The Golden Age of Northumbria by H.E. Davidson (1958) [Part 4: Churches & Books]

The Church-builders

The Golden Age of NorthumbriaThe old temples of the gods were not all destroyed like the one burned by Coifi. Sometimes they were used as churches for a while. Not long ago the site of one of King Edwin’s halls was discovered at Yeavering in Bernicia, and we think that one of the wooden buildings there was first a temple and then a Christian church. But King Edwin soon began to build new churches in Northumbria, and other men carried on his work. Before long there were many churches built in stone for the new Christians. Here is one little church which still stands today, at Escomb in County Durham:

Northumbrian Age Church

It is small and high and narrow, with stone walks and small windows. Inside it looks like this:

Northumbrian Age Church interior

You can see it is plain and bare, and there would be no wooden pews or chairs, for folk would stand or kneel on the stone floor. Perhaps they would cover the floor with rushes to make it a little more comfortable, but it must have been very cold in winter. The arch you can see inside the church was probably taken from a Roman fort near by, for now the Northumbrians were no longer afraid to use the stones from the Roman ruins. Arches were rather difficult for them, since they were not used to building in stone, so it was helpful to find one ready-made.

There were two young men in Northumbria who very much wanted their own country to have churches as fine as any in Europe. One of them was called Biscop; he had been a warrior of the king, and led men to battle. But when he was twenty-five, he felt that he must fight not for an earthly king but a heavenly one. So he left his family and friends, and set out on a pilgrimage to Rome (a long and dangerous  journey taking many weeks in those times). Besides visiting Rome, Biscop went also to many monasteries in france and Italy to see how the monks lived there. He wanted Northumbria to have new monasteries too, and he wanted them to be the best possible.

When he came back to England after his travels, he had a new name and was called Benedict Biscop (Benedict means Blessed). He brought back to Northumbria many treasures. Among them were some of the new books, written by hand, with painted pictures in them, and some pictures, too, carved on small pieces of ivory which were easy to carry. Here is a picture of this kind made in Northumbria, showing the Wise Men coming to see the Infant Jesus:

Northumbrian Age The Magi

Biscop also brought workmen back with him from France, for he knew it would not be easy for the Northumbrians, who had been used to building in wood, to set-up the stone buildings he wanted to raise there for the glory of God.

His first monastery at Monkwearmouth was the greatest stone house which the Northumbrians had seen. What surprised them more than anything else was that it had glass windows, for some of his workmen from abroad knew how to put in glass, which would help to keep out the cold and yet let light into the room. Before this the Northumbrians had only seen glass drinking-cups in the halls of the king and rich men, and they came great distances to see this strange stuff that could be used in houses. There is still a doorway and part of the church at Monkwearmouth which may have been built by Biscop. On the porch they carved some queer twisted birds:

Northumbrian Age Monkwearmouth doorway

Benedict Biscop brought many things to make the churches of Northumbria more beautiful inside, and they had tich hangings and fine ornaments. Among the treasures the Northumbrians used were metal bowls, hanging from chains, like this one:

Northumbrian Age metal bowl

We are not quite sure what they were used for; perhaps they held holy water, or perhaps special treasures were kept inside, or they might have been used as lamps. The king of East Anglia had a specially fine one, with the figure of a little fish inside, which makes us think it was meant to hold water.

There were some very beautiful vessels, too, like this one in the picture, used in the church services: and there were crosses and banners to be carried in processions.

Northumbrian Age chalice

Benedict brought something else back with him besides these treasures for the church he found men who could teach in the school which he meant to set up in his two new monasteries, at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, and persuaded them to come back to Northumbria with him.  One of these was a singing master, for it was important that the boys should be taught how to sing and chant in the way Benedict had heard the monks singing in the monasteries which he had visited abroad. They used to chant the psalms and the other singing in answer, and this was something quite new to Northumbria.

The other young man who wanted to build churches was called Wilfrid. He was six years younger than Biscop, and had decided when he was still a boy that he wanted to study and find out more about the new Christian Church. Wilfrid was not very happy at home, for he had a stepmother who was unkind to him. When he was fourteen, he persuaded his father to let him have arms and horses and some new clothes, and set out for the Northumbrian court. He knew some of the thanes at the hall of the king, and they brought him to the queen. She liked Wilfrid, for he was a handsome boy with plenty to say for himself, and she found him a place in the school in the monastery of Lindisfarne. This was one of the monasteries like Iona; not a great stone building like those Biscop built, but a group of little huts, called cells. They were even simpler than the peasants’ huts, made of boughs and twigs with roofs of thatch. The monks walked about in plain woollen robes, with bare feet, and at night they slept in their clothes on a plank of wood covered with a reed mat.

Here Wilfrid lived until he was nineteen. He did not become a monk, but he lived among them and served them, and they were pleased with him because he was helpful and obedient. He learned all they could teach him, but he was not satisfied with the life they led. So he asked if he might go and visit Rome, for he had heard great things of the wonderful buildings and treasures and libraries there. The queen helped him, and his father gave him permission to go. He travelled down to Kent, and there he waited a whole year, hoping to find other travellers whom he could join for the journey. Finally he met Biscop, and the two young men started off together. They had much to say each other. As Wilfrid listened to Biscop’s plans for the great churches and monasteries he wanted to build in Northumbria, he too began to make plans for the great things he would do to make his country famous.

Wilfrid made many journeys and had many adventures, some of them not very pleasant ones, on his way back from Rome he stayed for a while in Lyons, with a bishop who loved him dearly and taught him many things. It was there that Wilfrid at last decided to become a monk, and he had his head shaved like a crown, as a sign that he belonged to the Church of St. Peter.

But there was still much persecution and trouble in France, and the bishop was arrested and condemned to death. Wilfrid was ready to die with him, for he said, “Nothing could be better for us than for father and son to die together.” But as he stood there without his robes, waiting with the other prisoners for the executioner, one of the nobles asked, “Who is that handsome young man preparing for death?” “A foreigner,” was the reply, “one of the English race from Britain.” As the queen herself was of English blood, they set Wilfrid free at once.

Wilfrid always loved journeys, and he must have liked adventures too, for he travelled far. He was always looking out for beautiful things for his churches, for when he became a bishop in Northumbria he remembered his plans to build beautiful churches in his own country. At York there was only one church. Edwin and Paulinus had begun to build it with high hopes, but it had not been properly finished when Edwin was killed. Now water was pouring through the roof, and birds flew in and out through the window openings, while the walls were ruined and dirty. Wilfrid began by repairing the building and putting glass in the windows, as Bishop had done. He painted the walls white, and decorated the church with some treasures he had found on his travels.

Northumbrian Age Wilfrid's Gospel

Then Wilfrid built a fine stone church at Ripon, which was dedicated to St. Peter, like the great church of Rome which Wilfrid had visited. Two kings and many famous men came to service of dedication and they feasted for three days. Wilfrid’s own special present to the new church was a set of four Gospels, written out in letters of gold, and kept in a case of gold set with jewels. It may have been like this gold case from France.

Wilfrid’s third church, at Hexham, was the most wonderful of all, and people said there was nothing like it north of the Alps. it was built of blocks of stone taken from the Roman fort near by. It had fine columns and aisles at the sides, very high walls, and winding passages with spiral staircases, which were thought especially wonderful. It is said that Wilfrid thought out the plan of this great church himself. But very little remains today of these churches of Wilfrid, because the cathedrals of later times stand where they once stood. All that is left of his work for you to see are two little crypts below the ground at Ripon and Hexham. Here you can touch the stones which Wilfrid’s builders set in place. If you look carefully, you can see a Roman inscription in one corner at Hexham, on a stone which was taken from the Roman wall. Here is the inside of the crypt:

Northumbrian Age crypt

It was probably made to hold specially holy relics of the saints, which a few pilgrims at a time might come down to see. You can imagine these pilgrims and travellers crowding down the narrow stairs and along the winding passages, lit only by tiny lamps, to see some special treasure.

At Hexham, too, you can see the chair of the stone which is said to have been made for WIlfrid himself when he was bishop there:

Northumbrian Age bishop chair

Wilfrid was energetic and ambitious. He made the Northumbrian Church rich and powerful, and filled it with beautiful and costly things, so that now men went into the Christian churches to see wonderful treasures, as in the old days they had gone into the king’s hall. When he was a bishop, he lived grandly, like a prince, and many people thought he was wrong in this, and that humble men like Aidan were wiser and better Christians. But whatever Wilfrid’s faults, he was a man of great faith and courage and he brought much splendour to the Church in Northumbria.

The New Learning

Churches and crosses were fine things for Northumbria, but the greatest treasure that came to the land with the faith of Christ was knowledge. Some Northumbrians learnt the alphabet that we use today, and for the first time they had books. These were not printed books, but were written out by hand in ink, which was very slow work. But there were so many people who were willing to do this that before long those who loved learning in Northumbria had many books to read.

Northumbrian Age inkpot in stickEvery monastery had a library–of which the monks were very proud–and probably, too, a writing-room, where nearly all the young monks spent hours each day adding to the store of books in Northumbria. Those who could draw and paint delighted in making these books beautiful. Here is a drawing of a scribe with a pen in his hand and an inkpot down by his foot. They would either fasten their inkpots to an arm of their chair, or have them on the end of a stick which could be stuck into the ground like the one here.

They often borrowed books for a while and worked hard to make copies of them which they could keep as their own. The books which were made in the Northumbrian monasteries were most beautiful and exciting things. Here is a page of one of the most famous of them, the Lindisfarne Gospel:

Northumbrian Age Lindisfarne Gospel

You will see that there is not much writing on the page. This is because this sentence (which is in Latin) was so important: it announced the birth of Christ, and the scribe wrote it very elaborately so that it might be really enjoyed. Besides the writing, there were whole pages of ornament, for the Northumbrians put twisting, interlacing patterns in their books as well as on their crosses and jewellery. Look at this wonderful, winding pattern:

Northumbrian Age Lind Gospel Detail

Sometimes they put creatures which they knew into their patterns. One artist who was working on a very rich and lovely book, slipped in this little picture of some cats and mice playing happily together.

Northumbrian Age Lind pattern

There are some birds like cormorants in the Lindisfarne Gospels, as you can see here; perhaps the artist looked out of his hut in the island of Lindisfarne and saw cormorants fishing from the rocks.

Northumbrian Age Lind cormorant

You must imagine the wonderful colours in which they painted: soft yellows and reds and greens and blues. It is hard to believe that men could write and paint so delicately, working as they did in cold draughty rooms or small huts that let in the wind and rain, and with no sort of artificial light except candles and torches.

It was very important to copy correctly, and when a book was finished, it was carefully checked. One copy of the Psalms written by a monk at Iona had only one letter ‘i’ missing, and when you think how much writing he must have done I think you will agree that he was a very accurate man.

Many of the loveliest books are copies of the Gospels and the Psalms, for these were used in the Church services. Besides these, there were books of the Bible (mostly in Latin, but some in Greek), lives of the saints, and the writings of the great Christian scholars whom we call the Holy Fathers. There were also books on history and medicine, music, grammar and astronomy, geography and nature study. All the educated monks could read Latin, and a few could even read Greek. After a while some books were translated into Anglo-Saxon, but not many, for every educated man was expected to be able to read and understand Latin.

People like Biscop and Wilfrid brought home all the books they could from abroad. When Biscop died, there was already a fine library in his monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, and one of the last commands he left with his monks before he died was that no-one was to let the books get damaged, and on no account were any of them to be sold. These books were not all bound like our books. The Northumbrians did have bound books, and very beautiful some of them were, but some of the books were rolls of parchment. You can see what a library of this time was like from the picture, which was painted in a Northumbrian book, though it was copied from an earlier one that came from Southern Europe:

Northumbrian Age Library

The Boy who Loved Books

There was one little boy in Northumbria who found this new world of books most exciting. He was called Bede, and when he was seven his parents brought him to be taught in the new school at Monkwearmouth which Benedict Biscop had begun. Imagine the small boy standing with his relations before the altar in the church: one of his family took his hand and wrapped it in a cloth of fine linen. Inside were gifts of bread, wine and money, and a paper which asked that the little boy should be received as a permanent member of the monastery. The Abbot, who was the same Benedict Biscop who set out on his travels years ago, took the boy’s arm wrapped in cloth and raised it as high as he could, just as the priest raises his arm when he offers something to God. bede must have felt very important standing there with all these grown people round him, the centre of the ceremony in the beautiful new church. I wonder what thoughts passed through his mind?

You may think that it was not very fair to a little boy of seven to leave him in a monastery when he was so young, but actually Bede was very happy all his life and when he grew old he thanked God constantly with real gladness of heart.

At first he lived with other little boys in the monastic school, and slept with them in the dormitory with a bigger boy in charge of them. He wore a long tunic of coarse woollen material, fastened by a girdle, and slept in it at night. In winter the boys would be wakened by their master between two and three in the morning; some found it very hard to wake and had to be roused by a light stroke of the rod. Each took up his lantern, and they walked in solemn procession down to the church. The older monks went in for prayers, while the little boys waited outside; I expect they shivered with the cold. Then their turn came to go in, and they put down their lanterns, and chanted the words of the service which they had learned. Then they went back to bed till dawn, when there was another service, called Prime. Then the boys sat studying their books for a while, till it was time to go to the dormitory to wash before going to church for another service. After that the children had their breakfast, and very ready for it they must have been!

By this time it was about ten o’clock, and they had work to do in the monastery, perhaps helping in the kitchen, weeding in the garden or doing jobs on the farm. Sometimes the boys might fetch in the cows, or go fishing with the older monks. The monks in this monastery worked hard with their hands as well as with their minds: they ran a farm, grew their own crops, kept sheep, cattle and horses, and worked at carpentry and as blacksmiths in their own forge.

So there was always plenty to do, but at twelve o’clock all stopped for the next service, Sext, and soon after, the service called None. The main meal of the day was dinner, about two o’clock. Some of the monks helped to serve it, and one read aloud while the others ate. Their food was mainly fish and cheese, vegetables, eggs, porridge, butter and barley bread, but the children would also have meat. Each had his own cup, and it would be filled with milk or water, home-made beer or mead, made from honey from the monks’ beehive.

Most of them were busy studying in the afternoon, and at sunset there was Vespers in the church. Then the children had supper, and listened to a monk reading in the church before the last service, Compline. In winter all went to bed about seven in the evening, so that they got quite a long sleep before it was time to rouse themselves for the early service again, and in summer when the evenings were light, they used to sleep for a while after dinner.

Do you think you would like this kind of life? There was certainly no time to feel bored, and I think a wise abbot would see that the very little boys had time to play and amuse themselves and extra sleep as well. There were many exciting things that happened too. Perhaps the abbot would come back from one of his journeys with packages full of wonderful things for the church and the monastery, and new books for the library. Perhaps the king himself would come on a visit to his monastery, of which he was very proud. Certainly many famous men of the Church, both from Europe and from the West, came to visit it and to talk with the abbot and with the most learned brothers.

But I think Bede liked the lessons best. He learnt to read and understand Latin, to recite all the psalms and hymns and chants of the services so that he never made a mistake in the chapel, and to read the wonderful books in Benedict Biscop’s library. These told him about many things that were quite new to the people of Northumbria. He learnt to write and talk in Latin, so that it was as easy for him as his own Anglo-Saxon language. But he always loved his own language too, and sometimes heard new Christian poems (like the one carved on the Ruthwell cross) which Northumbrian poets were making. He learnt to use his pen in the scriptorum, the room where they copied books and painted pictures in them. He went to singing classes with the singing master whom Benedict the Abbot had brought back with him from abroad. Those classes were always crowded, for men came from other monasteries all over Northumbria to learn the new ways of chanting. Bede liked his classes,and they gave him a love of the psalms and hymns which lasted all his life.

The little boys used to look at the pictures in the church, and sometimes their teacher would take them round it, and tell them stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints. He would tell them stories, too, of the great things which had happened in Northumbria. Bede heard the tale of the coming of Paulinus, and of King Oswald and the great battle of Heavenfield.

When Bede had lived in the monastery for two years, there was much excitement, for the news came that a second monastery was going to be built at Jarrow, about five miles away. The king was so pleased with what Benedict Biscop had done that he had made him a present of land to build a new monastery and church. Before it was finished some of the monks moved over there to watch the work and to start the new monastery under the good Abbot Ceolfrid, and among them was Bede.

When Bede was about thirteen years old, a terrible trouble came upon the little company. A serious plague broke out at Jarrow, and one monk after another was taken ill. Their companions nursed them, but it was no use, and one after another died. At last only the abbot himself and the young boy Bede were left to sing in the church. It was very hard work singing through all the services alone, and after a while the abbot tried reciting all the services, except the first and last of the day, without music. They did this for a week, and then they felt they could not do without their singing any longer. So they sang through all the services, one taking one verse of the psalms and the other the next, until new monks and children could be trained to form a choir again.

As Bede grew up, he spent more and more time writing his own books, and teaching the younger monks. His learning was very great and his books were so famous, even in his own lifetime, that they were read and copied and discussed far outside Northumbria. Great scholars from abroad came to visit him, bringing new books for him, and much news from the world outside. He counted kings and queens among his friends, and he talked eagerly with everyone, for it was from conversation that he learned most of the wonderful stories that he tells us in his books. He loved the old poetry of his land, as well as the Latin poetry he learned from books; he was interested in the causes of rain and thunder, in the stars, and even in the complicated problems of the Christian calendar. Above all, he loved music; he said in one of his books that it comforts the labouring man, refreshes the anxious mind, takes away headaches and sorrow and drives away gloom.

The most famous book written by Bede, which is still read and enjoyed today, is his history of how Christianity came to the Anglo-Saxons. In this book he out many of the stories which his friends from all over the country told him, all the stories about the coming of the Christian priests, their struggles and their adventures. That is why we know so much about Edwin and Paulinus and Oswald. His book is one of the finest history books ever written in England.

We often speak of him now as the Venerable Bede. that is because of his learning and saintliness, but it rather suggests and old man with a white beard, and it is better to think of him as the young keen scholar, full of enthusiasm, and the teacher whom all his pupils loved so well. He was not a very old man when he died (few lived to a great age in Northumbria in those hard times), and his death was long remembered, because he had the same courage as the old heroes, even though he died in his bed in the monastery and not on the field of battle.

Up to his last day, even in his illness, he went on working on a translation into Anglo-Saxon of the Gospel of St. John, and a boy sat writing it as he dictated it from his bed. When they reached the last chapter of the gospel, he told the boy to sharpen his pen and write quickly, for he knew that he had not much more time. That same afternoon he asked that the priests of the monastery should come to see him, and when they came he said farewell to each, speaking very cheerfully to them, and giving each a little present from the chest where he kept his treasures. He had not much to give away–just some pepper (a great luxury in those days), some incense, and some pieces of linen. By evening he was alone again with the boy, WIlbert, who said to him, “Dear master, there is one sentence still to do.” He answered, “Good. Write it down.” After a few moments the lad said, “Now it is all finished.” “You have spoken truly,” said Bede, “for now it is finished indeed.” Then he asked to be raised from the pillows; while he chanted “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost”, and so he died.

Northumbrian Age Christ

The Monastery Poet


There were monasteries (or nunneries as they were often called) for women as well as men. Sometimes princesses or even queens left the royal court and went to live as nuns in the same simple way as Bede and the monks. The girls learned to read and write Latin just like the boys. In Northumbria there were some double monasteries, with one house for monks and one for nuns, and nearly always there was a woman ruling over the whole monastery as abbess. We know a great deal about the Abbess Hilda of Whitby. She was the great-niece of King Edwin, and she was baptized with the rest of the family by Paulinus when she was a little girl. When she was a woman of thirty-three, she decided to give up her life entirely to the service of God, to leave her home and family, and become a nun. King Oswald gave her a piece of land on the bank of the River Wear, so that she might start a little nunnery in Northumbria with a few companions. Hilda was so sensible and energetic that before long she was asked to rule over the monastery at Hartlepool, and organize it like Bede’s monastery at Monkwearmouth, with regular services and a school.

Many women were eager to enter the new nunneries, so before long Hilda was starting yet another monastery, for both men and women, at Whitby. She ran it so well that the learned men of Northumbria often came to her for help and advice. This is what you can see now at the place where Hilda’s monastery once stood.

Northumbrian Age hilda's monastery

One day the man who looked after the lands of the monastery (he was called the reeve) came to her with a new problem. He had a servant of the monastery with him, he said, who looked after the animals, and this man said that something very strange had happened to him. The reeve did not know what to make of it, and thought Hilda ought to know about it. So she called the man in and listened to his story.

He said his name was Caedmon, and that last night he had been at a party with some of his friends. They were all singing to the harp, and passing it round the company, each making up songs to entertain the others. All grew very merry, but the party was spoiled for Caedmon, because he knew that when his turn came round he would never be able to think of anything to sing, and everyone would think him stupid. So when he saw the harp coming his way, he slipped out of the house and set off very gloomily to the stable, where it was his turn to guard the animals during the night. He lay down in a corner and soon fell asleep, and then it was said that he had a strange dream.

He saw a man standing beside him, and he heard the man say, “Caedmon, sing me something.” “I don’t know how to sing”, he answered rather miserably. “It was because I couldn’t sing that I left the party and came here.” “All the same,” said the man, “you are going to sing to me.” “What about?” asked Caedmon. “Sing about the Creation of all things.” Now this was a new idea to Caedmon. His friends made up songs about all kinds of subjects, but they had not thought of making poetry about the things they heard about in church. But when he began Caedmon found it easy; he was making up poetry all about God creating the world, as he had heard the priest tell the people last time he had preached to them.

Next morning, Caedmon found that he could still remember the words. Usually, as you know, things that you remember from dreams are nonsense, but these lines of poetry Caedmon found himself saying still sounded good to him, and he felt he must repeat them to somebody. So first he told the reeve, and then when he came into the monastery, he found himself telling them to the abbess herself. She listened very carefully to all he had to say, and then she took him into another room, where some of the cleverest scholars in the monastery were gathered together. By this time Caedmon was becoming used to reciting his poem, and he said it through again. Everyone was very interested, and they began to discuss his story; he could not understand all they said, but it was clear at last that they believed he had received a gift from God Himself.

Then one of them read him a story from the Bible, and asked him whether he could put that into verse too. Caedmon didn’t know, but he said he would try. He had no difficulty in remembering it, for he was used to listening to stories and carrying them in his mind, and next morning he was back again with another poem, as good as the first.

The Abbess Hilda loved Anglo-Saxon poetry, the poetry to which she had often listened in the king’s hall, and she saw what a great thing it would be if the stories of the Bible could be told by the poets like the old tales of heroes. She suggested now to Caedmon that he should became a monk in her monastery, so that he could learn more Bible stories, and make more poetry to the glory of God.

So Caedmon became a monk and soon his poems were famous throughout Northumbria. Once Anglo-Saxons found what brave heroes there were in the Old Testament they were eager to make poetry about the Bible stories of great battles and wonders like the crossing of the Red Sea. i expect Caedmon’s poems were recited in the king’s hall, and were much enjoyed. Here is the beginning of a poem on Genesis written out in Anglo-Saxon:

Northumbrian Age Anglo Saxon writing



Abbot – Head of abbey or monastery

Compline – Service chanted by monks at the end of the day.

Crypt – Underground room of stone built below a church.

Dormitory – Room in a monastery where the monks slept.

Inscription – Words or signs carved in stone, metal, bone or wood.

Lindisfarne Gospels – copy of the Four Gospels, richly ornamented, now in the British Museum.

Mead – Drink made from honey.

None – Service chanted by the monks in the afternoon.

Prime – Service chanted by the monks at dawn.

Reeve – Man who looked after the lands of a monastery.

Relics – Something kept in remembrance of a holy person.

Scribe – Man who writes or copies books by hand.

Scriptorum – Room where the monks wrote or copied books.

Sext – Service chanted by the monks at noon.

Vespers – Service chanted by the monks at sunset.

Vessel – Jar or dish for holding the sacred oil, bread or wine used in the Church service.


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