Aidan of Lindisfarne, Part 2

For Part 1, see here. 

Something had to be done about the Northumbrian mission, but what? Corman had failed, and furthermore, had pretty much written off the Angles as not worth their time due to their uncouth and barbarous nature.

There was likely some heated discussion on the matter, but Aidan’s advice was what stood out. “Brother,” he said to Corman, “it seems to me you were too hard on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and given them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ.” 

I don’t imagine Corman took that very well, but the rest of the clergymen who were there to determine what they were going to do about this mission gone so very wrong seized upon Aidan’s words. As Bede says,

“At this the faces and the eyes of all who were at the conference turned toward [Aidan] and they paid close attention to all he said and they realized that here was a fit person to be made a Bishop and sent to instruct the ignorant and unbelieving, since he was particularly endowed with the grace of discretion, the mother of all virtues. They therefore consecrated him as bishop and sent him to preach. Time would show that Aidan was not only remarkable for his discretion but for other virtues as well.”

So just like the hapless person who speaks up at a committee meeting and finds himself with a job, Aidan is promptly bustled off to Northumbria to fix the problems Corman’s harsh approach had caused. There is no indiction that Aidan knew Oswald before this, but chances are he might have met the princeling on any trips to Iona he might have made in the previous years. But thrown together in the mutual building of kingdoms– one physical, one spiritual– Aidan and Oswald soon became fast friends and good partners.

They determined that Lindisfarne would be a good place for a monastery, just far enough away to keep it separate from the king’s influence but close enough to allow for close cooperation. And cooperate they did. As Aidan did not know the local Anglish language, Oswald accompanied Aidan on his early missionary journeys as a translator, for Oswald’s exile at Dal Riata had given him fluency in the Irish tongue. This also would have the benefit of Oswald being able to reconnect with his people after so long away, and to introduce himself as king. A king who practiced the faith that Aidan preached, which would have gone a long way to persuade the people to convert.

This was the lay of the land in Britain at the time of Aidan.

This was the lay of the land in Britain at the time of Aidan. Lindisfarne and Bamburgh are on the north-east coast, in Bernicia.

It was all very satisfactory, and both Oswald and Aidan made great gains. Oswald’s kingdom flourished, and he eventually became bretwalda, or High King, of most of northern Britain (some say all of Britain, but I think that’s stretching it a bit far). It was all good until ten years later when Oswald was killed by Penda of Mercia, the pagan king who, in one stroke of his sword, changed the Northumbrian landscape forever.

Suddenly Oswald’s kingdom was up for grabs, and the most likely candidate was his half-brother, Oswy, who immediately was crowned king in Bernicia, the northern half of the kingdom Oswald had united. But in the south, in Deira, they were not so enamoured with Oswy as king, as he didn’t have the same credentials as Oswald. The two brothers had different mothers, and as Oswald’s claim to the Derian throne came through his mother, Oswy didn’t quite cut the mustard in the eyes of the Deirian thegns. So Oswy would have to place a cousin, Oswine, who did have the right pedigree, on the Deirian throne as sub-king, for now, until he could prove himself in the eyes of his southern nobles.

And Aidan? Well, it seems like he had a closer relationship with Oswine than Oswy. Bede praises Oswine as being more devout, and perhaps that was the case. Or maybe there was a personality conflict, or a conflict that came from the time Oswy was in exile in Dal Riata. All of these have been speculated upon by more knowledgable people than me. But suffice it to say, it seems that, although for all outward appearances Aidan and Oswy continued to work together, things were not quite as cosy between Bamburgh and Lindisfarne under Oswy’s rule as they were under Oswald.

And then something really bad happened that severed the ties between them completely, it seems….but I won’t go into that, not yet, anyway.

Hmm. A new king on the throne, who has to rebuild the kingdom his brother had won and prove himself in the eyes of his people. An upstart king on his border who has just gained a lot of credibility in his own kingdom by killing the most powerful king in Britain, and who is eager to press home his advantage on the newly weakened and divided Northumbria. And a charismatic and beloved Bishop, who has to walk a delicate diplomatic line between two kings, cousins who are jockeying for power.

Sound like a good setting for a novel? Me too! So that’s where my book, Wilding, the first book in my Traveller’s Path trilogy, opens. But somehow the Fey snuck in, as they are wont to do, so add to that some unrest in the Fey kingdoms, an ignorant Traveller from our own time who suddenly finds himself lost in this dangerous time and place, and another one whose grief and ambition have driven him to some dark places into the mix, and presto! A trilogy is born.

Aidan of Lindisfarne, pt 1

Oswald, King of Bernicia, had a problem. He had spent long years of exile amongst the Dál Riatan Scots* after his father, Æthelfirith, was slain and his throne taken by Æthelfirith’s brother-in-law, Edwin. Approximately 16 years later Edwin was slain by Cadwallon of Gwynedd, and Oswald’s older brother, and heir to the throne, Eanfrith, rode south from Dál Riata with a war-band to sue for peace. But Cadwallon was not much interested and killed Eanfrith, taking the Bernician throne for himself.  Cadwallon promptly spent a year raping and pillaging his conquered territory, as Bede puts it, “like a cruel tyrant ravaging and tearing them apart with dreadful loss of life.” Oswald, being next in line for the throne and hearing these distressing reports of the murder of his brother and the ravaging of his people, rode off to war with a small army to re-take his ancestral throne back from the British king.

During the time he had been in exile amongst the Dál Riatans, Oswald and his brothers had become Christians, due to the influence of the monks at the island monastery of Hii (now called Iona) where they would have been sent for education. Oswald was facing a bigger army and the odds were not good, but the night before the battle he fashioned a wooden cross and knelt and prayed for victory, his army kneeling at his side (although many of them, being Angles, would have been pagans).

Oswald received a vision from the monk Columba, founder of Iona, who promised him victory, and sure enough, Gwynedd’s army was routed and Oswald crowned King of Bernicia and Deira. Seeing this success, his nobles and war chiefs all were baptized and agreed to follow Christ.

All was proceeding smoothly, and Oswald went back to Bamburgh, his royal fortress on the north-east coast, and began to organize his kingdom. His first priority was to bring a monk from Iona to begin a missionary work amongst the pagan Northumbrians. There is no doubt that Oswald was a sincere Christian, and this would have been something he was eager to do, but as well it is likely that the military support that he gained from Dál Riata during the battle came with a price tag–to start a missionary work in Bernicia.

And then the first hiccup occurred. The monk, Cormán (or Gorman, in some accounts), was singularly unsuited for the task, and by all accounts the mission was a disaster.

What went wrong? This is how Bede puts it:

….[a] man of sterner temperament was sent at first; but although he preached among the English for some time he met with no success, and the people were unwilling to listen to him. He therefore returned home and announced at a meeting of the elders that he had been able to make no headway in teaching the nation to which he had been sent, for they were an intractable people of stubborn and uncivilized character.

Hmmm. Certainly a measure of pointing the finger there, to be sure, but I have a twinge of sympathy for Corman, thrust from the civilized world of the Irish, where learning was prized, to the world of the pagan, uncouth Angles. He would not have known the language, and the people would have been inclined to hostility, I would think, given their treatment at the hands of Cadwallon’s British occupying army. The native Britons were called wealas by the Angles, meaning “foreigner” (the origin of the word Wales), which is ironic, seeing as it was actually the Angles who were the foreign occupiers of British territory, but oh well, to the victor belongs the spoils, so they say. And here was yet another wealas bossing them around and telling them to give up their gods and their glorious afterlife of riches and feasting for the discipline of a Christian life where the individual’s will was brought into subjection to Christ, the strange “white god” who couldn’t be much of a god if he allowed himself to be killed.

The return of Corman and his entourage of monks back to Iona could be nothing but a disaster, both spiritually and politically. Here was an opportunity to claim a kingdom for Christ, but the door had been closed. And what of Oswald, the Dál Raitan foster-son, who had lived and fought alongside them and converted to the faith, who had begun his rule with a great sign from God? His people had proven too much of a challenge for an experienced monk. For Corman to pack his bags and go home would have looked very bad for Oswald. What would that say about Christianity to his watching thegns and earldomen whose conversion to the faith had likely been prompted more by the desire to back a winner than out of real understanding of it.

Iona Abbey, Scotland, by Roy Lathwell, on Flickr.  It is located on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Another place on my bucket list!

Iona Abbey, Scotland, by Roy Lathwell, on Flickr.
The beautiful abbey of Iona. The buildings date from medieval times. It is located on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Another place on my bucket list!

To have Corman slink away with his metaphorical tail between his legs would have made Oswald’s faith look weak, and in extension, would have made Oswald himself look weak in the eyes of his subjects. And weak kings in Anglo-Saxon England did not last long.

Back to that meeting of elders described by Bede, where Corman has just laid out his case for why he came back. You can imagine the dismay at his words. They all knew what was at stake. One of the attendees of the meeting was Aidan, at that time a Bishop of Scattery Island.

We don’t know a lot about the early history of Aidan (anglicized form of the Gaelic Áedán or Aohdán). But in my next instalment I will tell you what we know, and give you a clearer picture of this man, whom I found by happy accident while researching the people and the places of the era of my novel, who has come to be known as the Apostle of the English…


*Today this is Ireland, but no such designation existed then. The Irish were called the Scotii by the Romans, which morphed into our modern-day word for the Scots. I know, confusing.