How religious was the tenth-century reform?

The monastic reform that occurred in tenth-century England could be said to have both political and religious dimensions to it - How religious was the tenth-century reform? introduction. Ostensibly, it was an attempt to return to a ‘golden age’ of Benedictine monasticism of the seventh and eighth centuries, which had been responsible for producing Bede. Contemporary England, it was felt, with its increasingly secular minsters, was far removed from this vision of the past.

Reform, which involved replacing secular clerks with monks adhering to St. Benedict’s Rule and promoted by Dunstan, Oswald and Aethelwold, took place on a fairly erratic basis during the reigns of Edmund, Eadred and Eadwig. It was not till Edgar ascended to the throne in 959 that the reform process really began to get underway, standardised in the Regularis Concordia of circa 970. The political aspect of the reform is related to its timing: the attempted unification of monasterial practice coincided with the unification of England, as Edgar gradually asserted West Saxon supremacy over the rest of England.

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The reform could also be said to have increased the king’s power by reducing the influence of local aristocrats with the removal of secularium prioratus, arguably one of the factors in the so-called anti-monastic reaction which followed Edgar’s death. In light of this, the tenth-century reform can easily be perceived as being more political than religious. But it would be unwise to downplay the religious side.

We need to ask ourselves exactly how conscious and deliberate were the political motives and effects of the reform whilst being careful not to separate forcefully religious from political aspects of the reform (for instance, by assuming that the bishops involved had solely religious motives or the king solely political): as we shall see, in the period in question politics was inextricably intertwined with religion and many apparently ecclesiastical matters could have a political dimension. True Benedictine monasticism, asserts Blair, seems to have been almost dead in tenth-century England.

The Vikings had destroyed several great and countless small minsters, while those which survived had tended towards a more secular lifestyle. Many minster priests were married with children and lived in separate houses with their families. Alfred had the century before deplored the state of learning in the Church but had failed in his attempt to effect a revival. This state of affairs was in marked contrast with the newly reformed continental houses such as Cluny and Fleury which adhered firmly to St. Benedict’s Rule.

Increased communication between England and the Continent from the reign of Aethelstan onward, coupled with the foreign visits (or exile in Dunstan’s case) of English ecclesiasts meant that officials in England must have been very aware of the continental reforms and their results. The Abbey of Cluny near Macon in Burgundy had been established by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine in 909. Duke William declared that Cluny was to enjoy complete independence from all feudal or secular episcopal lordship. The first two abbots at the Cluny, Berno and Odo, set very high standards of religious behavior.

This meant strict observance of Rule of Saint Benedict, the encouragement of monks to develop a personal spiritual life, and stressing the importance of the liturgy. English observers cannot have failed to be impressed by the extent of religious devotion evident in places such as Cluny, and unsurprisingly monks from Fleury and Ghent were later called in to help Bishop Aethelwold draw up the Regularis Concordia. Continental reform must have encouraged a desire amongst some ecclesiasts to increase the spirituality of the English Church.

After all, if it had been managed on the continent, why could the same not happen in England? However, large-scale reform needed the support of the king. Royal intervention was necessary for the replacement of cathedral clerks with monks as it involved endowments being transferred from individual clerks and their families to monasteries as communities, not to mention the fact that large sums of money were needed to reform monasteries. Change, therefore, would depend on the sympathies of the reigning monarch.

The reform movement started to look as if it was gathering speed when King Edmund (939-46), having miraculously escaped from a near-fatal hunting accident made a pious gesture by appointing Dunstan, one of the lead reformists, as abbot of Glastonbury. Dunstan’s biographer, whom we know only as ‘B’, describes Glastonbury as “following the most wholesome institution of St Benedict”, though there continued to be both clerks and monks under Dunstan’s rule.

However, Edmund’s interest in the reform movement was to prove short-lived, demonstrated by his giving the abbey of Bath to unreformed clerks, ‘refugees’ from the reform of St. Peter’s, Ghent. Edmund’s brother Eadred (946-55) was much more sympathetic. Under him, the fortunes of Glastonbury were consolidated. However, Dunstan was initially unable to impose the new style of monasticism at Glastonbury, which provoked Aethelwold, who was studying underneath him, to plan to withdraw to the continent. He was persuaded to stay when the king gave him the estates of a deserted monastery at Abingdon that had passed into royal possession, giving him permission to shape it as he wished.

However, whilst Eadred was prepared to make personal financial sacrifice to aid the reform movement, he was not prepared to incur the opposition which an attack on an established monastic community could have encountered. Under Eadred’s successor, Eadwig, monastic reform followed a similarly slow, and rather erratic, course. Dunstan was exiled, although the king remained on good terms with Aethelwold, who taught his brother, Edgar. Aethelwold’s influence seems to have been behind Edgar’s openness to ideas of reform.

After Edgar came to the throne, Dunstan was recalled and appointed archbishop of Canterbury, despite the demotion of the previous archbishop being in total defiance of canon law. Within five years Aethelwold had been granted the second see of southern England at Winchester and Oswald had been made bishop of Worcester. It was from Worcester and Winchester that an attempt was made to monasticise the English Church and Aethelwold’s abbey at Abingdon was the source from which new reforming abbots and, later, monastic bishops were recruited.

In 963 Aethelwold worked in alliance with Edgar in expelling the secular canons from Winchester and replaced with Benedictine monks. Whilst this did not happen everywhere it is an indication of Edgar’s support for the reformers and Yorke for one is of the belief that Aethelwold could not have succeeded without the support of King Edgar. Before looking at the motives of the king in putting his support behind the reform movement, we should be careful not to assume that ecclesiasts had only spiritual interests at heart. This is a view which is encouraged by biographers.

Wulfstan and Aelfric, for example, are not interested in the secular aspects of Aethelwold’s life, their aim being to prove his sancity both through his life in the church and through the miracles performed during his lifetime and at his tomb. 1 But in tenth-century England, the church and state operated within the same sphere. Bishops were frequently consulted on matters of state, as their regular appearance at royal councils demonstrates. Significantly, leading bishops (and monks) tended to come from aristocratic families. During his adolescence Aethelwold was a member of the royal house of King Aethelstan.

Dunstan came from a similarly wealthy background- his brother Wulfric owned substantial lands in Wiltshire and Surrey. This meant that they could have been unlike any other aristocrat in their desire to ingratiate themselves with the royal family, competing against other aristocratic landowners, especially since patronage was at stake. Simon Coates describes how as the king’s chief adviser he was entrusted with many title deeds and treasures, despite the appropriation of secular values being (in theory at least) against what he should have stood for.

However, what is remarkable about all three main reformers is that they adhered to reforming principles for decades before these were fashionable. This could even subject them to persecution. According to Eric John, Dunstan was beaten up at the court of Aethelstan for his religious views. He and Oswald both experienced exile and Aethelwold must have feared it from time to time. Given that they might have enjoyed more comfortable and stable lives had they not been pressing for reform, it would seem as though the desire Dunstan, Oswald and Aethelwold had to see implementation of strict Benedictinism in England had firm spiritual roots.

Whether the same can be said of the royal reasons for monastic reform is a matter of debate. An exceptionally pious king might want to impose what he saw as an ideal form of monastic rule, perhaps as a way of dutifully proving to God that he was fit to rule. However, as we have seen, even kings who initially appear sensitive to the possibility may balk at the idea of large-scale reform once they realise the costs it could incur to them, both financially and in terms of making enemies amongst influential landowners.

Could we say therefore that Eadgar realised what his forebears had not: that there were certain political benefits to be gained from monastic reform? Eric John sees the reform movement as a deliberate joint attack by monks and the king on the entrenched interests of local aristocrats, formerly accustomed to the possession of hereditary rights over monastic offices and clerical property. The Regularis Concordia strictly forbade secularium prioratum, which could be interpreted as meaning the direct rule of monasteries by laymen.

Interference by local magnates, was, if we are to believe Aethelwold a significant problem. In ‘An Old English Account of King Eadgar’s Establishment of Monasteries’ he warns of the malpractices of local magnates and families which threatened newly revived monasteries, but according to Eric John he is implying that this menace was not new. But while it is undoubtedly true that reform represented a mutually advantageous alliance between the king and monks, John’s analysis is flawed.

Patrick Wormald has demonstrated that the jurisdictional immunity of the Oswaldslow is a post-Conquest forgery, thereby demolishing John’s argument that Eadgar used this to strengthen episcopal authority at the expense of local aristocratic power. True, the new monastic endowments must have meant that many nobles suffered financially, either by loss of their estates or by the hard-bargaining techniques Aethelwold used to purchase the land. But others, for example, Aethelwine of East Anglia or Byrhtnoth of Essex became patrons of reformed houses.

The family of Athelstan Half-King in East Anglia was important in the endowment of Glastonbury and of Oswald’s fenland abbeys. Donating money to or even founding a monastery could improve a family’s social standing and was a way of ingratiating oneself with a reforming king. It could also bring spiritual benefits: P. A. Stafford notes that whenever the Regularis Concordia mentions prayers to be said for the royal family, it also speaks of those to be said for benefactors. 3 This last point shows that aristocrats were not deliberately left out of the reform by the king.

He knew that to a certain extent his power depended on their wealth and affiliations and so would have been unwise to unnecessarily irritate them. The anti-monastic reaction after the death of King Edgar (975), which saw attacks by nobles led by Aelfhere, ealdorman of Mercia on monastic property has been seen as a revolt by aristocrats who saw the increasing power of the Church as a threat to their own power (and inheritance). However, as DJV Fisher explains, the real issue at stake was not Eadgar’s monastic reforms but the dynastic battle between Edward and Aethelred.

The former attacked Mercian monasteries not because he was an enemy of monasticism but because there he could attack his political opponents where they were most vulnerable. True, he could count on a certain degree of aristocratic support from landowners aggrieved at their declining influence, but, claims Fisher “it is a great deal more credible that armies should be raised to settle a dynastic issue than the merits of Eadgar’s monastic policy”. After the dynastic crisis had been settled, there were no further attacks on the monasteries.

The idea of an anti-monastic reaction is therefore misleading and exaggerates the importance of monasticism as a political issue. The idea that the monastic reforms were designed to reduce the power of local lay magnates is associated with the theory that they greatly increased the king’s authority. The king was increasingly symbolically associated with God (as the second coronation and anointing of Eadgar at Bath demonstrates) as well as becoming a major patron and protector of many monasteries.

The Regularis Concordia stipulated that it was only with the king’s advice and consent that abbots and abbesses were to be elected. 4 In addition, as has already been mentioned, it compelled monks to pray frequently for the well-being of the king and queen. This feature of the new monasticism was pretty much unique to England, where (unlike the ducs of Burgundy) the monarchy was extremely strong. According to John, the reformed monasteries offered an atmosphere “permeated with devotion to the royal family: on the great occasions and in the shire meetings… he English upper classes [who, remember, were prominent in the monasteries- monks tended to be well-born] were forced to breathe that atmosphere”.

This could guarantee loyalty, a quality which had previously been lacking amongst some (aristocratic) bishops. For example, Wulfstan I of York had helped lead the northern rebellion against Eadred’s West-Saxon control. From Eadgar’s reign to well into the eleventh century, however, monastic bishops bred to be loyal to the king dominated the English church.

Under Aethelred, for instance, twenty-nine bishops (two-thirds) had previously been monks or abbots. A celibate monastic order could therefore take the place of family affiliations in producing good royal servants. Wills reveal the extent to which these monastically-trained bishops had been separated from their original backgrounds. Bequests to family do feature but not as prominently as do bequests to monasteries. Archbishop of Canterbury, Aelfric, for example, leaves bequests to Abingdon, St. Albans and Christ Church.

However, this process was surely less a result of a conscious effort by the king to than an incidental side-effect of reform. If it was that easy to create a class of loyal bishops then why had other kings not put as much effort into reform as Eadgar? This brings us to the fundamental ‘political’ aspect of the monastic reform: its link with the unification of England. It seems more than a coincidence that the main period of monastic reform coincided with Wessex’s assertion of supremacy over the other English kingdoms. 970 was the high point in the royal titles assumed by the West Saxon kings.

While tenth-century diplomas had always granted these kings some nominal superiority over all of England (some Worcester charters even called the king imperator), a 970 grant styles Eadgar imperator augustus. Eadgar’s reform of the coinage in 973 saw the legend Rex Anglorum become the unchanged style of English kings. Significantly, it was only from around 970 that reforms started to spread outside Wessex to Mercia and beyond. For example, Florence of Worcester reports for the year 969 that Eadgar ordered Dunstan, Oswald and Aethelwold to expel the clerks and found new monasteries in Mercia.

Reforms may even have spread to Northumbria after 970, although this is largely based on the biography of Oswald which asserts simply that the archbishop founded a monastery at Wilfrid’s old cathedral and so may have meant York and not Ripon. The document that could be said to have sealed the monastic reform, the Regularis Concordia, was also drawn up around this time (Symons believes it was 973). The emphasis on unity and uniformity represented by the Regularis Concordia (not to mention its many prayers for the royal family) fits nicely with the idea of the unification of England under one king.

It also has parallels with the Benedictine reforms under the Carolingians a generation earlier. However, it makes more sense to see the monastic reform under Eadgar not as a method of unifying England but as something that was made possible by England’s unification. Eric John’s assertion that every reformed monastery was a “foyer of royal propaganda”, an outpost of royal authority, looks still shakier when we consider the fact that the spiritual and material regeneration may have touched only a fraction (probably below ten percent, according to John Blair) of the old communities.

At the time of the Norman Conquest, the tiny number of Benedictine houses co-existed with hundreds of small, secular minsters. Furthermore, nearly all the reformed monasteries were in the south. If reform was a conscious and deliberate effort to impose royal authority over a newly-unified England, it turned out to be very limited indeed.

The English tenth-century monastic revival was certainly not as self-consciously spiritual as the Cluniac movement, and to ignore the fact that both ecclesiasts and the king had major political benefits to be accrued from such a reform would be foolish. However, as has hopefully been demonstrated, it is possible to be too cynical. While these political advantages with hindsight might look as though they had been purposefully and carefully thought-out, they may not have been obvious before the reform took place.

And while we must be careful of too readily believing the words of their sometimes sycophantic biographers, the ecclesiastical reformers’ unstinting adherence to their aims, despite periods of unpopularity exile, demonstrates the passion that allegiance to the Rule of St. Benedict could incite. This unstoppable zeal for reform on their part must have affected the actions of King Eadgar, who took advantage of the strengthening of Wessex’s control over the rest of England and the increase in the wealth of the crown to commit himself to a reform programme.

While he may have given some thought to the possible political benefits (for instance, by thinking along Carolingian lines), Eadgar’s keenness definitely seems to have had a spiritual side to it, although this may have been selfish. Lastly, although the Regularis Concordia can seem at times to be overtly political, it is simply the product of an age in which politics and religion operated extremely closely together. Monastic revival was therefore part of a larger process of religious revival which was inspired by the political regeneration and unification of England.

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