Discovered: The Lost Spiritual Legacy Of A Powerful Anglo Saxon Pagan Princess
Aebbe (615-668 AD) was a powerful Anglo Saxon pagan princess who became an abbess and then a saint for having been instrumental in spreading Christianity along the north east coast of what is today England. Her monastery was burned down by Viking raiders in 870 AD and its location has always evaded archaeologists, but recent excavations have revealed a vast narrow circular ditch - the boundary surrounding Aebbe’s monastery.
Aebbe’s Anglo-Saxon Monastery Discovered
It had always been believed that the Anglo-Saxon monastery was located on a cliff-top overlooking the sea, but this team of archaeologists looked further inland, to where Coldingham Priory is now located in Berwickshire. Manda Forster from DigVentures, who are managing the excavation, told reporters at The BBC that outside the boundary the team uncovered “a huge pile of butchered animal bones which radiocarbon dating has just confirmed date to 660 – 860 AD… This is pretty much exactly when Aebbe’s monastery was in existence.”
Forster added that a ditch system “encircles Coldingham Priory, meaning that the heart of Aebbe’s monastery is somewhere underneath it.” A geophysical survey revealed the outlines of a group of archaeological features and archaeologists discovered an Anglo Saxon belt fitting and sculpture.
The dig of Aebbe’s monastery concentrated on ground around Coldingham Priory in the Borders. (Maiya Pina-Dacier / DIGVENTURES/AERIAL-CAM)
Because it was not possible to excavate the whole site the team created a shortlist and nearly 700 people from the community inspected maps before voting on possible dig sites. Having listened to the public’s choices the team excavated four trenches then discovered Aebbe’s monastery, with part of it buried beneath Coldingham Priory.
Digging into the Aebbe’s Ancient Abbey
The DigVentures website announced that “Hundreds of animal bones including cattle, horse, pig, sheep, goat, domestic fowl, and red deer, the animal bone spreads represent the disposal of carcasses after processing with the high value joints of meat consumed elsewhere within the complex. They were eating well!”
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At the dig site of Aebbe’s monastery the team discovered bones which have dated back to the 7 th to 9 th centuries. (Maiya Pina- Dacier / DIGVENTURES/AERIAL-CAM)
An article in Live Science explains that the princess Aebbe was the daughter of a Northumbrian warlord called Aethelfrith who was killed by Edwin, chief of the rival race of Deira. Aebbe, then about ten years old, fled with her seven brothers to Scotland under the safety of King Dumnual Brec of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, where the family converted to Christianity.
Aebbe accompanied her brother Oswald while he attempted to reclaim the Northumbrian throne and built the monastery on Lindisfarne which was the first British site raided by Vikings. An article in Early British Kingdom’s informs that “Aidan, a Scottish prince, wished to marry Aebbe, and her brothers favored his suit, but being bent on a religious and celibate life, she took the veil from St. Finan, Bishop of Lindisfarne about 655 AD.”
Most of the newspapers covering this story say “Aebbe established a mixed sex monastery which housed both monks and nuns“ but this is incorrect and there is no mention of monks at the time of the martyrdom of St. Aebbe. She is known to have helped her brother Oswald control the north of his kingdom, even educating Queen Aetheldreda who established a monastery that would become Ely Cathedral.
Representation of St. Aebbe. (Marco Desscouleurs / Adobe)
Aebbe famously invited St. Cuthbert, Prior of Melrose and the Abbot of Lindisfarne to visit her and her nuns. The latter avoided women but thought so highly of Aebbe that he visited and as a gift she gave him the piece of cloth in which eventually he was buried. After the death of Aebbe - at Coldingham on 25th August 683 AD - the monastery caught fire and burned to the ground. It was rebuilt after a brief period of abandonment until it was finally destroyed by Vikings in 870 AD.
Top image: A ditch has revealed what is thought to be the boundary to Aebbe’s monastery. Source: Maiya Pina-Dacier / DIGVENTURES/AERIAL-CAM.
By Ashley Cowie