A-Z of Saints: Aldhelm

Of the saints of Wessex, Aldhelm perhaps inspires the warmest feelings. He comes across as a man of many parts.

Born around 640, Aldhelm was a native, believed to be a relative of the Saxon king Ine. A precocious child, he was sent to Canterbury, where he was schooled in Latin and Greek, and studied under Abbot Adrian of St Augustine’s.

Aldhelm was Abbot of Malmesbury from around 683, shaping a loose monastic community into a proper Benedictine abbey, and founding other monasteries at Frome and Bradford-on-Avon. His Saxon church at Bradford still stands.

Stories say that he played the lyre on Malmesbury’s bridge in order to summon people to church – and, for that matter, that his sermons would sometimes involve singing and juggling in order to keep his audience’s attention. Perhaps, then, a saint for modern times… He is also said to have installed the first church organ in England in 700.

With music came verse: Aldhelm was regarded by King Alfred nearly two centuries later as one of the country’s finest vernacular poets. He wrote in both Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Latin, and his works also include a treatise on virginity.


One scholar has described him as the first Englishman to deserve being described as book-learned. And according to Jacon de Voragine’s Golden Legend of 1275, “Saint Aldhelm made a book that all men should know for ever when Easter day should fall.”

Many legends are told of Aldhelm in the area. In Bishopstrow near Warminster, a window in St Aldhelm’s Church depicts one of them. The story says he once preached for so long that his ash staff took root.

One panel of the window shows the king offering his own staff to the saint, and promising him land for a church as far as he can throw it – hence ‘Bishopstrow’ perhaps. At Malmesbury, Aldhelm built three churches, with one surviving. A legend tells of him praying over a roof beam that was too short: it lengthened, and later survived two fires.

Aldhelm is also said to have visited the Pope, Sergius I. He allegedly saved the Pope himself from scandal, by baptising a baby supposedly sired by the Pope and which then spoke of the Holy Father’s innocence!

In 705, Aldhelm was consecrated as Bishop of Sherborne, and he died at Doulting in Somerset four years later. A vision of him is said to have appeared to the Bishop of Worcester, who then took the body back to Malmesbury, setting up a cross at each place where the corpse rested, every seven miles. His day is the 25th of May

A well in Doulting is named after Aldhelm. One local tradition asserts that he would sit by the well and do penance, reciting the psalter. Tales are also told from Malmesbury that he would recite the psalter standing up to his neck in ice-cold water! The well is there to this day.

Another place of worship named after him is St Aldhelm’s Chapel at Worth Matravers in Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck. Poised on a beautiful promontary, this tiny vaulted chapel, in Norman style, is unusual in being square. A story tells that in 1140 a bride and groom were sailing past the headland watched by her father, when a storm arose and drowned them. The father is said to have built the chapel in their memory, with a light always kept burning to warn other sailors. The chapel is believed to have been a chantry, and was restored in 1974.

Some other notable ‘A’ saints:

  • Andrew, patron of Scotland, was of course the first apostle. He is patron of fishermen and unmarried women, and his day is 30 November.
  • Anthony (known as the Abbot or the Great) was the hermit who spent 20 years in an abandoned fort in the 4th century, whose temptations have been depicted countless times in Renaissance art. He was the father of western monasticism and is the patron of animals, gravediggers and monks, among many others. His day is 17 January.
  • Alban (20 June) was a soldier who became the first Christian martyr in Britain, beheaded in 305. He is the patron of converts, refugees and torture victims.

Credo non credo

I’ve decided that the time has come to explore and explain something, if only for myself.

On occasion I’ve described myself, both glibly and half-seriously, as a ‘High Church pagan atheist’.

High Church
I grew up in a fairly standard CofE environment (one parent a staunch believer, the other a staunch unbeliever) and am pretty familiar with it still. I love old churches and their atmosphere, and sometimes the CofE seems like a sanctaury of sanity for its broadmindedness and Englishness. It never fails to amaze me that our culture has embraced Christianity at all, sometimes, and I always get a weird feeling when I see serried ranks of old ladies chanting about ‘Gilead’ or ‘Nazareth’ or ‘Bethel’ and so on. What these dry, middle eastern places mean to our verdant culture is a mystery to me – but I’m getting ahead of myself – but there’s a comfort in repetition, at least. I’ve no time for evangelical churches, on both philosophical and aesthetic grounds. If it’s gotta be church, it’s gotta be highish (though, er, not Catholic, thanks). I think the sonorous mystique of some Latin, a whiff of incense and a tone of seriousness have a lot to offer the soul.

If I were to believe in anything, the genius loci wins hands down for me. I think churches offer a contemplative balm which is truly valuable, but nothing compares to a walk in the woods or a stride across a moor or a leap across a stream or the surge of a hill. I’m absolutely with Wordsworth here: One impulse from a vernal wood May teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good, Than all the sages can. Our culture here is rooted in paganism, which in some sense feeds materialism, which is both good and bad – the middle eastern death cult of Christianity has been here for a long time, but has never really grabbed the nation’s soul, I think. Our churches inhabit sacred sites of yore, our Christmases hijack Yule. I bet more people have Christmas trees than go to church.

I can’t really bring myself to believe in any non-material consciousness. God in all His glorious manifestations reeks of us, not of heaven. He should shave with Ockham’s razor. And much as I love the idea of nymphs and fauns and dryads and fairies and elves, they too remain in the ideosphere for me. If you want an explanation of the world, rationalism is the only way forward.

High Church pagan atheist
But an explanation of the world isn’t the only thing we want. We want comfort, a sense of connectedness, of pattern and of meaning. I think the answer to this is metaphor, and life would be hideously impoverished without it. God is a metaphor (a ‘comforting fiction’ or ‘foma’, as Kurt Vonnegut has it) which is useful to many, many people. Greek gods and Druidic spirits are metaphors, too, to explain our own behaviour or the environment we find ourselves in. In many ways, I find polytheistic or pantheistic theologies a lot more sensible than the one-stop-shop of monotheism. But they are all different ways of telling stories through the long dark teatime of the soul. I think Don Cupitt’s take on Christianity is the right one, although I would never call myself a Christian: while I believe it offers people powerful metaphors, I think other views offer better metaphors.

And don’t get me started on Buddhism.