Modeling Conversion: Bede’s “Anti-Constantinian” Narrative of the Conversion of King Edwin
Calvin B. Kendall
The conversion to Christianity of the inhabitants of Britain, and especially of the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century, is the central theme of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.1 I take as my starting point the assumption that Bede was aware of the problem both of achieving and of representing genuine conversion (as opposed to superficial ‘Christianization’ or expedient ‘adhesion’), and that he set about to construct a model for conversion from the top down that would be sensitive to political necessities, social realities, and the varieties of individual experience, but that at the same time would mirror the profound transformation that, in his view, ought to accompany spiritual reorientation. Bede’s aims and purposes in the Ecclesiastical History were pastoral and political as well as historical.2
Chroniclers in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages shaped a conventional paradigm of barbarian conversion based on the story of the emperor Constantine’s conversion following his victory over Maxentius in the battle of the Milvian Bridge. As Richard Fletcher puts it, “[t]he story of Constantine’s conversion ... became ... a potent model -- indeed, a topos -- of how a ruler should be brought to the faith.”3 The Constantinian model could readily be applied to the kind of “top-down” royal conversions that were the norm in Anglo-Saxon England, where warfare among a multiplicity of small tribal kingdoms was endemic and the attraction of a religion that promised divine aid in battle potent.4 Despite its popularity as an historical topos, I believe that Bede was profoundly dissatisfied with the assumptions that lay behind the Constantinian model and refused to take it as a prototype for royal conversion in his own History.5
Bede had the supreme historian’s gift -- the ability to imagine himself into and bring to life pivotal historical moments, such as the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria and his people in or about A.D. 627.6 The narrative of Edwin’s conversion shows him at the peak of his art. I will argue that he constructed this narrative as a new, implicitly anti-Constantinian, model of royal and popular conversion -- a model that would be worthy of imitation.7 This is not to suggest that he would have objected to Christian kings winning victories in battle, or that he would not have attributed their victories to God. His narrative of the victory of Oswald in the battle of Heavenfield would alone be sufficient proof of that.8 What he did object to, I believe, was the implication that the faith of a ruler and his people ought ideally to depend on a bargain struck between the ruler and God -- conversion in exchange for success in battle. Bede was remarkable for the way he combined tough-minded realism with spiritual sensitivity. In the real world, “conversion” might often be crude and dirty, imposed on the unwilling or the unthinking from above, but for the conversion of an individual or a people to be truly meaningful a more or less prolonged period of instruction and meditation, with something more than material advantage in this world as its ultimate objective, would be necessary.9 Something like this seems to have been his view of the historical situation and the requirements of a successful missionary effort.10 Bede’s concerns pointed in two directions. On the one hand was his stern and increasingly pessimistic view of the failings of the Northumbrian church at home; on the other was his anxious interest in the Anglo-Saxon missions to the Germanic nations that were going on in his own time.11
Bede's attitude toward Constantine was decidedly ambivalent.12 All that he thought it necessary to inform his readers about the first Christian emperor was that he was the son of Constantius by his concubine Helena,13 that he was proclaimed emperor in Britain, and that “[i]n his time, the Arian heresy sprang up, and although it was exposed and condemned at the Council of Nicaea, the deadly poison of its false teaching nevertheless infected ... not only the continental churches, but even those of these islands.”14
The ninth-century Anglo-Saxon translator of Bede’s History was apparently so troubled by Bede’s dismissive attitude toward Constantine that he altered the text. He describes Helena as the “wife” (“ðam wife”) rather than the “concubine” of Constantine’s father, adds the epithet “the good emperor” (“ðam godan casere”) to Constantine’s name, and rewrites Bede’s last sentence to emphasize that the Arian heresy “was crushed in the days of Constantine.”15
Bede does copy into the History a letter from Pope Gregory the Great to King Ethelbert of Kent, dated 22 June 601, in the course of which the pope set up Constantine as a model for emulation.16 Gregory took the coercive Constantinian model for granted.17 But, significantly, in his letter he made no reference to Constantine’s victory in battle:
So it was [the pope instructed Ethelbert] that the devout Emperor Constantine in his day turned the Roman State from its ignorant worship of idols by his own submission to our mighty Lord and God Jesus Christ, and with his subjects accepted Him with all his heart.18
Bede himself says nothing about Constantine’s conversion (or, for that matter, about his significance as the first Christian emperor). We cannot infer from his silence that he was ignorant of the story of Constantine’s vision of the Cross19 and his subsequent victory, or of the way it had been used as a model. Bede knew Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History in the early fifth-century Latin translation of Rufinus of Aquileia.20 Eusebius had depicted Constantine as a religiously inclined pagan who inherited a benevolent attitude toward Christians from his father;21 God inspired him to attack the tyrant Maxentius; he prayed to Christ for victory; with God’s help he drove Maxentius and his army onto the bridge, which collapsed, destroying them; and finally Constantine ordered a statue of himself holding the sign of the Savior in his right hand to be erected in Rome, with an inscription commemorating his victory.22 In his translation, Rufinus added an account of Constantine’s vision of the Cross, and compared it to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.23
Bede also knew Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks.24 He evidently studied closely Gregory’s account of the conversion of Clovis, which is based on the Constantinian model.25 Gregory relates how Clovis bargained with Christ for victory over the Alamanni in exchange for conversion, and how, in the event, “[l]ike some new Constantine he stepped forward to the baptismal pool.”26 Fletcher analyzes the Clovis-conversion narrative of Gregory and finds four essential elements: “the role of a Christian queen in converting her pagan husband; the power of the Christian God to give victory in battle; the king’s reluctance, springing from anxiety as to whether he could carry his people with him; and the happy conclusion in the baptism of the king, some members of his family and large numbers of his following.”27 Each of these elements (with the partial exception of the third) finds a place in Bede’s narrative of Edwin. The issue, then, is not whether Bede knew the Constantinian model and how it was applied, but how and why he subverted it.
Bede’s brief narrative of the initial conversion to take place in the island of Britain is found in HE 1.4. Lucius, the king of the Britons, sent a letter to Eleutherius, the bishop of Rome, requesting to be made a Christian. This was in the mid-second century in the reign of the emperor Marcus Antoninus Verus. His request was quickly granted, and the Britons carefully preserved the faith they had received quieta in pace until the time of the emperor Diocletian.28 Bede’s second conversion narrative is that of St. Alban in HE 1.7. St. Alban was the proto-martyr of Britain. His conversion, with the aid of divine grace, was the result of imitation and instruction: Alban gave shelter to a Christian cleric who was fleeing persecution, and, after observing his guest’s vigils and prayers, Alban learned to imitate his faith and piety (exemplum fidei ac pietatis illius coepit aemulari) and took instruction in the way of salvation (salutaribus eius exhortationibus ... edoctus).
As Bede saw it, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons began with Pope Gregory the Great, who in 596 sent the monk Augustine with several others “to preach the word of God to the English nation.”29 Augustine’s first success in his mission to the Anglo-Saxons was King Ethelbert of Kent.30 Others followed (Sabert of Essex, Eadbald of Kent), but the successes were transitory.31 Bede’s narrative of the events leading to Ethelbert’s conversion is notable for its picture of pagan fears and precautions in the presence of a new religion, but the conversion itself is reported in a single sentence: “At length the king himself, among others, edified by the pure lives of these holy men and their gladdening promises, the truth of which they confirmed by many miracles, believed and was baptized.”32
The story of the conversion of King Edwin, which occupies the central portion of Book 2 (chapters 9-14), receives by far the fullest treatment of any conversion in the History.33 It can be called the foundation narrative of the English Northumbrian Church.34 By its length and its placement it invites attention as a model of what the conversion process could and should be like. The missionary who effected the conversion was Bishop Paulinus. Through Paulinus, Bede establishes a tenuous link with the Augustinian mission to southern England. Bede states that Pope Gregory sent Paulinus, along with Mellitus, Justus, and Rufinianus, on a reinforcing mission to Augustine in 601.35 But we hear nothing more of Paulinus until he turns up as chaplain to Edwin’s future queen Ethelberga, the daughter of King Ethelbert of Kent.36 Although Paulinus plays a crucial role in the conversion, Bede chooses to focus our attention on the experience of the king.
There are, in fact, not one, but three narratives of the conversion of Edwin, which Bede presents neither in strict chronological order nor in uninterrupted sequence. Apparently, there were at least three different versions or legends of how Edwin converted to Christianity that were current in Bede’s time.37 The first (chapter 9) is the story of an assassination plot in Edwin’s kingdom of Northumbria and Edwin’s promise to convert if he wins a revenge-battle;38 the second (chapter 12) involves a vision which came to Edwin as a young man at King Redwald’s court in East Anglia and his promise to convert if its promises are fulfilled;39 and finally (chapter 13) there is the story of the council of King Edwin’s thegns at which the advantages of the new religion are debated and a decision to accept it taken.40 Anyone of the three would have provided adequate motivation for the historical “fact” -- that is, that Edwin and his people converted to Christianity. If Bede had wanted to adopt the Constantinian model, the story of Edwin’s promise to convert in exchange for victory in battle was ready to hand. Instead, despite their apparent redundancy, Bede finds room for all three stories in his History.
Observe, first of all, how Bede blurs the endings of the first two narratives in order to accommodate the third. At the end of the first narrative, in which the king promises to convert if he wins the battle that will avenge the assassination attempt upon himself, Edwin defeats the West Saxons. But:
Returning home victorious, the king would not receive the Sacrament of Christian Baptism at once or without due consideration, although he had already abandoned idol-worship when he promised that he would serve Christ. But he wished first to receive a full course of instruction in the Faith from the venerable Paulinus, *and to discuss his proper course with those of his counsellors on whose wisdom he placed most reliance* [my emphasis]. For the king was by nature a wise and prudent man, and often sat alone in silent converse with himself for long periods, turning over in his inmost heart what he should do and which religion he should follow.41
The second narrative describes a vision that came to Edwin as a young man when he was an exile in the court of King Redwald, in which he promised to convert if he should escape his enemies and become king. Some years later, at the end of this second narrative, Paulinus reminds Edwin of his promise:
When he heard this, the king answered that it was his will as well as his duty to accept the Faith that Paulinus taught, *but said that he must still discuss the matter with his principal advisers and friends* [my emphasis] ... .42
Each of the first two conversion narratives is deflected toward the third -- the narrative of the king’s council.
By way of preparation for these three narratives, Bede had mentioned two contributing causes of the conversion. These were said to be, first, “the ministry of Paulinus,”43 and, second, Edwin’s “alliance with the kings of Kent by his marriage to Ethelberga,” who was the daughter of King Ethelbert and the sister of King Eadbald of Kent.44 Since Ethelberga was a Christian, Edwin had to promise her brother to respect her religion and allow her to practice it in order to obtain the marriage. “He also professed himself willing to accept the religion of Christ if, on examination, his advisers decided that it appeared more holy and acceptable to God than their own.”45 Here again, Edwin’s profession of willingness to convert looks forward to the third conversion narrative.
At this point, there was a pause in these preliminary movements towards conversion. Paulinus’ preaching was ineffective for a time.46 And then we reach the first conversion narrative -- the story of the assassination plot and its aftermath. Bede narrates the attempted assassination as follows:
[A]n assassin named Eumer was sent into the province by Cuichelm, King of the West Saxons, in order to rob Edwin both of his kingdom and his life. This man had a double-edged, poisoned dagger, to ensure that if the wound itself were not mortal, the poison would complete its work. On Easter Day Eumer arrived at the royal residence ..., and was admitted into the king’s presence on the pretext of delivering a message from his master. And while he was artfully delivering his pretended message, he suddenly sprang up, and drawing the dagger from beneath his clothes, attacked the king. Swift to see the king’s peril, Lilla, his thegn and best friend, having no shield to protect the king, interposed his own body to receive the blow; but even so, it was delivered with such force that it wounded the king through the body of his warrior. The assassin was immediately attacked on all sides, but killed yet another of the king’s men named Fordhere in the ensuing struggle.47
This account is immediately followed by a separate story about the birth of a daughter to the queen:
On the same holy night of Easter Day, the queen was delivered of a daughter, to be named Eanfled;48 and as the king thanked his gods in the presence of Bishop Paulinus for the birth of his daughter, the bishop gave thanks to Christ, and told the king that it was Christ who had given the queen a safe and painless delivery in response to his prayers. The king was greatly pleased at his words, and promised that if God would grant him life and victory over the king his enemy who had sent the assassin, he would renounce his idols and serve Christ.49
Now this may seem odd. Why do we need to be told at this juncture of the birth of the king’s daughter? Might we not have expected the narrative to make a direct connection between the story of the assassination and the king’s promise? That is, Paulinus could have thanked God for saving the king’s life and then Edwin’s promise to convert if he gained his revenge and victory in battle would appropriately follow. Instead, two seemingly unrelated events are placed side-by-side and connected syntactically in the king’s mind: “The king being greatly pleased at Paulinus’s words” (which have to do with the birth of his daughter), “promised that if God would grant him ... victory over the king his enemy”50 (Cuius uerbis delectatus rex, promisit), etc. (which returns to the assassination attempt).
That the king should associate the two events of the day in his mind is natural enough, but the narrative invites us, as readers, to do so on another level, through their common participation in, or imitation of, the central Christian story. Bede accomplishes this with perfect simplicity. The two events take place on Easter Day. Death (the deaths of Lilla, Fordhere, and the assassin) is immediately followed by birth. Death and resurrection is the Easter theme. The king is given new life twice: his own in the first story, his daughter’s in the second. The poison on the dagger is a sign of evil in the fallen world, the evil that leads to spiritual death. (The poison has no practical narrative function; despite being wounded, the king is apparently unaffected by it.) Lilla, whose action would have been seen by those witnessing the event as an exemplary manifestation of the duty of a warrior to his chief in accordance with the heroic ethics of the Germanic comitatus, is revealed to the reader as a Christ-like figure, who by his self-sacrifice offers the possibility of new life. These are not meanings that Edwin sees, or that Bede articulates, but that we, as readers and interpreters, discover.
There is nothing obscure or esoteric about this. It is simply a fact that events happen, and then acquire meaning for interpreters who look back upon them from the perspective of the future and find a pattern. In the kind of language that Bede was accustomed to, there are basically two levels of interpretation of history: 1) the literal level: the events themselves (including the way they are understood by contemporary witnesses), and 2) the spiritual level: the (divinely intended) meaning of those events as viewed retrospectively from the future. We see that the two Easter stories involving Edwin are related and given meaning by their common participation in a third story, the crucifixion, which took place in a remoter past. In short, this is an allegorical interpretation of history, or, I would prefer to say, history narrated in such a way that it can be allegorically interpreted. And the effect is to overlay the military attraction of the Christian God as a potent giver of victories with the richer spiritual promise of new life.
At this point, the complex narrative of Edwin’s conversion is interrupted by two letters from Pope Boniface, one to Edwin (chapter 10) and the other to his queen, Ethelberga (chapter 11). Then Bede describes Edwin’s vision (chapter 12), which took place long before the attempted assassination.51 Bede begins the second conversion narrative this way:
When his predecessor Ethelfrid was persecuting him, Edwin wandered as an unknown fugitive for many years through many lands and kingdoms, until at length he came to Redwald and asked him for protection against the plots of his powerful enemy. Redwald gave him a ready welcome and promised to do everything he asked.52
And then after being warned by a friend that Redwald has agreed to betray him, Edwin has his vision:
When his friend had left, Edwin remained, sitting sadly alone outside the palace ... . He had remained for a long time in silent thought ... , when suddenly, at dead of night, he saw a man approaching whose face and appearance were strange to him and whose unexpected arrival caused him considerable alarm. But the stranger came up and greeted him, asking why he was sitting sadly on a stone ... . Edwin asked what concern it might be of his whether he passed the night indoors or out of doors. In reply, the man said: ‘Don’t think that I am unaware why you are sad and sleepless and why you are keeping watch outside alone. I know very well who you are, what your troubles are, and what impending evils you dread.’53
The stranger goes on to ask three questions. First, “what reward will you give the man, whoever he may be, who can deliver you from your troubles and persuade Redwald not to harm you or betray you to death at the hands of your enemies?”54 Second, “And what if he also promised, and not in vain, that you should become king, crush your enemies, and enjoy greater power than any of your forbears, greater indeed than any king who has ever been among the English nation?”55 And the final question, with the conclusion of the vision, goes like this:
‘If the man who can truthfully foretell such good fortune can also give you better and wiser guidance for your life and salvation than anything known to your parents and kinsfolk, will you promise to obey him and follow his salutary advice?’ Edwin at once promised that he would faithfully follow the guidance of anyone who could save him out of so many troubles and raise him to the throne. On this assurance, the man who addressed him laid his right hand on Edwin’s head, saying: ‘When you receive this sign, remember this occasion and our conversation, and do not delay the fulfilment of your promise.’ Hereupon, it is said, he vanished, and Edwin realized that it was not a man but a spirit who had appeared to him.56
Now, Edwin’s vision is fulfilled and validated in three ways, in accordance with the three questions: 1) Redwald decides not to kill him, and even helps him; 2) Edwin gains the throne; and 3) the sign is received. It is to this third that I particularly want to call attention. Recall how in chapter 9, at the end of the attempted assassination, the king sat pondering, “turning over in his inmost heart what he should do and which religion he should follow [quid sibi esset faciendum, quae religio seruanda].”57 It is from this point that the second conversion narrative resumes in chapter 12:
While King Edwin hesitated to accept the word of God at Paulinus’ preaching, he used to sit alone for hours, as I have said, earnestly deliberating what he should do and what religion he should follow [quid agendum sibi esset, quae religio sequenda]. On one of these occasions, the man of God [Paulinus] came to him and, laying his right hand on his head, enquired whether he remembered this sign.58
The vision and its fulfillment (when Redwald spares him and he later becomes king) take place in a historical sense before the attempted assassination, but the sign that validates them (gives them meaning, as it were) follows the story of the assassination and therefore embraces both. The sign is a gesture -- that is, a language without words that is designed to reveal a reality outside the spatial and temporal dimensions of the world, a reality that is incommunicable except indirectly. As it happens, the subject of the letter from Pope Boniface, which Edwin received while he silently meditated, was non-verbal communication:
The words of man [Boniface writes] can never express the power of the supreme Divinity ... . Nevertheless, God’s humanity having opened the doors of man’s heart to admit Him, mercifully infuses into their minds by secret inspiration some knowledge of Himself.59
The first two conversion narratives are also linked through Bishop Paulinus, who has been preaching to no avail up to this point. “It seems most likely,” Bede says, “that Paulinus finally learnt in the spirit [didicit in spiritu] the nature of the vision previously vouchsafed to the king.”60 As a result of this non-verbal communication, Paulinus is able to make the validating gesture.
King Edwin’s personal conversion is completed when he receives the sign. There remains the third and most moving of the conversion narratives, which has to do with the public conversion of the king’s friends and advisers -- ultimately of his people. When Coifi, the chief priest of the old religion, is asked his opinion of the new faith, he replies with an argument from material advantage in this world:61
Your Majesty, let us give careful consideration to this new teaching; for I frankly admit that, in my experience, the religion that we have hitherto professed seems valueless and powerless. None of your subjects has been more devoted to the service of our gods than myself; yet there are many to whom you show greater favour, who receive greater honours, and who are more successful in all their undertakings. Now, if the gods had any power, they would surely have favoured myself, who have been more zealous in their service. Therefore, if on examination you perceive that these new teachings are better and more effectual, let us not hesitate to accept them.62
And then one of the king’s secular advisers argues from spiritual premises:
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 thegns 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.63
In the wonderful irony of Bede’s juxtaposition, Coifi’s shallowness and absence of spirituality mirror the emptiness of the old religion, whereas it is the king’s secular counselor who has a truly spiritual nature. Coifi remains in character after he accepts the new religion. He seizes weapons and, mounting a stallion, gallops in and desecrates the heathen temple. The scene teeters on the verge of comedy, but it is crucial to the double mimesis of conversion as change that Bede has constructed here. Coifi’s actions mirror the changes in outward behavior that is one consequence of conversion; the secular counselor’s words invoke the movement of the mind from ignorance toward knowledge that is the other, and more profound, consequence.64
Taken as a whole, the three conversion narratives portray the complex depth of Edwin’s character as he moves slowly and thoughtfully toward conversion.65 Hesitation and doubts are implied. The shallow appeal of material advantage and the deeper appeal of light shed on ultimate questions are both part of his makeup. The king must maneuver in a political context and for the advantage of his countrymen.66 Conversion is a profoundly individual experience, but the larger story is the conversion of a people, and in this respect Edwin and his counselors provide the models by which the broader success or failure of the missionary effort among the least of the Anglo-Saxons might be judged.
Readers of the Song of Roland will recall the epic poet’s depiction of Charlemagne’s forced conversion of the Saracens, after their total defeat (a kind of mirror-image of the Constantinian model):67
They lead the pagans to the baptisteries.
Now if there is anyone who opposes Charles,
He orders him to be taken prisoner, burned, or put to death.
Well over a hundred thousand are baptized
True Christians, with the sole exception of the Queen:
She will be led captive to fair France,
The King wishes her to become a convert out of devotion. 68
The masses are given a choice -- convert or die. Only the royal individual -- Queen Bramimonde -- is to be brought to Christ by love and instruction. We may surmise Bede’s attitude toward the forced (or unthinking) conversion of the group, which was, perhaps, too often the corollary of the conversion of the leader, from his comment about King Ethelbert of Kent, “it is said that he would not compel anyone to accept Christianity; for he had learned from his instructors and guides to salvation that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion.”69
Bede surely knew that the enduring conversion of a people could not be effected without preparation, hesitations, and delays. It would be comprised of a thousand untold individual stories. So he emphasizes that it takes time for Paulinus’ preaching to have an effect, time for Edwin to move from personal conviction to public policy,70 and time for the Northumbrians to be prepared for their mass conversion following the example of their leaders. By artfully weaving together the three narratives of Edwin’s conversion and allowing them to comment on each other, Bede critiques the Constantinian model of conversion, and offers an alternative that stresses the importance of spiritual preparation and transformation for both the individual and the group -- a model that would be, unlike the Constantinian one, worthy of imitation.
The standard editions of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum [HE] are Charles Plummer, Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1896) [hereafter Plummer], and Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (1969; revised rprt., Oxford, 1991) [hereafter Colgrave and Mynors]. In this paper Latin quotations from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History are taken from Colgrave and Mynors; English quotations (except as noted) from Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price and rev. R. E. Latham (Harmondsworth, 1990). Page numbers refer to the translation of Sherley-Price.
In the words of Ian Wood, “in the specific case of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica we should constantly recall how much it is a work of pastoral theology rather than a work of history.” Ian Wood, “Augustine and Aidan: Bureaucrat and Charismatic?” in L’Église et la mission au VIe siècle: La mission d’Augustin de Cantorbéry et les Églises de Gaule sous l’impulsion de Grégoire Ie Grand (Actes du Colloque d’Arles de 1998), ed. Christophe de Dreuille (Paris, 2000), 148-79, at 178. For a theoretical discussion of Bede’s notion of history, see Jan Davidse, “On Bede as Christian Historian,” in Beda Venerabilis: Historian, Monk & Northumbrian, ed. L. A. J. R. Houwen and A. A. MacDonald (Groningen, 1996), 1-15.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (1997; rprt. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999), 19.
On the concept of “top-down” conversion, see Carole M. Cusack, The Rise of Christianity in Northern Europe, 300-1000 (London and New York, 1998), 18-20. Bede is himself largely responsible for our picture of “top-down” conversion in Britain; he can be faulted for overlooking the influence of contacts between pagan and Christian communities in the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons. See Ian Wood, The Missionary Life: Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe, 400-1050 (Harlow, UK, 2001), 44-45.
J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent (Oxford, 1971), may appear to assert the contrary: “[the] last book [of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History as translated into Latin by Rufinus] was one of [Bede’s] models for the picture of a ruler victorious through conversion” (p. 72). But the contradiction is more apparent than real: Bede certainly considers conversion a potent asset for militant kings; my point has to do with his construction of a model for imitation, as I discuss below.
At least Bede makes it seem pivotal. After King Edwin was killed in battle his successors apostatized and Paulinus fled south. The permanent conversion of the kings of England and their peoples belongs to the age of Theodore of Tarsus in the next generation after Edwin. Cf. James Campbell, “The First Christian Kings,” in The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell (Ithaca, 1982), 45-68.
In the Preface to HE, which is addressed to King Ceolwulf, Bede makes a particular point of the fact that his work offers models for royal emulation. For the significance of “imitation” in Bede’s historiography, see Calvin B. Kendall, “Imitation and the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica,” in Saints, Scholars and Heroes: Studies in Medieval Culture in Honour of Charles W. Jones, ed. Margot H. King and Wesley M. Stevens, 2 vols. (Collegeville, MN, 1979), 1:161-90.
Bede HE 3.2.
Recent scholarship has emphasized the “hiatus” between the initial acceptance of Christianity and the final abandonment of pagan worship in Anglo-Saxon royal houses -- a period that might extend as much as half a century. See Barbara Yorke, “The Reception of Christianity at the Anglo-Saxon Royal Courts,” in St. Augustine and the Conversion of England, ed. Richard Gameson (Stroud, UK, 1999), 152-73, at 164-65.
Henry Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed. (University Park, PA, 1991), 145-47, observes that there were two kinds of missionary effort in the early Middle Ages -- the violent frontal approach exemplified by St. Martin of Tours and the moderate step-by-step approach advocated by Gregory the Great (at least for the Anglo-Saxons). There is no doubt that Bede’s sympathies lay with the latter. Although his primary focus in the story of King Edwin’s conversion is on the behavior of the king rather than the methods of the missionary, the story can be read as an exemplum for missionaries as well as for kings.
On Bede’s reformist concerns in his late works, and their connection with the ongoing process of conversion of the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria, see Alan Thacker, “Bede’s Ideal of Reform,” in Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies Presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, ed. Patrick Wormald, Donald Bullough, and Roger Collins (Oxford, 1983), 130-53; Scott DeGregorio, “ ‘Nostrorum socordiam temporum’: the Reforming Impulse of Bede’s Later Exegesis,” Early Medieval Europe 11/2 (2002): 107-22; DeGregorio, “Bede’s In Ezram et Neemiam and the Reform of the Northumbrian Church,” Speculum 79 (2004): 1-25. On Bede’s concern with the Anglo-Saxon missions to the continent, see HE 5.9-10, and Wood, The Missionary Life, 44-5; Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, 234; DeGregorio, “Bede’s In Ezram et Neemiam,” 23 n 102. For an insightful discussion of the conversion process in the Anglo-Saxon missions to the continent, see Marguerite Ragnow, “Bede, Boniface and the Anglo-Saxon Missions to the Continent, 690-754.” Paper presented to the “Conversion to Christianity: A Late Antique, Medieval, and Early Modern Phenomenon” Conference. Consortium for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Minnesota; Minneapolis, MN, May 2001.
See N. J. Higham, An English Empire: Bede and the Early Anglo-Saxon Kings (Manchester and New York, 1995), 30.
He makes the same observation in the Greater Chronicle (chapter 66 of De Temporum Ratione) sub anno A.M. 4290. The Greater Chronicle adds: “Constantine turned from a persecutor into a Christian.” Bede: The Reckoning of Time, trans. Faith Wallis, (Liverpool, 1999), 212.
HE 1.8:55. In HE 5.16, Bede excerpts a passage from Adamnan’s book about the Holy Places in which Adamnan refers to the martyrium that Constantine built in Jerusalem to mark the spot where his mother, St. Helena, found the true Cross. This is the only other mention of Constantine in the History. In the Greater Chronicle, Bede enumerates eleven basilicas and baptisteries constructed by Constantine in Rome and other cities of Italy (sub anno A.M. 4290).
The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Early English Text Society, original series 95-96, ed. and trans. Thomas Miller (London, 1890), 95:42-43.
Gregory wrote another letter on this subject to Ethelbert’s queen, Bertha, which Bede does not quote.
See R. A. Markus, “Augustine and Gregory the Great,” in St. Augustine and the Conversion of the English, ed. Gameson, 41-49, at 43-44. Markus speaks of the “revolutionary change in Gregory’s missionary strategy” that is registered in the letter to Mellitus of 18 July 601, written just four weeks after the letter to King Ethelbert (HE 1.30). Gregory instructs Mellitus that pagan shrines are not to be destroyed, but only the idols within them, and that in general pagan customs are to be assimilated to Christian practices rather than wiped out, contrary to his earlier pronouncements. This appears to be a change of tactics based on better knowledge of Anglo-Saxon realities than a repudiation of the notion of coercive conversion per se.
The early ninth-century Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf’s memorable account of Constantine’s vision in his poem on St. Helena’s Invention of the Cross, Elene ed. George Philip Krapp, The Vercelli Book (New York, 1932), 67-68: lines 69-98, gives one indication of the profound impression it made on the Anglo-Saxon imagination.
See Wilhelm Levison, “Bede as Historian,” in Bede: His Life, Times, and Writings, ed. A. Hamilton Thompson (1932, reissued New York, 1966), 111-51, at 133. [Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History will hereafter be abbreviated EH followed by the relevant book and chapter numbers].
EH 8.13. The Greek text of Eusebius has been translated by G. A. Williamson, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (New York, 1965). See Robert W. Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain from Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth (New York and London, 1966), 28-32; and Norman F. Cantor, Medieval History: The Life and Death of a Civilization (New York and London, 1963), 44-47. The bridge goes unnamed in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Bede apparently did not know Lactantius’ Death of the Persecutors or Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, the fourth-century sources for the story of Constantine’s vision. See M. L. W. Laistner, “The Library of the Venerable Bede,” in Bede: His Life, Times, and Writings, 237-66, at 261, 264-66.
Rufinus’ Latin version of Eusebius is edited by Theodor Mommsen, Eusebius Werke 2, 2, Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte (Leipzig 1908). This is the first time Constantine’s experience is referred to as a “conversion.” See Oliver Nicholson, “Constantine’s Vision of the Cross,” Vigiliae Christianae 53 (1999): 311.
Levison, “Bede as Historian,” 138; Laistner, “The Library of the Venerable Bede,” 264.
Gregory of Tours shared Bede’s ambivalent attitude toward Constantine. See lan N. Wood, “Gregory of Tours and Clovis,” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 63 (1985), 249-72, at 251; Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton, 1988), 219-21 and n 463; and Cusack, The Rise of Christianity, 72.
Historiae Francorum 2.30-31, quotation at 2.31: Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth, 1974), 144.
Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, 104. He adds, “We shall encounter these themes again. If they seem, with repetition, to betray something of the character of a topos or conventional literary formula, we need not doubt their fundamental plausibility.”
J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary (Oxford, 1988) [hereafter, Wallace-Hadrill, Commentary], 11, observes that “British Christianity was in Bede’s eyes properly launched by papal mandate to a king.”
HE 1.26; on Bede’s treatment of the conversion of Ethelbert, see Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship, 21-46.
Sabert of Essex in HE 2.3; Eadbald of Kent in HE 2.6.
HE 1.26:77. The ability of the Church to reinforce the power of the king by investing him in the mantle of divine authority was one of the most potent attractions of the new religion for Germanic rulers. See Cusack, The Rise of Christianity, 3; Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship, esp. 1-20. Understandably, Bede chooses not to stress the sacral nature of pagan Germanic kingship in his accounts of royal conversions, although he permits himself the bland observation that Hengist and Horsa, the first chieftains of the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, “were the sons of Wictgils, whose father was Witta, whose father was Wecta, son of Woden, from whose stock sprang the royal house of many provinces.” HE 1.15:63. We would give much to know what Bede’s thoughts were when he penned these words: see Kenneth Harrison, “Woden,” in Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede, ed. Gerald Bonner (London, 1976), 351-56; Wallace-Hadrill, Commentary, 23. On the possible Northumbrian origin of later Anglian royal genealogies that trace back to Woden, see David Dumville, “The Anglian Collection of Royal Genealogies and Regnal Lists,” Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976): 23-50.
For Bede’s treatment of Edwin’s conversion, see Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship, 80-83.
There may have been British bishops in York before the disruptions caused by the coming of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries. See Colgrave and Mynors, 104 n 3; Wallace-Hadrill, Commentary, 44. In his letter of instruction to Augustine in 601, Pope Gregory designates London and York as the sites of the future archbishoprics of England (HE 1.29). For an argument that Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is fundamentally a history of the Northumbrian Church, see Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History, 251-58. Anton Scharer, “The Gregorian Tradition in Early England,” in St. Augustine and the Conversion of the English, ed. Gameson, 187-201, at 188, points out that the Whitby Life of Gregory (ca. 700), which emphasizes the pope’s role in the conversion of the English, focuses on Northumbria and King Edwin.
HE 1.29; Bede does not name Paulinus in the corresponding passage in the Greater Chronicle, taken from the Liber pontificalis: “[Gregory] sent to Britain Augustine, Mellitus and John, and many others, with God-fearing monks with them, to convert the English to Christ” (sub anno A.M. 4557: Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time, 226). A.M. 4557 (= A.D. 605) is the year of the death of the emperor Maurice. Reckoning backward from Bede’s figures in the Chronicle, we can place the Augustinian mission in A.M. 4548 (= A.D. 596). Bede does not mention a second mission from Rome in 601 in the Chronicle. There is no mention of Paulinus in the “surviving Gregorian letters” See Paul Meyvaert, Bede and Gregory the Great, Jarrow Lecture 1964 (Jarrow, 1965), 11.
HE 2.9. Just as Liudhard was appointed bishop to accompany the Frankish princess Bertha on her marriage to the then pagan King Ethelbert of Kent (HE 1.25), so Paulinus was appointed bishop to accompany Ethelbert’s daughter Ethelberga on her marriage to the pagan King Edwin (HE 2.9; cf. Plummer, 2:94). The motif of the Christian queen who is instrumental in the conversion of her pagan husband is found earlier in Gregory’s narrative of the conversion of Clovis (Historiae Francorum 2.28-31). According to Bede, Paulinus’ consecration as bishop took place in 625 before Edwin’s conversion (HE 2.9), and presumably at Canterbury before he came north; it is not clear from Bede’s narrative whether he was specifically consecrated at Canterbury as bishop of York or whether he did not become bishop of York until Edwin established an episcopal see for him in that city in 627 (HE 2.14). But the chronology in Bede’s chapter 9 is problematic. According to D. P. Kirby, “Bede and Northumbrian Chronology,” English Historical Review 78 (1963): 522, “The marriage [of Edwin and Ethelberga] probably took place late 618 -- early 619, and Paulinus would go north as the queen’s chaplain ... . Paulinus was made bishop in 626 and Edwin was eventually converted in 628.” This would seem to imply two consecrations for Paulinus, one as “bishop-chaplain” at the time of Ethelberga’s marriage and the second as bishop of York when Edwin provided him with an episcopal see. Liudhard seems to have been a “bishop-chaplain” without a see. On Liudhard’s possible role as a political agent for King Chilperic of Soissons, see N. J. Higham, The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester and New York, 1997), 73.
As Colgrave points out, in Colgrave and Mynors, 182 n 1. In an earlier paper, Colgrave posited two sources for Bede’s knowledge of Edwin’s Conversion:
It is difficult to avoid the impression that Bede knew of two different accounts of the conversion of Edwin by Paulinus, one of which attributed his conversion to the vision at Rædwald’s court and the other to the preaching and discussion at Edwin’s court in York. Bede tries to unite the two stories and is almost but not quite successful. The stories which are common to the two authors [Bede and the anonymous monk of Whitby who wrote the Life of St. Gregory] both point to a common origin. It is quite clear that the Whitby writer did not know Bede’s stories and there is practically nothing to show that Bede was familiar with the Whitby Life ... . On the whole, it seems either that all the stories go back, as Dr. Cyril Wright has suggested, to floating saga material from which both writers borrowed or, less likely, that there was an earlier Life of St. Gregory and Edwin known to both.
Colgrave, The Earliest Saints’ Lives Written in England, Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture British Academy (1958, rprt. Norwood Editions, 1976), 50-51.
Wallace-Hadrill, Commentary, 65, posits an oral source “perhaps derived from Whitby traditions” for this narrative.
According to Wallace-Hadrill, Commentary, 70-71: “it would be generally accepted that [the story of Edwin’s vision] belongs to the category of popular, and specifically Northumbrian, tradition; Northumbrian because the Anonymous of Whitby also has it in a shortened form ... . If the story has any foundation in fact it must ultimately derive from Edwin himself. The fact that Paulinus is not identified by Bede as the ghostly visitor (whereas he is by the Anonymous) might suggest that Bede’s version derives from Paulinus himself.” Plummer, 2:98, suggests that Bede might have been minded of an analogy between this story and the conversion-narrative of St. Paul and Ananias in Acts 9:10-18.
Wallace-Hadrill, Commentary, 71, asserts: “The meeting in Edwin’s hall is the conclusion of the conversion-story [i.e., the vision-narrative of chapter 12]: whatever was the source of the one was also the source of the other.” I don't find this argument compelling. The two stories are quite different in character. Edwin may have been the ultimate source of the vision-narrative (in a version reported by Paulinus), as Wallace-Hadrill suggests, but it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that he would be the source of the story of the meeting of his council. Perhaps the two stories traveled together in “Northumbrian tradition,” but Bede could just as easily have been the one to assimilate them from separate sources.
In later years, Eanfled married King Oswy (HE 3.15), and subsequently ruled over the abbey of Whitby with her daughter Aelffled (HE 4.26).
Karl Lutterkort, “Beda Hagiographicus: Meaning and Function of Miracle Stories in the Vita Cuthberti and the Historia Ecclesiastica," in Beda Venerabilis, ed. Houwen and MacDonald, 81-106, at 95-99, discusses the narrative of Edwin’s vision as a miracle story.
HE 2.12:125. Thus Bede explicitly declines to identify the stranger in the vision with Paulinus. The anonymous Life of St. Gregory, which gives a brief narrative of the vision, concludes with the words Sub hac igitur specie dicunt illi Paulinum prefatum episcopum primo apparuisse (Plummer, 2:390), “They say that in the likeness of that vision the aforesaid Bishop Paulinus first appeared” (trans. Charles W. Jones, Saints’ Lives and Chronicles in Early England Together with first English translations of ‘The Oldest Life of Pope St. Gregory the Great’ by a monk of Whitby and ‘The Life of St. Guthlac of Crowland’ by Felix [Ithaca, 1947], 107). Plummer, 2:93, speculated that “the story of Edwin’s interview with the mysterious stranger at the court of Redwald ... is best explained by supposing that Paulinus had been sent on a mission to East Anglia. He may have gone thither with Redwald, after the latter’s baptism in Kent, and left it again after he relapsed more or less into idolatry ... . Hence his knowledge of Edwin would be a reason for choosing him for the Northumbrian mission ... .”
Cusack, The Rise of Christianity, 104-5, argues for the “crucial role” of Coifi (as well as the Christian women of the royal family) in the conversion of the Northumbrians.
HE 2.13:129. Coifi’s speech bears a remarkable resemblance to Gregory of Tours’ version of Clovis’ prayer to Christ:
If you will give me victory over my enemies, and if I may have evidence of that miraculous power which the people dedicated to your name say that they have experienced, then I will believe in you and I will be baptized in your name. I have called upon my own gods, but, as I see only too clearly, they have no intention of helping me. I therefore cannot believe that they possess any power, for they do not come to the assistance of those who trust in them. I now call upon you. I want to believe in you, but I must first be saved from my enemies.
See Historiae Francorum 2.30: trans. Thorpe, 143.
On conversion as a Platonic movement from darkness to light, see Patrick Quinn, “St Thomas Aquinas’s Theory of Conversion,” in Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals, ed. Guyda Armstrong and Ian N. Wood (Turnhout, 2000), 269-75.
Wallace-Hadrill, Commentary, 34, in connection with chronological problems in Bede’s account of the conversion of King Ethelbert of Kent, remarks that “[t]here is much to be said, on the analogy of Clovis himself, for a long period of toleration, conversion, and finally baptism.” But there is nothing in Gregory’s account to suggest that Clovis had a spiritual nature or was given to thoughtful introspection. In this regard, I disagree with the implication in the assessment of Wood, “Gregory of Tours and Clovis,” 272, that “Bede managed to do no better [than Gregory’s “attempt to present the multifaceted nature of an individual’s decision to become a christian”] when it came to describing the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria, and his approach to the problem is so similar to that of Gregory that it is tempting to see the one as dependent on the other.” Despite the structural parallels between the two accounts, the portraits of the two kings could not be more different; it is hard to imagine that Bede would have considered Gregory’s Clovis to be a suitable substitute for Edwin as an ideal model for royal conversion.
For an argument that Edwin’s conversion can be interpreted “as a response to essentially political problems,” see Higham, An English Empire, 165-66 (quotation at 166), and The Convert Kings, 143-91.
In this respect, the epic poem preserves a more-or-Iess faithful memory of Charlemagne’s policy (directed toward the Saxons) of forced conversion. See Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, 194-95.
La Chanson de Roland, laisse 266, lines 3667-74. The Song of Roland, trans. Gerard J. Brault, 2 vols. (University Park, PA, and London, 1978), 1:223-25.
Kirby, “Bede and Northumbrian Chronology,” 522, and Nora K. Chadwick, “The Conversion of Northumbria: A Comparison of Sources,” in Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border, ed. Kenneth Jackson and N. K. Chadwick (Cambridge, 1963), 164, view it from a different perspective as “procrastination” on Edwin’s part. Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity, 66-68, argues that Edwin’s procrastination reflected the political reality that as long as King Redwald and East Anglia were in the ascendancy his conversion was politically impossible. He had to wait for the balance of power to shift toward his own kingdom before taking this decisive step.