Tag: Bede

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The Venerable Bede

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Latin: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum), written by the Venerable Bede in about AD 731, is a history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally; its main focus is on the conflict between the pre-Schism Roman Rite and Celtic Christianity.

It was originally composed in Latin, is considered to be one of the most important original references on Anglo-Saxon history and has played a key role in the development of an English national identity. It is believed to have been completed in 731 when Bede was approximately 59 years old.

Folio 3v from the St Petersburg Bede

The Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People is Bede’s best-known work, completed in about 731. The first of the five books begins with some geographical background and then sketches the history of England, beginning with Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC. A brief account of Christianity in Roman Britain, including the martyrdom of St Alban, is followed by the story of Augustine’s mission to England in 597, which brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons.

The second book begins with the death of Gregory the Great in 604, and follows the further progress of Christianity in Kent and the first attempts to evangelise Northumbria. These encountered a setback when Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, killed the newly Christian Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in about 632. The setback was temporary, and the third book recounts the growth of Christianity in Northumbria under kings Oswald and Oswy.

The climax of the third book is the account of the Council of Whitby, traditionally seen as a major turning point in English history. The fourth book begins with the consecration of Theodore as Archbishop of Canterbury, and recounts Wilfrid‘s efforts to bring Christianity to the kingdom of Sussex.

The fifth book brings the story up to Bede’s day, and includes an account of missionary work in Frisia, and of the conflict with the British church over the correct dating of Easter. Bede wrote a preface for the work, in which he dedicates it to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria. The preface mentions that Ceolwulf received an earlier draft of the book; presumably Ceolwulf knew enough Latin to understand it, and he may even have been able to read it.

Frisia in present day Holland and west Denmark

The preface makes it clear that Ceolwulf had requested the earlier copy, and Bede had asked for Ceolwulf’s approval; this correspondence with the king indicates that Bede’s monastery had excellent connections among the Northumbrian nobility.

Divided into five books (about 400 pages), the Historia covers the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Julius Caesar to the date of its completion (731). The first twenty-one chapters, covering the period before the mission of Augustine, are compiled from earlier writers such as Orosius, Gildas, Prosper of Aquitaine, the letters of Pope Gregory I, and others, with the insertion of legends and traditions.

Pope Saint Gregory I

After AD 596, documentary sources that Bede took pains to obtain throughout England and from Rome are used, as well as oral testimony, which he employed along with critical consideration of its authenticity. This is impressive; nevertheless, the Historia, like other historical writing from this period has a lower degree of objectivity than modern historical writings.

It seems to be a mixture of fact, legend and literature. For example, Bede quotes at length some speeches by people who were not his contemporaries and whose speeches do not appear in any other surviving source; it is doubtful whether oral traditional history supported these ostensible quotations.

The monastery at Jarrow had an excellent library. Both Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith had acquired books from the Continent, and in Bede’s day the monastery was a renowned centre of learning.

For the period prior to Augustine’s arrival in 597, Bede drew on earlier writers, including Orosius, Eutropius, Pliny, and Solinus. He used Constantius‘s Life of Germanus as a source for Germanus‘s visits to Britain. Bede’s account of the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons is drawn largely from Gildas‘s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. Bede would also have been familiar with more recent accounts such as Eddius Stephanus‘s Life of Wilfrid, and anonymous Lives of Gregory the Great and Cuthbert. He also drew on Josephus‘s Antiquities, and the works of Cassiodorus, and there was a copy of the Liber Pontificalis in Bede’s monastery.

Saint Germanus of Auxerre

Bede also had correspondents who supplied him with material. Albinus, the abbot of the monastery in Canterbury, provided much information about the church in Kent, and with the assistance of Nothhelm, at that time a priest in London, obtained copies of Gregory the Great‘s correspondence from Rome relating to Augustine’s mission.

Almost all of Bede’s information regarding Augustine is taken from these letters, which includes the Libellus responsionum, as chapter 27 of book 1 is often known. Bede acknowledged his correspondents in the preface to the Historia Ecclesiastica; he was in contact with Daniel, the Bishop of Winchester, for information about the history of the church in Wessex, and also wrote to the monastery at Lastingham for information about Cedd and Chad. Bede also mentions an Abbot Esi as a source for the affairs of the East Anglian church, and Bishop Cynibert for information about Lindsey.

The historian Walter Goffart argues that Bede based the structure of the Historia on three works, using them as the framework around which the three main sections of the work were structured. For the early part of the work, up until the Gregorian mission, Goffart asserts that Bede used Gildas‘s De excidio. The second section, detailing the Gregorian mission of Augustine of Canterbury was framed on the anonymous Life of Gregory the Great written at Whitby.

The last section, detailing events after the Gregorian mission, Goffart asserts were modelled on Stephen of Ripon‘s Life of Wilfrid. Most of Bede’s informants for information after Augustine’s mission came from the eastern part of Britain, leaving significant gaps in the knowledge of the western areas, which were those areas likely to have a native Briton presence.

Saint Gildas

The History of the English Church and People has a clear polemical and didactic purpose. Bede sets out not just to tell the story of the English, but to advance his views on politics and religion. In political terms he is a partisan of his native Northumbria, amplifying its role in English history over and above that of Mercia, its great southern rival. He takes greater pains in describing events of the seventh century, when Northumbria was the dominant Anglo-Saxon power, than the eighth, when it was not. The only criticism he ventures of his native Northumbria comes in writing about the death of King Ecgfrith in fighting the Picts at Nechtansmere in 685.

Bede attributes this defeat to God’s vengeance for the Northumbrian attack on the Irish in the previous year. For while Bede is loyal to Northumbria he shows an even greater attachment to the Irish and their missionaries, whom he considers to be far more effective and dedicated than their rather complacent English counterparts.

His final preoccupation is over the precise date of Easter, which he writes about at length. It is here, and only here, that he ventures some criticism of St Cuthbert and the Irish missionaries, who celebrated the event, according to Bede, at the wrong time. In the end he is pleased to note that the Irish Church was saved from error by accepting the correct date for Easter.

Bede’s stylistic models included some of the same authors from whom he drew the material for the earlier parts of his history. His introduction imitates the work of Orosius, and his title is an echo of Eusebius’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede also followed Eusebius in taking the Acts of the Apostles as the model for the overall work: where Eusebius used the Acts as the theme for his description of the development of the church, Bede made it the model for his history of the Anglo-Saxon church.

Bede quoted his sources at length in his narrative, as Eusebius had done. Bede also appears to have taken quotes directly from his correspondents at times. For example, he almost always uses the terms “Australes” and “Occidentales” for the South and West Saxons respectively, but in a passage in the first book he uses “Meridiani” and “Occidui” instead, as perhaps his informant had done. At the end of the work, Bede added a brief autobiographical note; this was an idea taken from Gregory of Tours‘ earlier History of the Franks.

Bede’s work as hagiographer, and his detailed attention to dating, were both useful preparations for the task of writing the Historia Ecclesiastica. His interest in computus, the science of calculating the date of Easter, was also useful in the account he gives of the controversy between the British and Anglo-Saxon church over the correct method of obtaining the Easter date.

The Venerable Bede

One of the important themes of the Historia Ecclesiastica is that the conversion of the British Isles to Christianity had all been the work of Irish and Italian missionaries, with no efforts made by the native Britons. This theme was developed from Gildas’ work, which denounced the sins of the native rulers during the invasions, with the elaboration by Bede that the invasion and settlement of the British Isles by the Angles and Saxons was God’s punishment for the lack of missionary effort and the refusal to accept the Roman date for celebrating Easter.

Although Bede discusses the history of Christianity in Roman Britain, it is significant that he utterly ignores the missionary work of Saint Patrick. He writes approvingly of Aidan and Columba, who came from Ireland as missionaries to the Picts and Northumbrians, but disapproved of the failure of the Welsh to evangelize the invading Anglo-Saxons. Bede was a partisan of Rome, regarding Gregory the Great, rather than Augustine, as the true apostle of the English.

Likewise, in his treatment of the conversion of the invaders, any native involvement is minimized, such as when discussing Chad of Mercia‘s first consecration, when Bede mentions that two British bishops took part in the consecration, thus invalidating it. No information is presented on who these two bishops were or where they came from. Also important is Bede’s view of the conversion process as an upper-class phenomenon, with little discussion of any missionary efforts among the non-noble or royal population.

Another view, taken by historian D. H. Farmer, is that the theme of the work is “the progression from diversity to unity”. According to Farmer, Bede took this idea from Gregory the Great, and illustrates it in his work by showing how Christianity brought together the native and invading races into one church. Farmer cites Bede’s intense interest in the schism over the correct date for Easter as support for this argument, and also cites the lengthy description of the Synod of Whitby, which Farmer regards as “the dramatic centre-piece of the whole work.”

The historian Alan Thacker wrote in 1983 that Bede’s works should be seen as advocating a monastic rather than secular ministry, and Thacker argues that Bede’s treatment of St Cuthbert is meant to make Cuthbert a role-model for the role of the clergy advocated by Gregory the Great.

The historian Walter Goffart says of the Historia that many modern historians find it a “tale of origins framed dynamically as the Providence-guided advance of a people from heathendom to Christianity; a cast of saints rather than rude warriors; a mastery of historical technique incomparable for its time; beauty of form and diction; and, not least, an author whose qualities of life and spirit set a model of dedicated scholarship.”

Goffart also feels that a major theme of the Historia is local, Northumbrian concerns, and that Bede treated matters outside Northumbria as secondary to his main concern with northern history. Goffart sees the writing of the Historia as motivated by a political struggle in Northumbria between a party devoted to Wilfrid, and those opposed to Wilfrid’s policies.

Much of the “current” history in the Historia is concerned with Wilfrid, who was a bishop in Northumbria and whose stormy career is documented not only in Bede’s works, but in a Life of Wilfrid. A theme in Bede’s treatment of Wilfrid is the need to minimize the conflict between Wilfrid and Theodore of Tarsus, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was involved in many of Wilfrid’s difficulties.

Theodore of Tarsus.

The Historia Ecclesiastica includes many accounts of miracles and visions. These were de rigueur in medieval religious narrative, but Bede appears to have avoided relating the more extraordinary tales; and, remarkably, he makes almost no claims for miraculous events at his own monastery.

There is no doubt that Bede did believe in miracles, but the ones he does include are often stories of healing, or of events that could plausibly be explained naturally. The miracles served the purpose of setting an example to the reader, and Bede explicitly states that his goal is to teach morality through history, saying “If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful reader is encouraged to imitate what is good; if it records evil of wicked men, the devout reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse.”

Bede apparently had no informant at any of the main Mercian religious houses. His information about Mercia came from Lastingham, in Northumbria, and from Lindsey, a province on the borders of Northumbria and Mercia. As a result, there are noticeable gaps in his coverage of Mercian church history, such as his omission of the division of the huge Mercian diocese by Theodore in the late 7th century. Bede’s regional bias is apparent.

There were clearly gaps in Bede’s knowledge, but Bede also says little on some topics that he must have been familiar with. For example, although Bede recounts Wilfrid’s missionary activities, he does not give a full account of his conflict with Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, or his ambition and aristocratic lifestyle.

Only the existence of other sources such as the Life of Wilfrid make it clear what Bede discreetly avoids saying. The omissions are not restricted to Wilfrid; Bede makes no mention at all of Boniface, though it is unlikely he knew little of him; and the final book contains less information about the church in his own day than could be expected.

A possible explanation for Bede’s discretion may be found in his comment that one should not make public accusations against church figures, no matter what their sins; Bede may have found little good to say about the church in his day and hence preferred to keep silent. It is clear that he did have fault to find; his letter to Ecgberht contains several criticisms of the church.

The Historia Ecclesiastica has more to say about episcopal events than it does about the monasteries of England. Bede does shed some light on monastic affairs; in particular he comments in book V that many Northumbrians are laying aside their arms and entering monasteries “rather than study the arts of war. What the result of this will be the future will show.” This veiled comment, another example of Bede’s discretion in commenting on current affairs, could be interpreted as ominous given Bede’s more specific criticism of quasi-monasteries in his letter to Ecgberht, written three years later.

Bede’s account of life at the court of the Anglo-Saxon kings includes little of the violence that Gregory of Tours mentions as a frequent occurrence at the Frankish court. It is possible that the courts were as different as their descriptions makes them appear but it is more likely that Bede omitted some of the violent reality. Bede states that he wrote the work as an instruction for rulers, in order that “the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good”. It also was no part of Bede’s purpose to describe the kings who did not convert to Christianity in the Historia.

Saint Gregory of Tours

In 725 Bede wrote The Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione), using something similar to the anno Domini era (BC/AD dating system) created by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525, continuing to use it throughout Historia Ecclesiastica (731), becoming very influential in causing that era to be adopted thereafter in Western Europe.

Specifically, he used anno ab incarnatione Domini (in the year from the incarnation of the Lord) or anno incarnationis dominicae (in the year of the incarnation of the Lord). He never abbreviated the term like the modern AD.

Bede counted anno Domini from Christ’s birth, not from Christ’s conception. Within this work, he was also the first writer to use a term similar to the English before Christ. In book I chapter 2 he used ante incarnationis dominicae tempus (before the time of the incarnation of the Lord). However, the latter was not very influential—only this isolated use was repeated by other writers during the rest of the Middle Ages. The first extensive use of “BC” (hundreds of times) occurred in Fasciculus Temporum by Werner Rolevinck in 1474, alongside years of the world (anno mundi).

An example of Werner Rolevinck’s work; a Roman timeline. Complicated layout in an illuminated manuscript.

Some early manuscripts contain additional annalistic entries that extend past the date of completion of the Historia Ecclesiastica, with the latest entry dated 766. No manuscripts earlier than the twelfth century contain these entries, except for the entries for 731 through 734, which do occur in earlier manuscripts. Much of the material replicates what is found in Simeon of Durham‘s chronicle; the remaining material is thought to derive from northern chronicles from the eighth century.

The Historia was translated into Old English sometime between the end of the ninth century and about 930; although the surviving manuscripts are predominantly in the West Saxon dialect, it is clear that the original contained Anglian features and so was presumably by a scholar from or trained in Mercia. The translation was once held to have been done by King Alfred of England, but this attribution is no longer accepted, and debate centres on how far it owes its origins to the patronage of Alfred and/or his associates.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest tranche of which was composed/compiled around the same time as the translation was may, drew heavily on the Historia, which formed the chronological framework of the early parts of the Chronicle.

Excerpt from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, created late in the 9th century.

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. 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.

The Historia Ecclesiastica has given Bede a high reputation, but his concerns were different from those of a modern writer of history. His focus on the history of the organization of the English church, and on heresies and the efforts made to root them out, led him to exclude the secular history of kings and kingdoms except where a moral lesson could be drawn or where they illuminated events in the church.

In the early Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Historia Brittonum, and Alcuin’s Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae all drew heavily on the text. Likewise, the later medieval writers William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Geoffrey of Monmouth used his works as sources and inspirations.

Early modern writers, such as Polydore Virgil and Matthew Parker, the Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury, also utilized the Historia, and his works were used by both Protestant and Catholic sides in the Wars of Religion.

Some historians have questioned the reliability of some of Bede’s accounts. One historian, Charlotte Behr, asserts that the Historia’s account of the arrival of the Germanic invaders in Kent should be considered as current myth, not history.

Manuscripts of the Historia Ecclesiastica fall generally into two groups, known to historians as the “c-type” and the “m-type”. Charles Plummer, in his 1896 edition of Bede, identified six characteristic differences between the two manuscript types.

For example, the c-type manuscripts omit one of the miracles attributed to St Oswald in book IV, chapter 14, and the c-type also includes the years 733 and 734 in the chronological summary at the end of the work, whereas the m-type manuscripts stop with the year 731.

Plummer thought that this meant the m-type was definitely earlier than the c-type, but this has been disputed by Bertram Colgrave in his 1969 edition of the text. Colgrave points out that the addition of a couple of annals is a simple alteration for a copyist to make at any point in the manuscript history; he also notes that the omission of one of Oswald’s miracles is not the mistake of a copyist, and strongly implies that the m-type is a later revision.

Some genealogical relationships can be discerned among the numerous manuscripts that have survived. The earliest manuscripts used to establish the c-text and m-text are as follows. The letters under the “Version” column are identifying letters used by historians to refer to these manuscripts.

Version Type Location Manuscript
K c-text Kassel, Landesbibliothek 4° MS. theol. 2
C c-text London, British Museum Cotton Tiberius C. II
O c-text Oxford, Bodleian Library Hatton 43 (4106)
n/a c-text Zürich, Zentralbibliothek Rh. 95
M m-text Cambridge, University Library Kk. 5. 16
L m-text Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia Lat. Q. v. I. 18
U m-text Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August Bibliothek Weissenburg 34
E m-text Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek M. p. th. f. 118
N m-text Namur, Public Library Fonds de la ville 11

With few exceptions, Continental copies of the Historia Ecclesiastica are of the m-type, while English copies are of the c-type. Among the c-texts, manuscript K includes only books IV and V, but C and O are complete. O is a later text than C but is independent of it and so the two are a valuable check on correctness. They are thought to have both derived from an earlier manuscript, marked “c2” in the diagram, which does not survive.

A comparison of K and c2 yields an accurate understanding of the original c-text, but for the first three books, which are not in K, it is sometimes impossible to know if a variant reading in C and O represents the original state of the c-text, or is a variation only found in c2. One long chapter, book I chapter 27, is also found in another manuscript, Rh. 95 at the Zürich Zentralbibliothek; this is another witness to the c-text and appears to be independent of c2, and so is useful as a further cross-check on the c-text.

The m-text depends largely on manuscripts M and L, which are very early copies, made not long after Bede’s death. Both seem likely to have been taken from the original, though this is not certain. Three further manuscripts, U, E and N, are all apparently the descendants of a Northumbrian manuscript that does not survive but which went to the continent in the late-8th century. These three are all early manuscripts, but are less useful than might be thought, since L and M are themselves so close to the original.

The text of both the m-type and c-type seems to have been extremely accurately copied. Taking a consensus text from the earliest manuscripts, Bertram Colgrave counted 32 places where there was an apparent error of some kind. However, 26 of these are to be found within a transcription from an earlier source, and it is apparent by checking independent copies of those sources that in such cases Bede copied the mistake faithfully into his own text.

The relationships between some of the early manuscripts of the Historia Ecclesiastica

History of the Manuscripts

  • K appears to have been written in Northumbria in the late 8th century. Only books IV and V survive; the others were probably lost during the Middle Ages. The manuscript bears a 15th-century pressmark of the Abbey of Fulda.
  • C, also known as the Tiberius Bede, was written in the south of England in the second half of the 8th century. Plummer argued that it was from Durham, but this is dismissed by Colgrave. The manuscript contains glosses in Old English that were added in the south during the 9th century.
  • O dates to the early 11th century, and has subsequent corrections many of which are from the 12th century.
  • L, also known as the St Petersburg Bede, was copied by four scribes no later than 747. The scribes were probably at either Wearmouth or Jarrow Abbey.
  • M, also known as the Moore Bede, was written in Northumbria in 737 or shortly thereafter. The manuscript was owned at one time by John Moore, the Bishop of Ely, and as a result it is known as the Moore MS. Moore’s collection was purchased by King George I and given to Cambridge University in 1715, where it still resides.
  • U dates to the late 8th century, and is thought to be a copy, made on the continent, of an earlier Northumbrian manuscript (“c2” in the diagram above). It has been at Weissenburg since the end of the Middle Ages.
  • E dates from the middle third of the 9th century. In 800, a list was made of books at Würzburg cathedral; the list includes one Historia Anglorum and E may be a copy of that manuscript. Subsequently E is known to have been in the possession of Ebrach Abbey.
  • N was copied in the 9th century by several scribes; at one point it was owned by St Hubert in the Ardennes.

Manuscripts written before AD 900 include:

  • Corbie MS, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
  • St. Gall Monastery Library

Copies are sparse throughout the 10th century and for much of the 11th century. The greatest number of copies of Bede’s work was made in the 12th century, but there was a significant revival of interest in the 14th and 15th centuries. Many of the copies are of English provenance, but also surprisingly many are Continental.

The first printed copy of the Historia Ecclesiastica appeared from the press of Heinrich Eggestein in Strasbourg, probably between 1475 and 1480. A defect in the text allows the identification of the manuscript Eggestein used; it subsequently appeared in a catalogue of the Vienna Dominicans of 1513. Eggestein had also printed an edition of Rufinus‘s translation of Eusebius‘s Ecclesiastical History, and the two works were reprinted, bound as a single volume, on 14 March 1500 by Georg Husner, also of Strasbourg. Another reprint appeared on 7 December 1506, from Heinrich Gran and S. Ryman at Haguenau.

A Paris edition appeared in 1544, and in 1550 John de Grave produced an edition at Antwerp. Two reprints of this edition appeared, in 1566 and 1601. In 1563, Johann Herwagen included it in volume III of his eight-volume Opera Omnia, and this was in turn reprinted in 1612 and 1688. Michael Sonnius produced an edition in Paris in 1587, including the Historia Ecclesiastica in a collection of other historical works; and in 1587 Johann Commelin included it in a similar compilation, printed at Heidelberg. In 1643, Abraham Whelock produced at Cambridge an edition with the Old English text and the Latin text in parallel columns, the first in England.

All of the above editions were based on the C-text. The first edition to use the m-type manuscripts was printed by Pierre Chifflet in 1681, using a descendant of the Moore MS. For the 1722 edition, John Smith obtained the Moore MS., and also having access to two copies in the Cotton Library was able to print a very high quality edition. Smith undertook his edition under the influence of Thomas Gale, encouraged by Ralph Thoresby, and with assistance of Humfrey Wanley on Old English.

He spent the majority of his time residing in Cambridge, and working on it, but did not live to complete the preparation. His son George brought out in 1722 the Historiæ Ecclesiasticæ Gentis Anglorum Libri Quinque, auctore Venerabili Bæda … cura et studio Johannis Smith, S. T. P., Cambridge University Press. It contains also the preface to The Reckoning of Time, and a world-chronicle. It also had the Old English version of the Historia ecclesiastica. Smith’s edition is described by David C. Douglas as “an enormous advance” on previous ones, adding that textual criticism of Bede hardly then changed until 1896, when the Plummer edition appeared.

Subsequently the most notable edition was that of Charles Plummer, whose 1896 Venerabilis Bedae Opera Historica, with a full commentary, has been a foundation-stone for all subsequent scholarship.

Editions

  • 1475: Heinrich Eggestein, Strasbourg
  • 1550: John de Grave, Antwerp
  • 1587: Michael Sonnius, Paris
  • 1643: Abraham Whelock, Cambridge
  • 1722: John Smith, Cambridge
  • 1861: Migne, Patrologia Latina (vol. 95), reprint of Smith’s edition
  • 1896 Charles Plummer (ed.), Venerabilis Baedae Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis Anglorum, Historiam abbatum, Epistolam ad Ecgberctum una cum Historia abbatum auctore anonymo, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896).
  • 1969: Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (eds), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969 [corr. repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991])
  • 2005: Michael Lapidge (ed), Pierre Monat and Philippe Robin (trans.), Bède le Vénérable, Histoire ecclésiastique du peuple anglais = Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Sources chrétiennes, 489–91, 3 vols (Paris: Cerf, 2005).

Translations

  • Late ninth century: an anonymous, abbreviated translation into Old English by an anonymous scholar, possibly at the suggestion of Alfred the Great.[67][68]
  • 1565: Thomas Stapleton, Antwerp (Imprinted at Antwerp: By Iohn Laet, at the signe of the Rape)
  • 1849, John Allen Giles, London.
  • 1866: (in German) M. M. Wilden, Schaffhausen.
  • 1903: L. C. Jane, Temple Classics.
  • 1907: A. M. Sellar, London, George Bell & Sons.
  • 1955: Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, reprinted with revisions 1965, revised 1968, revised 1990.
  • 1969: Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford, Clarendon Press, reprint with corrections 1992.
  • 1982: (in German) Günter Spitzbart, Darmstadt.
  • 1989: (in Chinese) Chen Wei-zhen & Zhou Qing-min, The Commercial Press, Beijing. 1st ed 1991
  • 1994: McClure, Judith and Collins, Roger, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  • 2003: (in Russian) Церковная история народа англов, notes and trans. by Vadim Erlikhman (Saint-Petersburg: Алетейя)
  • 2005: (in French) Histoire ecclésiastique du peuple anglais, notes by André Crépin, ed. Michael Lapidge, trans. Pierre Monat and Philippe Robin (Paris: Cerf).
  • 2008: (in Japanese) Hirosi Takahashi (Tokyo: Kodansha).
  • 2008: (Czech) Beda Ctihodný, Církevní dějiny národa Anglů, trans. by Kincl, Jaromír and Moravová, Magdaléna (Prague: Argo).
  • 2009: (in Italian) Beda il Venerabile, Storia degli Inglesi, ed. M. Lapidge, trans. Paolo Chiesa (Milan: Fondazione Valla-Arnoldo Mondadori).
  • 2015: (in Slovene) Beda Častitljivi, Cerkvena zgodovina ljudstva Anglov, notes and trans. by Bogdan Kolar and Miran Sajovic (Celje: Mohorjeva družba).

Literature

  • ones, Putnam Fennell, A Concordance to the Historia ecclesiastica of Bede, Cambridge, 1929.
  • Wallace-Hadrill, J. M., Bede’s Ecclesiastical history of the English people: a historical commentary, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

References

 

 

 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899).

Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.

Nine manuscripts survive in whole or in part, though not all are of equal historical value and none of them is the original version. The oldest seems to have been started towards the end of Alfred’s reign, while the most recent was written at Peterborough Abbey after a fire at that monastery in 1116. Almost all of the material in the Chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC (the annals’ date for Caesar’s invasions of Britain), and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle

The Chronicle is not unbiased: there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources makes it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of stories; there are also places where the different versions contradict each other.

Taken as a whole, however, the Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period in England between the departure of the Romans and the decades following the Norman conquest. Much of the information given in the Chronicle is not recorded elsewhere.

In addition, the manuscripts are important sources for the history of the English language; in particular, the later Peterborough text is one of the earliest examples of Middle English in existence.

Seven of the nine surviving manuscripts and fragments now reside in the British Library. The remaining two are in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Composition

All of the surviving manuscripts are copies, so it is not known for certain where or when the first version of the Chronicle was composed. It is generally agreed that the original version – sometimes known as the Early English Annals – was written in the late 9th century by a scribe in Wessex.

Frank Stenton argued from internal evidence that it was first compiled for a secular, but not royal patron; and that “its origin is in one of the south-western shires…at some point not far from the boundary between Somerset and Dorset”. After the original Chronicle was compiled, copies were made and distributed to various monasteries. Additional copies were made, for further distribution or to replace lost manuscripts, and some copies were updated independently of each other. Some of these later copies are those that have survived.

The earliest extant manuscript, the Winchester Chronicle, was written by a single scribe up to the year 891. The scribe wrote the year number, DCCCXCII, in the margin of the next line; subsequent material was written by other scribes.

This appears to place the composition of the chronicle at no later than 892; further evidence is provided by Bishop Asser‘s use of a version of the Chronicle in his work Life of King Alfred, known to have been composed in 893. It is known that the Winchester manuscript is at least two removes from the original Chronicle; as a result, there is no proof that the Chronicle was compiled at Winchester.

It is also difficult to fix the date of composition, but it is generally thought that the chronicles were composed during the reign of Alfred the Great (871–99), as Alfred deliberately tried to revive learning and culture during his reign, and encouraged the use of English as a written language. The Chronicle, as well as the distribution of copies to other centres of learning, may be a consequence of the changes Alfred introduced.

Surviving Manuscripts

A page from the Winchester, or Parker, Chronicle, showing the genealogical preface

Of the nine surviving manuscripts, seven are written entirely in Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). One, known as the Bilingual Canterbury Epitome, is in Old English with a translation of each annal into Latin. Another, the Peterborough Chronicle, is in Old English except for the last entry, which is in early Middle English.

The oldest (Corp. Chris. MS 173) is known as the Winchester Chronicle or the Parker Chronicle (after Matthew Parker, an Archbishop of Canterbury, who once owned it). Six of the manuscripts were printed in an 1861 edition for the Rolls Series by Benjamin Thorpe with the text laid out in columns labelled A to F. He also included the few readable remnants of a burned seventh manuscript, which he referred to as [G]. Following this convention, the two additional manuscripts are often called [H] and [I]. The surviving manuscripts are listed below:

Version Chronicle name Location Manuscript
A Winchester (or Parker) Chronicle Parker Library, Corpus Christi College 173
B Abingdon Chronicle I British Library Cotton Tiberius A. vi
C Abingdon Chronicle II British Library Cotton Tiberius B. i
D Worcester Chronicle British Library Cotton Tiberius B. iv
E Peterborough (or Laud) Chronicle Bodleian Library Laud misc. 636
F Bilingual Canterbury Epitome British Library Cotton Domitian A. viii
G or A2 or W A copy of the Winchester Chronicle British Library Cotton Otho B. xi + Otho B. x
H Cottonian Fragment British Library Cotton Domitian A. ix
I An Easter Table Chronicle British Library Cotton Caligula A. xv

Relationships between the manuscripts

The relationships between seven of the different manuscripts of the Chronicle. The fragment [H] cannot be reliably positioned in the chart. Other related texts are also shown. The diagram shows a putative original, and also gives the relationships of the manuscripts to a version produced in the north of England that did not survive but which is thought to have existed.
The manuscripts are all thought to derive from a common original, but the connections between the texts are more complex than simple inheritance via copying. The diagram at right gives an overview of the relationships between the manuscripts. The following is a summary of the relationships that are known.

  • [A2] was a copy of [A], made in Winchester, probably between 1001 and 1013.
  • [B] was used in the compilation of [C] at Abingdon, in the mid-11th century. However, the scribe for [C] also had access to another version, which has not survived.
  • [D] includes material from Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals and is thought to have been copied from a northern version that has not survived.
  • [E] has material that appears to derive from the same sources as [D] but does not include some additions that appear only in [D], such as the Mercian Register. This manuscript was composed at the monastery in Peterborough, some time after a fire there in 1116 that probably destroyed their copy of the Chronicle; [E] appears to have been created thereafter as a copy of a Kentish version, probably from Canterbury.
  • [F] appears to include material from the same Canterbury version that was used to create [E].
  • Asser’s Life of King Alfred, which was written in 893, includes a translation of the Chronicle’s entries from 849 to 887. Only [A], of surviving manuscripts, could have been in existence by 893, but there are places where Asser departs from the text in [A], so it is possible that Asser used a version that has not survived.
  • Æthelweard wrote a translation of the Chronicle into Latin in the late 10th century; the version he used probably came from the same branch in the tree of relationships that [A] comes from.
  • Asser’s text agrees with [A] and with Æthelweard’s text in some places against the combined testimony of [B], [C], [D] and [E], implying that there is a common ancestor for the latter four manuscripts.
  • At Abingdon, some time between 1120 and 1140, an unknown author wrote a Latin chronicle known as the Annals of St Neots. This work includes material from a copy of the Chronicle, but it is very difficult to tell which version because the annalist was selective about his use of the material. It may have been a northern recension, or a Latin derivative of that recension.[12]

All the manuscripts described above share a chronological error between the years 756 and 845, but it is apparent that the composer of the Annals of St Neots was using a copy that did not have this error and which must have preceded them. Æthelweard’s copy did have the chronological error but it had not lost a whole sentence from annal 885; all the surviving manuscripts have lost this sentence. Hence the error and the missing sentence must have been introduced in separate copying steps, implying that none of the surviving manuscripts are closer than two removes from the original version.

History of the Manuscripts

A map showing the places where the various chronicles were written, and where they are now kept.

Winchester Chronicle

[A]: The Winchester (or Parker) Chronicle is the oldest manuscript of the Chronicle that survives. It was begun at Old Minster, Winchester, towards the end of Alfred’s reign. The manuscript begins with a genealogy of Alfred, and the first chronicle entry is for the year 60 BC.

The section containing the Chronicle takes up folios 1–32. Unlike the other manuscripts, [A] is of early enough composition to show entries dating back to the late 9th century in the hands of different scribes as the entries were made.

The first scribe’s hand is dateable to the late 9th or very early 10th century; his entries cease in late 891, and the following entries were made at intervals throughout the 10th century by several scribes. The eighth scribe wrote the annals for the years 925–955, and was clearly at Winchester when he wrote them since he adds some material related to events there; he also uses ceaster, or “city”, to mean Winchester.

The manuscript becomes independent of the other recensions after the entry for 975. The book, which also had a copy of the Laws of Alfred and Ine bound in after the entry for 924, was transferred to Canterbury some time in the early 11th century, as evidenced by a list of books that Archbishop Parker gave to Corpus Christi.

While at Canterbury, some interpolations were made; this required some erasures in the manuscript. The additional entries appear to have been taken from a version of the manuscript from which [E] descends.

The last entry in the vernacular is for 1070. After this comes the Latin Acta Lanfranci, which covers church events from 1070–1093. This is followed by a list of popes and the Archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium. The manuscript was acquired by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury (1559–1575) and master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, following the dissolution of the monasteries, and bequeathed to the college on his death. It now forms part of the Parker Library.

Abingdon Chronicle I

[B] The Abingdon Chronicle I was written by a single scribe in the second half of the 10th century. The Chronicle takes up folios 1–34. It begins with an entry for 60 BC and ends with the entry for 977. A manuscript that is now separate (British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius Aiii, f. 178) was originally the introduction to this chronicle; it contains a genealogy, as does [A], but extends it to the late 10th century.

[B] was at Abingdon in the mid-11th century, because it was used in the composition of [C]. Shortly after this it went to Canterbury, where interpolations and corrections were made. As with [A], it ends with a list of popes and the archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium.

Abingdon Chronicle II

[C] includes additional material from local annals at Abingdon, where it was composed. The section containing the Chronicle (folios 115–64) is preceded by King Alfred’s Old English translation of Orosius‘s world history, followed by a menologium and some gnomic verses of the laws of the natural world and of humanity.

Then follows a copy of the chronicle, beginning with 60 BC; the first scribe copied up to the entry for 490, and a second scribe took over up to the entry for 1048. [B] and [C] are identical between 491 and 652, but differences thereafter make it clear that the second scribe was also using another copy of the Chronicle.

This scribe also inserted, after the annal for 915, the Mercian Register, which covers the years 902–924, and which focuses on Æthelflæd. The manuscript continues to 1066 and stops in the middle of the description of the Battle of Stamford Bridge. In the 12th century a few lines were added to complete the account.

A page from the [C] Abingdon II text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This entry is for 871, a year of battles between Wessex and the Vikings.

Worcester Chronicle

[D] The Worcester Chronicle appears to have been written in the middle of the 11th century. After 1033 it includes some records from Worcester, so it is generally thought to have been composed there. Five different scribes can be identified for the entries up to 1054, after which it appears to have been worked on at intervals.

The text includes material from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals. It is thought that some of the entries may have been composed by Archbishop Wulfstan.

[D] contains more information than other manuscripts on northern and Scottish affairs, and it has been speculated that it was a copy intended for the Anglicised Scottish court. From 972 to 1016, the sees of York and Worcester were both held by the same person—Oswald from 972, Ealdwulf from 992, and Wulfstan from 1003, and this may explain why a northern recension was to be found at Worcester.

By the 16th century, parts of the manuscript were lost; eighteen pages were inserted containing substitute entries from other sources, including [A], [B], [C] and [E]. These pages were written by John Joscelyn, who was secretary to Matthew Parker.

Peterborough Chronicle

[E] The Peterborough Chronicle: In 1116, a fire at the monastery at Peterborough destroyed most of the buildings. The copy of the Chronicle kept there may have been lost at that time or later, but in either case shortly thereafter a fresh copy was made, apparently copied from a Kentish version—most likely to have been from Canterbury.

The manuscript was written at one time and by a single scribe, down to the annal for 1121. The scribe added material relating to Peterborough Abbey which is not in other versions. The Canterbury original which he copied was similar, but not identical, to [D]: the Mercian Register does not appear, and a poem about the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, which appears in most of the other surviving copies of the Chronicle, is not recorded.

The same scribe then continued the annals through to 1131; these entries were made at intervals, and thus are presumably contemporary records. Finally, a second scribe, in 1154, wrote an account of the years 1132–1154; but his dating is known to be unreliable.

This last entry is in Middle English, rather than Old English. [E] was once owned by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury 1633–1654, so is also known as the Laud Chronicle. The manuscript contains occasional glosses in Latin, and is referred to (as “the Saxon storye of Peterborowe church”) in an antiquarian book from 1566.

According to Joscelyn, Nowell had a transcript of the manuscript. Previous owners include William Camden and William L’Isle; the latter probably passed the manuscript on to Laud.

Canterbury Bilingual Epitome

[F] The Canterbury Bilingual Epitome: In about 1100, a copy of the Chronicle was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, probably by one of the scribes who made notes in [A]. This version is written in both Old English and Latin; each entry in Old English was followed by the Latin version.

The version the scribe copied (on folios 30–70) is similar to the version used by the scribe in Peterborough who wrote [E], though it seems to have been abridged. It includes the same introductory material as [D] and, along with [E], is one of the two chronicles that does not include the “Battle of Brunanburh” poem. The manuscript has many annotations and interlineations, some made by the original scribe and some by later scribes, including Robert Talbot.

Copy of the Winchester Chronicle

[A2]/[G] Copy of the Winchester Chronicle: [A2] was copied from [A] at Winchester in the eleventh century and follows a 10th-century copy of an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

The last annal copied was 1001, so the copy was made no earlier than that; an episcopal list appended to [A2] suggests that the copy was made by 1013. This manuscript was almost completely destroyed in the 1731 fire at Ashburnham House, where the Cotton Library was housed. Of the original 34 leaves, seven remain, ff. 39–47 in the manuscript.

However, a transcript had been made by Laurence Nowell, a 16th-century antiquary, which was used by Abraham Wheelocke in an edition of the Chronicle printed in 1643. Because of this, it is also sometimes known as [W], after Wheelocke. Nowell’s transcript copied the genealogical introduction detached from [B] (the page now British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius Aiii, f. 178), rather than that originally part of this document.

The original [A2] introduction would later be removed prior to the fire and survives as British Library Add MS 34652, f. 2. The appellations [A], [A2] and [G] derive from Plummer, Smith and Thorpe, respectively.

Cottonian Fragment

The Cottonian Fragment [H] consists of a single leaf, containing annals for 1113 and 1114. In the entry for 1113 it includes the phrase “he came to Winchester”; hence it is thought likely that the manuscript was written at Winchester. There is not enough of this manuscript for reliable relationships to other manuscripts to be established. Ker notes that the entries may have been written contemporarily.

Easter Table Chronicle

[I] Easter Table Chronicle: A list of Chronicle entries accompanies a table of years, found on folios 133-37 in a badly burned manuscript containing miscellaneous notes on charms, the calculation of dates for church services, and annals pertaining to Christ Church, Canterbury.

Most of the Chronicle’s entries pertain to Christ Church, Canterbury. Until 1109 (the death of Anselm of Canterbury) they are in English; all but one of the following entries are in Latin. Part of [I] was written by a scribe soon after 1073, in the same hand and ink as the rest of the Caligula MS. After 1085, the annals are in various contemporary hands.

The original annalist’s entry for the Norman conquest is limited to “Her forðferde eadward kyng”; a later hand added the coming of William the Conqueror, “7 her com willelm.” At one point this manuscript was at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury.

Lost Manuscripts

Two manuscripts are recorded in an old catalogue of the library of Durham; they are described as cronica duo Anglica. In addition, Parker included a manuscript called Hist. Angliae Saxonica in his gifts but the manuscript that included this, now Cambridge University Library MS. Hh.1.10, has lost 52 of its leaves, including all of this copy of the chronicle.

Sources, reliability and dating:

The Chronicle incorporates material from multiple sources. The entry for 755, describing how Cynewulf took the kingship of Wessex from Sigebehrt, is far longer than the surrounding entries, and includes direct speech quotations from the participants in those events. It seems likely that this was taken by the scribe from existing saga material.

Early entries, up to the year 110, probably came from one of the small encyclopaedic volumes of world history in circulation at the time the Chronicle was first written. The chronological summary to Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History was used as a source. The Chronicle gives dates and genealogies for Northumbrian and Mercian kings, and provides a list of Wessex bishops; these are likely to have had separate sources. The entry for 661 records a battle fought by Cenwalh that is said to have been fought “at Easter”; this precision implies a contemporary record, which survived and was re-used by the Chronicle scribe.

Contemporary annals began to be kept in Wessex during the 7th century. The material compiled in Alfred’s reign included annals relating to Kentish, South Saxon, Mercian and, particularly, West Saxon history, but, with the exception of the Cynewulf entry, does not gather momentum until it comes to the Nordic invasions of the late 8th century onwards.

The Chronicle grew out of the tradition of the Easter Tables, drawn up to help the clergy determine the dates of feasts in future years: a page consisted of a sequence of horizontal lines followed by astronomical data, with a space for short notes of events to distinguish one year from another. As the Chronicle developed, it lost its list-like appearance, and such notes took up more space, becoming more like historical records. Many later entries, especially those written by contemporaries, contained a great deal of historical narrative under the year headings.

As with any historical source, the Chronicle has to be treated with some caution. For example, between 514 and 544 the Chronicle makes reference to Wihtgar, who is supposedly buried on the Isle of Wight at “Wihtgar’s stronghold” (which is “Wihtgaræsbyrg” in the original) and purportedly gave his name to the island. However, the name of the “Isle of Wight” derives from the Latin “Vectis”, not from Wihtgar. The actual name of the fortress was probably “Wihtwarabyrg”, “the stronghold of the inhabitants of Wight”, and either the chronicler or an earlier source misinterpreted this as referring to Wihtgar.

The dating of the events recorded also requires care. In addition to dates that are simply inaccurate, scribes occasionally made mistakes that caused further errors. For example, in the [D] manuscript, the scribe omits the year 1044 from the list on the left hand side. The annals copied down are therefore incorrect from 1045 to 1052, which has two entries.

A more difficult problem is the question of the date at which a new year began, since the modern custom of starting the year on 1 January was not universal at that time. The entry for 1091 in [E] begins at Christmas and continues throughout the year; it is clear that this entry follows the old custom of starting the year at Christmas. Some other entries appear to begin the year on 25 March, such as the year 1044 in the [C] manuscript, which ends with Edward the Confessor’s marriage on 23 January, while the entry for 22 April is recorded under 1045. There are also years which appear to start in September.

The manuscripts were produced in different places, and each manuscript reflects the biases of its scribes. It has been argued that the Chronicle should be regarded as propaganda, produced by Alfred’s court and written with the intent of glorifying Alfred and creating loyalty.

This is not universally accepted, but the origins of the manuscripts clearly colour both the description of interactions between Wessex and other kingdoms, and the descriptions of the Vikings’ depredations. An example can be seen in the entry for 829, which describes Egbert‘s invasion of Northumbria. According to the Chronicle, after Egbert conquered Mercia and Essex, he became a “bretwalda“, implying overlordship of all of England. Then when he marched into Northumbria, the Northumbrians offered him “submission and peace”.

The Northumbrian chronicles incorporated into Roger of Wendover‘s 13th-century history give a different picture: “When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute.”

Occasionally the scribes’ biases can be seen by comparing different versions of the manuscript they created. For example, Ælfgar, earl of East Anglia, and son of Leofric, the earl of Mercia, was exiled briefly in 1055. The [C], [D] and [E] manuscripts say the following:

  • [C]: “Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed without any fault …”
  • [D]: “Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed well-nigh without fault …”
  • [E]: “Earl Ælfgar was outlawed because it was thrown at him that he was traitor to the king and all the people of the land. And he admitted this before all the men who were gathered there, although the words shot out against his will.”

Another example that mentions Ælfgar shows a different kind of unreliability in the Chronicle: that of omission. Ælfgar was Earl of Mercia by 1058, and in that year was exiled again. This time only [D] has anything to say: “Here Earl Ælfgar was expelled, but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd.

And here came a raiding ship-army from Norway; it is tedious to tell how it all happened.” In this case other sources exist to clarify the picture: a major Norwegian attempt was made on England, but [E] says nothing at all, and [D] scarcely mentions it. It has sometimes been argued that when the Chronicle is silent, other sources that report major events must be mistaken, but this example demonstrates that the Chronicle does omit important events.

Use by Latin and Anglo-Norman Historians

The three main Anglo-Norman historians, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, each had a copy of the Chronicle, which they adapted for their own purposes. Symeon of Durham also had a copy of the Chronicle.

Some later medieval historians also used the Chronicle, and others took their material from those who had used it, and so the Chronicle became “central to the mainstream of English historical tradition”.

Henry of Huntingdon used a copy of the Chronicle that was very similar to [E]. There is no evidence in his work of any of the entries in [E] after 1121, so although his manuscript may actually have been [E], it may also have been a copy—either one taken of [E] prior to the entries he makes no use of, or a manuscript from which [E] was copied, with the copying taking place prior to the date of the last annal he uses. Henry also made use of the [C] manuscript.

The Waverley Annals made use of a manuscript that was similar to [E], though it appears that it did not contain the entries focused on Peterborough. The manuscript of the chronicle translated by Geoffrey Gaimar cannot be identified accurately, though according to historian Dorothy Whitelock it was “a rather better text than ‘E’ or ‘F'”. Gaimar implies that there was a copy at Winchester in his day (the middle of the 12th century); Whitelock suggests that there is evidence that a manuscript that has not survived to the present day was at Winchester in the mid-tenth century. If it survived to Gaimar’s time that would explain why [A] was not kept up to date, and why [A] could be given to the monastery at Canterbury.

John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex chronicis appears to have had a manuscript that was either [A] or similar to it; he makes use of annals that do not appear in other versions, such as entries concerning Edward the Elder‘s campaigns and information about Winchester towards the end of the chronicle.

His account is often similar to that of [D], though there is less attention paid to Margaret of Scotland, an identifying characteristic of [D]. He had the Mercian register, which appears only in [C] and [D]; and he includes material from annals 979–982 which only appears in [C]. It is possible he had a manuscript that was an ancestor of [D]. He also had sources which have not been identified, and some of his statements have no earlier surviving source.

A manuscript similar to [E] was available to William of Malmesbury, though it is unlikely to have been [E] as that manuscript is known to have still been in Peterborough after the time William was working, and he does not make use of any of the entries in [E] that are specifically related to Peterborough.

It is likely he had either the original from which [E] was copied, or a copy of that original. He mentions that the chronicles do not give any information on the murder of Alfred Aetheling, but since this is covered in both [C] and [D] it is apparent he had no access to those manuscripts. On occasion he appears to show some knowledge of [D], but it is possible that his information was taken from John of Worcester’s account. He also omits any reference to a battle fought by Cenwealh in 652; this battle is mentioned in [A], [B] and [C], but not in [E]. He does mention a battle fought by Cenwealh at Wirtgernesburg, which is not in any of the extant manuscripts, so it is possible he had a copy now lost.

Importance

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the single most important source for the history of England in Anglo-Saxon times. Without the Chronicle and Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (the Ecclesiastical History of the English People), it would be impossible to write the history of the English from the Romans to the Norman conquest; Nicholas Howe called them “the two great Anglo-Saxon works of history”.

It is clear that records and annals of some kind began to be kept in England at the time of the earliest spread of Christianity, but no such records survive in their original form. Instead they were incorporated in later works, and it is thought likely that the Chronicle contains many of these. The history it tells is not only that witnessed by its compilers, but also that recorded by earlier annalists, whose work is in many cases preserved nowhere else.

Its importance is not limited to the historical information it provides, however. It is just as important a source for the early development of English. The Peterborough Chronicle changes from the standard Old English literary language to early Middle English after 1131, providing some of the earliest Middle English text known.

Howe notes, in “Rome: Capitol of Anglo-Saxon England”, that many of the entries indicate that Rome was considered a spiritual home for the Anglo-Saxons, Rome and Roman history being of paramount importance in many of the entries; he cites the one for AD 1, for instance, which lists the reign of Octavian Augustus before it mentions the birth of Christ.

The Chronicle is not without literary interest. Inserted at various points since the 10th century are Old English poems in celebration of royal figures and their achievements: “The Battle of Brunanburh” (937), on King Æthelstan‘s victory over the combined forces of Vikings, Scots and the Strathclyde Britons, and five shorter poems, “Capture of the Five Boroughs” (942), “The Coronation of King Edgar” (973), “The Death of King Edgar” (975), “The Death of Prince Alfred” (1036), and “The Death of King Edward the Confessor” (1065).

History of Editions and Availability

An important early printed edition of the Chronicle appeared in 1692, by Edmund Gibson, an English jurist and divine who became Bishop of Lincoln in that year. Titled Chronicon Saxonicum, it printed Latin and Old English versions of the text in parallel columns and became the standard edition until the 19th century. It was superseded in 1861 by Benjamin Thorpe‘s Rolls edition, which printed six versions in columns, labelled A to F, thus giving the manuscripts the letters which are now used to refer to them.

John Earle wrote Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel (1865). Charles Plummer edited this book, producing a Revised Text with notes, appendices, and glossary in two volumes in 1892 and 1899. This edition of the A and E texts, with material from other versions, was widely used; it was reprinted in 1952.

Editions of the individual manuscripts

Beginning in the 1980s, a new set of scholarly editions have been printed under the series title “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition”. Some volumes are still projected, such as a volume focusing on the northern recension, but existing volumes such as Janet Bately’s edition of [A] are now standard references.

A recent translation of the Chronicle is Michael Swanton‘s The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which presents translations of [A] and [E] on opposite pages, with interspersed material from the other manuscripts where they differ.

A facsimile edition of [A], The Parker Chronicle and Laws, appeared in 1941 from the Oxford University Press, edited by Robin Flower and Hugh Smith. A recent scholarly edition of the [B] text is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition, 4, MS B by S. Taylor (Cambridge, 1983).[7] The [C] manuscript was edited by H.A. Rositzke; The C-Text of the Old English Chronicles, in Beitrage z. engl. Phil., XXXIV, Bochum-Langendreer, 1940; and the [D] manuscript in An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from British Museum Cotton MS., Tiberius B. iv, edited by E. Classen and F.E. Harmer, Manchester, 1926. Rositzke also published a translation of the [E] text in The Peterborough Chronicle (New York, 1951). The [F] text was printed in F.P. Magoun, Jr., Annales Domitiani Latini: an Edition in “Mediaeval Studies of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies”, IX, 1947, pp. 235–295.

The first edition of [G] was Abraham Whelock’s 1644 Venerabilis Bedae Historia Ecclesiastica, printed in Cambridge; there is also an edition by Angelica Lutz, Die Version G der angelsächsischen Chronik: Rekonstruktion und Edition (Munich, 1981).

References

  • Abels, Richard (2005). Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Longman. p. 15. ISBN 0-582-04047-7.
  • Bately, Janet M. (1986). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition. Vol. 3: MS. A. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-103-9.
  • Bosworth, Joseph (1823). The Elements of Anglo-Saxon Grammar. London: Harding, Mavor and Lepard.
  • Campbell, James; John, Eric; Wormald, Patrick (1991). The Anglo-Saxons. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-014395-5.
  • Campbell, James (2000). The Anglo-Saxon State. Hambledon and London. ISBN 1-85285-176-7.
  • Crystal, David (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59655-6.
  • Ekwall, Eilert (1947). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 3821873.
  • Gneuss, Helmut (2001). Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A List of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. 241. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. ISBN 978-0-86698-283-2.
  • Greenfield, Stanley Brian (1986). A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press. p. 60. ISBN 0-8147-3088-4.
  • Harrison, Julian (2007). “William Camden and the F-Text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”. Notes and Queries. 54 (3): 222–24. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjm124.
  • Howorth, Henry H. (1908). “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Its Origin and History”. The Archaeological Journal. 65: 141–204.
  • Hunter Blair, Peter (1960). An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2003 edition: ISBN 0-521-83085-0)
  • Hunter Blair, Peter (1966). Roman Britain and Early England: 55 B.C. – A.D. 871. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-00361-2.
  • Ker, Neil Ripley (1957). Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon. Oxford: At the Clarendon.
  • Keynes, Simon; Michael Lapidge (2004). Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources. New York: Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044409-2.
  • Lapidge, Michael (1999). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22492-0.
  • Plummer, Charles (1885). Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel.
  • Savage, Anne (1997). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Gadalming: CLB. ISBN 1-85833-478-0.
  • Smith, Albert Hugh (1935). The Parker Chronicle (832–900). Methuen’s Old English Library, Prose Selections. 1. London: Methuen.
  • Swanton, Michael (1996). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92129-5.
  • Thorpe, Benjamin (1861). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Rolls Series. 23. London: Longman.
  • Whitelock, Dorothy (1968). English Historical Documents v. 1 c. 500–1042. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • Wormald, Patrick (1991). “The Ninth Century.” In Campbell et al., The Anglo-Saxons, 132–159.
  • Yorke, Barbara (1990). Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Seaby. ISBN 1-85264-027-8.

 

 

Timeline of conflict in Anglo-Saxon Britain

Hengist and Horsa are legendary brothers said to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in their invasion of Britain in the 5th century. Tradition lists Hengist as the first of the Jutish kings of Kent.

The Timeline of conflict in Anglo-Saxon Britain is concerned with the period of history from just before the departure of the Roman Army, in the 4th century, to just after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.

The information is mainly derived from annals and the Venerable Bede. The dates, particularly from the fourth to the late sixth centuries, have very few contemporary sources and are largely later constructions by medieval chroniclers. The historian Diana Greenway described one such 12th century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, as a ‘weaver’ compiler of history, and the archaeologist Martin Welch described the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as “a product of the West Saxon court… concerned with glorifying the royal ancestry of Alfred the Great.

Henry of Huntingdon

Manipulation of royal genealogies, in this and other sources, to enhance the claims of present rulers was common. Literary formulas associated with original myths are a common feature of earlier entries.” Although the timeline uses the annals for this period of history, information provided by these sources can be problematic, particularly with the earlier dates.

Chronology

Constructing a chronology of the early Anglo-Saxon period, and how the Anglo-Saxons took over land in Britain from Romano-Britons (Celtic-speakers, Latin-speakers, or both), is highly complex. The limitations of source material place restrictions on just how accurate any chronology can be. As an example, the following table shows how much variation there is between historians on just one date, the Battle of Badon:

 

Suggested dates for the Battle of Badon
Sources Date
Annales Cambriae 516
Bede 493
Higham c. 430 – c. 440
Snyder c. 485
M. Wood 490s
Morris 494–497
Dumville c.500
I. Wood c. 485 – c.520

 

Much of the dating of the period comes from Bede (672/673–735), who in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tried to compute dates for events in early Anglo-Saxon history. Although primarily writing about church history, Bede is seen as Britain’s first true historian, in that he cited his references and listed events according to dates rather than regnal lists.

So we know that he relied heavily on De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae by Gildas, a sixth-century cleric, for his early dates and historians have found Gildas unreliable where dates were concerned. Bede’s work was widely read among the literate in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and his dates were used by the monks who compiled the various Anglo-Saxon Chronicles from the late ninth century onwards.

Excerpt from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

The most controversial dates in the period—those from the fourth to the late sixth centuries—have very few contemporary sources, and are mainly derived from later attempts to construct Anglo-Saxon history.

The following is an outline of some events recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), and Brut y Tywysogion. Many of the dates from the fourth, fifth, and sixth century are points of contention.

4th Century

360 AD and after, and perhaps before: various Germanic peoples (Alemanni, Saxons, etc.) came to Roman Britain: raiders, Roman armies recruited from among German tribes, some settlers (The Saxon Shore (Latin: litus Saxonicum)).

Picts depicted fighting Roman soldiers and Saxon mercenaries beyond Hadrians Wall.

5th Century

  • 410 AD: Emperor Honorius refuses a call for help from Britain, tells the cities to look to their own defence.
  • c.430 to 520: The range of dates for the Battle of Badon. See effects of the battle for the strategic situation resulting afterwards.
  • About 446: The “Groans of the Britons” – A last appeal (possibly to the Consul Aetius) for the Roman army to come back to Britain.
  • 449: Vortigern invites Saxons to come and help them against the Picts, who were raiding the east coast, and allows them to settle on “The eastern side of the island.” (The name Vortigern may mean “Great King” rather than being a lifelong personal name.)
  • 455:  (Battle of Aylesford: Here Hengest and Horsa fought against Vortigern the king, in the place that is called Aylesford, and his brother Horsa was slain; and after that Hengest took the throne with Æsc, his son.)
  • 457:  (Here Hengest & Æsc fought against Britons in the place which is called Crecganford and there slew 4000 men, and the Britons abandoned Kent and with great fear fled to London.)
  • c. 460: Treachery of the Long Knives, Death of all British kings, Begin of violent land grab by Saxons.
  • 466: Battle of Wippedesfleot  Here Hengest and Æsc fought together against the Welsh (meaning ‘foreigner’: the manner in which the invaders referred to the Britons) near Wippedesfleot and there slew 12 Welsh chief men, and one of their thanes was slain, whose name was Wipped. [This battle is said to have resulted in much bloodshed and slaughter on both sides, to the extent that hostilities abated for a while thereafter. It is not known where Wippedesfleot (= “Wipped’s tidal estuary”) was.])
  • 473: (Here Hengest & Æsc fought against Welsh and took countless war-loot, and the Welsh fled from the English like fire.)
  • 477: (Here Ælle came to Britain and [with him] his 3 sons Cymen & Wlencing & Cissa, with 3 ships to the place which is named Cymenesora [probably now The Owers, rocks off Selsey in West Sussex ], and there slew many Welsh & drove some in flight into the wood which is called Andredesleag [= The Weald ].)
  • 485: Battle of Mercredesburne  (Here Ælle fought against Welsh near the margin of Mearcrædesburna [= Mearcræd’s stream].)
  • 491: (Here Ælle and Cissa besieged Andredescester [now Pevensey ] and slew all who dwelt therein; no Briton was left [alive] afterwards.)
  • c. 497: Defeat of the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Mons Badonicus by Britons led by King Arthur.
The brothers in Edward Parrott’s Pageant of British History (1909).

6th Century

  • Around 500 AD: Average of suggested dates for the Battle of Badon.
  • Around 500 AD: Angles colonised the North Sea and Humber coastal areas, particularly around Holderness.
  • 501: (Here Port and his 2 sons Bieda and Mægla came to Britain with 2 ships to the place which is called Portsmouth and slew a young British man, a very noble man. [But this may be an old fiction, as a folk-etymology to explain the placename Ports-mouth.] )
  • 508: (Here Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and 5000 men with him. Afterwards that land was named Natanleag as far as Cerdicesford [= North Charford and South Charford ].)
  • c. 520: Saxons took control of Sussex, Kent, East Anglia and part of Yorkshire, West Saxons founded a Kingdom in Hampshire under Cerdic.
  • 535 & 536: The extreme weather events of 535-536 likely caused a great famine and thus population loss.
  • In or before 547: Bernicia established by Angles taking over part of a British area called Bryneich.
  • Around 549: A great plague caused much population loss.
  • About 560: Saxons conquered all of east Yorkshire and the British kingdom of Ebrauc, and there established Deira.
  • 571: (Battle of Bedcanford: Here Cuthwulf fought against Britons at Bedcanford and took 4 settlements: Limbury, Aylesbury, Benson & Eynsham. And in the same year he died.)
  • 573: Battle of Arfderydd at Arthuret in Cumbria: Briton fought Briton and weakened their numbers.
  • 577: Battle of Dyrham: Capture of Glevum, Corinium, Aquae Sulis by Saxons of Wessex led by Cealin. (Here Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against Britons and they slew 3 kings: Coinmail & Condidan & Farinmail, in the place which is called Dyrham, and took 3 towns: Gloucester & Cirencester & Bath. ): These entries seem to show that the Britons’ defences in the English Midlands collapsed, and the peace that followed the Battle of Mons Badonicus ended, and the Saxons obliterated the British Watling Street salient and united their areas and overran the London – Verulamium area and much of the plain of the Midlands. Loss of Bath would separate the Britons of Wales from the Britons of the southwest. After this, the border between Saxons and the southwest Britons was probably at the Wansdyke along the ridge of the Mendip Hills.
  • 581: Ælla of Deira took land from the Britons, thus establishing or enlarging Deira.
  • Around 584: The Kingdom of the Iclingas became Mercia.
  • 584: (Battle of Fethanleag: Here Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Britons in the place that is named Fethanleag and Cutha was slain, and Ceawlin took many settlements and countless war-loot, and in anger he returned to his own land.)
  • 590: Elmet joined an alliance of British kingdoms against the expanding Angles of Bernicia. See Elmet and History of Yorkshire Sub-Roman.
  • 592, West Saxons are defeated in the Battle of Woden’s Burg (Wōden‘s Burg).
  • 596, Angles defeated an alliance of Britons, Scots and Picts in the Battle of Raith.
  • Afterwards: The British king, Urien of Rheged was murdered. A feud broke out between two of this alliance’s key members.
Angles Saxona Invasion of Britain.

7th Century

  • Around 600: Battle of Catraeth (Catterick): also see Y Gododdin: An army from the Celtic kingdom of Gododdin fell in battle against the Angles of Deira and Bernicia at Catterick in Yorkshire.
  • Around 604: Deira and Bernicia united as Northumbria.
  • Afterwards: Elmet built earthworks north and west of Barwick-in-Elmet, where Elmet’s king’s seat was.
  • 614: (Here Cynegils and Cwichelm fought [on the same side] on Beandun, and slew 2,066 Welsh.)
  • 616: Autumn – Northumbria invaded and conquered Elmet.
  • 616: Likeliest date for the Battle of Chester, between a Northumbrian army and a Welsh army: heavy Welsh casualties, and their defeat severed the land connection between Wales and the Celts of northwest Britain.
  • 633, October 12: Battle of Hatfield (AC: 630, Meigen) near Doncaster in Yorkshire: Gwynedd and Mercia attacked and defeated Northumbria; Elmet and Ebrauc temporarily returned to Celtic rule.
  • 633 or 634: Battle of Heavenfield (AC: 631, Cantscaul) about 6 miles NW of Hexham: Northumbria expels the Gwynedd army.
  • 642: (Here Oswald king of Northumbria was slain) This may be the same battle as:-
  • 644: The Battle of Maserfield (alias Battle of Maes Cogwy), in which Oswald king of the Northmen and Eawa king of the Celtic Mercians fell. AC B
  • 652: Cenwalh of Wessex won a battle at Bradford-on-Avon.
  • 655, Nov 15: Battle of the Winwaed in which King Oswiu of Bernicia defeated and killed King Penda of Mercia. King Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd was allied with Penda but stayed out of the battle.
  • 658: (Here Cenwalh fought against Welsh [= Britons] at Penselwood, and drove them in flight as far as [the river] Parrett [in Somerset]; this was fought after he came from East Anglia. He was there 3 years in exile. Penda had driven him out, and taken his kingdom, because he abandoned his [= Penda’s] sister.)
  • 682: This year also, Centwine chased the Britons into the sea.
A twelfth-century painting of St Oswald, killed at Maserfield, in Durham Cathedral.

8th Century

  • 710: (… and in the same year ealdorman Beorhtfrith fought against Picts between [the rivers] Avon and Carron [which flow into the River Forth from the south about 20 miles west of Edinburgh ], and Ine and his relative Nunna fought against Geraint king of Welsh … [This second battle may have been the Battle of Llongborth.] ) …
  • 722: According to the Annales Cambriae, 722 saw “the battle of Hehil among the Cornish, the battle of Garth Maelog, [and] the battle of Pencon among the south Britons, and the Britons were the victors in those three battles.”
  • Before 730: Northumbria annexed the kingdom of Rheged.
  • 760: A battle between the Britons and the Saxons, the Battle of Hereford, in which Dyfnwal son of Tewdwr dies.
  • 778: The devastation of the South Britons by Offa.
  • 779: “Cynewulf and Offa fought at Bensington, and Offa took the town.”
  • 784: The devastation of Britain by Offa in the summer
  • 794: (796 [corrected from 794]: In this year pope Hadrian and king Offa die.) (797: Offa king of the Mercians and Maredudd king of the Demetians die, and the battle of Rhuddlan.)
  • 798: Caradog king of Gwynedd is killed by the Saxons.
King Offa of Mercia Penny.

9th Century

  • 813: (815 [corrected from 813]: … and in this year king Ecgbryht raided in Cornwall from east to west.)
  • 816: … Saxons invaded the mountains of Eryri and the kingdom of Rhufoniog.
  • 818: Cenwulf devastated the Dyfed region.
  • 822: The fortress of Degannwy is destroyed by the Saxons and they took the kingdom of Powys into their own control.
  • 823: (825 [corrected from 823]: Here was a fight of Welsh/Britons [against] men of Devon at Gafulford …)
  • 835:  (838 [corrected from 835]: Here a great ship-army [of Vikings] came to Cornwall and they [= the Cornish] joined them, and were fighting against Ecgbryht king of the West Saxons. Then he heard and with an army fought against them at Hengestdun and there put to flight both the Cornish and the Danes.)
  • 877: Rhodri Mawr, a Welsh opponent of the Vikings, and his son Gwriad were killed by Mercian forces, even though Mercia was almost completely under the control of the Vikings at the time.
  • 878: Alfred the Great defeated the remnants of the Great Heathen Army at The Battle of Edington.
  • 893:A combined force containing men from Mercia, Wessex and Wales besieged the Vikings at Buttington for several weeks, starving them out until finally the Vikings had to emerge and they were defeated there by the English and the Welsh: the surviving Vikings fled back to Essex.
The Great Heathen Army approaches English shores aboard a Viking Long-ship.

10th Century

  • 927: Athelstan evicted the Cornish from Exeter and refortified the city.
  • 936: King Athelstan set the boundary between England and Cornwall at the River Tamar.
  • 946: … And Strathclyde was laid waste by the Saxons.

11th Century

  • 1016: Battle of Assandun, fought in Essex on 18 October between the armies of Edmund Ironside (King of England) and Canute (King of Denmark).
  • 1059: Macht, son of Harold, came to Wales with a great army in his train; and the Prince Gruffudd, and Macht, with combined forces, proceeded against the Saxons, and devastated the country of England a great way towards its centre; and they returned to Wales with great spoil.
  • 1060: Caradoc, son of Rhydderch, son of lestin, hired Harold to come with an army to S.Wales. Then, conjointly with a great host of the men of Glamorgan and Gwent, they went against Grufudd. After Grufudd, son of Llywelyn, was slain, his head was cut off and taken as a present to Harold. (The ASC dates this as 1063)
  • 1063: Here Earl Harold and his brother Earl Tostig went into Wales both with land-army and ship-army, and conquered that land; and that people gave hostages and submitted to them, and afterwards went to and killed their king Gruffudd, and brought Harold his head, and he set another king for it. (Peterborough manuscript).
  • 1066: Battle of Hastings. William, Duke of Normandy, came as an intruder to the island of Britain, and a pitched battle took place between him and Harold; in which, after a severe and bloody fight, Harold was killed.
  • 1068: Some of the Saxons sought protection from the Normans in Powys then.. Afterwards, by the power of the Saxons, Bleddyn, son of Cynvyn, reigned sole king of Gwynedd and Powys; and Meredydd, son of Owain, son of Edwin, by the power of the Saxons became prince of South Wales.
William I King of England.

References

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Commissioned in the reign of Alfred the Great
  • Asser (2004). Keyne Lapidge tr, ed. Alfred the Great. Penguin Classic. ISBN 978-0-14-044409-4.
  • Bede (1990). Sherley-Price, Leo; Farmer, D.H., eds. Bede:Ecclesiastical History of the English People. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
  • Bede. :Ecclesiastical History of the English People. (1903). Translation based on L.C. Jane
  • Berresford Ellis, Peter (1985). The Celtic Revolution: Study in Anti-imperialism . Wales: Y Lolfa. ISBN 0-86243-096-8.
  • Campbell, J. (1982). J. Campbell, ed. The Anglo- Saxons. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-014395-5.
  • Morgan,, Kathleen; Smith, Brian S (1972). Elrington, C R; Herbert, N M; Pugh, R B, eds. “Fretherne and Saul: Introduction”. A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 10: Westbury and Whitstone Hundreds. Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 18 March 2010.
  • Esmonde Cleary, A. S. (1991). The ending of Roman Britain. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-23898-6.
  • Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (1848). Translation based on Thomas Habington & J. A. Giles
  • Gransden, Antonia (1974). Historical Writing in England c 550 – c1307. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-44203-2.
  • Huntingdon, Henry of (1996). Greenway, Diana E., ed. Historia Anglorum: the history of the English. Oxford: OUP. ISBN 0-19-822224-6.
  • Jones, Michael E. (1998). The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-8530-5.
  • Lobel, Mary D., ed. (1959). “Parishes: Stoke Lyne”. A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6. Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 18 March 2010.
  • Morris, John (1985) [1965]. “Dark Age Dates”. In Michael Jarrett and Brian Dobson. Britain and Rome.
  • Payton, Philip (1982). Cornwall: A History. Cornwall Editions Limited. ISBN 1-904880-05-3.
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (2003). The Britons. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-22260-6.
  • Stenton, F.M. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England 3rd edition. Oxford: OUP. ISBN 978-0-19-280139-5.
  • Walker, Ian (2000). Mercia and the Making of England. Stroud: Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-2131-5.
  • Welch, M.G. (1992). Anglo-Saxon England. English Heritage. ISBN 0-7134-6566-2.
  • Wood, Michael (1985). The Domesday Quest. London: BBC. ISBN 0-15-352274-7.
  • Wood, Michael (2005). In Search of the Dark Ages. London: BBC. ISBN 978-0-563-52276-8.

 

 

Hengist and Horsa and the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England

Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England.
The brothers in Edward Parrott’s Pageant of British History (1909).

According to early sources, Hengist and Horsa arrived in England at Ebbsfleet on the Isle of Thanet. For a time, they served as mercenaries for Vortigern, King of the Britons, but later they turned against him (English accounts have them betraying him in the Night of the Long Knives). Horsa was killed fighting the Britons, but Hengist successfully conquered Kent, becoming the forefather of its kings.

A figure named Hengest, who may be identifiable with the leader of British legend, appears in the Finnsburg Fragment and in Beowulf.

Legends of horse-associated founding brothers are attested among other Germanic peoples and appear in other Indo-European cultures. As a result, scholars have theorized a pan-Germanic mythological origin for Hengist and Horsa, stemming originally from divine twins found in Proto-Indo-European religion. Other scholars, including J. R. R. Tolkien, have argued for a historical basis for Hengist and Horsa.

The Old English names Hengest [hendʒest] and Horsa [horsɑ] mean “stallion” and “horse” respectively.

The original Old English word for a horse was eoh. Eoh derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *ekwo, hence Latin equus which gave rise to the modern English words equine and equestrian. Hors is derived from the Proto-Indo-European base *kurs, to run, which also gave rise to hurry, carry and current (the last two as borrowings from French).

Hors eventually replaced eoh, fitting a pattern elsewhere in Germanic languages where the original names of sacred animals are abandoned in favour of adjectives; for example, the word bear. While the Ecclesiastical History and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refer to the brother as Horsa, in the History of the Britons his name is simply Hors. It has been suggested that Horsa may be a pet form of a compound name with the first element “horse”.

Alternatively, it has also been suggested that these may have been given names or status titles within their tribe. It is possible that the tribe had horses as a totem animal, perhaps even sailing with ships emblazoned with horse figureheads. By tradition the brothers arrived with a banner of a white horse, which is preserved to this day as the emblem of Kent.

Banner of the County of Kent, England.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

In his 8th century Ecclesiastical History, Bede records that the first chieftains among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in England were said to have been Hengist and Horsa. He relates that Horsa was killed in battle against the Britons and was thereafter buried in East Kent, where at the time of writing a monument still stood to him. According to Bede, Hengist and Horsa were the sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in the year 449 Hengist and Horsa were invited to Britain by Vortigern to assist his forces in fighting the Picts. They landed at Eopwinesfleot (Ebbsfleet), and went on to defeat the Picts wherever they fought them. Hengist and Horsa sent word home to Germany describing “the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land” and asked for assistance.

Their request was granted and support arrived. Afterward, more people arrived in Britain from “the three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes”. The Saxons populated Essex, Sussex, and Wessex; the Jutes Kent, the Isle of Wight, and part of Hampshire; and the Angles East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria (leaving their original homeland, Angeln, deserted). These forces were led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa, sons of Wihtgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.

A Mosaic of Vortigern in battle.

In the entry for the year 455 the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford and that Horsa died there. Hengist took control of the kingdom with his son Esc. In 457, Hengist and Esc fought against British forces in Crayford “and there slew four thousand men”. The Britons left the land of Kent and fled to London. In 465, Hengest and Esc fought again at the Battle of Wippedesfleot, probably near Ebbsfleet, and slew twelve British leaders. In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist or Horsa, Hengist and Esc are recorded as having taken “immense booty” and the Britons having “fled from the English like fire”.

History of the Britons

The 9th century History of the Britons, attributed to the Briton Nennius, records that, during the reign of Vortigern in Britain, three vessels that had been exiled from Germany arrived in Britain, commanded by Hengist and Horsa. The narrative then gives a genealogy of the two: Hengist and Horsa were sons of Guictglis, son of Guicta, son of Guechta, son of Vouden, son of Frealof, son of Fredulf, son of Finn, son of Foleguald, son of Geta. Geta was said to be the son of a god, yet “not of the omnipotent God and our Lord Jesus Christ,” but rather “the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped according to the custom of the heathen.” In 447 AD, Vortigern received Hengist and Horsa “as friends” and gave to the brothers the Isle of Thanet.

Computer generated image of the Anglo-Saxon ship found at Sutton Hoo.

After the Saxons had lived on Thanet for “some time” Vortigern promised them supplies of clothing and other provisions on condition that they assist him in fighting the enemies of his country. As the Saxons increased in number the Britons became unable to keep their agreement, and so told them their assistance was no longer needed and they should go home.

Vortigern allowed Hengist to send for more of his countrymen to come over to fight for him. Messengers were sent to “Scythia“, where “a number” of warriors were selected, and, with sixteen ships, the messengers returned. With the men came Hengist’s beautiful daughter. Hengist prepared a feast, inviting Vortigern, Vortigern’s officers, and Ceretic, his translator. Prior to the feast, Hengist enjoined his daughter to serve the guests plenty of wine and ale so that they would become drunk. At the feast Vortigern became enamored with her and promised Hengist whatever he liked in exchange for her betrothal. Hengist, having “consulted with the Elders who attended him of the Angle race,” demanded Kent. Without the knowledge of the then-ruler of Kent, Vortigern agreed.

Hengist’s daughter was given to Vortigern, who slept with her and deeply loved her. Hengist told him that he would now be both his father and adviser and that he would know no defeat with his counsel, “for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust.” With Vortigern’s approval, Hengist would send for his son and his brother to fight against the Scots and those who dwelt near the wall. Vortigern agreed and Ochta and Ebissa arrived with 40 ships, sailed around the land of the Picts, conquered “many regions,” and assaulted the Orkney Islands. Hengist continued to send for more ships from his country, so that some islands where his people had previously dwelt are now free of inhabitants.

Anglo-Saxons in battle with the Picts.

Vortigern had meanwhile incurred the wrath of Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre (by taking his own daughter for a wife and having a son by her) and had gone into hiding at the advice of his counsel. But at length his son Vortimer engaged Hengist and Horsa and their men in battle, drove them back to Thanet and there enclosed them and beset them on the western flank. The war waxed and waned; the Saxons repeatedly gained ground and were repeatedly driven back. Vortimer attacked the Saxons four times: first enclosing the Saxons in Thanet, secondly fighting at the river Derwent, the third time at Epsford, where both Horsa and Vortigern’s son Catigern died, and lastly “near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea,” where the Saxons were defeated and fled to their ships.

After a “short interval” Vortimer died and the Saxons became established, “assisted by foreign pagans.” Hengist convened his forces and sent to Vortigern an offer of peace. Vortigern accepted, and Hengist prepared a feast to bring together the British and Saxon leaders. However, he instructed his men to conceal knives beneath their feet. At the right moment, Hengist shouted nima der sexa (get your knives) and his men massacred the unsuspecting Britons. However, they spared Vortigern, who ransomed himself by giving the Saxons Essex, Sussex, Middlesex, and other unnamed districts.

Germanus of Auxerre was acclaimed as commander of the British forces. By praying, singing hallelujah and crying to God, the Saxons were driven to the sea. Germanus then prayed for three days and nights at Vortigern’s castle and fire fell from heaven and engulfed the castle. Vortigern, Hengist’s daughter, Vortigern’s other wives, and all other inhabitants burned to death. Potential alternate fates for Vortigern are provided. However, the Saxons continued to increase in numbers, and after Hengist died his son Ochta succeeded him.

300s B.C. Celts in Britain. A.D 449 the Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England. 55 B.C–A.D.409. Roman Occupation. A.D.878. King Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings.

History of the Kings of Britain

Vortigern and Rowena, by William Hamilton (1793).

In his pseudo-historical twelfth century work The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth adapted and greatly expanded the account in the History of the Britons. Hengist and Horsa appear in books 6 and 8:

Book 6

Geoffrey records that three brigantines or long galleys arrived in Kent, full of armed men and commanded by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Vortigern was then staying at Dorobernia (Canterbury), and ordered that the “tall strangers” be received peacefully and brought to him. When Vortigern saw the company, he immediately observed that the brothers “excelled all the rest both in nobility and in gracefulness of person.” He asked what country they had come from and why they had come to his kingdom. Hengist (“whose years and wisdom entitled him to precedence”) replied that they had left their homeland of Saxony to offer their services to Vortigern or some other prince, as part of a Saxon custom in which, when the country became overpopulated, able young men were chosen by lot to seek their fortunes in other lands. Hengist and Horsa were made generals over the exiles, as befitted their noble birth.

Vortigern was aggrieved when he learned that the strangers were pagans, but nonetheless rejoiced at their arrival, since he was surrounded by enemies. He asked Hengist and Horsa if they would help him in his wars, offering them land and “other possessions.” They accepted the offer, settled on an agreement, and stayed with Vortigern at his court. Soon after, the Picts came from Alba with an immense army and attacked the northern parts of Vortigern’s kingdom. In the ensuing battle “there was little occasion for the Britons to exert themselves, for the Saxons fought so bravely, that the enemy, formerly victorious, were speedily put to flight.”

In gratitude Vortigern increased the rewards he has promised to the brothers. Hengist was given “large possessions of lands in Lindsey for the subsistence of himself and his fellow-soldiers.” A “man of experience and subtilty,” Hengist told Vortigern that his enemies assailed him from every quarter, and that his subjects wished to depose him and make Aurelius Ambrosius king. He asked the king to allow him to send word to Saxony for more soldiers. Vortigern agreed, adding that Hengist could invite over whom he pleases and that “you shall have no refusal from me in whatever you shall desire.”

Ambrosius Aurelianus was a war leader of the Romano-British who won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, according to Gildas. He also appeared independently in the legends of the Britons, beginning with the 9th-century Historia Brittonum.

Hengist bowed low in thanks, and made a further request, that he be made a consul or prince, as befitted his birth. Vortigern responded that it was not in his power to do this, reasoning that Hengist was a foreign pagan and would not be accepted by the British lords. Hengist asked instead for leave to build a fortress on a piece of land small enough that it could be encircled by a leather thong. Vortigern granted this and ordered Hengist to invite more Saxons.

After executing Vortigern’s orders, Hengist took a bull’s hide and made it into a single thong, which he used to encircle a carefully-chosen rocky place (perhaps at Caistor in Lindsey). Here he built the castle of Kaercorrei, or in Saxon Thancastre: “thong castle.”

The messengers returned from Germany with eighteen ships full of the best soldiers they could get, as well as Hengist’s beautiful daughter Rowena. Hengist invited Vortigern to see his new castle and the newly arrived soldiers. A banquet was held in Thancastre, at which Vortigern drunkenly asked Hengist to let him marry Rowena. Horsa and the men all agreed that Hengist should allow the marriage, on the condition that Vortigern gave him Kent.

Vortigern and Rowena were immediately married and Hengist was given Kent. The king was delighted with his new wife, but he incurred the hatred of his nobles and of his three sons.

Rowena as depicted in popular mythology.

As his new father-in-law, Hengist made further demands of Vortigern:

As I am your father, I claim the right of being your counsellor: do not therefore slight my advice, since it is to my countrymen you must owe the conquest of all your enemies. Let us invite over my son Octa, and his brother Ebissa, who are brave soldiers, and give them the countries that are in the northern parts of Britain, by the wall, between Deira and Alba. For they will hinder the inroads of the barbarians, and so you shall enjoy peace on the other side of the Humber.

Vortigern agreed. Upon receiving the invitation, Octa, Ebissa, and another lord, Cherdich, immediately left for Britain with three hundred ships. Vortigern received them kindly, and gave them ample gifts. With their assistance, Vortigern defeated his enemies in every engagement.

All the while Hengist continued inviting over yet more ships, adding to his numbers daily. Witnessing this, the Britons tried to get Vortigern to banish the Saxons, but on account of his wife he would not. Consequently, his subjects turned against him and took his son Vortimer for their king.

The Saxons and the Britons, led by Vortimer, met in four battles. In the second, Horsa and Vortimer’s brother, Catigern, slew one another. By the fourth battle, the Saxons had fled to Thanet, where Vortimer besieged them. When the Saxons could no longer bear the British onslaughts, they sent out Vortigern to ask his son to allow them safe passage back to Germany. While discussions were taking place, the Saxons boarded their ships and left, leaving their wives and children behind.

Angles Saxona Warriors in Battle.

The victorious Vortimer was poisoned by Rowena, and Vortigern returned to the throne. At his wife’s request he invited Hengist back to Britain, but instructed him to bring only a small retinue. Hengist, knowing Vortimer to be dead, instead raised an army of 300,000 men. When Vortigern caught word of the imminent arrival of the vast Saxon fleet, he resolved to fight them. Rowena alerted her father of this, who, after considering various strategies, resolved to make a show of peace and sent ambassadors to Vortigern.

The ambassadors informed Vortigern that Hengist had only brought so many men because he did not know of Vortimer’s death and feared further attacks from him. Now that there was no threat, Vortigern could choose from among the men the ones he wished to return to Germany. Vortigern was greatly pleased by these tidings, and arranged to meet Hengist on the first of May at the monastery of Ambrius.

Before the meeting, Hengist ordered his soldiers to carry long daggers beneath their clothing. At the signal Nemet oure Saxas (get your knives), the Saxons fell upon the unsuspecting Britons and massacred them, while Hengist held Vortigern by his cloak. 460 British barons and consuls were killed, as well as some Saxons whom the Britons beat to death with club and stones. Vortigern was held captive and threatened with death until he resigned control of Britain’s chief cities to Hengist. Once free, he fled to Cambria.

Book 8

In Cambria, Merlin prophesied to Vortigern that the brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, who had fled to Armorica as children after Vortigern killed their brother and father, would return to have their revenge and defeat the Saxons. They arrived the next day, and, after rallying the dispersed Britons, Aurelius was proclaimed king. Aurelius marched into Cambria and burned Vortigern alive in his tower, before setting his sights upon the Saxons.

Merlin, the mythological sorcerer of Avalon.

Hengist was struck by terror at the news of Vortigern’s death and fled with his army beyond the Humber. He took courage at the approach of Aurelius and selected the bravest among his men to defend. Hengist told these chosen men not to be afraid of Aurelius, for he had brought less than 10,000 Armorican Britons (the native Britons were hardly worth taking into account), while there were 200,000 Saxons. Hengist and his men advanced towards Aurelius in a field called Maisbeli (probably Ballifield, near Sheffield), intending to take the Britons by surprise, but Aurelius anticipated them.

As they marched to meet the Saxons, Eldol, Duke of Gloucester told Aurelius that he greatly wished to meet Hengist in combat, noting that “one of the two of us should die before we parted.” He explained that he had been at the Treachery of the Long Knives, but had escaped when God threw him a stake to defend himself with, making him the only Briton present to survive. Meanwhile, Hengist was placing his troops into formation, giving directions, and walking through the lines of troops, “the more to spirit them up.”

With the armies in formation, battle began between the Britons and Saxons, both sides shedding “no small loss of blood.” Eldol focused on attempting to find Hengist, but had no opportunity to fight him. “By the especial favour of God,” the Britons took the upper hand, and the Saxons withdrew and made for Kaerconan (Conisbrough). Aurelius pursued them, killing or enslaving any Saxon he met on the way. Realizing Kaerconan would not hold against Aurelius, Hengist stopped outside the town and ordered his men to make a stand, “for he knew that his whole security now lay in his sword.”

Celtic Warriors.

Aurelius reached Hengist, and a “most furious” fight ensued, with the Saxons maintaining their ground despite heavy losses. They came close to winning before a detachment of horses from the Armorican Britons arrived. When Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall arrived, Eldol knew the day was won and grabbed Hengist’s helmet, dragging him into the British ranks. The Saxons fled. Hengist’s son Octa retreated to York and his kinsman Eosa to Alclud (Dumbarton).

Three days after the battle, Aurelius called together a council of principal officers to decide what would be done with Hengist. Eldol’s brother Eldad, Bishop of Gloucester, said:

Though all should be unanimous for setting him at liberty, yet would I cut him to pieces. The prophet Samuel is my warrant, who, when he had Agag, king of Amalek, in his power, hewed him in pieces, saying, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. Do therefore the same to Hengist, who is a second Agag.

Consequently, Eldol drew Hengist out of the city and cut off his head. Aurelius, “who showed moderation in all his conduct,” arranged for him to be buried and for a mound to be raised over his corpse, according to the custom of pagans. Octa and Eosa surrendered to Aurelius, who granted them the country bordering Scotland and made a firm covenant with them.

Prose Edda

Hengist is briefly mentioned in Prologue, the first book of the Prose Edda, written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. In Prologue, a euhemerized account of Germanic history is given, including that Woden put three of his sons in charge of Saxony. The ruler of eastern Saxony was Veggdegg, one of whose sons was Vitrgils, the father of Vitta, the father of Hengist.

Horse-head gables

On farmhouses in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, horse-head gables were referred to as “Hengst und Hors” as late as around 1875. Rudolf Simek notes that these horse heads gables can still be seen today, and says that the horse-head gables confirm that Hengist and Horsa were originally considered mythological, horse-shaped beings. Martin Litchfield West comments that the horse heads may have been remnants of pagan religious practices in the area.

A gable in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Coat of arms of Spornitz, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Theories

Finnsburg Fragment and Beowulf

A Hengest appears in line 34 of the Finnsburg Fragment, which describes the legendary Battle of Finnsburg. In Beowulf, a scop recites a composition summarizing the Finnsburg events, including information not provided in the fragment. Hengest is mentioned in lines 1082 and 1091.

Some scholars have proposed that the figure mentioned in both of these references is one and the same as the Hengist of the Hengist and Horsa accounts, though Horsa is not mentioned in either source. In his work Finn and Hengest, Tolkien argued that Hengist was a historical figure, and that Hengist came to Britain after the events recorded in the Finnsburg Fragment and Beowulf. Patrick Sims-Williams is more skeptical of the account, suggesting that Bede’s Canterbury source, which he relied on for his account of Hengist and Horsa in the Ecclesiastical History, had confused two separate traditions.

Germanic twin brothers and divine Indo-European horse twins

Several sources attest that the Germanic peoples venerated a divine pair of twin brothers. The earliest reference to this practice derives from Timaeus (c. 345 – c. 250 BC). Timeaus records that the Germanic peoples (whom he refers to as “Celts”) of the North Sea were especially devoted to what he describes as Castor and Pollux. In his work Germania, Tacitus records the veneration of the Alcis, whom he identifies with Castor and Pollux. Germanic legends mention various brothers as founding figures. The 1st or 2nd century historian Cassius Dio cites the brothers Raos and Raptos as the leaders of the Astings. According to Paul the Deacon‘s 8th century History of the Lombards, the Lombards migrated southward from Scandinavia led by Ibur and Aio, while Saxo Grammaticus records in his 12th century Deeds of the Danes that this migration was prompted by Aggi and Ebbi. In related Indo-European cultures, similar traditions are attested, such as the Dioscuri. Scholars have theorized that these divine twins in Indo-European cultures stem from divine twins in prehistoric Proto-Indo-European culture.

Tacitus, in full Publius Cornelius Tacitus, or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (born ad 56—died c. 120), Roman orator and public official, probably the greatest historian and one of the greatest prose stylists who wrote in the Latin language.

J. P. Mallory comments on the great importance of the horse in Indo-European religion, as exemplified “most obviously” by various mythical brothers appearing in Indo-European legend, including Hengist and Horsa:

Some would maintain that the premier animal of the Indo-European sacrifice and ritual was probably the horse. We have already seen how its embedment in Proto-Indo-European society lies not just in its lexical reconstruction but also in the proliferation of personal names which contain “horse” as an element among the various Indo-European peoples. Furthermore, we witness the importance of the horse in Indo-European rituals and mythology. One of the most obvious examples is the recurrent depiction of twins such as the Indic Asvins “horsemen,” the Greek horsemen Castor and Pollux, the legendary Anglo-Saxon settlers Horsa and Hengist […] or the Irish twins of Macha, born after she had completed a horse race. All of these attest the existence of Indo-European divine twins associated with or represented by horses.

Uffington White Horse

Aerial view of the White Horse Uffington Oxfordshire.

In his 17th century work Monumenta Britannica, John Aubrey ascribes the Uffington White Horse hill figure to Hengist and Horsa, stating that “the White Horse was their Standard at the Conquest of Britain”. However, elsewhere he ascribes the origins of the horse to the pre-Roman Britons, reasoning that the horse resembles certain Iron Age British coins. As a result, advocates of a Saxon origin of the figure debated with those favoring an ancient British origin for three centuries after Aubrey’s findings. In 1995, using optically stimulated luminescence dating, David Miles and Simon Palmer of the Oxford Archaeological Unit assigned the Uffington White Horse to the late Bronze Age.

Aschanes

The Brothers Grimm identified Hengist with Aschanes, mythical first King of the Saxons, in their notes for legend number 413 of their German Legends. Editor and translator Donald Ward, in his commentary on the tale, regards the identification as untenable on linguistic grounds.

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