Anglo Saxon

Alcuin of York

Raban Maur (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz (Right)

735AD - 804AD

Alcuin was born some time between 730 and 740.  Little is known of his parents, although his own writings suggest that his family owned a modest plot of land in Yorkshire.  As a child he was handed over to the Minster community under Archbishop Egbert.  It is said that he had mastered the Psalms by 11 and showed a precocious interest in the works of Roman poet Virgil. 

Alcuin revered Bede, who died around the time he was born, and he praised the enduring influence of Ethelbert, his teacher and Egbert’s successor as archbishop.

Ethelbert became archbishop of York in 767 and Alcuin continued to work at the York school.  He became master of the school in 778.  Around the same time he also became a deacon in the church though he was never ordained as a priest. 

Alcuin wrote many poems, one of which celebrates York and its library: he lists many of the authors whose works were on its shelves.  He also wrote educational manuals and hundreds of letters, many of which survive. 

In 781 Alcuin was sent to Rome to petition the Pope on behalf of York.  On his way home Alcuin had a life-changing encounter with king of the Franks - Charles the Great - or Charlemagne.  The king was sufficiently impressed by Alcuin that he persuaded him to join the royal court.  He saw Alcuin as a scholar with the ability to lead the development of learning and reforms of the Church. 

Alcuin became one of Charlemagne’s chief advisers on religious and educational matters.  He was made head of the palace school at Aachen (a town near the current German/Belgian border) and he established a great library there, including some books brought over from the York library.  It was effectively north-west Europe’s first university.  As well as revising church liturgy and the bible, Alcuin helped create an intellectual movement where schools of learning were attached to monasteries and cathedrals. 

We know that Alcuin was back in York for a brief visit in about 786, and for a longer one in 790, before returning to the continent.  Despite his lengthy residence abroad his writings offer a unique insight into this period of English history.


  • BBC History
    An article by Dr Anna Ritchie on

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