PW: Abbot Berhthun of Beverly

You might be wondering, who is Abbot Berhthun and why should we care about him? First of all, he was someone known and respected by Bede and second, we owe practically everything we know about St John of Beverly to Berhthun. According to Bede, Berhthun was John’s deacon while he was Bishop of Hexham and in the 730s he was the Abbot of Inderauuda (‘in the woods of the men of Deira’), known to us today as Berverly. I think the detail and almost chattiness of these accounts suggests that Bede knew Berhthun well, as we might suspect for John’s former deacon, recalling that John ordained Bede to the deaconate and priesthood. Indeed, for some time Bede and Berhthun would have been fellow deacons in the diocese of Hexham.

Berhthun recalled John’s oratory of St Michael in the woods 1.5 miles from Hexham across the River Tyne where John retreated for solitude particularly during Lent. It seems that Berhthun was one of those who accompanied him and recorded healings done there that Bede considered miracles. What makes healing of the dumb boy with the scabby head unusual is Bede describes the long process of speech therapy and treatments John ordered for the boy. This was no instantaneous miracle but a healer at work. Berhthun’s account also has a ring of realism when Bede notes that Bishop John offered the boy a place in his household, but the boy refused and went home to his people. Hard to imagine Wilfrid allowing his invitation to be refused.

Berhthun’s served John in the diocese of York as well. He related the story of the healing of Abbess Hereberga’s daughter Coenberg. In that story, he has John refer to medical teaching by Archbishop Theodore in a way that suggests that John may have studied healing under Theodore.

We might also wonder about what other events Berhthun told Bede about. Berhthun would have obviously been privy to many of Bishop John’s opinions on Wilfrid’s return to Northumbria and John’s reassignment from Hexham to York.

As the abbot of John’s monastery of Beverly, where John retired to and was buried the chapel of St Peter in the church of Beverly in 721, Berhthun would have been one of John’s chosen successors and the caretaker of his memory. John did choose one of his men, Wilfrid (II), to be his successor as Bishop of York. He ordained him before retiring to Beverly. Wilfrid II was later deposed in 732 as part of a wholesale replacement of Northumbrian bishops. His successor was the king’s cousin Egbert, who became archbishop only three years later. John’s successor, who may have come to retire at Beverly, did not die until 745. Bede’s record that Wilfrid was still Bishop of York is one of the means to date the completion of his history to 731. As this Wilfrid would have almost certainly been another longstanding member of John’s house, Bede probably knew him as well.

Abbot Berhthun and Bishop Wilfrid II would have been among the last of the old order who remembered the effects of 664. No doubt they retained good relationships with the other monasteries of like history, Whibty and Lastingham in particular in the diocese of York, but a new order came in with Bishop Egbert.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book V chapters 2-5 and Bede’s chronological continuer for the fate of Wilfrid II.


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