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Alcuin of York - Scholar

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Alcuin was a famous cleric, teacher and scholar from the north of England who is known for being chief adviser to Charlemagne1.

Life in York

Alcuin was born to a Northumbrian noble family in about 732 AD. Several of his relatives had strong religious backgrounds - one founded a monastery and several others had been missionaries - and Alcuin was no different.

He was sent to the monastic school at York aged five or so. There he studied under Archbishop Egbert, the brother of the king, and also under a kinsman of Egbert's, named Albert. Alcuin was an extremely successful scholar and he remained there as an equally talented teacher once his own education was complete. Albert in particular, according to Alcuin, helped the school to become pre-eminent. He travelled across the continent and returned with new books, and as a result, the school taught more subjects than any other in Europe, including rhetoric, logic, Latin grammar, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic.

Alcuin was so well-respected that when Albert became Archbishop, Alcuin and a fellow student named Eadbald were put in charge of building a new church. He was also responsible for building up the library of York Minster and in 778, Alcuin was put in charge of the school.

In 781, Alcuin was sent to Rome to ask the Pope to confer a pallium, a type of ecclesiastical vestment that conferred on a bishop the right to consecrate other bishops2, on Archbishop Eanbald.

Life With Charlemagne

It was on his return from this journey that Alcuin met Charlemagne, at Parma. The king asked him to return to Aachen with him and teach in his palace school there. Charlemagne's court was becoming a centre of learning, with a number of notable scholars living and working there. Alcuin agreed. He never returned to York for anything more than a visit, despite the abiding love for the city displayed in his letters.

Alcuin was a teacher to Charlemagne and his children and became a valued adviser to him. Alcuin's letters show a close friendship with the king, which can also be gathered from Alcuin's habit of ascribing nicknames to his friends, both in York and in Aachen. Charlemagne was known as David, a reference to the Old Testament king.

Alcuin lived in Aachen from 781 to 790 and again from 793 to 796. In the meantime, he was acting as an envoy from Charlemagne to England, a position for which he was well qualified. As a reward for his service, Alcuin was given several monasteries and was made Abbot of the monastery of St. Martin's at Tours in 796. There, he introduced the curriculum from York, as he had also done at Charlemagne's court.

Relationship With Pupils

Alcuin kept in touch with his former pupils by letter, regardless of whether they were in England or the continent. He frequently teased them but also admonished them to live holy lives and to continue learning. His relationships with them were warm.


Alcuin was one of those irritating people who are extremely knowledgeable about many different fields of study. He wrote on an extremely wide range of subjects, including literary pursuits such as grammar and rhetoric, astronomy, and religious subjects such as theology, commentaries on the Bible, and hagiography3. He also wrote poems and was asked by Charlemagne to write the text of an epitaph to Pope Hadrian, a friend of the king.

In addition to this, Alcuin wrote treatises against the heresy of Adoptionism4 and was asked by Charlemagne to revise the Latin Bible. He did so and the new version, called the Tours Bible, made a clear version widely available as it had never been before.

Influence and Death

Alcuin died at Tours on 19 May, 804 and was probably buried there. A college at the University of York is named after him as arguably the city's most famous son, and Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem called Awareness of Alcuin.

Perhaps the best way to explain Alcuin's influence is in his own description of his life's work:

In the morning, at the height of my powers, I sowed the seed in Britain, now in the evening when my blood is growing cold I am still sowing in France, hoping both will grow, by the grace of God, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning...
1King of the Franks from 770 to 814 AD. He also became Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD.2A right they did not ordinarily have. It was allowed in England because otherwise the prospective bishop would have to travel all the way to Rome to be consecrated, a journey which could take months.3Biographies of saints and accounts of their miracles.4This stated that Jesus was not the son of God by birth, but by adoption.

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