Bede (673–735) was a Catholic monk in England; he is known as the Father of English History and was one of the most learned men in Europe at the time. Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral contains an inscription giving him the title “Venerable,” meaning that some officials in the Roman Catholic Church had found his person and life to be worthy of veneration. Bede was made a saint and declared a doctor of the church in 1899.
Bede was born in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of North Umbria in the area that is now Durham, England. He entered a monastery as an oblate when he was seven years old. Soon after, the monastic community relocated to Jarrow, a few miles north near the River Tyne, and there Bede remained for the rest of his life. In relative isolation, Bede studied Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and the Scriptures. After receiving ordination, he taught at the monastery.
In addition to Bede’s scholarly work on how the date of Easter should be calculated, he is best known as a historian. He wrote careful biographies of figures in the English church. His greatest work was Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In this work of history, he collected and transcribed many documents that are now lost, so his history is the only extant record of them. Without Bede’s history, we would know very little about early church history in Britain, including the history of Celtic Christianity and the Synod of Whitby. Bede was also the first historian to use the phrase Anno Domini (AD) before dates.
Originally written in Latin, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is readily available today in English, both in print and online. The chapter headings below give an indication of the detail with which he wrote and of some of the documents that he preserved. (There are five books in all, but Book I will serve as an apt example. The dates in brackets have been added by a later editor.)
I. Of the situation of Britain and Ireland, and of their ancient inhabitants
II. Caius Julius Caesar, the first Roman that came into Britain
III. Claudius, the second of the Romans who came into Britain, brought the Islands Orcades into subjection to the Roman Empire; and Vespian, sent by him, reduced the Isle of Wight under their dominion
IV. Lucius, king of Britain, writing to Pope Eleutherus, desires to be made a Christian
V. How the Emperor Severus divided that part of Britain, which he subdued, from the rest by a rampart
VI. The reign of Diocletian, and how he persecuted the Christians
VII. The passion of St. Alban and his companions, who at that time shed their blood for our Lord [AD 305]
VIII. The persecution ceasing, the church in Britain enjoys peace till the time of the Arian heresy [AD 307–¬337]
IX. How during the reign of Gratian, Maximus, being created emperor in Britain, returned into Gaul with a mighty army [AD 383]
X. How, in the reign of Arcadius, Pelagius, a Briton, insolently impugned the grace of God
XI. How, during the reign of Honorus, Gratian and Constantine were created tyrants in Britain; and soon after the former was slain in Britain, and the latter in Gaul
XII. The Britons, being ravaged by the Scots and Picts, sought succor from the Romans, who, coming a second time, built a wall across the island; but the Britons being again invaded by the aforesaid enemies, were reduced to greater distress than before
XIII. In the reign of Theodosius the younger, Palladius was sent to the Scots that believed in Christ; the Bretons begging assistance of Ætius, the consul, could not obtain it [AD 446]
XIV. The Britons, compelled by famine, drove the barbarians out of their territories; soon after there ensued plenty of corn, luxury, plague, and the subversion of the nation [AD 426-–447]
XV. The Angles, being invited into Britain, at first obliged the enemy to retire to a distance; but not long after, joining in league with them, turned their weapons upon their confederates [AD 450–456]
XVI. The Bretons obtained their first victory over the Angles, under the command of Ambrosius, a Roman
XVII. How Germanicus the bishop, sailing into Britain with Lupus, first quelled the tempest of the sea, and afterward that of the Pelagians, by divine power [AD 429]
XVIII. The same holy man gave sight to the blind daughter of a tribune, and then coming to St. Alban’s, there received some of his relics, and left others of the blessed apostles, and other martyrs
XIX. How the same holy man, being detained there by an indisposition, by his prayers quenched a fire that had broken out among the houses, and was himself cured of a distemper by a vision [AD 429]
XX. How the same bishops procured the Britons assistance from Heaven in a battle, and then returned home [AD 429] XXI. The Pelagian heresy again reviving, Germanus, returning into Britain with Severus, first healed a lame youth, then having condemned or converted the heretics, they restored spiritual health to the people of God [AD 447]
XXII. The Britons, being for a time delivered from foreign invasions, wasted themselves by civil wars, and then gave themselves up to more heinous crimes
XXIII. How Pope Gregory sent Augustine, with other monks, to preach to the English nation, and encouraged them by a letter of exhortation, not to cease from their labour [AD 596]
XXIV. How he wrote to the Bishop of Arles to entertain them [AD 596]
XXV. Augustine, coming into Britain, first preached in the Isle of Thanet to King Ethelbert, and having obtained license, entered the kingdom of Kent, in order to preach therein [AD 597]
XXVI. St. Augustine in Kent followed the doctrine and manner of living of the primitive church, and settled his episcopal see in the royal city [AD 597]
XXVII. St. Augustine, being made bishop, sends to acquaint Pope Gregory with what has been done, and receives his answer to the doubts he had proposed to him [AD 597]
XXVIII. Pope Gregory writes to the Bishop of Arles to assist Augustine in the work of God [AD 601]
XXIX. The same Pope sends Augustine the pall, an epistle, and several ministers of the Word [AD 601]
XXX. A copy of the letter which Pope Gregory sent to the Abbot Mellitus, then going into Britain [AD 601]
XXXI. Pope Gregory, by letter, exhorts Augustine not to glory in his miracles [AD 601]
XXXII. Pope Gregory sends letters and presents to King Ethelbert
XXXIII. Augustine repairs the church of our Saviour, and builds the monastery of St. Peter the Apostle; Peter the first abbot of the same [AD 602]
XXXIV. Ethelfrid, king of the Northumbrians, having vanquished the nations of the Scots, expels them from the territories of the English [AD 603]
Bede’s history of the English church will always be his most famous work, and historians today are indebted to Bede for the accuracy and painstaking scholarship he put into that work. But the vast majority of what Bede wrote had to do with biblical interpretation. He wrote commentaries on many books of the Bible, and he even translated the Gospel of John from Latin into English.
Less than a century after his death, Bede was given the appellation “Venerable.” In modern usage, venerable means “accorded a great deal of respect, especially because of age, wisdom, or character,” which would seem to fit Bede’s learning and accomplishments. However, in the Catholic Church, the term refers to one who has attained a certain degree of sanctification but has not been fully canonized as a saint.