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Cast of Bede’s skull rediscovered

A cast of the skull of Bede – the ‘Father of English History’ – has been rediscovered by a University of Leicester academic, within the anatomical collections of the University of Cambridge.

Cast of Bede's Skull - Photo: J. Story, with  permission  of  the  director  of  the  Duckworth  Laboratory  at  the University  of  Cambridge,  Leverhulme  Centre  for  Human  Evolutionary Studies
Cast of Bede’s Skull – Photo: J. Story, with permission of the director of the Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies

An exhibition showcasing the cast of the skull – recently rediscovered by Professor Jo Story of the University of Leicester’s School of History – and the story behind the excavation of Bede’s tomb in 1831 and the preservation of the skull found there, opened yesterday at Bede’s World, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear.

Bede (also known as The Venerable Bede) lived from 672–735. He was one of the most influential scholars in medieval Europe. His most famous work, completed in AD 731, is the ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum‘ or ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People‘.

It is the key source for understanding early British history and the establishment of Christianity in England, and it was the very first work of history to use the AD system of dating which is still in use today.

In 1831 Dr James Raine excavated the tomb of Bede in Durham Cathedral. This tomb contained the bones that had been venerated throughout the middle ages as those of Bede. The medieval tomb was destroyed at the Reformation but the bones it contained were carefully laid out in a new tomb in the Galilee Chapel at the western end of the cathedral, where they remain today.

The new Jarrow exhibition explores the medieval devotion to Bede, and the discovery, preservation, and fierce debate about the authenticity of the skull in the mid-19th century. This story is revealed in a new article by Professor Story and Richard Bailey (formerly Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Anglo-Saxon Civilisation at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne) just published in The Antiquaries Journal.

Professor Story said, “The story of ‘The skull of Bede’ is one that takes us to the heart of 19th-century ideas about race and the peopling of the British Isles in antiquity. It traces the thread of evidence that links the cast in the Cambridge cupboard back to the excavation of Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral in 1831, and from there back to the destruction of the medieval shrines of saints in Reformation England, to the devotion to the memory of Bede throughout the middle ages, to the creation of Durham Cathedral in early twelfth-century Norman England.”

Richard Bailey adds, “Thirty years ago, when working on the cult of Bede, I discovered Dr Raine’s handwritten note which showed that he had ordered three casts of the skull he had found in Bede’s tomb. I tracked the subsequent fate of one of them through to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries but it had disappeared by 1900. Every other trail I tried to follow then went cold on me. Imagine my surprise therefore when Professor Story e-mailed me with a photograph of the Cambridge cast! Of course, that means that there may still be one more out there somewhere.”

The article uncovers the tale of Alfred Westou, a thieving monk who, in the early eleventh century, is said to have stolen the bones of Bede from his original grave in the monastery of Jarrow and secreted them into the tomb of St Cuthbert at Durham for safe keeping.

The bones were discovered there in 1104 when St Cuthbert’s tomb was moved from the old Anglo-Saxon cathedral into the magnificent new Norman building, where it remains today.

In the article, Story and Bailey argue that the skull recovered in Durham by James Raine in 1831 was almost certainly that which was discovered in Cuthbert’s tomb in 1104, and thus that it was the skull that Westou had excavated, and which he believed was that of Bede himself. Raine was perplexed by the shape of the skull found in Bede’s tomb, and had a plaster cast made before reinterring the bones. Three copies of Raine’s cast were made in 1831.

Raine gave one cast to Dr John Thurnam, a pioneering psychiatrist and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, who had developed a specialist interest in ethnography and archaeology alongside his medical work.

All the casts were since believed to be lost, but Professor Jo Story recently discovered Thurnam’s cast in the collections of the Duckworth Laboratory in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) at the University of Cambridge.

The cast of the skull of Bede sits there alongside remains of the earliest hominids, which are the focus of the pioneering research at LCHES.

Skull of Bede Exhibition - Credit: Bede’s World
Skull of Bede Exhibition – Credit: Bede’s World

A copy of the Cambridge cast has been made for Bede’s World in Jarrow, and is the centrepiece of the new exhibition which opened yesterday at the museum.

Matt Storey, of Bede’s World, added, “Not only is it exciting that we have been able to acquire a cast of the skull of Bede for permanent display at the museum, but the story behind the cast opens up a number of fascinating questions about what happened to Bede’s bones after his death along with the celebration of his cult in medieval Europe. The project has been a very successful collaboration between Bede’s World, the University of Leicester and the University of Cambridge and I hope that there will be further opportunities for us to work together in the future.”

Click here to read the article ‘Skull of Bede’ by Jo Story and Richard Bailey from The Antiquaries Journal

Click here to visit the Bede’s World website



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