Many of my readers will be familiar with the account in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People of the desecration and destruction of the heathen temple in Goodmanham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, part of the ancient Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. There are some aspects of this account which I wish to reflect upon in this article. I am indebted to the author of A Pagan Place blog. His article on Goodmanham is most interesting: http://pagan-place.blogspot.com/2011/09/pagan-sites-of-europe-remembered-13.html
The original name of this ancient village is Godmunddingaham, meaning "Homestead of the family or followers of a man called Godmund." (A Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills, 1991) The first question which springs to mind is who was Godmund and what was his position? One explanation is that Godmund is derived from the Old Norse name Gudmund, meaning 'protected by god'. However a Norse origin does not make any sense. Bede was writing in the 8th century about an event which occurred in the year 627 CE, well before any Danish colonisation. However it should be remembered that the Angles did come from the same area as the Danes. Also we must ponder whether the 'god' referred to is the name if the Christian god or the heathen English one, probably Woden? If Goodmanham was an important temple site which it appears to have been then it may very well be a reference to Woden. However we do not know for certain what the name of this village was in 627 CE, only what it was called at the time of Bede writing his account in about 731 CE. It is quite possible, maybe even probable that the name of the village was changed after the destruction of the temple.
Here is the appropriate text regarding the event:
"THE king, hearing these words, answered, that he was both willing and bound to receive the faith which he taught; but that he would confer about it with his principal friends and counsellers, to the end that if they also were of his opinion, they might all. together be cleansed in Christ the Fountain of Life. Paulinus consenting, the king did as he said; for, holding a council with the wise men, he asked of every one in particular what he thought of the new doctrine, and the new worship that was preached? To which the chief of. his own priests, Coifi, immediately answered, "O king, consider what this is which is now preached to us; for I verily declare to you, that the religion which we have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in it. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favours from you, and are more preferred than I, and are more prosperous in all their undertakings. Now if the gods were good for any thing, they would rather forward me, who have been more careful to serve them. It remains, therefore, that if upon examination you find those new doctrines, which are now preached to us, better and more efficacious, we immediately receive them without any delay."Another of the king's chief men, approving of his words and exhortations, presently added: "The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he. is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed." The other elders and king's councillors, by Divine inspiration, spoke to the same effect.But Coifi added, that he wished more attentively to bear Paulinus discourse concerning the God whom he preached; which he having by the king's command performed, Coifi, hearing his words, cried out, "I have long since been sensible that there was nothing in that which we worshipped; because the more diligently I sought after truth in that worship, the less I found it. But now I freely confess, that such truth evidently appears in this preaching as can confer on us the gifts of life, of salvation, and of eternal happiness. For which reason I advise, O king, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them." In short, the king publicly gave his licence to Paulinus to preach the Gospel, and renouncing idolatry, declared that he received the faith of Christ: and then he inquired of the high priest who should first profane the altars and temples of their idols, with the enclosures that were about them, he answered, "I; for who can more properly than myself destroy those things which I worshipped through ignorance, for an example to all others, through the wisdom which has been given me by the true God?" Then immediately, in contempt of his former superstitions, he desired the king to furnish him with arms and a stallion; and mounting the same, he set out to destroy the idols; for it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms, or to ride on any but a mare. Having, therefore, girt a sword about him, with a spear in his hand, he mounted the king's stallion and proceeded to the idols. The multitude, beholding it, concluded he was distracted; but he lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned the same, casting into it the spear which he held; and rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire. This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundinghan, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated."
King Edwin (c. 586-632/633 CE) was king of the sub-kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira which later became unified into the kingdom of Northumbria. It was at this very time-627 CE that Edwin converted to Christianity and was baptised. What a coincidence therefore that at this time the High Priest Coifi decides to renounce his ancestral Gods and adopt the Christian religion. His real motive had nothing to do with a true spiritual revelation but was solely due to his realisation that a heathen High Priest would not fare well under a Christian king. So we see here the treason not only of Edwin, the secular ruler but Coifi, the religious reader. Like all conversions of the Germanic peoples they were from the top down, not genuine and subsequently enforced by violence. One can only speculate but it is highly probably that Coifi entered the Christian priesthood after his renunciation of the true Gods. Bede seeks to imply that Edwin's counsellors, his Witan of which Coifi was a member persuaded him to adopt the Christian religion but it is clear to me from the opening sentence that Edwin already had this as his intention and Coifi knowing 'which way the wind was blowing' took advantage of this. Bede being a Christian propagandist obviously has put his own 'spin' on the account which after 100 years became distorted anyway! Even Bede's own words make it clear what Coifi's motivation was-material gain!
It is more than likely that the church in Goodmanham, All Hallows was built upon the site of the heathen temple but contrary to what some allege it was not built from the materials of the temple. As most of my readers will be aware the Anglo-Saxons did not build temples of stone. All their structures were built of wood. The only part of the temple which would have been of stone is the altar. To the best of my knowledge no archaeological excavations have been conducted in the precincts of the church.
Bede makes it clear that Coifi was a High Priest and this implies that there was an organised priesthood. Some commentators claim that the Germanic peoples did not have an organised priesthood but this thinking is based on the faulty claims of Caesar in his De Bello Gallico:
"The customs of the Germans are very different from those of the Gauls. They have no druids to preside over religious matters, nor do they concern themselves with sacrifices." (Sixth Book, paragraph 21, translation by Carolyn Hammond)
We know that this was not the case as Tacitus writing in the following century makes reference to a Germanic priesthood. Both animal and human sacrifices were carried out by the Germans. It may be that Caesar intended to say that the priesthood of the Germans was not as structured as that of the Druids of Gaul but a priesthood it never the less was.
It is generally considered that the temple at Goodmanham was devoted to Woden but this is mere guesswork as Bede does not mention Woden or the name of any other Germanic God in the quoted passage above and generally Germanic temples were devoted to more than one deity. It is significant though that Coifi cast a spear into the temple in order to desecrate it. Weapons were forbidden in the sacred gatherings of the Teutons and Coifi through his actions makes this clear just as the priesthood was forbidden to bear arms and I note, to ride a stallion although permitted to ride a mare. By riding a stallion and bearing arms he soiled his office and by casting the spear into the temple he committed an act of blasphemy. The spear is of course the sacred weapon of Woden and the horse one of his totemic beasts so by riding a stallion and by using this type of weapon to commit his act of sacrilege it is assumed by some that this temple was devoted to Woden which may of course have been the case but we cannot be sure.
Another thing that we can glean from Bede's words is that the temple contained sacred images or 'idols' to use Bede's terminology and this is something which we should therefore encourage in our own rites and to use on our own altars. The temple appeared to have more than one altar and as this was the location of the High Priest it may have had a similar status and significance as the temple at Old Uppsala in Sweden. The next time that Goodmanham is mentioned is in the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror. A sacred well is situated near the church and is dedicated to St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great. It is more than likely that this well like so many others in England was in itself once a sacred heathen shrine.