This is a story about two men who lived a thousand years apart, how they were bent on paths coincident which met in Plemstall in 1908, and why each had a significant effect on how the other is remembered. It also involves rather a lot of bones.
The Butterfly Effect:
One of the men was Osborne Aldis, a sometime gentleman of Chester with an interest in history, and as it will turn out, an interesting history of his own. At some point in early July 1908 Aldis was examining a collection of butterflies in the Grosvenor Museum, when he had a chance encounter with a Rev. Dempster. This led to a trip to Plemstall and Plegmund's Well. Aldis described the excursion with considerable eloquence in a letter to the Chester Courant published on 5th August 1908, although he apparently knows little about Plegmund and appears to get much of his information from the driver he has hired.
Rev. Hubert Alfred Dempster (1871-1939), an Australian, was only passing through Chester having disembarked at Liverpool that morning en route from Sidney to the first Pan-Anglican Congress at Lambeth, London, to which he was one of three Australian delegates. The meeting, a trip to Plemstall Church and the well, a subsequent visit to the Cathedral and Aldis waving Dempster off on the 17:35 at Chester General station all happened in the compass of a single day. Dempster barely made his London-bound train and as Aldis himself recorded the event:
- "One word at parting as the guard whistles the shrill signal—"The Well, St. Plegmund's Well! How strange! Eleven centuries! Only think of that! Shall not forget the Well!" were the parting words of the bronzed-faced Australian delegate. "Nor will I forget the well," was my half-uttered response as the train silently glided away from the platform."
Aldis apparently decided on the smoky platform that the well should be restored, and, if possible, to arrange and fund the work himself.
Plegmund is reputed to have been a long-time “hermit” near Chester before he became Alfred's archbishop in 890 and so could possibly have been at Chester when the relics of Werburgh were translated there in 873 (dates vary slightly). As archbishop, under about 12 different popes, he reorganised the province of Canterbury, creating several new sees, and worked with other scholars in translating religious works. He may have been involved in the education of Alfred's son and successor, Edward the Elder, Alfred's daughter, Æthelflæd and Edward's son and heir, Æþelstān. He is also said to have taught King Alfred himself at least some Latin and was closely involved in the flowering of English vernacular prose at the time of Alfred's rule.
During his long life Plegmund made at least one journey to Rome which in the circumstances was incredibly dangerous and brought about by the most peculiar of events. Plegmund may well have lived to over seventy. He was canonised after his death, but attracted no hagiographer and his cult was never strong. He is not the patron saint of anything in particular. The image on the right shows how the well appeared at the time of Aldis' visit.
Plegmund's precise role, if any, in the establishment of the cult of Werburgh at Chester remains to be fully explored. Locally, he is best known for his well. Despite his long tenure as archbishop and his reform of the church the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle hardly gives him the mention one might expect, and such records as there are of Plegmund are filled with contradictions and some probably deliberate misinformation..
Well-known fictional works such as “The Last Kingdom” omit Plegmund entirely. A hopefully somewhat more accurate version of his life and times follows.
Plegmund was a Mercian, and at the time of his birth (taken as c.850) Mercia was a state tottering on the edge of disaster.
It was one of the old sub-kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons, at times it included all of the midlands between the Thames and the Humber, and stretched from the Wash to the Welsh border. It reached its peak of influence under Offa, who died in 786 and is generally associated with the eponymous Offa's Dyke along the supposed Mercian/Welsh border. Offa sought to dominate what was later to become England, possibly in emulation of his contemporary Charlemagne, with whom he engaged in diplomacy and trade agreements. Relations were not entirely harmonious, as several “political” exiles from England found homes at Charlemagne's court. Among these was a certain Ecgbert, who fled (early 780's) in the face of murderous plots but would later return to rule Mercia's rival, Wessex.
Even shortly after his death scholars were criticising Offa. He had exterminated all possible rivals that his son could face, leaving something of a vacuum when his son died within half a year of taking up the throne. Mercia then returned to its typical civil strife. As Alcuin of York wrote:
- "This was not a strengthening of the kingdom, but its ruin."
Having returned to Wessex in 802, Ecgbert was generally successful. He founded what was to be a dynasty that would include his grandson - Alfred the Great - and later Edgar the Pacific: famous for his boating exploits on the River Dee and his “coronation” at St John's. Their line would go on to produce Ethelred “the Unready” and Edward the Confessor, although succession to the throne was seldom simple.
In 825 Ecgbert of Wessex inflicted a significant military defeat on a weakened Mercia. Another followed in 829 when he drove Mercia's new ruler (Wiglaf) out. Ecgbert now briefly became the “wide-ruler” of England and some have claimed that this made him the “king of all England”, as commemorated in sculpture at Chester's Town Hall. He did not get to keep his vast dominion as he was soon in conflict with the Cornish (then part of Wales) and withdrew from the north. Wiglaf returned the following year, which makes Ecgbert a rather debatable choice for England's first monarch.
Once-great Mercia would never really recover.
The Evidence for Plegmund:
The case for Plegmund having lived at Plemstall opens with the writings of Gervaise of Canterbury (c1114-c1210), who wrote:
- “Plegmundus vir admodum religiosus et sacris litteris nobiliter instructus, in Cestria insula quae dictitur ab incolis Plegmundesham per annos plures heremeticam duxerat vitam”
- “Plegmund a most religious man and nobly learned in sacred literature, had for many years led an eremetic life on an island in Cheshire called Plegmundesham by the locals” - Gerv ii 350
In place-names “ham” means variously "homestead, village, manor, estate" and “hamm” means "enclosure, land hemmed by water or marsh, or higher ground". Stall (or stōw ), as in Plemstall, means “place-of”. Hence “Plegmundstall” became “Plemstall” (and perhaps even “Plimsoll”).
At the time, Plemstall was probably a tidal island in the estuary of the Gowy. There is independent evidence that Plegmund was a Mercian from Asser, King Alfred's biographer who knew Plegmund and worked with him.
As the image on the left shows it is possible to estimate where the coastline would have been in Plegmund's time, and maps show there is a remarkable correspondence between the ancient field boundaries near St Peter and where the flood tide would have lapped at its highest. Holme House on the island is now “Holme Farm”, with Holme being derived from the Viking (Old-Norse) word for small island (Holmr). “Ince”, Welsh ynys, meaning “island” also occurs locally. Charters from long after the time of Plegmund refer to a “hermits dwelling” near “Sutton”, “Trafford” and “Dunham”, and folk-lore has placed his dwelling there for centuries.
The County Sites and Monument Record does give a six-figure map reference for the location of the “hermitage”, but this is actually just the location of the word “Plemstall” on the 2nd ed. OS map (in the newer part of St Peter's graveyard, beyond the sundial). It is also worth noting that the original parish of Plemstall included several surrounding townships but there was no township of Plemstall itself, which is rare in Cheshire and possibly also points to the location having an early significance.
There are some suggestions a Roman road passes beneath the garden of the former “Old Rectory” at Mickle Trafford on an alignment which would take it to the north of St Peter and this could indicate a spur off the main Roman road from Chester towards the Weaver crossing at Frodsham. The spur perhaps formed part of a crossing of the marshes towards Great or Little Barrow. A single fragment of what was possibly “Red Samian” pottery was found in the graveyard during an archaeological survey. These taken together may indicate that the site was occupied in Roman times, possibly by an outpost, farm or villa and, given that the Gowy would have been tidal and brackish, a location near a well would have been important. It is not beyond possibility that the Romans, a “hermitage” and the church have occupied the site in sequence.
Another argument for early occupation of the “Island of Plemstall” can be made from the ridge-and-furrow marks which cover the entire island but are only visible using special techniques such as “LIDAR” (a laser-based measure of altitude). The ridges are formed by ploughing on either side of a first furlong plough-line in alternating directions. As the plough always turns the soil towards the centre, this will eventually result in a low ridge running along a strip of land. The earliest of these are broad and sinuous as are the ones on the island.
Historians have pondered over how a “hermit” could become an archbishop, but “eremetic” may not mean “hermit”, it can be interpreted as meaning he led a simple life of contemplation and study without any luxury, perhaps as an occasional retreat. Gervaise was aware that he later became an archbishop and may be drawing a comparison between the two halves of his life. There are few other cases of hermits becoming bishops and vice-versa, but no others of a hermit becoming an archbishop.
While there is no absolutely conclusive evidence that Plegmund lived at Plemstall, there is no good case for placing his “retreat” anywhere else. The rest of this guide explores what is now known about Plegmund's role in history and the events surrounding him, as well as a more detailed look at the surprising life of the above-mentioned Osborne Aldis and the consequences of his vow to restore the well. From a historical perspective one theme which runs through the narrative is just how unreliable and incomplete historical accounts can be and how views of past events and people have changed and may continue to change over time.
The Great Heathen Army:
In 793 the Vikings famously raided Lindisfarne looting the monastery and killing or enslaving many of the monks. It was the first time the Vikings had attacked a monastic site in Britain, and the attack came as a major shock for medieval Christians. Later Chronicles would state that the sky was filled with portents:
- "This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter…"
The portents may have been electrical phenomena due to unusual solar activity. 774 has seen a particularly troubled sun undergo a so-called "Carrington Event" with a massive "flare" that was so intense that it still has an effect on Carbon-Dating. The event may have had other environmental consequences and may have been a factor in causing the Vikings to start their overseas raids.
Although the Vikings had been raiding for long before Plegmund's birth and then going back to their ships, a major Danish/Viking invasion with a view to a more permanent stay took place in 865 when Plegmund was probably a young man. This campaign against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms lasted 14 years and resulted at one point in almost the complete conquest of “England” - a term which is used as a convenient shorthand given that the concept of “England” did not exist at the time. Estimates of the size of the army vary widely with some clustered around 3000 men and others in the range 500-1000. The early Viking tactics were to advance into an area, establish themselves at a defensible location, then pillage and agree to leave if paid, or sometimes to install their own “puppet” leader - effectively as a “tax collector” for them.
The Vikings spent the winter of 865–66 at Thetford, before marching north to capture York in November 866 where they installed a puppet ruler, Ecgberht of Northumbria. During 867, the army (known as the “Micel Here”) marched deep into Mercia and wintered in Nottingham. The Mercians paid off the Viking army, which moved back to York for the winter of 868–69. In 869, the Great Army returned to East Anglia, conquering it and killing its king Edmund: he would later become the saint in Bury St. Edmund. In late 870, the Vikings moved on to Wessex, where Æthelred (the last-surviving elder brother of Alfred the Great) was defeated and died in early 871. Alfred, now in his early 20's, acceded to the throne of Wessex and the burden of its defence, even though Æthelred left two under-age sons. Alfred lost his first battle and was forced to pay the Vikings to leave, which left him less than popular with his people and the church.
The horde then marched to London to overwinter in 871-2. The following campaigning season the army first moved to York, where it gathered reinforcements. This force then pillaged in northeastern Mercia, after which it spent the winter at Torksey, on the Trent close to the Humber. In the next campaigning season it seems to have subdued much of Mercia and gathered more loot. Burgred the king of Mercia, fled to Rome and promptly died while Coelwulf II (another supposed puppet) was imposed in his place.
Vikings at Repton
In the year 873 the roaming Vikings were camped at Repton and, according to tradition, the “men of Hanbury” decided that this was too close to the resting place of their St. Werburgh (d. 675), so they translated the saint's relics to Chester for safe-keeping. It is also possible that there was plague in the Viking camp or signs that the Vikings intended to settle there permanently. This can be taken as demonstrating that Chester was a place of some importance and that it probably had a significant religious community. Werburgh's resting place when her relics first came to Chester remains a mystery. The perhaps legendary origins of St John's have been placed in the year 689 when it is traditionally said to have been founded by king Æthelred of Mercia (reigned 675-704), who was Werburgh's uncle. John of Trevisea's 1387 translation of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon (written in Chester c. 1352) even suggests that there was a Bishop of Chester around 700, although this could be a confusion in the translation between Chester and Leicester where Wilfrid (who “would not win his sainthood through the Christian virtue of humility”) is usually located as bishop from 692-705. The original Latin Polychronicon does not specify Chester, but simply mentions the "City of the Legions".
On the assumption that such a “safe haven” religious community would have a library, this provides a little more argument that Plegmund could have lived and studied at Chester or nearby. Whether he was a refugee displaced by the Vikings from elsewhere is unknown. At around the same time what was left of Mercian government seems to have largely collapsed. The Viking forces also partly dispersed and many began to settle and farm.
We do not know why the Danish Vikings who over-ran much of Mercia in the 870's did not attack Chester, especially if it had a religious community which could have been a source of portable loot. It could also have given them a port with connections to Ireland where other Scandinavians were settled. It may have been that there was some kind of arrangement between Coelwulf II and the Vikings and that Coelwulf was not the complete puppet he was to be painted as in the surviving chronicles.
Meanwhile, in Wessex
At this time Alfred's relations with the church and his then archbishop (another Æthelred: 870-888) were not good. Around 877, Æthelred wrote to Pope John VIII to complain about King Alfred's conduct towards Canterbury. The exact nature of the dispute is not clear, but the reply from the pope to the archbishop still exists. The pope told Archbishop Æthelred that Canterbury had papal support and that the pope had written to the king urging the king to respect the rights of the archbishop. One historian has seen this as a papal sanction for the overthrow of Alfred, but there is no real evidence for this, especially given that Æthelred retained his position until his death in 888. Another seemingly trivial dispute with the Pope (in 875) concerned the dress of clerics: in England they wore the short tunic which was typical male clothing and probably trousers rather than the longer continental robes.
Since his earlier clash with the Vikings, Alfred had done little to improve his military position and appears to have paid off the Vikings several times, possibly extracting some funds from the church to do this. In January 878, on Twelfth Night, Wessex was attacked again, but by a much smaller force. The geography suggests that what was left of Mercia must have colluded in this attack by letting the Vikings cross Mercian territory without raising an alarm. Alfred, who was just finishing his Christmas celebrations and had no army gathered, was surprised, forced to flee and then hide-out on an island in a swamp. It may well be that both Alfred and Plegmund were living on their respective islands (which were about the same size with Plegmund's being slightly larger) at the same time. The chances that they would ever meet at this point seem very remote, but like Aldis and Dempster, their paths were fated to cross.
It was during his enforced insular exile that, according to a tradition which only appeared over two centuries later, a preoccupied Alfred supposedly allowed some cakes to burn.
The Return of the King:
In May 878 Alfred rode to “Ecgbert's Stone” ("Ecgbryhtesstan") "east of Selwood" where he was met by:
- "all the people of Somerset and of Wiltshire and of that part of Hampshire which is on this side of the sea (that is, west of Southampton Water), and they rejoiced to see him".
The stone was named after his once-exiled grandfather and had a symbolic meaning as it was supposedly where Ecgbert swore to return to Wessex just before he went into exile at the court of Charlemagne.
Alfred won a victory in the ensuing Battle of Edington which may have been fought near Westbury, Wiltshire. He then pursued the Danes to their encampment at his old stronghold at Chippenham and starved them into submission. After the signing of a treaty with the Viking leader Guthrum and persuading him to convert to Christianity, Alfred was spared any large-scale conflicts for some time and now made a more serious effort to strengthen his defences. The Victorians portrayed Alfred's victory as more complete than it was and while Alfred ruled the south and west the Vikings, including Guthrum, still ruled the east and north. It was still a spectacular come-back. It is at around this time that Coelwulf II of Mercia disappears from the historical record. There are many theories about what happened to him and no firm evidence for any of them. After his defences were put in order Alfred made a decision that would have a life-changing effect on Plegmund.
The destruction of many religious houses had seriously harmed the church establishment and thus impaired education. Even the king's previous archbishop to Plegmund (the troublesome Æthelred) was apparently signing charters that were written in very poor Latin and contained evident errors and obvious duplications. Alfred himself may have written that few could now read or understand Latin, and many priests were unable to explain their rites in English. There was also pressure from Rome to improve the state of the church, encourage morals, convert “heathens”, and, to pay money to Rome rather than the Vikings. Alfred decided that the intellectual strength of Wessex needed to be made much more robust.
The cultural revival sparked by Alfred entailed the recruitment of "foreign" clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and continental Europe to enhance the tenor of the court in Wessex and of the episcopacy; the establishment of a court school to educate his own children, the sons of his nobles, and intellectually promising boys of lesser birth; an attempt to require literacy in those who held offices of authority; and, a series of translations into the vernacular of Latin works the king deemed "most necessary for all men to know". In addition there was the compilation of a chronicle detailing the rise of Alfred's kingdom and house, with a genealogy that stretched back to Adam, thus giving the West Saxon kings a biblical ancestry. We know this today as the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle should not be taken as an accurate and unbiased history. The original text has not survived except in the form of later copies and there is some divergence between these. Some of the differences are due to copying errors as multiple copies were made of the original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. This independent updating led to further divergence and contradictions between versions. Some versions appear to use different dates for the New Year placing it variously in September, at Christmas or in March. The earliest extant manuscript, the Parker Chronicle, was written by a single scribe up to the year 891, dating it to about that year. The lost original from which it was copied is probably only slightly older. Some historians and translators (James Ingram in particular) suggested that the initial version of the Chronicle was actually written by Plegmund himself but that is no longer believed to be true. Ingram's somewhat specious argument from 1823 was that the Chronicle hardly mentions Plegmund and then only in another hand, and so he must have left himself out because of modesty. However given that the Chronicle entries become quite brief and a little confusing in the years following Plegmund's death it is possible that Plegmund had something of a guiding hand in it.
As the Chronicle was composed in Wessex it takes a definite bias towards that state. Given that some of the history it related was relatively recent, it could not use outright fabrication. However, there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources make it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of them. Coelwulf II of Mercia, for example, is referred to only as “an unwise king's thane” despite, possibly, having appeared on coins jointly with Alfred. This issue of coins is something of an outstanding puzzle as the Chronicle (for the year 873) implies that Coelwulf is entirely under the Viking thumb and had even agreed to support them in battle:
- “And the same year they (the Great Army) gave Coelwulf, an unwise king's thane, the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the army.”
Given that Alfred only became king in 871 and Coelwulf would soon appear to have made a treaty with the Vikings in 873, there only seems to be a small time window for the “joint” coinage to have been minted.
Some later histories were based on the Chronicle but also had omissions and substitutions. For example, the “Annales Cestriensis” is a 15th Century derivative produced at Chester and contains additions about Werburgh for the year 875, whereas the Chronicle does not mention her translation at all and concentrates on Alfred's war with the Vikings and mentions only their camp at Repton for that year. On the other hand the “Annales Cestriensis” does not mention Plegmund anywhere and has only a brief reference to Alfred.
Alfred recruited scholars from the continent and from elsewhere in Britain to aid in the revival of Christian learning in Wessex and to provide the king personal instruction. Today we might think it normal for the aristocracy to be educated, but prior to Alfred to think of an educated person was to think of an ecclesiastic: there was no secular scholarship.
Plegmund was one of those summoned to Wessex: had that not happened Plegmund would almost certainly be unknown today. Similarly, had Dempster never been sent to Lambeth from Sidney, and had his chance meeting with Osborne Aldis, the same might be true of Plegmund's Well.
Plemstall to Canterbury:
The date of Plegmund's arrival in Wessex is not known, but it is believed to be before 887 by which time Alfred is known to have understood some Latin. He was among those who personally instructed Alfred, hence the assumption. He may also have had a part in the education of Alfred's children: Alfred ensured that both male and female offspring were educated together. Alfred and his group of scholars are sometime said to have founded Oxford University, but there is no truth in this, or in the tradition that Bede was a student there (he died over a century before Alfred was born).
It is also not known what Plegmund's existing reputation was based upon but it has been suggested he was possibly a compiler of the “Old English Martyrology”. This is a collection of over 230 hagiographies, probably compiled in Mercia, or by someone who wrote in the Mercian dialect of the Old English language, in the second half of the 9th century. The sources of the Old English Martyrology include the works of the venerable Bede, Aldhelm, Eddius, Adomnán, Gregory the Great, and Isidore of Seville, showing that the scribe had access to a significant library. No complete version of the work survives, but it provides some indication how scholarship had been kept alive in Mercia while it had largely become extinct in Wessex.
One of the most noted works produced by the scholars associated with the court of Alfred was an Old English translation of Pope Gregory's “Pastoral Care” - still seen by many as an essential guide to pastors. Alfred had an Old English language copy of this sent to each of his bishops, together with a jewelled pointer to follow the written words. The pointer was known as an “aestel” and is the analog of the Jewish “yad”.
Some might see the use of a pointer as an indication of how low the standard of literacy had fallen, but the very act of reading was different in Anglo-Saxon times. It was normal to point to a word with a stylus and read it aloud, often for the benefit of others but even as a private activity. A pointer ensures that the page is not actually touched, which may be for relevant for ritual purposes but also has the practical consequence of not damaging the surface or the ink such as might happen when using a finger to follow the text.
The handle of one of these pointers survives and is now known as the “Alfred Jewel”, one of the most popular exhibits at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. What is sometimes said to be Plegmund's copy of the book was almost destroyed in a fire (twice), and five singed leaves survive in the British Museum. In what is generally considered to be his own preface to the book Alfred recalls how “my Archbishop Plegmund” (among others) explained the meaning of the Latin text and that the English text was formulated based on this.
Alfred's actual preface is open to some interpretation where he writes:
- “I began, among other various and manifold troubles of this kingdom, to translate into English the book which is called in Latin Pastoralis, and in English Shepherd's Book, sometimes word by word and sometimes according to the sense, as I had learnt it from Plegmund my archbishop, and Asser my bishop, and Grimbold my mass-priest, and John my mass-priest.”
Some historians have noted this can be read two ways – either that Plegmund and the others had taught him the sense of the Latin language in general, or that they had helped him understand the sense of the actual text. If we assume the former this may lead to a contradiction that Alfred had previously requested Bishop Werferth to translate Dialogues of Gregory into English for his own use and now has translated Pastoralis into English for Werferth. Asser reports that Alfred “miraculously” learnt to read Latin very suddenly, which is almost certainly an exaggeration, and much ink has been spilt on the subject of who actually wrote or formulated what. One clear interpretation is that Plegmund could have had every opportunity to influence how “Pastoral Care” would have been translated and/or modified from the Latin text.
It seems highly likely that Plegmund would have been aware of “Pastoral Care” from relatively early in his life and may even have studied it at Plemstall. The metrical epilogue to “Pastoral Care” which appears to have been “gained in translation”, develops into a complex (and humorous) metaphor of Gregory's book as a font of wisdom which the reader should visit often and bring a pitcher that will not leak. Whether this is a metaphor suggested by Plegmund (and his well), or the verse is entirely the work of another hand, isn't known.
“Pastoral Care” has a rather more definite modern day connection with Plemstall in that a depiction of the handle of the “Alfred Jewel” can be found in upper part of the stained-glass windows in the Baptistery in St Peter. One explanation for the image which forms part of the “jewel” is that it is a depiction of a legend involving Alexander the Great in which he used two or more flying creatures to bear him aloft so that could gaze down on the earth. “Pastoral care” is a book about teaching and Alexander's teacher was Aristotle. Aristotle was considered in Alfred's time as a primary source of knowledge and whose views profoundly shaped medieval scholarship. Alfred's possible use of the icon of Alexander may be a gentle nod to his own teachers. The “jewel” also rather amusingly turns up in the Victorian stained-glass at Wells cathedral (which Plegmund effectively founded – next to a well, as he did at Crediton) being worn as a pendant by Alfred, whereas in Winchester it appears in stained glass as a brooch-clasp on Alfred's cloak.
Plegmund became archbishop of Canterbury in 890 possibly with the recommendation of Pope Formosus (October 891 - April 896) although the dates do not quite fit. His election is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (manuscript E):
- "In this year Archbishop Plegmund was elected by God and all the people."
There is a minor puzzle over this statement in that Ingram (1823) suggests it is a later interpolation line and that that the dialect and orthography indicate a Norman source. However many of Ingram's footnotes to his translation are now thought debious, including his theory that Plegmund was the primary author of the Chronicle.
This is quite a remarkable promotion as the “normal” sequence would be from monk, to abbot, then bishop, and archbishop (in Rome there was also the rather dangerous position of Pope). It is possible, given the two-year gap since the death of the previous archbishop (Æthelred) that he was not Alfred's first choice, which may have been Grimbald a Flemish monk and scholar, who refused the promotion. Although of dubious historical accuracy, the life of Grimbald was recorded in several volumes, of which the main source is referred to as the Vita Prima of St. Grimbaldi. According to the Vita Prima, King Alfred met Grimbald before his reign, and invited Grimbald to England around 892. After Alfred's death Grimbald accepted appointment as abbot to a yet unbuilt monastery, New Minster, in Winchester by King Edward.
Some later chronicles (including that of Gervaise) state that Plegmund travelled to Rome to collect his pallium:
- "Hic Romam profectus a Formoso papa sacratus est palliumque suscepit et metropolitani plenitudinem potestatis" ("He departed for Rome and from Pope Formusus recieved consecration, the pallium and full metropolitan power") - Gervase of Canterbury
This is also stated by Symeon of Durham (c.1130) who is also quite effusive about Plegmund:
- "At this period archbishop Plegmund faithfully and gloriously ruled the church of Christ; this revered man shone with the fruits of wisdom, being exalted on the four pillars, to wit, justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude."
However, contemporary records do not mention such a journey and later chronicles frequently add or imply a journey to Rome for other archbishops to get their pallium. Prior to Plegmund, no English archbishop had travelled to Rome in living memory, so it seems strange that it was not recorded at the time. Moreover, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is quite clear about journeys to Rome by others in the years 887-889 so as to pay the annual alms to the pope, later known as “Peter's Pence” or for other reasons. The Chronicle for 887 states that "Alderman Ethelhelm led the alms", 888 has "Alderman Beeke" and Alfred's sister (who died on the way), 889 states there were two "messengers" and in 890 it was "Abbot Bernhelm" who carried the money. In fact, it appears that Anglo-Saxons at the time comprised the largest group of pilgrims to Rome from elsewhere and they even left their mark on the city in the form of the neighbourhood known as the “Borgo” (associated with the West-Saxon word “burh”) which contained the “Schola Saxonum” a charitable institution for West-Saxon pilgrims. Today the site is occupied by “La chiesa di Santo Spirito in Sassia”, and therefore still associated with the Saxons, although there is nothing “Saxon” to be seen today.
Documents show that Plegmund's appointment was well-received by the continental church, suggesting that a favourable reputation was already widespread. He was now in a position to reform the church in Wessex and the translation of works into English was going well. The Danes were no longer pillaging at will, and Alfred at last had an archbishop who he was on good terms with.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Cadaver Synod:
Pope Formosus died in 896. His successor (Boniface VI) lasted 15 days. The next pope, Stephen VI, had Formosus' rotting corpse removed from the papal tombs and brought before an unwilling papal court for trial and judgment in January 897. As might be expected the defendant refused to plead. He was provided with a teenage deacon as his lawyer, who only cowered behind the papal throne and may or may not have made an attempt at a defence. According to one version the unhinged Stephen would scream the accusations against Formosus’ cadaver, then the deacon hiding behind the dead pope, imitating Formosus’ voice, would deny the charges. Another version has the deacon giving "unhelpful" responses on behalf of his client, such as "because I was evil".
At the end of the trial (which included a dramatic earthquake that all but destroyed the Lateran Palace where it was being held), Formosus was pronounced guilty and his papacy, including all his acts. retroactively declared null and void. The corpse was stripped of its sacred vestments, deprived of three fingers of its right hand (the blessing fingers of the benediction), clad in the garb of a layman, and quickly buried in a graveyard for foreigners; it was then exhumed and thrown in the Tiber to complete the damnatio memoriae. Shortly thereafter Pope Stephen was deposed by rioters and strangled.
Over the following years Formosus was restored and again fell into disfavour, as popes came and went with rapidity and possibly a further murder (Leo V). Formosus' body is said to have been recovered from the river and is now recorded as buried in the Vatican. In 898 Formosus was posthumously re-instated by John IX and re-ordinations of his bishops deemed unnecessary.
Plegmund was busy at the time with the restoration of London which had been damaged by the Vikings. A meeting was held at Chelsea in 898 or 899 between King Alfred, Mercian Ealdorman Æthelred, Archbishop Plegmund and Bishop Wærferth. The purpose of the meeting was to “discuss the restoration of London”, and this was the time when some new streets were laid out around Queenhithe on the Thames. In the process Plegmund was granted a plot of land which contained the remains of a riverside Roman bathhouse and Ealdorman Æthelred took over the management of London.
Then, in 899, King Alfred died. Plegmund now had a problem – could he install the new king, Alfred's son Edward, or was he not officially an archbishop given that he had received his pallium from Formosus? We also note the problem with the dates – Plegmund actually became archbishop (in 890) during the papal term of Steven V (September 885 – September 891: using the post 1961 system of papal numbering which removed pope-elect Stephen II). Unfortunately his pallium was only sent after the installation of the next pope. A supposed rehabilitation of Formosus had occurred, but would this last?
Edward the Elder also had a problem, Æthelwold, one of the sons of Alfred's older brother, was still alive and he tried to seize the throne. Edward forced him to flee to the Vikings of York, who accepted Æthelwold as the rightful king. There were probably also people in Wessex who considered the correct heir was Æthelwold given that his father had been king. This delayed the coronation, but after six months Plegmund anointed Edward as king. In the autumn of 901, Æthelwold sailed with a fleet from his new Viking allies into Essex where he was also accepted as king. By 902 he and the East Anglian Danes were attacking deep into Mercia, one of Edward's most important allies.
The status of Chester at the time is particularly uncertain. It had been considered a safe haven for the relics of Werburgh in around 875, but scant references describe it as an abandoned city in around 894 when the Vikings raided it and overwintered there, possibly in the remains of the Amphitheatre. The Viking leader Guthrum, with whom Alfred had made peace and negotiated the division of Mercia, had died in 890 but a new Viking leader, named Hastein, had arrived in 892 and now led raids across Mercia including one on Chester.
One version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle gives the following details:
- "As soon as they came into Essex to their fortress, and to their ships, then gathered the remnant again in East-Anglia and from the Northumbrians a great force before winter, and having committed their wives and their ships and their booty to the East-Angles, they marched on the stretch by day and night, till they arrived at a western city in Wirheal that is called Chester. There the army could not overtake them ere they arrived within the work: they beset the work though, without, some two days, took all the cattle that was thereabout, slew the men whom they could overtake without the work, and all the corn they either burned or consumed with their horses every evening."
Chester appears to have been restored around 900 by Æthelflæd, Alfred's warlike daughter, who was effectively the ruler of Mercia given the poor health of her husband. The husband was Ealdorman Æthelred of Mercia, who became ruler of English Mercia shortly after the death or disappearance of its last king, Coelwulf II. By 883, Æthelred had accepted Alfred's overlordship and the alliance between Wessex and Mercia was cemented by the marriage of Æthelred to Alfred's oldest daughter, Æthelflæd. She is first recorded as Æthelred's wife in a charter of 887, but the marriage probably took place in the early 880's, given that Alfred's will, written about 883, mentions his daughter's husband. Æthelflæd is supposed to have promoted the cult of Werburgh at Chester, but that is a much later tradition as discussed below. One problem with the tradition is that it is not mentioned in either the brief biography written by Florence of Worcester (died 1118) nor by Goscelin, Weburgh's hagiographer (who was alive in 1106).
A further complication then came from Ireland, where the Vikings had settled in Dublin as traders, including of slaves. Slavery was legal under Alfred's laws, but he did give them a day off each quarter. The slavers were thrown out by the Irish and one sub-group under Ingamund tried to settle in Wales. The Welsh also threw them out and they next landed in the Wirral in 902. Edward potentially now faced enemies on two fronts. Æthelflæd helped matters by allowing the new Vikings to settle in the Wirral (and put a monastery next to them). Edward was now free to deal with his rival Æthelwold, who was soon dead. Surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle disagree over the dates of events in this period, with some possibly having been altered to coincide with the apparitions of various comets and eclipses, but a good case can be made for the argument that the settlement with and of the Irish Vikings in the Wirral under Æthelflæd was a way of easing the pressure on her brother Edward.
But then Pope Sergius III (904-911) again required the reconsecration of clergy that the late Formosus had ordained, otherwise their works, including Plegmund's “coronation” of Edward and his plans for church reform, would be void. As a bishop Sergius had taken part in the Cadaver Synod as a co-judge. Nothing is known about the relationship between Plegmund and Edward, although the archbishop was present at many of Edward's councils. One can however speculate that Edward would have been keen to end any uncertainty about whether he had been validly made king or not, especially in Kent where many of his best troops came from. It may be telling that after the death of Plegmund some later writers reported the see of Canterbury lay vacant for a few years, although that impression could be due to an error over the date of his death.
So Plegmund, probably now in his late 50's, would have to go to Rome in what was most likely his first visit, but was reported by many Victorian writers and hagiographers to have been his second.
Plegmund and Chester?:
There is no hard evidence that Plegmund was involved in the somewhat confusing events at Chester around 900, but he is associated with the area and would have had close contact with Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd. This could explain some of the history of Chester at the time. Could he, for example, have prompted Æthelflæd to restore Chester and re-invigorate the cult of Werburgh, a very Mercian saint? This is somewhat problematic and on the weak evidence which survives there are several candidates for the promotion of the cult of Werburgh:
- According to Henry Bradshaw (writing c.1513), Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd, enlarged the original church that is now the Cathedral in honour of Werburgh and transferred the original dedication to Peter and Paul to a new parish church in the centre of the city (St Peter, by the Cross).
- Bradshaw also mentions that "a tablet in St John's church" ascribed the foundation of the house of canons to Æthelflaed's nephew, Edmund (b.921-d.946).
- King Æthelstan (r.924/5–927) has also been credited with the foundation of the cult of Weburgh at Chester, since Ranulf Higden (in his Polychronicon, c.1352) states that there were secular canons serving St. Werburgh at Chester from the time of Æthelstan until the arrival of the Normans.
The problems with Bradshaw and Higden are that that they are at times unreliable sources. Of the three rival founders Æthelflæd, who, with her husband Æthelred, restored the city in c.907, is the most likely, although there is no "definite" evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958. In that year Edgar the Pacific, then king of the Mercians, granted to "the familia of St. Werburgh" 17 hides of land in Hoseley (Flints.), Cheveley, Huntington, Upton, Aston, and Barrow. Even this grant might be suspicious given the fact that medieval monks were prone to faking charters when land was involved.
Plegmund is believed to have visited Rome in 908/9, and returned now confirmed as a valid archbishop. The rather troublesome pallium actually appears in his window at St Peter. There is rather better evidence for this trip to Rome than the supposed earlier one, but it only dates from Æthelweard's chronicle, probably written between 975 and 983 and based on a lost version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Plegmund is said to have returned with the relics of St Blaise, for which he paid a “a great sum of gold and silver” to the pope. Blaise is now largely forgotten saint who among other things was notable for having far more relics than would be expected from a single body. He is also possibly based on the pre-christian Veles. According to the later historian Eadmer (c1060-c1126), Plegmund apparently brought the whole body of Blaise to Canterbury as that cathedral's first set of relics (Eadmer seems to have forgotten about the remains of several previous archbishops who had been made saints). A few other churches around the world claim to have the same whole body of Blaise and various duplicates of other bones provide in total enough relics to fill a small graveyard. For some curious reason the relics were not kept together but scattered around the Cathedral in various chests and reliquaries. Whether the relics were “real” or just a cover for a payment to the Pope, the choice does seen appropriate. Blaise is particularly venerated as the protector of Dubrovnik from an attempted invasion by a Venetian fleet in 971 – the same year that Alfred became king during a Viking invasion – and Blaise is also reputed to have been a hermit before he became a bishop. However, despite there being rather better evidence for this second trip to Rome there is no mention of it in the surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is again surprising due to the rarity of such journeys.
Plegmund's "second" trip did not begin to establish a tradition of new English archbishops making the journey to Rome to collect their pallium. His route was possibly similar to that taken by Sigeric the Serious in 990, although there were several variants. The journey to Rome involved about 80 days of travelling each covering about twelve miles. Few other native archbishops had made the journey earlier, including Wulfred (814), Æthelhard (c.803) and Berhtwald (602), but only under exceptional circumstances when there were issues over their position, as was indeed the case with Plegmund. The next to try would be Ælfsige (959) who perished from cold in the Alps before a determined Dunstan (960), appointed by Edgar the Pacific, made it there and back. Sigeric appears to have been the first archbishop in almost two centuries to have successfully made the return journey to Rome without there being some issue over his transfer to the see of Canterbury.
It would be a thousand years after Plegmund's return from Rome before Osborne Aldis visited Plegmund's well. During all of that time since Sergius III died in 911, subsequent popes have not upheld his ruling on Formosus. From his immediate successor many have quietly reaffirmed (without drawing much new attention to the topic) that the Cadaver Synod was invalid, illegal and all detailed records have been burned.
Between 909 and 918 Plegmund created new sees within the existing West-Saxon diocese of Winchester and Sherborne (often based next to wells). The frequently repeated story that he installed seven new bishops in a single day in 909 appears to be untrue, although he may have re-consecrated bishops whose validity had been put in doubt by the events surrounding Formosus. The quality of Latin as taught and in legal charters was much improved by West-Mercian scholastic influence.
Plegmund seems to have had a particular interest in coronation rites, this is perhaps understandable given the issues around the coronation of Edward, but there is also the matter of what the king should be called: “King of Wessex and the Mercians” or “King of the Angles and their kin”. Alfred of Wessex was himself a West-Saxon, whereas the Mercians were mostly Angles. Alfred's relation to the Mercians is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thus: “all Angelcyn except what was under subjection to the Danes submitted to him” and some charters describe him as “King of the Anglo-Saxons” (rex Anglo Saxonum ). The subject is too vast to discuss in detail here, but scholars have debated at length the extent to which Plegmund was involved with the use of these distinctions in the coronation ceremony. It would only be Alfred's grandson Æþelstān who would effectively become the first de facto “English” king, after Edward the Elder died at Farndon.
Plegmund died on 2nd August 923, not as many hagiographers would have it in 914. His final signature appears on a charter dated 920 which does not appear to be fraudulent – as are others possibly dating from the intervening years. The date of his death is recorded in version “A” of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Notably the original Chronicle entry has been altered from 919 to 923. The date of 914 is only found in one source: Florence of Worcester, who claims that date for the consecration of Plegmund's successor (Æthelm) and hence implies the death of Plegmund, whereas Gervaise and others give the date of 923. Æthelm set a precedent for bishops moving from one see to another but apart from this and his coronation of Æþelstān (925) very few other acts are mentioned or charters proved which suggests a short term of office before his death in 926. Thus we have one date for Plegmund on his well and another elsewhere.
Plegmund was the last surviving member of the small core group of scholars collected by Alfred and was to be the last Mercian archbishop of Canterbury: others had also been noted for their scholarship and included Tatwine (d. 734), who wrote a Latin grammar and Nothhelm (d.739) who assisted Bede. Following Plegmund's death the improvements in learning and organisation he had brought persisted, but the influence of Mercia on the church waned in favour of Wessex. Plegmund was buried in the Church of St. John at Canterbury, where his remains rested until the destructive fire of 1067. On the rebuilding of the Cathedral by William's Archbishop Lanfranc, the remains were probably placed in a vault in the north transept; but after the attempt to steal the bones of Archbishop Bregowine (761-764) in 1121, the monks removed them to the altar of St. Gregory in the southernmost apse of the south-east transept, where they were placed behind the altar. A photograph of what is presumably Plegmund's last resting place can be found near his window at St Peter.
Edward the Elder consolidated the union between Wessex and Mercia creating the first central government of England since Roman times. Æthelflæd and Edward did much to re-establish control over the land that the Vikings occupied. According to fragmentary Irish annals this involved a battle at Chester where the defenders of the city dropped in turn boiling beer and beehives on the Viking attackers. This battle, like many of the acts of the Mercians, is not recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Both of Alfred's children died before they could complete this reconquest, with Edward dying at Farndon in 924 after some kind of revolt in Cheshire. Edward was buried in the New Minster, Winchester. In 1109, the New Minster was moved outside the city walls to become Hyde Abbey and the following year the remains of Edward and his parents (and Ecgbert) were translated to the new church. Following its dissolution these remains were lost, although some claims have been made that the royal graves have been found.
Æthelflæd had died on the eve of a possible surrender to her of York, the Viking stronghold, but not before she had raided deep into Viking-controlled land to recover the relics of St. Oswald (909), whose cult she also promoted at Chester. Edward's son Æþelstān completed the work, possibly with a major battle on the Wirral: he never married, was obsessed with the collection of relics and is the last ruler who could have been directly influenced by Plegmund. There are some historical hints of a “mock coronation” of the young Æþelstān (born c.894) while Alfred was still alive and Plegmund was his recently installed Archbishop. The posited battle on the Wirral possibly took place at Bromborough (937) and notably there appear to have been Vikings on both sides. The consequences of the presence of Vikings in the Wirral, and in Chester would still be far-reaching, eventually resulting in the dedication of a church to St Olave (d.1030). Æthelflæd had died at Tamworth on 12 June 918 and her body was carried 75 miles to Gloucester, where she was buried with her husband in their foundation, St Oswald's Minster. Their bones are also lost.
Offa is believed to have been buried in Bedford, according to local legends possibly near the site of the later Castle, but the local tradition also has the Great Ouse flooding and washing his remains away.
The concentration of historical events around Chester may be explained by it's importance as Mercia's northernmost port and the ready supply of building materials which could be robbed-out from the Roman ruins. However, it could also be that a now influential Plegmund argued the case for the preservation and protection of a place where he appears to have spent so much of his life.
Plegmund was not completely forgotten, but the chroniclers of Wessex wrote the history and all things Mercian were down-played, with Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd almost being written out of history completely despite her military victories, diplomatic success and pivotal role in re-establishing both Chester and the cult of Werburgh. She had the disadvantage that she was not only half-Mercian and the effective ruler of Mercia, but she was also a woman. In Chester she is almost completely forgotten. Æthelflæd's daughter and only child Ælfwynn was the ruler of Mercia for a few months in 918, following her mother's death, but was deposed by her uncle Edward the Elder. There is no certain record of what happened to Ælfwynn after her removal from power.
Mercia's decline continued after the end of Ælfwynn's brief reign but elements of its independence persisted. Æþelstān was ruler of Mercia only before becoming king of the Anglo-Saxons, and so too was Edgar the Pacific initially ruler of just the Mercians under his elder brother King Eadwig. Even by the time of the Norman conquest and after Mercia was still a major semi-state under its Earls. Arguably, the Palatinate of Cheshire was the last political remnant of Plegmund's Mercia and would retain elements of an independent legal system until 1830.
While Wessex provided the military leadership of what was to become the English state, the Mercians including Plegmund had provided much of the cultural and intellectual basis on which the nascent state was founded.
Interlude: Ecgbert's Dynasty
Alfred the Great's biographer Asser wrote what is known as his “Life of King Alfred” in 893. This incomplete work provides far more information on Alfred than is known about other Anglo-Saxon kings and is very one-sided in its positive treatment of Alfred. Asser does mention Plegmund briefly but fixes his spotlight firmly on Alfred as being the prime-mover in everything good achieved during his reign.
The combination of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser's Life and the Alfredian prefaces to the English translations that emerged at the time led to Alfred being later viewed as the ideal Christian king, and, especially during and after the Reformation, a symbolic champion for a linguistically English rather than a Latin-speaking church. Anglican Archbishop Matthew Parker published an edition of Asser's Life of Alfred in 1574 and it was at this time, over 600 years after his death, that Alfred was first given the epithet "the Great". He became the ideal unthreatening example of a ruler when discussing the ideal monarch and the roles of monarchy. By Victorian times a part-legendary Alfred had eclipsed those around him, including Plegmund, Æthelflæd and Edward the Elder. Victorian Anglo-Saxonism placed the roots of democracy in a semi-fictional Alfredian setting. Except for some local associations few other Anglo-Saxon kings enjoy the same widespread fame.
Chester was “fortunate” in that it had been attacked by Alfred's grandfather Ecgbert, and so the local Victorians could find a link to Alfred through him – hence his somewhat ambiguous sculpture at the Town Hall. As noted above, Æthelflæd, who had a far more positive effect on Chester, doesn't get any sculpture at the Town Hall (or elsewhere in Chester) at all. Despite the links between many of the actors in the “Viking Age” with Chester (Plegmund and Edward the Elder being examples), the focus of popular history at Chester is fixed firmly on the Romans and the Civil War.
One exception is Edgar the Pacific. He was Edward the Elder's grandson and maintained a strong naval force preventing further Viking raids and sustaining the peace he is named for. He is remembered at Chester for his boat-trip on the Dee, which reflects the importance of Chester at the time as a port dominating the Irish Sea. However his story seems somehow incomplete without the earlier history of the times of Plegmund.
A second series of Viking attacks would begin after Edgar's death and the collapse of political power in England: thus in 980-1012 the Vikings again raided and plundered, and effectively ruled from 1016 until 1042. It was during this period of Viking rule, under Canute and others, that two families arose who would become great rivals. One was the House of Godwin, whose interests were concentrated in the south, while the other was the House of Leofric, which had interests in and around Chester. Harold would put an end to the feud by marriage to Ealdgyth a daughter of the House of Leofric and the recent widow of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn. Chester was the place Harold's wife Ealdgyth fled to after his defeat in 1066, and one of the last places in England to be reduced by the Normans. There is even the legend that Harold himself survived to become a one-eyed hermit at Chester: it is considered unlikely to be true, but provides another marker to a deeper layer of local history.
Plegmund's own history became the subject of much forgery and misinformation. This is now known to have been commonplace when documents were copied to preserve and distribute them and interpolations were made. For example, none of the surviving versions of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle are closer than two removes from the original text which has been lost, perhaps scraped down to a palimpsest and reused. Some interpolations have a semi-logical basis, such as mentioning the birth (or perhaps ordination) of a future notable figure. As an illustration, the mention the birth or ordination of Archbishop Dunstan in 925 is clearly retrospective editing. By the date of the Polychronicon being written in Chester, c 1352, the record of Plegmund's pontificate had become completely muddled.
Later arguments about the primacy of Canterbury over York involved the “discovery” of documents showing that Pope Formosus had threatened to excommunicate king Edward the Elder, despite the pope's death preceding Edward's coronation by some years and Formosus' tenure in Rome being entirely within the reign of Alfred. One such document is mentioned by Dunstan (the later archbishop) and he may have been working from dubious documents or have been mistaken. Other related documents conveniently “discovered” stated that Canterbury must always be foremost over York – on pain of excommunication for any who would have otherwise. Almost certainly some parts of these copied documents are fraudulent but they have collectively became known as the “Plegmund Narrative”. Conveniently, of course, the lack of any copies remaining in Rome could be explained away by Formosus' papacy being voided. The “best guess” of modern historians is that the core of the correspondence was originally between a furious Formosus and the “English” bishops and concerned the fact that clerics at least in Wessex were in the habit of marrying. Formosus, on the back of Plegmund's existing reputation, seems to have hoped the new Archbishop would put an end to this.
Werburgh did well from her translation to Chester, being venerated by the Normans and eventually gained an impressive pilgrim shrine decorated with figures of the Kentish-Mercian royals she was related to. Her reliquary is empty, but her much-abused shrine played a small part in the run-up to the English Civil War. The restored shrine from 1888 can still be seen in the Cathedral at Chester, much as it would have appeared to Osborne Aldis and Rev Dempster during their visit in 1908. Among the figures on the shrine are many who have been mentioned in this guide: including Offa and his son, Æthelred the traditional founder of St John's, Wiglaf who fled from Ecgbert and Burgred who fled to Rome.
Plegmund's Well is recorded in 1819 in a mention from the Cheshire historian George Ormerod of a quitclaim (land agreement) dating from 1301 as "St Pleymond's Well" and he notes that its water was traditionally used for baptism. Based on the quitclaim, Ormerod places the well in the manor of Little Barrow (which should not be confused with Barrow). Ormerod does not elaborate upon the story of Plegmund and his role in history, which perhaps indicates how the archbishop was being slowly forgotten. However there are newspaper reports suggesting that until sometime around 1895 the choiristers of the Cathedral made an annual procession to the well. By 1908, Plegmund's well was an almost overgrown pit at the side of a quiet country lane. Aldis might never have found it but for the local knowledge of his driver. By that time the estuary of the much diminished Gowy had been drained and Plegmund's “island” was now far from the sea.
A "new" church had been built in the 15th Century to replace the 12th Century building, and its earliest bells date from 1635 although the tower dates from 1826. The church's history was not without incident: the fact that only fragments of the original (c.1500) stained glass survive possibly reflects unfortunate events at around the time of the Reformation and/or Civil War. The stained glass is important because it represents the first step down from figures of national importance to people whose story was more local yet very central to the people living in the locale at the time.
One incumbent's son (Thomas Baldwin) made an early balloon flight of some scientific importance in October 1783. This flight passed almost overhead, and provided Baldwin with the opportunity to make the first image of the earth as actually seen from above. His drawing clearly shows Chester and the River Dee and somewhat less clearly the road from Chester to the crossing of the Gowy near Plemstall. He would no doubt have been amused if told an image of Alexander viewing the world from on high would later be installed in his father's church.
Another incumbent (Isaac Temple) ran a noted boarding school. In 1907 Rev Joseph Hooker Toogood (a Cambridge-educated “29th Wrangler” in mathematics) arrived as rector and soon formulated his plans to refurbish the interior of the then quite plain St Peter. He "restored" the church over many years with a short break to teach the mathematics needed for gunnery in WW1. This was apparently in Malta, so it could have been naval gunnery. His remarkable wood-working skills are self-evident today.
Osborne Aldis noted the “new vicar” (which must have been Toogood) was just starting work when he made his visit in 1908 and wished him “all success” in his newspaper report of the visit to the church and the well, before his hasty departure to the Cathedral and seeing off the Reverend Dempster at Chester Station.
We now return to Osborne Aldis and the somewhat peculiar life of the man who decided he would see Plegmund's Well restored. Here we also see further examples of how a more modern view of history can change the perception of past events and people.
The only son of noted sanitary reformer Charles James Berridge Aldis and Emily Arabella Brome was Osborne Charles Vyse Aldis, born the 27th of January 1843 at Old Burlington Street, London. He chose not to follow his father and grandfather into medicine. He was educated at St. Paul’s London and Caius College Cambridge where he was a Greek scholar who gained his MA in 1868.
As noted above, Aldis eventually ended-up in Chester where he became aware of Plegmund's well and had it restored. There was a suitable ceremony at the unveiling in November 1908. As reported in the extensive coverage published in the local newspapers at the time and reported elsewhere quite widely:
- "To Mr. Osborne Aldis, M.A., of Chester, is due the credit for rescuing from perhaps oblivion this more than interesting spot. Though the well was known to many antiquarians and others, but previously it was always in danger of being damaged or suffering from the ravage of the weather etc. Now, by the generosity and foresight of Mr. Aldis, it has been enclosed by a plain but appropriate protecting wall and brought prominently before the public eye." - Cheshire Observer 14th Nov 1908
Aldis, who was a member of the Royal Anthropological Institute, was a well-known and seemingly popular figure in Chester at the time and a frequent writer of letters to the local press, who were happy to publish them. After initial enthusiasm for a historical pageant at Chester had been quashed by the corporation, Aldis was influential in the conception and promotion of the spectacular Chester Historical Pageant which would take place in 1910.
The refurbished well with a new stone curb was dedicated by the Venerable Edward Barber (1831-1914), Archdeacon of Chester in the presence of a large crowd of local notables. The inscription upon it was composed by Aldis himself and apparently read:
- "Hic fons Plegmundi functus baptismatis usu Regnante Alfredo, tunc hodieque solet." (Freely translated as: "Here as in days when Alfred erst was king, baptismal water flows from Plegmund's spring").
Barber has sown confusion in many historical records by getting the year of re-dedication wrong and reporting it as November 1907 when giving a paper on the subject in February 1909 (he was 78 at the time). The newspaper record allows the correct year to be identified. There have also been suggestions that the present “restored” well is not in the location of the original well and that it was was moved in 1923. However, the only evidence for this was the memory of an elderly resident who appears to have gotten things confused. The person in question recalled “moving” stonework from a location on the railway embankment near Plemstall Crossing – but this could be a confusion of the date and the fact that new stone was probably brought by rail from Chester as the stone-mason's yard was located adjacent the station. Aldis mentions the location of the well in his “Courant” article of 5th August 1908 as being “under the road hedge” and it can be inferred that he only sees it as he is leaving Plemstall and heading back to Chester. This locates the well in 1908 at the spot where it still resides and not in the railway embankment. Curiously an almost identical tale is reported by Barber in 1909 with another elderly resident reporting re-location of the well when he was a boy. We can only speculate whether there is any connection or even “borrowing” between these two tales, which are remarkably similar. Barber dismisses the earlier tale on the basis of Churchwarden's records from St Peter going back 130 years before his time and recording payments made for the clearing of the “Christening Well”. It is also possible to dimiss the claim that it was moved in 1923 by reference to the location of the well in the reports of the 1908 restoration which place it on the left hand side of the road to St Peter just before the Plemondstall Bridge.
Barber also subscribes to the erroneous date of July 23rd 914 for Plegmund's death and not the corrected date of 2nd August 923, which corresponds with the saint's feast-day. While the date of 923 is indicated on the railings around the well (and 914 in the stained-glass of the church). The well-dressing tends to occur in June. In recent years dressing has been somewhat sporadic, at times following a Derbyshire variant of the tradition which was revived (or first created) with the coming of public water supplies in the 19th Century – something which Aldis' sanitary-reforming father was deeply involved with. The style of well-dressing at Plemstall appears to have consisted of the "Celtic" variant: tying strips of cloth to the hawthorn tree next to the well. The belief being that as the biodegradable cloth rots away so an ailment or impediment will gradually vanish. A local legend holds that if this tree dies the well will dry up. This is a quite commonplace legend in Scotland of a "Clootie Well". The sacred trees at clootie wells are usually hawthorn trees, though ash trees are also common. Strips of cloth can still be found appearing on the railings. The Derbyshire variant on well-dressing is much more complex, with elaborate hoardings coated with a layer of mud into which flowers are inserted to create complex images.
Barber only hints at “Pope Stephen having annulled the acts and ordinations of Formosus, owing to some irregularities and indiscretions on his part” and does not mention the Cadaver Synod or Sergius III. Archdeacon Barber has no reason to lie about dates and so possibly made, or repeated, genuine mistakes similar to those made in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, he may have thought the whole business of the Cadaver Synod rather distasteful and so decided to mention neither it nor Sergius III. Rather like in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, only a part of Plegmund's story was told by Barber. A similar error occurs in the 1908 press reporting of the restoration of the well, which has Plegmund being re-consecrated by Pope Stephen, which would have placed him in Rome during Stephen VI's brief papacy (896-97).
The restoration by Aldis in 1908 did much to preserve the well until the more recent “millennium” restoration. It also prompted further research into Plegmund, who was then little known outside of historical circles. As can be seen from Archdeacon Barber's paper there were many misconceptions about Plegmund at the time. No doubt interest in Plegmund was boosted by the millenary years of many of the new diocese he had founded after his return from Rome in 909 (one of the first being at Wells).
In 1925, Plegmund would appear in the stained glass of local artist Trena Mary Cox in the cloister of the Cathedral in Chester, alongside Alfred, and thereafter organised pilgrims have made their way to the well. It is sometimes said to be one of only two “holy wells” in Cheshire, which is not accurate. There is a remarkably similar-looking St Anne's well near Rainhill, which was only re-discovered, excavated and restored in the 2010's, and a string of wells associated with ancient chapels extends down the River Dee from Bala Lake to Holywell.
When the present author first visited the well in 1990, there was evidence of well-dressing in the form of ribbons and strips of cloth hung on the surrounding trees, but the well itself was in poor condition. However the evidence showed that someone was still carrying on the well-dressing tradition at the time. Aldis' inscribed curb had vanished, although it may still lie nearby in fragments. The same is true of a stone naming Osborne Aldis as the donor of the restoration costs. It is reasonable to assume that if Aldis had not restored the well in 1908, it could have been lost completely. Unfortunately, due to the lowering of the water-table by industrial extraction the well is now almost always dry. However, about 10% of Chester's drinking water comes from a nearby borehole and so the people of Chester may still enjoy a benefit from it.
So who exactly was Osborne Aldis the generous benefactor of Plegmund? Some of the inconsistencies in Barber's account from 1909 prompted further research in the newspaper archives and eventually court reports. Seemingly, all things relating to Plegmund have their complications and there is another, quite unexpected, side to Aldis.
Local Newspapers provide a positive portrayal of Aldis for a short period around the time of his restoration of the well in 1908. He campaigns to have the Combermere statue outside the castle cleaned of verdigris, applauds a local Rector, praises the efforts of Suffragettes and is reported to have donated a copy of “Paradise Lost” to a school. Even the death of a distant relative of Aldis in Bournemouth who had hardly any connection to Chester is reported in the local Chester press. Then suddenly in 1911 the papers fall silent about him. Osborne Aldis had a past which had just caught up with him.
His first venture on leaving Cambridge was a gentlemen's club, which failed. He then turned to forgery and fraud on the Bank of England, for which he was jailed for 18 months after a trial at the Old Bailey in 1886 – a remarkably short sentence for such a crime at the time. The money in question appears to have either been a pay-out to his mother's family made when slavery ended or derived, prior to 1828 from an “annuity of £400 p.a. secured on his estates and enslaved people in Barbados” left by Rev John Brome to Aldis' mother, Emily Arabella Aldis (née Brome) (Barbadian slavery was abolished in 1834 and Combermere also benefited from it). Aldis forged the papers needed to cash-in the annuity and lay his hands on the money. The standard "tarrif" for such an offence at the time Aldis was convicted included the possibility of a life sentence, but Aldis pleaded "extenuating circumstances" and appears to have got off lightly.
Other failed ventures and dubious activities followed and Aldis left a trail of unpaid bills as he moved from place to place and from one financial calamity to another. Investments in property failed, as the master of a private school he had no success, he made no money from a gas-detecting miner's lamp he invented and patented (while briefly, and badly, running a foundry), and an attempt to keeps bees led nowhere. He was declared bankrupt at Bristol 1892, and again at Cheltenham in 1907. Eventually, by 1907, now in his mid 60's, Aldis ended-up in Chester, staying with his son as he had stayed with other relatives over the years.
The transcripts of his various court appearances make for interesting and often comical reading, and his education, personal charm and “cheerful countenance” (as a Police “Wanted Notice” describes him) apparently made it easy for him to run-up credit. The various Judges and the like he was “up in front of” seem to have been sympathetic to his often rambling and factually inaccurate explanations of his financial woes, leading to some very funny exchanges, although some appear to have become irritated by his inability to give a straight answer to a simple question, such as where he was living. One “crime” he seems to have not been charged with was his marriage to the late wife's sister, which was illegal between 1835 and 1907.
In 1911 his past caught up with him once more, possibly due to the widespread publicity over his restoration of the well, and on November 7th, 1910, at the Town Hall Court in Chester, Osborne Charles Vyse Aldis pleaded guilty before the Chester Recorder, Lloyd Hugh Jones, that:
- "..being an undischarged bankrupt on the 2nd of May 1907 he unlawfully obtained credit to the extent of £20 and upwards, to wit, credit to the extent of £61.11.10 from Brown and Co. Chester."
Aldis, as always, chose not to engage a lawyer and defended himself. He did not get off to a good start, as he neglected to turn up for the hearing and had to be sent for arriving 25 minutes late, no-doubt irritating Recorder Jones. Aldis was living at the time at St John's House (which he had hoped to turn into another club) and he would have been completely unaware that the amphitheatre, and in particular the temple of Nemesis, lay underneath it. Curiously, it appears that in court Aldis claimed that in October 1909 he has moved into "Walmore", Dee Banks, which he rented for £60 a year and furnished it "on account" at a cost of about £65 or £68 from Messrs Brown and Co. Evidently Brown had not been paid for this either. He now owed Brown's almost £200. That he should claim to have furnished "Walmoor" seems odd, as that was the home of noted Chester architect John Douglas who lived there until his death on May 23rd, 1911.
Aldis got three months back in jail and it seems he never returned to Chester. He served his time in the “Second Division” which “provided for the separation of prisoners of previously good character from those of depraved or criminal habits” but did not afford them the comparatively easy conditions of the First Division. This was a typical sentence at the time for such offences. He was 68 when convicted.
Very little is known of Aldis' next five years. Despite his important role in the initiation of the 1910 historical pageant in Chester – which was a resounding success – his name appears nowhere in the lavish “Book of Words” and other documents prepared for the pageant. Like others in this story, a decision had possibly already been made to write Osborne Aldis out of history.
It is difficult to decide whether Aldis was a deliberate "con-artist" attempting to ingratiate himself with the polite society of Chester, a spendthrift who squandered all opportunity without thought for the future or a well-intentioned but hapless dreamer who was possibly simply reckless when it came to money.
But for Osborne Aldis, Plegmund's Well might have faded back into the hedgerows and Plegmund himself faded further from the public eye. But for Plegmund, Osborne Aldis would certainly have been forgotten, or recorded only as a crook. As of the date of writing, the records of Cambridge University and of the Royal Anthropological Institute only list his misdeeds.
Osborne Aldis died penniless at Chelsea in November 1916. As of the time of writing, the history website of his family has nothing good to say of him. He is buried in an unmarked plot at Norwood Cemetery, London, but he can be given an epitaph of sorts. During a Cheltenham court appearance in 1907 which discussed various financial irregularities, the Receiver pointed out that Aldis had become known locally as the “Cheltenham Swindler”. Osborne, an educated man, shot straight back with the quote from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar":
- "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones"
Osborne's 1907 court appearance was reported in the Cheltenham press with a full transcript, but it appears that no word of his financial difficulties made its way to Chester prior to his fateful meeting with Rev. Dempster by a case containing butterflies the following year. There is a surviving case of butterflies on show in the Grosvenor Museum which contains speciemens of the peacock butterfy and the nettles that they feed off. It may well be a similar case to that which Aldis was examining when introduced to Dempster.
Ironically, one of the works translated by the Alfredian school was the Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman senator Boethius (c. 477 – 524) one version of the preface of which (claiming to have been written by Alfred himself – but possibly involving Plegmund) may have been a partial inspiration for Shakespeare's idiom: “It has ever been my desire, to live honourably while I was alive, and after my death to leave to them that should come after me my memory in good works.”
Putting together early medieval history is rather like solving a jigsaw where most of the pieces are missing and some of those which still survive may have been tampered with around the edges or retouched on their face. Statements about the overall picture are sometimes best considered as opinions re-coloured by their own times.
Plegmund is in some ways an elusive character, but that is mostly down to the gaps in the historical record. That he existed and was archbishop of Canterbury is beyond doubt. We can be reasonably certain that he was an important advisor to Alfred the Great. He definitely “crowned” Edward the Elder (using a helmet as was the custom) and helped develop the coronation rituals. The balance of evidence points to his association with the island of Plemstall and his eponymous well.
Digging a little deeper, he probably went to Rome only once and the reasons for his journey in 908 stretch back to the notorious Cadaver Synod. Plegmund's cult as a saint dates only from the 13th Century and while he is included in the Catholic and Orthodox Kalendar he does not appear in the Anglican one.
We also know that some of what is written about him may be wrong: for example, Pope Formosus could not have written to King Edward and Plegmund as later Archbishop Dunstan claimed. Whether he had a part in the somewhat mysterious events at Chester around the year 900 can only be speculated upon. These include how Chester went from a safe refuge for Werburgh's remains, to a place occupied by Vikings, then to a prosperous and well-defended town with a very productive mint, all during Plegmund's lifetime, a subject upon which further research is needed.
However, it is clear that Plegmund did much to help restore the state of learning in Wessex. He was almost certainly involved in some way with the pro-Wessex version of history known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and could have influenced the wording of “Pastoral Care” and some of the other translations made at the behest of Alfred. Some writers have suggested that Plegmund was trying to bolster the influence of Canterbury and the Mercian's, others see his role as a long-needed reform of the church which took the best of both Wessex and Mercia.
A thousand years after Plegmund's trip to Rome in 908, we know a little more about the “Cheltenham Swindler” Osborne Aldis in 1908, but like Plegmund only of his acts and not his motivations. It seems fairly likely that without Aldis' intervention to preserve Plegmund's Well it could have been lost. We can only guess whether Aldis was trying to ingratiate himself with the polite society of Belle Époque Chester, or whether he was genuinely moved.
When Aldis quoted Shakespeare in his 1907 bankruptcy hearing, he could not have known that in the following year a case of butterflies and an unforeseen meeting with the Australian cleric, Rev Dempster, would lead Aldis to an encounter with a long-dead Mercian scholar. That encounter changed the way in which both Aldis and Plegmund are remembered. Scientists have a name for a seemingly insignificant event which leads through a chain of causation to a major consequence. They call it the "Butterfly Effect".
Further Reading (available online):
- Plemstall Church: Article researched and written by Ralph Earlam, June 2019, Hoole History & Heritage Society;
- Barber, E. (1909). St Plegmund; and his connection with Cheshire. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 16 (2). Vol. 16(2), pp. 54-69;
- Matthews K., (1996) St Plegmund: Cheshire's Archbishop of Canterbury: Cheshire History 36;
- Matthews K., (1996) St Plegmund's Well: an archaeological and historical survey;
- Mathews, S., (1997). Archbishop Plegmund and the court of King Alfred 890–923: Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 74. Vol. 74, pp. 89-113;
- Chester Courant: Osborne Aldis on his original visit;
- Cheshire Observer: The 1908 restoration;
- Plegmund on Chesterwiki;
Article by Peter Elliott for a talk on 7th June 2022 at St Peter, Plemstall, including some research by Colin Foden, and with thanks to Kath, Ruth and Mike for organisation. Copyright reserved, save for a non-exclusive and fully paid-up licence to St Peter, Plemstall to make use of it for informative purposes.