Bede, The History of the English Church

Bede (673-735) was an Anglo-Saxon monk based in Northumbria. He is now often considered the father of English history for his book Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” which he finished in 731. Bede mentions all of the major ethnic groups then in Britain: Britons, Picts, Gaels, and Anglo-Saxons (whom he lumps together as Angli, thus facilitating a unified identity) and draws upon a wide variety of sources and traditions. Bede built on Gildas’s condemnation of British chieftains, depicting the Angli as God’s new chosen people whose invasion into Britain served as punishment for the sins of the Britons.86 Bede thus acts as a strong advocate on behalf of the English and their interests.

The following text was adapted by Michael Newton from the edition of Sellar, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

§ 1.1. Britain, an island in the Atlantic, formerly called Albion, lies to the north-west, facing, though at a considerable distance, the coasts of Germany, France, and Spain, which form the greatest part of Europe. […] There are in the island at present, following the number of the books in which the Divine Law was written, five languages of different nations employed in the study and confession of this knowledge [of Christianity], which is of highest truth and true sublimity: these languages are English, British, Scottish [Gaelic], Pictish, and Latin, the last having become common to all peoples by the study of the Scriptures. But at first this island had no other inhabitants but the Britons, from whom it derived its name, and who, it is said, came over into Britain from Armorica, taking possession of the southern parts for themselves.

They had been occupied the greater part of the island in the south when it happened that the nation of the Picts landed on the northern shore of Ireland. The Picts had put to sea from Scythia in a few ships of war, and were driven by the winds beyond the bounds of Britain. There, finding the nation of the Scots, they begged to be allowed to settle among them, but were denied.

Ireland is the largest island next to Britain, and lies to the west of it; but as it is shorter than Britain to the north, so, on the other hand, it runs out far beyond it to the south, over against the northern part of Spain, though a wide sea lies between them.

The Picts then, arriving in this island by sea, desired to have a place granted them in which they might settle. The Scots answered that the island could not contain them both, but said, “We can give you good advice about what to do: we know there is another island, not far from ours, to the east, which we often see at a distance, when the days are clear. If you will go over there, you can obtain settlements; or, if any should oppose you, we will help you.”

The Picts then sailed over into Britain and began to inhabit the northern parts, for the Britons possessed the southern parts. The Picts had no wives and so asked the Scots for them; they would only give them on the condition that when any question of succession should arise, they should choose a king from the female royal line rather than from the male: this custom, as is well known, has been observed among the Picts to this day.

Eventually a third nation, besides the Britons and the Picts, came to Britain: the Scots migrated from Ireland under their leader, Reuda, and either by friendship, or by force of arms, secured for themselves those settlements among the Picts which they still possess. From the name of their leader they are still called “Dál Riata” to this day; for, in their language, Dal means “a part.”

[…] Ireland is properly the country of the Scots, who, migrating from there formed the third nation in Britain in addition to the Britons and the Picts.

There is a very large gulf of the sea which formerly divided the nation of the Britons from the Picts [the Firth of the Clyde]; it runs from the west far into the land, and to this day there stands there a fortified civitas of the Britons called Al Clut. The Scots, arriving on the north side of this bay, settled themselves there.

§ 2.4. [AD 604 x 616] In short, [Laurentius] not only took care of the new church formed among the English, but endeavoured also to employ his pastoral solicitude among the ancient inhabitants of Britain, as also the Gaels, who inhabit the island of Ireland, which is next to Britain. For when he understood that the course of life and profession of the Gaels in their aforesaid country, as well as of the Britons in Britain, was not truly ecclesiastical, especially that they did not celebrate the solemnity of Easter at the due time, but thought that the day of the resurrection of our Lord was to be celebrated between the 14th and 20th of the moon; he wrote, jointly with his fellow bishops, an exhortatory epistle, entreating and conjuring them to observe unity of peace, and conformity with the church of Christ spread throughout the world. The beginning of which epistle is as follows:

“To our most dear brothers, the lords, bishops and abbots throughout Scotland, Laurentius, Mellitus, and Justus, servants of the servants of God. When the apostolic see, according to the universal custom which has followed elsewhere, sent us to these western parts to preach to pagan nations, we came into this island, which is called Britain, without possessing any previous knowledge of its inhabitants. We held both the Britons and Gaels in great esteem for sanctity, believing that they had proceeded according to the custom of the universal church; but coming acquainted with the errors of the Britons, we thought the Gaels had been better; but we have been informed by Bishop Dagan, coming into this aforesaid island, and the Abbot Columbanus in France, that the Gaels in no way differ from the Britons in their behaviour; for Bishop Dagan coming to us, not only refused to eat with us, but even to take his repast in the same house where we were entertained.”

§ 3.19. When Sigbert still governed the kingdom [c.633], there came from Ireland a holy man called Fursa, renowned both for his words and actions, and remarkable for singular virtues, wishing to live as a stranger and pilgrim for the Lord’s sake, wherever an opportunity should offer. On coming into the province of the East Angles, he was honourably received by the aforesaid king, and performing his customary task of preaching the Gospel, by the example of his virtue and the influence of his words, converted many unbelievers to Christ, and confirmed in the faith and love of Christ those that already believed. […]

He was of noble Gaelic ancestry, but much more noble in mind than in birth. From his boyish years, he had earnestly applied himself to reading sacred books and observing monastic discipline, and, as is most fitting for holy men, he carefully practiced all that he learned to be right.

During the course of time he himself built a monastery, wherein he might with more freedom devote himself to his heavenly studies. There, falling sick, as the book concerning his life clearly informs us, he fell into a trance, and quitting his body from the evening till daybreak, he accounted worthy to behold the sight of the choirs of angels, and to hear their glad songs of praise. He was accustomed to declare, that among other things he distinctly heard this refrain: “The saints shall go from strength to strength.” And also, “The God of gods shall be seen in Zion.”

Being restored to his body, and again taken from it three days after, he not only saw the greater joys of the blessed, but also fierce conflicts of evil spirits, who by frequent accusations wickedly endeavoured to obstruct his journey to heaven; but the angels protected him, and all their endeavours were in vain. Concerning all these matters, if any one desires to be more fully informed, to wit, with what subtlety of deceit the devils recounted both his actions and idle words, and even his thoughts, as if they had been written down in a book; and what joyous or grievous tidings he learned from the holy angels and just men who appeared to him among the angels; let him read the little book of his life which I have mentioned, and I doubt not that he will thereby reap much spiritual profit.

But there is one thing among the rest, which we have thought it may be beneficial to mention here. When he had been taken up on high, he was bidden by the angels that conducted him to look back upon the world. Upon which, casting his eyes downward, he saw, as it were, a dark valley in the depths underneath him. He also saw four fires in the air, not far away from each other. He asked the angels what fires those were and was told that they were the fires which would kindle and consume the world. […]

He preached the Word of God for many years in Ireland, but could not well endure the disturbance of the crowds that resorted to him. He left all that he possessed and departed from his native island, and came with a few brothers through the Britons into the province of the English, and preaching the Word there, as has been said, built a famous monastery. When this was finished, he became desirous to rid himself of all business of this world, and even of the monastery itself, and forthwith left the care of it and of its souls, to his brother Fullan, and the priests Gobán and Dicuil. Being himself free from all worldly affairs, he resolved to end his life as a hermit. He had another brother called Ultán, who, after a long monastic probation, had also adopted the life of an anchorite. So, seeking him out alone, he lived a whole year with him in self-denial and prayer, and laboured daily with his hands. […]

§ 3.25. […] At this time, a great and frequently debated question arose about the observance of Easter; those that came from Kent or Gaul affirming, that the Gaels celebrated Easter Sunday contrary to the custom of the universal Church. Among them was a most zealous defender of the true Easter, whose name was Ronan, a Gael by nation, but instructed in the rule of ecclesiastical truth in Gaul or Italy. Disputing with Finan, he convinced many, or at least induced them to make a more strict inquiry after the truth; yet he could not prevail upon Finan, but, on the contrary, embittered him the more by reproof, and made him a professed opponent of the truth, for he was of a violent temper. James, formerly the deacon of the venerable Archbishop Paulinus, as has been said above, observed the true and Catholic Easter, with all those that he could instruct in the better way. Queen Eanfled and her followers also observed it as she had seen it practised in Kent, having with her a Kentish priest who followed the Catholic observance, whose name was Romanus. Thus it is said to have sometimes happened in those times that Easter was twice celebrated in one year; and that when the king, having ended his fast, was keeping Easter, the queen and her followers were still fasting, and celebrating Palm Sunday. Whilst Aidan lived, this difference about the observance of Easter was patiently tolerated by all men, for they well knew, that though he could not keep Easter contrary to the custom of those who had sent him, yet he industriously laboured to practise the works of faith, piety, and love, according to the custom of all holy men; for which reason he was deservedly beloved by all, even by those who differed in opinion concerning Easter, and was held in veneration, not only by less important persons, but even by the bishops, Honorius of Canterbury, and Felix of the East Angles.

But after the death of Finan, who succeeded him, when Colmán, who was also sent from Scotland, came to be bishop, a greater controversy arose about the observance of Easter, and other rules of ecclesiastical life. Whereupon this question began naturally to influence the thoughts and hearts of many who feared, lest haply, having received the name of Christians, they might run, or have run, in vain. This reached the ears of the rulers, King Oswiu and his son Alchfrith. Now Oswiu, having been instructed and baptized by the Gaels, and being very perfectly skilled in their language, thought nothing better than what they taught; but Alchfrith, having for his teacher in Christianity the learned Wilfrid, who had formerly gone to Rome to study ecclesiastical doctrine, and spent much time at Lyons with Dalfinus, archbishop of Gaul, from whom also he had received the crown of ecclesiastical tonsure, rightly thought that this man’s doctrine ought to be preferred before all the traditions of the Gaels. For this reason he had also given him a monastery of forty families, at a place called Inhrypum; which place, not long before, he had given for a monastery to those that were followers of the Gaels; but forasmuch as they afterwards, being left to their choice, preferred to quit the place rather than alter their custom, he gave it to him, whose life and doctrine were worthy of it. […]

King Oswiu first made an opening speech, in which he said that it behooved those who served one God to observe one rule of life; and as they all expected the same kingdom in heaven, so they ought not to differ in the celebration of the heavenly mysteries; but rather to inquire which was the truer tradition, that it might be followed by all in common; he then commanded his bishop, Colmán, first to declare what the custom was which he observed, and whence it derived its origin. Then Colmán said, “The Easter which I keep, I received from my elders, who sent me hither as bishop; all our forefathers, men beloved of God, are known to have celebrated it after the same manner; and that it may not seem to any contemptible and worthy to be rejected, it is the same which the blessed John the Evangelist, the disciple specially beloved of our Lord, with all the churches over which he presided, is recorded to have celebrated.” […]

Then Wilfrid, being ordered by the king to speak, began thus: “The Easter which we keep, we saw celebrated by all at Rome, where the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and were buried; we saw the same done by all in Italy and in Gaul, when we travelled through those countries for the purpose of study and prayer. We found it observed in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece, and all the world, wherever the Church of Christ is spread abroad, among divers nations and tongues, at one and the same time; save only among these and their accomplices in obstinacy, I mean the Picts and the Britons, who foolishly, in these two remote islands of the ocean, and only in part even of them, strive to oppose all the rest of the world.” […]

§ 3.26. The disputation being ended, and the assembly broken up, Agilbert returned home. Colmán, perceiving that his doctrine was rejected, and his party despised, took with him those who wished to follow him, to wit, such as would not accept the Catholic Easter and the tonsure in the form of a crown, (for there was no small dispute about that also) and went back into Scotland, to consult with his people what was to be done in this case. Cedd, forsaking the practices of the Gaels, returned to his bishopric, having submitted to the Catholic observance of Easter.

§ 4.26. In the year of our Lord 684, Egfrid, king of the Northumbrians, sending his general, Berct,with an army into Ireland, miserably laid waste that unoffending nation, which had always been most friendly to the English; insomuch that the invading force spared not even the churches or monasteries. But the islanders, while to the utmost of their power they repelled force with force, implored the assistance of the Divine mercy, and with constant imprecations invoked the vengeance of Heaven; and though such as curse cannot inherit the kingdom of God, yet it was believed, that those who were justly cursed on account of their impiety, soon suffered the penalty of their guilt at the avenging hand of God. For the very next year, when that same king had rashly led his army to ravage the province of the Picts, greatly against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been lately ordained bishop, the enemy made a feigned retreat, and the king was drawn into a narrow pass among remote mountains, and slain, with the greater part of the forces he had led there, on the 20th of May, in the fortieth year of his age, and the fifteenth of his reign. His friends, as has been said, advised him not to engage in this war; but since he had the year before refused to listen to the most reverend father, Egbert, advising him not to attack the Scots, who were doing him no harm, it was laid upon him as a punishment for his sin, that he should now not listen to those who would have prevented his death.

From that time the hopes and strength of the Anglian kingdom began to ebb and fall away for the Picts recovered their own lands, which had been held by the English, and so did also the Scots that were in Britain; and some of the Britons regained their liberty, which they have now enjoyed for about forty-six years. Among the many English that then either fell by the sword, or were made slaves, or escaped by flight out of the country of the Picts, the most reverend man of God, Trumwine, who had been made bishop over them, withdrew with his people that were in the monastery of Abercorn, in the country of the English, but close by the sea inlet which is the boundary between the lands of the English and the Picts.