“Kings as Catechumens: Royal Conversion Narratives and Easter in the Historia Ecclesiastica” by Carolyn Twomey (Boston College)

SESSION I: Lived Religion in the Middle Ages 

“Kings as Catechumens: Royal Conversion Narratives and Easter in the Historia Ecclesiastica” by Carolyn Twomey (Boston College)


Bede has long served as a primary text about Early Mediaeval Christianity and historiography during the early conversion period but his version of events has recently been challenged. This paper investigated the language used in Easter catechises by Bede and did not focus on the actual conversion of kings but the language written about them by Bede. There was deliberate didactic construction that demonstrated Bede’s concerns with the Northumbrian church and how he “made” formerly Pagan kings appropriate catechumens by describing the physical and spiritual catechumen’s process of conversion. The catechumen submitted his name for baptism and underwent a month long process, which included exorcisms, complex anointing and other rituals over Lenten period until the baptism occured at Easter. Bede narrated this transition and described how Pagan kings accepted Christianity.

Royal conversion was a lengthy process, and was a combination of instruction and ritual events. According to Bede there were two periods of Cathecesis: 1.) Kings received catechises through Roman missionaries, education, preaching and holy example. Bede mentions King Aethelbert of Kent and how he was won over to the Christian faith. 2.) The acceptance of faith – Demonstrated by taking up Chritian practices and abandoning Pagan ones, like more than one wife and worshipping Pagan idols. Bede considered kings who reverted to Paganism, “Christian apostates” even if they weren’t baptised. According to these royal narratives of conversion, they were Christians before they accepted
the faith. This second phase could take several months but Bede bounded the second phase of catechesis in a liturgical time frame. Bede wrote extensively on King Edwin of Northumbria’s conversion narrative. Edwin’s example demonstrates the ideal liturgical model required for conversion and preparation for baptism.

Bede’s text was a tool for the battle against Paganism and a history of England’s conversion. Bede worked to continue the conversion process that had begun with earlier missionaries in England. His work was the story of the foundation of the English church with Easter as the most important date in the early mediaeval calendar.

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!