Also known as Saint Bede or Bede the Venerable, he was an English monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and of its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s, in modern Jarrow, both in the Kingdom of Northumbria. He is well known as an author and scholar, and his most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), gained him the title “The Father of English History”.
In 1899, Bede was made a Doctor of the Church by Leo XIII; he is the only native of Great Britain to achieve this designation (Anselm of Canterbury, also a Doctor of the Church, was originally from Italy). Bede was moreover a skilled linguist and translator, and his work with the Latin and Greek writings of the early Church Fathers contributed significantly to English Christianity, making the writings much more accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons. Bede’s monastery had access to a superb library which included works by Eusebius and Orosius among many others.
Almost everything that is known of Bede’s life is contained in the last chapter of his Historia ecclesiastica. It was completed in about 731, and Bede implies that he was then in his fifty-ninth year, which would give a likely birth date of about 672–673. A minor source of information is the letter by his disciple Cuthbert which relates Bede’s death. Bede, in the Historia, gives his birthplace as “on the lands of this monastery”. He is referring to the twinned monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, near modern-day Newcastle, claimed as his birthplace; there is also a tradition that he was born at Monkton, two miles from the monastery at Jarrow. Bede says nothing of his origins, but his connections with men of noble ancestry suggest that his own family was well-to-do. Bede’s first abbot was Benedict Biscop, and the names “Biscop” and “Beda” both appear in a king list of the kings of Lindsey from around 800, further suggesting that Bede came from a noble family. The name “Bede” was not a common one at the time. The Liber Vitæ of Durham Cathedral includes a list of priests; two are named Bede, and one of these is presumably Bede himself. Some manuscripts of the Life of Cuthbert, one of Bede’s own works, mention that Cuthbert’s own priest was named Bede; it is possible that this priest is the other name listed in the Liber Vitæ. These occurrences, along with a Bieda who is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 501, are the only appearances of the name in early sources. The name probably derives from the Old English bēd, or prayer; if Bede was given the name at his birth, then his family had probably always planned for him to enter the clergy.
At the age of seven, he was sent to the monastery of Monkwearmouth by his family to be educated by Benedict Biscop and later by Ceolfrith. Bede does not say whether it was already intended at that point that he would be a monk. It was fairly common in Ireland at this time for young boys, particularly those of noble birth, to be fostered out; the practice was also likely to have been common among the Germanic peoples in England. Monkwearmouth’s sister monastery at Jarrow was founded by Ceolfrith in 682, and Bede probably transferred to Jarrow with Ceolfrith that year. The dedication stone for the church has survived to the present day; it is dated 23 April 685, and as Bede would have been required to assist with menial tasks in his day-to-day life it is possible that he helped in building the original church. In 686, plague broke out at Jarrow. The Life of Ceolfrith, written in about 710, records that only two surviving monks were capable of singing the full offices; one was Ceolfrith and the other a young boy, who according to the anonymous writer had been taught by Ceolfrith and was “now a priest of the same monastery”. After a week of singing the psalms without the usual antiphons, Ceolfrith “could not bear it any longer”, and the two managed to restore the usual service, “with no little labour”. The young boy was almost certainly Bede, who would have been about 14.
When Bede was about 17 years old, Adomnan, the abbot of Iona Abbey, visited Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. Bede would probably have met the abbot during this visit, and it may be that Adomnan sparked Bede’s interest in the Easter dating controversy. In about 692, in Bede’s nineteenth year, Bede was ordained a deacon by his diocesan bishop, John, who was bishop of Hexham. The canonical age for the ordination of a deacon was 25; Bede’s early ordination may mean that his abilities were considered exceptional, but it is also possible that the minimum age requirement was often disregarded. There might have been minor orders ranking below a deacon; but there is no record of whether Bede held any of these offices. In Bede’s thirtieth year (about 702) Bede became a priest, with the ordination again performed by Bishop John.
In about 701 Bede wrote his first works, the De Arte Metrica and De Schematibus et Tropis; both were intended for use in the classroom. He continued to write for the rest of his life, eventually completing over 60 books, most of which have survived. Not all of his output can be easily dated, and Bede may have worked on some texts over a period of many years. His last surviving work is a letter to Ecgbert of York, a former student, written in 734. A 6th-century Greek and Latin manuscript of Acts that is believed to have been used by Bede survives and is now in the Bodleian Library; it is known as the Codex Laudianus. Bede may also have worked on one of the Latin bibles that were copied at Jarrow, one of which is now held by the Laurentian Library in Florence. Bede was a teacher as well as a writer; he enjoyed music, and was said to be accomplished as a singer and as a reciter of poetry in the vernacular. It is possible that he suffered a speech impediment of some kind, but this depends on a phrase in the introduction to his verse life of Saint Cuthbert. Translations of this phrase differ, and it is quite uncertain whether Bede intended to say that he was cured of a speech problem, or merely that he was inspired by the saint’s works.
In 708, some monks at Hexham accused Bede of having committed heresy in his work De Temporibus. The standard theological view of world history at the time was known as the six ages of the world; in his book, Bede calculated the age of the world for himself, rather than accepting the authority of Isidore of Seville, and came to the conclusion that Christ had been born 3,952 years after the creation of the world, rather than the figure of over 5,000 years that was commonly accepted by theologians. The accusation occurred in front of the bishop of Hexham of the time, Wilfrid, who was present at a feast when some drunken monks made the accusation. Wilfrid did not respond to the accusation, but a monk present relayed the episode to Bede, who replied within a few days to the monk, writing a letter setting forth his defence and asking that the letter be read to Wilfrid also. Bede had another brush with Wilfrid, for the historian himself says that he met Wilfrid, sometime between 706 and 709, and discussed &Aelig;thelthryth, the abbess of Ely. Wilfrid had been present at the exhumation of her body in 695, and Bede questioned the bishop about the exact circumstances of the body and asked for more details of her life, as Wilfrid had been her advisor.
In 733, Bede travelled to York, to visit Ecgbert, who was then bishop of York. The see of York was elevated to an archbishopric in 735, and it is likely that Bede and Ecgbert discussed the proposal for the elevation during his visit. Bede hoped to visit Ecgbert again in 734, but was too ill to make the journey. Bede also travelled to the monastery of Lindisfarne, and at some point visited the otherwise unknown monastery of a monk named Wicthed, a visit that is mentioned in a letter to that monk. Because of his widespread correspondence with others throughout the British Isles, and due to the fact that many of the letters imply that Bede had met his correspondents, it is likely that Bede travelled to some other places, although nothing further about timing or locations can be guessed. It seems certain that he did not visit Rome, however, as he would have mentioned it in the autobiographical chapter of his Historia Ecclesiastica. Nothhelm, a correspondent of Bede’s who assisted him by finding documents for him in Rome, is known to have visited Bede, though the date cannot be determined beyond the fact that it was after Nothhelm’s visit to Rome.
Bede died on Thursday, 26 May 735 (Ascension Day) and was buried at Jarrow. Cuthbert, a disciple of Bede’s, wrote a letter to a Cuthwin (of whom nothing else is known), describing Bede’s last days and his death. According to Cuthbert, Bede fell ill “with frequent attacks of breathlessness but almost without pain”, before Easter. On the Tuesday before Acension Day (24 May) his breathing became worse, and his feet swelled. He continued to dictate to a scribe, however, and despite spending the night awake in prayer he dictated again the following day. At three o’clock, according to Cuthbert, he asked for a box of his to be brought, and distributed among the priests of the monastery “a few treasures” of his: “some pepper, and napkins, and some incense”. That night he dictated a final sentence to the scribe, a boy named Wilberht, and died soon afterwards. Cuthbert’s letter also relates a five-line poem in the vernacular that Bede composed on his deathbed, known as “Bede’s Death Song”. It is the most widely copied Old English poem, and appears in 45 manuscripts, but its attribution to Bede is not absolutely certain—not all manuscripts name Bede as the author, and the ones that do are of later origin than those that do not. Bede’s remains may have been transferred to Durham Cathedral in the 11th century; his tomb there was looted in 1541, but the contents were probably re-interred in the Galilee chapel at the cathedral.
One further oddity in his writings is that in one of his works, the Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles, he writes in a manner that gives the impression he was married. The section in question is the only one in that work that is written in first-person view. Bede says: “Prayers are hindered by the conjugal duty because as often as I perform what is due to my wife I am not able to pray.” Another passage, in the Commentary on Luke, also mentions a wife in the first person: “Formerly I possessed a wife in the lustful passion of desire and now I possess her in honourable sanctification and true love of Christ.” The historian Benedicta Ward argues that these passages are Bede employing a rhetorical device.
At the time Bede wrote the Historia Ecclesiastica, there were two common ways of referring to dates. One was to use indictions, which were 15-year cycles, counting from 312 AD. There were three different varieties of indiction, each starting on a different day of the year. The other approach was to use regnal years—the reigning Roman emperor, for example, or the ruler of whichever kingdom was under discussion. This meant that in discussing conflicts between kingdoms, the date would have to be given in the regnal years of all the kings involved. Bede used both these approaches on occasion, but adopted a third method as his main approach to dating: the anno domini method invented by Dionysius Exiguus. Although Bede did not invent this method, his adoption of it, and his promulgation of it in De Temporum Ratione, his work on chronology, is the main reason why it is now so widely used.
There is no evidence for cult being paid to Bede in England in the 8th century. One reason for this may be that he died on the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury. Later, when he was venerated in England, he was either commemorated after Augustine on 26 May, or his feast was moved to 27 May. However, he was venerated outside England, mainly through the efforts of Saint Boniface and Alcuin, both of whom promoted the cult on the Continent. Boniface wrote repeatedly back to England during his missionary efforts, requesting copies of Bede’s theological works. Alcuin, who was taught at the school set up in York by Bede’s pupil Egbert, praised Bede as an example for monks to follow and was instrumental in disseminating Bede’s works to all of Alcuin’s friends. Bede’s cult became prominent in England during the 10th-century revival of monasticism, and by the 14th century had spread to many of the cathedrals of England. Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester (c. 1008–1095) was a particular devotee of Bede’s, dedicating a church to him in 1062, which was Wulfstan’s first undertaking after his consecration as bishop.
His body was translated (the ecclesiastical term for relocation of relics) from Jarrow to Durham Cathedral around 1020, where it was placed in the same tomb with Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Later Bede’s remains were moved to a shrine in the Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral in 1370. The shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation, but the bones were reburied in the chapel. In 1831 the bones were dug up and then reburied in a new tomb, which is still there. Other relics were claimed by York, Glastonbury and Fulda.
His scholarship and importance to Catholicism were recognised in 1899 when he was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church. He is the only Englishman named a Doctor of the Church. He is also the only Englishman in Dante’s Paradise, mentioned among theologians and doctors of the church in the same canto as Isidore of Seville and the Scot Richard of St. Victor.