The forty days after the resurrection of our Lord were coming to an end. The Eve of the Ascension had arrived, the celebration of Christ’s departure from this world to take His place at the Father’s right hand. The time for the old monk to depart and ascend to God had also come. He had been ill since Passiontide but had remained active teaching, dictating, and praying in spite of the growing weakness of his mortal frame. With labored breath he had chanted the daily antiphons, psalms, and hymns, rising also during night to keep vigil with psalmody and prayer, his diligence and joy undaunted by the feebleness of his lungs. Now at last he sat in his cell, too weak to rise; but still the words of Scripture and liturgy sprang forth from his lips to the ears of his companions. With tears he chanted, among the other hymns and bits of liturgy, the Vespers antiphon for the day’s feast: “O Rex gloriae, Domine virtutum, qui triumphator hodie super omnes caelos ascendisti,” etc. that is, “O King of Glory, Lord of power, Who, triumphing this day, ascended above all the heavens, do not leave us comfortless, but send the promise of the Father to us, the Spirit of Truth, alleluia.” The whole day long he kept at it reciting, praying, encouraging. As the sun drew near to the horizon again, having said his goodbyes and having made bequests to his friends of his meager possessions, he asked one of his disciples to place him on the floor facing the chapel, so that he could face the place where he had worshiped for nearly his entire life. And there on the pavement, with his final breaths he quietly chanted, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen,” and died.1
Thus passed one of the greatest minds of the early middle ages, the Venerable Bede. Almost all that we know about this great doctor of the church comes from an autobiographical note appended to what most would consider his magnum opus, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as well as from a few autobiographical clues scattered here and there in his other writings, and from a letter from his disciple Cuthbert to another monk which describes their beloved master’s death. But then there probably is not much to know about him. He was a man who rarely ever left his monastery, a place he had lived since the age of seven, and upon the lands of which he was born. The few times he did travel he never left the isle of Britain. And yet from his little cell in Jarrow, Bede became one of the most important figures of the Northumbrian renaissance.
By his own report, much of his greatness was due to the influence of his two abbots, Benedict Biscop, the founder of the monastic community at Wearmouth and Jarrow, who, during his travels through Europe, gathered together a very fine library of books for the monastery; and Ceolfrid who educated and ordained Bede, and, evidently, made him a teacher of his brethren. Bede read voraciously—Scripture, patristics, classics, scientific and historical works—and then, having made the knowledge his own, taught others what he had learned. Like many great men, his excellence was not limited to any one field of scholarship. He was a prolific author and penned some sixty books over his lifetime.2 Among his writings are works of history, Biblical commentary, homiletics, hymnody, science, philosophy, geography, and hagiography. In all of these Bede shows himself to be most competent. His homilies on the Gospels prove him to have been both an excellent exegete and an eloquent preacher. And while some of Bede’s Biblical commentaries seem little more than a recapitulation of Augustine and other patristic authors, they stand as important links in the chain of theological transmission, bringing early Christian thought to a medieval audience.
His most important and influential work, however, is his Ecclesiastical History. Here Bede shows us just how careful a scholar he was. Unlike most medieval chronicles which simply record a date and a few lines about what had happened that year, Bede gives us a rather sweeping narrative of England’s story from the time before the Romans down to his own day. Conceived of as a history of the English church, it is also one of the only witnesses extant to the early days of Saxon England and the stories of its people, rulers, politics, wars, and of its faith. It is from Bede that we learn much about the Christianization of the Saxons, both through the work of Roman missionaries like Augustine of Canterbury, Paulinus of York, and James the Deacon, and by Irish monks from Iona like the holy abbot Aiden of Lindisfarne. It is also from Bede that we hear the exciting history of the seventh century kings of Northumbria and their battles with the pagan King Penda of Mercia and the Welsh and Christian King Cadwallon of Gwynedd.
But it is not just the subjects and personalities that Bede covers in his Ecclesiastical History that are important, but also his historical method. Unlike so many “historians” before and after him, Bede was a true historian. He painstakingly researched his subject matter. On the few occasions when he did travel to visit people, or when travelers visited him, he recorded what he could discover from them, sometimes their eye-witness accounts, other times recollections of what they had been told by those who had been eyewitnesses of the history of which he wrote. He wrote letters to others seeking such knowledge. He sent to Rome to gather documents concerning St. Augustine’s mission to England. He even set up a network of people across Britain to help him gather his data.3 Bede was a true historian in the modern sense of the word! His work remains the basis for nearly every attempt to tell the history of Saxon England.
He was also a man of humble and pious faith. Diligent in his study of the Scriptures and of the Church’s theology, serious in his prayers, arduous and thorough in his work as priest and scholar, he is a shining example to all who take their faith and their vocations seriously. His is also a wonderful example of a Christian death. Having died in faith on the Eve of the Ascension, it is fitting that the one hymn by Bede in Lutheran Service Book is that great Ascension hymn, “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” (#493). Here again we see Bede’s faith in life and in the face of death, a faith rooted and grounded in Christ Jesus:
“Be now our joy on earth, O Lord,
And be our future great reward…
Then throned with You forever, we
Shall praise Your name eternally.”
1 Cuthbert. “Letter to Cuthwine.” Stpeters-wearmouth. Accessed April 27, 2023. https://www.stpeters-wearmouth.org.uk/cuthberts-letter/. This is but a paraphrase. It is really worth reading the full letter.
2 Bede, History of the English Church and People, p.286-288. London: The Folio Society, 2010. Bede provides a list of all his works, most of which have been translated into English.
3 Melvin Bragg. Introduction to History of the English Church and People, by Bede, p.xxiii-xxiv. London: The Folio Society, 2010.