It’s July 1, 2018, the final day of an archaeological excavation in the village of Coldingham on Scotland’s North Sea coast, just seven miles north of the English border. The diggers have been searching for a site that’s eluded researchers for years: the monastery of Aebbe, a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon princess. But will their hard work pay off?
Arrive in Coldingham today and you’ll find a pretty little Scottish hamlet set back about a mile from a beautiful sandy beach that attracts holidaymakers and surfers. But this area of southern Scotland and the English county of Northumberland just over the border have a rich history. Perhaps most notably, it includes an important episode in the story of Christianity in Britain. And that’s something the Princess Aebbe played a vital part in.
We’ll get back to Aebbe’s role in promoting Christianity and the archaeologists’ hunt for her monastery in Coldingham. But first, let’s find out what we can about this Anglo-Saxon princess’ life. Firstly, some potential confusion should be cleared up. That arises from the fact that there were two Anglo-Saxon Aebbes of Coldingham.
Our Aebbe lived in the 7th century and is known as Aebbe the Elder. That distinguishes her from the second Aebbe who lived in the 9th century and is titled the Younger. Both, in their different times, were abbesses of the monastery at Coldingham, and both were made saints. That’s the monastery our archaeologists were hoping to find in the summer of 2018.
Aebbe the Elder – we’ll just call her Aebbe from now on – was born around 615 A.D. into a royal family. Her father was King Aethelfrith, the pagan ruler of Bernicia. This land encompassed territory both in the south-east of modern Scotland and the north-east of what today is England. Aebbe’s mother was Acha of Deira.
Deira was a land just to the south of Bernicia, and in 604 Aethelfrith invaded this kingdom and claimed it as his own. Edwin, King of Deira, fled, and Aethelfrith married his sister, Aebbe’s mother Acha. The couple had eight kids altogether, with Aebbe their only daughter. Meanwhile, Edwin found sanctuary to the south, in the kingdom of East Anglia that was ruled by Raedwald.
Aethelfrith was based in his castle at Bamburgh, a coastal settlement about 25 miles south of Coldingham. There’s still a magnificent castle there today, in fact, although the Anglo-Saxon fortress was torn down in 993 by Viking invaders. The current building has elements dating from Norman times.
But Aethelfrith had only a limited time to enjoy his new lands from his fortified base at Bamburgh. Edwin, with the help of his East Anglian host King Raedwald, assembled troops and in 616 marched on Deira and Bernicia. In the ensuing battle, Edwin regained his kingdom and seized Bernicia. Aethelfrith lost his life during the conflict.
The recapture of Deira and the conquest of Bernicia had serious implications for Aebbe, her brothers and her mother. The strong likelihood was that Edwin would regard them as potential dynastic rivals. Deira and Bernicia were therefore no longer safe places for Acha and her children, even although Edwin was her brother. After all, he’d had no compunction about putting his brother-in-law to the sword.
Wisely, Acha wasted no time in decamping and travelled with her children to the north of Scotland. Her destination was the Kingdom of Dál Riata on the north-west coast, which was ruled by her distant relative Eochaid Buide, also known as Eochaid Yellow-hair. There, they found refuge. Aebbe would have been around 10 at this time.
Unlike the pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, Dál Riata, which also comprised lands in Ireland, was Celtic and Christian. One of Dál Raita’s possessions was the tiny island of Iona, in fact. And the monastery there, which it’s believed was established in 563, was integral in the establishment of Christianity in the west of Scotland.
This was an important moment in young Aebbe’s life. Now in exile from her Anglo-Saxon pagan roots, she was exposed to Christian beliefs. They seem to have had a major impact on the girl, for she now adopted this religion that demanded worshippers recognize only one god.
Aebbe’s conversion to Christianity came at a time when parts of Britain were Christian, while others remained pagan. The Romans had brought the story of Jesus to British shores as early as the 1st century A.D. But for hundreds of years to come, Christianity was just one more minority cult. Jesus’ message had to compete with all kinds of pagan beliefs, not to mention the Roman gods.
Many historians see the tipping point for British Christianity as coming in the late 6th century. Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England from Rome at the behest of Pope Gregory the Great in 597. He succeeded in converting the pagan King Aethelbert of Kent in Southern England. Thousands more Anglo-Saxons subsequently converted to Christianity.
In addition, there were other pockets of Christianity in Ireland, Wales and western Scotland. But much of the north, including places such as Coldingham, clung to the old pagan beliefs. Princess Aebbe was certainly brought up as a pagan. Nonetheless, in later life as a Christian, she would have an important part to play in converting Anglo-Saxon pagans in the north of England and south of Scotland to her adopted creed.
Meanwhile, things weren’t going smoothly for Edwin, to put it mildly. Two kings – Penda of Mercia in central England and Cadwallon of Wales – decided to move against him. In the battle that followed in 633, Edwin met his end. Eanfrith, Aebbe’s half-brother and the oldest son of her late father Aethelfrith, was installed as king – for the time being, at any rate.
But Cadwallon evidently had second thoughts about making Eanfrith king and consequently killed him. Then in 634 Oswald, another of Aethelfrith’s sons, ended his exile in Dál Raita and chased Penda and Cadwallon out of Deira and Bernicia. The two lands were subsequently combined to create the Kingdom of Northumbria, and Oswald now took the crown.
The upshot of these battles and treacherous murders was that it was at last safe for Aebbe to leave the Highlands of Scotland and return to the land of her birth. And she brought with her a powerful dedication to her new-found religion. Now aged about 20 and animated by a compelling Christian calling, Aebbe was clearly a woman with a mission.
With the help of her brother, now King Oswald of Northumbria, she set about establishing a monastery at the village of Ebchester, some 70 miles south of Coldingham. Of that building, however, which is said to have been destroyed by the Vikings, not a trace remains. The village does, though, boast the Church of St. Ebba dating back to the 11th century.
There may be some mythical aspects to the story of Aebbe and an unwelcome suitor called Prince Aidan, but the tale is nonetheless worth the telling. It’s said that this Prince Aidan, a Scot, had the support of Aebbe’s brothers in his aspirations of marrying the young woman. But Aebbe, with her passion for Christianity, had other ideas.
Variations on the tale say either that she’d already become a nun and so couldn’t break her vows of chastity, or that she became a nun in order to thwart Aidan’s marriage proposal. In any case, Aebbe ensconced herself atop a rugged crag on Northumbria’s coast to avoid the unwanted attentions of this Aidan.
She also apparently sought help from God through the medium of prayer. And it seems that the Lord answered her supplications. For over the next three days, the tides were so high around her rocky refuge that Aidan couldn’t get to her. And so the two were never wed, and Aebbe was able to continue her life of religious dedication.
After she’d built the monastery at Ebchester, apparently at the location of an old Roman castle that Oswald had given her, Aebbe had a new project to pursue. This was the founding of the monastery at Coldingham. And there’s an intriguing legend about her choice of site – the very place that the archaeologists we heard about earlier were looking for.
Before we come to the legend, we need to register yet another death in the ranks of Northumbria’s rulers. This time, it was Aebbe’s brother, King Oswald. In 642 Oswald became involved in another clash with his old enemy Penda of Mercia. This time, however, Penda was victorious and Oswald was killed. That meant that Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, now succeeded to the throne.
And it seems that Oswiu faced trouble and strife from other Anglo-Saxons of the day. While thus engaged, his sister Aebbe was taken prisoner. The ever-resourceful Aebbe made good her escape, however. She commandeered a boat on Northern England’s River Humber and sailed out to sea. Traveling up the coast and drawing close to Coldingham, she heard a group of monks singing at the top of some headland.
Making her way ashore, Aebbe reportedly chose this clifftop spot to build her monastery. Unfortunately, it’s stories such as this that threw researchers off the scent when they were looking for traces of the monastery. Because although there are various hills and cliffs overlooking the sea near Coldingham, as we’ll see, none of them is the true location of Aebbe’s monastery.
Aebbe’s new monastery was what is known as a “double separate” monastery. That simply means that it had two sections, one for nuns, the other for monks. Aebbe is said to have used her monastery as a base to preach her Christian beliefs and secure converts to her religion from among the pagan Anglo-Saxons.
And it seems that Aebbe the Abbess had considerable diplomatic skills as well. One example of this was the resolution of an argument that her nephew King Ecgfrith had become embroiled in. Her brother Oswiu, uncharacteristically for an Anglo-Saxon leader, had died of natural causes in 670 and was succeeded by his son Ecgfrith.
A certain Bishop Wilfrid had got on the wrong side of Ecgfrith, however. The King’s wife, Aetheldreda, had become a nun at Aebbe’s monastery, apparently with the support of Wilfrid. This seems to have angered Ecgfrith who had the bishop imprisoned. But Aebbe’s sweet words apparently then persuaded Ecgfrith to let the bishop go. The ability to placate an angry Anglo-Saxon warlord is not to be underestimated.
Aebbe’s life came to an end in 683, when she would have been in her late 60s. And then a baleful prophecy from a monk called Adamnan came to pass: the monastery was destroyed by fire. The site subsequently lay deserted until the 8th century, when Aebbe the Younger appeared on the scene and re-established the Coldingham monastery.
But the second Aebbe’s time as an abbess was to end in tragedy. Vikings raided the monastery in 870 and burnt it to the ground. Aebbe and her nuns had, according to legend, deliberately disfigured themselves to avoid being raped by the raiders. This stratagem succeeded, although the Vikings slaughtered the nuns anyway.
And so, nearly 12 centuries later, we return to that team of archaeologists who’d come to Coldingham in June 2018 to hunt for traces of Aebbe’s monastery. The organization behind this dig is called DigVentures. It’s an interesting outfit, since it finances its operations through crowdfunding. The goal for the two-week Coldingham dig was to raise just under $10,000 – and this was exceeded.
As we’ve seen, popular belief had it that the monastery had been built overlooking the sea, probably about a mile from the present-day village. But speaking to Yahoo News, DigVentures’ program manager Manda Forster explained that no one had been able to find any remnants of an Anglo-Saxon monastery on the coast near Coldingham.
So the DigVentures team decided to take a different approach in their hunt. In the village of Coldingham itself are the ruins of Coldingham Priory, built in 1100. And there was an established practice of constructing priories on the remains of former monasteries. As Forster told LiveScience in March 2019, “It makes sense that the later Benedictine monastery was built on the site of its Anglo-Saxon predecessor.”
Forster expanded on the reasons why she and her colleagues felt that this inland site was more likely to be the true location of Aebbe’s monastery. Given that the Abbess’ aim was to reach out with the Christian message to the largely pagan locals, why would she have set her monastery on an inaccessible cliff top? So, locating it in the middle of Coldingham would seem to make a lot more sense.
And what the DigVentures team found during their excavations in fields around Coldingham Priory was strong evidence that they were indeed on to something. One of the trenches they dug revealed a narrow ditch, for example. And this ditch had a curved shape, meaning that it was possibly part of a circular structure.
This was exciting because the 7th-century monastery would very likely have been encircled by something called a vallum. A vallum is a ditch that would have been dug around the monastery. Its purpose was symbolic, to denote the establishment’s boundary. This was certainly a fascinating find, then, but not quite conclusive proof the team had found the monastery.
On July 1, 2018, the last day of their excavation, the team uncovered samples of animal bones, earth and charcoal remnants. These were subsequently sent off for radio-carbon dating. The hope was that the dates of the physical evidence would match the time when Aebbe had founded her monastery. That would be powerful evidence that the researchers had indeed found this elusive building.
The team had to wait almost nine months for the results to come back from the lab. When they did eventually arrive in March 2019, though, the news could hardly have been better. The material the researchers had discovered dated from 660 to 860 – just the right period, then, to match up with the known history of Aebbe and her monastery.
“It is brilliant to finally be able to announce that we’ve found Aebbe’s monastery, and to confirm that part of it is probably underneath Coldingham Priory,” Forster told the BBC. “Aebbe is an extraordinary figure – an example of a powerful Anglo-Saxon woman who played a big part in establishing Christianity in the region during the 7th century. Now that we’ve got evidence to pinpoint exactly where her monastery was, we can help bring her story back to life.”