(Acknowledgement. I am grateful to Dr Francis Young for kindly taking the time to read an earlier version of this article and making helpful suggestions to correct several factual errors. I take full responsibility, of course, for any remaining errors or omissions and interpretations about Anglo-Saxon saints).
The Anglo-Saxon Church was awash with saints. The conversion from paganism to Christianity was bound to generate many genuine spiritual heroes and heroines but, as with all facets of the Anglo-Saxon conversion experience, there was often compromise, and it could be awkward. This article explores what it took to become a saint.
If I wanted to join the panoply of Anglo-Saxon saints, I’d have to perform well against some of the following selection criteria. I’d have to have been a particularly holy or pious member of the Church or of royalty, or had played a significant role in establishing Christianity in one of the kingdoms. It would help if I had been, or had become during my former life, celibate and ascetic (‘dying to the flesh’). If I were a martyred king, dying defending faith and country against the pagans*, my chances were very high. I might also get through if I were royalty who had been murdered by another Christian, even if I had no particular uplifting qualities. If I performed miracles in life and death, this was a sign of my sanctity, and especially if my body did not corrupt after death. It would certainly help if I had widespread appeal because of the way I had led my life.
However, as with all things, it’s not just what you know but who you know. If I had backing from a strong Church community or a powerful royal house, my chances were far greater, because they would push my case and ultimately benefit from my sanctity to further their interests.
Some of this might sound a bit cynical – it’s not meant to be. Many saints were special, courageous, humble human beings, who were touched by the divine, but not always did the best man or woman get the job. Some had few personal attributes to justify their status and many noble souls doubtless missed out. The gatekeeper to sainthood was the Church but the formal selection criteria used later to select saints had yet to be bedded down, so many simply became saints by popular acclaim.
So, why write about Anglo-Saxon saints? Well, apart from being an Anglo-Saxon nerd, because it raises some interesting issues about the role of saints in the creation of England. Did they inspire the defenders and ultimately capture the heads and hearts of the invaders? It also raises issues about Anglo-Saxon beliefs and the workings of the Church and state – a combination of the sacred and the downright practical – a perennial issue. I’ve picked two saints as examples – Cuthbert (icon of the Northumbrian Church) and Edmund (martyred last Anglo-Saxon King of the East Angles).
Two Great Anglo-Saxon Saints
Saint Cuthbert was the great Northumbrian saint. Much has been written about his life and cult, including by Saint Bede. In a nutshell, he was happier living an ascetic, eremitic life, but had to deal with the chores of monastic responsibilities and late in life, to his dismay, was chosen as Bishop of Lindisfarne. He died a couple of years later. He lived for a time as a hermit on the Inner Farne Island, off the wild Northumbrian coast.
Cuthbert was probably from an aristocratic family, had close links with Northumbrian royalty and also tender connections with the natural world, such as the story about otters drying and warming his feet after one of his prayer vigils in deep, cold water. He performed his fair share of miracles and prophesying. During his life he was genuinely and widely admired and loved for his humility, generosity and spirituality.
There is so much about Cuthbert that is appealing, not only to those who have chosen the cloistered life but to many others. Despite the formulas employed by the Anglo-Saxon Church in writing down the lives of saints – hagiographies – which often create cardboard cut-out figures, designed to exemplify sanctioned images of a good religious life, a real man does emerge. He crosses boundaries – trained in the Celtic tradition but chose to follow the Roman, rather than Celtic, approach following the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD. The tension between Cuthbert’s desire for solitary prayer and contemplation and the demands of monastic and ecclesiastical office, speak to us of a spiritual man who understood and undertook his duty, however irksome.
This was also an instructive message for the Church to promulgate. Sarah Luginbill quotes Dominic Marner, as highlighting that the three roles of Cuthbert in primary Anglo-Saxon sources – as prior, hermit and bishop – aided the perpetuation and spread of Cuthbert’s cult, as more people could identify with one or more of the saint’s personifications (Luginbill, 2014: p 6). When he knew his end was near, Cuthbert returns alone to a place he loves – the Inner Farne – to die.
Cuthbert’s death in 687 certainly didn’t signal the end of his impact or story – indeed, quite the opposite. Death simply signalled another phase in his life – a heavenly one – with which the faithful on earth wanted to connect. This is when his physical remains take on significance. The pre-eminent reason for this is that when his grave was opened in 698 – 11 years after his death – his body was found to be incorrupt and flexible. This was a sure sign of his sanctity, his link with Heaven, so at odds was it with the fate of ordinary humans. It demonstrated that God had acknowledged Cuthbert’s sanctity and had graced his physical remains. These could now continue to perform miracles, as Cuthbert had in life.
When the Vikings raided Lindisfarne in 793, the monks leave with his body, and it continues its peripatetic existence, having a number of temporary homes, a semi-permanent existence for just over a century at Chester-le-Street, until finally settling in Durham in 995.
There are multiple reasons why Cuthbert was moved around over a 200 year period: escape from the Vikings, escape from other potential aggressors and to strengthen the hold of Cuthbert’s community on contested land holdings, estates and the people’s affections. Once Cuthbert settled in Durham, the episcopal see was officially moved to the city (Luginbill, 2014: p 14). It is tempting to see the journey of Cuthbert’s remains as a saintly version of the practice of medieval kings of progressing around their realm to solidify their position – in this case, assisted by the Saint’s earthly community.
In death, Cuthbert’s influence grew, based on his incorrupt body, continuing miracles, and as Northumbrian royalty, aristocracy, Church hierarchy and ordinary people built his cult for spiritual and practical reasons. His influence also spread beyond Northumbria. He was venerated by the great Kings of Wessex – Alfred and Athelstan, and by the Danish King of England, Cnut. Alfred considered that Cuthbert had strengthened him in the difficult period before and during the critical Battle of Edington, when he defeated the Danes and saved Wessex.
Saint Edmund, pious last of the royal line of the East Angles, differs from Cuthbert in two important respects – he was a king and he was martyred for his faith. Edmund was killed in 869 after being defeated by the Danes. Tradition has it that once captured he was shot with arrows and beheaded. Fact and myth merge, as generally with saints in this period. His head was found by calling out to his men and defended by a great wolf – an allusion to Edmund’s family name – the Wuffingas – ‘kin of the wolf’. Miracles abound around his body and where it had lain. When his body is translated to Bury St Edmunds (argued by Francis Young to be in 889. Young, 2018: pp 75, 76), it is found to be incorrupt and complete with the head and body reunited.
As with Cuthbert, Edmund’s cult grew and drew kings, including Cnut and Edward the Confessor, and similarly, acquired lands, endowments and treasures from great patrons. Even William the Conqueror honoured Edmund and was more devoted to him than to any other English saint (Young, 2018: p 95). Edmund became the first patron saint of England until replaced by Saint George under Edward III.
(More on Edmund later).
Who Became Anglo-Saxon Saints and Why?
Who were most likely to become saints in Anglo-Saxon England and its predecessor kingdoms? It seems that three broad groups of people joined this exulted community: particularly holy members of the Church or royalty, members of the Church and royal figures who were martyred, and royalty who were murdered by other Christians.
It is easier to understand the elevation of holy, pious or martyred members of the Church but why were members of Anglo-Saxon royal families sanctified? The answer seems to lie in two main causes: the special, semi-divine status of royalty in Germanic culture; and the emerging symbiotic relationship between Church and royalty.
In the pagan Anglo-Saxon period and in Celtic societies, when groups were becoming more hierarchical and territorial, kings developed as the link between a tribe, its land and its gods. It is a relationship recognised in many early societies. Thus, Mark Taylor draws a link between the story of King Edmund’s martyrdom and the older Celtic beliefs of divine kingship, of kings as the sacred connection between the people and their gods, and between the people and their shared ancestry (Taylor, 2013).
The Church began its concerted mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons following Saint Augustine’s arrival in 597AD, initiated by Pope Gregory the Great. Pope Gregory’s shrewd strategy articulated to Augustine was effectively to acknowledge some of the places and practices venerated by the pagans but to Christianise them, in order that the people would feel continuity and be more easily reconciled with the new faith. The sacred character of kingship in pagan culture was accordingly embraced and given a Christian gloss.
Little wonder that the evangelising Church focused on converting kings – they were the practical and spiritual lever to gain protection, land, privileges and souls. This also ultimately led to Christ being seen as a kind of Germanic hero, a warrior-king, a unifying force.
There was no higher calling for a king than to defend their kingdom and their faith, so when they were martyred, they were sanctified. From this perspective, a pious, martyred, incorrupt, miracle-working king, such as Edmund, ticks all the boxes, and is able to perform his sacred duty, even though dead. Edmund was truly a great East Anglian!
Some of the results of the marriage between pagan and Christian beliefs and practices can look quite strange through modern eyes. For example, some Christianised kings still acknowledged pagan gods in the misty origins of their dynastic genealogies, but also recognised Noah as an ancestor. Some scholars see this as deriving from a strategy promoted by part of the Church that considered that past peoples had mistaken Germanic and Classical kings, such as Woden, as gods (Yorke, B., 2017: p 59). The result might look a bit odd but it was a workable compromise between an evangelising Church and a powerful, conservative elite.
There were also many members of royal and aristocratic families, who chose, at some stage in their existence, the cloistered life. Often they took leading roles, as did Etheldreda, daughter of a king of the East Angles, who became wife to two other kings in succession, but still led a pious, celibate life. She founded the monastery at Ely. There was a sort of ‘aristocratic-monastic complex’. Paul Binski, drawing on the French historian, Andre Vauchez, makes a distinction between the aristocratic sainthood of north-western Europe and the urban sanctity of the Mediterranean. ‘England remained a country of “holy sufferers”, men and women who were high-born and whose styles of life and death entailed the trauma of inner (spiritual) or outer (fleshy) martyrdom’ (Binski, 2005).
If kingship merged Germanic and Christian traits, so did the cult of saints. The pagan Anglo-Saxons believed in an array of familiar gods, spirits and ancestors. The big difference with Christianity was that it demanded, at least in theory, belief in a single God. This was unlike earlier belief systems, which could more-or-less happily bolt on new deities to their existing regimes. In practice, there was a transition period when folk added the Holy Trinity to the existing panoply and chose what to believe, even if some of this was below the counter.
Consistent with Pope Gregory’s approach, saints came to develop as a Christian proxy for the erstwhile community of pagan gods and spirits. The development of a cult of saints, who could intercede between humanity in need and God, had a familiar ring. Christianised folk might have lost the panoply of pre-Christian gods and spirits but they could call on a growing community of semi-divine figures, who had inspiring qualities, human personalities, engaging quirks, particular areas of interest, and could be most easily accessed at particular, holy places and times of the year.
Also, while some saints venerated in Anglo-Saxon England and its predecessor kingdoms were not of domestic origin (or, indeed, had ever set foot on the island), the growing corpus of home-grown Anglo-Saxon saints provided a familiar, local link to Heaven. They helped tie the Anglo-Saxon Church into the broader Western Christian family, while also playing a role in generating an English Church with its own character.
There is not the space here to discuss, except in the briefest terms, the role of the Celtic Church. Their saints also proliferated, especially in those parts of Britain least affected by Anglo-Saxon culture and the Rome-initiated Church. However, the humility, piety, energy and missionary zeal associated with Celtic monasticism meant their representatives played a significant role in the spread of Christianity across Britain, including in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. For example, Saint Cuthbert was trained in the Celtic traditions, and the Irish Saint Fursey was instrumental in the spread of Christianity in the Kingdom of the East Angles.
The developing Church found a landscape full of sacred places, natural and man-made, that had been instilled with pagan meaning over countless generations. These ‘temples’ faced reinterpretation following Pope Gregory’s approach and, over time, saints were employed in the conversion of the pagan landscape. For example, a spring associated with a pagan spirit could be purified and renamed as a particular saint’s spring etc.
In the years following their elevation, many saints were used by Church or state – because of the affection in which they were held by the people – to further political, dynastic, financial and personal ends. Getting your hands on the relics of a celebrity saint brought in the crowds and the money and the royal patronage, and devotion during periods of warfare against pagans, as did having a saint in your family tree assist your status.
As sanctification increased the influence of the deceased on the living (as they became a hotline to God), so it gave Church and state the incentive to modify and reinterpret the personality and achievements of a saint. So, under the powerful medieval prince-bishops of Durham, Saint Cuthbert became a forceful personality, not a gentle hermit, who loved nature.
It is harder to understand why other members of royalty were sanctified because they were murdered by fellow Christians for secular motives. As Rollason points out, some who were sanctified, like Edward the Martyr, had no qualifying personal virtues (quite the opposite) but was made a saint because of the manner of his death, while visiting his half-brother (Rollason, 1982: p. 2). Rollason goes on to provide some cogent pragmatic, political motives for sainthood for murdered royalty: royal families gaining prestige from having a saint in their family tree; the Church strengthening the influence of supportive dynasties; sainthood implicating and undermining the killers and helping harness opposition; the cults of royal saints discouraging royal murders and promoting the sacred nature of kingship (Rollason, 1982: pp.16-22).
The Role of Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Remains
So, what of the physical remains of saints – what role did these perform? In pre-Reformation England, physical connections with the divine were crucial, including with the bodies of the esteemed dead and objects associated with them – relics. Post-Reformation, this association continued in the Catholic Church. The bodies of those who became saints were elevated above those of ordinary humans. This was a literal matter, as well as metaphorical – with their bodies being translated to above-ground tombs and shrines to facilitate veneration by pilgrims. If the body did not succumb to the near ubiquitous process of decomposition but was discovered to be incorrupt, this was a wonderful sign that the individual had been recognised by God and had received his special blessing.
The saint was a link with Heaven and their body became a powerful, tangible connection with the divinity. To touch a saint’s remains or objects associated with them brought the living into contact with the heavenly kingdom, when special requests could be made and miracles performed. Kings and, by association, their families, were already treated as semi-divine and capable of healing the sick, so the remains of a martyred king were powerful.
In the scale of importance, it was the saint’s body that drew people. So, their post mortem travels and where the saint ultimately settled, were of great interest to the living. The location of saints’ physical remains, and other places associated with them, gave the landscape a sacred Christian quality, where contact with the saint was facilitated, often replacing formerly pagan sacred sites. Their anniversaries also gave the annual cycle special times to pray with the saint to gain divine assistance. England today continues to have this wonderful, mystical quality, although it takes some effort at times – physical and mental – to discover and to touch it.
Luginbill quotes Marner in saying, ‘the very physical presence of Cuthbert, in all areas of the kingdom of Northumbria…is a fascinating example of the way in which the corporeal presence of a saint helps sanctify a geographical region and affirms and strengthens its boundaries’ …and the ‘unifying factor in their lives was the shrine and land of Saint Cuthbert’ (Luginbill, 2014, p. 34, quoting Marner, 2000).
Sometimes, the saint had a say in where they settled – either through an injunction when they were alive or through miraculous means, such as Saint Cuthbert indicating his choice through making it impossible to move his coffin further, until members of his community heard two women talk of a lost cow on a hill – Dun Holm. Taking this to be Cuthbert’s choice, the community found they could move his coffin once more to the hill, and there he settled.
However, saints were such a valuable rarity that the laws of supply and demand led to some undignified practices. There are stories of the theft of saints’ bodies and other relics by rival houses in order to secure the benefits of having a saint on hand. One way to deal with this scarcity was the circulation of a saint’s individual bones, as a kind of ‘sacred currency’ (Luginbill talks of a ‘relic tour’ in relation to Cuthbert’s incorrupt body, Luginbill, 2014, p. 13). It’s not hard to see how impersonal bones could lose their provenance and multiply in the marketplace for relics. No-one was keeping a master leger on the use of the bones of a disarticulated skeleton. This is how certain saints could end up having four arms or enough toes for four feet.
Church, State and Saints
This is a complex relationship and only a few broad observations can be made here. We know that the Anglo-Saxon Church and royal state generally grew to be mutually supportive, especially when both were attacked by outsiders. The semi-divine status of kings and the role of the Church as links with the divine, made them natural allies. Saints were drawn from both these spheres and, given the extent of personal connections between royalty and the Church, the creation and practical role of saints derived from the needs of both Church and state, and the genuine feelings and affection of the people, who needed the help of this body of sacred, mystical figures.
The commodification of saints’ remains during this period is illustrative of how a special body and personality could be transformed, not only in the sacred domain but also by secular forces.
Role of Anglo-Saxon Saints in the Creation of England
So, did the community of Anglo-Saxon saints rise up to help create England in the teeth of pagan Viking or Norman onslaught, like a resurrected Arthur? Hardly, but they did play a role. If Alfred was inspired by Saint Cuthbert at the pivotal Battle of Edington, when the king halted and reversed the pagan advances, then his example helped gain an iconic victory. Cuthbert also inspired Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, whose victories and inspired kingship, led him within a few runs of being the first king of the English and overlord of the Christian and pagan peoples of the island.
If kings were motivated by saints in defence of their Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, what impact did they have on the common person? We can imagine it was significant, as they followed the example of their kings and the people were, in any case, deeply spiritual. The community of saints, resting in iconic locations across the kingdom, helped give the land a sacred Christian quality. The tomb of Jesus may not have been in the land of the Angles and Saxons but many sites of pagan significance had been recast, and the island was now home to the spiritually powerful remains of holy saints – many of whom were home-grown – with their links to Heaven. If their bodies and the places where they rested were sacred, then they were worth defending. Saints would be called upon to pray to God for help in defending the land. This did not guarantee victory, of course – Alfred’s kingdom survived and grew but Edmund’s East Anglia fell to the Danes and became part of the Danelaw. However, Edmund later became the first patron saint of England and his banner carried into battle. But there is still a twist.
If saints motivated England’s defenders, what did they do for the invaders? Cnut became King of England in 1016 after the Dane invaded and defeated the English. Although undeniably aggressive in war, he settled into a generally benign and intelligent rule. He venerated many Anglo-Saxon saints, including Cuthbert, Edmund and Etheldreda, walking barefoot to visit Cuthbert’s shrine, and bestowed generous gifts.
It is easy to see a conqueror’s use of native laws, beliefs, customs and power relations as a way of controlling the inhabitants. This is a tried and true technique. To be certain, this would have played a part in Cnut embracing Christianity and honouring a number of saints. Cnut became a Christian, as did many of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, for political as well as religious motives. However, as Young comments; ‘Yet because he was appropriated equally by Danes and Anglo-Saxons alike, Edmund was destined to become a unifying rather than a divisive figure. By the time Edward the Confessor visited his shrine in the mid-eleventh century … Edmund was already the nation’s pre-eminent royal saint’ (Young, 2018, p. 69). As we noted earlier, Young also points to William the Conqueror’s honouring of Edmund (Young, 2018, p: 95).
The Risk of Cynicism
To dismiss the role of saints as purely self-serving social control is as glib and superficial as dismissing all politicians as selfish nest-featherers. Faith and spirituality were vital, meaningful and inspirational to the Anglo-Saxons on a day-by-day basis. The greatest saints were genuinely respected and admired. They were miracle-workers and a link with Heaven. Because they were special, they were used by some in the ruling institutions to serve their needs, at the time of the saints’ elevation and in the decades and centuries to follow. Faith and practical considerations often combined, as they do still.
If we, in the 21st century, look at these great men and women, and the role they performed, solely through the prism of our cynical condescension, we will gain some insights but will miss the minds and hearts of the Anglo-Saxons.
* I use the word ‘pagan’ loosely and apologetically to describe in short-hand all the variety of non-Christian beliefs encountered by the Christian mission. The term was coined by the Church to differentiate itself from these existing views of supernatural powers and beings.
All photos taken by author.
Binski, P., The Cult of Edward the Confessor, History Today, London, Volume 55, Issue 11, November 2005.
Fletcher, R., Who’s Who in Roman and Anglo-Saxon England, Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 1989.
Luginbill, S., The Bones of St. Cuthbert: Defining a Saint’s Cult in Medieval Northumbria, 2014, History Honors Theses. Paper 6, Trinity University.
Marner, D., St. Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2000, p12.
Rollason, D.W., The Cults of Murdered Royal Saints in Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon England, 11, pp1-22, doi:10.1017/S0263675100002544.
Taylor, M., Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom, Fordaro, 2013.
Wood, M., In Search of the Dark Ages, BBC, London, 1982.
Yorke, B. (2017) King Alfred and Weland: Tradition and Transformation at the Court of King Alfred, in Insley, C. and Owen-Crocker, G. R. (eds.), Transformation in Anglo-Saxon Culture, Oxford, Oxbow Books.
Young, F., Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King, I.B. Tauris, London, 2018.