“I, Bede, the servant of Christ, and priest of the monastery of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, which is at Wearmouth, have, by God’s assistance, arranged these materials for the history of Britain. I was born within the possessions of this monastery, and at seven years of age, was committed, by the care of my relations, to the most reverend abbot Benedict, to be educated, and, after, to Ceolfrid; passing the remainder of my life from that period in residence at the said monastery, I have given up my whole attention to the study of the Scriptures, and amid the observance of my regular discipline and my daily duty of singing in the church, have ever delighted to learn, to teach, or to write. In the nineteenth year of my life, I took deacon’s, in the thirtieth, priest’s orders; both, at the instance of abbot Ceolfrid, by the ministry of the most reverend bishop John: from which time of receiving the priesthood till the fiftyninth year of my age, I have been employed for the benefit of myself or of my friends, in making these extracts from the works of the venerable fathers, or in making additions, according to the form of their sense or interpretation.”
Then enumerating thirty-six volumes which he published in seventy-eight books, he proceeds,
“And I pray most earnestly, merciful Jesus, that thou wouldst grant me, to whom thou hast already given the knowledge of thyself, finally to come to thee, the fountain of all wisdom, and to appear for ever in thy presence. Moreover I humbly entreat all persons, whether readers or hearers, whom this history of our nation shall reach, that they be mindful to intercede with the divine clemency for my infirmities both of mind and of body, and that, in their several provinces, they make me this grateful return; that I, who have diligently laboured to record, of every province, or of more exalted places, what appeared worthy of preservation or agreeable to the inhabitants, may receive, from all, the benefit of their pious intercessions.”
Here my abilities fail, here my eloquence falls short; ignorant which to praise most, the number of his writings, or the gravity of his style. No doubt he had imbibed a large portion of heavenly wisdom, to be able to compose so many volumes within the limits of so short a life. Nay, they even report, that he went to Rome for the purpose either of personally asserting that his writings were consistent with the doctrines of the church; or of correcting them by apostolical authority, should they be found repugnant thereto. That he went to Rome I do not however affirm for fact: but I have no doubt in declaring that he was invited thither, as the following epistle will certify; as well as that the see of Rome so highly esteemed him as greatly to desire his presence.
“Sergius the bishop, servarit of the servants of God, to Ceolfrid the holy abbot sendeth greeting: —
With what words, and in what manner, can we declare the kindness and unspeakable providence of our God, and return fit thanks for his boundless benefits, who leads us, when placed in darkness, and the shadow of death, to the light of knowledge ?”
“Know, that we received the favour of the offering which your devout piety hath sent by the present bearer, with the same joy and goodwill with which it was transmitted. We assent to the timely and becoming prayers of your laudable anxiety with deepest regard, and entreat of your pious goodness, so acceptable to God, that, since there have occurred certain points of ecclesiastical discipline, not to be promulgated without farther examination, which have made it necessary for us to confer with a person skilled in literature, as becomes an assistant of God’s holy universal mother-church, you would not delay paying ready obedience to this, our admonition; but would send without loss of time, to our lowly presence, at the church of the chief apostles, my lords Peter and Paul, your friends and protectors, that religious servant of God, Bede, the venerable priest of your monastery; whom, God willing, you may expect to return in safety, when the necessary discussion of the abovementioned points shall be, by God’s assistance, solemnly completed: for whatever may be added to the church at large, by his assistance, will, we trust, be profitable to the things committed to your immediate care.”
So extensive was his fame then, that even the majesty of Rome itself solicited his assistance in solving abstruse questions, nor did Gallic conceit ever find in this Angle any thing justly to blame. All the western world yielded the palm to his faith and authority; for indeed he was of sound faith, and of artless, yet pleasing eloquence: in all elucidations of the holy scriptures, discussing those points from which the reader might imbibe the love of God, and of his neighbour, rather than those which might charm by their wit, or polish a rugged style. Moreover the irrefragable truth of that sentence, which the majesty of divine wisdom proclaimed to the world forbids any one to doubt the sanctity of his life, “Wisdom will not enter the malevolent soul, nor dwell in the person of the sinful;” which indeed is said not of earthly wisdom, which is infused promiscuously into the hearts of men, and in which, even the wicked, who continue their crimes until their last day, seem often to excel, according to the divine expression, “The sons of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light;” but it rather describes that wisdom which needs not the assistance of learning, and which dismisses from its cogitations those things which are void of understanding, that is to say, of the understanding of acting and speaking properly. Hence Seneca in his book, “De Causis,” appositely relates that Cato, defining the duty of an orator, said, “An orator is a good man, skilled in speaking.” This ecclesiastical orator, then, used to purify his knowledge, that so he might, as far as possible, unveil the meaning of mystic writings. How indeed could that man be enslaved to vice who gave his whole soul and spirit to elucidate the scriptures ? For, as he confesses in his third book on Samuel, if his expositions were productive of no advantage to his readers, yet were they of considerable importance to himself, inasmuch as, while fully intent upon them, he escaped the vanity and empty imaginations of the times. Purified from vice, therefore, he entered within the inner veil, divulging in pure diction the sentiments of his mind.
But the unspotted sanctity and holy purity of his heart were chiefly conspicuous on the approach of death. Although for seven weeks successively, from the indisposition of his stomach, he nauseated all food, and was troubled with such a difficulty of breathing that his disorder confined him to his bed, yet he by no means abandoned his literary avocations. During whole days he endeavoured to mitigate the pressure of his disorder and to lose the recollection of it by constant lectures to his pupils, and by examining and solving abstruse questions, in addition to his usual task of psalmody. Moreover the gospel of St. John, which from its difficulty exercises the talents of its readers even to the present day, was translated by him into the English language, and accommodated to those who did not understand Latin. Occasionally, also, would he admonish his disciples, saying, “Learn, my children, while I am with you, for I know not how long I shall continue; and although my Maker should very shortly take me hence, and my spirit should return to him that sent and granted it to come into this life, yet have I lived long, God hath rightly appointed my portion of days, I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.”
Often too when the balance was poised between hope and fear, he would remark “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. I have not passed my life among you in such manner as to be ashamed to live, neither do I fear to die, because we have a kind Master;” thus borrowing the expression of St. Ambrose when dying. Happy man ! who could speak with so quiet a conscience as neither being ashamed to live, nor afraid to die; on the one hand not fearing the judgement of men, on the other waiting with composure the hidden will of God. Often, when urged by extremity of pain, he comforted himself with these remarks, “The furnace tries the gold, and the fire of temptation the just man: the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the future glory which shall be revealed in us.” Tears and a difficulty of breathing accompanied his words. At night, when there were none to be instructed or to note down his remarks, he passed the whole season in giving thanks and singing psalms, fulfilling the saying of that very wise man, “that he was never less alone than when alone.” If at any time a short and disturbed sleep stole upon his eye-lids, he immediately shook it off, and showed that his affections were always intent on God, by exclaiming “Lift me up, O Lord, that the proud calumniate me not. Do with thy servant according to thy mercy.” These and similar expressions which his shattered memory suggested, flowed spontaneously from his lips whenever the pain of his agonizing disorder became mitigated. But on the Tuesday before our Lord’s ascension his disease rapidly increased, and there appeared a small swelling in his feet, the sure and certain indication of approaching death. Then the congregation being called together, he was anointed and received the sacrament. Kissing them all, and requesting from each that they would bear him in remembrance, he gave a small present, which he had privately reserved, to some with whom he had been in closer bonds of friendship. On Ascension day, when bis soul, tired of the frail occupation of the body, panted to be free, lying down on a hair-cloth near the oratory, where he used to pray, with sense unimpaired and joyful countenance, he invited the grace of the Holy Spirit, saying, “King of glory. Lord of virtue, who ascended this day triumphant into the heavens, leave us not destitute, but send upon us the promise of the Father, the Spirit of truth.” This prayer ended, he breathed his last, and immediately the senses of all were pervaded by an odour such as neither cinnamon nor balm could give, but coming, as it were, from paradise, and fraught with all the joyous exhalations of spring. At that time he was buried in the same monastery, but at present, report asserts that he lies at Durham with St. Cuthbert. With this man was buried almost all knowledge of history down to our times, inasmuch as there has been no English-man either emulous of his pursuits, or a follower of his graces, who could continue the thread of his discourse, now broken short. Some few indeed, “whom the mild Jesus loved,” though well skilled in literature, have yet observed an ungracious silence throughout their lives; others, scarcely tasting of the stream, have fostered a criminal indolence. Thus to the slothful succeeded others more slothful still, and the warmth of science for a long time decreased throughout the island. The verses of his epitaph will afford sufficient specimen of this indolence; they are indeed contemptible, and unworthy the tomb of so great a man:
“Presbyter hie Beda, requiescit carne sepultus; Dona, Christe, animam in coelis gaudere per sevum: Daque illi sophiae debriari fonte, cui jam Suspiravit ovans, intento semper amore.”
Can this disgrace be extenuated by any excuse, that there was not to be found even in that monastery, where during his lifetime the school of all learning had flourished, a single person who could write his epitaph, except in this mean and paltry style ? But enough of this: I will return to my subject.
Ceolwulf thinking it beneath the dignity of a Christian to be immersed in earthly things, abdicated the throne after a reign of eight years, and assumed the monastic habit at Lindisfarne, in which place how meritoriously he lived, is amply testified by his being honourably interred near St. Cuthbert, and by many miracles vouchsafed from on high.
He had made provision against the state’s being endangered, by placing his cousin, Eadbert, on the throne, which he filled for twenty years with singular moderation and virtue. Eadbert had a brother of the same name, archbishop of York, who, by his own prudence and the power of the king, restored that see to its original state. For, as is well known to any one conversant in the history of the Angles, Paulinus, the first prelate of the church of York, had been forcibly driven away, and died at Rochester, where he left that honourable distinction of the pall which he had received from pope Honorius. After him, many prelates of this august city, satisfied with the name of a simple bishopric, aspired to nothing higher: but when Eadbert was seated on the throne, a man of loftier spirit, and one who thought, that, “as it is over-reaching to require what is not our due, so is it ignoble to neglect our right,” he reclaimed the pall by frequent appeals to the pope. This personage, if I may be allowed the expression, was the depository and receptacle of every liberal art; and founded a most noble library at York. For this I cite Alcuin, as competent witness; who was sent from the kings of England to the emperor Charles the Great, to treat of peace, and being hospitably entertained by him, observes, in a letter to Eanbald, third in succession from Eadbert, “Praise and glory be to God, who hath preserved my days in full prosperity, that I should rejoice in the exaltation of my dearest son, who laboured in my stead, in the church where I had been brought up and educated, and presided over the treasures of wisdom, to which my beloved master, archbishop Egbert, left me heir.” Thus too to Charles Augustus: “Give me the more polished volumes of scholastic learning, such as I used to have in my own country, through the laudable and ardent industry of my master, archbishop Egbert. And, if it please your wisdom, I will send some of our youths, who may obtain thence whatever is necessary, and bring back into France the flowers of Britain; that the garden of Paradise may not be confined to York, but that some of its scions may be transplanted to Tours.”
This is the same Alcuin, who, as I have said, was sent into France to treat of peace, and during his abode with Charles, captivated either by the pleasantness of the country or the kindness of the king, settled there; and being held in high estimation, he taught the king, during his leisure from the cares of state, a thorough knowledge of logic, rhetoric, and astronomy. Alcuin was, of all the Angles, of whom I have read, next to St. Aldhelm and Bede, certainly the most learned, and has given proof of his talents in a variety of compositions. He lies buried in France, at the church of St. Paul, of Cormaric, which monastery Charles the Great built at his suggestion: on which account, even at the present day, the subsistence of four monks is distributed in alms, for the soul of our Alcuin, in that church.
But since I am arrived at that point where the mention of Charles the Great naturally presents itself, I shall subjoin a true statement of the descent of the kings of France, of which antiquity has said much: nor shall I depart widely from my design; because to be unacquainted with their race, I hold as a defect in information; seeing that they are our near neighbours, and to them the Christian world chiefly looks up: and, perhaps, to glance over this compendium may give pleasure to many who have not leisure to wade through voluminous works.
The Franks were so called, by a Greek appellative, from the ferocity of their manners, when, by order of the emperor Valentinian the First, they ejected the Alani, who had retreated to the Maeotian marshes. It is scarcely possible to believe how much this people, few and mean at first, became increased by a ten years’ exemption from taxes: such, before the war, being the condition on which they engaged in it. Thus augmenting wonderfully by the acquisition of freedom, and first seizing the greatest part of Germany, and next the whole of Gaul, they compelled the inhabitants to list under their banners. Hence the Lotharingi and Allamanni, and other nations beyond the Rhine, who are subject to the emperor of Germany, will have themselves more properly to be called Franks; and those whom we suppose Franks, they call by an ancient appellative Galwalge, that is to say, Gauls. To this opinion I assent; knowing that Charles the Great, whom none can deny to have been king of the Franks, always used the same vernacular language with the Franks on the other side of the Rhine. Any one who shall read the life of Charles will readily admit the truth of my assertion. In the year then of the Incarnate Word 425 the Franks were governed by Faramund, their first king. The grandson of Faramund was Meroveus, from whom all the succeeding kings of the Franks, to the time of Pepin, were called Merovingians. In like manner the sons of the kings of the Angles took patronymical appellations from their fathers, For instance; Eadgaring the son of Edgar; Eadmunding the son of Edmund, and the rest in like manner; commonly, however, they are called ethelings. The native language of the Franks, therefore, partakes of that of the Angles, by reason of both nations originating from Germany. The Merovingians reigned successfully and powerfully till the year of our Lord’s incarnation, 687. At that period Pepin, son of Ansegise, was made mayor of the palace among the Franks, on the other side of the Rhine. Seizing opportunities for veiling his ambitious views, he completely subjugated his master Theodoric, the dregs as it were of the Merovingians, and to lessen the obloquy excited by the transaction, he indulged him with the empty title of king, while himself managed every thing, at home and abroad, according to his own pleasure. The genealogy of this Pepin, both to and from him, is thus traced: Ausbert, the senator, on Blithilde, the daughter of Lothaire, the father of Dagobert, begot Arnold: Arnold begot St. Arnulph, bishop of Metz: Arnulph begot Flodulph, Walcthise, AjQSchise: Flodulph begot duke Martin, whom Ebroin slew: Walcthise begot the most holy Wandregesil the abbot: duke Anschise begot Ansegise: Ansegise begot Pepin. The son of Pepin was Carolus Tudites, whom they also call Martel, because he beat down the tyrants who were raising up in every part of France, and nobly defeated the Saracens, at that time infesting Gaul. Following the practice of his father, whilst he was himself satisfied with the title of earl, he kept the kings in a state of pupilage. He left two sons, Pepin and Caroloman. Caroloman, from some unknown cause, relinquishing the world, took his religious vows at Mount Cassin. Pepin was crowned king of the Franks, and patrician of the Romans, in the church of St. Denys, by pope Stephen, the successor of Zachary. For the Constantinopolitan emperors, already much degenerated from their ancient valour, giving no assistance either to Italy or the church of Rome, which had long groaned under the tyranny of the Lombards, this pope bewailed the injuries to which they were exposed from them to the ruler of the Franks; wherefore Pepin passing the Alps, reduced Desiderius, king of the Lombards, to such difficulties, that he restored what he had plundered to the church of Rome, and gave surety by oath that he would not attempt to resume it. Pepin returning to France after some years, died, leaving his surviving children, Charles and Caroloman, his heirs. In two years Caroloman departed this life. Charles obtaining the name of “Great” from his exploits, enlarged the kingdom to twice the limits which it possessed in his father’s time, and being contented for more than thirty years with the simple title of king, abstained from the appellation of emperor, though repeatedly invited to assume it by pope Adrian. But when, after the death of this pontiff, his relations maimed the holy Leo, his successors in the church of St. Peter, so as to cut out his tongue, and put out his eyes, Charles hastily proceeded to Rome to settle the state of the church. Justly punishing these abandoned wretches, he stayed there the whole winter, and restored the pontiff, now speaking plainly and seeing clearly, by the miraculous interposition of God, to his customary power. At that time the Roman people, with the privity of the pontiff, on the day of our Lord’s nativity, unexpectedly hailed him with the title of Augustus; which title, though, from its being unusual, he reluctantly admitted, yet afterwards he defended with proper spirit against the Constantinopolitan emperors, and left it, as hereditary, to his son Louis. His descendants reigned in that country, which is now properly called France, till the time of Hugh, surnamed Capet, from whom is descended the present Louis. From the same stock came the sovereigns of Germany and Italy, till the year of our Lord 912, when Conrad, king of the Teutonians, seized that empire. The grandson of this personage was Otho the Great, equal in every estimable quality to any of the emperors who preceded him. Thus admirable for his valour and goodness, he left the empire hereditary to his posterity; for the present Henry, son-in-law of Henry, king of England, derives his lineage from his blood.
To return to my narrative: Alcuin, though promoted by Charles the Great to the monastery of St. Martin in France, was not unmindful of his countrymen, but exerted himself to retain the emperor in amity with them, and stimulated them to virtue by frequent epistles. I shall here subjoin many of his observations, from which it will appear clearly how soon after the death of Bede the love of learning declined even in his own monastery: and how quickly after the decease of Eadbert the kingdom of the Northumbrians came to ruin, through the prevalence of degenerate manners.
He says thus to the monks of Wearmouth, among whom Bede had both lived and died, obliquely accusing them of having done the very thing which he begs them not to do, “Let the youths be accustomed to attend the praises of our heavenly King, not to dig up the burrows of foxes, or pursue the winding mazes of hares; let them now learn the Holy Scriptures, that, when grown up, they may be able to instruct others. Remember the most noble teacher of our times, Bede, the priest, what thirst for learning he had in his youth, what praise he now has among men, and what a far greater reward of glory with God.” Again, to those of York he says, “The Searcher of my heart is witness that it was not for lust of gold that I came to France or continued there, but for the necessities of the church.” And thus to Offa, king of the Mercians, “I was prepared to come to you with the presents of king Charles and to return to my country, but it seemed more advisable to me, for the peace of my nation, to remain abroad, not knowing what I could have done among those persons, with whom no one can be secure, or able to proceed in any laudable pursuit. Behold every holy place is laid desolate by Pagans, the altars are polluted by perjury, the monasteries dishonoured by adultery, the earth itself stained with the blood of rulers and of princes.” Again, to king Ethelred, third in the sovereignty after Eadbert, “Behold the church of St. Cuthbert is sprinkled with the blood of God’s priests, despoiled of all its ornaments, and the holiest spot in Britain given up to Pagan nations to be plundered; and where, after the departure of St. Paulinus from York, the Christian religion first took its rise in our own nation, there misery and calamity took their rise also. What portends that shower of blood which in the time ot Lent, in the city of York, the capital of the whole kingdom, in the church of St. Peter, the chief of the apostles, we saw tremendously falling on the northern side of the building from the summit of the roof, though the weather was fair ? Must not blood be expected to come upon the land from the northern regions?” Again, to Osbert, prince of the Mercians, “Our kingdom of the Northumbrians has almost perished through internal dissensions and perjury.” So also to Athelard, archbishop of Canterbury, “I speak this on account of the scourge which has lately fallen on that part of our island which has been inhabited by our forefathers for nearly three hundred and forty years. It is recorded in the writings of Gildas, the wisest of the Britons, that those very Britons ruined their country through the avarice and rapine of their princes, the iniquity and injustice of their judges, their bishops’ neglect of preaching, the luxury and abandoned manners of the people. Let us be cautious that such vices become not prevalent in our times, in order that the divine favour may preserve our country to us in that happy prosperity for the future which it has hitherto in its most merciful kindness vouchsafed us.”
It has been made evident, I think, what disgrace and what destruction the neglect of learning and the immoral manners of degenerate men brought upon England ! These remarks obtain this place in my history merely for the purpose of cautioning my readers.
Eadbert, then, rivalling his brother in piety, assumed the monastic habit, and gave place to Oswulph, his son, who being, without any cause on his part, slain by his subjects, was, after a twelve-month’s reign, succeeded by Moll. Moll carried on the government with commendable diligence for eleven years, and then fell a victim to the treachery of Alcred. Alcred in his tenth year was compelled by his countrymen to retire from the government which he had usurped. Ethelred too, the son of Moll, being elected king, was expelled by them at the end of five years. Alfwold was next hailed sovereign; but he also, at the end of eleven years, experienced the perfidy of the inhabitants, for he was cut off by assassination, though guiltless, as his distinguished interment at Hexham and divine miracles sufficiently declare. His nephew, Osred, the son of Alcred, succeeding him, was expelled after the space of a year, and gave place to Ethelred, who was also called Ethelbert. He was the son of Moll, also called Ethelwald, and, obtaining the kingdom after twelve years of exile, held it during four, at the end of which time, unable to escape the fate of his predecessors, he was cruelly murdered. At this, many of the bishops and nobles greatly shocked, fled from the country. Some indeed affirm that he was punished deservedly, because he had assented to the unjust murder of Osred, whereas he had it in his power to quit the sovereignty and restore him to his throne. Of the beginning of this reign Alcuin thus speaks: “Blessed be God, the only worker of miracles, Ethelred, the son of Ethelwald, went lately from the dungeon to the throne, from misery to grandeur; by the infancy of whose reign we are detained from coming to you.” Of his death he writes thus to Offa king of the Mercians: “Your esteemed kindness is to understand that my lord, king Charles, often speaks to me of you with affection and sincerity, and in him you have the firmest friend. He therefore sends becoming presents to your love, and to the several sees of your kingdom. In like manner he had appointed presents for king Ethelred, and for the sees of his bishops, but, oh, dreadful to think, at the very moment of despatching these gifts and letters there came a sorrowful account, by the ambassadors who returned out of Scotland through your country, of the faithlessness of the people, and the death of the king. So that Charles, withholding his liberal gift, is so highly incensed against that nation as to call it perfidious and perverse, and the murderer of its sovereigns, esteeming it worse than pagan; and had I not interceded he would have already deprived them of every advantage within his reach, and have done them all the injury in his power.”