St. Ceolwulf: The Saintly King Who Became a Monk

In the previous article, we focused on the life and importance of St. Bede the Venerable, and how the medieval monk and scholar might serve as a model for us no matter our vocation.  In particular, we mentioned his most famous work, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England.

Today, we take a look at the man to whom Bede dedicates this famous work: St. Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria at the time of the History’s composition.  

Most readers, even those versed in English political and ecclesiastical history, likely have no idea who St. Ceolwulf was. This is no insult to readers; Ceolwulf was not as “important” to the history of England as was, say, Edward the Confessor, Alfred the Great, or William the Conqueror.  For one thing, those more recognizable kings ruled long after Ceolwulf; they also ruled over a relatively united England, whereas Ceolwulf ruled only in Northumbria (essentially the middle of what we now call the United Kingdom).  For another, Ceolwulf’s reign was short and marked less by great acts of political importance, more by the spirituality of the king, who abdicated the throne in 737 or 738 in favor of joining the monastery at Lindisfarne.  

From a historical perspective, one could view the reign of Ceolwulf as at best unimportant, at worst disastrous.  The Catholic, however, is called to peer beyond the perspective of secular importance to see how Christ acts in history, even in the lives of kings and monks, and especially saints.  What is unimportant in the eyes of the world takes on new significance when viewed through the lens of the Incarnation, for who seems more unimportant than the child of a poor family in a small town in Judea?  

Frontispiece of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, showing King Æthelstan presenting a copy of the book.

More can be said about the centrality of the Incarnation for a Christian view of history.  For now, let us look at Ceolwulf: king, monk, and saint.  

Signs of the Times

The year 729 opened in dramatic fashion.  Two comets appeared with the sun, one in the morning just before the sun rose, the other in the evening as the sun set beyond the horizon, “to the great terror of the beholders,” in Bede’s recounting.  Men of learning interpreted such signs as harbingers of some disaster.  Two deaths that year seemed to confirm these fears.  

The first death was of St. Egbert (or Ecgberht) of Lindisfarne, a holy man and perhaps bishop of the area surrounding that monastery. Egbert’s death was of no surprise, as the saintly monk had reached the age of ninety, despite regular penance and fasting.  The other death was of King Osric of Northumbria, who had reigned for about 11 years. Bede simply mentions that Osric died (Bede cautiously does not go into the details of relatively recent political events).  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which lists key events in early English history by year, provides a key detail, that Osric was slain.  This may have been because Osric’s apparent role in the murder of a previous king, or perhaps some rival wanted rid of him.  Regardless of why he met is end, before his death, Osric had named Ceolwulf his heir, and thus the year 729 saw the dawning of King Ceolwulf’s reign.  

The Reign of Ceolwulf 

As indicated earlier, Ceolwulf’s reign is marked by lights and darks.  On the one hand, Ceolwulf was a saintly man, with a “zeal” for studying Scripture and a desire to know how to live life rightly.  He frequently called upon Bede for advice.  This was the apparent reason for Bede writing his Ecclesiastical History for Ceolwulf, that the king might be edified in following the example of saintly men.  On the other hand, Bede comments how, “the beginning and progress [of Ceolwulf’s] reign were so filled with commotions, that it cannot yet be known what is to be said concerning them, or what end they will have.”  For this reason, Bede writes his history to teach Ceolwulf some statecraft, that by studying the good and bad rulers of English history, he might yet become a stronger ruler.  

In his author’s preface, Bede notes that he had already given a copy of the History to Ceolwulf to preview, perhaps to receive approval for what he wrote, but more likely to get his historical advice to Ceolwulf as soon as possible.  Bede had reason to be concerned for Ceolwulf.  The same year Bede finished his History, and only two years into Ceolwulf’s reign (731), a political coup seized the king and forced him into a monastery.  Ceolwulf escaped and retook his throne, but the exile became, for Ceolwulf, more of a retreat.  He would rule Northumbria for another six years after the coup.  There was peace during this time (Bede notes that many nobles and their children set aside weapons and war to enter monasteries themselves), and border wars between various kingdoms with Northumbria ceased, for a time.  

The king, however, never took well to ruling.  Whether because of his spiritual experience in the monastery, or because of his reading Bede’s History (Bede himself had died in 735), in 737, after eight years of ruling, Ceolwulf voluntarily abdicated his throne and joined the monastery of Lindisfarne.  We know little else about his life, save that he convinced the abbot of Lindisfarne to allow monks there to drink beer and wine, not just milk and water (which was the Celtic tradition established there St. Aidan), that he was known for piety, particularly in contempt of worldly temptations, and that he died in 764.  

His burial place was known as a pilgrimage destination, and many miracles came about through his intercession.  Yet even sanctuaries are not safe from the violence of the world.  The monks of Lindisfarne moved his relics in 830 to Norham, to protect them from further Viking attacks (the 793 Viking attack on Lindisfarne sent shockwaves throughout Europe).  Ceolwulf’s shrine in Norham became a pilgrimage destination for the next eight centuries, until the English Reformation squashed such religious fervor.  

A Bad King? 

All of this historical information leads to a crucially important question: Was Ceolwulf a bad king?  It seems, at first, to be a mere academic question, the type a professor might propose for a seminar or on an exam.  At the same time, it is a question which delves into what we now call Catholic Social Teaching and the role religious beliefs  should play in forming our politics.

The secularist might look at Ceolwulf and say he was a bad king because he put his religious desires first, his regal responsibilities second.  It was for this reason, it seems, that the coup against him formed in 731.  Ceolwulf sought to turn his kingdom towards Christ and the Church, and that meant stepping on the toes of those who were not living such a life.  The pushback nearly lost him his life.  

The secularist misses a key point in Ceolwulf’s reign, namely that it did not end with his exile in 731, but rather continued for another half-dozen years.  During that time, Coelwulf’s vision began to take shape, influenced by his piety, his private religious convictions.  It was because of these convictions that peace prospered during his reign.  Even though Ceolwulf did not like being a king, he was good enough at ruling that he protected the kingdom from disaster.  He might not have left the legacy that the greatest kings of English history did, but in his own way he has provided us with a model of statecraft.  

Christ urges us to “Seek first the kingdom of God,” and that all else we need will be given to us as well.  We would do well to put Christ first in our lives, whether we work in public or private vocations, so that He might transform our world through our lives, and bring about peace in our times, as he did during the time of St. Ceolwulf.  

image: Detail from the number 8 window in York Minster depicting St. John of Beverley, King Ceolwulf of Northumbria, and an unidentified Pope, possibly St. Gregory, circa 15th century. Photo by Jules & Jenny / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College. He is the chairman of the Religion department at Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School in Arlington, VA. Matthew also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog, and has contributed to various online publications. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.

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