St. Bede the Venerable
Anglo-Saxon historian
Researched by Frank Dougan 13/12/2018 Saint Bede was the Apostle Saint John.
Written By: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Alternative Titles:Bede of Jarrow, Saint Baeda the Venerable, Saint Beda the Venerable, the Venerable Bede
St. Bede the Venerable, Bede also spelled Baeda or Beda, (born 672/673, traditionally Monkton in Jarrow, Northumbria [England]—died May 25, 735, Jarrow; canonized 1899; feast day May 25), Anglo-Saxon theologian, historian, and chronologist. St. Bede is best known for his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), a source vital to the history of the conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon tribes.
Heptarchy: The chronicle of Bede and the Bretwalda
The chief chronicler of this period was the 8th-century monk Saint Bede the Venerable, the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon historians. There is sufficient evidence from archaeological remains and ancient place-names to suggest that in its main outlines Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis…
During his lifetime and throughout the Middle Ages, Bede’s reputation was based mainly on his scriptural commentaries, copies of which found their way to many of the monastic libraries of western Europe. The method of dating events from the time of the incarnation, or Christ’s birth—i.e., ad (anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord”)—came into general use through the popularity of the Historia ecclesiastica and the two works on chronology. Bede’s influence was perpetuated at home through the school founded at York by his pupil Archbishop Egbert of York and was transmitted to the rest of Europe by Alcuin, who studied there before becoming master of Charlemagne’s palace school at Aachen.
Nothing is known of Bede’s parentage. At the age of seven he was taken to the monastery of St. Peter at Wearmouth (near Sunderland, Durham), founded by Abbot St. Benedict Biscop, to whose care he was entrusted. By 685 he was moved to Biscop’s newer monastery, of St. Paul, at Jarrow. Bede was ordained a deacon when 19 years old and priest when 30. Apart from visits to Lindisfarne and York, he seems never to have left Wearmouth–Jarrow. Buried at Jarrow, his remains were removed to Durham and are now entombed in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral.
Bede’s works fall into three groups: grammatical and “scientific,” scriptural commentary, and historical and biographical. His earliest works included treatises on spelling, hymns, figures of speech, verse, and epigrams. His first treatise on chronology, De temporibus (“On Times”), with a brief chronicle attached, was written in 703. In 725 he completed a greatly amplified version, De temporum ratione (“On the Reckoning of Time”), with a much longer chronicle. Both these books were mainly concerned with the reckoning of Easter. His earliest biblical commentary was probably that on the Revelation to John (703?–709); in this and many similar works, his aim was to transmit and explain relevant passages from the Fathers of the Church. Although his interpretations were mainly allegorical, treating much of the biblical text as symbolic of deeper meanings, he used some critical judgment and attempted to rationalize discrepancies. Among his most notable are his verse (705–716) and prose (before 721) lives of St. Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne. These works are uncritical and abound with accounts of miracles; a more exclusively historical work is Historia abbatum (c. 725; “Lives of the Abbots”).
In 731/732 Bede completed his Historia ecclesiastica. Divided into five books, it recorded events in Britain from the raids by Julius Caesar (55–54 bce) to the arrival in Kent (597 ce) of St. Augustine of Canterbury. For his sources, he claimed the authority of ancient letters, the “traditions of our forefathers,” and his own knowledge of contemporary events. Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica leaves gaps tantalizing to secular historians. Although overloaded with the miraculous, it is the work of a scholar anxious to assess the accuracy of his sources and to record only what he regarded as trustworthy evidence. It remains an indispensable source for some of the facts and much of the feel of early Anglo-Saxon history.
The chronicle of Bede and the Bretwalda
The chief chronicler of this period was the 8th-century monk Saint Bede the Venerable, the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon historians. There is sufficient evidence from archaeological remains and ancient place-names to suggest that in its main outlines Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”) is substantially correct. It was certainly more than a literary reconstruction by a monk writing in isolation, and Bede himself stated that he had sent a draft of his history to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria, “to read and examine….” Its statements therefore carry the approval of a Northumbrian king in an age when courts were the chief repositories of national traditions.
Bede names seven kings who successively ruled all the southern provinces of the English people as far as the River Humber, the first of whom was Aelle (flourished late 5th century ce), king of the South Saxons. The second was Ceawlin (ruled 560-592, died 593), king of the West Saxons, under whom the kingdom of Wessex reached the most northerly limits of its early expansion. The third was Aethelberht of Kent (560-616), in whose time the southern kingdoms had begun to assume the outlines of their permanent shape. A 9th-century annalist who copied Bede’s list states that this overlordship brought the title Bretwalda to its possessor. The word, which means “ruler of Britain,” belongs to the complimentary language commonly addressed by poets to patrons who entertained them at court. However, it indicates the range of the superiority allowed to their overlords by the lesser kings who combined to form these early confederacies. Politically, the Kentish kingdom was not strong enough to keep the position to which Aethelberht had raised it. Even before his death in 616, supremacy in southern England was passing from Kent to East Anglia under Raedwald, the fourth in Bede’s list of overlords.
In the north, a greater Northumbria was coming into being under Aethelfrith, and the first recorded trial of strength between northern and southern England was an attack on Aethelfrith by Raedwald in the interest of his protégé Edwin, the exiled heir of the Deiran kingdom. In a battle on the River Idle, near Bawtry, Aethelfrith was killed (616) and Edwin, the fifth in Bede’s list, became king of all Northumbria. Within a few years he had been recognized as overlord throughout southern England, apart from Kent, with which he had a special relationship through his marriage to Aethelberga, King Aethelberht’s daughter. Even so, he came much nearer than any previous king to a position of authority over all of England. Edwin was overthrown in battle (632) on his southern border by Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd, and a member of the Mercian royal house named Penda, who was carried by the victory into the Mercian kingship.
For a year, Cadwallon and his allies gave themselves to a deliberate harrying of all Northumbria. The kingdom was restored by Oswald, son of Aethelfrith of Bernicia. Oswald’s destruction of Cadwallon and his army in 633 made him the outstanding figure among the kings of his time, and he is the sixth in Bede’s list. His reputation among the kings of the north was as great as that which Edwin had once possessed, and in the south he is known to have had direct authority in Lindsey, Wessex, and Sussex. In Mercia, where Penda by now was king, Oswald was regarded as an enemy, and in 641 he was defeated and killed by a Mercian army. After this battle Northumbria devolved into its two ancient divisions of Deira and Bernicia. In Bernicia, Oswald was succeeded by his brother Oswiu, the seventh and final king in Bede’s list. For 13 years Oswiu was confronted by rival kings in Deira and was kept in enforced subordination to Penda by the surrender of hostages. This uneasy equilibrium was ended by one of the most obscure episodes in Old English history. In 654, for no discernible reason, Oswiu was attacked by Penda at the head of a large army to which many allied kings and princes had brought their followers. Penda was defeated and killed in a battle fought in the area of Leeds, and Oswiu, reuniting Deira and Bernicia, was able to annex northern Mercia to his own kingdom and to reestablish Northumbrian ascendancy in the south. Three years later, a revolt in Mercia destroyed this settlement, and with it the possibility that England might be united politically under Northumbrian leadership.

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