The handwriting of SYMEON OF DURHAM has been identified in over forty documents. As a result, it is possible to suggest that he was a native of Normandy or an adjacent province of northern France; that he probably came to Durham with Bishop William of Saint-Calais, when the latter returned after a period of exile on the Continent, in 1091; that he was in charge of the scriptorium at Durham; that he died in about 1130. The two major works traditionally attributed to Symeon are:
Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis, Ecclesie’ (Tract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham), which is also known as the ‘Historia Ecclesiae Dunelmensis’ (History of the Church of Durham). The work begins with the foundation of the monastery on Lindisfarne in 635, and concludes with the death, in 1096, of Bishop William of Saint-Calais (under whose auspices the present Durham Cathedral had, on 11th August 1093, begun to be built). Internal evidence indicates that the ‘Libellus’ was completed between 1104 and, at the latest, 1115. The author is not named in the two earliest manuscripts. In a late-12th century copy (Cambridge University Library MS Ff i 27), however, rubrics at the beginning and end of the work ascribe it to Symeon, and this would seem to be correct, since one of the early manuscripts (Durham University Library MS Cosin V ii 6) has editorial corrections in what has been identified as Symeon's hand.
The so-called ‘Historia Regum’ (History of the Kings), which exists in a single late-12th century manuscript (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 139). The work is introduced by a rubric:
Here begins the history of Symeon, of holy and pleasant memory, monk and precentor of the Church of St Cuthbert, of Durham, concerning the Kings of the Angles and Danes, and their numerous wars, pillages and burnings; from after the death of the Venerable Bede, priest, to within a little of the death of King Henry the First, son of William the Bastard, who conquered England; that is, during a period of 429 years and 4 months.
Bede died in 735, the ‘Historia Regum’ ends in 1129 and Henry I died in 1135, but adding “429 years and 4 months” to the date of Bede's death (he died in May) produces September 1164, which clearly presents something of a conundrum. Peter Hunter Blair has suggested that the copying-out of the work as it now exists was completed in September 1164, and this is indeed consistent with dating indicators appearing in other works included in the same manuscript.* Furthermore, the “history” that follows the rubric is not a history at all:
“... what is called a history is in fact a mass of unedited material, most of it useless, some of it immensely valuable.”
Peter Hunter Blair ‘Symeon's History of the Kings’ (1939) (‘Anglo-Saxon Northumbria’, 1984)
The ‘Historia Regum’ actually begins well before Bede's death, with a piece concerning 7th century Kent: “the Martyrdom of Saints Æthelberht and Æthelred, youths of the royal lineage”. Next comes an elaborated Bernician/Northumbrian king list down to Bede's time. This is followed by a piece mainly taken from Bede's ‘Historia Abbatum’ (History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow). After that, there is the first of two, overlapping, chronicles.
Chronicle One covers the period 732–957.* It falls into three distinct sections. The first, 732–802, is taken from a lost Northumbrian source. The second, 849–887, is mainly taken from Asser. On stylistic grounds, all the items so far comprising the ‘Historia Regum’ are thought to have been composed by Byrhtferth (d.c.1020), a monk and teacher at Ramsey Abbey (north of Huntingdon). The final section of Chronicle One, 888–957, is a set of brief annals compiled after 1042.
Chronicle One is separated from Chronicle Two by extracts from the ‘Gesta Regum Anglorum’ of William of Malmesbury.
Chronicle Two covers the period 848–1129. The section 848–1118 is, for the most part, derived from the ‘Chronicon ex Chronicis’ of Florence of Worcester, but the section 1119–1129 is, almost entirely, an original composition.
The ‘Historia Regum’ concludes with a rubric:
Here ends the history of Symeon, of pleasant and holy memory, monk and precentor of the Church of St Cuthbert, of Durham, embracing a period of 429 years and four months.
It is possible that the annals 1119–1129, and some items of northern interest inserted into the Florence of Worcester section, are the work of Symeon of Durham. There are, though, contradictions of detail between the ‘Historia Regum’ and the ‘Libellus’ that tend to suggest the two works did not share their author. Perhaps the ‘Historia Regum’ is a collection of materials gathered by Symeon with the intention of producing a coherent history, but death prevented him from putting his plan into action.
Translation by Joseph Stevenson
Passages written in red to distinguish them from the rest of the text.
Peter Hunter Blair ‘Some Observations on the Historia Regum Attributed to Symeon of Durham’ (1963), published in the compilation ‘Anglo-Saxon Northumbria’ (1984).
In fact, the first annal, dated 732, should be dated 731.