On the Eve of St Bede’s feast day, what could be more fitting to share than the life story of our beloved St Bede, whose tomb is housed in the Galilee Chapel inside Durham Cathedral. Head of Collections, Alison Cullingford, takes us through Bede’s early years, his time as a monk, his scholarly legacy and his eventual passing.

In 686 a terrible plague struck the monastery of Jarrow, a place of great learning and artistic endeavour.  It was a Benedictine monastery, where the monks chanted daily services at set hours.  The impact of the plague on the life of the monastery and its services was devastating. ‘… all who could read, preach or say the antiphons and responsories were snatched away, save the abbot himself and a lad who had been brought up and educated by him’. 

The abbot (Ceolfrith) and the youngster managed with much difficulty to keep the services going until Ceolfrith could train or bring in others who could help. According to the anonymous writer of the life of Ceolfrith, the boy remained as a priest at that monastery and went on to praise his teacher in writing and speech. The writer does not name him, but it is highly likely that the boy was Bede, who was to become one of the greatest English scholars, part of the story of Durham Cathedral.

Almost all we know about Bede’s life comes from an autobiographical note at the end of his History of the English Church and People. He was born around 673 probably in Monkton and joined the monastery at Wearmouth aged seven.  He was then what was called an oblate, a child ‘offered’ to a monastery for education. They might later decide to become a monk, though not always.

Bede did remain.  He became a deacon at the very young age of 19 and was ordained priest aged 30.  For the rest of his life he followed the rules of his monastery and devoted his life to learning.  As he explained, ‘my chief delight has always been in study, teaching and writing’.

The Venerable Bede, as imagined in a late 15th century woodcut illustration in the Nuremberg Chronicle (reference: Inc 16)

Bede’s studies flowered into books: at least forty are known and most have survived. These included commentaries on the Bible, textbooks on the use of language, and works on the calculation of time and of Easter, vitally important and difficult matters.  Bede’s use of ‘Anno Domini’ (years of Our Lord i.e. since birth of Christ) played an important part in the acceptance of this way of marking dates. He compiled the lives of saints, including two lives of Saint Cuthbert, one in verse.  

The prolific Bede: volumes of his Complete Works, on the shelves of Durham Cathedral Library

Bede is nowadays best known for his History:

‘I have assembled these facts about the history of the church in Britain, and of the Church of the English in particular, so far as I have been able to ascertain them, from ancient writings, the traditions of our forebears, and from my own personal knowledge.’

The History tells the story of Christianity in England from its acceptance under the Romans through to the conversion of the Angles and Saxons thanks to Pope Gregory and Augustine and how, despite setbacks, the faith became settled across the kingdoms.  So much of what is known about the early medieval period in England comes to use from Bede.  

There are so many memorable, vivid scenes and characters in the History: King Edwin struggling to decide whether to embrace Christianity and navigating his complicated friendship/rivalry with King Redwald.  The pragmatic Coifi, chief priest, who weighs up the material advantages of converting to Christianity and decides it offers the best deal.  The unnamed chief man who compared life to a sparrow flying through a hall in winter: a brief moment of knowledge and light and heat compared to unknowns before and after. The wise and prudent Abbess Hild.  Caedmon, the stableboy who was given the gift of angelic song.  The Synod of Whitby, where the great people of the day chose the direction the church in England would take: turning towards Rome and the wider church and away from the earlier Celtic Christian traditions.

Bede excelled at pulling together his varied material to create coherent narrative and make the points he wished to make, for example, how Christian kings should (or should not) behave. He used King Oswald as an example of a proper Christian king.

Bede completed this great work in 731. There is a tension in the final chapters between the glory of the settled church of the English kingdoms, the result of all the efforts of the saints and kings and other characters in the history, and possible trouble to come: comets, invasions of Saracens in Europe.  Bede alludes to grave disturbances during the reign of the present King (Ceolwulf) and mentions his concern about pseudo-monasteries weakening the defences of the kingdom: he worried that people were joining such places for an easy life free of obligations to the king and not for the purposes of leading a religious life.

Bede became ill around Easter 735.  As he struggled for breath, he continued to dictate to a scribe and to pray.  By Ascension Day (25 May) he knew he was close to death. He shared out his few treasured belongings with his fellow priests: pepper, napkins, incense.  He asked to be moved to the spot on the floor of his cell where he usually prayed. 

There, ‘on the floor of his little cell, while chanting “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”, he breathed his last.’

We know this because a fellow monk called Cuthbert witnessed Bede’s dying and wrote an account of it in a letter. Cuthbert was a pupil of Bede’s and is not to be confused with the saint of the same name!

Cuthbert relates that Bede spoke a short poem in Old English as he was dying. It has become known as Bede’s Death Song. 

Bede’s Death Song, from a late 12th century manuscript of the chronicles of Symeon of Durham. (reference: MS A.IV.36 f25v). The Old English text in this snippet runs from the second line to the fifth line.

‘Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers—before his soul departs hence—what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing.’

We don’t know whether Bede actually wrote the piece or whether he was repeating a song that he found meaningful. It is possible, as Cuthbert described him as being ‘learned in our song’.  Whether he did or not, the subject matter of the poem is characteristic of Bede’s great concern over how to live a Christian life. Its intertwining of ideas is typical of early medieval English ‘songs’, like the twisting patterns in the manuscripts and decorations of the time.

The Tomb of the Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral’s Galilee Chapel


Ceolfrith translation: Grocock, C. and Wood, I.N. ed. (2013) Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow. Oxford University Press.

Quotations from Bede and Cuthbert’s letter: Sherley-Price, L., ed. (1968) A History of the English Church and People. Penguin.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s