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Egbert (Archbishop of York)

Archbishop of York, England, reformer and strict disciplinarian, date of birth unknown; d. November 19, 766

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Egbert, Archbishop of York, England, son of Eata, brother of the Northumbrian King Eadbert and cousin of King Ceolwulf, to whom the Venerable Bede dedicated his history; date of birth unknown; d. November 19, 766. He received his early education in a monastery, and then went to Rome with his brother Ecgred, where he was ordained a deacon. Ecgred died in Rome and Egbert immediately returned to Northumbria. On the resignation of the Bishopric of York by Wilfrid II in 732, King Ceolwulf appointed Egbert his successor. Shortly after his accession Bede wrote a long letter to him advising him to give much time to study and prayer, to ordain more priests for the administration of the sacraments, and to translate the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer into the Saxon tongue. He also urged him to strive to obtain the subdivision of many of the dioceses of the North in order that episcopal visitations might be more frequently made. He called his attention to many disorders that were prevalent and particularly urged him to secure the pallium for himself. Acting upon this advice Egbert obtained the pallium from Gregory III at Rome in

725, and thus became the second Archbishop of York, that title having been lost to the Church of York ever since Paulinus had fled into Kent more than a century before. During all those years no one had sought for the restoration of that lost dignity, and this neglect was afterwards used as a strong argument in favor of the precedence of Canterbury, when the well-known controversy arose between the two sees. The restoration of the pallium to Egbert increased his power and authority over the Northern bishops, who thus became his suffragans; and his power was still more strengthened in 738 when his brother Eadbert succeeded to the throne of Northumbria.

Egbert was thus placed in a position which enabled him to carry out many reforms, and in the performance of these he proved himself a strict disciplinarian; but though stern when correction and rebuke were justly deserved, he was remarkable for his sweetness and gentleness. His pupil Alcuin frequently speaks of his piety and energy and always refers to him in terms of the deepest affection. “He is said to have been the first prelate who possessed a mint at York. He paid great attention to the services and music of his church, introducing the observance of the Hours. He was also a benefactor to the fabric of the minster, bestowing upon his cathedral the choice work of the jeweller and the goldsmith, and giving to it figured curtains of silk of foreign workmanship. He was, in all probability, the first introducer of the parochial system into the North” (Fasti Ebor.). One of his greatest works, perhaps, was the foundation of the famous School of York and its celebrated library. The renown of its masters and scholars soon spread through every Christian country, and noble youths from all parts flocked to York to be taught by the great archbishop. He himself taught divinity, whilst his assistant Albert, who afterwards succeeded him as archbishop, gave lessons in grammar and in the arts and sciences. The fact that the illustrious Alcuin was Egbert‘s pupil, sheds no little lustre on this famous school.

The archbishop’s daily work has been thus described by Alcuin himself: “As soon as he was at leisure in the morning, he sent for some of the young clerks, and sitting on his couch taught them successively till noon, at which time he retired to his private chapel and celebrated Mass. After dinner, at which he ate sparingly, he amused himself with hearing his pupils discuss literary questions in his presence. In the evening he recited with them the service of complin, and then calling them in order, he gave his blessing to each as they knelt in succession at his feet” (Mabillon, Acta SS. Ord. S.B., ad an. 815). Towards the end of his life he left the care of the school to Albert and Alcuin, giving himself more time and opportunity to prepare for his end in peace and tranquility. In this life of retirement and prayer he was joined by his brother King Eadbert, who voluntarily resigned his throne to enter the monastery in 757. Egbert died before his brother, having ruled over the Diocese of York nearly thirty-four years. He was buried in one of the porches of his cathedral at York. His best-known work is the “De Jure Sacerdotali”, a collection of canonical regulations. Extracts from it made in the eleventh century, under the title of “Excerptions e dictis et canonibus SS. patrum” (Mansi, XII, 411-32; Wilkins, I, 101-12), were long current as a work of Egbert. Among the writings attributed to him are a “Pontificale“, or series of special offices for the use of a bishop; a “Dialogus Ecclesiasticae Institutionis”; a “Confessionale’, and a “Poenitentiale”, both of which were written in the vernacular as well as in Latin. The “Pontificale“, an important liturgical text, has been published by the Surtees Society, and his other works may be found in the second volume of Thorpe’s “Ancient Laws and Institutes of England“. In its present shape the “Poenitentiale Egberti” (P.L., LXXXIX, 411 sqq.) contains but little from the hand of Egbert, and is a ninth-century Frankish compilation, put together mostly from Halitgar. Similarly, the “Dialogus Eccl. Institutionis” (Mansi, XII, 482-88) is said not to be from Egbert in its present form (see Ancient See of York; Penitential Books; Liber Pontificalis).



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