St Erkenwald, the 7th century Bishop of London, is not particularly well-known today, but he played a prominent role in building up Christian civilisation amidst the violence, ignorance and superstition of Anglo-Saxon England’s pagan kingdoms.
ERKENWALD was born into a family of royal blood in the Kingdom of Lindsey around 630, and used his inheritance to found a monastery for himself in Chertsey near London, and another for his sister Ethelburga in Barking.*
In 674, King Sebbi of Essex was baptised, and Erkenwald’s part in this, together with the high reputation of his two monastic communities, led Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, to appoint Erkenwald as Bishop of London in 675.
Under Erkenwald’s guidance, King Ine of Wessex issued the kingdom’s first law code, and was rewarded when Southampton became a prosperous port. It was also Erkenwald who resolved the misunderstanding between Theodore and Wilfrid, bishop of York, to all England’s lasting benefit.*
After he died on April 30th, 693, people remembered Erkenwald as ‘the Light of London’ and venerated him as a healing saint. Even the delicate silken coverings of his tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral miraculously survived a devastating fire in 1087, but nothing survived Henry VIII’s ‘reformers’.*
* The Kingdom of Lindsey was roughly equivalent to modern day Lincolnshire. It was small and often subjected to its neighbours Mercia and Northumbria (see The Kings of Northumbria), and its last recorded ruler lived in the late 8th century. Ethelburga’s community was for both men and women, a so-called ‘double monastery’.
* St Wilfrid of Hexham and York (5) was also Bishop of York, and a founder of many churches and monasteries who inspired great loyalty. Theodore mistrusted Wilfrid, so he sacked him and partitioned his diocese. However, Wilfrid won backing from Rome, and in the meantime went to southern England where his church building and popularity only grew. Erkenwald helped Theodore to see Wilfrid as an asset rather than a rival.
* After the fire of 1087 a new church, Old St Paul’s, was raised on the site; the current St Paul’s Cathedral was built following The Great Fire of London in 1666. By then, Henry VIII’s theological experts had already done to St Erkenwald much as they tried to do to Cvthbertvs (St Cuthbert), smashing the shrine, selling off the valuables, and incinerating the remains.