964, 1978, who’s counting? Of monks, canons and new toilets

The New Minster, Winchester

The New Minster, Winchester

Here’s a short one. I learnt a little while back from News for Medievalists that the BBC had something to say about an occasion on 5th March when Winchester Cathedral opened the first new part of its building for 500 years. It is, unexcitingly, basically a toilet block (as up till then the cathedral hadn’t had any toilets, apparently!), but they managed to add some excitement by getting it opened by someone they’d just made an Ecumenical Canon, who is no less than Abbot Étienne of the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire at Fleury, for which reason the new extension is to be the Fleury Building. ‘How very appropriate a choice of canon, if not of facility,’ I more or less thought and then found that the BBC thought so also but not for the reason I expected:

The link between Winchester Cathedral and the Abbey of Fleury goes back to 1978, when the then Dean of Winchester, Michael Stancliffe, and the Abbot of Fleury decided that the Anglican cathedral and the Benedictine monastery should be united in prayer.

And that’s a bit weird because the connection I’d thought of was that the New Minster at Winchester was reformed by Bishop Æthelwold of that see on his appointment there in 964, and he had been trained… at Fleury.1 This seemed like an obvious thing to mention, but then I wondered if the fact that he’d kicked out the canons, whom he found quite displeasing, and replaced them with monks made it, perhaps, awkward to mention that when making a monk your newest canon. Maybe they wanted those lines to stay blurry, I thought. And that would be interesting from the point of view of the continuing relevance of the medieval past to current institutions, and institutional memory and so on. But in fact the actual press release on Winchester Cathedral’s web-pages is happy to acknowledge the older link, just about:

The Cathedral’s origins are as a Benedictine monastery – Benedict being recognised as the father of Western monasticism – and although the Cathedral is no longer run by monks, Benedict’s values are at the heart of its ethos. The strength of the links between Fleury and Winchester are evident as the Cathedral and the Abbey pray for each other every day as part of the more recent rejuvenation of a relationship which stretches back a millennium. There are also regular exchanges between the two communities – including three trips by the Cathedral choir. It is therefore wholly right that the first of these Honorary Canons should be linked to its earliest origins.

They don’t say what that original relationship actually was, of course, but given what we are told of this episode by contemporary sources…

The king also sent there with the bishop one of his agents, the well-known Wulfstan of Dalham, who used the royal authority to order the canons to choose one of two courses: either to give place to the monks without delay or to take the habit of the monastic order. Stricken with terror, and detesting the monastic life, they left as soon as the monks entered…2

… you can understand why Winchester would have wanted to let this pass unmentioned on a happy day 1047 years later. This is not, I think it’s safe to say, how any of us would want to be fired from what we would presumably have thought of as, well, a permanent job. What about the BBC, though? Did they just miss the word `millennium’ in the press release, or what? Well, who knows. But even if they’re not counting, you can trust the historians to remember.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria, not that you can currently see it, or that if you could you could say anything there. Cliopatria’s recent upgrade… has not gone well.)


1. The obvious starting point for learning about St Æthelwold is Barbara A. E. Yorke (ed.), Bishop Aethelwold: his career and influence (Woodbridge 1998).

2. Wulfstan [not the same one!], Vita Sancti Æthelwoldi, edd. & transl. Michael Lapidge & Michael Winterbottom as Wulfstan of Winchester: the Life of St Æthelwold, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford 1991), cap. 18, here cit. from Alexander R. Rumble, “The Laity and the Monastic Reform in the Reign of Edgar” in Donald Scragg (ed.), Edgar, King of the English, 959-975 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 242-251 at p. 242.

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2 responses to “964, 1978, who’s counting? Of monks, canons and new toilets

  1. Pingback: Seminar XCII: ritualised kingship in later Anglo-Saxon England « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. An update: after some settling, this post is now visible at Cliopatria along with everything else that’s supposed to be there.

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