History of the Church: Early Middle Ages - Notre Dame

The British Isles During the Iron Age

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I. The Danish Invasions

The British Isles did not escape the calamities which befell Europe during the three iron centuries. The fierce Scandinavian pirates, the Norwegians and Danes, whose ravages on other shores we have already noticed, did not spare our islands. So terrible was the devastation they committed in Scotland that nothing was left to tell of all the first missionaries had done in the land. Iona seems to have suffered greatly. Three or four times at least the Danes swept down on the island monastery and massacred its inhabitants. The body of St. Columba was carried to the mainland to save it from the barbarous invaders. Later on it was placed in the same tomb with those of St. Patrick and St. Bridget. Churches and schools, with their libraries, were all destroyed, so that, except for terrible memories of slaughter and desolation, this part of the history of the Church in Scotland is a blank.

Ireland, too, was visited by these dauntless marauders. For two centuries they renewed their attacks, repeating everywhere the same cruel scenes The history of these disastrous days contains little but repetitions of the same words—slaughter, fire, harrying—and to add to their misfortunes the Irish chieftains were as often as not at variance among themselves. Hence the strong defence needed to keep off the Danes was wanting to save Ireland. As they could not depend on their chiefs, in many cases the monks took up arms and fought against the invaders. So, too, when it was found that the Danes always made their first descent on church and monastery, to keep what they could from the spoilers, the monks placed their goods in the hands of laymen, who were not always willing to give up the charge when the need for their protection was over. Thus the abuse arose of Church lands being administered and often appropriated by laymen, who, in Irish history, go by the name of "corbes." A still stranger abuse arose in the same way. Kings who had become protectors of Church property were sometimes elected Bishops. In some cases it was the Bishop who was elected King. At any rate, there were certainly a considerable number of King-Bishops, who ruled both kingdom and diocese at once, and engaged in war both against neighbouring chiefs and against the Danes.

The power of the Danes in Ireland was broken by Brian Boru, a famous King of Cashel, who made himself master of nearly the whole of Ireland, and who in his twenty-fifth battle against the Danes at Clontarf, A.D. 1014, completely routed them, but died during the fight. The Danes who had settled in the land gradually became Christians, and no further invasions took place in Ireland.

England did not suffer less than the neighbouring countries; but there were three periods during which the Danes were specially active in pouring their hordes on to our shores. The first was about the end of the eighth century. A long spell of tranquillity had followed the deaths of SS. Theodore and Wilfrid, during which their labours began to bear good fruits. But a time of peace is often a time of spiritual danger. So it was now. Priests and monks and nuns had lost a good deal of their first fervour, and St. Boniface, from the heart of Germany, where he was then preaching, wrote a strong exhortation to his countrymen to return to a simpler and holier way of living. The Pope, too, added his injunctions, and called on the Archbishop of Canterbury to remedy the evils complained of. A Council was held at Cloveshoe, in A.D. 747, to carry the Holy Father's recommendations into effect. It was just forty years later when the Danes made their first descent on English shores.

Tidings of the doings of the dreaded pirates had been terrifying the coast people for some time. The evil day came only too soon. Black sails appeared on the horizon and fierce marauders were in the land. At first they would make a bold dash inland, plunder the nearest church or monastery, and speed back to their keels. Experience taught them that there was little to fear from the terrified people, and that monks and nuns were an easy prey. Massacres of religious marked every descent of the pirates. The rich spoil of the abbeys, their jewelled shrines and altar vessels, were borne off to Danish homes, while of the churches and monasteries nothing was left but blackened piles of ruins, often covering the remains of the slaughtered inhabitants.

The second Danish invasion occurred in the middle of the ninth century. It was marked by extraordinary cruelty on the part of the pirates. They commenced their depredations in the north. Lindisfarne Abbey was destroyed, the monks escaping with their most precious treasure, the incorrupt body of St. Cuthbert. Bardney, Croydon, Peterborough, and Ely, were among the most famous of the monasteries burnt by the Danes. St. Edmund, King of the East Anglians, was taken prisoner. He preferred to be shot to death by arrows rather than to give up his faith or risk his people's lives in open fight with the merciless Danes.

Alfred the Great


One bright page breaks the dark record of the second Danish invasion. The story of Alfred, the accounts of his consecration as King of England by Pope Leo IV. in Rome, whither he had gone with his father, Ethelwulf; of his studious boyhood; of a youth spent in gallant struggles with the Danes under the banners of his three brothers, successively Kings of England, are too well known to need repeating. So, too, is the history of his kingly life; of his triumph over the Danes and his treaty with them, by which Guthrum and his warriors undertook to occupy only that part of the country north of the Thames and to embrace Christianity; of his wise government; and of his provision for the defence of his country by army and navy.

But of what Alfred did for the Church and for the education of the people—for these two interests are ever closely linked in Catholic hearts—a word must be said. His own books show how bitterly he grieved over the miseries caused by the Danish invasions and by the sad ignorance of the clergy, one consequence of the disastrous times through which the country had passed. But Alfred was not a man to grieve only. He set to work to remedy the evil as far ag he could. Learned men were invited to England to teach the clergy. Churches and monasteries were rebuilt, and communities gathered together as of old, with saintly men set over them to guide them in the ways of holiness and learning. But Alfred loved his people too dearly to let learning belong to the ecclesiastical class only. Monks and priests were taught Latin, so all the lore of earlier days was open to them; but for the people there must be English books, and Alfred set himself to make them. He translated several valuable works into Anglo-Saxon for them, adding passages containing information which he felt would be useful and interesting to them. He also caused the monks to keep regular Chronicles. Thus, to King Alfred we owe the first history of our land in our own tongue.

But Alfred's private life gives as perfect an example of practical holiness as can be found anywhere. His time always well regulated and well spent, his expenditure kept within due bounds, and his religious duties always thoroughly attended to, would be lesson enough. But his blameless life is still more striking when we remember that all this activity and intelligent zeal for the welfare of his people, his country, and the Church, was carried out by a man whose bodily sufferings were keen and constant. No wonder that the memory of Good King Alfred was so cherished by Catholic England, and that the brightness of his fame is undimmed to our own days.

Alfred's wise government secured peace for Southern England for a long time. But though Danes and Englishmen were becoming one people, the civil results of the invasion were too many and too great to be easily swept away. Alfred's successors had many difficulties to contend with, but they found one strong hand to check or to aid them as need arose. This was St. Dunstan, a monk of Glastonbury, the one old abbey which escaped destruction by Saxon or Dane. He was made Abbot of his monastery by Edmund I., and became the friend and counsellor of his Sovereign and of Edred, the next King. Order and learning began again to flourish under his influence. The useful career of St. Dunstan was interrupted by exile at the hands of the young King Edwy, whom he had endeavoured to restrain in his evil habits, and who resented his strong but well-meant measures. King Edgar, who succeeded, recalled St. Dunstan, made him Archbishop of Canterbury, and governed almost entirely by his advice. The King and Archbishop began by restoring monasteries, and recalling to their religious homes the monks who had been driven abroad by the Danes. Many of these refused, and excited fierce opposition against the Primate. Other abuses had crept in during the dark days when the Danes overran the land. Married men and ignorant persons had been made priests to fill the places of those slain by the invaders. Now St. Dunstan began to enforce the laws of the Church as to the celibacy of the clergy. Here, again, he met with great resistance, but by firmness he succeeded in causing the ordinances of the Church to be observed. Learning, too, acquired new lustre under his wise patronage.

Edgar's peaceful reign of twenty-six years was followed by the third period of Danish invasion, during which St. Dunstan died. As before, desolation and disaster followed the inroads of the marauders, who, in consequence of the cowardly massacre of Danes on St. Brice's Day, 1002, and in spite of repeated payments of Dane-gelt (money wrung from the people to buy off the invaders), came in such numbers that they took possession of the whole land, and set up their own Sovereigns as Kings in England. It was during one of the Danish descents on the South of England that St. Elphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred. He had refused to ransom himself, saying that the goods of the Church and the people should not be spent to save the life of an old man like himself. He was pelted to death with bones ( A.D. 1012).

From A.D. 1016 to 1042 Danes ruled in our land, but Canute, the first of the line, was a wise and good monarch, under whom order and prosperity reappeared. It was otherwise under the sway of his two sons. The sufferings of the people made them rejoice to see the Saxon line restored in the person of Edward, afterwards known as the Confessor, who had been brought up in Normandy.

II. Restoration of the Saxon Line

Virtuous and gentle, though unwise in his marked fondness for Normans, who in learning and manners were far in advance of the homely Anglo-Saxons, Edward made himself beloved by the people. The twenty-four years that his reign lasted was a time of peace, such as England had been long unaccustomed to. The Danes are no more heard of as invaders, and had Edward been as wise and strong as he was good and gentle, English history would probably have been very different from what it is. The Saxon nobles were much angered by Edward's love for foreigners, and by his placing Normans in positions of trust in Church and State. But the great Earls were not united among themselves, and their quarrels and jealousy so weakened the land that when William the Norman came there was no one to make a real stand for freedom. All the events of Edward's reign seem a long preparation for the conquest of England by the last of the great races which was to contend for possession of her.

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Edward had, like most Englishmen of the time, a great devotion to St. Peter and the Holy See. He had made a vow to go to Rome on a pilgrimage, but his counsellors thought it would not be wise for him to leave England, and the Pope changed the matter of his obligation, giving him the choice of certain works of piety. Edward determined to erect a great church in honour of St. Peter, on the site of the older church built by Edgar and St. Dunstan. This was Westminster Abbey. It was planned with great magnificence, and the building went on speedily. Before it was consecrated, in A.D. 1065, Edward had been seized with his mortal sickness. He died shortly after, leaving his country a prey to contending parties. The land had never wholly recovered from the effects of the Danish invasions. The old vigour of religious spirit was gone, and though England had not sunk to the depth of misery we see in other European nations, a time of renovation was needed both in Church and State. It came with the Normans.

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