Anglo-Saxon Conversion: Lost in Translation? Part 1 – ‘They Have Robbed Us of the Old Religion’

Part 1: ‘They Have Robbed Us of the Old Religion’

‘All these Changes – How shall we Cope?’

This is neither a conventional history piece, nor fiction, but a construct of both. As a former speech and report writer, and an Anglo-Saxon nerd for decades, it is in my DNA to try to present complex matters clearly and imaginatively, without ‘dumbing down’.

Spiritual conversion (and its rejection) in 7th and 8th Anglo-Saxon England was a complicated personal decision and experience with a raft of causes and outcomes. Accordingly, to try to understand what happened, these articles tackle the conversion of the English at two levels – the broad themes and what it meant to individuals from different sections of society. This is an exercise of the imagination, as well as the intellect.

This six-part series examines a single main question – what was conversion in practice? While made-up characters are introduced in the articles, they are designed to illustrate the nature and impact of conversion on real people. What was it to Pope Gregory, who sent St Augustine’s mission to the English and who thought the world was nearing its end? One can understand his sense of urgency. What was it to the multitude of peasants jeering at the monks whose boats were being swept out to sea at the mouth of the River Tyne. The great saint, Cuthbert, rebuked the crowd but they would have none of it and shouted back (expletives deleted):

‘Nobody shall pray for them! May God save none of them! For they have robbed us of the old religion and nobody knows how to cope with all these changes!’ (Edwards, D.L., 1982: p45).

They had been cut adrift by somebody else’s decision. Told to become Christian, their hearts and souls yearned for the old ways.

Sutton Hoo Helmet
Helmet for a king. Thought to be for King Raedwald. Sutton Hoo (photo by author)

What was conversion to Raedwald, mighty King of the East Angles, who retained two altars in his temple – one to the God he had recently agreed to follow and the other to his old gods? What was it to Eadwulf – the name of an East Angle ceorl (a low-ranking freeman farmer)? You’ll hear more from him in this article. In the other articles, we’ll hear from representatives of the other sections of Anglo-Saxon society – a king, an aristocrat, a slave and a missionary.

Beliefs, Genetics and Culture

What shifted when the missionaries looked at the pagan* English through Christian evangelical eyes and the English looked at the missionaries through pagan eyes? Who, indeed, were the Anglo-Saxons or English whom Gregory wanted to convert? There is a debate on this issue and it has implications for our story.

Were there large numbers of Anglo-Saxon invaders and immigrants to Britain, who brought their ancient pagan beliefs and pushed aside the native, Celtic Britons, who were of mottled Christian stock, mixed contentedly with strains of pre-Christian belief? Or, were what we term the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ basically a cultural, rather than a genetic, group comprising a relatively small number of elite pagan immigrants and their followers and those native Britons who adopted the immigrants’ pagan culture and, no doubt, their beliefs?

If it were the former, then Augustine confronted an army of hard-bitten pagans. If it were the latter then the mission did not face a completely hostile audience in the previously heavily Romanised areas of Britain. Rather, it engaged with one that already had some degree of Christian presence and tradition. Additionally, they had demonstrated cultural and religious flexibility – having already changed during the Roman period, they were prepared to change again in the Anglo-Saxon period (drawn from Pryor, 2005: pp 220, 221).

Anglo-Saxon stone depiction of a lion
Anglo-Saxon depiction of a lion, St Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (photo by author)

I tend to side with the weight of archaeology (see Pryor, 2005) and modern genetics studies on this. Although not definitive, most evidence suggests the indigenous Celtic peoples were not pushed aside to the Atlantic fringes but co-existed with the immigrants. For example, an extensive fine-scale examination of the genetic structure of the British population concludes:

‘This is strong evidence against an Anglo-Saxon wipe-out of the resident ancient British population, but clearly indicates extensive admixture between the incoming invaders and the indigenous people’ (Wellcome Trust, 2015: p8).

More on this in later articles.

Remove 21st Century Glasses

Whoever they were, the Anglo-Saxons were a deeply spiritual people, whether pagan, Christian or a mixture. Yet too many modern examinations of conversion focus almost exclusively on power relationships, a materialistic calculation of costs and benefits, and psychology. This will inevitably overemphasise the political and social control aspects of religion and underemphasise the genuine spiritual motivations of faith. It would be as if one examined Indigenous Australian dream-time spirituality in rarefied academia but ignored the importance of land rights. Accordingly, these articles recognise that we today have insights gained from a long view back in time. However, if all we do is rationalise a spiritual world, we will more likely reflect our own mental maps and miss the heart of Anglo-Saxon beliefs.

Other studies of the conversion period also see it as a time when the innate spirituality of pre-Christian folk was gradually demolished by an increasingly organised, powerful, politicised and dogmatic Church, bulldozing metaphorically through the sacred woods and groves. However, while the Church hierarchy may have condemned pre-existing beliefs and sought to implement broad-scale clearances, the on-the-ground reality was considerably muddier. There was a prolonged period of coexistence, when individuals borrowed from many of the ideas on the table – and non-Christian ideas remained available under-the-counter for centuries after. Christian conversion was far from inevitable.

Likewise, we should avoid extreme caricatures of ‘pagans’. On the one hand, some Christian writers of the time cast,

‘the pagan (as) an intellectual cave-man, a spiritual half-wit, a manic depressive amazed to hear about heaven, a mindless practitioner of ancestral rites, looking for meaning in trees and pondweed’ (Carver, M., 2010: p 3).

On the other hand, in today’s environmentally-conscious world, there is a tendency to look back nostalgically and romanticise ‘natural religions’.

West Stow Anglo-Saxon village
West Stow Anglo-Saxon village, Suffolk. A wonderful and educational site (photo by author)

This series examines the following main issues:

1: some questions

2: the mission from Rome

3: kings and the aristocracy

4: vehicles of conversion

5: the individual’s faith and understanding

6: what followed the conversion period and its relevance today?

Eadwulf – A Bewildered Freeman

Late into a 21st century winter’s evening, I try to imagine myself as a ceorl in one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England – that of the East Angles.

I am Eadwulf – a hard-working farmer and I’m standing with close to 60 of my countrymen, listening to a man  called Felix. He’s a foreigner – a Frank – who is the first Bishop of the Church of the East Angles. This is the first time I’ve listened to someone talk seriously about this new god. I know his name, of course – some of the traders bear  his sign around their necks and tell of his temples. But I have never seen the need to call upon his powers. It’s in the first half of the 600s AD – less than four decades after Pope Gregory’s mission arrived on our island in 597 – and truthfully, I’d rather be home, eating and drinking and resting my weary limbs.

I’m here because I was told to come by the village headman and he was following an order that came ultimately from our king, Sigebert, who learned of Christ from Felix, while in Gaul. I’ve never ventured more than ten miles myself and I’m bewildered why our king isn’t content enough with our existing gods and spirits. We’ve been together for generations and we all know what to expect of them. I know the patterns of my life and don’t want to change them.

Christ in majesty, Ely Cathedral
Christ in majesty. Carving above Prior’s door, Ely Cathedral, around 1135 (photo by author)

I suspect we’ll all be told that we need to follow Christ and have to make the best of it. But what of our traditional gods? I’m told this new God accepts no others. What arrogance! What will happen if we turn our backs on the protectors we know and anger them? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Yet my ancestors took the whale-road from the birth lands of our spirits, when our Wuffinga lords brought us bravely to these shores. Though we feared what might become of us, all was well. The blood of those kings flows through my lord’s veins and whatever I might think in the quiet places of my heart, I’ll always  be loyal to my king. I’ll listen about this new god – Christ – and follow him, if my lord wishes it.

I miss my precious wife – she died too young earlier in the year and in the most terrible pain. If this Christ is able to help her in the next world and ease my loss then I’ll make sacrifices to him.

Does it Matter?

Does it matter how the English were converted? I think it does, because in addition to improving our understanding about the Anglo-Saxon Church and society, it raises questions and issues, and provides insights, that are still relevant today.

The Anglo-Saxon experience allows us to examine the nature of top-down conversion. Consider the Northumbrian peasants who were hurling abuse at the plaintive monks. Their conversion had clearly been against their wishes, undertaken at the behest of their earthly lord. They might be baptised but would they remain in their hearts stubborn adherents to the old ways? Had they really been converted? Would their alienation dissipate in time? We know in their case that a miracle intervened. St Cuthbert prayed for the forlorn monks; the wind subsided; they were saved; and the peasants were amazed, contrite and spread the good news.

Deep-seated beliefs are not removed by overnight and little-understood actions, including baptism, especially if the decision is not taken voluntarily. Without instruction, parochial care, the example of good Christian souls and the witness of miracles, profound conversion was doubtful. Miracles had a dramatic impact because they demonstrated the power of God in easily-understood ways – but they needed to be interpreted, told and re-told.

Oldest working church door in England
Exterior of oldest working church door in England, St Botolph’s Anglo-Saxon Church, Hadstock, Essex (photo by author)

Christianity did inspire many humble, dedicated missionaries, preaching the length and breadth of the island; living simply. These devout witnesses to Christ met people where they were and converted through example, sincerity, by the spirit and by love. But evidence also suggests that under-the-counter attachment to essentially pre-Christian beliefs continued for centuries in English folk religion – and continues still (albeit with a bit of more recent reinvention).

There were many pitfalls. I know from my own experience as a speech-writer that what you’d like to impart to an audience often does not correspond with what they want to hear. The exercise is even harder if one is promoting profound change, and speaker and listener come from vastly different religious and cultural backgrounds. Unless one is a good listener and exemplar – as well as a talker or preacher – and pays regard to the background, views, concerns and motivations etc of the recipients then little might really alter. One can appear arrogant, ignorant, unconcerned and ultimately may fail to sow the seeds of deep-seated change. There are considerable benefits in putting oneself in the shoes of the recipients of your beliefs.

‘To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews…. To the weak (wanting in discernment) I have become weak (wanting in discernment) that I might win the weak and overscrupulous. I have (in short) become all things to all men, that I might by all means (at all costs and in any and every way) save some (by winning them to faith in Jesus Christ)’ (The First Letter of Paul to The Corinthians, Chapter 9, from verses 20 and 22).

How far did this dialogue and compromise go in Anglo-Saxon England during the Conversion period? Is it too much to say for some of the missionaries, ‘To the pagans, I became as a pagan?’ Did it result sometimes in the fusion of Christianity with existing pagan beliefs (syncretism) that ‘corrupted’ the integrity of the Christian message, or at least modified it?

Where was the fertile ground into which the mission could plant its beliefs and nurture their growth? In the battlefield for souls, some evangelists imparted the Christian message fully with spiritual conviction – but others inadvertently or deliberately side-stepped aspects that were proving difficult and these were lost in translation and the message was altered.

Did the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms ultimately become Christian through a pragmatic arrangement between kings and the Church that came to see power, culture and social control dominate personal faith, devotion and the work of the Holy Spirit? If the answer is yes, it need not imply any malicious intent; simply that the institutionalised Church offered kings and kingdoms enormous benefits and became an essential power bloc within society.

‘Yet Christianity in early medieval Britain, as elsewhere, involved much more than such (spiritual and doctrinal) beliefs. It offered an evolving philosophy of kingship, a body of literature and scholarship…. Christian ideas of kingship, Christian texts, writers, bishops and priests played no less a part than did the West Saxon kings in the creation of an English national identity’ (Redgate, A.E., 2014: p6).

The dead rising on Judgement Day
Medieval image, the dead rising on Judgement Day (photo by author)

It seems at first blush that the good folk of East Anglia (my good friend, Eadwulf, included) and the other kingdoms were being asked to do something akin to converting from Hinduism to Christianity in our own time. A tall ask; yet conversion did happen – eventually to the entire populace, despite monumental and profound challenges for ordinary people. We will explore how this happened.

Part 2 – The Mission from Rome – to follow in the coming weeks.

(See also my debut novel, Under Lynden Church set in the Kingdom of the East Angles during the Viking invasions)

* (A quick note. I use the word ‘pagan’ loosely and apologetically to describe in short-hand all the variety of non-Christian beliefs encountered by the Christian mission. The term was coined by the Church to differentiate itself from these existing views of supernatural powers and beings).

Bibliography

Carver, M., Agency, Intellect and the Archaeological Agenda, in, Signals of Belief in Early England, Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited, Carver, M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., eds, Oxbow, Oxford, 2010.

Edwards, D. L., Christian England, Volume 1, Its Story to the Reformation, Collins, London, 1982.

Pryor, F. Britain AD, Harper Perennial, London, 2005.

Redgate, A. E., Religion, Politics and Society in Britain, 800-1066, Routledge, Abingdon, 2014.

The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, The Amplified Bible, Zondervan Corporation and the Lockman Foundation, Michigan, 1987.

Wellcome Trust, People of the British Isles, Newsletter Issue 6, March 2015.

Anglo-Saxon Conversion – Lost in Translation?

Anglo-Saxon Conversion – ‘All These Changes: How Shall We Cope?

I will shortly post the first of six articles on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. The series gives a voice to a king, an aristocrat, a farmer, a slave and a missionary. In this way, I hope, we might see and feel more clearly the mix of hopes, fears, pressures and incentives – worldly and spiritual – that motivated individuals and moulded their beliefs.

I have often wondered what shifted when, starting in 597AD, missionaries from Rome under Saint Augustine looked at the ‘pagan’ (short-hand for non-Christian) English through evangelical Christian eyes and the English looked at the missionaries through pagan eyes. Where was the fertile soil in which the seeds of faith could be planted? We know that the resulting crops struggled for decades, and weren’t simply clones from Rome HQ. They absorbed and perpetuated many things peculiarly English.

St Augustine's Grave
Site of St Augustine’s Grave, St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (photo by author)

Spiritual conversion in 7th and 8th century England was far from plain sailing and success never inevitable. I feel for the multitude of peasants jeering at the monks whose boats were being swept out to sea at the mouth of the River Tyne. Bede recounts how the great saint, Cuthbert, rebuked the crowd but they would have none of it and shouted back (expletives deleted):

‘Nobody shall pray for them! May God save none of them! For they have robbed us of the old religion and nobody knows how to cope with all these changes!’ (Edwards, D.L., 1982: p45).

Here are some key questions tackled in the articles.

Who Were the English?

Were there large numbers of Anglo-Saxon immigrants to Britain, who brought their ancient pagan beliefs, pushing aside the native, Celtic Britons, many of whom were of Christian stock? Or, were what we term the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ basically a cultural, rather than a genetic, group. Did they comprise a relatively small number of elite pagan immigrants and their followers, and those native Britons who decided to adopt the immigrants’ pagan culture and beliefs?

Anglo-Saxon cross slab
Late Saxon cross slab, incorporated in wall of All Saints Church, Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire (photo by author)

If it were the former, then Augustine confronted an army of hard-bitten pagans. I tend to side with the weight of archaeology (see Pryor, 2005) and modern genetics studies (see Wellcome Trust, 2015: p8) on this. While there is debate on this issue, the evidence suggests that the indigenous Celtic peoples were not pushed aside to the Atlantic fringes. They coexisted with the immigrants. Thus a reasonable element of the population already had some tradition of Christianity.

What Were the Implications of the Pope’s Strategy?

When the enlightened Pope, Saint Gregory, advised Augustine not to destroy pagan temples but to purify them and replace their idols with Christian images and relics, his intention was to be conciliatory on peripheral matters to draw folk to deeper conversion.

One of the positive outcomes was a bloodless conversion for the mission but there were other long-lasting impacts that proved difficult for the nascent English Church to manage. The landscape itself was sacred and many landscape features served as pagan temples. Although many of these were nominally ‘Christianised’, this proved inadequate to demolish the popular connections to pre-Christian sacred sites and their associated deities and spirits. Many of these links remained for generations to come.  The spiritual power of special places in the landscape is well attested by the resilience of the spiritual connection between Indigenous Australians and the land.

‘The natural world was fundamental to pre-Christian and post-Conversion popular beliefs (Semple, 2010, p21).

The Fens, East Anglia
The East Anglian Fens, Sacred Landscape and Refuge (photo by author)

There were many other instances where Anglo-Saxon Christianity, especially at the local level, developed as a hybrid of Christian and pagan beliefs. Deep-seated pagan beliefs are not removed by overnight and little-understood actions, including baptism. This is especially so if the decision is not taken voluntarily. What went before wasn’t wiped out; many aspects were incorporated.

Was Conversion of Kings Successful?

It’s said that if one converts a king, one converts a people. Certainly, their subjects owed them allegiance and little could happen, or happen quickly, without approval of their rulers. So to the incoming mission, conversion of a king was often seen as a short-cut to mass adherence and a path to political and practical support.

However, most kings could not afford to be authoritarian. Complex spiritual and worldly influences weighing on their decision to convert. The nature of successful kingship required the building and sustaining of relationships of active mutual support between a king and his leading men. These were drawn from the kingdom’s political/military elite (Tyler, 2007: pp147, 148). Moreover, the aristocracy were conservative and stubbornly proud of their pagan heritage.

The potential impact of conversion – if carried out to the letter – would have been profound, including the replacement of the panoply of spiritual guardians of numerous generations by a single new God. To turf them out was a perilous matter, potentially of grave consequence to the kingdom. It was a decision that a wise king would discuss with his leading councillors.

Exquisite medieval face
St Edmund, last Anglo-Saxon King of the East Angles, St Mary the Virgin, Lakenheath, Suffolk (photo by author)

While there were spiritual and worldly benefits to conversion, the royal success rate was not that great and Christianity struggled to gain a foothold with the next generation of rulers. How deep was their conversion if many kings didn’t instill the faith into their heirs?

‘A striking feature of the conversion period in England is that many of the earliest Christian kings were succeeded by sons who had either never been baptised or who became apostate immediately after the deaths of their fathers’ (Tyler, D., 2007: p157).

If kings struggled with the changes, so did the populace. Mass conversion at the behest of their rulers may have got bums on seats but through allegiance to an earthly, not heavenly, ruler. Were important elements of the Christian message lost in translation?

Saint Augustine's initial base in England - St Martin's Canterbury
St Martin’s, Canterbury. Oldest church in England still in use as parish church and initial base of St Augustine’s mission (photo by author)

A Risk

The Anglo-Saxons were a deeply spiritual people. It is vital that we don’t over-rationalise conversion, looking solely through secular 21st century eyes. We risk simply reflecting our own mental frameworks. If all we look for are power structures, calculations of costs and benefits and psychological motivations for conversion then all we will see is political and social control. We will miss the heart of Anglo-Saxon spirituality and be incapable of understanding it.

Part 1: ‘Eadwulf’s Confused Story’ coming soon.

Also, check out my debut novel, ‘Under Lynden Church’, set in the Kingdom of the East Angles during the Viking invasions in the second half of the 9th century AD.

https://www.amazon.com/Under-Lynden-Church-Lindsay-Jacob-ebook/dp/B019D70KDM

Bibliography

Edwards, D. L., Christian England, Volume 1, Its Story to the Reformation, Collins, London, 1982.

Pryor, F. Britain AD, Harper Perennial, London, 2005.

Semple, S. In the Open Air, in Signals of Belief in Early England, Carver, M, Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., (eds.) Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2010.

Tyler, D. Reluctant Kings and Christian Conversion in Seventh Century England, in History, Vol. 92, No. 2 (306) (APRIL 2007).

Wellcome Trust, People of the British Isles, Newsletter Issue 6, March 2015.

The Serpent Speaks

 The Serpent Speaks- an Anglo-Saxon murder mystery

It is often said of the great Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, that it assumed the listener had a deal of knowledge of Germanic mythology, stories and characters. Much of this is lost to us and our understanding is the poorer for it. The magnificent Anglo-Saxon artefact, the Franks Casket, contains a bewildering conflation of images from Roman, Jewish, Germanic and Christian traditions. Other Anglo-Saxon creations – in word, illuminated images, stone, metal, bone etc – contain allusions and beliefs that are sometimes clear; sometimes obscured by the fog of time.

At times, beliefs are stable; in others, they are fluid and adaptable, such as when Christianity sought to convert a sceptical, if undemocratic, Anglo-Saxon public.

The creation of images, and their meaning, is central to this short story. The ability to perceive a narrative and to find meaning from a mass of material and its possibilities, is also central to solving crime.

St Edmund
Stunning medieval face (photo by author)

Solving crime is about telling a story that someone wants to keep secret.
As with my earlier tales, this work of fiction is based on what we know of Anglo-Saxon life. It continues with Father Eadred – a minster priest – whose inquisitive mind and morality often sit uneasily with the conventions used to achieve justice. He accepts those conventions but struggles when they are ill-equipped to deal with some crimes.

Who dunnit? Please read on.

The Serpent Speaks

‘Don’t criticise me for wanting a different life to you. I do what the priest says. That’s enough. What more do you want of me?’
‘To love the Lord God alone!’ I know I sounded exasperated.
‘Well, I can’t. It’s unnatural and stupid. We’ve had our gods for generations. Have another if you want but don’t tell me that our forefathers had false gods. That’s a lie.’
‘We were children then.’
She called me the worst of names.
‘Don’t test God’s patience. He can be angry and vengeful.’
It was over a twelvemonth before I saw her again.

Faith in Stone

Flung in frustration, the chisel clattered among the stone fragments. Wiglaf slumped against the wall; his eyes staring at the floor. His task – his purpose – was to glorify the Lord God, not to deform his creation. He crumbled to his knees.
‘Father, I have tried. I have tried until my fingers bled!’ The young monk recoiled from his words, as though they were serpents.
‘Forgive me. You bled for us all, when you could have saved yourself. Mine is such a small sacrifice. Grant me, Lord, the skill to show the victory of your son and how all creation bowed and groaned when he sacrificed himself. Let my eye see the stone, not as it is now, but adorned with images of your divine world, and guide my hand that it shape the stone thus and bring glory to your name.’
Wiglaf continued his prayer then picked up his hammer, sharpened punch and chalk, and began cautiously to mark out the remaining contours of the cross, which although now of a smaller size, would still rise majestically eight feet from the ground. The monk progressed carefully. Another mistake might have been forgiven by the Lord God but it was doubtful that the monastery’s patron, Ealdorman Aelfric, would be as merciful. The great man had commissioned the cross to stand beside the new church he was building. Wiglaf hoped a few inches might be ignored but if the monument shrunk further, the consequences could be very unpleasant.

Medieval face
Medieval face in stone (photo by author)

Wiglaf looked anxiously at the drawings his mentor had made on a series of wax tablets. These the young monk would use to craft the remaining outlines of the sculptured images. On one side of the shaft, the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, attended by the Virgin Mary and Saint John. On the other, Jesus trampling the deformed satan underfoot. Along the topmost edge, at a conspicuous but not brash size, the ealdorman’s name with a plea that all who passed pray for his soul, was written. Wiglaf peered at the drawings, annoyed at what he saw.
‘What a mess. He should still be able to draw clearly.’
The monk had never attempted such a challenge. He had learnt the skill of bringing to life the swirling patterns of interlocking foliage that graced the edges of the work undertaken at Snailwell Minster. He had been permitted – so Brother Boisil told the abbot – to build his capabilities further by smoothing the edges Boisil had chiseled. Wiglaf’s mentor would chisel no more; now at his eternal rest; called unexpectedly only a few days earlier by his Saviour.
Wiglaf was expected to wait until the abbot found another mason to complete the commission, presently less than half completed, but he had waited for this opportunity for too long. The old monk seemed that he would never die.
Everyone loved Boisil. Why? Because he was a great mason; he flattered and charmed rich patrons; and was ancient, while Wiglaf was callow. It was Boisil who could be heard talking, laughing and feasting in the hall with rich aristocrats and traders to secure work for himself and donations to the Minster. It was he who was invited to thegn’s halls. Even the abbot seemed jealous of his contacts.
But Boisil’s skill with the chisel had faded. Only two people knew so. Boisil had Wiglaf quietly do more and more of the work but the master always took the credit. Boisil did teach the pupil well but he also threatened Wiglaf that if ever he spoke of the truth then Boisil would have him thrown from the minster and his chance to learn the skills he lived for would be gone. For Boisil knew the youth’s secret – his crime.

Anglo-Saxon Depiction of a Lion, St Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (photo by author)

But Boisil was dead now – collapsing in his workshop – and this was the youngster’s chance. He prayed again to the Lord God to stop his hands from trembling and, with a deep breath, he continued his work, moving his hands faster than he would have liked, dreaming of the day when he would present the great cross as his own work to the ealdorman. Outside, the downpour continued but Wiglaf hardly noticed its ascending fury.

Misery

He had made little effort to see her since his ordination. That was close to two years earlier. The feeling was mutual. They had never been close and his consuming desire to pursue his faith didn’t interest Emma at all. When their father died, they spoke briefly about persuading their mother to go and live with her widowed sister. In the end, it mattered little; death took her in less than four months. He knew it was wrong but Eadred felt relieved that it was over; the past that included his parents was one from which he needed to escape.
Hildericstow didn’t feel like home any more, although he visited regularly as the local priest. There were too many reminders of his awkward youth. His home was the Minster at Snailwell and his family were the few brothers who burned to know their Saviour and to do his will.

The Fens
The East Anglian Fens (photo by author)

As Eadred began his descent from the ridge, he slipped in the sodden mud and fell onto his hands and knees. The misery of it all overwhelmed him and he started weeping.
Father Eadred.’ The voice startled him. He clambered to his feet; hurrying to rub his face with his sleeve. ‘You look woeful. Come with me. I’m on my way back to the village. You can clean yourself. I’ll find another cowl in the church and see what we have to eat.’ The voice came from Wilfred, a middle-aged freeman.
The young priest managed a brief smile to acknowledge the offer.
‘This mud!’
‘Some talk of another flood. Others have seen omens.’ Wilfred’s face darkened.
‘What can I say? I’m so sorry.’
‘Where is she?’
‘In the church, father. Your poor sister’s been properly cared for. We couldn’t contact you.’
‘No. The bishop granted me permission to separate myself from the community and live in the meres for forty days and nights. I was hard to find, especially with this endless rain, but eventually I received a message. I was happy to leave; the downpour has made the fens even more dangerous. Last night, I stayed in Abba’s village.’
‘Come to the hall first; there’ll be some broth – cold, I’m afraid – there’s not a dry stick anywhere – and water to wash.’
‘I’d like to see my sister.’
Wilfred hesitated; eventually nodding.
‘Then I’ll take you to see her – but tomorrow. It will be dark when we get to the village – the usual path is flooded and the other adds half an hour to the journey.’
‘I wasn’t told how she died.’
‘Let’s get you cleaned up and in dry clothes. You can talk to the headman. It’s better it comes from him.’
‘Why? I need to know.’
Wilfred started walking towards Hildericstow.

Suffering of the Innocent

The land melted. The sky – black, bruised, relentless – continued to torment the fen-dwellers, as it had for three days. No fires could burn. No soul was dry. A child and a cripple had died in the flood; others would follow. Swollen rivers muscled into torrents that swept into the meres and over all but the highest ground; washing stinking slime through the houses and into the food stores. No-one ventured into the open any more, unless desperate. The living shivered and weakened.
‘Dear God, don’t let her die. Not another, so soon.’ A young mother wept, watching her febrile baby, lying on its bed of matted, fetid straw.
‘The Lord God chooses our time. What can we do but pray.’ The father stared at the wall.
‘Pray that the priest comes to baptise her.’
‘How? No-one can reach us. If the rain continues much longer, we’ll all die.’

Doom

Doom painting
Early doom painting, late 1000s, St Mary the Virgin, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk (photo by author)

Wiglaf saw them while returning from Vespers and vomited in fear that the end of time was approaching; that his sins would weigh him down when the demons reached for his feet to drag him into the fires. Eadred was disturbed from his contemplation by the sudden onset of the vile smell of decay. A mother and father, devastated after their daughter’s last breath, thought they heard her soul wailing. They all saw the black hounds bolting through the night sky; heard them howling; their eyes burning as red as the smith’s forge; trailing the stench of death behind them. The dragons came next, belching fire. Evil had risen and was walking amongst men.

Remorse

For the first time in many a year, that night Eadred prayed solemnly and sincerely and throughout the hours of darkness for his sister’s soul. Not the perfunctory efforts he had struggled with since hearing of her death but words of care and concern about the journey of her immortal soul; that the Son of God look not on her sins but on a simple girl, who found it difficult to believe there was one eternal God.
He had been warned by Wilfred to prepare himself. Eadred asked why but Wilfred stayed silent. She lay in the church, bound in linen strips, scented with honey. It masked some of the smell of death.
‘Why is she completely covered? I should cover her face. I should be allowed to see her.’

‘Father, your sister’s face – it was disfigured.’

‘What! How?’
Wilfred looked away and breathed deeply.
‘Tell me! By an animal?’
‘No, Father.’ Wilfred stuttered, mumbling some unintelligible words.

The Dead Rising on Judgement Day (photo by author)

‘Speak up!’
‘Her nose and ears were cut away. And I’m sorry father, her eyes…. they were gone.’
Eadred held his head in his hands and groaned.
‘Were there any other marks on her? The women who washed her; did they say anything?’
‘I will fetch them for you.’ Wilfred was on his way before Eadred could speak again. The candles flickered in the swirling air then were still again. The young priest stared into the darkness, unable to look at his cocooned sister. Beyond prayer, he felt himself unable to feel loss. When he did imagine what pain and fear she must have endured, he felt pity but, overwhelmingly, he was disbelieving that anyone could have harmed Emma in such a way. How could the girl he knew have incited such venom? She was harmless.
‘You know Gertrude, Father?’ Eadred nodded.
‘My thanks for preparing my sister. I can see that it was hard.’ The old woman shook her head and shuddered.
‘Who would do such things.’
‘Her eyes, nose and ears were cut from her. This I know. Did she suffer more?’
Gertrude burst into tears.
‘Her poor body was black and blue.’
‘Beaten?’
Gertrude nodded.
‘All over. Poor love. It would have killed her horribly.’

Frustration

Leofwine walked solemnly towards the church; his head bowed.
‘Who has been charged?’ Eadred closed the church door and advanced towards the headman. Leofwine raised his hands.
‘Father Eadred, listen.’
‘Have you found who killed Emma?’ The priest shouted angrily but with tears streaming down his face. ‘At least, who are you pursuing?’
‘Eadred, no-one has been charged. Who should I charge? There have been no strangers around here. Emma had no enemies that I knew of. No-one has acted suspiciously. After church last Sunday, I made every man and woman over 15 swear on the Holy Book to tell me what they knew of the crime. All were as ignorant as I. To lie before God on such a thing is a grave sin. None would endanger their soul, I’m certain.
‘I’m sorry beyond words about what happened to Emma – and that it happened close to her home village – but only the Lord God knows what happened. I have done my duty and informed the ealdorman.
‘There is diabolical evil in this death. Perhaps no man took your sister’s life. Black creatures, spirits and ghosts have been seen. Pray father, for your sister and for all of us.’
After the night’s vigil, praying for his sister’s soul, Eadred felt spare. Leofwine had been headman for less than six months – six uneventful months until now. Eadred had no reason to question his goodness but neither did he have any great confidence that the man had the experience and wisdom to pursue the truth when someone was hiding it from him.
‘Then I will pray for God’s light to shine over this crime so that whoever knows more than they are telling, and whoever is seeking to hide their sin, will be discovered.
‘As Emma’s closest relative, I will pursue the truth and bring a charge before the hundred court. What news from Ealdorman Aelfric?’
‘None yet. He was summoned to the King’s assembly and is not expected back for a week or more.’

Brother Boisil
Brother Boisil (photo by author)

‘Who found her and where?’
‘Brother Boisil. He found her, bound hand and foot, lying close to the path between the Minster and here, hidden beneath a pile of leaves and wood.’
‘I know him well. I will talk to him.’
‘Then you haven’t heard, Father. Brother Boisil died not a week ago.’
Eadred sighed and crossed himself.

Preparations

Eadred woke from his sleep; cold, hungry, miserable. He had fought to stay awake until the evening but weakness overcame him.

Darkness was settling on Hildericstow; another night without warmth loomed. He shivered. Burdens weighed on him. He could not even bury his sister, lying rotting in the church, for the village burial place was waterlogged. The care of her soul was his main preoccupation and he wished that he had no concerns about the path it would take. But the manner of her death troubled him. What company had she kept? She was unmarried and without protection. What could have provoked such perverted violence against her? His duty was to discover the truth; not solely to bring a sinful, baleful murderer to justice but to save his sister – the sister he would have protected from hell, if not for his self-indulgence. He was certain that she had fallen into the pit of sin. How deep the hole and could he help her climb from it?
If the evil one were abroad, Eadred would be prepared – with the Holy Word and Holy Water. He had left the bishop distraught over relics he had mislaid from his collection – the first ever he couldn’t find. Though it troubled the old man to part with others, he still gave Eadred a small wooden box of saintly bones for his protection and the protection of God’s people.
Eadred had never cared properly for his sister as he should have in life, but he could make amends now – and his guilt gave him courage to face the devil.
After taking some cold broth and praying before his sister’s corpse; as was his way, Eadred knelt in solitary contemplation. Firstly, he prayed to his maker for all the blessings he had been given; then he let his mind be guided by the Lord God to the particular sin he confronted. What signs of the crime remained – in the natural world and in the minds of those who were witness to some aspect of the deed? There was little to help him. Whoever had taken his sister’s life was capable of the most violent and cruel behaviour. Yet he knew all the villagers and he knew their ancestry and none seemed capable of such a deed. Still, he would talk to each one as their priest.
The death of Brother Boisil was a double blow. As the Minster’s master mason, his eyes had been keen and his mind sharp. He would have seen what others missed when he came across Emma’s body. Yet someone else would have been the last to see Emma alive and they might help point Eadred’s mind in the right direction.
As he prayed for guidance, a single, unpleasant thought entered Eadred’s mind. The killer – if earthly – had sought to punish Emma cruelly. Had he been driven by jealousy, humiliation, malice or some such other feeling of hatred. Emma had known her killer and had crossed him somehow. He had responded violently. Eadred needed to talk to his sister’s friends.
But another soul faced eternal damnation. The following day, he had to speak to a couple who had brought their unbaptised baby for burial. What should he say to them – that their child’s soul would never enter Heaven because the torrent had hindered the earthly journey of their priest? It seemed too cruel.

Demons
Demons (photo by author)

A Confusing Clue

She was in the fields above Hildericstow, hoeing. It wasn’t much of a climb to reach her but Eadred breathed deeply several times, smiling at his distress.
‘Father, I missed church last Sunday for I was ill.’
‘You’re not in trouble, Elfwyn. I’d just like your help.’ The young woman looked concerned.
‘It’s about Emma. You were her closest friend, I’m told.’
‘Who says so?’
‘It’s no secret.’
‘I don’t know anything.’
‘I just want to know if she had a man friend. She died a terrible death. I want her soul to rest in peace. If you were her friend, please, tell me what you know. He might tell me if she was in any trouble.’ Elfwyn rested on her hoe and spoke without looking at Eadred.
‘I told her not to listen to him. She met someone. I don’t know if he were from the village. He made promises and they caught her, like a fish. But he never took her to his parents, even though she asked. I didn’t like the sound of him.’
‘Did Emma speak anything about him?’
‘No. I don’t know why she kept him secret. I’ll tell you one thing though; she had a black eye not long back and I know it was because he hit her. She became scared of him.’
Eadred continued to talk to Hildericstow’s inhabitants throughout the day but with little advantage. There was a man whom Emma was seeing furtively; he had discovered that much, and the unnamed lover had left the marks of several strikes on Emma’s face. The last person to see her alive seemed to be Elfwyn. The two women had been seen by an old couple; there was some confusion whether it was ten or eleven days days earlier. They told Eadred that his sister was accompanying her friend back from the fields that afternoon and they were arguing. It was odd, Eadred thought, that Elfwyn had forgotten to mention this recent occasion, saying that she couldn’t remember the last time she had seen her friend.

Protection of the Innocent

Eadred almost forgot. Approaching the church, he saw the couple who had asked to see him. The man was carrying the small bundle that would have been their baby.
‘Forgive me. I was delayed.’
‘Father Eadred, I am Godwine and this is my wife, Hilda. We live along the Snailwell road. We’ve seen you before in Hildericstow.’
‘I know your faces,’ the priest replied.
‘Our child died several days ago. She was but ten days old. Until the rains stopped and the water fell back, we have been alone and our priest could not come. Our child has not been baptised and our priest will not bury her with the community of dead Christians, in case she disturbs their rest, but said for us to come to you for you are more knowledgeable and will know what to do.’
Eadred felt annoyed. This priest had done this before; avoiding the risk of upsetting the community and losing his share of their funeral payments.
‘The flood, not your faith, stood in the way of the baptism of your daughter. I will bury her close to the church walls, where the rain from the roof will wash away her sins and allow her soul, in God’s time, to enter his kingdom. The ground is still waterlogged but in a few days I’ll dig the hole and we will bury her. You must pay the funeral payment to Snailwell Minster. But now, come with me into the church and I will pray for your daughter’s soul.

Unexpected Hope

‘Your daughter is in good company here. My own sister rests over there until the ground is ready for her burial.’
‘Forgive us, father. We didn’t know of your own pain.’
‘It is pain. I feel it hard. She was disfigured and murdered. It is hard to think on what she endured and that there is a godless beast out there somewhere who defiled a helpless girl.’
‘No-one has been caught! The Lord God help us. We are all in danger.

‘Where was she found?’
‘On the track between here and Snailwell Minster, close to the great mere.’
Hilda let out a scream.
‘Father, our house is not far from there. I tell you the truth that I was coming home with a basket of eels not long back and heard a cry – a woman’s cry – a girl. I saw someone run into the trees and heard no more.’

Eadred’s heart raced.
‘When was this?’
‘It was almost my time – two weeks ago. Maybe a few days more.’
‘You didn’t tell me!’
‘I forgot. I came on dizzy and struggled back home.’ Hilda replied to her husband.

Road to Snailwell Minster
Road to Snailwell Minster (photo by author)

‘You shouldn’t have carried that basket so far. It’s too heavy.’ Godwine turned to Eadred.
‘Father, I’ve told her before.’
‘What am I supposed to do? You’ve a mangled arm.’
‘It looks worse than it is. I’ve strength enough to care for a family.’
Eadred had other things on his mind.
‘Hilda, think carefully. Did you see or hear anything more?’
‘No father, I swear. I wasn’t going to get any closer. Not in my condition.’
‘Stay in the village tonight. I’ll see that you’re sheltered and have food and go home tomorrow. Return on Friday morning and I’ll conduct your daughter’s funeral.’
When Hilda and Godwine had gone, Eadred was close to borrowing a horse and riding then to that part of the track where Hilda had seen the girl running. It could have been Emma. But it was getting dark. He would start out early the following morning.
The pale sun filtered through the bare branches. A deep frost shone around him. Eadred walked slowly, eyes wide; fingers picking over leaves, stones, twigs. He ploughed again – nothing – the rain had washed any reminders to oblivion. Close to midday, he returned to Hildericstow, maudlin and without hope.

A Second Murder

In the late afternoon, Leofwine, the village headman, disturbed Eadred from his contemplations.
‘Father, you’re needed. A body has been brought and another is wounded. Ready yourself.’ Eadred saw unease in the headman’s eyes.
‘The Lord God in Heaven, no! I have her dead baby in the church with Emma. Who could do such things? Poor Hilda.’ The priest crossed himself.

‘Killed by the same man, in the same way.’

Eadred was looking carefully at Hilda’s arms and neck.
‘This looks the same but has differences. Emma was bludgeoned; Hilda wasn’t. She was probably killed by this.’ Eadred pointed to a stab wound through Hilda’s throat. ‘Someone wanted her dead quickly. The mutilation could have come after – to make it look like the same attacker.’
‘Godwine was also attacked. He’s in the hall.’
Leofwine and Eadred found him sitting on the floor, bent forward, crying, clutching his knees to his chest. His face bled; his clothes were torn and shredded; arms cut and scratched.
‘He was waiting for us; in our own house, when we returned. I was knocked to the ground and my head kicked. When my wits returned, I went looking for Hilda and saw her lying in the mud. First, my only child. Now, my wife. Cut like the worst criminal!’ Godwine cried uncontrollably.
‘Hold your hands in supplication, Godwine, and I will pray that Hilda’s soul is safe and that you will be given the strength to continue your life.’
Eadred prayed with the distracted husband for a few minutes, until he calmed.
‘Godwine, we might still catch Hilda’s killer. Think carefully. What do you remember about your attacker? Was he tall; strong; did he remind you of anyone?’
‘It was dark in the house and he was quick, father. I didn’t see him. He wasn’t tall. He seemed slight of body but his grip was strangely powerful. His hands were not rough; in fact, they were smooth. They felt odd.’
‘Odd; in what way?’
Godwine shook his head.
‘Tell me then, after Hilda spoke to me about hearing a crying woman on the road to Snailwell, did she tell anyone else? Think carefully.’
‘We stayed in Hildericstow last night, as you told us. We ate and drank in the hall and we both spoke freely about what my wife heard. Many there were interested. Others joined later. I think when they heard of Hilda’s story.’
‘I’ve no doubt. Do you remember who listened? Can you remember their names?
‘The whole village was there, father, and a face I didn’t know.’
‘There was a stranger?’
‘There was one, father. Others there said he was a trader from Wessex.’
Eadred raised his eyebrows.
‘Where was he staying?’
‘Father, all I heard was that he had been seen with the headman and Brother Boisil, and that the headman had found him shelter.’
‘The headman told me there were no strangers here?’ Eadred continued to pry Godwine.
‘It’s the truth. I swear there was, father. Ask others. They will know.
‘Like a freshly ground stone carving.’
‘What?’
‘Father, I remember now what was strange about the attacker’s hands – they were like a newly smoothed stone carving.’

Suspicions

The hue and cry brought Wiglaf to Hildericstow in chains. He screamed out his innocence.
‘Wiglaf will swear his innocence and four or five monks are expected to vouch for his character. He would have had more but his outbursts of anger have injured some in his community. Godwine has brought the charge and he will have a good number of oath-helpers. People are sympathetic to you and Godwine for the losses you are bearing and the nature of the murders but the court won’t hang a man for murder- even two murders – without something more to connect him to the deeds.
‘Wiglaf may be violent in some of his actions but has never hit man nor woman before today. His oath-helpers will affirm this. The bishop will influence the court. He won’t have one of his own executed without a stronger case.’
Eadred didn’t answer Wilfred. He was reliving the moment of Wiglaf’s capture. How he fought and thrashed out with his chisel and hammer, drawing blood. There had to be something more to link the young, uncontrollable monk to the murders and he had to find it before the trial the day after next.
Eadred knew Brother Wiglaf fairly well. His outbursts had troubled the bishop before and he had an even more unpleasant trait that troubled the monastic leadership – he was accused of forcing himself on a village girl. She screamed and he ran away protesting his innocence but few believed him.
Eadred also felt uneasy about the stranger in the village and the secrecy around him, including the headman’s outright lie about his existence. He went to bed praying for a miracle that would see him find the missing pieces.
The following morning, Eadred conducted the funerals of his sister and Hilda and her baby. Many people came from Hildericstow and surrounding settlements, and many wept. The ground allowed the bodies to be buried – Emma and Hilda in the community’s cemetery – and the baby close to the church walls, under the eaves. If anyone had objections to the baby’s burial in a holy place, the horrific murder of her mother had silenced them.

Brother Boisil’s Clue

‘We’ll now be able to bury Brother Boisil. He’ll be as happy to go as we will be to farewell him. He’s been locked in a barn for a week. We had to move him from the chapel – the stink was filling the whole building. He’ll be wrapped in new linen tomorrow.’ Eadred overheard the Abbot.
‘Father Abbot, I make a strange request but not lightly. Brother Boisil was old to be sure but in good health. Please, let me look carefully at his body. I will help bind him with fresh linen myself. Brother Boisil may not have died naturally.

‘I feel certain that Hilda was murdered because Emma’s killer was unsure whether Hilda might have remembered more about what she had seen. Brother Boisil could also have been silenced  because he could have seen something when he discovered Emma’s body that the killer feared he would recall.’
Though the request was odd, the bishop and abbot agreed reluctantly. The horrific deaths of two women, most likely at the hands of a monk, had brought disrepute to Snailwell. The bishop had worked hard, if belatedly, to remedy past errors at the minster and its daughter houses, and was too old to face the charge that he was impeding the truth. The king himself might intervene to refresh the community if it lost any more support.
It was a distasteful business. Eadred and two novices covered their noses and mouths with scented bands and went about their task. As the old strips were removed, Eadred surveyed the body beneath them.
When the old monk’s lower back was uncovered, one of the novices pointed Eadred’s attention to what appeared to be a small ball of discoloured cloth, covering the wound the monk sustained when he collapsed into the jagged stones in his workshop. Though he grimaced, Eadred pulled at the material and gradually it began to unravel. It filled a small hole to a depth of several inches. Eadred took a needle and inserted it into the hole. Oddly, it hit against a hard surface. Using his fingers and the needle, Eadred managed to ease the object towards the skin. Slowly, with his fingers just gripping the surface, he eased it out – a nail, some four inches in length.

Coppiced rods
A stand of recently-cut coppiced logs. An important part of the medieval economy (photo by author)

The Proceedings

‘Who brings this suit?’ The bishop himself presided over the court in the Minster at Snailwell with the agreement of the ealdorman, given the seriousness of the charge and that the next meeting of the shire court was several months away.
‘I, the Abbot of Snailwell, charge that sadly Brother Wiglaf did murder Brother Boisil.’
Stories of Wiglaf’s volatility and his imprudent comments against Boisil finally tipped the scales against him. He had continued to make lewd comments about some of the village girls and a fellow brother said that the accused had been the hand that drew improper images of the naked female form along the margins of one of Snailwell’s monastic manuscripts.
‘I swear before God that I am guiltless of the charge. I had no reason to kill Brother Boisil; he was my beloved mentor.’ Wiglaf almost sounded affronted when asked to respond.
‘Who swears for Brother Wiglaf?’
There was silence. The bewildered monk stared at the row of covered heads, all avoiding his pleading eyes. He cried out.
‘Where are my oath-helpers? I am innocent.’
But the murder of their brother had changed everything.
‘Whoever takes the life of a cloistered brother is damned.’ The abbot had left no room for doubt.
‘Before the Lord God, I am innocent. I will face any ordeal to prove my innocence.’
The bishop nodded.
‘Brother Wiglaf has chosen to face the ordeal of water or iron. Let it be so at a time I choose.
‘Now, who brings the suit against Brother Wiglaf for the murder of Hilda, wife of Godwine?’

The Truth Intervenes

While the court was winding through its ineluctable processes, Father Eadred was absent. He had come to the point of accepting Wiglaf’s guilt; however, without eagerness. The young monk’s frustrations with his ageing mentor, his imprudent tongue and his obscene turn of mind, had taken on a different complexion in the past few days. But Eadred felt uneasy about his part in probably sending a man to the gallows for three deaths that seemed to be beyond a young monk, who was immature and possessed of a vulgar mind to be sure but whose outbursts were more noisy than aggressive. Eadred also knew another side of the monk – one that sought the strength to overcome his sins and to glorify God through the skill of his hands.
Wiglaf had been charged with murdering Emma because he had embarked on a sinful relationship that she wanted to end, and killing Hilda because she had witnessed one of their meetings and would inevitably identify Wiglaf.
Eadred pushed blocks of stone aside, examined tools, surveyed the stone cross that Wiglaf was shaping. Was there something that would shine a light on the truth – and if there was, would Eadred recognise it? Nothing appeared to him. Then he saw it.
It was disconcerting and annoying beyond measure for the bishop that Father Eadred accosted the abbot and indulged in heated conversation in the midst of the delicate processes of the hundred court. Though he looked irritated, the abbot sought the bishop’s ear.
‘Who swears for Brother Wiglaf, accused of murdering Emma, sister of Brother Eadred?
‘I do.’ Eadred rose from his seat. ‘And I ask that this court hear me.’
Amid the consternation, the bishop raised his hand.
‘This is unprecedented and I understand the court’s disquiet. However, the seriousness of the crimes requires that I use my judgement, despite the breach of custom.
‘I am willing to hear Father Eadred but he must be brief and to the point. Brother Wiglaf has already been accused of the murders of Brother Boisil and the woman, Hilda, and has chosen to face ordeals to prove his innocence or otherwise.’

The Serpent’s Secrets

Eadred had seen more than enough hangings in his life. They were part of his duties, so he couldn’t avoid them, especially when he had helped put the victim’s head in the noose. He consoled himself that he had helped convict and sentence the right person. At least, he hadn’t the death of an innocent soul on his conscience.
‘Fill my cup again and tell me how you found the truth. It still baffles my old mind.’
Eadred took the bishop’s cup and filled it and his own with wine. With a gentle smile of self-appreciation, he also filled his own to the brim.
‘Three matters troubled me. Hilda was murdered because my sister’s killer grew fearful that she might recognise him, once Hilda thought more about what she had witnessed. But Hilda had seen my distraught sister running from the Snailwell path weeks before she herself was murdered. It was only after she had spoken of what she had seen in the hall that Hilda was struck down to stop her speaking further.’
‘So, someone there, in the hall that night, murdered Hilda?’
‘Yes, someone became fearful enough to quieten her tongue. It couldn’t have been Brother Wiglaf, who was two hours away here, in Snailwell. He didn’t hear Hilda telling her story.
‘The second was when Godwine said his attacker had hands that reminded him of a newly smoothed stone carving. These are the hands of a mason’s assistant, who spends his time rubbing chiselled stone to yield a good finish. The hands come to resemble the smooth stone. The description clearly led us to think of Wiglaf.
‘If Wiglaf was to be accused of both murders then both had to look the same. But they were different. Emma was tortured by a depraved soul and died slowly. Hilda was murdered quickly, when her killer grabbed the chance, and only afterwards her face disfigured. She was not the victim of hours of beating and mutiliation.

Medieval graffiti of an archer
Medieval graffiti of an archer, Whittlesford Church, Cambridgeshire (photo by author)

‘The third was two discoveries in Wiglaf’s workshop. The ealdorman’s cross was almost complete. It shouldn’t have been so, unless much work had been done after Brother Boisil’s death. Only Brother Wiglaf could have done this; and it was, as you have seen, wondrous, of a quality that I have rarely seen, even in Wessex.
‘I asked Brother Wiglaf, as you would remember, why he didn’t follow Brother Boisil’s drawing of the Lord Jesus subduing satan.’
‘He said that the custom at Snailwell was to portray satan as the serpent he is, not as a deformed man-like creature. This is indeed our custom,’ the bishop added.
‘Obviously Brother Boisil knew this, so his depiction of satan as a deformed man – one with a withered arm was intentional. He was telling those who knew the custom the identity of the man who killed him – Godwine.
‘I suspect that Brother Boisil might have seen something when he discovered my sister’s body that made him suspicious of Godwine. Whatever it was, Godwine sensed that Boisil was wary of him. What the community thought were wounds and disarray in the workshop caused when Boisil collapsed naturally, were signs of struggle. The wound in his back came from a heavy blow with a jagged stone that would have knocked him senseless. Godwine took his opportunity and drove the nail deep into this seemingly natural wound, where it would not be discovered, and ran. But Boisil was not yet dead. When he regained his wits, his enfeebled last act before he died, was to identify Godwine by scratching a few lines that changed a serpent into a disfigured man. Brother Boisil knew that if Godwine returned, he would not be able to discern the clue and it would remain safe for us to read.
‘Godwine’s sins weighed on him heavily, which is why he confessed once his deeds were exposed. It was lust and a perversity to torture and maim the woman who wanted to free herself from him, once she realised the true nature of the man. Emma certainly would not have known he was married. He then murdered his wife to keep his debauchery a secret.’
‘You could not have done more for your sister. Her soul can now rest peacefully until the Lord judges us all.’
Eadred didn’t acknowledge the bishop’s words; they condemned.

Beyond the Village (photo by author)

Another Crime

‘And what of the other crime? I’m forever grateful.’
Eadred nodded.
‘When I was searching Brother Boisil’s cell, I found a small parcel behind a loose stone in the wall. Unwrapping the cloth, I found some bones – the next sale of your collection of relics. Sadly, Brother Boisil and Leofwine, our former headman, had conspired to enrich themselves at the minster’s expense. We have lost some; sold into Wessex, but Leofwine must compensate you. He has lost all honour.
‘Boisil, unfortunately, was not the man of faith we thought. Aside from his theft, he carried out a deceit, which worked because he blackmailed a young, gullible brother, who had confided in him a youthful indiscretion with a fellow novice.’

Irredeemable Remorse

‘If you won’t lie with me, no-one will have you.’ Godwine slammed his fist into Emma’s face.
Through the haze, she stared at the blade coming towards her face and felt its first bite.
Eadred woke, screaming. He gasped for air then fell back onto his bed. Emma would have known that Godwine was wed. It would have been impossible not to. If Eadred had been there, close to his sister, he could have helped her fight the pull of sin and its eternal cost.
‘Forgive me.’ His body shook with waves of tears and irredeemable remorse.

Companions of the Hearth: the King, the Warrior, the Gift and the Hearth

Companions of the Hearth:

The King, the Warrior, the Gift and the Hearth

Those familiar with Anglo-Saxon history or literature will know the term, ’hearth companions’ or ‘hearth group’. Although its meaning changed over the Anglo-Saxon period, at core, it is wonderfully redolent of Germanic warrior culture. A group of chosen warriors fiercely loyal to their lord (king, prince or noble), often unto death. They were mutually supportive in war and peace, courageous, giving and receiving gifts, sharing companionship around a common fire, feasting, drinking, telling time-honoured tales of great warriors and feats of arms.

Too good to be true? Most of these evocative images come from heroic Anglo-Saxon poetry. Such poems were never intended to be a straightforward reflection of reality but were loaded, complex texts – politically, ideologically, culturally, socially, morally and psychologically.

This article looks at what we may learn of the relationship between a leader and his hearth group and how it was perceived, from heroic poetry. Does this form of expression provide insights into the importance of maintaining arms, trust and esprit de corps in a violent, uncertain world? Does it commemorate valour in recited words, rather than through stone monuments? Or part of ruling class culture – an image extolling the virtues of blind loyalty to those in charge? A noble bunch of fellows or a smokescreen for indulgence, bullying and womanising?

Beautiful Pattern-welded Blade
Pattern-welded Blade

Four core elements underlie the depiction of the hearth group – the king or leader, the warrior, the gift and the hearth.

The King

A king had semi-divine status in pagan Germanic Anglo-Saxon society. Many king lists of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms include the pagan god, Woden, as a root ancestor. Unfortunately, this will never be verified by a DNA test! A king’s linkage with the spiritual world survived the gradual conversion to Christianity with the Church anointing the monarch as divinely chosen to rule by right. To reinforce this, a king who was martyred was destined to be made a saint – the nearest thing in the Church to a person being deified.

The Church was happy to reinforce the loyalty of the community to their kings and nobles as, in a highly stratified society, this facilitated the conversion of the people, once their lord converted. The monarch remained a tribe’s or kingdom’s link to the Divinity and was pivotal in drawing together physical and spiritual forces initially to form, then to protect, the kingdom. In turn, the monarch had to be protected.

Violence was endemic in Anglo-Saxon times – not just between kingdoms but also tribes and kin groups. A king was expected to personally lead his forces in battle. He was the personification of the kingdom. He needed followers he could trust with his life and whom he could trust to carry out his commands. The leader had to build loyalty so that, even in the direst of circumstances, his companions would fight for him, even unto death.

The leaders we see in poetry were often glorified for their personal heroism, rather than sensible, military decision-making. However, there were many kings who were strategically thoughtful and farsighted, as well as brave and inspiring. How else could they have eventually led armies to defeat the Vikings and unite the kingdoms to form England? Kings like Alfred the Great and his son and grandson, Edward the Elder and Athelstan, who were great leaders, in war and peace.

The Great King Athelstan
The great King Athelstan presenting a Book to St Cuthbert

The Warrior

A warrior’s main role was to protect his lord – whether king or noble – the leader’s family and his lands. Loyalty to one’s lord is portrayed as outweighing loyalty to kin. In this, we might see the importance of kingdom-building; in extending the web of loyalties beyond family.

A warrior without a lord was depicted in poetry as a sad being, especially if a leader died in battle but his closest companions survived. If one’s leader was killed then the done thing for a companion worthy of his name was to fight on and avenge his death or die in the attempt. There was no talk of living to fight another day. Not that this standard was met all of the time, even in heroic poetry, but to leave the field without avenging a dead lord, or dying in the attempt, was simply cowardice. I suppose that this was an incentive to fight hard to protect one’s leader. While there were practical considerations – a lordless warrior lost the benefits of a lord’s patronage and the fellowship of men – the dominant theme is again personal heroism or the lack of it.

Anglo-Saxon poetry includes references contrasting how a companion should and should not behave. The Battle of Maldon, written to commemorate the battle fought in 991 AD between a Danish raiding force and the men of Essex under their ealdorman, Byrhtnoth, who was killed in the battle, includes the following memorable words:

Byrhtwold held forth, heaved up his shield – he was an aged companion – he shook his ash spear. Most courageously he enjoined the warriors:

‘Resolution must be the tougher, hearts the keener, courage must be the more as our strength grows less. Here lies our lord all hacked down, the good man in the dirt. He who now thinks of getting out of this fighting will have cause to regret it forever. I am grown old in life. I will not go away, but I mean to lie at the side of my lord, by the man so dear to me.’ (Bradley, S.A.J., 1982, p 527).

However, in the same struggle:

Godric took flight from the battle and deserted the good man who had often given him many a horse. (Bradley ibid., p 524).

Plaque commemorating Battle of Maldon
Plaque commemorating the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD (photo by Glyn Baker)

At a time when a person’s lineage told others of the quality and bravery of their stock, a lesson from this text is that the courageous will live on, as their glorious feats are recounted in the halls of their people, while those who failed the standards of warriors shame themselves and their descendants.

Continuing with the Battle of Maldon, the incomplete surviving text of the poem contrasts with the terse reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 991:

A 991. This year was Ipswich ravaged: and after that, very shortly, was Byrhtnoth the ealdorman slain at Maldon.

The poem has been loaded with additional meanings that are consistent with the heroic ethos. Scholars have generally interpreted the poem as depicting a moral victory of the bond between companions and their lord, despite being a military defeat. Byrhtnoth’s death and the death of many of his men is precipitated by his own actions in letting the Danes cross a causeway to fight. Whether caused through pride, arrogance, misplaced heroism or miscalculation, the loss is only redeemed by the values and loyalty of some of Byrhtnoth’s hearth companions.

The heroic warrior ‘props’ in Anglo-Saxon poetry have received significant archaeological corroboration, especially from royal and warrior burials. Most spectacularly, the Sutton Hoo ship burial in East Anglia, initially excavated on the eve of WWII, brought to mind the ship burial of Scyld Scefing from the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem – Beowulf (Newton, S., 1994, pp 135-142). Warrior helmets have also been discovered, including the evocative helmet and face mask from Sutton Hoo, as well as from Benty Grange (Derbyshire) and Coppergate (York). Wonderful ‘pattern-welded’ swords – clearly treasured warrior possessions – have also been found.

Sutton Hoo Helmet
Depiction of a king’s helmet. Thought to be for King Raedwald of the East Angles. Sutton Hoo (photo by author)

The historical context of the bond between king and hearth companion obviously changed. Although the image was undoubtedly gilded by heroic poetry, the inescapable fact is that the quality of Anglo-Saxon forces and leadership under the Kings of Wessex had become sufficiently formidable to fight off invaders and form England over the period from about 870 to 940 AD. They must have been doing something right.

However, moving on to the reign of Aethelred the Unready (966-1016 AD), the image and reality were appearing a bit threadbare. This was a period of renewed Danish raids, vast payments of Danegeld and national humiliation. It is the context of the Battle of Maldon. The poem appeals to timeless values of courage and loyalty that were sorely missing in the monarch.

The Anglo-Saxons almost pulled it off in the end and 1066 was a close run thing. The result may have been different if King Harold had not needed to march to Stamford Bridge near York for one battle then return south to fight Duke William.

The Gift

The concept of a gift is fascinating anthropologically. In his famous book of 1925, The Gift (2002), Marcel Mauss argued that in many early societies, the gift functioned to generate reciprocal obligations and thus both to bind together social groups and reinforce hierarchies. Accordingly, a ‘gift’ is often a misnomer. It is not given always without expectation of benefit but, on the contrary, to create obligations. If a person chose to refuse a gift, they were refusing the relationship it embodied. Gift-giving had a ritual and spiritual dimension, as well as material. The acts of giving and receiving were often accompanied by ritualised speeches, generating a sense of magical, spiritual behaviour (Pollington, S., 2002, pp 43-45). Thus, an Anglo-Saxon lord would give gifts to his companions in return for their past and future loyalty and acts of service and bravery. Indeed, the metaphor, ‘ring-giver’, refers to a lord.

Anglo-Saxon poetic references to gift-giving between a lord and his companions reflect this relationship, as in Beowulf:

Then the protecting lord of earls, the king renowned in warfare, commanded a gold-decorated blade, a legacy from Hrethel, to be fetched in – at the time there was no finer treasure among the Geats in the category of the sword. This he laid in Beowulf’s lap, and granted him seven thousand hides of land, a hall and a prince’s throne. (Bradley, S.A.J., 1982, p 469).

The Hearth 

The hearth conjures up images of warmth; feasting; comfort; light surrounded by darkness, the unknown and demons. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, it stands as a metaphor for all of these delights, domestic and communal, and reinforces the theme of companionship. It’s a wonderful metaphor for human solace in the face of the dark unknown. As one of King Edwin of Northumbria’s chief men says when discussing whether to accept Christianity:

…it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter’s storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. (Bede, 1968, p 127).

West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, Suffolk (photo by author)

When most buildings were wooden, the hearth was one of the few structures made of stone; giving it a greater permanence. We can imagine that until the wide availability of electricity, the hearth remained the focus of life after sundown for most of humanity for countless generations. It is a time-honoured, deeply evocative image.

High Status Bromances?

So, what are we to make of the image of the Anglo-Saxon leader and his hearth group? Undoubtedly, heroic poetry glorified the aristocracy and their way of life, which was indulgent. There is minimal mention of the common man and woman. But the images are not simply fictitious high status bromances that mask the merciless brutality of Anglo-Saxon militarism.

Anglo-Saxon kings with semi-divine status and other noble leaders did surround themselves with trusted warriors, mainly from the aristocracy but also others selected for their martial qualities. It made good sense. The chosen warriors would have trained and spent much time together. They were fortunate to be able to eat and drink a lot but physically weak warriors were not going to last the distance in a battle – the common soldier certainly didn’t have much of a chance. They shared common values and an esprit de corps developed. This was essential in developing a viable force to defend the kingdoms. What started as a household guard developed over the Anglo-Saxon period into a highly trained force that was very effective.

The relationship between a leader and his hearth group in Anglo-Saxon society was sustained by shared dangers, complex rituals, companionship and the inspiration of heroic poetry. The feats and qualities of great heroes were recited and extolled in these poems, where one’s own courage could also be commemorated.

Heroic poetry was undoubtedly rose-tinted, elevated and aspirational but it celebrated a relationship that was central to the defence of the kingdom.

(Check out also my debut novel, Under Lynden Church, set in the Kingdom of the East Angles during the Viking Invasions

https://www.amazon.com/Under-Lynden-Church-Lindsay-Jacob-ebook/dp/B019D70KDM)

Bradley, S. A. J., (ed.) Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Dent, London, 1982.

Mauss, M., The Gift, Routledge Classics, London & New York, 2002.

Newton, S., The Origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1994.

Pollington, S., The English Warrior from Earliest Times till 1066, Anglo-Saxon Books, Frithgarth, 2002.

Sherley-Price, L., (translator) Bede, A History of the English Church and People, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968.

THE DEVIL’S MINSTER (PART 6) – TREE WITH ROTTEN FRUIT

The Devil’s Minster (Part 6) – Tree with Rotten Fruit

Welcome to Part Six – the final part – of the Devil’s Minster about crime, detection, judgement and punishment. As with my other Father Eadred short stories and my novel, Under Lynden Church, I want to bring the Anglo-Saxons closer to us through research and storytelling.

Eadred is a young Anglo-Saxon, who entered the priesthood possessed of an earnest, burning faith and desire to serve his God. To many of us today in the West, such spiritual fervour seems anachronistic and perhaps downright dangerous – ‘medieval’. Unfortunately, often cynicism has replaced it.

Eadred’s idealism does take a battering. Peeled of their liturgy and relics, he finds a great many sins within the Church, as in the world he hoped to escape. Indeed, the princes, great lords, thegns and landowners who rule the kingdom, also seem to hold dominion in the minster.

Eadred might have succumbed to his disappointment, ageing sadly as an embittered priest, leaving no trace in the human record. But he has one God-given talent; the same gift that torments his faith and leads him along a lonely road – his restless mind that pursues the truth.

The Forbidding Fens – Home of Demons and Hermits (photo by author)

In a time when status and reputation were often enough to determine guilt or innocence in a court of law, questioning people and evidence was a novelty – often unwelcome. The guilty attack his weaknesses – his lowly birth, inexperience – whatever they can throw, but his gift is increasingly sought. For the moment it is enough to give his life purpose. Yet, Eadred dreams of a solitary life – to be freed of duties, other than the one he wants. To be a lone figure in the blackness of night, when he might confront the spawn of the Evil One and fight evil by prayer alone. That is a purpose to live for!

Tree with Rotten Fruit

“This matter is not yet over, Lord Ceowulf. I accuse one more inmate.” Eadred coughed several times and with his voice wavering, he spoke. “I accuse Abbot Aelfric of incest.”

The assembly dissolved into chaos.

“In the king’s name sit or face his justice.” Ceowulf drew his sword and slammed it down on the bench before him. Several of Lady Aelswith’s troop stood and drew their swords.

“Sheath your weapons!” The thegn’s command was reinforced by the influx of the armed men who had accompanied him.

“Let me speak and bring peace here.” The abbot rose and raised his hands. “Lord Ceowulf, let me speak and avoid bloodshed.” Ceowulf, who appeared completely bewildered, nodded.

“Silence! If any here seeks violence, I will order the archers to finish the matter. Now, let calm prevail and listen to the abbot.”

Only when the hotheads saw the archers drawing their bows did some semblance of peace return.

“I swear on the Holy Book to speak honestly. It is true, as the priest has said, that I have recently wed my dead brother’s wife. I know that I kept this knowledge secret; not because I was ashamed of the act; far from it. I know I have transgressed.

“I am abbot here but, more importantly, I have kinship with the king and his family and obligations, as well as rights. Long before the Roman religion came to us, my family was one of a handful who carved out the land that became the Kingdom of the East Angles. They shed their blood for this soil and I am forever tied to them. I gave my word to my brother when he married that if he died and I was still without wife that I would marry and protect his widow. My brother, as is known, died of a terrible illness.

“Aagh.” The abbot groaned, clutching his stomach. “A bucket. Quickly!” He vomited violently.

“You are unwell. We can continue another day, so you might recover.”

“No, Lord Ceowulf. I thank you but it’s a minor inconvenience. I’m strong but once in a while my body erupts, as with all men. I’ll continue.

Wood carving of a medieval face (photo by author)

“I have honoured my pledge and make no apology. We all know of great men who have married their cousins or sisters-in-law and none have suffered harm from it. Some in the Church say we are wrong to do so but so are many things that are part of our inheritance. Our kinship was wrought over generations and made us strong to take and hold this land. I will not turn my back to the needs of my kin.

“I have done wrong by Holy Church – I admit it openly – and will face the bishop and take the consequences but who among you would condemn my actions to protect my brother’s widow?”

Eadred squirmed at the question. What was stronger – blood or the cross – if a man had to choose? The murmurs of approval showed that many – fighting men and monks – took the abbot’s side. Eadred felt betrayed that even within God’s house, eternity was considered subservient to powerful men.

“This court has no authority over me. I will answer to the bishop gladly. Lord Ceowulf, your work is done.”

The thegn looked uncertain. He had spoken to the bishop on the division between the King’s law and Church jurisdiction but not on this matter. Personally, he didn’t think the issue was an important one for the king. Ceowulf knew of many men who had married their close relations, although it happened less now than in the past. Of course, the abbot had taken an oath of celibacy but this was between him and Bishop Aethelbert. Besides, some signs of discomfort still lingered in the abbot’s face and the thegn had no wish to detain him any longer than necessary.

“We have our murderer,” the thegn said after some moments of reflection. “It is Brother Hygbald. Do you agree?” The court shouted its affirmation. “Very well, I will consult the ealdorman and the bishop on what next we must do to punish the monk for his crime. The abbot’s transgression is to be weighed in the Church courts.”

The thegn stood and those assembled followed. Their mood was sanguine; the outcome seemed just and they had escaped the need to judge the abbot on a sensitive charge.

“Wait, Lord Ceowulf, I have one more accusation to bring.”

Ceowulf looked at Eadred with a pained, exasperated expression.

“For what crime?”

“Murder.”

Sand body of an execution victim at Sutton Hoo, Norfolk

“Father Eadred, we have accounted for the deaths of the three monks. You have served us well.”

“There is one other. At least, I think so. I ask that I might make the accusation.”

The thegn pulled at his ear and groaned.

“Whom has been murdered and whom do you accuse?”

“I accuse Abbot Aelfric of murdering his brother, Lord Alfred.”

Fratricide

Eadred had steeled himself for a furious reaction but when the storm broke around him he sensed isolation as he had never known. The entire assembly hurled a cacophony of insults; worse than the delicate soul had ever experienced, whether directed at him or others. He had never heard some of the poisonous barbs before, and never sensed such threats of men aiming to do him harm – but now he did.

“I swear I had no foreknowledge of this.” The thegn looked to the abbot, who sat shaking his head. Around them, the fury continued.

“Silence! Silence! An accusation has been made. Let me speak.” The thegn bellowed above the din.

“You have not proceeded correctly, priest. There has been no earlier request in the customary way. There is no foundation for this charge.”

“Lord Ceowulf, I have no objection. This is beyond belief. I am blameless of this charge and wish it be dealt with quickly so I may resume my duties. My bodily inconvenience is over and I am well to continue.”

“Thank you, Lord Abbot.”

“Are you certain, Father Eadred, that you wish to proceed?

“I am, lord. I ask that you hear me out. The accusation is not made lightly.”

“Proceed then priest, quickly and choose your words wisely.”

Eadred almost choked on his words but forced himself on, addressing the abbot.

“It is widely known that your brother died an awful death. The sickness continued for many weeks and gradually he weakened; breathless, bitter pains in his stomach, unable to stand without staggering, vomiting, tingling in the mouth and a strange feeling as if insects were crawling over him. These signs of the illness were witnessed by many and all were at a loss to identify the sickness, saying they had never seen its like and that evil elves had attacked Lord Alfred with their poisonous barbs.”

“My brother met a terrible end. I shall never forget the pain I witnessed. And you charge me with inflicting such anguish on my own brother? I would have walked through a pit of vipers to save him. Priest, I have never faced such an insult. You would do well to think carefully on your next words.”

Eadred ploughed on.

“But the same strange illness has been witnessed recently in this minster – Prior Wulfstan has suffered in the same way. These are the only two men known to any of us who have suffered thus. We know the prior was poisoned by Anselm and death will come soon to our courageous brother.

“It was poison that killed Lord Alfred; the same virulent poison that has Anselm’s mark on it.”

There were some groans of incredulity but enough curiosity to encourage Eadred to continue in his current vein. He glanced quickly at the abbot, who was staring at him.

“Yet Brother Anselm never met Lord Alfred, as far as I have been able to determine.”

Eadred dared to look around the assembly to see if anyone could counter his claim. He saw perplexed faces but no-one raised their voice.

“Even if by some means there was such an encounter, such is the smell and taste of the poison that it must be given in small quantities to hide its foulness – and must accordingly be given many times. It was not possible for Anselm to administer the pernicious brew to the royal kinsman time and time again. Brother Anselm, for some reason, provided enough of this toxic compound to someone else to kill Lord Alfred.”

“I seldom saw my brother.” The abbot shouted angrily. “By your own reasoning, neither could I commit these foul acts.”

Eadred nodded in agreement.

“But Lady Aelswith and her handmaid saw Lord Alfred often. You asked Brother Anselm to give the poison to the royal lady’s handmaid with instructions on how to administer it, supposedly to cure Lord Alfred’s sickness, knowing that it would slowly kill him.”

The abbot’s laughter was met with silence.

“It is not so! I asked for a medicine. If it caused harm then it was Anselm’s doing, not mine. I have no skill to measure what quantity is required to heal: I relied on Anselm to instruct Balthilde. I tried everything to cure my dear brother. Lord Ceowulf, surely these questions from this upstart must now cease. It is unseemly.” The abbot found audible support among his closest supporters, who urged the thegn to end the proceedings.

The thegn looked uncertain – as he did often. The priest’s questioning was causing him to feel uneasy; not because Eadred’s charge was ludicrous but because it was becoming believable.

“Lord, let me continue,” Eadred pleaded. “There are two people who are witnesses to Lord Alfred’s murder. They will help you to the truth.”

“I can bring an army of oath-helpers to attest to my birth and character; that I would not lie. This lowly-born priest makes a mockery of this court.”

“Abbot Aelfric, I would hear him. The death of a royal kinsman is a great matter. The king would expect the court to hear the charge, now it is underway. You would understand this? Proceed.”

The abbot hammered the bench with his clenched fist.

“Bring Balthilde into this court.”

A mixture of compassion and horror accompanied her entry. Two nuns helped her to a seat.

“Balthilde, I know you, I think; you are Lady Aelswith’s handmaid?”

The woman nodded and grunted at the thegn’s question. Though young, she appeared old with threadbare hair; her body and skin trembled on her bones.

“Do you swear on the Holy Bible to tell the truth?” She mumbled her agreement. Eadred began to question her.

“Balthilde, how did you come to such a perilous state?”

So eager was the court to hear her reply, not a sound could be heard. Her voice was a vile, gasping whisper, as an old witch. She struggled to speak a collection of half-connected words, punctuated by attempts to regather her energy.

“I visited the minster in mid-autumn with a message from my royal lord and lady to the abbot. The abbot asked that I take a pot of medicine back to them. It was to add to my lord’s food to heal him from a sickness and when mixed with balm it soothed that part of the body on which it was rubbed.” She stopped there; the shaking overcoming her ability to talk. It lasted a while.

“The abbot told me to tell my lady that the medicine was only for her husband and she should not use the compound; it was of a strength that would help my master but be too powerful for her. I was the one who gave it to my master. It has killed him and me; not cleanly but through day after day of agony.” The poor woman dropped her head.

“You were following the abbot’s order?”

“I was.”

The abbot shifted in his chair.

“It was a medicine!” The abbot banged his chair in frustration.

Balthilde was helped back to her cell. The sight of the young woman shuffling between them towards her death brought a different mood to the proceedings. There had been mutterings and expletives during Eadred’s earlier questioning of the abbot. This had died away when Balthilde spoke and now Eadred’s next words were keenly anticipated.

“I ask that Prior Wulfstan return to the court.”

The prior moved slowly towards his seat then Eadred asked what he knew of Balthilde’s fate.

“I was there when the abbot gave the poisoned pot to her and heard his words. The poor young woman remembers some of what was said but not all. Brother Anselm was also present and repeated the abbot’s words that Lady Aelswith must on no account even touch the compound. It had to be used only on Lord Alfred until none was left and the pot then cast into the fire.” The prior looked directly at Abbot Aelfric.

“I was always your loyal servant. You grew jealous of me, of my meagre talents – but God made each of us as we are. When I began to sicken and I watched your expression – you were waiting for my death. I knew that Brother Anselm could never hold such a sustained hatred to poison me slowly unless another was forcing him.

“I remembered how Lord Alfred died – sickening over several months. I knew then that you had plotted his death by the same means to have his wife as your own.

“You threatened to reveal Brother Anselm’s carnal sins. I would be dead by now if Anselm had continued to administer the poison as you had wanted, and unable to speak to expose your evil but you did not expect Raedwald to kill Anselm and for my life to meander slowly and miserably to its end.

“Abbot Aelfric, you are base and your fruits are murderous. Your skill is your cunning but the unexpected death of one murderer has exposed another.”

The abbot laughed.

“What lies you tell. I am not your equal in wit or words but I am sensible enough to know it. You can twist any mind with your logic but poison kills the clever and the fool.” The abbot turned to the thegn.

“If Lord Alfred died by the compound I gave him, it was not my intent; you have my word. It was administered to save him, if I could. I would never harm my own sweet brother. It was Brother Anselm who measured the quantities, not I.

As to the prior’s other accusation against me, I never plotted his death. Again, Anselm had the skill with medicines. If he wished to poison the prior for revenge, it was not at my bidding. ”

The Dead Rising on Judgement Day (photo by author)

Punishment

To see again Snailwell Minster rising from a low hill, surrounded by the shining meres, finally brought a smile to Father Eadred – the first in a long while. He could scarcely believe the events of the past fortnight and the evil he had witnessed. Bishop Aethelbert had lived to see the cleansing of Ashington, although not as he would have wished. The king had decided to evict the whole community and for them to be spread across other houses, where they might receive sound teaching and be expected to fulfil their vows properly. There were also judicial executions. The bishop felt his own failure keenly for it had clearly contributed to the community’s decline and the terrible outcomes. Ashington Minster would remain empty until a new abbot and a new prior could be found and a fresh start made.

Prior Wulfstan died just over a week after the trial in awful agony. Eadred conducted his funeral. He outlived Brother Hygbald by a few days – not that it mattered to him. Hygbald was hanged for the murder of Brother Raedwald and both he and Raedwald were buried in unconsecrated ground. Despite the horror of his slow decline and death, the prior had helped root out the iniquity that he had fought against for so long, and his reward in Heaven was assured.

Abbot Aelfric’s fate took some time to be decided. He was highly born but in the end the king could not let the murder of one member of the Christian royal kin by another to go unpunished. The smell of corruption was upon the abbot and what support he felt he had faded as the morning mist. The mood was with Prior Wulfstan, murdered horribly by his abbot; and he was buried as a Christian martyr.

Eadred heard of the abbot’s punishment as he was about to leave Ashington – this time on a fine horse. The abbot was beheaded. To his last breath, he claimed he was innocent of his brother’s murder.

The Path to Snailwell Minster (photo by author)

The journey back had not been as joyful as Eadred had hoped. The quiet solitude allowed some niggling loose threads to play in his mind. It was the memory of Balthilde’s agonising death in her bed at Ashington that had caused Eadred to ponder a few disconcerting details. The priest was troubled mostly by the small differences in Balthilde’s and the prior’s recollection of what was said when the abbot gave the pot to Balthilde.

If Eadred put aside the prior’s recollection and looked simply at what the young handmaid had said then it was possible that the pot did contain only a medicinal potion. In the correct quantities, Wolf’s Bane is a medicine but if too much is consumed or taken in through the skin then it kills. What benefits a man can kill a weaker woman.

The abbot on the night of his wedding had spoken of a fever consuming his brother. If this were true, recourse to strong medicine was a desperate brotherly act of love, when all else had failed. The potency of the compound, especially administered over a longer period, would almost certainly kill a woman. It was the prior’s memory of that meeting that added the sinister tone about the compound. It was the prior who sowed the seeds of the abbot’s guilt in his meeting with Eadred and in the court.

Eadred waved to the brothers running to greet him then his smile disappeared. He gasped and threw his head back; he should have questioned Balthilde more. Could it be that the prior, who knew he was dying at the abbot’s direction, sought to implicate him in the death of his royal brother? To paint a natural death as murder and to make certain the abbot would lose his life and his reputation?

When Eadred recalled the abbot’s recent illness, was it also possible that Brother Anselm had belatedly sought to poison the abbot, in order to free himself from the abbot’s grip? Brother Raedwald’s murder of Anselm might well have stopped the poisoning in time to save the abbot’s life. In the end it didn’t matter for the abbot was executed for a murder he may not have committed.

At last, Eadred responded to the welcoming shouts cheerfully. He was happier than words could tell to be at a good distance from the alien minster and its darkness. Evil upon evil had weighed down that place but the worst was jealousy. The abbot and prior had endangered their eternal souls because of mutual resentment. The hope of confession and penance had now passed them by and they could well be together again in the fires and torments of eternal damnation. Earthly justice mattered little compared to the court of the Lord God.

The young priest had also witnessed committed faith and much goodness. It was often muddled together with lesser virtues in the same hearts, struggling to be heard. Eadred determined that he would pray daily that the Lord God would support the community’s struggle against sin and that virtuous leadership would provide the example they needed. He slapped his hand against his favourite book – his penitential – knowing it would be an even greater friend, as he sought to bring the Lord God’s redemption to his flock. Then he shouted out with joy.

BECOMING A SAINT IN ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND

Becoming a Saint in Anglo-Saxon England

If I wanted to join the panoply of saints in Anglo-Saxon England, I’d have to perform well against the following selection criteria. I’d have to have been a particularly holy and pious member of the Church or of royalty. It would help if I had been, or had become, celibate and ascetic (‘dying to the flesh’). If I were a martyred king, dying willingly defending faith and country against the pagans, my chances were very high. I might also get through if I were royalty who had been murdered by another Christian, even if I had no particular uplifting qualities. If I performed miracles in life and death, this was a sign of my sanctity, and especially if my body did not corrupt after death. It would certainly help if I had widespread appeal because of the way I had led my life.

However, as with all things, it’s not just what you know but who you know, and if I had backing from a strong Church community or a powerful royal house, my chances were far greater, because they would push my case and ultimately benefit from my sanctity.

Some of this might sound a bit cynical – it’s not meant to be. Most saints were special, courageous, humble human beings, who were touched by the divine, but not always did the best man or woman get the job. Some had few personal attributes to justify their status. The gatekeeper to sainthood was the Church but the formal selection criteria used later to select saints had yet to be bedded down, so many simply became saints by popular acclaim.

In the years following their selection, many saints were used by Church or state – because of the affection in which they were held by the people – to further political, dynastic, financial and personal ends. Getting your hands on the relics of a celebrity saint brought the crowds in – and the money, and the royal patronage, and devotion during periods of warfare against pagans, as did having a saint in your family tree assist your status.

St Bene’t’s Anglo-Saxon Church, Cambridge. The oldest church in Cambridge (photo by author)

As a sizeable number of royal and aristocratic folk joined the cloister, there was a sort of ‘aristocratic-monastic complex’. Paul Binski, drawing on the French historian, Andre Vauchez, makes a distinction between the aristocratic sainthood of north-western Europe and the urban sanctity of the Mediterranean. ‘England remained a country of “holy sufferers”, men and women who were high-born and whose styles of life and death entailed the trauma of inner (spiritual) or outer (fleshy) martyrdom’ (Binski, 2005).

So, why write about the remains of Anglo-Saxon saints? Well, apart from being an Anglo-Saxon nerd, because it raises some interesting issues about the role of saints in the creation of England. Did they inspire the defenders and ultimately capture the heads and hearts of the invaders? It also raises issues about Anglo-Saxon beliefs and the workings of the Church and state – a combination of the sacred and the downright practical – a perennial issue. I’ve picked two saints as examples – Cuthbert (icon of the Northumbrian Church) and Edmund (martyred last King of the East Angles, who was patron saint of England until replaced by Saint George under Edward III).

Two Anglo-Saxon Saints

Cuthbert was the great Northumbrian saint. Much has been written about his life and cult, including by Saint Bede. In a nutshell, he was happier living an ascetic, eremitic life, but had to deal with the chores of monastic responsibilities and late in life, to his dismay, was chosen as Bishop of Lindisfarne. He died a couple of years later. He lived for a time as a hermit on the Inner Farne Island, off the wild Northumbrian coast.

Cuthbert was probably from an aristocratic family, had close links with Northumbrian royalty and also tender connections with the natural world, such as the story about otters drying and warming his feet after one of his prayer vigils in deep, cold water. He performed his fair share of miracles and prophesying. During his life he was genuinely and widely admired and loved for his humility, generosity and spirituality.

There is so much about Cuthbert that is appealing, not only to those who have chosen the cloistered life but to many others. Despite the formulas employed by the Anglo-Saxon Church in writing down the lives of saints – hagiographies – which often create cardboard cut-out figures, designed to exemplify sanctioned images of a good religious life, a real man does emerge. The tension between Cuthbert’s desire for solitary prayer and contemplation and the demands of monastic and ecclesiastical office, speak to us of a spiritual man who understood and undertook his duty, however irksome.

This was also an instructive message for the Church to promulgate. Sarah Luginbill quotes Dominic Marner, as highlighting that the three roles of Cuthbert in primary Anglo-Saxon sources – as prior, hermit and bishop – aided the perpetuation and spread of Cuthbert’s cult, as more people could identify with one or more of the saint’s personifications (Luginbill, 2014, p6). When he knew his end was near, Cuthbert returns alone to a place he loves – the Inner Farne – to die.

Cuthbert’s death in 687 certainly didn’t signal the end of his impact or story – indeed, quite the opposite. Death simply signalled another phase in his life – a heavenly one – with which the faithful on earth wanted to connect. This is when his physical remains take on significance. The pre-eminent reason for this is that when his grave was opened in 698 – 11 years after his death – his body was found to be incorrupt and flexible. This was a sure sign of his sanctity, his link with Heaven, so at odds was it with the fate of ordinary humans. It demonstrated that God had acknowledged Cuthbert’s sanctity and had graced his physical remains. These could now continue to perform miracles, as Cuthbert had in life.

When the Vikings raided Lindisfarne in 793, the monks leave with his body, and it continues its peripatetic existence, having a number of temporary homes, a semi-permanent existence for just over a century at Chester-le-Street, until finally settling in Durham in 995.

There are multiple reasons why Cuthbert was moved around over a 200 year period: escape from the Vikings, escape from other potential aggressors and to strengthen the hold of Cuthbert’s community on contested land holdings, estates and the people’s affections. Once Cuthbert settled in Durham, the episcopal see was officially moved to the city (Luginbill, 2014, p14). It is tempting to see the journey of Cuthbert’s remains as a saintly version of the practice of medieval kings of progressing around their realm to solidify their position – in this case, assisted by the Saint’s earthly community.

In death, Cuthbert’s influence grew, based on his incorrupt body, continuing miracles, and as Northumbrian royalty, aristocracy, Church hierarchy and ordinary people built his cult for spiritual and practical reasons. His influence also spread beyond Northumbria. He was venerated by the great Kings of Wessex – Alfred and Athelstan, and by the Danish King of England, Cnut. Alfred considered that Cuthbert had strengthened him in the difficult period before and during the critical Battle of Edington, when he defeated the Danes and saved Wessex.

Saint Edmund, pious and celibate last of the royal line of the East Angles, differs from Cuthbert in two important respects – he was a king and he was martyred for his faith. Edmund was killed in 869 after being defeated by the Danes. Tradition has it that once captured he was shot with arrows and beheaded. Fact and myth merge, as generally with saints in this period. His head was found by calling out to his men and defended by a great wolf – an allusion to Edmund’s family name – the Wuffingas – ‘kin of the wolf’. Miracles abound around his body and where it had lay. When his body is translated in 903, it is found to be incorrupt and complete with the head and body reunited.

Wolf carving at Hunstanton commemorating connection between St Edmund, Hunstanton and the wolf legend (photo by author)

As with Cuthbert, Edmund’s cult grew and drew kings, including Cnut and Edward the Confessor, and similarly, acquired lands, endowments and treasures from great patrons. As with Cuthbert, the body journeyed before settling finally in the monastery at St Edmundsbury (today, Bury St Edmunds).

Mark Taylor draws a link between the story of Edmund’s martyrdom and the older Celtic beliefs of divine kingship, of kings as the link between the people and their gods, and between the people and their shared ancestry (Taylor, 2013). Taylor also points to Pope Gregory’s shrewd strategy for St Augustine’s mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons – effectively to acknowledge some of the places venerated by the ‘pagans’ but to Christianise them, in order that the people would feel continuity and be more easily reconciled with the new faith – ultimately making Christ a kind of Germanic hero, a warrior-king, a unifying force. From this perspective, a pious, celibate, martyred, incorrupt, miracle-working king, ticks all the boxes, and is able to perform his sacred and secular duty, even though dead. Edmund was truly a great East Anglian!

Importance of Saints to the Anglo-Saxons

What are we to make of the importance of saints to the Anglo-Saxons at this time? It seems that three broad groups of people joined this exulted community: particularly holy members of the Church or royalty, members of the Church and royal figures who were martyred for their faith, and royalty who were murdered by other Christians.

It is easier to understand the elevation of holy and pious members of the Church but why were members of Anglo-Saxon royal families sanctified? The answer has to lie in two main causes: the special, semi-divine status of royalty in Germanic culture, which was being Christianised; and the symbiotic relationship between Church and royalty. Kings were the link between a tribe, its land and its gods.

This relationship has roots in the pagan Anglo-Saxon period and in earlier Celtic societies, when groups were becoming more hierarchical and territorial. It is a relationship recognised in many early societies. When selected pagan practices became Christianised, the sacred character of kingship was recognised and given a Christian gloss. So, for example, some Christianised kings, who acknowledged pagan gods in the misty origins of their dynastic genealogies, also recognised Noah as an ancestor. The result might look a bit odd to our eyes but it was a workable compromise.

Kingship was a sacred role. Little wonder that the evangelising Church focused on converting kings – they were the practical and spiritual lever to gain land, privileges and souls. There was no higher calling for a king than to defend their kingdom and their faith, so when they were martyred leading their forces to war, they were sanctified. There were also many members of royal families, who chose, at some stage in their existence, the cloistered life. Often they took leading roles, as did Etheldreda, daughter of a king of the East Angles, who became wife to two other kings in succession, but still led a pious, celibate life. She founded the monastery at Ely.

If kingship merged Germanic and Christian traits then so did the cult of saints. Saints became a Christian proxy for the erstwhile community of pagan gods. Pagan Anglo-Saxons had lived with a familiar community of gods, spirits and ancestors. The development of a cult of saints, who could intercede between humanity in need and God, had a familiar ring. Christianised folk might have lost the panoply of pre-Christian gods but they could call on a growing community of semi-divine figures, who had inspiring qualities, human personalities, engaging quirks, particular areas of interest, and could be most easily accessed at particular, holy places and times of the year.

The pre-Christian landscape was full of places connected with gods and spirits. Following Pope Gregory’s strategy, many of these remained places of religious significance for the new faith.  Saints were employed in conversion of the pagan landscape. For example, a spring associated with a pagan spirit could be purified and renamed as a particular saint’s spring etc.

St Martin’s Church, Canterbury, where Augustine’s mission was initially based (photo by author)

It is harder to understand why other members of royalty were sanctified because they were murdered by fellow Christians for secular motives. As Rollason points out, some who were sanctified, like Edward the Martyr, had no qualifying personal virtues (quite the opposite) but was made a saint because of the manner of his death, while visiting his half-brother (Rollason, 1982: p. 2). Rollason goes on to provide some cogent pragmatic, political motives for sainthood for murdered royalty: royal families gaining prestige from having a saint in their family tree; the Church strengthening the influence of supportive dynasties; sainthood implicating and undermining the killers and helping harness opposition; the cults of royal saints discouraging royal murders and promoting the sacred nature of kingship (Rollason, 1982: pp.16-22).

Importance of Saints’ Remains

So, what of the physical remains of saints? In pre-Reformation England, physical connections with the divine were crucial, including with the bodies of the esteemed dead and objects associated with them – relics. Post-Reformation, this association continued in the Catholic Church. The bodies of those who became saints were elevated above those of ordinary humans. This was a literal matter, as well as metaphorical – with their bodies being translated to above-ground tombs and shrines to facilitate veneration by pilgrims. If the body did not succumb to the near ubiquitous process of decomposition but was discovered to be incorrupt, this was a wonderful sign that the individual had been recognised by God and had received his special blessing.

The saint was a link with heaven and their body became a powerful, tangible connection with the divinity. To touch a saint’s remains or objects associated with them brought the living into contact with the heavenly kingdom, when special requests could be made and miracles performed. Kings and, by association, their families, were already treated as semi-divine and capable of healing the sick, so the remains of a martyred king were powerful.

In the scale of importance, it was the saint’s body that drew people. So, their post mortem travels and where the saint ultimately settled, were of great interest to the living. Sometimes, the saint had a say in where they settled – either through an injunction when they were alive or through miraculous means, such as Saint Cuthbert indicating his choice through making it impossible to move his coffin further, until members of his community heard two women talk of a lost cow on a hill – Dun Holm. Taking this to be Cuthbert’s choice, the community found they could move his coffin once more to the hill, and there he settled.

However, saints were a valuable rarity and the laws of supply and demand led to some undignified practices. There are stories of the theft of saints’ bodies and other relics by rival houses in order to secure the benefits of having a saint on hand. One way to deal with this scarcity was the circulation of a saint’s individual bones, as a kind of ‘sacred currency’ (Luginbill talks of a ‘relic tour’ in relation to Cuthbert’s incorrupt body, Luginbill, 2014, p13). It’s not hard to see how impersonal bones could lose their provenance and multiply in the marketplace for relics. No-one was keeping a master leger on the use of the bones of a disarticulated skeleton. This is how certain saints could end up having four arms or enough toes for four feet.

Conclusion

Importance of the physical remains of saints: The physical remains were imbued with power, especially if the saint’s body were incorrupt. Saints were seen as semi-divine; the Christian alternative to the panoply of pagan gods and spirits. The location of their physical remains, and other places associated with them, gave the landscape a sacred quality, where contact with the saint was facilitated. Their anniversaries also gave the annual cycle special times to pray with the saint to gain divine assistance. England today continues to have this wonderful, mystical quality, although it takes some effort at times – physical and mental – to discover and to touch it. A saint’s remains were the most tangible connection to the saint and, through this, to heaven. The remains were the focus of devotion and commemoration.

Luginbill quotes Marner in saying, ‘the very physical presence of Cuthbert, in all areas of the kingdom of Northumbria…is a fascinating example of the way in which the corporeal presence of a saint helps sanctify a geographical region and affirms and strengthens its boundaries’ …and the ‘unifying factor in their lives was the shrine and land of Saint Cuthbert’ (Luginbill, 2014, p34, quoting Marner, 2000).

Church, state and saints: This is a complex relationship. We know that the Anglo-Saxon Church and royal state were generally mutually supportive, especially when both were attacked by outsiders. The semi-divine status of kings and the role of the Church as link with the divine, made them natural allies. Saints were drawn from both these spheres and, given the extent of personal connections between royalty and the Church, the creation and practical role of saints derived from the needs of both Church and state, and the genuine feelings and affection of the people, who needed the help of this body of sacred, mystical figures.

The commodification of saints’ remains during this period is illustrative of how a special body and personality could be transformed, not only in the sacred domain but also by secular forces. As sanctification increased the influence of the deceased on the living (as they became a hotline to God), so it gave Church and state the incentive to modify and reinterpret the personality and achievements of a saint. So, under the powerful medieval prince-bishops of Durham, Saint Cuthbert became a forceful personality, not a gentle hermit, who loved nature.

Role of saints in the creation of England: So, did the community of Anglo-Saxon saints rise up to help create England in the teeth of pagan Viking onslaught, like a resurrected Arthur? Hardly, but they did play a role. If Alfred was inspired by Saint Cuthbert at the pivotal Battle of Edington, when the King halted and reversed the pagan advances, then his example helped gain an iconic victory. Cuthbert also inspired Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, whose victories and inspired kingship, led him within a few runs of being the first king of the English and overlord of the pagan peoples of the island.

If kings were motivated by saints in defence of their Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, what impact did they have on the common person? We can imagine it was significant, as they followed the example of their kings. The community of saints, resting in iconic locations across the kingdom, helped give the land a sacred quality. If their bodies and the places within which they rested were sacred, then they were worth defending. The saints would be called upon to pray to God for help in defending the land. This did not guarantee victory, of course – Alfred’s kingdom survived and grew but Edmund’s East Anglia fell to the Danes and became part of the Danelaw. However, Edmund later became the first patron saint of England and his banner carried into battle. But there is still a twist.

If saints motivated England’s defenders, what did they do for the invaders? Cnut became King of England in 1016 after the Dane invaded and defeated the English. Although undeniably aggressive in war, he settled into a generally benign and intelligent rule. He venerated many Anglo-Saxon saints, including Cuthbert, Edmund and Etheldreda, walking barefoot to visit Cuthbert’s shrine, and bestowed generous gifts.

It is easy to see a conqueror’s use of native laws, beliefs, customs and power relations as a way of controlling the inhabitants. This is a tried and true technique. To be certain, this would have played a part in Cnut embracing Christianity and honouring a number of saints. Cnut became a Christian, as did many of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, for political as well as religious motives.

However, to dismiss it all as self-serving social control is as glib and superficial as dismissing all politicians as selfish nest-featherers. Faith and spirituality were vital, meaningful and inspirational to the Anglo-Saxons on a day-by-day basis. The greatest saints were genuinely respected and admired. They were miracle-workers and a link with Heaven. Because they were special, they were used by some in the ruling institutions to serve their needs. Faith and practical considerations often combined.

If we, in the 21st century, look at these great men and women, and the role they performed, solely through the prism of our cynical condescension, we will gain some insights but will miss the minds and hearts of the Anglo-Saxons.

Binski, P., The Cult of Edward the Confessor, History Today, London, Volume 55, Issue 11, November 2005.
Fletcher, R., Who’s Who in Roman and Anglo-Saxon England, Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 1989.
Luginbill, S., The Bones of St. Cuthbert: Defining a Saint’s Cult in Medieval Northumbria, 2014, History Honors Theses. Paper 6, Trinity University.
Marner, D., St. Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2000, p12.
Rollason, D.W., The Cults of Murdered Royal Saints in Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon England, 11, pp1-22, doi:10.1017/S0263675100002544.
Taylor, M., Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom, Fordaro, 2013.
Wood, M., In Search of the Dark Ages, BBC, London, 1982.

winter reeds in Wicken Fen

Winter reeds in Wicken Fen (photo by author)

THE DEVIL’S MINSTER (PART 5) – DAY OF RECKONING

Welcome to Part Five of the six-part Devil’s Minster – Day of Reckoning. The tale is a fusion of historical fiction and detection set in an Anglo-Saxon monastery in the 9th century AD Kingdom of the East Angles.

When St Augustine landed in Kent in 597 AD on a mission from Pope Gregory to convert the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, he and those who came after him, sought to make alliances with kings. Good idea – this was a society where not much happened without royal support. Conversion was still a rocky road and by no means inevitable. While the people’s traditional bonds of allegiance to their kings did lead to mass conversions, kings often recanted or were killed by pagan competitors and their subjects changed their beliefs pretty smartly. While mostly strategic and well-organised, the Roman conversion was basically ‘top-down’ and differed from the less worldly, grass-roots Celtic approach to Christianity.

Pope Gregory’s famous advice to Augustine – not to destroy pagan temples but rather to replace their pagan idols with Christian icons – meant the people could continue to frequent religious places familiar to them. The wily Pope surmised that with their external comforts thus met, the community would be more likely to accept the new religion. It got bums on seats but how deep was their faith?

Site of St Augustine's Grave, St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury (photo bu author)
Site of St Augustine’s Grave, St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (photo by author)

For example, many minsters (monasteries) were founded by royalty and aristocrats, who assumed they could treat them as they would their hunting lodges. They were perplexed, if not downright annoyed, when some in the Church thought this inappropriate. It was one thing to believe in a new God; but quite another for proud Germanic nobility to be told to give up some of the benefits of their elevated station or who they could and couldn’t marry. The clash of outlooks, culture and personalities could break out at any time.

So, please read on – especially if you’ve read Parts 1-4 – it will make more sense!

The Devil’s Minster (Part Five) – Day of Reckoning 

ABBOT AELFRIC

“Father Eadred, forgive me that we have not met earlier; these are difficult times and I have had much to do. You are very welcome though.”

The abbot stretched out his hands and smiled warmly.

“I understand that Bishop Aethelbert is close now to his eternal rest. He has been a beacon to me; I shall miss him – his strong faith, wisdom and teaching.

“Now, come sit, have some wine and let us talk. I’m told that you are not with us to examine the correctness of our observance but please, if we are failing in any area to keep a prayerful community of the faithful, I would want to hear of it, so I could remedy any mistakes.”

Eadred smiled blandly at the abbot’s baffling and seemingly sincere openness. The young priest felt instantly overawed – not by the abbot’s seniority but by his self-assurance. It was evil to lie so brazenly. Evil it may be but also insidiously alluring. Eadred wanted to blurt out that he had witnessed the abbot’s incestuous wedding – to kill the spell – but courage failed him.

“Father abbot, thank you for your welcome, especially now. These are, as you say, times of great difficulty. I grieve for the loss of three of our brothers, taken violently, and I know that the bishop would want to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”

“As do I, but let me correct you. I think you’ll find that only one death was a crime. Brother Burgred died of a fever and Brother Anselm was accidentally shot. Unless you have discovered, or been told, something of which I am ignorant?”

“No, no, not at all. In my ignorance, I imagined that three unexpected deaths had some connection with each other.”

“To an outsider, it may appear thus but each was different. There is no doubt that Brother Raedwald was murdered and if you can help find the killer, I would be forever thankful. Our community is fearful that the culprit might strike again, which is why I asked the King for the fighting men who arrived recently.”

Eadred knew the lie immediately; it must have showed. He fixed his eyes on the abbot’s and again verged on open complaint. The abbot was playing with him. Aelfric stared back; the flicker of a smile goading Eadred to expose his concerns and to implicate the prior. The priest nodded and held his tongue.

“Prior Wulfstan has taken to his bed again. I am concerned for his health; he works so hard for the community and it is sapping his strength. He has worked tirelessly to uncover the culprit and told me that he had sought your help. I am grateful for it if it allows our dear prior time to recover. Tell me, what progress have you made?”

Wood carving of a medieval face (photo by author)
Wood carving of a medieval face (photo by author)

Eadred felt sick with anxiety. He sensed himself battling against some arcane power the abbot possessed that could draw men’s secrets from them against their will. He hesitated.

“Come, surely I have a right to know.”

Eared spoke without much thought.

“Father abbot, I fear that Brother Raedwald had sinned grievously and that he was killed because of the sin he committed.” Eadred breathed deeply and continued. “I believe that he sinned against nature with another monk. Possibly more were involved. Some young novices and monks are easily confused about these matters but they can be brought back to a chaste life.”

The abbot’s eyes bulged.

“His name has never been raised in connection with such transgressions. I can’t believe it. But I’m not the person to ask; Prior Wulfstan deals with such matters of discipline. You must ask him. But tread carefully, the prior took special care of Brother Raedwald and nurtured his soul. He of all men would know of any iniquity and it would be he who would impose a penance. Yes, ask Prior Wulfstan.”

Eadred acknowledged the abbot’s advice. It seemed that all matters of discipline and the tiresome details of running the minster and its lands were the province of the prior. For some reason, Eadred continued talking, when silence was the safer route.

“Father, you said that Brother Raedwald’s name has never been associated with such sins – but I feel certain that some brothers have transgressed. Please, let me know their names, if you know of them, so I might instruct them and give the correct penance. When I was with Brother Raedwald’s body, I found a small broken crucifix caught up in the folds of his cowl. It was not his. I believe it belongs to his murderer.”

Eadred’s last words were lost in a commotion of raised voices from beyond the walls then a heavy knocking on the abbot’s door.

“Father abbot, a rider from the court; he must speak with you.”

The blood drained from Abbot Aelfric’s face and he gripped his chair like a weapon. He raised his hand to forestall any further discussion.

“Urgent word from the King’s court – I must go. As to your question, there was an unpleasant event some months back involving some young brothers. Prior Wulfstan told me he dealt with those concerned. I’ve heard nothing more – speak to him. The meeting is over.”

“Were Brothers Burgred and Anselm involved?”

The abbot glowered and snapped back.

“Do not presume on my patience, priest.” Eadred shuddered at the venom directed suddenly at him.

“But their names are familiar.” The abbot was on his way to the door while talking, and in a moment he was gone.

Eadred left the abbot’s room and slumped against a wall. He had been warned about the abbot and had now felt the force of his anger. The priest waited for his heart to calm. Had the abbot confirmed the names of the brothers who had sinned – the same names that Brother Hygbald had spoken – or had he said the simplest thing that came into his distracted head?

Eadred had already entertained the notion that Burgred may have become overwhelmed by the illicit and furtive advances of another brother and his response to them, and taken his own life. If so, it was an appalling waste.

Eadred had heard of several young novices and monks who had found that the cloister was a harder calling than they imagined and the need for comfort from like-minded souls sometimes drifted unnaturally. Some left the minster but most were brought back to the flock through careful instruction and penance. However, Eadred had never entertained such concerns for Brother Anselm before now. He had known him when younger; a soul more passionate for Christ, more prayerful, even more saintly, Eadred had never known. The priest was getting nowhere.

A TIMELY MEETING 

“Thank you for coming.” Prior Wulfstan coughed again, labouring over the words; his body twisting with pain.

“Prior, don’t strain yourself. Please.” Eadred recoiled at the grey, clammy, haggard face of his protector.

“My God, help me! The pain!” The prior turned away and vomited into a bucket. He waited a few seconds then fell back onto his pillow, gasping.

“Prior, what can I do?”

“Don’t come too close. Listen my son. Listen carefully. I know my death is near. Pray for me.” He groaned again and called on the Almighty for peace. “Don’t touch me; I sweat poison. Wolf’s Bane; I have seen once what it does and it’s killing me. I’ve no way back now. Find Raedwald’s murderer; he died for me and for what I did and he must have justice. Brother Anselm’s potions – search them but don’t touch. He is killing me from beyond the grave. My soul is black. Pray for me. Go now. Go! ”

DAY OF RECKONING 

The church could barely contain the assembly: the inmates of the minster, Lady Aelswith and her entourage and the recent arrivals from the king’s court. Outside, close to two dozen armed men, who had accompanied the king’s officials, waited on the outcome and any tasks they would need to perform.

“The king has called this assembly to bring to justice the perpetrators of crimes committed at Ashington Minster. He is always mindful of his duty to Holy Church, the grace he has received from the Lord God, and he has listened attentively to Bishop Aethelbert. Our sovereign lord is convicted of the need to root out the evil that is causing the deaths of young monks and any other sinful acts that find their home here. He will not rest until the minster is returned to its proper tasks of prayer, contemplation and the care of men’s souls.”

Medieval archer, Whittlesford Church, Cambridgeshire (photo by author)
Medieval archer, Whittlesford Church, Cambridgeshire (photo by author)

Eadred gave thanks for this completely unexpected turn of events. The bishop, God bless him, had been working to persuade the king that he had to intervene. Eadred was delighted that the proceedings were to be overseen by his own thegn, the Godly Ceowulf, with whom he had already spoken.

“Who brings this case?” Now was the priest’s opportunity.

“I, Eadred, priest of Snailwell Minster, on behalf of Bishop Aethelbert, accuse Prior Wulfstan of murder.” Eadred’s words were met by a chorus of groans. The best among them was to be tried.

The door opened and like a wounded crab, the prior and two monks who helped him, shuffled and tottered towards the front of the assembly. Prior Wulfstan slumped onto a seat and there was silence while he laboured to catch his breath.

“Prior Wulfstan, proceed when you are ready.” He nodded in acknowledgement of the gentle tone from the thegn.

“Pray listen to me my dear friends.” He spoke in a frail, breathless voice. “I am dying and this is my last chance to unburden myself. This is my wish, brothers; I implored Father Eadred to bring me here to face my crimes. In the name of the Lord God, I swear these words are true.

“Listen to my sins. I have fought for the faith – not with great sermons or with sword and axe – but with a determination that this minster shine out for its piety, prayerfulness and disciplined faith. I have failed. Why? Because I sought to build the community through my own efforts. The harder I tried, the more sin defeated me because it led me along paths that were corrupt, although I could not see it at the time because my eyes were on my destination. I never reached my purpose; the paths led elsewhere. My faith was too weak; I never trusted God’s promise. Where did it lead me?

“To death. I notice everything,” The prior smiled. “My eyes saw the signs of growing unnatural attachment between two young, inexperienced monks. I could have approached them with care and compassion, as our Lord would have wished.” The prior looked at Eadred. “As the bishop behaved towards me when he was my abbot many years ago.

“But I did not. In my outrage, I threatened to expose them if they didn’t desist. I ripped away what was good and Christ-like in my zeal to correct what was sinful. Brother Burgred ended it himself in the worst possible way but it was I who took his life. Brother Anselm was plunged into darkness. I could still have reached out and shown him God’s light but I did not.

“And I did not expect that poor wretched soul would seek revenge and poison me. It was not his nature to do such an evil thing and to pursue it over many days. I know the signs; I have seen them before. Brother Anselm used Wolf’s Bane in small amounts to heal and in large amounts to poison me. I will not survive. He has his revenge from beyond the grave and I deserve it. I can remember the occasions when he administered the foul potion, although I was ignorant at the time – in the strange-smelling soup he brought me and in a balm to ease my aching back and joints. Four or five times, he gave it to me and I smiled at his kindness.

“When I looked into his eyes, I saw anguish, which I took then to be a sensitive soul’s compassion for my condition, not for his own tortured heart. It seems to me now as if he were killing me at another’s behest and against his own deep faith.

“There was a third in their group. I think I know who but I have done enough damage and will take the name to my grave. You must take my word that it was not Brother Raedwald. I kept him close to me always and protected him like a son.” The prior struggled to keep speaking and wiped his eyes. “I saw his beaten body and what had become of his face. What life I had left was meaningless.” The prior’s head slumped forward and he wept quietly. “May I have your indulgence to return to my cell and await your verdict?”

“Thank you, Prior Wulfstan, you may. You have helped us find the truth.” The thegn, Ceowulf, signalled for the monks to help the prior return to his cell. He then spoke to the court.

“Prior Wulfstan sought this opportunity to cleanse his soul before death. I see no reason to doubt his testimony – it has been given voluntarily. There remains one murder to solve – that of Brother Raedwald. Father Eadred, do you accuse anyone?”

“I do, Lord Ceowulf.”

“Then proceed.”

“I found this remnant of a broken crucifix in the folds of Brother Raedwald’s cowl. It was not his. Every monk carries this precious reminder of our Lord’s death around his neck. Every monk from the minster is here now. Who is missing his crucifix?”

“Let every monk answer.” Ceowulf reinforced Eadred’s question. “Who is missing their cross? Say now or I will have a search made.”

Ruins of St Edmund's Abbey, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk (photo by author)
Ruins of St Edmund’s Abbey, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk (photo by author)

“I am, lord. I have lost mine but innocently.”

“It is Brother Hygbald!”

“Silence!” The thegn raised his hand to quieten the flurry of confused murmurs and chattering voices. “Are there any others who have no crucifix?”

There was silence.

“Then proceed, Father.”

“How do you explain that you are the only monk missing his crucifix and it was found in Brother Raedwald’s cowl?”

“I must have lost it when carrying his body from the wood to his cell. It is easily done.”

“You were not in that group,” a few monks replied.

“Oh, forgive me. These recent days have confused me. Then it must have been when I came to help you bind Brother Raedwald’s body; when I brought you the special balm to use. It must have fallen then.”

“No,” Eadred replied. “I found the broken fragment before you entered the cell.”

“This is not right, Lord Ceowulf. I can produce many oath helpers to swear that my word is good. My family are wealthy and sometimes attend the king at court.”

“You told me that you were lowly born?”

“I don’t remember that I did. I think your memory is not serving you well today. Remember, you are a lowly-born priest; that is certain. Do not presume to trick me with your words. They will not find guilt where there is none.”

Eadred’s face reddened and he stuttered – but he continued.

“Any monk who loses his crucifix must report the loss to the prior immediately the loss is discovered. The prior himself told me this. But you did not report the loss?”

“The prior is very ill; we can all see how feeble he is. I didn’t want to worry him further. Where is the fault in that?”

“Very well. You came to help me bind Brother Raedwald’s body and brought a special balm but although you told me you were skilled in such work, you retched at the sight of his corpse, although it was already bound.”

“It was because he was a brother and a friend.”

“You loathed Raedwald!” Several monks joined in to counter Hygbald’s claim.

“No, he was still a member of our community and I showed the loss I felt.”

“Brother Hygbald, you recoiled at the sight of the man you had murdered with violence. You came to his cell to try to find the piece of your cross that was broken when you struggled and killed him.”

“I swear that is not true. I came to help.”

“The balm you brought; I still have it here. I didn’t need to use it. Here, rub some on your hands, arms and forehead; it has a soothing effect.”

“I don’t think I need it,” Hygbald laughed.

“Rub some on yourself. Now.”

“I will not. It does not become this assembly to treat matters lightly.”

“I ask that you order it be done, Lord Ceowulf.” The thegn looked perplexed but gave the order. Eadred scooped up some of the balm with a spoon and approached Hygbald.

“No, don’t let it touch me! Please.”

“Why not. Here, let me wipe some on your arm.” Hygbald recoiled, leapt from his seat and ran for the door.

“Stop him!” Two warriors barred the way and pinioned the distraught monk.

Above the disturbance, Eadred shouted.

“The balm contains a fierce poison. It can kill through the skin. Hygbald intended to kill me then recover the broken crucifix. He was the third in the group of brothers who wandered from the path of righteousness and sought unnatural carnal pleasure. These brothers were not lost then but failure to instruct and nurture them let them stray further into darkness and death. Hygbald murdered Brother Raedwald because he was the prior’s closest friend and because it was Brother Raedwald who had killed Brother Anselm.

“The prior told me only yesterday that he had confided in Raedwald that Brother Anselm had poisoned him and Raedwald then killed Anselm to stop him from administering more of the venom.”

Ceowulf, the thegn, sighed and shook his head.

“Take the murdering monk away. This has been a sorry business.”

Eadred raised his hand.

“The matter is not yet over, Lord Ceowulf. I accuse one more of the community.”

To be continued.

THE DEVIL’S MINSTER (PART FOUR) – INCEST AND A BODY’S SECRETS

The Devil’s Minster (Part Four) – Incest and a Body’s Secrets

Welcome to Part Four of the six-part Devil’s Minster, set in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of the East Angles in the 800’s AD.

Unfortunately, the modern mind tends to find faith and the faithful increasingly difficult to understand, other than as a caricature. Medieval faith is an even easier target, seen as little more than a self-serving industry, peddling superstition and delivering social control, groaning towards the inevitable cleansing brush of the Reformation like dinosaurs to extinction. The individuals who lived (and/or died) for their faith shine out like beacons but appear often absurdly austere to us with their hairshirts, all night vigils and virtually suicidal fasting. But we look back with today’s cynicism that often translates genuine human warts-and-all faith as hypocrisy.

We can tend to look down – not back – at the folk of the medieval period (around late 500’s -late 1400’s AD). As youngsters, we might have been captivated by castles and knights etc. When we grew older our delight tended to change to condescending smiles at befuddled medieval scientific and medical understanding and their archaic, gullible world-views and values.

St Edmund's Abbey, Bury St Edmunds
St Edmund’s Abbey, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk (photo by author)

On the positive side, we increasingly see the early medieval Anglo-Saxon period – the ‘Dark Ages’ to use a term thankfully falling from grace – as a rich and complex period – the formative period of England. So, we continue with this short story about the struggle between good and evil within the monastic community. I have based it on what we know of Anglo-Saxon life. After another murder, Father Eadred gains an ally in attempting to root out the source of evil at Ashington Minster. But he is on his own when confronted with more iniquity – incest. The clues mount.

THE DEVIL’S MINSTER (PART FOUR) – ANGLO-SAXON

BEGUILED

Eadred woke to confusion – the mumble of distant voices – a recurrent thread in his dreams. He had, less than two hours earlier, descended into sleep imagining initially what a joy it would be if Prior Wulfstan succeeded Bishop Aethelbert.  The kingdom needed the Church to lead a renewal of faith; not another of the King’s extravagant relatives treating a minster as a hunting lodge. As his mood darkened with thoughts of the improbability of this outcome, his musings took a familiar but unpleasant turn – the knowledge of his own inadequacies. It was a conversation without end. Should he have lost himself in the routines of prayer, praise and contemplation in the cloister, rather than the endless challenges of priesthood? He could spend his life without a resolution.

Unlike a few nights earlier, the sounds drifting into Eadred’s cell were not the fearful clamour of injury, pain and violence but almost as if the abbot had decided to proceed with the cancelled night-time service after all. Almost. Hints of chanting and the melody of a psaltery wafted along the corridor outside of Eadred’s door – but perversely, he didn’t hear the familiar, comforting cadence of the psalms. It was something alien yet beguiling. The priest lay thinking for a while, intrigued and thoughtful; not unduly anxious; debating his next move, then dressed quickly and with his knife hidden below his cowl, he crept quietly towards the mystifying sounds.

As he neared the minster church his disquiet started to mount, as if the evil within was playing with his mind. The main door lay slightly open but Eadred had no desire to enter in full view of the congregation. Too many times already, the minster had spewed up ghastly proof that it had fallen under the spell of the Evil One; Eadred suspected this could be another.

Oldest Working Church Door in England, Anglo-Saxon, Hadstock, Essex
Oldest Working Church Door in England, Anglo-Saxon, Hadstock, Essex (photo by author)

Brother Boisil, the guest master, had shown him another entrance when he had proudly taken the priest around the spectacular buildings of the minster. The unfinished crypt beneath the church possessed an internal entrance and also one outside its walls that could be entered from one of the gardens. So, by moonlight, Eadred skirted the walls; his heart thumping. He prayed silently and his body shivered. The young priest would have been relieved to find the door to the crypt locked but it was not, so reciting psalms in his mind, he opened the door and disappeared within.

He was greeted by complete darkness. It took a while before his eyes could discern a dim grey light ahead. Eadred gulped, crossed himself and continued deeper. A subdued light shaped the entrance to the church. Eadred recalled the layout of the building and that the steps from the crypt entered into a small side chapel being built to commemorate Abbot Aelfric’s family. From memory, Eadred thought that the door was shielded from general view by a pillar and a mound of dressed limestone blocks, ready to be used for further work. With the voices rising again, he peered through a crack, squeezed quickly into the chapel, closed the door and dropped quickly behind the stone blocks. What he saw confused and scared him.

INCEST

It was the abbot but only his face was familiar. He wore sumptuous clothes – like a lord – and instead of a crucifix around his neck, he wore a dazzling jewel. Abbot Aelfric sat on a cushioned chair, his hand holding that of the woman sitting beside him – the Lady Aelswith – his dead brother’s wife. Her handmaid sat not far from Aelswith; her face mostly covered by a head-dress. Before them sat the warriors who had escorted their lady. To one side, three monks sang – not psalms or scripture – but from a tale of a heroic fight between a warrior and a dragon.

Abbot Aelfric (photo by author)
Abbot Aelfric (photo by author)

The singing ended with a brief wave of the abbot’s hand. Smiling, he rose, followed by a similarly happy Aelswith – the warriors clapping their hands on their thighs in affirmation. Abbot Aelfric raised his hand again.

“Noble companions, you are very welcome. I would have none other to witness my marriage to the Lady Aelswith. This is a joyous day but born from loss. Before my brother, Alfred, died, when he was failing in health through fever, he bade me to swear to marry his wife and to care for her. This I do gladly and the Lady Aelswith assents. My brother was the gentlest of men, who was cast into unimaginable cares when he knew his death was close and that his wife would be left defenceless.

“There are some in this land who consider it wrong for a man to marry his brother’s wife – they think it incest. But what of kinship, of family, of honour. The Holy Bible names many men who behaved as I do.” The assembly affirmed Aelfric’s sentiment with a roar. The abbot smiled but gestured for silence.

“I gave my word and will keep it. But to protect this vow, the marriage must remain unknown; at least for now. I ask, when you pledge your allegiance to us, that you pledge to keep our new state secretly. While I am abbot, none other will know for I am lord here and will protect my kingdom.”

“Gladly!” The word was repeated over and over.

When the church had emptied, Eadred quietly left the way he had come; utterly appalled at the enormity of the sin. In the swill of his sick mind, the abbot – debauched and arrogant beyond belief – had committed incest in the heart of God’s house. He had caused innocent lives to be taken to protect his dark secrets. Eadred understood that the knowledge of it endangered his own life. For the moment, he would tell no-one what he had witnessed, not even the prior.

A BODY’S SECRETS

The knock on the door made the young priest start. He looked again at the length of timber resting against the cell wall – another precaution for his safety. He held it by his side.

“Who is it?

“Brother Hygbald.”

Eadred cautiously opened Brother Raedwald’s cell door.

“I thought this might be useful in your preparation of our brother’s body, Father Eadred. I am here to help bind him.” Hygbald removed the lid from a jar of sweet-smelling ointment. “I have some skill in such difficult tasks.”

“Come, enter and thank you for your kindness but the task is complete. I fetched some balm from Brother Anselm’s store of medicines this morning and I’ve finished binding Brother Raedwald’s body. I have been praying for his soul.”

The Dead Rising on Judgement Day (photo by author)
The Dead Rising on Judgement Day (photo by author)

The air was redolent of spiced honey failing to disguise the fetid odour of decay. Brother Raedwald’s corpse lay on a bench. Eadred had bound the suppurating face and the rest of the body with lengths of honey and salt-impregnated cloth. The effort to hold back the stink until the funeral was, however, failing. Hygbald shuddered at the sight and the smell.

“I wanted to help in some way. Thank you for caring for him, Father.”

“He is made in Christ’s image. I am privileged to honour his body and to pray for his soul. Has anyone told his family? I’ve not heard or seen any of them visit.”

“We are his family. Brother Raedwald was given to the Church as a child when his parents were killed by a raiding party. He had no other living relatives that he knew of.”

“Not then from a wealthy family?”

“No father, he was poor like me. I shall miss him so. We were not the abbot’s favourites and looked out for each other. The abbot and those close to him – the sons of wealth – often treated us as slaves to wait on their wishes and desires. The prior, God bless him, made our lives tolerable and protected us as far as he could. He is a good man of God, as I know you are.”

“What desires, brother? The simple life of a cloistered man is to follow and imitate Christ; that is our heart’s desire.”

Brother Hygbald looked very uncomfortable and hesitated.

“There are desires born of excess, leisure and curiosity that are certainly not from Christ – they are sins against nature. There is evil here father that turns a bewildered young mind to explore wanton yearnings. I hear that you knew Brother Anselm and Brother Burgred – they were among the ones favoured by the abbot; they were of high birth. It didn’t help them find the strength to fight temptation, when it was offered. I’m sorry to tell you this. I’m certain that whoever bludgeoned Brother Raedwald was trying to destroy the trail to the company of privileged and immoral sons whom the abbot nurtures.

“Ask no more and look to your own safety, as I do for my own poor life. I pray that we may leave this place before it kills us. No more questions and keep my words to yourself. The ointment can bring the scent of Heaven to Brother Raedwald’s body. Please use it. I think it is needed.” With that, Brother Hygbald left quickly, whimpering with fear that he had spoken too much.

“Lord God, shine your light into this wicked place.” Eadred slumped onto a chair. “What manner of evil possesses these souls.” He barely dared think of what he had been told – that Brothers Anselm and Burgred had been led along a path to carnal fornication! “Did no-one hear their confessions? Was there no penance imposed to free them from their lust?” Eadred fell to his knees and prayed for them. How could he discover the truth about their deaths? How could he bring the guilty to justice?

The dismal truth was that it was beyond one man’s strength to cleanse the filth in this place. The bishop’s heart was heavy with his failure to remove the abbot when he first suspected him. Prior Wulfstan’s health had been ruined by his efforts to defeat the evil – but Eadred had pledged to help him and he would not let him down. He knew of only one course of action. It would imperil him but there was one person Eadred had to confront, who sat at the apex of this rotten edifice. Eadred would trust in the Lord’s protection – against which the Evil One and his cohorts were powerless. Eadred would confront the abbot.

To be continued.

THE DEVIL’S MINSTER (PART 3)

Welcome to Part 3 of the six parts of the Devil’s Minster. Although fiction, the story is based on what we know of Anglo-Saxon life; in this case, tension between the sacred and profane in religious institutions established by worldly aristocrats. Top-down conversion might get bums on seats but at the expense of real faith. Please read Parts 1 and 2 before this one. Father Eadred has journeyed to Ashington Minster (monastery) to try to uncover the truth behind the rumours of unnatural practices and two murders. It appeared to be a well-run institution but a terrifying incident in the middle of the night unsettled him. More disturbing events are to come but he gains an ally to root out the depravity.

THE DEVIL’S MINSTER (PART 3) – ANGLO-SAXON

THE FACELESS MONK

 

Ashington Minster was protective of its considerable wealth – it had no desire to portray an image of an impoverished Heaven. Its jewelled crosses and plate, intricate vestments and saints’ relics were stored in two great chests and locked in a room within the main stone building. Only the abbot and prior had keys. Abbot Aelfric’s family had endowed the house with considerable land holdings around the minster and in more distant manors. Thick, forbidding hedges marked the perimeter of the minster’s immediate landholdings. The land sustained greater numbers of cattle, sheep, pigs, ducks, chickens and geese than any of the surrounding manors. Wheat and barley thrived and in the woodland, protected by ditches and fences, pigs foraged and fattened; and timber, rods for hurdle fencing and firewood were harvested. A stream from the local river passed through the minster lands and ditches had been cut to feed two fishponds. At the apex of this thriving, well-managed enterprise, sat Prior Wulfstan. Industrious, imperious, intelligent, ascetic and disciplined to do God’s work. He was the spider at the centre of the web. So, when a peasant belonging to the minster found a body the morning after Brother Anselm’s funeral, the prior was quickly informed.

Medieval Barn, Wandlebury, just outside Cambridge (photo by author)
Medieval barn, Wandlebury, just outside Cambridge – a storehouse of farm wealth (photo by author)

“Lord God, who could do such a thing.” Prior Wulfstan turned away from the body; buried, other than what remained of the face, in a shallow grave.

“The pigs uncovered him, father. It’s Brother Raedwald; he had big ears. They chewed his face away.”

“Raedwald. No, not Raedwald.” The prior buried his head in his hands and he tottered sideways. A monk stopped him from falling. Shaken and embarrassed, the prior straightened himself and moved away.

Father Eadred sighed and he closed the book that rested on his lap. His attempts at quiet contemplation of the word of God were as fruitless today as on his earlier days at Ashington. It was not a sanctuary for holy reflection. Now, the hurried and agitated sounds of brothers heading past his door and off over the fields to the nearby wood, was proving to be the latest interruption. Their angst was too engaging for the priest and, with his interest stirred, he left his cell and followed.

Three monks were kneeling and praying fervently and the prior stood at some distance, wiping the tears from his face. Eadred looked over one of the monk’s shoulders.

“Lord have mercy on this our brother.” Eadred dropped to his knees and began to pray – and to compose himself from the shock of seeing the faceless monk.

When he finished, he took his chance.

AN OPPORTUNITY

 

“Father Prior, forgive my intrusion on your grief. Please, let me help you in discovering what plagues this minster. I thank the Lord God that he has given me gifts in discerning the truth in such matters.” The prior quickly pulled Eadred out of earshot of the other monks. In a barely visible gesture, he signalled for Eadred to quieten his voice. Eadred continued in a whisper.

“Many times the bishop and our thegn have called on me to seek the truth when crimes have been perpetrated, especially crimes where the spirit of great evil is corrupting men’s hearts. My gifts are known even in the court. I have seen how the Evil One can twist minds, so they lose their understanding of right and wrong. Let me help you. Let me be your eyes and hands in finding the culprits, while your strength recovers.”

“You are young and have the boldness of youth,” the prior smiled faintly. “But Eadred, the battle between right and wrong is a hard, bloody and confounding struggle. I have fought it many times; it is my chosen life. I am old enough to know through many bitter days and nights that the war never ends. I have had my victories but none are won easily and the field is strewn with wounded and lost souls. We bow before earthly power and forget that we are warriors for Christ. I struggle to keep the faith against a tide of gluttony, pride, debauchery, lust, greed.” Prior Wulfstan smiled again. “Have I shocked you? Forgive me. This latest atrocity leaves me numbed. Brother Raedwald was gentle and harmless and one of only a handful here to burn with the fear of the Lord God. To see him thus is hard to bear. Whatever I may have said about the deaths of our brothers Anselm and Burgred, I said to calm the anxieties of the community. Eadred, I fear their deaths were not natural and the devil has made his home among this community. And later today a kinswoman with royal connections – a pure heart – arrives into this nest of vipers. I should know everything in this minster but I am blind and weakened. How should I protect her?”

Agricultural Year Font, Norman, Burnham Deepdale, Suffolk (photo by author)
Agricultural year font, Norman, Burnham Deepdale, Suffolk (photo by author)

“Let me fight with you. I fight for the Lord God. He gave me this gift for a reason and it is a sin not to use it. I am young but I am not green to the cunning of the Evil One. I know the signs of his work and my weapons are sharp and my eye true.”

“Then be with me, Eadred, but be wary and vigilant for your own safety. Trust no-one. There is one here who is evil incarnate; who has no qualms about murder and he will kill again if cornered. You are young and spirited; too many young men are already dead and I would greatly lament your death. I will give you the task of preparing Brother Raedwald’s funeral and helping me find his killer; it will allow you to talk to the brothers with my blessing.” Eadred nodded.

“And Father Eadred, Brother Anselm was a good and pious man. He rarely missed a service. He always worked for others. We had come to depend on his skill as a healer of broken bones and other ailments. He strived ever harder to help us and was known for the healing potions and ointments he made. If he were duped to walk towards darkness; it would have been against his will. I am truly sorry you lost your friend. Believe me, I know how you must feel.”

Prior Wulfstan’s kind words brought Eadred to tears.

The prior led them back to the shallow grave, where by now, a few more forlorn monks had arrived pulling a small cart. The prior reverently covered Raedwald’s face with a cloth and the body was unearthed and the task of carrying it back to the minster was underway.

“Brethren, when did you last see Brother Raedwald alive?”

“You are free to answer Father Eadred’s questions.” Prior Wulfstan added to overcome the brothers’ reticence to respond. “There is evil in our midst and I have asked Father Eadred, as an outsider but a friend to us, to help me find it; God willing, before further horrors.” Eadred acknowledged the prior’s endorsement.

“Before or after Brother Anselm’s funeral?”

“I saw him at the midnight service the night before the funeral.”

Eadred looked at the other monks for their response.

“Yes, he was not at the funeral. I thought he might have been ill; he has looked grey and worried these past weeks.”

“Something was troubling him but he kept it to himself. The last time I saw him was at the midnight service before Anselm’s funeral.”

Within the hour, a troop of a dozen or so horsemen arrived with Aelswith, the abbot’s sister-in-law and royal kinswoman.

Father Eadred managed with the prior’s help to avoid the evening festivities to welcome the royal entourage. If they knew of the recent deaths, it certainly was not affecting their enjoyment. Wine and ale flowed freely and the minster’s slaves exhausted themselves in the glorious task of gratifying the appetites of their betters.

Alone with the body, Eadred steadied his nerves before removing the cloth that covered the mangled head. He retched.

A Sense of Evil (photo by author)
The evil surroundings of Ashington Minster (photo by author)

“Forgive me, Brother Raedwald, for my weakness. Your soul has gone but the house of flesh may still talk to me.” Breathing deeply, Eadred slowly turned Raedwald’s body. He looked more closely at what he had noticed when the body was on the cart. A dark, blood-caked wound at the base of the skull with shards of shattered bone sticking out like broken teeth. Eadred looked thoughtfully for a while then pulled up one of the sleeves of Raedwald’s cowl. Heavy bruising disfigured the wrist and shoulder. With effort, the priest manoeuvred the body to examine the other arm. Further bruising and a three inch wound to the forearm told that he had struggled hard for his life and had died violently. What wounds there might have been to Raedwald’s face had been erased by the pigs. Eadred returned the body to its original position – a small object fell and bounced on the stone slabs. The priest picked it up. He held a broken chain and what remained of a small crucifix. Eadred felt around Raedwald’s neck – his crucifix was still there.

The sounds of feasting had peaked gratifyingly early and well before Eadred propped the bench against his door and prepared for bed. He had attended the depleted midnight service, where again the few brothers present treated him as though he were a plague victim – and he had said his prayers, earnestly pleading for God’s guidance and protection. Lying in bed, he was torn by two emotions that tormented him in turn – a determination to find the killers and return the minster to God, and continuing fear. He knew that Raedwald had been savagely murdered by at least one individual within the minster community and this evil soul was still at large – and if he managed to close in on him then his own life would be the more at risk. And, while Eadred was buoyed by the prior’s support and the arrival of Lady Aelswith’s troop, who would assuredly bring needed security to the minster, the abbot was of a different mould and one that from experience he knew was dangerous. He rose once more to check the strength of the bench lying against his door and with his knife resting under his pillow Eadred tried to sleep, knowing that the three o’clock morning service had been cancelled by the abbot; an action that didn’t surprise him in the least but it did anger him.

To be continued.

THE DEVIL’S MINSTER (PART 2) – ANGLO-SAXON

Here’s Part 2 of the six parts of the Devil’s Minster. If you haven’t read Part 1, please read it first. An apprehensive Father Eadred arrives at Ashington Minster (monastery) after hearing from the bishop of ‘sins against nature’ and two possible murders perpetrated there. The inmates he meets are tight-lipped and the young priest faces a moment of terror.

WELCOME

 

“Welcome Father Eadred, we had no news that you were coming; I’m sorry we’ve not prepared and are distracted presently.” The guest master, Brother Boisil – a monk of similar young years to Eadred – smiled briefly at the priest. “You are the first visitor from Snailwell I’ve welcomed. We have been expecting a visitation from the bishop for a while.”

“God has granted Bishop Aethelbert a long life but his health is poor; he will not leave his minster again until the Lord God takes him to his heavenly reward.”

“And you are representing him … at Brother Anselm’s funeral?”

“Yes, and as a friend. Brother Anselm and I were novices together for a while but I chose the priesthood and he the cloister.”

“And have you come to examine the regularity of our observance? We’ve been expecting it for some time.”

Anglo-Saxon Arch, St Bene't's Church, Cambridge (photo by author)
Anglo-Saxon Stone Arch, St Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (photo by author)

“No,” Eadred smiled. “The bishop’s illness has taken his gaze elsewhere. His eyes are fixed on the promise of Heaven. He has despatched one priest to Elmstow and myself here to share with his fraternal companions his greatest treasures – the two wondrous psalters he owns. I bring the most desired; that made in the famous monastery at Lindisfarne and saved from the heathen onslaught by the community when they fled. Bishop Aethelbert wishes that the loan of such a book will strengthen the flame of faith in the community here.”

“It will inspire us; I am certain.” Boisil’s eyes twinkled and after a few moments hesitation he whispered to Eadred. “I will tell you that I joined the cloister because of such a book that I saw when I was a boy. A bishop brought it when the church my parents built was consecrated. I couldn’t read at that time but the colours and images – and the smell of the pages – I have never forgotten. It will be wonderful to see such a book again.”

“Perhaps one of the brothers here is able to copy the book; the bishop is more than happy for your abbot to keep it as long as you need if it means it might continue to inspire the brethren?”

“That is gracious of the bishop, Father Eadred, but no-one here possesses such skills. We are a group of simple believers. But please, talk to Prior Wulfstan, it might be possible. The prior can make many things happen that seem as miracles to me. I think even the abbot seems jealous of him sometimes. We are fortunate that the prior is recovering from a baleful illness. He was unable to undertake his duties for several weeks. Our abbot is overjoyed at the prior’s return to health; I think he realised just how much Prior Wulfstan does for our community. I’ll take you to him now.”

Eadred nodded and followed Brother Boisil across the courtyard.

“I’ve never seen such buildings in any minster in the Kingdom of the East Angles. Only once, when I travelled to Winchester in the Kingdom of Wessex, have I seen their equal. Such stone.” Eadred’s eyes drifted upwards; he brushed his hand admiringly over the great limestone blocks.

“Yes, we are fortunate that Abbot Aelfric has chosen to bestow much of his wealth on the monastery. Most visitors react as you. It is good that God’s house shines out over the country; that the people feel his presence in their midst. We may not have many books or the skill to produce them but we have buildings that speak more to the people of Heaven.”

“And Brother Anselm; he died so young. I always enjoyed seeing him. What was it?”

“You were a friend to him? I’m so sorry. I really don’t know much about his death but it was an accident.”

Eadred’s baffled look and next question were quickly snuffed out by Brother Boisil.

“You best ask the prior.”

The two men entered a stone building with cells for the community on either side. Eadred peered, looking closely at the size and plush fittings of each room. They passed the refectory, where Eadred’s eyes bulged at the quality of the benches, tableware and fittings. He was shown into a room further along a corridor.

 

PRIOR WULFSTAN

 

“Prior Wulfstan, this is Father Eadred from Snailwell.” Anticipating the prior’s first question, Brother Boisil added, “he is not here to investigate our observance but to attend Brother Anselm’s funeral tomorrow and to share a precious book from Bishop Aethelbert.” Eadred was quick to add further explanation.

“The bishop will not live to see another spring and wishes to die on good terms with his communities and for them to offer masses for his soul. He has sent me with a precious manuscript in which hands and minds, inspired by the Lord God, have through divine intervention depicted images of Heaven and the lives the saints will lead there. It serves as an inspiration to men.”

The prior smiled. One of those awful condescending smiles that suggested to Eadred that he had been too eager to explain and the listener knew that he had been told a concocted story.

“You are most welcome here, Father Eadred.” The prior’s demeanour was cheerful but Eadred sensed it was forced and not a natural condition. I will pray for the bishop and see that our community prays that his soul will be freed at the time God wills it and he will travel safely to his home in Heaven. I found him to be a forthright and wise warrior for God – our community will miss him greatly. Now, the book, may I see it?”

Fens Around Ashington Minster
Fens Around Ashington Minster (photo by author)

Eadred unpacked the book from his bag and gave it to Prior Wulfstan.

“It contains the psalms and other readings of the Holy Word.”

Wulfstan held the book reverently, opening the pages slowly; his steely eyes absorbing the images and words; his mouth silently moving as they told the stories within. He smiled.

“I have seldom seen its equal. It is truly inspired by visions of Heaven. I will ensure its safety and that it is used properly. How long do you think the bishop will spare you here? You are welcome to stay as long as you are able.”

The warmth of the welcome from the guest master and the prior encouraged Eadred. He had worried that his presence would be considered disagreeable and his time at Ashington made more unpleasant than it needed to be.

Prior Wulfstan was a man of somewhat over 40 years; his hair wispy grey; his frame tall, thin and bent and his face was haggard, showing the depredations of his recent illness.

“As long as I’m doing the Lord’s work, the bishop will not care greatly. His heart has already left this world. But to hear of Brother Anselm’s death, well before his time. He was a friend.”

Prior Wulfstan clasped his hands tightly but said nothing. He appeared to Eadred to be considering carefully what to say.

“His death has shaken us all. When Anselm failed to attend the daybreak service and, despite searches, could not be found in the minster or its fields, we went out to the fens and meres. It was on the third day of searching that his body was found, caught in reeds at the fen edge not an hour’s walk from here. The horror of the sight overwhelmed those who discovered him – he had been hit by an arrow that would have killed him instantly.”

Eadred gasped.

“He was killed?”

“I implore you, stay calm. I don’t think deliberately; he had no enemies. There’s plenty to hunt roundabouts; I fear he was shot accidentally by one of the hunters – there are many.”

“But if he missed the daybreak service, he could have ventured outside the minster that night? He would need permission, surely?” Eadred’s inquisitive tone was not well received.

“No permission was sought. For whatever reason, he was abroad and met with an unfortunate end. The meres are not welcoming in the hours of darkness or half-light. The hunter’s arrow senses movement in the twilight or daybreak thicket and seeks its prey. I am convinced that Brother Anslem met with a terrible accident.”

Eadred was burning to ask further questions but had enough good sense to realise they wouldn’t be answered.

“The funeral is tomorrow. You will meet the abbot sometime afterwards – if he has the time. Now, I have work to do, if you will forgive me. Brother Anselm deserves the best funeral I can organise. I have had a sickness, unfortunately, and no-one undertook my tasks; now I must do twice the work with depleted energy. But with God’s continuing help, I will overcome the weakness of my body.” The prior sighed heavily but smiled. “Then Abbot Aelfric’s sister-in-law arrives the following day.”

 

BROTHER ANSELM’S FUNERAL

 

Eadred felt relief to be back within the solitude of his cell after the evening meal. Brother Boisil had joined him at the table but seemed less convivial than when they had first met earlier in the day. His eyes darted around the refectory, meeting those of the community, who kept their distance. Walking back to his room, Eadred realised that Boisil had probably been charged with isolating him from the brothers. It had worked because not a word had passed between the priest and the others in the room.

Anglo-Saxon Coffin Lids
Anglo-Saxon Coffin Lids (photo by author)

“We are all heavy this evening with thoughts of Brother Anselm’s funeral tomorrow.” The guest master had sought to explain the sombre, pensive mood but the explanation failed to convince Eadred. Returning from the midnight service, a few hours later, corroborated Eadred’s view. Not one attempt to acknowledge his presence and the guest master shadowed him the whole time, door-to-door. The young priest was suddenly seized by his isolation and precariousness. If anyone sought to harm him, there was little he could do. He fingered the small blade the bishop had urged on him before he left Snailwell. At the time, he had been close to rejecting the offer with ridicule and had only accepted it when the bishop grew dangerously agitated. It offered small comfort. The hours until the six o’clock service would be difficult. There was a small but heavy bench in his cell, which Eadred upended and leant against his door. In the early hours, while still praying, Eadred finally fell asleep.

He shivered at the cry that tore him awake. The words were frantic and aggressive – but he couldn’t make them out. There was fear and struggle but the sounds were quickly muffled. A grim and ugly sound – a hard blow, perhaps – then silence. A few seconds later, Eadred heard running steps in the corridor. He cowered in terror. The door to his cell creaked; he stifled a groan. Again – but the bench held and, after a pause, the steps moved away quickly. Fears and black thoughts burned the priest’s guts. He doubled over in pain and sobbed.

Brother Anselm’s funeral was unpleasant. It could have been nothing other with the brutal death of a young man but that wasn’t all. The congregation, other than Anselm’s parents, was tense, on edge. The parents grieved quietly, grey-faced, weeping, surrounded by shadows. There was something else. At the appointed time, Prior Wulfstan vacated the lecturn for the abbot to lead the service. Eadred watched the abbot carefully; he had yet to hear the abbot talk and he had prayed that there was still the opportunity for the brethren to help the young brother’s soul take its journey by a deep and prayerful outpouring of love and grace. The abbot remained seated; his head lowered. Eadred’s gaze darted to the prior, who had risen again with difficulty and gone to stand before the abbot. The men spoke to each other – not loud enough for Eadred to discern the words – but very publicly and angrily, the abbot was refusing to lead the service. The prior’s resentment didn’t dissipate for the remainder of the service. If anything, he fomented his fury. Father Eadred wept for his friend, who had become an afterthought at his own funeral.

Part 3 coming soon.

Based on a historical murder mystery novel by Lindsay Jacob