King Alfred the Great (King of Wessex, r. 871-899) is known to have constructed at least two monastic compounds during his reign. Alfred’s earliest biographer, a Welsh monk named Asser from the king’s court, wrote about these religious institutions in his unfinished work, the Life of King Alfred, which he began around 893. One of the monastic compounds was a convent at Shaftesbury, where King Alfred arranged for his own daughter, Æthelgifu, to become one of its first abbesses. The other compound was the monastery at Athelney, constructed at an unknown time after 878.
When Asser wrote about the monastery’s founding in his book, he soon digressed into an interesting story. At first, he began by describing the diverse, multicultural atmosphere of the monastery at Athelney. Monks from Germany (or Old Saxony, as Asser described it), France (Gaul) and Scandinavia were known to reside there. The man who led this colorful group of monks was known simply as John—a Germanic scholar that King Alfred personally imported from mainland Europe. John was one of several learned men that King Alfred hired in the 880s to improve education in Wessex (the king, himself, was one of his first students) and to assist in translating important texts into Old English. John is known to have assisted King Alfred in translating the Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Care), written by Pope Gregory I. In the preface to the translation, King Alfred gave written thanks and acknowledgment to John for his help in completing the project.
As it happened, Abbot John had quite a dramatic experience during his stay at Athelney. According to Asser, two men within the monastery, one a priest and the other a deacon, somehow grew to loathe the abbot. Eventually, their loathing developed into conspiracy to commit murder. The two clergymen eventually recruited two slaves into their conspiracy, tasking them with the actual dirty work.
Asser recorded the plan of these would-be killers in great detail. The conspirators knew that John was a man that liked his privacy—he often went into the sanctuary at night, after all of the other monks went to sleep, in order to pray in peace and quiet. The conspirators decided that John’s nightly prayers would be the perfect time and place to strike. Therefore, the nefarious clergymen instructed the two slaves to hide in the sanctuary and wait for Abbot John to wander in for his private worship. Once he lost himself in prayer and meditation, the assassins were to quickly kill him and then carefully transport the body to the home of a nearby prostitute. With the remains left in that environment, the conspirators hoped the murder would be pinned on the woman or on other people of ill repute living in that location.
With their plan set, the two assassins crept into the church and waited for sundown. As they had hoped, after the monks of the monastery had filed off for bed, Abbot John did indeed tip toe into the sanctuary for a late night prayer. The assassins waited as John reverently stepped up to the alter and knelt down to pray. When the slaves thought that John was thoroughly distracted, they drew their swords and sprung their ambush.
Abbot John, however, was not the average monk. Asser, one of the abbot’s contemporaries, believed that John had a great deal of military experience in his background before he had been called to religion. Whatever the case, John apparently heard the assassins approaching. His mind effortlessly snapped back from his meditations and he quickly turned to meet his assailants. Instead of being frozen by shock, or cowering in fear, the trained and seasoned abbot apparently let out a loud shout and charged the armed assassins. His mind must have still been somewhat on his interrupted prayers, because he was reported to have yelled that devils were attacking him. The abbot’s shouting woke up the nearby monks of the monastery, but John’s word choice of “devils” apparently made many of them apprehensive of rushing into the sanctuary to aid their leader. Nevertheless, the unarmed Abbot John (helped by his military training) was able to fight off the assault of the two assassins until the rest of the monks worked up the nerve to fight alongside their abbot against the supposed demons. When the assassin’s realized that the monastery was bustling with activity, they fled from the compound and hid in the nearby marshlands. Abbot John had managed to stay alive, but he had nevertheless sustained significant injuries.
The monks (including the deacon and priest who had instigated the plot) carried the wounded man out of the church and saw to his recovery. The slaves who had fled to the marsh were eventually captured, and the role of the two clergymen in the conspiracy also was, in due time, unearthed. In the end, John survived the attack, but all four conspirators were executed after (or by) long sessions of painful torture.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribute: (Image of St Benedict from France, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, 1129, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Alfred’s translation of Pastoral Care, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in their anthology, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.