Vikings Attack! The Story of A Refugee in 1010

And so, I return after an unannounced absence: since I last wrote, I have written, submitted and passed my doctoral thesis. Hooray! I can now return to writing things that are (relatively) short, manageable and fun!

So, to the topic today: the Vikings.

Image: A Viking-age picture-stone depicting warriors in a ship, from Gotland, Sweden. Wikimedia, commons licence,,_Gotland.jpg

Scandinavian Warriors washed over England in several waves, from 793 through to the 1060s. At times they went in for smash-and-grab raids, at other times they got organized and took control over large parts of the British Isles.

The Vikings sometimes controlled and lived in London. On other occasions, they sacked and burned the city. For all of the dry facts that we know about the movements of armies and the rise and fall of individual kings, there is remarkably little detail or drama concerning what it was like to live through this period in our sources.

This begins to change in the later Viking attacks that started from 1002 and lasted for the next decade and a half. Several sources, both Viking and English, recount vivid stories in this period. In this blog and the next few, I am going to retell some of these stories.

Today it is the story of Aelwine of Bury, an English monk who made an epic journey through war-torn England to reach safety in London in 1010. His mission inspired two monks, Herman and Goscelin, to write accounts of his journey. Both were writing shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066 – close enough that this account is probably not pure fiction, but far enough away for many of the details to become hazy.

Aelwine and the Corpse

In some ways, the story starts much earlier. In 869, an army of pagan Vikings tore through East Anglia. They captured the Saxon ruler of that area, King Edmund, and killed him. Because he was killed by heathens when defending a Christian realm, Edmund was soon acclaimed as a martyr. The church in which he was buried became a pilgrimage site, and later a monastery. The place where they buried St Edmund is today the fittingly-named town of Bury St Edmunds.

A twelfth-century depiction of the martyrdom of King Edmund, from the Morgan Library and Museum. Public domain,

In the 1000s, there lived a layman in Bury named Aelwine. This was a time in which most monks would have been oblates, which meant that they had been donated to the monastery as a small boy by their parents. Aelwine had a particular devotion to St Edmund, which caused him to distain ‘worldly pomp’ and join the monastery as an adult, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund p. 19).

Herman seems to have been employed as the personal keeper of the body of St Edmund. Many medieval people venerated relics – the holy bodies and body-parts of saints – in ways that we find quite strange today. In Aelwine’s case, this involved living with the body and acting as a ‘devoted servant’: ‘indeed, he often poured pure water over the incorrupt body and combed its hair, and he lovingly kept any hairs, drawn out of the comb, in a box, as relics’, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 19).

Aelwine met with pilgrims and heard their problems. He would then go to the corpse of Edmund and ‘discuss various problems with the saint as one friend does with another, through the stillness of the night’, (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 19).

A Victorian Artistic depiction of St Edmund’s shrine at Bury, from Rev. Richard Yates, History and Antiquities of the Abbey of St Edmund’s Bury, (London, 1843). Public domain:

If he was alive today, the fact that Aelwine’s closest friendship was with a corpse may be considered concerning. By the standards of the day, he was showing piety, reverence and treating Edmund in a suitable way for a king or lord.

Enter the Vikings

A new wave of Viking invasions began in the early 1000s. In 1010, a Dane named Thorkell the Tall led an invasion that put Bury St Edmunds at risk. The Vikings had a habit of raiding wealthy monasteries and stealing their goods. And in Aelwine’s eyes, the greatest treasure at Bury was the body of St Edmund. Edmund was not just a valuable prize: he was also a resource of great spiritual power and the enemy absolutely could not be allowed to take him.

A Rune stone (U-344) that was erected at Uppland, Sweden, by a soldier who served under Thorkell the Tall in England. Commons Licence,,_Orkesta.JPG

Aelwine placed the corpse in a casket and hoisted it onto a cart. He disguised himself as a pedlar and set off on a journey: he would take the relics to London, where they would be safe and their miraculous power could support the English against the invaders. Aelwine’s journey was tense:

Impelled by this fearful anxiety, he proceeded with extreme caution, wheeling the shafts as boldly as he dared, avoiding the highways wherever possible; keeping away from built-up areas; content at any humble lodgings. He was not unlike those pedlars who frequent markets to sell their goods, in that their homeward path is a road of dread: for they constantly watch their backs, nor are they less apprehensive of the road ahead of them’ (Herman, Miracles of Edmund, p. 29)

Aelwine thought he might have found a safe port of call in Essex. He called in with an old friend, a priest named Eadbriht, and asked to stay. Eadbriht, ‘frightened by the talk of the enemy all around’, said that they could not come in (Herman, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 31). He even denied them the shelter of his yard.

An example of a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon house, from West Stow. Commons licence,

Aelwine was not disheartened. He crawled into the coffin for shelter and reflected on his holy mission. Above him, divine lights appeared: ‘the monk reclined under the martyr, the martyr under the open sky, glittering under a radiant pillar of flowing light. O happy man!… Even the most eloquent orator would struggle to describe how delightful slumber and sweet repose relieved your sorrow and weariness alike’ (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 161).

St Edmund is crowned in glory in heaven, from New York, Morgan Library MS 736. Public domain,

Aelwine was jolted awake – the cart was moving! The spirit of St Edmund, ‘who had foreseen his enemies’ manoeuvres, preferred to get back on the road (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 31)’. As they rolled past the house where they had been denied shelter, Aelwine saw that it was ‘engulfed in avenging flames’, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 163). Medieval religion was often a harsh and unforgiving one: Eadbriht had broken the rules of hospitality and for that crime, he had lost everything. Things weren’t all bad for him though, because he survived and later his son, would become an important abbot, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 31).

Angels cause a building to burn down; an image of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in New York, Morgan Library MS M.212. Copyright, Morgan Library,

And so, the pilgrims rolled on towards London.

The Miracle of the Bridge

Aelwine had reached Stratford, which is now in East London (site of the Olympic park) and then was a village on the edge of things. It was just three miles to the city walls. He could see the cathedral. But there was an obstacle. The river Lea laid before him. And the bridge was ravished by war.

The River Lea at Clapton. Commons licence,

Goscelin’s Miracles of St Edmund captures the tension of the situation best, (p. 163)

‘A narrow bridge lay across it, broken in many places and safe for none to tread, especially soldiers. He starts to cross, but the boards, being narrower than the cart, will not support it and prevent him. He wades into the water; the swollen torrent threatens shipwreck. What could he do; where could he go? The poor man has no idea. The bridge’s narrowness halts his advance; there is no solid path amid the waves, and no boat. The Dane is at his heels…’

For any of us, it would be a bleak moment. But Aelwine was a man of faith, indeed, blind faith. He drove the cart forward onto the bridge. I’d imagine in this situation that I’d be hiding my eyes behind my hands. Aelwine did not hide his eyes and so was able to see an incredible sight: one wheel of the cart was in contact with the bridge. The other hung over the edge, where it made contact with the surface of the river and – remarkably – continued it found a purchase and continued to move as if the water was solid. Jesus had walked on water – St Edmund could drive on water. Thus, they drove on forwards, Aelwine singing praises to St Edmund as he passed.

Entering London

Finally, they had arrived! Aelwine had brought his precious cargo to London. (Or, given how much of the heavy lifting has been done by miracles, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Edmund had brought Aelwine to London).

They pulled through Aldgate and entered the walled city. Goscelin says of London: ‘Whoever has entered its gates, however grand, will appreciate all the more that he was entering a city of wonders. Sick folk afflicted with various ailments congregate; the streets throng with a multitude of the infirm’. (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 165).

An Illustration of Aldgate, from around 1600. Public domain,

Soon, Edmund’s miraculous effects were working: the blind could see, the dumb could talk, the deaf could hear! A paralysed woman who had for all of her life been carried in a basket suddenly leapt free! ‘Edmund’s name, Edmund’s praise, Edmund’s glory resounds from everyone’s lips…the ringing air grew thick with the shouts of people amazed at the stream of miracles’, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, p. 165).

There was one person who was left out. A crippled woman, lying in bed, heard the shouts. She desperately wanted to join the crowd, but she was unable to stand. She wailed out ‘Woe is me!’, convinced in her heart that one touch of the holy relic would be enough. And because of her faith, suddenly her legs became straight. She took a step, tentatively at first, and then ran forward, crying Edmund’s praises! She was the eighteenth person to be cured on that day, (Goscelin, Miracles of St Edmund, pp. 165-9).

A procession of clergy, lay elites and magnates gathered and lifted the holy relics onto their shoulders and bore him up to the Church of St Gregory, which was the parish church attached to the Cathedral.

A funeral procession at a medieval procession at Old St Paul’s, from a fifteenth-century Book of Hours, from British Library Additional MS 27697; pubic domain, see

In the crowd was one wealthy Dane who was ‘inflexible and swollen with pride’. He pressed himself forward and found that the Cathedral priests were drawing a curtain around the holy relics. He demanded to see for himself what the fuss was about and so rudely yanked at the curtain. Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t see the coffin behind. He was quickly struck blind. He threw himself on the ground, wailing and begging forgiveness: his tears, Goscelin cruelly notes, became his baptismal waters, and soon the man became a Christian (Miracles of St Edmund, pp. 169-171).

Edmund’s coffin had been installed. A respectful curtain was pulled around. The people of London showed due reverence and respect. They had arrived. Aelwine had achieved his mission. Edmund was safe.

A crowd thronged around it. They had arrived.

The Punishment of Sweyn

This wasn’t the end of Aelwine’s story. Edmund was safe, but the land was still being ravished by Vikings. King Sweyn of Denmark invaded in August 1013 and declared himself to be King of England on Christmas day of that year.

Aelwine met with pilgrims coming to the shrine of Edmund and heard from them the great exactions, taxes and violence of Sweyn’s rule. He talked all night about their problems with Edmund’s corpse in the macabre way that was his habit.

In his dreams, Aelwine heard Edmund’s voice. He had a message for Sweyn: ‘Why do you rage against my people? Why do you make them pay tribute?… If you do not stop this trouble, you will quickly learn that God and I, the champions of our people, are displeased with you’, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 19). Aelwine new that it was his dangerous task to deliver this confrontational message to the Viking King.

Sweyn, depicted as king of England, in a thirteenth century miniature in Cambridge University Library MS Ee.3.59. Public domain, see

When he arrived at Sweyn’s court, ‘the place was packed with Danish and wretched English courtiers’, (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 21). Aelwine laid out in eloquent the martyr’s demands: Sweyn must cease oppressions, or face Edmund’s wrath.

‘Fierce Sweyn…started like a lion’, and scorned both Aelwine and the martyr Edmund. (Herman, Life of St Edmund, p. 21). Aelwine was scorned, insulted and exiled from the court.

A vision of Edmund appeared, telling Aelwine that he had nothing to fear from earthly kings. This didn’t comfort Aelwine as much as you might expect. He still lived in fear that Sweyn’s wrath would fall upon him and the monk fled into the night.

On the road one night, he found a band of soldiers ahead of him. Aelwine turned back but found another behind him. Worse still, they were speaking in Danish! There was no way out – he had to walk past them. The soldiers shouted out his name – they recognized him from court! He feared that the time of his death had arrived.

A fanciful depiction of the death of Sweyn Forkbeard, from Cambridge University Library MS Ee.3.59. Public domain,

And then they told him the news: Sweyn was dead, struck down by divine providence shortly after he had banished Aelwine. Edmund had saved the day! Aelwine was safe!

There is obviously a lot of embellishment in this story, but in reality, Sweyn’s reign was short and troubled: it lasted only from December 1013 to February 1014.


Safety was returning to the land at last. It was time for Aelwine to bring Edmund’s body home. There was, however, a problem. Edmund’s cult was too popular in London. The masses were devoted to their new saint and the Bishop of London loved that his city was now the centre of a cult. It would be very difficult to extract the body.

Aelwine asked for permission to take the relics home. The bishop gathered twelve men and brought them to the shrine of Edmund: they planned to take the relics into protective custody, to stop the monks of Bury taking them back. But as they tried to lift the coffin, suddenly they found that it was heavy – impossibly heavy. They simply couldn’t lift it.

Aelwine entered the church and laid a hand on the coffin. Suddenly, it was light as a feather and he carried it back to his cart. Edmund had spoken. His time in London was over. A sad crowd of pilgrims gathered and followed him well beyond the walls.

The natural home of St Edmund – St Edmundsbury Cathedral as it appears today. Commons licence,,_Suffolk,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg

This time, Aelwine did not need to hide or use back routes. He rode proudly through the countryside and the pious Christians of each village received him gladly. At Bury, the townsmen and monks received them in procession. Finally, Edmund was at home

What do we make of it?

You may be able to tell from how much detail I have gone into on this tale that I really enjoyed reading and rewriting the tale of Aelwine and Edmund. Both Herman and Goscelin have a knack for vivid storytelling and capturing small and interesting details. Aelwine faces genuine adversity, although the fact that he has some all-powerful saints’ relics in his back pocket at all times prevents any of these situations from becoming properly tense.

St Edmund’s church in Lombard Street, London: this church was dedicated to St Edmund as part of a continuing relationship between the city and the saint after Edmund’s relics left. Public Domain,,_London.jpg

We probably shouldn’t take these stories as being very accurate descriptions of the time period. Edmund’s relics really were seconded to safety in London, and Aelwine is probably based on a real person. Beyond this, most of the story is sketchy – the ability of our authors to put national events in the right order can be quite hit and miss.

What we perhaps can get from these stories is something of how it feels to live in a medieval kingdom during an invasion or civil war. Goscelin and Herman were both of the generation who had come over in the Norman conquest. They lived through the frequent revolts and civil wars of the post-Conquest generation. They knew what it was like to live in a land ravaged by war.

Whilst I wouldn’t trust most of the facts in these accounts, some of the most vivid and memorable experiences ring true: fleeing before a powerful army, important men disguising themselves as nobodies in order to avoid detection, fear and apprehension upon meeting soldiers, or making your way to the nearest large city to find safety. Many of the refugees who were in this situation must have wished for a divine protector: in this story at least, the relics of St Edmund answered that call.

References: Herman the Archdeacon and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Miracles of St Edmund, Ed./trans. Tom Licence, Oxford Medieval Texts, (Oxford, 2014).


A wandering saint in London: St Catroe and the great fire of c. 945

London is a city full of people on the move: immigrants, tourists, students and commuters enter and leave the city every day. Many people assume that in the middle ages, things were much more static. In fact, medieval London was a hub for travellers.

Today I want to look at the life of one wandering miracle worker who passed through late Anglo-Saxon London: St Catroe.

The young Catroe:

Catroe was from an aristocratic family in Scotland: one of those for whom the destiny of every member is mapped out for them, before they were even born.

This was very literally true for poor little Catroe: on the day of his conception, an angel appeared to his parents to tell them: ‘God has commanded that you shall conceive, and bear a son, Catroe by name, a future light of the church’, (Life of Catroe, p. 432). When his parents came to pick a nanny for the young child, Catroe’s mother was guided by a vision that a hawk landed on the lady’s shoulder, (Life, p. 432-3).

When his parents were deciding how best to educate young Catroe, a cousin named Bean of Iona burst into the room and declared that God had spoken to him and told him that the boy must become a priest. Catroe’s parents were a bit put out: their only son was ‘the staff of his parents’ age’, they said, the one who would support them as they got old. But immediately afterwards, they conceived a brother for Catroe despite their great age, (Life, p. 433-4). God had spoken. Catroe was going to holy orders.

The remains of the monastery of Iona, home to Bean of Iona. Commons licence, Ray Jones:

Many saints’ lives include heavenly signs and prophecies which point the holy man on to the right path. Most saints accept them gladly. Catroe though was a different sort of boy. He had a rebellious streak. He resented the way that Bean was moulding his life and telling him what he could be.

One day, news came to Catroe that his old nanny and her husband had been seized by Vikings. Catroe ran away from the monastery and armed himself. He pulled together a fleet of boats and pursued vengeance.

A Viking fleet, from a twelfth century manuscript. Public domain:

But Bean tracked the vengeful warrior down and told him: this isn’t God’s will. Catroe wouldn’t listen. Bean produced a copy of the gospels and opened it at a random verse: it read ‘If anyone take from thee what is thine, seek in not again’. The decision belonged to God, not Catroe, (Life, pp. 435-6).

Wandering mind, wandering spirit:

Catroe stayed with the church and worked hard. He was a natural prodigy:

‘all that poet has sung or orator spoken, all that philosopher has imagined, he learned; nothing escaped him. He exhausted everything that has been discovered by any one through number, measure and weight, through touch and hearing; lastly, the hidden movements and courses of the stars he described with compasses more learnedly than Eginus, than whom I doubt if any is more distinguished in the hierarchy of the sky’

Life of Catroe, p. 437).

Catroe established himself as a teacher of teachers: a sort of proto-professor, long before universities existed. His mind wandered far, but his body remained rooted firmly in place.

Armagh Cathedral: Catroe undertook much of his education at Armagh. Commons licence:

One night, whilst Catroe was praying, a voice spoke to him: ‘Depart from your land and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, and come into the land which I shall show you’, (Life, p. 438-9). Catroe immediately began to prepare for a pilgrimage.

Unfortunately, half of Scotland was set on stopping him. A mighty throng of people came forward and caught him at the monastery of St Brigit. It was led by Constantine, King of Alba (d. 952), who begged Catroe to stay for the good of the nation. It also included ‘a crowd of nobles and peasants’, who begged him not to leave. Catroe tried to reassure them: ‘I shall not forsake you since, wherever I am I shall keep you in my remembrance’. This wasn’t enough for them. They picked up the holy relics of the church and demanded that he yield to them. But Catroe could not be convinced.

The Book of Kells, which is thought to have been produced at Iona. Iona is one of the places where Catroe would have been educated, and may have taught. Public domain:

The crowd still had one more trick up their sleeves. From the back of the church emerged Catroe’s own parents. They were not happy that he was leaving. ‘If we cannot prevail with prayers, we shall restrain you with imprisonment and iron chains!’ his father cried.

‘This is in your power’, Catroe replied, ‘but so long as I am in chains, I will by no means drink or eat’.

Constantine II, king of Alba; a portrait of an obviously much later date. Public domain:

Finally, the abbot of the monastery stepped forwards to mediate. Catroe would go but he would take some of the people with him. The king and the nobles would provide him with all that he could need: gold, silver, horses and men. Finally, Catroe could leave!

Catroe in London:

Catroe and his retinue headed south, to London. London must have come as a shock to a man raised in rural Scotland: it would have been far larger and more intimidating than any settlement he had ever seen before.

He stopped over in London with a man called Ecgfrith: the story is rather vague about who he was, beyond that he was powerful and had a hall large enough to host Catroe and his men.

A reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon interior. A workshop from the West Stow Anglo-Saxon village. Commons licence by Midnightblueowl,

During the night, Catroe would have been awoken by shouts and yells, and by the distant sound of roaring and of collapsing wood. The greatest of all of the urban hazzards had struck: a fire! Our storyteller says:

‘By carelessness, that city was set on fire, and the larger part of it was already consumed; triumphant flame was licking what remained. Then God chose to declare what merit Catroe had in him. He was asked by the old man to rescue by prayer those who were perishing.

Trusting in the Lord, Catroe ran between the fire and the remnants of the city. Turning to the Lord, he said: “Lord, everything that exists obeys you. Bid then the terrors of the raging flames to cease!”.

This he said, briefly, and he raised his hand and commanded the flames to die down. Then one might see the flame bent back as by the force of the wind and, gradually subsiding, die out. Thus, the city was delivered, to the joy of all’.

Life of Catroe, p. 441-2).
An Anglo-Saxon house on fire: detail from the Bayeux tapestry. Public domain,

Catroe the wanderer:

Catroe had performed his first true miracle! His fame spread and he was quickly brought to meet the king and the archbishop of Canterbury. They lent him all of the assistance that they he asked for and Catroe was soon ready to set sail.

But at the coast, something strange happened. Catroe loaded all of his men and horses and goods onto ships and set out to sea. But the winds turned against them and drove them back to shore. The heavens were cursing the mission!

‘All were disturbed, but Catroe was attacked by grief’, his biographer tells us (Life, p. 442). He set about fasting until he collapsed, exhausted. As he lay weakly on the couch a voice spoke to him: ‘All those that are with you shall not be able to cross the see, lest they prevent you in God’s way that you have entered. Persuade therefore your men to return; and then, after crossing the see, you shall rejoicing be reach the father shore’, (Life, p. 443).

An image of a ship caught in a storm. Here, St Claudius intervenes and saves the sailors.

Catroe was a noble at birth: always surrounded by others, always with a retinue. He always had a powerful relative, telling him what his destiny was. But on that day, he dismissed his men. He stood alone on the beach and looked out at the wider world. He set sail on a voyage into the unknown. And he was alone.


Catroe would go on to travel across Europe. He would become a wandering monk and a miracle worker. Eventually he would settle at Metz in modern day Germany where he became abbot and teacher until his death in 971. At Metz he made a very significant impression on one of his pupils, Reimann, who would later go on to write a biography of his old teacher.

It is thanks to this biography that we know anything at all about Catroe’s adventures. Saints’ lives are an odd genre: the Life of Catroe is a mixture of convincingly realistic social and psychological detail, with some very odd visions and magical happenings.

Gorze Abbey, near Metz: one of the monastries at which Catroe served as a monk. Public domain,

Even amongst the medieval weirdness, I think there are some things that can speak through the ages. Many modern migrants would recognise Cathoe’s story of wanderlust. They can recognise both the pain of leaving behind their old life, and the promise that comes from striking out on your own. They can recognise his determination to make his name on his own, and on his own terms.

Catroe was only briefly in London, but I think his story can still speak to many Londoners today.

For further reading:

Alan Macquarrie, ‘Catroe’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004).

‘Life of St Catroe’, ed. and tr. A.O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, A.D. 500 to 1286, pp. 431-443

All Hallows by the Tower: a window on Anglo-Saxon London

In September 1666, the Great Fire devastated London. In a desperate scramble, the authorities at the Tower of London set about destroying buildings to create a fire block between the city and the Tower of London.

Diarist and man about town Samuel Pepys ran from the flames towards the tower. He stopped off at the church of All Hallows by the Tower, and climbed its steeple. From it, he watched the world burn. He wrote in his diary:

“So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michell and our Sarah on the bridge.”

Samuel Pepys Diary, September 1666: see here.

Most of the medieval and early modern city passed away on a single day. But the actions of the men at the tower meant that a little pocket of the medieval and early modern city survived in the very east corner of the London.

Today I want to look at All Hallows by the Tower, one of London’s great survivors. Today this little church is a time capsule for two thousand years of London’s history.

Above: All Hallows by the Tower in 1955. The tower, built in 1658, is the same one that Pepys would have climbed. Commons license

The earliest architecture on the site can be found in the basement, where a Roman pavement peeks through the floor. It is thought to be the floor from a second century house.

The roman pavement. Taken from trip advisor, see here

The church was built on top of this Roman layer. Its origins can be dated as far back as 675, when it was founded by the nun and saint, Ethelburgh (Aethelburh) of Barking. On this blog we have met Ethelburgh and her brother Erkenwald bishop of London in other posts.

It was long thought that there were no traces left of this early Anglo-Saxon church. However, in 1940 the church was hit by a falling German bomb. Amid the tumbling masonry some fascinating discoveries were made. Within the walls was hiding an old Anglo-Saxon arch.

Above: The Anglo-Saxon arch of All Hallows by the tower. Taken from the parish website, here.

We can’t date this arch precisely, but one interesting feature is that the top of the arch is made up mostly from recycled Roman bricks and tiles – this probably suggests that it was put up at a time when Roman ruins were still visible and accessible. It probably argues for an early date.

A little later in the Anglo-Saxon period, a crypt was built. This is now the under-croft chapel. There are still some Anglo-Saxon burials here.

The Undercroft chapel. Taken from the parish website, here.

Several other Anglo-Saxon and medieval artifacts can be seen in the church’s museum, including an Anglo-Saxon stone cross with an inscription that states that it was made by Thelvar.

The church also has numerous medieval and Tudor tombs. Perhaps the most remarkable survival is this Tate panel, a late fifteenth century Flemish altarpiece

The Tate alterpiece, from the Parish website, here

All Hallows by the Tower is a building with so many layers of history buried within it. People sometimes think that all of Old London passed away with the great fire. In All Hallows by the tower we can get a little window onto Anglo-Saxon and medieval London.

The main aisle of All Hallows by the Tower. Commons licence.

If you liked this blog post then why not check out the virtual tour of All Hallows by the Tower on the parish website; or maybe listen to this podcast by London Undone.

Christianising London; or the strange story of St Erkenwald’s corpse

About this series: In the period I work on – fifteenth century London – Londoners had developed all sorts of legends and myths and had lots of ways of retelling their past. These histories fascinate me and are my main topic of research. However, in this series I am investigating the truth or fiction behind some of those myths.

This post concludes a four-part miniseries where I investigate London’s early history, pre 800 A.D.

  1. History of London to 800 A.D.
  2. The Battle for London, 296
  3. Daily life in Anglo-Saxon London
  4. St Erkenwald and the Christianisation of London

Christianising London

We don’t have much good knowledge of Anglo-Saxon pagan religion. We know the names of their principal Gods: Wodin, king of the Gods; Tiw, a god associated with heroic glory, war, and law; and Thunor, the god of Thunder. We assume that their mythology was similar to the better recording legends of the Scandinavians, with Odin Wodin being Odin and Thunor being Thor. Anglo-Saxons didn’t build temples but preferred to worship outdoors. Judging from archaeology they were fond of adopting ancient British and Roman places of worship such as old standing stones, and also liked to worship around trees or at streams.
Above: In a modern stained glass window, St Mellitus clutches Old St Paul’s church.

In 604 a man arrived in the city named Mellitus. He was part of a great mission, authorised by the Pope, sent to convert the people of England. Mellitus set himself up as apostle to the men of Essex, and installed himself as bishop of London. He probably spent a lot of time at the royal court, but the building of a new Cathedral must have provided jobs and stirred interest in the city.
Above: the ‘Gospels of St Augustine’, now at Canterbury Cathedral. Tradition states that this book was the personal property of St Mellitus. Public domain image.

St Paul’s was probably raised on its current site – that is inside the old walls of the Roman city, at a time when most Londoners lived outside of the walls. Mellitus was making a powerful claim that the church was bringing back the Roman glory days. Early Christians would have had to traipse in to the old ruined city, through the old city wall in order to worship – this must have been a daunting experience!

Pagan Reaction

Perhaps it was too daunting, because the first generation of the mission didn’t go very well. In 616 the Christian king, Saebert, died and his three pagan sons took over. Bede claims that burst in on Mellitus whilst he was trying to say mass at his Cathedral:

“And when they saw the bishop, whilst celebrating mass in the church, give the eucharistic bread to the people, they, puffed up with barbarous folly…[said]… to him, ‘Why do you not give us also that white bread, which you used to give to our father Saebert, and which you still continue to give to the people in the church?’

To them, the Bishop answered, ‘If you will be washed in that water of salvation, in which your father was washed, you may also partake of the holy bread of which he partook; but if you despise the water of life, you may not receive the bread of life.’”

(Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, chapter 5, here )

The pagans were outraged. They wanted the magic bread, and they weren’t going to wash for it! If these quarrelsome Christians were going to make a massive fuss and disobey the kings for something as minor as a piece of bread, then they must be troublemakers! They ran Bishop Mellitus out of town and for thirty years the Cathedral stood empty.

An artist's impression of the tomb
Above: The Princely grave at Prittlewell. This is the grave of an East Anglian ruler from about this period who shows mixed evidence of some pagan and some Christian art. Scholars have speculated that this could be the burial of Saebert, although some evidence suggests it could be a generation earlier. Original image by MONA, taken from this BBC article:

Introducing Earconwald

Christianity was down, but it was not out. There were several decades where London could have gone either way, but by the 660s, the Christian King Sebbi expelled his pagan brother and restored Christianity. Sebbi was so pious that later he would abdicate his throne and retire to a monastery. He had a particularly strong partnership with a pious monk named Earconwald. Nowadays you’ll commonly see it spelled ‘Erkenwald’, which is the middle English version of the same name.

Rather handily, Earconwald would later become a saint and have legends written about him. Much of the rest of this blog post relies on the twelfth century life of St Erkenwald written by Arcoid of London: The Saint of London: The Life and Miracles of St Erkenwald, ed. E. Gordon Whatley, (Binghampton, 1989).

With Sebbi’s help, Earconwald set about rebuilding Christianity. He first founded Chertsey abbey for monks. Next, Earconwald’s sister Ethelburga founded Barking abbey for nuns.

Chertsey Breviary - St. Erkenwald.jpg
Above: Erkenwald instructs the monks of Chertsey abbey; from an initial in the Chertsey Breviary. Public domain image, see

Finally, in around 675 Earconwald got a promotion and became Bishop of London. He liked to be seen in public and to preach to the people – so much so that, even when he was too old and frail to walk, he had a horse litter built so that he could still preach in the streets. According to a much later (and not very reliable) story, once a wheel fell off his litter but the vehicle carried on travelling smoothly as if nothing had happened! The people apparently appreciated his common touch and his sense of charity, and Christianity flourished under his rule – or at least so his late biographers tell us.

The unlikely tale of the stolen body

He was staying at Barking abbey, with his sister and the nuns, when illness finally took him. His later biographer tells us that “as he passed from among them, a most marvellous fragrance and sweetest odour filled the cell where he lay, as if the whole house were drenched in perfume” (Vita of St Erkenwald, 91).
Above: Ethelburga, sister of Erkenwald and Abbess at Barking, the Nunnery at which he died. sourced from here

What a sweet end. What came next however, spoiled it. Two separate crowds turned up at the same time to claim the body: one was made up of monks from Chertsey, the monastery that Earconwald had founded. The other was a large crowd of ordinary people from London, led by the canons of St Paul’s. Both sides wanted to take the cold, dead Earconwald back with them to be buried

There was an ugly stand off in the yard: nasty names were called and the Londoners broke into the nunnery. A crowd of laymen grabbed the body and legged it! The monks and nuns set out in hot pursuit, “weeping and wailing for the body of the blessed man” (Vita, 91). The chase was on!

As if there was not enough melodrama in this tale, a storm began to gather. The rain lashed down, the wind “was so violent that people could scarcely stand upright” (Vita, 91). The candles around the body were blown out. As the chase tried to cross the river Hile, also known as the River Roding, the waters surged up and blocked their paths forwards and backwards.
Above: The site of the confrontation on the River Roding. It is perhaps a little less dramatic or romantic than I had hoped. Public domain image

Still the two parties fought each other. But then, from amongst the Londoners stood up a learned and devout man who cried out that they must stop. This ridiculous chase had gone on long enough and was angering God. Everyone had to lie on the floor, pray for forgiveness, and let God decide.

This seemed a sensible enough suggestion and they all did so. Quickly the storm passed, and all of the candles around the body spontaneously lit themselves. The river lowered and presented them with their path back to London. Earconwald was going back to St Paul’s! God had spoken: Earconwald was a Londoner, through and through!

Above: The Shrine of St Erkenwald, as drawn by William Dugdale, History of St Pauls Cathedral in London, (London, 1658), pp. 112-3

The monks and nuns didn’t miss out completely though. Earconwald’s horse litter – the one that did the wheel miracle earlier in the story – was given to Barking. It was quickly found that if an ill person took a ride on the chariot then they would become miraculously better. It quickly became a tidy little money spinner, and the monks took some pieces of the chariot back to Chertsey with them.

Both Earconwald and Sebbi were buried in St Paul’s Cathedral and they quickly became the focus of saints’ cults and pilgrimages. This local mania for miracles and relics is really the first evidence that Londoners were becoming properly enthusiastic about Christianity. The new religion had found its footing.