The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Chapter 7

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A.D. 890-914

PLEGMUND, the 19th Archbishop, who followed Ethelred, was a Mercian born. In his youth he had felt drawn to the life of a hermit, and became a "solitary" in what was then an island a few miles from Chester, which afterwards, on account of its having been the residence of this holy man, was called "Plegmundham," later Plemondstall, now Plemstall.

Plegmund was reckoned the most learned man of his time and afterwards became tutor to King Alfred the Great, and his Adviser when crowned.

He had been elected Archbishop according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 890, and occupied the See of Canterbury partly during the last ten years of the reign of Alfred and the first half of the reign of Edward the Elder. He went to Rome to be consecrated by Pope Formosus in 891, who gave him the pallium.

Marinus, a former pope (882-884), had shortly before granted exemption from all taxes and tolls to the Saxon School at Rome, and had sent sundry presents to the King of England, amongst them being a piece of the True Wood of the Cross upon which Our Lord suffered death. In return for these favours Plegmund, upon his return from Rome, busied himself in collecting money from all well-disposed persons to the Papal See, to which the King himself added from the Royal Treasury; this he sent to the Pope, first setting aside a part of it to be sent to Jerusalem.

King Alfred had translated the "Pastoral care of Pope Gregory," a work held in great veneration in England; in the preface to this work Alfred makes mention of the Archbishop as one of his instructors in the Latin tongue, and goes on to say that he was incited to translate the work into English because the Churches which had fomerly contained numerous libraries had, together with their books, been burnt by the Danes; and that he designed to transmit the book transcribed by his order to every See with a golden style in which was a mancus of gold and that there was nothing of his own opinion inserted therein; but that everything was derived from those celebrated men Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, Asser the Bishop, Grimbald and John the Priests. Archbishop Plegmund is said to have written part of the Saxon Chronicle himself; Asser was a monk of St. David's and Bishop of Sherborne, he wrote King Alfred's biography; Grimbald was Abbot of St. Omer's; and John of Corvey was a Saxon from Old Saxony, who had been invited into England by the King.[1]

In 901 King Alfred died and Plegmund crowned his son, Edward the Elder, at Kingston-on-Thames. In 908 he consecrated the new Cathedral of Winchester. He aso made a second journey to Rome that year to regularize his own consecration and to obtain sanction to subdivide the sees of Wessex. On his return he brought with him the relics of the Blessed Martyr Blasius (see pp. 37 and 38), which he had bought for a great sum or gold and silver and placed them in his Cathedral Church.[2]

The most memorable action of the Archbishop was the consecration of seven Bishops in one day; that was in the year 909.

William of Malmesbury, in his Gesta Regum, states that this took place in 904, and that it was occasioned by the whole of Wessex having been without any bishop for seven years on account of the continual state of warfare in the country. This coming to the knowledge of the Pope, Sergius III (904-911) (though Malmesbury calls him Formosus, who had died in 896), he is supposed to have threatened to send an excommunication against the King for his laxity in failing to appoint Bishops.

Plegmund is stated by Malmesbury to have thereupon called a Convocation of his clergy, wherein it was ordered that instead of only one Bishop at Winchester and another at Sherborne, there should be an additional one at Wells in Somerset, another at Crediton in Devonshire, and another at St. Petrocks in Cornwall; and he even gives their names, anticipating the fact by five years. This statement is also found in a MS.[3] which was given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric, who died in 1073; but there seems to be a great deal of apocryphal matter mixed up with the story, and it has been rejected by all ecclesiastical writers.

Dr. Stubbs has presented very skilfully the facts of the Consecration of the Seven Bishops in Canterbury Cathedral in his Registrum Sacrum Anglicanum (1897), p. 23. It was the year 909 that saw the subdivision of the West Saxon Sees; Edward the Elder in that year divided the diocese of Winchester into two, and probably the rest of Wessex was split up at the same time, for from this date the Sees of Ramsbury (for Wilts and Berks), Wells and Crediton begin. Dr. Stubbs does not think that there is any special improbability of the consecration of seven bishops, though he thinks it unwise to risk a positive identification of those consecrated as given in the Leofric Missal and mentioned by William of Malmesbury. But he gives a list of those consecrated by Plegmund in 909, and also the authorities and proofs for all of them save one. They are

Winchester Frithstan
Ramsbury Ethelstan
Selsey Beornage
Wells Athelm (translated to Canterbury 914)
Crediton Eadulph
Sherborne Waerstan
Dorchester Ceolwulf

Dr. Stubbs, in his edition of the Gesta Regum in the Rolls Series, gives an explanation of this curious tangle. He states that the ordinations of the Pope Formosus were annulled in 897. This of course affected the consecration of Archbishop Plegmund, who was consecrated by him. But Formosus had desired that the filling up of the vacant English sees should be expedited as early as in 904, and again in the following year, which was the date of the letter mentioned in the Leofric Missal, and evidently started the story.

Plegmund died at an advanced age on August 2, 914, and was buried in the Church of St. John, where his remains rested until the fire of 1067. On the rebuilding of the Cathedral by Lanfranc, the remains were probably placed in a vault in the north transept; but after the attempts to steal the bones of Archbishop Breogwine in 1121, the monks removed them to the altar of St. Gregory in the southernmost apse of the south-east transept, where they were placed behind the altar.

St. Plegmund's name does not occur in the extant Canterbury Kalendars, but it is given in the Canterbury Martyrology[4] on August 2.

The Chronicle of John Stone, who was a monk of Christ Church in the time of Prior Molash (1427-1437), tells us that there was an image of Archbishop Plegmund, together with one of St. Odo and twelve others, placed in the choir of the Cathedral in his day. These were probably all removed under the Injunctions of Edward VI in 1547.

  1. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum.
  2. Gervase, Act. Pont. Cant., p. 1644.
  3. Bodley, 579.
  4. Brit. Mus., Arundel MS. 68.