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Bede on the Papacy



It is clear from Bede's Historia ecclesiastica that England then enjoyed close relations with the Roman Church. Some passages in the work have been seen as reflecting a high doctrine of the papacy, but when carefully read they turn out to be devoid of any understanding of the papacy. The same is true of Bede's discussions of Christ's words to Peter (Matthew xvi.18a, 19) in his writing on the Bible. Yet other English authors of the period had attitudes very different to those of Bede; suggestions are offered as to why Bede took the line he did.



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1 Augustine dedicated churches in the name of the Saviour; the Roman church later called St John Lateran was then known by the same name: Bede, Historia ecclesiastica 1.33. Bede's language, ‘Augustinus, ubi in regia civitate sedem episcopalem … accepit … ecclesiam … in nomine sancti Salvatoris Dei et Domini nostri Iesu Christi sacravit’ (Opera historica, ed. C. Plummer, Oxford 1896, 70; Bede's Ecclesiastical history of the English people, ed. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford 1969, 114), suggests that Augustine's church was envisaged as a cathedral, as the Lateran then was in Rome. Compare also Mellitus building a church dedicated to the Holy Mother of God (HE 2.6) to Pope Boniface's recent dedication of the erstwhile Pantheon to the Holy Mother of God and all the martyrs, recorded by Bede (HE 2.4). In the time of Mellitus there was also in Canterbury a church dedicated to the Quattro Coronati (HE 2.7); an ancient church dedicated to them stands 400 m. from the Lateran: Hugo Brandenburg, Ancient churches of Rome, Turnhout 2005, 195. Non-Roman in its inspiration was the church of the Apostles Peter and Paul, established just outside Canterbury, where the archbishops of Canterbury and the kings of Kent were to be buried; a burial church, similar to the church of the Holy Apostles (viz. Peter and Paul), established by Constantine in Constantinople, had been founded by Clovis and his wife Clotilde in Paris: Gregory of Tours Libri historiarum 2.43, MGH, SRM i. 93; this church was later dedicated to Ste Geneviève.

2 W. Levison, England and the continent in the eighth century, Oxford 1946, 259–65. On the possibility that the cathedral built by Augustine at Canterbury imitated St Peter's in some respects see Taylor, H. M., ‘The Anglo-Saxon cathedral church at Canterbury’, Archaeological Journal cxxvi (1969), 101–30.

3 M. Viellard-Troikouroff, Les Monuments religieux de la Gaule d'après les œuvres de Grégoire de Tours, Paris 1974, 381–2, 434–41. It should be noted, however, that, of the Apostles, Peter was overwhelmingly the most popular for dedications in Gaul: Ewig, E., ‘Der Petrus- und Apostelkult im spätrömischen und fränkischen Gallien’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte lxxi (1960), 215–51, esp. p. 243.

4 See, for example, HE 1.23, 1.27, 1.29, 2.1 (Plummer edn, 42, 48, 63, 73, 75, 80; Colgrave–Mynors edn, 68, 80, 104, 122, 124, 134). Two of these references occur in letters of Gregory the Great which Bede reproduces.

5 Rome: Gregory of Tours, Libri historiarum 2.1, p. 38. Bordeaux: ibid. 4.26, p. 158, although King Lothar assumes that the expression refers to the Roman church. Gregory also quotes documents which address, in awkward Latin, Gallic bishops as ‘apostolici sede dignissimis’ (9.41, p. 468) and ‘apostolica sede dignissimis’ (9.42, p. 470). Gregory the Great regards Antioch as an apostolic see: Registrum epistularum 5.42, CCSL cxl. 326. The adjective must refer to the Apostle Peter.

6 See W. K. Moore, The Saxon pilgrims to Rome and the schola Saxonum, Fribourg 1937. See also Claire Stancliffe, ‘Kings who opted out’, in Patrick Wormald with Donald Bullough and Roger Collins (eds), Ideal and reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon society: studies presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Oxford 1983, 154–76, esp. pp. 156–7. There was a royal precedent among the Burgundians: R. Kaiser, ‘Der Burgunderkönig Sigismund (†523–524): erster heiliger König des Mittelalters und erster königlichen Romfahrer, Busspilger und Mönch’, in A. Meyer, C. Rendtel and M. Wittner-Butsch, Päpste, Pilger, Pönitentiarie: Festschrift Ludwig Schmugge, Tübingen 2004, 199–210.

7 Deaf and dumb man: ‘Quaerebam Petrum, quaerebam Paulum Laurentiumque vel relinquos, qui Romam proprio cruore inlustrant; hic omnes repperi, hic cunctos inveni’: Gregory of Tours, Libri historiarum 6.6, p. 275. For the bishops' appeal to Rome see ibid. 5.20.

8 The arguments of Rob Meens are not entirely persuasive: ‘A background to Augustine's mission to Anglo-Saxon England’, Anglo-Saxon England xxiii (1994), 5–17.

9 ‘Etsi aliis non est apostolus, sed tamen nobis est’: Bede HE 2.1. Bede's understanding of the role of Gregory in the mission is also expressed in De templo 2, CCSL cxixA. 218. On later developments see Hayward, Paul, ‘Gregory the Great as “apostle of the English” in post-conquest Canterbury’, this Journal lv (2004), 1957.

10 Benedicta Ward has seen it as ‘The central chapter of this [the third] book and of the whole work’: The venerable Bede, Kalamazoo, Mi 1998, 123. It is half-way measured by the length of the book, rather than by chapter.

11 On the relationship between this text and Bede see G. Isenberg, Die Würdigung Wilfrids von York in Der Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum Bedas und der Vita Wilfridi des Eddius, Münster 1978, esp. pp. 35–7, and W. Goffart, The narrators of barbarian history, Princeton, NJ 1988, 307–20, who sees Bede responding to ten points in Stephanus' account. On the possibility that the text now extant is a revised version of that available to Bede see Kirby, D. P., ‘Eddius Stephanus and the “Life of Wilfrid”’, EHR xcvii (1983), 101–14. The Vita Wilfridi is cited from the edition in MGH, SRM vi.

12 Striking examples are John Godfrey, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge 1962, 117–18, and G. Musca, Il venerabile Beda storico del'alto medioevo, Bari 1973, 316–23.

13 Colman is made to conclude his speech at Whitby ‘Nostrae partis detuli sententiam, vos vestram dicite’ (Vita Wilfridi 11), while Wilfrid's opponents in 704 conclude their opening remarks ‘Nos nostrae partis sententiam detulimus, vos vestram defensionem dicite’ (ibid. 53). More significant are the smiles which follow Wilfrid's speeches on each occasion.

14 Ibid. 7f.

15 HE 5.19 (Plummer edn, 325; Colgrave–Mynors edn, 520–2).

16 Vita Wilfridi 10.

17 HE 3.25 (Plummer edn, 181–2; Colgrave–Mynors edn, 294–8).

18 At Vita Wilfridi 53, p. 247, the members of another synod are described as ‘inter se graecizantes et subridentes’. An English author tells that when a woman who baked loaves used by Gregory the Great to celebrate mass was offered communion, ‘subrisit’: The earliest Life of Gregory the Great, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave, Cambridge 1985, cap. 20. Note Ambrose on the sense of the prefix ‘sub’: ‘Aliud est enim subaemulari, aliud aemulari; subaemulation astutiam habet, aemulatio similicitatem’: In Psalmos xxxviii.10.

19 Vita Wilfridi 10.

20 ‘[I]f Bede made all this up … If in fact he made up any of Wilfrid's speech’: Henry Mayr-Harting, The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn, University Park, Pa 1991, 109, 112. Roger Ray provides an interesting discussion of Bede's account of Whitby as an example of his ‘inventional method’: ‘The triumphs of Greco-Roman rhetorical assumptions in pre-Carolingian historiography’, in Christopher Holdsworth and T. P. Wiseman (eds), The inheritance of historiography, 350–900, Exeter 1986, at pp. 79–81.

21 Wilfrid's assertion that Columba and his followers loved God with ‘rustic simplicity’ (‘simplicitate rustica’) reproduces a phrase Bede uses in his prose Vita Cuthberti 3: Two Lives of St Cuthbert, ed. B. Colgrave, Cambridge 1940, 164. The source may be Jerome's prologue to his De viris illustribus, PL xxiii. 634. I concur with the judgement of Plummer (ii. 190) on this matter. Continental scholars differ as to whether Bede spiced up his account with English humour: T. Zwölfer, Sankt Peter Apostelfürst und Himmelspförtner: seine Verehung bei den Angelsachsen und Franken, Stuttgart 1929, 52, contra Duchesne.

22 Elsewhere Bede discusses Peter's practice in celebrating Easter: Libellus retractationis in Actus Apostolorum, at the point where the commentary discusses ch. xxvi.16, CCSL cxxi. 156.

23 J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early medieval history, Oxford 1975, 83.

24 HE (Plummer edn, 185–6; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 302–4).

25 I disagree with Cowdrey, H. E. J., ‘Bede and the English Church’, Journal of Religious History xi (1981), 501–23 at p. 510, and Karl Morrison, Tradition and authority in the western Church, Princeton, NJ 1969, 150. Compare the opinion of Richard Hanning: ‘The Roman church founded by Peter is in its universality the type of the kingdom of heaven’: The vision of history in early Britain, New York 1966, 82.

26 Mayr-Harting, Coming of Christianity, 111. It is hard to detect in Wilfrid the ‘clarion assertion of papal authority’ attributed to him at p. 122.

27 Lozito, Hence V., ‘Il primate romano nella Historia ecclesiastica di Beda’, Romanobarbarico vii (1982–3), 133–59, whose points relate to Peter having been important rather than what the title of the article suggests. While E. Caspar, Geschichte des Papsttums, ii, Tübingen 1933, went too far in attributing to Oswiu a Germanic attitude towards Peter (pp. 680, 788), he was certainly correct in providing a reading of the Synod of Whitby in non-papal terms.

28 HE 5.21, esp. Plummer edn, 342–5, and Colgrave-Mynors edn, 548–50. On Bede having written this letter see Plummer, ii. 332–5 and J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Bede's Ecclesiastical history of the English people: a historical commentary, Oxford 1988, 196. To the evidence presented there can be added the apposition of ‘temporalis regni’ and ‘caelestis … regni’ in the second last sentence, which is characteristic of Bede (cf. for example HE 3.1 (Plummer edn, 127; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 212), 3.6 (p. 138; p. 230), 3.7 (p. 140; p. 232), 3.12 (p. 151; p. 250), 3.22 (p. 172; p. 282). Such repetition has implications for Bede's view of kingship.

29 Retractationes 1.21, CCSL lvii. 62. See the discussion of La Bonnardière, A.-M., ‘Tu es Petrus: la pericope ≪Matthieu 16, 13–23≫ dans l'œuvre de saint Augustin’, Irénikon xliii (1969), 451–99.

30 Homilia i.20, in Homiliarum evangelii libri ii, CCSL cxxii. 144, line 126. This homily, ‘In cathedra S Petri’, provides Bede's most sustained discussion of the passage in Matthew. Hence, when Bede writes ‘ecclesia quae super eum aedificata erat’ (141, line 9), the ‘eum’ must refer to Christ, not Peter. See further ‘fides Christi super quam aedificata eius ecclesia’: In I Samuelem prophetam allegorica expositio 23.26–8, CCSL cxix. 221, cf ‘petra fidei’ ibid 2.11, 26; ‘petra erat Christus et super hanc, inquit, petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam’: In Lucae evangelium expositio 2.221, CCSL cxx. 59, lines 1596–7; ‘super petram fidei’: In Marci evangelium expositio 9.33, CCSL cxx. 551. It must be acknowledged that Bede once uses the expression ‘ecclesiamque super eum aedificandum’ with regard to Peter: In Lucae evangelium 9.46, CCSL cxx. 209. However, this is presented as no more than an opinion of the disciples, from which they drew the erroneous conclusion that Peter was appointed the superior of James and John, or of all the Apostles.

31 See, for example, Super Acta Apostolorum expositio 3.2, CCSL cxxi. 23; In Epistulis septem catholicis at the point where the commentary discusses 2 Pet. iii.15, CCSL cxxi.281; 1 John ii.9, CCSL cxxi 291, line 96f.

32 HE 3.25 (Plummer edn, 188; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 306).

33 ‘Specialiter’, at homilia i.20, CCSL cxx.146, line 186. Gregory the Great sees Christ's words ‘Simon son of Jonas, do you love me?’ as being directed ‘specialiter’ to the person to whom the holy Church was entrusted: Homiliae xl in Evangelia 24.2, CCSL cxli. 199.

34 See, for example, In Lucae evangelium 5.3, CCSL cxx. 114; 5.10, CCSL cxx. 116; 22.54, CCSL, cxx. 390, quoting Augustine, Acta Apostolorum expositio 5.15, CCSL cxxi. 30; 10.13, CCSL cxxi. 51.

35 Homilia i. 2, CCSL cxxii. 145, line 165ff. Hence Bede sees the authority as having been given to all the elect of the Church: ibid. 146, lines 183–6. Peter received the keys and primacy of judicial power ‘specialiter’, so that all would know that whoever separated himself from the unity of his faith or fellowship could not be absolved of his sins or enter the door of the heavenly kingdom: ibid. lines 185–91.

36 Hexaemeron (seu Libri iv in pincipium Genesis) 9.3, CCSL cxxii. 145, lines 165–72. See De templo 1, CCSL cxixA. 186, lines 1550–3, on the keys of the kingdom and the power of binding and loosing and admitting the worthy through the door of heaven given to Apostles and apostolic men, and 2 (217, lines 997–1003), on holy teachers binding and loosing.

37 Explanatio apocalypsis 11, 20, PL xciii. 163A, 191D-192A; In proverbia Salomonis 26.2, CCSL cxixB. 131; cf Salomonis allegorica expositio 3.26, PL xci. 1016B.

38 ‘Caput … omnium ecclesiarum’, chron. s.a. 535, MGH, AA xiii. 310, although the phrase occurs in a quotation from the Liber pontificalis.

39 HE 1.4 (Plummer edn, 16; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 24). A letter of Laurentius, Mellitus and Justus quoted by Bede shows the same understanding: ‘When, in accordance with its custom, which holds good through the world, the apostolic see sent us to the western lands to preach the Gospel to the heathen peoples’: HE 2.4. (Plummer edn, 87; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 146), trans. Leo Sherley-Price and R. E. Latham, Harmondsworth 1990, 109. Later, the English missionary Willibrord would seek papal approval for his evangelising activity: Bede HE 5.11. Pope Zosimus had reminded the bishops of Gaul that Trophimus had been sent to Arles from his see: ep. i.3, PL xx.644–5. The same view is expressed by the bishops under the metropolitan authority of Arles, writing to Pope Leo: Leo ep. lxv, PL liv.880. Such an understanding also occurs in Gregory of Tours, who sees the first bishop of Tours, Gatianus, as having been sent there by an unnamed pope of the Roman see: Libri historiarum 10.31, p. 526; cf 1.30, p. 23, on seven bishops despatched to preach in Gaul, among them Trophimus. Note too that Bede takes for granted the ability of Gregory the Great to place the bishops of Britain (Brittaniarum) under Augustine: HE 1.27, interrogatio vii (Plummer edn, 53; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 88).

40 ‘[P]rimum in toto orbe gereret pontificatum … praelatus ecclesiis’: HE 2.1 (Plummer edn, 73; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 122).

41 Theodore: HE 4.1 (Plummer edn, 201–3; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 522–6). Benedict Biscop: Bede, Historia abbatum 3 (Plummer edn, 366); homilia i.13, CCSL cxxii. 91.

42 So Yves Congar, L'Ecclésiologie du haut moyen-âge, Paris 1968, 152.

43 The earliest Life of Gregory the Great, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave, Cambridge 1985, 27, 28 (122, 124f). Note too the cry of the people, ‘Petrum offendisti’, when Pope Benedict allowed Gregory, planning to preach to the Angles, to leave Rome (10, 92).

44 Ep. to Geruntius, MGH, Ep. iii. 234: ‘doctrinam et decreta beati Petri … et traditionem ecclesiae Romanae’. After quoting from Matt. xvi. 18–19, Aldhelm mentions the danger of spurning the principal statutes (‘statute principalia’) of his (sc. Peter's) church (line 21); cf p. 224 above on Christ's words being addressed ‘principaliter’ to Peter. Yet Aldhelm sees (235, line 9) the foundation of the Church as being placed ‘principaliter in Christo et sequenter in Petro’.

45 Pope Agatho: Vita Wilfridi 31 (cf. the words attributed to Pope John at 53); king: 34; abbess: 39; Berhtwald: 60. Needless to say the perspective is also that of the author: a king who failed to accept the decision of Pope Agatho is seen as despising the judgements of Peter the Apostle, who has from God the power of binding and loosing (32: the present tense of ‘habet’ is noteworthy).

46 Vita Wilfridi 29, trans. J. F. Webb, in The age of Bede, Harmondsworth 1983, 135f.

47 Hence ‘per Dominum et per sanctum Petrum apostolum’ (Vita Wilfridi 7), ‘per Dominum … et per sanctum Petrum apostolum’ (8), ‘confiteor Domino et sancto Petro apostolo’ (43), ‘per omnipotentem Deum et beatum Petrum apostolum’ (51), ‘Deo adiuvante et sancto Petro principe apostolorum’ (52), ‘votum vovit Deo et sancto Petro’ (59).

48 Th. Schieffer, Winfrid-Bonifatius und die Christliche Grundlegung Europas, Freiburg 1954, repr. with additional bibliography 1972, remains fundamental. See, more recently, Ian Wood, The missionary Life: saints and the evangelization of Europe, 400–1050, Harlow 2002, 58–78.

49 The words quoted are those of Peter Brown, The rise of western Christendom, 2nd edn, Malden, Ma–Oxford 2003, 420. The evidence presented in n. 38 above may provide some context for Boniface's concern, which he shared with Willibrord, for seeking approval from the apostolic see for missionary activities, although the support Boniface went on to seek when he encountered difficult local bishops invites comparison with Wilfrid's appeals to Rome.

50 Ep. xvi, ed. MGH, Ep. iii. 265, lines 11–12, 18–19.

51 Ep. l, ibid. iii. 299, line 23; cf ‘Excellentissimo patri atque apostolico pontifici et ex auctoritate sancti Petri principis apostolorum magisterio freto, Zachariae papae’, ibid. 317, lines 15f; Zacharias will give advice ‘ex auctoritate sancti Petri principis apostolorum’, ibid. 368, line 12.

52 The best study remains Mayr-Harting, Coming of Christianity, at pp. 129–47.

53 Sermo cxxxi.10, PL xxxviii.734, apparently the origin of the famous ‘Roma locuta est, causa finita est.’

54 ‘Ut nullus ad ecclesiam Romanam audeat appellare’: CCSL cxxxix. 266, line 476. On the tensions within the view of papal authority adopted by Augustine and his colleagues see J. E. Merdinger, Rome and the African Church in the time of Augustine, New Haven, Cn–London 1997.

55 See Goffart, Narrators, 307–20.

56 ‘Quod in Romana civitate, Italia et Africa et universa Aegypto, Hispania, Galliis, Brittaniis, Lybia, tota Helladia, Asia diocese, Ponto et Cilicia libenter sub una concordia custoditur’: Cassiodorus, Historia tripartita 9.38.15, following Socrates, Historia ecclesiastica 5.22, quite understandably omitting the statement that the letter from which these words are taken could be found in the third book of Eusebius' Vita Constantini 3.19. One immediately places this list beside that which Bede attributes to Wilfrid: ‘Vidimus Romae … hoc in Italia, hoc in Gallia … hoc Africam, Asiam, Aegyptum, Graeciam, et omnem orbem.’: HE 3.25 (Plummer edn, 184; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 300).

57 ‘Iuxta quod ecclesiam Christi per Italiam, Galliam, Africam, Greciam, ac totum orientem sollerter agere nosti’: Epistola Bede ad Ecgbertum episcopum 15 (Opera historica, ed. Plummer, 419).

58 ‘In toto orbe’. See, for example, In Marci evangelium expositio at the point where the commentary discusses Mark iii. 11–2, CCSL cxx. 469, 470; iii. 9, CCSL cxx. 493; vi. 41, CCSL cxx. 514; xi.1, CCSL cxx. 571 etc.

59 For example, early in his narrative he has Augustine asking British bishops and teachers to join him in catholic unity: HE 2.22 (Plummer edn, 81; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 134). He summarises a letter to Irish leaders as beseeching them to hold unity of peace and catholic observance with the Church of Christ spread throughout the world: HE 2.4 (Plummer edn, 87; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 146).

60 For example, ‘sanctae ecclesiae, in cuius solum unitate quae “catholica” vocatur … patet’: In principium Genesis 3.20, CCSL cxviiiA. 69; ‘nisi ad catholicam unitatem redeundo respiciant intereunt’: ibid. 6.17–8, 111; ‘ad catholicae pacis reducit unitatem’: In I Samuelem 30.18, CCSL cxix. 265; ‘in catholica permanens unitate’: ibid. 31.4–5, 269; ‘supernae pacis unitatisque gaudia’: In Lucae evangelium expositio 12.13f, CCSL cxx. 250.

61 In Cantica canticorum allegorica expositio 3.5.1, CCSL cxxivB. 272, lines 50–3. See in general T. R. Eckenrode, ‘The venerable Bede and the pastoral affirmation of the Christian message in Anglo-Saxon England’, Downside Review xciv (1981), 258–78.

62 Homilia i. 6, CCSL cxxii. 42.

63 In Lucae evangelium expositio 10.1, CCSL cxx. 214, lines 1875–8.

64 The only occasion where this is not explicit is HE 1.14 (‘grex Domini et eiusque pastores’: Plummer edn, 30; Mynors-Colgrave edn, 48), but Bede is here quoting Gildas.

65 Bruno Judic, in the introduction to the SC edition of the text (ccclxxxi.76–88), an interpretation supported by Bede's seeing the book as dealing with, among other things, the kind of people to be chosen to exercise rule in the Church: ‘quales ad ecclesiae regimen adsumi’: HE 2.1 (Plummer edn, 76; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 126).

66 HE 2.1 (Plummer edn, 74; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 124). Bede follows Gregory's description of himself: Dialogues 1 prol. 4, SC cclx.12. While Bede is playing off Gregory's life inside and outside his monastery, I suspect that he envisages pastoral care as a consequence of the assumption of episcopal office.

67 Note, however, that Bede was comfortable in applying juridical language to Peter (‘principatus iudiciariae potestatis’, Homilia i.20, CCSL cxx. 146 line 187), but his emphasis was other.

68 HE 2.4 (Plummer edn, 86f; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 144).

69 HE 2.6 (Plummer edn, 92; Colgrave-Mynors edn, 154).

70 In epistolas septem catholicas, at the point where the commentary discusses 1 Pet. v. 2, CCSL cxxi. 256, trans. by David Hirst, in The Commentary on the seven catholic epistles of Bede the Venerable, Kalamazoo, Mi 1985, 114. The example of Peter as shepherd is commended by Bede to Bishop Ecgbert: Ad Ecgbertum episcopum 14 (Plummer edn, 417).

Bede on the Papacy



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