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 WyrdLight.com, 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, geograph.org.uk

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, geograph.org.uk / 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.