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The Ransom Of The Golden Gospel

On the trail of the Codex Aureus

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

An illuminated Anglo-Saxon gospel book, in the possession of the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm, is archived under an anonymous-sounding manuscript number: 135. To students of the Viking Age it is better known as the Codex Aureus: the Golden Gospel. Each of its nearly four hundred pages is made from carefully prepared calf vellum, of which every other sheet has been dyed purple; and each page carries the impeccable Insular Latin script that tells palaeographers it was the product of a famous scriptorium at Christ Church, Canterbury, during the eighth century. The text comprises the four gospels of the New Testament, illuminated with fabulous painted images and intricate decorated capitals. Folio 10a, the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, displays the rare and precious gold leaf lettering that gives the codex its name.

In the margins of this folio, some two centuries after it was first produced, a unique inscription was inserted in a perfect, elegant Old English hand. It begins:

Ic Ælfred aldormon ond Werburg min gefera begetan ðas bec æt hæthnum herge mid uncre clæne feo; thæt thonne wæs mid clæne golde…
I, ealdorman Ælfred and Werburg my wife obtained these books from the heathen army with our pure money, that was with pure gold…

The codex, then, was war booty, ransomed like a hostage, gold for gold. We would like very much to know more about the circumstances in which it came into the ealdorman’s possession, and when, but Ælfred himself does not tell us. The historical detective must piece together the fragmentary clues.

Whose was this heathen army? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of the fortunes of West Saxon kings compiled for King Ælfred (871–899; he was unrelated to the ealdorman) uses the term mycel hæthen here, Great Heathen Army, exclusively for the Scandinavian Vikings who arrived in huge numbers in East Anglia in 865, triggering a series of wars that lasted on and off for nearly a century. Campaigns in 871, 877–8 and 893–4, to say nothing of innumerable raids, left the British kingdoms on their knees. Monasteries were raided and despoiled, their treasured libraries ransacked, their monks taken into slavery. East Anglia, Northumbria and East Mercia fell one by one until, in the bleak winter of 877–8, King Ælfred was forced to flee with a small band of followers to a redoubt in the Somerset marshes at Athelney, as Wessex lay at the mercy of the Danish king Guthrum. Ælfred’s legendary fightback against the mycel here is the stuff of heroic folk tale.

In later years, when interludes of peace and prosperity allowed, the pious and philosophical Ælfred was able to embark on a sort of renaissance project for the English. He had famously learned to read as an adult and his enthusiasm for literature led him to attempt translations, from Latin into Old English, of those works ‘most necessary for all men to know.’ His concern for the decline in literacy among the clergy, caused partly by the Viking invasions but also by the increasing secularisation of Anglo-Saxon minster foundations, was matched by a passion for his native language and a strong desire to share it.

Ælfred believed that his fellow Englishmen – and women, judging by the number of Old English prayer books belonging to noblewomen that survive from the period – should read Bede’s History, Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Augustine’s Soliloquies. Learning led to wisdom; wisdom was the highest virtue and allowed men to rule justly. By the end of his reign Ælfred had assembled an elite group of learned men from Canterbury, from Mercia and from the Continent, to teach him and support his programme of education. There is even a hint that the king intended some sort of public dissemination of knowledge. James Campbell, former professorial reader at Worcester College, Oxford believed that copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were kept chained in some of the great cathedrals, to be consulted by those who could read it.
Ælfred’s ealdormen, the governors and leading nobles of the shires, evidently paid heed. The king’s namesake, the purchaser of the Codex Aureus, was one member of his court circle who followed his lead: and there is no doubting the standard of his literacy in Old English. Can we pin this ealdorman down? As it happens, a copy of his will survives in a collection of charters from Stowe. Judging by the disposition of his large estates he was the ealdorman of Surrey; and by the list of witnesses to that charter we can confirm that it was drawn up between 871 and 888, during the first half of Ælfred’s reign. Intriguingly, the bulk of his estates were left to his wife and daughter rather than to his son. None of them was to inherit the precious codex. His marginal inscription explains:

[...] We wish to present them to Christ Church to God's praise and glory and honour, and as thanksgiving for his sufferings, and for the use of the religious community which glorifies God daily in Christ Church; in order that they should be read aloud every month for Alfred and for Werburg and for Alhthryth, for the eternal salvation of their souls, as long as God decrees that Christianity should survive in that place. And also I, Ealdorman Alfred, and Werburg beg and entreat in the name of Almighty God and of all his saints that no man should be so presumptuous as to give away or remove these holy works from Christ Church as long as Christianity survives there.   
Ælfred + Werburg + Alhthryth their daughter.

Christ Church is the cathedral at Canterbury (the lucky recipient, also, of 100 pigs in the ealdorman’s will). The Codex was to be returned to the minster where it is likely that it had been produced’. In the inscription historians recognise key elements in the workings of aristocratic Anglo-Saxon society. Gifts were a primary form of exchange and, in return for restoring the lost gospels, Ælfred and his family were expecting the eternal prayers of the minster community at Canterbury: patronage was a two-way affair and books were a prime medium of such exchanges.

That books and literacy were so highly prized in an age when bands of feral men, hell bent on apocalyptic destruction and careless of the value of alien culture, roamed is something of a comfort. It reminds one forcibly of the strife of our own day, when the heroic preservation of ransacked libraries in Sarajevo and Timbuktu values the written word as high as life.

We can say a little more about the fate of the Golden Gospels. The only certainly recorded Viking raid on Canterbury in the ealdorman’s day occurred in 851, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In that same year the raiders met the levies of King Æðelwulf (father of King Ælfred) in a famous battle at Acleah in Surrey, and were defeated with great slaughter. In the aftermath, perhaps, the survivors were glad to offload items like books which seemed to be held in such high regard by their Christian enemies.

Those Viking warlords who succeeded in conquering territories in eastern and northern England became, in their time, enthusiastic Christians — not least because of the appeal of literacy in recording laws, treaties and property transactions. They seem also to have rather liked their portraits appearing on coins along with their Latinised names, a cross on one side and the odd sword or hammer on the other. The Scandinavian kingdoms themselves underwent a long process of conversion during the tenth century, from which time their narrative history comes into clearer focus in European sources.

One of the ironies of this story is that ealdorman Ælfred’s invocation that his gift should never be moved from Canterbury ‘as long as Christianity survives there’ was not heeded. At some time in the medieval period it found its way to Spain, from where it was purchased in 1690 for the Swedish royal collection.

Max Adams is an archaeologist and historian of the Early Medieval period.  He has just completed the third in a trilogy of books about the period commonly known as the Dark Ages: Ælfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age, to be published in November 2017.

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