In the illustration above, artist James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892) recreates an event that was said to have occurred in the year 627. To set the scene, King Edwin of Northumbria (r. 616-633) had just decided to convert to Christianity. As head of state, the king expected his court to follow suit and join him in converting. Interestingly enough, Northumbria’s resident high priest of the traditional Anglo-Saxon religion decided to go along with the king’s wishes without much encouragement. In fact, this high priest—who was called Coifi—was said to have personally volunteered to desecrate and destroy the very shrines to which he had devoted much of his life. His public destruction of the shrines was described by the Christian monk and historian, Bede (c. 673-735):
“So he formally renounced his empty superstitions and asked the king to give him arms and a stallion—for hitherto it had not been lawful for the Chief Priest to carry arms or to ride anything but a mare—and, thus equipped, he set out to destroy the idols. Girded with a sword and with a spear in his hand, he mounted the king’s stallion and rode up to the idols. When the crowd saw him, they thought he had gone mad; but without hesitation, as soon as he reached the shrine, he cast into it the spear he carried and thus profaned it” (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 2, chapter 13).
Coifi’s shrines, idols and other Anglo-Saxon traditional religious structures or sites under his jurisdiction were then reportedly burned. According to Bede, the destroyed shrines were located east of York, past the River Derwent, and near a place that was called Goodmanham in Bede’s own day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.