St Aldhelm, as described by Faricius and William of Malmesbury

Translated and Edited by

Michael Winterbottom





William of Malmesbury

Faricius, Life of St Aldhelm

William of Malmesbury's use of Faricius in describing St Aldhelm

General Notes



Just before 1100 a Life of St Aldhelm was written by an Italian from Arezzo whose name (Fabrizio) was Latinised as Faricius. Faricius wrote difficult Latin, and his pious interventions much lengthened his book. In the first part of this booklet, I present the narrative chapters of the Life (1-30) in a version pruned of some of these pieties; the basic story remains untouched. To give a flavour of the unpurged Faricius, I have not abbreviated his Commendation (the dedication of the Life to Osmund, bishop of Salisbury) and Preface, his personal narration at the end of 23, or the first paragraph of 29 (and much of the rest of that chapter). Further, I have not dispensed with the verses with which Faricius occasionally prefaces his chapters. I have provided new chapter headings of my own.

Those who wish to consult the full text can do so in Latin in The Journal of Medieval Latin 15 (2005), 93-147, and in English translation in an online version posted at the same time as this booklet was published, with expanded notes on the subject matter and indications of unresolved problems.

Around twenty-five years after Faricius wrote his Life, the distinguished historian William of Malmesbury adapted and expanded it to form what is in effect a new Life of Aldhelm, though it appears as the fifth book of William’s History of the English Bishops (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum: abbreviated to GP). In a later part of this booklet, I indicate some of the changes William made to Faricius’s narrative (see pp. 00-00).


William of Malmesbury, writing around 1125, complains of the shortage of information about Aldhelm’s life (GP 5 prol. 2-3; see also 79. 2). He knows the short notice by Aldhelm’s younger contemporary Bede (d. 735), which records (Historia ecclesiastica 5. 18) the division of the bishopric of Wessex after the death of Hædde and Aldhelm’s appointment as bishop of one part. He registers several of Aldhelm’s writings, especially the letter to Geraint, and commends his erudition and polished style. Apart from that, William could draw on his own knowledge of Aldhelm’s works; on Faricius’s Life; on pictures adorning Aldhelm’s shrine, seen by both himself and Faricius; and some charter evidence, much of it now judged untrustworthy.

On the face of it, we are hardly better informed today than William was nine hundred years ago. The ‘facts’ are, for us as for William, as follows (I add the only ‘solid’ dates): Aldhelm was son of ‘Kenten’, closely related to the royal family of Wessex. He spent two separate periods of education at Canterbury. His teacher there was Hadrian, abbot of St Augustine’s (670-709 or 710). He was a monk of Malmesbury, until being appointed abbot by Leuthere, bishop of Wessex (670-76). He visited Rome during the papacy of Sergius (687-701). He was made bishop of Sherborne in 705, and died in 709 or 710.

In 2007 the distinguished medieval scholar Michael Lapidge published an article, ‘The Career of Aldhelm’ (Anglo-Saxon England 36, 15-69), which argued cogently for several supplements to this sparse account. Its main contentions remain conjectural, and they have not been added to the notes in the online version or the present abbreviation of Faricius’s Life. Those relevant here are that:

  • In an appendix Lapidge discusses the vexed dating of Aldhelm’s writings.
  • He suggests in conclusion that we should regard Aldhelm as a well-connected prince-bishop rather than a retiring monk.
  • Whatever the truth of these provocative proposals, we must always bear in mind that what we think we know of Aldhelm’s life is only partial and potentially untrustworthy.


We know much more about the life of Faricius than that of Aldhelm (or William’s, for that matter). He was an Italian from the Tuscan city of Arezzo, and a doctor, perhaps trained at the medical school in Salerno. He was by no means the only Italian who came to Norman England around this time. The roll is headed by two eventual archbishops of Canterbury, Lanfranc of Pavia and Anselm of Aosta; less grand was Faricius’s friend Hubald (Ubaldo), archdeacon of Salisbury.

Being a doctor will have made Faricius useful at Malmesbury, though his office there was cellarer, in charge of provisioning and hospitality. We do not know when he came to the monastery, but he was present at the translation of Aldhelm’s bones that he dated to 1080.

He wrote his life of Aldhelm between 1093 and 1099, perhaps in part to increase pressure for Aldhelm’s canonisation, which could bring economic as well as spiritual benefits (pilgrimage, market: see below, p. 00). Not long afterwards, in 1100, he was made abbot of Abingdon. There he established or built upon connections with the royal family. The new King Henry I and his queen, Matilda, like other high persons, valued his medical expertise. Matilda indeed held Malmesbury ‘as part of her royal dowry’ after her marriage (also in 1100), and no doubt favoured his promotion.

At Abingdon he arranged the receipt of a thigh bone and other parts of Aldhelm’s skeleton from Malmesbury in exchange for the arm of St John Chrysostom, perhaps less prized by them. By 1117, when, after a delay following Anselm’s death, the archbishopric of Canterbury was being filled, Faricius was high enough in royal favour to be supported for the post by the king. But in the end Henry had to change his mind, and the job went to Ralph d’Escures, bishop of Rochester. Several factors militated against Faricius: that he was ignorant of Norman French (as indeed he was of Old English); that he was a doctor ‘who inspected the urine of women’; that his ‘rigour’ would cause schisms; and (this being England) that he was a foreigner, and they had had enough trouble with archbishops from overseas.

So back Faricius went home to Abingdon, to quarrel with his monks about their bread ration, and to die, very soon, in 1120.

William of Malmesbury

Virtually all we know of William’s lifeMW 1 is found in or deduced from his own writings. He probably died around 1143, when his Historia Novella breaks off, but we do not know when he was born, or where. What he does tell us is that one of his parents was English, one French. He was still a boy when he entered the monastery at Malmesbury, and he ended his life there. We are informed (by his contemporary Robert of Cricklade) that William was precentor. He records his own activities in the library, without making it clear whether he worked under Godfrey (perhaps still abbot as late as 1105). But he gives Godfrey an on the whole excellent write-up in the same passage of GP (271): in his day ‘no monastery in all England excelled Malmesbury’. William claims to have seen in person some of the miracles he records (GP 274-8); we know that one of these was also witnessed by Faricius (276 = Faricius 30).

His major works, The Deeds of the English Kings (Gesta Regum Anglorum) and The Deeds of the English Bishops were written in tandem. Their first drafts were complete around 1125, but he tinkered with both as long as he lived. His other works include Lives of St Wulfstan and St Dunstan, and a commentary on the Book of Lamentations. He was a careful and conscious stylist, and will have thought it important to improve upon Faricius’s Latin as well as his content.

Two features of this remarkable man should be stressed here. First, he had an enormous range of reading, in classical, patristic and medieval Latin; his travels all over England, and perhaps as far as Normandy, were doubtless motivated by his restless search for manuscripts. Second, he (like Faricius) had friends in high places. It was the empress Matilda who set going the researches that led to the Gesta Regum. Later, he was able to dedicate works to Robert of Gloucester, natural son of Henry I, as to a friend who would appreciate them. Both these personages were intimately connected with Malmesbury, which could boast a long history of links with royalty: it had received royal charter after royal charter confirming its privileges; Aldhelm, relative of a king, and K. Æthelstan were buried there. We have seen what use Faricius made of such patronage. William no doubt did the same.

William’s personality comes through obliquely in much of what he wrote. Those who wish to hear him speaking of and for himself have little to turn to; but one passage is well worth reading, the prologue to Book 2 of Gesta Regum.

Life of St Aldhelm



Translation by Michael Winterbottom

This work Bishop Osmund,MW 2 second to none in uprightness,

Has sanctioned and placed in order in the canon.MW 3

Here begins the dedication of the work that follows:


IMW 4 have resolved that especially to you, Osmund, most blessed bishop, and Hubald,MW 5 a teacher ornamented by learning in the liberal arts, should be consecrated something worth your getting to know, and worthy of the ardent expectations of all my brothers. It concerns the works, so profound and so sublime, of the most holy bishop and most prized confessor of God, Aldhelm; works that have not previously, I think, come to be written down. It has been cobbled together as best I could with the help of the Lord, so far as my slender intellect allowed. 2. I took this resolution because one of you,MW 6 distinguished by perfect morals, priestly rank, and (what is greater than them) zeal for holy study and unshaken chastity, began to pursue the sublime ordinances of the saints not, like some, out of personal presumption; rather, it was at the prompting of the Holy Spirit that, before he rose to the heights of a bishopric, he embarked on the lawful path of doctrine, and preferred to be trained not so much in his own inventions as in the teachings of the holy fathers, in accordance with which he now in peace distributes to others the learning that belongs to him. With this man the very etymologyMW 7 of his name duly accords; for truly the mouth of his heart and the lip of his mouth shine unpolluted by any infection of thought or word. 3. The other,MW 8 filled quite full of the seven streams of philosophyMW 9 and packed with the sentiments of the holy scriptures, famous for praiseworthy eloquence and ornamented by the highest degree of humility and pleasantness of character, has now gone up many steps towards the stars on the Israelite ladder that was made famous by the angels who climbed it.MW 10 4. Your role therefore is to help out my rusticity by your devout prayers, to ensure that it is not engulfed in the abysses of such a mass of material; and it is the particular task of such great men to defend me by honeyed locutions, so that the sharp teeth of envy do not rebuke my lack of skill. And there is another task too assigned to you, to bring clarity to unhappy expressions in my book, and brilliantly to fortify my well-meant statements with your authority, so that emulation gapes in amazement, and the fame of my tranquillity rises high,11 while (what is more important) the prestigious greatness of your protection blossoms. 5. Above all, of course, I wish this, that the reader of this volume should be warned in advance that if perchance he thinks things in it to be, on account of the quality of the writing, either impossible or harsh, he should not measure them against the standard of his own poor abilities, but according to the dignity and permanence of the perfect virtues by which God glorifies his faithful ones in inconceivable perpetuity, He who predicted that those who believed in Him would do works ‘greater than these’.12 6. As for you, who are most acute in natural talent, dearer to me than breath, most excellent in the faith, though unequal13 in distinction of rank, wealth and birth, you both, I believe, live catholic lives. Look then at the requests of my insignificant person, and lead me right to the final goal, as you know that I wish, so that you may receive eternal merit from that most devout man,14 and have my service so far as I am able.

Here begins the preface to the life of Saint15 Aldhelm, bishop and excellent confessor


When I reflect carefully on the devout battles fought by the holy fathers, I think there are three reasons why those who, desiring to be of use to posterity, have written their stories, chose them in particular to bring into written form. The first, more praiseworthy than the rest, is to ensure that God, who suffers in their bodies the pains in whatsoever way inflicted on the faithful, and who supplies courage to the enduring, may be praised in his majesty. Second, that the saints who have of their own free will suffered so many sweats, fasts, vigils, insults and chills from themselves or from their enemies, may be splendidly celebrated by those who after them observe the true faith. A third comes after, that we, their sluggish and feeble successors, may, by reading or hearing of their all-conquering exploits, and raising up the eyes of our mind, follow their unobstructed16 footsteps.

That is why I, feeble and unlettered as I am, who nowise bear the burdens of a monk but only, unworthily, the name, am starting as best I can, though as a believer, to describe the birth and life, miracles and teaching, of Aldhelm, that most holy bishop. But I shall relate not only the miracles I have seen worked through him thanks to the supreme Creator, but also those which by careful research I have found written down on many pages in the vernacular or in Latin. A part of these are still testified to in our day by privileges from Rome and the traditions of diverse kings, written down and witnessed by many bishops and abbots. I have also recorded what I have often heard to have been done through the merits of God’s servant from truthful persons living under the monastic Rule,17 and from others living catholic lives in different orders: things which they themselves saw with their mortal eyes or frequently heard from their elders, who now rejoice together in heavenly bliss before the gaze of God’s clemency. The latter used to say that they had read a lucidly written volume containing his miracles, but that they had lost it in the times when the Danes were still harassing the church of Christ: everything dedicated to our God, whom they did not know, they either trampled underfoot or burned because anger overwhelmed their reason, or destroyed in any way they could. What is more, our older fathers saw many of his doings, as pictured for the information of posterity by the first fathers18 on silver plates, still in place on the shrine made not long after his death, in which his blessed bones were being preserved.19 And as the shrine had by now virtually perished thanks to time and neglect, a certain bishop, helped by other servants of God, transferred the plates on to another, for novelty’s sake, to ensure that successors would know of Aldhelm’s deeds; and they are still to be seen on it.20

There were, after the saint’s first dispositions, those who took a close and affectionate interest in this place, like Archbishop Dunstan, of whose sanctity there is no doubt, and a number of other prelates, whose sacred bones rest in the church. If they had not believed these stories handed down to them from the past they would certainly not have left them there unharmed till our day. We have been careful to leave out much of this material, picking out only a part of what seemed worth telling in view of the authority of my informants. Of course, what I myself often saw happen in my presence confirms the truth of what is told of the past. In my view, no one should accuse me in this respect, for I observe that the blessed Gregory did just the same in his Dialogues. And, as he himself related,21 Luke the doctor too, ‘whose praise’, as the Teacher of the gentiles says, ‘is in the gospel through all the churches’,22 and Mark, patriarch of Alexandria and Peter’s disciple, certainly did not write down in the Gospel volumes what he had seen but only what he had heard. Not that I (far from it!) am putting myself on the same level as them in the slightest degree, or am trying to make my and their informants in any way similar. But I genuinely believe that what was allowed to greater men in the greatest of all works was permitted in a tiny work to us, the lowest of the low, but true believers all the same. In the divine pages and scriptures we have found that many others did just the same. But the three we mentioned above, catholic in the purity of their faith, most holy in their conduct and works, we desire to imitate, as well as we can, in this respect, though coming a long way behind them.

MW: Here follows Faricius's narrative of Aldhelm’s life, given here in abbreviated form, with pious formulae, repetitions and other verbosities omitted. The headings have been re-written.

1. Aldhelm’s ancestry; he becomes a catechumen; the meaning of his name.

I turn now to the genealogy of St Aldhelm. He came of royal stock, descended from highly distinguished ancestors who had never failed to practise orthodox religion most scrupulously. Yet in his faith he was more brilliant than they, in his religious observance of greater worth, to the same degree as the rose surpasses the thorns from which it emerges and the lily its sod from which the flower swells. His illustrious family was, so far as royal eminence is concerned, founded by Ine, king of the English,23 who shone bright in life and character: a man highly energetic in warfare, well known for his good qualities. His younger brother was Centwine, upright, rich in holiness, a fine and great man: or so we have often heard24 from ancient English documents, read in translation. He lived with his wife in chastity. He did not, as some are wont, visit his wife’s bedroom to satisfy the needs of the flesh, but rather to beget the kind of son who would, as Scripture teaches, love God with the whole strength of his mind.25 God observed his prayers from on high, and gave him the sort of son my little book purposes to display to you. At the proper time, as the faithful do, he devoutly offered him up in church to God, by the hands of priests, and asked that he be made a catechumen.26 He gave him the name Aldelmus: Ald in the vernacular means ‘old’. Hence Aldelmus, ‘holy [almus] old man’.27 Indeed, though young in body, he lived his life with an old man’s mind, while doing works that commanded praise.

2. Aldhelm’s knowledge of the bible and mastery of three languages

As the years went by, the boy was weaned, and his father, a most devout Christian, sent him to study holy Scripture. His teacher was often secretly astonished how easily he took in and committed to memory what he put before him each day. He was expert in the details of three languages, not just spoken but written. He knew all the idioms of Greek eloquence wonderfully well, and could write and talk the language like a native. Of course this was no surprise: the famous King Ine had brought over from Athens a pair of master teachers of the language, to put his knowledge of letters on a sound basis. He also drank deep from the founts of Latin knowledge; no one since Virgil had a better grasp of the grammar (or so we read in old authors writing in Aldhelm’s vernacular). Copies of the Prophets, the Psalms of David, the three books of Solomon, he knew well in Hebrew, and the law of Moses too.28 He had by heart and practised every day all that makes up the art of music, made possible by string, woodwind, and other varieties of melody. To cut a long story short, he was replete with universal knowledge.

3. Aldhelm’s life at the monastery of Malmesbury; his imitation of the virtues of biblical characters

But why waste time on trivialities? Let me turn my pen to higher things, so as to be able to show how Aldhelm lived from childhood on, associating with men while wearing the monastic habit, and imitating Paul and Antony,29 the first of the hermits. After being made a monk in the church of Malmesbury,30 which was under the personal rule of Leuthere31 (of whom I shall have more to say), Aldhelm dwelt among the other monks in such a manner that, though seen by men, he was always mentally among the companies of angels. Going beyond the precepts of the Rule, he so lived in this world that, out of the chastity of his mind, he despised everything beautiful to look upon and agreeable to listen to, thinking them no more than perishable rubbish, grass for the burning. This most devout man was following the example of the fathers of the Old Testament, each in his own holy virtue of mind.32 But in his determination to attain true compassion whom did this man try to follow if not the Maker of all things himself, who, to pay for the transgression of the whole human race, tasted in all its bitterness the cup of death when the time came? I pass over all this briefly, aiming not to bore anyone but to edify, for I want to come on to narrate other doings, many indeed, but all the work of one and the same man.

4. Aldhelm used to lie with a girl, resisting temptation by singing psalms

Of his own free will he used to bring upon himself, among other tests, the following martyrdom. Whenever he felt the pricks of lust seething within him, he would arm his entire body with the impregnable breastplate of faith and impose modesty upon his soul, in the following manner. He would make a girl, who was very pretty by the filthy standards of our doomed flesh, rest with him on his couch in complete chastity until he had finished saying the whole psaltery through, his mind concentrated on heaven. In this way, the Devil could in no wise stand up against him. What extreme praise is due to a man who felt not at all the abyss of the seething pit, even though he was just next to it! He feared not the surge of feeling brought upon him by the Enemy from without, because he had been fully watered within by the dew of God.

5. Aldhelm becomes priest and then abbot; he proves a good pastor, and entices the people to church

Bishop Leuthere, whom Bede mentions in the Ecclesiastical History of the English,33 thought Aldhelm worthy to become a priest. Having asked him in person and encouraged others to second him, he advanced him to this important rank. He lived a blameless life as priest for some time, until he was appointed by the same bishop to be abbot of Malmesbury. He had not wanted to be placed over the monks. But everything that he taught by his powerful oratory he brought to fruition, as a good pastor should.

At this period, the people, though Christians, were backsliders in practice: few came to church, and they disregarded what the priests told them to do. Aldhelm admonished them mildly, and at suitable moments often talked to them of God. He summoned laymen to church in moderate terms, and gave them good advice. Every Saturday, when merchants came to the city in especially great numbers, Aldhelm would meet them outside the bounds and preach to them on the bridge. As a result, some of them used to forget the business they had come about and follow Aldhelm to the church, where they would listen reverently to the service. After that, their trading done, they would go home again, well fed.

6. Aldhelm visits Rome, where his chasuble suspends itself on a sunbeam

Aldhelm was continuing to persevere in doing good work when Pope Sergius34 summoned him. Though he was far away, separated from him by vast tracts of land, rocky mountains, rugged valleys, and seas, Sergius had often heard what I am telling of concerning him, and much more that has been forgotten and will not be written down here. As soon as he heard the instructions of the pope and the Roman curia, Aldhelm hastened on his journey, hard though it was; he was filled with intense joy, for he now had good reason to visit the thresholds of the prince apostles, which he had longed to see for so many years: though at the same time he was sad to leave his dear fellow-brethren, even for a short time and in body only. When he arrived in Rome, happy to have carried out what obedience required of him, he was honourably welcomed to talks with the pope, and in accordance with his wish enjoyed his company in every respect. At this time he was granted by God a boon unheard of in our time, that caused him to be revered the more by the pope and the whole people. Aldhelm used to take his priestly vestments with him wherever he went, so that he would be able to carry out the offices entrusted to him. While he was robed in them in the Lateran presbytery, to offer the sacraments, everyone witnessed the following miracle after his proper and pious completion of the office of the mass. He was passing his chasuble to his attendants when the garment suspended itself on a sunbeam as firmly and securely as if it was being supported by the help of some solid material. That chasuble is housed to this day in Malmesbury church, and is held in great reverence for its sanctity, as is only fitting.35

7. Aldhelm causes an infant to speak in the presence of the Roman people

Aldhelm was spending some time with the pope after this, when the spirit of God put it into Sergius’s head to ask him to baptize a baby boy whose paternity was for no obvious reason generally regarded as quite uncertain. As so often in almost all nations, the commoners spread rumours; and they thought the boy was the pope’s son. These ignorant folk were wrong in this view about the pope, who is made clear by his Register and other places in his writings to have been truly apostolic in the worthiness of his life. Aldhelm did what Sergius wished. The child was, it is said, no more than nine days old, but he catechised36 him in church, just like one of the faithful, and told him to proclaim to the thronging crowd if his father was the man alleged by the people. Straightway the infant, though exceedingly tiny, managed supernaturally to unblock the impediments to his tongue and did what Aldhelm told him to. He was granted the power of speech by God, and intelligible speech at that, and showed to everyone that he had not been begotten by the man named by the foolish people.

One day in the queen of cities, Aldhelm, supremely learned in literary knowledge and among the most erudite of men, was entering the church of the apostles when he uttered verses in their praise. They are well worth recording:

Here flourishes the notable glory of a new church

Which emblazons the bright standards of a holy triumph.

Here Peter and Paul, who bring light to the darkness of this world,

Outstanding fathers, who guide the reins of the people,

Are worshipped with constant hymns in the blessed hall.

O you who keep the keys of heaven, who unlock the gate to the sky,

Who open the dazzling realms of the Thunderer’s heaven,

Listen mercifully to the vows of your peoples when they pray,

Who bedew their wasted faces with floods of tears.

Accept the sighs of those who groan for the sins they have committed,

Who burn away the sins of their life with flaming prayer.

Lo, Great Teacher (called Paul after your change of name,

But Saul when you desired to prefer the ancient rites to Christ)

Who began to perceive clear light after darkness:37

Now open your ears in kindness to hear the voices of those who pray,

And as their protector hold out your hand like Peter to the trembling,

Who throng in great numbers the holy threshold of the hall,

So that here enduring forgiveness may be given for sins,

Flowing from generous Love and the fountain on high,

Which never at any time grows dry for the peoples who merit it.

8. Aldhelm obtains from the pope a bull in favour of his churches, and has it ratified by the kings of the English

When Aldhelm had enjoyed the gracious company of the pope, he decided to go back home and resume his previous course of life. Then it was that he sought from the pope, for the advantage of his people in the future, the holy gifts that may be read below, not heavy pieces of gold or silver or any metal. No, what he asked for was an edict, sanctioned by the pope’s authority, to the effect that he should make free from all lay service and from the seats, injunctions and synods of bishops, the monasteries which he governed with such concern, that of Malmesbury, where he had been enthroned as abbot (it had been founded by Meldun,38 from whose stock he sprung), and a second, subject to it, established on the River Frome39 in honour of St John. And if at any time they were in need of an ecclesiastic of any rank, or a priest, they should have him ordained by whomsoever they wished, providing he was a catholic bishop. But if the abbot happened to die, and it came to electing another, the man chosen by the monks should by common counsel be promoted forthwith. For by now the ambition of monks had waxed high: now a hireling wanted to come in, not like a shepherd through the door, but like a thief by another way.40 That is why Aldhelm made the requests he did. But all this can be seen to have changed as a result of the vices of those dwelling there and the ambition of certain persons. The religious life has been virtually annihilated, the pope’s admonitions, embodied in the privilege itself, go for nothing: not just there, but in many places in England, monks have lost freedom of control over themselves and their possessions because they are enslaved to dishonesty and filthy lucre. Liberty of this kind, as the pope says in the course of his speech,41 is owed and conceded to holy men who are absolutely upright. If such freedom of action were to be bestowed on those who serve their own wills and aim at earthly goods, it would cause no slight blemish to the beauty of life and the sanctity of the habit.42

Aldhelm brought this charter of liberty back to his monasteries, and showed it to two kings currently ruling in England, his uncle Ine king of the Saxons, and Æthelred king of the Mercians.43 These active kings gave them their authoritative approval, for they knew that the pope had afforded them his sanction. And they decreed that, whatever kind of foray or war disturbed their borders, the places belonging to Aldhelm should be free from all service; and they left instructions, in documents written in their own hand, for the same policy to be continued there by their successors. But there arose an opportunity for not keeping to it. Because they did not find the charters sealed with wax figures, they (by their account) thought they did not need to observe them, and they took no notice of them. As if an impression in wax had more probative value than something laid down for observance by the pope or by royal law! The fact is that the cunning of certain persons had not yet been carried abroad by ship, and avarice, however transitory, had still not established such a regime of licence all over the world. Even now in the minds of many faith ruled unimpaired, and the cupidity of men was not yet making such claims for itself.44

9. Aldhelm’s books,45 especially the one he composed against British bishops who were celebrating Easter at the wrong time

Some time passed. In Malmesbury church Aldhelm went on enjoying peace in this world. Osred was reigning as king of the English.46 Then, in AD 706, some so-called bishops of the Britons started to hold heretical views on the date of Easter and a number of orthodox church practices. As a result, a synod of East Saxony asked Aldhelm (who was only a priest, not yet a bishop),47 to compose a book48 to bring about the complete extirpation of the heresy that had now arisen among the Britons. Aldhelm had a brilliant style; he was replete with wisdom and known far and wide for his holiness. Full of argument and master of syllogisms, he was intimate with lay writing and church doctrine alike. In fact, as Bede tells us,49 he was altogether prudent in every respect. He therefore filled his book with the practices of the Jews and the many inventions of the Egyptians in this area, together with the genuine traditions of the holy fathers, incorporating also the poem passed down to Abbot Pacomius by angels, and the quite clear teaching of other religious persons; and he despatched it to the heretics, by the agency of certain trusted intimates. By these means he called back to orthodoxy both the bishops themselves and a countless multitude of people. He did not travel there on foot, but brought them back to the way of truth by admonishing them in an excellent handbook and praying for them assiduously and supportively.50

He also wrote Riddles,51 and a fine double book, in both prose and verse, in praise of virgins. He put together a little book, in seven forms, of flowers from the Old and New Testaments, and another on sevenfold reckoning taken from the teachings of the philosophers, which is pertinent to the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit. He wrote too a single volume urging charity between brothers. He composed another on the nature of lifeless things which are made to speak in metaphor. On the rules for feet, metaplasm, synaloephe, scansion and ecthlipsis in verses. On the metrics of alternate interrogation and mutual reply, marked off by two letters.52 He also wrote various other works, for he was a man of very great all-round learning. His style was brilliant, and, as we have said, he was astonishingly learned in both secular and lay literature. This information, which we took from a very old codex found in a cupboard at Malmesbury, we have thought it useful to include in this little volume.

10. Aldhelm by prayer lengthens a short beam in his monastery

While Aldhelm was building the monastery at Malmesbury in honour of St Mary, the following remarkable event occurred. When massive beams were being raised to the high church roof by an elaborate machine, one of them was found by the axe-wielders to be too short, though they had cut it carefully to match the rest. The workmen were at a loss what to do, and they ran to Aldhelm to get his advice. He was anxious, but he said to them cheerfully: ‘Hey, brothers, find out if it was in fact measured to match the rest, and put your trust in Mary’s help.’ Then, boldly approaching the timber, he exhorted the men to give it a great heave up without worrying about the length. The gang, propped up by Aldhelm’s help, said a prayer and immediately raised the beam. They at once noticed that it was longer than the others,53 to whose measure it had previously been cut. Aldhelm was here following the lead of Donatus, bishop of Arezzo, who by prayer alone mended a glass chalice that had been broken in an attack by pagans; and so too of our father54 Abbot Benedict, who from a distance employed prayer to remove a hefty rock from a place where the monks wanted to lay the foundations of a monastery.55

Enough on this matter; I want to pass on to other works of his.

11. Aldhelm brings a ship safely into port, and is given a bible by the sailors free of charge

A short time later, Berhtwald, archbishop of Canterbury,56 a very learned man, conceived the desire to have Aldhelm with him more often, if he could, because of his knowledge of liberal57 and divine writings. He therefore sent messengers asking him to come to him to confer on ecclesiastical matters. Aldhelm was happy to obey: he came, and stayed as long as Berhtwald wished. When the business he came for had been duly despatched, he chanced to visit Dover castle. When he was riding on horseback along the quay, some traders were trying to bring their ship to shore, but without success, despite three strenuous attempts, until Aldhelm gave his advice. But first he asked them mildly if they were bringing something that might be useful for the daily purposes of the church. In their arrogance they spurned him because he was ill-dressed, and would not deign even to look at him. Their repeated attempts having failed, they were standing about dispirited and anxious, and were too tired to do anything more. Then one of the sailors said tearfully to his mates: ‘I hope and believe without a doubt that the man you see on the shore is a true Christian, whom we in our pride refused even to talk to. Our pride is cast down by his humility, our obstinacy worn down by his uprightness. I don’t know what we are to do next, except ask with pure hearts for his pity, that his prayers may sway God to grant us harbour and landfall.’ This plan they put into practice. In their dismay they supplicated Aldhelm to come to them without delay and help them with his prayers: he must inspect their boat and agree to take anything useful for his purposes. Not influenced by the gift they promised him, but because charity compelled him to offer them his help, he went on board a dinghy and set out forthwith in their direction. But as soon as the little craft felt the weight of his frame, the rough sea calmed itself for his voyage. The crew came into port rejoicing, and at once offered Aldhelm a volume made up of both Old and New Testaments. He did not reject the gift, and indeed offered them larger gifts (though they refused them) from his own purse in case (God forbid) anyone might think he had been actuated by money when it was his supreme devoutness that had prompted him. Seeing this, they fell at his feet and asked him to commend them to God in his prayers. As for the book, which he had acquired by exercising his goodness, he took it to Malmesbury monastery. It is there to this day, and the brethren look after it as carefully as their reverence for the great man requires. At the start of it, I have seen a curse in his handwriting laid on anyone taking the book away from there.

12. Aldhelm as bishop

Aldhelm lived here as an outstanding abbot, until he was canonically made a bishop, by the laying on of hands by Berhtwald. That is my topic in what follows now.

In the time of Osred, king of the English,58 Bishop Hædde,59 whose life is narrated in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History,60 died. His parish was so extensive that it could not be governed by a single man, and it was divided into two by the counsel of the church fathers and kings. One part was ruled by Daniel,61 a man most energetic in many fields. To the rule of the other diocese Aldhelm62 was chosen by the primates, clergy, and a great multitude of people. As if of one mind and one voice, they proceeded according to the ancient rules of the canons. It went crucially in Aldhelm’s favour that when summoned he showed reluctance, and that he resisted as much as he could when he was led to the throne; for he was not drawn on by ambition, nor in the end could he be drawn back again by disobedience: he maintained the mean in both respects, and no good quality was denied him.63 As St Gregory64 says of good prelates, Aldhelm, just as he was ahead in rank, excelled those subject to him in the abundance of all good qualities. Whatever he preached from his mouth he displayed in advance by his actions, and he was puffed up by no pride.

He ruled his bishopric with great energy for four years. He was anxious to set fathers over the monasteries which he had ruled before becoming bishop. But the monks, happy in their life under a loving father, rejected the idea of having any other patron but him while he still lived. He took account of their well-meant wishes; afraid of impairing the stability of the order by putting another in place, he remained their abbot as before. With the consent of K. Ine and with his fellow-bishop Daniel as witness, he laid down a privilege,65 on pain of anathema, to prevent anyone of ecclesiastical dignity or high secular power appointing an abbot other than one chosen by the monks. This privilege was at his instance cited in a synod of all England, and after ratification he placed it in the archive of Malmesbury church. It is kept there to this day. But, as was said above,66 sins get in the way and the laziness of prelates takes over; consequently, this, as I know, has been set at naught.

Hindered by the lay affairs involved in ruling a bishopric, he was not henceforward as potent in miracles as before. This always happens: we read the same of Bishop Martin of Tours.67 But it is right that a man be called most holy, even though he does not abound in the usual miracles, so long as he devoutly fulfils in every respect the office assigned him by God; and this Aldhelm did.

13. Aldhelm’s death at Doulting, and his burial at Malmesbury

Let me now come to Aldhelm’s passing.

After four years as bishop, he suffered a severe illness. He called together the monks, the clergy and most of the people, and after preaching on the unity of peace and the bond of charity he commended his sheep, like a good pastor, to the Lord. He next asked his friends and domestics in the faith to inter his body in Malmesbury monastery, which he had loved beyond all other. He prayed to God, and, armed with the divine sacraments, left this world in glory. He died in the vill of Doulting,68 where he had gone while making the circuit of his parish, as a dutiful pastor should. The two congregations began a pious dispute, though one conducted with all restraint, as to where the body should be carried for burial. That party prevailed, with good reason, to whose church Aldhelm himself had ordered his body to be taken for burial. In Doulting a wooden chapel had been built; but after his death there, a monk from Glastonbury made an oratory out of cut stone. When he was having it dedicated to Aldhelm, a old woman, who had long been blind, had her vision restored. At that time, Ecgwine, bishop of Worcester,69 was proceeding in chains to Rome, in order to pray there. Prompted, as it is right to believe, by words spoken to him by God, the bishop came to Malmesbury to give Aldhelm the due obsequies. After his burial, Ecgwine completed his journey; at Rome the chains in which he was bound were miraculously loosed, as we read in the volume about his life.70

Aldhelm, our advocate with God, rules the monks by his constant prayers, and through him many benefits are granted there.

14. Aldhelm lay there for many years, and was then placed in a gilded shrine

I have described the life of Aldhelm briefly, and, though in a rustic manner, with no divergence from the truth. Let me now come to the miracles worked at Malmesbury after his death.

He was buried in the church of St Michael the archangel, next to the church he had himself built, and lay there till the time of Eadwig.71 Eadwig, his brother Edgar’s predecessor, went astray in his feckless infancy, having no upright man to advise him. Hence he frittered away and divided the realm, distributing the property of the churches among intestine plunderers. He took away the religious, both men and women, from their houses,72 and placed in the churches clerics of both types,73 lustful men enslaved by the enticements of the appetite, who greedily pursued the profits of avarice: persons who had no love for canonical behaviour as they should have, but basely and shamelessly craved the desirable things of this world. But God took pity on Malmesbury monastery. By the agency of the clerics who lived there then, men unlike those of whom I spoke before, he caused that great treasure, Aldhelm’s body, to be raised from the tomb. He had it placed with all honour in a silver shrine, where to this day can be seen, engraved on gilded plates, some of his doings, those concerning the book and the beam and the boy and the chasuble.

15. Gifts of Dunstan to Malmesbury

Aldhelm’s bones lay for some time in this shrine, until Dunstan became archbishop of Canterbury,74 and the savage Danes began to bring their fury to bear on the English. Dunstan, hearing of Aldhelm’s works, and seeing every day the miracles he performed, began to pay loving regard to that monastery above all others, excepting only the one75 in which he had himself been abbot. He began to put there from his own property many things suitable for service in church. Many are kept in the place to this day, together with his curses to be seen written on them in verse against anyone daring to remove them to the detriment of the church. On the organ which he had given to honour Aldhelm these lines are stamped in letters of bronze:

Bishop Dunstan gives the organ to holy Aldhelm.

Let anyone who has a mind to take them hence lose the eternal kingdom.

On the jug which he had had made to pour water, for the use of attendants at the altar, I have seen these verses written:

Archbishop Dunstan ordered this jug to be cast

To serve Saint Aldhelm in the temple.

On the gilded bell which hangs over the high table in the refectory, I have seen the following stamped in letters of pure gold:

May he never ascend to the hall of Elysium in heaven

Who takes this bell from the seat of the blessed Aldhelm.

There are other bells too, that the blessed Dunstan purchased for forty pounds. He gave much else besides which I leave unrecorded so as not to bore my hearers.

16. Aldhelm’s body is placed in a tomb. The fate of a band of Danes who entered his monastery

Later, in Dunstan’s time, the Danes, a people with no faith and as yet ignorant of the true God, invaded the island of Britain with many fleets. The English, terrified by their ferocity, sang hymns with constant devotion to God, as the frightened commonly do, asking him to save them from the cruel barbarians, and to keep undisturbed the bodies of the saints where they lay. Then Dunstan, reflecting on the Danes’ filthy greed when they caught sight of precious metal, grew afraid that, attracted by the gold and silver on the shrine, they would touch Aldhelm’s relics with their polluted hands and treat them foully. If (heaven forfend!) they were to remove the church ornaments, they might throw away such a treasure at random. He therefore drew the body out of the shrine, wrapped it in silk cloths, and placed it in a stone tomb. This translation, or, to put it better, this faithful concealment of the body, he carried out on 5 May, as many martyrologies bear witness. But when the Danes were ranging hither and thither through the whole of England, they finally came to Malmesbury monastery, where they had been told that the locals had brought a quantity of gold, confident that Aldhelm would protect it. The troop burst into the church, and in its madness approached the holy of holies. The instant one of them got hold of the forbidden object in his desire to take previous stones from the shrine, he was punished by God: he lost his sight and straightway fell on the paved floor. The rest of the crazed enemies made sure, willy-nilly, that all the other contents of the monastery were left behind, with the exception of what had already come into the hands of the wandering troop in the monks’ quarters, and eagerly took to their heels.76

17. Aldhelm lies in the tomb for a long time, and no miracles are recorded from this period

Later, after battles with different outcomes in various places, after destroying castles and sacking many a city, when the whole country had been laid waste beyond measure in all directions, the Danish host were for a time suffered by God to hold the kingdom under their sway. The orthodox were weakened by lack of resources and bodily afflictions. Churches were not frequented by the usual crowds of the faithful, and bands of Christian monks and nuns alike did not assemble by day or night. This is how it came about that Aldhelm’s body rested long in the tomb where it had been placed by Dunstan. Though it lay hidden under an unprepossessing cover, God distinguished it by great miracles. Often, at different times, Aldhelm freed many of both sexes from various illnesses that possessed them. Individual details will be given in order at the right places,77 as my faculties permit and memory of them has flourished: I mean the things that God worked through him after the destruction of the Danes’ savagery by preachers and the overcoming of their daring by warriors. Other things, great though they were, the ancients did not recall, what he did while the pagan period of the Danes lasted: for there was a sore dearth of good men at that time, and bad men beyond counting. This has happened to many martyrs as well, and indeed even to certain of the disciples, whom our Lord sent in advance through the cities before the coming of his own preaching: such a flood of persecution had overborne them that none of them had the chance to commit the course of their actions to writing. But their merit in the eyes of God remains none the less, and so too their authority among men, because men often witness major miracles that God sees fit to exhibit through the martyrs, as a result of which miracles that were previously performed but not written down are kept safe in the heart of the faithful in unquestioned belief.78 And as I need to go on to relate works of Aldhelm which were in no way inferior to those I have told before,79 though they were shown by God after an interval of many years, what I have said must suffice on this topic for the time being.

18. A queen of the Danes is cured of paralysis

A long time after the kings of the Danes and Norsemen laid waste to Britain, they took away with them, as barbarians will, a number of pretty young women, among them a high aristocrat called Ælfhild.80 After being led captive, she took the fancy of one of the great men, thanks to her beauty. He abandoned the lawful marriage he had previously contracted, but died while keeping this woman as his concubine. She was left high and dry among foreigners. The archimandrite of the Danes,81 wishing to bring about what in fact ensued (for he had no children), visited her for just a single night, though his wife was still alive, and begat a son. Learning of this, the king was moved to pity, for she was a newcomer. Moved by love for the child he had fathered, he ensured its safety and sustenance by entrusting it to a certain bishop; besides, he had a wary eye for his wife’s wrath. The bishop made sure the baby was well looked after until it was weaned. When it was off the breast, the king died. The nurse snatched up the child and went into hiding, for the queen was still living and she was afraid of running into danger from that quarter.

Seven years later, they heard from many sources that she was not far away, though in a remote area. The Danes then sent for her to bring the boy back to take up his father’s throne: as indeed happened. But the king82 died after being in power for eighteen months. Then Ælfhild, bereft by her son’s death, decided to go home if she could. So she came to her native Britain, and with the money she brought with her purchased the living of three vills. She lived a quiet life for a long while. But then she for three years suffered the weakening of the limbs they call in Greek paralysis. She said her trouble came upon her like this. She had vowed before coming back from Denmark that she would never eat meat again, and she had kept the vow to the letter for a long time. But being urged by several respectable priests, whom she had joined for a meal, to taste meat for once, she gave in, though only just, and against her will. Soon God struck her with the paralysis I spoke of.83 Clothed as a nun, she began to get herself driven round by her bodyguard in a carriage, to seek the help of saints. But God did not release her from her illness until she came to the monastery of Malmesbury. There, on the eve of the saint’s festival, she waited devoutly, lying prostrate, for she could not stand. When, following Matins, the monks were singing the customary hymn in honour of His mother, she was soon touched by God’s healing, and felt her limbs grow green that had previously been withered. She swiftly stood up cured, and went with no one to lead her to the place where the holy body rested. From that day she contributed all she could lay her hands on to the church of her healer. She lies there in peace after her death in the flesh.

19. A countryman is freed from a demon

Later, at Malmesbury, while they were celebrating the vigil on Ascension night, the following remarkable miracle took place. A countryman of the parish had, for his sins, been taken over by a demonic power. Seeing him raving, projecting blasphemies against God and his faithful from his foaming mouth, and picking up, for use against them and their neighbours, rocks and flames, the arms that madness ministers to the insane, his relatives fettered him, and kept him under strict custody for some little time, day and night, so far as their uncouthness permitted. Then, taking counsel with people they knew to be wiser, they made haste to take him around everywhere, bound as he was, to places where they had heard the bodies of saints rested. But God reserved this mark of distinction to Aldhelm. Coming with the madman to the monastery of Malmesbury, they begged the monks to pray that God might, by the merit of Aldhelm, show his usual miracles to this demoniac. The monks gave them this sound reply: ‘Today is the vigil of the Ascension of the Redeemer of all. Wherefore, dearest brethren, spend the night in the church, and with intent hearts keep the sacred watch, believing with no shadow of doubt that He who so raised him that He made him rejoice with Him in heaven may himself show what you seek by means of Aldhelm.’ While they stood for the night office before the picture of our Redeemer, God mercifully expelled the devil that possessed the sick man’s frame, curing his sickness as if no trouble of the kind had ever affected him. Seeing this, all who were present, or had come after hearing the cries of joy, rang bells and lauded the miracle in the secrecy of their hearts and aloud with their voices.

20. A lame man is healed in the monks’ choir

Then there was the case of a sick man whose feet, hips and legs were so fused together that he could only get around on his knees. Tired out with the continual effort, he pondered how he might beg God to show pity for him and tell him which saint’s help he should ask for. The story flew all over the province, and in the end he learned that God often worked miracles in an oratory called in English Christchurch84, with countless instances of the healing of people burdened by all kinds of illness. So he began to make his way there as best he could, leaving (as it were) no footprints behind him:85 being a believer, he might thus be cured. He took some days over the short journey, and only with difficulty managed to get as far as Malmesbury monastery, which was on his route. As soon as the aged man entered the house, he felt some degree of lightness in his torpid limbs. So he spent the night there, and next morning would have resumed the journey he had set his heart on, had not God seen fit to grant him aid at Malmesbury. It was Vespers on Saturday, within the octave of the patron’s feast-day.86 In the morning, when the sun had grown hot and first Hour of the day had been sung by the resident brothers, the procession was already forming up when the sick man came into the choir, as best he could, with the others who wanted to follow the procession. He lay praying until the congregation of monks passed as usual through the cloister and the offices and came back to where they had started. The troop of monks were singing, attended by the lay multitude, when the cripple, touched in a flash by God’s kindness, became as it were outside himself in a great stupor. He sped from the place where he lay, cured, as if he had never felt the slightest bodily impairment, and ran to the tomb that held the sacred body, to give God and his servant the poor thanks he could. Seeing this, all those present praised God, who had done such things at the prayer of his saint. The man who was cured like this lived in the monastery for a long time, bringing repute to the saint, and there survive to this day many monks who knew him well before and after. I have written down the story they told of him.

21. A man blinded at sea regains his sight

Among several other works which God revealed for Aldhelm’s sake is the following remarkable miracle displayed at Malmesbury. In the time of William I, king of the English87 and of Abbot Warin,88 a fisherman was living on an island called in English Wichtland.89 He was compelled by his poverty to toil every day fishing in the deep. Now one day, while he roamed the waves, a cloud rushed straight at him and took away his sight; perhaps it was what his sins demanded. Long did he wander over the trackless ocean, one wave after another confronting him. Finally he was helped by his friends on other vessels to make it to shore, where he was guided home to his poor lodging. The story of his blinding spread through the district; it met the ears of a group of his friends, who made it their business to come to ask how he had suffered this unexpected loss. In a tearful voice he told them in detail what had happened to him. Then he proceeded to ask them what he should do, from which of the saints they expected he would find mercy. His assembled relatives (so it is said) replied with long faces: ‘We don’t know how better to advise you on this matter, unless that you should hasten to the doors of Christchurch, over in the west, where God often performs miracles. According to popular rumour, different kinds of illness are got rid of in that place. There you should pray for God’s clemency, promise satisfaction for your sins, and redeem your evil deeds by giving alms so far as you can, until He restores you safe and sound to your old state of health.’ His friends were rustics, but sensible people none the less; he took their good advice and proceeded to the monastery, where people with various disabilities had gathered. Three years he dwelt there labouring under his infirmity. Finally, one night, lying in bed, the blind man was warned in a dream to make for the church of Malmesbury, where Aldhelm’s body rested, and there recover his long-lost sight. He was taken next day to Malmesbury church, a companion going before him. For seven days on end he begged there for God’s mercy, meantime being supported by alms from the monks. On the seventh day, he recovered his sight in the following manner. On Sunday the monks had gone on their usual procession through the monastery cloister, and had returned to the church entrance, singing. The man was lying in the centre of the church in front of the crucifix, saying his prayers, when the grace of the Holy Spirit came down upon him to such effect that in everyone’s view blood dripped from his eyes and ran down over his face; the scales fell away and he shouted that now he could see. He got straight up and, whereas before he could go nowhere without being led, he now hastened to the tomb of the saint quite unaided. There he lay for a long time, weeping for joy; but eventually he got to his feet, and returned to where he had come from All those present saw this.

22. Aldhelm’s body is placed in a silver shrine

I have told90 how Aldhelm’s bones were clothed in silk and placed in a wooden coffin inside a marble tomb; this was done to escape the attentions of the perfidious Danes, and it was the work of Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury. Now it is my task to tell what period separated the deaths of the two bishops, how long the bones lay there after Dunstan died, and how and by whom they were raised.91 Aldhelm had been ordained as abbot in the church of Saints Peter and Paul at Malmesbury by Leuthere, fourth bishop of the Saxons, in 666, or thereabouts, and as bishop in 705, by Berhtwald, successor of Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury.92 He died in 709. This adds up to 43 years. Of these he spent four as bishop, as has been said. The remainder he spent merely as abbot, not master of one abbey alone, however, but of many. He died 279 years before the death of Archbishop Dunstan, and his relics lay where Dunstan had put them for 92 years after Dunstan’s passing. Their raising took place, as I witnessed, like this.

The monastery was under the control of Abbot Warin, a man of wide learning, who ruled the flock entrusted to him as monastic tradition required. For some while he had had doubts about the holy body, and this led him to decree a three-day fast for his congregation; they were to sing psalms devoutly at appropriate places, and to humble themselves in every way, so that by God’s mercy they might discover the relics of the great bishop. The monks of Gloucester too (for it was joined to Malmesbury by the tie of charity) observed the same fast on the orders of Serlo,93 on the days preceding Pentecost. On the third day of the festival, after the morning office, the two abbots came, full of fear, to the tomb that held the holy corpse. With them were two monks, who helped them lift the stone. One of them, Hubert, a man of wonderful endurance (as he often told us, he was afflicted by some illness), as soon as he sensed the fragrance of the remains, knelt on the ground with the others and offered praise to God. When he got to his feet again, he found himself quite cured, as he often told us, and as I personally, with many others. bear witness, though we had known him previously as a pretty sick man. The abbots opened up the sarcophagus and left it like that without touching it till seven days later, when Aldhelm’s festival was due. On the feast day the abbot sent for Bishop Osmund and for the abbot of Gloucester, together with a throng of clergy and many lay persons, a host of noblemen and troops of knights. In their presence Aldhelm’s elevation took place for the second time94 since he had been put in the tomb by Archbishop Dunstan, and he was placed in a gilded shrine. From that day on, there have been many cures granted by him and by the merits of the others who rest there.

23. How a lame boy was cured

No more than two years after this translation of Aldhelm’s relics by the abbots I have mentioned, whom Abbot Warin had brought together for the purpose,95 Aldhelm’s festival took place on the third day of Pentecost.96 (Warin was the first97 abbot of Malmesbury since the French took control of the English who had shown the monks the example of habitual good behaviour, religious way of life, and knowledge of the Rule.) On Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit wished, by a remarkable act, to declare to the people who flocked to Aldhelm’s festival what merit attached to the saint in the eyes of God. A boy,98 who had for ten years (for that was his age) spent his life so deformed that his hips were attached to his legs and his soles to his buttocks, was supporting life in the monastery hospital by taking alms from the refectory tables. Suppose the weather was such that the moderate amount of mud in the streets grew even greater, enough to be (as usual) something of an obstacle to people on journeys: if the poor cripple wanted to go somewhere, at whatever expense of effort, his calves and knees, not to speak of his intercoxal and private parts, would get inconveniently soaked with the dung in the roads. So the poor little boy froze even if the cold was not great, and grew very tired on any kind of journey. He had to lie there willy-nilly weeping until someone took pity on his cries and carried him in his arms to his customary lodging. There were those who did not believe in his handicap. They would try to poke their hands between the fused parts, and desired to straighten the bent limbs. For they were used to seeing him constantly at play, like a boy without a care in the world; and so they thought he was making it all up, as many do, on someone’s instructions. Worn out by their damnable behaviour, the cripple would long fill the air with his cries, ceaselessly asking God’s help, so far as a boy knew how: if only He would take away the debility that handicapped him, so that he would not so often have to put up with the intolerable insults that some cast upon him.

Today we can see that this happened thanks to the merits of Aldhelm. For it was on the day of his festival, when the monks were celebrating the vigils, and a crowd of clergy and lay people was passing the night in the church, and the verse of the praise-hymn ‘At whose sacred tomb the limbs of the sick are now often restored to health’99 was already being sung, when a vision appeared to the lame boy as he lay in a trance. In his sleep he seemed to see a man beautiful to look upon, dressed as a bishop, hair and beard snow-white, pleasant of face, kindly in appearance. This man took hold of his little legs, which had no power of movement, next to the feet, and pressing the palms of his hands gently on the boy’s knees straightened out the twisted limbs. At once he jumped up cured, though before he had only been able to crawl on the ground, and made his way to the altar as though he had never had any trouble from lameness before. The people rejoiced at such a prodigy and followed agog, singing hymns and carrying candles. He lay there some while in prayer. When he got to his feet, the people gave him various offerings, for him to put on the altar in gratitude to the saint. Afterwards, when the morning service was over, he told us all how health had come to him, thanks to God.

[Faricius now tells a story of his own]100

That year I was myself weighed down by much illness. Though I was unworthy and was void of any good work, I had remained at Malmesbury as a monk: perhaps God so willed it. One night, sleeping among the brothers in my bed, I dreamed that I was standing in prayer before the tomb I have often spoken of. And, behold, I heard as it were the breathing of someone asleep there. Then, terrified—for I was alone and hearing something so unexpected and unheard of—I raised my head a little and trembling looked inside the tomb to see what it was. At once I saw an old man with venerable white hair and a face like an angel’s, lying on his back in the sepulchre as though on a bed: a bishop in his sacred robes, with staff and mitre, ring, gloves, and boots. If I were to see him now alive in the flesh, I should recognise him beyond all doubt, without anyone prompting me. He was neither tall nor that short in stature, but in between, just right; he was not so fat or so thin as to be unsightly, but in the middle, an appropriate and becoming size. He stretched himself like someone waking from sleep, raised his body half way, and began to look around the monastery with a terrifying glare. Seeing this I slunk from the church, and woke just when I was going up to the brothers to tell them this tale. I recounted my vision to Warin, father of the monks, and many others, and kept it fresh by often going over it in my mind, which clung to the memory, until, just as God by the merit of his servant brought it about that I saw this miraculous sight, so He brought it about that I realised what a vision like this portended.

24. Archdeacon Hubald is cured of pain in his shoulder

Three years101 after his revelation by the agency of Bishop Osmund (him who around four hundred102 years later governed the parish that Aldhelm had ruled for only four years), of two abbots of our order, Warin of Malmesbury and Serlo of Gloucester, and, as has been recorded earlier,103 of a great many persons of different ranks, God was minded to show by the merits of his servant the miracle that will follow. On the very day of Aldhelm’s bodily death, after the third hour, the procession was wending its way, according to custom, in Malmesbury, properly and reverently. It happened that there was present a man of catholic belief, excellently trained in the liberal arts, and especially to be praised for his knowledge of divine scripture. He had been raised to the rank of archdeacon of the see,104 and was a well-known figure in our community, a man so devout that he made it his practice to come to the festival from wherever he was. On this occasion he was so stressed by pain in his shoulder, his back and his whole arm down to the finger tips that he could scarcely get about on his own feet, or do anything called for by nature with that hand. But, trusting in God, he went along pluckily with the first of them in his eagerness to touch the bier in which the body was being carried. Then they made a halt, as the monks usually do, before the church doors. The bearers of the holy body placed it across the doorway in such a way that no one could enter the church without bowing his head under it. They do this every year to ensure the safety of the crowds coming in.105 Then the man I spoke of, Hubald by name, approached and, as though he was not touching it, timidly put his hand on the bier from below; and at once he was cured of his pain as though he had never had any discomfort in that area before. As we went into the church—for we were compatriots and he was my best friend—he rushed up to me in his happiness, his smiling face telling in its joy a different tale from the one it had told only a short while before. He always looked cheerful, talked pleasantly, and was generally amenable. So now: he began to praise Saint Aldhelm in happy tones and well-chosen words: ‘A man to be praised for his qualities, high in sanctity, full of piety, packed with mercy, rich in charity, worthy to be praised far and wide, Saint Aldhelm, who cured me by his prayers quicker than a word could be spoken, who restored me to my old soundness of health by the mere touch of his bier, who has made me light and capable of anything just as if I were outside the bounds of humankind.’ Hearing this, beside myself in my extreme joy, I began urgently to inquire of him if he really felt all the health throughout his body that he spoke of so happily. But he, extending his hands to heaven and casting his eyes upward, began to call God to witness, that he was in all truth in the state which he was reporting to me and to the many other respectable men at my side. Whereupon all of us in unison most devoutly rendered, so far as our understanding permitted, our thanks to the bishop and to God himself.

25. Hubald is a second time freed from the pain in his shoulder

Times press upon times, miracle on miracles.

The saint’s miracles and the cures of people grow.

Not long after, there befell this same Hubald an illness that is not to be passed over, for it was destined to be cured by the agency of Aldhelm. He was being afflicted by pain like that I have written of, from shoulder to finger tip, and so seriously that he could do nothing with that arm. Ascension Day was at hand, and the customary procession was being made ready wherever throngs of the faithful dwell. Hubert came to the church, though only with great difficulty, quite confident that his pain could be alleviated by Aldhelm’s merits, just as previously on the saint’s feast day in the monastery of Malmesbury. For there was in the church at Salisbury, where Hubald was archdeacon, part of the left hand of the bishop, decked with various gems and gold by Bishop Osmund; by its means, God had already worked many miracles there too. Its usual position was above the altar. But when it was being made ready by the servants to be carried to the procession marking that day, Hubald asked the bishop, who was much saddened by his discomfort, to be allowed, if possible, to carry those relics of St Aldhelm: perhaps, now as before, God’s mercy would come to his aid, through Aldhelm’s merits. The bishop was overjoyed to hear this. He personally took the bone from the altar and gave it to Hubald, sharing his firm confidence in its efficacy. The procession set off, and Hubald led it, cured now by merely touching the bone. When they were back inside the sanctuary, the bishop along with the rest saw Hubald looking cheerful and as though he wanted to burst out to voice his joy and his praise of the saint. He came up to him, and addressed him in his usual agreeable manner: ‘Tell me, my brother, how are you feeling? I see you are happy, and I think you have received a boon from God.’ He replied: ‘I feel happy and healthy: indeed I never recall being better. God has cured me, by the merits of his saint Aldhelm, as if no infirmity had ever found a place in me.’

26. The death of Hubald’s horse

After the first vines, we normally plant others,

Looking for a bigger crop of fruit, greater praise and honour.

This is how a saint fares among the people, nourished by miracles.106

One day during Aldhelm’s festival, this same Hubald, archdeacon of Salisbury (which is thirty or more leagues away),107 sent one of his men with a horse and cart into the forest to bring back a load of wood for his kitchen. Peter, a cleric in Hubald’s entourage, said to him anxiously: ‘A wise man should not neglect the festivals of saints and the practices of our ancestors. It not only offends the saint but sets a bad example to lesser folk.’ The archdeacon grew more angry than he should have. ‘Such folk are the saint’s men, and they often sympathise with us in our problems. They know we cannot live without food, and so we have their licence when we look for what is needed for our provisioning.’ The servant, having chopped the wood and loaded the cart, was attaching the horse and getting ready to return home, having, as he thought, arranged everything satisfactorily, when the horse fell down dead without warning, though shortly before it had been plump and healthy. The servant, thinking over what his lord and the cleric had said, was scared stiff, and he hurried back. The archdeacon took fright, and from then on told all his subjects to be quite sure to observe Aldhelm’s feast day. And he told me the story.

27. An archdeacon is cured by drinking water in which Aldhelm’s relics had been washed

The fame of Aldhelm’s miracles, which were so to say renewed after the second raising, began to increase greatly everywhere. In the end Bishop Osmund approached the abbot of Malmesbury108 in the hope of possessing some small portion of his relics. He prayed the abbot on his own behalf and that of his faithful flock to give him something of his predecessor. The abbot took counsel with the monks over a long period. Finally, by common consent, they yielded up part of the left arm to Osmund. For he was thoroughly upright, and they did not want to reject the prayers of such a great man. Then, because he had got his way, he affirmed that he would always in every way be a loyal subject of Aldhelm’s monastery. Now it was the custom in our house, however improper, that on Maundy Thursday a parish priest of the diocese paid thirty pence to the bishop for receiving the chrism. This sum the bishop, with the assent of all his clergy, gave us in perpetuo, and under pain of excommunication barred his successors for the future from any way of getting it back. Documents made with the consent of both parties are kept in the archives of the church; this is not said because those living there are concerned about this particular number of pence, but to make it illegal for any of their successors to annul this decision. Then the bishop, overjoyed at the gift, went away and got ready a shrine for the relics, decked with gold and precious stones. Now on All Saints’ Day, after Terce before the introit of the mass, he resolved to place the sacred treasure in a box made for the purpose. Holy water and incense, and a cross with a text, were brought there. The clergy and many lay people were waiting expectantly when he recalled an archdeacon of his, an upright and honest man who was then sick unto death, and sent for him, saying: ‘Get up, and, on the arms of your servants if need be, have yourself brought here to the church.’ Hearing this, being a man devoted to God and trusting in the saint, he rose from his bed as best he could, and, as though already getting his strength back, he came to the oratory, not on his own legs but carried by his servants. The bishop summoned him and warned him to have no doubts, for he knew that this saint has in the past done like things to many a one. Touching the very top of the holy bone with water, he gave it to the sick archdeacon to drink. As soon as the liquid came in contact with his inward parts, he was made as healthy as if he had never before felt the weight of any illness. Then the archdeacon Everard109 (that was his name) began to praise God sedulously and to extol Saint Aldhelm in a loud voice. Seeing this everyone thanked God and glorified his holy bishop. Then the office of sacred mass was celebrated. But when it came to the Alleluia, the archdeacon, who had been110 an excellent organum-singer, provided by his singing a fitting organum for it.111 I had reliable persons to tell the tale especially of this miracle of Aldhelm’s, the bishop and the archdeacon himself, as well as many truthful people.

28. A paralysed woman is cured

In the seventh year of William II, son of William I,112 king of the English, a man of war and courage, there lived a woman in the town of Culkerton.113 She was (they said) not of plebeian stock, or all that nobly born, but came on both sides from a family of intermediate position. She was quite young, strong and pretty, married to a knight of similar rank to hers; and she every day enjoyed the normal affluence appropriate to her status. While she was leading this prosperous life, she suddenly fell gravely ill. She was so seized up in every limb that for some five years she could not get up from her bed without assistance. As happens to the sick, she was scorned even by her husband. And now almost bereft of possessions, with no others accruing, her limbs withered because of her long illness, she was quite at a loss what to do. But God took pity on her, as we believe, and she looked for help to the saints and to urgent prayer. Eventually, falling asleep one night after an anxious vigil, she was shown the following vision. Someone addressed words of advice to her, telling her to make no delay in seeking out the monastery of St Aldhelm, where God would take pity on her in such a burdensome complaint. When she woke and went over in her mind what she had seen, she felt the old pain somewhat easing in all her limbs and her stiff joints everywhere getting some small relief from their usual condition. In the morning, she was helped to rise from her bed and, though scarcely able to move, to make her way through the house, bent double. Then, grabbing what conveyance she could (for the feast day was imminent), she came to Malmesbury monastery. A great number of sick people were thronging the precinct at that moment. She burst through them, and helped by a staff and people’s hands, pushed past sick persons getting in the way and healthy persons offering help, until she struggled at last to the longed-for tomb of the saint. There she prayed, and in the sight of all immediately got to her feet cured, as if she had never been in danger from any infirmity. She then abandoned her stick, companions and conveyance, and courageously began a circuit of the monastery, praising the Lord and St Aldhelm His bishop. Then Abbot Godfrey,114 a good man with a council of wise persons to advise him, sought out suitable witnesses to the woman’s story in order to get at the truth, not because (heaven forfend!) he had any doubt about a miracle performed by Aldhelm, having often seen such a thing before, but because he wished to make known to newcomers consecutive details of the way the event had gone, and also the length of time involved. There were in fact many witnesses to what had taken place, including a knight called Ascelin, an entirely truthful person as I know, who over three years, for the sake of her sister, his wife, had provided her with sustenance. He deposed before witnesses, and I have summarised his words here as well as I could. This woman afterwards took back the man who had abandoned her because of her illness, and lived long and prosperously with him, in perfect health.

29. A paralysed girl is cured

I think it will be worth my while, dearest brothers, and I judge it useful for the edification of those who listen to me, if to the praise of God and for the fame of this saint I add miracles to follow on the heels of a miracle, just like a mason building a turreted house for some important person, who lays one stone on another to make it grow higher; and if, just as he joins one rock to another with cement to glue them firmly together, thus stabilising the structure, so I, in my concern for the truth, fit his ever-new miracles together as I write on the authority of my informants; and if, just as the workman, together with his mates, is going to receive pay as well as high repute, so I, along with my informants, succeed in receiving from our patron115 rewards in heaven and fame in this life. Indeed I often warned them, when they were telling their stories, that if they wanted to please God they should at least aim at the goal of complete truth. I have heard of the following works of the bishop of God from three truthful and Christian members of our order.

There was a girl of twelve, daughter of a countryman from the village known in English as Pucklechurch.116 She looked quite respectable considering her low status, but she had for five years and more been suffering from a fearful distortion. A brother of hers, feeling for her in her infirmity, put her on a horse and hurried her off to Malmesbury, wanting to arrive in time for the feast day. She stayed there that night and then the day of the festival, praying God that by the merit of His servant St Aldhelm she might return to her old state of good health. But on this occasion she was not heard, even though later on she was cured, at God’s will. Who would venture to ask why it turned out that way?117 The sick girl in the end went back home without receiving the gift of health that was granted her later. She remained in the house of a God-fearing married woman, relying as she did, one way or another, on her help for clothing and food. Then, when the annual feast day came round again, the woman put her on a conveyance and had her taken to the Aldhelm’s monastery. As it happened, the festival fell before Ascension Day, as often happens in accordance with the varying date of Easter.118 The ill girl stood there without sleeping for that night and then the day of the festival; but as God had not yet decided to act, she did not receive the gift of health she had craved for so long. She stayed on there till the coming Ascension Day, for she whole-heartedly longed for the help of God’s grace, not aware that it would come to her then by St Aldhelm’s aid. In fact, it is customary for God’s mercy to perform many works on that day, when his sacred relics are taken out for the procession.119 The day came, and as usual the procession of the monks was arranged for the third hour. When they went out for the procession, they left the sick girl behind in all reverence,120 for she was not capable of going to church. In the meantime she prayed to God as best she could. He took pity, and, as the event showed, was there for her in her prayers. Prostrate before the crucifix she lay praying, weeping in heart and eyes alike. She had heard the voices of the monks as they left, and now she heard them coming back again. She longed to join them, but could not. Finally, at the prayer of His servant, God turned the laments of the crippled woman into joy, and restored the soundness in all her limbs that she had not enjoyed before. Then, rising from the ground where she had lain so long, she began to run towards the saint through whom she had received the gift of health. When the monks and lay people saw it, they gave boundless thanks to God and to Aldhelm.

There are, of course, many other things that I have often heard about this most blessed man not from just anybody but from persons embellished with ardour for the true faith. But so that readers may more easily and smoothly impress what I have said on their memories, to the praise of the eternal King and the unfailing fame of this saint, I have decided to leave them aside. For a mind intent on too many things usually has less command of details. But I have not written this account in ornate language, as learned writers do with their compositions, but have told the truth in any old way, to the praise of the saint himself and the glory of the eternal King. His perpetuality does not finish any more than it had a beginning; Threefold as He is in persons, He reigns in unity for eons without limit. 121

30. Another woman is cured

The order of events requires me to write the truth here:

I did this before, I shall do it in this part too.

In miraculous happenings let the last be concordant with the first.

This saint in his power always works wonders:

This writing is needed to redound to his praise.

There was an insignificant woman from the town known in English as Gillingham,122 around forty miles from Malmesbury monastery. She got what she needed by the skill of her hands, and from no other source. She was by now thirty, as was said, yet she still lived in the same state of wretched poverty. And here she was, spinning on a Sunday after Vespers, when the sun was now going down. This she did contrary to the custom of the faithful and the decrees of the fathers, but to relieve her need. As a result she was soon struck down in the very act by God’s judgement, so that she could get little or no help from one side of her body. She lived for four and a half years made wretched by this affliction, scarce able to move somehow round the neighbourhood, leaning on sticks and dragging one foot. Now there were at that time certain religious enthusiasts living near the town; and they kept urging her to make every effort she could to visit different churches in search of God’s mercy: perhaps, by the help of the saints, she might feel heaven’s aid too. She obeyed them, as they were wise and of higher status, and began as best she could to visit monasteries said to be of repute everywhere within the stated area;123 sometimes travelling by herself, not picking up her foot but letting it leave a trace on the ground behind her. But she found that all this labour brought no improvement in her health; the fact was that the time had not yet come for that part of her body, so seriously weakened thanks to her sins, to be made better by the merit of Aldhelm. Finally, worn out by her repeated journeys, and having more or less lost hope in her prayers to the saints, she decided she was wasting her time persisting in her lengthy labour. So she put off for the future any thought of bodily cure, and started to take up residence in a place then famous for miracles,124 proposing to support life on the contributions of those coming there. Having stayed here for some time, she was addressed one day by a man she thought she had seen before. ‘What are you doing here?’ he said. ‘Why are you hanging around here all this time? You have wandered about quite long enough without arriving at the place where you are going to receive your health back. So get up and go as quickly as you can to Malmesbury monastery: different kinds of miracle are often worked there thanks to the help of the holy men who rest in the place.’ She believed him, being very anxious to regain her health, and next day set out eagerly on the journey, long though it was for her. She did not walk fast, and it took many days before she came to Malmesbury. She was in the town all Eastertide till Easter Monday. During this period she left the church only once a day, both because it was pretty hard for her to go back to the hospice twice, and also because she was waiting all the time for God’s pity to come to her rescue. And it is my belief that it was by divine providence that there was so long a delay; it enabled people to get to know the sick woman, so that no one could later call into question what we saw beyond any doubt. For at Vespers on Easter Monday, when the processing monks were standing in front of the cross, and when the players who had represented the disciples and the pilgrim (as is the custom) in certain churches had finished their act,125 the paralysed woman, who was standing as best she could out of respect for the evening service, was touched by the power of God and fell to the ground. All of us who were nearby in a group and saw this thought, wrongly, that she had had an epileptic fit. In fact, when the monks had gone away after completing the office, she at once got to her feet cured. Seeing this, the people were overjoyed, and hastened to spread the news of this remarkable happening everywhere. Then some brothers, who lived good lives, came to me, because many thought me a man of learning (though I was no such thing), and with cheerful hearts and joyful voices told me that God had just then, in answer to Aldhelm’s prayers, performed on the poor wretch who had fallen a miracle to command veneration. They wanted to bring her into the house and describe what had happened. I was one of the group. Out of kindness, and because the time was not right, I moderated my joy and entreated them to keep this for the morrow, for I was anxious to go properly into the details of the event myself, so that I could describe it the better later on. Accordingly next day the people flocked to the church, bringing with them speakers of both languages, who would testify to this woman’s illness and return to health: respectable witnesses, whom I trusted because of their words and actions. Wherefore we paid the debt of praise we owed to God. As for the woman, she took on nun’s habit, put the world altogether behind her, and stayed there, devotedly serving God.


Faricius wrote his life of Aldhelm at Malmesbury between 1093 and 1099. A generation later, around 1125, William, monk of Malmesbury, wrote the first version of his History of the English Bishops (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum: GP). The fifth and last book of this monumental work is devoted to Malmesbury itself; the bulk of it is in effect a new life of Aldhelm.

We do not know when William entered the abbey, but both he and Faricius were present at the miracle described in William 276 = Faricius 30. He mentions him several times in GP, and is complimentary about his later work at Abingdon. But as to the Life he is unenthusiastic (GP 5 prol. 4-5): Faricius did not lack style, but he was ignorant of English, and did little more than recount the stories he saw depicted on Aldhelm’s shrine. William promises to do better, filling in gaps in Faricius’s narrative, and providing supporting evidence.

That is what he in fact does. GP 187 sets out his stall: the book is to cover a) Aldhelm’s ‘descent and erudition’; b) the monasteries he founded and charters concerning it; c) a few of his miracles; and d) the later history of the abbey down to the present, a long period during it was always reliant on Aldhelm’s protection (note especially 198. 3). The book that follows carries out this programme, revolving around Aldhelm, alive and dead; it necessarily contains much that Faricius had not wished, or was incompetent, to cover.

Those interested are recommended to read William’s account in full.126 In what follows, I aim merely to illustrate his use of Faricius. I go through the Life, chapter by chapter, noting the borrowings and the more striking changes that William saw fit to make.

All references are to GP, by chapter and sub-section as in the Oxford edition. I refer to R.M. Thomson’s commentary as ‘Thomson’. William is abbreviated to ‘W’, Faricius to ‘F’.

Gesta Pontificum Anglorum - by William of Malmesbury


270. 1: W speaks of Hubald’s achievements in the ‘liberal arts’ (cf. 270. 5 ‘litteratus’); but he had a stammer which made it hard for him to teach.


The pictures are also mentioned in 14, where the shrine is silver, the plates gilded. W speaks of them in 5 prol. 3 and 212. 3 (silver shrine, no plates mentioned). The problems arising from these passages are discussed in Thomson, Appendix A (pp. 327-9).

212. 2: W too cites Luke and Gregory in his defence.

236. 2: The alleged lost life of Aldhelm.

255. 1: Dunstan’s connections with the west country.

Chapter 1

188: W gives the correct etymology of Aldhelm, referring to Faricius by name on this point, though nowhere later. He states that ‘some say’ Aldhelm was nephew of Ine, but rejects this on various grounds, asserting, on the basis of K. Alfred’s Handbook, that Kenten was merely a close relation of Ine. Note also 246. 1 (K. Æthelstan claims to be related to Aldhelm).

Chapter 2

189: W, on the basis of Aldhelm’s own writings, tells us that he was educated at Canterbury, under Abbot Hadrian, for two periods; he does not mention Hebrew. His study of Roman law is mentioned in a letter cited by W at 195. 3.

Chapter 3

189. 2: W records Aldhelm’s entering Malmesbury, on whose foundation by Meldun (see below, F 8) he expands.

213. 1: Aldhelm’s life as a monk.

Chapter 4

213. 3-4: W links the story with Aldhelm’s works on virginity. Just before (2) he has told how Aldhelm would spend nights immersed in a spring, reciting the psalter; Aldhelm’s spring ‘lies in the valley by the convent, bubbling out gently, delightful to look upon and sweet to drink’. W also mentions Daniel’s Spring, where Daniel (bishop of Winchester c. 705-44) would pray at night.

Chapter 5

189. 5 (cf. 199. 3): W quotes from the (forged) charter in which Leuthere granted the monastery to Aldhelm.

190. 4: In W Aldhelm would meet the people when they come down to the bridge immediately after mass, singing like a professional minstrel, in order to persuade them to return to church for his sermon. The story is attributed to K. Alfred’s Handbook.

198. 4: Leuthere makes Aldhelm priest and abbot. The dubious charter mentioned above follows in 199.

Chapters 6-7

197. 4-5: W cites the poem, in a revised form, associating it not with a church in Rome but with the great church at Malmesbury, built by Aldhelm himself. He has just (3) spoken of a small church built by Meildulf, and of Aldhelm’s grander church ‘in honour of our Lord and Saviour and of the chief of the apostles, Peter and Paul’, ‘from old the centre, the place at which the monks came together’ (cf. 216. 1, 232. 1). For the various churches of the abbey, see Thomson, Appendix B (pp. 330-3).

217-20: According to W, Aldhelm is not summoned by the pope, but, after consultation with Kings Ine of the West Saxons and Æthelred of the Mercians, goes to Rome to obtain charters, which the miracles help him to win. On the way he builds a church near Corfe Castle in Dorset, which came to attract even more miracles on Aldhelm’s day than Malmesbury itself. In Rome (W tells us more about the Lateran) he throws the chasuble behind him, thinking there was someone there to catch it. W has seen the garment, describes it in detail, and argues from it (and from bones he had also seen) that Aldhelm was a tall man (contrast Faricius’s dream in 23). W, who gives more information on Sergius than F, expands the tale of the speaking baby: Aldhelm is credited with an impassioned speech in defence of the pope; but he declines to name the real father.

Chapter 8

189. 2-3: W expands on the foundation of the monastery by Meldun (whom he calls Meldum); see also §6 for the evidence of Pope Sergius’s bull (= 221. 3).

221: W gives the full text of the privilege, which he has said (220) should be taken notice of by some ‘in our day’.

222: W reports that Aldhelm brought back from Rome ‘many kinds of foreign goods’, including a marble altar. This W had seen; it had been miraculously mended after falling from a camel (or some other beast) en route, but ‘the flaw line is still obvious’. This was one of the gifts given (W tells us) to the kings to encourage them to assent to the bull: in this case to Ine, who placed it in Bruton (perhaps W’s birthplace: see Thomson, 276), apparently in a church dedicated to the saint. W remarks on a larger church there, St Peter’s, reputedly built by Aldhelm, but enlarged in W’s time.

Chapter 9

196. 1-5: W elaborates and corrects F (details in Thomson, 254-7). He clearly had access to the old manuscript at Malmesbury, and he makes fuller use of it. In the rest of the chapter he comments interestingly on Aldhelm’s style.

215: W uses his knowledge of Aldhelm’s Letter to Geraint to expand F’s account of the episode of the heresy (though at 196. 1 he seems to say he had not read it; in 215. 7 the Britons are said to have lost it).

Chapter 10

216: W remarks of St Mary’s that it ‘stood, famous and unimpaired, even in our day, larger and fairer than any old church that was to be seen anywhere in England’; Aldhelm also built a church next to it dedicated to St Michael (see below, 14). W tells a more elaborate, and more lucid, story, making it quite clear that one beam was too short and had to be miraculously lengthened to match the others. He reports that the offending beam survived two fires, but eventually rotted away.

Chapter 11

223. 6-224: W states that Aldhelm was in Canterbury to be consecrated bishop of Sherborne by his old friend Berhtwald (an episode that is placed separately at the start of F 12); he seems to show personal knowledge of Dover and the English Channel. He tells a somewhat different story, in which (for example) Aldhelm disputes with the sailors over the price of the book before they set sail. He too had seen the volume at Malmesbury, though he does not mention the anathema. W’s free handling of his source, and his poetic description of a storm that F hardly mentions, are typical of the way in which he ‘improves’ F’s miracle stories.

Chapter 12

194: W’s gloomy remarks on the shortcomings of Malmesbury seem to expand F’s remark here (cf. also F 8). W talks of the place being trampled on by tyrants, language that reflects the wording of several charters he will go on to cite (199. 5, 202. 3, 204. 3, 206. 3; note also 225. 2).

223. 1-5: W comments that the division of the diocese was unequal, strongly favouring Winchester. He notes that Daniel was from the Winchester area, and elaborates on Aldhelm’s reluctance to take the post.

225: W identifies Aldhelm’s bishopric as being of Sherborne (he says he has seen the ‘remarkable’ church Aldhelm built there), and gives the full text of the charter on which F drew, dated 705 (see Thomson, 279), and witnessed by K. Ine, Bishop Daniel, and ‘the patrician Æthelfrith’. It covers the monasteries of Malmesbury, Frome (above, F 8) and Bradford(-on-Avon), and also mentions a nunnery on the R. Wimbourne. In 198. 1 W had said that the church by the Frome, built by Aldhelm in honour of St John the Baptist, stood ‘to this day’, just as did a small church at Bradford said to have been built by Aldhelm in honour of St Laurence; but both monasteries had by now disappeared.

270. 7: Thomson, 320 sees this as echoing the end of F’s chapter. On Aldhelm’s miracles see also below on F 17.

Chapter 13

228-30: W, who adds information about Doulting, heightens the story of the blind woman, and mentions a stone on which the dying Aldhelm sat; but he suppresses the dispute about the place of burial (for Aldhelm’s wish to be buried in Malmesbury see W 231. 1). In W Ecgwine goes to Doulting and brings the body back to Malmesbury, marking the resting places by crosses which ‘all still stand’ (his journey to Rome in chains is delayed till 231. 3). W appends a tale of Aldhelm’s ash staff turning into a tree while he preached in a village now called Bishopstrow (near Warminster). This prompts W to make interesting remarks on his own procedures (‘I have not added anything on my own account’).

Chapter 14

231. 1: Aldhelm’s burial in St Michael’s. For the building of this church, see W 216. 1 (‘of this I have seen traces’).

236: W attributes the shrine to K. Æthelwulf (d. 858). It had silver figures chased on the front and the miracle pictures in raised metal work at the back; the king added a crystal finial, on which his name appeared in gold letters. ‘Some say’ Æthelwulf raised the saint’s remains, but W refers forward to his narrative in 251. 2. See on all this Thomson, 287-9.

251. 1-2: Eadwig’s misbehaviour (cf. also 17. 1): Malmesbury becomes ‘ a stable of clerics’, though (as F knew) it was clerics who put Aldhelm’s body in the shrine described in 236.

Chapter 15

255. 1-3: W stresses Dunstan’s connection with the west country. He reproduces only the first two inscriptions, and gives an important though flowery description of the working of the organ.

Chapter 16

255. 4-7: Dunstan, worried that the Danes may remove and throw away the bones and then steal the shrine, puts the remains in a stone tomb ‘high up to the right of the altar’. W speaks of linen and purple coverings, not silk, and adds that Dunstan had verses engraved on the tomb.

256. 2-5: W tells much the same story, though the offending Dane is stunned, not blinded.

Chapter 17

259. 12: W’s remarks on Aldhelm’s miracles at the end of his chapter may be compared with F’s tortuous words at the end of his. Note also 232. 1 (the miracles during first 246 years are forgotten), 246. 1 (miracles increase under Æthelstan, who was to be buried in the abbey, like two of his relatives: 246. 2-3).

Chapter 18

259: W says the invading Danes called in the aid of the lustful Norwegians, and is clear that Ælfhild was a victim of one of the latter, who rapes her. So too does the king. The girl, despite these experiences, is happy to continue her relationship with the king, and the bishop’s role is to arrange a hide-away from which she can be brought to the king ‘when it pleased’. After the king’s death, the bishop is made the child’s guardian. In England, the fatal party seems, in W’s version, to have been thrown by Ælfhild herself. When cured, she becomes a nun.

Chapter 19

261: W tells the same story, adding exaggerated details.

Chapter 20

262: Again the same tale with added detail. For the monastic routine and for the scabella that enabled the man to move, see Thomson, 310-11. W anticipates my interpretation of F (see p. 00 n. 00), but specifies the Saturday of arrival as the fourth day after the feast.

Chapter 21

266: W lengthens and enlivens the story: note especially the details of the cure in §§5-6. He makes the Sunday the eighth day after the man’s arrival, and interestingly comments on the prestige the cure gave to Aldhelm among the Normans (see Thomson, 315).

Chapter 22

200. 1: For the date of Aldhelm’s appointment as abbot, see Thomson, 262.

231. 2: For the date of Aldhelm’s death, see Thomson, 282-4.

265: W reports critically on Warin’s abbacy (contrast F 23), and his disrespect for the bones of saints. The abbot’s doubts are about Aldhelm’s sanctity (§4), but they are allayed by the miracle of the fisherman (266; F 21), and the translation is described in 267. 2-4. F spoke of a ‘gilded shrine’ as a new repository, but W seems to imply that the bones were put back in the original shrine; and that is possibly what F means (the Latin chapter heading has ‘silver’). W has the opening of the tomb take place on Whit Sunday (not Whit Tuesday), 1078 (not 1080); for the dating problems see Thomson, 315-6. W specifies Hubert’s illness as an internal complaint.

Chapter 23

269. 1-8: W gives the boy’s name as Folcwine. F had said that Aldhelm’s feast fell on the third day of Pentecost (Whit Tuesday), which is true of 1081. W says that it occurred on the first day, but that the celebration of Aldhelm’s feast was put off to the second day. His date for the translation was 1078 (267. 5), so the present miracle should on his reckoning fall in 1080. He must in any case be wrong, as there is no date between 1040 and 1102 when Aldhelm’s day and Whit Sunday coincided. He does not mention F’s own vision, perhaps feeling it to be too similar to the boy’s. Much more importantly, he adds the information that the abbot was away at court. Hearing the news from the monks, he passed it on to Lanfranc, who proceeded to proclaim Aldhelm a saint. And an annual market was established on the saint’s day.

Chapters 24-25

270. 1-2: W seems to generalise the benefits of entering the church at Malmesbury bent under the shrine. See also 273. 4

270. 2-6: W speaks of Aldhelm’s arm as being possessed by Salisbury (for its cession by Malmesbury see 269. 9-10). He gives details of Hubald’s recovery.

Chapter 26

Passed over by W.

Chapter 27

269. 9-12: Whereas F 25 and 27 has Salisbury possess some of the left hand before requesting more (part of the left arm), W tells only of the request (Aldhelm’s arm then cures Hubald in 270. 3-4), and provides much less detail of the transaction. The relic is put into a silver casket. On All Saints’ Day Osmund is dismayed by Everard’s weakness, but the cure is effected with water in which the bone had been steeped. W says of Everard’s singing (OMT translation revised): 'he sounded out with his voice [vocale] the organum above those singing the Alleluia, with all the skill in which he used to excel' .W employs only one of F’s ‘precedents’ (which my abbreviation omits), but he replaces the legendary Petronilla with Peter’s mother-in-law from the gospel narrative (Luke 4. 38-9).

Chapter 28

272: W has the woman creep about like a tortoise. He sharpens the moral points, and makes the husband’s behaviour even more deplorable.

Chapter 29

273. 1-6: The girl is brought three times, and the blocking of the door is added. W views the delay in the cure rather differently: lack of faith, and (as in F 30) desire for publicity.

Chapter 30

276: W, who calls the place Kilingeham, tells the tale with some added dramatic touches. ‘We were singing’, he reports, an antiphon not mentioned by F. So both were present on this occasion, and W was apparently already a monk. Note also 273. 6: W witnessed the subsequent miracles (down to 278). Only this one is also in Faricius. If they are in chronological order, it is notable that W was a boy at the time of the event recorded in 275 (1 ‘when I was a boy’; 5 ‘us boys’).

A note on processions

F mentions five processions.

20: Malmesbury, on a Sunday after Aldhelm’s day, when the first Hour has been sung; through the cloister and ‘offices’ and back.

21: Malmesbury, on a Sunday unrelated to the feast day; through the cloister and back to the church door.

24: Malmesbury, after the third hour on Aldhelm’s day ‘according to custom’; the monks halt, as usual, at the door and place the bier across the doorway.

25: Salisbury, on Ascension Day (as everywhere else); from sanctuary to sanctuary.

29: Malmesbury, on Ascension Day, at the third hour; the relics are carried.

At Malmesbury, then (as everywhere else), there was a procession on Ascension Day; the relics were carried. On Aldhelm’s day, the relics were carried in the procession, and there was a special ritual at the door (according to W 273. 4 this took place on Ascension Day also).127 On ordinary Sundays, there was a procession not involving the relics.


For the various churches of Malmesbury Abbey, see Thomson, 330-3.

For Aldhelm’s shrines, see the full discussion in Thomson, 327-9.

Faricius’s account presents problems; I list his allusions here, without going into William’s attempt to tidy the matter up.

The story is summarised in the Preface: Aldhelm’s bones were kept in a shrine (scrinium), made soon after his death (709), that was decorated with silver plates illustrating some of his miracles; the pictures were seen on this shrine by ‘our older fathers’. Later, when the shrine deteriorated, the plates were transferred to a new one by a bishop and others.

In 14, we are told how the relics were taken from a tomb (sarcophagus) and put into a silver128 shrine (locellus), on which four miracle pictures could even now be seen engraved. This action is attributed to clerics of the monastery, and dated under or after K. Eadwig (reigned 955-9).

In 16, Dunstan (archbishop of Canterbury 959-88), fearing for the bones, takes them out of the shrine (feretrum: gold and silver are mentioned) and puts them in a stone tomb (tumulus).129 Invading Danes attempt to take precious stones from the shrine (feretrum), but are miraculously repelled.

Finally, in 22, the bones are placed in feretro aurato (gilded shrine) by Bishop Osmund. The date is given as 1080. The shrine in question may be the original one (see above on F 22).

This story given in the Preface can be reconciled with the later items only so long as we discount the dating of the shrine to not long after Aldhelm’s death, for in fact it was, according to 14, made some 250 years later.130 The pictures on the shrine were seen by ‘our older fathers’ before the translation in 1080 (more than ten years before Faricius was writing). ‘A bishop and others’ refers to Osmund and the dignitaries listed in 22.

The episode of the Danes makes little sense. Why should Dunstan have left the shrine to be pillaged by the Danes? Faricius arguably makes him do this because only thus could he include the dramatic story of the blinding of the Dane who tried to remove jewels from it. Presumably the monks in fact hid the shrine after the bones were put into a tomb. The shrine, with the pictures on it, were available to be seen by monks before 1080 (see above), but it was not then, of course, in use as a repository for the bones. After 1080, the bones were placed in a new shrine, to which the plates were attached.


1. See esp. R.M. Thomson in the introduction to the Oxford Medieval Texts edition of Gesta Regum Anglorum ii (1999), pp. xxxv-xlvi. He here reprints a much earlier survey by Rev. J. Sharpe, adding footnotes summarising modern research up to 1999. In general, see Thomson, William of Malmesbury (rev. edn., Woodbridge, 2003).

2. Bishop of Salisbury, 1078-99. He appears later (see 22, 25 and 27).

3. Osmund (it seems) has approved the reading of (extracts from) the Life during the liturgy.

4. Faricius almost always uses the ‘royal we’ of himself.

5. Archdeacon of Salisbury, another Italian, who lived on to c. 1122. For miracles concerning him see 24-6.

6. Osmund.

7. Faricius (fancifully) derives the name from os mundum, ‘clean mouth’.

8. Hubald.

9. An allusion to the seven branches of the Nile or to the seven rivers of Paradise, to which are likened the seven liberal arts.

10. i.e. Hubald had climbed high towards perfection. The biblical allusion is to Gen. 28: 12.

11. The fame of Faricius’s happy security is to grow like the protecting walls built for him by his patrons, and indeed like his patrons’ prestige too. Compare the image from castle building in 29.

12. i.e. greater than Christ’s own works. The reference is to John 14: 12, where Jesus says: ‘He that believeth in me, the works that I do, he also shall do; and greater than these shall he do’ Faricius therefore must be saying that, though what he writes of Aldhelm’s miracles may seem impossible, Aldhelm could indeed have performed them, on the principle here enunciated by Jesus; the critic should not judge by his own inability in this area.

13. To each other.

14. Aldhelm.

15. For his early cult see D.H. Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (ed. 3, Oxford, 1992), 13-14. When Faricius uses the word sanctus of Aldhelm, it is often not clear if he means to call him a saint or just a holy man.

16. Or possibly ‘follow their footsteps without stumbling’.

17. Faricius means The Rule, that of the Benedictines.

18. It is unclear why Faricius does not speak of brothers (i.e. monks) rather than fathers. The ‘first’ group made the silver plates. The ‘older’ group are the elders spoken of just above; they had seen not only the lost book but the plates in their original position. For the plates, see below, p. 0.

19. For this shrine see below, 14.

20. For the new shrine see below, 22 (events of 1080, about 15 years before Faricius was writing).

21. Luke 1. 1-3.

22. 2 Cor. 8: 18.

23. King of the West Saxons, 688-726.

24. Apparently the translator read aloud to him. William of Malmesbury (GP 5 prol. 5) states that Faricius did not know English.

25. Mark 12: 30.

26. To receive instruction in religion.

27. In fact the name means ‘old helmet’.

28. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs; Deuteronomy.

29. Early saints from Egypt.

30. Faricius always calls the place Meldunum, recalling the name of the monastery’s founder, Meldun (see 8). William of Malmesbury too favoured this old name (see Gesta Pontificum 197. 2 ‘Meldunum, which a debased age now calls Malmesbury’).

31. Fourth bishop of the West Saxons, 670-/676; see 5 and 22.

32. Faricius goes on to give examples: Abraham, Jeremiah, Job, David, the apostle John.

33. 3. 7, 4. 5, 4. 12.

34. Sergius I, pope 687-701.

35. A elaborate comparison with the prophet Elijah has been omitted.

36. i.e. gave him the instruction proper to a more mature catechumen preparing for baptism.

37. The exact wording of these three lines is uncertain.

38. The Irishman Meildulf (Maeldubh).

39. Somerset.

40. John 10. 1-2, 12.

41. See the bull as reported by William in GP 221.1. Faricius had clearly read the original document in full.

42. Referring to the monks’ dress.

43. 675-704. For Ine, see 1.

44. The moralising end of this chapter (from ‘But there arose’) is found only in one of the two manuscripts, and may well not be original; it seems to have been intended to explain why seals had not been attached in an age when no one expected fraudulence, which is seen as an import from abroad (probably Rome itself).

45. Aldhelm’s extant writings are translated in (trs. M. Lapidge and M. Herren) Aldhelm The Prose Works (1979) and (trs. M. Lapidge and J.L. Rosier) Aldhelm The Poetic Works (1985).

46. King of the Northumbrians, 705/6-716.

47. In fact he became bishop around 705.

48. The Letter to Geraint.

49. Hist. Eccl. 5. 18.

50. Faricius goes on to compare this with the work of the apostle Paul.

51. Translated by A.M. Juster in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (Toronto, 2015).

52. Two symbols mark off different speakers in this dialogue on metre.

53. Faricius should have said that it was now the same length as the others.

54. Founder of the Benedictine order.

55. Gregory the Great, Dial. 2. 9. Faricius proceeds to compare this miracle, which he saw as prefiguring what Aldhelm would do in the future, with that described in Numbers 17: 8 (Aaron’s rod),

56. 692/3-731.

57. i.e. befitting a freeman or gentleman.

58. See above, n. 46.

59. Of the West Saxons, 676-705.

60. Hist. Eccl. 5. 18, the source for what follows also.

61. Bishop of Winchester, c. 705-744.

62. Bishop of Sherborne, c. 705-9.

63. Faricius proceeds to quote 1 Tim. 3. 2.

64. Regula Pastoralis 2. 3.

65. William of Malmesbury, GP 225.

66. 8.

67. Sulpicius Severus, Dial. 2. 4.

68. Somerset.

69. After 693 until 717.

70. Dominic of Evesham, Life of St Ecgwine 5-6.

71. King of England 955-59, followed by Edgar I (959-75).

72. Note that in Faricius’s view there was a nunnery as well as a monastery.

73. Regular and secular canons (a later distinction).

74. 959-88.

75. sc. Glastonbury.

76. Faricius adds a prayer for himself (and his fellow-monks?).

77. Below, 18-21: miracles later than the Danish troubles but preceding the moving of the body to a new shrine in 1080 (as described in 22). The beginning of the period meant is uncertain.

78. Faricius’s point seems to be that, even though the miracles of early martyrs were not recorded in writing, people believe in them because more recent miracles have been witnessed that are attributable to the martyrs. So with Aldhelm’s unrecorded works.

79. In 6-7 (Rome), 10-11.

80. Otherwise known only from William’s adaptation of the story in GP 259.

81. Presumably St Olaf Haroldsson, king of Norway 1012-30. The proper meaning of archimandrite is ‘abbot’.

82. Apparently Magnus I the Good, bastard son of Olaf. He in fact reigned 1035-46.

83. Faricius goes on to recall the story of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5: 1-11) and to moralise on intentional and unintentional sin.

84. Hampshire. See also 21.

85. A fit man would have ‘left no footprints’ in his haste; this cripple would have left none in any case.

86. The story is a little obscurely told. Faricius means that the man felt somewhat better when, on a Saturday evening within eight days after Aldhelm’s feast day, he arrived at Malmesbury. The cure followed on the Sunday.

87. 1066-87.

88. Abbot of Malmesbury 1070-ca. 1091 (see also 22, 23).

89. The Isle of Wight.

90. 16.

91. The dates stated or implied are: ca. 666: Aldhelm is made abbot; 705: he is made bishop; 709: he dies; after four years as bishop (a total of 43 years since he became abbot); 709 + 279 = 988: death of Dunstan; 988 + 92 = 1080: translation of Aldhelm’s bones.

92. 668-90. For Berhtwald see above 11.

93. Abbot of St Peter’s, Gloucester, 1072-1104.

94. Faricius means that Aldhelm was now translated for a second time, the first being when he was put in a tomb by Dunstan.

95. Though Warin himself was one of the two.

96. That is true of 1081, the translation having occurred, according to Faricius, in the previous year: see n. 91).

97. A veiled criticism of Warin’s belligerent predecessor, Turold (abbot 1066/7-1070); for him see GP 264.

98. Called Folcwine (GP 269).

99. From a hymn in the Sapphic metre beginning ‘Iste confessor’.

100. This paragraph has not been abbreviated.

101. Implying the date 1083/4.

102. A very rough approximation (Aldhelm 705-9, Osmund 1078-99). See also 25 and 27.

103. 22.

104. Salisbury (cf. 25).

105. The intention was presumably to prevent any dangerous stampede into the building.

106. A saint is likened to a farmer expanding his vineyard: he looks for more praise the more miracles he performs.

107. Salisbury is about forty miles from Malmesbury.

108. Still Warin.

109. Everard of Calne, later bishop of Norwich 1121-45 (d. 1146).

110. i.e. before his illness.

111. i.e. for the Alleluia. See below, p. 00. organum here means a ‘florid melody over a held note’.

112. If Faricius is being exact, the miracle occurred between Sept. 1093 and Sept. 1094.

113. Glos., about five miles north of Malmesbury.

114. He seems to have taken office not later than 1091.

115. i.e. Aldhelm.

116. Glos.

117. Faricius proceeds to moralise about the reason for God’s delay.

118. The year indicated seems to be 1093.

119. Cf. 25.

120. i.e. they left her behind for a good and considerate reason.

121. This paragraph (unabbreviated) seems to be misplaced; it reads like the concluding words of the whole life.

122. Dorset.

123. i.e. within 40 miles of Malmesbury (see above).

124. Perhaps Christchurch (cf. 20).

125. The Ludus Peregrini, the ‘Pilgrim play’ performed on Easter Monday, representing the meeting with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35).

126. See William of Malmesbury Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, vol. 1 (ed. and trans. M. Winterbottom, Oxford Medieval Texts 2007). Vol. 2 (also 2007) is R.M. Thomson’s invaluable commentary. These volumes are too expensive to be bought by any but the affluent. Highly recommended is the earlier William of Malmesbury The Deeds of the Bishops of England, transl. David Preest (Woodbridge, 2002). Where these translations differ, it should certainly not be taken for granted that the later is correct. I very much regret that I failed to acknowledge the use I made of Preest’s book; its author died in 2019.

127. W refers back to 270. 2, without saying that there the occasion was Aldhelm’s day. But it seems inconceivable that W could be wrong on such a point.

128. Gilded, acording to the heading in one manuscript.

129. See also 22, where F speaks of them being placed by Dunstan in a wooden coffin (tecae) inside a marble tomb (tumba).

130. If we cannot swallow such an error, we may posit two sets of plates, one made soon after Aldhelm’s death, the other at some stage later.