Bede’s Perspective and Purpose in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Depiction of the Venerable Bede (CLVIIIv) from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.Bede’s Perspective and Purpose in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Chip Schroeder

Stanford University, Undergraduate Thesis (2011)


In 651 AD, a Celtic Christian priest named Finan built a modest church on the small island of Lindisfarne in the far north of England. He built the church in an early Irish style, “not of stone, [but] out of hewn oak, and covered it with reeds.” Later in the seventh century, Theodore of Tarsus, the Archbishop of Canterbury whom the pope had personally sent to Britain to promote the “true faith,” dedicated the church at Lindisfarne to St. Peter the Apostle, and had the roof and walls reinforced by plates of lead.

The story of the strengthened church is reflective of Bede’s account of the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, finished in 731. Bede’s book can be divided into two parts, which mirror the stages of the building of the Lindisfarne church. The first theme, covered in the first two books of the five-book Ecclesiastical History, is Christianity’s arrival in Britain and proliferation throughout the island. This portion, which spans the period from the first century AD to 633, can be seen as the initial construction of the church. Bede bases much of the history in the first two books off of secondary sources written about events one hundred or more years before he lived.


The second portion of Bede’s History, like the renovation of the Lindisfarne church, follows the theme of the effort of the Roman Catholic Church to correct the practices of the Celtic Christians by conforming them to Roman practices. Books III through V follow this theme of unification, which is a key issue in English ecclesiastical history from 633 through the time when Bede is writing the book in the late 720’s. As a life-long monk in Northumbria, Bede was personally involved in the Romanization of English churches, which accounts for his partiality towards Roman practices.

Having drawn the distinction between the two portions of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, those of the Church’s initial construction and subsequent Romanization, I argue that Bede’s involvement in ecclesiastical affairs throughout his life both illuminates and clouds his perspective on the history of the English church. His description of Christianity’s dissemination is a blend of history and hagiography. In the second part of the History, covering the century from 633 to 731, his devotion to Roman Catholic practices shapes his view of history and even compromises the completeness of his account.


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