Alcuin of York

An illustration of Alcuin of York and the Emperor Charlemagne.
Alcuin receiving the Abbey of Tours from the Emperor Charlemagne (British Library, Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 153v)

Biography

Alcuin was a churchman and scholar from York who had a significant influence on the Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) and his court.

Childhood and education

Judging from references in his later writings, Alcuin’s family were free, modest landowners in what is now South-East Yorkshire. As a child, Alcuin was sent to the cathedral school at York for his education. He was reportedly a quick learner, reading Virgil and memorising the Psalms by the age of 11.  Despite his talents, Alcuin never became a priest: he remained a deacon all his life.  

Royal advisor to Charlemagne

In the 760s and 770s, Alcuin was a teacher at the school at York. He was close to the archbishop of York and travelled with the archbishop to Rome in the early 760s. In the late 770s, he was sent on a mission to the court of Charlemagne, the powerful king of the Franks. This meeting was to be the first of many. In March 781, Alcuin went to Rome again and met Charlemagne at Parma, who invited the scholar to join his court. 

Charlemagne’s court was at the centre of a renaissance of learning and art, and Alcuin was deeply embedded in these intellectual circles. Over the course of his career, Alcuin wrote tracts on everything from spelling to complicated questions about the nature of Christ’s relationship to God. Alcuin often discussed these topics in the many letters he wrote to Charlemagne and other members of the court. 

Writings and correspondence

Through the exchange of letters, Alcuin also maintained connections across Anglo-Saxon England.  He remained interested in Northumbrian politics and he visited York in the early 790s. A letter he wrote about the sack of Lindisfarne on 8 June 793 may be one of the earliest references to a Viking raid in England. Alcuin also advised the Mercian kings. 

In the summer of 796, Alcuin became the abbot of the important monastery of St Martin’s at Tours. It was there that he wrote many of his most famous works, including many of his letters. Alcuin died at Tours on 19 May 804.  

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