Society News: The Church

This post is part of an ongoing series, in which I look at various classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon England society. For previous posts, click the links below. 

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Society News: The Upper Crust

I am working my way down through Anglo-Saxon society in these series of posts, and this week I will be discussing the church.  First, just to clarify terms, when I say “the church”, I’m not writing about the average everyday people who might attend a service on Sundays. In particular, I am writing about the men and women who made up the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the seventh century.

The men and women of the Christian church had a bit of a dual identity in terms of where they stood, society-wise. The church was made up of individuals who came from various classes of society, and so there you would find the sons and daughters of kings rubbing shoulders with those who were further down the social ladder. Monks and nuns could be just about anyone, and in theory, so could the abbots and bishops and abbesses, given that they were taken from the ranks of the regular clergy.


The Anglo-Saxon church at Monkwearmouth, which, together with its “twin” at Jarrow, was one of the earliest monasteries in Britain. The bottom part of the tower and the west wall are from the original building, built in 674 AD. It is where the Venerable Bede lived and worked.

However, it is true to say that many of the higher-ranking clergy also came from the higher ranks of society. Both St. Aidan and St. Columba were from the Ui Neill clan of Ireland, a very powerful and influential clan, and it is likely that both of these men were high-ranking men in their clans, perhaps even of royal blood.  There were exceptions, of course. St. Patrick of Ireland started off as an English slave in Ireland, you don’t get much lower class than that! Depending on which story you believe, St. David may have been the result of a rape, and grew up in a nunnery. Both these men became the most-respected clergymen in their countries, and so you can see that in the church hierarchy a person’s worth was not necessarily tied to their original status in society.


Beautiful stained glass commemorating Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, found at St. Michael Church, Workington. Cuthbert is one of those whose original status in society is disputed. Some scholars suggest he came from noble birth, others that he came from a poor family. Either way, he became of one England’s greatest saints. Photo from Wikicommons. 

As the Christian church began to get established in Northumbria, it began to amass land, through gifts from kings who wanted to see the church succeed. Most notably, we can see that the monastery Lindisfarne was begun by the Irish bishop/abbot Aidan, who was granted land by the Bernician King Oswald in 634 AD  to start a monastery close to his royal seat at Bebbanburg. Oswald had converted to Christianity while in exile in Dàl Raida, and when God granted him victory over King Edwin in 633 AD, restoring his family’s claim to the Bernician throne, he wanted to make sure his fellow Angles in Bernicia were converted to the new faith as well. As Aidan and his monks spread out through Northumbria in their missionary journeys and people began to accept Christianity, more monasteries were established along with more gifts of land.

The abbots and abbesses in charge of the monasteries (the Celtic Church allowed for double monasteries, housing both monksand nuns in separate buildings, often presided over by women) became local agents of the king, in many cases, although in theory, their ultimate obedience was always to God. The monasteries were centres of learning, operating schools for the sons and daughters of the local nobility as well as for the novices who joined the monastery, looking to one day become monks and nuns themselves. They also were orphanages and hospitals, taking in the sick or homeless. And so the local people had a certain amount of respect for the clergy which was tied to what they did as well as who they were socially, in terms of what family they originated from.


St. Hilda (Hild) of Whitby, the important double-monastery of which she was Abbess. Hild’s father was the nephew of King Edwin, so she certainly came from an upper class Northumbrian family.

The locals gave tithes to the monasteries in terms of food, services, land rent, etc, just as they gave tribute to the kings each year (the concept of taxes goes a long ways back!). A priest had the same rank in society as a thegn, and a bishop was seen as equal to an eoldorman.

Although the life of a monk or nun was not an easy one, they certainly were able to have a fairly secure life, and had a mainly respected role in society. This may help to explain why the monasteries grew so rapidly in the Early Medieval period, with some of the major ones boasting a population in the thousands. It was a fairly unusual place in that society, where someone from a very low class could end up being as highly respected as a king or queen. This opportunity for upward social mobility may have attracted some to the church. But bottom line, spiritual devotion was still very important. There may have been some of the excesses in the church that characterized the institution later in the Middle Ages and beyond, but at this time devotion to God and obedience to the monastic rule was still very much emphasized.

The next post in this series will not tackle a certain social class, but I will pause for a moment to explain something that was integral to this whole idea of societal ranking: the concept of weregild. 

That post will be coming up in the next month or so…I hope you join me!



Aidan of Lindisfarne, Part 2

For Part 1, see here. 

Something had to be done about the Northumbrian mission, but what? Corman had failed, and furthermore, had pretty much written off the Angles as not worth their time due to their uncouth and barbarous nature.

There was likely some heated discussion on the matter, but Aidan’s advice was what stood out. “Brother,” he said to Corman, “it seems to me you were too hard on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and given them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ.” 

I don’t imagine Corman took that very well, but the rest of the clergymen who were there to determine what they were going to do about this mission gone so very wrong seized upon Aidan’s words. As Bede says,

“At this the faces and the eyes of all who were at the conference turned toward [Aidan] and they paid close attention to all he said and they realized that here was a fit person to be made a Bishop and sent to instruct the ignorant and unbelieving, since he was particularly endowed with the grace of discretion, the mother of all virtues. They therefore consecrated him as bishop and sent him to preach. Time would show that Aidan was not only remarkable for his discretion but for other virtues as well.”

So just like the hapless person who speaks up at a committee meeting and finds himself with a job, Aidan is promptly bustled off to Northumbria to fix the problems Corman’s harsh approach had caused. There is no indiction that Aidan knew Oswald before this, but chances are he might have met the princeling on any trips to Iona he might have made in the previous years. But thrown together in the mutual building of kingdoms– one physical, one spiritual– Aidan and Oswald soon became fast friends and good partners.

They determined that Lindisfarne would be a good place for a monastery, just far enough away to keep it separate from the king’s influence but close enough to allow for close cooperation. And cooperate they did. As Aidan did not know the local Anglish language, Oswald accompanied Aidan on his early missionary journeys as a translator, for Oswald’s exile at Dal Riata had given him fluency in the Irish tongue. This also would have the benefit of Oswald being able to reconnect with his people after so long away, and to introduce himself as king. A king who practiced the faith that Aidan preached, which would have gone a long way to persuade the people to convert.

This was the lay of the land in Britain at the time of Aidan.

This was the lay of the land in Britain at the time of Aidan. Lindisfarne and Bamburgh are on the north-east coast, in Bernicia.

It was all very satisfactory, and both Oswald and Aidan made great gains. Oswald’s kingdom flourished, and he eventually became bretwalda, or High King, of most of northern Britain (some say all of Britain, but I think that’s stretching it a bit far). It was all good until ten years later when Oswald was killed by Penda of Mercia, the pagan king who, in one stroke of his sword, changed the Northumbrian landscape forever.

Suddenly Oswald’s kingdom was up for grabs, and the most likely candidate was his half-brother, Oswy, who immediately was crowned king in Bernicia, the northern half of the kingdom Oswald had united. But in the south, in Deira, they were not so enamoured with Oswy as king, as he didn’t have the same credentials as Oswald. The two brothers had different mothers, and as Oswald’s claim to the Derian throne came through his mother, Oswy didn’t quite cut the mustard in the eyes of the Deirian thegns. So Oswy would have to place a cousin, Oswine, who did have the right pedigree, on the Deirian throne as sub-king, for now, until he could prove himself in the eyes of his southern nobles.

And Aidan? Well, it seems like he had a closer relationship with Oswine than Oswy. Bede praises Oswine as being more devout, and perhaps that was the case. Or maybe there was a personality conflict, or a conflict that came from the time Oswy was in exile in Dal Riata. All of these have been speculated upon by more knowledgable people than me. But suffice it to say, it seems that, although for all outward appearances Aidan and Oswy continued to work together, things were not quite as cosy between Bamburgh and Lindisfarne under Oswy’s rule as they were under Oswald.

And then something really bad happened that severed the ties between them completely, it seems….but I won’t go into that, not yet, anyway.

Hmm. A new king on the throne, who has to rebuild the kingdom his brother had won and prove himself in the eyes of his people. An upstart king on his border who has just gained a lot of credibility in his own kingdom by killing the most powerful king in Britain, and who is eager to press home his advantage on the newly weakened and divided Northumbria. And a charismatic and beloved Bishop, who has to walk a delicate diplomatic line between two kings, cousins who are jockeying for power.

Sound like a good setting for a novel? Me too! So that’s where my book, Wilding, the first book in my Traveller’s Path trilogy, opens. But somehow the Fey snuck in, as they are wont to do, so add to that some unrest in the Fey kingdoms, an ignorant Traveller from our own time who suddenly finds himself lost in this dangerous time and place, and another one whose grief and ambition have driven him to some dark places into the mix, and presto! A trilogy is born.

Aidan of Lindisfarne, pt 1

Oswald, King of Bernicia, had a problem. He had spent long years of exile amongst the Dál Riatan Scots* after his father, Æthelfirith, was slain and his throne taken by Æthelfirith’s brother-in-law, Edwin. Approximately 16 years later Edwin was slain by Cadwallon of Gwynedd, and Oswald’s older brother, and heir to the throne, Eanfrith, rode south from Dál Riata with a war-band to sue for peace. But Cadwallon was not much interested and killed Eanfrith, taking the Bernician throne for himself.  Cadwallon promptly spent a year raping and pillaging his conquered territory, as Bede puts it, “like a cruel tyrant ravaging and tearing them apart with dreadful loss of life.” Oswald, being next in line for the throne and hearing these distressing reports of the murder of his brother and the ravaging of his people, rode off to war with a small army to re-take his ancestral throne back from the British king.

During the time he had been in exile amongst the Dál Riatans, Oswald and his brothers had become Christians, due to the influence of the monks at the island monastery of Hii (now called Iona) where they would have been sent for education. Oswald was facing a bigger army and the odds were not good, but the night before the battle he fashioned a wooden cross and knelt and prayed for victory, his army kneeling at his side (although many of them, being Angles, would have been pagans).

Oswald received a vision from the monk Columba, founder of Iona, who promised him victory, and sure enough, Gwynedd’s army was routed and Oswald crowned King of Bernicia and Deira. Seeing this success, his nobles and war chiefs all were baptized and agreed to follow Christ.

All was proceeding smoothly, and Oswald went back to Bamburgh, his royal fortress on the north-east coast, and began to organize his kingdom. His first priority was to bring a monk from Iona to begin a missionary work amongst the pagan Northumbrians. There is no doubt that Oswald was a sincere Christian, and this would have been something he was eager to do, but as well it is likely that the military support that he gained from Dál Riata during the battle came with a price tag–to start a missionary work in Bernicia.

And then the first hiccup occurred. The monk, Cormán (or Gorman, in some accounts), was singularly unsuited for the task, and by all accounts the mission was a disaster.

What went wrong? This is how Bede puts it:

….[a] man of sterner temperament was sent at first; but although he preached among the English for some time he met with no success, and the people were unwilling to listen to him. He therefore returned home and announced at a meeting of the elders that he had been able to make no headway in teaching the nation to which he had been sent, for they were an intractable people of stubborn and uncivilized character.

Hmmm. Certainly a measure of pointing the finger there, to be sure, but I have a twinge of sympathy for Corman, thrust from the civilized world of the Irish, where learning was prized, to the world of the pagan, uncouth Angles. He would not have known the language, and the people would have been inclined to hostility, I would think, given their treatment at the hands of Cadwallon’s British occupying army. The native Britons were called wealas by the Angles, meaning “foreigner” (the origin of the word Wales), which is ironic, seeing as it was actually the Angles who were the foreign occupiers of British territory, but oh well, to the victor belongs the spoils, so they say. And here was yet another wealas bossing them around and telling them to give up their gods and their glorious afterlife of riches and feasting for the discipline of a Christian life where the individual’s will was brought into subjection to Christ, the strange “white god” who couldn’t be much of a god if he allowed himself to be killed.

The return of Corman and his entourage of monks back to Iona could be nothing but a disaster, both spiritually and politically. Here was an opportunity to claim a kingdom for Christ, but the door had been closed. And what of Oswald, the Dál Raitan foster-son, who had lived and fought alongside them and converted to the faith, who had begun his rule with a great sign from God? His people had proven too much of a challenge for an experienced monk. For Corman to pack his bags and go home would have looked very bad for Oswald. What would that say about Christianity to his watching thegns and earldomen whose conversion to the faith had likely been prompted more by the desire to back a winner than out of real understanding of it.

Iona Abbey, Scotland, by Roy Lathwell, on Flickr.  It is located on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Another place on my bucket list!

Iona Abbey, Scotland, by Roy Lathwell, on Flickr.
The beautiful abbey of Iona. The buildings date from medieval times. It is located on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Another place on my bucket list!

To have Corman slink away with his metaphorical tail between his legs would have made Oswald’s faith look weak, and in extension, would have made Oswald himself look weak in the eyes of his subjects. And weak kings in Anglo-Saxon England did not last long.

Back to that meeting of elders described by Bede, where Corman has just laid out his case for why he came back. You can imagine the dismay at his words. They all knew what was at stake. One of the attendees of the meeting was Aidan, at that time a Bishop of Scattery Island.

We don’t know a lot about the early history of Aidan (anglicized form of the Gaelic Áedán or Aohdán). But in my next instalment I will tell you what we know, and give you a clearer picture of this man, whom I found by happy accident while researching the people and the places of the era of my novel, who has come to be known as the Apostle of the English…

*Today this is Ireland, but no such designation existed then. The Irish were called the Scotii by the Romans, which morphed into our modern-day word for the Scots. I know, confusing.