Rievaulx Abbey, Rievaulx Bank, Rievaulx, Helmsley, York YO62 5LB, Regno Unito
Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 12 January 1167) was an English Cistercian monk, abbot of Rievaulx from 1147 until his death, and known as a writer. He is regarded by Anglicans, Catholics, and other Christians as a saint.
Aelred was born in Hexham, Northumbria, in 1110, one of three sons of Eilaf, priest of St Andrew's at Hexham, himself a son of another Eilaf, treasurer of Durham. In 1095, the Council of Claremont had forbidden the ordination of the sons of priests. This was done in part to end the inheritance of benefices. He may have been partially educated by Lawrence of Durham, who sent him a hagiography of Saint Brigid.
Aelred's early education was probably at the cathedral school at Durham. It was here that Aelred was influenced early on by Cicero's Laelius de Amicitia, but later modified his interpretation upon reading Augustine of Hippo's Confessions.
Aelred spent several years at the court of King David I of Scotland in Roxburgh, possibly from the age of 14, rising to the rank of echonomus (often translated "steward" or "Master of the Household") before leaving the court at age twenty-four (in 1134) to enter the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire.
In 1138, when Rievaulx's patron, Walter Espec, was to surrender his castle at Wark to King David of Scotland, Aelred reportedly accompanied Abbot William of Rievaulx to the Scottish border to negotiate the transfer. He saw that his reluctance to part from his friends at court, delayed his adopting his monastic calling. For Aelred, the source and object of true friendship is Christ.
In 1142 Aelred traveled to Rome, alongside Walter of London, Archdeacon of York, to represent before Pope Innocent II the northern prelates who opposed the election of Henry de Sully, nephew of King Stephen as archbishop of York. The result of the journey was that Aelred brought back a letter from Pope Innocent summoning the superiors whom Aelred represented to appear in Rome the following March to make their deposition in the required canonical form. The resulting negotiations dragged on for many years.
Upon his return from Rome, Aelred became novice master at Rievaulx. In 1143, he was appointed abbot of the new Revesby Abbey, a daughter house of Rievaulx in Lincolnshire. In 1147, he was elected abbot of Rievaulx itself, a position he was to hold until his death. Under his administration, the abbey is said to have grown to some 140 monks and 500 conversi and laymen.
His role as abbot required him to travel. Cistercian abbots were expected to make annual visitations to daughter-houses, and Rievaulx had five in England and Scotland by the time Aelred held office. Moreover, Aelred had to make the long sea journey to the annual general chapter of the Order at Cîteaux in France.
Alongside his role as a monk and later abbot, Aelred was involved throughout his life in political affairs. The fourteenth-century version of the Peterborough Chronicle states that Aelred's efforts during the twelfth-century papal schism brought about Henry II's decisive support for the Cistercian candidate, resulting in 1161 in the formal recognition of Pope Alexander III.
Aelred wrote several influential books on spirituality, among them Speculum caritatis ("The Mirror of Charity," reportedly written at the request of Bernard of Clairvaux) and De spiritali amicitia ("On Spiritual Friendship"). In De spirituali amicitiâ, Aelred adopted Cicero's dialogue format. The Prologue begins with the speaker describing his time at school, where "the charm of my companions gave me the greatest pleasure. Among the usual faults that often endanger youth, my mind surrendered wholly to affection and became devoted to love. Nothing seemed sweeter to me, nothing more pleasant, nothing more valuable than to be loved and to love." In this, Aelred mirrors Augustine's description of his own early adolescence. "For I even burnt in my youth heretofore, to be satiated in things below; and I dared to grow wild again, with these various and shadowy loves: my beauty consumed away, …pleasing myself, and desirous to please in the eyes of men. And what was it that I delighted in, but to love, and be loved?"
He also wrote seven works of history, addressing three of them to Henry II of England, advising him how to be a good king and declaring him to be the true descendant of Anglo-Saxon kings.
In his later years, he is thought to have suffered from the kidney stones and arthritis. Walter reports that in 1157 the Cistercian General Council allowed him to sleep and eat in Rievaulx's infirmary; later he lived in a nearby building constructed for him.
Aelred died in the winter of 1166–7, probably on 12 January 1167 at Rievaulx.
Aelred was never formally canonised in the manner that was later established, but he became the center of a cult in the north of England that was officially recognized by Cistercians in 1476. As such, he was venerated as a saint, with his body kept at Rievaulx. In the sixteenth century, before the dissolution of the monastery, John Leland, claims he saw Aelred's shrine at Rievaulx containing Aelred's body glittering with gold and silver. Today, Aelred of Rievaulx is listed as a saint on 12 January, the traditional date of his death, in the latest official edition of the Roman Martyrology, which expresses the official position of the Roman Catholic Church.
He also appears in the calendars of various other Christian denominations.
Much of Aelred's history is known because of the Life written about him by Walter Daniel shortly after his death.
Until the twentieth century, Aelred was generally known as a historian rather than as a spiritual writer; for many centuries his most famous work was his Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor.
Most historians now accept that Aelred was homosexual, drawing upon his work, private letters, and Vita by Walter Daniel (a contemporary at Rievaulx Abbey). Boswell says there is no doubt he was gay and in particular, his work De spiritali amicitia ("On Spiritual Friendship") reveals a conscious homosexual orientation, and has been described as "giving love between persons of the same gender its most profound expression in Christian theology". According to James Neill, Aelred fell in love with a fellow monk called Simon and stayed devoted to him until the latter's death. Baring-Gould says that Aelred was "much edified with the very looks of a holy monk, called Simon." Having renounced high birth and fortune for the monastic life, the monk was a "lover of silence" always recollected in God, and rarely spoke. "The very sight of his humility stifled my pride and made me blush at the want of the mortification in my looks." According to Baring-Gould, "this holy monk, having served God eight years in perfect fidelity, died in 1142, in wonderful peace..."
He confessed in De institutione inclusarum that for a while he surrendered himself to lust, "a cloud of desire arose from the lower drives of the flesh and the gushing spring of adolescence" and "the sweetness of love and impurity of lust combined to take advantage of the inexperience of my youth." He also refers directly to the relationship of Jesus and John the Apostle as a "marriage" (implying a strong homo-social or even homo-erotic reading) and held it out as an example sanctioning close friendships between monks and clergy.
Brian Patrick McGuire portrays Aelred as attracted to other males, but concludes that "...his sexual identity remains uncertain". Marsha Dutton says that in the end, "...there is no way of knowing the details of Aelred's life, much less his sexual experience or struggles."
His works exhorted chastity among the unmarried and widowed, and fidelity within marriage - condemning sexual relationships and activity outside marriage as sinful.
Several gay-friendly organizations have adopted Aelred as their patron saint, including Integrity USA in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, National Anglican Catholic Church in the northeast United States, and the Order of St. Aelred in the Philippines.
BACK TO HOME PAGE