St. Aldhelm

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Continuing the series on monastic saints, compiled by Jason John Edwards, Obl.S.B.

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Aldhelm (c. 639 – 25 May 709), Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, Bishop of Sherborne, Latin poet and scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, was born before the middle of the 7th century. He is said to have been the son of Kenten, who was of the royal house of Wessex.

In 668, Pope Vitalian sent Theodore of Tarsus to be Archbishop of Canterbury. At the same time the North African scholar Hadrian became abbot of St Augustine’s at Canterbury. Aldhelm was one of his disciples, for he addresses him as the ‘venerable preceptor of my rude childhood.’ His studies included Roman law, astronomy, astrology, the art of reckoning, and the difficulties of the calendar. He learned, according to the doubtful statements of the early lives, both Greek and Hebrew. He certainly introduces many Latinized Greek words into his works.

Ill health compelled Aldhelm to leave Canterbury and he returned to Malmesbury Abbey, where he was a monk under Irish monk and scholar Máeldub for fourteen years, dating probably from 661 and including the period of his studies with Hadrian.

When Máeldub died, Aldhelm was appointed in 675, by Leuthere, Bishop of Winchester (671–676), to succeed to the direction of Malmesbury monastery, of which he became the first abbot.

Aldhelm introduced the Benedictine rule and secured the right of the election of the abbot by the monks themselves. The community at Malmesbury increased, and Aldhelm was able to found two other monasteries as centres of learning, at Frome, Somerset and at Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. Following a pilgrimage to Rome, he was given permission by Pope Sergius I in a Papal Bull of 701 to establish the monastery at Frome, where he had already built a church circa 685. The Anglo-Saxon building of St Laurence’s Church, Bradford-on-Avon, dates back to his time, and may safely be regarded as his. At Malmesbury he built a new church to replace Máeldub’s modest building and obtained considerable grants of land for the monastery.

In 705, or perhaps earlier, Hædde, Bishop of Winchester, died, and the diocese was divided into two parts. Sherborne was the new see, of which Aldhelm became the first bishop around 705. He wished to resign the abbey of Malmesbury which he had governed for thirty years, but yielding to the remonstrances of the monks he continued to direct it until his death.

Aldhelm was on his rounds in his diocese when he died at the church in Doulting village in 709; the Church of St Aldhelm and St Aldhelm’s Well in the village are dedicated to him. The body was taken to Malmesbury, and crosses were set up by his friend, Egwin, Bishop of Worcester, at the various stopping-places. He was buried in the church of St Michael at Malmesbury Abbey. His biographers relate miracles due to his sanctity worked during his lifetime and at his shrine. The cape in Dorset commonly known as St Alban’s Head is more properly called St. Aldhelm’s Head in his honour.

Aldhelm was revered as a saint after his death, with his feast day being celebrated on 25 May. His relics were translated in 980 by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is commemorated by a statue in niche 124 of the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral. There is also a statue in Sherborne Abbey of Aldhelm, created in 2004 by Marzia Colonna.

Aldhelm’s flag may be flown in his celebration. The flag, a white cross on a red background, is a colour reversed version of England’s St. George flag.

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