Life in Anglo-Saxon minsters was certainly not a dull one

Anglo-Saxon Settlement (copyright Tees Archaeology),
Anglo-Saxon Settlement (copyright Tees Archaeology),

IN this week’s Morpathia, ROGER HAWKINS takes a look at Aidan and the Anglo-Saxon minsters.

OSWALD was a prince of the royal house of Bernicia, son of Aethelfrith, King of Northumbria.

Aethelfrith died in battle in 616. Edwin came to the throne and Oswald and his brothers and sister went into exile. He was brought up at the Irish monastery of Iona in western Scotland and learnt his warfare in Ireland.

The new King Edwin married a Kentish princess called Ethelburga. Her personal chaplain was Paulinus, a monk of Canterbury who became Bishop of York at the same time. Paulinus once visited the royal estate at Yeavering and, in a month-long mission remarkable more for untiring energy than spiritual depth, baptised many people into the Christian faith.

Edwin was killed in 633. Paulinus returned to Kent with Ethelburga and her children, and over the next year the kingdom was twice ravaged by Cadwallon of Gwyneth. In 634, Oswald assembled an army at Heavenfield, near Hexham, and there met and defeated Cadwallon. One of his first acts as king was to send to Iona for a bishop.

The arrival of Aidan as Bishop of the Northumbrians marks the real beginning of Christianity among the ordinary people. With Oswald’s support, he set about teaching them the faith and providing for their spiritual welfare. The means of accomplishing this was the Anglo-Saxon minster.

We need at this point to know something about monasteries. At risk of great simplification, we can say that Roman monasteries were laid out as an open square with the church on the north side and the other main buildings round the remaining three sides. The monks, or nuns if a female house, lived communally, eating together in the refectory and sleeping in a dormitory. Celtic monasteries took the form of a compound in which everyone had their own house and their own housekeeping. There was no dormitory or refectory.

Not all monks were priests. The poet Caedmon, for example, was an illiterate cowherd at St Hilda’s monastery at Whitby. When Hild learnt of his talent for turning biblical stories into English song, she persuaded him to become a monk. But he was still unable to read and so could never be a priest.

Other monks were boys or young men at various stages of education and training.

Bede was a monk for all of his adult life, but was nearly 30 before he became a priest.

In describing Aidan and his way of life, Bede refers to ‘all those who bore him company, whether they were shorn monks or laymen’.

This gives us our best hint as to how the Anglo-Saxon minsters developed from the Celtic monastic tradition — Aidan’s management style was inclusive.

He took laymen as helpers, as well as monks and priests, and, as we learn in the Ecclesiastical History, women as well as men.

Minsters, as distinct from monasteries, have left few records. They were, however, remarkably successful. With few exceptions, they are now parish churches. And since you can’t go digging up the church, archaeological evidence is equally scarce. As a result, we know little for certain about them. The following description is merely the best we can do.

Being modelled on Celtic or Irish monasteries, a typical minster consisted of a circular compound with a palisade round the outside. Many, however, were built on restricted sites. If so, they naturally took the shape of the site. Church Point at Newbiggin is an example. Another is Old Melrose, enclosed in a bend of the River Tweed.

If there was a strong physical boundary, like a cliff as at Coldingham, or a dangerous marsh as at Stamfordham, then the palisade could be dispensed with. Where there was no marked natural feature, the palisade might be strengthened with a bank and ditch.

Inside the compound were timber buildings with thatched roofs. Pre-Christian and early Christian Anglo-Saxons did not build in stone. It was a skill they learnt as a direct result of their conversion to Christianity. The main building was the church, and the remainder what you would expect in a subsistence economy — houses, stables, cowsheds, pigsties, chicken crees, barns, weaving sheds, etc.

As to their organisation, although minsters were collegiate churches, not monasteries, there were similarities. The senior priest was called the Abbas (father abbot) and the male members of the community, whether clergy or laymen, fratres (brothers.) The important difference is that they were not monks. The priests and deacons were secular clergy who lived and worked among ordinary people. They did not lead the cloistered and contemplative life of monks.

As in a monastery, the laity fell into two groups. There were boys and young men training for the priesthood, and there were those who could cut timber, build and repair houses and barns, cook, sew, spin, weave, dig graves, drive wagons, grow crops and tend animals.

Being laity, these men and women were free to marry so many of the houses in the minster were family homes with mother, father and children. Those in training, too, until they had taken deacon’s orders (a deacon was a sort of half-qualified priest) were themselves laymen, and likewise free to marry. Some did marry and, being educated, formed a useful class in society known as clerks in minor orders.

The Anglo-Saxons soon took an easy view of clerical celibacy. They accepted that monks and nuns should be celibate, but it was not unusual for secular priests to be married men. Reformers like Archbishop Wulfstan tried to enforce the canonical rules, but with little success.

So minsters were lively places, with chickens and children running about, and all the sounds and smells of farm and household.

Bede speaks of churches (ecclesiae) being built in many different places. He gives no details, but since he doesn’t call them monasteries it seems reasonable to equate them with minsters. But here we run into difficulties. He and others used the Latin monasterium for both monastery and minster, and Anglo-Saxons generally, most of whom were illiterate, used the English word minster for both alike.

In short, Anglo-Saxon minsters as we define them are largely an invention of historians. Our justification, however, is that Bede himself recognised different kinds of monasteries or minsters. In his letter to Egbert, Bishop of York, he wrote passionately against ‘family’ monasteries, recognising two types — bad and very bad.

It would appear that run-of-the-mill minsters, like those we are concerned with, were neither as good as the best monasteries, nor as bad as the worst.

Corbridge, with its Anglo-Saxon tower, began as a minster, and the village in our drawing looks very like one. Imagine a standing cross in front of the main building, making it a church, and there you have a typical Anglo-Saxon minster.

Acknowledgements: Quotations from J.A. Giles, Minor Historical Works of the Venerable Bede, on Historic O.S. map of Old Melrose, Anglo-Saxon Settlement by Peter Hart-Allison © Tees Archaeology, used with permission. We omitted last week to say that the illustration from Turner’s Herball appeared by kind permission of Mrs Marilyn Tweddle.