The Father of English History: St. Bede the Venerable

The Venerable Bede writing the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, from a 12th-century codex at Engelberg Abbey in Switzerland.

 “Holy Scripture is above all other books not only by its authority because it is Divine, or by its utility because it leads to eternal life, but also by its antiquity and by its literary form.” 

By Kimberly Bruce

Historians and scholars around the world are indebted to the work of their patron saint: St. Bede the Venerable, priest and Doctor of the Church (feast day: May 25). Acknowledged as “The Father of English History,” St. Bede was given the title “venerable” after his death by the Church (or, one legend says, by angels) as a recognition of his holiness.

Saint Bede was one of the most prolific and influential Catholic writers of the Middle Ages. He is best known for his written work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Completed in 731 A.D., it is considered a masterpiece that chronicles the history of the conversion of the British people to Christianity from its beginnings in Britain to the saint’s own time. Two more historical works penned by the saint, his De tempori bus liber and De temporum ratione, offer a general world history from Creation to the early eighthcentury. Saint Bede also composed hymns, poetry, and prose on a variety of subjects, including science, and wrote inciteful commentaries on the Holy Scriptures.

Monastic life
Born circa 673 A.D. in the kingdom of Northumberland (today’s northern England and southeast Scotland), St. Bede was given, at age seven, to Abbot Benedict (the future St. Benedict Biscop) to be educated at the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Wearmouth and Jarrow. It is within this monastery that St. Bede spent the entirety of his life. He became a deacon at age 19 and a priest at 30. He received both elevations to the diaconate and the priesthood at the hands of Bishop John (the future St. John of Beverley). 

During St. Bede’s life in the monastery, he occupied himself with the studying of Sacred Scripture, monastic duties, and singing in church. Being quite accomplished in Latin and Greek, he spent much time writing commentaries on Holy Scripture. It is said that his exegetical writings stand supreme when one looks at the body of his literary works. Though this is but a sampling of his biblical commentaries, he wrote interpretations on the Pentateuch, the books of Kings, Tobit, Mark, Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul’s Epistles, and Revelation. Some fifty of his homilies have also been preserved within two books. 

Love for God’s Word
Spending time interpreting Scripture was to St. Bede the most important work he could do – far more important than even his studies. He wrote, “Holy Scripture is above all other books not only by its authority because it is Divine, or by its utility because it leads to eternal life, but also by its antiquity and by its literary form.” His love for God’s Word contained within Scripture never wavered, nor did his love of delving into its deepest meanings and truths. 

Even on his deathbed, he had his students read aloud to him. They loved the saint, and often shed tears during these exchanges at the end of Bede’s life. One of them, the future St. Cuthbert, recalled, “I can with truth declare that I never saw with my eyes or heard with my ears anyone return thanks so unceasingly to the living God.”

“It is finished”
On the night he died, the Eve of the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord in 735, St. Bede was still dictating a translation of St. John’s gospel to yet another student, Wilbert. Finished with the translation, Wilbert informed him it was complete, and the saint responded, “Thou has spoken truth, it is finished.” Saint Bede, thereupon, peacefully passed from this life while singing on the floor of his cell, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.”

Saint Bede’s remains are today within the Galilee Chapel in Durham Cathedral in England. Within two short generations of his death, the faithful were already calling Bede, “Venerable,” and on November 13, 1899, he was officially designated a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII.

Saint Bede the Venerable, Doctor of the Church, pray for us!
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