A Bit About Britain often refers to ‘Bede’. It occurred to me the other day that some of my readers may not know who – or what – this means. Which, frankly, is fair enough. Thus, for the benefit of the mildly interested, here is a bit about Bede. If you already know this, look away now *.
Bede (we don’t know his full name, he’s just Bede – though sometimes Baeda, the Venerable Bede, Saint Bede and, occasionally, the Venomous Bead) was a monk that lived from around 673 AD until 735 AD. So, quite a long time ago. He spent his entire life from the age of seven at the twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in present day Tyne and Wear, not venturing very far most of the time, and probably never beyond the boundaries of the kingdom of Northumbria. Yet Bede was a scholar, one of the greatest of his age, who produced an enormous body of work on a variety of subjects including science, music, poetry and the Bible, and who achieved a deserved reputation in his own lifetime. His enduring fame, however, has been assured through his best-selling work, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum – the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which Bede completed in 731 when he was around 59 years old. This is a terrific read (seriously), which transports the reader back thirteen centuries and more, to the primitive, natural forests, fens, islands and mountains of early medieval Britain.
Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Last Kingdom’ series need to appreciate that Bede was born two hundred years before Alfred the Great became King of Wessex. The conflict between Saxon and Dane and the foundation of unified, discrete, lands called England, Scotland and Wales lay in the future. Bede begins his history by delightfully setting the scene, in classic style, describing the Britain of his lifetime, a time when a variety of rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms existed in what we now know as central and eastern England and southeast Scotland. To their west lay the lands of the British, the people who had occupied these islands since before the Romans came. In the far north of the island of Britain lay the land of the Picts, in which a tribe from Ireland, the Scots, had secured a western toehold.
“BRITAIN, formerly known as Albion, is an island in the ocean, lying towards the north west at a considerable distance from the coasts of Germany, Gaul and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe. It extends 800 miles in length towards the north, and is 200 miles in breadth, except where several promontories extend further, so that the total coastline extends to 3675 miles. To the south lies Belgic Gaul, to whose coast the shortest crossing is from the city of Rutubi Portus, which the English have corrupted into Reptacestir (Richborough). The distance from there across the sea to Gessoriacum (Boulogne), the nearest shore of the Morini, is fifty miles, or as some writers say, 450 furlongs. On the opposite side of the island, where it opens upon the boundless ocean, lie the islands called Orcades (the Orkneys). Britain is rich in grain and timber, and is well adapted for feeding cattle and beasts of burden. It also produces vines in some places, and has plenty of land and waterfowls of several sorts; it is remarkable also for rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful springs. It has the greatest plenty of salmon and eels; seals are also frequently taken, and dolphins, as also whales; besides many sorts of shellfish, such as muscles, in which are often found excellent pearls of all colours, red, purple, violet, and green, but mostly white. There is also a great abundance of cockles, of which the scarlet dye is made; a most beautiful colour, which never fades with the heat of the sun or the washing of the rain; but the older it is, the more beautiful it becomes. It has both salt and hot springs, and from them flow rivers which furnish hot baths, proper for all ages and sexes, and arranged according. For water, as St. Basil says, receives the heating quality, when it runs along certain metals, and becomes not only hot but scalding. Britain has also many veins of metals, as copper, iron, lead, and silver; it has much and excellent jet, which is black and sparkling, glittering at the fire, and when heated, drives away serpents; being warmed with rubbing, it holds fast whatever is applied to it, like amber. The island was formerly embellished with twenty-eight noble cities, besides innumerable castles, which were all strongly secured with walls, towers, gates, and locks.”
It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’d move there in a heartbeat.
However – and the clue is in the title – the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is primarily a history – and an ecclesiastical one at that. Bede briefly describes the arrival of the Romans, but concentrates on the years after the end of Roman rule. This period, from the 5th century to the early 8th, is one of the most important in Britain’s story, when the foundations of future nations were being laid and Christianity was being re-established. So Bede tells his readers about the migration of Germanic tribes – the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – to these islands, the waves of Christian missionaries of rival Celtic and Roman traditions, culminating in the triumph of the latter at the game-changing Synod of Whitby – which took place just before Bede’s birth. Like many historians, however, Bede has an agenda and is influenced by his time and beliefs. Bede not only wrote as a Christian, but also as a committed follower of the highly centralised Roman, rather than the British Celtic, tradition. The passion of his faith comes through – and it is impossible not to be excited by it, because it is so fresh, so new. He also probably believed in what we would consider miracles; or, at least, in attributing supernatural meanings to events. God is everywhere and the veil between the spiritual and temporal world is often wafer-thin.
He writes, for example, of a post-Roman Britain in which the Britons, overcoming a terrible famine, eventually drove barbarian invaders, the Picts and Scots (‘Scot’ often means ‘Irish’ in Bede’s writing) from the land. But the victors became lazy, forgot God, and gave themselves up to drunkenness and quarrels. Almost inevitably –
“Suddenly a terrible plague struck this corrupt people, and in a short while destroyed so large a number that the living could not bury the dead.”
As if that wasn’t enough, after that “an even more terrible retribution overtook this wicked nation.” This was the decision to invite the Saxons to assist in repelling the aforementioned Picts and Scots, who were once again rampaging from the north. Bede describes this decision, unleashing the pagan Anglo-Saxons – ancestors of his own people – as seeming “to have been ordained by God as a punishment.” The old boy is always a little harsh on pagans.
As an example of the miraculous, Bede records that it was decided (by “Divine Providence”) to exhume the body of St Cuthbert eleven years after his death and that his body was found to be in perfect condition – “whole and incorrupt as though still living.” Cuthbert’s remains proved rather useful, going on to facilitate true marvels of healing, including curing one brother of paralysis and another of a tumour on his eyelid. Cuthbert (c635-687) was one of the super-saints of Bede’s day, pretty much patron saint of northern England and a bit of a personal hero of Bede’s, who wrote two hagiographies of him, one in prose, one in verse. Cuthbert is much associated with Lindisfarne and Durham Cathedral, where he is buried.
The History of the English Church and People draws upon earlier material, such as ‘Natural History’ by the Roman Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) and De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae – ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ written by the British monk Gildas (c500-570 AD). But Bede also uses near contemporary sources, the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow, other monasteries – and word of mouth. So when he writes of things that may be unbelievable to us, he is telling us what his sources believed to be true. He also introduces us to legendary figures from our history, such as Hengist and Horsa, allegedly the first chieftains of the Anglo-Saxons invited to fight as mercenaries by the British King Vortigern, Caedmon, England’s first poet and Ninian, known as the Apostle to the Southern Picts. Historical figures of course feature as well (the book is dedicated to his king, Ceolwulf of Northumbria), which inevitably includes numerous saints, the movers and shakers of early medieval Christianity in Britain. We have already mentioned Cuthbert, but Bede also tells us the stories of Columba, who took Christianity to the Northern Picts and founded the abbey on Iona; Aidan, who founded the monastery on Lindisfarne and converted the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons to Christianity; Augustine, who journeyed to Britain on the instruction of Pope Gregory to convert the English; Cedd, who converted the Middle and East Saxons, and Chad, founder of Lichfield Cathedral and Bishop of the Mercians.
I have a soft spot for old Bede and can still picture one of my history professors, an austere man seemingly far removed from life’s realities, and not easy to like, eyes partly closed, hands together as if in prayer, discussing Bede in his very precise, mid-European accented English. I believe he truly venerated this long-dead cleric, one ossified academic to another as it were. Indeed, where would our knowledge of pre-conquest Britain be without Bede? His writing, if hardly fast-paced, is fascinating, and often amusing. Leave aside any scepticism you may have about miracles and the supernatural, appreciate the man’s bias and role as a propagandist for the Church of Rome and realise that, for all its potential pitfalls, this is one of the few primary sources we have for the period. Who would begrudge Bede being referred to as ‘the father of English history’ – though, in fact, his book provides an insight on the whole island. It even helped popularise the method of dating events from the time of Christ’s birth, the incarnation – ie anno Domini, ‘in the year of our Lord’ or AD – though these days some pedants prefer the more neutral ‘Common Era’ – abbreviated to CE.
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum was, of course, written in Latin and survives in some 150 manuscripts. It was popular during Bede’s lifetime and was probably first translated into English by King Alfred the Great. Bear in mind that, if you are English or have English relatives, the people Bede writes about in this are your ancestors. However, it is just one of more than 40 works he wrote, and which he lists at the end of the book; the man was prolific. He said:
“I have devoted myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures. And while I have observed the regular discipline and sung the choir offices daily in church, my chief delight has always been in study, teaching and writing.”
In his final weeks, Bede knew he was dying – approaching his ‘heavenly birthday’ as he might have put it – and shared out his few possessions among his brothers at Wearmouth-Jarrow, including some exotic items such as pepper and incense. Despite breathing difficulties, he worked to the end finishing a translation of the Gospel of St John into English, which he dictated to a young scribe, Wilbert. On the evening of 25 May 735, when the final sentence was written, the youngster said, “Now it is finished.” “Well, thou hast spoken truth; it is finished,” replied the old monk. He then asked to be placed in his usual prayer spot on the floor of his cell, chanted, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”, and died.
Bede was buried at Jarrow but, for some reason, a monk called Alfred took his remains to Durham Cathedral in 1022 and buried them with Cuthbert’s. Bede was transferred to the Cathedral’s Galilee Chapel in the 14th century, where he remains – but he was disturbed during the Reformation and again in 1831 when his tomb was excavated and three plaster casts taken of his skull. We should assume that his body wasn’t in perfect condition.
The inscription on his tombstone is HIC SUNT IN FOSSA BEDAE VENERABILIS OSSA, which you will notice rhymes. Neat, eh? It means something like “In this grave are the bones of the Venerable Bede.”
So – what about the reference to the ‘Venomous Bead’? This originates from the satirical book ‘1066 And all That’ – “A Memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates” – by WM Sellar and RJ Yeatman, first published in 1930. It is almost as good as A Bit About Britain’s History – from a long time ago until quite recently – somewhat narrower in scope, to be sure, but a little funnier.
* There are plenty of other, equally fascinating, features on A Bit About Britain for you to explore.