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.

St Ealdhelm’s Day 2015: Salisbury’s Chequers

This article originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 16, Issue 2 (Summer 2015)

Jim Gunter’s annual tour for St Ealdhelm’s Day this year visited Salisbury. Jim’s notes for the our run to 50 pages and so only the faintest flavour of the experience can be reproduced here. We started at Crane Street Bridge, calling first at the nearby Diocesan Offices, still
with the original 15th century doors.

Then we were off into the city centre, stripping back the centuries to consider how Salisbury – New Sarum – has evolved since its foundation as a planned settlement in the 13th century. Some 170 new towns were built in England between 1066 and 1350, but Salisbury is the only one planned as a cathedral city and this shows in the contrast between the ecclesiastical Close and the Chequers, the grid plan of commercial streets to its north. Each block has a name, often taken from one of the pubs, as do many of the corners. Because the Bishop of Salisbury controlled the land and regulated its use, and because the records have survived, it is possible to trace which trades have used which streets when and even who was in residence. Modern street names are no guide to past uses as trades have moved around. Even the Poultry Cross

was originally the site where fruit and veg were sold; the original poultry market was in Silver Street. In the side streets, many mediæval buildings have survived relatively unchanged.

Even in the main streets, once it’s remembered that the shopfronts are new and that behind those Georgian windows lurk half-timbered buildings, on plots whose dimensions are fixed by ancient deeds, it becomes clear that the city remains remarkably true to its original plan. There’s been infilling (the Market Place today being about half its original size), plots have been amalgamated and sub-divided and roof lines have been raised

but look up or in and you see a different Salisbury from the one of chain stores and motor traffic. Two examples must suffice. Externally, the Odeon cinema on New Canal looks like modern mock Tudor.

Inside it’s something much older, its foyer

being the hall of a mediæval merchant’s house, restored in the 1830s by A W N Pugin, the neo-Gothic architect and designer who worked on the Houses of Parliament, and sensitively adapted in the 1930s by the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. It’s a surreal experience to walk from the ticket counter to the auditorium by way of something that wouldn’t be out of place in a Harry Potter film. The hall was built between 1470 and 1483 by a Hall, John Hall, a leading Wiltshire wool dealer.We broke for coffee at the Boston Tea Party, whose premises occupy the former Old George Hotel in High Street. Upstairs is all half-timber, panelling and plaster, including some striking wyverns.

Occasionally, an old building emerges from its modern skin; the example on the corner of the Market Place

is now known as ‘Nuggs 1268’, referring to the name of the first known occupier and the date of occupation, though this is of the plot not the building, which dates from a century or two later. A mere youngster by Salisbury standards. Besides its ancient tradition of commerce, Salisbury also has a fine heritage of public buildings, such as the Guildhall (the latest of several civic chambers that have moved location around the Market Place), St Thomas’ Church with its dramatic ‘Doom’ painting and local coats-of-arms, St Edmund’s Church and numerous imposing almshouses.After lunch at our usual venue, the Royal George, we searched the grounds of Wiltshire County Council’s offices, further up on Bedwin Street, for an 17th century urn.

It marks the spot where some old armour was discovered and assigned at the time to the Anglo-Saxon era, relics, it was thought, of King Cynric’s battle against the Britons in 552.

The Latin inscription is worn now but starts off with a reference to ‘Cynricus, Occidentalium Saxonum Rex’. So close to our regular meeting point and all that; we couldn’t have planned it better.

    St Ealdhelm’s Day visit 2022

    This year’s St Ealdhelm’s Day visit is to Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon working farm. The event will take place this coming Saturday, 21st May 2022. We will meet at the farm at 11.30 am, and there will be a re-enactment of a battle between Saxons and Britons at 2.00 pm. Food is not available on site, so bring a packed lunch.

    If you wish to attend, book your ticket(s) via their website, and then look for the people wearing Wessex flag T-shirts. Because time slots are hourly, you will need to book for the 11.00 slot, the staff are aware that we won’t be there until 11.30. We hope to see you there.

    Happy St Ealdhelm’s Day 2020

    Today is the feast day of St Ealdhelm, also known as Wessex Day. It is customary for us to show pictures of those local authorities who have flown the flag of Wessex outside their offices, but of course, council offices are all closed this year.

    So instead, here’s a picture of some Crimson Cloud Hawthorn, a cultivated variety of Crataegus monogyna biflora, or Glastonbury Thorn, whose colours approximate those of the flag. The Society regards the Hawthorn, or Mayflower, as the Wessex flower par excellence, due to its association with Glastonbury and the fact that it blooms around this time of year. Some people regard the Crimson Cloud variety as a bit gaudy, but personally, I rather like the idea of a red and gold (well, OK, hot pink and pale yellow) hawthorn.