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Angles, Danes and Norse in the District of Huddersfield
By W. G. Collingwood

ANGLIAN ABBEYS

The strong Anglian centre of our district was undoubtedly Dewsbury. This is shown by the area of its parish before the Norman conquest, including as it did Thornhill, Mirfield, Kirkburton, Kirkheaton, Almondbury, Huddersfield, Bradford and all the west to the watershed. It is shown also by the great number of sculptured stones of the ninth and tenth centuries still preserved at Dewsbury church, representing only a few of the monuments once existing there, for these remains are no more than chance finds of broken fragments.

Now when such remains exist in connection with a church of Anglian date, they suggest an Anglian minster, that it, the church of an abbey. It was at such places that important persons were buried and commemorated. There is no historical statement that Dewsbury was an abbey, but most of the written records of this period perished in the troubles beginning with the Danish invasion and recurring up to the devastation by William the Conqueror. It is not surprising if we have no documents left to tell us all the details of local history, but we can infer something from general knowledge of the times and from these monuments.

The Yorkshire abbey of the Anglian age, long before such Norman foundations as Fountains or Rievaulx were created, was an important feature in Northumbrian life. When the people were converted and the state re-established by King Oswald, they took their religion seriously. Not only did it meet spiritual needs, but it supplied stimulating contact with the culture and civilization to which they, as northern barbarians, had been strangers. They had heard of such things and now found them brought to their doors. This is shown by the rapidity with which religious life in its severest form was taken up by men and women alike. Many, of the highest rank, became monks or nuns or even hermits; and whatever we may read of the abuses of monasticism in later days, there is no question of the devotion and sincerity of these earlier converts.

The rule introduced by King Oswald was that of the Columbans, among whom he had been brought up at Iona. Under their influence, monasteries were founded at Lindisfarne, Melrose, Gilling West, Hartlepool and Gateshead, and Lastingham. After the battle of Winwidfield, near Leeds, in which King Oswiu finally overcame the Mercians, he gave, as a thankoffering, lands for six monasteries in Deira, and six in Bernicia. St. Hilda in 657 founded at Whitby a double monastery, that is to say, houses for monks and nuns, living apart but under one control; and a little later she built the nunnery at Hackness.

Then came the breach with the Columbans, and the establishment of Roman usages, promoted by Wilfred, who founded Ripon and Hexham, and by Benedict Biscop, who built Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. St. Cuthbert founded an abbey at Carlisle and St. John his abbey at Beverley about 685. by this time there was also a nunnery at Wetadun in Northumberland, probably at Nunnykirk. Early in the next century there is a mention of Tynemouth, Dacre in Cumberland, and “the abbey in the forest at Elmet” which, as we have seen, preserved the altar of Paulinus. This place has been supposed to be Sherburn or Barwick; but when we find, later, a strong tradition about Paulinus at Dewsbury, we cannot help suspecting Dewsbury to be the place where Bede had in mind as the abbey of Thridwulf. We do not know the exact bounds of Elmet; they may have included, as its forest or wilder part, the country as far as Dewsbury. At any rate this suggestion explains the Paulinus legend which, before the Reformation, stated that “here Paulinus preached and celebrated mass.” If that legend originally attached to his altar alone, it would be correct; and in the course of centuries it might have been transferred to the place. But in his days, as we have seen, there were no Angles there, and nothing to attract him out of the region in which his mission lay.

To add the list of later abbeys is needless. We have named enough to show the number, period and importance of these foundations, and the ruling power in Northumbria. The kings were military and social leaders, hardly legislators or administrators, at that time; actual government seems to have been done by the abbeys. They dominated every part of the country, and filled the place – not only of the parish church, a later development – but of all the organization and general local authority. The realm of the early Angles was as nearly a hierarchy as among the Hebrews in the days of Samuel the priest.

Many of these abbeys had begun as hermitages, for there were hermits among the Angles as there were in the much later time when Armitage Bridge took its name. Lastingham was chosen by Cedd, brother of St. Chad, because, as Bede says, it was “among rocks and far away mountains – so that the fruits of good works should grow where beasts, and men little better than brute beasts, has used to live.” From small beginnings some of them became groups of buildings, villages or small towns, centers of learning and industry, and of a secular population under their protection. They were, in the central Anglian period, a new form of colonization, more efficient than the sparse settlement of backwoodsmen in the forested dales.

Such must have been the history of Dewsbury, planted in a derelict fort among the wilds of the forest, as an outpost of civilization, some time in the later half of the seventh century. It can hardly have risen to its importance in later days unless it had been one of the great early Anglian abbeys, nor have been connected with the name of St. Paulinus without some definite link such as we have suggested.

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