St. Bede the Venerable
Confessor and Father of the Church
The celebrated Dom. Mabillon, mentioning Bede as a most illustrious instance of learning in the monastic institute, says: “Who ever applied himself to the study of every branch of literature, and also to the teaching of others, more than Bede? yet who was more closely united to heaven by the exercises of piety and religion? To see him pray, says an ancient writer, one would have thought he left himself no time to study; and when we look at his books we admire he could have found time to do any thing else but write.” Camden calls him “the singular and shining light,” and Leland, “the chiefest and brightest ornament of the English nation, most worthy, if any one ever was, of immortal fame.” William of Malmesbury tells us that it is easier to admire him in thought than to do him justice in expression.
Venerable Bede, called by the ancients Bedan (who is not to be confounded with a monk of Lindisfarne of the same name, but older), was born in 673, as Mabillon demonstrates from his own writings, in a village which, soon after his birth, became part of the estate of the new Monastery of Jarrow, but was gained upon by the sea before the time of Simeon of Durham. St. Bennet Biscop founded the Abbey of St. Peter’s, at Weremouth, near the mouth of the Were, in 674, and that of St. Paul’s, at Girvum, now Jarrow, in 680, on the banks of the River Tyne, below the Caprae caput, still called Goat’s-head, or Gateshead, opposite to Newcastle. Such a harmony subsisted between the two houses, that they were often governed by the same abbot, and called the same monastery of SS. Peter and Paul. St. Bennet was a man of extraordinary learning and piety, and enriched these monasteries with a large and curious library which he had collected at Rome and in other foreign parts. To his care Bede was committed at seven years of age, but was afterwards removed to Jarrow, where he prosecuted his studies under the direction of the Abbot Ceolfrid, who had been St. Bennet’s fellow-traveller. Among other able masters, under whom he made great progress, he names Trumbert, a monk of Jarrow, who had formerly been a disciple of St. Chad, bishop, first of York, afterwards of Litchfield, who had established a great school in his Monastery of Lestingan, in Yorkshire. The church music or chant Bede learned of John, formerly Precentor of St. Peter’s on the Vatican, and Abbot of St. Martin’s, at Rome, whom Pope Agatho had sent over to England with St. Bennet Biscop.
The Greek language our saint must have learned of Theodorus, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Abbot Adrian, by whose instruction that language became as familiar to several of their English scholars as their native tongue; for an instance of which Bede mentions Tobias, Bishop of Rochester. How great a master Bede was of that language appears from his Ars Metrica and other works. His poem on St. Cuthbert and other performances show him to have been a good poet for the age wherein he lived. But his comments on the holy scriptures and his sermons prove that the meditation on the word of God and the writings of the holy fathers chiefly engrossed his time and attention.
His great piety and endowments supplying the defect of age, by the order of his abbot, Ceolfrid, he was ordained deacon in 691, at nineteen years of age, by St. John of Beverley, who was at that time Bishop of Hexham, in which diocess Jarrow was situated, there being then no episcopal see at Durham. From this time he continued his studies, till, at thirty years of age, in 702, he was ordained priest by the same St. John who was made Bishop of Hexham in 685, and Bishop of York in 704. In King Alfred’s version Bede is styled Mass Priest, because it was his employment to sing every day the conventual mass. He tells us that the holy abbot and founder, St. Bennet Biscop, like the rest of the brethren, used to winnow the corn and thresh it, to give milk to the lambs and calves, and to work in the bakehouse, garden, and kitchen. Bede must have sometimes had a share in such employments, and he was always cheerful, obedient, and indefatigable. But his studies and writings, with assiduous meditation and prayer, must have chiefly employed him. He often copied books.
From the time that he was promoted to priestly orders he began to compose books; and he had a great school, in which he brought up many eminent and holy scholars, and instructed his fellow monks, who amounted to the number of six hundred. Bede tells us of himself that he applied himself wholly to the meditation of the holy scriptures, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, it was his delight to be always employed either in learning, teaching, or writing. He says, that from the time of his being made priest to the fifty-ninth year of his age, when he wrote this, he had compiled several books for his own use, and that of others, gathering them out of the works of the venerable fathers, or adding new comments, according to their sense and interpretation. He gives a list of forty-five different works which he had then composed, of which thirty–and many of those are divided into several books–consist of comments on the Old and New Testaments. He wrote several other works after this. All the sciences and every branch of literature were handled by him; natural philosophy, the philosophical principles of Aristotle, astronomy, arithmetic, the calendar, grammar, ecclesiastical history, and the lives of the saints, though works of piety make up the bulk of his writings. The ornaments of rhetoric were not his study; but perspicuity (the first qualification in writing), an unaffected honesty and simplicity, and an affecting spirit of sincere piety and goodness of heart and charity, run through all his compositions, and cannot fail to please. An honest candour and love of truth are so visibly the characteristics of his historical works, that if some austere critics have suspected him sometimes of credulity, no man ever called in question his sincerity. If on the scriptures he often abridged or reduced to a methodical order the comments of St. Austin, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Basil, and other fathers, this he did, not out of sloth or for want of genius (as some later writers have done), but that he might stick closer to tradition in interpreting the sacred oracles; and in what he found not done by other eminent fathers, he still followed their rules, lest he should in the least tittle deviate from tradition. In the original comments which he wrote, he seems, in the opinion of good judges, not inferior in solidity and judgment to his ablest masters among the fathers.
John Bale, the apostate Carmelite friar, and the sworn enemy of the monks and fathers, who was Bishop of Ossory under Edward VI., and died Canon of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth, could not refuse Bede the highest encomiums, and affirms, that he certainly surpassed Gregory the Great in eloquence and copiousness of style, and that there is scarce any thing in all antiquity worthy to be read which is not found in Bede. Dr. John Pitts advances, that Europe scarce ever produced a greater scholar; and that even whilst he was living his writings were of so great authority, that a council ordered them to be publicly read in the churches. Folchard, a very learned monk of Christchurch, in Canterbury, and Abbot of Thorney, in the days of St. Edward the Confessor, and the Conqueror, originally from Sithiu, in his life of St. John of Beverley, quoted by Leland, says of Bede, “It is amazing how this great man became so perfect in all the branches of those sciences to which he applied himself, whereby he conquered all difficulties, and brought those of his own nation to form right notions; so that from the rude and boorish manners of their ancestors they began to be exceedingly civilised and polite through their desire of learning, of which he not only taught them the grounds whilst living, but in his works left them a kind of Encyclopaedia (or universal library) for the instruction of youth after his decease.” Fuller writes of him: “He expounded almost all the Bible, translated the Psalms and New Testament into English, and lived a comment on those words of the apostle, ‘shining as a light in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.'” “What we most admire in Bede is the piety with which he pursued and sanctified his studies, and the use which he made of them. What he says of St. Chad was a transcript of his own life, that he studied the holy scriptures so as to meditate assiduously on the mysteries of faith and the maxims and rules of piety, treasuring up in his heart the most perfect sentiments of divine love, humility, and all virtues, and diligently copying them in his whole conduct. Hence his life was a model of devotion, obedience, humility, simplicity, charity, and penance.
He declined the abbatial dignity which was pressed upon him. Malmesbury gives us a letter of Pope Sergius, by which, with many honourable expressions, he was invited to Rome, that pope desiring to see and consult him in certain matters of the greatest importance. This must have happened about the time that he was ordained priest. Bede, out of modesty, suppressed this circumstance. What hindered his journey thither we know not; but we have his word for it that he lived from his childhood in his monastery without travelling abroad–that is, without taking any considerable journey. His reputation drew to him many visits from all the greatest men in Britain, particularly from the pious King Ceolwulph. Ecgbright, or Egberct, brother to Eadbyrht, King of Northumberland, who was consecrated Archbishop of York in 734, had been a scholar of Bede. At his pressing invitation, our saint went to York, and taught there some months, but excused himself from leaving his monastery the following year. This school, set up at York, became very flourishing, and Alcuin, one of its greatest ornaments, is said to have been himself a scholar of Bede.
Our saint died soon after Ecgbright’s accession to the see of York, but lived long enough to write him a letter upon his advancement. Herein he puts him in mind that it was a most essential part of his duty to place every where able and learned priests, to labour strenuously himself in feeding his flock, in correcting all vice, and endeavouring to convert all sinners, and to take care that every one knew the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, and was thoroughly instructed in the articles of our holy religion. He gives it as an important piece of advice, that all among the laity whose lives are pure (or free from vice) communicate every Sunday, and on the festivals of the apostles and martyrs, as he says Ecgbright had seen practised at Rome; but Bede requires that married persons prepare themselves by continence to receive the holy communion, which was formerly a precept repeated in several councils; but is now by disuse looked upon as no more than a counsel, but a counsel which St. Charles Borromeo recommends to be inculcated.
Bede died within a compass of a year after he wrote this letter. Cuthbert, called also Antony, one of his scholars, to whom the saint dedicated his book, De Arte Meirica, wrote to one Cuthwin, a monk, who had formerly been his schoolfellow under Bede, an account of the death of their dear master. This Cuthbert was afterwards Abbot of Jarrow, in which dignity he succeeded Huethbert, called also Eusebius, another scholar of Bede.
The letter of Cuthbert deserves to have a place in the life of Bede, though it is here something abridged. “To his most beloved in Christ, and fellow-reader, Cuthwin, his schoolfellow Cuthbert wishes eternal salvation in our Lord. Your small present was very acceptable, and your letter gave me much satisfaction, wherein I found what I greatly desired, that masses and prayers are said by you for Bede, the beloved of God, our late father and master. For the love I bear him, I send you in few words an account of the manner in which he departed this world, understanding it is what you desire. He began to be much troubled with a shortness of breath about two weeks before Easter, yet without pain: thus he lived cheerful and rejoicing, giving thanks to Almighty God every day and night–nay, every hour till the day of our Lord’s Ascension, which was the 26th of May. He daily read lessons to us his scholars; the rest of the day he spent in singing psalms; he also passed all the night awake in joy and thanksgiving, only when he was interrupted by a short slumber; but awaking, he repeated his accustomed exercises, and ceased not to give thanks to God, with his hands expanded. O truly happy man! He sung that sentence of St. Paul: ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,’ and much more out of holy writ. Being well skilled in English verses, he recited some things in our tongue. He said in English, ‘No man is too wise to consider what good or evil he has done before the necessary departure–that is, to examine the state of his soul sufficiently before his death. He also sung anthems, according to his and our custom, one of which is, ‘O glorious King, Lord of Hosts, who, triumphing this day, didst ascend above all the heavens, leave us not orphans; but send down the Fathers Spirit of truth upon us: Alleluia.’ When he came to that word, ‘leave us not,’ he burst into tears, and wept much; and an hour after he began to repeat the same anthem he had commenced, and we, hearing it, grieved with him.
By turns we read, and by turns we wept–nay, we always wept even when we read. In such joy we passed the fifth day, and he rejoiced much, and gave God thanks because he deserved to be so infirm. He often repeated, that ‘God scourgeth every son whom He receiveth,’ and much more out of the scriptures; also that sentence of St. Ambrose, ‘I have not lived so as to be ashamed to live among you, nor am I afraid to die, because we have a good God.’ During these days, besides the daily lessons he gave, and the singing of psalms, he composed two works for the benefit of the church; the one was a translation of St. John’s gospel into English, as far as those words, ‘But what are these among so many?’ the other, some collections out of St. Isidore’s book of notes; for he said, ‘I will not have my scholars read a falsehood after my death, and labour without advantage.’
On Tuesday before the Ascension he began to be much worse in his breathing, and a small swelling appeared in his feet; but he passed all that day pleasantly, and dictated in school, saying now and then, ‘Go on quickly; I know not how long I shall hold out, and whether my Maker will soon take me away.’ To us he seemed very well to know the time of his departure. He spent the night awake in thanksgiving. On Wednesday morning he ordered us to write speedily what he had begun. After this, we made the procession, according to the custom of that day, walking with the relics of the Saints till the third hour (or nine o’clock in the morning); then one of us said to him, ‘Most dear master, there is still one chapter wanting. Do you think it troublesome to be asked any more questions?’ He answered, ‘It is no trouble. Take your pen, and write fast.’ He did so. But at the ninth hour (three in the afternoon) he said to me, ‘ Run quickly; and bring all the priests of the monastery to me.’ When they came he distributed to them some peppercorns, little cloths or handkerchiefs, and incense, which he had in a little box, entreating every one that they would carefully celebrate masses and say prayers for him, which they readily promised to do. They all wept at his telling them they should no more see his face in this world, but rejoiced to hear him say, ‘It is now time for me to return to him who made me, and gave me a being when I was nothing. I have lived a long time; my most merciful Judge most graciously foresaw and ordered the course of my life for me. The time of my dissolution draws near. I desire to be dissolved, and to be with Christ. Yes! my soul desires to see Christ, my king, in his beauty.’ Many other things he spoke to our edification, and spent the rest of the day in joy till the evening.
The abovementioned young scholar, whose name was Wilberth, said to him, ‘Dear master, there is still one sentence that is not written.’ He answered, ‘Write quickly.’ The young man said, ‘It is now done.’ He replied, ‘You have well said; it is at an end: all is finished. Hold my head that I may have the pleasure to sit, looking towards my little oratory where I used to pray; that whilst I am sitting I may call upon my heavenly Father, and on the pavement of his little place sing, ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.'” Thus he prayed on the floor, and when he had named the Holy Ghost, he breathed out his soul. All declared that they had never see any one die with such great devotion and tranquillity; for so long as his soul was in his body, he never ceased, with his hands expanded, to give thanks and praise to God, repeating, ‘Glory be to the Father,’ &c, with other spiritual acts. I have many other things I could relate of him; and I have a thought of writing more amply on this subject,” &c.
Ranulph Higden relates the manner of his holy departure: “After teaching all day, it was his custom to watch much in the nights. Finding by the swelling of his feet that death approached, he received extreme unction, and then the Viaticum on the Tuesday before the Ascension of the Lord, and gave the kiss of peace to all his brethren, imploring their pious remembrance after his death. On the feast of the Ascension, lying on sackcloth spread on the floor, he invited the grace of the Holy Ghost: and continued in praise and thanksgiving, in which he breathed forth his holy soul.” St. Bede died in the year 735, of his age sixty-two, on Wednesday evening, the 26th of May, after the first vespers of Our Lord’s Ascension; whence many authors say he died on the feast of the Ascension; for our Saxon ancestors reckoned festivals from first vespers. Thus from repeating the divine praises here in the most pure and profound sentiments of compunction, humility, zeal, and love, he passed, as it were, without intermission, to sing eternally the same praises with affections at once infinitely dilated with inexpressible holy joy, ardour, and love, in the glorious choirs of the blessed, and in the beatific contemplation of God, whom he praised and loved.
His feast was kept in England in some places on the 26th of May, with a commemoration only in the office of St. Austin; in others it was deferred to the 27th, on which it occurs in the Roman Martyrology. In the constitution of John Alcock, Bishop of Ely, for the festivals of his diocess, printed in 1498, by Pynson, Bede’s feast is ordered to be kept with an office on the 13th of March, the day of his death being taken up by the office of St. Austin. Certain congregations of the Benedictin Order have long kept his office on the 29th of October, perhaps on account of some translation. On the same day it is celebrated at present in England, and, by a special privilege, the office is said by all English priests who live in foreign countries, by an indult or grant of Pope Benedict XIV., given in 1754; which grant–at least, with regard to clergymen or regulars who were in England–was interpreted at Rome to imply a precept.
Alcuin having extolled the learning and virtues of this holy doctor, says that his sanctity was attested by the voice of heaven after his death; for a sick man was freed from a fever upon the spot by touching his relics. St.Lullus, Archbishop of Mentz, wrote to his scholar Cuthbert, then Abbot of Veremouth and Jarrow, to beg a copy of Bede’s works, and sent him a cloak for his own use, and a silk vest to cover the shrine of this great servant of God. At that time a vest was a usual present even to kings. Bede was buried in St. Paul’s Church, in Jarrow, where a porch on the north side bore his name. In 1020 his sacred remains were conveyed to Durham, and laid in a bag and wooden trunk in the shrine of St. Cuthbert, as Simeon of Durham relates. In 1155 they were taken up by Hugh, Bishop of Durham, and inclosed in a rich shrine of curious workmanship, adorned with gold, silver, and jewels, as we learn from the appendix to the History of Durham, compiled by Simeon of Durham, who wrote from the memoirs of Turgot, the learned Prior of Durham in the reign of Edward the Confessor, made Archbishop of St. Andrew’s in the reign of the Conqueror, whose declared enemy he was. Hence Turgot’s history has been by some ascribed to him.
At the change of religion in England the shrines of the saints were plundered by the royal commissioners, but these were anticipated by private robbers in many places. At the same time the relics were scattered or publicly burnt This latter part of the commission, which was rigorously executed near the court and in the southern provinces, was not much regarded in the more remote northern counties, where they were usually interred in the churches where their shrines were kept, as we see in St. Cuthbert’s, St. John of Beverley’s, &c. Speed, in his Theatre of Britain, says his marble monument subsisted, when he wrote, in Our Lady’s Chapel, in the western part of the Church of Durham. Sir George Wheeler, who died Prebendary of Durham, and was a great admirer of Bede, according to his will, is buried within the cathedral, near the foot of Bede’s tomb, and has an inscription, whereas none is now found over St. Bede’s. Mr. Smith has given a type of the remains which are now standing, and another of the altar of St. Cuthbert and St. Bede, delineated from the paintings of the eastern window. Nevertheless the monks of Glastenbury laid claim to St. Bede’s relics, or a portion of them. Boniface calls St. Bede the lamp of tho English church; St. Lullus, Alcuin, and other writers from the time of his death, exceedingly extol his learning and sanctity. By Lanfranc and many others he is styled the doctor and father of the English. Trithemius imagined that the title of ” Venerable” was conferred on him in his lifetime. But Mabillon shows, from the silence of all former writers, that it was begun to be given him, out of a peculiar respect, only in the ninth age, when it was used by Amalarius, Jonas, Usuard, &c. He was styled Saint, and placed in foreign Martyrologies long before that time, by Hincmar, Notker, in the Litany of St. Gall’s &c. Rabanus Maurus mentions an altar at Fulde, of which Bede was titular saint. The second council of Aix la Chapelle, in 836, calls him, “The venerable, and, in the modern times, admirable doctor,” &c.
It was the happiness of Venerable Bede, that receiving his education under the direction of saints, by their example, spirit, and instructions, he learned from his infancy the maxims and practice of perfect sanctity. St. Chrysostom wished that parents would breed up their children in monasteries till they are to be produced in the world. Several Roman senators and other noblemen committed the education of their sons to St. Bennet. The most austere and regular monasteries have been chosen by virtuous parents of the first rank, whose principal desire was that their children should be brought up among saints, where their passions would be in no danger of being flattered, and where their minds would be filled with Christian verities and Christ’s spirit, and their hearts formed to piety, grounded in the love, and exercised in habits of all virtues. This is the first and essential advantage which parents are bound to procure their children, upon which their temporal and eternal happiness depends, and all other advantages and qualifications are to be founded. Let them not be neglected, but let this be secured in the first place, and at all rates.
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Principal Saints, by Rev. Alban Butler (Metropolitan Press: Baltimore, 1845), Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882)