First Abbot of Malmesbury
By Joseph Fowler 1947
Geoffrey Gaimar, who, about the middle of the twelfth century, wrote the HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH in Norman French, sums up his own impressions of St. Aldhelm in four words ki mult fu bel ! “who was so fine!”
To anyone who has read the Saint’s life with sympathy and imagination, and followed his fine career as Scholar, Teacher, Monk, Abbot and Bishop, and caught something of the gaiety, culture, and holiness of the man himself, Geoffrey’s choice of the word “fine” seems as adequate as any one word could be. “Aldhelm, who was so fine!”
I think we may assume with some confidence that even in his bodily appearance and bearing Aldhelm was remarkably distinguished amongst his fellow men-and not least, perhaps, by his hands-“those wonderful hands”-the long delicate hands of a patrician and musician, the beauty of which made such a lasting impression upon the memory of Ethelwald, one of his pupils.
Our chief authorities for the life of St. Aldhelm are the two twelfth century Chroniclers, Faricius and William of Malmesbury, both of them, like St. Aldhelm himself, Benedictine monks in the monastery at Malmesbury, in Wiltshire. In the library there, they would have found not only the early material that they needed for their knowledge of his life and times, but some of the actual books which Aldhelm himself had handled and placed there. Faricius, who died in 1117, was an Italian by birth, and a skilful physician: he attended Henry the First’s wife, Queen Matilda, at the birth of her first child. The earliest recorded incident in his life in England is his presence, in 1078, at the Translation of St. Aldhelm’s remains by the first Norman Bishop of Salisbury, St. Osborne de Seez. He was possibly already a monk of Malmesbury Abbey at that time, and was certainly cellarer to the monastery in a 1100, when he was elected Abbot of Abingdon.
Faricius tells us that he had carefully consulted early documents, long since destroyed, some in Latin, and some earlier ones in Anglo-Saxon, which latter, being written in a “barbarous tongue,” he could not himself read, but was dependent upon those who could.
William of Malmesbury, when a few years later he wrote his own Life of Aldhelm, and had Faricius’s work before him, criticizes this disability to read Old English as, amongst other things, disqualifying Faricius for his undertaking; and he complains also, that the Abbot of Abingdon had not troubled to give any other authority for his statements than that of his own testimony.
For Malmesbury was indeed the greatest historian since Bede, whose careful and scholarly work he took as his model, and though he evidently consulted many of the same sources of information that Faricius had used, he is careful to give references to his authorities. He had the true scholar’s love for books-especially history books-and became inevitably librarian of the monastery at Malmesbury, preferring that office, it is said, even to being abbot.
One of his chief works, and the one to which we shall turn most often for our facts, was the GESTA PONTIFICUM, a History of the Bishops of England, down to about 1125, the year in which it was published: and the esteem in which he held Aldhelm may be judged by his having devoted the whole of Book V, in this great work, to a Life of the Saint.
Aldhelm’s life falls quite naturally into three clearly defined periods. The first (c. 639-675), covering some thirty years of his earlier life, he seems to have spent almost entirely either at Malmesbury or at Canterbury, learning and teaching. The second (675-705), also of some thirty years’ duration, he spent at Malmesbury as Abbot of the Benedictine monastery there. It was only in the evening of his life (705-709), when he was longing for peace and quiet, that he left the ordered shelter of the convent in obedience to the urgent wishes of his King and of his fellow Churchmen, both clerical and lay, to make his home for four brief years in Sherborne, as bishop of a great, unorganized and expanding diocese.
ALDHELM THE SCHOLAR (c. 639-675)
William of Malmesbury tells us that Aldhelm’s father was Centen, a near relation of Ine, King of Wessex: so Aldhelm was a thorough Englishman, and of royal lineage. His birthplace is not known, though there is some reason for thinking it may have been at Malmesbury. And if William is right in saying that Aldhelm “was not less than seventy years of age when he died” in 709, then he must have been born in or about the year 639-only some five years after Christianity had first been preached to the “very pagan” English folk in Wessex, by St. Birinus. If his parents therefore were already Christian at the time of his birth, they could have been only very recent converts.
There is some considerable doubt as to where he began his education. Although Malmesbury tells us that Aldhelm’s parents sent him, as a child, to Abbot Hadrian’s school at Canterbury, that seems hardly possible. For if the above calculation, founded upon William of Malmesbury’s own statement, is right as to the date of Aldhelm’s birth, he would have been a man of thirty when Hadrian first arrived at Canterbury in 670. Most writers, without presuming to offer any explanation as to how so careful a historian as William of Malmesbury could, apparently, have contradicted himself in this strange fashion, have agreed to begin Aldhelm’s schooling at Malmesbury, as being, all things considered, the most likely place.
Perhaps the reason why William thought that Aldhelm had been sent to Canterbury in early childhood, there to begin his schooling, was due to his mis-interpretation of a passage in a letter which Aldhelm wrote, soon after he left Canterbury, to Abbot Hadrian. Aldhelm greets his old tutor as “the reverend instructor of my rude and early childhood,” using the word “childhood,” we must suppose, not of his actual age in years, but of the immaturity of his mind when Hadrian first took him in hand. Aldhelm’s ambiguous words were intended, in fact, to convey a veiled and delicate compliment-as much as to say that, before Hadrian made a scholar of him, he was a mere infant in knowledge.
Malmesbury’s mentality was of a very different type from Aldhelm’s: it was cast in a heavier and perhaps less imaginative mould, and he took, in their literal sense, words that were meant by Aldhelm to be understood figuratively only, and that he knew Hadrian would rightly interpret in that sense. Indeed, there seems no doubt that it was in this way the mistake arose, for it is this very passage in Aldhelm’s letter that Malmesbury quotes as his authority for telling us that Aldhelm’s parents sent him to Abbot Hadrian’s school at Canterbury, when he was but a child. After all, Malmesbury believed that, in quoting Aldhelm’s own words, he was following the best possible authority; and so sure was he of their literal truth therefore, that he felt justified in embellishing the story of Aldhelm’s early education at Canterbury with what he considered to be likely and appropriate details-such as, Aldhelm’s parents having chosen Hadrian’s school as in keeping with the child’s high birth, and his teachers’ astonishment at the ease and rapidity with which the small boy learnt his Greek and Latin.
And when, in the course of his narrative, Malmesbury arrived at, what I take to have been, Aldhelm’s one and only residence under Hadrian, he is driven into speaking of it as a second visit repeating his iterum Cantie, “again at Canterbury,” on two successive pages in his Life of the Saint.
If William of Malmesbury was caught nodding by a momentary forgetfulness of the date when Hadrian first opened his famous school, he at least was only faithfully following where he believed the statement in Aldhelm’s letter led him; but how Faricius would have chuckled !
Like other writers, we shall assume then that Aldhelm began his education at Malmesbury; and, if this were so, then we know that his earliest teacher was an Irish hermit named Maeldub, or Maelduib, who had voluntarily left his native country and, as a wanderer in search of solitude, had been arrested by the amenities of a wooded glen at Malmesbury, wherein he set his solitary dwelling.
Here, the Irish mystic found the peace and seclusion that he sought, but no livelihood; and, in order to provide himself with the necessaries of life, he began to take pupils. Aldhelm was but one of the many who were drawn to the Irishman’s cell by his learning and austere piety. As the time went on, the scholars, following their master’s example, took vows, and themselves became monks and teachers, living the religious life and studying together, so that they formed eventually a community of no inconsiderable size. Thus, the greater part of Aldhelm’s early life, including his most impressionable years, was spent amid tranquil scenes of great natural beauty and romance, and in closest companionship with one “who brought with him all the culture for which Irish scholars were famous.”
Drawn by the picture of the hermit’s school in the wooded glen, I went on pilgrimage to Malmesbury whilst writing this sketch of Aldhelm’s life. Indeed there is no other place, not even Sherborne, that is so intimately and for so long a time associated with his life and memory, nor one that he himself loved better. Some of the impressions gathered on the spot may not be thought amiss.
Those who have seen Durham Cathedral standing majestic on its lofty throne, surrounded on three sides by the deeply incised meander of the River Wear, will be better able to form an idea of Malmesbury Abbey, high and lifted up upon a natural platform of rock, isolated on three sides from the surrounding limestone plateau by the deeply incised valleys of two converging streams, the Bladon and the Avon. These streams flow eastward along the northern and southern flanks of the lofty promontory, and eventually meet near the south-easterly approaches to the town. Thus Malmesbury stands on a peninsula, wholly surrounded by water save where, at its western end, a narrow neck of limestone, like a natural bridge, connects it with the outer world. Between Malmesbury and the distant chalk hills of Berkshire, there lay, eastward, in Maeldub’s time, a broad belt of forest spread out upon the outcrop of the Oxford Clay, the western fringe of which must, like the sea, have washed the very foot of the limestone scar in which the peninsula ends, and splashed into the mouths of the Bladon and Avon valleys on either side.
It was-or so I decided for myself-the narrower and steepersided valley of the Bladon-still full of Presences-that must have been Maeldub’s wooded glen, whose irresistible amenities compelled his steps thither, and brought his wanderings to a happy close.
We have no means of comparing the probable influence upon Aldhelm’s mind of the kind of education he received under Maeldub’s tuition with that which he gained afterwards under Hadrian, at Canterbury; but we know that the two systems, the Celtic and the Roman, whilst differing deeply and in many ways, were nevertheless complementary to one another, each supplying what the other lacked, and Aldhelm, no doubt, was thus greatly the gainer for having had the best of both. And who can say how much he owed, as a Bishop, in his understanding of and sympathy with the British folk in his diocese, to his long and close association with Maeldub, the Celt ?
We are not told how long Aldhelm remained at the convent school in the glen, but, according to William of Malmesbury, it was long enough for him to have added to his study of the Scriptures a full knowledge of “the liberal arts.” Since certain of Maeldub’s scholars themselves became teachers, it is possible that Aldhelm may have stayed on at Malmesbury, as a sort of pupil teacher, in order to help his master in that capacity, whilst further pursuing his own studies. In later years, when he had become widely known as a distinguished scholar, a certain Irishman appealed to Aldhelm, in a letter of which we still possess the text, begging that he would take him as his pupil, and reminding him that, by so doing, he would be repaying something of the debt he himself owed to the teaching of another Irishman.
Although Aldhelm had “devoured to the very marrow” all that was to be learnt in Maeldub’s school at Malmesbury, his insatiable hunger for knowledge drew him away to Canterbury almost as soon as it became known that the Archbishop, Theodore of Tarsus, and his friend, the African Abbot of Christchurch, had opened a school for all-comers. It would have been in or about the year 671 when Aldhelm arrived in Canterbury to throw himself at the feet of the great African scholar, Hadrian-that “fount of learning, and river of literary accomplishments.”
The Archbishop made time to do some of the teaching himself, and he and his companion Hadrian, with the help of other teachers, no doubt trained by them, gave instruction, Bede tells us, in “metre-craft, star-craft, and ecclesiastical arithmetic,” as adjuncts to the primary teaching of the sacred writings. They included music also, which had been in regular use in the cathedral services at Canterbury from the time when St. Augustine introduced it in 597; and the study and practice of it amongst the students was the means of spreading its use in churches all over England.
No wonder Aldhelm was attracted to Canterbury by the offer of such a feast of learning. It would have been, for him, like going up to the University, not quite in the modern sense of the word, but according to its original meaning of a place where all the known arts and faculties are taught and studied. For the breadth of Abbot Hadrian’s literary interests is reflected in the wide range of subjects, secular as well as religious, that he taught to his Canterbury students.
Aldhelm has left us a picture of those crowded student days, and of himself so immersed in his studies that he cannot tear himself away from his books to celebrate a gaudy with his friends during the Christmas Festival, even at the invitation of his own home bishop, Hlothere of Winchester.
We can still read the text of the letter which Aldhelm wrote, sitting, surrounded by his books, in his study at Canterbury, to excuse himself, on the plea of his work, from his attendance on the bishop. He is deep in Roman law and in prosody-a subject about which he probably knew more than any other English scholar then living. He mentions, with reverence, the wonders of astronomy, a subject much occupying his thoughts in connection with its bearing upon the Church Calendar-which Bede, you will remember, called “ecclesiastical arithmetic”: and he refers to the casting of horoscopes as necessitating the midnight study of the stars. It is perhaps some comfort to learn from Aldhelm that figures and “calculations” were never kindly or amenable to him, and sometimes well-nigh filled him with despair-as well they might, when we remember that all his sums and calculations had to be done in Roman numerals ! Yet, he assures the bishop, he is not going to give them up as hopeless because of their difficulty, for he adds quoting a saying of St. Jerome-“it is only as I realise my superficiality that I qualify to become a true student of knowledge.”
Dr. M. R. James, commenting upon this letter to Bishop Hlothere, reminds us that Aldhelm was probably the only Englishman, either of his own times, or for long after, to make a study of such an abstruse subject as Roman law. Although the actual copy of the law-book that he was studying at the time when he wrote to the bishop, and which he brought back with him later to Malmesbury, is now lost, yet it was still preserved there when William, our historian, some four hundred years later, was librarian of Malmesbury Abbey: and the actual transcript he made of it, in the twelfth century, is one of the treasures in the Bodleian Library at Oxford today.
Aldhelm’s reputation as a scholar came to be recognized abroad as well as at home, and foreigners were eager to submit their works to him for revision and approval.
Prince Artwil, son of an Irish king, sent his compositions, “of no mean quality,” to Aldhelm, begging that he would “scrape off their Irish rust with the file of his rare critical genius.”
Cellanus, an Irish exile, writing from a remote corner of a Frankish province, begs that Aldhelm will send him some of his discourses-which, “like sweet waters from a pure fountain, will refresh the minds of many who hear them.”
Capgrave tells us that his splendid acquirements excited admiration at Rome, and brought him to the notice of Pope Sergius; and this, later, may have been the means of his obtaining from Sergius the concession of important privileges for Malmesbury and for his other monasteries.
Dr. James says that English missionaries like Boniface, “were both students and diffusers of Aldhelm’s writings on the Continent”; and we hear of his poetry being read in Spain, and of a copy of one of his works being in the possession of an abbey at Limoges, in France.
Except for his letters, which are human documents, and sometimes of considerable interest and historical value, Aldhelm’s literary remains are for the most part not very edifying to the general reader. He plays with Latin, as a cat plays with a mouse, to enjoy his complete mastery of it and of its subtleties; and, in much the same spirit, he composed a Book of a Hundred Latin Riddles, many of them “showing a pretty fancy, and most of them great ingenuity,” together with a highly original treatise on Latin Grammar and Versification, which he wrote, apparently for sheer fun, in the form of a sort of Catechism, and sent to his godson, a former pupil, Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria. There is, indeed, a sparkle of humour, very characteristic of Aldhelm’s irrepressible gaiety, running through much that he wrote, which even the aridity of Latin Grammar could not quench. It is at the close of the treatise which Aldhelm sent to Ecgfrith that he claims to be the first Englishman to write in Latin verse.
His most considerable prose work is a very long discourse on Chastity, dedicated to Hildelith, Abbess of Barking, and he wrote a second version, on the same theme, in Latin hexameters, in which he distinguishes three kinds of persons to whom the praise of chastity is due: the married, who live virtuously; the married, who live as though single; and those, who for conscience sake abstain from the married state. Not the least remarkable thing about the treatise he sent to Hildelith and her fellow nuns is the knowledge of Latin which it presupposes Saxon ladies of the seventh century in England to have possessed-for Aldhelm’s Latin is more difficult than most kinds, and full of quips and outlandish words, that you will not find in many Latin dictionaries.
His insistence upon the need for giving the exact value to words and tenses and grammatical constructions in the text of Holy Scripture is very modern : it arose not merely from a scholar’s love of such exactitude, but rather from his conviction that insight and comfort are often to be gained from the turn of a phrase, or the choice of a word, as used by the inspired writer. In his wise and tender letter to a former pupil-the same Ethelwald who could not forget the beauty of those “wonderful hands” of Aldhelm’s-he writes, ” devote your time, my beloved, rather to the reading of the Scriptures, or to holy prayer; and if, in addition, you wish to acquire some knowledge of secular learning, do it, but only with the view, that, since the meaning of every, or almost every part of the divine law, dependeth upon the rules of grammar, you may be the better able to dive into the deep and sacred signification of the text by your more perfect acquaintance with those forms of speech in which it is expressed.” Nothing is clearer from St. Aldhelm’s writings, than the prime importance he attached to the study of Holy Scripture-it was for him the beginning and end of all other studies-a lesson which he had learnt early, no doubt, from the Irishman Maeldub. It was for this reason that he learnt Hebrew, in order that he might be able to read and study the Old Testament Books of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, in the language in which they were originally written.
Nor did he allow the homage that he paid to the Classics to make him despise or neglect his own native English-the language of the countryside in which he had been nurtured, and of its songs and ballads. And these latter he wedded to music, of which art he was an adept, being, both by nature and training, a skilful performer on all manner of “strings and whistles,” the “best of all lute-players, and the most finished of singers”-in fact he would not be Aldhelm, without his harp.
But we must not judge his claim to distinction solely by the number and quality of his literary attainments, though that would be to give him a very high place, if not the highest, amongst his contemporaries: for Aldhelm’s heart was always superior to his mind, and it was in the realm of supernatural Charity-immeasurably superior to human Reason-that, as a saint, he excelled. He possessed all the ardour of a scholar for study, but he never preferred intellectual excellence to moral, or allowed the pursuit of knowledge to interfere with the duties of his holy profession. It is Faricius who gives us, in four words, the key to Aldhelm’s life and influence, Vir . . . omnino Christo deditus, ” a man wholly given to Christ”-and therein, not in scholarship, lay his truest title to excellence.
It was between the year 671, when Hadrian was appointed Abbot of St. Augustine’s, Canterbury, and 675, the generally accepted date of Aldhelm’s appointment to the abbacy at Malmesbury, that the Canterbury episode in his life must lie. It was cut prematurely short through ill-health-a sort of low fever which necessitated his return home, and which, as it proved, brought his student days to an end. We know, from the letter already referred to, which he wrote to Hadrian some three years after he left Canterbury, how keenly he felt parting from him, and how much he had looked forward to a longer term of study under the abbot’s direction. But Providence had ruled that his real life’s work lay in his own West Country, and his ill-health was the summons to return thither and take it up.
ALDHELM THE ABBOT (c.675-7oS)
Whether Maeldub was still living, but in retirement, when Aldhelm returned from Canterbury, we are not told-Maeldub’s movements were always somewhat mysterious and self-effacing: but it cannot be long after Aldhelm’s homecoming that Bishop Hlothere ordained him priest, and set him in the vacant chair at Malmesbury as its first abbot.
“Bees, by the instinct of nature, do love their hives, and birds their nests,”and Malmesbury was for Aldhelm both nest and hive-the place with which he had been associated “from earliest childhood,” as Bishop Hlothere said when he appointed him.
Maeldub’s foundation at Malmesbury was, we may suppose, a very simple and homely affair-buildings, without any original plan, developed from the one wooden hermit’s cell, and added to as need required: and, either because the Irishman had been unbusinesslike, or through age and infirmity, the convent in the dell had fallen into such a state of poverty that its inmates scarcely knew where to look for the next meal.
All this was changed with Aldhelm’s accession. His birth, both as an Englishman, and as related to the reigning house of Wessex, together with his reputation as a scholar and his stainless character, gave him a peculiar measure of prestige with all and everyone in his own West Country and beyond. His appointment inaugurated a new era of prosperity for the abbey, the two kings of Wessex and Mercia being amongst the first to confer their patronage upon it; and the course of William of Malmesbury’s narrative is interrupted, for several pages, by the record he gives of early grants of land, and other privileges, conferred upon the monastery at this time.
It now became almost the fashion to be a monk of Malmesbury, and there began “a running to Aldhelm by all roads, some drawn by his saintly life, and some attracted by his scholarship.”
Aldhelm, the student, now becomes the man of affairs, busied with plans and building materials-a new role, into which he seems to have entered with great enthusiasm. One of his first acts was to replace the little church that had served the needs of Maeldub’s establishment by one more dignified, and of proportions better adapted to receive the great increase in the numbers of the community. This new church he dedicated to Our Saviour, and to the chief of the Apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul; and it became the head church, the centre of worship within the abbey precincts. He also built, nearby, another church, in honour of Our Lady; and yet another, dedicated to St. Michael, traces of which, says William of Malmesbury, were visible in his time.
It is in connection with his account of the building of St. Mary’s church that Malmesbury relates one of the miracles ascribed to St. Aldhelm. The builders, to their consternation, found that one of the rafters had been sawn too short, and they brought their trouble to the Saint. Aldhelm gently blamed them, yet showed no anxiety, though he was jealous of the time that would be wasted if another piece of timber had to be sought and brought to the monastery from the forest; and, with a prayer to Blessed Mary upon his lips, the shortened rafter beneath his hands became of equal length with the others. The story is a blending of fact and legend, which we cannot disentangle if we would. Miracles, according to ancient Catholic teaching, are a manifestation of transcendent sanctity, and the power to perform them all of a piece with the main miracle of the supernatural life.
Aldhelm’s building operations must sometimes have taken him beyond the abbey precincts, though Malmesbury tells us that he never transgressed these limits except when his duties required him to do so. We are not told of what material he built his churches, but, though wood had been usual in Saxon England up to about that time, Benedict Biscop was using stone for his church at Monk Wearmouth, and it is likely that Aldhelm did the same.
There is a story told of him by John Aubrey, the Wiltshire antiquary, worth repeating, for it sounds as though it contained at least a kernel of truth, and may well belong to this active period in Aldhelm’s life, when his mind was full of his new churches. Such an interest might well have made him almost as observant as a geologist of such things as natural outcrops of rock, and of quarries, wherein Nature’s hidden stores of building stone are exposed. It is said that once, when he was riding over the limestone country near Box in Wiltshire, he “threw down his glove, and bade them dig, saying that they would find great treasure there “meaning the Bath Stone of Haselbury, “the eminentest free-stone quarry in the West of England,” Aubrey adds. And Aldhelm’s name, with a representation of his glove, is now used by the Bath Stone firms as their registered trade mark, and appears stamped upon the blocks of stone they issue from their quarries.
Beside his three churches at Malmesbury, Aldhelm founded monasteries at Frome, in Somerset, and at Bradford-on-Avon, in Wiltshire. At Frome he also built a church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, which Malmesbury says was standing in his day. And at Bradford there is the little austere Saxon church of St. Laurence, looking very much like the kind of thing, which, as children, we built with white wooden bricks, which has been claimed as St. Aldhelm’s handiwork, but may be of a later date; and he is said to have built another church at Bruton, in Somerset, dedicated to St. Peter: and we must not forget, that, when he came to Sherborne, he built his cathedral church there to Our Lady-but of that, presently.
About the year 678, or perhaps a little later, Aldhelm wrote another letter, this time addressed to the clergy of St. Wilfrid’s northern diocese, in which he puts them in mind of the duty they owe their bishop, then in exile. They are but fair weather friends, he tells them, if, having enjoyed St. Wilfrid’s fatherly protection in the day of his ascendency, they desert him now that he is in trouble: better, far, that they should be willing to share his banishment.
Aldhelm’s kinsman, Ine, succeeded to the kingdom of the West Saxons in 688. There was evidently a strong friendship between these two men, born of mutual respect and a common love for Wessex and its people, out of which sprang much good, alike for Church and State. Whilst Aldhelm was still Abbot of Malmesbury, Ine gave liberally in support of his foundations, and it was at Aldhelm’s suggestion that the king rebuilt Glastonbury. If Ine leaned upon his bishop for counsel, Aldhelm could always be sure he had, in Ine, a loyal ally and a generous patron in all his schemes and projects for the Church in Wessex.
Though we are not told so, it is a fair inference that the two men went about together, much as we picture King Oswald of Northumbria and St. Aidan to have done, some fifty years earlier.
The story by which St. A1dhelm is probably best known to most people-his minstrelsy on the bridge at Malmesbury-seems to belong to this period in his life-at least, so Faricius would have it. Both he and Malmesbury tell the story as they found it recorded in that literary treasure, the Handbook of King Alfred the Great a copy of which, or even possibly the original, may have lain in the library at Malmesbury, and there have been seen by these two medieval chroniclers whilst monks of the abbey. King Alfred-so his biographer, Bishop Asser of Sherborne, tells us-used to keep a sort of Commonplace Book always close at hand, in which he would enter things that specially interested him, and it was in this book that the king wrote the story of Aldhelm and his harp.
Except from the west, Malmesbury can only be entered by crossing one of the two streams, the Bladon or the Avon, which together nearly encircle it. The bridge, which carries the road from Chippenham over the Avon, is close to the medieval Hospital of St. John, and was probably always the more important, as it appears to be the more ancient of the two. It is near this bridge then that we may suppose the scene to have been laid, and I picture St. Aldhelm, harp in hand, bare-headed, close-cropped and tonsured, and clad in the black habit of a Benedictine monk, standing, tall and upright, near the approaches to the bridge, over which wayfaring country-folk, entering or leaving the town, must pass. It is possible-even likely-that many of them attended Mass in the abbey church, for parish-churches in Aidhelm’s time were very few and far between. If this was so, it would explain Aldhelm’s knowledge of their unseemly haste to be off directly Mass was over, and their unwillingness to receive instruction: it would also explain Aldhelm’s sense of responsibility, if they were erring sheep of his own particular flock. At any rate, he longed to win them to something worthier; and, if they would not listen to him in church, they should hear him out-of-doors. It required no special effort for him to adopt the role of a strolling minstrel, for he could do that, quite naturally, like one to whom it was a profession. His skill was at least as great as theirs, and his store of English songs and ballads both larger, and more original-for they were his own.
By twos and threes, the wayfarers set down their burdens to listen, and the singer soon gathered round him a considerable outdoor congregation. Aldhelm had learnt, at Canterbury, that there need be nothing unseemly or unnatural, in passing from secular to religious subjects; and having established contact with his audience, he so spoke to their souls’ need and comfort that, leaving their baggage, they followed him, as sheep follow their shepherd, to church.
Aldhelm probably used this method of winning these dear ignorant West Saxon country-folk on more than one occasion, for it was natural to him to become all things to all men, in order that, by all means, he might win some.
Aldhelm, in the seventh, and Alfred, in the ninth century, were both great Englishmen-and they shared a common love for the English tongue, and were proud of it: they were both minstrels, too. Evidently it gave the king the greatest satisfaction to learn that, with all his Greek, Latin and Hebrew scholarship, Aldhelm loved, and made use of, the homely English songs of his own West Country. Indeed, Alfred, who was no mean judge of such things, considered that no one ever equalled Aldhelm in this gift of English song; for “he could write poetry, compose a tune to it, and either read or sing it, as best suited the occasion.” It was Alfred’s actual acquaintance with one such popular song of Aldhelm’s-a song which Malmesbury tells us was still to be heard at street-corners and cross-roads, in his own day-that led the king to treasure the story of the minstrel with the priestly heart, and to put it into his Commonplace Book-for it seemed to him, that, great as he was, Aldhelm’s true nobility of heart was never more apparent.
Whether it was in response to the Pope’s solicitation, as some say, or in order to seek from him the privileges he wished to gain for his monasteries-perhaps both-Aldhelm determined to visit Rome and, for that purpose, he obtained the sanction of Ine and of Ethelred, King of Mercia. This was during the papacy of Sergius I, when Aldhelm was already fifty years old, and had now been Abbot of Malmesbury for some thirteen years or more. Everything had prospered under his rule and management, and he felt he could leave his charge for a while, with a free mind and a thankful heart.
He started on the road to Rome from Wareham, in Dorset Poole harbour’s chief sea-port in Saxon times-and there he stayed on one of his estates, awaiting a favourable wind.
Whilst his companions were busily engaged, making the necessary arrangements, Aldhelm built a little church, or oratory probably of wood, and with his own hands-wherein to commend himself, his people, and the object of his journey, to God. But our historian, William of Malmesbury, has more to add to the story-details belonging to a later day, when the Saint had passed to his reward, and the little fame at Wareham had fallen into ruin. The Dorset shepherds from the neighbouring pastures, he tells us, used to seek the shelter of the little building when rain-storms swept inland over the open fields, for they knew that no rain ever fell within the walls of St. Aldhelm’s oratory. And when it was ruinous, and but a mere shell of a building, lying open to the sky, William of Malmesbury tells us that a small portion of thatch was left projecting over the altar, to preserve it inviolate from the droppings of the birds.
Aldhelm was received in Rome with great courtesy and respect. He was specially honoured by Sergius, who lodged him in the Lateran, where he said Mass daily. Faricius tells us that “the worthy man used to take his priestly vestments with him wherever he went, so that he might always be prepared for the discharge of the duties of his office.” This leads the chronicler to tell how Aldhelm’s chasuble, after he had said Mass one day, and was disrobing, was miraculously caught upon a sunbeam, and suspended, so that it might not fall to the ground.
Aldhelm readily obtained from the Pope the privileges he had come so far to seek: his monks were to be for ever exempt from episcopal jurisdiction and from all secular service, and they were to be free to elect their abbots from amongst their own number. These privileges were afterwards confirmed by the two kings of Mercia and Wessex.
When, with the Pope’s blessing, Aldhelm set out on his homeward journey, he was laden with farewell gifts and relics of the saints. He was also given a very splendid altar-stone, or mensa, which, from William of Malmesbury’s description, was probably of white Carrara marble, richly sculptured, a somewhat embarrassing gift to a traveller whose way lay over the Alps. Moreover, it was carried by a camel-or it may have been some other beast of burden-William is not sure on this point. The poor beast stumbled on the steep mountain track, and was badly bruised and shaken; but, in answer to the Saint’s urgent prayer, it scrambled to its feet, shook itself, and appeared not a whit the worse for its fall. The altar-stone William believed to have been broken in two pieces, for one could see, he tells us, the crooked line running across its face, where it had been miraculously mended. This altar-stone was evidently intended as a very special gift for Ine; and, on his return to Wessex, Aldhelm gave it to the king, who is said to have placed it in St. Mary’s church, Bruton.
As soon as it became known that Aldhelm was back in England, a procession of his monks, bearing cross and thurible, and singing psalms and spiritual songs, started seawards down the road from Malmesbury to meet him; and with them went the two kings, Ine and Ethelred, accompanied by a great concourse of West Country folk of all degrees. William describes the Saint’s homecoming as the return of the Light of Britain.
Of Aldhelm’s life within the precincts of the monastery, during the thirty years or more he spent there, we are told very little. There was probably very little, that could be called eventful, to be told. Apart from his own peculiar offices as abbot, he would share with the other monks in the daily round of those prescribed duties in Choir and Chapter-house, which formed an essential part of the Rule of their Order. There were fixed times for rest and food, but none for idleness; and the rule of silence, as a means to recollectedness, lay upon all.
Whatever time Aldhelm had that he could call his own, he spent, we are told, in study and prayer-hearkening, in the one, and speaking, in the other, to God-as William expresses it.
At times, he carried austerity to extremes; as when, even in winter, he would immerse his rebellious flesh in the icy waters of the Bladon, and there remain, reciting the Psalter, until self conquest was established. Such unsparing rigour was but following the example of St. Benedict himself, who, as Aldhelm probably knew well, when similarly assailed, would cast his naked body amongst the briar’s-“whence the wild roses of Subiaco !”
In the earlier part of the year 705-the same year in which, later, he became Bishop of Sherborne, but whilst he was still Abbot of Malmesbury-a West Saxon Synod of the English clergy deputed Aldhelm to urge upon King Ine’s British subjects their acceptance of the Roman time for keeping Easter.
The English clergy were fully agreed that persuasion and argument, and not constraint, must be employed, and that Aldhelm was the right person to whom so nice and important a matter should be entrusted.
The position of the ancient British Church, at the beginning of the eighth century, was anomalous. Although orthodox in matters of Faith, its Ministry was evidently regarded by Archbishop Theodore as of sufficiently doubtful regularity for him to have required the re-consecration of St. Chad, upon whom, in 664, only one Catholic bishop, Wine of Winchester, and two British bishops, whom Bede did not consider to have been “canonically consecrated,” had laid their hands. It was, moreover, schismatic, having been separated from and become independent of Rome and the main body of Western Christendom, of which it was once a part. Yet, in the first instance at any rate, this isolation had not been the result of any assertion of independence on the part of the British Church, but was due to the swords of the barbarian and pagan ancestors of the very Englishmen who now, as recent converts and Catholics, were earnestly seeking the reconciliation of their separated brethren both with themselves and with the Apostolic see of Rome.
The complete text of Aldhelm’s letter, which is addressed in courteous terms to Gerontius, the British King of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall), and to his clergy, has, fortunately, been preserved for us.
Aldhelm admits the orthodoxy of the British Church, but insists that, by itself, orthodoxy is not enough; for Catholic Unity, he tells them, is the fruit of common Order and Observance, as well as of common Belief. He makes his appeal to their reason and common sense, with a charity in advance of the age, though he has sharp words to say to those who wilfully continue in separation from the Church of the Popes and of Western Christendom.
Bede tells us that Aldhelm’s letter was the means of winning many of Ine’s British subjects to the Roman way of keeping Easter; and, a few months later, he came to live amongst them as the bishop of a diocese in which there was, numerically, a strong and possibly not unfriendly British element. How he managed to make contact with people who spoke nothing but Welsh, we are left to imagine; but long intercourse with the Irishman, Maeldub, may have familiarized Aldhelm somewhat with Celtic forms of speech ; and, knowing his great interest in, and aptitude for languages, it would have been strange had he not soon set about mastering a new one.
His letter to Gerontius was Aldhelm’s last recorded act as Abbot of Malmesbury, and it brings us therefore to the threshold of the third and last period in his life.
ALDHELM THE BISHOP (705-709)
He was by this time well over sixty years of age, and, so far, all his life had been spent within the institutional walls of either school or convent. Meanwhile, life in the outer world had been going on furiously, and great history had been made by the Saxon armies in Wessex, of which we must take cognizance: for it was the English acquisition of new lands in the West which had created the problems of Church extension that Aldhelm was now called upon to supervise and order.
In the year 658, when Aldhelm was a young man of about nineteen years of age, and was living, presumably, with Maeldub at Malmesbury, rumours, from the outer world, of King Cenwalch’s great victory over the British at Penselwood-within a walk of Sherborne-must have reached the ears of the students in the glen, and stirred the English blood even of recluses in the convent school. For Cenwalch had driven the British as far west as the River Parret, to the gap in a spur of the Polden Hills near Langport- a notable victory, marking a definite stage in the conquest of Wessex.
And, again, in 682, when Aldhelm had become Abbot of Malmesbury, King Centwine fought the British in three several battles and drove them ” with fire and slaughter, as far as the sea.”
Yet, during all this time, there was but one bishop in the whole of Wessex; and his seat was in Winchester, far removed from the newly acquired lands in the West, where the forward surge of battle had left the old city in Hampshire further and further behind it.
It is strange, but for some unknown reason Archbishop Theodore, in the solitary case of Wessex, had departed from his established policy of dividing all English sees that appeared to him to be too large to be efficiently supervised by one bishop. He is stated, in a decree of 679, to have actually forbidden the division of the unwieldy diocese of Winchester during the lifetime of its old bishop, Haedde-but this is so contrary to his known practice that some would rather doubt the genuineness of the decree than believe that Theodore could have issued it.
It was Haedde’s death in 705 that gave Inc the opportunity for dividing the kingdom of Wessex into two dioceses, for it made it essential that any alteration of the territorial boundaries of the old see of Winchester should be settled at once, before the appointment of a new bishop was made.
At the Council of the Church, summoned, if not presided over, by King Ine himself, and held at some unknown place in his kingdom, Wessex was at last divided into two sees, Winchester retaining the older part, east of the Forest of Selwood, and Sherborne becoming the seat of a bishop whose diocese was composed largely of the lands of recent acquisition, west of the Forest of Selwood. It is with this new diocese that we are exclusively concerned, for it was as its first bishop that St. Aldhelm entered upon the last period of his long life.
William of Malmesbury, writing some four hundred years after the event, but using earlier material than we can consult, limits the portion of Wessex retained by Winchester to the two counties of Hampshire and Surrey: the whole of the remaining portion, including Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, he allots to Sherborne. This, not unnaturally, appeared to him to be a very unfair division, and one that laid too heavy a burden upon the bishop of the new see of Sherborne.
It is probable, however, that Berkshire, and the eastern half of Wiltshire, remained in the Winchester diocese, though we need not here go into the reasons for saying so; and, although Cornwall, and much of Devon, probably were in British hands when the new diocese was formed in 705, yet all the western territory, as far as the Land’s End, if not actually, was potentially part of the new diocese from the first; for, as it became English land by conquest, and subject to Ine, it became pari passu, Church land, and subject to the Bishop of Sherborne. It was only a question of time; and, looking at it in this way, we can understand why Archbishop Dunstan was of the opinion that Cornwall had always belonged to Sherborne until, at the beginning of the tenth century, in the reign of King Edward the Elder, Alfred’s son, Sherborne diocese was divided, and Cornwall and Devon were formed into the new see of Crediton.
But any attempt to visualize the limits of Aldhelm’s great diocese should begin at its eastern end with the Forest of Selwood the natural boundary, in that direction, about which there has never been any dispute.
The present remnant of Selwood Forest, along the border of Somerset and Wiltshire, gives little indication of its primitive importance. For Selwood, in Saxon times, formed part of what must have been a continuous belt of woodland, spread out upon the north and south outcrops of the Oxford and Kimmeridge Clays. It extended from Bradon Forest, near Malmesbury-to which reference has already been made-via Pewsham Forest, which formerly surrounded Chippenham and Melksham, to Selwood, Gillingham and Blackmore Forests; and thence ranging eastwards by Cranborne Chase, to join the sandy heaths of Dorset and the New Forest.
Although there is no early evidence as to the exact breadth of this Forest-belt, we may take it for granted that, in character and width, it formed a real barrier, not necessarily to the movement of primitive armies, but certainly to continuous settlement. How definitely it divided Wessex into two distinct portions nowhere comes out more clearly than in the Saxon Chronicler’s description of Aldhelm’s diocese, as the country “to the west of the wood,” or, “to the west of Selwood.”
When the time came for Aldhelm to leave Malmesbury, he was already an oldish man-older, perhaps, than his actual years, and worn out with austerities and cares of office, though still young in spirit and at heart. He was certainly old enough to wish to end his days on earth in peace and leisured study, as a recluse, amid the familiar and tranquil surroundings of the monastery.
But, in this, he was not allowed to have his own way. “Bishops, clergy, and a great multitude of the laity, all with one voice, according to ancient custom, chose this holy man”-so writes Faricius, describing the scene of Aldhelm’s election.
He had no ambition to be made a bishop, yet neither had he the will to refuse any duty that was clearly laid upon him, and between these two poles he kept the mean, holding his judgement in suspense, until he knew more clearly where his duty lay. He pleaded his age, and his unworthiness: but these objections were brushed aside; and when he saw that it was the settled desire of all that he should accept the bishopric, he gave way-fearing to withstand the wishes and judgement of his fellow men lest, in so doing, he might be found to have refused the Divine Will. And when it was seen that he had withdrawn all opposition to his election, “the bishops greeted him as a colleague; the clergy as their Father in God; and the laity as their protector.”
He was led to Canterbury, there to be consecrated by Berhtwald, Archbishop Theodore’s successor. They were old friends, and had been fellow students, and were both of them Benedictine monks, as indeed were nearly all the first thirty eight Archbishops of Canterbury, and now Aldhelm’s consecration was a further bond between them. For many days Berhtwald detained Aldhelm with him, glad of his company and helped by his advice in matters concerning the Archbishop’s high office.
It was whilst he was staying at Canterbury that Aldhelm heard of the arrival of a ship at Dover, and set out over the Downs on horseback, “roughly clad,” Faricius tells us, hoping the sailors might have brought books or furniture from Gaul that would be of service to him for his churches.
The story would be interesting even if it went no further, for this reference to imported books suggests that there was a considerable demand for them in early eighth-century England-a wonderful testimony to the wide-spread effect of Theodore’s and Hadrian’s scholastic influence.
As Aldhelm paced the shore watching the unlading of the vessel, his eye caught sight of an interesting looking old volume a manuscript copy of the Old and New Testaments-which he took into his hands, and examined, turning over the pages with all a scholar’s love for such things. William of Malmesbury describes the scene that followed:-the bishop offering a price for the treasure, and the sailors demanding a higher one, and putting off to sea with the book rather than let him have it: the sudden storm, and Aldhelm’s intercession: the sailors, now perceiving that he was a Saint whose prayers had delivered them from ship-wreck, putting back, and thrusting the book upon him: and the final compromise, leaving Aldhelm its happy possessor. William tells us that he himself had seen this same Bible-“a venerable specimen of Antiquity”-where Aldhelm had afterwards put it, in the library at Malmesbury. And Faricius says that he, too, had seen it, and had read the anathemas written at the beginning, as
schoolboys write them in their lesson-books today, against the thief who might be tempted to steal it.
When Aldhelm had returned home from Canterbury, with his Bible and his bishop’s crook in hand, his first act, we are told, was to seek to be relieved of the abbacy of his three monasteries. He wished to appoint, or to let them appoint, three abbots, one for each convent, and then to resign, leaving them, whilst he still lived, independently settled and provided for. But the monks would not hear of it: they would have no abbot over them but himself. William and Faricius both assure us that this “pious pertinacity” on the part of the monks sprang wholly from their devotion to Aldhelm, and from their long and happy experience of his mild rule and sweet reasonableness. Love can be selfish and extremely exacting. Once again, as when the bishopric was thrust upon him, Aldhelm allowed himself to be “happily conquered.” He continued to be both abbot and bishop to the monks of his three monasteries, until death released him from that and other burdens.
William of Malmesbury tells us that Aldhelm preserved all his faculties unimpaired to the last, but that his physical strength was sorely tried at times to keep up with their demands, and threatened, like a deserter in the march, to leave his indomitable spirit to go forward alone. He never relaxed the rigorous habits of fasting and self-discipline which he had practised from early years; and he was still capable, in his old age, of certain forms of strenuous labour. This was especially apparent in his constant visitation of distant villages in his great diocese, preaching, teaching, exhorting and warning, “night and day,” with all authority; for Aldhelm agreed with Bede that the study of the Scriptures, prayer and visitation were a bishop’s first duties. One writer goes so far as to say, very strikingly, that it was St. Aldhelm who, “by his preaching, completed the conquest of Wessex.” This itinerant work was very dear to his heart, and he seems never to have wearied of it.
There is a story told of Aldhelm, when he was on one of these missionary journeys, which suggests that he may have been in the habit of carrying an ash-plant or some other kind of stick in his hand when walking. Whilst preaching, on this occasion, he leaned upon a stick, and his weight caused it to become firmly fixed to the ground, where he left it. William sees something miraculous in the way in which the stick afterwards took root and burgeoned forth into leaf; but, if freshly broken off, as Aldhelm’s may have been on that occasion, it is wonderful enough, without recourse to miracle, how retentive of life a hedge-stick will often prove.
The Yeo valley at Sherborne can have changed but very little since Aldhelm’s day. If he were back with us, he would probably recognize its main features-Honeycomb and Jerusalem hills, as we now call them; the wooded heights, on one side of the winding stream, and the long bare grassy slopes upon the other. Deep in the valley, on a spread of gravel above the flood level of the river, he laid the foundation of his cathedral church and set up the altar that was to be the spiritual centre and hearth-stone of the new diocese; and, huddled together beneath its shelter, lay the wattle and-daub cottages of the villagers.
Although William of Malmesbury tells us that he had seen Aldhelm’s cathedral at Sherborne with his own eyes, it is very doubtful indeed whether the church he saw, when he visited Sherborne in the twelfth century, was the same church that Aldhelm built in the early eighth. For there was another Saxon church, built on the same site, later in date than Aldhelm’s, but earlier than the date of Malmesbury’s visit. This was the church which Bishop Wulfsin built at the close of the tenth century, or thereabouts, when he introduced monks at Sherborne in place of secular canons; and it must have been Wulfsin’s work, of which one feature, a late Saxon doorway, still survives, that Malmesbury saw and mistakenly thought to be Aldhelm’s handiwork. He describes it as “marvellously constructed”-and no doubt he would have held the same opinion, with equal justification, had it really been St. Aldhelm’s original building that he saw. It is a fair inference that Aldhelm’s last was also his greatest architectural achievement.
In one of the Latin poems ascribed to Aldhelm, written when he was Abbot of Malmesbury, he sings a paean in praise of a Saxon basilica, or church, which King Centwine’s daughter-“the fairy”-had recently built, and at the dedication of which he himself may possibly have been the officiant. His description is extremely interesting as giving us some idea, even if we must make some allowance for poetical licence, of what a Saxon church, and the worship offered therein, was like, about the year 700. There were twelve altars in the basilica, dedicated, we should suppose, to the Twelve Apostles, and another altar, to Our Lady, in the apse. Aldhelm, with his love for music, rejoices in the memory of the Antiphons, Hymns and Psalms, which “shook the roof” with their melody, upon the Feast-day. He speaks of the sunlight streaming through the glass windows; the cloth-of-gold hangings and the fair linen, about the altar; the jewelled cross, the censer, and the golden chalice and silver paten for the holy mysteries. Is there, in all this, an indication of the kind of church its furniture, rites and ceremonies-that Aldhelm afterwards built as his cathedral in Sherborne ?
“The house and dwelling-place of the bishops of old”, in Saxon Sherborne, stood almost due west of Aldhelm’s cathedral church, on or near the site now occupied by the vicarage. He may well have built this house himself, whilst engaged upon his church, as a sort of clergy-house, where he and his `familia’ could live together. It has long been a Sherborne tradition, sponsored by Hutchins, that the Saxon bishops of Sherborne lived at Castleton, on what, later, became the site of Bishop Roger de Caen’s Norman castle; but we have it on the best possible authority, i.e. on that of Bishop Roger himself, that “the house and dwelling-place of the bishops of old” was in Sherborne, and where I have said. The origin of the Castleton tradition, and Bishop Roger’s unprinted Charter which disposes of it, are matters which will be found dealt with in my MEDIEVAL SHERBORNE–if that belated book ever sees the light.
Although the duty of providing for the education of his people was one that we may be sure was often in Saint Aldhelm’s thoughts, yet we have no word of his having made any provision for it, either in Sherborne or elsewhere in his great diocese, and it is a matter of pure speculation whether he ever did so or not.
The four years during which, as bishop, Aldhelm had laboured in the service of God “with unwearied diligence,”were now drawing to a close, and he was already “nearing the threshold, and nigh unto the very gate of Heaven.” Yet, when death at last overtook him, he was away in Somerset, and, as he would have chosen to be found doing, was for the last time “making his way round the diocese,” Faricius tells us.
It was a summer’s day, May 25th, in the year 709-the day afterwards to be observed by the Church as his Feast-day-and Aldhelm had reached the little village of Doulting, near Shepton Mallet, whither he had gone “to gather some of his flock under the protecting care of God,” when he perceived that his end was approaching, and bade them carry him into the little wooden church, that he might die there.
Faricius describes the closing scene in the Saint’s life that may have taken place in the little village church of Doulting. Aldhelm is surrounded by his monks, his clergy, and his household servants, and he bids them, as his last injunction, to preserve amongst them that unity, peace and charity without which no Church is pleasing to God. Then he turns to his `familia,’ and the servants whose faithfulness he had proved, and lays it as a duty upon them to see that his body is buried in the convent at Malmesbury, the place of his early and enduring love. And so, with his last prayers, he commends them to the mercy and keeping of God.
St. Ecgwin, Bishop of Worcester, having received in a vision admonition of the Saint’s departure, his grief and love, hastens to Doulting that he may offer commendatory prayer to God for his brother bishop’s departing soul. Then, knowing Aldhelm’s wish to be buried at Malmesbury, Ecgwin makes all necessary preparations for the body to be carried there.
William of Malmesbury describes the scene vividly : the shape of the lifeless form outstretched beneath the pall upon the bier: the wistful awe-struck glances cast upon it by the little company of mourners: and their anxiety to be allowed to render some small personal service, if only to stand silent near the body, ready to assist.
We are not told by which road the cortège passed on those long summer days, though some, with local knowledge, have tried to follow it by the help of the Saxon stone crosses that have been found between Doulting and Malmesbury. For William tells us that St. Ecgwin caused stones-“Bishop’s stones,” as they came to be called-to be set up at all places at which St. Aldhelm’s body rested for the night-one of which, he adds, was still to be seen standing within the abbey precincts at Malmesbury.
The monks at Frome and at Bradford-on-Avon, we may suppose, would have claimed to be allowed to give shelter to the body of their beloved Abbot and Founder, though we are not told so.
The brothers at Malmesbury received the Saint’s body with mingled feelings of grief and joy; and it was laid to rest, by Bishop Ecgwin, in the church of St. Michael, which Aldhelm himself had built forty years previously, and where, it is said, he had foreseen that he would one day be buried.
More on Saint Aldhelm from unknown author
The Founder and First Abbot of Malmesbury Monastery
The First Bishop of Sherborne, Precursor of Salisbury
The Christian Context
The monastery at Malmesbury was established under the auspices of the king of the West Saxons in the year 676AD. This was just 80 years after St. Augustine had landed in Kent at the start of his mission to convert the Saxons to Christianity.
This was not, of course, the first time Christianity had come to England. The religion became established in Britain during the second century under Roman rule. During the third century the movement was gaining momentum. Later legends have it that the seeds of Christian faith were introduced by St. Peter, or an emissary of St. Paul or by Joseph of Arimathea who planted the sacred thorn at Glastonbury. These beliefs, though strongly held, have no evidence whatever to support them. In the early years of the 4th century there were, in Roman Britain, three martyrs to the Christian faith, St. Alban of Verulamium, Aaron and Julius of Caerlon.
Although by no means a universal religion Christianity had spread sufficiently for there to be three Bishops from the British province at the council of Arles in 314AD. Paganism was, however, still very much alive and well alongside Christianity. A large carved column, dedicated to Jupiter and erected in Cirencester, was restored in the late 4th century. Insofar as Christianity had taken root it was, at this time, essentially town based, and so a Bishop is thought likely to have represented the Christian organisation in one town and not have charge of a diocese as we would recognise it today. This also partly explains why Christianity largely died away following the Saxon occupation. The Saxons were not town dwellers and so the towns, in the main, became unoccupied and fell into decay and with them the churches. It is possible, however that some small pockets of Christianity survived although completely cut off from Rome and the rest of the Church in southern Europe.
The Saxon Occupation of South-west England
Most historians now agree that the Saxon conquest of the south-west of England came from two directions. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that a number of Saxon invaders, lead by Cerdic, landed in Hampshire in 495AD. Cerdic becomes described as ‘king’ by c520AD and was followed by his son or grandson Cynric. These two reigned until the middle of the 6th century. It is noteworthy that the names Cerdic and Cynric are British rather than Saxon which gives rise to some questions regarding the true composition of the ‘Saxon’ invading force. Some believe that it may have been an amalgam of a group of adventurers coming from north-west Germany together with significant elements of the local population. By the middle of the 6th century this group occupied Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and Wiltshire as far north as the Marlborough Downs and as far west as Salisbury. Battles are recorded as being fought at Salisbury (552AD) and at Barbury Castle, in Wiltshire, (556AD). There is little further mention of this group of Saxons in the Saxon Chronicles. At this time the area to the west of Salisbury, including the Salisbury Plain, and as far north as the Wansdyke was a separate kingdom of Romano-British tribes and was to remain so until the first decade of the 7th century.
The second component of the Saxon invaders who were eventually to over-run the south-west came from the direction of the Thames Valley. The Venerable Bede tells of a battle fought in 577AD, at Dyrham in Gloucestershire. The resulting Saxon victory under king Caewlin, lead to the capture of Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath. At this point further northward expansion was prevented by the developing Saxon kingdom of Mercia.
It was in the early years of the 7th century that the northern group overcame the resistance of the British in the south-west and so occupied North Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset. These Saxons, combining with those who had come from the south to occupy Hampshire and South Wiltshire, formed the kingdom of the West Saxons as it was now defined. The term `Wessex’ has only been used in modern times having been coined by the novelist Thomas Hardy in the 19th century.
By the second half of the 7th century the northern boundary of the West Saxon kingdom with Mercia was generally settled at its western end, to follow the line of the Severn Thames watershed. This put Gloucestershire in Mercia and Wiltshire in the kingdom of the West Saxons. Further east the Thames marked the boundary.
The interesting question is to what extent the West Saxon kingdom continued to be populated by the British subject to Saxon rule. There is recent evidence that, ethnically, this part of England remained, and remains today, largely of British descent.
The Return of Christianity
Although there were still active Christian churches in Gaul and in Spain these churches were largely independent of Rome and showed no interest in performing an evangelistic role in re-Christianising Britain. Irish priests also, in the 6th century, were not coming from Ireland to the southern part Britain although some were going as missionaries to the northern parts of Britain as well as to the continent.
Benedict I was pope for the years 574-578AD and it was during this period that Gregory the Great was said to have had his celebrated contact with the young, fair haired, English slaves. When told that they were Angles he is said to have replied `not Angles but Angels’. Whether this conversation ever took place we shall never know but it is not improbable and is in the oldest recorded accounts of the life of Gregory. It is said that from this encounter Gregory himself wished to undertake the conversion of the English. In fact the opportunity never occurred for in 590AD he was himself elected pope and so the project became quite impossible for him to undertake.
In the year 596AD Gregory was at last able to dispatch a mission to these shores to `preach the word of God to the English race’. The person Gregory chose to lead this mission of forty monks was Augustine, who was the prior of St Andrews Monastery in Rome, Gregory’s own monastery. As the group commenced to cross southern Gaul they lost heart and became fearful of what sort of reception they might receive from those barbarous heathens in the cold northern island. Accordingly they stopped and sent Augustine back to Rome to plead that they be released from their task. Gregory responded by making clear that papal sanction supported the endeavour and, by writing a number of letters, did all that he could to help to smooth their journey across Gaul. With these assurances the mission moved forward once more. It was early in the year 597AD that Augustine and his party of monks made landfall in Thanet in Kent.
The king of Kent, Æthelberht, was not entirely unsympathetic toward Augustine and his party. Although he and all his subjects were heathen he was married to a Christian wife, Bertha. Queen Bertha was the daughter of a Frankish king reigning in Paris and had married Æthelberht nine years earlier She brought with her to Kent a Frankish Bishop so that Christian observances must have been taking place within the king’s household, even though the population generally would have looked upon the practice with suspicion.
The tradition that Æthelberht being much in fear of the strangers’ magic would only meet Augustine under the open sky is, in all probability true. After meeting Augustine and his party of monks, Æthelberht was convinced of their honesty and agreed to their staying in the kingdom. Without giving up the long-held beliefs of his peoples the king gave them accommodation in Canterbury, supplied them with food and allowed them to preach their religion. For their part Augustine and his monks used for their services St. Martins, an existing old church which dated from the time of the Roman administration.
Before the end of 597AD Æthelberht was baptised and Pope Gregory himself tells of how Augustine, by now created Bishop, had baptised 10,000 converts on the Christmas day after his consecration. With converts being baptised at a steady rate Augustine and his monks found it necessary to restore further ancient churches and to build new ones. For all this success it should not be imagined that the old beliefs of the population quickly disappeared. For many years the conflicting beliefs coexisted and it can easily be imagined that many accepted the new religion without giving up the old but Kent could now be considered, Christian.
The World of Aldhelm’s Youth
It is believed that Aldhelm was born c640AD as a member of the ruling family of the West Saxons who, by now, occupied the south-west of Britain from the coast northwards to include the counties of Somerset and Wiltshire. Some sources suggest that he was a nephew of King Ine. This, however, is almost certainly incorrect as a cursory study of the relevant dates shows that Aldhelm would have been at least as old as his father and probably several years older. William of Malmesbury writes “If you read the Handbook of King Alfred you will find that Kenton, father of the blessed Aldhelm, was not the brother of King Ine, but his first cousin”.
The Saxon world into which Aldhelm was born was one which had only very recently become Christian. The faith had arrived only in the preceding decade and this had come about in the following manner.
In the year 634AD the Pope,Gregory’s successor, Honorius, sent to this country a certain Birinus to preach the gospel here. Little is known of the earlier life of Birinus except to say that he was ordained a Bishop before making his way to our shores. When Birinus landed he was determined to travel to the furthest reaches of our land to seek out those to whom the very name of the gospel was unknown. He did not journey far, for, landing on the southern shores of Wessex, he found the local inhabitants all devoted to pagan rites. In a short period of time Birinus had baptised the king of the West Saxons, Cynegils, and subsequently the rest of the population.
Aldhelm is said to have received his early Christian education from an Irish monk who was established at Malmesbury. Very little is known of this monk who is variously named Maeldulph or Maeldubh or Meldum. He is a legendary figure who may, or may not, have existed although it is suggested that the name of the town, Malmesbury, is derived from the name of this monk.
Certainly William of Malmesbury accepted the reality of Maeldulph’s existence and his role in Aldhelm’s early days. How high a quality of education may have been received at this source is uncertain. In general Irish monks were regarded as more evangelists than scholars.
More is known of Aldhelm’s continued education for he went to Canterbury to the St Peter and St. Paul Monastery there. This could have been no earlier than 669AD for it was in that year Hadrian arrived in this country to become Abbot of St Peter and St. Paul in succession to Benedict Biscop. This was shortly after Theodore became Archbishop of Canterbury. It is worthy of note that Benedict Biscop went north from Canterbury to found the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow; these became the home of the Venerable Bede in the following century. Hadrian and Theodore together introduced an intellectual regime which, at that time, was unrivalled at any other place north of the alps. The subjects that were studied under Abbot Hadrian at St. Peter and St. Paul included Scripture, Sacred Music, Metrical Rules of Poetry, The Sciences that regulated the Christian Year as well as Latin and Greek which scholars were expected to read and write with ease.
Aldhelm was an adept pupil and as such was highly regarded by both Theodore and Hadrian with whom Aldhelm established friendships which were to last for the rest of their lives.
Aldhelm Founds Malmesbury Monastery
Returning to Malmesbury in 676AD, Aldhelm founded the monastery there which was to last for more than 850 years until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Under his leadership Malmesbury Monastery flourished. It received large tracts of land, first from the West Saxon kings, and a little later from Æthelred, the King of Mercia. This last came about following of the Mercian invasion of the northern part of Wessex, particularly of the upper Thames area in Oxfordshire and northern Wiltshire including Malmesbury. The first Bishopric of the West Saxons was established at Dorchester-on-Thames by Birinus. As a result of the Mercian invasions the Bishop’s seat of the West Saxons was, perforce, moved to Winchester where it remains to this day. For a brief period, between 675 and 685AD the Mercian Bishopric was established at Dorchester before moving to Lichfield.
By 685AD Malmesbury was once again under West Saxon rule and the records show continuing generous gifts of land from the successive kings as well as from some of the more important magnates of the time. For the most part this land was retained by the monastery even through the Norman Conquest. It is said that, at the time of the dissolution, the monastery held as much as 300,000 acres of land. Although this may be something of an exaggeration there is no doubt the monastery was a major landowner.
During his abbacy Aldhelm gained great fame both for his learning and for his piety. He wrote many works including that for which he is now best known, De Laudibus Virginitatus (In Praise of Virginity), which he wrote for Hildebeth, Abbess of the Nunnery at Barking. His composition style, especially in Latin, displays a great knowledge and understanding of the language. There are those who say this very command drew him into an elaboration of style which deadened the impact of the message. The skilful, but over elaborate, manipulation of words had the effect of masking any feeling. Maybe it is for this reason William of Malmesbury complained that Aldhelm had so little written about him and did not attract the acclaim William thought to be his due.
Whilst establishing Malmesbury Monastery, which observed the Benedictine rule, and producing a steady flow of tracts, poems, riddles and books, Aldhelm found time to create new monasteries at Frome and Bradford-on-Avon, fulfilling the role of Abbot at both. It is believed that St. Laurence church in Bradford-on-Avon started its life as the Abbey church of Aldhelm’s monastery. It is believed that some considerable part of the saxon church that stands today dates back to Aldhelm’s building. Over the years there has inevitably been much repair work so it is not always possible to tell which is stone last wrought by the original builders. In addition to the three monasteries Aldhelm was responsible for the building of many churches for local worship. Many of these were on manors gifted to the monastery and among these was one at Somerford Keynes where, in the church today, there is a doorway to the aisle on the north side which is believed originates from the church that Aldhelm built.
At Malmesbury monastery Aldhelm built three churches. The first, dedicated to St. Peter was to be followed by one for St. Mary and one dedicated to St. Michael. The present Abbey church, built in the 12th century, replaced a church dedicated to St. Mary and it may well have been the one built by Aldhelm. In 1542 an antiquarian, appointed by Henry VIII, one John Leland, tells of a St. Michael’s church which was attached to the south transept of the present church. As he describes it
“There was a little chirch joining to the south side of the transeptum of thabbey chirch,
Weavers hath now lomes in this little chirch, but it stondeth and is a very old pece of work”
Aldhelm Visits Rome
In the year 700/701 AD when Sergius was Pope, Aldhelm made a pilgrimage to Rome. He made a most favourable impression on Sergius such that the Pope issued a Bull the effect of which was to relieve the three monasteries, of which Aldhelm was Abbot, from all external jurisdiction. The sole authority was to be “-the same saint whose servants we also are, the blessed apostle Peter our founder-“. This gave to the monasteries the title `Tributary of the Holy See and Home of St. Peter’. It was also, in future years, to become a source of some problems both for the monastery and the diocesan bishop.
Until the year 705AD the kingdom of the West Saxons and the diocese of Winchester shared the same border. It was decided in the early part of the 8th century that the Winchester diocese was too large and, when the current Bishop, Haeddi, died, should be divided. This occurred in 705 when the new diocese of Sherborne was established. As defined, the new diocese was the area of Wessex ‘west of Selwood’ which appears to be the modern counties of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. The diocese of Sherborne became, after the Norman Conquest, the diocese of Salisbury; the Norman masters not being happy with bishoprics being based on villages. The new, reduced, Winchester diocese covered Surrey, Hampshire, Sussex and, most probably, Wiltshire. A new Bishop of Winchester, Daniel, was appointed and was to remain in this post for 39 years, when, having lost his sight, he retired to spend the last year of his life ‘in holy leisure’ at Malmesbury. William of Malmesbury tells of a method of penance employed by Aldhelm and shared by his colleague Daniel `that they might reduce the force of their rebellious body they immersed themselves up to the neck in a spring near the monastery, there spend the night caring neither for the frosty vigour of winter nor for the mists rising from the marshy ground in summer’. There is, to the west of the Abbey churchyard, down the escarpment by the River Avon, a spring which is, to this day, known as Daniel’s Well.
In his own day Aldhelm was recognised as being the most learned western scholar of the late part of the 7th century although, today, he is generally less well remembered than that great man of letters of the next generation, the Venerable Bede. Aldhelm was credited in life and after his death with the performance of many miracles. If you would read of these we refer you to William of Malmesbury’s `Deeds of the Bishops of England’ David Preest’s translation being excellent. In summary, Aldhelm of Malmesbury, a product of the monastery of Canterbury in its period of educational excellence, was a poet, letter writer, author, moralist and the finest intellect of his age. He was the first Bishop of Sherborne (Salisbury) and the first Abbot of Malmesbury.
Death of Aldhelm
Aldhelm’s life came to its end on the 25th May 709AD. He died in the church at Doulting in Somerset, a village on the road between Glastonbury and Frome. A funeral procession brought Aldhelm’s body from Doulting to Malmesbury for burial. William of Malmesbury tells us that stone crosses were erected at seven mile intervals along the route, at points where the body had rested. The final one was in the cloisters of the monastery at Malmesbury.
William also tells that all of the crosses were still there in his day, four centuries later, and that none of them had suffered any damage. He claimed that many incurable invalids who went up to the crosses and prayed with all of their might, were quickly cured.
At Malmesbury Aldhelm was buried in the church dedicated to St. Michael in a tomb,it is said, which Aldhelm had prepared in advance for this occasion.
Some one and a half centuries after Aldhelm’s death Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons, erected a magnificent shrine in the Abbey to commemorate the saint, the whole front of which was composed of silver.
In the writings of William of Malmesbury he tells that, in the mid-nine hundreds, king Eadwig, much to the disgust of William, introduced secular clergy into the Malmesbury monastery replacing the monks who were there. William shared the general view that monks had for their much less well educated brethren. He wrote, speaking of Eadwig, `he even made the monastery of Malmesbury a stable of secular clergy’. Even William was however moved to heap praise on these same clergy for their act of taking the bones of Aldhelm out of his tomb and placing them in the shrine. Although William blamed king Eadwig for the introduction of the secular priests it is probable that they were there much earlier. Monastic life was disrupted by the Danes during their seventh century invasions and the secular priests are likely to have moved in shortly after the Danes had retreated from the region.
The Conquest and Aldhelm
An early consequence of the Norman conquest was the replacement of almost all of the incumbent bishops and abbots by Normans or Frenchmen whom William I wished to reward for their services to him. At Malmesbury this policy caused the Saxon Abbot Brihtric to be replaced by Turold, a Norman monk from Fecamp. This Turold ruled the monastery like a tyrant, so much so that William soon realised that Turold was acting more like a soldier than an Abbot and so decided to move him. Turold was given the Abbacy of Peterborough where, with Hereward the Wake as an opponent, as William I put it, `He can have Peterborough as a field for his courage and generalship and practise his fighting there’.
The new Abbot, Warin, was less abrasive but still showed many faults. Of these the monks were particularly upset by two. First he was much concerned to raise all the money and items of value that he could in order to curry favour with people of rank. To this end he squandered the property of the monastery in a display to impress those who may have known him in his early days when a poor man. The monks were also much disturbed by his lack of regard for the Saxon saints and relics. He caused the bones of these saints, as well as those of many bishops buried at Malmesbury, to be removed from their position of honour and to be walled up in a dark corner of St. Michael’s church. The position might not have changed until after Warin’s time save for a miracle that was perceived to be due to the influence of Aldhelm. This is the story told by William of Malmesbury. There was a fisherman living in the Isle of Wight who became afflicted with blindness forcing him to give up his profession. His friends cared for him but this still left him sorry for the situation in which he found himself. He spent much time questioning anyone who would listen as to how he may be cured. He was told that he was beyond human aid and should seek the help of God and the saints by going to the church of Christ on the mainland at Christchurch. The man’s friends took him to the church and there he stayed for three years without a happy result. At the end of this time he had a vision in his sleep which told him if he wished to be cured he should go to Malmesbury. Full of renewed hope and with a friend to guide him he made his way, to the town where he stayed for seven days waiting for the divine prophesy to be fulfilled. On the eighth day when he was prostrate on the floor of the church before a crucifix, blood dripped forth from his eyes and his sight was restored. This all happened in the sight of the monks and the townspeople and they were amazed. All believed that this was the work of their beloved saint, Aldhelm.
Aldhelm’s Legacy to Malmesbury
The Abbey church today is dedicated to St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Aldhelm and the Virgin Mary and in the south-east corner, is a chapel dedicated to St. Aldhelm. In the south-west corner of the Abbey church there is a stained glass window depicting Aldhelm. Unfortunately, because of severe space limitations in the Abbey, access to these windows is not easy. Please ask a steward to assist you if you wish to see this window. The Roman Catholic church in Malmesbury is dedicated to Aldhelm and there is a road in the town named for him. Finally, at the southern edge of the town, near St. John’s bridge, there is a memorial garden named for our saint.
The Abbey coat of arms has, as its upper element (chief) the heads of two crosiers. To the dismay of those who are offended by a lack of artistic balance, one of these, that on the left as viewed in the sketch (Dexter chief), is shown with its open end pointing outwards while the other, on the right, (Sinister chief) is shown with its head pointing inwards. These represent the two roles of the founder of the monastic church, the one facing inward referring to the closed role of the Abbacy while the outward facing one indicates Aldhelm’s mission to the world as a bishop. It is regrettable that there are examples of the arms to be seen in the Abbey church where the crosiers are not shown correctly orientated.