In 781, Alcuin had a choice. Should he accept an offer from Frankish King Charles (Charlemagne) to teach in the brand new Palace School or should he continue serving as master of the Cathedral School of York as he had for 15 years?
At the time, the Northumbrian was about 46. (His exact birthdate is unknown; the estimate is 735, which is good enough for me.) He had been with the York school since he was a child, placed there by his noble parents. York was a prestigious place, second only to Canterbury. York’s archbishop, Ecgberht, was King Eadberht’s brother.
Alcuin proved to be an apt pupil and said the school taught him “with tenderness of a mother’s love” and “a fatherly chastisement.” He attracted the attention of Ælbert, the master of the school, and Ecgberht.
In the morning, Ecgberht taught Latin literature, Greek, Roman law, astronomy, music, and theology such as the New Testament. Ælbert’s subjects were rhetoric, grammar, jurisprudence, poetry, astronomy, and the Old Testament. The students attended Mass at midday, followed by dinner and recreation, which included discussions and debates of the morning’s lesson. At vespers, students knelt for blessing.
Alcuin also might have grown up hearing about missionaries such as Willibrord and Wigbert, who tried to convert pagan peoples on the Continent. He likely knew about Boniface and the nuns and priests who followed him across the channel to strengthen Christianity. Alcuin would have been 19 when Boniface was martyred.
All this must have instilled a deep faith and devotion to scholarship in him. Later he would write, “My master Ecgberht used to tell me that the arts were discovered by the wisest of men, and it would be a deep and lasting shame if we allowed them to perish for want of zeal. But many are so faint-hearted as not care about knowing the reason for such things.”
1830 painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
When Alcuin was 20, Ecgberht sent him to the Continent to acquire books to enrich York’s library, an expensive and hazardous mission. Alcuin risked his ship sinking, bandits on the road, being robbed by hosts, and sudden turns in the weather. Books were precious. Made of sheepskin, a large tome could require a whole herd. They were copied by hand, and those beautiful illuminations and ornate covers added to the price.
Yet York had a collection to boast about. It included work by Greeks and Romans (Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, and Lucan), Church fathers (Jerome, Ambrose, Hilary, Augustine, Leo, and Gregory the Great), historians (Bede and Aldhelm), and grammarians (Donatus, Probus, and Phocas).
We don’t know how long Alcuin’s first errand for the archbishop lasted, but it likely took months. At home, the political situation was unstable. Alcuin thought King Eadberht, the archbishop’s brother, had a prosperous, harmonious, and militarily successful reign. But in 756, when Alcuin was 21, Eadberht suffered a disastrous defeat. Two years later, the king received the tonsure and joined his brother at York. The king’s successor, his son Oswulf, was murdered a year later.
In 766—and two more Northumbrian kings later—Ecgberht died. Ælbert succeeded the archbishop, and Alcuin, newly ordained a deacon, became master of York’s school. Alcuin must have been a good teacher. He attracted students from all over Britain and abroad, including Frisia and Ireland.
Politics remained volatile. In 774, another king seized the crown after his predecessor was deposed and exiled. Four years later, Ælbert resigned his archbishopric to retire, and Alcuin’s friend Eanbald succeeded him.
19th century image (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
In 779, yet another king ascended to the Northumbrian throne: Ælfwald, son of the murdered Oswulf and grandson of Eadberht. Although Alcuin admired Eadberht, he didn’t think much of the current king: “From the days of King Ælfwald fornications, adulteries, and incest have flooded the land, so that these sins have been committed without any shame and even with the handmaids of God.” (Ælfwald reign ended with his murder in 788.)
Ælbert died in 780. Soon after, Eanbald sent Alcuin to Rome to fetch a pallium (a woolen band with pendants that symbolize authority). Alcuin was on his way home when he met the king of the Franks. What was running through Alcuin’s mind when Charles asked him to come to the Frankish court?
Here is my speculation. He might have craved stability on the political front. In the past 10 years, Northumbria had three kings, and the current one was leading his realm into immorality. Charles had ruled the Franks alone since 771. Twice divorced, the king of the Franks had his own shortcomings, but he was a steadfast husband to his current wife. More important, he was an ally of the pope and providing missionaries like Alcuin’s friend Willehad with the military support for they needed to bring Christianity to pagans. In the Frankish court, Alcuin could interact with scholars from Italy, Francia, Ireland, and Hispania. He would still teach. His students would be the royal family and their close friends.
The prospect of leaving York might have been nerve-wracking, yet the opportunity to do something different might have excited him. Alcuin returned to York to get his superior’s permission to join the Palace School in Francia. With that choice, he would help build the intellectual foundation for Charles’ empire.
Alcuin: His Life and His Work, by C.J.B. Gaskoin
Alcuin, by E.M. Wilmot-Buxton
“Alcuin” by James Burns, The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 16 Jun. 2018 .
The Oxford Companion to British History (2 ed.), edited by Robert Crowcroft and John Cannon
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
This post was originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors.