II. RISE AND FIRST FALL: FROM ALFRED THE GREAT TO AETHELRED THE UNREADY (871-1016)
7. KING ALFRED THE GREAT, THE ENGLISH DAVID
In 870, the year after King Edmund’s martyrdom, the Vikings crossed the Thames and defeated King Aethelred and his brother Prince Alfred at Reading. However, on January 8, 871 the two brothers met the Vikings at Ashdown and won a famous victory – the first major setback for the Vikings in England.
The manner of the victory was significant. Prince Alfred and his men took up position blocking the Viking advance. However, King Aethelred would not join him at first because he was attending the Divine Liturgy in his tent, and said that he would not fight until the liturgy was completed. Alfred had no choice but to begin the battle without his brother and when he was not yet in position. He charged uphill at the pagans “like a wild boar”. They retreated, and when King Aethelred joined his brother the retreat turned into a rout. The Vikings lost thousands of men, and were driven all the way back to their camp at Reading.103
However, on March 22 another battle took place at Meretun at which King Aethelred was severely wounded. On St. George’s day, April 23, 871, he died, and at the tender age of twenty-one, after the deaths of all four of his brothers, Alfred was king of Wessex. As the holy pope had foreseen, he was now in the position of a Roman consul, defending the last outpost of Christian Rome and commanding the last significant army standing in the way of the complete triumph of the pagan Vikings over Christian England.
The reign of King Alfred, the founder of the All-English kingdom, did not begin well. In his first battle as king he lost to the Vikings at Wilton. Four years of peace ensued, during which the Vikings consolidated their control over northern and central England. They placed puppet kings on the thrones of Northumbria and Mercia. In 874, King Burhred of Mercia fled to Rome with his wife, Alfred’s sister, and died there as a monk.
Sometimes King Alfred would visit his spiritual father, St. Neot, asking for his blessing. There is some evidence that the king was in conflict with Archbishop AAethelred of Canterbury at this time – there exists a letter dated to 877 from the archbishop to Pope John VIII complaining about the king. It may be in this connection that St. Neot severely criticized the king for his proud harshness, bringing before him the humility of David as an example, and pointing out that Saul, who had been placed at the head of the tribes of Israel when he was small in his own eyes, was later condemned for his pride. Then he prophesied that the barbarians would invade the land and triumph by God’s permission, and he would be the only one to escape, wandering as a fugitive over the land. “O King,” he said, “you will suffer much in this life; no man can say how much you will suffer. But now, beloved child, hear me if you are willing, and turn your heart to my counsel. Forsake your wickedness; redeem your sins by almsgiving, and wipe them out through tears.” And he urged him, when he would see his words fulfilled, not to despair, but to act like a man and strengthen his heart. For through his intercessions he had obtained from God that Alfred would again be restored to his former prosperity, so long as he ceased from doing evil and repented of his sins. And he further urged him to send gifts to the Pope, beseeching him to give freedom to the English School in Rome. This good deed would help him in his troubles. Alfred then sent the Pope as he had been advised, and obtained his request, together with several holy relics and a portion of the True Cross.
In 876, the Vikings resumed their offensive. Their new leader Guthrum rode from Cambridge to Wareham, deep inside Alfred’s kingdom. A Viking fleet was very near, and the combination of the army in Wareham and the fleet at sea presented a mortal threat to King Alfred. By God’s Providence the fleet was completely destroyed in a storm. However, being unable to defeat the land army under Guthrum, Alfred was forced to make peace with him. According to the agreement, Guthrum was supposed to leave Wessex, but instead, under cover of night, he established himself within the Roman walls of the city of Exeter. Alfred pursued him, and the two sides again made peace, exchanging hostages.
On July 31 St. Neot died. Almost immediately, in August, Guthrum retreated north of the Thames into Viking-dominated territory at Gloucester. The threat had passed – for the time being…
King Alfred celebrated Christmas, 877 at his royal villa at Chippenham in Wiltshire. On Twelfth Night, January 6, traditionally the climax of the festivities, Guthrum made a sudden surprise attack on Alfred and forced him to flee to the west. After Pascha (March 23), Alfred and a few men arrived at a small island surrounded by marshes called Athelney, near Glastonbury, the place where St. Joseph of Arimathaea had first preached the Gospel in apostolic times. The island was 9,500 square metres in size – the full extent of Orthodox England controlled by the king at this, the lowest point in English Orthodox history.
Although the main sources for Alfred’s reign – Bishop Asser’s Life and the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle – make no direct mention of this, there is strong evidence that Alfred was betrayed – perhaps by his nephew Aethelwold, who joined the Danes after his death104, more probably by Alderman Wulfhere of Wiltshire105. Guthrum and the English traitors probably planned either to kill Alfred or force him to flee abroad, making way for an English puppet-king for Wessex on the model of the puppet-kings already installed in the north. But Alfred refused to flee the country as his brother-inlaw King Burhred of Mercia had done – and this decision probably saved English Orthodox civilization.
However, his situation was still desperate. Alfred, writes Bishop Asser, “had nothing to live on except what he could forage by frequent raids, either secretly or even openly, from the Vikings as well as from the Christians who had submitted to the Vikings’ authority.”
One day, the king was asked for alms by a poor beggar. He gave him some of the little he possessed. That night, the beggar appeared to him in a dream and revealed that he was the famous St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (the greatest of the English saints, whose incorrupt relics were at that moment being carried by monks around the North of England to escape the marauding Vikings). He then told the king that God would now have mercy on England after the great suffering she had undergone because of her sins, and that Alfred himself would regain his kingdom. As a sign of the truth of his words, the saint said, the next morning Alfred’s fishermen would bring in an enormous catch of fish, which would be the more miraculous because of the extreme coldness of the weather. When Alfred awoke, he discovered that his wife had had exactly the same vision; and at the same time his men came in to announce that they had made an enormous catch of fish. Soon the rest of the vision was fulfilled…107
Encouraged by this, the king decided on some daring reconnaissance work. With one follower, he gained admittance to the Danish camp as a singing actor, and there was able to find out everything he needed to know before returning to Athelney.108 Then, as winter turned into spring, Alfred was joined by Alderman Aethelnoth of Somerset and a small force. Together, they prepared a great counter-attack…
“The key to the counter-attack,” writes David Starkey, “was, once again, the shires. Historic Wessex (that is, the kingdom before its expansion under Alfred’s grandfather, Egbert) was divided into five ‘shires’ or, as we would now say using Norman-French rather than Anglo-Saxon, ‘counties’: Somerset itself, Devon, Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. The shires were further sub-divided into ‘hundreds’, so called because, in theory though rarely in practice, they contained a hundred ‘hides’ or parcels of land each sufficient to maintain a family. We do not know when the shires and hundreds began. The former are first mentioned in the seventh century and the latter in the eleventh. But they are clearly much older. Perhaps indeed they are immemorial and go back to the folk-moots of the first Saxon settlers in western Britannia. This could explain why their meetings took place in the open air, at traditional assembly points that were often marked by a prehistoric monument, like a tumulus or barrow…
“These meetings, and the less frequent but more important shire assemblies, which took place twice a years, were called ‘courts’. They did indeed try legal cases, both criminal and civil. But they did much more. They kept the peace; levied taxes and raised troops. Finally, their sworn testimony, later systematized as the jury, supplied the basic information about property rights and inheritance without which royal government could not function: even William the Conqueror, in all his power, would depend on such juries to produce the myriad facts on which the Domesday Book was based.
“For the hundred and shire were also, whatever their folk origins might have been, the agencies of royal government. It was one royal official, the reeve or bailiff, who presided over the Hundred Court, and another, much greater one, the ealdorman [alderman], who chaired the Shire Court. The ealdorman was the leading man in his shire and one of the greatest in Wessex. He commanded the shire levies, acted as intermediary between the court and the county, and used his authority to settle most local disputes.
“Indeed, the ealdorman was so powerful that it was easy for him to forget that he was the king’s servant and to aspire instead to become a territorial magnate in his own right. Alfred was well aware of the temptation and, in a well judged interpolation in one of his translations, he denounced the ealdorman who turned his delegated authority (ealdordome) to lordship (hlafforddome) and caused ‘the reverence of himself and his power to become the regular custom of the shire he rules’.
“Alfred fought this tendency. So did his successors. So, too, perhaps, did the people. The result was that the paths of government in Wessex and Francia started to diverge. In Francia, the nobility, like Alfred’s ambitious ealdorman, soon took over the king’s former powers in the localities and privatized justice, taxation and the raising of troops. In so doing, they interposed themselves between king an people: the people of a district were now their lord’s not the king’s. In Wessex, this never quite happened. Here, instead, the partnership between king and people, into which rough and ready egalitarianism of the early Saxon settlers had developed, held. This the partnership with its sense of all being in it together, would make it easier for Alfred to impose heavy demands on the people as the crisis drew out over years and decades. It also provided, in ‘the self-government at the king’s command’ of the shires and hundreds, and the collective self-consciousness which they fostered, the means for Alfred to being his fight-back against Guthrum…”109
It was in this period that St. Neot appeared to the king in his misery one night, and told him that he would triumph over the enemy in the seventh week after Pascha, and that the Danish King Guthrum and his nobles would be baptized. And so, in the seventh week after Pascha Alfred rode to a secret meeting place called Egbert’s stone, and there, writes Bishop Asser, “all the inhabitants of Somerset and Wiltshire and all the inhabitants of Hampshire – those who had not sailed overseas for fear of the Vikings – joined up with him. When they saw the king,… they were filled with immense joy.”110
Then, on the night before the battle of Edington, in the village of Iley, St. Neot again 60 appeared to the king. He looked like an angel, his hair white as snow, his garments glistening and fragrant. “Arise quickly,” he said, “and prepare for victory. When you came here, I was with you, I helped you. So now you and your men go out to battle tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you, the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle, Who gives victory to kings. And I will go before you to the battle, and your enemies shall fall by your arm before my eyes, and you will smite them with the edge of the sword.”111
The next morning, during the battle, an invisible hand seized Alfred’s standard and waved the English on. The Danes were so overwhelmed that they agreed to leave Wessex forever, while Guthrum and thirty of his leading men agreed to be baptized. This time the Danes kept their promises: at Aller (only three miles from Athelney) Alfred received his enemy from the baptismal font, and for twelve days the Danes remained with Alfred and enjoyed his generous hospitality.112 Guthrum and his men then moved to East Anglia and settled there permanently on land donated to them by Alfred.
In 885 a Viking fleet appeared on the Thames. Alfred saw this as a violation of his agreement with Guthrum and seized London from the Vikings. Then, according to Asser, “all the Angles and Saxons – those who had formerly been scattered everywhere and were not in captivity with the Vikings – turned willingly to Alfred and submitted to his lordship.”113 Seizing the opportunity, Alfred now drew up a permanent treaty with King Guthrum. The English and Danish kings divided England between them: most of the north and east became the “Danelaw”, the administration of the Danes, while the English kept the south and the west (except Cornwall, which was a Celtic kingdom).
103 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 37-38.
104 Michael Wood, In Search of the Dark Ages, London: Penguin, 1994, p. 106.
105 Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great, London: John Murray, 2006, pp. 166-167.
106 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 53.
107 William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, 121.
108 William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, 121.
109 Starkey, The Monarchy of England, vol. 1, London: Chatto & Windus, 2004, pp. 58-60.
110 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 55.
111 Eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon Homily translated in Whitaker, The Life of Saint Neot, 1809.
112 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 56.
113 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 83.
8. KING ALFRED THE GREAT, THE ENGLISH SOLOMON
King Alfred was even greater in peace than he was in war. Determined that he should never again be caught out and outmanoeuvred by the rapid strikes of the Danes, he made three important innovations in the sphere of military organization that proved to be very important when war with the Vikings resumed in the 890s. Although the Vikings were not decisively defeated then, they gave up their attempts to conquer England for another one hundred years.
Alfred’s first innovation was the building of a fleet in order to meet and destroy the marauding pagans before they ever set foot on English soil. He even ordered the construction of a long-ship according to his own design.114 This was the first permanent fleet that any British ruler had constructed since the fourth-century Romans, who had built a fleet to protect the island against – the pagan Anglo-Saxons.
Secondly, he went part of the way to creating a standing army, “dividing his army in two, so that always half its men were at home, half out on service, except for those men who were to garrison the burhs”.115 Chris Wickham writes that Alfred’s “dense network of public fortifications, burhs, throughout southern England, defended by public obligation… was sufficiently effective to hold off a second large-scale Viking assault in 892-6. Alfred died ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’, or, in the Chronicle’s words, ‘of the whole English people except that part which was under Danish rule’; he may have been the first king to see himself in ‘English’, not West Saxon or Merican, terms… But it was the Vikings who made that choice possible for him.”116
The burhs, or new towns, were Alfred’s third and most original innovation: he constructed, or reconstructed, thirty of them at equal intervals throughout Wessex so that no Englishman working in the fields was more than twenty miles from a burh, to which he could flee in time of Viking invasion. The burhs were laid out in rectilinear street plans designed to facilitate the movement of soldiers. They were protected by massive earthworks, and Alfred appointed 27,000 soldiers to man their walls. The local landowners were required to provide four men to man each “pole” of wall (5.5 metres). The towns were also designed as centres of trade, so the predominantly rural civilization of Anglo-Saxon England was soon acquiring an urban “middle class”.
The only real city in England before this had been London, which was now relocated within the walls of the old Roman town by Alfred and extensively rebuilt. This Romanizing tendency was also revealed in the coins he minted in London, which, as Geoffrey Hindley points out, “show ‘design elements deliberately and carefully copied’ from Roman models”.117 In his London coins Alfred calls himself “king of the English” rather than “king of Wessex”; and, sensitive to the Londoners’ feelings, he appointed a Mercian, not a Wessex man, as ealdorman of the city and gave him his daughter in marriage.
Alfred’s policy towards London was a part of his wider policy of abolishing the regional differences and rivalries among the Anglo-Saxons and creating a genuinely all- English kingdom. Conscious that the divisions among the Anglo-Saxons had been at least partly to blame for their near-conquest by the Vikings, he deliberately tried to promote Englishmen from north of the Thames, especially in Church appointments. He was also very generous towards the Celts, who had only recently returned from a century-long schism from the Orthodox Church because of their hatred of the English.
Thus the Celtic Bishop Asser moved to England as Bishop of Sherborne and became his main counselor and biographer, and by the end of his reign all the South Welsh kingdoms had submitted freely to his rule.118
An important aspect of Alfred’s unification policy was his codification of law. His Lawbook of 893 acknowledges his debt to the law-codes of earlier kings of Wessex, Kent and Mercia, and he seems to have intended it to cover, not only Wessex, but also Kent and English (Western) Mercia.119 Alfred himself travelled round the kingdom checking on the activities of his judges, and if he discovered that they had committed some injustice he imposed on them an original penance – further education. Bishop Asser recounts his words: “’I am astonished at this arrogance of yours, since through God’s authority and my own you have enjoyed the office and status of wise men, yet you have neglected the study and application of wisdom. For that reason I command you either to relinquish immediately the offices of worldly power that you possess, or else to apply yourselves much more attentively to the pursuit of wisdom.’ Having heard these words, the aldermen and reeves were terrified and chastened as if by the greatest of punishments, and they strove with every effort to apply themselves to learning what is just…”120
Alfred’s attitude to wisdom was both mystical and intensely practical. The most famous relic of his reign, the Alfred Jewel, portrays a figure in cloisonné enamel that has been interpreted to represent the Wisdom of God.121 Again, when he translated Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, he recast the work as a dialogue between the inquirer’s mind and Wisdom personified.
And he added passages of his own composition which revealed both his devotion to wisdom as the key virtue, and his own conception of kingship.
For example: “Look, Wisdom, you know that desire for and possession of earthly power never pleased me overmuch, and that I did not unduly desire this earthly rule, but that nevertheless I wished for tools and resources for the task that I was commanded to accomplish, which was that I should virtuously and worthily guide and direct the authority which was entrusted to me. You know of course that no one can make known any skill, nor direct and guide any authority, without tools and resources; a man cannot work on any enterprise without resources. In the case of the king, the resources and tools with which to rule are that he have his land fully manned: he must have praying me, fighting men and working men. You know also that without these tools no king may make his ability known. Another aspect of his resources is that he must have the means of support for his tools, the three classes of men. These, then, are their means of support: land to live on, gifts, weapons, food, ale, clothing, and whatever else is necessary for each of the three classes of men. Without these things he cannot maintain the tools, nor without the tools can he accomplish any of the things he was commanded to do. Accordingly, I sought the resources with which to exercise the authority, in order that my skills and power would not be forgotten and concealed: because every skill and every authority is soon obsolete and passed over, if it is without wisdom; because no man may bring to bear any skill without wisdom…”122
“From the cradle onwards,” wrote Bishop Asser, “in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.”123 But the bishop criticized his parents for not teaching the young Alfred to read until he was twelve. Nevertheless, he was a good listener, and memorized English poems recited by others. And then one day his mother his mother offered to give a beautifully embroidered book of English poetry to whichever of her five sons would learn it fastest. Alfred won the contest…124
Having defeated the Danes, King Alfred not only indulged his passion for book learning, but decided to educate the whole of his kingdom. He lamented that England, which had once been famed for her literary culture (especially Northumbria, the home of the Venerable Bede and of Alcuin, Charlemagne’s “minister of education”), was now largely illiterate in Latin as a result of the Viking devastations. So he invited the last few learned men of the land to his court, and together with them foreign imports such as the Frankish St. Grimbald, who founded a monastery in Winchester.
With the aid of these men, and especially Grimbald, he began an astonishingly ambitious programme of translation and copying.
Alfred himself did not at first know Latin, but having learned “by divine inspiration”, according to Asser, both to read Latin and translate it into English “on one and the same day”125, he set about translating the following books which he judged to be “the most necessary for all men to know”: St. Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine’s Soliloquies and the first fifty psalms of David. Moreover, several other works, including St. Gregory’s Dialogues and the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History were translated by others at his initiative. In addition, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and an Old English Martyrology containing the lives of about two hundred saints were probably started in King Alfred’s reign. Nor did King Alfred neglect the physical well-being of his subjects: a book containing cures for eighty-eight illnesses (listed in order from head to foot) was composed in his reign, and Alfred sent the second part of this work to Patriarch Elias of Jerusalem (together with alms for the Church of Jerusalem and “the monks of India”).
Alfred sent his translations, together with prefaces written by himself, to the leading bishops of his kingdom, asking them to make further copies. In this way a strong vernacular tradition of sacred and secular literature grew up in England which continued to flourish into the tenth and eleventh centuries.126 This Anglo-Saxon vernacular tradition was unique in Western Europe in the Orthodox period, but was destroyed by the Roman Catholic Church after the Norman conquest of England.
King Alfred’s astonishingly broad range of achievements was accomplished in the face of enormous difficulties: enemies from without, inertia from within his kingdom, and extremely painful illnesses. As a youth, Alfred prayed to God for an illness that would help him suppress his carnal desires, and contracted piles. Later, during a visit to the shrine of St. Guerir (or Gwinear?) of Cornwall, he asked God to replace the piles with a less severe illness that would not be outwardly visible. The piles disappeared, and then on his wedding day, in 868, he was suddenly struck by a new and mysterious illness which lasted until his forty-fifth year. “And if at any time through God’s mercy,” writes Bishop Asser, “that illness abated for the space of a day or a night or even of an hour, his fear and horror of that accursed pain would never desert him, but rendered him virtually useless – as it seemed to him – for heavenly and worldly affairs.”127
In spite of all this, continues the bishop, the king “did not refrain from directing the government of the kingdom; pursuing all manner of hunting; giving instruction to all his goldsmiths and craftsmen as well as to his falconers, hawk-trainers and dogkeepers; making to his own design wonderful and precious new treasures which far surpassed any tradition of his predecessors; reading aloud from books in English and above all learning English poems by heart; issuing orders to his followers: all these things he did himself with great application to the best of his abilities. He was also in the invariable habit of listening daily to divine services and the Liturgy, and of participating in certain psalms and prayers and in the day-time and night-time offices, and, at night-time,.. of going (without his household knowing) to various churches in order to pray. He similarly applied himself attentively to charity and distribution of alms to the native population and to foreign visitors of all races, showing immense and incomparable kindness and generosity to all men, as well as to the investigation of things unknown. Wherefore many Franks, Frisians, Gauls, Vikings, Welshmen, Irishmen and Bretons subjected themselves willingly to his lordship, nobles and commoners alike; and, as befitted his royal status, he ruled, loved, honoured and enriched them all with wealth and authority, just as he did his own people. He was also in the habit of listening eagerly and attentively to Holy Scripture being read out by his own countrymen, or even, if the situation should somehow arise, of listening to these lessons in the company of foreigners. With wonderful affection he cherished his bishops and the entire clergy, his ealdormen and nobles, his officials as well as all his associates. Nor, in the midst of other affairs, did he cease from personally giving, by day and night, instruction to all in virtuous behaviour and tutelage in literacy to their sons, who were being brought up in the royal household and whom he loved no less than his own children.”128
King founded only two monasteries, a men’s at Athelney, and a women’s at Shaftesbury, whose first abbess was his daughter Aethelgifu. However, by his educational work, which was directed above all for the benefit of the Church, he made possible the great monastic revival of the tenth century. And if a man can be judged by his descendants, then he must be judged very highly; for his descendants in the tenth and eleventh centuries comprise one of the most distinguished dynasties in Orthodox history, with several canonized saints (the nuns Elgiva, Edburga and Edith, and Kings Edward the Martyr and Edward the Confessor).
King Alfred reposed in peace on October 26, 899… In Western Orthodox history, only King Alfred and Charlemagne among rulers have been accorded the title “the Great”. But Alfred deserves the title much more than the heretical Charlemagne.
Thoroughly Orthodox in faith (the Filioque found no place in English churches in his reign), Alfred accomplished more, in more directions, and in the face of greater difficulties, than any other ruler of the so-called “Dark Ages”. Unlike Charlemagne, he did not quarrel with the Orthodox Church in the East, but asked for the prayers of the Eastern Patriarchs. And if his kingdom was smaller and humbler than Charlemagne’s, it lasted longer and produced more fruit… He saved English Orthodox civilization for another two hundred years.
Justly, therefore, did his descendant, the tenth-century chronicler Aethelweard, describe him as “the unshakeable pillar of the western people, a man full of justice, vigorous in warfare, learned in speech, above all instructed in Divine learning… “
Now, O reader, say ‘O Christ our Redeemer, save his soul!”129
114 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 896.
115 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 893.
116 Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, London: Penguin, 2009, p. 457.
117 Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons, London: Robinson, 2006, p. 210.
118 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 80.
119 Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford: Clarendon, 1971, p. 276.
120 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 106.
121 Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, Alfred the Great, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983, p. 205.
122 Keynes and Lapidge, op. cit., pp. 132-133.
123 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 22.
124 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 23.
125 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 86.
126 In about the year 1000, Abbot Aelfric, who himself wrote many homilies in Anglo-Saxon, referred to
“the books which King Alfred wisely translated from Latin into English, which are obtainable” (in Keynes and Lapidge, op. cit., p. 45).
127 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 74; Keynes and Lapidge, op. cit., pp. 255-256.
128 Bishop Asser, Life of King Alfred, 76.
129 Aethelweard, in Keynes and Lapidge, op. cit., p. 191.
9. ATHELSTAN, CONQUEROR OF THE NORTH
The northernmost English province of Northumbria had fallen on hard times since its golden age in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Vikings had struck there first in 793, sacking the great monastery of Lindisfarne. And yet God did not intend this great province, the homeland of so many saints, to remain in slavery to the pagans.
In 883, St. Cuthbert, the greatest saint of the north of England, appeared “to the holy abbot of Carlisle, whose name was Eadred [Edred], firmly enjoining him as follows:
‘Go,’ he said, ‘across the Tyne to the army of the Danes, and say to them that, if they will obey me, they are to point out to you a certain boy, Guthfrith, Hardcnut’s son by name, a purchased slave of a certain widow, and you and the whole army are to give in the early morning the price for him to the widow; and give him the aforesaid price at the third hour, and at the sixth hour lead him before the whole multitude, that they may elect him king. And at the ninth hour lead him with the whole army on to the hill which is called ‘Oswiu’s down’, and there place on his right arm a gold armlet, and thus they may all appoint him as king. Also say to him, when he has been made king, that he is to give me the whole territory between the Tyne and the Wear; and whoever shall flee to me, whether on account of homicide, or of any other necessity, is to have sanctuary for thirty-seven days and nights.’ Resolved as a result of this vision, and strengthened by the reasonable command of the blessed confessor, the holy abbot confidently hastened to the barbarian army; and being honourably received by it, he faithfully carried out in order what had been enjoined by him. For he both found and redeemed the boy, and made him king by the great goodwill of the whole multitude, receiving the land and right of sanctuary. Then Bishop Eardwulf brought to the army and to the hill the body of St. Cuthbert, and over it the king himself and the whole army swore peace and fidelity, for as long as they lived; and they kept this oath well.”130
This must count as one of the most extraordinary acts of king-making (and massive land-redistribution) in Christian history; and the obedience of the pagan Vikings to the Christian saint was a good sign for their future conversion.
The newly-crowned King Guthfrith settled the monks of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-
Street, where he built them a cathedral in which to house the saint’s incorrupt body.
And in response to the saint’s command, he gave them all the lands between the Tyne and Wear. In view of St. Cuthbert’s decisive interventions both in the north and the south of the country, it is no wonder that when King Alfred was dying, he admonished his son and successor, Edward the Elder, “that he should have especial honour for St.Cuthbert”.131
After the death of King Guthfrith there was a pagan reaction under King Ragnald, who conquered the whole of the north. “He divided the estates of St. Cuthbert, and he gave one part, towards the south, from the estate which is called Eden as far as Billingham, to a certain powerful thegn of his who was called Scula; and the other part, from Eden as far as the River Wear, to one called Olaf Ball. And this son of the devil was hostile in every way he could to God and St. Cuthbert. And thus on a certain day, when full of the unclean spirit he entered raging into the church of the holy confessor, he said in the presence of Bishop Cutheard and the whole community: ‘What can this dead man do against me, when his threats are daily disregarded? I swear by my mighty gods, Thor and Othin, that from this hour I will be a great enemy to all of you.’ And when the bishop and the whole congregation knelt before God and St. Cuthbert, and besought them for vengeance for these threats, as it is written: ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’, this son of the devil turned away with great pride and indignation, wishing to depart. But when he had put one foot outside the threshold, he felt as if iron were fixed in the other foot. With this pain piercing his diabolical heart, he fell, and the devil thrust his sinful soul into hell. And St. Cuthbert, as was right, received his land.”132
Meanwhile, the re-conquest and re-evangelization of the Viking parts of Eastern England was continuing apace. Thus King Edward the Elder annexed Viking (Eastern) Mercia, while in neighbouring East Anglia the Danish King Eric, successor of Guthrum, accepted King Edward as his suzerain. The Christianized Danes even issued coins commemorating the Martyr-King Edmund, whom they themselves had killed only a few years before!
But it was under Edward’s successor, Athelstan, that England, together with extensive Celtic lands, was finally reunited under an Orthodox Anglo-Saxon king.
While still a child, Athelstan had been invested with a sword by his grandfather King Alfred. This was a prophetic indication of his future prowess in war.
At first, he tried to unite the north to his kingdom through peaceful methods. Thus in 925 he married his sister Eadgyth (Edith) to the Danish King Sihtric of Northumbria.
Roger of Wendover writes: “He gave up the heathen religion for the love of the maiden and received the faith of Christ. But no long afterwards he cast off the blessed maiden and, deserting his Christianity, restored the worship of idols, and after a short while ended his life miserably as an apostate. Accordingly the holy maiden, having preserved her chastity, remained strong in good works to the end of her life, at Polesworth, in fasts and vigils, in prayers and in zeal for almsgiving. She departed after the passage of a praiseworthy life from this world on 15 July, at this same place, where to this day Divine miracles do not cease to be performed…”133
Sihtric died early in 927, whereupon Athelstan took his revenge on the apostate who had so dishonoured his sister. As Michael Wood writes, “he invaded Northumbria, expelled Sihtric’s son Anlaf and his brother Guthfrith, and entered York, demolishing the Danish fortifications and seizing huge booty which he distributed to his army. It was a historic moment, for a southern king had never directly ruled in York before…
“York was only the beginning. That summer Athelstan rode up the Great North Road, attacked Bamburgh and drove out the Anglo-Saxon early Ealdred Ealdufing, who had rules north of the Tees like an independent king. Ealdred became Athelstan’s man and was reinstated. Meanwhile ambassadors had been sent to the north British kings who had given help to the Viking fugitives from York. Under threat of war they too submitted – Constantine, king of the Scots, Owain, king of the Cumbrians, and probably (though he is not mentioned) Constantine’s brother Donald, king of the Strathclyde Welsh. Their submission was the prelude to ‘all the kings of the island’ becoming Athelstan’s men.
“12 July 927… The northern kings and the Bamburgh dynasty gave up their kingdoms and were reinstated as tributaries in a ceremony on what was the northern border of the English kingdom. Eamont was a great Roman road junction twenty miles south of Carlisle, and Athelstan was establishing his frontier along the Eamont, Ullswater, and across the fells and down the Duddon to the sea. In so doing he was cutting back the expansion of the northern kings who had reached their rule deep into southern England during the Viking era. ‘They established a covenant of peace with pledges and oaths,’ says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘and then separated in concord’. The kings gave each other rich gifts, and Athelstan received Constantine’s son from the font having ordered him to be baptized.”134
Athelstan then subdued the North Welsh kings, including the Anglophile Hywel Dda, ‘the Good’. Five kings met him at Hereford, acknowledging him to be “mechteyrn” (Great King), and agreeing to give him a huge yearly tribute. Then he subdued the “West Welsh” of Cornwall, establishing a new boundary at the Tamar and refurbishing the Roman walls of Exeter. He created a new bishopric at St. Germans, and returned at Pascha, 928 to receive the obeisance of two Welsh kings and ‘Huwal, king of the West Welsh’. His conquest of Britain complete, Athelstan now received the praises and gifts of several West European rulers. A Frankish cleric said he “excelled in fame and honour all earthly kings of modern times”.
Athelstan, like Alfred, was as strong in peace as he had proved himself in war, and also shared the cultural interests of his grandfather. He cultivated good relations with foreign rulers, often through the exchange of relics and books, of which he was quite a connoisseur. Thus he exchanged books with Otto of Germany on the occasion of Otto’s marriage to the West Saxon Edith.135 And after giving refuge to Alan Forkbeard of Brittany (as he did to Hakon the Good of Norway and Louis d’Outremer of France), the Bretons gave him many relics, including a part of the True Cross. Again in emulation of his grandfather, Athelstan created law codes; he reorganized and refurbished the borough system; he created a single currency for the whole country; and he revitalized economic life to such an extent that, as an English writer said in the 980s, “from this period there was peace and abundance of all things”.136
In 934 Constantine, king of the Scots, rebelled. Athelstan quickly assembled a great army at Winchester, which included four subject kings from Wales, and rode to Nottingham, where several Viking earls from the Danelaw joined him. Then he moved on further north, giving gifts on the way to the shrines of the major Northumbrian saints: St. John’s at Beverley, St. Wilfrid’s at Ripon and St. Cuthbert’s at Chester-le-street.
He also brought relics of many Northumbrian saints south to the West Saxon shrines, such as Glastonbury and his own foundation at Malmesbury. Athelstan’s army marched deep into Scotland “as far as Dunnottar, the dramatic rock-fortress of the Picts on the coast south of Aberdeen”, while his navy “reached the northernmost point of the mainland, striking at the Norse settlements in Caithness”137. The northern kings surrendered without a fight. Constantine and Owain were restored to their kingdoms, gifts were exchanged, and Constantine surrendered his son as a hostage.
“The events of 934,” writes Wood, “confirmed Athelstan’s position at the apex of the hierarchy of rule in Britain. He was an emperor, a king who ruled other kings. He was, splendidly, ‘basileus and curagulus’ (Greek titles used by the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople) of the whole island of Britain.”138 The Roman theme was emphasized again in 935, when all his subject kings came to him again at the Roman city of Cirencester. In addition to “bowing” to Athelstan, the sub-kings had to take him as “father and lord” and swear to be “his co-worker by land and sea”.139
Athelstan had been generous to the Scottish King Constantine when he broke his oath of allegiance and rebelled. But when “the hoary-headed traitor”, as the English called him, rebelled again in 937, forming a grand alliance with the Viking King Anlaf of Dublin and several Celtic kings, vengeance would finally strike him down. However, things seemed to be going well for the rebels at first, when they sailed into the Humber and the whole of Northumbria submitted to them…
As the weather deteriorated, and the rebels ravaged the land, Athelstan bided his time – to the annoyance of his fellow-countrymen and later commentators. But then he suddenly struck at Brunanburgh, somewhere in the north of England, in what The Annals of Ulster described as “the immense, lamentable, horrible and desperately fought battle”, or simply “the great battle”, as Aethelweard called it. The northern coalition was crushed with heavy slaughter on both sides.
As if to emphasize that he was now a pan-British king, Athelstan was aided by the intercessions of a Celtic saint. Thus we read in the Life of St. Nectan of Hartland, a sixthcentury Celtic saint, that on the eve of the battle, a young man from Hartland who was lying in a tent near the king’s pavilion “felt himself suddenly seized with the bubonic plague, which at that time was miserably destroying the army of the English. He began therefore to wail and groan, and with loud clamour to call upon God, repeatedly naming St. Nectan. And so loud were his cries that the disturbed the king and others who were resting in the adjoining tents, so that they could not sleep. After midnight, the blessed martyr came, and standing by the sick man gently touched the part of his body that was affected, and the sick man was immediately cured. When it was morning, inquiry was made who it was who had broken the king’s rest that night, and he was discovered by the watch and his fellow servants, and brought before the king. When the king observed how frightened he was, he bade him not be afraid but tell him why he had cried so loud. Then he said: ‘I felt that this pestilence which rages among the people had struck me, and inconsolable grief took possession of me, to think that I would die unexpectedly, on an expedition in a foreign land, and I began with mournful voice to call upon God, and to invoke again and again, among other saints, St. Nectan, and I was heard; for he came to me when I invoked him, touched with his hand the part affected by the disease and drove away all the disease from me.’
“The king asked him to tell him about the life of the martyr and how he was martyred, and he briefly informed him on both points. Having now recovered his confidence, and being no longer afraid to speak to the king, he added, ‘Begging your pardon, my lord king, I want to say that I trust in our Lord Jesus Christ and in the help of His martyr, which I have often experienced, and if thou devoutly invoke him and commit thyself to his patronage, by his prayers and merits thou wilt obtain victory over the enemy and drive the pestilence away from the people who are perishing.’ What more shall I say? The king accepted the wise advice the young man offered him, and promised that he would give the honour to the Lord and to blessed Nectan if he won the victory and returned safely with his men. The Divine clemency consequently regarded the king’s faith, gave him victory over his enemies and removed the deadly peril of pestilence which had been threatening his army. Wherefore, at his first coming to Devon, when he had been informed by the bailiffs that the manor of Hartland was reckoned to contain twenty hides, he bestowed a tithe of them, i.e. two hides, upon the church of the blessed martyr, and as long as he lived had a special trust in his intercession.”140
Wood poses the question about King Athelstan: “What made the impression that stuck, so that even after the Norman Conquest, ‘the opinion was firmly held among the common people that no one more just or learned had ever ruled the country?’
“’His manner was charming and well disposed to churchmen, affable and kind to laymen, serious with magnates out of regard for his majesty.’ Athelstan put aside the ‘pride of kingship’ only with the poor, to whom he was ‘approachable and serious minded… out of sympathy for their poverty’, a suitable enough sentiment on the part of the rich. His spirit we are told was ‘audacious and forceful, much beloved by his subjects for his courage and his humility and like a thunderbolt to rebels with his invincible steadfastness’ (William of Malmesbury, On the Deeds of the English Kings).”141
130 Anonymous, History of St. Cuthbert; translated by Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents, London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1955, p. 261.
131 Symeon of Durham, History of the Church of Durham.
132 Anonymous, History of St. Cuthbert; translated by Whitelock, op. cit., p. 262.
133 Roger, Flores Historiarum, in Whitelock, op. cit., p. 257.
134 Wood, In Search of the Dark Ages, London: Penguin, 1994, pp. 129-130.
135 Wood, op. cit., p. 133.
136 Wood, op. cit., p. 136.
137 Wood, op. cit., p. 137.
138 Wood, op. cit., p. 138.
139 Wood, op. cit., p. 140.
140 G.H. Doble, The Saints of Cornwall, part five, Oxford: The Holywell Press, 1970, pp. 59-79. Another saintly intercession in the battle is recorded by William of Malmesbury: “During the battle, the king was saved from death by the prayers of St. Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne: “[The Viking King] Olaf, 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…” (Gesta Regum Anglorum, 131; cf. Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, I, 14).
141 Wood, op. cit., p. 146.
10. ST. DUNSTAN AND THE MONASTIC REVIVAL
In 939, King Athelstan died, and was succeeded by King Edmund. Wisely, the new king chose as one of his counselors St. Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury, which was not far from the king’s court at Cheddar in Somerset. St. Dunstan would be the main driving force behind one of the great achievements of Anglo-Saxon England, the tenthcentury monastic revival, whose foundations had been laid in the reign of King Athelstan.142
However, Dunstan’s ascent to prominence was not smooth: slander and envy, which had already caused him grief in the previous king’s reign, did not cease to pursue him now. As a result, the king ordered his banishment. Dunstan then asked some foreign envoys at the court to help him; they promised him hospitality and everything he might need if he accompanied them back to their kingdom on the continent.
The next day the king rode out hunting with his men. As they came to the forest, they dispersed in friendly competition along different paths. However, the baying of the dogs and the calling of the horns enabled many of the stags to make a quick escape; and only the king, with one pack of dogs, found himself on the track of a stag. In his flight the exhausted animal came to a very deep gorge into which he suddenly hurled himself, followed by the dogs. The king, following close behind, was accelerating when he saw the gorge. Desperately he tried hold back his horse, but without success. With all hope for his life gone, he commended his soul into the hands of God, saying within himself: ‘I thank Thee, O God Most High, that as far as I can remember, I have not harmed anyone at this time, except only Dunstan, and I shall be reconciled with him promptly if my life is saved.’ When he had said this, his horse came to a standstill on the very edge of the abyss.
Praising and giving thanks to God, the king realized that he had come so near to being killed in order that Dunstan might be vindicated; and on his return he ordered him to be brought before him without delay. When Dunstan came in, he said: ‘Hurry up, get a horse, and come with me and my soldiers.’ And, mounting their horses, they immediately took the road to Glastonbury. On arrival, they went into the church to pray; and after praying and wiping the tears from his eyes, the king again called the servant of God to him. Taking him by the hand, he kissed it and led him to the priest’s chair. Having seated him in it, he said: ‘Be the powerful incumbent of this seat and the most faithful abbot of this church. And whatever you need, whether for the Divine services or for the sacred Rule, I shall devoutly supply from my royal bounty.’
Dunstan was placed in charge of the monastery at Glastonbury in the year 943, and immediately instituted the strict application of St. Benedict’s Rule for the monks, thus giving a major impetus to the revival of monasticism in England after the devastation of the Viking wars. He also began to build many new buildings for the monastery in accordance with a vision he had had in childhood.
Through a vision of evil spirits, the saint prophesied the death of King Edmund. For as he was travelling in the king’s escort, he suddenly saw a black form running among the king’s trumpeters. After gazing at it for a long time in amazement, he turned to his neighbour, ‘Half-King’ Athelstan, the alderman of East Anglia, and said: ‘Beloved, do you see what I see?’ ‘Nothing out of the ordinary,’ he replied. ‘Sign yourself with the sign of the Holy Cross, and then see if you can see what I see,’ said the holy man. When he did this, Athelstan also saw the evil spirit. When they made the sign of the Cross again, the enemy disappeared.
As they continued on their way, Athelstan asked the saint to what extent this vision of theirs was related to a dream he had had, in which he had seen the king fall asleep while feasting among his nobles, whereupon almost all the chief men and counsellors had turned into sheep and goats. Dunstan immediately replied: ‘The king’s sleep means his death; but the changing of the chief men and counsellors into mute and irrational beasts refers to the future, when almost all the chief men and rulers will of their own accord deviate from the way of truth.’
As they came to the king’s quarters, they were still discussing these matters. And at dusk on the same day Dunstan again saw the evil spirit wandering among the servants at the king’s banquet. Then, on the very day on which the king was killed, May 26, 946, he saw it for the third time as the king was returning from the Divine Liturgy to the banquet-hall. During the feast, the king saw a man named Liofa, whom he had banished from the kingdom six years before, sitting at a table next to an alderman. He got up and tried to drive the outlaw from the hall, but was stabbed by him and died.
The king’s body was taken to Glastonbury, where St. Dunstan performed the funeral service.
Edmund was succeeded by his brother Edred, who loved Dunstan no less than his predecessors, loading him with honours and submitting to his wise counsel. Like his brother before him, Edred had to deal with uprisings of the Northumbrians, who first took Eric Bloodaxe, son of Harold Fairhair of Norway, as their king; then Olaf Cuaran, another Viking; and then Eric again. Finally, in 954, King Edred regained permanent control of the North. Archbishop Wulfstan of York, who had sided with the rebels, was imprisoned, and then, perhaps on St. Dunstan’s advice, was brought south and given the diocese of Dorchester143, while the Danish bishop of Dorchester, Oscetel, was given York. This was a bold move, but it worked – the Dane was better able than the Englishman to control his countrymen, and he was completely loyal to the English Crown. Indeed, both archbishops (Oda of Canterbury and Oscetel of York) were Danish at this time; and it says much for the wisdom, charity and lack of prejudice of the English leaders that they were able to welcome such a situation when the Danish wars had by no means receded from the people’s memory. In 955 Edred called himself, with pardonable exaggeration, “King of the Anglo-Saxons and Emperor of the whole of Britain”.
In 953, Bishop Ethelgar of Crediton died; whereupon King Edred tried to persuade St. Dunstan to accept the vacant see. But he refused, not wishing to desert the king, whom he loved, for the sake of the episcopate. The king then asked his mother, St.
Elgiva, to intercede. So she invited him to a royal banquet and again put forward the same proposal. But he replied: ‘I ask you, lady, not to ask me this again; for I tell you truly: I must not be made a bishop during the lifetime of your son the king.’
The Lord, however, was not pleased by Dunstan’s refusal, as was revealed to him in a vision that night. For he saw himself returning from a pilgrimage to the apostles’
tombs in Rome and was coming near the Mons Gaudium. Then St. Peter and his fellow apostles Paul and Andrew approached him. Each held in his hand a sword, which they offered him. On Peter’s sword were inscribed the words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Then Andrew sang sweetly from the Gospel: ‘Take My yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.’ Peter then raised a staff which he held in his hand and struck Dunstan lightly on the palm, saying: ‘Take this as a warning not to refuse the yoke of the Lord in future.’ Waking up, the saint asked a monk who was sleeping in the same room who it was that had struck him. He said that he did not know. Dunstan thought for a while, and then said: ‘Now I know, my son, now I know by whom I have been struck.’
In the morning he recounted his vision to the king, who said: ‘Since the swords you took up with the apostles’ blessing are the weapons of the Holy Spirit, you can be quite certain that through the sword given you by the blessed Peter and inscribed with the word of God, you are to receive the archbishopric from heaven.’ As for the other swords, that given by St. Paul may have signified the see of London, whose cathedral church was dedicated to the apostle and which Dunstan held for a short period before he became archbishop. And that of St. Andrew may have signified the see of Rochester, whose church was dedicated to the First-Called and which Dunstan was called upon to defend in his later years.
King Edred had been chronically sick throughout his reign, and now he came to die.
Feeling his end draw near, he sent a messenger to Dunstan to bring his treasures from Glastonbury, where the saint had been looking after them, to Frome, where the king lay. As Dunstan was riding to Frome, on St. Clement’s day, 955, he suddenly heard a voice from heaven: ‘King Edred now rests in peace.’ At the sound of the voice, his horse, unable to bear the angelic power, fell dead to the ground, astonishing the saint’s companions. When he had explained to them the voice and its meaning, and as they were blessing God and commending the soul of the dead man into the hands of God, messengers came up and confirmed the truth of the voice.
And so the walls of the palace were resounding to cries of lamentation as the saint entered. He found the royal corpse abandoned. Faithful in death as in life, he performed the funeral service and buried the king in the Old Minster, Winchester.144
The death of King Edred marked the end of the peaceful part of St. Dunstan’s tenure of the Glastonbury abbacy. For he was succeeded by Edwig, the son of King Edmund – a rash youth under the influence of a mother and daughter, both named Elgiva, who wanted him to choose one of them to be his wife. This wanton behaviour of the king was to bring him into conflict with the saint…
Now the time came for the anointing and consecration of the new king after his election by the people. The ceremony was duly performed, but then the king had no time to attend the banquet with his nobles and bishops, but immediately ran after the loose women. When the holy Archbishop Oda saw that the king’s wilfulness on the day of his coronation displeased all the counselors sitting around, he said to his fellowbishops and the other leading men: ‘Let some of you, pray, go and fetch the king, so that he may, as is fitting, be a pleasant companion to his followers at the royal banquet.’
But one by one, fearing to incur the king’s wrath or the women’s complaint, they began to demur. Finally, they chose from among them two whom they knew to be strong in spirit – Abbot Dunstan and Bishop Cynesige, a kinsman of Dunstan’s, to go in obedience to the command of all and bring back the king, whether he wished it or not.
Entering the king’s chamber in accordance with their superiors’ command, Dunstan and Cynesige found the king’s crown, which was bound with gold, silver and precious stones, and shone with a many-coloured light, carelessly thrown on the floor far away from his head, while the king himself wallowed between the two women as if he were in a pig-sty. They said to him: ‘Our nobles have sent us to you to ask you to come as quickly as possible to your proper seat, and not to scorn to be present at the joyful banquet of your chief men.’ But when the king did not want to rise, Dunstan, after first rebuking the folly of the women, drew him by his hand from his licentious reclining with them, replaced the crown on his head, and brought him with him to the royal assembly by force.
Like Jezabel of old, the elder Elgiva now conceived a violent hatred for Dunstan and obtained the consent of the king to deprive him of all his honours and possessions, and to expel him from the kingdom. Dunstan’s friends and supporters were also persecuted.
Elgiva even sent secret agents to kill Dunstan before he could leave the country. But he eluded her grasp, and made a speedy passage to the continent. There he was kindly received by Count Arnulf of Flanders, staying in the Abbey of St. Peter in Ghent.
The saint did not cease to weep and groan day and night, thinking of his country and the spiritual condition of his monastery. One night, he dreamed that he was with a group of brethren as they were coming to the end of the Vespers psalms. After the canticle, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’, they began to sing the antiphon from Job:
‘Why have ye disparaged his truthful words, and composed speeches to reprove him, and…’ At this point the chant stopped and they all fell silent; nor was he able to persuade them to complete either the words or the melody. Several times they went back to the same point in the chant, never did they say the last words. And he, rebuking them in the same vision, said: ‘Why do you not want to end the antiphon with the words: “what ye have had in mind ye discharge”?’ Then came the Divine reply:
‘Because, I say, they will never discharge what they are striving for in their minds – to tear you away from the government of this monastery.’ Waking up, the saint gave thanks to God the Most High, his Comforter. And indeed, some of the people in the vision turned out later to have been plotting against him in secret.
King Edwig married the younger Elgiva, although the union was within the forbidden degrees of kinship. As a result, the northern parts of the English kingdom, Mercia and Northumbria, rebelled against him, and chose his brother Edgar as their king. And in the next year Archbishop Oda dissolved his marriage. When Elgiva tried to rejoin the king, she was caught by men from the north; they severed the muscles and sinews of her lower limbs, and she died in agony a few days later. Finally, Edwig died, and when Edgar reunited the kingdom under his sole rule, he recalled Dunstan from exile…
Edgar ‘the Peaceable’ ascended the throne in 958. In the same year St. Dunstan was made Bishop of Worcester. Then, in 959, he was transferred to the see of London. And in 960 he was elected Archbishop of Canterbury.
After Dunstan had been elected archbishop, he set off for Rome, to receive the pallium (omophorion) from the Pope. On his return, he immediately set about spreading the monastic reforms which he had initiated at Glastonbury; and he found the king a willing helper in this holy task. Already, as Bishop of London, he had founded a small monastery of twelve monks at Westminster with St. Wulfsige as abbot.
Now he appointed his disciples Saints Aethelwold and Oswald to the sees of Winchester and Worcester respectively; and under their vigorous leadership the south of England was soon covered with Benedictine monasteries.
In King Edgar’s reign, England reached the peak of her glory as an Orthodox kingdom, founded on a strong monastic revival supported by a powerful king and a sainted archbishop. The relationship between them was truly symphonic, but with a particularly strong role assigned to the king: “I have in my hand the sword of Constantine; you hold that of Peter,” wrote King Edgar to Dunstan in 967. “Let us join our right hands sword to sword, so that the sanctuary of God may be cleansed.”
The truly “symphonic” cooperation of King Edgar and Archbishop Dunstan laid the foundation of a golden age in the history of the Anglo-Saxon Church. This age had been prophesied by a heavenly voice which St. Dunstan had heard in 943, at the birth of Edgar: “Peace to England as long as this child reigns, and our Dunstan survives.” “The succession of events,” wrote William of Malmesbury, “was in unison with the heavenly oracle; to such an extent did ecclesiastical glory flourish and martial clamour decay while he was alive.”
King Edgar was anointed for the first time in 960 or 961. For many years he was not allowed to wear his crown in penance for a sin he had committed. But in 973, at the age of thirty (perhaps not coincidentally, the canonical age for episcopal ordination in the West) he was anointed again, this time as “Emperor of Britain” in the ancient Roman city of Bath. In the same year, again emphasizing the imperial theme, he was rowed at Chester on the River Dee by six or eight sub-kings, include five Welsh and Scottish rulers and one ruler of the Western Isles.145 “This was a move,” writes Ryan Lavelle, “that recalled the actions of his great-uncle Athelstan, the successful ruler of Britain, but it was also an English parallel to the tenth-century coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto of Germany, in which the stem-dukes had undertaken the task of feeding the emperor.”
Edgar’s adoption of the trappings of Romanitas was not without foundation. The economy was strong, the tax and legal systems were sophisticated, the coinage was secure (with an impressive system of monetary renewal whereby all coins issued from the royal mints had to be returned and reissued every five years). England was now a firmly Orthodox, multi-national state composed of three Christian peoples, Anglo-Saxons, Celts and Danes, living in mutual amity, while the Celtic peoples living beyond his frontiers owed him a certain allegiance.
For through the ceremony on the Dee, as Sir Frank Stenton writes, “Edgar, like Edward the Elder and Athelstan on similar occasions, became secure against attack from the princes who had become his men, and entitled to their help if others made war on him. The weakness of this relationship was its personal character and its consequent impermanence. At the middle of the century Edmund, Edgar’s father, was already feeling his way towards a more stable understanding when he gave Strathclyde to Malcolm king of Scots. There is evidence that shortly after the meeting at Chester Edgar attempted to secure the allegiance of Kenneth, the Scottish king, by a grant of the English lands between the Tweed and the Forth which were then collectively called Lothian. The grant is not mentioned by any contemporary whose work has survived.
But a thirteenth-century write who had preserved much ancient material states that Kenneth was brought to Edgar by Aelfsige, bishop of Chester-le-Street, and Eadwulf, ealdorman of Bernicia, that Kenneth did homage to Edgar, and that Edgar thereupon gave him Lothian and a number of estates in England on which he could reside when he came in future to Edgar’s court. The story deserves to be taken seriously. It is set down as a simple matter of fact, and the names which come into it raise no chronological difficulties. As the bare record of a tradition it naturally ignores the historical significance of the grant. The cession of Lothian determined the future of the Scottish kingdom. Within a century it had become an Anglo-Celtic state in which the English element was steadily rising to predominance. But the change was very slow at first, and no Englishman of Edgar’s time could have foreseen its consequences.
“Even within his own country it was Edgar’s policy to limit the responsibilities of his government. He was the first king to recognize in legislation that the Danish east of England was no longer a conquered province but an integral part of the English realm.
The recognition took the form of a grant of autonomy to its inhabitants. In the most explicit of terms Edgar ordains that in return for the loyalty which the ‘Danes’ have always manifested, such social and legal customs shall prevail among them as they themselves may choose. In another passage he expressly contrasts this liberty of theirs with the subjection of ‘Englishmen’ to the laws which he and his council have made.
When issuing a set of regulations intended to suppress traffic in stolen cattle, he is apologetic in insisting that they shall apply in Danish as well as English territory; and even so, he allows the Danes themselves to decide what punishment shall be inflicted for the breach of these regulations in their country. It is not surprising that within at most a generation after his time the shires of Danish England had come to be known collectively as the Danelaw.
“This did not mean that his authority in that land was negligible. He appointed the earls and bishops through whom it was governed, its leading magnates regarded themselves as his men, ad its militia was bound to join him when he went to war in person. There, as elsewhere, he possessed estates which were important centres for the administration of justice; and the breach of his peace, given under his hand and seal, was punished even more severely in Danish than in English territory. But he was rarely seen in its more distant parts, and the rights which belonged to him as king of the whole land left open a vast field of action within which his Anglo-Danish subjects were free to govern themselves. It is this freedom which, more than any other cause, explains their acquiescence in their political subject. Here and there, especially in the northern Danelaw, men who could trace their descent from companions of Ivar the Boneless may have wished for a king of their own race. But in normal times the feeling never outweighed the solid advantages offered by Edgar’s promise of autonomy in return for allegiance.”
King Edgar’s remarkable combination of power from the centre with the granting of autonomy to the regions serves as a model of statesmanship. He certainly earned his epithet of “the Peaceable”…
If St. Dunstan was the leader of the monastic revival, its most powerful executive, as it were, was his disciple, St. Aethelwold. 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 Elgiva, King Edred’s mother, was against this (Aethelwold later sent the monk Osgar to Fleury instead of himself); and she persuaded her 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 set about rebuilding this 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) 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.
Composed in about 973, writes Ryan Lavelle, “the Regularis Concordia,… was intended as a rulebook and liturgical guide for English monks and nuns, but it was also a bold statement of the relationship between God, the king and a Christian people. The king and queen were seen as protectors of monks and nuns in the temporal world, while, in return, the souls of the West Saxon royal family were protected with prayers by the same monks and nuns. The positions of the king and queen were therefore inextricably linked with the survival of Christianity in the kingdom. This was part of a process of legitimising royal power to an extent that was hitherto unparalleled in Anglo-Saxon England. The king had become part of the ecclesiastical order in a coronation ceremony that made him God’s representative on earth. The original meaning of Christ’s name, Christus meant ‘the anointed [king]’, and the inauguration of Edgar used an ordo (an order of service) that put Edgar on a similar level – directly anointed by God. The monastic reform movement gave this a new impetus…”
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 Winchester. He probably helped to reform the monasteries at Milton (Dorset), St. Neot’s (Cambridgeshire) and Chertsey (Surrey). With the help of the king, he also revived three monasteries in the East – Peterborough, Ely and 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 relics of St. Etheldreda, and those of her holy sisters Sexburga and Ermenhilda, to which Brihtnoth wanted to add those of the fourth sister, St. Withburga. So, after fasting and prayer, he and some of his monks went to East Dereham in Norfolk, where St.Withburga had struggled, and removed her body, much to the displeasure of the monks and citizens of Dereham.
But Brithnoth 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. “What is lifeless metal,” he said, “compared with bodies and souls created and redeemed by God?”
On July 15, 971 there took place one of the most splendid events – from both a material and a spiritual point of view – in English Orthodox history: the translation of the relics of St. Swithun. For over a hundred years after his repose in 862, St. Swithun’s memory was forgotten, and, as he had wished, people walked over his grave on their way to the Old Minster in Winchester without knowing who it was they were stepping on. But the Lord did not wish this great light to remain hidden under a bushel; and in 971 his relics were translated into the cathedral to the accompaniment of a greater outpouring of miracles than had ever been seen in Orthodox England.
About twenty years later, this event was recorded by Abbot Aelfric:- “For three years before the saint was translated into the church from the stone coffin which now stands inside the new building, he appeared in a vision to a certain faithful blacksmith, wonderfully arrayed, and said: ‘Do you know the priest Aedsige, who with other priests was driven out of the old monastery by Bishop Aethelwold for their misconduct?’ The smith then answered the venerable Swithun as follows: ‘I knew him long ago, sir, but he left this place, and I do not know for certain where he is living now.’ Then the holy man said again to the old smith: ‘He is now living in Winchcombe.
This is the truth. And now I adjure you in the name of Christ: go quickly and give this message, that Swithun the bishop has commanded him to go to Bishop Aethelwold and say that he must himself open my grave and bring my bones inside the church; for he has been counted worthy that in his time I should be made known to men.’ Then the smith said to him: ‘O sir, Aedsige will not believe my words.’ Then the bishop said again: ‘Let him go to my grave and pull a ring out of the coffin; and if the ring yields at the first tug then he will know for certain that I have sent you to him. If the ring will not come away easily, then he will by no means accept what I say. And after that tell him that he must amend his ways in accordance with the will of the Lord, and hasten singlemindedly to eternal life. And tell everyone that as soon as they open my grave they will find such a valuable hoard that their precious gold will be as nothing in comparison.’
Then holy Swithun vanished from the smith’s sight.
“However, he did not dare to tell anyone about this vision, fearing to be regarded as an untruthful messenger. So the holy man spoke to him again, and yet a third time, and severely reproved him for not acting in obedience to his commands. Then at last the smith went to his burial-place, and, albeit fearfully, took hold of the ring, crying out to God: ‘O Lord God, the Creator of all things, grant me, a sinner, to pull this ring out of the lid, if he who spoke to me three times in a dream is really lying here inside.’ Then he pulled the iron out of the stone as easily as if it had stood in sand, and wondered greatly at what had happened. Then he put it back in the hole and pressed it in with his foot. Again it stuck so firmly that no one was able to pull it out. The smith went away awestruck, and in the market-place he met a serf of Aedsige’s, to whom he related exactly what Swithun had commanded him to report it to his master.
“The serf consented, but at first did not dare to tell his master, until he felt that no good would come from concealing the saint’s command. Then he told him in order what Swithun had commanded. Now at that time Aedsige avoided Bishop Aethelwold and all the monks who were in the minster because of his ejection by then. So he did not obey the saint’s command, although the saint was a blood-relative of his. Within two years, however, he retreated to that same monastery, and by the grace of God became a monk, continuing there until he departed this life. Blessed is Almighty God, Who humbles the proud while exalting the humble to high estate, and corrects the sinful while always preserving the good who hope in Him.
“Again, there was a certain poor peasant, awfully hunch-backed and bent over in consequence, to whom it was revealed in a dream that he would obtain bodily health and recovery from his crippled state at Swithun’s sepulchre. And so he arose joyfully in the morning, crept on two crutches to Winchester and sought the saint as he had been instructed, praying for his health on bended knee. Then he was healed by the holy bishop, so that no trace of the hump which had oppressed him could be seen. At that time the monks did not know about St. Swithun, thinking that some other saint had healed the man. But the peasant said that it was Swithun who had healed him, for he knew best about the matter.
“A certain man was afflicted with a very distressing disease, so that he could hardly open his eyes or utter a word, but lay in torment thus, despairing of his life. Then all his friends wanted to carry him to the New Minster, to [the relics of] St. Judoc, so that he could recover his health there. But someone told them that it would be better to take the sick man to the Old Minster, to Swithun’s grave. This they did, and that night they kept vigil at the grave with him, praying to Almighty God to grant the sick man health through St. Swithun. The sick man also watched until daybreak. Then he fell asleep, and it seemed to all of them as if the tomb was rocking, while to him it seemed as if someone was dragging one of his shoes off his feet. Suddenly he awoke, healed by the holy Swithun. They looked carefully for the shoe, but no one could find it. So they returned home with the man who had been healed.
“Through the power of God eight sick men were miraculously healed at the holy tomb before the body was removed from it.
“After these signs, King Edgar desired the holy man’s exhumation, and told the venerable Aethelwold to translate it with great pomp. Then Bishop Aethelwold, accompanied by abbots and monks, took up the saint and bore him into the church of St. Peter. There he remains in honour, working miracles. Then within three days four sick men were healed by the holy man; and there were few days within the next five months in which at least three sick people were not healed – sometimes five or six, or seven or eight, ten or twelve, sixteen or eighteen. Within ten days two hundred men had been healed, and so many within twelve months that no one could count them. The cemetery was filled with cripples, so that the people could hardly get into the minster.
And within a few days they were all so miraculously healed that one could not find a sick man in the whole of that vast crowd.
“At that time there lived in the Isle of Wight three women, two of whom had been blind for nine years, and the third had never seen the light of the sun. With some difficulty they obtained a dumb guide and came to the saint, and watched there for one night, and were healed, both the blind woman and the dumb guide. Then the boy told the sacristan, saying that he had never been able to speak before, and asking for the appointed hymn of praise to be sung.
“At about the same time a certain bondwoman was caught and sentenced to be flogged for some very minor fault. She was put in custody until the morning, when she was to be severely beaten. All night she lay awake, weeping and calling on the holy Swithun to help her, the wretched one, praying that through the power of God he would deliver her from the cruel stripes. When dawn broke, and they began to sing the Praises, the fetters on her feet suddenly fell off, and she ran, with hands still bound, to the church and the blessed saint, in accordance with his will. Then her lord came after her and freed her, loosing her bonds, for the sake of St. Swithun.
“A certain nobleman had lain crippled by paralysis for many years, being unable to move from his bed. Then he said that he wanted to travel to Winchester, if only in his horse-litter, and pray for his healing. While he was saying this to his servants and friends, he was cured. Nevertheless, he made his way to the saint on foot, travelling in front of the company for the whole journey, and earnestly thanked the saint for his recovery.”
On one day, twenty-five men suffering from various diseases came to the saint, imploring him to help them. Some were blind, some lame, some deaf and some dumb.
They were all healed at the same time through the saint’s intercession.
There was a certain very rich nobleman who went suddenly blind. He travelled to Rome to pray to the holy Apostles for a cure. For four years he stayed in Rome, but was not healed. Then he heard of St. Swithun, and of the miracles he had wrought since he had left England. Travelling back in haste, he came to the saint and was healed there, returning home with perfect sight.
“Another man,” continues Abbot Aelfric, “had been blind for seven whole years. He had a guide who led him everywhere. One day he went out, but the guide became angry and left him. At a loss how to return home, the blind man cried out to God and St. Swithun in great anguish. He was immediately healed and returned home joyfully without a guide, for which his relatives thanked God fervently.
“Then the venerable and blessed Aethelwold, who was the bishop of Winchester at that time, commanded all the monks who were living in the monastery to go in procession to the church and praise the saint with hymns, and in this way to magnify God because of the great saint every time a sick man was healed. This they did immediately, and sang the Te Deum so often – sometimes three, sometimes four times in a night – that they came to hate getting up to do this, as they wanted to go on sleeping. At length they gave up the chanting altogether, for the bishop was busy with the king and had no means of knowing that they were not chanting the Te Deum continually. Then St. Swithun himself came, wonderfully adorned, to a certain good man, and said: ‘Go now to the Old Minster and tell the monks that God very much dislikes their murmuring and sloth, for they see God’s wonders among them every day but will not praise Christ with chanting as the bishop told the brethren to do. And tell them that if they do not sing the hymn, immediately the miracles will cease. However, if they sing the Te Deum every time a miracle is performed and a sick man is healed, then so many miracles will be wrought among them that no one will be able to remember so many miracles having been wrought in his lifetime by anyone. Then the man awoke from that joyous sleep, lamenting that he could no longer see the bright light which he had seen around St. Swithun. He arose, however, and went quickly to Bishop Aethelwold, and told him all that had happened. Aethelwold then immediately sent from the king’s court to the monks, and told them to sing the Te Deum as he had commanded, with the warning that anyone who neglected this would heavily atone for it by seven days’ continuous fasting. From that time they always observed this custom, as we ourselves have very often seen; for we have not infrequently sung this hymn with them…”
St. Swithun’s translation linked the beginning of the English Autocracy, under his pupil King Alfred, with its zenith under King Edgar. And the contrast between the humility of his death and burial with the glory of his translation mirrored the progress of the Autocracy from humility to glory. And, as we shall see, St. Swithun played a part also in its end…
The third major figure in the monastic revival was St. Oswald, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York. The son of Danish convert parents, and the nephew of St. Oda of Canterbury, he spent a certain time in a monastery in Winchester before going for five or six years to the Benedictine monastery of Fleury-on-Loire. There he acquired a thorough knowledge of Benedictine monasticism and the writings of the Holy Fathers, distinguishing himself by his humility, obedience and the austerity of his life.
In 958, when St. Oda was dying, he called his nephew, who was now a priest, to his bedside. But when Oswald arrived at Dover from France, he heard that the saint had already reposed. He decided not to return to Fleury, but to go north to York, where another relative of his, Oscetel, was archbishop. Oscetel introduced him to St. Dunstan, and he, much impressed, introduced him to the king. And so, supported by both king and primate, he was elected to the bishopric of Worcester in 961. There he soon became the object of great love and veneration by the citizens.
Eleanor Duckett writes: “The Cathedral at Worcester was dedicated to Saint Peter.
Since it was very small, it soon could not hold the people who came flocking to hear this new pastor preach. Outside it, on a side, level tract of ground, stood a little stone shrine, with a cross of top, marking the burial-place of Wilfred and his wife Alta, benefactors of Saint Peter’s. To this open space Oswald moved his congregation and taught as best he could, standing beside the old tomb. Soon the crowds compelled the building of a new and larger church; and when at last this was ready, the bishop consecrated it in honour of Mary, Mother of God. Then the little Saint Peter’s, which before Oswald’s coming had seen secular clergy in its choir, offered its services in union with this more splendid cathedral.”
Meanwhile, in 962, Oswald had founded his first monastery, at Westbury-on-Trim, establishing in it, and later in Worcester, the regular Benedictine discipline. This was the first of several monasteries that he founded or re-founded in the Severn valley. At Westbury, as well as at the restored monastery of Winchcombe, he placed his disciple Germanus as abbot. And at Pershore he installed an abbot named Fordbricht, who had been trained under St. Dunstan at Glastonbury and St. Aethelwold at Abingdon.
Pershore was enriched by some relics of St. Edburga, and was henceforth dedicated to SS. Mary, Peter and Paul, and Edburga.
But Oswald’s most famous foundation was outside his diocese, deep in the fencountry of Huntingdonshire – Ramsey. Here, in 971, he introduced monks from Westbury and the famous scholar Abo of Fleury (who wrote the Vita Edmundi), and translated the relics of St. Felix of Dunwich and the holy Martyr-Princes Ethelbert and Ethelbricht of Kent. The land was donated by the pious alderman of East Anglia, Aethelwine.
Once both Oswald and Aethelwine came to a feast at Ramsey monastery. “There is an ancient tradition,” writes Oswald’s biographer, an anonymous monk of Ramsey, “that the whole of the main body of the congregation processed barefoot to the church of the Blessed Ever-Virgin Birth-Giver of God Mary, which custom was followed by the chief man [Aethelwine] as he walked with us with joyful heart together with his soldiers, the monks and the boys. But next to the church to which we had to go was a bridge, which we crossed on the way out. So on the way back we wanted to go quickly home by sailing across in a boat together with the precious relics. When the Liturgy was over, the prelate blessed the people; and we hastened to return home. But the boat was overloaded. When we were in the middle of the deep lake, and were about to sink, and the prelate was standing on the bank surrounded by his own people, he heard the sound of voices: ‘Saint Benedict, help us!’ On hearing this, he asked the reason, and on ascertaining it he raised his holy right hand and said, trusting in the Lord: ‘May the blessing of Christ come upon us from above.’ His clear voice came to the ears of the most merciful Redeemer more speedily than you could have finished the verse; and all were brought safely to land.”
In 972, the saint was made archbishop of York while retaining the bishopric of Worcester until his death – a unique situation that testified to the honour in which he was held. This appointment gave him a vast sphere of influence, but also great responsibilities and difficulties in a province where, as we have seen, Christianity was still struggling for predominance over paganism. Since St. Oswald was of Danish parentage, and, moreover, related to Oscetel, he was well equipped to continue the English Autocracy’s tradition of racial reconciliation and missionary activity. However, the fact that he did not found a single monastery in his northern diocese shows the difficulty of the task he faced; and during the anti-monastic reaction during the reign of Edward the Martyr this diocese suffered as much as any. Thus in a memorandum on the estates of York, he states: “I, Archbishop Oswald, declare that all these lands which Archbishop Oscetel obtained in Northumbria, and which my lord granted me for St.Peter’s when he was at Nottingham, together with these other lands which are entered here besides, I had them all until [?] ascended. Then St. Peter was robbed of them. May God avenge it as He will.”
142 The main sources used in this chapter are: W. Stubbs, Memorials of St. Dunstan, Rolls series, 1874, containing the earliest Vita Dunstani by Saxon priest B. (c. 1000) and the eleventh-century Lives by Abelard, Osbert and Edmer; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum and De Antiquitate Glastoniae Ecclesiae, 2; Oratio Edgari regis, P.L. 138, 515D-516A; Eleanor Duckett, Saint Dunstan of Canterbury, London: Collins, 1955; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 112, 118-120, 140-142, 305-307; Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 370-372.; Christopher Brooks, The Saxon and Norman Kings, London: Fontana, 1963, pp. 127-128; Andrew Prescott, The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold, London: The British Library, 2002, pp. 2-8; Ryan Lavelle, Aethelred II: King of the English 978-1016, Stroud: Tempus, 1002, pp.29, 31; Abbot Aelfric, Vita Aethelwoldi, in Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents, London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1955; Abbot Aelfric, Lives of the Saints, Early English Texts Society, no. 76, 1881; 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; Anonymous, Vita Oswaldi, in J. Raine, Historians of the Church of York, Rolls series, 1874, vol. 1, pp. 399-475; Edmer, Miracula Sancti Oswaldi Archiepiscopi, in Raine, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 1-59.
143 On Eric Bloodaxe and Archbishop Wulfstan, see Wood, op. cit., chapter 7.
144 Adelard, Vita Dunstani, in Stubbs, op. cit., p. 58) says that Edred was buried in the Old Minster. However, David Farmer (op. cit., p. 112) claims that he was buried in Glastonbury.
145 Some see in this event less a submission of the northern kings to Edgar as a kind of peace treaty between them. Be that as it may, it is true to say that the power of the Anglo-Saxon kings never really extended into Scotland, where a native dynasty founded by Kenneth MacAlpin (840-858) “destroyed the last Pictish kings, and imposed Gaelic customs and the Gaelic language throughout the kingdom of Alba” (Ann Williams, “Britain AD 1000”, History Today, vol. 50 (3), March, 2000, p. 34). One of these Scottish Orthodox kings was Macbeth (+1057), made famous by the hero of Shakespeare’s play. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he “scattered money like seed among the poor”.
11. THE ANTI-MONASTIC REACTION
Saints Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald, the three great monastic founders and reformers, who occupied the three most important episcopal sees in the country, strengthened the spiritual life of the English nation immeasurably. However, they also strengthened the Autocracy that held the kingdom together. But the murder of King Edgar’s son Edward was to signal the beginning of the end both of the English Orthodox Church and of the English Autocracy…
King Edgar married twice, producing a son from each marriage. When he died in 975 (his relics were discovered to be incorrupt in 1052), the partisans of his second son, Aethelred, argued that he should be made king in preference to his elder half-brother Edward, on the grounds that Edgar had not been anointed when he begat Edward in 959 or 960, and that his first wife, Edward’s mother, had never been anointed, so that the throne should pass to the younger son, who had been born “in the purple” when both his parents were anointed sovereigns.146 The conflict was settled when the archbishop of Canterbury, St. Dunstan, seized the initiative and anointed St. Edward. In this way, through her stewardship of the sacrament of royal anointing, the Church came to play the decisive role in deciding the question of succession.147
Many troubles met the young king on his accession. The root of them was the fact that in the previous reign the white clergy had been expelled from the monasteries in which they had been living unlawfully, had been replaced by real monks, and were now seeking to be re-established in their former place. Also, the nobles coveted the lands which King Edgar had given to the monasteries. Now the English kings of the tenth century created a powerful landowning aristocracy; but its estates were scattered in different parts of the kingdom, so a powerful all-English king was in its interests, and aristocratic separatism, the bane of so many autocratic kingdoms, did not raise its head for most of the century. But the envy of the nobles, combining with the resentment of the expelled white clergy, built up during the reign of King Edgar and erupted into violence at the beginning of the reign of King Edward.
A great famine was raging through the land. At the same time, beginning in the West and spreading to the East, a violent attack was stirred up against the holy monasteries by a prominent nobleman named Aelfhere. Many of the monasteries which King Edgar had established were destroyed, and the monks were forced to flee.148
Thus according to a contemporary monastic writer: “The whole kingdom was thrown into confusion, the bishops were agitated, the noblemen stirred up, the monks shaken with fear, the people terrified. The married clergy were glad, for their time had come. Abbots, with their monks, were expelled, and married clergy, with their wives, were introduced [in their place].”149
However, King Edward and Archbishop Dunstan stood firm in a series of stormy councils attended by all the leading men of Church and State. Thus at one council, which took place at Kirtlington, Oxfordshire, after Pascha, 977, the tension was so great that the king’s tutor, a bishop, died suddenly during the proceedings. Then, at another council in Calne, Wiltshire, when the white clergy were renewing their complaints, St.
Dunstan said: “Since in my old age you exert yourselves to the stirring up of old quarrels, I confess that I refuse to give in, but commit the cause of His Church to Christ the Judge.” As he spoke the house was suddenly shaken; the floor of the upper room in which they were assembled collapsed, and the enemies of the Church were thrown to the ground and crushed by the falling timber. Only the beam on which the archbishop was sitting on a beam did not move.
In all this turmoil King Edward stood firm together with the archbishop in defence of the Church and the monasteries. For this reason some of the nobles decided to remove him and replace him with his weaker younger brother. They seized their opportunity on March 18, 979, when the king was out hunting with dogs and horsemen near Wareham in Dorset. Turning away from this pursuit, the king decided to visit his young brother Aethelred, who was being brought up in the house of his mother at Corfe Castle, near Wareham. He took a small retinue with him, but suddenly, as if playing a joke on him, his retinue broke up and went off in all directions, leaving him to continue on his way alone.
When Aethelred’s mother, Queen Aelfthryth, heard from her servants that the young king was approaching, she hid the evil design in her heart and went out to meet him in an open and friendly manner, inviting him into her house. But he declined, saying that he only wished to see his brother and talk to him. The queen then suggested that while he was waiting he should have a drink. The king accepted. At that moment one of the queen’s party went up to the king and gave him a kiss like Judas. For then, just as the king was lifting the cup to his lips, the man who had kissed him leapt at him from the front and plunged a knife in his body. The king slipped from the saddle of his horse and was dragged with one foot in the stirrup until he fell lifeless into a stream at the base of the hill on which Corfe Castle stands.
The queen then ordered that the holy body be seized and hidden in a hut nearby. In obedience to her command, the servants took the body by the feet and threw it ignominiously into the hut, concealing it with some mean coverings.
Now there lived in that hut a woman blind from birth whom the queen used to support out of charity. While she spent the night there alone with the holy body, suddenly, in the middle of the night, a wonderful light appeared and filled the whole hut. Struck with awe, the poor woman cried out: “Lord, have mercy!” At this, she suddenly received her sight, which she had so long desired. And then, removing the covering, she discovered the dead body of the holy king. The present church of St.
Edward at Corfe stands on the site of this miracle. The stream into which the holy king’s body first fell was found to have healing properties. Many pilgrims who washed their eyes in the water recovered or improved their sight. These include two reported cases in modern times.
At dawn the next day, when the queen learned of the miracle, she was troubled and decided to conceal the body in a different way. She ordered her servants to take it up and bury it in a marshy place. At the same time she commanded that no one should grieve over the king’s death, or even speak about it. Then she retired to a manor in her possession called Bere, about ten miles from Corfe. Meanwhile, such grief took hold of Aethelred over his brother’s death that he could not stop weeping. This angered his mother, who took some candles and beat him with them viciously, hoping thereby to stem the flow of his tears. It is said that thereafter Aethelred so hated candles that he would never allow them to be lit in his presence.
When St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, heard the news he was greatly saddened by the death of his beloved spiritual son, and at the coronation of his halfbrother, Aethelred, at Kingston he prophesied great sorrow for the English people in the coming reign. The prophecy was exactly fulfilled after Dunstan’s death in 988, when the pagan Danes invaded England and eventually, in 1016, after over twenty years of bloody war, conquered the country.
The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle expressed the universal horror felt by the English Orthodox people at this time: “No worse deed for the English was ever done than this, since first they came to the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God exalted him; in life he was an earthly king, but after death he is now a heavenly saint.
His earthly kinsmen would not avenge him, yet his Heavenly Father has amply avenged him. Those earthly slayers would have destroyed his memory upon earth; but the Heavenly Avenger has spread his fame abroad, in the heavens and upon the earth.
Those who before would not bow in reverence to his living body, now humbly bend the knee to his dead bones. Now can we perceive that the wisdom of men, their deliberations and their plots, are as nothing against God’s purpose.”150
Almost a year passed, and it pleased Almighty God to make known the heavenly glory of the martyr-king. A pillar of fire was seen over the place where his body was hidden, lighting up the whole area. This was seen by some devout inhabitants of Wareham, who met together and raised the body from the place where it lay.
Immediately a sweet, clear spring of healing water sprang up in that place. Then, accompanied by a huge crowd of mourners, the body was taken to the church of the Most Holy Mother of God in Wareham and buried at the east end of the church.
This first translation of the holy relics took place on February 13, 980.
Meanwhile, the queen’s deceit and treachery were made known throughout the country, the fame of the innocent martyr-king increased, and many signs and miracles testified to his holiness. The nobleman Aelfhere, deeply repenting of his destruction of monasteries and opposition to the king151, decided to have the body translated to a worthier resting-place. Bishops and abbots were invited, together with Abbess Wulfrida of Wilton and the nuns of Wilton monastery, who included St. Edith, the king-martyr’s half-sister. A great number of laymen and women of Dorset also converged on Wareham.
Then the holy body was disinterred in the presence of the whole people and was found to be completely incorrupt. Seeing this, St. Dunstan and the other bishops led the people in hymns of praise to God, while St. Edith ran up to her brother’s body and embraced it with tears of joy and sorrow combined. Then the body was lifted onto a bier and with a great procession of clergy and laity was taken to Shaftesbury, to the women’s monastery founded in the ninth century by St. Edward’s ancestor, King Alfred the Great, in honour of the Most Holy Mother of God. The procession began on February 13, 981 and arrived at Shaftesbury seven days later, on February 20. There the holy body was received with honour by the nuns and was buried with great ceremony on the north side of the altar.
On the way from Wareham to Shaftesbury, two poor men who were so bent over and paralyzed that they could hardly crawl on their hands and knees were brought close to the bier. Those carrying it then lowered the sacred body down to their level, and immediately in the sight of all they were restored to full health. A great shout rose to the heavens, and all together glorified the holy martyr.
On hearing of the miracles worked through the saint, Queen Aelfthryth was overcome by remorse and decided to go to him to ask forgiveness. But as she was riding to Shaftesbury with her servants, her horse suddenly stopped and refused to go further, nor would he be moved by blows of the whip and threats. Then the queen realized that she was held back by the force of her sins. Jumping off the horse, she prepared to continue her journey on foot. But again she was hurled back and could make no progress. Later, weeping bitterly over her sins, the queen retired to a convent at Wherwell, where “for many years she clothed her pampered body in hair-cloth, sleeping at night on the ground without a pillow, and mortifying her flesh with every kind of penance”.
During the following twenty years, many miracles were worked through the intercession of the holy martyr-king. Thus there was a woman living in a remote part of England, who had an infirmity of her legs and daily poured forth prayers for her health.
One night St. Edward appeared to her in a dream and said: “When you rise at dawn, go without delay to the place where I am buried, for there you will receive new shoes that are necessary for your infirmity.” Waking early, the woman reported the dream to her neighbour; but she, disbelieving the vision, declared that it was imagination. And so the woman disobeyed the command of the saint. But he, appearing to her a second time, said: “Why do you spurn my command and so greatly neglect your health? Go then to my tomb and there you will be delivered.” She recovered her strength and said: “Who are you, lord? Where shall I find your tomb?” He replied: “I am King Edward, recently killed by an unjust death and buried at Shaftesbury, in the church of Mary, the blessed Mother of God.” The woman woke early, and thinking over what she had seen, took was needed for her journey and made her way to the monastery. There she prayed for some time with humble heart to God and St. Edward, and was restored to health.
Great miracles continued to be worked at the tomb of the royal martyr, and in 1001 his brother Aethelred, who had succeeded him on the throne, granted the town of Bradford-on-Avon “to Christ and His saint, my brother Edward, whom, covered in his own blood, the Lord Himself has deigned to magnify by many signs of power.”152 At about the same time the tomb in which the saint lay began to rise from the ground, indicating that he wished his remains to be raised from the earth. In confirmation of this he appeared in a vision to a monk and said: “Go to the convent called by the famous name of Shaftesbury and take commands to the nun Ethelfreda who is in charge of the other servants of God there. You will say to her that I do not wish to remain any longer in the place where I now lie, and command her on my behalf to report this to my brother without delay.” Rising early, and perceiving that the vision he had seen was from God, the monk quickly made his way to the abbess as he had been commanded and told her in order all that had been revealed to him. Then the abbess, giving thanks to God, immediately told the whole story to King Aethelred, at the same time making known to him the elevation of the tomb. The king was filled with joy and would have been present at the elevation if he had been able. But, being prevented by the invasions of the Danes, he sent messengers to the holy bishops Wulfsige of Sherborne and Aelfsin of Dorchester-on-Thames, as well as to other men of respected life, instructing them to raise his brother’s tomb from the ground and replace it in a fitting place. Following the king’s command, those men joyfully assembled at the monastery with a vast crowd of laymen and women. The tomb was opened with the utmost reverence, and such a wonderful fragrance issued from it that all present thought that they were standing amidst the delights of Paradise. Then the holy bishops drew near, bore away the sacred relics from the tomb, and, placing them in a casket carefully prepared for this, carried it in procession to the holy place of the Saints together with other holy relics. This elevation took place on June 20, 1001.
St. Edward was officially glorified by an act of the All-English Council of 1008, presided over by St. Aelfheah, archbishop of Canterbury. King Aethelred ordered that the saint’s three feastdays (March 18, February 13 and June 20) should be celebrated throughout England. The church in which St. Edward’s relics rested was rededicated to the Mother of God and St. Edward, and that part of the town was renamed “Edwardstowe” in honour of the saint.153
The anti-monastic reaction petered out after King Edward’s death, and “thenceforth,” writes Stenton, “there is no sign of any anti-monastic feeling at court, and the reign of Aethelred II is marked by a series of new foundations, such as Cerne Abbas, Eynsham, and Burton on Trent, which prove that desire for the religious life was still strong in England. Each of the three original leaders of the monastic survival survived into Aethelred’s reign. Aethelwold died in 984, Dunstan in 988, and Oswald in 992. They had no successors of equal eminence, but the men whom they trained were ready to carry on their work, and the future of the movement which they had led was secured by the religious houses which had arisen or came to new life under their influence. In 993, the year after Oswald’s death, the abbots of eighteen monasteries are known to have attended King Aethelred’s court.
“On the other hand, the names of these monasteries suggest, what other evidence proves, that the strength of the movement lay almost entirely in the southern half of England. Even here it had made little, if any, impression on the west midland shires which had formed the historic Mercia. Its remarkable progress in the eastern midlands had been made possible by the patronage of a small number of great men, such as Aethelwine of East Anglia and Byrhtnoth of Essex, whose interests were not merely local. The Anglo-Danish noblemen beyond the Welland, engrossed in their own concerns, seem to have ignored the new monasticism, and it was not until the twelfth century that the free peasantry of the northern Danelaw began to make gifts of land for religious purposes. Beyond the Humber, Oswald’s attempt to restore monastic life at Ripon ended in failure and found no imitators. In this direction little advance was made between the age of Edgar and the Norman Conquest. In 1066 Crowland was the only monastery in the shires of Lincoln, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, and York.
“But the effect of the monastic revival cannot be measured by the mere number of the religious houses to which it gave rise. Through the members of these houses who rose to bishoprics its influence was very rapidly extended over the whole body of the English Church. The series of such promotions, which begins in Edgar’s reign, can be traced downwards almost continuously until the eve of the Norman Conquest. It is clear that a living tradition of Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald was preserved among the rulers of the English church for three-quarters of a century. It was in accordance with this tradition that a monastic order was established in at least two cathedrals which had previously been served by secular clergy. By the early part of the eleventh century, and at latest before the death of Archbishop Aelfricn(995-1005), the community at Christ Church, Canterbury, had become entirely monastic. Wulfsige, bishop of Sherborne (992-1001), replaced clerks by monks in his cathedral. There is no sign of any internal reaction against the work of Oswald and Aethelwold at Worcester and Winchester. The evidence is scanty, but it leaves little room for doubt that the monastic cathedral, which was a unique feature of the medieval English church, was in fact the creation of the tenth-century revival.
“The influence of the revival on the parochial clergy was direct and strong. Between 975 and 1066 every English diocese came for a time, if only for a short time, under the rule of a bishop who was a professed monk. Under the conditions of the age a monastic training was the best preparation that a bishop could receive for his pastoral work. It gave him a sense of discipline and order, respect for learning, and the opportunity of knowing men who were capable of sustained enthusiasm for an idea. It is clear that the monastic bishops of this period were anxious to instruct as well as rule their clergy.
They held firmly to the ideal that the priest, through his ordination, was set apart from other men, and they regarded it as their duty to move their clergy towards a celibate way of life. In this… they were confronted by the stolid resistance of a clergy unwilling to accept a dictated conception of its calling, and their success was far from complete [in other words, the clergy remained, on the whole, married]…
“There can, in fact, be no question that the Benedictine reformation of the tenth century brought fresh vitality to the whole English Church. But its significance is misunderstood if it is dismissed as one of the many movements which have merely influenced a generation and then passed into history. It opened a new phase of English culture which survived the political [and spiritual] catastrophe of the Norman Conquest, and contributed to the distinctive quality of medieval English civilization…”154
146 The two boys’ grandmother, St. Elgiva, before her death as an abbess in 944, correctly interpreted a prophetic dream in which the careers of her grandsons Kings Edward the Martyr and Ethelred the Unready were intimated, together with the pagan invasions that came near the end of the century (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, 13).
147 ‘Passio et Miracula Sancti Edwardi Regis et Martyris’, in Christine Fell, Edward King and Martyr, University of Leeds, 1971.
148 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D, 975.
149 Anonymous, “Vita Oswaldi”, in J. Raine, Historians of the Church of York, Rolls Series, 1874, vol. I. Cf. D.J.V. Fisher, “The Anti-Monastic Reaction in the Reign of Edward the Martyr”, Cambridge Historical Journal, 1952, X, pp. 254-270.
150 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 979.
151 William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, II, 9.
152 J.M. Kemble, Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxoni, 1845-8, no. 706.
153 Many miracles continued to be wrought at the tomb of St. Edward, and in the twelfth century his lung was still quivering… In 1904, an eleventh-century glass vessel containing a “shrunken, nut-like object” was found beneath a small marble slab in front of the high altar. The vase can still be seen in Winchester cathedral, but the relic, which may well have been St. Edward’s lung, was thrown away… In the 1930s the relics of the saint were discovered in Shaftesbury abbey, and on September 16, 1984 they were translated to the Orthodox church of St. Edward at Brookwood, near Guildford. (J. Wilson- Claridge, The Recorded Miracles of St. Edward the Martyr, Brookwood: King Edward Orthodox Trust, 1984)
154 Stenton, op. cit., pp. 455-457.
12. THE RETURN OF THE NORTHMEN
The reign of the new king, King Edgar’s other son by Queen Aelfthryth, Aethelred, was as sharply contrasted with that of his father as it is possible to be.
“Subsequent chroniclers,” writes Harriet O’Brien, “scathingly depict Aethelred II as a foolishly incompetent ruler, so ill-judged in his choice of tactical advisers for the nation’s defence that he earned the epithet Unraed, meaning ‘bad counsel’. Since the name Aethelred literally translates as ‘noble counsel’, Aethelred Unraed was a neat pun. But it was not to stand the test of time: long after Aethelred’s death, and after the Norman Conquest, Anglo-Saxon ceased to be fully understood and Unraed was transliterated into ‘Unready’. The slip was not entirely inapposite…”155
The tragedy of King Aethelred’s reign was that his virtues – the purity (so far as we know) of his private life, his protection (with one exception) of the Church, his support for the missionary effort to Scandinavia, and the justice of his code of laws – were overshadowed by his failure in respect of two of the basic duties of a king: even-handed justice in peace, and courageous leadership in war. The very fact that he came to the throne through the murder of his brother, too young though he himself was to have actively connived at it, was felt to cast a shadow of injustice and illegitimacy over his reign. This feeling was strengthened by his rapacious attitude towards the Church of Rochester in 986, his adoption of the disastrous course of buying off the enemy (although it was in fact Archbishop Sigeric who first suggested it), his extraordinarily complaisant attitude towards the traitors Aelfric and Eadric, and his brutal injustice to his loyal Danish subjects in the St. Brice’s Day massacre. These failures were not entirely his fault: it may have been as much his subjects’ fickleness that led to his nervousness and injustice as his injustice that led to their disgust and fickleness. Nevertheless, his incapacity was one of the causes of the breakdown of that “symphony” between Church, State and people that allowed the pagan Cnut to triumph in 1016.
“Much that has brought the condemnation of historians on King Aethelred,” writes Sir Frank Stenton, “may well be due in the last resort to the circumstances under which he became king. Throughout his reign he behaved like a man who is never sure of himself. His ineffectiveness in war, which is very remarkable in a king of his line, his acts of spasmodic violence, and the air of mistrust which overhangs his relations with his nobles, are signs of a trouble which lies deeper than mere incapacity for government. They suggest the reaction of a weak king to the consciousness that he had come to power through what his subjects regarded as the worst crime committed among the English peoples since their first coming to Britain.”156
Certainly, Aethelred’s earlier life had not portended well for the future. During his baptism by St. Dunstan, “as Aethelred was being plunged into the font, William [of Malmesbury] confides, the infant prince ‘interrupted the sacrament by opening his bowels, at which Dunstan was much concerned – “By God and His Mother,” he said, “he will be a wastrel when he is a man”.’ The Archbishop later presided at Aethelred’s coronation. When Dunstan placed the crown on the child’s head William notes that he ‘could not restrain himself, and poured out in a loud voice the spirit of the prophecy with which his own heart was full. “Inasmuch,” he said, “as you aimed at the throne through the death of your own brother, now hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God: the sin of your shameful mother and the sin of the men who shared in her wicked plot shall not be blotted out except by the shedding of much blood of your miserable subjects, and there shall come upon the people of England such evils as they have not suffered from the time when they came to England until then”.’ Sure enough, writes William…, in the third year of Aethelred’s reign ‘there came to Southampton, a harbour near Winchester, seven ships full of pirates…’
“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles actually maintain that this raid took place just a year after Aethelred’s coronation at Kingston. And that not only was Southampton attacked by northern raiders (and most of the town dwellers killed or taken prisoner) but that Thanet in Kent was also ravaged, and Cheshire, too. So began the troubles that were to continue for the entire duration of Aethelred’s reign…”157
And yet it was only really after Dunstan’s death in 988 that, as he had himself prophesied, the deluge really came. “From the highest peace,” wrote Osbern of Canterbury, “things were changed to insupportable war; from immense joy to indigence in all things. Finally the air itself was altered: heaven did not support the earth, nor the earth what was sown in it. The incursions of enemies left ugly marks everywhere: cities were destroyed, churches ravaged, and priests of the Lord swept off the face of the earth.”158
“When Saint Dunstan was translated to heaven” wrote Edmer of Canterbury, “immediately, as he had foretold, England was laid open to the incursion of foreign foes. The indolence of the king became known round about and the greed of those outside her borders, aiming rather at the wealth than the lives of the English, invaded the country by sea at one point after another and laid waste at first the villages and cities near the coast, then those further inland and in the end the whole province, driving the inhabitants in wretchedness from their homes. The king instead of meeting them in arms panic-stricken shamelessly offered them money suing for peace; whereupon they accepted the price [the Danegeld] and retired to their homes, only to return in still greater numbers and still more ruthless, from renewed invasion to receive increased rewards. In this way they obtained now ten thousand pounds of silver, then sixteen thousand, then twenty-four thousand, then thirty thousand, this King Aethelred lavishing all these sums upon them and grinding down the whole kingdom with crushing exactions.”159
There were some lights in the prevailing darkness. Thus at Watchet in Somerset in 988, and again at Maldon in Essex in 991, the English acquitted themselves well. At Maldon, Alderman Brihtnoth of Essex, who had defended the monasteries in King Edward’s reign, was killed after a heroic resistance, and his body was recovered by the monks of Ely, whose benefactor he had been, and buried in a splendid shrine in the monastery.
The Danish raiders were given protection in the ports of Normandy, a new state of Scandinavian origin that adopted French language and ways but remained independent of the French king. This protection annoyed the English and tensions between the two states were high. However, in 991 Pope John XV brokered a treaty between King Aethelred and Duke Richard I. In 1002 relations were further strengthened by the marriage between Aethelred and Emma, daughter of Richard I and sister of Richard II.
Thus began the fateful relationship between Normandy and England, culminating in the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. For the marriage “entitled Aethelred to hospitality in Normadny when at last the Danes had conquered England. His sons by the marriage were educated in the duchy, and it was with a sense of obligation towards the Norman court that the elder of them [Edward the Confessor] ultimately returned to England as king…”160
In 993 the Vikings burned Romsey Abbey and drove out the nuns. However, Abbess Aelwina was warned in a vision of the impending disaster, and so was able to carry the abbey’s valuables to safety. The monastery subsequently boasted one of the great lights of English monasticism, St. Aethelflaed (Ethelfleda), who became abbess in 1003.161
In 994 came a famous victory, not so much of physical as of spiritual arms – the conversion of the famous warrior and Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason.
On the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God (September 8) in that year, “came Olaf [of Norway] and Swein [of Denmark] to London with ninety-four ships, and kept up an increasing attack on the city, and they purposed, moreover, to set it on fire. But there they suffered greater loss and injury than they ever thought any garrison could inflict on them. But in this the holy Mother of God manifested her clemency to the garrison and delivered them from their foes. They went away, doing as much harm as any host was capable of doing in burning, harrying, and slaughter, both along the coast and in Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Finally, they obtained horses and rode far and wide wherever they pleased, and continued to do unspeakable damage. Then the king and the councillors agreed to send to them, offering tribute and supplies, if they would desist from their harassment. This they agreed to, and the whole host came to Southampton, and there they took up winter quarters, and were provisioned from the whole kingdom of Wessex and paid sixteen thousand pounds. Then the king sent Bishop Aelfheah [of Winchester, the future hieromartyr archbishop of Canterbury] and Alderman Aethelweard to look for King Olaf, while hostages were sent to the ships; and Olaf was conducted with great ceremony to the king at Andover. The king stood sponsor for him at confirmation, and gave him royal gifts; and Olaf then promised, and also kept his word, that he would never again come to England with warlike intent.”162
How did this dramatic Saul-like conversion come about? It seems that during the campaign of that year Olaf came to the Scilly Isles, where, according to The Epitome of the Sagas of the Kings of Norway, “lived a great friend of God, a hermit, famed for his excellent learning and various knowledge. Olaf was eager to test this, and dressed one of his retainers like a king, so that under the name of the king he might seek (the hermit’s) advice. Now this was the answer he received: ‘You are no king, and my counsel to you is that you should be loyal to your king.’ When Olaf heard this answer, he was yet more eager to see him, because he no longer doubted that he was a true prophet, and in the course of his talk with him, and of the good man’s exhortation, (the hermit) addressed him thus with words of holy wisdom and divine foreknowledge:
‘You will be,’ he said, ‘a famous king, and do famous deeds. You will bring many peoples to faith and baptism, thereby profiting yourself and many others. And, so that you may have no doubts concerning this answer of mine, you shall have this for a sign.
On the way to your ship you will fall into an ambush, and a battle will take place, and you will lose part of your company and you yourself will receive a wound, and through this wound you will be at the point of death, and be borne to the ship on a shield. Yet within seven days you will be whole from this wound, and soon you will receive baptism.’”163
The thirteenth-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturlason describes the sequel:
“Olaf went down to his ships and there he met foes who tried to slay him and his men.
But the meeting ended as the hermit had told him, so that Olaf was borne wounded out to this ship and likewise was he well after seven nights. Then it seemed clear to Olaf that this man had told him the truth and that he was a true prophet from whom he had this foretelling. Olaf then went again to find the man, spoke much with him and asked carefully whence he had this wisdom by which he foretold the future. The hermit said that the God of Christian men let him know all he wished, and then he told Olaf of many great works of God and after all these words Olaf agreed to be baptized, and so it came about that Olaf and all his followers were baptized. He stayed there very long and
learned the right faith and took with him from there priests and other learned men.”164
Olaf became a zealous Christian whose conversion marked the beginning of the Christianization of his native Norway. For on his return to Norway he brought with him, according to the Epitome, “Bishop Sigurth [St. Sigfrid, enlightener of Sweden], who had been consecrated to preach the name of God among the nations, and other learned men, Thangbrand the Priest, Thormod and certain deacons besides. In order to preach Christianity he began by summoning an assembly at Most in Harthaland, and it was easy to carry it through, both because God aided him, and because the tyranny of Hakon the Bad had been hateful to the people. Then they received the Faith, and Olaf the kingdom. He was twenty-seven years old when he came to Norway and during the five years in which he bore the name of king in Norway he converted five lands, Norway, Iceland, the Shetlands, the Orkneys and, fifthly, the Faroes. He first built churches on his own chief estates, and put down heathendom and sacrificial feasts, and, to please the people, he introduced in their place certain solemn feasts, Christmas and Easter, bear-drinking at Johnsmas and an autumn ale-drinking at Michaelmas.”
Olaf disappeared in a sea-battle against Swein of Denmark, Olaf of Sweden and Eric, son of Hakon the Bad. “There is no certain knowledge,” says the Epitome, “of King Olaf’s death. This much was seen, that, when the battle was to a great extent subsided, he was standing still alive on the raised deck of the long Serpent (a ship with thirty-two rooms), but when Eric was about to climb up into the prow to fetch him down, a light, as if it had been lightning, flashed upon him, and when the light passed the King himself was gone. Some men will tell that he escaped in a boat, saying that he had been seen since then in a certain monastery in Palestine.”
According to Snorri’s Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf died many years later in the reign of Edward the Confessor. Now Edward greatly admired Olaf. So when he heard the news of his death, he read, in the presence of his whole court, the story of the battle on the Serpent, the escape of Olaf to Jerusalem and his settling in a Syrian monastery.165
In spite of the incursions of the Vikings, the life of the Old English kingdom continued in many ways almost unchanged.
In 995, pagan Vikings invaded again from Scandinavia, and the relics of St. Cuthbert had to be moved again. Bishop Aldhum and the monks removed them first south to Ripon, and then north again to a place to the east of Durham. On the way, however, the cart carrying the relics stuck fast and refused to move.
“After three days of fasting and prayer,” writes C.J. Stranks, “St. Cuthbert revealed to the monks that he wished his shrine to be in the Dunholme. That was all very well, but where was the Dunholme? Nobody knew, until some of them happened to hear two dairy-maids talking about a lost cow which one of them said was in the Dunholme.
They found the place to be a rocky tongue of land formed by a loop of the river Wear, a magnificent and impregnable site, covered with trees and brushwood except for a small plot in the middle. They had found the spot which was to be St. Cuthbert’s final resting place.
“There, on the lofty place above the river, the monks made a rough shelter of boughs to protect the coffin while they put up a stronger wooden building which became known as the white church, but even this was not intended to be permanent. It lasted three years and during that time the whole population of the countryside joined in building a massive stone cathedral, to be a place of honour worthy of so great a saint and his incorrupt body. Pilgrims poured in to venerate the marvel of a corpse which had defied decay for nearly three hundred years [and would continue to do so for several centuries more]…”166
It was in this period that Abbot Aelfric of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, the second most important writer in English Orthodoxy after the Venerable Bede, produced his sermons and lives of the saints in the English vernacular.167 The writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York are also important, especially his Epistle of the Wolf to the English. And it was in this period that several great saints reached their maturity, such as St. Wulfhilda of Barking (+September 9, 1000), St. Wulfsige of Sherborne (+January 8, 1002) and St.
Aelfheah of Canterbury (+April 19, 1012), of whom more anon.
But the constant incursions were sapping the wealth and, more important, the morale of the English. And the situation was not helped by an act of political treachery by King Aethelred that has gone down in history as “the St. Brice’s Day Massacre”.
Every year between 997 and 1001 the Danes had invaded, and on November 13, 1002, the king “ordered that all the Danish men in England were to be killed” on the grounds, as his counsellors told him, “the Danes would faithlessly take his life, and then all his councillors, and possess his kingdom afterwards”. It is unlikely that this meant literally all the Danes in England, for in the Danelaw of Eastern England they were far too strong. However, many were killed in towns such as Oxford, Gloucester and London, including the sister of King Swein of Denmark, then living as a hostage in England.168
Not surprisingly, her brother invaded the following year, determined on revenge…
Nor did Aethelred show significant remorse. Thus the massacre in Oxford, where in 2008 archaeologists discovered the remains of between 34 and 38 slaughtered Danes, was justified by the king two years later as follows: “Since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town [Oxford], striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ [St. Frideswide’s church], having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and books.
Afterwards, with God’s aid, it was renewed by me.”169
In 1003 and again in 1004 King Swein invaded England. However, he was defeated by the English under Ulfkell Snilling outside Thetford, and in 2005 withdrew to Denmark. In 1006 he returned and extracted 36,000 pounds in tribute from the demoralized English.
“Two years passed before England was attacked again. Each of them was marked by an important measure of state. In 1007, after an abeyance of nearly thirty years, the Mercian ealdormanry was revived and given to a thegn name Eadric Streona, whose origins are obscure, and were certainly far from eminent. His later conduct has given him an evil reputation, but his appointment was an intelligent attempt to provide for a better defence of central England by placing the whole of it under a single command. In 1008 the government undertook the formidable task of creating a new fleet of warships, furnished with armour for their crews. The preparations were organized on a national scale, and the fleet had been brought into existence by the early part of 1009. In anticipation of a Danish attack it was stationed off Sandwich, but before the Danes appeared a charge of treason was brought against one of its commanders. Before his trial the accused commander – a thegn of Sussex named Wulfnoth – seduced the crews of twenty ships from their allegiance, and took to piracy along the south coast. His accuser, who was a brother of Eadric Streona, followed him with eighty ships, but a storm drove them all on shore, they were afterwards burned by Wulfnoth’s men. With a fleet thus weakened the king and his council declined to risk a general engagement; the ships which remained to them were brought into harbour at London, and 1 August the enemy occupied the deserted anchorage off Sandwich…”170
At this critical stage there appeared on the scene one of the greatest but least wellknown of Englishmen – St. Aelfheah of Canterbury.171 A severe ascetic and clairvoyant wonderworker who was also a very compassionate pastor, he had been ordained by St.Dunstan to the see of Winchester at the very young age of thirty in response to a vision from the holy Apostle Andrew. In 1006 he was elected as archbishop of Canterbury. On his return from Rome, where he received the pallium, the new archbishop joined the king and his councillors to pass laws strengthening ecclesiastical discipline and penalizing traitors, with the death penalty introduced for those who would plot against the king’s life. And in 1008, as we have seen, the day of St. Edward’s martyrdom was proclaimed to be a feastday – another clear warning to potential traitors and kingkillers.
However, the sad story continued, with indecision, incompetence and treachery the order of the day. Thus in 1009, “when the enemy was in the east, 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 even 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.”172 The elaborate plan of national self-defence worked out by King Alfred was in danger of collapsing, while the peaceful union between the English and the Danes who had settled in England, which had been the foundationstone of English policy for over a century, looked as if it were degenerating into civil war…
In the autumn of 1011 the Danes besieged Canterbury and sacked it. They were helped, on the one hand, by Abbot Aelfmar 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 Eadric Streona of Mercia. Eadric 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. Eadric demanded vengeance from the king for his brother’s death; but the king refused, saying that his brother had been justly punished. Then Eadric, 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 Eadric 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 Eadric 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 Aelfmar’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 Aelfmar 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…”173
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,” he said, “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. Finally they 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 up 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).174
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 Aednoth 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.
155 O’Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, London: Bloomsbury, 2006, p. 34.
156 Stenton, op. cit., p. 374.
157 O’Brien, op. cit., pp. 53-54.
158 Osbern, Vita Dunstani.
159 Edmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, translated by Geoffrey Bosanquet, London: Cresset Press, p. 4.
160 Stenton, op. cit., p. 379.
161 A fourteenth-century chronicle in H. Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, 1906; Rev. David Shearlock, Romsey Abbey, p. 7.
162 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 994.
163 M. Ashdown, English and Norse Documents, Cambridge, 1930.
164 Heimskringla, VII, 31. The existence of this hermit is an interesting witness to the continuing vitality of Celtic Christianity in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, which remained Celtic in their language and culture for centuries after their absorption into the English kingdom in Athelstan’s time. If the hermit may be identified with the St. Lide (or Elidius) whose feast appears on a medieval calendar from Tavistock, then he may have been a bishop (Farmer, op. cit., p. 246). But the fact that Olaf was only baptized by him and not confirmed – he was confirmed, as we have seen, by St. Aelfheah at Andover – seems to indicate that the hermit was not a bishop. For in the Western Church only bishops could perform the sacrament of confirmation (the equivalent of chrismation).
165 C, 286, translated in Ashdown, op. cit. The Russian historian E.E. Golubinsky (History of the Russian Church, 1880) maintained, on the basis of this Saga, that Olaf was baptized in Byzantium and then persuaded St. Vladimir the Great Prince of Kiev to accept Christianity. See V.Z., ‘O tom, gde i kogda krestilsa sviatoj-knyaz’ Vladimir i o vremeni kreschenia Rusi’, Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizhenia, 1988, I, no. 152, p. 13.
166 Stranks, The Life and Death of St. Cuthbert, London: SPCK, 1964, pp. 32-33.
167 See Carmen Acevedo Butcher, God of Mercy: Aelfric’s Sermons and Theology, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2006.
168 Stenton, op. cit., p. 380.
170 Stenton, op. cit., p. 382.
171 The following account is taken mainly from his Vita by Osbern of Canterbury, in H. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, 1691, II, pp. 122-147.
172 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 979.
173 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 1012.
174 Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicle, viii, ch. 42, 43.
13. THE VENGEANCE OF ST. EDMUND
In 1013, the Danes under King Swein again invaded England, and the whole country north of Watling Street surrendered to him. London, however, under the leadership of King Aethelred and Earl Thurkill, held out against him for some time. But when Swein turned northwards again, the whole nation accepted him as their undisputed king, and even the Londoners were forced to submit, while the king, the royal family and Bishop Aelfhun of London went into exile in Normandy.175 At this critical juncture, still more critical than that which faced King Alfred in the winter of 877-878, an English saint again came to the rescue of the Christian people – this time, the holy Martyr-King Edmund.176
Since the year 999, the incorrupt body of St. Edmund had been in the care of a monk named Aethelwine. In 1010, relates Abbot Sampson, when the Danes were ravaging East Anglia, St. Edmund’s earthly kingdom, the saint appeared to Aethelwine and ordered him to place his body in a casket, put it on a cart and convey it to London. But the clerics were to remain in their places.
At dusk one day, as Aethelwine was proceeding to London, he came to the house of a priest named Edbriht, and asked hospitality for himself and his holy charge. The priest at first refused to give shelter to strangers; but eventually, after people protested, he allowed the monk to sleep in the open air on his land, while not allowing him into his house. So Aethelwine slept under the cart on which the martyr’s body lay.
That night, however, a column of light was seen stretching up from the cart to heaven, and during the fourth watch of the night, the cart began to make a noise as if its wheels were turning. Startled by the noise, Aethelwine woke up and understood that the saint wished to move from there. Soon he was on his way, and when he was already some distance from the house, he looked back and saw that it was on fire – a just retribution for the priest’s inhumanity.
Later that day, Aethelwine came to the crossing of the river Stratford, three miles from London, and wished to cross over. But part of the bridge had subsided into the river, and the whole structure was unsafe. The Danes threatened from the rear, and there was no other crossing; so Aethelwine resorted to prayer. Suddenly the cart began to move of its own will. The right wheel rolled over what remained of the bridge, while the left wheel passed through the air above the water as if it were dry land. Those who saw the miracle from the other side of the river praised God, and as the holy body approached the outskirts of London a great crowd of monks, clerics and nobles came to meet it. Taking it upon their shoulders, they moved towards the church of St. Paul, singing praises and rejoicing greatly.
Between the Aldgate and the church of St. Paul eighteen people were cured of various maladies through the prayers of the saint. A woman who was confined to her bed with paralysis heard the clamour accompanying the passing of the saint and asked her servants what it signified.
“Don’t you know,” they said, “that St. Edmund, the king of the East Angles, who was innocently killed for Christ by the unfaithful and impious pagans, has come into this city and has given health to many?”
“Woe is me!” she cried, “that God has not counted me worthy to obtain mercy in his presence. For if I could just touch the edge of his bier, I am confident that I would be immediately healed of my infirmity.”
So saying, she suddenly stood on her feet completely healed – the nineteenth cure to the glory of the saint that day. Realizing what had happened, she rushed into the crowd and with tears pressed her lips to the saint’s bier.
Now the procession came to the church of St. Gregory, near St. Paul’s. The holy body was let down and all the people prostrated in prayer to the saint. At this point a Dane who was curious to know what was happening came on the scene. Seeing the others prostrate in prayer, he proudly remained upright, and, drawing aside the veil which covered the body, he peered inside. Suddenly he was struck with blindness. Then, realizing his sin, he confessed it, promised amendment of life and faithfulness to God and St. Edmund, and implored forgiveness. All those present joined their prayer to his, and lo! his sight was restored. Then he took off his golden armlets and offered them to the saint. Moreover, he was as good as his word and led a pious life thereafter.
For almost three years the fame of the martyr spread far and wide through the miracles of healing, both bodily and spiritual, wrought through the intercession of the saint in London.
Then St. Edmund appeared in a vision to Aethelwine and ordered him to bring his body back to Bury St. Edmunds. Immediately the monk went to Bishop Alfhun with a request to leave, explaining that he had come to London rather as a pilgrim than as a permanent resident. The bishop acceded to his request, though reluctantly. But when Aethelwine, had gone, he hastened with three clerics to the church of St. Gregory. There they tried to lift the holy body in its reliquary onto their shoulders. But to no avail: the weight was insupportable. Four more men joined them, then twelve, then twenty-four.
But after much sweat and labour they had not succeeded in moving the reliquary a single inch. Then the bishop with his men felt ashamed, realizing that their devotion, though pious, was contrary to the will of God and St. Edmund. When Aethelwine came up, however, and prayed in the presence of the saint, he was able with three of his companions to life the reliquary as though it weighed nothing.
So he set out on his journey, but not unnoticed as before. For a great crowd of clergy and people followed him in great sorrow as far as the Stratford bridge, and beyond it all the villages along the route poured out to meet the saint with great joy. Bridges were repaired and roads cleared. And, as in London, many miracles took place. Near Stapleford, the lord of the village gave hospitality to the saint and was cured of a chronic illness; whereupon he donated a manor to the saint in perpetuity. Finally, the holy treasure was received by the clerics of Bury St. Edmunds and placed with all devotion in its former resting-place. There, for centuries to come, miracles did not cease for those who sought with faith.
In 1014 the Danish King Swein came to Bury St. Edmunds, demanding tribute and threatening that if it was not paid he would burn the town with the townsfolk, destroy the church of the saint from its foundations and torture the clerics in various ways. But the townsfolk refused, trusting in the protection of St. Edmund. Nor did the taxcollectors dare to use force against them, for they had heard how the saint protected his own. So they hastened to the king and informed him of the rebellion against his authority. Meanwhile, not only the townsfolk of Bury St. Edmunds but also people from all over East Anglia hastened to the church of the saint to beseech him by prayers, fasting and almsgiving to free the land from the yoke that had been imposed upon it for ten years or more. Moreover, they asked Monk Aethelwine to make a special intercession for them at the shrine of the saint, that he would in his accustomed manner reveal a means of salvation for them through a nocturnal visitation.
That night, therefore, St. Edmund appeared to Aethelwine in his sleep, with joyful countenance and in shining white garments, and said: “Go to King Swein and tell him this from me: ‘Why do you vex my little flock by imposing on them a yoke that no other king has imposed upon them? Tribute has never been demanded of, nor paid by, them at any time since my repose. Therefore correct this unjust sentence, lest, when you wish to, you will be unable to. For if you do not obey my admonition, you will soon know that you displease both God and myself; for you will discover that East Anglia has me as her protector.'”
So Aethelwine obediently sought out King Swein at Gainsborough, and humbly doing obeisance, delivered the saint’s message, mixing soft words with the harsh. But the king refused to listen, ordered the monk out of his sight, and showered the saint with abuse, saying that he had no holiness. Seeing that the king had no fear of God nor reverence for the saint, Aethelwine sadly turned back. Near Lincoln he was given hospitality for the night; and as he was sleeping peacefully, St. Edmund appeared to him and said:
“Why are you fearful and sad? Have you forgotten my words and incurred the risk of falling into despair? Rise immediately and continue your journey; for before you will have reached its end, news about King Swein will delight you and all your compatriots.”
Strengthened by this revelation, Aethelwine rose and set off on his way before dawn.
As he was travelling he heard the sound of Danish horsemen behind him. One came up, greeted him, and said:
“By your leave, are you the priest whom I saw the day before yesterday delivering the orders of a certain king to King Swein?”
“Alas, alas,” he said, “how weighty was your threat! How true your prophecy! For the death of King Swein has left England glad and Denmark in mourning. The night after you left, the king went to bed happy and fearing nothing. The whole palace was sleeping soundly. Suddenly the king was woken up by an unknown soldier standing before him, a man of wondrous beauty and brandishing arms. Addressing the king by his own name, he said: ‘Do you want tribute from St. Edmund’s land, O king? Get up – here it is.’ He got up but fell back on his bed, terrified at the sight of the arms, and began to cry out. Then the soldier went up to him, thrust him through with his lance and left.
Hearing his cry: ‘Help! Help! St. Edmund has come to kill me!’, his men came rushing in and found him dead, covered in his own blood.”
Marianus relates that at that moment in Essex, a pious man named Wulfmar who had been ill for three days with a disease that deprived him of the use of his tongue and of all his limbs, suddenly sat up on his bed in the presence of his parents and neighbours, and said:
“On this night and at this hour King Swein has been killed, pierced through with the lance of St. Edmund.”
Saying this, he fell back on his bed and died.
When Aethelwine heard this news, he judged the time opportune to publish what he had previously covered in silence. The story then spread like wildfire throughout the province, inciting all the English to refuse to pay tribute. King Swein perished on the feast of the Meeting of the Lord (Candlemas, as it is called in the West), February 2, 1014, and his body was placed in salt and shipped back to Denmark.177 Thus was the Scripture fulfilled: “The saints shall boast in glory, and they shall rejoice upon their beds. The high praise of God shall be in their throat, and two-edged swords shall be in their hands, to do vengeance among the heathen, punishments among the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, and their nobles with manacles of iron, to do among them the judgement that is written. This glory shall be to all His saints.” (Psalm 149.5-9)
175 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 1013.
176 This account is drawn from Nova Legenda Anglie, appendix II, pp. 595-602.
177 Nova Legenda Anglie, p. 602. According to the Benedictine Breviary (October 13, supplement), the future King Edward the Confessor, then a boy of twelve, also knew by revelation of Swein’s death at this time.
14. THE YEAR OF THE THREE KINGS
After the death of Swein, the Danish fleet chose his son, Cnut, as their king. But the English councilors, records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “both spiritual and secular, advised that King Aethelred should be sent for, saying that no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than in the past. Then the king sent his son Edward hither with his messengers, with greetings to all the people, and said that he would be a gracious lord to them, and would put right all the things they hated, and would forgive everything that had been said or done against him, on condition that they all unanimously and without treachery returned to their allegiance. Then a complete and friendly agreement was reached and ratified by both sides with word and pledge, and they declared every Danish king outlawed from England for ever. Then during Lent of that year  King Aethelred came home to his own people and was received with joy by them all.”178
“Embedded here in the prose of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” writes David Starkey, “is the text, probably even the actual words, of a formal written agreement between the king and his people. It is the Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta. The circumstances in 1014, moreover, were very similar to those 200 years later. A political crisis and a foreign pretender brought the king, more or less naked, to the negotiating table. The throne would be his, but on conditions. The king agrees, since he has no choice. The terms and his consent to them are made public and the whole enshrined in a written document.
The result is the first constitutional settlement in English history and it began a tradition which descends through Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and the Reform Acts, down to the present.”179
Starkey also says that this agreement demonstrated the political maturity of the English people.180 From an Orthodox point of view, however, it would be better to characterize it as the beginning of the end of the English Orthodox Autocracy through a descent into constitutionalism…
Nevertheless, if this moment of national reconciliation between king and people had been sustained, all might still have gone well. For in April, 1014 the young Cnut returned to Denmark, and did not return until August, 1015. However, the same story of almost unbelievable treachery repeated itself, and in 1015 Alderman Eadric deserted to Cnut with forty ships, as did Thorkell the Tall with nine ships. Then, in 1016, Cnut crossed the Thames at Cricklade, turned back to subdue the north and then marched on London for what promised to be the final death-blow.
But King Aethelred was spared this final humiliation: “he departed this life on St.
George’s day [April 23], after a life of much hardship and many difficulties. Then, after his death, all the councilors of England chose Edmund [Ironside, his eldest son] as king, and he defended his kingdom valiantly during his lifetime.”181 The seven short months of Edmund Ironside’s reign are among the most dramatic in English history, exceeded in drama and pathos only by the nine months of Harold Godwinson’s reign fifty years later. Moreover, the pattern of events was very similar in the two cases: great extremes of heroism and treachery, culminating in the crucifixion of a conquered country.
Treachery against the new raised its head immediately after the witan proclaimed him king in London: astonishingly, the bishops and chief men of Wessex assembled and unanimously elected Cnut, the son of King Swein, as king. Meeting him at Southampton, writes Florence of Worcester, “they repudiated and renounced in his presence all the race of Aethelred, and concluded peace with him, swearing loyalty to him, and he also swore to them that he would be a loyal lord to them in affairs of Church and state.”182 Undaunted, King Edmund raised no less than five armies against the invader, and was finally killed, not by a Dane, but by the ubiquitous English traitor, Eadric Streona…
“During Rogation days [May 7-9], the [Danish] ships came to Greenwich, and within a short time went to London. They dug a great channel on the south bank and dragged their ships to the west side of the bridge, and then built earthenworks outside the borough so that no-one could go in or out, and attacked the borough repeatedly, but they withstood them valiantly. A little before this, Edmund had made his way out of the borough, and had taken possession of Wessex, and all the inhabitants submitted to him.”183 Like Alfred in 878, Edmund had recovered the whole of the south after being in a desperate defensive position.
It was probably during this battle for London that we read in a Scandinavian source of the military valour of the future king of England, Edward the Confessor: “Thorkel the Tall had taken the one part of the town; many of his host had fallen there. Then Earl Thorkel the Tall went to King Cnut to win the other part of the town, and as luck would have it, just saved his life, for Edward, King Ethelred’s son, struck at that time a blow which men have held in memory in after days. Thorkel thrust Cnut off his horse, but Edward smote asunder the saddle and the horse’s back. After that, however, the brothers had to take to flight, and Cnut exulted in his victory, and thanked King Olaf for his help.”184
From now on, Edmund’s fortunes were more mixed. After an initial success at Gillingham, he offered battle at Sherston in Gloucestershire. At first the English did well. But then Eadric, having cut off the head of a man who looked like Edmund, fixed it on a spear and carried it through the ranks in triumph, crying out to the English that they should surrender because, look!, their king was dead. Seeing the consternation of his troops, Edmund took off his helmet and showed himself to them. But the damage was done – what had looked like certain victory turned into a draw.
Eadric now pretended to desert to Edmund’s side, and Edmund foolishly gave him an important command in the army. “No greater error of judgement was ever made than this,” comments the Chronicle.185 For in the next battle, at Ashingdon in Essex, Eadric, commanding a contingent from Herefordshire and South Shropshire, took to flight from the beginning, which led to the flight of other detachment and eventually the total rout of the English.
“Many of the English leaders perished,” writes Stenton, “– among them Ulfkell Snilling of East Anglia – and Edmund himself became a fugitive. But he had a reputation of the king which made a king formidable in disaster; the nickname Ironside by which he is always known shows that he was admired by the common people, and Cnut’s advisers realized that it would be well to come to terms with him. On an island in the Severn near Deerhurst the two kings made a solemn compact of mutual friendship, fixed the sum of money that should be given to Cnut’s army, and agreed to a division of England which gave Wessex to Edmund and the whole country beyond the Thames to Cnut. The men of London, who became Cnut’s subjects by this treaty, were required to buy their own peace from his army, and his ships anchored in the Thames for the winter. It was a settlement which presaged future trouble, It imposed a divided allegiance to every nobleman who held land both in Wessex and Mercia. But before its instability could be proved, on 30 November 1016, Edmund died, and the West Saxons accepted Cnut as their king.”186
According to the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, “the perfidious alderman Eadric” was closely involved in drawing up this treaty.
And Edmund may in fact have been killed by two of his chamberlains who were secret accomplices of Eadric’s. He was buried beside his grandfather, Edgar the Peaceable, at Glastonbury.187
And so this year of the three kings saw the kingdom of England pass from the hands of the English Orthodox King Aethelred into the hands of the pagan Danish King Cnut – who, however, soon decided to adopt the faith of his vanquished foe.
178 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 1014.
179 Starkey, The Monarchy of England, London: Chatto & Windus, 2004, p. 83.
180 Starkey, in the second of his series of programmes entitled “Monarchy” and broadcast on October 25, 2004 on Channel 4 TV.
181 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, F, 1016.
182 Florence, Chronicle; quoted in Wood, op. cit., p. 201.
183 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D, 1016.
184 Flateyiarbok, in M. Ashdown, English and Norse Documents, Cambridge, 1930, p. 179.
185 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D, E, F, 1016.
186 Stenton, op. cit., pp. 392-393.
187 David Hume, History of England, London: Alexander Murray, 1871, vol. I, pp. 81-82. According to the Liber Eliensis (ed. E.O. Blake, Royal Historical Society of Camden, 1962, chapter 79), the murder took place in London, not Oxford, and was commemorated at Ely on November 29, not 30, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle asserts.
15. THE ANGLO-SAXON AUTOCRACY
Let us summarize what the Autocracy meant to the English…
The monarchy had always been a sacred institution among the English. Both the king and the archbishop were “the Lord’s Anointed” – the archbishop in order to minister the sacraments of salvation, and the king so that, as St. Bede wrote “he might by conquering all our enemies bring us to the immortal Kingdom”.188 The king was sometimes compared to God the Father and the bishop – to Christ. Thus in his letter to Charlemagne Cathwulf compared the king to the Father and the bishop to the Son. He was the shepherd and father of his people and would have to answer for them at the Last Judgement. According to King Aethelred’s law-code of 1014, “a Christian king is Christ’s deputy in a Christian people”.
The Church strongly preached the people’s duty of loyalty to the king. Thus Abbot Aelfric wrote: “The people can choose whomever they like as king. But after he is consecrated as king, then he has dominion over the people, and they cannot shake off his yoke from their neck.”189 For, as Archbishop Wulfstan of York wrote: “Through what shall peace and support come to God’s servants and to God’s poor, save through Christ, and through a Christian king?”190
“Indeed the pre-eminence of the monarchy, for all the political vicissitudes involving changes of dynasty, is the outstanding feature that strikes the careful student of eleventh-century England. To all who wrote or legislated, the king was supremely the symbol of the nation. It is sometimes forgotten how many sides of the life of the community were brought together under royal surveillance: the coinage, supervision of general administration of justice through shire and hundred and tithing, provision of good title to land by means of charters, and protection of the Church. It might be said of England in the tenth and eleventh centuries that king and community grew together.
There is evidence of strong loyalty to the monarchy, and the Church helped to encourage this feeling. During the tenth century coronation rites were introduced that made the coronation of Edgar a splendid and symbolic moment in the life of the nation.
The promises given by King Edgar at his coronation reappeared in the Coronation Charter of Henry I; indeed in essentials the ritual of this Anglo-Saxon ceremony remains the core around which has been constructed the elaborate detail of modern coronations…”191
Although, as we have seen, King Aethelred at a low point in his reign considered some kind of constitutional arrangement with his people, there is no hint of democratism in Anglo-Saxon concepts of government. For, as Deacon Alcuin of York wrote, “the people should be led, not followed, as God has ordained… Those who say, ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,’ are not to be listened to, for the unruliness of the mob is always close to madness.”192
Instead of a constitution, the king had to submit to an oath, or Promissio. Thus St.Dunstan, gave the following Promissio to King Aethelred to read at his coronation at Kingston:-
“In the Name of the Holy Trinity, I promise three things to the Christian people and my subjects: first, that God’s Church and all Christian people of my dominion hold true peace; the second is that I forbid robbery and all unrighteous things to all orders; the third, that I promise and enjoin in all dooms justice and mercy, that the gracious and merciful God of His Everlasting Mercy may forgive us, who liveth and reigneth.”
The saint then commented on this: “The Christian king who keeps these engagements, earns for himself worldly honour, and the Eternal God also is merciful to him, both in the present life and in the eternal life that never ends. But if he violate that which was promised to God, then shall it forthwith right soon grow worse among his people, and in the end it all turns to the worst, unless he in life first amend it. Ah! dear lord, take diligent heed to thyself by all means; often call to mind this, thou wilt have at God’s judgment to produce and lead forth the flock of which thou hast been made the shepherd in this life, and then give account how thou heldest that which Christ afore purchased with His Own Blood.
“The duty of an hallowed king is that he judge no man unrighteously, and that he defend and protect widows and orphans and strangers, that he forbid thefts, and correct unrighteous intercourse, and annul and altogether forbid incestuous alliances; extirpate witches and enchanters, drive out of the land kin-slayers and perjurers, feed the needy with alms, and have old and wise and sober men for counsellors, and set righteous men for stewards, for whatsoever they do unrighteously by his fault, he must render account of it all in the Judgment Day.”193
The killing of the king was seen as an especially heinous crime, which could be atoned only by the suffering of the whole nation. That is why the murder of St. Edward (and later, that of Prince Alfred), as well as the expulsion of King Aethelred, were seen as so ominous, and closely connected with the disasters that followed them. Thus in the eyes of Archbishop Wulfstan, “Aethelred’s expulsion from his kingdom in 1013 seemed a crime heinous enough to account for the ills with which God was punishing the English.”194
Indeed, according to the archbishop in his famous “Sermon of the Wolf to the English” (1014), it was disloyalty at every level of English society that led to the disasters suffered at the hands of the Danes: “For there are here in the land great disloyalties towards God and towards the state, and there are also many here in the country who are betrayers of their lords in various ways. And the greatest betrayal in the world of one’s lord is that a man betray his lord’s soul; and it is also a very great betrayal of one’s lord in the world, that a man should plot against his lord’s life or, living, drive him from the land; and both have happened in this country. They plotted against Edward and then killed him… Many are forsworn and greatly perjured, and pledges are broken over and again; and it is evident in this nation that the wrath of God violently oppresses us…”195
However, the veneration due to the Lord’s Anointed went together with definite responsibilities on his part. St. Dunstan had close personal relationships with six kings, and crowned and anointed three of them, probably playing an important part in the composition of the rite itself.196 At the coronation of King Aethelred in Kingston in 979, he said: “The Christian king who fulfills these obligations earns for himself worldly honour, and the eternal God is merciful to him, both in the present life and in the eternal life that never ends. But if he violates that which was promised to God, then things will immediately get worse among this people, and in the end the worst will happen, unless he takes steps to put things right in his lifetime. Ah! dear lord, examine yourself carefully and bring to mind frequently, that at God’s judgement you will have to produce and lead forth the flock of which you have been made the shepherd in this life, and then give an account of how you have looked after that which Christ purchased with His own Blood.
“The duty of an anointed king is that he judge no man unjustly, defend and protect widows and orphans and strangers, forbid stealing, correct unlawful intercourse, and annul and altogether forbid incestuous unions, extirpate witches and magicians, drive out of the land killers of relatives and perjurers, feed the needy with alms, have old and wise and sober men as counselors, and install righteous men as stewards. For in the day of judgement he will have to give an account for whatever injustice they have committed which is his responsibility.”197
Crimes against the Church or her servants were seen as crimes against the king, and duly punished. The king saw it as his duty to look after the Church and enforce her laws with secular penalties. And yet the relationship between Church and State in England was “symphonic”, not caesaropapist; for the kings did nothing without consulting their bishops and senior nobles – all meetings of the witan were attended by
bishops as well as nobles. Indeed, according to Archbishop Wulfstan, it was the monarchy that depended on the faith and the Church, not the other way round. “It is true what I say: should the Christian faith weaken, the kingship will immediately totter.”198
Thus, as Frank Barlow says, “a true theocratic government was created, yet one, despite the common charge of confusion against the Anglo-Saxon Church, remarkably free of confusion in theory. The duality of the two spheres was emphatically proclaimed. There were God’s rights and the king’s rights, Christ’s laws and the laws of the world. There was an independent ecclesiastical jurisdiction under the control of the bishop, but there was also the helping hand of the secular power which the church had invoked and which it could use at its discretion.”199
188 St. Bede the Venerable, Commentary on Acts.
189 Abbot Aelfric, Catholic Homily on Palm Sunday.
190 Archbishop Wulfstan, Institutes of Christian Polity (1023).
191 Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, London: Longmans, 1962, p. 214.
192 Deacon Alcuin of York, Letter 132, to Charlemagne, M.G.H., Ep. Kar. Aevi, vol. II, p. 199.
193 Stubbs, Memorials of St. Dunstan.
194 Dorothy Bethurun, “Regnum and sacerdotium in the early eleventh century”, in Peter Clemoes and Kathleeen Hughes (eds.), England before the Conquest, Cambridge University Press, 1971, p. 133.
195 Archbishop Wulfstan, “The Sermon of ‘Wolf’ to the English”, in Michael Swanton, Anglo-Saxon Prose, London: Dent, 1975, pp. 118, 119.
196 Eleanor Duckett, Saint Dunstan of Canterbury, London: Collins, 1955, p. 108.
197 William Stubbs, Memorials of St. Dunstan, Rolls series, 1874, pp. 356-357.
198 Wulfstan, The Institutes of Polity, 4.
199 Barlow, The English Church, 1000-1066, London: Longmans, 1979, p. 141.