Bede : biography

– 26 May 0735

Bede’s account of the early migrations of the Angles and Saxons to England omits any mention of a movement of those peoples across the channel from Britain to Brittany described by Procopius, who was writing in the sixth century. Frank Stenton describes this omission as "a scholar’s dislike of the indefinite"; traditional material that could not be dated or used for Bede’s didactic purposes had no interest for him.Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 8–9.

Bede was a Northumbrian, and this tinged his work with a local bias.Wallace-Hadrill, Historical Commentary, p. xxxi. The sources he had access to gave him less information about the west of England than for other areas.Yorke, The Conversion of Britain, p. 119. He says relatively little about the achievements of Mercia and Wessex, omitting, for example, any mention of Boniface, a West Saxon missionary to the continent of some renown and of whom Bede had almost certainly heard, though Bede does discuss Northumbrian missionaries to the continent. He also is parsimonious in his praise for Aldhelm, a West Saxon who had done much to convert the native Britons to the Roman form of Christianity. He lists seven kings of the Anglo-Saxons whom he regards as having held imperium, or overlordship; only one king of Wessex, Ceawlin, is listed, and none from Mercia, though elsewhere he acknowledges the secular power several of the Mercians held.Yorke, The Conversion of Britain, pp. 21–22.

Bede relates the story of Augustine’s mission from Rome, and tells how the British clergy refused to assist Augustine in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. This, combined with Gildas’s negative assessment of the British church at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, led Bede to a very critical view of the native church. However, Bede ignores the fact that at the time of Augustine’s mission, the history between the two was one of warfare and conquest, which, in the words of Barbara Yorke, would have naturally "curbed any missionary impulses towards the Anglo-Saxons from the British clergy."Yorke, The Conversion of Britain, p. 118.

Use of Anno Domini

At the time Bede wrote the Historia Ecclesiastica, there were two common ways of referring to dates. One was to use indictions, which were 15-year cycles, counting from 312 AD. There were three different varieties of indiction, each starting on a different day of the year. The other approach was to use regnal years—the reigning Roman emperor, for example, or the ruler of whichever kingdom was under discussion. This meant that in discussing conflicts between kingdoms, the date would have to be given in the regnal years of all the kings involved. Bede used both these approaches on occasion, but adopted a third method as his main approach to dating: the anno domini method invented by Dionysius Exiguus.Colgrave & Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, pp. xviii–xix. Although Bede did not invent this method, his adoption of it, and his promulgation of it in De Temporum Ratione, his work on chronology, is the main reason why it is now so widely used.Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 186.


The Historia Ecclesiastica was copied often in the Middle Ages, and about 160 manuscripts containing it survive. About half of those are located on the European continent, rather than on the British Isles. Most of the 8th- and 9th-century texts of Bede’s Historia come from the northern parts of the Carolingian Empire. This total does not include manuscripts with only a part of the work, of which another 100 or so survive. It was printed for the first time between 1474 and 1482, probably at Strasbourg, France.Wright Companion to Bede pp. 4–5 Modern historians have studied the Historia extensively, and a number of editions have been produced. For many years, early Anglo-Saxon history was essentially a retelling of the Historia, but recent scholarship has focused as much on what Bede did not write as what he did. The belief that the Historia was the culmination of Bede’s works, the aim of all his scholarship, a belief common among historians in the past, is no longer accepted by most scholars.Goffart Narrators pp. 238–9