The faith of the english kings
Hugh Bibbs, B.A.
Illiteracy overtook post-Roman Britain after the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth century. From the few surviving records, we know that the invaders were pagans who subscribed to a cult of warfare and ancestor worship. Later chronicles reveal that their descendents eventually adopted Christianity. The ninth century AngloSaxon Chronicle and the tenth century Anales Cambraie and Chronicle of Aethelweard confirmed, and even used, earlier sources such as the eighth century historians, St. Bede of Jarrow and Nennius of Bangor. All of these texts shed light on the conversion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and each of them in turn referred to the sixth century writings of Gildas the Wise. Therefore these are among the primary sources used in this study of who the early pagan Anglo-Saxons were, and how it was that they came to abandon their ancestral religion in favor of Christianity.
Scriptorium Series: Volume 1
Northwest & Pacific Web Publishing
First Edition, second printing
Why the ancient pagan Anglo-Saxon warlords came to adopt the Christian faith is a most intriguing question. It was the religion born of long dead Semitic Essene extremists, and for those Anglo-Saxon chieftains the great intellectual leap was taken in making sense of it on their own terms.
The conversion of pre-Anglo-Saxon Roman Britain actually began with an hallucination by a heathen warlord on the eve of leading his troops into a great battle. He would become the Roman emperor Constantine, and he interpreted his "vision" to mean that Jesus of Nazareth had become the universe's new supreme God of War. It was only years later, on his deathbed, that Constantine was baptized a Christian, but in the meantime, he had begun to make Christianity the official religious dogma of the Roman Empire, of which Britain was a part. The later pagan Anglo-Saxons also had a similar interest in the efficacy of their War God, and initially reconstructed Christian doctrine in a similar way.
The development of the faith of those early English kings will be discussed here, in five parts, beginning with the early church Fathers and ending with the imposition of the Norman regime.
The Faith of the Church Fathers
The hardy Christian spirit of voluntary self-denial, spiritual asceticism, grew out of the persecution of the early church, and the veneration of the martyrs. Ever since, the highest Christian ideal of right behavior has included self-sacrifice. While this has not been a common practice among prosperous Christian communities, it has always remained a heady presence in the heart of the Christian consciousness, especially represented at every sacrifice of the Mass, in both western and eastern traditions.
The most widely read work of the early Church fathers in the century before the Anglo-Saxon migrations was a translation of St. Athanasius's Life of Anthony (Vita Antonii), romanticizing the hermit communities of the Egyptian desert. The over-riding orthodoxy of the early Church, as reflected in the severe discipline of the Desert Fathers, was that in order to obtain God's blessing, a Christian had to deny his ambitions for prosperity, honours in civic life, desire to satisfy carnal appetites, and instead, according to the sayings of the Desert Fathers themselves, consider that "the treasure house of the monk is voluntary poverty", and "any virtue that is commented on and made a public show of is destroyed", and "since the time that I became a monk I have never given myself my fill of bread, nor of water, nor of sleep, and tormenting myself with appetite for these things whereby we are fed, I was not suffered to feel the stings of lust." The example set by the Desert Fathers was a kind of muscular Christianity, whereby a man could replace the glory of pagan war and the lusty rewards of appetite with a kind of glory in spiritual excellence through the seeking of God's presence in a Christian community set apart from the perishable fleshpots of heathen civilization.
When this message was preached to the Irish church by fifth century missionary hermits from the middle east, it was received with relish, since the hardy Celts were hardly wealthy to begin with, and always up for a physical challenge. Monastic asceticism took off in Ireland, and the discipline and good resolve of the Irish monks lent them the ability to expand across the Irish Sea, into the western islands off Pictland, and into the heart of England itself. Irish monks built missionary outposts in Iona, Malmesbury, Lindisfarne, and Dunkeld. By the close of the seventh century, muscular Irish monasticism was helping to inform a northern English Christianity with strongly spiritual values, independent of royal patronage and nepotism.
In southern England, however, a Benedictine mission from Rome was responsible for converting the Anglo-Saxons.
St. Benedict's predecessors in the monastic movement were St. Basil of Cappadocia, St. Martin of Tours, St. Andrews, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine of Hippo, all of whom founded monasteries and furthered the settlement of a Christian monastic tradition using the rubrics of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Benedict radically stabilized the monastic life, however, by setting strict rules joining daily chores, farming, prayer, readings of scriptures, and the celebrating of the Eucharist together in community, all day, every day. This structured the communal life of the monks into a seamless celebration of the Christian liturgy.
In his life's work creating the ideal monastic society, St. Benedict spawned a hugely successful enterprise. The simple economic success of the Benedictine monasteries enabled whole regions to enjoy increased prosperity and see a real relief from abject poverty. The Benedictine monastery at Corbie, in Francia, had as many as fifteen water-mills grinding grains for the district it served. The eighth century Abbot of Corbie, Adalhard, was able to order his monasteries to issue three and a half pounds of bread daily, to each of the destitute people in his region.
The late Roman iron-age saw the development in Scandinavia and Denmark, as well as in Saxony, of farm societies using less of the small one-dozen-household village surrounded by irregular fields, and using more of the individual farmhouse with a walled infield. But, even as these farms grew more prosperous, increased coastal flooding in the region forced more farmers to relocate on high ground, and they built man-made mounds, wurten, for this purpose. This was followed in the fifth century by a substantial economic collapse (trickle down effect from the collapse of the Roman Empire) and a subsequent desertion of settlement.
The Anglo-Saxon farmer-warriors who followed their pioneering chieftains to Britain recreated their tiny farming hamlets as best they could. Dispersed across the countryside were their recreated wurten mound settlements of the Danish lowlands. While the Anglo-Saxons initially transplanted their settlement units in the shape of the ones left behind, they were in many cases able to take over existing Romano-British holdings which served well enough as they were. In this way, there was evidence left, for present day archeologists to find, of continuous occupation of some British settlements, even after the Anglo-Saxons had completely displaced the Britons.
According to the genealogy of the Saxon kings of Wessex, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, their ancestor, Woden, would have lived in the second Christian century. Since the Saxons practiced hereditary kingship, Woden was possibly one in a line of warrior chieftains whose community survived the ages, into historical times. The most likely home of Woden's tribe was at Gudme, on the island of Fyn, off the east coast of Jutland in the Baltic Sea. There is a settlement there called 'Odense', which is said to mean: "Woden's sanctuary".
The first century settlement at Gudme, on the isle of Fyn, was at its most prosperous in the late roman iron age, from the years of Our Lord 200 to 300 (using the calendar popularized by Bede). So, it prospered initially towards the end of Woden's stewardship, and flourished for several generations afterwards. Excavations there yield some of the most spectacular treasures of the age. The gold and silver trade goods, gold coins, jewel encrusted weapons, and masses of bog sacrifices, testify to an exceptionally favoured community. Somehow, the era of Woden came to be known as the days at the beginning of time. Woden's name, in particular, became associated with all the great traditions which survived from that era.
He was, according to tradition, the master of all poet-kings. In the Scandinavian custom, the poets were considered to converse with the gods of Asgard. This high esteem for great poets was typical of all primitive western cultures, where the oral history of the tribes were preserved in epic verse. Influential poets would presumably be close relations of the chieftain. The family of the chief warrior and the chief poet were royal in the most direct sense. They were extremely important men and women, who interpreted with wisdom all the events of our lives, and directed the community with authority.
A biography of kings entitled "Heimskringla", written in the early 1200's, credits Woden with having established the rites of worship and burial observed among the early Scandinavians.
"He decreed that all the dead should be burned, and put on the funeral pyre with all their possessions. He also said that everyone should come into Valholl with all the property that he had on the pyre, and he should also enjoy the use of what he himself had buried in the earth, and the ashes should be carried out to sea or buried in the earth, and mounds should be raised in memory of men of rank... And there should be a sacrifice at the beginning of winter for a successful year, and at midwinter for regeneration, and a third in summer which was a sacrifice for victory."
Over time, the memory of Woden had evolved from that of ancestral chieftain to that of a founding god in the norse pantheon of creation myth.
There were fine points to Anglo-Saxon nature worship, and to the many attributes of their gods, Woden, the supreme, Tiw, the god of war, Frig, the fertile, Thunor, the thunderer, Eostre, Soter, and all the rest, which have been lost in the mist of prehistory. It is not necessary to have detail, though, to emphasize that the whole point of their religion was to provide justification for constant warfare. The Icelandic Edda depicts Woden as "the terrible and severe God, the father of slaughter, the Depopulator, the Incendiary, the active and roaring Deity, he that giveth victory, who re-animates the combatants, who nameth those who are to be slain." War was the sublime state of action, offering achievement and glory for the strong and the berserk.
By the early middle ages, the local traditions of the late roman iron age had evolved into the religious traditions which we now associate with the Viking people of the Baltic. The 10th century English chronicler, Aethelweard, says of Woden, the ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon kings, that "the unbelieving northerners (Vikings) are overwhelmed by such great temptation that they worship him as a god even today."
The later Norse warriors inherited this tradition from the common Danish traditions of the late roman iron-age: going berserk during battle meant entering a state of bloodthirsty rage in which the body seems to respond more actively and powerfully, without sensation of pain, to the urgings of the mind, and it was this state of athletic murderous rage which enabled a warrior to kill well and survive in battle. Going berserk, to a Danish warrior, was to enter a state of grace, of oneness with the gods of war. It is a shocking religious doctrine to the Christian mind, and one which could not survive Christian discipline. However, it was a doctrine which survived the late iron-age in Norway, and even survives in some form today in the harsh regimes of boot camps and military special forces units.
This rude ethical foundation made Christian doctrine all the more incomprehensible to the Anglo-Saxon warrior-farmers who first heard it preached. The Christianity of Augustine of Canterbury was an absurd teaching to the pagans of England, whose lives were taken up with, and lost to, glorious warfare.
The epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf illustrates the heroic ideal of the Anglo-Saxons through a telling of the heroic life of a strong iron-age warrior of the tribe of the Weather Geat folk. While Beowulf instructs that the god of fortune, "Weird, has lured each of my family to his fated end" (line 2797), it is apparently the primary purpose of this poem to be teaching us the three articles of the Anglo-Saxon social contract:
Firstly, (in lines 2889-90).
"Death is better for any man than an existence of disgrace."
This is repeatedly emphasized.
Secondly, giving some direction to the first rubric is another (from lines 2602-3)
"The bonds of kinship nothing may remove for a man who thinks rightly."
Thirdly, the price laid down in the ancient contract (in lines 2634-39).
"I remember the time as we were taking mead
in the banqueting hall, when we bound ourselves
to the gracious lord who granted us arms,
that we would make return for these trappings of war,
these helms and hard swords, if an hour such as this
should ever chance for him."
(Continuing with lines 2646-52...)
"That day has now come
when he stands in need of the strength of good fighters,
our lord and liege. Let us go to him,
help our leader for as long as it requires,
the fearsome fire-blast. I had far rather
that the flame should enfold my flesh-frame there
alongside my gold-giver..."
If the society portrayed in the poem is related to that of the ancestral Anglo-Saxons in Denmark, then the poem may well describe elements of that society as remembered by the poem's author.
When was Beowulf composed? It is supposed to have been before the Danish raids of 793 A.D., after which, things Danish became anathema to the English. The translator of our edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander, suggests that the poem is "set in the southern Scandinavia of the fifth and sixth centuries." There is in Beowulf some remnant of the Danish homeland stories from the late iron-age in Jutland, perhaps as far back as the golden age of Odense on the Isle of Fyn during the third century, from which the richest iron-age treasures are recovered, in excavations from settlements and associated bog sacrifices. However, it may be that Beowulf originates from an even earlier time.
The geneology of the kings of Wessex, found in both the Parker Chronicle, as well as in Aethelweard, uses the same names which we find in Beowulf. These are the heroic names from the sacred geneology of the English Royal family and would not have been trifled with by mere clerics. The English Royal family, to the present day, traces its ancestry from Geat, son of Taetwa, son of Beow, son of Scyld ("Sceldwea" in the Parker Chronicle), son of Sceaf (pronounced "Shef"). The patriarch, Scyld, by simple reckoning, would have been a contemporary of Julius Gaius. In our poem, the hero Beowulf is a descendant of the tribe of Geat, while Hrothgar the Dane's father was the late-born half-Dane son of Beow(ulf), son of Scyld Shefing.
This raises the question of where Beowulf's Geat folk lived. The penguin classic's edition of Beowulf edited by Michael Alexander contains a map which shows them living in what is now southeast Sweden, across the Baltic Sea from Poland. This construction is based on two assumptions. Firstly, that the Geats were the Goths (Gauts) of the Roman historian Tacitus, and secondly, that the Goths came from the southern shores of Sweden. Neither of these assumptions can be proven. The name Geats is actually zeats, and the yogh, "z", is pronounced "y" before fronting vowels, so the correct transcription would be Yeats.
The linguist Piotr Gasiorowski's online commentary explains that:"Bede Latinised their name as "iuti/iutae", sixth-century Franko-Latin sources called them "eutii", and in Old English itself they were called "e:otan" or "e:otas", dialectally also "i:otas", "i:utan".and he goes on to explain that: " Jutland (in Denmark) was called Jótland in Old Icelandic as opposed to Gautland (in Sweden)... Our modern form "Jutes" comes from mediaeval Latin Iuti/Iutae, where the "i" came to be pronounced as a glide and was "hardened" in the French pronunciation of Latin... and since the Jutes were only a historical memory by that time as founders of the Kentish dynasty, the names came to be misidentified occasionally by late Anglo-Saxon authors, or to be more precise the name "ge:atas" was sometimes used instead of "e:otas" for one of the groups that had colonised England (but never "e:otas" for the Swedish Gauts)."
It was Jutland, home of the Jutes, which was Beowulf's proper home, and that matches better some of the internal geography of the poem. Beowulf's voyage scene may well describe a two day sail south to the Isle of Fyn, the middle iron-age fortress settlement of the Danish overlord, Woden.
The material evidence of their seagoing warrior culture is evidenced, not only from excavations of the later Viking period (880-1066 A.D.) but from the near contemporary seventh century Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo, which held ship and armaments. In fact, the Sutton Hoo ship contained no body, and is therefore supposed to have been a traditional pagan ritual mound for the dead king, who had been baptized and already given Christian burial elsewhere. Since it was excavated in the East Anglian Royal burial grounds of the Wuffing dynasty, it may have contained the armaments of King Anna, who died a Christian in 656 A.D. or else Raedwald, who died in 624 A.D.
The scholar, Martin Carver, in his wonderful book on the Sutton Hoo burial, eulogizes the dead king, sent away well equipped by his people, who evidently loved him:
"...the man is a warrior, equipped for war with helmet, mailcoat, sword, shield and spears. He is a host, ready to put on a feast, with cauldrons, tub, bowls of bronze and silver, drinking horns, wooden bottles, a great silver dish -and entertainment from the lyre player...He is also a mariner, and has an axe-hammer to mend the boat and some spare pieced of tar in case it leaks...It puts us in mind of the old English poem Beowulf..."
What literary skills the barbarians practiced were in the use of runes. The later nordic runes adopted a codified form of the latin alphabet, and so contained real text, but the early runes which the Anglo-Saxons knew were too unsophisticated to record actual language. Instead, they record symbols representing magical or totemic inspirations whose meaning is lost to us. Only invocations to the god of war, Tiw, are still recognizable.
Little physical evidence has been found of pagan Anglo-Saxon shrines. They were desecrated systematically by the English Christians as areas came under the influence of priests. No possible speculation as to the design or use of such shrines can have any validity in the absence of evidence.
In the absence of written testimony, it is only conjecture to devise reasons for the evidenced human sacrifice. It is enough to record that the pagan English still practiced ritual live burials and ritual murders, often in company with the burial of a wealthy nobleman or noblewoman. Dogs, horses, and foodstuffs, as well as entire sets of household goods and weapons were often buried in the grave of a noble.
This practice stopped almost immediately in the aftermath of conversion to Christianity. The obvious waste of property is one reason to stop such practice if the new religion deems it unnecessary for the welfare of the deceased. Christians have always maintained that you can't take it with you. As for the sad murders of those good folk who belonged in some way to the deceased, Christian teaching would have indicated that any ritual murder may in fact speed the deceased nobleman on his way to the devil. That was decidedly off target.
Little remains to us of the Romano-British church. The British were evangelized by the Roman Catholic hierarchy under the patronage of the later Roman Empire. As long as the official religion of Empire was Christianity, the Roman elite practiced the Christian rites as part of their social life. This Roman Christianity was brought through the northern reaches of the Church in Gaul, and was thereby an extension of the Church in Gaul. When the Legions left Britain forever, and the island was ravaged by invaders, this early Roman Christianity was maintained by the remnant of the Romano-British elite as long as possible.
Missions to the British Church from Gaul are recorded as having taken place during the Saxon invasions, but not very many of them. From readings of Gildas and Nennius, it looks like the British Christians were reverting to a superstitious form of religious observance frowned upon by St. Benedict.
Gildas, a British monk, writing about 540 A.D. during the time of the Saxon conquest of Britain, used the biblical Jeremiah as his model, in explaining the miseries of the Britons in the light of his Christian faith. He views the Saxon invaders as God's punishment on the faithless Britons:
" ...besides this vice, there arose also every other, to which human nature is liable, and in particular that hatred of truth together with her supporters, which still at present destroys everything good in the island
...whilst the swellings of pride, the jar of strife, the gripping talons of envy, and the confused estimate of right and wrong, got such entire possession of them, that there seemed to be poured out (and the same still continueth) contempt upon princes, and to be made by their vanities to wander astray and not in the way."
Nennius recorded missions by St. Germanus to the Britons. Nennius was a pupil of Elvod, Bishop of Bangor in 755 A.D. Writing as a monk of the Cambrian church, he recounts the conversion of many Britons by the ministry of Germanus. Nennius tells us that bishop Germanus rejected a bled and dressed calf given him by an "iniquitous and tyrannical king, named Benili", and instead miraculously restored the calf to life. The good saint next incinerated Benili's entire city, with the bad king inside of it, by praying for God's protection, which came in the form of fire from heaven.
Some time later, Nennius piously continues, St. Germanus was supposed to have been elected war chief to fight the Saxons. However, it was "... by praying, singing hallelujah, and by the cries of the army to God, the enemies were routed, and driven even to the sea".
It is Nennius, the fanciful storyteller, who had the most to say about "Arthur the magnanimous". Though "there were many more noble than himself", Arthur was twelve times chosen commander and twelve times led his kings and armies to victory. The eighth victory, at Gurnion castle, was due to Arthur holding up an image of the Virgin Mary, which put the Saxons to flight. Nennius does not mention the particulars of Arthur's twelfth victory at Badon Hill, the final great success mentioned by Gildas as having put an end to the Saxon's incursions for a good forty five years, other than to say Arthur himself killed nine hundred and forty Saxons with his own hand.
This is curious, since the Anales Cambriae specifically states that this was the battle ...
"Bellum Badonis, in quo Arthur portavit crucem Domini nostri Jesu Christi tribus diebus et tribus noctibus in humeros suos, et Britones victores fuerunt."
(The Battle of Bath, in which the Bear carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ three days and three nights on his shoulders, and Britons found victory.
How he managed that while killing nine hundred and forty Saxons is quite beyond reason. Perhaps none of this is true.
Nennius also notes that the dread Saxons, Wihtgils's sons (Horsa and Hengist) were descendants of Geat, who was himself "the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped according to the custom of the heathen."
Another surviving body of Latin inscriptions from this period in the British Church is found amongst the memorial stones of north-west Wales. These give evidence of the widespread adherence to Christianity attested to in the fifth century by the
continuing connections with the Church in Gaul.
The Romano-Gallic Church never really collapsed under the onslaught of the Franks. Instead, the Franks allowed it to flourish, and used its wealth and trans-national political connections to the advantage of the new Frankish aristocracy. By the time of Gregory of Tours, writing in 590 A.D., the well established Frankish church was habitual in its use of nepotism in appointments to high ecclesiastical office. Gregory himself boasts of the fact that of the eighteen bishops who preceded him in Tours, "apart from five, all the other bishops who held their appointment in the see of Tours were blood-relations of my family." This nepotism was not accomplished without rancour, since the Archdeacon whom he replaced upon arrival at Tours threatened to kill him. The disgruntled Archdeacon Leudast obtained the support of Bishop Felix, and was able to extort money from the local citizens, and even to interfere openly with women, until he was finally driven out of the region by a mob.
This behavior throughout Gaul did not endear the Frankish Church to the good Pope Gregory. When he decided upon a mission to the English, he did not involve the Church of Gaul. He turned instead to the Benedictines in Italy, whom he so admired. He selected several of them to undertake the important mission to the Anglo-Saxons in 596, bypassing completely the taint of corruption from the intervening Gallic church.
The Faith of the Anglo-Saxon Kings
The Irish monasteries at Malmesbury, Iona, and Lindisfarne, preserved the usage of Latin in Britain. Prior to the establishment of Lindisfarne Abbey in Northumberland, however, the arrival of Augustine the Benedictine missionary in 596-7 A.D. began the re-conversion of the conquered territories.
According to the tenth century English chronicler, Aethelweard, Augustine arrived with forty monks, in Kent, in A.D.597, and baptized king Aethelbyrht (the same year Pope Gregory wrote his treatise, Pastoral Care). The Benedictine monks came to England preaching a powerful religious message of redemption and afterlife, as well as emphasizing the holy virtues of honesty and courage, straight-forwardness in dealing with strangers, respect for superiors, and team loyalty, all of which reflected exactly virtues found in the Anglo-Saxon ideal of how men should live well, and gain honour.
The monkish discipline of humility must have been a refreshing change for the Anglo-Saxon warriors. Benedict closed his Rule with the humble reproach, "...all these (scriptures) are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues; but as for us, they make us blush for shame at being so slothful, so unobservant, so negligent." Monks did not challenge you with death, or boast, or compete in any way for the land or the women or the affections of the king. Being no threat, they were tolerated, for the monks brought knowledge of the civilized world beyond the English experience. Also, the literacy of the Benedictines was useful to the Kings. The first legal codes in England date from the time of the seven kingdoms, when the burghal hideages were written. While little physical evidence remains of literacy in England at this time, the Vespasian Psalter gloss, a Latin manuscript from before A.D.750, was believed to have been St. Augustine's own.
After eight years in Britain, Augustine was able to baptize the East Saxons, under king Saebyrht. But Ceolwulf reigned the West Saxons. "Tantaque fuit eius ferocitas..." (His ferocity was great). Cynegils took over the rule of the West Saxons, and with Cwichelm's aid fought King Penda of Mercia somewhere near "quod uulgari sermone Cirnceastre." (...as the vulgar tongue says it, Cirencester.) In A.D.634, Bishop Birinus came to the West Saxons, preaching Christ. One hundred and twenty years since they arrived in Britain from Denmark, their King Cynegils was baptized in Dorchester. Four years later, Birinus baptized King Cuthred there, as well. Then, in A.D.655, Penda died, and the Mercians were baptized. Aethelred, the King of Mercia (Penda's son) actually converted to the Christian faith with such conviction that he took up the monastic habit after twenty nine years as king, and joined a monastery.
This account of the gradual conversion of the Kings of the Anglo-Saxons which Aethelweard recorded matches the account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is not credible to suppose that these pagan warriors made much in the way of a conversion to the gentle gospel of the sermon on the mount, especially as conceived by Abbot Anthony of Egypt, the champion of poverty and humility. The Anglo-Saxon Kings simply decided that the Benedictine and his noble universal Church had more to offer than the illiterate shaman of the Nordic pantheon. Geat and Woden grew tiresome as gods, and were relegated once again to the status of honoured ancestors.
The Venerable Bede, writing his English history in the eighth century, described policies of extermination warfare as executed by Caedwalla of the West Saxons, a new convert to the Jesus-as-war-god version of Christianity so preferred by inveterate heathens. Caedwalla wiped out the Britons on the Isle of Wight, and gave thanks to God for the blessed event. Aethelfrith of Northumbria expanded his territory employing the same policy of extermination.
It cannot be said that the English were learning much gentleness from taking an interest in the Christian religion. It is true that in A.D.688, Caedwalla went on pilgrimage to Holy Rome, and there he was baptized as "Peter". But, that very same year, some men in Kent had to pay out thirty thousand shillings each in wergeld (a fine similar to that prescribed for murder under Salic law in Merovingian Francia) to King Ine, for having burned his relative to death. Even a century later, the pagan King Ethelfrid sacked the monastery at Bangor, where Nennius had lived, venting his fury on the monks. Malmesbury's testimony is, "that the number (of monks) was incredible to these times is apparent from so many half-destroyed walls of churches in the neighbouring monastery, so many winding porticoes, such masses of ruins as can scarcely be seen elsewhere." Churchmen still took slaves. Such was the case of a Kentish girl who wound up as the slave of the Abbot of Glastonbury. We know of her only because of the intercession of Archbishop Brihtwold of Canterbury who tried to arrange the girl's ransom on behalf of her distraught parents.
Schooling of the English was taking place. This was evidenced by a native Englishman, Ithamar of Rochester, who was learned enough to be ordained a bishop in A.D.644. Surviving written evidence of the emerging Latin culture among the Anglo-Saxons begins with the mission of Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek, and Hadrian, his comrade, in A.D.669. They arrived in Canterbury and established a school, which became an influential center for Greek and Latin studies. Here it was that St. Aldhelm (A.D.640-709) studied, after having trained under the Irish Abbot Maeldubh at Malmesbury. He succeeded Maeldubh as Abbot there.
Slowly, the influence of the Monastic missions took effect. Nowhere did this bear such fruit as in Northumbria, where the Irish and Benedictine traditions met in England, producing an exciting renaissance of learning and art. In A.D.674 and 681, Bishop Benedict Biscop founded monasteries at Wearmouth and at Jarrow, where Bede lived and wrote. In A.D.680, Archbishop Theodore held a holy synod at Hatfield for the bishops, Aethelweard tells us, "because he strove to communicate divine learning to them." Bede's pupil Egbert, the first Archbishop of York, founded the cathedral school and library there. Egbert tutored Alcuin, who tutored the court of Charlemagne. Alcuin, while spending the better part of his career serving Charlemagne in Europe, was able to keep up a correspondence with England. He longed to recreate the scholastic excellence of York at his new post in Tours. He asked Charlemagne in A.D.795 for permission to send his scribes to York in order to copy all the books there.
He wrote to Charlemagne:
"But I, your servant, need some of the rarer learned books which I had in my own country through the devoted efforts of my own teacher and also through some labor on my own part. I say this that you may agree to send some of our students to get everything we need from there and bring the flowers of Britain back to Francia..."
He was too late, though. In 797, the Vikings began the looting of the Northumbrian Abbeys. After the Viking sacking of Lindisfarne Abbey, Alcuin wrote to his friends there to console them. After suggesting that more obedience to God might prevent further destruction, he promised to petition Charlemagne on their behalf:
"When our lord King Charles returns from defeating his enemies, by God's mercy, I plan to go to him, and if I can then do anything for you about the boys who have been carried off by the pagans as prisoners or about any other of your needs, I shall make every effort to see that it is done."
Bishop Alcuin wrote the monks of Lindisfarne again, asking, "Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?" (What has Ingeld to do with Christ?) The reason for this inquisition was that the monks had been gleefully listening to the heathen stories of their ancestors in the refectory, when they were supposed to have been meditating upon readings of the Saints and the Holy Scriptures. Actually, somebody in those days had used their time, and the valuable monastery parchments, to write down the very long epic poem Beowulf which we are fortunate enough to still have an even later copy of. So, in spite of Alcuin's displeasure, the pagan heart of the Anglo-Saxons still beat within the breast of England's Mother Church.
It is difficult to conjure up the mindset of the ninth century, but the criminal codes of the 800's will give us a true idea of their beliefs and values. Halitgar, the bishop of Cambrai, wrote a draft penitential code in the 820's. The nature of crime and punishment in those days was as follows:
Homicide without cause, three years penance, one on bread and water.
Homicide in self defense, no problem.
Theft, one year of penance 120 days on bread and water.
Sodomy, seven to ten years penance, three on bread and water.
Magic, seven years penance for conjuring up a storm, three on bread and water.
Disorder, if the priest stammers over the Sunday prayer twice, one hundred strokes of the lash.
Haircut, if anyone cuts off his own hair he shall fast for four weeks.
From this criminal code, we can see that it was twice as bad to be accused of causing bad weather as it was to be accused of murder. It paid to have the local priests on your side, since it was then far less likely that you could fall under suspicion of occult activity, for which the penalties were becoming severe. The pagan order represented by such occult practices had now been left behind.
After the adoption of Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons, it took several centuries to erase the influence of their pagan heritage. By the early stages of Anglo-Saxon literacy, during the eighth century Northumbrian scholastic renaissance, very few traces of pagan practice remained. By the close of the ninth century, the English had a fully Christian culture, although it was threatened with destruction by pagan invaders from Denmark. By then, however, the Anglo-Saxons' had made it their own responsibility to preserve Christianity in Britain.
After the sacking of Lindisfarne, the Danish raiders returned in ever larger numbers, never stopping, until at last they settled themselves on the conquered land. Established in Northumbria, they marched south. It was in the late tenth century, after two generations of losing mile after mile of English territory to the relentless Danish invaders, that the leadership of England finally turned wholeheartedly to the consolation of the Christian faith to guide and inform the King's royal court. In their darkest hour, the English had their most Christian king.
King Alfred's 894 A.D. preface to Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care details the resolve of the English king to see his nation established as a Christian nation. Alfred judged it to be "most necessary" for the clergy of England to know the Pastoral Care, and to follow its instruction. Alfred believed that:
"...hwelce wiotan iu waeron giond Angelcynn, ae gther ge godcundra dada ge woruldcundra; ond hu gesaeliglica tida tha waeron giond Angelcynn." (...well written men there were throughout England, together godlykind and worldlykind; and how blessedlike a time that was throughout England").
The great scholar-king, obsessed with saving his kingdom from total loss to Danish invaders, and probably feeling some of the nation-guilt that afflicted Gildas centuries earlier, wished to have his countrymen living in a manner well pleasing to God, who held their fate in His hand. This obvious consent which the English king, and his churchmen, gave to the notion that the Christian faith held their future in its power, rather than Weird of old, is evidence of the turning in the inward life of the English body politic, away from the pagan beliefs of the Danish ancestors, and towards the Christian beliefs of the civilized western world. Alfred's was, finally, real conversion. His body of writing contains, for the most part, purely Christian sentiment. His many poems reflect the kind of religious devotion that we see only in the likes of the biblical king David. Alfred was truly a Christian psalmist.
In his preface to Pastoral Care, Alfred goes on to say:
"...ond hu tha kyningas the thone onwald haefon thaes folces Gode ond his aerendwrecum hiersumedon..." (...and how the kings, the over wielding throne having over these folks, God and his errand-workers heard).
This was a happy misconception on his part. Alfred tended to view the troubles of his own times as a just punishment for particularly egregious disobedience on someone's part, of the laws of human decency and divine good.
The mature faith of King Alfred the Great and his court was an example to all of his countrymen, many of them refugees from the Danelaw, packed into the Wessex heartland. "He daily attended mass and the other services of religion; recited certain psalms, together with prayers, and the daily and nightly hour-service; and he frequented the churches at night...that he might pray...".
His heir, the future king Edward, "carefully learned the Psalms and Saxon books, especially the Saxon poems". Werfrith, the bishop of Worcester, and Plegmund, the Archbishop of Canterbury, both came to the royal court in Wessex to console the king and instruct his nobles. Gradually, even though beset by constant defensive warfare, Wessex became a magnet for learned churchmen from throughout England and Gaul, who came to participate in the vitality of the Christian court of Alfred the Great.
They rebuilt the monastic tradition from the ground up. It had fallen into decay from two generations of warfare with the Danelaw. Alfred's daughter, Aethelgifu, was dedicated as the Abbess of the new monastery at Shaftesbury. While the rest of England was under Danish occupation, and subject yet again to the rule of pagan kingship, the mature Christian faith of the English rump, compressed into Wessex, was poised to sweep its influence across the breadth of England like a tub of fresh water thrown across a scullery floor.
Edward the Elder continued his father's reconquest of the Danelaw, with the able assistance of his sister, the dowager Queen of Mercia. By 918, with Stamford, Nottingham, and Lincoln back in Christian hands, the Danelaw had been reduced to its Northumbrian beginnings. It was left to Athelstan to take York.
The Christian nature of the government in England was made manifest with the coronation of Edgar the Wise, in the nation's first elaborate Christian coronation service. This ceremony made clear the divine source of the Royal authority, and of royal dependence upon the blessing of the Church. The close personal relationship of the King with his Archbishop, and the now customary role of the Archbishop as the King's advisor, became a fixture of English monarchy. Archbishop Dunstan's program of re-establishing monasteries was fully supported by the King. Dunstan and his bishop of Worcester, Oswald, both having spent several years in continental monasteries, borrowed from the dynamic reforms taking place there. Art and literature flourished, churches were built everywhere, and lay patrons were welcomed to participate in the Christian learning and prayer of the monastic centers. Abbots became politically influential, as the bishops close to the King had access to his court, and invited the Christian leadership of the Realm to attend upon the King.
Edgar passed the torch to his sons, but Ethelred was unready for what happened when he became King. The Danes could still influence events in England, due to the large naval force available to them, and the loyal Danish fighting men still living in England. By playing upon the divided loyalties of thegns such as Godwine of Wessex, the Danish claimant seized the English throne using both military force and appeasement.
The Danes probably made the greater accommodation, though, since they converted to Christianity and submitted to the Pope, all in order to gain acceptance as members of what they now knew to be the larger community of civilized peoples. In so doing, the Danish council "determined that above all things they would ever honour one God and steadfastly hold one Christian faith..." Still, in order to achieve this conversion, Danegeld was paid: 82,500 pounds worth.
The influential Archbishop of York, Wulfstan II, who knew the Danes well, was able to preserve under the Danish king Cnut the English government built by Edgar the Wise. It was handed down intact to Edward the Confessor.
King Edward epitomized the submission of the Anglo-Saxon King to monastic Christian doctrine. Preferring celibacy to fulfilling his duty to the country, he never consummated his marriage. Nevertheless, the Queen's role in his government was never in dispute. Her family, the house of Godwine, was the uncontested power in England. Edward began his reign only at the pleasure of Earl Godwine, whom he rewarded with the granting of earldoms to Godwine's sons.
In A.D.1043 the King was taken in hand by the Godwine men to accuse his own mother, the dowager Queen Emma, of treason. They confiscated all her treasury and lands, as well as that of her favorite bishop, the young Stigand. However, as soon as the King was away from the presence of his cruel vassals, he reversed his actions, restored all his mother's possessions, and begged her pardon. The Anglo-Saxon King was no longer endowed with the lordly virtue of active bravery.
Controlling all the key earldoms in the Realm, the Godwine family executed a successful strategy to take the throne of England after the King's death. With the death of that monkish King, the unbroken male line of the Anglo-Saxon royal family came to an end. By removing his will to act with ruthless vengeance against vassals such as Godwine, by obliging him to submit to the authority of the Pope through the Archbishop of Canterbury, by encouraging the doctrine of holy celibacy, the Christian faith so hobbled the last hereditary Anglo-Saxon King with ideological restrictions that he lost his grip on the ancestral power.
Elsewhere, across the North Sea, the Viking countries were still giving birth to future trials for the English.
The Norman Regime
Hrolfe, the son of Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the Jarl of Morae in Norway, was born about A.D. 870. He grew up to be a Norse giant, so large that the smaller horses of the tenth century could not carry him. This earned him the nickname of Hrolfe the Walker ("Rollo" in the tenth century text, Gesta Normannorum). His father had been in rebellion against the Dacian king, and for a time, had a stronger army than the king. However, when the father died and his sons Hrolfe and Gurim remained in rebellion, the king's army prevailed against them, and Hrolfe sailed with the remnant of his loyal army away into exile in Scandia.
From Scandia they sailed for Jutland, where they attacked and overcame the king of the Angles and his army. The Angles sued for peace by crowning Hrolfe co-regent. As he came to trust his hosts, Hrolfe confided in them that he had been disturbed by a prophetic dream which he could not interpret.
Typical of a man of extreme violence and insecurity, Hrolfe was a deeply disturbed man, and sought help from the priests of the Angles. They knew a golden opportunity when they saw one, and carefully constructed a convincing interpretation for his dream, in which they had Hrolfe fulfilling his destiny by leaving poor Angleland and invading rich France to carve out a kingdom for himself there, instead.
Inclined as he was to believe them, and following his natural tendency to suppose that the grass is greener on the other side, Hrolfe packed up his army and invaded France. It was not easy going, and when the king of the Angles got word that Hrolfe might be driven off by the defenders, he sent ships full of troops and supplies to assist Hrolfe, and keep him well away. This tactic succeeded, as Hrolfe eventually prevailed against the French king, Charles the Simple, the last descendant of Charlemagne's royal lineage.
Hrolfe the Walker forced king Charles to hand over title to the coastland of the northern Franks. This territory became known as the Norseman duchy, or Nor'man d'y. These Norsemen of France adopted the Frankish feudal law and the french language, as well as the Catholic religion of the Gallic Church. However, they retained some of their Viking warrior cult, which obliged them to live for war, and gave them licence from conscience on account of it. The fruit of this was their talent for power. To the Norman Dukes, the Christian religion was a useful tool in a high stakes bluff.
Hrolfe's great great great grandson was William, the Duke of Normandy. Even when William was a youth, his ambition exceeded his apparent inheritance, which was the duchy of Normandy. As it happened, the middle aged English prince Edward was in exile then, as his guest, while their Scandinavian relatives held the throne of England.
In an amazingly prescient coup, the young William got the future king Edward the Confessor to promise him the English succession, should there be no heir apparent. Then, thirty years on, king Edward the Confessor of England did indeed die without progeny. Not getting any younger, the now middle aged William immediately claimed the throne of England, and he had the greedy and total support of all the Barons of the Nor'men.
In 1066, they invaded near Hastings while the English, under Godwineson, were mopping up the coincident Norse invasion at York. The English made a valiant forced march south to Hastings, and set upon the invaders. But, the Norman light horse swept the English from the field, the house of Godwine was annihilated, and the Norman Dukes became the new Lords of England.
When Duke William threw over the aristocracy of England, the highest offices of the English Church were handed over to Normans. Many of these honours were granted to officers of the Norman army of occupation, and to men who came out of the corrupted traditions of the Romano-Gallic Church. They came speaking French, as landlords and conquerors, to help themselves to the riches of England's sacred trusts.
The sheer willfulness of the abbots and monks under the new regime sometimes produced shameful outbreaks of violence. After an altercation in 1083 between the new Abbot of Glastonbury and his monks, the Abbot had his soldiers drive the monks into the church, where they were fired upon. Killing two and wounding fourteen, "the rage of the military had even bristled the crucifix with arrows." A cruel end lay in store for bishop Walker of Durham, who was put to death by the ever rebellious Northumbrians.
Even the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury was now accepted only conditionally. Upon his ordination, the Archbishop of York, in 1072, wrote, "I, Thomas, now ordained metropolitan bishop of the church of York...promise to observe whatever shall be canonically enjoined me...of this matter I was doubtful, while I was yet about to be ordained by you: wherefore I promise obedience unconditionally to you, but conditionally to your successors." Pride of power concentrated in the minds of the English prelates in the early Norman period. The fruits of the conquest of England were still being grasped at by friends of the king, and few positions in the land were now so rich as these high Ecclesiastical offices.
In spite of the Church reforms which were made during the eleventh century in both Europe and England, King William and his successors refused to surrender the customary right of the King to control the investiture of church leaders. When Henry II, preoccupied with continental wars, was required to replace the late Archbishop of Canterbury, he did not want a willful prelate giving him grief. For this reason, he gave the See of Canterbury to his old friend, Chancellor Becket. Henry did so, expecting that Becket would do as he was told.
His own new power combined with the moral authority of the universal Church to overcome Becket's former manner of acquiescence, and he faced down the king over issues concerning their division of powers. In the choice between supporting his own King in England or the Pope in Rome, Becket chose the Pope. (St. Benedict had come to the English people with a solid respect for the established hierarchy of society. The problem was that at the top of the Church hierarchy sat the Pope, not the King.) Becket condemned the anointing of the heir to the English throne, for the boy had been anointed without the consent of Rome, and began the excommunication of the King's bishops. Henry was both frustrated in his duty as King, and furious with the betrayal of his personal trust. The King had given his choicest gift to his most trusted vassal, and the man had betrayed his gold-giver to the enemy.
Loyal knights of the King murdered Archbishop Becket in front of his own altar. He paid the price laid down in the ancient contract.
That is as far as the English kings were able to absorb the teachings of their Benedictine mentors. The civilizing benefits of the literate Christian culture were fully embraced by the hereditary aristocracy. But, renouncing control and submitting to God's will, manifested in the Ecclesiastical leadership, was beyond them.
Christianity was adopted by the AngloSaxon Kings, but there was a definite limit to how useful it could be to a King. There was an inevitable split personality inherent in any Christian Kingship. Since the sword remained the only means of enforcing loyalty, the sword stayed firmly in their grip. And so, in the delicate matter of power, England was never fully free of the pagan soul within.
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Bede is the essential primary source for the dark ages in Britain.
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A dramatic narrative of French history in the sixth century. Gregory of Tours (c.A.D. 539-594) intended his HISTORY to be a chronicle of events and included the 21 years he spent as Bishop of Tours. This volume contains all ten books of the HISTORY. As Gregory unravels the bewildering events of those decades, what emerges is no dry historical document but a colorful, detailed and moving pageant.
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