John Gayford spends time with Alcuin: Master of Charlemagne’s Palace School at Aachen; Abbot of Tours.


The life of Alcuin divides neatly into three phases: his beginning at York, his post with Charlemagne and finally becoming Abbot of Tours; but his interests and writings are continuous. He was a competent and versatile scholar with a keen interest in liturgical revision, biblical scholarship and specific theological topics. Some of his pupils became leading political and religious reformers. He wrote many letters to friends and disciples some of which remain, there are also a number of poems including his lament over the sacking of his beloved Lindisfarne by the Vikings.

Alcuin was born in Northumbria circa 740 about the time Bede died. He was entrusted to the familia of the clergy possibly due to early death of his parents, becoming a pupil at the Monastic School of York Minster and throughout his life he regarded York as his spiritual home. He became a gifted deacon, serving Egbert, bishop of York from 732 and continued when Egbert became archbishop in 767 to 778. Bede, whom Alcuin admired and imitated, had taught Egbert.   Egbert was not only Alcuin’s mentor but also his friend, and together they went to Rome and became acquainted with the intellectual elite. When Egbert was consecrated Archbishop of York in 767, Alcuin became master of the cathedral school and was continuous in the praise of his archbishop. Alcuin was ordained a deacon but never a priest. It seems that Egbert retired some time before his death in 780. Eanbald was appointed successor and formally consecrated and installed during Egbert’s retirement, but there was a problem of acknowledgement when he officially took office. So in 781 Alcuin was requested by King Elfwald of Northumbria to go to Rome and receive the pallium from Pope Hadrian I to certify Eanbald’s position as archbishop. On his return from Rome, Alcuin was reacquainted with King Charlemagne who persuaded him to become Master of his palace in Aachen. This post he accepted in 782 and left England but kept in close contact with friends by many letters, returning for short periods.  Charlemagne (748-814), the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was no mean judge of people and said of Alcuin he is the most learned man anywhere to be found. Alcuin is sometimes described as a pupil of Bede although they never met, but he went on from where Bede left off and was responsible for the dissemination of much of Bede’s work through Europe. Unlike Bede, Alcuin was a significant figure in the political and diplomatic world. He was an important bridge between the old world and the new world in which he lived.

Alcuin became the Master of the Palace School of Charlemagne known as Urbs Regale. His original function was to teach the royal children to be royal but under Alcuin’s direction its purpose was extended to impart a knowledge of the liberal arts and the study of religion. This started with Alcuin teaching Charlemagne himself along with his sons Pepin and Louis, but also included others like young clergy attached to the palace chapel. From York, Alcuin imported others to assist him in his task of providing an institute of scholarship which became known as the School of Master Albinus. This continued from 782 to 796, the result being that Alcuin prevented the king from following some of his extreme ideas that were not in keeping with the Christian faith. Alcuin had esteem for the king; there was an exchange of nicknames, but he also feared the king. The school was starting to attract scholars from other parts of Europe. Alcuin played a prominent part in the Carolingian Renaissance, an intellectual revival in the 9th century which unlocked the way to open-mindedness, the liberal arts and charity. He strove to restore the Latin of religious texts, especially of the Bible, and was keen on correct Latin articulation free of common vulgarities which needed a clearly written text.  Other works he wrote included a treatise on the Trinity and a commentary on St John’s Gospel which borrowed and simplified works of St Augustine of Hippo.

Charlemagne had previously made a request to Pope Hadrian I for a copy of the Mass liturgy he used in Rome. In about 790 he was sent a copy which has been called the Hadrianum – a precious document from which a number of accurate copies were made. Alcuin had access to this and used it as a point of reference. In fact, it was not the common liturgical Mass used in Rome at that time but the Station Mass used by Pope Hadrian I coming from a tradition of Pope Gregory the Great, who visited the tombs of martyrs on their feast Day and celebrated Mass. Alcuin, like Charlemagne, felt driven to meld geographically developed liturgies into a universal rite.

Alcuin left his mark on liturgy with the introduction of votive Masses and the singing of the creed. He was enthusiastic about the observance of All Saints’ Day. Not all the Votive Masses attributed to Alcuin were his work but opinion is in 23 of them he had a significant input. As Abbot of Tours, Alcuin contributed Propers for the Masses and Biblical readings. The Votive Mass for the Most Holy Trinity was even used on Sundays. Alcuin arranged Votive Masses according to the days of the week if there is no other overriding feast to be used. Eventually this became: the Most Holy Trinity for Monday; the Angels for Tuesday; St Joseph also Saints Peter and Paul, also the Holy Apostles for Wednesday; the Holy Spirit, also the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist and also Our Lord Jesus Christ the Supreme Eternal Priest for Thursdays (this latter only being translated to a Feast on the Thursday after Pentecost in recent years); the Holy Cross or Passion of the Lord for Friday. Saturday is still a popular day for a Votive Mass of Our Lady with its variants through the seasons of the year. The New Roman Missal lists Votive Masses but does not assign them to specific days.

In 796, being in his sixties, Alcuin wished to be freed from court duties. Marmoutier of St Martin, Tours, was the foremost Abbey of the time and when Abbot Itherius died, Charlemagne  supported Alcuin to the Abbacy, on the undertaking that he would be available to the King if his counsel were needed. Here Alcuin continued his scholarship in liturgy and also fostered the monks’ development of the Carolingian minuscule script, the forerunner of the modern Roman typeface. A good communicator, especially to the young, Alcuin developed a web of friendships which gave his moral direction appeal to the laity, both men and women. His study of accurate simple Latin Biblical text combined with his way of expressing it added to his appeal to 9th century learning and theology. His homilies were deep, traditional and grammatical, with a poetic style. Alcuin was no mean mathematician and astronomer, scrutinising the movement of the stars. He was strict with Latin grammar. He worked hard at Greek and other languages, but his proficiency was in Latin, in which he could pray as fluently as in his mother tongue.

Alcuin interrupted his stay in France by returning to England on two occasions: in 786 he accompanied a papal legate mission and possibly helped in drafting reports. In his theology, Alcuin was deeply opposed to Adoptionism, which held that the Christ was only adopted as the Son of God rather than by being begotten. This Alcuin opposed vehemently at a colloquium in Rome. In 790 he was away for three years staying at Lindisfarne, negotiating between Charlemagne’s unifying liturgical objectives and Offa’s determination to reinvent Mercian kingship in the Carolingian mould. Offa was driven by a lust for power, not by a vision of English unity.

Alcuin had strong opinions on how best the liturgy should be sung as he expressed in a letter written to Archbishop Eanbald (archbishop of York 796-808). Let the clergy chant with moderate voice, striving to please God rather than men. An immoderate exaltation of the voice is a sign of boastfulness. At this time there was no musical notation so chant had to be taught orally, as when John the cantor came from Rome to teach Bede and his monks at Wearmouth and Jarrow, so he or the like could equally have gone to York. It seems that Gregorian chant was known to Alcuin, but at an oral stage and largely dependent on the memory of the cantor. We also know that Alcuin was keen on incorporating liturgy from Rome into France which would include how liturgy was sung in Rome. Amalarius of Metz (c.775-c.850) who became a bishop was a pupil of Alcuin and continued with the course of incorporating Roman liturgy into France including the chant and devising a way of writing this down.

Alcuin was the author of many letters with explanation of scripture and liturgy. He liked to have good copies of Biblical text and when in France he was known to send to York where he knew there was a better text, having edited both the Old and New Testament while he was in residence at York. These were needed to correct what he called corrupt texts he found in France, and did this with the full approval of Charlemagne. He was especially fond of St John’s Gospel, on which he wrote a commentary, and was regretful that he could not spend more time in studying the deep mysteries revealed by Our Lord that could lead to salvation.

Alcuin does not appear in the Roman calendar, nor in the Book of Common Prayer nor in the English Missal, but has a commemoration in Common Worship for 20th May as Alcuin, deacon, and Abbott of Tours 804. There is some confusion about the date of his death with an account of him dying on the Feast of Pentecost in 804, as he wished. There is a claim that his tomb is inscribed 14th June. The now accepted accounts say he died on 19th May 804 but his commemoration was moved to the 20th so it as not to clash with St Dunstan. Part of his epitaph inscribed on his tomb reads: Dust, worms and ashes now…Alcuin my name, wisdom I always loved, Pray, reader, for my soul.

Alcuin, together with his legacy, has been embraced in the Church of England for passing on a rich tradition; a prayerful poet who has enhanced liturgy. Since its foundation in 1897 the Alcuin Club has promoted the study of liturgy. Currently it lists 119 publications with a focus on Anglican liturgy but has spread its scope of study considerably. Any serious student of liturgy will find that the selection of subjects explores the history and development of liturgy both in the East and Western Churches, tracing its development back to credible Jewish sources. There is also an Alcuin College, part of the University of York, founded in 1967.


Suggested Further Reading:-

    Dales, D. Alcuin, Theology and Thought James Clarke &Co. Cambridge 2014.

    Garrison, M. Alcuin of York in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England edited by Lapidge, M. et al. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Oxford. 2001.

    Hiley, D. Western Plainchant: A Handbook. Clarendon Press Oxford 1995.