Much of the pleasure and interest in the St Albans Psalter derives not simply from its glorious painting but from the involvement of two outstanding personalities, the anchoress Christina of Markyate and Geoffrey de Goreham (or Gorron), Abbot of St Albans. Their relationship and events in their lives are crucial to understanding the psalter; details will be referred to throughout this commentary, so the characters need to be introduced at the start.
Christina’s life is recorded in a fragile text, charred by the Cotton library fire in 1731, British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius E.1, Of S. Theodora, virgin, who is also called Christina. There was once a copy of her Life at Markyate Priory, but the surviving copy was given by Abbot Thomas de la Mare to Redbourne, a cell of St Albans, after 1349. The text is fully reproduced and translated by Talbot (1st edition 1959, revised and reprinted 1998).
The writer was a monk of St Albans who clearly knew her: he refers to the abbey as ‘our monastery’ and reveals many intimate moments which only Christina could have recounted. He mentions Christina as a child scratching a votive cross on the door at St Albans ‘with her fingernail’, and describes the secret signals Christina used to evade her family when she fled from home. He also mentions writing down her words in wax, as though taking swift dictation. The text breaks off suddenly in mid sentence, and its last dateable reference is to 1139. Talbot considered the book was commissioned by Abbot Robert de Gorham between 1155 and 1166 (Talbot, 1998,10), but a closer scrutiny of the evidence by Koopmans (2000, 663-698) suggests it was made c.1140-50. Abbot Geoffrey’s death in 1146 is not mentioned in the text, and it was clearly written with his support.
Christina, the daughter of affluent Anglo-Saxon parents, was born in Huntingdon around 1096-8. Taken to St Albans as a sensitive teenager, she was so impressed by the monks’ religious bearing that she made a private vow of chastity and surrendered herself to God. She grew into a beautiful and seductive young woman, catching the eye of Ranulph Flambard who later became Bishop of Durham. While visiting his mistress who was Christina’s aunt, Ranulph attempted to rape Christina in her own bedroom and was humiliated by her wily escape (Moore, 2001, 231-5; Brooke, 1989, 144-8).
For perhaps two years, c.1114-1116, a battle of wills raged between their stubbornly chaste daughter and Christina’s parents who wanted to provide her with a prosperous marriage. She was reluctantly betrothed and eventually married to Burhred whom she repeatedly repudiated. She sat Burhred down on her bed and gave him a lecture about the unconsummated marriage of St Cecilia. Another night when she heard Burhred approaching, she leapt out of bed and clung to a nail in the wall behind a tapestry. She narrowly escaped discovery as one of his friends, summoned to seek her, groped the hanging but missed her trembling body. Her marriage was finally annulled by Archbishop Thurstan of York c.1122.
Eventually around 1115-1116, with the help of a network of Anglo-Saxon recluses, Christina fled via a local hermit Edwin to Alfwyn, an anchoress at Flamstead. While incarcerated with Alfwyn she would read and sing the psalms by day and night. On one occasion a plague of toads invaded the cell and squatted in the middle of her psalter ‘ which lay open on her lap at all hours of the day for her use’ (Talbot, 1998, 99). Around 1118 she was invited by Edwin’s relation Roger the hermit to join his cell at Markyate, between St Albans and Dunstable.
She developed the first of her powerfully passionate but spiritual relationships with Roger. For four years she was immured in a tiny closet beside Roger’s cell, barricaded in with a tree trunk, only allowed out at night to answer the call of nature and visit the chapel where she prayed in shared ecstasy with the old man. Roger spoke to her in Anglo-Saxon, calling her myn sunendaege dohte, ‘my Sunday daughter’. He died c1121-22 (AP, 279-80). After Roger’s death she stayed with another cleric who was supposed to protect her. This was the man who finally aroused her, bringing torments of temptation to both of them. This monk was so stricken that he would walk naked before her while she prayed. The devil ‘assailed her flesh with incitements to pleasure and her mind with impure thoughts’ but she resisted. After this episode, it was safer to return to Markyate where she presided over a small group of religious women including her sister Margaret.
Geoffrey became abbot of St Albans in 1119 but it took a while for Christina to meet him. Talbot (1998, 15) suggests they met around 1124 (because in her Life the meeting is narrated some time after the death of Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln in c1123) but an obvious occasion must have been the funeral of Roger c.1122 when his body was taken to St Albans and buried in a fine tomb within the abbey. Christina would surely have accompanied the cortege and the solicitous abbot perhaps enquired who was going to be her next protector.
Geoffrey had a reputation for being worldly and haughty, ignoring the advice of his chapter. Thus it was with great presumption that Christina, a woman of low status unconnected with abbey, intervened to thwart one of Geoffrey’s private schemes, asking him to desist. With the help of dreams and divine intervention Geoffrey decided ‘From now on I will obey her messages promptly’. To the end, she affectionately kept him in check ‘sensibly reproving him when his actions were not quite right’. Their relationship developed fruitfully with Christina acting as spiritual advisor to the abbot and Geoffrey providing materially for the convent. Geoffrey’s regular visits caused gossip and jealousy: ‘the abbot was slandered as a seducer and the maiden as a loose woman’. She called him her beloved and he called her his girl and beloved maiden. When Geoffrey was supposed to travel to Rome in 1136 he begged Christina to make him a couple of vests ‘not for pleasure but to mitigate the discomfort of the journey’. She was obviously a skilled needlewoman as she later embroidered three mitres and sandals of outstanding workmanship to be presented to Pope Adrian IV in 1155 (GA, 127).
Christina’s Life, while refreshingly short on miracles, explains many of her decisions and experiences in terms of heavenly visions and portents. Of these, the most significant for the psalter are the visitations of Christ who once appeared as a pilgrim in her cell, sharing a meal together with her sister Margaret; and another occasion when he joined in her chapel service as a pilgrim and then vanished (Talbot, 1998, 183, 189). In another vision she was able to bring Geoffrey into the presence of God and Christ, while the dove of the Holy Spirit flew around the abbot’s head (Talbot, 1998, 157).
Under Geoffrey’s tutelage the informal gathering of holy women flourished around Roger’s old cell: Christina took her monastic profession at St Albans in c. 1131; and Markyate Priory was officially founded in 1145, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The charters of dedication by Alexander Bishop of Lincoln (B.L. MS Cotton Ch.XI.8) and donation of land by the dean and chapter of St Pauls Cathedral (B.L.MS Cotton Ch. XI.6) still survive (AP, pl 169, 172).
Christina was still alive in 1155 when King Henry II paid for her support (Pipe Roll, 2-4 Henry II, 22) but is not mentioned after that date. Koopmans (2000) has shown that, far from inspiring a cult, Christina’s memory was methodically eradicated. Under Geoffrey’s protection she had been venerated on a par with St Alban as joint intercessors for the abbey (Talbot, 1998, 126). After his death in 1146, a rival faction led by Prior Alchinus took over at St Albans. Geoffrey’s scandalous liaison with Christina was despised and his financial support for external foundations like Markyate was terminated. Christina was awarded no fine burial at the abbey, her Vita was abandoned half finished, and her foundation left short of funds. Apart from the one surviving copy of her life, an interpolation of this text in the St Albans Gesta Abbatum, and the evidence of her psalter, she would have disappeared from history as the Alchinus faction at St Albans intended.
Information about Geoffrey derives from three sources. He is mentioned extensively in the Gesta Abbatum (GA, 72-96). This part of the text was compiled by Matthew Paris whose source material was a roll made by Adam the cellerer in about 1138. His relationship with Christina is described in her Vita by the St Albans scribe who knew both of them personally. Another part of the Gesta Abbatum (GA, 97-106) contains an interpolation from the Vita, a text almost identical to the Tiberius copy, but with sufficient differences to indicate it was derived from another version, the copy which was kept at Markyate itself.
Geoffrey came from Gorron, near Le Mans in Maine. He was working as a secular clerk at Le Mans when Abbot Richard asked him to become head master of the school at St Albans. He arrived too late and instead began as schoolmaster at Dunstable. Here he was producing a miracle play of St Catherine when the costly copes he had borrowed as props from St Albans were destroyed in a fire. In compensation he offered himself as a monk at the abbey.
When he was made first prior and then abbot in 1119, he began with a vigorous and worldly regime, enhancing supplies to the kitchen. He was a lavish patron of the arts, providing jewelled copes, a chalice, paten, gold altar frontal, censer, three ampullas, a silver candlestick, arm reliquary, a great dorsal on which was woven the Invention of St Alban on a bronze coloured field. He commissioned the goldsmith Anketil, moneyer to the king of Denmark, to rebuild St Alban’s shrine, completed in great splendour in 1129.
He updated the liturgy,
introducing the Feast of the Conception of the Virgin and raising the
status of the feast of St Catherine. To accompany the liturgy he commissioned
service books: a missal adorned with gold; another in two volumes, decorated
throughout with the finest gold, written in large well-spaced letters;
and a precious psalter, similarly illuminated throughout with gold; a
book of blessings and episcopal services; and a book containing exorcisms
and a collectar (GA, 94). In the scriptorium he altered the existing generous
endowment of money and food established by Abbot Paul of Caen, giving
the money to the poor and providing simply three meal allowances. Nonetheless,
many volumes have survived from his abbacy, including a number which were
clearly created for export elsewhere, either as gifts or commissions (Thomson,1982,
He died in 1146 (Knowles, 1972, 67)
Roger is mentioned in both Christina’s Life, the Gesta Abbatum and William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum but the information is scanty. He was a deacon and monk of St Albans, living under obedience to the abbot, but isolated in his cell Markyate. He had been led to Markyate by angels who accompanied him all the way from Windsor, on his return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Unlike his contemporary hermit Sigar of Northaw who walked to the abbey each night to attend services, Roger seems to have retained a rugged independence and stayed away from the abbey. He was held in high esteem by the monks of St Albans, praised for his rigorous discipline (‘Who could have been more cruel to his own flesh? He allowed himself no pleasure’), his gifts of prophesy and his compassion for the poor (Talbot, 1998, 83).
He must have been an influential example of the Anglo-Saxon eremitical movement. Before Christina joined him, Leofric and Azo were already with him. Under his spiritual direction were Alfwen the recluse at nearby Flamstead; Eadwin, his cousin, near Huntingdon; Godescalc and his wife from Caddington; while Archbishop Thurstan of York considered him a familiaris et fidus amicus. On the other hand, he was reproached by the Bishop of Lincoln Robert Bloet for maintaining a religious life outside episcopal control (Willliam of Malmesbury, lib iv, 314). He died in 1121/2 (AP, 279-80). He was buried at St Albans abbey c1122 and part of his tomb still survives along the south wall of the nave aisle.
All these factors and incidents selected from the lives of Christina and Geoffrey and Roger have an impact on the production of the St Albans psalter.
collaboration between History of Art
and Historic Collections
University of Aberdeen - King's College - Aberdeen - AB24 3SW