The English/Anglo-Saxon Church “Western Rite”



It is impossible to determine how far the ancient Teutonic gods and goddesses, such as Woden, the god of war, and Thor, the thunder god, and others were worshipped in the sixth century in England. By sacrifice to Woden Englishmen probably hoped to overcome their enemies and, if they fell in battle, to be admitted to Valhala, the hall of the slain, where they expected to feast forever. In time of fighting they thought they could hear Woden’s daughters, the witch-like Valkyries, the choosers of the slain, riding through the air to the place of slaughter. A god of fertility, Frey by name, may have been worshipped, in order that worshippers might win increase of flocks and crops. Some of the prayers of our pagan fathers have come down to us. A ploughman beginning his work asked for-

“Acres a-waxing and plenteous in strength,

Hosts of grain shafts and of glittering plants,

Of broad barley the blossoms,

And of white wheat ears a-waxing.”

When he had sung all his prayer he drove his plough on, beneath the first furrow laid a loaf of bread, and then sang once more-

“Acre, full fed, bring forth fodder for men.”

Englishmen seem to have prayed incessantly. If their bees swarmed they prayed that they might not lose them. If they had a stitch in their sides they thought it was caused by javelins of witches, and prayed again. They attributed all the blessings and ills of life to good and evil spirits, and by sacrifice and prayer hoped to obtain the one and avert the other.

But they seem to have been troubled by the inefficacy of their prayers. Evils and blessings descended on them, so far as they could see, for no rhyme or reason; sickness, disease, murrain among the cattle, bad harvests, raids by hostile folk, all the ills that flesh is heir to, and wealth, high positions, and the favour of the great al came to a man no matter whether he prayed to the gods or not. Englishmen explained this in two ways. Either the gods were indifferent to the prayers and sacrifices of mortals, or else there was some power which was stronger than the gods, and beyond the influence of human prayers. They called this power Wyrd or Fate. With freakish despotism it might buffet them one day, and raise them to glory the next; they knew not why. It was a malicious supernatural force with which neither they nor their gods could contend.

Let no one think that in such circumstances our ancestors lived in daily or hourly fear of fate. They lived in the midst of tragedy; but they were brave men. Fear, of course, they must have felt, but they had the courage that beats it down. The poem Beowulf tells how the hero and his men, while waiting in the hall of Herot for the expected attack of the monster Grendel, never thought to see their homes and kinsmen again. But still with cool courage they waited for the certain death that was to overtake one or more of them and, like many an Englishman in our own day, made arrangements to rest in comfort while they waited. our forefathers loved to hear poems that told of courage, and strove to practice it themselves, not merely in battle with their own kind, but also in their almost hopeless contest with the supernatural, and in the unending fight with the forces of nature that imperilled life so often by sea and land. and when fate finally overtook them they endured it in no cowardly way.

In their private life they strove after virtue. Any one who reads Beowulf can see that that is true. They practiced justice and mercy, and were ready to protect the weak and to help the oppressed at a great cost to themselves. In this they seem to us greater than the gods whom they feared and worshipped. They showed tenderness in family relations. They understood honour and kept faith. They loved purity of life. “No one,” says Tacitus, “laughs at vice in Germany.” We may confidently believe that Englishmen at the time of their settlement in England were equally scrupulous. But passions broke out in pagan Englishmen, as they do today after 1300 years of Christianity. Angle, Saxon and Jute warred furiously together, and the warriors took delight in the thought of the carrion crow, wolf and eagle glutting themselves upon the bodies of their fallen foes. And at the warrior’s banquet not all the poems that were recited held up Beowulf’s ideals. Faith was not always kept. Drunkenness and dishonour and murder as well known as they are today. But in sane moments they were loathed as we loathe them, and it is clear that our pagan forefathers, in their unceasing fight to achieve their ideals of conduct, and to beat down their baser nature, were eager to get help from any source that offered it.

In the year 597 A.D., there came the dawn of a great power, before which dark supernatural forces slowly withdrew, and human nature took on a gentler guise. Englishmen began to look for what their poet Cynewulf of the eighth century called “a fairer bliss, where never foot of fiend or fearsome spirit shall be in all the land.” there came to all a measure of relief, not only from the terror of the unseen, but from human malice. English ideals were changed; they were strengthened; they were pursued with greater hopes. Englishmen took the Christian faith to their hearts, because it agreed with and supported their own moral instincts. It set up with renewed force the ideal of conduct that man should love his neighbour as himself. And after that ideal humanity since the conversion has toiled with renewed hope, not always with success, but still it has toiled, and no one looking back upon the past, from which it emerged, can deny the triumph of Christianity. By it the heroic virtues of our forefathers have been immeasurably strengthened.

Every one knows how Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, landed with some forty followers in Kent in 597 with intent to convert all England to Christianity. This Roman mission met with small success. So far from converting England it failed for long to convert even Kent to a permanent acceptance of the new faith. The Kentish men, despite archbishops living at Canterbury, openly practiced pagan rites till 640. An attempt to convert Northumbria commenced in 625 by Paulinus, a Roman missionary sent from Kent, met with success for a while. (He went with the future queen as her priest, the same as her mother did when she married Aethelbert the pagan king of Kent). The Northumbrian king, Edwin, and Coifi, his pagan high priest, accepted Christianity, and Paulinus baptised many Northumbrians in the rivers Glen and Swale. But in 633 Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, defeated and killed Edwin. Paulinus fled to Kent with the queen, and pagan kings ruled in Northumbria for a space, “defiling themselves,” as Bede says, “with abominations of their former idols.”

The work of conversion began with greater vigour in 635, when Oswald, another Christian king of Northumbria, introduced into the north of England a church with a genius and a passion for mission work. From 615 to 633 Oswald had lived in exile in a monastery on the island of Iona, situate off the west coast of Scotland. How there came to be a monastery there is explained by Bede :-

“In the year of our Lord 565 there came into Britain from Ireland a famous priest and abbot, a monk by habit and life, whose name was Columba, to preach the word of God to the provinces of the northern Picts, who are separated from the southern Picts by steep and rugged mountains. Columba converted that nation to the faith Christ by his preaching and example, whereupon he received from them Iona for a monastery. There are on it lands for five families (i.e. five hides). His successors hold it to this day.”

Columba reached Iona from Ireland. Ireland in its turn had been Christianised from Britain in the fifth century. The traditional apostle of the Irish was St. Patrick, who is said to have commenced his missionary work in 431. When the Irish Church comes into the light of history in the sixth century, it is found to be in a flourishing condition. Its love of education is proved by the existence of numerous Irish manuscripts of the classical authors dating from that time.

But the outstanding feature of the Irish Church was its success in missionary enterprise. all over Ireland, on the capes and islands, and on the western isles of Pictland/ later Scotland, are to be found the remains of the small monastic settlements from which the missionary monks issued to wrestle with barbarism, and to which they returned for seasons of rest and spiritual revival. Periods of intense activity in preaching to savages in hill country and in royal courts alternated with periods of intense quietness, during which in the silence of monastic cells the missionaries searched their hearts, and drew further energy from the highest source. This passion for solitude carried them far afield to the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands, and even to Iceland. Columba well illustrates this characteristic by his settlement and life on the island of Iona. By 597, the year of his death and of Augustine’s landing in England, parts of central Pictland/later Scotland were dotted with monasteries, all dependent on Iona and its master abbot.

To this Scottish Church (the Scots originated from Ireland), at one with the Welsh/British and Irish in its customs and festivals, Oswald, now king of Northumbria, appealed for a bishop to undertake the further work of conversion among his subjects. In 635 Aidan was sent. following the usual Irish custom he established a monastery upon the bare and dreary island of Lindisfarne. The monastery consisted probably of scattered huts made of wood, clay and wattles, wherein the missionaries lived alone. The church was possibly 20 or 40 feet/6 or 12m long, and made of the same materials. It had probably neither aisles nor chancel. The kitchen was probably in a separate building. There would be a guest-house for visitors, various granaries and store-houses. The whole collection of buildings most likely had a palisade round it. Not far off on the mainland was the royal palace on the rock of Bamborough. At low tide it was possible for Oswald to go on foot or horseback across the sands to visit his friend, skirting as he did so the dangerous pools and quicksands.

Bede’s beautiful account of Aidan deserves to be quoted-

“It was the highest commendation of his doctrine that he taught no otherwise than as he and his followers; for he neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing amongst the poor whatsoever was given to him by the kings or rich men of the world. He was wont to traverse both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity. And wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if infidels, to embrace the mystery of the faith, or if they were believers, he endeavoured to strengthen them in the faith, and to stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.                                                                                                                                                                                                    His course of life was so different from the slothfulness of our times, that all those who bore him company, whether they were shorn monks or laymen, were employed either in reading the Scriptures or in learning the Psalms. This was the daily employment of himself and all that were with him. And if it happened, which was but seldom, that he was invited to eat with the king, he went with one or two clerks, and having taken a small repast made haste to be gone with them, either to read or write. He never gave money to the powerful men of the world, but only meat if he happened to entertain them. And whatsoever gifts he received from the rich, he either distributed to the poor, or used in ransoming those who had been wrongfully sold as slaves. Moreover, he afterwards made many of those he had ransomed his disciples, and, after having taught them, advanced them to the order of the priesthood.”

Bede, in history, can hardly bring himself to part company with Aidan, but he does not abstain from criticism of him. He says:-

“I in no way commend what he imperfectly understood in relation to the observance of Easter; nay, I detest the same and have written a book against it. But even in the celebration of Easter, the object, which he had in view in all he said, did or preached, was the same as ours, that is, the redemption of mankind through the passion, resurrection and ascension into heaven of the man Jesus Christ, who is mediator between God and man.”

Everything that Bede says about Aidan is the testimony of one noble man to another.

Aidan lived to continue his work till 651. Clearly he was the man who more than any one else laid hold upon Northumbria for the faith. Even when the Christian Oswald was slain in 642 at Oswestry by the heathen Penda of Mercia, there was no reversion to paganism as there had been when Edwin fell; neither did Aidan flee home to Iona as Paulinus fled to Kent, but Paulinus went back to Kent with the queen who accompanied her from Kent as her priest before her marriage to Edwin. Oswy, Oswald’s brother, succeeded him on the throne, and in 655  destroyed all pagan hopes by defeating and slaying Penda on Winwaedfield.

But by that date almost all England had officially accepted Christianity. Missionaries, about whose doings we know next to nothing, had been at work in the kingdoms of East Anglia, Wessex, Essex and the Middle English. In all this activity it was men who had been educated in Ireland or Iona, or in English or Gallic schools of the Celtic form, that did most of the work. The one piece of mission work undertaken by the Roman Church of Kent between the years 628 and 653 was the despatch of Felix to East Anglia to assist the king of that country in his encouragement of Christianity among his subjects.

Bede, in his “Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert,” has given us glimpses of the mission work that was carried out among the valleys and hills of Northumbria. Cuthbert was born about 630, and died in 687. He received all his early training at the hands of Celtic missionaries, Englishman though he was, he well illustrates for us Celtic mission work and holy living. He was one of the great saints of Northumbria. He entered the monastery of Melrose in 651, the year of Aidan’s death. Bede says:-

“He confirmed himself to the rules of the place with the same zeal as the others, and, indeed, sought to surpass them by observing stricter discipline; and in reading, working, watching and praying he fairly outdid them all. Like the mighty Samson of old he carefully abstained from every drink that could intoxicate. . . . He sought to lead the minds of the neighbouring people to love of heavenly things. Many of them, indeed, disgraced the faith they professed by unholy deeds; and some of them, in the time of the plague, neglecting the sacraments of their creed, had recourse to idolatrous remedies, as if by charms or amulets, or any other mysteries of the magical art, they were able to avert a stroke inflicted on them by the Lord. To correct these errors he often went out from the monastery, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot, and preached the way of truth to the neighbouring villages. . . . It was at this time customary for the English people flock together when a cleric or priest entered a village, and listen to what he said, that so they might learn something from him, and amend their lives. . . . He was mostly accustomed to travel to those villages, which lay in out of the way places among the mountains, which by their poverty and natural horrors deterred other visitors. . . . He often remained a week, sometimes two or three, nay, even a whole month, without returning home; but dwelling among the mountains, taught the poor people, bot by the words of his preaching and also by his own holy conduct.”

When living in a monastery he showed the asceticism which all Celtic monks practiced.

“He would go forth when others were asleep, and having spent the night I watchfulness, return home at the hour of morning prayer.”

One night he was seen to enter the sea till the water reached his neck and arms, and spend the night there praising God. At dawn he came out of the water and fell on his knees to pray again

Another Celtic quality, love of solitude, was strong in him. There is, says Bede, an island called Farne, lying off several miles from Lindisfarne to seaward.

“No one before God’s servant Cuthbert had ever dared to inhabit this island alone on account of the evil spirits which reside there; but when his servants of Christ came. . . . all the fiery darts of the wicked were extinguished, and that wicked enemy and all his followers were put to flight.”

He lived there alone, save for occasional visitors from the mainland, for eight years. He built himself a round call.

“The wall on the outside is higher than a man, but within by excavating the rock he made it much deeper to prevent the eyes and thoughts from wandering, that the mind might be wholly bent on heavenly things, and the pious inhabitant might behold nothing from his residence but the heaven above him.”

Bede probably means that Cuthbert could only see the sky by looking up through windows in the wall.

The wall was constructed of rough stones and turf. There were two apartments in the cell, one being a chapel, the other a living-room. The roof was formed of rough poles and straw. Near to the island’s landing place Cuthbert built a large house for his visitors. He grew crops of barley, from which the birds abstained in marvelous fashion. Other food he got from fish, sea-birds eggs.

” He had so far withdrawn his mind from attending to the care of his person, and fixed it upon the concerns of his soul, that he would often spend whole months without taking off his gaiters, Sometimes, too, he would keep his shoes on from one Easter to another, only taking them off on account of the washing of feet, which then takes place at the Lord’s Supper.”

when, in 685, he was made bishop of Lindisfarne against his will, he continued his mission work.

“As this holy shepherd of Christ’s flock was going round visiting his folds, he came to a mountainous and wild place, where many people had got together from all the adjoining villages, that he might lay his hands upon them. But among the mountains no fit church or place could be found to receive the bishop and his attendants. They therefore pitched tents for him in the road, and each cut branches from the trees in the neighbouring wood to make for himself the best sort of covering that he was able.”

Even when plague broke out in 686, he still went round his diocese comforting those who were left alive.

Bede says:-

“He adorned the office of the bishop by the exercise of many virtues, according to the precepts and examples of the Apostles. for he protected the people committed to his care with frequent prayers, and invited them to heavenly things by most wholesome admonitions, and followed that system which most facilitates teaching by first doing himself what he taught to others. He saved the needy man from the hand of the stronger, and the poor and destitute from those who would oppress them. He comforted the weak and sorrowful; but he took care to recall those who were sinfully rejoicing to that sorrow which is according to godliness. Desiring still to exercise his usual frugality, he did not cease to observe the severities of a monastic life amid the turmoil by which he was surrounded. He gave food to the hungry, raiment to the shivering, and his course was marked by all the other particulars, which adorn the life of a pontiff.”

After two years of work as a bishop, feeling that death was approaching, he returned once more to his beloved solitude on Farne Island, and there, in 687, he died. One of those who attended him upon his death-bed, lit two candles, and carried them to high ground upon the island, to show by this signal to the monks of Lindisfarne that the saint was dead.

One is naturally interested in the arguments by which the conversion of the English was accomplished. When in 625, Edwin, king of Northumbria, and his Wise Men debated as to whether they should adopt the faith that was preached by Paulinus, the Roman missionary from Kent, Coifi, the high priest, spoke as follows:-

“O king, the religion which we have hitherto professed, has no virtue in it. None have worshipped our gods more diligently than I,  and yet there are many who receive greater favours from you, and are more prosperous in their affairs. If the new doctrines are more efficacious, we ought to receive them at once.”

Coifi’s motives clearly were not religious, but commercial. He threw over his own set of deities in order to win the favour of the Christian God, through whom he hoped to gain places at court and prosperity in his affairs. Possibly, Ethelbert of Kent was attracted by Augustine’s ‘delightful promises” (he had marriage Bertha the daughter of the King of Paris, who was a Christian, part of his marriage agreement was for him to have a church, St. Martin’s in Canterbury, so she could continue with her Christian faith  having a priest who accompanied her when she came to Kent) of everlasting joys and a kingdom that would never end. such language must have had one meaning for the missionaries and another for the pagan audience. Many a man disappointed in any year’s increase of flocks and herds must have determined for the sake of greater prosperity next year to try the efficacy of prayers offered to the new God.

More thoughtful minds reasoned differently. One of Edwin’s men, following Coifi’s speech, compared man’s life to the flight of a sparrow, which darts from the darkness without into the warm, well-lit hall, and, flying through, disappears once more in wintry night. “So this life of man,” he said, “appears for a short space, but what is to follow, we know not. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains more certainty, it deserves to be followed.” Christianity brought the certainty which humanity longs for. It was Christianity’s bold denial of man’s mortality that gave the new faith weight with this type of mind.

But there is no question that most men were won by the fascination of Christ’s figure. The thinking Englishman who felt himself at the mercy of freakish heathen forces like Wyrd, and who had realised the futility of such protection as he enjoyed against them in heathen prayers and sacrifices, was drawn to the side of the missionaries by the conception of Christ as a heroic chieftain, surrounded by twelve mighty was companions, the apostles, whom He led invincibly in a war against all the forces of ill. The prayers of sin against which Christ fought were thought to take form as devils. By His aid all of them were to be controlled, and the world was to become happier.

But the thoughtful Englishman longed for help not merely against Wyrd and the fearsome spirits which he imagined haunted fens, woods, rivers, caves, and air, and lay in wait for the wayfarer, but also against the dark forces of evil within himself. Men in all ages, and Englishmen as much as most, have been oppressed by a lamentable discord between their ideals and their life. When the sinless figure of Christ, in whom there was no discord between life and ideals, was presented to them in the seventh century al their moral instincts rose to the hope of a perfect life such as the missionaries preached and practiced. Cynewulf’s poetry is full of this longing. “I am was guilty of misdeeds,” he says, “fettered by sins, tormented with anxieties, bound with bitterness,” but “now I am ransomed from the power of sin.” Because thoughtful men now believed that there was hope for themselves in the unceasing struggle against their lower nature, and had visions of an England reformed, they laid hold with both hands upon the new faith. There was none of the emotionalism so often shown at modern revival meetings. There was no hysteria displayed by Englishmen in the seventh century. What attracted them to Christianity was a sober and well-founded appreciation of its moral power. how great that power can be in every human activity comes vividly home to us if we study carefully the history of Northumbria in the late seventh and early eighth centuries as narrated in the pages of Bede. no doubt Englishmen hoped for more permanent results then actually followed. Human nature has proved to be a more stubborn thing than was imagined in England of the seventh century.

Bede tells the story which is evidence  of opposition on the part of followers of the older gods. Two brothers slew a Christian king of Essex. On being asked “why they had done this, they had nothing else to answer but that they had been incensed against the king, and hated him because he was too apt to spare his enemies, and forgive the wrongs they had done him, when asked to do so.” In this story Christianity and paganism at its worst stand face to face. It was the essence of manliness, according to the latter, to be avenged with full measure upon one’s enemies, and to turn their skulls into drinking cups. According to the former the greatest height to which a man may scale is the practice of charity. To the lowest pagan mind Christianity was a force sapping the strength of man and forbidding him to triumph; to the Christian it was obvious that only by denial of self and the triumph of forgiveness might he rise to the stature of God.

Bede also tells of men who fell away from their new faith in days of trial, and found their way back by the ancient paths to the deserted temples of the gods. They would believe in Christ in days of prosperity, but in times of stress they turned to Thor.

But despite opposition of this kind the greater part of the missionary work had been done by 655. Problems of another sort now appeared. The Church needed organisation, for it was in dire confusion.

The country had been converted from two centre, Rome and Iona. The bishops of Rochester and East Anglia looked to Canterbury and its archbishop, and thence to Rome. The Middle English, the Mercians, East Saxons and Northumbrians looked to Aidan or his successors on Lindisfarne, and thence to Iona. not only was kingdom divided against Kingdom, but Northumbria was divided against itself, for Eanfled, the wife of King Oswy of Northumbria (654 to 671), had been brought up in Kent, and had accepted the Roman view about Easter, so that she celebrated Easter at one time and her husband at another. (The Council of Nicaea in the year 325 had decided that Easter Day should be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Now the Celtic Church placed the equinox on March 25th, but the Roman on March 21st; this affected the date of the festival. Supposing that the Roman placed the equinox on a Friday, and a full moon came on the following Saturday, then the next Sunday would be Easter Day in the Roman Church. But as the Celtic equinox came four days later, the full moon from which the Celtic Church reckoned its Easter Day would be a lunar month later. Four weeks, therefore, would separate the Celtic and Roman celebrations of the holiest festival in the Church calendar. A situation like this actually did occur in 631 in Northumbria and as Easter is the starting point of the Church calendar, from which most of the festivals are dated, this divergence was a matter of some importance.) Clearly it was the awkwardness of this situation that led to a change.

Moreover, there was growing in Northumbria a party of Churchmen who understood that much more was to be gained from Rome than from Iona. In matters such as Church government, doctrine, ritual, music and vestments Rome was the acknowledged source of light. emissaries going thither from England passed through countries long age converted to the faith, like France and Italy. There they came under the influence of the best views in church architecture, theology and art of all kinds. On the other hand, a journey to Iona took them through pathless wastes of mountain and moss-hag to a monastery upon a small island, set in stormy seas and in close neighbourhood to wild savages, who could contribute nothing of value to any field of Christian effort. To the question which was the best connection for England there could be but one answer.

To men in Northumbria, who realised all this, and who had learnt what Rome had to offer by visits thither, the controversy as to the date of Easter within the king’s court gave an opportunity. At a synod, held in 664 in the monastery that stood on top of the cliffs at whitby, King Oswy listened while rival Churchmen debated the claims of Iona and Rome to settle the date of Easter. There could be but one end to the debate. Rome was the very heartstone of civilisation; Iona was but a frontier post. King Oswy was easily won to decide that Roman ways were best, and that they must be accepted for the future, not merely as regards Easter, but in every department of Church life.

When England had thus made up its mind to follow Roman practice, the papacy in 669 sent thither a Greek named Theodore to be archbishop and to make the Church a still more efficient means of improving the faith and morals of the people. For twenty-one years Theodore vigorously pursued this object. In order that priests might be better supervised and the people better instructed in the faith, Theodore increased the number of bishops from six to fourteen.

Being a scholar who original came from the from the Eastern Empire in what is now in Turkey and was named by the pope after the death of the next archbishop who had travelled to Rome to get his pallum from the pope who named Theodore as his replacement, Theodore understood the value of education as a weapon of moral and religious reform. of the archbishop and his helper, Hadrian, Bede says:-

“Forasmuch as both of them were well read, both in sacred and in secular literature, they gathered a crowd of disciples, and there daily flowed from them rivers of knowledge to water the hearts of their hearers. Together with books of holy writ they taught the arts of ecclesiastical poetry, astronomy, and arithmetic, a testimony of which is, that there are still living at this day (circa 731) some of their scholars, who are as well versed in the Greek and Latin tongues as they are in their own, in which they were born. Nor were there ever happier times since the English came to Britain; for their kings, being brave men and good Christians, were a terror to all barbarous peoples, and the minds of all men were bent upon the joys of the heavenly kingdom, of which they had just heard. and all who desired to be instructed in sacred reading had masters at home to teach them. From that time also they began in all the churches of the English to learn sacred music, which till then had been only known in Kent.”

John, the Precenter of the Pope’s own church of St. Peter at Rome, came to England to instruct men in ritual and music. men flocked to consult him, and everywhere, we may be sure, anxious priests, eager to practice according to the methods of Rome, where etiquette was best observed, consulted him on all manner of points concerned with doctrine, ceremonial, and vestments, upon which nowadays they question their bishops or write to Church newspapers.

With all causes of differences removed between Roman and Celtic Churchmen, with a more numerous staff of bishops, with better education, and better services, machinery in England was set in motion for applying a steady pressure that would guide men in the way of salvation and decent living.

It would be wrong, however, to suppose that the Church in England had become a perfect instrument by the end of the seventh century. One has not to read far in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical history of the English People” to come to serious criticism of its condition at the beginning of the eighth century.

Apparently it had failed to live up to the high ideals which Theodore had held up to it.

Bede is severe on some bishops of the eighth century. He writes of “Idle confabulations and revilings and other pollutions of the unrestrained tongue” as though these were their special faults. He adds:-

“It is noised abroad concerning some bishops that they have no men of religion or of self-restraint near them, but rather such as indulge in laughter and jests, revellings and drunkenness, and other temptations of an idle life, and also feed their bodies with carnal food rather than their minds with the heavenly sacrifice.”

In 748 Boniface, an English missionary living in Germany, wrote thus to Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury:-

“I hear in England drunkenness is a vice of only too common occurrence. And the bishops not only do not prohibit it, but get drunk themselves and make others drink by pressing big bowls upon them. . . . Only pagans and Englishmen have such a vice; Franks, Gauls, Lombards, Romans and Greeks are free from it.”

Many bishops never thoroughly visited throughout their dioceses. Bede complains that many townships and hamlets among the fells and dales never saw a bishop from one year’s end to another. And not only did the bishops stay away, so that there was none to confirm the young, but never a single preacher appeared to teach the true faith or the distinction between right and wrong.

The root of all ills, says Bede, is greed.

“When a bishop under the dictation of avarice takes under his care more people than he can in a whole year visit by preaching, he is a very deadly danger to himself and to his flock, to whom he is a false bishop.”

Bede was an ardent advocate of a still further division of the dioceses.

But the English Church compares triumphantly with any other if missionary effort be regarded as a test of its vitality. Many an English man and woman crossed the sea to labour enthusiastically for the conversion of the pagan tribes of Germany, the Low Countries and Denmark; they were helped probably by great similarity between the English tongue and that of these countries. Willibrord and Winfrith are the most famous of these missionaries. Willibrord went to Frisia in 690, and became archbishop of Utrecht. He had his failures. Rathbod, the Frisian king, was no doubt a fair sample of his people. He was persuaded to receive baptism, but with one foot already in the font he paused to ask whether his forefathers were already in that heaven which was promised to the baptised, or in the alternate abode of eternal punishment. The honest reply came back that assuredly they were all in hell. Whereupon Rathbod withdrew from the font, saying that he would rather dwell in hell with his ancestors and the Frisian nations than in heaven with a parcel of beggars. Perhaps here Willibrord was a little servere. No doubt many of Rathbod’s forefathers were honest and courageous men, in whose company their descendant might well take pleasure.

But Willibrord had his successes too. He defied heathen gods by smashing their shrines everywhere, and eresting churches on their sites.

From 719 to 722 Willibrord had the assistance of Winfrith. This latter was a Devon man, born at Crediton in 680. He is usually known by the name Boniface, which was given to him by Pope Gregory II. when he was consecrated bishop in 723. From that date onwards Boniface devoted himself to his great work of evangelising Germany. He pursued the same methods as Willibrord, smashing idlos, destroying shrines, and building churches. He met his death in 755 among savage Frisians, and was buried at Fulda. Possibly, like Willibrord, he was a little harsh. A little of the patience Aidan displayed might have helped him. But Germany has acknowledged her debt, for at Fulda she has raised a bronze statue to the Englishman, who more than any other man brought her both Christianity and knowledge.

Had Germany desired to honour an English woman as she has honoured Boniface she would surely have chosen Lioba, the kinswoman whom Boniface set over the nunnery of Bischofsheim on the Tauber, “where they was collected no small number of the handmaidens of Christ.” these, fired by the example of their leader, who forgot her own land and al her kinsfolk in her desire to be blameless in the sight of God, set themselves with such goodwill to the study of the heavenly discipline, that many of them became abbesses over other monasteries.

Boniface, when setting forth in 755 at the age of seventy-five on the journey that he knew would be his last, called Lioba to him and exhorted her to continue her work in Bischofsheim. He bade her-

“think nothing of bodily weakness, nor the long years, nor the greatness of your task; mortal time as compared with erternity is short, and the troubles of the present are as nought compared with the future glory which shall be revealed in us.”

Lioba survived her kinsman till 780, to be “loved by princes, received by nobles, and entertained by bishops.”

A Church which could produce missionaries like Willibrord, Boniface and Lioba was certainly not dead.




To mediaeval man and women all life was a struggle, during which mankind fitted itself by suffering and a long fight with sinful desires to return once more to that Paradise from which its first parents had been expelled. To conquer sin and win eternal bliss was an object not easily to be attained in a world where delights of all kinds constantly enticed men and women to wickedness. That it was an impossible task no one asserted; but it s extreme difficulty induced many of both sexes to cut themselves off from the world and shut themselves up in monasteries, where, within a ring fence, they lived a life of prayer, praise, labour and study, which occupied body and mind to the full during every hour of the day, and left no room for “idleness, the enemy of the soul.”

The great founder of the monastic system, as it was known in the west, was St. Benedict of Nursia (480 to 543 A.D.) There were monasteries in western Europe before this time, the inmates of which had considerable freedom in the ordering of their lives and in the choice of methods by which they sought after holiness. But Benedict drew up a Regula or “Rule,” showing how he thought a monk’s life could best be led. It did not allow the same freedom which monks had previously enjoyed. Benedict put his rule into practice in the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy, where he lived as abbot or head. From that spot the rule spread into many other monasteries of the west, the inmates of which were attracted by its excellence and common sense as compared with earlier monastic methods. Those monks who adopted it as their guide of life were called Benedictines after its author. (The Celtic Church obtain their monasticism from the deserts of Egypt with Anthony the Great who became known as both the founder and father of desert monasticism in the third and fourth century in the desert of Egypt, the Celtic Church was linked to this and copied this with their island monasteries set in the desert of the sea, which the Vikings found later places of easy pickings).

Monks who followed the Rule of St. Benedict were allowed but little personal liberty. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and lived like soldiers under discipline. They ate their meals together in the refectory or dining-hall of the monastery, slept in the same dormitories, worshipped together in the same church, fasted and feasted together at appointed seasons, wore the same kind of clothes, ate the same kind of food, went to bed and rose together at the same time, studied together in the cloisters, and look leisure together. In short, they lived a common life, continually in one another’s company, and were therefore known as “coenobites” from two Greek words, bois (life) and koinos (common). At their head was a ruler called an Abbot or Father. “Let the Abbot know,” says St. Benedict in his Rule, “that any lack of goodness which the master of the family (God) shall find in his flock wil be accounted the shepherd’s fault.”

The Rule contains many commandments for monks, beginning with the greatest of all, “to love the Lord God with all our soul, with all our strength, and then to love our neighbour as ourself.”

St. Benedict says in his rule that “any one first coming to the religious should not find the entrance made easy.” A man who persisted in asking permission to become a monk was to be received as a guest for a few days.

“After that let him be in the novitiate (i.e. under the novice master), and let a senior watch over him. Let all the rigour and austerity of our journey to God be put clearly before him.”

For twelve months he served in the novitiate, and only when he perfectly understood life according to the Rule was his desire to become a monk gratified.

The arrangement of the monk’s day, according to St. Benedict’s Rule, varied somewhat with the season of the year. In the winter-time monks rose about two or half-past two in the morning, and went into the church for their first service, called the Night Office, or Vigils. This probably lasted for about one and half hours, and thus ended about half-past three or four o’clock. Between Vigils and the next service, Lauds, there was in winter-time an interval of about one and a half hours, for Lauds were said at dawn, which in Italy during the winter-time comes about five or a quarter to six. This interval was spent in learning the Psalms and in lessons, and in study. Lauds lasted for a half or three-quarters of an hour, and were followed by a service called Prime, which was said at sunrise, about half-past six or half-past seven according to the existing winter month. At some time between eight and nine Tierce was said. Then the monks worked in the garden, fields, barns or offices of the monastery till about half-past two, breaking off about midday for about fifteen minutes, during which a service called Sext was said. At half-past two, when work was done, came another service called None. Then followed dinner, the only meal of the day in winter-time. The interval between dinner and Vespers was devoted to reading. Vespers were sung in winter about four or a quarter-past four, and finished at sunset, and then, Compline, was said. Before daylight had quite disappeared, that is, about five o’clock or a quarter-past five in winter, the monks were in bed, and could get about nine hours’ rest. (In summer the arrangement of the services differed somewhat. Vigils began at one o’clock in the morning, and lasted only for an hour. Lauds began at a quarter-past two, Prime at half-past four. at five o’clock the monks were at work in the fields and elsewhere. At a quarter-past nine Tierce was said. From half-past nine to half-past elven the monks read. Then came Sext followed by dinner, and a siesta or afternoon sleep. At two o’clock None was said. Then followed field work and other occupations till nearly half-past six. Vespers came at half-past six, supper at seven, Compline at half-past seven, and bedtime at eight. It will be noted that a siesta was necessary in summer owing to the shortness of the summer night, that a second meal was allowed owing to the length of the day, and that outdoor work was divided into two spells.  It is calculated that on a normal day of summer the monk, who strictly followed St. Benedict’s Rule, spent three and a half hours in prayer and praise, six and a half  in work, one in meals, and eight and a half in sleep.)

On Sunday and Saint’s days Mass was celebrated, and the monks received Holy Communion. Daily Mass and daily communion were unknown in the earliest Benedictine monastery on Monte Cassino and in those that imitated it.

By way of illustration some passages from the Rule are quoted below:-

“Idleness is an enemy of the soul. Because this is so, the brethren ought to be occupied at specified times in manual labour, and at other times in holy reading. . . . It is of much importance that one or two seniors be appointed to go about the monastery at such times as the brethren are free to read, in order to see that no one is slothful, given to idleness or foolish talking instead of reading, and so not only makes no profit himself but distracts others.”                                                                                                          “The brethren are so to serve each other that no one be excused from the work of the kitchen except on the score of health. Let the weaker brethren have help, that they may not do their work in sadness. On Saturday he who ends his weekly service must clean up everything. He must wash the towels with which the brethren wipe their hands and feet; and he who finishes his service and he who enters on it are to wash the feet of all.”

The brother ending his term of duty was to give back all the vessels used in his ministry cleaned and unbroken, and they were to be handed formally over to the one entering office, that it might be clearly known what was given and received.

“. . . There ought always to be reading, when the brethren are at table. The greatest silence shall be kept, so that no whispering nor noise save the voice of the reader he heard there.”

So any monk wanting anything at meal-times was to ask for it by signs, and no one was to ask questions about the passage read. The reader was to get his meal afterwards with the weekly servers and kitchen helpers.

“We believe that it is enough to satisfy just requirements, if in the daily meals there be at all seasons of the year two cooked dishes, so that he who cannot eat of the one may make his meal of the other. Therefore two dishes of cooked food must suffice for all the brethren, and if there be any fruit or young vegetables, these may be added to the meal as a third dish. Let a pound of bread suffice for each day.”

In times of excessive labour the rations could be increased.

“Monks should practice silence at all times, but especially during the night hours. . . . On coming out from Compline no one shall be permitted to speak at all.                                                                                                                                                                             “Let clothing suitable to the locality and the temperature be given to the brethren, for in cold regions more is needed, and less in warm. The determination of all these things is in the hands of the abbot. We believe, however, that in ordinary places it will be enough for each monk to have a cowl and tunic, in winter the cowl being of thicker stuff, in summer of finer or old cloth. He should also have a scapular for working purposes and shoes and stockings.”

A tunic was a shirt; a cowl was a long cloak with a hood attached; a scapular was a short of lighter material; it also had a hood.

“Monks must not grumble at the coarseness of these things. . . . It is sufficient that a monk have two tunics and two cowls, as well for night wear as for the convenience of washing. . . . A mattress, blanket, coverlet and pillow are to suffice for bedding. The beds shall be frequently searched by the abbot to guard against the vice of hoarding. To guard against this vice  let all that is necessary be furnished by the abbot, that is cowl, tunic, shoes, stockings, girdle, knife, pen, needle, handkerchief and tablets. By this every pretext of necessity will be taken away.                                                                                                                                              “All shall sleep in separate beds, and each shall receive bed clothes fitted to the condition of his life. If it be possible, let all sleep in a common dormitory. . . . let a candle be constantly burning in the room till morning, and let the monks sleep clothed and girt with girdles or cords. . . . In this way they shall always be ready to rise quickly when the signal is given. When the younger brethren rise for worship let them encourage one another gently, because of the excuses made by those who are drowsy. . . .         “Let there be stationed at the gate of the monastery some wise old man , who knows how to give and receive an answer, and whose age will not allow him to wander from his post. . . .                                                                                                                                               “The monastery ought if possible to be so constructed as to contain within it all necessaries, that is water, mill, garden and places for the various crafts, which are exercised within the monastery, so that there be no occasion for monks to wander abroad, since this is in no wise expedient for their souls.”

Any brother, who is sent on a journey must “not relate to another what he has seen and heard outside the monastery, because this is most detrimental.” the man shall be punished “who shall presume to break the enclosure of the monastery, or go anywhere or do anything, however trifling, without the abbot’s permission.”

Any perusal of the rule leaves upon the mind a strong impression of the quarantined life of the monk. In it we catch a glimpse of a community hedged about with a wall, having exit to the world only by a gate guarded by “some wise old man,” who was never to be absent from his post. But no man can doff the world as he doffs a garment; no lodge with monastic porter can prevent the flesh and the devil slipping past with every novice that enters the precincts. It was, therefore, to hold at bay the baser forces which inter-penetrate a man’s being that St. Benedict insisted on community of life. In dormitory, refectory, church, cloister and field monk was ever in the company of other monks; continual society, continual occupation for mind and body, continual supervision by seniors and other brethren assisted him to keep his heel upon the many-headed monster within himself, which in loneliness would have entered into battle with him for his soul.

By this adoption of a common rule of life St. Benedict was enabled to dispense with other methods by which man had endeavoured to win the day against the flesh. The people of his time did not shrink from the most dreadful torments of hunger, thirst, heat and cold, which might help them to reduce their bodies to nought, and purify their souls from fleshly instincts. Religious men in their ardour had endeavoured to out-do their friends in endurance, and victory was often only attained with death. St. Benedict revolted against such austerities that lowered rather then increased that lowered rather than increased a man’s spiritual vision, and begat an overweening pride in their exponents. He forbade monks to conduct their warfare against the flesh in their own way; in future their prayers, fasts and feasts were all appointed for them; competition with one another was forbidden. “In the monastery,” said he, “no one is to be led by the desires of his own heart, “but must follow the rule, and he said that in the rule he had laid down “nothing hard nor burdensome.” He could afford to be gentle, for he had compassed each monk about with the support of his own fellows and of a common life, and self-imposed cruelty was no longer necessary.

It must not be supposed, however, that this Benedictine system universal in England during the period of the conversion. When monastic arrangements become visible to us in the pages of Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History,” or in his “Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth,” or in the chronicle of the Abbey of Abingdon, the system barely disclosed is certainly not closely related to Benedictinism. It seems probable that many English monasteries had no encircling walls, but stood open to the moors, unless it were for a hedge like that of thorn-bushes, of which we read at Oundle, which was possibly designed to keep out wild beasts from monastic crops and gardens. The English gateways cannot have been jealously watched, for from them issued a continual stream of missionaries, eager to get into closer contact with the world. diving into villages, leaving the road, like Aidan, to head off parties of workers or travellers, and to beseech them to accept salvation, and sleeping and eating in peasants’ huts.

We should be wrong, also, if we assumed that everywhere in England monastic life had that same community of existence which is set out so clearly in the Rule. For instance, at Abingdon monastery there were in the seventh century apparently twelve monks, twelve cells in which they ate, slept and studied, and  twelve chapels in which they prayed. Only on Sundays and festivals did they worship together in a church or meet for a meal round a common board. In Glastonbury, also, the monks lived in separate huts, and there were several chapels. it is probable enough that in individual existence like this was led in other monasteries; certainly separate sleeping cells were common, as on Lindisfarne. And we have seen that Cuthbert as a monk sought to surpass his brother monks “by observing stricter discipline, and in reading, working, watching and praying he fairly outdid them all.” He set himself special penances, as when he spent the night in prayer, standing up to his neck in the sea. Allthis was very different to the monastic life as regulated by the Rule of St. Benedict.

The fact is that monasticism in this country was in its origins Celtic rather than Roman, and followed the rule of St. Columba rather than that of St. Benedict. It is said that Columba himself, the abbot and founder of the monastery of Iona )521 to 597), used to stand at night up to the neck in the cold seas of the north until he had repeated the Psalms from end to end. A Scottish monk, Drycthelm by name, who lived at the monastery of Old Melrose, was in the habit of entering the river even in winter-time to say his prayers. While he stood at his devotions the ice bobbed about his shoulders. On coming out “he never removed the cold and frozen garments till they grew warm and dry about his body. Thus he continued, through an indefatigable desire of heavenly bliss, to subdue his aged body with daily fasting.”

A change, however, in the direction of the more restrained Benedictine system began after the Synod of Whitby/Streaneshalch (this is the name of the town at the time, Whitby came later with the Viking invasion), which united England to the Roman Church “Western Rite” being Orthodox in 664. The chief  leaders in the movement on behalf of Benedictinism in England were Benedict Biscop and Wilfred, both of them members of noble Northumbrian houses. The former visited Rome on six occasions, and the latter on three, and both, by their residence in continental monasteries, were thoroughlt acquainted with all the ecclesiastical practices of the time. Benedict Biscop received from King Ecgfirth of Northumbria (671 to 685) as estate at the mouth of the river Wear, whereon to build a monastery to be ruled on the Benedictine plan. So pleased was the king with the result that a few years later he presented the monk with another estate for a second monastery at Jarrow, seven miles/11.2km  distant. To equip these two institutions Benedict made four journeys to Rome, and brought home with him not merely masons and glaziers, but John the Precentor of the Church of St. Peter and Abbot of St. Martin, who was skilled in reading and in the art of singing church music after the Roman manner, and was able to teach the English all the rules as to the due solemnisation of divine service, the celebration of yearly festivals, and the proper administration of a monastery according to St. Benedict’s Rule. Wilfrid was also active in the same work. After being consecrated Bishop of York in 664 he bent all his restless energy of mind and body set up Roman and Benedictine practice in his great diocese. Cuthbert accepted the new rules, and taught them when he lived as bishop on Lindisfarne. With his last breath he said: “Practice with zeal those institutes of the monastic life, which ht has pleased God to deliver to you through my ministry.” (It is possible that Cuthbert, Wilfrid and Benedict did not adopt the Benedictine Rule in its entirety. Those English leaders who had studied the Rule as practised in continental monasteries probably drew up a modification of it which they thought would suit England).

In order to maintain the Rule, its study and explain to unlearned monks in the common language were constantly advised. Alcuin, an English monk, resident in France, wrote in the communities of Wearmouth and Jarrow in the following manner, when in the late eighth century signs of decay were appearing in English abbeys:-

“Let the Rule of St. Benedict be often read in gatherings of the brethren, and let it be explained in the native tongue, so that it may be understood by all.”

In 747 all English monasteries were ordered to accept the Benedictine Rule.

Clearly it would be wrong to suppose that the Rule was completely established in England during the lifetime of Benedict Biscop or Wilfred. The decree of 747 and Alcuin’s letter are proof to the contrary. Nor are there wanting in Eddius’ “life of Wilfrid,” or in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical history,” or in his “Lives of the Abbots” clear indications that while the decisions of Whitby regarding the date of Easter were honourable followed, there was some opposition to the establishment of a common Benedictine life in monasteries. Cuthbert himself was faced with it on Lindisfarne. Bede says:-

“There were some brethren in the monastery who preferred their ancient customs to the new regular discipline. But he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view. Moreover, in his discussions with the brethren, when he was fatigued by the bitter taunts of those who opposed him, he would rise from his seat, with a placid look, and dismiss the meeting until the following day, when, as if he had suffered no repulse, he would use the same exhortation as before, until he converted them to his own views.”

Among the hills Celtic observances were maintained for many years. In the early ninth century even the monks of the Cathedral Monastery at Canterbury had separate cells in which they slept and ate, preferring them to the monastic dormitory and refectory. The innate desire which exists in every man to secure some privacy of life and independence of action, fought hard against complete submission to a rule code. Private cells, private chapels, private fasts and private penances lingered on.

Even in monasteries which accepted the Benedictine Rule there were cases of individual resistance. Bede himself a story of a stubborn monk:-

“I knew a brother myself, would to God I had not known him, whose name I could mention if it were necessary, and who resided in a noble monastery, but lived ignobly. He was frequently reproved by the brethren and elders of the place, and admonished to adopt a more regular life; and though he would not give ear to them, he was patiently borne with by them, for he was an excellent carpenter. He was much addicted to drunkenness and other pleasures of a lawless life, and used rather to stop in his workshop day and night than to go to church to sing and pray and hear the word of life with the brethren. For which reason it happened to him according to the saying, that he who will not willingly and humbly enter the gate of the church, will certainly be damned, and enter the gate of hell, whether he will or no.”

Having been granted a vision of hell, and of the place prepared there for him, he died without having time for repentance, and was buried in the remotest part of the monastery, no one daring to say a prayer or sing a mass on his  behalf.

The first impulse to study came from the Scottish missionaries. Bede, in his “Ecclesiastical history,” tells how many Englishmen, both nobles and commoners, crossed over to Ireland – the source of all Scottish learning – for the sake of study, how they travelled from teacher to teacher, and how the Irish “willingly received them all and took care to supply them with food, and to furnish them with books to read and with instruction for nothing.” Many of these wandering English scholars must have brought their knowledge home.

After the year 664 there began to flow towards England another current of knowledge. From the continent Wilfrid and Benedictine Biscop brought manuscripts and teachers. With his last breath the latter commended the previous books to the care of the brethren. Abbot Ceolfrid doubled the number of volumes at Wearmouth and Jarrow by assiduous collection, copying and purchase. To each institution he gave a copy of that Latin translation of the Bible, which later came to be called the Vulgate. He had a third copy of this work. but he took it with him to Rome, when he left his monasteries in 716, intending it as a present to the Pope. He died on the journey, but his gift has survived him to lie today in a library at Florence, where it has been much visited and examined by scholars, who are interested in the history of the Bible.   (Sir Henry H. Howorth argues that this copy of the Vulgate and the other two copies, which were presented to Wearmouth and Jarrow, were made in Italy, and brought there by Ceolfrid and Benedict Biscop in 678 A.D. In that case they formed part of the “innumerable quantities of books of every kind,” which Bede says the latter brought home to Northumbria. See Howorth’s “Golden Days of the Early English Church,” vol. iii, pp. 321-337. Professor Baldwin Brown, however, maintains that the manuscripts were written at Jarrow. See “the Arts in Early England,” vol. v, p. 396.    Fragments of vellum that once must have belonged to the Jarrow and Wearmouth copies have been discovered elsewhere. Ten leaves were found in the library of Lord Middleton at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire. They had been used about the middle of the sixteenth century to form bindings for collections of manuscripts which deal with the estates of Lord Middleton’s ancestors. See “Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission on Lord Middleton’s Papers,” published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1911. In 1889 a clergyman “picked up in a bookseller’s shop at Newcastle a solitary vellum leaf, which had been folded in two to form a cover for an account book about 1780.” This leaf also belonged either to the Jarrow or to the Wearmouth manuscripts. See “Journal of Theological Studies,” vol. x (1990), p. 540.)

Another famous manuscript which has come down to us from that time is the “Lindisfarne Gospels.” These were written for St. Cuthbert between 678 and 687 A.D., in the island of Lindisfarne by Bishop Eadfrith, and were destined to have a stirring history by land and sea before they reached their present home in the British Museum.

The finest flower of English learning in the seventh and eighth centuries was Bede (673 to 735). All his life he lived either at Wearmouth or Jarrow. He was born in the neighbourhood; at the age of seven he was given to Benedict Biscop to be educated. In his “Ecclesiastical History” he writes:-

“I have spent all my life within that monastery, devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures; and amidst the observance of monastic discipline and the daily charge of singing in the church, it has ever been my delight to learn or teach or write.”

He says that his instructor in the Scriptures was Trumberht, who in his turn had been educated by Chad, once a pilgrim and a student in Ireland. Possibly he had himself as a boy of seven heard John the Precentor instruct the monks in singing; certainly he followed John’s rules. All the knowledge that pilgrim students brought from Ireland and that Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid brought from Rome was united in Bede. Perhaps he used the very Vulgate Bible which Ceolfrid took away in 716 to present to the Pope. Eadfrith, the writer of the Lindisfarne Gospels was his friend, so he may also have seen and touched that precious volume. to us, of course, his most interesting writings are his “Ecclesiastical History,” his “Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow,” and his “Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert.”

It was not only monks that enjoyed a reputation for holiness and study in the seventh  century. king’s daughters and sisters raised nunneries to shelter women, who refused to content themselves with domestic life, and desired, like monks to escape from the world. Within such institutions lived women whose nobility, holiness, sweetness and knowledge were fit to be compared with Bede’s, and who raised their nunneries to a fame comparable with that of Wearmouth and Jarrow. Upon the cliffs at Whitby/Streaneshalch stood a convent for monks and nuns alike, which was ruled over by Hilda, a great abbess of royal family. At first she followed the Scottish plan, as taught her by Aidan and his friends. But, after 664, Hilda, like Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop, turned towards the Benedictine Rule. It is of her monastery that Bede tells one of his incomparable tales, that concerning the gift of song-making to the stable hand, Caedmon –

“Others of the English nation attempted after him to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men but from God.”

Among other famous monasteries of men and women ruled by an abbess was that of Barking in Essex, which was founded in 666. It is from a letter written by Eadhelm, a great scholar of the seventh century, to the Abbess Hildelith, “a devout servant of God,” that we learn something of the intellectual attainments of the nuns. He compares them to bees, because they collected matter for study from every source. Sometimes they read the Prophets, sometimes the Books of the Law, sometimes the Gospel, sometimes works of history and collections of chronicles, and sometimes rules of grammerians about versification in various metres. He commends the Psalms in particular to their study, for they prevent unhappiness. It appears that as wide as a range of study was open to women as to men. But Ealdhelm had an eye for their faults also, such as pride, conceit, insolence and stupidity, and declares that declares that they act contrary to the Rule by adorning their bodies with many-coloured raiment; but he hastens to add that he uses no names. In conclusion. he calls the nuns “flowers of the Church, sisters of monastic life, scholarly students, pearls of Christ, jewels of Paradise and partners in the eternal home.”




In Alfred’s times the Church had fallen far below “golden days” it had enjoyed in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Educated priests were few. Monasticism was dead. This was partly due to the inroads of the Vikings, who had drawn to the plunder of churches and monasteries by the wealth of costly robes and altar furniture, and by the fact that it was the practice of the time for laymen to place valuables in such buildings, as we do now in safe depositories. The stores of food and fodder in monastic barns also attracted them. The buildings were put to the flames by the pirates; the cups of valuable metals, the precious stones that adorned the shrines of saints, the priestly vestments were carried off, and the books were burned, except those which, like the “Lindisfarne Gospels,” were carried to safety by flying monks, or loved and preserved by Vikings for their coloured pictures.

But the decay of monastic and other church life had commenced before final ruin wrought by pirate raiders. The Benedictine Rule was too severe method of life to be followed long with the enthusiasm shown in the days of Benedict Biscop, Cuthbert and Bede. Many men and women were attracted to monasteries, not by love of the rule, but by the comparative comfort of monastic life, and by a wish to enjoy the wealth arising from the wide lands granted to monks and nuns by pious benefactors. They lived more like laymen and laywomen, going in and out of the monasteries at will, and not conforming to the rules laid down by St. Benedict as regards services, clothing, food and study. Such intruders were monks and nuns only in name. Latin became almost a dead language. The monastic schools, from which in Bede’s time flowed a supply of educated priests, ceased to exist. Alfred says-

“I remember how before the land was ravaged and burned the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books. And there was also a great multitude of God’s servants, but they had very little knowledge of the books, for they could not understand any of them, because they were not written in their own language.”

At his accession (871) very few men south of the Humber could translate a letter from Latin into English. “I cannot,” said the king, “remember one south of the Thames.” He set about a reformation in learning. He says in one of his books:-

‘He seems to me a very foolish man and inexcusable, who will not increase his knowledge while he is in this world, and wish that he may come to the everlasting life, where nothing shall be dark or unknown.”

He therefore gathered scholars who would both increase learning, and guide him and his people to the everlasting life he longed for; but his efforts met with little success. The translations of religious books from Latin into English, which he made for the benefit of those who could not read the former language, were read in England in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and have survived to this day;  but his endeavours to raise the educational level of his people and clergy, and to restore monastic life, were a failure, and therefore are not recounted in this book. The permanent part of Alfred’s work lies in hid defence of Wessex against the Vikings and in the formation of a military power that enabled his successors to make England into one kingdom. When this work was done, religious reform began again in the reign of Eadred (946 to 955), Alfred’s grandson, and was continued in the reign of Edgar the Peaceful (958 to 975), Alfred’s great-grandson.

The reform began with a restoration of monastic life. Monasteries were the homes of holiness and the fosterers of civilisation. The ordered life of a well-governed monastery gave to scholars among the monks ample opportunity for complete devotion to study. Without such an opportunity the Christian Church of early mediaeval times could have neither knowledge nor life. Such books of devotion as came into the hands of village priests or of bishops or of cathedral clergy of English/Anglo-Saxon times were the products directly or indirectly of monasticism; monks wrote them and copied them. It was in monasteries that men destined for the priesthood were educated, and given that knowledge of Latin which was necessary in days when almost all literature was written in that tongue. The first object, therefore, of any religious reformers in mediaeval days was the restoration of the monasteries.

In the tenth century in England there was much to be done. The condition of the Abbey of Abingdon was typical. In King Eadred’s day (946 to 955) it was desolated and neglected, consisting of mean buildings, and possessing only forty hides. The rest of the land of the place, i.e. one hundred farms, “the king held by royal light.” The charters which originally conveyed land to monasteries usually contained dire threats as to the probable latter end of those who should filch the land away from the monks. “Whoso taketh away this land,” runs one of these threats, “may God destroy him, and may the Fiend possess him, both body and soul, in hell.” But kings and laymen laughed at such.

Where monastic communities held together in England in the tenth century the members were not monks in the proper sense of the word, but seculars, so called because, like our parish and cathedral clergy, they lived “in saeculo,” in the world, and went about among laymen. Seculars do not obey the Rule of St. Benedict, and were consequently disliked by the reformers of the tenth century. Aelfric Abbot, who wrote a life of Ethelwold, a reformer of the time, says:-

“There was at that time in the old monastery of Winchester, where the bishop’s see was placed, bad-mannered clergymen, so carried away with pride, insolence and extravagance, that some of them refused to say masses in their turn. They used to put away their wives, whom they had married secretly, and take others. They were wholly given up to gluttony and drunkenness.”

This is very strong exaggerated language.

The biography of St. Oswald, another reformer of the tenth century, says:-

“At the same there were no monks nor men of that way of life in England. But there were religious and most dignified clerks (i.e. seculars), who nevertheless were accustomed to bestow the riches, which they heaped up with greedy minds, not in honour of the church, but on their wives.”

It is clear that monastic life as St. Benedict planned it, and as Bede led it, had completely disappeared in England. Of the men who lived in the surviving monastic buildings and still performed the services in the monastic churches, we know little beyond what hostile reformers have told us.  That many of them were married is certain. But this did not condemn them in every one’s eyes. In the tenth century in England there were honest men who defended clerical marriage, holding the view of the Protestant and Greek Churches of today, that a clergyman may be married and yet be a good clergyman. And it is clear from the history of the tenth century, that the seculars were popular among the lay Englishmen of all ranks.

But when all is said, it seems impossible to take an easy view of the condition of the church in the tenth century. It is quite clear that the seculars, dwelling within the monasteries, were not the type that was likely to carry out a reformation in England. Men more rigorous than these easy-going clergy were wanted, and the reformers hoped to find such pioneers by a root and branch reform of the monasteries throughout England, and by an  enforcement of the Benedictine Rule.

The men who realised the needs of the time, and did most to meet them, were Dunstan, Ethelwold and Oswald. while these men were agreed as to objects, they differed somewhat on the pace and method with which they were to be pursued. Dunstan is one of the most famous of all early Englishmen, and rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury, and chief minister of the crown  during the reign of Edgar the Peaceable (958 to 975). He was born near Glastonbury in 924 or 925, and about the age of twenty-one was made abbot of the monastery there.

On his appointment King Edmund (940 to 946) addressed him thus:-

“Be thou of this seat the lord and potent occupant, and whatever from thy means shall be lacking for the increase of divine service or for the completeness of the sacred rule, that I shall devoutly supply by my royal bounty.”

The rule referred to is the Benedict Regula. Under Dunstan Glastonbury became famous as a school; there is no proof, however, that he established there the Benedictine Rule in its completeness.

One of his pupils was Ethelwold, who was later sent to be abbot of the ruined monastery of Abingdon. In connection with his rule there a tale is told, which illustrates both the monastic revival and the lax standards of the time. The story goes that King Eadred (946 to 955), being interested both in the struggle for a purified monasticism and in the leaders of it, rode with some Northumbrian courtiers to Abingdon to visit Abbot Ethelwold. Throughout the morning the king assisted in marking out the foundations of new monastic buildings and in deciding the heights of the walls which were to be erected, and at midday was invited to stay to dinner by the delighted abbot. During the repast a cask  of mead was sent for, and the king, being very merry, ordered the doors of the dining-hall to be shut, that no man might escape drinking his fair share of liquor. Till evening they continued their carouse, and the biographer of Ethelwold delightedly tells how, by the divine favour, the cask never needed to be replenished, and that thus the king and his courtiers rode off at last “as drunk as swine.” It would be unfair to judge the reformers of a past age by the standards of the present. By the reform and restoration of Abingdon Monastery Ethelwold re-introduced into England the Benedictine Regula. Some forty other monasteries were soon founded in imitation of Abingdon in the south and midlands of England. The monks within them began again the work of Bede; they composed, copied and translated histories, biographies and other works, to which English historians turn again and again for their knowledge of the past.

Oswald, the other member of the trio, became abbot of a monastery at Winchester, in which town secular clerks were said to heap up treasurers with greedy minds and bestow them on their wives.

To all these three men came an earnest desire to push forward vigorously the re-establishment of a real monastic life, and to improve education. A similar desire had already risen on the continent, and directly or indirectly the three Englishmen sought for inspiration from the reformed monasteries there. From 956 Dunstan lived for two years in Flanders, in the monastery of St. Peter at Ghent. In that institution the Benedictine Rule was rigorously observed. At the same time Oswald was living at another reformed monastery, that of St. Benedict on the Loire. Ethelwold of Abingdon sent a monk, Osgar, to Fleury to learn the method of the strict Rule for the benefit of his fellows. That these men had to seek abroad a knowledge of the “Rugula,” which ordained common life in church, dormitory, dining hall, cloister and garden, shows how completely a real monastic life had disappeared from England. Apparently there was not a copy of the Regula in England. Editions had to be brought from the continent.

About the beginning of Edgar’s reign ((58) Dunstan, Oswald and Osgar were back in England, and from that time onward, with the full approval of the king, reform was pushed on at the expense of the seculars. Dunstan at the end of 959, became Archbishop of Canterbury. In 961 Edgar made Oswald Bishop of Worcester, and in 963 Ethelwold became Bishop of Winchester. Through these men the influence of the reformed Benedictinism of the continent made itself strongly felt. They worked in different ways. Ethelwold was blunt. At Winchester, in 964, he found seculars living in the way described above. He sent for Osgar and some of his own monks from Abingdon to drive out “these abominable blasphemers of God from the monastery,” and to take their place. He also appealed to Edgar for help. Down came one of the king’s thanes with the word that the seculars must either dress and live as true monks should, or leave the monastery. Only three forsook their old ways for the sterner Benedictine life. The rest, “hating a monastic life,” preferred to leave their home in the monastery, and departed with their wives, loving rather beggary in their company then comfort, which could only be obtained at the cost of separation.

Having driven the seculars from Winchester, Ethelwold built a new cathedral, which was dedicated in 971. To it were transferred the bones of St. Swithun, who had been Bishop of Winchester in Alfred’s boyhood. Aelfric, a monk of Winchester, who has left us a life of Ethelwold, wrote a sermon on St. Swithun, in which he describes the miracles wrought at the saint’s new tomb; these numbered sometimes as many as twenty a day.

“The burial ground lay so filled with cripples that people could hardly get into the cathedral, and they were all so miraculously healed within a few days, that one could not find five unhealed men out of that great multitude.”

Then Ethelwold ordered that, whenever a miracle of healing took place, all the monks of the monastery should go in procession to church and sing the Te Deum.

“Then forthwith they did so, and sang the Te Deum until they all loathed to rise so often, sometimes three, sometimes four times in a night, when they wanted to sleep. And at last they all left off the singing, because the bishop was busy with the king.”

St. Swithun then appeared in a dream, and said that if the monks would not sing, then the miracles would cease. The maater came to Ethelwold’s ears, and he, blunt as ever, ordered the resumption of the singing on pain of seven days’ continuous fast for the monks who failed.

“Always after that they observed this custom, as we ourselves have very often seen, and we have often sung the hymn with them. . . . The old church was all hung from end to end on each wall with crutches and stools of cripples, whi had been healed, and not even thus could they find room for half of them.”

With the king’s help Ethelwold delivered other monasteries from secular control at Chertsey in Surrey, and Milton in Dorset, and elsewhere. Such was the hatred caused by a policy, which was held by some to be sheer robbery, that an endeavour was made one day to poison its champion as he sat at dinner in the dining-hall at Winchester. Throughout the midlands he worked unceasingly to rebuild the shattered walls of monasteries, endow them with lands, fill them with real monks, and uphold the Rule. Medeshamstede, which had been a mere heap of bush-covered ruins since Viking days, was rebuilt and re-endowed. Up and down the country Ethelwold rode, visiting all the monasteries within his reach, “terrible as a lion” to those who resisted, “gentler than a dove” to those who obeyed hos reforming orders.

He attached great importance to the education of the young, and evidently had a real teacher’s enthusiasm for his work. Aelfric, his biographer, who was an excellent teacher himself, says:-

“It was always a pleasure to him to teach children and youths, by explaining books to them in English and by encouraging them with kind words to better work. For this reason it has come about that very many of his pupils have become abbots and bishops among the English.”

Aelfric had been himself one of Ethelwold’s pupils, and wrote a school book called “The Colloquy,” which has survived to this day. It was composed to give practice in speaking Latin to boys living in a monastery school. it takes the form of a Latin dialogue. In it we can get a glimpse of the life of a boy novice in England in the tenth century.

“Master: You, my boy, what have you done to-day?

Pupil: I have done many things. In the night, when I heard the bell, I got out of bed, and went to church and sang nocturns with the monks. Then, after singing of all the saints, we sang matins, and after that prime, and seven psalms with litnaies abd first mass. Then we sang sext, and then ate, drank and slept, and rose again and sang nones, and now we are here before you, ready to hear what you have to say.

M. : When will you sing vespers or compline ?

P. : When it is time.

M. : Have you been flogged to-day ?

P. : I have not, for I have been careful.

M. : And what about your friends ?

P. : Why ask  me that ? I may not tell you our secrets. Each of us knows whether he has been flogged or not.

M. : What do you eat in the day ?

P. : I still eat meat, for I am a boy living under the rod.

M. : What else do you eat ?

P. : Vegetables, eggs, fish, cheese, butter, beans and all clean food, with giving of thanks.

M. : You are very gluttonous, if you eat everything that is put in front of you.

P. : I am not so voracious as to eat everything at one meal.

M. : Then how do you manage ?

P. : I eat sometimes one kind of food and sometimes another kind, with self-restraint, as becomes a monk, not greedily, for I am not a glutton.

M. : And what di you think ?

P. : Beer, if I have it, or water, if I have no beer.

M. : Do you not drink wine ?

P. : I am not rich enough to afford it, and wine is not for boys and fools, but for the old and the wise.

M. : Where do you sleep ?

P. : In the dormitory with the monks.

M. : Who rouses you for nocturns ?

P. : Sometimes I hear the bell and get up. Sometimes the master rouses me painfully with his rod.

M. : Nice boys and pleasant pupils, your master bids you obey divine rules, and everywhere behave yourselves like gentlemen. Walk decently when you hear the bell, and go to church and bow humbly in prayer before the holy altars, and stand quietly and sing together and ask pardon for your faults, and go out again without squabbling into the cloister or schoolroom.”

St. Oswald’s methods of reforming monasteries were quieter than Ethelwold’s. His cathedral church at Worcester was at first served by seculars who refused to be reformed. Unlike Ethelwold, he called for no help from Edgar; he left his seculars in possession. He contented himself with building a new monastery, and staffing it with true monks. By 983 the monastery with its church was finished, and the monks that were brought to serve it rendered the services so well that soon the seculars in the older monastery gave way and were reformed. Henceforth they slept, ate, prayed, fasted, rested and clothed themselves according to the Benedictine Rule.

By happy chance a monk of Ramsey Abbey amongst the fens, in writing in the twelfth century a history of his house, has given us a glimpse of Oswald at his favourite work of monastic revival. The writer introduces us to the island of Ramsey, two miles/3.2km long and rather less wide, lying amidst the fens of Huntingdonshire. In the tenth century, before there was any monastery there, it could be reached by boat alone, and was covered with great woods of ash and alder. The surrounding waters teemed with fish and wild fowl. In to the story come the owner of the island, Alderman Ailwyn and Bishop Oswald. The alderman, in the course of conversation with the bishop, is advised, if he has a suitable site, to found a monastery thereon, in order that the monks there may “by their prayers make good his faults and expiate his sins.” To which the alderman replies that in return for good health restored he had already built a little chapel of wood upon the island of Ramsey, and has placed therein three men, who are longing for some one to teach them the true Benedictine Rule. Oswald with joy promises him all the assistance in his power, and both together they visit the spot.

“The holy man, seeing the place girt about on every hand with marshes, supplied with every necessity, and far removed from the world, said, ‘Here is a second Elysium provided from eternity for men destined to reach the heights of Paradise. . . . I, if it please your highness, will hastily return to my home, and send a faithful servant skilled in building, that with his help a little refectory and dormitory may be put up in the meantime for the monks who are to come. Then we at some later conference mat take counsel concerning the shape and size of the church to be erected.’ ”

And after salutation they separate.

Forthwith the bishop sent from Worcester a “venerable man, Ednoth, of proved experience,” who, having brought labourers together, enlarged the little chapel, and erected the necessary offices according to the bishop’s plan. Soon Oswald sent twelve brethren from his monastery at Westbury in Worcester, a supply of food to fill their storehouses till harvest-time, various books, and some ornaments for altar use during divine service. Thus, on August 29, A.D. 968, the little folk took possession of the new buildings. Throughout the following winter tools of wood and iron, as well as other necessaries, were prepared for the operations that were to commence in the spring. Early in 969 foundations of considerable depth were dug, for the soil all about was marshy, and a church with two towers was commenced. One tower was at the western end, and the other, the greater of the two, rose in the centre of the building. The dedication was performed on November 8, 974 A.D.

Endowments soon flowed in. Ailwyn, the founder, who gave the island and its adjacent waters, gave also certain other properties and rights in addition, and is called in consequence by many pleasant names, such as “true Israelite,” “ealderman of pious memory,” and “man devoted to God.” The writer proceeds to talk about wills and bequests for several pages. Here is the will of Countess Ethelgiva-

“I, Ethelgiva, countess, do give and bequeath to the abbey of Ramsey, to the honour of God and St. Benedict and to the eternal welfare of my soul, my land at Stowe and Brune, to be held freely and quit of dues as I held it, and also the new mill; also one mark of gold, of which half shall be spent on the needs of the abbey and half on food for the brothers; and two silver cups of twelve marks by London weight for the service of the brethren in the refectory, to the intent that while they drink out of them at meals, they may the more remember me in their hearts. Remember me, O dearest brethren, towards Him, whose grace I need. God be with you, and I shall ever be your faithful sister while I live.”

Suddenly, while all went well with the brethren in this manner, disaster came.

“It pleased God to break up their peace and quietness, for when they rose one morning, behold! a great crack in the wall of the big central tower, gaping from top to bottom, and threatening the adjacent part of the church with destruction.”

“It must have happened,” says the historian, “through the weakness of hasty work due to the carelessness of the builders.” The news was sent to their fathers and patrons, Ailwyn. The face of that “stout soldier of Christ” fell somewhat at the news, but his words were brave. “The will of God be done,” said he, “and blessed be the name of the Lord,” and off the old man started for the island with his attendants to view the ruin of his work and comfort the hearts of the brethren. But the sight of the crack and of the leaning wall struck even him with fear. The opinion of the builders was sought, and all said that the whole tower would have to be pulled down. So the news was sent to Oswald, now Archbishop of York as well as Bishop of Worcester, who advised that “the whole structure be rebuilt in a better manner of the glory of God.” So once more Ailwyn dipped into his money bags, the tower was taken down, the weakness of the foundations removed, and the whole rebuilt. The younger brethren were called to the work every day after the service of Prime. When all had been completed a second time, Ailwyn decorated the altar with silver plates and gems of various kinds and colours, and gave the sum of 30 pounds for making organ pipes. Archbishop Oswald, Bishop Aescwius of Dorchester, and all the great men of five shires and part of Lincolnshire came to the consecration in 991

Upon the vigorous reformation conducted by his friends Archbishop Dunstan looked with approval, and yet for some reason unknown he did not display an activity comparable to that of Ethelwold, or even Oswald. Perhaps  his gentle nature hesitated to separate married clerks from their wives, or to drive them out together to shelterless poverty. It is said that in his youth, before he took monastic vows, he had hoped to be married, Perhaps, therefore, the misery of enforced separation of husband and wife was clearer to him than to his fellow reformers. Or, perhaps, as a statesman governing a realm he saw better than his friends the injustice involved in a confiscation of property, which  seculars had enjoyed so long as to have prescriptive rights to it. Perhaps he felt that a real reformation was a matter calling rather for much educational work than for hasty action. His own cathedral at Canterbury was served by seculars, many of whom, perhaps all, were married. Perhaps he feared that if he joined the active reformers civil war might break out, for many of the great nobles of the time preferred the secular clergy to the monks. Many of the common people also liked the married clergymen. “If the low-born mob saw a monk in those days, they would hoot him.” Clearly there was much dislike among officials and people for monks. When Edgar died in 975, a struggle for power took place between rival claimants to the throne. Aelfhere, the ruler of Mercia, seized the opportunity to expel all monks from Mercian monasteries, and bring back the seculars, to the loudly expressed delight of the common folk. And yet Dunstan took his side. He thoroughly understood that many laymen disliked the policy of Oswald and Ethelwold. No doubt he believed that as an ideal St. Benedict’s Regula was excellent, but possibly, in view of English feeling, he considered that even married secular clergy, if properly trained, educated and controlled, could be faithful servants of the Church, and contribute their share to the reformation of religion.

Judging from the laws which were passed in Edgar’s reign, in framing which Dunstan must have had a share, the great archbishop thought less about evicting the married clergy from their homes and property, which they had enjoyed so long, than about such matters as the education of all children in the Lord’s Prayer and in the Creed, the payment of all church dues, the stamping out of pagan rites such as the worship of wells, trees and stones, the extinction of Sunday trading, the maitanance if decent behaviour on feasts days, cleanliness of churches and their utensils, the property of priests’ conversation, priestly avoidance of drunkenness, the proper celebration of mass, preaching of sermons every Sunday, priestly abstention from hunting, from hawking and from dicing, proper confession of penitents and administration of communion to the dying.

To the end of his life his enthusiasm for education was unbounded. He loved the company of the young, and seems in his white-haired old age, when he had retired from political life after Edgar’s death, to have been fond of telling his young scholars  tales of his early days. His kindness in dealing with boys was long remembered in the school at Canterbury, so that after his death scholars in fear of a whipping at the hands of brutal masters used to appeal to him in prayer to deliver them . As Abbot of Glastonbury in his old age, he never forgot the importance of suppling the Church with educated monks and priests.

The three leaders of the reformation died within a few years of one another, Ethelwold in 984, Dunstan in 988, and Oswald in 992. In 978 the raids of the Northmen had recommenced, and the wild chaos of the next thirty-eight years went far to wipe out most of the hope that any permanent result might flow, either from the restoration of real monasticism or from the renewed enthusiasm for education.

We should like to know how far village priests came under the influence of the religious reformation of the tenth century. But on this point we have but scanty information. We cannot tell whether there was a revival of religion among village folk, whether churches were filled to overflowing and new ones built. With the help of the writings in Anglo-Saxon of Aelfric, who was Abbot of Eynsham from 1005 to 1020 A.D., we can a little penetrate the darkness. Monk though he was, his thoughts seems chiefly to have gone out to the simple unlettered Englishmen and to the priests, on whom they depended for their knowledge of the faith. It was good and right, he wrote, to minister to monks, “but it is better to speak heavenly lore to the unlearned and to feed their souls.” To help them he bent almost all his energies.

We cannot tell the number of parish churches in England in the tenth and eleventh centuries. “Domesday Book@ mentions churches and priests, but does not give a complete list of either. We can only surmise how churches grew up. The landlord of an estate probably had a priest among his retainers, as naturally as he had a steward and men-at-arms. For the priest he built a church and endowed it. Monasteries also erected churches on their estates, and sent thither priests to minister to the people. These priests probably confined their ministrations to those who lived on the estates of monastery or thane. An estate might thus become a priest’s shire or province. (The word “parish” in Anglo-Saxon/Englisc days meant a bishop’s diocese). In this way there grew up a great number of churches, some of which still stand. Undoubtedly many of the priests who ministered in them were married.

Churches were maintained by payments of many kinds. Each holder of land was supposed to give a tenth of the produce of his crops and herbs. In addition each householder paid Church dues, such as Church-scot which was a contribution of corn, Soul’s-scot which was payable on a person’s death, Plough-alms which was a penny paid on each plough-land (A plough-land is the extent of land which could be tilled by one plough and its team of eight oxen, in time a plough team was expected to plough an  acre a day 4840 sq yds/0.4047 sq m) at Easter, and Light-scot a halfpenny worth of wax for lighting the church. Furthermore, each priest was supposed to have a house, and strips of land in the arable fields like other villagers; thus in 1086 the priest at Hatfield had half a hide, or 60 acres.

As to the duties of village priests we can learn something from the letter which Aelfric Abbot wrote to those of the diocese of Sherborne and to those of the archbishopric of York. Priests, he said, ought to be bachelors, but he admitted that it was impossible to enforce this rule in England in the tenth century. It was their duty to hallow the sacrament, instruct the people in the faith, and give an example of pure morals. On Sundays they were to explain in English the meaning of the Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, that men might know the faith. They were to pray for their king and bishop. Each priest ought to have a psalter, an Epistle book, a Gospel book, a mass book, a book of hymns or canticles and one or two other books of devotion. From this small library he was to seek instruction for himself and communicate it to his people. As there were usually in Latin, book learning was a necessity, otherwise the priest was but a blind teacher. Clean mass vestments and altar cloths, and a chalice of pure metal were indispensable. Priests were forbidden to drink heavily, for they must be ready to baptise or to give Holy Communion. They ought not to force other men to drink. They must not sell things as shopkeepers do, or wear weapons, or drink in wines shops, or swear oaths, or act as reeves for landlords. They must confess and give pardon to sinners, administer Holy Communion to the dying, and anoint the sick.

To help unlearned men Aelfric abridged and translated into Anglo-Saxon/Old English the first seven books of the Old Testament. He also wrote three volumes of sermons or homilies very simply in Anglo-Saxon/Old English, so that they could be understood by village congregations. Thus in his sermon on Job he says:-

“We should speak to laymen according to the measure of their understanding, so that they be not disheartened by the deepness, nor wearied by the length.”

It appears from Aelfric’s writings that one of the great duties of village priests was to combat superstition, which still survived from pagan days. Englishmen looked for omens in the flight of birds, in sneezes, in the actions of horses and dogs. A man who does this, says Aelfric, “is no Christian, but an infamous apostate.” He condemns the superstition that regarded some days as unlucky for journeying. He says:-

“All days are equally lucky, for God made them all. . . . I am ashamed to mention all the shameful superstitions, which ye foolish men practice through the devil’s lore in such matters as marrying, travelling, or brewing. . . . Some of you bring offerings to trees and stones and wells at the bidding of witches.”

Some of us, even today, practice queer tricks to bring us luck; possibly Aelfric’s Englishmen had more faith in them than we have.

While Aelfric was writing and studying England was being ravaged by the Northmen, and Ethelred the Redeless was paying Danegeld. The dreadful history of these years can be read in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but to bring it home to us we may finish with a quotation from a sermon written by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (1003 to 1023), about the year 1012, when Archbishop Alphege, of Canterbury, was murdered by the Northmen at Greenwich.

“What I am about to say is true. We must make amends. God’s laws have too long despised throughout our people, and human laws, since King Edgar’s death, have very grievously deteriorated. Holy places have lost their defenders. The churches of God are robbed of their rights and completely stripped of their possessions. And even Holy Orders have long been held in evil repute. . . . The poor and needy have been betrayed, and treacherously and cruelly tricked and sold into slavery far from home in a foreign land. . . . Everywhere there are constant ravagings by the enemy and hunger and burning and bloodshed. Robbery, murder, plague, pestilence, disease and death of cattle, slander, hatred and rapine do us grievous harm. We are oppressed by our foes. Bad weather had often brought us bad harvest. Kinsman has not protected kinsman, nor father son and son father, nor brother brother. The clergy do not live according to their rule not the laity according to law. . . . Furthermore, this their mothers, and brothers have sold their sons to foreigners, sons their mothers, and brothers their brothers. Such acts are hideous and terrible. . . . For long now the English have won no victory. . . . The sea raiders (i.e. the Northmen) with the help of God have attacked with such strength that one of them has often driven ten (Englishmen) before him, sometimes more, sometimes fewer. . . . They bitterly and cruelly oppress us very day. They lay waste nd burn and plunder and rob and carry booty to their ships. And what, alas! is the cause of all these many misfortunes, but the bitter, visible and manifest wrath of God against this nation. . . . Let us therefore do what is needed; let us turn to right dealing, and let us in some way or other avoid and forsake wrong. Let us carefully make amends for our misdeeds. Let us humbly approach Christ and call frequently upon him with trembling hearts and deserve his mercy. Let us love God and follow his divine laws. . . . Let us diligently cleanse our thoughts, and carefully observe our oaths and promises and maintain good faith among ourselves. . . . and let us prepare for ourselves the glory and happiness, which God has promised to those who in this world do his will. god help us. Amen.”

If the French-Norman, beginning their Conquest/Crusade of England in 1066, found the English church and laity living below the best ideals of the continent, we may attribute this in great measure by the inroads of the Northmen of which the French-Normans are themselves the last Viking raiders on England from the behest of the Pope in Rome, the French-Normans were willing to be his henchmen to change the Christian faith from Orthodox to the Roman Catholic Church so the pope could rule over this world and the next, he never asked the Holy Roman Emperor his military support whose first Emperor Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope!, who like the English was Western Rite Orthodoxy so to had to be destroyed like the English and so great change took place in England with the introduction of feudalism and the new Roman Catholic Church, the First Crusade and last one was the crusade against Constantinople in 1204 and the destruction of the greatest Christian city by a Christian army of French- Normans under the guidance of the Doge of Venice and the Pope in Rome to destroy the Eastern Orthodox Church and bring under his control the Christian faith for his benefit not God’s, but as history was to show this was to be challenged as people fought against this in word and deed.