The Venerable Bede and the Origins of the English ‘Nation’
How do you define a nation? Most people would probably think of a nation as being a defined geographical area governed by a political body of some sort which acts on behalf of its citizens, who are usually bound together by some level of shared culture, ethnicity and religious beliefs or moral ideals. In today’s increasingly globalized world, our nations remain a powerful formative influence on us and almost every individual identifies themselves by their nationality in some way.
It may surprise you to know that this modern idea of nationality did not always exist. In fact in the Middle Ages most people would not have considered themselves as belonging to any particular nation at all. So, from where did the idea originate? In the search for the origins of the English nation, some scholars have looked to the ancient historian Bede, and his famous work the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum , or The History of the English Church and People . But in a time before “nations” existed, can Bede really have been the father of the English nation? The issue is more complex than it seems.
The Father of History
Bede wrote the History of the English Church and People in the early 8th century, completing it around the year 731 AD, at the monastery of St Paul in Jarrow, a town in the north-eastern part of England known then as Northumbria. The language he wrote in was Latin, which was the dominant written language in England for most of the Middle Ages, but Latin was not commonly spoken among the people who inhabited the British Isles. In what we now call England, the general population would have mostly spoken Old English , but there were many different dialects and languages spoken in various areas of the British Isles.
The Ruins of St Paul in Jarrow (Andrew Curtis / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Bede’s History was later translated into English of course, by none other than King Alfred the Great , who’s love of literature and learning led to the dissemination of many great works of scholarship throughout Britain. Literature plays a vital role in developing national identity, and given that Bede was one of the most influential historians of the medieval period in Britain, it was a logical step for modern scholars to look to him as the father of English nationalism.
The idea of nationalism is slightly different from that of a nation, in that it recognizes the features of a nation that make it unique - culture, language, literature, and so on - and then seeks to promote them as the identity of the nation. This is usually to further the interests of the nation and encourage unity and autonomy.
The Venerable Bede (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC 2.0 )
Nationalism is a political movement that usually promotes cultural consistency and sameness, which is why it can sometimes have a divisive effect on a nation’s people, and in the time before England became united as one nation the idea of nationalism is even harder to apply.
The Many Nations of England
In Bede’s time, England was still divided into seven kingdoms, each ruled by different monarchs: Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Kent. The borders of each kingdom were constantly in flux due to skirmishes between kingdoms and political unrest, but nonetheless each king had his own separate geographical area over which he ruled.
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Although these kingdoms, as geographical communities ruled by a sovereign, meet the criteria of “nations”, Bede does not seem to think that living in a certain territory or serving a particular monarch defines a community as a nation. The biggest clue as to how Bede characterizes a nation is in the original Latin word he uses for it. The Latin word natio is most closely translated to the word “nation”, but Bede instead uses the word gens. The translation of the word gens is somewhat ambiguous, but its approximate meaning is “a race, nation or people”. This means that gensrefers to a people of a certain race or ethnicity, not geopolitical units such as were found with the seven kingdoms.
Bede’s Britain (Hel-hama / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
According to Bede, there were four nations in Britain: the first is “Britons, from whom [Britain} receives its name; they sailed to Britain, so it is said, from the land of Armorica” (Armorica being the region of modern France now known as Brittany). The second is “the Pictish race from Scythia…went to Britain and proceeded to occupy the northern parts of the island” (now known as Scotland), and “a third tribe…namely the Irish. These came from Ireland under their leader Reuda, and won lands among the Picts”, Lastly, of course was the English, their story to be told in greater detail throughout rest of the narrative.
The Anglo-Saxons and the English
Ethnicity was one of the most important defining factors of a people in pre-national societies, and Bede has clearly distinguished each race of Britain’s people by their ethnicity and geographic origins. The ethnic origins of the English race however, are not so clear-cut as the other three:
Vortigern was a powerful, semi-mythical King of the Britons ( Warpedgalerie / Adobe Stock)
“In the year of our Lord 449 [AD]…the race of the Angles or Saxons, invited by Vortigern [predecessor of King Arthur], came to Britain in three warships and by his command were granted a place of settlement in the eastern part of the island.”
According to Bede, the newcomers were from three powerful Germanic tribes , the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, and he gives a very detailed breakdown of from which tribe the inhabitants of each of the seven kingdoms are descended. Despite belonging to the same Germanic ethnicity however, does not make the descendants of these three tribes “English” either.
Bede’s definition of the English people seems to be very specific to one tribe - the Angles. He tells the story of Pope Gregory the Great, who was responsible for sending St Augustine on his mission to convert the English to Christianity, and of how he first encountered the English people. When wandering through a marketplace in Rome, Gregory passed by two slave boys for sale who had fair skin, golden hair and “angelic” faces. He asked his companion for the name of the race to which these boys belonged, and he was told they were called Angles.
Gregory encounters the Angle children (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
Upon learning the Angles were not Christians, Gregory resolved that they should be converted. He went to the Pope (Gregory had not yet been made Pope) to ask him to send ministers to the Isle of Britain to spread the word of God to the English.
It is for this reason Bede refers to the English as “gentis Anglorum” in the original Latin, because they are descendants of the Angles. However, Bede variously refers to the descendants of the other two tribes as English from time to time throughout his History. So, if one can be English without belonging to the race of the Angles, what other characteristic defines Englishness?
The Heirs of the Angels
Through Bede’s eyes, the story of the English nation is a religious one. Religion is the great universalizer between people of different ethnicities, and Bede’s vision of the English people is a community of different races united through the power of the Christian Church. The idea of nationhood and nationalism are characteristically Christian ideas and their origins may be found in many passages of the Bible, such as Genesis 26:4:
“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed”
Bede, being intimately familiar with Biblical history, writes his own history of the English in similar fashion, constructing the origins of a “national” identity through conversion to Christianity, as a result of Divine providence. The very title of his work sets out his ultimate purpose, in telling the “History of the English Church and People ”. His preoccupation with the ethnic origins of the peoples of Britain is secondary to the origins of their Christianity, which Bede makes clear in the story of St Alban , a Christian martyr and one of the first English saints.
When Alban is being judged for his heresy against the pagan gods, the judge asks him to what race and family he belongs. Alban answers:
“What concern is it of yours to know my parentage? If you wish to hear the truth about my religion, know that I am now a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.”
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Bede almost creates Christianity as a wholly separate ethnicity, one that unites the others through shared beliefs and language. Although Latin was not a native language of any of the peoples of Britain, Bede says it is the language that unites them all, and Latin is the language of Christianity. These Christian people, the “English”, are the people chosen by God for salvation and to rule all Britain.
To be Christian and to be English
And yet, the English “nation” can still not be clearly defined by religion. If Christianity separates the English from the rest, then it seems strange that in a letter written by Gregory the Great and transcribed by Bede, the pagans are referred to as “English”. Writing to the missionaries sent to convert the English people, Gregory mentions the “idol temples of that race” and outlines his plan “that they should be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.”
More importantly, the many other Christian people on the islands of Britain are not included in Bede’s definition of Englishness. The Britons had also begun to convert to Christianity as the English kingdoms were still in the process of converting, and Bede describes how the English king Edwin of Northumbria, who had also ruled over Britons, was killed in 633 by the Briton King Caedwalla. Bede says that although Caedwalla was a Christian “by name and profession”, he was nevertheless “a barbarian who was even more cruel than the heathen.”
Illustrated page from Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum ( Public Domain )
Bede is eager to differentiate between different brands of British Christianity so as to make the English Christians seem superior. Perhaps the most famous example is the debate over the Easter calendar between the separate British churches, where Bede refers to the Easter calendar of the English church as being “the true date of Easter”.
Bede goes on to recount that the Irish and the Britons were convinced to celebrate Easter at the “proper time” by the priest Adamnan, who was advised that his people “should not presume to go against the universal customs of the church” on a visit to Aldfrith, king of the Angles. The Picts also sought help from the English church in following the correct observance of Easter, after King Nechtan was convinced of the error of his ways.
What does it all mean then? Can a person be English without being Christian and a Christian without being English, or can two people belong to the same ethnicity but one can be considered English and the other not? How do we define the origins of the English “nation” when Bede gives us so many contradicting criteria of what makes a person English? The answer is that we cannot. While it is very tempting to look to Bede for England’s origins as a nation, it is simply impossible to do so when the History of the English Church and People was written in a time before the modern idea of a nation existed.
Scholar of nationhood, Adrian Hastings, wrote that “A nation does not exist until its members hold it to exist”, but in the medieval period, none of the people living in what we now call England would have considered themselves as belonging to an English nation. Medieval people did not define their own identity in such broad terms, and their ideas about community were much smaller, meaning that they would identify themselves by the family they belonged to or the town they lived in. Medieval ideas about nationhood were much more fluid than they are today, which becomes evident when taking a closer look at Bede’s work and his own ideas about what defines a nation.
The Tomb of the Venerable Bede, Durham Cathedral, United Kingdom (Robin Widdison / Public Domain )
In the end, the search must continue for the origins of the English nation. Although Bede did not create the definitive beginning of the English nation, he did create an identity in his writing upon which ideas about English nationalism would later be constructed. In some ways, the primordial definition of Englishness can be found with Bede.
Top Image: The Venerable Bede lived in 8th century Northumbria. Source: Thomas Mucha / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. 1955. Penguin.
Harris, Stephen. 2003. Race and ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon literature . Routledge.
Hastings, Adrian. 1997. The construction of nationhood: Ethnicity, religion and nationalism . Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Anthony D. 2003. Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History . Polity Press.