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Woman under Monasticism By Lina Eckenstein Characters: 86799

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

'Ecce catervim glomerant ad bella phalanges

Justitiae comites et virtutum agmina sancta.'

Ealdhelm, De laude Virginum.

§ 1. Early Houses in Kent.

The early history of the convent life of women in Anglo-Saxon England is chiefly an account of foundations. Information on the establishment of religious settlements founded and presided over by women is plentiful, but well-nigh a century went by before women who had adopted religion as a profession gave any insight into their lives and characters through writings of their own. The women who founded monasteries in Anglo-Saxon England have generally been raised to the rank of saint.

'In the large number of convents as well as in the names of female saints among the Anglo-Saxons,' says Lappenberg[232], 'we may recognise the same spirit which attracted the notice of the Roman army among the ancient Germans, and was manifested in the esteem and honour of women generally, and in the special influence exercised by the priestess.'

A great proportion of the women who founded religious houses were members of ruling families. From the first it was usual for a princess to receive a grant of land from her husband on the occasion of her marriage, and this land together with what she inherited from her father she could dispose of at will. She often devoted this property to founding a religious house where she established her daughters, and to which she retired either during her husband's lifetime or after his death. The great honour paid by Christianity to the celibate life and the wide field of action opened to a princess in a religious house were strong inducements to the sisters and daughters of kings to take the veil.

We have trustworthy information about many of the Anglo-Saxon women who founded and presided over religious settlements and whom posterity reverenced as saints; for their work has been described by writers who either knew them, or gained their information from those who did. But there are other women whose names only are mentioned in charters, or correspondence, or in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Historians however welcome such references as chronological evidence and as proofs of these women's real existence; without them they would have nothing to rely upon but accounts dating from a later period and often consisting of little more than a series of incidents strung together in order to explain the miracles with which the saints' relics were locally credited. There is a certain similarity between these later accounts and those we have of pseudo-saints, but they differ from those of an earlier date, for the writers of the 8th and 9th centuries were not actuated like those of a later period by the desire to give a miraculous rendering of fact. Bede (? 735) stands pre-eminent among the earlier writers, and our admiration for him increases as we discover his immense superiority to other early historians.

Most of the women who were honoured as saints in England belong to the first hundred years after the acceptance of Christianity in these islands. A few other women have been revered as saints who lived in the 10th century and came under the influence of the monastic revival which is associated with the name of Dunstan (? 988). But no woman living during Anglo-Norman times has been thus honoured, for the desire to raise women to saintship was essentially Anglo-Saxon and was strongest in the times which immediately followed the acceptance of Christianity.

It was more than two hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons first set foot on British shores that they accepted Christianity. The struggles between them and the inhabitants of the island had ended in the recognised supremacy of the invaders, and bands of heathen Germans, settling at first near the shore, for the sake of the open country, had gradually made their way up the fruitful valleys and into adjoining districts till they covered the land with a network of settlements. After the restlessness of invasion and warfare the Anglo-Saxons settled down to domestic life and agriculture, for compared with the British they were eminently tillers of the soil. Under their régime the cities built by the Romans and the British fastnesses alike fell into decay. The Anglo-Saxons dwelt in villages, and the British either lived there in subservience to them or else retired into districts of their own which were difficult of access.

The re-introduction of Christianity into these islands is associated with the name of Pope Gregory. Zealous and resolute in his efforts to strengthen the papal power by sending forth missionaries who were devoted to him, he watched his opportunity to gain a foothold for the faith in Kent.

Tradition connects the first step in this direction with the name of a Frankish princess, and Bede in his Church History tells how the marriage of Berhta, daughter of King Charibert of Paris (561-567), to King Aethelberht of Kent (586-616) brought an ecclesiastic to Canterbury who took possession of the ancient British church of St Martin: this event was speedily followed by the arrival of other ecclesiastics from Rome, who travelled across France under the leadership of Augustine.

At the time of Augustine's arrival the position of Kent was threatened by the growing supremacy of Northumbria. Through the activity both of Aethelfrith (? 617) and of Eadwin his successor, the land extending from the Humber to the Firth of Forth had been united under one rule; Northumbria was taking the lead among the petty kingdoms which had been formed in different parts of the island. The king of Kent strengthened his independent position by accepting the faith which had proved propitious to the Franks and by entering into alliance with his neighbours across the Channel; and it was no doubt with a view to encouraging peaceful relations with the north that Aethelburg the daughter of Aethelberht and Berhta was given in marriage to King Eadwin of Northumbria during the reign of her brother Eadbald (616-640).

Again the marriage of a Christian princess was made an occasion for extending the faith; an ecclesiastic as usual followed in her train. Paulinus, the Roman chaplain who came north with Aethelburg, after various incidents picturesquely set forth by Bede, overcame King Eadwin's reluctance to embrace Christianity and prevailed upon him to be baptized at York with other members of his household on Easter day in the year 627. The event was followed by an influx of Christians into that city, for British Christianity had receded before the heathen Angles, but it still had strongholds in the north and was on the alert to regain lost ground. The city of York, during Roman rule, had been of great importance in affairs of administration. The Roman Eboracum nearly died out to arise anew as Anglian Eoforwic. King Eadwin recognised Paulinus as bishop and a stone church was begun on part of the ground now occupied by the Minster[233].

Bede loves to dwell on the story of this conversion, which was endeared to all devout churchmen by many associations. Eanflaed, the child of Eadwin and Aethelburg, whose baptism was its immediate cause, was afterwards a staunch supporter of Roman versus British Church tendencies. She was the patron of Wilfrith, in his time the most zealous advocate of the supremacy of Rome.

Among the members of Eadwin's household who were baptized on the same Easter day in 627 was Hild, a girl of fourteen, who afterwards became abbess of Whitby. She was grand-niece to Eadwin through her father Hereric, who had been treacherously made away with; her mother Beorhtswith and her sister Hereswith were among the early converts to Christianity. Hereswith afterwards married a king of the Angles, and at a later period was living in the Frankish settlement of Chelles (Cala), where her sister Hild at one time thought of joining her. Nothing is known of the life of Hild between the ages of fourteen and thirty-four, but evidently she had not dwelt in obscure retirement, for the Scottish prelate Aidan in 647, knowing that she was living in the midlands, begged her to return to the north. It is a noteworthy circumstance if, in an age when marriage was the rule, she remained single without taking the veil, but she may have been associated with some religious settlement[234].

It was only a few years after the acceptance of Christianity at York that the days of King Eadwin's reign, 'when a woman with her babe might walk scatheless from sea to sea,' came to an abrupt close. Eadwin was slain in 633 at the battle of Hatfield, a victim to the jealousy of the British king Caedwalla, who combined with the heathen king Penda of Mercia against him. Queen Aethelburg with her children and Paulinus fled from York to the coast and went by sea to Kent, where they were welcomed by her brother King Eadbald and by Archbishop Honorius.

At the beginning of his reign Eadbald of Kent had been in conflict with the Church owing to his marriage with his father's relict, a heathen wife whom Aethelberht had taken to himself after the death of Berhta. It is characteristic of the position held at first by Christian prelates in England that they depended entirely on the ruling prince for their position. Paulinus fled from York at the death of Eadwin, and Eadbald's adherence to heathen customs temporarily drove the Kentish prelate abroad. The king of Kent had, however, found it well to repudiate his heathen wife and to take a Christian princess of the Franks in her stead. This act restored him to the goodwill of his prelate, who returned to English shores.

Eadbald had settled a piece of land at Folkestone on his daughter Eanswith, and there about the year 630 she founded what is held to be the first religious settlement for women in Anglo-Saxon England[235]. The fact of this foundation is undisputed, but all we know of Eanswith's life is in the account given of her by Capgrave, an Augustinian monk who lived in the 15th century[236]. He tells us how she went to live at Folkestone and how a king of Northumbria wished to marry her, but as the king was a heathen, she made their union conditional on his prevailing upon his gods to manifest their power by miraculously lengthening a beam. In this he failed and consequently departed. There follows a description how Eanswith made a stream to flow 'againste the hylle,' from Smelton, a mile distant from Folkestone, possibly by means of a well-levelled water conduit. Capgrave also describes how she enforced the payment of tithes.

Eanswith's settlement was in existence at the close of the century, when it was destroyed or deserted during the viking invasion. A charter of King Athelstane dated 927 gives the land where 'stood the monastery and abbey of holy virgins and where also St Eanswith lies buried' to Christ Church, Canterbury, the house having been destroyed by the 'Pagans[237].' Capgrave says that its site was swallowed by the sea, perhaps in one of the landslips common to the coast; the holy woman's relics were then transferred to the church of St Peter. A church at Folkestone is dedicated conjointly to St Mary and St Eanswith, and a church at Brensett in Kent is dedicated solely to her[238].

Queen Aethelburg coming from the north also settled in Kent at a place called Liming[239]. Bede knows nothing of her after her departure from the north, and we have to depend on Canterbury traditions for information concerning her and the religious house she founded. Gocelin, a monk of Flanders who came into Kent in the 11th century, describes Queen Aethelburg as 'building and upraising this temple at Liming, and obtaining the first name there and a remarkable burial-place in the north porch against the south wall of the church covered with an arch[240].' Modern research has shown that the buildings at Liming were so arranged as to contain a convent of monks as well as of nuns. The church is of Roman masonry and may have been built out of the fragments of a villa, such as the Anglo-Saxons frequently adapted to purposes of their own, or it may have been a Roman basilica restored.

Queen Aethelburg, foundress of Liming, is not usually reckoned a saint; she has no day[241] and collections of saints' lives generally omit her. The identity of name between her and Aethelburg (? c. 676), abbess of Barking at a somewhat later date, has caused some confusion between them[242]. Gocelin mentions that both Queen Aethelburg and 'St Eadburga' were buried at Liming[243]. A well lying to the east of the church at Liming is to this day called St Ethelburga's well, and she is commonly held to be identical with Queen Aethelburg[244].

At a somewhat later date another religious settlement for women was founded at Sheppey in Kent by Queen Sexburg, the wife of Earconberht of Kent (640-664), the successor of Eadbald. We know little of the circumstances of the foundation[245]. Sexburg was a princess of East Anglia, where Christianity had been accepted owing to the influence of King Eadwin of Northumbria[246] and where direct relations with France had been established.

'For at that time,' says Bede, writing of these districts[247], 'there being not yet many monasteries built in the region of the Angles, many were wont, for the sake of the monastic mode of life, to go from Britain to the monasteries of the Franks and of Gaul; they also sent their daughters to the same to be instructed and to be wedded to the heavenly spouse, chiefly in the monasteries of Brie (Faremoutiers), Chelles, and Andelys.'

Two princesses of Anglia, Saethrith and Aethelburg, who were sisters or half-sisters to Sexburg, remained abroad and became in succession abbesses of Brie as mentioned above. Sexburg's daughter Earcongotha also went there, and was promoted to the rank of abbess. Both Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speak in praise of her. For her other daughter Eormenhild, who was married to Wulfhere, king of Mercia, Queen Sexburg of Kent founded the house at Sheppey; she herself went to live at Ely in her sister Aethelthrith's convent.

The statement of Bede that women at this time went abroad for their education is borne out by the traditional records of Mildthrith, first abbess of a religious settlement in Thanet which rose to considerable importance[248]. A huge mass of legend supplements the few historical facts we know of Mildthrith, whose influence, judging from the numerous references to her and her widespread cult, was greater than that of any other English woman-saint. Several days in the Calendar are consecrated to her, and the site where her relics had been deposited was made a subject of controversy in the 11th century. As late as 1882 we find that some of her relics were brought from Deventer in Holland to Thanet, and that Pope Leo XIII granted a plenary indulgence on the occasion[249]. Churches in London, Oxford, Canterbury and other places are dedicated to St Mildred[250], and Capgrave, William of Malmesbury and others give details of her story, which runs as follows:

Her mother Eormenburg, sometimes called Domneva, was married to Merewald, prince of Hacanos, a district in Herefordshire. King Ecgberht (664-673) of Kent gave her some land in Thanet as a blood-fine for the murder of her two young brothers, and on it she founded a monastery. She asked for as much land as her tame deer could run over in one course, and received over ten thousand acres of the best land in Kent[251].

Besides Mildthrith Eormenburg had two daughters, Mildburg and Mildgith, and a boy, the holy child Merwin, who was translated to heaven in his youth. Mildburg presided over a religious house at Wenlock in Shropshire, and her legend contains picturesque traits but little trustworthy information[252]. We know even less of the other daughter Mildgith. It is doubtful whether she lived in Kent or in the north, but she is considered a saint[253]. An ancient record says that 'St Mildgith lies in Northumbria where her miraculous powers were often exhibited and still are,' but it does not point out at what place[254].

According to her legend, Mildthrith, by far the best known of the sisters, was sent abroad to Chelles for her education, where the abbess Wilcoma wished her to marry her kinsman, and on the girl's refusal cast her into a burning furnace from which she came forth unharmed. The girl sent her mother a psalter she had written together with a lock of her hair. She made her escape and arrived in England, landing at Ebbsfleet. 'As she descended from the ship to the land and set her feet on a certain square stone the print of her feet remained on it, most life-like, she not thinking anything; God so accomplishing the glory of his handmaid. And more than that; the dust that was scrapen off thence being drunk did cure sundry diseases[255].' It appears that a stone to which a superstitious reverence was attached was walled into the Church of St Mildred in Thanet.

Other incidents told of her influence are not without their humorous side. One day a bell-ringer, forgetful of his duties, had dropped asleep, when Mildthrith appeared to him and gave him a blow on the ear, saying, 'Understand, fellow, that this is an oratory to pray in, not a dormitory to sleep in,' and so vanished.

Thus writes the author of her legend. The fact remains that Mildthrith was presiding over a settlement in Kent towards the close of the 7th century. For in a charter of privileges granted between 696 and 716 by King Wihtred and Queen Werburg to the churches and monasteries of Kent granting them security against interference, her name is among those of the five lady abbesses who place their signatures to the document.[256] These names stand after those of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Rochester and are as follows; 'Mildritha, Aetheldritha, Aette, Wilnotha and Hereswytha.' The settlements mentioned in the body of the charter[257] as being subject to them are Upminstre (or Minstre) in Thanet, afterwards known as St Mildred's, Southminstre, a colony of Minstre, Folkestone, Liming and Sheppey, the foundation of which has been described.

Thus at the close of the 7th century there existed in the province of Kent alone five religious settlements governed by abbesses who added this title to their signatures, or who, judging from the place given to them, ranked in dignity below the bishops but above the presbyters (presbyteri), whose names follow theirs in the list. From the wording of the charter we see that men who accepted the tonsure and women who received the veil were at this time classed together. Those who set their signatures to the charter agreed that neither abbot nor abbess should be appointed without the consent of a prelate.

The charter is the more valuable as it establishes the existence of the Kentish convents and their connection with each other at a period when we have only fragmentary information about the religious houses in the south. We must turn to the north for fuller information as to the foundation and growth of religious settlements presided over by women during the early Christian period.

§ 2. The Monastery at Whitby[258].

A temporary collapse of the Christian faith had followed the death of King Eadwin of Northumbria, but the restoration of King Oswald, who was not so strong as his predecessor in administrative power but whose religious fervour was greater, had given it a new impulse and a new direction.

Oswald had passed some time of his life in Iona or Hii, the great Scottish religious settlement and the stronghold of British Christianity in the Hebrides. Here he had made friends with the ecclesiastic Aidan, who became his staunch supporter. Soon after his accession Oswald summoned a monk from Iona 'to minister the word of the faith to himself and to his people,' and when it was found that the monk made no progress, Aidan was moved to go among the Angles himself. In preference to York he chose the island Lindisfarne for his headquarters, but he spent much of his time with Oswald, helping him to set the practice and teaching of religion on a firmer footing.

It was during this part of Aidan's career that he consecrated Heiu[259], according to Bede 'the first woman who took the vow and the habit of a nun in the province of Northumbria.' Heiu presided over a congregation of women at Hartlepool in Durham, from which she removed to Calcaria of the Romans, which is perhaps identical with Healaugh near Tadcaster, where apparently Heiu's name is retained. Further details of her career are wanting.

Aidan's labours were interrupted for a time. Again the fierce and impetuous King Penda of Mercia invaded Northumbria, and again the Christian Angles fled before the midland heathens. King Oswald fell in battle (642) and Aidan retired to his rocky island, from which he watched the fires kindled all over the country first by the raids of Penda, and afterwards by civil strife between the two provinces of Northumbria, Deira and Bernicia. This arose through the rival claims to the throne of Oswiu, Oswald's brother, and Oswin, who was King Eadwin's relative.

An understanding was at length effected between them by which Oswiu accepted Bernicia, while Oswin took possession of Deira, and Aidan, who found a patron in Oswin, returned to his work.

He now persuaded Hild[260], who was waiting in Anglia for an opportunity to cross over to France, where she purposed joining her sister, to give up this plan and to return to the north to share in the work in which he was engaged. Hild came and settled down to a monastic life with a few companions on the river Wear. A year later, when Heiu retired to Calcaria, Hild became abbess at Hartlepool. She settled there only a few years before the close of Aidan's career. He died in 651 shortly after his patron Oswin, whose murder remains the great stain on the life of his rival Oswiu.

A 12th century monk, an inmate of the monastery of St Beeves in Cumberland, has written a life of St Bega, the patron saint of his monastery, whom he identifies on the one hand with the abbess Heiu, consecrated by Aidan, and on the other with Begu, a nun who had a vision of Hild's death at the monastery of Hackness in the year 680. His narrative is further embellished with local traditions about a woman Bega, who came from Ireland and received as a gift from the Lady Egermont the extensive parish and promontory of St Beeves, which to this day bear her name[261].

There has been much speculation concerning this holy woman Bega, but it is probable that the writer of her life combined myths which seem to be Keltic with accounts of two historical persons whom Bede keeps quite distinct. There is no reason to doubt Bede's statements in this matter or in others concerning affairs in the north, for he expressly affirms that he 'was able to gain information not from one author only but from the faithful assertion of innumerable witnesses who were in a position to know and remember these things; besides those things,' he adds, 'which I could ascertain myself.' He passed his whole life studying and writing in the monasteries of SS. Peter and Paul, two settlements spoken of as one, near the mouth of the river Wear, close to where Hild had first settled. He went there during the lifetime of Bennet Biscop (? 690), the contemporary of Hild and a shining representative of the culture the Anglo-Saxons attained in the 7th century.

Hild settled at Hartlepool about the year 647. Eight years later Oswiu finally routed the army of Penda, whose attacks had been for so many years like a battering ram to the greatness of Northumbria. And in fulfilment of a vow he had made that the Christian religion should profit if God granted him victory, he gave Hild the charge of his daughter Aelflaed 'who had scarcely completed the age of one year, to be consecrated to God in perpetual virginity, besides bestowing on the Church twelve estates.' Extensive property came with the child into the care of Hild, perhaps including the site of Streaneshalch[262], which is better known as Whitby, a name given to it at a later date by the Danes. Bede says that Hild here undertook to construct and arrange a monastery.

Bede thus expresses himself on the subject of Hild's life and influence during the term of over thirty years which she spent first as abbess of Hartlepool and then as abbess of Whitby[263]:

'Moreover, Hild, the handmaid of Christ, having been appointed to govern that monastery (at Hartlepool), presently took care to order it in the regular way of life, in all respects, according as she could gain information from learned men. For Bishop Aidan, also, and all the religious men who knew her, were wont to visit her constantly, to love her devotedly, and to instruct her diligently, on account of her innate wisdom, and her delight in the service of God.

'When, then, she had presided over this monastery for some years, being very intent on establishing the regular discipline, according as she could learn it from learned men, it happened that she undertook also to construct and arrange a monastery in the place which is called Streanshalch; and this work being enjoined on her, she was not remiss in accomplishing it. For she established this also in the same discipline of regular life in which she established the former monastery; and, indeed, taught there also the strict observance of justice, piety, and chastity, and of the other virtues, but mostly of peace and charity, so that, after the example of the primitive Church, there was therein no one rich, no one poor; all things were common to all, since nothing seemed to be the private property of any one. Moreover, her prudence was so great that not only did ordinary persons, but even sometimes kings and princes, seek and receive counsel of her in their necessities. She made those who were under her direction give so much time to the reading of the Divine Scriptures, and exercise themselves so much in works of righteousness, that very many, it appeared, could readily be found there, who could worthily enter upon the ecclesiastical grade, that is the service of the altar.'

In point of fact five men who had studied in Hild's monastery were promoted to the episcopate. Foremost among them is John, bishop of Hexham (687-705) and afterwards of York (? 721), the famous St John of Beverley, a canonised saint of the Church, of whose doings Bede has left an account. In this[264] we hear of the existence of another monastery for women at Watton (Vetadun) not far from Whitby, where Bishop John went to visit the abbess Heriburg, who was living there with her 'daughter in the flesh,' Cwenburg, whom she designed to make abbess in her stead. We hear no more about Watton till centuries later, but Bede's remark is interesting as showing how natural he felt it to be that the rule of a settlement should pass from mother to daughter.

Cwenburg was suffering from a swollen arm which John tells us was very serious, 'since she had been bled on the fourth day of the moon,' 'when both the light of the moon and the tide of the ocean were on their increase. And what can I do for the girl if she is at death's door?' he exclaims. However his combined prayers and remedies, which were so often efficacious, helped to restore her.

Aetla, another of Hild's scholarly disciples, held the see of Dorchester, though perhaps only temporarily during the absence of Aegilberht. A third, Bosa, was archbishop of York between 678 and 686; Bede speaks of him as a monk of Whitby, a man of great holiness and humility. Oftfor, another of Hild's monks, went from Whitby to Canterbury, to study 'a more perfect' system of discipline under Archbishop Theodore (? 690), and subsequently became bishop of Worcester.

The career of these men shows that the system of discipline and education under Hild at Whitby compared favourably with that of other settlements. At the outset she had followed the usages of the Scottish Church, with which she was familiar through her intercourse with Aidan, but when the claims for an independent British Church were defeated at Whitby, she accepted the change and adopted the Roman usage.

The antagonism which had existed from the first appearance of Augustine in England between Roman Christianity and British Christianity as upheld by the Scottish and Welsh clergy took the form of open disagreement in Northumbria. On one side was the craving for ritual, for refinement and for union with Rome; on the other insistence by the Scottish clergy on their right to independence.

Aidan had been succeeded at Lindisfarne by Finnan, owing to whose influence discussion was checked for the time being. But after his death (661) the latent antagonism came to a head over the practical difficulty due to the different dates at which King Oswiu and Queen Eanflaed kept Easter. Thus the way was cleared for the Whitby synod (664), a 'gathering of all orders of the Church system,' at which the respective claims of Roman and of British Christianity were discussed.

The British interest was represented among others by Colman, Finnan's successor at Lindisfarne, who temporarily held the see at York, and by Aegilberht, bishop of Dorchester. The opposite side was taken by the protégé of Queen Eanflaed, Wilfrith, abbot of Ripon, whose ardour in the cause of Rome had been greatly augmented by going abroad with Bennet Biscop about the year 653. Besides these and other prelates, King Oswiu and his son and co-regent Ealhfrith were present at the synod. The abbess Hild was also there, but she took no part in the discussion.

The questions raised were not of doctrine but of practice. The computation of Easter, the form of the tonsure, matters not of belief but of apparently trivial externals, were the points round which the discussion turned. Owing chiefly to Wilfrith's influence the decision was in favour of Rome, and a strong rebuff was given for a time to the claim for an independent British Church in the north.

The choice of Whitby as the site of the synod marks the importance which this settlement had attained within ten years of its foundation. Those who have stood on the height of the cliff overlooking the North Sea and have let their gaze wander over the winding river course and the strand below can realize the lordly situation of the settlement which occupies such a distinguished place among the great houses and nurseries of culture at Hexham, Wearmouth, Jarrow, Ripon and York.

The property which the monastery held in overlordship extended along the coast for many miles, and the settlement itself consisted of a large group of buildings; for there are references to the dwellings for the men, for the women, and to an outlying house for the sick. These dwellings were gathered round the ancient British Church of St Peter, which was situated under the shelter of the brow of the cliff where King Eadwin lay buried, and which continued to be the burial-place of the Northumbrian kings. Isolated chapels and churches with separate bands of religious votaries belonging to them lay in other parts of the monastic property, and were subject to the abbess of Whitby. We hear of a minor monastery at Easington (Osingadun)[265] during the rule of Aelflaed, Hild's successor, and at Hackness (Hacanos) on the limit of the monastic property, thirteen miles south of Whitby, a monastery of some importance had been founded by Hild[266]. Bands of men and of women dwelt here under the government of Frigith, and it was here that the nun Begu had a vision of Hild on the night of her death, when she saw her borne aloft by attendant angels[267].

The name of Hild and the monastery at Whitby are further endeared to posterity through their connection with Caedmon, the most celebrated of the vernacular poets of Northumbria and the reputed author of the Anglo-Saxon metrical paraphrases of the Old Testament[268]. It was his great reputation as a singer that made Hild seek Caedmon and persuade him to join her community. Here the practice of reading Holy Scripture made him familiar with the stories of Hebrew literature in their grand and simple setting, and he drank of the waters of that well to which so many centuries of creative and representative art have gone for inspiration.

Caedmon's power of song had been noticed outside the monastery.

'And all concluded that a celestial gift had been granted him by the Lord. And they interpreted to him a certain passage of sacred history or doctrine, and ordered him to turn it if he could into poetical rhythm. And he, having undertaken it, departed, and returning in the morning brought back what he was ordered to do, composed in most excellent verse. Whereupon presently the abbess, embracing heartily the grace of God in the man, directed him to leave the secular habit, and to take the monastic vow; and having together with all her people received him into the monastery associated him with the company of the brethren, and ordered him to be instructed in the whole course of sacred history. And he converted into most sweet song whatever he could learn from hearing, by thinking it over by himself, and, as though a clean animal, by ruminating; and by making it resound more sweetly, made his teachers in turn his hearers[269].'

These passages are curious as showing that a singer of national strains was persuaded to adapt his art to the purposes of religion. The development of Church music is usually held to have been distinct from that of folk-music, but in exceptional cases such as this, there seems to have been a relation between the two.

Excavations recently made on several of the sites of ancient northern monasteries have laid bare curious and interesting remains which add touches of reality to what is known about the houses of the north during this early period[270]. In a field called Cross Close at Hartlepool near Durham skeletons of men and women were found, and a number of monumental stones of peculiar shape, some with runic inscriptions of women's names. Some of these names are among those of the abbesses inscribed in the so-called 'Book of Life of Durham,' a manuscript written in gold and silver lettering in the early part of the 9th century[271]. Again, an ancient tombstone of peculiar design was found at Healaugh; and at Hackness several memorial crosses are preserved, one of which bears the inscription of the name Aethelburg, who no doubt is the abbess of that name with whom Aelflaed, Hild's successor at Whitby, in 705 travelled to the death-bed of King Ealdfrith[272].

Finally on the Whitby coast on the south side of the abbey a huge kitchen-midden was discovered. A short slope here leads to the edge of the cliff, and excavations on this slope and at its foot, which was once washed by the tide, have revealed the facts that the denizens of the original monastery were wont to throw the refuse of their kitchen over the cliff, and that the lighter material remained on the upper ledges, the heavier rolling to the bottom.

Among the lighter deposits were found bones of birds, oyster, whelk and periwinkle shells, and two combs, one of which bears a runic inscription. Among the heavier deposits were bones of oxen, a few of sheep, and a large number of the bones and tusks of wild swine, besides several iron pot-hooks and other implements; a bone spindle and a divided ink-horn are among the objects specified. An inscribed leaden bulla found among the refuse is declared by experts to be earlier than the 8th century; it is therefore proof that these remains were deposited during the earlier period of the existence of Hild's monastery, possibly during her lifetime.

Hild died after an illness of several years on November 17, 680. Would that there were more data whereby to estimate her personality! The few traits of her character that have been preserved, her eagerness to acquire knowledge, her success in imparting it to others, her recognition of the need of unity in the Church, the interest she took in one who could repeat the stories of the new faith in strains which made them intelligible to the people, are indicative of a strong personality and of an understanding which appreciated the needs of her time.

Various myths, of which Bede knows nothing, have been attached to her name in course of time. According to a popular legend she transformed the snakes of the district into the ammonites familiar to visitors to those parts. And it is said that at certain times of the day her form can be seen flitting across the abbey ruins[273].

At her death the rule of the settlement passed to Aelflaed, the princess who had been given into her care as a child. After King Oswiu's death in 670 Queen Eanflaed joined her daughter in the monastery. The princess and abbess Aelflaed proved herself worthy of the influence under which she had grown up, and we shall find her among the persons of importance who took up a decided attitude in regard to the disturbances which broke out through the action of Bishop Wilfrith. The beginnings of these difficulties belong to the lifetime of Hild: we do not know that she took any interest in the matter, but judging from indirect evidence we should say that she shared in the feeling which condemned the prelate's anti-national and ultra-Roman tendencies.

§ 3. Ely and the influence of Bishop Wilfrith.

The further history of the monastery of Whitby and the history of the foundation of Ely are closely connected with the prelate Wilfrith, and for this reason his actions and attitude claim our attention. In him we recognise a direct advocate of the principle that a queen could if she chose leave her husband and retire to a religious settlement, and that such a course would secure her the favour of the Church.

It has been said of him that he was the most important man in Northumbria for forty years after the Whitby synod[274]. He owed his education to Queen Eanflaed, whose attention he had attracted when quite a youth, and who had sent him into Kent to complete his education; there he imbibed strong Roman sympathies. He lived for some years in France and Italy in the society of Bennet Biscop, and he was already held in high esteem at the time of the Whitby synod, which he attended in the character of abbot of the monastery at Ripon, a house he had founded with the help of Ealhfrith.

When Colman and his adherents beat a rapid retreat to the north in consequence of the decision of the synod, Wilfrith became bishop of York, an appointment which meant ecclesiastical supremacy over the whole vast province of Northumbria. His intellectual brilliancy gained him many admirers, but an innate restlessness of disposition and a wilful determination to support the power of Rome to the national detriment launched him into repeated difficulties with temporal and spiritual rulers. He was at the height of prosperity and popularity when Ecgfrith succeeded Oswiu in 670 after the death of Ealhfrith. Wilfrith had hitherto been on good terms with Ecgfrith, but a breach in their relations soon occurred, partly owing to the conduct of Ecgfrith's wife, Aethelthrith, whom Wilfrith supported against the king.

Aethelthrith, known to a later age as Etheldred or Awdrey, was the daughter of King Anna of the East Angles (635-645), whose province, including the present shires of Norfolk and Suffolk, was removed from direct intercourse with others by the almost impassable reaches of the fens. Anglia has not left any annals of her own, and we have to depend for the names and dates of her kings on the slight information which other provinces have preserved.

Written legends generally consider Anna as the father also of Sexburg, the foundress of Sheppey, and of Aethelburg and Saethrith, two princesses who had settled in France, as well as of Wihtburg, a woman-saint of whom very little is known, and who was associated with a religious foundation at East Dereham in Norfolk[275]. We further learn from legend that King Anna was married to Hereswith, sister of Hild of Whitby, and Aethelthrith is spoken of as niece to the great abbess Hild. But this connection is discredited by a statement in Bede which suggests that Hild's sister Hereswith was married not to King Anna but to his successor King Aethelhere (654-664). It is difficult to decide to which of the kings of the East Angles Hereswith was married, but Anna was certainly not her husband[276].

The princess Aethelthrith at the time of her marriage with the king of Northumbria was the widow of Tunberht prince of the South-Gyrvi, or fen-country men. Anglia stood at this time in a relation of dependence to Northumbria, and in 664, four years before the Whitby synod, Aethelthrith a woman of over thirty was married to Ecgfrith a boy of fifteen, the heir-apparent to the throne of Northumbria. The marriage was no doubt arranged for political reasons.

The consequences which followed render these facts worthy of notice. For Aethelthrith on her arrival in the north at once conceived a great admiration for the prelate Wilfrith, while she treated her husband with contumely. She bestowed on Wilfrith the extensive property at Hexham which she had received from her husband, and on which Wilfrith built the church which was spoken of in his days as the most wonderful building on this side of the Alps[277]. Judging from what Wilfrith himself told him about the queen's attitude Bede says 'the king knew that she loved no man more than Wilfrith.'

The events that followed bear out this statement, for after living about ten years with the king, Aethelthrith left him and repaired to the monastery of Coldingham (Coludesburg) in Berwickshire, which had been founded and was ruled over by Aebbe, sister, or perhaps half-sister, of the kings Oswald and Oswiu[278]. King Ecgfrith may or may not have agreed to this step. Eddi, the friend and biographer of Wilfrith, maintains a judicious silence on the relations of the king and queen, while Bede represents[279] that Aethelthrith had always had an aversion to the married state and describes how he had been told by Wilfrith himself that Ecgfrith promised much land and money to the prelate if he persuaded the queen to allow him conjugal rights.

At Coldingham Wilfrith gave Aethelthrith the veil; this act involved her breaking all marital ties. But she cannot have deemed her position secure, for she presently left Coldingham, which was within her husband's territory, and went to Ely, the island in the fens which her first husband Tunberht had bestowed on her.

Under the date 673 stand in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these words: 'And Aetheldryth began the monastery at Ely.' It was situated on a hill prominent above the flatness of the surrounding fen-land, which at that time consisted of a wilderness of marsh and water. Men and women readily flocked thither to live under the guidance of the queen. We hear that she received material aid from her cousin King Ealdwulf of Anglia, that Hunna acted as her chaplain, and that Bishop Wilfrith stayed with her on his passage from Northumbria to Rome. Thomas of Ely (fl. c. 1174) has embellished the account of Aethelthrith's flight and journey south by introducing into the story various picturesque incidents, which Bede does not mention. She,

with her companions Sewenna and Sewara[280], was saved from her pursuers by water rising round a rock on which they had taken refuge, and she was sheltered by an ash-tree which grew in one night out of her pilgrim's staff and which can still be seen at a place called Etheldredstowe[281]. As Aethelthrith of Ely is a favourite saint of English legend it is interesting to find water and the tree miraculously associated with her.

Shortly after Aethelthrith's departure Ecgfrith summoned Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, to the north to divide the diocese of York into three separate districts. Wilfrith resented these proceedings as an infringement of his rights, but as he was unable to influence the king he determined to seek the intervention of the Pope and set out for Rome. His absence extended over several years.

It was at this time, Bede tells us, that Aethelthrith 'having built a monastery at Ely began both by example and by admonition of heavenly life to be a virgin mother of very many virgins[282].' The particulars he gives of her life show that she had renounced the splendours which constituted so essential a feature of royalty and had willingly devoted herself to humility and self-denial. She wore no linen, only wool, rarely used a warm bath, save on the eve of great festivals, and assisted at the washing of others. When she fell ill of a tumour in her throat, she told the physician Cynefrith, who lanced it, that she looked upon it as a chastisement for her love of wearing necklaces in her youth. And on her death-bed she desired to be buried in a wooden coffin in the nun's ordinary cemetery.

The fame of Aethelthrith spread rapidly. She was looked upon as a virgin, and her name with the epithet virgin was inscribed at an early date in both the Anglo-Saxon and Roman Calendars, and to this day it is to be found in the Book of Common Prayer. Later writers of her legend say that she lived with Ecgfrith 'not as a wyfe but as a lady,' and add as a fitting pendant to this story that she maintained similar relations with her first husband Tunberht[283]. She died in the year 679, having presided over her monastery only six or seven years, but during that time it had gained marked importance. Many women had come to live there with her, and among them her sister Sexburg, widow of the king of Kent, who had founded the monastery at Sheppey and now succeeded Aethelthrith as abbess of Ely.

The chief event of Sexburg's rule at Ely was the exhumation of the bones of Aethelthrith in 695, which were transferred to a stone coffin of antique workmanship which had been opportunely, or miraculously as contemporaries thought, discovered at the old Roman colony of Grantchester near Cambridge[284]. This translation took place on the 17th of October, a day on which the relics were again transferred in 1106, and which is the date of the important fair of Ely[285].

In a supplement to the History of Ely by Bentham, Essex gives an account of the ruins of the conventual church begun by Aethelthrith[286]. Judging from his investigations the church consisted of two parts, the nave and the choir, the windows of the nave outside being ornamented with pillars and arches, and the choir being arched with stone. Traces were still left of the apartments of the abbess from which she could enter the church in a private manner, and of a building opposite of equal dimensions which served as a dormitory for the nuns. At a little distance the remains of another large building were discovered, one room of which, near the entrance to the settlement, was a parlour for the reception of strangers, and the apartment over it a dormitory for the men.

We know little more than the name of the next abbess of Ely. She was Sexburg's daughter Eormenhild, wife of King Wulfhere of Mercia, who had hitherto dwelt in the monastery of Sheppey. Eormenhild in her turn was succeeded by her daughter, the celebrated St Werburg of Chester, who was never married. Various stories are preserved about Werburg's influence, but without reference to her work at Ely. We are indebted to Gocelin for the oldest account of her[287]. He tells us that her uncle King Aethelraed of Mercia entrusted her with the care of all the monasteries in his kingdom, that she had founded religious houses at Trentham and at Hanbury, besides turning a palace at Wedon-le-Street into a monastery[288]. He speaks of her as a person of great cheerfulness and benevolence, and of a peaceful and happy disposition. Several accounts of her are extant in manuscripts of different dates, and as late as the 15th century her life was made the subject of a most graceful metrical epic by the poet Henri Bradshaw (? 1513)[289].

We are told that Werburg died at Trentham and that the society of that place wished to keep her body, but the nuns of Hanbury carried it off by force and enshrined it at Hanbury where the day of her deposition was kept[290]. During the viking invasion in 875 the body for the sake of safety was conveyed to Chester, of which town St Werburg then became patron saint. This incident gave rise at a later date to the story that the saint had founded the monastery and the chief church at Chester on land given to her by her father. Livien mentions that nine churches in England are dedicated to St Werburg, who appears to have been a person of considerable importance[291].

Once more we must return to the north and to the work of Bishop Wilfrith, as he came into contact with various other religious women. When he returned to England after an absence of several years Aethelthrith was dead, but King Ecgfrith's hatred of him had not abated. Insulted in his person and nation he caused Wilfrith to be thrown into prison, offering to give him back part of his bishopric and other gifts if he would submit to royal authority and disclaim the genuineness of the document brought from Rome[292]. Queen Eormenburg, whom Ecgfrith had taken to wife in place of Aethelthrith, further embittered the king against the unlucky prelate. She appropriated the reliquary Wilfrith had brought from Rome and wore it as an ornament. For nine months the prelate was kept imprisoned, and the story how he regained his liberty brings us back to Aebbe, abbess at Coldingham, who had formerly sheltered Aethelthrith[293].

According to the account of Eddi, Wilfrith's biographer, the king and queen of Northumbria were staying at Coldingham when the queen was suddenly taken ill. 'At night she was seized like the wife of Pilate by a devil, and worn out by many ills, hardly expected to see the day alive.' The abbess Aebbe went to King Ecgfrith and represented to him that the reason of this seizure was their treatment of Wilfrith.

'And now, my son,' she said, 'do according to the bidding of your mother; loosen his bonds and send back to him by a trusty messenger the holy relics which the queen took from him and like the ark of God carried about with her to her harm. It were best you should have him as your bishop, but if you refuse, set him free and let him go with his followers from your kingdom wherever he list. Then by my faith you will live and your queen will not die; but if you refuse by God's witness you will not remain unpunished.'

Aebbe carried her point and Wilfrith was set free. He went into Mercia which was at war with Northumbria, but he was not suffered to stay there, for Queen Ostrith, the sister of King Ecgfrith, shared her brother's hatred of him. Forced to fly from Mercia he went into Wessex, but King Centwin's wife prevented him from staying there. It is curious to note the hatred with which these married women pursued him while lady abbesses were his friends. At last he found protection among the south Saxons, who fifteen years before had nearly killed him, but their king Aethelwalch (? 686) had lately been converted to Christianity and gave him a friendly reception. Wilfrith is represented as joining his civilizing influences to those of the Irish monks who had settled on the coast. An interesting episode of his sojourn here was his intercourse with Caedwalla, afterwards king of Wessex (685-688), who at the time was living as an outlaw in the forests of Sussex[294].

We get further glimpses of Aebbe and the settlement at Coldingham. She entertained a great admiration for the holy man Cuthberht (? 687), one of the most attractive figures among the evangelizing prelates of the north, of whom Bede has left an account.

Cuthberht was brought both by birth and education under Scottish influences. He was prior at Melrose before the Whitby synod, but after it came to Lindisfarne where his gentleness of temper and sweetness of disposition won over many to accept Roman usages. Overcome by the longing for solitude and contemplation which was so characteristic of many early Christian prelates, he dwelt as a recluse on the desert island of Farne from 676 to 685. There are many accounts of his life and of his wanderings[295].

At the time when Cuthberht's fame was spreading, Aebbe of Coldingham 'sent to this man of God, begging him to come and condescend to edify both herself and the inmates of her monastery by the grace of his exhortation. Cuthberht accordingly went thither and tarrying for some days he expounded the ways of justice to all; these he not only preached, but to the same extent he practised[296].'

It is recorded that during his stay at Coldingham Cuthberht went at night to pray on the deserted beach, and the seals came out of the water and clustered around him.

The first instance mentioned by Bede of a lapse of monastic discipline was at Coldingham where disorders occurred during Aebbe's rule[297]. An Irish monk who was on a visit to the monastery had a vision of its destruction by fire, and when questioned about it by the abbess interpreted it as an impending retribution for the tenor of life of those assembled there.

'For even the dwellings,' he said, 'which were built for praying and reading are now converted into places of revelling, drinking, conversation and other forbidden doings; the virgins who are vowed to God, laying aside all respect for their profession, whenever they have leisure spend all their time in weaving fine garments with which they adorn themselves like brides, to the detriment of their condition, and to secure the friendship of men outside.'

Through Aebbe's efforts things somewhat improved, but after her death, the date of which is uncertain, the monastery really was destroyed by fire[298]. The story is told that Cuthberht at Lindisfarne forbade women to cross the threshold of his conventual church on account of the life of the nuns at Coldingham[299], but another version of his doings considers that his attitude was due to an episode with a Scottish king's daughter which turned him against the sex[300].

Cuthberht was also the friend of Aelflaed, abbess of Whitby, who entertained unbounded reverence for him. On one occasion[301] she had fallen ill and, as she herself told the monk Herefrid, suffered so from cramp that she could hardly creep along. 'I would,' she said, 'I had something belonging to my dear Cuthberht, for I believe and trust in the Lord that I should soon be restored to health.'

In compliance with her wish the holy man sent her a linen girdle, which she wore for a time and which entirely cured her. Later a nun by the help of the same girdle was relieved of a headache, but after that the girdle of miraculous power miraculously disappeared. The reason given for this disappearance illustrates na?vely enough how divine power was considered to be justified in making itself manifest with a reservation. 'If this girdle had remained present,' Bede argues, 'the sick would always flock to it; and whilst some one of these might not be worthy to be healed, its efficacy to cure might have been denied, whereas their own unworthiness was perhaps to blame. Therefore, as was said above, Heaven so dealt its benevolence, that, after the faith of believers had been confirmed, then immediately the opportunity for detraction was entirely withdrawn from the malice of the unrighteous.'

Contemporary witnesses bear testimony to the wisdom and prudence of the abbess Aelflaed of Whitby, for Bede says in the life of Cuthberht that 'she increased the lustre of her royal lineage with the higher nobility of a more exalted virginity'; whilst Eddi speaks of her as 'the most virtuous virgin who is actually a king's daughter,' and in another passage characterizes her as 'ever the comforter and best counsellor of the whole province.'

We find her in Cuthberht's society on more than one occasion. Once he met her at the monastery of 'Osingadune' (Easington) where he went to dedicate the church, and while sitting by her at table he had a prophetic vision of the death of one of her servants[302].

The abbess Aelflaed directly appealed to this prophetic insight of Cuthberht's when troubled in her mind about her brother King Ecgfrith, whose expedition against the Picts filled her with apprehension[303]. In the words of Bede: 'At another time, the same most reverend virgin and mother of Christ's virgins, Aelflaed, sent to the man of God, adjuring him in the name of the Lord that she might be allowed to see him, to converse on some pressing affairs. Cuthberht accordingly went on board ship, accompanied by some of the brethren, and came to the island which from its situation opposite to the river Coquet receives its name, and is celebrated for its community of monks; there it was that the aforesaid abbess had requested him to meet her. When she was satisfied with his replies to her many enquiries, on a sudden, while he was yet speaking, she fell at his feet and adjured him by the sacred and venerable Name of the Heavenly King and His angels, to tell her how long Ecgfrith, her brother, should live and rule over the kingdom of the Angles; "For I know," she said, "that you abound in the spirit of prophecy, and that you can tell me this, if you will." But he, trembling at her adjuration, and yet not wishing openly to reveal the secret which she asked for, replied, "It is marvellous that you, a woman wise and well-instructed in the Holy Scriptures, should speak of the term of human life as if it were long, seeing that the Psalmist says, 'Our years shall be considered as a spider[304],' and that Solomon warns us that, 'If a man live many years and have rejoiced in them all, he must remember the darksome time and the many days, which, when they shall come, the things passed shall be accused of vanity[305].' How much more then ought he, to whom only one year of life remains, to be considered as having lived a short time, when death shall stand at his gates?"

'The abbess, on hearing this, lamented the dreadful prophecy with floods of tears, and having wiped her face, with feminine boldness she adjured him by the majesty of the sovereignty of God to tell her who would be the heir of the kingdom, since Ecgfrith had neither sons nor brothers. Cuthberht was silent for a short time, then he replied, "Say not that he is without heirs, for he shall have a successor whom you may embrace with sisterly affection as you do Ecgfrith himself." But she continued: "Tell me, I beseech you, where he is now." And he said, "You see this mighty and wide ocean, how it abounds with many islands. It is easy for God from one of these to provide a ruler for the kingdom of the Angles." Then she understood that he spoke of Ealdfrith (Aldfrid) who was said to be the son of Ecgfrith's father, and who at that time lived in exile, in the islands of the Scots, for the sake of studying letters.'

This meeting, if we credit the historian, took place in 684, and Aelflaed's forebodings were realized. Ecgfrith lost his life, and part of his kingdom was taken by the Picts. In consequence of his defeat the settlement Whithern, set up as a religious outpost in the territory south of the Firth of Forth, was destroyed. Trumwin who had been entrusted with it was forced to fly. He and his friends sought refuge at Whitby where he remained and had much intercourse with Cuthberht and Aelflaed. Bede says that the abbess found 'great assistance in governing and also comfort for her own life' in Trumwin[306].

Northumbria had now passed the zenith of her greatness as a political power, for the territory in the north which was lost through Ecgfrith's defeat was not regained, while in the south the province of Mercia began to shake off the Northumbrian yoke. King Ecgfrith had been succeeded by his half-brother Ealdfrith (? 705) and owing to his attitude Wilfrith's exile came to an end. Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a letter in his behalf to Ealdfrith and also one to Aelflaed of Whitby begging her to be at peace with him[307]. The prelate left Sussex for the north, where he remained for five years in undisturbed possession of his see[308]. But again the old quarrels revived, and Wilfrith in consequence of a council assembled by order of Ealdfrith at Eastrefield was robbed of his episcopal dignity and reduced to his abbacy at Ripon. He again insisted that the king and bishops should submit to the Pope, and at the age of well-nigh seventy he undertook another journey to Rome. But it was in vain he sent envoys to the king on his return. Ealdfrith was determined not to relent, but afterwards approaching death intimidated him. Feeling his end draw nigh he sent for Aelflaed of Whitby, who with the abbess Aethelburg (probably of Hackness) came to where he lay ill at Driffield in the East Riding. Aelflaed received the king's dying words, and at a council of prelates subsequently assembled on the river Nidd bore testimony that he had spoken in favour of making peace. Wilfrith regained part of his influence but remained in retirement at his monastery.

Aelflaed outlived him and her friend Cuthberht who died in 687. It is probable that she assisted at the translation of Cuthberht's body in 698, for in the inventory of the church at Durham one of the linen cloths or outer envelopes of his body, which was taken from it in 1104, is described as 'a linen cloth of double texture which had enveloped the body of St Cuthbert in his grave; Elfled the abbess had wrapped him up in it[309].'

Aelflaed is the last abbess of Whitby known by name. Her death is supposed to have taken place in 713. Her monastery, like so many houses in the north, which had grown to prosperity with the rising power of Northumbria, sank into insignificance with the decadence of that power. This decline was partly due to political reasons, but the dislike which the later kings of Northumbria felt towards monasteries may have had something to do with it. For as we shall see later on the example Queen Aethelthrith had set was probably followed by two other Northumbrian queens, Cyneburg, the wife of Ealhfrith, and Cuthburg, wife of Ealdfrith (? 705), who returned to their own countries and there founded monasteries.

§ 4. Houses in Mercia and in the South.

From the north we turn to Mercia and Wessex, the central and south-western provinces of England. Mercia had clung longest to her heathen beliefs, for Christianity was not accepted there till after the defeat of Penda in 655 when Northumbria gained supremacy. Penda, king of Mercia, remained faithful to his gods to the end himself, but his children adopted the new faith. His son Peada had already been baptized in Northumbria by Finnan who sent four ecclesiastics back with him to evangelise the Midlands, and Wulfhere (c. 658-675) Peada's brother and successor was married to the Christian princess Eormenhild of Kent, for whom Queen Sexburg had made the religious foundation at Sheppey. Peada had founded a religious settlement at Burh or Medehampstead which is better known as Peterborough, a name bestowed on it after its restoration in 970. The charter of the foundation of Burh is dated 664, and besides the signatures of Wulfhere and other princes and thanes it bears those of Wulfhere's sisters Cyneburg and Cyneswith[310].

Cyneburg and Cyneswith were esteemed as saints on the strength of their religious foundations at Castor, a village some miles distant from Peterborough; the name Cyneburg is held by the local historian to survive in the appellations of Lady Connyburrow Walk and Coneygreve Close[311]. Cyneburg had been married to Ealhfrith, who was for some time co-regent of Northumbria, but little is known of him after his presence at the synod of Whitby in 664. The charter of the Medehampstead foundation above referred to establishes beyond a doubt that Cyneburg had left her husband to found and preside over her monastery; for she is designated as 'formerly a queen who had resigned her sway to preside over a monastery of maidens[312].' Her legend, which is not older than John of Tinmouth[313], enlarges on this fact, and like Aethelthrith of Ely, Cyneburg together with her sister Cyneswith has found a place in the Calendar as a virgin saint[314].

The legend which tells of Cyneburh and Cyneswith also refers to St Tibba or Tilba, their kinswoman, who dwelt at Ryhall not far from Castor. The same day was kept in commemoration of all these three saints at Peterborough, to which place their bodies were transferred at an early date. For the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (972) says of Aelfsi, abbot of Peterborough: 'And he took up St Kyneburg and St Kyneswith who lay at Castor, and St Tibba who lay at Ryhall, and brought them to Burh, and offered them all to St Peter in one day.' Camden[315] speaks of Tibba as a 'saint of inferior order, who was worshipped as another Diana by fowlers, a patroness of hawking,' and adds information which shows that she was popularly connected with heathen survivals.

Mercia was the birthplace of many picturesque legends about the conversion of members of the ruling family and about their religious foundations. When once Christianity was accepted the activity which kings, queens and prelates displayed in its favour was great, but the historical information we have about them is meagre.

Thus Repton (Repandune) in Derbyshire, a monastery for women, had gained considerable importance when the noble youth Guthlac repaired thither in 694 to devote himself to learning under the abbess Aelfthrith[316]. Nothing is known about the beginnings of the house, and if the abbess Aelfthrith founded it she has not on this account been accepted as a saint like the founders of other houses. This omission may however be due to the difficulties which arose between Aelfthrith and the prelates of Mercia. We do not know their nature, but in 705 a council of Mercian clergy assembled to consider the re-admission of Aelfthrith to Church privileges[317]. A letter is also extant from Bishop Waldhere of London to Archbishop Brihtwald of Canterbury in which he mentions that a reconciliation has taken place[318].

The noble youth Guthlac who came to study at Repton afterwards became famous, and many accounts of his life have been written[319]. The earliest version, drafted by his friend Felix, supplies some interesting details of the life at Repton and the studies there[320].

We are told that Guthlac's progress was wonderful. 'When he had been there two years he had learnt the psalms, the canticles, the hymns and prayers after the ecclesiastical order,' but he met with disapproval in the monastery by refusing to drink wine. The accounts which he read of the solitary life of the older monks filled him with a longing for solitude, and he left Repton and wandered about till he found the place of his heart's desire at Crowland in the fen country, where he determined to settle. He had received the tonsure at Repton and returned there on a visit before finally settling at Crowland. He did not break his connection with Repton, for we hear that the abbess Ecgburh who succeeded Aelfthrith sent him as a gift a coffin made of wood and lead, together with a linen winding-sheet, and asked who should be warden of the place after him, as though she regarded Crowland as a dependency of Repton[321].

The abbess Ecgburg was the daughter of King Ealdwulf of East Anglia (? 714)[322], and an eloquent letter which is quoted later in my account of Boniface's correspondents was probably written by her[323].

In connection with Guthlac's solitary life we hear of a woman Pega, who had also chosen a retreat in the fen country, at a place afterwards known as Peykirk, which is now situated on a peninsula formed by the uplands of Northamptonshire and connected with the mound on which Guthlac dwelt by a ridge of gravel, but which at that time formed an island[324]. One version of Guthlac's life tells how 'he had a sister called Pega whom he would not see in this life, to the intent that they might the rather meet in the life to come'; and another manuscript life says that the Evil One appeared to the saint in the form of Pega. Mr W. de Birch Gray who has reprinted these accounts notices that the tone in which Florence of Worcester speaks of Pega suggests that to him at least she appeared more famous than Guthlac[325].

Different accounts of Guthlac agree that at his death his companions at once departed to fetch Pega. In the celebrated series of drawings of the 12th century, which set forth the story of St Guthlac, the holy woman Pega is depicted twice[326]. In one picture she steps into the boat, in which the companion of Guthlac has come to fetch her, and in the other she is represented as supporting the saint, who is enveloped in his shroud.

The connection between Guthlac and Pega is at least curious, and the authority she at once assumed is noteworthy. 'For three days' space with sacred hymns of praise she commended the holy man to God,' says the Anglo-Saxon prose version of his life[327]. And further, 'After his death when he had been buried twelve months God put it into the heart of the servant of the Lord that she should remove the brother's body to another tomb. She assembled thither many of the servants of God and mass-priests, and others of the ecclesiastical order.... She wound the holy corpse, with praises of Christ's honour, in the other sheet which Ecgbriht the anchoress formerly sent him when alive for that same service.'

The Acts of the Saints give an account of St Pega or Pegia and tell us that she went to Rome where she died[328]. Her reputation for holiness, as far as it is preserved, is based chiefly on her connection with Guthlac, but these accounts leave room for much that must necessarily remain conjecture.

Other women-saints who were reputed to have lived about this period, and who were brought into connection with the rulers of Mercia, claim a passing attention, although their legends written at a much later date supply the only information we have about them. Thus there is St Osith[329] of Colchester, whose legend written in the 13th century is full of hopeless anachronisms. The house of Augustinian canons at Chich[330] in the 12th century was dedicated conjointly to the saints Peter and Paul and to the woman-saint Osith; a canon of this house, Albericus Veerus, probably wrote her legend. Perhaps St Osith of Aylesbury is identical with her[331].

Our information is equally untrustworthy concerning St Frideswith, patron saint of Oxford, for it dates no further back than the 12th century[332]. The chief interest in her legend is that its author establishes a connection between incidents in the life of Frideswith, and the dread which the kings of England had of entering Oxford; a dread which as early as 1264 is referred to as an 'old superstition[333].'

All these women are credited in their legends with founding monasteries and gaining local influence, and excepting in the case of St Tibba, I have come across no coupling of their names with profane cults. Other women-saints who may perhaps be classed with them, though little survives except their names, are St Osburg of Coventry[334], St Modwen of Strenhall in Staffordshire and Burton-on-Trent[335], and St Everhild of Everingham in Yorkshire[336].

Other names which occur in local calendars will be found in the Menology of Stanton, who has compiled a very complete list of men- and women-saints in England and Wales from a number of local calendars.

In contrast to the uncertainty which hangs about the settlements under woman's rule in the Midlands and around their founders, two houses founded in the south of England during the 7th century stand out in clear prominence. Barking in Essex, and Wimbourne in Dorsetshire, attained a considerable degree of culture, and the information which has been preserved concerning them is ample and trustworthy.

Bede has devoted several chapters of his history to stories connected with Barking[337]. It owed its foundation to Earconwald sometime bishop of London (675-693) who, after founding a settlement at Chertsey in Surrey under the rule of an abbot, in 666 made a home for his sister Aethelburg at Barking[338] where 'he established her excellently in the regular discipline.' Aethelburg appears to have been an energetic person, and has been raised to the rank of saint[339]. Her settlement included men as well as women, and young children seem to have been entrusted to her care for their education.

Bede says that 'having taken the rule of the monastery she showed herself worthy of her brother the bishop in all respects, both by living rightly herself, and by the pious and prudent course she took to rule those who were subject to her; this was proved by celestial miracles.'

A number of these miracles are described by him with considerable power. Between 664 and 684, a great pestilence, the earliest on record in Christian times, visited England and carried off many of the inmates of Barking. First a boy of three years fell ill and in dying called by name the nun Eadgith, who presently died. Another nun called Torctgith[340] also had a vision of impending death. 'One night at the beginning of dawn, having gone forth from the chamber in which she abode, she saw plainly as it were a human body, which was brighter than the sun, carried up on high, wrapped in fine linen, and lifted apparently from the house in which the sisters were usually placed to die. And when she looked more intently to see by what means the apparition of a glorious body which she beheld was raised on high, she saw that it was lifted up into the upper regions as it were by cords brighter than gold, until being introduced into the opening heavens it could no longer be seen by her.'

This imagery foretold the death of Abbess Aethelburg, who was carried off by the pestilence. She was succeeded at Barking by Hildelith, whom Boniface refers to as a very estimable person and who has also found a place among the saints[341]. Capgrave speaks of her having been educated in France, whence she came to Barking at the desire of Bishop Earconwald to help in establishing the foreign system of discipline.

It was for the abbess Hildelith and her companions at Barking that the scholar Ealdhelm (? 709) wrote his great treatise on Virginity, a long and elaborate composition which sets before these women the beauties of the virgin life with a mass of illustration taken from religious and classical literature. From the point of view of women's religious life, it is worth while to describe this treatise at some length, for it shows what a high degree of culture had been attained at Barking towards the close of the seventh century.

Ealdhelm, born of noble parentage about the year 640, is the representative in southern England of the classical revival which was about this time engrafted on Christian teaching. He studied first at Malmesbury under the learned Scot Maidulf and then at Canterbury where Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian were attracting many students, and where he perfected his Latin and musical studies and acquired in some measure the rare and much esteemed knowledge of Greek. 'A wonder of erudition in liberal as well as in ecclesiastical writings,' Bede calls him[342]. From Canterbury he returned to Malmesbury, which owing to his influence attained a fame which it kept till the Middle Ages. In 705 when Wessex was divided into two bishoprics, Ealdhelm was made bishop of the see of Sherbourne.

The interest Ealdhelm took in women was so great that posterity pictured him as continually in their society[343]. Besides his great treatise, passages in his other works bear witness to this interest. In a letter addressed to Sigegith[344], he gave advice about the baptism of a nun who had been received into her community while still a heathen; to another nun whose name is not mentioned he sent a letter together with several poems[345]. He composed verses in praise of a church which Bugga, a daughter of King Centwin (670-685), had built[346]. And besides the prose treatise on virginity addressed to the sisterhood of Barking, he wrote a long poem in heroic hexameters on the same subject called the 'Praise of Virgins'; it has a preface addressed to the abbess Maxima, and is followed by a poem on the 'Eight chief Sins,' likewise intended for the perusal of nuns[347].

Ealdhelm opens his prose work on virginity[348] with thanks to the women of Barking for the writings they have sent to him. Hildelith, Justina, Cuthburg, Osburg, Ealdgith, Scholastica, Hidburg, Burngith, Eulalia and Tecla are addressed by name. He praises them as gymnosophists, as scholars and as fighters in the arena of discipline (c. 2). Like unto bees, he says (c. 4), they collect everywhere material for study.

Sometimes, he says, you study the Prophets, sometimes the Books of the Law, 'now skilfully tracking the fourfold wording of the gospel story, expounded in the mystic commentaries of the Catholic fathers, and spiritually bared to the kernel, and disposed fitly according to the four-square pattern of ecclesiastical usage, namely according to the letter, allegory, tropology and anagogy[349]; now carefully searching into the writers of history and into the collections of chronographers, who have handed down the changing events of the past in wording that impresses the mind. Sometimes you carefully examine the rules of grammarians, the laws of accentuation measured by tone and time, fixed in poetic feet by marks of punctuation, that is divided into parts of verse consisting of two and a half and three and a half feet, and changed in endless varieties of metre.'

Ealdhelm then enlarges on the beauties of the virgin's life, and dwells especially on the charms of peaceful companionship which it secures. Again in their dwelling and working together the women are likened to bees.

The charms of the virgin's life are then set forth in language redundant of imagery, verbose and grandiloquent in the extreme. We are told of the temptations which those who have adopted a religious life must guard against (c. 11). There are eight sins as to which they are especially warned; the chief of these is pride. Women are then directed as to the books they should make a special subject of study, and are recommended to peruse the works of Cassian (who in the 5th century wrote the 'Duties of Monastic Life') and the 'Moralities' of Gregory the Great (which contain reflections suggested by the book of Job), and they are advised to study the Psalms to avoid unhappiness (c. 14). With the love of contrast peculiar to early writers, Ealdhelm shows how the women who serve God and those who do not are different in their bearing and outward appearance, and enlarges on the relative value of different estates (c. 17): virginity is of gold, chastity is of silver; marriage (jugalitas) is of brass; and again: virginity is wealth, chastity is sufficiency, marriage is poverty, etc.

He then displays the wide range of his learning by adducing many writers in support of his views (c. 20-40), in passages which are elaborate and instructive but wearisome through their reiterations. He enumerates all the women famous for their religious lives. The Virgin Mary comes first and she is followed by many women-saints of Italy and the East, on whom there is in some cases much, in others little, comment. In this list we in vain look for the names of religious women living on this side of the Alps. Helen the mother of Constantine (c. 48) is referred to, but her British origin is not mentioned and the idea of it had probably not arisen in Ealdhelm's time.

The writer again turns to those who are devoted to religion, and in passages which are full of interest as a study of the times complains of the personal appearance of the clergy and of those women who have chosen religion as a profession. These passages are among the most instructive in regard to women and clearly show how completely life in a nunnery at the beginning of the 8th century differed from what it was later on.

'It shames me,' he says, 'to speak of the bold impudence of conceit and the fine insolence of stupidity which are found both among nuns (sanctimoniales) who abide under the rule of a settlement, and among the men of the Church who live as clergy under the rule of the Pontiff. These act contrary to canonical decrees and to the rule of regular life, for with many-coloured vestments[350] and with elegant adornments the body is set off and the external form decked out limb by limb. The appearance of the other sex agrees with it; a vest of fine linen of a violet colour is worn, above it a scarlet tunic with a hood, sleeves striped with silk and trimmed with red fur; the locks on the forehead and the temples are curled with a crisping iron, the dark head-veil is given up for white and coloured head-dresses which, with bows of ribbon sewn on, reach down to the ground; the nails, like those of a falcon or sparrow-hawk, are pared to resemble talons'.... This state of things Ealdhelm strongly condemns. But he adds the remark that he is addressing no one in particular, evidently to avoid any umbrage his women friends might take at these remarks. His reference to luxurious clothing does not stand alone. The description Bede gives of the women at Coldingham has been quoted, and Boniface in a letter[351] to Cuthberht of Canterbury speaks of 'the adornment of clothes, trimmed with wide edging of purple,' which, he says, is deteriorating the young men in the monasteries, and foretells the coming of Antichrist. Sumptuous clothes as vestments during religious service remained in use, but in all other respects they were condemned as prejudicial to the welfare of those who were vowed to religion.

Ealdhelm's work on virginity closes with an affectionate greeting to his women friends in which he addresses them finally as 'Flowers of the Church, sisters of monastic life, scholarly pupils, pearls of Christ, jewels of Paradise, and sharers of the eternal home.'

His work was greatly prized and widely read both by his own and by later generations. It is extant in several copies of the 8th century[352], and maintained its reputation throughout the Middle Ages. William of Malmesbury (? 1141) in his account of Ealdhelm specifies the work on virginity as one 'than which nothing can be more pleasing[353].' It still held its own when printing was introduced, for it was published at Deventer in Holland in 1512, and has since been reprinted for devotional purposes[354].

Among those on whom the book made a profound impression was Cuthburg, sister of King Ina of Wessex (688-725). She was at one time an inmate of the Barking settlement and was probably one of those to whom the work was addressed.

Cuthburg was held as a saint for founding a settlement at Wimbourne in Dorset[355], where the cult of her sister Cwenburg was associated with hers. Cuthburg as mentioned above was said to have left her husband Ealdfrith of Northumbria (? 705) from religious motives. Her being held in veneration as a virgin saint may be due to her name being coupled with that of a virgin sister[356]. Missals printed at Rouen in 1515, and at Paris in 1519 and 1529, have an office prescribed for Cuthburg as a virgin[357]. The statement that she was the mother of Osred, afterwards king of Northumbria (706-717), is perhaps unfounded.

There is no doubt as to Ealdhelm's friendly relations both with Cuthburg and her husband. He dedicated his enigmas to Ealdfrith under the title 'Adcircius[358],' and in a letter dated 705 he declares that liberty of election is granted to all congregations under his government including that called 'Wimburnia,' over which Cuthburg, the king's sister, presides[359]. A manuscript of the 14th century, preserved in the nunnery of Romsey, contains a collection of saints' lives, and gives a full account of a conversation Cuthburg had with her husband previous to their separation[360]. It further relates how she placed the basilica of her settlement under the protection of the Mother of God, and was herself buried in it. She died some time between 720 and 730, probably nearer the earlier date, for several abbesses are said to have ruled between her and Tetta. The name of Tetta has been brought into connection with a place named Tetbury, but we know nothing definite concerning a monastery there[361]. As abbess of Wimbourne she was the teacher of Lioba, called also Leobgith, who went abroad at the desire of Boniface as we shall see further on.

In the life of Lioba we get a description of the settlement of Wimbourne[362], which may be somewhat coloured to show the result of Tetta's strict and beneficent rule, but which deserves attention as yielding a fair example of the arrangements which in the eyes of its author appeared desirable for a monastery of women. The author, Rudolf of Fulda, was a monk who wrote between 800 and 850, and who compiled his work from notices which Magno (? c. 838) had collected from women pupils of Lioba[363].

'There were two settlements at Wimbourne, formerly erected by the kings of the country, surrounded by strong and lofty walls and endowed with ample revenues. Of these one was designed for men, the other for women; but neither, for such was the rule of their foundation, was ever entered by any member of the other sex. No woman had permission to come among the congregation of the men, no man to enter into the dwellings of the women, with the exception of the priests who entered to celebrate mass and withdrew at once when service was over. If a woman, desirous of quitting the world, asked to be admitted to the sisterhood (collegium), she joined it on condition that she should not leave it unless a reasonable cause or a special occasion took her out with the leave of the abbess. The abbess herself, when she gave orders in affairs of the settlement or tendered advice, spoke through a window and there gave her decision....'

Wimbourne stands last in the list of well authenticated monastic foundations made by women during the early Anglo-Saxon period; of such foundations more than twenty have been mentioned in the course of this chapter. Others no doubt existed at this time, but we only hear of them at a later date. We find among them some of the centres most influential in enabling the Anglo-Saxons to attain a high degree of culture within a hundred years of their conversion to Christianity.

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