The Schola Saxonum and the Borgo in Rome

Fresco in the Vatican:  The Fire in the Borgo" by Raphael, 1514  (Image in the public domain)

Fresco in the Vatican: “The Fire in the Borgo” by Raphael, 1514 (Image in the public domain)

During the Anglo-Saxon era in England, there were many pilgrims to Rome. A community existed in Rome where these pilgrims would stay called the Schola Anglorum or Schola Saxonum. It was a small district located on Vatican hill that held militias and was visited by king and merchants, those on ecclesiastical business and pilgrims to the shrines of the saints.

The Venerable Bede tells us in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” that Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) saw beautiful Angle slaves in the Roman Forum and never forgot them. He decided they would benefit from learning more about Christianity and sent St. Augustine to England on a mission to work with the newly converted King Ethelbert and his wife Queen Bertha. Augustine’s mission was very successful. The Anglo-Saxon people had close and friendly contacts with Rome. The earliest record of Anglo-Saxon pilgrims is of St. Benedict Biscop (founder of the monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, home of Bede) and St. Wilfred, Bishop of York who both visited Rome in 654 AD.

Others who visited Rome were Bishop Aldhelm and Ceolfrith, Abbot of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in the late seventh century. Many archbishops travelled to Rome to receive their pallium from the Pope. There were some early kings who visited from the seventh to the eleventh centuries: Caedwalla, King of Wessex, Coenrad of Mercia and Offa of the east Saxons, King Burhred of Mercia and King Cnut. Alfred the Great went to Rome at the age of four and again with his father King Aethelwulf two years later. They most likely stayed in an area between St. Peter’s and the Castle of St. Angelo which has been known as the Borgo for over one thousand years. The word Borgo is an italianized version of the word burh, the name which the Germanic pilgrims gave to this area.

The foundation of the Schola Saxonum within the Borgo is attributed to King Ine of the West Saxons. He was a powerful king that ruled from 688 until 725 when he abdicated his throne and retired to Rome. By the time Ine came, a colony in the Borgo had already been established. With the consent of Pope Gregory II, Ine built a house in the Borgo. Before abdicating, Ine had made the first written laws known in England. This included laws relating to Churchscot, meaning tithes for the maintenance of the local churches. Ine may have extended these tithes to include Romscot which later became known as Peter’s Pence. These fees were for the maintenance of Ine’s stay in Rome. By the time of King Edward the Elder (899-924), the written laws show that a portion of the Peter’s Pence went to the maintenance of the Schola Saxonum. This funding would be withdrawn and restored several times over the life of the Schola with the Pope sometimes taking over funding and management.

Some chroniclers state the Schola was founded to support and educate English pilgrims. There were also contingents of Englishmen along with other Germanic tribes who served in the Roman militias. Some of these tribes founded establishments or “schools” in Rome. Other Schola were founded by the Lombards by Queen Ansa in 770 and by the Franks and later by the Frisians. Whatever the original purpose of the Schola, it became a hostelry where Englishmen could live or come and stay while on business, religious or otherwise.

From the eighth to the twelfth centuries there were many Anglo-Saxon pilgrims who travelled to Rome, sometimes on an annual basis. These numbers were even higher in the ninth century when Anglo-Saxons left Mercia to escape the attacks and raids of the Vikings. Roman records indicate Anglo-Saxons were the most numerous visitors during this time and included men and women of all classes. Some of these Anglo-Saxons would end up spending the rest of their lives in Rome. The Schola most likely consisted of a church surrounded by buildings such as houses, inns and accommodations for pilgrims and those who came to do business in Rome along with baths, libraries and meeting halls.

The Schola is first mentioned in Roman records in 799 in the Liber Pontificalis. It says in that year, the Saxon Schola in Rome along with the Lombards, the Frisians and the Franks went out to meet Pope Leo III on his return from Pardeburg. The earliest mention in English records is an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 816 where it states the Schola burned down. The Liber Pontificalis says the fire was due to the carelessness of the Saxons and nearly spread to St. Peter’s. The fire destroyed every house in the quarter. The pope gave money, food, clothing and timber to rebuild the houses. There was a second fire c. 847 which was immortalized in a fresco at the Vatican by the painter Raphael. In addition to the fires, the Borgo was exposed to attack. The Saracens did considerable damage in 846. Pope Leo IV constructed a wall from 848-852 enclosing the Borgo and incorporating it into the Leonine City.

It was after the second fire that Pope Leo built a church in the quarter and named it St. Mary of Sassia (Saxon). This church is mentioned in the English records in 874. The records later state the church had a cemetery, hearths, houses and workrooms and it was administered by an archpriest appointed by the pope along with priests and laypeople appointed by the chapter of St. Peter’s. It appears at this point the Schola was dependent on the pope for funds.

The Schola survived into the eleventh century but then began to decline. The English devotion to Rome lessened. The Crusades routed pilgrims to the Holy Land. The Investiture Controversy which began as a power struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1072-1085) and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106) created a state of anarchy in Rome. The Pope challenged the authority of European monarchs to appoint church officials such as bishops and abbots. At one point, Henry IV pillaged Rome and pilgrimages were stopped by Papal order.

Pope Callistus (1119-1124) dedicated an altar at the church of St. Mary of Sassia but at the same time urged the English to make pilgrimage to St. David’s Cathedral in Wales. He made a trip to St. David’s worth two trips to Rome. The last we hear of the Schola is a pitiable letter dated c. 1162-3 from Peter; Cardinal Deacon of St. Eustace telling Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury the Schola was without funds and down to just a few clerics. In 1201, Pope Innocent III transferred the remaining buildings of the Schola to a new confraternity of the Holy Spirit for use as a hospital which exists to this day. The adjoining church was rebuilt and today is known as the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia.

Further reading: “Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources” edited by Simon Keynes and Michael LaPidge, “The English Hospice in Rome” by John Allen, “The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England” edited by Michael Lapidge, “The Schola Saxonum, The Hospice, and the English College in Rome” by The Rev. H.E.G. Rope, MA

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