A Century of English Sanctity
Chapters 1 to 25
1.SAINTS ACCA AND ALCMUND, BISHOPS OF HEXHAM
Our holy Father Acca as a young man joined the household of Bosa, bishop of York, and later became a disciple of the great St. Wilfrid, bishop of York and later of Hexham. For thirteen years he accompanied his teacher on his journeys through England and on the continent, and was a witness at his holy repose. And when Wilfrid died, in 709, he became his successor as abbot and bishop of Hexham in Northumbria.
The Venerable Bede called Acca “the dearest and best loved of all bishops on this earth.” Bede also praised his theological library and dedicated several of his works to him. On becoming bishop of Hexham Acca completed three of Wilfrid’s smaller churches and splendidly adorned his cathedral at Hexham, providing it with ornaments of gold, silver and precious stones, and decorating the altars with purple and silk. Moreover, he invited an excellent singer called Maban who had been taught church harmony at Canterbury to teach himself and the people. He himself was a chanter of great skill.
In 732 Acca either retired or was expelled from his see, and later became bishop of Whithorn in Southern Scotland. He died on October 20, 740, and was buried near the east wall of his cathedral in Hexham. Parts of two stone crosses which were placed at his tomb still survive.
In about 1030, Alfred Westow, a Hexham priest and a sacrist at Durham, translated the relics of St. Acca, following a Divine revelation, to a place of more fitting honour in the church. At that time the saint’s vestments were found in all their pristine freshness and strength, and were displayed by the brethren of the church for the veneration of the faithful. Above his chest was found a portable altar with the inscription “Almae Trinitati, agiae Sophiae, sanctae Mariae”. This also was the object of great veneration. Many miracles were wrought through this saint. Those attempting to infringe the sanctuary of his church were driven off in a wondrous and terrible manner, and those who tried to steal relics were prevented from doing so.
A brother of the church by the name of Aldred related the following story. When he was an adolescent and was living in the house of his brother, a priest, he was once asked by his brother to keep an eye on some relics of St. Acca which he had wrapped in a cloth and laid on the altar of St. Michael in the southern porch of the church.
Then it came into the mind of Aldred that a certain church (we may guess that it was Durham) would be greatly enriched by the bones of St. Acca. So, after prostrating himself on the ground and praying the seven penitential psalms, he entered the porch with the intention of taking them away. Suddenly he felt heat as of fire which thrust him back in great trepidation. Thinking that he had approached with insufficient reverence and preparation, he again prostrated himself and poured forth still more ardent prayers to the Lord. But on approaching a second time he felt a still fiercer heat opposing him. Realizing that his intention was not in accordance with the will of God, he withdrew.
Our holy Father Alcmund was bishop of Hexham from 767 to 781, reposed on September 7, 781, and was buried next to St. Acca. In 1032, he appeared by night to a certain very pious man by the name of Dregmo who lived near the church at Hexham. Wearing pontifical vestments and holding a pastoral staff in his hand, he nudged Dregmo with it and said:
“Rise, go to Alfred, son of Westow, a priest of the Church of Durham, and tell him to transfer my body from this place to a more honourable one within the church. For it is fitting that those whom the King of kings has vested with a stole of glory and immortality in the heavens should be venerated by those on earth.”
Dregmo asked: “Lord, who are you?”
He replied: “I am Alcmund, bishop of the Church of Hexham, who was, by the grace of God, the fourth after blessed Wilfrid to be in charge of this place. My body is next to that of my predecessor, the holy bishop Acca of venerable memory. You also be present at its translation with the priest.”
After saying this, he disappeared. The next morning, Dregmo went to the priest Alfred and related everything in order. He joyfully assembled the people, told them what had happened, and fixed a day for the translation. On the appointed day they lifted the bones from the tomb, wrapped them in linen and placed them on a bier; but since the hour for celebrating the Divine Liturgy had passed, they placed the holy relics in the porch of St. Peter at the western end of the church, intending to transfer them the following day with psalms and hymns and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
But that night, the priest Alfred, who was keeping vigil with his clerics around the holy body, rose when the others were sleeping and took a part of the finger of the saint, intending to give it to the Church of Durham. The next morning a great multitude came to the translation. But when the priest and those with him came to lift the body, it was immovable. Thinking themselves unworthy, they retired, and others came up. But they, too, were unable to lift it. When noone was found who could lift it, the people looked at each other in consternation, while the priest, still ignorant that he was the cause, exhorted them to pray to God to reveal who was to blame for this. That night, St. Alcmund appeared a second time to Dregmo, who had suddenly been overwhelmed with sleep, and with a stern face said to him:
“What is this that you have wanted to do? Did you think to bring me back into the church mutilated, when I served God and St. Andrew here in wholeness of body and spirit? Go, therefore, and witness in the presence of all the people that what has unwisely been taken away from my body should be restored, or else you will never be able to remove me from this place in which I now am.”
And when he had said this, he showed him his hand with part of the finger missing. The next day, Dregmo stood in the middle of the people and told them all that had been revealed to him in the night, vehemently urging that the person who had presumed to do this should be punished. Then the priest, perceiving that he was at fault, prostrated himself in the midst of the people and revealed to them the motives for which he had committed the crime. Begging for forgiveness, he restored that which he had taken away. Then the clerics who were present came up and without any effort lifted the holy body and transferred it into the church on August 6.
Later, Alfred translated a portion of the relics of Saints Acca and Alcmund, together with portions of the relics of the other Northumbrian saints: the hermits Baldred and Bilfrid, the Martyr-King Oswin, St. Boisil of Melrose, St. Ebba of Coldingham and the Venerable Bede, to his church of Durham.
St. Acca is commemorated on October 20.
Holy Fathers Acca and Alcmund, pray to God for us!
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History; Eddius Stephanus, Life of St.Wilfrid; Simeon of Durham Opera Omnia, ed. T. Arnold, Rolls Series, 1882-85, vol. II, pp. 36-37, 51-52; History of the Church of Durham, ch. 42; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon, 1978, pp. 1-2, 10)
2 SAINT ADRIAN, ABBOT OF CANTERBURY
Our holy Father Adrian was a native of North Africa “well versed,” as the Venerable Bede says, “in the Holy Scriptures, trained both in monastic and ecclesiastical ways and equally skilled in the Greek and Latin tongues”. He was living in the monastery of Nerida, near Naples in Italy, when Pope Vitalian called on him to accept the see of Canterbury. However, St. Adrian declined, saying he was unworthy of so exalted a rank, and suggested instead the elderly monk Theodore, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia. The pope accepted his suggestion, but only on condition that he accompanied St. Theodore to England. For, as Bede says, “he had already travelled twice through Gaul on various missions and was therefore better acquainted with the road and had an adequate number of followers; also, being a fellow labourer in his teaching work, he would take great care to prevent Theodore from introducing into the church over which he presided any Greek customs which might be contrary to the true faith [Bede probably means the Monothelite heresy then raging in the East]. So on May 27, 668 Saints Theodore and Adrian set off together for England. They went by sea to Marseilles and then by land to Arles. They were detained for some time in France by Ebroin, Mayor of the palace of Neustria, who suspected them of being agents of the Byzantine emperor. However, on May 27, 669 the two saints arrived in Canterbury.
St. Theodore immediately placed St. Adrian in charge of the monastery of St. Peter in Canterbury, where he taught Greek and Latin and all the ecclesiastical sciences, educating a whole generation of English churchmen. He reposed on January 9, 710, and his tomb was glorified by miracles. In 1091, when repairs were being carried out to the church buildings in Canterbury, his tomb was opened and his body was found to be incorrupt.
St. Adrian is commemorated on January 9.
Holy Father Adrian, pray to God for us!
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, IV, 1,2; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 3)
3. SAINT AELFHEAH, HIEROMARTYR ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
St. Aelfheah (Alphege) was born in 954 of pious parents, who soon handed him over to be instructed in literature and the Christian Faith. Seeking a more total commitment, however, the saint abandoned his paternal inheritance and, ignoring his mother’s tears, entered the monastery of Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, whose ancient church survives to the present day. There, while still an adolescent, he excelled in prayer, vigil, fasting and charity.
Some years later, he went to Bath and built for himself a small cell in which he lived the life of a hermit with the strictest asceticism. Soon certain nobles started coming to him for confession and spiritual advice. As his fame increased, donations poured in – which he immediately gave to the poor. Others left the world and sought to live the monastic life under his direction; and so St. Dunstan appointed him abbot of a small monastery, although he had no desire for such a position.
On becoming abbot, however, he did not slacken his ascetic way of life, and continued to live in his little cell. He appointed a suitable overseer to supply the material needs of the monastery, but decided all important matters himself. The saint warned his monks that their condemnation would be the greater if, while professing to be monks and wearing the monastic habit, they continued to live like men of the world. But this did not prevent them from indulging in secret nocturnal feasts and orgies. One night, however, the leader of the revels was suddenly struck dead in the middle of a feast. The saint was, as usual, offering up tearful prayers to God when he heard loud voices coming from the monastery.
Thinking that thieves had broken in, or that the brethren were being disturbed by some demonic ruse, he came closer. Then he saw two terrible and foul-looking men beating the man who had just died with whips and flaming serpents. To his pathetic pleas for mercy they replied:
“You did not obey God, so neither shall we obey you.”
After repeating this several times, they dragged their captive away.
In 984, the bishop of Winchester, St. Aethelwold, reposed in peace. Immediately a dissension arose as to who should succeed him. St. Dunstan, the archbishop of Canterbury, was praying about this when the holy Apostle Andrew appeared to him and said:
“Why are you sad, beloved? Why do you tearfully pour out such mournful complaints? Rise, and place your hand on Abbot Aelfheah; and when you have anointed him with holy oil make him the bishop of the widowed Church. And do not allow any power to stop you; for this decision has issued, not from a man, but from the mouth of Almighty God. And lest I should leave you in any doubt as to the identity of the man speaking with you, I am Andrew, the apostle of the Son of God and the most loving guardian of your salvation.”
Dunstan joyfully told this vision to King Aethelred, and when a council had been convened everyone cried out that they wishes what God wishes and what God’s archbishop should decide. Then two bishops, one on either side, led the bishop-elect into the church to the acclaim of the people.
“Many years!” they cried.
And then he was consecrated. This took place on October 19. Immediately after the consecration, the saint set out to visit his new see. The citizens came out to meet him, chanting:
“Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!”
He was enthroned in St. Aethelwold’s cathedral in Winchester on October 28.
At Winchester, as at Deerhurst and Bath, St. Aelfheah was distinguished by his charity to others and severity to himself. At night he would go out to pray, barefoot and thinly clad even in the coldest weather. And his body was so emaciated by fasting that, as many people noticed, his hands when uplifted seemed almost transparent. At the same time, he attended so carefully to the needs of the poor that it was said that there were no beggars in Winchester during his episcopate. And many were the miracles wrought through his intercession.
Among his good works was his confirmation (the western equivalent of chrismation) of the Norwegian King Olaf Trygvasson, who had been ravaging the countryside. After being confirmed, King Olaf promised the bishop never to return to England with warlike intent. He then returned to his native land and converted them to the Christian Faith with the aid of English bishops and priests.
On hearing the fame of Aelfheah’s holy preaching and life, St. Dunstan rejoiced and prayed to God that this man, young as he was (only thirty at the time of his consecration) would succeed him in the primatial see of Canterbury. And his prayer was granted, though not immediately but only eighteen years after his own death in 988. For in 1005, on the death of Archbishop Aelfric, St. Aelfheah was translated from Winchester to Canterbury at the age of fifty-two.
A few days later, the saint set out for Rome to receive the archbishop’s pallium from the Pope. He entered a town just inside Italy and rested for a while. But the citizens, noticing that they had a stranger in their midst, broke into his house and stole all his goods, driving him out with blows and insults. With admirable equanimity, the saint set out on his return journey. He had not gone far when the town’s ramparts suddenly caught fire, showering burning ashes on the neighbouring houses and threatening the citizens with destruction. They rushed out into the streets and watched helplessly as the flames rose higher and spread further. Then, coming to their senses, they realized that the fire was God’s vengeance on them for their maltreatment of the holy man.
They rushed after him and tearfully begged him to return.
“Let us return,” he said, “that we may see the fire from closer quarters.”
When he saw the fire, his eyes filled with tears and he prayed to God. Suddenly the flames were suspended in mid-air, and the fire which had spread through many houses was found outside the town walls. Recognizing the author of the miracle, the townspeople flowed out to him like a stream with gifts in their hands. But Aelfheah replied:
“Keep what is yours; I am satisfied with my own things. Only do not cast out strangers from your homes. Receive all who come to you and look after them. God dwells in good men, and therefore it is good for one person to receive another in whom God dwells. But if your estimate turns out to be mistaken, and the man whom you considered to be religious is found to be the opposite, you will not lose your reward. For God honours the good intention.”
Finally, the saint arrived in Rome and sought an audience with the Pope. They spoke together, and the Pope came to love him so much that he honoured him publicly in the presence of the Roman Senate. One day, the saint was saddened in countenance.
Surprised at this, his companions came to him, one after the other, seeking the reason for his grief.
“No-one,” he said, “will see me happy today; for he who succeeded me at Winchester has died.”
This was difficult to believe, since no-one had come with news from England. But on the other hand, it was easy to believe; for the saint had never been known to lie.
The Pope and the Archbishop said goodbye to each other and parted, both joyful and sad. And when Aelfheah had already crossed the Alps, a group of English nobility on the way to Rome came up to him and, in answer to his inquiry, said that the bishop of Winchester had died on the very day (his companions noted) on which the saint had been so sad. The news of this further demonstration of the saint’s supernatural gifts spread throughout England.
The nation’s morale was at a very low ebb when the saint returned. The Danes were ravaging the land with fire and sword, and the tribute offered them by the king only seemed to increase their greed. Desertions from the army were commonplace; and sometimes even noblemen with their ships joined the other side. The king with his councillors, including St. Aelfheah, passed laws strengthening ecclesiastical discipline and penalizing traitors, with the death penalty ordained for those who should plot against the king’s life. And in 1008 the archbishop and his synod proclaimed the day of the martyrdom of King Edward, the king’s half-brother, a national feastday – another clear warning to potential traitors and king-killers.
However, the sad story continued, with indecision, incompetence and treachery the order of the day. Thus “when the enemy was in the east,” bemoaned The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “then our levies were mustered in the west; and when they were in the south, then our levies were in the north. Then all the councillors were summoned to the king, for a plan for the defence of the realm had to be devised then and there.
But whatever course of action was decided upon it was not followed for a single month. In the end there was no leader who was willing to raise levies, but each fled as quickly as he could; nor even in the end would one shire help another.”
The upshot of all this was that in 1013 King Aethelred was forced to go into exile through the treachery of his subjects. Even worse, perhaps, than this was the treachery which led to the death of St. Aelfheah the year before. The story was as follows.
In the autumn of 1011 the Danes besieged Canterbury and sacked it. They were helped, on the one hand, by Abbot Elfmar of Canterbury, who, though he owed his life to St. Aelfheah, now turned against him and his fellow citizens; and, on the other, by Alderman Edric Streona of Mercia. Edric had come to be involved in the sack of Canterbury through his brother, a proud and cruel man who slandered the nobility of Canterbury in the king’s presence and then violently burned their inheritance. But they rose up and killed him, burning down his house. Edric demanded vengeance from the king for his brother’s death; but the king refused, saying that his brother had been justly punished. Then Edric, determined to avenge his brother, collected an army of ten thousand well-armed men. Realizing, however, that these forces were insufficient, he came to an agreement with the Danes whereby, in exchange for their help, they would retain the north of England in the case of victory while he held the south.
Meanwhile, St. Aelfheah had been preaching, redeeming captives, feeding the hungry and even converting many of the invaders. This was another reason why the Danes were eager to unite with Edric against the men of Canterbury. And as they approached the city from Sandwich, the people fled to the cathedral, convinced that they were safe there. The nobility, meanwhile, urged St. Aelfheah to flee. But he refused, saying that he had no intention of being a hireling. Then he gathered the people together and exhorted them to have courage and patience, setting before them the triumphs of the martyrs. Finally, having blessed them and communicated them in the Holy Mysteries, he dismissed them in peace, commending them all to the protection of God.
The enemy came and laid siege to the city. On the twentieth day, the saint sent to the Danes, exhorting them to desist from their purpose and warning them that when a father wishes to beat his sons, he afterwards throws the stick into the fire. In a similar way God would punish the Danes even after using them to chastize the English.
But the English traitors under Edric were only the more incited to cruelty by the sight of their fellow countrymen’s distress. They set fire to the houses, and soon, fanned by a strong south wind, the fire spread everywhere. Torn between whether to stay on the ramparts and defend the city, or rush down to their houses, the citizens finally chose the latter course. And soon they were dragging beloved wives and children out of the burning houses – only to see them immediately cut down by the swords of the enemy. For now that the ramparts were unguarded they were able (with Abbot Elfmar’s help) to enter unhindered, with such a terrible clamour of trumpets and voices that it seemed as if the city were being shaken to its foundations.
“No-one who was not a spectator of that calamity,” writes the saint’s biographer, Osbern of Canterbury, “would know how to describe the reality of it, and the wretchedness of its confusion of evils. Some had their throats cut, others perished in the flames, still more were thrown over the walls. Others, shameful to relate, were hung up by their private parts and expired thus. Ladies more distinguished than others by their nobility were dragged through the streets of the city because they could not produce treasures which they did not possess. Finally they were thrown into the flames and died. The cruelty was especially savage against those under age; while babes were ripped out of their mother’s womb or pierced through with spears or crushed to pieces under waggon wheels…
“The venerable prelate, unable to bear so many deaths among his spiritual children, suddenly, while he was surrounded by a crowd of weeping monks in the church of the Saviour, slipped out of the hands of those restraining him, rushed to a place full of corpses, hurled himself amidst a dense mass of the enemy and with groans cried out:
“‘Have pity, have pity! And if you recognize yourselves to be men, put an end to your persecution of the innocent! Instead of these, take me, who, to increase the Christian people, despoiled you of many a soldier, and who, with unrestrained lips, always condemned the crimes of your impiety!'”
Innumerable hands seized him, stopped his mouth, bound his hands, scratched his face with their nails, punched and kicked him in the sides. The man of God uttered not a sound, but his lips moved as if he were speaking to God. Then he was forced to witness death after death in front of his very eyes so that he might suffer every torment, whether in his own person or in the persons of those whom he mourned.
Then the Danes came to the cathedral church of the Saviour. They set fire to it, and soon molten lead from the roof was seeping into the building. Covering their heads with their palls, the weeping monks ran out of all the doors of the building, only to be cut down by the swords of the soldiers waiting outside.
Out of the eight thousand inhabitants of Canterbury, only four monks and some eight hundred others survived the sack. The survivors, after suffering blows and wounds, were either judged worthy of being ransomed – these included Bishop Godwin of Rochester, Abbess Leofrun of St. Mildred’s and all the clergy except Abbot Elfmar of St. Augustine’s monastery (not the traitor) – or were sold into slavery.
The archbishop had seen his people slaughtered, the city burned down and the cathedral church of Christ the Saviour profaned and devastated. Now he was bound and dragged through the north gate of the city. There lay the survivors with stocks on their feet and under military guard. On seeing him, they all groaned and wept and raised their hands to heaven in prayer. But then, as the saint stood strengthening their shattered souls in prayer, he was given a ferocious blow between the shoulders, so that his shoulder was cut open and blood poured over his whole body. Even the Danes were horrified. Then he was led from the city to the ships, from the ships to the prison, from the prison to the judge, and finally back to the prison, which was dark, narrow and full of frogs. There he remained under a guard of twelve soldiers for another seven months. The Danes offered him freedom in exchange for money from the Church’s patrimony; but he refused. And so, as Pascha of the year 1012 approached, the saint was still in prison, celebrating the Passion of Christ as he was able, in humility and contrition of heart.
“Then was he a captive,” wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “who had been the head of England and of Christendom. There could misery be seen where often bliss was seen before, in that unhappy city, whence Christianity came first to us, and both spiritual and earthly bliss…”
Meanwhile, the wrath of God was falling upon the Danes. Two thousand of their soldiers fell ill of a terrible internal malady and died shortly after; while many others, similarly struck, awaited death. The Christians advised them to recognize their crime against Christ, to confess, weep and make amends to the archbishop. But they did not accept this advice, attributing their misfortunes to the instability of Chance rather than the will of God. But death reigned over all those who had planned to kill the archbishop: great numbers of them were attacked, tormented and wasted away by a terrible pain in the bowels. Meanwhile, a great fear of death overcame the living. Finally they ran to the captive saint, bewailed their sins with tears, and besought him to pray to God on their behalf.
It was Holy Thursday, the day on which the Lord gave His Most Pure Body and Blood to His disciples. St. Aelfheah was brought out of prison and honourably seated in the magistrate’s chair. He told the Danes that their terrible cruelty did not merit them a pardon, but that he was determined to imitate the example of his Lord, Who gave holy bread even to the man who betrayed Him and forgave those who crucified Him.
“Therefore,” he said, “forgetting the burning of the city, the injuries which have been inflicted upon myself, your past impiety, and the slaughter of the innocents, I shall intercede for my torturers as He interceded with the Father for those who crucified Him. So take this bread – it will immediately heal you. Only, when you have eaten and obtained health in accordance with your desire, give solemn thanks to the Saviour, or you will remain more guilty of blasphemy.”
Then he blessed bread and gave to them. They were all healed. From Holy Thursday to Holy Saturday no-one died.
Seeing this, the leaders of the Danes sent four of their military commanders to the saint. They thanked him, but then said that they would give him life and liberty in exchange for a ransom of sixty talents of silver weighing fifty pounds, together with his services in persuading the king to pay another two hundred talents as the price of a truce between the two nations. The saint refused, saying that the embassy was illegal and their demands impossible. They were mistaken if they thought he would rob the Church or betray the honour of his king and country to satisfy their avarice.
“It is not done for a Christian to hand over Christian flesh to be devoured by pagan teeth.”
The Danes came to him a second time, asking him – in a gentler manner this time – to affix his seal to an order authorizing the despoliation of the estates of the Church, in exchange for which he would be redeemed. Again the saint refused, citing the example of the holy Martyr Laurence of Rome, who, on being entrusted with the treasures of the Church, gave them away to the poor lest they should fall into the hands of the persecutors.
“If St. Laurence gave what was not theirs to the poor, how can I take what is theirs from the poor?
Then they raged terribly, gnashing on him with their teeth, and decided to carry out the sentence that had been passed on him. New tortures were applied; but he remained immovable. Then, in the night of Friday of Bright Week, the devil devised a different and subtler means of breaking the saint’s resistance. Having caused the guards to fall into a light sleep, he appeared to him in the form of an angel of light, declaring that for the sake of the common good he was going to lead the saint out of the squalor of the prison.
“Fear not the stigma of cowardice,” he said; “you are not more sublime than Peter, nor stronger than Paul. The one was delivered from prison by an angel, and the other was let down in a basket. Christ Himself slipped out of the hands of those who were going to stone Him, and commanded His disciples to flee in time of persecution.”
Deceived by these words, the saint followed the deceiver out of the prison. But when they had crossed several water-logged fields in the thick darkness, the devil suddenly disappeared. Realizing his error, the saint groaned and threw himself down in the middle of the marshes, crying with tears to the Lord:
“O Giver of life, O only Guide of the race of Adam, why hast Thou deprived me of Thy grace in my old age when Thou never didst leave me in the prime of life? Thou hast mercifully preserved me for so long, and dost Thou now cast me away in the extremity of life? O Thou Who art all I desire, all that I long to enjoy, what use is it to have triumphed in battle throughout the long day, but at the end of it to be conquered and deprived of the fruits of victory? Or what praise is it to have embarked on the voyage and escaped shipwreck in the middle of the sea, only to suffer the shipwreck of unexpected death on the shore? How many times have I found Thee to be my Saviour in the shipwrecks of life! Now, I beseech Thee, send me consolation in this snare of the devil, a helper in troubles and tribulations.”
“At evening shall weeping find lodging, but in the morning rejoicing” (Psalm 29.5). And “the angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear Him, and will deliver them” (Psalm 33.7). Thus it was for the man of God. For as dawn arose, a young man adorned in golden splendour stood before him, and asked him where he was fleeing to. The bishop replied that he was not fleeing, but had obeyed the voice of a Divine command.
“That was no Divine command,” said the angel, “but a device of the devil. He did not wish so much to lead you out of prison as to seduce you once outside. Return, therefore, to your place, where a crown is laid up for you in heaven. Tomorrow the Father will honour you, and you will be eternally in the greatest honour in the heavens with His Son.”
The saint therefore returned to the place of contest and joyfully awaited the hour in which he would receive his crown from God.
The hour drew near, and a crowd of turbulent men burst into the prison, seized him, showered him with many blows, breaking his skull, and finally thrust him into the place where all the refuse was thrown out and burned.
Most of the night had passed and on the Saturday after Pascha, April 19, 1012, was beginning to dawn. Suddenly St. Dunstan appeared to the man of God, his face and vestments shining gloriously, amidst sweet-smelling fragrance and the mellifluous chants of the saints. Stretching out his hands to St. Aelfheah, he announced to him his forthcoming death and the reward of eternal life laid up for him. Then his bonds were loosed, his wounds closed and his whole body was restored to perfect health.
On seeing these things, the guards were terrified. They told their fellows, who came rushing up to see the manifestation of God’s grace. Then the leaders of the Danish army, seeing their men deserting in droves to the man of God, hastily passed the sentence of death upon him, lest they should lose more through him than through a multitude of external enemies. The saint was bound and led to the place of judgement under a large armed guard. A great crowd of the faithful followed him, weeping and mourning. But he besought them not to hinder his struggle against the prince of this world, but to help him by their prayers.
He was only an arrow’s flight away when a vast murmur went through the whole council:
“Give us gold, bishop, or today you will be a spectacle to the world.”
The bishop was silent for a while from exhaustion, and stood still, supported reverently by the hands of his own people. Then, having recovered his breath, he replied:
“I offer you the gold of Divine wisdom. Abandon the vanity which you love, and devote your zeal to the one living, true and eternal God. But if you obstinately despise the counsel of God which is announced to you through me, you will suffer a worse fate than the death of Sodom.”
At that, the mob, unable to withstand the force of his words and foaming with rage, jumped up from their seats. However, Thurkill, one of the Danish leaders, on seeing the wicked men gathering their weapons to kill the saint, ran quickly and said:
“Do not do this, I beg you. I will give to all of you with a willing heart gold and silver and all that I have here or can get by any means, except only my ship, on condition that you do not sin against the Lord’s Anointed.”
Later, Thurkill, who had interceded for St. Aelfheah, together with forty-five of his ships transferred his allegiance from the Danes to the English and became a Christian. But the unbridled anger of his comrades, harder than iron or stone, was not softened by such gentle words. They knocked the saint down with the backs of their battle-axes, and then stoned him with the heads of oxen and showers of stones and blocks of woods. But he, bending his right knee on the earth, prayed thus:
“O Lord Jesus, Only-begotten Son of the Most High Father, Who camest into the world through the womb of an incorrupt Virgin to save sinners, receive me in peace and have mercy on these men.”
Then, falling to the earth and rising again, he said:
“O Good Shepherd, O only Shepherd, look with compassion on the sons of the Church, whom I, dying, commend to Thee.”
Then a man named Thrum, whom the saint himself had received from the font of Holy Baptism, seeing him in agony and on the edge of death, took his axe and clove his head through, thereby releasing his soul to eternal glory.
Immediately one of the Danish leaders was crippled in his limbs, and realized that he had sinned against Christ’s elect, as it is written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12.19).
St. Aelfheah was martyred at Greenwich, to the east of London, on the south bank of the river Thames. And the leaders of the Danes now threw his body into the river.
But then a crowd of people who had been taught by him took arms, determined to die rather than to allow the body through which they had received the mystery of Holy Baptism to be submerged in water. And so they guarded it, allowing it neither to be submerged nor to be buried. Then representatives of both parties met to resolve the dispute, and an agreement was reached. The Danes said:
“Look at this branch cut off from an ash-tree with neither sap nor bark. If we smear this with his blood and find it flowering in the morning, then we shall agree that we have killed a holy and righteous man, and you can bury him with honour.
But if the wood remains dry, then we shall say that you have erred in your love for him and the decision about what to do with the body will be ours.”
The next morning the dry wood was putting forth leaves. Seeing this, the Danes rushed to the holy body, embraced it with tears and groans, and then, taking it upon their shoulders, brought it to the tree in triumph. Here innumerable miracles took place: the sick were healed, the blind were given their sight, the deaf their hearing, the dumb their tongues. Then at the place of martyrdom a church was built (its Anglican successor still stands), and a multitude of leading Danes were baptized and received into the bosom of the Holy Church. Finally, Bishops Ednoth and Aelfhun and the citizens of London received his holy body, and brought it to London with all reverence, and buried it in St. Paul’s church, where miracles continued to the martyr’s glory.
On June 8, 1023, St. Aelfheah’s body was placed in an adorned royal barge, and then, escorted by the Danish King Canute, Archbishop Ethelnoth of Canterbury and other bishops and earls, was taken across the Thames first to Southwark and then to Rochester. Here the procession was joined by Queen Emma and her son, and “with much state and rejoicing and hymns of praise” the relics were conveyed to Canterbury. On June 15, the relics were enshrined by the bishops and clergy.”
Soon both dates – that of his martyrdom, and that of his translation – were entered into the calendar of the English Church. But soon after the Norman Conquest, his sanctity and status as a martyr was questioned by the first papist archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc. However, he consulted Anselm, his successor, about this, and Anselm replied that Aelfheah was a martyr for justice as St. John the Baptist had been a martyr for truth.
No truly Christian hierarch would have questioned Aelfheah’s sanctity. In any case, any residual doubts were removed by the discovery, in 1105, that his body was still incorrupt. For St. Aelfheah, ascetic, hierarch, patriot and martyr, deserved the highest accolade: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13).
St. Aelfheah is commemorated on April 19 and June 8.
Holy Hieromartyr Aelfheah, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Osbern of Canterbury, Vita S. Elphegi, in H. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, 1691, II,122-147; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 1009, 1010, 1011, 1012; Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicle; Fr. Andrew Phillips, Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, The English Orthodox Trust, 1995, chapter 78; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 13-14)
4. SAINT AELFHEAH “THE BALD”, BISHOP OF WINCHESTER
Our holy Father Aelfheah succeeded St. Birnstan as Bishop of Winchester in 934.
Nothing is known about his early life. Once, on the first day of Great Lent, he was exhorting his flock to live in abstinence and chastity. But one man mocked his words, and said that he would sleep with his wife that night. “You know not, wretched one, what the morning will bring,” said the holy man. The next morning, the man was found dead in his bed.
St. Aethelwold used to tell another story about St. Aelfheah’s zeal for observance of the fasts. There was a man who used to drink when he liked during Great Lent.
One day he asked the bishop to bless his cup. He refused, and the fool drank without the blessing and went out. By chance a bull was being baited outside; it rushed towards him and gored him to death…
This saint was the spiritual father of two other saints, Dunstan and Aethelwold, and it was he who ordained them both to the holy priesthood, together with another man named Athelstan. After the Divine Liturgy, he turned to the people and said: “I have ordained three priests today, two of whom will attain to the Episcopal dignity, one in my see, the other in another diocese.” Then Athelstan said: “Am I one of the two who will reach the Episcopal dignity?” “No,” said the bishop, “nor will you continue in the holy life in which you began.” And so it turned out…
St. Aelfheah reposed in peace in 951. He is commemorated on March 12.
Holy Father Aelfheah, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Saxon Priest B., Vita Dunstani; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 14)
5. SAINT AELGIFU, ABBESS OF SHAFTESBURY
Our holy Mother Aelgifu (Elgiva) was married to King Edmund of England (921-946), and was the mother of Kings Edwy and Edgar. She was renowned for her almsgiving, her wise counsel and her gift of prophecy – she correctly interpreted a prophetic dream in which the careers of her grandsons Kings Edward the Martyr and Aethelred the Unready were intimated, together with the pagan invasions that came near the end of the century. She founded the monastery at Shaftesbury, where she died and was buried in 944.
“Innumerable miracles” testified to her sanctity.
St. Aelgifu is commemorated on May 18.
Holy Mother of Aelgifu, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Ethelweard, Chronicle; William of Malmesburgy, Gesta Regum Anglorum, 13; Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, II, 86; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 128)
6. SAINT AETHELBERT, MARTYR-KING OF EAST ANGLIA
And those with him
St. Aethelbert (Ethelbert) was a direct descendant of the first Christian king of East Anglia, Redwald. His father was Aethelred the king, and his mother, also of noble stock, was called Leofruna. He was born, and reborn through the Mystery of Holy Baptism, in the year 779.
Having led a pious life from his childhood, St. Aethelbert succeeded to the throne on the death of his father. However, since he was young and without heirs, the court feared that he would fall prey to a foreign ruler; so they suggested that he choose a bride worthy of the royal rank. But he deferred his assent, saying that he had wished to lead a virgin life. Eventually, however, he bowed to the will of his counsellors; and, at the suggestion of an experienced man named Oswald, it was agreed that he should seek the hand of Aelfryth (Etheldritha), the daughter of King Offa of Mercia.
Only the Dowager-Queen Leofruna objected to this plan; for she feared the cunning of King Offa and the deceitfulness of the Mercians. But he said that he would abide by the decision of the whole council and go to Mercia. She then prophesied that he would remain a virgin and be martyred, which would in turn lead the king’s daughter to enter God’s service as a nun.
As Aethelbert was mounting his horse at the beginning of his journey, the earth shook terrifying the soldiers who accompanied him. Then they prayed to the Lord for the king and for themselves. The Dowager-Queen again expressed her fears. “But God’s will be done,” she said, “God’s will be done. Then there came another sign from heaven. Suddenly, in the middle of the journey, the sun, which had been shining brilliantly, was so darkened that the counsellors who were travelling with the king could not see each other and recognized each other by the sound of their voices alone. “To our knees,” cried the king to his stupefied counsellors, “let us pray to Almighty God that He may have mercy on us.” No sooner had he finished speaking than the air became completely clear. Joyfully the king chanted: “Blessed by the name of the Lord from henceforth and for evermore.” And then he added: “It is no little joy for travellers to have poems sung for them. So anyone who sings for us will receive the king’s armlet.” Immediately two men skilled in chanting took up a psalm with joy. They received their reward from the king.
The party was put for the night in the royal villa of Sutton Walls (Hereford and Worcester, where the king, in a vision of the night, saw everything that was to happen to him. For he saw the royal palace with its roof fallen in, and the Dowager- Queen weeping, and the garment he was wearing soaked in blood. In the middle of the royal city was a great beam, long and wide, reaching up to the sky, with blood flowing from its eastern part as if from a wound. But towards the south was a shining column of light extending to heaven. And he himself, changed into a bird, with golden wings outstretched, covered the whole beam, and flew above it, and heard a sweet-sounding voice coming as if from the throne of the All-Holy Trinity.
27 That was the vision. Then the king asked the above-mentioned Oswald what it might mean. He replied: Through the mercy of God the Father, O king, everything will turn out well for you.”
When the two kings met, they exchanged gifts, though Offa’s was given with guile. For he had heard a rumour that Aethelbert was intending to invade his kingdom, and so was filled with despondency. The next day Aethelbert hastened in his innocence to the guileful Offa. It happened that the king’s daughter Aelfryth saw him. Impressed, she said to her mother: “I think that he is worthy to be preferred to the king my father in all things.”
This angered her mother, who went to Offa and said: “The rumour you heard is now shown to be true, O king. Aethelbert is coming with a band of soldiers, determined to receive your daughter as his wife whether you like it or not. If you do not take precautions, he will invade your kingdom and expel you. Rise, take counsel with yourself and your men, and say, ‘Half my kingdom to him who delivers him up to be killed’.”
Aroused by these evil words, the king promised a great reward to the man who would trick Aethelbert into entering the king’s bedchamber. Then avarice entered the heart of one Winbert, and he said to the king: “No one will more easily carry out your commands, O king, than I. For King Aethelbert knows me, and will be certain to think of me as of a most trustworthy person. He will believe my words and yield to my counsel.”
And so, as the holy king descended from his horse, Winbert greeted him with a traitor’s kiss. And when the king said that he desired a suitable time and place in which to have a peaceful talk with King Offa, Winbert replied: “A messenger has already informed him of your arrival. He was told that the most worthy king of the East Angles wanted to visit him. And he said, ‘Whatever he desires of me he will obtain.’ But he is ill today.” “Let us go to King Offa,” said the king. “It is not right,” replied Winbert, “to go in to the king armed, when it is a time of peace. So disarm, O king, and enter in that way with your nobles.” So the holy king went in to the evil king with only a few nobles. The door was shut, and immediately they pounced on him from all sides, bound him and tortured him. Finally he was beheaded with his own sword by Winbert. Thus did the king, innocently destroyed on earth, ascend to the Heavenly Kingdom as a martyr.
The royal virgin Aelfryth saw the king’s dead body, and was horrified at the crime which had been prepared by her mother. “Why, O impious mother, did you rage against the innocent? You sharpened your tongue against him whose sacrifice is to be mourned by all good men, that tongue which you will shortly tear to pieces by the just judgement of God. And now the blood which has been innocently shed threatens your destruction. Let no further messenger announcing the embrace of a bridegroom come to me. I will offer my virginity to God. I think that I shall go to the island of Crowland, where I shall serve the Lord of all as a hermitess. And by the mercy of God I shall see him whose destruction on earth I lament crowned with glory and honour in the heavens.”
And so the holy virgin set off for Crowland, where, renowned for the prophetic gift with which the Lord had endowed her, she reposed in peace in the year 835. She is commemorated at Crowland on August 2.
Meanwhile, the counsellors returned to East Anglia and announced the news to Leofruna. She sorrowed greatly, but was also not a little comforted knowing that her son had gone to Christ through his glorious martyrdom.
King Offa now ordered the martyr’s head and body to be thrown into a marsh by the river Lugg as quickly as possible. But when his servants came to life the body they were amazed by its extraordinary lightness, and would not have carried out the king’s command if they had not been so terrified of his wrath. And when they threw the body into the marsh, a great column of light reached to heaven, lighting up the night and revealing the glory of the martyr.
Astonished by this miracle, Offa was led to repentance. In great fear, he ordered a tenth of all his possessions throughout the kingdom to be sold. “Who knows,” he said, “whether the Divine majesty will not be appeased, and greatly lessen my welldeserved punishment!” On the third day after his passion, the holy martyr Aethelbert appeared in a vision to a former chamberlain of Offa’s named Bertferth, and told him to go immediately to the river Lugg where a light would point out his body. Rising from sleep, Bertferth saw his chamber filled with light and him whom he had seen in his sleep only a little while before as if going out over the threshold of his house and seeking his body’s resting-place. Praising God, Bertferth rushed to arouse a certain Egmund, and asked him whether he had seen the light. When he said that he had not, Bertfert told him the vision, and said that the saint had ordered him to find his body, wash it, place it on a cart drawn by two oxen and take it to Hereford. He persuaded Egmund to help him, and the two, led by a light, found the body, washed it and wrapped it in linen. It took them somewhat longer to find the head, which was untainted by any odour of corruption. Having placed it in the cart, they set off for the designated place.
But then, in order that the glory of the martyr should be made manifest, the head fell off the cart. For just at that moment a very poor man who had been blind for eleven years was groping his way through that area. His stick struck the head, whereupon he stopped, bent down, felt the head, and, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, realized who it was. Then, prostrating himself and raising the holy head, he cried with faith: “O holy Aethelbert, the impious King Offa destroyed you: have mercy on me and by your pious intercession grant me sight.” Immediately his sight was restored to him. Joyfully thanking God, he hastened with the head towards the cart that was carrying the body. He caught up with the men at a place called Shelwick. “Stop, Bertferth, stop,” he cried. Then he told them about the miracle.
Bertferth and his companion were terrified by this tale, and marvelled that the head had fallen from the cart without their noticing it. But they saw in this the hand of God, and, joyfully praising the Lord, they brought the holy body to the place which the martyr had pointed out as his resting-place. There a column of light was seen on several occasions, and thither the faithful flocked from all sides, praying to be healed from all manner of illnesses through the saint’s intercession.
A certain king living in a distant region by the name of Milfet heard that the holy martyr-king was being glorified by many signs. Filled with love for the saint, he wanted his kingdom to be strengthened by the saint’s intercession. So he summoned a bishop and ordered him to go to the place where the martyr’s relics lay and inquire whether the report was true. The bishop came and found the place resounding to the sound of the saint’s miracles and all the people joyfully praising God for them. Then the king sent rich gifts for the building of a monastery there.
The holy Martyr-King Aethelbert was martyred, probably on May 20, his feastday, in the year 794. According to one report, his body remained at Hereford until it was burned by the Danes in 1050, while his head was buried at Westminster.
In the early twelfth century, however, William of Malmesbury said that the relics were still at Hereford.
Holy Martyr-King Aethelbert, pray to God for us!
(Sources: M.R. James, “Two Lives of St. Ethelbert, King and Martyr”, English Historical Review, XXXII, 1917, pp. 214-244; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 137, 139; 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)
7. SAINTS AETHELRED AND AETHELBRICHT, MARTYRPRINCES OF KENT
The holy princes Aethelred and Aethelbricht (Ethelbert) were the sons of King Ermenred of Kent and his queen Oslaf. When still young they were committed into the care of their cousin King Egbert, who became king in 664, and his queen, St.Sexburga. Their innocence and holiness of life offended one of the king’s counts, Thunor, who feared that if the young princes lived long they would supplant him in the king’s favour. So he began secretly to hate them, and to accuse them before the king, saying that if they lived they would deprive either him or his children of the kingdom. And he began to entreat the king for permission to king them. But the king refused, for they were dear to him and his family. Nevertheless, Thunor secretly killed the young princes one night in the king’s palace and hid them under the king’s throne, thinking that no-one would think of looking for them there.
However, when the king at dawn saw a beam of light stood up through the roof of the hall up to heaven, he ordered Thunor to be fetched and asked him what he had done with his cousins. Thunor answered that he knew where they were, but would not tell him unless he had to. But when the king adjured him by their friendship to reveal the secret, he told him that he had buried them in the king’s hall under his throne. Then the king was very disturbed, and after building a shrine for the princes, he summoned his counsellors and asked them what he should do. They, with the support of Archbishop Theodore, advised that the princes’ sister, Ermenburga, be summoned from Mercia, where she had been given in marriage, so as to fix the compensation due to the relatives of the princes for their murder. She fixed the compensation at eighty hides of land in the isle of Thanet.
Now when she and the king had gone to Thanet, he asked her to choose which part of the land she wanted in compensation. She replied: as much land as her deer, which always ran in front of her when she travelled, would run round. The king agreed, and they set off after the deer until they came to the place which was called Thunor’s leap. Then Thunor bowed to the king and said: “Sir, how long will you listen to this dumb animal, which will run round the whole of this land? Will you give it all to the queen?” At that moment the earth opened and swallowed him up.
Thus the king founded a monastery at Minster-in-Thanet, and Ermenburga became the first abbess.
The bodies of the martyr princes were translated to Wakering in Essex and then, towards the end of the tenth century, to Ramsey Abbey by St. Oswald of Worcester.
Holy Martyr-Princes Aethelred and Aethelbricht, pray to God for us!
(Sources: An Old English manuscript; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 140)
8. SAINT AETHELRED, MARTYR-KING OF WESSEX
St. Aethelred came to the throne of the kingdom of Wessex on the death of his brother Aethelbert in 865. His reign was short and full of sorrows and suffering.
Early in 871 the Great Army of the Vikings, having completed the conquest of East Anglia, crossed the Thames and entered the kingdom of Wessex. In two preliminary battles near Reading, the Christians were victorious, but then suffered defeat. Then under the leadership of King Aethelred and his younger brother Prince Alfred, they advanced to meet the Vikings at Ashdown.
Bishop Asser describes the ensuing battle thus: “The Vikings, splitting up into two divisions, organized shield-walls of equal size (for they then had two kings and a large number of earls), assigning the core of the army to the two kings and the rest to all the earls. When the Christians saw this, they too split up the army into two divisions in exactly the same way, and established shield-walls no less keenly. But as I have heard from truthful authorities who saw it, Alfred and his men reached the battlefield sooner and in better order; for his brother King Aethelred was still in his tent at prayer, attending the Divine Liturgy, and declaring firmly that he would not leave that place alive before the priest had finished the Liturgy, and that he would not forsake Divine service for that of men. And he did what he said. The faith of the Christian king counted for much with the Lord, as shall be shown more clearly in what follows…” Thanks to the piety and courage of King Aethelred, who fought against the two pagan kings, and of Prince Alfred, who fought against the earls, the Christians won a famous victory – the first over the Great Army. But it was not sustained. After another defeat at Basing, King Aethelred suffered a mortal wound and died after Pascha, on April 23, 871. A plaque can be seen where his grave was at Wimborne Minster.
Holy Martyr-King Aethelred, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, chapters 37-38; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 871)
9. SAINT AETHELWEALD, HERMIT OF FARNE
Our holy Father Aethelweald (Ethilwald) was a monk and priest of Ripon monastery, who succeeded the great St. Cuthbert in the Inner Farne hermitage in 687. The future Abbot Guthfrid of Lindisfarne related the following miracle worked by him: “I came to the island of Farne, with two others of the brethren, to speak with the most reverend father, Ethilwald. Having been refreshed with his discourse, and taken his blessing, as we were returning home, suddenly, when we were caught in the midst of the sea, the fair weather which was wafting over us was checked, and there ensued so great and dismal a tempest, that neither the sails nor oars were of any use to us, nor had we anything to expect but death. After long struggling with the wind and waves to no effect, we looked behind us to see whether it was practicable at least to recover the island from whence we came, but we found ourselves on all sides so enveloped by the storm, that there was no hope of escaping.
But looking out as far as we could see, we observed, on the island of Farne, Father Ethilwald, beloved of God, come out of his cavern to watch our course; for, hearing the noise of the storm and raging sea, he was come out to see what would become of us. When he beheld us in distress and despair, he bowed his knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in prayer for our life and safety; upon which the swelling sea was calmed, so that the storm ceased on all sides, and a fair wind attended us to the very shore. When we had landed, and had dragged upon the shore the small vessel that brought us, the storm, which had ceased a short time for our sake, immediately returned, and raged continally during the whole day; so that it plainly appeared that the brief cessation of the storm had been granted from Heaven at the request of the man of God, in order that we might escape.”
St. Ethilwald died on March 23, 699, and his name was immediately inscribed in the Calendar of Willibrord under April 21. He was buried in Lindisfarne next to the holy bishops, and shared their wanderings in the coming years. Florence of Worcester reported many miracles due to his intercession.
(Sources: Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, V, 1; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 142)
10. SAINT AETHELWOLD, BISHOP OF WINCHESTER
and those with him
Our holy Father Aethelwold was born in Winchester in about the year 912. When he was still in his mother’s womb, as Abbot Aelfric relates, “it seemed to her that she was sitting in front of the door of her house and that she saw a lofty banner whose top seemed to touch the sky. Bowing reverently, it surrounded the pregnant woman with its fringes. Similarly, while she was sleeping that same night, she saw as it were a golden eagle come out of her mouth and fly away. It was so big that the whole city seemed to be overshadowed by its gilded wings.”
The child was baptized and called Aethelwold. Once, on a certain feast day, his mother was at home holding the child in her lap. She wanted to go to church, but a wind arose that was so strong that she was unable to fulfil her intention. Then she set about praying earnestly. And suddenly she found herself sitting with the child in church during the Divine Liturgy.
As a boy, he was introduced into the court of King Athelstan, where he learned many useful things. But his mind was set on heavenly things. And so he was at length ordained to the priesthood together with St. Dunstan by St. Aelfheah, Bishop of Winchester.
After a period of instruction under St. Aelfheah, Aethelwold submitted himself in obedience to St. Dunstan at Glastonbury. As Wulfstan writes, Aethelwold “profited greatly from Dunstan’s teaching, and eventually received the habit of the monastic order from him, devoting himself humbly to his rule. At Glastonbury, he learned skill in the liberal art of grammar and the honey-sweet system of metrics… He was eager to read the best-known Christian writers, and was in addition constant in his vigils and prayer, taming himself by fasting and never ceasing to exhort his fellow monks to strive for the heights. He remained in obedience to St. Dunstan until his death.
It was while Aethelwold was prior of the monastery at Glastonbury that St.Dunstan had a prophetic dream about him. Wulfstan, a pupil of Aethelwold’s at Winchester, relates that Dunstan was sitting outside the monastery dormitory when he saw “a certain tree as if it were of wondrous height. It seemed to spread its branches east, west, north, and south, over the entire region of Britain, astonishingly extensive in its length and breadth. The branches of this tree were laden with countless cones, large and small, while the tree itself bore at the very top a huge cone which, rising above, protected the others with the covering of its scales, and surpassing them all together with its great height, touched the very sky. But the man of the Lord, Dunstan, very astonished by such a vision from above, questioned the elder adorned with white angelic hair, who was pointing this tree out to him, and said: ‘I beseech you, venerable elder, what is this strong and lofty tree whose branches spreading out far and wide seem to support so many countless cones?’ The elder answered him: ‘This tree which you see, Abbot Dunstan, represents the site of this island; moreover, the great cone which rises on the pinnacle of this tree represents your monk Aethelwold who serves Christ devoutly in this monastery.
Now the other cones with which these branches appear laden represent the multitude of monks who are to be instructed by his learning and who are to be gathered together in this area from all regions for the service of Almighty God.
Under his leadership they will reach the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven and the fellowship of the blessed spirits who reign with Christ.’ Having received this reply, the holy man awoke and reflected silently upon the vision, and afterwards made it known to the faithful by a true account. The report of the vision, spreading with the passage of time, became known to many and at length came also to my humble notice.
“And it was also no less fitting,” continues Wulfstan, “that another dream be fulfilled which Aethelwold, the holy man of God, once related to me concerning himself, saying: ‘I thought that I was standing by the sea shore where it seemed to me that there appeared a certain great ship, in which there was contained a plentiful number of fish, especially eels, heaped up from the bottom to the top. And when I silently considered the meaning of this vision which I saw, I suddenly heard a voice calling me by my own name, and saying to me: “Aethelwold, Aethelwold, this command has been sent to you by God from heaven: Call forth those fish, with which the ship that you perceive is filled, and bring it about by your prayers that they may be men, just as they were before.” Thereupon, complying with this command I stood before them to pray and overcome with a shower of tears, I said sighing: “Lord Jesus, for Whom nothing is impossible, look favourably upon these souls deceived by diabolical trickery, who have been alienated from the slimy mud of this world. I beseech Thee, Good Jesus, do not allow the enemy of the human race to glory in his triumph over them, but grant that, through the almighty power of Thy Name, they may be restored to life, so that, escaping the sleep of eternal death, they may acknowledge Thee as the true and only Saviour of the world, and thereafter, always fleeing towards the peaceful gate of salvation, may be rescued from all dangers of the world and remain secure under Thy governance. For it is Thine, O Christ, to make the dead live, and to restore to its former glory Thine own image which Thou hast created. Thou camest into this world to save sinners and having suffered the dreadful punishment of death on the Cross, Thou didst deign to pour forth Thy precious Blood for the salvation of us all.” When I uttered these and similar words of prayer with a remorseful heart and spirit of humility, behold the fish which I had seen before covered in the filthy mud and in the waters of misery, I suddenly saw made into men and revived from death. There arose from the ship and proceeded hastily to land a great multitude of men, many of whom I had known personally. One man among them who fell behind was transformed again into an eel. Without doubt he was that Athelstan, who had long ago been ordained priest with me, and whom thereafter I had been unable to rouse by any means or to bring it about that he might become a man. Indeed, all the others with one accord raised their voices to heaven, clapping their hands and offering thanks to Almighty God because through His ineffable mercy and my insignificant coming, they were worthy to be recalled from death to life and to be restored to human reasoning which they had lost. But I, rejoicing in God and wishing them joy, awoke, and thus I recall this vision for you, my children, so that with the labour of good works you may persevere in the holy purpose; whereby, through the grace of God, you are able to be counted in the number of those who have been entrusted to me, although I am unworthy, so that they may be freed from the unclean abyss of this world and be saved in eternal blessedness without end.’” After some time, the saint wished to go overseas to Cluny to learn more about the monastic life. However, the Dowager-Queen Aelgifu, King Edred’s mother, was against this (Aethelwold later sent the monk Osgar to Fleury instead of himself); and she persuaded here son to give Aethelwold the derelict monastery at Abingdon, together with a large area of land to support it. And so, with St. Dunstan’s blessing, the saint went to Abingdon, and set about rebuilding the monastery. He was ordained as abbot at the king’s request.
“Under Aethelwold,” writes Andrew Prescott, “Abingdon grew into a ‘glorious minster’. One of his first actions was to establish a school, and the future King Edgar studied there. Aethelwold’s reputation for sanctity and strict observance attracted men from all over the country to follow the monastic life at Abingdon. He established contact with reformers on the Continent, and sought to ensure that observance at Abingdon was in line with the most up-to-date Continental practice.
Monks from the reformed monasteries at Fleury and Corbie came to Abingdon to instruct their English counterparts in the forms of chanting. The monastery’s endowments were substantially increased, particularly by gifts of royal land. A magnificent new church was built, furnished in the most sumptuous fashion. A twelfth-century description of the church states that ‘the chancel was round, the church itself was also round, having twice the length of the chancel. The tower also was found.’ It has been suggested that this means that the church was an aisled rotunda, recalling the royal symbolism of the palatine chapel at Aachen. Aethelwold himself is said to have built the altar table, which was made of gold and silver, decorated with the sculpted figures of the twelve apostles. It cost the enormous sum of three hundred pounds. Also attributed to Aethelwold was a gold-plated wheel which supported twelve lamps and from which were suspended little bells. Other treasures of the church included three crosses of gold and silver, each four feet in length, and texts to adorn the church made of silver and precious stones. Most of these treasures were destroyed or dispersed after the Norman Conquest [in 1066]…” Once, as Abbot Aelfric relates, “the king came to the monastery to plan himself the structure of the buildings, and he measured out all the foundations of the monastery with his own hand, exactly as he had determined to erect the walls. Then the abbot invited him to dine in the refectory with his men. The king agreed immediately; and since there were several Northumbrians with him at the time, they all came with the king to the feast. The king was merry, and ordered mead to be supplied in abundance to the guests, having closed the doors so that no one could hurry away and leave the drinking at the royal banquet. The whole day the servers drew drink for the revellers in full measure, and yet a span’s depth remained until the Northumbrians were swinishly drunk and withdrew in the evening.”
Once a brother named Aelfstan (the future Bishop Aelfstan I of Ramsbury, who was martyred by the Danes in 1016) was ordered by the saint to provide food for the builders of the monastery. He very zealously prepared meat every day for the workmen, and personally served them, kindling the fire, fetching water and cleaning the vessels, while the abbot thought that he did all this with the help of a servant.
One day, while the abbot was wandering around the monastery as was his custom, he was Aelfstan standing by a boiling cauldron, preparing food for the workmen.
Then, entering the kitchen, he saw all the vessels spotless and the floor swept. Going up to Aelfstan, he said joyfully: ‘My brother, you have robbed me of this obedience which you practise without my knowledge. But if you are as much of a soldier of Christ as you seem, put your hand in the boiling water and draw out a bit of food for me from the bottom.’ Without hesitating, Aelfstan put his hand to the bottom of the cauldron and drew out a hot morsel, feeling no heat from the boiling water. When the saint saw this, he ordered Aelfstan to put down the food and reveal the miracle to no one.
Another time, the saint was working on the building when a huge post fell on him and threw him into a pit, breaking nearly all his ribs on one side. If the pit had not received him, he would have been completely crushed. However, with the help of God he recovered.
On November 29, 963, before the building at Abingdon was completed, Aethelwold was consecrated Bishop of Winchester by St. Dunstan at the king’s request.
On arriving at his see, Aethelwold found the Old Minster occupied by secular clergy, who, as Wulfstan writes, “were involved in wicked and scandalous behaviour, victims of pride, insolence and riotous living to such a degree that some of them did not think fit to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in due order. They married wives illicitly, divorced them, and took others; they were constantly given to gourmandising and drunkenness.’ With King Edgar’s permission, he expelled these clerics, and replaced them with monks from Abingdon. “Now it happened,” writes Abbot Aelfric, “that while the monks who had come from Abingdon were standing at the entrance to the church, the clerics inside were finishing the Divine Liturgy and singing the communion hymn: ‘Serve ye the Lord with fear, and rejoice in Him with trembling. Lay hold of instruction, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and ye perish from the righteous way.’ As if they were saying: ‘We could not serve God, nor observe His discipline; you at least act so that you not perish like us.’ And the monks, hearing the singing, said to each other: ‘Why are we waiting outside? Look, we are exhorted to enter.’” St. Aethelwold also came, together with a thegn of King Edgar’s called Wulfstan of Dalham. Wulfstan gave the clerics the royal ultimatum: either give place to the monks or become monks yourselves. The clerics, no lovers of the monastic life, decided to leave, although three of them, Edsige, Wulfsige and Wilstan, later accepted the monastic tonsure.
“Such ruthless action,” writes Prescott, “in pursuit of introducing new standards of religious life earned Aethelwold enemies, and there was afterwards at least one attempt to murder him. According to Wulfstan, the expelled canons plotted to poison Aethelwold and recover their old places. They poisoned Aethelwold while he was entertaining guests in his own hall. He managed to stagger to his bed, but became completely paralysed. [However,]… by bringing to mind declarations of Christ, such as that ‘if believers drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them’, Aethelwold found that the pain and paralysis caused by the poison gradually disappeared. He returned to the hall showing no signs of his terrible experience. The canons, recognising that they could not defeat Aethelwold, fled.”
However, they had not yet given up the fight. They appealed to the king, who in turn referred the matter to St. Dunstan, who then asked the king to convene a Council in Winchester. This took place in about the year 970 in the presence of the king and queen, nobles and clergy. The final decision was announced by St.Dunstan: ‘This Old Minster was founded as a habitation for monks. Let those who benefit from its revenues live henceforth as true monks.’ It is said that during the Council, when the possibility of restoring the secular clergy to the Old Minster was being discussed, a cross spoke from the wall: ‘Far be it from you! You have done well; to change again would be wrong.’ Besides this, the Council decided on the establishment of a slightly modified form of the Rule of St. Benedict, the Regularis Concordia (Agreement of the Rules), for all the monastics of England. Up to that time, there had been different versions of the rule in different parts of the country. But now a single Rule was agreed on to ensure that “all be of one mind as regards monastic usage… lest differing ways of observing the customs of one rule and one country should bring their holy conversation into disrepute’. The monks were to be under the patronage of the king, and the nuns – of the queen.
King Edgar supported Aethelwold’s reforms in Winchester, not only in the Old Minster, but also in the New Minster, as well as in the women’s Nunnaminster. “The three abbeys,” writes Eleanor Duckett, “stood on adjoining lands, the New Minster a little to the north of the Old, and the Nuns’ Minster a little on the east. Trouble was constant among them. They were jealous of possessions; they disputed the lines of their boundaries; they declared respectively that they could not sing their office in the proper manner because of the noise of chanting from their monastic neighbours.
King Edgar at Aethelwold’s petition issued an order for an exact division among them and even tore down the houses of private citizens nearby in order that space might be given for the monks of Winchester ‘for living more peacefully in God’s service, removed from the clamour of townspeople’. Such action was hard for the townspeople, yet Aethelwold in the end also did them untold good. With extraordinary imagination and practical skill he made his engineers and their workmen conduct a sorely needed supply of water by channels through the streets of Winchester to cloisters and to private homes alike.”
The influence of the holy bishop extended far beyond the bounds of the see of Winchester. Through his efforts, and with the help of King Edgar, three great monasteries of Eastern England, Peterborough, Ely and Thorney were revived; he placed his monk Godeman as abbot in Thorney. Land was bought and cleared, abbots of stricter discipline imported, and the veneration of forgotten local saints revived.
Duckett has described the re-founding of Thorney thus: “This ‘Isle of Thorns’ in the midst of the waters of the great marsh had once been, it was said, the home of three hermits, Tancred and Torhtred, and their sister, Tova, who settled to her prayer a little distance from them, in the heart of the thickets. They were following, we may think, in the line of a few adventurers in religion who had come in the seventh century from Medeshamstede [Peterborough], having gained permission from their abbot, Saxulf, to retreat into this deeper solitude. In the time of these brothers and their sister the Danes arrived to destroy. The tradition of Aethelwold relates that he bought the ruins the Danes had left from their owner, Aethelflaed [Ethelfleda], that he installed some monks – and the number is given as twelve – and built for them in 972-3 an abbey with its church, dedicating the altar at the east end to our Lady, the west end to Saint Peter, and a chapel in the north transept to Saint Benedict. This account points to an altar at either end, after Carolingian fashion.”
To Ely, which Edgar and Aethelwold refounded as a monastery for men, another Abingdon monk Brihtnoth, was brought as abbot. Ely was the home of the incorrupt body of St. Aethelthryth. However, not content with having the relics of St.Aethelthryth and her holy sisters Sexburga and Ermenhilda, Brihtnoth also desired the relics of the fourth sister, the hermitess St. Withburga. So, after fasting and prayer, he and some of his monks travelled to the little monastery of East Dereham in Norfolk, where St. Withburga had struggled. Then he carried off the holy relics, to the displeasure of the monks and citizens of Dereham.
St. Aethelwold probably also helped in the reform of monasteries at Milton (Dorset), St. Neot’s (Cambridgeshire) and Chertsey (Surrey).
But he never allowed church-building to get in the way of almsgiving. Thus during a famine he ordered the treasures of the Church to be broken down to make money for the poor, saying: “What is lifeless metal compared with bodies and souls created and redeemed by God?” The saint was a great patron of the arts. He built, according to David Hugh Farmer, “the most powerful organ of its time in England. It was played by two monks and had 400 pipes and 36 bellows… Even more important was the appearance in St. Aethelwold’s monasteries of the new influential Winchester style of illumination, which soon surpassed in excellence the products of the many scriptoria of continental monasteries. His school of vernacular writing at Winchester, of which Aelfric is the most famous example, was the most important of its time; its accurate translations, linguistically significant, were designed to meet the needs of bishops and clergy who were not themselves monks. In music Aethelwold’s Winchester had the distinction of producing the first English polyphony in the Winchester Troper.”
The most famous of the works of his school of illumination was The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold, which exists to this day. At the beginning of the book, the writer, Godeman, calls his master “Boanerges”, “son of thunder”. And he could indeed be very strict to the disobedient. But to the gentle and humble, says Abbot Aelfric, he was “gentler than a dove… He was a father of the monks and nuns, a comforter of widows and a restorer of the poor, a defender of churches, a corrector of those going astray, for he performed more by his work than we can relate in words.”
“He was often afflicted with illness in his bowels and legs, spending sleepless nights from pain, and nevertheless going about by day as if well, though pale. Yet he did not indulge in the flesh of animals and birds except once every three months, when forced by great infirmity – and this, moreover, he did at the command of Archbishop Dunstan – and again during the sickness from which he died. It was always a pleasure to him to teach young men and boys, and to explain books to them in English, and with kindly exhortations to encourage them to better things.
From this it came about that several of his pupils were made abbots and bishops in the English people.
“It happened once that his clerk, who had been appointed to carry his ampulla took less oil than was required, and even this he lost on the way. When the bishop came to their destination, and wished to have the chrism, he had none. Very troubled, the clerk then retraced the road he had come, and discovered the ampulla, which before had not been half full, lying full of oil.
“A monk serving him, Edwin by name, stole the purse of a guest, by the instigation of the devil. The bishop spoke to the whole congregation in chapter about this matter, saying that if anyone had taken it he should return it with his blessing, or throw it down in a place where it could be found. When three days had passed without the money being discovered, the bishop spoke again to all the brethren, saying: ‘Our thief would not return the stolen goods with our blessing, as we ordered; let him now return it with our curse; and let him be bound, not only in soul, but also in body, by our authority.’ What more need be said? The brethren said ‘Amen’, and, behold, the thief sitting there was bound wretchedly with his arms stuck to him beneath his cope, and remained thus bound until the third hour, pondering what he ought to do. Yet he had the power to move all his limbs except his arms, which the bishop had rendered useless by the power conferred on him by God. However, the wretched man arose thus bound, and going after the bishop, was constrained to confess that he had the thing secretly, saying nothing about his binding. Then the bishop said to him gently, as was his habit: ‘At least you have done well in confessing your crime now, although late; have then our blessing.’ And immediately his arms were loosed without the bishop knowing. But he went away gladdened by this and told everything about his binding and his release to a certain brother, Wulfgar by name, who advised that this should rather be kept hidden in silence.
“When the bishop wished to restore the old church with great effort, and ordered the brethren frequently to work alongside the workmen, it happened one day that while the monks were standing with the masons on the top of the roof of the church a monk named Goda fell from the top to the bottom. And immediately he touched the ground he got up without having suffered any injury from such a fall, and mounted to the work where he had stood before and seizing a trowel completed what he had begun. To whom therefore ought this miracle to be ascribed unless to him by whose order he went out to this work.
“Also a certain monk, Theodoric by name, went to the bishop in the nocturnal interval wishing to inform him by signs about a certain necessary matter, and discovered him reading with a candle, and sharpening his aged eyes by unremittingly blinking his eyelids; and he stood a long time marvelling at how diligently he kept his eyes fixed to the page. Then the bishop rose from his reading and that brother took the candle and began to read, trying to sharpen his sound eyes to the reading as diligently as the bishop had done his failing eyes. But that temerity did not go unpunished, for the following night, when he had given himself to sleep, there appeared to him someone of unknown countenance, saying to him with terrible threatening: ‘How dared you reproach the bishop in his reading last night?’ And, saying this, he struck him a blow in the eyes with his finger, and there immediately followed a violent pain in the eyes which afflicted him greatly for many days, until he obliterated by amends the fault which he had needlessly committed against the holy man.
“Again, it happened that when the bishop was reading he fell asleep from too many vigils, and the burning candle fell on the page and continued to burn on the leaf until a brother arrived and took the flaming candle from the book, and saw the glowing pieces of the candle lying on many lines inside, and when he blew them out he found the page undamaged…” The dedication, in 980, of the reconstructed Old Minster, was the occasion for a reconciliation between Saints Dunstan and Aethelwold and the other monastic reformers, on the one side, and the leaders of the anti-monastic reaction of the reign of King Edward, on the other. Thus Wulfstan writes that “it was dedicated solemnly and with great glory by nine bishops, of whom the first and most important, Dustan the Archbishop, and Aethelwold himself, the holy bishop, took precedence. From the 20th day of October in the presence of King Aethelred and in the assembly of almost all the earls, abbots, aldermen and foremost nobles of the entire English nation, they celebrated for two days that same dedication with universal joy.
Thereafter, his heavenly piety brought so much esteem to the holy bishop that those men, distinguished by secular power, princes, dukes, mighty lords, and judges, and all who until now were opposed to him and seemed to stand in the way of God, were suddenly changed as if from wolves into sheep and venerated him with wonderful affection. Bending their necks to their knees and kissing his right hand, they commended themselves in all things to the prayers of the man of God.”
Now the time came for St. Aethelwold to depart from this earthly life. Having arrived in a village called Beddington, some sixty miles from Winchester, he fell severely ill, and received the sacraments of Holy Unction and the Body and Blood of the Lord, Then, having said farewell to his spiritual children and blessed them, he reposed on August 1, 984.
And “those who were there,” writes Wulfstan, “have testified to me that the dead body of the holy man was altered by a sudden change: it was covered with a milkywhite radiance and was made beautiful with a rose-coloured glow. Thus, in a certain way, the countenance of a boy seven years old seemed to manifest itself, and then on this countenance a kind of glory of the resurrection appeared through the manifestation of his changed body.”
An enormous multitude from all classes of society came from the neighbouring villages and towns to say farewell to their beloved pastor. And when, on the following day, the funeral bier, surrounded by the Gospels, crosses and lighted candles, and accompanied by the chanting of psalms and hymns, entered Winchester, the whole city came out to meet the procession. The body of the saint was brought to his own Episcopal chair in the cathedral church of SS. Peter and Paul, where a vigil service and Divine Liturgy were celebrated; after which, writes Wulfstan, “he was buried in the crypt on the south side of the holy altar, where long ago it was shown to him from on high that he must rest, as he himself told me.”
“Twelve years after the saint’s repose,” continues Wulfstan, “it pleased God that Aethelwold should be revealed by heavenly signs and his bones taken up from the enclosure of the tomb so that the light which lay hidden under a bushel might be placed on a lampstand to shine for all those who are in the house of god. For there is a certain small city bustling with commerce that is usually called Wallingford, in which there lived a certain energetic man whose name was Elfhelm. Having lost his sight by accident, he patiently endured blindness for many years. The holy Bishop Aethelwold appeared to this man in his sleep at early dawn and urged him to go quickly to Winchester and to approach his tomb in order to receive the grace of sight, saying: ‘Therefore I visit you, lying in your bed, and I foretell the things that will happen to you so that by the sign of your cure it will be clear that I should be raised up from the tomb in which I lie.’ When he had heard this and had recognized the voice of the one who was speaking to him, he thanked the holy father because he deigned to visit him. And because Elfhelm was completely ignorant of where Aethelwold was buried, he diligently inquired how he would be able to recognize his tomb and approach it. The man of God immediately revealed to him the name of his former pupil and monk whom the blind man until now did not know, and said to him: ‘When you arrive in haste at Winchester and enter the church of the old monastery, summon a certain monk, Wulfstan, surnamed the Precentor. When he hears from your mouth the words of my message, he will then without hesitation lead you to my tomb and there you will receive your sight.’ What more is there to tell? Believing the words and promises of the holy bishop, that man went quickly to Winchester, entered the church, and summoned the aforesaid brother and asked him to grant the request of the holy father and tell him and all present the details of the vision. For it was the evening on which the birth of the most holy Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary is celebrated solemnly and most fittingly throughout the world. In truth, that brother was astonished and, wavering between hope and fear, he humbly submitted to the commands of the holy bishop with obedient steps and led the blind man to the chamber of the tomb. The blind man stayed there through the night in prayer, and when morning came, no longer needing a guide, he returned homewards with joy, having his sight and blessing the Lord with heart and soul.
“This revelation, which had been confirmed by so clear a miracle, was made known far and wide. Thereafter, the servant of Christ appeared clearly to the same brother Wulfstan and to many others in visions by night. Through these and other signs, he revealed himself to them because it was in accordance with the Divine will that he be transferred from his tomb and worthily placed in the church. Therefore, the venerable Bishop Aelfheah [the future hieromartyr archbishop of Canterbury], Aethelwold’s successor, privately studying these matters with keen understanding, rendered humble thanks with a fervent heart to Christ the Almighty because in his own time, He deigned to glorify His saint through His heavenly signs. Without delay, he honourably transferred the remains of the holy Bishop Aethelwold on Septembe 11th and placed them in the choir of the church. There they have been held in great veneration until the present day and there heavenly miracles have been performed even while we behold them. From these I have briefly related two as an indication of his power.
“At that time, there was in the city of Winchester a certain little girl, the daughter of one Ethelworth, who was exceedingly ill and who was tormented almost to death.
Led by her mother to the tomb of the man of God, the child went to sleep for a little while and immediately on awakening she rose sound in body, and returned home rejoicing with her mother.
“And likewise a certain little boy, son of one Elfsinus, a quiet and modest man, had been deprived of his sight in his infancy and was brought in his mother’s arms to the tomb of the venerable father Aethelwold. It is wonderful to say that the affliction of his blindness thereupon disappeared, and the brightness of light coming forth opened the boy’s eyes. All the people rejoiced and in complete devotion gave thanks to Christ.
“Nor must it be passed over in silence that the aforementioned successor of the saint, Bishop Aelfheah, had ordered a certain thief to be flogged with whips on account of his many offences and to be sent to the stocks to suffer severe punishment. And when the condemned one had for some time lain thus in torment, on a certain night the holy bishop of God, Aethelwold, came to him in a vision and said to him: ‘Wretched one, why do you lie thus stretched out in the stocks for so long a time?’ But he recognized the holy man whom he had often seen in his mortal life, and replied: ‘My lord, I endure a fitting punishment and am tormented thus by the just sentence of the bishop, because I have often been caught stealing and have not ceased from this, but again and again I have repeated the crimes which I committed.’ Then the saint said: ‘Stop even now, wretched one, stop thieving and be released from the bonds of these fetters.’ The wretched man, liberated, immediately arose and departing he went away and fell down before the feet of Bishop Aelfheah.
He told him in order what had happened to him, and for the sake of the honour of so great a father, the bishop allowed him to leave unharmed. Therefore it is certain that this saint, joined to eternal life, is able, by virtue of his merits, to free us from the bonds of our sins and to lead us to the Kingdom of heaven. For while he was still in the body, the power of binding and setting free had been granted to him from heaven by the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
St. Aethelwold is commemorated on August 1 and September 10.
Holy Father Aethelwold, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Abbot Aelfric, Vita Aethelwoldi, in Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents, London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1955; Denis Brearley and Marianne Goodfellow, “Wulfstan’s Life of Saint Aethelwold: A Translation with Notes,” Revue de l’Universite d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 397-407; Osbert, Vita Dunstani, in W. Stubbs, Memorials of St. Dunstan, Rolls series, 1874, p.113; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1016; Eleanor Duckett, Saint Dunstan of Canterbury, London: Collins, 1955; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 140-142; Andrew Prescott, The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold, London: The British Library, 2002, pp. 2-8)
11. SAINTS AIDAN, FINAN, EDBERT, EDFRITH AND ETHILWALD, BISHOPS OF LINDISFARNE
The Venerable Bede writes:- “As soon as he became king of Northumbria, the holy martyr-king, Oswald greatly wished that all the people whom he ruled should be imbued with the grace of the Christian Faith, of which he had received such signal proof in his victory over the heathen. So he sent to the Scottish elders among whom he and his companions had received the sacrament of Baptism when in exile, asking them to send him a bishop by whose teaching and ministry the English people over whom he ruled might receive the blessings of the Christian Faith and the sacraments. His request was granted without delay, and they sent him Bishop Aidan, a man of outstanding gentleness, holiness, and moderation. He had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, in that he kept Pascha in accordance with the customs of his own nation… For the northern province of the Scots and all the Picts still observed these customs, believing that they were following the teachings of the holy and praiseworthy father Anatolius, although the true facts are evident to any scholar. But the Scots in the south of Ireland had already conformed to the injunctions of the Bishop of the apostolic see, and learnt to observe Pascha at the canonical time.
“On Aidan’s arrival, the king appointed the island of Lindisfarne to be his see at his own request. As the tide ebbs and flows, this place is surrounded by sea twice a day like an island, and twice a day the sand dries and joins it to the mainland. The king always listened humbly and readily to Aidan’s advice and diligently set himself to establish and extend the Church of Christ throughout his kingdom. And while the bishop, who was not fluent in the English language, preached the Gospel, it was most delightful to see the king himself interpreting the word of God to his ealdormen and thanes; for he himself had obtained perfect command of the Scottish tongue during his long exile. Henceforward many Scots arrived day by day in Britain and proclaimed the word of God with great devotion in all the provinces under Oswald’s rule, while those of them who were in priest’s orders ministered the grace of Baptism to those who believed, Churches were built in several places, and the people flocked gladly to hear the word of God, while the king of his bounty gave lands; endowments were made to establish monasteries, and the English, both noble and simple, were instructed by their Scottish teachers to observe the monastic life.
“For most of those who came to preach were monks. Aidan himself being a monk sent from the island of Hii [Iona], whose monastery was for a long time the principal monastery of nearly all the northern Irish and all the Picts and exercised a widespread authority. The island itself belongs to Britain, and is separated from the mainland only by a narrow strait; but the Picts living in that part of Britain gave it to the Irish monks long ago, because they received the Faith of Christ through their preaching.
46 “It was from this island and from this community of monks… that Aidan was sent, when he had been made bishop, to preach the Faith of Christ to a province of the English. Among other evidences of holy life, he gave his clergy an inspiring example of self-discipline and continence, and the highest recommendation of his teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught. He never sought or cared for any worldly possessions, and loved to give away to the poor who chanced to meet him whatever he received from kings or wealthy folk. Whether in town or country, he always travelled on foot unless compelled by necessity to ride; and whatever people he met on his walks, whether high or low, he stopped and spoke to them. If they were heathen, he urged them to be baptized; and if they were Christian~ he strengthened their faith, and inspired them by word and deed to live a good life and to be generous to others.
“His life is in marked contrast to the apathy of our own times, for all who walked with him, whether monks or layfolk, were required to meditate, that is, either to read the Scriptures or to learn the Psalms. This was their daily occupation wherever they went; and if, on rare occasions, he was invited to dine with the king, he went with one or two clerics, and when he had eaten sparingly, he left as soon as possible to read or pray with them. Many devout men and women of that day were inspired to follow his example, and adopted the practice of fasting until the Ninth Hour on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, except during the fifty days after Pascha. If wealthy people did wrong, he never kept silent out of respect or fear, but corrected them outspokenly. Nor would he offer money to influential people, although he offered them food whenever he entertained them as host. But, if the wealthy ever gave him gifts of money, he either distributed it for the needs of the poor, as I have mentioned, or else used it ransom any who had been unjustly sold as slaves. Many of those whom he had ransomed in this way later became his disciples; and when they had been instructed and trained he ordained, them to the priesthood.
“It is said that when King Oswald originally asked the Scots to send a bishop to teach the faith of Christ to himself and his people, they sent him another man of a more austere disposition. After some time, meeting with no success in his preaching to the English, who refused to listen to him, he returned home and reported to his superiors that he had been unable to achieve anything by teaching to the nation to whom they had sent him, because they were an ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament. The Scots fathers therefore held a great conference to decide- on the wisest course of action; for while they regretted that the preacher whom they had sent had not been acceptable to the English, they still wished to meet their desire for salvation. Then Aidan, who was present at the conference, said to the priest whose efforts had been unsuccessful: ‘Brother, it seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ. At this the faces and eyes of all who were at the conference were turned towards him; and they paid close attention to all he said, and realized that here was a fit person to be made bishop and sent to instruct the ignorant and unbelieving, since he was particularly endowed with the grace of discretion, the mother of virtues. They therefore consecrated him bishop, and sent him to preach. Time was to show that Aidan was remarkable not only for discretion, but for the other virtues as well.”
“Almighty God made known the greatness of Aidan’s merits by the evidence of miracles, of which it must suffice to mention three in his memory. A priest named Utta, a truthful and serious man, who on that account was generally respected by all, even by worldly princes, was sent to Kent to bring back Eanfled as wife for King Oswy: she was the daughter of King Edwin and had been taken to Kent when her father was killed. Intending to make the outward journey by land and to return with the princess by sea, he went to Bishop Aidan and asked him to pray for him and his companions as they set out on their long journey. When Aidan had blessed them and commended them to God, he gave them some holy oil, saying: When you set sail, you will encounter a storm and contrary winds. Remember then to pour the oil that I am giving you on to the sea, and the wind will immediately drop, giving you a pleasant, calm voyage and safe return home. Everything happened as the bishop foretold. In a rising gale, the sailors dropped anchor, hoping to ride out the storm.
This proved impossible; for the roaring seas broke into the ship from every side, and it began to fill. Everyone felt that his last hour had come, when at last the priest remembered the bishop’s words. He took out the flask of oil, and poured some of it over the sea, which immediately ceased its raging as Aidan had foretold. So it came about that the man of God through the spirit of prophecy both foretold the storm and, although absent, calmed its fury. The story of this miracle is no groundless fable; for it was related to me by a most faithful priest of our own church, who had it from the mouth of the priest Utta, on and through whom the miracle was performed, “Another notable miracle of the same father Aidan is told by those in a position to know the facts. While he was bishop, Penda and his enemy army of Mercians spread ruin far and wide throughout the lands of the Northumbrians and reached the very gates of the royal city, which takes its name from Ebba, a former queen. Unable to enter it either by force or after a siege, Penda attempted to set fire to it. Pulling down all the neighbouring villages, he carried to Bamburgh a vast quantity of beams, rafters, wattled walls, and thatched roofs, piling it high around the city wall on the landward side. Directly the wind became favourable, he set fire to this mass, intending to destroy the city. Now, while all this was happening, the most reverend Bishop Aidan was living on Farne island, which lies nearly two miles from the city and which was his retreat when he wished to pray alone and undisturbed: indeed, his lonely hermitage can be seen there to this day.
“When the saint saw the column of smoke and flame wafted by the winds above the city walls, he is said to have raised his eyes and hands to heaven, saying with tears: ‘Lord, see what evil Penda does!’ No sooner had he spoken than the wind shifted away from the city, and drove back the flames on to those who had kindled them, so injuring some and unnerving all that they abandoned their assault on a city so clearly under God’s protection: “Death came to Aidan when he had completed sixteen years of his episcopate, while he was staying at a royal residence near the capital [in the year 651]. Having a church and lodging there, Aidan often used to go and stay at the place, travelling about the surrounding countryside to preach. This was his practice at all the king’s countryseats, for he had no personal possessions except his church and a few fields around it. When he fell ill, a tent was erected for him on the west side of the church, so that the tent was actually attached to the church wall. And so it happened that, as he drew his last breath, he was leaning against a post that buttressed the wall on the outside. He passed away on the last day of August, in the seventeenth year of his episcopate, and his body was soon taken across to Lindisfarne Island and buried in the monks’ cemetery. When a larger church, dedicated to the most blessed Prince of the Apostles, was built there some while later, his bones were transferred to it and buried at the right side of the altar in accordance with the honours due to so great a prelate.
“Finan, who had also come from the Scottish island and monastery of Iona, succeeded him as bishop and held the office for a considerable time. Some years later, Penda, King of the Mercians, came to these parts with an invading army and destroyed everything that he found with fire and sword; and he burned down the village and the church where Aidan had died. But in a wonderful mariner, the beam against which he was leaning at his death was the only object untouched by the flames which devoured everything around it. This miracle was noticed and a church was soon rebuilt on the same site, with the beam supporting the structure from the outside as before. Sometime later in another fire, caused this time by carelessness, the village and church were again destroyed, but even on this occasion the beam remained undamaged. For, although in a most extraordinary way the flames licked through the very holes of the pins that secured it to the building, they were not permitted to destroy the beam. When the church was rebuilt for the third time, the beam was not employed as an outside support again, but was set up inside the church as a memorial of this miracle, so that those who entered might kneel there and ask God’s mercy. Since that day many are known to have obtained the grace of healing at this spot, and many have cut chips of wood from the beam and put them in water, by which means many have been cured of their diseases.”
St. Aidan’s body was translated to Lindisfarne. He is commemorated on August 31 and October 8.
Our holy Father Finan was an Irishman trained on Iona who succeeded St. Aidan as bishop of Lindisfarne in 651. A zealous and learned bishop, he worked closely with King Oswy of Northumbria and sponsored the important missions to Mercia and Essex. He reposed in 661 and is commemorated on February 17.
Our holy Father Edbert became bishop of Lindisfarne in 688. A very learned and generous man, he gave a tenth of his livestock, grain, fruit and clothing to the poor every year. Every year, like his predecessor, he would retire for the whole of Great Lent to the island of Farne in the North Sea. During Lent in the year 698, he told the monks to uncover the relics of St. Cuthbert, which were found to be completely incorrupt. Then they brought some of the garments that had clothed the holy body to St. Edbert in Farne, and he, kissing them, said: “Let the body be put into new garments in place of those you have brought, and so lay it into the coffin you have provided. For I am certain that the place will not long remain empty, having been sanctified with so many miracles of heavenly grace.
And how happy is he to whom our Lord, the Author and Giver of all bliss, shall grant the privilege of lying in the same.”
Having said this and much more with many tears and great humility, the bishop told the brothers to depart and do as he had commanded them. And when they had dressed the body in new garments, and laid it in a new coffin, they placed it on the pavement of the sanctuary. Soon after, Bishop Edbert fell ill, and on May 6, 698 he departed to the Lord. And they laid his body in the grave of St. Cuthbert, placing over it the coffin containing the incorrupt relics of that saint. And many miracles testified to the holiness of both saints. In 875 his relics were carried with those of St.Cuthbert through Northumbria until they found rest in Durham in 995. He is commemorated on May 6.
St. Edbert was succeeded as bishop by St. Edfrith, who had studied in Ireland and was an accomplished scribe, artist and calligrapher. It is probably he who wrote the famous Northumbrian Gospels, which are now in the British Museum, in honour of St. Cuthbert. To him was dedicated the Anonymous life of St. Cuthbert, and he it was who invited the Venerable Bede to write his life of the same saint. He restored from the foundations the oratory in which St. Cuthbert had struggled on Farne. He died in 721 and was buried near St. Cuthbert’s tomb. His relics, too, were taken round Northumbria together with those of St. Cuthbert and laid to rest in Durham in 995. In 1104 his relics were translated with St. Cuthbert’s into the new cathedral in Durham. He is commemorated on June 4 together with all the early bishops of Lindisfarne.
St. Edfrith was succeeded by St. Ethilwald, a Northumbrian who became a monk, and later prior and abbot, at Melrose. He was a disciple of St. Cuthbert. He caused a stone cross to be made, the top of which was broken off by the pagans when they destroyed the church at Lindisfarne. However, the top was reunited to the rest of the cross with lead, and was later always carried about together with the bodies of St.Cuthbert and his successors, “and honourably regarded by the people of Northumbria out of regard to these two holy men” (Simeon of Durham). St.Ethilwald reposed in 740. In the tenth century his relics were translated to Westminster by King Edgar. He is commemorated on February 12 and April 21.
Holy Fathers Aidan, Finan, Edbert, Edfrith and Ethilwald, pray to God for us!
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, book III Life of St. Cuthbert; Simeon of Durham, History of the Church of Durham; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p, p. 6-7, 117, 119, 142, 150)
12. SAINT AILWIN, HERMIT OF ATHELNEY
Our holy Father Ailwin (Ethelwin) was the brother of King Cenwalh of Wessex and founder of the Abbey of Athelney in the seventh century. He suffered from illness all his life. However, after his death he worked many healings for those who sought his intercession.
(Sources: William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, II, 92; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 140)
13. SAINT ALBAN, PROTOMARTYR OF BRITAIN
The martyrdom of St. Alban, the protomartyr of Britain, took place on June 22, probably in the year 209. He was killed by the Caesar Geta, the younger son of the Emperor Septimius Severus, who was campaigning against the Scots at that time.
Alban was probably a high-born native of Verulamium, now St. Alban’s, and a Roman citizen.
“This Alban,” writes the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, “who was as yet a pagan, received into his house a certain priest fleeing from persecution at the time when the commands of the heathen emperors were raging against the Christians.
Seeing that this man applied himself night and day to constant prayer and vigils, and influenced by God’s grace, he began to imitate his example of faith and piety.
Gradually he was taught by the man’s salutary encouragement, and relinquishing the darkness of idolatry became a whole-hearted Christian. While the aforementioned priest was being entertained in his house for some days, news reached the ears of the impious prince that one of Christ’s confessors, for whom the role of martyr had not yet been assigned, was lying low in the house of Alban. As a result he straight away ordered soldiers to make a careful search for him. When they came to the martyr’s cottage, St Alban soon showed himself to the soldiers in place of his guest and mentor, dressed in the man’s clothes, the hooded cloak that he wore, and was led off to the judge in bonds. It happened that at the time Alban was brought to him the judge was offering sacrifices to the pagan gods at the altars.
When he saw Alban, he became enflamed with anger at the fact that Alban had ventured to offer himself of his own free will to the soldiers in place of the guest he had harboured, and thus to expose himself to danger . He ordered him to be dragged to the images of the gods before which he stood and said: `Since you preferred to conceal that profane rebel rather than surrender him to the soldiers so that he might pay the penalty he deserves for his blasphemy and contempt of the gods, you will suffer the penalty for which he was due if you attempt to reject the rites of our religion.’ But St Alban, who had voluntarily given himself up to the persecutors as a Christian, was not in the least afraid of the prince’s threats. Rather, being girded with the armour of spiritual warfare, he openly declared he would not obey his commands. Then the judge said: `Of what house and stock are you?’ Alban replied: `What business is it of yours of what lineage I am born? If on the other hand you desire to hear the truth of my religion, know that I am now a Christian and devote myself to Christian service.’ The judge said: `I seek your name, so tell me it without delay.’ The other replied: `The name given me by my parents is Alban, and I revere and ever worship the true living God, Who created all things.’ Then, filled with anger, the judge said: you wish to enjoy the blessings of a long life, do not refuse to offer sacrifice to the great gods.’ Alban replied: `These sacrifices which you offer to the pagan gods can neither help their recipients nor fulfil the wishes and desires of those praying. Rather, whoever offers sacrifice to these images shall receive as his reward the eternal punishment of Hell.’ When the judge heard this, he was roused to great fury and ordered the holy confessor of God to be beaten by the torturers in the belief that since words had failed, he could weaken the constancy of his heart with the lash. Though afflicted in most cruel torture, AIban bore it with patience and even with joy for God’s sake, and when the judge realised that he could not be overcome by torture or enticed from the rites of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be beheaded.
“As he was being led to his death, Alban came to a river which separated the town from the place of his execution by its very swift course. There he saw a large crowd of people, both men and women of all ages and social class, who were clearly drawn by divine impulse to follow the blessed confessor and martyr. They filled the bridge over the river to such an extent that they could scarcely all get over before nightfall. Indeed since almost all had gone forth, the judge was left in the city without any attendants. So, St Alban, in whose mind was a burning desire to come quickly to his martyrdom, approached the torrent, and raising his eyes to heaven, he saw the bed of the river instantly dry up and the water withdraw and make a path for his steps. When the executioner himself saw this along with others, he hastened to meet Alban when he came to the place appointed for his execution, doubtless urged on in this by divine impulse. Casting away the sword he held ready drawn, he threw himself at his feet and earnestly desired that he himself be thought worthy of being executed either with the martyr he was ordered to slay or in his place . . .
“So while he was turned from a persecutor into a companion in the true faith, and while there was a very proper hesitation among the other executioners in taking up the sword which lay on the ground, the most reverend confessor ascended the hill with the crowds. This hill lay about five hundred paces from the arena, and, as was fitting, it was fair, shining and beautiful, adorned, indeed clothed, on all sides with wild flowers of every kind; nowhere was it steep or precipitous or sheer but Nature had provided it with wide, long-sloping sides stretching smoothly down to the level of the plain. In fact its natural beauty had long fitted it as a place to be hallowed by the blood of a blessed martyr. When he reached the top of the hill, St. Alban asked God to give him water and at once a perpetual spring bubbled up, confined within its channel and at his very feet, so that all could see that even the stream rendered service to the martyr. For it could not have happened that the martyr who had left no water remaining the river would have desired it on the top of the hill, if he had not realized that this was fitting. The river, when it had fulfilled its duty and completed its pious service, returned to its natural course, but it left behind a witness of its ministry. And so in this spot the valiant martyr was beheaded and received the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him. But the man who set his unholy hands upon that pious neck was not allowed to rejoice over the death: for his eves fell to the ground along with the head of the blessed martyr. Beheaded too at that time was the soldier who previously had been impelled by the will of Heaven to refuse to strike the holy confessor of God . . . Then the judge, daunted by such great and unprecedented heavenly miracles, soon ordered a halt to the persecution.
He was beginning, in fact, to pay honour to the slaughter of saints, through which he previously believed he could force them to give up their allegiance to the Christian faith. The blessed Alban suffered on the 22nd of June near the city of Verulamium… Here when peaceful Christian times returned, a church of wonderful workmanship was built, a worthy memorial of his martyrdom. To this day sick people are healed at this place and the working of frequent miracles to bring it renown.
“About this time there also suffered Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon, and many others, both men and women, in various places. They were racked by many kinds of torture and their limbs were indescribably mangled but, when their sufferings were over, their souls were carried to the joys of the Heavenly City.”
The Turin MS of Constantius’ Life of St. Germanus says that after St. Alban’s death, “the evil Caesar, aghast at such wonders, ordered the persecutions to end, without the orders of the emperors, setting down in his report that the religion actually prospered from the slaughter of the saints…”
In the fifth century, Saints Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes prayed at the shrine of St. Alban, and through the influence of St. Germanus several French churches and villages were named after him. Nine ancient English churches were dedicated to him.
By tradition, the name of the priest whom St. Alban sheltered is known to have been Amphibalus. He also received the crown of martyrdom (although this is disputed), and it is claimed that his relics were recovered at Redbourn in 1177.
Churches were dedicated to Saints Julius and Aaron in and near Caerleon.
In about 794 an angel appeared to King Offa of Mercia 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.
As Robert Thornsberry writes, “During the invasions of the pagan Danes, they [the relics of St. Alban] were removed for safekeeping. This later led to a shameful altercation between the monks of St. Albans and Ely that lasted for centuries. After the conquest [of 1066], the Normans, in order to impress the populace with their reverence for the island’s saints, repaired and rebuilt the cathedral. Early in the fourteenth century, a new chapel and an elaborate shrine were constructed to house the relics. In the sixteenth century, the impious hands of the minions of Henry VIII destroyed the shrine during the dissolution of the monasteries. I do not know what became of the relics. Many years later, the shrine was laboriously pieced back together from the approximately two thousand fragments into which it had been smashed, and now stands in its former glory in the Anglican cathedral of St.Alban’s.
Holy Martyr Alban, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Gildas, On the Destruction of Britain; Bede, History of the English Church and People, I, 7; 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; Robert Edward Thornsberry, “Saint Alban, Protomartyr of Britain”, Living Orthodoxy, vol. V, no. 3, May-June, 1983, pp. 5-7; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon, 1978, pp. 8-9, 16, 227-228; Fr. Panagiotis Carras)
14. SAINT ALCMUND, MARTYR-KING OF NORTHUMBRIA
The holy Martyr Alcmund was the son of Alchred and the brother of Osred, kings of Northumbria. He succeeded on the throne of Northumbria after the murder of his brother, and ruled with great humility and love, being a liberal father to the poor, the orphans and the widows. But he always longed to die for Christ, and this the Lord in His goodness granted him… In 802, Alderman Athelmund of the Hwicce (South-West Mercia) was enraged against the men of Wiltshire and threatened to invade that territory. On hearing this, King Alcmund, who had the intention of going to Wiltshire to protect some lands that he possessed there, called the two warring sides together and urged them to peace. The Mercians were persuaded to return home; but in their hearts they were not pacified, and they soon returned with a large army.
At this juncture the men of Wiltshire called on Alcmund to help them. And he wishing to die for Christ, and remembering the words of the Lord: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”, consented to their desire. In the ensuing battle, which took place in about 800, the Wiltshire men won, but both of the leaders and Alcmund were killed. (According to another account, St.Alcmund was killed by King Eardwulf of Northumbria.)
The place where the holy king fell was the scene of many miracles. His body was transferred to the ancient church of Lilleshall, and then later to the White church in Derby. This was the scene of further miracles. The sick, the deaf, the blind and those suffering from various diseases were brought to the tomb, and there they received healing through the intercession of St. Alcmund. Some years later, when, at the request of many of the faithful, the priests of this church raised the holy relics, a most beautiful fragrance issued from the tomb. This fragrance persisted for a long time, as the people praised and glorified God and his holy martyr. However, when a certain unbeliever entered the church and started to behave in an impious manner, the fragrance suddenly ceased.
St. Alcmund is commemorated on March 19.
Holy Martyr-King Alcmund, pray to God for us!
(Sources: P. Grosjean, “De Codice Hagiographico Gothano, Appendix: Vita S. Aelkmundi Regis”, Analecta Bollandiana, vol. LVIII, 1940, pp. 178-183; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 10; David Harrison, England Before the Norman Conquest, Ipswich: Hadden Best, p. 257)
15. SAINT ALDHELM, BISHOP OF SHERBORNE
Our holy Father Aldhelm was born in about 639. His father was called Kenter and was from the royal family of Wessex in Southern England. When he was still a boy, his father sent him to be trained in Greek and Latin letters at the monastery of St.Augustine in Canterbury. Some years later Aldhelm returned to his native Wessex and when he was about twenty-two received the monastic tonsure in the monastery of Malmesbury, which had been founded by the Irishman Maeldub in about 635. At one point he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Eleutherius of Wessex.
In 671, Aldhelm returned to Canterbury to study in the famous school of St.Adrian, who was described by Bede as “very learned in the Scriptures, experienced in ecclesiastical and monastic administration and a great scholar in Greek and Latin.”
Here, in addition to the Holy Scriptures, the ecclesiastical subjects and Greek, Latin and Hebrew, he studied Roman law, music, arithmetic and a hundred different kinds of poetic metre. Soon he acquired a high reputation as a writer of both prose and poetry. Bede praised his works, and two hundred years later King Alfred considered his poetry, which was still being sung, as “superior to all other English poetry”. There is a story that he used to attract believers to his church in Frome by singing songs to a harp accompaniment on the bridge over which they passed. First he would sing popular ballads, and then, when he had caught the people’s attention, he would introduce words of a more serious nature.
Aldhelm was forced to return home from Canterbury because of illness, and in 675 was elected abbot of Malmesbury on the death of Maeldub. One of his first achievements was to replace the wooden church built by Maeldub by a splendid stone one dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. We still possess the verses he composed to celebrate the consecration. He also built two more churches in Malmesbury dedicated to the Mother of God and the Archangel Michael. The latter was still standing in the twelfth century, and William of Malmesbury described it as excelling in size and beauty every other ancient church in England.
The Mercian and West Saxon kings and nobles gave many endowments to Aldhelm. This enabled him to build daughter monasteries and churches at Bradfordon- Avon (dedicated to St. Lawrence, which has survived almost intact to this day), Frome (to St. John the Baptist), Wareham (to St. Martin), Bruton (to St. Peter), Abingdon, Sherborne, Langton Matravers and Corfe. He also persuaded King Ina of Wessex to refound the monastery at Glastonbury.
Aldhelm lived a life of great asceticism in his monastery, struggling in prayer, fasting and reading. Like several of the British saints, he used to read the whole of the Psalter at night standing in a pool, which afterwards came to be called by his name. At the same time he continued his educational and literary activity, and we possess the treatise On Virginity which he presented to St. Hildelitha, abbess of Barking.
He was also renowned for the grace of wonderworking. Once, during the building of the church of St. Mary in Malmesbury, the workers noticed that one of the beams which had been transported a long distance for integration into the structure was too short. This was a blow, because it would have been a great labour and expense to bring another beam of the right size to the site. Aldhelm, however, nothing daunted, succeeded in lengthening the beam to the required size by his prayers alone. It is said that, during two fires that destroyed the whole monastery during the reigns of Kings Alfred and Edward, this beam suffered no damage, and finally perished through age and dry rot.
Aldhelm now decided to go to Rome to obtain privileges for his monasteries from the Pope. On the way, he stopped at his estate in Dorset and built a church in Wareham (which still survives). William of Malmesbury relates of this church that in the twelfth century it was roofless, but that the shepherds of the district would crowd into it during storms because they believed that it never let the rain in. The spirit of Aldhelm watched over it, they claimed, and all attempts to re-roof it by nobles of the province failed. And even more miracles took place through his intercession at this church in Wareham than at his monastery in Malmesbury, where his relics lay.
Aldhelm arrived in Rome and was housed in the Lateran palace by Pope Sergius I. Every day he would celebrate the Divine Liturgy, and one day, having celebrated the Liturgy and being still with his thoughts caught up to heaven, he cast his chasuble behind him. The acolyte who was serving him was occupied in another part of the altar and did not catch it. But the chasuble remained miraculously suspended in thin air, hanging as it were on a sunbeam that was passing through the stained window. This chasuble was brought back to England and in the twelfth century still remained with no trace of corruption in the monastery of Malmesbury.
While Aldhelm was still in Rome, a boy was born in the house of the Pope’s chamberlain. It was rumoured that the mother was a nun and was concealing the identity of the father. Soon the Pope was being accused of having fathered the child, and the scandal reached such proportions that it reached the ears of Emperor Justinian II in Constantinople and an ecclesiastical trial was initiated. But at this moment Aldhelm came to the defence of the Pope. “What would they say in Britain,” he said, “or in some other country, if it was known that the Roman Pontiff was being thus assailed by his own citizens?” Then he ordered the child to be brought so that he could dispel the slander from his own mouth. But the people derided him. How could a nine days’ old child who had not yet been baptized tell the truth about his parentage? Nevertheless, by the power of God the child spoke up in a completely clear voice and declared that Pope Sergius was a virgin. The Pope was triumphantly vindicated, and Aldhelm praised. The saint was then asked whether he could reveal the identity of the true father. But he refused, saying that if he could he would rescue the innocent, but he would not condemn the guilty to death.
Then, by a bull dated about 701 that is still in existence, Pope Sergius granted Aldhelm’s monasteries at Malmesbury and Frome exemption from episcopal jurisdiction. No priest, whatever his status, was allowed to celebrate the Liturgy in the monastic churches without the permission of the abbot, and when the abbot died the monks were to elect his successor. This charter was later confirmed by Kings Ina of Wessex and Aethelred of Mercia, both kings agreeing that in the event of war between their kingdoms the monasteries would be left in peace.
Aldhelm returned home loaded with holy relics and a wonderful altar made of finest white marble. It is said that a camel was carrying it as far as the Alps, but the animal slipped and was crushed by the altar, which itself broke into two pieces. The saint made the sign of the cross and lo! both the camel and the altar were immediately restored. On his return Aldhelm gave the altar to King Ina, who placed it in the church of St. Mary at Bruton. In the twelfth century the crooked flaw in the marble of the altar was still visible as a witness to the miracle.
A great crowd greeted the saint as he disembarked in England. There was general rejoicing that the light of Britain had returned. And on the repose of St. Hedda, bishop of Winchester, in 705, the diocese was divided into two and Aldhelm was elected bishop of the western half, with his see at Sherborne. The saint at first refused, saying that he was too old and wanted to end his days quietly at Malmesbury. But the council replied that with his age came greater maturity and freedom from vice.
So the saint finally yielded and went to Canterbury for his consecration at the hands of Archbishop Bertwald. While in the east of the country he made a trip to Dover, where ships came in from the continent laden with all kinds of merchandise.
Finding a complete copy of the Old and New Testaments, he offered a price for it to the sailors. But they rejected his offer, jeered at him and set out to sea. But a storm immediately arose, they found themselves in danger, and stretched out their hands to the man of God on the shore. He prayed, and the storm immediately abated, the wind turned, and the sailors returned to shore. In gratitude they offered him the manuscripts free, but he insisted on giving them a fair price. The manuscripts were still to be seen in Malmesbury in the twelfth century.
At about this time the Celtic Christians of Cornwall became tributaries of King Ina of Wessex, and a council was convened by the king to determine how best to unite the Churches of the Saxons and the Britons, which were divided by a dispute over the true date of Pascha. Aldhelm was appointed to write a letter to King Geraint of Cornwall on the subject, which is still extant. He was successful, and the Celts of Cornwall adopted the Roman-Byzantine Paschalion (those of Wales were converted some years later).
Also at this time Aldhelm wrote a letter to the monks of St. Wilfrid, the exiled bishop of York and Hexham, exhorting them to remain faithful to their leader in his struggle for the sacred canons.
Aldhelm ruled his diocese for another four years. He preached day and night, travelling ceaselessly. At Sherborne he built a fine cathedral, and he continued to administer his monasteries at Malmesbury, Bradford-on-Avon and Frome.
Once while he was preaching in a village, he fixed his ashen staff into the ground.
It grew miraculously and put forth boughs and leaves. The bishop was concentrating on his sermon and did not notice the miracle. But when the people drew his attention to it, he gave glory to God and left an offering there. Later, many other ash trees sprang from this original, to the extent that the village was called Bishoptrees (now Stoke Orchard in Gloucestershire).
On May 26, 709, St. Aldhelm reposed in the wooden church of the village of Doulting, Somerset. Some years later, while a stone church was being consecrated on the spot, a blind widow pushed her way to the altar and was healed through the intercession of the saint, who had always been merciful to widows in his lifetime.
Many more healings were done through washing in water that had touched the stone on which the saint had died.
At the moment that the saint reposed he appeared in a vision to his friend St.Egwin, bishop of Worcester, and commanded him to go at once to Doulting. Egwin immediately rode the eighty to a hundred miles to the body of the saint, and after celebrating a funeral Liturgy, arranged for it to be transported to Malmesbury. At every seven miles of the fifty-mile journey, the procession stopped and crosses, later known as “bishopstones”, were erected at Egwin’s command. All of these crosses, including one in the monastery of Malmesbury, were still standing in good condition in the twelfth century, and miracles continued to be wrought there for centuries. On reaching Malmesbury, St. Egwin buried the body of his friend in the church of St.Michael.
In 855 King Ethelwulf of Wessex, father of King Alfred the Great, exhumed the body of St. Aldhelm and transferred it into a magnificent shrine adorned with silver and showing representations of the saint’s miracles.
Another great benefactor of the church was King Athelstan, who had been delivered from danger at the battle of Brunanburgh in 937 through the prayers of St.Aldhelm. During that battle the Viking King Olaf, as William of Malmesbury writes, “coming well prepared by night, killed a certain bishop with all his household, who had reached the army in the evening and in ignorance of what had occurred had pitched his tent there on account of the evenness of the green plain. Then, proceeding further, Olaf came upon the king himself unprepared, for he had given himself up to profound sleep, not fearing at all that the enemy would dare such an attack. But when, roused from bed by so great an uproar, he urged his men to battle as much as he could through the darkness, by chance his sword fell from its sheath; wherefore, when all things were full of dread and blind confusion, he invoked God and St. Aldhelm, and replacing his hand on the scabbard, he found the sword, which today is kept in the kings’ treasury…” On May 5, 986, St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, transferred the saint’s relics for safety’s sake into a stone tomb on the right of the altar. But during the reign of King Aethelred the pagan Danes broke into the monastery and came up to the shrine. One of them seized it and was about to cut out the precious stones on it when he was struck down as if stabbed. The rest fled in terror.
Once a very beautiful woman named Elfildis became the captive of a Norwegian count, who wanted to divorce his wife and marry her. In the end he raped her, but died soon after. Then the future Martyr-King Olaf of Norway, hearing of her beauty, made advances to her. But she rejected them. However, he, too, raped her, and as a result, in 1024, a son was born to her named Magnus. When St. Olaf was killed in 1030, Magnus was proclaimed king, but died only eighteen months later. Then the unfortunate Elfildis returned to England, promising God that if she returned safely she would never again eat meat. Some years later, however, she was at a banquet and was persuaded to break her vow. As a result she was struck with paralysis. For three years she visited the shrines of the saints seeking healing. At length, coming to St. Aldhelm’s shrine on his feastday, she was restored to full health. She then became a nun and was buried at Malmesbury.
St. Aldhelm’s resting place attracted pious Christians even from the East. Thus early in the eleventh century a monk named Constantine came to Malmesbury from Greece – it was not known why he had left his homeland. He planted the first vineyard in the monastery, which survived for many years. He was of a very mild disposition and very abstinent habits. When he was on the point of death, he drew an archbishop’s pallium out of the knapsack that he always carried with him, put it on, and immediately died. He was buried in the church of St. Andrew. But after some years some building works in the monastery necessitated the exhumation of his body. The bones were found to be of exceptional whiteness and exuded a beautiful fragrance.
Once a dangerous demoniac was bound with cords and carried to Malmesbury on the eve of the feast of the Ascension. The monks advised those who were carrying him to pray to St. Aldhelm on his behalf. He was laid before the altar, and after calming down and falling into a light sleep rose completely healed.
Again, a cripple seeking a cure stopped at Malmesbury on his way to Christchurch in Hampshire. Immediately he entered the church he felt a kind of current passing through all his members. After falling asleep in front of the altar, he was woken up by the chanting of the monks coming into the church, and leapt up cured.
Once, after the Norman-papist conquest of England, a fisherman from the Isle of Wight was struck blind while fishing at sea. His boat was brought to land by his companions, who advised him to seek the help of God. They then rowed him to Christchurch, Hampshire, where he remained for three years. Then he was told in a dream to go to Malmesbury, where he recovered his sight. This miracle convinced the Normans, who were in general sceptical about the holiness of the Saxon saints and whose first archbishop, Lanfranc, had discontinued the cult of Aldhelm, that Aldhelm was indeed a saint. Osmund, bishop of Salisbury authorized the resumption of the cult and the translation of his relics. Then Abbot Warin brought out the relics, which had been hidden for fear of the Danes, and after a three day fast the bishop translated them into the shrine on October 3, 1078.
Many more miracles continued to be performed at the shrine of St. Aldhelm, as were related in detail by William of Malmesbury in 1125.
St. Aldhelm is commemorated on May 25.
Holy Father Aldhelm, pray to God for us!
(Sources: William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, I, 14, book V; Gesta Regum Anglorum, 134; The Venerable Bede, History of the English Church and People; Margaret Gallyon, The Early Church in Wessex and Mercia, Lavenham: Suffolk, 1980; S.Baring-Gould, The Lives of the Saints, vol. 5, London: John Nimmo, 1987; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 10-11)
16. SAINT ALFRED, MARTYR-PRINCE OF ENGLAND
The ancient town of Guildford is dominated by two hills, between which flows the River Wey. On top of one hill there stands the church of St. Martha. It is likely that the word “Martha” was originally “Martyr”, for the parish and the church are called “Marterhill” in many early documents. Moreover, in a document dated 1463 it is called “the chapel of St. Martha the Virgin and all the holy Martyrs commonly called Marterhill near the town of Guldeforde”. According to a well-established tradition, these martyrs were burned to death on the hill in Saxon times, perhaps around 600 A.D. during a pagan reaction against the missionary activities of St.Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury.
On the other hill, known as Guildown, another martyrdom took place over 400 years later. The story is as follows.
The holy Martyr-Prince Alfred was the son of King Aethelred “the Unready” of England, and brother of the future king and saint, Edward the Confessor. With his brother, he spent many years in exile, following the expulsion of the English royal family to Normandy in 1016 by the Danish King Canute. On the death of Canute, however, in 1035, the princes’ mother, Queen Emma, judged that the political situation had changed in England, and invited her sons to join her at Winchester.
Edward came first, but was forced to return to Normandy after a battle in the Southampton area. Then came Alfred, the younger prince.
Having selected some companions with his brother’s approval, he went first to Flanders, where he stayed with Marquis Baldwin. Then he set out from Boulogne and crossed the English Channel. On approaching the shore, however, he was recognized by the enemy, and was forced to land at another port further down the coast. Finding no opposition there, he set off inland.
As Alfred and his men approached the town of Guildford, thirty miles south-west of London, they were met by the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex, who professed loyalty to the young prince and procured lodgings for him and his men in the town.
The next morning, Godwin said to Alfred: “I will safely and securely conduct you to London, where the great men of the kingdom are awaiting your coming, that they may raise you to the throne.”
This he said in spite of the fact that the throne was already occupied by the son of Canute, Harold “Harefoot”. Events were to show that Godwin was not sincere. He was actually in league with King Harold to lure the young prince to his death…
Then the earl led the prince and his men over the hill of Guildown, which is to the west of Guildford, on the road to Winchester, not London. Perhaps the prince had insisted on continuing his journey to his original destination, his mother’s court in Winchester… In any case, Godwin repeated his tempting offer; showing the prince the magnificent panorama from the hill both to the north and to the south, he said: “Look around on the right hand and on the left, and behold what a realm will be subject to your dominion.”
Alfred then gave thanks to God and promised that if he should ever be crowned king, he would institute such laws as would be pleasing and acceptable to God and men. At that moment, however, he was seized and bound together with all his men.
Nine tenths of them were then murdered. And since the remaining tenth was still so numerous, they, too, were decimated.
Alfred was slung naked to a horse and then conveyed by boat to the monastery of Ely. As the boat reached land, his eyes were put out. For a while he was looked after by the monks, who were fond of him, but soon after he died, probably on February 5, 1036, and was honourably buried by the monks in the southern porch at the western end of the church. There wondrously beautiful visions of light were often reported, and many miracles were performed.
Although Godwin denied any complicity in the murder, both popular opinion and that of King Edward, the prince’s brother, pointed the finger at him. On the Monday after Pascha, 1053, the earl was feasting with the king when a waiter in his haste struck one foot against some obstacle and nearly fell. But, advancing his other foot, he recovered his balance. Many of those present joked, saying how right it was that one foot should help another. And the earl cried out: “So should one brother help another, and a man may support his friend in time of need.”
At which the king, turning towards him, immediately replied: “So should my brother have helped me if Godwin had allowed it.”
At this Godwin turned pale, and with a distorted countenance exclaimed: “Well do I know, O king, that in your mind you hold me guilty of your brother’s death. Well do I know, alas, that you do not disbelieve those who say that I was a traitor to him and to you. But let God Who knows all secrets be my judge! May this crust of bread which I hold in my hand pass through my throat and leave me unharmed to show that I was innocent of your brother’s death!” He spoke; and putting the crust into his mouth he thrust it into the midst of his gullet. Then he tried to push it further but was unable. Then he tried to pull it out but it stuck ever more firmly. He choked; his eyes turned up; and his limbs grew rigid. The king watched his wretched death, and then said to those standing by: “Drag out that dog.”
In the 1920s, archaeological excavations on Guildown, Guildford, discovered the bones of about two hundred men, their skulls being of the round-headed, Norman type, in a shallow grave dating back to about 1040. It appears that they had been stripped and their hands tied behind their backs before being killed and thrust into the grave. An Orthodox church dedicated to the holy Archangel Michael now stands about one hundred metres from this grave.
Holy Martyr-Prince Alfred, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Andrew Holden, The Story of the Church of Saint Martha on the Hill near Guildford, second edition, 1967; Encomium Emma Reginae; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Anonymous, Vita Aedwardi Regis; Liber Eliensis, II, 90; Geoffrey Gaimar, L’Estoire des Engleis, p. 788; William of Poitiers and John of Brompton, in E.W. Brayley, A Topographical History of Surrey, vol. I, London: Willis, 1850, pp. 287-88; Ailred of Rievaulx, in D.C. Douglas, William the Conqueror, London: Eyre Methuen, 1969, pp. 412-13; A.W.G. Lowther, “The Saxon Cemetery at Guildown, Guildford, Surrey”, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. XXXIX, 1929-30; Letter of the Dean of Ely, the Very Revd. M.S. Carey, January 6, 1978)
17. SAINT AUGULUS, HIEROMARTYR BISHOP OF AUGUSTA
And those with him
In several early martyrologies we find the names of Bishop Augulus of Augusta, an unknown city in Britain, together with Anatolius, Andrew, Ammon, Nepotian, Saturninus, Lucius and Saturna, without any further details apart from the date of commemoration (February 7). We have stronger evidence for the martyrdom of Julius and Aaron in Caerleon in Wales – some churches in the vicinity are dedicated to them – who were probably killed in the Diocletian persecution (July 1). Also in the calendars are the names of the British martyrs Socrates and Stephen (September 17).
Holy Martyrs, pray to God for us!
(Sources: A.W. Haddan and W. Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 1, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1869, 1964, pp.
27-33; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 244, 390)
18. SAINTS AUGUSTINE, LAURENCE, MELLITUS, JUSTUS, HONORIUS AND DEUSDEDIT, ARCHBISHOPS OF CANTERBURY
Our holy Father Augustine, who with his spiritual father Pope Gregory the Great, is accorded the title of the Apostle of the English, was prior of the monastery of St.Andrew in Rome. According to one source, he may have come from Sicily. In the summer of the year 596 he was sent by St. Gregory at the head of a party of forty monks from the same monastery to England, to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons.
This had always been a cherished dream of St. Gregory, who had himself set out for England once but had been forced to return to Rome because of his election to the Papacy.
Having arrived in Aix-en-Provence, Augustine and his monks heard discouraging reports of the difficulty of the journey to England and the savagery of the islanders.
Augustine was then sent back to Rome to entreat St. Gregory to abandon the project, while his monks remained at the famous monastery of Lerins. However, Gregory raised Augustine to the rank of abbot and sent him back with strict orders to proceed to England; so the monks continued on their journey north.
At the town of Ce, some women created a riot against the monks; but when a supernatural light illumined the ground where the monks slept, the townsfolk changed their minds and said that they were gods.
St. Augustine and his companions alighted in England at Ebbsfleet, Kent; the stone which first received the imprint of their feet was preserved in St. Augustine’s monastery for centuries. Two monks then went with their French interpreters to King Aethelbert at Canterbury. The king, who had heard about the Christian Faith from his Christian wife Bertha, gave the messengers a favourable hearing and ordered that St. Augustine’s party be honourably treated.
A few days later, the king went to see the missionaries at Richborough. The meeting took place in the open air because the king feared the influence of magicians inside. The monks came to meet the king in a procession, chanting psalms and hymns and preceded by a silver cross and an icon of the Saviour. Aethelbert was not at first inclined to accept Augustine’s preaching, but he did not prevent him from preaching to others. Moreover, he provided the missionaries with a house in Canterbury and food at his own expense; and they were allowed to worship in the old Romano-British church of St. Martin’s.
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 2, 597. 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 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.
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 Christians 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 manner. Augustine stipulated three conditions for union: that the British should correct these two canonical irregularities; and that they should cooperate with him in converting the Saxons.
However, the British refused to accede on 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 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 Ethelfrid of Northumbria defeated the British in battle at Chester and killed 1200 of the monks of Bangor.
On his way back, Augustine passed through Dorset, where he was violently attacked by the inhabitants. At one time they beat him with fish tails, at another they seized weapons and torches. As they were jeering at him, he turned from preaching to prayer, and soon many of the pagans were afflicted with burning ulcers over their whole body. This had the effect of bringing them to their senses, and in the end multitudes were baptized.
Augustine and his companions went on and came to a barren spot, where the Lord revealed Himself to him. At the same time, a spring of water gushed up and converted the previous wilderness into a garden. Augustine called the place Cernel (now Cerne Abbas), which is compounded of the Hebrew word “El” or “God”, and the Latin “Cerno”, “I see”.
On his return to the East, Augustine 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.
St. Augustine reposed in the Lord on May 26, 605, and was buried next to the unfinished church of Saints Peter and Paul.
In 607, the first abbot of Saints Peter and Paul, named Peter, was sent on a mission to Gaul, but was drowned in the Channel in the bay of Ambleteuse. He was buried by the local inhabitants in “an unworthy place”, but a mysterious light appeared over his relics and he was translated with honour to a church in Boulogne. He was commemorated in his monastery on December 30.
St. Augustine was succeeded by St. Laurence, who assumed the supervision of the English Church and wrote, with his fellow bishops Mellitus and Justus, to the Celtic Christians in Ireland, exhorting them to unity. But to no avail. Moreover, after the death of King Aethelbert in 616, Laurence had to face a revival of idolatry in Kent under Aethelbert’s son, Eadbald.
To make things worse, King Sebert of Essex also died, and his three sons, who were pagans, allowed the people to return to idolatry. Once, while St. Mellitus was celebrating the Liturgy, they came into the church and asked the bishop: “Why do you not give to us that which bread which you used to give to our father Saba (for so they used to call him), and which you still continue to give to the people in the church?” Mellitus replied: “If you will be washed in the laver of salvation, in which your father was washed, you may also partake of the holy bread of which he partook; but if you despise the laver of salvation, you may not receive the bread of life.” They replied: “We will not enter into that laver, because we do not know that we stand in need of it, and yet we will eat of that bread.” Eventually, after a further refusal, they became angry and forced Mellitus to leave London. He then decided to go to France with St. Justus until the storm passed over.
St. Laurence was also about to flee with them. But that night, the holy Apostle Peter appeared to him, and after scourging him for a long time said: “Why would you forsake the flock which has been committed to you? To what shepherds will you commit Christ’s sheep who are in the midst of wolves? Have you forgotten my example, who for the sake of those little ones whom Christ recommended to me in token of His love, underwent at the hands of infidels and enemies of Christ, bonds, stripes, imprisonment, afflictions, and lastly, the death of the cross, that I might at last be crowned with Him?” The next morning, St. Laurence went to King Eadbald and, taking off his garment, showed him the scars of the stripes he had received from the Apostle. The king was astonished and asked who had presumed to give such stripes to such a great man. On hearing the truth, he was terrified, abandoned both his paganism and his unlawful marriage, and was baptized. Then Laurence went to France, and brought Mellitus and Justus back with him. Justus was restored to his see at Rochester, but Mellitus was not able to resume control of his see in London because of the strength of the pagan reaction.
Goscelin relates of St. Laurence that he performed many miracles; he raised the dead, walked on the sea, caused a fountain to spring up in a dry place, and after the manner of the Prophet Elijah brought down fire from heaven to consume the impious. Once, after building and consecrating a church in Scotland (perhaps a men’s monastery?), he ordered that no woman should enter it. And when, in the late eleventh century, Queen Margaret of Scotland ventured to enter it, she was repulsed by some invisible force.
St. Laurence reposed on February 2, 619, and was buried in the church of Saints Peter and Paul.
He was succeeded in the archbishopric by St. Mellitus. As we have seen, Mellitus was bishop of London before he succeeded to the archbishopric. And it was he who, at King Sebert’s request, came to consecrate the first church at Westminster on the isle of Thorney, which is now the first church of the English capital, to God and the Apostle Peter.
The night before the consecration, according to the tradition related by the Monk Sulcard, while everyone was sleeping, the Apostle Peter appeared on the bank of the Thames and motioned to a fisherman to row him over to the island. After alighting on the island, as the fisherman watched, the apostle created two streams by striking the ground with his staff, and then proceeded to the newly built church to the accompaniment of the melodious voices of angels. Then the astonished spectator saw the heavens opened and the whole island bathed in a heavenly light as heaven and earth joined in magnificent service. Much as he wanted to depart, he was unable to, rooted as he was to the spot by the apostle’s chains. And after the service Peter came back to the trembling fisherman and said: “Do not be afraid because of what you have seen and heard, for this is the will of God”. Then he explained that he was the Apostle Peter, to whom this church was being dedicated, and that he should relate what he had seen and heard to St. Mellitus. When the bishop would come he would see that the walls had already been sealed with holy chrism, so he would not have to consecrate it. And the fisherman, whose name was Edric, was to present to Mellitus one of a miraculous catch of fish which he would obtain through the apostle’s prayers, as a witness to the truth of his words. Everything turned out as the apostle said. The fishermen immediately cast his nets into the water of the river, and pulled in a huge catch of salmon. And St. Mellitus, coming into the church the next day, found the signs of the heavenly consecration already on the walls.
St. Mellitus suffered greatly from gout, but this did not dampen his zeal in the service of God. Once a great fire had already consumed a large part of Canterbury, and no human means seemed able to stop it. The bishop then ordered that he be carried to the church of the four martyrs, which was in the area where the fire raged most; and after his prayer, the wind suddenly changed from the south to the north, and the city was saved.
St. Mellitus reposed after five years as archbishop of Canterbury, on April 24, 624.
He was succeeded by St. Justus, bishop of Rochester, who died in 627. And St. Justus was succeeded by St. Honorius, another Roman monk who had come to England in 601. He promoted missionary work and struggled against both the calendar schism and the Pelagian heresy.
St. Honorius reposed in about 653, and eighteen months later was succeeded by the first native English archbishop, St. Deusdedit, who came from Sussex. He founded the monastery of Peterborough in 657 and a convent in Thanet. He died from the plague on July 14, 664, and was buried, as were all his predecessors, in the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Canterbury.
In 747, at the Council of Clovesho, the days of St. Augustine’s birth and repose were declared to be national feast-days. In 1011, when the Danes destroyed Canterbury, a Dane seized the pall from the tomb of St. Augustine and hid it under his arm. However, the pall clung to his flesh as if it had been glue, whereupon he went to the monks and repented. The Danes made no further attacks on the monastery. In 1091, during rebuilding of the monastery, St. Augustine’s relics were uncovered and were found to be incorrupt. And on September 6, and a week later, on September 13, the bodies of all six of the first archbishops of Canterbury, Saints Augustine, Laurence, Mellitus, Justus, Honorius and Deusdedit were translated into new tombs to the accompaniment of many miracles. A translation feast was thereafter kept at Canterbury on September 13.
Augustine’s biographer, Goscelin, writing towards the end of the eleventh century, records many miracles wrought through his intercession. Here are some of them as presented in Cardinal Newman’s retelling of Goscelin’s account:- “A Saxon, named Leodegarius, had been afflicted from his birth with dreadful contractions of the joints of his body, so as almost to resemble a monster rather than a human being. He is said to have passed many years of his life in moving, or rather creeping, from place to place, for, in truth, he wore the appearance of a reptile. He was a native of Germany, whence he had found his way to Rome, in hopes of benefiting by the prayers of some Saint. At length he came to England, and, one day, while watching during the night in the Abbey of St. Peter, at Westminster, he felt himself moved, by a Divine intimation, to seek help in the city of Canterbury.
“The next morning found him on his way to the metropolitan city, which he is said to have reached by taking ship at Greenwich, where, it seems, vessels were stationed for conveying the poor at the public charge. On arriving at Canterbury, a pious matron took pity on him, and provided him with board and lodging for the night. The next day, under her guidance, he repaired to the cathedral, and there, through the intervention of his charitable hostess, was admitted within the sanctuary, or precincts of the high altar. In this place he spent three nights in prayer.
On the fourth morning he met with the reward of his perseverance. There appeared to him (as he related) three venerable figures, of patriarchal aspect and mien, bright as angels. The central figure was much taller than the others. His hair was white as snow, and seemed to take the form of a cross upon his ample forehead; his eyes beamed with sweetness, and his whole countenance was radiant and smiling. A priestly robe covered his person, so gorgeous that it seemed to rival the glory of Solomon, and it was confined at the waist by a clasp of gold. In his hand was a cross of great size and dazzling brilliancy. His companion on the right was of middle stature, with eyes of remarkable brightness, and a forehead like snow. On his left was one of dwarfish size, as if recorded of him who desired to receive Christ into his house; but his form was one of perfect symmetry and exquisite beauty. One and all were attired in vestments so rich and magnificent, that earth till then had never seen the like. The three strangers were observed to make for the spot where the poor cripple, with his limbs gathered up, was lying on the pavement. His infirmity was of such a kind as to render variety of posture impracticable; standing, sitting, lying, and kneeling were all alike to him.
“On reaching him the strangers suddenly paused. The poor helpless creature gazed on them with an awe which came near to terror. At length the central priest beckoned to his companion on the left, to signify to the cripple that they came as ministers of mercy. He approached him and said, it was blessed Augustine who had come to heal him. Hardly had the name of Augustine passed his lips when the other seemed to hear God speaking to him, and addressing himself to the chief visitor, ‘It is you,’ he said, ‘most clement father, whom I see; you, of all the Saints, a Divine voice has told it me, are to be my deliverer.’ Thereupon St. Augustine deputed his two companions to exercise the gift of healing, and they proceeded to lift him up, the one applying the hand of power to the upper part of his body, the other implanting strength in his knees and ankle-bones. The cure is described as more painful than the malady. While it was in progress (for it was not instantaneous) the poor man, as we read, cried out lustily for mercy. At length his body, which had been a mass of disease and deformity, assumed its natural shape, and the three wonderful benefactors disappeared in the direction of their several tombs. Meanwhile, the sacristan and keepers of the church, who had been aroused from their sleep by cries of distress proceeding from the sanctuary, had repaired to the spot, where to their astonishment they found the poor man, whose hapless condition they had commiserated the day before, in the full possession of health and activity. He related to them the circumstances of his visit to Canterbury, and learned that the three shrines from which they had appeared to issue, and among which his eyes had afterwards lost them, were those of St. Augustine and his two companions, St.Laurence and St. Mellitus. These, then, were the strangers on right and left.
“A great number of the miraculous narratives of which St. Augustine of Canterbury is the subject have their scene on the wide ocean… Among those a foremost place is given by Goscelin to the wonderful preservation of King Canute from perils on the sea, on his return from his great pilgrimage to Rome [in 1031]. A terrible storm is said to have overtaken him when he was just within sight of the English shore. He betook himself to St. Augustine, whose favour he had experienced throughout his travels, and vowed large gifts to his shrine. Soon after, the storm ceased, and the vessel got safe to shore.
“A somewhat similar intervention was vouchsafed in the case of Egelvius, Abbot of Ethelingey, who had also been to Rome to pay his devotions at the tomb of the Apostles. On his return home, he and his companions were detained six full weeks by contrary winds, during which time their money was all expended in the purchase of necessaries, and they were obliged to sell their horses and apparel. At length one of the party, a monk, named Withgar, of age and prudence, encouraged the Abbot to look for help from the guardianship and intercessions of his island Saints, and besought him to implore their good offices. The Abbot complied, and chiefly betook himself to St. Augustine, who held a first place among the holy patrons of England, vowing that should he ever again be granted a sight of his beloved abbey, he would erect from the foundation a tower to the honour of God, under his tutelage. Then falling asleep, there appeared to him a ship rapidly approaching him, in which was one of priestly dignity and heavenly beauty, clad in shining vestments, who waved his hand to the home-sick pilgrims as if inviting them to him. Then the Abbot awoke, and while he was relating the vision to his companion, the pilot rushed in full of joy, with the tidings that a favourable breeze had sprung up, and that no time was to be lost. The ship reached England in safety. The Abbot, upon his arrival, repaired to Canterbury, where the hospitable successor of our Saint received him with open arms, and like a worthy steward of the bounty of such a father, set himself to make good the losses of his guest.
“The good Abbot was faithful to his vow, and laid the foundation of his tower. He obtained, not without difficulty, six great beams; the seventh, long refused, was at last given for love of the Saint. When they came to measure it, it was found half a yard too short; and the Abbot, not without hope that the Saint might once more grant him his aid, measured it again, and found it now as much too long as it had been before too short. His workman was about to make it the right length; but this the Abbot would by no means allow, as esteeming it a disrespect to the Saint’s overflowing bounty…
“Elfnoth, a member of one of the principal families of London, had been brought up from his childhood in St. Augustine’s under the care of Abbot Ulfric. He had been staying in Normandy with Duke William, and was on his return to England, when, midway across the Channel, a storm arose. The ship was wrecked, and all perished, with the single exception of the young Elfnoth, who ceased not to call on his holy father for help; when, at length descrying a broken mast in the water, he threw himself upon it and there remained, the sport of the waves. His faith was tried for two whole days and nights; the third morning dawned in serenity, and he was rescued from death by a friendly vessel from the Norman coast.
“Goscelin also speaks of certain monks of St. Augustine’s, contemporaries of his own, and alive when he wrote, who had made the following statement upon their oaths. On a certain year, about Pentecost, they were on their way from Constantinople to Venice, and had on board 150 men, many of them learned clergy and laymen, besides a number of others. The wind rose, and became so strong as to endanger a vessel thus heavily laden. They took in their sails, and, availing themselves of the first anchorage they found, remained for several days exposed to the violent beating of the waves. It so happened, in the year in question, that the festival of St. Augustine [May 26] fell during Whitsuntide, and various were the feelings under which the holy brethren looked forward to its near approach at so trying and anxious a time. On the one hand, it was a grief to them that they must celebrate it to such disadvantage; on the other, they could not but esteem it providential that a season so full of promise should befall at such a moment. It happened that on board were several Greeks as well as Italians, and it was a great delight to the holy brethren to spend the mean season in recounting to them the history of the Saint whose day was coming on. They told how the illustrious Gregory, Augustine’s spiritual father, had been connected with those very parts, having lived for some time at Constantinople…; and how, out of his great charity to the English nation, he had sent this Augustine to preach Christ among them. With such delightful converse did they beguile the weary time; and at length the whole party on board were wrought into a kind of enthusiasm at the prospect of honouring God in Augustine, spiritual child of Gregory, and apostle of the English nation. They added, that among all the Saints of their own country, there was not one so powerful in his intercession, so large in his munificence, as blessed Augustine; neither did they doubt that, should the crew join in commemorating him with a holy unanimity, some mighty deliverance might be expected to follow. The next Sunday was the day of his festival, and whatever outward accompaniments of ceremonial splendour there lacked, were more than supplied by the overflowing joy of the heart. The Vespers of the Saint were chanted by the numerous body of priests and clerics, all the crew assisting at the service, and then the night was spent in watching, with prayer and praise. In the glowing words of the biographer: ‘The ship was our church, its mast the watch-tower of Sion; the sail-yard our cross, the sails our drapery, the prow our altar, the priest boatswain, the arch-priest pilot, the rowers clerics; the creaking cables our instruments of music, the whistlings of the wind our bellows and pipes. Around us were the spacious courts of ocean, and the countless multitude of the waves responded to the voice of the chanters by their incessant dashings. The church of the waters resounded with the note, “O ye seas and floods, bless ye the Lord, bless Him O ye whales and all that move in the waters,” and the waters joined in the response with the quires above; all sang of Christ in high solemnity, and of Augustine, the servant of Christ.’
“Lauds were chanted towards daybreak, and then all retired to rest except the helmsman. He remained observing the stars, and trying the wind. On a sudden it came home to him that St. Augustine’s agency had been blessed. The violent wind subsided into the softest of breezes, and that a favourable one. He blew his whistle and shouted aloud, and for a moment the sleepers doubted whether all were not over. But a moment after they were greeted with the joyful words, ‘Up, comrades: God is with us;’ and the pilot continued, ‘It is St. Augustine, whose Feast we are keeping; he is helmsman, boatswain, master, and all.’ All were speedily on the alert, and Mass was sung in high jubilee.
“Goscelin relates many other histories of the same description. One more only shall be selected. In the village of Chilham, nor far from Canterbury, was a little girl, eight years of age, the hope and comfort of a widowed mother. She was the life and spirit of her home; but some sad chance befell her, by which she lost the power of speech. Her mother, instead of having recourse to a human physician, took her to the parish priest, by name Elfhelm, who addressed her as follows:- ‘The Feast of St.Augustine is at hand; go then and prepare a waxen taper, and with it watch out the vigil of that day whereon the Day-spring from on high first visited us; and let your child be the companion of your prayers. If you will but persevere in faith, we verily believe that, through God’s goodness, you will not be disappointed.’ The devout matron, armed with faith, and as at the bidding of an angel, is ready with the light on the appointed day, and repairs with her child to the shrine of her heavenly physician, where both keep vigil in prayer… The mother prays and utters her plaints aloud; the daughter can but sigh and vent her devotion and her grief in low inarticulate sounds; but the ears of the Saint are open to both. Now swell on high, at the close of matins, the solemn words of the hymn to the Thrice-Holy, the Abbot intoning the first notes, and his children of the monastery taking up the strain in chorus. When they come to the words, ‘The Holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge Thee’, the tongue of the damsel was suddenly loosened, and she was able to bear her part in the chorus of the Universal Church.”
In modern times, St. Augustine is believed to have interceded to save the British army during the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940. The operation began on May 26, 1940, which is the feast of St. Augustine according to the Anglican church calendar; and King George V asked that that day be declared a National Day of Prayer, calling on the people of Britain and the Empire “to commit their cause to God”. In the opinion of many, the successful evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk was nothing short of a miracle, for which God and God’s apostle to England, St. Augustine, must undoubtedly be given glory.
St. Augustine is commemorated on May 26, St. Lawrence on February 2, St.Mellitus on April 24, St. Justus on November 10, St. Honorius on September 30, and St. Deusdedit on July 15.
Holy Fathers Augustine, Lawrence, Mellitus, Justus, Honorius and Deusdedit, pray to God for us!
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, A History of the English Church and People; St. Gregory the Great, Epistles; Goscelin, Historia Translationis S. Augustini, books I and II; Monk Sulcard, Libellus de Fundatione Abbatiae Westmonasteriensis, P.G. CLV, 1636-1638; John Henry Newman, Lives of the English Saints, London: Freemantle, 1901, volume 3; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints; Fr. Andrew Phillips, “A Canterbury Tale: The Miracle at Dunkirk”, in Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, Frithgarth: English Orthodox Trust, 1995, pp. 463-466; Nicholas Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury, London and New York: Leicester University Press, 1996)
19. SAINT BEDE “THE VENERABLE” OF JARROW
Our holy Father Bede the Venerable was born in the year 673 on the lands of the monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow in Northumbria. At the age of seven he was entrusted to the first abbot of Jarrow, St. Benedict Biscop, and after his repose to his successor, St. Ceolfrid. There is a tradition that during a plague that swept England during St. Ceolfrid’s abbacy, only the abbot and the young Bede were left to chant the services.
At the age of nineteen Bede was ordained to the diaconate by St. John, bishop of Beverley, and to the priesthood by the same holy bishop when he was thirty years old. “From the time of my receiving the priesthood,” writes Bede, “until my fiftyninth year, I have worked, both for my own benefit and that of my brethren, to compile short extracts from the works of the venerable Fathers on Holy Scripture and to comment on their meaning and interpretation. And while I have observed the regular discipline and sung the church services daily in church, my chief delight has always been in study, teaching and writing.” In addition to commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, he wrote his famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Lives of the Holy Abbots, a Letter to Egbert (archbishop of York, which may have stimulated the founding of the famous school of York) and other works. If his contemporary, St.Aldhelm, may be considered (with Caedmon of Whitby) the Father of English poetry, then the Venerable Bede must be considered the Father of English prose and history.
So successful was he in fulfilling this calling, that his works became the staple education of generations of Christians in the lands of North-West Europe. St.Boniface, the enlightener of Germany, wrote to England for copies of his works, and on hearing of his repose said: “The candle of the Church, lit by the Holy Spirit, is extinguished.” And Alcuin, the abbot of St. Martin’s at Tours, called him “the schoolmaster of his age”. Alcuin related that Bede used to say: “I well know that angels visit the congregations of brethren at the canonical hours. What if they should not find me there among my brethren? Will they not say, ‘Where is Bede? Why comes he not with his brethren to the prescribed hours?’” St. Bede’s last illness and blessed repose was described by Cuthbert, later abbot of Jarrow:- “He lived joyfully, giving thanks to God day and night, yea, at all hours, until the feast of the Ascension. Every day he gave lessons to us, his pupils, and the rest of the time he occupied himself in chanting psalms. He was awake almost the whole night and spent it in joy and thanksgiving. And when he awoke from his short sleep, immediately he raised his hands on high and began to give thanks. He sang the words of the Apostle Paul, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’. He sang much else besides from the Holy Scriptures, and also many Anglo-Saxon hymns. He sang antiphons according to our and his custom, and among others this one: ‘O King of Glory, Lord of Power, who this day didst ascend as Victor above all the heavens, leave us not orphaned behind Thee, but send us the promised Spirit of the Father, Alleluia.’ And when he came to the words ‘leave us not orphaned behind Thee’, he burst into tears. Then, an hour later, he began to sing again. We wept with him; now we read, then we wept; but we could not read without tears. Often he would thank God for sending him this illness, and would say, ‘God chasteneth the son whom He loveth’. Often, too, he would repeat the words of St. Ambrose: ‘I have not lived so as to be ashamed to live amongst you; neither do I fear to die, for we have a good Lord.’ Besides the lessons which he gave us, and his psalm-singing during these days, he composed two important works – a translation of the Gospel of St. John into our native tongue, and extracts from St.Isidore of Seville; for he said, ‘I would not that my pupils should read what is false and after my death should labour in vain.’
“On the Tuesday before the Ascension his sickness increased, his breathing became difficult, and his feet began to swell. Yet he passed the whole night joyfully dictating. At times he would say, ‘Make haste to learn, for I do not know how long I shall remain with you, and whether my Creator will not soon take me to Himself.’
The following night he spent in prayers of thanksgiving. And when Wednesday dawned he desired us diligently to continue writing what we had begun. When this was finished we carried the relics in procession, as is customary on that day. One of us then said to him, ‘Dearest master, we have yet one chapter to translate. Will it be grievous to thee if we ask thee any further?’ He answered, ‘It is quite easy: take the pen and write quickly.’ At the ninth hour he said to me, ‘Run quickly and call the priests of this monastery to me, that I may impart to them the gifts which God has given me. The rich of this world seek to give gold and silver and other costly things; but with great love and joy will I give my brethren what God has given me.’ Then he begged every one of them to celebrate the Liturgy and pray for him. They all wept, mainly because he said that they would not see his face again in this world. But they rejoiced in that he said: ‘It is time that I go to my Creator. I have lived enough. The time of my departure is at hand; for I long to depart and be with Christ.’
Thus did he live till evening [the eve of the feast of the Ascension, May 26, 735].
Then the scholar [Cuthbert] said to him: ‘Dearest master, there is only one sentence left to write.’ ‘Write quickly,’ he answered. ‘It is finished. Raise my head in thy hand, for it will do me good to sit opposite the sanctuary where I used to kneel and pray, that sitting thus I may call upon my Father.’ So he seated himself on the ground of his cell and sang, ‘Glory to Thee, O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’; and when he had named the Holy Spirit he breathed his last.”
Alcuin writes that miraculous healings were wrought at the relics of St. Bede, and that portions of them were taken to York, to Glastonbury and to Fulda in Germany, where they were placed in the crypt with St. Boniface. The rest of his body remained at Jarrow, where great numbers of pilgrims came to venerate it. In the early eleventh century, however, the priest Alfred Westow secretly took some of his relics to Durham cathedral, where they remain to this day. When his friends asked him where the bones of the Venerable Bede were, he would reply: “No one knows this better than I do. Dearly beloved, consider this a thing most firmly and most certainly established, that the same shrine which contains the most holy body of Father Cuthbert, contains also the bones of the teacher and monk Bede.”
There are several stories about how St. Bede came to receive the title ‘Venerable’, which is first known to have been given him at the Council of Aachen in 836.
One of these stories tells that late in life Bede became almost blind. One day some jesters came to him and said that there were some people in the church waiting to hear the word of God. In fact there was no-one there except the jesters. So, ever anxious for the salvation of others, the saint went to the church and preached, not knowing that it was empty. When he had ended his sermon, he prayed, and, instead of a human response, he received one from the angels: “Amen, very Venerable Bede”.
St. Bede is commemorated on May 26.
Holy Father Bede, pray to God for us! (Sources: The Works of the Venerable Bede; William Hunt, The English Church, London: Macmillan, 1912; Simeon of Durham, History of the Church of Durham; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon, 1978)
20. SAINT BENIGNUS OF GLASTONBURY
St. Benignus (Beonna) is not commemorated on Anglo-Saxon calendars, and it is possible that in some details of his life he has been confused with an Irish saint of a similar name. Nevertheless, there is fairly strong evidence that there was a holy man of this name living near Glastonbury.
According to our main source, William of Malmesbury, St. Benignus was born in Ireland, and was converted to Christianity together with his whole family by St.Patrick. Benignus became very attached to St. Patrick and left home to follow him. In 442 Patrick founded a monastery at Druimlias, and three years later made Benignus the abbot. He remained there for 20 years, and was then made Bishop of Armagh, dying in 468.
According to another of William’s works, however, Benignus did not die in Ireland but resigned his bishopric and came to Somerset in about 460, establishing himself as a hermit at Meare (Ferramere), about three miles from Glastonbury. “How much favour he found with God is revealed by many signs and miracles; witness the marks of his presence still at Meare, the broad expanse of water granted at his prayers and the huge leafy tree that flourished from his withered staff.” He built a causeway from his hermitage to the Old Church at Glastonbury, and since his servant Pincius had to go a long way to get water he caused a spring to break out next to his cell by his prayers. He died at Meare “after endless struggles”, and until about 1530 the church at Meare was called S. Bennynge. The following inscription was on his tomb: In this tomb Father Beonna’s bones are placed, Who was father of the monks in ancient times.
He was, in all probability, Patrick’s servant for a long time.
So say the Hibernians, and they call him ‘Beonna’.
It is usually thought that St. Benignus or Beonna was an Irish hermit whom the Irish pilgrims to Glastonbury associated with St. Patrick. However, some scholars believe that he was a Saxon, since “Beonna” is a Saxon name. H.M Porter suggests that “Beon was an Irishman and that the Irish schoolmasters [of St. Dunstan, in the early 10th century] called him Beonna when talking about him to the local Saxons and further confused matters by identifying him with Benen or Benignus [of Armagh].”
In 901, St. Benignus’ relics were translated to Glastonbury. According to John of Glastonbury, they were taken by boat from Mere to Glastonbury, but the boat had to berth some way from the monastery, so the relics were then carried on foot to a spot about halfway between the landing place and the monastery. There a sermon on the life of the saint was delivered, together with the reasons for the translation. After the sermon one of the bones of the saint was removed from the reliquary and the sign of the cross was made with it over the crowd, whereupon “such grace of Divine generosity flowed out upon the people that those vexed with various illnesses and those who bore the dangers of diverse infirmities, the blind, the mute, and the lame, were healed. Many, whom the agony of their internal organs tortured, vomited forth the death hidden within them.” Then the relics were taken on to the monastery, where a new church dedicated to the saint was built at the place where they rested.
In 1027 King Hardacanute donated a shrine in which, in the time of Abbot Thurstand (1100-1116) the relics of St. Benignus were placed. In 1475 and again in 1487 reference was made to the saint’s church, and it is known that a church dedicated to St. Benignus stood to the west of the monastery ruins until sometime in the last century, when it was rededicated to St. Benedict.
Holy Father Benignus, pray to God for us!
(Sources: William of Malmesbury, The Early History of Glastonbury, edited by John Scott, The Bodyell Press, Woodbridge, 1981, pp. 63, 157, 170-171; Lionel Smithett Lewis, Glastonbury – Her Saints, Wellingborough: Thorsons, 1985, pp. 18-19; John Seal, The Dark Age Saints of Somerset, Lampeter: Llanerch Enterprises, 1995, pp. 87-90; H.M. Porter, The Celtic Church in Somerset, Bath, 1971, pp. 61-63)
21. SAINT BENEDICT BISCOP, ABBOT OF WEARMOUTH AND JARROW
And those with him
Our holy Father Benedict was born in 628 into a noble Northumbrian family with the name Biscop Baducing, and was in the service of King Oswy of Northumbria. At the age of twenty-five, he abandoned the world and went with St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, to Rome. Then he went a second time, after which he became a monk in the monastery of St. Honoratus in Lérins. After two years in the monastery, he went for a third time to Rome, where the pope ordered him to accompany St. Theodore, the newly-ordained archbishop of Canterbury, back to England. This he did, and was made abbot of St. Peter’s monastery in Canterbury by St. Theodore.
After ruling this monastery for two years, the saint made a fourth visit to Rome, returning with many books and holy relics. At first he decided to go to the court of King Conwalh of Wessex, who had helped him in the past. But Conwalh died suddently, so Benedict made his way to the court of King Egfrith of Northumbria, who in 674 gave him seventy hides of land to build a monastery.
After a year, during which the saint established his monastery firmly in the tradition of St. Benedict of Nursia and in accordance with the customs he had seen in seventeent other monasteries, he went to Gaul, where he persuaded some Frankish stonemasons and glassmakers to come to England and build a church for him. They came, and taught their craft to local men. The saint also bought vestments and sacred vessels and icons to adorn his church of St. Peter.
In 679 St. Benedict made yet another trip to Rome, returning with innumberable books and relics, and also John, archcantor of the church of St. Peter in Rome, who taught the English monks the liturgy, script and chanting of the Roman Church.
King Egfrith was delighted with the saint’s work, and in 682 he gave him another forty hides of land, on which the saint built his second monastery, dedicated to St.
Paul. Now he placed Eosterwine as abbot of the monastery of St. Peter, and St.Ceolfrith as abbot of the monastery of St. Paul.
In 685 the saint made his last trip to Rome, and returned with many books, relics, vestments and icons. On his return he found that King Egfrith had been murdered, and that Abbot Eosterwine had died of the plague, together with many of the brethren. He appointed Sigfrid in the place of Eosterwine. But then both Sigfrid and Benedict were struck by illness. Benedict lived for three whole years in a state of paralysis.
Before his death, writes the Venerable Bede, the two abbots “expressed a desire to see one another before they died, and Sigfrid was brought in a litter into the room where Benedict was lying on his bed, though they were placed by the attendants with their heads on the same pillow, they had not the power of their own strength to kiss one another, but were assisted even in this act of fraternal love. After taking counsel with Sigfrid and the other brethren, Benedict sent for Ceolfrith, abbot of St.Paul’s, dear to him not by the relationship of the flesh, but by the ties of Christian virtue, and with the consent and approbation of all, made him abbot of both monasteries.”
St. Benedict died on January 14, 689. Abbot Sigfrid died two months later.
St. Benedict is commemorated on January 12.
Holy Father Benedict, pray to God for us!
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, Lives of the Holy Abbots; Anonymous, Life of St.Ceolfrith; David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 39-40)
22. SAINT BERTRAM OF ILAM AND STAFFORD
Our holy Father Bertram was the son of a king of the Central English kingdom of Mercia in the eighth century. Thinking of monasticism, he travelled to Ireland, where he fell in love with a beautiful princess. He brought her back to England, and they were living in a forest near Stafford, where a child was born to them. One day Bertram went to look for food. Wolves came and killed his wife and child.
Overcome with grief, he renounced his royal heritage and turned to God.
According to one source, he became a disciple of St. Guthlac (+716) at Crowland, and reported the saint’s death to his sister, St. Pega. Many pagans were converted by the example of his heremitic life. Without revealing his identity, he approached the royal court of Mercia and asked for a plot of land to build a hermitage. He was granted some land at Bethnei, near Stafford.
A new king came to the throne, and demanded back the land on which the hermitage was built. It was decided that the matter should be decided through a duel. Bertram prayed that someone would come forward to fight his cause. A dwarf came forward. Bertram remembered the story of David and Goliath and accepted his offer. The dwarf won the contest, and Bertram kept his land.
Once the devil tempted the saint as he had once tempted Christ, to turn stones into bread. Bertram prayed rather that bread would be turned into stones. His prayer was answered, and the devil was defeated. In 1516 the stones could still be seen in the church of the village of Bertomley near Audley in Cheshire (they are not there now).
Seeking solitude from the many people who sought his advice, Bertram went to live in a cave near Ilam in Derbyshire, and lived there until his death. He was buried in Holy Cross church in Ilam, where there are Saxon remains, two Saxon crosses in the courtyard and a holy well.
In 1386 a blind man was cured through prayer at the tomb of St. Bertram.
St. Bertram is commemorated on August 10.
Holy Father Bertram, pray to God for us! (Sources: Nova Legenda Angliae; John H. Newman, Lives of the English Saints, London, 1901, volume III, pp. 64-79; http://www.stmichaelsaudley.org.uk/orthodox.htm; http://www.orthodoxengland.org.uk/servbert.htm#serfeltop)
23. SAINT BIRINUS, BISHOP OF DORCHESTER-ON-THAMES
Our holy Father Birinus was of Italian, or, according to some accounts, Irish origin. Early in the seventh century he was sent by the Pope to preach the Gospel in the inner parts of England where no teacher had been before. He was consecrated to the episcopate for this task by Archbishop Asterius of Milan.
Then he boarded a ship at Genoa for England. However, at that point he suddenly remembered that he had left on the seashore his antimins [a portable altarcloth containing relics of the saints, upon which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated], without which he could not perform his apostolic ministry. But putting his faith in God, he boldly stepped out across the stormy waters, recovered the antimins on the seashore, and walked back to the ship, which stood as if immobilized in the middle of the sea. The sailors were astonished to sea that his vestments were not even wet.
Arriving on the coast of Hampshire in about the year 634, the saint discovered that many of the inhabitants were not Christian, so he decided not to travel further inland. An old woman who had been blind and deaf for several years was told in a vision to go to St. Birinus, and he healed her by making the sign of the Cross over her eyes and ears. Birinus then travelled to the court of King Cynegils of Wessex, who welcomed him and gave him permission to preach to the people.
In 635 King Cynegils and many of his people were baptized by Birinus in the ancient Roman town of Dorcec, now Dorchester-on-Thames, which became his episcopal see and the centre of his ministry. The king’s sponsor at his baptism was none other than the future great Martyr-King Oswald of Northumbria. “Lovely indeed and well pleasing to God” was the relationship between the two kings, says Bede. St. Oswald gave his daughter to King Cynegils in marriage.
In 636 Birinus baptized King Cynegils’ son, Cwichelm, at Dorchester, and in the same year Cwichelm reposed. In 639 the saint also baptized Cwichelm’s son, Cuthred, and stood sponsor for him. But Cynegils’ other son, Cenwalh, initially refused baptism, and became Christian, not through Birinus, but through St. Felix, bishop of Dunwich in East Anglia.
After the death of King Cynegils in 643, his successor asked Birinus to build a consecrate a minster church in Winchester, his capital.
Many churches in the Thames valley were founded by St. Birinus, including, perhaps, St. Mary’s Minster in Reading, St. Helen’s at Abingdon, and the parish churches of Taplow and Wing.
In 650 St. Birinus reposed and was buried at his episcopal see. In about 690, St.Hedda, bishop of Winchester, removed the relics to Winchester, and they were translated into a new shrine by St. Aethelwold in response to a Divine vision on September 4, 980.
St. Birinus is commemorated on December 3 and September 4.
(Sources: the Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People; Nova Legenda Anglie, vol. 1, 118-122; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978; Margaret Gallyon, The Early Church in Wessex and Mercia, Lavenham: Terence Dalton, 1980; Margaret Hancock, “St. Birinus and Dorchester Abbey”, Catholic Life, November, 2007, pp. 36-38)
24. SAINTS BOTOLPH, ABBOT, AND ADOLPH, BISHOP, OF IKANHOE
Our holy Fathers Botolph and Adolph were born of noble parents early in the seventh century. They were taught the Christian Faith in England, but went across the sea to France to learn more. In France they received the monastic tonsure and a thorough education in the monastic life.
According to John of Tynemouth, Adolph was then raised to the episcopate in Maastricht in Holland, where he led a holy life in all respects. But in about 654 Botolph returned to England. Through the intercession of two sisters of King Ethelmund of East Anglia, who were living in the same French monastery, he was granted a certain uncultivated place called Ikanhoe, on which to build a monastery, by King Anna of the East Angles.
“Now that region,” writes John of Tynemouth, “was as much forsaken by man as it was possessed by demons, whose fantastic illusion by the coming of the holy man was to be immediately put to flight and the pious conversation of the faithful substituted in its place, so that where up to that time the deceit of the devil had abounded, the grace of our beneficent founder should more abound. Upon the entry therefore of the blessed Botolph, the blackest smoke arises, and the enemy, knowing that his own flight was at hand, cries out with horrid clamour, saying, ‘This place which we have inhabited for a long time, we thought to inhabit for ever. Why, O Botolph! most cruel stranger, dost thou violently drive us from these seats? In nothing have we offended thee, in nothing have we disturbed your right. What do you seek in our expulsion? What do you wish to establish in this region of ours? And after being driven out of every corner of the world, do you expel us wretched even out of this solitude?’ But the blessed Botolph, having made the sign of the Cross, put all his enemies to flight.”
St. Botolph proceeded to build a model community of monks at Ikanhoe (presentday Iken in Suffolk), being himself distinguished by many spiritual gifts, including prophecy. In 670 St. Ceolfrid, Abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow, visited him, and was impressed by what he saw. St. Botulph was also invited to take charge of the new monastery at Much Wenlock in Shropshire.
At length the saint died after a long illness in June, 680, and many miracles were wrought at his tomb.
In 869 St. Botolph’s monastery was destroyed by the Danes. However, in about 972, at the command of St. Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester, a band of monks led by a certain Ulfketyl came to the saint’s tomb, collected the precious relics, wrapped them in fine linen, and tried to carry them away on their shoulders. However, writes John of Tynemouth, “they were fixed with so great a weight, that by no effort can they move a step. Besides the cloisters of the altar resound with a loud noise, as if to intimate that their work was unfinished. They are stupefied with amazement; but at last by the teachings of God’s grace, the monk aforesaid recollects the things he has heard, that the blessed Adolph the Bishop was buried with his brother, and having raised the body out of the earth, they carried it with them to Saint Aethelwold rejoicing.”
According to Abbot Folcard of Thorney, who wrote his life in the early 11th century, the reopened tomb gave forth a “miraculous aroma” for fifteen days, and the remains of Botolph could not be removed without those of his brother Adolph.
St. Aethelwold then placed the head of St. Botolph in the monastery of Ely, part of the rest of the body together with the body of St. Adolph in the monastery of Thorney, and the rest in his own monastery at Winchester.
According to one source, the church at Burgh, near Woodbridge, contained his relics for a time, before King Canute ordered their removal to the monastery at Bury St. Edmund’s which he founded in 1020.
Later, St. Edward the Confessor translated part of the body of St. Botolph to St.Peter’s, Westminster.
64 ancient churches were dedicated to Botolph, sixteen of them in Norfolk and three in the city of London. He was also widely venerated in Denmark, and was regarded as one of the patron saints of travellers including an association with bridges.
The church at Ikanoe structurally dates from the 11th century, but with evidence of an earlier building in close association, and contains part of a large stone crossshaft which archaeologists believe may have originally been placed on the site of St.Botolph’s monastery in the 10th century, following the removal of his relics by St.Aethelwold in 970.
Saints Botolph and Adolph are commemorated on June 17.
Holy Fathers Botolph and Adolph, pray to God for us!
(Sources: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; “Saint Botolph of Boston”, compiled by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, in The True Vine, vol. 3, no. 4, 1992; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon, 1978, pp. 4, 51-52; Simeon of Durham, History of the Church of Durham; Fr. Elias Trefor-Jones, “St. Botwulf (Botolph) of Icanhoe”, Orthodox News, vol. 18, no. 3, Spring, 2005, p. 4; “St. Botulph’s Church, Iken”)
25. SAINT CEDD, BISHOP OF LONDON
Our holy Father Cedd, together with his brothers St. Chad, Cynebil and Caelin, were Anglian boys educated at Linsdisfarne by Saints Aidan and Finan. In 653, St.Finan baptized Peada, king of the Middle Angles at the king’s village of Wallbottle at Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. The king returned “full of joy” with four Northumbrian priests, one of whom was Cedd. The others were Diuma, who later became the holy bishop of Mercia and the Middle Angles, Betti and Addi. The apostolic work of these four men was very successful.
However, King Oswy of Northumbria, who became overlord of Mercia after King Peada’s death, then decided to send St. Cedd to the kingdom of East Saxons, which had reverted to paganism after the death of King Sebert and the expulsion of St.Mellitus, bishop of London, earlier in the century. And so, with the blessing of St.Finan, Cedd and another priest set off to re-evanglize the land, whose king, Sigebert, had just been baptized. This mission, too, was very successful, and soon St. Finan consecrated Cedd to the episcopate.
As bishop, St. Cedd built churches and ordained priests and deacons in many places. Thus at Bradwell-on-Sea he built a church out of the rubble of a Roman fort which is still standing today. And he built another monastery at Tilbury, where an early Saxon immersion font that may well have been used by the saint still survives.
The saint often returned to Northumbria to preach, and on one such trip, in 658, he was given land for the foundation of a monastery at Lastingham in Yorkshire.
This came about through the intercession of Cedd’s brother Caelin, and the monastery was built by another of Cedd’s brothers, Cynebil. St. Cedd consecrated the monastery after fasting and praying for forty days.
St. Cedd played an important part in the Synod of Whitby in 664, which ended the schism between the Celtic and Roman Churches in England. Although trained in the Celtic Church, he wholeheartedly accepted the Roman-Byzantine Paschalion. He acted as an interpreter between the Celtic and Roman parties.
St. Cedd died of the plague in Lastingham on October 26, 664. On hearing of his death, some thirty monks travelled north from Bradwell-on-Sea to live near his holy relics. At first he was buried outside the monastery, but then his body was placed to the right of the altar in a new stone church dedicated to the Mother of God.
St. Egbert, abbot of Iona, was once discussing the life of St. Cedd’s brother, St.
Chad, with his friend, St. Hybald of Hibaldstow, and said: “I know a man in this island, still in the flesh, who, when that prelate passed out of this world, saw the soul of his brother Cedd, with a company of angels, descending from heaven, who, having taken his soul along with them, returned hither again…”
St. Cedd is commemorated on October 26.
Holy Father Cedd, pray to God for us!
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, III, 22-26, IV, 3; Fr. Andrew Phillips, Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, Frithgarth: English Orthodox Trust, 1995, chapter 85; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979, p. 73)