Three men combined to drive the re-foundation of monastic life in England – King Edgar, St Dunstan & St Aethelwold. In the early 10th century Glastonbury was a popular place for Christian pilgrimage & also of Christian learning. The young Dunstan was educated there & then joined his uncle Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the royal court of King Athelstan. He took holy orders in 943. Aethelwold also became a member of Aethelstan’s royal household and was ordained a priest by Bishop Aelfheah of Winchester around 938. At the death of Athelstan, Aethelwold withdrew from Court life & became a monk at Glastonbury. When Edgar succeeded to the English throne in 963 all pieces were in place for the re-formation of monastic life to begin. All the old monastic settlements were in ruins following the depredations of the Danes in 870. It can be argued that Crowland was the first of the old monasteries of the Fens to be re-founded. In 948 the Northumbrians rebelled & King Edred sent his chancellor Turketyl to resolve the problem.
On his journey he came upon the old monastery of Croyland where three aged monks greeted him & showed him the relics of Saint Guthlac. Turketyl promised aid to the monks & appealed to Edred for help. In due time Turketyl became Abbot of Crowland – but probably much later than the year 941 quoted in the Crowland Abbey official guide.
Hugh Candidus records the 963 re-foundation of the monastery at Medeshamstede, telling how Aethelwold, was told by God to: ‘go to the land of the Middle Angles to restore to its former state a certain ancient monastery of St Peter.’ Aethelwold reached Oundle, but was told to go further along the river until ‘he came to the very walls of a burnt monastery. There he found stalls of cattle & sheep and the whole place filled with foulness and unclean.’ Meadshamstede grew, became a fortified town &, as a result, changed its name to Burgh – often recorded as Burch. In 972 Dunstan consecrated the new church of Burgh, which became increasingly wealthy, with no little help from its collection of Holy Relics – that it became known as Gildenburgh.
After his visit to Medeshamstede, Aethelwold moved on & set in progress the repair of the church in Ancarig [an island of recluses or solitaries]. However, in the years since the Danish events the name had been converted to the English tongue and, by virtue of the fact that thorns grew all around the old site, it was now known as Thorney. Aethelwold ‘bought the place for a price and made it fit for monks’, installing as their Abbot Godman. When the new abbey was built he consecrated it in 972 & endowed it with ‘the possessions of all good things’, including land.
According to Hugh Candidus, Aethelwold next went on to Ely and, ‘with a great sum of money he bought it, as he had bought all the others, of King Edgar, settling there no small company of monks over whom he ordained his reeve Byrhtnoth as abbot. He then built anew a fair and goodly monastery, richly endowed with the possessions of lands, and confirmed in the enjoyment of the privilege of liberty forever, commending it also to Almighty God.’ The new foundation received its charter from King Edgar in 971. Transferred in the charter is a right of the abbey to an annual gift of 10,000 eels from Upwell & Outwell which had previously been due to the King.
All these new foundations were created as male only monasteries following the Rule of St. Benedict. Presented in 73 chapters the Rule lays down the pattern of life, work & worship for the monks of the order, not austere but very structured and controlled.