I’ve gained a new appreciation for Benedict Biscop this week after rereading the History of the Abbots and the Life of Ceolfrith, along with Ian Woods’ contribution to the new Cambridge Companion to Bede. What follows is a little musing on Biscop and questions his life open up.
I used to think of Biscop as a restless retired warrior who spent his time seeking ecclesiastical treasures. The History of the Abbots reminded me first that Biscop was not an old or retired warrior but in his mid-twenties when he left the king’s service to explore the church. When King Oswiu made him a thane and gave him land it was recognition that it was time for him to begin the life of an active adult male. His warrior days were not expected to be over. In any major campaign the thegns would be expected to participate along with what ever men they could bring. The kings retinue that Biscop would have left were mostly teenagers in various levels of training and responsibility. Biscop was a young man in his prime when he began his first trip to Rome.
He must have been a very charismatic person. Just think about all the contacts he made across England and the continent. Setting out on his first trip with young Wilfrid (future bishop of York) he knew well enough not to get bogged down in Lyon with Wilfrid. After his visit to Rome he made his way to Lérins, one of the most influential monasteries of the late antique world, where he stayed for two years, learned their rule and was tonsured. We all probably way underestimate the influence of Lérins on Biscop and ultimately Bede. It was probably at Lérins that he took the name Benedict. He must have been good with languages, speaking at least fluent Latin and probably learned Frankish. He must have known Latin before he left Britain, or he couldn’t have been Theodore of Tarsus’ translator, much less navigated his way to Rome or had a meaningful stay at Lérins.
Thinking of Theodore, Biscop just happened to be handy to the Pope in Rome for an assignment to escort Theodore to Britain. While Biscop may have sought out the English group in Rome when the grapevine brought him news of their arrival, it is still significant that he was chosen to be Theodore’s escort rather than a survivor of Wighard’s party. Theodore liked and trusted Biscop enough to make him Abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury for his first two years, until Hadrian arrived from Gaul. When Biscop then returned to Northumbria (after a detour to Wessex), he told King Ecgfrith of his travels and his close relationship with the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Ecgfrith then gave him 70 hides of land, a large grant, at Wearmouth. We shouldn’t underestimate Biscop’s connections with Canterbury through Archbishop Theodore and the monks at St Peter’s whom Biscop worked with for two years. Biscop’s dedication of his new monastery to St Peter may not only be due to his dedication to Rome, but also because he had just ended his tenure as abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury. We need to see Bede’s connections to Canturbury and admiration for Theodore through the lens of Biscop and his personal connections.
Biscop’s secular contacts were impressive too. It is well-known that Biscop received land from two Bernician kings, more on that below. He had a close relationship with King Alchfrid of Deira who wanted to accompany Biscop to Rome but was stopped by his father. (This is the same trip that Wilfrid did accompany Biscop on.) Like Wilfrid, he also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex, but apparently not with his successor. He only goes home to Bernicia/Northumbria because King Cenwealh has died.
What are the underlying connections? An obvious connection between Northumbria/Deira and Wessex is King Oswald’s widow, who was the sister of Cenwealh. Both Biscop and Wilfrid were too young to be associated with King Oswald, but his widow and children may have continued on in Northumbria, possibly Deira specifically, even under Oswald’s cousin King Oswine. (I remember reading somewhere that Oswine may have been sheltered in Wessex during Oswald’s reign.) If Oswald had his main seat at York, where he completed the cathedral, then his widow and sons may have continued to live in York. Given that Oswald himself was the son of Acha of Deira, sister of Edwin, he may have spent his childhood more in York than Bamburgh. The continued presence of Oswald’s widow and children in Deira could explain how Bishop Aidan was welcomed so warmly by Oswine (but that is another topic). If Oswine was given refuge from Oswald in Wessex, then he could hardly have retaliated against Oswald’s sons because they were also the grandsons of King Cynegisl and nephews of King Cenwealh of Wessex. This could explain how Oswald’s son Oethelwald, nephew to both King Oswiu of Bernicia and possibly king Cenwealh of Wessex, became king of Deira. If he did not have an adult heir, King Oswine could have made King Cenwealh of Wessex’s sister’s son Oethelwald son of Oswald his heir in Deira. After Oethelwald’s death/disappearance, his successor Oswiu’s son Alchfrith also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex specifically on ecclesiastical issues.
The relationship between Deira and Wessex was longstanding. It seems likely that King Edwin of Deira, Oswald’s maternal uncle, was instrumental in Cynegisl becoming the sole (or primary) king of Wessex after Edwin drove out previous kings in c. 625. King Oswald’s role in standing as godfather to Cenwealh’s father Cynegisl and confirming the land grant to Bishop Birinus, Apostle to Wessex, could have provided a way in for Wessex to play a role in bringing first Deira and then all of Northumbria into the sphere of Rome. Recall that Birinus’ mission was part of the Roman church but sponsored from Gaul, initially independent from Canterbury. As part of the Roman church, Bishop Birinus accepted the authority of Canterbury, although Gaulish influence is strongly felt for another two generations. Birinus’ successor, the Frankish bishop Agilbert was very influential on Wilfrid.
Biscop was part of the relationship between Deira/Northumbria and Wessex not only in his early travels. As the familial relationship between the house of Cyngisl and Edwin eventually faded they were renewed by another royal marriage, between King Aldfrith and the sister of King Ine of Wessex, a probable cousin of Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Significantly, not only were Aldfrith and Aldhelm friends, but this marriage likely occurred during a time when Biscop was an adviser to King Aldfrith.
In his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Bede, Ian Wood demonstrates that the land ownership for Wearmouth and Jarrow are not as simple as Bede or the Anon. Life of Ceolfrith claim. Like much hagiography on founders, there is reason to believe that Bede wrote the History of the Abbots to establish land claims, even though he didn’t list specific pieces of property. I want to come back to this in another post someday but just to point out one of the discrepancies: in the History of the Abbots, Bede writes that King Oswiu gives Biscop land due a thane, but he never says that land is at Wearmouth or part of the monastery’s holdings. Bede writes in the introduction and later in the work that Wearmouth was given to Biscop from his own (Ecgfrith’s) royal land. So we have to consider the claims of Biscop’s blood family to his lands and the monastery’s desires to keep as much land as possible. Did Biscop’s brother have a claim to his thane land, or did that thane land intended to be familial land give him a claim to more of Biscop’s property? The land ownership discrepancies are food for further thought.
Biscop as founder
I suppose I also have a renewed appreciation for Biscop as an ideal monastic founder, perhaps in no small part to Bede’s skills. Biscop did the two things that a founder must do: provided their rule with careful consideration from the best of what he learned in his many travels, and provided a physical space with all the supplies in enviable quantities. His many connections outside of Northumbria also established ecclesiastical ties that the monastery could build upon over the next two generations. Without Biscop there would not have been a scholar of Bede’s quality in Britain because Bede’s skills were only honed with the library Biscop built.
So this is what I have been pondering this week. I hope to be able to blog on a more regular basis this fall on a variety of topics.
The History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow and the Anonymous History of Ceolfrith. in The Age of Bede, trans. DH Farmer. Penguin Classics, 1998.
Ian Wood. “The foundation of Bede’s Wearmouth-Jarrow” in Cambridge Companion to Bede, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
I have been reading your blog for ages now but just wanted to say how wonderful it is. I am a volunteer archivist at St Peter’s Monkwearmouth and so am biased towards Biscop. I am so glad you have revised your opinion of him. He is one of my favourite historical figures and I find him endlessly fascinating. He was an unusual man to say the least.
I couldn’t agree more.
I am researching Benedict Biscop at the moment questioning why he is relatively unknown.
I would be more than grateful for any pointers.
About the only pointer I can make right now is that a new edition of Bede’s History of the Abbots is due out within about a month. The hardcover is pricey. Does anyone know if a paperback or electronic edition is planned?
I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about Biscop. Not that I am an academcic! Just someone who has done some reading and research for her own benefit. It is gratifying to find others who are interested in him.
Many thanks Christine.
At the moment I am trying to find a little more about Biscop’s life before he left for his first visit to Rome. Particularly where he could have been educated.
Sunderland library are being helpful and I plan to visit there next week.
I am also interested in Professor Cramp’s archeological work at Wearmouth.