A group of archaeologists are to search for a monastery founded by Saint Æbbe in the seventh century. Harriet Tatton, a community archaeologist with DigVentures, tells us more.
What do kings, rowdy nuns and monks, saints and friendly otters all have in common? Well, they’re all central to the story of a little place called Coldingham.
Coldingham today is a village in the Scottish Borders, but when it was founded around AD640, it was an early Christian monastery with a unique story.
The monastery was founded by Saint Æbbe. Little is known about Æbbe’s early life, but historical records suggest she was born around AD615 and she was certainly born into a noble family. She was the daughter of the first king of Northumbria. A year or so after her birth, the death of her father forced her family to flee to Dál Riata, a kingdom that incorporated much of what is now western Scotland and north-eastern Ireland.
The kingdom of Dál Riata was a stronghold for early Christianity. There were many religious centres springing up in Dál Riata, with Saint Columba’s monastery at Iona being the most iconic. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that Æbbe and her family were converted from paganism to Christianity during their stay there.
After many violent years, the throne passing between Æbbe’s brothers and those who challenged them, Æbbe returned to Northumbria, and decided to take up monastic life. Around AD635, Æbbe’s brother, now King Oswald, introduced monks who followed the teachings of Saint Columba to the island of Lindisfarne in order to Christianise his people, who were still largely a pagan population. Shortly afterwards, Æbbe followed suit and founded a monastery at Ebchester. She then went on to found another monastery a day or so north of Lindisfarne. This monastery for both monks and nuns was recorded by the name of ‘Urbs Coludi’ by Northumbrian monk and historian Bede. It would later become known as Coldingham.
Coldingham Priory. ©DigVentures
Æbbe allegedly became a nun to avoid the advances of Prince Aidan who wished to marry her. He continued to pursue her even after she took the veil and legend has it that she fled to Kirk Hill, where she prayed for safety. Her prayers were granted and the tide remained high to protect her from him. Aidan gave up his pursuit and from then Æbbe was able to dedicate her life to Christianity.
This would not be the end of Æbbe’s struggles however. Æbbe herself was noted for her ‘virtue’, however she had a difficult time enforcing discipline at Coldingham. Early monasteries were not the strict establishments we would think of today. In the early Christian period monasteries were more commonly associated with eating, drinking and entertainment, and it wasn’t long before the monks and nuns at Coldingham became worldly and unruly.
Coldingham became so well known for its rowdy behaviour that Saint Cuthbert eventually visited to instruct the community and enforce some control. Bede notes that every evening he would walk out into the sea until he was neck-deep to bathe, staying in the water until dawn to avoid succumbing to temptations of the flesh. A curious monk decided to follow him one evening, and spied on Cuthbert to find out what he was doing each evening when he left the monastery. The monk watched as Cuthbert sang psalms from the sea throughout the night. When Cuthbert finally came back to shore he was followed by two otters; they warmed his ice-cold feet and dried him with their fur.
Sadly, Æbbe’s legacy was not to last. The end of Æbbe’s monastery was prophesised by the monk Adamnán, and in AD683 his prophesy was fulfilled when it burned down shortly after Æbbe’s death. The tragedy was blamed on the disorderly behaviour of the monks and nuns who resided there. The monastery was rebuilt, however Viking raiders destroyed the second monastery less than 200 years later, in AD870.
The location of Æbbe’s original monastery has long been disputed. It was thought for a long time to be at Kirk Hill at St Abbs Head, however no solid evidence has ever definitely proved this, and has led to debate on the subject. Excitingly, a recent geophysical survey has shown there are structures under the surface much closer to the Priory at Coldingham that could be the original monastery. DigVentures will be excavating these exciting features in June, and we would love for you to join us to try to solve this mystery.