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Archbishop of York, England, date of birth uncertain; d. Nov. 8, 781 or 782

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Ethelbert, ARCHBISHOP OF YORK, England, date of birth uncertain; d. November 8, 781 or 782. The name also appears as ALBERT, ADALBERHT, AELBERHT, ALDBERHT, ALUBERHT, EADBERHT and ELCHBERT. He was the teacher and intimate friend of Alcuin, whose poem on the saints and prelates of the Church of York, “De Sanctis et Pontificibus Ecclesiae Eboracensis”, is the principal source of information concerning Ethelbert’s life. He was a kinsman of his predecessor Archbishop Egbert (brother to Eadberht, King of Northumbria) and a pupil in the school which Egbert founded at York. When he reached man’s estate, Egbert ordained him priest and made him master of the school. Among his pupils was Alcuin, who has left us an affectionate description of him, from which we learn how varied his erudition was—grammar, rhetoric, law, poetry, astronomy, natural history, and Sacred Scripture being all mentioned as subjects in which he instructed his pupils. He is described as severe to the stubborn, gentle to the docile, while of those who were scholars after his own heart it is said “Hos sibi conjunxit, docuit, nutrivit, amavit”. His ready sympathy won the affection of his students, while his strenuous energy urged them on to further progress. Even after Egbert became archbishop, he reserved to himself the duty of lecturing on the New Testament, while he entrusted the work of explaining the Old Testament to Ethelbert. As a keen scholar he loved books ardently and spared no pains in forming a library at York, which was probably the largest collection of books to be found outside Rome. Alcuin, in enumerating many of these, mentions several Latin and Greek classical authors, as well as the Fathers and other Christian writers. Ethelbert, in his search for books, travelled far, and we know that he visited Rome among other places. Everywhere his learning and power of sympathy won for him friends, so that his influence for good was widespread and he ranks as one of the foremost among the promoters of education in the eighth century.

In 766 Archbishop Egbert died, and Ethelbert was unanimously chosen to succeed him. He was consecrated April 24, 767, and received the pallium from Adrian I in 773. As archbishop he continued his simple and laborious life, working with such success that he is regarded as one of the founders of the Church of York. He set himself to rebuild the minster which had been destroyed by fire in 741. It is impossible to obtain certain information as to the extent of his work, but Alcuin speaks as though he began, finished, and consecrated it:

Ast nova basilicae mirae structura diebus

Praesulis hujus erat jam caepta, peracta, sacrata.

He speaks of its magnificence, the columns and crypts, bright windows and ceilings, the tall crucifix of precious metals, the thirty altars it contained, and the gold, silver, and jewels employed in the decoration of sacred vessels and altars. Eanbald and Alcuin were employed by the archbishop to superintend its construction. From York Ethelbert developed both missionary work and educational effort. He sent out from his school both preachers and teachers, the latter of whom founded new schools while the former spread the truths of Christianity among the heathen. Thus we find Ethelbert holding a council in Northumbria at which it was decided to send Willehad as a missionary to the Frisians and Saxons. From the York school, too, came Alubert and Liudger, the Apostles of North Germany.

In 780 Ethelbert, desiring to prepare for death, consecrated Eanbald as his coadjutor bishop and committed to Alcuin the care of the school and library. He then retired to a cell where he spent some time in devotion. Shortly before his death, in the autumn of 781 or 782, he appeared once more in public that he might consecrate the cathedral which was now complete. Ten days later he died and was buried in his church at York. Alcuin mourned his loss as that of a father, and composed in his honor the splendid panegyric (lines 1394-1595) which is the gem of the poem on the Church of York. To him Ethelbert—or Aelbert, as he calls him—was both pontiff and saint, “Jam cui Christus amor, potus, cibus, omnia Christus”.


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