Tag Archives: Lindisfarne

Seminar CLXXXIX: buddy bishops in Bernicia

Returning to the decreasing (yes! actually decreasing!) seminar report backlog takes us up to the 13th November 2013, when I was at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research as part of my grand project of accurately imitating a professional Anglo-Saxonist for the year, and also because I was interested to hear Trevor Morse give a paper entitled “Cuthbert and Wilfrid: parallel lives(?)”. This found us all looking more closely at late seventh-century Northumbrian history than I think anyone has done for a while, in a way I like to encourage everywhere, with as many of the operative personalities in it as possible considered at once.

St Cuthbert's shrine, Durham Cathedral

St Cuthbert’s final final resting place, in Durham Cathedral

The starting position here is the reputation of the two saints of the title, both bishops in the early Northumbrian Church, both much described by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and, in Cuthbert’s case, his two Lives of the man, while Wilfrid had a follower called Stephen who wrote up his Life for him.1 If you know this, you will also know that Wilfrid was an extremely controversial figure, expelled from his bishopric three times, an exile hosted at the courts of I think four different kings, with the pagan one of whom he nonetheless organised the conversion of the Isle of Wight; he also rejoices in the title of the Apostle of Sussex. Where Trevor brought us in to the debate was therefore with Walter Goffart’s controversial book The Narrators of Barbarian History which argues of four classic early medieval historical works that they are far more about contemporary politics than the events they purport to recall, and in Bede’s case that one of the big issues hiding in his work is the reconciliation of the various parties in the aftermath of Wilfrid’s divisive career, something that Bede did by developing Cuthbert as an alternative figure of that age suitable for veneration.2 To this, having made it clear at the outset how tricky and partisan the sources are, almost all at that dangerous remove from events where it’s still not possible to be neutral, Trevor wondered what we can learn by taking a closely chronological approach, putting the two men’s careers against each other and asking: were they in fact rivals in life?

The high altar of Ripon Cathedral

With somewhat less certainty, this is probably where Wilfrid finished up, near or under the high altar of Ripon Cathedral, if that stayed in the same place during its later rebuilding. By Andrewrabbott (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

I love chronological approaches anyway, but I did feel that this one was particularly revelatory. If, for example, one abstracts Cuthbert’s career from the various praiseworthy contexts in which his hagiographers paint him and try and put together a bald career summary, one of the things that becomes clear which certainly I hadn’t realised is that Cuthbert got booted out of office or fired upwards almost as much as Wilfrid did, driven out of Wilfrid’s foundation of Ripon with the then-Abbot Eata after Wilfrid’s move the Lindisfarne, moved to Lindisfarne from his subsequent appointment as Prior of Melrose after Wilfrid’s first restoration as bishop but retiring from there very soon afterwards, returning to the political fore as Wilfrid’s star began to rise again after his second deposition, then becoming Bishop of Hexham then swapping (with Eata) to be Bishop of Lindisfarne and dying before Wilfrid could get expelled again, whereafter Lindisfarne apparently nearly dissolved and there was a big argument over where Cuthbert’s body should go.3 It suddenly got hard to see him as a figure of peace with all this put together, and it also looked much more as if his spells in the sun coincided with Wilfrid’s than the way the Lives are built would lead you to spot.

“For I know that, although I seemed contemptible to some while I lived, yet, after my death, you will see what I was and how my teaching is not to be despised.”

This is not something a successful peacemaker needs to say on his deathbed, even less something a hagiographer should need to say of such a person thirty years later... Nonetheless, they are the words Bede gave Cuthbert in his Prose Life, c. 39.

That then raises the issue of what on earth was so divisive about him, and there Trevor’s answer was that one of the things the various Lives do say about Cuthbert, usually as praise but in this light now looking different, was that he was a champion of a fairly strict monastic lifestyle; when he ran into trouble with his various communities, this is how his hagiographers explain it, Bede indeed making this out as a trait going back to his youth when even training for war as a child he would outdo, outrun, out-strive his contemporaries. If you wanted to, then, you could see Cuthbert’s career as a long series of annoying people by over-achievement, but Trevor framed it mainly in terms of Roman and Benedictine observance. In that framework Cuthbert, despite his roots in the ‘Irish’ Church of early Christian Northumbria (roots that Wilfrid of course shared), appeared as a more Romanising figure than was found useful by his subsequent biographers.

The tomb of St Bede the Venerable in Durham Cathedral

As long as tombs is the theme… this is where the mind that we’re substantially seeing all this through finished up, the tomb of St Bede the Venerable, also in Durham Cathedral

At the end, I was still a bit unclear as exactly how sincere Trevor thought the reform agenda had been (though setting it out involved a description of a whole group of Northumbrian churchmen as ‘Whitby grads’, which I enjoyed). Bede seems to want Cuthbert to have been just a bit too ascetic for his charges to cope with; his earlier hagiographer (who Trevor suggested might have been the eventual Prior of Lindisfarne Æthelbalda Ripon priest then Lindisfarne hermit by the name of Oiðilwald, in the right places at the right times) seems to have wanted him as a Benedictine figure, but which of these, if either, was the ‘safe’ historiographical position by which someone writing up this somewhat explosive career might defuse it? Was ‘reform’ more a matter of factional competition than anything really about how to be a good monk? Still, having reason to believe we can see even that far back through the mess of writing that tangles up the history of the Northumbrian Church was further than any of us might have expected to get with such well-studied material, and even if some of the connections are still difficult to understand, Trevor managed to use them to explain things anyway, no mean achievement.


1. Almost all the materials in play here were at one point or another edited, translated or both by Bertram Colgrave, and in most cases his versions remain the standard ones: B. Colgrave (ed./transl.), The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus (Cambridge 1927); idem (ed./transl.), Two Lives of St. Cuthbert. A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life (Cambridge 1940, 2nd edn. 1985); idem & R. A. B. Mynors (edd./transl.), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford 1969); Colgrave (ed./transl.), The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby (Cambridge 1985). Bede also wrote a Verse Life that is only translated in a forthcoming volume of Bede’s Latin poetry by Michael Lapidge, and we also had several other bits of Northumbrian hagiography in play, all of which you can find in D. H. Farmer (ed.) & J. F. Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (London 1983).

2. Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A. D. 550–850): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (London 1988), pp. 235–328.

3. One interesting sidetrack here that I prolonged in questions is how Bede describes the difficulty at Lindisfarne after Cuthbert’s death in the Verse Life. Trevor’s handout has it thus:

“The insistent north wind, trusting in its snowy weaponry, strikes the Lindisfarne monastic buidlings on all sides with such spiteful blast, that the noble progeny of our brothers was hanging by the precarious thread of events, and would choose to abandon the site rather than undergo these extremes of danger.”

This all sounds weirdly like Vikings avant la lettre. Bede kept the storm metaphor in the Prose Life but dropped the reference to the north, but that actually makes a lot of sense at the time he was writing the verse life because of the resurgent threat of the Picts, so some people present wondered if that, rather than internal trouble, could be what was threatening the island monastery. Trevor agreed that Melrose and Abercorn, two of the Northumbrian Church’s now-Scottish outposts, were in trouble at this time, and that led me in turn to remember that some of Bede’s informants on Pictland were clerics exiled from there at this point in time. If they had found refuge at Lindisfarne, that might have changed the balance of opinions there quite suddenly and sharply, but unlike the Pictish military threat, it wouldn’t have been so much of an issue by the time Bede was writing his Prose Life in the early 720s…

The first Viking raid on England or Francia

Here’s a little thing that narks me every now and then. This comes up occasionally in teaching, where I can set it straight, occasionally someone is wrong about it on the Internet (which never ends well) but I was quite surprised to find a related version in a certain large book I’m still sporadically making my way through, and that has me worried enough to set out my thinking. The thing in question is a supposed fact, the dates of the first Viking attacks on the kingdoms of Western Europe.

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne (from Wikimedia Commons)

[Edit: a very cogent point from Julia Barrow in comments has meant I’ve seriously overhauled this paragraph and the next. Further edit: there has also developed in the comments a very erudite dispute about what exactly Alcuin was thinking when he wrote the letters I mockingly pastiche in what follows, and if that is likely to matter to you you should have a look below.] For England, canonically, it was Northumbria that was first to be attacked, with the sack of the monastery Lindisfarne in 793. Now, OK, let’s be quite clear, Lindisfarne in 793 was not a good place to be. However much the famous letter of Alcuin about it may work it up into eschatological froth, people surely died or were kidnapped and the monastery plundered.1 The only problem is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the first Viking attack was in the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex, which we put from 786 to 802, when a boat hauled up on Portland sands, the king’s reeve Beaduheard went down to tell them, I suppose, the contemporary equivalent of “you can’t park that there” and they killed him. That, I grant you, could still put Lindisfarne first, but the Chronicle‘s compilers (working around 892) explicitly said the Portland attack was “the first ships of the Danish men which sought out the land of the English race”.2 So, at the least, if you want to ignore what the Chronicle says you need to make that argument or one like it before you go and take Alcuin’s words (which have their own moral purpose, as no doubt did the letter that must have been his source) instead.

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now in fact that argument is not hard to make, because the earliest manuscript, known as A or the Parker Chronicle, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention the sack of Lindisfarne. In fact it doesn’t have an annal for 793 at all. Notice of the sack only occurs in three later manuscripts (known as D, E, and F), all of which had, one way or another, incorporated parts of a set of northern annals that we no longer have, except via these manuscripts and the twelfth-century Historia Regum, written at Durham, whose author Simeon also seems to have had them to use.2bis Can it be that the Chronicle‘s compilers didn’t know Lindisfarne had been sacked, a hundred years on? It seems unlikely, so perhaps they were just keen to make sure that the real first attack clearly happened in Wessex, where the Chronicle was being compiled and where King Alfred was fairly keen on getting people on board dealing with the massive threat that Viking attacks had by that time become. In which case, of course, they may have adopted the vague dating for exactly the reason that they were aware that Lindisfarne was attacked first. But there are good reasons to suppose that if they thought that, even so, they were wrong.

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123)

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123), sadly not the right synod or charter but at least illustrative

You see, there’s a charter of King Offa of the Mercians (and also, he claims in it, now awarded the sceptre of government of the people of Kent by God), that he issued at a synod at Clofesho (which was apparently a vastly important place then and is now unknown) in 792.3 Offa seems to have been in generous mood, or perhaps really urgent to pacify Kent, as the document is a blanket confirmation that all the churches of Kent were to be exempt from various services and dues. There were however some things they still had to pay when necessary. This was a classic Mercian strategy, indeed since the 1970s it’s been thought of as one of the things that made Mercia great, but usually it extended only to providing soldiers on royal demand, repairing fortresses and maintaining bridges.4 On this occasion, however, the first thing these churches still had to stump up for was, “an expedition within Kent against seaborne pagans arriving with fleets, or against the East Saxons if necessity compels”. Now, against this, it must be admitted that the charter as we have it is not an original. It was once preserved at St Augustine’s Canterbury but now survives in two thirteenth-century cartularies in London. So it could be, shall we say, improved, but if so, the bit about attacking Essex would be a very odd thing to add! Mind you, it looks odd in its day’s terms as well, it’d been a while since Essex had a separate political existence, but all the same I’m not inclined to dismiss it straight away. If it’s not some scribe’s over-active imagination, anyway, in 792 Offa was expecting pagan sea-raiders in Kent, which rather suggests that there had already been some. Once again the sources are awkward, but one has to at least explain why one trusts one and distrusts another before stating things as fact. There just aren’t any safe facts here.

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad, hit by the Vikings even more often than Lindisfarne

The same debate can be had about the Continent. On page 587 of that certain large book for example, we are told, “the first Viking raid on Francia, from neighbouring Denmark, was in 834, in the context of Louis [the Pious]’s 833-4 conflict with his sons”.5 Now, I’m not going to say this is wrong, you must realise; I believe that if you stuck the word “documented” in there somewhere it would be cast-iron true, and the actual point, which is about how quickly enemies of a kingdom might capitalise on its political problems, is perfectly valid. But, as with Offa, we may suspect there was more going on already behind the scenes, because in 800 King Charles of the Franks and Lombards, as he still then was, spent some of the earlier part of the year touring “the coastal region adjoining the Gallic ocean; he created a fleet upon this sea because it was infested with pirates at that time [and] organised defences”.6 There’s really only one likely set of pirates out there at this time, and whereas the attack in 834 was a political one, we know that, well, by 802 and likely earlier there were also presumably-independent Danish raiders in the English Channel, see above.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

What we are facing here is that no-one realised this whole Viking thing was going to be the theme of the century when it started. Even Alcuin, who is all “OMG it’s like the sack of Rome all over again, nothing as bad as this has happened in English Christian history, are you really sure you guys weren’t being sinful because you know God does nothing by chance“,7 did not go on to say, “I bet this isn’t the last we see of this; run to Chester-le-Street!” and predict the First Viking Age. The people compiling the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle however, with a century’s bitter hindsight, did know when they came across some note of the Portland attack, in whatever sources they had to build the Chronicle out of, that that was the story of which that attack should be seen as part, and so do we. But that doesn’t mean that whoever had written it down first recognised it as such, and that they knew it was the first such attack; it just means that the Chronicle compilers thought they could make the case that it was. The earlier attacks on Kent that Offa seems to have been providing against, likewise, were not recognised as the beginning of a centuries-long society-changing war; he made no special provision other to than ensure that the regular military response would not get smaller. How could they have known, after all? So the first Viking attacks, in either England or Francia, are almost certainly not recorded, but there is good reason to say that anyone who gives you the canonical dates for them without a crucial word like “known” or “recorded” or similar is, well, probably talking about something else really.


1. Alcuin’s letter is actually two letters, printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae nos 20 & 21 (pp. 57-59), one of about ten letters he immediately sent to people in England trying to drum up help and support for the beleaguered monastery. No. 20 is translated in full in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), pp. 72-73, whence repr. in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), pp. 123-125, probably in the first edition as well and I expect several other places, but those are the ones I have on the shelf so that’s the reference you get.

2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s. a. 787 for 789, here cit. from Michael Swanton (transl./ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).

2bis. A brief discussion of the manuscripts can be found ibid., pp. xxi-xxix, and a much more thorough one in D. Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979, repr. 1996), pp. 113-131, but I don’t know as I write how well that now stands up against the latest scholarship.

3. Now best ed. in Susan Kelly (ed.), The Charters of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet, Anglo-Saxon Charters 4 (Oxford 1995), no. 15, but of course also available via Sean Miller’s ASCharters.net here, whence the Latin: “nisi expeditione intra Cantiam contra paganos marinos cum classis migrantibus uel in australes Saxones si necessitas cogit“. I would, of course, like to cite it from the supposed replacement for that site at King’s College London but as usual it’s down so I can’t. Plus ça change.

4. Discussed classically in Nicholas Brooks, “The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth- and Ninth-Century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69–84, back when CUP still printed Festschriften, repr. in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700–1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47 and in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105.

5. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 587.

6. Royal Frankish Annals s. a. 800, printed in Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829. Qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) VI (Hannover 1895); here cit. from P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: translated sources (Lancaster 1987), p. 92.

7. I paraphrase, obviously; this is not Alcuin’s style really. I realise he was a famous teacher and a moralist and theologian of the first order and so forth, and yes, at the same time as questioning his old acquaintances’ morality he was also trying to kick an international (or at least interregnal) relief effort into action, but I can’t help feeling that Alcuin was not very much fun, you know? I would have been in Theodulf’s camp, or more likely waiting for Walahfrid and Eriugena to arrive.