Ealdorman Alfred and his wife Werburg lived in southern England not far from Canterbury in the mid 800s. It was a dangerous time, and they feared not only for their country and its people, but for Christianity itself.
Beginning in the late 700s and continuing for over 200 years, bands of Norsemen sailed southwest to spend the summer raiding England, Ireland, the Low Countries, and France. They ran their long ships up onto the sandy beaches of the coast and up navigable rivers to plunder towns and rich monasteries, then slipped away before any defense could be mounted. By the mid 800s some Viking bands, now interested in conquering and settling, had increased to hundreds of ships that even attacked Paris and London.
In 851 one of these large warbands attacked Canterbury, and then for the first time, didn’t leave with the fall storms. They overwintered on Thanet, a nearby island, and in 853 defeated an Anglo-Saxon army there. These were dark days as people were killed, and homes and crops destroyed. It was a dark time for Christianity, too, and Alfred and Werburg mourned as monasteries and their libraries were looted and burned. This godly husband and wife were especially concerned for a beautiful gospel book we now call the Golden Book or the Codex Aureus.
Experts believe the Codex Aureus was made around AD 750 either in Canterbury or by the nuns of the convent of Minster-in-Thanet, who also produced books for Boniface, the great English missionary to the Germans. When Boniface grew older, he wrote to the nuns asking them to write larger as his eyesight was failing and also to add more gold to impress the pagans.
The Codex Aureus is impressive. It has alternating undyed and purple-dyed parchment leaves, and the purple leaves are written in and heavily decorated with gold and silver. Its original cover is long lost, but a few covers that did survive show these were embellished with gold and precious gems.
The Vikings were so impressed that they stole the Golden Book in a raid and held it for ransom. And that’s when Ealdorman Alfred and his wife, Werburg acted with great courage. I’ll let an inscription they added to the Golden Book tell what they did. It’s written in Old English above and below the decorations and Latin words on the Chi Rho page of the Gospel of Matthew:
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I, Earl Alfred, and my wife Werburg procured these books from the heathen invading army with our own money; the purchase was made with pure gold. And we did that for the love of God and for the benefit of our souls, and because neither of us wanted these holy works to remain any longer in heathen hands. And now we wish to present them to Christ Church [Canterbury] to God’s praise and glory and honour, and as thanksgiving for his sufferings, and for the use of the religious community which glorifies God daily in Christ Church…”
The monks and nuns who copied and embellished beautiful gospel books such as the Codex Aureus, looked on their work as a form of worship. And Irish and English missionaries used the books to evangelize Europe, including Scandinavia, in the centuries following the fall of Rome. Cassidorus, an early Italian monk, said these gospel books “preach[ed] with the pen.”
The Bible is so readily available to most of us today, that we may be tempted to take it for granted, but there have been many times throughout history when it was not so.
Let’s follow the example of Ealdorman Alfred and Werburg in holding God’s Word in reverence and teach our children to do the same. Alfred and Werburg knew that the Golden Book was not precious for its outward beauty but because in it is God’s Word, which is truly “more precious than gold, than much pure gold….” (Psalm 19)
For Children: After writing out a favorite verse/s on sturdy paper. (if needed, write out the verse for younger children), use markers, crayons, or paints to decorate the words, letters and spaces around the verse/s. The artists who embellished gospel books didn’t usually illustrate the verses with pictures as we do today. They often used vines and flowers, geometric designs and bright colors to make God’s Word itself look beautiful.
Adults and/or Older Children: Investigate the later history of the Codex Aureus, which God continued to protect in its sometimes mysterious travels through the centuries. Today it is called the Stockholm Codex Aureus to distinguish it from similar codices. Here’s a link to get you started:
Or look up how intricate and expensive it was to produce the purple dye used in the Codex Aureus. Between its purple dye and its gold and silver, it must have been very costly to produce.
Please leave a comment and tell us what you and your family do to keep God’s Word “more precious than gold, than much pure gold….”