St. Ælred of Rievaulx (1100-†1167) the Peacemaker

The Scottish aspect of the 8th centenary of his death

“You are men of silence and prayer. You are seekers after God, and on this choice was your vocation tested. In this way is justified your apostolic mission, stemming as it does from your total consecration to prayer and the ascetical life. In a world such as we live in, almost the opposite of yours in its forgetfulness of God, your bear witness to him through your austerity and your gentleness, your serenity and monastic recollection. You chant, who listens? You carry out the sacred liturgy; who notices you? It would seem that you are surrounded by a world which does not understand, that solitude treats you unkindly. No, it is not so. For today’s world you are an appeal, a beginning leading to reflection which is often health bringing and regenerating.”

H.H. Pope Paul VI.

Ælred was uniquely placed to symbolise and further Anglo-Scottish relations during his lifetime. He was born in the early days of a long period of peace between the two countries. This was to be interrupted shortly in 1170, so soon after his death, when William I ‘the Lion‘ King of Scots [Uilliam Mac EanricGarbh’] led an abortive attack against Henry II as he knelt in remorse at the shrine of Becket: this was a mere incident, and it took the wars of Edward I to divide the two countries a century later. The early years of peace saw a quiet Normanisation of Scotland by kings who were able to trace back their lineage to the royal house of Alfred. Edgar Atheling, Saxon heir to the throne of England, but for William of Normandy, managed to put his nephew on the Scottish throne in 1097 and marry his niece to the Conqueror’s son Henry I of England, thereby ensuring peace which Ælred was able to enjoy and further.

“Ælred is eminent for his monastic teaching and spiritual doctrine on friendship. Presenting Ælred as politician and peacemaker, this book offers a brilliant perspective into a previously neglected feature in the life of the most distinguished abbot of Rievaulx. Jean Truax has accomplished a mammoth service by organizing an incredible amount of resources so as to create and evaluate the influential public life of this Cistercian abbot. Ælred is presented in his contemporary setting moving among friends and rivals as spiritual abba, abbatial administrator, historian, builder, mediator, and counselor to kings and to St. Thomas Becket.”

—Abbot Thomas X. Davis, OCSO Abbey of New Clairvaux
Walter Fitz-flaad
1st Hereditary High Steward of Scotland 

In the decade of Ælred’s youth, the Lowlands of Scotland were becoming increasingly bound to Normandy and England by ties of kinship, vassalage and culture. Prince David, third of the three brothers who ruled Scotland during more than half a century, married the Countess of Huntingdon in 1113 becoming a baron of Huntingdon and Northampton. Knights from the court of Henry I were invited to settle in the Cheviots  on the Anglo-Scottish border between Northumberland and the Scottish Border. The Breton Walter Fitz-flaad was called from the English court to be steward of Scotland and raise up the Stewart family. In 1163 Walter founded, priories at Renfrew and at Paisley, with thirteen monks who came from Much Wenlock in Shropshire, on the site of an old Celtic church founded by St. Mirin in the 6th century. The monastery steadily grew and by 1219 became Paisley Abbey. The Abbey was dedicated to St. Mary, St. James, St. Mirin (the ´local´ saint who had first brought Christianity to this part of Scotland in the sixth century) and St. Milburga (the ´local´ saint of Wenlock).

Robert de Brus, whose father “came with the Conqueror”, who owned ninety-four lordships in Yorkshire, was made Lord of Annandale. Celtic ways were overlaid with Norman modes and French language, which competed equally with the English of Northumberland. Ælred’s own Hexham and the lands around Newcastle and Carlisle in the east and west became indistinguishably Anglo-Scottish, so that they formed loose pawns in the game of vassalage that accompanied every military foray of the twelfth century. Ælred himself, “…a man of fine old English stock” (as Jocelin of Furness tells us) found his way very young to the court of Scotland. There he lived with Waldef, (like himself, to be a saint and also Cistercian Abbot of Melrose) as a companion to the King’s son, Prince Henry Earl of Northumberland [Eanric Mac Dabíd] heir apparent to the Kingdom of Alba [Scotland]. When David, who had ruled South Scotland throughout his elder brother’s reign (1107-1124) came to full inheritance, he took the young Englishman, son of a long line of married priests at Hexham Priory, to be one of his household officers, though if we are to believe Ritchie, Squire and Barrow, rather than Powicke, not an important one.

Ruins of Melrose Abbey founded in 1136 by order of King David I of Scotland

The occasion of Ælred’s coming upon Rievaulx, and becoming a White Monk (Cistercian) there, was an Anglo-Scottish mission. King David had sent him as an emissary, aged twenty-four, to Archbishop Thurstan of York in connection with the Archiepiscopal claim to jurisdiction over the Diocese of Glasgow. It was a decade after Eadmer had been offered St. Andrews, which he had forfeited on demanding to be consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Both Alexander, and his brother David after him, refused to countenance the infiltration of the English Episcopate and even turned a deaf ear to the remonstrances of the Pope Himself. In the middle of this the young Ælred journeyed from David’s Court to Thurstan’s Palace.

Page from Genealogia Regum Anglorum, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, f. 122r 

Ælred, as we know, stayed two nights at the last staging post on the Durham-York road, in the castle of Walter d’Espec, Lord of Helmsley, thirty miles, a day’s horse ride, from the city. Like Bernard at Cîteaux, he found himself drawn to a more perfect kind of knightly service, that of a Community of Monks, welded together, as Walter Daniel tells us, “… by such firm bands of charity that their society is as terrible, or awesome. as an army with banners.” Thereafter, Ælred home was among the white monks of Rievaulx, and his influence as a bridge between England and Scotland was enhanced, rather than diminished. Because his father had been treasurer at Durham and influential among the gentry of Northumbria, both north and south of the very inexact border, because he himself had grown up with Prince Henry in the Scottish royal household and because he was now beholden personally for his vocation and abbatially for the lands of Rievaulx to one of the greatest Barons of Yorkshire, hero of the Battle of the Standard in 1138 and eventual monk like himself, Ælred became an undoubted bridge between the two nations. He was able to be all things to all men. This is most clear in his work of 1153-4, Genealogia regum Anglorum (“Genealogy of the Kings of the English”), dedicated to the future Henry II, the first chapter of which is his “Life of King David of Scotland” who like Bernard of Clairvaux had died earlier that year.

Battle of the Standard at Northallerton on 22nd August AD 1138

It was natural then, that Ælred should be used as mediator after the unfortunate Battle of the Standard, when David, interposing on behalf of Matilda’s rights and honouring his baronial oath as Earl of Huntingdon, to the dead Henry, seized Carlisle and marched on York. Driven off by the determined Archbishop Thurstan and the Barons of Yorkshire, David entrenched in Northumbria and forced Walter d’Espec to submit his castle and lands at Wark to his vassalage. At these negotiations which brought peace-again in the north while the south underwent the scourge of the nineteen winters of Stephen’s reign “while the saints slept”, Abbot William was a party and apparently had the young sired with him as an ambassador of good will.

Kelso Abbey

Ælred, from what little we know, kept up his connection with the court of King David. He tells us in the Lament for David I that during Lent in 1153, he visited the court and found “…in the King a monk, in the court a cloister, and in the palace the discipline of a monastery.” Not only did this king attend the canonical hours, but like a monk he did some daily manual labour. He had virtually reconstructed Scottish life, following his brother who had replaced the Celtic bishops by Normans and founded Moray: David founded or re-founded bishoprics in Glasgow, Brechin, Dunblane, Aberdeen, Ross and Caithness. Ælred tells us also “monasteria autem … non pauca, non parva, plena fratribus Rex dimisit” Cluniacs on the Isle of May by the mouth of the Forth. Tironese black monks at Kelso, Augustinians at Cambuskenneth on the Forth, Praemonstratensians at Dryburgh, Canons at Jedburgh, Templars at Ballantradoch, Black Canons at Holyrood and several Cistercian houses. In this last Ælred was concerned, for St. Mary’s Abbey at Melrose (founded 1136) was Rievaulx’s second daughter house, a place often visited by Ælred, as much because its Abbot Waldef was latterly his friend as because his duty took him on visitations of his daughter houses. Indeed it was there that Ælred witnessed Abbot Waltheof of Melrose, his companion of many years, stepson of King David I of Scotland (Dauíd mac Maíl Choluim), refusing the bishopric of St. Andrews shortly before his death in 1159. It was there that Ælred spent his last spring, shortly before his own death. It was from there that King David and his son Prince Henry (who pre-deceased him by a year) aided the foundations of Newbattle (1140), Holm Cultram (1150) and Kinloss (1151). Before Ælred died, Melrose made a fourth foundation at Cupar (1164). Possibly in 1142, the year that Ælred went as a founder abbot to Revesby in Lincolnshire, Rievaulx made its second Scottish foundation at Dundrennal in Galloway, which, in spite of his extreme infirmities during his last decade, Ælred was able to continue visiting even so late as the spring of 1165.

Ælred’s political dealings were not all with the royal court, as Walter Daniel tells us. He recounts Ælred’s endeavours, while on a visit to Dundrennan, to mediate between the Pictish Fergus Lord of Galloway and Gilla Brigte mac Fergusa of Galloway and Uchtred mac Fergus, his sons. It was a task for a saint. “…the King of Scotland could not subdue, nor the bishops pacify their mutual hatred, rancour and tyranny … polluting the unhappy little district with bloodshed.” Ælred’s success was astonishing: he persuaded the cantankerous old tyrant to end his days as a monk and he retire to the abbey of Holyrood, whilst Gilla Brigte and Uchtred continued to rule the Picts in peace. Walter Daniel’s summary might stand as an epitome of the Abbot of Rievaulx in his dealings with Scotland –

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey on the River Rye in North Yorkshire.

Ælred the peacemaker met them all, and with words of peace and strength he bound together angered sons by an indestructible pact in a single bond of affection.” (Vita 45-6)

St Ælred’s voice still speaks across the centuries. On Spiritual Friendship, remains widely read today and provides an ideal of friendship that resonates with people of all faiths and none.

Some modern scholars have argued that passages in Ælred’s writings show that he may have been both physically and emotionally attracted to other men. Sometimes, he is even called the “gay abbot of Rievaulx”, he’s become an unofficial patron of LGBTQ Christians, especially within the US Episcopalian Church. As a consequence, a number of Polish Cistercians have reacted by flatly refusing to read any of Ælred’s works. Frankly, their blinkered attitude is their loss, we should pray that their eyes might be opened against ignorance and intolerance. One can’t help but wonder if they have a similarly censorious attitude towards the early monastic and Cistercian authors whose literary works are embellished with hate and diatribes.

The evidence about Ælred’s sexuality is ambiguous to say the least. But what has never been in doubt is Ælred’s deep understanding of human nature, his compassion, love for others, inclusiveness and bravery. His feast day on 12 January is therefore well worth marking.

Once the global pandemic covid lockdown 3.2 has been lifted, I’d urge you to visit Rievaulx where an series of strategically located temporary information panels will be installed in order to recount Ælred’s story. The abbey’s beautiful ruins remain a living witness to “the life of so great a father”.

Brother Anthony [Re-enactor Tony Powell], holding a traditional pipkin containing pottage, a medieval stew, at English Heritage’s Rievaulx Abbey in the North York Moors National Park.

Grant to your people, Almighty God, a spirit of mutual affection; that, following the example of your servant Ælred of Rievaulx, we might know the love of Christ in loving one another; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.