I have argued in chapter 1, with David Rollason, that by the time of Bede it was ‘right to regard Northumbria . . . as essentially English’.1 This chapter argues that the Northumbrians of the seventh and eighth centuries were, considering their numbers and the size of their territories, among the most important, in terms of their cultural contribution to contemporary Europe and influence on the future, of any of the tribal successors to imperial Rome at that time. Their kings founded the possibility of success; their scholars and artists gave birth to it; and a succession of missionaries of determination, faith and courage, and often of administrative genius, established a presence in Europe that would prove formative in the history of the Continental church.

The European setting and Northumbrian actors

In the late seventh century and the early eighth, Northumbria, that is the united kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, was England’s dominant power. Warfare was a condition of the age throughout Europe. In Spain a century of conflicts between various Visigothic rulers prepared the ground for the catastrophic reign of King Rodrigo (d. 711), when Moorish mercenaries from North Africa were called in. Within months others followed and by mid-decade virtually the entire Iberian Peninsula was in the hands of Islam. Not until the reign of Abd ar Rahmann II, Emir of Cordova (822–52), did the full glories of Moorish Spanish culture begin to unfold. In Italy the Lombards, a Germanic people given to internecine war, produced a great ruler and lawgiver in King Liudprand (712–44), with his court at Pavia. But the pope at Rome, fearful that he might become the Lombards’ puppet, called on the protection of Charles the Great, King of the Franks, and in 774 Charles added the iron crown of Lombardy to his other trophies.

The Frankish kingdom, which comprised most of western Europe north of the Alps, had been founded by Clovis, barbarian turned Catholic (not Arian) Christian in the early 500s. From 600 up to the early 700s it fractured in the wars of his successors, the Merovingian kings, and their chief ministers, ‘mayors of the palace’. Then in 714 the Northumbrian-born St Willibrord, bishop of Utrecht, baptized Pippin, son of the ‘mayor’ Charles Martel. When he grew to manhood, this Pippin the Short, with the full approval of the pope, displaced the last Merovingian ruler. In the year 751 he became king of the Franks, in a ceremony of consecration conducted, we are told by the Frankish Royal Annals, by another English cleric, St Boniface, archbishop of Mainz and today patron saint of Germany. Towards the end of the century, his son, Charles the Great (in German Karl der Grosse, in French Charlemagne), presided over the ‘Carolingian renaissance’, the first great cultural flowering in Europe since the fall of Rome in the West, with the Northumbrian Alcuin of York his principal director of studies.

Leading roles in Northumbria’s golden age (an overworked term in the view of some modern historians of Mercia!) go first to the five kings: Æthelfrith the pagan and his Christian successors Edwin, Oswald, Oswiu and his son Ecgfrith. Next, to the churchmen and women, mostly of noble stock: Abbess Hild (Hilda) of Whitby, who presided over the Synod held there in 664 with momentous consequences for Europe; Cuthbert, charismatic monk-bishop and hermit; Benedict Biscop, monastic founder, patron of learning and library builder and frequent visitor to Rome; Wilfrid of Ripon and York, a prince bishop on the European stage and Archbishop Ecgberht, a king’s brother who, along with his successor Archbishop Ælbert, created northern Europe’s principal seat of learning, where Alcuin would dazzle the continent. Greatest of all was Bede.

Soon after their deaths Cuthbert and Wilfrid were subjects of notable biographies. Cuthbert’s, completed some time between 698 and 705, almost certainly prompted the Vita Wilfridi written by Stephen, a monk at Ripon, shortly after Wilfrid’s death at Oundle in 709 or 710. There ensued what has been called ‘a virtual “pamphlet” war’. Bede himself was very much on the side of the modest Cuthbert as opposed to the fiery Wilfrid, who it has been said ‘came into conflict with almost every prominent secular and ecclesiastical figure of the age’. He founded many monastic communities and every year, at the liturgical commemoration of his death, readings from the biography, delivered no doubt in a dramatic manner, would have revived memories of that towering physical presence and sonorous voice.

Formation of a kingdom

The name ‘Northumbria’ may actually be Bede’s coinage, but the state originated in the two constituent kingdoms of Bernicia to the north and Deira to the south. In 600 Deira was ruled by King Ælle and Bernicia by King Æthelfrith, who was married to Ælle’s daughter Acha. Her brother Edwin, their father’s heir in Deira, was robbed of the succession when Ælle died in 604 and the Bernician king drove the young man into exile – a century later the Deirans would still regard this as the act of a tyrant. Edwin found asylum at the court of Rædwald of the East Angles and survived at least one assassination attempt ordered by his brother-in-law.

Æthelfrith won decisive victories over his Christian neighbours, the Scots Irish of Dál Riata to the northwest and the British of the kingdom of Rheged, to the west.2 Such border kingdoms were almost a symbiotic necessity for an expansionist English king. Either they paid tribute or he could distribute their land and wealth among his warrior thegns as befitted a ring-giving lord in the Beowulf tradition. Bede, perhaps here a better Northumbrian than Christian, admired Æthelfrith the pagan warrior lord. Reporting his victory at Degsastan (Degsa’s Stone) over the Scots in 603, the monk compares the heathen war leader to King Saul of ancient Israel. Like Saul, Æthelfrith exterminated or enslaved the defeated population to open the conquered territory to settlement. Bede duly notes that, unlike Saul, Æthelfrith ‘was ignorant of the true religion’.

Describing the destruction of the Britons of Strathclyde at the Battle of Chester in 614, Bede’s triumphalism is open. The British had a detachment of monks praying for victory in the sight of the enemy. Æthelfrith attacked these first, ‘fighting against us even if unarmed’, slaughtering some twelve hundred before dealing with the rest of the ‘accursed army’, as Bede puts it. And why does he say ‘accursed’? First, because their British ancestors had made no attempt to teach the faith to the invading pagan English; secondly, the British church refused to submit to Rome. With kinsfolk among the aristocratic tradition Bede himself was not so far ‘divorced from the warrior mentality of Beowulf’.3 His description of Æthelfrith as a man ‘most desirous of glory’ (gloriae cupidissimus) recalls the word domgeorn (literally, ‘glory-eager’) used in Anglo-Saxon literature of heroic warriors and Bede may have known a now lost epic praising the hero-king.

Æthelfrith’s reign ended at the Battle of the River Idle in 616, when he was defeated and killed by Rædwald of East Anglia, who had taken up the cause of Edwin the exile. Now it was the turn of the dead king’s sons (Edwin’s nephews) Oswald and Oswiu, aged twelve and four, to seek asylum, apparently in Dál Riata. In exile for seventeen years, they acquired fluent Irish and were baptized Christians, probably at the island monastery of Iona. Edwin, holding at first to the old pagan religion, extended Northumbrian power over the shadowy British kingdom of Elmet (in modern west Yorkshire). He imposed tribute over the islands of Anglesey and Man and, for a time, over Mercia. The campaigns of Æthelfrith and now Edwin were prising apart the British rulers of Wales to the south from those of Strathclyde in Cumbria to the north.

Edwin, the most powerful figure of his day and rated the fifth wielder of the imperium by Bede, moved among his manors and estates in quasi-imperial pomp. Banners were borne before him when he rode to war with his thegns (ministris) and also in time of peace as he travelled his territories, consuming the food rents owed by his subject lords. Behind this lay an administrative structure of cities (civitates), estates (villas) and provinces (provincias, possibly sub-kingdoms), Whenever the entourage made a progress from a great royal hall, it was preceded by a standard bearer or ‘a type of standard Romans call a tufa, English call a thuf’. To such accounts we can add remarkable archaeological finds made in the later twentieth century near the village of Yeavering in Northumberland.

It is an extensive site, originally of pagan cult significance, stretching over about a quarter of a mile (c. 400m) with prehistoric remains at either end, a stone circle and a Bronze Age barrow, both modified in the later sixth century. Post holes and other traces indicate that in the early seventh century a number of monumental timber halls were built and also a unique structure best described as a segment of an amphitheatre. In the opinion of Professor Blair the complex was the royal vill of King Edwin and the site of the massive baptismal campaign following his conversion to Christianity (see below). Whether one of the timber halls ever served as the royal mead hall is unclear. That it was an Anglian royal vill raised in a place of traditional religious veneration seems certain.4

In 625 King Edwin married the Christian Princess Æthelburh (Ethelburga), sister of the king of Kent. She was to be allowed to practise her Roman Catholic faith at his court, under her priest Bishop Paulinus – consecrated before leaving Kent by Archbishop Justus of Canterbury (like him a founder member of St Augustine’s mission) – and his assistant James the Deacon. Edwin was to convert at some future date. The following Easter he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. The attacker, sent by the king of Wessex and posing as a courier, suddenly drew a concealed sword on being admitted to the royal presence and thrust at the king, who was only saved by a loyal thegn hurling himself forward to take the blow. The same evening, we are told, the queen gave birth to a baby girl. Edwin vowed to be baptized if the Christian God gave him victory over Wessex and meanwhile allowed his daughter Eanflæd to be baptized ‘the first of the Northumbrian race’. The king, we are told, went into Wessex ‘with levies’, where he slew ‘five kings’. He prepared to follow his daughter to the font.

Why Edwin should have opened himself to the newreligion from the south is not clear. He was the most powerful king in the north, poised to achieve the Imperium throughout the Anglo-Saxon world. But it was an age when Europe’s kings were aping the style of ‘Roman’rulers, of which the religion based in Rome was an important part; perhaps Edwin decided to adopt it for reasons of modernity and prestige. His ‘southern’marriage was an important political alliance. And it is always worth bearing in mind that there may have been an element of genuine religious sentiment involved. He anticipated objections from his pagan courtiers, but, if we accept Bede’s account, the decisive council meeting went smoothly. First, the pagan high priest, Coifi, readily agreed the proposed overthrow of the kingdom’s traditional religion – and might he be permitted to lead the desecration of the temples with the cast of a spear into the sanctuary? After all, he observed, he had been the most assiduous servant of the pagan pantheon, yet many other men had received more of the king’s bounty than he. Surely if the gods had any real powers he would have been more favoured.

A more thoughtful courtier compared a man’s life on earth to the flight of a sparrow that blunders into the king’s banqueting hall with the fire blazing on a blustery winter’s evening. After a few moments in the warmth and light, it flies out again into the storm. In the same way we pass a few moments in the glow of life from birth to death. But we know nothing of what went before or of what will come after. A religion that can give us information on such matters is surely worth a try. The council agreed and Coifi, riding the king’s stallion, headed for the old temples, spear in hand. The stallion is important, not only because as high priest Coifi was officially permitted to ride only a mare, but also because the horse as such played an important part in the Anglo-Saxons’ pagan religious beliefs.

Edwin was baptized, at York on 12 April 627, in a wooden chapel dedicated to St Peter built specially for the purpose. Apparently Roman ‘Eboracum’ had no Christian church building from the Roman period to match the ruined chapel of St Martin’s at Canterbury. Urged by Paulinus, Edwin ordered the building of a basilica of stone, which enclosed the king’s baptismal chapel.

Mass baptisms followed in what sounds more like a military campaign than the dove-like ministrations of the Holy Spirit. Bede tells us that Paulinus, a tall stooping figure with an aquiline nose set in his gaunt face, and his assistant James the Deacon spent thirty-six days instructing, presumably through an interpreter, and baptizing in the River Glen near the royal palace of Ad-gefrin (no doubt from Brittonic, ‘hill of the goats’), that is Yeavering. Bede accounts for the success by the ‘great desire . . . for baptism among the . . . Northumbrian people’,5 but presumably the known wishes of the king had something to do with it. Perhaps, also, a number of these many converts were ‘closet’British Christians relieved to ‘come out’, even if the official Roman version of the Faith was not exactly theirs. Paulinus was established as bishop at York with James the Deacon at his side, and they began to preach in the subject kingdom of Lindsey. When, in November 627, Justus of Canterbury died, Paulinus consecrated his successor as archbishop, with papal approval.

On 10 October 633 catastrophe struck. King Edwin was killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase by the combined forces of Penda, the pagan ruler of Mercia, and Cadwallon, the British/Welsh Christian, king of Gwynedd. For twelve months the British king revenged the rapine, slaughter and rape his people had suffered at the hands of Æthelfrith, the pagan, years before. No doubt the aim was ‘to wipe the entire English nation from the land of Britain’.6 Retribution would follow. Later in the century the monastery of Ripon received endowments of holy places abandoned by British clergy ‘fleeing the hostile swords’ of the English.

Bishop Paulinus fled Deira, by ship, with Queen Æthelburh and her children for her brother’s court in Kent. Deacon James held out at York, and in fact was to live to a ripe old age. Expert in church music, he taught ‘after the manner of Rome’. Liturgical music was an important vehicle for spreading the Roman way. But in that dreadful year of 633, as Deira and Bernicia fell apart and their shortlived kings, Osric and Eanfrith, reverted to paganism before being killed by Cadwallon, it must have seemed that the Christian flame in Northumbria was extinguished. Events at the other end of the world would threaten Christendom itself. The death of Muhammad in Medina just four months before Hatfield had opened the way to the tsunami of Islamic conquest that was to wash away the East Roman Christian empire in North Africa, Egypt and Syria.

Heavenfield and renewal under the Irish influence

Oswald, Edwin’s nephew, returned from exile in 634 and demolished Cadwallon and his army at the battle of Heavenfield near Hexham the following year. He claimed to have won with divine aid, in the sign of the wooden cross that he had raised before the battle with the aid of his soldiers. Oswald was now lord of the two northern kingdoms.

With the flight of Bishop Paulinus, Roman Christianity in Northumbria was in disarray. A Christian baptized into the Irish tradition, Oswald sent to Iona for a monk bishop who would refound the Northumbrian church there. They sent Aidan and in 635 the king gave him the tidal island of Lindisfarne as the seat of his bishopric. Thus was inaugurated the monastery on Holy Island, destined to be the numinous heart of Northumbrian golden age culture. For the next thirty years the Irish clergy, with growing ranks of Northumbrian acolytes, were to prove an essential ingredient in the mix of Northumbria’s golden age.

The first Irish mission to Britain had been that of St Columba or Colm Cille (c. 520–97), who was probably of royal kin and descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages of Meath. He was ordained at an early age and was associated for a time with Kells, then a royal residence, before founding monasteries in Ireland at Derry and Durrow. Then, in his mid-forties, he crossed the North Channel on a personal pilgrimage, possibly of penance, and together with twelve companions established a monastery on the island of Iona. The Book of Durrow is one of the inspirational manuscripts associated with what is sometimes called the Hiberno-Saxon tradition of illuminators, of which the two masterpieces are the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Sometime in the 660s the Anglian churchman Ecgberht crossed over to Ireland and established himself at Rath Melsigi (probably Melfont in County Louth). This monastery attracted Englishmen such as Wilfrid and Willibrord, interested in the ways of the Irish missionaries or peregrini, as they are commonly termed in a technical sense (see below). Probably the most famous of these was St Columbanus, who had founded such monasteries as Luxeuil in the Vosges mountains and, most famously, Bobbio, near Piacenza in Italy.

Aidan’s monastery on Lindisfarne recruited English boys for training as missionaries among their still largely pagan compatriots. Aidan himself, though he did travel his diocese on foot, had little English and he seems to have been most effective in his mission at court, where the king, a fluent Irish speaker, interpreted for his ealdormen and thegns. But top down conversion was the Anglo-Saxon royal way, as well as the Roman way. Being a king, Oswald wanted results, though systematic missionary campaigning in partnership with the authorities was not the Irish style, in fact was ‘unique as far as the Irish are concerned’.7 Aidan was followed by Irish monks, some ordained as priests, who could baptize as well as preach. They and their Anglo-Saxon disciples were basically responsible not just for the conversion of Northumbria but also for continuing the work begun by Paulinus south of the Humber.

In general Irish monks undertook pilgrimage for spiritual self-improvement rather than as a missionary vocation. The Latin term peregrinus (pilgrim) is often used in a technical sense for these Irish religious travellers, who combined pilgrimage with missionary activity. One might preach to the locals; he might move on; a group of peregrini might found a monastery, less to work among the surrounding community than as a retreat. Island monasteries like Iona were favoured. When St Wilfrid arrived in pagan Sussex, years later, a small Irish monastery had been established in the woodland wastes by the coast at Bosham for some years, with no discernible effect on the locality. Wilfrid converted the entire kingdom in short order.

Oswald of Northumbria: royal saint or pagan icon

In a reign of eight years Oswald so dominated affairs throughout Britain south of Pictland that, in Bede’s view, he achieved the imperium. He annexed the kingdom of Lindsey, where Mercia also had an interest, and married the daughter of Cynegils of Wessex on the condition that her father convert to Christianity. Oswald stood godfather and, as we have seen, is named as joint donor when Cynegils confers Dorchester-upon-Thames on Birinus, first bishop of Wessex, as the seat of his diocese: a practical exercise of the kind of authority implicit in the word imperium.

It seems that Oswald’s influence reached even into Kent. Bede tells us that Edwin’s widow sent her children across the Channel to the court of the Merovingian King Dagobert for fear of Oswald. He also claims that the kings of Dál Riata and Pictland recognized Oswald’s supremacy, while another contemporary flatteringly refers to him as ‘ordained by god, imperator of the whole of Britain’ [totius Britanniae imperator a deo ordinatus].8 But, despite Oswald’s victory at Heavenfield, Penda was still a threat and on 5 August 642 the pagan king of Mercia defeated and killed his Christian Northumbrian rival at the battle of Maserfelth. The location of Maserfelth is still disputed, favoured candidates being Oswestry (i.e. ‘Oswald’s tree’) in Shropshire and a site in Lindsey.

Writing a century after the king-saint’s death, Bede retails many miracles attributed to Oswald, both to his relics and even to the blood-soaked ground where he fell. Behind all these anecdotes seems to loom the backdrop of a pagan king cult. After the battle, his dead body was taken up and ritually dismembered under the gaze of the pagan King Penda. The head and the four limbs were then hung from the branches of a tree: ‘In this hanging of parts of the king’s body we can almost detect a ritual offering to Woden the god of war and himself known as the Hanging God.’9 For two centuries the head was venerated at Lindisfarne; later, Willibrord’s foundation at Utrecht claimed to hold it in a reliquary and there are numerous other marvels as the cult spread in Europe.

Besides the dismemberment of the body, some of the Oswald stories display other pagan elements. A horse fell into convulsions and was cured after rolling on the very patch of ground where the king fell. That a horse should benefit from the saint’s miraculous powers seems odd, until we remember the important role of horses in Anglo-Saxon pagan beliefs. Horses were believed to conduct the souls of their masters to paradise after death.10 A burial excavation at Lakenheath, Suffolk, in 1998 revealed the skeleton of a warrior of the early Anglo-Saxon period, sword in hand, with the skeleton of his horse, legs flexed, lying at his side.11

The most famous of all Oswald relics was the right forearm and hand (important in the pagan cult of the praying sacral king), which apparently remained fleshy and firm long after death. At one Easter banquet, Bede tells us, the king had been distributing food to a crowd of beggars. When supplies ran out, he called his smith to break up the silver platter into coin-size pieces for distribution. Bishop Aidan made a blessing: ‘May this arm never perish.’ Four centuries later, transported south from its shrine at Bamburgh, the right arm was still working its magic in Peterborough Abbey. The cult was to become widespread on the Continent. In one version a raven is mysteriously involved and the pagan Germanic associations are echoed in other ways.

From the battle of Maserfelth to the Synod of Whitby

From the start, dynastic and religious policy were enmeshed: the church hoping to exploit court influence to win converts and acquire endowments; kings supporting the missions as a way of projecting their influence. In 643 Oswiu recovered the severed head and arms of his dead brother, intending to create a royal cult. He founded a new church to St Peter on the rock at Bamburgh, the ancestral home of the Bernician dynasty, to accommodate the arms, which were enshrined there in a silver reliquary before the 730s. The head was assigned to Lindisfarne. One feels that the popular allure of this royal cult owed a good deal to its association with pre-Christian beliefs and customs and that the church’s version aimed to sanitize it. The imperishable forearm (testified as incorrupt by Alcuin in the late eighth century) remained at Bamburgh until the 1050s.

Politically, the death of Oswald split the two kingdoms once again. While his brother Oswiu succeeded in Bernicia, Deira broke away under their cousin Oswine, whose father, Osric, had been the ruler who had led the kingdom back to paganism during the dark days after Maserfelth. Despite this ancestry, Bede considered Oswine the perfect Christian king, while the Deirans themselves long resisted the rule of Oswiu. He, however, was determined to achieve a united kingdom.

Setting aside an earlier British/Irish wife, Oswiu now embarked on a marriage that made dynastic sense but had religious complications. He sent south to the court of Kent where his cousin, the Roman Catholic Eanflæd of Deira, was still living in exile. The two were well within the degrees of kinship considered incestuous by church law, but Rome made no objections, although the pope would surely have been informed about the marriage of this Christian princess. Oswiu saw the marriage as the way to affirm his dynastic rights in Deira; Rome may well have hoped for more far-reaching consequences. Either way, the Deirans were not impressed. Oswiu prepared to invade. What followed involved breaches of both the Christian and pagan codes that governed the world of the Anglo-Saxon noble. Oswine disbanded his army in the face of the enemy, itself shameful, and then went into hiding with one of his honoured companions, a gesith for whom loyalty to one’s lord was supposed to be an absolute obligation. In fact this man betrayed Oswine to his enemy, King Oswiu, who had him killed. Still the Deiran nobles refused to accept Oswiu as king and chose a remote cousin of Oswine’s to lead them.

Oswiu married one of his daughters to Penda’s son Peada, who converted to Christianity, and a son to Penda’s daughter Cyneburh. He also persuaded Sigeberht, king of the East Saxons, to be baptized. Penda’s response to what we might call Oswiu’s ‘religious diplomatic offensive’ came on 15 November 655. At the head of a massive army, and with the East Angles and the men of Deira at his side, he confronted the heavily outnumbered Bernician king at the River Winwaed, possibly near Leeds, and was himself destroyed.

The Northumbrians’ success in battle was, no doubt, an important element in their wealth. War booty was a prime source of income for a warrior society. As it advanced, the northern kingdom absorbed British kingdoms on the Pennines, such as Elmet, while their British enemies further west could exploit the gold mines of North Wales. Nor should one forget that Eboracum (later York) was one of the richest of Roman centres. The conquest of Pictish territories to the north (at one point the Bernician kingdom embraced what is now Edinburgh – ‘Din Eidyn’ or ‘Edwin’s burh’, according to rival theories) no doubt yielded profits.

Most theories relating to post-Romano-British society and the transition to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms rely on speculation. The archaeological evidence for continuity can be ambiguous and limited even at such extensive and complex settlements as West Heslerton in North Yorkshire. But a peaceful transition from late Romano-British occupation to Anglian overlordship in the southern regions of Northumbria would have yielded dividends in terms of agrarian organization and prosperity.

Northumbria was secure and, in a gesture of triumph that would have been understood by every warrior, King Oswiu annexed to himself land in North Mercia reputedly 7,000 hides in area – exactly the extent of the lands that Hygelac, king of the Geats, awarded to Beowulf when he slew Grendel. He also founded twelve monasteries, among them Gilling, the site of Oswine’s murder, and Whitby (then called Streanæshalch). Deira was obliged to accept his son, Alchfrith, as its sub-king. But even now Northumbria’s southern kingdom still followed an independent line, above all in religion.

In addition to the short-lived dynastic alliance with Peada (to whom he gave the kingdom of Southern Mercia, but who died soon after that), Oswiu dispatched Irish and English clergy into Middle Anglia and beyond, and persuaded Sigeberht, king of the East Saxons, to accept both baptism and Cedd, of Lindisfarne, as bishop. Cedd built a church dedicated to St Peter at Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, which is the oldest Anglo-Saxon building still more or less intact. Built on the site of a Roman fort about 653, using the original brick, it was in later generations used as a farm building. At the time it was an outpost of Northumbrian Irish Christianity, deep in the sphere of influence of the archbishops of Canterbury. Cedd also built a church at Tilbury, a further encroachment by the Ionian–Bernician bishop well beyond the boundaries of Northumbria but a fitting extension of influence for an appointee of Oswiu, holder of the imperium in Britain.

But now, under Alchfrith, Deira was going the Roman way. He ejected the Irish monks at the monastery of Ripon and in their place established his mother Queen Eanflæd’s dynamic favourite, Wilfrid. There were numerous points of difference between the Roman and parts of the Irish church: points of doctrine and biblical teaching; the style of the monks’ tonsure; and the date for the celebration of Easter. There were at least four systems for its calculation, one of which was used in the Roman church and by Canterbury, and another used in parts of Ireland and at Iona and Lindisfarne, and hence in Northumbria. The Northumbrian court was blessed with two factions: the king’s, what one might call the Iona/Lindisfarne party, and the Canterbury Queen’s party. At the very least it was inconvenient for the court to be celebrating this major religious event on days that might vary by as much as four weeks – and was led up to by forty days of fasting. But Oswiu and Eanflæd had accommodated the inconvenience for the best part of twenty years. Why was it that in 664 the king decided to settle the allegiance of the Northumbrian church? It is hard not to see Wilfrid as the prime mover.

Kings and noble clerics

It is now time to look at three of the most influential men in seventh-century Northumbrian society and politics, all born around the year 630 and entering their teenage years when King Oswiu came to the throne in 642, and all churchmen of aristocratic family: Cuthbert (d. 687); Benedict Biscop (originally Biscop Baducing, i.e. descendant of Baduc, d. 689); and Wilfrid (d. 709). Their careers, in different ways, illustrate the court church network in action; it could be close – Eanbald II, archbishop of York, apparently travelled his diocese accompanied by a sizeable guard of armed retainers, having given protection to enemies of the king.

There were recognized ranks of aristocratic status. A king’s companion, an established man of property or count (comes in Latin, gesith in Old English), came above a minister or knight (miles in Latin, thegn in Old English), but probably began his career as one. Then there were men of ‘ceorlisc’ standing, what we might call the minor gentry (like Alcuin’s family, in all probability), who as modest landholders were free but expected to defer to others of higher social status. Bede tells us that Benedict Biscop, churchman and artistic patron, was aged about twenty-five and a ‘minister’ of King Oswiu when the king gave him possession of land due to his rank. Virtually the same career pattern of royal land gifts raising a young warrior to the rank of companion is to be found in Beowulf. And the imagery of Christian warfare is always in the background. One of Biscop’s young relatives, Eostorwine, was a household warrior of King Ecgfrith (reigned 670–85) until aged twenty-four, when he laid down his arms and ‘girded himself for spiritual warfare’ as a monk.

Documentary sources, though scant, reveal a body of mid-seventh-century nobles both extremely wealthy and extremely powerful (others were landless and vagrant). Nor were the accoutrements of nobility necessarily discarded in holy orders. In one of his letters St Boniface deplores flamboyant styles in clothes by high churchmen and berates some who still bear arms after taking orders. And yet quality arms were as much part of the noble’s lifestyle as the monk’ tonsure was part of his. A father was expected to kit out his son’s debut at court, if only for the family honour. To appear at court poorly equipped would be a shameful thing.

Young noblemen tended to resent being bossed about by other young noblemen, however holy. Ceolfrith, Bede’s abbot at Monkwearmouth Jarrow, was forced to resign and withdraw from the abbey because of jealousies and violent criticism from some of the noble brethren on account of his strict discipline. According to Boniface there were English churchmen who dressed in garments embellished with ‘dragons’ (oriental silks?). On the other hand, life in the church could offer challenge and openings to intelligent and ambitious minds.

Cuthbert, the first of our nobleman clerics, was being recognized as the unofficial patron saint of the Northumbrians within a generation of his death in 687; in 1987 he was focus of a notable 1,300th anniversary celebration. He entered the monastery of Melrose on the River Tweed aged about fourteen; the fact that he made his arrival mounted on horseback, carrying a spear and attended by a servant backs the assumption that his family were members of the nobility. Tradition speaks of him guarding his lord’s sheep, but in a society where, witness Old English law codes, sheep rustling was rife (as, according to press reports, it is again today on England’s northern fells) this could as well have been the armed service of a retainer as the duty of a peasant shepherd. (The shepherds carved on the mysterious Franks Casket (see page 86) carry spears.) In fact, Cuthbert may first have considered the military way – an anonymous ‘Life’ speaks of the boy having served with an army ‘in the face of the enemy’. In the early 650s, before Winwaed, with the pagan forces of Mercia constantly probing the defences of Bernicia and with ‘noblemen from many a kingdom flocking to serve the bountiful Oswine of Deira’, a warrior’s career would have been a natural choice for a young Christian aristocrat. After Winwaed, service in the militia dei, the ‘army of god’, would have made more sense. Cuthbert had easy relations with the royal family: he rose to be first prior and then bishop at the royal foundation of Lindisfarne; the gold and garnet pectoral cross, preserved as his in the treasury at Durham Cathedral, is a nobleman’s jewel. And yet St Cuthbert was, and is, honoured for his humble piety. Raised against his will to be bishop of Lindisfarne in 685, he ended his days as a hermit on the island of Inner Farne, the death of this ‘child of God’, Bede’s favourite name for him, ‘being signalled to his community on Lindisfarne by the waving of torches from the cliff top’.12

Cuthbert is one of that select band of medieval personalities in England, like Julian of Norwich or Henry V, who still enjoy recognition status. Of greater importance in the story of Northumbria’s European Golden Age, Benedict Biscop (i.e. the bishop) was originally a prominent young courtier in the hall of King Oswiu. (In later life he would appoint a deputy for his religious duties precisely because he was so often called away to consult with kings.) In 652/3, when they were both about thirty, he left England for Rome in company with Wilfrid, another young noble. This was the first of numerous visits. In 666, returning from his second trip, Biscop stopped off at the monastery on the Iles Lérins, across the bay from Cannes, thus anticipating Lord Brougham’s preferred Riviera retreat – though, in contradistinction to his lordship, taking the tonsure as a monk. Only six years earlier the monks had adopted the monastic Rule of St Benedict; Baducing adopted Benedict as his new name in religion.

Benedict returned to Rome and there (as we saw in chapter 2) encountered Theodore of Tarsus, the newly appointed seventh archbishop of Canterbury. They journeyed together and Benedict was able to introduce Theodore at the court of King Ecgberht of Kent. For a time he served as abbot of the monastery of Canterbury until Theodore’s assistant, Adrian, arrived. After yet another Rome visit Biscop returned for a time to Northumbria.

For twenty years he had been tracking the north–south route across the shifting frontiers of warring semi-barbarian Christian kingdoms, all the time buying books, assembling treasures and making useful contacts. It was now time to begin a project that was to feed back into Europe’s culture for generations to come. In the year 673, on a tract of land given to him by King Ecgfrith, he began the building of the monastery of St Peter at Monkwearmouth, with the help of stonemasons recruited in Gaul/Francia, and apparently following a Continental layout. In 678 he was in Rome again, this time with Ceolfrith, who would succeed him as abbot at Monkwearmouth, and returned with a cantor in church music. Back in Bernicia, he began building the monastery at Jarrow, some seven miles north of Wearmouth on the River Tyne. As at St Peter’s, archaeology has revealed that the main stone buildings were decorated with coloured paintings, sculptures and coloured window glass and plaster.

Wilfrid, appellant to Rome

St Wilfrid of Ripon and York, the third of our networking clerics, is remembered (thanks to one of the finest biographies from the Middle Ages, written by his disciple Eddius) as the most brilliant and substantial figure in England in the seventh century and, so far as the records go, in Europe. As the son of a gentleman, the boy was expected to attend to the needs of the house guests, ‘whether they were kings’ companions or their slaves’, in the family home. But undefined trouble with a hostile stepmother led him to leave, about the year 648, aged fourteen. He evidently left without his father’s blessing since, his biographer tells us, he himself found the funds to ‘clothe, arm and mount both himself and his servants’.

Wilfrid would not win his sainthood through the Christian virtue of humility. Court politics was tied in to church politics. King Oswiu followed the tradition of Iona, with Lindisfarne the kingdom’s senior episcopal see. Queen Eanflæd, baptized as a child at York by Bishop Paulinus and then exiled in Kent, adhered to the Roman tradition. Wilfrid became her protégé. About the year 652, after a brief time at Lindisfarne, he left Northumbria for Kent and the court at Canterbury, where the queen still had friends. From there, aged just twenty, a young aristocrat of substantial private means, he set out for his first sight of Rome in company with Biscop Baducing, some five years his senior and a very rich man. James Campbell has gone so far as to surmise that ‘had Biscop wished to provide his father with a really lavish, old fashioned burial – ship, . . . splendid personal adornments – the likelihood is that they would hardly have dented his resources.’13 One pictures him and Wilfrid as a couple of eighteenth-century milords on the Grand Tour, rather than as pious eight-century pilgrims.

In Rome Wilfrid set himself to master the Roman method of the computus, the calculation for the date of Easter. On his return journey he strengthened his Continental allegiances, with a three-year stay at Lyon, where he also became a monk. Back in England in the early 660s, he was made abbot of Ripon. About 663 the Frankish churchman Agilbert, who for some years had been a bishop in Wessex, ordained Wilfrid priest at Ripon. Agilbert’s name, equivalent to Æthelberht, has led to the suggestion that he may have had ties with the royal house of Kent. The following year, 664, he led one of the factions at the historic Synod of Whitby (then called Streanæshalch) convened by King Oswiu at the abbey under the aegis of its abbess, Hild, to settle the Easter controversy.

Related to the royal house, she had been baptized by Bishop Paulinus at York in 627, aged thirteen, together with King Edwin. She was well into her thirties when she decided to become a nun, possibly with the idea of joining her sister at Chelles, near Paris (see chapter 2). In fact, she was installed by Aidan as abbess of the convent of Hartlepool, and then by King Oswiu at his new foundation at Whitby. It was a ‘double’ foundation, that is for both men and women, with no fewer than five bishops among its alumni during Hild’s abbacy. Archaeology has revealed evidence of its Continental contacts. King Edwin’s relics were buried here, as were Hild’s, though later translated to Glastonbury.

The Synod of Whitby and after

The problem posed by the computation of Easter comes from the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the anchor date for many major festivals in the Christian year, is related to the Jewish Passover, which in turn is related to the Jewish lunar year. And since the lunar calendar is moveable relative to the solar calendar, and since Christians celebrate Easter according to the lunar date, elaborate calculations are required to determine the date. The following of Rome on the matter of Easter, just as following Rome in the use of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate bible and the Gregorian chant of the musical rite, was a marker of Rome’s authority in western Christendom. So the decision at Whitby would not only be important to the Northumbrian court but also, through Northumbrian missionaries in the German territories and the Frankish church, in Europe. (The date of Christmas is no problem because it is fixed relative to the pagan Winter Solstice festival of the solar year.)

Oswiu favoured Iona over Rome, but one feels his real interest was a unified observance rather than the triumph of a doctrine. The lineup of the opposing parties was: for Iona, Abbess Hild and the bishops Colman of Lindisfarne and Cedd of the East Saxons; for Rome, Queen Eanflæd, Bishop Agilbert the Frank and Wilfrid, who acted as Oswiu’s English interpreter and spokesman. As the technical debate ploughed on, Wilfrid observed that his side was advocating the system ordained by the pope in Rome, the successor of St Peter, holder of the keys of heaven. Colman had to admit this was so. At this point the king smilingly intervened to rule that since St Peter must surely know the answer, the Northumbrian church would follow the Roman way. (Bede reports the debate but in fact, after his death, Rome later came to adopt the computus proposed by Bede himself.)

Later that year Oswiu nominated Wilfrid bishop of York. He crossed the Channel to be consecrated at Compiègne, where, with ceremonial pomp exceeding anything to be seen in England, he was borne into the oratory, by nine bishops seated upon a golden throne. But, then, everything to do with Wilfrid would appear to have been more than life-size. For St Peter’s, Ripon, he commissioned a copy of the Gospels in lettering of purest gold done on purpled parchment and bound in a gold case studded with costly gems. According to his biographer, Wilfrid’s church at Hexham, with its columns and side aisles, grand proportions, winding passages and spiral staircases, was unequalled by any structure north of the Alps; it was, need one add, designed by Wilfrid himself. Both here and at Ripon he built crypts as if to imitate that feature in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Because of Wilfrid ’s two-year absence on the Continent, the king made Chad bishop in his place. Canterbury intervened to depose Chad and restore Wilfrid, but when, in 677, Theodore went on to divide the diocese of York its bishop made his way to Rome to appeal to the pope. (On his way, this being Saint Wilfrid, he took time off to make the first conversion of the Frisians, having with him relics of St Oswald; see chapter 5). It was the first such appeal to the papal see and was a welcome boost to its authority at a time when it was in protracted controversy with the emperors at Constantinople over which was the ultimate authority in the universal church. Rome accepted the division of the York diocese but ordered the restoration of Wilfrid and authorized him to appoint the new bishops. But Rome also provided that the numerous monasteries (‘the kingdom of monasteries’) owing allegiance to Wilfrid be exempt from visitation by other bishops and be subject direct to Rome – a further accretion of papal influence.

Two kings and a bishop

In May 670, six years after Whitby, Oswiu died. He was followed by his son Ecgfrith, who checked the resurgent power of Mercia with a victory over its king, Wulfhere. But Bishop Wilfrid at York remained the dominant figure on the northern scene. Thanks to his persuasion the king’s wife, a virgin for twelve years of marriage, took vows as a nun. But King Ecgfrith rejected the papal settlement regarding York and, with the concurrence of Theodore of Canterbury, in 678 Wilfrid was forced into exile. No doubt there was political calculation behind the king’s decision: from Stamford (in modern Lincolnshire) to Perth in Scotland Wilfrid had spiritual rule of a ‘kingdom of churches’ of his own foundation to match the king’s secular realm.

Naturally Wilfrid took his case to Rome again and meanwhile stayed for a time in Sussex, where, as we have seen, he converted the kingdom and founded the see of Selsey. Next he was given a bishopric by the king of Wessex, who also endowed him with extensive lands on the Isle of Wight.

Ecgfrith continued Northumbria’s expansionist war-making with raids into Ireland and Pictland, where on 20 May 685 he was killed at the battle of Nechtansmere. He was succeeded by his halfbrother Aldfrith, called ‘the Learned’ (d. 705). An exile during the previous reign, he had found refuge among the Irish and had acquired a mastery of the language. Theodore, the ageing archbishop of Canterbury, brokered an agreement between Wilfrid and the king and for a time peace reigned. But, with his once great diocese divided and his influence reduced, Wilfrid took himself to Mercia, where he lived for a decade under the protection of King Æthelred and fostered the mission to Frisia. Where once he had ruled as a ‘clerical emperor’ in England, now he was principally confined to the foreign mission field of Frisia. In 703, however, the new archbishop of Canterbury decreed Wilfrid suspended from episcopal powers. Again Wilfrid went to Rome; again he won a partly favourable judgement. He and the archbishop were reconciled in 705. In the same year King Aldfrith died and was succeeded by Osred. For St Boniface, writing years later, his reign (706–16) marked the onset of Northumbrian decline. As to Wilfrid he lived three years into the new reign and died aged seventy-five, at Oundle in the territory of the Middle Angles, part of the kingdom of Mercia where he had been very active in the later part of his life. He left a will in the aristocratic mode, designating his successor as abbot at Ripon and bequeathing his extensive wealth between his following, the poor and two important churches in Rome. A great prince of the church had died; at Ripon he was immediately acclaimed a saint. His feast day is 12 October.

The waning of the kingdom

King Osred must have had some redeeming qualities since Wilfrid had adopted him as his spiritual son. For Boniface his principal offence seems to have been his abuse of the network of wealthy minsters that had sprung up within the ‘rhythms of elite secular life’. Often built in the precincts of Roman fortress or ‘city’ complexes, always richly endowed, usually centres of artistic output as well as meditation, they could be the private bailiwicks of noble or royal families, often with the ‘aspects of a special kind of nobleman’s club’. Remembering the duties of monastic hospitality, the convention of the itinerant court, and the fact that minsters comprised female as well as male establishments, one can appreciate that when Boniface referred to King Osred on a fornicating rampage through the kingdom’s nunneries he was almost certainly not speaking metaphorically.14

Political rivalry and in-fighting made Northumbrian society increasingly lawless and the rewards for successful violence and oath breaking ever more tempting. Towards the end of his History Bede recounts the tale of a pious local man called Dryhthelm, who warned his family of the dangers of hell awaiting those who fell for such temptations – revealed to him in what, today, we would call an ‘out of body experience’. He had died and a man in a shining garment had guided him through the realms of the afterlife (rather as Virgil would lead Dante through Hell). They pass through three zones of sinners in various degrees of discomfort awaiting paradise until the final glimpse through a dazzling haze of the perfect in thought, word and deed, who have entered paradise immediately after their death.

In some ways the passage anticipates the evolving concept of Purgatory, to which this Anglo-Saxon perception seems to have contributed. But the notion of an ‘interim paradise’ has been called ‘a necessary, influential and ideologically charged concept . . . within Anglo-Saxon England’.15Such an idea of an afterlife abode with various levels would seem also to chime with the Norse Asgard, the home of the gods, where are to be found twelve ‘mansions’. The chief of these was Valhalla, the hall of Odin and the destiny of warriors slain in earthly battle. Anonymous Old English religious poems tell of heaven (‘heofon’) as a treasure-filled hall (echoes of the booty-filled mead hall of the heathen warrior world), of its entrance through a huge door ‘bound with precious treasure and wrapped with wonderful fastenings’ and of warriors thronging in ‘the heavenly kingdom where the Trinity rules the glorious mansions’.16 As in the Franks Casket, discussed below, the heroic tradition has parallels with Christian imagery (see page 86).

In fact, eighth-century Northumbria, which saw Bede’s dedication of his History to King Ceolwulf, the European prestige of the cathedral school at York and its library, and the glory days of Hexham, was often on the edge of political anarchy. Sixteen kings in a hundred years: murders, depositions, abdications, usurpations, nobles contesting with the royal kin. Ceolwulf was briefly deposed in a nine-year reign before abdicating to retire into a monastery. For some twenty-odd years King Eadberht (735–58) reigned in relative stability represented by more or less regular coinage issues. For Alcuin (born about 740), given as a child into the care of Archbishop Ecgberht, brother to the king, these were happy years for the kingdom, ‘ruled over in harmony by the one wearing upon his shoulders the pallium sent by the pope, the other wearing on his head his ancestors’ ancient crown’. Eadberht abdicated to become a monk at the urgings of the patrician Æthelwold Moll. Murdered by palace servants after the briefest of reigns, Eadberht’s son was in fact succeeded by Æthelwold Moll. His six-year reign (759–65) brought a degree of stability to the proceedings. Of high noble standing, though not of royal blood, his claim may have been no worse, if no better, than that of Eadberht. As to him, David Rollason thinks it ‘notable’ that he accepted only after his brother had achieved the influential position of archbishop and states flatly ‘That the Northumbrian church was also involved in the dynastic disputes is beyond doubt.’17 There are indications that Alcuin himself had kinship links with the patrician king.

Moll’s son Æthelred was driven from the throne after having ordered the killing of three courtiers in 779. His successor, Ælfwold, was murdered following a conspiracy by the ‘patrician’ Osred II (788–90), who was himself forcibly tonsured and exiled on the Isle of Man. Osred was deserted by his ‘soldiers’ while attempting a comeback in 792 and murdered by order of Æthelred, who had regained power. Then came another ‘patrician’, Osbald, king for a reign of twenty-seven days in 796. Alcuin knew about all this and in a letter speaks of the ‘blood of kings, princes and people shed through you and your family’. The turmoil continued. In 806 King Eardwulf was driven from the kingdom; he found sanctuary, according to a Frankish source, with Emperor Charles the Great who ordered his restoration. Whatever the role of great churchmen in dynastic disputes they seem to have brought the kingdom another problem, through evolving the concept of chartered bocland to secure landed endowments in perpetuity. Unscrupulous laymen realized that by founding a family monastery they could convert land into an hereditable possession by such a book or charter. The number of private monastic foundations rose and the stock of loan land available to the king in his capacity as gift-giver, and so his ability to recruit warriors to his service, went down. The defence of the kingdom suffered.

The ninth century would see the continuing decline of Northumbria. The sack of Lindisfarne in 793, which seems such a marker to us, was probably less significant for the Northumbrians than the rise of Ecgberht of Wessex, who was claimed to have ravaged the northern kingdom and forced tribute. In 867 the Great Heathen army took York and the kingdoms of the Northumbrians were a thing of the past. But the glories of their golden age live on.

Carvings and calligraphy

When he came to the throne King Aldfrith was a man in his early fifties. Educated at Iona, he was fluent in Irish and in Bede’s opinion of ‘great learning’ (doctissimus). He was reputed to have offered Benedict Biscop land equivalent to eight peasant farms for a Mediterranean manuscript on cosmography: a man of culture.

The mysterious carved box known as the Franks Casket (after the benefactor who bought and donated it to the British Museum) has teased people ever since its discovery in the early 1800s in a private house in the French village of Auzon, Haute Loire. It is Anglo-Saxon work of unknown provenance and is presumed to have been taken to the continent in the eighth or ninth century. It would have found an admiring audience of educated nobles and learned clerics at Aldfrith’s court. Oblong in shape, it comprises two side panels, two end panels and a lid, carved from whalebone ivory (a whale – the whale? – features among the carvings).

Three pairs of scenes are depicted, each of which seems to oppose a pagan episode with a theme of Christian thought. It seems the designer must have had access to variant biblical readings and commentaries, variants that were to be found in books in Northumbrian libraries.18 The themes of kingship and empire, recurrent in the pages of Bede and Beowulf; of exile, a common experience of royals and nobles; of salvation and the afterlife, all seem present in the casket’s riddling interplay of words and images. The scene depicting the legendary Weland the Smith of pagan mythology is typical of the kind of cross-cultural fusion of Christian and English aristocratic culture that led one commentator to suggest that a churchman might have commissioned the piece. (One scholar has even proposed that Beowulf itself, a work using aristocratic secular stories in an essentially Christian context, may have been produced in a monastery or community of clergy.)

T. D. Kendrick, in his classic work on Anglo-Saxon art, considered that, in the sixty years between the arrival of Theodore as Archbishop of Canterbury and the death of Bede in 735, learning and the arts ‘in the remote [Church] province of England . . . achieved a position that without exaggeration may be described as supreme in western civilization’.19 Today, majestic carved stone crosses from southern Scotland and northern England tell some of the story.

When he was about three the future Northumbrian saint, Willibald, whom as a baby his parents had adored as a ‘loveable little creature’, was suddenly attacked by a contraction of his limbs. The illness made it almost impossible for him to breathe. Fearful that he was going to die, they offered their little boy up at the foot of the ‘Holy Cross of our Lord and Saviour’ – one of the crosses, ‘held in great reverence’, that it was the custom of ‘nobles and good men of the Saxon race’ to erect in a prominent spot on their estates so that their neighbours or travellers could make their daily prayers.20 Probably it was one of the many, more modest, wooden crosses, put up on their lands by prosperous gentry. Even so, the stone Bewcastle Cross has an Old English inscription in runic characters, now much defaced, that seems to commemorate some aristocratic patron. At all events Willibald recovered and went on to a missionary career in Germany, where the cathedral at Eichstätt in Bavaria is named after him (and which is about twenty miles from the birthplace of the opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck).

The carvings on the cross at Ruthwell, Mediterranean in style, were no doubt brightly painted but their iconography is deeply sophisticated. They may have served a liturgical purpose or had a propaganda function to promote the Roman Catholic orthodoxy; certainly they are closely related to theological Roman developments in the late seventh century. An example is the panels depicting the ‘Lamb of God’ (‘Agnus Dei’), imagery expressing the chant of that name introduced into the service of the mass at that time. At Ruthwell passages from the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, in which the Cross (‘Rood’) tells the story of the Crucifixion and laments its own fearsome implication in the killing of God’s son, is inscribed in runic letters on the edges of the cross. It also speaks of Jesus accepting the Cross by an act of his human will and so combats the heresy of monotheletism. Abstruse and irrelevant to our generation, it was, we have seen, highly topical in the 680s. This controversy between the Eastern and Western churches, the emperors and the popes had reverberated across Roman Christian Europe as far as Theodore’s Canterbury and up to the frontiers with the Irish/British tradition (see chapter 2).

Ruthwell also has a scene of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, which was coming into the Roman liturgy from the East at this time. Was such a monument on the boundary between Northumbrian and the British kingdoms to the west erected as a triumphalist statement of Roman Christianity: an aping of the obelisks and triumphal columns of ancient Rome, consciously ‘appropriated [by Northumbria] . . . to its own imperial project’? On the other hand, Ruthwell also has important Irish non-Roman elements. It is part of a Bernician group of crosses, at Bewcastle, Ruthwell, Rothebury and Hoddom, that have certain similarities of detail – treatment of the vine scroll decoration, for example – which suggest a common centre of production and a common vocabulary. Painted in bright colours and possibly further embellished with glass and metal decorations, these monuments in the landscape would have been ‘highly visible’ and, to modern eyes, garish intrusions on the countryside.21 To contemporaries they and their inscriptions would have been religious statements to complement the superb manuscripts created in the monastic scriptoria.

The art of calligraphy has been honoured in many cultures. In imperial China, a sample of the emperor’s own hand was treated with almost religious reverence; among the most valued treasures of Istanbul’s Topkap1 Museum is a remarkable series of Korans in the exquisite calligraphies of the sultans; in the Jewish tradition, the scrolls of the Holy Torah have been inscribed by calligraphers of artistic genius. In the mid-twentieth century the ‘white writing’ canvases of the Wisconsin-born US Baha’i artist Mark Tobey introduced a calligraphic-based style into easel painting.

In Western Christendom from at least the fourth century the books of the Latin Bible, and above all the Gospels and the New Testament, were lovingly transcribed in monastery scriptoria on parchment or vellum in manuscript hands of immense beauty, clarity and, often, opulence of ornament. None outshine and few equal the work of the Northumbrian school of the seventh and eighth centuries with its crowning jewel the Lindisfarne Gospels, ‘. . . one of the world’s great books – a breathtaking artwork and symbol of faith’.22 Clearly modelled on an Italian model, indeed one scholar has called it ‘a complete sixth-century Italian Gospel Book in disguise’,23 it is as clearly in execution and invention a northern masterpiece.

Remarkably for an artwork of its time, thanks to a note written into the manuscript some two centuries later (see chapter 9), we know the name of the individual who created it – Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (d. 721). Working between 715 and 720 this artist–calligrapher of genius wrote the entire text and created the staggeringly inventive and intricate ornamental capitals and ‘carpet’ pages that embellish the book. The rich binding adorned with precious metals and gemstones was plundered centuries ago.

Detail after detail proclaims the cosmopolitan inspiration of the work. Every ornamental framework element is occupied by a sinuous interlacing ribbon-like line, which in turn is inhabited by fantasy ‘birds’ and ‘dogs’ and ‘serpents’ seemingly biting their own tails, reminiscent of the ‘animal inhabited’ art of the Irish monks who were the founding brothers of Lindisfarne. A boldly drawn and coloured full-length ‘portrait’ of the Apostle, following early (Roman) Christian models, and an elaborate illuminated initial letter occupying a single page introduce each gospel. In the so-called ‘carpet pages’ (Bede tells us that prayer mats were sometimes used in Northumbria, as in the Byzantine church) the disciplined riot of ornament can be dizzying and seem, dare one say it, obsessive. A sixteen-page sequence running through the text comprises canon tables, based on the work of a Byzantine scholar, that list passages where the Four Apostles agree with or differ from one another. The first carpet page is ‘intentionally old fashioned’ in colouring and design, evoking the art style of Coptic Egypt, the home of the monastic desert fathers like St Jerome, whose Latin ‘Vulgate’ translation of the Greek of the original Gospels provides the text of the work. The saints’ titles use the Greek word ‘Agios’ for ‘holy’, not the Latin ‘Sanctus’. Even the technology is intriguing – Eadfrith may be the first to have used a lead pencil (after all, the world’s highest quality graphite would be mined near Kendal in Cumbria), while he was able to ‘recreate a . . . Mediterranean palette from local materials’.

At its best, Northumbrian scholarship was fully in the classical tradition. Bede handled Cicero’s rhetorical stylistic devices with mastery,24 while the superb manuscript known as the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest extant complete Latin Bible of some 1,030 leaves, for long part of the collection of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, was a masterpiece of biblical scholarship learning and penmanship. A Vulgate Latin text of the Bible copied from a text brought back by Benedict Biscop, and with additional commentary, it shows the maturity of a tradition able to develop and not just reproduce the culture and learning it fed on. It was produced at Monkwearmouth Jarrow to the commission of Abbot Ceolfrith and was intended by him for presentation at St Peter’s, on a long-planned pre-retirement visit to Rome. When forced to resign by his fractious juniors, he was well prepared, having already commissioned not only the codex, but also two bibles, one for each of the monasteries. In fact he died on his way to Rome, at Langres in Burgundy in 716, so never presented the codex. It may have reached Rome nevertheless; for centuries it was held in the monastery of San Salvatore on Monte Amiata in southern Tuscany. At some point its dedication page was altered so that it now appeared to be the gift of: ‘I, Peter of the Lombards (Petrus Langobardorum) . . .’ Careful examination revealed that parts of Ceolfrith’s dedicatory text has been erased and overwritten . . . for reasons no doubt best known to Peter of the Lombards!

Like the age of Italian Renaissance humanism, which was founded largely on ancient classical culture archived in Europe’s monastic libraries, Northumbria’s Golden Age had derived much of its impulse from elsewhere – in this case traditions of Christian culture originating in the Byzantine east, Continental Europe and from other parts of the British Isles. But like the humanists, Northumbria’s scholars illuminated the Europe of their day and in institutions like the libraries at York, Hexham or Monkwearmouth-Jarrow boasted beacons of learning that would only be extinguished by the pagan depredations of the Viking raiders of the ninth century.

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