Mailros Abbey, Old Melrose, and its Historical Setting
by Dr Bill Lonie
The site of Mailros Abbey and St Cuthbert's Chapel, Old Melrose lies on the peninsula formed by a wide eastwards bend of the River Tweed cutting into Bemersyde Hill. On the hill is the famous Scott's View overlooking the Tweed and the Mailros site. The neck of the peninsula to the west is about 300m wide and cuts off an area of 24 hectares, 60 acres. The Abbey and Chapel site is to the east end of the peninsula overlooking the river, just north of the 19th century house of Old Melrose and its walled garden A visit was made to the site in December, 1996, with the permission of the owner of Ravenswood estate. There is little to be seen. The Chapel Mound is just that, with a few undressed stones protruding. Skirting the mound to the north is a grass-grown path kerbed with heavy dressed stones. This is estate work and leads to a gate into the garden. Inspection of the garden walls discovered several finely dressed and simply carved stones built into them. These stones may be from the Chapel but are not readily dateable.
As summarised in RCAMS,1956, minor excavations found some old foundations to the SE of the Chapel Mound and three graves, old but undated, to the SE of the House, some 100m south of the Chapel. The neck of the peninsula is closed by a low bank, the remains of the monastery vallum. The vallum is broken near its centre by an old road, now ploughed out. This ran SW inclining S. The road does not obviously lead to any settlement and was perhaps a link with Dere Street . Despite the meagre remains the site is well attested in history and has many famous and interesting persons associated with it.
RCAMS,1956 : Inventory of Roxburghshire : HMSO
Charles Thomas,1971 : The Early Christian Archaeology of North Britain : OUP
Mailros, Old Melrose, the Name
Watson,1926 derives Melrose from the Old British or Cymric 'Mail-rhos', the cropped moor or meadow. Nicolaisen,1976 gives it as 'Moelros', from the Cymric, the bare moor, noting that it is cognate with the Gaelic 'maol ros', of the same meaning. Macdonald,1991 accepts the Cymric derivation and notes the various spellings :' Mailros' (Bede,ca.700, and adopted here), 'Magilros' (ca.900. The Anglo-Saxon soft 'g' pronounced 'y'), 'Melros' (ca.1150), 'Melrose' from ca.1680. Johnstone,1982, favours the Gaelic 'Maol ros', the bare moor.
I thought that the '-ros' element indicated a 'peninsula', a derivation studiously avoided by alI these authorities although it is the most obvious feature of the Old Melrose site. MacKenzie,1845, English-Gaelic, gives 'Peninsula...tairbeart, ros ', while MacAlpine,1832 Gaelic-English, gives 'Ros......a promontory or peninsula ; an ros Muileach, the promontory of Mull.' Evans & Thomas,1958, Welsh-English-Welsh, give 'Rhos......rhostir ; moor, plain.'
The Cymric cropped moor or meadow recognises the reality of extensive hill pasture and rich lowland with agricultural potential. No hardship for the convent here, however hard the individual life. As a description the name may differentiate the place from other Tweeddale areas thickly covered with woodland. If so the clearing is probably a legacy from Romano-British farming around the abandoned Trimontium Roman fort and settlement only a kilometer to the west.
The History of the Monastery in Outline
The written record of Mailros Abbey is scant and scattered in medieval church writings. What is given here is culled from the secondary sources given below.
From this summary the main point to note is the great gaps in time between many of the events of the historical record. For 60 years after the foundation the saints and monks of Mailros receive sporadic mention. Then some 65 years elapse between Drythelm the mystic and the battle of Eldunum. Nearly 100 years elapse from Eldunum to the MacAlpin destruction, followed in 16 years by the sheltering the St Cuthbert relics. 200 years later, no less, there was the stay by Turgot's monks and the founding only 7 years later of St.Cuthbert's Chapel. 50 years later David I gifted Mailros and then the present Melrose Abbey site to the Cistercians of Reivaulx. The Chapel remained active for at least a further 200 years. Both events and gaps have interest when set in the history of the times. It is also to be noted that the sanctity of the site was recognised for at least 800 years.
Old Melrose in sub-Roman times.
Inscribed funery stones evidence a respected Christian presence in southern Scotland in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Thomas,1971, above, suggests that Peebles and Mailros may have been ecclesiastical centres in sub-Roman times serving the diocese and native principality of Bernicia.
The Kingdoms of Britain and the Battles of the Kings.
The withdrawal of the Roman army and administration from Britannia in 410AD left the British Isles in turmoil. The province, mainland Britain south of Hadrian's Wall, was immediately subject to raids, and then to settlement. Along the east and south-east coasts and inland, these intruders were the pagan Angles, Jutes and Saxons. Along the western coasts, including Wales, the intruders were the Irish, the Scotti of old, partly Christianised. From the north the Picts from beyond the Forth and Clyde, the Caledonians of old, came raiding if not to settle For good measure the Irish were also intruding into the indented west coast of Caledonia, to set up the kingdom of Dalriada.
The Romano-British peoples of the former province were on less than equal terms with the invaders, as they had homes and families to defend. There were pockets of strong resistance in the former military zone and in the legionary colonia areas, that gave rise to the Arthurian legends. The former Roman client kingdoms between the Walls had retained much of their military skill from acting as buffer states between the Caledonians and the Province. In these struggles the land was slowly divided into kingdoms, The Anglian kingdoms of Bernicia, north of the Tyne and into Tweeddale, and of Deira, south of the Tyne as far as the Humber, formed the core of Northumbria to be.
The Christian churches, Celtic and Roman, were a welcome legacy of the Roman Empire. They did what they could to mitigate the horrors of inter-tribal and inter-racial warfare and to promote the benefits of peace. Kings and their courts, however, tended to regard their churchmen and the relics of the saints as aids to victory in battle. When successful in this function the church was richly rewarded. Since the Church was thereby strengthened, clerics could not deny this power, though to some, as St. Cuthbert, it was a sore trial.
The kings of Northumbria were descended from the Bernician dynasty founded by Ida, who made his base at Bamburgh in 547AD He was a pagan, claiming to be 9th in descent from Woden, He and his sons reigned until 593 with only local expansion of the kingdom along the coast and into the plains of the rivers Tweed and Till. These early kings were succeeded by Aethelfrith as king of Bernicia and from 603 to 616 as king of Northumbria united .
In 603 Aethelfrith defeated a Gododdin raid at Catterick. The raid is recorded in the poem 'Y Gododdin' of Aneirin, the 7th century Welsh poet. The Gododdin were the Votodini shown on Ptolemy's Map of 1st century North Britain as occupying the coastal plains and carse of Forth. In the same year Aethelfrith united Bernicia and Deira and defeated a combined army of Dalriadan Scots and Strathclyde Britons at Degsastan , probably Dawston in the Cheviot Hills. Thirteen years later, in 616, he defeated the Britons of Cumbria and Wales at Chester. His raiding and conquests ended when he was himself defeated and killed at the battle of the Idle, a tributary of the Trent, by king Raedwald of East Anglia. His successor Edwin was in exile in East Anglia, a probable reason for the encounter.
The Conversion of Northumbria to Christianity.
Edwin, king 616 to 632, continued the aggressive policies. In 619 he conquered Elmet, a minor kingdom in the eastern Penines. Ranging further afield in 622 he conquered Man and Anglesey The shipping for this conquest poses interesting questions. In 625 he married Aethelberg, a Christian princess of Kent. She brought her chaplain Paulinus, ordained bishop, to the Northumbrian court. The happy birth of his daughter Eanfled in 626, an escape from an assination attempt and a victory over the West Saxon perpetrators, led Edwin and many of his people to baptism into the Christian faith. Unkindly disaster followed. In 632 he was defeated and killed at Haethfield, south of Doncaster, by pagans Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Wales. Northumbria, including the Tweed valley, was ravaged by the victors and Yeavering, the king's great hall, on the River Glen 6km west of Wooler, was destroyed by fire. Excavation, reported by Hope-taylor,1977, revealed clear traces of this event. Northumbria was divided between Eanfrith of Bernicia and Osric of Deira. Paganism returned to the land. Mystery surrounds the deaths of Eanfrith and Osric. Both died in 633, but not in battle. Cousin Oswald returned from Iona to become king.
Prince Oswald (later Saint) and his sister Aebbe(St) had been educated and converted to Christianity while in youthful exile in Iona. On his accession, Oswald, king.632 to 642, had first to tidy up the kingdom, divided by dynastic quarrel, and ravaged by both Penda and Cadwallon. In 633 Oswald gained a victory against heavy odds at Heavenfield, near Hexham, and Cadwallon was slain. This answer to the prayers of his Ionan monks before the battle confirmed Oswald in his Christian faith and in his intent to bringhis people to Christianity. In 635 he invited Aidan(St) from the church of Iona he knew so well to found Lindisfarne and its daughter house of Mailros.
Whatever the lessons of the past Oswald continued the aggressive Northumbrian expansion. In campaigns over 639 to 642 he took Dun Eidyn, and annexed Manau. the Carse of Forth. Oswald's story ends far from home with his defeat and death in 642 in battle against Penda of Mercia with Welsh allies at Maserfield on the Welsh Marches near Oswestry. His death brought his brother Oswy, king 642 to 671, to the throne of Northumbria.
The disaster of Maserfield left Northumbria weakened and in 649 Penda of Mercia laid siege of Bamburgh. In this deep Mercian intrusion the royal palace of Yeavering was again destroyed, but there is no mention in Bede's Life of Cuthbert of damage to either Lindisfarne or Mailros.
Cuthbert and the Saints of Mailros.
Cuthbert, aged 15, and probably then a student at Aidan's school on Lindisfarne, served in king Oswy's army in the defence of Bamburgh. As a shepherd-boy adept with sling and spear and bold in the face of wolf and boar, he may have gained his first recognition as a 'battle-saint'. In 653 Penda of Mercia again raided Northumbria and was again repulsed.
Two years later, in 655, the battle of Winwaed gave Oswy total victory over a pagan Mercian alliance and Penda slain. Abbot Eata and Cuthbert, both of Mailros Abbey, had just been appointed to found Ripon Abbey. They may well have been present at the battle, for the battle-site, Gaiu's Field by the River Winwaed, the Went, is only 57km, two days' march, south of Ripon. Promises and prayers before the battle brought great reputation and wealth to the Church.
In the sixteen years after Winwaed to his death in 671, king Oswy also founded the abbeys of Gilling and Whitby, and at the latter in 664 convened the Synod of Whitby. Eata and Cuthbert had returned to Mailros in protest at Roman practices introduced earlier at Ripon. The decisions of Whitby to adopt these practices caused many Celtic church-men to withdraw to monasteries, even to Iona. Colman(St) was amongst them. Eata and Cuthbert accepted the Whitby decisions, continued their work in Northumbria and in due time became bishops, of Lindisfarne and Hexham respectively.
Oswy gave Northumbria a time of peace and prosperity in which Mailros can only have flourished. Abbeys and cathedrals and many lesser churches graced the land. Cuthbert became the most revered and beloved church-man of Northumbria. Bede's 'Life of St Cuthbert' is a rich and coherent historical source that has stimulated many commentaries, one of which is reviewed by John Butcher in this Bulletin.
Despite his undoubted saintliness Cuthbert's main value to the kings of Northumbria was as a batle-saint His birth near the time of the miraculous victory of Heavenfield, his presence at the successful defence of Bamburgh and perhaps at the the decisive battle of Winwaed established a reputation from which he could not escape. This reputation was probably enhanced by his disapproval of the Nechtansmere adventure of 685 with its fatal outcome and end to Northumbrian ambitions north of the Forth. Even in after-life his reputation persisted. When William I, the Conqueror had the Archbishop of York build St.Cuthbert's Chapel at Old Melrose in 1080, his presence there on the River Tweed at the mouth of Lauderdale would warn Scots invaders of their likely fate. Authorities differ, but in 1138 his banner may well have been carried at the bloody repulse of the Scots under David I at the Battle of the Standard.
Bede relates that about 658 Oswy subdued the Picts and exacted tribute and service from the Scots and Britons. A Northumbrian prince Talorcan had been king of Pictavia from 653 to 657. On the death of Talorcan Northumbrian rule may have been preferred to the threatened annexation by the Scots of Dalriada. No battles are recorded. The occupation probably included all Pictavia south of the Mounth, to judge from battle-sites in the 680s. In the 30-plus years of the occupation a bishopric was set up at Abercorn on the Forth to serve the new diocese.
The death of Eathelhun, one-time monk of Melrose, of the plague in 665, persuaded the young Northumbrian aristocrat Egbert(St) of his mission. He had been spared. We may surmise that both were pupils of Aidan's school on Lindisfarne before becoming novices. Egbert organised missions to the German tribes, still pagan, and persuaded the convent of Iona to accept the Whitby decisions.
The king of Egbert's time was Egfrith (k.671 to 685). The peace of Oswy's later reign was soon broken. In 672 a revolt in southern Pictavia with northern support was put down with great slaughter. In 674 a great Mercian invasion under Wulfhere was defeated. Peace reigned for a decade but in 684 Egbert(St) failed to dissuade king Egfrith from raiding Ireland. Again the shipping for this venture is unexplained.
In 681the northern Picts under Bridei mac Bili took Dundurn and beseiged Dunottar, actions which might suggest that both forts had been held by Northumbria for some time. In retaliation in 685 Egfrith led a great army into Angus to total defeat and his death in battle at Nechtan's Mere. Bede tells of Egfrith being lured into a trap, Nearby Duin Nechtain may have been a Northumbrian hold under seige. The Picto-Scottish kingdom was secured.
Bishop Trumwin abandoned his cathedral of Abercorn and the new king of Northumbria, Aldfrith, king 685 to 704, drew back to the Forth, and conceded peace. This frontier on the Forth was held for long enough for the Pentland Hills name to become engraved in folk-memory. The name 'Pentland' derives from 'Pictland' via 'Pehtland' as with 'Pentland Firth'. The latter name is Scandinavian in origin from the Norse times in the Orkneys. The Pentland Hills name may also have its origin in the Scandinavian overlordship period in Northumbria.
Life in Monastic Mailros.
The buildings of a 7th century Celtic monastery were humble. The church, the most splendid building, would comprise a timber-framed wattle and daub hall with a thatched cruck roof set on a few courses of stone as foundation. Window slits would be high and narrow with shutters to exclude the worst of wet and cold. Inside to its east end a paved area would bear the altar with its few treasures of silver and tapestry laid out. An apse might be set in the east end-wall with a bench for the abbot and his presbytery. Candles would provide such light as was needed Flanking a cobbled path from the south door of the church would be the smaller and equally primitive halls of the scriptorium, the infirmary, the refectory, the kitchen and its store. The cloister and the orderly grouping of the abbey offices around it were inventions of the 9th and 10th centuries.
Where sea or river did not form a boundary, the vallum, a heavy bank with outer ditch, enclosed the monastery buildings and an area of 20 to 50 hectares. Within this small world the monks performed their duties At the edge of the sacred ground within the vallum huddled the individual cells of the convent monks, some round, some lean-too against the vallum bank, but all of turf or dry-stone with thatched roofs. A door might be left ajar or a hide curtain be lifted to one side to admit some light. The stream supplying the kitchen with pure water would also turn a clack-mill for flour to make the bannocks, Some of the water would be scooped into the brew-vats for small but health-giving beer. The stream would run on to the wash-place and toilets before its final exit. The brew-house would have a corn kiln to roast cereal for the beer wort. There and in the kitchen fingers frozen in the depths of winter might be thawed out.
Though the Abbot and his Prior might go about on pastoral missions and affairs of state the monks were confined within the vallum. Their duty was to intercede with God for the well-being of the kingdom and its people by prayers and fasting and by following the complex liturgy of the church and the rules of the convent. This was a hard life with long and broken hours of devotions. As compensation the daily needs and the spiritual wellfare of the monk were assured.
During the reign of king Aldfrith, 685 to 704, Drythelm was such a monk of Mailros. As a simple family man in Cunninghame he had died and been revived with a vision of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in clear detail such as had not been known before. As a monk he sought grace by immersing himself in the winter Tweed even amongst ice-floes. This mystic of Mailros was on occasion consulted by king Aldfrith.
Cuthbert, who died in 687, is reported as spending the night in prayer while immersed in the chill waters of the North Sea at Lindisfarne. Both holy men were undoubtedly inducing hypothermia and the trance-like state of detachment and euphoria that can accompany this near approach to death. The practice is very dangerous and trusted companions would be required to end the vigil. Similar trance-like states were induced by acute starvation or by the bleeding 'nye unto death' in preparation for vigil of later monastic practice.
Years of Obscurity, 704 to761
From the consultations of king Aldfrith with Drythelm the abbey of Mailros goes unrecorded for nearly 60 years. During this time the stalemate confrontation with the Picts to the north and the Mercians to the south continued. Expansion was to the west There the Northumbrian see of Whithorn was installed in 731, Kyle was annexed in 750, and Dumbarton was beseiged in 756. The sudden deaths in 758 and 759 of kings Eadbeart and Oswulf brought tyrant Moll to the throne and dynastic stife.
The Three-Day Battle of Eldunum near Mailros in 761AD
The battle of Eldunum near Mailros in 761 lasted three days. A Bernician revolt lead by throne claimant prince Oswin was crushed and Oswin killed by false claimant Aethelwald Moll. The duration of the battle suggests it had something of the character of a seige, and this in turn that a well-defended strong-hold was involved, possibly the fort on Eildon Hill North.
Much can be made of this mention of Mailros in a period of 160 years otherwise silent. The monastery was probably still functioning. That prince Oswin chose to make his stand 'near Mailros' suggests the area around to be a major centre of population and food resource. It probably had been so when Mailros monastery was founded in 635, to provide the pagans to convert. With such a resource associated with a functioning, even flourishing, monastery it would be reasonable to site a 'king's hall' in the vicinity. This has not been located.
Years of Silence, 761 to 859. Mailros in Danish Northumbria
Moll prevailed, but dynastic strife continued and so weakened the kingdom and empiry of Northumbria that it could not meet the challenge of the Vikings and the Dano-Norse intrusions of the 9th century.
The devastation of the Christian British Isles by the pagan Norse and Danes began in 795AD with the plunder of Lindisfarne and the slaughter of the convent. Raids continued unabated for nearly two centuries. Njal's Saga recounts the devastation of Kintyre in the 980's. Within that period many areas of the British Isles were colonised by the Danes and Norse. The areas of colonisation are marked by the distribution of typical funery monuments and grave goods and of Scandinavian place-names. These distributions re-enforce the historically recorded occupations of the Northern and Western Isles, of the mainland north and west of the Great Glen, of the shores and valleys of the Solway Firth and of the catchment of the River Ayr. South of The Cheviot the intrusions culminated in the dissolution of Dieran Northumbria with the taking of York by the Great Army of the Danes in 866 AD. This Danish conquest has left a scatter of pagan graves in NE England. The Danelaw marks the full extent of Danish occupation.
For our purposes there are no such graves and remarkably few place-names in the River Tweed basin. We may conclude that there was no pagan Scandinavian settlement of Tweeddale and that Mailros was probably spared the fate of Ebbe's Coldingham Abbey, destroyed by Vikings in 870..
During the 10th century most of the Scandinavian colonists became Christians. This was a remarkable acheivment by the Celtic and Roman churches of the British Isles for the Viking adherents of Odin were unparalleled in their enjoyment of brutality. A study might reveal that Mailros monastery made significant contribution to the conversions. While early Christian burials generally lack individual identification, the hog-backed grave-stone was favoured by the Christianised Danish elite of the 10th to 12th centuries. There is an interesting scatter of these grave-stones about the confluence of Teviot and Tweed. They are assigned a 12th century date on stylistic grounds.
Mailros Destroyed in 859 by Kenneth MacAlpin : the Scottish Ascendancy
Kenneth MacAlpin, king of Dalriada from 839 to 847 then of Scotia to 859 is, for all his historical importance, an obscure character. This resume of his kingship is only one of several that might be constructed from the historical references.
From his mother, a Norse princess of the Innsi Gall, and his father, Alpin, a sub-king of the Cenel Gabhrain, he inherited cunning, dynastic ambition and a celi, a war-band. A youth spent in Argyll subject to Viking raid and more permanent Norse intrusion sharpened his survival skills. He engaged a mercenary Norse warrior, Gothfrith Fergusson, to strenghthen his entourage. Fergussons are still strong in ancient Scotia's heartland.
By happy chance most of the rival claimants to the thrones of both Dalriada and Pictavia died in battle against a massive Viking raid on Fortrui in 839. Alpin seized the throne of Dalriada and installed Kenneth MacAlpin thereon in 840. The elimination of the remaining claimants to the Pictish throne brought Kenneth to the throne of the combined kingdom, Scotland to be, in 847. Not without resistance he initiated the suppression of the Pictish people, their language, their laws, their customs and their church. The Celtic church, expelled in 717, was reinstated, and the Roman church, with its Northumbrian links, was in turn expelled.
By some miracle of diplomacy or guile MacAlpin preserved his new churches at Dunkeld and St.Andrew's from Viking pillage. Tthe latter church is in full view of the North Sea. He also kept the eastern lands from the Great Glen to the Cheviot Hills free of Scandinavian settlement. I first thought he could not have done this without the support of his British and Anglian subjects there, even as the choice of the lesser evil in a world gone mad. I was wrong. In the eleven years to his death in 858 he launched no fewer than six campaigns of subjugation against the the people of the Lothians and Greater Tweeddale. The chronicles mention the destruction of Dunbar, former Northumbrian bastion against the Picts, possibly as a naval base.
As a last act of his reign, for he died in 858, he ordered the destruction of Mailros. This was done in 859. One wonders what offence the abbey had given, or whether, like Dunbar, Eldunum near Mailros was still a centre of resistance. The campaigns of annexation continued for nearly 150 years until the battle of Carham in 1018. This was a crushing defeat for Northumbria, and drew the Anglo-Scottish border uncertainly on the Tweed and Cheviot Hills.
The Relics of St.Cuthbert Rest at Mailros in the Year 875
The wanderings of the relics of St.Cuthbert in their flight from the Vikings are an epic tale in themselves. Mailros, possibly re-built after the MacAlpin destruction, offered temporary refuge. Carved stones from funery monuments of the 9th century are frequent in Northumberland, and a few have been found in Tweeddale, most recently in 1997, in Newstead village, only 2.5km west of Mailros. No churchman, I think I sense the the warmth of that mighty saint in that fragment of stone.
Two Hundred Years on : 1073 and 1080 : the Monks of York and Durham Return to Mailros
In 1073 the abbey of Mailros, reportedly in ruins, housed Turgot and other Benedictine monks of York for two years. Some sort of reconnaissance mission was involved. Only five years later a chapel of Durham cathedral was built there and most appropriately dedicated to St.Cuthbert. It is impossible not to link the two events. An historical context. may be found in the confrontation without battle between William I, the Conqueror, of England and Malcolm III, Canmore, of Scotland, at Abernethy in the heartland of Scotia. Thereafter Malcolm ceased to raid William's Northumberland That St.Cuthbert was a battle-saint of Northumbria may not be without significance. The history of Mailros ends here except that archaeological investigation at Old Melrose will almost certainly bring major surprises.