I. ORIGINS: FROM KENT TO WESSEX (597-871)
1. THE CONVERSION OF ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND
The story of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England is set out with incomparable grace by the Venerable Bede (+735) in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Of all the pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England in the sixth century, the most ready to accept the Christian Faith and a “symphonic” relationship with the Church was undoubtedly that of Kent. Situated in the south-eastern corner of the island, nearest to the continent, it already had considerable knowledge of, and intercourse with, Frankish Christian civilization. Moreover, King Aethelbert was married to a Frankish Christian princess, Bertha, who had brought with her a Frankish bishop, Liutprand.
So when, in 597, St. Gregory sent St. Augustine and his forty Roman monks to Kent in order to evangelize the island, King Aethelbert received him graciously, giving him food, shelter, the freedom to preach and baptize, and a Romano-British church within the walls of his capital, Canterbury, that was to become the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the first church of English Christianity. Soon the holy life of the Roman monks began to bear fruit. And the many miracles they performed brought the king, too, to repentance and Holy Baptism, which took place on the Feast of Pentecost, June 9, 597. On the same day, in the north-western Scottish island of Iona, Columba, perhaps the greatest of the Celtic saints, died. His successors at Iona, and especially St. Aidan, would complement the work of St. Augustine in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons…
Five months later, on November 16, 597, Augustine was consecrated to the episcopate in France by Archbishop Virgilius of Arles and other French bishops with the blessing of Pope Gregory, although another source indicates that he was probably consecrated by bishops in the ecclesiastical provinces of Trier and Rheims. Then he returned to Canterbury, where he was received with great joy by the king, who promptly gave him his palace as a monastery and archiepiscopal residence. That Christmas more than 10,000 Englishmen received Holy Baptism.
On receiving the news, St. Gregory wrote to St. Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill, because a grain of wheat, falling into the earth, has died that it might not reign in heaven alone – even He by Whose death we live, by Whose weakness we are made strong, through Whose love we seek in Britain for brethren whom we know not, by Whose gift we find them whom without knowing we sought.”
Augustine now cleansed the pagan temple in which the king had celebrated his idolatrous rites, and rededicated it in the name of the holy Martyr Pancras. During the first Liturgy there, the building was violently shaken as if by an earthquake, as the devil struggled against his expulsion. The ground next to the church became the site of the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul. It was consecrated on Christmas Day, 605, and from 611 it acquired stavropegial status as “the first-born and chief mother of monasteries in England”. From the time of St. Dunstan, who dedicated it anew in the second half of the tenth century, it became known as St. Augustine’s.
In 599 Augustine sent messengers to Rome to seek the answers to certain pastoral questions from St. Gregory. These messengers were St. Laurence, later Augustine’s successor as archbishop, and St. Peter, first abbot of the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul. They came back in 601 with the answers to the questions and several more missionaries, including Saints Mellitus, Justus and Paulinus.
Augustine made successful missionary journeys to Dorset and to Yorkshire, and also made contact with the British bishops of Wales (of which more below). On his return from the West, he baptized King Sebert of Essex and consecrated St. Mellitus as bishop of Sebert’s capital, London. In the same year he consecrated St. Justus as bishop of Rochester. Then just before his death he consecrated St. Laurence as his successor at Canterbury. These consecrations by a single bishop were blessed by St. Gregory as an exception to the apostolic rule that bishops should be consecrated by no less than two bishops, because of the fact that there were no other canonical bishops in Britain.
Having consolidated the position of the Church in Kent, Augustine set off to bring the Gospel to other parts of England. He was a very tall and strong man, and the miraculous signs that accompanied him were similarly great. Thus near York he healed a beggar who had been suffering from blindness and paralysis; he baptized vast numbers of people in the River Swale in Yorkshire; and on leaving York he healed a leper.
From Yorkshire Augustine headed for the borders of Wales, in order to meet the British bishops whose fathers had fled to the West to escape the invasions of the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Augustine had been given authority over the British bishops by St.Gregory; but the task of uniting with the British, as described by Bede, did not prove to be easy. The first obstacle was that the British, having suffered much from the Anglo- Saxons, were not willing to join with Augustine in trying to convert them to the Faith. The second obstacle was that as a result of their isolation from the Church on the continent, the British Church had slipped into practices which were at variance with the apostolic traditions. One of these was that they sometimes allowed Pascha to be celebrated on the 14th day of Nisan, whereas the Council of Nicaea had decreed that it should never be celebrated before the 15th. Another was that they performed the sacrament of Baptism in an irregular (but unknown) manner. Augustine stipulated three conditions for union: that the British should correct these two irregularities; and that they should cooperate with him in converting the Saxons.
However, the British refused to concede any of these points. At length, Augustine suggested that they pray to God to reveal His will in the following manner: “Let a sick person be brought near, and by whosoever’s prayers he will be healed, let the faith and works of that one be judged devout before God and an example for men to follow.” The British reluctantly agreed, and a blind Saxon was brought before them.
The British clergy tried, but failed to heal him. But through Augustine’s prayers he received recovery of his sight. The British were impressed, but pleaded for time in which to discuss these questions with their elders before coming to a decision.
Augustine travelled to his second meeting with the British accompanied by Saints Mellitus and Justus. The British were represented by seven bishops and Abbot Dinoth of the great monastery of Bangor, which had well over a thousand monks. Before the meeting they had approached a hermit and asked him how they should answer Augustine. He said that if Augustine rose when they entered, this showed that he was humble and should be obeyed. If he did not rise, then they should not accede to him. Therefore when Augustine did not rise at their entrance, the British became angry and refused both to accept his stipulations and to acknowledge him as their archbishop. As the meeting broke up, St. Augustine prophesied that since the British had refused to cooperate in the conversion of the pagan English they would themselves be put to sword by the same English – a prophecy which was fulfilled a few years later when the pagan King Aethelfrid of Northumbria defeated the British in battle at Chester and killed 1200 of the monks of Bangor.
St. Augustine reposed in the Lord on May 26, 605, and was buried next to the unfinished church of Saints Peter and Paul. His successors continued the missionary drive. Although rebuffed by the British of Wales, they made rapid progress in eastern and southern England.
They were helped by other missions from the continent – for example, that of the Italian St. Birinus, who landed in Hampshire and converted the king of the West Saxons, and that of the Burgundian St. Felix, who began the conversion of East Anglia. However, while the kings of East Anglia, Essex and Kent eagerly accepted the faith, their successors as often as not apostasized, which may be reflected in the burial grounds of the early seventh-century kings found at Sutton Hoo and Southend, where a high level of material culture is combined with few signs of Christianity…
No less important than the Roman and continental missions, were those of the Irish. From the great Irish monastery of Iona in Scotland came St. Aidan, who established a bishopric at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, and proceeded with his disciples to convert the Angles of southern Scotland and northern England. In 653, St. Finan, his successor at Lindisfarne, baptized Peada, king of Mercia, opening the door of missionary opportunity to many Irish-trained Northumbrians bishops and priests, notable among them being the brother-bishops St. Chad of Lichfield and St. Cedd of Essex.
The Roman missionaries tried hard to reconstruct the few bridges that connected the land with its Romano-British past, heading straight for the former Roman centres such as Canterbury and York, London and Dorchester. Three churches in Kent were built over late Roman mausoleums; the memory of the first Romano-British martyr Alban was faithfully kept at Verulamium; and the first wooden church in York was built right in the middle of the vast Roman praetorium where St. Constantine had been hailed as emperor in 306.41 Moreover, place-names in “eccles-“, coming ultimately from the Greek “ecclesia”, but more directly from the Brittonic “ecles”, “a church”, in some parts of Southern Scotland, the North Midlands and East Anglia probably indicate the continuity of church life there from Romano-British into Anglo-Saxon times.42 It has also been suggested that dedications to St. Michael signify transitions from the British to the Anglo-Saxon Churches.43
In general, however, the missionaries found a virtual cultural tabula rasa amid pagans who knew next to nothing about Rome.44 This makes the enthusiastic embrace by the English of Romanity, Romanitas, both in its religious and political aspects, the more remarkable. Not only King Ethelbert and Archbishop Augustine (in Kent), but also King Oswald and Bishop Aidan (in Northumbria), and King Cynegils and Bishop Birinus (in Wessex) enjoyed close, “symphonic” relations on the Roman model. By the 680s the last English kingdom, Sussex, had been converted to the faith by St. Wilfrid. Thereafter references to paganism in the sources are few; the conversion of England to the Orthodox Christian Faith was virtually complete.45
The enthusiasm of the English for Christianity may be partly explained by the fact that, unlike the other Germanic tribes who, for generations before accepting the faith, had been settled within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and had even been employed as foederati in the army, they were newcomers whose conversion to Romanity was the stronger in that it was fresher, less hindered by historical hatreds.
They had been called by God from darkness into light by Pope Gregory and his disciples; and their gratitude to St. Gregory, “the Apostle of the English”, was boundless. As we read in the earliest work of English hagiography, a monk of Whitby’s Life of St. Gregory: “When all the apostles, leading their Churches with them, and each of the teachers of separate races, present them to the Lord on Judgement Day in accord with Gregory’s opinion, we believe he will wondrously lead us, that is, the English nation, taught by him through the grace of God, to the Lord.”46
From that time English men and women of all classes and conditions poured across the Channel in a well-beaten path to the tombs of the Apostles in Rome (to whom almost all the English cathedrals were dedicated), and a whole quarter of the city was called “Il Borgo Saxono” because of the large number of English pilgrims it accommodated.47 English missionaries such as St. Boniface of Germany and St.Willibrord of Holland carried out their work as the legates of the Roman Popes. And the voluntary tax known as “Peter’s Pence” was paid by the English to the Roman see even during the Viking invasions, when it was the English themselves who were in need of alms.
As the English were absorbed into Christian Rome by the Roman missionaries, the symbolism of “Romanity” reappeared in the English land. Thus St. Gregory compared the newly enlightened King Aethelbert of Kent to St. Constantine and Queen Bertha to St. Helena, and according to Fr. Andrew Phillips they “had, it would seem, actually emulated Constantine. Having made Canterbury over to the Church, they had moved to Reculver, there to build a new palace. Reculver was their New Rome just as pagan Byzantium had become the Christian city of New Rome, Constantinople. Nevertheless, King Ethelbert had retained, symbolically, a royal mint in his ‘Old Rome’ – symbolically, because it was his treasury, both spiritually and physically. The coins he minted carried a design of Romulus and Remus and the wolf on the Capitol. Ethelbert had entered ‘Romanitas’, Romanity, the universe of Roman Christendom, becoming one of those numerous kings who owed allegiance, albeit formal, to the Emperor in New Rome…”48
The Romanization of England was greatly aided by the appointment, in 668, of a Greek from Tarsus, St. Theodore, as archbishop of Canterbury. He created a single Church organization and body of canonical law, and convened Councils that formally recognized the first Six Ecumenical Councils. (In fact, the English Church anathematized Monothelitism as early as 679, at the Council of Hertford, and the acts of that Council were then taken to Rome, where the Church of Rome, welcoming the English initiative, again anathematized the heresy. The Sixth Ecumenical Council took place two years later, in 681.) Bishops like SS. Wilfrid, Egwin and Aldhelm strengthened the links with Rome by frequent trips there, and abbots like SS. Benedict Biscop, Botulf and Ceolfrid imported books, icons and even the chief chanter of the Roman Church to make sure that even in the furthest recesses of the north things were done as the Romans did them.
A new, and still closer bond between England and Rome was created in 735, when Archbishop Egbert went to Rome to receive his pallium, or symbol of archiepiscopal authority. In the following year Archbishop Nothelm of Canterbury went to Rome for the same purpose.49 Now there was nothing necessarily sinister in seeking and receiving the pallium from Rome, novel though the practice was in English Church life. The Venerable Bede had counseled Egbert, in his letter of November 5, 734, to seek the pallium and metropolitan status for his see in accordance with St. Gregory’s original plan for the Church in Britain. And Alcuin wrote to a later Pope that the pallium was needed “to put down the indiscipline of evil men and preserve the authority of the Church”50. Nevertheless, what was originally sought and given as a support of the authority of the local Church later became an instrument of its suppression. But that was still over four centuries into the future…
“The acceptance of Christianity,” writes H.O. Loyn, “made a great difference to … to the kingship. It might not be too much to say that the king was no longer regarded merely as in the folk but over the folk. Populus iuxta sanctiones divinas ducendus est non sequendus, as Alcuin wrote to Charles the Great. The bond between noble and king, originally so much that between household retained and lord, was knit more strictly by Christian oaths. The lordship of the king and of Christ lay over the land and the people.
“As far as the person of the king was concerned, from the earliest days when the institution of kingship was known a belief in the symbolic efficacy of the blood royal was held by the Germanic peoples. Reges e sanguine, duces e virtute is a text upon which many a historical sermon has been preached… In England there are plentiful indications of this sentiment at work. Sigebert of East Anglia was forcibly dragged from his monastic retirement because he had formerly been a brave battle-leader. The special concern of the followers of St. Guthlac on his reformation – he was a doughty leader of bandits until his twenty-fourth year – may be ascribed in part to his possession of the blood royal. The career of Ethelbald of Mercia shows how a successful leader of a warband might aspire to the highest honours, provided that he had good claim to possession of royal blood. German heroic poetry is laden with belief in the supernatural force of royal king. A long and honourable genealogy was a sure earnest of a successful reign. If royal blood did not exist it could be discovered. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reiterates with emphatic monotony: ‘His king goes to Cerdic’.
“This belief was deep-rooted in pagan practice, yet the Christian religion did not reject it. Indeed Christianity emphasized rather than denied the value of the blood royal. There was good sense behind this attitude. It was in the interest of the Church to have order preserved, to seek for legitimate authority. This was so not only because of the teachings of the Church but also for solid economic reasons. The Church quickly became a substantial land-owner, and seventh-century records are studded with references to munificent gifts; its first material consideration was to protect its estates and the lands of the faithful from possible deprivation by bands of lawless young men.
Established legitimate kingship offered its greatest hope of success, accompanied too by established legitimate nobility. The ability to exercise lordship over freemen developed into the most obvious mark of nobility, and particularly as the Church passed out of the initial converting stage, it became increasingly desirable to ensure peaceful succession on the part of the Church to estates and power in a locality. The strong and colourful anathemas in the more prolix land-charters have more than a mere antiquarian flavour; they state in the most picturesque terms the ecclesiastical desire for security of landtenure, bringing down on the heads of those who fail to observe the terms of the settlement the punishment of Judas and the sacrilegious Jews who mocked Christ, that they may burn in ‘eternal confusion in the devouring flames of blazing torments in punishment without end’.”51
41 Richard Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe, London: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 8.
42 John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 70-71, 29-30.
43 Graham Jones, Saints in the Landscape, Stroud: Tempus, 2007, pp. 77-79.
44 As Blair says, “Augustine of Canterbury began his mission with an almost clean slate” (op. cit., p.25).
45 Blair, op. cit., p. 168.
46 C.W. Jones, Saints’ Lives and Chronicles in Early England, Cornell, 1947.
47 Peter Llewellyn, (Rome in the Dark Ages, London: Constable, 1996, p. 254) writes that, during the pontificate of Pope Pascal (early ninth century) “the English colony of the Borgo, near St. Peter’s, which followed its native custom of building in wood, lost its houses in a disastrous fire, the first of many to sweep the crowded quarter around the basilica. Pascal, roused at midnight, hurried barefoot to the scene and supervised the fire-fighting operations himself; ever solicitous of pilgrims, he granted the Saxon community estates and money for rebuilding, with woods for a supply of timber.” 48 Phillips, Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Church, English Orthodox Trust, 1996, p. 15.
49 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 735, 736.
50 Alcuin, Letter to Pope Leo III, in Alcuin of York, translated by Stephen Allott, Alcuin of York, York: Sessions Book Trust, 1974, p. 27.
51 Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, London: Longmans, 1962, pp. 203-204.
2. THE SCHOOL OF YORK
On May 25, 735, the Venerable Bede, “The Father of English History”, reposed in peace with the “Gloria” on his lips and a just-completed translation of St. John’s Gospel in his hands. With his repose the Golden Age of English Orthodoxy came to an end, the age of adolescence and early manhood. Ahead was an age of long, slow decline from a purely cultural point of view – the “Dark Ages” as irreligious historians have called it. However, it was still an era shining with the radiance of true sanctity.52 Moreover, this was the epoch in which England came of age, not so much as a nation, – as the title of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation shows, the English were already a single nation, and conscious of themselves as such – but as a unified nation-state confessing the truth of Orthodox Christianity under a single Orthodox king, the Anointed of God. It was the age in which England made her first major impact on the surrounding world – the impact of missionary saints and scholars and martyrs, not, as in later centuries, of military conquerors and colonizers and revolutionaries. This rest of this book is a history of that age, from the early, failed attempts to achieve political union to its successful accomplishment under King Alfred the Great and his successors to its violent destruction by the Norman Duke William the Conqueror.
The idea that the seven major kingdoms and many sub-kingdoms of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes should really be united in a single nation-state was implicit in the concept of the bretwalda, or “high king”, a title that Bede ascribed to a series of English kings, beginning from the obscure King Aelle of Sussex in the fifth century. In the seventh century this title had been borne by some truly worthy rulers, such as Martyr- Kings Edwin and Oswald of Northumbria. But England in the early seventh century was disunited, not only politically, but also in faith, not only between Christians and pagans, but also between the adherents of the Roman-Byzantine traditions and those of the Celtic traditions. It was not until the coming of St. Theodore “the Greek” of Tarsus (+690), that she even acquired a single ecclesiastical administration.
Now Bede had counseled Archbishop Egbert to provide, among other things, improved educational facilities for the clergy of his diocese. This stimulated the archbishop to establish the School of York in 735, which, together with the Schools of Ireland and Canterbury, made the British Isles a beacon of Christian enlightenment for Western Europe in this period. And we may conveniently see in the founding of the School of York, in the death of St. Bede and in the granting of pallia to the archbishops of Canterbury and York – all in the same year of 735 – the beginning of an important new period in English Church history…
In a ninth-century Life of Alcuin, the most famous product of the School of York, we find the following story that gives us an interesting look into the daily life of the Oxford and Cambridge of its time: “When he was eleven years of age, it happened one night that he and a tonsured rustic, one of the menial monks, that is, were sleeping on separate pallets in one cell. The rustic did not like being alone in the night, and as none of the rustics could accommodate him, he had begged that one of the young students might be sent to sleep in the cell. The boy Albinus [Alcuin] was sent, who was fonder of Virgil than of Psalms. At cock-crow the warden struck the bell for nocturnes, and the brethren got up for the appointed service. This rustic, however, only turned round onto his other side, as careless of such matters, and went on snoring. At the moment when the invitatory psalm was as usual being sung, with the antiphon, the rustic’s cell was suddenly filled with horrid spirits, who surrounded his bed, and said to him, ‘You sleep well, brother.’ That roused him, and they asked him, ‘Why are you snoring here by yourself, while the brethren are keeping watch in the church?’ He then received a useful flogging, so that by his amendment a warning might be given to all, and they might sing, ‘I will remember years of the right hand of the Most High’, while their eyes prevented the night watches. During the flogging of the rustic, the noble boy trembled lest the same should happen to him; and, as he related afterwards, cried from the very bottom on his heart, ‘O Lord Jesus, if Thou dost now deliver me from the cruel hands of these evil spirits, and I do not hereafter prove to be eager for the night watches of Thy Church and the ministry of praise, and if I any longer love Virgil more than the chanting of psalms, may I receive a flogging such as this. Only, I earnestly pray, deliver me, O Lord, now.’ That the lesson might be the more deeply impressed upon his mind, as soon as by the Lord’s command the flogging of the rustic ceased, the evil spirits cast their eyes about here and there, and saw the body and head of the boy most carefully wrapped up in the bedclothes, scarce taking breath. The leader of the spirits asked, ‘Who is this other asleep in the cell?’ ‘It is the boy Albinus,’ they told him, ‘hid away in his bed.’ When the boy found that he had been discovered, he burst into showers of tears; and the more he had suppressed his cries before, the louder he cried now. They had all the will to deal unmercifully with him, but they had not the power. They discussed what they should do with him; but the sentence of the Lord compelled them to help him to keep the vow which he had made in his terror. Accordingly they said, imprudently for their purpose, but prudently for the purpose of the Lord, ‘We will not chastise this one with severe blows, because he is young; we will only punish him by cutting with a knife the hard part of his feet.’ They took the covering off his feet. Albinus instantly protected himself with the sign of the Cross. Then he chanted with all intentness the twelfth psalm, ‘In the Lord put I my trust’; and then with the rustic, half dead boy going before him with agile step, he fled into the basilica to the protection of the saints.” 53
Under the tuition of Archbishop Egbert, Alcuin and his fellow students studied grammar, the liberal arts and the Holy Scriptures. An important place was also given to what we would now call patristics, that is, the doctrine set forth by “the holy apostle of the English, Gregory; by Augustine, his disciple; by holy Benedict [Biscop]; also by Cuthbert and Theodore, who followed in all things [in the footsteps] of their first father and apostle; and by the man most loved of the Lord, Bede the presbyter, Egbert’s own teacher.”
Moreover, the library contained the works of other Holy Fathers:
Whatever Rome can tell us from the West,
Whatever glorious Greece passed on to Rome,
Refreshing streams from Hebrew sources drawn,
Illumination spread from Africa;
The thought of Jerome and of Hilary,
Of Bishop Ambrose, Athanasius,
Augustine too, and old Orosius,
And all the teachings of great Gregory,
Pope Leo, Basil and Fulgentius,
And Cassiodorus, John and Chrysostom;
Aldhelm and Master Bede, and everything
That Victorinus wrote…54
Alcuin has more to say about this great shepherd, his first teacher, who, with his brother King Edbert, created a near-perfect exemplification of the Byzantine ideal of the symphony of the two powers, secular and ecclesiastical:
Egbert was born of royal lineage:
His parents made him noble to the world,
His kindly service noble to the Lord.
Wealthy in earthly goods, which he dispersed
To needy poor, to gather wealth in heaven,
He always was concerned to help the poor,
And, giving treasure with devoted heart,
Gained in Olympus what he lost on earth.
He was a famous ruler of the Church,
A leading teacher whom all men revered,
A saintly character, both gentle and
Severe, to good most kind, to evil strict.
Both day and night at holy offices –
He spent long nights in unremitting prayer,
And celebrated solemn mass by day;
And he in many ways enriched the house
Of God – with gold and silver and with gems,
And hanging silken fabrics from abroad;
He consecrated worthy acolytes
To keep the festivals of God aright;
Others he made to chant the holy psalms
And tune their voices well in hymns to God.
His brother Edbert, who like him was reared
In royal purple, took his nation’s throne.
He often drove the foeman’s ranks in fear
And wider spread the borders of his realm.
So then Northumbria was prosperous,
When king and pontiff ruled in harmony,
One in the Church and one in government;
One wore the pall the Pope conferred on him,
And one the crown his fathers wore of old.
One brave and forceful, one devout and kind,
They kept their power in brotherly accord,
Each happy in the other’s sure accord.55
In 757 Edbert, following a very common practice among English Orthodox kings, became a monk56 ; which was the signal for the beginning of a period of near-anarchy in the Northumbrian kingdom. Nevertheless, this “Age of York”, a kind of Indian summer of the great age of Northumbrian Orthodoxy, laid the foundations for that great missionary movement to Germany and Holland, led by the Northumbrian St.Willibrord-Clement and the Devonian St. Boniface, which is one of the great glories of English Orthodox history. But we must pass this over in order to continue the main thread of our story…
52 See V. Moss, Saints of England’s Golden Age (Etna, Ca.: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1997) and The Saints of Anglo-Saxon England, volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1990s)
53 Vita Alcuini, in G.F. Browne, Alcuin of York, London: SPCK, 1908, pp. 10-12.
54 Alcuin, On the Saints of the Church of York, 11.1535-1546; in Allot, op. cit.
55 Alcuin, On the Saints of the Church of York, 11.1250-283; in Allott, op. cit.
56 For example, St. Ceolwulf, his predecessor on the throne of Northumbria, had become a monk in Lindisfarne in 737.
3. KING OFFA OF MERCIA
As the power of Northumbria declined, the first place among the seven English kingdoms began to be occupied by the Midland kingdom of Mercia. The recent discovery of a large treasure trove of very high-quality crosses and bejewelled items of many kinds in Shropshire dating to the seventh or eighth centuries demonstrates that the kingdom of Mercia was by no means as barbarian from a cultural point of view as has sometimes been thought.57 Moreover, as Michael Wood writes, “for most of the eighth century, Mercia was supreme over all the lands south of the Humber under its kings Aethelbald and Offa; they more than any others paved the way for the future unification of the English.”58 Not for nothing did Charlemagne treat King Offa as more or-less an equal.
And yet when King Offa made a most determined attempt to unite England both politically and spiritually, he failed. The question is: why?
The first answer must lie in the violent means he used to attain the kingdom and to expand it. Warfare, of course, was commonplace between Dark Age kingdoms. But Offa was notorious for his ruthlessness, and for the way in which his kingdom grew. In 757 King Aethelbald of Mercia – a lecherous old man whom St. Boniface had castigated in his letters, but a legitimate ruler nevertheless – was killed by his bodyguard. The participation of the future King Offa in the murder is not proven. But almost immediately Offa called Aethelbald’s successor, Beornred, a usurper, and drove him from the throne. Then he went on to wage war against the Kingdoms of Kent, Wessex and Celtic Wales – and possibly also Northumbria.
It was not only Offa who sinned in this respect. Regicide was part of the general decline in morals that Alcuin noted in the second half of the eighth century. Not for nothing did a Council held in Chelsea in 787 under the presidency of two papal legates, Cardinal Bishop George of Ostia and Cardinal Bishop Theophylact of Todi, declare:
“Let no one dare to conspire to kill a king, for he is the Lord’s Anointed”.59
However, the Council appears to have had little effect. Very shortly after it, King Ceolwulf of Wessex was killed. On September 23, 788 King Aelfwald of Northumbria was killed, “and a light was frequently seen in the sky where he was killed”. In 794 Offa lured the young King Aethelbert of East Anglia into Mercia and murdered him.60
It is said that Offa, astonished at the miracles that took place after St. Ethelbert’s martyrdom, did penance for this act by founding the monastery of St. Alban’s and making many other donations. But his apparent complicity in the murder of King Osred of Northumbria later that year casts doubt on that story. But another story goes as follows. One night an angel appeared to him and told him to raise the body of the first British martyr, St. Alban, and place it in a suitably ornamented shrine. Offa then related this vision to his counsellors Humbert, archbishop of Lichfield, and Unwona, bishop of Leicester; whereupon the three of them set off for Verulamium, the site of the saint’s martyrdom, to recover his relics. As they approached the town, the king saw a bright light shining over the town, which was gladly received by them as a harbinger of success.
When the king, the clergy and the people were assembled, they embarked upon the search with prayer, fasting and alms, and struck the earth everywhere trying to find the place of burial. And the search had not continued for long when a light, like the star over the manger at Bethlehem, appeared and led them to the place. They began to dig, and in the presence of Offa the body of the saint was found. The body was then taken in solemn procession into the church, which had been erected on the spot where the saint was beheaded. It was deposited in shrine enriched with plates of gold and silver. Offa himself placed a circle of gold, inscribed with Alban’s name and title, around the skull.
But before erecting a monastery on the site, the king decided to go to Rome to procure privileges for it. This was granted, at the price of the resumption of payment of “Peter’s pence”, a voluntary contribution from the English Church to the papacy which had been instituted by King Ina of Wessex for the maintenance of the Saxon college in Rome. On his return to England, King Offa convened a great assembly at Verulamium, where it was resolved that the monastery should be large enough to keep one hundred monks, and well enough endowed to give hospitality to the many travellers who passed along Watling Street from London to the North. The monks were carefully selected from the leading monasteries of England; and the first stone was laid by Offa himself.
He was still working on the construction of the monastery when death overtook him some four or five years later.61 If the English were to be united under one king with the blessing of God, this was clearly not the way to do it.
The Council of Calchyth, near London (perhaps Calchyth is Chelsea, but it is not certain) was the first of two Councils presided over by the papal legates in 787 – the other was in the north at Pincanhale – that represent the first time that papal legates had ever been present at a Council of the English Church. This fact, together with the fact that the legates had come “to renew the faith and the peace which St. Gregory had sent us by Augustine the Bishop”62, shows that Rome was beginning to take a much more direct interest in the affairs of the English Church.
The Council of Calchyth is notable for its anathema against those who kill the Lord’s Anointed in Canon 12: “That in ordaining kings, none permit the votes of wicked men to prevail. But let kings be lawfully chosen by the priests and elders of the people; not such as are born in adultery or incest, for as in our times, according to the Canons, none can arrive at the Priesthood who is of an adulterous brood, so neither can he who is not born in lawful marriage be the Lord’s Anointed, King of the whole Kingdom, and Heir of the Country, since the Prophet says, “Know ye that the Lord ruleth in the Kingdom of Men.” We have admonished all in general, that with unanimous voice and heart they pray to the Lord, that he who elects him to the Kingdom, would give him the Spirit of Discipline, for the governing of his people: And let Honour be paid him by all, since the Apostle says, “Honour the King. …Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme. ” (I Peter 2:17, 13) Let none be guilty of detraction toward the King, since Solomon says, “Detract not from the king with thy mouth, nor curse the prince in thine heart.” (Ecclesiastes 10:20) And let none conspire the death of the King, because he is the Lord’s Anointed. If a Bishop, or any of the Priestly Degree, consent to such a crime, let him be thrust out, as Judas was from the Apostolical Degree: And whoever approves of such sacrilege, shall perish in the eternal bond of an anathema, and being a comrade of Judas, shall burn in everlasting fire, as it is written, “not only they who do it, but who approve it, etc.” (Romans 1) The two eunuch who desired to kill King Ahasuerus where hanged on gallows (Esther 12:3).
Observe what David did (I Samuel 23:5,7, II Samuel 1) and this was imputed to him for righteousness, and to his seed after him. It has been proved by many examples among you, that whoever have been (the authors) of killing their lords, have shortly ended their own lives, and been out-lawed both in Church and State.”
The kings and hierarchs who signed the English Councils of 787 give us some idea of the geographical extent of the English Church at this time. They included Kings Offa of Mercia and Aelfwald of Northumbria, and bishops from all parts of England except the south-west (Celtic Cornwall, which came under the English crown early in the tenth century); Bishop Aethelbert of Whithorn in Scotland; Bishop Adulf of Mayo in Ireland; and probably Bishop Elbod of Bangor in Wales, to whom belongs the honour of having restored the Welsh Church from schism to the True Church and to the Roman-
Byzantine calendar.63 In other words, the English Church encompassed the southern, central and eastern parts of the island of Great Britain, with outposts in the south of Scotland and the west of Ireland, and links with the Church in Wales. The presence of papal legates re-established, if this were ever in doubt, that this body of bishops was canonically subject to the Pope in Rome and confessed the Faith of the first Six Ecumenical Councils (the decrees of the Seventh had not yet been received).
However, the Council of Calchyth is described as “contentious”64; and the reason for this gives us the second reason why Offa, for all his power, did not become the founder of the All-English kingdom. For the Council and the papal legates, undoubtedly at Offa’s prompting, decided to remove part of the jurisdiction of Archbishop Jaenberht of Canterbury, and place it in the jurisdiction of a newly created metropolitan see at Lichfield in Mercia. The first metropolitan of Lichfield, Hygeberht, then anointed Offa’s son Egfrith in an obvious snub to the archbishops of Canterbury and York. But this innovation did not last: in 803, after the deaths of both Offa and his son, a Council in Clovesho abolished the Lichfield archbishopric, and the pattern of the two metropolitan archbishoprics which had prevailed before was restored.65
“In one respect,” writes H.R. Loyn, “an event of wide significance for the future of English kingship took place during the later days of King Offa. Basing his action on Carolingian precedent, the Mercian king had his son Ecgfrith consecrated to the kingship, the first of the English kings so to receive Christian anointing. The early and tragic death of Ecgfrith only five months after his accession made the event of less significance than might otherwise have been the case, and there is no proof that the precedent was followed immediately in Mercia or Wessex. Not until the tenth century do the West Saxons, in this as in so much else, prove themselves true heirs of the Mercian kings…”66
King Offa was a man, in Michael Wood’s words, of “power, prestige and sophistication” who registered some impressive achievements: “the palace with the stone church inside the Roman fort in London; the ‘wonder and marvel of the age’ at Tamworth; the Roman-style basilica at Brixworth; the dyke [along the border with Wales] with its palisades, ditches and wall walks; the beautiful coins representing Offa as a new Theodosius”.67 But he committed, as Alcuin said, “cruel and greedy acts”.
Moreover, he attempted to use the Church – both the Local English Church and the Pope in Rome – to further his political ambitions. In this he may have been influenced by his more famous contemporary, Charlemagne. It is perhaps for this reason above all that he was not counted worthy to be the founder of the All-English kingdom…
In any case, the time was not ripe, and the people were not ready. Local patriotism was still too strong, and the perceived need for unity not strong enough. It would require the terrible trials and humiliations of the next eighty years to bring the English people to the point where they could long for and receive this gift to their profit…
57 Caroline Alexander, “Magical Mystery Treasure”, National Geographic, November, 2011, pp. 38-61.
58 Wood, In Search of the Dark Ages, London: Penguin Books, 1994, p. 70.
59 A.W. Haddan & W. Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol. III, 1871, 1964,Haddan & Stubbs, op. cit., p. 454. The Council also decreed that “kings are to be lawfully chosen by the priests and elders of the people, and are not to be those begotten in adultery or incest” (in Harriet Harvey Wood, op. cit., p. 45).
60 M.R. James, “Two Lives of St. Ethelbert, King and Martyr”, English Historical Review, XXXII, 1917, pp. 214-244; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A, E, F, 792.
61 Matthew of Paris, in Old England: A Pictorial Museum of Regal, Ecclesiastical, Baronial, Municipal and Popular Antiquities, 1845, reprinted by Arno Press, New York, 1978.
62 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, F, 785. See also Symeon of Durham, Historia Regum, for the year 786. Both in Haddan & Stubbs, op. cit., pp. 444, 443.
63 In 664 the Welsh had rejected the decrees of the Synod of Whitby, which brought about a union of the Celtic and Roman traditions in the British Isles through the acceptance of the Byzantine-Roman Paschalion. They went into schism, and were regarded as schismatics by the Anglo-Saxon and Irish Churches. As an Irish canon put it, “the Britons [of Wales] are… contrary to all men, separating themselves both from the Roman way of life and the unity of the Church” (Haddan & Stubbs, volume I, p. 122).
St. Aldhelm of Sherborne, described the behaviour of the schismatic Welsh thus: “Glorying in the private purity of their own way of life, they detest our communion to such a great extent that they disdain equally to celebrate the Divine offices in church with us and to take course of food at table for the sake of charity. Rather,.. they order the vessels and flagons [i.e. those used in common with clergy of the Roman Church] to be purified and purged with grains of sandy gravel, or with the dusky cinders of ash..
Should any of us, I mean Catholics, go to them for the purpose of habitation, they do not deign to admit us to the company of their brotherhood until we have been compelled to spend the space of forty days in penance… As Christ truly said: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees; because you make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish’.” (Aldhelm: The Prose Works, translated by Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren, Ipswich: Brewer, 1979, p. 158; Haddan & Stubbs, op. cit., pp. 202-203)
The calendar dispute rumbled on. Kice Eees (Essay on Welsh Saints, p. 6, note) gives the following extract from Hughes’ Hone Britannico: “We find in the Greek life of St. Chrysostom, that certain clergymen, who dwelt in the isles of the ocean, repaired from the utmost borders of the habitable world to Constantinople, in the days of Methodius (who was patriarch there from the year 842 to 847), to enquire of certain ecclesiastical traditions and the perfect and exact computation of Easter. It is to be inferred from hence, as there can be no doubt that the British Isles are referred to, that the disputes respecting Easter were not yet laid to rest, and that our Britons, not being satisfied with the determination of the Pope of Rome, resorted to the decision of the Bishop of Constantinople” (vol. ii, p. 317).
64 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 785.
65 Haddan & Stubbs, op. cit., pp. 447-462. See also William Hunt, The English Church from its Foundation to the Norman Conquest (597-1066), London: Macmillan, 1912, pp. 239-240.
66 Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, London: Longmans, 1962, p. 210.
67 Wood, op. cit., p. 96.
4. CHARLEMAGNE, ROME AND CONSTANTINOPLE
In discussing Anglo-Saxon kingship in the eighth century, it is impossible to avoid consideration of the important political developments taking place on the continent, which had such a profound influence on the whole of Western Christian civilization…
Up to the middle of the eighth century, the Popes of Rome were citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire and often Greek by race. However, in 751, the last Greek speaking Pope, Zachariah, died68; and in 754, at a council in Constantinople, the heresy of iconoclasm was officially proclaimed as the religion of the Eastern Empire. This, combined with the fall of Ravenna, the capital of Byzantine power in northern Italy, to the Lombards, signified a radical shift in the political allegiance of the Roman papacy away from Byzantium and towards the West…
The successor of Zachariah, Pope Stephen II, did not want to break with Byzantium, but since the Byzantines were no longer able to defend their Italian lands, he was forced to look for protectors elsewhere. So he travelled to France and anointed the former major-domo of the Merovingian dynasty, Pepin the Short, as the first of a new dynasty of Frankish kings, giving him the Roman title of patricius and appointing him protector of the papal lands. The honour bestowed by Pope Stephen on the Frankish ruler had its desired effect and Pepin defeated the Lombards, who were threatening Rome. Stephen then accepted from Pepin, as “a gift to St. Peter”, the former Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna. This both created the territorial base for the Papal State, and revealed that the Pope had renounced his allegiance to Byzantium. From this time, to mark the new regime, the Popes began to change the dating of their documents, and to issue their own coins.69
The significance of the new relationship between the Roman Church and the Frankish State was underscored by the fact that Pope Stephen’s anointing of Pepin was his second anointing to his kingdom. Some years earlier, after the deposition and sending to a monastery (with Pope Zachariah’s blessing) of the last weak Merovingian ruler of Francia, Pepin had been specially crowned and anointed by the English missionary archbishop of Mainz, St. Boniface. For the change of dynasty had to be legitimized, as did the claims of the new dynasty to power over the vast new territories recently Christianized by St. Boniface to the east of the Rhine. But the second anointing had a deeper significance. Whether Stephen already had this in mind or not, it came to signify the re-establishment of the Western Roman Empire, with its political capital north of the Alps, but its spiritual capital, as always, in Rome.
In 768, King Pepin’s son, Charles, later known as Charlemagne, ascended the throne.
He vigorously expanded the boundaries of his kingdom from the Elbe to the Spanish Marches, from Brittany to the borders of Byzantine Italy and Hungary. Nor were his achievements limited to the military and the secular: he promoted education and art, held twice-yearly Synods of his bishops and nobles, suppressed heresy and did his best to weld the very varied peoples and customs of his far-flung realm into a multi-national whole.
Charlemagne’s empire was seen by those around him as a resurrection of the Western Roman Empire. Thus in 794, during the building of the palace complex at Charlemagne’s new capital of Aachen, a court poet wrote:
From the high citadel of a new Rome my Palemon sees That all the separate kingdoms are joined in his empire through victory, That the age has been changed back into the culture of Antiquity, Golden Rome is restored and reborn to the world.70
The question was: would Charlemagne lay claim, not only to the Western Roman Empire, but also to the Eastern, now that Constantinople had fallen into the iconoclast heresy – and, moreover, was ruled by a woman, the Empress Irene, something unheard of in the Germanic lands? Certainly, as long as the Eastern Emperors were iconoclasts, and while Charlemagne himself remained Orthodox, he could have had some justification in claiming for himself the leadership of the Christian world. However, he very quickly lost this justification; for in 787 the Eastern Empire returned to Orthodoxy at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, while Charlemagne, through his false council of Frankfurt in 794, became a heretic!
The story is as follows. In 787, following the decisions of Local Councils in Rome earlier in the century, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicaea anathematized the heresy of iconoclasm and upheld the veneration of icons. And in the Synodicon of the Council every heresy and innovation was anathematized in general terms: “All that was innovated and enacted, or that in the future shall be enacted, outside of Church tradition and the teaching and institution of the holy and evermemorable Fathers, Anathema (thrice).” The Empress Irene confirmed these decisions, and so the Eastern Empire recovered its status as the One True Christian Empire.
In 792 the Frankish King Charlemagne sent a Latin translation of the Acts of the Seventh Council to the kings and bishops of Britain. Unfortunately, the translation seems to have confused the vitally important difference between the Greek word latreia, the worship or adoration ascribed to God alone, and proskynesis, the veneration ascribed to the saints and the holy icons.71 It was therefore supposed by some in Britain that the Fathers of the Seventh Council had asserted, in the words of Simeon of Durham, “that icons are to be adored [worshipped], which is altogether condemned by the Church of God”. Deacon Alcuin of York, Charlemagne’s main counselor on ecclesiastical and cultural matters, brought the negative opinion of the British Church back to the continent.72
In 794 Charlemagne convened a council in Frankfurt that was attended by clergy from Britain and the envoys of Pope Hadrian. Because of the above-mentioned mistranslation, the decrees of the Seventh Council were rejected – in spite of the fact that Pope Hadrian had already anathematized anyone who rejected the Seventh Council. In actual fact, perhaps because of Hadrian’s anathema, this Frankish decision had little effect in either Francia or England, where iconography continued to be practised (albeit of decreasing quality).
Of much greater long-term effect was the council’s insertion of the Filioque into the Symbol of the Faith. The word Filioque means “and from the Son” in Latin. It has often been said, erroneously, that this was first introduced into the Creed by a council in Toledo in Spain in 589, in order to counter the Arian teaching of the Visigoths by exalting the dignity of the Son.73 It presupposed a change in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, whereby the Spirit was declared to proceed, not from the Father alone, but “from the Father and the Son”. The Orthodox rejected this innovation because: (a) it contradicted the words of Christ Himself about the procession of the Spirit from the Father alone (John 15.26), (b) it involved a change in the Creed, which was forbidden by the Third Ecumenical Council, and (c) it was objectively false, in that it destroyed the monarchy of the Father, introducing a second principle into the life of the Holy
It is important to realize that at this time the innovation of the Filioque was accepted neither by Byzantium, nor by Rome, nor by the English Church. Thus Alcuin thundered against “the Spanish error” in a letter to the monks of Lyons: “Follow in the Faith of the ancient Fathers and be joined to the unanimity of the holy universal Church. Do not try to insert novelties into the Symbol of the Catholic Faith. And do not decide to affect traditions unknown of old in the ecclesiastical offices.”75
Nevertheless, while opposing his heresy, Alcuin remained faithful to Charlemagne himself, comparing him to King David, who combined the functions of royal leadership and priestly teaching in order to guide his people to salvation.76 He even supported the idea that was becoming fashionable that Charlemagne was greater than both Pope and Emperor: “There have hitherto been three persons of greatest eminence in the world, namely the Pope, who rules the see of St. Peter, the chief of apostles, as his successor…; the second is the Emperor who holds sway over the second Rome…; the third is the throne on which our Lord Jesus Christ has placed you to rule over our Christian people, with greater power, clearer insight and more exalted royalty than the afore-mentioned dignitaries. On you alone the whole safety of the churches of Christ depends.”77
This exalted view of his kingly role was shared by others, such as Paulinus of Aquileia, who called Charlemagne “king and priest” in 794. And as early as 775
Cathwulf wrote to Charlemagne comparing the relationship between king and bishop to that between the Father and the Son: “Always remember, my king, with fear and love for God your King, that you are in His place to look after and rule over all His members and to give account on judgement day even for yourself. And a bishop is in second place: he is only in Christ’s place. Ponder, therefore, within yourself how diligently to establish God’s law over the people of God.”78
Following this caesaropapist teaching, Charlemagne set about imposing his heretical views on the Church. Thus in a council in Aachen in 809 he decreed that the Filioque was a dogma necessary for salvation. Then he sent envoys to Rome to pressurize Pope Leo III – who had crowned him as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 – into accepting it. The Pope stood firm against his secular protector, and had the original Creed without the Filioque engraved in Latin and Greek on silver shields and placed at the doors of St.
Peter’s in Rome. However, the former champion of Orthodoxy and Romanity against the heretical and despotic iconoclast emperors was now well on the way to becoming the chief enemy of Orthodoxy and Romanity, considering, as Fr. John Romanides puts it, “that the East Romans were neither Orthodox nor Roman”!79
Let us look more closely at the critical point of Christmas Day, 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans” in Rome. Now Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard claims that he would never have entered the church if he had known what the Pope was intending to do. And there is evidence that in later years Charlemagne drew back from too sharp a confrontation with Constantinople, dropping the phrase “of the Romans” while retaining the title “Emperor”. Moreover, he dropped his idea of attacking the Byzantine province of Sicily. Instead he proposed marriage to the Byzantine Empress Irene (or perhaps it was her idea80), hoping “thus to unite the Eastern and Western provinces”, as the chronicler Theophanes put it81 – not under his sole rule, for he must have realized that that was impossible, but perhaps on the model of the dual monarchy of the fifth-century Roman empire. In any case, all these plans collapsed with Irene’s overthrow in 802…
The Byzantines at first treated Charlemagne as yet another impudent usurper; for, as a chronicler of Salerno put it, “The men about the court of Charles the Great called him Emperor because he wore a precious crown upon his head. But in truth, no one should be called Emperor save the man who presides over the Roman – that is, the Constantinopolitan kingdom.” 82 As Russell Chamberlin writes: “The Byzantines derided the coronation of Charlemagne. To them he was simply another barbarian general with ideas above his station. Indeed, he took care never to style himself Imperator Romanorum. His jurists, dredging through the detritus of empire, came up with a title which met with his approval: Romanum gubernans imperium ‘Governing the Roman Empire’. The resounding title of the first of the post-classical Western Emperors was ‘Charles, Most Serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and merciful Emperor, governing the Roman Empire and by the mercy of God, King of the Lombards and the Franks’.”83
Whatever Charlemagne’s real intentions in 800, by the mid-ninth century it was clear that for the West the only Orthodox Roman Emperor was the Emperor of the Franks.
Thus whereas Alcuin in the previous century still followed the convention of calling Constantinople the second Rome, for a later Latin eulogist the second Rome was Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen: “Most worthy Charles, my voice is too small for your works, king, love and jewel of the Franks, head of the world, the summit of Europe, caring father and hero, Augustus! You yourself can command cities: see how the Second Rome, new in its flowering and might extent, rise and grows; with the domes which crown its walls, it touches the stars!”84
Romanides writes that the Frankish position “was clearly spelled out in a letter of Emperor Louis II (855-875) to Emperor Basil I (867-886) in 871. Louis calls himself ‘Emperor Augustus of the Romans’ and demotes Basil to ‘Emperor of New Rome’. Basil had poked fun at Louis, insisting that he was not even emperor in all of Francia, since he ruled only a small part of it, and certainly was not emperor of the Romans, but of the Franks. Louis argued that he was emperor in all of Francia because the other Frankish kings were his kinsmen by blood. He makes the same claim as that found in the Annals of Lorsch: he who holds the city of Old Rome is entitled to the name ‘Emperor of the Romans’. Louis claimed that: ‘We received from heaven this people and city to guide and (we received) the mother of all the churches of God to defend and exalt… We have received the government of the Roman Empire for our Orthodoxy. The Greeks have ceased to be emperors of the Romans for their cacodoxy. Not only have they deserted the city (of Rome) and the capital of the Empire, but they have also abandoned Roman nationality and even the Latin language. They have migrated to another capital city and taken up a completely different nationality and language.’”85
And yet the grandiose claims of the Frankish empire were soon humbled by harsh political reality. For while the Eastern Empire became stronger and stronger after the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843, the Frankish Empire began to disintegrate. Moreover, the East decisively rejected the claims of the West. Thus in 867 and again in 879-80, St.Photius convened Councils in Constantinople that condemned Pope Nicolas I for introducing the heretical Filioque for the first time into the Roman Creed.
Significantly, the Acts of the 879 Council were signed by the legates of Pope John VIII. This Council also decreed that there was no papal jurisdiction in the East, and reaffirmed the original text of the Nicene Creed without the Filioque, explicitly condemning all additions to it. So a Roman Pope formally recognized that he had no jurisdiction in the Eastern Church and that the Filioque was a heresy!86
In any case, the most important point had been established: both East and West (outside Francia) in her most senior representatives had agreed that it was the Western, Frankish empire that was not Orthodox. And since both Greeks and Romans and Franks agreed that there could be only one Christian Roman Empire, this meant that the Frankish attempt to usurp the Empire and impose its heretical teachings on the West had been defeated – for the time being…
68 Andrew Louth writes: “From 680 to 751, or more precisely from the accession of Agatho in 678 until Zacharias’ death in 751 – the popes, with two exceptions, Benedict II and Gregory II, were Greek in background and speakers of Greek, which has led some scholars to speak of a ‘Byzantine captivity’ of the papacy. This is quite misleading: most of the ‘Greek’ popes were southern Italian or Sicilian, where Greek was still the vernacular, and virtually all of them, seem to have made their career among the Roman clergy, so, whatever their background, their experience and sympathies would have been thoroughly Roman” (Greek East and Latin West, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007, p. 79).
69 Judith Herrin, Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium, London: Phoenix, 2001, p. 47.
70 Mary Garrison, “The Teacher and the King”, BBC History Magazine, 2, № 7, July, 2001, p. 25.
71 Louth writes: “The Frankish court received a Latin version of the decrees of Nicaea II in which a central point was misrepresented: instead of an assertion that icons are not venerated with the worship owed to God, the Latin version seems to have asserted exactly the opposite, that icons are indeed venerated with the worship due to God alone. There is certainly scope for misunderstanding here, especially when dealing with a translated text, for the distinction that the iconodules had painstakingly drawn between a form of veneration expressing honour and a form of veneration expressing worship has no natural lexical equivalent. Proskynesis, which in Greek at this time probably carried a primary connotation of bowing down, prostration – a physical act – and latreia, the word used for worship exclusively due to God – a matter of intention – are derived from roots, which in their verbal forms are used as a hendiadys in the Greek version of the second commandment in the Septuagint (προσκυνήσέίς… λάτρέυσής: ‘you shall not bow down… you shall not worship’: Exod. 20.5). Latin equivalents add further confusion, not least because the Latin calque of proskynesis, adoratio, was the word that came to be used for latreia. But whatever the potential confusion, the distinction explicitly made by the Nicene synod simply collapsed into identity by the faulty translation that made its way to the Frankish court” (op. cit., pp. 86-87).
72 Haddan & Stubbs, op. cit., pp. 468-469.
73 For a refutation of this error, see Hieromonk Enoch, “Tampering with the 589 Acts of Toledo and the Filioque: A Centuries-Old Slander”, http://nftu.net/tampering-583-acts-toledo-filioque.
74 See St. Photius the Great, The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, Boston: Studion Publishers, 1983; “The Filioque: Truth or Trivia?”, Orthodox Christian Witness, March 21 / April 3, 1983.
75 Alcuin, Letter 69. See Cyriaque Lampryllos, La Mystification Fatale, Lausanne, pp. 28-39. During the whole of this period and right until the end of the eleventh century, the English Church appears to have been completely ignorant that there was any controversy about the Filioque. As we can read in Haddan & Stubbs, most professions of faith of newly-elected English bishops neither affirmed nor denied the Filioque, stating simply: “I believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son being born and having suffered for the redemption and salvation of the human race”. Shortly after the middle of the ninth century, when Pope Nicholas I introduced the Filioque for the first time into the Creed of the Roman Church, it begins to appear in English confessions for the first time – for example, in those of the Bishops of London, Hereford and Dunwich to Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury. But in the same period, and in the same metropolitan province, the professions of the Bishops of Winchester (including the famous St. Swithun) did not contain it. If we apply the moderate criterion of St. Photius the Great – if “they deviated from the right path, but no question was put to them nor did anyone challenge them to learn the truth, we admit them to the list of the Fathers” – then we must conclude that the English, while sometimes employing the heretical interpolation out of ignorance, remained within the bounds of Orthodoxy.
76 Joseph Canning, A History of Medieval Political Thought, 300-1450, London: Routledge, 1996, p. 50.
77 Allott, Alcuin of York, p. 111.
78 Canning, op. cit., p. 49.
79 Romanides, Franks, Romans, Feudalism and Doctrine, Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1981, p. 31.
80 Herrin, op. cit., pp. 117-118.
81 A.A. Vasiliev, A History of the Byzantine Empire, Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press, 1958, p. 268.
82 Quoted in Richard Chamberlin, Charlemagne, Emperor of the Western World, London: Grafton books, 1986, p. 52.
83 Chamberlin, “The Ideal of Unity”, History Today, vol. 53 (11), November, 2003, p. 57. And yet in 812 the legates of Emperor Michael I saluted Charles in Aachen with the title “emperor”. So from 812, as Vasiliev says, “there were two Roman emperors, in spite of the fact that in theory there was still only one Roman empire” (op. cit., p. 268). There is an interesting parallel to this in the theory of the One Christian Empire in China. Thus when the Chinese empire actually split between the Khitans and the Sung in 1004, “to preserve the myth of indivisibility the relationship between the two emperors was henceforth expressed in the language of a fictional blood relationship” (“China in the year 1000”, History for All, vol.2, issue 6, December / January, 2000, p. 37).
84 Wil van den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, London: SCM Press, 1999, p. 148.
85 Romanides, op. cit., p. 18.
86 However, Pope John knew he had a hard task ahead of him in persuading the Franks. As he wrote to Photius: “I think your wise Holiness knows how difficult it is to change immediately a custom which has been entrenched for so many years. Therefore we believe the best policy is not to force anyone to abandon that addition to the Creed. But rather we must act with wisdom and moderation, urging them little by little to give up that blasphemy. Therefore, those who claim that we share this opinion are not correct. Those, however, who claim that there are those among us who dare to recite the Creed in this way are correct. Your Holiness must not be scandalized because of this nor withdraw from the sound part of the body of our Church. Rather, you should aid us energetically with gentleness and wisdom in attempting to convert those who have departed from the truth…” (P.G. 102, 813, quoted in Richard Haugh, Photius and the Carolingians, Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1975, pp. 129-130, 137; cf. V. Moss, “Western Saints and the Filioque”, Living Orthodoxy, volume IV, № 1, January-February, 1982) St. Photius seems to have accepted this, and remained in communion with Rome for the rest of his life, referring to the Pope as “my John”. But in 903 his successor St. Nicholas the Mystic broke communion with Pope Christopher because the latter introduced the Filioque into the Creed of the Roman Church again. But communion was again restored under the next Pope.
5. FROM MERCIA TO WESSEX
When King Offa and his son died in 796, there was a succession crisis in the Mercian kingdom. Eadbert Praen, a priest, took advantage of this situation to assume the crown of the sub-kingdom of Kent and reject the lordship of the kingdom of Mercia. He was immediately rejected by Archbishop Aethelheard of Canterbury and anathematised by Pope Leo III, who wrote that such a priest-king was like Julian the Apostate.87 Finally, Cenwulf, a distant kinsman of Offa’s, resolved the succession crisis in Mercia and took his revenge on the Kentishmen. “The revolt was suppressed and Eadbert taken to Mercia. There he was ritually mutilated to disable him from kingship: his eyes were put out and his hands cut off. Nor surprisingly, Kent subsequently remained quiet, though Cenwulf in turn made some concession to local pride by setting up his brother Cuthred as puppet-king of Kent.”88
However, Cenwulf’s style, as David Starkey puts it, “was pure Offa” and typically Mercian, not only in his cruelty but also in his treatment of the Church. Just as King Aethelbald had forced monks to work on his royal building projects, eliciting very robust criticism from St. Boniface; and just as King Offa appears to have stolen some minsters and other property from the Church of Worcester, so King Cenwulf had a long and bitter struggle with Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury over the ownership of a group of minsters in the Canterbury diocese. The Councils of Clofesho in 803 and the second Council of Calcuith in 816 attempted to restore power over the monasteries to the bishops. But Cenwulf did not give up. He tried to obtain “stavropegial” status for some minsters from the Pope, so that they would be outside the control of local bishops.89
The second Council of Calcuith issued an important ruling on baptism in its eleventh canon: “Let presbyters also know that when they administer Baptism they ought not to pour the consecrated water upon the infants’ heads, but let them always be immersed in the font; as the Son of God Himself afforded an example unto all believers when he was three times immersed in the river Jordan.”
Cenwulf died in 821, and was succeeded by his son Kenelm. However, since he was still young, his sister Cwendritha became regent, while her lover Asconbert became the little king’s guardian. The lovers then killed the king and tried to hide his body. But a commission appointed by the Pope and led by Archbishop Wulfred investigated and found the body to the accompaniment of miracles. The martyr-king was buried next to his father – the two coffins can still be seen in Winchcombe Abbey.90
On September 17, 822 Archbishop Wulfred consecrated Ceolwulf as king. However, Mercian predominance was soon to give way to that of the southern kingdom of Wessex, the West Saxons, whose capital since the seventh century had been at Winchester. In order to trace this rise of this kingdom, we must go back to the year 802, when King Beorhtric of Wessex died, and a certain Egbert, who for years had been an exile at Charlemagne’s court, succeeded to the kingdom. Gradually Egbert built up his domain, which extended over most of southern England; and while not all of his conquests were permanent, his realm became the most powerful in the island.
David Harrison writes: “In 825, after a brush with the Welsh of Cornwall, [Egbert] defeated Beornwulf [of Mercia] in a bloody battle at Ellendun, identified with Wroughton just south of the present Swindon. What provoked this clash and who was the aggressor, are equally unknown. Flushed with victory, Ecgberht [Egbert] at once sent a large army under his son Aethelwulf into Kent, which expelled King Bealdred, presumably a Mercian under-king. The folk of Surrey, Sussex and Essex thereupon submitted to Ecgberht, never again to be separated from Wessex, except when the Danes later occupied Essex. The Kentishmen had resented Offa’s rule and were infuriated by Cenwulf’s cruelty, and if, as seems likely, Ecgberht was connected with their royal house, he would have been gladly welcomed by them. The control of the south-east was an essential step to West Saxon supremacy in England, since Canterbury was the ecclesiastical capital, London the chief English port and trading centre, and Kent the doorway to communication with the continent. After this success, it was natural that the king of East Anglia should appeal to Ecgberht for protection against Mercia…
“Ecgberht now sought to improve on his successes by a bold bid for supremacy over all the English kingdoms. In 829 he defeated and expelled the new Mercian king, Wiglaf, annexed his realm and then led his army to Dore (now a south-western suburb of Sheffield), where the Northumbrians bought off his threatened hostility by accepting his overlordship. The Chronicle exulted over this triumph by hailing him as the eighth Bretwalda, conveniently omitting all mention of the great Mercian kings.
“It was certainly a remarkable achievement and one which, could it have been maintained, would have been to England’s general benefit. It seems clear, however, that Ecgberht had stretched his power beyond his resources. For two enigmatic entries in the Chronicle for the following year inform us that he reduced all the Welsh to submission and yet that Wiglaf retained his kingdom. The first seems to show Ecgberht rounding off his conquests by a thorough reduction of the Welsh, the second suggests that he was nevertheless powerless to prevent a Mercian revolt against his authority. For if, as some have supposed, he had himself restored Wiglaf as his under-king, the Chronicle would surely have made this clear…”91
Egbert also had the distinction of scoring the first victory over the new and terrible threat that had appeared off Britain’s shores – the Northmen, or Vikings. For after an initial defeat by raiders who landed thirty-five ships at Carhampton in Somerset, he defeated a large force of Danes and Cornishmen west of Hingston Down in Cornwall.
From now on, the brunt of the fighting against the Northmen would be undertaken by the Kings of Wessex…
As a fitting crown to a long and remarkable reign, King Egbert established a kind of entente with the Church, which did much to remove the distrust caused by the behaviour of the Mercian kings. In 838, at a meeting of the leading people of the realm held at Kingston in Surrey, Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury made a perpetual alliance between himself and his successors and Egbert, his son Aethelwulf and their heirs. The king confirmed some privileges to the Church, reversing some unjust decisions of King Cenwulf, and promised liberties to the ancient monasteries under his protection. In return, the archbishop promised that he and his successors would maintain a personal friendship with him and his heirs, and would help them in all times of need. The archbishop’s promise was kept, and the West Saxon house, which was at last enabled by the courage and wisdom of King Alfred and his successors to bring the work of Egbert in the unification of England to a triumphant conclusion, received constant and invaluable support until the fall of the English Autocracy.
In 839, on the death of King Egbert, his son Athelwulf succeeded him on the throne of Wessex. There is a tradition that Aethelwulf had been a subdeacon before, and that he became king only by a special dispensation of the pope.92 Be that as it may, we know that he was brought up by the holy priest Swithun, later Bishop of Winchester, and that he always exhibited a great concern for the welfare of the Church.
“His reign,” writes David Harrison, “was one long struggle against the Danish raiders, who now redoubled their onslaughts. While their main bands made daring but devastating inroads into the heart of France and even harried the coasts of Spain, others launched repeated attacks all around the eastern and southern coasts of England. In 840, the alderman of Hampshire overthrew thirty-three ships’ crews at Southampton, but his colleague of Dorset was defeated and slain in a hard fight at Portland. Next year the heathen men did great slaughter in Lindsey, East Anglia and Kent, killing another alderman in Romney Marsh; and the year after London and Rochester were raided, as was Southampton for the second time. In 844 King Raedwulf of Northumbria was defeated and slain by another band at Durham. In 845 the levies of Somerset and Dorset under their two aldermen and the warlike Bishop Ealhstan of Sherborne – the first such recorded in English history – defeated a Danish army with great slaughter at the mouth of the Parret.”93
In 851, “for the first time the heathen stayed through the winter on Thanet. And the same year three hundred and fifty ships came into the mouth of the Thames and stormed Canterbury and London and put to flight Beorhtwulf, king of the Mercians, with his army, and went south across the Thames into Surrey. And King Aethelwulf and his son Aethelbald fought against them at Aclea [Church Oakley, near Basingstoke]
with the army of the West Saxons, and there inflicted the greatest slaughter on a heathen army that we have ever heard of until this present day, and had the victory there. And in the same year King Athelstan [the under-king of Kent] and Alderman Elhere fought in ships and slew a great army at Sandwich in Kent, and captured nine ships and put others to flight.”94
These were famous victories indeed, notable especially for the fact that they were won by the West Saxons, not the Mercians or Northumbrians. For these latter nations, having been so prodigal of their kings’ lives, were deprived of the strength to repel the pagans. The pious Aethelwulf’s victories showed that his father’s gains were not merely ephemeral – the future of England was to lie with his dynasty.
In 853 King Aethelwulf went on pilgrimage to Rome, taking with him his four-yearold son Alfred, later known “the Great”, together with Alfred’s tutor, St. Swithun, Bishop of Winchester. “At this time,” writes Alfred’s earliest biographer, his friend the Welsh Bishop Asser, “the lord Pope Leo [IV] was ruling the apostolic see. He anointed the child Alfred as king, ordaining him properly, received him as an adoptive son and confirmed him.” 95
This extraordinary event could be dismissed as fiction – and has been so dismissed by many historians – if it were not confirmed by a letter written in the same year by the Pope himself to King Aethelwulf: ‘We have now graciously received your son Alfred, whom you were anxious to send at this time to the threshold of the Holy Apostles, and we have decorated him, as a spiritual son, with the dignity of the belt and vestments of the consulate, as is customary with Roman consuls, because he gave himself into our hands.’”96
Roman consul? This was surely an archaism – although in 754 Pope Stephen IV had given the title of patricius to Pippin, King of the Franks, as a sign that the Franks, and not the Byzantines, were now his secular protectors. Adoption as his spiritual son and godson? It was possible. Anointing to the kingdom? This was unusual but a certain precedent existed for it in that both Charlemagne and King Offa of Mercia had had their sons associated with themselves in the kingship by Pope Hadrian. But the honour accorded to Alfred seems to have been greater than that – and more surprising in that Alfred had four older brothers who would be expected to ascend the throne before him!
The only explanation of the Pope’s extraordinary action, according to the twelfthcentury writer Aelred of Rievaulx, was that Pope Leo was a prophet and foresaw the future greatness of Alfred.97 If so, then it made sense for him to tie the boy’s destiny as closely as possible with the city of Rome and the papacy. For that same prophetic gift would have told him that the Carolingian empire with which the papacy was officially linked would soon collapse, and so the future of Roman Christian civilization depended on reviving the already close links between the papacy (recovered from heresy after 878) and “the land of the angels”, as Pope Gregory I had called England.98
In 855, Aethelwulf gave a tenth of all his possessions to the Church “for the glory of God and his own eternal salvation. And the same year he proceeded [with Alfred] to Rome in great state, and remained there twelve months, and then made his way towards home.”99 “On the way back from Rome,” writes Starkey, “Aethelwulf visited the Frankish court, and, on 1 October 856 at Verberie-sur-Oise near Paris, was married to Princess Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald, King of West Francia, and greatgranddaughter of Charlemagne. At the same time, Judith was anointed and crowned queen by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, the master-liturgist and inventor of tradition, in an ordo or form of service which he had devised. It was the first recorded coronation of an English queen and perhaps the first time as well that a crown had been used, rather than the royal helmet (which was, in any case, unsuitable for a woman). ‘May the Lord crown you with glory and honour,’ Hincmar intoned as he placed the crown on the queen’s head, ‘that… the brightness of the gold and the… gleam of the gems may always shine forth in your conduct and your acts.’”100
It is at about this time that an Anglo-Saxon poem called Judith was composed that has been described as “one of the noblest poems in the whole range of Old English Literature, combining the highest dramatic and constructive power with the utmost brilliance of language and metre”. Professor Cook of Yale University thinks that it was composed by St. Swithun in about the year 856 in gratitude for the deliverance of Wessex from the fury of the Vikings and dedicated to Judith, wife of King Aethelwulf.
In the poem the Vikings are represented by the Assyrians, the English by the Jews, and Queen Judith by her namesake in the Bible story.
On returning to England, the king found that his eldest surviving son, Aethelbald, together with Bishop Ealhstan of Sherborne and the alderman of Somerset, were plotting to prevent his resumption of the reins of power. The people were on the king’s side, and were ready to support him against his son. But the king displayed great forebearance in giving the western half of the kingdom to Aethelbald.101 When the king died, in 858, leaving a vast sum of money in his will for the poor, for the pope, and for the churches of Rome, Aethelbald married his stepmother Judith. But when he, too, died, she eloped with Count Baldwin of Flanders. She was not so like her Biblical namesake after all… However, King Athelwulf’s forebearance reaped its reward five years later, in the reunification of the kingdom by his third son Aethelbert. Civil war, so frequent in Mercia and Northumbria, had been averted in Wessex. So Wessex would be the nucleus of a new, united England.
When King Aethelbert ascended the throne, the Vikings sacked his capital of Winchester. Then, on July 2, 862 St. Swithun, the protector of the kingdom and Alfred’s tutor, died. In 865 Aethelbert also died, and the fourth son Aethelred came to the throne. He had to face a renewed threat from the Vikings, who in 866 invaded the northern kingdom of Northumbria, which was divided by civil war between two English kings. The Danes conquered the Northumbrian capital of York, killed both kings in a particularly cruel manner and then installed a puppet-king of English nationality in their place. In 869, supplemented by reinforcements from overseas, the Danes assembled their greatest army yet and invaded East Anglia, conquering it after a bitter and bloody struggle against the Holy Martyr-King Edmund.
87 Haddan & Stubbs, op. cit., vol. III, p. 524.
88 Starkey, The Monarchy of England, vol. 1, London: Chatto & Windus, 2004, pp. 49-50.
89 Blair, op. cit., pp. 122-124.
90 The mainly twelfth-century sources for St. Kenelm’s life were collected by John Humphreys in Studies in Worcestershire History, Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1938.
91 Harrison, England before the Norman Conquest, Ipswich: Hadden Best, 1912, p. 276.
92 See William of Malmesbury, Annals of Wintonia for 837; The Book of Hyde.
93 Harrison, op. cit., p. 277.
94 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 851.
95 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 8.
96 Nevertheless, this letter is considered by some to be a papist forgery. See William Hunt, The English Church from its Foundation to the Norman Conquest (597-1066), London: Macmillan, 1912, p. 278; Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, Alfred the Great, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983, p. 232, note 19.
97 Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great, London: John Murray, 2006, p. 63.
98 Alfred, too, seems to have been conscious of these links. As Geoffrey Hindley writes, “he ascended the throne conscious that the aura of a Roman authority was about him and he consciously prepared to defend the Christian Roman legacy in his kingdom of Wessex against the pagan invaders.” (A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons, London: Robinson, 2006, p. 210).
99 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A, 855.
100 Starkey, op. cit., p. 54.
101 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 12-13.
6. MARTYR-KING EDMUND OF EAST ANGLIA
No part of the country was more exposed to the pagan attacks than the small kingdom of East Anglia, and the old King Offa of East Anglia resolved to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pray for the forgiveness of his sins and the safety of his kingdom.102
On the way, he visited his cousin Alcmund, who, on being exiled from East Anglia after the death of the Martyr-King Aethelbert (+May 20, 793), had been entrusted with the kingdom of Old Saxony by the Emperor Charlemagne. Alcmund had married a German princess named Siwara, and with her often besought the Lord to give him a numerous and saintly family. In answer to his prayer, an angel appeared to him and told him to undertake a pilgrimage to the tombs of the apostles in Rome, where God would grant his petition. During this pilgrimage, while the king was one day conversing with his hostess, a noble and pious Roman woman, she noticed on his breast a brilliant sun, whose rays, darting to all four points of the compass, threw a miraculous light on all around. Filled with the spirit of prophecy, she declared that from him would come a son whose fame, like the sun, would illumine the four quarters of the world and bring many to Christ. A few months later, after returning to North Hamburg, the capital of Old Saxony, Alcmund’s wife Siwara bore him his second son, Edmund.
Now when King Offa came to Saxony, Edmund was appointed to accompany him; and the old king was immediately struck by the beauty, both physical and spiritual, of the young prince, and by the zeal of his service. He applied to him the words of Solomon: “Hast thou seen a man swift in his work? He shall stand before kings and shall not be in obscurity” (Proverbs 22.29). Then in the presence of the whole court he embraced him and, putting a ring on his finger, said: “My most beloved son Edmund, accept this memento of our kinship and mutual love. Remember me as one grateful for your service, for which with God’s permission I hope to leave you a paternal inheritance.”
Edmund’s father hastened to explain to him the significance of this ceremony: was he prepared to accept King Offa as his adoptive father in place of his natural father? On Edmund’s acceptance, Offa tearfully drew from his finger his ring – in fact, it was a coronation ring – and said: “Son Edmund, observe closely this ring, notice its design and seal. If, when I am far away, I intimate to you by this token my wish and desire, do you without delay execute my order. As the noble assembly here bears witness, I intend to regard you as my most beloved son and heir.”
Then Offa continued on his pilgrimage. Having arrived in the Holy Land and venerated the Holy Places, he set out on his return journey via Constantinople. But as he was sailing through the Hellespont, he fell ill; so, disembarking at the monastery of St. George, he received the Holy Mysteries and prepared for death. His last act was to entrust his kingdom of East Anglia to Edmund, ordering his nobles to take his ring to Saxony as a token of his will. Then he reposed in peace and was buried in St. George’s Bay on the Hellespont in the year 854.
And so, in his fourteenth year, St. Edmund set sail with a retinue of nobles for the promised kingdom which he had never seen before. They landed at what is now called St. Edmund’s Head near Hunstanton in Norfolk. Disembarking in a dry river-bed, the king prostrated on the ground and prayed to God to bless his coming and make it profitable for the land and its people. As the saint rose and mounted his horse, twelve springs of sweet, clear water gushed out of the earth, which worked many miracles of healing for the sick. From that hour the soil of that region, which before had been sandy and barren, bore the richest crops in all Eastern England.
The saint then proceeded to Attleborough, Offa’s former capital, and staked his claim to the throne. On November 5, 855, he was in Winchester, attending a council convened by King Ethelwulf of Wessex (Southern England) to provide a charter of immunities for the English Church. Then he returned to Attleborough, where on Christmas Day he was proclaimed sovereign of the people of Norfolk (the northern half of East Anglia) by Humbert, Bishop of Elmham. For the next year the king stayed quietly in Norfolk, learning the psalms of David under the guidance of Bishop Humbert. Eventually the people of Suffolk (the southern half of East Anglia) decided to accept him as their king, and on Christmas Day, 856 he was anointed and crowned king of the whole of East Anglia. The church in Bures, Suffolk, where the coronation took place, survives to the present day.
St. Edmund was fair-haired, tall, well-built, with a natural majesty of bearing. By his piety and chastity he won the respect of all. He was a defender of the Church, a protector of orphans and widows, and a supporter of the poor. No man sought for justice from him and failed to get redress, and no innocent pleaded in vain for mercy. It was said that under his strong rule a boy could drive a mule from Lynn to Sudbury, or from Thetford to Yarmouth, and no one would dare to molest him.
In 865 the pagan Danes, led by the three brothers Hinguar, Healfdene and Hubba, again invaded England, bent on revenge for the death of their father Ragnar Lodbrog at the hands of the English King Aelle of Northumbria. Hinguar carried with him the famous standard of the Raven, which had been woven by the three daughters of Lodbrog for their three brothers. Magical spells had been cast during the weaving, so that when the bird flapped its wings in the wind, it was believed to betoken victory, while when it hung motionless, it betokened defeat. St. Edmund went out to meet the Danes under another banner, which showed Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and above them the Lamb of God slain to wash away their sins.
Edmund defeated the enemy in several skirmishes, showing subtlety no less than valour. Thus he was once surprised by the enemy within one of his camps with no avenue of escape. The siege was so long that both besiegers and besieged began to suffer from famine. But Edmund determined that the enemy should not learn about his men’s suffering, which might persuade them to disband their own troops. So he ordered a fatted bull which had been fed with good wheat to be set loose outside the enclosure. The Danes seized it and killed it. And when they opened its stomach and found fresh wheat inside, they concluded that the English had no lack of provisions. So they abandoned the siege and split up into foraging parties. Edmund then followed them stealthily, and killed large numbers of them.
On another occasion Edmund and his men were besieged inside the almost impregnable fortress of Framingham. However, Hinguar captured an old and decrepit man by the name of Sathonius whom the saint had been feeding and accommodating at his own expense in the castle. By means of a bribe, the old man was induced to betray to Hinguar a weak spot in the castle walls, which he himself had helped to build in his youth. Advancing on the castle at this point, Hinguar caught the English by surprise.
Edmund jumped onto his swiftest charger and galloped out through the open gates.
Some of the Danes saw him, but did not suspect who he was and galloped after him, hoping to get some information about the king. But Edmund, like St. Athanasius the Great on a similar occasion, turned to them and said: “Go back as fast as you can, for, when I was in the castle, the king whom you seek was there also.” Turning back, they discovered that the king had fooled them. Then St. Edmund gathered his forces and fell upon the baffled Danes as they were retreating.
The Danes now made peace with Edmund and headed north to Northumbria (North-Eastern England), arriving in York on November 1, 866. The English Kings Osbert and Aelle, who had been fighting each other up to that moment, now joined forces and marched on York, and after destroying the city walls they entered the city on March 21, 867. However, the resultant battle within the city was disastrous for the English: both kings and eight of the leading noblemen were killed. The Danes then ravaged the whole of Northumbria as far as the River Tyne before installing an Englishman named Egbert as puppet-king of the region under their power.
This was only “the beginning of sorrows” for the English. At the end of the year the Danish “Great Army” moved south into Mercia (Central England) and took the city of Nottingham. In answer to King Burhred of Mercia’s appeal for help, King Aethelred of Wessex, his younger brother Alfred (the future King of England) and St. Edmund came to meet him outside the walls of Nottingham. However, the Danes avoided a battle with the English kings outside Nottingham, so peace terms were concluded. In exchange for giving up Nottingham, the Great Army was allowed to retreat back into Northumbria.
Now began a horrific despoliation of the Christian inheritance of the whole of Eastern England. In the north, St. Ebba’s monastery at Coldingham was burned down with the nuns inside after they had all, with Abbess Ebba giving them the lead, cut off their noses and upper lips to deter the attackers from raping them. Tynemouth, Wearmouth, Jarrow, Whitby and other famous monasteries were destroyed; and in Eastern Mercia Bardney and Crowland were gutted.
When the news of the Great Army’s approach reached Abbot Theodore of Crowland, he sent away all the able-bodied men and buried the church valuables. Then, as the flames of nearby Kesteven lit up the sky, he calmly vested himself for the Divine Liturgy, which he celebrated with the assistance of Deacon Alfget, Subdeacon Savin and Monks Ethelred and Wulric. Hardly had they finished when the Danish leader Oscytel burst in, beheaded the abbot, tortured the elder monks and killed the boys before setting fire to the monastery. This took place on August 26, 869.
Then it was the turn of the fenland monasteries Thorney, Peterborough, Ramsey and Ely. At Peterborough Hinguar was struck by a stone; so his brother Hubba with his own hand slaughtered Abbot Hedda and 84 monks on one stone to avenge his injury. At Ely a Dane took hold of the pall which covered the incorrupt body of St. Etheldreda (+June 23, 679) and struck the marble of the tomb with his battle-axe. But a splinter flew back from off the ground and entered the striker’s eye, and he fell dead. At this the others left the tombs of the other saints, which they were thinking of violating, and fled.
Another saint met the invaders in a different way. The body of St. Werburga (+3 February, c. 700) had been preserved incorrupt at Chester right up to the coming of the Danes. But when they approached the city, the body suddenly disintegrated…
While Hubba with 10,000 men was sacking Ely and Soham, Hinguar pressed eastwards into East Anglia. On Newmarket Heath he encountered Alderman Ulfcetyl defending two or three earthworks later known as “Holy Edmund’s Fortifications”. But the English were overwhelmed and slaughtered to a man. Then the host proceeded to the capital, Thetford, which they captured amidst terrible scenes of rape and butchery.
The whole population was killed, and only King Edmund with a small army survived to face the Danes…
Hinguar then sent a messenger to Edmund, saying: “Hinguar our king, brave and victorious by sea and by land, has subdued many nations and has now landed suddenly here with his host. Now he orders you to divide your hidden treasure and the wealth of your ancestors with him quickly. And if you want to live, you can be his under-king, because you do not have the power to resist him.”
Then Edmund summoned Bishop Humbert and discussed with him how he should answer Hinguar. The bishop, fearful because of the disaster at Thetford and the threat to the king’s life, counselled him to submit to whatever Hinguar demanded. Edmund replied: “O bishop! This wretched nation is humiliated, and I would rather die in battle against him who is trying to possess the people’s land.” Then the bishop said: “Alas, dear king, your people lie slaughtered, and you do not have the forces to fight. And these pirates will come and bind you alive, unless you save your life by fleeing, or by submitting to him in this way.” The king replied: “What I want and desire with all my heart is that I should not be left alone when my beloved thanes with their wives and children have been suddenly killed by these pirates. It was never my custom to flee, and I would rather die for my country if I have to. And Almighty God knows that I will never renounce His worship, nor His true love, in life or in death.”
Then he turned to Hinguar’s messenger and said: “You would certainly deserve to die right now, but I will not dirty my clean hands in your filthy blood, for I follow Christ, Who set us this example. And I will gladly be killed by you if God so ordains it.
Go quickly now and tell your savage lord: ‘Edmund will never while living submit in this land to the pagan war-lord Hinguar, unless he first submit in this land to Christ the Saviour in faith.’”
Then Edmund marched with his men to Thetford. The battle raged for seven hours on the plain between Melford and Catford bridges; and finally Hinguar and his men retreated to their entrenched camp. Edmund was the victor, but at a terrible cost; and as he marched back to Hoxne he resolved to give himself up rather than continue the blood carnage.
Shortly after his arrival in Hoxne, the news came of a fresh Danish inroad into the country. Hubba had completed his destruction of Ely and Soham, and had now set out with 10,000 more men to help his brother complete the conquest of East Anglia.
Resistance was now hopeless, and Edmund’s only thought was how to preserve his country from further bloodshed and preserve in it the Christian faith. Bishop Humbert again counselled flight, if only in the hope that he might return to re-conquer the land for Christ. But Edmund knew that the enemy would the more ruthlessly put to sword any able-bodied man who might assist in his restoration. Nor would that be enough:
Hinguar entertained a personal hatred of the king which would be satisfied only by his being captured alive… So the saint turned to Humbert and said: “O Bishop Humbert, my father, it is necessary that I alone should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish (cf. John 12.50).”
Then, having dismissed his men and laid aside his arms, he entered the church and prostrated himself in front of the altar, praying for strength for his feat of martyrdom for Christ and his suffering people.
Having marched up to the town and surrounded it, Hinguar sent his men into the church with orders to touch no one except the king. They seized the king, bound him, and beat him with cudgels while insulting him continually. Then they tied him to a tree and flogged him with whips for a long time. Meanwhile the king called unceasingly on the name of Christ. This infuriated the pagans, and they now shot at him with arrows until he was entirely covered with them, like the holy Martyr Sebastian. When Hinguar saw that the holy king would not renounce Christ, he ordered him to be beheaded. And so they dragged him, still calling on Christ, to the place of slaughter and there beheaded him. Then Bishop Humbert, too, was led into the arena and beheaded. This took place on November 20, 869, when Edmund had reigned for fifteen years and was twenty-nine years old.
The pagans returned to their ships, having thrown the head of St. Edmund into dense brambles so that it would be left unburied. Then the local inhabitants came and found the headless body, but could not find the head. A man who had been a witness of the martyrdom said that he thought that they had hidden the head somewhere in the wood. So a search-party was organized which scoured the bushes and brambles. And as they were calling to each other, they head answered “Here! Here! Here!”, until they all came to the place where the head lay. And there they saw it lying between the two paws of a grey wolf, who, while not daring to harm it himself, had been protecting it from the other wild beasts. Thanking God Almighty for His miracles, the people took the head and carried it back to the town. The wolf followed them as if he were tame, and then, having seen it into the town, returned to the wood. The people joined the head back to the body, and then buried it as best they could, hastily erecting a wooden chapel over it…
During the reign of King Edward the Elder in the early tenth century, the Danelaw – that is, the area of England controlled by the Danes – was steadily and systematically re-conquered, beginning with East Anglia. Thus already in his reign the Danish ruler Eric was ruling the province under the suzerainty of King Edward. And it was in about 915 that a miracle drew the attention of the liberated people to their last Christian king, St. Edmund.
One night, a blind man and a boy who was leading him were walking through the woods near Hoxne. Not seeing any house nearby, they resolved to stay the night in what was in fact the wooden chapel constructed over St. Edmund’s grave. Upon entering, they stumbled across the martyr’s grave; but, though terrified at first, they decided not to leave but to stay in the chapel, using the grave as a pillow for the night.
Hardly had they closed their eyes, when a column of light suddenly illumined the whole place. The boy woke up his master in fear. “Alas! Alas!” he cried, “our lodging is on fire!” But the blind man calmed him down, assuring him that their host would not let them come to harm. And indeed, at dawn they discovered that through St.Edmund’s prayers the blind man could now see.
The news of this miracle spread throughout East Anglia, and the people resolved to translate the body of their saint to a safer and more honourable shrine. They chose the town of Beadricsworth (now Bury St. Edmunds), whose church and monastery, founded by St. Sigebert in the seventh century, had been destroyed by the Danes, but some of whose priests still survived. When they had rebuilt the church, Bishop Theodred of Elmham and the whole clergy of East Anglia translated the holy body with great ceremony into its new shrine.
102 The main sources for this chapter are Abbot Aelfric, Passio Sancti Eadmundi; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 870; Rev. J.B. Mackinlay, Saint Edmund King and Martyr, London, 1893; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 120-122.