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Aldhelm's Last Journey

Malmesbury's favourite Saint is undoubtedly Aldhelm, best known in a splendidly anachronistic portrait in Malmesbury Abbey (which he founded), showing a plan of it as it appeared not less than 600 years after he died.

Which just goes to show that we should take, with a pinch of salt, most of what we are told about him.

His last journey, for example.

William of Malmesbury (where would we be without him?), writing 400 years later, tells us that when Aldhelm died in Doulting on 23rd May 709, in accordance with his wishes his body was brought to Malmesbury for burial. The cortège rested every seven miles and, ultimately, a stone cross was raised to mark these holy spots. The crosses were still there in William's time and were sites of veneration and healing.

Sadly, William does not tell us where they were (except the one at Malmesbury Abbey itself). Why should he? Everybody knew, and besides, he was writing a History, not a Gazetteer. 

So all we know, with reasonable certainty, is that the journey started at Doulting and ended at Malmesbury.

The seven-mile interval need not be taken too literally. The monks were not carrying measuring chains and seven is a magic number with a resonance denied to, say, six and a half or eight and three quarters.

Both Doulting and Malmesbury lie close to the Foss Way which would still have been a well-marked track three hundred years after the Romans' departure, and near Malmesbury, there are two likely locations:

On the Foss Way and roughly seven miles from Malmesbury, is the site of a vanished chapel at a cross roads called The Elm and the Ash. A ruin was still there in Aubrey's time in the 17thC. He believed it to be an ancient, holy site but offered nothing more specific. 

This site is not near any settlement, ancient or existing, that does not have its own place of worship. That makes it a strong contender as a pilgrim chapel and therefore a contender as the site of the penultimate Aldhem cross.

Seven or so miles further south is the “Shoe” where the Fosse Way crosses the modern A420 and just a few hundred metres from there, in Upper Wraxall, there is a substantial cross-base, made from massive sandstone slabs, quite undatable but reputed to be the remains of an Aldhem Cross. No signs of a shaft or head but in Colerne church, not far away are fragments of a 9thC cross-shaft,  which Pevsner describes as amongst the best in the West Country.

That gives two likely sites for Aldhelm crosses as the route nears Malmesbury.

There is no evidence or tradition to link  Aldhelm to the Foss Way any further south, but  starting from Doulting  there is a very strong argument for Frome and Bradford as the first two stops. 

Frome town is generally believed to have been created by Aldhelm c685 at an important river crossing as a rest-stop between Malmesbury and Sherborne. The actual site of the original Abbey is unfortunately lost but we may reasonably assume that there was a substantial community of monks there in 709.  The first instinct of Aldhelm's retinue would therefore likely be to take his remains there, not least to help with the heavy lifting.

From Frome, the next logical destination is Bradford-on-Avon (Just under 10 miles so there may be an intermediate stop?) While the Saxon St Laurence's Chapel there is later than Aldhelm's time, there's a decent case to believe it replaced an earlier, wooden structure.

But what happened between Bradford-on-Avon and Colerne? Corsham has a tenuous claim., based on which,the founders of their non-conformist chapels on the 18th and 19th centuries chose St Aldhelm as their Patron. The search for plausible legends continues and may lead to more clues in future.

What was the context of this journey? The turn of the 8th century was a time of  comparative peace in the area, under the rule of King Ine  of the West Saxons.  The great battles of Deorham (Dyrham),  577, and Bradford on Avon, 652, were comfortably in the past and the Vikings were still a century in the future. So as long as due care was taken, travellers could maintain a leisurely pace. 

According to William of Malmesbury, Aldhelm's cortège was organised by Ecgwine, Bishop of Worcester, who had learned of Aldhelm's death in a vision and accordingly hurried to Doulting (Ecgwine's biographer, Dominic of Evesham, was rather prone to flights of fancy). 

But why was Aldhelm in Doulting, which is not on the route from Frome to Sherborne? At Frome, an important river crossing pre-dates the town itself and the ancient trackway to Wells and Glastonbury heads west from there. The original church at Wells was built in 705 by King Ine, probably at Aldhelm's suggestion and although the Abbey of Glastonbury was already ancient in Aldhelm's time, Ine, again urged by Aldhelm, built a stone minster there. The monastic foundation at Doulting was served by Glastonbury monks.

Aldhelm was a great traveller in his lifetime so it is fitting that his funeral included a favourite journey, probably taking in as many significant locations as possible. While we are unlikely ever to trace the exact route, there is plenty to fascinate historians and pilgrims along the way.