by Christopher Jobson
The little we know about Saint Alchmund (or Ealhmund) comes from the late twelfth-century chronicle attributed to Simeon of Durham that seems to draw on a set of York annals 703-802. Alchmund was the second son of Alhred or Alchred who was the Christian king of Northumbria from 765 until Aethelred deposed him in 774. According to Simeon he fled to the kingdom of the Picts where he and his family were given refuge in the court of King Ciniod. In the ensuing dynastic struggles Alchmund returned to Northumbria with some forces where, after some initial success, he was killed around 800. There is some confusion among the chroniclers as to the mode and the date of his death. However, in his Historia Regum Simeon records that:“In 800 Alkmund, as some say the son of King Alhred of Northumberland was seized by the guards of King Eardwulf and by his order killed along with some of his fellow-fugitives.” Within a short space of time he was honoured as a saint and recorded in an anonymous 9th century treatise that contains a list of saints’ resting places. In this treatise his relics were said to lie in a minster at Northworthy (Derby), ‘beside the River Derwent’.
Some further confusing details are given by Ranulf Higden, a fourteenth century monk of Chester, in his Polychronicon. His account, thought to be drawing on an earlier Vita of St. Alchmund, states that Alchmund was killed in battle at Kempsford (on Thames, near Cricklade) and that his body was first buried in the Album Monasterium (White Monastery) which usually is supposed to mean Lilleshall. This late medieval account is problematical because it states that Alchmund was involved in a battle so far from his native Northumbria. This is further compounded by the fact that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record of the battle at Kempsford makes no mention of Alchmund. The initial burial at Lilleshall seems to be inaccurate because the abbey at Lilleshall was not founded or built until after the Norman Conquest: the Domesday survey lists only a church there. However, Domesday does inform us that Lilleshall was one of a dozen or so manors held by the royal foundation of St. Alchmund’s Shrewsbury.
Significantly both Whitchurch and Oswestry were known by the name Album Monasterium shortly after Domesday and, quite remarkably, the church at Whitchurch is the only other dedication to St. Alchmund in the diocese of Lichfield. Perhaps this is where the fourteenth century chronicler Ralf Higden really meant and the attribution of Album Monasterium to Lilleshall was made by the editor of the transcription in the nineteenth century. The confusion probably has arisen because Lilleshall is the only monastery that, at least by the twelfth century, claimed to be associated with Saint Alchmund. Whitchurch, on the other hand, is dedicated to St. Alchmund and is referred to as Album Monasterium in medieval sources that were probably available to Ralph Higden at Chester in the fourteenth century. This probably means that Higden believed that Alchmund was originally buried at Whitchurch. Oswestry is of course dedicated to the great Northumbrian king and martyr, Oswald.
In the 1970’s the demolition of the Victorian structure of St. Alchmund’s Church, Derby, to make way for a new road afforded the opportunity for archaeological investigation of the site. The findings suggested that its foundations dated to about 800 and the surviving sections of the original floorplan show comparison to other known Saxon churches. A beautifully decorated stone sarcophagus with a small fragment of the lid from the same period was also discovered in the southeast corner of the nave. This had been buried so that the lid would have been level with the twelfth century ground surface. However the elaborate decoration on all four sides shows that it was intended to be seen. Its position “on the floor of the sanctuary” is the same as Bede’s description of the enshrinement of St. Cuthbert and that of the relics of St. Oswald which were eventually placed in the eastern portico of the priory of St Oswald, Gloucester. Evidently this had been a burial of considerable importance, the date and position of which almost certainly identify it as the shrine of Saint Alchmund. The sarcophagus is now carefully preserved and displayed in the Derby Museum. Other finds included a slab carved with similar decoration to the sarcophagus and parts of the shafts of two Saxon crosses. These suggest not only the date but also that this must have been a church of considerable importance, possibly a royal foundation.
There are half a dozen churches dedicated to St. Alchmund in Derbyshire but further afield in Shropshire there are the two mentioned earlier, namely Shrewsbury and Whitchurch. St Alchmund’s Shrewsbury had been founded by Queen Aethelflaed of Mercia, and further endowed by King Edgar. Before Domesday the church held 21 burgesses and 12 canons’ houses in Shrewsbury and a dozen manors one of which was Lilleshall. Also St Alchmund’s Whitchurch, according to local tradition, is said to have been founded by Queen Aethelflaed.
Dr. Alan Thacker, the editor of the Victoria County History of Cheshire, has provided a valuable comparison of Aethelred and Aethelflaed’s activities in Chester and Gloucester. It is thought that Shrewsbury, along with these and several other towns, was part of a major programme of fortification across western Mercia by Ealdorman Aethelred, and after his death, by his wife Aethelflaed, the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great and the most distinguished British Queen since Boudica. The fact that Shrewsbury, like both Chester and Gloucester, had a mint strongly suggests that it was fortified and the presence of Aethelred and his wife Aethelflaed, ‘Lady of the Mercians’ and a royal party there in 901, when they issued a charter, indicates that it was an important royal centre. The purpose of the charter was the further endowment of the monastery of St. Milburga at Wenlock, an act consonant with Aethelflaed’s activities elsewhere, for instance she founded royal minsters in both Chester and Gloucester.
In 909, during the Danish invasions, the relics of St. Oswald were moved for safety from the monastery of Bardney to a new minster at Gloucester. This minster was closely linked with the royal residence at Kingsholme and it was beside the shrine of Saint Oswald, in the crypt there that, apparently at their own request, Aethelred and Aethelflaed were buried. At about the same time the relics of St. Werburg were, according to a later account, translated from Hanbury to a refounded minster at Chester, another place fortified by Aethelflaed, where St. Oswald was also venerated.
This pattern of the removal of the relics of a royal saint to a royal foundation in a fortified place, as Dr. Thacker points out, is characteristic of the activities of Aethelred and, later, of Aethelflaed herself. This, it seems, can also be discerned at Shrewsbury which had ancient royal minsters, a mint and, at least by the tenth century, fortifications, and especially the known connection with Aethelred and Aethelflaed. Furthermore the largest and most important Saxon minster in Shrewsbury was dedicated to a high status royal saint, St Alchmund a martyred Northumbrian prince, and by the twelfth century it was claiming to be founded by none other than Aethelflaed. The defeat of the Danes in Derby in 917 possibly gave her the opportunity to recover the relics of St. Alchmund and remove them to a place of safety as happened in the case of St. Oswald and others. Perhaps the crop marks at Frog Hall, Attingham, will in some future excavation bring to light the foundations of a royal palace from that period as they tantalizingly suggest.
If Higden, the fourteenth century monk of Chester, is correct in his statement that Alchmund was killed at the battle of Kempsford and buried at Album Monasterium (Whitchurch?) he is certainly stating that he was first buried far from Derby. In this the case then relics of Saint Alchmund must have been returned to Derby sometime before 1031 when they were known to be there.
Alban Butler in his famous Lives of the Saints states that an old MS. sermon preached in St. Alkmund’s Church, Derby a century later has an account of the removal of his relics to that town, where his shrine became famous for miracles and as a popular place of pilgrimage. Situated close to the side of one of the most important roads between the north and south of the kingdom, the fame of this shrine appears to have been maintained up to the time of its destruction at the Reformation. Years later its veneration was remaining in local memory. Mr. Cantrell, vicar of St. Alkmund’s, writing to a certain Dr. Pegge on this subject in 1760, said : “Fuller in his Worthies reports of miracles here, I add that the north countrymen inquire for this tomb, and set their packs upon it.” A well a short distance to the north of the church goes by the name of St. Alkmund’s Well and the old custom of ‘dressing’ it with flowers persists. Saint Alkmund’s Church, Duffield is said to mark the spot where the relics rested, before crossing the Derwent, on their return journey to Derby. . Queen Aethelflaed’s foundation dedicated to St. Alchmund in Shrewsbury seems to be the most likely place for it may well have been another example of her removal of relics during the Danish incursions as we have already seen.
Like many another saint from this period the details have been absorbed into pious legend. What is certain, however, is that Alchmund is named as a saint enshrined in Derby in a reliable pre-conquest source and it is in Derby that a shrine of exactly the right date has been discovered in the church that is dedicated to him.
Saint Alchmund is today honoured among the saints of the Orthodox Church and, like Saint Oswald, venerated as a pre-schism Northumbrian saint and martyr in the Celtic tradition. The Icon of him was painted by Aidan Hart.