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Significant Scots
Saint Aidan


AIDAN, SAINT, Bishop of Lindisfarne in the seventh century, was originally a monk on the island of Iona, and afterwards became a missionary in England. To understand aright the history and labours of this self-devoted Christian missionary, it is necessary to glance at the condition of England, and especially of Northumbria, at the commencement of his ministry. England had been but lately converted to Christianity, through the labours of Augustin and forty monks, who had been sent to Britain, for that purpose, by Pope Gregory the Great. The conversion of the seven kingdoms of the heptarchy, into which England was divided by the Saxon conquerors, had been effected with unexampled rapidity, but through the simplest agency. The monks, in the first instance, addressed themselves to the sovereign of the state; and when he renounced his heathen errors, and submitted to baptism, his people implicitly followed the example. But such sudden and wholesale conversions were extremely precarious; and it sometimes happened that, when the king apostatized or died, the people returned to their former worship of Thor and Odin as promptly as they had forsaken it. Such was especially the case in Northumbria, the largest kingdom of the heptarchy, and the scene of Aidan's labours. Edwin, the best and most illustrious sovereign of his day, after a life of strange peril and adventure, had won his hereditary Northumbrian crown, and been converted to Christianity by the Italian missionary Paulinus; and, on becoming a Christian, the happiest change was soon perceptible among his hitherto untamable subjects. They received their sovereign's creed without murmur or debate; "and in this time," says the old chronicler Fabyan, "was so great peace in the kingdom of Edwin, that a woman might have gone from one town to another without grief or noyaunce; and, for the refreshing of way-goers, this Edwin ordained, at clear wells, cups, or dishes of brass or iron, to be fastened to posts standing by the said wells' sides; and no man was so hardy as to take away those cups, he kept so good justice." In short, he seems to have been the Alfred of an earlier and ruder period. But, in the height of his power and usefulness, the terrible Penda, king of Mercia, and great champion of the ancient paganism, came against him in arms, and Edwin was defeated and slain in a great battle, fought at Hatfield or Heathfield, near the river Trent. The consequence was, that the Northumbrians relapsed into their former barbarism so rapidly, that every trace of Christianity would soon have been effaced from among them, had it not been that Oswald, the nephew of Edwin, came forward to vindicate the liberties of his falling country. This brave young prince, who headed the Christian cause against the Pagan, advanced to give battle to Cadwallader, king of North Wales, in whom his people had found the most relentless of their enemies. The Christian army which Oswald headed was very small, while that of Cadwallader was numerous, and its king was an able leader and successful conqueror. Aware of the disparity, and conscious of their own weakness, Oswald and his soldiers knelt in prayer, and humbly committed themselves to the God of the Christians, after which they assailed the enemy with full confidence, near Hexham. The Welsh were completely routed, their king was slain, and the victorious prince was received as king by the two united states of Deira and Bernicia.

The piety of Oswald attributed this signal success to the aid of the true God, whom he had invoked; and the first movement of his reign was to arrest the growing heathenism of his people, and recal them to the Christian faith. For this purpose he applied, however, not to the Italian monks, as his uncle had done, but to the Culdees of Iona; among whom he had been sheltered in his early youth, during the disasters of his family, and by whom he had been carefully educated. The message was gladly received by the Culdee brethren, and Corman, a learned monk of their order, was forthwith sent to Northumbria. But the savage manners of the people appalled him, their inability to comprehend his instructions disgusted him, so that, despairing of their conversion, he speedily returned home. While he was giving an account of his mission, and describing the Northumbrians as a race of impracticable savages, a voice of rebuke was suddenly heard in the assembly: "Brother, it seems to me that your want of success was owing to a want of condescension to your hearers. You should first have fed them with milk, according to the apostolic rule, until they were fitted to receive stronger food." All eyes were turned upon the speaker, who was Aidan. It was unanimously agreed by the assembly that he was the fittest person to attempt the conversion of the Northumbrians, and, on the charge being proposed to him, he cordial1y agreed. He arrived in England A.D. 634, and repaired to the court of king Oswald. And now a missionary work commenced in the Northumbrian kingdom such as missionary annals can seldom parallel, for both king and monk went hand in hand in the duty. Aidan, being a Celt, was either wholly ignorant of the Saxon language of his hearers or imperfectly acquainted with it; but, when he preached, Oswald was ready to interpret his addresses. The happiest results attended these joint labours. The ancient idolatry was utterly thrown aside, and Christianity established over Deira and Bernicia. Still further to confirm this change, Aidan prevailed upon the king to transfer the episcopal see from York to Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, a bleak peninsula upon the coast of Northumberland, which probably the Culdee preferred from its resemblance to his own beloved Iona; and here accordingly, a monastery was erected, which Aidan supplied with monks from his own country. It is to be observed, also, that the form of Christianity thus established in Northumbria was different from that which the Italian priests had established over the rest of England. It was according to the primitive institutes of Saint Columba, and therefore essentially presbyterian in its form and discipline. Aidan, although he succeeded to the metropolitan rule of the extensive archbishopric of York, was contented to continue a simple presbyter, and nothing more. He held no intercourse with the Roman pontiff, and acknowledged no superiority of episcopal authority. He repudiated those showy ceremonies and artificial forms which were so congenial to the Italian character, and which the foreign priests had been so careful to introduce into England. And, above all, instead of paying homage to tradition, as an authority independent of the Word, he would receive nothing as a religious rule save that which was contained in the sacred writings. Such was the religion of the Culdees; and in this form it was introduced into Northumbria by Aidan and Oswald, who were both of them Culdees. But even if these important peculiarities had been left undisturbed by the Western church, that aimed at universal conformity and universa1 rule, there were certain trivialities belonging to the Culdeeism of Northumberland that, sooner or later, was sure to provoke the hostility of the rest of England. The priests of the order of Columba shaved their foreheads in the form of a half-moon, after the Eastern fashion, instead of having the Western tonsure, that was meant to represent a crown of thorns. Their season also of keeping Easter was according to the Asiatic calculation, and not that of the West. These were peculiarities which every eye could detect at once, and were therefore sufficient matters for controversy among a simple people whose views could penetrate no further; and, accordingly, the Easter and tonsure controversy became, in a few years after, the great subject of religious debate in England, by which the Culdees were expelled from the country. These disturbances, however, did not occur until both king and monk had entered into their rest.

After the death of Oswald, who was slain in battle, the kingdom of Northumbria was once more parted into two sovereignties, those of Deira and Bernicia; in the former of which Oswin was appointed king, and, in the latter, Oswio, It was, however a peaceful conjunction; and Aidan still continued, as before, to preside over the church of Northumberland. The character of Oswin appears to have fully resembled that of his amiable predecessor, and the bishop of Lindisfarne seems to have loved him with a still higher affection than even that which he bore for Oswald. Amidst the obscurity of that remote period, and the shadowy character of its actors, Bede tells us a touching story, in which the simple manners of the times, as well as the intercourse between the king and the bishop, are brought out in strong relief. Oswin had once presented to Aidan a fine horse. It happened that one day, as the Culdee was riding forth, he met a poor man, who asked of him an alms, and Aidan, having no money, bestowed on him the horse and its rich trappings. The king, on hearing of this, was displeased and could not refrain from expressing his resentment when Aidan next dined with him, "Why were you so lavish of my favour," he said, "as to give away my pad to a beggar! If you must needs mount him on horseback, could you not have given him one of less value? Or, if he wanted any other relief, you might have supplied him otherwise, and not have parted so easily with my gift." "You have not carefully considered this matter," replied Aidan, "for otherwise you could not set a greater value on the son of a mare, than on a son of God." In this way the affair ended for the present. Not long after, when the king returned from hunting, he saw the bishop, and, remembering what had lately occurred, he laid aside his sword, threw himself at the good man's feet, and asked his forgiveness for the rude words he had uttered. Aidan, grieved to see the king in this posture, immediately raised him, and declared that the whole matter was forgot. After this interview, however, Aidan was observed to be very sad; and, on being asked the cause by some of his monks, he burst into tears, and replied, "How can I be otherwise than afflicted? I foresee that Oswin's life will be short, for never have I beheld a prince so humble. His temper is too heavenly to dwell long among us, and, truly, the nation does not deserve the blessing of such a ruler." This mournful prediction was soon after accomplished by the death of Oswin, who was assassinated in August, 651; and Aidan took the matter so deeply to heart, that he died a fortnight after.

Such is the little that we know of Saint Aidan, the apostle of Northumberland, and bishop of Lindisfarne. That he was great and good, and that he accomplished much, is evident from the old chronicles, and especially from the history of venerable Bede, from whom the foregoing account has been chiefly gathered. The Venerable has also added to his account three miracles performed by Aidan, one of which occurred after his death; but with these it is unnecessary to trouble the modern reader. It is more agreeable to turn to his character, as drawn by Bede himself, who lived during the close of the same century, and knew Aidan well, not only from the testimony of his apostolic labours, but the reports of the old men, who had heard his words, and witnessed his doings: - "These things I have written," he says, "touching the person and actions of the man aforesaid, praising in his actions what is praiseworthy, and committing it to posterity for the behoof of those who read; to wit, his concern for peace and charity, for abstinence and humility; his utter freedom from wrath and avarice, from pride and vain-glory; his readiness alike to obey and teach the Divine commands; his diligence in reading and watching; his true sacerdotal authority in checking the proud and powerful, and, at the same time, his tenderness in comforting the afflicted, and relieving or defending the poor. To say all in few words, as far as we have been informed by those who personally knew him, he took care to omit no part of his duty, but, to the utmost of his power, performed everything commanded in the writings of the evangelists, apostles, and prophets."


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