Ethelwold (DNB00)

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ETHELWOLD, ÆTHELWOLD, or ADELWOLD, Saint (908?–984), bishop of Winchester, the son of parents of good position, citizens of Winchester, was born in the reign of Eadward the Elder. The year of his birth is uncertain; 908 is suggested by the editors of ‘Acta Sanctorum,’ Aug. i., but this is merely based on a guess as to his age when ordained priest. In childhood he was well instructed in religious knowledge, and when he was yet young entered the household of Æthelstan, becoming one of his comitatus, or followers. As such he remained for a considerable time, learning a good deal from the counsellors of the king, for he was a sharp-witted lad. In accordance with the king's desire he received the tonsure from Ælfheah, or ‘Elfege the Bald,’ bishop of Winchester, who also after a while admitted him to priest's orders. Ælfheah is said to have ordained both him and Dunstan priests at the same time, and to have foretold that both of them should become bishops, and that Æthelwold should succeed to the see he then held. He remained with Ælfheah for some time, and learnt much from him; for there is reason to believe that the bishop was intent on monastic reform. He then entered the monastery of Glastonbury, where he held the office of dean of the monastery under Dunstan. At Glastonbury he continued his studies, learning the arts of grammar and poetry, besides reading theological works, was constant in watching, prayer, and fasting, and in exhorting the brethren to austerity, which he was especially able to do, as the monastic dean appears to have been a disciplinary officer. He set an example of humility and diligence by working in the monastery garden and gathering the fruits needed for the common meals. Conscious that English monasticism fell far behind that which was to be seen in the great houses of northern France and Flanders, he desired to go abroad that he might learn the rule that was observed in them. Eadgifu, the mother of Eadred, and Dunstan, the king's chief adviser, were unwilling that he should leave the country. Eadred accordingly refused him permission to go abroad, and, with Dunstan's concurrence, gave him a small monastery that had long stood at Abingdon in Berkshire, that he might there found a congregation which should live according to monastic rule; for with the exception of Glastonbury the English monasteries were tenanted by communities that were not monastic, and many of them had gone to decay. This was the case at Abingdon. Æthelwold probably received the grant about 954 (Chron. de Abingdon, i. 125; Kemble, Codex Dipl. p. 441). He found the place in a wretched state; the buildings were mean, and only forty ‘mansæ’ (hides) remained to the house, the rest of the land, consisting of a hundred hides, having fallen into the king's possession. He brought certain ‘clerks’ from Glastonbury—the term shows that even there the community did not consist exclusively of regulars—who were willing to submit to his discipline, and soon gathered round him a band of monks. The king gave him all the land he had in Abingdon, and much money, and raised excellent buildings for him, and the gifts of the king's mother were even larger. Eadred took a warm interest in the building of the new monastery, and a visit he paid to Abingdon to give directions about it was the occasion of a remarkable miracle. It chanced that besides his ordinary attendants a large body of Northumbrian thegns accompanied him. The abbot asked him to dine, and the king assented gladly, ordering that the doors should be shut so that no one might shirk his drink. So he and his train sat all day drinking. Nevertheless the abbot's cask of mead failed not, nor wasted more than one hand's breadth, so that when evening came the Northumbrians went back ‘as drunk as hogs’ (Ælfric, Vita S. Æthelwoldi). During the building a heavy post fell on Æthelwold, breaking several of his ribs and causing him to fall into a pit hard by. Eadwig was also a liberal benefactor to the new house. Æthelwold's own gifts to his church were splendid. Chief among them were a golden chalice of immense weight, three crosses of gold and silver that were destroyed in Stephen's wars, and an organ. He also enriched it with the work of his own hands, for like Dunstan he was a cunning craftsman. He made two bells which were hung along with those that Dunstan made for the church, and a machine called the ‘golden wheel,’ overlaid with gold, and full of little bells, which he had twirled round on festivals to excite the devotion of the worshippers (Chron. de Abingdon, i. 345). With the consent of the brethren he sent Osgar, one of the clerks who had accompanied him from Glastonbury, to learn the strict Benedictine rule at Fleury. On Osgar's return, probably early in Eadgar's reign, he caused this rule to be observed at Abingdon, and this was the first introduction of it into England; for if it had been known and practised at Glastonbury under Dunstan, Æthelwold would have had no need to send any one to Fleury to learn it for him (Chron. de Abingdon, i. 129; Robertson, Historical Essays, p. 190). He gave minute directions as to the food and drink of his monks, and his arrangements were neither mean nor profuse; he left his curse on any of his successors who should alter them, and evidently caused his rules to be written down (Chron. de Abingdon, i. 347, ii. 313). In 963, by the advice of Dunstan, the see of Winchester was conferred on Æthelwold. Before he left Abingdon he made a prayer for the future safety of the house, which has been preserved (ib. 347).

Æthelwold was consecrated bishop of Winchester by Dunstan on Sunday, St. Andrew's eve, 29 Nov., and at once entered on the task of spreading the newly imported monachism. He designed to restore the churches that had fallen into decay during the Danish wars, and especially those in the Danelaw, and to fill them with monks subject to the strict Benedictine rule. In order to do this it was necessary to expel the secular clergy who occupied the monastic establishments, or to force them to live as monks (this matter is more fully treated under Dunstan). Both Dunstan, his old companion and fellow-pupil (not, as is sometimes said, his instructor, for though 908 seems full early a date for Æthelwold's birth, he was certainly the elder of the two), and in later years his abbot, and Oswald, sympathised with this movement of which he was the guiding spirit, but neither of them imitated his mode of carrying it out. Dunstan took no very prominent part in it, and Oswald was discreet and temperate. Æthelwold acted with some harshness. Nevertheless, the movement was the saving of the church spiritually, morally, and intellectually, and while whatever there was of evil in it must rest on Æthelwold, the good results that it had should also be remembered to his credit. He found the chapter of his cathedral church, the Old Minster, composed of secular clerks, whose lives were certainly no better than those of their lay neighbours; they were rich and proud, living in luxury and gluttony, some of them with wives, and others, who had divorced the wives they had unlawfully married, with other women. The celebration of the mass was neglected (Ælfric, Vita S. Æthelwoldi). He at once applied to the king for help, sending meanwhile to Abingdon for monks to come and take the place of the clerks. When his monks arrived the clerks appear to have refused to give up their old home. Eadgar, however, warmly supported him, and sent down Wulfstan, one of his chiefest thegns, to enforce his decrees. Æthelwold appeared before the chapter with Wulfstan at his side, and in the king's name briefly bade them either give place to his monks or at once assume the monastic habit. Only three consented to become monks; the rest were forced to leave. In the same year, 964, he also turned the clerks out of the New Minster, out of Chertsey in Surrey, and out of Milton in Dorsetshire. In each case he acted with the king's authority, and Eadgar appointed those whom he recommended as abbots of the new monastic congregations he formed to take the place of the expelled clerks. He does not appear, like Oswald at Worcester, to have exercised any patience or to have used any gentle means of persuasion; his only remedy was force. An attempt was made to poison him as he sat at dinner in his hall at Winchester, but he escaped, his faith, it was believed, triumphing over the poison. A letter from John XIII to Eadgar, if genuine, as it probably is, proves that the pope sanctioned the policy of Æthelwold. He now obtained the king's leave to set about a general restoration of the minsters that had been ruined by the Danes, and extended his work to middle England. Having obtained Ely from the king he expelled the clerks, founded a community of monks, and ordered that the church should be rebuilt and monastic buildings erected (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 563). The body of St. Ætheldryth (Etheldreda) was translated into his new church, which was dedicated by Dunstan 2 Feb. 974. Both he and the king made an extraordinary number of grants to the abbey (Hist. Eliensis, ii. c. 1–52). Meanwhile he set about the restoration of Medeshamstede, or Peterborough, which had been so utterly destroyed by the Danes ‘that he found nothing there save old walls and wild woods’ (A.-S. Chron. an. 963). He rebuilt the church and set monks there. In 972 he is said to have come to the king bringing an old charter which he declared was found in the ruins, freeing the house from royal and episcopal jurisdiction, and from all secular burdens, and on this Eadgar granted a charter to the same effect (ib.) In the midst of his work it is said that he thought of retiring to a hermitage, and cast his eyes on Thorney in Cambridgeshire. There he planted a house of twelve monks, over whom he seems himself to have presided as abbot, and thither he translated the relics of many saints, and among them the body of Benedict Biscop [q. v.] (Gesta Pontificum, iv. 326–9; Vitæ, Ælfric, Wulfstan). He also restored or refounded the ancient nunnery at Winchester. Besides founding these monastic communities, he was, as the chief adviser of the king on these matters, concerned in all that Eadgar did to promote the spread of the new monachism. He constantly visited different monasteries, exhorting the obedient and punishing the negligent with stripes, ‘terrible as a lion’ to the rebellious, and ‘gentler than a dove’ to the meek (Ælfric). Although little is known of his conduct during the struggle between the seculars and regulars that ensued on the death of Eadgar, he certainly approved of the armed resistance offered by some of the defenders of the monasteries to the attacks of their enemies (Vita S. Oswaldi, p. 446). He supported the policy of Dunstan in maintaining the right of Eadward the Martyr to the crown, and assisted at the coronation (Hist. Rames. p. 73). His work brought him much ill-will, but towards the end of his life this feeling subsided. After the accession of Eadward little is recorded about him. His care for the well-being of the monks and nuns did not cease, and caused him to be called the ‘Father of the Monks’ (A.-S. Chron. an. 984). Although he was a severe disciplinarian, he was a kind teacher. He had many pupils who loved him, and several of them became abbots and bishops; among them were Æthelgar [q. v.], whom he made abbot of New Minster, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, and Eadulf, abbot of Peterborough, and afterwards archbishop of York. He taught his pupils grammar and poetry, and took pleasure in translating Latin books for them. To the poor he was always tender-hearted, and once when there was a grievous famine, not only gave away all that he had, but ordered that the vessels of his church should be broken up and turned into money for their relief. His kindness to all that were in distress is commemorated by the ‘Chronicle’ writer, who speaks of him as the ‘benevolent bishop’ (ib.). The new cathedral church that he built at Winchester was finished in 980, and dedicated by Dunstan, in the presence of King Æthelred and many bishops and nobles, on 20 Oct. While it was still in building he had in 971 translated the relics of St. Swithun to a new shrine within its walls.

Æthelwold's health was weak, and he suffered much in his bowels and from tumours in the legs. His death, which is said to have been foretold to him by Dunstan, took place at Beddington in Surrey on 1 Aug. 984. He was buried at Winchester, and about twelve years later his body was translated to a new shrine by his successor, Bishop Ælfheah [q. v.] In the twelfth century the monks of Abingdon professed that they had some of his bones (Chron. de Abingdon, ii. 157). A treatise on the circle said to have been written by him and addressed to Gerbert, afterwards Pope Silvester II, is in the Bodleian Library (1684, Bodl. MS. Digby 83, f. 24). In obedience to a command of Eadgar he translated the ‘Regularis concordia’ into English. For the performance of this task he received an estate from the king, which he gave to the monastery of Ely (Hist. Eliensis, ii. c. 37). A manuscript of this translation is in the British Museum (MS. Cotton Faustina, 10); it was used by Abbot Ælfric [q. v.] in making his compilation for the monks of Ensham. A full description of the magnificent ‘Benedictional of St. Æthelwold,’ which was written for the bishop, will be found in ‘Archæologia,’ xxiv. 1 sq.

[There are two early Lives of St. Æthelwold, one written by his pupil, the Abbot Ælfric, in Chron. de Abingdon, ii. 255 sq.; the other by Wulfstan, precentor of Winchester, composed a few years later (Gesta Pontiff. p. 406), in Acta SS. Bolland. i. 83 sq., and Acta SS. Mabillon sæc. v. 608; Anglo-Saxon Chron. ann. 963, 984; Chron. de Abingdon, passim (Rolls Ser.); Vitæ S. Oswaldi, Historians of York, i. 427, 446 (Rolls Ser.); Memorials of Dunstan (Adelard, Osbern, Reliquiæ), pp. 61, 115, 364 (Rolls Ser.); Historia Ramesiensis, p. 73 (Rolls Ser.); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum, pp. 165, 191, 327 (Rolls Ser.); Historia Eliensis, pp. 94–161, Anglia Christiana; Dugdale's Monasticon, i. 190, 428, ii. 344, 593, and elsewhere; Robertson's Historical Essays, p. 194; Bale's Scriptt. Brit. Cat. (ed. 1548), f. 68; Tanner's Bibl. Brit. p. 269; Wright's Biog. Lit. 435 sq.]

W. H.