10 Facts About the Venerable Bede | History Hit

10 Facts About the Venerable Bede

Peta Stamper

04 Oct 2022
Venerable Bede in an illustrated manuscript, writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Image Credit: CC / E-codices

Living almost 1,300 years ago, the Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) was a monk who became early medieval Europe’s greatest scholar. Often referred to as the ‘Father of British History’, Bede was the first person to record the history of England.

Within a century of his death, Bede’s work was known across Europe and his reputation had made the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Jarrow, northeast England, one of the most important historical religious sites in Europe.

Here are 10 facts about this venerable medieval figure.

1. Nothing certain is known of his family background

Bede was most likely born in Monkton, Durham, to a reasonably wealthy family. At age 7 he was entrusted into the care of Benedict Biscop, who in 674 AD founded the monastery of St Peter at Wearmouth.

Biscop, a Northumbrian nobleman who later became Bede’s abbot, was given the land at Jarrow by King Ecgrith of Northumbria. He was sent 10 monks and 12 novices from St Peter’s monastery, and they founded the new St Paul’s monastery.

2. Bede became a Benedictine monk at St Paul’s monastery

The 12-year-old Bede attended the consecration of the new St Paul’s monastery on 23 April 685. He remained a Benedictine monk there until his death in 735 AD. St Paul’s was noted for its impressive library boasting some 700 volumes, which Bede put to scholarly use:

“I was entrusted by my family first to the reverend Abbot Benedict and later to Abbot Ceolfrith for my education. I have spent all the remainder of my life in this monastery and devoted myself entirely to the study of scriptures.”

By the time he was 30, Bede had been priested.

3. He survived a plague that struck in 686

Disease was rampant in medieval Europe, as people lived closely with animals and vermin with little understanding of how illness spread. Although this episode of plague killed the majority of the population of Jarrow, Bede was spared.

4. Bede was a polymath

During his lifetime, Bede found time to study. He wrote and translated some 40 books on topics such as natural history, astronomy and occasionally some poetry. He also studied theology extensively and wrote the first martyrology, a chronicle of the lives of the saints.

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5. Bede’s capacity to write in the early medieval period was a feat in itself

The level of education and literacy that Bede acquired in his lifetime would have been an immense and rare luxury in early medieval England. As well as possessing the capacity to write, finding the tools to do so also would have presented challenges at the time. Rather than using pencils and paper, Bede would have written with hand-crafted tools on uneven surfaces, using minimal light to see whilst sitting in the cold Northumbrian climate.

6. His most famous work was Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

Also known as the ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, Bede’s text starts with Caesar’s invasion of Britain and covers some 800 years of British history, exploring political and social life. His account also documents the rise of the early Christian church, touching on the martyrdom of St Alban, the coming of the Saxons and St Augustine’s arrival in Canterbury.

Portion of an early manuscript of the Historical Works of Venerable Bede, now kept in the British Museum.

Image Credit: British Museum / Public Domain

7. He popularised the use of the AD dating system

Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum was completed in 731 and became the first work of history to use the AD system of dating to measure time based on the birth of Christ. AD stands for anno domini, or ‘in the year of our lord’.

Bede was engrossed by the study of computus, the science of calculating calendar dates. Bede’s efforts to decipher the original date of Easter, central to the Christian calendar, were at the time met with skepticism and controversy.

8. The Venerable Bede never ventured further than York

In 733, Bede went to York to visit Ecgbert, Bishop of York. The church seat of York was elevated to an archbishopric in 735 and it is likely that Bede visited Ecgbert to discuss the promotion. This visit to York would be the furthest Bede ventured from his monastic home in Jarrow during his lifetime. Bede hoped to visit Ecgbert again in 734 but was too ill to travel.

Bede also journeyed to the monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne as well as the otherwise unknown monastery of a monk named Wicthed. Despite his ‘venerable’ status, he never met a Pope or monarch.

9. Bede died at St Paul’s monastery on 27 May 735 AD

He continued working right up until the end of his life and his final work was a translation of the Gospel of St John, which he dictated to his assistant.

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10. Bede was declared ‘venerable’ by the Church in 836 and canonised in 1899

The title ‘Venerable Bede’ comes from the Latin inscription on his tomb at Durham Cathedral, reading: HIC SUNT IN FOSSA BEDAE VENERABILIS OSSA, meaning ‘here are buried the bones of the Venerable Bede’.

His bones have been kept at Durham since 1022 when they were brought from Jarrow by a monk called Alfred who had them buried alongside Cuthbert’s relics. They were later moved to the Cathedral’s Galilee Chapel in the 14th century.

Peta Stamper