One of my favourite things in the Cathedral is the beautiful Reredos. I love the link found there with the church’s Anglo-Saxon roots. We tend to concentrate on the larger gilded figures of kings, queens (well, one queen) and saints but in between these are smaller, darker figures with fascinating stories of their own.
One of these is the Venerable Bede, scholar, teacher, historian and theologian best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Another figure is Alcuin, teacher and adviser at the court of Charlemagne. The link between these two is not immediately obvious. Bede was born around the time that Wilfrid was building his basilica in Ripon in 672/3 and died in 735. Alcuin was born shortly after Bede’s death, between 735 and 745.
Nothing is known of Bede’s parents; he entered the monastery of St Peter at Wearmouth at the age of seven when Benedict Biscop was Abbot. He was ordained priest at the age of thirty. It is to Biscop, one-time travelling companion of St Wilfrid, that Bede owed his education and scholarship.
Alcuin, like Bede, was Northumbrian, possibly born in what is now south-east Yorkshire, probably to an aristocratic family.
Bede is interesting in that, unlike historians before him, he was careful to evidence his work, seeking eye-witness accounts and examining written records. Abbot Benedict travelled several times to Rome, in the process amassing a vast collection of books to which Bede would have had access. He wrote many works including the Historia Abbatum (History of the Abbots), treatises on theological issues and hagiographies. The History of the Abbots concentrates largely on miracles associated with these holy men. Bede was also an inspirational teacher, greatly loved and respected by his pupils.
One of these pupils was Egbert (or Ecgbert) who became Archbishop of York in 735. Egbert and Bede corresponded regularly, Bede urging Egbert to study St Paul’s Pastoral Epistles along with the works of Gregory the Great in order to train up a “godly household” and to avoid the mistakes of “some worldly bishops”. Egbert founded a cathedral school in York. The curriculum included theology, philosophy, law and medicine. Of Egbert’s famous pupils one was Eanbald, a future Archbishop and another was Alcuin who went on to become master of Charlemagne’s palace school.
More than three hundred of Alcuin’s letters survive, mostly written between 794 and 804, showing that he had a great and continuing interest in Northumbrian and Mercian politics. His letters evidence his concern about the low standards of the church in Northumbria. When Norsemen carried out a raid on Lindisfarne in the late eighth century, sacked the monastery, slaughtered many of the monks and put others to flight, Alcuin was less than sympathetic viewing the attack as divine retribution for lax living on the part of the monks and their failure to live a godly life.
There we have the link between two of the greatest, most influential teachers of their time. Both, through their writing throw a great deal of light on the spread of Christianity during the early medieval period, remembered in the Reredos of Ripon Cathedral.