Ailred (his name is also spelt “Aelred”, the actual, non-Latinized spelling was “Ethelred” ) was born around 1110 in Hexham, Northumbria, close to the Scottish border. His father was the priest Eliaf, a canon of the cathedral. Even at this late date, there were legally married priests; the Gregorian reform from the previous century, promoting the innovation of priestly celibacy, was just reaching Northumbria. Eliaf ended up being the last of the hereditary priest of Hexham who looked after the shrine and relics of the Northumbrian saints. At this time, the canons of the cathedral, like Eliaf, were being replaced by monks at their bishop’s initiative to promote priestly celibacy. The family’s claim to the shrine at Hexham pin-points part of the controversy about married clergy: to whom to the property or the office or the revenue belong? To the diocese? Or to the married priest’s decsendents? Ailred himself would be a champion of priestly celibacy; at this distance in time, it’s impossible to tell whether that reflects any friction between father and son. Eliaf was well educated by the standards of the day and of that region and saw to it that his son recieved a decent education at Hexham and Durham. His youth was spent in the court of King David I of Scotland, destined to become a courtier, sufficiently educated and literate to function in the increasingly important bureaucracy surrounding monarchy.
Ailred, however, was religious enough from his upbringing, to feel qualms about the pleasures he enjoyed at court, especially the relaxed sexual mores of King David’s court. In about 1134, while on court business, Ailred passed by the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx. A foundation of Citeaux, Rievaulx had all the fervor of a new foundation; but what attracted Ailred was the warmth of the community and that everyone, without any distinction of rank, took their share of the work that kept the place going. When he should have returned to the court in Scotland, the ambitious courtier with a promising future returned to Rievaulx; not wanting to make the decision on his own, he asked his servant if he’d mind them returning to the Abbey. What else would a servant say? They returned and Ailred was satisfied that he hadn’t willfully insisted on his own. A curious self-deception but one that would be consistent with a young man torn in two opposing directions. As was done in his day, the novitiate was a year and a day after which he professed his monastic vows. The subsequent customs of a two year novitiate and a period in “simple” or “temporary” vows would only evolve in the 19th century. Aelred rapidly moved on to become the advisor to his Abbbot William and Novice Master for his community. He proved his capabilities so well at Rievaulx between 1134 and 1147 that he was elected Abbot of Revesby in 1147. That same year, when Abbot William died, he was elected by his own community to be the new Abbot of Rievaulx where he served in that office until his death twenty years later.
But this is getting ahead of our story. Next week, we’ll return to his years as Novice Master at Rievaulx and consider his emergence as a writer and his first work, The Mirror of Charity.
to be continued