(AD 639-709), Abbot of Malmesbury, Bishop of Sherborne,
Born: AD 639 in Wessex, Died: 25th May AD 709 at Doulting, Somerset
Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne, Latin poet and ecclesiastical writer (c. 639-709). Aldhelm (also written Ealdhelm, Ældhelm, Adelelmus, Althelmus, and Adelme) was a kinsman of Ine, King of Wessex, and apparently received his early education at Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, under an Irish Christian teacher named Maildubh. It is curious that Malmesbury, in early documents, is styled both Maildulfsburgh and Ealdhelmsbyrig, so that it is disputed whether the present name is commemorative of Maildubh or Ealdhelm, or, by "contamination," possibly of both (Plummer's "Bede," II, 310). Aldhelm himself attributes his progress in letters to the famous Adrian, a native of Roman Africa, but formerly a monk of Monte Cassino, who came to England in the train of Archbishop Theodore and was made Abbot of St. Augustine's, Canterbury. Seeing, however, that Theodore came to England only in 671, Aldhelm must then have been thirty or forty years of age. The Saxon scholar's turgid style and his partiality for Greek and extravagant terms have been traced with some probability to Adrian's influence (Hahn, "Bonifaz und Lul," p. 14).
On returning to settle in Malmesbury St. Aldhelm, probably already a monk, seems to have succeeded his former teacher Maildubh, both in the direction of the Malmesbury School, and also as Abbot of the Monastery; but the exact dates given by some of the Saint's biographers cannot be trusted, since they depend upon charters of very doubtful authenticity. As abbot his life was most austere, and it is particularly recorded of him that he was wont to recite the entire Psalter standing up to his neck in ice-cold water. Under his rule the Abbey of Malmesbury prospered greatly, other monasteries were founded from it, and a chapel (ecclesiola), dedicated to St. Lawrence, built by Aldhelm in the village of Bradford-on-Avon, is standing to this day. (A. Freeman, "Academy," 1886, XXX, 154.)
During the pontificate of Pope Sergius (687-701), St. Aldhelm visited Rome, and is said to have brought back from the Pope a privilege of exemption for his monastery. Unfortunately, however, the document which in the twelfth century passed for the Bull of Pope Sergius is undoubtedly spurious. At the request of a synod, held in Wessex, Aldhelm wrote a letter to the Britons of Devon and Cornwall upon the Paschal question, by which many of them are said to have been brought back to unity. In the year 705 Hedda, Bishop of the West Saxons, died, and, his diocese being divided, the western portion was assigned to Aldhelm, who reluctantly became the first Bishop of Sherborne. His episcopate was short in duration. Some of the stone-work of a church he built at Sherborne still remains. He died at Doulting (Somerset), in 709. His body was conveyed to Malmesbury, a distance of fifty miles, and crosses were erected along the way at each halting place where his remains rested for the night. Many miracles were attributed to the Saint both before and after his death.
In 857 King Ethelwulf erected a magnificent silver shrine at Malmesbury in his honour.
Romans celebrated his feast was on May the 25th.
"Aldhelm was the first Englishman who cultivated classical learning with any success, and the first of whom any literary remains are preserved" (Stubbs). Both from Ireland and from the Continent men wrote to ask him questions on points of learning.
His chief prose work is a treatise, "De laude virginitatis" ("In praise of virginity"), preserved to us in a large number of manuscripts, some as early as the eighth century. This treatise, in imitation of Sedulius, Aldhelm afterwards versified. The metrical version is also still extant, and Ehwald has recently shown that it forms one piece with another poem, "De octo principalibus vitiis" (On the eight deadly sins"). The prose treatise on virginity was dedicated to the Abbess and nuns of Barking, a community which seems to have included more than one of the Saint's own relatives. Besides the tractate on the Paschal controversy already mentioned, several other letters of Aldhelm are preserved. One of these, addressed to Acircius, i.e. Ealdfrith, King of Northumbria, is a work of importance on the laws of prosody. To illustrate the rules laid down, the writer incorporates in his treatise a large collection of metrical Latin riddles. A few shorter extant poems are interesting, like all Aldhelm's writings, for the light which they throw upon religious thought in England at the close of the seventh century. We are struck by the writer's earnest devotion to the Mother of God, by the veneration paid to the saints, and notably to St. Peter, "the key-bearer," by the importance attached to the holy sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy (Mass), and to prayer for the dead, and by the esteem in which he held the monastic profession. Aldhelm's vocabulary is very extravagant, and his style artificial and involved. His latinity might perhaps appear to more advantage if it were critically edited. An authoritative edition of his works is much needed. To this day, on account of the misinterpretation of two lines which really refer to Our Blessed Lady, his poem on virginity is still printed as if it were dedicated to a certain Abbess Maxima. Aldhelm also composed poetry in his native tongue, but of this no specimen survives. The best edition of Aldhelm's works, though very unsatisfactory, is that of Dr. Giles (Oxford, 1844). It has been reprinted in Migne (P.L., LXXXIX, 83 sqq.). Some of his letters have been edited among those of St. Boniface in the "Monumenta Germaniae" (Epist. Aevi Merovingici, I).
Aldhelm was born in Wessex, in AD 639. He was apparently a 'nephew' of King Ine, probably, in fact, a cousin of some kind. His father's name was Centa, and it has been suggested that this was a pet name for Ine's sometime predecessor, King Centwin, who died in AD 685. This would make him a brother of St. Edburga of Minster-in-Thanet. When but a boy, Aldhelm was sent to school under Adrian, Abbot of St. Augustine's, Canterbury and soon excited the wonder, even of his teachers, by his progress in the study of Latin and Greek. When somewhat more advanced in years, however, he returned to his native land of Wessex.
After his return to Wessex, Aldhelm joined the community of scholars which had become established at Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, under St. Maeldulph; in imitation of whom, he embraced the monastic life. His stay was not, however, of Iong duration. He made a second visit to Kent and continued to attend the school of St. Adrian, until sickness compelled him to revisit the country of the West Saxons. He again sought the greenwood shades of Malmesbury and, after a lapse of three years, he wrote a letter to his old master Adrian, describing the studies in which he was occupied and pointing out the difficulties which he still encountered.
This was in AD 680. From being the companion of the monks in their studies, Aldhelm soon became their teacher and his reputation for learning spread so rapidly that the small society gathered around him at Malmesbury was increased by scholars from France and Scotland. He is said to have been able to write and speak Greek, to have been fluent in Latin and able to read the Old Testament in Hebrew. At this period, the monks and scholars appear to have formed only a voluntary association, held together by similarity of pursuits and the fame of their teacher. They do not appear to have been subjected to rules. How Iong they continued to live in this manner is uncertain. However, around AD 683, either at their own solicitation or by the will of the West Saxon monarch and the bishop, they were formed into a regular monastery under the rule of St. Benedict. Aldhelm was appointed their abbot.
Under Aldhelm, the abbey of Malmesbury continued, long, to be a seat of piety as well as learning and was enriched with many gifts by the West Saxon kings and nobles. Its abbot founded smaller houses in the neighbourhood, at Frome and Bradford-on-Avon. His church at the latter survives almost completely intact. At Malmesbury, Aldhelm found a small, but ancient, church, then in ruins, which he rebuilt, or repaired, and dedicated it to SS. Peter and Paul, the favourite saints of the Anglo-Saxons around that time. His biographers have preserved the verses which Aldhelm composed to celebrate its consecration.
Aldhelm was not a voluminous writer. The works, which alone have given celebrity to his name, are his two treatises on Virginity and his Aenigmata. He may, however, be considered the father of Anglo-Latin poetry; though he also composed in Anglo-Saxon. King Alfred the Great placed him in the first rank of the vernacular poets of his country and we learn, from William of Malmesbury, that, even as late as the 12th century, some ballads he had composed continued to be popular. To be a poet, it was then necessary to be a musician also and Aldhelm's biographers assure us that he excelled on all the different instruments then in use: the harp, fiddle and pipes included. Long after he became Abbot of Malmesbury, Aldhelm appears to have devoted much of his leisure time to music and poetry. King Alfred entered into his notebook, an anecdote which is peculiarly characteristic of the age and which probably belongs to the period that preceded the foundation of the Abbey. Aldhelm observed, with pain, that the peasantry, instead of assisting as the monks sung mass, ran about from house to house gossiping and could hardly be persuaded to attend to the exhortations of the preacher. Aldhelm watched the occasion and stationed himself, in the character of a minstrel, on the bridge over which the people had to pass. Soon he had collected a crowd of hearers, by the beauty of his verse, and, when he found that grabbed their attention, he gradually introduced, among the popular ballads he was reciting to them, words of a more serious nature. At length, he succeeded in impressing upon their minds a truer feeling of religious devotion; "Whereas if," as William of Malmesbury observes, "he had proceeded with severity and excommunication, he would have made no impression whatever upon them."
Few details of the latter part of Aldhelm's life have been preserved. We know that his reputation continued to be extensive. After he had been made Abbot of Malmesbury, he received an invitation from Pope Sergius I to visit Rome, and he is supposed to have accompanied Caedwalla, King of the West Saxons, who was baptized by that Pope, and died in the Eternal City in AD 689. He did not, however, remain abroad for long.
In AD 692, Aldhelm appears, from his letter on the subject quoted by his biographers, to have taken part, to a certain degree, in St. Wilfred's great controversy against the Celtic usages of the Northumbrian Church. Soon after this, he is found employed in the same dispute about the celebration of Easter, with the Britons of Cornwall. A synod was called by King Ine, about AD 700, to attempt a reconciliation between the remains of the ancient British Church in the extreme west with the Anglo-Saxon Church, and Aldhelm was appointed to write a letter on the subject to King Gerren of Dumnonia (by then reduced to Cornwall), which is still preserved. Five years later, upon the death of St. Haedda, the Bishopric of Wessex was divided into two dioceses, of which one, that of Sherborne, was given to St. Aldhelm, who appears to have been allowed to retain, at the same time, the Abbacy of Malmesbury. He soon rebuilt the church at Sherborne in fitting cathedral style, as well as helping to establish the nunnery of St. Mary at Wareham. He built churches at Langton Matravers and the Royal palace at Corfe; and the present Norman chapel on the windswept promontory of St. Aldhelm's Head, no doubt, replaces a Saxon original.
Not long afterwards, on the 25th May AD 709, Aldhelm died at Doulting in Somerset. His body was carried to Malmesbury, where it was buried in the presence of Egwin, Bishop of Worcester. Stone crosses were placed as markers every seven miles along the route between the two towns and it was not long before his body was placed in a magnificent shrine and reverred as a saint.