Some saints and historical figures are more famous than others, and that fame does not always line up with their actual impact on history and the world around them. One example is Alfred the Great – the only King of England ever to bear the moniker “the Great” – compared to his grandson King Athelstan. Alfred is a name that is very well known, and shrouded in as much legend as a actual history. Athelstan is far less-better remembered, but has the distinguished legacy of being the first-ever king of all England.
A contemporary of King Athelstan is another lesser-known Saint: Aethelwold. He was born in 904 or 909, a friend and advisor to King Athelstan in the 920’s and a priest by 930 (as quite a young man!). Around 950 he was made Abbot of Abingdon, and in 963 he was Bishop of Winchester, where he served until his death in 984 at a ripe old age.
Saint Aethelwold is best remembered for his active role in the monastic reforms of the monastic reform movement of the 10th century. Following the death of King Alfred in 899, wars with Vikings continued to ravage the eastern counties of England, and King Athelstan and his several young short-lived successors through St. Athelwold’s lifetime fought many battles to fend them off. The monasteries and churches were frequent targets for Viking raids and many were in disrepair and staffed by less-than-ideal clerics by the time Aethelwold became the Bishop of Winchester. He, therefore, advanced a program of education, clearing out the chaff, and rebuilding. Compared to his more famous contemporaries and allies in the reform, Saints Dunstan and Oswald, Aethelwold was more forceful and (arguably) over-zealous in his methods.
For example, he was very skeptical of “secular clergy” – priests who did not live according to a monastic rule, and who in many cases were also married. Such clergymen he did not want living in his monasteries, so he purged out many, and brought in new monks who’d live under the Benedictine Rule. Aethelwold also labored to restore broken-down and abandoned monasteries, dredging up old charters to prove the land claims and occasionally forging documents when the originals were lost. (Hey, even our best Saints were still sinners in this life!)
But the fruit of his, and others’, labors was profound: an Anglo-Saxon revival of culture and literacy that had begun in the previous century and benefited both religious and secular learning in England through until the Normal Conquest.
And although he was perhaps too extreme for our current perspectives and beliefs, he was at least no hypocrite. He lived according to the Benedictine Rule, laboring with his hands, caring for those under his charge, and steadfast in worship and study. His life was “ever austere, and he was said to be “terrible as a lion” to the rebellious, yet “gentler than a dove” to the meek.” He was a Bishop who cared for his flock; an Abbot who cared for his monks.
Saint Aethelwold died on August 1st, and still is commemorated on that day.