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The Benedictine monk who unified Britain’s monasteries

Aethelwold (c 904-984)was a powerful ecclesiastic who played an important part in reviving monasticism in England. Born into a noble family, he was educated in the household of King Athelstan, and ordained on the same day as St Dunstan.

Around 941 Aethelwold joined the Benedictine monastery at Glastonbury, eager to restore learning and discipline. Yet, though he became prior, it was Dunstan who, thanks to the patronage of King Edmund, was appointed abbot in 945.

Soon afterwards Aethelwold sought permission from Edmund’s successor, King Eadred, to study monastic practice on the continent.
The King, though, sent him to restore the derelict monastery at Abingdon. Aethelwold turned it into a model Benedictine community, and built a new church.

From 959 he enjoyed the favour of King Edgar, who in 963 appointed him Bishop of Winchester. With the King’s support, he used armed force to expel the secular clergy from both the new and old minsters, replacing them with monks from Abingdon. 

The ideal of the monastic cathedral, a peculiarly English institution, would survive until the Reformation. Aethelwold looked back to the seventh century, when saintly monks dominated the Church.

He also elevated St Swithun (died 862), rebuilding the west end of the Old Minster at Winchester after moving his relics there in 971. Beyond his own see, Aethelwold founded monasteries at Peterborough, Ely and Thorney, and forwarded works to recover the Fenland. At the Synod of Winchester (970-73) he introduced his Regularis Concordia, which established a common rule for every monastery in England.

Aethelwold was a formidable scholar in both Latin and Old English. Under his auspices music and manuscript illumination flourished at Winchester.

“It was always agreeable to him,” wrote Wulfstan, one of the Winchester monks, “to teach young men and mature students, passing on the rules of grammar and metre, and encouraging them to do better by cheerful words.”

Many of Aethelwold’s pupils became bishops and abbots.

He was practical, too, serving as a cook at Glastonbury, and at Abingdon working as a builder until he fell off a scaffold and broke his hip.

Yet there was a certain ruthlessness about Aethelwold, who once commanded a monk to show his devotion by plunging his hand into a boiling stew. Landholders, moreover, did not appreciate being compelled to sell land at low prices in order to provide his monasteries with an independent income.

The scribe of Aethelwold’s celebrated Benedictional called him Boanerges, son of thunder. After the bishop’s death miracles were duly reported, and he was recognised as a saint. Somehow, though, his cult never really took off.

There is, however, much to be said for a bishop who, as Wulfstan remembered, cared for the poor, and made powerful men into sheep not wolves.