PW: St Egbert of Iona

Today is the feast day of St Egbert of Iona.

“The monks of Iona accepted the catholic way of life under the teaching of Egbert, while Dunchad was abbot [707-717], about eighty years after they had sent Bishop Aidan to preach to the English. The man of God, Egbert, remained for thirteen years on the island which he had consecrated to Christ, lighting once more, as it were with the gracious light of ecclesiastical fellowship and peace. In the year of our Lord 729, when Easter fell on 24 April, after he had celebrated a solemn mass in memory of the Lord’s resurrection, he departed to be with the Lord on the same day. … It was a wonderful dispensation of the divine providence that the venerable man not only passed from this world to the Father on Easter Day, but also when Easter was being celebrated on a date on which it had never been kept in those places.” (Bede, HE V. 22, McClure and Collins, p. 287)

It is interesting that Bede notes that Egbert had been on Iona 13 years, placing his arrival in 716 the very year that the monks had been driven out of Pictland and the same year that King Cenred, brother of Bede’s King Ceolwulf became King of Northumbria. Given that Bede credits Columba as the missionary (apostle?) to the Picts in his chronological summary (HE V.24), their expulsion from Pictland 52 years after their similiar expulsion from Northumbria is significant. Here Bede couldn’t help himself but to note that Egbert consecrated the island for Christ – meaning that St. Columba’s consecration of Iona had to be repeated.

I believe I have noted elsewhere that Bede is a bit loose on this date, manipulating it to suit his purposes. Here he wants to show Egbert’s coming to Iona with the explusion from Pictland. In HE III.4 he claims that the Columban calculations of Easter lasted until 715, 150 years after the coming of Columba to Iona. If he allows these dates to slide a little, then the 52 years since Whitby should be considered about 50 as well.

So Bede’s chronology in the summary of HE V.24 goes like this:

  • 449: English arrive in Britain
  • 565: St Columba founds Iona.
  • 597: Augustine arrives in Britain, noting its roughly 150 years after the English arrive. [In III.4 he notes Columba dies about 32 years after arriving on Iona, ie. 597! – expressly not noted in the summary even though the summary notes he was the missionary to the Picts]
  • 716: Egbert converts Iona to Roman Easter calculations (and reconsecrates the island!) about 80 years after Aidan arrives in Northumbria. [Therefore, Egbert converts Iona 150 years after Columba comes to Iona; Augustine converts the English 150 years after their arrival in Britain. Aidan’s arrival about 80 years earlier nearly splits that time in half…]

Makes me wonder what kind of symbolism Bede saw in those 150 year intervals. It seems that it took both Iona and ‘the English’ 150 years to fully mature for Iona to come into the Roman fold and for the English church to produce missionaries, correcting the primary source of their own missionaries. The only symbolism I can think of that is 150 is the 150 psalms, but I may just have psalms on the brain. Given that the Irish divided their pslater into thirds of 50 pslams each; 50 years from Whibty to explusion from Pictland would also fit the symbolism.

Egbert is one of the few fellow Englishmen that Bede specifically called a saint in his History. The entry in the chronological summary actually calls him “St. Egbert”; he is the only one so designated in the summary. To me, the entry in the Greater Chronicle is the most remarkable considering how few Anglo-Saxons Bede records there. Bede is a little odd in which Englishmen (and women) who he includes in the Greater Chronicle: Kings Aethelfrith and Aelle, Aethelberht and Edwin, and saints Aethelthryth (with K. Ecgfrith), Egbert, Willibrord, Cuthbert, and his abbot Coelfrith. Many of these references are pretty slight, but Bishop Egbert’s entry is every bit as elaborate as Cuthbert or Willibrord. A further study of Egbert and his importance to Bede seems merited.

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7 comments on “PW: St Egbert of Iona

  1. I wonder if what’s significant is less the interval, i.e. 150 years, and more the symmetry. I think Bede loved symmetry. He seemed to take delight, for instance, in the fact that Hild spent 33 years in the laity, 33 years under vows. My guess is that there are other examples of this scattered throughout his work, but, being a lazy writer type, I’ve never bothered to hunt them down–I hadn’t noticed the 150/150, for example, but I find it doesn’t surprise me a bit.

  2. Michelle says:

    Given that 33 is the predicted age of Jesus at his death, it is also highly symbolic. I wonder how they get to an age of 33 for Jesus though… and does the symbolic importance of the number 3 come into play.

  3. And how differently do symbols work in Roman vs. Arabic numerals?

  4. Michelle says:

    Good question…I don’t know. I don’t think it has to do with the visual display of the number though. For Christians, it has to do with the trinity. The number three crops up more often than coincidence in pre-Christian religions too: Zeus-Poseidon-Hades, or Oden-Thor-Freyr etc – three gods leading the pantheon in these cases. Isn’t there a group of three main gods for the Egyptians too?

  5. The Egyptians? They had so many sets, depending on the era/dynasty, that I’ve never been able to keep track.

    And three, oh definitely. V. symbolic. Like seven. (Seven, though, is not as universal; it feels more–for want of a better word–Celtic.)

  6. Michelle says:

    Seven is not universal? Seven days of creation are pretty big. David is the seventh son, if I recall correctly. Seven is the number for completeness in the bible.

  7. Yep, seven is pretty big 🙂 I think, to use political parlance, I might have ‘misspoken’. Sigh.

    Anyway, seven seems to be used a lot in Irish and British mythology–I’m thinking of things like CĂşchulainn and Thomas the Rhymer. But three, I think, is king

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