Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Bishops' Sea: St. Sunniva, Pray for Us

Sunniva was the sister of St. Alban, the British protomarty, executed sometime between 209AD and 305AD for being a Christian pain in the ass. The Romans made sure that he would be the best "protomartyr" he could possibly be, by beheading him at the site of one of the sacred wells on a main road out of London, which I will never now be able to think about without connecting them with Harrison Hot Springs.  That local colour being dispensed with, I have to notice that it seems like we don't believe in a Celtic "headhunting cult" any more, so we should place less emphasis on the beheading thing.

Sunniva, traumatised by her brother's death, migrated to Ireland, where she happened to be the heir of a kingdom. As happened in those days, a heathen king invaded the kingdom, looking to marry Sunniva and inherit the throne. Sunniva would have none of that, which, actually, I blame on the heathen king, since this kind of thing happened all the time. Anyway, Sunniva did the obvious thing, which was to take two companions and her brother (who was alive again) and migrated to the unoccupied islands of Selja and Kinn, off the coast of Norway.

Unfortunately, they scared the sheep, and by this time it was 962--995, and an evil, pagan Earl of Lade was in charge of Norway. Consequently, when a posse of Norwegians landed on the island, the four saints cast Destruction on the cave they were sheltering in, causing them to all die in the cave in. I'm not sure that I'd handle things this way if  I could cast seventh-level clerical spells, but then, I'm not a saint. Some time later, the bodies were recovered. Being incorrupt, everyone was reminded that they were saints, and the bodies were placed in a timber shrine, which was replaced sometime around 1100 by a Benedictine Abbey dedicated to St. Alban, and also about 1070 by a bishopric and cathedral devoted to St. Michael. By 1405, the Abbey was in ruins, except for the shrine to St. Sunniva, which remains an important Norwegian pilgrimage site, and the Bishop of Bergen took over its benefices. 

As the story of St. Sunniva has some slightly implausible elements, such as her age of approximately 800 at time of death, it is worth at least briefly exploring the details. According to the official history of the Diocese of Bergen, King Olaf Tryggvason (995--1000), was inspired to found a church at Selje by the discovery of Sunniva's relics. This runs into the problem that the church seems to have been dedicated to St. Alban at first, with Sunniva's cult later and secondary, and also Olaf Tryggvason is only slightly less legendary than his supposed grandfather, Harald Fairhair. 

(The entirety of our contemporary record of Olaf Tryggvason: A.D. 994. This year died Archbishop Siric: and Elfric, Bishop of Wiltshire, was chosen on Easter-day, at Amesbury, by King Ethelred and all his council. This year came Anlaf and Sweyne to London, on the Nativity of St. Mary, with four and ninety-ships. And they closely besieged the city, and would fain have set it on fire; but they sustained more harm and evil than they ever supposed that any citizens could inflict on them. The holy mother of God on that day in her mercy considered the citizens, and ridded them of their enemies. Thence they advanced, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning and plundering and manslaughter, not only on the sea-coast in Essex, but in Kent and in Sussex and in Hampshire. Next they took horse, and rode as wide as they would, and committed unspeakable evil. Then resolved the king and his council to send to them, and offer them tribute and provision, on condition that they desisted from plunder. The terms they accepted; and the whole army came to Southampton, and there fixed their winter- quarters; where they were fed by all the subjects of the West- Saxon kingdom. And they gave them 16,000 pounds in money. Then sent the king; after King Anlaf Bishop Elfeah and Alderman Ethelwerd; (48) and, hostages being left with the ships, they led Anlaf with great pomp to the king at Andover. And King Ethelred received him at episcopal hands, and honoured him with royal presents. In return Anlaf promised, as he also performed, that he never again would come in a hostile manner to England.  

Olaf Kyrre (1050--1093), who is an actual, historic figure, raised Selje to a bishopric in 1068. The associated monastery was evidently not Benedictine yet, and the diocese covered the territory of the later Bergen and Stavanger. It will be noted that at this point there is an ongoing rivalry between Norway's kings, based in the far southwest around, yes, Bergen and Stavanger, and the Earls of Lade (Trondheim), who are associated with the Archbishops of Nidaros (Trondheim.) A man of his age, Olaf Kyrre may have promoted the cult of St. Olaf by planting his shrine at Trondheim. Or it might have been the otherwise mysterious English missionary bishop, Grimkell, who assisted Olaf's conversion efforts. Or the cult of St. Olaf only emerged a century later.

What we know, more-or-less-securely, is that point, Selje was a bishopric in the King of Norway's domains at a time when the Earls of Lade were often in the ascendant, and patronised by Canute the Great.Once the kings finally and definitely defeated the Earls of Lade, Nidaros (Trondheim) became the Norwegian archbishop's seat, and the cult of St. Olaf eclipsed other Norwegian cults. It will also be noted that the cathedral erected to house the remains of St. Sunniva was dedicated to St. Michael, and that the (claimed) first bishop of Selje-as-St. Michael's was St. Bernard the Saxon, was a suffragen of Hamburg-Bremen. This brings him to the attention of Adam of Bremen. As always, we have the problem that Adam's agenda means that he might not accurately report earlier bishops at Selje. 

Adam, who wants to take all the credit for the conversion of the north for the Diocese of Hamburg-Bremen, is certainly early evidence that Olaf Tryggvason existed, and of his cult, but because he needs to take Olaf down a notch, he presents him as a pagan magician, bandalso by portraying him as working with English bishops active in Scandinavia. All this kill-stealing by English bishops is a pretty important issue for Adam, which is why he tells us about it, which, Thank God, because otherwise we wouldn't know about it at all. And, as far as the early history of the plantation of the Atlantic goes, that's actually kind of important. 

The great thing about buildings is that you can go up to them and kick them, so you don't have to be skeptical that they even exist. I can totally imagine some "English bishop" building a minster here sometime prior to 996 and dedicating it to St. Michael, with the subsequent cults of St. Alban and St. Sunniva being gradual, distancing steps from its original history. But that's all just text!

Archaeology could foreground place and architecture and give us some certainty that source criticism will never provide. 
c. John Turnock 2016: Turnock is a recent PhD from Durham with an interesting-sounding thesis. He takes great photos, and it sounds like he's open to better offers!

You could wish. Unfortunately, all we have is site surveys of this important site of pilgrimage/tourism has been done. Start desecrating some graves, damnit! 

The question of English bishops in Scandinavia in Adam of Bremen has got a further recent airing. Adam describes a pagan temple at Uppsala, Sweden, at some length in the Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. Apart from a suspicious Classical parallelism between  a temple with a triune worship of of Thor, Odin and Freyja at a great temple and that of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus on the Capitoline Hill (Janson has a different Roman analogy), we have the pressing problem of a lack of archaeological evidence, given that the only structure at Uppsala of the right scale and age is a Christian church. Henrik Janson has noted that the papacy of Gregory VII was very much at odds with Hamburg-Bremen over the Investiture Controversy, and argues that it was supporting a rival church in Scandinavia, the so-called Gallicana ecclesia, which presumably held the church at Uppsala and was vulnerable to accusations of being too friendly to residual displays of paganism. On the basis of Adam's complaints about English poaching in Norway, Jansson argues that the rival apparatus in Scandinavia is English.

Speculation about what was going on at Selje and Old Uppsala is one thing. The Gallicana ecclesia seems comparatively secure. That doesn't mean that its century-long history is particularly clear. Besides allegorical interpretations of accounts of Uppsala and complaints about Olaf, Adam of Bremen tells us that the first Bishop of Orkney was one Henry of Lund, appointed in 1035 by Canute in 1035 under the metropolitan authority of York --a significant anomaly. When Henry was translated to Lund as first bishop by Sweyn II of Denmark, it was as a suffragen of Canterbury. Gerbrand of Roskilde was similarly appointed by Canute as a suffragen of Canterbury in 1022, which upset Hamburg-Bremen no end. Gerbrand's predecessor, Godebald, was also an Englishman. Unfortunately, although he was appointed by a Danish king, we know little about his English connections. 

Finally, and bizarrely enough, the numerous interloper bishops of Iceland include three Armenian bishops. This has led to centuries of amiably bizarre speculation, although what Ari the Wise's Book of the Island actually says is "ermskir" bishops. He does associate them with "Greeks" (girskir) and suggests that they might not conduct services in Latin, which certainly suggests Eastern Rite, but the rather downplayed but fairly obvious suggestion that this is a reference to Ermland, a region well within the ambit of Baltic-Sandinavian-British politics, Canute's mother having been from that neck of the woods.  As Jonas Gislason points out here,  an enthusiasm for downplaying poaching missionaries was hardly confined to the see of Hamburg-Bremen. 

So if all of this keeps circling around Canute the Great, what about him? It's hard to think of a king of his distinction who gets less attention from British historians. Consider that the manuscript of Beowulf was produced in his court, by someone who looks like he is composing as he goes. The story is about a hero of Swedish descent who saves the Danish king from a horrible monster in a way that seems very much a Christian allegory, and goes on to be a great king and the ancestor of, oh, for example, Canute. And yet the predominant interpretation is that it is an early Anglo-Saxon poem handed down through the centuries and just transcribed one day. Even getting literary scholars to admit that it (like Asser's Life of Alfred) emanates from Canute's court is like pulling teeth. It's almost as though being ruled by a foreign king is embarrassing. 

Canute's age and parentage are not known from contemporary sources, which seems a bit mind-boggling, but in 1015/16 he landed in England with an army comprised of Danish, Polish and Norwegian troops, the latter under the Earl of Lade presumed son of the persecutor of St. Sunniva. Per the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Canute invaded England via Wessex, landing at Wareham in Dorset, which, given that he had to sail right around Dungeness and pick up a change of winds to do it, would be a strong clue that he had supporters in Wessex and probably specifically a faction based in the southwest with some links to all the dissident factions implied by Wareham's status as th etown where even if he didn't land in the town where Edward the Martyr (at first) and Beorhtric were buried. Aethelred and his son Edmund's defence ended up basing itself on London and the Midlands (he had family ties to the then-Archbishop of York). Confusingly, a preliminary peace treaty awarded Edmund Wessex, and Canute the rest of the country. Lyfing, the first archbishop of Canterbury in Canute's reign, seems to have had his difficulties establishing his authority, but from 1020, Canute's candidate presided at Canterbury, and from 1023 at York. Canute's reign is read as having been hard on London while supporting Canterbury.

With England in hand, Canute sailed for Europe and Scandinavia in 1018, supporting the Emperor and the Earldom of Lade in the process of establishing a Scandinavian "Empire." In the wake of Clontarf, Dublin issued coins acknowledging his sovereignty, not the first or last time that Dublin's king or bishop took a pro-English line, presumably in opposition to Armagh and the Northern Ui Neill. Canute's Wikipedia biography describes his "Influence on the Western Seaways." but this seems to be going a bit far. Dublin amongst other places of the far west were inclined to own English overlordship and Canterbury precisely because they were remote and unable to influence local politics. This is very different from importing English bishops and appointing them to new Scandinavian sees created as dependencies of Canterbury specifically. 
Lade Manor on the east side of Trondheim is more townhouse
than Viking hall. 

There are two major points to draw here. The first is the fairly clear and widely accepted conclusion that the Christianisation of Scandinavia began earlier than the current fad for "Viking" history would like. It is pretty clearly linked to the rise of the Scandinavian monarchies, and even if we set aside the early kings mentioned in the saga literature, the Danish monarchy is active at least as far up the coast as Selje. 

Further north, we have the problem of the Earls of Lade. Their early history has clearly been rubbished by the saga literature. All the historic ones are linked to Anglo-Danish kings and are bitter rivals of the Norwegian kings, while all the prehistoric ones attested by the skalds are loyal friends and allies of same --and pagan, clearing the field for the conversion efforts of the missionary kings. It seems at least plausible that the "prehistoric" Earls also had English ties and were at least somewhat inclined to Christianity. Be that as it may, once Christian activity is pushed back before the point where the sagas authorise it, we can dispense with the anomaly that motivated this inquiry in the first place, and which I should have mentioned earlier, which is the lack of pagan burials on Greenland Norse sites. 

In short, contrary to the sagas, the Greenland Norse didn't act like heathens because they were never heathens, and the problem of Christian Norse coming from pagan Iceland is no problem when we accept that the sagas are giving a late date for the Christianisation of Iceland. Twenty years or so would be enough for present purposes, although it is possible to go a lot further. 

The second point, orphan for the moment, is that the easiest explanation for Henry of Lund being appointed bishop of Orkney as a suffragen of York rather than Canterbury is that he was succeeding an earlier bishop who was also a suffragen of York. The only problem with this thesis is that you'd think that York would mention it somewhere, and if York was itself taking over another see's claim, we can see why it wouldn't. In short, here's a bit more evidence for the tinfoil-hat theory that a "bishop of the English," or even archbishop, was active at Lindisfarne/Norham into the Eleventh Century. An extra layer of tinfoil is needed to go on to argue that Greenland (and Selje and even Nidaros/Trondheim) had an Eleventh (or, why not, Tenth!) Century bishop appointed by Norham, but there's a lot of tinfoil going around the Northern seas, and mine is at least sensitive to the spirit of the age. 



  2. Man. You replace one colon with a semi-colon in 986, and five hundred years later the server crashes.