Æthelwold of Winchester

Last updated

Bishop of Winchester
Edgar in Regularis Concordia.jpg
King Edgar seated between St. Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester, and St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. From an eleventh-century manuscript of the Regularis Concordia.
Appointed29 November 963
Term ended1 August 984
Predecessor Beorhthelm of Winchester
Successor Ælfheah II
Consecration29 November 963
Personal details
Bornbetween 904 and 909
Died1 August 984
Beddington, Surrey, England
Feast day1 August
19 May (POCSP)
Venerated in Catholic Church

Æthelwold of Winchester [lower-alpha 1] (904/9 984) was Bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984 and one of the leaders of the tenth-century monastic reform movement in Anglo-Saxon England.


Monastic life had declined to a low ebb in England in the ninth century, partly because of the ravages caused by Viking attacks, and partly because of a preference for secular clergy, who were cheaper and were thought to serve the spiritual needs of the laity better. Kings from Alfred the Great onwards took an interest in the Benedictine rule, but it was only in the middle of the tenth century that kings became ready to commit substantial funds to its support. Æthelwold became the leading propagandist for the monastic reform movement, although he made enemies by his ruthless methods, and he was more extreme in his opposition to secular clergy than his fellow reformers, Saint Dunstan and Oswald of Worcester. He is nevertheless recognised as a key figure in the reform movement, who also made a major contribution to the revival of learning and the arts. He was an important political figure, backing Æthelred the Unready against Edward the Martyr, and playing a major advisory role during Æthelred's minority. [1] [2]

Early life

Æthelwold was born to noble parents in Winchester. [1] From the late 920s he served in a secular capacity at the court of King Athelstan, and according to Æthelwold's biographer, Wulfstan, "he spent a long time in the royal burh there as the king's inseparable companion, learning much from the king's witan that was useful and profitable to him". [3] The king arranged for him to be ordained a priest by Ælfheah the Bald, Bishop of Winchester, on the same day as Saint Dunstan. After a period in the late 930s studying under Ælfheah at Winchester, Æthelwold moved to Glastonbury Abbey, where Dunstan had been made abbot. Here Æthelwold studied grammar, metrics and patristics, subsequently being made dean. During the reign of King Eadred (946–955), Æthelwold wished to travel to Europe to learn more about the monastic life, but Eadred refused permission, and instead appointed him abbot of the former monastic site of Abingdon, Oxfordshire, which was then served by secular priests. [1] The years he spent in Abingdon were extremely productive, and he undertook the building of a church, the rebuilding of the cloister and the establishment at Abingdon of the Benedictine Rule.[ citation needed ]

When Eadred died, he was succeeded by his nephew, Eadwig, who drove Eadred's chief advisor, Dunstan, into exile. However, Æthelwold attended Eadwig's court in at least some of the years of his reign, 955–59. The future King Edgar had been taught from boyhood by Æthelwold, who evidently inspired his pupil to take an interest in the rule of Saint Benedict. When Eadwig died, Æthelwold naturally backed Edgar's succession. [4] He seems to have been in the personal service of King Edgar in 960–963, as he wrote many of the charters of this period. [1]

Bishop of Winchester

The Entry into Jerusalem from the Benedictional of Saint AEthelwold (British Library) The Entry into Jerusalem - Benedictional of St. Aethelwold (971-984), f.45v - BL Add MS 49598.jpg
The Entry into Jerusalem from the Benedictional of Saint Æthelwold (British Library)

On 29 November 963, Æthelwold was consecrated Bishop of Winchester, and the following year, with the connivance of King Edgar and the support of an armed force led by a royal official, he had the clerics of the Winchester Old and New Minsters expelled and replaced by monks from Abingdon. The king had sought the permission of the pope for the expulsion the previous autumn. Between 964 and 971, Æthelwold refounded monasteries at Chertsey, Milton Abbas, Peterborough, Ely and Thorney, and the Nunnaminster nunnery in Winchester. He was also zealous in recovering land which he believed had once belonged to religious communities and subsequently been alienated, and if necessary charters were forged to prove claims to title. [1]

Æthelwold was one of the principal advocates for the Benedictine reform movement during Edgar's reign, the author of all the major works of propaganda produced in England. He had the strong support of Edgar and his wife, Ælfthryth, and his works emphasise the role of Edgar, who he saw as Christ's representative, in restoring the monasteries. He envisaged a major role for Edgar in supervising monasteries, and for Queen Ælthryth supervising Benedictine nunneries. [5] However, he was more extreme in his espousal of monasticism than Dunstan and Oswald, the other great leaders of monasticism in the reign of King Edgar. They followed continental practice in maintaining both monks and secular priests in their households, and did not follow Æthelwold in his dramatic expulsions of secular clerks and replacement by monks. [1] Æthelwold links the terms 'filth' and 'clergy' several times in his writings, regarding them (like other Benedictines) as impure and unfit to serve altars or engage in any form of divine service, because many of them were married and they did not follow a monastic rule. [6]

To Æthelwold's admirers, the epithets "father of monks" and "benevolent bishop" summarize his character as reformer and friend of Christ's poor; [7] though he suffered much from ill-health, his life as scholar, teacher, prelate and Royal counsellor was ever austere, and he was said to be "terrible as a lion" to the rebellious, yet "gentler than a dove" to the meek. He is said to have written a treatise on the circle and to have compiled the "Regularis Concordia". [8]

The Benedictines were greatly superior to the secular clergy in their learning and their schools. Æthelwold personally taught the older pupils at Winchester, and their works show that they regarded him with great respect and affection. His surviving works in both Latin and Old English show that he was a great scholar, and his vernacular writings are believed to have played an important role in the development of Standard Old English. [1] Some of the wealth he accumulated was used to rebuild churches, and he was also a major patron of ecclesiastical art, although unfortunately none of his works survive, and only written accounts remain. The artistic workshops he established continued to be influential after his death, both at home and abroad. [1]

A century later Æthelwold had acquired a great reputation as a goldsmith, and was credited with the production of a range of metal objects at Abingdon, including many figures and objects in precious metal, bells and even a pipe organ. While his later, disreputable successor at Abingdon Spearhafoc clearly was, like Dunstan, a significant artist, that Wulfstan's contemporary Life of Æthelwold mentions him undertaking other forms of manual work, in the gardens and in building, but nothing about metalwork, suggests this legend was a later elaboration, though one that shows the high status of goldsmithing at the time. [9] Æthelwold was certainly bishop during the period when the Winchester school of manuscript illumination reached its peak, and the most important surviving manuscript of the school, the Benedictional of Saint Æthelwold (British Library), was commissioned by him. He also rebuilt the Old Minster at Winchester, completed in 980.[ citation needed ]

Political role

Æthelwold also played an important political role. When the succession became an issue late in Edgar's reign, Æthelwold supported the claim of Æthelred, the son of his major patron, Ælfthryth, whereas Dunstan and Oswald appear to have supported Edgar's son by an earlier wife, Edward the Martyr, who succeeded to the throne. After Edward was murdered in 978, Æthelwold seems to have played a major advisory role in Æthelred's minority. It is significant that it was only after Æthelwold's death in 984 that Æthelred started acting against the interests of some of the reformed monastic houses. One victim was Abingdon Abbey, and in a charter restoring its privileges in 993 the king acknowledged that Æthelwold's passing had deprived the country "of one whose industry and pastoral care ministered not only to my interest but also to that of all the inhabitants of the country." [10]

Death and reputation

Æthelwold died on 1 August 984 [11] at Beddington in Surrey. [8] He was buried in the crypt of the Old Minster at Winchester, but twelve years later Ælfhelm, a citizen of Wallingford, claimed to have been cured of blindness by visiting Æthelwold's tomb. This was taken as the necessary sign for his formal recognition as a saint, and his body was translated from the crypt to the choir. By the 12th century, Abingdon Abbey had acquired an arm and a leg. [12]

One of Æthelwold's pupils, Wulfstan of Winchester, wrote a biography which seems to have played a major role in promoting his cult, and in about 1004 Ælfric, another disciple and abbot of Eynsham, abridged Wulfstan's work in Latin and Old English. [13] However, the Æthelwold of Wulfstan's life inspired respect rather than devotion, and his cult never seems to have achieved great popularity. Wulfstan's saint is a formidable authoritarian, who, for instance, commands a monk to show his devotion by plunging his hand into a pot of boiling stew. He has a reputation for ruthless insensitivity which is not shared by the other tenth-century monastic reformers. His importance to the reform movement has always been appreciated, but the range of his contributions to scholarship has only been recognised in recent years. [1]

Æthelwold's liturgical feast is kept on 1 August, [14] or on 19 May in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. [15]


  1. Also spelled Aethelwald or Ethelwold


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Yorke "Æthelwold"
  2. Barrow The Ideology of the Tenth-Century English Benedictine Reform pp. 141–154.
  3. Quoted in Foot, Æthelstan, p. 107
  4. Barrow The Ideology of the Tenth-Century English Benedictine Reform p. 145
  5. Barrow The Ideology of the Tenth-Century English Benedictine Reform pp. 146–150
  6. Barrow The Ideology of the Tenth-Century English Benedictine Reform p. 150.
  7. Catholic Online Saints and Angels: St. Ethelwold accessed on 5 September 2007
  8. 1 2 Walsh A New Dictionary of Saints p. 184
  9. Wulfstan of Winchester Life of St. Æthelwold, Lapidge, M. & Winterbottom, M. (eds.), OUP, 1991; Dodwell: 49–50.
  10. Keynes Æthelred II
  11. Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 223
  12. Royal Berkshire History, Abingdon Relics
  13. Lapidge, M. et al. (eds.), The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, Blackwell, 2004, pp.19, 494. For Ælfric's Vita S. Æthelwoldi, see Winterbottom, M. (ed.), Three Lives of English Saints, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, 1972, and Stevenson, J. (ed.), Chronicon Monasterii de Abingdon, Rolls Series, London, 1858, II, 255–266 (online at Google Books. Retrieved 1 March 2010).
  14. Farmer, David Hugh, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 1987, pp. 150-2, ISBN   0-19-282038-9
  15. Divine Worship: The Missal p. 734

Related Research Articles

Dunstan 10th-century Archbishop of Canterbury and saint

Dunstan was an English bishop. He was successively Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, later canonised as a saint. His work restored monastic life in England and reformed the English Church. His 11th-century biographer Osbern, himself an artist and scribe, states that Dunstan was skilled in "making a picture and forming letters", as were other clergy of his age who reached senior rank. Dunstan served as an important minister of state to several English kings. He was the most popular saint in England for nearly two centuries, having gained fame for the many stories of his greatness, not least among which were those concerning his famed cunning in defeating the devil.

Eadwig King of the English

Eadwig, also spelled Edwy, sometimes called the All-Fair, was King of England from 955 until his premature death.

Edward the Martyr King of the English

Edward the Martyr was King of England from 975 until he was murdered in 978. Edward was the eldest son of King Edgar the Peaceful but was not his father's acknowledged heir. On Edgar's death, the leadership of England was contested, with some supporting Edward's claim to be king and others supporting his younger half-brother Æthelred the Unready, recognized as a legitimate son of Edgar. Edward was chosen as king and was crowned by his main clerical supporters, the archbishops Dunstan of Canterbury and Oswald of York.

Edgar the Peaceful Anglo-Saxon king of England

Edgar, known as the Peaceful or the Peaceable, was King of England from 959 until his death. He was the younger son of Edmund I and Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and came to the throne as a teenager, following the death of his older brother Eadwig. As king, Edgar further consolidated the political unity achieved by his predecessors, with his reign being noted for its relative stability. His most trusted advisor was Dunstan, whom he recalled from exile and made Archbishop of Canterbury. The pinnacle of Edgar's reign was his coronation at Bath in 973, which was organised by Dunstan and forms the basis for the current coronation ceremony. After his death he was succeeded by his son Edward, although the succession was disputed.

Eadred King of the English

Eadred was King of the English from 946 until his death. He was the son of Edward the Elder and his third wife Eadgifu of Kent, and a grandson of Alfred the Great. Eadred came to the throne following the assassination of his older brother, Edmund I. The chief achievement of his reign was to bring the Kingdom of Northumbria under total English control, which occurred with the defeat and expulsion of Eric Bloodaxe in 954. Eadred died at the age of 32 having never married, and was succeeded by his 15-year-old nephew, Eadwig.

Oda, called the Good or the Severe, was a 10th-century Archbishop of Canterbury in England. The son of a Danish invader, Oda became Bishop of Ramsbury before 928. A number of stories were told about his actions both prior to becoming and while a bishop, but few of these incidents are recorded in contemporary accounts. After being named to Canterbury in 941, Oda was instrumental in crafting royal legislation as well as involved in providing rules for his clergy. Oda was also involved in the efforts to reform religious life in England. He died in 958 and legendary tales afterwards were ascribed to him. Later he came to be regarded as a saint, and a hagiography was written in the late 11th or early 12th century.

Ælfthryth was an English queen, the second or third wife of King Edgar of England. Ælfthryth was the first king's wife known to have been crowned and anointed as Queen of the Kingdom of England. Mother of King Æthelred the Unready, she was a powerful political figure. She was possibly linked to the murder of her stepson King Edward the Martyr and appeared as a stereotypical bad queen and evil stepmother in many medieval histories.

Ælfric of Eynsham was an English abbot and a student of Æthelwold of Winchester, and a consummate, prolific writer in Old English of hagiography, homilies, biblical commentaries, and other genres. He is also known variously as Ælfric the Grammarian, Ælfric of Cerne, and Ælfric the Homilist. In the view of Peter Hunter Blair, he was "a man comparable both in the quantity of his writings and in the quality of his mind even with Bede himself." According to Claudio Leonardi, he "represented the highest pinnacle of Benedictine reform and Anglo-Saxon literature".

Æthelwold ætheling Son of Æthelred I, King of Wessex

Æthelwold or Æthelwald was the younger of two known sons of Æthelred I, King of Wessex from 865 to 871. Æthelwold and his brother Æthelhelm were still infants when their father the king died while fighting a Danish Viking invasion. The throne passed to the king's younger brother Alfred the Great, who carried on the war against the Vikings and won a crucial victory at the Battle of Edington in 878.

Wulfstan was an English Bishop of London, Bishop of Worcester, and Archbishop of York. He should not be confused with Wulfstan I, Archbishop of York, or Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester. He is thought to have begun his ecclesiastical career as a Benedictine monk. He became the Bishop of London in 996. In 1002 he was elected simultaneously to the diocese of Worcester and the archdiocese of York, holding both in plurality until 1016, when he relinquished Worcester; he remained archbishop of York until his death. It was perhaps while he was at London that he first became well known as a writer of sermons, or homilies, on the topic of Antichrist. In 1014, as archbishop, he wrote his most famous work, a homily which he titled the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, or the Sermon of the Wolf to the English.

Ælfgifu was the consort of King Eadwig of England for a brief period of time until 957 or 958. What little is known of her comes primarily by way of Anglo-Saxon charters, possibly including a will, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and hostile anecdotes in works of hagiography. Her union with the king, annulled within a few years of Eadwig's reign, seems to have been a target for factional rivalries which surrounded the throne in the late 950s. By c. 1000, when the careers of the Benedictine reformers Dunstan and Oswald became the subject of hagiography, its memory had suffered heavy degradation. In the mid-960s, however, she appears to have become a well-to-do landowner on good terms with King Edgar and, through her will, a generous benefactress of ecclesiastical houses associated with the royal family, notably the Old Minster and New Minster at Winchester.

Oswald of Worcester 10th-century Archbishop of York and saint

Oswald of Worcester was Archbishop of York from 972 to his death in 992. He was of Danish ancestry, but brought up by his uncle, Oda, who sent him to France to the abbey of Fleury to become a monk. After a number of years at Fleury, Oswald returned to England at the request of his uncle, who died before Oswald returned. With his uncle's death, Oswald needed a patron and turned to another kinsman, Oskytel, who had recently become Archbishop of York. His activity for Oskytel attracted the notice of Archbishop Dunstan who had Oswald consecrated as Bishop of Worcester in 961. In 972, Oswald was promoted to the see of York, although he continued to hold Worcester also.

Wulfstan the Cantor, also known as Wulfstan of Winchester, was an Anglo-Saxon monk of the Old Minster, Winchester. He was also a writer, musician, composer and scribe. Wulfstan is most famous for his hagiographic work Vita S. Aethelwoldi.

Ælfric of Abingdon 10th-century Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury and saint

{{Infobox Christian leader

Ælfric Cild was a wealthy Anglo-Saxon nobleman from the east Midlands, ealdorman of Mercia between 983 and 985, and possibly brother-in-law to his predecessor Ælfhere. He was also associated with the monastic reformer Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, he is also notable for being involved in a number of land transactions for the refounding and endowment of Peterborough Abbey, as well as with Thorney Abbey during the 970s and early 980s.

Æthelstan Half-King was an important and influential Ealdorman of East Anglia who interacted with five kings of England, including his adopted son King Edgar the Peaceful. Many of Æthelstan's close relatives were also involved in important affairs, but soon after the death of King Eadred in 955, he left his position and became a monk at Glastonbury Abbey.

<i>Regularis Concordia</i> (Winchester)

The Regularis Concordia was the most important document of the English Benedictine Reform, sanctioned by the Council of Winchester in about 973.

Ælfhere was ealdorman of Mercia. His family, along with those of Æthelstan Half-King and Æthelstan Rota, rose to greatness in the middle third of the 10th century. In the reign of Edward the Martyr, Ælfhere was a leader of the anti-monastic reaction and an ally of Edward's stepmother Queen Dowager Ælfthryth. After the killing of Edward by Ælfthryth's servants in 978, Ælfhere supported the new king, Ælfthryth's son Æthelred the Unready, and was the leading nobleman in the Kingdom of England until his death in 983.

Events from the 10th century in the Kingdom of England.

English Benedictine Reform Re-emphasis of monastic rule at the expense of secular clergy in English religious communities in the late 10th century

The English Benedictine Reform or Monastic Reform of the English church in the late tenth century was a religious and intellectual movement in the later Anglo-Saxon period. In the mid-tenth century almost all monasteries were staffed by secular clergy, who were often married. The reformers sought to replace them with celibate contemplative monks following the Rule of Saint Benedict. The movement was inspired by Continental monastic reforms, and the leading figures were Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester, and Oswald, Archbishop of York.


Further reading

Christian titles
Preceded by
Beorhthelm of Winchester
Bishop of Winchester
Succeeded by
Ælfheah II