History books can be dangerous things, especially when they are brilliantly written. In 731, a Tyneside monk named the Venerable Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Which still forms the basis of modern history lessons. But the Venerable Bede, like all historians, had his own particular axe to grind.
According to the Venerable Bede, the origins of the church in England lie in 6th-century Rome. Where Pope Gregory the Great spotted some beautiful fair-haired slaves for sale. Upon being told they were Angles from the pagan island of Britain. He famously replied that to him they looked more like angels.
According to the Venerable Bede, Gregory immediately makes arrangements for St Augustine to sail to Britain. And convert these heathens to Christianity.
To make Augustine’s mission more significant than it actually was, Bede portrays Britain as a country populated by heathen unbelievers. He calls these pagans the Anglo-Saxons and describes their conversion as a glorious achievement. In creating this story, Bede gives the church a fresh start in Britain. The newly converted Anglo-Saxon English are depicted as proper Christians, unconnected to the murky Celtic Christianity of the native Britons.
Richard Morris “Bede is writing this story 300 years after it happened. So he’s trying to make it a coherent process. And therefore it is in his interest to make things tidier and more organised than they really were.
Christianity according to the Venerable Bede
In fact, Christianity is big in the late Roman period. St Augustine arrived in a country that already knew about Christianity. And when Augustine arrives, it is by invitation. He finds an island where there are already Christians and bishops. And organised church life exists, in parts of the island. So there are different streams of Christianity.”
The conventional wisdom would have it that the Anglo-Saxons brought with them paganism from abroad. And that Christianity wasn’t introduced to England until 597 when St Augustine arrived in Canterbury. What do you say to that?
David Howlett “I don’t believe a word of it. The British church survived intact and it was flourishing. The missionaries thought they were coming to barbarian Ruritania. And when they got here, here was a church with its own traditions intact from antiquity. Men who knew how to operate 10 different computational cycles for the reckoning of Easter.
They could write classier prose and verse than the Roman missionaries were capable of. So the Roman missionaries found intact a church completely self-possessed. They were so dumbfounded, they just blanked it out. They pretended that it had never existed, they pretended it didn’t exist.”
In order to gloss over the messy origins of English Christianity. The Venerable Bede invented a new race of people – the Anglo-Saxons – who came to be known as the English.
Richard Morris “Bede presents the Anglo-Saxons as a coherent body of people. And they are predestined to inherit southern Britain. Rather like the children of Israel inherit the Holy Land. And they inherit it because, according to Bede, because the British are unfit to live here. So the English are a chosen people.”
Bede’s influence is all the more extraordinary when you realise that he never ventured out of the monastery in Tyneside. Where he was brought up.
Richard Morris “We know that Bede had particular reasons for writing his history. One of them was really to create a sense of English. In doing so he gave us an origin lesson.”
Do you think that Bede did invent England?
Dr Sam Lucy “He certainly invented the notion of an English people. What you have to realise is that England doesn’t exist for perhaps the 9th, 10th century. It’s only later on you could call it a single political nation. If you like and before this point, you’re looking At much smaller territorially-based groupings. So Bede, in writing that history, is starting to create that sense of the English.”
In telling the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, Bede laid the groundwork for English identity. But I don’t believe this represents who we are as a nation. My journey into the story of Britain A.D. has uncovered a very different picture of the people of this island. So who are we really?
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