Archive for the ‘Northumbrian’ Tag

The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.


The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.


There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.


East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:


Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   


The Dialects of Middle English: Part One; Southern and Northern   1 comment


Above: Middle English dialectal areas

What’s in a dialect?

Evidence from the written sources suggests that there were four main dialectical areas: West Saxon (Wessex), Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. In Middle English, these remained basically Danes, and the consequent influence of Norse, there was enough variation of Mercian English on both sides of the Danelaw for them to be considered as two distinct dialects. Therefore, the five principal dialects of Middle English were: Southern, Kentish, East Midlands, West Midlands and Northern. In addition, the dialects of Northern English spoken in southern Scotland were known as Inglis until about 1500, when writers began to refer to them as Scottis, now known as Scots.

Dialects are varieties of a single language which are ‘mutually comprehensible’; that is, speakers of different dialects can talk to and understand each other. An unfamiliar dialect may be difficult to comprehend at first because of its peculiar pronunciation and/ or vocabulary, but with familiarity, these difficulties disappear. This is not the case with a foreign language. So, whilst a Breton onion-seller could make himself understood to a Welsh shepherd, he would not be understood by a Northumbrian one. However, the Northumbrian shepherd would understand his ‘Wessex’ counterpart. Dialects have most of their grammar and vocabulary in common; therefore, we are able to make a short-list of the features to look for when describing the main differences between dialects. Today, dialects are usually compared to Standard English, but in the early Middle Ages and even into the fifteenth century, there was no national standard form of English, only regional standards. Within what we call a dialect, there are always other variations, so that the more closely we examine the speech or writing of a dialectal area, the more differences we observe, until we eventually arrive at the concept of an individual person’s own variety of language, an ‘idiolect’.

In the Middle English (ME) period, there was no single dialect or variety of the language whose spelling, vocabulary and grammar were used for writing throughout the country. After the Norman Conquest, Northern French replaced the Wessex variety of English as the spoken language of the Norman court. In the twelfth century, this was replaced by Parisian French, carrying more prestige. This was also the language of instruction in English schools until the late fourteenth century. After 1362 English became widely used in the law courts and Parliament was opened in English. The educated East Midland English of London was beginning to become the standard form of English throughout the country, although the establishment of a Standard English was not completed until the eighteenth century. In ME, there were only dialects, with writers and copyists using the forms of speech of their own region. The end of Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in about 1385, provides evidence of this:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye…

And for there is so gret divesite

In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God than non miswrite the,

Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

Southern (Wessex) and Kentish Dialects:

In the same year, John of Trevisa wrote of the many people… and tonges of the British, not just in the form of the Welsh Language and among the Scots, but also among the Germanic and Danish English. This ‘diversity of tongues’ can be found in writings from different parts of the country in the ME period, revealing variations in the spelling of words. There are also inconsistencies within dialectal areas and even within the same manuscript. Conversely, some spellings remained the same, despite alterations in pronunciation. Writing in the 1380s, John of Trevisa described the linguistic situation at the time. His complete work is a translation of a history written in Latin earlier in the century. He was the vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire when he translated Polychronicon. The work is a reminder of the origins of the historical origins of English and its dialects. Trevisa’s attitude is not unlike that of some scholars today, in his talk of the ‘deterioration’ of the language, but the reason he gave for its decline in his time was the fashion for speaking French. He wrote in the Southern, ‘Wessex’ dialect of ME, although his use of the dialect is said to be ‘impure’.

Many of the contrasts between older and present-day English are matters of style rather than significant grammatical differences. We can read Trevisa’s text without much difficulty, but it does not transcribe word for word into Modern English (MnE). The phrase a child hys broche (a child’s toy) was a new construction for the possessive which did not derive from OE which survived for some time but has now been replaced by the apostrophe. The use of the infinitive construction ‘for to’ is still present in some dialects, and as a device in folk songs old and new, but is now non-standard. Prepositions were also used at the end of sentences as in told of (spoken of), considered ungrammatical in MnE.

In identifying the alphabetical symbols used and their relationship to contrasting sounds of dialectal accents, we have to be careful not to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and letter. Some differences of spelling in ME texts are not the result of differences in pronunciation, but rather of the fact that spellings tend to be retained long after changes in pronunciation had transpired. These difficulties in dating shifts in pronunciation and spelling are compounded by the fact that manuscripts were rarely dated. That is one reason why the book translated by a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Michael of Northgate, is so significant. He finished the book, Ayenbite of Inwyt, ‘the remorse of conscience’, a translation from a French original, on 27 October 1340. The other reason is that he spelled consistently throughout the text. It therefore provides us with accurate evidence of the Kent dialect at that time. Here is a passage in word-for-word translation:

Now I wish that you know

How it is went (how it has come about)

That this book is written

With English of Kent.

This book is made for lewd men*

Them for to protect from all manner sin

(*common folk)

This is as near to a ‘pure’ dialect as we can get, remembering that the written form can never really provide an accurate idea of how the spoken dialect sounded. Also, as Michael was translating from French, it is possible that some idioms as from that language, rather than being genuine ME expressions. Nevertheless, we can identify differences in word order and collocation which highlight differences between dialects and between ME and MnE. Even limited observations suggest that Kentish was a ‘conservative’ dialect, retaining more features of the OE system of inflections, even though greatly reduced. Many of these features were similar those found in the ‘Wessex’ texts of John of Trevisa. This is to be expected when one considers the way that the Thames, with few crossings between London and Oxford, acted as a barrier between the South as a whole, especially Kent, and the Midlands.

Below: Extract from Ayenbite of Inwyt,1340


Northern (Northumbrian) Dialects:

The Northern dialects of ME came from the Northumbrian dialects of OE. The present-day dialects of Scotland and the North of England are still markedly distinct from Standard English and other dialects in grammatical features and vocabulary, and from RP, Midlands and Southern English accents in pronunciation. John of Trevisa’s remarked that the citizens of fourteenth century York spoke in a way which was ‘scharp slyttyng and frotyng and unschape’. The modern equivalents of these descriptions can be heard today among southerners unfamiliar with Geordie, Glaswegian and North Yorkshire accents, and Northerners make equally disparaging remarks about RP speakers from the South. One person’s ‘thick accent’ is another person’s familiar speech, and beauty is in the ear of the listener rather than an objective standard. Besides, television series and films in the 1990s made regional varieties of English more accessible to the country as a whole, and radio announcers now speak with a wider range of regional accents than in the last century.

As we cannot reproduce the actual sound of the dialects of the past, we cannot follow up this aspect of linguistic diversity. The only evidence we have of the phonics which once existed is in their transcription into manuscripts. Since spellings are not always phonetic and are inconsistent even in their reproduction by a single scribe, we can only speculate about pronunciation in the abstract, recognising some of the major shifts, but not properly hearing them. Most of the linguist’s focus must therefore be on grammar and vocabulary.

The Bruce is a verse chronicle of the heroic deeds of Robert (the) Bruce (1274-1329), written by John Barbour in about 1375 as The Actes and Life of the Most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland. Barbour was the Archdeacon of Aberdeen and had studied and taught at Oxford and Paris. The following extract comes from the first book, written in the Northern (Scots) dialect:

A fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking

Fredome all solace to man giffis

He levys at es yat frely levys

A noble hart may haf nane es

Na ellys nocht yat may him ples…

In word-for-word transcription, this reads more like Modern English, more so than many Southern dialects of ME, which still retained many of the inflections of OE:

Ah freedom is a noble thing,

Freedom makes man to have liking (= free choice),

Freedom all solace to man gives,

He lives at ease that freely lives,

A noble heart may have no ease,

Nor else nought that may him please.

The pronunciation of the final ‘e’ in a word where followed by a consonant was all that was left of the many OE inflections, but even the use of this was a matter of choice for speakers and, therefore, for writers like Chaucer. Some of his characters use it, others don’t. In Barbour’s verse there is no evidence of its continued use, and Scots writers had adopted the convention of using the ‘i’ as the means of making vowels longer, as in haiff in the second line of Barbour’s poem given above. As it is an infinitive, haiff has no inflection; neither do knaw and pless.

There is evidence of the development of ‘gerund’ forms, a noun drived from a verb, as in liking. The word order of verse is often more abnormal than that of prose, as in Fredome all solace to man’s giffis, which cannot provide good evidence of normal spoken word order. Nevertheless, the third person ‘is’ or ‘ys’ inflections and the past participles with ‘yt’ make the verse seem closer to MnE.

Below: John Barbour on the siege of Berwick, from ‘Bruce’, c.1375


The York ‘mystery’ plays provide evidence of the development of another Northern dialect, that of York and North Yorkshire. These plays are a cycle of fifty short performances which tell the story of the world according to medieval Christian tradition, from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation to the Last Judgement.   Each craft guild of the city was responsible for the costs and production of a play, which was performed in procession on a pageant-wagon around the streets of York. Some of the plays were assigned to guilds whose occupation was featured in the story. For example, the bakers played the Last Supper, the shipwrights built the Ark, the fishermen and mariners performed the Flood, and the vintners provided the wine for the Marriage at Cana. The cycle was produced each year for the feast of Corpus Christi, from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. Twelve stations were set up in the streets and each pageant-wagon moved in procession from one station to another to perform its play. The procession of wagons began at 4.30 p.m. and was concluded long after midnight. Banners representing the respective guilds marked the position of the stations in the cycle, and proclamations were made, written down on parchment in order to be read out theatrically. One of these survives for the year 1415, but the only copy of all the plays to have done so was written in 1470, originally the property of the corporation of the city. It was probably compiled from the various prompt copies belonging to each of the performing guilds, so the language probably belongs, like the proclamation, to the earlier part of the fifteenth century. The dialect is Northern, but the scribes introduced a number of modifications from the East Midland dialect, the evidence for this being in the variations of spelling. The use of some East Midland forms marks the beginning of a standardised system of spelling. Since the plays are written in a variety of verse stanza patterns, with both rhyme and alliteration, so that they cannot be read as everyday speech, in spite of the vividness of the dialogue.



On becaming Archbishop of York in 1352, John de Thoresby found many of his parish priests ignorant and neglectful of their duties. As one remedy for this, he wrote a ‘catechism’ in Latin, setting out the main doctrines of the faith. It was translated into English by a monk of St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1357. This version is called The Lay Folk’s Catechism and was extended a little later by John Wycliffe, who was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but worked and lived for long periods in Oxford and Leicestershire. His writings were therefore a variety of the Midlands dialect. By comparing the two versions of Thoresby’s Catechism, we can therefore distinguish between the dialects of the North and the Midlands.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale features two undergraduates, ‘yonge poure scolers’ from the North. He marks their speech with some of the features that his readers would recognise. He wrote in the educated London accent which differed greatly in its grammar and pronunciation from the Northern dialect. In this extract, Aleyn and Iohn have arrived at a mill and greet Symkyn, the miller. They intend to supervise the grinding of their corn, since millers were notorious for cheating their customers:

Aleyn spak first: All hayl Symkin in faith

How fares thy faire doghter and thy wife?

Aleyn welcome, quod Symkyn, by my lif

And Iohn also. How now what do ye here?

By god, quod Iohn, Symond need has na peere.

Hym bihoues serue himself that has na swayn

Or ellis he is a fool, as clarkes sayn.

Our maunciple, I hope he will be deed,

Swa werkes and wanges in his heed.

And therefore is I come and eek Alayn

To grynde our corn and carie it heem agayn…

The northern words and expressions are highlighted in bold type. MnE equivalents are given in the glossary below:

heem = home

hope = hope/ believe

hym bihoues = (him behoves), he must

swa = so

swayn (ON) = swain, servant

wanges = back teeth

workes = aches


Who are the English, anyway? Who were the Anglo-Saxons? Part Two   1 comment

Part Two: Trade and Travelling Saints


In the second, more peaceful half of the seventh century, East Anglian trade with the continent continued to prosper, and in the eighth century the minting of silver coins called sceattas began in the region. These coins have been found over a wide area of Frisia and north Germany while imported items of bronze, iron and pottery have been excavated from East Anglian sites. Ipswich became the leading port and industrial centre of the region. Kilns produced huge quantities of pottery which were distributed over wide areas of northern Europe. Dunwich became a thriving port and could afford to pay the king an annual rent of sixty thousand herrings. Economic depression did not follow political and military decline. It was also during this period that Norfolk and Suffolk began to emerge as distinct entities. There had always been differences between the Angles to the north and south of the Waveney and these differences asserted themselves more as the power of the Wuffings declined.

Saint cedd.jpgHowever, the area of the Deben Valley still seems to have exerted an important influence over the development of Christianity in the East. The site of Raedwald’s Temple of the two altars is unknown, but excavations have revealed that Rendlesham, located on the east bank of the River Deben, four miles upstream from Sutton Hoo, may well be the location of what Bede named as ‘the house of Rendil’ and as a royal site in the reign of Aethelwald, Raedwald’s nephew (ruled 655-664). The reference occurs in Bede’s account of the return of Christianity to the kingdom of the East Saxons at this time. The East Saxon King, Swithhelm, was baptised at an East Anglian royal site, and Bede named Aethelwald as his godfather. This implies that there was a consecrated church as part of a group of buildings, perhaps including a great hall, which formed a fortified royal homestead. It is possible that Raedwald’s Temple stood on, or close by the site of St Gregory’s Church at Rendelsham. It is even possible that the baptismal ceremony of Swithhelm took place within it, or near to it. If so, Raedwald’s pagan altar must surely have been dismantled by then, especially as the ceremony was conducted by the formidable Celtic bishop Cedd.

This fact, which Bede records, that Swithhelm was baptised by Cedd, who may very well have baptised Aethelwald beforehand, is of great significance in itself, because it represents an ‘incursion’ of Northumbrian Christianity, with its Celtic Rite, into south-eastern England. Celtic Christianity is said to have placed greater emphasis on feminine elements and on the interconnectedness of the natural world than the Roman Church, which may help to explain its relative success among the agrarian Angles and Saxons of the east. However, these differences have sometimes been exaggerated, since as early as 601 Pope Gregory had instructed his missionaries not to destroy pagan temples, but to gradually convert them to Christian form, so that the people would feel more comfortable to worship a new and unfamiliar god in familiar surroundings.

Above: A modern icon of St Cedd

The little that is known about Cedd comes to us mainly from the writing of Bede in his third book of his Ecclesiastical History. Cedd was born in the kingdom of Northumbria and brought up on the island of Lindisfarne by Aidan of the Irish Church, who had arrived at Lindisfarne from Iona, the island off the west coast of northern Britain where Columba had founded a monastery. Cedd was probably born in about 620, since the first date Bede gives us is that of his priesthood, in 653. He was probably the eldest of four brothers, since he took the lead, with Chad (Ceadda in Latin), the youngest brother, as his successor. It is reasonable to suppose that Chad and his brothers were drawn from the Northumbrian nobility:They certainly had close connections throughout the Northumbrian ruling class. However, the name Chad is actually of Brythonic (Early Welsh), rather than Anglo-Saxon origin. It is an element found in the personal names of many Welsh princes and nobles of the period and signifies “battle”. This may indicate a family of mixed cultural and/or ethnic background, with roots in the original Celtic population of the region, which had both Irish and Romano-British elements. From Cedd’s role at the Synod of Whitby, we can suppose that his native language was Welsh. Both were given missions to the kingdom of Mercia, which had been one of the more warlike territories under the overlordship of Penda, a pagan, and therefore inhospitable to Christian missionaries up to this point. In 653, Cedd was sent by with three other priests, to evangelise the Middle Angles, who were one of the core ethnic groups of Mercia, based on the mid-Trent valley. Peada, son of Penda was sub-king of the Middle Angles. Peada had agreed to become a Christian in return for the hand of Oswiu’s daughter, Alchflaed, in marriage. This was a time of growing Northumbrian power, as Oswiu had reunited and consolidated the Northumbrian kingdom after its earlier (641/2) defeat by Penda. Peada travelled to Northumbria to negotiate his marriage and baptism. This gave the Northumbrian priests a foothold in the Mercian overlordship, from which they could extend their ministry into the Mercian Kingdom itself.

The Picture above shows a page from the Lindisfarne Gospel.

Cedd, together with other priests, accompanied Peada back to Middle Anglia, where they won numerous converts of all classes. Bede relates that the pagan Penda did not obstruct preaching even among his subjects in Mercia proper, and portrays him as generally sympathetic to Christianity at this point – a very different view from the general estimate of Penda as a devoted pagan. But, the mission apparently made little headway in the wider Mercian polity. Bede credits Cedd’s brother Chad with the effective evangelisation of Mercia more than a decade later. To make progress among the general population, Christianity appeared to need positive royal backing, including grants of land for monasteries, rather than a benign attitude from leaders. Cedd was soon recalled from the mission to Mercia by Oswiu, who sent him on a mission with one other priest to the East Saxon kingdom. The priests had been requested by King Sigeberht to re-convert his people.The religious destiny of the kingdom had been constantly in the balance since the Gregorian mission had been forced out, with the royal family itself divided among Christians, pagans, and some wanting to tolerate both. Bede tells us that Sigeberht’s decision to be baptized and to reconvert his kingdom was at the initiative of Oswiu. Sigeberht travelled to Northumbria to accept baptism from Bishop Final of Lindisfarne. Cedd went to the East Saxons partly as an emissary of the Northumbrian monarchy. Certainly his prospects were helped by the continuing military and political success of Northumbria, especially the final defeat of Penda in 655. Practically, Northumbria gained hegemony among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

After making some conversions, Cedd returned to Lindisfarne to report to Finan. In recognition of his success, Finan ordained him bishop, calling in two other Irish bishops to assist at the rite. Cedd was appointed Bishop of the East Saxons. As a result, he is generally listed among the Bishops of London, a part of the East Saxon kingdom. Bede, however, generally uses ethnic descriptions for episcopal responsibilities when dealing with the generation of Cedd and Chad. Bede’s record makes clear that Cedd demanded personal commitment and that he was unafraid to confront the powerful, even King Sigeberht himself. After the death of Sigeberht, there were signs that Cedd had a more precarious position. The new king, Swithhelm, who had assassinated Sigeberht, was a pagan. He had long been a client of Aethelwald, King of the East Angles. who was increasingly dependent on Wulfhere, the Christian king of a newly resurgent Mercia. After some persuasion from Aethelwald, Swithhelm accepted baptism from Cedd. The bishop travelled into East Anglia to baptise the king at Aethelwald’s home. For a time, the East Saxon kingdom remained Christian. Bede presents Cedd’s work as decisive in the conversion of the East Saxons, although it was preceded by other missionaries, and eventually followed by a revival of paganism. However, despite the substantial work, the future suggested that all could be undone.

Certainly, Cedd founded many churches and monasteries. Caelin, the brother of Cedd and Chad, was chaplain to Aethelwald, a nephew of Oswiu, who had been appointed to administer the coastal area of Deira. Caelin suggested to Aethelwald the foundation of a monastery, in which he could one day be buried, and where prayers for his soul would continue. Caelin introduced Aethelwold to Cedd, who needed just such a political base and spiritual retreat. According to Bede, practically forced on Cedd a gift of land: a wild place at Lastingham, near Pickering in today’s North York Moors, close to one of the still-usable Roman roads. Bede explains that Cedd  “fasted strictly in order to cleanse it from the filth of wickedness previously committed there”. On the thirtieth day of his forty-day fast, he was called away on urgent business. Cynibil, another of his brothers, took over the fast for the remaining ten days. The whole incident shows not only how closely the Brythonic-Hiberian brothers were linked with Northumbria’s ruling Saxon dynasty, but also how close they were to each other. A fast by Cynibil was even felt to be equivalent to one by Cedd himself. It was clearly conceived as a base for the family and destined to be under their control for the foreseeable future – not an unusual arrangement in this period. Lastingham was handed over to Cedd, who was appointed as Abbot of the monastery at the request of Aethelwald. Cedd occupied the position of Abbot of Lastingham to the end of his life, while maintaining his position as missionary bishop and diplomat. He often travelled far from the monastery in fulfillment of these other duties.

The picture above (left) shows the altar in Lastingham crypt, probable site of the early Anglo-Saxon church where Cedd and Chad officiated at Eucharist. Cedd and his brothers regarded Lastingham as their monastic base, providing intellectual and spiritual support and refreshment. Cedd delegated daily care of Lastingham to other priests, and it is likely that Chad operated similarly.

In 664, supporters of both the Celtic and the Roman rites met at a council within the Northumbrian kingdom known as the Synod of Whitby. The proceedings of the council were hampered by the participants’ mutual incomprehension of each other’s languages, which probably included his native Gaelic, Mercian, Northumbrian and Anglian forms of English, Frankish and Brythonic (early Welsh), as well as Latin. Bede recounted that Cedd interpreted for both sides. Cedd’s facility with all these languages, together with his status as a trusted royal emissary, made him a key figure in the negotiations. When the council ended, he returned to Essex, to his work as bishop, abandoning the practices of the Irish and accepting the Gregorian dating of Easter. A short time later, he returned to Northumbria and the monastery at Lastingham. He fell ill with the plague and died on 26 October 664. Bede records that immediately after Cedd’s death a party of thirty monks travelled up from Essex to Lastingham to do homage. All but one small boy died there, also of the plague. Cedd was initially buried in a grave at Lastingham. Later, when a stone church was built at the monastery, his body was moved and re-interred in a shrine inside it.

Chad succeeded his brother as Abbot at Lastingham. From the various written sources, we think that Chad began his ministry about a decade after his eldest brother, companion was Egbert, an Anglian, who was of about the same age as himself. The two travelled in Ireland for further study. Bede tells us that Egbert himself was of the Anglian nobility, although the monks sent to Ireland were of all classes. Bede places Egbert, and therefore Chad, among an influx of English scholars who arrived in Ireland while Finan and Colmán were bishops at Lindisfarne. This means that Egbert and Chad must have gone to Ireland later than the death of Aidan, in 651.Bede gives a long account of how Egbert fell dangerously ill in Ireland in 664 and vowed to follow a lifelong pattern of great austerity so that he might live to make amends for the follies of his youth. His only remaining friend at this point was called Ethelhun, who died in the plague. Hence, Chad must have left Ireland before this. In fact, it is in 664 that he suddenly appears in Northumbria, to take over from his brother Cedd. Chad’s time in Ireland, therefore must fit into period 651–664. Bede makes clear that the wandering Anglian scholars were not yet priests, and ordination to the priesthood generally happened at the age of thirty – the age at which Christ commenced his ministry. The year of Chad’s birth is thus likely to be 634, or a little earlier, although certainty is impossible. Cynibil and Caelin were ordained priests by the late 650s, when they participated with Cedd in the founding of Lastingham. Chad was almost certainly the youngest of the four, probably by a considerable margin.

Christianity in the south of Britain was closely associated with Rome and with the Church in continental Europe. This was because its organisation, at least to the south of the Thames, had developed from the aborted mission of Augustine to Canterbury in 597, sent by Pope Gregory I. However, the churches of Ireland and of western and northern Britain had their own distinct history and traditions. The churches of most of western Britain, from Clydeside and Cumbria (‘north-walea’) through Cymru (‘mid-Walea’) down to Cornwall (‘west-Walea’) had an unbroken connection tradition stretching back to Roman times. Ireland traced its Christian origins to missionaries from Wales, while Northumbria looked to the Irish (Hiberian) monastery of Iona, in the western Hebridean islands, as its source. Although all western Christians recognised Rome as the ultimate fount of authority, the semi-independent churches of Britain and Ireland did not accept actual Roman control. Considerable divergences had developed in practice and organisation. Most bishops in Ireland and Britain were not recognised by Rome because their ordination in the apostolic succession (from St Peter of Rome) was uncertain and they condoned non-Roman practices. Monastic practices and structures were very different: moreover monasteries played a much more important role in Britain and Ireland than on the continent, with abbots regarded as de facto leaders of the Church. Many of the differences related to disputes over the dating of Easter and the monastic tonsure (hairstyle), which were markedly and notoriously different in the local churches from those in Rome.

Saint Chad.jpgThese political and religious issues were constantly intertwined, and interacted in various ways. Christianity in Britain and Ireland largely progressed through royal patronage, while kings increasingly used the Church to stabilise and to confer legitimacy on their fragile states. A strongly local church with distinctive practices could be a source of great support to a fledgling state, allowing the weaving together of political and religious elites. Conversely, the Roman connection introduced foreign influence beyond the control of local rulers, but also allowed rulers to display themselves on a wider, European stage, and to seek out more powerful sources of legitimacy. These issues are also crucial in assessing the reliability of sources: Bede is the only substantial source for details of Chad’s life, writing about sixty years after the crucial events of Chad’s episcopate, when the Continental pattern of territorial bishoprics and Benedictine monasticism had become established throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including Northumbria. His foremost concern was thus to validate the Church practices and structures of his own time, while also seeking to present a flattering picture of the earlier Northumbrian church and monarchy: a difficult balancing act because, as he himself had constantly to acknowledge, the earlier institutions had resisted Roman norms for many decades. Bede’s treatment of Chad is particularly problematic because he could not conceal that Chad departed from Roman practices in vital ways – not only before the Synod of Whitby, which Bede presents as a total victory for the Roman party and its norms, but even after it. However, Chad was the teacher of Bede’s own teacher, Trumbert, so Bede has an obvious personal interest in rehabilitating him, to say nothing of his loyalty to the Northumbrian establishment, which not only supported him but had played a notable part in Christianising England. This may explain a number of gaps in Bede’s account, based on the oral traditions of the Lastingham monks, whom he could ill afford to offend. Chad lived at and through a watershed in relations between the Anglo-Saxons and the wider Europe. In writing his account of the ministries of the early Celtic saints, from Fursey to Cedd and Chad, he seems to underestimate their role, and certainly that of the royal houses of rival kingdoms, such as the Wuffings of East Anglia, in ensuring the continuity of the Christian Church in the East at a time when the power of Rome in southern England was obviously weak.

Above left: Stained glass from Lichfield Cathedral (C19th).

Chad was invited then to become bishop of the Northumbrians by King Oswiu, in the unexpectedly extended absence of the initial candidate, Wilfrid, who had gone abroad to seek consecration, since the Archbishop of Canterbury had died of plague. Chad is often listed as a Bishop of York and Bede refers to Oswiu’s desire that Chad become bishop of the church in York, which later became the diocesan city partly because it had already been designated as such in the earlier Roman-sponsored mission of Paulinus to Deira. So it is not clear if Oswiu and Chad were considering a territorial basis and a see for his episcopate, but it is quite clear that Oswiu intended Chad to be bishop over the entire Northumbrian people, over-riding the claims of both Wilfrid and Eata. Chad set off to seek consecration amid the chaos caused by the plague. Bede tells us that he travelled first to Canterbury, where he found that the Archbishop had died three years before and his replacement was still awaited. The journey seems pointless, and the most obvious reason for Chad’s tortuous travels would be that he was also on a diplomatic mission from Oswiu, seeking to build an encircling alliance around Mercia, which was rapidly recovering from its position of weakness. From Canterbury he travelled to Wessex, where he was ordained by bishop Wini (‘Wine’) of the West Saxons, the first Bishop of Winchester, and two Welsh bishops. None of these bishops was recognised by Rome, and Bede points out that at that time there was no other bishop in all Britain canonically ordained except Wini and that even he had been installed irregularly by the King of the West Saxons. Bede justifies his seeking consecration in this dubious way by explaining that Chad was, at this point, behaving as a diligent performer in deed of what he had learnt in the Scriptures should be done and following the in teaching of Aidan and Cedd. His life was one of constant travel, visiting continually the towns, countryside, cottages, villages and houses to preach the Gospel. Clearly, the Celtic model he followed was, like his brother had shown, one of the bishop as prophet and missionary. Basic Christian rites of passage, baptism and confirmation, were almost always performed by a bishop, and for decades and centuries to come, under the Roman Rite, they were generally carried out in mass ceremonies, probably with little systematic instruction or counselling such as Cedd and Chad would have given.

Above (Right): From a late copy of The old Englisch Homely on the life of St. Chad, c. 1200, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

However, in 666, Wilfrid returned from Neustria, bringing many rules of Catholic observance, as Bede says. He found Chad already occupying the same position as bishop. It seems, however, that Wilfred did not in fact challenge Chad’s pre-eminence in monasteries which would have been supportive of his appointment, like Gilling and Ripon, but rather asserted his episcopal rank by going into Mercia and even Kent to ordain priests there, where there were no bishops at that time. Bede tells us that the net effect of his efforts on the Church was that the Irish monks who still lived in Northumbria either came fully into line with Catholic practices or left for home. Nevertheless, Bede cannot conceal that Oswiu and Chad had broken significantly with Roman practice in many ways and that the Church in Northumbria had been divided by the ordination of rival bishops. In 669, a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, arrived in England. He immediately set off on a tour of the country, tackling ‘abuses’ of which he had been forewarned. He instructed Chad to step down and Wilfrid to take over. According to Bede, however, Theodore was so impressed by Chad’s show of humility that he confirmed his ordination as bishop, while insisting he step down from his position at York. Chad retired gracefully and returned to his post as Abbot of Lastingham, leaving Wilfrid as Bishop of York.

Mercia in time of Chad.jpg

Later that same year, King Wulfhere of Mercia requested a bishop. Wulfhere and the other sons of Penda had converted to Christianity, although Penda himself had remained a pagan until his death (655). Penda had allowed bishops, including Cedd, to operate in Mercia, although none had succeeded in establishing the Church securely without active royal support. Archbishop Theodore refused to consecrate a new bishop. Instead, greatly impressed by Chad’s humility and holiness, he recalled him from his retirement at Lastingham. According to Bede, Chad refused to use a horse: he insisted on walking everywhere. Despite his regard for Chad, Theodore ordered him to ride on long journeys and went so far as to lift him into the saddle on one occasion. Chad was consecrated bishop of the Mercians (literally, frontier people) and of the Lindsey (Lincolnshire) people. Later Anglo-Saxon episcopal lists sometimes add the Middle Angles to his responsibilities. It was their sub-king, Peada, who had secured the services of Chad’s brother Cedd in 653.

They were a distinct part of the Mercian kingdom, centred on the middle Trent and lower Tame – the area around Tamworth, Lichfield and Repton that formed the core of the wider Mercian polity. Wulfhere donated land at Lichfield for Chad to build a monastery. It was because of this that the centre of the Diocese of Mercia ultimately became settled there. The Lichfield monastery was probably similar to that at Lastingham, and Bede makes clear that it was partly staffed by monks from Lastingham, including Chad’s faithful retainer, Owin. Lichfield was very close to the old Roman road of Watling Street, the main route across Mercia, and a short distance from Mercia’s main royal centre at Tamworth. Wulhere also donated land sufficient for fifty families at a place in Lindsey, referred to by Bede as Ad Barwae. This is probably Barrow-upon-Humber: where an Anglo-Saxon monastery of a later date has been excavated. This was easily reached by river from the Midlands and close to an easy crossing of the River Humber, allowing rapid communication along surviving Roman roads with Lastingham. Chad remained Abbot of Lastingham for the rest of his life, as well as heading the communities at both Lichfield and Barrow. (The picture above (right) shows St Chad, Peada and Wulfhere, as portrayed in 19th century sculpture above the western entrance to Lichfield Cathedral.)

Above left: “Saint Chad”, stained glass window by Christopher Whall. Currently exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Chad then proceeded to carry out much missionary and pastoral work within the Kingdom. Bede tells us that Chad governed the bishopric of the Mercians and of the people of Lindsey ‘in the manner of the ancient fathers and in great perfection of life’. However, Bede gives little concrete information about the work of Chad in Mercia, implying that in style and substance it was a continuation of what he had done in Northumbria. The area he covered was very large, stretching across England from coast to coast. It was also, in many places, difficult terrain, with woodland, heath and mountain over much of the centre and large areas of marshland to the east. Bede does tell us that Chad built for himself a small house at Lichfield, a short distance from the church, sufficient to hold his core of seven or eight disciples, who gathered to pray and study with him there when he was not out on business. Chad worked in Mercia and Lindsey for only two and a half years before he too died during a plague on 2 March 672. He was buried at the St. Mary’s Church which later became part of Lichfield Cathedral. Bede wrote that Mercia came to the faith and Essex was recovered for it by the two brothers Cedd and Chad. In other words, Bede considered that Chad’s two years as bishop were decisive in converting Mercia to Christianity. The winning over of the powerful Kingdom of Mercia for Christianity finally ensured the complete and continued establishment of the religion throughout the whole of the British isles. King Swithhelm of the East Saxons had died at about the same time as Cedd and was succeeded by the joint kings Sighere and Sebbi. Some people reverted to paganism, which Bede said was due to the effects of the plague. Since Mercia under King Wulfhere had again become the dominant force south of the Humber, it fell to Wulfhere to take prompt action. He dispatched Bishop Jaruman to take over Cedd’s work among the East Saxons. Jaruman, working (according to Bede) with great discretion, toured Essex, negotiated with local magnates, and soon restored Christianity.

Right: An example of a late sculpture of St. Chad, from St. Chad’s Church, Lichfield, Staffordshire, 1930.


The growing separation between Norfolk and Suffolk was recognised by the Church when in 673 Archbishop Theodore divided the East Anglian diocese. A new ecclesiastic seat was established at North Elmham while Suffolk’s church continued to be administered from Dunwich. Preachers were sent out from the latter on regular tours. The monks of Burgh Castle, Soham and Bury St Edmunds ministered to the souls in their immediate localities and they wandered the hamlets of Suffolk to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. Other early religious houses were also built during the after the death of King Anna. Botolph built a monastery on the Alde estuary at Iken, and not far from the present county boundary, one of the daughters of Anna, Aetheldreda, built the beginnings of Ely Cathedral. At an early age she came under the influence of St Felix and his monks, so much so that her only ambition was to lead a life devoted to contemplation and prayer. However, this seemed impossible, because as an Anglo-Saxon princess she was even less free to follow her inclinations than other noblewomen. She was married off , firstly to a fenland earldorman and then, following his death, to Prince Egfrid of Northumbria. According to legend, she survived both these ‘unions’ with her virginity intact. After twelve years of unconsummated marriage, a frustrated Egfrid gave his holy wife her freedom. Aetheldreda went straight to the lonely Isle of Ely, where she founded a double monastery for monks and nuns, presiding over it as Abbess.

DSC09864Nevertheless, these early Anglo-Saxon Christians, monks and nuns, were not worshipping in impressive stone churches as minsters, like those we see on the English landscape today, either ruined or in continual repair. Those buildings mostly date from Norman times, or later. Although Rendelsham (pictured right and below) may have been one of the first examples of a stone church, built on an earlier royal temple (notice the absence of transepts and a cruciform shape), the first Suffolk churches were very simple constructions of wood and thatch. Stone was not a natural building material, and only existed for ready use where there had been pagan shrines or fortifications, such as at Burgh Castle. However, it was not always the kings or the ecclesiastical hierarchy who determined the location and construction of churches. The foundations of the parochial system were laid at this time, largely through lay piety. Anglo-Saxon landlords often asked the bishops to supply them with priests for their own home-built churches so that they, their household, and their peasants could be ministered unto.

Sometimes it was the small land-owning freemen who would raise the first shrines, for reasons of personal comfort as well as devotion. Services were held in the open, with only a covered altar as a permanent feature, often converted from a pagan shrine. Regular attendance in all weathers was expected by the priest, under the lord’s command. Gradually, the villagers built barn-like structures before the altar to protect themselves from the elements, with roofs which used old long-boats turned over, or constructed in the same fashion, as ‘naves’. The nave remained the responsibility of the villagers, into modern times, whereas the sanctuary was the priest’s concern, only used by the people in receiving communion at the altar rail.

DSC09863In these ways, Christianity now became established at the centre of Anglo-Saxon life, together with the support of the kings, great lords and lords of the manor. It passed from the age of itinerant Celtic missionary zeal to dominant Roman religion. The upkeep of churches was met by grants of ‘Glebe’ land and by special levies approved by royal writ. There were seasonal payments like ‘plough-alms’ and ‘Church-scot’, the latter giving the expression ‘to get off scot-free’, applied to landowners who did not have to pay. Tithes (‘tenths’) of produce and stock were originally non-obligatory donations for the relief of the poor and needy, but before many decades had passed they too had become part of the law. As the eighth century progressed, such conflicts as did take place did so in the context of a pattern of established relationships. Priest and layman, thane and churl, warrior and monk – everyman knew his place in society, and what his God and his King required of him. Then came the Norsemen, the Vikings, the Danes. Suddenly, those whose families had lived in Eastern Britain for three and a half centuries and had settled into an Engelische way of life, found themselves facing previously unimaginable terror and confusion.


Additional Sources (see part one for published and printed materials):

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