ALDHELM (640?–709), bishop of Sherborne, was the son of Kenten, who is said by Faricius to have been the brother of King Ine. William of Malmesbury, however, corrects Faricius for this statement, saying that Kenten was not the brother, but a near kinsman, of the king. By Kenten the name Centwine is evidently meant, and it is possible that Aldhelm may have been, as Mr. Freeman suggests (see below), the son of Centwine, king of the West Saxons (d. 685). In childhood Aldhelm was placed under the care of Maildulf, a learned Scot, who early in the century settled in the place which, as Malmesbury, still preserves his name, and from him Aldhelm first learned those studies for which he became famous. A higher education than could be had at Malmesbury was in store for him. When, in 668, Theodore was sent over to England by Pope Vitalian to be archbishop, the English were fast falling back into the rudeness of heathenism. With Theodore came Hadrian, an African, of a convent near Monte Cassino, and the coming of Theodore and Hadrian caused a sudden intellectual change in England. As soon as the new teachers were established at Canterbury, a vast number of scholars flocked to them; for they taught secular as well as sacred learning. Amongst these scholars was Aldhelm. On his return from Canterbury he gained his living by teaching, but, not content with what he had already learned, he seems to have visited Canterbury a second time for the sake of Hadrian's instruction, and to have stayed there until forced to leave by ill-health. When Maildulf was very old, he probably retired from the government of the society he had founded, and Leutherius, bishop of the West Saxons (670–676), committed it to Aldhelm. As abbot, Aldhelm was widely known as one of the most learned men of his time. Scholars of France and Scotland sought his advice. When learning was at its lowest ebb in the rest of Western Europe, it flourished in England; and a story told of Aldhelm incidentally shows that books commanded a better price here than on the Continent, and were largely imported. Bede (Hist. Eccles. lib. iv. cap. 2) knew pupils of Theodore and Hadrian, to whom Latin and Greek were as their mother-tongue; and this new spirit of learning extended to nunneries, for Aldhelm addressed his treatise, ‘De Laude Virginitatis,’ to the abbess of Barking and her nuns. Aldhelm was foremost in this intellectual movement. His Latin treatises are written in an intricate style, and are full of latinised Greek words. His letters and his Latin verses are more simply expressed. He was skilful in all kinds of music, in singing, and in improvisation. Finding the people unwilling to listen to preaching, he stood on a bridge where many came and went, and sang songs, and when a crowd had gathered round him, thinking him a professional minstrel, he would gradually bring sacred subjects into his song. William of Malmesbury tells us, on the authority of the lost ‘Manual of Alfred,’ that that king loved the English poems of Aldhelm. None of these English compositions are preserved. Faricius says that, besides having a thorough knowledge of Latin and Greek, he could read the Scriptures in Hebrew. He studied theology, Roman jurisprudence, the art of poetry and astronomy. Arithmetic, at that time chiefly used for ecclesiastical calculations, he found very hard. His observations on natural phenomena show how readily faith was placed in the fables of antiquity.
Aldhelm was no less great as a builder than as a scholar. He built a church dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul to be the head church of his monastery. Some Latin verses record his feeling on its completion. These Dr. Giles, following Faricius, has wrongly attributed to his visit to Rome. He also built two other churches at Malmesbury. One of these, St. Mary's, succeeded St. Peter's as the chief church in the tenth century. In spite of the rage for pulling down and rebuilding which prevailed after the Conquest, St. Mary's remained perfect to the time of William of Malmesbury. As he wrote, it was giving place to another. He speaks of it as surpassing in beauty and in size all the churches which had been raised in old time in England. No expense was spared on it. The walls were of stone, the roof was of timber; and a legend is told about one of its beams which illustrates the active interest which the abbot took in the work. Aldhelm also built a church at Bruton, and another on his own estate near Wareham, of which the walls still stood in William's time. The church he raised for his see at Sherborne excited the admiration of William, though he saw the buildings of Bishop Roger. Aldhelm also built and ruled over monasteries at Frome and Bradford. One specimen of his building still remains. His little church of St. Lawrence at Bradford (‘ecclesiola,’ Gest. Pont. 346), which William saw, was built on the field of the victory of Cenwealh, his uncle, if indeed King Centwine was his father. After centuries of neglect it has been rescued from desecration, and is a witness of the elaborate workmanship of that form of primitive Romanesque architecture, which Aldhelm adopted (see Freeman, Norman Conquest, v. 611). In all his works Aldhelm found a helper in his kinsman, Ine. His influence over Ine was great, and it was by his advice that the king rebuilt the church of Glastonbury. Aldhelm visited Rome during the pontificate of Sergius (687–701). An idle legend is told by William of Malmesbury, of a miracle by which Aldhelm, who was held in honour by the pope, proved his chastity when accused by the people (Anastas. Vita Sergii, in Muratori, tom. iii.). He received at Rome the grant of privileges for his monasteries for which he came. On his return he was met by Ine and Æthelred of Mercia, with a large number of people in triumphal procession.
In 705 a synod of West baxon bishops was held to consider how the church might be widened so as to include the Welsh, many of whom were within the boundaries of Ine's kingdom, and Aldhelm was deputed to be the mouthpiece of the synod. He accordingly wrote a letter to Gerent, prince of Domnonia or Dyfnaint (Devon and Cornwall), in which he treats of the chief points of difference between the churches, the date of Easter, and the shape of the tonsure. This letter is remarkable; for it treats the Welsh as men who are to be convinced by reason, and shows a very strong desire for union with them. Bede records (H. E. lib. v. c. 18) that this letter led many to conform to the catholic usage as regards Easter.
During the same year, Ine, in a synod of bishops, divided his kingdom into two bishoprics. The forest of Selwood was made the point of division, and to the west of the wood was formed a new diocese, over which Aldhelm was, against his will, made bishop. William of Malmesbury is mistaken when he describes the extent of Aldhelm's diocese (Gest. Pont.); for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, followed by Henry of Huntingdon, for want of a tribal name, calls it ‘be Westanwuda.’ It therefore took in part of Wiltshire, Somerset, and Dorset, and, as it appears that St. Boniface was born at Crediton, and entered monastic life at Exeter, the southern part of Devonshire must by this time have formed part of the West Saxon kingdom, and would be included in the new diocese. The success of the letter to Gerent no doubt marked Aldhelm out as the right man to rule over a diocese in which the Welsh must have been numerous. He fixed his see at Sherborne. When he became bishop, he wished to put abbots over his monasteries. The monks, however, begged that he would continue to rule over them as long as he lived, and he agreed to do so. He administered the affairs of his diocese diligently, making constant preaching expeditions, which he performed on foot. These expeditions are said to be commemorated in the name of the village of Bishopstrow (tree), the scene of a legend which William of Malmesbury tells of his ashen staff. As he was thus journeying he fell sick at Doulting, near Wells, and died (709) in the wooden church of that village. He was buried at Malmesbury. He was held as a saint, and William of Malmesbury (Gest. Reg. lib. ii. cap. 131) represents Æthelstan, in a moment of extreme danger, as calling on God and St. Aldhelm. His day is 25 May.
The extant works of Aldhelm are: 1. ‘De Laude Virginitatis,’ in prose, containing a number of instances of triumphant chastity, dedicated to Hildelitha, abbess of Barking. This work is commended by Bede. It became very popular, and was printed by James Faber at Deventer as early as 1512; by Canisius, in ‘Antiquæ Lectiones,’ v. 1608; in ‘Bibliotheca Patrum,’ var. edit.; and by Wharton, in ‘Bædæ Opera,’ 1693. 2. ‘De Laudibus Virginum,’ a poem on the same subject—‘ad Maximam Abbatissam’—published by Delrio at Maintz, 1601. 3. ‘Epistola ad Acircium, or Liber de Septenario,' a treatise on verse-making for Acircius, or Aldfrid, King of Northumbria, published by Mai in Class. Auct. v. In this treatise are included the Ænigmata, also published separately by Delrio. These are riddles in Latin hexameters. They contain some curious illustrations of the everyday life of the time. 4. ‘Epistola ad Geruntium de Synodo,' the letter to Gerent referred to above, in ‘Ep. S. Bonifatii,' 1629 and var. edit. 5. A poem, ‘De Aris S. Mariæ,' published by Mai in Class. Auct. 6. ‘De Octo principibus Vitiis,' a poem, by Delrio. 7. A little treatise, ‘De Pentateucho;' and some short letters and poems. The collected works of Aldhelm have been published by Migne in the ‘Patrologia,' vol. lxxxix., and by Dr. Giles, in ‘Patres Eccles. Angl.', 1844, Oxford. Lives of Aldhelm are said to have been written by Ecgwine, bishop of Worcester (693–719), who buried him; by Osmund, bishop of Sarum (1078–99); and by Eadmer, the historian; but these are not extant. We have a life by Faricius, a learned Italian physician, a monk of Malmesbury, and abbot of Abingdon (d. 1117), and another by William of Malmesbury in the ‘Gesta Pontificum.' Capgrave has also compiled a life of Aldhelm in his ‘Legenda Nova.'[Faricius, in Patres Eccles. Angl. ed. Giles; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontiff. ed. Hamilton, Rolls Ser.; Bædæ H. E.; Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, vol. iii.; Freeman, King Ine, in Somerset Archæological Society's Journal, vol. xx.; Jones, Annals of the Early Episcopate, &c.; Wright, Biog. Brit. Literar.]