Sighelm, an anglosaxon cleric in India ?


Some versions of Anglo Saxon Chronicle reports in 883 that Alfred sent Sighelm and Athelstan to deliver alms to Christians in India:

In the year 883, Alfred sent Sighelm and Athelstan to Rome, and likewise to the shrine of Saints Thomas and Bartholomew, in India, with the alms which he had vowed

This is plausible as there were Christian communities in Kerala at the time, and also that Kerala was a starting point for the spice trade, particularly for pepper that was esteemed by early (and later) medieval societies. However it has been argued that only the later manuscripts say Indea with earlier versions saying Iudea, ie the tradition of Sighelm going to India arose due to a mediveal copyists error.

However it is also the case that Cosmas Indicopleustes made a well documented journey to India in the mid 550's visiting Christian communities in South India and Ceylon. He also wrote a well known description of his travels. There is always a question as to how well known a book written in Alexandrine Greek would be in Anglo Saxon England, however we can plausibly argue that Cosmas was not unique and knowledge of South India and Ceylon must have been common among sailors and spice merchants.

Likewise Cosmas specifically mentions a community of Persian Christians in Ceylon, and extensive trade with Ethiopia - which in this context probably means the ports of the present day Somalia and the Swahili coast

It has also been argued that the Anglo Saxons used 'India' not in the sense we use it today but to refer to countries somewhere out to the east - much as early modern explorers referred to the Indies, and that Sighelm and Aethelstan's destination was somewhere other than Kerala. Gibbon, writing in the eighteenth century thought they may have gone to Egypt. Beatrice Lee, writing in the early twentieth century, argued that their intended destination was Edessa to where relics of St Thomas had been transferred from India in 232. Edessa was under Islamic rule at the time of Sighelm's supposed journey.

The rest of this article assumes that Sighelm's ultimate destination is not in doubt and that he did indeed attempt to travel to Kerala, and examines the background and practicality of such a journey in the late ninth century.

The pilgrim route to Rome was well established and many pilgrims also travelled on to Jerusalem as exemplified by various saint's lives. There is also evidence that there was an established pilgrimage route for devotees of the Nestorian church from the East including the St Thomas christians in Kerala.

Alfred, Orosius and the wider world

Alfred appears to have had an interest in the wider world including the compilation of a geography of northern Eurpe based on interviews with Nordic merchants.

In addition, Alfred had a translation of Orosius commissioned that included updates to the original text including a geography of the world that mentions India and Ceylon. While unprovable Alfred may have been aware of the spice trade and the role of south India in it, even if he was unaware of the distances involved.

Alfred is known to have corresponded with and sent alms to the Pope. He is also known to have corresponded with the Caliph of Baghdad and with Elias III, patriarch of Jerusalem. The Indea / Iuedea transcription argument hinges in part on the argument that Alfred, a known alms giver, is more likely to have sent alms for the upkeep of the holy places, especially given his correspondence with Elias III, who also sent him medications to aid Alfred's various ailments.

AngloSaxons, India, and Pepper

Katherine Beckett - Anglo Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World summarises the evidence for knowledge of spices in the Anglo Saxon period including Aldhelm's use of 'peppercorn' as an answer to a riddle. Evidence suggests the both the ecclesiastical and secular elite would have been reasonably familar with pepper and had a general perception that it had come from the east.

There is also evidence of an interest in the world - for example there is an old English translation of a letter purporting to be from Alexander to Aristotle describing the wonders of India in the Nowell Codex written in a hand closely resembling the handwriting of the Beowulf A scribe. The Nowell Codex also contains a copy of the Wonders of the East. These manuscripts probably date to around 1000AD, ie roughly a hundred years after Alfred, but it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that other copies, now lost, were known at Alfred's court.

The story that both Saint Bartholomew and Saint Thomas had gone to India would have been common knowledge among the educated class due to being mentioned in various contemporary martyrologies that detailed the fates of the apostles. Also, while later in date, a man claiming to be Archbishop John, Patriarch of India appeared at the inauguration of Calixtus II (1119). There is also an account of the same man being seen in Constantinople, also claiming to be the Patriarch of India. It is impossible to say if the man concerned was an imposter, but the fact that someone could claim to be churchman from India that with a degree of plausibility suggests that there was some knowledge in the Latin West of the Christian communities in India well before 1200.

There is further evidence of complex trade networks existing at the time. Around 1100 Edgar, King of Scots gave of a camel (or perhaps an elephant) to his fellow Gael Muircheartach Ua Briain, High King of Ireland. The Annals of Inisfallen are vague in their description of the animal, hence to confusion as to whether a camel or an elephant ws gifted, but the fact remains that there must indeed to have been considerable, and quite complex networks of trade to allow so exotic an animal to be transported from either Africa or the East at the end of the eleventh century.

Equally, amethyst beads have been found in a pagan Saxon grave in Wiltshire which is interesting as amethyst comes from either Eastern Mediterranean or from South India, both of which would be on any spice trade route. The link is that pepper comes from Kerala and would have travelled the same route as the amethyst. There is however a caveat, the Romans were very fond of amethyst jewellery, and there remains the possibility that the amethyst beads in early anglo saxon graves were reused or recut Roman beads.

The remains of the pilgrim way station at Sir Bani Yas in Abu Dhabi shows that there had been Christian pilgrims on their way from further east before the advent of Islam - the question is whether the Gulf pilgrim route was still in use, and if not when did it go out of use.

Given the existence, even today, of Christian communities in Syria, Jordan and Iraq, one might reasonably assume that communities elsewhere in states bordering the Gulf not only continued into Islamic times, but would have continued to provide shelter and assistance to pilgrims travelling from further east. Indeed given the Nestorian churches' links with India it would be surprising if they did not.

It would also make sense to go via sea and thus avoid the rigours of either crossing the desert of Baluchistan and south west Iran, or the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan.

Thus one can imagine that not only could Sighelm have followed a well established pilgrim route from the holy land back to India, just as the putative John, Patriarch of India, could well have come the other way.

How would they get there?

The fact the Anglo Saxon Chronicle says they also went to Rome but not to anywhere else is a clue.

They probably followed the normal and well known pilgrim route to Rome and from there journeyed to either Venice or Ancona which were involved in the spice trade. From there they would probably have sailed to Egypt and from there down the Red Sea and, catching the Monsoon wind, to India. This is the classic spice trading route and was well known, and had been since Roman times - as attested to by Pliny the Elder's complaint that the trade cost the Empire in excess of 100 million sesterces annually.

There had also been a number of recorded direct contacts and embassies between Rome and India during the Empire - Dorothy King has a nice summary on her blog.

The spice trade had remained important until the end of Byzantine Egypt with Heraclius expending considerable resources to ensure that it contiued to operate.

The trade may not have been only spices. The recent discovery of silk from the 2nd Century CE in Sri Lanka raises the possiblity that the the spice route also formed a major trade route for the supply of silk from China to the West.

Given that there was a St Thomas Christian community on Socotra, off the coast of Yemen, until at least the tenth century it is possible that this community was well known to spice traders in Alexandria, and served as a source of information about the christian communities in India, and that their existence was common knowledge among the Coptic Christians of Alexandria.

Likewise, it would not be inconceivable that there were similar communities on the coast of Somalia and the Yemeni coast and further north, especially in pre-Islamic times.

Alexandria functioned as a major entrepot of the spice trade - the spice market in Istanbul is still known as the Egyptian market. This remains the most likely jumping off point for a journey to India. Journeying to Egypt does not of course preclude them going to Judea/Iudea in place of India, there is evidence from later pilgrim accounts that a number of pilgrims travelled to Egypt and then on to St Catherine's monastery before journeying on the holy land.

However most medieval travelers (including early medieval ones such as Willibald and Huneberc) to the holy land seem to have sailed there directly to Acre and Jaffa from Italy and then on to Jerusalem. The longer overland route via the Via Egnatia and Byzantium seems to have been little used - or more accurately, little used by those who left accounts of their journey.

From Jerusalem they would then have travelled overland via Baghdad and have sailed down the Gulf and across the Arabian Sea. The Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas which was probably built for Nestorian monks travelling from India suggests that there had been an existing pilgrim route in pre islamic times. There is evidence that the monastery continued to operate until around 750.

Remains of churches have been found with distinctive Nestorian crosses, most noticably in what is now Bahrain and Kuwait. Place name evidence such as 'Al Dair' (the monastery) in Bahrain may point to the existence of other monasteries and xenodichia providing succour to pilgrims.

However this does not preclude the pilgrim route being in operation after that date, and given the expansion of the nestorian church, and its links with India it would be surprising if it did not. There is some evidence of the presence of Christian communities in the Gulf until possibly the ninth century.

The evidence for a nestorian presence in Jerusalem before 1300, with the visit of Markos and Sawma - the monks of Kublai Khan - is sparse, but it is not impossible that there was a church to provide succour for pilgrims from the east. It is possible that Alfred had heard of the shrines in India either through his correspondance with the Caliph or with Elias III, and that Sighelm journeyed to a well known point on the pilgrim route and followed it back staying with Christan communities along the way

However, going by sea from an Italian port to Egypt and thence directly to Kerala would have been been quicker, and possibly safer, than travelling overland to the Gulf. Roman amphorae have been found from along the coast of India from Pune to Kerala suggesting an extensive maritime trade. The presence of amphorae points to a mostly maritime based trade given the costs and comparitive difficulty of overland frieght transport in late antiquity.

It is impossible to say if Sighelm did go, and if he did, which route he took. What can be said with certainty is that he could have reached India either via the spice route or the Nestorian pilgrim route, either by sailing down the Gulf or overland. That the overland route was possible is not in question - the experience of several travelers, including Thomas Coryate - who walked from Turkey to Gujarat in the early 1600's - show that it could be done in conditions not much different from those obtaining in the ninth century.

See notes on early medieval travel for additional information.

AngloSaxons elsewhere

  • Recorded that by 1088 AngloSaxons formed the majority of the Varangian Guard in Byzantium
  • Offa Rex imitation of gold dinar - not evidence of direct link, but evidence of trade flow with near east

Sighelm and Asser

The list of bishops of Sherborne is unfortunately confused due to the division of the see on Asser's death, but it has been argued that the Sighelm who may have gone to India is the same person who was Asser's successor as Bishop of Sherborne. Sighelm was certainly the sole bishop of Sherborne by 918.

Asser, was of course Alfred's biographer. Asser probably died around 10 years after Alfred around 909. This would suggest that Sighelm was (a) a relatively young man when he set out on his journey (b) allows him enough time to undertake a journey of several years length.

Do we have the right Sighelm?

It has been objected that most of Alfred's alms bearers were eminent lay people and that having a cleric carry alms to India was unusual.

Sighelm was not a common name but we do know of another Sighelm who was an ealdorman of Kent and who is mentioned in charters in 875 and 889. The 889 charter is significant as again that would allow him time to travel to Kerala and return. Sighelm the ealdorman was killed in battle in 902.

Eadgifu of Kent, who was the third wife of Edward the Elder, Alfred's son and successor, was a daughter of Sighelm the ealdorman, pointing to Sighelm's close links with the ruling family in Wessex and hence more likely to be entrusted to carry alms, which represented a considerable sum of money.

Alfred's near annual alms giving by reviving Offa's commitment to give 365 mancuses (a mancuse was a copy of a gold dinar reckoned to be worth 30 silver pennies) formed part of his strategy of building links with both Rome and the Carolingian Empire. As such he would have reason to entrust the alms giving to someone wise to the ways of statecraft, rather than a comparitively inexperienced youth.

The suggestion that the Sighelm who was later the Bishop of Sherborne is based on reports by Florence of Worcester and William of Malmesbury. However I suspect that they were reporting something widely believed in the monastic community and that the Sighelm who was later Bishop of Sherborne was also Sighelm the alms bearer.

Keynes and Lapidge have however suggested that Florence of Worcester was simply confused and assumed that the two people called Sighelm were the same person. Given the co-incidence of names this is not impossible. A similar suggestion was made by Beatrice Lee in her biography of Alfred, first published in 1915.

Sighelm the bishop died around 932. He certainly signed a charter granting land in 930. This is potentially a problem as it suggests that he died roughly 50 years after his mission to India, suggesting that at the time of the journey he would have been a relatively young man, say between 25 and 30 years old, and unlikely to have achieved the eminence of other alms bearers.

An outside possibility is that Sighelm the cleric was related in some way to Sighelm to ealdorman and that both went to India, but there is no evidence to support this either way.

Florence of Worcester

The chronicle of Florence of Worcester, dating from the mid 1100's records:

Asser, Bishop of Sherborne died and was succeeded by Swithelm, who carried King Alfred's Alms to St Thomas in India and who returned in safety

Florence of Worcester himself died around 1118, and his work was continued by John of Worcester who is the principle author. The text contains references to particular events that John (or Florence) may have had access to several lost sources. Some of the same events are also mentioned by William of Malmesbury, writing at the same time as John of Worcester, suggesting that William may also have had access to these now lost sources.

William of Malmesbury

William of Malmesbury appears to be the source of the idea that Sighelm returned from India with jewels and aromatic liquors. William of Malmesbury's source for this is unknown and he may have been quoting local tradition.

It may also be an interpolation inspired by the myth of Prester John, and also by the medieval belief that India was located adjacent to paradise. One nineteenth century translation reads:

Ever intent on almsgiving, he confirmed the privileges of the churches, as appointed by his father, and sent many presents over sea to Home and to St. Thomas in India. Sighelm, bishop of Sherborne, sent ambassador for this purpose, penetrated successfully into India, a matter of astonishment even in the present time. Returning thence^ he brought back many brilliant exotic gems and aromatic juices in which that country abounds, and a present more precious than the finest gold, part of our Saviour's cross, sent by pope Marinus to the king

He however does not mention spices. Had he done so it would have been possible to argue with conviction that Sighelm had reached Kerala, an endpoint of the spice trade. As he does not the conservative tack is to argue that the idea of Sighelm coming back with spices is a later interpolation by someone who knew that there were shrines of St Thomas and St Bartholemew in Kerala and that spices, including pepper was highly prized in medieval times, and also concatenated this with aspects of the Prester John myth.

Stretching it, one could perhaps argue that aromatic liquors might refer to spices.

The evidence however is tenuous and closer readings of the original latin texts is probably required.

William of Malmesbury appears also to link the Sighelm, Bishop of Sherborne, with the Sighelm who may have gone to India. Again Malmesbury was probably quoting tradition or sources now lost. Now if Sighelm did go to India, it is so unlikely a journey one has to give some credence to to the linkage.

Given that Malmesbury Abbey and Sherborne Abbey were both Benedictine houses and, while separated by around 100km, William of Malmesbury could conceivably of had some dealings with them and consequent knowledge of local traditions.

William of Malmesbury is generally felt to be a reliable source, and so it would atypical for him to report something that he had not heard and did not believe to be true.


Sighelm may well have gone to India. If we give credence to both Florence of Worcester and Wiiliam of Malmesbury the Sighelm who travelled to India is the Sighelm who was later Bishop of Sherborne. This does not preclude him travelling on a mission with Sighelm the ealdorman.

The mention of 'aromatic juices' by William of Malmesbury could be confirmation of travel to Kerala, but examination of the original Latin text may be required to confirm the accuracy of the translation quoted.

The jewels mentioned could be confirmation or simply an interpolation. It is impossible to prove this either way without textual analysis. It is of course possible that Sighelm returned with some amethyst based jewellery, just as tourists do today

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