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Æthelwold [St Æthelwold, Ethelwold]free

  • Barbara Yorke

Æthelwold [St Æthelwold, Ethelwold] (904x9–984), abbot of Abingdon and bishop of Winchester, was a leading figure in the tenth-century church reform movement. He was born in Winchester to noble parents during the reign of Edward the Elder, probably between 904 and 909.

Early career and training

As a youth Æthelwold spent a period in the royal household of King Æthelstan and may be the ‘Æthelwold’ who appears in the witness lists of royal charters in 932 and 934 (AS chart., S 417 and 425). After a period of royal service Æthelstan arranged for him to be ordained by Bishop Ælfheah I of Winchester and he became a priest on the same day as Dunstan. After a period in the late 930s studying with Ælfheah in Winchester, Æthelwold moved to Glastonbury where Dunstan had been made abbot. At Glastonbury he studied grammar, metrics, and patristics and, following Dunstan's example and teaching, took his vows as a monk; subsequently he was appointed dean. During the reign of King Eadred (r. 946–55), Æthelwold wished to travel to Europe to receive a more thorough grounding in the monastic way of life, presumably at one of the reformed Benedictine houses such as Fleury. On the advice of his mother, Eadgifu, the king refused Æthelwold permission to leave the country, and instead granted him the former monastic site at Abingdon, which at that time was served by a small body of secular priests. Æthelwold set about transforming Abingdon into a model Benedictine community, of which he became abbot. He was joined by clerics from Glastonbury, Winchester, and London who took vows as monks and one of them, Osgar, was subsequently sent to Fleury to study the observance of the Benedictine rule there. Eadgifu and Eadred were generous patrons and the king granted the 100-hide royal estate based on Abingdon to the new community before his death in 955. Work was begun on a new church, though it was not completed until the reign of King Edgar.

Bishop of Winchester and church reformer

The appointment of Edgar as king of all England in 959 gave Æthelwold the opportunity to initiate reform in the church on a much wider scale. He was already an intimate of the young king, having acted as his tutor. Æthelwold has been identified as the scribe known as ‘Edgar A’ who wrote a large number of the original charters to have survived from the period 960–63, and the implication is that he was in the personal service of the king during that time. In 963 Edgar appointed Æthelwold to the vacant see of Winchester and he was consecrated bishop on 29 November. In the following year, with the connivance of the king and with the support of an armed force led by a royal official, Æthelwold had the clerics of the Old and New Minsters expelled and replaced by monks from Abingdon; Chertsey and Milton Abbas were also reorganized as monasteries in the same year. Plans for the expulsion had been carefully laid as the king had sought permission from the pope the previous autumn. Further support from the king enabled Æthelwold to reintroduce monasticism in East Anglia, and between 964 and 971 he refounded monasteries at Peterborough, Ely, and Thorney. Nunnaminster in Winchester and probably other nunneries in the Winchester diocese were also affected by Æthelwold's zeal; Nunnaminster and Wilton were both enclosed by walls at this time.

A synod held in Winchester some time between 970 and 973 agreed that a common rule should be followed by all the monastic communities in England. The customary which was adopted is known as the Regularis concordia and was written by Æthelwold himself. His pupil Ælfric identifies Æthelwold as the author in a composition he wrote for his own monks at Eynsham and there are also verbal links with other works attributed to Æthelwold. The basis of the customary is the rule of St Benedict, but some customs were also adopted from continental reformed houses and the advice of monks from Fleury and Ghent is acknowledged. Customs not paralleled on the continent probably indicate the retention of native practices and the emphasis on prayers for the royal house no doubt reflects the close relationship between King Edgar and Æthelwold. Æthelwold also encouraged close study of the Benedictine rule itself and was commissioned by King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth to provide a translation of it into Old English. Eight manuscripts or fragments survive suggesting a widespread circulation of the work.

Æthelwold has emerged from modern scholarship as the driving force behind the movement to reintroduce monasticism into Anglo-Saxon England in the late tenth century. Some further idea of his overall aims comes from an anonymous document known as 'an old English account of King Edgar's establishment of the monasteries' of which Æthelwold is believed to be the author; it may have been composed to form a preface to his translation of the rule of St Benedict. The text suggests that Æthelwold's ideal was a return to the time of Bede, when the church was dominated by monks. His interest in and respect for that period can also be seen in his revival of the cults of seventh-century saints in his foundations, including those of St Æthelthryth and her saintly kinswomen at Ely and of St Birinus at Winchester. However, Æthelwold's historical vision seems to have led him to an espousal of monasticism that was more extreme than that of Dunstan and Oswald, the other great English monastic leaders in the reign of Edgar. Both Dunstan and Oswald followed the practice of many continental bishops in maintaining both secular priests and monks in their households and did not follow Æthelwold in his dramatic expulsion of secular clerks and their replacement by monks for all diocesan duties. Æthelwold's determination to achieve what he considered right also comes through from the zeal with which he obtained estates for his monasteries. It was not only the king who had to surrender lands to provide support for these foundations. The archives of Winchester and the Libellus Æthelwoldi from Ely show that many small landowners were obliged to give up estates apparently on the grounds that the lands had once been granted to the religious communities, but had been alienated subsequently. Compensation was given, but does not seem to have been overgenerous and there were attempts to reclaim estates or renegotiate terms after the deaths of King Edgar and Æthelwold. If necessary, charters were forged to prove claims to title for which appropriate documentation had not survived or had never existed. Æthelwold in his various compositions shows himself to have been acutely aware of the pressures on monasteries and nunneries which might lead to church estates falling into secular hands and one of his priorities seems to have been to try to ensure that foundations were able to retain their wealth and independence.

Patron and scholar

Some of the wealth accumulated by Æthelwold was used to rebuild churches and to furnish them in an appropriate manner, for he was also a major patron of ecclesiastical art and architecture; unfortunately only written accounts remain. His gifts to Abingdon are said to have included an altar table or retable, made of gold and silver and decorated with sculptured figures of the apostles, which cost £300. In addition to many other fittings he gave a gold chalice of immense weight, three gold and silver crosses which were 4 feet in length, and a golden-plated wheel which supported twelve lamps from which hung numerous small bells. Æthelwold's magnificent commissions might be matched by gifts from the royal house. King Edgar provided Old Minster, Winchester, with a gold and silver shrine for St Swithun, which was decorated with jewels and scenes showing the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. These costly pieces have not survived the passage of time, but some of the manuscripts decorated at Winchester or other foundations associated with Æthelwold do still exist and are testimony to the high standards of craftsmanship which he encouraged. Foremost among these is the Benedictional of St Æthelwold produced for Æthelwold's own use by his chaplain Godeman, whom he later appointed abbot of Thorney. The manuscript is lavishly decorated with gold and with full-page figural scenes in elaborate acanthus-leaved borders. Many scenes draw on continental prototypes, but others, including one of a bishop pronouncing benediction in a church, which may be intended as a portrayal of Æthelwold in Old Minster, seem to be original compositions. The artistic workshops established by Æthelwold continued to be influential after his death, both at home and abroad.

None of the churches commissioned by Æthelwold survive. The one for which there is most information is Old Minster in Winchester, which has received substantial excavation, but is also described in some detail in the accounts of the miracles of St Swithun, who was translated there in 971. Æthelwold sponsored a major replanning of the west end of the church so that the original seventh-century building was extended to incorporate the first burial place of St Swithun and a free-standing tower of St Martin, which became the centre point of a massive western entrance or westwork, comparable to similar structures in France and Germany. The rebuilding was completed in 980 and the dedication was a major ceremonial occasion attended by the young King Æthelred II (d. 1016), who had recently ascended the throne, and all the court. Evidence for some of the fixtures and fittings was also revealed by the excavations, including finds of window glass, glazed floor-tiles, and bell-pits. The rebuilding of the Old Minster was accompanied by a broader replanning of its physical surroundings. The south-eastern quarter of the town was reorganized so that Old Minster, New Minster, and Nunnaminster each had its own precinct, separated by walls from each other and from the activities of the town. Streams were diverted to serve the monastic buildings of Old Minster, which presumably were newly built at this time. Æthelwold also founded an episcopal palace at Wolvesey in the extreme south-eastern corner of the city.

Larger churches were required at Æthelwold's foundations to allow the performance of the full Benedictine liturgy laid down in the Regularis concordia, which required numerous altars, processions, and provision for several choirs. Æthelwold drew upon the best of continental practice, but also seems to have been responsible for some imaginative innovations such as the re-enactment of the visitation to the tomb on Easter day, which has been seen as of prime importance in the development of liturgical drama. Monks from Fleury and Corbie were brought over to instruct the monks of Abingdon in the performance of plainchant, and the surviving ‘Winchester tropers’ enable some reconstruction of musical practice in Winchester which included development of forms of harmony. Æthelwold in the Regularis concordia decreed that monks should hear mass each day and at Winchester he instituted private supplementary offices for his monks, which can be partly reconstructed from surviving manuscripts. But what has been seen as the most original and influential of his liturgical reforms was the production of a new form of benedictional represented in the texts of his own benedictional and the so-called 'Ramsey Benedictional' which was also produced at Winchester. The new benedictional involved a skilful blend of the two main forms in use in contemporary Europe and may be the work of Æthelwold himself or, if not, was certainly commissioned by him. Like the Regularis concordia, the Winchester benedictionals also took account of traditional English practices and incorporated benedictions for St Swithun and St Æthelthryth, two saints whose cults Æthelwold had specially promoted. All later English benedictionals were influenced by the new tradition established at Winchester.

In addition to his other activities Æthelwold personally taught the older pupils at Winchester and their works suggest that they regarded him with much respect and affection. Wulfstan Cantor wrote: 'It was always agreeable to him to teach young men and mature students, translating Latin texts into English for them, passing on the rules of grammar and metric, and encouraging them to do better by cheerful words' (Life, chap. 31). The surviving writings in both Old English and Latin which can be attributed to Æthelwold provide independent support for his reputation as a great scholar. His translation of the rule of St Benedict into Old English suggests that he had a nearly faultless command of Latin grammar. The Regularis concordia is written in clear, straightforward Latin, but he also seems to have favoured a more rhetorical and flamboyant style with much use of Greek words, which shows the influence of Aldhelm. His pupil Wulfstan Cantor refers to his skill in the composition of Latin verse as well, but only two lines survive in a charter which can be attributed to him with any certainty (AS chart., S 745). Æthelwold also promoted the use of written Old English to enable essential texts to reach a wider body of people. His vernacular writings show a concern with clarity and with defining a precise Old English vocabulary which is believed to have played an important role in the development of Standard Old English.

The work of Æthelwold's pupils can also be interpreted as testimony to his own scholarship and saw his ideals carried into the next generation. These pupils included Ælfric, subsequently abbot of Eynsham, who was the most prolific author in Old English in the late Saxon period. He continued Æthelwold's concern with grammatical correctness in Old English and with the translation of Latin texts into the vernacular. Another pupil, Wulfstan Cantor, was a leading writer in Latin, both in prose and verse, and as an expert in musical theory continued Æthelwold's interest in the development of the liturgy. Æthelwold also commissioned new works from his entourage at Winchester, of which the most significant were connected with the promotion of the cult of St Swithun. Lantfred, a foreign scholar who had joined the community at Old Minster, produced the detailed Translatio et miracula S. Swithuni which Wulfstan Cantor used as the basis for his own Narratio metrica de sancto Swithuno written in hexameters. Æthelwold also had much patronage to bestow on those who followed him loyally and many of his monks became abbots or bishops.

Political rule

Although Æthelwold is primarily remembered for his contribution to the late Anglo-Saxon church, it must not be forgotten that he also played a political role. Some facets of church reform had ramifications that went beyond the ecclesiastical sphere. Æthelwold's refoundation of the fenland monasteries and recovery of large tracts of land in East Anglia may have had the subsidiary motive of creating an alternative power base to that of the ealdormanic families of the area. The emphasis on prayers for the royal house in the Regularis concordia not only recognized the importance of their patronage, but also helped to stress the sanctity of kingship and the distance between the king and his greatest nobles. Æthelwold's involvement in contemporary politics emerges most clearly in his support for Edgar's third wife, Ælfthryth, and their son Æthelred. Towards the end of the reign of Edgar it seems to have become an issue whether he should be succeeded by Æthelred or by Edward, the son of his first wife. Dunstan and Oswald appear to have supported Edward as the elder son, but Æthelwold backed Æthelred. Documents produced at Winchester towards the end of Edgar's reign stress the priority of Æthelred's claim over that of Edward, who is described as being of lesser status, apparently on the grounds that his mother, unlike Ælfthryth, was not a consecrated queen. Ælfthryth's status was further enhanced when she was given a supervisory role over the nunneries in the Regularis concordia. The queen was a major patron of Æthelwold. A tradition preserved at Peterborough described her hiding in his closet so that she could find out how best to help him; when she heard him praying to be allowed to refound Peterborough, she leapt out and promised her support. Gifts of land from the queen are recorded, as is her help in reacquiring alienated possessions. However, Æthelwold's espousal of her cause may have more complex roots, stretching back to the obligations and allegiances he may have inherited as a member of a noble family based in Winchester. After Edward was murdered in 978, Æthelwold seems to have played a major advisory role during Æthelred's minority. It is significant that it was only after Æthelwold's death that Æthelred began to rule in his own right and marked his independence by acting against the interests of some of the reformed monastic houses.

Death, cult, and subsequent reputation

Æthelwold died on 1 August 984 at Beddington in Surrey, an Old Minster estate. His body was moved to Winchester on 3 August for burial in the crypt of Old Minster, as he had previously arranged with Wulfstan Cantor. Twelve years later, in 996, Æthelwold appeared to Ælfhelm, a citizen of Wallingford, and instructed him to visit his tomb to be cured of blindness and to report the matter to Wulfstan. The miracle was taken as the necessary sign which preceded the formal recognition of Æthelwold as a saint and his body was translated soon after, on 10 September 996, from the crypt to the choir of Old Minster. The rebuilding of the east end of the church had recently been completed under the supervision of Æthelwold's successor Ælfheah II, possibly in preparation for the translation. Wulfstan seems to have played the leading role in the promotion of Æthelwold's cult, including the composition of a life, which Ælfric subsequently abridged in Latin and Old English. Wulfstan's life is the main source for Æthelwold's early years and contains accounts of miraculous signs from the time he was in his mother's womb onwards. Many of these details are likely to have come from Æthelwold himself and suggest that he may have laid plans for his eventual cult before his death. Wulfstan also seems to have been in charge of the liturgical development of the cult and has been identified as the author of the necessary hymns, collects, tropes, and mass sets which have survived.

In spite of Wulfstan's dedication Æthelwold's cult seems never to have achieved great popularity and was rarely celebrated beyond the foundations which had some personal link with the saint. There is no record of the type of apocryphal stories which are a feature of Dunstan's cult, and even in Winchester he did not have either the following or the miracle-working reputation enjoyed by his own protégé Swithun. The Æthelwold of Wulfstan's life inspires respect rather than devotion. Wulfstan stresses Æthelwold's personal piety and strict adherence to Benedictine practice, but his saint is an often formidable authoritarian who, for instance, commands a monk to show his devotion by plunging his hand into a boiling pot of stew, while another monk who had the presumption to watch Æthelwold while he was reading at night was punished with temporary blindness.

Wulfstan's portrayal shows the influence of tenth-century continental saints' lives and the expected characteristics of the new breed of Benedictine saints, but there also seems little doubt that Æthelwold was a controversial figure in his own lifetime. He may have inspired great devotion from his pupils, but it would appear he also had many enemies among those he dispossessed of land and position and such enmities may have been exacerbated by his involvement in contemporary politics. Wulfstan records Æthelwold's triumph over his enemies at the dedication of the west end of Old Minster in 980, when the supporters of Æthelred and of the murdered Edward the Martyr came to be reconciled:

God in his love gave such grace to the holy bishop that those high lay dignitaries, ealdormen, potentates and judges, and all who had previously seemed his enemies, standing in God's path, were suddenly made, as it were, sheep instead of wolves: they revered him with extraordinary affection and lowering their necks to his knee and humbly kissing his hand, commended themselves in all things to the prayers of the man of god.

Life, chap. 40

After Æthelwold's death his enemies attempted revenge on his foundations, and his cult and lives may have been in part an attempt to recreate by other means the protection he had so effectively provided during his lifetime.

The way Wulfstan chose to present Æthelwold has influenced, of course, the way he has been viewed by later historians, who have tended to stress the stern authoritarian rather than the affectionate ‘father’ of monks who encouraged his pupils with cheerful words. David Knowles wrote of his 'austere and intransigent temper' (Knowles, 39) and Frank Stenton of 'the crude strength of his somewhat unattractive personality' (Stenton, 452). Events such as the forceful expulsion of the secular clerks at Old Minster have left a bitter taste and have given him a reputation for ruthless insensitivity which is not shared by the other tenth-century monastic reformers. His importance to the tenth-century reform movement has always been acknowledged, but appreciation of the range of his contributions and of his scholarship has only come in more recent years. Of particular importance has been the identification of his authorship of various key works of the tenth-century reform period, and his stock has risen with the close examination of these texts and others associated with him. There has also been a fuller appreciation of the fact that Æthelwold cannot be seen just as a monastic reformer; his career must also be viewed in a broader ecclesiastical context and in terms of contemporary politics in which he was a major player. The Æthelwold who has emerged is not necessarily more likeable, but commands greater admiration for his learning, depth of vision, and ability to carry through his policies. However, one of the clearest recognitions of his importance comes in a charter of King Æthelred issued some nine years after Æthelwold's death, which acknowledges how his passing 'deprived the country of one whose industry and pastoral care ministered not only to my interest but also to that of all the inhabitants of the country, the common people as well as the leading men' (AS chart., S 876).


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  • manuscript drawing, BL, Cotton MS Tiberius A.iii, fol. 2v; see illus. in Edgar (943/4–975)
  • portrait?, repro. in Deshman, Benedictional of St Æthelwold
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)
Camden Society