Ealdhelm and the Ash

This post was originally published on Dr Eleanor Parker’s Patreon blog, A Journey Through The Anglo-Saxon Year, as a patron request from our secretary. We republish it here with her permission. We encourage readers to support Dr Parker’s work through Patreon, and/or to buy her book Winters In The World, which collects some of the material from the blog.

This week’s post is on St Ealdhelm, “the semi-official patron saint of Wessex”. Ealdhelm’s feast-day is 25 May, which has been designated as Wessex Day in celebration of the region! Ealdhelm is a fascinating figure, though often somewhat overlooked, and he had an important and lasting influence on Anglo-Saxon literature.

Ealdhelm was born in the first half of the seventh century, somewhere in Wessex, though we don’t know exactly where or when. Most likely he was born in the 630s, and that was a significant moment in the history of Wessex: the kingdom was in the process of converting to Christianity, due to the efforts of St Birinus, ‘Apostle to the West Saxons’, who baptised King Cynegils around 635. Ealdhelm was perhaps a member of the first generation of Wessex children raised in the new faith. He seems to have been from an aristocratic family, possibly related to the West Saxon kings; again we don’t know the details, but he certainly had plenty of contact with members of the royal family in his later career.

The middle of the seventh century was an exciting time to be a bright young scholar in Anglo-Saxon England. Ealdhelm seems to have had some of his early education from an Irish scholar, possibly the Máeldub who gave his name to Malmesbury, though the information there is a bit scanty. Much better attested is his period studying at Canterbury, under two of the most important intellectual influences on the early Anglo-Saxon church: Theodore, a scholar from Tarsus who was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 668, and Hadrian, an African-born monk who at the same time became abbot of the monastery of St Augustine’s, Canterbury. Working together, these men established an unparalleled centre of learning in Canterbury which introduced many new forms of scholarship to England. Bede describes them memorably:

Since Theodore and Hadrian were men of learning both in secular and sacred literature, they attracted a large number of students, into whose minds they poured the waters of wholesome knowledge day by day. In addition to instructing them in the holy Scriptures, they also taught their pupils poetry, astronomy, and the calculation of the church calendar. In proof of this, some of their students still alive today are as proficient in Latin and Greek as in their native tongue. Never had there been such happy times as these since the English settled in Britain.

Ealdhelm was one of these eager pupils, and later wrote with warmth of his “close fellowship” with Hadrian; there are points of contact between Ealdhelm’s writings and the evidence for the teaching of the school at Canterbury. He spent several years there before returning to Wessex as Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, and in 706 he was made Bishop of Sherborne, a few years before his death. As abbot and as bishop he was active and successful, but it’s for his writings that he’s best remembered – he was really the first major Anglo-Saxon writer, and he left a remarkable legacy. 

His surviving works include Latin poetry and prose on a range of learned subjects, including the intricacies of poetic metre and arithmology, a collection of a hundred verse riddles, and poems in honour of different churches; one of these was for a church built by Eadburg, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet (and daughter of Centwine, king of Wessex). For the nuns of Barking Abbey in Essex, he wrote a long and sophisticated treatise in praise of virginity, which speaks pretty highly for the education of the women to whom it was addressed. None of these texts, except the riddles, are what we’d today find very readable; though at the time writing in Latin would have made his works more widely accessible, he’d probably get more attention now if he’d written in English! But to quote Michael Lapidge, describing Aldhelm’s ‘immense learning and a highly individual sense of style’:

His knowledge of Latin texts, both classical and patristic, was extraordinarily wide, and not matched by any other pre-conquest Anglo-Latin author (including Bede). He quotes from numerous classical texts not otherwise known to have been read in Anglo-Saxon England, such as Cicero, Claudian, Juvenal, and Seneca; and in fact he shows familiarity with certain texts which have not been preserved, such as Lucan’s lost poem Orpheus, from which he quotes two lines. His Latin prose style is like no other: long, almost Joycean sentences, built up coherently from parallel subordinate clauses consisting of clusters of nouns and adjectives (often interlaced and frequently pleonastic) and alliterating phrases, all decorated with various kinds of arcane vocabulary, including grecisms and archaisms drawn from glossaries, and measured out in carefully observed rhythmical patterns… He was also a pioneer in the field of rhythmical Latin verse: he adapted the octosyllabic verse-form used by Hiberno-Latin authors for their stanzaic hymns into a form of continuous octosyllables suitable for narrative purposes; and he linked pairs of octosyllables together by means of alliteration, in the manner of Old English verse. In all of these media, Ealdhelm had eager imitators, both during his own lifetime and for several centuries afterwards. His writings became instant classics.

Ealdhelm’s influence on later Old English literature is best exemplified by his riddles, which provided models for the vernacular riddles we find in collections like the Exeter Book (some of which are direct translations of Ealdhelm’s riddles). He was admired in his own day, and in subsequent centuries. Bede, his slightly younger contemporary, described him as ‘a man most learned in all respects… wonderful for ecclesiastical and liberal erudition’. 

One of his most enthusiastic later fans was the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury, who – because of the Malmesbury connection – was very interested in Ealdhelm, and celebrates the saint in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum. William tells some nice stories about Ealdhelm which suggest how his memory was preserved in Malmesbury tradition, four centuries after his death. For instance, William claims to have had access to a source – now lost – by Alfred the Great, which attributes to Ealdhelm ‘a light-hearted song’ in English and explains why it was written:

The English people at that time, says Alfred, were semi-barbarians and not too attentive to the teachings in church. Indeed the very moment mass had been sung, they would rush off home. So the saint placed himself in their way on the bridge joining country and town, pretending to be a minstrel. He did this more than once, with the result that the people got to like it and came in crowds. The consequence was that Ealdhelm gradually inserted the words of Scripture into his ballads and so brought the people back to their senses.

– The Deeds of the Bishops of England, translated by David Preest (Woodbridge, 2002), pp. 227-8

Sadly, none of Ealdhelm’s English poetry survives, though William claims that this song, whatever it was, was still sung in his own day (the early twelfth century). Another of his stories tells how when Ealdhelm died in 709, at Doulting in Somerset, his body was brought back to Malmesbury in solemn procession. Crosses were erected to mark the places where his body rested on the journey, and William adds ‘All the crosses are still there, none of them having suffered any damage over the years. They are called ‘biscepstane’, that is, ‘bishop’s stones’. One of them can be seen in the cloisters of the monastery.’ He goes on:

This fact has reminded me not to pass over the true story often told about Bishops Trees. This is a village in a valley, to which Ealdhelm is said to have gone, in order to fulfil his responsibility of preaching there. While he was addressing the people, he happened to have fixed in the ground the staff of ash, which he used for support. During the sermon the staff, through the goodness of God, grew to a marvellous size, all quickened with sap and covered with bark and having put forth young leaves and beautiful branches. The bishop was intent on his preaching, but when told to do so by the shouts of the people he looked behind and worshipped the miracle. The staff he left there as a gift from God. From the growth of this first tree sprang many other ash trees, indeed, so many that, as I have said, that village is commonly known as Bishops Trees.

This is a version of the ash-tree miracles I wrote about here a few weeks ago, and the village in question may be Bishopstrow in Wiltshire, which still bears that name. William also includes a rather lovely epitaph for Ealdhelm, which seems a good place to end: 

Heaven’s friend and priest withdrew to heaven’s realms,

Exchanging earth for stars and fields for skies.

His spirit safe above, his limbs were wrapped

In friendly earth, and earth and heaven alike

Claimed Ealdhelm as belonging to itself.

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