Time to ‘Get Serious’ about Sigeric, 10th century Renaissance Man.

They have sent me to you, the hardy sea-men—
they bid you be informed that you must quickly send
rings in exchange for protection, and it would be better
for you to buy off with tribute this storm of spears,
otherwise we should deal in such a hard battle.”

The Battle of Maldon – Anglo-Saxon Poem

Sigeric ‘The Serious’, Archbishop of Canterbury died on this day (28 October), 1,037 years ago in the year 994 AD.

Sigeric – the legend.

His death will probably go unmentioned in the anniversary sections of today’s red top and broadsheet dailies. But for those that have a passing interest in Anglo-Saxon history in general and walking the Via Francigena in particular, the anniversary of his death perhaps deserves more than a footnote in English history.

Statue of Archbishop Sigeric embarking on his journey to Rome at Glastonbury Abbey

Not a huge amount is known about Sigeric’s life. Historians believe that he was born in 940 or 950 AD and educated at Glastonbury Abbey where he took holy orders. He was elected Abbot of St Augustine’s in about 975 to 990, and consecrated by Archbishop Dunstan as Bishop of Ramsbury in 985 or 986 before being transferred to the see of Canterbury in 990.

Glastonbury Abbey

The comments in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is the main source for Sigeric’s life, are fairly cursory: after becoming Archbishop in 990 AD Sigeric went to Rome for his pallium. The following year the Chronicle notes that “Ipswich was harried, and very soon afterwards ealdorman Byrhtnoth was slain at Maldon. In this year it was decided for the first time to pay tribute to the Danes because of the great terror they inspired along the sea coast”. The Chronicle adds that “this course was adopted on the advice of archbishop Sigeric” and adds “that on this first occasion the tribute amounted to ten thousand pounds.”

Statue of Byrtnoth at Maldon

Things went from bad to worse. In 992, the Chronicle recounts that Bamburgh Castle was destroyed, much plunder was taken by the Danes and the Anglo-Saxon army failed to engage them in battle after their leaders fled in disarray.

Bamburgh Castle

The following year in 993 AD, the Danes attacked London with 94 ships under their leader Svein ‘Forkbeard’ (who was later to successfully invade England in 1013 AD and become King for a year before his death in 1014 AD) , proceeded to invade and occupy much of Wessex until they were again paid off with tribute of sixteen thousand pounds!

Sweyn Forkbeard

The following year, the Chronicle notes drily, “archbishop Sigeric passed away”. He had barely been archbishop for 4 years!

Sigeric became Archbishop during one of the most tumultuous periods in Englush history. The events described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggest that Sigeric was a political pragmatist. His advice to the young king, Aethelraed to pay off the invading Danish army with a tribute of 10,000 pounds came in the wake of a disastrous defeat for the Anglo-Saxon army at the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD, the subject of a famous Anglo-Saxon epic poem which describes the death of Ealdorman Byrtnoth and the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon army he had assembled.

The Battle of Maldon poem

Besides being a political pragmatist who was the first English leader to sanction the payment of tribute or Danegeld to the invading Viking forces, Sigeric appears to have been an ecclesiastical reformer and part of the Benedictine reform movement that was centred on Glastonbury Abbey and Archbishop Dunstan.

Invading Viking forces depicted in the stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral

Glastonbury Abbey was perhaps the most significant centre of monasticism in 10th century England and Archbishop Dunstan was one of the most influential religious figures who was a driving force behind the English Benedictine reformation. It is a fair assumption that Sigeric was a close associate of Dunstan and was also a driving force in the 10th century Benedictine reform movement.

The Benedictine reformers (c. 960–c. 1000 AD), were a group of ecclesiastics who were deeply influenced by the resurgence of Benedictine monasticism on the continent in the earlier tenth century, emanating principally from Cluny in Burgundy and Gorze in Lotharingia, and by the revival of spirituality and learning that accompanied this resurgence.

In two successive generations these men, together with their associates among the laity, brought about a radical reform of the English church, made a deep impression on Anglo-Saxon society, and initiated intellectual and artistic activities, some of which, like the programmatic use of the vernacular and the Winchester style of book illumination, are still considered hallmarks of late Anglo-Saxon culture, and are unique in Europe during that period.

Illustration from the Winchester Bible

The three most important reformers were Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Oswald, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York. The reform movement acquired momentum after the accession of King Edgar in 959 when Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald were promoted to key bishoprics about 960.

Archbishop Dunstan, later sanctified.

Dunstan and Æthelwold, who were both in their 50s, had received their early intellectual training in King Æthelstan’s entourage, spent the 940s and early 950s at Glastonbury, which became the centre where an ever growing circle of the ‘new Benedictines’ assembled; many of them later recalled it with affection as the place where their network originated. For two of the reform bishops their period of study included a sojourn in continental monasteries. Oswald spent some years at Fleury (St Benoît-sur-Loire), renowned for its library and learning, and as the resting place of St Benedict, while Dunstan lived for two years at St Peter’s at Ghent, a notable monastery influenced by the Lotharingian strand of the reform.

Abbey St Benoit de Fleury

Important as these links with continental monasteries were, the Benedictine reform in England was far from being an insular branch of the movement on the continent, and the characteristic Englishness of the reform in England has often been commented on. The most distinctive of these English features was the institution of the ‘monastic cathedral’, that is the wholesale replacement by monks of the secular clergy in a bishop’s familia. A monastic cathedral community is assumed by the Regularis concordia as a matter of course, but it had no equivalent on the continent.

Regularis concordia

It was Æthelwold who pursued the implementation of this concept with the greatest determination, most spectacularly with the carefully planned and staged expulsion of the clerics from his cathedral church, the Old Minster, in 964, but there can be no doubt that for Dunstan and Oswald as well the monk–bishop presiding over a monastic cathedral community was an ideal close to their hearts; an ideal that they communicated to the younger scholars in their respective ambits. So it was, for example, that Wulfsige, a protégé of Dunstan, as bishop of Sherborne (from about 993) established a monastic community in his cathedral in 998, and Sigeric, promoted the gradual transformation of the metropolitan church into a monastic community when he was transferred to the archbishopric of Canterbury in 990 AD.

Benedictional of St Aethelwold

The famous benedictional of St Æthelwold , perhaps the most lavishly produced book surviving from Anglo-Saxon England, and the apogee of the Winchester style of manuscript illumination, also reveals the reformers’ strategy of communicating the splendours of monasticism to a wider circle: as a book used at mass it was designed for contemplation by the laity as well.

While it is true that Latin learning was boosted by the activities of the reformers—both Dunstan and Æthelwold are known to have composed works in Latin, it was the use of the vernacular and its development into a medium suitable alike for narrative and for theological and scholarly discourse that constituted the reformers’ most innovative scholarly achievement. Inasmuch as it reflected the reformers’ endeavours to make an impact on society at large, their extensive use of the vernacular formed an essential component of their programme.

The vast amount of Old English writings by Æthelwold, and especially by Ælfric and Byrhtferth, continued and brought to perfection the work done by scholars at King Alfred’s court, and it is largely owing to the reformers’ activities in this field that by the time of the Norman conquest England possessed a corpus of vernacular literature that in extent and variety was to have no parallel in any other European language for many centuries to come. As one of the 10th century Anglo-Saxon Benedictine reformers, Sigeric played a small but not insignificant part in this phenomenon.

British Library text of Sigeric’s return journey from Rome in 990 AD

The final strand to Sigeric’s legacy was the account he left of his journey to Rome in 990 AD to collect his pallium ( or seal of office) from the Pope.

Via Francigena

Sigeric recorded his return journey to collect his pallium from Rome in 990 AD and the manuscript is now in the British Library. The journey (which covered 1,687 km in 78 stages averaging 22 km per stage and 30km per stage in France) from Rome to Canterbury now forms the basis of the Via Francigena long distance path. Interestingly, the first stage of my walk from St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke to St Peter’s Rome which saw me walk 1,550 km to Bourg St Pierre, also saw me average 30 km a stage!

Benedict Biscop

Sigeric wasn’t the first Englishman to undertake the journey to Rome to receive his pallium from the Pope. This distinction lies with Benedict Biscop, a 7th century Northumbrian missionary who undertook the journey not once, not twice, but five times during his lifetime!

The journey to Rome and back which involved crossing the Grand Saint Bernard Pass was no ‘teddy bear’s picnic! Sigeric was only the 3rd Archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century (after Plegmund (908 AD), Wulfhelm (927 AD) and Dunstan (960 AD) to successfully complete the hazardous return journey.

In 959 AD Archbishop Ælfsige died of cold in the Alps as he journeyed to Rome to be given his pallium by Pope John XII.

Grand St Bernard Pass in winter

Pragmatic politician, ecclesiastical reformer, adventurous journeyman, there’s a lot to like about Sigeric ‘the Serious’ ( which may be nothing more than a play on the Latinisation of his name ‘serio’) Maybe he was the original 10th century ‘Renaissance Man’, the forerunner of Burkhardt’s ‘l’uomo universale’!

Jacob Buckhardt

Be that as it may, my walk to Rome to raise funds to repair the roof at St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke, owes it’s genesis in no small part to Harry Bucknall’s walk to Rome (documented in his book ‘Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim’) and an obscure 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury called Sigeric ‘The Serious’.

On the 1,037th anniversary of his death in 994 AD, it’s maybe time to get serious about Sigeric ‘The Serious’!

Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim

If you’d like to make a donation to the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ to help renovate the roof at St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke, you can do so by following this link:


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