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E05961: In the Whitby Life of *Gregory the Great, (bishop of Rome, ob. 604, S00838), the author recounts the discovery and translation of the relics of *Edwin (king of the Northumbrians, ob. 633, S02159). Written in Latin by a monk or nun of Whitby (north-east Britain), 685/714, perhaps 704/14.

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posted on 2018-07-15, 00:00 authored by bsavill
The Whitby Life of Gregory the Great (BHL 3637)

For an overview of this work, see E05872.

Chapter 18
Sed ut propositum persequar, qualibet Christi lucerna de hoc rege Eduino signorum lucescit floribus dico, ut apertius merita clarescant. Huius itaque regalis vere viri ossium reliquię qualiter Domino revelante sunt reperte, dignum est memorię commendare. Fuit igitur frater quidam nostrę gentis nomine Trimma, in quodam monasterio Sudranglorum presbiterii functus officio, diebus Edilredi regis Anglorum, adhuc in vita monastica vivente, Aeonfleda filia religiosi regis prefati Eduini. Cui per somnium presbitero vir quidam visus est dicens ei, "Vade ad locum quem dixero tbi, qui est in regione illa que dicitur Hedfled quo Eduinus rex occisus est. Debes enim ossa eius exinde tollere tecum ad Streunasalae deducere." quod est coenobium famosissimum Aelflede, filię supradicte regine Eonflede natę, ut supra diximus, Eduini, femina valde iam religiosa. Cui respondit presbiter dicens, "Nescio illum locum; quomodo possum quo ignoro proficisci?" At ille, "Vade," inquit, "ad vicum illum in Lindissi" (cuius nome frater noster, illius presbiteri cognatus, qui hanc mihi exposuit ystoriam non recolebat) "et quere in eo maritum quendam nomine Teoful. Interroga illum de loco; ipse potest tibi monstrare ubi est." Presbiter itaque sciens esse somniorum fallatia multimodia, niirum de qua scriptum est multos errare fecereunt somnia, dimisit taliter ostensa...

'But to continue our theme, I go on to describe how the light of Christ shines from this King Edwin in the glory of his miracles in order that his merits may blaze forth more brightly. So it is proper to record how the relics, consisting of the royal man's bones, were found through the revelation of God. Now there was a certain brother of our race called Trimma who exercised the office of priest in a monastery of the South English, in the days of their king Æthelred, while Eanflæd was still living and in the monastic life. She was the daughter of that same pious king, Edwin. A certain man appeared in a dream to the priest and said to him, "Go to a place that I will tell you of, in the district known as Hatfield Chase, where King Edwin was killed. You must removes his bones from there and take them to Streoneshealh [Whitby]." This is the well-known monastery of Æfflæd, a most religious woman and the daughter of Queen Eanflæd, who was herself, as we have said above, the daughter of Edwin. The priest answered, "I do not know the place. How can I go to a place I do not know?" But the man answered, "Go to such and such a village in Lindsey" (our brother who told me the story and who was a kinsman of the priest could not remember its name) "and ask for a certain ceorl there named Teoful. Ask him about the place and he can show you where it is." The priest, however, being well aware of the multitudinous deceptions associated with dreams – for is is not written that "dreams have caused many to err"? – dismissed the matter which had so far only been revealed to him in this way ...'

Chapter 19
His itaque peractis tertio adhuc vir suus eodem presbitero apparuit eumque flagello satis redargutione correxit... Tum scilicet festinanter perrexit ad maritum prefatum; eumque ocius querendo ubi esset, invenit secundum quod illi monstratum est... Statimque comperto, profectus est ad locum sibi demonstratum. Et primo fodiens non invenit adhuch quod querebat; sed secundo laboriosius fodiendo, ut sepe fieri solet, inventumque thesaurum desiderabile ad hoc nostrum secum asportavit coenobium. In quo nunc honorifice in sancti Petri apostolorum principis ecclesia hec eadem ossa cum ceteris conduntur regibus nostris ad austrum altaris illius, quod beatissimi Petri apostoli est nomine sanctificatum, et ab oriente illius quod in hac ipsa sancto Gregorio est consecrata eclesia. Fertur quoque ab hoc relatum presbitero qui postea pro tempore prioris sanctum iamque habitavit locum sepultionis crebro se iam vidisse spiritus interfectorum iiii, per nimirum baptizatorum, splendide venientes sua corpora visitasse et adiecit si posset monasterium ibi voluisse facere.

'After this man appeared for a third time to the priest; he corrected him and reproved him violently, even using a whip ... Then he quickly went off to look for this ceorl and, on making enquiries, soon found him according to the directions given him ... As soon as he got the information, he went at once to the place which had been pointed out to him, but on his first dig he did not find what he was looking for; however, after digging more carefully a second time, as often happens, he found the treasure he desired and brought it with him to our monastery here (ad hoc nostrum ... coenobium). And now the holy bones are honourably buried in the Church of St Peter, the chief of the Apostles, together with other of our kings, on the south side of the altar which is dedicated in the name of the blessed Apostle Peter and east of the altar dedicated to St Gregory, which is in the same church. It is also related by this priest who afterwards lived for a time by the holy site of the first burial that he had frequently seen the spirits of four of the slain, who were undoubtedly baptised people, coming in splendid array to visit their own bodies. The priest added that, if he could have done so, he would have liked to build a monastery there.'

Text and translation: Colgrave, 1968, 100-105.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Edwin, king of the Northumbrians (northern Britain), ob. 633 : S02159 Gregory I, 'the Great', bishop of Rome, ob. 604 : S00838 Peter the Apostle : S00036

Saint Name in Source

Edwinus Gregorius Petrus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts Literary - Hagiographical - Collections of miracles


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Whitby St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - monastic

Cult activities - Places Named after Saint

  • Church

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Visiting graves and shrines

Cult Activities - Miracles

Finding of lost objects, animals, etc.

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Women Ecclesiastics - abbots Monarchs and their family Relatives of the saint

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - bones and teeth Transfer, translation and deposition of relics


The Whitby Life of Gregory survives in a single, 9th century continental manuscript (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 567, fol. 75-110), first made known to modern scholars by Paul Ewald in 1886. Although the author never explicitly states her/his location, the Life makes clear through its early reference to ‘us, that is, the English people’ (nos … id est gentem Anglorum: ch. 6) that he/she wrote for an English, indeed probably Northumbrian audience (c.f. ‘this people of ours which is called the Humbrians’, gente nostra, quę dicitur Humbrensium: ch. 12). Her/his account of the translation of King Edwin’s bones to the monastery of Streoneshealh (almost certainly modern-day Whitby, north-east Britain) refers passingly to the house as ‘ours’ (chs. 18-19), thus inadvertently establishing her/his location. Early Whitby was a so-called ‘double monastery’ (that is, home to both men and women, and ruled over by an abbess), and so a woman author is possible, if ultimately unconfirmable. This description of the translation also allows us to date the Whitby Life, since it provides a terminus post quem for its composition. The author states that the translation took place while Eanflæd, queen of the Northumbrians (ob. after 685) was alive; while her daughter Æfflæd was abbess of Whitby (680-714); and ‘in the days of’ (diebus) Æthelred, king of the ‘South English’ (i.e. Mercians, c. 674-704). Edwin’s translation can therefore be dated to 680/704. Since the author also refers to Æfflæd, but not Eanflæd, as if she were still alive at the time of writing, we can date the composition reasonably securely to 685/714. Whether the use of the phrase ‘in the days of Æthelred’ implies that the king had also died by this point is less certain. Some have taken the remark as a clear indication of a narrower date of 704/14 (e.g. Mosford 1988), but the ambiguity of the author’s expression, especially when considered in light of her/his generally shaky grasp of Latin, means the wider date-range remains possible (Colgrave, 1964).


Edwin (Eadwine) was king of the Northumbrians (northern Britain) from 616 until 633, when he was killed in battle at Hatfield Chase. In 627 he had become the second English king, and the first of the Northumbrians, to receive baptism. Although this episode describing his translation to Whitby feels like a digression in a Life of Gregory, that event, and the promotion of the early cult that followed it, probably best explains why the text was first commissioned: certainly, it seems clear from the author's description of the proximity of Edwin's relics to Whitby's altar dedicated to Gregory that the two cults were linked (Thacker, 1998). It is interesting that the author never mentions any relics of Gregory in the Life, and perhaps the proximity of Edwin's body to Gregory's altar could be seen as in some sense 'compensating' for the incorporeality of Whitby's Gregorian cult. Regardless, this passage is our earliest reference to an altar dedicated to Gregory anywhere (Thacker, 2017). Bede, writing in 731, would also report that Edwin's body had been brought to Whitby, although he would not suggest that his internment there involved any sort of cult. He would, however, add elsewhere that the king's head was taken to York, and later placed in the church of St Peter, in the porticus of Gregory (Ecclesiastical History, 2.19, 3.24; Thacker, 2017).


Editions and English translation: Colgrave, B. (ed. and trans.), The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great (Lawrence KS, 1968; repr. Cambridge, 1985). Mosford, S.E., "A Critical Edition of the Vita Gregorii Magni by an Anonymous Member of the Community of Whitby," DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1988. Further Reading: Booth, P., Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 2014), 112-15. Colgrave, B., "The Earliest Life of St Gregory the Great, Written by a Whitby Monk," in: K. Jackson, et al., Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border (Cambridge, 1963), 119-37. Cramp, R., "Eadwine [St Eadwine, Edwin] (c. 586-633)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), Ewald, P., "Die älteste Biographie Gregors I," in: Historische Aufsätze, dem Andenken an Georg Waitz gewidmet (Hannover, 1886), 17-54. Goffart, W., The Narrators of Barbarian History (AD 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede and Paul the Deacon (Princeton, 1988), 258-70. Leyser, C., "The Memory of Pope Gregory the Great in the Ninth Century: A Redating of the Interpolator’s Vita Gregorii (BHL 3640)," in: C. Leonardi (ed.), Gregorio Magno e le origini dell’Europa (Florence, 2014), 449-62. Limone, O., "La vita di Gregorio Magno dell’Anonimo di Whitby," Studi medievali, 3rd series, 19 (1978), 37-48. Thacker, A., "The Social and Continental Background to Early Anglo-Saxon Hagiography," DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1976, 38-79. Thacker, A., "Memorializing Gregory the Great: The Origin and Transmission of a Papal Cult in the Seventh and Early Eighth Centuries," Early Medieval Europe, 7 (1998), 59-84. Thacker, A., "The Saint in his Setting: The Physical Environment of Shrines before 850," in: M. Coombe, A. Mouron, and C. Whitehead (eds.), Saints of North-East England, 600-1500 (Turnhout, 2017), 41-68.

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