Written by Vladimir Moss



     In 939, King Athelstan died, and was succeeded by King Edmund. Wisely, the new king chose as one of his counsellors St. Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury, which was not far from the king’s court at Cheddar in Somerset. St. Dunstan would be the main driving force behind one of the great achievements of Anglo-Saxon England, the tenth-century monastic revival.[1]


     However, slander and envy, which had already caused Dunstan grief in the previous king’s reign, did not cease to pursue him now. As a result, the king ordered his banishment. Dunstan then asked some foreign envoys at the court to help him; they promised him hospitality and everything he might need if he accompanied them back to their kingdom.


          The next day the king rode out hunting with his men. As they came to the forest, they dispersed in friendly competition along different paths. However, the baying of the dogs and the calling of the horns enabled many of the stags to make a quick escape; and only the king, with one pack of dogs, found himself on the track of a stag. In his flight the exhausted animal came to a very deep gorge into which he suddenly hurled himself, followed by the dogs. The king, following close behind, was accelerating when he saw the gorge. Desperately he tried hold back his horse, but without success. With all hope for his life gone, he commended his soul into the hands of God, saying within himself: ‘I thank Thee, O God Most High, that as far as I can remember, I have not harmed anyone at this time, except only Dunstan, and I shall be reconciled with him promptly if my life is saved.’ When he had said this, his horse came to a standstill on the very edge of the abyss.


     Praising and giving thanks to God, the king realized that he had come so near to being killed in order that Dunstan might be vindicated; and on his return he ordered him to be brought before him without delay. When Dunstan came in, he said: ‘Hurry up, get a horse, and come with me and my soldiers.’ And, mounting their horses, they immediately took the road to Glastonbury. On arrival, they went into the church to pray; and after praying and wiping the tears from his eyes, the king again called the servant of God to him. Taking him by the hand, he kissed it and led him to the priest’s chair. Having seated him in it, he said: ‘Be the powerful incumbent of this seat and the most faithful abbot of this church. And whatever you need, whether for the Divine services or for the sacred Rule, I shall devoutly supply from my royal bounty.’


     Dunstan was placed in charge of the monastery at Glastonbury in the year 943, and immediately instituted the strict application of St. Benedict’s Rule for the monks, thus giving a major impetus to the revival of monasticism in England after the devastation of the Viking wars. He also began to build many new buildings for the monastery in accordance with a vision he had had in childhood.


     Through a vision of evil spirits, the saint prophesied the death of King Edmund. For as he was travelling in the king’s escort, he suddenly saw a black form running among the king’s trumpeters. After gazing at it for a long time in amazement, he turned to his neighbour, ‘Half-King’ Athelstan, the alderman of East Anglia, and said: ‘Beloved, do you see what I see?’ ‘Nothing out of the ordinary,’ he replied. ‘Sign yourself with the sign of the Holy Cross, and then see if you can see what I see,’ said the holy man. When he did this, Athelstan also saw the evil spirit. When they made the sign of the Cross again, the enemy disappeared.


     As they continued on their way, Athelstan asked the saint to what extent this vision of theirs was related to a dream he had had, in which he had seen the king fall asleep while feasting among his nobles, whereupon almost all the chief men and counsellors had turned into sheep and goats. Dunstan immediately replied: ‘The king’s sleep means his death; but the changing of the chief men and counsellors into mute and irrational beasts refers to the future, when almost all the chief men and rulers will of their own accord deviate from the way of truth.’


     As they came to the king’s quarters, they were still discussing these matters. And at dusk on the same day Dunstan again saw the evil spirit wandering among the servants at the king’s banquet. Then, on the very day on which the king was killed, May 26, 946, he saw it for the third time as the king was returning from the Divine Liturgy to the banquet-hall. During the feast, the king saw a man named Liofa, whom he had banished from the kingdom six years before, sitting at a table next to an alderman. He got up and tried to drive the outlaw from the hall, but was stabbed by him and died. The king’s body was taken to Glastonbury, where St. Dunstan performed the funeral service.


     Edmund was succeeded by his brother Edred, who loved Dunstan no less than his predecessors, loading him with honours and submitting to his wise counsel.


     In 953, Bishop Ethelgar of Crediton died; whereupon King Edred tried to persuade the saint to accept the vacant see. But he refused, not wishing to desert the king, whom he loved, for the sake of the episcopate. The king then asked his mother, St. Elgiva, to intercede. So she invited him to a royal banquet and again put forward the same proposal. But he replied: ‘I ask you, lady, not to ask me this again; for I tell you truly: I must not be made a bishop during the lifetime of your son the king.’


     The Lord, however, was not pleased by Dunstan’s refusal, as was revealed to him in a vision that night. For he saw himself returning from a pilgrimage to the apostles’ tombs in Rome and was coming near the Mons Gaudium. Then St. Peter and his fellow apostles Paul and Andrew approached him. Each held in his hand a sword, which they offered him. On Peter’s sword were inscribed the words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Then Andrew sang sweetly from the Gospel: ‘Take My yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.’ Peter then raised a staff which he held in his hand and struck Dunstan lightly on the palm, saying: ‘Take this as a warning not to refuse the yoke of the Lord in future.’ Waking up, the saint asked a monk who was sleeping in the same room who it was that had struck him. He said that he did not know. Dunstan thought for a while, and then said: ‘Now I know, my son, now I know by whom I have been struck.’


     In the morning he recounted his vision to the king, who said: ‘Since the swords you took up with the apostles’ blessing are the weapons of the Holy Spirit, you can be quite certain that through the sword given you by the blessed Peter and inscribed with the word of God, you are to receive the archbishopric from heaven.’ As for the other swords, that given by St. Paul may have signified the see of London, whose cathedral church was dedicated to the apostle and which Dunstan held for a short period before he became archbishop. And that of St. Andrew may have signified the see of Rochester, whose church was dedicated to the First-Called and which Dunstan was called upon to defend in his later years.


     King Edred had been chronically sick throughout his reign, and now he came to die. Feeling his end draw near, he sent a messenger to Dunstan to bring his treasures from Glastonbury, where the saint had been looking after them, to Frome, where the king lay. As Dunstan was riding to Frome, on St. Clement’s day, 955, he suddenly heard a voice from heaven: ‘King Edred now rests in peace.’ At the sound of the voice, his horse, unable to bear the angelic power, fell dead to the ground, astonishing the saint’s companions. When he had explained to them the voice and its meaning, and as they were blessing God and commending the soul of the dead man into the hands of God, messengers came up and confirmed the truth of the voice. And so the walls of the palace were resounding to cries of lamentation as the saint entered. He found the royal corpse abandoned; and so, faithful in death as in life, he performed the funeral service and buried the king in the Old Minster, Winchester.[2]


     The death of King Edred marked the end of the peaceful part of St. Dunstan’s tenure of the Glastonbury abbacy. For he was succeeded by Edwig, the son of King Edmund - a rash youth under the influence of a mother and daughter, both named Elgiva, who wanted him to choose one of them to be his wife. This wanton behaviour of the king was to bring him into conflict with the saint…


     Now the time came for the anointing and consecration of the new king after his election by the people. The ceremony was duly performed, but then the king had no time to attend the banquet with his nobles and bishops, but immediately ran after the loose women. When the holy Archbishop Oda saw that the king’s wilfulness on the day of his coronation displeased all the counsellors sitting around, he said to his fellow-bishops and the other leading men: ‘Let some of you, pray, go and fetch the king, so that he may, as is fitting, be a pleasant companion to his followers at the royal banquet.’ But one by one, fearing to incur the king’s wrath or the women’s complaint, they began to demur. Finally, they chose from among them two whom they knew to be strong in spirit – Abbot Dunstan and Bishop Cynesige, a kinsman of Dunstan’s, to go in obedience to the command of all and bring back the king, whether he wished it or not.


     Entering the king’s chamber in accordance with their superiors’ command, Dunstan and Cynesige found the king’s crown, which was bound with gold, silver and precious stones, and shone with a many-coloured light, carelessly thrown on the floor far away from his head, while the king himself wallowed between the two women as if he were in a pig-sty. They said to him: ‘Our nobles have sent us to you to ask you to come as quickly as possible to your proper seat, and not to scorn to be present at the joyful banquet of your chief men.’ But when the king did not want to rise, Dunstan, after first rebuking the folly of the women, drew him by his hand from his licentious reclining with them, replaced the crown on his head, and brought him with him to the royal assembly by force.


     Like Jezabel of old, the elder Elgiva now conceived a violent hatred for Dunstan and obtained the consent of the king to deprive him of all his honours and possessions, and to expel him from the kingdom. Dunstan’s friends and supporters were also persecuted. Elgiva even sent secret agents to kill Dunstan before he could leave the country. But he eluded her grasp, and made a speedy passage to the continent. There he was kindly received by Count Arnulf of Flanders, staying in the Abbey of St. Peter in Ghent.


     The saint did not cease to weep and groan day and night, thinking of his country and the spiritual condition of his monastery. One night, he dreamed that he was with a group of brethren as they were coming to the end of the Vespers psalms. After the canticle, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’, they began to sing the antiphon from Job: ‘Why have ye disparaged his truthful words, and composed speeches to reprove him, and…’ At this point the chant stopped and they all fell silent; nor was he able to persuade them to complete either the words or the melody. Several times they went back to the same point in the chant, never did they say the last words. And he, rebuking them in the same vision, said: ‘Why do you not want to end the antiphon with the words: “what ye have had in mind ye discharge”?’ Then came the Divine reply: ‘Because, I say, they will never discharge what they are striving for in their minds – to tear you away from the government of this monastery.’ Waking up, the saint gave thanks to God the Most High, his Comforter. And indeed, some of the people in the vision turned out later to have been plotting against him in secret.


     King Edwig married the younger Elgiva, although the union was within the forbidden degrees of kinship. As a result, the northern parts of the English kingdom, Mercia and Northumbria, rebelled against him, and chose his brother Edgar as their king. And in the next year Archbishop Oda dissolved his marriage. When Elgiva tried to rejoin the king, she was caught by men from the north; they severed the muscles and sinews of her lower limbs, and she died in agony a few days later. Finally, Edwig died, and when Edgar reunited the kingdom under his sole rule, he recalled Dunstan from exile…[3]


     Edgar ‘the Peaceable’ ascended the throne in 958. In the same year St. Dunstan was made Bishop of Worcester. Then, in 959, he was transferred to the see of London. And in 960 he was elected Archbishop of Canterbury.


     After Dunstan had been elected archbishop, he set off, like all English archbishops-elect, for Rome, to receive the pallium (omophorion) from the Pope. On his return, he immediately set about spreading the monastic reforms which he had initiated at Glastonbury; and he found the king a willing helper in this holy task. Already, as Bishop of London, he had founded a small monastery of twelve monks at Westminster with St. Wulsin as abbot. Now he appointed his disciples Saints Aethelwold and Oswald to the sees of Winchester and Worcester respectively; and under their vigorous leadership the south of England was soon covered with Benedictine monasteries.


     In King Edgar’s reign, England reached the peak of her glory as an Orthodox kingdom, founded on a strong monastic revival supported by a powerful king and a sainted archbishop. The relationship between them was truly symphonic, but with a particularly strong role assigned to the king: “I have in my hand the sword of Constantine; you hold that of Peter,” wrote King Edgar to Dunstan in 967. “Let us join our right hands sword to sword, so that the sanctuary of God may be cleansed.”[4]


     The truly ‘symphonic’ cooperation of King Edgar and Archbishop Dunstan laid the foundation of a golden age in the history of the Anglo-Saxon Church. This age had been prophesied by a heavenly voice which St. Dunstan had heard in 943, at the birth of Edgar: ‘Peace to England as long as this child reigns, and our Dunstan survives.’ ‘The succession of events,’ wrote William of Malmesbury, ‘was in unison with the heavenly oracle; to such an extent did ecclesiastical glory flourish and martial clamour decay while he was alive.’


     Edgar’s first anointing had taken place in 960 or 961. For many years he was not allowed to wear his crown in penance for a sin he had committed. But in 973, the penance came to an end, and at the age of thirty (perhaps not coincidentally, the canonical age for episcopal ordination in the West) he was anointed again, this time as “Emperor of Britain” in the ancient Roman city of Bath (again not coincidentally, for Edgar was emphasising the imperial, Roman theme). In the same year, again emphasising the imperial theme, he was rowed on the River Dee by six or eight sub-kings, include five Welsh and Scottish rulers and one ruler of the Western Isles.[5] “This was a move,” writes Lavelle, “that recalled the actions of his great-uncle Athelstan, the successful ruler of Britain, but it was also an English parallel to the tenth-century coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto of Germany, in which the stem-dukes had undertaken the task of feeding the emperor.”[6]


     Edgar’s adoption of the trappings of Romanitas was not without foundation. The economy was strong, the tax and legal systems were sophisticated, the coinage was secure (with an impressive system of monetary renewal whereby all coins issued from the royal mints had to be returned and reissued every five years). England was now a firmly Orthodox, multi-national state composed of three Christian peoples, Anglo-Saxons, Celts and Danes, living in mutual amity. She was at peace at home and respected abroad, spreading her influence in a beneficial way through missions to the Norwegians and Swedes. 


     If St. Dunstan was the leader of the monastic revival, its most powerful executive, as it were, was his disciple, St. Aethelwold. It was while Aethelwold was prior of the monastery at Glastonbury that St. Dunstan had a prophetic dream about him. Wulfstan, a pupil of Aethelwold’s at Winchester, relates that Dunstan was sitting outside the monastery dormitory when he saw “a certain tree as if it were of wondrous height. It seemed to spread its branches east, west, north, and south, over the entire region of Britain, astonishingly extensive in its length and breadth. The branches of this tree were laden with countless cones, large and small, while the tree itself bore at the very top a huge cone which, rising above, protected the others with the covering of its scales, and surpassing them all together with its great height, touched the very sky. But the man of the Lord, Dunstan, very astonished by such a vision from above, questioned the elder adorned with white angelic hair, who was pointing this tree out to him, and said: ‘I beseech you, venerable elder, what is this strong and lofty tree whose branches spreading out far and wide seem to support so many countless cones?’ The elder answered him: ‘This tree which you see, Abbot Dunstan, represents the site of this island; moreover, the great cone which rises on the pinnacle of this tree represents your monk Aethelwold who serves Christ devoutly in this monastery. Now the other cones with which these branches appear laden represent the multitude of monks who are to be instructed by his learning and who are to be gathered together in this area from all regions for the service of Almighty God. Under his leadership they will reach the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven and the fellowship of the blessed spirits who reign with Christ.’ Having received this reply, the holy man awoke and reflected silently upon the vision, and afterwards made it known to the faithful by a true account. The report of the vision, spreading with the passage of time, became known to many and at length came also to my humble notice.


     “And it was also no less fitting,” continues Wulfstan, “that another dream be fulfilled which Aethelwold, the holy man of God, once related to me concerning himself, saying: ‘I thought that I was standing by the sea shore where it seemed to me that there appeared a certain great ship, in which there was contained a plentiful number of fish, especially eels, heaped up from the bottom to the top. And when I silently considered the meaning of this vision which I saw, I suddenly heard a voice calling me by my own name, and saying to me: “Aethelwold, Aethelwold, this command has been sent to you by God from heaven: Call forth those fish, with which the ship that you perceive is filled, and bring it about by your prayers that they may be men, just as they were before.” Thereupon, complying with this command I stood before them to pray and overcome with a shower of tears, I said sighing: “Lord Jesus, for Whom nothing is impossible, look favourably upon these souls deceived by diabolical trickery, who have been alienated from the slimy mud of this world. I beseech Thee, Good Jesus, do not allow the enemy of the human race to glory in his triumph over them, but grant that, through the almighty power of Thy Name, they may be restored to life, so that, escaping the sleep of eternal death, they may acknowledge Thee as the true and only Saviour of the world, and thereafter, always fleeing towards the peaceful gate of salvation, may be rescued from all dangers of the world and remain secure under Thy governance. For it is Thine, O Christ, to make the dead live, and to restore to its former glory Thine own image which Thou hast created. Thou camest into this world to save sinners and having suffered the dreadful punishment of death on the Cross, Thou didst deign to pour forth Thy precious Blood for the salvation of us all.” When I uttered these and similar words of prayer with a remorseful heart and spirit of humility, behold the fish which I had seen before covered in the filthy mud and in the waters of misery, I suddenly saw made into men and revived from death. There arose from the ship and proceeded hastily to land a great multitude of men, many of whom I had known personally. One man among them who fell behind was transformed again into an eel. Without doubt he was that Athelstan, who had long ago been ordained priest with me, and whom thereafter I had been unable to rouse by any means or to bring it about that he might become a man. Indeed, all the others with one accord raised their voices to heaven, clapping their hands and offering thanks to Almighty God because through His ineffable mercy and my insignificant coming, they were worthy to be recalled from death to life and to be restored to human reasoning which they had lost. But I, rejoicing in God and wishing them joy, awoke, and thus I recall this vision for you, my children, so that with the labour of good works you may persevere in the holy purpose; whereby, through the grace of God, you are able to be counted in the number of those who have been entrusted to me, although I am unworthy, so that they may be freed from the unclean abyss of this world and be saved in eternal blessedness without end.’”[7]


     After some time, the saint wished to go overseas to Cluny to learn more about the monastic life. However, the Dowager-Queen Elgiva, King Edred’s mother, was against this (Aethelwold later sent the monk Osgar to Fleury instead of himself); and she persuaded her son to give Aethelwold the derelict monastery at Abingdon, together with a large area of land to support it. And so, with St. Dunstan’s blessing, the saint went to Abingdon, and set about rebuilding the monastery. He was ordained as abbot at the king’s request.


     “Under Aethelwold,” writes Andrew Prescott, “Abingdon grew into a ‘glorious minster’. One of his first actions was to establish a school, and the future King Edgar studied there. Aethelwold’s reputation for sanctity and strict observance attracted men from all over the country to follow the monastic life at Abingdon. He established contact with reformers on the Continent, and sought to ensure that observance at Abingdon was in line with the most up-to-date Continental practice. Monks from the reformed monasteries at Fleury and Corbie came to Abingdon to instruct their English counterparts in the forms of chanting. The monastery’s endowments were substantially increased, particularly by gifts of royal land. A magnificent new church was built, furnished in the most sumptuous fashion. A twelfth-century description of the church states that ‘the chancel was round, the church itself was also round, having twice the length of the chancel. The tower also was found.’ It has been suggested that this means that the church was an aisled rotunda, recalling the royal symbolism of the palatine chapel at Aachen. Aethelwold himself is said to have built the altar table, which was made of gold and silver, decorated with the sculpted figures of the twelve apostles. It cost the enormous sum of three hundred pounds. Also attributed to Aethelwold was a gold-plated wheel which supported twelve lamps and from which were suspended little bells. Other treasures of the church included three crosses of gold and silver, each four feet in length, and texts to adorn the church made of silver and precious stones. Most of these treasures were destroyed or dispersed after the Norman Conquest [in 1066]…”[8]


     Once, as Abbot Aelfric relates, “the king came to the monastery to plan himself the structure of the buildings, and he measured out all the foundations of the monastery with his own hand, exactly as he had determined to erect the walls. Then the abbot invited him to dine in the refectory with his men. The king agreed immediately; and since there were several Northumbrians with him at the time, they all came with the king to the feast. The king was merry, and ordered mead to be supplied in abundance to the guests, having closed the doors so that no one could hurry away and leave the drinking at the royal banquet. The whole day the servers drew drink for the revellers in full measure, and yet a span’s depth remained until the Northumbrians were swinishly drunk and withdrew in the evening.”[9]


     Once a brother named Aelfstan (the future Bishop Aelfstan I of Ramsbury) was ordered by the saint to provide food for the builders of the monastery. He very zealously prepared meat every day for the workmen, and personally served them, kindling the fire, fetching water and cleaning the vessels, while the abbot thought that he did all this with the help of a servant. One day, while the abbot was wandering around the monastery as was his custom, he was Aelfstan standing by a boiling cauldron, preparing food for the workmen. Then, entering the kitchen, he saw all the vessels spotless and the floor swept. Going up to Aelfstan, he said joyfully: ‘My brother, you have robbed me of this obedience which you practise without my knowledge. But if you are as much of a soldier of Christ as you seem, put your hand in the boiling water and draw out a bit of food for me from the bottom.’ Without hesitating, Aelfstan put his hand to the bottom of the cauldron and drew out a hot morsel, feeling no heat from the boiling water. When the saint saw this, he ordered Aelfstan to put down the food and reveal the miracle to no one.


     Another time, the saint was working on the building when a huge post fell on him and threw him into a pit, breaking nearly all his ribs on one side. If the pit had not received him, he would have been completely crushed. However, with the help of God he recovered.


     On November 29, 963, before the building at Abingdon was completed, Aethelwold was consecrated Bishop of Winchester by St. Dunstan at the king’s request.


     On arriving at his see, Aethelwold found the Old Minster occupied by secular clergy, who, as Wulfstan writes, “were involved in wicked and scandalous behaviour, victims of pride, insolence and riotous living to such a degree that some of them did not think fit to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in due order. They married wives illicitly, divorced them, and took others; they were constantly given to gourmandising and drunkenness.’ With King Edgar’s permission, he expelled these clerics, and replaced them with monks from Abingdon. “Now it happened,” writes Abbot Aelfric, “that while the monks who had come from Abingdon were standing at the entrance to the church, the clerics inside were finishing the Divine Liturgy and singing the communion hymn: ‘Serve ye the Lord with fear, and rejoice in Him with trembling. Lay hold of instruction, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and ye perish from the righteous way.’ As if they were saying: ‘We could not serve God, nor observe His discipline; you at least act so that you not perish like us.’ And the monks, hearing the singing, said to each other: ‘Why are we waiting outside? Look, we are exhorted to enter.’”


     St. Aethelwold also came, together with a thegn of King Edgar’s called Wulfstan of Dalham. Wulfstan gave the clerics the royal ultimatum: either give place to the monks or become monks yourselves. The clerics, no lovers of the monastic life, decided to leave, although three of them, Edsige, Wulfsige and Wilstan, later accepted the monastic tonsure. “Such ruthless action,” writes Prescott, “in pursuit of introducing new standards of religious life earned Aethelwold enemies, and there was afterwards at least one attempt to murder him. According to Wulfstan, the expelled canons plotted to poison Aethelwold and recover their old places. They poisoned Aethelwold while he was entertaining guests in his own hall. He managed to stagger to his bed, but became completely paralysed. [However,]… by bringing to mind declarations of Christ, such as that ‘if believers drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them’, Aethelwold found that the pain and paralysis caused by the poison gradually disappeared. He returned to the hall showing no signs of his terrible experience. The canons, recognising that they could not defeat Aethelwold, fled.”


     However, they had not yet given up the fight. They appealed to the king, who in turn referred the matter to St. Dunstan, who then asked the king to convene a Council in Winchester. This took place in about the year 970 in the presence of the king and queen, nobles and clergy. The final decision was announced by St. Dunstan: ‘This Old Minster was founded as a habitation for monks. Let those who benefit from its revenues live henceforth as true monks.’ It is said that during the Council, when the possibility of restoring the secular clergy to the Old Minster was being discussed, a cross spoke from the wall: ‘Far be it from you! You have done well; to change again would be wrong.’


     Besides this, the Council decided on the establishment of a slightly modified form of the Rule of St. Benedict, the Regularis Concordia (Agreement of the Rules), for all the monastics of England. Up to that time, there had been different versions of the rule in different parts of the country. But now a single Rule was agreed on to ensure that “all be of one mind as regards monastic usage… lest differing ways of observing the customs of one rule and one country should bring their holy conversation into disrepute’. The monks were to be under the patronage of the king, and the nuns – of the queen. Composed in about 973, writes Ryan Lavelle, “the Regularis Concordia,… was intended as a rulebook and liturgical guide for English monks and nuns, but it was also a bold statement of the relationship between God, the king and a Christian people. The king and queen were seen as protectors of monks and nuns in the temporal world, while, in return, the souls of the West Saxon royal family were protected with prayers by the same monks and nuns. The positions of the king and queen were therefore inextricably linked with the survival of Christianity in the kingdom. This was part of a process of legitimising royal power to an extent that was hitherto unparalleled in Anglo-Saxon England. The king had become part of the ecclesiastical order in a coronation ceremony that made him God’s representative on earth. The original meaning of Christ’s name, Christus meant ‘the anointed [king]’, and the inauguration of Edgar used an ordo (an order of service) that put Edgar on a similar level – directly anointed by God. The monastic reform movement gave this a new impetus…”[10]


     King Edgar supported Aethelwold’s reforms in Winchester, not only in the Old Minster, but also in the New Minster, as well as in the women’s Nunnaminster. “The three abbeys,” writes Eleanor Duckett, “stood on adjoining lands, the New Minster a little to the north of the Old, and the Nuns’ Minster a little on the east. Trouble was constant among them. They were jealous of possessions; they disputed the lines of their boundaries; they declared respectively that they could not sing their office in the proper manner because of the noise of chanting from their monastic neighbours. King Edgar at Aethelwold’s petition issued an order for an exact division among them and even tore down the houses of private citizens nearby in order that space might be given for the monks of Winchester ‘for living more peacefully in God’s service, removed from the clamour of townspeople’. Such action was hard for the townspeople, yet Aethelwold in the end also did them untold good. With extraordinary imagination and practical skill he made his engineers and their workmen conduct a sorely needed supply of water by channels through the streets of Winchester to cloisters and to private homes alike.”[11]


     The influence of the holy bishop extended far beyond the bounds of the see of Winchester. Through his efforts, and with the help of King Edgar, three great monasteries of Eastern England, Peterborough, Ely and Thorney were revived; he placed his monk Godeman as abbot in Thorney. Land was bought and cleared, abbots of stricter discipline imported, and the veneration of forgotten local saints revived.


     Duckett has described the re-founding of Thorney thus: “This ‘Isle of Thorns’ in the midst of the waters of the great marsh had once been, it was said, the home of three hermits, Tancred and Torhtred, and their sister, Tova, who settled to her prayer a little distance from them, in the heart of the thickets. They were following, we may think, in the line of a few adventurers in religion who had come in the seventh century from Medeshamstede [Peterborough], having gained permission from their abbot, Saxulf, to retreat into this deeper solitude. In the time of these brothers and their sister the Danes arrived to destroy. The tradition of Aethelwold relates that he bought the ruins the Danes had left from their owner, Aethelflaed [Ethelfleda], that he installed some monks – and the number is given as twelve – and built for them in 972-3 an abbey with its church, dedicating the altar at the east end to our Lady, the west end to Saint Peter, and a chapel in the north transept to Saint Benedict. This account points to an altar at either end, after Carolingian fashion.”


     To Ely, which Edgar and Aethelwold refounded as a monastery for men, another Abingdon monk Brihtnoth, was brought as abbot. Ely was the home of the incorrupt body of St. Etheldreda. However, not content with having the relics of St. Etheldreda and her holy sisters Sexburga and Ermenhilda, Brihtnoth also desired the relics of the fourth sister, the hermitess St. Withburga. So, after fasting and prayer, he and some of his monks travelled to the little monastery of East Dereham in Norfolk, where St. Withburga had struggled. Then he carried off the holy relics, to the displeasure of the monks and citizens of Dereham.


     St. Aethelwold probably also helped in the reform of monasteries at Milton (Dorset), St. Neot’s (Cambridgeshire) and Chertsey (Surrey).


     But he never allowed church-building to get in the way of almsgiving. Thus during a famine he ordered the treasures of the Church to be broken down to make money for the poor, saying: “What is lifeless metal compared with bodies and souls created and redeemed by God?”


     The third major figure in the monastic revival was St. Oswald, Bishop of Worcester and Archishop of York. Our holy Father Oswald was the son of Danish convert parents, and was the nephew of St. Oda of Canterbury. After a certain time spent in a monastery in Winchester, he went for five or six years to the Benedictine monastery of Fleury-on-Loire. There he acquired a thorough knowledge of Benedictine monasticism and the writings of the Holy Fathers, distinguishing himself by his humility, obedience and the austerity of his life.


     In 958, when St. Oda was dying, he called his nephew, who was now a priest, to his bedside. But when Oswald arrived at Dover from France, he heard that the saint had already reposed. He decided not to return to Fleury, but to go north to York, where another relative of his, Oscetel, was archbishop. Oscetel introduced him to St. Dunstan, and he, much impressed, introduced him to the king. And so, supported by both king and primate, he was elected to the bishopric of Worcester in 961. There he soon became the object of great love and veneration by the citizens.


     Eleanor Duckett writes: “The Cathedral at Worcester was dedicated to Saint Peter. Since it was very small, it soon could not hold the people who came flocking to hear this new pastor preach. Outside it, on a side, level tract of ground, stood a little stone shrine, with a cross of top, marking the burial-place of Wifred and his wife Alta, benefactors of Saint Peter’s. To this open space Oswald moved his congregation and taught as best he could, standing beside the old tomb. Soon the crowds compelled the building of a new and larger church; and when at last this was ready, the bishop consecrated it in honour of Mary, Mother of God. Then the little Saint Peter’s, which before Oswald’s coming had seen secular clergy in its choir, offered its services in union with this more splendid cathedral.”


     Meanwhile, in 962, Oswald had founded his first monastery, at Westbury-on-Trim, establishing in it, and later in Worcester, the regular Benedictine discipline. This was the first of several monasteries that he founded or re-founded in the Severn valley. At Westbury, as well as at the restored monastery of Winchcombe, he placed his disciple Germanus as abbot. And at Pershore he installed an abbot named Fordbricht, who had been trained under St. Dunstan at Glastonbury and St. Aethelwold at Abingdon. Pershore was enriched by some relics of St. Edburga, and was henceforth dedicated to SS. Mary, Peter and Paul, and Edburga.


     But Oswald’s most famous foundation was outside his diocese, deep in the fen-country of Huntingdonshire – Ramsey. Here, in 971, he introduced monks from Westbury and the famous scholar Abo of Fleury (who wrote the Vita Edmundi), and translated the relics of St. Felix of Dunwich and the holy Martyr-Princes Ethelbert and Ethelbricht of Kent. The land was donated by the pious alderman of East Anglia, Aethelwine.


     Once both Oswald and Aethelwine came to a feast at Ramsey monastery. “There is an ancient tradition,” writes Oswald’s biographer, an anonymous monk of Ramsey, “that the whole of the main body of the congregation processed barefoot to the church of the Blessed Ever-Virgin Birth-Giver of God Mary, which custom was followed by the chief man [Aethelwine] as he walked with us with joyful heart together with his soldiers, the monks and the boys. But next to the church to which we had to go was a bridge, which we crossed on the way out. So on the way back we wanted to go quickly home by sailing across in a boat together with the precious relics. When the Liturgy was over, the prelate blessed the people; and we hastened to return home. But the boat was overloaded. When we were in the middle of the deep lake, and were about to sink, and the prelate was standing on the bank surrounded by his own people, he heard the sound of voices: ‘Saint Benedict, help us!’ On hearing this, he asked the reason, and on ascertaining it he raised his holy right hand and said, trusting in the Lord: ‘May the blessing of Christ come upon us from above.’ His clear voice came to the ears of the most merciful Redeemer more speedily than you could have finished the verse; and all were brought safely to land.”[12]


     In 972, the saint was made archbishop of York while retaining the bishopric of Worcester until his death – a unique situation that testified to the honour in which he was held. This appointment gave him a vast sphere of influence, but also great responsibilities and difficulties in a province where, as we have seen, Christianity and paganism were still struggling for predominance. Since St. Oswald was of Danish parentage, and, moreover, related to Oscetel, he was well equipped to continue in the English Autocracy’s tradition of racial reconciliation and missionary activity. However, the fact that he did not found a single monastery in his northern diocese shows the difficulty of the task he faced; and during the anti-monastic reaction during the reign of Edward the Martyr this diocese suffered as much as any. Thus in a memorandum on the estates of York, he states: “I, Archbishop Oswald, declare that all these lands which Archbishop Oscetel obtained in Northumbria, and which my lord granted me for St. Peter’s when he was at Nottingham, together with these other lands which are entered here besides, I had them all until [?] ascended. Then St. Peter was robbed of them. May God avenge it as He will.”


     St. Dunstan died on May 19, 988, St. Aethelwold – on August 1, 984, and St. Oswald – on February 28, 992. The three great monastic founders and reformers, who occupied the three most important episcopal sees in the country, not only strengthened the spiritual life of the English nation immeasurably, but also strengthened the Autocracy that held the kingdom together. But the murder of King Edgar’s son Edward was to signal the beginning of the end both of the English Orthodox Church and of the English Autocracy…


[1] The main sources used in this chapter are: W. Stubbs, Memorials of St. Dunstan, Rolls series, 1874, containing the earliest “Vita Dunstani” by Saxon priest B. (c. 1000) and the eleventh-century Lives by Abelard, Osbert and Edmer; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum and De Antiquitate Glastoniae Ecclesiae, 2; Eleanor Duckett, Saint Dunstan of Canterbury, London: Collins, 1955; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 112, 119-120, 140-142, 305-307; Christopher Brooks, The Saxon and Norman Kings, London: Fontana, 1963, pp. 127-128; Andrew Prescott, The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold, London: The British Library, 2002, pp. 2-8; Abbot Aelfric, Vita Ethelwoldi, in Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents, London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1955; Denis Brearley and Marianne Goodfellow, “Wulfstan’s Life of Saint Ethelwold: A Translation with Notes,” Revue de l’Universite d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 397-407; Anonymous, Vita Oswaldi, in J. Raine, Historians of the Church of York, Rolls series, 1874, vol. 1, pp. 399-475; Edmer, Miracula Sancti Oswaldi Archiepiscopi, in Raine, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 1-59; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 118, 305-307.

[2] Adelard, (Vita Dunstani, in W. Stubbs, Memorials of St. Dunstan, Rolls series, 1874, p. 58) says that Edred was buried in the Old Minster. However, David Farmer (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1988, p. 112) claims that he was buried in Glastonbury.


[4] Oratio Edgari regis, P.L. 138, 515D-516A.

[5] Some see in this event less a submission of the northern kings to Edgar as a kind of peace treaty between them. Be that as it may, it is true to say that the power of the Anglo-Saxon kings never really extended into Scotland, where a native dynasty founded by Kenneth MacAlpin (840-858) “destroyed the last Pictish kings, and imposed Gaelic customs and the Gaelic language throughout the kingdom of Alba” (Ann Williams, “Britain AD 1000”, History Today, vol. 50 (3), March, 2000, p. 34). One of these Scottish Orthodox kings was Macbeth (+1057), made famous by the hero of Shakespeare’s play. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he “scattered money like seed among the poor”.

[6] Lavelle, op. cit., p. 31.

[7] Denis Brearley and Marianne Goodfellow, “Wulfstan’s Life of Saint Aethelwold: A Translation with Notes,” Revue de l’Universite d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 397-407.

[8] Andrew Prescott, The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold, London: The British Library, 2002, pp. 2-8.

[9] Abbot Aelfric, Vita Aethelwoldi, in Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents, London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1955.

[10] Lavelle, Aethelred II: King of the English 978-1016, Stroud: Tempus, 1002, p. 29.

[11] Eleanor Duckett, Saint Dunstan of Canterbury, London: Collins, 1955

[12] Anonymous, Vita Oswaldi, in J. Raine, Historians of the Church of York, Rolls series, 1874, vol. 1, pp. 399-475

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