Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume VIII: August. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, Confessor
THIS saint was nobly born, and a native of Winchester. Being moved in his youth with an ardent desire totally to devote himself to the divine service, he for some time made it his most earnest request to the Father of lights, that he might find an experienced guide in the paths of salvation. He met with this director in the great St. Dunstan, then abbot of Glastenbury, to whom he addressed himself, and received from his hands the monastic habit. Knowing that heavenly wisdom is an inestimable treasure, to purchase which we must sell all things and exert our whole strength, he bid adieu to all other thoughts and pursuits, and never ceased to sigh, to pray, to weep, and to labour, with all the ardour of his soul, that he might be so happy as to obtain so great a good, to which God himself vouchsafes, in his mercy, to invite us. The earnestness with which he sought daily to improve his soul in perfect virtue, was the surest mark how much the Holy Ghost already reigned in his heart. At the same time his zeal for knowledge made him embrace every branch of the sacred sciences with so much the greater ardour as these studies were become his essential duty. St. Dunstan, after some time, made him dean of his monks. In 947, king Edred1 rebuilt and richly endowed the abbey of Abingdon in Berkshire, which had formerly been founded by king Cissa, in 675, and augmented by Ina. Ethelwold was appointed abbot of this great monastery, which he rendered a perfect model of regular discipline, and a nursery of other like establishments. He procured from Corbie a master of church music, and sent Osgar to Fleury, a monastery which at that time surpassed all others in the reputation of strict observance of the most perfect monastic discipline. The fury of the Danes had made such havoc of religious houses, that no monks were then left in all England except in the two monasteries of Glastonbury and Abingdon, as the historian of this latter place, published by Wharton, testifies; and the education of youth, and every other support of learning and virtue were almost banished by the ravages of those barbarians. These deplorable circumstances awaked the zeal of the virtuous, especially of St. Dunstan, St. Ethelwold, and St. Oswald. These three also set themselves with great industry to restore learning.2
St. Ethelwold was consecrated bishop of Winchester by St. Dunstan. The disorders and ignorance which reigned among some of the clergy of England occasioned by the Danish devastations, produced a scandalous violation of some of the canons. Ethelwold found these evils obstinate and past recovery among the disorderly secular canons of the cathedral of Winchester. Wherefore he expelled them, allotting to each of them a part of their prebends for their annual subsistence, and placing monks from Abingdon in their room, with whom he kept choir as their bishop and abbot.3 Three of the former canons took the monastic habit and continued to serve God in that church. The year following St. Ethelwold expelled the seculars out of the new monastery of Winchester, and placed there monks with an abbot. He repaired the nunnery dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the same city, and bought of the king the lands and ruins of the great nunnery of St. Audry in the isle of Ely, which had been burnt by the Danes a hundred years before; and he erected on the same spot a sumptuous abbey of monks, which king Edgar exceedingly enriched, as is related by Thomas of Ely. He likewise purchased the ruins of Thorney in Cambridgeshire, which he restored in like manner about the year 970.4 He assisted and directed Adulph to buy the ruins of Peterborough abbey, and rebuilt the same in a most sumptuous manner. The foundation of this house was laid by Peada, the first Christian king of the Mercians, in 646; but it was finished by that kings brothers Wulphere and Ethelred, and their devout virgin sisters Kineburg and Kinewith, who were there interred. This abbey, after having flourished two hundred years in great reputation for piety, was destroyed by the Danes in 870. Adulph, chancellor to king Edgar, having buried his only son, who died in his infancy in 960, gave his whole estate to this house,5 took the monastic habit in it, and was chosen the first abbot. St. Ethelwold, who laboured so strenuously to propagate the divine honour, and the sanctification of others, was always solicitous and zealous, in the first place, to adorn his own soul with all virtues, and to make himself in all things a sacrifice agreeable to God; for it is only the humility and charity of the heart that give a value to exterior actions; without these, to give our goods to the poor, and our bodies to the flames, would not avail us. The fervour of devotion and compunction must be always nourished and increased in the breast, or it grows slack, as an arrow shot from a bow loses by degrees its force, and at length falls to the ground. In our saint, the fervent exercise of interior devotion, and the practice of exterior actions of virtue, mutually supported and gave strength to each other. He rested from his labours on the 1st of August 984, and was buried in the cathedral of Winchester, on the south side of the high altar. Authentic proofs of miracles wrought through his intercession having been made, his body was taken up and solemnly deposited under the altar by St. Elphege, his immediate successor, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, and martyr. See his life written by Wolstan, his disciple, in Mabillon, Act. Ben. Sæc. 5. See also the histories of Glastenbury, Ely, and Abingdon monasteries.
Note 1. King Edred measured with his own hand the ground for the foundation and site of this noble abbey, and gave a great treat of hydromel to his nobles and others in the same place on that occasion. [back]
Note 2. Sec Elfrich, a learned disciple of Ethelwold, Præf. in Gramat. Saxon. [back]
Note 3. Bishop Burnet leads his readers into a gross mistake when he represents most of our cathedral churches to have been converted into priories of monks by St. Dunstan, St. Ethelwold, and St. Oswald, under the authority of King Edgar. These three zealous bishops restored many monasteries as a means to establish the studies of literature and religion, which the depredations of the northern barbarians had exceedingly impaired; and at that time our universities are no where mentioned, and in whatever state some may presume one or both of them then to have been, their schools must certainly have been at too low an ebb sufficiently to answer these purposes. As to our cathedral churches, the monks were only introduced into two in the reign of King Edgar, namely those of Winchester and Worcester, as Mr. Harmar (that is, Henry Wharton) takes notice, in his Specimen of Errors and Defects in Burnets History of the Reformation, p. 12. The Normans after the Conquest, not only advanced their own new nobility in every part of the kingdom, and committed to them the strongholds and castles; but also, wherever it was possible, brought in their own churchmen, suspecting the affections of the old English before their government had taken root among them. Under these first Norman kings were most of the cathedral priories erected in England. The bishopric of Ely was, in its original foundation, fixed in that great monastery by Pope Paschal II. in the reign of Henry I. in 1108; that is, a hundred and forty years after King Edgar. Monks were placed in the cathedral of Canterbury in the beginning of the eleventh century, and in the course of the same were introduced into some other cathedrals. At the dissolution of monasteries, nine cathedrals were monasteries of Benedictin monks, namely, Canterbury, Winchester, Durham, Worcester, Rochester, Ely, Norwich, Bath, and Coventry; and that of Carlisle was a priory of regular canons. Fuller and Wharton take notice that monks were never settled in half the cathedrals of England. See Harmer, loc. cit. and Dr. Brown Williss History of Cathedral Priories. [back]
Note 4. Thorney abbey was founded in a place called Ankerige, from a great number of cells of anchorets, who lived here before the Danish depredations. (Dugdale On Embanking, p. 360; Leland, Collect. t. 1, pp. 8, 28.) The western nave of Thorney church is standing, and serves for the use of the parish. [back]
Note 5. This abbey was dedicated in honour of St. Peter, and being encompassed with a wall, like a city, by Abbot Kenulph, it was called Peterborough, says Malmesbury. In the dissolution of monasteries, King Henry VIII. dealt more favourably with this than with any other, out of regard to his virtuous queen, Catharine, who lies buried in this church, with no other inscription than that of Katherina R. still to be seen. Notwithstanding his divorce, he could not smother his esteem for her sincere piety, and for her sake spared this stately building, converting the monastery into a bishopric; and the church is one of the finest cathedrals in England, though it suffered exceedingly from the forces of Oliver Cromwell in 1643. Mary queen of Scots was buried in the same church; but her body was afterwards removed to Westminster Abbey, by her son James I. who caused a monument to be there erected to her memory, though, after the most diligent search, no account of this removal can be found in the archives of this church, as Mr. Widmore assures us. [back]