Written by Vladimir Moss



     These brother bishops, who were among the last ecclesiastical opponents of the Norman-papist conquest of England in 1066-70, were successively bishops of the northern English see of Durham, where the relics of the great saints of north, St. Oswald, St. Cuthbert and St. Bede resided.


     St. Aethelric was a monk at Peterborough Abbey before Bishop Eadmund of Durham brought him to Durham to instruct the Durham monks in the monastic life. He was consecrated Bishop of Durham on January 11, 1041 at York. After the death of Earl Siward of Northumbria, St. Aethelric’s protector, in 1055, and the appointment of the violent and unpopular Earl Tostig in his place, conditions deteriorated in the northern province and Aethelric, under pressure from the unruly monks of Durham, was forced to resign his see and retire to Peterborough Abbey in 1056.


     He was replaced by his brother Aethelwine. In 1059, St. Aethelwine went with Earl Tostig, Archbishop Cynesige of York and King Malcolm III of Scotland to the court of King Edward the Confessor. In 1065 he oversaw the translation of the relics of Martyr-King Oswine of Deira to his cathedral in Durham. Æthelwine, like his brother, was unpopular with the clergy of his cathedral, mainly because he was an outsider and had been installed in office without any input from the cathedral chapter. In 1065, the monks of Æthelwine's cathedral chapter were leaders in a revolt against Earl Tostig, which was successful, forcing Tostig to flee abroad, although Æthelwine remained as bishop.


     After the Norman-papist conquest of England in 1066, the brother-bishops initially submitted to the new King William. St. Æthelwine also brought word from King Malcolm that the Scottish king wished to live in peace with the new English king.King William sent Æthelwine back to Malcolm's court with William's terms, which were accepted.


     However, the relationship of both brother-bishops to William changed in 1069, when the Northumbrians rebelled against the Normans and King William marched north to subdue them in a horrific campaign of genocide that left the north devastated for generations. St. Æthelwine solemnly cursed the invader, and then fled with many Northumbrian treasures (including the body of St. Cuthbert) to Scotland.[1]


     As Orderic Vitalis wrote, “the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed”… 


     In 1071 the last remnants of the English resistance, led by Earls Edwin, Morcar and Siward and joined by Bishop Aethelwine, sought refuge in the island monastery of Ely in East Anglia. There, under the leadership of Hereward the Wake, they made frequent sallies against William's men. When William heard of this, he invested the island and started to build a causeway towards it. At Pascha 1071, William attacked Peterborough, plundered its treasures, and then proceeded to do the same at the great island monastery of Ely, which became the scene of the last stand of the Free English.


     However, Hereward's men put up a strong resistance, and the "most Christian" King William then resorted to a most infamous tactic - he called in a witch, put her onto a tower over the fens and ordered her to cast spells on the English. But this, too, failed to work - the English launched a successful counter-attack, and the witch fell from her tower and broke her neck. Finally, it was through the abbot and monks (with the connivance of Earl Morcar) that William conquered the stronghold; for, considering it "their sacred duty," as the Book of Ely put it, "to maintain their magnificent temple of God and St. Etheldreda", they came to terms with William, and in exchange for promises that their lands would be restored and confirmed, they guided the Normans secretly into the rebel stronghold.[2]


     Hereward and his men escaped; but others did not. As Kightly writes, many must have wondered "whether surrender had been such a good idea after all. 'The king caused all the defenders to be brought before him, first the leaders and then anyone else of rank or fame. Some he sent to perpetual imprisonment' - among them the deluded Morcar, Siward and Bishop Aethelwine - 'others he condemned to lose their eyes, their hands or their feet' - William rarely hanged men, preferring to give them time for repentance - 'while most of the lesser folk he released unpunished.' Then, to ensure that Ely would not trouble him again, he ordered that a castle be built in the monastic precinct (where its mound still stands)..."[3]


     "Next, going to the abbey, 'he stood as far as possible from the tomb of the holy Etheldreda, and threw a gold piece to her altar: he dared not go any closer, because he feared the judgement of God on the wrong he was doing to her shrine.' And well he might, for though the monks kept their estates and their English abbot, King William soon found an excuse to levy an immense fine on them, so that they were forced to sell almost all the adornments of their church: when their payment proved a few coins short, he increased his demands still further, and they lost the few treasures that remained. 'But even after all this,' mourns the Ely Book, 'no one believed that they would be left in peace' - and nor were they."[4]


     The fates of the rebels were various. After further adventures, Hereward was eventually reconciled with William… But St. Aethelwine was caught, outlawed and imprisoned in Abingdon. He later died of hunger in the winter of 1071-72. Meanwhile, his brother Aethelric, who had been living in retirement in Peterborough, was arrested, condemned for "piracy" and imprisoned in Westminster Abbey. There he lived for two more years "in voluntary poverty and a wealth of tears"[5], and was never reconciled with William. He died on October 15, 1072, was buried in the chapel of St. Nicholas, and was very soon considered a saint, miracles being wrought at his tomb.[6] For "those who had known him when living," writes William of Malmesbury, "transmitted his memory to their children, and to this day [c. 1120] neither visitors nor supplicants are wanting at his tomb."[7]


     Another English leader, Earl Waltheof, should be mentioned. He had joined the rebellion of the Northumbrians in 1069, but then submitted to William and married his daughter Judith, accepting the earldom of Northumbria. “After the capture of Ely,” writes Peter Rex, he “was given many of the estates forfeited by the rebels. He was to remain in office until his involvement in the Rising of the Earls in 1075.”[8] He was beheaded at Winchester on May 31, 1076, just as he finished praying: “... and lead us not into temptation.” “And then, goes the story, in the hearing of all, the head, in a clear voice, finished the prayer, ‘But deliver us from evil. Amen.’” He was buried at Crowland, and according to Abbot Wulfketyl of Crowland many miracles took place at his tomb, including the rejoining of his head to his body.[9] However, veneration of him as a saint was not permitted by the Norman authorities: Abbot Wulketyl was tried for idolatry (!) before a council in London, defrocked, and banished to Glastonbury...[10]


May 26, 2019.

St. Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury.

St. Bede the Venerable.




[1] “His first idea had been to go into exile, perhaps at Cologne, but storms frustrated that idea” (Peter Rex, Hereward, Stroud: Amberley, 2013, p. 186.

[2]Charles Kightly, "The English Resistance", in Folk Heroes of Britain, London: Thames & Hudson, 1982, pp. 133-134. 

[3]Kightly, op. cit., p. 139.

[4]Kightly, op. cit., p. 140.

[5]William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, III, 131.

[6]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D, 1073; E, 1072.

[7]William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, III, 131.

[8] Rex, The English Resistance, Stroud: Tempus, 2004, p. 184. However, Ordericus Vitalis and Lanfranc considered him innocent. Bradbury thinks he was guilty of failing to reveal the conspiracy of which he was aware (op. cit., p. 172).

[9]William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum; Scott, op. cit., p. 204.

[10]For a more detailed history of the English resistance to the Norman-papist invasion, see Peter Rex, The English Resistance: The Underground War against the Normans, Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company