Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson (1993)

In all, the scarcity of contemporary material is such that Cnut’s personality and many of his activities will remain forever unknown. (p.79)

This is a challenging book to read. Right from the first page of the introduction Lawson assumes you already know the outline of the historical events leading up to and during the reign of King Cnut of England and Denmark (1016-1035), and instead plunges into a very detailed discussion of the evidence from different sources, not only for the various events covered in the book but for the numerous issues and controversies about the period.

Thus the text overwhelmingly consists of very finely tuned assessments of conflicting sources for the period such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which survives in 5 significantly varying versions), contemporary documents such as Anglo-Saxon poetry (The Battle of Brunanburgh describing Athelstan’s victory of 937, The Battle of Maldon describing a Viking victory in 991), sermons notably by the fierce archbishop of York Wulfstan, writs, charters and legal documents, two letters from Cnut himself, slightly later historians in England (Henry of Huntingdon, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury) in Germany (Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseberg) in Normandy (William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers) in Denmark (Saxo Grammaticus, Swegen Aggeson), Norse poetry embedded in the much later Icelandic sagas (written down in the mid-1200s) and so on and so on – all garnished with a forest of notes which themselves reference other scholarly writings and discussions about each of these issues and cruxes.

Most histories present you with a fairly straightforward and smooth-flowing narrative, maybe mentioning one or two places where the sources disagree. This book takes you behind the scenes of history, as it were, to show you the jungle of texts, the wreckage of what happened to be written down, what happened to survive the centuries, which the conscientious historian has to wrestle with — almost all of them biased and distorted by their non-historical purposes – hagiographies to praise saints, various versions of the A-S Chronicle slanted to praise the scribe’s monastery or benefactors, the Encomium Emmae written to praise Cnut’s wife Emma and her sons.

We have a reasonable number of charters from the period – documents officially assigning land from the king or rich patrons, generally to a religious foundation – except that, as Lawson points out, many of them are probably forgeries concocted by the said foundation to justify rights to land which were customary or lost in the mists of time. (With characteristic thoroughness, Lawson has an appendix naming every one of the royal charters issued during Cnut’s reign, along with date and location, and a second appendix explaining in detail the format in which writs and charters have survived.)

So the sources not only routinely disagree about the most basic facts – like the year in which a battle took place – they are almost all biased, deliberately omitting major events or exaggerate minor ones, names even major names like Sweyn/Swegen/Sven are routinely garbled, a high percentage of the documents may be faked, and most of the reporting was based on hearsay, often decades sometimes centuries, after the event.

The result of Lawson’s detailed investigations is probably the definitive account of Cnut’s reign, but very unlike a normal history book: instead of a smooth and comprehensible narrative the text is entirely made up of scholarly detective work, of the subtle balancing of sources against each other, weighing their probable veracity or inaccuracy on each point against three or four or five other accounts, which are themselves suspect for reasons Lawson explains exhaustively.

And the conclusion of all this effort is quite dispiriting: Cnut’s reign is one of the worst documented of any king of England:

The inadequacies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the surviving charters, even when supplemented by such other fragments as the skaldic poetry and the Letters of 1019-20 and 1027, make it impossible to construct a decent chronology of his reign. (p.79)

So this is not a popular history – although it sheds some unexpected lights on the period, I kept being surprised at the way he mentions what seem to be major events very casually, only in passing, as a side effect of his far more intense interest in the trustworthiness of this charter or that chronicle or the Icelandic poem on the matter, and so on. This isn’t a book for the general reader: I assume it is aimed at undergraduate level or above.

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae)

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae). Note the angel crowning Cnut. Note his hand on his sword. Heavenly and earthly power combined.

Events up to and including the reign of King Cnut the Great

The Saxon kings of Wessex – Alfred the Great (871-899), Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelstan (924-927), Edgar (943-975) – spent their careers trying to hold repeated waves of invading Danes/Vikings at bay. Despite setbacks, Alfred just about held on then pushed the Danes back and secured the territory of Wessex i.e. the west England, during the 880s. His successors through the first third of the 10th century pushed the Danes out of England, until Athelstan could pronounce himself – and be seen by his contemporaries as – the first King of All England by the 920s.

The reign of Athelstan’s nephew, King Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) is seen as the ‘high noon’ of Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But Edgar died aged only 31, leaving the nation to his son, Aethelred, who was only 11 or 12. Aethelred became known to history as Aethelred the Unready because he was totally unsuited to being a king, combining arbitrary cruelty against the helpless with craven cowardice before the powerful.

During his long chaotic reign (978-1013) the nobles of England were hopelessly divided and a new generation of Vikings made their appearance and ravaged the coastlines of England without pity. Unable to muster a strong army, Aethelred fell back time and again to paying the Vikings off with ever-increasing ransoms – the so-called Danegeld – bleeding the country dry to extract all the goods, silver and coin he could muster in order to fill the Danish ships which sailed home every autumn full of English goods, slaves and treasure.

Among the leaders of the new wave of attackers, which escalated through the 990s, may or may not have been Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (this is the kind of academic question Lawson goes into in great detail – Lawson refers to Sweyn as Swegen thoughout), but Sweyn/Swegen certainly led an plundering raid in 1003, along with his teenage son, Cnut, and almost ever year for a decade. These temporary raids for plunder escalated until, in 1013, Sweyn embarked on a planned invasion, ravaging across the East of England before seizing London. Aethelred was forced to flee England, taking refuge with his brother-in-law, Duke Richard I of Normandy (Aethelred was married to Duke Richard’s sister, Emma) and Sweyn declared himself King. A surprisingly large number of English nobles were happy to acquiesce in his enthronement.

But then Sweyn died unexpectedly after just a year in power, in 1014. The Danish magnates acclaimed his son, Cnut, their king and ruler, but the English nobles asked Aethelred to return from exile in Normandy, although under strict conditions (which for some historians marks the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects). Aethelred landed and marched an unusually unified English force against the Danes, catching Cnut unprepared, who decided it was wisest to sail back to Denmark – not least to assert his authority there as Sweyn’s successor to the Danish throne. Aethelred was restored.

But in 1015 Cnut returned with a well-organised force to find Aethelred, as usual, in disarray, with his own eldest son, Edmund Ironside, having rebelled against him.

When Cnut began ravaging across the country in late 1015, Edmund rejoined his father to oppose the Danes, but Aethelred died in April 1016. Cnut then decisively defeated Edmund at the gory Battle of Assundun on 18 October 1016, in which large numbers of English nobles were slaughtered.

Cnut and Edmund made a peace treaty, the latter retaining kingship of Wessex, while Cnut took the rest of England (a carbon copy of the situation under King Alfred 130 years previously) but when Edmund himself died soon afterwards, either of wounds or illness later that year, Cnut declared himself King of All England. Since he was also King of Denmark and part of Norway, historians refer to this as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire.

Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, a shrewd move to consolidate an alliance with Emma’s brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, and also to deprive her sons by Aethelred of support for an invasion attempt from Normandy.

When he died, Cnut was succeeded by his son by an English woman, his first wife or mistress Aelfgifu – Harold I or Harold Harefoot – who ruled for five years until his death in 1040. At which point Cnut’s young son by Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut, having needed several years to establish himself as Cnut’s successor in Denmark, arrived in England and peacefully claimed his throne.

However, Harthacnut turned out to be a cruel and tyrannical king, even by the standards of the times, imposing ruinous punishments – for example ordering entire towns to be burned to the ground if they refused to pay taxes – and it was a relief to everyone when he died after only two years’ reign, and was succeeded by Edward, soon to be known as ‘the Confessor’.

It was during Edward’s reign that the earl of Essex, Godwin, and his son Harold Godwinson, asserted their power, along with his brothers becoming the most powerful family in England. Edward failed to have any children, and appears, while in exile in the Norman court, to have given some kind of promise to William Duke of Normandy that he would inherit the English throne. This was the tangled web which led – at his death in 1066 – to the open conflict between Harold Godwinson and Duke William for the throne of England, which climaxed in the Battle of Hastings – and the long, complex history of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England came to an abrupt end.

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris


So much for the bare outline of events. In fact the reader of this book has to piece together a lot of this themselves because Lawson’s main interest, as I’ve explained, is much more a textual analysis of surviving sources, than in writing a spuriously smooth narrative. The entire 200-page book is divided into just five chapters and one of them is devoted solely to ‘The Sources’, but in fact the other four are just as scholarly, tentative, hedged around with reservations and qualifications.

But from the welter of notes and debates over the precise sequence of transcription of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C version, and so on, emerge some rather more comprehensible ideas.

  • Aethelred has a bad reputation for dithering, for not facing up to Danish attacks and for shamefully bleeding the country dry to pay off the invaders: but Lawson points out that the cost of raising levies and arming them might well have been more i.e. Danegeld was the cheapest option. Also, that it’s only in retrospect that we know that they kept coming back for more – at the time, it may have been hoped that a few payments and promises would make them go away for good.
  • I knew that Cnut’s kingship of England created an Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. Lawson brings out the implication of this, though which is that, in an age of perpetual warfare of all against all, that meant he had not so much to rule a far-flung empire as continually worry about all the threats on the borders of that empire: i.e. he had to be aware of potential threats from the Scots, the Irish Vikings, the Welsh, the Normans, the Franks, the (German) Holy Roman Emperor, from Norway, Sweden, and from the Slavic peoples east of the Elbe including the Poles. Explains why both his grandfather Gorm the Old and father Sweyn took Slavic consorts, to protect their eastern flank.
  • In 1017 Cnut, settling into his domain, divided England into four parts, keeping Wessex for himself, giving East Anglis to the independent warlord Thirkell the Tall, Mercia to Eadric, and Northumbria to the Norwegian earl Eric of Lade, to reward these strong allies in his invading army and to impose a military government. The comparison with William the Bastard parcelling out England to his followers 50 years later is striking. Unlike William, though, Cnut seems to have embarked on the elimination of powerful native nobles, having Eadred (who had, incidentally, overthrown the father of Aelfgifu, Cnut’s English wife) beheaded, along – in some accounts – with a number of other leading nobles. Combined with the loss of life at Assundun this amounts to a little holocaust of leading figures. Poor England!
  • The Viking Age in England started with the attack on the remote monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 and only ended with the crushing defeat of the invasion force of Harald Hardrada, defeated by the mighty Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford bridge outside York in 1066. 273 long years of seemingly endless raids, ravaging, plundering and enslavement, which climaxed in the 20 year rule of a Danish king. Odd that this is so often overlooked in the long sweep of English history.

Ravaging and destruction

The scale of the ravaging can’t be imagined. The abbey of Tavistock was burned down in 997, Cerne destroyed, St Mary’s church Exeter was burnt down on 1003, the nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet was burnt down. Christ Church Canterbry was burnt down and the archbishop clubbed to death in 1012. Apart from the massacre of Saxon nobles at the Battle of Assundun, Cnut then executed a number of leading nobles along with their followers. The Danes spent 3 months in 1010 burning East Anglia, killing all the men and cattle they could get their hands on. the young Cnut, forced out of England at Aethelstan’s return in 1014, cut off the hands, noses and ears of the hostages the Saxon nobles had given to him. Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, incensed by the murder of two of his tax inspectors in Worcester, ordered his army to destroy as much of the buildings and kill every man they could find in Worcestershire in 1042. When you consider that Aethelstan repeatedly taxed the nation to within an inch of its life, to extract the repeated payments of Danegeld, combined with the ceaseless harrying, raids, plundering and murdering along any part of the coast, this was a prolonged period when the country was on its knees.

No wonder contemporary writers were so bitter, angry and think the world is coming to an end. Brihtferth of Ramsey in his Life of St Oswald, describes the Danes as accursed, and accomplices of Beelzebub. Archbishop Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi (Sermon of the Wolf) paints a searing portrait of a society in complete moral and physical collapse, and the imminent conquest of the country with the reign of the Anti-Christ.

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned, from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned) from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066, showing men under orders burning a wooden house from which are fleeing a woman and her son. Could be Vietnam. Could be Syria.

England endures

The astonishing thing, though all this mayhem, is the point Lawson makes and so do Marc Morris and David Carpenter, which is that England didn’t fall into chaos, real chaos. Trade continued; taxes were collected; men were drafted into armies; church rents continued to be administered, charters issued and so on.

In fact all the charters, writs and tax returns which Lawson so scrupulously sifts through indicate the continuation of a large amount of central administration and legal writ. Deeper than the destruction is the underlying fact that England was a very wealthy country with an efficient and thorough administrative system before the Danes invaded – a system created by the Wessex kings Alfred, Athelstan, Edgar. This proved solid and resilient enough to survive thirty years of ravaging by the Danes (986-1016), the complete conquest by Cnut, the brief but intensely destructive activity of his son Harthacnut (1040-42), and then the systematic ravaging of the south-east by William the Bastard after his victory at Hastings (1066), followed by the horrific Harrying of the North to put down rebels in 1070, which left Yorkshire in ruins for a generation. But still it endured.


From Lawson’s conclusion, and from the book as a whole, three things emerged for me:

  1. Cnut was, by the standards of his day, the most successful of all pre-Conquest rulers in Britain‘ (p.196). Not only did he rule all of England with some kind of overlordship over the king of Scotland but he was lord of Denmark and Norway, too; and he married his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor, creating a blood alliance only Aethelstan among his predecessors had managed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention the outlawing and beheading of a small number of really important nobles, but otherwise his rule doesn’t seem to have been marked by the kind of civil wars which blighted his predecessor and would mar the reign of so many of the Plantagenet kings a century later. Above all, he succeeded in what contemporaries considered the number one obligation of a king – he protected the realm from foreign invasion and raids. All this without the imposition of castles everywhere and the wholescale replacement of the English nobility with his own followers, which is of course what William the Bastard did. So whose conquest was more effective in its day, William’s or Cnut’s? Discuss.
  2. Contingency In fact, what Cnut and none of his contemporaries could have anticipated was that he himself would die relatively young (we don’t actually know his birth year, and Lawson – in his usual thorough way explicates several conflicting theories – but 990 is a popular calculation, so he was, perhaps, 45 when he died in 1035) and that all three of his sons – Sweyn (d.1035) and Harold Harefoot (d.1040) by Aelfgifu – and Harthacnut (d.1042) by Emma of Normandy – would be dead within seven years. Had Cnut lived to 60 like the Conqueror, and had his children reigned similar lengths as the Conqueror’s children (William Rufus 13 years, Henry 1 35 years!) i.e. a total of 48 years i.e. until 1083, then in all probability neither Edward the Confessor, nor Harold Godwinson, nor William the Conqueror would ever have ruled – the Norman Conquest would never have happened! But all three of his male children died in quick succession and the kingship of England reverted to the line of Wessex, to the Confessor, whose failure to have any children, let alone a male heir, turned out to be fatal.
  3. The Viking Age Lawson, like other historians says that the Viking Age came to a definitive end with the crushing defeat of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, by the army of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. But a section of his conclusion slightly contradicts this. For in 1069 a Danish fleet sailed up the Humber to assist Saxon rebels against the Conqueror; in 1070 this force was joined by Swegen Estrithsson of Denmark, Cnut’s nephew, who was met by people apparently hoping he would conquer the entire country, as his uncle had. In fact William bought Swegen off (just like Aethelred) but another fleet, under Swegen’s son, another Cnut, arrived to support a further rebellion in 1075. They decided against an armed confrontation with William, withdrew and sailed home. But even as late as 1085 William was, apparently, making careful preparations to deal with another invasion Cnut was threatening but in the event never mounted. In other words, it sounds to me as if the Battle of Stamford Bridge didn’t really end the Viking threat, which continued, by Lawson’s own account, to be serious and taken seriously for another 20 years. So surely more as if it slowly petered out rather than abruptly and definitively ended.

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in modern Jarrow, in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot Benedict Biscop and his successor, Ceolfrith. It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully lists his works at the end of his masterpiece.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible – he clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the context of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to create themes and develop strands as well, of course, as within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop and succession of another) and are obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30)

These are words from a pre-’60s era which, in its own way, seems as remote as Bede’s 8th century. But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that he tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make the distinction, like a member of the Brains Trust, a reputable academic puffing a pipe and debating atheism with Bertrand Russell, like CS Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief. Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, S-P is missing the point. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions. Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures as God’s angels and saints battle demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to completely miss the point, the coherence, of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture Bede inhabits, according to absurdly flat and literalistic criteria. It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world where God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering when Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 using relics he’s brought from Rome Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 a fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo, his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the defending Britons who call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 the priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and get him buried in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is good juju, it is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness. Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously did at the Battle of the Vikings), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, and listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

We in our sceptical age all  know someone who knows someone who knows a waterworker who has definitely seen the crocodiles in London’s sewers. We know all about urban legends, about legends and myths of all types, about the irrationality and credulousness of human beings, about the ability of people under stress to clutch any straw, to believe their prayers saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra time winner. But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Anyone could tell me of a miracle and I will apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to it – is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended (often for a childish and petty end), or that the people who say they were have a need to appear important or are propagandising for their faith or are naive and credulous? Sadly, it will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always balance against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did pagans believe?

Notoriously, Bede (as all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents actually believed. Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. The level of detail! How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History (and of Richard Fletcher’s book about the conversion of Europe) – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty and shallow gods and practices of paganism. For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness. Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings which just can’t stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately- satisfying life. One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes realised this and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that 60 years after his death furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damndest to destroy everything held most sacred. But that is another story…

Related links

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

“The Venerable Bede Translates John” by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

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