Since we know only what Aldred tells us about himself in the Lindisfarne Gospels colophon, that he was the son of Alfred and a “good woman” (til wif glossing bonae mulieris), it is up to me to invent a plausible family and location on a reasonable timeline prior to his entry into the Chester-le-Street community.
The dates that govern our notion of when Aldred lived rely on some complicated logic propounded most cogently by Michelle Brown for the Lindisfarne Gospels. Working backward, Aldred was a provost in 970 and a priest new to the community when he did the Lindisfarne Gospels gloss, and therefore at least 30 years old, the minimum age for the priesthood. Assuming he was a recently ordained priest when he did the gloss on his admission to the community and that it would take about 20 years for a young priest to rise to the rank of provost, that puts the Lindisfarne gloss and colophon around the year 950 and his birth circa 920. Alternatively, if he was a well established priest before transfer to Chester-le-Street, he could have been born earlier and would have been older than 50 in 970.
For the moment I think I will go with these anchor dates: born 920, entered Chester-le-Street 950, provost by 970. Now to correlate that with known events, people, and places.
My timeline for tenth century Northumbria and surrounding areas: what a mess of rulers and shifting alliances! Northumbrian English nobles (Bamburgh), King of Alba (Scots and Picts united) from the north, Strathclyde Britons from the west (e.g., Cumbria), Wessex monarchs from the south (and throw Mercia in there as well), Danish raiders from Scandinavia, Norse Irish from Dublin, and smack in the middle of all of this, the community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, with its fingers in every pie.
For the moment, I have decided to zero in on a set of circumstances noted in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (21-24), just prior to the battle of Corbridge between Ragnall and an alliance of Scots (918). Setting aside the confusion of two possible battles, which Ted Johnson South editing the HSC discounts as the compiler merging two accounts of the same battle, the HSC notes three instances of people fleeing from the west over the Pennines into Cuthbert’s welcoming arms and receiving land grants that are then contested with Ragnall’s victory at Corbridge.
All three are of English stock, driven back to safer territory after the collapse of Northumbrian control in Cumbria by the end of the ninth century. If all three, and not just the first case, were from southerly regions of Cumbria, I would guess they traveled via the trans-Pennine road from Stainmore (the A66 today), rather than north of the Pennines from Carlisle and along Hadrian’s wall. Whether their flight was precipitated by viking “pirates” as the second case suggests, or the increasing dominance of Britons (Strathclyde hegemony creating a resurgent identity for “Cumbrians”) is unclear. Perhaps both.
The first of the three is Tilred, abbot of Heversham who abandoned (sold?) his monastery in southern Cumbria and bought from King Edward Castle Eden in Northumbria, which he then “gave” to the community of St. Cuthbert in exchange for the abbacy of Norham, up north near Lindisfarne (never mind that Castle Eden was already a Lindisfarne estate center and Norham also remained one of their dependent houses). Tilred later turns up as bishop of Chester-le-Street (915-28). As Johnson South points out, the details of land transfer don’t add up with other information in the HSC and other sources, but the idea of flight from the west is reinforced by the other two cases.
The second case is that of Elfred (Alfred) son of Brihtwulf “fleeing pirates” who came over the mountains from the west and received lands from the community of St. Cuthbert: Easington, Monk Hesleden, Little Thorp, Horden Hall, Yoden, the two Shottons, Castle Eden, Hulam, Hutton Henry, Twilingatun, Billingham with dependencies, and Sheraton. These lands are listed as townships that Johnson South describes as a 12 vill composite estate, with names still lingering in later parish boundaries. Alfred cultivated them faithfully for the community until 918 when at the battle of Corbridge he is forced to flee and the estates are taken by Ragnall and given to two of his followers, Scula and Onlafbald. Cuthbert deals with Onlafbald for taunting him (transfixed by an iron bar), and the lands he received reverted to the community of St. Cuthbert, or even to Alfred, if he was still alive.
The third case is a bit more shocking. One Eadred son of Ricsige (perhaps King Ricsige of Northumbria) came through the mountains, killed Prince Eardwulf, took his wife (“violating the peace and the will of the people”), and fled into the sanctuary of St. Cuthbert, where he was also granted land that he held faithfully for three years, until he died at the battle of Corbridge and the land was taken by Ragnall. The HSC is primarily concerned with establishing the community’s rights to lands lost and regained, but the latter was a tricky process.
I am inclined to adopt the second candidate, Alfred, as Aldred’s father. If he was a relatively young adult in 918 and survived the battle of Corbridge, he could have fathered Aldred circa 920. The northern portion of the estates he was granted, the community got back with the Cuthbert-induced death of Onlafbald. This means Alfred or his heirs may have returned to Easington as an estate center, where Aldred could have grown up until he went into the religious life, presumably at one of the dependent houses in the Lindisfarne network (perhaps Norham, or even traveling back into his father’s old stomping grounds in Cumbria).
As for his mother, that good woman, I am tempted to imagine Aldred making a pun on her name, Tilwif. Indeed, early editors thought it was a proper name, although clearly he is glossing in Old English the Latin bonae mulieris. But given Aldred’s predilection for wordplay, could it be an inside family joke, that her name really was Tilwif? Til- names are known in prosopography (see PASE), although not necessarily female. We have Abbot Tilred, above, who becomes bishop at Chester-le-Street, so why not a sister with this name? Anglo-Saxon names are quite often compounds found in a family line.
So here is Aldred’s birth certificate: Aldred, son of Alfred and Tilwif, born 920, Easington, Northumbria. Next up: where was he trained before he arrives at Chester-le-Street and why does he end up there in 950?
Michelle P. Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (London: British Library, 2003).
Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of His Patrimony, ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South, Anglo-Saxon Texts 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002)
PASE: Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England http://www.pase.ac.uk/index.html