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Sep 24 The Venerable Bede

Today in the year 654 the first general council of the Anglo-Saxon Church opened. It was convened in Hertford, by Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury. The Venerable Bede is the historical source for this council, as he included its text in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The council was attended by five bishops from across Anglo-Saxon England. Bede also records royal attendance, as King Ecgfrith of Northumbria was present and it was a milestone in the organisation of the Anglo-Saxon Church.


The decrees passed by its delegates focused on issues of authority and structure within the church helping to achieve unification in the English Church and denoted the introduction of the English Church to ‘synodical government’, which was an established format on the Continent.

The influential Synod of Whitby predated the Council of Hertford, but Whitby was specifically convened to discuss the controversial issue of the dating of Easter. Thus, Hertford was the first instance in which the bishops convened to discuss general ecclesiastical issue and acted as a precedent for future synods. While the Greek and Roman councils acted as the ‘ultimate model’, the early Anglo-Saxon councils ‘set the style’ for future proceedings . Issues discussed setting limits to a bishops power, respecting diocesan boundaries and monastic independence, although allowed the local bishop to participate in the election of abbots in his diocese thereby not disregarding the right given by the Rule of St Benedict. That clergy are not to ‘leave their own bishop nor wander about at will’ & monks were restricted to their monasteries, and this was significant as it meant the establishment of a stable diocesan system and an end of the migratory stage in the Conversion of England. It also importantly made rules concerning marriage. Reasserting that ‘nothing be allowed but lawful wedlock’ and this would have a profound effect on the social structure of the emerging country.

The fact that we have such reliable and accurate records of this is due to the work of the Venerable Bede, a Benedictine monk from Northumbria. Bede's reputation as a historian, is due to his most famous work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, gained him the title "The Father of English History". He has an unrivalled place among first historians of Christian Europe. He is now known as Saint Bede and in 1899, Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church. He is the only native of Great Britain to achieve this designation; as Anselm of Canterbury, also a Doctor of the Church, was originally from Italy.

St Bede's monastery in Wearmouth

He is well known as an author, teacher (Alcuin of York who invented the Capital Letter, was a student of one of his pupils see pod of May 19 ). Another important area of study for Bede was the academic discipline of computus, then known as the discipline of calculating calendar dates. He helped popularize the practice of dating forward from the birth of Christ (Anno Domini – in the year of our Lord), a practice which eventually became commonplace in medieval Europe. Bede's monastery had access to an impressive library which included works by Eusebius, Orosius, and many others. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People was completed in about 731. Spanning Five Books, The first one 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. 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 and it is here that we find his account of the Synod of Hertford.

At the time Bede wrote the Historia Ecclesiastica, there were two common ways of referring to dates. One was to use indictions, which were 15-year cycles, counting from 312 AD. The other approach was to use regnal years—the reigning Roman emperor, for example, or the ruler of whichever kingdom was under discussion. This meant that in discussing conflicts between kingdoms, the date would have to be given in the regnal years of all the kings involved. Bede used both these approaches on occasion but adopted a third method as his main approach to dating: the Anno Domini method invented by Dionysius Exiguus. Although Bede did not invent this method, his work on chronology, is the main reason it is now so widely used.


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