Celts to the Creche: Day 29
Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby
About 655 or 656-February 8, 713 AD
On this 29th day of our journey to the creche where Christ was born, we meet Ælfflæd who was the second or third Abbess of Whitby following the death in 680 of St. Hilda of Whitby. (see day 2). Like Hilda, she led the Whitby Abbey for 33 years.
Ælfflæd’s mother, Queen Eanflaed, who was the cousin of Hilda and the daughter of King Edwin, likely moved to Whitby about 670 after her husband, King Oswiu (Oswy) died. Most likely, this Mother and daughter shared being Abbesses of this great double monastery of learning and evangelism for several years.
She was described by the writer of Wilfrid’s life as “always the comforter and the best counselor of the whole kingdom.”
Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Ripon) in his Life of St. Wilfrid described Ælfflæd as “always the source of consolation for the entire kingdom, and the best of advisers.” The anonymous Life of St. Gregory was written at Whitby while she was abbess.
We mainly know about Ælfflæd from the writings of Bede (see day 23) in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and The Life of St. Cuthbert; and also in Eddius Stephanus‘ (Stephen of Ripon) Life of St. Wilfrid; and the Anonymous Life of St. Cuthbert.
Early Life and Familial Relationships: Ælfflæd was born into the Northumbrian royal family of King Oswiu (Oswy) and his wife, Queen Eanflæd who was the daughter of King Edwin.
On her maternal side, Ælfflæd was the granddaughter of the King of Deira, Edwin and his wife Queen Æthelburg and the great-granddaughter of King Æthelberht of Kent and his wife Bertha. On Ælfflæd’s paternal side she was the granddaughter of King Aethelfrith and Acha of Bernicia and the great-granddaughter of King Ælle. The much-loved King Oswald was her uncle. Yes, she was well-connected!
When Ælfflæd’s parents, Oswiu and Eanflæd married in 643, this union joined the two Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. Ælfflæd had a sister Osthryth who became the Queen of Mercia. She also had at least three brothers that we know of, Eahlfrith, Ecgfrith, and Ælfwine, and a half-brother Aldfrith who was born out of wedlock to an an Irish princess named Fin. This illegitimate son Aldfrith was raised on the isle of Iona and was considered by both Bede and Alcuin to be a most learned and wise man. It is thought by some that Oswiu’s first wife may have been a princess of Rheged named Rieinmellt according to the Anglo-Saxon genealogies in the Historia Brittonium.
Hilda Receives Land for Whitby: Ælfflæd’s father, King Oswiu gave 12 parcels of land of 10 hides each to establish 12 monasteries as a thank offering for his win at the Battle of Winwaed over the Mercian king Penda on November 15, 654 or 655. One of those parcels of land was at Streaneslach, later called Whitby. As part of that gift of thanksgiving, Bede tells us that Oswiu offered his infant daughter Ælfflæd who was scarcely a year old, “in perpetual virginity” to the monastery at Hartlepool under the guidance of the Abbess Hilda.
Two years later, in 657, Whitby was established and Hilda and toddler Ælfflæd together moved to this new abbey from Hartlepool. So it is likely that Ælfflæd was born about 655 or 656. It is interesting that her father King Oswiu is the one who convened the Synod of Whitby in 664 to resolve the Easter controversy and which chose the Roman way over the Celtic form of worship and life.
Years as Abbess of Whitby: Even though Abbess Hilda never liked or trusted Wilfrid, Ælfflæd’s mother Eanflæd who was raised with a Roman-based faith in East Anglia and was a supporter of the Roman favoring Wilfrid. Yet, many others of this family did not care for Wilfrid at all. Ælfflæd, raised with the Celtic ethos of Hilda and as a trusted friend of both the very Celtic Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (see day 6 )she became a bridge between the Roman and Celtic way of life in early medieval England.
Friendship with St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne: One day Ælfflæd was very ill almost to the point of death. She could not stand upright, was only able to move on all fours, and had much internal pain. Her dear friend Cuthbert came to her mind and she wished she had something belonging to him, for she was certain that would help her.
Soon afterwards a messenger arrived with the gift of a linen girdle from Cuthbert. Ælfflæd was thrilled with the gift and realized that her wishes had been made known to him by heavenly means. She put this girdle on and the next morning she was able to stand up straight. Within three days she was restored to health. A few days later, one of the Whitby nuns came to her with a terrible headache, so Ælfflæd bound up her head with Cuthbert’s girdle and her headache was gone that day. The nun took it off and hid it in her locker. When the Abbess returned to retrieve it, it was gone. Bede says that it was a God-thing that it disappeared otherwise it would have become a sacred item of healing to which people would have flocked.
Another time, in 684, she persuaded Cuthbert to leave his hermitage on Farne Island and meet her at Coquet Island, halfway between Lindisfarne and Whitby. It was at that meeting, that Ælfflæd asked Cuthbert three questions: 1. How long would her brother King Ecgfrith life? 2. Who would succeed him? 3. Would Cuthbert become a Bishop? In response, Cuthbert prophesied of the imminent death of her brother Ecgfrith and the coming to the throne of her half-brother Aldfrith. Cuthbert did become a reluctant Bishop.
Cuthbert even met Ælfflæd once again at Osingadun, where there was a newly established cell of Whitby with a church that Cuthbert was dedicating. Some believe that Osingdun may be modern-day Kirkdale as the church has Saxon work. It is also interesting that the church is dedicated to St. Gregory whom the anonymous monk of Whitby wrote about.
Another time, Ælfflæd hosted a dinner for Cuthbert in which he had a vision while at the dinner table of someone who had died. Ælfflæd asked who it was and he replied that it was someone from her monastery. The next day she learned that one of her shepherds, Hadwald fell from a tree and died at the exact time that Cuthbert “saw” it in his vision.
Friendship with Wilfrid. Ælfflæd continued to be friendly with Wilfrid, even though her predecessor Hilda, who raised her could not abide Wilfrid. According to Ælfflæd, it was the dying wish of her half-brother Aldfrith who had become King, that his successor should come to terms with Bishop Wilfrid.
Trumwine, Bishop to the Picts Moves to Whitby: Bede records that the Bishop to the Picts, Trumwine, chose to live out his retirement at Whitby and he was buried there. He helped Ælfflæd administer this large and prestigious double monastery and was also a comfort to her. Bede relates that Trumwine was a good source of information about Cuthbert.
King Edwin’s Body Translated to Whitby: Even though King Edwin, who was Eanflæd’s father and Ælfflæd’s grandfather, had died on October 12, 632/3, his body was translated to Whitby almost 50 years later. This was done as it is thought that Ælfflæd and her mother wanted Whitby to become a place of pilgrimage much like King Oswald’s relics had done for the Bardney Abbey in Lindsey. Interestingly, later Oswald’s relics were later moved to Durham Cathedral, where he was buried with Cuthbert. Bede goes into detail to describe how Edwin’s body was rediscovered and the process of translation to Whitby. It seems that Whitby became a sort of mausoleum, as other abbeys were, for this royal family. Not only was Edwin buried there, but also Hilda, Ælfflæd, Eanflæd, and Oswiu. Some say that these relics, especially of Hilda’s and maybe the others were taken to Glastonbury when the Vikings began invading northeast England and they began their horrific plundering of the monasteries and churches.
Further Reflections on Ælfflæd: Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Ripon) in his Life of Wilfrid described Ælfflæd as “always the comforter and the best counselor of the whole kingdom.” Bede also speaks highly of her in his Life of St. Cuthbert, saying that she had “increased the nobility of a royal pedigree by the much more potent nobility of the greatest virtues.” Those were some very complimentary words of this Abbess by Bede and the writer of Wilfrid’s life. She must have been a very strong, courageous, compassionate, and wise leader of this double monastery. Hilda raised her well!
She was considered one of the religious leaders of Northumbria. Eddius Stephanus further wrote in his Life of Wilfrid concerning Ælfflæd that she was among the gathered Bishops during the Synod of Nidd in 706. This synod dealt with the Pope’s directive to make peace with Wilfrid and to return the monasteries of Hexham and Ripon and their revenues to him.
Eddius said that Ælfflæd was the “best of advisers and a constant source of strength to the whole province.” She was so highly regarded that she stood among those male leaders at the Synod of Nidd and boldly spoke “inspired words.” She was also included in the Bishops’ special confab near the conclusion of the synod in which the Archbishop gave his advice and Abbess Ælfflæd gave them hers. In the Anonymous Life of St. Cuthbert, it refers to a church being consecrated by a Bishop that Ælfflæd established on one of her estates outside of Whitby.
There is a letter written about 700 that some think that well educated Ælfflaed wrote in a very florid and “high-brow” Latin letter addressed to the Abbess Adolana of Pfalzel near Treves commending one of Ælfflaed’s friends, another Abbess who was staying at Whitby who was very ready to begin her journey back home.
Excavations in the 1920s at Whitby by Radford and Peers found several building foundations and two inscribed memorial stones believed to record the deaths of Ælfflaed, Abbess of Whitby, and Cyneburgh, Queen of King Oswald.
Feast Day February 8
As we continue on our Advent journey with the Celts, we may be discovering that we need to cross a bridge of some kind to reach the creche where Christ is born anew in our lives. Sometimes we may even need to be a “bridge.” A bridge between two people or two sides of a disagreement.
Ælfflæd knew about this as she was a bridge. A bridge between two strong religious leaders, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and Wilfrid of Hexham. She was a bridge between those who followed the Celtic way of life and those who purported the Roman way of life. It’s not easy being a bridge as people often think you are not taking sides with them or that you cannot make up your own mind and you are wishy-washy. Yet, some people like Ælfflædd seem to have an inner gift of being able to see both sides of an issue, of being able to see the good in people with whom they do not necessarily agree. Even her life experiences of being in a family, some of whom were influenced by the more Romanized East Anglians and some like Hilda who raised her from infancy were of the more Celtic way.
St. Peter seemed to have the gift of “bridging.” In Acts chapter 10 and 11, we read about Peter’s vision of the sheet coming down from heaven filled with all kinds of unclean animals and reptiles of which this good kosher Jew was told to “kill and eat.” This vision allowed him to reach out in full welcome to Cornelius the Roman Centurion who was searching for God. He also courageously told of this vision to the Jerusalem Council who believed his words and from that point on non-Jews were readily accepted into the Christian fold.
Jesus the Christ was a bridge between God and humanity, helping us to better understand each other.
Sometimes we have to be bold and courageous to be a “bridge.” Sometimes being a “bridge” requires that we be quiet and fully listen with our hearts and souls.
This world needs some human, yet very deeply spiritual bridges with open minds. Do you know a “bridge” person? What makes them a “bridge?” How might we become more open to be a “bridge?”
“Ælfflæd” by Michael Lapidge in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
“Ælfflæd” in Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 16
An Anonymous Monk of Whitby. The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great. Text, Translation, and Notes by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. ii. 9, 20; iii. 24, 25; iv. 26. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University.
Bede. Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University.
Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1990.
Bonner, Gerald, David Rollason, Clare Stancliffe, eds. St. Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD1200. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1989.
Breay, Claire and Bernard Meehan, eds. The St. Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John. London: British Library, 2015.
Colgrave, Bertram, ed. Two Lives of St. Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1940, 1985 ed.
Harrison, Dick. The Age of Abbesses and Queens: Gender and Political Culture in Early Medieval Europe. Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic Press, 1998.
Kirby, D. P. Bede, Eddius Stephanus and the Life of Wilfrid in The English Historical Review. Vol. 98, No. 386 (January, 1983), pp. 101-114. (This article may be purchased at JSTOR.org.)
Nennius. Historia Brittonum. Edited by St. Mark the Hermit and Rev. W. Gunn. London: 1819.
Stephen of Rippon (Eddius). The Life of Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus. Text, Translation and Notes by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.
Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Webb, J. F., tr. and D. H. Farmer, ed. “Eddius Stephanus: Life of Wilfrid” in The Age of Bede. London: Penguin, 1965.
Yorke, Barbara. Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London: Continuum, 2003. (note: I love this book as it is chock full of information on the nunneries and double monasteries led by women).
Ziegler, Michelle. “Anglian Whitby” in The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter, 1999.