Bede Writes

Bede completed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, creating both a spiritual document and a contemporary history of Anglo-Saxon England that popularized the system of dating events from the birth of Christ rather than by the years of a ruler’s reign.

Summary of Event

Elevated after his death by the Church to sainthood and honored by the secular world as the father of English history, Saint Bede the Venerable Bede the Venerable, Saint was born into unlikely circumstance for such honors. Northumbria Northumbria , in the psychological geography of the times, was a remote part of a remote island on the very edge of a fallen Roman Empire. The Anglo-Saxon king Edwin Edwin (Northumbrian king) , who had first received Christianity at the hands of Saint Paulinus Paulinus, Saint some forty-five years before Bede’s birth in 672 or 673, was killed soon after by a pagan claimant to the throne. Politically and religiously, Northumbria was an unsettled place. [kw]Bede Writes Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731)
[kw]Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede Writes (731)
[kw]English People, Bede Writes Ecclesiastical History of the (731)
Bede the Venerable, Saint
Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Bede)
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Bede the Venerable, Saint
Benedict Biscop

Into this unsettled time and peripheral place, Bede was born, most likely to a noble family. Nothing further is known about his origins, for he was given at the age of seven to the abbot Benedict Biscop Benedict Biscop, Saint to be educated. Benedict was a former Northumbrian thane who had left secular life around the age of twenty-five to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. Returning with books, religious relics, and skilled stonemasons from France, Benedict was granted land first at Wearmouth and later at Jarrow to found monasteries. He recruited Ceolfrith Ceolfrith , another Northumbrian nobleman turned monk, to help; it was Ceolfrith who, more than anyone, became Bede’s spiritual father.

Benedict made six visits to Rome during his life, each time returning to England with copied books, vestments, and even pictures. As a result, the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow grew as centers of learning, with Bede as their greatest jewel. Under Ceolfrith, a revised and edited version of the Bible was produced based on the best available manuscripts. This work to produce a good text of the Bible made Bede’s writings on biblical interpretation and meaning possible. In his lifetime, Bede wrote prolifically: biblical commentaries; histories of the saints; books of homilies, of hymns, of epigrams, and of martyrology; books on time, on poetry, and on orthography; and, in five books, the church history of his island and people.

This latter work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731; Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1723), completed when Bede was fifty-nine years old, is considered his masterpiece. One reason for this is his system of dating events. Bede created a cumulative dating system beginning with annus domini, the year of Christ’s birth, rather than with annus mundi, the year of the Creation, used by Eusebius of Caesarea, Saint Jerome, and Saint Isidore of Seville in their histories. This change required a massive effort of calculation, taking into account previous chronicles with different starting points, imperial Roman regnal years in the East and the West, and the regnal years of six or more Anglo-Saxon kings ruling at the same time. It also required a knowledge of the multitude of starting points for various systems of calculating a year, such as the calendar year, which might begin on January 1, in September, or at Christmas; or the Indiction beginning dates of September 1, September 25, or January 25; or the date in a particular kingdom when a king took up his reign. With so much variation possible, complete accuracy could never be achieved by anyone, resulting in uncertainties that neither Bede nor those who followed him could resolve. Bede’s own birth date, for example, is uncertain. Given these small variations in accuracy, however, Bede produced a trustworthy chronology, a monumental achievement.

An engraving of the Venerable Bede from a French history.

(Library of Congress)

Bede’s careful method in seeking out sources for past events, as well as the near-contemporaneity of many of the events he wrote about, is a second reason his history is so remarkable. It has an importance as a historical document unmatched by anything else of the time. The history begins with a prefatory letter to the Northumbrian king Ceolwulf Ceolwulf (Northumbrian king) , telling readers that the king already had a draft copy of the work and wanted to have this revised version for copying. Albinus Albinus of Canterbury of Canterbury, whom Bede named as his source for information on the Kentish church, also had a copy for review. Scholars know that when Bede wrote a life of Cuthbert, he sent it on to the monastery at Lindisfarne, where Cuthbert had been abbot, so that those still alive who knew Cuthbert could comment on it. Bede relied on interviews he conducted and on those conducted for him by others. A priest of London visited Rome to search the archives there and copy out for Bede the letters of Pope Gregory the Great concerning the mission of Saint Augustine and Paulinus to convert the English. Eanflæd Eanflæd , daughter of Edwin, the first king of Northumbria to receive Christianity, was still alive during Bede’s lifetime and served as the abbess of Whitby. As an infant, Eanflæd had actually been the first person to be baptized by Paulinus. Some of the most interesting stories—for example, how the pagan Bretwalda (overlord) of East Anglia kept both a pagan altar and a Christian one side by side—most likely came to Bede from royal family history, in this case through King Ceolwulf or through Saint Hilda Hilda of Whitby, Saint , founding abbess of Whitby. Thus Bede was dealing in his history with events whose witnesses were still alive.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People is divided into five books. The first book begins with a description of Britain as a rich, almost paradisiacal land, in the tradition of the garden before the Fall in the book of Genesis. It then moves to the Roman history of Britain, its despoiling by the Anglo-Saxon invaders of the fifth century, and the mission of Augustine to re-Christianize Britain. The second book concentrates on Paulinus’s mission to Northumbria, down to the death of King Edwin and the failure of the mission. Book 3 deals with the second planting of Christianity in Northumbria from Ireland and its spread to Mercia and East Anglia, with the Easter controversy and the Synod of Whitby in 664, which resolved the controversy in favor of the Roman way over the Irish. Book 4 treats the life of Cuthbert, who began his life’s work as an Irish monk but moved firmly into the Roman camp, and of Hilda, who founded Whitby and made it a center of learning.

In its recounting of the successions of various abbots and bishops, book 5 moves the story up to 731, but it is given over much more to miraculous visions and healing than were the first four books. Book 5 includes stories of the afterlife: One man returns from the dead to tell of the dreadful and desirable things he saw, and another is given a preview by devils of the fate awaiting him for his sins. Thus one can see in Bede’s history the general movement of the Bible from the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation and of the Christian soul from baptism to the afterlife.


Although a competent history, Bede’s text is first and foremost a spiritual document. It is an ecclesiastical history that sought to tell the details of Britain and its peoples only insofar as those details helped tell the story of God’s providence. Thus Bede focused on the mission from Rome and the conversion of the English to Christianity, with the subsequent history of church establishments, abbots, and bishops, but also included political history, pagan and Christian, to illustrate the workings of divine providence. Hagiography, or the lives of saints and holy persons, as well as the recording of miracles, was also necessary, fitting his larger purpose. Bede’s particular genius was weaving all these disparate elements into a cohesive story.

Further Reading

  • Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Bede’s famous work.
  • Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A thorough evocation of Bede’s times by an eminent historian of Anglo-Saxon England.
  • Chance, Jane. Woman as Hero in Old English Literature. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986. A discussion of the treatment of women in Bede’s History and in Old English literature in general.
  • Mayr-Harting, Henry. “Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.” In The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Chapter 2 gives a readable and succinct judgment of Bede’s place in the larger context of church history.
  • Sims-Williams, Patrick. Britain and Early Christian Europe: Studies in Early Medieval History and Culture. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995. A collection of scholarly articles on Bede and his contemporaries.
  • Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”: A Historical Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Extended scholarly notes and a bibliography accompany this serious study of Bede’s History.