On This Day in June

Murder of St Wigstan, 1st June 849

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

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

The chronicler John of Worcester takes up the story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Oda’s Feast Day, 2nd June

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oda died on 2nd June 958 AD.

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

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

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

Death of Boniface, 5th June 754

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then spoke to the clergy saying:

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

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

Death of Alfthryth, 7th June 929

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

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

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

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

Amounderness Charter, 7th June 934

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then in 954 AD:

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

From then on York remained under the English crown.

Baptism of Eanflaed, 8th June 626

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey (c) P WIcks

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

This is the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of St Columba, 9th June 597

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columba is credited with this poem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feast Day of Margaret of Scotland, 10th June

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

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

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

Read more about Margaret.

Death of Athelflaed, 12th June 918

Map of Mercian Burhs
Mercian Burhs, © runcornhistsoc.org.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 917 AD:

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

Then the following year:

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

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

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

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

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

Birth of Charles the Bald, 13th June 823

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feast day of Eadburh of Winchester, 15th June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

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

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

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

Feast Day of St Botolph, 17th June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capture of Brecananmere, 19th June 916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle at Catalaunian Fields, 20th June 451

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of Athelthrith, 23rd June 679

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Moira / Magh Rath, 24th June 637

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of Athelstan Atheling, 25th June 1014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was buried at the Old Minster, Winchester.

Death of Bishop Cyneweard, 28th June 975

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

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

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

“And him, a glorious chief,

ten days before,

departed from Britain,

the good bishop,

through nature’s course,

to whom was Cyneweard name.”

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

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

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

Bede made deacon, 29th June 693

Bede, by Aravind Sivaraj CC BY-SA 3.0

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

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Knighting of Hereward the Wake, 29th June

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

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

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

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

Read more about Hereward.

Death of Archbishop Athelred, 30th June 888

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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