The three main writers on the Dark Ages are Gildas (6th Cent), Bede (672/3 – 26 May 735) and "Nennius" (c830). Of these, most is known about Bede. Both Bede and Nennius use Gildas as a source, but both clearly have other sources, some of which may be lost. All three have been used as a basis for "Arthurian" legends, although neither Gildas nor Bede name an "Arthur" as such.
Chester in the time of Bede
Chester at the time of Bede falls into one of the gaps in the historical record. Tradition ascribes the foundation of St Johns to Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704), in 689. The direct authority for this statement quoted by John Leland is the Itinerary of Gerald of Wales. However no such information is found in the surviving texts of the Itinerary. Two authorities of a subsequent date quote the early date in such a mannner as to imply their acceptance of it, and the source as being Giraldus: the MS Chronicle of St Werburgh and by Henry Bradshaw (a native of Chester and monk of St Werburgh's Abbey). Leyland also refers to Gerald as his source, but whether this is a "cumulative error" or parts of Gerald's works have been lost is impossible to say. Werburgh died during the lifetime of Bede, but had no connection with Chester at that time so far as is known. Chester appears to have been an ecclesiastical center around the year 600 and appears to have been inhabited at the time of the Battle of Chester in 616. Few other events in any way linked to Chester occurred during the lifetime of Bede. It is possible that Wilfrid established a shrine in the ruins of the east entrance of the Amphitheatre, but the evidence is only circumstantial.
Bede /ˈbiːd/ (Old English: Bǣda, Bēda; 672/3 – 26 May 735), also known as Saint Bede, Venerable Bede, and Bede the Venerable (Latin: Bēda Venerābilis), was a Benedictine monk at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul in the Kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles (contemporarily Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey in Tyne and Wear, England).
Almost everything that is known of Bede's life is contained in the last chapter of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a history of the church in England. It was completed in about 731, and Bede implies that he was then in his fifty-ninth year. Born on lands belonging to the twin monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in present-day Tyne and Wear, Bede was sent to Monkwearmouth at the age of seven and later joined Abbot Ceolfrith at Jarrow, both of whom survived a plague that struck in 685/6, an outbreak that killed a majority of the population there and devastated much of Britain. The traditional version (not reported in Bede's own Life of Ceolfrith) is that the plague killed almost all the Benedictine monks in the monastery of Monkwearmouth–Jarrow, aside from Abbot Ceolfrith and one small boy - the future scholar Bede, who would have been about 12 at the time. A description of their situation makes grim reading: for a week, the abbot and the boy recited the psalter, but (as everyone else was dead) without the responds (antiphons) that should properly have accompanied the psalms:
- "..but at length, with tears and lamentations, the abbot could bear it no longer, and so he decided that that psalms should be sung with antiphons, as before."
Better times did come. The plague abated, more men came to be monks at Jarrow, the Irish Abbot Adomnán of Iona came to visit Jarrow, and Bede was ordained to the diaconate at the early age of 19 – a sign, perhaps, that clergy were in short supply after the ravages of the plague. Bede’s greatness as a historian maybe owed something to a grasp of the shortness of life, and the importance of recording events, that he gained while a teenager in the plague-stricken monastery of Jarrow.
Abbot Ceolfrith is most well-known for the trip he intended to make to Rome at the end of his life, to present a majestic manuscript to the pope. Ceolfrith died at the age of 74 before he reached Rome. Although the manuscript he had intended as a gift most probably continued its journey and soon made its way to Monte Amiata in Tuscany, before finding a home at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence in the 18th century. This Codex Amiatinus is the earliest surviving complete manuscript of the latin vulgate bible, and was almost certainly handled by Bede.
Bede travelled far less. While he spent most of his life in the monastery, Bede only travelled to several abbeys and monasteries across the British Isles, even visiting the archbishop of York and King Ceolwulf of Northumbria (the "most glorious king" to whom Bede dedicated his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.).
Bede is well known as an author, teacher (a student of one of his pupils was Alcuin), and scholar, and his most famous work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, gained him the title "The Father of English History". His ecumenical writings were extensive and included a number of Biblical commentaries and other theological works of exegetical erudition. Another important area of study for Bede was the academic discipline of computus, otherwise known to his contemporaries as the science of calculating calendar dates.
Bede and Wilfred
The sometime bishop of Hexham Wilfrid has associations with Chester and in particular with St Johns and possibly a crypt at the Amphitheatre. In 664 Wilfrid acted as spokesman for the Roman position at the Synod of Whitby, and became famous for his speech advocating that the Roman method for calculating the date of Easter should be adopted. His success prompted the king's son, Alhfrith, to appoint him Bishop of Northumbria. The plague of 664 had a direct role in the rise of Wilfrid - had Tuda not died at such a critical time, it is unlikely that Wilfrid would have been promoted to the episcopate so young or gained so much power. Wilfrid chose to be consecrated in Gaul because of the lack of what he considered to be validly consecrated bishops in England. During Wilfrid's absence Alhfrith led an unsuccessful revolt against his father, Oswiu, leaving a cloud over Wilfrid's appointment as bishop. Before Wilfrid's return Oswiu had appointed Ceadda in his place, resulting in Wilfrid's retirement to Ripon for a few years and his involvement with Mercian matters.
Wilfrid's contemporary, Bede, although also a partisan of the Roman dating of Easter, always treats Wilfrid a little uneasily, showing some concern about how Wilfrid conducted himself as a clergyman and as a bishop. This may be because Wilfrid's opulent lifestyle was uncongenial to Bede's monastic mind; it may also be that the events of Wilfrid's life, divisive and controversial as they were, simply did not fit with Bede's theme of the progression to a unified and harmonious church. There may also have been personal issues between the two.
In 708, some monks at Hexham accused Bede of having committed heresy in his work De Temporibus (The Reckoning of Time). 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 then standard authority of Isidore of Seville, and came to the conclusion (using the so-called "Masoretic Numbers") that Christ had been born 3,952 years after the creation of the world, rather than the figure of about 5,199 years that was commonly accepted by theologians. Bede also elaborated upon a seventh age, which he has running in parallel rather than coming after an apocalyptic end to the sixth age. The accusation occurred in front of Wilfrid, who was present at a feast when some drunken monks (or as Bede puts it: "lewd rustics in their cups") made the accusation. Wilfrid did not respond to the accusation, but the monk Plegwin who was 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 also be read to Wilfrid. The letter, of which the text survives, explains how Bede prefers the Masoretic dates, which he refers to as the "Hebrew Truth," because he thinks this is the original language. He never discusses why the numbers of the Septuagint were "wrong," but he does quote Augustine and Jerome on the subject, who agree with Bede that the Septuagint's numbers are incorrect. Wilfids response is not recorded. In Bede's time years were generally not numbered accoding to the BC/AD system but counted by reference to the number of years that the present monarch had ruled, even the conception of future events was a matter for a select few (as the world might end any day). Bede's "heresy" was apparently that he had made a statement about when the world would end, which he fervently denied in the letter to Plegwin.
Bede had another brush with Wilfrid, for the historian says that he met Wilfrid sometime between 706 and 709 and discussed Æthelthryth, 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. Bede's comment is mildly amusing:
- "Though she lived with him twelve years, yet she preserved the glory of perfect virginity, as I was informed by Bishop Wilfrid, of blessed memory, of whom I inquired, because some questioned the truth thereof; and he told me that he was an undoubted witness to her virginity"
When discussing the Mercian King Wulfhere, Bede does not mention the matrilinear succession established at Ely by Æthelthryth, where power passed in turn to her sister Seaxburh before subsequently transferring to Seaxburh's daughter Eormenhild and to her granddaughter, Werburgh - "patron" saint of Chester. This could be interpreted at least two ways: either Bede has a bias against women, or, Bede had suspicions about the supposed miracles associated with Ely and/or the establishment of what was essentially a family business amongst the Abbesses. A third explanation is that Werbergh never actually existed.
Bede was the most prolific and original thinker of the early Anglo-Saxon Church, and wrote an impressive number of scientific, historical and theological works, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries. He knew patristic literature, as well as Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace and other classical writers. He knew some Greek. Bede's scriptural commentaries employed the allegorical method of interpretation, and his history includes accounts of miracles, which to modern historians has seemed at odds with his critical approach to the materials in his history. Modern studies have shown the important role such concepts played in the world-view of Early Medieval scholars. Although Bede is mainly studied as an historian now, in his time his works on grammar, chronology, and biblical studies were as important as his historical and hagiographical works.
Bede's work as a hagiographer and his detailed attention to dating were both useful preparations for the task of writing the Historia Ecclesiastica. His interest in computus, the science of calculating the date of Easter, was also useful in the account he gives of the controversy between the British and Anglo-Saxon church over the correct method of obtaining the Easter date. Bede was also unique in that he carefully noted when he borrowed from the writings of others (a refreshing honesty in that age of unscrupulous copying). He is credited with almost single-handedly popularizing the use of "BC" and "AD" as terms of calendar reference.
Bede on Chester
Werburgh, later to become the patron saint of Chester, lived from 650 until 699/700 and so would have been active during Bede's lifetime (672-735). According to tradition Werburgh was Abbess of Ely. Her first post death translation was from Trentham to Hanbury which required the theft of her remains. In 708 she was moved again, by her brother Coenred who was king of Mercia 704-709, but only from one tomb to another and it is said that her remains were at that time "miraculously" preserved. Bede mentioned neither event and indeed is absolutely silent on even the existence of Werburgh. He does mention several instances of other bodies being "miralculously" preserved, including that of Æthelthryth great-aunt to Werburgh and a previous abbess of Ely to whom he devotes a few paragraphs. He even mentions Wurburgh's brother Coenred and her father Wulfhere and descibes Ely, but makes no mention of the Abbess' after Seaxburh. Traditionally Werburgh's body remained in a preserved state until it was translated to Chester in 876, when it promptly turned to dust. The story of the preservation of Werburgh may well be a later one, adapted from Bede's description of Æthelthryth (or another) as a means of demonstrating that Weburgh should not be moved again. Moreover, there is no contemporary evidence, historical, archaeological, or otherwise, for a continuing community at Ely until Ælfric's account of Bishop Æthelwold's refoundation in 963, itself dating from c.1000. It could therfore be that the whole story of Werburgh including her being the abbess of Ely was simply made up years later.
Bede is reported to have instructed his followers in the art of telling time by interpreting their shadow lengths. However, Bede's important association with sundials is that he encouraged the use of canonical sundials to fix the times of prayers. Bede had a serious interest in time: his "On the Reckoning of Time" (De temporum ratione) is the first comprehensive treatment of the subject and included an introduction to the traditional ancient and medieval view of the cosmos, including an explanation of how the spherical earth (he knew it was not flat) influenced the changing length of daylight, of how the seasonal motion of the Sun and Moon influenced the changing appearance of the new moon at evening twilight. Bede also records the effect of the moon on tides. He shows that the twice-daily timing of tides is related to the Moon and that the lunar monthly cycle of spring and neap tides is also related to the Moon's position. He goes on to note that the times of tides vary along the same coast and that the water movements cause low tide at one place when there is a higher tide elsewhere. He is even supposed to have invented a water clock. Since the focus of his book was the computus, Bede gave instructions for computing the date of Easter from the date of the Paschal full moon, for calculating the motion of the Sun and Moon through the zodiac, and for many other calculations related to the calendar. Bede's almost obsession with time and dates probably coloured his view of the reasons for the historical Battle of Chester - which he in part puts down to a disagreement over the date of Easter.
As regards the Battle of Chester there are a few things worth noting at once about Bede's account. The style is characteristic of an oral saga: expanded, leisurely, detailed, circumstantial and dramatic. Place names and proper names are recorded, and conversations reported verbatim. Proper names such as "Brocmail", "Bancornaburg" and "Dinoot" are all, at least in part, Celtic and this suggests that Bede's material is ultimately derived from a source familiar with the British context of the history. Bede is careful to note some names both in British and in Anglo-Saxon which implies that he had access to an early British source, possibly even an early British text which has been lost with the passage of time. Just looking at the structure of Bede's report there is more to see, especially as regards who is named and, just as importantly, who is not:
- Mention of Augustine of Canterbury starts and ends the account. While Augustine is not present at the battle (he died in 604 some ten years before it) Bede presents him, and his "prophecy" as a primary cause of the battle.
- Æthelberht of Kent provides assistance in setting up the meeting. Bede lists him as the third king to hold imperium over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Even with the assistance of the chief leader of the Anglo-Saxons it appears that the first delegation to meet with Augustine is incapable of making a decision.
- The "Anchorite" appears in Bede but in no other version of the story. Clearly Bede's record of his private discussions with the Celtic Bishops indicates that Bede had access to Celtic sources. Perhaps here Bede is seeking to reduce the apparent authority of the Celtic Bishops and Dinoot by having them resort to an Anchorite.
- "Abbot Dinoot", who appears only to be present at the second meeting, is Saint Dunod a late 6th/early 7th century Abbot of Bangor-on-Dee. Dinoot must be quite elderly by this date as he is said to have founded the monastery c.560.
- "Ethelfrid" is Æthelfrith of Northumbria King of Bernicia from c. 593 until his death in 616. Around 604 he became the first Bernician king to also rule the neighboring land of Deira, giving him an important place in the development of the later kingdom of Northumbria..
Other than the mention of "Brocmail", Bede says nothing about any of the troops on the Briton (Welsh) side and does not identify any of their military leaders apart from Brochmail. Bede is generally considered a moderately accurate and careful historian, but throws in a few phrases which have been, for want of much additional material, laboured over by historians: the Britons are "a nation of heretics" and the Northumbrian warlord destroys "their wicked host". Bede is almost gleeful about the wholesale slaughter of the monks of Bangor, who, despite being "heretics" suit his religious agenda by dying in droves. If the monks were unarmed as Bede appears to suggest, then it makes no military sense for Æthelfrith to waste time and resources in killing them all.
Bede reports Augustine's differences with the Celtic church in what he presents as Augustine's own words:
- "Many things ye do which are contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal Church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three matters, to wit, to keep Easter at the due time; to fulfil the ministry of Baptism, by which we are born again to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and to join with us in preaching the Word of God to the English nation, we will gladly suffer all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs."
Bede does not mention the Pelagian heresy in this specific context, but elsewhere almost accuses the Celtic church of still adhering to it:
- "In his [Honorius] time, the Briton Pelagius spread far and wide his noxious and abominable teaching that man had no need of God's grace, and in this he was supported by Julius of Campania, a bishop who resented his own recent deposition. Saint Augustine and other orthodox fathers quoted many thousand of Catholic authorities against them, but they refused to abandon their folly; on the contrary, their obstinacy was hardened by contradiction, and they refused to return to the true faith."
The "Augustine" here is, based on the context, Augustine of Hippo not Augustine of Canterbury. Bede relates that the Pelagians were conspicuous in their riches and brilliant dress, perhaps a veiled monkish slight against Wilfrid and other bishops?
As to Wilfrids supposed involvement in the foundation of St Johns at Chester, and the possibility that he established or promoted a cult od relics there, Bede is completely silent. He merely mentions that Wilfrid spent some time in Mercia. He is also silent of Wilfrid's crypt at Hexham, although he is not against relics as he emphasises the supernatural powers of Cuthbert’s body and relics through prayer and physical contact. The cult of Cuthbert and his relics was flourishing at the time of Bede abd Bede even wrote that Cuthbert’s hair was used for miraculous remedies. The ommission of any mention of St Johns in Bede is an argument that can be raised against the traditional foundation story, but then again Cuthbert was a Northumbrian saint and Bede was himself a Northumbrian.