Aethelsige of Ramsey

Ethelsige, (Alfwin, Ailsius, Elsinus, Alxi), the pluralist. Fifth Abbot of Ramsey and St. Augustine's 1043 - 1080. Who had carried to Harold in his sickness the miraculous message of comfort from his saintly predecessor Edward the Confessor, was soon after high in William's favour.

Ramsey Abbey
Ramsey Abbey. Photo © Chris Stafford, 2 October 2005

AEthelsige, Abbot of Saint Augustine's, had received the abbatial benediction, at the hands of Stigand. He had been further entrusted by Eadward in his lifetime with the government of the great house of Saint Benet's of Ramsey, and legends went on to say that he had been chosen by the departed King to carry a message of health and victory from Eadward to his chosen successor. No choice on William's part could have been better planned to make a moral impression on the minds of Danes and Englishmen. A prelate who had been the fast friend both of Eadward and of Harold now appeared at the court of Swegen as the representative of William. The whole life of AEthelsige is wrapped in confusions and contradictions, and the details of his embassy to Swegen have come to us only in a legendary shape. But there is no need to doubt the fact of his mission, as the legend falls in most remarkably with several entries in the great Survey. AEthelsige then sailed for Denmark and reached the court of Swegen in safety. He was received with honour, and offered the gifts of William to the Danish King and his nobles. His stay was long; of the political details of his mission we have no account, but the course of events would seem to show that he succeeded in staving off for a while any interference of Swegen in English affairs. We may perhaps even guess that his mission was not confined to Denmark only. It is certain that William entered into negotiations with Adalbert, the renowned Archbishop of Bremen, once the guide of the tender years of the youthful Henry. The Primate of the North was led by the gifts of William to do all that he could to keep Swegen from disturbing the Peace of England. The legendary part of the story now follows. When AEthelsige set sail from Denmark on his return to England, his ship was well nigh lost in a storm. In answer to the prayers of the Abbot and his companions an angel presently appeared, and bade them keep the feast of the Conception - not yet declared to be immaculate - of our Lady. On his vow so to do, the storm ceased, and on his return the new festival was first kept in the church of Ramsey, and from thence its observance spread over England and Christendom.

Abbot AEthelsige is thus set before us as chosen for the second time to be the bearer of a supernatural message, and his real history is as wonderful as anything that legend could invent. It may be as well, at the expense of strict chronological order, to sketch the remainder of his strangely chequered life. At this moment he seems to have been as high in the favour of William as he had been in that of Eadward and Harold. Within two years he lost the favour both of William and of his own monks at Saint Augustine's. The displeasure of the monks is said to have been caused by alienations of the lands of the monastery to Normans. The grounds of William's displeasure are not mentioned, but there is no doubt that the Abbot was outlawed, and that he took shelter in the land which he had so lately visited as William's ambassador. The strange thing is that, ten years later, he had, by some means or other, by some service doubtless at the Danish court, contrived to win back the favour of William. He was allowed to return, not to Saint Augustine's, which was in the hands of his Norman successor Scotland, but to Ramsey, where his place during his absence seems to have been taken by his predecessor AElfwine. His outlawry is recorded in the great Survey, but it is no less plain that, when the Survey itself was made, he was again Abbot of Ramsey. Both AEthelsige and his successor at Saint Augustine's died in the same year as William himself.

I have here given the best account which I could put together, from various scattered notices, of the chequered life of a remarkable man. Of AEthelsige's appointment to the abbey of Saint Augustine there is no doubt, and the local history is explicit as to his being further invested by Eadward in the government of Ramsey. The writer describes the sickness of Abbot AElfwine, and adds words which are equivalent to a resignation. He goes on to say that the brethren took good care of him for the rest of his days. It seems plain then that AEthelsige held the two abbeys in plurality before the death of Eadward, and that he was appointed Abbot of Ramsey during the lifetime of AElfwine.

It is clear that AEthelsige was Abbot of Ramsey at the time of the Survey, From the same source we also learn that he was at one time outlawed, and that he was at the same time or another in Denmark. According to domesday, Aethelsige held lands in both Berkshire and Huntingdonshire. Here we plainly see AEthelsige in possession of the abbey at the time of the Survey, and he is described as having been, at some former time, in high favour with the King, as having been in Denmark for some cause or other, and also as having been at one time outlawed. Further, in the Chronologia Augustinensis we read some of the Normans had unlawfully seized some of the lands of the abbey.

Fitting all this evidence together, there seems hardly room for doubt that AEthelsige of Saint Augustine's and AEthelsige of Ramsey are the same person, that he forsook his preferments in 1070 and fled to Denmark (an act equivalent to outlawry), that, during his absence, the former Abbot AElfwine resumed his functions, but that at some later time Athelsige regained William's favour, and was restored to Ramsey, but not to Saint Augustine's.

-- An extract from 'The History Of The Norman Conquest' By E. A. Freeman.