The History of Lindisfarne part 4: After Aidan

King Ecgfrith attempting to persuade St Cuthbert to leave his hermitage and become a hermit.

Aidan died on 31 August 651. With his death, the simmering controversy over when to celebrate Easter came to a head. Developing in relative isolation, the Irish church had come to calculate the date of Easter differently from the rest of the church, with the result that King Oswiu (Oswald’s brother, who reigned after him) might be fasting while his queen, who followed the Roman method, was celebrating.

Such disunity in the royal household could not continue and, at a synod held in Whitby in 664, Oswiu decided for Rome. Those monks at Lindisfarne who would not accept the changes returned to Iona. But to ease the Northumbrian church into these new ways, Oswiu installed Cuthbert as prior of Lindisfarne.

With the backing and protection of the kings of Northumbria, the monks of Lindisfarne seeded daughter monasteries through the north east: Whitby, Melrose, Jarrow and Wearmouth, Ripon. Although the political strength of Northumbria lessened in the 8th century, the Northumbrian church entered a cultural golden age, producing extraordinary works such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the vernacular poetry of Cædmon, not to mention Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, without which our knowledge of the era would be bare indeed.

It was from Lindisfarne that Christianity spread. Faced with a choice between the religion of the people they had defeated and their own ancestral paganism, the Anglo-Saxons, through the 7th century, freely chose Christianity. The example and teaching of men like Aidan and Cuthbert, and women like Hild, abbess of Whitby, was crucial in this conversion.

The History of Lindisfarne part 3: Aidan

St Aidan of Lindisfarne

Christianity in Ireland had developed in a land never conquered by the Roman Empire, a country entirely without the towns that provided bases for bishops elsewhere. In response, Irish Christianity established itself around monasteries, with bishops often also acting as abbots. Aidan himself was both abbot and bishop, but he arrived in Northumbria with a significant disadvantage: he didn’t speak the language. While he learned it, Oswald acted as his interpreter. One imagines that, having the king act as translator, must have aided Aidan’s initial missionary effort considerably.

But an early Medieval king was peripatetic, travelling with his court to royal estates throughout his kingdom, doling out justice and consuming the food renders that were the chief forms of taxation. With Oswald so often away, it was down to Aidan to spread the new word.

He did this through a mixture of stringent self-discipline and humility, coupled with open-handed generosity. As a member of the nobility, Aidan was entitled to ride a horse – indeed, having a horse would have made his job much easier, enabling him to ride between the widely-scattered settlements of Northumbria. But, when he was given a fine and expensive horse by the king, he promptly gave it away to the first poor man he passed. When remonstrated with, Aidan pointed out that any son of Adam, however poor, was worth more than any son of a mare, no matter how valuable.

The self-discipline was evident in the monastery Aidan built on Lindisfarne. Surrounded by a ditch and bank, Aidan’s monastery constituted only those buildings strictly necessary for the daily round of prayer and labour that was the great work of monks. There was a church, made of wood and thatched, a cemetery, the most basic accommodation for the monks, and the workshops and sheds necessary for the other great work of early Medieval monasteries: book production. That was it. Even royal guests had to rough it.

The History of Lindisfarne part 2: End of Empire

The reconstruction of a currach: seaworthy but scary in high seas.

After the Romans left, Britain split into many small kingdoms as the native Britons (Christian, literate and heirs, in their minds at least, to Roman civilisation) slowly retreated before the advance of the incoming Anglo-Saxons (pagan, illiterate and never subject to the Empire). This was a slow-motion conquest, taking centuries, and Oswald’s ancestor, Ida, had launched the northern line of attack when he took the stronghold of Bamburgh in the middle of the 6th century.

Oswald’s father, King Æthelfrith, had hugely expanded the kingdom of Northumbria’s power at the start of the 7th century, only to be killed in battle. By his brother-in-law. Politics was a bloody family business then. With Oswald’s Uncle Edwin in charge, Oswald’s mother thought it better to go into exile to the sea-spanning kingdom of Dal Riada (present-day Argyll and County Antrim).

Oswald grew up amid the sea lochs and islands of the north west, becoming fluent in Old Irish. Most importantly, for the future of England, he sailed a currach (traditional boat with animal hides stetched over a wooden frame) to Iona. Here, Colm Cille had founded a monastery and it was here that Oswald embraced the religion of the people his ancestors had displaced: Christianity.

The History of Lindisfarne part 1: How the Irish came to England

Two castles in one photo: Lindisfarne and, on the horizon, Bamburgh.

Kneeling, a young man held the wooden cross upright while the armed men around him backfilled the earth around the cross and made it fast. The man was an exiled prince named Oswald and tomorrow he would fight for his kingdom. But on the eve of the battle, he called down God’s blessing on his small warband.

Oswald received it. The next day, at the Battle of Heavenfield (633/4), he defeated and killed Cadwallon of Gwynedd and reclaimed the realm his father had lost. The king had returned.

Now ruler, Oswald lost no time in sending back to Iona for priests and monks to bring his people to faith in the God who had brought him victory. But, first time round, it didn’t work out so well: Bishop Corman returned, disgruntled, to Iona, complaining that the English were ungovernable and of barbarous temperament.     

Rather than give up – these Irish monks, given to mortifying penances and setting off to sea with neither sails nor oars, didn’t give up easily – Iona sent a new man, Aidan, to Oswald, and the king gave Aidan a base for his mission: Lindisfarne.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The incipit of the Gospel of Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels were written at the end of the 7th century. Their 258 pages (which would have required the unblemished skin of 150 calves) contain the four Gospels, introductory material and a line-by-line translation of the original Latin into Old English, added in the mid-10th century. The translator, Aldred, added a colophon saying who had done what in producing the Gospels. Almost unbelievably, one monk, Eadfrith (later bishop of Lindisfarne) had written and drawn it all. Most early medieval manuscripts were made by teams of monks, so could one man really have done this all? Recent work has confirmed what Aldred said: the Gospels really are the work of one man, although other, named, monks bound the book and covered it.

The Gospels were written “for God and St Cuthbert and for all the saints whose relics are in the island”. They are on display at the British Library; the heritage centre on Lindisfarne has an electronic fascimile.

Adventures in Words: The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

Silk. Even today the word carries connotations of luxury, elegance and cool sophistication. How much more was that the case in the 7th century when the only silk available in Europe, and in particular the still glorious Roman Empire based in Constantinople, had to be imported all the way from India. Wealthy Romans – and wealthy Romans were very wealthy – loved to flaunt their money by sponsoring Games (the old gladiatorial games had been outlawed when the Empire became Christian but the new Christian Empire became fanatically addicted to chariot racing) and wearing rich silk clothing. As the silk had to be transported through the territory of Rome’s long-standing enemy, the Sassanids, this left the Emperor beholden to his foes for supplying his magnates with their clothing.

In his history of the Emperor Justinian, Procopius mentions, in a small aside, how the secret of silk, silk worms breeding and feeding on mulberry bushes, was smuggled out of India and to Constantinople. From this short aside, Evans fashions a marvellously picaresque adventure novel where his protagonists, a retired charioteer, a disgraced aristocratic soldier looking to redeem his reputation and a general fixer who is convinced the world is flat, have to travel to India, retrieve the secret and get back to New Rome, all while being dogged by Sassanid secret agents.

It’s a marvellous romp across a world and a time that is little known, and that, unbeknownst to itself, would not last much longer. The Sassanids themselves would be overthrown in the next century when the conquering armies of Islam swept them aside. The Byzantines were shaken but rallied, but the central Asian world that our trio of adventurers cross was irrevocably changed.

Evans does a stirling job of bringing the time and its people to life, infusing the people with humanity while not downplaying the cultural strangeness of the time to modern people. The Charioteer is the first in a new series and I look forward to reading more adventures from Cal, Theo and Cosmas, and hope the book gets the readership it deserves. One word of warning though: don’t get too attached to the subsidiary characters. Not many of them make it through.

Broken Sword

A pattern-welded sword forged by Owen Bush.

Perhaps the most evocative relic of the 7th century is a rusty broken sword.

Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was about to be put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it.

The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect.

Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.

After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. However, this exquisite pattern-welded blade, forged by Owen Bush, gives some idea of what it would have looked like when it was drawn from its scabbard and wielded in battle.

In autumn, Birlinn is publishing ‘The Perfect Sword’ by Paul Gething and I which tells the story of this sword, how it was forged and the men that made and used it.

Æthelstan the Glorious part 6: King of Kings

In contrast to his portrayal in Vikings, the real Athelstan was Alfred’s grandson, not Alfred’s father!

Having come to the throne, Æthelstan did not forget the family strategy, begun by his grandfather, Alfred, and continued by his father and aunt: to take back the country from the Vikings. So when the Viking king of York died unexpectedly, Æthelstan moved with the decisiveness he had learned from his father and aunt. While the Northmen sent to Dublin for a new king, Æthelstan rode north and took the city, bringing Northumbria under his control. Such was Æthelstan’s prestige and power now that he could summon all the kings of Britain to come to him and, on 12 July 927, they all swore peace with him and forswore any dealings with idolaters. Through this, Æthelstan sought to ensure that none of them would think to make alliance with the pagan Vikings against him.

Æthelstan was now a king of European stature and, with a bevy of marriageable half sisters through his father’s fecundity, he set about arranging alliances with the royal houses of Europe. But north of the border, Constantin, king of the Scots, brooded on the oath he had sworn to Æthelstan and kicked against its constraints.

In 934, Æthelstan could brook Constantin’s disloyalty no longer. Assembling the kings and princes who had sworn loyalty to him, Æthelstan marched north, into Scotland, harrying and burning, with the object of teaching Constantin a lesson in the wisdom of oathkeeping. Seeing the army arrayed against him, Constantin retreated and offered no battle, settling back into apparent loyalty. But he was waiting the opportunity to put Æthelstan’s rule to the test. That test would come at Brunanburh.

Æthelstan the Glorious part 5: Taking the Crown

The oldest portrait of an English king: Æthelstan as portrayed in a copy of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert dating from 934.

Æthelstan’s father, Edward the Elder, died on 17 July 924. However, it was by no means certain that Æthelstan would be the next king. Edward had sons by his wife, Ælflæd, who had been brought up in Wessex, whereas Æthelstan was almost unknown there. So when Edward died, the question of who would be king after him, and king of where, was very much open.

Æthelstan was acclaimed king by the witan of Mercia but there was a son, Ælfweard, in Wessex who expected a crown too. Perhaps the most likely outcome would have been for the two kingdoms to split apart again, each ruled by one of Edward’s sons. But then, barely two weeks later, Ælfweard followed Edward into death. So convenient a death could not but arouse suspicion, even though Æthelstan appears to have had no hand in it.

It was a year before Æthelstan was finally consecrated king, his coronation, for coronation it was, the first in these islands, taking place in Kingston, Surrey, on the River Thames, the traditional border between Wessex and Mercia. By placing his coronation there, Æthelstan was making a clear political point: he would be king of both kingdoms, cleaving neither to one nor the other, but ruling both justly and well, to the limit of his abilities.

Æthelstan’s commitment to this service was total. Uniquely among early Medieval kings, Æthelstan never married and there are no records of bastard children born to him. His father, who had moved on to wife number three during his lifetime when his rule needed reinforcement from a different direction, had left no shortage of heirs. Seeing the realm come close to descending to civil war on his accession, Æthelstan vowed himself to chastity, thus ensuring that one of Edward’s younger sons would eventually succeed him. By doing this, he prevented a political schism between partisans of factions supporting him or his brothers, at the price of a lifetime of celibacy.

In this hard road he had chosen, Æthelstan was supported by his fervent faith. He believed, to the core of his being, that God had given him the kingship for the purpose of the safeguarding and care of his people, and that failure to act thus would come at the price of his soul. As king, Æthelstan enacted a stream of legislation to better protect his people, from outlawing the death penalty on those under the age of 15 to requiring his royal officials and the stewards of royal estates to care for the needy and provide food for the destitute: Æthelstan was determined that none of his people should die for lack of food, for God had given him the duty to feed them.

Æthelstan the Glorious part 4: Woman’s Work

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, by Annatoone – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Although his father had put him aside, Æthelstan could have had no better mentor than his aunt, Æthelflæd. Alfred had regained half the ancient and historic kingdom of Mercia on signing the treaty with Guthrum that had divided the country into the Danelaw and Anglo-Saxon territory. Mindful of Mercian sensibilities, Alfred had installed a local alderman, Æthelred, to govern it rather than imposing direct rule from Wessex upon a proud and independent kingdom. But to ensure that he was kept informed of what the Mercians were doing, Alfred married his eldest daughter, the clever and determined Æthelflæd, to Æthelred.

When Æthelred fell victim to a long and debilitating illness, it was Æthelflæd who took control of the kingdom. This was unique in Anglo-Saxon history: a woman as de facto ruler of a kingdom. But Æthelflæd had already proven herself to her people: she was known ever after as Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

When Alfred died, Æthelflæd continued to align Mercian strategy with that of her brother, Edward. It was the strategy laid out by their father, Alfred, and one that he had entrusted to his children to see through: first the securing of their realms and then the reconquest of the Danelaw.

Teaching her nephew, Æthelstan, as she went, the Lady of the Mercians advanced inexorably into what had been Viking-held territory, turning the defensive strategy of burhs, fortified towns, into an offensive tactic by fortifying towns as she captured them. By 918, Edward and Æthelflæd had done what two decades earlier must have seemed impossible: they had reconquered the Danelaw. But Æthelflæd died on 12 June 918, and it was to Edward that “all the people who had settled in Mercia, both Danish and English, submitted”, and following Æthelflæd’s death he moved quickly to incorporate Mercia into his realm, removing Æthelflæd’s daughter, Ælfwynn, from power and putting her into a convent.

Edward was now king of Wessex and Mercia but he had sons with his queen consort whom he favoured and who could certainly count on more support in Wessex than Æthelstan. What would happen on Edward’s death remained an open question.