Egbert (639-729) (DNB00)

EGBERT or ECGBERHT, Saint (639–729), was an Angle, doubtless a Northumbrian, of noble lineage, who some time after 652 went to Ireland. Among his companions there were Æthelhun, brother of Æthelwine, subsequently bishop of Lindsey, and the more famous Ceadda. Young men visited Ireland either for study or to cultivate in its highest form the monastic life. Ecgberht was one of those who 'visited the cells of the masters,' and were entertained without cost and received gratuitous instruction from the hospitable islanders. But in 664 a terrible plague desolated both Britain and Ireland, ana Ecgberht and Æthelwine were seized with the disorder when sojourning at the monastery of Rathmelsigi, a house placed by some in Connaught, and identified by others with Mellifont, near Drogheda, but in both cases on insufficient evidence. Fearing that death was at hand, Ecgberht, as Bæda was told by a hoary priest who had heard the story from Ecgberht himself, prayed that he might have time for repentance, and vowed solemnly that if he recovered he would never return to Britain, would recite the whole psalter every day, and would fast a day and a night in every week. His comrade died, but Ecgberht recovered and became a priest and a monk. For the rest of his long life he kept his vows and soon won a great reputation for humility, kindness, continency, simplicity, and justice. He added to his old vows a new one, that he would only refresh himself once a day in Lent, the forty days before Christmas, and the forty after Pentecost, and then only on a limited quantity of bread and skimmed milk. He was exceptionally learned in the scriptures. The stuuents and monks from England sought his counsel. One of them, Higbald, afterwards an abbot in Lindsey, relates how Ecgberht told him that he knew a man in Ireland who on the night of Ceadda's death (2 March 672) saw in a vision the spirit of Cedd, his brother, descending from heaven with an angel host to fetch his brother to his reward in the celestial realms. Bæda suspected that Ecgberht himself had this vision, but is not sure. In later times, however, there was no hesitation in making Ecgberht the witness of this miracle (Flob. Wig. s. a. 672). Twelve years later Ecgberht boldly remonstrated with the rash Ecgfrith, king of the Northumbrians, who, as part of his policy of war against the Celtic neighbours and tributaries of his kingdom, carried on an unprovoked war with the friendly Irish. Ecgfrith's death next year in his war with the Picts was generally regarded as the penalty of his neglect of Ecgberht's counsel. Ecgberht's vow kept him away from Britain, but he was seized with an irresistible impure to preach the gospel to the heathen Germans beyond the sea, especially the Frisians and the old Saxons. If this ambitious scheme should fail, he would at least be able to visit the threshold of the apostles at Rome. He chose his companions and his ship, but at the last moment a monk from Melrose who was among them was warned by his old abbot, Boisil, in a dream to tell Ecgberht to desist, and visit instead the monasteries of Columba. Ecgberht hesitated until the message was repeated in a second and clearer vision. A storm now cast his ship on the coast, and he finally desisted from his missionary journey. But he encouraged others to go where it was forbidden for him to enter. Wihtberht, an Englishman, long an anchorite in Ireland, undertook the Frisian mission in 690. He laboured two years without result and then returned in despair. But in 692 Ecgberht found in Willibrord [q. v.] and his twelve companions more fortunate missionaries. It was not, however, until some years had elapsed that Ecgberht proceeded to fulfil the divine command. He was still living among the Scots when about 705 he was consulted by Eanmund, the Northumbrian noble whom the cruelty of King Osred had driven into a monastery. At the monk's request Ecgberht consecrated an altar for the monastery of St. Peter. He also bade Eanmund build a chapel on a hill covered with thorn coverts, the haunt of robbers. Eanmund fulfilled his request. Perhaps Utan the Scot, one of Eanmund's most zealous disciples, came from Ecgberht (Æthelwulf, 'Carmen de abbatibus cellæ suæ,' in T.Arnold's Symeon of Durham, i. 270-3, Rolls Ser.) It is remarkable that the relator of this story speaks of Ecgbehrt as bishop, while Bæda always describes him as a presbyter. But Alcuin twice (Vita S, Willibrordi; and Versus de Sanctus Eboracensis Ecclessiæ, in Jaffé, vi. 43, 112) describes Ecgberht as a bishop, just as Æthelwulf does. Despite the sanctity of Ecgberht's life and his orthodoxy on all the points of controversy between the Roman and Celtic churches, Bæda either ignores or forgets that he had in any sense the character of a bishop.

At last, in 716, Ecgberht went on his mission to Iona. The Celtic Easter and tonsure had already lost ground even in the centre of Celtic Christianity. Adamnan [q. v.] had become since 686 an advocate of the Roman usages; and after the synod of Tara in 692 all the northern Scots but a few Columban monasteries had conformed to Rome. It was about this time that Ecgberht became anxious for their conversion, though he himself could hardly have been of the Celtic party even before this. But on Adamnan's death schism broke out in Iona. When Ecgberht arrived in 716 he found two rival abbots, though doubtless the larger party were with the Abbot Dunchad on the Roman side. The traditions of the place tended powerfully for the local usages. Ecgberht's eloquence and earnestness turned the monks from their old ways. In 716 both Irish and English annalists commemorate the abandonment of the Celtic Easter at Iona (Tighernac, in Skene, Chron, Picts and Scots, p.73; Anglo-Saxon, Chron. s. a. 716). In 717 Dunchad died, and Faelchu, the rival abbot, found his cause strengthened by the fugitive Columban monks expelled in that year from the dominions of Nectan, king of the Picts. Ecgberht still persevered. In 718 he forced on Iona the Roman tonsure (Tighernac, in Skene, p. 74). But the struggle was long and severe, and the victory gradual. Ecgberht never left Iona, and doubtless found his work there in subduing the last traces of the schism. But his influence extended over the greater part of the land of the Scots. He had now attained an unusual age. He was ninety years old when, on Easter day (24 April) 729, he suddenly died, just after he had completed the celebration of mass. In him, as Bæda says, the English repaid to the Scots their gift of Christianity by recalling them to the true catholic knowledge of Easter. It was little less than a miracle that he died on Easter day. He was revered as a saint as early as the times of Alcuin.

[Bædæ Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. iii. 4, 27, iv. 3, 26, v. 9, 10, 22; Chronicles of the Picts and Scots, ed. Skene, pp. 73, 74; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 8.a. 716, 729; Æthelwulf, in Symeon of Durham, ed. T. Arnold, i. 270-3 (Rolls Ser.); Jaffé's Bibliotheca Rerum Germanicarum, vi.43, 112; Skene's Celtic Scotland, ii. 278-81, corrects Bæda by comparison with the Irish sources; Lanigan's Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, iii. 96, 135.]

T. F. T.