Historical Works of Venerable Bede/Volume 2/Life of Bede/Chapter 1

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The year of our Lord 673, remarkable for one of the most important of our Early English Councils, held at Hertford, for the purpose of enforcing certain general regulations of the Church, has an equal claim on our attention, as the year in which that great teacher of Religion, Literature, and Science, Venerable Bede, first saw the light.

The time of his birth has, however, been placed by some writers as late as A.D. 677, but this error arose from not perceiving that the last two or three pages of his Chronological Epitome, attached to the Ecclesiastical History, were added by another hand.[1]

Bede's own words appear decisive in fixing the date of his birth:—"This is the present state of Britain, about 285 years since the coming of the Saxons, and in the seven hundred and thirty-first year of our Lord's incarnation." To this he subjoins a short Chronology which comes down to 731, and was continued to 734, either by another hand or by Bede himself, at a later period just before his death: he then gives a short account of the principal events of his own life, and says that he has attained (attigisse) the fifty-ninth year of his life. Gehle, in his recent publication on the life of Bede, has not scrupled to fix the year 672, interpreting Bede's expression that he had attained his fifty-ninth year as implying that he was entering on his sixtieth. On the other hand, another learned critic,[2] whose opinion has been adopted by Stevenson in his Introduction [p. vii], has endeavoured to show that 674 is the true date. But in so unimportant a particular it is hardly worth while to weigh the conflicting opinions; and the intermediate date, so long ago settled by Mabillon, and apparently so naturally resulting from Bede's own words, is perhaps the best that can be adopted.

It is always to be regretted, when little is known of the early life of eminent men, as in all cases where many facts have been handed down to elucidate the early history of such, something or other has invariably broken forth significant of their future life and fortunes. So very little, however, is known of this great ornament of England and Father of the Universal Church, that except his own writings, the letter of Cuthbert his disciple, and one or two other almost contemporary records, we have no means whatever of tracing his private history.

The place of his birth is said by Bede himself to have been in the territory afterwards belonging to the twin-monasteries of St. Peter and St. Paul, at Weremouth and Jarrow. The whole of this territory, lying along the coast near the mouths of the rivers Tyne and Were, was granted to Abbot Benedict by King Egfrid two years after the birth of Bede. William of Malmesbury points out more minutely the spot where our author first saw the light. His words are these: "Britain, which some writers have called another world, because, from its lying at a distance, it has been overlooked by most Geographers, contains in its remotest parts a place on the borders of Scotland, where Bede was born and educated. The whole country was formerly studded with monasteries, and beautiful cities founded therein by the Romans, but now, owing to the devastations of the Danes and Normans, has nothing to allure the senses. Through it runs the Were, a river of no mean width, and of tolerable rapidity. It flows into the sea, and receives ships, which are driven thither by the wind, into its tranquil bosom. A certain Benedict built churches on its banks, and founded there two monasteries, named after St. Peter and St. Paul, and united together by the same rule and bond of brotherly love."[3]—The birth of Bede happened in the third year of Egfrid, son of Oswy, the first of the kings of Northumberland, after the union of the provinces Deira and Bernicia into one monarchy. The dominions of this King now extended from the Humber to the Frith of Forth, and comprehended all the six northern counties of England, and the whole of the southern part of Scotland. The piety of Egfrid induced him to grant the large tract of land above-mentioned to one Biscop, surnamed Benedict, who had formerly been one of his thanes, but now became a monk, and built thereon a monastery which he dedicated to St. Peter, on the north bank of the River Were, and which from this circumstance derived the name of Weremouth. The same pious Abbot, eight years after [A.D. 682], built another monastic establishment, which he dedicated to St. Paul, at Jarrow, on the banks of the Tyne, at the distance of about five miles from the former. In memory of this, the following inscription, which has been preserved, was carved on a tablet in the church at Jarrow:—

Dedicatio Basilicæ
S. Pauli VIII Kal. Maii
Anno XV Egfridi Regis
Ceolfridi Abb. ejusdemque
Ecclesiæ Deo auctore
Conditoris anno IV.

The Dedication of the Church
of Saint Paul, on the 24th of April
in the fifteenth year of King Egfrid
and in the fourth year of Abbot Ceolfrid,
who, under God, founded the same church.

These two establishments were for many years ruled by Benedict himself, and his associates Ceolfrid, Easterwin, and Sigfrid, and from the unity and concord which prevailed between the two, deserved rather, as Bede expresses it, to be called "one single Monastery built in two different places."[4]

We cannot be certain as to the exact spot, but it is sufficiently near the mark to ascertain that Bede was born in the neighbourhood of these two monasteries, and probably in the village of Jarrow.

Of his parents nothing has been recorded. He tells us, in his own short narrative of himself, that he was placed, at the age of seven years, under the care of Abbot Benedict, in the Abbey of Weremouth, that of Jarrow being not yet built. When, however, this second establishment was founded, Bede appears to have gone thither under Ceolfrid its first Abbot, and to have resided there all the remainder of his life.

  1. Mabill. in v. Bed. § 2. Sim. Dun. de Ecc. D. 8, and Ep. de Archie. Ebor. Stubbs's Act. Pont. Eborac. Sparke's Hist. Ang. Scrip. 1723. Surtees's H. of Durham, II. p. 69.
  2. Pagi Critic, in Baron. Ann. A.D. 693, § 8.
  3. Acts and Deeds of the Kings of England, Book I. chap. iii.
  4. Leland. Antiq. de reb. Brit. Coll. ed. Hearne, III. 42.