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Who was Martin Luther and why did he ‘rebel’ against the Pope in 1517-18?   Leave a comment

The Eve of the Reformation:

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Traditionally, the Protestant Reformation began on the eve of All Souls’ Day, 31 October 1517. On that day Martin Luther (1483-1536), professor of biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in Germany, announced a disputation on indulgences. He stated his argument in Ninety-Five Theses. Though they were heavily academic in both form and content, and were moderate in tone, news of them spread rapidly throughout Germany as soon as they were translated into German and printed. But the 95 Theses were not by any means intended as a call to radical reformation. They were not even a proposal for reform of an abuse of the Church’s power, but were propositions put forward by an earnest university professor for a discussion of the theology of indulgences, the selling of ‘pardons’ by clergy and bankers’ agents in order to collect money for the upkeep and building of churches.

The dealings in indulgences (‘the holy trade’ as it was openly known), had grown into a scandal. To begin with, reformers did not oppose indulgences in their true and original sense – as the merciful release of a penitent sinner from a penance previously imposed by a priest. What they opposed were the additions and perversions which they saw as harmful to the salvation of men, and which infected the everyday practice of the Church. Medieval people had a real dread of the period of punishment in purgatory which was portrayed in great detail in the decorations within their churches. They had no great fear of hell, believing that, if they died forgiven and blessed by their priest, they were guaranteed access through heaven’s gates, the keys to which were held by the pope, as St Peter’s successor. But they feared purgatory’s pains; for the church taught that before they reached heaven they had to be cleansed of every son committed in mortal life. Once penance was made a sacrament, the ordinary person believed that an indulgence assured the shortening of the punishments to be endured after death in purgatory. The relics of the Castle Church in Wittenberg were reckoned to earn a remission of 1,902,202 years and 270 days!

Luther’s Early Life:

More books have been written about Luther, the great German Reformer, than about any other figure in history, except for Jesus Christ. Like the latter, not much is known about the first thirty years or so of his life. He was born at Eisleben and studied law at the University of Leipzig. In 1505 he joined the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt, after taking a dramatic vow in a thunderstorm, and was ordained in 1507. After studying theology he was sent by his order to the University of Wittenberg to teach moral theology and the Bible. In 1511 he visited Rome on business for his order, and in the same year became a doctor of theology and professor of biblical studies at Wittenberg.

When. as a monk, Luther diagnosed the disease of Christian Europe to be the same as his own spiritual disease, he broke through to the gospel. In his monastery Luther had been searching for God’s pardon and peace. He faithfully obeyed his order, and observed punctiliously the spiritual techniques. Yet he found himself no nearer to God. He began to see that the way of the monk was merely a long discipline of religious duty and effort. Mysticism was an attempt to climb up to heaven. Academic theology was little more than speculation about God, his nature and his character.

Luther found one basic error in all these techniques of finding God. Ultimately they trusted in man’s own ability to get him to God, or at least take him near enough for God to accept him. Luther realised that it was not a matter of God being far from man, and man having to strive to reach him. The reverse was true. Man, created and sinful, was distant from God; God in Christ had come all the way to find him. This was no new truth, but simply the old gospel of grace, which had been overlaid. Luther’s discovery did not represent a break with traditional doctrines. The reformers held, within the Roman Church at first, all the orthodox doctrines stated in the general creeds of the early church, but they also understood these doctrines in the particular context of salvation in Christ alone. From Luther’s rediscovery of the direct and personal relationship between Christ and the believer came the three great principles of the Reformation; the primacy of the Bible as God’s word of authority, justification of the sinner by grace alone, and the belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

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Luther’s views became widely known when he posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. He attacked the teaching behind the sale of indulgences and the church’s material preoccupations. But he also contrasted the treasures the treasures of the church with its true wealth, the gospel. Indulgences served not merely to dispense the merits of the saints but also to raise revenues. Roland Bainton, in his seminal work, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950), referred to them as the bingo of the sixteenth century. The practice had grown out of the crusades, as they were first conferred on those who sacrificed or risked their lives in fighting against the Ottoman Turks and were then extended to those who, unable to go to the Holy Land, made contributions to the enterprise. The device proved so lucrative that it was speedily extended to cover the construction of churches, monasteries, and hospitals. The gothic cathedrals were funded by these means, and even secular projects were financed in this way, including a bridge across the Elbe built by Frederick the Wise. However, indulgences had not degenerated into sheer mercenariness by Luther’s time. Conscientious preachers sought to evoke a sense of sin in the purchaser, and only those genuinely convicted would buy. Nevertheless, for many others, as for Luther, the indulgence traffic was a scandal, with one preacher characterising the requisites of the church as three-fold: contrition, confession and contribution.

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The Indulgence Sale of 1516-17

The cartoon above, by Holbein, makes the point that the handing over of the indulgence letter was so timed as to anticipate the dropping of the money into the coffer. This can be seen in the chamber on the right in which the Pope, Leo X, is enthroned. He is handing a letter of indulgence to a kneeling Dominican friar. In the church stalls on either side are seated a number of church dignitaries. On the right one of them lays his hand upon the head of a kneeling youth and with a stick points to a large iron-bound chest for the contributions, into which a woman is dropping her ‘mite’.  At the table on the left various Dominicans are preparing and dispensing indulgences. One of them repulses a beggar who has nothing to give in exchange, while another is carefully checking the money and withholding the indulgences until the full amount has been received. In contrast, Holbein depicts, on the left, the true repentance of David, Manasseh, and a notorious sinner, who address themselves only to God.

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The indulgences dispensed at Wittenberg served to support the Castle Church and the university. Luther’s attack therefore struck at the revenue of his own institution. The first blow was certainly not the rebellion of an exploited German against the expropriating greed of the Italian papacy. He was simply a simple priest responsible for the souls of his parishioners and therefore felt a keen sense of duty to warn them against the spiritual pitfalls of buying indulgences. As he put it, good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works. He was determined to preach this, whatever the consequences for the Castle Church and the university. 

In 1517 Luther!s attention was drawn to another instance of the indulgence traffic, this time arising out of the pretensions of the house of Hohenzollern to control both the ecclesiastical and civil life of Germany. Every bishop controlled vast revenues, and some bishops were also princes. Albert of Brandenburg, a Hohenzollern, held the sees of Halberstadt and Magdeburg, and aspired to the archbishopric of Mainz, which would make him the primate of Germany. Albert was confident that money would speak, because the Pope needed it so badly. The pontiff was Leo X, of the House of Medici, whose chief pre-eminence lay in his ability to squander the resources of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling and hunting. The Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor declared that the ascent of this man in an hour of crisis to the chair of St. Peter, a man who scarcely so much as understood the obligations of his high office, was one of the most severe trials to which God ever subjected his Church. Leo was particularly in need of funds to complete a project commenced by his predecessor, the building of the new St. Peter’s. Pope Julius II had begun the work, but though the piers were laid, work had stopped before Julius died and Leo took over.

The negotiations between Albert and the Pope were conducted through the mediation of the German banking-house of Fugger, which exercised monopoly on papal finances in Germany. When the Church needed funds in advance of revenues, she borrowed at usurious rates from the Fuggers, and indulgences were then sold in order to repay the debts, the bankers themselves supervising their collection. They informed Albert that the Pope demanded twelve thousand ducats for the twelve apostles. Albert offered seven for the seven deadly sins, and they compromised on ten, presumably for the Ten Commandments! Albert had to pay the money first, in order to secure his appointment as Archbishop of Mainz, and he borrowed the amount from the Fuggers. To enable Albert to reimburse himself, the Pope granted him the privilege of dispensing an indulgence in his territories for a period of eight years. One half of the returns was to go to the repayment of the Fuggers, and the other half to the Pope.

The indulgences were not offered in Luther’s parish, since the Church could not introduce one without the approval of the civil authorities, and Frederick the Wise would not grant permission in his lands because Wittenberg already had it own indulgences, for All Saints, so the vendors could not enter electoral Saxony, although Luther’s parishioners could go over the border and return with ‘concessions’ which would tempt others to do the same. Subscribers would enjoy a plenary and perfect remission of all sins, as well as restitution to the state of innocence they had enjoyed in baptism and relief from all the pains of purgatory. For those securing indulgences on behalf of the dead, the stages of contrition and confession could be by-passed. Preaching stations, marked by the Cross (see below) were set up so that all might contribute according to their capacity to pay. There was a set fee for each level in the feudal hierarchy, and soon so much money was going into the coffer of the vendor that new coins had to be minted on the spot.

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Those without even a single florin to give were allowed to contribute through prayer and fasting, so it is incorrect to suggest that the very poor were stripped of all coinage. The proclamation of the indulgence was entrusted to the Dominican Tetzel, an experienced vendor. When he approached a town, he was met by the civic dignitaries, who then entered with him in solemn procession. A cross bearing the papal arms preceded him, and the pope’s bull of indulgence was borne aloft on a gold-embroidered velvet cushion. The cross was solemnly planted in the market place, and a lengthy sermon began, in which the children of departed were implored to open their ears to their parent’s pleading from purgatory:

We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory.

The assembled were then reminded that for just a quarter of a florin they could secure the instant release of their beloved dead from the ‘flames’ and the transition of their souls into the ‘fatherland of paradise’. Tetzel used a familiar rhyming couplet to bring this home to even the most uneducated among them:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, 

The soul from purgatory springs.

Luther’s returning parishioners even reported Tetzel to have said that the papal indulgences could absolve a man who had violated the Mother of God, and that the cross emblazoned with the papal arms set up by the vendors was equal to the cross of Christ. The cartoon (below), published by one of Luther’s followers sometime later, shows the cross in the centre empty of all save the nail holes and the crown of thorns. More prominent beside it stood the papal arms above the preacher, and the Medici balls above the vendor, hawking his wares in the foreground.

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The Ninety-Five Theses:

So, on the eve of All Souls, 1517, when Frederick the Wise would offer his indulgences, Luther decided to speak out by posting, in accordance with the current practice, a printed placard in Latin on the door of the Castle Church. It consisted of ninety-five theses, or propositions, intended for academic dispute and debate. He directed his attack solely against Tetzel’s reputed sermon, not against Albert of Brandenburg’s transaction. Pope Sixtus IV had set a precedent on promising the immediate release of souls from purgatory, so Tetzel’s jingle did not represent a departure from accepted teaching within the Church, resting on papal authority.  However, Luther’s Theses differed from the normal use of propositions for debate in tone rather than content, crafted as they were in anger. The ninety-five ‘affirmations’ are crisp, bold and unqualified. In the discussions which followed, he explained his meaning more fully. There were three main points: an objection to the avowed object of the expenditure, the basilica of St Peter’s in Rome; a denial of the pope’s powers over purgatory, and a pastoral concern for the welfare of the individual sinner.

The attack focused first on the ostensible intent to spend the money in order to shelter the bones of St Peter and St Paul beneath a universal shrine for all Christendom. We Germans cannot attend St Peters, he wrote, suggesting that the pope would do better to appoint one good pastor and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences. Certainly, he argued, it should never be built our parochial churches be despoiled. This went down well with the Germans, who had been suffering a sense of grievance for some time against what they saw as the corrupt practices of the Italian curia, whilst overlooking those of the German confederates. Luther himself accepted this distortion by ignoring the fact that much of the money collected by Albert was going into the coffers of the Fuggers, rather than to Rome. However, Luther was not concerned so much with the details of the financial transaction as with undermining the whole practice, even if not a single gulden was to leave Wittenberg.

His second point denied the power of the pope over purgatory for the remission of either sin or penalty for sin. The absolution of sin, in his view, was something that could only be given to the contrite sinner in the sacrament of penance:

Papal indulgences do not remove guilt. Beware of those who say that indulgences effect reconciliation with God. The power of the keys cannot make attrition into contrition. He who is contrite has plenary remission of guilt and penalty without indulgences. The pope can remove only those penalties which he himself has imposed on earth, for Christ did not say, “whatsoever I have bound in heaven you may loose on earth.”

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Luther argued that the penalties of purgatory could not be reduced by the pope because they had been imposed by God, and the pope did not have at his disposal a treasury of credits available for transfer. Thus far, Luther’s attack could in no sense be regarded as heretical or original. Even though Albert’s actions rested on papal bulls, there had as yet been no definitive pronouncement, and many contemporary theologians would have endorsed Luther’s claims. It was his doctrine on salvation which represented a departure from traditional Catholic teaching:

Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor is better than he who receives a pardon. He who spends his money for indulgences instead of relieving want receives not the indulgences of the pope but the indignation of God… Love covers a multitude of sins and is better than all the pardons of Jerusalem and Rome… Christians should be encouraged to bear the cross. He who is baptised into Christ must be as a sheep to the slaughter. The merits of Christ are vastly more potent when they bring crosses than when they bring remissions.

The Road to Augsburg and back:

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses ranged in scope all the way from the complaints of aggrieved Germans to the cries of a wrestler in the night watches. One portion demanded financial relief, the other called for the crucifixion of the self. The masses could grasp the first. Only a few elect spirits would ever comprehend fully the importance of the second. Yet it was in the second that the power lay to create a popular revolution. Complaints of financial extortion had been voiced for more than a century to no great effect. Men were stirred to deeds only by one who regarded indulgences not only as corrupt, but as blasphemy against the holiness and mercy of God.

Neither did Luther intend to start a popular revolution. He took no steps to spread his theses among the people. He was merely inviting scholars to dispute with him, but others surreptitiously translated the theses into German and gave them to the printing presses. They soon became the talk of Germany. Luther had meant them for those most concerned with the indulgence controversy in his part of the country, divided as it was into many ‘independent’ territories and cities within the Empire.  He had sent a copy to Albert of Mainz, along with the following letter:

Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, forgive me that I, the scum of the earth, should dare to approach Your Sublimity.  The Lord Jesus is my witness that I am well aware of my insignificance and my unworthiness. I make so bold because of the office and fidelity which I owe to Your Paternity. May Your Highness look upon this speck of dust and hear my plea for clemency from you and from the pope.

These words, so many of them beginning with obsequious capitals, were hardly those of a revolutionary. Luther then reported what he had heard about Tetzel’s preaching that through indulgences men are promised remission not only of penalty but also of guilt. Nevertheless, rather than simply reading the theses and replying, as Luther requested, Albert chose to forward them to Rome. Pope Leo is credited with making two comments, neither of which can be claimed as authentic, but both of which can be claimed to be revealing in what they tell us as legends. The first was, Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober, and the second was, Friar Martin is a brilliant chap. The whole row is due to the envy of the monks. If Luther was not a drunken German, he was certainly an irate one, who might be amenable if mollified. If the pope had issued his bull of a year later, clearly defining the doctrine of indulgences and correcting the most glaring abuses, Luther might have given way. During the four years in which his case was pending, his letters reveal no great preoccupation with the dispute. Instead, he continued to be fully engrossed in his duties in the university and his parish.

Yet the pope preferred to snuff out the opposition by appointing a new general of the Augustinians who would quench a monk of his order, Martin Luther by name, and thus smother the fire before it should become a conflagration. In December 1517 the Archbishop of Mainz complained to Rome about Luther. Luther felt constrained to declare himself more fully to the general public, since his Ninety-Five Theses had, by the spring of 1518, been published throughout the German states and read in German, though he had intended them only for fellow scholars. The many bald assertions called for further explanation and clarification. However, his summaries of sermons, The Resolutions Concerning the Ninety-Five Theses also contained some new points. In particular, he had made the discovery that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, was a mis-translation.  The Latin for Matthew 4:17 read as “do penance”, but from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, Luther had learned that the original phrase meant simply “be penitent”. The literal sense of the verb “to repent” was “to change one’s mind”. That was all that was necessary for the sinner to be granted forgiveness by God.

In his dedication of the Resolutions, written to his mentor Staupitz, Luther described how, fortified with this passage, I venture to say that they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek. This became what he called his glowing discovery. What he had discovered was something far more radical than his objections to indulgences, though arising from them and from his doctrine of salvation. He had discovered that one of the chief sacraments of the Church did not have any basis in scripture. From this point on, it was on the scriptures that he based his challenges to the Church’s practices.  He also questioned whether the Roman Church was above the Greek Church in authority. This was to claim that the primacy of the Roman Church was simply a historical development, or even an accident of history, rather than a result of divine ordination reaching back to the founding of the universal Church. The pope responded by banning Luther who, in turn, preached on the ban declaring that excommunication and reconciliation affect only the fellowship of the earth and not the grace of God. These alleged statements were printed by opponents and shown at the imperial diet to the papal legates, who were rumoured to have sent them to Rome. Luther was informed that, this time, the damage was inestimable. He wrote out and printed what he could remember of his sermon, but this only served to underline his rejection of the pope’s authority to sever spiritual communion. Quoting Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he stated that no creature can separate the believer from the love of Christ.

The printed sermon was not off the press until the end of August. In the meantime, the pope turned away from Luther’s own order, the Augustinians, and towards the Dominicans, to produce a reply to Luther’s reported statements. They asserted that the Roman Church was one and the same with the universal Church in terms of its authority.  The leadership of Church might consist of cardinals, but ultimate authority lay in the pope. Just as the universal Church could not err on matters of faith and morals, nor could the Roman Church, either in its true councils nor in the pope when he was speaking in his official capacity. Whoever did not accept the doctrine of the Roman Church and its pontiff as the infallible rule of faith from which sacred Scripture derived its strength and authority was a heretic, so that anyone who declared that, in matters of indulgences, the Roman Church could not do what it decided to do, was also a heretic. The Dominicans proceeded to refute Luther’s errors, describing him in the colourful colloquialisms of the time, as a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron. Luther retorted in kind:

I am sorry now that I despised Tetzel. Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no Scripture. You give no reasons. Like an insidious devil you pervert the Scriptures. You say that the Church consists virtually in the pope. What abominations will you not have to regard as the deeds of the Church?… You call me a leper because I mingle truth with error. I am glad you admit there is some truth. You make the pope into an emperor in power and violence. The Emperor Maximilian and the Germans will not tolerate this.

The radicalism of this tract lay not in its invective, however, but in its affirmation that the pope and a council of cardinals might err, and that final authority lay in Scripture. Yet again, prior to the appearance of his declaration, the pope had already taken precipitate action. On the seventh of August, Luther received a citation to appear at Rome to answer charges of heresy and ‘contumacy’ (insubordination). He was given sixty in which to make his appearance. The following day Luther wrote to the elector to remind him of the previous assurance that the case would not be taken to Rome. This began a tortuous series of negotiations culminating in Luther’s hearing before the Diet of Worms in April 1521. The main significance of that event was that an assembly of the German nation came to function as a court of the Catholic Church. The four years leading up to this were merely a prelude to the main act of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s plea to the elector was transmitted via Frederick’s court chaplain, George Spalatin. Frederick opened negotiations with Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, to give Luther a personal hearing in connection with the forthcoming meeting of the imperial diet at Augsburg. The hearing was to be private, and not before the diet, but would at least be on German soil. Cajetan was a high papalist of integrity and erudition. He could scarcely tolerate Luther’s recent tracts, and was less inclined to moderation because the Emperor had been incensed by the excerpts from the reputed Sermon on the Ban and had himself taken the initiative on the fifth of August in writing to the pope to set a stop to the most perilous attack of Martin Luther on indulgences lest not only the people but even the princes be seduced. With the emperor, the pope and the cardinal against him Luther had only a slender hope of escaping the fate of Jan Hus, being burnt at the stake.

He began his physical journey to Augsburg with grave misgiving. He was in grave danger, far greater than three years later when he went to Worms as the champion of the German nation. In 1518 he was only an Augustinian eremite accused of heresy. He saw the stake ahead and told himself, Now I must die; What a disgrace I shall be to my parents! On the road he contracted an intestinal infection and almost fainted. Even more disconcerting was the recurring doubt as to whether the taunt of his critics might after all be right, Are you alone wise and all the ages in error? Luther’s friends had advised him not to enter Augsburg without a guarantee of safe-conduct, and Frederick eventually obtained one from Emperor Maximillian. Cajetan, on being told of this, was incensed, declaring If you don’t trust me, why do you ask my opinion, and if you do why is a safe-conduct necessary? But there was indeed a severe threat to Luther’s life, as the correspondence between cardinals, the pope and the elector Frederick show. The two letters, both written on the seventh of October 1518, reveal that the papal authorities were determined that Luther should be placed in the hands and under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. Cajetan’s instructions were also quite clear in this regard. He was limited to inquiry into Luther’s teaching, and was not permitted to enter into discussion with him.

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Three interviews took place – on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the twelfth to the fourteenth of October. Staupitz was among those present. On the first day Cajetan informed him that he must recant. Luther answered that he had not made the arduous journey to Augsburg to do what he could have done in Wittenberg. Instead, he asked to be instructed as to his errors. When the cardinal answered that the chief of these was his denial of the Church’s treasury of merit, the doctrine of 1343 that Christ’s sacrifice acquired a treasure which, through the power of the keys, had been placed at the disposal of Peter and his successors in order to release the faithful from temporal penalties. Luther’s reply was both rude and irrelevant, but Cajetan realised that he was in danger of going beyond his instructions in debating the whole concept of the treasury of the surplus merits of Christ and the saints. Luther was trapped because he must either recant or give an acceptable interpretation to the bull of 1343. Since he had already refused to recant, he requested to be able to submit a statement in writing, adding that they had wrangled quite enough. Cajetan retorted, My son, I did not wrangle with you. I am ready to reconcile you with the Roman Church. But since reconciliation was only possible through recantation, Luther protested that he ought not to be condemned unheard and unrefuted:

I am not conscious of going against Scripture, the fathers, the decretals, or right reason. I may be in error. I will submit to the judgement of the universities of Basel, Freiburg, Louvain and, if need be, of Paris.

Again, these were undiplomatic words, aimed at challenging the cardinal’s jurisdiction. Luther then shifted ground on the content of the ‘charge’ by rejecting the authority of the pope who had formulated the decretal, or bull:

I am not so audacious that for the sake of a single obscure and ambiguous decretal of a human pope I would recede from so many and such clear testimonies of divine Scripture. For, as one of the canon lawyers has said, ‘in a matter of faith not only is a council above a pope but any one of the faithful, if armed with better authority and reason’.

The cardinal reminded Luther that Scripture itself had to be interpreted, and that the pope had to act as interpreter. In so doing, he was above a council and everything else in the Church. Luther retorted that his Holiness abuses Scripture and that he denied that the pope was above Scripture. At this, Cajetan flared up and bellowed at Luther that he should leave and never return unless he was willing to recant. Luther wrote home that the cardinal was no more fitted to handle the case than an ass was suited to play on a harp. Before long, the cartoonists took up this theme (see below), picturing the pope himself in this pose. Cajetan soon cooled off and had dinner with Staupitz, over which he urged him to induce Luther to recant. Staupitz answered that he had often tried to moderate Luther, but that he was not equal to him in ability and command of Scripture. As the pope’s representative, it was up to the cardinal to press the case. Staupitz then released Luther from his vow of obedience to the order. He may have wished to relieve the Augustinians of the responsibility for their friar, or he may have wished to release the restraints on him, but Luther himself felt that he had been disowned. He later joked that he was excommunicated three times, first by Staupitz, secondly by the pope and thirdly by the emperor.

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Luther fled the town when summoned to Rome. He complained that the citation to Rome  would submit him to the Dominicans and that Rome would not be a safe place even with a safe-conduct. Even Pope Leo had recently been the object of a poisonous conspiracy. In any case, as a mendicant, Luther had no funds for the journey. He wrote:

I feel that I have not justice because I teach nothing save what is in the Scripture. Therefore I appeal from Leo badly informed to Leo better informed.

Rumour then reached Luther that the cardinal was empowered to arrest him. The gates of the city were being guarded. With the help of friendly citizens, Luther escaped by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride horseback in his cowl without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived in Nürnberg where he was shown the pope’s instructions to Cajetan. On the thirtieth of October, almost a full year after posting the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was back in the sanctuary of Wittenberg.

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What was the significance of Luther’s Protest?

Luther saw that the trade in indulgences was wholly unwarranted by Scripture, reason or tradition. It encouraged a man in his sin, and tended to turn his mind away from Christ and from God’s forgiveness. It was on this point that Luther’s theology contrasted sharply with that of the church. The pope claimed authority ‘to shut the gates of hell and open the door to paradise’. An obscure monk challenged that authority. His contemporaries knew at once that Luther had touched the exposed nerve of both the hierarchy of the church and the everyday practice of Christianity. Christian Europe was never the same again, but in 1518 there was nothing to indicate that it was about to undergo a revolutionary change in both its religious and secular institutions and life. The only prediction that many were making on All Souls’ Eve in 1518 was that Martin Luther would soon be burnt at the stake. This was also the friar’s own prediction.

Luther’s discovery about the meaning of penitence led him to the belief that the believer came into a direct relationship and union with Christ, as the one, only and all-sufficient source of grace. His grace is available to the penitent believer by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word of God. This eventually did away with the need for the Virgin as mediator, the clergy as priests and the departed saints as intercessors. In fact, the reformers were never innovators, as the papacy was so often to allege, but renovators. What they removed were the medieval innovations of Rome, in favour of the teachings of the Bible and the doctrines of the early Christian theologians.

 

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

Part Two: Trade and Travelling Saints

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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.

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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):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cedd

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chad_of_Mercia

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