Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Reinfrid Of Whitby

The following is a fictionalised account of the death of Reinfrid, the founder and the first prior of the Benedictine monastery at Whitby, who was accidently killed whilst helping with the construction of a bridge across the river Derwent at a place called Ormsbridge - 

 I have heard it spoken of by those who have stood upon the threshold of mortality, that in passing your life will flash before your eyes. Many have likened it to the thunderstorm, where, within those bright and vivid sparks you will be asked to bear witness to your life in all its aspects and incidence. But I now know this not to be true, for as I lay here trapped beneath the surface of the Derwent, and as I watch its waters carry off my life blood, I am of the notion that my past will be displayed before me, not like the lightening in a storm, but instead will be more in keeping with the flow of the river, that at this moment steals away the last of me.


This story begins but an instant before with the splintering of a scaffold and a baulk that crashes down upon my skull, and in that moment, as a searing pain consumes my whole being, I am awakened.


As I topple forward from the bridge toward the dark waters of the river below, I am given to witness the slow agonies of my birth, the protractions of which almost steals the light from my mother's eyes. These sufferings caused by my birth had been unknown to me during my lifetime, but I now realise that from that day hence whenever my mother looked upon me it was not with the love and security that I so desired, but instead it was with the fear and pain of that dreadful time remembered, and I, unknowingly and in my ignorance, would forever be cursed to seek out these affections that were so denied me in my childhood. This, I see, was to have very grave repercussions upon my life.


I am now of a new perspective, looking down upon myself as the cold waters of the Derwent drag my limp body neath it's surface. I am quick to note that these anguished seconds have now become days, and in turn days transformed into years. So it is that I am now privy to visions of my infancy, an age that was racked with great pains, both of the humours and of the spirit. My father would see my numerous distemper as a spiritual weakness and so set about the cure with rod and scripture in equal measure; the word of God left imprint upon my skin and in my soul.


With my lungs now waterlogged and as I make my slow descent to the riverbed, I am reminded of my youth and the righteous fires that would choke me so. I would turn from the shrivelled bosom of my family, and left to my own devices I would seek out my destiny. With the word of a vengeful God singing in my heart, with His blessed succour coursing through my veins and with my sword hand guided by His wraith, I set myself to the task of soldiering. And so it was that eventually my path would cross with that of William the Duke Of Normandy and the fates did conspire.


I alight on the Saxon shores just as my body settles upon the silted riverbed. Looking up at the surface, I see beyond a confusion of figures distorted by the flux of the waters. Do they seek to help me in my quandary? It is then that a hooked stave is plunged into the depths above me, and, I am on the battlefields of the Haran Apuldran (Battle Of Hastings) fending off attack. Mired in this bloody melee I hear a cry go out that the Duke is felled. I, overwhelmed with a fear that all is lost, sink to my knees and look to the heavens for portent, it is then that the darkened skies are blocked from my view as the Duke stands right and removing his helm, shows his cohort that he still breaths. And, so it was in that instant I witnessed the pretender laid slain upon that hillside and an end to Saxon rule in England. For, stood before my lord, both of us bloodied and battle worn upon that field, I did look into his eyes, and foresaw a glorious victory and a gracious reign over these dark lands. And in that instant, I did love him.


I am momentarily transfixed at the sight of my blood as it plumes then eddies in the currents around me. I reach out my hand and let my fluid dance and play about my fingers, and once again I am ship bound, bearing down on the ancient bay of Hwitebi (Whitby), a great blizzard hiding our ingress from its populace. It is of the king's asking that I am set about this task, and so, with a zeal verging on fervour I begin. No living thing is spared, every man, woman and child is put to the sword. Even the lowly beasts are given no quarter. And as I now stand on the eastern promontory that looks upon the port below, I watch entranced as all is set aflame, and as my men salt the earth I am given to thoughts of Jesus Christ and his dealings with Satan during His Harrowing. By morn and with the cleansing now complete I cast my sight about the cliff top ruins that have been my occupancy during the night. It is plain to me that this place has known its share of devastation across the ages, and that our actions here are but one more chapter now writ.


 I now falter. My light does flicker, my focus fades, and I am given to witness a dark vail descend. A death shroud that gently settles upon me and these northern lands. Suffocated by the bodies as they pile high about me, I look about at my waging, and filled with a dreadful sorrow I am bereft. Casting off my murderous weapons of war, I bury them deep beneath the blood-soaked soil. Then turning my back on the Bastard and his capricious God, I am set adrift to wander amongst the destruction I have wrought; an infernal world of my own creation. It is then I feel the clawing of hands about my body. For an instance I fear that my soul is lost. But it is not the damned that grasp at me, instead it is the men of the bridge that are about my rescue. As I am raised from the riverbed, I find myself walking amongst the sunlit gardens of Evesham Abbey, the Abbot Æthelwig my companion and redeemer. By his benevolent teachings I learn of the great monastic dynasties of Northumbria, of how these once learned houses had illuminated the darkness, and with the coming of the heathen army, how this light was again extinguished leaving the land cast in shadow once more. It is with this knowledge garnered and a faith restored I set myself upon the path of redemption.


Gentle hands lift me from the river, I watch on as my near lifeless body is then rested upon the bank. It is only now that I see the bloody gash that crowns my skull. It is indeed a terrible wound, and in truth I know that I am all but dead. Yet, I find my journey continues. Accompanied by Prior Aldwin of Winchcombe and Deacon  Elfwy of Evesham and with the writings of the Venerable Bede as our guide, we leave the confines of  the  Abbey and set our selves upon our pilgrimage north. It is whilst on the Great North Road that I am once more confronted with the devastation I have wrought, as we are forced to pass a steady procession of the broken seeking refuge from our great work. I again feel my faith tested, but for brother Aldwin's gentle words of guidance I am almost lost to my past anew. We reach the ruins of Eboracum (York) were we seek out an audience with the sheriff Hugh Fitz Baldric to apply for escort to Monkchester (Newcastle), for it was known that the crossing of those black hills to the east was to be a most arduous venture. Gathering our band about us we set forth travelling through the scorch blackened wastelands, where we would bear witness to such horrors. We did see the deathly spectre of disease prey upon what remained of the living, man turned to hosting on fellow man, and wild beasts in human form set to roaming abroad. These savage demons we crossed, and they did feast from our very souls. When finally we reached the degradation of Monkchester we were confronted by the mutilated corpse of Bishop Walcher, his fearful appearance did not concern me, for I already knew of his death at the hands of the Northumbrians in Ad Caprae Caput (Gateshead); the fates, it would seem, cannot be denied. And so, it was amongst this ruinous place that the dead bishop did address us. With much enthusiasm he enthralled us with his visions of a monastic dynasty to be revived. He looked upon brother Aldwin and myself and did talk of how our destinies would eventually lead us on separate paths. But, as for the now he told us of how we must venture east onto Jarrow and there light the taper once more.


Laid upon the river's edge I attempt to reach out to my rescuers, but I am stalled, for I note that there is a most grievous countenance about their features. And it is then, in that moment, that I know my life is ended. I feel my senses become ever more dulled, my vision does swim and my breath regained, comes in short faltering gasps. I now note a creeping numbness does invade my extremities, binding my limbs in an inextricable web of pain. The great agonies that I first experienced with the splitting of my skull, and which I realise have been absent throughout this ordeal, now crash down upon me like an unceasing wave, and with it I am washed away. My mortal aspect does recede as I find myself carried away by the current of the river, and now on the slack my ship does weigh anchor, and I, stood upon the deck bid my farewells to Prior Aldwin and the blessed brethren of the Jarrow commune. I have taken my leave of this holy place knowing that the foundations have been laid for what would become the great monastic restoration, and although my heart is broken, my soul is appeased. And so it is, turning my sights from my beloved brothers upon the river's side, I look outward to the open seas and beyond.


Freed from my earthly bondage I aspire toward the heavens, but it appears that this, my testimony, is without witness, for I find I am still of this realm. Yet, I am more. Borne upon the Derwent's current I am made aware of all things, I am the trees that drink from the water's edge, I am the gnat caught in the river's pull, and the stickleback that does consume me. I am the beating heart of the Roe that feeds upon the wild sedge. I conspire with the crow that casts a curious eye upon my departing. I dance with the dandelion seed caught about the breeze. I hear the whispered thoughts of the men stood around my mortal remains. And now, I am possessed of something other, an ability to see beyond, to see what has been and what is yet to come. I am stood on the cliff top at Whitby, with Abbess Hilda the daughter of Deira beside me. We watch on as we build our great monasteries. We witness the Synod and Oswiu's profound choice, we hear Cædmon's songs ring out across the land, we see stones rent asunder, life extinguished, miracles performed. Then I am alone, and I must now turn my gaze, for I realise my great sin is about to be recounted before me. I begin to sense the shadowy presence of my victims as they gather round. And as they look upon me with pain and anguish, I turn to them and implore their forgiveness. But to my consternation none is forth coming. And so, with a heavy heart I realise that this is how it is and must always be, the rest being but a construct. I am now given to witnessing the birth of the mysterious Stephen and his later deceptions against me, I watch as Serlo and William rest power from his grasps and then set about each other. I see William's heart gently laid to rest, as stones raise and topple around me. And as the town below does burgeon, it's boundaries swelling ever outward, so the towering edifice of the Abbey climbs higher. Is it then that I note that a rot does set in, and I am stricken as I watch my brethren grows ever more gorged on power and wealth, whilst all about My Lord's flock suffer such privations. Then the path does diverge and a darkness descends, I watch as for the last time Our Lord's house is desecrated beyond reparation, and finally His light is snuffed out completely. I now weep, for what took a thousand years and more to build, is utterly destroyed in but a number of days. And because of a foolish act of recrimination the land would be left forever bereft of His love and light. As perhaps it always had been, for now that I have moved beyond the barrier of the flesh and am freed from the yoke of the corporeal world, I can see at last that man has no place upon this earth, if he is to think that he is above all else. I know that I am no more important than the serpent that does crawl upon its belly, or the swine that wallows in the mire, and that the lowly maggot that does feast upon my decayed remains is now indeed my master. I have become part of the great cycle of creation and destruction, an immense engine that cares not for the consequence of man and his gods and shares not in the feelings of love and lose. For death is truly the giver of life, nurturing within it's silent bosom all that have passed, which in turn gives sustenance to all that has yet to be. And now as my remains return to the earth I am ready to be reborn.

The River Derwent - Hackness

The Life And Death Of Reinfrid

Considering the apparent historical significance of Reinfrid with regards to the re-establishment of the monastery at Whitby he only ever seems to appear as a footnote in it's history. Other than his association with the founding date of 1078 and his accidental death in Hackness, very little is known about his actually life. It is only by cross referencing details from other historical figures involved in his story that you gain a more complete picture. For example it is known that Prior Aldwin of Winchcombe travelled north from Evesham Abbey with two other monks, one a Deacon named Elfwy and one "who could not even read" named Reinfrid, with the intention of resurrecting the monasteries of Northumbria. The party reached Newcastle (Monkchester) in 1074 where they were instructed by Bishop Walcher to begin the reconstruction of the twin Anglo-Saxon monasteries at Wearmouth (Monkwearmouth) and Jarrow. 

It would then take a further four years before Reinfrid finally reached Whitby ( Prestebi ), where under the patronage of the baron William de Percy he began to rebuild the monastery. Although Reinfrid was instrumental in the founding of the new Benedictine monastery (becoming it's first prior), his story is made less significant because of the situation that arose between Stephen Of Whitby and William de Percy. As can be seen from the following passages.  

The circumstances surrounding the re-founding of the monastery by William de Percy is not very clear, for there are extant three accounts, practically contemporary with one another, which differ as to many of the facts related. These three accounts are - one given in the  Abbot's Book of Whitby, another by Symeon of Durham, and the third by Stephen of Whitby (the first Abbot of St. Mary's, York). The latter differs greatly from the two former, which agree well in the main lines of the story.

The story which goes by the name of Stephen of Whitby, Abbot of St. Mary's, York, and was evidently intended for the glorification of Abbot Stephen, says that he joined the re-founded abbey under Prior Reinfrid in 1078, and that a few days afterwards Reinfrid and the rest of the community compelled him, by urgent solicitations, to assume the office of prior; and then soon after this, through the combined pressure of the king and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, he was unwillingly made Abbot (not prior) of Whitby. The founder, William de Percy, seeing the improvements made in the place, repented of his foundation gift, and persecuted the monks, who were also greatly troubled by pirates and robbers, so that they appealed to the king, who granted them the old monastery of Lastingham, and they began to build there. While they were still at Whitby he (Stephen) went to Lastingham, and received episcopal benediction as abbot of that place as well. William de Percy, according to this account, still continued to persecute Stephen and the monks of Whitby, till eventually he drove them away to Lastingham, where they remained a few years, and then, by the gift of Earl Alan, they moved to St. Olave's, York, and eventually formed the nucleus of St. Mary's Abbey.

There is undoubtedly a substratum of truth in the story, and the probability is that Stephen conceived himself, and was conceived by a not insignificant party of the brethren, a suitable successor to Reinfrid, on the latter's death. The Percys preferred that one of themselves, Serlo de Percy, should succeed, and therefore brought pressure to bear which made Stephen with certain of his followers migrate to Lastingham, and very soon afterwards to York. The ' Memorial' is quite definite in its statement that Serlo succeeded Reinfrid, and makes no mention whatever of Stephen. It should be noted, too, that Serlo de Percy became Prior (not abbot) of Whitby.


Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Whitby

It would appear that Reinfrid was a soldier in William the Conqueror's army, but there is no historical evidence of him being part of the invasion force of 1066, or that he took an active part in the Harrying Of The North (1069), but we can be relatively certain that he would have witnessed first hand the devastation caused by conqueror's army. As this account shows. 

A certain Reinfrid, who had been a most valiant soldier of William the Conqueror, moved by sorrow at the wasted holy places at Whitby and elsewhere in the north, entered the monastery of Evesham with the intention of becoming a monk capable of repairing some of the mischief. After some time spent there, he returned to the north and journeyed to Streoneshalch, otherwise called Prestebi and Hwitebi. He approached William de Percy, from whom he received the ruined monastery of St. Peter, with 2 carucates of land, and there he set to work to resuscitate the monastic life. He was joined by many, including Serlo de Percy, the founder's brother, and numerous other gifts were made to the revived house, which followed the Benedictine rule. From the description of the old monastery when it was given to Reinfrid it comprised about forty roofless and ruined monasteria vel oratoria, which calls to mind some of the Irish monastic ruins at the present day with their numerous chapels and cells.


Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Whitby

The story of Reinfrid becomes even more vague the further you go back in his history, for example there is a degree of speculation over the correct date of his birth, some sources believe him to be Reinfrid 'Ralf' de Taillebois who was born about 1019, in Taillebois, Orne, Lower Normandy, France.  He married Azeline de Ries in about 1048 and had at least three children - two sons William Taillebois and Ribald de Bretagne and one daughter Adeliza Matilda de Taillebois. He died in 1105, in Normandy, France, at the age of 86, and was buried in Normandy, France. 

Although seemingly a very old age for a person to live to in the medieval era, the fact that he was so old does actually fit in with a contemporary account of Reinfrid's death found in the Abbot's Book of Whitby, where it records the monk's grief as they carried his corpusculum or 'little body' to the small church in Hackness. Obviously the main issue with this Reinfrid is his place of death and burial and the fact that it differs from the 'Whitby' Reinfrid, although it does clearly state that Reinfrid de Taillebois did at one point in his life hold the position of prior of Whitby Abbey. 

The reference to his marriage and children also raises more question than answer, because no where else does it state that he was married and the only child that is mentioned in connection with the 'Whitby' Reinfrid is Fulco Fitz Reinfrid, who was recorded in the Domesday book as being a tenant, but even this 'fact' only leads to more confusion because it is also suggested by some that Fulco was actually Reinfrid's father and that he was the steward to the baron William de Percy.

There is another more contemporary account of the birth and death of Reinfrid that comes from the writings of Symeon of Durham which states that he was born 1050 in Normandy and died in 1083 in Hackness (these two dates are noteworthy, because Reinfrid de Taillebois' son Willaim was born in 1050 and died in 1085, which leads to the possibility that it could actually be the child of Reinfrid we are talking about), this would have made him 33 years of age at the time of his death, which would mean that if he was involved in The Battle Of Hastings and The Harrying Of The North he would have been 16 and 19 respectively, and it would also have meant that he was only 28 when he founded the monastery at Whitby. Perhaps what gives these dates more credence though is that upon his death it was documented that William de Percy's brother Serlo took over as prior of Whitby, the date of which is speculated by the historian Rev George Young to have been about 1087. 

So, the date of Reinfrid's death being 1083 seems more in keeping with what we know of the Abbey's restoration, because after the founding of the monastery very little else is said of him historically, which would make sense if he only lived for another five years, where as if he had died in 1105 it would mean that he lived another 27 years, yet there is absolutely no documented evidence to account for this time. I find it hard to believe that someone who was so instrumental in reviving the monastic institutions of the north would not have gone on to do even greater things with his life.

Finally, it has been consistently noted that the place of Reinfrid's death was Ormsbridge in Hackness. I have searched both physically and online for such a place and as of yet I have not found it, but whilst looking I have discovered that in the department of Orne situated in the province of Normandy is the commune of Taillebois, which is only a few miles from the river Orne. Could this be the Ormsbridge associated with Reinfrid's death? And could it be that Reindfrid de Taillebois, who died in Normandy, actually have met his demise there? Perhaps these stories and historical accounts all have an aspect of truth to them, but have become conflated over the intervening years, leading to a very confused picture regarding the life and death of Reinfrid.

The Church Of St Peter - Hackness

Click the link for a comprehensive look at the founding of the Benedictine monastery of Whitby written by the ever astute Rev George Young - A history of Whitby, and Streoneshalh abbey by Rev George Young