Bede, Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar (at the ‘twin monastery’ of Wearmouth and Jarrow), popularly known as ‘the Venerable Bede’,[*] was the author of many works of various type – biblical commentaries, saints’ ‘Lives’, homilies, hymns; educational, scientific and historical texts. Into this last category falls the work for which he is best known today: the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation). Bede dedicated the work to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria (729–737) – indeed, he had submitted a draft for the king’s criticism prior to finalising it. It is clear that Bede was anxious to record only information which he considered to have reliable origins, and his scrupulous approach has lead to him being commonly referred to as ‘the Father of English History’. In the Preface, he writes:
… to the end that I may remove all occasion of doubting what I have written, both from yourself [Ceolwulf] and other readers or hearers of this history, I will take care briefly to show you from what authors I chiefly learned the same.
My principal authority and aid in this work was the most learned and reverend Abbot Albinus; who, educated in the Church of Canterbury by those venerable and learned men, Archbishop Theodore of blessed memory, and the Abbot Hadrian, transmitted to me by Nothhelm, the pious priest of the Church of London, either in writing, or by word of mouth of the same Nothhelm, all that he thought worthy of memory that had been done in the province of Kent, or the adjacent parts, by the disciples of the blessed Pope Gregory, as he had learned the same either from written records, or the traditions of his predecessors. The same Nothhelm, afterwards went to Rome, and having, with leave of the present Pope Gregory, searched into the archives of the Holy Roman Church, found there some epistles of the blessed Pope Gregory, and other popes; and returning home, by the advice of the aforesaid most reverend father Albinus, brought them to me, to be inserted in my history. Thus, from the beginning of this volume to the time when the English nation received the faith of Christ, we have acquired matter from the writings of former men, gathered from various sources; but from that time till the present, what was transacted in the Church of Canterbury by the disciples of the blessed Pope Gregory or their successors, and under what kings the same happened, has been conveyed to us, as we have said, by Nothhelm through the industry of the aforesaid Abbot Albinus. They also partly informed me by what bishops and under what kings the provinces of the East and West Saxons, as also of the East Angles, and of the Northumbrians, received the grace of the Gospel. In short I was chiefly encouraged to undertake this work by the exhortations of the same Albinus. In like manner, Daniel, the most reverend bishop of the West Saxons, who is still living, communicated to me in writing some things relating to the Ecclesiastical History of that province, and the adjoining one of the South Saxons, as also of the Isle of Wight. But how, by the ministry of those holy priests of Christ, Cedd and Chad, the province of the Mercians was brought to the faith of Christ, which they knew not before, and how that of the East Saxons recovered the faith after having rejected it, and how those fathers lived and died, we learned from the brethren of the monastery, which was built by them, and is called Lastingham. Further, what ecclesiastical matters took place in the province of the East Angles, was partly made known to us from the writings and tradition of former men, and partly by the account of the most reverend Abbot Esi. What was done with regard to the faith of Christ, and what was the episcopal succession in the province of Lindsey, we had either from the letters of the most reverend prelate Cyneberht, or by word of mouth from other persons of good credit. But what was done in the Church in the different parts of the province of Northumbria, from the time when they received the faith of Christ till this present, I received not on the authority of any one man, but by the faithful testimony of innumerable witnesses, who might know or remember the same; besides what I had of my own knowledge. Wherein it is to be observed, that what I have written concerning our most holy father, Bishop Cuthbert, either in this volume, or in my account of his life and actions, I partly took from what I found written of him by the brethren of the Church of Lindisfarne, accepting without reserve the statements I found there; but at the same time took care to add such things as I could myself have knowledge of by the faithful testimony of trustworthy informants.[*] And I humbly entreat the reader, that if he shall find in these our writings anything not delivered according to the truth, he will not lay the blame of it on me, for, as the true rule of history requires, withholding nothing, I have laboured to commit to writing such things as I could gather from common report, for the instruction of posterity.
The Historia Ecclesiastica is divided into five books. Bede pioneers the use of Christ’s incarnation as a method of dating events.[*] In the closing paragraph of the penultimate chapter of the final book, he comments:
This is for the present the state of all Britain … in the 731st year of our Lord, in Whose kingdom that shall have no end let the earth rejoice …Historia Ecclesiastica V, 23
The final chapter begins with a set of brief annals reprising the events already covered at length, concluding with 731. Bede then presents a short biographical section:
Thus much of the Ecclesiastical History of Britain, and more especially of the English nation, as far as I could learn either from the writings of the ancients, or the tradition of our forefathers, or of my own knowledge, with the help of the Lord, I, Bede, the servant of Christ, and priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, which is at Wearmouth and Jarrow, have set forth. Having been born in the territory of that same monastery, I was given, by the care of kinsmen, at 7 years of age, to be educated by the most reverend Abbot Benedict, and afterwards by Ceolfrith, and spending all the remaining time of my life a dweller in that monastery, I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture; and amidst the observance of monastic rule, and the daily charge of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, or teaching, or writing. In the nineteenth year of my age, I received deacon’s orders; in the thirtieth, those of the priesthood, both of them by the ministry of the most reverend Bishop John, and at the bidding of Abbot Ceolfrith. From the time when I received priest’s orders, till the 59th year of my age, I have made it my business, for my own needs and those of my brethren, to compile out of the works of the venerable Fathers, the following brief notes on the Holy Scriptures, and also to make some additions after the manner of the meaning and interpretation given by them … [He closes with a list of his many works.]Historia Ecclesiastica V, 24
Bede, then, was evidently fifty-eight years old when he completed the Historia Ecclesiastica in 731.
It is generally accepted that the oldest surviving copy of the Historia Ecclesiastica is the Moore Bede. It was written in the 8th century by a single scribe, who packed the pages with text, leaving no word spaces and using little ornamentation. He neatly fills-up the last page with a Continuation of the annals of Bede’s reprise. There are four of them: 731 (with information not in the Historia Ecclesiastica) to 734. However, overleaf, he also added a brief (just eight lines) Northumbrian chronological text, the so-called Moore Memoranda, in which past events are related to the year 737, which tends to suggest the manuscript was produced in that year.[*] In a small group of manuscripts (from the 12th century and later) a Continuation, annals 732 to 766, is added directly onto Bede’s reprise. The entry for 735 ends: “and the priest Bede died.”
It is apparent from a letter, written by Cuthbert – a pupil of Bede’s, and future (by 764) abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow – that Bede died on the evening of Wednesday 25th May 735. Cuthbert’s description of Bede’s last days concludes:
And thus, on the floor of his cell singing: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” and the rest, he breathed out his spirit from his body. And it should be believed without doubt that, because he had always worked hard in the praise of God, his soul was carried by angels to the joy of Heaven which he desired. All who heard or saw the death of our blessed father Bede said that they had never seen anyone else end his days with such great devotion and peace.
‘Cuthbert’s Letter on the Death of Bede’ by D.H. Farmer
Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum by A.M. Sellar
In 525, one Dionysius Exiguus, a monk resident in Rome, had the idea of using the year of Christ’s incarnation as the reference point from which he would number subsequent years. He was continuing an existing Easter table, in which the years were defined as Anni Diocletiani (Years of Diocletian) – years counted from the year of Emperor Diocletian’s accession – and, as it stood, it concluded in the 247th year of Diocletian:
… we, starting from the 248th [year] of the same tyrant – a better [word] than prince – do not wish to bind to our circles the memory of this impious man and persecutor, but choose rather to count the time of the years from the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the beginning of our hope will appear better known to us, and the cause of the restoration of mankind, that is the passion of our Redeemer, may shine forth more clearly.Dionysius Exiguus Liber de Paschate. Praefatio (Book on Easter. Preface)
Dionysius says that he was working on the Easter table during “the consulship of Probus Junior” – the ‘consular year’, beginning 1st January, was a normal Roman method of dating – and that this was “525 … years reckoned from the incarnation of the Lord”. His extension to the Easter table begins, not as the 248th Year of Diocletian, but, as Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi (the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ) 532. Dionysius does not, however, explain the reasoning behind his conclusion that the year of Probus’ consulship equated to Anno Domini 525. According to the Gospel of Matthew (2:1), “Jesus was born … in the days of Herod the king” (Luke agrees). Using Dionysius’ datum, though, Herod seems to have died four years before Jesus’ birth (i.e. in 4 BC).
Bede, Northumbrian monk and renowned scholar, was completely familiar with Dionysius’ Easter table.[*] He embraced Dionysius’ concept of Anno Domini, and used it to date events in his widely popular Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation), completed in 731.[*] Though Bede cannot be said to have invented Anno Domini dating, his use of it assured its widespread acceptance.[*]
Bede’s task was to locate the different indications of date he was presented with onto the Anno Domini framework, and there are sometimes difficulties with the result he comes up with. For instance, he says (HE IV, 5) that, the Northumbrian king, Oswiu died on 15th February 670, and was succeeded by his son, Ecgfrith. Bede includes the text of a document in which the synod of Hertford is dated 24th September, in the first Indiction. (The Indiction, a legacy of the Roman Empire’s tax system, is a fifteen-year cycle, starting from 1st September 312. A year is defined within a cycle, i.e. the first year, second year and so on, up to fifteenth, and then the cycle repeats.[*]) Bede says that this synod was in the 3rd year of Ecgfrith’s reign. (Events were commonly related to a king’s ‘regnal year’.) By these dating tokens, the synod of Hertford aught to be placed in 672, but Bede places it in 673. Similarly, he later (HE IV, 17) quotes from a document in which the synod of Hatfield is dated to Ecgfrith’s 10th regnal year, on 17th September, in the eighth Indiction, which aught to be 679, but Bede (HE V, 24) places it in 680. Bede, however, doesn't actually state when he considered the year to start. R.L. Poole proposed that, taking his cue from the Indiction, Bede chose to begin the year on 1st September (i.e. four months before current practice). This means that on every occasion where Bede specifies an AD date between September and December, one year has to be deducted from that date.
Dr Poole’s theory was adopted by Frank Stenton in his classic work Anglo-Saxon England (the last edition of which was published, posthumously, in 1971). However, though it reconciles inconsistencies in some places, the theory causes mischief elsewhere. Some scholars have opted for 25th December as the date that Bede chose to begin his year, however, Bede himself appears to rule this out, and it seems reasonable to conclude that he, and Dionysius, equated the ‘Year of Our Lord’ to the Julian calendar year, beginning 1st January.[*] Indeed, Ælfric, monk and prolific author, writing at the end of the 10th century, notes that “the old Romans, in heathen days” began the year on 1st January:
Now our calendar begins, according to the Roman institution, on this day, not for any religious reason, but from old custom.Catholic Homilies First Series, VI: ‘The Octaves and Circumcision of Our Lord’[*]
The Octave of Christmas is the eight days, counting inclusively, 25th December to 1st January. (1st January is the Feast of the Circumcision.) 25th December, the date on which Jesus’ birth is celebrated, i.e. Christmas, was also the old pagan Midwinter, celebrating the year’s natural turning-point. Midwinter/Christmas was evidently commonly regarded as the start of the year.[*]
The Feast of the Annunciation (Lady Day), which celebrates the conception of Jesus, on 25th March, came to be considered more appropriate, and in England, for instance, by the late 12th century, the succeeding 25th March (even though logic would dictate that it should be the preceding March – as was espoused elsewhere) was in common use as the beginning of the year.
Different conventions were adopted across Europe.
If we suppose a traveller to set out from Venice on March 1, 1245, the first day of the Venetian year, he would find himself in 1244 when he reached Florence; and if after a short stay he went on to Pisa, the year 1246 would have already begun there. Continuing his journey westward, he would find himself again in 1245 when he entered Provence, and on arriving in France before Easter (April 16) he would be once more in 1244.R.L. Poole Medieval Reckonings of Time (1918)
Following the calendrical reforms authorised by Pope Gregory XIII, in 1582, there began the process of fixing 1st January as the beginning of the year. Scotland fell into line on 1st January 1600, but in England, Wales and Ireland the change was not effected until 1st January 1752.
Bede De Temporum Ratione by Faith Wallis
Ælfric Catholic Homilies by Benjamin Thorpe
Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum by A.M. Sellar
Dionysius Exiguus Liber de Paschate. Praefatio by Roger Pearse
Benedict Biscop founded, and was first abbot of, the ‘twin monastery’ of Wearmouth and Jarrow. He was a Northumbrian nobleman – he was actually called Biscop Baducing – in the service of King Oswiu.
At the age of about 25, Benedict realized that, rather than serve an earthly king, his true vocation was to “fight for the true King”. He decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome. In Kent, he met Wilfrid, who was about 19 years old, and, in 653, the pair set off for the Continent together. At Lyon, however, they parted company, and Benedict proceeded to Rome alone (he would, of course, have had an entourage).
… on returning home he continued with all his heart to love and honour and make known to anyone he could the practices he had observed in the life of that Church.Historia Abbatum §2
In all, Benedict visited Rome on six occasions. His second visit, in 664, was instigated by Oswiu’s son, Alhfrith, who intended to make the pilgrimage himself, and chose Benedict to accompany him. As it turned out, Oswiu prevented Alhfrith from making the journey, so Benedict travelled alone. After a few months in Rome, Benedict went to the monastery at Lérins (an island in the Mediterranean, near Cannes), and became a monk. He spent two years there (probably adopting the name Benedict at this time) before, in 667, he set-off for Rome once more. About the same time, Wigheard, archbishop of Canterbury elect, died at Rome – he had been sent there, by Oswiu and Egbert, king of Kent, to be consecrated by the pope, but had fallen victim to a plague soon after his arrival. Pope Vitalian consecrated Theodore, a monk from Tarsus, in Wigheard’s stead. Vitalian’s first choice for the post was actually one Hadrian, abbot of a monastery near Naples. Though Hadrian declined the offer, Vitalian insisted that he accompany Theodore to England anyway. Vitalian also instructed Benedict to go with Theodore, in the capacity of guide and interpreter.
On 27th May 668, the party set off. The journey was not without incident. Theodore and Benedict arrived in Canterbury first – a year after they had set off. Hadrian arrived a while later, having been detained in Gaul on suspicion of being an agent of the Byzantine emperor, working against Frankish interests. Meantime, Theodore had made Benedict abbot of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul in Canterbury (later called St Augustine’s Abbey). He was there for two years, after which time he was replaced by Hadrian. Benedict, again, journeyed to Rome:
… and brought back a large number of books on every branch of sacred knowledge, some bought at a favourable price, others given him by friends.Historia Abbatum §4
He intended to go to Cenwalh, king of Wessex (“whose friendship he had enjoyed and whose kindness had helped him more than once”), but Cenwalh had died suddenly, so Benedict returned to his homeland, Northumbria, and visited the king, Oswiu’s son, Ecgfrith.
He described to him everything he had done since leaving his native land as a young man; he revealed his intense longing for the religious life; he explained what he had learned at Rome and elsewhere of ecclesiastical and monastic practice; he told him how many sacred books and what precious relics of the blessed apostles and the martyrs of Christ he had brought back …Historia Abbatum §4
Ecgfrith was impressed by Benedict, and gave him the land on which to build a monastery dedicated to St Peter: Wearmouth. Construction began:
… in the year of our Lord six hundred and seventy-four, in the second Indiction and in the fourth year of King Ecgfrith’s reign. Only a year after the foundation of the monastery, Benedict crossed the sea to Gaul, where he looked for stonemasons to build him a church of stone in the Roman style that he had always loved; and he hired some and brought them back. He displayed so much enthusiasm in the work of building the church, out of love of blessed Peter to whom it was to be dedicated, that within the space of a single year from the laying of the foundations the roof was in place, and you might have seen the solemn rites of the Mass being celebrated inside. As the work neared completion, he sent representatives to Gaul to bring back glass-makers, craftsmen as yet unknown in Britain, to glaze the windows of the church, its side-chapels and upper storey. This was done, and they arrived; and as well as completing the work asked of them, they helped the English people from that time to understand and learn the art of glass-making, an art whose fine products include lamps for the living-quarters of the church and vessels of many other kinds. In addition, Benedict’s devotion led him to buy and have transported from overseas all the sacred vessels and vestments needed for the service of the altar and the church, because he could not obtain them at home.Historia Abbatum §§4–5
Benedict made another journey to Rome, returning with more many more books, further relics, sacred pictures, a letter of privilege from Pope Agatho (“which guaranteed to his monastery security and freedom from all external interference in perpetuity”), and one John (an abbot, and archcantor of St Peter’s, Rome), to instruct the Wearmouth monks in singing and Roman practice generally. Ecgfrith was again impressed, and gave Benedict a further parcel of land, at Jarrow, some six miles north-west of Wearmouth, on which to build another monastery, this time dedicated to St Paul. Benedict did so:
… on the understanding that the two foundations should be united in the same spirit of peace and harmony, and that mutual friendship and goodwill should obtain between them for all time. To use a simile, just as the body cannot be separated from the head by which it breathes, and the head cannot forget the body which is necessary to its life, so no one was to make any attempt to disrupt the bond of brotherhood which would unite these monasteries dedicated to the two chief apostles.Historia Abbatum §7
Jarrow was founded in 682. To lighten his load and to act for him in his absences, Benedict appointed two co-abbots: Eosterwine at Wearmouth, and Ceolfrith at Jarrow. In 684, Benedict undertook what was to be his final journey to Rome. Once more he returned laden with books and pictures. In his absence, however, Britain had suffered a plague. Many monks had died. Eosterwine was among the dead, and Ceolfrith had appointed Sigfrith as his replacement.
Soon after his return from Rome, the sickness – a slow paralysis – that would eventually kill Benedict, manifested itself. Sigfrith, too, was sick, with a lung disease. Both men suffered long illnesses. When they were too weak to carry out their duties, and it was clear that death was near, Benedict appointed Ceolfrith abbot of both monasteries.[*] Two months later, Sigfrith died. After a further four months, on 12th January 690, Benedict died. In 716, aged 74, Ceolfrith resigned and set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. He died en route, at Langres.[*]
Bede Historia Abbatum by John Gregory
Anonymous Vita Ceolfridi by D.H. Farmer