Paganism in the Literature of Anglo-Saxon England: A Critique of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica

TO understand how paganism was depicted in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, it is necessary to examine the first three books of this vital eighth-century text and study how Bede portrays Britain and its inhabitants both before and after the coming of Christianity and the Gregorian mission. When Bede writes about paganism it is usually quite apparent that this pious monk highly favours Christianity and, indeed, portrays it in a far better light. However, we can also learn a lot from what Bede does not reveal to us or which he conveniently fails to mention.

As Bede’s work unfolds, the reader is given an initial description of early Britain’s geographical and linguistic composition, an account of her subsequent occupation by Roman invaders, and a violent depiction of St. Alban’s martyrdom in defence of the Christian faith. Whilst there seems little doubt that by its very nature such an act was extremely brave – which, regardless of its actual or mythological consistency was designed to arouse a certain degree of sympathetic support among his readership – Bede’s highly misleading chronology seems to suggest that Christianity was already an established creed in Britain during the early part of the Fourth Century. When St. Alban is reputed to have given shelter to a Christian priest “fleeing from his pursuers”[1], Bede is implying that Christians were a persecuted minority with the Romans being their dark and sinister oppressors. It is only after the reader has been made aware of St. Alban’s impending death in Chapter 7’s compressed summary, that the Saint’s persecutors are exposed as idolatrous pagans “offering sacrifice to devils”[2]. The eventual trial of St. Alban is designed to incite a spirit of Christian resistance in all communities, regardless of whether they are favourable to the Church or not. Bede is stressing the vast importance of giving one’s allegiance to the laws of God before those of any earthly origin, paying special attention to the Saint’s remark that pagan gods do not answer the prayers of their worshippers and that “whosoever offers sacrifice to idols is doomed to the pains of hell.”[3] Throughout this chapter, St. Alban is identified with the one true God, a process which – coupled with Bede’s earlier account of Diocletian’s rampaging brutality throughout Western Europe – serves intelligently to vindicate the cause of Christ and his human allies. Indeed, the reader may be further swayed by the knowledge that a huge crowd of St. Alban’s contemporaries were allegedly “moved by God’s will to attend the death of his blessed confessor and martyr.”[4]

Another important characteristic within Bede’s graphic portrayal of Britain prior to the arrival of St. Augustine in 597, is the way disaster is used to suggest that a nation without faith is bound to suffer great hardship. If Bede is to effectively portray the arrival of the Christian missionaries as being akin to a welcoming light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, it is necessary for him to go to great lengths in order to relate the tale of an apparently misguided British people dominated by the gloomy soullessness of a debilitating heathen epoch. The sheer ungodly nature of Britain under pagan rule is soon illustrated by an account of her descent into barbarism and pestilence[5]. When the Angles invaded Britain into 449 and created even more disunity than ever before, Bede is determined to place all blame on the pagans themselves who, according to our venerable chronicler, destroyed buildings, murdered bishops and priests and generally created an atmosphere of untold misery for her nature but now “wretched and fearful”[6] inhabitants. By total contrast, Chapter 16 sees the Britons’ first real victory under Ambrosius. However, Bede is not by any means accepting that good fortune can arise as a result of paganism, for the very combatants in the war against the Angles in 493 were decidedly Christian. Once again, herein lies firm ‘proof’ that the way forward depends on one’s choice of spiritual mentor.

As Bede’s narrative begins to employ the use of divinely-inspired miracles and both apologetic and unrepentant Pelagian heretics[7], it seems clear that the historian is setting the scene for the emergence of a redeeming factor which can thus cure the nation of its ills. However, despite the fact that “Roman Britain had not converted all the pagans when she was involved in the difficulties of raids, flights and pressure from the new, Germanic pagans in the fifth and sixth centuries”[8], in Chapter 23 Bede finally arrives at the advent of the Gregorian mission from Rome and, by this time, has basically succeeded in the depiction of pagan Britain as being uncivilised and devoid of any worthy cultural or spiritual attributes. Bede tells us that the Benedictine monks who made their way to Britain at the end of the Sixth Century, were obviously more than a little concerned “at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation”[9]. The initial hesitation of the missionaries serves to illustrate the significance of their task in different ways. Firstly, by referring to their faint-heartedness Bede is able to continue his uncomplimentary account of a nation which – as far as he is concerned – had sunk to incredible depths of degeneracy and he can also emphasise the brave, pioneering spirit which led to the eventual conversion of the English people themselves. In addition, Bede is stressing the important role played by the innovative Pope Gregory[10], who masterminded the whole affair in the first place.

There is also a strong hint of the international co-operation which took place between the ecclesiastical representatives of Italy and France[11], something which, once again, appeared to display the unity of Christendom in contrast to the warlike chaos which continued to rage in Britain. When accounting for the fact that Augustine and his fellow monks were welcomed by King Ethelbert of Kent – “the most powerful Anglo-Saxon ruler of his day”[12] – Bede decides to adopt a slightly more diplomatic tone. It is vital for Bede to portray the King as someone who is gradually coming under the providential influence of the Church and, rather than condemn Ethelbert’s own paganism, Bede decides to condemn the ‘sin’ itself. Ethelbert is permitted to describe paganism as consisting of “old-age beliefs”[13], and Bede even finds it in his heart to accept the obvious spirit of hospitality which had been conferred upon his monastic forebears. Bede decides to concentrate on the missionaries themselves and the fact that, in his view, they represented a shining example worthy of pagan emulation. Indeed, there seems little doubt that King Ethelbert and his subjects were greatly inspired by the visiting monks, and “edified by the pure lives of these holy men and their gracious promises”[14]. It also seems that large numbers of people

“gathered every day to hear the word of God, forsaking their heathen rites, and entering the unity of Christ’s holy church as believers.” [15]

On the other hand, Ethelbert was certainly sceptical of the visiting missionaries and, initially, confined the monks to the isle of Thanet, retaining, according to Bede, “an ancient superstition that if they were practicers of magical arts, they might have opportunity to deceive and master him.”[16] When Augustine was finally permitted to enter Canterbury, one may argue that Ethelbert was more intrigued by the strange habits of his guests than genuinely won over to the cause of Christianity itself. Indeed, sometime before 588 the King had taken a Christian wife – Bertha, daughter of the Frankish King Charibert – which indicates that “Christian observances must have been followed within the King’s household for at least nine years before Augustine’s landing.”[17] On the other hand, the fact that Ethelbert had declined, thus far, to accompany his wife into the Church had nothing whatsoever to do with anything remotely theological and with the arrival of Augustine, paganism “merely came before a reflecting mind as unexamined admissions of one age, which was fairly open to revision from another”[18]. Paganism in England seemed to have been more of a tradition than a religion, although Peter Hunter Blair has pointed out that whilst paganism in the rest of Europe was basically orientated around a primitive form of nature-worship, in Anglo-Saxon England “the roots of paganism were widespread and deep.”[19]

Despite welcoming the visiting entourage, King Ethelbert was still unwilling to relinquish his monarchical superiority entirely, and was himself responsible for appointing and allocating the early bishops with regard to their various episcopal sees. Seemingly drunk on his own remarkable portrayal of the Christian conversion, Bede is unable – or perhaps unwilling – to give his readership an idea of the remaining influence of Britain’s supposedly dwindling paganism. However, the missionaries were not as highly successful as Bede seems to imply, and Frank Stenton has remarked that during this period “five undoubted places of pagan worship can still be identified within a radius of twelve miles from Augustine’s Church of Canterbury.”[20] Similarly, Henry Mayr-Harting notes that the episcopal see of London was “within view of the commanding pagan sanctuary of Harrow-on-the-Hill”[21]. In addition, whilst Bede informs us that Ethelbert “showed greater favour to believers”[22] of Christianity than to his fellow pagan countrymen, a more cynical evaluation of the King’s intentions would be hard-pressed to ignore the fact that he “could not have been indifferent to the political advantages that would follow from the reunion of a lost province of the empire to the church of its capital.”[23] Bede’s intention, on the other hand, is to illustrate Christianity’s merciful attitude towards a creed which once persecuted its own saintly exponents.

In Chapter 30 of his first book, Bede mentions the correspondence between Pope Gregory and Abbot Mellitus, highlighting the sensitive nature of the ongoing mission to convert the English. The Pope is obviously aware that any attempt to destroy the existing pagan temples would arouse the ire of the people, and he suggests that such temples be

“aspersed with holy water, altars set up, and relics enclosed in them. For if these temples are well built, they are to be purified from devil-worship, and dedicated to the service of the true God.” [24]

Once again, from the information Bede declines to relate, we can learn a great deal about the realities of pagan-Christian relations at the beginning of the Seventh Century. The Pope was obviously aware that an initial process of acculturation would finally lead to the dispossession and subsequent eradication of the English pagan tradition by non-coercive means.

In 616, the sons of Ethelbert and Sabert rejected the faith of their fathers and began to revive paganism. For Bede, this reassertion of idolatry was a great setback in the development of English Christianity and Eadbald’s personal “immorality”[25] was shown to have been the inevitable aftermath of his drift away from religious orthodoxy. The three East Saxon brothers who had succeeded their father soon made the situation even more untenable and actively “encouraged their people to return to the old gods.”[26] When Bede explains how Mellitus and Justus were forced to leave Britain in the face of a strengthening pagan opposition, it seems inevitable that he would somehow be forced to pluck a miraculous rabbit from his bottomless hat of divine providence as a means of explaining away the problems being faced by Christianity. Indeed, this is exactly what he does and when Laurentius recounts his vision of St. Peter to King Eadbald, the process of degeneration was subsequently arrested and the errant sons of Sabert were slain in battle against the West Saxons – all of which represented “a shattering blow to pagan prestige, and prepared the way for the simple Christians to be returned to Christ”[27]. Before long, Pope Boniface’s attempts to capture the allegiance of King Edwin of Wessex by stressing the supremacy of Christianity over its pagan rivals also succeed, thanks to a further series of unexplained miracles. In fact throughout the gradual conversion of the English kings, the intervention of the supernatural – at least for Bede – is proof enough that their respective capitulations were divinely orchestrated. Only King Penda of Mercia – “who lived and died a pagan”[28] – receives the silent treatment; a stubborn refusal to denounce his heathen practices denying him a more prominent place in the annals of Anglo-Saxon history, although it has been said that his role in the Historica Ecclesiastica was unique in that he was used “as the instrument of the chastisement of an unfaithful people.”[29] However, with Penda’s eventual demise, King Peada’s conversion to the faith in 653 and the re-conversion of the East Saxons during the same year, the final obstacles to a united Christian England seem to have been eradicated.

Indeed, with paganism virtually defeated, the emphasis was directed towards the contentious debate between Iona’s own brand of Celtic Christianity and Catholic Rome on what constituted the correct form of Easter observance. With Christianity managing to assert itself as the Seventh Century wore on, Bede was able to depict its battle with the declining remnants of paganism as an all-out holy war. This is particularly significant during Bede’s colourful account of St. Oswald’s struggle against the heathens in the north of England, something which inspired a new religious impetus and, according to J. Campbell, “was an excellent instance of how Christianity could be represented to suit the needs and feelings of the rulers of England. If the Church deprived the kings of Northumbria of the gods whom they had regarded as their ancestors it soon provided their dynasty with a royal saint”[30]. As Book III arrives at its penultimate conclusion, Bede uses the example of the temporary East Saxon lapse into idolatry during a plague to stress how a lack of faith can assert itself upon all men. Chapter 30’s joyous ending is designed to suggest that “bringing back both King and people to the right way”[31] is somehow a restoration of the natural order.

Finally, as a confirmed believer in the just cause of Christianity, Bede was always going to portray paganism in a very bad light. His own strong commitment to Christian principles meant that he not only accepted the miraculous tales of seventh-century bravado without question, but that he also ignored that which he considered to be irrelevant or in any way damaging to the overall picture of Christian development. This was not done in the way a modern propagandist like Joseph Goebbels, for example, might twist certain historical factors in order to suit a particular ideology of his own taste, but simply because Bede regarded everything outside of God and his divine plan to be rather insignificant by comparison. This does not help the student of Anglo-Saxon history to unravel all the mysteries of the age, but it certainly demonstrates just how incredibly loyal, highly-focused and single-minded Bede really was. If Bede frustrates the curious historian, however, he merely confirms the durability of the English Church.


1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and Peoples, Translated by Leo Shirley-Price, (Penguin, 1956), p. 44.

2. Ibid., p. 45.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 46.

5. Ibid., pp. 54-5.

6. Ibid., p. 57.

7. Ibid., pp. 58-60.

8. Margaret Deanesley, Sidelights on the Anglo-Saxon Church (A. & C. Black, 1962), p. 25.

9. Bede, op. cit., p. 66.

10. Ibid, pp. 66-7.

11. Ibid., pp. 67-8.

12. Nicholas Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester University Press, 1984), p. 7.

13. Bede, op. cit., p. 69.

14. Ibid., pp. 70-1.

15. Ibid., p. 71.

16. Ibid., p. 69.

17. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 105.

18. Henry Soames, The Anglo-Saxon Church (John W. Parker, 1938), p. 16.

19. Peter Hunter Blair, The World of Bede (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 42.

20. Henry Mayr-Harting, quoting Frank Stenton in The Coming of Christianity (The Bath Press, 1990), p. 64.

21. Ibid.

22. Bede, op. cit., p. 71.

23. Frank Stenton, op. cit., p. 104.

24. Bede, op. cit., p. 86.

25. Ibid., p. 107.

26. Ibid.

27. Margaret Deanesley, The Pre-Conquest Church in England (A. & C. Black, 1961), p. 67.

28. Rev. G. F. Browne, The Conversion of the Heptarchy (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1914), p. 99.

29. Benedicta Ward, The Venerable Bede (Geoffrey Chapman, 1990), p. 118.

30. J. Campbell, ‘Bede’ in Latin Historians, T. A. Dorey (ed.), 1966, pp. 170-1.

31. Bede, op. cit., p. 197.


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