Virgin Saints and Martyrs – Saint Elfleda

Saint ElfledaWhen the terrible Penda had advanced into Northumbria, against Oswy, destroying homesteads and harvests with fire, and butchering all who fell into his hands, then the Northumbrian king sent presents to him, and asked for peace. The fierce Mercian refused the presents offered: nothing would satisfy him but the absolute subjection of the Northern Kingdom. Then, in despair, Oswy vowed to God that, as the old Pagan had rejected his gifts, he would dedicate his little one-year-old daughter to Him, together with twelve farms, if He would bless his arms in battle.

The odds were against Oswy. The host opposed to him was thrice as numerous as his own. Ethelhere, King of the East Angles, had come to the aid of Penda; and Odilwald, son of Saint Oswald, who had been given an underlordship of part of Deira, and who thought he ought to have succeeded his father in kingship, went over to Penda.

The battle was fought on the Winwaed, near Leeds; the Mercians and their allies in their confidence had incautiously put the river at their back. Heavy rains filled it to overflow; it became a deep and boiling torrent, cutting off retreat. The Mercians were defeated. A panic fell on them, and as they fled they were swept away by the swollen river. Of the thirty eorldormen who marched with Penda, hardly one survived. The King of the East Angles and the savage old Mercian were among those who were slain. Odilwald did not enter the battle. He was well aware that when Bernicia had been eaten, Penda’s next mouthful would be Deira. He bore a bitter grudge against Oswy, but for all that did not care to put the knife into the hand of the Mercian king wherewith to have his own throat cut.

A battle song was composed on the occasion, of which a snatch has been preserved: –

“In the river Winwaed is avenged the slaughter of Anna,

The slaughter of Sigbert and Ecgric as well,

The slaughter of Oswald and Edwin who fell.”

The battle was fought in 655, consequently Saint Elfleda was born in 654.

Oswy faithfully kept his vow. He set apart twelve estates to be thenceforth monastic property – six in the north and six in the south of his double kingdom. He then surrendered the little Elfleda to be brought up to the service of God.

Her mother was Eanfleda, daughter of Edwin, the first Christian King of Northumbria. It was, in fact, her birth, on Easter Day, 626, which was the occasion of the subsequent conversion of her father, and of his subjects; and Eanfleda was the firstfruits of her nation to receive baptism on the Whit Sunday following.

Oswy, the father of Elfleda, was a dissolute and murderous ruffian, who in cold blood had murdered the gallant Oswin, King of Deira, the kinsman of his own wife.

Oswy gave his daughter to Saint Hilda, at Hartlepool.

In the furious and fratricidal wars which were waged in England by the conquerors of the British, each kingdom was animated by a blind instinct that the unity of the race should be effected somehow; but each understood this only as by bringing the rest under subjection.

Elfleda is described by Bede as a very pious princess. She had a sister, older than herself, Alcfleda, who had been married to Peada, son of the ravager Penda. But Alcfleda bore no love to her husband, and had him assassinated whilst he was celebrating Easter.

Two years after Elfleda had been placed at Hartlepool, Saint Hilda obtained a grant of land where now stands Whitby, but which was then called Streaneshalch. She moved thither, and there constituted her famous monastery. This was in 658.

With Hilda remained Elfleda till the death of the great abbess in 680. On the death of Oswy in 670, ten years before, her mother Eanfleda came there; but when Hilda died, the young Elfleda, and not her mother, was elected to be the second abbess. As she was scarcely twenty-five, she was guided and assisted by Trumwin, who had been Bishop of Witherne, but had been obliged to leave his diocese by the unruly Picts, and he had withdrawn to the monastery of Hilda to remain under her rule.

Like all the Anglo-Saxon princesses of the period who retired into the cloister, Elfleda did not cease to take a passionate interest in the affairs of her race and her country, and to exercise a very remarkable influence over the princes and the people. When in 670 Oswy died he was succeeded by his son Egfrid, as unprincipled a man as his father. In 674, at Easter, Saint Cuthbert was drawn from his island and cell and was ordained Bishop, with his seat at Lindisfarne, to rule the Northumbrian Church, in the presence of the king, at York. It was then that Cuthbert, knowing what was in the heart of the turbulent king, urged him to refrain from attacking the Picts and Scots, who were not molesting the Northumbrians. He would not, however, hearken. He had already despatched an army under Beorf to wantonly ravage Ireland. This had, as Bede said, “miserably wasted that harmless nation, which had always been friendly to the English; insomuch that in their hostile rage they spared neither churches nor monasteries.” The expedition against the Picts was determined on against the advice of all his friends, and of the Bishop of York, and of Cuthbert.

Elfleda was in great anxiety about her headstrong brother, and she went to see Cuthbert concerning him. He and the abbess met, having gone by sea to the place appointed for the interview. She threw herself at his feet and entreated him to tell her what the issue would be – would Egfrid have a long reign?

“I am surprised,” answered Cuthbert, “that a woman well versed, like you, in the Scriptures, should speak to me of length of human life, which lasts no longer than a spider’s web. How short, then, must life be for a man who has but a year to live, and has death at his door!”

At these words Elfleda’s tears began to flow. She felt that the wise old hermit saw that the mad as well as wicked expedition of her brother must end fatally.

Presently, drying her tears, she continued with feminine boldness to inquire who would be the king’s successor, since he had neither sons nor brothers.

“Say not so,” replied Cuthbert. “He shall have a successor whom you will love, as you as a sister love Egfrid.”

“Tell me,” pursued Elfleda, “where can this successor be?”

Then he turned his eyes to the islands dotting this coast, and said: “How many islands there be in this mighty ocean! Surely thence can God bring a man to reign over the English.”

Elfleda then perceived that he spoke of a young man, Alcfrid, supposed to be the son of her father Oswy by an Irish mother, and who had been a friend of Wilfrid, and was now in Iona, probably hiding from his brother, whom he could not trust.

The venerable Cuthbert was not out in his conjecture. On May 20th, 684, Egfrid was drawn into a pass at Drumnechtan, in Forfar, was surrounded by the Scots and Picts, slain, and the great bulk of his men cut to pieces.

“From that time,” says Bede, “the hopes of the English crown began to waver and retrograde; for the Picts recovered their own lands, which had been held by the English.”

Alcfrid at once left Iona, and was chosen king. He was a good and just prince, much under the influence of Wilfrid and inclined to adopt Roman fashions.

It becomes necessary now to speak of a controversy that rent the unity of the Church in England.

All Northumbria, Mercia and Essex had received the faith from Iona, the monastic capital of the Scots, whereas Kent and Wessex had received it from Rome.

Iona had been founded in 563 by Saint Columba, an Irishman; and it was from Iona that Saint Aidan, the Apostle of Northumbria, had been sent. Lindisfarne, the seat of the Bishops of Northumbria, was a daughter of Iona.

Now, there were certain differences between this Celtic Church and that of Rome and Gaul.

In the first place, the Britons and Irish had been cut off from communication with the rest of Europe by the troubles that afflicted the Empire as it fell into ruin under the blows of the Barbarians. Consequently they were unaware that a change had been agreed on in the observance of Easter. It was discovered in 387 that the system of calculating Easter was erroneous, and Pope Hilary employed one Victorinus to frame a new cycle, which was thenceforth followed in the Latin Church. But of this change the British and Irish Church knew nothing; and when Augustine and his followers arrived in Kent they found that the ancient Church of the Britons observed Easter on a different day from themselves.

That was not all. The Celtic monks had a different tonsure or mode of cutting of the hair from the Latin monks. Instead of shaving the top of the head, and leaving the hair as a crown, they shaved the front of the head from ear to ear. Now, the reason of the use of the tonsure among the Celts was this. The cutting of the hair signified adoption, and there is some reason to believe that every tribe or clan clipped its hair in its own peculiar fashion. The Ecclesiastical tribe adopted the shaving of the front of the head; and every one so shaven belonged in the ecclesiastical clan.

When Saint David settled in the valley where is now the Cathedral that bears his name, there was an Irish Pict invader living in a camp hard by. He had seized on that bit of Pembrokeshire. His name was Boia, and he was a pagan. His wife was highly incensed at Christian monks settling on their land and near at hand, and she tried to goad her husband to murder them. But he was a good-natured man, and he absolutely refused to do her will. Then she resolved to get her heathen gods to strike them dead, and in order to gain the favour of the gods she must offer them a sacrifice of one of her children. But she had none of her own; so she called to her a little girl, a daughter of her husband by a former wife, and told her she would cut her hair. She took the girl down into a sunny place in a hazel grove on the slope of the hill, and there, with her shears, cut her hair. Now, as cutting the hair was esteemed to be adoption, by this act she had made the child her own; so she instantly with the shears cut the girl’s throat as an offering to the gods. Now the British clergy, by their form of cutting the hair, regarded themselves as adopted into the family of God, or the Ecclesiastical tribe.

Augustine and the Latin clergy could not understand this. Instead of arguing with the native Christians they denounced them. They called them Judaisers because they observed Easter at the wrong time, which was false; and they called the tonsure of the Celts that of Simon Magus, which was nonsense.

There were other peculiarities. The British Church used unleavened bread at the Eucharist, and the Latin Church at that time only such bread as was leavened. Also, another high misdemeanour was that, instead of employing a single collect before the Epistle and Gospel, there were more than one said. In these two last particulars the Latin Church has altered now her practice; in the matter of the unleavened bread, the change took place in the tenth century.

Now, the matter of Easter was very vexing, for whilst those who followed the Roman rule were singing Allelujah and were rejoicing, the Celtic and Northumbrian and Mercian Christians were still keeping Lent. Precisely the same thing occurs in Russia, where in English and Roman chaplaincies Easter is kept whilst the Russians are still fasting.

This became a burning question when the Northumbrian kings married princesses from the South. These had their own chaplains and kept Easter at their time, whilst their husbands and the court and the people were in the midst of Passion solemnities.

As to the matter of the tonsure, on which the Roman clergy made a great noise, it was like asking a clan to change its tartan, – say the McDonalds to be forced to adopt that of the Campbells.

Oswy had found the condition of affairs intolerable, as his own queen followed the Roman rule, whilst he observed that of the Celtic Church.

Oswy had associated his son Alcfrid with him in the government of Northumbria, and Alcfrid was much swayed by Wilfrid, a companion of his age then living at the Court of Oswy, who had been to Rome, seen its wonders and the splendours of the pontifical services in the old basilica of Saint Peter. He came back with his head full of what he had seen, and utterly scorning everything British, even the Christianity of his Northumbrian brethren. In his idea nothing would avail but the conforming of the Church in Northumbria to Roman obedience and Roman customs.

Oswy was induced to summon a council at Whitby to decide matters of controversy. On the Scottish side were Saint Colman, the Northumbrian bishop, with his clergy; Saint Hilda, followed of course by Elfleda; Saint Cedd, bishop of the East Saxons. On the Roman side was Agilbert, bishop of the West Saxons, the Queen’s chaplain, Wilfrid, then only a priest, one other priest, and a deacon. The King favoured the Celtic use, Alcfrid the Latin.

Wilfrid was the chief speaker on the latter side, and he dexterously appealed to Oswy’s fears. The Roman Church must be right, he said, because Saint Peter, its founder, held the keys of heaven. At once Oswy quaked; he recollected his dastardly murder of Oswin. It would never do for him not to make a friend of the doorkeeper of heaven. So he gave way, and the Celtic bishops, deprived of his support, but unyielding and unconvinced, withdrew.

It was now hoped that the Church would have peace, and the points of difference would gradually disappear. Saint Hilda, at Whitby, accepted the Roman computation. But it was not so easy to satisfy a clergy and people brought up in another school.

To make matters worse, Wilfrid was appointed Bishop of York, a man of a violent, headstrong character, who, to begin with, refused to accept consecration from bishops in the North with Celtic orders; but went deliberately to Gaul to be ordained there, so as to cast a slur on the Church of the people to rule over whom he had been called.

Wilfrid had no idea of persuasion, had not a spark of Christian love in his composition; he could insult, browbeat, but not persuade. In his diocese he roused revolt and provoked brawls, and was expelled from it, not once only, but whenever he returned.

Now the new King Alcfrid had brought with him from Iona attachment to the order of the Church of SS. Columba and Aidan. Elfleda inherited the same reverence and love for these usages. But on the other side there were strong political reasons which led men to think it would be well to come to an arrangement with Canterbury and Rome. It was awkward to have these differences, this cleavage, even in the royal palace. It was unadvisable that the Angles of the North and of the Midlands should have to apply to the Scots and Britons, their hereditary enemies, for their bishops. If the Angles and Saxons could but agree in ecclesiastical matters, they would be a more compact body to oppose Britons and Scots; and, further still, it would be an element conducive to the much desired unity of the English people. This ecclesiastical unity would be the first step to the cessation of that internecine war between Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex, which tore the island in pieces and soaked its fertile soil with blood.

Hoping that Wilfrid, now an aged man, would be softened by adversity, he was suffered to return. To the new king, as well as to his sister, Saint Elfleda, Abbess of Whitby, Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury wrote, to exhort them to receive Wilfrid with unreserved kindness. They consented, and in 687 he reappeared at York; but it was to excite new storms in his diocese, and he was again exiled in 691.

Alcfrid died in 705, and the Northumbrian crown passed to a prince named Eadwulf. Wilfrid had taken advantage of the death of Alcfrid to return, but was ordered to leave the country in six days. But Eadwulf was dethroned, and Osred, a son of Alcfrid, aged eight, became King of Bernicia. By some unexplained means Wilfrid was now, all at once, master of the situation. Archbishop Berthwald of Canterbury had convoked a synod that was to settle the disputes, and it met on the banks of the Nidd. It was attended by the northern Bishops of York, Lindisfarne, and Witherne, by Elfleda also, the Abbess of Whitby, and by Berchtfrid, the regent of the kingdom during the minority of Osred. Archbishop Berthwald read the letters of the pope on the points in dispute. But the bishops were very unwilling to make way for so turbulent a person as Wilfrid. Then it was that Elfleda stood forward, and in a voice which was listened to as an utterance from heaven, she described the last illness of her half-brother Alcfrid, and his death, and assured all that he had then resolved to accept the papal decrees, which hitherto, when his mind was clear, he had so vigorously rejected. “This,” said she, “was the last will of Alcfrid the King. I attest the truth of it before Christ.”

Nevertheless the three bishops would not yield; they retired from the assembly to confer among themselves, and with the Archbishop, and, above all, with the sagacious Elfleda. It was due to her that a compromise was effected. The monasteries of Ripon and Hexham were restored to Wilfrid and with that he was to be content.

Shortly before his death, Saint Cuthbert went to see Elfleda in the neighbourhood of the great monastery of Whitby, to consecrate a church she had built there. They dined together; and during the meal, seeing the knife drop from the trembling hand of the old bishop, in the abstraction of his far-away thoughts, she asked him what he thought about, and he told her that he had had a glimpse of the future. She urged him to eat more.

“I cannot be eating all day long,” he replied. “You must allow me a little rest.”

On the death of Oswy, as already related, Elfleda’s mother had come to Whitby and placed herself under the rule of her own daughter, and Elfleda closed her eyes. She herself died in 716, at the age of sixty-four. No account of her last illness has been transmitted to us.

Elfleda certainly played an important conciliatory part when minds were heated with controversy. She was right undoubtedly. It was a mistake for the Church in North England to hold to a usage that was founded on a blunder. It was a mistake to persist in keeping Wilfrid, canonically bishop of York, for many years out of his see. It was a political necessity that all Englishmen should be united, at all events, in their religious observances. That paved the way to future political unity.

– text and illustration taken from Virgin Saints and Martyrs, by Sabine Baring-Gould, F Anger, illustrator, published in New York, 1901