Benedict Biscop

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.

Biscop’s contacts

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.

Biscop’s land

Benedict Biscop (Source: Wikipedia commons)

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.

FB: The Mystery of Urbs Iudeu

James Fraser has written an interesting article on a very important seventh century English fortress called Urbs Iudeu. Fraser notes that the Urbs Iudeu is unlikely to be one of the better known named places on the Firth of Forth, this fortress gave its name to the firth itself, or took its name from the firth. In effect a modern translation would be Fortress of the Forth or Forth Fortress. Urbs means fortified place, but that does not mean it was not a fortress like Bamburgh or Dunbar. Bede also used the term urbs for Dumbarton/Clyde Rock.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of urbs Giudi.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of Urbs Iudeu (urbs Giudi).

Fraser asks where did Bede get his information on Urbs Iudeu and the Firth of Forth. He goes through a through discussion and I think correctly concludes that it came through Bishop Trumwine and/or Abercorn. All of the information for that region is therefore in relation to Abercorn. I think this makes a lot of sense.

A few things that Fraser didn’t mention: If Bishop Trumwine was a kinsman of Abbot Trumhere of Gelling (and probably later Abbot of Hexham), then he was probably also a kinsman of Bede’s Abbot Ceolfrith (whose brother Cynefrith succeeded Trumhere as abbot of Gelling). If Bishop Trumhere was the kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith, it is likely that Wearmouth-Jarrow would have been closely connected to Bishop Trumwine and Abercorn. It is likely, for example, that Bishop Trumhere would have sought to place some of his monks in his kinsman monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow after 685. Consider that Wearmouth-Jarrow had also been closely associated with its founding patron King Ecgfrith (who would have also been a kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith through Queen Eanflaed) and also the founding patron of Abercorn. As part of a small circle of churchmen close to King Ecgfrith, it seems like that Abbot Ceolfrith would have been well informed of Bishop Trumwine’s activities even if he wasn’t his kinsman. All of this means that Bede would have good contacts with men from Abercorn who could inform him on the geography and events around Abercorn.

Fraser easily dismisses Striling as a possible site for Urbs Iudeu. I admit that I had accepted it as conventional, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think it was there (or that any fortress was there in the seventh century).

I think one of the key points in identifying Urbs Iudeu is the realization that the Niurdui Picts are Picts of Iudeu (nIurdu). This does not appear to be just a geographic description but a name they were known by so these people shared their name with the Firth of Forth. I also think at the very edge of the British-Pictihs frontier, terms like Pict and Brit don’t mean much especially from an English point of view.  Fraser notes that Bede uses the term urbs for native fortresses rather than Roman forts. Here it is interesting to note that he also refers to Dumbarton/Alt Clyde as an urbs. Fraser also mentions that truly massive native hillforts have been discovered and dated to the early medieval period without being mentioned at all in period or later documents. He points to Burghhead in Moray as an example of an undocumented major ‘promontory fortification’.

Fraser discusses several possible sites put forward by others including Inveresk, Carriden, Crammond Island (a tidal island), Carlingnose Battery in North Queensferry, and Blackness. He goes through great detail in discussing each of these candidates and three really jump out. Fraser’s own preference if pushed is for Carlingnose Battery, interestingly on the Pictish side of the forth if we truly hold the firth to be the boundary. He also holds open a possibility for Crammond Island and Blackness. All of these except Carlingnose Battery are far closer to known Bernician territory than Stirling. If Caer Eden fell in 638, any of these places could have easily have been taken by Oswiu in successive years, while Stirling would be a major push into British territory.

In favor of the fortress on a tidal island, consider that this is the opposite of what is found at Bamburgh-Lindisfarne, where the bishop and his monastery is on the tidal island and the king on a very close hillfort. I think that a full island like Inchkeith would be too hard to supply and move troops back and forth from, its too isolated. Crammond Island is pretty far from Abercorn, but we do know that Bernicians may have learned the value of a tidal island as defense in Urien’s seige of Theodoric on Lindisfarne in the 57os. I’ve also wondered about Urbs Iudeu being a very large crannog, actually in the firth that gave it its name.

If we just consider that Abercorn was founded close to Urbs Iudeu for its protection, then Blackness would seem to be the most logical choice. On the other hand, if we consider that Urbs Giudi may be in the land of the Niurdu Picts, then Carlingnose Battery that juts out into the firth is possible. However, being across the firth from Abercorn would make its protection of the bishop and his people more difficult.

The one thing we do know is that Oswiu of Bernicia was in control of Urbs Iudeu by 654-655. It is possible that it fell to Oswiu in a series of battles after the death of Oswald in 642-643. First Domnall Brecc of Dalriada is killed by Owen of Strathclyde at Strathcarron in December 642. Y Gododdin tells us that in Owen’s time, survivors of Caer Eden were in Owen’s court. The annals then record that Oswiu ravages the Britons and it may be 643 when the entire southern coast of the firth of Forth transfer into Osiwu’s hands. Ultimately, Urbs Iudeu must be a place where Penda can realistically besiege Oswiu in 655 with his full army. British sources claim that some of them, persumably from Gwynedd, got home with considerable loot handed over by Oswiu to Penda.  As Fraser concludes it is likely that only archaeology can solve this conundrum and so the mystery of Urbs Iudeu remains.


James Fraser. (April 2008) “Bede, the Firth of Forth and the Location of Urbs Iudeu Scottish Historical Review. 87 (1), p. 1-25.

FB: Din-Guaïroï /Bebbanburg/Bamburgh

Bamburgh castle from the beach. Wikipedia Commons.

Bamburgh castle from the beach. Wikipedia Commons.

You knew I couldn’t wait too long to do Bamburgh. :-) Thanks to Bernard Cromwell it may be the best known Anglo-Saxon fortress site in England today anyway.


Din Guaïroï is the name given to Bamburgh in the Historia Brittonum, which then later tells us that it was renamed Bebbanburgh for Æthelfrith’s queen. The name is British in the same form as Dunbarton, Dunbar, DunEden (Edenburgh). Dun meaning a fortified place or dwelling while the second half is a British name. The site was originally known to the Irish as Dún Guaire, their version of the same name.

Din Guairoi was occupied by Britons from the Iron Age through the Roman period. Occupation of a hillfort with such a commanding position over the surrounding area during the Roman occupation is significant and may suggest that these Britons had made positive accomodation with the Romans. According to the Bamburgh Archaeology Project, there are finds suggesting occupation in both the Early and Late Roman period. The Bowl Hole cemetery shown in the video below holds graves from Britons dating back to before the Anglian occupation. I have also been told that there are prehistoric barrows near that cemetery which are expected to have graves of Iron Age or earlier rulers. Din Guairoi should have been ruled by some of the wealthiest Britons because the Tweed valley that it overlooks is some of the best agricultural land in northern Britain.

There is no specific information on the Britons of Din Guairoi in the written record. The Historia Brittonum may give us one hint when it says that a leader called Outigern fought against the northern English in the time of Aneirin, Taliesin, and several other bards.

Ida, the son of Eoppa, possessed countries on the left-hand side of Britain, i.e. of the Humbrian sea, and reigned twelve years, and united Dynguayth Guarth-Berneich

62. Then Dutigirn [Outigern] at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles. At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin [Aneirin], and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.

The great king, Mailcun [Maelgwn], reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota [Gwynedd], because his great-great-grandfather, Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come before from the left-hand part, i.e. from the country which is called Manau Gustodin [Gododdin], one hundred and forty-six years before Mailcun reigned, and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries, and they never returned again to inhabit them.

Historia Brittonum section 61-62

Given that Ida’s reign is dated to 547 and Maelgwn’s death to the 540s, it suggests that Outigern was active in fighting against Ida. This suggests that Outigern may have been from the last British group that ruled from Bamburgh. Presumably at least some of the bards listed after his name sung about Outigern in poetry that lasted until at least 825 when the Historia Brittonum was written but has since been lost. This corpus of lost poetry, in addition to the surviving poetry, could help explain how the Men of the North became such a major theme in Welsh literature.

All sources we have for Ida of Bernicia claim that he took the hillfort today called Bamburgh. He would have known it as Dun Duairoi and presumably it was known by that name for some time afterwards. Keeping the British name, or some Anglian translation of it, may have assisted in the process of amalgamation that must have happened in Bernicia between the Anglian rulers and the common people, who in Bede’s day, were still recognized as British. It took some time for English names to slowly replace or exist dually with British names.  Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that Ida built the first walls around the castle, these were almost certainly of British origin.

We don’t hear much about the fortress for the next three generations, until the Historia Brittonum claims that King Æthelfrith grandson of Ida gives it to his Queen Bebba.


The naming of the royal fortress for Queen Bebba appears to be confirmed by Bede, although he doesn’t note who her husband was. It is possible that the author of the Historia Brittonum noted Bede’s reference to Queen Bebba and credited her to Æthelfrith, but I don’t think this is what happened. If it were a fictional link then she would more likely be said to be the queen of Ida than Æthelfrith.

Personally, I think renaming the fortress for a queen could only have been solidified during the reign of a long reigning son. In this case, I think it has to be Oswiu. A story that the family fortress had been given to his mother may have helped him succeed over his brothers after Oswald’s death. We know that Oswald was the son of Acha of Deira and this may partially explain why Oswald’s brother wasn’t acceptable to the Deirans, although Oswald’s son Oethelwald apparently was acceptable enough for him to rebel against Oswiu’s hegemony. We can’t assume that because Oswiu supported Oswald’s sainthood that they were allies in life, or at least it doesn’t mean that Oswald would have supported Oswiu as his heir. Indeed marrying Oswiu off to a British woman from Rheged may suggest that Oswiu wasn’t very highly placed in Oswald’s court. Presumably he made more advantagous marriages for some of his other brothers. (Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum name six brothers of Oswald, two of which were Oswiu and Eanfrith.) Of course, its unlikely that all of the other four were still alive after the violent deaths of Eanfrith and Oswald. It seems likely that one or more could have been among the twelve men executed along with Eanfrith by Cadwallon, and it seems likely that some brothers died beside Oswald in battle.

Of the events that took place at Bamburgh, we know quite a bit (relatively speaking). It was the personal home of the ruler of Bernicia, Northumbria and then the Earldom of Bernicia. We know of two sieges that took place there neither of which succeeded. The first occurred before 651 when Penda attempted to burn down the wooden gates of Oswiu’s fortress. The change in the wind that drove the fire back on Penda’s forces was credited to the prayers of St Aidan who was watching and praying from Farne isle. The second siege or uprising occurred during the succession of Aldfrith’s son Osred. In the Life of Bishop Wilfrid, Duke Berht reports that he vowed to support Bishop Wilfrid while clinging to a small ledge at Bamburgh when Eadwulf’s forces were trying to force them out, if the royal boy, Osred, succeeded his father. This sounds to me like Aldfrith’s sons hadn’t surrendered Bamburgh to his successor Eadwulf, who was trying to take the royal fortress from the children and their supporters. Interesting… it is possible that the descendants of Oswiu (or Æthelfrith) considered Bamburgh their personal property, not necessarily property of the king.

Of all the kings associated with Bamburgh — Ida, Æthelfrith, Oswiu — it is Oswald whose name is most reflected at Bamburgh. His legend would have dominated the castle from the time of his death. Lasting reminders come in St Oswald’s gate and St Oswald’s chapel, where his arm relic was kept for over 500 years. This arm relic would have been considered to be a personal relic for all the rulers of Bamburgh and, with Oswald’s sword arm enshrined in the chapel, perhaps a divine right to rule for those who now sat on Oswald’s throne. Oswald had great symbolic importance as the first Christian king to rule Bernicia from Bamburgh. We have no clue if Edwin or his men used Bamburgh during their rule over Bernicia, but if they did they left no physical or legendary trace. Given that the Deirans and Edwin really don’t show any inclination towards hillforts or fortresses of any kind, its possible that they did not, perhaps preferring lowland halls like Yeavering.

Bamburgh Today

Here is Bamburgh today on Google Maps. You don’t get the feeling of its elevation in the map but you can zoom in or go out. Look at that beautiful white beach that would be ideal for beaching ships.

The Bowl Hole cemetery excavation by the Bamburgh Research project is on the fortress cemetery. It is located on the edge of the beach near some dunes. It contains graves of Late Roman Christians, Saxon pagans, and then Saxon Christians. They note in the video that it phases out of use when the church yard of St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh comes into use in the 650s.

This is a long (8 min) video of Bamburgh and Millfield. This is a black spot in the second video so wait for the second half.  Millfield, mentioned in the second half of the video, is near Yeavering. Millfield is where Bede reports that Yeaverings administrative functions were moved after Yeavering was no longer in use.


I forgot to mention that Bamburgh has been suggested to be the site of Joyous Gard, the castle of Lancelot, in the Arthurian cycle. It is reputed to be the site of Lancelot’s burial.  Its been suggested that Thomas Mallory’s Joyous Gard was suggested by its original name Din Guairoi.


See Bamburgh Research Project

An Anglo-British Cemetery at Bamburgh: An E-Interview with Graeme Young of the Bamburgh Research Project The Heroic Age, Issue 4, 2001.