Posted by: kljolly | October 18, 2013

Aldred under Athelstan

My interest in the Battle of Brunanburh was triggered by a need to locate Aldred during the reign of Athelstan (924-39).  Keep in mind that I am writing historical fiction but not fictional history:  I am imagining Aldred’s circumstances in ways congruent with known evidence and not changing any known historical events to fit my fiction.  The fictional bits below are in green.

First, there are three major Athelstan events in the north:

  • In July of 927, Athelstan invaded Northumbria and got control of York disposing of the viking King Guthfrith. The campaign let to a settlement at Eamont Bridge (Cumbria) with the kings of the Welsh, Gwent/Strathclydes, and Scots as well as the Northumbrian earl of Bamburgh Ealdred (Aldred, lots of people with that name!).  Although these rulers appear to have acknowledged Athelstan’s overlordship, they retained control over their territories (for the Strathclydes, north of the Eamont and Derwent rivers).  Aldred (my Aldred) would have been nine years old, assuming he was born in 918; the next year his uncle Tilred, bishop of Chester-le-Street died.  Would Aldred have then been sent elsewhere for education?
  • In 934, Athelstan made a land and naval expedition against the Scots, in which he further subjected in some way the Cumbrian and Scots’ kings.  He stopped along the way at Chester-le-Street to give quite handsome gifts of land, books, and treasure to the community of St. Cuthbert.  This event is well-recorded in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (25-27) as a means of showing how Athelstan, obeying his father’s dying wishes, called on Cuthbert as his patron saint, even going so far as to instruct his brother to bury him there in the event of his death on this campaign.  Curiously, no mention is made of the bishop of Lindisfarne at Chester-le-Street, Wigred (928-44), although previous bishops are noted in the HSC.  Symeon of Durham (Libellus ii.18) includes him in his later account of the same events, probably because he is more interested in a history of the bishops than the HSC with its preoccupation documenting land gifts.  Aldred would have been 16 in 934 and probably being educated somewhere other than Chester-le-Street since he makes a deal of becoming a member of the community circa 950.  But where?
  • In 937, the Battle of Brunnanburh was fought…somewhere.  The HSC makes no mention of this battle, leading me to suspect that it did not have an impact on Chester-le-Street’s landholdings, either because the battle was not near or because Athelstan’s victory safeguarded their territory (in which case, why not mention it as another credit to Cuthbert’s protective powers?). Symeon (Libellus ii.18) does mention it right in the heels of the 934 expedition to Scotland and does credit Cuthbert, as do later chroniclers relying on his account.  As a young man of 19, Aldred would be in the lower clerical ranks serving in some religious institution while continuing his education.  He would probably have lay friends and relatives who were at the battle, but on which side?

What I am suggesting  is that Aldred in this period and time of his life is not necessarily aligned with the interests of Chester-le-Street and their pro-Athelstan view.  I have identified his family as Northumbrians coming from Cumbria over the Pennines in 913-14 and receiving land from Chester-le-Street in a period when its alliances are shifting between competing forces.  The alliance of Eadred earl of Northumbria with the Scots against Ragnall/Rænald leads to  the messy battle(s) of Corbridge in 918; Ragnall is brought into submission by Wessex King Edmund in 920, who also enters into some kind of “non-aggression pact” with the northern rulers (Clarkson, Men of the North, p. 174).

Depending on where he was educated at this impressionable age, Aldred might have had sympathies for, or family and friends allied with, the Northumbrian earl at Bamburgh and the Strathclydes in Cumbria, along with their various and sundry allies in Scotland as well as in Wales and Ireland.  The battle of Brunanburh, wherever and whatever significance you make of it in the long term, does show the culmination of a set of alliances opposing the expansion of the Wessex king’s hegemony in the north.  We should avoid the anachronistic view that Wessex’s success was inevitable and should have been recognized as such by their opponents (Wessex King Edmund puts them down again in 940 and the story goes on).

So, what are some possible locations for a young man in clerical orders circa 927-40?  We know Aldred was Northumbrian by language, that he was well-educated in Latin and the liturgy, had access to Irish-rooted texts, and wrote in script styles associated with the northern Lindisfarne manuscript traditions rather than newer scripts emerging in Wessex.  So his orientation is very Northumbrian, suggesting a northern religious house–or houses, if he moved around.

Trouble is, we don’t know which religious communities in the north were still in operation in the mid-tenth century.  The usual view is that the community of St. Cuthbert’s flight from Lindisfarne means that the site, and many others for which we have no evidence, were abandoned and had no functioning religious community worth noting.  We can guess from their itinerary before settling at Chester-le-Street and from the landholdings claimed by the HSC that some places were functional, if surviving on reduced means.  FYI:  “religious community” is a handy way of avoiding the minster/monastery monster, or of trying to determine if a group of clerics living in community were monks or secular clergy, whether in their own eyes or someone else’s (a reformer’s, for example).

Here are my guesses for places where Aldred might have been trained, in relation to Chester-le-Street where he ends up circa 950:

  • In the far north, Lindisfarne:  maybe a small group still remained.  This is within sight of Bamburgh, the seat of the Northumbrian earl, as well as close to the Scots as allies.  The Norham and Melrose religious houses are inland from there.
  • Just north, Wearmouth and Jarrow:  again, maybe a small group remained, and a library of materials that Aldred could access.  This would be much closer to Chester-le-Street, as well as the lands I have identified with Aldred’s family at Easington.  Not far to the west is also Hexham.
  • South, into Yorkshire:  Ripon, I don’t know enough about; not sure what would remain at Whitby either.  There is the mysterious Harewood, probably the one in West Yorkshire just north of Leeds, from which Owun and Farman came with the MacRegol Gospels to copy Aldred’s gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels later on (or did Aldred go there?).  I really can’t see him sent into Mercia, but I know Michelle Brown sees lots of ties between Northumbrian and Mercian texts in the 8th and 9th centuries (Books of Cerne and Nunnaminster, which contain texts also copied at Chester-le-Street).  Mercia does help northern alliances against vikings but is also a Wessex ally against northerners (I need a little help here, folks!).
  • West of the Pennines:  Carlisle is in Strathclyde territory, but has a religious community with strong connections to Chester-le-Street.  Then there is Heysham to the south near Morecambe Bay, OR [Correction] Heversham at the east end of the bay where Tilred was abbot before he fled to Chester-le-Street and became bishop.  The area around Heysham is less clearly controlled by Strathclyde Cumbrians or Northumbrians, more likely viking settlers, and near the potential site of the battle of Brunanburh.  This would be a juicy place to put Aldred:  family roots, a big battle in the backyard….

Suggestions, comments, critiques welcome!


  1. You seem to have covered most of the options here, Karen. Could Dacre be another possibility, especially if it had some connection with the royal meeting at Eamont in 927? And then there’s the church at Lowther, not far to the south and presumably in Northumbrian (i.e. Anglo-Scandinavian) territory, which has sculpture from this period.

    Btw, the West Saxon king in 920 was Edward the Elder. In my book I suggested that he may have received the submission of the northern kings at Bakewell but I’ve since moved away from this idea.

  2. Athelstan had some wonderful relics and treasures , i wonder what happened to that tiny piece of the true cross that was set in crystal.
    Interesting Article ,it may be that Dacre monastery was no more with a small but handsome Saxon church in its place.

  3. What about Escomb Saxon Church in Co Durham? It was built in the 10th century.

    Would he have gone across the border, as there was a monastery at Hoddam (near Burnswark) and Applegarth about 15 miles further north.

  4. Great suggestions of churches, and I have visited many of them. The difficulty is I need not just a church but a site that would host a clerical community with books and writing tools, if not a physical scriptorium. Dacre might qualify. Escomb I would like to work in some other way, since the surviving stone church there was probably built in Aldred’s lifetime.

  5. If Dacore means the “stream of tears” Some of the Yews at Dacre are over a 1000 years old , so i suggest the Church was built in its pre Norman form and new Yews planted around this time , that some of the Slain at Brumby couldve been buried here .could be that the Monastery was no more as i think its last mention was a couple of hundred years earlier by Bede.

    • Ah, yes, there is the rub: references after Bede to active monasteries in the north are hard to come by, especially in the tenth century. Many assume that the viking attacks and the absence of references signal the end of monastic life in these enclaves, if even the Lindisfarne monastery closes shop and runs off. I am less convinced. The Lindisfarne group did a strategic move around their estates, suggesting small religious communities (a dozen or less members) may have remained here and there.

      • I think we can envisage continuity of monastic life at some sites with tenth-century sculpture (e.g. crosses, hogbacks) even if we allow for a break during the years when Viking raids on Northumbria were most intense (early to mid-800s?). In the west, patronage by Christian lords of ‘Hiberno-Norse’ stock in the early 900s may have rejuvenated some previously abandoned monasteries, though perhaps on a smaller scale than before.

  6. I always fancy the church at Ninekirks as having some potential importance historically , its dedicated to St Ninian and the “town” (as its its now a field) has links with Roman times as a hoard was once found here , the nearby caves have possible Hermit use and even features in some Arthurian folkore.

  7. […] Earlier I accidentally confused Heversham, the monastery at the eastern end of Morecambe Bay–that Abbot Tilred (Aldred’s uncle in my story) managed until he fled to Northumbria with Aldred’s parents–and Heysham, the monastery on the southern side of Morecambe Bay. […]

  8. Just a couple of comments about sculpture which is relevant here. In Cumbria at least there are a number of centres where the tenth (or eleventh) century stonework suggests a church with wealthy patrons, such as Penrith (a better bet for the site of Eamont) or Gosforth (with the interesting sculpture with Norse mythological overtones). It is likely that a well-patronised church would have the resource to train clergy to support any resident priest – it is unlikely that there were any eighth-century style monastic schools by then outside episcopal centres or maybe Glastonbury even in southern England.

    Also worth noting there is enough sculpture at Lindisfarne which dates from after Cuthbert’s departure to suggest there was still an active church.

  9. Interesting point about sculptures , do you think the similarities with the Gosforth hogbacks and the Penrith ones and adding to that if Owen Cesario fought at Brunnaburgh then the Gosforth depiction of warriors could actually be based on some of the “vikings” that fought there ?

  10. Thanks for the pointers to Cumbrian sites. I did wander around most of these last summer from a base in Penrith and am planning to have Aldred wander through these sites after the B. of Brunanburh. One of the things I was taking note of (and pictures of) were viking stone monuments dated to the 10th century. I am positing an ambivalent attitude of Aldred toward these items, but haven’t gotten far enough to consider encounters with stone masons at religious communities he encounters on his travels.

    • do you think the dacre bears depict arthurs life .. content , eating salmon , lion round neck (saxons) lion vanquished , and do you think this is at the instigation of a woman , perhaps guinevere . the bears predate the church as its not central and the monastery is perhaps circa year 500

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