This is the story of England’s first known poet.
Once upon a time, many many years ago, there was a good herdsman who lived on a cliff top called Streaneshalch. The herdsman’s name was Caedmon; he was no spring chicken and was actually quite shy. Nearby on the cliff top was a great Abbey, ruled by a kind and gentle Abbess called Hild, where they sometimes held sumptuous feasts. Now in those days it was customary at feasts, as the wine flowed and everyone ate jelly and ice cream, for each guest to entertain the happy throng with a song. Yes. But Caedmon had a terrible voice and couldn’t play the harp for toffee. So when he could see his turn approaching he would slink outside and go home, or hide in a barn.
One evening, after just such an occasion, he was lying on some straw feeling pretty sorry for himself. He very much wanted to join in with everyone else. Then he had a dream. A man bathed in a heavenly light stood beside him and said, “Caedmon, sing me a song.” “I don’t know how to sing,” replied Caedmon miserably. “That’s why I’m here while everyone else is having fun and eating jelly.” “You shall sing to me”, commanded the man, firmly but gently. “Sing about the creation of all things.”
And Caedmon, who in addition to having a rotten voice had previously shown about as much imagination as a sledgehammer, found himself making up words and singing like a nightingale. The tune escapes me, but the words went something like this:
“Praise we the Fashioner now of Heaven’s fabric,
The majesty of His might and His mind’s wisdom,
Work of the world-warden, worker of all wonders,
How He the Lord of Glory everlasting,
Wrought first for the race of men Heaven as a rooftree,
Then made He Middle Earth to be their mansion.”
Caedmon woke up and dashed off to tell the kindly Abbess what had happened. Hild summoned some other wise people so that Caedmon could sing to them. He repeated the song from his dream and they all agreed this was a Gift From God. Indeed, they asked him to put a particular piece of writing to verse, if he could, and were delighted with the result when he returned with it the following morning. Hild had him inducted into the monastic life, so that he could learn all the stories of the scriptures. And Caedmon spent the remainder of his days turning dry text into melodious verse, and singing of the works of God and stories from the scriptures. He had a premonition of his own death and passed away peacefully in 680AD. As his songs spread, so did the Christian message. Clever, eh?
And that, more or less, is Caedmon’s story. I lied about the jelly and ice cream and the tale itself of course might be complete fiction. But Caedmon is famous for being the first known English poet and is sometimes called ‘the Father of English song’; and you thought it would be someone like George Harrison or David Bowie, didn’t you?
On 21st September 1898 a huge crowd gathered in St Mary’s churchyard on Streaneshalch in Whitby to see a cross in honour of Caedmon unveiled by the then Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin. The cross was the brainchild of Canon H D Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust. It cost £350 – an enormous sum of money in those days – and is an echo of an Anglo-Saxon cross, made from Northumbrian sandstone. It stands 20 feet high and is richly carved with Christian iconography, including rather fetching representations of Hild and Caedmon. The cross stands at the top of the 199 steps overlooking Whitby, and in the shadow of the ruined medieval Abbey Church.
It is said that, at dawn on old Christmas Day (6th January), the distant sound of a choir singing in an ancient Northumbrian dialect can be heard echoing faintly around the ruins of the Abbey.