Bede’s Mary of the English

I wrote earlier that I would post new information on my talk at Kazoo. I don’t think that I’ve never really summed up how strongly Bede linked Mary and Æthelthryth. So this is an slice out of my talk. The translation of the poem/hymn from the History was up on a power point so I’ll insert it were it needs to go.


Eternal God comes down to Virgin’s womb; to set men free eternal God comes down

From Virgin-mother springs, (God’s wicket gate) [porta Maria Dei]; The Sire of all, from Virgin-mother springs.

Glad the bright virgin-choir to know God born of Virgin’s womb, glad the bright virgin choir.

Her glory made it grow, that holy plant; those virgin flowers, her glory made them grow. …

Nor lacks our age its Æthelthryth as well, Its virgin wonderful nor lacks our age. …

Bede adds his hymn on virginity in honor of Æthelthryth, he says in imitation of sacred history. Given that the most important canticle in sacred history is the Magnificant sung by Mary, it is perhaps no coincidence that Bede’s song focuses on Mary nearly as much as Æthelthryth. It is easy for us to overlook how Marian this hymn is in part because all modern translators omit Mary’s name, even though Bede certainly names her in the F couplet.  Where Colgrave and Mynors oddly translate “God’s wicket gate”, Bede specifically said, porta Maria Dei, Mary God’s gate. Mary is the leader of heaven’s Choir of Virgins and Bede places Æthelthryth here among an illustrious list of virgin martyrs. As Virginia Blanton notes in her book Signs of Devotion, Æthelthryth’s inclusion among the illustrious martyrs of the past shows such sanctity is available in their own times but Bede isn’t satisfied with mere inclusion in the choir.

In the R stanza Bede moves beyond including Æthelthryth in the Choir of Virgins by suggesting that Æthelthryth may be a mother of Christ as well.

“Royal Mother of Heaven’s King your leader now; You too, maybe a mother of Heaven’s King.”

Unlike the Virgin martyrs Æthelthryth is a mother of part of the body of Christ. In his narrative of her life, Bede specifically calls her “the virgin mother of many virgins”.

A further allusion that can only be explained by Bede’s equation of Æthelthryth with the virgin Mary occurs in the Z couplet.

“Zeal frenzied tears the foe that conquered Eve; Truimphs the saint, zeal frenzied tears of the foe”

Colgrave and Mynors substitute the word “Saint” for the less specific “virgo” used by Bede, which makes the assumption that Bede is referring to Æthelthryth rather than Mary. Bede knew that Mary was routinely considered to be the redeemer of Eve. Yet here again he is being intentionally vague as this couplet is in the context of a discussion of Æthelthryth. Bede ends this hymn by portraying Æthelthryth as a bride of Christ represented as the lamb.

Through all of these comparisons Bede has shown Æthelthryth to be another Mary – she is a perpetual virgin, a leader of other virgins and a mother of the body of Christ, the redeemer of Eve, a queen in heaven as she had been on earth and last but not least the bride of the lamb.

This hymn adds no new information on Æthelthryth’s life; its purpose is to show that Æthelthryth not only belongs in the heavenly virginal choir, but also that she compares well with the Virgin Mother herself.  She is another Mary for Bede’s age.

There is reason to believe that this hymn circulated separate from History as part of Bede’s book of hymns. It survives in Cologne MS. 106, a manuscript indirectly associated with Alcuin that includes Bede’s breviate psalter and 12 of Bede’s hymns including the hymn to Aethelthryth. How widely Bede’s Book of Hymns circulated is unknown as it does not survive intact. When found in isolation it is impossible to tell whether the hymn came from the Book of Hymns or the History. Nevertheless, Bede’s History was the primary source for Æthelthryth’s story until the completion of the Liber Eliensis in the 12th century.



Bede’s hymn can be found in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (IV: 20)  Colgrave & Mynors, trans. 1969, p.398-9.

Discussion above taken from: Michelle Ziegler, “Saint Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary through the Ages” Session 403, 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, 15 May 2010, Kalamazoo, MI.

One thought on “Bede’s Mary of the English

  1. Their translation is most odd, as you say. They should aim to translate the Latin words. Can you quote the whole thing? The A to Z business is tiresome though…unlikely to qualify as a hymn Helen Waddell would have exalted….

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