Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England
Who are we and where do we come from?
A great deal of people reading this may answer, “English…from England.”
Some of you may sing about England’s green and pleasant lands in church, chant at football matches, wave flags at the Last night of the Proms. You may get your face painted with the St George Cross, or let your children have their faces painted, wear England rugby or football tops when abroad on holiday.
When pressed further you may dig deeper and remember those history lessons about invading hordes of Angles and Saxons, how they took their opportunity when the Romans left us without strong leadership and defence, how they pushed the British, who’d returned to their heathen ways, West into Wales and Cornwall. We’re descended from Germanic tribes you might say, who then realised the error of their ways and converted to Christianity to bring us out of those Dark Ages and into a more civilised and constructive society.
How do we know this? Through the writings of St Gildas and St Bede for a start. Gildas, a 6th century British clerk, lambasted his fellow Britons for their sins. Bede, an Angle who has been described as the father of British history, wrote many books, though he is most famous for An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731. Here’s how he describes the invasion of Britain:
“For, as the just Judge ordained, these heathen conquerors devastated the surrounding cities and countryside, extended the conflagration from the eastern to the western shores without opposition and established a stranglehold over nearly all the doomed island. Public and private buildings were razed; priests were slain at the altar; bishops and people alike, regardless of rank, were destroyed with fire and sword, and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests, and crags, ever on the alert for danger.”
Here’s another quote, this time from Francis Pryor, an English archaeologist and historian.
“History books can be dangerous, especially when written brilliantly.”
Pryor was referring to Bede and in particular, his book mentioned above. Like many writers of history, Bede had an agenda he felt necessary to push. The origins of the British church lay in 6th century Rome, according to Bede. Gregory the Great spotted some beautiful fair haired slaves for sale. When asked where they came from and he was told Angles from Britain, he said they looked more like angels and sent Augustine in 597 to convert these heathens to Christianity.
Bede portrayed Britain as populated by Heathen unbelievers – Anglo Saxons. In truth, according to Francis Pryor and an increasing amount of modern historians and academics, Christianity was flourishing by the end of the Roman period and didn’t disappear when the Romans left around 410 to cope with increasing chaos closer to home. Bishops were in place and there was beautiful prose and verse, better than the Roman missionaries had ever seen. They were dumbfounded and pretended it didn’t exist.
Bede, according to Pryor, invented a new race of people, the Anglo Saxons, to gloss over this. His agenda was that these chosen people, like the children of Israel, inherited a chosen land, England, and were transformed to Christianity. The British beforehand were unworthy because they’d returned to their heathen ways. And so they deserved this invasion that God brought down upon them.
And so Bede, who hardly ever ventured out of the monastery in Tyneside where he was brought up since the age of seven, created a sense of the English and gave us an origin myth. He invented the notion of the English people; only later was it ever a single nation, and in his time it was still a land of warring kingdoms. Bede, in his writing and influence, invented the groundwork for English identity.
And St Patrick? The Romano-Briton who was sold into slavery and taken to Ireland, then escaped and went back to convert the rural population into Celtic Christianity? Well Bede, who was personally involved in the Romanisation of English churches during a time of dispute between the Roman Catholic and Celtic faith, conveniently forgot about this. Chip Schroeder, in his 2011 paper Bede’s Perspective and Purpose in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, writes:
“Bede’s effort to support the unification of the English church is not only shown by what is written, but also by what is left unwritten. Bede makes no mention in the Ecclesiastical History of Patrick, the prominent fifth-century Irish saint, who had become legendary throughout Britain by the seventh century. As shown by his portrayal of Aidan, Bede was willing to give due credit to Celtic heroes. While it is possible that Bede excluded St. Patrick because Bede was writing about England rather than about Ireland, a more likely explanation is that the omission was a deliberate decision by Bede to avoid praising Ireland’s most venerable saint. Bede also excludes mention of the persistence of Celtic Christianity in north Ireland, Wales, Devon, and Cornwall, which did not conform until the tenth century, as it would have weakened Bede’s theme of the Romanization of the English church.”
And so here we have Bede, a brilliant writer who was still writing on his deathbed, influential throughout Europe centuries after his death, a man who created over sixty books. And he’s now in danger of being exposed as a fraud. Archaeologists are digging up evidence that states his Anglo-Saxon invasion never happened; rather that Angles and Saxons did migrate but nowhere near as many as Bede and others since him have suggested. Instead, the native British adopted Anglo-Saxon culture in a rapidly changing world and this was mistakenly seen as evidence for the invasion and population replacement theory. Perhaps Angles and Saxons did become rulers of great kingdoms such as Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex, but the vast majority of the population were still native Britons.
And as for those Saxon Shore Forts, dotted along the east coast of England, constructed to repel the increasingly savage attacks from Angles, Saxons and Jutes; some experts are now saying they were built to keep goods within, not as defensive forts. They were used for trade, not warfare.
Perhaps then, it’s best to remember Bede for everything he wrote, rather than just one of his books, even though An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, despite being biased towards his own agenda, is written beautifully and gives the best flavour we have of our land at such a crucial time.
I went along to Bede’s World in Jarrow to find out more about the man, his life and work. Bede was “a great thinker and a prolific writer on many subjects, including poetry, astronomy, music, maths and geography. And he also worked out the calculations on which we still, more than 1300 years later, base the date for Easter each year.”
As a skilled linguist and translator, his work with the Latin and Greek writings of the early Church Fathers contributed significantly to English Christianity, making the writings much more accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons. He also contributed heavily towards the influential cult of St Cuthbert by writing a verse and a prose life of the saint who spent much of his time converting the people of Northumbria.
I wandered around the Anglo-Saxon farm, checked out the animals, read about how many uses they had for them. Two geese came honking towards me, necks straight out and beaks wide open. Bede would have written using one of their feathers as a quill, after it had been plucked and eaten. Perhaps he stayed up late, using the light of a candle made from its fat.
I read about wolves and bears roaming the British countryside, took refuge in the sunken floor of a grubenhauser, a small house with oak walls, ash rafters woven with hazel and thatched with heather. And then I moved into the large hall, a family home of someone important, who would have slept inside with his wife and children, slaves and servants further back from the fire that would have burned almost continuously. Guests would have been received into this hall, business transactions discussed, entertainment provided. There would have been feasting, music, games, riddles and storytelling around the fire.
Back at the museum, I met Pearl Saddington, Bede’s World’s deputy director.
“Some people think this place is just about religion,” she said. “But it isn’t. It’s about religion and so much more.”
She spoke with passion and knowledge about the time of Bede, about how, right where we were sat, one of the world’s greatest libraries was built. She talked about the difference between Anglo-Saxon monasteries and Norman cathedrals, how they used light and stained glass windows to produce dramatic effects. She gave me tips on further reading and talked about how important the rivers and seas were, how people would turn up at Jarrow monastery from all over world, how Benedict Biscop, the founder of Monkwearmouth – Jarrow monasteries, set sail from here on his trips to Rome and came back with books, saintly relics, stonemasons, glaziers and a grant from Pope Agatho granting privileges.
The monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow were destroyed by Vikings about 860. But I still had time to visit the ruins of St Paul’s Monastery right next door to Bede’s World, partly built into the present-day church of St Paul, which stands on the site. One wall of the church contains the oldest stained-glass window in the world, dating from about AD 600.
And then I was leaving, driving under the Tyne River rather than sailing along it, with Pearl’s wise words in my ears. “Bede was a genius. He may have been biased but how many historians aren’t? The thing is…it happened here, right under our feet. This is where he wrote and worked things out. This is where history was made.”
Who are we and where do we come from?
The more I look into it, the more confusing it all seems. I’m definitely English, whatever that means, and I’m definitely British too. Perhaps I’m more one than the other but I’ll probably never know. And since Bede’s day we’ve had so many other people coming to these shores and eventually calling themselves English or British , from the Vikings and Normans to more recent migration. We’ve flourished because we’ve adapted to so many different situations, so many different people.
As Robin Cook, the late labour MP, once said:
“What makes Britain great is not purity but diversity”