On This Day in February

Candlemas, 2nd February

Floating candles
Candles by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

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

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

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

Death of King Swein Forkbeard, 3rd February 1014

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

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

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

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

Needless to say, King Athelred bought them off.

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

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

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

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

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

Death of King Hlothere of Kent, 6th February 685

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feast Day of Alfflaed, 8th February

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey, © PWicks 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: