The Heroic Age

Issue 4

Winter 2001

Saxon Bishop and Celtic King:

Interactions between Aldhelm of Wessex and Geraint of Dumnonia

by Martin Grimmer

University of Tasmania, Australia

Abstract: This paper explores the nature of relations between Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherborne in Wessex, and Geraint, king of Dumnonia, and the subsequent implications for Anglo-Celtic religious and secular attitudes across the West Saxon-Dumnonian border around the turn of the eighth century.


There is general agreement, among the few scholars who actually canvass the issue, that the nature of relations between Anglo-Saxons and Celts is a central question in the history of early medieval Britain (e.g. Davies 1990; Dumville 1989). Indeed, the history of any territory or kingdom needs to be placed within a broader context of regional interaction and relations. Yet, Anglo-Celtic interaction has attracted little direct scholarship. Rather, the tendency has been to write histories of Wales or Scotland, or of Anglo-Saxon England, in an almost exclusive sense, as if the modern borders were eternal. Interaction between different polities, while necessary to mention in view of the primary source material, has not garnered adequate attention.

Furthermore, the documentary evidence for Anglo-Celtic interaction in early medieval Britain is limited. Although the coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon Kent in 597 meant the introduction of literacy and the beginning of record-keeping within the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the actual amount of material dating from before the ninth century is fairly modest. Yorke (1990:20) points out that even for some well-attested Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, there is great variation in the survival rate of written information. We are in large part reliant on the word of Bede[1], whose work is of course of the greatest value, but as a result, we see much of the period through his eyes only. The sources for the Celtic areas of Britain are even more limited and, with the exception of Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae (Winterbottom 1978) and the annals and hagiography produced on Iona, they are unlikely to have been compiled prior to the ninth century (Davies 1990: 4-5; Moisl 1983: 106). In this context, it is remarkable that evidence survives concerning interaction between a Saxon and a Celt around the turn of the eighth century, namely Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherborne in Wessex, and Geraint, king of Dumnonia. It is the aim of this paper to explore the nature of this interaction, and the subsequent implications for Anglo-Celtic religious and secular attitudes across the West Saxon-Dumnonian border.

Given what has been said about the limitations of the documentary evidence, it should come as no surprise that little is actually known about the lives of Aldhelm and Geraint, and much more about Aldhelm than Geraint. Though it is often asserted, based on a statement by William of Malmesbury in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, that Aldhelm was born c.640, his place and year of birth are uncertain, and there exists little direct information regarding his early education.[2] His writing demonstrates familiarity with several Irish-Latin texts, and with Irish education, which accords with William of Malmesbury's suggestion that he had an Irish teacher.[3] Indeed, Aldhelm was in contact with an Irish monk, Cellanus of Peronne,[4] and wrote quite eloquently to Heahfrith, who was probably a former student returning from Ireland, about the benefits of an English education versus an Irish one.[5] However, such a familiarity does not necessarily mean that Aldhelm's literacy was Irish. Winterbottom (1977: 39, 46-62, 70) argues that Aldhelm's prose style has much closer associations with continental writers. Indeed, it is reasonably certain that he studied under Hadrian-an associate of the Greek Archbishop Theodore-in Canterbury on at least two occasions (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 8). What is clear is that Aldhelm was an extraordinarily learned cleric, as indicated by his often complicated Latin and by the number of works he quoted within his writings. Lapidge and Herren (1979: 8) even assert, in their edition of Aldhelm's Prose Works, that his learning "rivalled, if it did not surpass, that of Bede". It is not surprising, therefore, that a man of such learning could have found his way into senior ecclesiastical office. Accordingly, though the precise details of his career are obscure, he became abbot of Malmesbury (Wiltshire) probably by 673/4, a position which he held until his creation as bishop of Sherborne (Dorset) in 705/6. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he died in 709, while holding this office (Swanton 2000: 40-1). Thus, for much of his life, Aldhelm was in a situation such that he could have taken a leading role in treating with the king and clergy of the Britons of Dumnonia.

In comparison to Aldhelm, it is not possible to construct more than a vague idea of the floruit of Geraint of Dumnonia,[6] let alone any details of his life. Indeed, there are no native Dumnonian sources; Geraint is only known to us through references which exist in West Saxon and later English records. Based on the letter from Aldhelm to Geraint, which is discussed below, it is probable that he was ruling in the 670s. In the letter, he is referred to as King Geraint ("Gerontius rex"), "the lord who guides the sceptre of the western kingdom", further on identified as "Domnonia" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 155). The only other datable reference to Geraint's kingship is the 710 entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in which he is said to have fought against Ine and Nunna (Swanton 2000: 42-3).[7] In this entry, Geraint ("Gerente") is simply referred to as king of the Britons ("Wealas"). It should be noted that the matching of the Geraint who received the letter from Aldhelm with the Geraint who fought Ine and Nunna is not altogether certain. This would require a regnum of up to 40 years, and indeed, it is possible that the name Geraint was given to more than one Dumnonian ruler.[8] However, a regnum of such a length is not unknown. Lapidge & Herren (1979: 142) draw our attention to Ine of Wessex, who ruled for 37 years before retiring, possibly to Rome (HE V.7, Sherley-Price & Farmer 1990:217; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 688, 726/8, Swanton 2000: 42-3). Further, other contextual information, such as will be presented below, can be taken to imply that these figures were the same person. Thus, it may be assumed that Geraint was ruling Dumnonia c.670-710, but that is the extent of the information which exists regarding his career.

There are three pieces of evidence which attest to a relationship between Aldhelm and Geraint, and which can be used to gauge Anglo-British attitudes at the time. These are: Aldhelm's letter to Geraint, Aldhelm's notice of his visit to Dumnonia, and the record of a grant from Geraint to the West Saxon abbey at Sherborne, each of which will be discussed in turn.

The principle document of this corpus is Aldhelm's letter to Geraint.[9] It is most likely that this letter was composed as an outcome of the Council of Hertford, convened by Archbishop Theodore in September 672 (see HE IV.5, Sherley-Price & Farmer 1990: 212-215). In the letter, Aldhelm stated that he had recently attended an episcopal council, "where, out of almost the entirety of Britain an innumerable company of the bishops of God came together" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 155).[10] More particularly, one of the canons of the Council was to extend the resolutions of Whitby to the rest of the Anglo-Saxon church, and we find within the letter that Aldhelm specifically raised such matters as were discussed at Whitby, namely, the calculation of Easter and Church unity. Lapidge and Herren (1979: 141) note that the prologue of Aldhelm's letter is close to the wording of the text of the Council, as provided by Bede. Thus, it is highly probable that Aldhelm was at Hertford, and was explicitly instructed to write to Geraint as king of Dumnonia. As he states, "the entire episcopal council compelled my insignificant self ... to direct epistolary letters to the presence of your Loyalty" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 155). It may in fact have been the case that this was a task Aldhelm was required to undertake as part of his new role as abbot (of Malmesbury), an office he held by the time he wrote to Geraint, as is stated in the letter. One might also speculate as to whether the choice of a secular ruler as recipient was informed by King Oswiu of Northumbria's adjudication at Whitby (HE III.25, Sherley-Price & Farmer 1990:186-192). Oswiu had set a precedent for secular leadership in ecclesiastical matters.

The main thrust of Aldhelm's letter was to exhort Geraint to instruct his bishops [11] to follow Catholic i.e, Roman, practice. He declared this purpose early in the letter, where he expressed, on behalf of the Council, their desire:

"... to intimate their fatherly request and wholesome suggestion, that is, respecting the unity of the Catholic Church and the harmony of the Christian religion ... for what profits the emoluments of good works, if they are performed outside the Catholic Church" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 155).

In particular, Aldhelm voiced a concern for the two principle "errors" of Celtic practice that also preoccupied Bede, namely, the style of the tonsure and the calculation of the date of Easter. To quote:

"... a rumour hostile to the faith of the Church has bruited it about far and wide that there are in your province certain bishops and clerics who obstinately refuse the tonsure of St Peter" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 156).


"There is, however, another crueller bane to our souls, that in the most holy celebration of Easter they [i.e. Geraint's bishops] do not follow the rule of the three-hundred-eighteen Fathers ... at the Council of Nicea" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 157).

Aldhelm is assuredly an advocate of Roman Christianity here, and though he refrains from directing an outright accusation against the Dumnonian clergy, he certainly makes clear his conviction that a non-orthodox stand is heretical. For instance, he argues that the British tonsure originated with Simon, "the founder of the magical art" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 157), i.e. Simon Magus. He also makes reference to "heretics and schismatics, foreign to the society of the Church" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 156); argues that the bishops of Demetia (ie. Dyfed) "unfortunately imitate the heretics, who liked to call themselves cathari" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 158); and likens churchmen who use the incorrect Easter calculation with:

"a certain type of heretic among the Orientals ... reckoned among the assemblies of the schismatics, whom I recall the blessed Augustine mentioned in a book written on ninety heresies" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 158).

Thus, it certainly appears that Aldhelm laced his letter with enough references to heresy so as to extend a veiled threat that if the Dumnonian clergy did not come over to the Roman side, an outright accusation could have been forthcoming.[12] This is noteworthy, as the overt tone of the letter is respectful; for example, Aldhelm refers to Geraint as "the most glorious King" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 156), and entreats him "with hopeful prayers and bended knees" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 159). Yet, there is a evidently a more ominous undercurrent. And indeed, while he may have been deferential towards Geraint, Aldhelm's somewhat lower opinion of Geraint's bishops cannot help but show through. For example, he accuses the Dumnonian clergy of ignorance or falsehood regarding the origin of their tonsure (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 156-7). Similarly, he denounces them for "employing tyrannous obstinacy" and for "haughtily spurning" with "swollen pride of heart" the traditions of the Roman church (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 159). It also appears that Aldhelm did not hold the British form of (eremitic) monasticism in high regard, referring to it as "a life of contemplative retirement away in some squalid wilderness" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 156). Thus, Aldhelm assumed an attitude of superiority over the Dumnonian clergy, no doubt informed by his belief in the orthodoxy of the West Saxon Church. Yorke (1995: 179) asserts that such an attitude, if it is representative of the rest of the West Saxon clergy, may have helped them justify the annexation of British territory and British church property.

For their part, as much as can be ascertained from Aldhelm's words, it appears that the Dumnonian clergy were, if not completely antagonistic, at the very least resistant to pressure to conform to Roman practice. As Aldhelm explains:

"... we have heard and received report from the relation of diverse rumours that your bishops are not at all in harmony with the rule of the Catholic Faith according to the precepts of Scripture, and, on account of their animosities and verbal assaults, a grave schism and cruel scandal may arise in the Church of Christ" (emphasis added) (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 156).

The implication here, if Aldhelm is to be taken literally, is that the bishops of Dumnonia were actually preaching against Roman practice. For Aldhelm as abbot of a western abbey within Wessex, this would have been a doubly serious problem: apart from the doctrinal schism that was being promulgated, the actions of the Dumnonian clergy could have provided a basis for rebellion amongst any Britons living in newly-conquered territory in western Wessex.[13] Religious difference has long been a cause of hostility and acrimony. Aldhelm's exhortation for Church unity may, therefore, have had an additional political impetus.

Despite the "animosities and verbal assaults" of the Dumnonians, it does appear that they were not as antagonistic towards the Anglo-Saxons as were the bishops of Dyfed. Aldhelm seems to deliberately distinguish the Dumnonians from the Britons on "the other side of the strait of the River Severn", and by doing so it might be assumed that they were considered different in their behaviour. In one of the most frequently-cited passages from the letter, Aldhelm explains that the bishops of Dyfed:

"...detest our communion to such a great extent that they disdain equally to celebrate the divine offices in church with us and to take courses of food at table for the sake of charity. Rather, they cast the scraps of their dinners and the remains of their feasts to be devoured by the jaws of ravenous dogs and filthy pigs, and they order the vessels and flagons [i.e. those used in common with clergy of the Roman Church] to be purified and purged with grains of sandy gravel, and with the dusky cinders of ash. No greeting of peace is offered, no kiss of affectionate brotherhood is bestowed ... But indeed, should any of us, I mean Catholics, go to them for the purpose of habitation, they do not deign to admit us to the company of their brotherhood until we have been compelled to spend the space of forty days in penance" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 158).

If this account is in any way accurate, the southern Welsh clergy must have regarded the Anglo-Saxon clergy with a notable degree of disdain. Indeed, much has been made of the "ritual cleansing of ecclesiastical vessels" which the Anglo-Saxon churchmen touched (e.g. Lloyd 1939: 178; Yorke 1995: 179). Certainly, Aldhelm's description is consistent with Bede's various references to the isolationist policy of the Britons (e.g. HE II.2, V.23. Sherley-Price & Farmer 1990: 104-107,322-325) . The specific behaviour described by Aldhelm is further supported by the letter from Archbishop Laurence and his fellow-bishops to the bishops and abbots of the Irish (c.605-10), a fragment of which is preserved by Bede. Laurence complained that when they were visited by the Irish Bishop Dagan, he "refused not only to eat with us but even to take his meal in the same house as ourselves" (HE II.4, Sherley-Price & Farmer 1990:109-110). This account is admittedly of an Irish churchman; none-the-less, Dagan's snub of Laurence is presented as also being indicative of British attitudes.[14] In providing a contrast between the Dumnonian clergy and the Welsh, it could be construed that Aldhelm was deliberately singling out the latter as a "lost cause"; and the fact that they were so near to Dumnonia served to reinforce his warning that the threat to Church unity in the south-west was indeed a real one. In entreating Geraint, Aldhelm even appealed to the "common destiny of our fatherland" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 159), most probably an invocation of a Britain unified by complete adherence to the correct Roman faith. If this interpretation of Aldhelm's letter is accurate, the implication is that he did not consider the Dumnonians to be "beyond the Pale", despite their animosity; or at least not yet.

Aldhelm's letter tells us that there must have been some interaction between the West Saxons and the Dumnonians, and that Aldhelm was in direct contact with Geraint. Aldhelm does give the impression that his information regarding the behaviour of the Dumnonian clergy was gained second-hand. For instance, he talks of having "heard and received report from the relation of diverse rumours", and that "a rumour hostile to the faith of the Church has bruited it about far and wide" (Lapidge & Herren 1979: 156). This would suggest that he did not have direct dealings with the Dumnonian clergy at the time of writing. He may have been deliberately obtuse here, however, so as not offend Geraint, or this letter might represent an early communique on Aldhelm's part that established an ongoing relationship with the Dumnonian king. Indeed, as indicated by the second piece of evidence for a relationship between these two men, Aldhelm did visit Dumnonia on at least one occasion. In his Carmen Rhythmicum, Aldhelm states: "When I had set out for nasty 'Domnonia'[15] and was proceeding through Cornwall ('Cornubia') ..." (Lapidge & Rosier 1985: 177). There is, unfortunately, no indication of when this visit actually occurred and so it is impossible to place it with regard to the letter. None-the-less, it is highly likely that Aldhelm attended Geraint, and therefore could have had the opportunity to press the Roman cause in person.

The evidence from and about Aldhelm is to a certain extent corroborated by Bede. Despite his insistence on the separateness of the Britons, within the limited amount of information that Bede includes about Wessex, he provides some basis for allowing that there was actually interaction between Britons and West Saxons. Specifically, he tells us that in c.665, Chad was consecrated by Bishop Wine of Wessex, "with the assistance of two bishops of the British, who ... keep Easter contrary to canonical practice" (HE III.28, Sherley-Price & Farmer 1990: 196-197).[16] This obviously constitutes evidence of contact between British and West Saxon clergy. Further, a level of cordiality is suggested; they would hardly have shared in administering the rite of consecration if they were invariably hostile to one another. It is unfortunate that Bede is not more specific about where the British bishops came from: whether they were resident within western Wessex, or from Dumnonia, or whether their association with Wine was a regular event or an informal visit. If they were Dumnonian, this would be supportive of the implication in Aldhelm's letter that the Dumnonian clergy were not as antagonistic to the Anglo-Saxons as were the Welsh, though the material in the letter does not otherwise allow us to infer that they would have shared in religious duties. This notwithstanding, it still remains that there were British bishops abroad in Wessex, at least for a time. Thus, Aldhelm may indeed have had the opportunity, early in his career, to observe or be directly apprised of British customs.

Given the evidence of Aldhelm's letter, it is not surprising then that the conversion of Dumnonia to the Roman Easter is attributed to his efforts, though this is an assumption for which there is no direct supporting evidence (Davies 1992: 14).[17] There is, unfortunately, no surviving reply from Geraint, nor any indication that one was sent. However, the possibility of a favourable attitude on Geraint's behalf towards the West Saxons might be implied by the third documentary source that can be used for the connection between Aldhelm and Geraint, namely, the record of a grant from Geraint to the West Saxon abbey of Sherborne in Dorset.

The record of this grant is contained in a later list of royal benefactors of Sherborne and the lands they granted (Barker 1984: 1). This list of benefactors survives in a late fourteenth-century manuscript - British Library MS Cotton Faustina A.ii - though it appears to have been copied from an earlier list probably compiled some time after 1035, the date of the latest grant mentioned.[18] The list is not organised in chronological order, and Geraint's grant appears near the end. Described as "Gerontius rex" (identical to Aldhelm's letter), he is said to have given five hides of land at Macuir, now Maker, beside the Tamar in Cornwall.[19] The grant is likely to be genuine, for a number of reasons. To begin with, after the Sherborne-based diocese was re-organised and divided c.909, Sherborne's endowment was restricted to lands within Dorset. Thus, it is unlikely that there would have been any motivation in the eleventh century to fabricate charters for estates outside of Dorset, and hence grants recorded in the Cottonian list of lands in Cornwall, Devon, Wiltshire, and Somerset are likely to have been genuine (Edwards 1988: 243, 250-52). Further, the description of the estate in relation to a nearby river suggests authenticity: on general grounds, this feature is characteristic of genuine early West Saxon charters (Edwards 1988: 251). It could also be reasoned that a forger would not have employed the name of a Dumnonian king to give weight to an English claim, as his authority would have had little validity in Wessex.[20] Moreover, elsewhere in the Cottonian list an estate of 18 hides at Macor is said to have been granted to Sherborne by King Egbert of Wessex (802-839).[21] If we can assume that this is the same, albeit enlarged, estate that was granted by Geraint, then the record of his original gift becomes redundant. This too is consistent with the presumption of authenticity as there would have been no motivation to fabricate the earlier, smaller, grant from Geraint.

The clear significance of this grant for the present purposes is that Aldhelm was the first bishop of Sherborne. Thus, although there is no clear indication of the date of Geraint's grant, the context would favour an association with Aldhelm's episcopate (c.705-9). It is possible that Geraint in fact negotiated the granting of land to Sherborne on a visit to Dumnonia. Further, for Geraint, as a Dumnonian king, to give land to a Saxon abbey implies a level of civility between him and the West Saxon church, and this act could be taken as corroborative of the contention that he did ultimately approve of Roman Christian practice.

Furthermore, given that Sherborne was established, in all likelihood, near the then border with Dumnonia, Aldhelm as bishop may have had a role in the maintenance of relations between the West Saxons and Dumnonians. It is possible that the Sherborne grant is representative of some accord, mediated by Aldhelm, between Dumnonia and Wessex: an attempt perhaps by Geraint to slow the steady westward advance of the West Saxons. Finberg (1964a: 88) suggests that Geraint's grant was part of a policy to "conciliate the principal churches of Wessex". The fact that Geraint was at war with Ine and Nunna in 710, the year after Aldhelm's death, could imply that Aldhelm did have some role here, and was at the very least able to keep Dumnonia and Wessex away from outright warfare (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 709, 710; Swanton 2000: 40-43).[22] However, with Aldhelm no longer alive, the accord broke down and warfare ensued.

Aldhelm's letter to Geraint and his excursion into Dumnonia, along with Geraint's grant to Sherborne, all tell us that interaction did occur across the West Saxon-Dumnonian border. Aldhelm's letter also provides us with a unique glimpse, absent in other sources, of the attitudes which may have existed between these two groups of people (Yorke 1995: 179). While Aldhelm adopted an attitude of superiority to the Dumnonian clergy, he appears to have treated Geraint with the respect that would have been due to a ruling king, even if a "foreigner" (i.e. a "Wealh"). Geraint in his turn paid due to the West Saxon church by granting land to one of its houses. Aldhelm's and Geraint's relationship was apparently one of greater depth than might otherwise have been expected from the almost exclusively antagonistic picture of Anglo-Celtic relations that is gained from Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and from Gildas as well. While aggression and antipathy are continuing themes in interaction between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms in early medieval Britain (Dumville 1989: 219), the evidence presented here regarding Aldhelm of Wessex and Geraint of Dumnonia provides one instance, at least, where a Saxon and a Celt conferred with one another on a diplomatic basis.





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Copyright © Martin Grimmer, 2001. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001. All rights reserved.