Bishop Edmund Of Lindisfarne Won His Bishopric With A Joke


The bishopric of Lindisfarne was one of the most beleaguered of the ecclesiastical seats of power in medieval England. It was directly pillaged by Vikings in 793 and 875—even worse, Lindisfarne and the Kingdom of Northumbria were conquered by the so-called Great Heathen Army of Vikings in 867. When, by 876, it became apparent to the clergy of Lindisfarne that the Vikings in Northumbria were not going anywhere anytime soon, they made the ambitious decision to relocate their bishopric to a safer location in the south. Packing up their most holy relic, the body of St. Cuthbert, the priests of Lindisfarne set off to find their new home. For the remainder of the 9th century and most of the 10th century, they favored Chester-le-Street. Yet, in 995, the long-wandering bishopric finally reestablished itself at Durham.

Bishop Aldhun was credited with moving the bishopric from Chester-le-Street to Durham. Given the recent relocation and the general chaos for the bishopric over the last centuries, it is little wonder that the bishopric in Durham fell into some confusion after the death of Bishop Aldhun around 1018. As the story goes, the clergy of Durham could not decide on Aldhun’s successor and the bishopric remained leaderless as the debates went on unresolved. For nearly three years, no leader for the bishopric was decided upon. That was about to change, however, when a group of priests met in Durham around 1020.

During the meeting, the subject of the long-delayed appointment of a bishop was discussed. As had happened at other such meetings over the last two years, the priests could not come to an agreement, and it seemed as if the bishopric would continue to be neglected. In that gloomy and indecisive atmosphere, a certain well-liked priest named Edmund was suddenly inspired to lighten the mood of the unproductive meeting with a joke. According to the monk and chronicler Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), “Edmund stood up, and said in joke, ‘Why do you not choose me your bishop?’” (Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, AD1020). This joke or jest made lightbulbs flicker on in the heads of the priests present at the meeting. They eyed Edmund as a shared epiphany spread over the room—Edmund was a pious, well-liked, ordained priest—in other words, he was an ideal nominee for bishop. Realizing this, the clergymen thanked Edmund for volunteering and vowed to support him in his bid for the bishopric. Soon after the meeting, Edmund reportedly was awarded with a supernatural show of support. According to Florence of Worcester and his contemporary chronicler Symeon of Durham (d. 1130), disembodied voices in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert were heard proclaiming Edmund as the rightful bishop.

Although this faction of clergymen apparently threw their support in with Edmund in 1020, and this date usually marks the start of his time as bishop, the campaign for the bishopric may have taken longer. According to the aforementioned Florence of Worcester, it was not until 1025 that Edmund became the undisputed bishop of Lindisfarne and Durham. Bishop Edmund would continue to rule the church of Durham until his death, which occurred sometime between 1041 and 1048.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (painting of a church council by Francisco de Zurbarán (d. 1664), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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