Oakley draft

The Bishop and the Provost:  Oakley Down, 10 August 970

revised 2nd draft 7/5/12

Aldred stalked down Ackling Dyke, the Roman road running straight as an arrow southwest across the chalk downs.  It was early afternoon and the bishop wanted him to scout out a location for his tent.  The arrival this morning of King Edgar and his entourage at Woodygate meant that housing was at a premium, and, apparently, the Bishop of Chester-le-Street didn’t rank high enough and was displaced by West Saxon bishops and abbots in every manor house and villa within a three mile radius of Woodygate.

As his provost, Aldred was insulted on the bishop’s behalf, but was trying to suppress his natural inclination to pride.  Was not Bishop Ælfsige the representative of St. Cuthbert, hero-bishop of Lindisfarne and revered by Edgar’s royal ancestors?  And who was this St. Swithun everyone was talking about?  At Searobyrg they heard stories of recent visions and miracles from Swithun, a bishop of Winchester who died a hundred years ago.  St. Cuthbert, from his home far to the north, had a longer pedigree of divine intervention stretching back over 300 years, a legacy well known to the West Saxon kings, who had brought gifts to St. Cuthbert at his Chester-le-Street shrine, over which Ælfsige presided.

As humble priests, the bishop had reminded him, they were servants of God and of St. Cuthbert, who would continue to be their protector wherever they were, at home in Northumbria or here among the West Saxons.

The Northumbrian group had arrived the day before, after leaving Searobyrg early in the morning.  They had come through the dappled gateway of oak trees at the ancient crossing to find Woodygate, both the village and the west manor, teeming with carts and servants ahead of the king’s arrival.  They had not expected to encounter the royal entourage until they reached Winchester, but apparently King Edgar was keen to hunt at Cranborne Chase, at the invitation of Brihthere, the king’s thegn who held the manor at Woodygate.  The king was come from Glastonbury to the west, had overnighted at Shaftesbury, and at Brithere’s urging, had pressed on to Woodygate, the royal servants barely having time to get ahead of him and prepare the way.  Surely Brithere’s household had been warned of the royal arrival, but no one bothered to send a message northward to the bishop of Chester-le-Street, whom no one remembered was due to arrive.  So the small Northumbrian group had set up only two of their tents in a narrow strip of open space near the hall, crowding the clergy in one and the servants in the other.

After much sending of messages to various and sundry local reeves, Ælfsige decided to move his entourage some place a bit more spacious and quiet, hence Aldred’s errand this afternoon.  The noon prayers [sext] completed and after a brief meal of bread and cheese, Aldred set off on his expedition to find a suitably flat and shady spot for their tents, someplace close enough to the road as not to cause problems for the carts and servants who had to unpack their tents.

The morning’s events still rankled in Aldred’s mind. The king had arrived in fine fettle an hour after dawn, having ridden the 10 miles from Shaftesbury on horseback with his closest thegns, riding at a good trot through woodland paths.  Despite the early hour of his arrival, the king called together all of the attending bishops, abbots, and ministers, whether they were well settled yet or not.  He was eager to take care of a matter for the abbot of Ely, at the urging of the dowager Queen Æthelflæd—the king’s formidable step-mother—and then be off to the hunt.[1]

Summoned belatedly (everyone seemed to forget the Northumbrian bishop!), they hurriedly robed themselves, Ælfsige in ecclesiastical vestments and Aldred in a belted robe with cowl, signifying the monastic character of their ancient foundation at Lindisfarne.  Aldred grimly recalled some of the questioning remarks from the Glastonbury monks about whether their current establishment at Chester-le-Street was guarding St. Cuthbert with fitting monastic zeal according to the Rule of St. Benedict.  So many new monastic houses among the West Saxons, Aldred reflected, “is their new way better than our old?”

Aldred and Ælfsige entered the manor hall, arriving last and seemingly least of the dozen bishops present.  Surely, Aldred thought to himself, St. Cuthbert ranks higher than this!  He had wanted to put Ælfsige at least closer to the Winchester clergy, with their Swithun.

Aldred maneuvered Ælfsige toward seats on the clergy benches closest to the high table, still empty, ignoring the steward motioning them toward the end of the row of clergy furthest from the high table.  Secular ministers were ranked on the opposite bench from the clergy.

Glancing around, he whispered to Ælfsige, “look, the abbot Beorhtnoth of Ely is with the archbishops.  Ours is a more ancient house than theirs, newly founded this year!”

“Sh,” Ælfisge said, “this charter is granting more land to Ely.”

Only then did Aldred notice that the king and his retinue of archbishops and duces were remaining at the low end of the hall, where a writing table was set up for the scribe.

The king stood beside the table and gestured to the scribe, “Ahh, Wulfwine, please write out this charter with the same prologue as the one you did for St. Peter’s Bath.”  If Aldred had not been so busy trying to get his bishop closer to the high table, he might have been near the scribes chosen to assist.  He had only done two charters before, but who knows?

Worse, instead of Ælfsige being at the top, he was now the last of the twelve bishops in attendance to sign his name to this Ely charter, followed by the abbots and then secular nobles and ministers.  Aldred got a glimpse of the charter after the signing and found it was written in a florid style at odds with the humble sentiments of repentance and dedication to the monastic life it purported to express:

The lamentable sins of a tittering  age strongly to be execrated, hedged round by the harsh barking of repulsive and frightful death, admonish us (not secure in our fatherland with a peace that has been gained but, as it were, about to fall into the abyss of stinking decay), by rousing us to flee those things with their misfortunes, not only by despising them with the whole effort of our mind but also by abominating them, just like the disgusting nausea of melancholy, directing our course towards that prophecy, ‘If riches breathe on one, do not place the heart near’. Wherefore, casting away the lowest, as it were, off-scourings of rubbish, choosing as an image the highest of precious necklaces, forming one’s soul in eternal joys, in order to acquire the mercy of honied sweetness and enjoy the pleasure of limitless delight, I, Edgar, elevated through the favour of the All-Accomplishing One to the throne of the kingdom of the whole of Britain, have granted as a perpetual inheritance a certain parcel of land…[2]

Aldred thought the Latin style dreadful, and he couldn’t help “tittering” at the opening adjective titillantis to describe their present wretched era.  Aldred assumed the scribe meant totillantis, tottering.  Nonetheless he also felt chastened by the charter’s condemnation of worldly honors as utterly at odds with their religious calling.

As they processed out, Ælfsige noticed Aldred’s discomforture.  “You thought to put me high and we were brought low, my friend.  Don’t you remember the parable from the Gospel according to Luke, wherein our Lord warns that those who seek a higher seat set themselves up to be humiliated when a person of higher rank displaces them; whereas he who seats himself in a lowly position may be raised.”

Aldred had to smile.  “quia omnis qui se exaltat humiliabitur et qui se humiliat exaltabitur, the verse you made me learn from memory early on, knowing my prideful tendency.”[3]   Silently Aldred recalled the gloss translation he had done in the Gospel book, ‘For any one who himself exalts will be humbled and one who himself humbles will be exalted.’

Now on foot on the Roman roadway, Aldred sighed remembering his fault.  He adjusted his pace to a more temperant one, released as he was from the hothouse court environment that tended to bring out the worst in him.  He found his normally quick stride inhibited by the long robe he still had on.  He should have changed back into a short tunic; it would have been cooler on this hot August afternoon, and also spared his robe the swirling dust on the raised roadway, but he had been impatient to get away.

The gangly young man from Woodygate who served as his guide occasionally got ahead of him. The boy seemed to gallop a few yards and then stop, like a dog waiting for its master.  His speech was similarly in short bursts, so that Aldred had a hard time engaging him in any meaningful conversation.

He surveyed the slight frame of the teen, perpetually hungry he imagined.  “What is your name, young man?”

“Cad.”  Aldred reflected that this must be a short form of some longer name, probably of Brittonic origin.

“You grew up here in Woodygate?”

“Pentric,” and he pointed off to the left down the road, presumably toward the ancient Brittonic hamlet in the shadow of hillside visible in the distance to the east.

The boy certainly didn’t waste words, even on the honorifics that Aldred was usually accorded as a religious superior—at the very least, a generic “ealdor.”  But Aldred decided to ignore the slight and pursue his search for information.

“So you know the lands here, who owns and farms what?”


“And this?” Aldred gestured to a lane leading to a farmyard on their left, across the road from the southern edge of Woodygate village.


Silence for a time as they kept their course on the Ackling Dyke, Aldred scanning the meadows and pastures on either side. Oak woods stood in the distance to the west, probably where the king was off hunting.   The day was warmer than Aldred was used to in his northern home.  He threw back his cowl but then wondered if he was risking burning his bald pate in the bright sun.  He tried again.

“How long have you worked at Woodygate?”

“Five winters.”

“Does the priest offer any schooling?”

“Not for me.”

“The Our Father and Creed, surely you know.”

“Maybe.”  Cad seemed reluctant to acknowledge any learning at all.

Aldred felt he had little in common with this Wessex farmhand.  As a child, he had been eager to learn not only what the priest recited but how to decipher the writing in the books the priest read from.  This young man’s knowledge was not from letters but from earth and sky.

By now they had walked for about a quarter of an hour (1/2 mile), when Cad stopped and pointed down a lane to the left.  “Pentric way.”

“Do you think there is a likely place in Pentric?  We need an untilled open space or a low hill on which to set up the bishop’s tent.”

Cad grunted and headed down the lane, so Aldred followed, albeit at a more gentle pace given his age and the heat, so Cad slowed down his gallop to an uneven canter.

As they headed east, Aldred could see a large hill in the distance.  Perhaps a bit too steep for their purposes, but certainly it might offer the bishop a commanding view.  It took another quarter hour to reach the edge of the hamlet, where they turned south along a lane with a scattering of several houses.  When they reached a large manor farm, they saw more royal messengers.  Apparently, they found on questioning one, the old queen Æthelflæd, King Edgar’s step-mother, controlled Pentric and the surrounding lands, so her officials, anticipating the king’s arrival at Woodygate, had settled in to the manor house, along with some Glastonbury monks who, Aldred was made to understand, would gain the land after her death, according to Æthelflæd’s charter from her husband King Edmund, Edgar’s father.

The knoll behind the manor that Cad pointed to was indeed prominent, but with too many trees to be convenient.  Moreover, they would have a hard time getting a wagon near the hill, not to mention negotiating with Æthelflæd’s people and the Glastonbury contingent.  Aldred preferred something closer to the Roman road and less…busy.

He pointed west and asked Cad, “Can we get back to the road through these fields?”  Cad shrugged and led the way.  They got a bit muddy crossing a small stream (Aldred had to tuck his robe up with his belt), but then found a narrow path between two tilled fields that brought them back to Ackling Dyke, an hour since they had left Woodygate.  Aldred wished they had stuck to the Roman road instead of taking the side excursion through Pentric, wasting half an hour.

When they reached the road, Aldred stood looking southwest, surveying the surrounding area on either side: some tilled fields, but mostly meadows and pastures, along with oak trees.  Any of the closer meadows or pasture (minus the sheep)  might be a suitable location for the bishop’s tents, not more than an hour’s walk from Woodygate.  They would have time to set up before nightfall.

Soon on the right he saw a triangular meadow with curious mounds and rings, uncropped by sheep.

“Whose land is this?” he asked Cad.

“Pentric here,” then pointing further west, “Woodygate there.”

The site did meet their requirements: it was untilled and without pastured animals, so they would not be disturbing anyone, except hares, voles, and other small creatures whose holes and nests pockmarked the field. Amid several smaller mounds and rings, the meadow had one bell shaped hillock suitable for a cross, and one large circle where a tent could be set up.

Aldred went up onto that tallest mound and surveyed all four directions.  There were many of these mounds visible, sprouting up in fields, clearly avoided by farmers, but not the Roman road builders, who cut through more than one of them in order to pursue their single-minded course.   In the distance to the west, Aldred could see another, larger barrow, long and low.

He turned back east and looked down on the largest ring below him.  From this vantage point on the mound, he could look directly down on the largest circle, quite impressive, with an outer and inner ditch marking the raised ring.  He had no idea what purpose it served its makers, but would suit his and the bishop’s need.

He went down onto the ring and paced across it.  The inner flat circle was at least 150 feet across, large enough for the bishop’s tent to stand solitary apart from others.  Stooping, he lifted a large irregularly shaped stone, heavier than it appeared.  He turned it over curiously, noting the knobby white surface of chalk and the hard grey flint interior where it was broken off.  Chalk and flint, soft and hard, this land was both.  He dropped it away from the central area where the tent would be.

Glancing around looking for Cad, he saw the boy lurking around the edges of the field, nervously eying the mounds and rings Aldred was exploring.  He motioned to Cad to join him as he went back up on the bell mound.  Relunctantly he wove around the other formations and climbed up next to Aldred on the hillock.

“What is that large barrow over to the west?”  Cad shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another, but gingerly, as if he feared disturbing the inhabitants of the mound on which he stood.

“Pæga’s Barrow,” he answered, unwilling to offer more.

“A barrow?  Like these rings here? It looks much larger and squarish.  Let’s take a closer look.”

Eager as Cad was to get off this mound, he was adamantly against exploring the other.  He trailed far behind Aldred as the provost took the first track between fields and pasture that seemed to lead to the barrow.

As neared the mound looming over him,  he looked back and saw that Cad would not come closer.  Standing stiffly, the boy made the sign of the cross and murmured something under his breath.

“What is it?” Aldred queried, “is something wrong here?”

Cad closed his eyes briefly, and then opened them to look directly at Aldred.  Now he became more talkative.

“Barrows hold dead men and their mathom.  They were here before my people came and discovered the curse on the gold.  They say underground, dragons guard the hoard.  Others brought fiendish men here, to hang and bury in unhallowed ground.  We dare not walk upon it.”

The schoolmaster in Aldred rose up.  “Did you not make the sign of the cross just now?  The cross itself was an instrument of death when our Lord was treated as a common criminal, for our sins.  Shall we not redeem this place with the sign of the cross?”

Cad shook his head and remained firmly on the track twenty feet away, while Aldred climbed to the top and walked around the edge of the barrow’s flat top.  He measured his steps while chanting in a soft voice psalms for afternoon prayers [none 3 p.m.] he had compiled in a list earlier this week, psalms specifically for troubled hearts.[4]

The verses the psalmist composed over a thousand years ago brought to mind the controversies Aldred and the bishop were hearing on their travels, about how a religious community should be like a household of brothers, without families of their own.  He thought fondly about his own community of brother clergy, some of whom were indeed married and had their own households.

Were such men, as the purists argued, divided between worldly and spiritual concerns, between the welfare of the church and that of their own family interests?  Shoud they remain unsullied by all carnal union of the flesh in order to perform the mass?  As an unmarried priest himself, he understood the exclusive focus demanded of him while transforming the bread and wine into the redemptive body and blood of Christ.  But as a provost managing a religious community, he thought it impractical to expect all the priests to take a vow of celibacy before their ordination at age 30.  Some were already married, others served in outlying areas by themselves and would need a partner in their rural household.

What troubled Aldred more, though, was the increasingly elaborate services of daily prayer in these religious communities, that now took up so much of the day in many of the houses they had visited.  They were obligated to pray for so many noble and royal donors that the clergy in the community were hard pressed to go from one service to the next without a break.

What he was doing now was in fact a way of doing both, as befitted a provost who oversaw his bishop’s household:  measuring land in service to the bishop and praying the afternoon psalms at the same time.  But in many of these new religious houses, the monastic clergy hired laymen to take care of estate business and everyday tasks they were too busy to manage.  Were they becoming a two-tiered society, those who pray versus those who work?  Or fight, he might add, thinking of the lords for whom they prayed.

Aldred realized that his thoughts had brought him to a stop and that he was no longer praying the psalms or counting his steps.  He recalled the last psalm and estimated the distance he had walked while reciting it, a way of measuring time he had perfected over the years.  He concluded that the barrow top was almost twice as long as it was wide.  Not really big enough for all of their tents, and too exposed, but the site with its commanding prospect had potential for something.

Returning to the track, he said to Cad, “To whom does this mound belong?”

“It marks the boundary with Handley.”

Aldred turned thoughtful.  Handley parish and hundred belonged to Shaftesbury, the women’s religious house to the west, one of the most richly endowed.  He had met Abbess Herleva, a no-nonsense level-headed woman.  She might see the possibilities for the site.

Setting a rapid pace, they headed back toward Woodygate.  Along the way, Aldred noted other mounds near the road and wondered how anyone with Cad’s fears could avoid crossing near or over them with so many.  Here on the right just before the woods closed in was a rectangular shaped earthwork, perhaps an old Roman fort from the road builders, across it on the left was an irregular mound lopped off by the road.

As they reached the point where they had come through the fields from Pentric, Aldred stood and looked back down Ackling Dyke and marveled at the straightness of the road, and how long it had endured since its builders were here—if memory of Bede’s History served him, over 600 years ago.

Turning back, he saw Cad draw his bow.  Their progress was stirring up the wildlife, and Cad was alert.  As they moved forward, two hares startled from a nesting spot on their right and Cad took aim.  The boy was good, a plump hare fell ahead and slightly off the road, which he quickly retrieved.  “Supper,” he said, as he looked west toward Pentric.  Aldred understood, thinking of a rich stew his mother made, thickened with the animal’s blood.  “You would like to see your family?  Why don’t you go there this evening.  I can find my own way back and will give my permission to your master.”  Cad had the grace to hesitate, but Aldred said with good humor, “Go on.”

So the young man went east and Aldred made his way back toward Woodygate.  He had not gone far when he met the bishop’s entourage coming down the road anxious to camp and hoping to find Aldred with directions to whatever spot he had found, to which he quickly led them.  While the servants set up tents and prepared an evening meal, the rest gathered to say their vesper prayers on the raised mound Aldred had used for his observations.

Later, he pointed out to the bishop the outline of Pæga’s mound.  Lit by the brilliant sunset, the red-tinted mound seemed to be alive, as if about to burst open and reveal its shadowy secrets.  Aldred told Ælfsige about the boy Cad’s fears.  He knew the bishop’s impatience with such beliefs, equal to his own.

Instead, the bishop looked thoughtful and said, “Well, from here with the sun’s fire on it, one can imagine a fiery dragon slithering out of it.”

Aldred remembered the old game as children, finding images in the fire or in the clouds.  “Ah, but I see against the flames, a weaponed man, sword raised against the dragon.”

“The question is,” replied Ælfsige, “who awoke the dragon with greed for treasure, and why must the hero die for another’s sins?”

Aldred turned toward the bishop, “Are you speaking of Beowulf or Christ?”

“What does Christ have to do with Beowulf?, to echo the great Master Alcuin.”[5]

Aldred pondered for a moment.  He knew his friend well enough to know the bishop was testing—and teasing—him.  Proper churchmen like themselves were supposed to absent themselves from heathen revelry and pagan stories.  Admittedly, both of them had heard the epic poem in more than one noble hall, Saxon and Dane, and it did have some Christian moralizing.

Bending down and looking at the ground, as if searching for a reply in the grass, he answered, “Perhaps…the story of Christ is prefigured in our ancient tales, just as he was in the Old Testament….”

“And perhaps, then, these stories can still be told with the gospel truth revealed?” Ælfsige asked amusedly.

Aldred straightened up and laughed.  “You know we already have and still are, in every stone monument we carve and poem we compose on this island.”

“And so, what worked for our ancestors works for us with the seafaring pagans.”

Ælfsige knew as well as he did that one of the main strategies that allowed their northern churches to survive the viking onslaught was a certain amount of, well, accommodation.  St. Cuthbert was adept at keeping his lands intact, directing his followers to negotiate land deals with nicer vikings, and if need be, striking down the nastier ones with a divine bolt.  Many a churchyard now had viking Christians buried in them, with their distinctive rounded tomb stones that looked like the back of a large hog.

Aldred had traveled once into Cumbria, west of his Northumbrian home, lands also infested with vikings, many of them coming over from Ireland.  At one churchyard in Cumbria, he had seen rows of these “hogbacks” as they looked to him. In their midst stood a great stone cross, more than twice a man’s height, its red sandstone picked out in colors to highlight the images carved on it.[6]

He turned to Ælfsige.  “Did you ever see the cross at Gosforth?  It is like the one at Ruthwell, but more, hmm, Danish.”

“No, but I remember you mentioning it on your return.  It troubled you.”

“Yes.  On one side, it showed the gaping mouth of the wolf-serpent Fenrir hanging above Woden’s son Vithar, who was prying the monster’s jaws open.[7]   Below it was Christ crucified, with spear-carrying Longinus on the left and Mary Magdalene, preparing to anoint his body.”  It seemed an odd conjunction to Aldred and he had wondered at the profane image:  why couldn’t they just show Christ harrowing hell?

Ælfsige, knowing his concerns, answered with his usual reference to written authority, “The great Pope Gregory, as Bede reminds us, advised turning the old into the new in order to make conversion to Christ more natural.”

“But does it not risk making the two stories equally true, and thus whether you believe in one or the other does not matter?”  What actually troubled Aldred, although he did not speak of it aloud, was the recent experience of viking warcraft, its bloody violence too near to set against the symbol of Christian sacrifice meant to bring peace.

“What does Vithar have to do with Christ?” he asked, but Ælfsige did not answer.

Despite the evening prayers, he went to sleep with these conflicting images troubling his dreams.

Aldred woke with a start, the blazing image from his dream still floating in fragments.  He turned his face toward the tent door, where a gap had been left for the evening breeze.  Dawn was near, time for Nocturns, if they had been in a monastery with the hours rung at regular times.  What jerked him awake was the sensation of falling.  God almighty, was the thought that sliced through his mind as he jerked awake.  Deus omnipotens, God allmæhtig.[8]  The words of the bedtime (Compline) prayer surfaced—Lord, God Almighty, who separates light from darkness.  Aldred peered through the gap seeking first light.

He got up quietly and slipped out of the tent, leaving Ælfisge in a deep and seemingly untroubled sleep.  Dimly he could see the outlines of the mounds and other tents pitched in the smaller rings.  The main fire had burned low and a sleepy servant sat guard by it.  He went up to the top of the bell shaped mound, praying to resurrect the dream and its meaning.

It had something to do with the barrows and the old gods.  Today was Woden’s Day.  He looked up at the oak trees standing to the east of their encampment.  Oak trees, sacred to the pagans.  Woden, old one-eye, Oðin as the vikings pronounced it, supposedly hung on an oak tree, an eerie foreshadow (or mockery?) of Christ on the cross. What does Woden have to do with Christ?  Turning abruptly, he thought “I need to get my mind back on God’s track” and headed toward the barrow named for Pæga, whoever he was.

Aldred whispered his morning prayers (Lauds) as he walked along the track toward the mound, reciting the whole psalm, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”   As he cut through a meadow of dry grass, he meditated on the shortness of human memory:  “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more,”[9] yet, the psalmist also added that the compassionate God “knows how we are formed and remembers that we are dust.”

As he reached the edge of the barrow, he murmured:  “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”  Boldly he climbed onto the top of it and stood in the center, surveying the countryside lit by the first rays of sunrise.

Stooping, he bent to look at a white object.  At first he thought it was like the chalk and flint stone he had found at their campsite.  But then he saw that it was a larger piece of man-hewed stone, with marks he could feel under his fingers that did not seem random.

He shifted his position so that the first rays of light from the east struck the surface, and began clearing away some of the dirt and moss.  Now he could see some curving lines like vines and definitely some incised words in the Roman style.  Two names he made out:  Mary and Helen.  Mary the blessed Mother or the Magdalene?  Both weeping at the cross.  Helen, mother of Constantine the great Christian emperor, as finder of the true cross she was patron saint of lost things.  The finding aid came to him, “as Helen found the true cross, may the cross of Christ return it,” repeated in each of the four paths.

Standing facing east into the sun, he raised his arms and called out “May the cross of Christ come to me.” Then west, “May the cross of Christ find me.” And south:  “May the cross of Christ send me.”  And finally north:  “May the cross of Christ bring me home.”  Once more east, he stood silent in the sun’s rays, thinking of the lost dead below his feet.

In an instant, his dream returned to him from the rising sun on the horizon.  It was a vision of tumbling images, images he recognized carved in stone but come to life.  He sagged under the weight, dropping his arms.  Crouching down over the stone, he let the vision recall itself to his mind.

First he saw a cross reared against the sky on a hill.  He was not alone.  A man wearing episcopal robes gestured impatiently for him to follow the path up the hill, but he was reluctant.  “Veni,” come, he said in Latin.  The bishop, if that is what he was, took him by the arm and guided him on the path.  As he neared the cross, he saw that it was made of stone, but he could hear it weeping, tears of blood streaming down its sides in odd patterns.  He wanted to run away. But in the dream, his guide made him walk around the four sides, stopping at each to read the runes and images marked by the tears.

On the north, he heard the cross lamenting its dead lord and mourning its own fate.  He began to weep with it.  On the east, through his tears, he saw Mary Magdalene, crouched and anointing the feet of Jesus.  Aldred bowed low.  On the south, he again heard the cross’s lament “Crist was on rod.”  And he stood still, unable to move.

Finally, his guide dragged him around to the west and he saw the gospel, God’s story. He cried out agne dei, O Lamb of God.  Curiously, two beasts with crossed paws worshipped at the feet of Jesus, just like Mary on the other side.  His guide, speaking for the first time, read the inscription “Jesus Christ, the judge of fairness.  Beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the saviour of the world.”[10]  “How could dragons worship God?” he asked.  His guide did not answer, but he looked keenly at Aldred.

Suddenly the cross collapsed into the hill and formed a large barrow.  Somehow in the dream he and his guide were not swallowed by it but instead found themselves staring into a dark hole in the hillside, barely lit by weak moonlight.  Terrified, he saw the hole widen and open into the slavering maw of a horned dragon, writhing its snaky length in the hillside. Figures of the dead were visible on its tongue and in its gullet.

He turned to run but his guide held him back, saying “watch and wait.”  For some reason, the monster was unable to bite down on his prey.  Instead, as dawn came, the burning light froze the dragon into stone, its eyes shut against the bright light approaching it.  A white robed man came, reaching into that horrific mouth and pulling out, first Adam and Eve, then others who emerged from the sharp-toothed monster into their Savior’s arms. He even saw Beowulf, as he had imagined him yesterday as an armed warrior standing before the barrow dragon, striding out of the hellmouth.

He turned to his guide and asked, “Is it possible that Beowulf too is redeemed?”

“Are they not both dragon-slayers?” his guide answered with a quizzical look.

The stone dragon barrow closed up and sank down. All was quiet and dim for an immeasurable time.  On his guide’s chest he saw glimmering a small gilt cross with red stones.  Then he heard singing and saw in the distance a lighted procession approaching the spot. At the head was a woman, dressed as an empress, her standard bearer holding Constantine’s cross-sign chi-rho.  St. Helen, he knew it must be the emperor’s mother.

When the procession reached the sunken barrow, the men dug down and raised the cross from the pit.  At first it appeared to be a blood stained piece of wood, but then it began to glow with golden light, and finally burst into a rainbow of jeweled colors.  He heard his guide’s voice ring out these verses:

Let the doors of hell be shut up for all men,
and those of heaven be opened wide, and revealed
the eternal realm of angels, the timeless joy, and let their portion
be assigned with Mary, those who keep in their mind
the dearest of feast-day celebrations, of the cross under the heavens,
when he the most powerful, Over-Sovereign of All, covers them with his arms. (1228b-35)[11]

At that moment he turned to his guide and said, “My master, Saint Cuthbert” and would have bowed, except the voice and the vision were transformed yet again.

He was facing Cuthbert who stood amid a huge choir singing the Greek Holy, Holy, Holy [Trisagion] so loud it should have deafened him.  Encouraged by his saint-guide’s radiant face, he began turning, albeit hesitantly, toward the object of their worship.  As he turned, he heard a voice louder than the chorus speaking in an unknown language that ran through him like fire.

A figure of blinding light stood before him, crowned with jewels, and armed with a sword held out toward Aldred like a cross.  He heard the voice speak in harmonious tones, but could not comprehend.  He seemed to be turned to stone.

Then the voice told him in his native tongue, “reordberend,” speech-bearer, “aurite,” write.

The speaker’s visage was so bright he could barely look at it, and when he did look up to the face of him who had called him, he found himself falling, tumbling awake.  He had woken with a huge sense of loss, as if he had just had a brief glimpse of something beyond words.

That aching feeling remained as he kneeled on the barrow mound.  At least now he remembered the dream, but wasn’t entirely sure what the message was.

Glancing downward at the earth, he saw a bit of sun reflection, where the stone, still in his hands, had been.   He could see a larger stone like the fragment he had first picked up.  Perhaps the remains of a larger monument?

He remembered that he had in the bag slung over his shoulder the slim booklet of parchment he carried with him as well as a writing kit.  Settling himself on a grassy tussock, he set himself to creat his own memorial.  He opened to the page where he had last left off, but chose the bottom left corner for this little memo to himself.  First he copied the words from the inscription, using the same style:[12]

Deus omnipotens et(?) Maria et Helena

God Almighty and Mary and Helen

Then he paused and added his own dedication :

et sanctus Cudbertus…te gelanidon [Aldre]d’.

and St Cuthbert granted…[this vision] to Aldred.

God almighty gave me the vision, his Son calling me in a heavenly language I cannot recall.  Mary of Magdala cries out to the risen Savior in her Hebrew tongue, rabboni.  Helen of the Greek-speaking east, raises the resurrected cross to our eyes and commends us to Mother Mary.  And holy Cuthbert was also, always, in his dreams, speaking words of consolation and instruction in the Latin of the church’s liturgy.  The three sacred languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as written in Pilate’s inscription on the cross, so he wrote each name in a different script.

Last, and least, Aldred himself was granted by God and St. Cuthbert to offer the fourth translation, into English.  He had dedicated his life to glossing the Latin Word with his own Northern tongue, starting with the glorious gospel book in their sanctuary.  Was all that weary labor worth something?  Where had it brought him, twenty years later?

Aldred looked at the remaining pages in his skimpy booklet and wondered what texts he might find to add, and gloss, that would bring to life the sacred words for his community.  This task was still his commission, the dream-vision revealed to him.  Like the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, and the Blessed John, he had seen the glory of Christ, felt his own unworthiness, and was called to speak to those who come after.

Feeling a bit light-headed as he stood up, he started back for their camp.  But as he looked down the steep side of the barrow, he saw a procession approaching, with the bishop and other clergy of their party, as well as the servants with a wagon.  It was almost Prime.

Aldred waited where he was until Ælfsige climbed up to stand beside him.  “I thought we could celebrate the morning service here.” Aldred wondered what had inspired the bishop.  Had he a vision in the night as well?

While the servants set up the bishop’s pavilion on the eastern end of the barrow, Aldred took a quick meal of bread offered to him and tried to calm his thoughts as they gathered under the awning.

The opening hymn[13] and the closing prayer helped him to connect the straying paths his thoughts had taken during the service:  Daybreak brings thanks for a safe passage through the night, hope and light for a new day, and prayers for God’s protection on the road ahead.  The psalms they chanted in between wove in and out of his thoughts as he reflected on his dream, but one word kept reconnecting him to the verses, semitas/swaeth, lead me on Your pathway, O Lord.[14]

Facing east toward the sun risen above the oak trees in the distance, the bishop then celebrated mass on his portable altar, for this day in honor of St. Lawrence the martyr—the church’s way of celebrating its own heroes.  Aldred’s thoughts strayed to the manner of Lawrence’s martyrdom, grilled by the persecuting caesar.  Not unintentionally, the mass prayer invoked Lawrence’s burning love for God.  Aldred thought of the flaming dragon fire of hell and the golden burning light of his vision, and thought of fire’s dual meaning—both destroying and purifying, like the cross’s double life.

Immediately after the mass, the bishop convened the chapter meeting, even though they were a small group far from home and the hall where they usually gathered.

After their mutual prayers of confession and encouragement, Bishop Ælfsige called Aldred aside:  “Something has disturbed your thoughts?”

Aldred hestitated.  He had known Ælfsige for twenty-odd years and they had shared a lot of common experiences, good and bad.  But until now, he had never been the dream-vision type, nor was he sure his was of the useful kind found in the community’s history, directing them toward some move to secure their lands or position.

After looking around at the handful of clergy and servants remaining in the tent, he drew the bishop aside out of earshot.  “I had a dream last night.”  Ælfsige looked at him curiously, but Aldred avoided eye contact.  He was a little embarrassed, but once he started talking, the vision took shape in his story.  The bishop listened without interrupting to the very end.

“St. Cuthbert has made himself known to you in this place.”  The bishop hesitated.  “I have received myself…a vision of sorts…more an auditory revelation: a set of prayers to honor St. Cuthbert.”  He hastened to add, “they are not unlike those we have heard composed for other saints along our journey.  Please take them down for me.”

Aldred gathered his writing supplies.  Seating himself with a shaft of sunlight coming over his shoulder onto his lap, he opened the booklet to the first blank space where he had left off copying the hymns, psalms, and prayers for each of the daily services they maintained even while traveling, the same page where he had jotted his memo this morning, down in the bottom left corner.  At the top of the page was a single line finishing the last psalm reference for prayers when things are going well, “blessed is he who walks in the law of the Lord.”  Pathways they needed to find their way among their West Saxon brethern.

After mixing his ink and smoothing his parchment, he looked expectantly to Ælfsige, who began to recite in a slow cadence four prayers in honor of St. Cuthbert, Aldred taking dictation.

After Aldred finished the second prayer in the left column, Ælfsige paused while he remixed some ink and thought of the scribes back home copying prayers on similar parchment as they sat in the covered cloister walkway surrounding their shrine.

In his mind’s eye, he saw St. Cuthbert’s body lying in state, not in a barrow or stone hogback, but in a finely carved wooden coffin, the centerpiece of the oak-walled church erected in his honor.  It may look humble on the outside, but it was rich within, not just with royal gifts of gold but rich in traditions brought from Lindisfarne with the body of Cuthbert, almost a century ago, as Aldred had read in the History of St. Cuthbert his community kept.

His eyes came back into focus and he saw Ælfsige waiting expectantly for him to begin copying the third prayer.  Shifting his stiff crossed legs, the writing board in his lap tilted, allowing the open booklet to slide toward the ground, but his left hand caught it before it landed.  Wiping his pen nib to clear it of a dried clump, he said to Ælfsige, “I was just thinking of our home, the candles glimmering around Cuthbert’s shrine, and longing to speak these prayers there in his presence.”

“For our brothers back home,” Ælfsige said, “this prayer,” and he recited the third prayer as if he were indeed intoning it in the service:

God, who graciously receives the intentions of your saints, by blessed priest Cuthbert interceding, we beseech, Lord, your right hand of mercy, protect always and everywhere your family.[15]

When the fourth prayer was done, Aldred stood up, leaving the booklet in Ælfsige’s hands while he checked over it.

The bishop looked up,  “What is this in the left corner?”

Aldred was caught off guard.  He had not told Ælfsige about the stone, and not sure why he had omitted it.  “I found a stone in the center of this mound, too heavy to lift, perhaps the remains of a monument.  It had the names of Mary and Helen on it in curious script, so I copied it, along with a memorial to my dream, since the stone brought the vision back to me.”

“Hmm.  We should bring it to Abbess Herleva’s attention, since this barrow stands on her lands.  She may wish to excavate the site and recover some treasured relic for her community.”

“Perhaps a letter describing the stone and its inscription should be sent to Shaftesbury, recommending a cross monument in honor of St. Helen as well as St. Mary, their patron,” Aldred suggested.

“Or we could visit Abbess Herleva in person at Shaftesbury,” Ælfsige suggested.

Aldred reminded the bishop, “I thought you wanted to visit this new house at Horton and then return by way of Winchester?  Shaftesbury is in the opposite direction, toward Glastonbury.”

“Although it sounds not quite respectable, I would much rather visit the women under Abbess Herleva.”

“However,” he added reluctantly, “we ought to go to Winchester, at the very least to deliver to the houses there these prayers in honor of St. Cuthbert, who must indeed be in their calendar of saints.”

The bishop sighed as he shifted in his seat.  It had been a long and complicated trip, trying to visit a number of religious houses both to promote their own St. Cuthbert among the West Saxons and to learn more about Edgar’s new religious foundations.  But he and Aldred missed the routine of their home and were weary of the competing political alliances surrounding the king.  Aldred, he knew, was ready to take what they had gathered back home and figure out ways to mesh it with their traditions.  The Cuthbert prayers were a sign, calling them home.

“We should mark the occasion of our receiving these four prayers for Cuthbert.”

Aldred smiled briefly at bishop’s sly request to have his own vision noted, then asked, “a colophon, perhaps?”

“Indeed, one that marks the end of our journey south of the Humber and the beginning of our return to Cuthbert’s lands and people.”

Aldred recut his quill and mixed a new batch of ink for this addition, ready again to take dictation.  He would use the space at the bottom of the right column, opposite his memo on the inscription.

“And so, what shall your humble scribe write for you, my lord?” he asked in formal terms.

The bishop began the dialogue, “First, where are we?”

Aldred answered and wrote “Besuðan wudigan gæt æt áclee on westsæxum.”  Just south of Woody Gates, which they would pass through again tomorrow on their return on the Ackley Dyke.  They were at Oakley Down, among the West Saxons.

“When did we receive this gift of prayer?”

on laurentius mæssan daegi. on wodnes dægi.”  The saint they had celebrated at today’s mass was St. Lawrence, and it was, as Aldred had already recalled, Woden’s Day.

“Who commissions this gift?”

ælfsige ðæm biscope in his getélde aldred se p’fast ðas feower collectæ.”  The bishop, in his tent, should get first credit, then Aldred his provost.

The bishop, peering over his shoulder, asked “You have the tent–can you be more exact on the time and date?”

“Why?” Aldred asked.

“So that we can align it with the calendar as another special occasion to celebrate Cuthbert.”

Aldred added “on fif næht áldne mona ær underne.”  Looking out at the sky, he recalled that it was the fifth night of the old moon.

“Is that all?” he asked.

“Sufficient,” Ælfsige answered. So Aldred closed the sentence with the verb, aurat, wrote.

[1] Æthelflæd 14 PASE; she holds Damerham with Martin  and Pentridge S513.  S776 and 779 shows grants founding Ely at Easter 970 at Woolmer.

[2] S781. Same language and scribe as S777 [Edgar A]; translation from Electronic Sawyer S777.

[3] Luke 14:11.

[4]  Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19, fol. 83va18-83vb8, QXI.43.  Text references to Karen Louise Jolly, The Community of St. Cuthbert in the Late Tenth Century: The Chester-le-Street Additions to Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19 (Columbus:  The Ohio State University Press, 2012).

[5] “What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?” Alcuin letter to Bishop Seperatus of Mercia, Alcuini Epistolae, E. Dümmler, ed. MGH Epistulae 4, Epsitolae Karolini Aevi 2 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895), pp. 1-481, no. 24, p. 183; trans. S. Allott, Alcuin of York, p. 156; as cited in Christina Lee, “Food and Drink,” in Material Culture, p. 145.

[6]  Gosforth Cross, Cumbria; 14 feet high.

[7] Voluspá 54; for prying jaws open, Vafþrúðnismál 53; see Richard N. Bailey, “Scandinavian Myth on Viking-period Stone Sculpture in England” in Old Norse Myths, Literature, and Society, ed. Geralidine Barnes, and Margaret Ross Clunies (Sydney: University of Sydney), pp. 15–23.

[8] Durham A.IV.19, fol. 83rb1-2-10, QXI.41 2nd compline collect with rubric.

[9] Ps. 103:15-16.  See also Ps. 90:5-6 and Isaiah 40:8.

[10] Éamonn Ó Carragáin, Ritual and the Rood (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), p. xxix.

[11] The Old English poem Elene, translated at http://oe-elene.blogspot.com/

[12] Durham A.IV.19, fol. 84ra23–26, QXI.45:

Ds omnipns

7 Maria 7 Helena 7 sctus


gelanid.. …d’.

[13] Durham A.IV.19, QXI.26 Hy 7 Hymn 7 Iam lucis orto sidere

[14] Durham A.IV.19, QXI.33-34 capitella for prime: Pater noster; Ps. 118; Creed; Ps. 70:8 Fill my mouth with your praise; Ps. 87:13; Ps. 24:4-7; Ps. 34:1-2; Ps. 50:9-14: create in me a clean heart; Ps. 139; Ps. 58; Ps. 60:6; Ps. 64:5; Ps. 69:1; Agne dei qui tollis; Ps. 102:1-5; confession; Ps. 84:4; Ps. 101:1. capitular office Ps. 89:16-17; gloria; Ps. 102; Ps. 50.  two collects

[15] Durham A.IV.19, QXI.44:  Deus qui sanctorum tuorum libenter suscipis uoluntates intercedente beato cudberhto sacerdote familiam tuam quesumus domine miserationis tuæ dextera semper et ubique protege. per


  1. […] Aldred’s glosses on a book of prayers, Karen is writing a novel about him and has posted an extract on her […]

  2. Oh, the temptation to put in the footnotes! I sympathise with the impulse. A lifetime’s habit is hard to break, but if this is to be fiction …

  3. I have just come back from Oakley Down–in fact I am sitting in the Newark airport waiting for my next flight–and I have a lot to change now that I have seen the site in person and tramped up and down Ackling Dyke….

  4. Yes, nothing beats walking on the actual landscape. Perhaps falsely, the wilder the location seems, the more I feel that it brings me resonances of the past. But even if there are no buildings, fences, etc., the landscape is unlikely to have remained unchanged for a 1000 or more years. Just think of those coastline changes, for instance. But standing in a location can be a powerful way to conjure up ghosts and there is no doubt that some landscapes are more evocative than others.

  5. […] Oakley draft Posted by: kljolly | July 5, 2012 […]

  6. You know, if the Winchester monks were the ones inquiring if the Northumbrians were following the Rule, you could have Aldred ask (with a sweet innocence) if they had received their adherence to the Rule from their beloved Swithun… (A sideways insult, of course, given that he was a canon and that the community of canons and their suspect laxity had been kicked out to make room for the monks.)

  7. Ooh, I like it Derek! I had thought to use the Glastonbury monks as the reformer zealots, but Winchester’s aspirations with Swithun make for a delicious scene. Of course, I don’t want to get myself on the wrong side of Swithun or his adherents.

  8. Just don’t injure your legs… 😉

  9. […] Oakley draft […]

  10. ‘“on fif næht áldne mona ær underne.” Looking out at the sky, he recalled that it was the fifth night of the old moon.’

    • ‘ “on fif næht áldne mona ær underne.” Looking out at the sky, he recalled that it was the fifth night of the old moon.’
      Sorry! I sent off the above quote anonymously by mistake. I’m just a bit puzzled by your use of ‘old moon’.
      The calculation of the year 970 is based on the assumption that the new moon was five nights old, cf. “On .V. nihta eald mona…etc”, MS.Cott.Caligula, A.xv., fol.122b.
      It think this is the normal Old English usage; referring to the moon in its last quarter as the ‘old moon’ dates from the sixteenth century.

      • Thanks for the reference, Seumas, to Cotton Caligula A.xv. So are you saying I should not translate “aldne” as old but new?

      • Not exactly! You express it quite nicely on the first page of your book about the Chester-le-Street additions to DCL A.IV.19: ‘five days after the new moon’.

      • Got it. I will make the change in my ongoing draft.

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