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St Aethelwold

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St Aethelwold

Died 984


(see long history)

Aethelwold, Abbot of Abingdon from 954 to 963 and thereafter Bishop of Winchester, was one of the three men who brought England into the movement for monastic reform that had started in continental Europe earlier in the century. The others were Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury and later Archbishop of Canterbury, and Oswald, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York.

Aethelwold’s career started at Glastonbury which, under Dunstan, was the first of the English monasteries to be reformed according to the rule of St Benedict. His transfer to Abingdon was the first extension of the movement outside Glastonbury, and Abingdon Abbey was to prove a prototype of what could be achieved. Like most of the earlier foundations, it had declined into an impoverished group of priests who neither followed monastic rules nor practised community of goods, and might be married. Aethelwold replaced them with monks of his own choice. He ruthlessly reclaimed estates that had been alienated, caring little for the rights of their current owners, and raised further endowments from the king and the royal family. The abbey was transformed into a place of splendour, with buildings in the latest continental style, liturgical equipment rich in silver and gold, elaborate ceremonial, and the production of music, poetry, and illuminated manuscripts. The future king, Edgar, was educated there.

It was Edgar who became Aethelwold’s principal patron. In 963, he moved Aethelwold to Winchester, where the Old and New Minsters were reformed in the same way but on a larger scale. It was an innovation that cathedrals and monasteries were to be unified and staffed entirely by monks; among the reformers, it was Aethelwold who was most aggressively committed to the principle that there was little room in the church for clerics who were not under monastic discipline. Once at Winchester, he started an intense programme of similar reforms elsewhere, sending out trained and committed monks as abbots and serving Edgar’s political interests by expanding his influence eastwards into regions where it had not previously been strong. Two of Aethelwold’s re-foundations, Ely and Peterborough, survive as major cathedrals.

At his death in 984, Aethelwold left behind a reform movement in vigorous expansion thanks to a generation of monks he had trained; a corpus of writings that included classical scholarship, religious manuals, and poetry; a ‘Winchester School’ of manuscript illumination; and a group of former pupils who venerated him and ensured his canonisation as St Aethelwold.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2014

(see short history)

The early history of the Abbey of St Mary in Abingdon is unclear, but it was during the abbacy of Aethelwold, between 954 and 963, that it became the major institution that it would remain until its dissolution almost six hundred years later.

Aethelwold was one of the great men of his time. His main historical importance is as a churchman. With his friend Dunstan, later Archbishop of Canterbury, and Oswald, later Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York, he was the among the first protagonists in England of the tenth-century Europe-wide movement to reform and restore the monastic ideal, which had generally fallen into decline.[1] For this, all three of them would be canonised after their deaths. But all of them were noteworthy also as scholars and teachers, and as politicians in their own right.

Aethelwold was born between 904 and 909 to a wealthy and well-connected family in Winchester. As an adolescent, following the usual practice, he was placed in the court of King Aethelstan, where he made the close contacts with the royal family that would later stand him in good stead. He came under the influence of Aelfheah, Bishop of Winchester, who was the uncle of Dunstan, and who ordained both of them at some time in the later 930s.[2] In 940, Dunstan became abbot of Glastonbury; Aethelwold joined him there a few years later and took his vows as a monk.[3] Glastonbury seems to have been the one English monastery that had survived the general decay, and Dunstan restored it into full conformity with the monastic rule of St Benedict. It also became a centre of scholarship where Aethelwold both studied and taught.[4]

In 953, Aethelwold sought royal permission to travel in France and study the reformed monasticism that was already practised there. King Eadred refused permission but instead named him as abbot of the decayed monastery of St Mary in Abingdon. Its properties had been depleted by Viking raids and by the depredations of local magnates, including the royal family.[5] It then consisted of about a dozen clergy - canons, not monks, for they neither followed any monastic rule nor held their property in common - who functioned as minster priests in some relationship with those of St Helen’s that remains obscure.[6]

Aethelwold descended on the monastery and reformed it with vigour. The canons were expelled. Generous grants of land were obtained from members of the royal family, and estates that had been lost were recovered with little consideration for the claims of their current owners.[7] The abbey was repopulated with monks whom Aethelwold had hand-picked from Glastonbury and elsewhere.[8] He sent one of his monks to the abbey of Fleury in France to learn the latest practices there, and he began a programme of rebuilding, following the most prestigious architectural models of the time.[9] The only surviving description of the church is imprecise, but suggests a rounded structure similar to Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen.[10]

By 963, or, according to some sources, 965, the new church was ready to be consecrated, and it was splendidly equipped with gold and silver vessels and liturgical equipment. The reredos behind the altar had silver statues of the apostles. Lighting was from a great gold-plated wheel suspended from above and carrying twelve lamps from which hung small bells.[11] Singing masters had been imported from Corbie, another French abbey, to teach the Gregorian chant, not yet familiar in England.[12]

It was when Edgar became king of all England in 959 - having previously been ‘king north of the Thames’ under his brother Eadwig - that Aethelwold’s career entered its most active phase.[13] It seems that Edgar had earlier been his pupil at Abingdon, and he now joined the king’s circle as a counsellor and secretary, drafting documents and charters.[14] In 963 he returned to his home town of Winchester where he was consecrated bishop, and where he would remain for the rest of his life. This was in line with the view of the monastic reformers that the main religious functions, including episcopacy, should be carried out by professed monks and not by secular priests who were not subject to monastic rule and who had social or family commitments outside the church. The reform at Winchester was even more aggressive than that at Abingdon. It had been thoroughly prepared, and papal authority obtained.[15] With Edgar’s support, Aethelwold used armed force to expel the canons from the New and Old Minsters, even though the New Minster had been a canonry since its foundation.[16] Some of his Abingdon monks accompanied him to repopulate the minsters, and the Old Minster now combined the functions of monastery and cathedral.[17]

Captured pic at higher quality_0.JPG

Illustration from the Benedictional believed to show Aethelwold at the dedication of Winchester Cathedral in 980. © British Library Board, Add. Ms. 49598

It was thus at Winchester that the greater part of his life-work was done, for which Abingdon was merely a preparation.[18] Endowments were secured, not least from the king and his family. The Old Minster was rebuilt and expanded to include a shrine to the local saint, St Swithun.[19] From Winchester Aethelwold planned and initiated a programme of reformation and re-foundation of monasteries in various parts of England, with special emphasis on the regions to the east and north, the Danelaw, where Wessex influence needed buttressing. He developed a cadre of trained and committed monks who could be sent out to man the restored institutions.[20] Two of these, at Ely and Peterborough, exist as cathedrals to this day.

At Winchester also, Aethelwold’s considerable scholarship found an outlet in writing and teaching. His own writing in Latin tended to be mannered, using uncommon words and phrases often derived from Greek, but his translations into the Old English vernacular were noteworthy for their accuracy and clarity.[21] His community produced a variety of writings, both verse and prose, which contributed to the standardisation of Old English as a literary language. A ‘Winchester School’ of manuscript illumination developed, with, as its high point, the Benedictional of St Aethelwold that he had commissioned.[22] Aethelwold’s own main literary achievement was the Regularis Concordia, a sort of handbook of monastic practice, based on St Benedict’s rule (which he had translated into English) but updated according to the best current English and continental practice.[23]

Aethelwold stands out as probably the greatest of the three pioneers of the monastic revival that would continue long after their deaths.[24] Certainly, he was the most aggressive and the most insistent on the primacy of monks rather than secular clergy in the controlling functions of the church, a specifically English aspect of the reform movement.[25] He was clearly able, far-sighted and hard-working; but his achievements depended also on his closeness to the ruling dynasty of his time. In England, as on the continent, centralising kingships saw their advantage in a network of religious institutions under a single rule and under an authority closely coupled to their own.[26] The treasure that the royal family expended to enable Aethelwold to recover monastic endowments served to weaken the regional magnates who had appropriated them, and the geographic spread of the reformed monasteries provided outposts of central influence in areas such as the Danelaw where it was otherwise weak.[27] Aethelwold made this church-state partnership explicit in his Regularis Concordia which, unusually in such manuals, provided for regular prayers for the royal family as part of the monastic liturgy.[28]

Aethelwold was canonised after his death in 984, no doubt to give lasting authentication to his achievements. There is some evidence that this was pre-arranged, and that he himself had helped to collect the materials to support his sainthood.[29] The process at the time was relatively informal; what was required was a vita, a hagiographical biography of stereotyped form and content, with anecdotal evidence of sanctity during life and miracles accomplished either during life or after death.[30] Such works were prepared by two of his students, Wulfstan of Winchester and Aelfric, a future abbot of Eynsham.[32] The miracles were rather commonplace; with a few exceptions, they were more coincidences and narrow escapes than nature-defying marvels. But in 996 the restoration of sight to a blind man from Wallingford prompted the removal of Aethelwold’s remains to a suitable shrine - the traditional ‘translation’ of a newly recognised saint.[33] His saint’s day was that of his death, 1 August, and his translation 10 September.[34] There was a second translation in Winchester in 1111.[35] This was attended by Faricius, then abbot of Abingdon, who took the opportunity of acquiring his arm and shoulder blade to take home as relics. His cult continued to be celebrated, albeit mostly in the monasteries with which he had been personally involved, as late as the fourteenth century.[36]

As Professor Stenton remarked, Aethelwold has somehow ‘never engaged the affections of historians’. His harsh dealings with the secular canons and with the property owners whom he dispossessed have been noted with disapproval, and some of the anecdotes that appear to show him as ‘putting the obedience of his monks to extravagant tests’ have been taken too literally.[37] But he made a significant contribution to the political unification of England, which was still not complete in his time: his insistence on the complementarity of church and monarchy foreshadows the struggles of six hundred years later, while inviting the comparison of one who was a great builder with a Cromwell whose achievement was in pulling down; and it was in the institutions that he founded that the English vernacular first reached maturity as a language of literary culture.[38] He was a great man, without whom Abingdon would not have developed in the way it did.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2014



[1] Mechthild Gretsch, ‘Benedictine reformers (act. c.960–c.1000)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. [, accessed 2 April 2014]; Patrick Wormald, ‘Aethelwold and his continental counterparts’ in Barbara Yorke (ed), Bishop Aethelwold: his career and influence (Woodbridge, 1988), p 35-6.

[2] Barbara Yorke, ‘Aethelwold and the politics of the tenth century’ in Yorke (ed), Aethelwold, pp  68, 73.

[3] Yorke, ‘Aethelwold’, p. 74.

[4] Michael Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, in Yorke (ed), Aethelwold p 89

[5] Alan Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, in Yorke (ed), Aethelwold pp.  42-47; Yorke, ‘Aethelwold’, p. 74.

[6] Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, pp 47-50.

[7] Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, p 53

[8] Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, pp 105-6.

[9] Barbara Yorke, ‘Introduction’ in Yorke (ed), Aethelwold p 7; Yorke, ‘Aethelwold and politics’ 74 fn 79.

[10] Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, pp  54-5, 56-7.

[11] Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, p 57-8

[12] Michael Lapidge and Michael Winterbottom, Wulfstan of Winchester: Life of St Aethelwold,(Oxford, 1991),pp lxvi, lxxxiii.

[13] Yorke, ‘Aethelwold and politics’, p 78

[14] Barbara Yorke, ‘Introduction’, p. 10; Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, pp. 90, 93-6.

[15] Wormald, ‘Aethelwold and his continental counterparts’, p. 34; Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, p xlvi.

[16] Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3rd Edn, Oxford, 1971), p. 445.

[17] Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, p  59; Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, pp xlvi-xlvii.

[18] Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, p  63.

[19] Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, p  61.

[20] Thacker, ‘Aethelwold and Abingdon’, p 59.

[21] Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, p.101.

[22] Yorke, ‘Introduction’, p. 8; Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, pp 106-7; Andrew Prescott, ‘The text of the Benedictional of St Aethelwold’, in Yorke (ed), Aethelwold, pp 119-148; Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, pp xciv-xcix..

[23] Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, pp 98-100.

[24] Yorke, ‘Introduction’, pp 9-10.

[25] Wormald, ‘Aethelwold and his continental counterparts’, pp 37-9.

[26] Wormald, ‘Aethelwold and his continental counterparts’ p. 32.

[27] Wormald, ‘Aethelwold and his continental counterparts’, pp 35-6

[28] Wormald, ‘Aethelwold and his continental counterparts’ p 33.

[29] Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, p 113.

[30] Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’,p 113; Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, pp ci-civ.

[32] Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, pp cv-cviii.

[33] Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, p 65; Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, pp 112-13.

[34] Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, p cxii; Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’, p 114.

[35] S J Ridyard, ‘’Condigna veneratio: post-conquest attitudes to the saints of the Anglo-Saxons’, in R A Brown (ed), Anglo-Norman Studies IX (Woodbridge, 1986), pp 179-208.

[36] Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, p cxxv; Lapidge, ‘Aethelwold as scholar and teacher’ pp 114-7.

[37] Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England p. 452; Yorke, ‘Introduction’, p. 12; Lapidge and Winterbottom, Wulfstan, pp cvii-cviii, 28-9..

[38] Wormald, ‘Aethelwold and his continental counterparts’ p 32; Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England pp. 458-62.

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