top of page
  • richardtw

History: Durham, St. Bede and the beginnings of English history

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

I've a soft spot for Durham Cathedral, unrelated to the famous St Cuthbert or his shrine. As a student of British history, and of church history especially, I'm drawn to a smaller, less impressive, tomb at the cathedral's far end. It's the final resting place of a monk considered the Father of English History: the Venerable Bede.

St Bede's tomb, image (C) Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing
St Bede's tomb, image (C) Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing

Where is Bede?

This current tomb is a replacement for the one destroyed during the Reformation, and which had been in place since 1370. It sits in the Lady Chapel, also known as the Galilee Chapel, which sticks out as an architecturally distinct late addition to the nave's western end.


Before getting their own tomb, Bede's remains had been housed alongside Cuthbert's since 1022, around 300 years after his death. Now he rests in the Galilee near St Oswald, a local figure who, like Cuthbert, saw his saintly cult gain importance thanks to Bede's writings.


Durham Cathedral's Galilee Chapel, image (C) Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing
Durham Cathedral's Galilee Chapel, with slender columns and carved chevrons maring it as different to the main building of 40 years earlier. Image (C) Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing

Why does Bede matter?

Bede was a Northumbrian monk who wrote, in the early eighth-century, mostly about theology and seventh-century history. Although he wrote some popular biblical commentaries and accounts of saints' lives (hagiography), his best-known work is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. His commentaries were recognised when he became the only British person named a Doctor of the Church: the Ecclesiastical History earned him his reputation as the Father of English history.


A page from a British LIbrary manuscript copy of Bede's Ecclesiastical History. (C) British Library
A page from a British LIbrary manuscript copy of Bede's Ecclesiastical History. (C) British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C

Bede's History

The Ecclesiastical History wasn't the first history text in England, but it was a valuable collection of primary sources. It's become the most important source shedding light on a period – the seventh-century – of which we might otherwise know very little. However, it has its limitations, some bias, and a clear providential narrative about the conversion of the British peoples to (Roman) Christianity.


What mattered to Bede was that the peoples of the multiple British kingdoms were united in their religion, if not in their politics. In Bede's account, victory at 664's Synod of Whitby allowed Romanised Christianity to transcended those geographic borders. Although that zero-sum view of Whitby's significance in any conflict between 'Celtic' and 'Roman' systems has been challenged, Bede's work was important in forming the idea of a united Christianised British people. His hagiographies of saints like Cuthbert also encouraged cults which allowed people from different kingdoms to come together with a shared purpose and identity.


History-writing in Bede's day came with an element of myth and legend, flourishing biases and an agenda. Historians wrote in a particular way, interpreting sources to tell their own stories, usually with a narrative expectation that events reflected either divine punishment or reward. No wonder: most of the authors and intended audience were monks.

Twelfth-century portrait of Bede at work. British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r. (C) British Library
Twelfth-century portrait of Bede at work. British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r. (C) British Library

Modern Historians

The modern historian may try to take a more objective and less providential view, but we still write to the themes and topics we think are important. Bede's theme was the unification of British Christians, with a local slant. More recent historians have taken other themes to be important: the decline and fall of the Roman Empire; the machinations of the Tudor court; military manoeuvres in various conflicts; the lives of 'great men'; specific local interest stories; the amplification of previously marginalised voices, and the experiences of the voiceless. These all follow Bede's example, if not his method.


My work and this blog are no different, in that they reflect my interest in church buildings and their relationship with a wider national history. Bede and I both fall into that tradition of historians studying a nation or people through their religious history – though I'm much more influenced by history's recent focus on people's material and spatial experiences.

The process of writing history has always been one of interpreting and re-interpreting events and sources. History is a re-writing of the past, by every generation, by every historian within every generation. We re-write to suit our own preferences and biases – but hopefully, the modern historian comes from a broader pool of voices, and can recognise those biases and acknowledge them more readily than Bede ever did.

 

Further Reading:







Image credits:

Bede's tomb / Galilee Chapel: Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing, via durhamwordlheritagesite.com

St. Bede / Ecclesiastical History of the English People: British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r / Cotton MS Tiberius C

Comments


bottom of page