The Aldhelm Window
Aldhelm was born in Wessex in 639. When he was a young boy, he was sent to Canterbury to be educated under Adrian, Abbot of St Augustine’s, and had soon impressed his teachers with his skill in the study of Latin and Greek literature.
Aldhelm returned to Wessex some years later and joined the community of monks in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.
He embraced the monastic life and, in 680, became the monks’ teacher. His excellent reputation spread far and wide, and scholars from France and Scotland came to learn from him. By this time, Aldhelm is said to have spoken and written fluent Latin and Greek, and was able to read the Old Testament in Hebrew. He wrote poetry, composed music and sang – King Alfred the Great placed him in the first rank of poets in the country and his ballads were popular even as late as the 12th Century. Aldhelm excelled at playing many different instruments, including the harp, fiddle and pipes.
In 683, Aldhelm was appointed Abbot of Malmesbury. Under his leadership, the Abbey continued to be a seat of learning and was given many gifts from kings and nobles. Aldhelm enlarged the monastery at Malmesbury and built the Church of St Peter and St Paul. He founded monasteries in Frome and Bradford-on-Avon, where he also built St Laurence’s Church which still stands today.
During his time as Abbot, Aldhelm noticed that instead of attending to the monks at Mass, the local people preferred to spend their time gossiping and could not be persuaded to listen to the preacher. So one day, he stationed himself on a bridge, like a minstrel, and began to sing his ballads. The beauty of his verse attracted a huge crowd and, when he had caught their attention, he began to preach the Gospel
The historian William of Malmesbury observed that if Aldhelm “had proceeded with severity … he would have made no impression whatever upon them.” But by seeking out people where they were and speaking directly to them, Aldhelm had succeeded in “impressing on their minds a truer feeling of religious devotion.”
In 705, the Bishopric of Wessex was split into two dioceses and Aldhelm was made Bishop of Sherborne. In his time as bishop, he rebuilt the church at Sherborne and helped to establish a nunnery at Wareham. He also built churches at Langton Matravers and the Royal Palace at Corfe.
On 25th May 709, just four years after his consecration, Aldhelm died at Doulting in Somerset. His funeral procession travelled 50 miles from Doulting to Malmesbury and stone crosses were planted at 7-mile intervals, to mark each place where his body rested for the night. Today we celebrate 25th May, the date of Aldhelm’s death, as a feast day to remember the first Bishop of Sherborne – a true evangelist and an inspiring Saint.
St. Aldhelm is an example to us of how to obey the directive of Christ.
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Matthew 28 verses 19-20.
There are 5 themes in the window which illustrate this:
Five juggling balls
King Alfred was impressed with how Aldhelm went outside the church walls to make Christ known to his people. He tells the story of how when he was an Abbott, Aldhelm left his congregation while they were busy in worship and went out the bridge, in the role of a minstrel. He used various skills to draw a crowd so he could tell them the gospel. Christians today use ‘street theatre’ in order to reach people who will not venture inside. It is not a new idea! The present church here in Upper Edmonton has links with amateur dramatic societies. Laughter and fun are also part of the Christian life and Aldhelm wrote riddles about ordinary things of life too. some of those which he wrote in Latin are still in print. He used his many skills to gather an audience.
Aldhelm the Bishop
At the age of 65 Aldhelm was made the first Bishop of Sherborne in A.D 705. He had a passion to convert his people to Christ. Congregations were formed and churches were built in various places throughout the Anglo Saxon kingdom of wessex. These include places such as Langton Matravers, Frome, Bradford on Avon, sherborne, Wareham, Malmesbury, and the Royal court of Corfe Castle. He was one of the most successful missionary bishops in the South of England for several centuries.
In his hand is a manuscript. Aldhelm went to canterbury to study Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He returned to Malmesbury where he gathered around him people who were themselves keen to learn. Some of his writings in Latin are still in print today. For several centuries after his death he was known as the first and indeed one of the finest anglo Latin scholars and poets. Although he was keen to teach, it did not stop Aldhelm from being able to teach the gospel in his native tongue.
Aldhelm was a gifted musician. He played various instruments of the day not just the harp, and composed his own songs that helped people relate to him as an ordinary person rather than an intellectual. Some four centuries later a biographer of Aldhelm was able to report that some of his songs were still being sung by the Anglo Saxon peasantry. Unfortunately, they were never written down, and also we do not know whether he wrote music for worship. Many Christians down the centuries have heard God’s call to write or sing or play music that is not for worship. Through music Aldhelm touched the lives of the ordinary people.
Aldhelm lived most of his life in Malmesbury, and formed the tiny church there into a Christian community. After a visit to Rome, he returned with the Pope’s blessing that he should form his community around the rule of Benedict. He became Abbott in 675 at the age of 35, and remained so up to his death in AD 709. The Benedictines were not only strong on daily prayer and worship, but also simple living and strict morals. There was an abbey on the same site until Henry VIII th’s time. The present ‘Malmesbury Abbey’ is now the Parish Church and is built around the ruins of the old abbey. There is a Chapel there dedicated to St. Aldhelm. The Abbey may have been his home and his base, but he went outside of the walls to evangelise, and chose to baptise the converts in the river rather than inside the Church.