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Stevenson's edition for the English Historical Society renders the work thoroughly accessible to modern English readers. Indeed, there is no reason why everybody who knows enough Latin to make out the sense of Cæsar's “Commentaries” should not study Beda for himself in the original. For those who cannot, an excellent translation exists in the collection of English Church Historians. The earlier portion of the “ Ecclesiastical History” is taken up with
« the events which preceded the conversion of the English to Christianity, and therefore deals mainly with the Britons (or Welsh) and their Roman masters. This part of the work is a mere compilation from the writings of older authors, such as the “Universal History” of Orosius, and the doubtful lamentations of the Welsh monk Gildas. But from the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury, Beda ceases to be a second-hand narrator, and continues the story of the English church and people as an original investigator. For his materials he was apparently indebted to three sources : his own personal knowledge, verbal information from others, and written documents now lost. But of his general fidelity no doubt exists. Not only do his facts usually tally with those which we learn elsewhere, but the documents which he quotes are almost always correctly cited. In one interesting case, that of King Cadwalla's monument in Rome (of which I shall have more to say hereafter), the original epitaph still exists, and it differs from Beda's copy only in two or three unimportant verbal particulars. Such unimpeachable evidence affords us every ground of confidence in the historical
accuracy of our author. I propose to give a few selected extracts from the “ Historia Ecclesiastica,” as I have already done from the English Chronicle, in order that Beda may speak for himself to our modern ears. It will be clear from the passages here selected, that Beda's History is quite
valuable from a social and political standpoint as from the purely ecclesiastical point of view.
In Book I, cap. xxxiv. Beda thus narrates the exploits of Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria, who ascended the throne about the year 592, three-quarters of a century before Beda's birth. The chapter is headed, “How Aedilfrid, king of the Northan-hymbri, wasting the tribes of the Scots in battle, expelled them from the territories of the English."
In these times there reigned over the kingdom of the Northan-hymbri a
brave and ambitious king, Aedilsrid, who, more than all other nobles of the English, wasted the race of the Britons : so that he seemed comparable to Saul, formerly king of the Israelitish people, this only being excepted, that he was ignorant of the divine religion.” (Observe, in passing, how meritorious an act it appeared to Beda that an English king should“ waste the Britons,” – just as a
Western American might talk to-day of smashing the Indians.) “For no one of our tribunes,"—the word is Beda's, not mine ; perhaps he thought it the finest Latin for the English ealdorman—“no one of our kings, has rendered more of their lands either tributary to or an integral part of the English territory, whether by subjugating or by exterminating the natives. To whom we might rightly apply that phrase which the patriarch employed in blessing his son in the person of Saul, • Benjamin, a ravening wolf, in the morning shall devour the prey, and at night shall divide the spoil.' Whence, moved by his proceedings, Aedan, king of the Scots, who inhabit Britain "- to distinguish them from the other and original Scots who inhabited Ireland—“came against him with an immense and powerful army : but he fled, beaten, with a mere handful. Sooth to say, at a famous spot called Degsa's-stán,” (that is, the stone of Degsa) “almost all his army was cut to pieces. In which battle, also, Theobald, brother of Aedilfrid, with all his detachment, was destroyed. Which aforesaid war Aedilfrid completed in the six hundred and third year from the incarnation of our Lord, but of his own reign (which he held for twenty-four years) the eleventh : furthermore, in the first year of Focas (Phocas), who then held the highest post of the Roman kingdom. From that time forward none of the Scottish kings has ventured to come against the English nation unto this day.”
This single passage sufficiently shows several characteristic marks of Beda's style, and several of the lessons which we may learn from him. Note, first, the careful manner in which the dates are given and verified, so as to synchronize all the events with which the historian deals. Indeed, Beda was a terrible stickler for chronology, and was constantly writing upon that important mediæval question, the construction of the Kalendar, In times when a few days' discrepancy as to the date of keeping Easter might imperil a man's chance of eternal salvation, it was no wonder that the worthy monks kept a sharp look-out upon the moon's phases. Then, again, observe the singular moral atmosphere in which Beda lived, when to waste the Britons was a deed almost sufficient to atone for paganism itself. And, lastly, notice the implications of that allusion to kings and ealdormen of the English who subjugated and rendered tributary the native Cymri. These few words are in themselves a satisfactory answer to those Teutonic dogmatists who will have it that the English conquerors utterly exterminated the aboriginal Kelts. The truth is, as I have endeavoured to show elsewhere, that more than half the population of Britain is at this moment of Keltic descent.
The following passage, which occurs after the history of the conversion of Kent, introduces the celebrated synod held by Augustine with the Welsh clergy S
"Meanwhile Augustine, aided by king Aedilberct, convened to a colloquy the bishops and doctors of the nearest province of the Britons, in the place which to the present day is called in the English language Augustinas Ac, that is to say, the Oak of Augustine, on the borders of the Huiccii (Worcestershire) and the West Saxons; and he began to admonish them with a brotherly admonition to embrace with him the Catholic faith, and to undertake the common task of evangelizing the pagans. For they did not observe Easter Sunday at the proper period, but kept it from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon, which computation results in a cycle of eighty-four years! Moreover they did many other things contrary to the unity of the church.” For example, they insisted upon heretically cutting their tonsure in a crescent instead of a circle, which criminal practice all the eloquence of Augustine could not induce them to abandon. It is not surprising, after such obdurate conduct, that the Welsh Christians should have been afterwards “wasted” by the aforesaid pagan king, Aethelfrith of Northumbria, who “collected a great army at the City of the Legions (Chester) (which is called by the English Legacaestir, but by the Britons more correctly Carlegion), and made a terrible slaughter of the perfidious race.” The unhappy Welsh, it must be remembered, besides being foreigners, were also heretics, and thus deserving of little pity at Beda's hands. Over two thousand Welsh monks of Bangor Iscoed were slain by the heathen invader. “And thus," concludes the pious and patriotic Northumbrian, “ the prediction of the holy pontiff Augustine was fulfilled, although he himself had long since been raised to the heavenly kingdom ; so that even in this world the wicked heretics might know by the vengeance which overtook them how wrongfully they had slighted the counsels of eternal salvation offered to their acceptance." It will be seen that to the mediæval mind it was no light matter to trifle with the date of holidays. Nevertheless, Beda explains that Aethelfrith killed the monks because, though they bore no arms, they prayed against him: whence we may conclude that the English did not usually put to death non-combatant Welshmen.
The next great king of Northumbria whom Beda celebrates is Eadwine, under whose auspices his country embraced Christianity. “At this time,” says Beda, “ the nation of the Northan-hymbri, that is, the tribe of English who dwell on the northern side of the river Humber, received the word of the faith, with their king Aedwin, by the preaching of Paulinus, whom I have already mentioned. As an earnest of this king's future conversion and translation to the heavenly kingdom, even his temporal power was permitted to increase greatly, so that he did what no other Englishman had done before—that is to say, he united under his own rule all the provinces of Britain, inhabited either by English or Britons. Moreover, he subdued to the empire of the English the Mevanian islands (Anglesey and Man),
the first and southernmost of which (being also the largest and most fertile) contains a sufficient space for nine hundred and sixty families, according to English measurement, while the second holds over three hundred.” The first-named island has ever since borne the appropriate name of Angles' Ey,—the Isle of Englishmen. But it must be remembered that the population of Man is still mainly Keltic. Here too we see that even in pagan times the Teutonic invaders did not utterly destroy the native Kelts, as has been often asserted.
The historian goes on to narrate the causes which led to the conversion of Eadwine, amongst which we may mention, first, the fact that he had married Aethelburgh, a daughter of Aethelberht, the Christian king of Kent. Paulinus, the first apostle of the North, accompanied the Kentish princess to her new home. But it was a semi-miraculous escape from an assassin, and the safe birth of a daughter, which convinced Eadwine of the efficacy of Christianity. " In the succeeding year” , says Beda, “there came into the
“ province a certain cut-throat, named Eumer, sent by Cwichelm, king of the West Saxons, and hoping to deprive the king at once of his kingdom and his life. He had with him a two-edged poisoned sword, so that if the wound itself was not sufficient to kill the king, he might perish of the venom. This man arrived at the king's palace on the first day of Eastertide (April 17th), near the river Deruventio (Derwent], where was then the royal city.” It still bears the name of Coningsborough, “the king's town,” like our later Kingstons. "He entered as though bearing an embassy from his own lord, and after delivering his pretended message, he rose suddenly, unsheathed his dagger, and made an attack upon the king. Lilla, a faithful servant (thegn) of the king, saw the intended blow, and having no shield at hand to defend his master from death, at once interposed his own body before the thrust. But with such force did the assassin drive home his dagger, that even through the body of the murdered soldier he wounded the king. .... On the self-same blessed Easter night," continues the good chronicler, “the queen bore the king a daughter, by name Eanfled: and when the king, in the presence of Bishop Paulinus, offered up thanks to his gods for the safe birth of his daughter, the bishop on the other hand began to offer up thanks to the Lord Christ, and to assure the king that he by his prayers had obtained from the Lord the safe and painless delivery of the qucen." Eadwine, however, though smitten with conviction, was determined not to act precipitately; so, instead of being at once baptised, he first went on an expedition against the faithless Cwichelm, and utterly overthrew the West Saxon king. After this further proof of the
power of the faith, he returned to Coningsborough, and put himself as a catechumen under the care of Paulinus. The pope himself was induced to interest himself in so promising a convert, and he wrote a couple of letters to Eadwine and his queen. These letters, the originals of which were doubtless carefully preserved in the royal archives, are copied in full by Beda, as are many other official documents throughout the whole of the "Ecclesiastical History." They are superscribed respectively “To the glorious Ædwin, king of the English, Bonifacius the Bishop, servant of the servants of God," and “To the glorious lady, our daughter, Queen Ædilberg, Bonifacius, &c." The letters are rather hortatory than argumentative ; but no doubt the honour of receiving such an epistle from the Bishop of the Eternal City was not without its full influence upon Eadwine's semibarbaric mind.
Still, the prudent king held back. He took advice of his witan, and first of the high priest Coifi. That candid pontiff delivered himself after this fashion-or at least Beda does so on his account, much as Herodotus narrates the argument of the Persian conspirators on the relative advantages of democracy and despotism:-“I advise you, king, to look into the new religion which is now preached to us; but I will tell you what I have learnt by experience—that this religion which we have hitherto held is of no practical use or value whatsoever. None of your subjects has given himself up more studiously than I have to the culture of our gods, and yet there are many who receive greater benefits and higher rewards from you than I do, and who prosper more in all their social and commercial arrangements. But if the gods were worth anything, they would rather choose to assist me than those who serve them less carefully.” No doubt the monks of Jarrow, with their 15,000 acres of land, could fully appreciate the force of this truly English and practical argument. At any rate, Coifi acted up to his professions, for he instantly profaned the temple of his gods by flinging a lance at it in derision, as Laocoon did at the Trojan horse. The gods, strange to say, did not avenge this insult to their abode. Thereupon, “King Aduin, with all the nobles and most of the common folk of his nation, received the faith and the font of holy regeneration, in the eleventh year of his reign, which is the year of our Lord's incarnation the six hundred and twenty-seventh and about the hundred and eightieth after the arrival of the English in Britain. He was baptised at York on Easter-day, the first before the Ides of April (April 12), in the church of St. Peter the Apostle, which he himself had hastily built of wood, while he was being catechised and prepared for