Posts Tagged ‘Anglo-Saxon’

st-cuthbert-1-sizedToday (September 4th) is the feast of the Translation of St Cuthbert (born c. 635; died 20 March, 687). Probably born near Melrose in the Scottish/Northumbrian borders, Cuthbert was inspired from an early age by the monks of the local monastery where St Eata was abbot and St Boisil prior.

In 651 he experienced a vision in which angels bore up to heaven the soul of St. Aidan, and as a result of this he decided to become a monk at Melrose, though his entry seems to have been delayed by the requirement of military service – a consequence of the threat posed to the Kingdom of Northumbria by Penda, the pagan King of Mercia, who had already been responsible for the martyring of two Northumbrian kings, St Edwin and St Oswald.

Once peace had been restored, Cuthbert returned to Melrose, where he soon became known for his learning, holiness and miracles. He spent some time in the monastery of Ripon, but, along with other Ripon monks who felt a loyalty to the Celtic style of monasticism, left when St Wilfrid decided to enforce a stricter adherence to the Roman usage.

Back at Melrose he replaced St Boisil as prior, but, after the decision by the Synod of Whitby in 664 to accept Roman usage throughout the Anglo-Saxon church (most especially with regard to the date of Easter), St Eata sent Cuthbert to Lindisfarne as prior with a view to introducing Roman customs into what was by tradition a Celtic monastery.

Cuthbert’s success in this regard was due in large part to his own personal sanctity, and in the process he demonstrated that fidelity to all that was best in Celtic monasticism and commitment St Wilfrid’s program of bringing English Christianity more into line with continental Christianity were by no means incompatible with each other.

After a period devoted to evangelizing the people of Northumbria, Cuthbert retired (in 676) to lead the life of a hermit, finally settling on Farne Island off the Northumbrian coast. However, in 685 his life of prayer and asceticism was interrupted St Theodore of Canterbury insisted that Cuthbert be ordained Bishop of Lindisfarne, and for nearly two years Cuthbert devoted himself to preaching and pastoral work before returning to his cell on Farne Island to await his approaching death.

His tomb in the monastery at Lindisfarne was immediately associated with numerous miracles, giving rise to Cuthbert’s title of “Wonder-worker of England”.

During the Danish invasion of 875, Bishop Eardulf and the monks took Cuthbert’s body with them during a seven-year period of wandering around Cumberland and Galloway before returning to Northumbria where a converted Danish ruler who had a personal devotion to St Cuthbert gave the monks a church at Chester-le-Street a few miles to the north of Durham.

As the end of the first millennium approached, the fear of further Danish incursions resulted in the temporary transference of the shrine to Ripon. En route back to Chester-le Street (the threat of invasion having receded) the monks were persuaded by a sign from God to build a new shrine in Durham, which became the site for the original Durham Cathedral (completed in around 998/999).

After a brief sojourn on Lindisfarne (where he was removed for safety while William the Conqueror was ravaging the north in1969), Cuthbert’s shrine (containing his incorrupt body together with the head of St Oswald) was restored to the present Norman Cathedral in 1104.

Throughout the Middle Ages St Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham was one of England’s greatest centres of pilgrimage and devotion, but in 1542 the iconoclasm of the Reformers resulted in its despoliation. Happily, a group of Durham monks had the foresight to hide Cuthbert’s body in a secret location, which, according to tradition, is known to selected Benedictines who pass the knowledge on from one generation to the next.

For more information on St Cuthbert, the Haliwerfolc blog is heartily recommended.


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St Aidan of Lindisfarne

428px-Saint_AidanYesterday (August 31st) was the memoria of St Aidan and the Saints of Lindisfarne, who have a special significance for the Church here in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.

The kingdom of Northumbria first embraced Christianity under St Edwin (d. 632/3) and his Kentish wife Æthelburga, but the conversion never went far beyond the royal household and the nobility, and, after Edwin’s death at the hands of Penda, the pagan King of Mercia, Northumbria reverted to paganism.

In 634, Oswald became King of Northumbria. From 616 he had lived in exile among the Irish of Dál Riata in Scotland, where he had converted to Christianity.

On becoming king, Oswald invited the monastery at Iona (founded by St Columba) to send missionaries for the purpose of converting the Northumbrian people.

(Oswald’s decision to Iona was not in any way a snub to the Rome-backed mission whose center of operations was based in Kent, but reflected his own personal connections with Irish Christians in Scotland.)

Iona initially sent a bishop named Cormán, whose methods proved harsh and ineffective. Irish/Celtic monasticism tended to be severe in its rigour and asceticism – more so even than continental monasticism – and Cormán’s approach appears to have been ill-suited to the task of evangelizing the Northumbrians.

He returned to Iona and was replaced by Aidan (together with twelve other monks) who settled on the island of Lindisfarne, which was close to Oswald’s fortress at Bamburgh on the North-East coast.

Here Aidan constructed an Irish-style monastery consisting of circular huts gathered around a small chapel and other communal buildings where he and his monks prayed, studied and gave themselves over to lives of austerity and asceticism, and from which they journeyed on foot in order to preach the gospel.

In the early stages of the mission, Aidan was actively assisted by Oswald, who functioned as an interpreter for Aidan who was unfamiliar with the local language.

Aidan also took care to provide for the education of future generations of monks and missionary bishops, and, initially bringing twelve boys to live in the monastery, turned Lindisfarne into the forerunner of a mediaeval monastic school.

Aidan, the “Apostle of Northumbria”, died at Bamburgh in 651, having assisted first Oswald (who, like Edwin before him, was martyred at the hands of the pagan King Penda) and later Oswin in evangelizing the Northumbrian people and in planting the structural, intellectual and spiritual seed which would flower most spectacularly in the age of Cuthbert and Bede.

The Orthodox Church had produced some very fine prayers for The Commemoration of Our Father among the Saints Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, Enlightener of Northumbria.

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Image from the website of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, http://www.rcdhn.org.uk/about_the_diocese/saints/oswald.php

August 3rd is the feast of St Oswald, King of Northumbria. Oswald was born around 604, and was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death. Oswald’s father Æthelfrith ruled over Bernicia, and later over Deira, thus becoming the first to rule the two constituent kingdoms of Northumbria (Bernicia in the north, Deira to the south).

Æthelfrith was killed in battle around 616 by Raedwald, King of East Anglia, with the result that Oswald and his brothers were forced to flee to the north. Oswald himself grew up in the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata in northern Britain, where he was converted to Christianity.

Æthelfrith had been succeeded as King of Northumbria by St Edwin, but, after Edwin had been defeated and killed by Cadwallon ap Cadfan (King of Gwynedd) and the pagan Penda (King of Mercia) in the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 632/633, Northumbria was once again divided between its constituent kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.

Oswald’s brother Eanfrith became king of Bernicia, but he too was slain by Cadwallon, whom Oswald confronted in 634 at Heavenfield near Hexham. Before the commencement of battle, inspired by a vision of St Columba the previous night (as recounted by Adomnán in his Life of St Columba), Oswald knelt before a large wooden Cross, commanding his army to join him in earnest prayer.

His council agreed that they would be baptised and accept Christianity after the battle, and, in spite of their greater numbers, the pagan British were heavily defeated by the soon-to-be-baptised Northumbrian.

As a result of his victory at Heavenfield, Oswald reigned over a united Northumbria, and was established as the most powerful king in the British Isles – Adomnán describes him as “ordained by God as Emperor of all Britain”), while Bede states that he “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain”.

Edwin had converted to Christianity in 627, but Christianity had never really taken hold in the region. Oswald invited the Irish of Dál Riata to send a bishop – St Aidan – to help convert his subjects, and Oswald furnished Aidan with the  island of Lindisfarne to Aidan as his center of operations and episcopal see, often acting as his interpreter when he was preaching, as Aidan’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon was initially poor, whereas Oswald was a good Irish-speaker.

In 642 Oswald was killed in battle (probably at Oswestry) and dismembered at the hands of the pagan King Penda of Mercia. According to Bede he final act in the face of imminent death was to pray for the souls of his own soldiers.

The site of Oswald’s death soon came to be associated with miracles. Many regarded his death as a martyrdom, though Bede sees his sanctity as consisting more in his great personal holiness, and, in particular, in his love and compassion towards the poor.

Image from the website of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle

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EanswytheThe baptism of St Æthelberht King of Kent by St Augustine of Canterbury in 601 was in many ways the beginning of the conversion of England. Æthelberht’s son, Eadbald was a pagan, but his sister St Æthelburga was a Christian, as was his wife who ensured that her daughter Eanswythe was baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. After the death of Æthelberht in 616 (or 618) Eadbald openly embraced pagan idolatry, as did the three sons of the recently deceased King Saebert of the East Saxons (a convert to Christianity).

St. Laurence of Canterbury, St. Mellitus of London, and St. Justus of Rochester decided to abandon the Kentish mission, and Mellitus and Justus duly returned to Gaul. However, St Peter appeared in a vision to Laurence and admonished him for considering abandoning his flock, and, with the result that Laurence remained in Kent and succeeded in converting Eadbald.

The young Eanswythe possessed the same spirit as her aunt Æthelburga, and was drawn to a life of virginity and monastic seclusion. Eadbald wanted her to marry for dynastic reasons (just as Æthelburga had married King Edwin of Northumbria), but Eanswythe was adamant, and Eadbald relented and built her a monastery in Folkestone – the first women’s monastery in England.

Eanswythe was just sixteen years of age, so it is possible that experienced nuns were brought in from Europe until such time as Eanswythe was old enough to take on the role of abbess. Eanswythe was known as a miracle-worker, an enthusiastic reader of spiritual books, and a diligent worker in the monastery.

She died at around the age of twenty-five in August of 640 (the year of her father King Eadbald’s death) – not, perhaps, a spectacular saint by the standards of Anglo-Saxon England, but an example of great single-mindedness in her devotion to Christ and in her steadfast (even stubborn) commitment to a totally new kind of vocation (totally new in the context of English society, that is) which represented a radical rejection of contemporary political and social values.

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AlphegeÆlfheah, or Alphege (954 –1012), was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred. He became a monk at Deerhurst at a young age, and then moved to Bath where he embraced the solitary life of an anchorite. His holiness and asceticism resulted in his election as Abbot of Bath Abbey, and he came to the attention of St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was instrumental in the election of Ælfheah as Bishop of Winchester in 984.

While at Winchester he devoted his energies to the construction of a gigantic organ, which reported requiredly upwards of twenty-four men for its operation, and which could be heard from over a mile away. Ælfheah was a builder and restorer of churches, and was also assiduous in the promotion of the cult of Anglo-Saxon saints, especially those of two bishops of Winchester, St Swithun and St Æthelwold.

He was actively involved in the conversion to Christianity of Olaf Tryggvason, one of the leaders of a series of Viking raids in 994, who agreed to desist from further attacks in return for danegeld. In 1006 he succeeded Ælfric as Archbishop of Canterbury, bringing the head of St Swithun with him in a gesture which reflected his policy of promoting devotion to the saints of Anglo-Saxon England.

Once in office he pursued this policy still further, advancing the cult of St Dunstan – his former mentor and a predecessor at Canterbury – and commissioning Adelard to write Dunstan’s Life. He also helped secure the acknowledgment of the saintly status of St Wulfsige of Sherborne by the Witenagemot.

The year 1011 witnessed further Viking invasions, and in September the Danes laid siege to Canterbury. Together with the Bishop of Rochester (Godwine) and the Abbess of St Mildrith’s (Leofrun), Ælfheah was captured and held in prison for seven months.

Refusing to permit the payment of a ransom in exchange for his liberty, Ælfheah was killed by a mob of drunken Viking soldiers, though whether he was a martyr in the strictest sense of the term is questionable inasmuch as the immediate motive for his murder was his refusal to allow himself to be ransomed rather than his Christian faith per se.

He was initially laid to rest at St Paul’s Cathedral, but in 1023 King Canute (a Dane) arranged for the translation of his body to Canterbury. After the Conquest in 1066, Norman bishops, including Lanfranc (the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury) were somewhat antipathetic to Anglo-Saxon saints, including those venerated at Canterbury (not least because the cult of pre-Conquest saints could be seen as a political statement).

However, after Pope Gregory VII had canonized Ælfheah in 1078, Lanfranc enthusiastically recognized him as a saint (even going so far as to commission a monk to write a Vita), and Ælfheah (under the Norman rendering of his name, Alphege) became the only pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury (not counting Augustine, who was in any case a Roman) whose name was retained in Canterbury’s calendar of saints.

His remains were placed around the high altar of Canterbury together with those of St Dunstan, and St Thomas Becket is said to have prayed there to St Ælfheah before his own martyrdom.

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June 23rd is the feast of St Æthelthryth (Ethelburga). The Orthodox, who often seem to have a greater appreciation of England’s earliest saints than we Catholics do, have composed some texts specially suited to the occasion, which are available here and here.

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June 23rd is the feast of St Æthelthryth (Ethelburga; Audrey) who lived from around 636-679. The normally restrained historian Bede was so impressed by her that he was moved to verse (Ecclesiastical History, III,20):

Trinity,Gracious, Divine, Who rulest all the ages; favour my task, Trinity, Gracious, Divine.

Let Maro sound the trumpet of war, let us sing the gifts of peace; the gifts of Christ we sing, let Maro sound the trumpet of war.

Chaste is my song, no rape of guilty Helen; light tales shall be told by the wanton, chaste is my song.

I will tell of gifts from Heaven, not wars of hapless Troy; I will tell of gifts from Heaven, wherein the earth is glad.

Lo! the high God comes to the womb of a holy virgin, to be the Saviour of men, lo! the high God comes.

A hallowed maid gives birth to Him Who gave the world its being; Mary, the gate of God, a maiden gives Him, birth.

The company of her fellows rejoices over the Virgin Mother of Him Who wields the thunder; a shining virgin band, the company of her fellows rejoices.

Her honour has made many a blossom to spring from that pure shoot, virgin blossoms her honour has made to spring.

Scorched by the fierce flames, the maiden Agatha yielded not; in like manner Eulalia endures, scorched by the fierce flames.

“The lofty soul of chaste Tecla overcomes the wild beasts; chaste Euphemia overcomes the accursed wild beasts.

Agnes joyously laughs at the sword, herself stronger than steel, Cecilia joyously laughs at the foemen’s sword.

Many a triumph is mighty throughout the world in temperate hearts; throughout the world love of the temperate life is mighty.

Yea, and our day likewise a peerless maiden has blessed; peerless our Ethelthryth shines.

Child of a noble sire, and glorious by royal birth, more noble in her Lord’s sight, the child of a noble sire.

Thence she receives queenly honour and a sceptre in this world; thence she receives honour, awaiting higher honour above.

What need, gracious lady, to seek an earthly lord, even now given to the Heavenly Bridegroom?

Christ is at hand, the Bridegroom (why seek an earthly lord?) that thou mayst follow even now, methinks, in the steps of the Mother of Heaven’s King, that thou too mayst be a mother in God.

Twelve years she had reigned, a bride dedicated to God, then in the cloister dwelt, a bride dedicated to God.

To Heaven all consecrated she lived, abounding in lofty deeds, then to Heaven all consecrated she gave up her soul.

Twice eight Novembers the maid’s fair flesh lay in the tomb, nor did the maid’s fair flesh see corruption in the tomb.

This was Thy work, O Christ, that her very garments were bright and undefiled even in the grave; O Christ, this was Thy work.

The dark serpentflies before the honour due to the holy raiment; disease is driven away, and the dark serpent flies.

Rage fills the foe who of old conquered Eve; exultant the maiden triumphs and rage fills the foe.

Behold, O bride of God, thy glory upon earth; the glory that awaits thee in the Heavens behold, O bride of God.

In gladness thou receivest gifts, bright amidst the festal torches; behold! the Bridegroom comes, in gladness thou receivest gifts.

And a new song thou singest to the tuneful harp; a new-made bride, thou exultest in the tuneful hymn.

None can part her from them which follow the Lamb enthroned on high, whom none had severed from the Love enthroned on high.

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