• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Orbis Britanniae: A Dark Age Alphabet



Agilbert (d. 675) was bishop successively of Dorchester-on-Thames and Paris. A Frank who’d studied in Ireland, he left the West Saxon bishopric when the King divided it, establishing an additional see at Winchester. An offended Agilbert departed and as bishop of Paris entertained the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, during the winter of AD 668 as the latter made his way to England.


Bede, the most learned Englishman to follow St Aldhelm, was responsible for, first, ensuring the English classified their dates in the BC/AD manner and, second, planting a Eusebian model of history at the heart of how the they understood themselves. Interestingly, the “venerable” chap made serious efforts to learn Greek – one of the manuscripts which he used to do so, a copy of the Acts of the Apostles with parallel Greek and Latin texts, still survives – and put it to good use in his commentaries on the New Testament.



Caedmon found the gift of song bestowed upon him one night. A prose translation of this seventh-century monk from Whitby runs: “Now we must laud the heaven-kingdom’s keeper, the Ordainer’s might and his mind’s intent, the work of the Father of glory: in that he, the Lord everlasting, appointed of each wondrous thing the beginning; he, holy Creator, at the first created heaven for a roof to the children of men; he, mankind’s Keeper, Lord everlasting, almighty Ruler, afterwards fashioned for mortals the middle-earth, the world.”


Durham is where the remains of England’s best-loved saint, Cuthbert, lie. Once a hermit on Farne Island (roughly seven miles south of Lindisfarne), he was famous for seeing (by second sight) the defeat and death of King Ecgfrith at distant Nechtansmere (AD 685). Witnesses also saw otters dry and warm his feet after his waist-deep prayers in the sea. In 698 the monks at Lindisfarne exhumed his body and found it incorrupt. After the Vikings raids began the monks became itinerant for seven years before settling at Chester le Street in 883. There they remained until 995 when they moved (with Cuthbert) to Durham where, in 1104, a shrine was constructed for him next to the high altar.



English clerics had an issue with drunkenness. Condemned as early as AD 747 at Clovesho, its twenty-first decree singled it out as an English vice – a claim confirmed by both Bede and Boniface. This wasn’t the only shortcoming if any of the stories emerging from monasteries were true. John the Old Saxon (d. 904), for instance, was almost bumped off by the monks at Athelney after clearly taking a dislike to his regime.

Fursey was one of several Irish monks swirling around England and the continent converting the most unlikely places. He established a monastery in the remains of a Roman Fort (probably Burgh Castle, Suffolk) and later moved on to Gaul. Compatriots such as Maeldubh founded the monastery at Malmesbury (later home to Aldhelm), while Dicuil built one at Bosham (West Sussex).


Guthlac (d. 714) was the sort of saint that dances on the pendulum of English history as it swings from the vivacissimo of the Beowulf-sque heroic age to a statelier Christian rhythm. He spent almost a decade living the life of an adventurer, plundering, laying waste and fighting anything that moved. Then he threw it all away to become a monk at Repton and then a hermit at Crowland in the Fens where he was visited by the great and the good including Ethelbald (a future King of Mercia).

Hodoeporicon. If there’s one Dark Age travel-book you’ve got to read it’s this one, by my favourite English monk, St Willibald. A Wessex lad (like yours truly) instead of stopping at Rome as most pilgrims, young Will went the whole hog and hopped from Sicily to Greece, from Cyprus to Syria. After visiting the Holy Places, he spent two years on a massive jolly in Constantinople before joining the monastic community at Monte Cassino. In later life he became a missionary bishop regaling anybody who’d listen in S. Germany with tales of how he’d once climbed into active volcanos (in the Lipari Islands), gobbled strange Roman yoghurts and fell afoul of idiotic Islamic bureaucracy. Whadda guy.



Isle of Wight was converted only three years before St Willibrord (d. 739) set off to convert Frisia. Later moving on to Thuringia and Hesse, the saint even tried to preach to the Danes (though with little success). The Anglo-Saxons were conscious of their Germanic homeland and felt a responsibility for those who were, as St Boniface (original name: Wynfrith) put it in 738, “of one blood and bone with us.”

Jarrow’s monastery was where the abbot Ceolfrith (d. 716) amassed a larger body of monks – over six hundred – than was ever again to be assembled in an English religious house. The abbot also encouraged the production of books. It was under his patronage that the calligraphic masterpiece Codex Amiatinus (now in Florence) was written.



Kentish opposition to Offa made the King so wild that he forced through a decision to raise the bishopric of Lichfield to archiepiscopal rank at the Council of Chelsea (AD 787), thus creating a new metropolitan province in Mercian territory at the expense of Canterbury. It did not last long and was wound up after Offa’s death.


Loch Ness monster was first referenced in Adomnan’s account of St Columba’s visits to Pictland.



Missal or more specifically the Roman missal is what Alcuin of York helped craft in his capacity as a liturgist when he edited (and combined) a new lectionary and sacramentary. This Roman Missal became standards throughout western Christendom and the post-Reformation Roman Chruch until the liturgical changes of the twentieth century.

Nothelm visited Rome AD 715-25 and transcribed letters from the papal archives, which he took to Bede for his use in the preparation of the Ecclesiastical History. In 735 he was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury.


Oswald was England’s first King-Saint or saintly King. His head was buried at Lindisfarne; the skull found inside the coffin of St. Cuthbert when it was opened in 1827 was probably his. His hands and arms were buried at the royal residence of Bamburgh. The remainder was laid in a shrine at the monastery of Bardney in Lincolnshire. However, they were removed to Gloucester by Ethelflaed (daughter of Alfred) where she had the church of St Oswald built.


Pope Gregory the Great had English churches dedicated to him throughout the Dark and Middle Ages. From the early seventh century his feast day on 12 March was observed in all English Churches – the only commemoration of a medieval Pope in the English ecclesiastical calendar to survive the scrutiny of sixteenth-century reformers.



Quotidian liturgies were a thing of the past in Winchester. Its Regularis Concordia provides our first evidence from anywhere in western Christendom for the performance of an Easter play.


Rome was where a surprising number of Anglo-Saxon kings went after abdicating. For instance, Cadwalla, King of Wessex, resigned his kingdom in AD 688 and went to Rome to be baptised, managing to bag a fulsome Latin epitaph commemorating his life by an archbishop of Milan in the process. Ine (resigning his throne in 726) followed suit.



Soliloquies of St. Augustine of Hippo, the Liber Regulae Pastoralis by Gregory the Great, and The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius were the three works that Alfred the Great personally translated (he self-taught himself Latin at the age of thirty-eight) in the hope that he could kick-start English erudition.


Theodore of Tarsus held the first (whole) council of the English Church at Hertford. The seventh decree laid down that annual council were to be held at a place named Clovesho (maybe Brixworth, Northamptonshire). The diocesan structure he created survived with only small modifications (such as the twelfth-century creation of sees at Ely and Carlisle) until the 1540s.



Uninhibited joy must have filled the air when, in AD 926, the ambassadors of Hugh (Duke of the Franks) presented Athelstan with the Sword of Constantine and Charlemagne’s lance (believed to be the Holy Lance with which Christ’s side had been pierced on the cross). Verse came easy to the English pen. To give a single example, the ninth-century Mercian Cynewulf wrote on the impeccably Byzantine themes of a) The Fates of the Apostles b) Elene (on the discovery of the True Cross by Helena) c) The Ascension.



Whitby’s monastery was founded by King Oswy in AD 657 and its first abbess was a Northumbrian princess, Hilda. It served as a royal mausoleum (the body of King Edwin was removed there, for instance) and in 664 it was where the Synod of Whitby was held to decide the Easter issue.


Xenophilia was hardly rife in England. Instead, blood feuds were ubiquitous. Uhtred, for instance, promised his father-in-law that he would kill an enemy of his, Thurbrand. The latter, however, got wind of this and struck first. Uhtred’s son, Ealdred, avenged his father by killing Thurbrand. So Thrubrand’s son Carl sought to ambush Ealdred until their friends intervened and forced a reconciliation. Both pledged a friendship and a joint pilgrimage to Rome. In 1038, however, Carl killed Ealdred. One of the latter’s daughters, however, had a son, Waltheof. He massacred all Carl’s sons and grandsons while they were feasting at Settrington near Malton – only two escaped.



York was raised to archiepiscopal status in AD 735. Paulinus had been an archbishop but all the succeeding incumbents of York had been bishops and therefore in theory subject to the authority of Canterbury. This was not an innovation, however, as the initiative (prompted by Egbert, Archbishop of York r. 735-766) was in line with the plans laid down for the organisation of the English Church by Pope Gregory in 601.


Zero respect was afforded King Edward the Martyr (d.978) when he was murdered at Corfe in Dorset on an estate belonging to his stepmother Aelfthryth. The beneficiary of the crime was his step-brother Aethelred and the perpetrators were his associates. Despite it looking like an open and shut case, however, the earliest sources do not implicate either of them and it is possible that Aethelred’s retainers acted on their own initiative. Interred at Wareham before being transported to Shaftesbury, miracles were claimed at the tomb where the town’s nuns penned a suitably edifying account of the King’s death.

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