warrior. When no one dared to approach him, as deeming it inadvisable to engage with him hand to hand, at last one of the king’s household pierced him through with a dart, on which he fell dead into the stream, yielding the victory to the English, who finding a free passage, fell on the rear of the Norwegian fugitives.”

And so our King Harold Godwinson saved England for a little while. But the third battle is yet to come: Hastings, 14th October.

Death of Abbot Ceolfrith, 25th September 716

Maiestas Domini page from Codex Amiatinus
Maiestas Domini page from Codex Amiatinus (fol. 796v), Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, public domain

Abbot Ceolfrith died on 25th September 716 AD. 

He was born around 642 AD into a noble family but left his secular life in his youth to enter the church. He visited a number of monasteries around England before settling at Monkwearmouth at the request of Benedict Biscop. He was appointed the first Abbot of Jarrow in 685 AD and also took charge of Monkwearmouth when Benedict was on one of his many journeys to Rome and then after Benedict died in 689 AD. This was the peak of the twin monasteries’ productivity, and Ceolfrith was responsible for increasing their wealth and prestige through his leadership of the community.

We learn much from the “Life of Ceolfrith” which was written by Bede, who was one of the monks at the monastery during this time and was taught by Ceolfrith. He transferred to Jarrow with Ceolfrith in 685 AD as a child. When plague decimated the community only the two of them survived to sing the Divine Services until more monks were able to join them.

Bede writes in his “The Lives of The Holy Abbots of Weremouth and Jarrow”:

“Ceolfrid, was a man of great perseverance of acute intellect, bold in action, experienced in judgment, and zealous in religion. He first of all, as we have mentioned, with the advice and assistance of Benedict, founded, completed, and ruled the monastery of St. Paul’s seven years; and, afterwards, ably governed, during twenty-eight years, both these monasteries; or, to speak more correctly, the single monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, in its two separate localities; and, whatever works of merit his predecessor had begun, he, with no less zeal took pains to finish. For, among other arrangements which he found it necessary to make, during his long government of the monastery, he built several oratories increased the number of vessels of the church and altar and the vestments of every kind; and the library of both monasteries, which Abbot Benedict had so actively begun under his equally zealous care became doubled in extent. For he added three Pandects [the single-volume Bibles] of a new translation to that of the old translation which he had brought from Rome; one of them [the Codex Amiatius], returning to Rome in his old age, he took with him as a gift; the other two he left to the two monasteries. Moreover, for a beautiful volume of the Geographers which Benedict had bought at Rome, he received from King Alfrid, who was well skilled in Holy Scripture, in exchange, a grant of land of eight hides, near the river Fresca, for the monastery of St. Paul’s. Benedict had arranged this purchase with the same King Alfrid, before his death, but died before he could complete it. Instead of this land, Ceolfrid, in the reign of Osred, paid an additional price, and received a territory of twenty hides, in the village called by the natives Sambuce, and situated much nearer to the monastery.”

However, after a long life ruling over the monks Ceolfrith knew it was time to step down.

“[He] saw himself now old and full of days, and unfit any longer, from his extreme age, to prescribe to his brethren the proper forms of spiritual exercise by his life and doctrine. Having, therefore, deliberated long within himself, he judged it expedient, having first impressed on the brethren the observance of the rules which St. Benedict had given them, and thereby to choose for themselves a more efficient abbot out of their own number, to depart, himself, to Rome, where he had been in his youth with the holy Benedict; that not only he might for a time be free from all worldly cares before his death, and so have leisure and quiet for reflection, but that they also, having chosen a younger abbot, might naturally, in consequence thereof, observe more accurately the rules of monastic discipline.”

He set out almost immediately in May 716 AD, but his health deteriorated faster than expected.

Ceolfrith died at Langres in Burgundy on the way to Rome. He had with him gifts for the Pope including the Codex Amiatinus, which was the third of the three Vulgate single-volume Bibles produced at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow under his direction.

“But Christ’s servant Ceolfrid, as has been said, died on his way to the threshold of the holy Apostles, of old age and weakness. For he reached the Lingones about nine o’clock, where he died seven hours after, and was honourably buried the next day in the church of the three twin martyrs, much to the sorrow, not only of the English who were in his train, to the number of eighty, but also of the neighbouring inhabitants, who were dissolved in tears at the loss of the reverend father. For it was almost impossible to avoid weeping to see part of his company continuing their journey without the Holy Father, whilst others, abandoning their first intentions, returned home to relate his death and burial; and others, again, lingered in sorrow at the tomb of the deceased among strangers speaking an unknown tongue.

Ceolfrid was seventy-four years old when he died: forty seven years he had been in priest’s orders, during thirty five of which he had been abbot; or, to speak more correctly, forty-three, for, from the time when Benedict began to build his monastery in honour of the holiest of the Apostles, Ceolfrid had been his only companion, coadjutor, and teacher of the monastic rules. He never relaxed the rigour of ancient discipline from any occasions of old age, illness, or travel; for, from the day of his departure till the day of his death, i.e. from the 4th of June till the 25th of September, a space of one hundred and fourteen days, besides the canonical hours of prayer, he never omitted to go twice daily through the Psalter in order; and even when he became so weak that he could not ride on horseback, and was obliged to be carried in a horse litter, the holy ceremony of the mass was offered up every day, except one which he passed at sea, and the three days immediately before his death.

He died on Friday, the 25th of September, in the year of our Lord 715, between three and four o’clock, in the fields of the city before mentioned, and was buried the next day near the first milestone on the south side of the city, in the monastery of the Twins, followed by a large number of his English attendants, and the inhabitants of the city and monastery.”

Norman landing at Pevensey, 28th September 1066

Bayeux Tapestry Scene 47, Hic Domus Incenditur
Bayeux Tapestry Scene 47, Hic Domus Incenditur. Image on web site of Ulrich Harsh, public domain

On 28th September 1066 William of Normandy landed his invasion fleet at Pevensey.

By 12th September William had assembled his fleet at Saint-Valery at the mouth of the Somme. He was hoping for a fair wind at last but the weather held him back. As we saw a few days ago, Hardrada was not inconvenienced by weather as he crossed the North Sea and combined forces with Tostig. King Harold Godwinson was caught between two threats, with the Norwegian force being larger than expected and more pressing. He headed north and by the time he had provided Hardrada with his 7 feet of English soil at Stamford Bridge, William was still locked on the Norman side of the Channel.

However, two days after the Stamford Bridge battle, on 27th September, the weather finally changed and the crossing began.

William’s wife, Matilda of Flanders, had secretly built at her own expense a wonderful new ship called the “Mora” for her husband’s enterprise. It was designed to hold 600 men. It had striped scarlet sails, painted planks and a carved golden figurehead of a boy resembling their young son William (who was later called “Rufus”). William was thrilled with the gift and made the “Mora” his flagship, allegedly displaying the banner which he had been given by Pope Alexander II to emphasise the support of the Pontiff for his campaign.

William’s forces landed on the south coast at Pevensey, ravaged the land and dug a defensive fort in the old Roman Fort of the Saxon Shore. They then moved quickly on to Hastings and constructed another fortification, continuing to harry the local people.

King Harold marched south in haste, rather than waiting to assemble a larger force. The strategy had served him well in Yorkshire but William was a different enemy.

The clock was ticking for their confrontation: Hastings 14th October.

Death of Lioba, 28th September 782

Lioba’s statue at Schornsheim
Lioba’s statue at Schornsheim, by Kandschwar, CC BY-SA 3.0

On 28th September we remember Lioba who died on this day in 782 AD in Schornsheim. Despite the Continental location of her death she was actually from Wessex and had made the decision to become a nun and later a missionary to the ancestral homeland. Her relative (through her mother’s family) and inspiration was Boniface, with whom she corresponded at length and who placed such trust in her abilities that he chose her to become the Abbess at Bischofsheim, and further requested that she be buried beside him when she finally died.

Although we tend to refer to her as Lioba (or Leoba) her name was in fact Leofgyth.

She was educated at Wimborne convent and around 732 AD she wrote to Boniface, asking for his guidance and protection. Boniface was made Archbishop at about this date, and his mission was in full swing, but he still corresponded with Lioba, and helped her to improve her Latin verse. Boniface’s successor, Archbishop Lull, continued to write to her when she in turn appears to have helped shape his Latin writing style.

Rudolf, a monk at Fulda, wrote a “Life” of Lioba around 836 AD at the request of Abbot Rhabanus (colleague of Alcuin at Charlemagne’s court). Nevertheless Rudolf admits that he was not able to discover all of the facts about her despite his best efforts, as he had to rely on ambiguous notes left by another monk, and on word of mouth. Here is what he tells us about her family:

“her parents were English, of noble family and full of zeal for religion and the observance of God’s commandments. Her father was called Dynno, her mother Aebba. But as they were barren, they remained together for a long time without children. After many years had passed and the onset of old age had deprived them of all hope of offspring, her mother had a dream in which she saw herself bearing in her bosom a church bell, which on being drawn out with her hand rang merrily. When she woke up she called her old nurse to her and told her what she had dreamt. The nurse said to her: “We shall yet see a daughter from your womb and it is your duty to consecrate her straightway to God. And as Anna offered Samuel to serve God all the days of his life in the temple, so you must offer her, when she has been taught the Scripture from her infancy, to serve Him in holy virginity as long as she shall live.” Shortly after the woman had made this vow she conceived and bore a daughter, whom she called Thrutgeba, surnamed Leoba because she was beloved, for this is what Leoba means. And when the child had grown up her mother consecrated her and handed her over to Mother Tetta to be taught the sacred sciences.”

Tetta was the Abbess at Wimborne, and Rudolf had in fact opened the hagiography with a precis of her work and miracles there to set the scene for Lioba’s spiritual study. Lioba was a devout young woman and especially given to reading and study, although she did her share of the physical work expected.

In due course Lioba had a prophetic dream of an endless purple ribbon issuing form her mouth, and originating in her bowels (the bowels symbolise the seat of courage and tenderness, and purple is the colour of nobility). In the dream she rolled the ribbon into a ball, but it never ran stopped coming. The dream was interpreted by one of the wise old nuns at Wimborne in this way:

“by her teaching and good example she will confer benefits on many people. The thread which came from her bowels and issued from her mouth signifies the wise counsels that she will speak from the heart. The fact that it filled her hand means that she will carry out in her actions whatever she expresses in her words. Furthermore, the ball which she made by rolling it round and round signifies the mystery of the divine teaching, which is set in motion by the words and deeds of those who give instruction and which turns earthwards through active works and heavenwards through contemplation, at one time swinging downwards through compassion for one’s neighbour, again swinging upwards through the love of God. By these signs God shows that your mistress will profit many by her words and example, and the effect of them will be felt in other lands afar off whither she will go.”

As Boniface’s work in Germania became more widespread, he wrote to various establishments for support including to Tetta at Wimborne. He requested Lioba join him, as he recognised her strong reputation for learning and holiness. Tetta was not happy to lose Lioba but sent her nonetheless. Boniface then made Lioba the Abbess of his new monastery at Bischofsheim, in charge of the nuns there. Her nuns went on to become abbesses of further monasteries throughout the region.

Here’s Rudolf again on her learning:

“So great was her zeal for reading that she discontinued it only for prayer or for the refreshment of her body with food or sleep: the Scriptures were never out of her hands. For, since she had been trained from infancy in the rudiments of grammar and the study of the other liberal arts, she tried by constant reflection to attain a perfect knowledge of divine things so that through the combination of her reading with her quick intelligence, by natural gifts and hard work, she became extremely learned. For, since she had been trained from infancy in the rudiments of grammar and the study of the other liberal arts, she tried by constant reflection to attain a perfect knowledge of divine things so that through the combination of her reading with her quick intelligence, by natural gifts and hard work, she became extremely learned. She read with attention all the books of the Old and New Testaments and learned by heart all the commandments of God. To these she added by way of completion the writings of the church Fathers, the decrees of the Councils and the whole of ecclesiastical law. She observed great moderation in all her acts and arrangements and always kept the practical end in view, so that she would never have to repent of her actions through having been guided by impulse. She was deeply aware of the necessity for concentration of mind in prayer and study, and for this reason took care not to go to excess either in watching or in other spiritual exercises. Throughout the summer both she and all the sisters under her rule went to rest after the midday meal, and she would never give permission to any of them to stay up late, for she said that lack of sleep dulled the mind, especially for study. When she lay down to rest, whether at night or in the afternoon, she used to have the Sacred Scriptures read out at her bedside, a duty which the younger nuns carried out in turn without grumbling. It seems difficult to believe, but even when she seemed to be asleep they could not skip over any word or syllable whilst they were reading without her immediately correcting them. Those on whom this duty fell used afterwards to confess that often when they saw her becoming drowsy they made a mistake on purpose to see if she noticed it, but they were never able to escape undetected.”

Rudolf goes on to describe various miracles ascribed to Lioba in uncovering murderers, calming storms and quenching fires. It is also apparent that Lioba had struggles and doubts, and was advised by Boniface to continue her good works. As he set his affairs in order before embarking on his mission to Frisia in 754AD:

“he summoned Leoba to him and exhorted her not to abandon the country of her adoption and not to grow weary of the life she had undertaken, but rather to extend the scope of the good work she had begun. He said that no consideration should be paid to her weakness and that she must not count the long years that lay ahead of her; she must not count the spiritual life to be hard nor the end difficult to attain, for the years of this life are short compared to eternity, and the sufferings of this world are as nothing in comparison with the glory that will be made manifest in the saints. He commended her to Lull and to the senior monks of the monastery who were present, admonishing them to care for her with reverence and respect and reaffirming his wish that after his death her bones should be placed next to his in the tomb, so that they who had served God during their lifetime with equal sincerity and zeal should await together the day of resurrection.”

Lioba evidently took strength and heart from his words and remained at work. Her reputation continued to grow and she became an inspiration to kings such as Pippin, King of the Franks, and his sons.  She was even allowed to visit the monastery at Fulda which was otherwise a male-only establishment. Eventually she retired to the monastery at Scoranesheim (Schornsheim). However, she was still in demand, as Rudolf explains:

“In the meantime, whilst King Charles was staying in the palace at Aachen, Queen Hiltigard sent a message to her begging her to come and visit her, if it were not too difficult, because she longed to see her before she passed from this life. And although Leoba was not at all pleased, she agreed to go for the sake of their long-standing friendship. Accordingly she went and was received by the queen with her usual warm welcome. But as soon as Leoba heard the reason for the invitation she asked permission to return home. And when the queen importuned her to stay a few days longer she refused; but, embracing her friend rather more affectionately than usual, she kissed her on the mouth, the forehead and the eyes and took leave of her with these words. “Farewell for evermore, my dearly beloved lady and sister; farewell most precious half of my soul. May Christ our Creator and Redeemer grant that we shall meet again without shame on the day of judgment. Never more on this earth shall we enjoy each other’s presence.””

After this Lioba returned to her convent and died a few days later on 28th September. She was buried north of the altar at Fulda because the monks were afraid to open Boniface’s tomb. Later she was moved to the west porch and her resting place became a shrine where miracles were performed. Rudolf concludes:

“These two [Lioba and Boniface], though they do not share a tomb, yet lie in one place and never fail to look on those who seek their intercession with the same kindliness now they are in glory as they did when they lived on earth and showed pity and compassion on the wretched.”

Lioba was a woman of great learning and intellectual reputation. It is perhaps comforting to know that her name lives on in the vastness of the cosmos and through the achievement of modern scientific enquiry.

“974 Lioba” is an asteroid from the central regions of the asteroid belt, approximately 25 kilometers (16 miles) in diameter. It was discovered in 1922, by an astronomer at the Heidelberg-Königstuhl State Observatory. 974 Lioba has a longer than average rotation period of 38.7 hours and was named after our Leofgyth.

Marriage of Athelred Moll to Alfflaed of Mercia, 29th September 792

Coin of Athelred I of Northumbria
Coin of Athelred I of Northumbria, public domain

On 29th September King Athelred Moll of Northumbria married Alfflaed, the daughter of King Offa of Mercia.

On 23rd September 788 King Alfwald of Northumbria had been assassinated in a feud with Athelred. He wasn’t Athelred’s only target.

Let’s take a moment to consider the career of Athelred Moll in a little more detail, limited as that may be. Here’s a reminder of the kings in the years leading up to Athelred’s reigns (for he had two separate turns on the throne):

  • Eadbert abdicated in favour of Oswulf in 757 AD.
  • Oswulf was then assassinated in 758 AD by Athelwold Moll’s faction
  • 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 later succeeded 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.
  • Alfwald ruled 779-788 AD and was assassinated by Athelred Moll
  • Osred then ruled 788-790 AD when he was overthrown and went into exile
  • Athelred Moll ruled a second time 790-796 AD when he was also assassinated

Athelred was the first king of Northumbria to reign twice, possibly a symptom of the growing instability in the realm.  Although he had not succeeded his father, perhaps because he was too young at the time, he was eventually installed as king in 774 AD. Much of the impetus behind his selection appears to have come from the Archbishop of York, Athelbert.

Initially following the lead of his councillors the king later demonstrated greater independence of thought and action by the late 770s.  Dealing with those deemed to be traitors in 778 AD he had three ealdormen executed. This was a step too far for the nobles and they had him removed.

However, Athelred did not give up hope of restoring his fortunes. As his successors proved equally unpopular he gained enough support to replaced Osred in 790 AD. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:

“AD 790. Osraed, king of the North-humbrians, was betrayed, and driven from the kingdom; and Aethelred, the son of Athelwald, again obtained the government.”

Simeon of Durham notes in the same year:

“AD 790. Ethelred was freed from banishment, and again, by Christ’s favour, seated on the throne of the kingdom. But king Osred, overreached by the treachery of his princes, having been taken prisoner and deprived of his kingdom, assumed the tonsure in the city of York, and afterwards, driven by necessity, went into exile. In his second year (AD 791), duke Eardulf was taken prisoner, and conveyed to Ripon, and there ordered by the aforesaid king to be put to death without the gate of the monastery. The brethren carried his body to the church with Gregorian chanting, and placed it out of doors in a tent; after midnight he was found alive in the church.”

But Athelred did not stop there. He also seized Alfwald’s sons by force from sanctuary in York Minster and had them killed.

“AD 791. The sons of king Elfwald, having been carried from the city of York by force, and drawn from the principal church by deceitful promises, were miserably slain by king Ethelred in Wonwaldremere; their names were Oelf and Oelfwine.”

You may have noticed that Osred survived his deposition. In 792 he returned. By now Athelred was unpopular and rebellious men gathered around Osred, and so he became a target for the King.  On 14th September 792 AD Athelred had Osred, the nephew of Alfwald, killed and two weeks later he got married.

“Lastly, in this year [792 AD], Osred, induced by the oaths and pledge of certain nobles, came secretly from his exile in Eufania [Man], and there his soldiers deserting him, he was captured by the aforesaid king Ethelred, and put to death by his order, at the place called Aynburg [location unknown] on the eighteenth of the kalends of October [14th Sept.]. His body was brought to the mouth of the river Tyne, and buried in the church of the noble monastery there. In the same year, king Ethelred took as his queen Elfled, daughter of Offa, king of the Mercians, at Catterick, on the third of the kalends of October [29th Sept.].”

His bride’s reaction is not recorded, and neither is his father-in-law’s, although no doubt if Offa had not been happy he would have made it known. Athelred must have been seeking to strengthen his position by allying with the most powerful King in Britain.

793 AD was also the year of the attack on Lindisfarne and Alcuin of York, at the court of Charlemagne, wrote to the king warning him that it was a sign of God’s judgement for the sins of the nation. By implication Athelred had contributed to this state of affairs through his own misdeeds. Alcuin certainly made him aware that the immorality and extravagance of his court was not acceptable.

From today’s perspective there seems little to like about Athelred. He was a violent man who murdered a number of opponents quite openly. However, the fact that he ruled twice implies he was not without some support, and his alliance with Offa equally indicates that he was not viewed as negatively as we may be tempted to think.

Eventually however he was assassinated at Corbridge by a supporter of Osbald, the next man to be king in 796 AD. However the usurper only held power for 27 days, so it may be he was lucky in his choice of assassin rather than part of a more popular faction.

You may be interested to know that following the 27 day interregnum of Osbald the eventual successor to the throne was Eardwulf, the man who was ordered killed at Ripon by Athelred in 791 AD but found alive the following morning by the monks. 

Death of Jerome, 30th September 420

Codex Sangallensis
Codex Sangallensis 1395, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, p. 418 – Veterum Fragmentorum Manuscriptis Codicibus detractorum collectio Tom. II. CC BY-NC 4.0

On 30th September we remember Jerome, who died in 419 or 420 AD on this day.
Jerome’s 5th century translation of the Bible formed the core of the Vulgate Bible, the official text sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the 16th century and which remained so until 1979.

Jerome was born in Slovenia around 347 AD to Christian parents who sent him to Rome to study when he was twelve. He was a keen student and followed the classical programme of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) followed by the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).

He was baptised at the end of his schooling and then travelled widely for the next 20 years. He became interested in monasticism and asceticism, and probably wrote his earliest known work in Antioch around 374 AD.

In early 375 AD Jerome became ill and had a dream which affected him deeply. He was accused of following Cicero, a pagan author, and of not being a Christian, for which he was scourged. When he woke up he vowed never to read a single page of pagan literature again.

He lived as a hermit in the desert for a while before returning to Antioch. By now he had a reputation as a great scholar and ascetic, and although he was ordained as a priest he did not undertake a priest’s duties but continued his studies of the scriptures.

He returned to Rome in 382 AD and became the Secretary to the pope. During this time he wrote various tracts, produced a rather unsuccessful translation of the Gospels, and taught Roman noblewomen about monasticism. He was outspoken about the corruption among the Roman clergy, and became unpopular. Following the death of the pope he moved on again, this time to the Holy Land settling in Bethlehem after a year, where he founded a monastery for men and three cloisters for women. He settled in the monastery and stayed there until his death. He continued to be involved in the theological controversies of the day, in his typical aggressive and contentious manner.

Recognising that his earlier translation of the Gospels was not really good enough, he began to work on a revised text. He also translated many books of the Old Testament into Latin and although he didn’t manage to translate the whole Bible, his work formed the core of the Vulgate translation. The term “Vulgate” refers to the Latin spoken by ordinary people, rather than a literary version, and Jerome deliberately translated the texts in this way to make them accessible, much as Alfred later translated books into Old English so that they could be understood more widely.

He died in either 419 AD or 420 AD and is the patron saint of librarians and translators.

His influence through his writings and his biblical translation is truly astounding and he was a major intellectual force in the development of the Western Church. The Vulgate Bible was the version copied into the Codex Amiatinus of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow.

The oldest surviving copy of the Vulgate is the Codex Sangallensis 1395, written at Verona on vellum in half-uncial in the early fifth century, around about the time of Jerome’s death.

On This Day

Anglo-Saxon Calendar
Anglo-Saxon calendar, 11th century, Cotton MS Julius A VI (c) The British Library

In this section of our website you will find information about events of interest related to specific dates. Mostly these happened during the Anglo-Saxon period but we also commemorate people whose contributions to the study of Early Medieval Britain have enhanced our understanding, or to others whose lives, legacy or actions affected the Anglo-Saxons themselves profoundly.

You can use the menu on the right to read through entries for each month. Alternatively you can use the search box to look for specific topics.

Post-conquest England

In this part of the website we provide more information about the events after 1066. You can see the list of events in the menu on the right, or use the search option to look for individual events.

We will be writing new pieces regularly so do come back to see who has been added.