Category: Events in Anglo-Saxon times

On This Day in August

Domesday Book, 1st August 1086

Map of the English counties surveyed in Domesday Book
Map of the English counties surveyed in Domesday Book. Showing Little and Great Domesday and circuits by XrysD [CC BY-SA 4.0]

On 1st August 1086 William of Normandy called a great meeting at Old Sarum, where he had built a royal castle on the Iron Age hill fort at Salisbury. It was attended by all the men of consequence in the kingdom, not just his immediate advisers, and they swore allegiance to him. It was also the opportunity to present the first completed section of the Domesday Survey which had been commissioned the previous December.

Here´s the full entry for the year in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“AD 1086. This year the king wore his crown and held his court at Winchester, at Easter [5th April], and so he journeyed that he was at Westminster at the Pentecost [24th May], and he dubbed his son Henry as knight there. Afterwards he moved about so that by the Lammas [1st Aug.], he came to Salisbury, and there his witan came to him, and all the tenants of land that were of consequence over all England became the vassals of this man, whosoever they were, and they all submitted to him and became his men, and swore to him oaths of fidelity that they would be faithful to him against all other men.

Thence he went into Wight, because he intended to proceed into Normandy, and so he did afterwards; but before this he did according to his custom, he obtained a very large sum of money from his people where he could make any charge, either with right, or otherwise.

Then afterwards he went into Normandy, and Edgar etheling, the relative of king Eadward, then went off from him, because he had no great honour from him; but may Almighty God give him worship for the future!

And Christina, the sister of the etheling, betook herself into the minster at Romsey, and took the holy veil.

And this same year was a very heavy year, and a very laborious and a sorrowful year within England by the murrain of cattle, and corn and fruits were left standing; and such mishap was there in the weather as that one cannot easily think; such heavy thunder and lightning was there that it killed many men, and ever it grew worse among men, more and more. May God Almighty amend it, when his will is!”

This first draft of Domesday concerned Yorkshire, so is of particular interest to our Yorkshire group. If we go back in the Chronicle to the previous year we find the scope of the Survey, which certainly did not meet with the Chronicler´s approval:

“1085…After this the king had a great meeting, and a very deep conference with his witan concerning this land, how it was leased out, or to what kind of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire, and directed them to ascertain how many hundred hides were in each shire, or what quantity of land the king himself held, and how much stock was upon the land, or what dues he ought to have by the twelvemonth from the shire. Also he caused to be recorded in writing how much land his archbishops held, and his diocesan bishops, and his abbats, and his earls, and (though I take long to tell it,) what, or how much, each man, who was a tenant of land, occupied within England, in land or in stock, and how much money it was worth. So exceedingly narrowly did he cause the investigation to be made, that there was not one single hide, nor one yard of land, nay moreover—it is a disgrace to recount it, but he considered it no disgrace to do it,—neither an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine was there left, which was not written down in his record. And all these writings were brought to him afterwards.”

In order to conduct the Survey, the shires were grouped into seven circuits to be recorded by appointed commissioners who held no or very little land within the circuit to which they were assigned. The commissioners held sessions at the shire courts to receive reports from the royal officials in the shire, as well as from juries representing the Hundreds. In some instances local landowners also testified, but a great deal of material was submitted in written reports. This is why the Domesday record does not represent actual villages so much as estates/manors or vills (units of taxation).

The returns were then compiled for the king, arranging the king´s holdings geographically. The landholders´ estates were listed by tenure to describe a total holding to establish taxation levies. Domesday contains records for 13,418 settlements in the English counties south of the rivers Ribble and Tees (the border with Scotland at the time).

The work was completed by mainly one scribe, with some additional corrections by a second person.  The original document therefore contains numerous notes and additions as the scribe attempted to impose some consistency and structure on the varied format of the material he received.  The Survey was intended to be compiled into one complete volume, but was never fully completed, probably due to William’s death in September 1087. However, the information collected from the whole survey was retained in two volumes: firstly ‘Great Domesday’  which comprises 413 pages containing most of the counties, and is abridged; and ‘Little Domesday’  containing 475 pages covering the three counties missing from Great Domesday (Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk) and is unabridged. The “Yorkshire summary” is appended to Domesday and helps to convert holdings in the Danelaw from a geographical to a tenurial format, although it is not clear whether it pre-dates the Survey or was part of it.

The Domesday contents for Yorkshire indicate the ongoing effects of the Harrying of the North in 1069-70 and problems of establishing full Norman control. Although there is some debate about the meaning of the term “waste” in the text, clearly in a number of cases it refers to areas destroyed by the army. Yorkshire was not the only place with land made waste, but it was the hardest hit both in terms of land productivity and population. Lincolnshire, East Anglia and East Kent were the most densely populated areas with more than 10 people per square mile, while northern England, Dartmoor and the Welsh Marches had less than three people per square mile. However, it should be noted that “waste” areas may also refer to the failure to pay geld for various reasons.

The text shows that around 17% of the land across England was held by the king, 26% by bishops and abbots, and the remaining 54% by 190 lay landholders. Some of the holdings were spread far and wide. For example, twenty of the lords held land in 10 or more counties, and fourteen of them had lands both in the north of the country and south of the Thames. The majority of landholders were now from Normandy, with many of the former English landholders listed as sub-tenants, demonstrating the imposition of the Norman feudal structure of land-holding and the enormous restructuring of ownership.

Much of the land was used for agriculture of course, with 35% being arable, 25% being pasture/meadow, and 15% being woodland. Arable crops included wheat, barley, oats and beans. Domesday records over some 6000 mills to grind the grain. Pasture was for grazing, and the more valuable meadow bordering watercourses could be used for both grazing and hay. Sheep were of great economic importance and other animals included in the records are goats, cows, oxen and horses, wild horses and forest mares. Bees were also extremely important to produce honey and wax (and mead!). Domesday Book also records fisheries on weirs along the main rivers, but fishponds are also noted and the number of eels produced could be 1000 per pond.

Death of Alfweard, 1st or 2nd August 924

Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral by, CC BY 3.0

Alfweard Atheling, second son of Edward the Elder, died on 1st or 2nd August 924 AD, only a couple of weeks after his father.

It was a complex set of family relationships. Alfweard was the son of Edward and his second wife, Alfflaed, and had a younger brother and numerous sisters. He also had an older half-brother, Athelstan, who was fostered at the Mercian court with his aunt Athelflaed, but who did not seem to be the expected successor to King Edward. Alfweard’s younger brother Edwin would have been next in line to succeed Alfweard, had he not drowned in 933 AD, in circumstances which were controversial. Later it was claimed that Athelstan was responsible, but this may have been propaganda.

Alfweard also had six sisters; some of these were placed in strategic marriages to various kings and nobles when Athelstan became king.  He also had two male cousins, Athelwine and Aelfwine, who were the sons of Edward´s deceased brother Athelweard. Edward the Elder’s third wife, Ecgwynn (whom he had married around 919 AD) had also given birth to two daughters, and two sons. The sons, Edmund and Eadred, did later succeed to the throne, but they would have been very young at the time of Edward´s and Alfweard’s deaths.

Alfweard was in his early twenties when his father died but there are rumours that he had spent some time as a hermit before returning to court. The stories tend to be later and so may be intended to reinforce Athelstan´s suitability for kingship in response to challenges to his right to rule. Alfweard witnessed a number of charters at court, with his first appearance being as early as 901 AD but the rest being consistently from 909 AD.

Following Edward’s death, Wessex had declared Alfweard as king, while Mercia favoured Athelstan who had been raised at the Mercian court under the care of Athelflaed and Athelred. There is no indication in the contemporary texts that Alfweard’s was a suspicious death, but it was certainly a convenient one for his older half-brother who had been systematically side-lined in Edward’s succession planning.

Alfweard died at Oxford on the former Wessex/Mercia border, at this time under control of Wessex. It is possible he was on his way north to meet his father´s funeral procession, or to meet Athelstan regarding the future of the two kingdoms. Another alternative is that if he really had been living as a hermit he may have been making his way back to Winchester where the Wessex court was.  The most likely explanation seems to be that he was heading north to establish his authority within Mercia, which had preferred Athelstan. Edward´s death would probably have renewed the argument for the two kingdoms to separate again.

The suddenness of Alfweard´s death meant there was no time for a coronation and the records for the year are mixed in the Chronicles. Some versions fail to mention Alfweard at all, others that he died, and one with Mercian sympathies focuses on Athelstan´s coronation at Kingston.

Alfweard´s body was taken back for burial at Winchester in the New Minster. Although Edward had worked to unite Mercia and Wessex following Athelflaed´s death, removing her daughter and successor Alfwynn within a few months, it is theoretically possible he planned to divide the kingdoms between his two eldest sons. The notion of a united England was still not a foregone conclusion.

Battle of Maserfeld, 5th August 642

St Oswald
St Oswald as king, from 13th century manuscript. By public domain – New York Public library manuscript Spencer 1, folio 89 reverse, Public Domain

The Battle of Maserfeld was on 5th August 642 AD. At the battle Penda, the pagan King of Mercia, defeated Oswald, the Christian King of Northumbria and “High King” (Bretwalda) of the Anglo-Saxons.

Bede tells us that:

“Oswald was killed in a great battle, by the same pagan nation and pagan king of the Mercians, who had slain his predecessor Edwin, at a place called in the English tongue Maserfield, in the thirty-eighth year of his age, on the fifth day of the month of August.

How great his faith was towards God, and how remarkable his devotion, has been made evident by miracles since his death; for, in the place where he was killed by the pagans, fighting for his country, infirm men and cattle are healed to this day. Whereupon many took up the very dust of the place where his body fell, and putting it into water, did much good with it to their friends who were sick. This custom came so much into use, that the earth being carried away by degrees, there remained a hole as deep as the height of a man.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle added that he was buried at Bardney in Lincolnshire and Bamburgh.

“AD. 642. ‘This year Oswold, king of the North-humbrians, was slain by Penda [and] the South-humbrians at Maser-feld on the nones of August [5th Aug.], and his body was buried at Bardney.

His sanctity and his miracles were afterwards manifested in various ways beyond this island, and his hands are at Bambrough, uncorrupted. And the same year that Oswold was slain, Oswiu his brother succeeded to the kingdom of the North-humbrians, and he reigned two less (than) thirty years.”

This multiplicity of resting places may appear odd but Oswald was not left intact after his death and so parts of him ended up in different locations as relics.

Bede emphasised Oswald’s saintly behaviour in his lifetime (rather than seeing him as a saint due to the manner of his death). For example he tells us about his generosity to the poor and to strangers: one time at Easter, Oswald was sitting at dinner with Aidan, and had “a silver dish full of dainties before him”, when a servant, whom Oswald “had appointed to relieve the poor”, came in and told Oswald that a crowd of the poor were begging alms from the king. Oswald immediately had his food given to the poor and had the silver dish broken up and distributed. Aidan was so impressed that he seized Oswald’s right hand, saying: “May this hand never perish.” Bede then tells us that the hand and arm remained uncorrupted after Oswald’s death.

Oswald was the son of King Athelfrith of Bernicia who was deposed by Edwin. Oswald and his family had to go into exile and he was brought up in Dal Riada where he became a Christian following the traditions of the Irish church. When Edwin was killed by Penda at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633 AD Oswald took the throne after the Battle of Heavenfield the following year, where he defeated Cadwallon and Penda.

However, Penda fought and defeated Oswald at Maserfield and dismembered his body. The cause for the battle is not entirely clear although the two kings were always wary of the each other’s power. Traditionally the location of the battle is Oswestry (“Oswald’s Tree”) which would have been outside of Northumbrian territory, indicating Oswald was probably the aggressor.

Bede claimed that Oswald’s head and body were displayed on poles, and it is possible it was a form of crucifixion. It is likely the Welsh led by Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn of Powys were fighting with Penda. As they were Christians it is not accurate to depict the battle as a purely Pagan-Christian conflict. Penda’s brother Eowa also appears to have been killed fighting with Oswald against Penda, although his status is not at all clear; he is described as a king of the Mercians and possibly was co-ruler with Penda or even his overlord. What the battle did achieve was to cement Penda’s pre-eminence as the most powerful king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Oswald’s brother Oswiu managed to retrieve his brother’s remains the following year in a raid into Mercia.

When Oswald’s relics were brought to Bardsey the monks initially declined to receive them, being unhappy with Oswald’s overlordship of their region, indicating that he was not as universally popular as Bede tried to make out. However, Bede then tells us that a miracle soon persuaded the monks of their error.

Death of Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, 5th August 1063

Wales under Gryffydd ap Llewellyn
Wales under Gryffydd ap Llewellyn, By AlexD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

On 5th August 1063 Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, King of Gwynedd, was killed by his subjects. His head and ship’s beak were sent to Harold Godwinson who sent them on to King Edward (the Confessor). The Ulster Chronicle says that he was killed by Gruffudd ap Cynan, whose grandfather Iago ab Idwal ap Meurig was killed by Gruffydd in 1039 (Iago had been King of Gwynedd).

Gruffydd was the son of Llywelyn ap Seisyll and Angharad ferch Maredudd. He became ruler of Gwynedd in 1023 when his father died and took over Powys in 1039 when its king, Iago, was killed. Iago’s son, Cynan ap Iago, was forced into exile in Dublin.

Gruffydd ap Llywelyn extended his power base in Wales until in 1056 he was recognised as the king of Wales. We discussed the Battle of Glasbury in June, where he defeated the English and was later subdued by Harold Godwinson on behalf of King Edward (the Confessor). The culmination of Harold’s campaign saw Gruffydd’s head winging its way to Edward in London.

His achievement was monumental. He was:

“the only Welsh king ever to rule over the entire territory of Wales… Thus, from about 1057 until his death in 1063, the whole of Wales recognised the kingship of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn. For about seven brief years, Wales was one, under one ruler, a feat with neither precedent nor successor.”

Battle of Tettenhall, 5th or 6th August 910

Pillar base, Bardney Abbey
Pillar base, Bardney Abbey, Photo by Richard Croft, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Battle of Tettenhall on either 5th or 6th August 910 AD was between Edward the Elder and the leaders of the Danelaw with victory to Edward.  It is related to the Battle of Maserfield (5th August) by more than a coincidence of date. It was precipitated by a raid on Bardney Abbey by Athelflaed and Athelred to recover the relics of Oswald.

In 906 AD Edward had agreed the Peace of Tiddingford with a number of Danish leaders, updating the earlier agreement between Alfred and Guthrum. This peace held until the Mercian raid on Bardney.

Athelred and Athelflaed had been transferring their power base away from the traditional royal centre at Tamworth to Gloucester, where they built a new Minster. This removed their primary centre from the border with the Danelaw and was presumably more secure. However, the new foundation at Gloucester would have needed an important relic to attract pilgrims and enhance its status and wealth. The couple seem to have chosen the relics of Oswald, which were still held at Bardney, formerly in Mercia but now in the Danelaw. So in 909 AD they raided Bardney violating the Peace of Tiddingford. The Danes retaliated, aware that Edward was preoccupied with his fleet in Kent. However, the Danes under-estimated the speed and decisiveness of Edward’s reaction.

Sometime on the 5th or 6th August 910 AD he met them at the Battle of Tettenhall. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

“In this year the Angles and the Danes fought at Teotanheal on the ‘eighth of the ides of August [6th Aug.], and the Angles obtained the victory. And that same year Aethelflaed built the fortress at Bremesbyrig.”

Death of Oswine, 6th August 761

River Wear, Finchale
River Wear, Finchale, Photo by JThomas / River Wear, Finchale / CC BY-SA 2.0

Athelwold Moll slew Oswine the Atheling in battle at Edwin‘s Cliff on 6th August 761 AD.

Athelwold Moll had taken power in Northumbria following the murder of King Oswulf two years earler (see 24th July) and was crowned on 5th August 759 AD. He was opposed by a number of the athelings and nobles, resulting in the death of Oswine who was among their number. Athelwold Moll survived as king for a few years but was eventually deposed in 765 AD.

Athelwold Moll was chosen by the Northumbrian witan as king on 5th August 759 AD, nearly two weeks after the assassination of Oswulf, the previous King of Northumbria. His background is obscure, but he was not related to Oswulf and the “Moll“ may indicate his descent from Mul, the brother of an earlier king.

His reign was brief and inglorious. In 760 AD there was a plague; in August 761 AD he fought the Battle of Edwin´s Cliff (or Eildon Hills, according to Simeon of Durham) against Oswine, who may have been related to Oswulf. The battle lasted three days. This is the entry on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:

“ This year the winter was very severe; and on the 8th of the ides of August [6th Aug.], Moll, king of the Northumbrians, slew a most noble etheling named Oswin, near Edwinscliff.”

If Athelwold had been involved in the killing of Oswulf, this was probably part of an ongoing civil war.

Things improved for Athelwold in 762 AD when he married Etheldreda at Catterick on 1st November, and they had a son, Athelred Moll. However, his luck turned again and following a severe winter in 763-4 AD and subsequent famine, his men felt that this was a sign of divine displeasure and turned against him.

Oswulf’s kinsman Alhred finally drove out Athelwold on 30th October 765 AD at Finchale, near Durham, and forced him into monastic retirement.

Although Athelwold´s son Athelred Moll did become king in 774 AD,  Oswulf’s son Alfwold would drive him out in turn in 779 AD, although he was back again in 789 AD until 796 AD when he was murdered.

Derby surrenders to Athelflaed, before 7th August 917

Mercia and the Danish Five Boroughs 912 AD
Mercia and the Danish Five Boroughs 912 AD, Robin Boulby, derivative work: Hoodinski, CC BY-SA 3.0

Just before 7th August 917 AD Athelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, took Derby by storm and routed the Viking invaders there.

Athelflaed had been the Mercian leader since the death of her husband, Athelred in 911 AD and had spent the intervening years building a number of defensive fortifications (burhs) on the borders of Mercia. Meanwhile her brother Edward the Elder was also building fortifications and beginning to push further into Danelaw territory.

Once Athelflaed had completed her defensive burhs she moved to take territory back, in the face of invasion by three Viking armies. She besieged Derby at the end of July and captured it by 7th August (probably the Vikings actually used the old Roman fort of Derventio nearby). Meanwhile her brother Edward attacked Colchester in Essex. The campaign was militarily successful but Athelflaed lost four of her friends in the fighting. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains:

“This year, before Lammas, Aethelflaed, lady of the Mercians, God helping her, got possession of the fortress which is called Derby, with all that owed obedience thereto; and there also were slain, within the gates, four of her thanes, which to her was a cause of sorrow.”

From this beginning Athelflaed started to move towards Leicester and to negotiate an alliance to take York; the local inhabitants of this Danish kingdom were not universally enthusiastic about the Norse invasions and were responding quite positively to her progress.

Her untimely death in 918 AD means we shall never know how much more successful she may have been.

Feast Day of Lide, 8th August

Looking across to St Helens from Tresco
Looking across to St Helens from Tresco, photo © 2009 Tom Corser CC BY-SA 2.0

8th August is the feast day of St Lide. He was a hermit of the Scilly Isles who is credited with paving the way for the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason to convert to Christianity.

In the Norse saga Heimskringla it is recorded that following the death of his wife, Olaf left his homeland in 984 AD and went raiding off the Scillies where he heard about a hermit living there. Although Lide is not named in the saga, he is the man recorded as being on the island at the time and so is associated with the tale.

Olaf wanted to test the holy man so sent one of his men dressed as a king to seek advice. Lide sent him away, recognising that he was an imposter, with the advice to be loyal to his true king.

This convinced Olaf that Lide was a genuine holy man and he decided to see him in person. Lide told Olaf that he would be famous and do great deeds, and also that he would bring many people to Christian baptism. He also gave Olaf proof of his prophecy by predicting an ambush on the way back to Olaf´s ship in which Olaf would be badly wounded but would recover within seven days.

Lide’s prophecy proved correct and Olaf went back to see him again once he had recovered from the attack, even more firmly convinced of Lide’s authenticity. Lide was now able to instruct the king in Christian teachings, and Olaf and his men were all baptised.

Historically it would seem Olaf was either baptised or confirmed in 994 AD by Archbishop Alfheah; it is unclear whether he was already baptised at the time. An earlier saga by Oddr Snorrason, a 12th century Icelandic monk, also reports that Olaf was baptised on the Scilly Islands.

Lide is also known as Elid or Elidius and it is proposed that the name of St Helens in the Scilly Islands is derived from his name.

Battle of Maldon, 10th or 11th August 991

Northey Island
terry joyce / Northey Island / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Battle of Maldon was on or about 10th or 11th August 991 AD. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth of East Anglia was defeated by invading Vikings and a commemorative poem was written soon after. Intriguingly, in describing Byrhtnoth´s actions it has raised the question: did he lose due to pride or was he being pragmatic?

The Vikings had sailed their longships up the River Pante (now Blackwater) and beached them on Northey Island separated from the mainland by high tide. Byrhtnoth raised the English fyrd, or levy, and went to meet them and ultimately died. The poem portrays nobility in defeat, and the men as glorious and honourable at a time when the army was generally demoralised by the ongoing Viking invasions. This year was also the year when the Danegeld was first paid to persuade the raiders to attack elsewhere.

Read more about the Battle of Maldon

Death of Archbishop Jaenberht, 12th August 792

View of Canterbury Cathedral
View of Canterbury Cathedral from St Augustine’s , by Casey And Sonja – Flickr:, CC BY-SA 2.0

Jaenberht died on 12th August 792 AD. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 765 AD and during his tenure came into conflict with with Offa, the King of Mercia, who confiscated church lands and set up an Archbishopric of Lichfield in an attempt to increase his control over the church.

Jaenberht had previously served as abbot of St Augustine´s in Canterbury, and was consecrated as Archbishop in February 765 AD at the court of King Offa. However, he was first and foremost a Kentishman, and Offa was not a popular king in Kent. There was a rebellion there in 776 AD and Offa was defeated at the Battle of Otford. Following the battle Kentish kings issued charters independently but eventually Offa regained control of the territory. It is not clear exactly when this happened but it was around 785 AD.

However, it is probable that Jaenberht was involved in the rebellion and supported the Kentish kings. He seems to have been supportive of King Ecgberht of Kent, who granted a number of estates to Canterbury during his reign. Nevertheless Jaenberht continued to attend church councils led by Offa. After Offa reasserted his control he took the church’s lands back under the premise that Ecgberht had not had authority to give them, and instead granted them to his own thegns.

Jaenberht was rumoured by later writers, such as Matthew Paris, to have conspired to bring Charlemagne to Britain to oppose Offa, although there is no real evidence for this.

By 787 AD Offa had sent envoys to the Pope seeking the establishment of a new archbishopric in Mercia at Lichfield, having failed to move the See from Canterbury to London, which was more fully under Mercian control.  The new archbishopric was agreed and Hygeberht became the archbishop, taking control of much of Canterbury´s lands and wealth, although Canterbury retained seniority (as was the case with the Archbishop of York). Pope Hadrian I had complained to Charlemagne that Offa was plotting to depose him because he had refused to move Canterbury to London, and it is possible that Jaenberht was involved in promoting this rumour. In any event Hadrian did agree soon after writing the letter to establishing the new archbishopric.

After his death Jaenberht was buried at the Abbey Church of St Augustine and soon revered as a saint.

Macbeth takes the throne of Scotland, 14th August 1040

Macbeth of Scotland
Macbeth of Scotland, at Holyrood House by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II (Haarlem 1641/2 – Amsterdam 1697) Public Domain

On 14th August 1040 Macbeth killed King Duncan I of Scotland to win the throne.

Macbeth was the grandson of Ruaidri and the son of Findlaech (Finlay), and the family were the hereditary Lords of Moray. Macbeth therefore inherited the title on the death of his father. Findlaech had been killed in 1020 by his nephew, Mael Coluim, Macbeth´s cousin, according to the Annals of Tigernach:

“T1020.8 Finnlaech son of Ruaidhrí, grand steward of Moray, was killed by the sons of his brother Maelbrighde”

Mael Coluim then was succeeded by his own brother, Gilla Comgain, in 1029, and finally Macbeth succeeded in 1032. The Annals of Ulster record:

“U1032.2 Gilla Comgán son of Mael Brigte, earl of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.”

It is possible that Macbeth was responsible for his cousin´s death. He married Gilla Comgain´s widow, Gruoch, who was descended from the MacAlpin dynasty. Macbeth himself traced his descent for the Kings of Dal Riata. He became stepfather to Lulach, Gruoch´s and Gilla Comgain´s son. It was also at this time that he and Malcom of Alba submitted to Cnut of England.

Moray was a buffer state between the Scandinavian kingdom to the north and Alba to the south. However, in 1040 Duncan I King of Alba attacked Moray, apparently as a punitive expedition. He was defeated in battle at Bothnagowan (now Pitgaveny) and died near Elgin. Duncan had inherited from his grandfather Malcolm in 1034 and was still a fairly young man in 1040, with two sons, Malcolm and Donald. In 1039 he had led a disastrous expedition against Durham in retaliation for a Northumbrian attack, and 1040 proved to be no more successful. Macbeth had until then been identified as a “dux” or sub-king to Duncan. The Annals of Tigernach again:

“T1040.1 Donnchadh son of Crínan, overking of Scotland, was killed by his own immatura aetate [at a young age]”

Malcolm´s widow and sons fled Scotland and Macbeth succeeded to Duncan´s throne, apparently without any major opposition. He ruled for 17 years, mostly peacefully. However, there are records of two battles during his reign.

Firstly, Duncan´s father Crinan, Abbot of Iona, is recorded in the Annals of Tigernach as having been killed in a battle between two Scottish armies in 1045. This may have been a rebellion against Macbeth. Later in 1050 Macbeth felt secure enough to go on pilgrimage to Rome where he gave money to the poor “as if it were seed”. Then in 1052 Macbeth received a number of Norman exiles at his court, fleeing unrest in England as a result of the conflict between Edward the Confessor and Earl Godwin.

Secondly Macbeth fought Earl Siward of Northumbria in 1054 at the Battle of the Seven Sleepers (also called Battle of Dunsinane). Again we can read about it in the Annals of Ulster:

“U1054.6 A battle between the men of Scotland and the English in which fell 3000 of the Scots and 1500 of the English, including Doilfinn son of Finntor”

The battle was also of sufficient importance to be recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“AD 1054.This year went Siward the earl with a great army into Scotland, and made much slaughter of the Scots, and put him to flight: and the king escaped. Moreover, many fell on his side, as well Danish-men as English, and also his own son.”

This battle saw the loss of Siward´s son resulting in Tostig Godwinson taking up the Earldom of Northumbria (see 27th July).

Meanwhile Macbeth continued his reign until 1057. On 15th August 1057, a day after the anniversary of his victory against Duncan, Macbeth was killed in the Battle of Lumphanan by Duncan’s son, Malcolm. Macbeth had drawn his retreating forces north to make a last stand. Macbeth’s Stone, near the site, is traditionally claimed to be the stone upon which Macbeth was beheaded, although there is no evidence for it being true. Alternatively, the “Prophecy of Berchán” has it that he was wounded and died at Scone, 60 miles to the south, some days later, and says of him:

“The red, tall, golden-haired one, he will be pleasant to me among them; Scotland will be brimful west and east during the reign of the furious red one.”

Macbeth was known as “the Red King” presumably due to his hair colour.

Initially Lulach, Macbeth´s stepson, took the throne, but Malcolm also killed him a few months later and succeeded to the throne as Malcolm III of Scotland.

Contemporary sources are generally positive or neutral about Macbeth’s reign. He was applauded for his donations to the church, and he and Gruoch made generous grants of land to religious institutions.  The unusual length of his tenure indicates a stable and reasonably peaceful period, with no or limited opposition, which was remembered as a time of plenty.

Death of Roland, 15th August 778

Monument of the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass
Monument of the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass [“Roldan” is the Spanish spelling for Roland], by Euskalduna – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Roland was a military leader under Charlemagne and died on 15th August 778 AD at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass when ambushed by the Basques. His story was immortalised (with poetic licence, of course) in the Chanson de Roland, an 11th century French poem.

Charlemagne had been campaigning in Spain and destroyed much of the city of Pamplona, the Basque capital, during the fighting. Charlemagne had been expanding his Frankish empire further south following the Basque submission to Pepin in the 760s, and an envoy from Sulayman al-Arabi and others seeking Charlemagne’s support against Abd al-Rahman. He besieged Zaragoza for over a month and finally negotiated a withdrawal in return for gold and the release of prisoners.

On his way back through Spain Charlemagne decided to secure control of Basque territory and ordered the destruction of the walls of Pamplona. He also attacked a number of towns in the area before making his way back through the Pyrenees to France. His rear-guard comprised a number of nobles, including Roland, to protect the baggage train and main body of men as they went.

On August 15th the Basques launched an ambush which took the Franks by surprise. They separated the rear-guard and thanks to their superior knowledge of the terrain were able to massacre the better-equipped Franks and escape with the loot from the baggage train, probably including the gold from Zaragoza. Their stand did however allow Charlemagne to move his main army to safety. This attack was arguably the only defeat suffered by Charlemagne in his military career.

Charlemagne sent his armies back in later years and succeeded in extending control in Spain eventually. He created the Marca Hispanica to serve as a buffer province between his empire and the Islamic state to the south

Later poetry has romanticised the battle out of recognition, and made Roland a chivalric hero, inspiring the later knightly code in the same way as the stories of Arthur and the Round Table did in England. The Chanson de Roland was written in its earliest form around 1040 and there are claims that William of Normandy’s men sang parts of it at Hastings to build up their courage. Oral versions also existed and probably pre-dated the written version, much like Beowulf.

In the story Roland tries to break his sword, Durandal, against a boulder in order to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. He only succeeds in breaking the boulder. In the final stage of the battle Roland sounds his horn Olifant which Charlemagne can hear 30 leagues away, and falls to the ground dead. It summons the king back to retrieve the bodies of his slain nobles and take them for burial in Frankia, and to exact revenge on their enemies.

Coronation of King Eadred, 16th August 946

Eadred, 14th century genealogy, British Library Royal MS 14 B VI
Eadred, 14th century genealogy, British Library Royal MS 14 B VI

On 16th August 946 AD Eadred, son of Edward the Elder, was crowned at Kingston upon Thames, following the assassination of his brother Edmund I (the Magnificent) on 26th May at Pucklechurch. He was consecrated by Archbishop Oda.

Eadred was the younger of the two sons born to Edward the Elder and Eadgifu, Edward’s third wife. Eadred’s older brother Edmund had succeeded their half-brother Athelstan in 939 AD. Eadred was born around 923 AD so would have been in his early twenties when he was crowned.

The reign started with war. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that:

“Eadred the etheling succeeded to the kingdom, and subdued all Northumberland under his power: and the Scots gave him oaths, that they would all that he would.”

The oaths may have been given at the coronation, but proved of little value. Things continued to be difficult for the king for the next couple of years:

“AD 947. This year king Eadred came to Taddene’s-scylf, and there Wulstan the archbishop and all the North-humbrian 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 North-humbrian witan understood that, then forsook they Hyryc, and made compensation for the deed with king Eadred.”

Wulfstan of York was a constant challenge to Eadred and as a result Eadred dealt with him firmly in 952 AD:

“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.”

The Kingdom of York was undergoing conflict between the incumbent ruler Eric Bloodaxe and Olaf Cuaran, who briefly seized back control in 949-952 AD but was finally ousted. Olaf had been Edmund´s godson but seems not to have received support from Eadred.  However, in 954 AD Eric was also expelled by the Danes and Eadred finally won York. Wulfstan seems to have been partially forgiven and was installed as Bishop of Dorchester, safely away from his former power base.

Eadred was also a keen supporter of monastic reform and promoted Athelwold to the abbacy at Abingdon in 955 AD.

He was not a healthy man and died young, at the age of 32, without an heir. He suffered from a digestive problem which probably proved fatal. The Life of St Dunstan records how the king sucked out the juices of his food, chewed on what was left and then spat it out. He died at Frome in Somerset and was buried at the Old Minster in Winchester under the auspices of his friend and co-reformer Dunstan.

Roger of Wendover adds that Eadred called for Dunstan to come and hear his final confession:

“Eadred, the most potent king of England, was taken with a grievous sickness in the tenth year of his reign, and speedily despatched a messenger for the blessed Dunstan to receive his confession. As the latter was hastening to the palace, he heard a voice above him distinctly utter, “King Eadred now rests in peace;” whereupon the horse on which he rode, unable to bear the angelic voice, fell dead to the earth without having received any injury from his rider. On coming to the king, the blessed Dunstan found that he had died the same hour that the angel had announced it to him on his journey. The king’s body was carried to Winchester, and committed to a sepulchre by the blessed Dunstan in the Old Minster.”

Eadred´s nephew, Eadwig, succeeded him.

Feast Day of James the Deacon, 17th August

Present day church of Catterick St Anne
Present day church of Catterick St Anne (15th century) by Alison Stamp, CC BY-SA 2.0

17th August is one of the Feast Days of James the Deacon (the other being 11th October).

James the Deacon was a member of the mission which accompanied Paulinus to Northumbria and York in 625 AD.

 “He had with him in the ministry, James, the deacon, a man of zeal and great fame in Christ’s church, who lived even to our days.” [Bede]

Like Paulinus he was probably of Italian origin. However, when Paulinus headed south again following the defeat and death of King Edwin in 633 AD, James remained in Yorkshire. He was based near Catterick, promoting the Roman form of Christian worship with some evident success as York remained Roman despite much of the north following Lindisfarne´s Irish tradiiton. Christian activity is recorded at Catterick from this date, and fragments of a cross shaft have been found which probably pre-date the first church building. In the 8th century at least two Northumbrian kings were married at Catterick and a church was recorded in the Domesday Book in the 11th century.

Here are Bede´s words:

“He [Paulinus] had left behind him in his church at York, James, the deacon, a holy  ecclesiastic, who continuing long after in that church, by teaching and baptizing, rescued much prey from the power of the old enemy of mankind; from whom the village, where he mostly resided, near Cataract, has its name to this day. He was extraordinarily skillful in singing, and when the province was afterwards restored to peace, and the number of the faithful increased, he began to teach many of the church to sing, according to the custom of the Romans, or of the Cantuarians. And being old and full of days, as the Scripture says, he went the way of his forefathers.”

James participated in the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, which is the last reference to him in the documentation. Bede tells us that James lived “even to our days” ie late 7th century when Bede was a boy. Although he doesn’t say exactly when this happened he wrote that James died “old and full of days”.

Death of King Olaf Hunger of Denmark, 18th August 1095

coin of Olaf I
coin of Olaf I, Hedning CC BY-SA 3.0

18th August 1095 saw the death of Olaf I of Denmark. He was the son-in-law of Harald Hardrada, who was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 by King Harold Godwinson of England (see 25th September).

Swein Estridsson, Olaf’s father, was born in 1019, and via his mother could trace his ancestry back to Sweyn Forkbeard, the Dane who was briefly King of England after ousting Athelred Unrede in 1014. It is likely Olaf was born around 1050, as great-grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard.

Olaf succeeded his brother Cnut IV of Denmark, who had similarly held ambitions for the throne of England and had assembled a fleet against William of Normandy in 1085 but had never sailed due to domestic crises. The army wanted to disband rather than wait, and they asked Olaf to help argue their case for going home to gather the harvest. As a result Cnut arrested Olaf and exiled him to Flanders. Following an uprising in 1086 in which Cnut was killed on 10th July, Olaf became king, the third of Swein´s sons to take the throne (Cnut had succeeded their elder brother Harald). His return to Denmark from Flanders appears to have been negotiated in return for another brother taking his place there.

His reign was inauspicious and the land suffered famine. He was given the epithet “Hunger” to emphasise the calamity, and to compare his brother Cnut more favourably in an attempt to have Cnut canonised. Although the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus claimed the famine was only in Denmark, it may have been more widespread across Europe. It is not recorded elsewhere as being especially notable in Denmark apart from in sources trying to elevate Cnut.

Olaf had been in conflict with Harald Hardrada of Norway for some time but eventually married his daughter Ingegerd, as part of a treaty between Denmark and Norway, and they had a daughter.

Saxo Grammaticus claimed the Olaf willingly sacrificed himself to alleviate the famine which was God´s punishment on Denmark. Whether he killed himself or was sacrificed is unknown and his burial place is likewise a mystery.

Following his death his brother Eric became King and Ingegard returned to Norway, later marrying the King of Sweden. There were no further moves to take the English throne by Denmark´s rulers.

Death of Abbot Credan, 19th August 780

Evesham Abbey bell tower, Oosoom [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Evesham Abbey bell tower, Oosoom [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Credan was the eighth Abbot of Evesham and he died on 19th August 780 AD. He served under King Offa of Mercia and attested a number of his charters. Virtually nothing else is known about him, but he was sanctified following his death. Legend has it that he accidentally killed his own father and became a swineherd as penance. He was made a saint due to his exemplary piety thereafter.

In Ch. VII of the “Life of St Ecgwine and his Abbey at Evesham” by the Benedictines of Stansbrook, we learn that:

“We have no details of the life of St. Credan, eighth Abbot of Evesham, who flourished in the time of King Offa of Mercia, but his merit before God was revealed to Abbot Manny, who was frequently admonished in vision to take up the holy Abbot s relics and lay them in a shrine. When at length he came with great solemnity to do this, the body was found between two others, but distinguished from them by the great brightness with which it shone. The first Norman Abbot, having little faith in Saxon sanctity, resolved, by Lanfranc´s advice, to test these and other relics of the house. They were subjected to the ordeal of fire, but the fire, far from burning the sacred remains, did not so much as touch them.”

Credan had yet more miracles to perform, however. In 1207 the church tower fell destroying the sanctuary where his relics lay with those of St. Ecgwine and St. Odulf. However the three shrines were miraculously preserved.

The Abbey of Evesham was built during the opening years of the 8th century. The land was granted by King Athelred I in 701 AD and consecrated in 709 AD under King Cenred.  The founder was Ecgwine, third Bishop of the Hwicce (692-717 AD) and he chose to locate the Abbey on a prominent bend in the river Avon. The location of the Abbey was originally AEt Homme, meaning “at the bend” (cf. Old English ham/hom for the bend behind the knees, hence “hamstring”).

According to Byhrtferth of Ramsey who wrote a Life of St Ecgwine, the saint had a vision of the Virgin Mary at the future site of the Abbey, where he had been taken by a swineherd named Eoves (Eof). Eoves later gave the name of “Evesham” to the Abbey.

The Kings of Mercia endowed the Abbey generously and the Abbots became very powerful in later centuries as the wealth and prestige of the foundation grew.

Assassination of King Oswin, 20th August 651

Icon of St Oswin
Icon of St Oswin King and Martyr, Public Domain,

After the death of Oswald at the Battle of Maserfeld the Kingdom of Northumbria was again split into its two constituent kingdoms: the Kingdom of Deira (approximately modern-day Yorkshire) and the Kingdom of Bernicia (approximately modern day Northumberland and parts of Lothian). Oswin ruled in Deira while Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, ruled Bernicia. On 20th August 651 AD Oswin was betrayed and assassinated at Gilling in Yorkshire, allegedly at the bidding of Oswiu who then became ruler of the reunited Kingdom of Northumbria. 

Oswin was the son of Osric who was King Edwin’s cousin. This made him and Oswiu second cousins with a shared great-grandfather, Yffi. When Oswin’s father died in 634 AD Oswin was still a child. He escaped to Wessex where he stayed in exile at the court of King Cynegils,and was raised as a Christian (he may already have been baptised before this). However, after 10 years he returned to claim his throne in Deira.

Bede describes Oswin in very flattering terms:

“King Oswin was of a graceful aspect, and tall of stature, affable in discourse, and courteous in behavior; and most bountiful, as well to the ignoble as the noble; so that he was beloved by all men for his qualities of body and mind, and persons of the first rank came from almost all provinces to serve him. Among other virtues and rare endowments, if I may so express it, humility is said to have been the greatest.”

Bede then goes on to relate how Oswin gave a particularly splendid horse to St Aidan to help him travel around his diocese, but Aidan gave the horse away to a beggar. Oswin was very upset when he heard about it, but Aidan rebuked him for his lack of charity and Oswiu got over his huff and begged the saint’s forgiveness for his reaction.

Oswin and Oswiu ruled jointly for a few years but eventually Oswiu declared war. Oswin however preferred not to fight, being out-numbered by Oswiu’s forces; Bede then tells us the story in more detail:

“But Oswy, who governed all the other northern part of the nation beyond the Humber, that is, the province of the Bernicians, could not live at peace with him; but on the contrary, the causes of their disagreement being heightened, he murdered him most cruelly. For when they had raised armies against one another, Oswin perceived that he could not maintain a war against one who had more auxiliaries than himself, and he thought it better at that time to lay aside all thoughts of engaging, and to preserve himself for better times. He therefore dismissed the army which he had assembled, and ordered all his men to return to their own homes, from the place that is called Wilfaresdun, that is, Wilfar’s Hill, which is almost ten miles distant from the village Called Cataract, towards the north-west. He himself, with only one trusty soldier, whose name was Tonhere, withdrew and lay concealed in the house of Earl Hunwald, whom he imagined to be his most assured friend. But, alas! it was otherwise; for the earl betrayed him, and Oswy, in a detestable manner, by the hands of his commander, Ethilwin, slew him and the soldier aforesaid, this happened on the 20th of August, in the ninth year of his reign, at a place called Ingethlingum, where afterwards, to atone for his crime, a monastery was built, wherein prayers were to be daily offered up to God for the souls of both kings, that is, of him that was murdered, and of him that commanded him to be killed.”

Unfortunately for Oswiu, Oswin was also related to Oswiu’s wife and as his nearest kin she was entitled to claim wergild in compensation for the murder of her relative. Indeed, Oswiu himself was also a relative of Oswin, so things were complicated.

The obvious solution was followed: Oswiu founded a monastery to commemorate Oswin and the monks were required to offer prayers for Oswin’s soul and for Oswiu’s salvation. The location of Gilling is not definite. It may have been Gilling West, an important centre for Deira, and the site of the discovery of the Gilling Sword. The monastery may have been Gilling Abbey near Gilling West. However, there are some historians who prefer Gilling East as the location, both being in Yorkshire.

Wherever it was, Oswin’s remains were soon taken from Gilling to Tynemouth Priory where their location became forgotten. Then in 1065 a vision was granted to a monk called Edmund. Oswin came to him in a dream to indicate where his mortal remains could be found, saying to him:

“I am king Oswin slain by Oswy through the detestable treachery of count Hunwald, and I lie in this Church unknown to all. Rise therefore and go to the bishop Egelwin, and tell him to seek my body beneath the pavement of this oratory, and let him raise it up and re-inter it more becomingly in this same chapel”

The remains were duly located by the authorities and later venerated by Tostig Godwinson, Earl of Northumbria, and his wife, Judith of Flanders, who washed Oswin’s hair which was still stained with blood.  In 1103 Oswin was moved again, this time to St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire.

Columba and the Loch Ness Monster, 22nd August 565

Sketch of the Arthur Grant alleged Loch Ness monster sighting in January 1934
Sketch of the Arthur Grant alleged Loch Ness monster sighting in January 1934, San Antonio Light. 5 October, 1941, public domain

St Adomnan wrote a Life of St Columba in which he described how an aquatic monster was driven off by Columba. This was the famous Loch Ness Monster and the date of its encounter with Columba was 22nd August 565 AD. Here is what Adomnan wrote:

“On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble [boat] that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.”

Marvels of the East, manuscript
Marvels of the East, British Library, Cod. Cotton Tiberius B V (circa 1040).

The medieval mind viewed things differently from us. If you could imagine something then it was possible and so, in a sense true. One of the manuscripts which has survived from this period is called “The Wonders of the East”. It describes strange and terrifying creatures encountered by travellers in distant lands. The earliest version of the manuscript is part of the Nowell Codex, which also includes the poems Beowulf and Judith. The collection as a whole has a theme of “monsters”; Beowulf is described as one and also fights various monsters, and Judith acts in a monstrous fashion against the even more monstrous Holofernes.

The monsters depicted in the lands to the East include dragons, gold digging ants, strange half-human creatures with gigantic ears or faces in their chests, phoenixes, and hens which would burn anyone who touched them.

Other versions of the book exist in the Bodleian collection and the Cotton Tiberius collection at the British Library. The monsters vary between manuscripts but all are based on earlier continental Latin texts of Greek origin, although presented in a different format.

It is arguable whether the texts are for entertainment purposes, or encyclopaedic, or represent a purpose not really understood by the modern reader. However, the various copies over an extended period certainly emphasise the enduring popularity and interest in their subject matter.

Marvels of the East, British Library
Marvels of the East, British Library, Cod. Cotton Tiberius B V

Sack of Rome, 24th August 410

Sack of Rome by Alaric
Augustine, La Cité de Dieu (Vol. I). Sack of Rome by Alaric – sacred vessels are brought to a church for safety. Maïtre François (illuminator) [Public domain]

On 24th August 410 AD Alaric I led the Visigoths to the Sack of Rome. This soon resulted in the permanent withdrawal of troops from the Roman Province of Britannia and heralded the beginnings of the Anglo-Saxon Age over the next 600 years.

So who was Alaric and why did he sack Rome?

Alaric was a Visigoth who served in the Roman Army. He led a group of Gothic warriors on an invasion of Thrace in 391 AD but was defeated by the Roman General Stilicho. He later led his men in support of the Emperor Theodosius but when he failed to receive recognition for his talents he left the Romans and was elected the leader of the Visigoths. From then he led his army across Greece, attacking a number of cities. His lack of recognition by the Roman Emperor in the West was not reflected in the Eastern Roman Empire where the Emperor Arcadius put him in charge of the army.

Alaric then moved to invade Italy and was again defeated by Stilicho. After that he stayed in the East for the next few years. In 408 AD the Western Roman Emperor Honorius executed Stilicho on the basis of rumours that he had reached an agreement with Alaric. Honorius then went on to massacre the families of Goths serving in the Roman Army which inevitably resulted in a surge of Goths defecting to Alaric´s army. Alaric moved on Rome seeking revenge, ravaging as he came. Laying siege to Rome, he was paid off by the Senate and also able to demand the liberation of Gothic slaves in the city. However, he was still denied the leadership of the army – perhaps not surprisingly.

The following year Alaric again besieged Rome and elevated Priscus Attalus to Emperor. Attalus knew what he had to do, and made Alaric leader of the military. However Alaric still was unable to do exactly as he wished and was denied the opportunity to invade Africa. Honorius continued to block Alaric and Attalus, and finally in 410 AD Alaric removed Attalus and besieged Rome once more.

The gates of the city at Porta Salaria were opened to him on 24th August 410 AD, possibly by supporters, and for three days Alaric’s troops looted and plundered the city. However, there are numerous records, written by surprised churchmen, of the restraint the Goths showed in dealing with the inhabitants of the city. They wanted treasure but did not resort to undue violence against people sheltering in the churches. Nor was there widespread destruction of buildings although some archaeological evidence for fires have been linked to the events of 410 AD.

The writer Jordanes, for example, wrote in his Getica (History of the Goths) that:

“by Alaric’s express command they merely sacked it and did not set the city on fire, as wild peoples usually do, nor did they permit serious damage to be done to the holy places.”

Alaric finally moved south towards Africa, vital for its grain supply to Rome. However his fleet was destroyed in a storm and Alaric himself died, probably of malaria, soon afterwards. He was allegedly buried under a river bed with treasure (the river was temporarily diverted while the grave was dug).

Although the Sack of Rome was relatively swift and the city relatively undamaged, the consequences of the attack were significant. Rome struggled on until it fell to Odoacer more than 50 years later, and troops from the provinces were recalled as defence of the Eternal City became the priority for the Empire. Meanwhile the Romano-British were told to look to their own defences as their garrisons drained away.

Death of Aebbe the Elder, 25th August 683

Coldingham Priory
Coldingham Priory, 2005, Dougie Johnston CC BY-SA 2.0

25th August is the feast day of Aebbe the Elder who died on this day in 683 AD.

She was a saint, an abbess and a sister to Oswald and Oswiu of Northumbria, along with five other brothers. She was still a child, perhaps only a couple of years old, when Athelfrith of Northumbria was killed in battle by Edwin of Deira in 616 AD by the River Idle. Her family fled north to Dal Riata where they remained in exile under the protection of the king until Oswald reclaimed his throne in 634 AD.

The children were accordingly brought up as Christians according to the Irish Church and Aebbe was devout. A Scottish prince, Aidan, wanted to marry her and her family were keen that she take  up the offer. However, she took the veil instead from St Finan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, around 655 AD. Her brother Oswiu, by now the King, recognised her determination and gracefully gave her land to build her first monastery at Ebchester (Aebbe´s camp). Later she founded the monastery at Coldingham where she became the Abbess and presided over a double house for men and women. It stood on St Abb´s Head (which also preserves her name). Among her visitors were Cuthbert, Prior of Melrose and later Abbot of Lindisfarne, for whom she personally wove a piece of cloth in which he was later buried.

It was during his visit that Cuthbert’s miracle with the otters was witnessed. Briefly Cuthbert went each night down to the shore and walked into the icy water until it reached his neck. He then spent the night singing psalms and praying. On coming out of the water in the morning, two otters came and dried and warmed his feet. This is why Cuthbert is often portrayed with an otter in iconography.

Another visitor was queen Alfthryth, wife of Aebbe´s nephew King Ecgfrith, who fled her husband to return to East Anglia and found Ely Abbey. She went to Coldingham for help in her escape, having been tutored by Aebbe.

Aebbe´s third visitors of note were her nephew Ecgfrith, this time with his new wife Ermenburga. During their stay Ermenburga suffered severe pains and Aebbe explained these were due to the couple´s treatment of St Wilfrid who was currently imprisoned by them and whose reliquary Ermenburga had taken and carried everywhere with her. Upon Wilfrid’s release and the return of the reliquary the queen recovered her health.

Sadly for Aebbe the monastery´s reputation left much to be desired. Discipline was surprisingly relaxed for such a devout Abbess. Aebbe was consistently regarded as wise, pious and devout despite the activities happening under her leadership. One of the monks, Adomnan, predicted that the monastery would be destroyed by fire. This is how he described it to Aebbe:

“but all of them, both men and women, either indulge themselves in slothful sleep, or are awake in order to commit sin; for even the cells that were built for praying or reading, are now converted into places of feasting, drinking, talking, and for their delights; the very virgins dedicated to God, laying aside the respect due to their profession, whensoever they are at leisure, apply themselves to weaving fine garments, either to use in adorning themselves like brides, to the danger of their condition, or to gain the friendship of strange men; for which reason, a heavy judgment from heaven is deservedly ready to fall on this place and its inhabitants by devouring fire.“

However he did reassure Aebbe that this would not occur during her lifetime. The monks and nuns attempted to improve their behaviour as a result of this dire prediction and succeeded for a while. However, after Aebbe´s death they reverted to their old ways and the monastery duly burned down in 683 AD.

Confusingly there was a second Abbess called Aebbe in the 870s, and she is generally referred to as Aebbe the Younger.

In March 2019 it was suggested AEbbe´s monastery may have been found, near or under Coldingham Priory as radiocarbon dating of animal bones placed remains firmly in the appropriate period (664-864 AD). The conclusion of the archaeological work was that:

“The increasing body of evidence within the heart of Coldingham strongly supports the hypothesis that the site is the location of the early monastic community established by St. Aebbe.”

Crowland Abbey destroyed, about 26th August 870

Ruins of the later Croyland Abbey
Ruins of the later Croyland Abbey, Rensi (c) 2009 Public domain

Sometime around 26th August 870 AD the monastery at Crowland (also called Croyland), the retreat of St Guthlac in the 7th century, was ravaged and destroyed by Danish invaders. The first monastery was founded in memory of St Guthlac, who began his life as a hermit on 24th August (St Bartholomew’s Day) probably around 699 AD.

According to Stanton’s Menology:

“The year 870 is especially memorable for the cruel outrages of the pagan Danes, who in different parts of the country slaughtered innumerable victims, in their thirst for conquest and hatred of our holy religion, choosing in preference ecclesiastic and religious of both sexes. Lincolnshire and East Anglia were among the provinces which suffered most, and there, shortly before the glorious martyrdom of St Edmund, the chief monasteries were utterly destroyed.”

This was only months before the Year of Battles (870-871 AD) which concluded in Alfred becoming King of Wessex and eventually in 880 AD the Danish War Leader Guthrum taking baptism and becoming ruler in East Anglia, where Crowland is to be found. King Edmund of East Anglia had been martyred by the Danes in November 869 (see 20th November) while they overwintered at Thetford. They then moved against Wessex and engaged at the Battle of Englefield on 31st December. This was followed by the battles of Reading (4th January 871), Ashdown (8th January), Basing (22nd January) and Meretun (22nd March). Alfred succeeded as King of Wessex on 23rd April 871 and paid the Vikings off.

Stanton continues with more detail about the attack on Crowland:

“It was on the 26th or 30th of August that the barbarians reached Croyland, the celebrated retreat of St Guthlac. The solemn Mass was just ended but the clergy had not left the sanctuary, when the pagans broke into the church. The celebrant, who was the Abbot Theodore, the Deacon Elfgetus, and the Sub-deacon Savinus, were murdered in the sacred vestments before the altar, and shortly afterwards the Acolyths Egdred and Ulrick. Some of the community escaped, and hid themselves in a neighbouring forest; but those who sought to conceal themselves within their own walls seem all to have been discovered and cruelly butchered. Amongst these were Askegar, the Prior, and Sethwin, the Sub-prior, as well as two venerable monks, Grimkeld and Agamund, who had attained their hundredth year. The shrine of St Guthlac was profaned, and the holy place left in a state of complete desolation.”

Other chronicles record the events in 867 AD rather than 870 AD but the names of those involved are the same. Many of the names of those massacred are noted as having a Danish derivation, emphasising that Scandinavian settlement of East Anglia (as elsewhere) was well established. A boy who was present at the massacre, Turgar (Thorgeir), was taken prisoner by the attackers to be sold as a slave, but managed to escape and make his way to Ely. Once there he told the monks what had happened and they recorded it all. This is why we have the level of detail today.

The leader of the attackers was Oskytel, and it was he who killed Theodore before the altar. Jarl Sidroc (Sigtryg) was the one who took Turgar prisoner.

Feast Day of Pandwyna, 26th August

Eltisley Church
Eltisley Church, mym, CC BY-SA 2.0

Stanton’s Menology (1892) records for 26th August “At Eltisley, in Cambridgeshire, the commemoration of ST. PANDWYNA, Virgin.”

Details about the saint are scarce, and follow a familiar pattern of a young woman who wished to lead a religious life being pressured into marriage, presumably for dynastic purposes. Pandwyna is interesting because although she finished her career in Cambridgeshire, she was originally Scottish or Irish. Here is what Stanton says about her:

“ST. PANDWYNA, or PANDONIA, was the daughter of a prince of Ireland or North Britain, 904 c. who fled to England to escape the tyranny of her father and the pursuit of those who would have compelled her to abandon her purpose of serving God in the state of holy virginity. She took refuge with a kinswoman of hers, who was prioress of a nunnery at Eltisley in Cambridgeshire.

There she led a life of great perfection, and obtained the reputation of eminent sanctity. She was buried near a well, which bears her name, and at a later period her sacred relics were translated to the parish church, which still bears the title of St. Pandonia and St. John the Baptist.”

Unfortunately he does not say (or know) who the kinswoman was, how she came to be in East Anglia, how long Pandwyn lived there, or how her father or bridegroom reacted. It seems that her death was c. 940 AD and that 26th August is her Feast Day and so potentially her date of death (although this is not definite). A local legend records that she appeared in a vision to some children, possibly to show them the location of the well which took her name, and this vision resulted in her canonisation.

Her remains were translated inside the Church (which dates to about 1200) and buried beneath the altar in 1344. Apparently in the 16th century the well was filled in by the local clergyman and is now lost along with the site of the nunnery itself:

“The vicar… Robert Palmer, who was charged before the Consistory court in 1576 with many misdemeanours. Amongst them… that he had broken the stonework round a well in the churchyard to the great danger of children playing in the churchyard. To the latter he replied “that it was a well used for superstitious purposes, therefore he broke it down”

We don’t know what the purposes were, but clearly they were sufficiently serious for this rather eccentric cleric to consider the lives of local children worth the risk!

Birth of Doris Mary Stenton née Parsons, 27th August 1894

Doris Stenton, photo by Gilbert Adams © British Academy 978-0-19-725943-6 hbk
Doris Stenton, photo by Gilbert Adams © British Academy 978-0-19-725943-6 hbk

27th August 1894 saw the birth of the important medievalist Doris Mary Parsons in Reading, Berkshire. She was the only child of John Parson and Amelia Wadhams.

Doris attended the Abbey School in Reading. According to Kathleen Major, who wrote a biography, Doris “had a certain satisfaction in having proved that she had far exceeded the expectations of her headmistress”. However, she repaid her debt to the school in later years by serving as a governor and Honorary Secretary to its Council.

She entered the University College at Reading in 1912 as a day student, cycling in to the college from Woodley each day (about 2-3 miles each way).

Frank Stenton, the medievalist, was lecturing in history and Doris described his first lecture as “like the opening of windows”. Even before taking her finals she started cataloguing coins and she earned a first class degree in 1916.

In 1917 she obtained an assistant lectureship at the University College in Reading. She was also engaged in the transcription of the charters at Lincoln Cathedral

She married Frank in 1919 and was able to continue lecturing as the university did not prevent married couples from working in the same department and the two Stentons were able to encourage one another and develop their careers together.

In 1924 she was instrumental in the revival of the Pipe Roll Society. The Society had originally been founded in 1883 by the Public Record Office to oversee the systematic publication of the Pipe Rolls which are the financial records of the Exchequer or Treasury dating back to the 12th century. Doris was the Honorary Secretary and General Editor from 1925 until 1962. Her work for the Society was recognised by the publication in 1962 of “A Medieval Miscellany for Doris Mary Stenton” containing papers by friends and students on areas connected to her work.

She became a Fellow of the Royal Academy in 1953 and served on the Council of the Selden Society (1957-1969), the Council of the Royal Historical Society (1943-46 and 1947-51 and as Vice President 1953-57).

She was Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Reader in History at the University of Reading from 1920 to 1959. Her major works are “English Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066–1307)” (1951) and later editions, and “The English Woman in History” (1957) in which the Anglo-Saxon approach to women as opposed to that of the Normans won her commendation. Her article on the Magna Carta first appeared in the 14th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1929.

In 1948 she received a D.Litt. as the first person at Reading to take this degree on the basis of her published work. She served on the Committee for Women’s Halls, the Museum of English Rural Life and the Joint Committee for Training Colleges.  In 1958 she received an honorary degree from Glasgow and in 1968 from Oxford.

She was invited to present the Jayne Lecture for the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1963 which was published as “English Justice between the Norman Conquest and the Great Charter”.

Her own academic focus was on the period following the Norman invasion, but after the death of her husband on 1967 she completed the publication of the third edition of his monumental work “Anglo-Saxon England” with Professor Dorothy Whitelock. She also saw through the publication of “The Free Peasantry of the Northern Danelaw”. She then completed a memoir of Sir Frank for the British Academy.

However she found life hard from then on, with little to engage her interest. Although enjoying visits from friends and the support of various helpers, she was increasingly isolated by growing deafness and some heart problems. She died in 1971 following a stroke.

She was described by Sir Maurice Powicke, medieval historian and Fellow of Merton College Oxford as follows:

“She is a true historian as well as a fine editor and palaeographer and her insight like a good lamp burns with a clear and steady flame.”

Battle of Isonzo, 28th August 489

Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great, in Ravenna, Italy
Picture of the Mausoleum of Theodoric the Great, in Ravenna, Italy by Newsleep [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The troubles afflicting the Western Roman Empire had consequences for the island of Britain, so let’s take a look at one of the key battles that happened in the 5th century. Alaric’s attacks on Rome depleted the province’s military strength after 410 AD (see 24th August). However, the turmoil continued for generations and were recorded in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

The Battle of Isonzo (Aesontius ) was fought on 28th August 489 AD and Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, defeated Flavius Odoacer who retreated and Theodoric  entered Italy. They clashed again at Verona at the end of September.

Odoacer was an East Germanic barbarian warlord serving in the Roman Army. He deposed the emperor, founded the Kingdom of Italy and made himself its first king in 476 AD. His reign is generally seen as marking the end of the Roman Empire in the West. He stabilised the Romans despite styling himself as a client of the Eastern Emperor.  He supported a campaign to depose the Emperor Zeno in 487-88 AD and Zeno engaged Theodoric to remove him.

Theodoric was born in 454 AD in the Roman Province of Pannonia, the son of King Theodemir of the Ostrogoths.  However, he grew up in Constantinople as a hostage in order to secure Gothic compliance with a treaty made with Constantinople. He received an imperial education before succeeding his father in 474 AD. 

He led his people against the Thracian Ostrogoths, defeated Strabo and united the two peoples in 484 AD. The Emperor awarded him with military honours before ordering him to defeat Odoacer in 488 AD. Theodoric led his troops (including Goths, Rugians and Romans) across the Alps and met Odoacer at the River Isonzo on 28th August 489 AD.

Theodoric and Odoacer engaged in a four year struggle following the battles at Isonzo and Verona until Theodoric finally killed his enemy with his sword while they feasted to celebrate a treaty to rule jointly in Italy. He then settled their combined people in Italy with his capital at Ravenna. 

Things started to fall apart for Theodoric around 522 AD and in 523 AD he had the philosopher Boethius, so beloved of Alfred and many Anglo-Saxon scholars, imprisoned and executed.

Theodoric died on 30th August 526 AD in the mausoleum on Ravenna, struck by lightning, on the very day he had ordered the Roman Catholic churches in his empire to surrender to the Arian interpretation of Christianity. This was not seen as a coincidence by many.

He then entered Germanic legend as Dietrich of Bern. He also appears in Norse sagas and in Anglo-Saxon poetry. In this persona he was supposed, among other things, to have been exiled for 30 years which might just be a reference to his time serving under the Emperors in Constantinople before he took the Kingdom of Italy.

In the poem Deor he is mentioned briefly and somewhat ambiguously:

“Theodric ruled for thirty winters

The city of the Maerings (famous men); that was well known to many.

That passed over so can this.”

In the legend of Dietrich he suffers exile for 30 years and then returns to win back his throne in Italy and Ravenna. One academic has argued that the translation of “Maeringa burg” could refer to the warband instead, a “city of famous warriors”, which served his exile with him.

In the poem Widsith he is listed as ruling the Franks in the section containing villainous kings (Attila, Ermanric, Becca, Gifica and so on).

Finally he appears in the story of Waldere, where Hagena turns down the offer of the sword Mimming, saying his own is better as it was the one given to Widia by Theodoric as a reward for rescuing him from the clutches of giants.

Theodoric’s poor press was due in part at least to his treatment of Boethius. Alfred translated Boethius’ “Consolations of Philosophy”, which was written in prison, as one of the books “most needful for me to know”.

Feast Day of Edwald of Cerne, 29th August

Abbots Porch - Cerne Abbey
Abbots Porch – Cerne Abbey by Raymond Knapman CC BY-SA 2.0

29th August is the Feast Day of St Edwald of Cerne who died around 900 AD.

Edwald is alleged to be the brother of King Edmund the Martyr, who was slain by Danish invaders in East Anglia. Edwald is not otherwise attested as a king in East Anglia so the link to Edmund remains unsubstantiated. Coin evidence indicates that Edmund was succeeded by Oswald, and then Athelred, before Guthrum returned in 880 AD.

Nevertheless Edwald is said to have left his homeland around 871 AD and lived as a hermit near Cerne in Dorset by a spring called Silver Well. On his way to Dorset, he had a vision of a silver well, and started trying to find it. When he got to Cerne he gave a shepherd some pennies for bread and water, and the shepherd took him to a well. Edwald recognised it as the one in his vision, and built a hermitage there. He lived on bread and water in his cell and worked many miracles.

The well itself has a number of stories connected to it, and is in some traditions linked to St Augustine. It can cure problems with the eyes, infertility, and help sickly newborns.  Girls used to be told to place their hands on the wishing stone and pray to St Catherine for a husband. Finally if you look in the well first thing on Easter Day, then you will see those who will die that year reflected in the water.

In 987 AD a monastery dedicated to St Peter was built nearby and Edwald’s remains were duly translated there. The Abbey was founded in the late 10th century and was the home for some time of Alfric of Eynsham. The wealth of the abbey recorded in Domesday , when it was the third richest abbey in western England, was possibly due to the popularity of Edwald´s shrine.

Feast Day of King Saebbi, 30th August

Early graves lost noted on the memorial in St Paul's Cathedral
Early graves lost noted on the memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral, Stephencdickson CC 4.0

30th August is the Feast Day of an Essex king and saint, Saebbi, who rather unusually for the time, seems to have died in his bed.

Saebbi was a joint King of Essex with his cousin Sighere, both ruling as sub-kings to Wulfhere of Mercia. They succeeded Swithelm who was baptised by Cedd at Rendlesham.

Sigehere abandoned Christianity and began restoring the temples of the old religion. However, Saebbi remained a convert to the new faith.

Their overlord Wulfhere sent a bishop to the kingdom to try and restore the faith with some success. Sighere died in 683 AD and Saebbi ruled both parts of the kingdom alone until 694 AD when he decided to retire to a monastery due to ill health.

Throughout his reign he practised good works, being faithful in his prayers and giving generously to the poor. He had wanted to retire sooner but his wife could not be persuaded.

Bede tells his story:

“Sebbi, a devout man, of whom mention has been made above, governed the kingdom of the East Saxons. He was much addicted to religious actions, almsgiving, and frequent prayer; preferring a private and monastic life to all the wealth and honours of his kingdom, which sort of life he would also long before have undertaken, had not his wife positively refused to be divorced from him; for which reason many were of opinion, and often said so, that a person of such a disposition ought rather to have been a bishop than a king. When he had been thirty years a king, and a soldier of the heavenly kingdom, he fell into a violent sickness, of which he died [sic], and admonished his wife, that they should then at least jointly devote themselves to the service of God, since they could no longer enjoy, or rather serve, the world. Having with much difficulty obtained this of her, he repaired to Waldhere, bishop of London, who had succeeded Earconwald, and with his blessing received the religious habit, which he had long desired. He also carried to him a considerable sum of money, to be given to the poor, reserving nothing to himself, but rather coveting to remain poor in spirit for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Saebbi’s illness continued to weaken him and he approached his death with some anxiety in case he behaved badly because of the pain or sickness. He requested that only the Bishop should be present at his death with two attendants. While resting in the room with the former king, the bishop had a vision that Saebbi would die without pain in three days’ time. Bede describes the details more fully: 

“For, as he afterwards related, he saw three men in bright garments come to him; one of whom sat down before his bed, whilst his companions stood and inquired about the state of the sick man they came to see: he who was sitting in front of the bed said, that his soul should depart his body without any pain, and with a great splendour of light; and declared that he should die the third day after; both which particulars happened, as he had been informed by the vision; for on the third day after, he suddenly fell, as it were, into a slumber, and breathed out his soul without any sense or pain.”

Saebbi’s coffin was made of stone but wasn’t long enough for him. They tried to lengthen it but were still not able to get the king inside, and they decided they would have to bend his knees to make him fit. However, before they could heap such indignity upon the poor man it was discovered that the coffin had miraculously become long enough to fit the body with room to spare.

Saebbi was buried at St Paul’s in London and was succeeded by his sons Sigeheard and Swaefred. His tomb survived the 11th century fire at St Pauls and his remains were translated to a black marble sarcophagus in the 12th century. However this did not survive the later the Great Fire of London and he was recorded on a plaque to those whose memorials were lost in the conflagration.

Death of Earl Leofric of Mercia, 31st August 1057

King Edward the Confessor and Earl Leofric of Mercia see the face of Christ appear in the Eucharist wafer.
Page from a 13th century Abbreviatio (abridgement) of Domesday Book. King Edward the Confessor and Earl Leofric of Mercia see the face of Christ appear in the Eucharist wafer. Dates from c. 1240 from collection at The National Archives UK.

31st August 1057 saw the death of Earl Leofric of Mercia, husband of Godgifu (Godiva – see 10th July). 

Leofric was the son of Leofwin, who became Ealdormann of the Hwicce in 994 AD during the reign of Athelred Unrede. Hwicce was originally a kingdom situated in the West Midlands, centred on Worcester, but it was subsumed into Mercia under Offa in the 8th century. He had three brothers, Northman, Edwin and Godwin.

Leofric seems to have been the shire reeve of Worcestershire in the time of Earl Hakon and succeeded to the earldom of Mercia after Eadric Streona, the notorious previous Earl, was executed at the command of Cnut on Christmas Day 1017.

John of Worcester records the events:

“on the feast of our Lord’s Nativity, which he (Cnut) kept at London, he ordered Edric the perfidious ealdorman to be slain in the palace, apprehending that he himself might some day become a victim to his treachery, as he had his former lords Ethelred and Edmund frequently deceived; and he caused his body to be thrown over the city walls, and left unburied. Along with him were slain Norman, son of Leofwin the ealdorman, who was brother of earl Leofric, and Ethelward son of Ethelmar the ealdorman, and Brihtric son of Alphege, governor of Devon, all of whom were innocent. The king appointed Leofric ealdorman in his brother’s place, and afterwards treated him with great kindness.”

Leofric became one of the most powerful noblemen in England, although always somewhat overshadowed by Earl Godwin of Wessex, thus creating a long-standing rivalry between the two families.

After Cnut’s death he supported Harold Harefoot in 1035 against his half-brother Harthacnut. It is possible that his family was related in some way to Alfgifu, Harold Harefoot´s mother.

In 1039 Leofric´s brother Edwin was killed fighting the Welsh.

After King Harold Harefoot died and Harthacnut succeeded him, two of the royal tax collectors were killed at Worcester in 1041 by a mob and Harthacnut ordered Earl Leofric to ravage the city and surrounding area in revenge. As we noted, Worcester was the episcopal centre of the Hwicce, which would have been difficult for Leofric.

Again John of Worcester tells us more:

“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.“

Following the coronation of King Edward the Confessor in 1042, Leofric was among those who accompanied him on his rather sudden visit to Winchester where the king took all the treasure from his mother, because of her harsh treatment of him as a boy. It was recorded that this was at the advice of Leofric and other earls (see 16th November).

In 1047 Leofric opposed Godwin when he urged the king to support his relative Sweyn of Denmark by sending 50 ships to aid him against King Magnus of Norway. Edward took Leofric´s and others´ advice and declined to help Sweyn.

Later in 1051 Leofric supported Edward the Confessor in his banishment of his rival Earl Godwin, although he was later involved in achieving their reconciliation. There had been an outbreak of violence in Dover during a visit by Eustace of Boulogne. One of Eustace´s soldiers had killed a local man and in revenge his neighbour killed a soldier.  Eustace´s retinue then attacked the local people, killing indiscriminately, and losing seven of their own men before fleeing the town and seeking support from King Edward. As this occurred in Earl Godwin´s jurisdiction, he and his son Sweyn Godwinson each raised armies and the King had to seek help from Leofric and Siward of Northumbria to oppose them.  Godwin camped at Gloucester and demanded that Eustace be handed over. The two armies were facing one another and ready to fight but Leofric saw that this was a foolish waste of men and a risk to the security of the kingdom as it involved all the English nobility on one side or the other. He persuaded both sides to meet and negotiate a settlement. Godwin´s support drained away as the meeting in London approached and he fled the scene.

The results of the meeting of the Witan are recorded by John of Worcester as follows:

“When, therefore, the morning came, the king, in his witan, with the unanimous consent of the whole army, made a decree that Godwin and his five sons should be banished. Thereupon he and his wife Githa, and Tosti and his wife Judith, the daughter of Baldwin, count of Flanders, and two of his other sons, namely, Sweyn and Gurth, went, without loss of time, to Thorney, where a ship had been got ready for them. They quickly laded her with as much gold, silver, and other valuable articles as she could hold, and, embarking in great haste, directed her course towards Flanders and Baldwin the count. His sons Harold and Leofwine, making their way to Brycgstowe [Bristol], went on board a ship which their brother Sweyn had prepared for them, and crossed over to Ireland. The king repudiated the queen Edgitha, on account of his wrath against her father Godwin, and sent her in disgrace, with only a single handmaid, to Wherwell, where she was committed to the custody of the abbess.“

Leofric‘s own son, Alfgar, was made an outlaw in 1055 by Edward, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle through no fault of his own. He was later reinstated after raising an army with the help of the Welsh King Grufydd and fighting a battle at Hereford.

In 1056 Leofric was among those who reconciled King Edward with the Welsh King, Gruffydd, following the murder of the Bishop of Hereford. This followed his son´s invasion with Gruffydd the previous year and the battle at Hereford.

Leofric and his wife Godgifu were noted patrons of the Church. He founded a minster at Stow St Mary in Lincolnshire as well as monasteries at Much Wenlock in Shropshire and Coventry, and was a benefactor of Evesham Abbey among many others. However, he was also remembered in Worcester as a despoiler of churches, making his reputation mixed to say the least. This may have dated to the events of 1041.

He died at his estate in Kings Bromley, Staffordshire, and was succeeded to the earldom by Alfgar. He was buried in Coventry at St Marys Abbey. This was the Benedictine monastery rebuilt by Leofric and Godgifu in 1043 after the original nunnery had been destroyed by Cnut´s army in 1016 as part of his campaign to win the English throne.

John of Worcester commemorated him as follows:

“The renowned Leofric, son of the ealdorman Leofwine, of blessed memory, died in a good old age, at his own vill of Bromley, on the second of the calends of September [31st August], and was buried with great pomp at Coventry ; which monastery, among the other good deeds of his life, he and his wife, the noble countess Godiva, a worshipper of God, and devoted friend of St. Mary, Ever-a-Virgin, had founded, and amply endowing it with lands on their own patrimony, had so enriched with all kinds of ornament, that no monastery could be found in England possessed of such abundance of gold, silver, jewels, and precious stones as it contained at that time. They also enriched, with valuable ornaments, the monasteries of Leominster and Wenlock, and those at Chester dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. Werburgh, the virgin, and the church which Eadnoth, bishop of Lincoln, had built on a remarkable spot, called in English St. Mary’s Stow, which means in Latin St. Mary’s place. They also gave lands to the monastery at Worcester, and added to the buildings, ornaments, and endowments of Evesham abbey. During his whole life, this earl’s sagacity was of the utmost advantage to the kings and the whole commonwealth of England. His son Algar was appointed to his earldom.”

The Battle of Maldon

Northey Island
terry joyce / Northey Island / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Battle of Maldon was on or about 10th or 11th August 991 AD. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth of East Anglia was defeated by invading Vikings and a commemorative poem was written soon after. Intriguingly, in describing Byrhtnoth´s actions it has raised the question: did he lose due to pride or was he being pragmatic?

The Vikings had sailed their longships up the River Pante (now Blackwater) and beached them on Northey Island separated from the mainland by high tide. Byrhtnoth raised the English fyrd, or levy, and went to meet them and ultimately died. The poem portrays nobility in defeat, and the men as glorious and honourable at a time when the army was generally demoralised by the ongoing Viking invasions. This year was also the year when the Danegeld was first paid to persuade the raiders to attack elsewhere:

“AD. 991. In this year the Danes, under the command of Justin and Guthmund, the son of Stercan, laid waste Ipswich. Byrhtnoth, the bold ealdorman of the West Saxons, shortly afterwards fought a battle against them near Maldon; but, after great slaughter on both sides, the ealdorman fell, so the Danish fortune prevailed. Moreover in this year, first of all, and that by the advice of Siric, archbishop of Canterbury, and the ealdormen Aethelward and Alfric, a tribute of ten thousand pounds was paid to the Danes, as the price of their cessation from the frequent plunderings, burnings, and slaughters, which they used to make on the sea coast, and their concluding a lasting peace.”

Initially the Vikings and the English could not reach one another across the water. As the tide went out, a narrow causeway was exposed. The Vikings began to come across in narrow file but the English were easily able to prevent them. It was at this point that the Vikings asked Byrhtnoth to allow them to cross, which he agreed to do and after they had all reached the mainland the fighting began.

Byrhtnoth’s decision was described in the poem as “ofermod” or “pride” but realistically if the Vikings had turned around and sailed away they could have ravaged the coast further north with impunity. This is why Byrhtnoth’s decision is a matter for some lively debate.

After the battle, Byrhtnoth’s body was taken to Ely and buried in the abbey. His widow, Athelflaed, presented the abbey with estates, a golden torque and “a hanging woven upon and embroidered with the deeds of her husband in memory of his probity.” This hanging was probably similar in concept to the later Bayeux Tapestry but has unfortunately been lost.

Byrhtnoth is mentioned a number of times in the Liber Eliensis (History of the Isle of Ely) as a generous benefactor. Book II.62 describes him in detail as an

“outstanding and famous man whose righteous life and deeds English histories commend with no small praises”.

It goes on to say:

“This most notable man was indeed a very valiant leader of the Northumbrians [sic] who, on account of the marvellous wisdom and physical fortitude with which he manfully defended himself and his people, was given by everyone the title of Ealdorman, in the English language, that is “elder” or “leader”. He was fluent in speech, robust in strength, of huge physical stature, indefatigable in soldiering and warfare against the enemies of the kingdom, and courageous beyond all measure, being without respect for, or fear of, death.”

He is also remembered as a protector and benefactor of the church. It goes on, rather at odds with the poem:

“As long as he lived, moreover, he devoted his life to defending the freedom of his native land, so totally committed to this desire that he would rather die than tolerate an unavenged injury to his country. At that time, indeed, frequent raids were being made by the Danes upon England, and they wreaked serious devastation upon it, arriving as they did in various places by ship. And all the foremost men of the provinces loyally bound themselves to Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, as to an invincible protector, because of his great worth and reliability, so that under his protection they might defend themselves against the enemy nation more confidently.

Accordingly, on one occasion, when the Danes had come ashore at Maldon, on hearing report of this, he confronted them with an armed force and slaughtered nearly all of them on a causeway above the water, It was only with difficulty that a few of them escaped and sailed to their own country to tell the tale.”

According to the Liber Eliensis, the Danes later returned to seek revenge on Byrhtnoth, who again came to meet them and fought them for fourteen days.

“On the last of days, few of his men being still alive, Byrhtnoth realised that he was going to die. He was not fighting any the less energetically against the enemy, but in the end, after he had inflicted great slaughter on his adversaries and almost put them to flight, they were encouraged by the small number of Byrhtnoth´s supporters, made a wedge-formation, and, grouping together, rushed with one resolve upon him and with a great effort, only just successful, cut off his head as he fought. They took it with them, fleeing from the place to their native land. But the abbot, on hearing the outcome of the fighting, went with some monks to the battle-ground and found Byrhtnoth´s body. He brought it back t the church and buried it with honour. And in place of the head he put a round lump of wax.”

Byrhtnoth was indeed buried at the abbey as one of the Seven Confessors of Christ, the other six being bishops, and all benefactors of Ely. The remains of all these men were reburied in the mid-12th century in the Norman church, and again moved in the 14th century following the collapse of the central tower. The shrines were lost during the Reformation but rediscovered in 1769. The bodies were examined and it was claimed that Byrhtnoth’s bones showed that he stood at 6´ 9” (2.06 m); he was headless. Elsewhere Byrhtnoth was described as very tall, and by the time of the battle, quite mature in years. He was first made Ealdorman in 956 AD.

The original manuscript of the poem was lost in the fire at Ashburnham House (see 23rd October) which destroyed so many Old English manuscripts in the Cotton collection. However, a copy of the text had been made a few years before and so we have most of the poem (the beginning and end are both missing) in transcription.

The poem names many of the English warriors and at least some of these have been traced in other documentation from the period. They would have been known to the poem´s audience. Although the Vikings are not named, it is probable they were led by Olaf Tryggvason. Manuscript A of the Chronicle is specific about Olaf:

“Here in this year Olaf came with 93 ships to Folkestone, and raided round about it, and then went from there to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran all that, and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came against them there with his army and fought with them; and they killed the ealdorman there and had possession of the place of slaughter.”

In the poem Byrhtnoth is a generous and war-hardy leader with a noble and loyal warband. They have all made vows to their lord and these are described in the poem. After his death “they all intended to do one of two things, to lose their lives or to avenge their friend”.

The ideal of devotion described, somewhat nostalgically and even ironically in the time of Athelred Unrede, was that of the Germanic tribes described by Tacitus in his “Germania” of the 1st century AD. Nine hundred years later it was still seen as the honourable and proper way for nobles to behave – in theory if not always in practice. Such ideals were seen as sadly lacking in the reign of the unfortunate Athelred. However, while Byrhtnoth determines to keep his oath to his king, his men are only motivated by loyalty to Byrhtnoth himself and not to the wider nation.

Some of the most well-known lines are those declaimed at the end of the poem by the elderly retainer, Byrhtwold:

Byrhtwold mathelode     bord hafenode

(se waes eald geneat),     aesc acwehte;

he ful baldlice     beornas laerde:

“Hige sceal the heardra,     heorte the cenre,

mod sceal the mare,     the ure maegen lytlath.

Her lith ure ealdor     eall forheawen,

god on greote.     A maeg gnornian

se the nu fram this wigplegan     wendan thenceth.

Ic eom frod feores;     fram ic ne wille,

ac ic me be healfe     minum hlaforde,

be swa leofan men,     licgan thence.”

“Byrhtwold spoke, raised his shield –
he was an old retainer – shook his ash-spear;
full boldly he taught warriors:
“Resolve must be the harder, heart the keener,
determination the greater, although our might lessens.
Here lies our lord all cut down,
a good man on the ground. May he always mourn
who from this war-play thinks now to make way.
I am old: I do not wish to go from here;
but I myself beside my lord,
by so beloved a man, think to lie.””

Listen to Byrhtnoth’s Challenge to the Vikings also from the poem.

On This Day in July

Death of Henry the Fowler, 2nd July 936

Legend of the German crown offered to Henry, Hermann Vogel (1854–1921)
Legend of the German crown offered to Henry, Hermann Vogel (1854–1921), public domain

2nd July 936 AD saw the death of Henry the Fowler, of a stroke. He was Duke of Saxony from 912 AD and King of East Frankia from 919 AD and also acquired Lotharingia in 925 AD as a vassal state. He was succeeded by his son Otto, who later became known as Otto the Great. He is of interest to us because he was also the father-in-law of Eadgyth, Otto’s wife, the daughter of Edward the Elder and sister of Athelstan of England.

He was a descendant of Charlemagne; as the first non-Frankish king of East Frankia he is generally considered to be the founder of the medieval German state. Through his son Otto the Great he established the Ottonian Dynasty. Legend has it that he became known as “the Fowler” because he was an avid hunter and was allegedly fixing his birding nets when messengers arrived to inform him that he was to be king.

He was successful in war against a number of threats to his power, but did not centralise control. Rather he ruled through federated duchies. Interestingly he, like Alfred, Edward and Athelflad built an extensive series of fortifications across Germany in response to the Magyar incursions, routing them in 933 AD at the Battle of Riade and ending their attacks for the next 21 years. He also defeated the Slavs at the Battle of Lenzen in 929 AD, invading Bohemia and later Schleswig. The kings of West Frankia and Upper Burgundy also acknowledged him as their over-king.

He was also strategic in his alliances with other European royal houses, and was keen to seal a relationship with England. He requested a marriage for his son Otto to an English princess, one of Athelstan’s many sisters. Otto chose Eadgyth and they were married in 930 AD.

Death of Robert, Duke of Normandy, 2nd or 3rd July 1035

Column at the site of the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes
Column at the site of the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes, Roi.dagobert, CC BY-SA 3.0

William, son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy, inherited his father’s title at the age of around eight when Robert died. Robert had made his young and illegitimate son his heir before setting out on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He died on his return journey at Nicaea around 2nd or 3rd July 1035. William was his son by his mistress, Herleva of Falaise.

Due to his tender age and illegitimacy William had quite a struggle retaining his title, regardless of the oaths of fealty sworn by the leading men of Normandy to his father that they would recognise him as Duke if Robert died. These difficulties no doubt forged his character in later years.

William did have support from some key men however, including Henry I, King of France, and the Archbishop of Rouen, Robert, his uncle. Robert was effectively regent until his own death in 1037 when William was about 10. It was at this time Norman support for the exiled English royal family, driven out by Cnut, was critical to the future Edward the Confessor. Edward’s mother was Emma of Normandy, the great-aunt of William, and Edward was the first cousin of William’s father Robert.

Following the Archbishop’s death there was a period of unrest in Normandy with a series of men taking control of the young Duke. However, ducal authority was basically acknowledged and the Church continued to support William, as did Henry of France. However, in late 1046 there was a serious rebellion and William had to escape to Henry’s court for safety. Early in 1047 Henry and William brought an army to Normandy and with Henry’s support William was victorious at the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes near Caen. He then introduced the Truce of God to try and limit the fighting in the duchy, but until 1054 there was almost continuous warfare, with a lower level of unrest persisting until 1060.

It was during this time that William married Matilda of Flanders. There was some difficulty surrounding this marriage due to the Church claiming they were too closely related (third cousins once removed). Bishop Lanfranc helped to arrange the Pope’s blessing. They finally married around 1051, probably ahead of actual papal sanction which seems only to have been granted around 1059. Helpfully for William in later years, Matilda also claimed descent from the House of Wessex through her father Baldwin V of Flanders, the three times great grandson of Alfthryth of Wessex, who was the youngest daughter of Alfred the Great.

Although there are claims that Edward promised the throne of England to William in 1051 and that William visited England to secure arrangements, this is believed to be unlikely. At that time William was embroiled in Anjou. Although this was the period of the exile of the Godwins from England, there is no English source for the visit by William and the Norman sources are muddled in their chronology. Neither is there evidence from English sources for Harold’s alleged trip to Normandy in 1064, and it may be no more than Norman propaganda.

Throughout the 1050s and early 1060s William continued to work on securing his Duchy and attempting to expand his borders. When the Count of Maine died in 1062, William claimed control through his son, who was betrothed to the Count’s sister. He invaded when there was resistance and secured control by 1064. He then seems to have invaded Brittany and destabilised it; and in 1066 he had support from a number of Breton nobles for his invasion of England.

Discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, 5th July 2009

Staffordshire Hoard Helmet reconstruction
Staffordshire Hoard Helmet reconstruction, Staffordshire Hoard, by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery at Stoke-on-Trent

The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in a field on 5th July 2009 by a metal detectorist called Terry Herbert. The Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found, anywhere in the world. It consists of around 4,000 items which combine to a total of over 5kg of gold, nearly 1 ½ kg of silver and around 3,500 cloisonné garnets. Remarkably it was buried just below the surface, due to soil erosion over the years, and had been disturbed by ploughing the previous year, scattering it. It was probably buried around 650-675 AD, and lay close to the Roman Road of Watling Street which was still an important route at the time. Excavation at the site confirmed there were no buildings or other evidence for Anglo-Saxon habitation on the site, confirming it had been buried in a relatively remote location (although presumably where it could be found again near the road).

In November 2012 a further 81 pieces of gold and silver items were discovered in the same field when it was ploughed again.

The Hoard comprises primarily war gear which is particularly important as most survivals from the period are church items or female burial pieces, which provides a limited view. This find enables researchers to explore the warrior culture more fully than in the past.

The pieces are removed from weapons rather than representing the main body of the weapon itself (such as the sword blade). There are almost 100 pommel caps for instance and probably helmet fittings. However, swords are the major contributing type of object and it has been suggested that the fittings were taken to depersonalise the original blade. Each object is unique in pattern and probably identified the owner in some way. However, whether these are from a single battle or collected over many years is not clear.

The location of the find is in the Kingdom of Mercia and dates to the seventh century when the kings there were expanding aggressively. The items might represent any of their campaigns against the other kingdoms. One theory is that the burial is a ritual deposit, but it may have been battle loot or a ransom, or just hidden from attackers, or even collected for recycling into new fittings; debate remains keen.

While the quantities are enormous, the quality is also extraordinary indicating that the objects were created for elite warriors. The hoard contains only one written text, a biblical inscription written in Latin and misspelled in two places. It reads: “Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.” (Numbers 10:35). More generally, there are three kinds of decoration: cut and mounted garnets, gold filigree, and animal patterns.

Most of the garnet decoration uses the cloisonné technique, setting thin slices of garnet cut to fit in the pattern made by gold wire Stamped gold foil placed beneath the garnet allowed light to reflect back, enhancing the brilliance and making its colour a darker red. Some pieces are decorated with stylised animals interlaced in the Anglo-Saxon Style II. There are two sources of garnet in the hoard. The very small garnets came from the Czech Republic and the larger cut garnets are from the Indian subcontinent.

Scientific analysis has also revealed that the goldsmiths managed to remove some of the silver from the surface of the items so that the object appears even more golden. The technique is not understood fully but it shows a very sophisticated understanding of materials and technology.

More recently research has identified that approximately a third of the fragments in the Staffordshire Hoard come from a very high-status helmet, and two reconstructions were created over an 18 month period by a team of specialists. The fragments in the Hoard are too fragile to be put back together but the reconstructions have made use of digital technology to capture form and decoration as closely as possible based on the analysis of the fragments.

A silver gilt cheek piece and an animal headed terminal were identified in the initial finds, with another terminal being identified later. The second field survey in 2012 then picked up a second cheek piece. The terminals fitted onto a crest, and were decorated with Style II interlaced animals, including serpents and quadrupeds. Eventually some of the sheet metal fragments, some weighing less than 1g, were reconstructed and a silver band which had encircled the base of the helmet emerged showing kneeling or running spearmen.

None of the iron or leather of the original helmet survives so reconstruction was difficult. However, the crest, cheek pieces and decorative sheets all indicated a crested helmet, similar to the ones found at Sutton Hoo, Wollaston and Coppergate (York). Although so little of the helmet survives, it is considered the finest example of the type so far, with its golden ornamentation reminiscent of late Roman (4th century) helmets. It is also unique in that the grooved channel on the crest indicates it had an actual hair crest on it. The reconstructions have crests of pale horsehair dyed with madder to a vibrant red to match the dominant red and gold colours in the hoard. It has been suggested that the helmet should effectively be considered to represent a crown.

The reconstruction had to work out the substructure of the helmet, and this was done by analogy for other helmets and fittings matched to holes on the fragments where possible. The final product weighed in at around 3kg which is heavy but manageable. It has proved to be well balanced, and the original probably used iron instead of steel for the frame would have reduced the weight by 1 kg, and is the more likely material used in the original.

The two reconstructions are to be displayed at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery at Stoke-on-Trent.

Death of Seaxburh, 6th July

Stained glass window depicting St. Seaxburh, from the Refectory of Chester Cathedral
Stained glass window depicting St. Seaxburh, from the Refectory of Chester Cathedral, by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

On 6th July, around 699 AD, Seaxburh died. She was the eldest of four daughters of King Anna of East Anglia, and his second wife, Sawara. All the girls became saints, namely Athelburh of Faremoutiers, Saethryth, and Athelthryth of Ely.

Seaxburh married King Eorcenberht of Kent and they had at least four children: the future Kings Ecgbert I and Hlothere, and daughters Eormenhild and Ercongota, who also became saints. The family was actively supportive of the Christian Church and Eorcenberht was recorded in Bede as “the first of the English kings that of his supreme authority commanded the idols, throughout his whole kingdom, to be forsaken and destroyed”.

While still married to Eorcenberht, Seaxburh became the founder of the Minster on Sheppey and later retired there as abbess some time after the death of her husband on 14th July 664 AD. It seems Ecgbert was still a boy in 664 AD and Seaxburh ruled as regent until he came of age. Ecgbert himself died in 673 AD, and was succeeded by his brother Hlothere.

It was during this time in 669 AD that Theodore arrived in Kent to begin his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. He had a huge impact on the Church, introducing many reforms, and presumably had the support of the royal family in doing so.

In 679 AD Seaxburh succeeded her sister Athelthryth as Abbess of Ely, and Minster-in-Sheppey was then ruled by her daughter, Eormenhild, widow of Wulfhere of Mercia.

In 695 AD she arranged for the remains of her sister Athelthryth to be translated. Bede describes the scene:

“when her sister had been buried sixteen years, thought fit to take up her bones, and, putting them into a new coffin, to translate them into the church. Accordingly she ordered some of the brothers to provide a stone to make a coffin of; they accordingly went on board ship, because the country of Ely is on every side encompassed with the sea or marshes, and has no large stones, and came to a small abandoned city, not far from thence, which, in the language of the English, is called Grantchester, and presently, near the city walls, they found a white marble coffin, most beautifully wrought, and neatly covered with a lid of the same sort of stone. Concluding therefore that God had prospered their journey, they returned thanks to Him, and carried it to the monastery.”

This was the occasion of Athelthryth’s body being discovered incorrupt in her coffin, providing evidence of her sanctity.

Seaxburh lived a long and full life, dying around 699/700 AD.

Feast Day of Haeddi, 7th July

Winchester Cathedral North transept
Winchester Cathedral North transept, By, CC BY-SA 3.0

7th July is the Feast Day of Haeddi, who died in 705 AD.

Bede tells us that he was one of the five Bishops taught at Hild’s monastery of Whitby, therefore that he was a man of singular merit and sanctity.

He was consecrated as Bishop of the West Saxons in 676 AD by Archbishop Theodore in London. Bede later adds, a little condescendingly perhaps, that in 705 AD:

“Hedda, bishop of the West Saxons, departed to the heavenly kingdom; for he was a good and just man, and exercised his episcopal duties rather by his innate love of virtue, than by what he had gained from learning.”

Haeddi was influential; he was the man who persuaded the West Saxon king, Cadwalla, to abdicate and go on pilgrimage to Rome, which was unheard of for a king at that time. Cadwalla had been involved in a sustained military campaign for control of Wessex, including the brutal conquest of the people of the Isle of Wight, wiping out their ruling family and converting them at sword-point to Christianity. He also gained control of Sussex, Surrey and Kent. The fighting on the Isle of Wight had left Cadwalla wounded and this was when Haeddi persuaded him to go on his pilgrimage to Rome.

Haeddi then continued to work with Cadwalla’s successor, Ine, and the proliferation of minsters in Wessex during their two reigns may be attributed to his influence as well as the increased access to formerly pagan territory afforded by Cadwalla’s victories. Many of Cadwalla’s land grants were however made to the Northumbrian Bishop Wilfrid who had at one time tried to convert the South Saxons.

Cadwalla was succeeded in 688 AD by Ine, whose law code, partially copied by Alfred into his own law code, was probably drawn up before 694 AD, and its prologue lists the chief advisers to the king, including bishops Haeddi and Eorcenwald (Bishop of London, died 693 AD) and Ine’s father, Cenred, who may have been continuing to rule alongside Ine, or as his overlord.

Haeddi was also the Bishop who moved the seat of his bishopric, along with the remains of St Birinus, from Dorchester-on-Thames to Winchester.

After his death the large West Saxon see was divided into two, and Daniel became the Bishop of Winchester, and Aldhelm the Bishop of Sherborne.

William of Malmesbury describes Haeddi’s passing and its consequences as follows:

“His death was welcome to those in heaven, for his previous life had been so holy that he went to swell their number, but a matter of grief to mortals, for they could scarcely hope to find another like willing to rule so widespread a diocese. For what is nowadays governed by four bishops one man then controlled, repressing the rebel by his authority and soothing the suppliant by his straightforwardness. It was therefore decided at a synod to divide the swollen diocese into two sees, one at Sherborne, the other at Winchester. The division was unfair and unequal, for it resulted in one man ruling a mere two counties, while the other had the whole vast expanse of Wessex.”

Death of Florence of Worcester, 7th July 1118

The Chronicle of John of Worcester
The earliest known record of a sun spot drawing in 1128, by John of Worcester. “The Chronicle of John of Worcester”, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 157

Although slightly after our period, it seems fitting to remember today Florence of Worcester, and his fellow scribe, John.

Florence died on 7th July 1118, and for a long time was thought to be the author of the Chronicle of Chronicles (or Chronicon), which included among its sources a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The basis for this was the following passage from the Chronicon itself:

“Dom Florence of Worcester, a monk of that monastery, died on the Nones of July. His acute observation, and laborious and diligent studies, have rendered this Chronicle of Chronicles pre-eminent above all others.

His spirit to the skies, to earth his body given,
For ever may he reign with God’s blest saints in heaven!”

It was then thought that the work was completed by John of Worcester.

However, it is now understood that the Chronicon was written entirely by John of Worcester based on a range of pieces of evidence and analysis of the authorial writing style.

You can read more about the Worcester scribes here:

Death of King Edgar, 8th July 975

New Minster charter
New Minster charter, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII

King Edgar the Peaceable died on 8th July 975 AD aged a mere 33 years. Perhaps he is best remembered as the king who was rowed up the river by eight sub-Kings on 11th May 973 AD. His coronation ceremony is the one which forms the template for that used by UK monarchs today, including the current King. Sadly the boating element appears to have been removed.

Edgar was the second son of Edmund and his wife Alfgifu, and grandson of Edward the Elder; his older brother Edwy was king before him but died in 959 AD when Edgar was sixteen. Edgar became king of the English in his place, albeit a youthful one. He had previously been King of the Mercians and Northumbrians since 957 AD as we are told by John of Worcester:

“[957 AD] The people of Mercia and Northumbria threw off their allegiance to Edwy king of England, disgusted at the folly of his government, and elected his cousin [sic: actually it was his brother], the atheling Edgar, king. So the kingdom was divided between the two kings in such manner that the river Thames formed the boundary of their respective dominions.”

At this point Edgar recalled Dunstan from his exile, imposed by Edwy much to the anger of many people. Dunstan and Edgar had a long collaboration in support in Church Reform, building a group of reformers including Oswald, Bishop of Worcester, and Athelwald of Abingdon. This involved imposing the Benedictine rule on a number of houses, sometimes quite violently.

Edgar is also recorded as establishing a strong navy, described here by Symeon of Durham:

“In his lifetime he had collected three thousand six hundred stout ships; of which, after Easter, he stationed one thousand two hundred on the east, one thousand two hundred on the west, and one thousand two hundred on the north coast of the island; and was wont to sail with the eastern fleet to the western, and leaving it, with the western to the northern, and leaving it, with the northern again to the eastern—thus every year circumnavigating the whole island. He acted thus boldly for defence against foreigners, and for practice in warlike arts to himself and his people.”

At the time of Edgar’s accession England had recently become a single realm, but as the events of 957-959 AD show, it was still fragile as a unified state. By the end of Edgar’s reign he had consolidated it to the extent that it was much less likely to fracture again; at least not until Cnut and Edmund Ironside agreed a split in 1016, which ended with Edmund’s death later that November.

Edgar had key relationships with three women: Athelflaed “Eneda”, Wulfthryth and Alfthryth.

Firstly, he was married to Athelflaed Eneda before he succeeded Edwy, and little is known about her, although it appears she was the daughter of Ordmar, ealdorman of the East Anglia. She was followed by Wulfthryth, and it is unclear whether they were ever married. One of these two women was the mother of Edward, later known as “the Martyr” because of his assassination at Corfe Castle, enabling Athelred his half-brother to take the throne while still a minor.

An 11th century Life of Dunstan claims that Edward’s mother was a nun at Wilton Abbey who was seduced by Edgar although other chronicles refer to Athelflaed as his mother.

By 964 AD, Edgar was married again, this time to Alfthryth, daughter of Ordgar, ealdorman of Devon. She was the mother of Edmund (died 971 AD, pre-deceasing his father) and Athelred Unrede. She was married originally to Athelwald, who was by then the ealdorman of East Anglia, and who may have been the son of Athelstan Half-King, according to Byrhtferth’s Life of Oswald.

This marriage was the subject of controversy. According to William of Malmesbury, Edgar heard of how beautiful Alfthryth was and sent Athelwald to see and if it was true, to offer her marriage to Edgar. However, Athelwald was smitten himself, married her himself and told the king that she was not as beautiful as the reports claimed. Edgar heard about the deception and decided to see for himself. Athelwald told his wife to hide her beauty but she did not, and Edgar also fell in love and killed Athelwald while they were out hunting, then married his widow. Whatever the truth of it, Athelwald was apparently dead by 962 AD as he no longer witnesses charters, and by 966 AD Alfthryth is recorded as the king’s lawful wife.

Sons by different mothers indicated a coming succession crisis, and there was ongoing intrigue and political manoeuvring in the following years. However, this did not stop Edgar from having a succession of mistresses as well as his wives, including a nun, potentially the same Wulfthryth, whom he abducted from Wilton Abbey for which act he had to do penance for 7 years.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle summed up his reign in uncharacteristic poetry:

“Here Edgar died, ruler of the Angles, West Saxons’ joy, and Mercians’ protector.

Known was, throughout many nations, this offspring of Eadmund, o’er the gannet’s bath.

Kings him widely honoured far, bowed to the king, as was his due by kind,

No fleet was so daring, nor army so strong, that ‘mid the English nation took from him aught, the while that the noble king ruled his throne.”

Edgar’s title of “the Peaceable” is not for his lack of martial prowess, but rather because of it. During his reign there were no recorded Viking attacks, although they resumed in 980 AD, a few years after his death. In 968 AD Edgar sent an army to ravage Thanet, because of attacks on York (Danelaw) merchants. Arguably his title “Pacificus” might be better translated as “Peacemaker” or “Peacekeeper”.

The main criticism of him in the Chronicle is for bringing heathen manners and harmful foreigners into England, possibly because his law code “IV Edgar” recognised the authority of a separate legal system in the Danelaw.

Feast Day of St Averild of Everingham, 9th July

St Everilda's Church, Everingham, East Riding of Yorkshire
St Everilda’s Church, Everingham, East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Photo by Stuart and Fiona Jackson

St Everild (Averil) of Everingham is a little known saint of the 7th century of Wessex origin who made her life in Yorkshire. Her Feast Day is celebrated on 9th July and she has churches dedicated to her at Everingham and Nether Poppleton, near York.

Little information is known, and it all derives from the York Breviary which included her Feast Day on its calendar. She seems to have been a nun associated with Wilfrid, and references to her are found in the York calendar, as well as the Northumbrian one and in two martyrologies.

She came originally from a noble Wessex family and decided to come north with two companions, Bega and Wulfreda, to become a nun. They settled on land given to them by Wilfrid, at a place called Bishop’s Farm, and their nunnery grew until there were 80 nuns. The location for this is usually given as Everingham, but it is also argued that it may have been at Nether Poppleton, the site of the other church dedicated to the saint. This is based on the entry in the Domesday Book which describes the land as being that of St Everild although no church is mentioned.

Everild died peacefully around 700 AD when her mission of establishing a nunnery was accomplished. She was remembered faithfully at York for many centuries, but now the details of her life are gone.

Lady Godgifu’s (Godiva’s) ride, 10th July 1040

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897
Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry
*This image may not be an entirely accurate depiction of what is a possibly fictional event

It is alleged by Roger of Wendover in the 13th century that on 10th July 1040 Godgifu (Godiva) rode naked through the streets of Coventry to persuade her husband, Earl Leofric, to stop taxing the poor so heavily. The accuracy of this claim is unreliable. However, Tennyson wrote a poem about her celebrating it:

“Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen’d round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardy breathed for fear.”

Little is known about her background or early life. It is possible she was a widow when she married Leofric, Earl of Mercia; she and Leofric seem to have had at least one son, Alfgar. He had been, in the words of the Chronicle, unjustly overlooked in favour of Tostig Godwinson for the earldom of Northumbria after the death of Siward in 1055, and had been outlawed. However, despite his support for Gruffydd ap Llewellyn he had been restored to the earldom of East Anglia later that year and when his father died in 1057 he succeeded to Leofric’s earldom of Mercia. His sons include Morcar and Edwin, who were important in the later story of England. Alfgar also had a sister, Ealdgyth, who married Gruffydd.

Godgifu appears on a charter with her husband in the 1050s endowing a monastery in Coventry, built to replace the one destroyed by Vikings in 1016.

She gave Coventry a number of works by the famous goldsmith Mannig and as well as a silver necklace valued at 100 marks. She also gave a necklace to Evesham, to be hung around the figure of the Virgin and a gold-fringed chasuble to St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The manor of Woolhope in Herefordshire, along with four others, was given to the cathedral at Hereford before 1066 by Wulviva and Godiva, and this is generally held to be the same Godgifu and her sister. It is also possible that Thorold, who appears in the Domesday Book as sheriff of Lincolnshire, was her brother.

Following Leofric’s death in 1057 Godgifu seems to have survived until some time between 1066-1086. She is mentioned in Domesday as one of the few Anglo-Saxons and the only woman to remain a major landholder following the Norman invasion in 1066. However, by 1086 when the Domesday was published Godiva had died and her former lands are listed, but now held by others. It is believed she was buried at Coventry with Leofric, although Evesham Abbey also claimed that she was buried there.

Despite the early lack of record, later chroniclers become much more effusive about Godgifu. John of Worcester, writing in the 12th century, recorded that in 1057 Leofric died and:

“was buried with great pomp at Coventry; which monastery, among the other good deeds of his life, he and his wife, the noble countess Godiva, a worshipper of God, and devoted friend of St. Mary, Ever-a-Virgin, had founded, and amply endowing it with lands on their own patrimony, had so enriched with all kinds of ornament, that no monastery could be found in England possessed of such abundance of gold, silver, jewels, and precious stones as it contained at that time. They also enriched, with valuable ornaments, the monasteries of Leominster and Wenlock, and those at Chester dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. Werburgh, the virgin, and the church which Eadnoth, bishop of Lincoln, had built on a remarkable spot, called in English St. Mary’s Stow, which means in Latin St. Mary’s Place. They also gave lands to the monastery at Worcester, and added to the buildings, ornaments, and endowments of Evesham abbey.”

At this point in the evolution of the Godiva legend, the Earl and his wife are both viewed positively as benefactors of the Church. John’s text is repeated by Simeon of Durham in his Historia Regum Anglorum et Dacorum.

Then in Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum, written at St Albans in the early 13th century, the story suddenly takes on a new life and the entry for 2017 reporting Leofric’s death now includes the following legend:

“in the same year died Leofric earl of Chester, a man of praise-worthy life; he was buried in the monastery which he had founded at Coventry. Having founded this monastery by the advice of his wife the noble countess Godiva, he, at the prayer of a religious woman, placed monks therein, and so enriched them with lands, woods, and ornaments, that there was not found in all England a monastery with such an abundance of gold and silver, gems and costly garments. The countess Godiva, who was a great lover of God’s mother, longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy toll, often with urgent prayers besought her husband, that from regard to Jesus Christ and his mother, he would free the town from that service, and from all other heavy burdens ; and when the earl sharply rebuked her for foolishly asking what was so much to his damage, and always forbade her ever more to speak to him on the subject ; and while she, on the other hand, with a woman’s pertinacity, never ceased to exasperate her husband on that matter, he at last made her this answer, ” Mount your horse, and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.” On which Godiva replied, “But will you give me permission, if I am willing to do it?” “I will,” said he. Whereupon the countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs ; and having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband, and obtained of him what she had asked ; for earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter. The said earl also, at the instigation of his countess, munificently enriched with lands, buildings, and various ornaments the churches of Worcester, St. Mary of Stone, and St. Wereburg, with the monasteries of Evesham, Wenloc, and Lenton.”

Later writers added some more embellishments, such as Peeping Tom (first recorded by name in 1773, but in relation to an effigy based on an earlier tradition), and dropped the two knights who accompanied her, but the essence of the story remained albeit with Leofric receiving increasingly negative coverage. The reason for the legend is unclear and may be a founding story for the city of Coventry. It also may originally have been derived from a pagan tradition of a fertility goddess celebrating spring. The naked woman with long hair, riding in a springtime procession, is the one constant factor in all variations of those legends. The Peeping Tom story may in this case be a part of the original myth, recalling similar examples of those who intruded on the forbidden rites of other fertility goddesses. Godgifu’s horse would therefore be an important element of the story, probably replacing the more traditional male victim of the rites. So in the end the story may be another example of pagan tradition being subverted by or for Christian audiences.

Feast Day of St Benedict of Nursia, 11th July

 Benedictional of St. Athelwold, baptism of Christ
Folio 25r from the Benedictional of St. Athelwold, baptism of Christ

11th July is the Feast Day of St Benedict of Nursia. Although not an Anglo-Saxon, he founded the Rule which was adopted (with greater or lesser success) by many of the Anglo-Saxon Monasteries. 

Benedict was born around 480 AD in Nursia, Perugia, Italy, about 100 miles north-east of Rome. This was only four years after the barbarian Flavius Odoacer had deposed the last formally recognised Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, to become King of Italy; this event is usually seen as the end of the Roman Empire in the West.

What we know about Benedict was mainly written by Pope Gregory in his Dialogues (written 593-4 AD) and based on testimony from monks who had known Benedict personally. After school in Nursia Benedict went to Rome to study literature and law. The lifestyle did not suit him, and he moved to Affile with a group of priests and his old nurse. In Affile he performed his first miracle, restoring a broken earthenware bowl which had been broken and this gained him some notoriety. To avoid the attentions of the world he withdrew to a cave and became a hermit for three years, leading a solitary life with little contact with other people beyond a monk form a nearby monastery and some shepherds. The shepherds were influenced by his teachings and began to follow him.

Eventually he founded twelve monasteries, each with twelve monks, and then a thirteenth for novices and students. As his fame spread nobles began to send their sons to learn from him.

Benedict continued to perform miracles, but he was not universally admired and one particular priest, Florentius, caused him so many difficulties that he decided to go to Cassino, where between 525-529 AD he founded the Abbey of Montecassino on the Roman acropolis above the town.

Two more interesting facts about Benedict:  one of Benedict’s attributes (symbols) is a raven, and in 1964 Pope Paul VI declared Benedict the patron saint of all Europe.

The Benedictine Rule was written in 516 AD and represented a moderate path. It comprises 73 chapters covering the efficient administration of the monastery and the proper way to live a Christian life, including the Work of God (Opus Dei). The Golden Rule was “Pray and Work” (Ora et Labora) requiring the monks to spend the day in prayer, study and manual work, which included sacred reading, or works of charity.

“Idleness is the enemy of the soul, therefore let the brethren devote certain hours to work with their hands.”

The Benedictine Rule was introduced to England by the Augustinian Mission at the end of the 6th century, and spread rapidly following the decision in 664 AD to adhere to Roman teachings rather than the Celtic form. It was strongly influenced by Bishop Wilfrid. Benedictine monasteries were designed to accommodate the rhythm of the Rule, allowing space for communal prayer, dining and dormitories. Celtic monasteries had tended to emphasise individual prayer and fasting, with individual cells.

In the 7th and 8th centuries many monasteries were Benedictine, although not all, but the decline of learning identified by Alfred the Great in the 9th century meant that further reform became required.

In the 10th century Winchester became the focus of the reform movement during the reign of Edgar when he made Athelwold its Bishop.  Athelwold worked with Oswald, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York, and Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, to introduce a wide ranging reform programme. He was responsible for translating the Rule of Benedict from Latin into Old English and producing a version specifically for nuns. Together the three men worked with Edgar resulting in the “Regularis Concordia Anglicae Nationis monachorum sanctimonialiumque” in 973 AD. This moved the focus of Benedict’s original Rule to greater emphasis on liturgical practice and reduced the role of education. All monasteries were brought under the patronage of the King but nevertheless were still required to follow the Rule. After Edgar’s death the nobles reacted against the many privileges which had been transferred to the Church resulting in a period of anti-monasticism, which was then exacerbated by the renewed Viking invasions.

In the 11th century the Danish invasions, particularly during the reign of Athelred Unrede, disrupted the reform programme although there was a brief respite during the reign of Cnut. When Edward the Confessor became King he oversaw a move to Norman monasticism, moving away from establishing monk-bishops, although still following the Rule. Other religious houses, such as Franciscans, Cistercians and Dominicans, only appeared in England in later centuries.

Treaty of Eamont Bridge, 12th July 927

Looking West across River Eamont
Looking West across River Eamont,

12th July 927 AD is an important day in English history. The Treaty of Eamont Bridge was agreed under oath by all the Kings of Britain to King Athelstan. This is often seen as the date of the foundation of the nation of England.

The chronicler John of Worcester expanded on details in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

 “Fiery lights in the northern part of the heavens were visible throughout the whole of England. Shortly afterward, Sihtric, king of Northumbria, departed this life, and king Athelstan expelled Guthferth his son and successor, and united the kingdom to the others which were under his imperial sway, for he defeated in battle and put to flight all the kings throughout Albion; for instance, Howel, king of the West Britons (the Welsh), and afterwards Constantine, king of the Scots, and Wuer (Owen) king of the Wenti (q. Gwent). He also expelled Aldred, the son of Eadulf, from his royal town called by the English Bebbanbyrig (Bamborough). All these, finding that they could no longer resist his power, sued for peace, and assembling at a place called Eamont, on the fourth of the ides [the 12th] of July, ratified by their oaths a solemn treaty.”

Edward the Elder had previously received submissions but these were never as convincing as those given to Athelstan, who exercised firm control over Northumbria. It wasn’t all plain sailing. In 934 AD he had to put down challenges in Scotland, and in 937 AD the unrest culminated in the Battle of Brunanburh – of which more in another post. However, the beginnings of the concept of England may be considered to start at Eamont with Athelstan’s vison of a united island of Britain.

In 926 AD Athelstan had married one of his sisters, Eadgyth, to Sihtric, the Danish king in York in an attempt to negate threats along his northern borders. However, Sihtric’s death in 927 AD provided Athelstan with the opportunity to annexe Northumbria and this convinced the other kings to agree to the treaty. The site of Eamont Bridge may have been chosen as being on the border with Strathclyde and Cumbria, was in situated on the Roman road network at a key junction. Nearby was an impressive pre-historic barrow, the remains of a massive ceremonial site, which may have added authority to the meeting place. The nearby Lowther Cross, an 8-9th century cross, is a further reminder that the area was culturally significant and may indicate the site of a monastery.

The kings who agreed the treaty included King Owain of Strathclyde, Constantine, King of the Scots, Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (southwest Wales), Ealdred of Bamburgh and probably the British King of Cumbria. They each gave up their kingdoms and were reinstated as tributaries with mutual pledges of peace.  Importantly they pledged not to ally with non-Christian kings which prevented agreements being made with the Vikings of Dublin. Constantine’s son was also baptised.

Athelstan had now established his northern border with Strathclyde and Cumbria along the Eamont, Ullswater and the Duddon valley to the sea. With the submission of the kings, he was now able to call himself “rex totius Britanniae” or “King of all Britain” on his coins.

Feast Day of St Mildthryth, 13th July

13th July is the Feast Day of St Mildthryth (Mildred) of Thanet, who died around 730-735 AD.

Mildthryth’s parents were King Merewalh of the Magonsate and his second wife, Eafe of Kent. Her father converted to Christianity around 600 AD and Eafe was from the Christian Kentish royal family. Mildthryth and her two sisters all entered a religious life and Mildthryth was sent to be educated at Chelles in France.

In Chelles a young nobleman, who was related to the abbess, made her an offer of marriage. Mildthryth refused as she preferred to continue in the religious life, and was put under considerable pressure which she continued to resist. Finally she was locked in an oven to be burned to death but emerged unscathed some hours later. This resulted in more punishment but Mildthryth managed to write to her mother who sent a ship to retrieve her daughter. Mildthryth escaped bringing a nail from the Cross with her, and landed at Ebbsfleet. She left the imprint of her foot on a stone as she stepped onto dry land. This stone later was moved to the Abbey of Minster-in-Thanet and was credited with curing many diseases.

Mildthryth now joined her mother at her foundation of the Abbey of Minster-in-Thanet and received the veil. Eafe had founded the Minster on land given to her by her cousin Ecgberht of Kent as blood price for his murder of her brothers, Athelred and Athelberht. Supposedly the land was agreed by following a doe raised by Eafe to mark the boundaries.

Symeon of Durham tells the tale:

“The king, therefore, designing to honour her, desired that she might ask whatever she wished within the compass of his power to bestow, if it were a thing becoming his dignity, and she should immediately receive it. The holy woman, in a meek reply, begged that he would grant her only as much land as a doe which she had brought up, guided by divine instinct, could travel over in one day. The king, well pleased, immediately ordered a party of the earls to be in readiness on the morrow, attended by whom he would proceed in ships to the Isle of Thanet. Having arrived there, and she with the doe having made the voyage to the island, the doe pointed out the way, and was followed by the king and the handmaid of Christ, with the military array on horseback.”

When the King’s man, Thunor, tried to prevent the party continuing due to the large amount of land being encompassed, he was swallowed up by the earth.

Despite the fact this story is about her mother, it was important to include it when writing the Life of Mildthryth as a warning to anyone who might try to take the lands away from the Minster in the future.

On her mother’s death, Mildthryth succeeded her as Abbess and became a well-loved figure in the church, more popular locally than St Augustine.

During her tenure as abbess of Minster Abbey, she oversaw a successful trading enterprise at her monastery, which was located along one of the busiest maritime trade routes to the Continent. This included building and overseeing of trading vessels, which was unusual for nunneries. The Minster also oversaw a huge estate, incorporating the Isle of Thanet and significant property on the mainland of Kent.

Mildthryth also fulfilled the role of Abbess by attending Church synods; for example she appears as a witness at the Synod of Bapchild (Beccencalde) in c. 694.

The link to the kings of Kent and of Mercia (Mildthryth was descended from both) enhanced the minster’s wealth and privilege over the following years.

She died around 730-735 AD and was revered as a saint almost immediately. The nuns produced a Life in the decades following her death, probably under the direction of the Abbess Edburga who died in 751 AD. Edburga also built a new monastery there and translated Mildthryth’s relics to it.

The Abbey was close to the coast and vulnerable to Viking attacks; it had been abandoned by the 10th century. Later, in 1033, her relics were removed to St. Augustine’s Abbey, in Canterbury, with some also being taken to Deventer in the Netherlands. The monks built a new shrine for Mildthryth’s remains and in the 1090s Goscelin wrote an updated Life of the saint. In it he attributed her with some new miracles, including defending Queen Emma from her son, Edward the Confessor, who stripped her of all her jewels in retribution for the way she had treated him. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do record the jewel-taking although no involvement by Mildthryth.

“She was a protector of widows and orphans, and comforter of all the poor and afflicted, and in all things she was humble and gracious.”

The church in Canterbury now dedicated to St Mildred is the only pre-Conquest church surviving within the city walls.

Unusually for Anglo-Saxon saints, her cult continued to flourish for centuries, surviving even the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey at Minster was refounded on the same site in 1937 by nuns fleeing Nazi Germany, and is in one of the oldest inhabited buildings in England. So you might say this saint has survived both Vikings and Nazis to continue to be revered today, not only in England but also in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Goscelin wrote that:

“Mildred shines white as a lily among roses, as a rose among lilies”

and that she is the

“pearl of the Mercians, Canterbury’s crown, the star of all England.”

St Mildred stained glass window
St Mildred, Preston next Wingham, Kent – Window, John Salmon, CC BY-SA 2.0

Death of King Eorcenberht of Kent, 14th July 664

A map of Anglo-Saxon Kent
A map of Anglo-Saxon Kent, made using File:River Thames and surroundings 2-fr.svg and Hill, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, Hel-hama, CC BY-SA 3.0

14 July 664 AD saw the death of Eorcenberht, King of Kent.

Eorcenberht ruled for 24 years, and according to Bede was the first English king to command the destruction of pagan idols and to enforce the observance of the Lent fast. He was the second son of Eadbald of Kent, but his older brother, Eormenred, pre-deceased their father so Eorcenberht became the next King on 20th January 640 AD.

His wife was Seaxburh (see 6th July). Their daughter, St. Ercongota, became Abbess of Faremoutiers-en-Brie in modern-day France. Another daughter, St. Eormengild, married Wulfhere, King of Mercia, before becoming Abbess of Minster-in-Sheppey, which had been founded by her mother.  He also had two sons, Ecgbert and Hlothere. Ecgbert succeeded him and was alleged to be responsible for the assassination of the two young athelings (princes), Athelred and Athelberht. After Ecgbert’s death Hlothere became king in his turn.

He was the King who appointed Deusdedit as the first native born Archbishop of Canterbury (see also 14th July)

Eorcenberht was probably buried with his parents at Canterbury.

Death of Archbishop Deusdedit, 14th July 664

View of Canterbury Cathedral from St Augustine's Abbey
View of Canterbury Cathedral from St Augustine’s Abbey, Casey And Sonja, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Feast Day of Deusdedit, the first native born Archbishop of Canterbury, is 14th July.

Deusdedit was the sixth Archbishop of Canterbury and the first native incumbent. Beorhtwald (9th January) was the first in the continuous line of English Archbishops of Canterbury to the current day, but before him there were two other Englishmen, and Deusdedit was the first of them. Goscelin records his birth name as Frithona, probably meaning Frithuwine, and he was a West Saxon in origin.

Deusdedit became Archbishop in March 655 AD, succeeding Archbishop Honorius.

In 657 AD he consecrated the monastery at Peterborough (Medehamstede) and it was also possibly Deudedit who consecrated Minster-in-Thanet, and the 70 nuns who served there including Mildthryth (see 13th July), as it was probably founded before his death.

Although he consecrated Damianus as successor to Ithamar, Bishop of Rochester, during his rule, all the other new bishops in England were consecrated by other Bishops such as Agilbert, who was from Frankia and who ordained Wilfrid. This implies Deusdedit may not have had much influence outside the diocese of Canterbury.

According to Bede Deusdedit died on 14th July at the time of the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD:

“On the fourteenth of July in the above mentioned year, when an eclipse was quickly followed by plague and during which Bishop Colman was refuted by the unanimous decision of the Catholics and returned to his own country, Deusdedit the sixth Archbishop of Canterbury died.”

Deusdedit did not appear on the list of witnesses at Whitby, no doubt because of the plague in his See, and it was probably this plague that caused his death. He was buried at St Augustine’s in Canterbury but his grave is no longer marked.

After he died the Archbishopric remained vacant for four years. Another English Archbishop was elected, Wigheard, but he died in Rome before he could receive his pallium. Finally Theodore of Tarsus was sent to take up the role in 668 AD. 

Feast Day of St Swithun, 15th July

St Swithun, Benedictional of Æthelwold,
St Swithun, Benedictional of Æthelwold, British Library, Ms Add. 19598, Fol 90V

St Swithun was a 9th century Bishop of Winchester and his Feast Day is 15th July. Legend has it that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day it will rain for 40 days more.

“St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days ’twill rain nae mare”

Swithun was consecrated Bishop of Winchester on 30th October 852 AD. He actually died on 2nd July but 15th July is his Feast Day. Few contemporary records mention him and he attested a few charters. However, during the church reforms of the 10th century it was decided to adopt Swithun as the patron saint of Winchester and his remains were moved from his grave to the new building on 15th July 971 AD.

There is no reliable evidence for his early life but tradition states that Swithun was born in Wessex and ordained by the Bishop of Winchester. He became known to the king (Egbert) who made him tutor to his son Athelwulf. This was the same Athelwulf who was the father of Alfred the Great. When Athelwulf became king he appointed Swithun to the Bishopric at Winchester when that became vacant; Swithun was ordained by Archbishop Ceolnoth.

The various hagiographies record miracles and his exemplary piety and humility. In particular he is known to have restored some eggs. These were broken as an old woman was crossing a bridge and hearing her crying the good Bishop returned them to her once more intact.

He is also credited with the repair and restoration of many churches, and of course with persuading the King to donate wealth to the church. Supposedly he travelled on foot around his diocese rather than riding, and preferred to feed the poor than feast with the rich.

When he died he asked to be buried outside the church and his grave was placed in front of the west door of the Old Minster so that he was accessible to the people and to the rain from heaven. When his remains were moved to precious reliquary inside the new basilica in 971 AD there followed 40 days of atrocious weather, indicating his irritation at the change.

He was moved again in the 11th century to the new Norman Cathedral; the weather was not recorded and he remained behind the high altar until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the16th century. His cult was very popular and attracted many pilgrims.

It has been suggested that the weather forecast element of Swithun’s legacy is linked to an ancient tradition. There are similar stories associated with a number of saints or other stories (such as the tradition of the Seven Sleepers). Mid-July is when the jet stream settles into a pattern which, in the majority of years, holds reasonably steady until the end of August. When the jet stream lies north of the British Isles then continental high pressure is able to move in; when it lies across or south of the British Isles, Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems predominate. So it is possible that the weather on St Swithun’s Day may be typical of the weather pattern for the coming weeks.

St Swithun is also the patron saint of Stavanger in Norway and the Cathedral of 1125 was originally dedicated to him. It was built by Bishop Reinald who may have come from Winchester originally. St Swithun is commemorated on 2nd July in Norway.

Feast Day of St Helier and St Marcoulf, 16th July

Hermitage of Saint Helier, Jersey
Hermitage of Saint Helier in Saint Helier, Jersey, Man vyi, CC SA 1.0

16th July marks the remembrance of St Helier and St Marcoulf, saints of Jersey. Their story is so intertwined that it almost always is told as one.

The legend of Helier describes him as the child of pagan parents who had been unable to conceive children until they asked a Christian holy man to help them. He did so, on the condition that any child should be given to the Church and they agreed. When a son was born they couldn’t bear to part with him and refused to keep their promise until, at the age of seven, the boy became seriously ill. The holy man took him to care for him and named him Helier.

Helier was happy with the holy man and in due time became a healer. People brought their sick relatives to him and he was able to make them well with the touch of his hand. However, his parents’ friends wanted to bring the child back home and killed the holy man one night. Helier ran away into the forest until he found a church near a town where he lived alone for several years, helped by a widow, and again healing the sick who came to him. One day he was able to restore a baby to life and that night had a vision telling him to go to Nanteuil, where he would find a new teacher called Marcoulf.

Marcoulf was a missionary who was trying to build a monastery, and Helier stayed to help him before moving out to the Channel Islands to convert the people there, taking with him a priest called Romardus. Helier built a hermitage on a rock where he lived. Local people brought a paralysed man and a lame man to him to be healed. After he had done so they left imprints of their feet on the rock.

Helier lived there for three more years when Marcoulf came to see him. While he was there a fleet of Saxon pirate ships came to the islands but the prayers of the saints brought up a storm and destroyed the fleet, with a few of the Saxons managing to get to land; they were soon dealt with by the islanders.

Marcoulf returned to the mainland to continue his work and Helier stayed in his hermitage twelve more years before another Saxon fleet arrived, found his hermitage and killed him.

His body was taken back to the French mainland and his relics held at the Abbey of Bellus-Beccus in Normandy but have since been lost to the depredations of fire, time and the French Revolution.

He died around the year 555/558 AD and tradition has it that Marcoulf also died around this time in the Cotentin.  In fact there is no solid evidence Helier ever existed, or if he did, that he came to Jersey.

Death of King Edward the Elder, 17th July 924

Edward the Elder
Edward_the_Elder_ 13th century genealogy, British Library MS Royal14BVI

Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, died on 17 July 924 AD.

Edward was the second of five legitimate children born to Alfred and Ealhswith; they had two boys and three girls. His arguably more famous sister Athelflaed was the eldest child by a few years.

Sir Frank Stenton was of the opinion that he led “one of the best sustained and most decisive campaigns in the whole of the Dark Ages.”

Read more about Edward

Death of St Eadburh, 18th July 650

shrine to St Edburg, Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire
St Michael’s parish church, Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire: shrine to St Edburg, dated 1294–1317, © John Salmon CC BY-SA 2.0

On 18th July we remember St. Eadburh (Edburga) of Bicester, Abbess of Aylesbury, who died on this day in 650 AD. Her father was supposedly Penda, the last great pagan king of Mercia. However, a number of Penda’s children converted to Christianity, and Eadburh was one of them.

She was initially a nun at Castor at her sister Cyneburh’s (Cuneburga) monastery (see 15th September). Then she and another sister, Eadgyth (Edith) founded a small monastery at Aylesbury, built on land given by Penda. The sisters were joined by their young niece Osgyth, the daughter of yet another sister, Wilburh, and King Frithuwold, who was the sub-King of Surrey under Penda.  They fostered Osgyth (see 7th October) who later also became a saint.

Aylesbury (Aglesburh) had an Iron Age fort and settlement. It had been taken in the year 571 AD by Cutwulph, brother of Ceawlin, King of Wessex, following a battle at Bedford. It became a prosperous settlement during the later Anglo-Saxon period, and this may have been helped by the relics of Osgyth which attracted pilgrims. The current church, St. Mary the Virgin, has a crypt which has been dated back to the Saxon period, although the main church dates only to the first half of the 13th century.

Eadburh died at Aylesbury on 18th July AD 650 but failed to gain the later popularity of her niece Osyth with pilgrims. However, tradition has it that the villages of Adderbury and Edburton near Bicester are named after her.

It seems Eadburh travelled more widely in death than life. In 1182, her relics were translated to Bicester Priory, where they did become popular with medieval pilgrims. In 1500 some of her relics were taken to Flanders on the direction of the Pope, although their current whereabouts is not known. A shrine remained at Bicester until 1536 in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The shrine was salvaged and moved to Stanton Harcourt St Michael’s by Sir Simon Harcourt and its remains can be seen today.

Death of King Oswulf of Northumbria, 24th July 759

All Saints' parish church at Market Weighton
All Saints’ parish church at Market Weighton, Photo from Ian_S /CC2.0

Oswulf, King of Northumbria died on 24th July 759 AD at Market Weighton in East Yorkshire. He was murdered. Northumbria was entering a period of instability which would end with the Viking Kingdom of York being established in 866 AD. His father Eadbert’s reign had caused controversy and Oswulf was not universally supported.

The Northumbrian royal dynasty had seen the death of Osric in 729 AD and he was followed by the Ceolwulf, the younger brother of the usurper Cenred. Ceolwulf was the king to whom Bede dedicated his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 AD in which he recorded the death of Osric as the penultimate entry.

“In the year 729, comets appeared; the holy Egbert departed; and Osric died.”

Ceolwulf ruled until 737 AD when he abdicated to become a monk. He was succeeded by Eadbert, brother of Ecgbert, the first Archbishop of York.  Eadbert ruled, with greater military competence than Ceolwulf, until 758 AD when he also abdicated to enter a religious life at the Abbey in York. Eadbert was engaged in warfare against Mercia and the Pictish kingdoms for much of his reign, and in 740 AD he executed Eanwine, the son of a former king of Northumbria called Eadwulf (ruled 704-5 AD). Eanwine was probably working with the Mercians against Eadbert, who was decisive and brutal against opposition. In 750 AD he faced another claimant to his throne called Offa, and defeated him. Offa fled to Lindisfarne to claim sanctuary. Eadbert did not want to offend the Church by forcibly removing Offa, so he starved him out instead, and imprisoned the Bishop of Hexham who was probably a supporter of Offa. The story of Offa is told by Simeon of Durham:

“During the reign of Eadbert, who (as we have already mentioned) succeeded Ceolwulf, the bishopric of the church of Lindisfame was held by Cynewulf for some considerable length of time, but under many annoyances and misfortunes. One of the royal family, named Offa, in order to escape from the persecutions of his enemies, fled to the body of St. Cuthbert, but having been forcibly dragged away from it, he was wickedly put to death. Hereupon, king Eadbert highly displeased laid hold upon bishop Cynewulf, and commanded him to be imprisoned in Bebbanburch, and in the meantime the bishopric of Lindisfarne was administered by Friothubert, bishop of Hexham, until the king becoming appeased released Cynewulf from his confinement, and permitted him to return to his church.”

Eadbert was also supposedly successful in his international relations, and corresponded with King Pepin of Francia, who sent him costly gifts.

Oswulf was Eadbert’s son, and succeeded his father when he abdicated. However, his hold on the throne was short-lived and he was murdered within a year, by members of his household who were probably related to Eanwine, or as Simeon puts it “wickedly slain by his domestics.”

Athelwold “Moll” was elected within a couple of weeks to succeed him, although his claim on the throne is not clear and his reign was also disastrous and so the century of turmoil in Northumbria began.

Earl Siward of Northumbria defeated Macbeth, King of Scotland, 27th July 1054

Dunfermline Abbey
Dunfermline Abbey, by Robert Cutts from Bristol, England, UK [CC BY 2.0]

On 27th July 1054 Earl Siward of Northumbria defeated Macbeth, King of Scotland. This battle also saw the death of Siward’s son Osbearn, with significant consequences for the future of England. Siward’s younger son Waltheof was too young to succeed his father when he died in 1055, so Tostig Godwinson was given the Earldom. But for that fatal accident things may have been very different in 1066.

Let’s look at what was happening in Scotland during the 11th century, and find out why Siward was campaigning there.

At the end of the 10th century Kenneth II was king of Scotland, and was succeeded by Constantine III in 995 AD. Scottish kings were chosen from any eligible male descendant of a previous monarch, so the throne often changed between various lines of descent. While this could work successfully, it could also lead to feuds between families, and in fact the two kings after Constantine (Kenneth III and Malcolm II) were both his cousins, and both killed their respective predecessor in order to gain the throne.

However, Kenneth II’s son, Malcolm II, took the throne in 1005 by killing Kenneth III and his son Giric at the Battle of Monzievaird on 25th March. Although referred to as the High King of Scotland he ruled alongside other kings such as the Kings of Strathclyde, the Hebrides and Moray, as well as various kings along the west coast. He ruled for an unusually long time until 1034. He had no sons but married his three daughters to potential rivals to secure their loyalty.

Having secured his position at home as best he could, he then took advantage of the chaos in England brought about by the Viking threat and Athelred Unrede’s hapless government to invade. He marched south with Owen the Bald, King of Strathclyde, and fought the English at the Battle of Carham (Coldstream) in 1016/1018 where they defeated Earl Uhtred of Northumbria. Simeon of Durham does not mention Uhtred in his version of the events:

“In the year of our Lord’s incarnation ten hundred and eighteen, while Cnut ruled the kingdom of the Angles, a comet appeared for thirty nights to the people of Northumbria, a terrible presage of the calamity by which that province was about to be desolated. For, shortly afterwards, (that is, after thirty days,) nearly the whole population, from the river Tees to the Tweed, and their borders, were cut off in a conflict in which they were engaged with a countless multitude of Scots at Carrun [Carham].”

The date of the battle is controversial because while there was a comet in 1018, Uhtred had already died in 1016. It is unclear what was achieved as the area had previously been granted to Kenneth II by the English King Edgar in 973 AD. Malcolm had also raided into Northumbria in 1006 after first taking the throne, and besieged Durham, but on that occasion Uhtred had been successful in driving him out.

Trouble flared up again around 1027/31 when Cnut returned from a pilgrimage to Rome and led an invasion into Scotland. This may have been following Cnut’s coronation in Rome, at which it is possible that Malcolm was present and may have snubbed him. Peace was obtained between the two through the intervention of Cnut’s brother-in-law, Richard of Normandy, and Cnut was given a promise of friendship; this was not the “aid on land and sea” previously agreed with Edgar, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles note that:

“This year king Cnut went to Rome. And so soon as he came home then went he into Scotland: and the king of the Scots, Malcolm, submitted to him, and became his man, but that he held only a little while; and two other kings, Maelbaeth [Macbeth] and Jehmarc”

However, Cnut had bigger problems in Norway and did not return to Scotland.

Malcolm then died on 25th November 1034 at Glamis. The Annals of Tigernach record:

“Maolcoluim son of Cinaedh, king of Scotland, glory of the whole west of Europe, died.”

He was succeeded by Duncan I on 30th November 1034, who ruled for five years and nine months, according to Irish records.

Duncan was known as Duncan the Sick, and was the son of Crinan, who had married Bethoc, one of the daughters of Malcolm II. He had two sons, Malcolm III and Duncan II of Scotland, kings in their own turn. His reign seems to have been uneventful on the whole. In 1039 he led an army south to besiege Durham, which was unsuccessful. The following year, 1040 he led his army into Moray where Macbeth was the Mormar (Earl or Duke) and was killed in the fighting near Elgin, probably on 14th August 1040. It was noted that he was still a young man when he died.

Now Macbeth succeeded to the throne of Scotland, with no known opposition, and ruled for seventeen years. Again his reign was generally peaceful, although no doubt there was some opposition. There is a record of a battle involving Duncan’s father, Crinan, in 1045. Macbeth was also known to have gone on pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, so presumably his kingdom was stable and peaceful enough for him to be absent. In 1052 he received a number of Norman exiles from Edward the Confessor’s court. He also successfully repelled the invasion in 1054 by Siward, a bloody battle which was recorded in the Annals of Ulster:

“A battle between the men of Scotland and the English in which fell 3000 of the Scots and 1500 of the English, including Doilfinn son of Finntor.”

Macbeth died three years later in 1057 at the Battle of Lumphanan in August 1057, fighting the future Malcolm III, son of Duncan, who also killed Macbeth’s step-son Lulach to take the throne.

Macbeth is described in The Prophecy of Berchán, as “the generous king of Fortriu” and as:

“The red, tall, golden-haired one, he will be pleasant to me among them; Scotland will be brimful west and east during the reign of the furious red one”

Malcolm III treacherously killed Lulach on 23rd April 1058 according to the Annals of Tigernach, and then reigned until 1093. He was married to Edward the Confessor’s relative, Queen Margaret of Scotland who had returned to England from Hungary with her brother Edgar the Atheling. She fled to Scotland with her mother, brother and sister in 1069 and married Malcolm in 1070. Malcolm had previously been married to Ingiborg and it is therefore assumed she died before 1070.

Malcolm had raided into England during the 1060s and also provided sanctuary for Tostig Godwinson before 1066, but did not involve himself in any of the battles that year. However, in 1069 with the threat of invasion by Harold Godwinson’s cousin, Sweyn II, King of Denmark, Malcolm invaded England once again and wasted Teesdale and Cleveland before returning north with Edgar the Atheling and family.

William of Normandy then attacked Scotland in 1072 once he was more secure and Malcolm met him at Abernethy:

“This year king William led a ship army and a land army to Scotland, and beset that land on the sea-ports with ships, and his land army he [himself] led in at the “Gerwaede”, and there he found nothing by which he was the better. And the king Malcolm came and made his peace with the king William, and gave hostages (with consequences later as we shall see), and became his vassal; and the king returned home with all his army.”

Once William had died Malcolm ignored the further unrest in England led by followers of Robert Curthose against William II Rufus until 1091 when William Rufus confiscated the lands of his brother-in-law Edgar Atheling. He besieged Newcastle and finally a peace was agreed. However, in 1093 William Rufus took Malcolm’s English estates and refused to negotiate over their return:

“The king of Scotland sent and desired [the completion of] the treaty which had been promised him, and the king William summoned him to Gloucester, and sent him hostages to Scotland; and Edgar etheling returned, and the men who had brought him with great honour to the king. But when he had come to the king, he could not be considered worthy either of speech with our king, nor of the promise which had been formerly promised him. And therefore they parted from each other with great want of concord, and the king Malcolm went home to Scotland. And shortly after he had come home he gathered his army together, and went harrying into England with greater want of wisdom than behoved him; and Robert, the earl of Northumberland, with his men betrayed him unawares and slew him. Morael, of Bamborough, slew him; he was the earl’s steward, and a fellow-sponsor along with earl Malcolm. With him also was slain his son Edward, who would have been king after him if he had lived. When the good queen Margaret had heard this, that her most beloved lord and son were thus betrayed, she was oppressed on her mind almost to death. She went with her priests to church, and performed her rites, and prayed before God that she might give up her ghost. And the Scots then chose Dufenal, Melcolm’s brother, for their king, and drove out all the English who were formerly with king Melcolm.

When Dunecan, king Melcolm’s son, heard all this how it had occurred (he was then in the court of king William, for his father had formerly given him as a hostage to our king, and he remained here afterwards), he came to the king, and did such fealty as the king would have had for him ; and so with his permission he went to Scotland, with the assistance which he might procure of English and of French ; and he deprived his uncle Dufenal of the kingdom, and was accepted as king. But the Scots afterwards gathered some [troops] together, and slew nearly all his retinue; and he himself escaped with a few. Afterwards they were reconciled, on the condition that he should never afterwards give a settlement either to English or French in that land.”

Malcolm had been ambushed on his way home and he and his son Edward were killed at the Battle of Alnwick on 13th November 1093.

He was buried at Tynemouth Priory where he remained until his son had his body transferred to Dunfermline Abbey. His wife Margaret (see 10th June) was canonised in 1250 and her bones placed in a reliquary and taken to Dunfermline Abbey. As they passed the spot where Malcolm lay, her reliquary became too heavy to move and so Malcolm’s remains were also disinterred and the couple were buried together beside the altar, reunited after more than 150 years.

Discovery of the Sutton Hoo helmet, 28th July 1939

Sutton Hoo helmet
Sutton Hoo helmet, © British Museum

The ship from Sutton Hoo literally changed our understanding of the early Anglo-Saxons. On Friday 28th July 1939 arguably its most iconic piece was unearthed – the Sutton Hoo Helmet. Now a ubiquitous image of the Anglo-Saxon Age, it was believed at the time that such objects were merely the fantasies of poets.

From Basil Brown’s diary:

The crushed remains of an iron helmet were found four feet [1.2 m] east of the shield boss on the north side of the central deposit. The remains consisted of many fragments of iron covered with embossed ornament of an interlace with which were also associated gold leaf, textiles, an anthropomorphic face-piece consisting of a nose, mouth, and moustache cast as a whole (bronze), and bronze zoomorphic mountings and enrichments.”

Here is a video of the dig in 1939.

Death of King Offa of Mercia, 29th July 796

Offa’s Dyke near Knill
Offa’s Dyke near Knill, / CC2.0

On 29th July 796 AD King Offa of Mercia died. This was the man who caused to be built the eponymous Dyke, who corresponded with Charlemagne, who issued international currency and who was acknowledged as Bretwalda, the High King. His wife Cynethryth was the only Anglo-Saxon Queen known to issue her own coinage.

Read more about Offa

Death of Archbishop Tatwine, 30th July 734

Riddles of Tatwine
Riddles of Tatwine, London, British Library, Royal MA 12 c xxiii folio 121v

Tatwine was Archbishop of Canterbury from 731 AD until he died in office on 30th July 734 AD.

He was highly regarded as a scholar. According to Bede he had previously been a monk at Breedon-on-the-Hill before he became the 9th Archbishop of Canterbury since Augustine.

“In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 731, Archbishop Bertwald died of old age, on the 9th of January, having held his see thirty-seven years, six months and fourteen days. In his stead, the same year, Tatwine, of the province of the Mercians, was made archbishop, having been a priest in the monastery called Briudun. He was consecrated in the city of Canterbury by the venerable men, Daniel, bishop of Winchester, Ingwald of London, Aldwin of Lichfield, and Aldwulf of Rochester, on Sunday, the 10th of June, being a man renowned for religion and wisdom, and notably learned in Sacred Writ.”

While noting his scholarship, Bede gives no reason for this surprising elevation. Apart from consecrating the Bishops of Lindsey and Selsey in 733 AD, there is little else known about his rule.

Tatwine has left us two surviving works in Latin. The first is a collection of 40 enigmata (riddles) inspired by the ones written by Aldhelm a generation before, and the “Ars Grammatica Tatuini” (the grammatical arts of Tatwine), based on the works of Prisian and Consentius.

The riddles are very sophisticated, and seek to develop a theological framework expounding the human mind’s attempt to understand divine mysteries. Tatwine uses the acrostic form in doing so.

His Latin grammar is one of the earliest surviving Anglo-Latin grammars. It teaches elementary grammar using ecclesiastical terms to illustrate key points and would have been used in church classrooms. 

On This Day in June

Murder of St Wigstan, 1st June 849

The Anglo Saxon crypt, Repton, St. Wystan's Church
The early c8th Anglo Saxon crypt, Repton, St. Wystan’s Church by Michael Garlick, CCSA 2.0

On the calends of June [June 1], the eve of Whitsunday, Beorhtfrith, son of Beorhtwulf, king of the Mercians, unjustly slew his relation St Wigstan (also Wystan, Wistan).

The chronicler John of Worcester takes up the story:

“Now this man (Wigstan) was the grandson of two Mercian kings: for his father Wigmund was son of king Wiglaf, but his mother AIfleda was daughter of king Ceolwulf. But his body, being borne to the monastery at that time so famous, named Reopedun [REPTON], was buried in the mausoleum of his grandfather King Wiglaf. To his martyrdom heavenly miracles were not wanting: for from the place in which the innocent youth was slain, a column of light, stretching up to heaven, was visible for 30 days to all the neighbours of that place.”

The Mercian royal families are a complex web of intrigue and politics.

Ceolwulf I of Mercia was deposed in 823 AD and succeeded by Beornwulf. After Beornwulf’s death in 826 AD fighting the East Angles, the kingdom was ruled by an ealdorman, Ludeca, until he died in 827 AD when he was also killed in battle against the East Angles with five of his ealdormen trying to avenge the death of Beornwulf. Wiglaf then took power, but in fighting against Ecgberht of Wessex he was expelled from the kingdom in 829 AD and only regained his throne in 830 AD. He then married his son Wigmund to one Alfflaed (Alfleda), daughter of Ceolwulf I, presumably in an attempt to stabilise the situation. Wigmund and Alfflaed had a son called Wigstan.

Wiglaf died around 838 AD, but Wigmund only lived another two years and in 840 AD the throne probably went back to the B-dynasty in the person of Beorhtwulf, assuming he was descended from Beornwulf. Wigstan had preferred to follow a monastic calling.

Beorhtwulf’s son Beorhtfrith then tried to marry Alfflaed. Wigstan objected on the basis that they were too closely connected by blood.

In 849 AD Beorhtfrith took revenge on Wigstan, at Wistowe in Leicestershire and murdered him.

Wigstan was buried at Repton with his father and grandfather. His shrine rapidly became a popular destination and the church was remodelled to accommodate the volume of visitors. However, in 874 AD the Viking occupation of Repton saw the end of the reign of King Burgred, who had succeeded Beorhtwulf in 852 AD, and was replaced with Ceolwulf II who was probably a relative of Wigstan’s.

St Oda’s Feast Day, 2nd June

List of Archbishops of Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral
List of Archbishops of Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral, photo by Odejea [CC BY-SA 3.0]

St Oda’s Feast Day is celebrated on 2nd June. He was of Viking descent, born in East Anglia. He fought at the Battle of Brunanburh (937 AD) for King Athelstan and miraculously re-forged a sword that was broken.

Oda’s father had been a warrior in the Norse army of Ivarr and he settled in England. Oda was brought up as an English and Christian thane. He was also given the English name of Athelhelm and he decided to enter the church. About 926 AD he became Bishop of Ramsbury and was an important counsellor to King Athelstan, including being one of the team sent to negotiate the restoration of Athelstan’s nephew, Louis d’Outremer, as King of the Franks in 936 AD.

It would seem that during this visit he became a monk at Fleury-sur-Loire. He was obviously a man of talent because only 5 years later, in 941 AD, he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Oda was a keen and determined reformer taking particular interest in the area of England that had been under the greatest Danish influence, East Anglia and the East Midlands. He kept his links with Fleury as well, and sent his nephew, Oswald (later Archbishop of York) to study there. He was also involved in Dunstan’s church reforms, and Dunstan admired him greatly, calling him “Oda se gode” (Oda the Good).

Oda crowned King Eadwig in 956 AD but quarrelled with him in 958 AD and took the part of Edgar who was rivalling his brother for power. He annulled Eadwig’s marriage on the basis of close kinship, almost certainly in a political act to support Edgar.

Oda died on 2nd June 958 AD.

Miracles were recorded, including one written down in a “Life” shortly before 1100 AD by Eadmer who based it largely on the work of Byrhtferth, writing a century earlier at Ramsey Abbey. The Abbey had been founded by Oda’s nephew Oswald. The miracle in question occurred at the Battle of Brunanburh (937 AD) at which Athelstan broke his sword:

“The king had brought blessed Oda into battle with him, trusting that he would defeat the enemy much more by the merits of this man than with hordes of soldiers. And while the most bitter and wretched slaughter was happening all about, a lamentable event occurred. For while King Athelstan was fighting, his sword shattered close to the hilt and exposed him to his enemies, as if he were defenceless. Meanwhile Oda stood somewhat removed from the fighting, praying to Christ with his lips and in his heart for the safety of the Christian army, and for the sake of this continually raised his face, hands and eyes to those in heaven. 
The king was perplexed about what to do in such a situation, for he thought it unspeakable to take a weapon from one of his men in order to arm himself. When a group of his adversaries noticed that the king had a broken sword and was unarmed, though they had begun to flee they turned their faces back to battle and set about obtaining revenge for their shameful flight by killing him most cruelly. Then all at once the air resounded with the clamour of the multitude crying out both for God to offer assistance and for venerable Oda to come forth as quickly as possible.
He raced up to the king and, although weary, asked what it was he wanted him to do. He listened to the king and immediately responded with these words: “What is the problem? What is worrying you? Your blade hangs intact at your side and yet you complain that it is broken. Come to your senses, extend your hand to the sheath, draw the sword and, behold, the right hand of the Lord shall be with you. And be not afraid, since the sun will not set until either flight or destruction envelops the enemies of your Lord who have risen up against you.”
At these words all those who were listening were struck with great amazement, and casting their glance towards the king they saw hanging by his side the sword, which had not been there when they had looked earlier. Snatching it and taking comfort in the Lord, the king advanced and maimed or put to flight or dealt death to all the men rushing upon him from both his left and right. And so in accordance with the prediction of the servant of God, it came to pass that the king gained victory over his enemies exactly as the sun was setting.”

In this way the son of one of Ivarr’s warriors helped the Anglo-Saxon King to his great victory over the Viking and Scots armies at Brunanburh.

Death of Boniface, 5th June 754

Illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda
Illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda (Fuldaer Sakramentar), fol. 126 v

On 5th June 754 AD Boniface, later a saint, died. He was a missionary from Devon, born around 675 AD, and originally named Winfrith, and he adopted the name of “Boniface” later.

As a young child he entered the church; Willibald writing in his “Life of Boniface” suggests this was against the wishes of his father.

“After some time, when he had given long consideration to the things of God and his whole nature craved for a future life, he revealed his desires to his father and begged him to take his confidences in good part. His father, taken aback at the views he expressed, rebuked him with violence and, while forbidding him to leave his side, enticed him with promises of worldly success, hoping by this means to retain the boy as guardian, or rather heir of his worldly possessions. Employing all the subtle craft of human wisdom, he endeavoured by long discussions to dissuade the boy from carrying out his purpose, and mingled promises with flattery in the hope of persuading him that life in the world would be more congenial for one of his age than the austere regime of the monastic and contemplative life. In order to turn the boy aside from pursuing his purpose he paraded before him all the inducements of pleasure and luxury. But the saint, even at that early age, was filled with the spirit of God.”

His father fell sick after a while and relented in his opinion, and Boniface entered the monastery in Exeter under Abbot Wulfhard, but soon moved to Nursling in Hampshire. Nursling was close to Winchester, which was a great centre of learning, and Boniface taught in the Abbey school, becoming a priest at the canonical age of 30. Eventually he chose to devote himself to spreading the Christian message in Frisia. Accordingly, he went to Utrecht and stayed a year with Willibrord, the Apostle of the Frisians, trying to preach. However, the area was subject to the effects of the war between Charles Martel (grandfather of Charlemagne) and the Frisians so Boniface returned to Nursling. Willibald explains:

“A strange thing in the sanctity of the saints is that when they perceive that their labours are frustrated for a time and bear no spiritual fruit they betake themselves to other places where the results are more palpable, for there is nothing to be gained if one stays in a place without reaping a harvest of souls. With this in mind, when the saint had spent the whole of the summer in the country of the Frisians to no purpose and the autumn was nearing its end, he forsook the pastures that lay parched through lack of heavenly and fruitful dew, and, taking several companions with him for the journey, he departed to his native land.”

When the Abbot of Nursling, Winbert, died, Boniface turned down the abbacy. It may be that the two were related and it was assumed Boniface (Winfrith) would take over. Instead he went to Rome where the Pope appointed him to serve as Bishop of Germania and to “make a report on the savage peoples of Germany.” The purpose of this was to discover whether their untutored hearts and minds were ready to receive the seed of the divine Word.”

The church had no structure or organisation in Germania at the time. He started his mission in Thuringia with mixed success, then moved on to Frankia where he discovered that the King of the Frisians, Radbod, who had been fighting Charles Martel, had died and this presented Boniface with the opportunity to return to Frisia under the protection of Charles Martel. Working again with Willibrord, his mission was initially successful in converting large numbers of Frisians to Christianity.

In time Boniface moved on from working with Willibrord and travelled further into Germania, where again he had successes in his mission.

He went to Rome for a second time, in 722 AD, when he was ordained as Bishop and began a mission in Hesse and Thuringia. During this time he demonstrated the aggressive nature of the mission by felling the Donar Oak at Geismar. The Germanic tribes in the area dedicated particular holy trees to the gods, and this oak was an example of this practice. When a missionary succeeded in felling a holy tree without the gods punishing him, the people often held that this indicated the Christian god was stronger, and so were more willing to convert. This technique was widely used by the missionaries at the time and the there was widespread destruction of pagan shrines and trees as a result. This, along with the tendency to convert the king and nobles first, meant that large numbers of people came into the Church, as the view of kingship was that the king was divine and should be followed in matters of religion.

Boniface was in Rome for the third time in 732 AD and following the report of his successes in Germania, he was ordained Archbishop by the Pope on 30th November.

Boniface returned once again to Germania, and over the next few years established a number of bishoprics in and around Bavaria. The continuing support of Charles Martel and, after his death in 741 AD, of his sons was critical to the success of the mission. Boniface’s relationship with Pepin was more stormy than with Charles or Carloman, but he balanced the challenges by referring to the Bavarian rulers and the papacy when needed.

In 753 AD Boniface resigned his See at Mainz and in 754 AD set out once more for Frisia, his first passion.

On 5th June 754 AD he was killed in Frisia by robbers, and although this appears to have been an attack for the purpose of theft rather than religiously motivated, he was afterwards regarded as a martyr. Willibald reports him saying to his attendants, who were trying to mount an armed defence:

“Sons, cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good. The hour to which we have long looked forward is near and the day of our release is at hand. Take comfort in the Lord and endure with gladness the suffering He has mercifully ordained. Put your trust in Him and He will grant deliverance to your souls.”

He then spoke to the clergy saying:

“Brethren, be of stout heart, fear not them who kill the body, for they cannot slay the soul, which continues to live for ever. Rejoice in the Lord; anchor your hope in God, for without delay He will render to you the reward of eternal bliss and grant you an abode with the angels in His heaven above. Be not slaves to the transitory pleasures of this world. Be not seduced by the vain flattery of the heathen, but endure with steadfast mind the sudden, onslaught of death, that you may be able to reign evermore with Christ.”

His “Life”, written by his disciple Willibald, was produced within a few years of his death, and his cult became centred on the monastery at Fulda. The Ragyndrudis Codex, held at Fulda along with Boniface’s remains, has cuts possibly caused by a sword or axe, and is believed to have been damaged in the attack.

Death of Alfthryth, 7th June 929

Count Baldwin II of Flanders and Countess Elftrude
Count Baldwin II of Flanders and Countess Elftrude (AElfthryth) (15th century)

Alfthryth was the youngest daughter of Alfred the Great. She died on 7th June 929 AD in Flanders, having married Baldwin II (the Bald), Count of Flanders, and is buried at St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent.

Her children included Arnulf I of Flanders and Adalulf, Count of Boulogne.

Through her children the current Queen Elizabeth II can trace her family tree back to Alfred (and, of course, from there back to Woden).

Amounderness Charter, 7th June 934

The Hundred of Amounderness
The Hundred of Amounderness: John Speed’s map of Lancashire (1610)

An interesting charter of King Athelstan is dated 7th June 934 AD. Known as S407 (Sawyer), it gave lands at a place called Amounderness to the church of St Peter, York. St Peter’s is also known as York Minster, the seat of the Archbishop of York.

Amounderness is in Lancashire, in the North-West of England, about 100 miles from York itself. However, it was not unusual for land ownership to be spread around the country.

The derivation of the name is Norse and probably from the Norse name Agmundr, although earlier interpretations have it as derived from words meaning Oak-Protection-Ness (a ness is a promontory of land). Agmundr was a warrior of the Viking kings of Jorvik who died at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910 AD.

The charter was granted to the church in York a few years after King Athelstan purchased it in 926 AD. It was also after the Treaty of Eamont in 927 AD when the kings of Deheubarth, Strathclyde and Scotland, along with the lord of Bamburgh, all recognised Athelstan’s over-lordship. It was a grudging acknowledgement in some quarters and while it resulted in several years of peace, Athelstan invaded Scotland by 934 AD. The reason for this invasion is not entirely clear. It was possibly following the death of Guthfrith, the Norse king of Dublin who had also ruled in Northumbria, and whose death therefore destabilised the Viking kingdom.

The Archbishop of York in 934 AD was Wulfstan I, and he was loyal to Athelstan, so giving Wulfstan control of this area of land would have benefited the king significantly in terms of security as well as explicitly emphasising his control of the north. Equally by rewarding Wulfstan, Athelstan was binding the Archbishop closer to him through his gift, which in turn demanded a reciprocal loyalty.

The bonds did not last beyond Athelstan’s death in 939 AD. When Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin, invaded to take York back into Viking control, Wulfstan arranged a meeting between him and King Edmund in 940 AD. Olaf died later that year, to be replaced by Olaf Sitricson and Ragnald Guthfrithson. Wulfstan and the ealdormen drove them out in 944 AD, and Edmund regained control. But then Wulfstan invited Eric Bloodaxe to become king of Jorvik (York) in 947 AD. In 951 AD Wulfstan no longer witnessed charters of the English king when he was out of favour. He was deprived of his Archbishopric in 952 AD as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains:

“A.D. 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.”

Eric Bloodaxe was driven out briefly by Olaf Sitricson, but returned in 952 AD, and by 953 AD Wulfstan was once again attesting charters.

Then in 954 AD:

“the Northumbrians expelled Yric, and Eadred obtained the kingdom of the Northumbrians. This year archbishop Wulfstan again obtained a bishopric at Dorchester.”

From then on York remained under the English crown.

Baptism of Eanflaed, 8th June 626

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey (c) P WIcks

On Whit Sunday, 8th June 626 AD Eanflaed, the newly born baby daughter of King Edwin, was baptised with eleven others by Bishop Paulinus. This followed an assassination attempt on Edwin by the West Saxons which was foiled by his thegn, Lilla.

This is the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“AD 626. This year Eomer came from Cwichelm king of the West-Saxons, thinking to stab king Edwin. But he stabbed Lilla his thane, and Forthhere, and wounded the king. And on the same night a daughter was born to Edwin: she was called Eanflaed. Then the king promised Paulinus that he would give his daughter to God, if he would obtain of God that he might kill his foe who had before sent the assassin thither. And he then went with an army against the West-Saxons, and there killed five kings, and slew a great number of the people. And at Pentecost Paulinus baptised his daughter, she being one of twelve.”

Eanflaed was the daughter of Edwin and his wife Athelburh, the princess from Kent, who had brought Paulinus with her upon her marriage.

When Edwin was killed by Penda in 633 AD at the Battle of Hatfield Chase Athelburh returned to Kent with her children, and Eanflaed grew up in the south. However in 642 AD she was married to King Oswiu of Northumbria, whose father Athelfrith had killed Edwin’s father, ousted Edwin and driven him into exile. The marriage would have been an attempt to unite the two royal dynasties of Deira and Bernicia.

Oswiu was later implicated in the assassination of Oswin, king of Deira, in 651 AD. It is thought that Oswin was a relative of Eanflaed’s, which may have caused an issue in the royal household. Certainly Eanflaed then persuaded her husband to found a monastery at Gilling in recompense.

Eanflaed’s household followed the Roman liturgical calendar while Oswiu followed the Ionan / Irish tradition for the calculation of Easter. As a result the court was on occasion faced with the impossible situation of the Queen fasting for Lent and observing Palm Sunday while the King was feasting for Easter Sunday. The discrepancy did not occur every year, but eventually it became sufficiently serious that Oswiu arranged a Synod at Whitby in 664 AD to resolve the issue, among others, of the differences between the traditions.

Eanflaed’s devotion included her patronage of Wilfrid, and she is known to have recommended him to her cousin Eorcenberht, king of Kent, when Wilfrid travelled to Rome.

Eanflaed was also related to Hild, Abbess of Whitby, through Edwin, and later entrusted her daughter Alfflaed to Hild following Oswiu’s victory over Penda at Winwaed in 655 AD. Eanflaed retired to Whitby herself following Oswiu’s death in 670 AD.

After Hild died in 680 AD Eanflaed ruled as joint Abbess with her daughter Alfflaed until her own death, after which Alfflaed continued as sole Abbess.

Death of St Columba, 9th June 597

St Columba, Stained glass window in Iona Abbey
St Columba, Stained glass window in Iona Abbey, Vegansoldier CC BY-SA 2.0

On 9th June 597 AD Columba of Iona died, having left Ireland to spread the word of God among the Picts as penance for his role in a rebellion against King Diarmait. At the Battle of Cooldrevny in 561 AD three thousand men were killed.

We know about Columba, or Colmcille, Dove of the Church, thanks to a book of his life written by Adomnan, Abbot of Iona, about 100 years after Columba’s death.

Columba was born around 521 AD into a royal dynasty descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages. Legend tells us that his original name was Crimthann (“fox”) and that when he became a priest he changed it to Columb, (“dove”); later he became known to all as Colum Cille: “dove of the church.”

Although he was in the succession for the kingship he trained for a career in the church, renounced his claim to the throne and became a priest, founding no fewer than 27 monasteries by the time he was 25. One story of his early life claims that he once was so desperate to have a copy of a psalter that he copied it by hand secretly overnight. However another monk saw him working and reported it to the Abbot who refused to let him have the copy. Columba appealed to King Diarmait who found in his favour.

His relationship with the King deteriorated though and he opposed the King’s judgement in another area which ultimately resulted in clan warfare and the Battle of Cooldrevny. His penance was to preach to the heathen and so in 563 AD, at the age of 42, he sailed across the Irish sea with some companions, landed on Iona and founded a monastery.

Thanks to textual material, carved stones and place name evidence, the island of Iona provides a tremendous amount of information about the history of the monastery and also of Christianity in the region. In July 2017 it was reported that archaeologists had identified the remains of the cell of St Columba on Iona. You can read more about the latest discoveries at the Iona Research Group website.

The community at Iona became the heart of Celtic Christianity in the north of Britain. He also seems to have retained influence over his monasteries in Ireland, because in 580 AD Columba was in Ulster mediating between the Irish and the Irish Scots over what was owed to the King. He also persuaded the assembly not to suppress the Bardic Order; he himself had had learned Irish history and poetry from a bard named Gemman and was a poet as well as a priest.

Columba is credited with this poem:

“Delightful to me to be on an island hill, on the crest of a rock, that I might often watch the quiet sea; 

That I might watch the heavy waves above the bright water, as they chant music to their Father everlastingly.

That I might watch its smooth, bright-bordered shore, no gloomy pastime, that I might hear the cry of the strange birds, a pleasing sound;

That I might hear the murmur of the long waves against the rocks, that I might hear the sound of the sea, like mourning beside a grave;

That I might watch the splendid flocks of birds over the well-watered sea, that I might see its mighty whales, the greatest wonder.

That I might watch its ebb and flood in their course, that my name should be–it is a secret that I tell—‘he who turned his back upon Ireland’;

That I might have a contrite heart as I watch, that I might repent my many sins, hard to tell;

That I might bless the Lord who rules all things, heaven with its splendid host, earth, ebb, and flood.”

Columba died in the year that Augustine arrived in Kent; both were instrumental in the further spread of Christianity across the island of Britain, but following the outcome of the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD when the decision was made to follow the Roman rule, Columba has often been downplayed against his Roman counterpart, at least in England. However, the influence of Iona, particularly in the north of England, as well as Scotland, should not be forgotten or under-estimated.

Feast Day of Margaret of Scotland, 10th June

St Margaret window, St. Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh
St Margaret window, St. Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh, © photo Kjetil Bjørnsrud New York

The original feast day of Margaret of Scotland (also “of Wessex”) is 10th June, although her death is commemorated on 16th November.

She was the daughter of Edward the Exile and sister of Edgar the Atheling, who was the alternative candidate for the English throne after King Harold was killed at Hastings in 1066.

Read more about Margaret.

Death of Athelflaed, 12th June 918

Map of Mercian Burhs
Mercian Burhs, ©

Today we recall the death on 12th June 918 AD of one of the most extraordinary women of Anglo-Saxon England.

Athelflaed was the daughter and eldest child of King Alfred and Ealhswith. She was their eldest child, born around 870 AD and she grew up in a court which included some of the greatest scholars of Europe. She had a full education as befitted a royal princess, and was highly literate and intelligent.

She became the wife of Athelred of Mercia around 888/890 AD, uniting Mercia and Wessex during the Viking threat. Mercia had submitted to Wessex at this time and Athelred is always referred to as the Ealdorman of Mercia rather than King. Equally Athelflaed was known as the Lady of the Mercians (Myrcna hlaefdige) and not Queen, at least in the English Chronicles; Irish Chronicles do refer to her as Queen. Following her father’s death she and her brother, King Edward the Elder, seem to have co-ordinated much of their campaigns against the Vikings.

Much of the information we have about Athelflaed’s activities derive from the Mercian Register which was partially copied into some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and cover the period of her and Athelred’s reign.

Athelred and Athelflaed had one daughter, Alfwynn, who seems to have been expected to take over from her parents as the Mercian leader: Mercians had far fewer concerns about female leaders than did Wessex. Alfwynn is recorded witnessing charters from 903 AD onwards, and at a relatively high ranking among the signatories; by 915 AD she was second only to her mother in the secular list.

Athelflaed also fostered her nephew, Edward’s son by his first marriage, Athelstan. Interestingly he does not appear on the Mercian charters with his cousin.

In 909 AD Athelred and Athelflaed managed to extricate the relics of St Oswald from Bardney in Lincolnshire to their new foundation in Gloucester. As this meant taking it from Danish held territory it may have contributed to the Danish incursions the following year having broken the peace agreement that had been made in 905 AD at Tiddingford.

Athelred died in 911 AD after a long illness and Athelflaed took sole control of Mercia. She and King Edward continued the programme of building burhs (fortifications) at strategic locations; Edward along the boundary of the Danelaw and Athelflaed along the Welsh marches and up towards the north west to deter Irish Viking incursions via Ireland.  Her burhs included Bremesburh, Sceargeat (unknown location), Bridgnorth, Stafford, Tamworth, Eddisbury, Warwick, Chirbury, Weardbyrig (unknown location) and Runcorn.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 917 AD:

“before Lammas, Aethelflaed, lady of the Mercians, God helping her, got possession of the fortress which is called Derby, with all that owed obedience thereto; and there also were slain, within the gates, four of her thanes, which to her was a cause of sorrow.”

Then the following year:

“AD 918: This year, in the early part of the year, by God’s help, she peacefully got into her power the fortress at Leicester, and the greater part of the army which owed obedience thereto became subject to her; and the people of York had also covenanted with her, some having given a pledge, and some having bound themselves by oath, that they would be at her command.

But very shortly after they had become so, she died at Tamworth twelve days before Midsummer [12th June] the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St. Peter’s church.”

Following Athelflaed’s death Edward moved quickly to take control of Mercia from his niece Alfwynn, and by December she was whisked away, probably to a convent:

“This year [918] also the daughter of Aethelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all dominion over the Mercians, and carried into Wessex, three weeks before mid-winter: she was called Aelfwyn.”

Edward died in 924 AD, and then Athelstan took the throne of Mercia, no doubt being a more popular choice than his half-brother Alfweard due to his Mercian childhood with his Aunt Athelflaed.

Birth of Charles the Bald, 13th June 823

Charles the Bald in old age; Psalter,
Charles the Bald in old age; 9th century Psalter, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale

Charles the Bald was born on 13th June 823 AD. He became King of West Frankia, King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor. He was also father-in-law of both Athelwulf of Wessex and later Athelbald of Wessex, both of whom (shockingly as far as the Christian Church was concerned, but perhaps traditionally for a pagan king) married Charles’ daughter Judith. He was also the King who paid off the Vikings after the Sack of Paris on 29th March 845 AD.

Charles himself was born in Frankfurt and had older half-brothers who were already adults at the time of his birth. This meant that he had considerable difficulty in establishing his own kingdom in the face of strong sibling rivalry, despite his father’s efforts to leave him land. His father, Louis the Pious, died in 840 AD and civil war ensued. Charles allied with one brother, Louis the German, against another, Lothair, and eventually became King of West Frankia.

After Lothair’s death Louis was eventually persuaded by his councillors to invade West Frankia and Charles was unable to raise an army in defence due to his unpopularity. The family struggles continued for a number of years, until Charles was finally able to agree a treaty in 870 AD which shared Lotharingia (Lothair’s former kingdom) between him and Louis.

It seemed things might be going his way at last. In 875 AD the Pope crowned Charles Holy Roman Emperor, much to Louis’ fury as he had also been a contender for the title. As a result Louis invaded West Frankia again forcing Charles to rush home. Louis died in 876 AD and Charles in turn tried to seize his kingdom of East Frankia but was comprehensively defeated by Louis’ son, also called Louis.

Charles died in 877 AD on his way back from a failed attempt to raise an army in support of the Pope against the Saracens. 

Coincidentally his nephew, another son of Louis the German, was Charles the Fat and he was also born on 13th June, in 839 AD. He was faced with dealing with the remnants of the Great Heathen Army that Alfred had driven out of England after the Battle of Ethandun in 878 AD.

The origin of the epithet “Bald” is unclear, and images depicting him do not show him as bald. The name may indeed have been intended to emphasise that he was actually quite hairy (cf “Little” John in Robin Hood, who was exceptionally tall).

Equally Charles the Fat, his nephew, was first called “Fat” in the 12th century and there is no evidence about his actual size, large or small.

Feast day of Eadburh of Winchester, 15th June

Drawing of a window depicting Eadburh
Drawing of a Stain glass window in a church depicting Eadburh of Winchester, D A R C 12345 / CC BY-SA 4.0

15th June is the feast day of Eadburh of Winchester.

She was the daughter of Edward the Elder and his third wife, Eadgifu of Kent, and the sister of the kings Edmund the Magnificent and Eadred. She was born about 920 AD and showed an early inclination for the holy life, even at the age of three choosing a gold chalice and gospel book over toys and jewels. Her father recognised her youthful devotion and put her into the care of the abbess Athelthryth at Nunnaminster in Winchester. Nunnaminster had been founded by Eadburh’s grandmother Ealhswith, wife of Alfred and the “the true and beloved lady of the English”.

While Eadburh seems to have remained at Nunnaminster for the rest of her life, this did not mean she was without influence or reputation. She is attested in 939 AD in a charter of her half-brother King Athelstan, in which she is the beneficiary of a grant of land.

She was revered by her contemporaries for her gentleness and humility, and her presence at Nunnaminster would have enhanced its wealth significantly due to her royal connections. Osbert  of Clare tells us a number of stories about Eadburh which tend to underline her importance as a source of income to the monastery.

On one occasion she was found reading alone against the rules of the house, and was beaten until the abbess realised who she was and apologised, prostrating herself in front of Eadburh. This story emphasises the status and value of a royal member of the community, and how such noble women were assets to the houses which took them in and provided them with a safe and comfortable home.

Eadburh was also discovered by the nuns to be getting up in the night to clean their shoes for them. This was considered wholly unsuitable for a noble woman and once again she was in trouble. When her father heard about it on a visit however he was glad to learn of her humility and goodness, contrary to the expectations of the nuns.

On another of her father’s visits she was able to request from him an important estate for the nunnery in return for singing to him.

Osbert also goes on to describe her generosity to the poor and also a miracle following her death.

She died at Nunnaminster no later than 960 AD. Having been buried in a humble grave near a window, it became apparent that the window could not be closed for three nights in a row due to pressure from outside. This was understood to tell the nuns that Eadburh was unhappy with her burial place and so she was moved but again her displeasure was made clear. On the third move, her body was found to be uncorrupted by decay, and so she was moved to a place near the high altar and her cult began to flourish, continuing to attract pilgrims, and their money, to the church. In death as in life Eadburh took good financial care of her community.

Finally Osbert attributes five more miracles to Eadburh. Four of these involved curing people, and the fifth in freeing a man from chains which had been placed on him at the order of the king.

Her cult was first mentioned in the Salisbury Psalter from the early 970s and was later further enhanced by Bishop Athelwold of Winchester who had her body removed from its resting place at the altar and transferred to a silver shrine. She was still popular in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Battle of Glasbury-on-Wye, 16th June 1056

Detail from the effigy of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn ap Ynyr
St Garmon’s parish church, Llanarmon yn Iâl – Detail from the military effigy of Welsh knight Gruffydd ap Llywelyn ap Ynyr. © Copyright Mike Searle, CCSA 2.0

On 16th June 1056 Gruffydd ap Llewellyn defeated the English at Glasbury-on-Wye and killed Leofgar, who was the Bishop of Hereford and Harold Godwinson’s former chaplain, together with his clerks and the shire reeve Agelnoth.

Gruffydd was the son of Llewellyn ap Seisyll and Angharad, the daughter of Mareduddab Owain. He succeeded to the kingdom of Gwynedd in 1039 after the assassination of Iago ab Idwal, allegedly by Iago’s own men. Gruffydd was already king of Powys at the time.

He then fought a battle at Welshpool against the Mercians and killed Edwin, the brother of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Finally he turned his attention to Deheubarth and drove out the king there, taking power in 1044, but being driven out himself in 1045.

In 1052 Gruffydd was again active on the border with England, fighting at Leominster / Llanllieni against a combined English and Norman force (these were Normans who had come to England at the invitation of King Edward the Confessor).

“AD 1052: In the same year Griffin, the Welsh king, plundered in Herefordshire, until he came very nigh to Leominster; and they gathered against him, as well the landsmen as the Frenchmen of the castle, and there were slain of the English very many good  men, and also of the Frenchmen”

Gruffydd continued to raid across the border until in 1055 he allied with Alfgar, another son of Leofric who had been expelled from East Anglia to the benefit of Harold Godwinson. It was Harold who was sent to restore the peace after Gruffydd attacked Hereford and overcame the local forces. With Alfgar restored to his earldom soon afterwards, Gruffydd returned to Wales to take back Deheubarth, as well as Morgannwg, and so became the first king of the whole of Wales. At this time he also took extensive land in England near the border.

So it was that on 16th June 1056 Gruffydd was again fighting the English, this time at Glasbury.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

AD 1056. ‘This year died Aethelstan, the venerable bishop, on the 4th of the ides of February [10th Feb.], and his body lies at Hereford-port; and Leofgar was appointed bishop; he was the mass-priest of Harold the earl. He wore his “kenepas” [moustache – symbol of a warrior] during his priesthood, until he was a bishop. He forsook his chrism and his rood, his spiritual weapons, and took to his spear and his sword, after his bishophood; and so went to the field against Griffin the Welsh king: and there was he slain, and his priests with him, and AElfnoth the sheriff, and many good men with them; and the others fled away. This was eight days before midsummer. It is difficult to tell the distress, and all the marching, and the camping, and the travail and destruction of men, and also of horses, which all the English army endured, until Leofric the earl came thither, and Harold the earl, and bishop Aldred, and made a reconciliation there between them; so that Griffin swore oaths that he would be to king Edward a faithful and unbetraying under-king. And bishop Ealdred succeeded to the bishopric which Leofgar had before held eleven weeks and four days.

Gruffydd’s oath to King Edward did not last long and in 1058 he was back in the field. Harold Godwinson eventually drove him out of Wales in 1062. He was killed in 1064 by Cynan, a man who is in some sources (such as the Ulster Chronicle) linked to Iago whose assassination had opened the way for Gryffydd to build his power.

Harold Godwinson not only brought about the end of the reign of the first king of Wales; he also married Gruffydd’s widow, Eadgyth of Mercia who was the daughter of Alfgar.

Feast Day of St Botolph, 17th June

St Botolph's Church, Botolphs, West Sussex
St Botolph’s Church, Botolphs, West Sussex, photo by Kinnerton CCSA 3.0

Despite being a significant missionary of the seventh century Botolph is little known to us today; he is not even mentioned by Bede. His feast day is 17th June, and there are over 70 churches dedicated to him around the UK which indicates his popularity in earlier times, despite our current lack of awareness.

Botolph (originally Botwulf) was probably born in East Anglia although this is not certain. The Flemish hagiographer Folcard in the 11th century wrote a “Life” of Botolph, and claimed he was Saxon, although loved by the Scots; meanwhile the Schleswig Breviary claims he was a Scot (Irish), and this suggestion may have originated with St Willibrord who studied in Ireland before his career on the Continent where he ultimately became Archbishop of the Frisians.

Botolph studied in Germany and Chelles in Frankia before returning home.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 654 AD he founded a monastic community at Ikenhoe based on the Benedictine Rule, although before doing so he had to exorcise the demons which inhabited the place. The fens and marshes held many terrors for people, some of which have continued in legends still told today about the phantom dog, Black Shuck (OE “scucca” meaning fiend) and other terrifying creatures. As such Botolph was also a saint who protected travellers, especially crossing water, and many of the churches dedicated to him are placed beside the road leaving a town (ie on the left) or crossing a river.

Read more about Botulph in The forgotten history of St Botwulf, by Dr Sam Newton (2016)

The location of the monastery is not certain: both Iken in Suffolk and Boston are suggested possibilities. Wherever it was located, it was an important site. In 669 AD Ceolfrith, who later became abbot at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, studied there to learn about the Rule, while on his way back to the north after a period studying at Canterbury under Archbishop Theodore and following his ordination. The good Botolph is described as:

“so well founded that no one could be found better versed than he, either in ecclesiastical or monastic tradition.”

Botolph is also referenced in a charter for the foundation of St Mildburh in Shropshire, around 675-690 AD.

Botolph died around 680 AD and was buried at his monastery. However, the house did not survive the Viking incursions in East Anglia and was destroyed around 870 AD. King Edgar (963-967AD) ordered that the remains of the saint be taken from the monastery ruins, and be divided into three parts: the head to be taken to Ely, the middle to be taken to Thorney, and the remainder to be taken to Westminster Abbey, although the planned distribution may not have been completed as the King commanded and they probably only reached Grundisburgh.

The Rev Dr Baring-Gould appeared to share Bede’s lack of interest in the saint when he concluded:

“There [Ikenhoe] he dwelt and founded an abbey, and there he spent a life singularly barren of interesting events. He was beloved by all who came near him, on account of his humility, gentleness, and affability. He died the same year as S. Hilda, in 655 [sic]. It is impossible to give more details concerning a saint of whom so little that is trustworthy or interesting is known.”

Nevertheless, Botolph was a man renowned by his contemporaries for his gentleness and humility, as well as his learning.

Capture of Brecananmere, 19th June 916

Llangorse lake viewed from Llangorse Mountain, South Wales
Llangorse lake viewed from Llangorse Mountain, South Wales, by Velella / CC BY-SA3.0

On 19th June 916 AD Athelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, sent an army into Wales and took the royal residence at Brecananmere, capturing the wife of King Tewdr of Brycheiniog along with 33 other people.

What had annoyed the lady so much is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for the year:

AD. 916. “This year Abbot Ecgbriht was guiltlessly slain, before Midsummer, on the sixteenth of the kalends of July: the same day was the feast of the martyr St. Ciricius and his fellows [16th June]. And three days after this, AEthelflaed sent her forces among the Welsh, and stormed Brecananmere, and there “took the king’s wife, as one of four-and-thirty persons.”

The abbot would appear to be the same man who had witnessed a charter issued at the burh at Weardbyrig (location unknown) in 915 AD, so perhaps he was a close adviser of Athelflaed. He had been travelling in Brycheiniog under Athelflaed’s protection when he was attacked.

Brecananmere was a crannog in the lake at Llangorse, a unique and Irish-influenced royal residence emphasising the Irish connections of the Welsh ruler, Tewdr ap Elisedd.

The crannog itself was constructed with timbers felled 889-993 AD, many of them re-used making precise building dates difficult, but the crannog itself would have been unique in Wales. The link to the Irish would have been intended to support the claims of the Brycheiniog ruling elite to be of Irish descent. It was around 40m wide and 30-40m off the northern shore of the lake. It was built from planks of oak with a dwelling platform formed from layers of stone, soil and brushwood on a man-made island and was defended by a wooden palisade. There would have been a central hall and a number of smaller buildings. Archaeological excavations of the site have found a number of items indicating a substantial settlement consistent with a royal palace, as well as a burnt layer which may be evidence for Athelflaed’s attack. The kings at that time moved from site to site through the year, so it was not occupied at all times. Although the Welsh queen was taken prisoner the king was not – he may have escaped or he may not have been present.

The attack on the abbot is unexplained and perhaps the Welsh were testing the Mercian defences given the English focus on dealing with the Viking incursions. At this time Edward was away in the east of England campaigning in Essex and fortifying Maldon, and Athelflaed was busy with her own campaign. Also, a number of the burhs that Athelflaed had had built were along the Welsh / English border so it is also possible there had been a build-up of tension prior to the abbot’s misadventure.

Nevertheless Athelflaed responded quickly and decisively, so either the abbot was important to her personally or her general response to Welsh impudence was intended to be clear and immediate. She moved her forces quickly and stormed the crannog having been engaged in building a number of burhs, most recently at Warwick; the year after she took Derby where she lost four of her thanes “who were dear to her”. She seems to have been a woman who valued her friends highly so perhaps the revenge for the abbot was more than a simple lesson in Mercian preparedness.

King Tewdr was required to submit to Athelflaed and pay compensation, but it seems there were no further reprisals against the Welsh for the incident, and no further disruptions are recorded. The crannog itself was not rebuilt by the Welsh king.

Battle at Catalaunian Fields, 20th June 451

Map of Attila’s campaign in Gaul 451 AD
Map of Attila’s campaign in Gaul 451 AD, CC BY-SA 3.0

After the Roman militias were recalled from the Province of Britannia, the people struggled with invasions from Scots and Picts. According to Gildas they appealed to General Aetius for help, probably some time between 446 AD and 454 AD, but he told them to look to their own affairs.

Aetius had other concerns. On 20th June 451 AD he took on the forces of Attila the Hun in the Battle at Catalaunian Fields in north east France in what is now known as the Champagne region. The exact site of the battle is not known but it was probably somewhere between Troyes and Chalons-sur-Marne.

Among the casualties was Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, but the Romans held the field in one of the most important battles of the age. This was the first time that Europeans had managed to defeat the Hun army, and the idea that they were invincible was proven wrong.

The battle came at a time when the old Roman Empire had fractured and was now split between Byzantium in the East and Ravenna in the West. At the same time the Huns were driving westwards, displacing Goths and Franks as they came. It is likely that part of this movement of people impacted the decision of some groups in the Anglo-Saxon homelands to migrate to Britain, while many other peoples moved into the continental remnants of the Western Roman Empire.

When they could not prevent the advance, the Romans resorted to a familiar tactic of trying to pay the advancing forces off, a tactic later used by the Anglo-Saxons against the Vikings, and which was equally unsuccessful for both parties.

Attila had taken control of the Huns in 433 AD and with his brother he organised a far more effective force to replace the somewhat random looting and pillaging which had previously afflicted the Romans.  At the Treaty of Margus in 439 AD he negotiated a huge sum of money to refrain from attacking the Romans, and turned to the Sassanid Empire instead. The Sassanids proved to be ferociously capable of defence and so the Huns returned to the Roman field, while the Romans had withdrawn their troops to deal with the Vandals in North Africa and Sicily. In 445 AD the Huns swept through the Danube region which was now undefended.

Attila viewed Rome as weak, and starting in 446 or 447 CE, he invaded the region around the modern Balkans, destroying over 70 cities, taking slaves, and sending his spoils back to the city of Buda (possibly Budapest).

Then in 450 AD he was offered the perfect opportunity to attack further west. The Roman Emperor’s sister requested Attila’s help in escaping a marriage contract; Attila cannily chose to interpret this as a betrothal and demanded half the Western Empire as a dowry, then brought his army west to bring home his bride. His opposing war leader was Aetius.

Ironically Aetius had spent his youth as a hostage at the court of the Huns, spoke their language, and understood their culture. He knew Attila well, even using him as a mercenary in a number of other campaigns and the two men had a friendly relationship.

Aetius was also charismatic and had a reputation for bravery and military skill. Even so he was only able to muster around 50,000 men and had to ally with Theoderic I of the Visigoths to make up sufficient numbers for the campaign which involved huge armies.

In 451 AD Attila moved on Gaul with an army of around 200,000 men, taking Gallia Belgica first of all, and the people fled before him. Few if any were aware of his losses against the Sassanids and he was seen as impossible to defeat. Attila then moved on until he reached Orleans which he placed under siege. It was here that Aetius came against him and managed to disperse his forward troops. Attila withdrew to the north leaving around 15,000 Gepid warriors who were destroyed by Aetius in a night attack.

The two forces met at the Catalaunian Fields, where allegedly Attila waited until around 2.30pm to start the attack, possibly because he was not fully in position. The fierce fighting went on until dark and was confused and bloody. Morning light revealed the carnage, with neither side pressing to re-engage. And now things become even more strange.  Aetius sent home his ally Thorismund, possibly because he didn’t feel confident of his loyalty. With Thorismund off the field Aetius then also slipped his forces away leaving Attila awaiting attack. Once he realised his opponents had gone Attila himself chose to leave Gaul and return home; there is no known reason for this decision and it had been suggested that Attila and Aetius had made a bargain under the cover of the confusion the night before. If so, the outcome of the agreement was that Aetius remained indispensable to his masters and Attila did not have to face a fight he may not have been confident of winning, and was able to keep his booty into the bargain.

Deciding who was the “winner” is difficult. However, Roman culture was retained and the Huns withdrew, having failed to reach their objective of taking half the Roman territory which Attila had demanded.

Aetius and Attila were both dead within a few years. Aetius killed by the Emperor Valentinian, and Attila bursting a blood vessel while drinking heavily. Attila’s sons fought each other and their inheritance fell apart in the years that followed. The Roman Empire in the West was soon to fall to Germanic tribes.

Death of Athelthrith, 23rd June 679

Saint Aethelthryth of Ely
Saint Aethelthryth of Ely from the Benedictional of St. Aethelwold, illuminated manuscript (c) British Library

St Athelthrith died on 23 June 679 AD after an eventful life.

She was born around 636 AD at Exning in Suffolk as the third and middle daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and Saewara. Her elder sisters were Saethrith and Sexburga, and her younger sisters were Withburga and Ethelburga. Her grandfather was King Raedwald (generally presumed to be buried in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo). Her father Anna died in 654 AD fighting Penda of Mercia and was succeeded by his brother, Athelhere.

Her family were pious Christians having been converted during her father’s life by St Felix, and Athelthrith wanted to become a nun. However, the life of an Anglo-Saxon princess had its responsibilities and in 652 AD she was married to Tondbert, an East Anglian sub-king or ealdorman of the South Gyrwas based in the fenlands. It was on this marriage that she received the estate of Elge (Ely), as part of her marriage gift. Tondbert was pragmatic; following their wedding he agreed that Athelthrith could live as a nun, as she wished.

Athelthrith settled on Ely and lived peacefully in religious retirement for some years. Tondbert had died by 660 AD, because at this time she was required to marry Ecgfrith, the son of King Oswiu of Northumbria and Eanflaed. It is likely that the East Anglians needed allies against Mercia and the marriage was intended to secure that.

While we don’t know the age of Tondbert from her first marriage, we do know that there was quite an age gap in this second marriage. Athelthrith would have been around 24 or 25, while Ecgfrith was approximately 10 years her junior. The aetheling was in awe of his wife, according to the sources, learned from her and also did not consummate the marriage. Bede tells us:

“Though she lived with him twelve years, yet she preserved the glory of perfect virginity, as I was informed by Bishop Wilfrid, of blessed memory, of whom I inquired, because some questioned the truth thereof; and he told me that he was an undoubted witness of her virginity”

Ecgfrith succeeded to the Kingdom of Northumbria in 670 AD and his wife made their court a place of learning and piety, including sponsoring Cuthbert, who was then the Prior of Lindisfarne. She embroidered a stole and maniple for him herself, which he wore when celebrating mass (these were not the ones on display at Durham Cathedral; those date to the 10th century and were a gift from King AEthelstan). She was also friends with Wilfrid, and she gave him lands at Hexham.

Athelthrith and Ecgfrith had been married for 12 years when their relationship ran into trouble. Ecgfrith was no longer a child in awe of is wife; he now wished to consummate the marriage and presumably to produce heirs. Athelthrith begged to differ. She argued forcefully with him that she should be able to retire and become a nun. In this she was supported by Wilfrid, who misled the King by pretending to take his part in the arguments but in fact encouraged Athelthrith. Almost as soon as Ecgfrith had agreed to Athelfrith’s wishes he changed his mind. However, Athelthrith was already on her way to the Abbey at Coldingham, ruled by Ecgfrith’s aunt, Abbe.

Ecgfrith decided to take his wife back, willingly or not. Abbe advised Athelthrith to make an escape as she was unable to protect her, and so she left disguised as a beggar, taking only two nuns with her for support. She decided to return to her own lands at Ely.

And so began a chase along the coastal roads of England. Ecgfrith was close behind Athelthrith as she fled. On the first night she managed to reach a headland where the height of the tide prevented Ecgfrith from catching up with her. The tide remained high for seven days instead of receding. This example of divine intervention persuaded Ecgfrith his cause was hopeless and Athelthrith was able to continue on her way. It was a long and weary journey but at last she came home to Ely. Meanwhiel Ecgfrith married a second wife instead.

In 673 AD Athelthrith built a large double monastery at Ely and her friend Wilfrid made her abbess, and she ruled there until her death. She died of an abscess of the throat, which she regarded as punishment for her previous love of jewellery. Her incorrupt body was supposed to have healed the wound made by the surgeon attempting to drain the abscess, and inevitably she became the patron saint of those with throat complaints. She was succeeded at Ely Abbey by her sister Sexburga.

Athelthrith was one of the most popular of Old English saints, and there are more dedications in her name (variously spelt) in England than in that of any other female saint of the early English Church.

The abbey was destroyed by Viking raiders in 870 AD and refounded in 970 AD, and eventually became a cathedral in 1109 AD.

Following her death she performed miracles including blinding a Viking who tried to steal from her tomb, and providing support against the Norman oppression of the cathedral which sheltered Hereward the Wake.

Battle of Moira / Magh Rath, 24th June 637

A drawing representing the stone in Carnalbanagh
A drawing representing the stone in Carnalbanagh. © Gordon McFarland

24th June 637 AD saw the Battle of Moira (or Magh Rath) in Ireland, between Domhnall, High King of Ireland and Congal Cláen (“Half Blind”), King of Ulster. But it didn’t involve only the Irish. Warriors from what we now call Scotland, Wales and England also took part. It was an important battle for a number of reasons, and was recorded by Adomnan, Abbot of Iona, as well as in The Annals of Tigernach, the Annals of Ulster and various other Irish sources.

In 628 AD Congall had killed the then King of Ireland, and taken his place. However, a bee sting had resulted in him being blinded in one eye, and in common with a number of other cultures at that time it was considered that the High King had to be physically perfect. Congall had sued the owners of the bees for compensation (the law tract still survives). However he soon found himself at war with Domhnall (who was also his foster father) and was defeated in battle in 629 AD at the Battle of Dún Ceithirn.

Congall fled across the sea to Scotland to seek help from King Domnall Brecc of the Kingdom of Dal Riada which had been established by Irishmen from North Antrim.

After some years he returned with a war band of Scots, Britons (Welsh) and Saxons to challenge Domhnall. It is believed that the army also brought a cohort of cavalry with them.

Landing at Dunseverick he led his troops south along the road to Tara, seat of the Kings of Ireland, while Domhnall advance northwards to meet him.

A range of characters are associated with the battle. Domnall’s army included a Christian Saint, Ronan Finn, in its number. An early church was dedicated to him at Magheralin, in County Down. Meanwhile in Congall’s army one of the Dal Riadan princes was Suibhne mac Colmain, or Sweeney, who was driven mad by a curse from Finn and whose story was recorded in the Irish story of “Sweeney’s Frenzy”.

It is recorded that 50,000 men met at Moira and fought for six days. Congall and his army were completely defeated and Domhnall and his clan of Ui Neill then ruled for the next 1000 years until the Flight of the Earls in 1607. Meanwhile Dal Riada lost its land and influence in Ireland and turned its attention to its northern British territory, thus beginning the formation of what eventually became Scotland. The Kingdom of Dal Riada played an important part in the development not only of Scotland but also in its influence on events further south in Britain.

Over the years people have uncovered great quantities of human remains near Moira which are alleged to have been from the battle, described as:

“the greatest battle, whether we regard the numbers engaged, the duration of combat, or the stake at issue, ever fought within the bounds of Ireland.”

For many years a pillar stone in Carnalbanagh with a crude cross and some circles on it was believed to mark the graves of the Dal Riadan Princes. Unfortunately in the early 19th century the local farmer knocked it down to use to fill a hole. Sir Samuel Ferguson, the Irish poet and antiquarian recorded the loss in a post-script to his 1872 poem about the battle:

“I learn with deep regret and some shame for my countrymen of the North, that this memorial exists no longer. It has been destroyed by the tenant. I saw it, and was touched by the common humanity that had respected it through so many ages, when I walked over the battlefield, accompanied by the late John Rogan, the local antiquary of Moira, in 1842.”

Death of Athelstan Atheling, 25th June 1014

Will of Athelstan Atheling
Will of Athelstan Atheling, © British Library

25th June 1014 saw the death of Athelstan Atheling, the full brother of King Edmund Ironside. Athelstan was the eldest son of King Athelred Unrede and Alfgifu, his first wife, who were married around 985 AD.

Little is known of him, although he witnessed a charter in 993 AD, presumably still a child. However, his will has survived and provides an insight into the household of an atheling as well as Athelstan’s personal friendships and loyalties. For instance in the will he prays for the soul of his grandmother who brought him up; this was Alfthryth, wife of Edgar and mother of both Athelred the King and his murdered brother King Edward the Martyr.

In 1013 his father King Athelred Unrede had been driven out of his kingdom by Sweyn Forkbeard and gone into exile in Normandy. Where his eldest sons were at the time is not clear but it is possible they remained in England. Sweyn died on 3rd February 1014 and Athelred returned to his throne, promising to rule better in a detailed agreement which is the first recorded pact between a King and his subjects.

In Athelstan’s will, copies of which still survive, and which was made on the day of his death, his first bequest was the manumission of “every penally enslaved man whom I obtained through litigation;” and he gave large amounts of property to the church. The Holy Cross and St Edward the Martyr (his uncle) at Shaftesbury received six pounds.

Athelstan is often described as a “warrior prince” because by his death he had accumulated a large collection of swords, prized war horses and combat equipment. He left Edmund Ironside his most prized possession, a sword which had once belonged to Offa of Mercia, together with some of his estates and other pieces of his war gear. To his other full brother, Eadwig, he gave another piece from his large weapon collection, a silver-hilted sword. Members of his household also benefited: his chaplain, his seneschal, his retainers (cnihtas), his sword-sharpener and his stag huntsman. He also remembered three thegns of the Danelaw, Sigeferth, Morcar and Thurbrand the Hold. His mother had been the daughter of Earl Thored of Northumbria, although she is not mentioned in the will despite mentions of his father, grandmother and foster-mother. Neither does he mention his step-mother or half-brothers, so a family split has been perceived. Another beneficiary was Godwin, son of Wulfnoth, and who is believed to be the same person as Godwin, Earl of Wessex and father of King Harold. Godwin was bequeathed an estate at Compton in Sussex, which had originally belonged to his father Wulfnoth.

Athelstan’s estates were widespread in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Kent.

He was buried at the Old Minster, Winchester.

Death of Bishop Cyneweard, 28th June 975

The west front of Wells Cathedral
The west front of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England. Photo by Adrian Pingstone, 2006

28 June 975 AD saw the death of the Bishop of Wells, Cyneweard.

Cyneweard is not one of the most well-known of Anglo-Saxon Bishops, but he was important enough that he was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s panegyric to King Edgar. The coronation of Edgar in July 975 AD was recorded in a poem which also included the lines:

“And him, a glorious chief,

ten days before,

departed from Britain,

the good bishop,

through nature’s course,

to whom was Cyneweard name.”

Cyneweard seems to have been a monk at Glastonbury Abbey. He was appointed by King Edgar as Abbot at Milton Abbey (the Abbey Church of St Mary, St Samson, and St Branwalader) in 964 AD, at the time when the king replaced the priests there with monks under a Benedictine foundation. A secular college of canons had originally been founded there by King Athelstan in 933 AD.

In 973 AD Byrthelm, the Bishop of Wells and also formerly of Glastonbury, died and Cyneweard was consecrated as his successor. His rule was short and his passing is overlooked in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle apart from the lines quoted above from the B Manuscript of the Chronicles. He was succeeded in turn by Sigar, also from Glastonbury.

Wells had become a seat separate from Sherborne in 909 AD.

Bede made deacon, 29th June 693

Bede, by Aravind Sivaraj CC BY-SA 3.0

29th June 693 AD saw Bede made deacon by John, then Bishop of Hexham (but also known as St John of Beverley). A deacon usually had to be 25 years old but Bede was only 19, so his exceptional abilities must have been fully apparent to his brothers.

Read more about Bede

Knighting of Hereward the Wake, 29th June

Hereward fighting Normans
Hereward fighting Normans, illustration from Cassell’s History of England (1865)

Hereward the Wake is a figure of Anglo-Saxon legend, and his story is part history and part fantasy.

He was born in the 11th century. Much of the information we have about him comes from an early 12th century translation of a (lost) Old English history, the Gesta Herewardi, supposedly written by the deacon Leofric, a priest of his household. The original text had been damaged by the time it was copied into Latin so the gaps were filled in by oral tradition.

The number of men coming to serve Hereward against the Normans grew and grew. Hereward was more than willing to lead them but felt that he should receive his knighthood first. Accordingly he went to Peterborough Abbey and asked the Abbot Brand to knight him. This was done on Feast of the Nativity of the Apostles Peter and Paul, 29th June. This was itself an act of provocation, because the Normans had ruled that knighting by a monk or any cleric was not true knighthood.

Read more about Hereward.

Death of Archbishop Athelred, 30th June 888

The Stockholm Codex Aureus
The Stockholm Codex Aureus © Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135, fol. 10r

Athelred Archbishop of Canterbury died on 30th June 888 AD, during the reign of Alfred the Great and the period of Viking incursions. These two factors helped to define his primacy.

He was consecrated as Archbishop in 870 AD, the year in which the Vikings led by Ivarr the Boneless and Ubba invaded East Anglia and plundered Peterborough. King Edmund was martyred. Ivarr then led an army to besiege Dumbarton, while Halfdan and Bagsecg took Reading and in December fought the Battle of Englefield. In 871 AD more pitched battles were fought at Reading, Ashdown, Basing, Meretun and Wilton, and following the death of King Athelred of Wessex, Alfred succeeded unexpectedly to the throne.

In the early years of his reign Alfred, in common with many other leaders of the time, pursued a policy of paying off the Vikings to go and raid elsewhere. The effect of this was a need to raise taxes, and he demanded the Church contribute in full. Today we are sometimes surprised that the Church did not see the urgency of this request but at the time it was probably far less obvious. The King of Wessex and the Archbishop of Canterbury argued.

In 877 AD Athelred wrote to the Pope John VIII complaining about Alfred’s behaviour and lack of respect for the Church.  Certainly the Bishops of Winchester in this period (Ealhferth, died by 877 AD, succeeded by Denewulf) were also struggling to keep their lands and possessions.

Athelred’s original letter is lost so the details are not known for certain but the Pope replied that the Archbishop should resist not only the king but all those who wished to do wrong, and he should protect priests, monks, nuns and widows. The Pope also explained he had written to Alfred as well, although this letter too has been lost, and says that:

“we have been at pains to admonish and exhort your king … not to neglect to be obedient to you and a devoted helper for the love of Jesus Christ our Lord in all things.”

Alfred may have been trying to take control of the monasteries in Kent as well as taxing the Church heavily. The Vikings at this time were camped in Dorset and Devon and in danger of taking Wessex and the pressure was intense. The evidence does at least indicate that Alfred was not seeking personal enrichment, although the Church probably was not interested in the distinction. It is certainly likely that other nobles were trying to enrich themselves. However, the decline in Latin literacy and book production does indicate the effect of Viking raids on the Church as well as the wider kingdom. Documents and charters during Athelred’s primacy contain a number of errors and duplications indicating poorly educated scribes.

Certainly the Church would have needed its wealth to support its communities at a very difficult and dangerous time as well as to educate its scribes. It had engaged in creating stunning religious art earlier in the century, which was part of the attraction for the raiders. Around 750 AD, for example, Canterbury had produced the gospel book now known as the Codex Aureus, or the Stockholm Codex, with purple pages, copious gold decoration and a richly decorated binding which has not survived. This gospel book was famously ransomed back from the Vikings by the ealdorman Alfred, and his wife Werburg, and Alhthryth. The record of their donation is recorded on the opening page of the Gospel of Matthew:

“In nomine Domini nostri Ihesu Christi Ic Aelfred aldormon ond Werburg min gefera begetan thas bec aet haethnum herge mid uncre claene feo, thaet thonne waes mid claene golde, ond thaet wit deodan for Godes lufan ond for uncre saule thearfe.

Ond for thon the wit noldan thaet thas halgan beoc lencg in thaere haethenesse wunaden, ond nu willath heo gesellan inn to Cristes circan Gode to lofe ond to wuldre ond to weorthunga, ond his throwunga to thoncunga, ond thaem godcundan geferscipe to brucenne the in Cristes circan daeghwaemlice Godes lof raerath, to thaem gerade thaet heo mon arede eghwelce monathe for Aelfred ond for Werburge ond for Alhthrythe, heora saulum to ecum lecedome, tha hwile the God gesegen haebbe thaet fulwiht aet theosse stowe beon mote.

Ec swelce ic Aelfred dux ond Werburg biddath ond halsiath on Godes almaehtiges noman ond on allra his haligra thaet naenig mon seo to thon gedyrstig thaette thas halgan beoc aselle oththe atheode from Cristes circan tha hwile the fulwiht <stondan><mote>.”

“In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I, ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg, my wife, obtained these books from the heathen army with our pure money, that was with pure gold, and we did that for God’s love and for the sake of our souls.

And because we did not wish that these holy books would remain long among the heathens, and now we want to give it to Christ’s church for God’s praise, honour and glory, and in gratitude of his passion and for the use of the religious community, who daily raises up God’s praise in Christ’s church, on the condition that they are read every month for Alfred and for Werburg and for Alhthryth, for the eternal salvation of their souls, for as long as God should grant that the faith is allowed to be in this place.

Also likewise, I, ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg pray and ask in the God’s almighty name and those of all his saints that no man will be so bold as to deliver or separate these books from Christ’s church for as long as the faith is allowed to stand.”

Ironically the Codex is now held in Stockholm. It was kept in Canterbury until going to Spain in the 16th century, and was finally acquired by the Royal Library of Sweden in 1690.

On This Day in May

Feast Day of St Bertha, 1st May

Gordon Griffiths / Queen Bertha / CC BY-SA 2.0
Gordon Griffiths / Queen Bertha / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bertha was born in modern-day France to Charibert, king of Paris, and his wife Ingoberga sometime after 561 AD. She married the pagan King Athelberht of Kent, probably in the late 570s, on the condition she could bring her chaplain Liudhard with her and practice her Christian religion freely. Her husband gave her the church of St. Martin, a pre-existing Christian church, just outside the walls of Canterbury. Possibly there was a small Christian community still worshipping there.

Kent and the Franks had had close ties for a long time, as can be seen in the archaeological record demonstrating fashions and designs in Kent reflecting those of the Continental Franks. The Merovingians (in Frankia) may have had some kind of formal relationship or rule over the kingdom of Kent.

With a Christian queen in place, Pope Gregory sent his mission with Augustine to Canterbury in 596 AD. He wrote to Bertha as well as her husband urging them to support the mission to evangelise their people. The last known letter is in 601 AD and soon after that Athelberht married a new wife, so it seems Bertha died around this time.

The couple had at least two children: Eadbald and Athelburh. Eadbald initially remained a pagan and scandalously (in the eyes of the church) married his father’s second wife, although he converted later to the Christian faith. Athelburh was apparently always a Christian and married Edwin of Northumbria, taking her faith north with her in the same way her mother had brought it from Frankia.

Discovery of the Benty Grange Helmet, 3rd May 1848

Reconstruction of helmet
Reconstruction of helmet (c) Museums Sheffield [CC BY-SA 4.0]

3rd May 1848 saw Thomas Bateman’s discovery of the iconic Benty Grange Helmet. The helmet is a rare and precious surviving example of a boar crested helmet. Other similar finds, and references to them in poetry such as Beowulf, as well as imagery, indicate that they were an important symbol to the Anglo-Saxons representing strength and endurance.

Read more about the Benty Grange Helmet

Murder of Harthacnut’s tax collectors. 4th May 1041

Coin of Harthacnut
Coin of Harthacnut, Hedning [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

On 4th May 1041 the local citizens killed two of Harthacnut’s tax collectors while they were hiding in a monastery from the angry mob. Harthacnut had been made king the previous year and died in 1042, but in the meantime he managed to arouse the ire of the locals to an extraordinary degree. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry reads:

“AD 1041. This year Harthacnut caused all Worcestershire to be ravaged, on account of his two house-carls, who demanded the heavy impost; when the people slew them in the town within the minster.”

John of Worcester adds:

“In 1041 Harthacnut sent his house-carls over all the kingdom to collect the tribute which he had imposed. But the citizens of Worcester and the Worcestershire men rose in rebellion, and on Monday, May 4, slew two of them, named Feader and Turstan, who had hidden themselves under the roof of one of the towers of the monastery of that city.”

So what was going on?

Harthacnut was the half-brother of Harold Harefoot and both were sons of King Cnut who had died in 1035. Harthacnut was born around 1018, and had inherited the Danish throne from his father. However, the English throne was taken by Harold until the latter’s death in 1040. Harthacnut’s mother, Emma of Normandy, was Cnut’s second wife but she had reached an agreement with Cnut that her sons would take precedence over the sons of his first wife, these being Svein Knutsson and Harold. Harold was supposed to be acting as Harthacnut’s regent in 1035 but by 1037 he was accepted by the English as king due to Harthacnut’s continuing absence in Denmark. Harthacnut died suddenly on 1042 and his reign was summed up the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he “did nothing worthy of a king as long as he ruled.”

The reason for the events in Worcester was that Harthacnut imposed heavy taxation on the country to pay for his fleet of ships, estimated at more than £23,000. The local people were unhappy about this demand and it is possible there was resentment dating back to payment of the Danegeld during Athelred UnRede’s reign. If so, Harthacnut’s Viking heritage could well have brought back bitter memories. There is even the possibility that Godgifu (or Godiva) was driven to protest the excessive taxation of her husband, Leofric Earl of Mercia, which could have related to Harthacnut’s demands – this is purely speculative however.

Coronation of Athelred Unrede, 4th May 979

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

On 4th May 979 AD King Athelred (later called “UnRede” meaning “Ill-Advised”) was crowned following the murder of his brother Edward (“the Martyr”) at Corfe Castle a year before.

Athelred was the son of Edgar the Peaceable and Alfthryth; he was was only a young boy when his father died in 975 AD, probably about 9 years old. His half-brother Edward was chosen as king, being an adult male of the royal house. 

Following Athelread’s succession – delayed while Athelred and his mother tried to gain support – the boy remained under the control and influence of a triumvirate of his mother, Athelwold, Bishop of Winchester, and Alfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia. The men died in 984 AD and 983 AD respectively and Athelred took the opportunity to enjoy greater independence by reducing the power of the church. During this period there were Viking raids around the country and the Battle of Maldon saw the death of Earl Byrhtnoth in Essex in 991 AD. Athelred repented of his deeds as things went from bad to worse, and by 993 AD was supporting church reform.

The depredations of Olaf Tryggvason and Swein of Denmark continued in spite of his change of heart. In 1002 he ordered the killing of Danes in England following a rumour that they were plotting to kill him, which became known as the St Brice’s Day massacre.

His leading men appear to have been a poor bunch, accused of treachery and cowardice by the chroniclers. By 1013 when Swein arrived at the mouth of the Humber the area of England traditionally part of the Danelaw submitted to him without a fight. By Christmas Athelred fled to Normandy and all England was under Danish rule. A few weeks later in February 1014 Swein died and the witan recalled Athelred rather than submit to Cnut. Athelred promised to remedy each one of the things they abhorred, and returned to his throne. By 1016 he too was dead.

Athelred was described by John of Worcester thus:

“illustrious Atheling, a youth of graceful manners, handsome countenance, and fine person.”

Sadly posterity is harder on him and his long reign (the longest of any Anglo-Saxon king) is remembered as one of weakness and vacillation in the face of increasing Scandinavian pressure.

Feast Day of John of Beverley, 7th May

Beverley Minster
Beverley Minster, photo P Wicks

7th May is the commemoration of St John of Beverley, East Yorkshire. John was born in the East Riding of Yorkshire at Harpham and educated at Canterbury in Kent. He then returned north to study at Whitby under Hilda. In 688 AD he was made Bishop of Hexham, and then moved to York in 705 AD following the return of the controversial Bishop Wilfrid. While at York he founded Beverley Minster around 700 AD and made Bercthun its first abbot.

Bede records a story about John’s household told to him by Herebald about an incident in his youth when he was a clerk to John.

Some of the young men were racing their horses and Herebald, who had been given a good horse by John, wished to join but was forbidden. Eventually, as he watched races, he could not resist any longer and disobeyed John’s orders. Here is the rather lengthy account:

“When they had several times galloped backwards and forwards, the bishop and I looking on, my wanton humour prevailed, and I could no longer refrain, but though he forbade me, I struck in among them, and began to ride at full speed; at which I heard him call after me, ‘Alas how much you grieve me by riding after that manner.’ Though I heard him, I went on against his command; but immediately the fiery horse taking a great leap over a hollow place, I fell, and lost both sense and motion, as if I had been dead; for there was in that place a stone, level with the ground, covered with only a small turf, and no other stone to be found in all that plain; and it happened, as a punishment for my disobedience, either by chance, or by Divine Providence so ordering it, that my head and hand, which in falling I had clapped to my head, hit upon that stone, so that my thumb was broken and my skull cracked, and I lay, as I said, like one dead.

“And because I could not move, they stretched a canopy for me to lie in. It was about the seventh hour of the day, and having lain still, and as it were dead from that time till the evening, I then revived a little, and was carried home by my companions, but lay speechless all the night, vomiting blood, because something was broken within me by the fall. The bishop was very much grieved at my misfortune, and expected my death, for he bore me extraordinary affection. Nor would he stay that night, as he was wont, among his clergy; but spent it all in watching and prayer alone, imploring the Divine goodness, as I imagine, for my health. Coming to me in the morning early, and having said a prayer over me, he called me by my name, and as it were waking me out of a heavy sleep, asked, ‘Whether I knew who it was that spoke to me? I opened my eyes and said, ‘I do; you are my beloved bishop.’ – ‘Can you live?’ said he. I answered, ‘I may, Through your prayers, if it shall please our Lord.’

“He then laid his hand on my head, with the words of blessing, and returned to prayer; when he came again to see me, in a short time, he found me sitting and able to talk; and, being induced by Divine instinct, as it soon appeared, began to ask me, ‘Whether I knew for certain that I had been baptized?’ I answered, ‘I knew beyond all doubt that I had been washed in the laver of salvation, to the remission of my sins, and I named the priest by whom I knew myself to have been baptized.’ He replied, ‘If you were baptized by that priest, your baptism is not perfect; for I know him, and that having been ordained priest, he could not, by reason of the dullness of his understanding, learn the ministry of catechizing and baptizing; for which reason I commanded him altogether to desist from his presumptuous exercising of the ministry, which he could not duly perform.’ This said, he took care to catechize me at that very time; and it happened that he blew upon my face, on which I presently found myself better. He called the surgeon, and ordered him to close and bind up my skull where it was cracked; and having then received his blessing, I was so much better that I mounted on horseback the next day, and travelled with him to another place; and being soon after perfectly recovered, I received the baptism of life.”

In the 10th century John was still benefitting the local community. The king, Athelstan, visited Beverley on his way to battle in the north and prayed for victory at John’s shrine. Following the defeat of his enemies, Athelstan refounded Beverley church as a collegiate community of canons and granted it land and a number of privileges including the right of sanctuary.

Start of excavation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, 8th May 1939

Image showing Brown’s excavations
Image showing Brown’s excavations: DocDee

On 8th May 1939 Basil Brown began his excavation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. He had been invited to dig by Mrs Edith Pretty, the landowner, and had spent time in 1938 digging Mound Three. But in 1939 he was destined to excavate “one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time.”

Basil Brown was born in 1888 near Ipswich but the family moved to Suffolk when he was a baby. He left school at the age of 12 to work on his father’s farm. However, he also attended evening classes and obtained a certificate in drawing in 1902. By 1907 he had earned diplomas for astronomy, geography and geology by correspondence courses. He then taught himself to speak fluent French and Latin.

After his marriage he continued working the farm but it became unviable and he then worked as a special constable, all the time continuing his studies in astronomy, publishing articles on astronomical guides and mapping.

He also continued to investigate local fields for archaeological finds of Roman remains. He discovered 8 medieval buildings and some Roman settlements as well as tracing ancient roadways. He discovered a Roman kiln which was excavated by the Ipswich Museum in 1935. These contacts enabled him to take on archaeological contracts with the Museum and he began to earn a semi-regular income from the work.

Meanwhile Mrs Edith Pretty had been wondering what lay under the mounds on her land at Sutton Hoo, and was advised to discuss it with Guy Maynard from the Museum. Maynard then released Brown from his current contract to go and work at Sutton Hoo in 1938 for two weeks. During this brief piece of work Brown was able to establish that three mounds were burial sites which had been robbed out. Nevertheless he uncovered some Saxon pottery and, interestingly, ship rivets.

On 8th May 1939 he returned for a second season and started to excavate what is now known as Mound 1. We’re going to follow his progress over the coming weeks, and discover with him what lay beneath.

Death of King Osric of Northumbria, 9th May 729

Northumbria from Lindisfarne
Northumbria from Lindisfarne, photo P Wicks

King Osric died on 9th May 729 AD, according to Bede (EH Bk 5 ch 23):

“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.”

John of Worcester also helpfully reminds us that:

“It was to king Ceolwulf that Bede, the servant of God, priest and monk, dedicated his Ecclesiastical History of the English nation. Ceolwulf was the son of Cutha, who was son of Cuthwine, who was son of Egwald, who was son of Aldhelm, who was son of Occa, who was son of Ida, who was son of Eoppa.”

Osric may have reigned for eleven years but details are short. He was probably a son of King Aldfrith, and a brother to Osred who reigned 705-716 AD. Sandwiched between Aldfrith’s boys was King Cenred, who reigned 716-718 AD.

Back in the glorious 7th century Northumbria had enjoyed some strong leadership under Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, followed by Ecgfrith and Aldfrith. But from then on the kingdom was plagued with short reigns, internal conflicts and general commotion so that by the time the Vikings took York it was almost a relief.

Bede was writing his Ecclesiastical History in the early 8th century as the turmoil was getting up steam. He completed it in 731 AD and died in 735 AD while Ceolwulf was still on the throne. Even so, Ceolwulf’s early reign had been difficult, as Bede attested, and there was an attempted coup when Ceolwulf was seized and forcibly tonsured in 731 AD. He returned to his throne but eventually resigned in 737 AD to become a monk on Lindisfarne. Possibly he was most fondly remembered by the monks there because after he joined them they could then afford beer and wine, whereas before they could only have milk.

Eadbert who followed him reigned for 18 years, facing down a threat from Offa of Mercia in 750 AD,  but after that it was all very brief and bloody with 10 different reigns between 758-808 AD, some of them the same king coming back for a second try.

Northumbria’s Golden Age was over and Mercia was the kingdom to watch with Offa leading his people to international renown during a reign that lasted 757-796 AD.

Coronation of Edgar, King of England, 11th May 973

Coronation Oath
Coronation Oath, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII

11th May 973 AD saw a coronation of a king who had come to the throne 15 years earlier. It was a Day of Firsts.

It was the first coronation of a King of England, rather than “King of the English” (the title had been used before, but not at a coronation).

It also saw the first coronation of a Queen of England. 

And the ceremony that was devised for this momentous occasion in 973 AD is in fact still the basis of the one in use today and was used, in essence, for the coronation of the current Queen, Elizabeth II.

As an aside, 11 May 1068 was the date for the coronation for Matilda of Flanders, wife of William of Normandy, as Queen of England.

Edgar the Peaceable had become King of the Mercians and Northumbrians in 957 AD while his brother Eadwig remained King of Wessex.  When Eadwig died in 959 AD Edgar took full control. His reign was remembered nostalgically as a Golden Age and his later coronation at Bath in 973 AD was intended to make a powerful statement about his kingship.

The choice of Bath, an Imperial Roman city on the border of Mercia and Wessex, was new. Previous Wessex Kings had often been crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames west of London near the border with Mercia. Following the new and glittering ceremony Edgar then marched his army to Chester along the Welsh Marches and upon his arrival eight kings met him. John of Worcester writes:

“Edgar the Pacific, king of England, being then in the thirtieth year of his age, received the benediction of the bishops S S. Dunstan and Oswald, and all the other bishops of England, and was crowned and anointed as king with great pomp and ceremony at the city of Acamann (Bath) in the first indiction, and on the fifth of the ides [the 11th] of May, being Whitsunday. Shortly afterwards, he sailed round the north coast of Britain with a large fleet and landed at Chester. He was met, as he had given orders, by eight tributary kings,’ namely, Kenneth, king of the Scots, Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians, Maecus (Magnus), king of several isles, and five others, named Dufnal, Siferth, Hywal, Jacob, and Juchil, who swore fealty and bound themselves to military service by land and sea. Attended by them, king Edgar one day went on board a boat, and while they plied the oars, he took the helm, and steered skilfully down the course of the river Dee, and followed by his whole retinue of earls and nobles pursued the voyage from the palace to the monastery of St. John the Baptist. Having paid his devotions there, he returned to the palace with the same pomp. He is reported to have said to his nobles as he entered the gates that any successor of his might truly boast of being king of England when he should receive such honours, with so many kings doing him homage.”

In reality things may have looked rather different to the eight kings, and things may not have been quite the way described by the chroniclers. Nevertheless, Edgar was efficient and effective in his reign. He was accused later by Archbishop Wulfstan of York of being too keen to hire foreign mercenaries, but the overall impression was that he did what was necessary to maintain peace. He was not called “the Peaceable” because he was averse to military action – quite the reverse. His military strength was what kept the peace in troubled times.

Discovery of the Coppergate Helmet, 12th May 1982

Coppergate Helmet
Coppergate Helmet, photo (c) PWicks

12th May 1982 saw the discovery of the “Coppergate Helmet.” At about 2:40pm at the Coppergate dig in York, the bucket of the site’s mechanical digger struck a solid object. Believing the object was a stone, work was stopped to see how large it was. Examination of the object exposed a golden looking band on which lettering was clearly visible: it was not a stone but a helmet! It required rapid and careful removal as exposure to the air from its anaerobic soil resting place put the fragile remains at risk of rapid corrosion and the helmet was lifted at about 8.30pm.

Read more about the Coppergate Helmet

Discovery of the Cuerdale Hoard, 15th May 1840

The Cuerdale Hoard
The Cuerdale Hoard, British Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0]

On 15th May 1840 the immense Cuerdale Hoard was discovered by workmen repairing an embankment on the banks of the Ribble in Lancashire. According to the Preston Chronicle:

‘the numismatic collectors and connoiseurs (sic) are quite in a furor about the matter, and the spot where the treasure was found has, since the discovery, been more zealously scratched than any dunghill in the best populated poultry yard!’

Read more about the Cuerdale Hoard

Feast Day of Alfgifu the Younger, 18th May

Shaftesbury Abbey Angel
Shaftesbury Abbey Angel, Bell and Jeff from Wellington, New Zealand

18th May is the Feast Day of Alfgifu the Younger (also of Shaftesbury). She was the wife of King Eadmund (ruled 939-946 AD), the mother of kings Eadwig and Edgar, and grandmother of Edward the Martyr and Athelred UnRede. She was a benefactress of Shaftesbury Abbey and died in 944 AD before her husband.

Alfgifu’s mother was called WynflAd, attested in a charter of King Edgar; her father is not known. WynflAd was also closely linked with Shaftesbury Abbey.

Shortly after 975 AD Athelweard the Chronicler wrote Chronicon, which was a Latin translation of a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and contained information not otherwise preserved. In it he wrote:

“In the same year died also queen Elfgiva, wife of king Eadmund, and afterwards was canonized. In her tomb, with God’s assistance, even to the present day, miracles are performed in the monastery called Shaftesbury.”

This is the only reference to Alfgifu as queen, as she is otherwise referred to as the consort of Eadmund.

Naturally and in the finest tradition, following Alfgifu’s death there were miracles at her grave and she quickly became venerated as a saint.

Lantfred of Winchester, in the 970’s, wrote of a young man who, in the hope of being cured of blindness, went to Shaftesbury to the shrine of Alfgifu. He was hoping to be cured by “the venerable St Alfgifu […] at whose tomb many bodies of sick person receive medication through the omnipotence of God.”

William of Malmesbury later wrote that she had suffered ill health in life and after her death those who were blind, deaf or lame were all cured at her shrine. He also claimed that Alfgifu would secretly save those who were publicly condemned, she gave expensive clothes to the poor, and she had prophetic powers as well as powers of healing.

Her cult retained its popularity in later years, with her inclusion on a number of calendars and litanies from Winchester.

Death of Alcuin, 19th May 804

L-R Rhabanus, Alcuin and St Martin
L-R Rhabanus, Alcuin and St Martin, Public Domain

Alcuin of York died at Tours on 19th May 804 AD. The 8th century polymath studied at York and became a leading figure of Charlemagne’s Renaissance, before ending his career as Abbot of Tours.

He was born in Deira (approximately modern Yorkshire). Little is known about his parents, although his own writings suggest his family owned land in Yorkshire.  Alcuin was probably the most famous alumnus of the cathedral school at York. He studied under Master Alberht, and took over as master of the school in 767 AD when Alberht became Archbishop of York. This was when he inherited Alberht’s library which he later used as a foundation for his work at Charlemagne’s court.

Read more about Alcuin

Battle of Nechtansmere, 20th May 685

Dun Nechtain depicted on Aberlemno Stone
Dun Nechtain depicted on Aberlemno Stone stone #2, Aberlemno Parish Church, Scotland

The Battle of Dun Nechtain / Nechtanesmere / Pool of Garan was fought between Bruide mac Bili, King of Pictland, and Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, on 20th May 685 AD.

No archaeological remains of the battle have been recovered in the area and the site of the battle is not known, but “Dun Nechtain” is generally accepted as being the modern “Dunnichen” and “Nechtansmere” as being the loch which existed there until it was drained in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ecgfrith was the son of Oswiu and EanflAd. When he came to the throne Northumbria was a strong and successful kingdom and Ecgfrith defeated Wulfhere of Mercia in 674 AD to become, briefly, Bretwalda. However, in 679 AD he was beaten in the Battle of Trent by Athelred, Wulfhere’s brother and Northumbria’s decline began. Ecgfrith turned his attention northwards instead, taking lands from Rheged and endowing them to Ripon. In 681 AD the Northumbrians were in a position to establish Trumwine as the Bishop of Abercorn but Ecgfrith became over-confident. Ignoring the advice of St Cuthbert, never a good idea, in 685 AD he went north and there met in battle with Bruide mac Bili, the Pictish King.

Bruide had become king in 672 AD. He ousted Drest, the Pictish King who had submitted to Oswiu, and Oswiu had died in 670 AD. It may be that Bruide was the Pictish choice to challenge Northumbrian influence, and it may have therefore been Bruide who led the Pictish invasion of Northumbria in 672 AD at which encounter Ecgfrith was uncompromisingly the victor.

However, at Nechtansmere Ecgfrith, was killed and his army routed and Northumbrian domination of the area was broken. According to Bede, Ecgfrith rashly pursued the action against the advice of friends and of Cuthbert, and was killed for his sins against the Irish people in the previous year when he had sent an army to ravage that harmless and friendly nation.

As in war, Ecgfrith was not entirely successful in love. His first wife, Athelthryth, refused to consummate the marriage and left Ecgfrith; she later founded the Abbey of Ely close to her childhood home. His second wife, Iurminberg, was hostile to Bishop Wilfrid and as a result there was great upset in the kingdom.

Ecgfrith was buried on Iona and succeeded by Aldfrith, the remarkable scholar-king whose reign saw the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Codex Amiatinus, and probably the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses. Northumbria’s decline had begun during Ecgfrith’s reign but Aldfrith showed that its glory was not yet over.

Birth of Philip of France, 23rd May 1052

Effigy on Philip's tomb in Fleury Abbey
Effigy on Philip’s tomb in Fleury Abbey, We El [Public domain]

On 23rd May 1052 Henry I of France and Ann of Kiev had a son, Philip. Unusually the boy was crowned joint king with his father on his 7th birthday, in 1059. When Henry died on 4th August 1060, Ann ruled uniquely as regent of France until Philip’s 14th birthday in 1066, when he took sole control of the crown.

Philip is of interest to us because he too fought William of Normandy, despite his father having helped William in securing his dukedom in 1047 when William faced a revolt. Henry soon saw the error of his ways and later supported the Norman barons against William, dying while besieging Thimert, which had been occupied by the Normans since 1058.

Meanwhile William, after invading Scotland in 1072 and forcing Edgar Atheling to go into exile in Flanders, had returned to the continent in 1073 to deal with the invasion of Maine by the Count of Anjou. William quickly took Le Mans by 30th March and secured his base in northern France. However, the count of Flanders had accepted Edgar the Atheling into his court and also arranged the marriage of his half-sister Bertha to Philip.

In 1074 William was in Normandy once more, and Edgar the Atheling took the opportunity to return to Scotland from Flanders. Philip, in an attempt to oppose William, proposed that Edgar be given the castle of Montreuil-sur-Mer on the Channel, which would have given Edgar a strategic advantage. However, on his way to the castle Edgar’s ship was wrecked in a storm and he had to make land in England. He was forced to submit to William shortly afterwards, and abandoned his attempts to recover his inheritance.

Philip then turned his attentions to Brittany, leading to a revolt in 1075. Philip continued dealing with revolts and uprisings until he finally made peace with William in 1077, while William gave up his attempts to take Brittany.

Death of Archbishop Lanfranc, 24th May 1089

Lanfranc, Oxford Bodleian Library MS Bodley 569
Lanfranc, Oxford Bodleian Library MS Bodley 569

Lanfranc was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070 until his death on 24th May 1089.

He had been an Italian jurist who for reasons unknown decided to become a Benedictine monk and move to the newly founded Bec Abbey in Normandy, between Rouen and Bernay. The abbey had been founded in 1034 by Herluin, and Lanfranc’s arrival contributed to its reputation for intellectual scholarship. Lanfranc had previously taught at Avranches where he was master of the cathedral school, and built a strong reputation as a scholar. In 1042 he came to Bec initially to live a secluded life but was persuaded by Herluin to serve as prior and was master of the school by 1045.

Lanfranc was not afraid of controversy and he initially opposed the marriage of William of Normandy to Matilda, because he felt they were too closely related. He was given a sentence of exile for his trouble but was reprieved on the point of departure and given the task of persuading the Pope to approve the marriage. The pontiff had previously forbidden it in 1049 but his approval was eventually granted in 1059 on the condition that William and Matilda each founded a monastery in Caen. This approval earned Lanfranc William’s appreciation and gratitude, and in 1066 Lanfranc became Abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Étienne at Caen in Normandy, which William had founded as part of the marriage deal.

From this point Lanfranc influenced William’s policies regarding Church reform, and ensured the Cluniac reforms were implemented more widely. Lanfranc was probably also behind the papal benediction for the invasion of England in 1066, as this was provided by Alexander II, a close friend and possibly also a former pupil of Lanfranc.

When Archbishop Stigand was deposed on 15th August 1070, Lanfranc was nominated to the post and consecrated two weeks later on 29th August.

Lanfranc immediately ran into a dispute with another former student, Thomas of Bayeux, who was now Archbishop-Elect of York, and who asserted independence from the See of Canterbury and claimed jurisdiction over much of the Midlands. It was a dispute that was not resolved until 1127.

During his office Lanfranc continued to push for reforms to the Church, and regrettably to prefer the appointment of Normans over the English within its ranks. Although his appointees were not inappropriate they were not necessarily the strongest candidates.

His greatest service to William was in foiling the Revolt of the Earls in 1075, led by the Earls of Norfolk and Hereford. Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, had confessed to Lanfranc and was sentenced to death by William. Despite Lanfranc’s attempts at intercession, Waltheof was beheaded on 31st May 1076. He was the last of the Anglo-Saxon earls and the only English aristocrat to be executed during the reign of William of Normandy.

When William died in 1087 Lanfranc secured the succession for William Rufus. His own death followed within 2 years.

Death of Bede, 25th May 735

The Reckoning of Time
The Reckoning of Time, 11th-12th century copy, British Library, Royal MS 13 A XI

The Venerable Bede died on 25th May 735 AD at the 10th hour of the day. Most of what we know about him comes from his own writings, primarily “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” which was completed in 731 AD.

Bede left Jarrow only twice, visiting Lindisfarne in 721 AD and York in 733 AD. He lived the life of a scholar-monk, delighting in learning, teaching and writing. His most famous work is “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, but he also wrote a huge range of other works, some of which have been lost but others survive.

Read more about Bede

Death of King Edmund, 26th May 946

Eadmund I, Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings
Eadmund I, Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, British Library, Royal MS 14 B V

King Eadmund was murdered on 26th May 946 AD while attending mass for St Augustine at Pucklechurch. His wife Alfgith the Younger had died a couple of years before him.

Eadmund was the eldest son of Edward the Elder and Eadgifu, his third wife. He was born about 921 AD so would have been only about three when his father died and his half-brother Athelstan became king.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem recording the English victory at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD, Eadmund is given honourable mention alongside Athelstan, and so may have been already considered his heir.

“Her Athelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,

beorna beahgifa, ond his brothor eac,

Eadmund Atheling, ealdorlangne tir

geslogon aet saecce sweorda

ecgum ymbe Brunnanburh.”

“In this year King Athelstan, lord of warriors,

ring-giver of men, and also his brother,

atheling Eadmund, obtained eternal glory

by fighting in battle with the edges of swords

around Brunanburh.”

Eadmund succeeded to the throne in 939 AD at about the age of 18, and his reign was one of almost constant warfare.  Olaf III Guthfrithsson, who had been one of the losers at Brunanburh, took York following Athelstan’s death and invaded the Midlands. He met Eadmund at Leicester where they agreed a treaty dividing England between them. Olaf died in 941 AD and his cousin Olaf “Cuaran” Sigtryggson became co-ruler of York with Ragnall Guthfrithson until 944 AD. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the Northumbrians were false to their promises and chose Olaf as king. The Five Boroughs of the Midlands also submitted to them. In 943 AD Olaf stormed Tamworth, but Eadmund later fought back to re-take the Boroughs and Olaf and Ragnall were baptised – the Chronicle relates events as follows:

“AD 943. This year Anlaf (Olaf) stormed Tamworth, and great carnage was made on either hand; and the Danes had the victory, and much booty they led away with them: there, during the pillage, was Wulfrun taken. This year king Eadmund besieged king Anlaf and Archbishop Wulfstan in Leicester; and he would have taken them, were it not that they broke out by night from the town. And, after that, Anlaf acquired King Eadmund’s friendship; and King Eadmund then received king Anlaf at baptism, and he royally gifted him. ‘And that same year, after a good long time, he received King Regnald (Ragnall) at the bishop’s hands. This year King Eadmund delivered Glastonbury to St. Dunstan, where he afterwards became the first abbot.”

In 944 AD Eadmund then took York itself and expelled Olaf and Ragnall; there may have been rivalry between the two or possibly a coup that destabilised the Irish Vikings and gave Eadmund the victory.

Then in 945 AD he ravaged Cumberland and gave it to Malcolm, king of the Scots, as part of a treaty of mutual military support. In the same year he was involved in helping his nephew, Louis IV of France, regain his throne. Louis had been captured by Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks and Count of Paris, and Eadmund wrote threateningly to Hugh to ensure Louis’ release.

So we come to May 946 AD. Eadmund was at Pucklechurch and was stabbed by a man called Liofa. Further exciting details were later added to the story by John of Worcester:

“[AD 946.] On the feast of St. Augustine, the doctor of the English, being Tuesday, the seventh of the calends of June [26th May], in the fourth indiction, Eadmund, the great King of England, was stabbed to death at the royal vill called Pucklechurch, by Leof, a ruffianly thief, while attempting to defend his steward from being murdered by the robber. The king thus perished after a reign of five years and seven months: his body was carried to Glastonbury and buried by St. Dunstan the abbot.”

Allegedly Eadmund had banished Liofa some years before and the scuffle ensued when he ordered his steward to remove the man from the court. It is possible that Liofa had been sent to assassinate the king.

Eadmund was succeeded by his brother Eadred. 

Death of Wulfstan II Lupus, Archbishop of York, 28th May 1023

Sermon of the Wolf
Sermon of the Wolf, British Library, Cotton Nero A.i

Wulfstan II Lupus, Archbishop of York, died on 28th May 1023 at a time of great turmoil in England.

He was one of the most influential figures at the courts of both Athelred UnRede and Cnut. Little is known of his origins but he seems to have come from the east Midlands and he probably studied at a Fenland monastery, possibly Ely as he was buried there.

By 996 AD he was Bishop of London, and then became Bishop of Worcester in 1002 AD. He held this along with the Archbishopric of York until 1016 when he passed Worcester to Leofsige.

He was a powerful preacher and wrote in a vernacular and direct style that is forceful and direct, both in the original Latin and in translation to modern English. He employed a variety of rhetorical techniques to elicit a sense of urgency, such as phrase repetition, metaphorical language and alliteration.

It is thought that two of the poems in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may have been written by Wulfstan, both relating to Edgar (959 AD and 975 AD) as they reflect nostalgia for a Golden Age represented by the Christian unity of king, church and people.

He was skilled in all aspects of the law, ecclesiastical and secular. He composed law codes for both the kings he served and influenced their decisions. When Cnut succeeded Athelred he consecrated the church founded by the king on the site of the Battle of Ashingdon for the souls of those killed in the fighting.

He was an accomplished administrator and we have some documents, such as the earliest cartulary (copy of charters) from Worcester, annotated in his own handwriting. Much of his time and energy was spent in training and organising the secular clergy outside of monasteries and therefore of monastic reform. This resulted in the Canons of Edgar, produced 1004-1008 AD.

Wulfstan was a prolific writer and much of his writing relates to the duties of the clergy. However, he did not neglect the moral reform of the laity and wrote “Institutes of Polity” which describes the duties of every level of society from the King down. He is most famous now for his sermon “The Sermon of the Wolf to the English” (written about 1010-1016 AD), written during the Danish invasions and conquest. It is a masterpiece of rhetoric, using repetition and alliteration to drive his message home. In it he describes the suffering of the people for their sins, and begs his countrymen to amend their behaviour and repent.  He said:

“Nothing has prospered now for a long time either at home or abroad, but there has been military devastation and hunger, burning and bloodshed in nearly every district time and again. And stealing and slaying, plague and pestilence, murrain and disease, malice and hate, and the robbery by robbers have injured us very terribly. And excessive taxes have afflicted us, and storms have very often caused failure of crops; therefore in this land there have been, as it may appear, many years now of injustices and unstable loyalties everywhere among men.”

Ordination of Byrnstan, 29th May 931

Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral, / CC BY 3.0

On 29th May 931 AD Byrnstan was ordained Bishop of Winchester.

Originally he had been a thegn of Edward the Elder, when he attested charters for the years 900–902 AD. In 902 AD he then became a priest, and very probably a secular canon in the New Minster of Winchester, which Edward established under the leadership of Grimbald. From then until 910 AD he frequently appears as attesting charters, including especially the series of grants made by the king to the churches of Winchester.

After this he vanishes from the record for twenty years. It’s possible he left the secular life of a canon for that of a monk. However, in 924 AD he was a mass priest in the household of the new king, Athelstan, and during that time he witnessed a charter freeing a slave.

Athelstan had not had a smooth succession and had been opposed by Frithestan and Winchester early in his reign, so he followed a policy of promoting men he could trust to important positions. In 931 AD the resignation of Frithestan prompted Athelstan to promote Byrnstan to the bishopric of Winchester in Frithestan’s place.

Byrnstan only served at Winchester for 2½ years and died on 1st November 933 AD.

The only acts of Byrnstan as bishop that have survived are his attestation of a few charters. He had been bishop so briefly that his saintliness and charity were almost at once forgotten, until his memory was revived, a generation later, by Bishop Athelwold to whom he is supposed to have angrily complained that in heaven he was honoured equally with Birinus and Swithun, but he was neglected in Winchester.

William of Malmesbury reports his sanctity, his humility, and his care for the poor, whose feet he daily washed, and to whom he gave generously. However, his cult never really became popular.

Feast Day of St Walstan, 30th May

Walstan from the rood screen detail, St Andrew's church, Great Ryburgh, Norfolk
Walstan from the rood screen detail, St Andrew’s church, Great Ryburgh, Norfolk

30th May is the Feast Day of St Walstan, once a popular saint but now less well known.

He was born around 970 AD to Benedict and Blitha. His mother, Blitha, was supposedly related to Athelred UnRede and Eadmund Ironside, and she later became a saint. There is evidence for chapel dedicated to her in Martham which was still in place in the 15th century.

Walstan experienced visions as a boy and when he was thirteen his parents told him to leave home and go to Taverham to become a farm labourer. This he did, and as he travelled he gave away his rich clothes to the poor and needy that he met on the way. When he started work on the farm he worked hard, keeping only what he needed to live and giving away the rest. He only agreed in addition to keep two white calves.

Visions continued to visit him, until one night in 1016 he had one of his imminent death. He managed to find a priest to give him the last rites, and as he knelt in prayer a spring arose from the dry earth allowing the priest to carry out the final sacrament. When he died the white oxen drew his cart without human guidance, stopping twice on the way and finally arriving at Bawburgh where Walstan was then buried. At each of their stopping places a spring appeared.

Walstan was a popular saint and a chapel was soon built off the existing church and dedicated to him. He was the saint of farmers and farm labourers, and continued to attract pilgrims for many years until the shrine was destroyed in the Reformation.

In the 19th century miracles were claimed for the water of Walstan’s well: leg ulcers and other afflictions were said to be cured. In 1913 it was called the Lourdes of Norfolk following the reported cure for an eye problem and in 1928 miracles were once again claimed for the well, based on the water supposedly containing the scientifically proven miracle cure of the day: radium.

Death of Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, 31st May 1076

Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, was executed on 31st May 1076. He was the last English earl following William of Normandy’s invasion of 1066, and the only English aristocrat executed during the reign of William.

He was the second son of Earl Siward, and only a child when the Earl died. His older brother Osbearn had been killed in 1054, along with his cousin Siward, fighting alongside his father Earl Siward against King Macbeth in Scotland. The Earl died in 1055 without an adult heir and was buried at Galmanhowe in York, in his church dedicated to St Olaf (St Olave). Edward the Confessor made Tostig Godwinson the new Earl of Northumbria, with disastrous consequences.

Waltheof may have been intended for a monastic or ecclesiastical career, but in 1065 Tostig was expelled by the thegns of Yorkshire and Northumbria at a meeting in York because of various murders and assassinations by or on his behalf. They seized his goods and treasures, and murdered his household. Morcar was chosen to be the new Earl, then they marched south to ask the King to confirm his appointment formally. At a council in Oxford in September Harold Godwinson tried to reach an agreement between his brother Tostig and the Northumbrians but failed. In the end King Edward agreed to the appointment of Morcar and Tostig fled to Flanders with his wife Judith.

Three months later King Edward was dead and Harold was chosen as the English King by the Witan. Northampton and the area around it had been devastated by the Northumbrians during their march in 1065 and left much the poorer as a result. At some time before 1067, and possibly in 1065 when Morcar took the Earldom of Northumbria, Waltheof was made Earl of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. By 1067 he was with William in Normandy as one of a number of English hostages, and remained there until 1068.

Although Waltheof had initially made his peace with William of Normandy he joined the Danes and Edgar Atheling in their rebellion in 1069, when Waltheof helped Edgar take York and attacked the fleeing Normans with his axe. The uprising resulted in the deadly Harrying of the North by William of Normandy and Waltheof made peace with William the following year and married William’s niece, Judith of Lens. The couple had three children: Maud, Adelise and Uchtred. According to the Domesday Book he had a hall at Halun (Hallam, Sheffield). In 1072 William expelled Gospatric from the Earldom of Northumbria and made Waltheof the Earl of Northumberland (a smaller domain than Northumbria).

In 1075 Waltheof attended the wedding of Ralph, Earl of Norfolk, to Emma, daughter of Earl William FitzOsbern of Hereford. Together with Earl Roger of Shrewsbury and some bishops and abbots the men plotted to overthrow William of Normandy in what became known as “The Earls’ Uprising”.

William found out about the plot later while he was in Normandy, and Roger and Ralph were identified as the main ringleaders. It was Waltheof who had lost his nerve (John of Worcester says he was forced to join the plot against his will) and confessed everything to Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He then went to Normandy to meet William where he tried to negotiate a pardon in exchange for a payment of treasure. William lured him back to England with generous words and then threw him in prison despite Lanfranc’s attempts to intercede. Judith, Waltheof’s wife, claimed that he had been entirely complicit.

That Christmas William sat at Westminster and decided the punishment for the plotters. Some were blinded, others banished, but Waltheof was sentenced to death. His possessions were all given by William to Judith (who you recall was William’s niece as well as Waltheof’s wife).

Following his execution on St. Giles Hill, Winchester, he was “thrown into a hole” (John of Worcester) but eventually his remains were taken to Croyland, of which Waltheof had been a generous benefactor, and buried honourably. The abbey had a fire in 1092 and so the abbot moved Waltheof’s remains into the church. The coffin was opened and Waltheof’s head was found to be miraculously attached once more to his body, which was undecayed. This miracle brought many pilgrims, and a significant income, to the abbey thereafter.

The skald Thorkill Skallason wrote of Waltheof:

“William crossed the cold channel and reddened the bright swords,
and now he has betrayed noble Earl Waltheof.
It is true that killing in England will be a long time ending;
A braver lord than Waltheof

Will never be seen on earth.”

Waltheof, at Croyland Abbey, west front of ruined nave, 4th tier
Waltheof, at Croyland Abbey, west front of ruined nave, 4th tier by Thorvaldsson, CC BY-SA 3.0

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 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:

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.

Death of Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne, 9th February 661

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

Fin(i)an of Lindisfarne succeeded Bishop Aidan in 651 AD and died on 9th February 661 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.

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


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:

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:


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 814

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 684 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.

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.