731 AD Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is an interesting book.  I am not finished reading it yet, but I have decided to dedicate a couple posts to this one in order to share a few of my favorite stories from it.  But first, a little about Bede and the book itself. 

Bede was a monk at the Northumbrian Monastery in England.  He wrote many books, the most famous of which is his History.  It covers the period of time from Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC to AD731, when he finished the book.  The monastery had one of the best libraries in England, and Bede spent a good amount of his life reading and studying the books they had there.  In the last chapter of his History, he says that he used as his sources: ancient documents, tradition, and his own knowledge.  We also know that he spoke to people who knew some of the people he was writing about. 

The book is filled with many stories concerning the kings of different kingdoms in England, the bishops and other members of the church working to spread Christianity, the wars and relations between the kingdoms of the English people as well as the Irish and other groups in the area, and many miraculous healings and other miracles.  In some of the stories, I think the main source must have been tradition.  However, many of the historical stories are very interesting, which is why I have decided to share several of them over the next week or two as I finish the book.  I have been coming across too many of them to fit in one post, and I am finding it difficult to be selective.

Here are a few pictures I borrowed off Wikipedia.


The Venerable Bede

Bede - Athelstan

A page out of one of Bede’s other books

Bedes tomb in durham cathedral

Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral

A Couple Stories from Bede:

This happened around AD 625.

“When [King Edwin] first sent ambassadors to ask [for the hand of Aethelburh] in marriage from her brother Eadbald, who was then king of Kent, the answer was that it was not lawful for a Christian maiden to be given in marriage to a heathen for fear that the faith and mysteries of the heavenly King might be profaned by a union with a king who was an utter stranger to the worship of the true God.  When Edwin heard the messengers’ reply he promised that he would put no obstacles of any kind in the way of the Christian worship which the maiden practiced; on the other hand, he would allow her and all who came with her, men and women, priests or retainers, to follow the faith and worship of their religion after the Christian manner; nor did he deny the possibility that he might accept the same religion himself if, on examination, it was judged by his wise men to be a holier worship and more worthy of God.

“Thereupon the maiden was betrothed and sent to Edwin and, in accordance with the agreement, Paulinus, a man beloved of God, was consecrated bishop to accompany her and to make sure by daily instruction and the celebration of the heavenly sacraments that she and her companions were not polluted by contact with the heathen.”  (He he…that part always makes me laugh.)

“The following year there came to the kingdom an assassin whose name was Eomer…  He carried a short sword, double-edged and smeared with poison, to ensure that if the sword wound was not enough to kill the king, the deadly poison would do its work…  He entered the hall on the pretense of delivering a message from his lord, and while the cunning rascal was expounding his pretended mission, he suddenly lept up, drew the sword from beneath his cloak, and made a rush at the king.  Lilla, a most devoted thegn, saw this, but not having a shield in his hand to protect the king from death, he quickly interposed his own body to receive the blow.  His foe trust the weapon with such force that he killed the thegn and wounded the king as well through his dead body.  Swords were drawn and the assassin was at once attacked from every quarter, but in the tumult he slew with his hideous weapon yet another of the king’s retainers named Forthhere.

“On the same night…the queen had borne the king a daughter named Eanflaed.  The king, in the presence of Bishop Paulinus, gave thanks to his gods for the birth of his daughter; but the bishop, on the other hand, began to thank the Lord Christ and to tell the king that it was in answer to his prayers to God that the queen had been safely delivered of a child, and without great pain.  The king was delighted with his words, and promised that if God would grant him life, and victory over the king who had sent the assassin who wounded him, he would renounce his idols and serve Christ; and as a pledge that he would keep his word, he gave his infant daughter to Paulinus to be consecrated to Christ.  She was baptized on the holy day of Pentecost, the first of the Northumbrian race to be baptized, together with eleven others of his household.

“When in due course the king had been healed of his wound, he summoned his army and marched against the West Saxons.  During the course of the campaign he either slew all whom he discovered to have plotted his death or forced them to surrender.  So he returned victorious to his own country; but he was unwilling to accept the mysteries of the Christian faith at once and without consideration, even though he no longer worshiped the idols after he had promised that he would serve Christ.  But first he made it his business, as opportunity occurred, to learn the faith systematically from the venerable Bishop Paulinus, and then to consult with the counselors whom he considered the wisest, as to what they thought he ought to do.  He himself being a man of great natural sagacity would often sit alone for long periods in silence, but in his innermost thoughts he was deliberating with himself as to what he ought to do and which religion he should adhere to.”

Pope Boniface then wrote two bold, but nice, letters to both Edwin and Aethelburh, which Bede copies out in their entirety, urging Edwin to accept the faith, and Aethelburh to pray for her husband.  Bede then relates an earlier story about Edwin, before he was married, in which he is in hiding from an attempt on his life by his predecessor.  In an attempt to keep this post from reaching a length of novel proportions, I’ll sum up.  There were situations of almost betrayal and other adventures, but we’ll skip over that and finish the story by mentioning a certain visitor during Edwin’s hiding, who spoke to him of a religion that he would one day have the opportunity of joining.  The visitor told him to look for the sign of a man coming and laying his hand on his head.  He then disappeared, and Edwin knew that it was a heavenly messenger.  Later, when Edwin was learning about the Christian religion, Paulinus came to the king and laid his hand on his head.  Edwin recognized the sign, and joined the church.  He gave his loyal chief men the choice of joining with him, if they so wished, and after they had examined the doctrines for themselves, they joined the church with Edwin.  He was baptized on 12 April 627, in the eleventh year of his reign.  He ruled for six more years before dying in a battle against the king of the Britons.


This happened sometime around AD 644.

“King Oswine was tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manner, and bountiful to nobles and commons alike; so it came about that he was beloved by all because of the royal dignity which showed itself in his character, his appearance, and his actions…”

“[King Oswine] had given Bishop Aidan an excellent horse so that, though he was normally accustomed to walk, he could ride if he had to cross a river or if any other urgent necessity compelled him.  A short time afterwards, Aidan was met by a beggar who asked him for an alms.  He at once alighted and offered the horse with all its royal trappings to the beggar; for he was extremely compassionate, a friend of the poor and a real father to the wretched.  The king was told of this and, happening to meet the bishop as they were going to dinner, he said, ‘My lord bishop, why did you want to give a beggar the royal horse intended for you?  Have we not many less valuable horses or other things which would have been good enough to give to the poor, without letting the beggar have the horse which I had specially chosen for your own use?’  The bishop at once replied, ‘O King, what are you saying?  Surely this son of a mare is not dearer to you than that son of God?’

“After these words they went in to dine.  The bishop sat down in his own place and the king, who had just come in from hunting, stood warming himself by the fire with his thegns.  Suddenly he remembered the bishop’s words; at once he took off his sword, gave it to a thegn, and then hastening to where the bishop sat, threw himself at his feet and asked his pardon.  ’Never from henceforth,’ he said, ‘will I speak of this again nor will I form any opinion as to what money of mine or how much of it you should give to the sons of God.’

“When the bishop saw this he was greatly alarmed; he got up immediately and raised the king to his feet, declaring that he would be perfectly satisfied if only the king would banish his sorrow and sit down to the feast.  The king, in accordance with the bishop’s entreaties and commands, recovered his spirits, but the bishop, on the other hand, grew sadder and sadder and at last began to shed tears.  Thereupon a priest asked him in his native tongue, which the king and his thegns did not understand, why he was weeping, and Aidan answered, ‘I know that the king will not live long; for I never before saw a humble king.  Therefore I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.’”

Not long after, Oswiu, king of the Northumbrians, gathered an army to move against King Oswine.  Oswine knew he could not prevail against such an army as Oswiu’s, with far greater resources, so he disbanded his army and decided to “wait for better times”.  ”He went with one faithful thegn named Tondhere and hid in the home of a gesith named Hunwold, whom he believed to be his friend.  But alas, it was quite otherwise.  The gesith betrayed him to Oswiu who caused him to be foully murdered, together with his thegn…”  ”Bishop Aidan only lived for twelve days after the murder of the king whom he loved…”  ”There in after days, to atone for his crime, a monastery was built in which prayers were to be offered daily to the Lord for the redemption of the souls of both kings, the murdered king and the one who ordered the murder.”